Wednesday, December 3, 2014

UPWC 2014 - Northern Loop and Mother Mountain

This post is long overdue and it's not for lack of loving the adventure that Kevin and I shared at Mt Rainier. A busy race schedule, a trip back home, and work demands got in the way, and the end result is a recap based on a three month old memory. The memory is fond one, but ultimately most of the details from this journey are stowed away in a happy place, and what is left to really share are the pictures and only a few words about the beginnings of the journey and the end.

Kevin and I both planned to run The Bear at the end of September, but after running around Mt Hood in early August, we were both hungry for another fun self-supported adventure before the race. We had been reading other people's blogs on this trip and thought Kathy had picked one heck of an adventure highlighting Mt Rainier and we were game. The route was a 45 mile, figure 8 loop with about 14k feet of elevation gain and it was going to be challenging. We signed up and made plans to go up to the park on Labor day weekend to give us an extra day to recover.

Elevation profile of route

I watched the weather for the park all week. It looked like the best day to start our trek would be early Sunday as it was supposed to dump rain all day Saturday. There was still a high chance of rain Sunday, but we would be prepared with our Gortex shells and gear -- after all, we are from the Pacific NW, a little rain won't stop us! As we drove up mid-day Saturday the mood was a mix of excitement and anticipation, but concern about the incessant downpour. This wasn't a little bit of rain, in fact, despite it being Labor day weekend there were only a small handful of cars in the Mowich parking lot and only two tents. Trip reports from others said they took about 15 - 18 hours, but I tend to be slower than most people, and it'd be my longest self-supported route thus far, so I anticipated about 20. That would be a long time for us to be soaked.

We arrived around 7pm and got our gear ready for a very early start. The car was pre-loaded with a thick futon mattress, and we drank the smokey chipotle tomato soup I had packed in thermoses and devoured bagels with hummus for dinner. I had loaded the GPS route onto my newly acquired (used) Garmin 60CSX and we bedded down for the night. The wake up was abrupt and early at 2am as we planned to start about 3am, but I slept surprisingly really well.

The rain had let up and the air was chilly and damp and quickly woke us up. We both dressed in layers, as most northwesters learn to do, with merino wool baselayers to keep us cozy. It took us a bit longer to get started and we set off from Mowich Lake at 3:40am. The first couple miles were mostly flat and despite some roots and rocks, it was probably pretty runnable. We weren't really running though.

As we descended down towards Ipsut pass my IT band immediately started giving me grief. It had been bothering me a little bit for the previous month, but I was dutifully doing glute strengthening and foam rolling and being careful to not push through too much pain. I knew this day could be challenging for me, but feeling the sharp pain so quickly caused concern. I talked with Kevin about it a little, apologized for having us hike so much on a downhill (though it was rocky), and I kept focused on my gait and footfalls to ease the pain. Thankfully the trail smoothed out and we began a nice long descent through what I think in the daylight would be a beautiful classic fairy forest: lush green moss, old growth trees, and cushy trail.

We heard the Carbon River well before we ever saw it. I had heard a bridge was out, but it was easy to ford. About a month prior, Kevin and I had crossed the many glacier rivers on Mt Hood and my confidence level on water crossings had increased exponentially from that. The Carbon River was a beast though! It weaved a path of destruction through the trees and it was pretty clear this river had its own pulse. I think we were both very thankful that both bridges were present and we crossed over the raging waters with ease. It was on the second bridge that we first caught our glimpse of Mt Rainier in all its glory, as the sun was rising. The snow glistened and some of the best views of the mountain all day came over the next few miles as we hiked up the Carbon Glacier.

