Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’

  • Date: November 25, 2018
  • Start: Wahkeena Falls Trailhead, Starvation Creek Trailhead, and Dog Mountain Trailhead
  • Distance: 26.6 miles
  • Duration: 11 hours (commute time between trailheads included)
  • Elevation gain: 10,000 feet
  • Type: Loop (Devil’s Rest) and out-and-back (Defiance and Dog)
  • Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West

A glimmer of daybreak shone faintly in the distance as we moved like shadows through the darkness. I don’t generally like running during non-daylight hours, but the paved, even trail leading to the top of Multnomah Falls presented no threat to my footing and I was able to move with confidence and certainty. We paced ourselves as we climbed switchback after switchback, reminding ourselves that we still had a number of miles and a good chunk of vert ahead of us. Afterall, this was only the beginning of a beautiful first weekend back on some of our favorite gorge trails on the Oregon side since the devastating wildfire over a year prior. What better way to celebrate their reopening and continued healing than with a little adventure run?

Devil’s Rest (8 miles; 2 hours 44 minutes, breaks included)

The Columbia River Gorge Triple ‘D’ challenge has been on our ultra-running bucket list since before we had even completed an ultra distance! We put off doing it for the longest time though because the gorge is our “backyard” and using our precious weekends to head there instead of a place we’d never explored seemed silly. We took this beautiful place for granted, and it took the Eagle Creek Fire sweeping through this beloved area for us to realize it. Dog Mountain remained open of course since it’s located on the Washington side, and Mount Defiance eventually reopened in the spring or early summer, but Devil’s Rest remained the missing ‘D’. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, we got the good news. After a failed attempt Saturday–which at least allowed us the chance to run up Angel’s Rest–we returned on Sunday determined to push on and put it all together.

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The run up to the top of Multnomah from the Wahkeena Falls Trailhead brought us into the first moments of daylight as we crossed the culvert bridge over the creek. We continued through Dutchman Tunnel and up past Weisendanger Falls, struck with sadness by the sight of the scorched landscape, yet amazed and overjoyed by the vibrant signs of recovery. The gorge was still the gorge, resilient and adaptable in the face of human-induced trauma.

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Above Weisendanger we turned onto Wahkeena Trail for a brief stretch before the gradual ascent to the summit via Devil’s Rest Trail. Upon reaching the treed in high point–characterized by giant, mossy boulders and a seemingly unofficial wooden sign hanging off one of the nearby trees–we grabbed a quick selfie then proceeded to enjoy the long, rewarding downhill back to the car, pausing every so often to savor some sorely missed gorge sights, especially the quaint but magical Fairy Falls. By mid morning, just as many others were beginning their hike up, we were back at the car and ready to tackle the next, and most difficult, ‘D’ of our challenge: Mount Defiance.

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Mount Defiance (11.76 miles; 4 hours 50 minutes, breaks included)

At 4,960 feet, Defiance is considered to be the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge. By itself, it comprises nearly half of the elevation gain for the Triple ‘D’ challenge! We were extremely pleased to be starting the route at a reasonable late morning time. As anticipated, there was very little running involved once we left the Historic Columbia River Highway. The gain was mild at first past Lancaster Falls and through the powerline corridor. Then we entered the forest, where the trail’s notoriety truly begins. It’s unrelenting steepness made even power hiking a struggle at times. Mack and I had only ever hiked Defiance once nearly three years prior. Within those three years I’d somehow managed to downplay the difficulty of the route in my memory.

A couple miles into our crawl up the mountain, we met a hiker coming down and casually inquired about the conditions further up. His response: at least a foot of snow–likely more than that–in the last mile or two before the summit. Oops. I looked down at my blown out Altras covered in holes and also remembered that we’d left our microspikes in the the car. We continued up anyway since we hadn’t reached the snow yet. No point in turning around until we absolutely had to. What started out as a light dusting further up very quickly turned into well over a foot of relatively fresh snow. Fortunately for us, hikers from the past couple of days had packed down a pretty decent boot path that we were able to walk/run on even without the aid of microspikes! Nonetheless it was another important reminder about being better prepared with potentially necessary gear and research regarding snow levels.

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The views over the the final couple of miles were just as stunning as I remembered, especially with Pahto standing guard to the north and Wy’east practically glowing beneath the early afternoon sun to the south. The wintry conditions made things slow going since we weren’t able to run even some of the flatter sections in the deep snow but soon enough the out-of-place radio tower came into view, signaling the end of our second big climb of the day. Our feet were soaked and freezing as we jogged the last few feet to the summit. Our breather at the top lasted all of 30 seconds–enough time to take out my camera and snap a selfie–before we hightailed it out of there, excited to reach dry trail again and warm up/air out our cold, wet shoes, socks, and feet.

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The struggle of the steep climbs and deep snow were forgotten as we flew down the trail with reckless abandon, filled with endless stoke about having completed our second summit. Only one more to go! We were doing it. We were finally doing it. The fog from earlier in the day had lifted at last as we re-entered the powerline corridor. I looked out across the Columbia to the Washington side. The unmistakable bare summit of Dog Mountain was staring right back at me. I smiled and held my gaze. Just a couple more hours.

