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Complete Enchantments Loop, Car to Car

Some days I just feel lazy. Like lead, but with more natural affinity for a sofa. This afflicts me often, or on most days even. Like there just isn’t enough coffee in the world to get me going. But life doesn’t happen if you don’t make it happen. I don’t want memories of my sofa. I want to feel sore and tired and anything but stagnant.

Prussik peak, pristine snowmelt, and in a photo, why this 'run' is worth running.

Prussik peak, pristine snowmelt, and in a photo, why this ‘run’ is worth running.

That’s how I found myself driving out of Portland at 5 am on the way to Leavenworth, Washington. I’ve been talking for years about wanting to run the classic Enchantments Loop through what is certainly one of the most beautiful places in Washington, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I was busy.

This is the kind of immersive environment that can get me off of the sofa. At least, it can sometimes.

Asgard pass. Dragontail peak. This is the kind of immersive environment that can get me off of the sofa. At least, sometimes.

Inconvenience or not, I wanted to make it happen this year, and I wanted to do it right. As I see it, it’s not a loop if the beginning and the end aren’t in the same place. Lots of folks do this run from the Stuart Lake trailhead to the Snow Lakes trailhead and spare themselves the gap by shuttling cars. That’s the most bang for the buck, but if you’re driving almost five hours to get to the damn place you might as well do it right. Run the road. Make it happen.

Topo for the full enchantments loop. I recommend beginning at Snow Lakes trailhead and going CCW, running the road early and taking the trail itself in a generally downhill direction.

Topo for the full enchantments loop. I recommend beginning at Snow Lakes trailhead and going CCW, running the road early and taking the trail itself in a generally downhill direction.

On account of the long drive, I got a late start. Still, the road went quickly. It was hotter, far hotter, than I had expected. The eightish miles from car to trailhead took a bit over an hour and twenty minutes but a startling 60 oz of water. All of my electrolyte tabs were consumed, and I was a bit concerned.

Running up the forest road was a dusty affair. Thankfully, most cars slowed down to avoid dusting me. This one didn't.

Running up the forest road was a dusty affair. Thankfully, most cars slowed down to avoid dusting me. This one didn’t.

After a crucial toilet stop at the trailhead, the welcome shade of the forest singletrack took over. From Stuart lake trailhead to the Colchuck lake turnoff went quickly. Mostly runnable, some power hiking. After the turnoff, it’s a rooted mess that requires selective walking.

First views towards Mt Stuart climbing towards Colchuck lake.

First views towards Mt Stuart climbing towards Colchuck lake. Also, the first of many granite slabs.

I made good time to Colchuck lake, passing a woman who started telling her friend how this time last year she “was passed by some guy who looked just like that and they were running up Mt St Helens“. I had a good laugh to myself, and started cramping. First, my toes cramped, going around Colchuck lake. That was a new one, but it turns out you can run while your toes cramp.

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Asgard pass, shadowed by Dragontail peak, rises a grossly foreshortened 2000 feet above Colchuck lake.

Then came Asgard pass. It’s a cool two thousand feet in one mile of switchbacking scree dirt. My calves started cramping. As I power-hiked into the cold wind on top of the pass my watch read 3:30 and I was happy to have the climbing behind me.

The enchantments “core”, as the flat-ish four-mile stretch through the alpine plateau is called, is gorgeous. Gorgeous like the girl you can’t help but ask her to marry you a day earlier than planned. Problem is, you don’t get to look at it, if you like staying upright.

Dragontail peak from the rear. This shot, though not a great photo, accurately captures the texture of the enchantments core.

Dragontail peak from the rear. This shot, though not a great photo, accurately captures the texture of the enchantments core.

The running in the core is rough. Smooth trails are marred by the addition of granite boulders to pave the way so backpackers don’t have to get their leather hikers muddy. The only time that you get to look around is if you stop, which I couldn’t because I’d cramp, or when running down one of the many granite rock ramps that dot the route.

Hikers crossing a small patch of snow through the core area.

Hikers crossing a small patch of snow through the core area.

Navigation here is oddly challenging for such a well-traveled route. The problem is, people are everywhere, and they’ve made cairns and false paths this way and that. I’m sure it works if you’re going slowly and don’t care if you get side-tracked, but was on a mission. Thankfully, unlike my last trip through the enchantments, when my partner and I struggled to find the route out of the range, I found the exit near the mouth of Lake Vivianne without mishap.

