Team UltraPedestrian is linking together parts of the Idaho Centennial Trail, Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Pacific Northwest Trail into a 2634 mile long Inland Northwest Loop. Beginning outside Mountain Home, Idaho, they will head clockwise across Oregon, then take the Pacific Crest Trail all the way north to the Pacific Northwest Trail, head east to the Idaho Centennial Trail, and then continue south to their starting point outside Mountain Home, Idaho.
The UP North Loop presents some fascinating and challenging question marks to our intrepid adventurers. Not only is it the biggest Only Known Time project Team UP has ever taken on, it is the first thru-hike they have undertaken since Kathy’s pancreas stopped producing insulin, leading to her being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in June of 2017. That story is told in their new book 98 Days Of Wind: The Greatest Fail Of Our Life, available HERE.
You can follow their progress HERE and on the map below:
When possible Ras and Kathy will post trail dispatches to their personal Facebook pages, their Team UltraPedestrian Facebook page, and their Instagram account. Also, video dispatches will be posted to TheTrek.co YouTube Channel.
The CalTopo map below can be used for a detailed examination of their planned route:
This book is a collection of all of Ras & Kathy’s trail dispatches, transcripts of videos, excerpts from Kathy's journals, a few longer narrative pieces written from those journals, and all of the blog articles they wrote about their ill-fated attempt to become the first people to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail in the spring of 2017. From the excitement of the preparations to the heartbreak of the aftermath, this provides a unique insight into Ras & kathy’s experiences as they struggled to endure 98 Days of Wind.
The sixth annual UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge is a multi-faceted multi-media adventure blogging contest open to Trailrunners, Fastpackers, Backpackers, and bipeds of all stripes. Entrants may attempt any or all routes on offer. There are no aid stations, no course markings, no start/finish, no lemming lines, no cut offs, no set date; in fact, it's all up to you.
We have 19 total routes on offer for 2018, including all 10 classic UPWC routes, three Mind/Body Challenges (which include a reading assignment in addition to a particularly grueling route), and three new routes for 2018 in addition to the three added for 2017. For each of these 19 routes we print 100 Finisher’s Patches. After all 100 patches are awarded a route will be closed, whether it takes three months, three years, or three decades for all the patches to be awarded.
The 2017 BadAss Of The Year is Brad Hefta-Gaub! Brad completed a whopping TEN routes, including creative yo-yos and linkups among numerous DNFs, to bag the 2017 BAOTY award, and it is well deserved. Congratulations, Brad! Way to channel yor Inner Hominid!
Beginning in 2016 an UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge BadAss Of The Year award was instituted to recognize BadAssery above and beyond the normal UPWC level, which is a high bar indeed. The Inaugural UPWC BAOTY was awarded to “Jaunty” John Barrickman, for linking together the La Bohn Traverse route with the Alpine Lakes Grand Tour, in addition to completing the Windy Peak Lollipop and the Double Desolation Mind/Body Challenge route all in a single season.
How to participate in the 2018 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge:
1. Sign up via Ultrasignup.com for any or all of the 2018 UPWC routes before you make your attempt and before November 30th, 2018.
2. Between the day you sign up and midnight on December 31st, 2018, complete any or all of the routes as well as your trip report, whatever form it may take. Completing a route must include producing content in the form of a trip report, photo album, video, audio recording, artistic rendering, or any other form which reflects your experience of the route and can be posted online via your personal blog and/or the UPWC Facebook Group.
3. Enter your proof and documentation, including trip report link and any GPS data at https://goo.gl/forms/pnpuBcJu4gBOfRyg2 no later than midnight December 31, 2017.
4. In early 2019 a party will be held at Seven Hills Running Shop to wrap up the 2018 event and kick off the 2019 event. Finisher's patches and other awards and swag will be handed out for both the UPWC and UPMBC and the routes for 2019 will be presented.
5. If you are unable to attend the 2018 UPWC Wrap Party/2019 UPWC Kickoff Party, visit UltraPedestrianWildernessChallenge.com for complete results and visit Seven Hills Running Shop in person to pick up your UPWC commemorative finisher's patch. If you live outside the greater Seattle area, arrangements can be made to send you your finisher's patch via U.S. mail.
We strongly encourage all entrants to join the UPWC Facebook Group to ask questions about the routes, gather and share trail beta, connect with other UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge participants, scope out the competition, and keep up to date on the most recent news, information, and general goings on.
Failure to abide by the following may result in a time-based penalty, subtraction of points, and/or disqualification.
All participants must at all times comport themselves in accordance with Federal, State, and Local laws, as well as Leave No Trace backcountry ethics.
Registration via Ultrasignup.com must be completed before a route is attempted.
Entrants may participate solo or as part of a team. Teams can be independent, unsupported athletes that simply travel together, or team members can mule for one another. But teams will not be allowed to receive any outside support from non-running personnel.
Highly coveted Bonus Points will be awarded by UPWC organizers as they see fit. The value of these Bonus Points is ineffable, and they are generally highly cherished by those awarded them.
Every member of a team must be a registered entrant in the 2018 UPWC. Registration for minors is free.
All participants must submit proof of having completed the route via Spot Transponder, GPS/Garmin/Suunto/DeLorne/Other data, photographic evidence, and/or a convincingly detailed trip report/blog.
If you are submitting your entry for speed based awards you MUST provide SPOT/GPS/GARMIN/SUUNTO/DELORNE/OTHER data as proof.
Everyone who completes a route for the 2018 Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge will be awarded a unique finishers' patch (only available through UPWC participation) for every route they complete. Each route will have a unique patch design of which only 100 will be made. Once those 100 patches are awarded for a route it will be closed.
Northwest In Motion was on hand to cover the UPWC 2017 Wrap/2018 Launch Party at Seven Hills Running Shop:
Join us on Thursday, April 12th at 7:30pm for an inspiring time with many of the most BadAss Hominids in the Pacific Northwest.
There's a lot in store (literally in Seven Hills Running Shop) this year. We'll give out finisher's patches to everyone who completed a Wilderness Challenge and/or Mind/Body Challenge route, award prizes and bonus points, distribute participants' swag, and bestow the second annual UltraPedestrian BadAss of the Year award.
Come be a part of the unique inspiration and excitement of the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge!
There’s a suite of functions in the brain referred to as the Central Governor. It’s job is to protect the overall organism that is each of us by limiting exercise and athletic exertion to safe levels. But the Central Governor is not only extremely conservative, it’s also very convincing. It will generate nonspecific pain and muscle cramps and even manipulate neurotransmitters and mood regulating hormones in order to reign in a body which is pushing past what the Central Governor deems a safe threshold. So, yes, it is important to listen to your body. But it’s equally important not to take its word at face value.
Reality testing and first-hand personal experience on which to base one’s judgements are the key factors for knowing how and when to override your body’s attempts to hold you back. The first time you find yourself deep in the wilderness moving along a trail in the dark chasing the illuminated cone of your headlamp beam can feel overwhelming, unnerving, and even scary. But the 100th time you do it could end up being one of your all time favorite moments on the trail. The 98 times in between are when you learn how your mind and body feel under those circumstances, how to manage those feelings, how to fuel those efforts, how far you can push it, and what the realistic consequences are.
