Springtime on the Suiattle

Quick trip report for several trails in the Suiattle River area. On Monday I took the Suiattle River trail to the PCT junction, and then headed north on the PCT.  I traveled on the PCT north for 2.5 miles until reaching the Image Lake/Miner’s Ridge junction, where I took a left and started climbing. I was nearing my turn-around time, but I figured I’d hit snow soon and that would be that. I was pleasantly surprised to make it all the way to 4000 ft on the Miner’s Ridge trail with minimal snow.  At 4000 ft and 12 miles from the Suiattle River trailhead, I hit a big patch of snow as the trail curved towards the north. I wallowed around postholing for a couple steps and then turned back. I’d already gone farther than planned and was potentially going to be late for dinner.

That said, I couldn’t see around the corner, so I’m not sure if consistent snow coverage starts at 4000 ft… or if that was just an intermittent patch on the north side! Either way, I was pleasantly surprised to make it so far on the Miner’s Ridge trail. It was a cold and wet winter, for sure, but spring does seem to be making an appearance in some parts of the mountains.
My Suunto (GPS) reported approx 24 miles and 3400 ft of gain for the day.

Trail conditions:
Suiattle River trail: As has been recently reported by others, the Suiattle River trail is clear of snow from start to finish, and good for 14 miles round-trip of smooth sailing. There were just a couple blowdowns that were very easy to get around.  There were also a few mud pits and multiple stream crossings, but nothing significant. I managed to keep my feet clean and dry all day.

PCT northbound: The short section of the PCT  that I traveled (from Suiattle River junction to Image Lake junction) was in good shape and snow-free. A few blowdowns and some more debris on the trail, but nothing major. My guess is that you could continue northbound on the PCT for at least another mile or two without encountering snow.

Image Lake/Miner’s Ridge: From the Image Lake/PCT junction to 4000′ (my turnaround point), the trail is in great shape: no blowdowns, minimal mud, and as mentioned above, minimal snow up to 4000 ft (and possibly beyond).

I should mention that most of these trails are south-ish facing. As I climbed up towards Miner’s Ridge, I looked across the valley and could see snow on north-facing slopes below me.

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Happy place

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Suiattle River trail in excellent condition

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Unexpected mountain views (Fortress?)

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My turnaround point. This was the most snow I encountered all day (i.e., not a lot)

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Olympic Wilderness Coast – Southern Loop

I spent some time browsing tide tables this winter and decided that early April, with reasonably low tides during daylight hours, would be a great time to explore the Olympic Coast. As the date approached, I was thrilled to see that the low tides were going to line up with one of only a handful of sunny and warm days that Western Washington has experienced since October!

True to the forecast, Monday was a gorgeous spring day, and I had a great time traveling down the southern Olympic Wilderness coast on two wheels, and then traveling back up on foot. My route is mapped below, and the GPX file is here.

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Bike (in red) – approx 37 miles and 2000 ft of gain. Hike (in blue) – approx 17 miles and 3000 ft of gain (according to Caltopo, anyway – that seems kinda high to me)

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Stoked on the ferry

I drove to the coast from Seattle on Sunday night and camped in my van near the Third Beach trailhead. I was up and making coffee by 6 am, and ready to roll by 7 am, just as the sun was rising. The morning was beautiful – crisp and clear, but still cold enough to keep the bugs at bay.

I’ve got some summer objectives that will involve hauling heavy loads on bike and foot, so I wasn’t very weight-conscious when packing for this trip. I figured a heavy pack would be good training. I took my entire running vest, including food and 1 liter of water, and placed it in a 35-liter climbing pack. Then I threw in a bike lock, flat kit, trekking poles, and my running shoes. I also had bright flashing front and rear bike lights for visibility (not to see, but to be seen). Finally, I had two full water bottles on my bike frame, plus some easily accessible bike snacks. It wasn’t a light load, and I definitely felt it, especially when climbing hills . A good reminder that light is right, whether on foot or bike.

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My whip(s)

I rode my GT Grade with 35c tires.  I started early, partly in an attempt to beat traffic and partly because of the tides. This paid off on La Push Rd, where there was very little traffic in the early morning, and most of it was headed the opposite direction, towards La Push. By the time I hit Hwy 101, however, the roads were busy. Hwy 101 is certainly ride-able between La Push Rd and Oil City Rd, but be prepared for heavy truck traffic and narrow shoulders covered in gravel and road debris. I had heard that Oil City Rd was entirely gravel, so I was pleasantly surprised to make the right onto Oil City Rd and find myself flying down a smooth, paved descent. That ended within a few miles, and the rest of the road consisted primarily of gravel with some short muddy sections. In summary, my “EnduRoad” bike (as GT calls it) was a good choice for this route, but you could also do it on a road bike, especially if you use GatorSkins or a similarly tough tire to avoid punctures from the glass and other debris on the shoulder of Hwy 101.

