“I may have underestimated this” I thought, forcing a reluctant chuckle as I fought uphill on a scree field at 5,200 feet in the Central Cascades.
I was all by myself for miles, but I felt like speaking aloud would be soothing. I wasn’t scared or panicking at this moment, but I was definitely managing my emotions and started to take account of my resources. A Gu shot, Outdoor Research Helium hard shell, gloves, hat, water filter, iPhone…
The "fun" part of the run had ended hours ago and now I just needed to get home safely.
For the past 11 hours I had been running, trekking and stumbling solo from the East Fork Foss Trailhead off Highway 2 southbound towards my goal of Snoqualmie Pass. There my buddy Laura would pick me up, we’d share high-fives, toast drinks and enjoy a feast at Commonwealth. My problem was I was still miles away, and hours late.
As I climbed up over the notch in the trail close to Lunin Peak I didn’t have to look at my watch to know it was between 24-25 minutes past 7 pm. I hold no innate, supernatural ability to calculate the passage of time, but I could tell from the sky that the sun was setting and knew it would be lights out at 7:30. I was now facing the night with just a micro emergency headlamp and was low on calories, water and clothing. Yes, I did underestimate the La Bohn Traverse Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge.
How did I get here?
It started in a running shop five months earlier at the local favorite Seven Hills Running. There the ultrapedestrian couple themselves, Ras and Kathy, and their wild compatriots introduced the newly selected UWC routes for 2016. I was inspired.
Among the night's presenters local mountain runner and alpinist Arya Jonathan Farahani described the La Bohn route, showing PowerPoint slides of the run he had charted the season before.
As an alternative to the longer, but 100% trail PCT, Arya’s route linked well-maintained trails with six miles of off-trail travel and extremely rustic routes to make a 30-mile course with 9,000 ft of climbing.
Imagined or true-to-life I recall Arya promoting the sights, adventure and ease of the experience over and over. Probably in reality he guaranteed vistas, but also warned against the tough terrain and route-finding. I guess I was too drunk on the promise of the outing, to yield his warnings.
“Wow. I could do this” I thought while seated at Seven Hills.
“Instead of depending on a race, I get to make my own adventure” I thought.
I had never attempted a UWC route, but from Arya’s brief description of the point-to-point run it seemed like a lovely weekend outing. Fast forward to last week, I knew I had a weather window that looked promising and a buddy who could crew me for the P2P run. Saturday was my “go” day so I announced my plans on the UWC Facebook Group (because FB makes it real), updated my Delorme InReach and watch with maps, and geared up my Ultimate Direction Wasp pack.
While picking up Laura on Saturday morning I realized I forgot two pieces of gear I normally bring on off-trail outings: 1) shoe gators to keep twigs and rocks out of my Hokas and 2) Black Diamond Z-poles. Laura didn’t have the gear to lend and I viewed those as nice-to-haves anyway, so I just picked her up and headed north.
The East Fork Foss Trailhead is just a mile or so off Highway 20. While the parking lot was full, Laura was just dropping me so it didn’t matter. We hugged and then I headed south into the Necklace Valley as she pulled away with my dog Luna wagging in the back.
The thing about the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenges are that they’re unmarked courses and come with only general route information—no course markings or lovely detailed GPX files. You depend on your fellow runners to share local knowledge and trail beta to ensure you’re bringing the right gear, have accurate maps and know where to turn. The routes often link together trails, but in many instances the phrase is used in a very loose fashion. Some of the paths see more goats than people. And the people who do try them are mostly goat, anyway.
For the first six miles I ran on the Necklace Valley Trail, rolled through lush forest and aptly-named Jade Lake. I encountered a handful of hikers doing loop and out-and-back hikes. Everyone was in good spirits. The sky was bird blue with a few puffs of white for accent. Just past Opal Lake the route takes a hard left and changes from defined trail to goat path. The only way I knew to go this direction was because I had downloaded multiple GPX files from other UPC runners. Within a few minutes I was cairn-finding on a rock field that ascended up to the namesake La Bohn Gap.
My body felt great and I was excited to get the off trail section done as early in the day as possible, but as I climbed the blue skies now were replaced by heavy cloud cover that hugged the very mountain I was traversing. Within just a few minutes of climbing on a bolder field the intensity went from run-in-the-park to PAY ATTENTION AND BE PRESENT. The sky darkened. The air was dry but the wind picked up as I climbed to the pass, a flattened ridge of slab stone and ponds wrapped in heavy white clouds.
