Running the Rugged Terrain of Mt. Rainier:
Tackling the 2014 UPWC Mother Mountain/Northern Loop
Tackling the 2014 UPWC Mother Mountain/Northern Loop
By Kathy Vaughan
Mowich Lake sits at over 5,000 feet with Mt. Rainier looming over it. It's a beautiful spot and it is accessed via a 21 mile washboard and pothole ridden dirt road. Lisa and I traveled up this final stretch of our road trip, anticipating what kind of camping scene we would find once we arrived in the dirt lot. I had been here many times before, but for Lisa, this would be her first. In the morning we would run the 44 mile Mother Mountain and Northern Loop figure eight, which has about 14,000 feet of elevation gain, and is one of the routes for the 2014 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge. We were meeting Vivian Doorn here, a Seattle area ultra runner who had been wanting to join Lisa and I on one of our adventure runs. She would be camping at Mowich Lake tonight as well, and we would begin our run sometime around five AM, hitting the trail before first light to get an early start on the day.
We pulled up at the lot and began walking towards the camping area to find Vivian. An older man in a park ranger's uniform stopped us. He had met Vivian and was keeping his eye out for us to let us know where she was camped. It had just gotten dark and she would have been hard to find in the crowded camping area. He escorted us to Vivian, where she was in discussion with a Wonderland Trail thru hiker about their various pieces of camping and hiking gear. Lisa and I thanked the volunteer ranger, I introduced Lisa and Vivian to each other and we all finished setting up our camping gear for the night. It was time to get a good night's rest before the long journey we would take up into the surrounding high country the following day.
I had been on both of these loops separately in the past, as well as the Wonderland Trail in it's entirety seven times. I knew these trails well and I knew it would be a difficult 44 miles. When we were all ready, we set off towards the trail head and decided that I would lead the pace. We turned on our watches and set our head lamp beams on high for the trail and off we went, three brave ladies taking off into the darkness.
Two miles in, we became disoriented in Eagle's Roost camp and Vivian approached some back packers whose light we could see had come on in their tent. They directed us out of the camp and back onto the main trail where we set off again towards Spray Park, the first of the high alpine parks. Light in the sky began showing through the big trees as we climbed higher and higher on well trod, soft forested switchbacks. As full light entered the sky, we began climbing the first of the erosion steps and the trail became interspersed with muddy sections. We were now out of the forest and in the grass and flower strewn meadows of Spray Park. Many of the flowers had died off for the season, but avalanche lilies and bear grass blossoms were still in abundance. The meadow had a strong fragrance lingering in the damp morning air, one of old flower blossoms, pungent and telling of the September season of the mountain.
It was not long before I could see the rock and snow fields that lay ahead on the route. This was one of the reasons we had chosen to run the loop in this direction. We wanted to hit this area in the daylight, when our bodies and minds were fresh. We knew we might have some challenges here and we were about to discover what one of them would be. There was not really much lingering snow and the cairns made it easy to find our way. As the leader, I stepped cautiously onto the snow field, noticing that it was glistening in the morning sun. To me, this meant it might be icy. Being a skier, I knew what glistening snow meant. Sure enough, it was slick as could be and I was glad I had my trekking poles with me. I let the other ladies know that it was very slippery and to use caution. We made our way across this first field to an outcropping of rocks. We were able to stay on this rocky section for a while until we were forced to step out onto the slick snow once again. This time I had decided that I might sit and glissade across it if it seemed safe to do so, and after a hard fall onto my bottom, I did just that. It was fun and Lisa and Vivian decided to do the same. We all made it safely across the snow and now it was time to descend the rest of the rock field.
I felt good, fresh and light on my feet as I continued to descend toward Seattle Park. There were so many miles in front of me and so much varying terrain to cover. For now, I was in the moment and enjoying the trail. It was time to descend some of the erosion steps through the park, working our way down to Cataract Valley Camp. This would be the seven mile mark, not really that far into the day's adventure. I was glad we had made it through the snow and rock field safely, though. The rest of the route would be easy to follow using the park signs and our map.
