A terribly grand time on the Wonderland Trail, Sept 14-15th 2013
The Wonderland Trail. Since I moved to Washington, this has been the one goal that was most important to me. I had climbed Rainier a few years before and encircling the mountain seemed absolutely impossible. Yet, still, the thought lingered. Initially I thought I might do it in four days, with a dedicated support crew. That dropped to three days, then after I finished my first hundred miler this past spring, I thought maybe I could do it in just two days.
Well, turns out I can do it a whole lot faster than that.
I first became obsessed with running Rainier after I ran the 32 odd miles around Mount Saint Helens on the Loowit trail in a day. Gorgeous views, stunning decimated landscapes from the eruption and spectacular technical trails were all around me, but what I enjoyed most was the utter remoteness of being completely alone in the wilderness, no help for miles and miles. So I figured, yeah, sure, why not Rainier next?
This fall was the perfect time for me to make an attempt with my previous conditioning. This past July, I ran 416 miles across Iowa alongside 10,000+ cyclists in seven days to raise money for a local veterans home. I was still in peak physical shape, so figured I could knock Wonderland out in one day. The plan was to get an early start from Longmire, travel clockwise (easiest way for runability), and finish somewhere in the 32 to 36 hour time frame. I’d take 10 to 15 minute catnaps along the way in the overnight, but no dedicated sleep time.
My pack weighed right at about 13 pounds with water and consisted of about 9,000 calories with a variety of gels, dried fruit, bars, and other “real” food. In addition, I had a warm layer, a ultralight shell, smattering of emergency gear, and a SPOT Beacon. I started off at 3:35am on Saturday morning and things got off to a rough start even in the first ten miles. Somewhere around one
of the Puyallup Rivers, I lost my Green Trails map off my pack. Wasn’t an absolute game changer, since I had stared at it enough to know the general locations of where the big climbs were and the course was very well marked, but I no longer had the knowledge of what mileage I was exactly at in the course or knowing exactly how many feet of climb a certain hill was. Without this critical knowledge, I was limited on how to plan out the rest of the route.
My life turned into a purgatory of endless climbing and descending. I no longer had any reference of how far I’d came, what was next, anything. For endless hours I simply power hiked when I got to a hill, and jogged a downhill, and didn’t ask how much was left, how tall the climb was, nothing. I passed hikers, talked to a few, everyone was very nice. After hours spent in the darkness and beneath tree line,
I was finally rewarded with the views I had heard so much about with Mowich Lake, the dirty but intimidating Carbon Glacier, stunning shots of Rainier as I climbed the Carbon River, and finally relief when I hit Mystic Lake. The 3,500′+ climb up to Mystic Lake was easily the most tiring of the day with direct sunlight, endless rocky trails, and no end in sight.
After a pop tart break and a good foot soaking in the lake, I prepared for the next segment to Sunrise. The entire Sunrise area was easily my favorite part of the trip and I couldn’t help myself from shouting out cries of “hell yeah!” and unbeknownstly startling a bunch of nearby hikers. Large glacial cirques, vast alpine meadows, the best views of the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers, the summit, Little Tahoma Peak, it was quite overwhelming. However, as much as I wanted to linger and soak in the views, daylight was waning and I wanted to hit the descent to White River before I switched to the headlamp.
White River was perhaps the largest demoralizing time for more. All around me were happy families car camping, warm, clean, and the smell of delicious dinners wafting through the air while I sat there dirty, cold, and famished. I hardly paused at all here as I wanted to get as far away from that as I could.
Now, here’s where I get angry. In preparation for the event, I splurged on those expensive lithium ion batteries for the first time ever. I want some good lighting, right? Well, they worked well for the first three hours of darkness when I started, but when I went to use the lamp on the climb to Panhandle Gap, barely any light squeaked out. Are you serious?! Luckily, I had a lot of moonlight to help me on my way and I was able to pick my way along the highly technical trail. But after Panhandle and dropping back down into treeline, it was of no use. Thankfully, I brought my emergency Petlz headlamp. Still not very bright, but at least better than nothing at all. Still not sure what went on with the lithium batteries, but a real disappointment.
Panhandle Gap I could tell would have been gorgeous if I met it in the daylight! But even at night with a near full moon and plenty of stars, you could see all the steep drop offs, glaciers, and the massif of the mountain. Somewhere along the ridge I definitely heard some large wild animals. Some snorts, weird wailings, etc. I am not much of an animal person so couldn’t tell you if they were elk, mountain goats, or bears, but I felt safe to say they didn’t sound like cougars, so I wasn’t concerned.
Cougars scare the hell out of me. Cougars and moose.
So, the overnight. With hardly any light, any technical trail became even worse and I constantly tripped and fell. The worst thing to fight was every single fiber of my being was simply crying for me to stop and rest. I never really considered quitting, since it wasn’t an option given the distance from anyone with a car to hitch hike and the hour of the day, but all I thought about was stopping and resting. I developed a system on an uphill where I would climb, then simply take a knee, then another knee, then fall to my elbows, then slowly pass out for 10-15 minutes. I did this about once an hour or more, many more times than I would like to admit. Chocolate coffee beans seemed to help, but not completely alleviate the tiredness. Despite the remoteness and potential for wildlife issues, I was never really too scared or concerned. I’ve spent enough time out in the woods far away from people to realize I wasn’t in danger, and this time I had the SPOT with me if anything went drastically wrong. The only thing I was concerned about was the utter and constant desire to rest.
Daylight finally approached and it had the typical uplift in not only mood, but also the fact I could see again and pick up my pace on the trail without fear of tripping. All along the day, I had been keeping a rough estimate of my time and pace and I realized I might be in order to break 30 hours, far ahead of my goal. It wasn’t until a few hours before daylight when I realized I actually was within striking distance of 27 hours. Unfortunately, earlier in the day, I had accidentally stopped my Suunto from recording. It was a new piece of gear I got a few months ago and haven’t played around with it enough to realize the “lock” feature until it was too late. So I wasn’t 100% sure of where I was time wise, but could go off the hour of the day. Reflection Lake was a sort of triumph for me. The rest was downhill and with the beginnings of daylight. I pumped up the pace, got my groove on, and hammered out the last three or four miles down the trail HARD. I slammed back into Longmire at 6:51, let a cry of relief, and devoured leftover pizza from the car.
27 hours and 16 minutes. Almost nine hours better than what I had conservatively guessed. I had no idea it was a Fastest Known Time for an unsupported Wonderland attempt until a friend mentioned it. I hadn’t even bothered to check since I figured I would have no chance at it. With that fault, I didn’t ask any hikers I met along the way for their email addresses to verify. To add to the discrepancies, I did not correctly tabulate the entire course on my GPS since it was stopped a few sections without my knowledge. So my I tabulated my time off my start/finish time, 3:35 am to 6:51 am. I realize FKTs usually require some sort of validation, so not sure if this one will pass the test.
FKT or no FKT, WHAT AN ADVENTURE! The views were epic, there were terrible times, there were grand times. Many mistakes were made and lessons learned. I still haven’t had a bad time anytime I’ve traveled to Mount Rainier!
Pictures from the trip can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/thekresser/media_set?set=a.10101391573342830.1073741827.16903349&type=1