Friday, 7 August 2009

The John Muir Trail

Garnet Peak - highlight of day 3

Incredible, Exhausting, Inspiring. It is difficult to avoid superlatives when talking about the John Muir Trail. The clarity of light, the intensity of the vast night-time skies, the diversity of flora and fauna – all combine with the rarefied atmosphere to take your breath away day after day as you wend through valleys and climb a succession of higher and more rugged passes.

In true Hartell fashion, one or two key elements of the escapade were done on a wing and a prayer. Having travelled to Yosemite a day early in order to obtain “walk-up” permits I made sure to be at the rangers office by 6am – fully 90 minutes before they opened. Expecting to be 1st or 2nd in the queue I was dismayed to find a gaggle of people already there – some since one or two am!! The effort was just enough, however, as I bagged the final two permits to start the next morning. A chilled day followed with a great bear sighting in the evening – just when I didn’t have my camera with me – doh!

So, at the crack of 8.15am, a good couple of hours after most others, we hit the trail from Happy Isles and the beginning of an ascent that would eventually take us to nearly 10,000ft from the valley floor at 4,000. We were travelling lighter than almost everyone else we saw but 5 days food for two people inevitably feels heavy.

Indian Paintbrush - the flowers are amazing

A longish first day saw us reach the backpacker area at Tuolomne campground to keep on a 10day or so schedule. Day 2 takes you up the beautiful Lyell Canyon with crystal clear rivers rushing over smooth granite slabs and up to the first pass over 10,000ft. By the end of day 2 we started to pull ahead, ever so slightly, of times I did back in 2005. This set the tone for the rest of the trip as, each day, we would arrive at the “2005” point slightly earlier and forge a few more miles. Some days this was fine, other either Lynn or I crashed mid-afternoon and had to be coaxed back into life. Despite our food being calorifically adequate, it’s volume is smaller than we are used to so hunger seems to be an unavoidable part of the first few days.

Enlightenment on Pinchot Pass

Anyone who has undertaken a wilderness trip of more than a couple of days will understand the changes that occur – the camp routine becomes established, lunchtime or simply the chance to sit on a rock for 5 minutes are cherished, the mind frees up – firstly flooding the brain with random thoughts and plans for tomorrow, next week, the rest of your life and then calming, stilling and accepting its freedom.

Whilst thoughts of fresh bread, ground coffee and various culinary delights pop up now and again, you also learn to appreciate simple, free things like a cool breeze, a comfy rock slab to lie on in the sun, the scent of the trailside flowers,

This JMT is jolly hard work!

At breakfast time on the 6th day we reached Muir Trail Ranch and received our food re-supply. The rucksacs were heavy once more but we had the remaining 5 days food to see us to Whitney Portal. Higher now, the trail is mostly above the tree line in the amazing Alpine upper valleys with chains of lakes and water gurgling everywhere. On our 10th day we approached Mt Whitney and decided to reward ourselves for the 5.30am starts and 6.30pm finishes that had become our routine. Rather than continue over the summit to complete on the Saturday late evening we would take a full afternoon rest and enjoy the finale in the morning. Blissfull! – a clear lake, no mosquitoes, warm sun and a whole afternoon to eat all remaining food, wash and clean and prepare for an early start.

Rugged Muir Pass

Return to life as we know it was not easy – the lift generously given to us by a kindly Taiwanese took us from a world of mountains, lakes and rivers where we saw fewer than 50 people each day and heard only birds, water and thunderstorms to a world of 6 lane freeways, airport security and mass transit systems. At 4.30 that morning we had woken at 12,000ft on the back side of Mount Whitney, by 11.30 that night we were at home in San Francisco east bay – dazed, bewildered, tanned, clean, exhausted and happy.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Really not so bad

I have been touched by the comments on here and by the many emails I have been sent. Many many thanks.

I'm sorry if my previous post was a little terse and gave the impression I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Actually I am fine and it feels like a weight lifted from my shoulders - it was always likely to be the case that my heart and passion would continue beyond my ability to keep doing long runs. In truth, the commitment was not where it was 10-15 years ago in any case.

Whats is liberating is that I am now clear about my own motivations and goals. This blog is for public consumption so I won't talk about family or relationships matters here but quite apart from that, there are just so many things out there to do that I already have the 1,2,5 and 10 year plans sketched out and can start working towards those - putting on a great long distance race in the UK, writing a book, kitting out a van to travel Europe and beyond, building or converting a home to live "off the grid" - they are all there waiting to be grasped. Alongside this I will continue to adventure and push myself in the hills and mountains.

...and this self indulgent little blog will continue as I travel and try to learn the capabilities of my camera.

