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Pinnacles National Park Ultra

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written anything here, but life has been far from boring during the past three months. Mostly I’ve just been enjoying being home, catching up with friends, wandering around Colorado and Utah and even doing a bit of work. Though the international travels have been put on hold as I search for full time employment, it doesn’t mean the adventures have stopped. During a week long holiday visit back to California, I took advantage of some nice weather to head to Pinnacles National Park to complete my 11th National Park Ultramarathon (12/28/17).

Sunrise along Hwy101 enroute to Pinnacles National Park.

My mom and I made the drive down to this lesser known park just South of San Jose, CA where she dropped me off at the visitor center near the East Entrance. I began my morning jogging along the Bench trail into Pinnacles on a chilly (31F) California winter day. The trails were beautiful smooth double track as I cruised up the dry wash past the Old Pinnacles TH and onto the Balconies trail. Volcanic rock cliffs rose up all around me, and the dry river bed all of a sudden disappeared into Balconies Cave. I pulled out my headlamp and hopped my way into the darkness, twisting around giant boulders, scampering up rock staircases and ducking under a series of chock stones before finally reappearing on the other side. A neat little detour before returning to the smooth double track and arriving at the Chaparral TH (5.6mi, 1h1min) for a quick water refill.

Running along the Old Pinnacles trail enroute to Balconies Cave.

The hall of chockstones in Balconies Cave.

After the Chaparral TH is when the fun began, as I followed the swooping Juniper Trail up up up to the Tunnel trail and into the heart of the rock formations that make up Pinnacles National Park. The trail was never too steep, but steadily climbed up to the junction with the High Peaks trail where I hung a right and ascended some steep cut rock stairs to a spectacular view of the valley laid out below. Rock spires jutted out of the mountainside all around, though I wasn’t lucky enough to see one of the famed California condors soaring overhead. After another short section of rock stairs the trail smoothed out and I cruised on down toward Bear Gulch Reservoir, only briefly stopping for a few photos and to chat with my Mom as she hiked up the High Peaks trail.

View down from the Tunnel trail, rocks rocks everywhere.

Some of the rock stairs cut into the High Peaks trail.

I paused briefly at Bear Gulch Reservoir (10mi, 2h) to take in the little oasis amongst the dry chaparral, and then promptly setoff on the trail to the Chalone Peaks, a steady 1800ft climb to the high point of the park. Though the sun was beating down on me the chaparral was tall enough in spots to provide a little shade from the December sunshine. I made good time hike/jogging my way up to the fire tower atop North Chalone peak (13.3mi, 2h50min), taking in the panoramic view of the High Peaks region of the park and the valley far below. After a quick snack I was off to South Chalone Peak on the ‘unmaintained’ trail, which turned out to be a pleasant rough single track. The view from the far point of South Chalone Peak was uninspiring and hazy, so I skipped the true summit and headed back the way I came.

Bear Gulch Reservoir, tucked in amongst the rocks.

Panoramic views of the park from just below North Chalone Peak.

The jog back to Bear Gulch Res was uneventful as I cruised on down the smooth trail in the warm sunshine. This time around the reservoir was teaming with dozens of tourists, so I quickly scampered on by and down into Bear Gulch Cave. After winding my way around the giant boulders that plugged up the valley bottom I popped out on the Moses springs trail by accident, so followed that back into the madness that was the Bear Gulch day use area (20.7mi, 4h25min). I could feel the fatigue setting in at this point, as I definitely wasn’t trained for a 27mi trail day. As I ascended the Condor Gulch trail I again ran into my mother nearing the end of her hike. The trail was hot and sunny, but the views up into the rock formations of the High Peaks were stunning. I kept a sharp eye out for condors, but no such luck again. After cresting the climb at the High Peaks trail junction it was all downhill back to the East Entrance. The final bit went by uneventfully as I cruised the smooth double track down valley and into the campground. I finished off the 26.6mi (GPS Watch) loop in 5h41min, one could definitely run it faster, and there are many options to cut the distance down into smaller segments if you’re not up for 27miles.

Bear Gulch Cave, more of a plugged up canyon, but still fun.

Looking up Condor Gulch toward the High Peaks section of the park.

My legs were tired and a bit sore, but it had been a beautiful day of running, scrambling and photographing one of America’s lesser known parks. While Pinnacles may not live up to the standard set by Yosemite, Glacier, Zion or Yellowstone it offers up a look into some beautiful volcanic formations, filled with elusive condors and lesser known species like the California Red-legged frog. This coupled with the fact that the trails are beautifully runnable make it a worthwhile destination if you’re visiting the Bay Area (or live there). As the National Park project moves forward I’m slowly learning more and more about the diverse ecosystems and geology that make our country so amazing and unique, each piece of the puzzle makes for the spectacular system of National Parks that I hope we can preserve for the future generations. Thanks to Vfuel for powering my runs and Ultrarnnner Training for keeping me focused, even when a definitive goal doesn’t exist.