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Dog Mountain (6.9 miles; 2 hours 9 minutes, breaks included)

The parking lot was nearly empty as we pulled in. Sunset was scheduled for something like 4:30 or 4:40 pm. It was nearing 3:30 as we laced up our shoes for the last time and started up the trail. Our legs were pretty shot by this point, having covered nearly 20 miles and over 7,000 feet of gain since 6:30 am. Our power hike was more of a desperate crawl but at least we were making steady progress. Within the first mile, we passed most of the remaining Dog Mountain hikers as they were descending to their cars. One of them was actually the hiker we’d run into on Defiance who had warned us about the snow! He recognized us and congratulated us on our efforts that day.

Daylight was fading fast at the lower viewpoint, so I decided to snap our “summit selfie” here in the event it was too dark for a real one at the top. It had been a long time since we’d done an adventure that both started and ended in the dark. There’s something so fulfilling about being outside from dawn until dusk, pushing your limits and making every second count. In the final minutes before sunset, we were en route to the summit on the last exposed and winding stretch along the dry meadow grasses.

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Blue hour descended upon us as we completed the last hill and stepped onto the summit. We took a few minutes to let our accomplishment soak in as we stood side by side in complete solitude, reflecting on the millennia of cataclysmic events that led to the remarkable landscape that now lay before us, and how this place will continue to survive and adapt to our constantly changing world long after our generation has passed. How fortunate we are to be seeing so much of it while we’re still here, I thought.

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It wasn’t quite dark enough to warrant headlamps as we began our run down the mountain but we put them on anyways to avoid further breaks and stops. Although the Dog Mountain Trail isn’t nearly has “polished” as the switchbacks heading up Multnomah, I still felt that same sense of security and confidence that I’d experienced in the morning, even when complete darkness finally set in and we were picking our way over rocks and roots. We arrived back at the car within the hour (of leaving the summit), thus concluding our first–of hopefully many–full day run-ventures in the Columbia River Gorge.

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Timberline Trail

  • Date: September 15, 2018
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Location: Mount Hood
  • Distance: 42 miles
  • Duration: 14 hours 46 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Loop

Each downhill stride shot searing pain through my knees, as if they were on the verge of bursting. We were 30+ miles into our Wy’east circumnav and thoughts of self doubt were running rampant in my head. The sound of rushing water was the light at the end of the tunnel at the moment. Ramona Falls was just ahead and we’d be taking our last “big” break before pushing through the final ten miles. But it was still ten miles. Ten more miles on knees that could barely take baby steps with trekking poles let alone run. Once at the falls, I watched the water cascade down the moss-covered basalt columns before me, breathing deep, massaging my aching knees, and reminding myself that despite this current low point, our day so far had been one of the most fulfilling of the summer.

We pulled into Timberline following a mostly sleepless night. It was about 4 am and sunrise wasn’t for another couple of hours. Stepping out into the stinging cold to finish organizing our gear was unmotivating to say the least, so we curled up in the front seats with the heater on for a little while longer. We finally got our legs moving just before 5 am, heading out counter-clockwise toward White River. Despite running downhill as we dropped into the canyon, it was slow going in the dark. Crossing White River was a surprisingly easy rock-hop (unlike the previous time just a few weeks earlier) and soon we were power-hiking uphill to reach the Mount Hood Meadows area. Now a few miles in, the need for headlamps gradually diminished as we watched the sun light up Wy’east, bathing it in that pink alpenglow that I’m so fortunate to have witnessed time and time again.

We picked up our pace now that we could see more clearly, seemingly racing the sun as it began to flood Wy’east’s lower slopes and canyons with daylight. It was the final weekend of summer and fall colors were already starting to transform the grassy hillsides that we ran alongside. We crossed a few more creeks, following the trail as it dipped up and down into the various canyons housing them [the creeks] until we began the longer ascent on Gnarl Ridge, moving through a dense forest of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir, then thickets of my favorite tree in the area, the rugged and mysterious whitebark pine, a sign that we were nearing treeline.

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Soon enough we were out of the forest and face-to-face with Wy’east, looking out at the Newton Clark Glacier encompassing her southeast flanks. Newton Creek flowed far below in the depths of the canyon. It was almost incomprehensible that we’d crossed it only a few miles prior! The blue skies with a smattering of streaky watercolor-esque clouds were a hopeful sign that we’d at least get decent weather during the most exposed and somewhat more technical part of the route. We finally got to enjoy some mellow downhill as we traversed the barren, rocky terrain of the mountain’s east side. The views from this side have always been some of my favorite as well, so I was even more grateful for the current bluebird conditions.

From the trail we could make out the Cooper Spur route we’d climbed back in May, as well as the magnificent Eliot Glacier sprawled out below Wy’east’s intimidating north face. After passing below the Cooper Spur shelter we continued on the spine of the Eliot east-moraine to get in some proper ridge running. At Cloud Cap Saddle Campground we decided to pause for a quick snack and bathroom break before tackling the next section that would take us to our halfway point. Fifteen or so miles in and still feeling fresh! I couldn’t believe we were actually doing it! Of course we still had a marathon to go.

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If we had tried to do this run a couple years ago, I would’ve planned our entire route around crossing the Eliot at a “safe” time of day. Thankfully, with the new official trail that was cut on either side of it, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. From the campground we sped down the switchbacks, crossed the Eliot on a log,–so much easier and faster than the crossing we made back in 2015!–then power-hiked up the switchbacks on the opposite side. The next few miles to Elk Cove, our halfway point, are kind of a blur in my memory. Nothing about these miles was a bore of course, but I only really remember being very focused on reaching Elk Cove so I could finally have lunch and refill my flask. As we ran, the afternoon forecast finally came true and dark clouds enveloped Wy’east. At least we’d enjoyed some stellar views on the east side!