Many thanks for your interest and support and please be assured - I am HAPPY!!! :)

Saturday, 11 July 2009

End of an era

Well, it didn’t work out yesterday.

My training had all gone well and I seemed well acclimatized. I also did not make the mistake of going off too fast. At around mile 50 (towards the top of Engineer pass) my body simply started to shut down – low energy, aches and pains, an increasing urge to sit down and sleep. By the time I reached Ouray I was in “death march” mode.

I had some time to think out there – all my 100 mile attempts of the past 2 years have ended in DNF with the exception of HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team 100) and that did hurt!! I love the mountains, travelling light, covering lots of ground but when it comes to races; I love being “in the mix” too – the competition, the adrenaline rush of catching someone, the buzz at aid stations.

So – Hardrock 2009 will be my last attempt at a 100 mile race. I have had 19 years or so of running very long and have been privileged to have the opportunities to do this. Perhaps in common with many other people, the head still wanted to race and dream for a little longer than the body was willing to support that idea but I am now reconciled and content with that.

I will still race shorter distances, I will still travel and adventure, I will still probably come up with near impossible schedules and epics but I will not push my body Ultra-long.

Many people have given me a lot of support, time and encouragement over the past 20 years to help me achieve my drams - I thank you all profoundly.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Big Day tomorrow

Much of the Hardrock course is truly beautiful

The drop bags are packed, the wraps are made, the specially imported rice pudding is packed and portioned for each aid station, the toenails are clipped and everything is in place for Hardrock 2009.

I feel good - the past week has seen little activity on my part except for a team ascent of Virginius pass (where these pictures were taken). We have been sleeping above 11,000ft (average course elevation) and Lynn has been tackling some chunks of the course with me as support. This has provided the opportunity to take the ageing Subaru Outback over some challenging terrain - over Cinnamon pass for those who know it!!

Virginius Pass - at mile 75 - provides a steep challenge in the middle of the night!

Race starts at 06.00 Friday US Mountain time. Thats 13.00 Friday for anyone in the UK. THere is a Hardrock live runners site that intends to post aid station times - keep in mind this is a loooooooong run so there will be long gaps and also that, if I am running smart, I will not make any kind of push until after Ouray.

MY RUN NUMBER IS 137 and the site is

If anyone wants to post a comment on here with their best guess of my time then feel free - we will see who gets closest and come up with some kind of prize!! I have great support and am really looking forward to the next Hardrock adventure. Update hopefully on Saturday night (US time)/Sunday morning (UK time) with the outcome. Stay well and have a great weekend wherever you are.

Mt. Sneffels - a 14'er that the course does NOT go over

Friday, 3 July 2009

Bloomin Spectacular

The Continental divide and one of the easiest parts of the course

Unlike Jake and Elwood (Blues) I was not on a mission from God, nor did I have a full pack of cigarettes. I was wearing dark glasses, however, and I did need to cover around 930 miles to get from Reno to Silverton. Backing up a little - after pacing Eric to his excellent first 100 mile finish and 3rd place age group award at Western States I had managed scant sleep and then stood for hours in ridiculous heat for the awards ceremony. Driving East up to Tahoe was OK with Jez for company back to his car but then it got tough and I realised the only thing to do was head for a cheap place to crash - Reno.

The following morning, armed with 3lbs cherries, 2 large lattes, half of a 4 cheese pizza and a gallon of carrot juice I hit the road. (small aside here in case you think I may have sprouted floppy ears - US gallons are smaller than UK ones on account of a US pint being 16oz rather than our 22oz. This means you get smaller pints of beer but also that petrol is not quite as cheap as you might think and fuel economy on cars is not quite as bad as you might think in US cars).

The driving was mostly easy - on cruise control on quiet freeways - and occasionally spectacular as you crest a rise and see an immense stark white landscape covering the whole horizon. Bonneville salt flats is one of those "wow" moments the first time you see it. With a 7am start, a couple of stops for "rests" (US euphemism for a poo), coffee and provisions for the trail I arrived at 11,100ft Red Mountain pass at 11.00pm.

Time to saddle up and hit the Hardrock course then. No Alpine start but 11am saw me heading out of Silverton and skirting the beaver ponds on an anti-clockwise circuit; feet wet within 5 minutes and destined to stay that way. To cut a long story short the recce of the past 3 days involved a night out at remote Pole Creek, a night in Ouray with former race winner, Rick Trujillo and author of Colorado 14ers, Gerry Roach, a couple of strategic hitched rides up the jeep roads to Engineer and Governor and about 70 miles of running with 23,000ft of ascent. On one hand, completing the equivalent of the Bob Graham round at altitude with a pack around 10 days before the race seems stupid; on the other it gave me great confidence in my acclimatisation, fitness and knee-descending ability. Thanks to Martin Beale I now regularly check my ascent rate on the altimeter and was pleased to be averaging around 13-14m/minute at 13,000ft. Without pack and with another week at elevation this will equate to around 17m/minute or comfortably over 3000ft/hour in the race.

