A bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn....

It's gonna get harder before it gets easier. But it will get better, you just gotta make it through the hard stuff first.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wonderland Trail.

While on the trail, especially on days 3 and 4, I couldn't wait to get to my computer and write the story of Larry and I's circumnavigation of the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in WA--all 93, or more, miles of it, with all 22,000, or more, feet of elevation gain. Backpacking, carrying all our supplies, in 3 days and a morning...when 7 days is considered to be a heroic effort.

And, the way I planned to begin my story was to refer to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll.  We all know about a girl, Alice, who (as described in Wikipedia) "falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by weird creatures".  The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults, as well as, children.  My opening phrase was something to the tune of: "Just like things in the book did not make sense and appeared to be different than one was prepared to see, the Wonderland Trail played with our sense of normality, our math skills, and the miles kept running away, multiplying, getting longer, and the climbs kept coming at us, more than they were supposed to be, and the adventure kept throwing us new challenges at every corner..."

Well, just like the miles that ran away from us, time runs away from me these days, too. Coming back from a week of a vacation, as amazing as it was, throws you back into your job to make up the losses, then your other job requires hours, then your online clients, your 2 new "other job" prospects want interviews, the practical part of them, orientation, you had a few doctor's appointments scheduled, and, apparently, you suddenly are in need of a couple of more...all the while, the fridge is empty, your bathroom project has stalled and needs a kick-start, and your email box is overflowing...

And, so, I thought, I wouldn't write a report anymore.  With the Site-meter dead and no comments whatsoever on blog posts (not only mine, but in general), it seems like a useless effort to work on a heartfelt story which nobody would read.  But, the memories are fresh, and the impact this trip made on us is huge--I'd love to document it, at least for the two of us, so we can remember it for years to come, in detail...

After a first night with my wonderful friend Anna at her boyfriend's house and a dinner any Russian host would be jealous of, we dashed on a bright, early Sunday morning to Longmire, one of the Ranger stations at Rainier, to obtain a backcountry camping permit.  Since Rainier is a National Park, one can't just plop a tent anywhere they want, and we had somewhat of a loose plan of doing 26-26-22-18 miles and make our adventure a 4-day trip.  However, since we didn't apply for said permits back in March via paper/snail mail, we were left to first come-first served 30% left-over options, and those options were not what we planned for...  We did get the first night set in stone, with Golden Lakes (mapped at 24 miles, but really tagged at full 26, with the most elevation gain of all the sections--we were going clockwise).  That was a relief, but, then, the pressure of choosing quickly and not thinking thoroughly got the best out of us (and a bit of show-off in front of a great Ranger guy who didn't blink at our itinerary) and we ended up with something of 30+ (we couldn't calculate well), 22-ish and last day of 12?  Technically, I was pointing my finger on the map, the guy was putting it in the computer, and Larry was gasping (he was the only one of the two of us who read the book and studied the map) and warning he'll probably want to divorce me sometime on day 2...

We were totally not ready, even in our minds, yet along in a real life. I mean, as our "normal", work-related friends keep pointing out to us, we ARE in the 1% of the population when it comes to fitness, but between my long-dragging illness this past year, said jobs (I am on the brink of moving on in my professional life, but as a true type-A personality, everything piles up before I cut it off) and house projects, the program we used would be better described as "general exercise" than "ultra runners getting ready for a hell of a task".  What we did have - and benefited greatly from - was the "ultra runner's mentality" and an experience to feel pain and go on...

