The Fail Of A Lifetime
After 98 days and over 1300 miles on the trail, on June 11th, 2017 Kathy and Ras had to quit their attempts to become the first people to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail. Below is a collection of trail dispatches, photos and video links that document some of the challenges that lead to that decision.
Watch for upcoming blogs on the Altra Running and Gossamer Gear websites documenting more of that amazing adventure.
In the spring of 2018 Kathy and Ras will be releasing a photobook collection of their complete trail dispatches from this adventure entitled 98 Days Of Wind with additional information not made available anywhere else. Sign up for our mailing list at the top of the page to be notified when 98 Days of Wind is available for purchase.
DAY 03 '- Walking the wilds in wonder at the rugged beauty of Creation! This natural arch in Rogers Canyon was just one of a host of wonders, including an amazing amount of delicious water; such an especial Blessing in the desert.
DAY 08 - The best Life isn't one where you sip champagne, but one where you guzzle water.
DAY 13 - WANDERING THE SANTA TERESA MOUNTAINS. Lots of wash-walking, bushwhacking, and route finding in this segment made for slow going. But that's part of the fun of an Only Known Time attempt. And the goal of our yo-yo projects is to experience the trail as completely as possible, so more immersion in the environs only helps us toward our goal.
DAY 29 - Asterisk number one: We made the difficult decision to take the High Country Bypass and High Water Bypass routes around the Mogollon-Baldy trail and the West Fork Gila River.
Climbing up from Alma, NM, we had to ford Mineral Creek numerous times. It was swollen with snow melt and the water was frigid. We had to stop numerous times to make coffee and warm up our painfully cold feet, so much so that we burned through all our stove fuel, which we had been unable to resupply in Alma.
We then climbed out of Mineral Creek up to 9,000 feet, our shoes never fully drying. As we started to climb up the Crest Trail to top out at 10,400ish feet, it began snowing, and it increased as we climbed. With wet shoes and no stove fuel, we decided we needed to take the bypass routes in order not to jeopardize the entire project. So, this will add an asterisk to our OKT, but it's what we had to do to salvage the overall yo-yo attempt while adhering to our feet-on-the-ground ethic.
A VERY BAD THING HAPPENS
DAY 33 - "Help me! Please, help me! Please, help me!" Kathy screamed over and over, her hands clutched to her face. We had been hiking our 20th mile of the day, it was nearing midnight, and it had just started to rain. We had just stopped to put on our rain capes and started hiking again when Kathy's steady footfalls were suddenly interrupted with a catch and a whump. Kathy had caught a toe on a rock, her arms and feet had hung up in her cape, she had faceplanted on the side of the trail, and she began screaming in pain and fear as soon as she hit the ground. I ran up to her thinking, incorrectly, that one of her trekking poles had hit her in the face. But understanding dawned as she turned her bloody, spine-studded face up to me and the full horror of what had happened was revealed: she had landed in a prickly pear cactus.
Nothing makes you feel more worthless and powerless than having your favorite person in the world crying out to you for help in fear and pain as you stand there dumbfounded with no idea what to do. Eventually I snapped out of it, pulled her up out of the cactus, sat her down nearby, and pulled the spines nearest her left eye out with my fingers, Kathy still screaming for help the entire time. I don't know how long she cried out like that, but it felt like an eternity.
When I thought the immediate peril to her eye was past, I moved her over a few feet under a Juniper and out of the rain, dug the tweezers out of her pack, and began plucking the cactus spines from her lovely face, reassuring her the entire time that I was there to help her and that she was going to be okay, even as she winced and cried out in pain with each clump of spines I pulled free.
When the pain got to be too much for her, I let her work on her own hand as I removed her rain cape and puffy pants, which were pincushioned with spines and had taken the brunt of it. I took off her waist pack, then removed some spines from her arm, hip, and leg. I covered the spines in Kathy's waist pack and puffy pants with duct tape and bundled up her cape and wrapped it with tape so the spines wouldn't migrate into other pieces of gear or clothing.
Kathy began to get cold, mostly from shock I think, so I got my puffy pants out for her. I removed a few spines from her jacket, but it was otherwise okay. I worked on her face a little more, as we figured out what to do.
We were on a ridge, with no workable tent sites, so I got Kathy ready to hike until we could find a spot to set up for the night. Within a mile I found a suitable spot, set up our tent, and got Kathy out of her clothes and into the tent. Then, with the tweezers, Kathy's reading glasses, and my headlamp on high, I painstakingly removed all the spines I could find from my Beloved's face, arm, hand, hip, and leg. She had also landed on rocks, suffering bruises to her hip and knee, the latter of which causing her much pain during the short hike to our tent site.
About three hours from the time of her fall, Kathy was finally comfortable and calm enough to lay down to sleep. I settled into our shared sleeping bag next to her, thinking how much worse it could have been, and thankful that her eye had been spared. Seeming to read my mind, as we drifted into a traumatized sleep, Kathy said, "I guess it could have been a lot worse. It could have been a Cholla."
IT'S AMAZING WHAT THE HUMAN MIND CAN MAKE THE BODY DO
DAY 45 - Our food stores held out remarkably well over our 189 mile unresupplied push from Gila Hotsprings to Magdalena, NM. However, a couple of challenging, slow, low-mileage days stretched our caloric resources thin at the end.
With just over 60 miles to go we found ourselves with half a baggy of instant rice and refritos, plus a few small portions of hummus, vegan chili, and potato shreds and flakes, along with two portions of oatmeal each.
Despite our meager 400ish calories per day per person, we were able to grind out three 20 mile days, including a midnight scramble over the high shoulder of North Baldy with the kind of exposure that leaves everything not in your headlamp beam disappearing into a black, indiscernible void. We slept just inside the Cibola National Forest boundary, then hiked the four miles into Magdalena lightheaded and with light packs, fueled by just coffee and perseverance (or, if you prefer, dew and universe juice). I estimate we were each metabolizing a pound of stored fat per day each of those last three days, and when your body is operating in that mode, life takes on a surreal clarity, all the modern illusions of civilization and societal constructs collapsing, movement and hunger starkly highlighting the few fundamentals of existence, like a chalk outline at a crime scene.
Now we are taking a zero day to make up some of our calorie debt and to switch our minds and bodies back out of "imminent threat" mode and allow the more sophisticated aspects of our psychology and physiognomy to reemerge. But I have to admit, I love those ancient moments of simple animal drive to persist. Somehow, when I feel most bestial and most ancient is when I feel most Human, my mind most clear, my heart its stoutest, my goal most clearly defined.
COUGARS, CULVERT CAMP, AND COMMUNITY MARKETS
Day 55 - Just as we reached Upper 4th Of July Spring at around 10:30pm it started to rain in earnest. We put our capes on as we were pelted with large drops. I filled one water bladder from the spring-fed trough. As I turned back toward Kathy to fetch the other bladder my headlamp beam swept the trail downhill of us (where we would be continuing on) and it stopped on the dumbfounded face of a young cougar. He stared back at me agape for a moment before he turned a black-tipped tail to me, then scrambled up the rock face beside the trail and peered down at us. The rain had obscured our noise and scent, so we surprized him by being at his water trough. I was unnerving to walk below those rocks, but we saw no more of the big cat.
Day 56 - After hiking a quick seven morning miles we hit Ray's One Stop in Tejique for a few quick calories. We were warned of an approaching snowstorm and offered a place to stay, but we decided to push on. Eight miles later, after numerous brief showers, as we were hiking along the shoulder of NM377, it began to rain in earnest. We stepped into a culvert running under the highway to have a snack and wait out the squall. We then watched the rain turn to snow, and the snow begin to accumulate. We were dry and our gear was dry, so it made no sense to go out into the storm. I jerry-rigged a tent set, and we spent the night in what we came to call Culvert Camp.
Day 57 - We awoke to about a foot of snow on the ground, and more falling, and realized we weren't leaving Culvert Camp anytime soon. I found the local public radio station on the FM band of my mp3 player and heard the forecast of snow tapering off overnight and mostly sunny with highs in the 50s the next day. A full day and second night in Culvert Camp was dry and protected from the wind and snow, but relatively boring. I did some gear repairs and made a stove from two energy drink cans, as well as building two small dikes and a water channel to protect our tent site in case of massive melt during the night.
Day 58 - Bright sunshine awakened us before our alarm and we knew it was time to get heck out of Culvert Camp, as grateful as we were for it. We climbed out of the culvert, up onto the shoulder of the highway, and straight into a 20+ mph headwind which we battled for the next 16 miles. We enjoyed brief respites at the Ten Points General Store a little north of Escabosa, and the Morning Star Market in Ponderosa Pine. From there we pushed on to the Turkey Trot Trailhead and camped in the parking lot, since it was snow free and gravel, which had drained well. A young bowhunter named Andrew, out after turkey, told us it had snowed 14 inches there. A little later a nice guy named Josh (a fellow thruhiker we lived nearby) invited us by for coffee and breakfast the next morning. So many people have been so generous and kind to us.
Day 59 - We awakened to find Andrew had snuck by early in the morning and left us two apples, two bananas, and a giant avocado. We headed toward Tijeras under bright sun.
DAY 67 - Waiting out a sudden snow squall, our heads tucked into our rain cape, pellet snow pummelled us as we hunkered down. We sat out some of the worst of it, but still spent most of the day hiking through snow, wind, and rain. Wild turkeys, Aberts Squirrels, deer, and rabbits were out and about, leaving the hieroglyphs of their tracks in the snow for us to decipher.
DAY 70 - Gobsmacked, William Shatnered, dumbfounded, Whatever you wanna call it, I’m at a loss for words. The last 36 hours have been a mind-bending blend of striving, frailty, achievement, failure, and the humility born of receiving unwarranted kindness.
Beginning Friday morning Kathy and I were attempting to complete a 43 mile push by 11:30AM Saturday in order to pick up two boxes of food and gear from the Lemitar, NM, Post Office during their limited weekend hours. After 27 miles the math was turning against us. We laid down to nap for an hour or two in a small cut at 5:30AM Saturday, mentally making back up plans for missing our parcel pick up.
We woke up and began beating against a brutal headwind, our hearts despairing as we struggled to pound out our final 16 miles. At 11:30 I got a cell signal and was able to call the Lemitar Post Master just as the Post Office was closing. He generously agreed to meet us at 2:00PM with our packages, sacrificing hours of his afternoon to help two thru-hikers who were complete strangers to him.
Then, in the cafe in the Phillips 66 truck stop, as we were organising our food into our packs, a waitress came over and pointed out an older couple who were leaving and told us they had paid our bill for us.
It is humbling and inspiring to be the recipient of such kindnesses, and it makes me proud to be a Human Being.
With all of the negativity and conflict and division portrayed in the media, these experiences remind me that there is a Kind American Heart, and that it is a very real thing, even if it doesn't make headlines.
DAY 89 - Hitting the west end of the middle fork Gila river trail in a downpour, we found a camp of multiple tents and tarps. A friendly man stepped out and offered to let us shelter under one of their tarps. We took refuge from the storm and cooked up some food while chatting with the three leaders of what turned out to be the SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Education Program. They invited us to camp nearby and give an impromptu talk that evening under one of their tarp shelters as the rain pelted it.
THE LINE BETWEEN FAILURE AND INJURY CAN BE HARD TO PERCEIVE
DAY 97 - And after almost 100 days of struggle it's becoming difficult to balance the risk of one versus the other.
As a pancreatic disease survivor having had 40% of her pancreas removed, Kathy is more susceptible to dehydration than the average person. Since numerous rain and snow storms have repeatedly delayed us over the last three months, we are now faced with the triple digit temperatures of an Arizona June, and it is taking its toll.