The usual view of the mountain from Elk Cove was non-existent due to the cloud cover, but we were thankful that it wasn’t raining. We’d run over 20 miles now, so it felt great to sit down, stretch out, and enjoy the veggie burritos Mack had made for us. It was also cold though, so we ate quickly, refilled our flasks, and got moving again. The next ten or so miles to Ramona felt clumsy, slow, and then painful near the end, like a switch had turned in me at Elk Cove. I took a spill while running through Cairn Basin and split open the small gash I already had on my knee from when I’d climbed Black Peak a couple weekends earlier. I patched it up with a band-aid, but I was definitely a little grumpier after that.

I’d been looking forward to running downhill along the Bald Mountain ridge as it was an area I was very familiar with. By the time we got to it though, my knees were already starting to act up, and I’d also somehow forgotten how technical the trail became with all the gnarled tree roots covering the path in sections. There’s a good chance I was moving even slower downhill than I had when we’d been climbing uphill. I was able to push a little more once we were on smoother, less technical single track past the Top Spur Trail junction, but less than a mile out from Ramona my knees had had it and I was forced to hobble it in from there despite the totally runnable terrain.

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Ramona was a sight for sore eyes and, in my case, very sore knees. I was reluctant to leave, especially in the pain I was in. Fortunately, after crossing the Sandy, much of this part of the Timberline was uphill to Paradise ParkΒ  on the southwest side of the mountain. Seeing as we’d already put in over 30 miles, we decided to power-hike rather than run this portion, giving the ibuprofen I’d taken at Ramona a chance to kick-in and alleviate the swelling and pain in my knees. I was finally on my second wind and even Mack had a difficult time keeping up with my uphill hiking pace (a rarity I definitely savored).

The dense forest eventually gave way to open slopes carpeted in bright red mountain ash berries and their yellowing leaves mixed with the crimson tint of late season huckleberry bushes. We were back in another autumn wonderland for a brief moment before stepping back into the forest. At this point we were basically paralleling the Paradise Park trail. No longer moving uphill, we started to run again, passing the junction with the Paradise Park Loop Trail, equally ecstatic and exhausted about the five or so miles we had left. Once we dropped down into Zigzag Canyon and crossed the river, we knew we were in the homestretch.

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The climb up from the river to the Zigzag Canyon overlook felt grueling and never-ending (although it was really nothing compared to some of the day’s earlier climbs). Fortunately, it was our last bigger climb of the day. The final 2-2.5 miles would be mellow undulating. Although the iconic view of Wy’east from the overlook was obscured by clouds, we enjoyed witnessing the final light of day pierce through the overcast skies to the west. With that, we scampered off down the trail, waiting anxiously for Timberline Lodge to come into view and let us know we were near the end.

I grew incredibly impatient after a few minutes of not seeing it. My view was consistently blocked by trees or a small hill. At least when you approach from the opposite direction you can see the lodge and the parking lot for the entire last mile! Only in the final minute or so of our run did the those inviting, glowing windows finally appear, guiding us down as night began to fall on the mountain. Without stopping we continued across the parking lot until we reached the car, our official starting point and now our official stopping point. Our summer had now come to an end with the setting sun, but new goals for next season were already brewing between us. Despite being famished and in dire need of a nap, all we could talk about was how we could incorporate the Timberline Trail into an even bigger adventure. I guess we’ll be back in 2019!

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Glacier Peak

  • Date: July 28, 2018
  • Start: Sloan Creek Campground
  • Distance: 34 miles
  • Duration: 17 hours 28 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References:Β Best Climbs: Cascade VolcanoesΒ by Jeff Smoot; The Mountaineers

The sound of low rumbling shook me from a deep sleep. Bursts of light cast shadows of the surrounding trees on the walls of our tent. I jumped at each rumble and crack. “So much for our summit bid,” I thought. As if running/hiking/climbing 34+ miles and 10,000+ feet of gain in a day didn’t terrify me enough after barely recovering from a recent injury, the thought of venturing out in a thunderstorm was further proof that it wasn’t going to be our day. Feeling defeated before even stepping out of the tent, I curled back up in my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep again.

The storm eventually passed, but we ended up sleeping through our original start time to avoid being in the storm. The 7.5 hour drive through heavy Friday traffic may have also played a part in our decision to sleep in. By the time we started around 6 am–three hours later than our planned start!–we’d already come to terms with the fact that we weren’t going to summit. This was just going to be a scouting run to get beta for our next attempt. We hit the trail with absolutely no expectations.

With the exception of two runners that passed us early on, we didn’t encounter another human being for the first nine miles. We moved quickly while still enjoying the early morning sounds of the waking forest and the peaceful lull of the rushing North Fork Sauk. The trail appeared to have already been cleared of fallen trees, as well as brushed of overgrown plants, so there was no need for climbing over giant logs or bushwhacking through face height shrubbery. An improvement from last year! The daunting climb from Mackinaw Shelter to White Pass (about 3,000 feet of gain in 3.5 miles) was also much easier this time around with small daypacks. Last year we suffered immensely under 40-50 pound climbing packs and it took us over six hours to reach White Pass! This time, we were there in less than three. We celebrated with a burrito (Mack) and Gushers (my new fave running treat besides Mamma Chia squeeze snacks).