The view from Handies Peak at over 14,000ft - not much like WS100 then!

For those unfamiliar with Hardrock 100, it is unlike any other 100 miler in the USA. Over 90 of its miles are above the high point of Western States; around 80 of its miles include terrain steeper and or tougher than anything States has to offer and it is a "race" where weather can play a decisive role - in 1997 Mark and I got snowed on crossing Handies Peak and the prospect of having to sit out thunderstorms is real. Check for info and some great course pictures.

Colorado's spectacular flowers - just coming to their best

Today is a rest day where my main objective is to consume calories (I made a good start with a cooked breakfast and short stack) and catch up. I feel that I have another sub 30hour or so Hardrock within me and that is so much better than I expected a couple of months ago. I know, though, that this is not really a race against the other competitors - it's a personal quest to meet the challenges of the course on the day in the most efficient way possible. I am determined not to make the mistake of running someone elses race again like I did in 2007.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Western States - scorching competition

Close competition in the early states of WS100

Western States 100 mile took place yesterday and what a race it was - after the mild spring temperatures rocketed in the days before the race with downtown Auburn (the finish) recording over 100degrees. It wasn't just the heat that was fierce either - the competition for top spots saw racing closer than ever experienced in the 35 year history of the race. IN the mens category - 7 minutes separated positions 2 through 5 after 100 miles of racing and, as a result, there were 5 men home in under 17 hours. One of these was Jez Bragg - one of the UKs leading ultrarunners both on road and trail - trying his luck at the oldest 100 miler for the first time. After the disappointment of 2008 where the race was cancelled due to widespread forest fires, Jez came back with fire in his belly and recorded comfortably the best British time and position - 3rd place with 16 hours and 54 minutes. You can read more about his exploits on his blog here.....

Jez Bragg - in control coming into Foresthill - mile 61

On a personal level it was a busy and tiring but satisfying weekend. We watched the race, supported Jez and took a bunch of pictures in the early stages and then I paced Eric Johnson on his first 100 mile event from mile 61 through to the Finish. Meanwhile Lynn was pacing Andy Black on what, for him, is meerely the first of 4 * 100 mile races he plans to tackle this summer as Andy is attempting the Grand Slam which I completed in 2005. In essenceit's been a hot weekend with little sleep, too many gels and not enough fruit and veg. Time for some de-tox and, in my case, an epic journey across California, Nevada and Utah into Colorado for the next chapter - Hardrock acclimatisation training. Watch this space in a few days for news of thunderstorms, snowmelt, bears and breathlessness.

Second Lady - Krissy Moehl - cruising the early trails

Foot note - anyone in the top 50 or so spots in the race just after Robinson Flat, mile 33, I have pictures of you traversing little Bald mountain. Contact me if you are interested - I will try to upload them sometime later this week.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Shastastic Summer Solstice

Above Helen Lake - early morning on the longest day

What would you expect from summer solstice in California – blue skies, sandy beaches, “beach boys” on the stereo? How about snow, ice axe, crampons and frozen water bottles? Mt Shasta is “only” 14,000 and a few feet but sure packs a punch. From an elevation of around 3000 a road rises up from the town of the same name to a trailhead at 7000ft. A 45 minute hike from here takes you to Horse Camp at 7800 feet and a great setting off point for the ascent. Mt.Shasta is part of the Cascade chain of volcanoes that includes Lassen and Rainier – it’s in the north of California but only around 4hrs driving from the bay area. The “ordinary” route up Avalanche Gully (actually a lot safer than it sounds at this time of year) is just a snow plod but the amazing thing is that it’s on the SW face and yet has complete snow cover from 8500ft right to the summit at 14179ft!!

Chatting to another happy camper at the water tap I enquired as to his intended start time – 12.30am was his answer!! We decided to lie in ‘till 4.30am and were away at 5.20. Even at under 8000ft there was a frost and within 30 minutes we were on snow – nice crisp snow. Apart from 2 other laggards everybody else seemed to have been away hours before us and little dots of light could be seen all the way up towards the Red Banks – a band of rocks broken by some easy gullies which we would climb through. The sun was slow to reach our line of ascent and we were wearing pretty much all we had. We eventually reeled in quite a few of the early starters and there were a steady stream of people who had turned back – mostly because of altitude problems – something we were alert to having left the Bay Area at around 50ft of elevation at 1pm the previous afternoon (this was the whistle stop trip!).

