Saturday, March 1, 2014

Winter Adventuring: Embracing Seasonal Challenges

Winter Adventuring: Embracing Seasonal Challenges 

photo by Jason Llewellyn
By Kathy Vaughan

     I like living in the north central area of Washington where all of the seasons are distinct from one another.  Winter here brings with it lots of snow, although this year it was slow in coming. The past two weeks, lots of the fluffy white stuff has piled up everywhere and it is making for a whole plethora of possibilities for adventuring in the Okanogan Highlands. Aside from a brief stint to the rainy, green side of the Cascades to run Ft. Ebey Kettles Trail Marathon mid February, all of my trail runs have been in the snow. Its been a fun winter and this will be a blog that shares trail experiences I've had throughout late January and the month of February. These months have been extra inspiring for me. As an ambassador for Altra Running, I've wanted to push myself even harder, "Zero Limits" being one of the slogans the company promotes.

photo by Ras

     Ras' mother lives in Coupeville on Whidbey Island on the west side of the Cascades in Washington. Ft. Ebey Kettles State Park and Kettles County Park are just a couple of miles away from her home that overlooks the Puget Sound, and so Ras and I decided this would be a great trail race to run. We ran it for the first time in 2013, fell in love with it, and this year we were excited about returning. Ras was also running the Woolley Trail Runs 50k the day before, just about 30 miles from the Ft. Ebey run. He wanted to try to set a PR on the Woolley course, having learned that it was flat and fast. He also likes to try hard stuff and the back-to-back races would offer him that. I stuck with running Ft. Ebey on Sunday. This is a marathon course with 5,500 feet of elevation gain as the trails dip down into kettle formations and out again over a 13.6 mile loop, run twice. 

photo by Donna Potts-walling

     I was happy to have gotten my first pair of shoes provided to me by Altra for the season, Lone Peaks 1.5 in black and teal. I would be wearing them straight out of the box and it felt good to know my shoes would have great traction in the wet conditions. The weather was very stormy with strong wind gusts blowing branches over the trails and creating white caps out in the water. The race started directly on the water front, before funneling runners onto the smooth single track. Once in the forest, the wind did not feel as powerful. At the end of the first loop, the trail wound its way back out to a steep bluff and the ferocity of the wind was invigorating.  I could hear the howling before I reached the opening to the bluff and I pulled my wool buff up around my face, covering my ears. I focused on running the small lollipop loop along the water as fast as I could, and then climbing the bluff trail that dropped off steeply to the water below. I tucked my head down and climbed up to meet the main trail that would take me back to the start/finish and the mid-way point for the marathon.

     I ran through the mid-way point quickly, filling my water and getting a new bottle of Perpetuem. I wanted to get back into the forest and back into the loneliness of running in solitude along winding trail, the wind howling in the trees high above. I needed to get lost in my mind again, so that I could power through the second half of the race. I was hoping to finish with a faster time than last year, and being only the second marathon race distance I'd ever run, it would be a PR for me.  Ras was trying to catch me all day, sometimes getting behind me for a while, but then falling back as his tired legs from the 50k he'd run the day before were hollering at him.  I felt good all day, despite the storm. The rain came on at the tail end of the second loop.

photo by Donna Potts-walling

     The end of this loop became a highlight in my trail running weather endurance trials.  As I left the forest, I again pulled my buff up over my head and ears. The wind now howled much louder than before and rain pelted against my face, stinging my skin. The finish area looked empty of activity now, runners having already finished their race fleeing to their cars for warmth as soon as they were done running. The light was fading in the sky and the dark clouds overhead were threatening a heavier downpour. I put everything I had into those last few miles. It was crazy to be in that moment, alone and feeling the power of the elements. I pushed up the final grassy slope and over the finish line in 6:38, finishing 12 minutes faster than the year before.  This was my 18th trail race finish since I began trail running in 2011, with 14 of my finishes being ultra distances. 