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Dawn on La Push Rd

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One of the more scenic sections of Oil City Rd

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Clearly the river has changed course over the years (note the mailboxes on the left)

When I got to the trailhead at the end Oil City Rd, there were a couple cars parked there, but no one in sight. The trailhead is in a forested area, with plenty of places to stash a bike. I hid mine behind a giant stump, changed into running shoes, and put all my bike gear (helmet, flat kit, etc) into my big pack. I then locked up my bike and my big pack, put on my running vest, and headed out on two feet.

It was approximately 10:45 when I hit the trail, and low tide (0.24 ft) was at 12:46 at La Push. I easily made it past the first couple rocky outcroppings (passable at 2 ft and 3 ft tides, according to my Custom Correct map) and into Jefferson Cove, where I climbed a rope ladder and a steep muddy trail to access the first overland trail.

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Ocean, this way

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Approaching low tide near Oil City trailhead

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Pisaster! (I still remember something from undergrad)

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A pebble beach near Oil City

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Looking down the rope ladder you climb to access the first overland trail. It looks worse than it was.

The first overland trail was in OK shape. A few blowdowns, a lot of mudholes, but nothing impassable. I reached Mosquito Creek and wandered up and down the south bank of the creek for a couple minutes, looking for a good crossing spot. I didn’t want to cross too close to the ocean because if I stumbled I wanted a chance to right myself before getting swept out to sea. And I didn’t want to cross too far upstream because it widened considerably into almost a pond. Ultimately I just crossed where the trail comes out of the woods. The creek was icy cold and moving faster than it looked. At the deepest part, the water came up to my mid-thighs. I was glad for my trekking poles to help me stay upright.

I made it across Mosquito Creek, looked at my watch, and realized there was a chance I might not get to the next headland before the tide came in. Luckily the terrain from Mosquito Creek to the second overland trail is smooth, firmly packed sand and I was able to jog along and make up quite a bit of time. The second overland trail takes you to Goodman Creek, which I knew would be another ford. Goodman was just as cold as Mosquito Creek, but moving much more slowly and also a little shallower (although still above my knees). I had heard that Goodman could be sketchier than Mosquito, but I found the opposite to be true. Regardless, both were do-able.

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Goodman Creek ford

Shortly after Goodman Creek there is yet another ford at Falls Creek. I didn’t want to wade again, so I headed upstream towards the waterfall and found a solid flat log that made a perfect bridge. I brush-bashed my way back to the trail and was on my way, happy that the significant water crossings were now behind me.

The next section of coast went surprisingly fast. There were 3-4 miles of hard-packed sand, and although I had worried about making it past the next headland before high tide, thanks to the easy beach running I ended up with plenty of time. Even though the sun was shining and it was a lovely day, I was happy that I wouldn’t have to wait 12 hrs for the next low tide.

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Cliffs near Taylor Point

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Well-maintained section of overland trail just south of Third Beach

By the time I reached Scott’s Bluff I was starting to see a lot more people, and when I dropped down to Third Beach it was downright crowded. Everyone was smiling and in good spirits, playing in the sand or just watching the sun drop lower in the sky on a warm spring day. No longer in any hurry to make the tides, I took the last few miles slowly, wandering down the beach and along the relatively well-kept Third Beach trail, finally reaching the trailhead where I had left my van that morning. From there I drove back to the Oil City trailhead, picked up my bike and pack (undisturbed behind the tree, exactly as I left them), and then headed home. All in all, a super fun day on the coast!

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4th of July Pass via Thunder Creek

I was missing the North Cascades and also wanted to do a little recon for future adventures, so I decided to head up Thunder Creek towards 4th of July Pass. I did some research (satellite imagery, slope angles, weather, and NWAC forecast) and decided Monday was a good day to go. Unfortunately, “party cloudy” ended up more like “mostly cloudy/overcast” – but hey, it didn’t rain or snow, and I could see all of the peaks around me, so I’m not really complaining. However, I will use the flat grey light as an excuse for my less than stellar pics.

Road conditions: Hwy 20 was clear and dry! Yippeee! Colonial Creek Campground is still unplowed, with at least a couple feet of snow in the parking lot. That said, the plows have cleared a spot on the opposite side of the road (the Thunder Knob trailhead) so there is plenty of room for parking.

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Pretty sunrise as I drove across the Skagit

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Obligatory photo from Diablo Overlook (the parking lot is not yet plowed)

Trail conditions
Thunder Creek: There is a well-packed snowshoe trench through the Colonial Creek parking lot and campground to the Thunder Creek trailhead. Thunder Creek trail itself is also pretty packed down up until the bridge across Thunder Creek. In the morning I was able to get all the way to the bridge in just trail runners. The bridge across Thunder Creek is easily passable, but has a bunch of snow on it. Just don’t lose your balance. 🙂 On the other side of the bridge, things are much less-travelled. Once you cross Thunder Creek, route-finding/nav skills are required.