We spent the day prior to our adventure in at Whittaker's, and not only did the place itself breathe the air of adventures and accomplishments, we went for a hike and met The Guy himself, Lou Whittaker, and chatted, and shared, and hugged, and I decided it is a good sign for things to come...
We didn't need alarms for that wake up call.  The anticipation could have been palpated, and we both laid with our eyes open at 3:40 am, about 40 min prior the alarm going off.  So, we threw our backpacks into the car, and drove to our starting point, Longmire Ranger Station, mile 0, as the day was about to begin at 5:40 am...
The trail whispered softly to us, and even though it climbed within the first steps, the grade was, more or less, gentle, the air somewhat cool.  We took off our jackets in about 30 minutes, along with our headlamps, and just used the grey light coming through the dense woods, as the mood kept upbeat.  There is nowhere we'd rather be, but here, in the dark, on Wonderland Trail.
The first open terrain - and the first real sunlight - caught us both completely off guard at the bottom of the first downhill around mile 3, as the space opened up to a vast view at no other but Mt. Rainier itself, and it was the best view we would see the whole time - with reddish sun rays just touching the top of the mountain, it was purifying and amazing...  The timing was simply perfect.
And, then, the climbs began...That first day, we had compiled, at a minimum, about 9,000 feet of climb, but descents weren't that far down, so we huffed and puffed a lot, as the day went on, the air warmed up, and the realization that 26 miles with a 30 lb backpack is not equal to a marathon...and our shoulders started to cry smack in the middle of that day, as well as, our feet.  Not only did we get sore in places we anticipated (but, by far, more than we did, and right away, no warning), we both managed to get some kind of injury to sideline our downhills - those very sections that we hoped to "put time in the bank" and may be even "jog a little".  Larry got some pretty incredible under-callus deep blisters on both heels, and I had some funky pain going on since my last (and only long) road run of 21 miles a week prior (the pain I thought was a wart, so I dipped my foot into liquid nitrogen tank, which gave me a frost burn and hurting, discolored skin, but didn't do anything to the outside part of my left foot pain...).  Despite all these things, we were on track for our predicted 12 hour adventure, clicking climbs, miles, and campgrounds, off as we went, taking a bunch of photos, checking out the views, and chatting with a handful of  through-hikers (honestly, I thought there would be more folks open to communication).



Somewhere mid-way, we crossed the famous Tacoma Creek bridge, the suspension bridge 200 feet over the river, narrow, swaying side to side, where it is highly recommended only one person steps on it at a time.  You should have seen how long it took Larry to cross... :)





But even after that was soon over, and as sun was closing on getting lower to the horizon, the first real breakdown came.  The whole trip I was a designated "calorie enforcer", as I calculated the amount of gels and bars we would need for 12-hr days, split them up and made sure to feed myself and Larry every 30 minutes.  Talking about ultra-runner's experience use!  But, at some point, the miles and climbs took the best of us, and the shortage of water sources available for drinking made us become slightly dehydrated.  At the bottom of one of the descents, we finally found a good flowing creek.  Now, before you go crazy, let me tell you that Larry and I are both experienced backpackers and are aware of where and how to get water more or less safely.  At the same time, we do know that nobody can be ever completely safe, and we take full responsibility for the possible offset of giardia, or any other parasite found in wilderness. 
Anyway, we both dropped our packs on the ground (our prior "eating" stops were just 30 seconds standing up fully geared) and found a log to sit on, while filling up bottles and drinking and eating...We had a climb to Klapatche Park ahead, and the energy was much needed, as well as taking care of the pain.  Suddenly, I remembered the favorite Vitamin I - Ibuprofen - and we both consumed a couple.  Between water, chocolate, and Advil, the spirits were lifted, and we began climbing.
It was somewhere here, as we crested the climb, and turned around the corner, we stopped dead in our tracks, for the first time, as we entered the famous blueberry field - and saw a mama bear with 2 cubs eating up for the winter.  We knew it was almost impossible to escape on Wonderland trail, bears were happy owners of it - and we wish we could spend a lot more time eating those wild berries - but still, nobody wants to see a mama 20 feet in front of your nose!  Lucky for us, the cubs took off running scared, and after a minute, the mama had to follow.  We talked loudly, clanked out poles, and made it through the section...just to, literally 30 minutes later, see another bear, this time a huge black male one, standing on the trail where we had to make a hair-pin turn.  I did not like the look of it, so I began talking far away, while Larry laughed at me, but as we got closer, and the woods surrounded the trail the bear was on, and there was some nervous energy in the air.