     Back on the east side of the Cascades, the cold, dry weather was such a contrast. The thick moss and large ferns, the wild rhododendrons and madrona trees, the mud and rich smell of damp earth always seem so foreign to me when I hit the trails on the coastal side of Washington. I love it. When I return home, it strikes me how different the climate is over here. I knew right away I needed to get an adventure in the snow planned, so that I would remember why winter at my home of 3,500 feet was so much fun.

photo by Ras

     I messaged my adventure buddy Lisa with some options and she fired back a better one at me-a 26 mile back country ski on snowmobile routes in the Bonaparte Mountain area, just about 15 minutes drive from each of our homes. We had done some long skis like this together last year, but so far the lack of good snow coverage had prevented us from being able to get out on a trip like this yet. Ras would join us. 

     We met at Beaver Lake Campground, at the base of a forest service road that gets groomed for snowmobile traffic a couple of times each winter. Even if it doesn't get groomed, snowmobilers frequent the area and we figured we would be able to ski on the pack that one of these machines would have left behind. We set off in the early morning, in the shade of the trees and snow with an icy glaze on top. The route started with a steep 3 mile climb, and we all settled in quietly, knowing we had a long, tough day ahead of us. At the top of the climb, we reached Bonaparte road which gets plowed by the county. It was in great shape and for 2.5 miles we were able to make good time, skiing along effortlessly.

photo by Ras

     Our turn up towards the Virginia Lilly trail brought with it mixed conditions, feelings and a good reality check. We would now begin a steep, relentless climb of about 9 miles before we reached our turn around point at the base of Cumberland Mountain. As we began up the road, we lost the snowmobile pack we'd been following earlier.  We were now pushing snow which added to the level of difficulty. Lisa led the way, cutting the tracks into the deep snow. We were in single file, climbing steadily. About 2 miles up, we crossed a cattle guard and snowmobile traffic that had come towards us from the other direction, had now left a good pack to follow. We were surprised to find this and it was a welcome turn for us. The snow was also softening and the climbing became easier. A light snow had been falling on us all day; not enough for us to get wet, just a dry, steady snow. The temperature was cold enough for us to not want to stop long and there were no sunny patches to create a bit of warmth even for a short pause. We kept on moving.

     Finally, we reached a down hill stretch that was narrow and winding. It was also icy and had been shaded from any warmth the hidden sun was allowing. I tried to lead the way on the descent, but fell as soon as I tried the conditions and instead let Lisa go first. She disappeared bravely, as I then cautiously followed along for the approximately 2 mile drop to Vaughan Creek and our turn around point. Ras followed behind me and we all took a short break before turning to climb the icy stretch we had just come down. At the top of this, we would have some down hill and we were all looking forward to it. 

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     We were surprised to find that the downhill took more work and poling than we had thought it would. It was slower going and the long day of skiing was taking its toll on us. We moved along as well as we could. My heavy Fisher back country boots were squishing my toes and not allowing the kind of room I'm used to in the toe box of my Altra Lone Peaks. My toes were shouting at me and my ankle bones were feeling pressure from the boots as well. I kept on pushing and gliding and reminding myself that I wanted to be out here in the wilderness, in the snow. The downhill fun would come. In skiing, one is always rewarded with some awesome downhill. Sometimes, we just don't know when it will come though. Patience. 

     We reached the section of road where we had pushed snow and made our own tracks earlier on the climb up. This was one of the rewards from our hard work. I settled my Fisher back country skis into the wide tracks and pushed off with my poles. The grade was perfect, the snow was just fast enough and the turns were just smooth enough for me to essentially take a 2 mile rest. I rode it out, while moving my feet within my boots, releasing tension in my shoulders and relaxing my body. I was getting the free ride I so love in cross country skiing. It was a blast. 

     At the bottom of the hill, I changed into a thinner pair of socks to allow for more room in the toe box of my boots for the final stretch of the ski. It was time to pull out my headlamp also and attach my sternum light to my pack. I didn't need to turn them on quite yet; the moon was casting a nice glow and this was the plowed road section where skating along gently and effortlessly would need little light. The end of the road came and we all turned on our lights. 

