Philosophy and Preparation
Distance running has never seemed all that appealing to me: monotony, pain, and a lack of grand scale (as a road cyclist, the ground you can cover in a single is much greater and, as a result, that undertaking has always taken preference with me). Living at Lake Tahoe, however, has redefined what possibilities exist by way of distance running for me. The bounty of trails and truly world-class wilderness here have swayed me, and the allure of running into the woods and exploring what our world has to offer has overcome me.
I’ve spent the better part of three years building not only the fitness but the wilderness readiness skill set to open up the idea of overnight trail running, unsupported. This is not a new idea – many have done this before me (including my small group of friends that agree this is a good idea) – but it is new to me, and I have taken many pains to progress at my own speed, slowly pushing deeper and deeper into the realm of possibilities this activity has to offer. Please, before you go running into the woods with no plan and just a bottle of water, take the time to build a skill set and game-plan that suits you and your goals.
When I first became interested in overnight trail running, it was a result of reading about fastpacking and the new options that existed therein. I am also exceedingly interested in ultralight alpinism, so the idea of pushing fast-and-light appeals to me. I lack the background at this time to pursue any sort of committed alpinism (and I know this) but I felt as though my background as an endurance athlete would suit pushing fastpacking to the next level. I felt (and continue to feel) that my greatest opportunity to see the Tahoe Basin’s wilderness expanse would be on foot, and that speed and mobility would open up more windows than persistence and time could.
This past weekend I put over a dozen trial runs and experimental pushes to the test before setting out on my most ambitious effort yet. My goals were two committed, long runs and a chain of two of Desolation Wilderness’ tallest peaks (Mt. Price and Pyramid Peak), all solo and unsupported.
In preparation for this trip, I built upon the “packing list” that I’ve developed over the last few months of trials. The “musts”: be light, be small, be sufficient, be reliable. I need my gear on these runs to be light so that my pace in the backcountry isn’t compromised. It needs to be small, so that I don’t have to run with more than an endurance running vest (a pack of more than a dozen or so liters, in my view, would compromise running gait and, as a result, speed and efficiency). My gear must also be sufficient: I need enough calories, water, electrolyte supplement, and clothes to last days and nights on my own. Lastly, I need my gear to be reliable (and this is the most paramount of all of my “musts”). Weight/space savings mean nothing if the gear I’m relying on fails me in the wilderness.
Making the cut:
– an Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest. My choice for a “pack”, due to its weight/size and features (bottle holsters, storage volume, ergonomics, etc.).
– a Katadyn Hiker Water Purifier. More reliable than a Steripen (I’m not too enthused about entrusting my life to an abundance of technology in the wilderness) and, to me, more tried-and-true than some other options on the market. I recognize that there are some smaller/lighter options (Sawyer makes a popular product), but for the time being the penalty on space/weight is small enough for me to stick to my guns. I am open to exploring other options in the future, though, and would love to find a new product that improves the experience. Beyond all of this, Katadyn filters make the water taste delicious. I anticipate drinking from shallow creeks, snowmelt pools, etc. when I’m out there, and the last time I swallowed some moss and silt while sipping I ran six miles with a pretty awful taste in my mouth (before I finally managed to cough it up). I’d rather carry a bit more weight than use an alternative (Aqua Mira is the high mark for weight savings in water purification) and tolerate that taste again. Moreover, I feel that if I can’t handle an extra 10-oz or so then my legs aren’t as strong as I think.
– a Grand Trunk ultralight hammock is my solution to the sleep quandary. Light, easy, and effective. I use two pieces of paracord to lash it to two trees, and try and set it tight and low to the ground (mimicking a stable sleeping surface as much as possible).
– a SOL Emergency Bivy. The best insulation for your buck: both in terms of cost and weight/space penalty. I’ll never do another overnight without one.
– thermal socks, long-sleeve top, tights, and gloves. I use winter base layers here, and they serve well to keep you insulated at night. I’ll bring a light beanie in colder temps, but use a running headband for warmer nights.
– Sunscreen not only saves you from skin cancer, etc., but it also keeps your hydration regulated and keeps you more efficient while running. If you’re running at elevation (everything we do up here), this is even more important.
– Fuel. This is largely personal, but my friends and I make our choices here largely based on calorie-to-weight ration. A goodendurance trail mix, jerky, and small sandwiches (Nutella and almond butter on cinnamon raisin bread is my personal favorite) paired with bars and emergency gels get my vote. I know it seems challenging to do two strenuous days with an overnight in the wilderness with no cooking equipment or normal “meals”, but trust me, it can be done. This barrier was broken for me when reading about multi-day high-alpine climbs done in the mountains with no stove – if those guys and girls can get by without one, I’m pretty sure I can get through a single night in the woods without one.