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Rewarded with mountain views after a steep climb from Mackinaw Shelter

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Heading to White Pass on the PCT
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Homemade burritos are his favorite adventure running snack

Although it was nice not to be scorched by the sun, the overcast skies were making us question how much further we’d be able to go. Nonetheless we took advantage of the relatively flatter Foam Creek Trail and finally got our legs running again after the previous miles’ climb. This section of the approach, with its sprawling wildflower covered slopes, mountain views in all directions, and enjoyable singletrack, is easily one of the most idyllic parts of the entire route! Even the pouring rain that started to come down as we neared the end of the trail couldn’t dampen our spirits. We turned off the trail to gain the saddle above us where we met a climbing group on their return trip. Due to the early morning thunderstorm, they’d decided to bail on their summit bid and were now hiking out. Fortunately for us, though we were still standing in the pouring rain, Dakobed was completely visible against a backdrop of clear blue skies in the distance. Pleasantly surprised and filled with excitement, we quickly dropped down the steep slope, climbed back up another saddle, and were greeted with an even greater view of the incredible mountain before us. Maybe we still had a chance.

The “trail” ended after Foam Creek Trail, but there was a heavily used boot path in the snow through White Chuck Basin. We ran (i.e. slipped and slid over the semi-soft snow) then scrambled up and over various rock bands, growing more and more excited as the mountain became closer. Just before noon, we hiked the final steps up to Glacier Gap, the high camp we’d stayed at before climbing Dakobed last summer. We were 14-15 miles in now with just a couple more to reach the summit. I turned to Mack. “I think we owe it to ourselves to keep going.” Without hesitation he replied, “Let’s do it.”

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Looking back at White Pass
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Running on Foam Creek Trail
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A carpet of Western Pasque Flower
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Greetings Dakobed (and posing marmot)!
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Idyllic tarns in White Chuck Basin

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After scarfing down more burritos and filling up on water, we began the final stretch of our long approach. We hadn’t made the summit yet, but the feeling of accomplishment was already there for me. After a peroneal tendon injury forced me to drop out of my first 50 mile race back in June, and subsequently kept me from running at all for nearly a month, my dream of completing a Dakobed C2C just kind of slipped away until a few days prior to our attempt. I’d only started running again two weeks prior, and it was only once or twice a week for 7-10 miles, not exactly the best preparation for an undertaking like Dakobed. Despite the low running mileages, I’d still been doing some hiking, and we’d just come off a 60-mile backpacking trip in the Wallowas. I could feel my body growing more strong and capable, and with limited summer vacation time left, I wanted to take advantage of my confidence and availability. So here we were, 15+ miles in now,–my longest “run” since June 16th.

We traversed beneath Disappointment Peak through a “bowling alley” section, stopping every couple of minutes to keep our eyes and ears peeled for falling rock. After our ongoing battle with rockfall on Cooper Spur back in May, sections like these put Mack on edge, even though this traverse is far more mellow. Although we ended up only hearing rockfall but not seeing any, I could tell he was a bit shaken once we finished the traverse. Both of us felt better once we made it through the following crevasse-riddled section and were heading toward the final slope leading up to the summit.

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Moving quickly through those pesky crevasses

After a short mix of scree and steep snow, we stood on the summit of Dakobed for the second year in a row. It was just before 3 pm, nine hours since we’d started; a big difference from the 2.5 days it took us last summer. We looked out over the North Cascades, wishing we had more time to sit there and identify as many peaks as we could, but it was a long journey back to the car and we still needed to make the tedious descent off the mountain. Mack signed the summit register for us, we took a few photos and ate a few more snacks, then down we went after a mere ten minutes. Nothing like climbing a mountain to remind you that it’s all about the journey!

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Signing the summit register
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Mack’s ” beautiful” Cupid drawing

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Showing off the amazing Kula Cloth created by Anastasia Allison
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Obligatory summit selfie while twinning (i.e. same running packs)

The going was slow until we made it past the crevasses, then we sprinted through the “bowling alley” until we were out of the rockfall path. Around 5 pm we dropped back down onto Glacier Gap. We’d now covered around 20 miles and over 10,000 feet of gain, but it didn’t physically feel like it. We expected a one day push to be far more demanding than our 3.5 day climb, but this was turning out to be so much easier! We plopped down on some rocks to change our sopping wet socks (which turned out to be a stupid idea since we were about to run through another snowfield) and eat some dinner (you guessed it! more burritos!) before heading out. To the east, storm clouds were gathering. I’d barely finished switching out my socks when I heard it: that low rumbling that shook me awake earlier that morning. Mack and I both looked at each other. He probably saw the fear in my eyes even behind my sunglasses. “Let’s eat fast and get off this mountain,” he responded.

Now that we were mostly moving downhill, we were able to pick up our pace. We passed several groups heading onto the basin to camp. I hoped the weather wouldn’t become as terrible as it appeared for all those staying the night in the area. Then again, thunderstorms terrify me to no end, so maybe it wasn’t as big a deal to the people we passed. As we neared the end of the basin, I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked over to the other side of the saddle where Foam Creek Trail lay. The skies were still clear and we wouldn’t be entering any nasty weather systems once we crossed over.

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Trying to out run those ominous storm clouds!