Mentally taking a step back and looking at yourself helps to put it all in perspective. In your own mind, everything novel about your undertaking takes on a skewed sense of significance; it’s the farthest you’ve ever gone in a single push, the longest you’ve ever stayed awake, the highest elevation you’ve ever attained, the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted, the worst you have ever felt. The superlatives are convincing, but inaccurate in their incendiary nature. It would be equally accurate to describe yourself as a biped moving along a trail in its natural habitat. Viewing your undertaking in terms of its animal ordinariness disconnects it from fear. A hungry, sleep deprived animal moving through challenging environs is most likely to lay down and take a nap, not die suddenly and tragically of exertion and exposure.
Using these techniques, mentally connecting with my inner Hominid, my ancient animal self, doesn’t make me feel superhuman, it simply makes me feel like an ordinary Human Being. And ordinary Human Beings are capable of amazing and extraordinary things.
It was 3:00 in the morning and the glow of the moon rise barely shone above the horizon. I was on my Fischer Twin Skin cross country skis, skiing the mile-long meadow loop named Straight Edge in the Highlands Sno-Park in the Okanogan National Forest. The park has about 30k of groomed trails. Jack, the groomer, gets out on the trails with the snowmobile groomer as weather, fresh snow fall and other conditions allow. I was now on this lovely meadow loop, skiing past giant old pines and aspen snags, because it was one of the few trails that Jack was still able to groom this late in the season.
I had set out at about 10:15 the previous morning with my adventure bestie Lisa. Ras had first helped me haul out Gossamer Gear packs loaded with supplies to the warming hut. A group of local skiers, including the original founders of the park, had recently refurbished the hut. I’d had my eye on spending the night in there ever since I had seen that it was now enclosed with a roof, wood stove, wood floor, picnic table and lots of dry firewood. In addition, I had a goal of skiing an ultra-distance ski in one push while I was spending the winter housesitting in the Okanogan Highlands, a place Ras, our daughter Angela, and I had called home for 12 years. I wanted the ultra-ski (skiing a distance greater than that of a marathon, such as in the sport of trail ultrarunning in which I participate) to be on groomed trails, so that I could get through the challenge within a decent time frame. Using the hut as a resupply, warm-up and napping spot, I felt like I could go after 100 miles in Highlands Sno-Park in one go. I invited Lisa to join me, as we have done a bunch of fun and awesome adventures together, both on skis and trail running. We make a good team and are compatible. She messaged me back that she loved the idea. I was stoked she was going to join me. I had decided I would do it solo, if she hadn’t been interested or the timing hadn’t work for her.
The winter was coming to an end and I felt like there was no better time than now to go after this ski challenge. I had been skiing a lot this winter, both on groomed trails and back country skiing. Almost as soon as I put the idea together, I was at Highlands Sno-Park and getting going with the Highlands Hut Hundred Mile Ski. Lisa and I started Tuesday morning, the 6th of March, and the forecast called for wet snow conditions, possible rain, by Thursday. In addition, as we were skiing along on our first afternoon, I found out from Lisa that her husband, Jason, had a special birthday celebration planned for her on Thursday, and that she would need to be back to her house by 7:30 that morning. This was making Thursday look like a good goal to be completed with the hundred.
Ras had said goodbye after skiing supplies and drinking water out to the hut. He would have the car, but the timeline for me to accomplish this goal was, in all actuality, completely open-ended. He likes to remind me of that during self or unsupported efforts. If you have the time to complete the goal set aside, nothing aside from death or injury can really stop you. I would ski to a spot with a cell signal to let him know it was time to come get me. This was the loose plan Ras and I had arranged for the Finish. The Chix on Stix ladies ski group I had formed in the early part of winter, would be meeting at the hut on Wednesday afternoon for our regular ski. We were going to have a potluck in the hut after a 3:30 PM ski. I looked forward to seeing the gals on Wednesday, and this gave Lisa and I a solid window of time for pushing as hard as we could until we met up with the Chix. When they arrived, we planned on taking in some good food and having a fun ski that would be less focused on pushing hard, and more on visiting with the ladies. Until then, it was time to ski!
We decided to start by taking off for a big loop on the Antoine Trails side of the park. We skied back to the lot and across to the Antoine area to see what was groomed. There is a loop that takes a couple of hours, and we wanted to see which direction to head out, and how to link in the inner connecter trails to make for some good mileage while starting out fresh. We saw that Jack had not groomed the two mile climb up the snowmobile road, but that recent tracks had been set into the fresh snow by another skier. We decided to tackle the loop from that side, getting into the tracks and climbing. It was easy climbing with nice gliding, and it went fast. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the climb and cruised along in the tracks to the intersection of the proper Antoine Loop. This was groomed and looked quite sweet, so with Lisa’s agreement, I took off down this trail. It was very quiet and peaceful. The conditions were perfect and for this I was so grateful. This would help. The tracks were in great shape, the snow was fast, and the corduroy had not been tracked up at all. We would be able to make good time around this loop. From there, Lisa and I skied on the Antoine Loop, climbing and climbing until we reached the top where Jack had turned the groomer around and headed back down the hill. We would do the same.
The downhill was fast and fun. When we got to the intersection with Aava’s Draw, I could see that it too was groomed, and again, with Lisa’s agreement, we decided to take advantage of this groomed trail and skied uphill now. It lead to a loop again, ending with downhill and back to the parking lot and hut. We had decided to step into the hut for just a quick stop to throw some wood on the fire and make any adjustments before heading up the 1,000 foot climb to the top of Windsong. After coming down from Windsong, we would take a longer break and have 25k done for the day. This would feel like a great start.
The climb up Windsong was fast in the sweet conditions and the downhill was a blast. Before I knew it, I was sitting at the picnic table in the hut, getting warm by the fire and snacking on some nuts. I made coffee in the Jet Boil and checked my blood sugar. It was in a great range, so I felt encouraged. It was time to decide how to spend our next chunk of time skiing. We had a number of options for routes, so this was cool. We decided to head over and do that same Antoine Loop again. We would come back, check in at the hut like before and do another Windsong as well. This would get us to 50k for the day. This was a great goal, and achievable, so we relaxed into our break, having our plan in place.
Taking off for this second loop, we had to be prepared for night. It would get dark while we were out. Last time the loop had taken three hours, and we were sure we could count on at least that long for this loop. We decided to not take any extended breaks on the loop and to get it done as efficiently as possible. We took our headlamps, plugged into our mp3 players, and took off for the two mile climb up Antoine for the second time. The temperatures got colder, but we had the right layers. My eyes watered on all of the downhills, and my nose ran. It was in the teens, but moving kept me warm. Before I knew it, we were back to the hut, stopping in briefly to warm up and change layers before climbing up Windsong. It had been dark for a while. The stars were out. It was a lovely night.
