saturday, april 04, 2009
Sawtooth Traverse

“Steve, I’ve got an idea ...”

This is how it always starts. One of us drops the bait.  Only this time it wasn’t me. 

“Let’s do the Wonderland …”

The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Washington State’s Mt. Rainier, with a collective 20,000-foot vertical gain in 93 miles. It’s been in our black book of to-do trips for several years. 

“...in two days.”

Like carp to corn, I’m hooked.

Now, doing the Wonderland in two days isn’t as easy as you might think. It requires planning, gear evaluation, style decisions (run it? hike it?), food selection, training – lots of training, and generally building mental and physical calluses, so that when it’s no longer fun, it’s still doable. 

Early summer was quickly turning to late summer, which meant training season was rapidly coming to an end. After countless 20-, 30- and 40-mile runs in the Boise foothills, all that was left was one last training session: a shakedown. “Sounds like a breakdown,” a co-worker offered helpfully. 

My goal was to run across two mountain ranges in central Idaho. I planned to drop a bike at the end and a car at the start, run in between, then bike back to the car.  After asking 40 or so people, I cut my expectations in half. 

Trucker coffee in my hand, map in my wife’s, I left Boise at 3:30 a.m for Stanley. I dropped the bike at the north end and headed south to Pettit Lake. 

About 8 a.m., I pack up my cell phone, filled my day pack with a 3 oz.-jacket, a wool cap, lightweight gloves, 100 oz. of protein slurry and about 5,000 calories of food. At the last minute, I decided to toss in a Mylar bivi sack. 

I slowly wove my way into the heart of the Sawtooths, greeting trailside campers with the morning sun. It was a mid-summer Friday, not too many people on the trail, just enough to share salutations. For the most part, I traveled with my thoughts. 

Around mile 20, I heard a helicopter coming from the south, likely Sun Valley.  It came and went. Mile 25, I saw the same helicopter dropping down into the valley.  I quickened my pace to see if I could catch it, only to see it rise up and head down the valley once more.  It came back a third time with a bucket of water and dropped it into the Cramer Lakes area. Fish, or fire?

Evidently the valley I’d been running through was closed to hikers due to a lightning strike. I quickly made my way down to the valley floor and up the other side, where I got a clear view of what I’d run through and where the fire burned. 

Fire behind me, I climbed out on the dry west-facing side of the range.  The trail there is overgrown with juniper and sage, and tumbles down a dry creek bed.  The backside went relatively quickly, dropping 6 miles in 40 minutes.  Looking at the map and triangulating with the terrain, I followed the trail down to my next turnoff. 

It was getting late, and hot; 3:30 p.m. and about 90 degrees. As I walked up to Sawtooth Lake, for the first time I begin to consider how far I’d make it before nightfall. And then I felt a familiar discomfort. My gut was no longer moving water. Everything I was drinking sat sloshing in my belly. 

This typically requires a ‘forced reboot,’ to empty the gut and start afresh. I held out for 40 minutes, came across a stream and sat down, to contemplate the day, my decisions, my evening ... the Wonderland. It was now almost 5 and I was 7 miles from my bike. 

Two hours later, I climbed out of the valley and found myself at the bottom of a spectacular cirque, surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks; but unless I climbed to a summit, there was no way I was going to be able to get cell reception. 

No longer able to sip on the protein slurry, I emptied my Camelback and filled it from the stream. Gut spent, I unfurled my bivi sack and resolved to spend the night at Sawtooth Lake under alpine skies. 

4:30 a.m. No longer able to block out the the feeling of my bivi sack sticking to my legs, I packed up and began to walk to the north end of the lake.  An hour later, the lights of Stanley came into view and I pulled out the phone. Two bars.

I make the call home, tuck my tail between my legs, run down to my cached bike and ride into Stanley. I pulled into a coffee shop and ate the last slivers of jerky as I watched sleepy people come and go.  I saddled up, checked in with the forest station and continued on to the car, stopping every 45 minutes to refuel the body on the way home.


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