Below is an excerpt from a ~78 hour adventure that I had earlier this month with Ras Vaughan. Our hope was to have an amazing time in the mountains; we also thought it would be pretty cool if we could be the first people to finish the the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge. Designed by George Orozco as part of the ‘Issaquah Alps Challenges,’ the goal was to summit 18 peaks outside of Seattle in one go using any route we wanted aside from starting at a specific trail head (McClellan Butte) and ending at another (Snoqualmie Point). Our effort was reported a week later in Trail Runner Magazine in this well written article by Ariella Gintzler: This Little-Known Peak-Bagging Challenge in Washington Will “Kick Your Butt”; Another article, written last April by Yitka Wynn in the same magazine, talks about the colorful cast of characters (including Ras) who are tackling George Orozco’s challenges: The Wilderness Within. This is my write-up:
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“Ras – if we can get up it, we’ll be on top of the mountain in less than 20 minutes and everything after that is easy. After we get to the top, there is a good spot in the woods that I know where the floor is littered with pine needles and we can sleep for a while.” You know your hobby is a little fucked up when you hear words like that come out of your mouth.
It would be such a huge relief to be back on ‘normal trails.’ It was approaching midnight and we had been running, walking, crawling, climbing and generally stumbling for the better part of 62 hours with less than five hours of sleep. In our wake were 15 peaks scattered in the foothills of the Cascades east of Seattle.
We had linked these together by the shortest possible routes, sometimes going off-trail and bush-whacking on narrow ridges like this one, sometimes dropping all the way back down into valleys and climbing until we reached the top of a neighboring peak, the lack of ridges connecting them rendering them as islands in the wilderness. Immediately ahead was a final scramble, the crux of the entire journey. After we finished this peak, the rest should be uneventful on normal hiking trails to the finish. There would even be a short road walk.
The last few hours had been on a ridge to Teneriffe Mountain with the sun setting and then darkness enveloping us in the slow way it can during a summer in the Pacific Northwest. We had been hopping from boulder to boulder, sometimes feeling them shift and roll under our weight which would force us to jump to another boulder. Sometimes we threaded our way through thick underbrush. Climbing and crawling our way up steep ledges, grunting, yelping, and cursing. Picture a tiny room filled with Christmas trees. Now try to squeeze through with a back-pack, squirming like a snake, an ice ax guaranteed to catch every branch, uncertainty on whether you will hit an impenetrable dead end or a void with with an express elevator down.
A week earlier I had stood in this same place in broad daylight with Stephanie Gundel. Our homework was to find a way off the ridge and up onto the summit. We had been up to the summit on different runs, hikes and snow-shoes; but always following hiking trails that approached from ‘the normal’ direction. Before the Harvey Manning Challenge came into consciousness, I don’t think we had any clue that there was another way to get onto the summit. We were about to get enlightened.
At this point, less than 200 feet from the summit, we had found ourselves unable to continue on the ridge. The vegetation was impenetrable and even if we were able to get through, it seemed likely we would be met with dangerous cliffs that would need to be scaled to reach the summit. Stephanie spotted a little outcrop through the trees on the south side of the ridge and we worked our way over to it, waving at two hikers who were standing on ‘normal trail’ just below the summit. They waved back – probably questioning what fools we were. To get to them, it looked like we could inch our way across a steep slope of rock scree and then scramble up to the small dip where we saw them standing, a dip we nicknamed ‘the saddle of hope.’
I wasn’t happy about any of this – I had been complaining all day to Stephanie. My relationship with what people call ‘exposure’ in the back country has become more and more troubled. The use of this term might be a little unfamiliar to some but you can read it as ‘exposure to falling’ or, in my book, ‘fear of falling’ or we can be totally honest and say ‘fear of heights.’ My friend John spins it a little different and says something I like: ‘It is what keeps you alive Seth.’ This should not be an issue for me – I’ve stood on top of the world and crossed some of the highest technical passes in the Himalaya. But my exposure to exposure has reinforced how one slip can lead to fatal consequences. Fermenting in the back of my head are an accumulation of near-misses, memories of friends who have died or been injured in the mountains, bodies of climbers frozen in the ice that I have walked past, and a slow drum-beat in my social media feed. It is not a good brew.
On that scouting trip, Stephanie had increasingly taken the lead in scouting scary sections, my role relegated to muttering ‘we should have brought helmets and a rope.’ But on this particular section, possibly driven by a desire to just be ‘done,’ I had gone ahead and climbed up onto a small 5th class rock ledge trying to reach the Saddle of Hope. Looking down, the earth seem to sway below me; it was a long way down on very steep, rocky slopes before the forest started again. Cart-wheeling to my death is something I am trying to avoid.
