My Fortieth Year

Forty isn’t over the hill. It’s over many hills.

My fortieth year was surreal. I ran a hair over 3,600 miles with 400,000' of elevation gain and loss. Having only started this activity less than five years ago, it’s bewildering to think of how far and how fast it’s all happened. I summited and circumnavigated the three mountains guarding the Columbia River, ran my first 100+ mile race, and generally grew as a backcountry athlete. I’ve compiled some highlights from my adventures, each with a few words and photos.

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The Kalalau Trail on the Nā Pali coast, Kauai, Hawaii.

Winter

My fortieth year began with an unusually harsh winter which left a stubborn layer of snow and ice on everything. The snow accumulation would go on to make it difficult to complete long mountain routes until early summer. However, it made my daily workouts beautiful and challenging.

Possibly my favorite SUP trip to date was right in front of my house on the Clackamas River. I set out a little before dawn on Friday, December 16, 2016 in a thick, head-to-toe layer of neoprene to experience a frozen wonderland.

Water dripping from the ivy which hangs on the banks of the Clackamas River Gorge had petrified into long chandeliers of ice.

Neskowin to Lincoln City

I went on my first running adventure of 2017 on February 18. While I was with my family at the coast for a friend’s birthday party, I managed to cram in a gorgeous point-to-point run from Neskowin to our rental house in Lincoln City.

The trek began with some bushwhacking when I had trouble locating the start of the unmaintained trail. Pushing slowly up a steep bluff through dense, thorny vegetation, I noticed a log which had been cut by a chainsaw — evidence of human intervention. I followed a semblance of a trail into something more established which ended at Hart’s Cove.

From there, I ran out to Cascade Head and down past a herd of elk to the marshes of Three Rocks. Had I run the route in the opposite direction, I would have learned that the trail system was closed until June. I was wondering why I had the entire place to myself. From there, I ran along the 101 until I could access the beach; which lead to the route’s end.

Doing this run in February on the heels of heavy rains and snow melt with no one else around was an exceptional experience.

The Heavenly Marathon

I had this route in my pocket for close to a year. I called it the “Heavenly Marathon”. It started up the Rock of Ages Trail and traversed out to Angel’s Rest — landmarks with biblical names. I went for it on April Fool’s Day.

The Rock of Ages Trail is essentially unrunnable for the first two miles; ascending at close to a 30% grade for 2,500'. It then gently climbs back into the Mark O’ Hatfield Wilderness. There was a thick blanket of snow near 3,000' which added a challenge to traveling and navigation. Rivers were swollen and their crossings harrowing. The pace picked up after the first ten miles when I was past the heaviest vert and snow. The trails west of Franklin Ridge down to Angel’s Rest were an absolute blast to run. After months of turning back on long routes due to post-holing in deep snow, I was overjoyed to finally complete a long mountain run.

(My First) Mt. Hood Summit

Before committing to ASH, I wanted to get at least one Mt. Hood summit under my belt. Scotty Strain took me up the morning of April 29.

We started out from Timberline Lodge a little before 3am, hiking quickly to pass the crowd. A circumzenithal arc appeared as the sun rose. The rime ice encrusting the Pearly Gates was astonishing. It was the first time I had seen a mountain shadow. The summit was single digit temperatures lowered by a strong wind, but it was difficult not to linger.

I learned the realities of climbing in very low temperatures. The water in my bladder froze, as did my thumb; and my toes barely hung in there. All things that wouldn’t remotely be an issue now.

Speedflying

There wasn’t one significant speedflying trip this year, but it was fun keeping it up. I’m hoping to do some big things with the sport in 2018 in combination with mountaineering and trail running. Here is my favorite video from 2017’s flights.

One flight from two perspectives.

The Revenant 50k

I attempted this backyard route in late 2016, but couldn’t make it past the first of three summits due to snow depth and weather. On May 26, I got my revenge.

Anthony Lee joined me on what we expected to be a challenging — but runnable — adventure on some less traveled trails. We assumed there would be some snow, but not that literally half of the route would be covered — often deep.

We flew through the first nine miles up Eagle Creek before climbing the cutoff trail to Tumala Mountain. We hit snow early, but were in good spirits and hoped we’d be through it soon. As we followed the ridge north, the snow became deeper and the route harder to follow. We continued to the next summit, Sheepshead Rock, and out to Wildcat Mountain. By the time we reached Wildcat, we had fallen far behind schedule and opted out of the short summit side trip. We decided to name this run “The Revenant” after the story of Hugh Glass’ excruciating journey through the icy wild.

