Friday, July 26, 2013

Wekiwa Springs State Park, FL

A trip across the Florida Alps

I hate flying into Orlando. Even a flight from San Francisco with a 1am arrival time is unpleasant. Yes, it’s great for families and kids to travel with heightened anticipation of the vacation to come but for a 100,000 miles a year traveller like me the shine has worn off a little. 5.5 hours of intermittent shrieking, screaming and crying were quickly left behind on the suffocating jet bridge and the roads were deserted on my way to my Mickey Mouse infested hotel. 3am to bed and 6 am back at work, but I had a few hours free in the afternoon that I intended to make the most of.

Sitting in my car at Wekiwa Springs State Park I pondered my options. The heavy rain drumming the car, the black sky split by searing lightening bolts, suggested a damp afternoon. The Park Ranger struggled with my ridiculous question – “Will the trails be muddy?” It’s awkward getting running shoes dry in time for a return flight.

I removed my tee shirt and emerged into the rain – no point carrying redundant weight – and once my GPS satellites had been detected I jogged off along the White trail. Thirty miles south in Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the log flume ride “Splash Mountain” where, on entry, the greeting states, “You will get wet, you may get soaked.” It was a more appropriate warning for my trail run. I started in a downpour that quickly became a drenching and deteriorated into a deluge. Apart from the fact that it rained the whole 2 hours of my run, it was completely dry. As my father used to helpfully point out during rain storms in the UK – “It isn’t raining between the raindrops.”

The initial section of trail meanders west through thick woodland before swinging to the north where the woods thin out. It was completely deserted except for deer and lizards. I’ll come to the insects later. The trail surface wasn’t too bad, just occasional pools but not much mud. There was heavy sand on the trail surface that turned into oatmeal in heavy rain and this made running very challenging. The second mile was on a harder surface and I ran this in very quick time. Otherwise I just kept a steady pace and enjoyed the solitude and quiet.

Six miles into the run I was feeling pretty good, but didn’t expect to find the surprises yet to come. At this point the trail veers east and joins a bridleway. Almost immediately I was thigh deep in swamp water. The trail blazes on the trees told me this was the right way and I waded along getting into deeper and darker waters. I was anxious about gators as I knew there were some in the park. It was a little disconcerting to be splashing through deep dark water with the thought of gators in my mind. At one point I was surprised to run next to a pool containing about a dozen eels writhing close to the water surface. They didn’t look pleasant and I didn’t want one sinking its teeth into my leg. At another point I steeped on something that looked hard but that moved under my foot. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. My worst fear was over with before I even realized it had happened. Simultaneously wading through deep water and ducking under low branches I missed movement in the undergrowth to my right. Had I seen it I would have stopped and that would have been really bad, but I didn’t and I emerged on a small dry plateau just as the gator rested its heavy jaws a few feet away. I leaped forwards quickly and covered 50 yards before turning around to check the pursuit. Thankfully, the gator still hadn’t left the plateau and I was able to admire it from a safe distance, ever aware that where there was one there may be others.

This swamp running lasted for nearly 4 miles. The trail switched from easterly to southerly and wound in and around clumps of trees and bushes. Along one section there were intermittent deep pools, some of which were waist deep, and this made the going very slow. No sooner would I get into my stride than I would disappear into a hole full of water. It was frustrating and refreshing. I don’t know whether I ever broke into a sweat because the rain water was streaming down my head and body. All the time the heavy thunder rain hammered down.

Of course, this is Florida so it is always warm and humid. Different swamps and pools were of different temperatures. Wakiwa is a cold spring and some of the pools were refreshingly cool, but other pools were so warm they felt like bath water. But the never ending swamp running was wearing and I felt very tired. As the trail meandered south I just wished for the parking lot and the chance to get dry.

After spending the last few years living and running in the Colorado Rockies I have been spoiled by the clear, dry mountain air and the almost complete absence of nasty bugs and insects. Florida is a little different. As my pace slowed I became more aware of the leaves, branches and tall grass fronds that brushed my bare upper body. I wasn't surprised, therefore, to see that I was covered with small leaf and grass fragments and I would sometimes try to brush these off. But I wasn't having much of a success. Stopping to navigate by a really deep pool I tried to do a better job and noticed that they weren't bits of leaves and grass at all - they were shiny-backed green insects enjoying a really good meal and as I looked at them I began to feel their nibbling activities. I picked up a twig and began scraping them off my body. So much for running without a tee shirt.

At 11 miles I turned a corner in the trail and came head-to-head with a fawn deer. I stopped close enough to reach out and touch this beautiful creature. It didn’t seem afraid, just anxious. I took a couple of steps back and allowed it to wander into the woods before resuming my run.

