John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Yosemite Snake Pit 100

Run Report

I'm exhausted today.  It's been a day since I finished a 26+ hour long 'run' in Yosemite and even 1 good night of sleep apparently does not make up for skipping an entire night of sleep.  I guess that's why there's coffee.  The aformentioned 'run', which I have put into 'quotes' for a reason that will eventually be explained, was an attempt at the 'Yosemite Snake Pit 100-Miler', a self supported 100 mile run through Yosemite.

A few months ago, I was at lunch with my buddy from work, 'Snake Pit' (Matt, but no one calls him that) and we were talking about running.  I had just seen 'The Long Haul' by JB Benna, and was particularly struck by his mention of Catra Corbett's 100-mile self supported run in Yosemite.  A friend told me that Catra's run consisted of a series of laps on the Yosemite Valley floor, and though I still have no idea if that is actually the course that she ran, and the internet hasn't been of much help other than adding that Catra threw in a 9 pitch 5.8 rock climb up Nutcracker at mile 57, I thought, "Running 100 miles on the Valley floor is a gross waste of what Yosemite has to offer!"  I elucidated my thoughts to Matt, and he replied, "So when are you running 100 miles in Yosemite?"  I don't think he was serious, but I got 'inception-ed' and started planning a 100 mile route in Yosemite.

Most people have never seen most of Yosemite.  Probably 90% only go to the Valley, and of the 10% that go elsewhere, probably 90% go only to Tuolumne Meadows.  These places are rad, but there's a lot more to the park than those two locations.  The appropriately named 'Yosemite Snake Pit 100', or YSP100 for short, would need to cover more ground (On a side note, is it douchey to acronym your own fun run?  Either way, it's way easier to write, so I'm going with it.).

Matt thought that it'd be cool to start at Tamarack Flat, run straight to El Cap, and go from there, but I thought a point-to-point would be logistically difficult to do solo, so I planned a loop route from the valley.  The first route that I really liked climbed Yosemite Falls trail and went North, pretty much all the way to Glen Aulin, and then dropped south along the PCT, cut up to Vogelsang and almost all the way to the Southern tip of the park in a huge loop.  The high point of the route was ~11kft. and the total ascent was about 22kft. (on map my run...go figure on the accuracy of that).

2 weeks out from the run, I went to go preview the snow conditions at the high points of the course, got a foot of snow dumped on me overnight at my campsite (6800 ft.) and did no running.  Upon my return home, I promptly started planning lower altitude contingency routes to keep the routes under 10kft.  'Alt Route 3', as it came to be known, turned out to be the YSP100 route.

1 week out from the run, the Yosemite High Sierra was predicted to get some snow the night before we planned to run.  I planned another alt course with a lot of out-and-back sections from the Valley to allow for bailout if the snow got too deep.  This course was ugly and almost defeated the purpose of the whole affair.

1 day before the original start date, the Yosemite High Sierra got a whopping 20+ inches of snow!  Holy hell.

So now we had to deal with a shit ton of snow on what was, 1 day previously, dry ground.  My original plan was to run the route solo.  A 100-mile fun run isn't on most people's lists, and self-supporting that fun run makes it even less likely to be on the lists.  So when my buddy Andy said, "I'm in." when I mentioned what I was planning, I was pretty surprised.  He's a solid runner and I knew that I'd be stoked for the company over the course of the run.  So there were two of us.

In addition to the YSP100 runners, we were lucky to have a few friends come up to join in the fun!  Dom and Katie joined in for the first 20 miles and my girlfriend Crista came to enjoy the mountains and recover from her jaunt through the Grand Canyon the week before.

With this merry crew, we pushed the start date back by 1 day and took off for Yosemite with hopes of completion and a lot of doubts, considering that High Sierra guru and seasoned ultramarathoner Leor Pantilat seemed to think that this snow wasn't going anywhere fast.

