Monday, August 6, 2012

Wonderland : Day 1

"I also knew I was being challenged.  This was the world of the woods and the working stiff, the logging camp being a world especially overbearing with challenges, and, if you expected to duck all challenges, you shouldn't have wandered into the woods in the first place."
-Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Where in the world is the trail?  How in the world will I make it tomorrow? Wow, it sure is beautiful out here!  What is around the next bend, or over the next pass? These were the thoughts that persistently occupied my mind on the first day of my attempt to run around the Wonderland Trail in three days. 

My family and I arrived in the Pacific Northwest last Thursday and headed directly to just outside the Sunrise entrance to the Mt Rainier National Park.  We stopped along the way at a couple of small roadside markets for vegetables and meat; the local cherries, blueberries, housemade elk jerky, kielbasa, bacon and smoked salmon were delicious highlights throughout our journey. 

That night, I packed my small Nathan HPL #020 pack with some water, a squeeze filter (highly recommended at 3 oz), shotblocks, map, compass, camera, endurolytes, advil, a second garmin watch, and a pbj sandwich.  That's about it.  My plan for the next morning was to run from White River Campground to Cougar Rock Campground, about 30 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain. 

The next morning I stopped in at the Sunrise Ranger station to register.  After he pulled my permits he mentioned that it would be nice but "plenty of snow".  I thought, sure maybe a few patches of snow.  It was the end of July after all.  I asked him what color the blazes were, and he responded that there are no blazes.  Hmmm, that's interesting for a major trail in a national park.

At the trail head, I kissed my family goodbye and trotted off.  I felt great and was super excited.  Although I knew this was the best I'd physically feel for the next three days.

After some nice cruising trail through the forest I started climbing.  I climbed up to Sumerland shelter which was just at sub-alpine level.  I saw a Marmot messing around and cleaning up after previous visitors. 

Very shortly after Summerland, the mountain opened up into alpine peaks, valleys, passes, bowls, couloirs....and snow.  Bunches of snow. I found some faint tracks and followed them up.  Within a quarter of a mile I had lost the tracks and was heading up into a big bowl.  I pulled out my map for the first time (of many) and realized I was off course. 

I corrected and found tracks again after about another quarter mile.  I eventually passed a couple of female hikers coming the opposite direction and made my way up over Panhandle pass.  Passes are always spectacular in the high mountains....never "pass" on a chance to hike to one if you are within striking distance.

Panhandle Pass

Once over Panhandle pass the trail was completely covered in snow.  I was barely able to make out a couple of hikers tracks and scrambled across.  I just hoped they knew where they were going!

The Trail cuts across the snow covered expanse.  One of the few hikers I passed can be seen in lower right.
I pushed through long sections of snow, running as much as I could.  Without a trail, there were no switchbacks, which meant following a simple bearing on all fours up and over climbs.  I slid and glided along various grades.  And I checked the map frequently just to make sure.  I was in another world.

Rare Trail Above Treeline

Long snow covered descent to Indian Bar.  Slip slideee!!

The trail descended through the snow down to Indian Bar.  At this point (about 12 miles in), I saw the last two hikers I would see for a long while.  This was significant because they had a gps and I had been roughly following their footsteps.  At this point, the trail went cold, so to speak.  I had no footsteps to follow, no blazes, no cairns.  Thank God I had my map and compass.  I could have easily left the compass behind, since I had assumed the well-known trail in a national park would have been well traveled and well marked.  Additionally, it was hot and humid in Georgia as I was packing.  Snow was the last thing on my mind.   

As I ascended out of Indian Bar, I started to check the map and compass frequently.  I was simply following a bearing over blank expanses of snow for a while.  Every once in a while, I would eventually come to grassy spots or steep drop offs with no sign of trail.  I would scratch my head, check the map, the compass, and correct.  I became frustrated and a little nervous. The miles were taking much longer than planned.  I tried to pick up the pace to compensate, which didn't help.

At one point during some head scratching, I passed what looked like bear droppings, and as I was trying to find trail, smelled the strong scent of a beast.  It surely didn't help the nerves.

The trail descends along the ribbon of snow along the ridge.

Finally I had descended back down below treeline.  After the huge 6 mile descent I bottomed out in Box Canyon.  It was comforting to be back on trail and simply running again.  My legs were starting to feel heavy though.  With my mind finally off of route finding, I began trying to figure out how I was going to be able to do the next day.  Out of Box Canyon, I began to climb up the 5-mile, 2,000-ft ascent to Reflection Lake. 

Almost immediately on the long climb I began to feel pretty terrible.  And the worse I felt, the more I told myself I wouldn't be able to do the next day.  I felt nauseous and my legs were a wreck.  I was taking a few steps at a time.   I think the snow sections earlier in the day really set me back by not focusing on eating well and really spinning my wheels.  Seeing the numerous wildflowers and waterfalls helped slightly, but were really no match for the funk that I was in for a couple of hours. 

I finally arrived at the Cougar Rock campground 9 hours after the day began and 30 miles of spectacular country away from where I had started.  Unfortunately, I was determined to not go out for the second day.  I had fears that my legs wouldn't hold up.  And fears that I wouldn't be able to find trail, especially since it was socked in.  And fears that I would be miserable all day.  Although Allison provided plenty of encouragement, I decided to just hike with my family the next day and then start again on the last 30 mile segment the day after.  At the time, I felt sure that I wouldn't regret my decision. 

Stay tuned for reports on Days 2 and 3!


  1. Trust your gut and your wife's. I mean you did do 30 miles in one day...not too shabby! I'm very inspired! Keep it up Jason. It's so fun to read this blog!! Bridget

  2. Superman in my book, J Han! Great post.

  3. Awesome photos- I live close to this alpine beauty and your photos remind me to drag my family up there ASAP. Look forward to reading about day 2 and 3.

  4. JJ, Rachel, Aidan and WyattAugust 6, 2012 at 6:36 PM

    So cool! Can't wait for the next post.