September 20-21, 2014
As we stepped onto the trail just after 6:30 in the morning, I felt relieved to be finally starting the journey. Like many of my past races and adventures, I find it easy to over think, analyze minutia, and second-guess my decisions and motivations in the weeks and days leading up to the event. The Wonderland Trail was no different. In the week prior to the run, I had strained my Achilles and calf to the point where I was unsure if I should even start, and had not run a step for the four days leading up to the run. This compiled with the fact that I had trained infrequently and with low volume since finishing the Squamish 50 miler in August, brought pangs of self-doubt and insecurity to the surface as I wondered if I could get this thing done. Conversely, my running partner for the weekend, Jeff Pelletier, had suffered an early season injury and was now in the middle of a large block of training and probably his fittest to date this year. I hoped I would be able to keep up, and not derail our run. But now it had begun, so there was no turning back.
Our headlights flickered along the trails, and we moved easily over the rolling terrain, careful not to exert ourselves early. Since our trip was to be self-supported with no outside food, shelter or supplies, we were loaded down with a bounty of gear and gadgets. Although Jeff and I had agonized and discussed each piece of gear for the last few weeks, it still felt like we had a hell of a lot of stuff! Throughout the morning, we spent time getting a feel for our packs again and adjusting the load and placement of gear, food, maps and cameras. Fortunately, this was not our first time running with such a big pack as both Jeff and I had accompanied our friends Ken, Matt and Alexa for sections of their 100km point to point traverse of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, now known as the Cove to Cove route. During my 10 hours, and Jeff’s 22 hours on trail with them, we had had time to feel out how to load the pack, which straps to tighten, and the general sluggishness with which we would now call forward progress. This proved valuable as this adventure was a first for both Jeff and I in terms of distance and elevation climbed over a single effort.
We strolled into the alpine after Devils Dream campground, and stopped to soak in what would be the focal point of our journey for the next two days. Mt Rainer, towered above us, bathed in crisp morning sunlight. We couldn’t believe that we had gotten so lucky with the weather this late in the season! Throughout the weekend, we could not have asked for more accommodating conditions. During the day we ran in our t-shirts and dunked ourselves in the crisp mountain streams and rivers, and at night we were able to continue without jackets under starlight. After taking the first of hundreds of photos we continued down the trail, marveling at our good fortune.
Marching up from the South Puyallup river on one of the days numerous climbs made me grateful for the decision to bring hiking poles for the journey. I have used poles in numerous ultras throughout the years, including this year Laverado Ultra Trail, and knew that they would be invaluable on the climbs and descents late into the run. Coming from a North American running background, we are taught that poles are slow, ruin your “flow”, trap your hands, and are only suitable for Europeans. Due to my experience with them in the past, I urged Jeff to buy a pair of ultra light carbon-fibre poles from Black Diamond. I can safely say that they saved my trip around the mountain, and made both of our lives a lot easier.
The climbs on the Wonderland Trail are really not that hard. The trail is super buffed out and well-maintained by the national park service, so when looking at individual climbs or if you were to hike a small section of the trail it would seem overkill to bring along poles. But over the 150kms (93 miles) of trail covered, we climbed 7 200 m (23 600 ft), and descended the same with our loaded packs and that puts an incredible strain on the knees and the whole lower body as you haul yourself up and down each seemingly easy pass and descent. Using poles allowed us to leverage our upper bodies on the climbs and reduce the pounding on the descents, I think those Europeans are onto something!
By the late afternoon we reached my first major mental checkpoint of the run. Camp Mowich sits at just over 50 km into the trail from our start at Longmire. From Camp Mowich Jeff and I hoped to only cover roughly another 20-25 km before breaking for the day. It shocked me to be reaching the 50km mark at about 12 hours into the journey, as I had run the same distance in just over 4 ½ hours last year, a reality check on how slow we were really moving. However, this was approximately what we had expected based upon other trip reports and the elevation profile, estimating that we would need to run about 16-17 hours per day to complete the trail in two days. At Camp Mowich, there is one of the few road access points on the trail, and we both looked longingly at the happy campers and day-trippers sipping cold drinks and eating hot food. We knew we had at least another 4 hours to go before we would tuck into some dehydrated goodness, and moved along into the quickly depleting afternoon light.