The night before the run, we all sat around the fire at Wawona campground.  Andy and I were drinking some beers and talking like the probability of making it out of the valley was low, almost like a weather hold was a foregone conclusion.

Dom and Andy.  Optimism and Pessimism?
The morning of the run was just about perfect.  Blue skies and cool weather with rising temperatures causing the meadows to steam and creating a light fog over the gorgeous green carpets.  Perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen Yosemite Valley.
No Filter.  Holy shit dude.  I had to stop the car in the street because I couldn't pass this up.
The route starts up the Rockslide Trail, I assume named for the huge granite rockslides that it crosses.  This is probably the easiest climb out of the valley that you can find and all 4 of us were having a blast with the moderate grade and amazing views of Bridalveil Falls that the trail afforded to us.  I think this trail was one of the many that were paved in Yosemite's early tourist craze, before the park stewards decided that paved tourist pathways were not what the park is all about. 
Now, 40+ years later, the asphalt is still there, slowly being taken back by nature, but still providing an incredibly efficient running surface.  As the trail climbed, snow began to appear in small amounts on the sides of the trail, and then sparsely in the trail, and finally covering the trail as we neared the turn onto Oak Flat trail towards El Capitan summit.  At one point we saw some bear tracks in the snow! Amazingly crisp...but their owner was nowhere to be found.

The Rockslides trail hits the Oak Flat trail and curves back East to continue to the climb to El Cap.  I was hiking and running, trying to keep my heart rate low and my quads at a work rate that could last 100 miles.  As we approached the high point on the trail, I looked at Andy and one of us said, "Oh man, we might actually have to run 100 miles today!" Ha! Yeah, the snow was melting off and we were getting more and more confident that, judging by the snow level at 7800 ft., we'd be able to clear the 9900 ft. high point on the course without much effort.  The views of Cloud's Rest were only bolstering our confidence...only specks of snow to be seen!

Rockslides Trail was an unexpected high point on the course; I had never run it, and it was rad.  Expected high points were the El Capitan Summit and Eagle Peak, two summits about 2 miles apart on the North Rim of the Valley.  They did not disappoint, and after some brief exploration at El Cap, and a quick break at Eagle Peak, we set out to charge down the Yosemite Falls trail to the car where we had left the remainder of our nutrition.
The view from the summit of El Capitan.

Fully loaded, my pack weighed in at 18.2 lb. and Andy's was somewhere near 15 lb.  9000 calories of carbs isn't light, but as we discussed afterwards, we would both make some changes for next time around. For example: no fucking rice cakes.  Those things are delicious, but heavy.

In the Valley, we stopped by Degnan's for some grub (chicken and bean burritos) and cokes before loading up fully and heading for the Snow Creek Trail for the climb back out of the Valley towards Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows.  With our packs, loaded, we said goodbye to Dom and Katie and headed for the climb.

Running with a 16-18 lb. pack on is tough.  It's heavy (duh), it bounces, and it's overall a pain in the ass to deal with.  Combine that with the Snow Creek climb, some unexpectedly warm temps, and a poor choice of a black longsleeve smartwool and one gets a lot of second guessing of choices...a great place to be at mile 25 of 100!  Snow Creek also happens to be a pretty formidable climb...2500 ft. in 2.5 miles, so it was great that we could take our minds of the climb with the breathtaking views of Half Dome and Clouds Rest directly across Tenaya Canyon from us that were increasingly approaching eye-level as we climbed!

Andy makes moves after the
Snow Creek climb starts to flatten out.
At the plateau above the Snow Creek climb, the trail continues to climb at a reduced grade and is obnoxiously pleasant.  Soft soil single track following a bubbling creek through the trees, climbing towards Highway 120 and the descent to Tenaya Lake.  Looking at what distance we were at, vs. what we had expected to be at, we decided that MapMyRun was predicting nearly 10% short, so we opted to change course and eliminate the May Lake loop to head straight for Tenaya Lake in hopes of hitting 100 miles on the nose and not 110.  My quads were already feeling bombed from the climbs and descents that we'd done to that point, but I resolved to continue eating and hope that they came back to life after some downhill and rest.  Andy, meanwhile, was dealing with some hamstring and knee issues, but seemed to be managing well except for one charlie horse episode while climbing over a downed tree.  Dom had him on some Wharton Method stretches...maybe they were helping?