– Electrolyte replacement. This is (along with water purification) the most important part of my pack. I know I can go a day or two without much or any food (although my muscles would hate me), and I know I can survive a cold night, but without water and electrolyte replacement my muscles will shut down and limit my speed to a crawl. This lack of mobility in the wilderness could mean serious harm, or worse, and it’s not a risk I’m into taking. Nuun tablets are my product of choice, and on hot/humid trips I’ll supplement that even more with Saltstick tablets.
– a reliable headlamp. Purely a safety issue – you don’t want to get caught in the dark and not be able to move quickly to an overnight destination.
– MAP. Don’t be reckless and ever go into the wilderness without a map (and I do mean a PAPER MAP, not a .pdf synced to your phone – again, don’t leave your life in the hands of technology in the wilderness). This is the lightest/smallest piece of gear that carries the most benefit, and is a must-have. I recommend the National Geographic maps for topographic and trail detail.
– lighter, fire steel, and tinder/starter paper. If you’re going when the overnight lows get down close to freezing, this can be a lifesaver at best and a pleasant luxury regardless. Fires aren’t permitted everywhere, especially in high fire danger seasons, so be aware of regulations. Don’t be that guy or girl that burns the forest down.
– personal luxuries. Travel toothbrush and toothpaste, cellphone (in a waterproof phone bag for rain readiness, on airplane mode to conserve battery life), mosquito net, and compressible sleeping bag. This is the chapter of today’s entry where all of the weight junkies will crucify me. These items regularly make the cut on my trips, although they’re purely luxury choices. A toothbrush and toothpaste (travel sizes) take up almost no space and weight, and really go a long way to freshen you up in the morning. I bring my cellphone in case of emergencies, and for photography. A bring an ENO Bug Net for my hammock, because mosquitos are prevalent up here in the Tahoe Basin and they LOVE me. This is a humongous space/weight penalty, but it’s worth every once for me – it’s oftentimes the difference between a rejuvenating sleep or a handful of sleepless hours being eaten alive. It may not be for you – make your own decisions on your trips. On colder nights (below 50 degrees or so) I bring my Sea to Summit Spark 2 sleeping bag. It’s extremely light and compresses into very small, packable item. When I’m going out for multiple ambitious days, sleep is critical – it’s when the body can regenerate and support more effort the next day. Weight/space penalties that allow for a better/fuller sleep are worth it, in my view.
You may choose to bring more or less on your outings, but I encourage you to experiment. Start slow, with shorter runs and less-committing overnight destinations. Give yourself “outs” if things go wrong. Don’t try and superhero a huge run (or two) the first trip. Consider going with a friend, or run to meet friends who are out backpacking/camping – there safety in numbers and a silly mistake that could cost you while solo is sometimes easily mitigated in groups.
As I touched on above, this was to be my most ambitious outing to date: a 29-35 mile run (depending on what map/GPS/hearsay you choose to believe), an overnight at Lake Aloha, a summit of two of Desolation’s highest peaks (Mt. Price and Pyramid Peak), and an 18-22 mile run to get back to the real world. Per usual, I sat down with my maps (the Lake Tahoe Basin Trail Map and the National Geographic 803) and plotted my days (and night), planning every step before I set out. As a good friend once detailed to me: failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
I choose to set out from the Meeks Bay Trailhead (the northernmost entry point into Desolation Wilderness), and was thrilled with the trail from the outset. The Meeks Bay Trailhead gains you access to the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail – a continuous single track from Meeks Bay to Yosemite National Park. Every bit living up to its billing, the trail was in immaculate condition. At the trailhead, you can procure a day permit into Desolation, but I had to obtain an overnight permit from their website (or I could have gone to the Meeks Bay campground). If I may stand on my pedestal for a moment and preach: obtain a permit before overnighting in Desolation. I’m sure you can avoid getting “caught” (you are meandering through the wilderness, after all), but the funds go to supporting trail stewardship and other amenities that we all enjoy, so swallow the $5. Our support goes a long way to maintaining and opening up the Wilderness that we all enjoy.
The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail progresses steeply almost from the trailhead up to Lake Genevieve, gaining almost 1,500 in those initial miles. Lake Genevieve is the first of no less than 7 lakes that you’ll encounter in your first 8 miles or so, and starts a beautiful section of scenic running. Of these lakes, I found Stony Ridge Lake to be the most engaging – I was very tempted to pull off the trail and dive in for a swim. That being said, I was on a mission, and had my sights set for Phipps Peak before I stopped for a bit. The running continued along these alpine lakes before starting the ascent to Phipp’s Pass. In my planning, I noted that my first day included two very notable mountain passes – Phipp’s Pass and Dick’s Pass – and was prepared for a slog up a number of single track switchbacks. Although not too steep or unrelenting, Phipp’s Pass is indeed worthy of respect and is sure to sap the leg strength of all who choose to ascend its slopes. Upon reaching the pass proper, it’s a short and quick scramble to the top of Phipp’s Peak, and is well worth the effort. I enjoyed some rest and a sandwich at the summit, and admired the expense of Desolation in a stunning 360 degrees.