Our bear #4.
Fortunately, again, we made it just fine, and soon after, on a long downhill, we met two ladies who spoke of bears with a lot of compassion and huge smiles (regular through-hikers of this area).

Our climbs were not over, nor the bear sightings, as we made one more encounter, the closest yet, in another highly berry-populated stretch (which Larry had a hard time passing without eating them-- blueberries).  That papa bear was not budging, standing right on the trail--he could care less about our poles, talks, songs...it took him a good few minutes to slowly move away and clear the path. We were tired and wanted to get to the camp, and kind of pissed of tab this last sighting. Enough bears already!

There is a bear-ass picking through, but I walked backwards too fast to get a good shot.
And just like that, finally, we were at our first campsite, a full 12 hrs later, in the daylight, able to set up a tent (Larry's job), get water and cook dinner (my job), and stretch out--still while the colors outside were grey.

As a side-note, not so much about the trail, but the people, this was the campground that gave us weird vibes.  When we told folks where we came from (Longmire? Today? It's, like, 16 miles?? 26???!!!), there were whispers behind our backs I managed to catch, like "That couple is excessive", "Did you see? They are wearing sneakers!", "They are going to Sunrise, it's like 40 miles away!".  It felt a little putting down.  There was one hiker who even used the word "Sacrilege" when talking about our short trip and "not able to see the beauty".  I know I will sound defensive right now, but there is nothing sacrilegious about hiking faster than the general population does.  In fact, since we used to run - and still see ALL the beauty - with hiking at 2 miles an hour, we see, by far, more than we did in any race - and sometimes one does not need to stare to see.  I've always claimed I "absorb" what's around me.

But I digress.  Tuesday was a big day in the plans.  Huge.  No, it wasn't "40 miles" to Sunrise, but we estimated it to be slightly more than 31 (math skills, anyone?), with a little less climbing (7k, ha!), although much deeper descends (we wanted to utilize to our advantage), and we thought that if we give ourselves 2 extra hours, we should be just fine...  So, we set my alarm at 4 am and tried to fall asleep, achy, with tingling feet, and scared about the day to come...

There wasn't much sleep, for the reasons outlined above, and again, we got out of the tent a full 15 minutes prior to the alarm, quietly made and ate breakfast (oatmeal with sunflower seeds, protein powder and raisins), packed up, and disappeared before anyone even blinked, standing back at the trailhead at exactly 5 am. Our headlamp-lead 5-mile long descent was the opening leg for the day...


 The forest resembled a fairy tail--green and lush, mossy, dark tall trees (oldest fir trees in the park), soft needle covered footing - but soon our feet spoke to us again, and we begged for a climb.  I even managed to fall and bang my knee and roll an ankle, but got up and shook it off.
What comes down, must go up - and we had a long climb to Mowich Lake campground, one of the few road-accesible spots, where I was looking forward to disposing of the garbage from the day before. 

Mt. Rainier caught us in a haze of smoke coming from Oregon fires, and sometime after we smelled pancakes, syrup, and coffee drifting downhill from the car-campers.  Yes, some people hike like that.  :)
We quickly made it to the top and walked a nice flat path around a lake for a mile or so, meeting a couple of college-aged guys spending a few weeks studying something for their classes.  The water at the lake was incredibly clear, and called to just jump in and swim slowly...but 30+ miles is no joke, time was under a pressure-cooker.

All of  the sudden, an opening to a grand view popped at us, and so did a huge, steep rocky descent. Wow, the map did not allow us to anticipate it!  After a first few happy steps, the injuries and shaky quads kicked in, the sun blazed, we put our heads down and prayed for the forest to come sooner...