After I returned to my hotel and downloaded my data I couldn’t believe that I had clocked nearly 1000 feet of ascent, this being Florida after all. I also couldn’t believe that I had achieved my fastest ever run for a one mile distance. It didn’t seem like I had been running fast.

On reflection, this was a fun trail to run. The swamp trotting turned out to be better than I expected. But this isn't a place to run in dry shoes. Even on a dry day it is difficult to imagine these trails ever being dry.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The House of Pain

When running the high mountains I fall over for fun. I expect to fall and I do. In truth, it happens far less than it should given the terrain I traverse, but when it happens it is always a shock and I have been fortunate to escape with bloodied knees, elbows, palms and forehead. Typically I wait for the flush of nausea to work through...sit up...check body parts...stand up...dust myself down...and then start running again. This private spectacle exposes me to some risk...but if there was no risk I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much.

My mileage is picking up. After a painful incapacitating achilles injury earlier in the year it has taken me a long time to find my pace and feel comfortable on longer runs. I planned for a 45 mile long weekend which got off to a punishing start very early on Friday morning. Every time I have ascended James Peak I have eyed the severely undulating ridge line containing 4 x 13,000'+ peaks ending with Mt Flora to the south. It was too big a trip from the East Portal so I planned a loop starting from Falls River Road. This looked aesthetically pleasing on the map, but it had a 6.5 mile long ascent to reach the first summit - Mt Flora.

Emerging from tree line to wonderful long distance views of Grays and Torreys Peaks to the south west
I parked where the Continental Divide trail crossed Falls River and struck south west through steep woodland. This is a wonderful section of trail along a beautifully built narrow winding route. It was very hard work with some very steep pulls and at 10,000' I felt as though I was working too hard so early in the run. It was about 6am and the temperature was nice and cool.

This trail clearly doesn't get much traffic and it was overgrown in several places, although not unpleasantly so. After 2.5 miles the trail levels out and begins a long, slightly descending contour before crossing Mill Creek and the start of the hard ascent of Breckenridge Peak. The quality of the trail throughout this section is spectacular and many hours of hard labor has been spent laying large slabs across steep, loose talus and this made the going a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. Breckenridge Peak tops out at 12,888" and wouldn't be counting in today's itinerary.

I was exhausted when I eventually summited Mt Flora. There was a stiff breeze and I didn't hang around in the cold. I looked to the north east and was daunted by what lay ahead. My final peak - Mt Bancroft - was a speck in the distance. I had climbed one 13,000'+ peak and had three more to go.
Mt Bancroft, my final peak, is the last summit on the extreme right, from the summit of Mt Flora
I picked my way across the shoulder of Witter Peak (12,884') - this involved losing about 600', climbing back up 400', losing another 300' and climbing another 500' to reach Mt Eva at 13,130'.
The red line traces my route across the shoulder of Witter to Eva, Parry then Bancroft
My legs were tired on the descent of Eva and Mt Parry - the highest peak on the trip - was next. It was slow going and the terrain was rough, especially on the descents. I topped out on Parry (13,391') and made the fairly quick trip across to my final peak, Bancroft, at 13,258'.
Mt Parry with Bancroft beyond

Cloud closing in on the top of Bancroft
Looking back along the route. Mt Flora to the left, then Eva and Parry on the right from the summit of Bancroft
I took a quick drink and began the laborious descent down the ridge towards Loch Lomond. I aimed to pick up an old mining trail ay about 11,900' but had to cross a few large boulder fields on the way and this made the going slow. Another 3 miles and I was back at the car.

On Saturday I decided to take it steady and run the short 9 mile trip up Estes Cone from Lily Lake. This was a completely runnable trail (except for the final 500') and gained 2500' of vertical ascent. It was a beautiful day and the intention was to conclude the weekend with another long run on Sunday.
Mt Meeker and Longs Peak from the summit of Estes Cone

Jurassic Park climbing area from Lily Lake
And on Sunday it was all going so well. I left Hessie aiming to run a circuit of the High Lonesome trail which was about 15.5 miles and 4,000' of ascent. The perfect way to end the week. It didn't last long.

I passed a few early walkers on the climb up to the trail split and once out of the trees the rising sun was warm on my back. I worked up the steep section above the bridge on the Devil's Thumb trail and reached the flatter meadow section. I was stepping out quite quickly and feeling good and looking forward to a long hard workout.

I don't know the cause of the distraction because I didn't sense any distraction at the time. I could see two hikers a quarter of a mile ahead and the trail isn't particularly rocky at this point. It was a bit of a blur - isn't it always - as I threw my hands and arms out in front of me to brace the impact. I remember hitting the ground hard at full stretch and seeing lots of dust and debris as my hands and fingers grated across the rocks and rubble. The funny thing is that I didn't feel any immediate pain, but I was looking at my left hand as it rested on the trail surface and I thought "My middle finger seems to be tracing the route I need to take", as it twisted in two directions.