We finally made it back onto terra firma below 3,000' and followed the pleasantly runnable Douglas Ridge back out. I loved that section so much, I went back out the next weekend with a couple friends for an out-and-back to Wildcat Mountain via Douglas Ridge.

Double Dam

I’m probably the easiest person to shop for when it comes to holiday gifts. All I want is time. My wife, Alycia, is with our son all week while I’m at work, so on the weekends we swap and I do all the chores and child rearing. For Father’s Day, I wanted a day beholden to no one. And with that day, I went paddle boarding.

We live on a stretch of the Clackamas River where the water is still for miles. Technically, it is a very narrow lake. It’s perfect for easy SUP trips. I usually go before work and watch the sunrise, but that doesn’t allow time to explore much. For the first time, I put in by the River Mill Dam on Estacada Lake, paddled the three miles up to the Faraday Forebay Dam where it becomes difficult to advance, and back. Not watching the clock, I could visit caves and waterfalls, carry the board upriver past the dam and ride back on some whitewater, go swimming, and just take my time.

Roaring River Revenge

Like the Revenant 50k, this was a backyard route I was unable to complete due to snow levels in 2016. On June 24, Scotty Strain and Denzil Jennings joined me on what I had advertised to them as a ”17-mile trail run” through the Roaring River Wilderness.

The point-to-point route linked up some poorly mapped and unmaintained trails to Cache Meadow, Frazier Mountain, and down through the Rock Lakes basin to Serene Lake; ending over Grouse Point and down Dry Ridge at the Roaring River Campground.

We lost the trail early and started bushwhacking up a steep grade. We found the trail momentarily before losing it in the overflowing streams of Cache Meadow. Then we hit the snow and were bushwhacking again. We bagged the summit of Frazier Mountain and weren’t snow-free until we were almost to Serene Lake; where we took a dip in the frigid water. We climbed up and over Grouse Point and descended down Dry Ridge.

Scotty went missing on the way down. I ran back up the ridge to find that he had knocked himself — and his front tooth posts — out running into a blown down tree which floated horizontally at about head level. This tree is notorious for us now — I’ve almost smacked into couple times.

It was eventful — full of ankle twists, knee bangs, cuts, and bruises — but also dynamic and relentlessly beautiful. And about as difficult as you could possibly make a 21-ish-mile run.

Peak-bagging at Lost Lake

Independence Day weekend was spent with my wife, son, mother-in-law, and a couple or few dozen of our closest friends at Lost Lake. It was a perfect combination of yurt camping, partying, and nature experience. I fit some peak-bagging into the stay, starting with a run up Lost Lake Butte with my son on my back and my dog on her leash.

Later that same day, I headed south to the Huckleberry Trail and the PCT to bushwhack up to three summits: Sentinel Peak, Devil’s Pulpit, and Preacher’s Peak.

The trails were butter. Single track that felt wild, but trampled enough to keep up the best pace I could in the blistering heat. I went for Sentinel Peak first. The off-trail portion was impressively steep, gaining about 600' in a third of a mile. The undergrowth was thick, but I was able to parse out some animal trails. There is a small exposed portion at the summit, opening up views which made the bushwhack worth it.

I next headed for Devil’s Pulpit and Preacher’s Peak. These two were just across from each other on either side of the PCT. I went up Devil’s Pulpit first. It was just a few easy hops up a boulder field, and yielded the best views of the three. I bushwhacked straight over from there to Preacher’s Peak. It was the toughest and offered little in the way of long views. The brush was full of thorny plants which had to be navigated carefully.

Olallie Lake

My wife and I — and now with our son — get a cabin at Olallie Lake every year at the end of July. I usually try to get in a few runs, but this year I went on a mission to bag as many peaks as I could while putting out an equal effort to adventure with my family. We hiked, rowed, swam, ate, drank, relaxed, and slept like forest royalty. What gave me the most joy this year was the fearless delight and energy with which my son experienced the wild.

I started the week off with a twelve mile loop out to Double Peaks, Ruddy Hill, and a barrage of tiny, gorgeous lakes. Ruddy Hill’s red pumice and surround view make it one of my favorite mountaintops in Oregon.

The next day, I took my family on a hike around Monon Lake. I followed that with a blazing hot afternoon out-and-back to Potato Butte via a bushwhack to Twin Peaks. The next day’s run out to Fish Lake was only four miles with 680' elevation gain and loss, but I did it with my thirty pound son on my back, and my dog; smoke from the Whitewater fire hanging in the air. Nearly all of the elevation change is in the center two miles — descending sharply to Fish Lake and returning up a brutal climb.

The grand-daddy of this trip was Olallie Butte. The head of the Clackamas River on the Warm Springs Reservation ascends 2,500' in under three and a half miles of loose, rocky trail.

My goal was to make the summit at sunrise and in under an hour, but I had trouble finding the trailhead at first. I was still able to make it in time to catch its long, mountain shadow — and slipped in just under my time goal. Having seen Olallie Butte from a distance countless times, I was taken aback by the eroded, alien world I found on the east side of the summit.

ASH: Adams, St. Helens, and Hood

ASH was hands-down my most ambitious, fantastic, and poignant adventure of my life. I’ve written about conquering the Guardians of the Columbia in great detail, so there is no need to tell the tales here. Follow these links for my accounts of summiting and circumnavigating mountains Adams, St. Helens, and Hood.

ASH was inspired by Richard Kresser’s RASH. At the time, I had lopped off the “R” (Rainier) because I had felt it was out of my depth. But I’ve grown in many ways following these missions and will be attempting to turn ASH into RASH by summiting and circumnavigating Mt. Rainier in a single push (with realistic rest as required) in late July 2018.

The Great American Eclipse

This was not a running adventure, but one spent quietly in the mountains with my family and friends. After a picnic breakfast in the woods, we looked out over a valley from atop a ridge. With Mt. Hood aglow in the background, we witnessed one of the most incredible things we’ve seen in our lifetimes. I somehow managed to score this photo from my compact camera.

Plain 100+

On September 16, 2017, I ran my first hundred mile event. The Plain 100 is an unsupported race on an unmarked course in the remote backcountry of the Entiat Mountains and Wenatchee Forest. The race took 31 hours and 37 minutes to complete.

This race deserves its own report. And it will get one when I run it again in 2018. Plain is unique in its combination of rules, terrain, tradition, and culture. It’s well over 100 miles and boasts at least 21,000' of elevation gain and loss. It’s unmarked and unsupported, meaning there are no aid stations, no crew, no pacers, and no course markers. Nothing. The exception is a single resupply point when you pass back through the start/finish after about 100km. You leave with everything you need on your back, drawing water from natural sources and navigating yourself through the course. The trail system is maintained and used mostly by dirt bikers, and is covered in a fine dust that permeates everything. If you’re one of the very few who overcome all this, you get a rock.

Scotty Strain joined me for the pre-, mid-, and post-race crew duties. I slept well the night before. I had studied the course and had a novel “mini map” system which broke the race down into small, digestible pieces which didn’t rely on electronics. I was in the front of the pack early in the race. I was over-confident in my rehearsal of the route and took a wrong turn early because I wasn’t using my fantastic maps. It was a blessing in disguise, because in trying to get back to the front from dead last, I caught up with my friend, Scott Martin.

Scott is a veteran of Plain and is the one who initially pointed me to the race. We wound up running the rest of the race together. We picked up another runner, Nate Hough-Snee, for the second loop. We talked through every level of depth you can have in a conversation, supported each other, kept each other’s spirits up, and experienced some of the most wonderful and ridiculous things that can happen in our strange human existence.

The race was mostly uneventful outside of one low point around the middle. It’s amazing the energy we can draw from nothing. Time and time again the tank was just empty. And then we’d be running and laughing a moment later. We had planned on finishing together, but my brain wasn’t working correctly in the final miles. I had a huge adrenaline kick; causing me to sprint to the finish. It’s the one thing I would change about my race — to go back and finish together. I did, in fact, head back up the road and run it in again with them, but my official time was one minute ahead.

Elk-Kings 25k

I took about ten days off running after the Plain 100+. It had left me with a sore ankle which made it difficult to get back up to speed. I had the Elk-Kings 25k in the back of my mind for awhile. I registered about two weeks ahead of the October 14 race with the hope that my ankle would heal in time.

I had heard nothing but good things about the Elk-Kings 25k. It’s a small, but competitive race which draws a national-class field. The course starts on a stretch of road where the front of the pack races for their position on the single track climb. It’s difficult to pass once on the 3,000', two mile ascent, so people go out hard. I was one of those people, kicking off with about a 5'00" pace to put me directly behind the eventual winner and new course record holder, Max King.

It may have been the first trail race where I was near my personal red line at all times. Recent training on the similarly-difficult Devil’s Peak near Rhododendron, Oregon lead me to believe I would finish this race in about 3:10 if I worked hard at it. Three hours was my stretch goal, and is kind of the shiny-golden-dream-time for the average runner on this course. The sky was cold and clear and the views were infinite. I was able to hammer the trail in the near-freezing air without overheating — and I had a visual feast to take my mind off my body.

Once up and over Elk and Kings Mountains, which require the aide of ropes to descend quickly and safely, my ankle started acting up. I estimate I lost about ten minutes due to the slow down, but was back to my full stride on the more gradual back half of the course. I hadn’t paid attention to the time on my watch, so I was happily surprised to see 2:54 on the timer as I came across the bridge to the finish. I placed 17th in a stacked field.

I met Sean Blanton of Atlanta, who finished two places ahead of me, and overheard him talking about paragliding. We wound up getting in a speedflying session the following Monday morning. I can’t help but wonder just how small the Venn diagram is of mountain ultra trail runners and speedflyers; and what a coincidence it was that we ran the same race together so closely. Small world.

That day I ran a sub-3 hour marathon to work

On Monday, November 6, I ran an unsupported 2:54 marathon for my commute. I had never run a sub-3 hour marathon before, but believed I could. I noticed at Elk-Kings 25k that many finishers’ times were close to their road marathon times. When I finished that race in 2:54, I assumed I could do the same. So I tried.

I drove out to Boring, Oregon; left my car, warmed up, and headed down the Springwater Corridor Trail into Portland where I finished on the west waterfront in 2:54 — my Elk-Kings finish time. Then I jogged in the last half mile to make it to work on time.

I followed up a few weeks later with new PRs for every common distance from 10k to 30k— in a single run. The idea was to hammer out a 10k PR, then go slightly positive to 10 miles for that PR, then up again to half marathon, and again to 30k. I surprised myself when I was able to keep my average pace under 6'00" through the half marathon, reducing my PR from around 85 minutes to 78:28.

Kalalau Trail

My fortieth year was marked with an adventure I had been dreaming about for awhile. I took the family to Hawaii for our first time and ran the Kalalau Trail out and back on my birthday. The trail follows the Nā Pali Coast for eleven miles from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, gaining and losing well over 3,000' in elevation along the way. The out-and-back makes it twenty-two miles with at least 6,500' of climbing and descent.

If you search for “world’s most dangerous trails” on Google, the Kalalau Trail will appear on virtually every list. What makes this trail “dangerous” (I thought it was fine) is what makes it beautiful. The steep, dramatic terrain traverses a series of ridges and rivers; leading out to a perfect, secluded beach inaccessible by road. It was the stories of this trail’s beauty — not its danger — which drew me to it.

I secured my permit a few months in advance in order to travel beyond the first two miles. I arrived around dawn to get a prime parking spot. The morning was cool with the mountains holding the sunrise at bay. The trail was all mud, roots, and rocks, but was relatively packed due to its high traffic volume. Coming over the first ridge was simply breathtaking. The view into the next valley on the other side, then out to and over the next ridge, while fifty foot swells curled and crashed into the cliffs… it was beyond my imagination. As I left the first ridge, I encountered wild pygmy goats tip-toeing gracefully above the violent ocean.

Every ridge top offered a new, exhilarating stance into a valley different from the one before. There might be a towering waterfall, stoic grey cliffs, or red fingers spreading into the next river crossing. Rounding each ridge demanded careful footwork as the trail narrowed; bordered by a wall on one side and a cliff on the other. As the sun rose, mountain shadows extended out over the ocean. It was Kauai’s answer to the volcanic shadows from sunrise summits in the Pacific Northwest.

The serene Kalalau Beach offered ample space for a few backpackers to make camp in what can best be described as the perfect idea of paradise realized. The sun only threatened to rise over the mountains — emitting beams through cracks in the peaks — until after I had reached the end of the trail. I didn’t linger long before turning around to race the sun. It finally broke over the mountains while I paused to witness a Search and Rescue operation charge into the jungle.

I collected a swimsuit and a sandal which seemed new to the trail. I managed to return the swimsuit to its owner on my way out, but the sandal made it back to the trailhead. The return trip was more about a speedy escape from the rising temperatures than the deliberate inbound trek. I came to Kauai with FKT ambitions, but became ill on the trip. I developed a sinus and ear infection which took a lot of the wind out of my sails. I instead opted for a leisurely seven-hour journey which wrapped in closer to six.

Forty did not turn out as I had expected when I was younger. I grew up with the belief that forty was “over the hill”. The age that marked the end of vitality. It wasn’t an enviable age. The idea that life would not improve beyond the fourth decade was reassuring when I was involved in freefall sports like skydiving and BASE jumping. But I survived. And one day in late March of 2013, I went on a run. I got stronger and the world opened up to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Now those concepts around age just seem silly and antiquated. I’m only getting stronger. I’m only getting faster. Life is only becoming more wonderful. The top of this metaphorical hill is still too high to see. Up I climb.

Written by

Wilderness athlete, technologist, and family man.

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