We passed by the wooded camp and continued our descent to the Carbon River. We reached the river bottom and saw that the crossing would be over a suspension bridge that hung high above the river. I crossed first and then one at a time Lisa and Vivian followed. It was thrilling to look down and see the raging, chocolate milk colored river far below. I remember crossing this with my daughter Angela when she was seven, as backpackers, and it felt good to realize how far I'd come as a trail runner.
As is true for most routes in the Mt. Rainier area, a long descent was followed by a long climb. Now that we had crossed the river, it was time to climb up to Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap, 2,400 feet above us. We settled into the climb and I thought of pleasant memories that would entertain my mind. It was hot in the forest, but the trail was in good condition for this five mile ascent.
Yellowstone Cliffs were magnificent in the sunlight, towering over Vivian, Lisa and I as we traversed the steep hillside below them. The brush was dense and grew over the trail. I pushed my way through. I could feel some of my energy waning after the extended climb. Now the full heat of the day shown down on me on this exposed section below the cliffs as I tried to keep up a good pace through the brush. I felt ready to sit down for a few minutes and take a break. My water bottles were low and the other ladies were ready to fill theirs as well. We stopped at the next stream for our first water refill of the day.
We finished our water stop and continued making our way around the Northern Loop. There was a big descent ahead, dropping down to the crossing of the glacial White River. Much of this section was runnable, so I set an easy pace on the mostly forested trail. It was rooty and rocky in some sections, but the running was fun and cruisy. I enjoyed being able to run on this downhill terrain and get some miles done quickly. After the long descent, it was time to refill water bottles before beginning a long climb to the Firecreek Camp, Berkely Camp and finally Skyscraper Pass at about 6,000 feet.
The trail tread was nice and soft. I started running towards Granite Creek Camp, a two mile downhill run to one of my favorite camps on the Wonderland with a lovely creek running through it. I had fond memories of my family spending a rest day when Ras and I took Angela through here at seven years old. She played in the creek, explored the camp, and did anything but rest. The descent was easy. Two backpackers came climbing up the hill towards us and we soon realized they were coming from Eagle's Roost Camp. They were the two men Vivian had spoken to through their tent walls many hours and miles ago. They were impressed to see how far we had come since those dark hours and a little overwhelmed when they heard about how far away our final destination was.
We crossed Winthrop Creek and began the trail section that meanders and winds through an old moraine field. I knew when we got to this point that the destroyed falls was behind us and not still ahead. The force of the mountain and the movement, however slow, of the glacier, had changed the course of the water creating Garada Falls. It simply no longer existed in the form that I had always known it. I had to let go of the idea of seeing the falls, showing it to the ladies and enjoying its cold waters.
After the moraine field, there was some rolling trail before hitting a second crossing of another fork of the glacial White River. Now dark had fully set in. We had stopped along the trail to pull out our headlamps, but we would need to make an additional stop to refill out water bottles as soon as we came to a fresh water run off of the White River itself or came to another creek. We finally reached a spot we could access easily from the trail and began the process of combining drops for five minutes until they turned color, adding them to the fresh water in the bottles and then waiting fifteen minutes before drinking. As we did this, we put on our night layers. This was a cold spot and loud from the rushing creek. It was hard to talk to each other while we were here and watching what the other ladies was doing was key to being ready at the same time they were to our progress along the trail.
I put on my down puffy pants and jacket because I was wet with sweat and the creekside stop in the dark was very cold. I wanted to stay warm. I did not take my coat off when we got moving again and thus I was overheated as soon as we began climbing towards Mystic Camp, our next destination. I got very sweaty and irritable, but continued on through the steeply situated camp and on to the lake, dimly lit by the moon. It was so pretty in here. I wished that the ladies could see what it looked like in the light of the day. We crossed boardwalks and little babbling brooks. The mountain towered over us to our left and other peaks guarded the lake to our right. We continued on, quietly.
Climbing out of the basin where the lake was, the trail got steep and damp from the dew fall of the dark night. When we reached the pass at the top of this climb, we would begin descending through the magical Moraine Park, reaching Dick Creek Camp and finally the terminus of the Carbon Glacier. We would descend for miles until reaching the Carbon River crossing for the second time on this journey, following alongside it for several miles, and then begin the final climb through the Carbon River rainforest until reaching Ipsut Pass. We would slip through the pass and then follow the easy 1.5 mile trail to our finish at Mowich Lake Camp. The end was in sight, but still so far away.
