“Dreams are the beginning of every new adventure, and our greatest dreams come from the person right in front of us.” — Christopher McDougall, Running with Sherman
I’m writing this journal entry a week late.
This entry’s been hard to write because I’ve had so many thoughts about this episode, that I don’t know what I want to write anymore.
I’ve already captured a lot of my discomfort (and embrace of it) in
my initial Strava description: I almost died today. Lucas Horan is a f’ing mountain goat. This one deserves a full writeup. Gimme a couple days.
And notes I added later:
I’ve never had so many 30+% grade climbs and drops in my life all at once in my life. I’ve never done so much scrambling, including one where I really thought I was going to slide over 300 feet down a slab wall. I’ve experienced fear while running some sketchy single-track next to mountain cliffs. This was on a different level. I’ve never bushwhacked so much in my life. On some summits, I was literally climbing the slopes by balancing on branches. On another, I army-crawled. For our “bonus miles”, Lucas and I literally went through dense brush on 30%+ slopes. At least there weren’t spiders (like the last time I bushwhacked). I’ve also never tried to run (or even hike such technical terrain) through 1+ inches of snow, which went up to about 2-3 inches above 8500ft with a few knee-deep surprises. I’ve also never run or hiked through snow conditions without winter gear (crampons, anyone?) before either like today either. The snow pretty much multiplied how technical everything already was. 😛 Lots of firsts today. 🙂
Beyond this, what’s there to add? Why I did this? How I “trained”? A mile-by-mile play-by-play typical of the average race report?
At this point, my best chance at finishing this writeup (and actually adding something of interest) is to caption some of the hundreds of photos I took. Despite the test that this trip turned out to be for me, the scenic payoff was totally worth it. I haven’t been able to stop admiring them through my computer monitor all week. Now I want to annotate them. Here we go.
Friday 11:31PM. South San Francisco in the distance.
But first, Friday night. I won’t recap
what happened. What’s key is that even before Lucas and I left to start this adventure, he was already proposing another one.
Simply said, if I hadn’t seen Lucas’ call for runners on EBQB earlier that day, I wouldn’t have jumped my first barbed-wire fence or tiptoed around a possible ranger at 2:40 in the morning. If those didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have found myself scrambling over a snowy ridgeline in high winds or traversing almost a mile of loose rock on 30-degree inclines today.
It’s funny how life works out this way.
This was my first nighttime trail run that I’ve run only by moonlight. No headlamps required. A naked man rising from the chilly waters of the Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir Friday night (or Saturday morning at 1AM), while Nicole and I look on. (With long exposure and Google’s Night Sight algorithm making this look more like daytime.) Saturday
Because our plan involved leaving 1AM on Sunday, I planned to do as little as possible yesterday. This was fine. Since I had gotten home around 5AM, all I wanted to do was sleep. (Though unfortunately, I didn’t actually sleep that much — Fitbit claims, with all the staring at the ceiling I did, I only slept 63 minutes between Saturday and Sunday!)
The only other thing I planned to do with stock up. And stock up I did.
Castle Peak 4:55AM. Despite planning to leave the Bay at 1AM, and start at 4AM, we ended up leaving at 2AM and start at 5AM. 5:03AM. Because I was prepared to start at 4AM, I wore a headlamp. But by 4:30AM, it was light enough that no artificial light was really needed. What I wasn’t prepared for, though was all the water. Though I thought the snow was recent, there was enough melt and runoff at our starting altitude that getting my feet soaked was unavoidable. “I should’ve worn waterproof shoes!” I thought (and boy, did that thought come back time and time again during this trip). 5:06AM. As I geared up on Saturday, Lucas texted “there might be an inch or two of snow.” From the forecast, it didn’t seem like it’d be that bad, so I visualized mostly dirt and rock. I wasn’t expecting snow everywhere. 5:08AM. Actually, in the beginning, the snow was manageable. In fact, the trail was more mud than snow. In hindsight, this had more to do with our relatively low altitude (around 7200ft). 5:09AM. Looking back toward where we started. 5:14AM. I had my first inkling of how deep the snow could be when I saw this sign half-buried in snow. 5:23AM. As Lucas, Nicole and I continued upward, the snow got a little deeper. And all of a sudden, I realized my feet weren’t reaching dirt anymore. Our shoes were pushing through fresh powder, and landing on older, frozen snow/ice underneath. These thoughts were only momentary though; I was busy admiring the trees. 