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I turned around often as we neared the saddle, knowing these would be my last views of Dakobed before we dropped down to Foam Creek Trail. She was more beautiful than ever bathed in the light of the early evening sun. It was difficult to turn away each time. We carefully maneuvered down the steep slope from the top of the saddle. Last summer, this section almost had me in tears because I had so much trouble balancing with my unnecessarily large pack. I honestly thought I would end up toppling over and tumbling down hundreds of feet through snow, dirt, and mountain heather. This time, it wasn’t much of an ordeal at all and my fear from last year never resurfaced. We climbed back up the opposite side, where we’d talked with the other climbing group earlier that morning, then dropped down to Foam Creek Trail.

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One last look at Dakobed

It was just past 7 pm now. Golden hour made one of the most beautiful sections even more enchanting. Being back on singletrack prompted us to start running again. We sped through those magical wildflower covered slopes, ecstatic about reaching White Pass with a single digit number of miles left. We made good time and the sun had not yet gone down. My knees were starting to ache though, and we were just about to start a 3,000 foot descent to Mackinaw.

On the PCT and back on North Fork Sauk, I did my best to run and push the pace, but my knees just weren’t having it, especially once we hit the steeper, more technical downhill sections on North Fork Sauk. All the elevation gain and loss of the day was finally catching up to me. We strapped on our headlamps shortly before reaching Mackinaw Shelter as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance. Now it was time for me to face my next big anxiety trigger: running through a forest in the dark.

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Golden hour on Foam Creek Trail
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“Take a picture of me jumping over this creek!”

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Back at White Pass

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Last of the golden light

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Yes, I’m a grown-ass woman and, yes, I am absolutely terrified of being in the dark. My mind (well, my imagination) tends to go to horrible places, especially in a dark forest where I can’t see what might be lurking behind the trees or within the bushes. Mack doesn’t really have this fear, and just as I was there for him when he was freaking out about potential rockfall beneath Disappointment Peak, he did his best to be patient with me as I whined about how many miles were still left to cover in the dark. Although I didn’t feel comfortable running outright with all the roots and rocks covering the trail, we still managed to power hike and jog, averaging 3+ miles an hour. Time seems to move far too slowly when you’re anxious and ready to be done with something, but we were covering these last miles in good time. In addition, the only wildlife we came across on our night miles were numerous Cascades frogs that hopped out onto the trail and never failed to scare the shit out of me.

We finally stumbled into the parking area around 11:20 pm. We were exhausted (and my knees felt like they were on fire!), covered in sweat and dirt, and probably smelled like ass, but we were beyond happy and grateful to have completed an adventure we didn’t think would be possible to finish when we started out 17 hours earlier. As I lay in the tent, unable to fall asleep and scrolling through the iPhone pictures I’d taken throughout the day, I reflected on how different this summer was shaping up to be. Things were looking pretty dismal after my injury in June. But now? Now this was becoming the best summer yet.

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Grand Canyon R2R2R

  • Date: March 26, 2018
  • Start: Pipe Creek Vista
  • Distance: 44-45 miles
  • Duration: 14 hours 51 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 10,780 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map:Β Sky Terrain Trail Maps: Grand Canyon National Park

Visions of cheese bagels danced in my delirious head. I searched my pack in vain for something appetizing to eat. Applesauce, Larabar, and Goldfish rations just weren’t cutting it. I regretted not packing at least a second bagel sandwich. It was sometime after 9 pm and we’d just made it to Bright Angel Campground after 15+ hours and 38 miles of combined running, hiking, and resting. A little over seven miles and nearly 5,000 feet of gain stood between us and the cozy sleeping bags in my car. Seven seemingly impossible miles. All I wanted to do was curl up and succumb to my exhaustion and nausea.

Our Grand Canyon adventure began two days earlier following our half day spent in Bryce Canyon. After another long five hours on the road, we arrived at the Grand Canyon south entrance just in time to enjoy a vibrant sunset from the Rim Trail. We finally got some much needed sleep in the car, but managed to get ourselves up and back on the trail to witness an equally, if not more impressive, sunrise the next morning. We spent the rest of the second day “relaxing” (unintentionally hiking about seven miles), eating in the Grand Canyon Village, checking weather reports, researching the most current trail and water source conditions, scouting out our starting point and parking situation for the next day, and getting our fastpacks loaded up. A mix of anxiety and excitement made it difficult to sleep that night.

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Grand Canyon sunset after driving from Bryce Canyon
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Sunrise the next morning

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It was below freezing when we awoke to change into our running attire. After some final packing adjustments, we drove five minutes down the highway and parked at Pipe Creek Vista (since you can’t park at South Kaibab Trailhead). About a mile on the paved Rim Trail brought us to our starting point. Peering out over the edge and seeing the massive descent before us felt like being at the top of a rollercoaster, when time seems to move slowly and stop altogether right before the stomach churning freefall. And with that we took our first steps into the most ambitious single day adventure of our lives.

The trail was fairly empty as we started down the initial switchbacks, making it easy to move fast and light over the somewhat awkward terraced/staircase-like construction. We only needed our headlamps for a brief stretch. First light was upon us within minutes and as we dipped below Cedar Ridge, we were greeted by our third consecutive (but nonetheless magnificent and breathtaking) desert sunrise. The delicate purple and salmon colors of dawn melted away into the blanket of light sweeping over the exposed ridge line.