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Thunder Creek trail before the bridge

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Views of Thunder Creek from the Thunder Creek trail

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Bridge across Thunder Creek. Snow on bridge was approx 1-2 ft deep.

4th of July Pass: The climb up 4th of July Pass gets down to business pretty quickly, which was a good way to warm up on a chilly morning. I put snowshoes on at the base of the climb, only to take them off at 1800 ft! There is a cliffy area that clearly gets a good amount of sun, so I was walking on…. BARE TRAIL for approx 1/4 mile! Very exciting. But by approx 2000 ft the trail was snow-covered again. At approx 3000 ft the route starts to traverse some steep slopes, at which point I put on microspikes instead (see Gear for more details).

 

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Views from the rocky outcropping at approx 1800 ft. Davis Peak on the left, McMillan Spires peaking out in the background

After a long slog uphill in the snow, I finally reached a clearing in the trees – 4th of July Pass. I even spotted and excavated the wooden sign marking the pass, which was buried under snow. The views from the pass weren’t quite as astounding as WTA claims, but it was still so lovely just to be out there – there wasn’t precip falling on my head, I could see big wild mountains, and life was good. I am very grateful to live in a place that has so many lowland options during the winter… But nothing is quite like the North Cascades.

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Snowfield group from 4th of July Pass

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Buried sign at Fourth of July Pass

Gear: Trekking poles, snowshoes, microspikes. The trekking poles were handy from start to finish. In the morning, I didn’t need any traction or flotation until around 3000 ft on the 4th of July Pass trail, at which point I put on microspikes. The spikes were useful not so much because the trail climbs steeply, but more because the route traverses multiple steep slopes. The traction helped ensure I didn’t go side slipping down the hill. The slopes were all heavily treed, so you can’t really take a long fall, but the landing probably wouldn’t be comfortable.
I put the snowshoes on as I descended. The warm temps had softened things up considerably and without the snowshoes I was doing a lot of postholing. I wore them all the way back to the car (except for the section of bare trail at 1800 ft).

 

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Wallace Falls loop

Thanks to the latest round of fresh mountain snow immediately followed by pouring rain, I stuck to the lowlands yesterday and ran around in Wallace Falls State Park. While it’s not the most exciting terrain, the waterfalls were pumping, the forest was lush and green, and there was zero snow on the trail and zero avalanche risk.

I did a lollipop loop that consisted of heading out Woody Trail to the Upper Falls, and then continuing to the Upper Grade trail. I used Upper Grade to connect to the fun Greg Ball trail, which took me back to Woody Trail and the trailhead. My GPS had it at just under 10 miles and approx 2k of elevation gain.

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Wallace Falls Loop – approx 10 miles and 2k elev gain. I didn’t go to Wallace Lake and Jay Lake this time, but I’ve been up there in the past and they’re worth a visit, especially if you’re looking to add extra miles.

Directions are pretty straightforward and most intersections are well-signed: Leave the main parking lot on a wide gravel trail under power lines, and within 1/2 mile pick up the Woody Trail. Take the Woody Trail upstream, all the way to the Upper Falls.

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Typical terrain on the Woody Trail.

 

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Middle Falls – roaring

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Views downstream of Wallace Creek and the Skykomish River Valley beyond.

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Upper Falls

From the Upper Falls, the trail is marked by blue diamonds, but there is also a distinct footpath that is pretty easy to follow. Approximately 1/2 mile past the Upper Falls you reach the Upper Grade, a wide, double-track forest service road. Unfortunately a section of Upper Grade has been recently logged, but the freshly logged area only lasts for about 1/2 mile before you’re back in the woods. And on the plus side, it looks like they’ve plowed the road to make it easier for the logging trucks, which is how you end up with a snow-free run when many other trails at similar elevation are still covered.

After 2 miles on the Upper Grade, you reach the first junction to Wallace Lake. If you want to add on miles, this is a good option, although be prepared for some snow and slush (see photo below).

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Most of the junctions are very well-signed. Thanks Troop 53!

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Upper Grade

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The worst of the snow on Upper Grade – and with all the rain we’ve had the last couple days, it’s probably melting quickly.

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This is the first junction towards Wallace Lake. As you can see, it’s not snow-free if you head up to Wallace Lake (but still easy walking, no spikes or snowshoes needed).

