Saturday, September 15, 2012

Double Wonderland, Reversing, part one: Inception

by Ras

Double Wonderland, Reversing, part one: Inception
A History Of My Love Affair With The Wonderland Trail

     In September of 2011 I met up with Uli Steidl, Jeason Murphy, George Orozco, and Ted Schmidt to run the Wonderland Trail in two days, supported by my wife Kathy and daughter Angela. Uli was reconnoitering a potential future attempt on Kyle Skaggs' supported Wonderland FKT of 20:53. We also ruminated on the unsupported FKT, and the fact all the Fastest Known Times had been set running clockwise, in which direction the steep and technical bits are climbs, and the more moderate bits are runnable descents.

photo by Kathy Vaughan
Ras, Uli Steidl, Ted Schmidt, Jeason Murphy, & George Orozco (l-r)

      I had recently been studying the elevation profile for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim and considering whether a North Rim or South Rim start was more advantageous. But I realized any perceived advantage was negated by the fact that you ran the trail in both directions, no matter what. 
     And that's when I had one of those moments of Time slowing, the Universe warping, and my Mind expanding into infinity, as the Rim to Rim to Rim pollinated the Wonderland in my personal mental terrarium. Blood rushed in my ears as insights blossomed between them, and I envisioned a double circumambulation of Mount Rainier, reversing direction at the midway point. Every climb would be descended, and every descent would be climbed, leaving no room for quibbling, wingeing, or whining about which direction was easier, or which route more legit. A Double Reversing Wonderland would be the only way to fully experience the trail in all it's brutal beauty, leaving, as it were, no direction unturned.
     And then I laughed it off as impossible. Here I was on the eve of the biggest question mark I had faced up to this point in my Wonderland adventures, two days, lightly supported, in a twelve year career of moving around The Mountain under my own power and being constantly and consistently tested to my very limits.
     Twelve years previous it had taken my wife and daughter and I twenty-one days to haul ourselves, our ridiculous and copious amounts of unnecessary gear, and my prodigious man-boobs around the mountain. Angela was only seven years old, I was all of two hundred sixty pounds, and eight miles was a huge day for us. There exists a photograph of me from this time with my shirt off gazing at a mountain peak in the distance. But the unfortunate and distasteful summit which steals the focus of the photo is the one protruding in a less than masculine manner from my chest. My left breast points toward the mountain in the distance as if to intimate, "One day I hope to achieve grandeur on THAT scale." That photo inspired (and horrified) me to literally hike and run my ass off over the next few years.

     Throughout the next eleven years our technique, conditioning, speed, and knowledge of the trail all consistently improved. Every few years we made progress. Our second Wonderland through-hike only took us fifteen days. Our third time we whittled it down to ten.
     Occasionally we would see trailrunners, a creature still somewhat unknown to us on these early trips. I was amazed that anyone could cover ninety-three miles of such incredibly technical terrain, and with so much climbing, in just a day or two, carrying almost nothing. I was jealous. I wanted to be one of them.
     I didn't have a running background of any sort. In Junior High School I attended a small private school. I turned out for cross country when it was announced, but I was the only one. The coach said, "Vaughan, start running laps around the field," then he promptly forgot me and focused his attention solely on the sprinters and long-jumpers who were obviously his main interest. I have no idea how long I ran or how many laps, but he wasn't paying any attention to me at all. He had literally forgotten about me. Eventually I ran over to him and asked if he wanted me to keep running. He ushered me over to the high jump pit and spent the rest of the season trying to make me into a high jumper. That is the extent of my running training.
     But I didn't let that stop me. I began running the trails and dirt roads near our home in the mountains of Northcentral Washington. Kathy bought me a subscription to Trailrunner Magazine and I found out for the first time that Human Beings ran 100 mile races. For me, that was like learning that hummingbirds migrate all the way to Central America. I didn't know that Humans could do that. I was a Human. According to the Transitive Property of Trailrunning that meant I could run 100 miles. But I couldn't really wrap my head around that. I could never have guessed it would become a favorite distance of mine in the no-so-distant future.