A Year on the Road (The Traveler’s Life)

For those of us in the United States September 11th has a fairly profound meaning, for me it also marks the date I started my year of unemployment (in 2016). I kept finding excuse after excuse of why I couldn’t or shouldn’t quit my job and take some time off, but finally after my failed attempt on the Colorado 14ers in 2016 I realized…there would never be a perfect time or situation, and sometimes you just need to take a leap into the deep end and see what the life takes you. Leaving a job where I enjoyed the work and the people was hard, but it was time for a change, and there was simply too much of the world out there which I had not experienced and explored.

It’s impossible to fully summarize everything that’s happened to me, all the people I’ve met or everything that I’ve experienced, but I can say that it’s far exceeded any expectations I could even have dreamed of. I’ve wandered the 1000year old temples of Angkor, swam with bioluminescent plankton, glimpsed the Milky Way shining above an 8000m peak (and watched an avalanche rage down it), climbed to 5416m altitude and was mistaken dozens of times for a Nepalese guide, volunteered in a Nepalese school, watched sunrise/sunsets from the temples of Bagan, was invited to dinner (3x) by Burmese people with whom I shared no common language, watched lava flow into the ocean, had all my identity/credit cards/cell phone stolen, spent six weeks running around Patagonia, got to live and work in Torres del Paine with the rangers and build trails, wandered the Atacama desert, played Tejo (look it up, its awesome), ran around the slot canyons, redwoods, Glaicer NP and Canada, watched a total solar eclipse (unreal) and visited many old friends and made countless new friends.

There are so many clichés that are applicable; YOLO, carpe diem, wanderlust, and on and on…I would not have traded this year off for anything, and hope that many of you out there have the chance to experience even a little piece of the journey I was so fortunate to have been on. Just remember, if you’re waiting for the perfect opportunity, it may never come, but if you put yourself out there into the unknown I highly doubt you’ll regret it. And for those asking, yes I’m back looking for jobs in the Boulder, CO area so if you know any immunology/cell biology labs hiring, hit me up. I’ll let the following collection of some of my favorite photos from the travels tell the rest of the story…and yes it was even more amazing than the photos.

Early morning kayak in Khao Sok NP, Thailand.

Temples of Ankor in Cambodia.

Sunrise on Koh Rong during a 4 nights stay at Suns of Beaches, amazing and unexpected island life in Cambodia.

Kyanjin Gompa and the quiet magnificence of the Langtang Valley, Nepal.

Roof top breakfast in Gyharu with views of Annapurna, Annapurna circuit Nepal.

Kicho Tal along the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.

Thorung La Pass, 5416m, highest elevation I’ve ever been. Nepal.

Annapurna Basecamp with Steve, what a view. Nepal.

The Milky Way and Annapurna, Nepal.

Chatting with some of my students in Shishaghat, Nepal.

Enjoying sunrise over Bagan with new friends, Myanmar,

Making new friends, both fellow travelers and local. Inle Lake, Myanmar.m

Epic sunsets from Napili beach on Maui. It had been almost 10years, way too long.

Lava flowing into the ocean in Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.

Marveling at the Torres, in Torres del Paine Nacional Parque, Chile.

Running around the trails of Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, Argentina.

A week of trail running with Fitz Roy as the backdrop, not so bad. El Chalten, Argentina.

Sunrise over Paine Grande town, pinch me, because this can’t be real…. Torres del Paine, Chile.

Digging in the dirt and building trails in Torres del Paine with new friends, Chile.

Taking a moment to relax in the mountains outside Bariloche, Argentina.

Playing around in the salt flats of the Atacama desert, Chile.

Buckskin Gulch exploration, Utah desert.

Scrambling around Ding and Dang canyon with Ely and Kaytlyn, Utah desert.

Running around Redwood NP, finishing in the amazing Fern Canyon, California.

Romping around the wax palms in the Valle de Cocora. Salento, Colombia.

Looking down the North side of Piegan Pass, this place is pretty awesome. Glacier National Park, Montana.

Summit of Cirque Peak in the Canadian Rockies, Banff NP.

North American total eclipse 2017 from Borah Peak, Idaho.

Good to be back home for the regular Rocky Mountain Runners Monday run up Green Mountain, Boulder, CO. Photo courtesy of Guy Love.

Grand Glacier NP Loop

Field of Bear Grass on the way up Piegan Pass.

My eyes darted left, then right, nervously responding to every sound I heard in the underbrush. I was only 2miles into my 50mile+ loop around Glacier but I’d been following a set of fresh bear prints for almost a mile through dense foliage. This is how my adventure started, thankfully Mr Bear decided to wander off elsewhere and the concerns were never realized.

Approaching Piegan Pass from the South.

When I first looked at the map of Glacier National Park I had trouble conceiving of a loop that showcased the central mountains and glaciers. I came up with several point to points (Highline Logan Pass to Canada, East to West to East) but couldn’t figure out a logical loop that really touched on most of what makes Glacier so amazing. One day while thumbing through backpacking trip reports I happened across a report talking about the often traveled ‘Floral Park traverse’, ah ha! This 9.5mile off-trail route connected Hidden Lake with Comeau Pass providing the missing link I’d been looking for, now all I needed was the time and energy to run 50miles in the mountains.