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Dawn colors
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Tiny Mack (lower left) with the scene-stealing O’Neill Butte (upper right)
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Running on Cedar Ridge, getting closer to O’Neill butte
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Another incredible desert sunrise
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Last one of O’Neill Butte

Just above O’Neill Butte, we finally turned around and noticed a mule train moving awfully fast down the switchbacks we’d just run. Not wanting to have to deal with a potential leap frog situation, we booked it down the trail and I tried to be faster with my picture taking. Of course, it was difficult not to stop and absorb the surroundings of this dramatic descent into the inner gorge. We oftentimes found ourselves caught off guard by how quickly the train was gaining on us! Thankfully, they also took breaks at some of the viewpoints, which provided us opportunities to put space between us.

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Looking back

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Switchbacks from Skeleton Point

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From Skeleton Point we lost elevation quickly. Earlier that morning, the plateau above the inner gorge appeared so far away. Now we were level with it, able to look out across the way and see the grand towers and pinnacles rising from the expansive shelf. The Kaibab Bridge was in sight at this point, too. We continued to drop below the plateau, winding around rock formations and ridge lines, flying down the final set of switchbacks, through the tunnel, and finally onto the bridge, ready to tackle the next part of our journey on the other side of the Colorado River.

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Colorado River!
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Horsepacking group crossing the bridge

Following Kaibab Bridge, we reached Bright Angel Campground shortly after and were greeted by a lush oasis of cottonwood trees and riparian vegetation lining the clear blue waters of Bright Angel Creek (a welcome contrast to the murky green of the Colorado just moments before). The area was bustling with human activity, especially as we neared the quaint cabins and dormitories of Phantom Ranch. It was like passing through a tiny village.

We stopped for some snacks just before entering the narrow corridor known as The Box. My stomach did a back flip when I saw a sign indicating we were still 13+ miles away from the North Rim. Over thirteen miles and so much climbing! My initial thoughts were along the line of, “Okay, time to turn around. There’s no way I’m ready for this,” but the excitement of embracing something so unknown and uncomfortable won out over my fear. We entered The Box, winding our way alongside the creek and shaded by the towering walls of 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist, before popping out into a more open and spacious section of Bright Angel Canyon. Despite starting in below freezing temps, now we were at the mercy of the sun. Although it couldn’t have been more than 70-75 degrees, the lack of shade and moving air, as well as the gradual incline, took its toll on our pace (well…my pace).

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Bright Angel Creek with Kaibab Bridge in the distance
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About to enter The Box
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One of the many bridges we crossed during The Box
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Running through The Box
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No more shade for a little while

We passed the signed turnoff heading to Ribbon Falls, opting to continue to the North Rim since we didn’t know how long the side trip would be. A few minutes later though, a runner (who had passed us earlier in The Box) heading back to Bright Angel or Phantom Ranch mentioned Ribbon Falls was worth the detour and probably wasn’t more than a half mile from where we were. “What the hell,” I thought. “We’re going to be out here all day anyways. What’s another mile?” We crossed the bridge going over the creek and headed toward the hidden side canyon housing the falls.

The runner was right. The falls were worth the additional distance and time. We probably spent a half hour or more here enjoying the 100-foot falls cascading down onto the emerald green moss coating its rocky base, climbing up and around to the back of the falls to look out on Bright Angel Canyon from behind the water, and soaking in the coolness of the area before venturing back out into the unforgiving sun.

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Ribbon Falls
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View from behind the falls

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We pushed onward after Ribbon Falls, sucking down almost all of our water to avoid baking in the hot sun. At Manzanita Rest Area we refilled our hydration bladders and soft flasks to prepare for the final 5.4 mile ascent (with 3,600 feet of gain more or less) to the North Rim. Despite the constant grueling uphill, this section was probably my favorite of the entire rim-to-rim. After making it above Roaring Springs, the path became more interesting as we made our way through “half tunnels” that had been blasted directly into the Redwall Limestone cliff sides by trail builders in the 1920s.

Just under three miles in we crossed a bridge high above the creek and began the series of seemingly endless switchbacks (nearly 2.7 miles worth) up to our turnaround point: North Kaibab Trailhead. Looking back at our route, snaking up and along the stunning red cliffs with the towering walls of Bright Angel Canyon in the distance, is the image I picture whenever I think about our adventure. Once we hit Supai Tunnel, it was less than two miles to the top! Both of us were pretty fatigued (more mentally than physically) on this last stretch, especially since it was just switchback after switchback. We stopped briefly at Coconino Overlook and enjoyed a beautiful view of Roaring Springs Canyon and the trail down below. Our halfway point was near now, and within another 15 or 20 minutes (more or less, I can’t entirely remember) we were breaking out of the forest and standing at the empty, snow-covered trailhead. Our time at the top was short lived though. It was already around 3 pm (blame my need to take pictures of everything) and we still had another 22+ miles to go…

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Surrounded by Redwall Limestone
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Running on a trail blasted directly into the cliff
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Looking down into Roaring Springs Canyon
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Supai Tunnel
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Made it to the North Rim!

It had started to snow as we neared the top earlier. Now, heading back down, it was falling harder and visibility was practically non-existent save for a few yards in front of our faces. We stopped at the Coconino Overlook again, as I’d hoped to take a self portrait of us here, but the only thing visible now were the outlines of the canyon walls and the trees dotting the slopes. Things began to clear a little bit by the time we reached Supai Tunnel, and shortly before the bridge crossing it was like the snowy episode had never even happened. We still managed a lovely self portrait (see below), then continued non-stop to Manzanita, where we replenished our water.

