Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spider Meadows Run

Pretty amazing day! The pictures really don't do the scenery or the experience justice.

This day started early, really early. Four AM early to be exact. Four AM to get up rattle around, eating, doing final preparations, and then getting out to get the AR van for the drive out to the Phelps Creek Trailhead for a 16-mile round trip run up to Spider Meadow and thence to Spider Gap. I had not slept so well in anticipation of this run. I missed last year's outing (an exciting one that involved a precipitous descent of a glacier in front of a thunder storm) and was completely wired. Seven of us were going up (and then coming down).

The trailhead is at about 3500 feet, only about 3000 feet higher than what I am used to, and it was a bit cold when we arrived. What can I say? I got out of the van, looked up, and my mouth dropped open, at how spectacular the surrounding ridges looked in the morning sun (my mouth spent most of the day open in wonderment and effort). I put on my second shirt. Took the time to sign the trailhead book too. Tested my camera and found that it was taking pictures strangely so opted to leave it in the van and rely on my iPhone camera. Someone joked about the bright orange shirt I had on. I responded that it was my "spot me for helicopter rescue" shirt (also known as my "Don't run into me while I am running along the side of the road" shirt). We were so far out that none of our cell phones had signals and I was thinking about radios at that point. Had a hard time waiting for my time to go and took off at about 8:53.

The first five or so miles was through forest on a track that trends up with easy climbing and descents punctuated by numerous stream crossings (some wide and others easily to leap over). The track is littered with really interesting rocks. The further along I went the more they began to look blue. Literally blue (I have one that I carried out). I didn't get a mile before it was too hot and I stopped to take off my long-sleeved shirt. It was so quiet and isolated out there. Isolated save to the occasional backpacker and the swarms of black flies that covered me every time I stopped. Side trails led to campsites, some occupied, others not. Breathing was pretty hard and my heart was racing and I hoped that things would calm down.

On a particularly narrow part of the trail I ran up behind a backpacker walking along listening to music on his iPod. He moved over to let me pass and I stopped to chat a little. Everyone I saw on this day was in a cheerful mood with a ready smile and hearty greeting (everyone except the sullen teenager out with his Dad and his Dad's buddies who didn't want his picture taken while crossing a stream, even he seemed concerned about impeding my progress). This guy was going to spend a few days out somewhere near Phelps Basin if I remember what he said correctly. I commented on how pretty it was out in this section of the forest and he said "Wait until it opens up into the meadow!" He wished me well and off I went. Got back on track after digging a 6" hole as Coach went past me going very strongly and steadily. I got the nagging sense that I was now DFL in the group but, what the heck, it was a straight shot out and back AND I was poking along just enjoying the wild flowers, the water, and the various amazing decayed and carved Cedar stumps.

Approaching Spider Meadow I could begin to see the western ridge that overlooks it and then, while distracted by the sounds of children yelling and various cooking smells, I stepped into the Meadow.

It was like the sky just opened up. Slightly overcast but the sun was burning through and beginning to brighten things, a real contrast from the forest from which I emerged. The path through the meadow was deep, narrow, rooted, rocked and obscured in many spots by a thick growth of rather tough-looking grass, still wet with the morning dew. Broken branches and scattered rocks and boulders testified to avalanche damage from this past year. Birds were chirping, black flies were buzzing around, butterflies were floating, and I could hear the clicking of grasshoppers as I set off up (yes "up") the meadow towards Spider Gap. Ahead I could see groups of hikers making their way up the hills. Around mile six I passed three hikers and exchanged pleasantries. Just after that I came to a junction where the trail splits going up to Spider Gap and down to Phelps Basin. There was a camp to my left with a guy tidying his camp in preparation for the day's hiking. Here is where I discovered the limitations with my Garmin 305.

I had been navigating using a preloaded course. The sign was a little obscure with an arrow pointing left for Spider Gap and Lyman Glacier and another right for Phelps Basin. I looked at the track on my watch. Went right. Got to a fairly big stream crossing and then the watch told me I was off-course. Backtracked to the sign. Went left, past the campsite, and into the woods. The track ended and my watch beeped at me again. Hmm. Went back to the sign. Ran up the track straight ahead. The watch beeped again. Head scratch. No other tracks. Got out my phone and pulled up the topo map I had loaded on it. I was looking at it when the group of hikers I had just past caught up with me. They asked if I had been here before and which was the correct trail. I said I hadn't and was trying to puzzle it out as well. They had a map, a real one, and we figured that it was the trail straight in front (shown on the sign as to the left). I confirmed with the guy making camp who said that it was the right trail and that it would take us up and around Spider Nob. Thus began the second most challenging part of this run. Two miles to Spider Gap, a mental and physical test from 5000-odd feet to almost 7000 feet.

I started the ascent by running up a very steep hill that eventually curved around to the left. The track emerged from the woods onto a steep rock face that towered above me, with a band of bushes, and a jumbled rock field on my right.
On my left was a fairly precipitous slope that dropped away, getting steeper the higher I went. The track itself changed from the nice dirt and loam of the forest to loose rock punctuated by boulders that reminded me of my run up and over Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale. For me this meant paying very close attention to where I put my feet because, as I would later explain to Dave as he passed me coming down, my feet really are quite clumsy and prone to catching on random protrusions. Problem on this sort of track is that a misstep or catch could send me rolling down a really steep hillside. I walked. A fast walk to be sure, but a walk none-the-less, up a unrelenting set of switchbacks, climbing ever-higher while the valley receded into miniature. Coming down was going to interesting, it is always easier to go up than to come down. Mental challenge number one: overcoming the fear of falling off the trail and trusting my instincts and skills.