The Clouds are Resting.  Looking across Tenaya Canyon after the Snow Creek climb.
We finally hit the top of the climb and began to descend into Tenaya Lake.  This descent was super fun and we were cruising along well...until we got lost.  I think we must have followed a wash instead of a trail, bolstered in confidence by some cairns, because we ended up off-course by some super sweet campsites near Olmstead Point.  Luckily, I had the course and USGS topos saved into Gaia GPS on my phone and we navigated back to the course relatively quickly.  Daylight was fading and we hoped that this would be our only route-finding adventure for the run.  We continued on with minimal difficulty, donning headlamps around 8:30pm.
Unknown pond on the way to Tenaya Lake.
When we hit Tenaya Lake, however, we discovered that the trail crosses the outflow of the lake, which is a 2 foot deep, 30 foot wide river of snowmelt.  I don't know if they have a bridge that is only up in the summer or what, but there was no way we were gonna soak ourselves to the bone with a night of running through 10,000 ft. High Sierra ahead!  Instead, we opted to run the highway (closed because of the snow) up to Tuolumne Meadows and rejoin the trail there.  The trail, minus the portion that skirts the West side of Tenaya Lake, closely follows the road anyway.

It was getting cold out as we approached 9000 ft. elevation, and we both resisted getting out the shells and warm tights, instead opting to run when we could.  After a boring, dark road run that seemed to take forever, we reached Tuolumne Meadows around 11pm.  All warm clothes went on because we had been seeing on the side of the road what lay ahead for us: snow.  The snow had steadily been getting heavier, meaning that despite the sunshine all day, the snow was sticking around.  Damn.  Our bailout plan in the event of heavy snow, to avoid hours of postholing, was to turn around and run back down to the Valley whenever it became too hard to continue.  At Tuolumne Meadows, however, we decided to go for it.  We had spikes if we needed, were were hoping for some bootpack from the early season John Muir Trail (JMT) hikers, and it might actually be quicker to hike the snow than run back around.

Run through the night...and the snow!
Well...we started, and at 5am we finished, the snowy sections of trail.  There was maybe 100 feet of runnable terrain, unless you are a beast and can run in snow at 9500 ft. 50 miles into a run, throughout the night. This is why I called this a 'run', haha.  There was a lot of running, but also a lot of hiking through the night.   Where the trail was covered, luckily a hiker had come through and 1 set of tracks led us up the climb to Cathedral Lakes.  This was a life/timesaver because route finding through the snow would have made for one hell of a night.  Where the trail was bare there was, however, a neverending river of iced-over snow melt running down the worn-in JMT path. At Cathedral Lakes, the tracks stopped (Big ups to that hiker, he must have camped out in the snow storm and then hiked down afterwards) and we went into full-on post hole mode.  Route finding wasn't too bad, but sometimes we were knee deep in snow, kick-stepping up the slopes.  With only a couple of surprising punch throughs down to the thigh and mostly 6-12 inch deep snow that compacted well to hold us up, we made steady but slow progress to Cathedral Pass and then to just before Sunrise High Sierra Camp where our next turn was.  At this point it was 2:45am, my feet were soaked from running through snow all day, and trench foot had set in.  Every step hurt just a little more than the last.  I had taken off one pair of socks on the Highway 120 portion of the run in hopes that if I ran with them flailing around from my hands, that they would dry out...they did not: it was like 30 degrees out...nice try dude.  We evaluated how long it had taken us to get to where we were, and how long it would take to get to the rest of the 100 miles and realized that there was no way that we'd get back before evening the next day if conditions were perfect for the rest of the run and our bodies held up.  If conditions weren't perfect, we'd be running into the next night, which wasn't an option either food-wise or 'my girlfriend is waiting at the bottom to drive home so she can do work on Monday'-wise.  I dunno, Andy's wife might care about him coming home too.  The end result was that we decided that we'd run down to Half Dome, where we'd secured a day permit from the early season lottery, and then evaluate how much of the course we could run.