I hit a low point here about halfway up the Carbon Glacier climb. The climb was long and relentless, but I was feeling nauseous and dizzy and wasn't quite sure why. Since this route had a lot of descent as well, I was concerned with my knee pain I would be slowing us down and we'd take well over 20 hours. Kevin reassured me that it didn't matter but I still let out tears of frustration. He told me that we would just happily take the "longest time spent appreciating the route" award, or that we could just turn around too, that it didn't matter. I'm too stubborn to turn around, so instead I sat on a rock, ate a coconut bar and took a 15 minute break trying to pull myself together and gave my brain a little pep talk. I realized that I was nauseous because I had taken two B vitamins on an empty stomach. He urged us to keep moving and the mood changed when I accepted where I was at that moment, and knew we were just going to enjoy this beautiful place together, the best that we could.

The rest of our daylight hours were spent on the Wonderland Trail and the Northern Loop trail. We encountered a couple who had spent a rainy night at the Mystic Lake camp, and then a few other parties of two near the crossing of White River for the first time. There was a solo female hiker and a solo male runner later on. For labor day weekend it seemed like the rain really scared people away! We had gotten lucky though, as the entire day was clear, with only some scattered fog here and there.

Our favorite place was Skyscraper pass. This was the high point on the route at just about 7,000 feet. Hiking up to the pass was another bit of a climb with more endless switchbacks in the forest. We emerged in a field where the fog started to roll in and the wind whipped around us and chilled us to the bone. We added layers. Where only 30 minutes ago we were walking through soft green meadows with alpine flowers and streams, we were now enveloped in grays, hard lines, jagged rocks, and bleakness. To go from one experience to the other in a matter of minutes, only makes the overall memory much fonder. Skyscraper pass demanded our attention and respect, and it received it. We declared it "our place", and thus it became the highlight of the trip.

We stopped to take in some calories and the views after we crossed the pass, right before we turned onto the Northern Loop trail. We were both on a high and knew that this trip was likely going to run a bit longer than the 20 hours, so we relished spending the day together and took breaks frequently. The wildflowers were not as abundant as many others had experienced, but they still bloomed along the sides of the trail and it was tough to put my camera away. In the distance we spotted some white dots up on the cliffs and I was excited to finally see some mountain goats -- albeit very far away! I had packed us some sandwiches and we sat atop a cliff overlooking White River, where we would soon descend to, and ate our lunch.

The daylight hours started to fade and we found ourselves close to finishing the Northern loop. I spent some time checking my GPS for the altitude as we would grind out the climbs so I could get a general idea of how much further we had to go. We passed through a couple rock fields with cute chirping pikas scurrying around with bits of grass in their mouths making warm beds for winter. Kevin fell in love with them. Earlier on the plains we saw marmots, but we never got close enough to any animals on the route to photograph them well. I was (not so) secretly hoping for a bear sighting too.

The above picture was one of our last of the day. We gleefully ran down forested switchbacks back towards the Carbon River and back onto the Wonderland for a mile right as the sun went down. We stopped at a clear stream we filled up earlier and refreshed our bottles. Neither of us filtered any water on this trip and while some water was silty from the glaciers, we had no difficulty finding an abundant source of clear streams. I put new batteries into my headlamp and off we went up the last climb before we hit the snow fields. Despite it being later in the season we knew that we would hit some snow, but hoped that the conditions would stay the same and we'd have decent visibility. But before we got there we had to grind up another climb -- this one being the longest of the day at around 4-5 miles.

As fatigue started to set in our conversation was pretty non-existent. The day had stayed in the mid 60's and cooler, but the temperatures were really starting to drop again and we both put back on the bulk of our warm layers. We were starting to look forward to a warm bed, even though once we got back to the car it was still a 3 hour drive. Most of the day, I lead us because I am the slower one and I was really impressed with the trail conditions and the signage. There was only one small spot at night where we took a short side trail instead of crossing a stream, but we quickly navigated back on course.

It seems that on every trail adventure so far this season, I'd come back with some sort of badge of honor from the trail -- a nice little souvenir. Beyond the it band/knee issues I had been lucky on this trip. Well, clearly that just wouldn't do! I crossed the next stream, hit a loose rock and fell hard on my hip. OUCH! Kevin helped me up, gave me a hug and that was that. I knew I'd probably earned a nice bruise from that one. In the process I also drenched my side. I'm quite thankful for merino wool. It may get wet and stay wet, but it retains heat well and I never got too cold.

The next couple hours were wild. We crossed two or three glaciers (snow fields) in the pitch dark. I'd scan the horizon with my headlamp to spot the cairns and walk towards it with my head buried into my jacket trying to stay out of the chilly wind. Once the next cairn came into focus, I'd re-scan and correct us back on course. There were footsteps over most of the snow, so that part was pretty easy, it was the rocks that were a little tougher to know exactly which direction to go. My navigation actions felt robotic and I was singing songs from the Sound of Music in my head, unbeknownst to Kevin. I wasn't really tired because I had be given the task of keeping us on point. I consulted the GPS a bit, but I was still learning how to use it. While the snow part was a thrill, it felt like sweet success when we hit the dirt again!

The last few miles were really long. Once back on the path I started to get tired and started smelling the hay in the barn. Turns out I was smelling it way too early. My GPS had cut out twice on an earlier climb so I was hoping the 41 miles was really more like 43. I knew we were were pretty close, but didn't realize we had to descend then climb back up to Mowich. We chose to hike separately for a little bit because our personalities were clashing. This is really just a nicer way of saying that we were fighting because we were both ready to finish up our day. Patience after 22 hours on the trail is hard to find. Up until about an hour prior Kevin had held onto the idea that he would drive us home, but we both agreed that it would be much smarter to sleep in the car again. I love a warm bed like the next guy, but the car sounded marvelous and more than adequate.

When we saw the lights for the campground in the distance we both let out a big "whoooop!" and I think we even ran up the final hill. As we walked into the parking lot the GPS read 1:12 am, making our total time 22 hours and 32 minutes. We got to the car, got under the blankets, ate pita chips, and slept soundly until 9am.

It was one long day, but one that we both cherish. This adventure was one of the best ones that either of us had all year. It sparked the fire to start planning other (longer) ones for future dates, both solo and likely together. It was only my second National Park experience, the first of which (Acadia) that I don't really remember much as it was from my childhood. The $15 entrance fee seemed high, as we'd only be there one day, but I left feeling that I would happily pay even more to this park and others, as they are so well cared for. Should the stars align, my sights are set on Glacier for 2015.

Oh, and yes, I did end up with a sweet bruise from that fall, but bruises heal and I had even forgotten about the fall until I cruised over our pictures again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mt St Helens - Loowit Trail Circumambulation -- Aka My Bday Adventure

Yesterday was full of raw emotion. For my birthday this year Kevin and I planned to run around Mt St Helens. There's a trail called the Loowit Trail that allows this. It has changed a bit over the years from washout's with mileage from different access points anywhere from 30 - 34-ish miles. It would be a long day because of the technical aspect and we also knew we'd be hiking a lot so we expected to be out there for 12 - 15 hours. I'd been sick over the weekend, but we picked the better weather day for our trek. In the first few miles I questioned whether I was physically strong and well enough for this hike/run, but with some encouragement from Kevin we carried on.

We started at June lake and headed up towards the Loowit trail. The first couple miles were in the woods and then we emerged onto a boulder field and navigated over the rough lava rock uphill for a bit. Though slow going, I didn't mind the technical nature because the rocks were stable footing and some of the formations were really beautiful. As a side note, I brought my camera but the SD card was locked for some reason, so most of the pictures are from Kevin's phone. I had mine too and took a couple, but not many.
We spotted an elk! (actually we spotted a few)

Afterwards we started navigating towards the gullies. After going over the first couple tiny dips I remarked, "these can't be the gullies that they're talking about, they're way too easy!" And they weren't.