I had some more coffee and a Trail Butter pouch. I was feeling hungry, but I knew I could snack on some stuff as I climbed up Windsong. The up and back on this trail would give us 4 ½ more miles and the downhill and the dark would be exhilarating. It was a bit more challenging than when we climbed it earlier in the afternoon, but it still took the hour we had planned on, round trip. It was so nice to step back into the warm hut. Lisa pulled out her sleeping bag to warm up her feet, cold from the fast downhill. I sat at the picnic table and checked my blood sugar once again. It was still in a good range. I snacked on some more nuts, veggies I had cut up ahead of time, and had another cup of coffee. It felt good to just sit. I also pulled out my sleeping bag, and, knowing that no one else would come into the hut at this time of night, I made a little nest with the Gossamer Gear packs I had brought. I laid down my Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, and then my ¾ length Gossamer Gear pad, and then my Feathered Friends sleeping bag. I used one of the packs as a pillow, and the other two I leaned up against the side of the hut, so that I could lean back against them and stretch my legs out in front of me. Thirty miles done and 70 to go; I had this. It was important to take care of all my needs and that is what I was doing at this time. I drank a bunch of water and mixed up an Emergen-C packet in one of my water bottles. This would taste good on the late night ski.
Lisa and I decided to do some of the meadow loops, now that it was the middle of the night. We wanted to stay a little bit closer to the hut, and not go so far out as we had to do on the Antoine Loop. We were ready to mix things up a bit, and the meadow loops would be beautiful on this clear night. We thought we might see the moon rise. We also thought it would be just a little bit warmer. There would not be any extended climbs, like what we had been doing so far, and the shorter loops would hopefully not take as much of our energy as the big climbs were doing.
It was a dark and graceful ski down Pomme de Pin, over moose tracks and around two hair pin turns. The little dips were fun and soon we turned to head down towards the first of the meadows, Sunshine. This was so sweet in the night. We both heard an owl, off in the distance, hoot hauntingly. We skied a couple of miles, until reaching the junction with Hej Bue, to drop down to Straight Edge, a one mile loop with no big climbs. It was rolling and fast and perfect for this late at night.
And the glow on the horizon turned into a risen moon, shaped like that of the nursery rhyme “The Cow Jumped Over The Moon”, lying on it’s back, as if resting, as if forming a plump bed. One of the planets was vividly bright next to the moon, and these two celestial bodies guided the way. We could see our shadows in the snow as we skied. I suggested we do some repeats of this loop, and Lisa agreed, offering that we might change directions each time. We settled into this for four loops or more, until finally climbing back to the hut to our warm sleeping bags for a three hour nap. Frost had built up on our Nathan packs, and the fringes of our hair were frozen from having caught our breath. Our total mileage for the day was 44.4 miles. We had a GPS unit to track the mileage. Lisa set an alarm, and we laid down on our sleeping bags. I tossed and turned, excited and feeling like there was no way this wasn’t going to happen. It was happening.
At 6:30 in the morning on our second day, Lisa and I got up out of our cozy bags and Lisa got the fire going again. She is an expert firekeeper and did a wonderful job the entire time keeping the stove warm. I helped carry in wood and tossed a piece on occasionally, but I am so thankful for her skill and attentiveness to the fire. We each had a cup of coffee and set the goal of skiing 30 miles before the ladies arrived for our Chix on Stix gathering at 3:30 that afternoon. This would give us 75 miles total and the ability to get the rest of the miles done before Lisa had to take off early the following morning.
We set off skiing, getting the mileage done, and mixing up the routes we took. I honestly don’t remember which trail we took when, but I know it was wonderful. The conditions were still superb for fast skiing. We stopped into the hut now and again for snacks, blood sugar checks, to feed the fire and change out layers as needed. By 1:30 in the afternoon, we had decided to fit in two Windsong climbs and descents, totaling nine more miles, before the ladies arrived. We were starting to feel the miles in our bodies by now, but we did climb Windsong once. We got to the bottom and realized we only had time for the shorter Whitetail climb and descent back to the hut, but this would get us pretty close to our goal. We had a nice ski up and down Whitetail, seeing the moose tracks again all along the trail where the giant creature had punched through the snow. I pulled ahead of Lisa and by the time I got back to the hut, I saw smoke puffing from the chimney, letting me know the fire had just been fed. Sure enough, Mel was inside the hut and we were right on time for the Chix.
Sara also joined our group and the four of us set out to ski the Sunshine Meadow down to the Straight Edge meadow again. I loved this idea. I originally had hoped to get in a significant number of miles with the ladies when they arrived. I had thought maybe more of the gals would come. But as it turned out, it was perfect. Since Lisa and I had already skied a 50k and been out for almost ten hours, I was ready for a more mellow ski. I love the meadows. I enjoyed the company. When we got back to the hut, we shared hummus and rice crackers; dates stuffed with coconut cream and pecans; pesto pasta; raw veggies; coffee; and oatmeal cookie crumble. We had a great visit and then Mel and Sara skied back to their cars, just before dusk.
Lisa and I were more tired than we had expected to be. We were just shy of 75 miles deep into this. It had gotten cold. We each snuggled into our sleeping bags and started discussing the details of what we had left to ski, what we had already skied and how long it had taken, and the realities of how much time Lisa had left to complete the 100 miles. She needed to leave by about 6:00 the next morning, but also needed to have some rest before she did so. I knew I could finish any mileage I needed to, solo, the next day. I recalled Ras’ words of advice to use all the time it takes, but complete the mileage you set out to complete. Before I knew it we were both dozing, and it didn’t seem like any more miles were going to get skied that night. My feet throbbed from all the work they had done that day and Lisa said her feet were also aching, although neither of us had blisters. I felt like I was still moving, still on skis either flying downhill or in the tracks, gliding along. Clouds had rolled in and the stars we had seen the previous night were now obscured. The moon was not creating a glow outside, calling us out of the warm hut. Lisa decided that she wasn’t set on the 100 mile goal. She had been having a great time, felt like she’d accomplished a lot already, and didn’t need to get back out there for more miles if I wasn’t pushing it. I decided some rest would be good and that the night skiing in the teen temps the night before had taken a lot out of me. In order to finish this off, I needed some rest. We stayed snuggled in our bags. Lisa got up at 2:00 to start the fire going again. I tossed and turned again. But by 6:00 in the morning, Lisa was packed up and skiing back to the lot, wishing me well on the completion of my goal. She would message Ras and let him know what I was up to and that he could join me to help me finish off the mileage.
Now alone in the quiet hut, heavy snow falling and accumulating quickly outside, I busied myself with getting my Nathan VaporAiress ready for the day; putting my sleeping bag and other gear away; drinking my coffee and checking my blood sugars; and making sure my pack had a good selection of snacks, as I wasn’t into eating anything right now. I felt a bit anxious and unsure, yet all the while kept telling myself I had this. I had to keep my confidence level up in order to finish off the 24 remaining miles. Suddenly, a newspaper in the fire starter pile caught my eye. I recognized it immediately. It was the article the local paper had printed when Angela broke her humerus in a snowboarding competition, six years earlier. There were two pictures of my beautiful daughter, right there looking at me. It was such a cosmic moment; such a signal from the universe that I need to persevere. I felt the strength I needed to just get out the hut door.