Looking down the North side of Piegan Pass, this place is pretty awesome.

I awoke at 330am on Monday August 8th, immediately hopped in the car and began the 1.5h drive to the Jackson Overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road. I left the road at 5:40am thrashing my way through the brush toward Piegan Pass. After unnervingly following some fresh grizzly prints for a little over a mile, the terrain finally opened up and I settled in to simply enjoying the beauty. The smokey rays of sunrise glowed orange on the surrounding mountains and a gentle breeze blew over the pass. As I crested Piegan Pass I was stopped dead in my tracks, a sheer 1000ft wall guarded the left side of the valley, green flower filled meadows (and the trail) arced down the right side, while turquoise lakes dotted the valley floor as waterfalls tumbled off cliffs in between, it was gonna be a good day. The trail down the North side of Piegan Pass can only be described as euphoric, beautifully swooping switchbacks through some of the most stunning scenery I’ve had a chance to lay eyes on. I cruised on past Grinnell Lake, around the West shore of Josephine Lake (following more bear tracks) and finally reached the Swiftcurrent Lake TH (13mi, 3:15), refilled my water and jogged on down the road to the Swiftcurrent Pass trail.

Looking back across Josephine Lake near the Swiftcurrent TH.

The rear end of a grizzly near the Swiftcurrent TH, thankfully as close as I got to one.

Half a mile down the trail I came across a large group of people standing on the bridge across Wilbur Creek, and was a bit surprised to see them all gawking at a grizzly bear lumbering on up the river. One guy even had a camera in one hand and his uncapped bear spray canister in the other….really people? I left them behind and jogged along the rolling trail up Swiftcurrent creek, past numerous glacial lakes, until I finally reached the end of the valley and looked straight up 2300ft of switchbacks to Swiftcurrent Pass somewhere high above. I zig zagged my way up to the pass (stream about ½ way up) and was greeted by Heaven’s Peak front and center (20.5miles, 5:20). After a brief stop in at the Glacier Chalet it was off on the Highline trail toward Logan Pass. This was the first truly busy section of trail I hit, with constant traffic both directions, but everyone was friendly and most let me jog on past. This undulating section of trail hugs a high traverse along the Garden Wall and is beautifully runnable with fantastic views, deserving of its popularity.

Redrock Lake reflection on the way up Swiftcurrent Pass.

View of Heaven’s Peak from Swiftcurrent Pass.

Running the Highline trail toward Haystack Butte.

At last I popped out on the Going-to-the-Sun road at Logan Pass (30mi, 7:15), shnikies! I was back in the throngs, hundreds of people milling about, road jammed with cars, shuttles running up and down both sides of the pass, eek. I quickly filled my water and slowly staggered my way up the hill toward Hidden Lake. The miles were starting to wear on me and it was warm enough to slow my pace. I cruised back down to Hidden Lake, forded the outlet stream, and began the off-trail adventure of connecting Hidden Lake and Comeau Pass. The initial section around the lake is on a lovely use trail, then from the peninsula in the middle of the lake I struck up the hill on a diagonal traverse around Bearhat Mt. Start by going up a small talus field, then onto upward trending grassy benches to around 7000ft, which pops you out in the basin SE of Bearhat Mountain. For more specifics on the traverse, see this link. The climb up and over the saddle to Floral Park was steep energy sucking grass on the ascent and rubbly gravel and scree on the descent, yuck.

Hidden Lake, the far ridge drops into Floral Park, the peak in the far far distance is the Sperry Glacier.

Looking down into Floral Park with the Sperry Glacier in the background, let the fun begin.

Soon I found myself in Floral Park skirting the flower lined shores of Mary Baker Lake (36mi, 10:00) and traversing the steep grass upwards into the Sperry Glacier basin. As I crested the moraine into Sperry basin a mine field of snow, glacial lakes and rock ribs introduced itself to me. I took a high line, picking my way over rocky ridges, hopping glacial melt streams, traversing around turquoise blue lakes and kicking steps up the occasional snow field, finally reaching the ‘red wall of doom’, a nice moderate slab of reddish rock on the far South side of Sperry basin that climbed up to Comeau Pass. I kicked the final snowy steps up to Comeau Pass (39.5mi, 11:45) and was greeted by a pair of goats and the steep valley dropping down Sprague Creek.

Crossing Floral Park, hang a left and up into Sperry Basin.

Almost out of Sperry Basin, just gotta climb the red slab to the right.

