Wonderland Trail; 3 days, unsupported fast packing

Sandy :

Preparation

When Rick first proposed this trip, he mentioned it as a casual, relaxing way to wind down after our summer climbing plans. But to me this was a massive goal that required solid training and planning. We had not done consecutive ultra-distance runs over days. We also had not done more than 10,000 feet of vert in a day. I wanted to train for elevation gain in such a way that even at the point of exhaustion, I can climb hills without killing my quads. So we set a target to gain 200,000 feet of elevation gain in 2021. Over the winter we ran all the nasties in the Forest Park, and then repeated them many times over. In addition, our local source of elevation gain was Kings Mountain.

By the end of January we were at 42,000 feet of elevation gain. In February we added climbing and bouldering to our training regimen as COVID restrictions lessened and the gyms opened again. Before the McDonald forest 50K race in May, Rick had knee pain due to a weird fall from the bouldering wall. I was very worried if he would be able to run the race, but he not only ran it, he was only 50 minutes slower than his time in 2019 despite the injury and extra elevation gain this year. A week after the race, however, he exacerbated the injury while squatting, and was off running for a bit. Rick switched to climbing for the rest of May, running flats in June, and slowly introduced hills again in the month of July.

Meanwhile I was running the North Nasty almost every week to keep up with my elevation training. In June before our trip to Yosemite, I tested my ability to do consecutive workouts over days by doing the following:

Friday evening: Led 4 trad routes at ozone.
Sat morning: One and half lap of Mt. Defiance in 7 hrs. 7 mins
Sun afternoon: 25 boulder problems at Circuit with 2*V4, 6*V3 and 17*(V2,V1,V0).
Mon: My quads were screaming and despite the will I could not hit the trail again.
Tue evening: North Nasty, 11.08 miles, elevation gain 2517 ft. in 2 hrs. 45 minutes.
Wed morning: Not Sore 🙂, in fact quads felt a lot better. I had also met my mid year elevation goal i.e. 102,362 feet.

After we were back from Yosemite, I made a plan to do some long trail runs that are 30-50 miles long. We followed the following plan over consecutive weekends :

  1. Timberline Trail in a day – 44 miles (with detour) with 9600 ft. of gain
  2. Grand Loop in two days to test our fast packing gear and sleeping arrangements – 46.6 miles with 13, 027 ft. of gain
  3. Eagle Creek to Wahtum Lake – 28 miles with 4134 ft. of gain.

After this, we needed some good time to recover so we decided to take 2 weeks off. The weekend before Wonderland we ran the Elk-Kings traverse which is about 11 miles with about 4000 feet of elevation gain.

By this point I had run:

Distance ~ 1000 miles
Elevation gain – 151,000 feet

We also figured out that Rick was able to run long distances with hills while wearing a knee brace. His words, “the more I use it, the better it feels”. My experience with ligament and tendon pain is that, they heal much faster with enough blood circulation. What could be a better way to increase circulation than by being on your feet for most of the day ?

We chose to do this trip unsupported and not use food caches because we had limited time and we did not want to leave any room for failure. This decision came with a heavy price, 34 lbs. heavy.

The trip

We planned to head out at 3:30pm on Thursday after Rick’s last meeting. As it turned out, his “meet n’greet” for a hardware design position turned into a “please send us your updated resume immediately, we’ll be in contact Monday”, so we pushed back leaving 3 hours while he refreshed his knowledge of microwave circuits, and we got down to our camping spot near Ashford around 9pm.

Originally the plan was to wake up at 4am and start running from Longmire by 5:30am. From all the trip reports I had read, I thought day 1 will be the hardest day with 34 miles and 13,000 feet of elevation gain. However after the trip, I found that day 2 was the most challenging. Once we were all packed and ready to go, we discovered that we had left the micro-USB cable at home which we needed to charge our ultra-light headlamps. We had not taken headlamps on Timberline Trail, and had to move 4 hrs. in the dark after all the trail damage slowed us down. That experience was enough for me to never take the headlamp situation lightly.

However, I realized that I wanted to use this situation as an excuse to bail. I was questioning my ability to run consecutive ultra-distances over 3 days despite the training. Rick was of the opinion that success was a given, this wasn’t alpine climbing, and even if we had to light the trail with our phones we’d get to the end fine. I also knew that if I bail, I will immensely regret it. So we waited a while, took a nap and got a 24oz latte from Ashford. After the massive caffeine dose, I just wanted to start and think later. We started running up at 9am. Our packs weighed a total 34 lbs. which was distributed equally. After doing the initial hills with a 17 lbs. pack, my morale was crushed and I was contemplating the idea of turning around. Fortunately Rick offered to take a couple pounds off my pack which cheered me back up. After 10 miles, I figured doing another 80 miles in the forward direction makes more sense vs. 10 miles more in the reverse direction.

Fresh, energetic and caffeinated pose on the first bridge

I found the Wonderland Trail to be the most luxurious trail I have ever done. The wonder of the wonderland trail is the logistics to keep the trail well-maintained and all the bridges intact. The trail is mostly runnable and unlike the Timberline Trail, you don’t have to get your feet wet.

Day one was cold and foggy weather. We had no views due to the fog but the cold helped us to move faster, prevented the feeling of soreness and the need to carry more water. It felt like a breeze to get to Mowich River. We also didn’t carry more than 500 ml of water but there is a section of about 5-7 miles with no clear water.

Frolicking through the cold forest
First suspension bridge

We cooked two freeze dry meals and felt stuffed after finishing that. I could not sleep for two hours because of the amount of rice I had ingested. We also realized that we were carrying way too much food at our rate of consumption.

We had two Thermarest Neo-Air inflatable mattress, a super-light tarp, and a 30 degree sleeping bag. This arrangement required our mattresses to be close to each other, but our mattresses were constantly slipping away from each other on the silnylon tarp. We were wearing down jackets and an ultra-light rain jacket to maintain warmth. Honestly I was expecting it to be a shiver-bivy based on the night-time temps I have been checking, but the night was fairly comfortable.

Day 2

We woke up at 6am and started the 4 mile long hill to Mowich Lake. At the top, instead of going to Mowich Lake we impulsively took the scenic route up to Spray Park. This adds more distance and elevation gain to the trip, but we wanted some encouraging views after a day of clouds and fog.

First wonderful sight after 6 miles of uphill

We were excited about the long downhill after reaching the top of Spray Park. But contrary to our excitement, this was the roughest and rockiest downhill of the trip. In my opinion, the downhill back to Wonderland trail was difficult to run with overnight packs and made us spend quite a bit of time on day 2.

Downhill from top of the spray park back to Wonderland trail.
Suspension bridge over carbon river

After Carbon River, we had a long uphill without trees under the mid-day sun. We were fairly slow in this section. During our attempt to climb Liberty Ridge we had seen the Carbon Glacier with crevasses and snow. Seeing the glacier in summer conditions was quite the contrast and a wild experience.

View of carbon glacier
Fantastic view of liberty ridge

We got to Mystic Lake at 4:45 pm and took a 15 minute food and water break, before running a few miles downhill to Granite Creek. Most trip reports had warned about the amount of water in Granite Creek and that the bridge is usually flooded, so I was quite worried about this crossing. Fortunately, the bridge was intact and just a bit wet, a fairly easy cross over.

Wet bridge over granite creek

There were a few hours of uphill hiking from here before we finally topped out on a plateau. We ran as much as we could after this and got to the top of Sunrise Point just before it got dark. After this we had about 2.6 miles of downhill to White River Campground. This is the one thing that I did not train i.e running trails in the dark. So, it took us 1.5 grueling hours from the top of Sunrise Point to White River Campground. We reached camp at 10:30pm. I thought day 2 was way more challenging than day 1. We did not get to run as much as on the first day, therefore it took way longer. Strava had recorded 62 miles so far.

We didn’t sleep very well at this camp. Rick’s stomach was wrecked due to excessive sugar. He skipped dinner and woke up at 1am to throw up.

Day 3

We again woke up at 6am. I was excited to use clean bathrooms with water. Since it was the last day, we decided to throw away a lot of our relatively cheaper food in order to have lighter packs. By the time we had reached the top of Summerland, we had 70 miles under our feet and every inch ahead was being registered.

View from the top of Summerland

The descent from Summerland involves countless and perpetual stairs that deposits you to Indian Bar. The river at Indian Bar didn’t have clear water so we decided to fill up somewhere else. This was a mistake.

Start of the downhill from the top of Summerland

There is no water from the river at Indian Bar to Nickel Creek Camp, which is about 12 miles. The elevation loss from the top of Summerland to Indian Bar is accrued over a few long rolling hills. After that, there is a long downhill for approximately 8 miles. We ran this entire downhill as we had absolutely no water and we needed some. Right before Nickel Creek Camp, we found a hole in the ground with a trickle. We jumped into it for a quick quench.

Fantastic view before the long downhill to Nickel creek camp

We drank sufficient water at Nickel Creek Camp and continued ahead. The sign at Box Canyon is confusing but you don’t need to go to the road. Take a sharp right and cross the bridge, and after that the dirt trail heading sharply up. Most of this route is flat with some rolling hills. We ran most of this until we got to the landslide right before a waterfall crossing. The traverse through the landslide looked sketchy but we have done much worse so we were cool with it. After the waterfall crossing, hike up to the road, cross it and continue hiking to Reflection Lakes. Strava was showing almost 91 miles by this point so I was like “how much more is left?” Turns out its like 7 miles more to Longmire, out of which only the last 5.5 miles are downhill. That was a nice surprise in the dark. I tried to jog as much as I could for the final downhill but my left foot was completely battered. It was swollen due to which my heel was hitting hard causing a lot of pain but I was unwilling to go slow at this point. I was driven by the urgent need to use the bathroom. We reached the car just before 11:30pm.

Our timing over the 3 days are as follows:

Longmire to Mowich Creek – 12 hrs
Mowich Creek to White River via Spray Park variation – 15 hrs
White River to Longmire – 16 hrs

Strava recorded a total of:

Distance – 97.8 miles
Elevation gain – 25,407 feet.

https://www.strava.com/activities/5876916569

I am just 24,000 feet short to achieve my goal of 200,000 feet of elevation gain in 2021.

Lessons learned

Chunking: Despite the solid training, I was doubtful about my ability to run three consecutive ultra-distances. I realized that I was looking at 90+ miles as a whole instead of using the method of chunking that I frequently use at work. Instead of looking at the 90+ miles as a whole, if I think about just the next 10 miles, then it looks a lot more achievable and fun. I can apply this learning to my doctoral studies in machine learning.

Limitless potential: I realized that we have limitless potential. We just need to explore more about ourselves. I was listening to book “The Art of Impossible” by Steven Kolter during the run and my favorite line from book is, “We have one shot at life, we are either busy being born or we are busy dying”. My interpretation of busy being born means, discovering more about ourselves, challenging ourselves, overcoming our limitations and becoming better everyday.

Food: We do not eat as much when we are out on climbing and running trips compared to when we are making the neurons work while at home. We had packed 4000 calories per person per day. I think 2500 calories per person per day would have been plenty.

The day after: During the last 8 miles, I was constantly saying that I will never do such a distance again. I want to do single day running for up to 50 miles and that’s it. I definitely do not want to come back to Wonderland. However on the drive back during Monday morning, my first thought was, how do I run 100 miles in a single push? How do I train to run at the same speed in the dark ? How do I train to do Wonderland in one push?

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