i arrived at the rawah wilderness around 6:30 pm on a saturday night. even though this was going to be an simple 16 hour trip, i had been planning it out all week long. that’s something i hardly ever do, in fact i don’t think i’ve ever done that much planning. usually i get an idea, show up at the trail head, and go. this time i was super excited, i bought a book “utralight backpacking“, maps, food, a compass, and some other gear. just to plan my sweet 16. not only was i going to spend the night in the wilderness, i was about to run about 24 trail miles in a span of 16 hours.
i had done some backpacking trips in the past, but usually had to return early due to heavy-pack-syndrome HPS. i kind of acquired this disorder over the years due to my fascination of gadgets and lack of common sense…. the perfect storm if you will. i want to bring everything with me. sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, rain gear, stove, coffee, pans, first-aid, second-aid (whiskey), phone, batteries, awesome-knife, ipad… you get the idea. usually these end up being overnighters.
this weekend i was about to rid myself of HDS. thanks to a magic sentence i read in “ultralight backpackin’ tips” by mike clelland… it read “cross the line-go out too light”. there were some cautions after that sentence but i don’t remember them right now. but anyway, to me this meant, “bring almost nothing, it’s only one night… what’s the worst that can happen?” i packed what i thought was bare essentials and got my pack down to an unbelievable weight.
here is my list of items:
– camelbak charge -ultralight
– fleece sleeping bag liner.
red canyon 3/4 sleeping pad.
san francisco marathon emergency blanket (note: any marathon is fine).
petzl tikka plus 2 headlamp
trash compactor bag (this was going to be my rain poncho, or sleeping bag cover, if it rained hardenough)..
iphone 5 (for pictures and gps)
zensah compression top and bottom (sleeping clothes).
nike ultra light wind breaker.
hand held water bottle
alpine lowe fanny pack with 100oz water.
water tablets (not used)
glove liners (not used)
the total base weight 5.1 pounds, water plus food was an additional 5 pounds. note: i forgot to mention the scale in the list of things i bought for this trip.
getting far away from civilization in a short amount of time has become my obsession over the years. i used to do it on my mountain bike, but never like this. i wish i was in better running shape right now, so i could run faster and further… for this trip i all i had to do was run two 12 mile trail runs back to back. i would run into the rawah wilderness (without a gun, or knife), camp, and run back the next day. i don’t know if this sounds impressive to you or not, but coming from a guy who has very little experience backpacking, who rarely runs over 6 miles at a time, and who has put himself in danger so many times from flagrant miscalculations …. i’d be a little impressed if i were you.
the drive up the canyon seemed endless. it was late in the afternoon around 6:30 by the time i hit the trail head. it was quite a bit later than i planned but i figured it would be ok to run the last few miles in the dark. i don’t know why i thought that, but let’s just continue the story…
the trail was just gorgeous. it was a rolling single track with dark rich dirt. outcroppings of granite-like rocks sprinkled the trail at just the right spots. the trees were plentiful, lush and surrounded with green foliage. small run-off streams crossed the trail from time to time, causing me to dance across the tops of the rocks avoiding the wet and mud. my pack felt amazingly comfortable and i was running along at very easy pace. sucking up the beauty of the high altitude wilderness as i ran. i remember thinking that this has to be the best day of my life. my days of bad decisions were over, my habit of turing everything epic was behind me… this is it, the culmination of all my outdoor-life learning experiences were paying off right now! i was two miles in.
after about three miles the terrain remained the same with the exception that the trail was no longer rolling… in fact it had gone almost straight up. it wasn’t that big of a deal because, i love hills. i love the feeling of getting to the top of a long steep hill looking back, and having a great sense of accomplishment …etc. but, there is a time and place for everything. not sure if it was the altitude, the backpack, or just my lack of conditioning. i was not feeling the climbing vibe… only dread.
