Report: 3rd Alpine Lakes Grand Tour Failure

On Fri, Jul 17, 2015, I set out for my 3rd Alpine Lakes Grand Tour attempt. I needed some challenging solo/unsupported training for my next big things, so I figured this would be a great opportunity to make yet another attempt at this grand tour. Sadly, the 3rd time didn’t turn out as a charm.

feI opted for a 7pm-ish start time because that was compatible with driving up from Portland on Friday and, according to my pace table, should allow me to get over Aasgard Pass during daylight. We left Portland at around 1pm and of course got stuck in terrible I-5 traffic on the way to Snoqualmie Pass. I spent the time in traffic wisely by devouring an entire pizza and an ice cream. It was good fuel. At the Snow Lake trailhead, my pack was heavy and so was my stomach. I left anyway.

al3_25This (and more) is what I ate before the start. It was good fuel. There was no beer involved.

al3_26The pack weighted 9.8lbs. That included 34oz of liquids, food for 32h, additional clothing, SPOT, headlamps, batteries, emergency kit, a shitload of toilet paper, and more.

al3_27Off I went into the unknowns of a 3rd attempt.

al3_reportmapAlpine Lakes Grand Tour route map with the names I’m referring to in this report. Click on it to make it bigger.

al3_profileAlpine Lakes Grand Tour elevation profile. The further your go, the more challenging the climbs and the terrain. Note that this is only what I did during this attempt, not the entire 75mi route.

I knew my way, at least on the first 50 miles, and decided to take it easy and to enjoy the amazing scenery on this unique route as much as possible. It’s a slow route, whether you want it or not. Or maybe I’m just slow. The weather was perfect and the forecast equally so. I was in good spirits and felt energized. My only worry was the strained calf from the Hood 50/50 last weekend. I was unsure how it would cooperate, but it did great and stopped complaining after 10mi or so. But little did I know about the several serious errors I should make within the next 34 hours.

The climb up to Snow Lake was uneventful, except from a couple who asked me where I was heading. I’m not sure if they really believed me.

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Snow Lake in the evening light.

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Rock Creek Trail junction. The trail connects to the Middle Fork Trail at the bottom of the valley.

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Rock Creek Trail. Thus the rocks, I guess. I don’t run such rocky sections. Maybe you do.

Soon I reached the Middle Fork Trail and connected via the 2nd bridge to the Dutch Miller Gap trail. As as always, I admired the decommissioned hot spring, which is still cold. For a moment I considered cooling down, but I had just prepared and taped my feet for a long run and didn’t want to make them wet. A mile or so later I passed the new installation in the middle of the freaking Middle Fork Trail: a shower! It’s cold too. I passed that opportunity too.

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Cold hot spring on the Middle Fork Trail.

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Cold shower in the middle of the woods? Here you go. No coins needed.

The Dutch Miller gap trail was very much overgrown in many sections. My rule of thumb is that I don’t run if I can’t see the trail. So I power-hiked through these many sections. I also got car-washed as the night fell, but it dried off quickly and the temperatures remained super pleasant throughout the night. That made things a lot easier.

Yet, there were two other things I struggled with that I don’t usually struggle with: blisters and trouble staying awake. About an hour into the run I realized I was getting blisters despite my protective taping in two locations and in two additional locations where I never get blisters. So I eventually stopped and addressed as many issues as I could with the limited first aid kit I had. Even though I had slept a lot during the week, I had trouble staying awake. Twice I had to sit down on a log because I was pretty much unable to stay upright. And twice I fell asleep within seconds and fell from the freaking log. No one laughed. I’m glad I managed to keep myself from laying down. I would undoubtedly have slept for hours.

By sunrise I was on Cathedral Pass and sat down for a minute to have a delicious breakfast gel and to enjoy the views. Next up was bombing down on the other side and then tackle Paddy-go-Easy Pass, which was still nicely in the shade at that point. I took it easy and was up on the summit rather quickly.

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The views from Cathedral Pass.

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That’s how I look after running through a night. The smell is an entirely different story.

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Another overrated sunrise.

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Paddy-go-Easy Pass. If you go hard, you won’t have it easy.

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The views from the summit of Paddy-go-Easy Pass.