We somehow lost the trail, scurried down/up the loose cliffside hands & feet for the two biggest gullies and it was pretty alarming. None of those rocks were stable. We were grabbing at dirt and partially stable rocks while piles were cascading towards the bottom of the gully. I didn't look down or up, I just focused on where I was and used my core muscles to keep my center of gravity as close to the dirt and rock wall as possible, and was thankful that I spent a couple years rock climbing. The lip of the gully never looked so sweet. Pulling myself back onto the solid ground felt like a huge accomplishment. After another sketchy descent we spotted a much more stable trail descending alongside the gully and it was pretty humbling. So that's how the smart and more skilled route finding people do it. Opps.

Heading into the bigger gullies. We encountered at least 5 decent sized gullies from June Lake to the Ape Cave trail, with two of them being quite large and scary. I think the one that really got us turned around was the Shoestring Creek Gully (below). We climbed almost straight up the steep far side after not spotting any flagging once we hit the bottom with the snow and falls. This picture was taken later on climbing out (I'm in the middle in the blue), still using both hands and feet but on trail.
Taking in the view before tackling another tough descent
Below: Climbing out of one of the last gullies, finally on the trail!
Trail fox was relieved he didn't get dirty
Fog was beginning to be a common theme of the day

Things went much better from there onwards to Loowit Falls. We passed a bunch of cairns on the Plains of Abraham and each added a rock to the piles to leave our mark. The landscape was incredible looking. Barren land with rocks and clumps of colorful wildflowers littered across the plains. The top of the mountain was encased in fog, so it was easy to forget it existed. We filled up with fresh cold mountain water around mile 9.

Quick shot of us on the Plains of Abraham. I'm sure you can see how useful my sunglasses were ;)
My legs were feeling pretty beat up though. As we passed over Windy pass (the highest point on the trail at 4800ft) and entered the blast zone it started to rain harder. I felt discouraged after running into a few people who were making much better time than us -- just a reminder that we were only about a third of the way in. I didn't want to turn around though and hoped the rain would lift, as we viewed Spirit Lake and saw it was beautiful and sunny near there.

We pressed onwards, turned and ended up at Loowit falls and at a raging river otherwise known as Loowit Creek. Up so close to the falls it was pretty darn intense. We went up and down the cliff for 20 minutes looking for a "safe" spot to cross, assuming once we did so we'd pick up the trail on the other side. I've never crossed something with such fast moving water and started to hyperventilate and cry at the prospect. At that point we didn't know we were off trail again, and I pulled my shit together, rock hopped and climbed up out of the riverbed to discover no trail.

Kevin took this picture after we had crossed over. Since the water was so close to the falls it was really swift. We didn't have our poles either, which at least for me, would have made me feel better.
We looked at my crude map and noticed the trail took a sharp turn north and down towards the blast zone then across a much more docile looking extension of Loowit Creek, not directly in front of the falls like we did. Kevin suggested we continue on down (north) because logically we'd intersect the trail at some point. I wasn't feeling too confident - I guess it was because neither of us had been here and I didn't feel very prepared in the first place.

Thankfully the rain and fog ceased, but with the light came the realization that we were high on the side of cliffs and it was way too risky to continue that way. The light also meant we finally spotted one of the Loowit trail posts in the distance and I yelped with joy. I probably teared up again. My priority at that moment was just to get there as safe as possible. We crossed the water again (this time thankfully on a much easier spot) and Kevin descended a cliff, I went up and over the long, safe way keeping the trail marker and Spirit Lake in my view

We made it to the trail marker, sat down and ate our sandwiches. I was elated to see the trail and sit alongside it. While the trail in the distance was clear and sunny, my emotions and legs were fried. We were already 6 hours in and only 14 miles, but had only made about 12 miles progress on trail. We decided to not let our egos get the best of us and turned around.

On the way back we started running and I was just so glad to be back on familiar terrain. Kevin remarked at how runnable and easy going clockwise was. I knew we were heading to summit Windy pass and the trail didn't seem as familiar anymore, but reminded myself it was so foggy and rainy before so I didn't really have a great reference point. We watched as a helicopter would pick up supplies on top of the mountain then deposit them over near the lake. Then we spotted a truck. Wait, a road? Oh no! We had taken the Windy Pass trail and added an extra 1.5 miles. I would have gladly accepted a helicopter ride.