I decided to just start skiing. I didn’t know whether to go out for a big loop, or something shorter. The wet snow made me think I should stay closer to the hut so that I could change out my wet layers. The snow wasn’t letting up at all and in fact it was coming down harder. I skied towards the parking lot, deciding to head out the easy trail that leads towards Antoine and then come back to the hut. But as I skied along in the stillness of the early morning, only 6:45 AM and no other skier likely to show up for hours, if at all, I was drawn to drop down Hej Bue in the fresh snow. I didn’t even have to think, the peaceful quiet guiding me all the while. I floated down the hill, the deer tracks now covered with a fresh layer of fluffy white. I coasted along at just the right speed, taking the turns with no effort, looking all around me at the trees and brush holding onto the freshly accumulated snow. It was ethereal. I kept going until I found myself in the delightful morning mist in the Straight Edge Meadow. I went around, and around, until the tracks Lisa and I had been skiing in the day before were found again by my skis and were just as well established. I waxed up on the first loop, regrouping under the shelter of a tree as I released all the discomfort of any anxiety and instead delighted in this perfect instance.
When I felt done in the meadow, I climbed back up to Whitetail, and instead of turning right to return to the hut, I decided to stay out and instead go towards Antoine and ski a loop around Aava’s Draw. There was still no car in the parking lot and I was not surprised. I skied towards Aava’s Draw and took the turn, following the old tracks again from the day before and getting some good glide on the uphill. When I got to the downhill, it was as magical as the early descent of the morning on Hej Bue and I glanced at the aspens as I passed, and the open spaces between the trees, and the red rosehips and the mullein stalks still standing tall above the deep snow. It felt good to be getting miles in with seemingly no effort. I was excited about what the rest of the day would bring, and I had no doubt I would reach my 100 mile goal.
When I got back to the lot, I did a double take when I saw that our car was there. Ras had arrived! I felt myself get emotional for the first time. I had not looked at the GPS yet for the morning, but I had been out several hours already. I skied over to him, and tears welled up in my eyes. I was really happy to see him. He was not so happy. He had been in bed for three days with a chest cold. He felt horrible. He doesn’t like to ski as much as I do anyway, and instead of being happy to hear from Lisa, he was bummed that she was not going to be skiing the rest of the miles with me and that he was somewhat expected to show up. His boots hurt his feet and he just doesn’t like the movement of Classic style cross-country skiing.
I excitedly caught him up to speed on how things had been going. I pulled out the GPS and it read 84.93 miles. I still had nearly 15 miles to go and of course this was not good news to Ras, but to me it was awesome. The end was in sight. I had this now. I was determined to not let his illness and attitude affect me. I did care that he felt horrible. I assured him he didn’t need to ski with me and that he could just set up the sleeping bag in the hut and rest. It was actually warm and quite nice in there. Our sleeping bag is super cozy and I really hoped he would just do that.
We decided to start off by skiing to the hut. Since I had been out all morning, I was ready to check my blood sugars and have a snack. I was also going to have a cup of coffee and probably change into a dry layer. This would allow him a chance to ski about a mile and feel what it was like. He could see what it was like in the hut and decide what he wanted to do. He clearly did not feel well and was grumpy. I skied off ahead and gave him some space. He grabbed a 1 gallon water jug to carry out to the hut for me, that Lisa had left in the parking lot when she took off in the morning. He struggled along with the jug. By the time he got to the hut, he seemed to have a true appreciation for what I had been doing. He really wanted to support me. He decided he would give skiing a go and we could take the simple route up Whitetail, do repeats so we could slip back into the hut to dry off as needed, and just get the remaining mileage done. It seemed like a good plan.
On our first trip up Whitetail, it had not been snowing. The uphill glide was fast and we got to the turnaround at the mouth of the canyon and the spot where Twista Vista drops downhill into the trees, in just about 20 minutes. We turned around and skied fast downhill and over the moose tracks, back to the hut with ease. I said he should just go inside and I’d keep doing Whitetail repeats. We looked at the numbers and could see that I only had 4 more and I’d be done. But now, the afternoon in full swing, the warmth of the day was upon me and the snow began to fall again. The quick Whitetail ski was now a sticky slow slog, hiking in my skis and trying to keep from having my own melt down, so to speak. Snow was piling up on the bottom of my skis, a couple of inches thick. I stopped to scrape it off and wax up, then tried to continue the climb. The sticking continued. I instead turned around to ski the tracks I had just been in, downhill, back to the hut, knowing I needed to wax up again and figure out how to ski in this sticky mess.
Ras had gotten a little rest but when seeing me, realized what was happening. He got his skis on and together we did another repeat on Whitetail, hoping that the two of us together could keep the track slick, before the warm snow accumulated on it. This worked okay, but when we got back to the hut, I felt frustrated with the conditions and these goofy short Whitetail repeats. I kind of snapped at Ras and said I had another loop in mind and that I was just going to head out on it. He could go in the hut and dry off and I’d see him in a bit. Off I went. He didn’t understand because we’d been working on keeping the Whitetail tracks clear. I reminded him that this was my ski goal and I was going to finish it my way. I’m sure he was finding me to be very pleasant at the time. I was in a zone; that place where you go deep in an endurance push where you are only focused on the end goal and how you will get it done. You don’t feel much- your pain, your body temperature, your hunger or thirst, or your ability to use filters in communicating with those you care about the most.
I returned an hour later with only four miles left to ski. I knew I could get this done now easily, by skiing back down to the meadow via Hej Bue, the way I had begun my morning solo, and finish off with loops around Straight Edge until the GPS read 100 miles. We hauled the supply packs back out to the car and I said goodbye and headed back to the Hej Bue trail. Ras would drive down to the lower parking lot that sits conveniently just off to the side of the Straight Edge Meadow. This was all coming to completion so smoothly. I would finish down there and he could wait in the warm car. I would be done it just about an hour.
I dropped down Hej Bue for the final time. The wind had picked up and mist was blowing around. This was a lonely, lovely, one mile downhill ski to the lower meadow. I could not see across it. The fog was thick, like a bowl of well-made split pea soup, which would taste so good now, I thought to myself. I skied around it, the faster direction, the direction I had preferred during this challenge. I saw our car across the way and waved a pole at Ras. He didn’t see me so I continued around the loop. I still had just shy of two miles, probably two more loops. The whiteout was mystical and seemed an appropriate way to end this challenge. I tucked my head down to protect myself from the wind. And I just skied. Push and glide, push and glide. I skied past the big pines and the old aspen snags, now barely visible in the thick fog. I unceremoniously skied up to Ras and checked the GPS for the final time – 100.2 miles, 54 hours and 51 minutes after I had started. The Highlands Hut Hundred Mile Ski was complete.
Her eyes stared blankly at me from where she sat atop the shelf just inside the closed Gila River National Visitor’s Center. I could tell right away that she was soft, plush, and sweet. She was waiting to be nurtured, held close and loved. Her coat was mottled gray, with a tuft of wiry looking hair between her pointy ears. Her snout had a beige tip, and her short legs had small, cloven hoofs at their ends. She was adorable and I couldn’t stop thinking about her as I hiked away from the building. It would be 800 miles of hiking, at an intensity and level of excitement that I never could have predicted, before I would see this face again; this stout, yet soft-seeming, stuffed javelina.
