Friday, 11 August 2017

Zero for Two on the Howe Sound Crest Trail

There are trails in BC that every runner in Canada knows about such as the Baden Powell and West Coast Trail.  However, it wasn’t until after moving to BC that I learned about the Howe Sound Crest Trail. 

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a (short!) 29km mountain trail that goes from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove.  It is a net downhill with only 1,830m of elevation gain.  Sounds simple, right?  In 2016 I attempted it solo on a hot August day and after 11km and 3 mountain summits (St. Mark's, Unnecessary, North Unnecessary) I made the decision to turn around and head back to Cypress.  I was dehydrated, I grossly underestimated the difficulty of the terrain and knew there was no way I was making it to Porteau Cove alive.

Smoky Lions
This week I returned to Cypress for round 2.  I started solo at 6am on yet another hot August day.  By starting early I was hoping to avoid the heat and spare my asthmatic lungs from the midday smoke from the raging BC forest fires.  At 7:30am I was on the summit of St. Mark's.  I was happy about the time, but already drenched in sweat and guzzling my limited supply of water.

On the approach to Unnecessary I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t make it to Porteau Cove today.  My new plan was to get past the West Lion and to Magnesia Meadows, summit Brunswick and Harvey and exit down to Lions Bay.  Objectively this would still have been a successful day in the mountains.

Before things went wrong
After summiting North Unnecessary and heading toward the West Lion I finished my last gulp of water.  It was 9am, 30 degrees and I still had 5km of treacherous terrain to make it to water at Magnesia Meadows.  I was determined to push through into new territory.  Then I got to the Lions….

The West Lion
Those in the Vancouver area know that people have died falling off the West Lion.  The Howe Sound Crest Trail goes around the peak and does not summit the mountain.  After accidentally starting to ascend the West Lion I realized I was on the wrong trail and corrected my path. 

With record breaking snow this past winter there was still a significant snow bridge across the valley between the East and West Lion.  I spent most of June summiting snowy peaks on Seymour, the Lynn ridge, and around Cypress, however this was different.  Slipping on the snow would mean shooting down into a valley of boulders.  However, my main concern was the snow bridge collapsing and burying me alone in the valley between the Lions. 

1,000m drop-off
After 10 minutes of searching for a safe way across the valley I determined that it was time to turn around.  A successful completion of the Howe Sound Crest Trail would have to wait for another year.  I retraced my steps to North Unnecessary then instead of returning to Cypress I evacuated down the 1,500m descent to Lions Bay.  This seemed to be the best choice, but in reality my knees were already knackered and not prepared for the 35% grade descent.  

The downs are so much worse than the ups

When I return to the Howe Sound Crest Trail for round 3 perhaps I will finally make it to Porteau Cove.  After a 2017 of 14 mountain summits, 100km in Black Canyon and 25 ascents of BCMC / Grouse Grind the allure of finally finishing the Howe Sound Crest Trail still beckons as I gaze upon the smoky North Shore skyline. 

Happy to be off the mountains

Monday, 20 February 2017

Black Canyon 2017 Mud and Hail

After running my first 100k at Black Canyon in 2016 I was excited to return this year.  With my training and experience I expected to improve on my time by 2 hours.  Then due to flooding then race was changed from a net downhill point-to-point to an out-and-back.  This did not change my race plan or expectations.

The Saturday weather forecast was revised from 20mm of rain (a normal Vancouver day) to 50mm and close to freezing temperatures.  This worried me so I packed all the rain and warmth running gear I could find.

We started at 7am in the cold rain which reminded me of so many North Vancouver runs.  The first 3km on the road was fine but when we turned onto the Black Canyon trail runners hit the thick desert mud.  With every step my shoes stuck in the mud and my foot even came out a couple times.  When I managed to lift a shoe it was caked with 5 pounds of mud like concrete weights.  This lasted for a few km until we got on single track trail then there was just normal runnable mud.