In my tired delirium I thought the uphill was over for the day until a quick glance at the map showed two 1000ft climbs over Lincoln Peak then Gunsight Pass…argh. So I hammered down to the Sperry Chalet, past Akaiyan Falls to the junction with the Gunsight trail….12.5miles to go!!! Son of a, not what I was expecting. Again, slightly demoralized I took a moment to readjusted my head space and hammer through the first climb to Lincoln Peak, jogged my way around the beautiful Lake Ellen Wilson and up into the thunderstorm brewing on Gunsight Pass (46.5mi, 13:50). I topped out on the final final climb of the day to what I thought was distant thunder, only to see that a dark mass of heavy rain and electrical activity was dropping into the valley right in front of me, well shit. I started running, then realized the trail wasn’t descending! I traverse a high line for about a half a mile as the rain began to fall and lightning lit up the far side of the valley. At last the trail began to descend, and I pushed downward, thankfully while the thunderstorm tracked down valley at a faster rate than I. Finally I arrived at Gunsight Lake, just a little damp, but no worse for the wear (49mi, 14:20). The final 6miles seemed to drag on forever, as the trail rolled up and down through dense underbrush. As the evening light faded away, I startled a large animal (not sure what) that went crashing off through the brush. I spent the final 45min of the day talking to myself, narrating my every action, in order to comfort myself into thinking I wouldn’t get eaten by a grizzly. At last I climbed the last few feet back to the Going-to-the-Sun road sat down on the rock behind my car and breathed a sigh of relief.

Running my way around Lake Ellen Wilson toward Gunsight Pass.

Cresting Gunsight Pass right into a storm really gets the adrenaline flowing.

I had finished the Grand Glacier Loop in 15:50, after 55miles and 13400ft of vertical gain. It had been far from easy, but I felt immensely satisfied that I’d not been eaten by a grizzly and had seen/experienced/run through some of the most beautiful terrain our country has to offer. As I changed clothes and packed my stuff into the car, a light rain began to fall. During the drive back to my friend’s place over Logan Pass the light rain turned into a downpour and lightning flashed all around, I’d dodged a bullet for sure. For those interested in taking a crack at this massive loop, I’d say make sure you’re truly fit with lots of backcountry experience. It’s got diverse landscapes like the Zion Traverse, waterfalls second only to Yosemite, the sense of smallness offered up by the Grand Canyon R2R2R, but with a tough off-trail section thrown in for good measure. If you don’t feel up for the whole shebang in one go, not to fear, the park offers free shuttles that help you break it into three more manageable pieces; Jackson Overlook to Swiftcurrent (13mi), Swiftcurrent to Logan Pass (17mi), and Logan Pass to Jackson Overlook (25mi). Each segment offers up a beautiful view into what makes Glacier National Park so special, though obviously there is infinitely more out there waiting to be explored. Special thanks to the NPS for maintaining such an amazing place, and keeping up the trails, most of which were in phenomenal shape, to Vfuel for powering me through such long unsupported idiotic endeavors and to the PLT for giving me a full year off 😉

Gear List

Salomon S-Lab 12, OR Helium II jacket, Patagonia Strider shorts, tech T, arm warmers, long sleeve shirt, running hat, buff, fleece gloves, sun glasses, bear spray, inhaler, 1st aid, hand warmers, 6 chlorine tablets, space blanket, trail map, SPOT locator, Fenix E11, Black Diamond Iota headlamp, 3400calories, 1.5L of water capacity (usually only carried 1/2L). Note that you may need more or less than me, but this is the list of items I’ve worked out that I need/want to sustain myself for unsupported adventures of this length.

My pack and gear carried for 16hours of unsupported runningl

Seeking Silence Amongst Giants

Having grown up in California the redwoods have always held a special place in my heart. If you’ve ever talked to me about California you’ve probably heard me profess “I miss big trees” (usually referring to the redwoods). So you can imagine my excitement when an opportunity arose to visit Redwood NP in late May 2017.

Redwood National Park was created in 1968, encompassing four smaller parks; Prairie Creek SP, Redwood SP, Del Norte SP and Jeddiah Smith SP, in order to preserve the immense redwood forests of far Northern California. There are two types of redwoods, Sequoia sepervinum (coastal) and the Sequoia gigantia (Sierra foothills, Yosemite & Sequoia NP), both only grow in a narrow band of land in California. The semp. are the tallest trees in the world (up to 380ft tall), while the gigan. are amongst the largest (up to 100ft around), both living thousands of years. Logging threatened to destroy these gentle giants, but thankfully they are now largely preserved for all to appreciate.

After a soggy night of camping in Prarie Creek SP my mom dropped me at the Dolason prarie th in a thick fog, appropriate. I cruised down, alternating between open prarie and second growth redwood forest, until I finally reached the Big Trees loop. Here, somewhere along the upper reaches of redwood creek, stands the tallest tree in the world (376ft), and it’s not alone. This was my first taste of the lush old growth redwood forest, silent, majestic and awe inspiring. Then came obstacle #1, a early season ford of redwood creek (summer time there is a bridge). When they say creek, they mean 2-3ft deep, 30ft across and moving. Thankfully it went without issue and off down stream I jogged.