I knew it was dislocated before the nausea hit. I quickly got into a seated position and allowed the pain to flow. I knew it would be short lived, but I didn't want to pass out. I ducked my head low between my knees to increase blood flow and the nausea was replaced by a sharper, searing pain. When this happened I knew I was through the worst and I stood up, dusted myself down and examined the source of pain.
A double dislocated and broken middle finger photographed outside the ER

It was an impressive dislocation. I thought I would try to snap it back into place myself, but after three attempts and much pain I gave up. The two hikers were in the distance so I jogged along and asked if they could help. I underestimated the sight my finger would have on them and one hiker took a look and felt queasy. I sensed the reluctance of the other and decided to return to the car. It was a bitter blow given my aim for the day.

I passed a couple of other runners on the way back and they were attempting the same route. It was all I could do not to turn around and join them. After all, what's a little nagging pain between friends? But that was the point - it was painful and constant pain grabs your attention like nothing else. Not being able to swing an arm because of the pain didn't augur well for another 10 miles and I couldn't risk either passing out or falling again.

The doctor in ER was great. After icing the swelling she took a grip of my hand and yanked my finger with all her strength...several times. It was an obstinate dislocation. She called for a burly nurse who held my hand and she wrenched it again. A gristly "click' was music to my ears as I smiled my way through the treatment.

I have a rock climbing trip planned for 4 weeks time. I don't have long for this to heal!!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Grays Peak and Torreys Peak

As late as mid-week I still hadn't settled on a location for my overnight trip to the mountains. One consideration was to do a long loop around James Peak from Heart Lake, but I had been there only a week ago and you can get too much of a good thing. Another possibility was Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge, but I wanted to spend more time in this location over several days and pick off more than one peak. The Mount Evans-Bierstadt trip was ruled out because the connecting arete is impossible for a dog. I settled on a trip to Grays and Torreys.
Grays Peak left and Torreys Peak right from the ridge on Kelso Peak

I pitched camp just above the trailhead at 11,400'. It was late afternoon and it was cool in the breeze and sprinkles of rain were falling. With 5 hours of remaining daylight I decided on an evening run up Kelso Peak. At 13,100' this is no slouch, but it didn't look particularly difficult and at 5 miles it was just the job to warm up for tomorrow.
Summit of Kelso with Grays and Torreys behind

Livvy and I left the rain behind and as we gained altitude it felt a little warmer. We reached the trail split in about 30 minutes and reached the col where the west turn takes you up the Kelso ridge of Torreys Peak. We turned east and scrambled over rough rock ridges to ascend a series of rising grassy knolls. The view back along the Torreys ridge was spectacular. We reached the very windy summit in about an hour. It was free of snow although a large drift was lingering on the east slope just below the summit.
Early morning sunshine illuminates Grays peak (Torreys is poking above the right ridge line)

I didn't want to return the same route so struck directly down the steep hillside before intersecting with the Grays trail and jogged back to the campsite. It was cold overnight with heavy rain but this cleared around 3am and we woke around 5.30am to face the day.

I had already worked out a plan for the trip. I knew it would be extremely busy on a Saturday and I also knew that most hikers would leave between 4am and 6am so that they could summit before noon. I knew it would be easier running up by them than trying to dodge them on the way down so I thought a 6.30am departure would see me overtake them all on the way up and then only face the stragglers on the way down. It almost worked.
On the summit of Grays with Torreys in the background

Livvy and I ate breakfast in the cold valley as the sun touched the mountain tops. We saw a steady stream of hikers walking up the trail...what seemed like several hundred of them...seriously. I packed up as much of the camp as possible and left the tent to dry out in the morning sunshine. I slipped on my running shoes and wearing shorts and teeshirt jogged over the footbridge to join the trail. The first 3/4 mile is deceptively steep and I slowly jogged past lines of hikers. Reaching a long gradual incline we picked up the pace and by the time we reached the trail split we took last night we had overtaken 135 people (yes, I counted them!!).
Descending Grays

Hitting the lower slopes of Grays the ground steepens considerably and we alternated between steady jogging and fast walking. We had no difficulty passing many more hikers as, by now, most of them had been walking for between 90 minutes and an hour (we had been moving 40 minutes) and were either sitting by the trail taking refreshments, or were standing catching their breath in the altitude. Just above the point where the direct ascent of Torreys cuts across to the right there is a large granite pinnacle near the trail - we passed 45 people sat resting in this one place.
Summit of Grays from the summit of Torreys - lots of walkers and many more ascending