     Two years ago, carrying less than ever before, Kathy and I peeled the entire trail off in seven days. We took a rest day and resupplied in Enumclaw, then I ran the trail for my first time in three days, supported by Kathy. The day after I completed it, we ran the Mother Mountain Loop from Mowich Lake in celebration.
     In 2011 the whole family completed a self-supported fastpack of the Wonderland in five succinct days. It was a blessing to have Angela with us on this trip before she moved out to attend college at University of Washington. I took a rest day, then met up with Uli, Jeason, George, and Ted for our two day trip.

photo by Ras
George at Reflection Lakes, day one, just a few miles in.
     We started at Box Canyon heading clockwise in perfect weather. It was warm and sunny, but cool up on the high ridges. The twelve miles to Longmire were fun and fast and non-technical, and we cruised into Longmire to meet up with Kathy and Angela for support a little over 3 hours later. We ate, got water and calories, and began the 36 mile stretch to Lake Mowich. This section of the trail packs almost half of the Wonderland Trail's elevation gain into a mere third of its mileage. George and I settled in for lots of climbing. 
     We moved steadily and made consistent progress, keeping our own pace well behind the others. Darkness fell as we were climbing up to Golden Lakes. George turned his headlamp on and for quite a while I could run behind him hitchhiking on his headlamp. The trail here is one of the few non-technical sections and we ran its gentle uphill slope until we punched out of the evergreen canopy into the ghost forest, where an old burn has left the silvered standing cadavers of thousands of trees stretching up the ridge toward The Mountain. Struggling saplings and wildly flourishing wildflowers filled out the forest floor in the spooky monochrome of moonlight. 
     And as usual when I'm running in the dark, miles from modern life, small and fragile and skittering through the shadows, I felt right at home. Awareness is refined to it's minimal essentials: movement and breath. Every so often, drink. Every so often, eat. While moving. While breathing. My mind settles into and fully inhabits my body in a way that I find rarely happens, and only in places and times and circumstances like this. I feel like a mythological beast, and I feel fully real. I feel completely Animal and completely Human, these aspects overlapping and blending rather than conflicting. And it all feels very simple.  
     George and I dropped down to the Golden Lakes Patrol Cabin and a voice spoke to us out of the dark. "Are you the guys with the running group?" We told the Patrol Cabin yes, we were with the running group. "They came through more than three hours ago," he said, and yes, it was a male voice, although lighter in tone and timber than I would have expected of a Patrol Cabin. We gave our thanks and continued on our way. 
     We descended the switchbacks to the Mowich River and slogged out the tough 2300 foot climb up to Mowich Lake and food, sleeping bags, and tents. George and I came in laughing, filled our bellies, and got to sleep.
Ras on Emerald Ridge, day one, about halfway to Mowich Lake.
     George and I headed out last the next morning, mostly due to me. But after loosening up for the mile along the lake and dropping over the top of Ipsut pass, we started just floating, making really good time through the Faerie Forest and surprising Jeason and Ted with an "On your left!" as we caught up to them. One of them later admitted to Kathy that it was "disheartening" to have George and I catch up to them; not in a mean spirited way, but as a description of his mental journey that day. We climbed up along the Carbon Glacier together, and above Dick Creek Jeason took off. I wouldn't see him again until 1:30 that night, and he would be sleeping on the asphalt next to George's van at Box Canyon, using what I believe was an old Portland Marathon space blanket as a ground cloth.
     Ted and George and I ran together all the way to White River. I had a veggie slice sandwich, Ramen, and a Red Bull among other things. Ted headed out fifteen minutes before Geoerge and I, and we didn't see him again until the end, although we tracked him for miles. I switched to a larger pack, grabbed an extra layer for the first time, took an additional Red Bull and a sandwich with me, and George and I headed out for our last twenty miles, just as dusk was approaching.
     We ran the first four miles traversing across from the White River Campground, then pulled out our trekking poles as we began the climb up Frying Pan Creek to Summerland. It was full dark as we reached Summerland. We sat on the edge of the trail for a quick rest. I was feeling sluggish and decided to down my Red Bull and eat my veggie slice sandwich. Mere minutes later I was revivified and re-energized and ready to go. 