The trail along redwood creek is not heavily used and a little over grown, but a mostly runnable peaceful stretch of soft dirt along the creek. After another attention grabbing ford of the creek I jogged on through the parking lot and up a few miles of the douche grade Bald Hills road to the Lady Bird Johnson grove. The descent down the Berry Glenn trail was my favorite part of the run, smooth single track through lush towering old growth redwoods in complete silence. The next section along the Davidson/Elk Prarie/cathedral trails paralleled the road connecting two sections of the park, mellow and easy, past open meadows filled with Roosevelt Elk just lounging around.
I finally reentered the old growth forest, towering trees all around, a lush mat of ferns in the under story, past Big Tree (1500 years old), looping around the Prairie Creek trail and back to the James Irvine/Miners Ridge trails. As I climbed up the James Irvine trail I quickly left the road and crowds behind, again ascending into the solitude of the redwoods. I had originally intended to finish with the James Irvine into Fern Canyon, but was informed the road access was closed (it reopened that afternoon), so instead followed the undulating Miners Ridge trail down to Gold Bluffs beach. The day ended by throwing a rock into the ocean, source to sea across Redwood National Park had been a beautifully tranquil success, meeting my mother on the beach. Since my mother discovered they’d reopened Fern Canyon that day, we took a short side trip. Wow, wow, if elves and fairies were to live somewhere, Fern Canyon is the place. The canyons 20-30ft vertical walls are covered by a smooth carpet of ferns, giving the canyon an otherworldly isolated feel.

While I’ve had the good fortune to run in some amazing places, the run across Redwood National Park is at the top off the list for peace and tranquility. For me, running duff covered single track beneath the towering redwoods surrounded by a lush carpet of ferns and greenery sets my mind at ease. Of course if 34 miles isn’t your style, the Berry Glenn, James Irvine and Miners Ridge trails make for fantastic short runs, and the hike into Fern Canyon is worth the detour. For those who have never experienced a redwood forest, more accessible areas can be found at Muir Woods, Redwood regional park and Humboldt Redwood SP (includes an amazing 25mi road ride/drive). These towering giants have been around longer than any of us, and hopefully will outlive all of us as well. A visit to the redwoods always provides me with a little perspective. Thanks to vfuel for fueling my ongoing stupidity and my mom for sharing in the adventure and shuttling me around so I could run this point to point route.

The Desert Bites Back; Guadalupe Mountains Ultras

The neat thing about my National Park Ultramarathon project is it’s taking me to places that I normally wouldn’t think about visiting. Example, the Guadalupe Mountains of Southern New Mexico/Northwestern Texas. The Guadalupes aren’t your typical towering mountain range with distinct peaks rising above the surroundings; rather they consist of an uplifted inland reef (Capitan Reef) with deep canyons carving down through the ancient sea floor. The area is split into two parks, one being the Guadalupe Mountains National Park (in Texas) the other, and better known, being Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Over 200 million years ago the area that makes up these two parks was a vast inland sea. Then the inlet to this sea (the current mountain range) was cutoff and the sea slowly dried up, in the process covering the area in layer upon layer of mineral deposits. The continued uplift exposed these mineral and fossil layers in what is now the Capitan Reef of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and the power of slowly percolating water carved out vast caverns underground creating the massive labyrinth that is Carlsbad Caverns.

Sunrise on Guadalupe Peak from the Tejas Trail.

Sunrise on Guadalupe Peak from the Tejas Trail.

Descending the Bush Mt trail toward Dog Canyon. Not much of a trail.

Descending the Bush Mt trail toward Dog Canyon. Not much of a trail.

I first set my sights on a 37mile lollipop in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (5/8). One of the local rangers told me “the magnificence of the Chihuahuan desert lies in its subtlties”, and I couldn’t agree more. As I climbed up the Tejas Trail from the Pine Springs trailhead the sun slowly began to illuminate the surrounding walls and the birds began to awake to greet the day. I ascended 2500ft of switchbacks out of the low arid desert and into the high altitude juniper and pine forest (<8000ft). The trail slowly disintegrated from a wide horse trail into an overgrown sparsely used foot path (Bush Trail) as I crested Bush Mountain (the high point of the day 8631ft, mm6.2, 1:45). The trail undulated along the high ridge through the pine and oak forest, before descending steeply down through an old burn zone to the meadows surrounding the old ranch settlement of Cox Tanks. Blooming cacti and an assortment of wildflowers dotted the desert terrain as I cruised down to the Dog Canyon TH, my only water resupply for the day (mm16, 3:50). The TH was completely empty except one couple and their RV. I doused myself at the water spigot, refilled all my water bottles (2.5L) and jogged back up the Tejas Trail toward Lost Peak.

Dog Canyon TH, refreshed and ready to roll another 21miles.

Dog Canyon TH, refreshed and ready to roll another 21miles.

Wildflowers blooming in an old burn zone along the Tejas Trail.

Wildflowers blooming in an old burn zone along the Tejas Trail.

