Category Archives: FKT

Evolution traverse (VI 5.9 or 5.6, 17h42)

Ridge through Haeckel from valley

Ridge through Haeckel from valley


The Evolution Traverse, pioneered by Peter Croft in the 1990s, connects a long ridge of peaks from “Mount Steven Jay Gould” to Mount Huxley in the Evolution region of the Sierra. Thanks to mostly good rock and to Croft’s imprimatur, it sees a fair amount of attention from Real Climbers. “Evo” has been at the outer limit of my ambitions for the past couple of years, as its 5.9 rating is out of my league. However, this is a “Sierra traverse rating,” not a true YDS rating: as with the similarly “VI 5.9” Kaweah traverse, it can be made easier with a bit of creative route-finding.

After I broke my hand on Fury, I thought I was done with technical outings for the season. But after a successful outing on Williamson’s NE ridge and a scouting trip to Darwin, I decided to give it a try. Since I would rather use this part of the summer elsewhere next year, it was now or never, and I was fairly confident Evo was within my abilities. The short September days would be inconvenient, but if I could manage the 20-21 hours I hoped, there would be enough daylight for the ridge, and I can deal with the long approach and return at night.

Morning on Lamarck Col

Morning on Lamarck Col

I woke to my alarm at 2:00, ate the usual Cup of Sadness, supplemented it by choking down some beet nitrates, then walked the road up to the trailhead as a sort of warmup. I didn’t remember how long the approach to Darwin Bench would take me, but I wanted to have as much daylight as possible for the technical part of the day. Moving by headlamp at the start of an anticipated 20-hour day, there is little running to be done on the Lamarck Lakes approach, as the trail is often steep and/or rough, but I at least jogged a few short flatter stretches for appearances. I had an unpleasant experience getting lost on the way to Lamarck Col a number of years ago, but had no trouble this time, even on a moonless night.

Gould in daylight

Gould in daylight

The other side of the col is still the same mess of cairns and boot-prints higher up. There is a fairly decent and efficient trail lower down, but with no chance of finding it at night, I just brute-forced my way to the bottom, where I picked up the on-and-off Darwin Bench trail. I walked through some people’s camp at night, reached the end of Lake 11,623′ (rather than the normal 11,592′), then headed up some part of Gould that I thought I could make work. Gould is a mess of gullies and fins from this side, and I had not planned to start up at night, but I had crossed Lamarck faster than expected, and did not want to waste time waiting for light.

Mendel from Gould

Mendel from Gould

I turned off the headlamp after a half-hour of blind class 2-3 scrambling, and continued up my gully as it steepened. It was probably a snow/ice climb 10 years ago, but such things are increasingly rare in the Sierra, and I found only dirt and dirty rock. As it got steep, I moved right onto a rib via some class 4-5 terrain, then made my wander-y way to Gould’s summit. I glanced at the register (no pencil), then headed off toward Mendel.

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Fun hand-crack before Mendel

Having done the traverse through Darwin in 2012, I remembered a bit of route-finding trickiness on this part, and a short headwall with a fun hand-crack. I found the latter, and had no trouble with the route-finding. Still, this is a long connecting ridge, and it took over an hour to reach Mendel.

Darwin from Mendel

Darwin from Mendel

Though Darwin looks close from Mendel, I remembered that this next part was time-consuming and difficult, and that I had rappeled one section in 2012. Despite this difficulty, the first part is a virtual golden sidewalk along the top of the ridge. After this easy early progress, it is a rude shock when the ridge suddenly turns serrated broken, and loses precious elevation. After downclimbing past one or two useless-seeming rap anchors above short drops, I moved to the left side of the ridge, hoping to traverse across some of the more difficult towers on the crest. While I might have spared myself some harder climbing, I certainly did not save time, as I had to backtrack a few times while climbing up and down to connect ledges on the steep, sometimes crappy face. I eventually took a dirty gully back up to the crest, and was much happier.

On Darwin's summit block

On Darwin’s summit block

After a final, unexpected and spitefully steep downclimb into the final notch before Darwin, class 3-4 terrain lead to the summit plateau. I dropped off toward the detached summit block and then, feeling my oats, did the direct Peter Croft-style mantle up the front side. Though a friend of mine was supposed to traverse through, I was surprised to find that my scouting mission the week before was the last entry in the summit log. I signed again, then had a snack while I psyched myself up for the second scary section, from here to 13,332′.

