Wonderland Trail, Mt Rainier

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.    John Muir

 August 4-6, 2016
“Choose your own adventure”‘ Abram Dickerson tells our group of 10 runners who sit around the picnic table, eagerly listening to details before the first day of the Wonderland Trail.  Jean (from France, currently living in Florida), Tom (Maine), Shawn (Seattle), Carolyn (Vancouver), and Lourdes (North Carolina) convened in a parking lot near the Seattle airport when Kristyn and I arrived. We met Abram (event director from Bellingham, WA) and his staff crew Alex (Bellingham), Nick (Montana), and volunteer helper Scarlett (Bellingham)- all talented yet laid-back and humble ultra runners. We had caravanned to Big Creek Campground just outside of Mt Rainier National Park to camp the night before our 3-day adventure. Sarah and Luke, a couple from Olympia, WA, met us there, as well as another local, Megan.
Just outside Mt Rainier National Park, where we camped the night before starting our run.

Just outside Mt Rainier National Park, where we camped the night before starting our run.

Abram and Nick set out fresh veggies, caprese salad, chips and homemade salsa as well as cold beers and sparkling water for us to enjoy as we began to get to know one another before our pre-run meeting.  Excitement and a little nervous anticipation co-mingled in the fresh yet temperate Pacific Northwest air.
Back-up to last fall, October 2015 when I walked the Camino de Santiago.  I met a guy named Bacchus on the way from Santiago to the coastal city of Finisterre. He told me of his good friend who was starting an adventure running company based out of Bellingham, WA, called Aspire Adventure Running. His friend, Abram Dickerson, was creating organized running events of 1-4 days in various areas around northern Washington.  The basic premise is to pay for the service of prep, logistics, gear-schlepping, and gourmet food service. This frees up the participants to run then be able to relax and enjoy the outdoor setting having most details surrounding the run taken care of.  These are not races, but organized running events that provide routes but no cutoff times or any times at all. No competition, just you and the trail and your own goals.
Run all day long, show up to camp with my stuff all there and someone cooking me a gourmet meal?  My perfect vacation! I signed up early in 2016, committing myself to logging many miles of trail running and hiking for about 7 months leading up to this 93 miles adventure.
Exploring trails and paths in the foothills and mountains near Boulder, CO, has been soul food this year.  My friend Kristyn Tobey returned to her hometown of Louisville, CO this past spring and I asked if she was interested in joining me. At first she thought I meant it was a relay of sorts, totaling 93 miles. When I clarified that actually we each run the total trail on our own legs she didn’t skip a beat and declared, “Yep, I’m still in!” Kindred spirits we are! So since early spring, we did a lot of running, preparing, and planning to travel to this adventure together.
We love to pose almost as much as we love to run

We love to pose almost as much as we love to run

In prep, I did two 50k races and a mountain marathon: Behind The Rocks Ultra in Moab (April), Boulder Mountain Marathon in Gold Hill near Boulder (May), and The Dirty 30 in Golden Gate State Park CO (June). Each provided me with supported run routes to help build my trail running fitness, experience, and confidence of the distance and vertical challenges I would face during the Wonderland Trail. Plus they were beautiful and so much fun!  Kristyn and I also did many, many hours of running and hiking around the foothills of Boulder and into the mountains including Vail, Breckenridge, and one day summiting 5 “14ers” (mountains of 14,000 feet or more).  We did about 8 hours of hiking and running that day, great prep for our August adventure!
The Wonderland Trail.  It is aptly named as we quickly saw upon first steps onto the trail – a formidable wonderland of beauty and breath taking views of Rainier, mountain meadows, and portions of the Cascade mountain range.
14, 416 feet of impressive rock and snow

14, 416 feet of impressive rock and snow

Must-haves in our hydration packs each day: at least 1.5 liters of water, water filtration system (to use when filling up in streams and rivers), enough food/calories for yourself for the entire run (could be anywhere from 7-12 hours), headlamp, minimal first aid kit, emergency blanket, insulative jacket, rain jacket, sunglasses, map, and a good attitude :) Other items I crammed into my pack and pockets were gloves, arm sleeves, extra batteries, emergency whistle, 2 14-ounce soft bottles of water, iPod, camera, baggies, toilet paper, sunscreen.
First day, 41 miles, with a smile

First day, 41 miles, with a smile

We lucked out big-time on the weather; every day was mid 60s to low 70s with some clouds but mostly amazing sunny blue skies so that every turn of the trail, when not in the trees, provided a wondrous view. The nights dropped in temps to around 40 which made for comfortable sleeping.
Day 1 began with hand-ground & French-pressed coffee with whole milk, french toast, yogurt, berries, whipped cream, and eggs if you wanted them. Wow, that beat my usual protein shake or piece of toast and fruit by a long shot. Well, we were fueling for today mileage of 34. …Scratch that; 41.5 miles. Our group was so excited that we actually got on the wrong trail only about half a mile in!  Yes, this is embarrassing, but…its part of our story. We had the info, we had a map, but when the trail came to a Y and both were labeled Wonderland, we all headed up the option that went straight instead of left, without paying attention to the smaller words underneath the main sign that designated some key points along the way and should have given us a heads up about which direction to take. Long story short we finally discovered that we had all gone almost 4 miles up the wrong trail! Remember that must-have I mentioned earlier- the “good attitude”? Well pull it out now because we’re gonna use it, folks. There were 8 of us that reconvened, laughed at ourselves, and retraced our steps for over 3.5 miles back to the Y where we got on the correct path and re-started our First Day.  What’s a 34-mile run without an 8-mile warmup?!
French toast with berries and cream, and hand-ground French-pressed coffee

French toast with berries and cream, and hand-ground French-pressed coffee

It’s humorous now, because all turned out ok, but the added mileage did take a toll on some.  Most runners made it in before dark, some just barely, but two were out finishing the trail until past midnight. Their tenacity and comradery provided the means to get to the end.  Aspire Adventures crew did have safety and emergency measures in place and were prepared to help out if and when needed.  They provided a “sweep” runner who came up behind the last runners, as well as a versatile mid-pack or end-of-trail runner. Between the two, and satellite-phones, they could make sure everyone was accounted for on the trail.
It was also an interesting added challenge to tackle that many miles in one day, where Kristyn and I had prepared for an already-challenging 34, farther than either of us had ever run before! The body is amazing, and with trained fitness combined with enough calories, water, and a strong mental will to complete it, we both really had a great first day.  Tired and sore, we made separately it to camp (we did not run the whole time together) at the front of the pack and made it in before dark with enough time to clean up and set up our tent in the dusky, lingering light.
A shadow cast over part of Golden Lakes with rich blue sky and clouds above the mountainous backdrop

A shadow cast over part of Golden Lakes with rich blue sky and clouds above the mountainous backdrop

I saw a Bear and her 2 small cubs in a meadow not very far from where I was running; fortunately they took an offshoot of the trail and away from me!!

I saw a Bear and her 2 small cubs in a meadow not very far from where I was running; fortunately they took an offshoot of the trail and away from me!!

Does your eye follow this trail into the sheer glory of the mountains? Mine does, and my heart follows...

Does your eye follow this trail into the sheer glory of the mountains? Mine does, and my heart follows…

Dinner after our 41 miles was pasta with homemade meat and veggie sauce, fresh basil and Parmesan, salad, and homemade peach-and-plum compote served over angel food cake with whipped cream. All preceded by hor d’oeuvres, beer, and wine.  (And plenty of fresh water.) Yeah, not your average camping fare. And if there was anything in particular one of us wanted or needed, just ask and it would show up at the next meal or day.  Aspire Adventures is so accommodating, and so fun!
We went to bed late, as some runners were still out and the energy was high in camp, but I slept like a rock and woke up sore but ready to tackle the second day which would be much shorter at 25 miles. Three cheers for less-than-a-marathon!
Breakfast was that great coffee (thanks Nick!), breakfast burritos with eggs, veggie sausage or bacon, Dutch-oven-roasted potatoes, salsa, and blueberries. Whaaaat?! I left camp a little too full that morning because I couldn’t put the brakes on soon enough with all that good food, but figured I’d bounce my way over the rocks and roots and it’d all be used for the common good of 25 miles today.
A tough washed-out section of trail was our trial today, but we finally navigated and made group decisions and got around it, heading into a long steep climb that rewarded us with more amazing views of Rainier and the mountain ranges beyond, as well as open alpine meadows and lakes. Deeeep breath, take it in, take some photos, thank God for his landscaping skills snd the opportunity to be in this place on this day. I ran with Scarlett, the volunteer-crew-helper/runner for most of the day today.  We held a great pace and chatted most of the way up, down, all around.  She also pointed out the edible mushrooms along the way, of which there were many!
More Green, please!

The moisture of the Pacific Northwest provides the watercolor for this kind of artistry!

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2nd day trail, running with Scarlett.  Clouds had rolled in and it was a little chilly here

2nd day trail, running with Scarlett. Clouds had rolled in and it was a little chilly here

White River Campground was large, and full.  Abram had set up our group day-tent and food at a picnic site, and found us each campsite “sponsors” where we would pitch our individual tents since we didn’t have a group site.  Campers were very friendly and willing to share space with us, many of them intrigued by what we were doing.  Abram and his crew grilled gourmet burgers, sweet potato fries with garlic, and mixed greens salad for dinner.  We sat around a campfire to debrief from the day and talk about our upcoming, and final, day of running as the staff served us Dutch-oven-baked apple/plum crisp topped with real whipped cream.  You don’t go to bed hungry on this trip.
First night's dinner was grilled salmon, veggies, and roasted garlic potatoes

First night’s dinner was grilled salmon, veggies, and roasted garlic potatoes

The day dawned crisp (around 40 degrees) and we awoke stiff and tired, but anticipating a great last day.  We would reach our highest point today, and if it remained clear we’d have amazing views from the climbs ahead of us.
Abram, event director, got to run with us today and it was apparent he loved every minute.  He and I left at the same time, and chatted as we ran together – he in front, setting the pace; me behind him watching his feet and meditating on my breathing.  I was tired, but not beat down.  There is a thrill in pushing my capable, albeit exhausted, body up yet another climb and then reveling in the fact that I can keep going after so many miles.  It’s mental, and it’s physical.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s beautiful.
On the 3rd day we got to run some miles with Aspire Adventures event director, Abram Dickerson

On the 3rd day we got to run some miles with Aspire Adventures event director, Abram Dickerson

The views were indeed spectacular, the kind that make you say the same lame things over and over like “WOW”, and “it’s SO pretty”…because you can’t come up with words that actually describe the rugged, pristine beauty and sharpness of natural color and light that your eyes are taking in.  I took some photos, but my memories will be the precious things I take with me always.
The climbs were very challenging today, and we crossed patchy snow fields about a mile long with soft slide-y snow due to the brilliant sun.  At the highest point, due to the clarity of the sky, we could see a multitude of nearby peaks including Mt Hood.  Then we descended for miles and miles to meet up with some of the event crew who had set up an aid station for us on this final day.  The trail intersected a major road and they had a table with food, water, and encouraging smiles for us.  It was around mile 20 and we were so glad to see some familiar faces, fill up water that didn’t have to be filtered, and gorge on potato chips before heading out for the final 11 miles.
3rd day, crossing quite a bit of sun-warmed soft snow as we climbed to the highest point 6,750' at Panhandle Gap

3rd day, crossing quite a bit of sun-warmed soft snow as we climbed to the highest point 6,750′ at Panhandle Gap

All in all, the entire crew of runners and staff reconnected at the end of the trail at Longmire Campground which was where we had begun the huge loop 3 days prior.  It was a party.  Abram deftly set up the tent and started cooking – it’s like second nature to him.  We all celebrated with beers, wine, water, snacks, and he made some stellar quesadillas and tacos for us all.  I was really sad to say goodbye to everyone!  Kristyn and I and a few others got a ride on their shuttle van back to Seattle.  We spent the night and next day with some good friends of hers before flying home late Sunday.
Lourdes, Sara, Carolyn, Luke, Jean, Kristyn, Tom, Shawn, Megan, Alex, Scarlett...a few are missing in this photo but it's the only group shot I got!

Lourdes, Sara, Carolyn, Luke, Jean, Kristyn, Tom, Shawn, Megan, Alex, Scarlett…a few are missing in this photo but it’s the only group shot I got!

I am overcome with gratitude for a durable body, strong mind, fellow runners who inspire my spirit, nature, the outdoors, wondrous views.  Wonderland.
Looking over the wing of our plane approaching northern Washington, home of Mt Rainier

Looking over the wing of our plane approaching northern Washington, home of Mt Rainier.  Mt Rainier is the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States and the CascadeVolcanic Arc, with a summit elevation of 14,411 ft. Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, and it is on the Decade Volcano list.

 

 

 

Some fond memories from February through August 2016, Kristyn Tobey and Whitney Garcia’s mountain adventures:

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