Next up was the Meadow Creek trail and the first bushwhacking section. I was up for some surprises. My last two attempts were in the fall, so compared to then, the vegetation had exploded. The little that is left of the trail was now ueber-massively overgrown. I knew my way through this section, but it took me a long time to get through the vegetation. It won’t take much longer until there will be nothing left of what undoubtedly once was a great trail.

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Meadow Creek Trail junction.

DCIM149GOPROThat’s the beginning of the trail at the junction. But also pretty much the end. The wood in the front is probably from some old shelter.

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Did you say trail?

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Where the hell is that f*ing trail?!

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Trail!

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A pretty meadow as a post-bushwhacking reward. Meadow Creek Trail now feels more appropriate as a name.

By the time I reached the Jack Ridge junction, the beginning of the 2nd bushwhacking section, my feet were ruined. I changed into dry socks and used what was left of my first aid kit supplies. It also became increasingly clear that I was going slower than anticipated because of all the overgrown sections and that, lo and behold, I did not pack enough food. That was the slow realization of my first major error. I always pack more food than I need. Always. But apparently not this time. Ruined feet and not enough food led me to thinking about all kinds of scenarios over the next hours. I eventually found a solution.

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Jack Ridge junction.

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That’s the beginning of the trail at the junction. But also pretty much the end. It’s not as bad as the Meadow Creek trail, however.

The descent from Jack Ridge to Trout Lake is pretty straightforward, yet, the trail does not seem maintained either. Next up was Windy Pass. It’s a pretty evil climb toward the end. That’s actually one trait of the Alpine Lakes Grand Tour with a Snoqualmie Pass starting location: the further your get into the route, the more evil the climbs get and the more challenging the terrain and the navigation becomes.

By the time I reached the Windy Pass summit, I had decided to send a pre-defined SPOT message to Ursina so that she’d meet me at the Eighmile Lake Trailhead (mile 55 or so). At that point, I thought I would fix my feet and get a resupply of food so that I would make it through the Enchantments. But by the time I eventually reached the trailhead, it was clear I was done and just wanted to pass out. My feet were hurting like never before. Cooling them down in a cold stream helped to relief some pain on the last few miles, but it was only a temporary fix.

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Grinding up Windy Pass. I wished it were windy this time.

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On the way down to Eightmile Lake trailhead. I was in no mood to smile, but it seems I did anyway.

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A preview of the next mountain range I was supposed to tackle.

Ursina was waiting for me in the parking lot at the Eighmile Lake trailhead. That obviously made the run a supported instead of an unsupported one. I was fine with that and had other worries at that point, such as the insight that I was on the way for over 24h, longer than during my Oct 10, 2014, attempt.

I assumed we’d just go back to Leavenworth and have a beer. But I was wrong. It was very clear from the moment I arrived that Ursina was not going to let me quit. As every good husband does, I listened, fixed my feet, grabbed additional food, and got ready for a 2nd long night in the mountains. After enjoying a boiling hot coke that sat in the car all day, I headed out again. As I left, someone I didn’t know asked me in the parking lot if I was the guy running 75mi. I guess the word spread. I felt energized and reached the Colchuck Lake trail in no time. The evening light on the massive peaks was gorges and I was excited to finally go up Aasgard pass. On the other hand, since I was about an hour behind schedule, I was also nervous because it was going to be all in the dark.

al3_24Unexpected re-supply and medical stop at Eightmile Lake trailhead. Ready to head out again. Feeling revitalized.

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At the bottom of the Colchuck Lake trail. Ready for a 2nd long night.

I power-hiked up to Colchuck Lake and repeatedly told myself how glad I was that this time I would not have to come down again the same route. At Colchuck Lake, I was impressed by several camp setups that looked more like fancy summer homes than basic backpacking camps. I continued around the lake to the boulder fields where the ascent to Aasgard pass would begin. By then it was dark and I had to focus all my attention on the navigation. Even with my strong headamp, it was sometimes hard to find the next cairn. I had saved the entire Alpine Lakes Grand Traverse route on the Ambit GPS that I carried, and it was time to activate it in the navigation mode. I’ve done this hundreds of times previously. I trust my GPS, have figured out its limits and weaknesses, and was aware that I was pretty much going to have to rely on it for the entire night. I also stopped to consult the map I had with me and familiarized myself with the upcoming sections once again.