When I was a child, I had asthma and it would often be worse at night. I discovered that if I propped my big stuffed turtle underneath my head, it would silence the rattling in my chest, what sounded to me like little voices chit chatting away and making it hard for me to breathe. My sister and I would play stuffed animal games before falling asleep each night, and my brother would call out from his bedroom, trying to join in the games. I outgrew the asthma and the stuffed animal games, but the comfort and playfulness that these soft toy animals induce has stuck with me. During a long thru-hike, while spending chunks of time away from my pets, my soul longs for critters to nurture. I find myself talking to the squirrels, the kangaroo rats, the horned toads, jack rabbits and even a Sonoran Desert tortoise on occasion.
It is not unusual for thru-hikers to carry a trail buddy with them. I sew small trail totem dolls from recycled fabrics, stuffing them with wool and adorning them with outfits and style. I have gifted trail friends and family with these dolls, although I do not carry one myself. Ras gave me a small tortoise named Cruiser just before our last hike, and Cruiser joined me on the Grand Enchantment Trail in Arizona and New Mexico.
I loved having Cruiser with me. I stuffed him inside my pack so I wouldn’t lose him and I tried hard to keep him clean. He was bright green with tan markings and had huge eyes. Sometimes, I would take him out of my pack to take pictures of him in especially scenic settings. Then I would zip him right back into the Gossamer Gear cuben fiber pouch where he lived, with my pinon sap, salve, journal and other special trail items.
One morning, Ras and I spent quite a bit of time in camp drying out our gear in the sunshine. We had been caught in a snow storm in the Manzano Mountains the day before. As we descended to this drive-up camp, lonely this time of year, the snow turned to rain. We holed up inside an outhouse to dry off, until we discovered a black widow in her web high in the corner of the small space. Ras braved the weather to set up our tent and we slept soundly in the dry space. Two rangers drove into the camp the next morning to fill up their water tank, and Ras struck up a conversation with them. I basked in the warm sunshine and set Cruiser in a grassy spot to take a couple of pictures. I became distracted by trying to eavesdrop in the conversation, and soon forgot all about little Cruiser.
Sometime later that morning, hiking swiftly downhill, I thought of him, sitting in the grass. I cried out without even realizing it, “Oh Cruiser!” My insides sank and my heart felt immediately heavy as the vague wondering of whether I might of accidentally left him there, turned into the strong reality that I most certainly had.
Ras heard my cry and knew what had happened. He felt so bad for me and patiently allowed me to mourn the loss of a little stuffed animal, a trail friend. The small tortoise had been with me for nearly 1,000 miles. I got a little lift each time I saw those goofy big eyes. I could not believe the heart ache I felt upon leaving this guy behind, or the sadness I would feel as I thought of him alone there in the grass, next to the fence in the empty campground.
Sopping wet from a deluge and the wrath of a desert thunder storm, Ras and I sat outside the now open Gila National Visitor’s Center. We were on the return Yo of our Yo-Yo attempt on the Grand Enchantment Trail. We pulled off our dripping capes and found a place to hang them to dry. I stripped off a couple of other layers and made myself presentable. It was time to go inside and warm up, check out the displays, and maybe see if a shy, plush, stuffed javelina still lived here.
I am drawn to hiking in the desert, due in part to having spent my life in the Pacific Northwest. The desert is mysterious and special, hosting wildlife, plants and terrain that is all new to me. I have thru-hiked the 800 mile Arizona National Scenic Trail, Yo-Yo’ed this same trail, and hiked 1,300 miles of the Grand Enchantment Trail in a Yo-Yo attempt, during the spring of 2017. During these hikes, I have been able to both see and hear the little wild pigs, javelinas. The first experience I had with them, I heard the snorting and grunting before I saw the dark and wiry creatures. There were a couple of them together rooting around in the dry, cattle impacted zone around the Gila River. The second sighting was during my Yo-Yo hike of the AZT with Ras in the fall of 2016. Ras and I were joined for 100 miles by my friend Lisa Eversgerd. We had hiked off the trail to investigate the possibility of filtering water from the Gila, and as we approached the banks of the river, a limping javelina came towards Lisa and I. I screeched as I lept towards her, not being familiar with the animal, and hearing stories of their vicious tendencies. This guy had no desires to harm us and really just seemed a little down on its' luck, limping and all. I felt bad for it as we watched it hobble away.
My third sighting of javelinas was during my GET hike, wandering along the scenic rocks of the Slickrock Wonderland in New Mexico. Ras and I both felt the presence of other beings, and soon saw a small pack of javelinas. One stood out from the others and I assumed it was a mother. This one was not dark and wiry looking, but instead was mottled gray.
Ras and I wandered the inside of the Visitor’s Center, looking at the displays of the early Mogollon peoples that had lived along the Gila. We spent an hour inside, at least, and finally came to the shelves where the stuffed animals were. Other animals that represented images and memories we had shared along the trail were there, but the longing eyes and soft fur of the javelina I had seen 800 miles and a myriad of experiences previously, left me but no choice. I named her Magdalena May (after my favorite trail town, Magdalena, NM and it being the month of May) and found a place for her at the top of my already plump pack, having just picked up a resupply in the small community of Gila Hot Springs. She would be my pillow and my companion, not to mention a way to fill the hole in my heart that had been made when I left Cruiser behind.
It was ridiculous. She’s big, not a small, reasonable sized trail totem. But Ras insisted, and I’m glad he did. Yes, I’m 51 and entirely too old to play with stuffed animals. A thru-hike is life changing, intense, beautiful, impactful and teaches us to tap into our Inner Hominid. I thrive on the trails, whether it is my daily run or cross-country ski trip, or I am out on a multi-month adventure hike. It’s my essence, my core, my call. While out there, I am content. An inanimate object that can absorb my tears of joy or pain; ride along in my pack just for the pleasure of it; prop my head up at night; cause me to laugh or talk silly or share a goofy moment with Ras; and helps instill in me the belief that it serves as my guidance and protection on the trail, she’s worth more than her weight.
Ras Vaughan is a veteran on the show for a reason. He is constantly pushing boundaries of what a human is capable of. Not all of the challenges he attempts are successful, but his takeaways are always immeasurable. In 2017 all roads led to Africa for Ras.
Within the progression of ultra running, Ras & Kathy Vaughan are rather unlikely activists. Ras' first backpacking trip at age 11 ended with his Boy Scout troop being rescued by helicopter. When Ras and Kathy met in 1996 neither had any formal athletic experience, and Ras in particular was doing his utmost to become a member of the obesity epidemic.
I spit the toothpaste mixed with blood out of my mouth and then I spit again. Each time I tried to rid my mouth of the blood, I would just spit more. I figured that after a couple of months on the trail with not enough attention paid to oral hygiene, I might be experiencing some gum issues. I spit again and more blood spewed out. It seemed like an unusual amount.
Little did I know, my pancreas had stopped producing insulin and I had become a Type 1 Diabetic. My blood sugar levels were very high, dangerously so. Bleeding gums was only one of the symptoms I had been experiencing. My vision had become blurry, but since most of my time was spent hiking, I hadn't tried to read anything in weeks. I did not realize how my vision had deteriorated as the sugars flowed through my blood stream, causing it to change even the lenses of my eyes.
My thirst was out of control. I could not quench it, no matter what or how much I drank. I was not surprised that during a long desert thru-hike my thirst would be so intense. With these three symptoms being classic signs of diabetes, had I had access to Google, I would have probably known I was diabetic months before my diagnosis.
I had been hiking with Ras since March fourth. We were nearly 1,300 miles into a thru-hike yo-yo of the Grand Enchantment Trail. We were just 300 miles shy of completing our journey, a goal we had been working very hard towards achieving. I was feeling relentless nausea. I had become quite thin. The heat was becoming intense as we got further west, closing in on Phoenix and the Sonoron Desert. Ras and I didn't understand the entirety of what was going on with my health. We attributed everything to the hike and the physical and mental toll it was taking on both of us.
We had been hiking about 20 miles every day since we began from Phoenix in March. We hiked from after our breakfast and morning routine, until between 11 and midnight. We stopped for breaks, filtering water, and shade-time if needed, but for the most part, we were hiking. The terrain was not easy, by any means. The Grand Enchantment Trail is an East/West Route that begins (or ends) in Phoenix, Arizona and travels through deserts, washes, sky islands and mountain ranges, as well as forests to reach Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 740 miles. The trail is very remote and the resupply options are few and far between. Hikers either begin in Phoenix in the Spring and hike towards Albuquerque, or they begin in Albuquerque in the Fall and hike to Phoenix. No one has ever hiked the trail both directions in one push, and that is what Ras and I had intended to do. We set an Only Known Time for this on the Arizona National Scenic Trail and our goal was to complete it on the GET as well.
The universe had other plans for us. Our hike was an adventure from the beginning. We welcomed it with open arms, though. I journaled through the highs and lows of it all. Ras navigated through all the varying types of terrain, following the GPS and setting forth a daily goal for us, based on water sources, places to camp and what lay ahead on the trail.
We hiked in snow pack and had fresh snow fall come down on us. We hiked through canyons, working our way along creek drainages filled with ice cold snow melt. We traveled endless miles on dirt roads. We camped amongst cow pies and drank water from their water tanks. We also shared a water source with a young cougar. We saw wild turkey, horned toads, black widows, Big Horn Desert Sheep, a baby rattler, elk with impressive racks, fish in the streams and scorpions in the washes.
There is nowhere that Ras and I would rather be than on the trails together. We have worked for nearly 5 years to make this happen, full-time, for ourselves. Completing this thru-hike was going to be a step in the right direction for us in achieving this goal. We had sponsorship help from Nathan and Altra Running. We had Trail Butter pouches and Honey Stinger waffles. We had tons of ultra light backpacking gear from Gossamer Gear, including our trekking poles, the Deuce of Spades, Ras' pack, our ¾ length sleeping pads and cuben fiber gear bags.
But the heat and the nausea and the bleeding gums and the weight loss wouldn't let up. My final night of hiking, I had a meltdown. I cried and panicked and wondered how I could go on, but also, how I could stop. It was rough and ugly. Ras and I stopped for a break on some flat rocks, the full moon casting it's glow down on us. The tears wouldn't stop coming. Ras had no comfort for me; it had to come from myself and I couldn't muster any. From behind us, echoing off of the jagged cliffs, an eerie cry resounded in the otherwise quiet night. Ras suggested I listen to a book and that the carefully crafted words could pull me out of my funk. I resisted at first, but finally settled on listening to a book I had already listened to many times on this hike, “Pioneer Grit”. This was a story about a number of strong, pioneer women who had overcome amazing adversity. It was just what I needed. I spoke not a word, but listened for hours into the night. The trail was exceptionally challenging with route finding, overgrown brush, downed trees, narrow trail and a sense of being never-ending. It was one of the harder nights I've experienced.
At dawn, Ras filtered watered from a dank spring, while Harvestman spiders crawled from the old cottonwood trees that lined the water source. I ate something, I don't remember what. Ras and I were still silent with each other. It was a dark time. We continued on the trail with our water bottles full now. The sky continued to lighten and it felt good to have covered some miles in the night. We had another canyon to work our way through before we got to Eagle Creek, where we had over 40 fords awaiting us. Beyond the creek, our friend Gary Householder planned on meeting us with fresh food, water and in the back of our minds, we knew this would be a way to get off the trail if we so decided. This canyon was rugged and scenic, mysterious piles of horse poop led the way, and something dead created an overpowering stench and a feast for a half dozen vultures.
When we reached Eagle Creek, I thought our plan was to find some shade and pitch our tent to sleep. We had hiked all through the night, and now it was time to have a proper meal and rest. Ras had other plans. He wanted to find a really nice shade spot, but only after covering a couple more hours of hiking. I didn't have it in me without a meal. I had come through that middle-of-the-night meltdown and now I felt another one coming on. I was so hungry. I could not believe we were this far off on our needs and plans. I tried to hold it together, but to no avail. I broke down once again,
Ras could now see that I indeed needed to address some of my needs and so we found a decent place to set up our camp alongside Eagle Creek. We had 14 miles and the 40 fords in the warm, cow impacted water, before we reached the spot where Gary planned to meet us that night. We had enough time to eat and nap. But it was hot, triple digit hot. We ate and crawled into our tent, lying just on our sleeping pads. We didn't even bother to get out our sleeping bag, knowing there was no way we would need it. We fell asleep immediately.
I awoke in a pool of sweat. It felt awful. I didn't want to wake Ras up, but I had to get out of the tent and get to the creek. I had to wet myself down. It felt so good to take a dip, get my hair wet and wet down my bandana to put over my forehead when I went back to the tent to try to catch some more sleep. In the time I was gone, my sleeping pad had been exposed to the hot sun and warped. I could not believe it. Ras began to stir. He looked at me and said, “I'm worried about you.”
We went back down to the creek and began to soak in the water. It wasn't the most refreshing water, but it was there and it saved us from the stifling heat. The sound of the rapids was soothing. Ras and I looked at each other and tears began to stream down our cheeks. We knew. We could not hike 300 more miles in these conditions, with my mental and physical health having deteriorated, and the sun melting our gear before our very eyes. (It has taken me five months to even write this, and I'm crying now as I type.) This was hard.
When Gary met us late that night, he informed us of a forest fire forcing closure of the GET beyond Safford, several days of hiking ahead of us. Indeed, our hike was over and the Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-Yo attempt was coming to a close after 98 days and 1,300 miles.
After picking up resupply boxes we had shipped ahead, visiting with our southwest friends, and driving the long stretch from Arizona back to Washington, I finally got in to see a doctor. My A1C was above 14, a number that was immeasurable. I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic at that appointment and given the myriad of prescriptions needed to begin insulin therapy. I weighed 106 pounds. I had been peeing out all the glucose and nutrients my body so desperately needed to survive, let alone hike in challenging terrain day after day. So many questions were now answered, and so many new ones had now arisen.
Fast forward to five months down the road. For three months, Ras and I spent the summer together getting out on some weekend adventures. I started back with the weeding service I worked for right away, having accumulated some debt during our thru-hike and needing to get started on repaying that. Plus, I was hungry and thirsty and I wanted some cash flow to get nutrients in myself and Ras. Needless to say, after being on insulin, which is a weight gain hormone, and having the luxury to satisfy my nutrient needs and cravings, I have gotten back up to a healthy weight. My A1C was down to 9.2 at my last appointment, and my daily readings are almost always in range. I am getting used to this and I am beyond ready to get out on another extended hike.
My biggest accomplishment post diagnoses, was to summit Mt. Adams, a 12,000 foot volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range of Washington. It was amazing. I now want to climb Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak and Mt. Rainier in the Cascades as well. I felt so strong and did well in the high elevations. Ras and I did this together to celebrate my 51st birthday. It was challenging to ascend the steep and rocky North Cleaver. We traversed the summit and descended the South Spur route, steep snowfields all the way to the base. We then had a 25k run back to our car. It was the highlight of my summer.
The summer ended with Ras traveling to South Africa, where he was able to complete the Drakensburg Grand Traverse through the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho. He then continued on to Madagascar to visit our daughter, who is serving in the Peace Corps there. He will be putting together a photo book to document his travels in Madagascar.
I spent the remainder of the summer continuing my yard work job with Mary's Weeding Service and spending as much time as possible on the local trails, as I continued to adjust to my insulin therapy. I am blessed to live only a short distance away from a wonderful network of trails in the Fort Ebey, South Whidbey and Deception Pass State Parks. I stopped at one of these parks on my way home from work each day to run for an hour or two. These miles were for maintaining fitness, creating space for mindfulness each day, and pondering what path my life was taking. To live a healthy life as a diabetic, I need to continue to prioritize these times on the trail, whether I find myself alone while Ras pursues other adventures, teamed up with him, or partnered with other adventures. I will continue living a life of inner and outer exploration.
The short days and long nights of winter can be a dark and challenging time. Below I share some of my favorite techniques for keeping the Light in winter.
Get Natural Light Each Day – Go outside each day and find what it is that you love doing. Run or hike trails; breathe in the fresh air; take notice of winter birds and other wildlife; notice how the foliage changes around your home or on the trails.
Practice Daily Affirmations — Create positive statements for attracting good into your life. Use language that reflects this positive affirmation is happening in your life already. “I now go beyond other people's fears and limitations.” “I am flexible and flowing.”
Stretch or Practice Yogaeveryday. Releasing the tension in your body will help to release the tension in your mind.
Bring the Outdoors In — Adorn your kitchen table, fireplace mantel or other area with fresh and seasonal greenery. Create a nature table that honors nature's gifts that are available during the winter months. Gather Rose hips, cedar boughs, pine cones, dried flowers and berries, shells, bark, moss, dried grasses or other items, to create a nice display. Wildlife figurines, spiritual figures, wool or felt creatures, can also be added to the arrangement to help bring joy and light to the scene.
Make soups and stews and allow to simmer on your woodstove, in a slow cooker or on your stove top. The homemade meal is nourishing and the culinary fragrance is peaceful and soothing on a cold day.
Embrace the Dark — Run or hike trails in the dark, using a good head lamp. The daylight hours are shorter, but allow your time on the trails to go into the dark, or plan on starting your run or hike in the dark. Use chemical hand warmers if you will be out in the extreme cold, or out for a couple of hours or more. Wear warm layers and cozy fabrics to feel the comfort that comes with the light. Wear a hat to keep the warmth in, tuck in your bottom layer, use wool fabrics and always take time in choosing your layers carefully. It will help ensure you have a pleasant time and will want to make it a part of your regular routine.
Take in Uplifting and Energizing Nutrients — Eat seasonal fruits and veggies everyday: nuts and seeds, homemade soups, stews and casseroles; foods that will provide good energy for the darker months. Stay away from foods that will literally weigh you down during the months when motivation to get outside and exercise can already be an issue. Dairy products, seasonal cookies and other baked goods, alcoholic beverages, sweetened coffee drinks, and creamy dips can all contribute to a feeling of bloat and heaviness. These seasonal treats can be replicated in healthy ways. Trade ranch dip for hummus, to serve with veggies instead; baked sweet potato fries instead of potato chips; seasoned and mashed avacado or guacamole instead of heavy cheese dips; gourmet trail mixes with a large variety of nuts, dried fruits and chunks of dark chocolate instead of tins of fudge; molasses cookies instead of sugar cookies.
Create a Rhythm for Your Days — Having a plan helps to eliminate stress in our lives. If there are areas where you can have a routine that you follow, such as a weekly running or workout schedule, this helps you go with the flow and takes the day to day planning out of the picture. Easy flow and lightness in our lives help keep the darkness of winter from affecting us in a negative way. Establishing a way to celebrate life on a daily basis is a nice mindfulness activity. Using candle light, a special lantern or lamp, the sun, or the flames of a fire, are all sources to use for your ceremony. You can recite a verse, sing a song, say a silent prayer, or just reflect on the light, the season , or whatever feels meaningful.
Set Challenges for Yourself that Reach Beyond Winter Months — Use squat or ab challenges to help you to focus on core work or train for a late winter or spring race. Decide on a decluttering project, a craft or handwork project, or any physical, mental or creative pursuit that will help bring focus and joy to your life on a daily basis. The goal or challenge will help you to see beyond the dark months and into the light of spring, while accomplishing something at the same time.
Be Patient Toward Yourself and Others — The struggle is real for some folks during the shorter days of winter. The return of the light can seem so far away. Offering a small gesture towards others during these months is nice. Sending a quick email or facebook message; sending a note card in the mail; dropping off a soup or seasonal arrangement of fresh greens; a phone call. This can mean so much to someone feeling down and needing some brightness in their lives.
Add to this list with your own ways to stay merry and bright, living a full life in the winter, while feeling healthy and vibrant.
On June 11th, 2017, Team UltraPedestrian achieved the biggest fail of our careers. After 98 days and 1300 miles on the trail pushing our minds, bodies, gear, finances, and relationship far past their limits, we were forced to admit that we would not be able to complete our goal of becoming the first people ever to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail. (Yo-yoing a trail means traveling it from one end to the other and then back again, thus completing the trail twice in a single push, once in each direction, like a yo-yo running out to the end of its string then returning to your hand.)
The GET runs east and west between Phoenix, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for approximately 770 miles. But the GET isn’t an official trail: it’s a route that links together existing trail, unmaintained trail, two tracks, roads, bushwacks, and cross-country sections that traverse both vast deserts and vertiginous mountain ranges. It’s an incredibly difficult and indelibly rewarding route. Being in the heart of the American Southwest, the Grand Enchantment Trail presents a very limited window of opportunity in the spring and fall, between the freezing snows of winter and the blistering heat of summer. On our final day on the trail, when Kathy inadvertently left her sleeping pad in the direct sun and it melted we knew that our window of opportunity had slammed shut.