Keep going past the first junction to Wallace Lake, and in another 1.5 miles you will pass a second junction towards Wallace Lake.  If you have the time and want to log some extra miles, Wallace and Jay lakes are pretty and worth a side-trip! For this loop, however, ignore the second trail to Wallace Lake and very shortly you’ll see the Greg Ball trail on the left. Drop down the Greg Ball trail and follow the fun, winding, single track all the way back to the Woody Trail. When you reach the Woody Trail, take a right and in approx 1.5 miles you’ll be back at your car.

I went on a Friday afternoon and only saw half-dozen people, which isn’t bad considering how many people in the Seattle area are currently crammed onto a limited number of lowland trails. The majority of the route is smooth single-track covered in pine needles, with just enough climbing to keep things interesting. All in all, a pretty good option if you’re looking for some snow-free/runnable terrain during this never-ending winter!

 

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Race Report: Iditasport 200

On Feb 3 I attempted but did not finish the Iditasport 200, a 200-mile human-powered ultramarathon across Alaska. Racers are given 120 hours (5 days) to cover 200 miles. You can ski, bike or run, but you must pick one mode of transport and stick with it throughout the race. There is a required gear list that includes a stove, -20F sleeping bag, and 5000 calories of food, among other things. Skiers usually carry this gear in a backpack, bikers lash the gear to their bike frames, and runners tow the gear behind them in a sled.

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2017 Iditasport 200-mile course map (distances are approximate)

My gear list for the race is here. I confess that I wasn’t super excited about being forced to carry a stove or a giant sleeping bag, but I ended up using both items and was grateful to have them. In fact, I used pretty much every item in my sled.

I entered the race as a “runner” – in quotes because I don’t do much running when I’m towing a 40-lb sled behind me. It’s more like a steady hike. This year, there were 12 participants: 2 skiers, 4 runners, and 6 cyclists. By the half-way point, there were only four racers remaining: me, another runner named Paolo, and two cyclists. Everyone else had scratched. By the end of the race, only the two cyclists finished. I ended up making it to approx. mile 150 before dropping. Paolo dropped about 10 miles after I did.

Of the two cyclists, one wound up with severe frostbite on his toes. (I used the pic below with his permission.) What I find most disturbing about his frostbite is that he didn’t know it had happened until after the race. This wasn’t a case of someone being stupid and ignoring intense pain or cold. In fact, he said his feet never felt cold or numb at all. Frostbite is a no-shitter that can impact your outdoor adventures for the rest of your life. To realize it can sneak up on you like that is disconcerting, and makes me even more appreciative that I ended the race with all my digits.

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[Not my toes!] These feet belong to one of the two finishers of the 2017 Iditasport.

Winter ultras are known for being challenging, but this kind of drop rate (~80% DNF) is high even for a winter ultra. The general consensus is that this year’s race was particularly challenging because the trail received up to 1-2 ft of fresh snow in the days leading up to the race, rendering trail conditions especially soft and slow. The storm system had moved on by the time the race started, which gave us clear skies during the race. This was good news because it meant we got plenty of sunshine and gorgeous views. This was bad news because the clear skies meant frigid temps, frequently well below zero.

The race started just after noon on Friday Feb 3. The first five miles across Big Lake were wonderfully smooth. There is a winter ice road across the lake, which is flat, fast and compact. Even though I knew better, this road gave me a false sense of confidence: Look at that, the first 4-5 miles had gone by in just over an hour! This race wasn’t going to be so hard after all!

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Tom and Rowan drove out onto the Big Lake ice road to say good bye one last time. Here, I’ve stopped to take a pic of their car, and Rowan is saying to me “Mama, are you racing yet?! Why are you just standing there?”

As soon as we got off the lake, conditions changed dramatically, and the trail became a soft bumpy mess. By mile 8, the first runner had dropped. At mile 20, I remember being concerned with how hard I was working, so early in the race, despite going so slowly. But I put my head down and got through it, arriving at the first checkpoint, Big Su Tent Camp, around 9:30 pm. I was greeted by two awesome volunteers, and three other racers: a skier, a cyclist, and a runner (Paolo). I soon learned that both the cyclist and the skier were dropping at Tent Camp, but Paolo, who had traveled all the way from Italy for this race, was continuing.

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First sunset of the race. Mt Susitna in the background. Only 16 more hours until sunrise!

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The course is mostly flat, except when it’s not.

 

By 11:30 pm I had left Big Su Tent Camp and was headed for Yentna Station, the next checkpoint, approximately 25 miles down the trail. I got in around 8 am, and Yentna was bustling. Yentna Station consists of a house with a common living area and a few simple guest rooms upstairs. There are also several one-room cabins scattered around the property, including a bunkhouse. The walls of the main house are covered in Iditarod memorabilia, and the owners are described as “a true Alaskan family who have been on the river since 1981 – when they carved a home out of the wilderness with a chainsaw, duct tape, and hard-headedness.”