Kathy's performance has been compromised over the last couple of days, and she woke up feeling queasy and low energy this morning. After only 1 1/2 miles we had to stop in the shade to wait out the heat of the day. We plan to nap until evening and then try to move through the cool of the night and make some progress toward Safford, AZ, our next resupply some 64 miles distant. For now, that is our only goal and everything else is up in the air.
We may have to zero in Safford. We may have to abandon our feet-on-the-ground ethic and hitchhike into Morenci before that for rest and recuperation. Or we may have to bail on our entire GET Yo-yo OKT project. I'm worried about Kathy's well-being.
The problem with our quest to find the limits of Human Endurance is that if we succeed in so doing it will feel more like a failure than a success.
DAY 98 - Our grand enchantment trail yo-yo okt attempt is a fail: it's over, finished, kaput; and it's one of the greatest things team ultrapedestrian has ever done. After nearly 100 days of struggle, the math and weather have turned against us so dramatically and definitively that we are left with no option but to call it quits about 40 miles shy of Safford, AZ, and approximately 300 miles short of our goal of Phoenix. Not only has the weather window of Spring slammed shut, but Summer has very suddenly made itself known with debilitating heat, making continued efforts to progress unsustainable. We tried to transition to the graveyard shift to avoid the heat, hiking through the night, but were unable to find a cool enough place to rest during the day, to the point where Kathy accidentally left her sleeping pad unattended in the direct sun for a few minutes AND IT MELTED.
Confirming our decision, when our friend Gary Housholder met up with us at the southwest end of Eagle Creek to surprise us with ice water, juice, soda, tabbouleh, hummus, veggies, apples, and a bevy of other caloric blessings, he also informed us that Mount Graham was on fire and the official GET route was closed by the Forest Service outside of Safford. Whether we wanted to accept it or not, our adventure was over.
We can (and WILL!) torture ourselves with hypotheticals about zero days we should or should not have taken, approaches we may or may not have modified, and other variables we could have potentially varied to complete our journey, but our goal was not simply to arrive at a destination, but to get there via a methodology, an ethic, a standard of comportment that we were unwilling to sacrifice, even if it endangered the entire project.
In mountaineering, this ethic is called Good Style, or Fair Means. This was expressed in our GET Yo-yo OKT attempt in our Feet-On-The-Ground ethic. Yes, if we had hitchhiked into resupply towns we could have saved time, eliminated mileage, and carried much smaller loads; meaning we could have completed the project. But it would have lacked the awkward grace and sublime brutality of covering every inch of our route on foot. To our minds, that OFF trail mileage in a vehicle would have demeaned the hundreds of thousands of footsteps we had invested ON the trail. It would have, very simply, violated our FOTG ethic. And that was never our goal. We set out to do this project in Good Style, and we never sacrificed that, even though it meant failing to reach our intended end point on the map. But Kathy and I, as Team UltraPedestrian, would rather fail according to our highest standards than succeed having sacrificed what is of importance to us. And so, alas, we have failed to complete our GET Yo-yo attempt.
I'm sure many people are wondering, and, no, we are not okay with this. It will haunt us for years to come. It will be a bugaboo prowling the periphery of our psyches for decades. We will never fully accept it. And years from now, when you see us grinding out another implausibly grueling adventure and think to yourselves, "What drives them on?" this fail will be one of the answers. And that is part of what makes it such an amazing investment. It may not have returned the immediate profits for which we had planned and hoped, but we will reap the rewards of this failure far into the future in our Life, in our Love, and in the Grand Adventure that is our time on this planet.
What a Blessing to fall short of an implausibly lofty goal! What a Blessing to be a Biped and a Hominid! What a Blessing to be a Human Being! What a Blessing to be ALIVE!
Ras and KathyVaughan are Team UltraPedestrian. They are fastpackers, ultramarathoners, adventure runners, thru-hikers and mountaineers who are widely recognized as progenitors of the Only Known Time movement. Ras and Kathy write about their adventures at www.UltraPedestrian.com