Our GET Yo-yo attempt was the second in a series of four desert trail yo-yos that we planned as part of our multi-year Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project. This included the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which we had successfully yo-yo’d between September 18th and December 20th of 2015, the Grand Enchantment Trail, the Oregon Desert Trail, and the Hayduke Trail. Each of these trails is approximately 800 miles long in a single direction and traverses some of the most challenging and unforgiving terrain in North America. We were attempting them in order of ascending difficulty, and we were under no illusion that our success was a given. These are extremely challenging routes, and there’s good reason why no one had ever yo-yo’d any of them before.
Not only did we aspire to being the first, but we planned to do it in “Feet On The Ground” style, not hitchhiking into resupply towns, not accepting rides of any kind, and not using public transportation or any other form of conveyance (we even avoided elevators in motels). Our goal was to cover every step of the way under our own power and on our own two feet. In or minds this would be the highest ethic we could attain, the best style, the fairest means, but it could also be summed up rather simply as, “cray cray is as cray cray does”. We had invested months evaluating the physical, mental and logistical challenges involved in the overall project and had concluded that it was Humanly possible. We wanted to find out if we were the Humans to do it.
When Kathy and I realized that the tide was turning against us, we knew it was more than just this one project that was on the line. We had announced our Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project all across the state of Arizona during a speaking tour in February of 2016 and had called our shot on the interwebs for all the world to see. We had pitched proposals to sponsors to garner the support necessary to make it happen and had signed contracts promising results. We had put everything on the line, personally and professionally, for all the world to see, and now it was crashing down around our ears.
Kathy and I had seen the end coming, and it didn’t necessarily catch us by surprise. It could even be argued that failure was the most likely outcome from the start. Our progress had been slower than we had hoped from the very beginning, and the weather never cut us even the slightest bit of slack. We began in triple digit weather and ended in triple digit weather, but the time in between was filled with postholing through knee deep snow, sheltering in culverts to wait our blizzards, hundreds of icy creek fords, painfully cold fingers and toes, and wind, wind, wind. I’m sure Mother Nature had other elemental forces with which she could have confronted us, but I’d be hard pressed to name them off the top of my head.
By day 98 Kathy had lost a drastic amount of weight and was suffering an unslakable thirst which no amount of water or other beverages was sufficient to quench. Kathy is a pancreatic disease survivor who had 40% of her pancreas removed ten years ago, so she is even more susceptible to dehydration than the average person would be even under normal circumstances, let alone when living in and moving through the arid deserts and mountains of the Southwest for nearly 100 days. This adventure took a heavy toll on her physically, and on both of us mentally, as we watched our goals slipping further and further into the future as we struggled to cover ground.
We were constantly evaluating our progress and adjusting our plans accordingly, yet slowly but surely the math turned against us. Our goal of 70 days had been backed off to 80 days fairly early on. Then 80 days was bumped back to 90. Once 100 days became our target not only was the math becoming bleak, but the weather was as well. We couldn’t keep stretching out our finish date because we could feel the hot breath on our necks from the impending maw of summer.
Finally, we had the discussion that we had hoped never to have; at what point we had to call it quits, and if that time was now. As we neared the mining town of Morenci there was the opportunity to bail out before committing to another multiple day stretch of blistering heat before the next chance to drop. We devised a couple of if/then statements and litmus tests to apply over the next twenty-four hours and agreed that if they didn’t go the way we needed them to, we would make the call we didn’t want to make and drop off the trail. And it didn’t go. The next day and night were brutally difficult, and we were both additionally burdened with the tension of sensing our impending failure. We hiked through the night to maximize movement in the cool hours, but then couldn’t find proper shade deep and cool enough to rest in. Then Kathy’s sleeping pad melted. Then we sat in Eagle creek and talked out the horrible reality of choosing our well-being and health over the drive to stubbornly solder on. We cried and hugged and held hands as we sat in the water, that being the only tenable place to wait out the heat of the day. A friend had messaged us to say he and his son would be surprising us along the route that evening, and we decided that instead of simply thanking them for their kindness, we would ask for a ride back to Phoenix.
As fate would have it, that tortuous decision had been entirely unnecessary, and all our agonizing over whether or not to give up was in vain. Wildfires sparked by lightning in the Pinaleño Mountains had closed a key section of trail, and, as it would turn out, would not be extinguished for weeks. Regardless of what we had decided earlier that day, our Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-yo attempt would have come to an end no matter what. We thought we were making a decision, but, in fact, the Universe had already decided for us.
Neither Kathy nor I consider ourselves extraordinary athletes in any way. Our UltraPedestrian ethic promotes not what superlatively trained and supremely talented athletes can achieve, but the amazing and extraordinary things of which ordinary Human Beings are capable. (While the immediately obvious meaning of UltraPedestrian would be, “covering distances greater than that of a standard marathon on foot,” an ancillary interpretation could be, “exceedingly commonplace”.) Whether it be ultrarunning, fastpacking, thru-hiking, mountaineering or some agglomeration thereof, our quest is to explore the boundaries of Human endurance. Our goal is to find The Thing That We Cannot Do. In a sense, failure is our highest aim. Ticking off doable adventure after doable adventure doesn’t capture our imaginations, doesn’t cause our hearts to sing, doesn’t make the blood thrum in our ears. Guaranteed success is just a training run for the kinds of challenges that truly engage us on a deep and resonant level. The question marks are the entire point of our adventures, not just punctuation.
While I’m as impressed with and inspired by the accomplishments of elite athletes as anyone, I’ve long understood that their best performances are beyond the ken of the vast majority of bipeds. Our lives are the accumulation of the stories we live, and, “I had a great day, everything went perfectly, and I won,” is neither a very engaging nor a very resonant story. The challenges and the struggles and perseverance through adversity are the key ingredients of the Hero’s Quest. It’s the relating of weaknesses, foibles, and stumblings to which the mass of Humankind can relate, and it’s exactly those moments, when everything seems to be going wrong, wherein one most completely experiences his or her Humanity.
That’s why I love the word fail. That’s why Kathy and I have made it part of our value set to be open and public and even explicit with our failures. It’s not a matter of self-denigration or melancholic brooding or self-flagellation, nor is it fishing for comfort or compliments. It’s because the fails are where the Humanity is, and experiencing and connecting with our fundamental Humanity is the goal of adventuring, as we see it.
Our GET Yo-yo attempt was a fail of grand proportions and in full view of the public. It was a belly flop off an Olympic high dive with the gold medal on the line. It was Vinko Bogataj’s cataclysmic ski jump wipeout in the opening sequence of ABC’s Wide World Of Sports as Jim McKay intoned, “… and the agony of defeat.” It was a failure so big that it negated our previous AZT Yo-yo completion, took our planned ODT and HDT Yo-yo projects off the table, and nullified the multi-year Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project we had been brainstorming, planning, and working toward for more than two years. And failing our Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-yo attempt was the biggest, most brutal, most beautiful, and more wonderful adventure Kathy and I have ever done together. With fails as epic and rewarding as this, who needs a win?
Ras and Kathy Vaughan are Team UltraPedestrian.