Trickiness south of Darwin

Trickiness south of Darwin

I went down the back of the summit pinnacle, then continued to the first nest of rap tat. The crappy downclimb seemed less scary than a week before, and I went straight across the golden face rather than taking whatever ugly line below it I had chosen then. Even though I had done it in the other direction just a week before, from there to 13,332′ was a mess of haphazard route-finding with a bit of backtracking — this part is confusing! I stayed mostly on the crest, bypassing a few things to the left or right.

Darwin from 13,332

Darwin from 13,332

I got around the crux 5.9 crack downclimb that many people mention on the other (west) side this time, via a convoluted line that involved climbing up a chimney with an unreliable-looking semi-detached 30-foot pillar in front of it. (I banged and kicked it a few times beforehand, and it stayed put.) I may be pretty bad at climbing, but I’m pretty good at alpine hijinks. I downclimbed the fifth class big-talus south of the crack, then stupidly wasted a bit more time before getting on the obvious line to 13,332′.

Haeckel from 13,332

Haeckel from 13,332

I was stoked: although I had a long ways to go, it was less than 10 hours into the day, and I was done with the scary part of the traverse. I dropped off the summit and began the long, downhill boulder-hop to Haeckel Col. It would cost very little time to drop past Lake 12,345′ instead of traversing the tricky little pyramid north of Haeckel, but I was doing fine for water on a cool-ish September day, so I stayed high.

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

Helicopter above Haeckel Col

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a helicopter just before the col, and paused my music to pay more attention. It approached the col, then made several circles around the Haeckel-Huxley cirque. I made random “I’m okay” gestures when it was near me, but had no idea how I could or should communicate. Taking several trips back to base to refuel, it eventually set up a base camp near Lake 12,021′ and extracted someone from Haeckel’s west face. I saw nothing as I climbed past this section of the ridge, but learned later that it was recovering the body of a woman who had just been doing exactly what I was doing.

Enter the Choss...

Enter the Choss…

After getting past the pyramid, I found Haeckel’s northwest arĂȘte to be a fun class 3-4 romp on mostly good rock, and after mostly slow technical climbing and the descent to the col, I had the energy to move quickly. I found the register container stuck shut, and continued quickly along decent rock on the top of the ridge. Wallace is a garbage-mound, and Haeckel-Wallace Col marks the start of the traverse’s chossy section, which continues to somewhere past the aptly-named “Crumbling Spire.” I signed in on Wallace, relieved to see my friend’s entry from a few days ago, then chossed on.

Endless ridge to Fiske

Endless ridge to Fiske

I had done Huxley-Warlow-Fiske in 2009 or 2010, and remembered that doing it in that direction felt like “petting a cat the wrong way” — walk up boulders, then downclimb steep stuff. However, I had not remembered any particularly tricky climbing, and was surprised to find quite a few 5th class sections on what I thought was the home stretch. I was getting tired, and the long traverse to Fiske seemed endless, with each technical difficulty feeling like an affront. Only when I reached the headwall on Huxley, steep enough to be thought-provoking but not scary, did I enjoy the challenge rather than resent the slower progress.

Huxley with Darwin behind

Huxley with Darwin behind

While I was happy with my time as I signed in on Huxley, I was feeling worn down, and apprehensive as I looked at the long route I must take back around Gould, up near the other side of Darwin, and over Lamarck Col, in the lengthening shadows of afternoon. I dropped down the wrong (second) gully about halfway before crossing over into the northern one to pick up a faint bootpack. It didn’t matter: after so many hours on class 4-5 terrain, I barely noticed a few 4th class steps.

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

Joining the Jolly Manure Trench

I finished my water at the base of the chute — perfect timing! — then refilled a safe distance from the Jolly Manure Trench, crammed down some pop-tarts, then took off at a jog down the trail, finding enough energy to make good time on the gradual descent. I passed the usual assortment of campers settling in for the night, then turned off on the Darwin Bench trail as the JMT dropped through the woods toward Colby Meadow.

Sunset on Darwin Bench

Sunset on Darwin Bench

I had expected to do this section at night, but was thankful to be ahead of schedule making my way up Darwin Bench. While the trail is clear in some places, it fades in and out of existence crossing slabs and boulder-fields; it would be hard to get lost in the early moonlit night, but it would also be easy to lose a lot of time. Knowing that daylight would save me time on Lamarck Col as well, I forced myself to jog some of the flatter sections, and reached the sign at the col around sunset. Realizing that I could go under 18 hours, I ran the sandy upper col in the twilight, passing a couple camping near a random snowbank, then finally turned on my headlamp on the switchbacks just above the creek crossing. I at least managed not to face-plant as I negotiated the rocky trail past Lamarck Lake to Piute Creek, then ran past a few campers to the sign to stop the clock. I whistled happily as I wound down on the walk back to the car. It had been a good day.