Trying to scramble back down to Stephanie filled me with dread. The way up seemed to be a marginally better choice. A safer way for Stephanie to join me looked possible, and between some wild gesticulations and shouting, she started detouring below me and climbing up to my perch. Something between her hesitancy gave me the sense that she wasn’t a big fan of the route, but she was moving and so was I; always with three points of contact – my hands grabbing loose chunks of rock and toes slipping downwards, careful not to kick rock down on Stephanie.
After a few minutes I squeezed under a tree, relieved to have an anchor to hold on to and something to aim for if a fall further up happened. Finally reaching the saddle and setting foot on a well-worn hiking trail, I jumped up and down and hooted and hollered and felt a huge weight lift. Stephanie joined me a couple minutes later and we high-fived. Looking down we nicknamed it the ‘Gully of Fear.’ Five minutes later we were on the summit having a snack, bodies jittery from adrenaline. I wondered what it would be like to tackle the same thing a week later when I tried the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge and what it would be like if it had to be done in the dark.
After summitting, we went down the normal trail and then cut in from a switch-back to look at the base of the cliffs from the other side, wondering if a lower traverse might have been possible. With our time dwindling, we recorded a way point on the GPS ‘Scouting after Summit’, and then went back up to the summit and down the other side. Recording that way point turned out to be a potential life saver.
Fast forward a week and picture two weary souls trying to attempt this same thing in the dark and the cold. We traversed from our perch over to the base of the Gully of Fear. Looking down with our headlamps, Ras and I saw the earth fall away and agreed it was not a great ‘run-out’ in case we fell. But the summit, and sleep, beckoned. We dug into the earth with our hands and started climbing. A few moves in, I looked down (always a mistake) and froze. What was illuminated, and not illuminated, left a lot of questions and filled me with new awareness of the precariousness of our situation. Ras was a few feet below me and I saw him pause as well. We had a tense conversation; each clutching the earth, both quickly agreeing that a fall would likely lead to severe injury or worse. Why Stephanie hesitated here a week earlier was now frightfully obvious. We retreated back to our original perch and ruminated over possibilities. It was too cold and steep to try to sleep and we needed to solve this crux.
What followed was a two hour scramble from hell as we down-climbed from our perch into the relative unknown. We half-slid down a rock chute for several hundred feet until we reached a break in the cliffs and then we slowly worked our way across and back up, aiming for the GPS way point from the week prior. Working our way around cliff walls and up through tangled trees, we worried the whole time that our way would be blocked by an impassable cliff. But as things do – it worked and our relief was palpable when we reached the way point and a few minutes later the real trail. With a few more minutes of uphill hiking on the trail, we walked past the Saddle of Hope and a soon enough found ourselves on the summit with nothing except smooth trails ahead of us.
We finished about 12 hours later. I want to write here that it was a transformative experience. That pushing through fears and spending three nights walking through the woods to reach an arbitrary end-point somehow makes sense and is a worthwhile endeavor. That I will become more confident in life, willing to persevere against distant odds.
But gains like this come slowly and subversively into my mind and my goal has always been to have memorable experiences and to get off the beaten track as much as I can. This exceeded that goal. What I know is that I had a great time scouting the best route every weekend before the challenge. Doing this homework introduced us to obscure peaks, trails, and ridges in our own back yard that we did not know existed and who owe their preservation to Harvey Manning. Linking all of the peaks together in one push was incredibly satisfying. Seeing your friends at the end is priceless. And a cold beer has never tasted that good.
Completing a journey like this with Ras was an experience; I’ve known Ras from the trail running community in the northwest for ~5 years and I have a lot of respect for the ‘Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenges‘ that he organizes. Every year he invites some notable people in the community to design an incredible route through nature, one of these was the ~75 mile Alpine Lakes Wilderness Traverse that I did in 2015, designed by Erich Sach. Check them out if you are in the pacific northwest and itching for something new.
Challenges like this remind me of the fast packs we are organizing at Himalayan Adventure Labs and also spur my interest to formalize challenges around the Kathmandu Valley Rim Trail and some of the circuits including Annapurna and Manaslu and the elusive Langtang Lollipop. All in due time!
Below is a full photo set. The entire journey was tracked by a Garmin In-Reach Sat Transponder at 10 minute increments. The tracks can be found using the ‘Live Tracking‘ page and searching for July 1-4th, 2017. The style was unsupported and the total time was 78 hours and 42 minutes. The total distance and elevation gain? Best estimates are ~94 miles and 34,000 feet of gain. Thanks everyone for your encouragement prior and during this adventure! Thank you Stephanie, Ras, George, and everyone who helped with trail beta!