Immediately, we started running through more snow past the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, and then on the climb out of that meadow, and finally over the pass and partway down the switchbacks back to the Meadow Fire area.  Good thing we had already decided that we 'probably' needed to cut the run short, because this would have made us know that we needed to cut it short.  More postholing, cracking through ice-trail-rivers, and following Coyote tracks (that dude knew the trail better than anyone...even when the bootpack veered off, the Coyote tracks always followed the real trail...follow the Coyote tracks became my motto for the climb out of the meadow!).  Finally, around 5am, we were below the snow line.  I was running behind Andy and my Petzl Nao was regulating brightness off his reflective tights and creating a kind of soothing, pulsating lighting.  I started zoning out and eventually realized that I was attempting to fall asleep while I was running! Oh shit! After this happened a couple of times, I skirted past Andy and started running harder...I needed to wake up!  He commended me on my willingness to try and run hard, but I told him it was a necessity, to keep my face out of the dirt! At the bottom of the switchbacks, he gave me a caffeine pill (200mg...nice) and the sky started to lighten up.  Within an hour it was light, and we were running as well as we could down the JMT towards Half Dome.
The sky begins to lighten! ...Illuminating a forest of burnt trees.
This section of trail was nice.  The JMT is a freeway as far as trails are concerned!  I was blown away by how different it looked after the Meadow Fire.  Everything was bare.  It was really cool looking and feeling, and very sad in the same moment.

Foot care on the subdome
We got down the trail and headed up to the subdome with the intention of climbing half dome.  Tired legs and injuries got the better of us, and instead of tackling the cables, we ate burgers (yeah, I carried burgers for 60 fucking miles) and started the run down.

The run down was kind of a sad happy time.  I was bummed that we couldn't finish the plan, but I was amped that I was out of the snow and was looking forward to a beer.  We ran the Mist Trail route to the bottom, and then took a weirdly convoluted Valley Loop Trail route to the village parking lot.  As we were running up to my car, who did we run into but Dom, Katie and Crista!  Dom and Katie were getting ready to run Half Dome and Crista was getting ready to hike 4-mile trail to see us as we finished the 100-mile route.  They hadn't gotten my text messages from Half Dome (even though they sent...damn you Verizon...or somebody!).  What an awesome coincidence and great way to finish the run!  We all hung out for a bit as Andy and I chilled out to take in the fact that we didn't have to have our feet in shoes anymore, running through endless fields of snow in the dark.

Needless to say, we went and got Curry Village Pizza Deck Pizza, and Beer.  I can't wait to head back up there and run this route when it's dry.

Run Summary: 72.2 miles, 15,826 ft. of climbing
Strava Data

Gear List:
Shoes: New Balance 1210v2
Socks: Injinji Liners and Dry Max Midweight Outers
Tights: Saucony Amp Pro2
Shirt: Smartwool Longsleeve (150 weight? Not sure.)
Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Hooded Running Sweater
Shell: Mountain Hardwear Capacitor Jacket
Hat: PMR Trucker
Buff: Dirtbag Runners Buff
Beanie: Fleece
Gloves: Outdoor Research Hot Pursuit
Microspikes: Hillsound Trail Ultra
Water Filter: Sawyer Mini (squeeze)

Tailwind: 3000 Cal
Rice Cakes (Calrose Rice, Bacon, Honey, Brown Sugar, Liquid Aminos): 3000 Cal
Gels (ClifShot, etc.): 3000 Cal
Burger: 600 Cal
Salt: SaltStick Tablets