even though the fatigue was getting to me, i was motivated by the nearing tree-line. i knew that once i got to tree-line, i would be well over 11,000 feet high. however, getting there seemed like it was going to take forever. the sun had gone down and the temperatures were starting go down as well. i was now alone…no more shadow just me running at dusk. even though i felt alone i really wasn’t. as i looked up to the top of the ridge i could see some elk moving, and when i looked down i could see a camper by the lake. i picked up the pace just a bit because i felt like they were watching. i was just passing through, barely a third of the way toward my destination.
i made it up to the ridge were the elk once passed, and began the downward journey into the backside of the wildness. the trail was thinner and sloppier as i went back under tree line. i was doing fine at this point, everything seemed to be in working order. it was getting darker by the minute, and at this point i was descending very technical steep trail with sharp hair-pins, fallen trees, streams, and big piles of snow. my motivation was descending right along with me… i just wanted to hurry. it was getting dark.
i couldn’t believe i still had another fucking 6 miles to go…. yes, my attitude had dipped way below “tree-line”. i tried to pull my attitude up by thinking about all the training runs i’ve done at night. trying to tell my self, “it’s just dark” …. “you could run all night if you needed”… “no one is waiting for you” … “relax”. this actually seemed to work. i once again started to enjoy the scenery. it wasn’t completely dark, so for the time being i could still run without my headlamp. i started feeling stronger and more aggressive as i maneuvered down the hill. to the west of me was a huge wild river flowing down the mountain right beside me. it was interesting to think that this river originated just about one mile above me. i couldn’t believe how much water was moving down the mountain.
soon after the descent it came time to cross the little wild river. all the crossing rocks were covered with roaring rapids and this thing was far too wide to jump across. i looked around a little bit and found a fallen tree that spanned the river. it was about 4-5 feet above the water surface, and it didn’t look very stable, like it could roll if i stepped incorrectly. it did look more than strong enough to hold my weight. i didn’t have much choice, since i was determined to make 12 miles tonight, and didn’t have time to build a better bridge. i got up on the log and cautiously walked across it with my arms out and my head stable and my common sense a couple miles back on the trail. all my slack line and unicycling skills paid off and i survived to run another mile.
author’s retrospective: looking back at this little stunt, i realized that it was about 8:30 pm i was about 6 miles from the road. i was balancing 5 feet over rocks and river, my pack was not water proof, no cell service. if anything other than success happened… i would have been screwed. however, these thoughts only came to me days after returning home.
after crossing the river, my attitude was at an all time high. i was such a “badass” running in the wilderness, crossing rivers, jumping rocks, climbing fallen trees… w00t! it was getting really dark and i was not quite ready to turn on my head lamp full time. i had only been using it in the dark rocky corners of the trail, where natural light was inadequate. when the trail was open and straight it was actually better to run without the light … i could see further without the light…. just not as much detail.
i don’t know if you’ve ever run at night or not, but if you have you know what i mean when i say that everything looks like an animal. not only do the big rocks and small trees look like silhouettes of animals … they look like inappropriate animals. for example, you’ll see the frequent rock that looks like a bear, and tree that looks like a deer.. but you’ll also see the “armadillo”, the “giant beetle”, the bear on bike, the deer making a phone call… etc. fortunately your mind is able to quickly dismiss these as false positives (note: i know i am using the term “false positive” incorrectly, but i like the way it sounds, so i’m leaving it in). it was a little nerve racking running in the dark, but i was still determined to make it all the way.
around mile 8 i was running a section of trail that had enough natural light to not require me to wear my headlamp. i looked ahead as far as i could and saw this very clever tree and rock combination that looked like a camel. as i got closer i quickly dismissed the camel idea, but started to wonder if it actually was something real. i didn’t stop immediately because i was still confused. i guess there are two types of people in this world; those that stop when they are confused, and those that don’t. when i got about 100 feet away, i finally came to a complete stop. i turned on my head lamp and saw a couple glowing eyes staring back at me. holly shit, it’s a fuckin’ moose! …. my heart was already beating hard, but now it was beating irregularly. it took me a few minutes to understand the situation well enough to realize i had better get away from here. moose are a little different than deer and elk… they don’t run away, and they can be aggressive. this “aggressive” part is what worried me. (earlier in the week a co-worker hit me with all these facts about moose attacks). i didn’t know what was going on, i didn’t know if he was scared, if he had a family near by, or he just hated runners. :( i backed up slowly, and then quickly. i found some nearby trees, to hide behind incase the moose decided he wanted to take action. i figured i could out maneuver him if the time came (don’t know why i thought that, but i did). i stood by my trees and flashed my headlamp on him. he just stood there… if he were a bull, and this were a bull fight, he would probably be scratching his front hoof into the ground by now. i was wearing bright orange.