Splits

  • Piute TH (2:49 AM)
  • Lamarck Col (4:44)
  • Gould (6:36)
  • Mendel (7:46)
  • Darwin (9:18)
  • 13,332′ (11:31)
  • Haeckel (12:29 PM)
  • Wallace (12:59)
  • Crumbling Spire (1:19)
  • Fiske (2:14)
  • Warlow (3:12)
  • Huxley (4:04)
  • Lamarck Col (7:09)
  • Piute TH (8:31)

Gear notes

I used some trail runners I am familiar with and trust on rock for the whole thing. I took 1L of water over Lamarck Col, filled up with ~2.5L before leaving Darwin Bench, then got another ~1.5L after Huxley. I had ~4000 calories of food: 5 packs of pop-tarts (2000 cal), 6 caffeinated Clif bars (1500 cal), and 3 “sweet ‘n’ salty” granola bars (540 cal). I also consumed a half-dozen salt pills and 600mg of ibuprofen. Other than that, I had standard Sierra hiking gear.

Comparing traverses

Having now done the Evolution and Kaweah Traverses, both rated “VI 5.9,” with similar levels of fitness and climbing competence, it’s worth comparing them. Evolution has a longer traverse section, a slightly harder crux (5.6 vs. 5.4-5.5), and trickier route-finding keeping the difficulty within the realm of things I can solo. However, Kaweah’s climbing is more sustained: once past Second Kaweah, there are no long choss or boulder-hopping sections. Kaweah’s rock quality is also somewhat worse, demanding some caution, though it is better in the steeper parts than one would expect given the Kaweahs’ reputation. Kaweah’s approach (Glacier and Hands-and-Knees Passes) is also much harder than Evolution’s (trail or pseudo-trail over Lamarck Col).

Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

Adams (2h02m45 up, 3h10m42 rt, FKT)

Sorry, no photos. This was Serious Business, and the camera would add weight.

After a couple of days recovering from Fury, and another few with a friend enjoying good food, good music, and even a casual peak, it was time to get back to the serious business of outdoor suffering. Mount Adams, one of the Cascades Volcanoes (and ultra-prominence peaks) I have yet to climb, is enough of a pain to reach that I have previously passed it by several times. This time I fought through road construction on I-5, then drove the windy paved-then-dirt-then-bad-dirt road up from White Salmon. In the dark the narrow, rutted road lined with logs and slash looked like a wrong turn, but when I pulled into the herd of cars parked among the snags just after midnight, I knew I was in the right place.

I got a short night’s sleep, then a slow start to the day, with hot Cup o’ Sadness and a PB&H. Since I was going for speed, I planned to bring minimal gear: running shoes, windbreaker, and hip belt with one bottle and two Clif bars. To make this gear work, I needed the snow to have softened enough to descend without crampons or axe, but not enough that I would posthole or wallow on the way up. At around 7:30, I thought it seemed warm enough, and had run out of patience, anyways.

My body initially felt sluggish, but soon remembered its purpose as I jogged up the wide, rocky, dusty trail. The trail deteriorates where it crosses a small stream, becoming several braided paths that roughly follow a line of giant cairns. Since the route is used year-round, changing snow conditions create multiple best paths. Looking at my GPS, I was concerned that my vertical ascent rate so far had been only slightly faster than the 2h20 ascent I wanted to beat. This worry turned out to be misplaced: while I was doubtless slowed by altitude after so much time near sea level, my increased climbing efficiency on the steeper talus and snow slopes (vs. flat-ish trail) more than compensated.

I switched between rock and snow on the climb to the “lunch counter” taking a line more-or-less straight toward the southern sub-summit, generally left of the groups I began to see ahead of me. The snow was worryingly firm toward the left (west) edge of the broad face, but crunchy enough to provide secure footing. Above the lunch counter I moved right, linking various up- and down-boot-tracks and sometimes passing people. Checking my ascent rate, I was pleased to see that I was approaching 3200 ft/hr, slightly faster than I had expected, and well faster than on pace for 2h20.