Walking up a particularly steep section of switch back I heard my name echoing and stopped to locate the source. There, up a few hundred feet, looking like he was balancing on the edge of a cliff was Dave telling me what to do once I got to the top ("Go left onto the glacier." "There are arrows."). I asked if I was the Tail-End and he said "Yes" and turned to go. I continued climbing and came to a flat slightly downhill section that took me to the foot of Spider Glacier.

From Spider Meadows Run

As you can see the scale of this scene is gigantic, at least in my limited experience of such things. I understand that in years past the glacier was much bigger but I still had to stop and say "Wow!" as this is the closest I have been to one of these.

Sure enough, there were arrows scraped into the snow and I dutifully followed them down onto the face of the glacier and began the long, slippery slog up to the top at Spider Gap. I was warm/comfortable despite the fact that I was walking on an field of snow and ice and there was sharp breeze blowing. I could see a long scraggly line of hikers going up the field, occasionally slipping and sliding as the slope increased. There were rocks all over the place and other debris and this very interesting red ice (the result of algae). It took me about a minute of sliding around to remember to cut into the snow with the inside edges of my shoes and, with periodic slipping, I duck walked my way all the way to the top.

This was a long way. Almost two miles and rather steep with sun-cups, exposed rocks, branches, etc.. Enter Mental Challenge #2: The fear of sliding out of control down without an ability to arrest the slide. Yep, I read about this in a mountaineering book some years ago, a description of the death of a climbing partner who just slid into oblivion off of Everest or K2 (don't remember which). I might not go sliding into oblivion but could get really banged up. Had a little preview of this a little later while mucking about on Lyman Trail.

Can I saw "Wow!" again?
From Spider Meadows Run

This is the view from Spider Gap down towards the Lyman Glacier (off on the left).

PT and I got to go off down the trail for about 20-minutes and see what we could see, to take pictures, and otherwise marvel. Coach joined us as well. Took the time to eat some trail mix, rejuvenating. It was so quiet—just the wind, marmot whistles, and rocks falling amidst a violent landscape. Lyman Glacier was just hanging there, a long ice trickle reaching down into the valley, feeding the azure lakes below. I could have stood there looking at this for hours but weather was coming in, a finger of cloud was slowly making its way through a gap and the sun, which had been making enough of an appearance to bake my face, was losing to the overcast. It was time to go. I was glad to have had as much time up there as I did (others in our group had less time).

As predicted, the descent was an interesting challenge. What is the best way to descend a snow field on a glacier? Ram your heels into the snow as hard as you can. If you slip and start sliding flip over onto your belly and dig your hands in as hard as you can. Such was coach's advice. It took a while but I made it without falling too many times or sliding out of control until I got to the foot. Dave passed me (he seemed to be skimming the surface) and I next saw him lounging at Spider Nob drinking tea (or rather water in which the tea bag had broken). I met the backpacker and the family with whom I have consulted with earlier, still on the way up towards the Gap. The father said that I must really be in shape to have made it up here so fast (he had been stopping at every switchback). I guess I am. :-) Talked a bit about the weather and then noticed that the dad was wearing basketball shoes (I thought trail running shoes were bad enough but, yikes!). Hope they made it.

Got to the Nob needing to rest my knees a bit so I explored some of the campsites out on the Nob. Windy, cold, but very spectacular views. Then it was time to revisit Mental Challenge Number 1. Took my time going down the steep sections. Dave passed me on the way down and stopped to chat a bit. Again, I was impressed with the lightness of his approach to the trail, he was running what I really could only imagine walking carefully. I watched him and then started to emulate his style—running more up on my toes with very quick feet that react rapidly to the changing conditions. It worked and I finally understand in a tactile sense Scott M's pre-race discussion of running at every Cougar Trail Race. I kept this up all the way down into the Meadow.

5.5 miles to go.

The trail was more crowded now and I was either stepping off the trail for backpackers or being allowed to go through while others moved aside. I was amazed at how many people were actually heading up into the meadow to points beyond (judging from the number of cars at the trailhead in the morning this should not have been a surprise). Lost count of how many times I was asked what I was training for and how far I had run.

I was tired but focused on form (ala Miller's Programmed to Run) in the places were I could settle into a steady gait to help keep myself going. At this point my watch kept on losing its signal. Coach had said that the last mile of this run is the worst because you just want it to be over. Can't say that that was what I was feeling. I was thinking that I had found an out-and-back run that I would happily do again. My watch was stuck at 1.67 miles to the finish. I turned a corner to the left, crossed a stream, went up for about 25 yards and saw the gate. Done!

Signed out and trotted down to the van to stretch, eat, change, and wait for the rest of our group to come in. Then, after an endless ride on a dusty road, dinner at the Squirrel Tree Restaurant in Coles Corner. A hamburger, fries, and salad well earned. Then, another endless ride home, a long day that ended at 9:30 PM.

Garmin Entry: (this is all screwed up)

Time: I am reckoning on 04:56:00 total time out there.

Amazing day. :-)

Next up? Rattlesnake . . .


Slomohusky said...

Fun adventure. Thanks for sharing the pix. Vegas and surrounding area has nothing to remind me of Seattle and the Cascades. So, thanks!

Oh, I have two orange shirts for the very same reasons. One is typical runners tech t, the other is my beloved Dicks T.

I was a Poli Sci major at the UW. Is Ruth Horowitz or Christine DiStefano still teaching there?

Andy said...

Yes! Amazing!