     It was time for 3 miles of downhill in the dark, on slightly icy snowmobile track. This was thrilling. My headlamp was dim as I'd not replaced my batteries after my last long night run. I regretted this almost immediately, but my sternum light was super bright. I just had to keep adjusting it to get it to cast the light in front of me rather than in my face. It was all good though and I can't put into words the awesome feeling of flying downhill on skies in the dark wilderness, with two of my favorite people. The descent seemed endless and coming to a halt at our cars felt so strange. 

     We all changed into dry and warm boots. Lisa and I got our thermoses of hot coffee and tea out and made a picnic spot right there on the snow. She brought huge banana muffins to share, packed with pecans and dark chocolate. The ski had taken us 10 hours and we had not seen a soul, not even any wildlife on this day in the back country of Bonaparte.

     I took a rest day and then had to get back out onto my favorite loop trail, the Black Diamond Lake Lollipop. This loop has 3,100 feet in elevation in 9.7 miles and travels through canyon walls, pine forest, creek beds, rocky outcroppings and sage brush country. Big Horn Mountain Sheep wander through here and a resident cougar's tracks are always fresh whenever new snow falls.

photo by Ras

     Lisa, Ras and I would be the team again for this adventure. We bundled up against the wind in the Okanogan River Valley and started the climb up into the canyon about mid morning. We did not see the sheep as Ras and I have so often this winter. So much snow had fallen that maybe they had to find just the right spot to feel protected from the weather. We started post holing almost right away, knowing the snow was bound to get deeper as we climbed higher. We knew we had a challenge ahead, but the bluebird day was not going to allow us to abandon our idea. We were all warm enough and all of us had Altra Lone Peaks on our feet. The traction was ideal for the conditions and with gaiters keeping some of the snow out and wool socks on our feet, the set-up was better than a stiff pair of hiking boots, or even snow boots. No traction devices are needed in snowy conditions with the good lug soles of the Lone Peaks and the flexibility they allow for good, secure foot placement. The wide toe box gives lots of room for a thicker wool sock in the cold. I have worn my Lone Peaks for all of my winter adventures with great success.

     We took turns post holing and making tracks for the others to follow. The camaraderie and team work was nice. Lisa is a tough lady and she led the way first. Ras made great tracks for us as we made our way around the frozen lakes, following tracks from two different cougars and looking around us on the high rocks to see if one of the beauties might be observing us from up there. I led the way along the canyon rim as we traversed along it for the final climb of the loop. Then we reached the main trail again and began the 3 mile descent to our parked car, where a thermos of hot coffee and vegan chocolate chip cookies were waiting. 

photo by Ras

    The post holing continued up higher, but gradually, as we got lower the snow depth lessened to a point where we could begin a run. It felt floaty and freeing as we picked up the pace and ran through the snow. The technical ground underfoot was completely covered in snow and we were able to fly down. Lisa disappeared around the corner and I marveled at what an awesome trail runner she has become in such a short time. Having healed up in the autumn from some knee issues, she switched to zerodrop shoes, changed to a natural running form, and is now doing really well on the trails. She can't seem to get enough and is running 20 milers regularly on the snowy country roads around her home.

     I love that in the sport of adventuring we can help inspire and push each other. Now that Lisa is running, I find myself trying to come up with new ideas for what we can do together and she is always game. I helped inspire her to get to the point where she could run again and in turn, her running has helped me to amp it up to the next level. We do this with skiing and finding local peaks to climb too. Tomorrow, we will ski all of the trails in our local nordic ski park, which will total about 35 miles.  The challenges are endless, and with the support and companionship of a friend, they are all possible. "Zero Limits" can mean to each of us what we want it to mean, within our own realm of possibilities. It can change and expand over time. We can push ourselves to reach what we think are our limits and then go beyond. The kind of growth that results, has far reaching affects. 

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