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Musher on the Yentna River, with Denali in the background

I inhaled breakfast in the main house at Yentna Station, and then went off to find a place to sleep. The Willow 300 dogsled race was happening at the same time as Iditasport, and apparently the night before, Iditasport racers and mushers had been packed into the bunkhouse like sardines. It was now approx. 9 am, and things were starting to clear out. I spotted an empty bunk that was still warm from its previous occupant. Without a thought to fresh bedding, I grabbed the bunk, covered myself with my down jacket for extra warmth, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of a musher snoring loudly across the room from me.

I was awake again by 1130. I had slept for 2.5 hrs. It wasn’t exactly restful sleep in the bunkhouse, but I hoped it would keep the sleep monster at bay for the next part of the race, a 30-mile stretch from Yentna Station to the Skwentna Roadhouse, via the frozen Yentna River. Although this is the longest stretch of trail in the race, in recent years this river section had been flat and fast. After slogging through my first day, I was eager for some easy travel.

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Foraker on the left, Denali on the right, as seen from the Yentna River

But, as I was now learning, the last few years had been uncharacteristically mild. The conditions we had this year were, according to one local, “the real Alaska.” The river, although definitely in better condition than the first section of trail, was still soft and slow and bumpy.  I settled in for the long haul. It took a whopping 14 hours to travel the flat 30 miles from Yentna to Skwentna. I was on the trail from 1 pm to 3 am.

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Paolo on the Yentna River

Two things made this section bearable: first were the teams of sled dogs that passed me in the night. On the trail, you can hear a snowmachine miles away, but the sled dogs were surprisingly quiet. You wouldn’t know a team of dogs was coming up behind you until suddenly they were panting just a few feet away, and then they glided past and were gone. Watching sled dogs approach head-on was even better, especially at night. First I would just see the bright headlamp of the musher, moving through the dark at a speed that was too fast and smooth to be human, but too quiet to be machine. Then as the dogs got closer, their eyes would glow yellow and green in my headlamp, and I could see the steam rising off their bodies in the cold. As they ran past, they always looked so happy, tongues hanging out, thrilled to be running, making it look effortless.

The other thing that got me through the long section from Yentna to Skwentna, as well as through several other dark moments in the race, were the northern lights. I saw northern lights every night of the race. They were usually muted and low on the horizon, but they were always there, glowing lightly and giving me something to focus on other than my tired legs.

It was the aurora that got me through the final 4 miles into Skwentna that night. I was trudging along, wondering why the hell I was doing this stupid race, when I happened to glance behind me. The northern lights were brighter than usual, putting on a show. I actually stopped and sat down in the snow to watch for a minute. Why was I doing this race? Oh right, for moments like this.

I slept for approx. 4 hours at Skwentna – my longest stretch of sleep during the race. When I awoke, I mentally geared up for another long haul from Skwentna to the half-way point at Shell Lake. The night before, as I was coming into Skwentna, I had run into a couple bikers coming back from the turnaround point at Shell Lake. (These two bikers would turn out to be the only people to finish the race.) As each passed by, they stopped to warn me that trail conditions on the next section from Skwentna to Shell Lake were especially bad, and that I should be prepared for that stretch to take significantly longer than anticipated. (It’s worth noting that these two guys were racing hard – they were within 2 miles of each other, both vying for the win. And both of them took the time to stop and chat as we passed on the trail.)

Although I wasn’t excited to hear about more crappy trail conditions, I was glad for the info. I think part of the reason the section from Yentna to Skwentna was so exhausting is because I had expected an easy day, and instead got a slog. In races like this, it’s all about managing expectations. So yes, it was also a slog up to Shell Lake. But thanks to the words of warning from other racers, I was ready for it, and therefore it didn’t feel quite so bad.

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White rainbow (aka fogbow) on the way to Shell Lake

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Frozen swamp outside of Skwentna

It also helped that Tom and Rowan were waiting for me at Shell Lake! They had flown in on a tiny bush plane and were staying in a rustic cabin on the lake. While it was awesome to see them, I learned that in the future, it’s probably best to avoid family time until after the race. We all ate dinner together, and then went to sleep. Three hours later, at 1130 pm, my alarm went off. I needed to be leaving Shell Lake by midnight if I wanted to make the race cut-offs. Ugh. I got out of the warm bed I was sharing with Tom, gave Rowan a kiss goodbye on her soft little cheek, and headed back out into the cold dark night. I was now more than half-way done with my race, and I’d never felt worse. I thought it would be uplifting to reach the turnaround point, but all I could think was “Holy crap, I’m only half-way done?”

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Shell Lake. The small red light on the left side is Shell Lake Lodge. You can just make out the “runway” delineated by 5-gallon buckets on the right side of the pic.