The climb up Aasgard never wanted to end. It was slow and tough going at night through very steep and challenging terrain. I had crossed path with the last people on the way down at the bottom of the pass, now I was on my own. There were no lights to be seen anywhere, only a beautiful sky with countless stars. As I reached what felt like the top, I realized it was only some sort of head wall. It took me a while to figure out I had to go all the way to the right as my headlamp did not light up the entire wall. From there, it was still a long way to the top. I carefully went from cairn to cairn and continued to double-check the route on the GPS as I moved on.

As soon as I finally reached the pass, I started looking for cairns or any sign of a trail on the other side that would lead me into the Enchantment basin. I could not see anything immediately. The image below summarizes all I saw on the way up, on the summit, and on the way down: freaking endless piles of rocks.

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 The view of Aasgard pass on the way up, on the summit, and also on the way down.

From the pass, I could not see anything in the surroundings: no lights, no summits, no lakes. There was no frame of reference whatsoever at the exception of the piles of rocks in the beam of my headlamp. The moon was not out and even if I turned off my headlamp, the peaks around me were not visible. So I decided to scout for the descent location by walking a small loop so that I would come back to the same location. I made this decision because I realized there was a risk I may get lost otherwise. You can see that I indeed walked a loop on the GPS track below.

al3_aasgard_loopWalking a small loop on the summit of Aasgard pass in search for the descent location.

As I came back, I suddenly saw a cairn below me and got very excited that I had found the right spot for the descent. A glance on my GPS confirmed that I was right on the route. In addition, I also consulted the map again to check which lake I should see first as I descended.

In good spirits, I continued my journey into the Enchantment basin. While I did not have an elevation profile with me, I thought I remembered that the descent was going to be shorter than the ascent. It felt like it took hours nevertheless. And it really did. When I finally reached Isolation Lake, it was well past midnight. As on the way up, I had constantly checked the GPS track. I knew I had to go around the lake on the left hand side, which the GPS confirmed. At some point, I checked the map again to see at which lake I might be. I saw that there was supposed to be a “Gnome Cairn” somewhere. Shortly thereafter, I came across one that truly looked like a gnome. I felt very happy that I was finally making good progress after the slow Aasgard traverse. I’ve been to the Enchantments before, but never over Aasgard pass. So as I made my way along the lakes, I got more comfortable with the environment and things started to look more familiar. The next thing I was expecting soon was the descent to Snow Lakes. It’s pretty steep and there’s only one way down. I eventually reached the end of the basin, which my GPS confirmed, and saw the steep trail that would lead me to Snow Lakes. From there, it was a few miles only down to the “finish line” at the Snow Lakes trailhead just outside of Leavenworth. I started to “smell the barn,” as ultra runners like to say, and couldn’t believe that I was about to finally get this challenge completed.

As I made my way down to the Snow Lakes, the trail suddenly started to climb up again. That was weird, I didn’t remember that. Hmm?! Then things suddenly started to look familiar and I realized I must be going in a loop or something around one of the small lakes at the end of the Enchantments. I sat down and looked at the map, but no lake had a trail around. But not all maps are accurate, so it was still possible there might be a trail. I checked the GPS and I was right on the route. I decided to backtrack and see if I had maybe missed a junction. Then I checked the GPS again, then the map, then I went forward, then backwards. The next thing I realized was that I was completely lost. I had no clue where I was and nothing made any sense anymore. It was a terrible moment. But it was nothing compared to what was yet to come.

In an attempt to be more systematic in figuring my location out, I backtracked one again, but went further. Suddenly I saw a tent in the bushes that I hadn’t seen before. As a dog started barking, some half-naked dude popped his head out of the tent. I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask where we were. He said one word: Colchuck Lake. It was the word I had the least expected. And it took my fried brain seconds until it hit me like 1001 wet running shoes. I have no words to describe how I felt in that moment.