As I jogged up the canyon the midday sun had begun to bake the open grasslands. I ran into a couple of volunteers who were in the process of clearing the trail, cutting back brush and moving rocks. They mentioned I’d run into more overgrown trail about 1.5miles ahead, as the park didn’t have the resources to clear everything just yet, an unfortunate, but all too common issue within the National Park system due to budget cuts. As I neared Lost Peak the trail became a little rougher, but was far better than the Bush Mountain trail I’d run in the morning. From the summit of Lost Peak (4:50) I had a nice view of the surrounding landscape, an endlessly undulating high plateau strewn with pines, junipers, oak trees and cacti. I cruised along the high ridge dotted with Indian Paintbrush and blooming prickly pear cacti until the junction with the Blue Ridge Trail (mm21.8, 5:20) where the trail descended deep into the pine forests. I hadn’t seen anyone else since the Dog Canyon TH, and was enjoying the trail solitude as I turned up onto the Juniper trail and steeply climbed my way up to the old water tanks at the top of Bear Canyon.

Indian Paintbrush blooming in the desert.

Indian Paintbrush blooming in the desert.

Looking down Bear Canyon at the valley over 2000ft below.

Looking down Bear Canyon at the valley over 2000ft below.

Summit of Guadalupe Peak, high point of Texas.

Summit of Guadalupe Peak, high point of Texas.

El Capitan of the Guadalupes from above.

El Capitan of the Guadalupes from above.

The view abruptly opened, and I was staring down on the Frijole trail 2000ft below. The descent was rocky, but runnable the whole way, and the temperature quickly climbed from the comfortable 60s into the low 80s. I reached my car in the Pine Springs parking lot a bit cooked (mm29, 7:20), but after a quick refill I felt like I was ready to tackle the 3000ft climb up to Guadalupe Peak (the Texas high-point). The trail climbed steeply at first then mellowed a bit more as it traversed into the trees. The heat and sun were definitely getting to me, and I had to take several breaks to cool off in the little bits of shade I could find. The final push from the saddle to the summit seemed to drag on forever, but I finally stumbled my way up to the summit pinnacle and plopped down for a breather (mm33mi, 9:20). Views were expansive, the vast Chihuahuan desert to the South and East, the rolling ridgelines of the Guadalupes to the North and the vertical cliffs of El Capitan (Texas, not CA) directly below. The jog down was a bit painful as I was pretty dehydrated and cooked from the day, but I finally reached the trailhead and sprawled out on the ground, 37mi and 10h and 25min after starting.

Descending into Slaughter Cave on a Ranger guided tour.

Descending into Slaughter Cave on a Ranger guided tour.

Formations in Slaughter Cave.

Formations in Slaughter Cave.

Day two (5/9) in the Guadalupes found me descending deep into Slaughter Cave in Carlsbad Cavern National Park. This 4h, $15 Ranger Guided tour of the cave was a fantastic way to learn about the history, geology and to see some of the phenomenal formations up close. Day three (5/10) I got a little more than I bargained for, my supposed 25-ish mile run of the Yucca trail-Guadalupe Ridge trail-Slaughter Canyon trail reminded me how cruel the desert can be. All are listed as ‘unmaintained trails’ but I figured how bad could they be? As I climbed up Yucca canyon the trail was well established, the ocotillo and cacti were blooming and the temperature was pleasant. But as I crested the high plateau the trail disappeared into the desert scrub, a nasty mixture of yucca, sotol, cats claw, cacti and agave, as I was relegated to navigating cairn to cairn….when I could. After thrashing my way across the high plateau I finally reached what I thought was the junction with the Guadalupe Ridge trail, wrong (mm11, 3:15). After a 1mi detour I reversed course and found the correct road, and was able to jog my way across the Guadalupe Ridge, only to miss two more unmarked turns on my way to the Putnam Cabin (mm15, closer to mm18.5 that day, 4:55). Then it was back to thrashing my way across the ridgeline until I reached a few old trail signs at the junction with the Slaughter Canyon trail, a trail which did not exist outside of a few rock cairns (mm19, mm23 that day, 5:50). I again thrashed my way down the ridge into Slaughter Canyon, legs ripped up from the sotol and cats claw, a few holes in my foot from agave spines that had pierced my shoes. By the time I reached the canyon bottom I no longer cared about dodging the skin ripping plants, and just barreled on through them, finally reaching the trailhead 7h and 17min after starting, and the ‘marathon-ish’ route turned out to be closer to 28.6miles of brutal bushwacking. My legs told the tale as small streams of blood dripped from scratches on my knees and thighs.

Sunrise on the Yucca Canyon trail.

Sunrise on the Yucca Canyon trail.

Follow the cairns, because that's all you got.

Follow the cairns, because that’s all you got.

Useless signs at the Slaughter Canyon turn.

Useless signs at the Slaughter Canyon turn.

Descending back into Slaughter Canyon.

Descending back into Slaughter Canyon.

The ravages of yucca and cats claw, bloody legs.

The ravages of yucca and cats claw, bloody legs.