Continuing on, I was treated to a blissful descent from Phipp’s Pass toward Middle Velma Lake. I enjoyed this section of running very much, and found a comfortable tempo that helped quiet the mind and brought considerable joy. I choose to stay on the Pacific Crest Trail in order to catch a glimpse of Fontanillis Lake, and that decision was validated in spades. My overnight destination on this day wins the award for my “favorite” lake on this route, but Fontanillis Lake is gorgeous and has a very unique alpine feel to it, framed defiantly by Dick’s Peak and its equally proud neighbors. I stopped here to filter some water and take in the ambience, gearing up for the next push on the day’s run. Fontanillis has earned an earmark for a future overnight destination, to be sure.
Fontanillis precedes the second big climb on the day, from Dick’s Lake to Dick’s Pass. Perhaps it was my tempo (maybe a bit too full of ambition for my legs to accomodate, perhaps it was the miles themselves that preceded it, but this climb hurt my feelings. I geared down and buried myself for what seemed like an hour (it was indeed much less, but time has teeth under such scenarios) and with much labor and more than a little self-deprecation I took the pass with much relief. As though it was placed there with intention, a perfect sitting-stone is perched at the Pass and it concedes a spectacular panorama of much of the Wilderness. Photos do nothing here, but that didn’t stop me from trying:
Descending from Dick’s Pass is some technical running, and was a true test of my reflexes this deep into the day’s run. Cascading down toward Gilmore Lake, I was treated to glimpses of Mt. Tallac and of my day’s destination of Lake Aloha, and my spirits were buoyed. Nerves and light were fading, and a reassurance that I was nearing my “finish line” for the day was greatly appreciated.
A right turn took me toward Susie Lake, and it was at this time that my daylight officially conceded its fight. I blame myself – I should have never started so late in the day, but logistics prevented this and I decided to push on with my plan despite the late start. This was far from ideal, but I had faith in my skills should night fall and thought, at worst, I would use my headlamp and speed-hike to the best of my ability. To my surprise, my less-than-stellar decision making brought with it a great reward. Saturday evening carried a full moon, and I hardly noticed that night had fallen when it did. I refrained from using my headlamp. The moonlight supported steady running, and I didn’t even take note of a decrease in pace. If anything, I sped up. The low light added a sense of speed (our perception of speed is directly linked to our ability to coordinate distance to stationary objects, which is largely dictated by ambient light/sunlight), and supported some of my most memorable running to date. I don’t think I would’ve put myself in this situation given the choice, but therein lies the appeal of adventures such as these. This time, my sense of exploration was rewarded.
Running alongside Heather Lake was technical, and harrowing in the moonlight. A few hundred feet past Heather Lake’s Northwest shoreline, I had made it: Lake Aloha stretched before me, sparkling in the moonlight. I stopped to filter water and breathe it all in; my legs thanked me for the reprieve. A view like the one I found here is best earned, in my opinion, and I made sure to drink in every detail. I rushed nothing, and found real serenity.
I choose to follow the trail toward Mosquito Pass in search of an enclave of trees to support my hammock, and found a perfect option just up the trail with a view of the entirety of the lake. Without hesitation, I committed to my overnight destination and set up “camp”. Once my hammock was set up and I had changed into my warmer layers, I sat and enjoyed some trail mix, some jerky, and my hard-earned view. I stayed up and worked through a great many thoughts in the peace and quiet that only the Wilderness can provide, and am grateful for the opportunity to do so. It’s so very hard to find the time and energy and peace to sincerely think anymore, and this truism is not lost on me; it’s actually one of the most overreaching reasons I find solace in these runs.
I’ll make no proclamations that sleeping in a hammock is the best sleep you’ll find anywhere, but a deep physical exhaustion and real quiet go a long way. I found surprising recuperative sleep on this night, and woke with the sun feeling rejuvenated and enthused. I enjoyed sunrise from my hammock and marveled at the Lake once more before setting out for the mountaintops.