Lake Vivianne and the iconic Prussik Peak. Knowing that the descent trail begins at the mouth of lake Vivianne is probably the single most crucial navigation detail for this trip.

Lake Vivianne and the iconic Prussik Peak. Knowing that the descent trail begins at the mouth of lake Vivianne is probably the single most crucial navigation detail for this trip.

Now this is a trail! Occasional cairns mark a zig-zagging route down steep rock slabs with sometimes startling exposure. I’m surprised that the forest service puts this one on the map, because it’s definitely not a wise choice for the typically unstable and overladen REI hiker.

'Trail' along the Vivianne slabs. Here, and only here, are cairns actually useful and accurate.

‘Trail’ along the Vivianne slabs. Here, and only here, are cairns actually useful and accurate.

Never mind that, they manage it anyways, and they were polite about letting me pass. I ran, stepped, climbed, and hobbled down. Down, down, down, 6500 feet downhill in one go. Connective tissue was tested and blissfully held true. My quads cramped, which drove me crazy because I never get cramps, so I ate all of my sodium-containing foods as quickly as possible.

Another bad photo, but this time of the typical descending trail beyond the Vivianne slabs: prominent roots, dotted with rocks, and startlingly steep.

Another bad photo, but this time of the typical descending trail beyond the Vivianne slabs: prominent roots, dotted with rocks, and startlingly steep.

The finish is monotonous. There are innumerable switchbacks, and the trail is just rough enough to bite you if your mind strays. I was focused, because I’m getting old hand at this kind of thing. Namely, my car had a cooler full of beer and New Seasons’s banana cake, which is heaven after a long run. Also, typically, I got fixated on finishing before a nice round-numbered time, so I kicked it down those switchbacks as quickly as I could manage and chugged into the parking lot with a moving time of 6:28:15, bumped irritatingly to an elapsed time of 6:31:59 by a bathroom stop at the Stuart lake trailhead.

Not to rest long, I savored a quick lager and some banana cake with my feet in Icicle creek before grabbing an obligatory Heidelburger and heading for home. By sunset, I was back to Mt Hood, kicking up my feet and heating up the sauna.

The spoils of war.

The spoils of war.

Sometimes, I just have to do it, or dammit, it’ll never get done.


Support Mountain Lessons and hook yourself up with a pair of shoes that were built for miles of rough descending, the Salomon S-Lab Wings.

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Mt Baker Easton Glacier Ski Descent

Author’s note: This post is one week old. I’m now sleep deprived and sporting the dorky combination of scrubs and a white coat. Looking back on this gives me a satisfied smile. Enjoy!
I’m on a ferry, out on puget sound, sailing from Friday Harbor to Anacortes. Despite my best efforts (hours of quietly watching at the rail), I’ve yet to see an Orca. That’s the only hope I had for this trip that I have yet to fulfill.
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Sunset over Mt Baker

In eighteen hours or so, I’ll be starting one of the rights of passage that every medical student is forced to endure: a surgical rotation. For four weeks, I’ll work longer than twelve-hour days for six or more days per week. Sometimes I’ll be there overnight. Thank goodness there are restrictions; I’m not supposed to work more than 80 hours per week averaged out over four weeks, or more than 28 hours at a time. So reasonable.
That’s not to say that I resent the rotation, or that I’m not excited. I don’t, and I am. This is what I signed up for. Still, it’s a transition moment from a few months that have afforded me a lot of time in the mountains to a few that will afford me little.
To mark the occasion, and to ornament some travel that we were making to a wedding on San Juan Island, Tay and I decided a few weeks ago to climb and ski Mt Baker It is one of the cascades volcanoes that has managed to avoid attempts by either of us.
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Punching through the snow line.

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Mt Adams Southwest Chutes Speed Lap

Earlier this season, Taylor and I walked a really long way to try to ski Mt Adams’ southwest chutes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite spring, so we didn’t get to ski the route. April passed, and so did May, and now in early June the conditions are fully ripe for cascades corn harvesting, so I made a quick solo trip to try to nab the route before it melts away.

Mt Adams looking mighty fine.

Mt Adams looking mighty fine.

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Skimo Racing Vertfest Alpental 2016: 1st Place

The forecast called for temperatures in the 40s. As the weekend approached, the weatherman started calling for one to two inches of rain. The freezing level was above the mountaintops. Conditions were perfect for skimo racing.