5:36AM. Mile 1.8, just after Castle Pass. I took a photo here after realizing that we had passed the treeline. I didn’t know it at the time, but we had passed Castle Pass, where our trail had intersected with the Pacific Crest Trail. At this point, we had climbed about 700 feet to 7900 feet (2400 meters). 5:37AM. Mile 1.9. Altitude: just under 8000 feet. Before we began, I remarked “we’ll be climbing for most of the first 3 miles!” Most of the climbing up until here was fairly reasonable, ranging between 7 to 20%. But as I admired the sunrise coming up behind Castle Peak to my east, I also braced myself even steeper vert. 5:40AM. My trek up the trail was delayed incessantly. I stopped every minute or so to soak in the view. I couldn’t believe the amazing mixture of white, grey and pink before me. 5:44AM. 2.2 miles, 8200 feet. By the time Lucas got to the top of the the ridge, I was already using my hands to power-hike up. At this point, grades ranged between 20-50%. 5:45AM. Sunrise. 5:48AM. Because Lucas had gone ahead and the wind had blown away his footsteps, I couldn’t tell which way to go. So here I followed Nicole. It might sense to go up. So up I went. 5:51AM. Unfortunately, Nicole and I went up a false peak. It’s clear now from my GPS track that the actual Castle Peak Trail went around the peak we went up rather up than over it. Actually, we couldn’t have gone over it. When I finally caught up to Nicole, she was unsure how to proceed; there was a space between two rocks that would take us to the other side, but the drop was far too steep without rope. Fortunately, Lucas came back to look for us before we decided to do something stupid. 5:54AM. Still quite a bit of climbing left! 6:05AM. On deeper and deeper snow too. 6:14AM. 2.8 miles. 8900 feet, with 200 feet more to go. 6:21AM. 9000 feet. To my disappointment after we were done, this was not the actual Castle Peak summit (though we were quite close). But at this point, the wind was blowing hard enough that I just wanted to get off. 6:24AM. Getting down wasn’t an easy feat either. 6:27AM. Hitting 5K after over 1.5 hours, with over 45K left to go. 🙂 6:30AM. Impressive cliffs. 6:35AM. An impressive backdrop. 6:37AM. The way forward. 6:54AM. Basin Peak. 9019 feet. According to the Outdoor Project: “The panoramic views from the tops Castle and Basin peaks may be among the most rewarding in northern Tahoe, but the elevation gain from the trailhead that exceeds 1,800 feet is punishing, making this climb a choice for the committed.” 7:08AM. Because she didn’t think she was ready for a 50K through rocky, snowy terrain, Nicole had found a route that would take her back to the car. She’d get 9 miles in (which was exactly what she wanted to do). Because Lucas was concerned about Nicole heading back on her own, he gave her his bivy. To me, this meant that in even in the worst-case scenario, we’d have to get off the mountain before nightfall, since Lucas would now be significantly less protected if we were to stay the night on the trail. Going Off-Trail 7:24AM. At the time I didn’t know this, but after dropping about 800 feet over a mile after Basin Peak, the trail ended. We were going off-trail. 7:26AM. It didn’t really matter if there was a trail or not. There was so much fresh powder that wayfinding by human signage or trail markers was moot. All I could focus on here was to keep moving, without slipping on the snow. 7:30AM. As well as take breaks to admire the view. 7:39AM. And follow Lucas’ footsteps. 7:46AM. I knew the plan was to cross over to Carpenter Ridge, and I knew that we’d have to somehow cross in-between Paradise Lake (pictured above) and Warren Lake. It’s easy to see how on a map. But in real life, the elevation drop going down to the Lakes and going back up to the Ridge was stark. 7:48AM. We’d come down along this stretch, Lucas pointed out, then we’d head back up then turn right to make it across the “1”, “2”, “3”, maybe “4” summits in the distance. 7:50AM. 7:53AM. 7:55AM. Warren Lake and Carpenter Valley to the east. 8:01AM. Here, we “only” went down 8300 ft to 7700 ft over about a mile — something I’ve run many times before. This was not exactly runnable, though! 8:01AM. 8:02AM. 8:03AM. 8:22AM. 8:23AM. 8:25AM. Warren Lake. 8:37AM. After making to the saddle point between Basin Peak and Carpenter Ridge, a long climb awaited. 8:41AM. 8:48AM. Because I wasn’t confident in my footing on snowy slopes, I hugged rock walls when I had the chance, even if it significantly slowed me down. Here, the crevice between the snow and the rock was up to my waist (and up to my chest at points). But I still felt safer in the crack then potentially sliding down maybe 50-100 feet into trees. 8:55AM. 8:59AM. 8.1 miles. 