Again, more defeat. My warm bed and snuggly kitties sounded so nice, but we still had 10 miles to go back to the car. When out in remote wilderness you have no choice but to keep going. It's how you handle that moment that shows your character. After another mile of feeling weak, tired, grumpy and wanting to never run again with Kevin, I realized I was being an ass. It wasn't helping anything by feeling sorry for myself or directing anger at someone who lives his life more fearlessly than I do. While pushing me past my walls, he still deeply cares about my well being and loves me. He beckoned me over and held me close a few times. I knew my being distant was affecting him, so I chose to snap out of it, asked him to lead us up over the pass and started to feel my spirits lift. I started to really appreciate us being in such an incredible place and being healthy enough to see a place that so many others will never experience. I even had positive thoughts about coming back, once I was stronger and not sick. Oh, and with a real map.

The rain that had picked up around the pass again let up, and we were back on the plains and moving fairly well. The mountain top became a little more visible and the vivid blues and greens from the sky and trees against the mostly tan landscape left me in awe. We laughed and I was able to lighten up about our intense adventurous off trail journey. I could acknowledge I had been terrified and realized I am still so new at these things and that's okay. I grew up hiking, camping, caving, and climbing mountains, but not to the extremes we were pushing yesterday. I'm positive being sick affected me a lot as well.

Our journey back was light. We seamlessly located all the trails through the gullies, and while the remainder of the technical trail meant we were moving roughly about 2.5 mph, I took comfort in knowing we were on familiar ground and on trail. The last two miles after the turn off from the Loowit trail back to the car was on pine needles which after pumice and boulder fields felt so amazing!

The entire trek took us about 12 hours, 9 hours moving time, 7,700ft gain via Garmin (which seems a bit high Strava pegs over 1k less). We covered almost 28 miles which seems like snail pace except for when you take in account what happened out there. Kevin was calm and collected, I lost my shit. It helped having him there, but I chose to internally deal with a lot of the emotions I was having. I don't necessarily know if I made the right decision to undertake the journey despite feeling so under the weather, but we both were looking forward to the adventure.

birds eye view of route and elevation profile. Though my watch was on my vest I accidentally paused it after the gullies and didn't notice for about a mile
I don't have regrets though. I learned some of my limits, and how I deal with challenges, but most importantly I learned that I can pull myself together and pull myself out of that space. I learned that even when terrified I can focus and execute a tough obstacle, such as steep gully climbing and river jumping. I felt the highs and lows, and all of this training will hopefully provide a bank to pull some strength from during The Bear in September. That race terrifies and excites me at the same time. I'm not ready, but I will be as ready as I can be come race day and give it my all.

I already have more plans to do things that scare me this summer: things that will continuously humble me. But I want to be emotionally raw. I want to stay acquainted with being slightly uncomfortable, reminded of my vulnerabilities, my smallness, and learn to persevere in my own way. Though, I admit, I desire to experience the sharpness on my own too. (preferably in a slightly more familiar setting though).

I look back on yesterday with gratitude. Sometimes in the moment we are distracted by our internal struggles. (Though of course, I am pretty elated to be home snuggled up with the kitties today, sleeping off this cold and watching a movie.)

I suppose it sounds cliche, but in those emotionally raw moments the normal life bullshit doesn't matter. When we are stripped down and drained we can choose to fill ourselves back up with love and gratitude, or fester in a negative space and shut down opportunities. I choose gratitude. I choose growth.

Finally, I don't really know if it's just selective memory, or sheer stubborn will, but I think I'd like to go back out there before September. I think I'd be okay alone too... which doesn't sound logical at all after everything that I went through. The wilderness reminds me that I am tiny. I am a mere speck. But I'm a speck that wants to finish what I started.