As we descended towards the Carbon River through some of the best bear habitat I have seen in awhile, the sun set, and we began to fill the woods with calls and shouts to avoid surprise meetings. The only meetings we had however, was with numerous group of families and hikers traveling the trail towards the campsite at Isput Creek which we had just passed. We couldn’t believe that this many people had let themselves get caught out in the pitch black of night, many of them without proper headlamps or even lights, and often with kids in tow.
The night enveloped us as we climbed for several hours up past Dick Creek, and towards our final destination at Mystic campground. The effects of the long day began to set in, and we moved mostly in silence towards the promise of a hot meal and the stop of movement. At 11:30pm we finally reached Mystic, and doggedly filtered water, cooked food and tried to devise a way to set up our tarp tent which would shelter us for the night. Luckily for me, Jeff is something of a McGyver and always managed to find a solution when it looked like our tent would involve us sleeping with a crumpled plastic bag over us. Finally after what must have been the world's best dehydrated meal, we crawled into our ultra light Penguin overbags and huddled down for a few hours of reprieve.
After just 4 hours of sleep, we rose again, broke camp and were running again by 6:30. The seven hours had allowed us to get some rest from the constant drain of movement, but my knee had swollen up massively during the night to at least double its size. I assumed that it was from my IT band tightening across the kneecap due to both the distance, pack and time on feet. If this was the case, then my thinking was that I should be able to run on it without causing long-term damage…. it would just going to hurt for the next 75 kilometers.
The morning brought us past one of the best ridgelines on the trip . We snapped more photos and even got a shot of the two of us by some astounded guys in their early 20’s, unbelieving that people would want to run this trail in two days when they had planned to spend almost two weeks. Already early in the day, as we ran through alpine meadows with spectacular views, I had a tough time focusing beyond the throbbing pain at my knee which was especially fierce on downhill’s. I knew that it was going to be a battle to keep motivated from here on out.
After re-supplying at White River (mile 52), we made some really quick miles on the flat terrain and attempted to make up some time on some of the slower climbs we had had throughout the last day. Boosted by our “speed”, we climbed for several hours up into the alpine. For me, this 17 km stretch of the run between Summerland and Nickel Creek was the most memorable. The sun was shining, we had unfettered views of Rainer, and the landscape was amazing. We crossed over big rivers, through barren volcanic fields with turquoise lakes, and ran along ridgelines for kilometers.
It was during this section that we ran into another group who was completing the trail at the same time. The group of four had left in the opposite direction the day before and was supported with hot food, new clothing, and gear as they made their way around the mountain. We had seen them the day before near Camp Mowich, and had been expecting to see them soon. After nearly 34 hours of continuous running and hiking, they looked tired but glad to be nearing the finish in another 4-5 hours. Jeff and I both later agreed that we were glad we were just two, as their group was strung out over almost a km, with some runners looking much stronger than others, and the pace always being dictated by the back runner. In this respect, Jeff and I were incredibly well matched. We were able to feed off of the other person’s pace when energy was running low, and throughout the second day, Jeff ran super strong to lead me to the finish. I was really appreciative to have that support, running with my knee in this state on my own would have been a super tough go and much easier to abandon.
After departing Indian Bar at just over 100km, we felt like we must have seen all that there was to see, the route had been so beautiful, what could be left? The shocking realization was that we had almost 50 km to go, but almost all of the climbing was done and we just had to gut out a lot of downhill and flat running. We were amazed for yet another time as we topped the next climb that there was still so much more to see. The view was my favourite of the trip, and we took time to appreciate the beauty of the environment we had just traveled through.
The next descent was long and sustained taking well over an hour to drop down to Nickel Creek. Each step brought a numb and aching pain, but I took solace in the knowledge that we were making good time towards the finish and the successful completion of our goal. When we hit the campsite at the bottom to refill with water, I knew that we had completed the last of the hard work. The next 30 km from Nickel Creek back to Longmire were going to be mentally challenging, but we would finish.