Nearing the Summit

Through the rhythmic plod of crampons on crisp snow our attention was suddenly focused by shouts of “rock, rock” and the first of a few missiles came bounding down the slope. All followed the same fall-line though so it was easy to select a safer line. Above the Red Banks the angle eases but a keen NW breeze blew up and kept the temperatures low. Shasta is a huge but isolated mountain and gets a lot of weather – hence the amount of snow in mid June – so, with almost 6,500 to climb from our camp it had a high mountain feel that you simply don’t get on the Colorado 14ers or even Whitney. Approaching the summit pyramid a stench of sulphur reminded us that Shasta is a dormant, not extinct, volcano – with a sea of clouds below us we summited at around 11.20 and signed the logbook. It seemed that many of the guided groups had turned around below the Red Banks and of around 150 starters perhaps only 50-60 had reached the top. Some had started from higher up the mountain at Helen Lake but whilst this shortens the summit day it means that:

- You carry the camp kit up higher

- You camp on snow

- You probably start with a headache from the elevation

On balance we figured that the Horse Camp option was the right one. A steady descent with increasing headaches and lots of sunburn (we should have stopped sooner to put sunblock on!!) saw us taking down camp around 3pm. Back at the car at 4pm and on the road back to the Bay area for about 9.30pm – so, somewhere around a 33hr round trip from San Francisco and a memorable solstice. Next time we might take a little longer to relax in Shasta town after the climb but it was fun!!

Not far now - soon be time for tea!

Next up – pacing at States and then off to Colorado for more altitude and less comfort – it’s got to be done!!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Donner and Blitzen (Lightning on Donner Pass)

After the storm

With Bay area weather grey and the prospect of racing at 14,000ft of elevation starting to loom large in my plans it seemed about time to head to the Sierra and tackle some hills. Also a good chance to see how the “new” transport works – I figured that buying an old but solid Subaru and selling it again at the end of 6 months would work out way cheaper than the Hertz/Avis options. A quick scan of maps reveals that the Pacific Crest Trail runs right over Donner pass on the I80 east to Reno at the 8-9,000 ft level – accessible in less than 3 hours and, since the PCT is 2,300 miles long, plenty to go at!!

A 9 ½ hour day took me down to Squaw and Emigrant pass where the Western States course starts and then a big loop over to a lake which the map showed as a possible overnight stop only the lake is still frozen and there is extensive snow cover under the trees. I need to get onto the South and West facing slopes where it has melted to higher elevations. In the end, a loop back to the far side of Emigrant pass provides the ideal spot at just over 8,000ft. I quickly chill off whilst setting up the tent and put on every scrap of clothing I have inside the sleeping bag – including a shirt over my head on account of having forgotten a hat. Still, there has been hardly a spot of rain all ay despite an unpromising forecast and now it’s clearing out with a few last rays of evening sunshine. After worrying about bears and mountain lions plus the odd “thwump” as pine cones fall from the trees I fall into a good sleep until – 2.08am and I am woken by an enormous noise reverberating from the hills. A thunderstorm seems to be about 4miles away – that is until there is an almost simultaneous flash and bang, crack, fizzle, pop – now I am scared!! I quickly figure that when the lightning is zero distance away you never hear the bang and rationally figure that I can’t do anything about that – I chose a safe looking spot anyway – the bigger worry is that hailstones a little bigger than marbles have started to hit the tent and the wind is picking up big time. OK – better put on full waterproofs and pack everything just in case I have to make a rapid exit. The “fun” lasted around 2 hours and apparently made newspaper headlines down in Sacramento where they figured it was a pretty big storm.

One month to WS100 - snow likely on the course!!

Early next morning a hasty retreat seems appropriate only the clag is down now, there are 2 inches of hailstones everywhere and the early part of the previous days route I need to retrace is mostly under snow – I’m all geared up for a map and compass epic but this is June in California so it’s not long before patches of blue sky appear and it becomes quite atmospheric. Back to the car shortly after lunch and my first little Sierras trip is complete. Still grey in the Bay and about 20 degrees cooler than usual in Auburn though – those training for states are running around in woolly hats and fleeces convinced that by race day we will be in 105 degrees: El Nino maybe? Back to the UK for a few days now and then starts the build up to Hardrock – some time on the States course with Jez Bragg then pacing at the race then a road-trip to Colorado and fastpack the Hardrock course (always brutal but effective in getting fit and acclimatised).