What remained was just steady, steep trail to the summit ascending in a series of switchbacks. It wasn't difficult, but once above 14,000' it required significant effort to keep the pace high. There were only 2 people on the summit when we arrived and they had started at 4.30am. It had taken us about 1hr 25 minutes without stopping - not particularly fast, but we had passed over 240 hikers. The descent of Grays and the ascent of Torreys wasn't remarkable. The trail was rocky but well worn and I knew there would be hikers who had chosen Torreys as their first (maybe only) peak and we began to pick them off one by one.
On the cold, windy summit of Torreys

It was particularly windy and cold on the ascent of Torreys and I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket. It still only took 15 minutes to ascend to the summit and as I looked back across to Grays I could see many more people had reached the top. In the far distance towards the west I could make out Holy Cross mountain and more closely the peaks above Breckenridge. The lake at Dillon looked pure blue in the morning sunshine.
View down the ridge to Kelso Mountain with the trail visible in the valley below

Before descending I removed my jacket - anticipating rising temperatures - and picked my way down the steep, loose trail. At the col the trail cut across a steep snow slope before reaching the switchbacks on Grays. My calculations weren't perfect - there were still many people ascending. In fact, many of the people we were passing on descent we had previously overtaken on our way up - and many of them didn't look in great shape. But they were well spaced and it wasn't difficult getting by them. The most awkward people to pass were those who had given up and turned back - a number were wearing iPods for reasons I don't understand and they didn't hear us behind them. They were annoying.
Crossing the snow slope on the descent

It was a pleasant run back to the camp. Two fourteen thousand foot peaks in a little over three hours was a great morning. I am now planning the next trip.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mount Toll and Pawnee Peak

The elegant ridge lines of Mount Toll have held an attraction for me ever since I first saw it from the Brainard Lake trail head a few years ago. When visiting Pawnee Peak last fall I was tempted to take the short trip to the summit but was under some time pressure and regrettably had to retrace my route home.
Navajo, Apache and Shoshoni Peaks from the outlet bridge at Brainard Lake
It was cool leaving the trail head and the dense woodland around Long Lake didn't help. But there was no breeze and body heat soon rose. It's a little frustrating at Brainard at the moment as the forestry commission hasn't yet opened parking at the trail head. This adds an extra mile of jogging along the lake road which hurts me more on the return when my legs are tired.

I passed a few groups of hikers and hit the morning sunshine at the Lake Isabelle trail split and it was pleasant climbing through to the rocky moraine below Pawnee Pass. It was clear to me as I picked my way over the boulder field that the rising ascent up to Pawnee Pass would be a little tricky with a large snow field obscuring the switchback trail. Sure enough as I climbed to the snow line I was faced with a steep, loose rocky scramble, or a steep rising traverse across the snow. I chose the latter.
Crossing the steep snow slope to Pawnee Pass
A single trail of footprints was all I had to follow as I skated across the snow slope and it turned out to be straightforward. A stiff breeze blew across the pass and I kept a decent pace to the final slopes below Pawnee Peak.
Pawnee Peak from Pawnee Pass
It's a short climb from the pass to the saddle to the west of Pawnee and I avoided Pawnee summit until the return trip.
View down towards Pawnee Lake from Pawnee Pass
Crossing the saddle I descended a steep snow slope and then a boulder field to reach the col below the south slopes of Mount Toll.
Profile of Mount Toll is unclear because of Paiute Peak in the background
The climb up Mount Toll is a steady ascent, initially up loose rock and grass and then hopping across larger boulders. I avoided the snow by keeping close to the ridge. The summit arrives quickly and it doesn't disappoint. It is a small summit with airy views in all directions. It ia a great vantage point from which to survey the entire mountain range and I spent 10 minutes enjoying the sun. Although it was windy on the ascent the summit was still and warm and I reluctantly began the descent back to Pawnee.
Mount Toll summit looking south east
There is a faint trail on the way back up Pawnee and the summit was a lot windier and cooler than Mount Toll. The best ascent to the summit is a direct line and this avoids most of the loose ground.
Looking directly down the rocky descent ridge from the summit of Mount Toll
I didn't hang around on Pawnee and as I descended to the pass I saw a runner approaching. He was checking out the rout for an upcoming backpacking trip and we agreed to descend back to Brainard together. We made very quick time and although I descended the steeper rockier sections more quickly, he was a much younger and faster runner than I and with about 1500' more climbing and 3 miles extra distance in my legs he left me behind on the final flat section passing Long Lake.
The sharp profile of Mount Toll - my route ascended the southern ridge
It was a great view of Mount Toll from the parking lot.