     As we climbed up from Summerland toward Panhandle Gap, low cloud slid in and engulfed us. Normally you can watch your progress up to Panhandle Gap as you zigzag up the moraine and then clockwise around the rim of the big bowl that forms the Summerland basin. But in cloud, in the dark, with your headlamp reflecting back in your face, you are lucky to be able to see four feet. I lead like a bloodhound, my face lowered toward the trail , visually sniffing out the faintest traces of trail; footprints in the snow, rock-lined sections of trail, cairns, and rocks with red or orange blazes on them, all seeming to hide, the trail disappearing all of a sudden, then casting themselves suddenly into the beam of my headlamp. And how long does it take to hike a mile in four foot increments? How much more climbing did we have to go?
     I felt the rock to our left open up, felt the air pressure change, and saw footprints in the snow heading off into the opening I sensed. I presumed these were Ted's footprints (as he later confirmed), since they were the freshest I'd seen. This seemed different than when I had been through with Kathy and Angela just five days before, but the amount of melt at that time of year can bring about substantial change to snow routes in a single day. I was to be reminded of this in 2012 during my Double Wonderland attempt.
     As soon as George and I got through this high pass, it was obviously not right. There was no trail to speak of, and the slope in front of us was brutally steep, utterly rocky and barren, and completely lacking the alpine lushness and geologic features of Panhandle Gap. It was just a blighted, rocky slope into oblivion.
     I immediately knew what we'd done: we had turned into the gap before the correct one. All we had to do was backtrack our own footprints to the proper trail and continue on up to the next gap. But I had shaken George's confidence in me, and he said, "Ras, maybe we should go back to Summerland and wait out the night, then come back through when we can see." It was a very safe and reasonable suggestion, and I said so, and asked that he just give me five minutes to scout around to regain the Wonderland before we headed back down. It didn't even take a minute. We followed our own footprints and Ted's back through Wrong Way Gap and immediately found a National Parks Service wand marking the correct route. It must have been five feet ahead of us when our headlamps could only light up four feet of the trail. We were back on course, and The Wonderland was in the bag. We just had to trek it out. 
     We slowly made our away across Panhandle Gap, filled our hand bottles with the best tasting water in the world, and began the decent to Indian Bar. The next three hours were crazy difficult with the trail shrouded in fog, our minds fogged in exhaustion, and absolutely everything, wildflowers, trees, and us, dripping with condensation. Our shoes were soaking wet and our feet were turning soft, pruney, white and corpse-like, like the bellies of dead ghost salmon. Our poles clicked the animal rhythm of movement and survival as the scent of goats filled our nostrils. Lupine and Indian Paintbrush and Bear Grass annointed us with untold unwanted unheated blessings, the beauty of their visages belied by the clamminess of their touch.
     Jeason had been referring to us as Oso y Leon, Bear and Lion, and on the unlikely continent where two mighty mammals such as our selves team up, make no mistakes, the impossible becomes merely inconvenient, the inconceivable becomes doable, and there just ain't no stopping me and George. Admittedly, there was also no speeding us up, but there was no stopping us.
     As we neared the Ollalie Creek Trail, a headlamp loomed out of the darkness. Meeting another person on the trail in the dead of night always has a slightly fragile feel to it to me, as though there is a tentative truce that could descend into anarchy and hooliganism at the slightest provocation, at least until you can verbally sniff each other out. Our after hours interloper didn't have much gear with him, what he did have seemed insufficient and a bit archaic, and yet he professed to be headed for the shelter at Summerland. We warned him about the treacherous conditions up high. He thanked us and went on his way, preceded by the faint ellipse of his headlamp. The Mountain shrugged its shoulders and wrapped it's cloak of darkness around the man. I like to think he crashed in the shelter at Indian Bar and didn't risk Panhandle gap until morning. Regardless of his fate, we abandoned him to it and pushed on the meet our own.
     At about mile 92.5 George started asking, "Where is it, Ras? It just keeps going!" and then the Box Canyon Trailhead parking lot loomed out of the night. We hooted our approach and stumbled laughing and panting up to the two rigs. Uli & Ted & Jeason were crashed out in their sleeping bags on the asphalt next to George's van, and Kathy was asleep in her Outback.
     We greeted everyone with congratulatory hugs and briefly discussed our trips as we loaded our gear and bade our farewells and safe travels. Jeason Murphy looked at me groggily, half awake, and asked me, "Can you imagine turning around now and starting all over?" I know he meant it as hyperbole. I know he intended the question to be so ridiculous as to be rhetorical. But in my mind I answered, "Yes, I can. I can indeed."

Double Wonderland, Reversing: Ambition
The Wisdom & Foolishness Of The Threefold Goal