Topping out on the south false summit, I jogged a boot-pack traverse, then hiked the final grunt to the summit, where a group had congregated in the old fire lookout’s lee. I put on my windbreaker before the summit, already getting chilled in the west wind, then hiked up on the snow covering the cabin. Views were clear in all directions, with Rainier, St. Helens, Hood, Jefferson, and the Sisters all clear. I took it in for a few seconds, then started jogging down.

I cut a corner down the sand on a path I had seen on the way up, then ran to the false summit. The snow had softened enough that I felt secure fast-walking down boot-packs, but it was not soft enough to really open up. I exchanged the occasional word with people I had passed on the way up, then finally got to start running near the “lunch counter.” I made a small route error below there, going too far left, then took a few scrapes trying to use a huge glissade chute with a t-shirt and no axe (the runout was fine, but braking was hard). After that, it was a wild, fast run to the trailhead.

As I stopped my watch, took out my earbuds, and oriented myself, I heard someone probably asking me a question. He asked about my time and, when I told him, asked my name. It turned out he was Jack McBroom, the former California 14er record holder! After we got over our mutual surprise, we hung had a pleasant conversation while a few of his friends finished the hike (he had, naturally, run ahead) and stored their gear. Then they took off, and I began the important business of eating random things — better ones than usual, though — before driving on to the next.

East Fury (20h45)

Traverse toward Fury

Traverse toward Fury


East Fury anchors the southern end of the core Northern Pickets, which wrap around Luna Cirque to Challenger. The easiest way to reach it requires 17 miles along the Ross Lake and Big Beaver trails, a heinous bushwhack up Access Creek, and a long traverse over snow and rock along the ridge west of Luna Peak. While I had hoped to do something much more ambitious, simply tagging East Fury by itself was a serious undertaking, significantly longer than doing Luna by the same approach last year.

Planning something bigger, I did some sleep manipulation and napping to be at least somewhat rested for a start just after midnight. The advantage of doing the Big Beaver approach at night is that you don’t have to think so much about how long it is. The main disadvantage is the giant toads, which squat in the middle of the trail and galumph in some random direction if you give them time to think. I made the Big Beaver junction in about 1h20, and was at somewhere near the start of Access Creek by 3:45 AM, much better time than I had expected.

Luna from the wrong place

Luna from the wrong place

I was not really prepared to start the cross-country in the dark, but I had a map and GPS, and Access Creek sucks no matter what, so I put on my pant legs and headed off into the woods. After thrashing down to the stream-bank and looking around a bit, it was light enough for me to pick out a decent ford: I saw no sign of last year’s complicated log bridge. I splashed through the slow, thigh-deep water without bothering to take off my shoes or pants, as I figured they would be soaked by brush anyways.

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

Slog up to Luna-MacMillan saddle

I cut back and forth as I climbed the other side of the Big Beaver, periodically checking my coordinates to try to figure out where I was relative to Access Creek. Unfortunately my map wasn’t high-resolution enough to be much use, as the creek is completely undetectable from as little as a hundred yards away, so when I finally got a clear view around 4500′, I saw that I was well above the creek on the south side of its valley. After a descending traverse with much misery and trashing through pines and berries, I crossed to the north side for a bit, then crossed back south to pick up the “trail.” I estimated I had lost an hour or more versus the correct route.

Fury from Luna Col

Fury from Luna Col

At least I knew where to go from here, and I made quick work of the gully up to the saddle with MacMillan Creek, which still held a bit of avoidable snow. After a short break enjoying the view of the Southern Pickets, I made the long traverse to the Luna saddle, where I got my first glimpse of Fury, far to the west along an undulating ridge.

After unnecessarily traversing around the first bump, I stayed mostly on top of the ridge, which is mostly broad and flat. I found a few cairns at one point where the route deviates north, and some typical Cascades rappel-junk where it deviates south. Though none of it is difficult, the traverse is long, made longer by the remaining patches of soft snow.

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Southern Pickets, Outrigger, SE glacier

Shortly before where the ridge turns to sharp, red choss, the route traverses south across a bowl, going under some rock buttresses to reach the Southeast Fury Glacier. The glacier itself was both badly broken up and covered in soft snow, so it was faster to follow the ledge-y third class rock to its right most of the way up, then traverse a bit of snow to the saddle just east of the summit, which is hidden behind a snow dome from this direction. I crossed the top of the glacier, then cautiously kicked my way up the left side of the snow dome before transitioning to more third class rock to reach the summit, about 11h35 from the car.