I struggle to separate a 'Run Report' voice from how I actually talk and think, so maybe adding a section will help with that.  I was super amped for this run.  Since the conversation with Matt, I had been tinkering with the route, trying to assess map accuracy, going over snow reports and melt off rates, it was crazy.  I was pumped.  I was also pumped because I get to run a fucking 100 miles in Yosemite.  That just sounds rad.  Yeah, it's gonna suck, but it's gonna be rad too.  When Andy decided to join, I was also pumped to have a buddy to run with.  Running with no one else through the night and snow of the High Sierra would have been a shitty experience for doubt.  Thanks for coming along dude, it was rad to have a running buddy!  Hope you like Yosemite!

Also, it was his first time to Yosemite!  Yep, he'd never been, cause he's from Hotlanta.  Best way to see Yosemite: run an ultramarathon that tags El Cap, Eagle Peak, Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, Snow Creek, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, the JMT, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Nevada Falls, Panorama Trail and Glacier Point in one shot.  And that totally sells out the entire Southern Half of the park which is gorgeous but massively underrated because it's way the fuck out there. And Rockslide Trail which was an unexpected highlight of the trip.  OK, so an ultramarathon that runs through the night is not the best way to see the park because it's dark for a couple of those 'bucket list' items...but otherwise it's fucking amazing. Fuck yeah.  Sorry Andy, the snow made you miss out on a couple of those...I guess we gotta go back and do it right! Yeah, there's no doubt that we (I? We?) are going back to do the route right.  Running not in the snow is fun as shit.  Running in snow is stupid and shitty and makes we want to die, physically, while I slowly die on the inside from hours of staring into a white prison of headlamp on snow as my foot breaks through the melt crust, again, and sinks down to the knee, again, while my foot looks like the wrinkled face of one of those 115 year people from Japan.  Fuck that.  It's worth clarifying, I am not put off by the fact that the Japanese person's face is's 115 years old, it's supposed to look like that and that is normal.  I am referring to the fact that my foot is 30 years old and is also a foot, so it is not supposed to look like that.  Fuck you, wet foot.

Also, I will not turn down Curry Village Pizza Deck Pizza and Beer after a long ass run.  That shit is amazing and should be a critical part of any Yosemite Valley Trip.

My highlights, in no particular order:

1. Rockslide Trail: Runnable and fun, good views, variable surrounding flora.
2. The view from El Capitan and Eagle Peak.  Both of these views are great.  Eagle Peak is underrated and easily runnable, round trip, from the valley floor.
3. Pywiack Cascade.  You complete a shit ton of climbing and then get an amazing view of these falls and Tenaya Canyon.  Gorgeous.
4. Running with someone.  Running this solo would have been an exercise in mental endurance.
5. Pizza.
6. Beer.
7. Downhill running. In Yosemite. Not on snow.  Seriously, there's some climbing on this route, but there's also some really fun downhill with great views and awesome trail quality that is typical of a National Park.
8. The Petzl-fucking-Nao-2.  This headlamp is incredible.  You plug it into your computer and you can set the light up to last however many hours you want (estimated, of course), up to the maximum of like 28 or something.  I set up a 10.5 hour setting, which was bright as shit, that lasted all the way through the night.  I had 34% battery left when I checked this morning on my computer.  I ran from 8:30pm to 5:30am with the thing going the whole time.

My lowlights:
1. Running in the snow.  Yeah, we knew what we were in for, probably, but it didn't make it suck less.  Next time, GoreTex shoes and gaitors.
2. Running with a heavy pack.  This takes some of the joy out of running...doesn't feel so 'free' with 18 fucking pounds on my back.
3. Wet socks.  For hours.  Never had trench foot sucks.
4. Wearing a black longsleeve.  Seriously, this made what should have been a really comfortable 70 degrees and sunny into a less than comfortable sweatfest.  Dunno if short sleeves were the answer, but a lighter color would definitely help!  Idiot.