Yes, we totally lucked out on the weather in regard to the Pacific North West, but it also meant that we had sun, warm temperatures, and heavy packs to navigate climbs. Water was in our dreams, yet again...

Finally, we made it into the trees and a much more mellow decline of a trail grade, and at one of the creeks, Larry took care of his blisters, I washed (finally) my knee and propped my foot up, where the bone pain (from that road run) was getting worse, and the poles were my saving grace to walk down.

However, we were still relatively upbeat, and kept the idea that we may finish before 7pm intact. At the bottom of that descent we checked the clock, figured we're about half-way, and celebrated slightly...silly people, math was not our strong suite.  This is Wonderland Trail, where the numbers don't add up, miles run away from you, and the climbs keep getting longer and steeper...

First, we were thrown for a half-mile or so detour due to a landslide, which didn't allow us to cross another swinging bridge over the Carbon River, and then we faced The Climb...which, on our silly map, did not look that intimidating...but boy, were we wrong!
We walked on rocks a lot, next to the Carbon Glacier, and met a handful of hikers going the opposite direction.  At least these people talked, and were actually positively impressed about our plans!  If, of course, bewildered...if we only knew how far and steep it still was. What impressed us was how many older hikers, mainly ladies, going around Mt. Rainier - this is living!

Cold air coming off glacier felt like AC from time to time.
                               
The climb seemed to be never ending.  Somewhere in the middle of it, I had somehow managed to calculate we were halfway around the mountain (most likely off by couple of miles), and made Larry to stop and snap a photo - which, I knew, literally 20 minutes later would be not that smiley.

That was the climb to Granite Creek, with a small drop to Mystic lake along the way, our original place to stop that day - and where we suddenly, as if our bodies knew that, deflated, and spent some time to recoup.  We were totally low on calories, because a) I did not anticipate as long of a day, and b) a couple of bars we were eating were producing smaller portions than I remembered them from last year's Teton backpacking trip.  So, this loss of 80 cal per bar was costing us big time.  I had already pulled out every "extra" into the account, and we still were not consuming nearly enough, and we faced a drop, and a HUGE climb, a small drop, and somehow another incline?? Which, of course, as we already figured out, our map did NOT show!

That last big climb for the day was a grinder.  Each of us put our head down, and hiked, silently, determined - like you would when you're at mile 80, and you've got to make it no matter what.

The top (Skyscraper Pass) did not disappoint - the views of Rainier in fading sunlight, the fact that we made it with 2 minutes to spare before 7pm (why are the round numbers always important?) and the hope "It's all downhill from here" fueled us instead of the energy bars.  We pumped fists and hugged as we reached the top. Yeah, baby! 


We walked into a couple of very-bad looking backpackers going up and over to the camp we just passed, and comparing their exhausted bodies laying on the rock - and their much heavier-looking packs - we perked up that we're in good shape all things considering. The crazy part was - we were not as close to the camp (or had as an easy of a route to get there) - and it took more math skills, a realization the day was a full 33 miles, and headlamps for the last 30 minutes (along with super-focused effort) was necessary to reach Sunrise campground, in the dark, and almost collapse, between the shoulder pain (there were lumps growing up on our traps) and the feet pain (each different, but debilitating nevertheless). 15 hours behind, not a single muscle to show happiness...


We set camp up, quickly ate, and retired.  That was the night I took 4 Advil and was solidly out for the full 6 hrs of sleep...

The body is an absolutely amazing machine, so well-tuned and oiled, and I just wish I could understand how it does the things it does.  All my medical background is not enough to wipe the awe I have about its performance.  As broken down as were that night, not even able to change shirts, 5am came (we slept in!) - and here we were, eating oatmeal and packing camp, and walking out before the rest of the campers even fully awakened.  I think they might have had a mystery appearance...

But because of that, as we rounded a corner, we realized why it was called Sunrise camp!  We were treated to an incredible play of light, worthy of every step of struggle...