Now it suddenly all made sense. I apologized to the half-naked man for the disturbance and left in the direction of the trail I thought was leading me down to Snow Lakes minutes ago. The brutal truth was that in reality, I never made it down into the Enchantment basin. What I thought was Isolation Lake was Colchuck Lake. The gnome cairn I saw was some random cairn that my sleepless brain had put a gnome face on. Worse, I later saw on the map that it did not say “Gnome Cairn” but “Gnome Tarn,” which is a lake. So I couldn’t even read properly anymore. The cairn on top of Aasgard pass that I saw was in reality the last cairn on the ascent route on the Colchuck Lake side, not on the Enchantment side.  And the trail that looked familiar and that lead me to thinking I was going in a circle was the trail I was on hours before on the way up to Colchuck Lake.

But how could this very serious error have happened in the beginning? I had lost the orientation on Aasgard Pass without realizing it. I may have walked a circle, but when I got back to the start, I must have faced the wrong direction. I don’t know how and why, but it happened. Then I simply went down the same way as I came up, following the exact same cairns. In the complete darkness, without any frame or point of reference, there was no way for me to realize my error. For 6 hours, I had no clue that I was completely lost and going backwards.

There is no doubt that my brain was not working properly during this second sleepless night. But that is not enough to explain everything. I also was a “victim” of the confirmation bias. I saw the things I wanted to see and expected to see. With a sharper mind, I may have started to ask questions earlier. I may have double-checked more details, as I usually do. For example, I never checked the compass on Aasgard Pass, mainly because I never felt a need to. I didn’t know I was lost until 6h later. I was 100% sure I was right on the route I had to be and going toward the finish line.

But what about the GPS, how could I possibly have made that error by following a predefined route? Well, it turns out it’s surprisingly easy to make that error, at least on my Ambit GPS unit. If you are in the middle of the route and use the magnified view that I always use because it’s super precise, you essentially only see a line across the screen that indicates your route and the arrow that indicates your location (see pic below). Without the end points of the route in view (which you’d only see when you’re very close to them), you have no way of knowing which direction you are going. You’d know from checking the overview, but I never did that. Again, I never felt a need because I had no reason to believe I made an error. So everything made sense by looking on my Ambit. I was always precisely on the route, but simply going in the wrong direction.

al3_ambit3Suunto Ambit navigation mode. If you are in the middle of a route, all you see is a line with no end points. You can’t tell which direction you are going unless you check the overview.

While I did not reach my physical limits this time, I reached my mental limits. It’s very scary when you realize you can’t trust your brain anymore. While thankfully my error had no serious consequences, things could easily have been very different in this or other situations.

Now I can sorta laugh about the situation, but I didn’t in the few hours following the epic failure. My happy feeling of getting closer to the finish line was crushed in a very unpleasant and completely unexpected way. One of the worst parts right after realizing the extent of my error was the fact that I had to once again descend the Colchuck Lake trail and run like a beaten dog to the Colchuck trailhead. Well, I had no choice. Although, for a few seconds, I considered going up Aasgard Pass again to complete the mission. But I had very little food left and was not going to make it for another 6-7h, so I gave up on that crazy idea. I sent off a SPOT message so that Ursina would hopefully meet me at the trailhead. Shortly after 4am I finally reached the car. I was on my feet for 33h51min. We drove back to Leavenworth, where I slept for 1.5h before celebrating another epic failure with some unepic breakfast.

I think I got precisely what I was looking for: a truly intense solo training session that pushed my limits and in which I learned extremely valuable things for my upcoming challenges. Once again I did not succeed in completing the Alpine Lakes Grand Tour, but there’s always tomorrow. I may have to learn a few more things first.

While I felt like a complete loser, beginner, and moron in the first few hours after the “Colchuck Lake” words were spoken, I now like to think that I set a new bar for epic failures, ha! There is no doubt that one could make the challenge easier by going in a group and/or doing it in a supported way. Multiple fried minds may not have made the same error as my solo fried mind. But that’s not the challenge I was looking for.

“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.” — Sumner Redstone

al3_28Celebrating another epic failure with an unepic breakfast.

al3_colchuckGoing back and forth as I realized I was lost. Undoubtedly a most unpleasant moment.

Movescount data:

  • Elapsed time: 33h51min
  • Total distance: 66.59mi (probably more like 72mi, considering 10% short-logging)
  • Elevation gain: 22,283ft

GPS Visualization: