27 July 2019

Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail (Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass)

We have amazing trails in the Pacific Northwest. The big daddy is the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Canada all the way to the Baja California border. This trail is divided into sections and section "J" covers the stretch between Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass. I'm sure other sections are just as fabulous but being close to home, this specific section has additional appeal. I ran it for the first time last year and this year I had some friends that wanted to give it a go so I jumped at the opportunity to experience it again.

Let the adventure begin!

This year I was accompanied by Seth Davis and Greg Luloff.

Point-to-point adventures are a blast but they do require logistical planning or just a ton of support. In this case, I dropped a car off at the finish with the help of Seth who met me there and then drove me home and Greg drove us to the start and would then take the Steven Pass bus back to retrieve his car a couple of days after we finished.

Last year we started in the morning and this time we started in the evening. The goal this time was to maximize our time in the daylight and an added benefit to me is that I would hopefully end up seeing all of this section in the daytime.

Section J is about 75 miles long. That's a "nice" distance in that it's long enough to be a genuine challenge if you do it in one or two days but not so long, at least for a person that runs ultras, that it's too daunting. For sure that's all relative but hey, my blog and my perspective. :)

Starting in the evening is kind of cool. It gets dark when you are still fresh. Shortly after starting we got to the top of the Stevens Pass ski area and had to turn on our headlamps.

One awesome feature of this part of the PCT is that water is plentiful. I only carried two bottles and a filter and I never even drained both of my bottles before I was able to top off. I don't think we ever ran more than about six miles without encountering water and usually, it was just two or three. Nice.

Here we are getting water in the dark.

One other thing that is super, SUPER plentiful on the PCT this time of year is mosquitos. As long as you are moving you're good but if you stop next to some standing water, watch out. I have always managed to attract these pests more than anyone I happen to be with and at this spot here where we decided to filter, I was overwhelmed to the point that I grabbed my pack, bottles, filter and had to run away. I went about 500 m before I got any relief.

This trail has everything! It has bridges.

It has amazing views.

It has long climbs.

It has long descents.

It has sections that are incredibly green.

It has sections that are incredibly rocky.

Did I mention the views?

And all the water?

I usually learn something (sometimes a lot of things) on every adventure and this one was no different. Here are some of the things I learned and confirmed.

Lesson #1
Keep your feet dry.

I have had (very!) wet feet before but only for about 5-6 hours at a time like during a 50k. Because of the relatively cool summer we have had and the recent rain and the humidity, the trail was really overgrown and all the brush was wet. Although the trail surface itself was dry, every time you brush up against a bush or fern, the water on the plants would soak your shirt, your shorts, and it would run down your legs and soak your shoes and socks.

I had never experienced trench foot (macerated skin) until this day. I'm guessing that my feet were wet for at least 18 hours? And although my shoes drain pretty well, I guess my socks hold on to moisture more than I thought and my feet suffered.

I didn't notice anything for ages and then with about 15 miles to go, I started to notice some discomfort in the balls of my feet. This got progressively worse until I was reduced to a walk for the last 10 miles. The last descent from the Kendal Katwalk was really painful. Ouch.

In retrospect I got lucky and most of the cracks in my skin healed up in one week but for that week I could hardly walk much less run.

The solution? Since carrying spare shoes was not practical in this case, I think using socks that perform better when soaking wet would have been the ticket.

Lesson #2
Pack appealing food.

We have all experienced sweet burnout or the inability to eat food bars. My pallet can only tolerate bars and gels for so long and these days that amount of time is just a few hours. This happens to me regularly in a race but it also happens in longer efforts that are not a competition. I've had extensive experience with this before so I knew what to expect and my solution was to pack sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches. I chose almond butter and jam because I thought they would travel well but even these got less appealing over time. They were too sweet.

With about 20 miles to go Greg offered me a "breakfast burrito". Amazingly, this had also traveled well and it was delicious! Savory always wins in the end during a longer event and as long as your burrito does not have loads of sauce/moisture it should be fine 24 hours after you make it.

Lesson #3
Take the time to find your route.

Just 8.5 miles into our run we (read: I) took a wrong turn. We all had the route on our phones and I was carrying my Garmin inReach but we never took the time to look at them. We got to an intersection in the dark and I announced with confidence that the PCT was "that way". 1.5 miles later we found ourselves crossing a dirt road and I didn't recall any roads from last year... We looked around and behind us where the trail left the road was a "Tunnel Creek Trailhead" sign. I also did not recall any such creek. So we all got out our phones and sure enough, the PCT had been the other direction.

Of course, this detour was all downhill so getting back on the route was all uphill but to the credit of Seth and Greg, they didn't complain one bit. I felt pretty foolish as we chugged back up the trail and luckily, I think everyone was okay with these three bonus miles. Probably because it was just three. :)

Lesson #4
Sort and test and re-evaluate your gear.

I was carrying an ancient water filter/pump. My old MSR was probably from the 90s but it was still working and it was all I had. Little did I know, technology had left me behind and these days, I would only take this pump if I was car camping. Seth had a super slick soft flask that had a filter in the lid so all you had to do was dip the bottle and you were ready to drink or fill up some other container. I purchased one as soon as I got home.

Lesson #5
When you do stuff, do it with compatible people.

If you are going to tie yourself to a group for 24 hours (or longer), you better get along with everyone in that group. Greg and Seth are very laid back, the way they handled my route-finding blunder was indicative of their attitude during the entire adventure. They were always super positive.

Here are all my pictures and videos.

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