No time to waste though, as I hopped in my car and booked it over to the Carlsbad Cavern main entrance for a self guided walking tour down into the heart of the main cave system. As I descended into the darkness, the air cooled, light faded away and all the noises of the outside world were cut off. The main cave is lit by artificial lights so no headlamps are needed, but one is nice if one would like to inspect some formations in more detail. As the paved walking path entered “The Big Room” the cave opened into a massive cavern, the size of 14 football fields. Thousands of soda straws and stalactites hung from the ceilings, calcite domes up to 30ft tall rose from the floor and crystal clear pools of water flowed deep into the depths of the earth. The standard walking tour of the cave is around 2.5miles from the surface, but there are several other Ranger Guided options to explore deeper into the cave. Wandering this underground labyrinth is truly mind boggling, especially when you consider that miles of cave passages and even new cave systems are being discovered all the time (like Lechuguilla in 1986). If you visit Carlsbad I highly recommend you take a Ranger Guided tour (minimal charge) and if you visit in the summer time stay around to watch the bats fly out of the cave (up to ½ million).

Entering the main Carlsbad Cavern.

Entering the main Carlsbad Cavern.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, the size of 14 football fields.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, the size of 14 football fields.

Soda Straws and other formations in Carlsbad.

Soda Straws and other formations in Carlsbad.

While the Guadalupe Mountains may not wow you from the outset, hang around a little bit and delve into the subtleties of this seemingly arid desert that is full of life. You’ll see mule deer darting through the scrub, lizards bask in the sun and even a rattlesnake or two letting you know how pissed off he/she is (from a distance of course). Prickly pear cacti blooming in brilliant yellow, the spiny ocotillo and their vibrant red tips and dozens of small wildflowers (including paintbrush) hiding amongst the yucca and scrub. If you stop and look a little closer you’ll be amazed what you find both above ground and below. And while the trail systems of the area won’t rival those of Yosemite, Glacier NP or North Cascades, the solitude you’ll find in the desert will provide you a much different experience than the overcrowded trails elsewhere. My only suggestion, wear full leg coverings and be smarter than I. Special thanks to Vfuel for powering me through crazy adventures like these and to the National Park Service for protecting these amazing lands for all to explore.

Walking by moonlight at White Sands National Monument.

Walking by moonlight at White Sands National Monument.

Trans-Bryce Canyon Ultrarun

Sunrise over the San Rafaell Swell in Utah.

Sunrise over the San Rafaell Swell in Utah.

Spring time in the Utah desert is a beautiful thing. Cool nights, warm days, lots of sunshine and tons of adventure to be had in the maze of canyons, gorges and rock formations. So of course when several friends invited me on a little road trip, I jumped at the chance. After a brief stop in Moab to play, we were off to Bryce Canyon. The goal was to traverse the park from Rainbow Point to Fairyland Point in one day, approximately 32 miles of trail. Eight years ago several friends and I had tried to complete this route, but had to bail to search for a lost companion (don’t worry, we found her), so a little redemption was in order.

Dropping from Rainbow Point into the canyon, a little lingering snow at 9100ft.

Dropping from Rainbow Point into the canyon, a little lingering snow at 9100ft.

Running the Under the Rim trail, mostly smooth and runnable for 21miles.

Running the Under the Rim trail, mostly smooth and runnable for 21miles.

As we drove out to Rainbow Point we were a little surprised at the amount of snow that lingered on the high plateau (we were at 9100ft). So after a last minute gear change (grabbed microspikes) Ben and I were jogging down the Under the Rim trail into Bryce Canyon. The snow was soft on top, though several feet deep, so we used our microspikes for the first mile. Soon the snow had dissipated to just a few patches and we were jogging through the forest far below the rim. The trail was pleasant as we crossed several seasonal melt streams and cruised to our first waypoint at Iron Springs (4.3mi, 0:50). The water at Iron Springs can be treated in a pinch, but isn’t recommended. As we slowly traversed our way north we entered the old burn zone just past Agua Canyon, a strange skeleton forest of charred trunks (from 2009). The trail continued to climb in and out of the side canyons that flowed from the Bryce Rim, past peculiar rock formations, along Swamp creek (strong water flow at the top, disappeared down low, 10.9mi, 2:15), and finally to the head waters of  Sheep creek. The sun continued to beat down on us, though the temperature remained cool at the relatively high elevation (7000ft). Finally we crossed over the steady flow of Sheep Creek coming out of Yellow Springs (17.5mi, 4:10, half way), and sat down to treat some water and reward ourselves with some chocolate. Sheep Creek is the last reliable water source in the canyon, so we took our time hydrating.

Running through the 2009 burn zone near Agua Canyon.

Running through the 2009 burn zone near Agua Canyon.

Yogging up the final climb to Bryce Point, hey look, Hoodoos.

Yogging up the final climb to Bryce Point, hey look, Hoodoos.

After a short jog through some open terrain we began the long slow climb to Bryce Point, our first time returning to the Rim since we started. We settled into a nice mixture of power hiking and yogging, with the occasional break to snap a photo as we passed the Hat Shop and our first up close view of the Hoodoos. We soon found ourselves back on the plateau near Bryce Point (22mi, 5:40) but quickly descended into the heart of the Hoodoos. We took the western arm of the Peak-a-boo Loop right through the middle of the Hoodoos, past the Wall of Windows, the Cathedral and countless other unnamed formations dodging throngs of tourist the whole way (first time we’d had this issue). When we reached the junction with the Navajo Loop we cut North onto the hiking trail to the Queen’s Garden. By this point we were both starting to hurt, me on the ups, Ben on the descents, so the trudge up to Sunrise Point seemed to drag on and on. We finally topped back out on the rim and jogged across the parking lot to my car for a quick food and water resupply before the final push to the end, Fairyland Point (26.5mi, 7:00). There is also water in the General store bathrooms and at the campground, so a vehicle here isn’t necessary.