Ok. That’s a lie. As Taylor and I drove to Washington on Saturday and mountain biked in the rain, I thought strongly about bailing from the second Vertfest race at Alpental. Stupid me, I had preregistered for the race, which is for some reason the most expensive ninety minutes of skimo that I know of. I should have known better– when we raced here two years ago, it was also raining.

Still, there are only so many races in the PNW, so we decided to make a classic alpine maneuver and “go have a look”. Perhaps in terrible weather, and with much more attractive races beckoning from the rockies to those with flexible schedules, we might find ourselves the only ones there.

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Vertfest start, with yours truly center-punching it in white suit, orange helmet. (Image stolen shamelessly from Kurt Hicks Überguide).

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Skiing Pahto (Mt Adams)

Route: Suksdorf Ridge

TH: Cold Springs campground. Road to trailhead is unimproved. High clearance and AWD recommended.

Map: Green Trails Maps 367S. Strava track here.

Stats: Approx. 12.5mi and 6700′ vert car to car.

Gear: Entirely non technical, but crampons and ice axe/whippet recommended.


Saturday was a long day for all of us, but we were determined to rally and ski Mt. Adams (hereafter refered to as Pahto) for the first time. Shortly following a “brutal” race at the Yakima 50k, Ethan and Richard drove three hours to meet me in Trout Lake as stars began pricking through the sky.

Pahto towers over Trout Lake as a Guardian of Serenity

The guardian of serenity towers over Trout Lake.

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The Plains of Abraham

It has been hard to break the silence on Mountain lessons ever since Taylor and I returned from our epic two-month road trip through the American West and British Columbia. After weeks upon weeks of world-class adventures on America’s best mountain bike trails, returning home to Portland couldn’t feel anything but mundane. One day you’re redlining it on Whistler’s rocky, rooty Comfortably Numb epic, and the next you’re sorting through two months of mail and figuring out how to turn your utilities back on.

Mundane, everyday tasks just can't compete.

Mundane, everyday tasks just can’t compete. The author on Windy Ridge (Photo: @tschef).

The best cure for the end-of-adventure blues is just to have more adventures. These days, that means either trail running or mountain biking, and with hundreds of miles on the mountain bike legs this summer, taking advantage of that fitness is pretty fun.

Taylor on Windy Ridge

Taylor on Windy Ridge, with Mt Adams in the background.

Yesterday, to settle the adventure jonesing, Taylor and I went to ride the IMBA Epic ‘Plains of Abraham’ ride on Mt St Helens outside of Cougar. Washington. The ride climbs for five miles through large timber until breaking out into a world of pumice and eroded canyons. The Plains of Abraham themselves are a relatively flat zone at the base of the mountain which was devastated by the explosion of Mt St Helens. It’s a moonscape nearly devoid of plant life, and while it’s far from a good surface for mountain biking, it’s a really cool romp through a wacky landscape.

The ride itself can be either an out-and-back (21 mi) from the Ape Canyon trailhead, or it can be made into a loop with the truly backcountry Smith Creek trail for a true epic (26 mi). Taylor and I parked at the Smith Creek trailhead planning to do the big loop, and facing either a 5 mi gravel road climb or a 2 mi trail ride (at least, that’s what the map showed) to get to the Ape Canyon trailhead, we opted to ride on trail.

About a mile into the Lava Canyon trail towards Ape Canyon, there’s a sign that says “Mountain bikers use Road 8322, no mountain bikes on Lava Canyon trail”. Never one to let the forest service restrict my access to non-wilderness public lands, we ignored the sign and plowed on.

Ladder on Lava Cayon trail

Nearing the top of the ladder on the Lava Canyon trail

Some signs are there for a reason. The Lava Canyon trail climbs 1800′  in 2.5 miles, switchbacking up steep rock staircases, narrowly hugging the side of precipitous canyon walls, and ultimately leading to a 40′ steel ladder. But what is adventure without a good measure of considered stupidity? Up we went.

Climbing the Lava Canyon ladder with a bike.

Climbing the Lava Canyon ladder with a bike.  For the second time. (Photo: @tschef)

Finally onto real trail, we climbed through the woods and out onto the Plains of Abraham. There I decided that whomever had deemed the ride an Epic was an idiot. The surface on the plains is similar to dry Fruit Loops, and offers just as much traction. Riding into a headwind there and across Windy Ridge to our turn-around point I was pretty grumpy. Scenic though it might be, it’s no epic mountain bike ride.