Darkness soon descended upon us, and the only eventful moment was when we scared a sleeping animal, a deer we hope, from beside the trail. We had read many reports of peoples encounters with cougars along the trail, and this was certainly on my mind each night as we ran through the forest and beside rivers. I assumed that this must be prime habitat for these scary yet beautiful animals, and so the nights passed uneasily. As a friend once told me, if a cougar wants to attack you, it will pounce and be on you before you see it coming. Very comforting; it sure kept my head on a swivel as we moved through the sections where my coach, Joe Grant, had been stalked by a cougar for almost 4 miles before he had to abandon his circumnavigation, just 5 miles short of completion!
The last 10 km’s were a blur as we flew towards the car, clocking our fastest km’s of the trip. Part of this happened as a result of Jeff’s headlamp beginning to die, and a large part due to the desire to be done. We reached the car at 9:45pm, 39 and ¼ hours after leaving, exhausted by the long two day effort. After a few celebratory snaps, we began to unwind and realize that it was done.
We looked for hot food, but realized that the only restaurant at Longmire was closed. Luckily for us, the guy vacuuming the floors must have taken pity on our disheveled state, and brought out some garden salads and bread rolls which were left in the kitchen. As I ate with abandon, Jeff lay on the floor in a daze, unable to eat or stomach the thought of moving. We used the hot water in the washroom to semi-clean ourselves, and retired to camp for ½ a beer and some pre-cooked dinners before collapsing into our tents.
Looking back, I am so happy that I had the opportunity to complete this trail. The fact that I found someone who wanted to do such a crazy thing with me, who was as motivated, dedicated to planning and had the fitness to complete such an arduous route still amazes me. I would recommend the Wonderland Trail to anyone, it is a true classic, and the beauty of the environment cannot be fully absorbed without experiencing it in person. It leaves me excited to plan for what will be next, I have some ideas percolating for next year that will hopefully continue to evolve my experience with the backcountry, and deepen my love and appreciation for long distance trail running.
running the Numbers
Location: Mt Rainer National Park. A 5.5 hour drive from Vancouver, Canada or 2 hrs from Seattle, WA.
Trail fee: A wilderness permit is required to hike the trail. $20 covers a group of up to 12 people. It can be reserved by fax, letter or in person at Longmire.
Camping Before/ After: There is camping a 5 minute drive from the Longmire information Centre at Cougar Rock Campground. $12/night. You can also chose to start at Mowich or White River if you already have your permit, but we found Longmire the easiest logistically.
Trail Distance and Gain: 93 miles (150 km), 23 600 ft (7 200 m) of climbing.
Gear: After much agonizing and deliberation here is Jeff's photo of the gear that he brought. My set-up was very similar, with a few exceptions here and there.
Pack:Salomon Agile 17L backpack and the 5 L Salomon Custom Frontpocket
Poles: Black Diamond Z Poles Watch: Suunto Ambit
Shoes: Pearl Izumi N1 Socks: Balega and Drymax
Water: 2 Salomon 500 mL softflasks, and one 500 mL water bottle.
Headlamp: Black Diamond Polar Icon Back Up Power: Power Pond 3000 mAH
Jackets: The North Face Stormy Trail Jacket and The Northface Summit Series 800 Fill Down Jacket.
Shorts And Tights: Pearl Izumi Ultra Short, and Nike trail tights.
Arm Warmers and Gloves: Sugoi Insulated Arm Warmers and Nike Trail Gloves
Buff and Glasses: Lavaredo Buff and Smith "Chief" Polarized sunglasses
Shirt: Arc'teryx Motus Short sleeve
Sleeping Bar: MEC Penguin Overbag Sleeping Pad: ThermaRest NeoAir
Tarp: Siltarp 2 Tarp, shared. Fuel and Cooking Cup: shared
About 6 000 calories in total including Macrobars, Cliffshots, Cliff Shot Bloks, Hammer Bars, Dehydrated dinner and breakfast. Nuun tablets and ELoad electrolyte pills to keep our hydration balanced.
Jeff's Blog: www.jeffpelletier.com Read his blog about his experience on the Wonderland Trail, and follow his ultra running exploits.
Interactive Trip Planning Guide: