By Kathy “OBAL Unbranded” Vaughan
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.