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View from Coconino Overlook
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Burrito break while waiting out the snow
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My favorite photo from our adventure (and probably the best self portrait I’ve ever managed)

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Our final couple of hours before sunset were some of the most beautiful on the trail. Golden hour in Bright Angel Canyon, with its looming red, black, and sandstone-colored walls and slopes covered in desert shrubs, wildflowers, and trees all bathed in soft sunlight is something to behold. Of course, once the sun went down we’d barely reached The Box. We were thrown into complete darkness soon after. Our pace slowed down considerably to compensate for the lack of visibility (even though we had headlamps). Mack getting dive bombed by a bat multiple times didn’t help things either.

My body began to revolt in the final mile or two before Bright Angel Campground. Lack of calories and proper nutrition, as well as lack of sleep, was finally taking its toll. We stumbled into Bright Angel Campground and collapsed at the kiosk. I practically begged Mack to consider staying here to bivy for a short while just so I could close my eyes. I could barely keep them open, and I thought maybe even a little bit of shut-eye would help calm my nausea. To my dismay, he insisted we keep going, although I could tell he was struggling too. (When I asked him about this the next day, he told me that he’d seen a half eaten deer carcass just off the trail near the kiosk–when we’d run by in the daylight–and didn’t feel it would’ve been safe for us to sleep there with a potential cougar lurking around) I reluctantly strapped my fastpack back on and followed Mack over the Kaibab Bridge.

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Golden hour

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The final seven miles were some of the slowest I’ve ever hiked (seeing as we were barely able to put one foot in front of the other at this point). I went back and forth between being completely lucid (mainly due to my paranoia that we were going to get jumped by a cougar) and very out-of-it, like I was sleep walking. We stopped numerous times to keep from burning out completely. I spent most of these breaks on my hands and knees dry heaving because of my worsening nausea or curled up on rock, attempting to fit in 5-10 minute power naps.

I will say that the one upside to climbing up South Kaibab Trail in the dark is you can’t see how steep it is or how much further you have to go. When we finally reached Ooh Ahh Point, I felt a slight surge of energy pulse through me. This was it. The final switchbacks to the trailhead. We even started to jog a little faster! We dragged our lifeless bodies up the final switchback and plopped down at the sign. Completely out of character, Mack insisted we pull out the camera for one final picture to document our achievement (see below). The giddiness and excitement that comes with the successful completion of any masochistic adventure propelled us the final mile back to the car. Mack cracked open a beer once we were back in the visitor center parking lot and I fell asleep embracing a bag of cheese bagels. A perfect end to a perfect (albeit ridiculously challenging) adventure run.

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Back at the South Kaibab Trailhead 20+ hours later…

Wilson River Trail E2E2E

  • Date: January 27, 2018
  • Location: Tillamook State Forest
  • Start: Elk Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 42 miles (only completed 39-ish)
  • Duration: 10 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 3950 feet (one way)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Oregon Hikers

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the only word (minus a certain descriptive expletive preceding the word “stupid”) racing through my head as we stumbled through the Tillamook State Forest in the pitch black. Our inadequate sources of light barely lit up the trail a few feet in front of us. I became more and more paranoid with each step, terrified that I would take a fall and injure myself, or that we’d have a surprise encounter with any of the nocturnal predators that lurk in the forest. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but it was fear that saturated me, seeped into my skin, resonating deep within my bones. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?

We started late in the morning just before 7 am. It seems silly to call that “late” since the sun had yet to rise, but 42 miles was a very new distance for us. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but I anticipated needing the entire day. It was already raining when we started up the first hill leading out of the campground parking area. Once we were in the trees we were somewhat protected. Mack had me lead so he wouldn’t end up running too far in front of me. My legs were still getting reacquainted with this sport. Mack had been doing a fantastic job of keeping up his big mileage weeks over the past couple of months since our previous race in November. I, on the other hand, stopped running entirely for 20+ days in December and early January. I could blame that hiatus on my busy schedule but, at the heart of it, was lack of motivation and feelings of defeat. My hope was that Wilson River would light a fire under my ass and reignite the spark that had been missing from my most recent attempts to get back into it.

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A cloudy dawn in the forest

We weren’t greeted with sunshine, just cloudy skies and fog, but daylight allowed us to put away our headlamps and pick up the pace. Silhouettes and shadows were replaced with a sea of green. Sword ferns, salal, and Oregon grape blanketed the slopes while moss coated the trees and rocks. Despite being the dead of winter, the forest was already exhibiting signs of spring. Even from a few of the viewpoints from up high along the route, snow was nowhere to be seen as we looked out over the forested mountains of the coast range. At least it was one less obstacle to deal with. Although the trail itself offers some of the best (if not the best) tread for running, its constant undulating elevation profile makes it deceptively challenging. The first 9-10 miles alone (from Elk Creek to Diamond Mill) gain 3500+ feet!