Baker and West Fury

Baker and West Fury

It was a perfect day, with most of the Cascade visible, and even Rainier making a ghostly appearance far to the south. The rest of northern Pickets stretched out to the west and north, as well as the long return route from Challenger to Beaver Pass. I thought about traversing over to West Fury, which is not that far away, but the ridge looked like complicated choss, and I was a bit demotivated by the morning’s Access Creek fiasco. Instead, I sat around perusing the register, eating, and taking photos, then began my return.

Luna and Prophet

Luna and Prophet

The steep snow slopes were unpleasantly soft, so I stuck to rock around the snow dome. The northeast side of the glacier was flat enough to plunge-step and boot-ski partway, before crossing the rocks at its edge. Now that I knew the route, the return to Access Creek was efficient, but still took quite a bit of time. Anticipating vicious insects and brush below, I put my pant legs back on before descending to the creek, putting up with sweaty legs.

The correct route above the creek crossing was mostly pleasant, with a decent path beaten through a thin strip of berries and alder. At a wider strip of brush near 4000′, where the woods are close to the north side of the creek, the current route crosses to dive into the relatively open woods. I tried to cross on some logs instead of just fording, and was rewarded with both wet feet and a bashed hand when I slipped. The best route stays in open woods somewhat near the creek higher up, then strays farther away onto an indistinct ridge as the creek steepens and turns north. I had to contend with some vicious blueberries when I lost it in a couple of places, but still made pretty good time down to the Big Beaver. Here you stay left above the swamp, then reach the stream junction mostly in blueberries.

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

Weird clouds and Ross Lake

I recognized the series of logs I had used the previous year, but one was either submerged or gone. Fortunately there is a reasonable ford immediately upstream. After a bit of devil’s club and other misery, I lucked into the correct path into the woods, and was back to the trail much sooner than expected. Only 17 miles to home!

The bugs were out in full force, and I was completely swarmed by flies in the brief time it took to remove my pant legs for the hobble/jog. I ran a few miles to a place that seemed less buggy, then stopped to quickly wring out my socks before trudging on. The final stretch from Big Beaver to Ross Dam was as miserable as last time, though at least it was still light. My hand ached, my back was sore where my (unused) crampons had been poking it through my pack, and my feet, which had been damp or wet most of the day, were working on blisters. I crept up the spiteful climb from the dam to the trailhead, humbled by the unexpected difficulty of my larger plan (not this year…), but pleased to have dayhiked one of the most remote peaks in the lower 48.

Olympus (10h12, FKT)

First view of Blue Glacier

First view of Blue Glacier


This Mount Olympus, not to be confused with the ones in Greece and Utah, is the high-point of the Olympic range in western Washington. It has something for everyone to dread: climbers are put off by the 18-mile approach, hikers by the glacier crossing. It therefore sees relatively few ascents for a prominent and beautiful peak with good trail access.

It had been on my to-do list for a couple of years as an ultra-prominence peak, and since I wanted to dayhike it, I figured I might as well try for the fastest known time (FKT). While I am used to pushing myself in the mountains, by either necessity or habit, I had forgotten the additional pain incurred by a genuine FKT attempt. Other than 12 minutes spent enjoying the summit, and another 5 talking to a friendly woman on the way down, I think this was close to my best effort with current fitness.

Standard rain forest trail

Standard rain forest trail

Between ongoing construction and a large, multi-lobed campground, it took me awhile to find the trailhead at night, but I eventually got that sorted out and hit the trail at 4:45. Running through a dense forest on the west side of the range, I actually needed my headlamp for contrast on the rough trail in the first half-hour. The trail follows the Hoh River for about 10 miles to the Olympus ranger cabin, gaining a measly 500 feet (average 1% grade). The slight grade is enough to be just noticeable while jogging, and is reflected in my splits. Frequent trail signs, and campsites labeled with their mileage from the trailhead, allowed me to keep track of my pace.

Hoh River from bridge

Hoh River from bridge

Beyond the ranger cabin, the trail climbs gradually over several miles before crossing the Hoh River at a spectacularly sharp gorge, then climbing more steeply above the runoff streams from the Blue and White Glaciers. Glad for the break from running, I fast-walked my way up the climb, passing campers at the various established spots along the way. I was a bit surprised to learn that many people backpack in for 3-5 days simply to walk to the base of the glacier. It’s probably for the best, as there is not enough climber traffic to justify maintaining the trail.

Looking down ladder

Looking down ladder

Shortly before Glacier Meadows, I came upon the famous ladder leading through a large slide chute. I found it surprisingly intimidating in the downward direction, and proceeded slowly until I became accustomed to this strange feature. Returning to the trail, I passed the platform for a seasonal ranger cabin, then continued up the trail to the lateral moraine.

Looking down Blue from summit

Looking down Blue from summit

From the moraine, I finally got my first view of the Blue Glacier, which I surprisingly found more impressive than most of the Cascades glaciers I have seen over the past two summers. Though it is apparently in rapid retreat, the Blue reminded me more of the glaciers I had seen in Canada, with a low-angle ice plain connected by impressive ice-falls to a striped, meandering valley glacier. The variety and complexity of this ice-landscape makes it seem somehow more impressive than the large but relatively uniform Cascades glaciers like the Challenger, Boston, and Inspiration.

Crossing lower blue

Crossing lower blue

Reaching the valley portion, I was glad I had chosen to bring crampons, as there was not enough grit on the surface of the wavy ice cube to make the crossing practical in just running shoes. I hopped from one ridge to the next, aiming for the toe of a rock buttress right of the icefalls. There are no large crevasses on this part of the glacier, but the unevenness makes for slow progress, and I suppose one could jump in a moulin. I was no longer moving at full FKT intensity, but I doubt effort would have translated to speed on this uneven terrain.

Doffing crampons on the other side of the glacier, I made my way up some 3rd class slabs to easier class 2 ground, aiming for the highest point of rock below the snow dome. I’m not sure if this is the standard route, but it is definitely the most efficient way to gain and lose elevation while the lower glacier is bare.

Upper glacier and summit

Upper glacier and summit

Returning to the glacier above, I found enough soft snow for crampons to be unnecessary, and did not feel especially insecure without an ice axe. Following and old boot-pack through the “stretch mark” crevasses of the upper glacier, I eyed the more direct routes to the higher western summit, but did not see an obvious line to take through the crevasses and bergschrund with only running shoe crampons. This forced me to the slightly indirect Crystal Pass route, which loops around to the eastern lobe of the glacier and around the back of the summit pinnacle.

Summit outcropping

Summit outcropping

Leaving the snow for a short stretch over the false summit, I downclimbed and slid across a short saddle, then kicked steps up steep snow to the highpoint of the snow below the summit rock, from which hung the usual Pacific Northwest collection of rappel tat. Stepping across onto the rock, I found about a pitch of low 5th class climbing, on steep but surprisingly solid rock with good incut holds. A bit of scrambling later, I reached the summit at 5h35, and knew that unless I imploded, the FKT was in the bag.

Upper White Glacier

Upper White Glacier

Even on a full-out effort, it felt criminal not to enjoy the surroundings. The large Blue and White Glaciers descended from opposite sides of the summit, their outlet streams eventually meeting to the north, with the Hoh Glacier visible farther east. Glaciation in the range is surprisingly concentrated, with relatively little ice visible outside these three large glaciers. 8,000 feet below to the west, east, and north, I could see the fog-covered ocean. Looking through the register while eating my last pop-tarts, I found a surprising number of familiar names, and even a couple dayhikers.

Icefall and lower glacier

Icefall and lower glacier

I retraced my steps across the false summit, ran down the snow to the rock buttress, then took another extended break to refill my water, wring out my socks, make my fig bars accessible, and pre-emptively ibuprofen my knees. After another crampon session getting across the ice, and an unpleasant slog up onto the lateral moraine, I was finally able to switch into downhill gear for awhile. I passed several groups of glacier sight-seers, stopping for five minutes to talk to an older woman from back east before turning up my pace and music to ignore the rest of the hikers.

It's a rain forest, dawg

It’s a rain forest, dawg

The descent to the Hoh is intermittently technical, but I was fresh enough to make good downhill time, reaching the Hoh bridge (13 miles to go) at 8h02. On a normal outing, with plenty of daylight left, I would jog as boredom demanded. However this was an FKT, so I aimed for 6MPH for the rest of the day, eating my last ibuprofen and striving for relaxed, sustainable speed. The ranger was awake in his cabin, so I stopped to chat briefly before before grinding out the final 9 miles. Measuring my pace by the campsite mileages, I was pleased to see that I was managing 6 MPH or better.

Definitely type II fun

Definitely type II fun

Things started to fall apart with around 5 miles to go, as I no longer had the energy to run the short uphills or maintain speed through rougher trail sections. With 2-3 miles to go, I started noticing slight cramps in my forearm when I adjusted my earbud, a sign I was running low on electrolytes. My knees were definitely feeling it as well, though not in a way that made me worry about acute injury. I reminded myself that it would be over in 30 minutes instead of an hour if I jogged instead of walked, put on some more aggressive music, and passed the final tourist hordes in coma drive, reaching the sign in 10h12.

I immediately fetched a gallon jug of water from the car and lay down on some soft moss, carefully arranging my legs to prevent cramping while I rehydrated and cooled down in my thoroughly-soaked t-shirt. Once I felt basically functional, I hobbled back to the car, ate greasy, salty sardines mashed into bread, and drove over to a secluded spot to rinse myself off in the silty Hoh River.

Splits

  • Start: 4:45 AM
  • Ranger Cabin: 6:21 (1h37)
  • Hoh bridge: 7:03 (2h29)
  • Glacier Meadows: 8:14 (3h30)
  • Glacier: 8:39 (3h55)
  • Summit arrive: 10:19 (5h35)
  • Summit depart: 10:31 (5h47)
  • Hoh bridge: 12:46 (8h02)
  • Trailhead: 2:57 (10h12)

    Gear and nutrition

  • Kahtoola KTS crampons
  • 3 packs pop-tarts
  • 1 sleeve fig bars
  • 6-7 gels
  • 300mg ibuprofen

  • Evolution “loop” (North Lake to South Lake) FKT (10h31)

    Black Giant (c) above Muir Pass, from Wanda Lake


    When Leor Pantilat’s FKT for the Evolution “loop” came up in my news feed, I skimmed it and moved on, having other things on my mind. However, on the way back from Forsyth, I had some time to think about it while dealing with trail miles. On paper, 55 miles with 10k vertical in 12h15 looks soft; Yours Truly ran 50 miles with 12k vertical in about 9 hours at San Juan Solstice, and the winner was about an hour faster.

    But was it actually soft, or was it a slow course? I have often felt (or at least told people) that I should test my end-of-season shape with an actual trail run. A final few free days in the Sierra would give me that chance. The answer turns out to be somewhere in between: The course is slower than the stats (55 miles, 10k vertical) would suggest, thanks to sections of basically unrunnable trail around Muir and Bishop Passes. However, having a good day and pushing myself about as hard as I could without blowing up at the end, I was able to pull off a 10h31. I think someone else could knock another hour off this time, but not me. While better nutrition might have helped me a bit, I felt more limited by muscular fatigue and joint pain.

    I woke up before my alarm in the hiker parking area at North Lake and, after eating breakfast and dithering around, left for the trailhead at 5:45. Noticing that the air was unexpectedly warm, I wore only a windbreaker over a cotton t-shirt, my warm hat, and a pair of socks on my hands (I could only find one glove in the chaos of my car/home). I reached the sign at 5:55, took the clock-starting picture, and started up the trail by headlamp. I expected my legs to feel rusty after two days’ rest, but I was soon jogging the gradual uphills, and felt that this would be a good day.

    I reached the pass in the long dawn, noting that my split was about even with the FKT, then dropped through Humphreys Basin. The first part of the trail was every bit as pleasant as I remembered from previous outings. The unfamiliar trail through the woods was also quite runnable, though the drunken trail crew from the Dorothy Pass PCT seems to have added some loopy switchbacks here as well. Since I was playing by “ultra rules,” I dutifully followed them.

    The downhill stretch from Piute Pass to the JMT seemed to go on forever and, as I ran out of mountains in front of me, I began to wonder if I had missed a turn, and would suddenly find myself at some west-side trailhead. This last worry was not so far off: when I finally reached the JMT, I also reached the edge of the (west-side) Sierra National Forest, and saw a sign pointing to Florence Lake. The last part of the descent had some rockier trail, but most of this long descent was fast and fun.

    Turning up toward Goddard Canyon, the very runnable trail passed through turning aspens along a broad, rushing creek. This was one of the most enjoyable sections of the trail, and I was sorry to leave it at the Goddard Canyon fork, turning into the woods and switchbacking up to the hanging mouth of the Evolution Valley. I mostly fast-walked the switchbacks, jogging the longer and flatter stretches, then jogged on through the woods to the stream crossing. After a couple minutes’ search, I found the narrow logs people had been using to cross, grabbed a couple of stubby sticks, and sort-of “deer danced” my way across.