The ascending wasn’t the hard part, staying on “trail” was. As I topped out on the pass I knew I had to make a series of turns up and around ponds and rock outcroppings, but the fog was so heavy that I couldn’t run for fear of going off course, or worse, falling off a drop. This was bonkers and I immediately knew I made a mistake by not bringing a physical compass, and instead depended on my watch and InReach electronic devices to tell me direction. If they failed, I could easily get turned around in these conditions. I was eating cloud soup and rocks, and dining solo.
At mile ten I hit was looked like the far side of the pass I was excited to a see a bolder field that descended out of the weather. Seeing color, not just black and white, also brought me a boost of confidence. Whew. The climb down was slow, but I didn’t want to make a speed record. I figured if I broke my ankle on the descent, no one would happen across me so I took each step with intention.
Finally, at mile 12 I connected back with the trail at Williams Lake. While the path wasn’t runnable, every step had confidence—a big relief. From there I connected with the Dutch Miller Gap Trail and rolled next to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie. This is where I put in my fastest miles and also where I chatting up a few hikers who were doing multi-day outings.
After crossing the river I made my way to Goldmyer Hot Springs, a place of hippie respite and sulfuric springs. I stopped and chatted with the camp host and got my pack filled with water. In my mind I knew I was running way behind schedule, but thought that I had the hardest part behind me. I knew I had to ascend up to Snoqualmie Pass, but hey, its just trail. No big deal. That’s when I checked my printed instructions again and GPS map stored in my InReach.
Wait, I’m not really taking the trail up…it looks like I’m just going up the side of the mountain. Ummm…
At mile 23, you leave Goldmyer at 1,800 feet and immediately begin climbing on the long, long forgotten, forsaken "trail".
How bad is this trail? Let’s personify a storm. Mr. Storm, ate bad take-out food of trees and vegetation. Later, in the middle of the night Mr. Storm spend hours and hours taking trips to the bathroom (aka scamble up from Burntboot Creek) defecating and vomiting plant material everywhere on an already poorly kept lavatory.
This is my way of saying that the trail was a mess with dozens of huge blowdowns and lots of route-finding. Only when you get to about 3,700 feet does the trail become less dense and reasonable, but at this point I was tired and concerned about how much light I had left in the day.
So there I was.
I made it over the notch next to Red Mountain and now was descending towards Red Mountain Lake where if the trail description was right would bring me to the coveted PCT trail. All I focused on at this point was using the last few moments of glow in the sky to get to that trail.
I squinted to see the rustic trail in front of me, but finally reluctantly strapping on my emergency Black Diamond headlamp. This was admitting that I was both in a worse situation that I expected, and also that I hadn’t prepared for this run properly—that I should have starting earlier and brought the right gear.
The one tool I did bring that proved immensely beneficial was my InReach Explorer. It allowed me to share my location with friends in real-time and also to message Laura letting her know I was safe, but hours behind schedule. I knew if things got bad, or if I got lost I could also use it to get help so that significantly tamped down my anxiety level, too.
After death marching for a few miles and down 2,000 feet I finally made it to the PCT. I was close to home. However, my GPS trek routed me to the Old Commonwealth Trail, instead of the PCT for the last mile of the run, so I spent a good 15 minutes wandering in the total darkness, now navigating entirely by the light of my iPhone. #Fail.
I was SO close, but couldn’t find the trail anywhere due to a half dozen fallen trees. Just bog, tree and me making circles. Laura messaged me "Getting close?"
I finally get my whereabouts and make it to the parking lot where Laura was waiting for me. Sure, I was happy to survive this more-intense-than-expected outing, but I had more pressing concerns when I hoped in the car. It was 9:30 and the Commonwealth was closing in just a few minutes. We needed to make it there STAT!
Yah! I survived, got to enjoy a meal at Commonwealth before they closed, and learned an important lesson about route research and gearing for wilderness adventures. (Just do it.) I hope to never make the mistakes I described above ever again.
Huge thanks to Laura for crewing me, Arya for designing this route, Jessica Kelley for offering route guidance, Ras & Kathy for dreaming up and hosting the UWC concept, and to the ultra community for just being a group of awesome goats.