It’s funny, but when I first signed up for this race I thought that the opportunities to rest/sleep would make it easier. The tricky thing about races that last for multiple days without distinct stages (i.e., without “mandatory” rest breaks) is that you never really get any truly restful sleep. In the Iditasport, every time you stop moving, you know that the clock is still ticking and that you really shouldn’t linger. In addition, every time you stop to rest, you must make the decision to start moving again, and again and again. Every time I walked into a warm cabin, I knew I would have to walk out of it in just a few short hours. I almost would’ve preferred to just keep pushing – that way I wouldn’t have to repeatedly talk myself into continuing the race.

And by the Shell Lake turnaround, I was doing a lot of that: trying to convince myself to continue.  The trudge from Shell Lake back to Skwentna was not fun. Again, I’d done a poor job of managing expectations. Even though it was mostly downhill from Shell Lake to Skwentna, the snow slowed me down enough that I never actually gained any momentum. What I thought would be an easy downhill cruise was not. It was also at this point that I started hallucinating. Several times I was sure I heard something behind me (not just my sled :), and spun around only to see snow-covered trees sparkling in the beam of my headlamp.

By the time I got back to Skwentna, I was in a bad place. I wanted to quit. I made a deal with myself that I would eat and sleep before making any major decisions. I slept for another couple hours, ate some more food, and woke up feeling 100% better. I decided I had it in me to push on to Yentna. I left Skwentna at 1 pm, with the goal of reaching Yentna by 3 am.

Unfortunately, by midnight I was so tired that I was staggering along the frozen river. The sleep monster had caught me. At one point I fell asleep on my feet and woke myself up when I wandered off trail into deep unconsolidated powder. An hour later, I noticed that there were a couple of spots where the ice had opened up on the river. They were well-marked with lathes, and easy to avoid if you were paying attention. But I was literally asleep on my feet. I realized that even though I was only ~5 miles from Yentna, it was time to bivy.

The night I spent camped on the river was both a highlight and the downfall of my race. Tactically, it wasn’t a smart move, and almost certainly cost me the race. Rather than sleep in a warm bed at Yentna Station, I spent all night shivering in my sleeping bag. Temps were approx. 30 below zero with windchill, and it was not a restful night by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand, setting up the bivvy was fun! Suddenly the race felt like an adventure again! Up until that point I’d been doing a lot of plodding along, staring at the snow and putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, no matter how much my legs hurt or how tired I was. The monotony of the course had taken a big toll on me.

But now I was doing something different! The moon was bright, the stars were out, the northern lights glowed faintly on the horizon, and I was going to sleep on a frozen river in Alaska! Not to mention I had been hauling that damn sleeping bag with me the whole way and was excited to finally put it to good use. The thermometer on my duffel had bottomed out at -20F and I knew I was in for a cold bivvy, so I kept my giant expedition-weight puffy coat on as I slid into my sleeping bag. Even with the jacket on, and the sleeping bag zipped to my chin, I couldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m here to tell you that you can indeed fall asleep while your teeth chatter. Of course, the sleep was brief, and when I woke up my muscles actually felt more tired than when I lay down, probably because they had been working at shivering to keep me warm all night.

And that was the tactical error – I essentially wasted time attempting to rest on the river, and then still needed to take a few hours to rest at Yentna. It was already going to be tight to make the cut-offs, but that bivy put it beyond the realm of possibility.

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This is my attempt at taking a pic of the thermometer on my duffel bag, bottomed out at -20F. Unfortunately I was shivering and couldn’t get the camera to focus. After a minute or so I got the the image in focus, but then my camera battery died.

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Yentna River selfie

When I finally reached Yentna Station I slept for a couple hours, ate some food, and chatted with Paolo. We’d been going at a similar pace the entire race, and we both agreed that there was no way to make the race cut-off at this point. Yet both of us were still too stubborn to quit, and so we left Yentna together, headed for Tent Camp. I trudged along in misery for 5 miles, stopping every 3-4 minutes to adjust something, or check my watch, or just bend over and rest my hands on my knees. And suddenly, I realized that I was DONE. The fatigue and pain had reached a level that I simply couldn’t bear. It seemed especially futile to keep pushing onward when I knew I wouldn’t make the cut-off. Suffering is hard. Suffering without any carrot dangling in front of me felt impossible.

After the race, when I told folks about my DNF, a few people said they were glad I knew when to stop, for the sake of health and safety. But the truth is, this wasn’t really about health or safety.  Yes, there had been a few sketchy moments during the race (sleepwalking along the river, e.g.). However, when I decided to quit, I wasn’t in any immediate danger. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The thought of taking another step, let alone walking an additional 10-15 miles to the next checkpoint, seemed literally impossible. That was a feeling I had never experienced before.