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Lots of mini-falls and creek crossings

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One of the Lester Creek Pinnacles

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The Diamond Mill suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River brought an ironic sense of relief. We weren’t quite halfway through our end-to-end (and barely a quarter of the way done with the entire run!). I think the relief I was feeling stemmed from my memory of running the Elk-Kings 25K back in 2015. At this point in the route, there were less than 3 miles left to run. If only the same could be said about our current situation. We took a short snack break after crossing the deceptively slick bridge then continued on more mellow terrain past Lester Creek Falls (which we’d never noticed until this run), Jones Creek Day Use Area, and the beautiful Tillamook Forest Center. Another false sense of relief swept over me when the Wilson River Suspension Bridge came into view. If this were the Go Beyond Racing event, we’d be running across that bridge to a victorious finish, nourishing food and refreshments, and warm and dry clothes back in the car. On the contrary, all was silent. There was nobody and nothing waiting for us across that bridge. We were alone, and the comforts I was fantasizing about were miles away at Elk Creek Trailhead.

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Suspension bridge at Diamond Mill
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North Fork Wilson River (looking south from the bridge)
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North Fork Wilson River (looking north from the bridge)
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Just my luck…
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Lester Creek Falls
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Wilson River Suspension Bridge and Tillamook Forest Center

We enjoyed a few more miles of minimal climbing, taking in the views of Wilson River now that the trail was practically hugging it. The rain continued off and on, and the seemingly endless creek crossings left our socks perpetually soaked. Continuous movement was the only way to stay warm. There were some upsides though. I absolutely hate running in the heat (basically any temp above 70-75 degrees), so the cool 40-50 degree weather kept me from burning out too fast. In addition, the cold and wet kept potential crowds–well, Wilson River Trail never gets that crowded per se–at bay. I’m pretty sure I could count the number of people we saw all day on one hand.

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Particularly lush section along Wilson River
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Wilson Falls
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New favorite adventure running sustenance

The final stretch between Wolf Creek Road and Keenig Creek Trailhead saw another 1000+ feet of elevation gain over the course of six miles. It wasn’t much compared to that of the first 9-10 miles, but we were very much ready for a break (and to be halfway done). I was starting to feel a bit of pain in my right knee, which made the miles go by even slower and caused my level of stress to skyrocket. Thankfully, as soon as we hit Cedar Butte Road, the pain seemed to subside (or was just overshadowed by my immense excitement that the rest of the way was downhill). We flew down 1.5 miles of switchbacks before bursting through the trees and into the empty parking lot, exhilarated and exhausted. 21 miles down, but 21 to go…

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Wolf Creek
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Wolf Creek
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And more Wolf Creek
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Keenig Creek Trailhead = halfway done!

What goes down must come up. After a fairly brief snack break and some reluctance to begin again, we headed back up the switchbacks I’d been so ecstatic about earlier. Now I was groaning as I forced my tired legs to hike uphill. High spirits resumed once we reached Cedar Butte Road again and were able to pick up the pace. I took my final photos of our run–though I was still under the impression I’d be taking a couple more back at the car when we finished–shortly after we crossed Wolf Creek Road.

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Crossing the footbridges at Wolf Creek
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Yeah…can’t get enough of Wolf Creek apparently
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Still many miles to go

Reaching the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail junction (just over six miles in) felt like forever and definitely hampered my will to continue. It was already getting late into the afternoon, too. Sunset was about an hour away and we still had 15 tough miles remaining. I can’t speak for Mack, but my body started to shut down at this point. I shuffled along the best I could but ended up having to walk–more like crawl–at a time when we really needed to be moving fast.

The sun was already beginning to set by the time we reached the Tillamook Forest Center. At the pace we were going (because of me), I knew it would be hours before we reached Elk Creek Trailhead. Of course, we’d forgotten to bring along our Garmin inReach and had absolutely no cell service to call and let our emergency contact know that we’d be running very late. I could feel the panic start to fester in me (mainly because I didn’t want SAR called on us due to lack of communication). I even suggested to Mack that we bail at the Jones Creek Trailhead and run along Hwy 6 to Elk Creek Trailhead (which would’ve cut our remaining mileage in half) so we could return at a reasonable hour and get in touch with our contact. He thought it would be more dangerous, so we stuck to the trail.

It was completely dark when we crossed the North Fork Wilson River and headed back into the forest to work our way through the most difficult/strenuous section of the route. It was primarily uphill so I wasn’t running. Hell, I was barely able to power hike. Emotions began to pour out of me. I was angry and frustrated with my abilities, as well as the fact that we’d forgotten to bring such an important piece of equipment (that we’d specifically purchased for situations like this!). At some point it started raining again. We picked our way carefully up and down the trail, depending primarily on Mack’s handheld flashlight since my headlamp was completely inadequate. We ran whenever possible, but moving in the pitch black was slow going to say the least.

At long last,–literally, we’d been moving for over two hours since crossing the North Fork–we reached the junction with Kings Mountain Trail. Our trailhead was still nearly four miles away and it was already 8 pm. We decided to head down to Kings Mountain Trailhead (a short 0.1 mile away). Upon reaching the parking lot, every last ounce of energy that I’d sustained with adrenaline for the previous two hours suddenly left me. My entire body seemed to go limp. I could barely see straight or stand up. Mack headed down Hwy 6 in the rain to pick up his car at Elk Creek about 2.5 miles away. I was too drained to move and sat in the rain shoving Goldfish into my mouth. I finally picked myself up and spent the remainder of my time shut inside the toilet, shaking and shivering in the 30-something degree weather. This image, sitting in a trailhead toilet, beat down and unable to even complete the final 2.5 road miles to the car, felt like the epitome of failure in that moment. I sat dazed in the car on the way home, staring at the streaks of water splash across the window, dreaming of BBQ and pineapple pizza to take my mind off of my immense disappointment.