    After more flat, runnable wooded trail, I hiked another section of switchbacks (probably) near the Darwin Bench cut-off, then gradually emerged from the trees near the first big lake. This section, from Evolution Lakes to Wanda Lake, was one of the best of the loop, and I jogged most of the gradual climb, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the familiar but still spectacular scenery. The trail became more annoying above Wanda Lake, with more scree and bits of the horrible rubble-box construction.

    After hours of running, I began to feel my digestive system falling behind my input of pop-tarts and energy bars, and my eating slowed. Reaching the hut, I took a short break to take some pictures and get out my two gels. This seemed like a good time for 200 easily-digestible calories. From the pass to near Big Pete Meadow, the trail crosses more moraine, and though I ran most of it, my “run” was not that much faster than a walk.

    After some easier running, the trail once again became tricky on the switchbacks into Le Conte Canyon, from which I could see the long drop I faced before the final climb to Bishop Pass. After the initial, steep descent, the trail along the canyon is mostly runnable, though longer than I had expected, since I initially misidentified the slabby side-valley leading to Dusy Basin. I stopped along the way to refill my water for the last time, grabbing about 2 liters.

    Finally reaching the Dusy Basin turn-off, I noted that the sign said it was 6 miles to the pass, and I estimated that I had no more than 3 hours left in the day. As long as I didn’t bonk, I had a very good shot at a sub-11-hour time. This helped motivate me on the climb, somewhat making up for my increasing difficulty eating — though I was baking on the west-facing slope, I managed to jog short flatter sections of the switchbacks.

    Topping out at the bottom of Dusy Basin, I met a couple who asked where I was coming from. When I told them, they said they had met another person doing the loop in the other direction only a couple of days earlier. I tried to remain upbeat climbing the basin, but my digestive situation was threatening to slow me down. Stopping to dig a hole, I made some more room, and was able to slowly eat most of an energy bar on the long slog to Bishop Pass. Most of the trail from Le Conte Canyon to Bishop Pass has been too damaged by packers (both their animals and their attempts at trail-work) to be usefully runnable in either direction.

    I was happy with my split at the pass, then almost immediately pained by the truly wretched trail down the other side to the first lake. While I wasn’t flying after that, I had enough left in my quads to descend at a respectable rate. I passed a few fisher-folk on the way to the sign, took the “stop” picture, walked around for a minute to see if my legs would cramp, then lay down in the dirt.

    While a friend had offered to give me a ride back to my car at North Lake, I had told her I expected to take around 12 hours. Rather than wait around South Lake for over an hour, I roused myself when I heard voices, and hitched a ride with a fishing couple and their dog (all of whose names I forget). They had originally planned to drop me at the Highway 168 junction, from which I could hitch back toward North Lake, but were kind enough to take me back to my car. People at east-side trailheads are usually helpful, even more so when you look half-dead and tell them you just ran 50 miles…

    Splits

    • South Lake — 5:55 AM (split, vs. previous FKT)
    • Piute Pass — 6:58 (1h03, -2)
    • JMT junction — 8:48 (2h53, -20)
    • Goddard Canyon junction — 9:26 (3h31, -20)
    • Muir Pass — 12:15 PM (6h20, -54)
    • Le Conte Canyon — 1:41 (7h46, -1h14)
    • Bishop Pass — 3:28 (9h33, -1h31)
    • South Lake — 4:26 (10h31, -1h44)

    Based on the splits, it looks like I was running the downhills somewhat faster, and Pantilat “positive-split” the course, usually a suboptimal pacing strategy.

    Nutrition

    Electrolytes? Yes. Turbolytes? Powerlytes? No. More lytes than my body had room for? Unfortunately, yes, and I had to correct the “input-output flux imbalance” in, um… Dusy Basin. Disgusted by the fact that gels (glorified Karo syrup) are down to 83 cal/$, I only bought two, instead relying on my usual mix of pop-tarts and energy bars. This proved adequate but suboptimal, as there wasn’t enough low-intensity time for my digestive system to take care of them, and I ate less than I brought.

    Gear

    I mostly used my usual hiking setup, but ditched a few things from my pack (sunscreen, bug spray), and wore light tights instead of nylon pants. I wore my light trail runners (the sadly-discontinued New Balance 101s) instead of the heavier ones I wear hiking. They provided adequate foot protection, albeit barely.