One way to interpret this is that the Iditasport pushed me to my true limit.
Another possibility is that I’ve simply changed. I used to be a person who refused to quit no matter what. I was proud of my “zero DNFs” record. But maybe that’s not so important to me anymore? Or at least, clearly it’s not important enough to keep me moving forward when I am truly miserable for an extended period of time.

Several days after the race, I’m still pondering all of this. What I do know is that being outside and moving my body makes me happy, and that I enjoy working hard and testing my limits. But perhaps I’ve reached a point in my life where I am redefining how deep I want to dig, and/or what makes digging deep worth it.

Several people have also shared kind words about handling the disappointment of a DNF. And I did indeed feel some disappointment: the goal was to finish the race, and I did not achieve that goal, which definitely stings. However, I was surprised to discover that despite DNFing I still felt an odd sense of pride about the race. It sounds clichéd, but I gave it my best shot, and that is all I can ever ask of myself (or anyone else). My best wasn’t good enough to get me to the finish line during this particular race. But my best got me farther than most of the other racers.  My best kept me going to mile 150, even though I wanted to quit starting at approx. mile 85. Giving it my best meant that I prepared diligently for the race, pushed hard, suffered a lot, and saw some beautiful sights.  And now it’s time to start thinking about the next adventure!

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I didn’t see any moose when I was racing, but this guy was snuggled up in the backyard of our rental cabin the day after the race.

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I still haven’t figured out how to take good photos at night, but Tom got this pretty pic of the aurora just outside our cabin.

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Winter loops in the Methow

Last week I headed to the Methow Valley to get in my last couple big training days with the sled. It was bitter cold over there, which is exactly what I was looking for… although at -10F in the Methow, it was still 20 degrees warmer than temps reported in Alaska last week. Brrr.

I had two loops planned out: Day 1 was a Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop, as suggested by friend and fellow coach Alison, who not only sent me on a great route, but also met me at 930 pm with a delicious cupcake AND let me crash in her guest room. Thanks Alison! Day 2 was the Chewuch River Loop, which was less scenic than Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek but still lovely.

Day 1 – Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek Loop

The first route was from Yellowjacket sno-park to Goat Creek sno-park, and then run (walk) the road in between. Caltopo mapped it at 24 miles, but by the time I completed the loop my Suunto was calling it 29 miles. Regardless, it was a long cold afternoon/evening in the snow and a very valuable training day.

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Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop

I left my house in Seattle at around 5 am, and after stopping at the Rocking Horse Bakery for second breakfast, I made it to the Yellow Jacket sno-park in the Methow by approx 10:30 am. (If the roads are clear, this is typically a 4.5 – 5 hr trip. I went slower because both Snoqualmie Pass and Blewett Pass were covered in compact snow and ice.) I got all my gear situated in my sled and then took off up the trail towards Yellow Jacket Pass. I was getting a much later start than usual, but I wanted to experience some really cold temps and I knew my best bet for that was to be out after sunset.

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Rocking Horse Bakery – always worth a stop

For most of the way up to Yellow Jacket Pass I was walking in approx 4-5 inches of fresh powder. The snow was light and powdery and it was fairly easy going, except for that damn sled behind me. Just before I reached the pass, two snowmobiles went by. Both guys slowed down and waved as they drove past me. They were the only people I’d see on the trail all day.

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Views from the trail

Soon enough I was over Yellow Jacket Pass and enjoying the gently rolling terrain of Black Pine Basin. By now it was about 330 pm, and starting to get dark. Up ahead I saw the same two snowmobilers, who were now headed back to the trailhead. They stopped to chat and expressed some concern about my planned route for the evening, especially given the temps (it dropped below zero as we stood there chatting).  They told me of a shelter where I could bivy in case of emergency. I thought it was nice of them to stop and check in.

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Trail through Black Pine Basin

After they drove off it was just me and the snow and the full moon. Wow that moon was amazing! I didn’t even have to turn on my headlamp.

Eventually I started the descent down towards Goat Creek Sno-Park, and while I was grateful not to be hauling a heavy sled uphill anymore, I realized that the good part about going uphill is that it keeps you warm. At this point the sun was down, the temps were -5 to -10F, and I was hardly working at all as I cruised downhill. I put on every layer I had, included a down expedition-weight jacket, and was still a little chilly. Note to self: pack even more layers for AK!

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Moonlight on the descent towards Goat Creek

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Who needs a flash when the moon is this bright?

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Mazama? Yes please!

Eventually I reached the Goat Creek Sno-Park, and noticed a big truck slowly driving up the road towards me. It was Alison! She had brought me an amazingly delicious cupcake, and she also had her two adorable girls in the car (one kiddo, one pup). She invited me into the truck cab, and we chatted briefly as I crammed the cupcake in my mouth. After a few minutes, I reluctantly got out of the truck and headed off. All I had left now were 8 miles of road-walking back to my car. (Of course Alison offered me a ride, and of course I couldn’t accept.)