At the trail junction to the final climb toward Ipsut Pass, Lisa took over in the lead. I was feeling empty, lacking energy, mentally drained and ready to have someone else take over in the front. I wanted to drop behind and eat a Clif bar, hoping to regain some energy for the final stretch. Lisa and I like to play games to keep our minds distracted in the night hours, when it gets hard, but Vivian had not been interested in playing a game. Luckily, I had brought along my mp3 player. I put one ear bud in and began to enjoy some lively raggae dancehall music for the final miles. This helped so much.
The three of us spread out on the trail quite a bit. It was easy to see the headlamps of the other ladies to keep track of each other, but we all needed our space now in order to settle into the final climb in whatever way we could get it done. Lisa took off pretty fast and created a big gap. I moved in the middle and Vivian dropped behind. At one point, I stopped and waited to make sure she was okay and snapped a shot of some cool mushrooms, glowing under the light of the moon. Vivian was fine and had strength left to make it to the end. I kept nibbling on my Clif bar and at one time had to call out to Lisa to see if she could share some of her water with me. She had enough to spare and I gulped down a huge sip, grateful for the cold liquid available to quench my strong thirst.
The trail broke out of the rainforest and continued switchbacking towards the opening in the massive rock cliffs; Ipsut Pass, our destination. The moon cast a glow over the brushy, rocky ascent. The wet brush soaked my down pants, keeping me cool as I climbed, yet just on the brink of becoming chilled. My body temperature fluctuated between feeling sweaty and cold and clammy. I couldn't wait to take these clothes off and put on my warm dry clothes that were waiting for me in the back of Lisa's truck. I didn't know if I would feel like heating up the vegan chili I had made for the end of the run to share with Lisa and Vivian, or I would just feel like going straight to my tent to lay down and fall asleep. I was definitely hungry, so much so that I felt a little queasy. I had depleted myself and had needed to focus on taking in more food throughout the entire day. This is an area of weakness of mine and I will work on improving this so that I can maintain a more even energy level throughout.
The glow of Lisa's headlamp disappeared and I knew she had reached the pass. She would likely layer up and wait for us before making her way towards Mowich Lake. I kept switchbacking up into the darkness, through the wet brush, and surprised myself when I popped out at the pass after being confused as to just where it was. I was at a loss for words and simply said “Good job Lisa.” We waited for Vivian for just a couple of minutes. The hard work was over. Now we just had to cruise into camp.
Our conversation became light and lively. We talked about how our bodies had held up, how had our running shoe of choice worked for us for the day, what changes might we have made, what should Lisa sign up for next (as she has never done a 100 miler and Vivian and I both felt like she was capable of completing this distance), and would we eat or just crash out once we got back to Mowich Lake. Soon, we saw the glow of the water through the trees as we got closer to the camp. The moonlight was shining on the lake's surface and making it visible enough for us all to get our bearings. I looked down at my watch and could see we would finish in 21 hours and some odd minutes. We had hoped for 20 hours, but I was still happy with 21:19 when I finally got to Lisa's truck where the dry warm clothes, food and coffee awaited.
I turned off my watch's timer and found a rock at the edge of the parking lot that I could lay against. Everything had shut down as soon as we stopped. The queasiness was overwhelming, every muscle in my body ached and I just wanted to lay in the dirt with a rock as my pillow, forever.
Vivian said “Well, I guess I'm an UltraPedestrian now.” I loved hearing this. She was so proud of what she had done and she definitely had acquired UltraPedestrian status. She walked off to her tent to have a snack, change and sleep. Lisa finished up at her truck and headed back towards her tent as well. I finally rose from the ground and set up my camp chair behind Lisa's truck. I pulled out my Baker Lake duffel bag, which I had earned earlier in the summer after finishing my 5th Baker Lake trail run, and set it at my feet. From my running bin, I pulled out a heavy wool blanket and covered myself up as I began to peel off the clammy layers, sponge myself off and put on the delightfully dry and cozy clothes I had carefully chosen out at home to put on at this time. I took my time relaxing alone in the dark parking lot before shuffling back to my tent, my mind still racing with memories of a long, glorious day on trails around Mt. Rainier.