Running the Pacific Crest Trail ~
Highway 49 (Sierra City) to Interstate 80 (Donner Summit)
The previous day’s storm loomed in all of our minds during the pre-dawn gathering. All of us excited about the adventure ahead. None of us aware of what lay ahead. What we all knew was it would be an adventure.
Audrey, Gretchen and Betsy prepared themselves for the journey north. And with no fanfare they were off, quietly disappearing into the misty dark morning below Castle Peak. Luke and I loaded into Gretchen’s Subaru Forester and headed North to Sierra City, some 90 minutes away.
Winding down Highway 49, I nearly missed the turnout for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The fog was thick, the roads wet and the temperature was the same as Donner Summit: 34 degrees. We parked, suited up and walked over to the trailhead. My stomach dropped when the worn PCT sign stated 41 miles to Norden (aka Highway 40 / Sugar Bowl.) Not so quickly doing the math, I realized we were not running 33 miles today but closer to 37 miles. And then we were off. But no more than two minutes in we crossed the North Fork of the Yuba River. We had to stop. The fog hung low, the water cascaded and we couldn’t miss the photo opp. It really set the stage for what was to come: simply spectacular trail running.
More bad data made for a longer run to Jackson Meadows. I expected 6 miles but it turned out to be 11 miles. At the time I kept thinking the signs were wrong. Nope. It was 11.2 miles to the Henness Pass road crossing. It was no matter, as this was such an incredible section of the trail. We climbed about 4,000 ft but it was amazing running. Sometimes I felt like I was running in the foothills near Auburn, then I felt like I was in the Cascade Mountain Range, then the boulder fields of the Southern Sierras. Now throw in bridge crossing after bridge crossing. It was perfect trail.
Once we hit Jackson Meadows I thought things would be pretty flat for an extended period. It was. For a whole 2 miles. Then we started this gradual uphill that never wanted to end. At one point Luke chimed in with a, “THIS IS A GRIND.” I couldn’t answer, it would have cost too much oxygen.
We hit the snow 16 miles in. It was only a dusting at first, then it filled into about a steady, crunchy two inches or so. We continued to climb. The snow got deeper but at least it was still cold and firm. At this point we were starting to worry about the other half of our team coming north. They’d been going for an hour longer than us so we expected them soon.
Then, at mile 20, there they were: crunching through the snow hooting and hollering as were we. It was a relief to see them. The snow was deep enough to be worried about properly following the trail. We talked a bit, took some photos, talked about trail conditions and mileage. We now confirmed the run would be 37 miles. DAMN. I mean… and then like the start, the girls were off.
The miles ticked off as were cruised along peaks, meadows, wilderness all covered in snow. But now the temperature had warmed up to a whopping 50 degrees or warmer and the trees were pretty much raining on us. The snow we were running through was like running in a slurpee. There was no avoiding getting soaked. It was taking a toll. We were both running out of steam. It was as close to snowshoe running without the snowshoes.
10 miles to go: we passed backpackers. They were probably as surprised to see us as us them.
6 miles to go (Paradise Lake): 4 more hikers. We might as well have been aliens the way they looked at us.
4 miles to go: a couple more hikers with dogs. I stopped and chatted because I needed a breather.
3 miles to go (Peter Grubb Hut): a crew was working on the hut.
2 miles to go: on the fire road heading to the car, passing lots of backpackers and hikers.
Finally we arrived at the finish of the day’s journey. 36.4 miles/soaking wet/84 oz of water consumed and too many GUs. Luke went straight to the trunk and cracked a beer. I dropped my gear and walked over to him. A beer was offered but I was sure I’d lose it on the drive home so I didn’t. I should have because all I had was milk at home. I think I drank 64 oz of milk. I know… Gross.
It didn’t really hit me until the next day how epic the run was. Last year I ran from Barker pass to Echo summit with Paul Sweeney. I loved that run through Desolation Wilderness and over Dicks Pass with some incredible views. This run just surpassed that as a must-do every year. Next time it’ll be in June or July and I’ll go north.