I focused on nutrition, hydration, pace and blister prevention.  When I reached the 50km turnaround point I was behind schedule but running well and in good spirits.  I made it to 75km before needing my headlamp.  As the sun went down the temperature plummeted and the rain and wind turned on full force.  I was soaked, freezing and borderline hypothermic when I ran into the 80km aid station.  It was filled with dozens of runners in bad shape drinking hot soup and huddling around a propane heater. 

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
I grabbed my drop bag, stripped off all the wet layers and put on every piece of dry clothing I could find including 3 hats.  A volunteer made me a garbage bag poncho that helped significantly shield the wind and rain.  I met another runner named Josh and we set out into the cold wet night.  The next 10km was tolerable and we actually managed a decent pace.

Go to the Dagobah system!
The final aid station was at 90km and we took a long break to eat and get warm.  Over 100 runners DNF’d due to the cold wet conditions.  The final 10km was harder and colder than I imagined.  The rain turned to hail and there were shin deep puddles of water and mud.  After 22 weeks of training I wasn’t going to quit without getting my Western States lottery ticket. 

After 16 hours and 20 minutes I crossed the finish line.  It was so cold, windy and wet that there was no one there.  A guy popped his head out of a heated trailer to get our bib numbers. 

This was not a good race day but I finished sub-17 to get my Western States lottery ticket.  I learned a lot about relentless forward progress in the face of harsh and adverse conditions and I suspect this will benefit my adventures for years to come. 
Ritual post-race poutine

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Midlife Crisis in the Grand Canyon

Stop thinking about it and just GO” – me to my brain at 4:15am

I recently turned 40 but instead of buying a Porsche and dying my hair I decided to run across the Grand Canyon twice.  This pointless endeavor is known as the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and is on the bucket list of many ultra-runners.

Pitch black, freezing cold and a billion stars

Starting on the South rim in the frozen desert night I turned on my lights and commenced the 5,000 foot descent to the Colorado River.  I chose the shorter, steeper mule route instead of the hiker friendly tourist trail.  Dodging puddles of mule pee for 2 hours made for a stomach-churning start to my journey.  I made it to the bottom of the Canyon and crossed the river, luckily avoiding a wile coyote attack half way down.

Where we’re going we don’t need roads

Running along the canyon floor as the warm sun slowly rose was amazing.  I could finally see the spectacular terrain and my hands started to thaw.  Most floors I know are flat but the Grand Canyon floor gains significant elevation Northbound.  Trying to run on 3 hours of sleep and on a critical caffeine deficit proved fruitless so I opted instead for a fast hike.

Hammer time for the hamstrings

Reaching the North wall of the canyon I knew it was going to hurt but this was only my first major ascent of the day.  Luckily living in North Vancouver provides significant opportunities to climb and descend steep mountain trails.  After 2 hours of slogging up canon switchbacks I reached the North rim.  Normal people celebrate their accomplishment then take the shuttle bus back to the other side.  Instead I ate my lunch in the snow then dropped back onto the icy trail to retrace my steps. 

Run Forest Run

My goals for the day were to avoid critical injury, finish before dark and have legs to run the second half.  This third objective meant being able to run the 10km switchback descent plus the 10km canyon floor.  Surprisingly I had both the energy and enthusiasm to pull this off, hopping over snakes, chasing deer and splashing through creeks.

Arizona death march

After 10 hours I crossed the Colorado River and started my ascent back up the South wall. 

My brain:  I should be able to cover 10km and 5,000 feet of ascent in 2 hours.”
My legs and stomach:  You’re crazy.  Now it’s time to punish you for putting us through this.”

Every step hurt, my water bottles were empty and the temperature dropped back down to freezing.  My GPS watch tormented me by mocking both my distance to go and my tortoise pace (25 minute miles!).  After 12 hours and 45 minutes I crested the South rim in the daylight and collapsed at the trail head.  Whether this was a celebration of turning 40 or self-inflicted torture I made it, enjoyed almost every step and didn’t get eaten by a mountain lion.