Who wouldn't want to do THAT??? Especially when the day coincides with exactly 21 years of living on American land!

We faced a long downhill, soft, awesome, full of water-filled creeks, all to ourselves, and somehow thinking we have THIS kind of trail and terrain, ONLY 2 climbs and only 20 miles, we were lolly-gagging for miles and miles...

Getting water - yoga skills sometimes required.


We popped out at the White River campground, another road-accesible people-populated place (where we got lost, ha!), and then another 4 miles of nice almost flat trail. We just chilled...silly.

The Russian mushroom hunter in me cried passing by these treasures!
The drizzle finally came, as promised, by the weather forecast, but just for a short period of time, and we turned a corner, crossed a river - and saw a climb...and it went up, switchback after another, for so long, we were losing faith.  Grouchy thoughts popped, but luckily, it was over - and presented us with the BEST campground I highly recommend to just spend a few days at - Summerland.  High grounds, Rainier views, lots of running water, great trees, and open meadows...it calls for just sitting still, painting, listening to the sound of nothing, and day-dreaming. We made our lunch break there, and took off renewed.


That short rest was energizing, as we saw Panhandle Gap, the highest pass on the Wonderland Trail at about 6,800 feet, and while the route to it was laid through the rocks, it seemed so close (comparing to the other crazy climbs we had done so far).  Goal-oriented (but already realizing that our predicted 21 miles suddenly stretched into 24 as we kept adding up miles between camps and points), we charged on on one breath.


Highest point on Wonderland.
Amazingly, to our surprise (I am not sure why we kept being surprised anymore), the path on the other side wasn't a "mellow downhill" as the map suggested.  It was rolling up and down, and some ups were significant enough to cut the breathing - but we didn't budge, as a long downhill awaited...and it did!  With a steep drop in a pristine alpine meadow, it meant deep steps made with water bars, knee-breaking height, crazy erosion, and our feet, oh, man, our feet - and knees - were screaming!  Larry lost it quite badly here, and it was I (unlike predicted by him it should have been Larry on day 2) who was ready for a divorce. 

They look benign because I can't get an angle right. Trust me, it's steep.
I felt his pain though, I know how those callus heel blisters feel--had a number before in my life.  I, however, tried to focus on offsetting my own pain (as we were running low on Advil by now), because not only that pain on the bone at the edge of my left foot was magnified, due to my rolling, my plantar fascia inside (on the same foot) was rearing its head, and it was same PF as I tore a few years back.  All I could think about: I have a stress fracture and a pre-tear, I still have miles to go--forget races to do.
Crazy canyon crossing, where I believe one of the hikers was swept recently.


Eventually, we touched the river, crossed a small bridge, and set our funnies, exhausted, above Indian Cabin...and there were a few scary moments, here and in the next mile, when we didn't trust ourselves, our strength, our emotions...but we kept on going anyway. We ran into a solo guy Scott we saw on day one, and that lifted our spirits for a bit, until a minute later Larry got stung by a bee on the top of his ankle (which hurt and swelled up)...


More steep water-bar-steps climbing.

There were more unexpected climbs, more explicit words about suck-y topo-map we had, fewer calories than needed...and when that long, hoped for downhill came, neither one of us could do well on it.
My poles were my most prized possession. I basically hopped over on one leg.


We managed to get lost on a road-crossing section near Box Canyon - we both agreed that for some odd reason the Wonderland Trail had the worst signage around populated areas, like campgrounds and roads. All the trail intersections with other trails were marked just fine.

But we made it, those last 2.2 miles, and we made it exactly in time to beat 12 hrs by a hair to Maple Creek, our last camping site...another day that put us on our backs, mostly emotionally and with paining injuries.

Because we caught an hour of daylight, we considered our arrival a full success though, soaked our feet in a creek, cooked the usual dinner (Ramen noodles and some pepperoni), and retired in our tent.

The last day should be a piece of cake for sure!  With all that math, we ONLY have 10 miles left! This is when long previous days came in handy. Worst comes to worst -  5 hrs, baby, and those are definitely easy, I promise! One hop over, and downhill home stretch!
We woke up and caught the last of the dry weather to make breakfast and pack out.  As soon as we moved onto the trail, the fog dropped low, turned to mist, drizzle, rain, mist...and it alternated on and off, enough water to warrant a backpack cover, but not enough to make us cold or want a rain jacket.



And it was beautiful in its own way, and we didn't mind one bit.  We were so lucky to have a full 3 days of paradise, God-blessed nice sunny weather, in PNW, last week of Indian summer, that now, we cherished this so Oregon/Washington typical nature in its best, the "why it is so green around here", and I almost cried about it too (thinking of the years I lived in the area).  We walked, and it seemed we didn't push, but maybe we did just a little.  It was, as usual in those adventures, a mixed feeling: you want it to be over with, the pain, the cutting-in-your-shoulders pack straps, the screwed up feet, the hungry stomach, the elbows that hurt because you push on poles so much - yet you don't want it to be over at all and dread being back in society.  It was actually great that no views could be seen - it allowed us to contemplate and be inward, just what we both needed.  Sometime, I would break and launch into a long monologue about my state of fitness, my foot, my desire to do well, but also, my thriving to do things that are meaningful for my life, not just running "around in a circle".  Most of the time, we were just silent, each lost in our own thoughts...


Dinner, anyone? These fazan birds were basically like pets, running ahead of us for a quarter mile.
And then, as the trail widened up, and more hikers were showing towards us - we sensed it, we knew: it is over. And the tears came, as we tried to fight them back, and way too fast, suddenly, just as it was always way too long in the days prior, the sign where the trail splits into clockwise and counterclockwise directions - was right in front of us.



And we were out.  No celebration of any kinds, only folks milling around the parking area not knowing we just completed the Wonderland Trail - in 3 days and a morning of 4 hrs only! - nobody to share with.  It was just like that, and the aches drifted away, like nothing happened, as we changed into something acceptable for a coffee shop, and the tiredness - non-existent, and we couldn't believe ourselves we just lived through this 93 (or was it 96?) miles of some serious trail. Wonderland. A fixture to make dreams happen...

We stopped briefly at Whittaker's to log into our tablet and let those who cared know we made it safely.  As we drove away from Mount Rainier National Park, the sun cleared up, and the sun was shining brightly.  And as the last drops of rain dried, our souls kept wondering, left behind...

We spent an evening at my good friend Monika's house, cleaning up, eating real food, checking into a real world, but it seemed unreal to be there - real world was left behind.  The next day was rather crazy, in an attempt to see all whom I love and don't get to see often, my kids, my friends, and spend some quality time together too - after all, that was our 5th wedding anniversary.  We survived.  We made the cut.  We grew stronger.  We have a lot of plans ahead...



 
There is so much more to say, but I don't think I can express it all in a post about a backpacking adventure. I don't want to clutter this with personal revelations. I simply don't know where my blog stands, nor do I have time, but mostly - who am I sharing things with? But the trip itself brought so much to light, it was absolutely amazing in many more ways than even we anticipated and hoped for.

On a more down-to-Earth note, our aches were gone quickly, but we feel drained of energy. The aftermath does feel as if we raced a 100 miler. Larry's blisters are healing, my foot got an MRI and an offer for a boot - which I refused (I can't function at the pace of my life in a boot, but I am wearing the firmest shoe I have in my arsenal). I withdrew from Grindstone 100 and Javelina 100, and my Fall season stopped before even getting started. And, I am strangely OK with that. I wasn't looking for this kind of decision, but it is a relief a decision was made for me - unlike last Fall, when it, too, was delivered to me by some twist of fate, this time it feels different. Because of what I had gone through in the past year, I am different. 


It's time to begin thinking about our next backpacking adventure...
ALL PHOTOS