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Alison and her girls

 

The road walk was pretty uneventful, except for the last few miles, as I trudged along Lost River Rd in the dark. I noticed a car coming my direction, and then right after passing me, it flipped a u-turn, pulled over behind me, and turned off its headlights. This was not Alison’s truck. I stopped to face the car. A tall man got out and started walking towards me.

“You’ve had quite a night!”

I laughed nervously. The road was completely dark and there was absolutely no one else around. “Why do you say that?”

He kept walking towards me. “Well, you’ve just been out here awhile! With the sled!” And then he stopped and said “I’m one of the guys from the snowmobiles!” At this point he was close enough that I could see his face, and he was was indeed one of the snowmobile guys, smiling kindly. He shielded his eyes from my headlamp and said “Well, I’d offer you a ride, but I’m guessing you don’t want one.” I confirmed, and then he got in his car and drove back the way he came. From what I could tell, the only reason he’d been driving down that road was to make sure I’d made it out of the woods OK. There are good people in the world.

Day 2 – Chewuch River Loop

I finished the Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop, went back to Alison’s house, inhaled a box of mac n’ cheese, and then slept for a few hours. Before I knew it, my alarm was going off and it was time to get back on the trail. On tap for that day was the Chewuch River Loop. This route is not as scenic as Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek, but I knew that the Chewuch Loop was relatively flat + it had been recently groomed = a great way to knock out some miles with the sled in tow.

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Chewuch Loop

I saw zero humans from start to finish, and after the first 1/2 mile, my footprints were the only tracks in the snow, other than a few wild critters. It boggled my mind that an entire 25-mile loop could be groomed on Wednesday, and by Thursday night not a single person (except for me) had yet to set foot/wheel/ski on it. Amazing!

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The start of the Chewuch Loop. There were 3 sets of footprints that ended after the first 1/2 mile. After that, perfectly groomed for 25 miles.

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Just me and a couple of coyotes on the Chewuch River

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Open water along the east side of the Chewuch Loop. I opted for the snow bridge on the right.

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One set of small kitty tracks that I followed for quite awhile

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Chewuch River ice

The Chewuch Loop was even less eventful than the Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop. It was basically one foot in front of the other, stopping occasionally to eat, drink, and add or subtract a layer. After the previous day, I knew how much colder it would get after sunset, so I pre-emptively layered up as dusk approached. Staying ahead of the chill definitely helped, although I was still shivering by the time I reached my vehicle.

These training days in the Methow gave me a new appreciation for the cold. Even at a relatively balmy -10F, I felt like the margin of error was small. You can’t stop moving for long, because you start losing heat immediately. So I made a plan for every stop, thinking about the order in which I would do things to maximize warmth and minimize time stopped (hint: putting on the big down jacket always comes first, no matter how badly you have to pee.)

There’s no doubt that traveling through snow on foot, with a sled attached to your waist, is clunky and inefficient. Even so, I’m really enjoying the process: dialing in the gear, determining which bars are best when frozen (Lara bars are good, Clif bars are not), and generally figuring out how to stay comfortable in a harsh environment. It’s a skill that I’m far from mastering, but I’m having fun learning!

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The Columbia River on my drive home

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Volcan Acatenango

On Dec 29, I hiked up Volcan Acatenango, just outside out Antigua, Guatemala. I asked around, and the general consensus was that hiking solo, especially as a woman, was not recommended. For this trip I went with OX Expeditions, which was a fine tour company, but Old Town Outfitters (the company that took us up Pacaya) remains my favorite. Regardless, it was a fun day, and I surprised myself by having a great time hiking with a relatively large group of approx 10 people.

My Suunto watch says it was 8 miles round trip and 6100 ft of elevation gain – a stout hike for sure, especially since we started at an altitude of 7000 ft and ascended to just over 13,000 ft. While Acatenango is definitely not family-friendly like Pacaya, it is certainly achievable as a day hike if you’re willing to do a bit of slogging and have a little Type 2 fun.

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The first mile of the hike is through corn fields. The summit of Acatenango is still out of sight, but it’s possible to catch glimpses of Atitlan (shown here). 

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Paintbrush and toilet paper – both commonly seen in the high alpine of Acatenango. We brought down 3 garbage bags full of trash, and didn’t even put a dent in things.

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Fog rolling in and out

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Misty rainbow

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Taking a break at the saddle just before the summit

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Summit push

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Volcan Agua, tucked in by clouds

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Last stretch of trail before the top

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Approaching the summit crater

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Warming our hands in volcanic vents

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Lunch in front of Volcan Fuego

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Pastoral views

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Fuego letting off a little steam

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Descending through the cloud forest

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