36% incline. My main thoughts here revolved around how I could get stronger at climbing. I’m neither strong at climbing nor at powerhiking. So it was slow-going for me up this (and following hills). Carpenter Ridge 9:03AM. Looking back, I was surprised to have come this far. I was on that peak just a couple hours earlier, and I had just crossed that little bridge just now. 9:03AM. Still more vert to climb though. 9:04AM. 9:06AM. On this climb, there was at least some flats and bits of downhill. And great views to boot. 9:15AM. On one of these flats, a little lake had formed. By this point, I had drunk most of my water. So I called out to Lucas and told him that I had to refill here. This was a good call because I didn’t have a chance to fill up again later (though I thought about melting snow). This was my first time filtering water out in backcountry too. In all previous hikes and runs, I’ve always either carried enough water or suffered dehydration. I also wanted to carry less water today so I could carry more food and layers. 9:27AM. 9:28AM. 9:29AM. 9:29AM. Now that I’m going through these photos, and timestamp-ing them, I’m a bit surprised how “fast” some of these climbs where. While I was hiking up, some of these slopes seemed to go on forever. 9:33AM. But in reality, though the last climb had felt taxing, I had only ascended from 8200ft to 8500ft from the lake to the first peak on this ridge (albeit over 0.3 miles, or 1000ft/mile, or an average grade of 19%). Boo. 9:33AM. 9:37AM. When I saw this formation in the distance, I hoped that I wouldn’t have to climb over it. Fortunately, it was possible to go around. 9:39PM. While I hiked around it, Lucas went over it. 9:41AM. On to the next peak. 9:43AM. 9:51AM. 9.3 miles, 8350ft elevation. 9:53AM. 10:07AM. Usually, tree roots and vegetation underfoot slows you down. But here, I was glad to have them provide more traction and grip (while feeling guilty for stepping on them). 10:13AM. 10:24AM. As we went off-trail, Lucas asked me a few times to let him know if I ever felt uncomfortable. Yes, I was out of my comfort zone, but I knew I could press on. 10:26AM. But it was here, while we traversed this slope, that I almost started to panic. Before setting off, we estimated that the drop was some 300 feet. In my mind, I was quite certain that if I lost my footing and slid 300 feet, I wouldn’t like the outcome. I was able to get across the ridge — gingerly — for the most part. But about midway through, I found myself with my back against the dirt/rock wall, one foot against a small protruding rock, and no way to either get back to where I started or to move forward. At this point, I yelled to Lucas for help. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much he could really do, and in my mind, I didn’t want him to risk his own safety by trying to rescue me off the slab. Fortunately, when I saw him walk toward me — with firm, heel-first steps — enough confidence returned to shake me out of my paralysis. I took two relatively big steps up, trusting that my footholds would stay firm, and got out. I think this was the closest I’ve ever felt to a falling death on a run or hike — perhaps on par with Half Dome, but without cables! The image of looking down and visualizing how I could best survive a 300-foot drop is still fresh in my mind… 10:38AM. After that episode, more drops came. Now, they were on snow! 10:49AM. What goes down… must go up? 10:57AM. 10:58AM. 10.7 miles, 8200 feet. To get up the slopes earlier, I had to use my hands (and knees) at some points. But at this juncture, it was closer to bouldering, without climbing shoes. 11:02AM. Another saddle point, another peak. 11:28AM. And more climbing. This is me pointing my camera straight ahead. I wasn’t even on rock and I had to use my hands to get up this thing. (Note the fresh footprint ahead of me that I’m following!) 11:36AM. View at the top of this peak. Was it worth it? I think so. 11:37AM. When I got to the top, I saw Lucas holding a piece of notebook paper. I didn’t know what he was doing, so I assumed he had brought this paper along. 11:39AM. Mile 11.5. 8850ft. But I was wrong; someone had placed a summit log here, and Lucas wrote in our entry. After taking this photo, I covered it up again with these rocks. 11:41AM. It was a little crazy to think that I was on that peak on the other side a few hours earlier. 11:46AM. But there was still more of Carpenter Ridge to go. 11:54AM. Because Lucas was so much faster than me, and I couldn’t afford to spend any time checking my phone for navigation, I literally followed his footprints. Additionally, I realized during some of the slopes earlier that I tend to go straight up, through rock, bush, snow, whatever. Lucas, on the other hand, found more efficient routes, even if he had to switchback up a slope. This let him power-hike. So following his footprints also allowed me to “see” better routes through the terrain. 