my initial fear had subsided a little and i was kind of irritated that the moose was blocking the trail and i wouldn’t be able to complete my run. i had to get this thing out of the trail… the flashing light didn’t work. i tried yelling, “yah…yah!!” then i had the bright idea to use the flashing red light feature of my headlamp. i turned it on, and nothing happened… at first. then the moose started taking a couple steps toward me….oh shit oh shit!!! i frantically tried to turn off the light but, it takes a sequence of button presses to shut it off completely, and i didn’t have the where-with-all to shut it off, so i grabbed it off of my head, hid it in my hands and tried to shut it off there. he stopped and just started eating again. you have to realize that it’s dark, i’m alone, this thing is huge, and has a known reputation for getting angry… of course i was a bit scared.
i was still determined to finish my run. the moose wasn’t going to move. my only choice was to try and go around him. i decided that going up the hill along side the trail would be the safest. i reasoned that i would be less likely to run into more moose, than if i had tried to sneak around the flat side. i started up the hill and at this point everything looks like a moose. every rock, every bush and every tree looked like a moose. i was a bit freaked out. i tried to keep my eye on the real moose and proceeded to walk around. unfortunately most of the hill was soaked from the snow melt, and i didn’t notice that until a made a couple steps into muddy streams that ran beneath the brush. my feet got submerged and now my shoes and socks were both soaked. crap! i didn’t want to bush whack through this muddy hilly, darkness… so i decided to just find a dry spot and camp.
the spot i found was located underneath a small group of trees. the trees were grouped together like a small island on the big open hillside. in fact the group of trees looks so inviting, i was afraid something might be living in there. i shined my light into the hole from all sides just to make sure nothing was there. when i determined it was safe i cautiously crawled into the space. once inside it actually felt pretty nice. the trees were not the right distance apart to set up my hammock and the ground was not the flattest place i’ve ever slept. since the moose was near by, i was still trying to be incognito, and didn’t want to make a big ruckus while making up camp. i just threw out my bedroll and changed into my long underwear, and tried to sleep. i didn’t even attempt to eat, for fear that opening up any of my food would attract bears. i know they can smell food from far away, but having open food might just attract them from even further away… at least that’s how my reasoning was going at the time. besides i wasn’t very hungry.
i covered my head and closed my eyes, and fell asleep for 4 hours. i really wasn’t expecting that much sleep, considering how riled up i was just before i went to bed. after waking up the first time, i was a little bit cold so i spread out my san francisco marathon space blanket over the top of my bedding. this seemed to do the trick, because once again i was fast asleep. however, this time it was only for an hour. while i was up, i realized that i needed to pee. i was actually pretty excited that i finally had to go because i was worried about dehydration. i was also excited because now, i could pee around the corners of my camp to ward off wandering animals. i had been nervous all night about bears wandering into my camp.. so this was a small shield of protection. i don’t even know if it works or not, but i saw it on “survivor man”. for the rest of the night i had trouble sleeping, and the best i was able to do, were half hour increments of sleep. by 3am i was just waiting for daylight.
it was a beautiful morning. 5am finally rolled around and i packed up my gear. i decided to just be happy with the 8 miles i did last night and head back. it was a long slow run, i was super tired from not eating last night. i had such low energy that getting back over the hill seemed 10 times harder than it did the day before. i took a bunch of rest stops and even had to stop for a couple more moose blocking the trail once again. although moose are very large, they are far less intimidating in the daytime.