This was to be my first attempt at combining scrambling/climbing with distance running, and I was curious to see how my body responded. I choose this specific undertaking, in part, due to the accessibility of these two peaks. Pyramid Peak can be attained, in the summer, by little more than a hands-in-pockets hike and some limited scrambling, and I felt comfortable with these demands even after a big day of running. Fortunately, the descriptions I had found of the approach and its demands proved fairly accurate, and the summit yielded itself without much resistance. The most challenging of the work came only after taking the summit ridgeline, in the form of some very committing scrambling with sincere exposure to either side. Movements that could be made without any hesitation in less-demanding environments were trying and taxed my will. I enjoyed a sandwich at the summit and looked down the ridge in the morning light toward Mt. Price, hoping to confirm that my ridgeline traverse to my second summit of the day was indeed manageable. It did indeed seem to be the case, but I knew at first glance from Pyramid’s summit that this enchainment would be more challenging than I previously thought. Some ridgelines here in the Tahoe Basin are easily runnable (PCT from Sugar Bowl to Squaw, Basin Peak to Castle Peak, etc.), but this ridge was all granite and all scrambling – no running was to be had. Still, it seemed like a better alternative than down climbing to the intermediate shelf below, traversing to Mt. Price, and climbing back up. Whether or not I made the right decision to stay on the ridge is debatable, but that decision indeed cost me almost double the time I anticipated when I planned this day. Moreover, it cost me significantly more energy than I had anticipated, which surely cost me later in the day. Lessons learned.
After an hour and half of scrambling across the knife-edge granite rocks that defined the ridge, I arrived at Mt. Price’s summit. Success! I had completed my goal of enchaining these two summits, and was thrilled with my accomplishment. Never before had I challenged myself like this, and I was elated to find that my body and mind were up to the task. I took the time to take a photo of the view, in hopes of bringing home a tangible reminder of my accomplishment:
Downclimbing from Mt. Price (like the ridgeline traverse) was significantly more demanding than I had anticipated. A maze of granite steps benched down from the summit to Mosquito Pass, and the progress was slow. With much effort I reached a small snowmelt pool just shy of the Pass, and stopped to rest my head and filter some water before starting the day’s running. A few more minutes of trotting/rockhopping brought me to the Pass, and I was back on the trail.
My maps led me to believe it was about 5.5 miles from Mosquito Pass to Camper Flat, but I will swear many times over that it was closer to 8. Maybe I was tired (yes), maybe I was at a glycogen deficit from the demanding climbing/scrambling (without a doubt), and maybe my ambition had outstripped my body’s capabilities (probably), but this section of running was as trying mentally as any run I can remember. I refused to believe that the trail could be so interminable, and I couldn’t comprehend how it was taking so long. My muscles cried in revolt with every step, and technical trail sections and river crossing tested my reflexes and skill to the breaking point. Arriving at Camper Flat was a bittersweet moment – as I rested and drank I couldn’t help but notice the climbing that lie ahead on the Velma Lakes Trail toward Middle Velma Lake. My legs couldn’t comprehend that the trail could possibly continue to pitch uphill. I steadied myself and, after a deep breath, began the trek. With my body and mind failing me, this section of trail proved no less challenging than its predecessor. The Velma Lakes Trail from Camper Flat to the PCT is a barely-marked collection of granite twists and turns, framed intermittently with makeshift cairns. At this point in my trip, my mind was not tuned in to the demands of this trail, and I lost the route on a number of occasions. My pace slowed to a shuffle, and a second-guessed many of the turns on my way up to the lake. With much effort, I crested the climb and reached the PCT. I refused to stop here, as I didn’t now if I had the resolve to restart my progress. Desperation alone willed me forward. Desperation, and an ace up my sleeve.
When I was plotting this excursion, I recognized that my own ambition and my body’s limitations may not fall in line. The Wilderness leaves little room for error, and that makes for a challenging dynamic when trip-planning. Fortunately for me, my girlfriend Coral likes hiking. She volunteered to hike out to Fontanillis Lake with our friend Tim, and I knew if I could just get to her (and the sandwich she had promised to sherpa out to the lake) my spirits would be lifted and my struggle would be over. A broken walk through the woods defeated is an interminable and terrible fate, but a hike with one’s significant other and friends at a comfortable walking pace is a lovely afternoon, indeed. Without her (and Tim) I would have been resigned to a lonely and very slow 5 miles or so from Middle Velma to the Bayview trailhead (my planned destination). With them, I would be treated to a stroll in good company and real food. After pushing myself halfway down the shoreline of Fontanillis Lake, I came across them both. Elation overcame me – my work was behind me. We exchanged pleasantries, I embraced Coral, and we sat on the shores to enjoy a real lunch and a swim. My body forbade me from much more activity than a dip in the water, but the cold temperature and cleansing sensation changed my mindset completely. We dried off, and began a very pleasant hike back to the trailhead. A few hills (Tim, you said it was all downhill from the Lake!) and a chance hailstorm did their best to dissuade us, but we made it back with hardly a complaint and in grand style. Celebration was had in the form of coffee and hot chocolate, and all was well.
The lesson, as always: find someone who loves you very much, and send them into the woods with sandwiches. Just in case.