11:55AM. 12 miles, 8700 ft. 12:05AM. 12:05PM. I think it was around here that I noticed the snow coming up one side of the mountain, while leaving a shadow on the other side. 12:12PM. After I saw this, I couldn’t unsee it. 12:13PM. On top of this mini-peak there was some kind of solar-powered antenna. Someone, or someones, had to carry all this up. 12:22PM. Mile 12.5, 8550 feet. It started snowing as we descended along the ridge (with many miles left to go). 12:27PM. 12:28PM. 12:30PM. It was around this point when Lucas thought we would start heading downhill. 12:33PM. Unfortunately, to continue downhill, we’d have to go down these drainage rocks. 12:35PM. After descending about 400 feet in the span of about 0.1 miles on unstable rock, or an average of 37 degree decline, I started to suspect something was up. 12:38PM. According to Lucas, we were close to a trail. But where was it? 12:43PM. At this point, we had descended another 100 feet over a very short distance. Now it was clear that we had taken a wrong turn. We had a little more to go on the ridgeline; Lucas had been too eager to start heading down. 12:45PM. For better or for worse, it wasn’t only drainage rocks that we traversed through. There was also rather dense brush. “Good thing we’re wearing pants!” Lucas remarked. The brush was definitely more stable than loose rock. But the thin branches and thorns got caught in my shirt, my bag, my shorts, my compression leggings, etc. Unpleasant. 12:53PM. At first, Lucas held out hope that the wall we were traversing would end soon (“1 mile”). All we needed to do was persevere and we’d be back on trail. As we continued to trapeze through the rock, I realized that “proper trail” couldn’t come soon enough. I was scrambling over these rocks so inefficiently, with my hands at times — with my center of gravity really too low — that I was seriously getting tired. 1:19PM. Finally, after an hour descending then traversing the steep side of the ridge, Lucas decided that salvation wasn’t coming. Looking at the map now, he was right — we would’ve needed to continue for at least another three miles to get back on the trail. If we couldn’t go forward, we had to either go up, back to the ridge, or down, into the valley. Uncertain of where we were at all, I thought we should go down. Lucas thought we should go up. We went up. 1:25PM. There were two phases to our climb back up. First, we had to climb up rocks. Then we had to bushwhack through brush. Because the brush was so thick, I think I actually preferred to climb up on the rocks, despite how steep they were. 1:38PM. Though I had been eating here and there throughout the morning, I felt that it was time to eat the burrito in my bag (It’s green because it’s spinach tortilla). While I ate, I was curious where we were. Since I trusted Lucas’s navigation, I hadn’t checked my phone at all. Surprisingly, I had reception and surprisingly the GPS lock was strong. Unsurprisingly, as I said to Lucas: “We’re in the middle of nowhere!” But, on the map, I could see where we were trying to go — yay! 1:53PM. After a 15 or so minute lunch, it was time to move back up. The grade was easier, but the brush got denser and denser. 2:00PM. This wasn’t exactly what I signed up for, but in a way, it was. I was looking for a different experience. Hiking up this kind of terrain was definitely different! 2:08PM. At last, the ridgeline was in view. The Way Down 2:14PM. By the time I got up to the ridge, though, I was pooped. While we were on lunch break, I asked Lucas if he still planned to complete the entire 31-mile loop. 2:32PM. No, he said. Our little detour was enough. “This was totally my fault,” he said. 2:35PM. The plan now was that, instead of heading back up to Castle Peak to complete our loop, Nicole would pick us up when we’d get down to the valley at the end of Carpenter Ridge. 2:39PM. The problem was: without reception, how would we contact Nicole? Where was she? Where would we meet up? 2:46PM. As I descended, it was hard to figure out where Lucas was going, since he was mostly in front of me. During this time, I’d yell out “WHOOOOOOO” and he’d yell back out in return to indicate where he was. 2:55PM. Despite being a lot faster than me through both rocky and wooded terrain, Lucas would wait up for me. I definitely felt like I was slowing him down. He insisted that he appreciated my presence. 3:10PM. Finally, we made it out the road that Lucas had wanted us to get to. This would eventually lead us down to the valley where Nicole would (hopefully) meet up with us. 3:13PM. Unfortunately, I had no gas left in my legs. I had already spent a lot of it scrambling on the rocks. Additionally, shortly after eating the burrito, my stomach started getting all kinds of upset. So I stopped eating, meaning that as I continued on, I got weaker and weaker. What a time for GI distress! 