Taylor on the Plains of Abraham

Taylor on the Plains of Abraham, with Mt Rainier on the horizon.

With limited water an energy, we opted to avoid the Smith Creek descent, which is, I’m told, some pretty atrocious mountain biking. Instead we opted for an out-and-back, and found the way back to be much more fun– with deflated tubeless tires, a headwind, and a slight downhill edge, the Fruit Loops made for a fun, drifty enduro downhill, and the buff trail through the timber rode fast and clean. Two-and-a-half hours up, one-and-a-half down.

Taylor, returning from Windy Ridge

Taylor, returning from Windy Ridge.

With now 760 miles of mountain biking under the belt this year, I hope to crack 1000 before skiing steals away my attention. And with school quickly approaching, no doubt there will be more posts here, as writing becomes not a duty but a joy and a distraction. Stay tuned!

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A Letter from Sunrise Camp.

Sometimes, life runs away from you.  Too much this, a little more of that, and next thing you know, the horse has bucked the reins and you don’t know where you’re riding off to. This summer has been a roller-coaster ride for me: running my first ultra, applying to medical school, moving, finding success in work, really learning how to ride a mountain bike, and discovering the need for change in my personal life. For a minute there, it got away from me, and I wondered what the hell I was doing with myself, but thanks to the wonder of epiphany, I found a moment of perspective in which I saw the need for change. While climbing through a lonely forest wet with an early rain, stewing in my effort, I saw that I was trying to do too much, and had given too little thought to what was really important to me.

That which is important to me are these: health, ambition, tribe, and adventure.  I need a powerhouse of a body to be happy, and it has to be well-fed and well-rested. I draw my daily energy from my ambitions: to make a superlative performance in work and sport, and through these, to inspire and help others. In my ambition, I give birth to adventure which sweeps me up and convinces me time and again that we are not cogs in a hopeless machine. And finally, I need a tribe, a community, to surround me and build with me a world in which we help each other to dream and succeed.

Since that mountain bike ride, I’ve made some changes, most of which have meant saying no to those people, commitments, and opportunities that don’t fuel me. It seems callous to say no and for own well-being cut ourselves free of long-held ties, but if with gritted teeth we make the cut too soon we find ourselves floating higher in the water, moving more swiftly towards our goals unburdened.

I am proud of doing less.

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When we do less, we can do more more thoroughly. The thoughtless overachiever may check more boxes from the list, but as accomplishments fall by the wayside they’re forgotten as quickly as undergraduate calculus. Better, I think, to choose your tribe and your path and to feel these selectively and deeply.  Those things that we really do imprint themselves on us, and in serving our tribe, we intertwine ourselves with others.

Who is your tribe? Do you surround yourself with the few who inspire you or the many who give you the false confidence of mediocrity? What do you give to the world? For, as my father says, there are no luggage racks on the hearse.  A name is forgotten, but the heart entangled with that of others creates a story that extends well beyond the grave.

As the seasons change, summer into fall, I will be drawing close to me those that I care about. I want to give back to those who make my world so wonderful, and I want to practice improving theirs. I hope that you’ll consider joining me.

To my readers, among those who inspire me.

Sunrise Camp, Mt Adams, WA. 05:45, 8/26/13, moments before sunrise.

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Mt Rainier Speed Record Broken by Dorais Bros (3:57:55)

Yesterday, the Dorais brothers (good Salt Lake City ski mountaineering folks) blasted through their earlier time to set a new record on Mt Rainier.  This came on the heels of a recent update to that record on May 20th, which they demolished by 20 minutes. This new Mt Rainier speed record is not only impressive in its own right, but it also highlights how much more improvement is possible.  It is awesome and inspiring to see what these guys are up to.

Dorais brothers Mt Rainier Speed Record

The obviously psyched Dorais brothers celebrate a new Mt Rainier speed record. Image from Jason Dorais.

Worthy reads include Jason’s take, as well as Andy’s. The report of the May 20th record by Nick Elson can be found here.

It is time that the Pacific Northwest had its speed dialed up.  It’s my hope that we can do this from within the community, but if it takes first a bunch of Canadians and then some Utahns to spur us to action, then so be it.  I certainly will be thinking about these guys this weekend.