3:21PM. During my descent down from the ridge, I noticed some weird things. (1) There were a lot more cleared trees than I would’ve expected out here. Someone was out here chopping trees, and I wasn’t sure if it was legal. (2) It looked like some of these clearings were done with fire. A few of these clearings looked like lightning strikes (with trees sheared right down the middle), and burn marks everywhere. Others looked potentially manmade. I couldn’t tell. (3) Finally, on one section of trail, there were blue markings in saying “Hi.” As I passed by these, I couldn’t help by feel CREEPED OUT. Who wrote these? What were they for? I wanted to ask Lucas but by this time, he was so far ahead of me that he was out of sight. 3:49PM. The great part about this section was that I was now back on relatively groomed trail. The not-so-great part was that I was now literally pooped. After ensuring that there were no water sources nearby, I dug a cathole and relieved myself. This helped alleviate my worsening stomach cramps. (Actually, this helped a lot.) 3:51PM. By this point, I had descended far enough under the tree line for conifers to start growing close to one another. The weather was also markedly improved. 3:55PM. I’ve only been to Tahoe once before, last year, for my first century. During that trip, I was curious about what these ubiquitous plants were. Actually, at the time, I thought these are miner’s lettuce (meaning they’re edible!). But doing my research now, I’m not so sure. 3:59PM. As the 11th hour approached, I started getting a whole bunch of pings from my usual LMJS Racing Team, as well as a weekend board game group, that were about to start Zoom meetings. It was slightly surreal to be out in ostensibly backcountry, while being reminded of urban, connected life. 4:01PM. I debated turning off my notifications. But at the same time, I was so far behind Lucas that I thought I should keep them on, in case he or Nicole needed to reach me. 4:24PM. I knew there was less than 2 miles to run/hike by this point. This meant I only had half an hour left in this journey (since I was only trotting along at 17-ish minutes per mile). Despite my sluggish pace, Lucas waited up for me before our final miles. 4:36PM. This wouldn’t be a proper adventure without one final challenge. On the map, this is a creek. But because of the snow (I think), this creek was now more of a mini-whitewater river. I’d estimate the current to be 10-15mph. Of course, for Lucas, this was easy; with a couple steps he made it across to a metal rope attached to a boulder in the middle of the creek. Then with one big heave, he grabbed on to a metal handhold attached to the top of the boulder. Unfortunately for me, I’m not used to fording waist-deep, fast-flowing rivers without rope. But I still made it across. When I got to the rope though, I had a problem: I couldn’t reach the handholds on top! Ultimately, Lucas gave me a hand and hoisted me out of the water. “I’m tired,” I said. The End 4:44PM. After fording the creek, there was more climbing. I knew that the end was near… but how near? So I kept trucking. Suddenly, Lucas and I reached the end of the trail, where lo, there was open gravel road. This was really the end. 4:53PM. As I checked my watch, I realized that, though we had been out for 12 hours, we had only covered 20.9 miles, out of a planned 31 miles. I felt bad about how sluggish I was on the rocks, and again on trail. But I was glad that we were able to bail before nightfall. As I looked down to survey the damage, I was amused to see a whole bunch of new holes in my Peregrines. That said, they didn’t fail me at all, so they did their job. I just have to do mine better next time, I thought. 5:43PM. Shortly after Lucas and I emerged onto Carpenter Road, we encountered one of Lucas’s local friends. When we were on the Ridge, Lucas had mentioned that his friend would be meeting us somewhere. I guess it was here, at the end! The first comment the friend had was: “When I saw your route… eh… I thought it looked sketchy.” As he said this, he shook his head and smiled. The first question the friend had for me was: “Are you cursing Lucas’s name right now?” This trip was really a different kind of fun. So of course, I wasn’t (though I wasn’t so sure about the rocky detour we had taken). Fortunately, Lucas had gotten in contact with Nicole earlier, and she was waiting for us at the gate on this final road. Then, after getting some burgers, she drove us back. As we returned, Lucas turned to ask me: “Would you do this again?” At first, I wasn’t so sure. I thought about the terror of falling down to my death in the middle of nowhere, and strain of traversing steep slopes for hours on end. But by the time we arrived back in the Bay, the answer was unequivocal: Of course, I would!
And, now that I’m writing this, it looks like I’ll be back sooner than expected. 🙂