Our first view of Hoodoo heaven between Bryce Point and Sunrise Point.

Our first view of Hoodoo heaven between Bryce Point and Sunrise Point.

Feeling small yet? Ben running in front of the Wall of Windows.

Feeling small yet? Ben running in front of the Wall of Windows.

Queens Garden trail sights, I would imagine this is what Mars feels like.

Queens Garden trail sights, I would imagine this is what Mars feels like.

We jogged out from the trailhead one last time, following signs into Fairyland Basin, new territory for me. I enjoyed the smooth descent into the canyon, Ben’s knees less so, but it was very refreshing not to have to fight our way past oblivious hikers every minute. Fairyland lived up to its name, an expansive basin filled with multi-colored rock formation, towering Hoodoos, natural bridges and solitude (well, more than the previous 4miles). We slowly made our way across the basin, snapping photos and trying to enjoy the scenery, though both of us were a bit beat up. The last short climb to Fairyland Point loomed ahead, before we knew it several wooden fences appeared and we found ourselves at the trailhead, high fives all around (8:40). Amanda greeted us with water and snacks and the most important thing, a car, meaning no more hiking/running!

Cruising the singletrack in Fairyland Basin, smooth and fun, but so tired.

Cruising the singletrack in Fairyland Basin, smooth and fun, but so tired.

Cruising through Fairyland, all by our lonesomes.

Cruising through Fairyland, all by our lonesomes.

The Trans Bryce run came out around 32miles and 6000ft of vert in a pedestrian 8:40, unfortunately my phone died part way so I don’t have a complete GPS track for the run. The route is completely runnable, with the Under the Rim Trail being a pleasant forested jog with very few people, the Peak-a-boo and Queens Garden trails having some spectacular scenery but lots of crowds, and Fairyland being a peaceful playground of Hoodoos and beautiful rock formations (with very little crowds). This route definitely encompassed what makes Bryce Canyon NP so special, and served up a little bit of variety along the way. For those looking for a shorter route, the Bryce Point to Fairyland Point run/hike lets one see the best of the park in about 10miles (with car shuttle). The Trans-Bryce Canyon Ultrarun was my 7th National Park Ultra, and as with the previous six, it definitely offered up some unique scenery and experiences. Next up Guadalupe Mountains NP and Carlsbad Caverns (won’t be all running) next week! Thanks to Vfuel for keeping me energized on all these adventures, my good friend Ben for always being ready for some Type II fun, Amanda for running the car shuttle and the National Park Service for keeping these wonderful natural playgrounds accessible in the face of lots of adversity.

Trans Bryce Canyon map.

Trans Bryce Canyon map.

I’ll leave you with a few photos from some other fun in the desert. Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon (look it up!), Zerbra slot and Tunnel slot, Sulphur Creek Canyon Capitol Reef, Ding/Dang slots with Kaytlyn and Ely.

The dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Just think about how those logs got there...

The dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Just think about how those logs got there…

Zebra slot with its narrow striped walls.

Zebra slot with its narrow striped walls.

Sulphur Creek, Capitol Reef NP. Scouting another NP route.

Sulphur Creek, Capitol Reef NP. Scouting another NP route.

Playing around in Dang Canyon in the San Rafaell Swell with Kaytlyn and Ely.

Playing around in Dang Canyon in the San Rafaell Swell with Kaytlyn and Ely.

End of a Journey, but the Adventure Continues

Thorang La Pass, new elevation high point for me along the Annapurna Circuit.

Thorang La Pass, new elevation high point for me along the Annapurna Circuit.

I’ve now been back in the United States for two weeks since my six month world travels ended and no surprise, things have been busy. Catching up with friends and family, cleaning house, doing ‘adult’ things (stupid taxes and bills), playing with the kitty and generally adventuring whenever I can, it’s a rough life. People keep asking if it is hard to ‘reintegrate’ into the US and if I miss living on the road, and the answer is easily, no. It’s good to be home, now that doesn’t mean that my adventuring is done by a long shot, just changing pace. The #Funployment will continue through the summer, with lots of road trips and a few flights in the works, but keeping Boulder as a home base for all the fun. A few of the potential trips are a visit to the Guadalupe Mountains, canyoneering in the Utah desert, maybe a few weeks in Belize (anyone?), some exploration and maybe a volcano or two in the PNW and some big plans in Glacier National Park. <- So if you want in on the fun, ping me and let’s plan something epic!

Ambling through the dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Adventure is not too far from home. April 2017.

Ambling through the dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Adventure is not too far from home. April 2017.

Kaytlyn and Ely running into Ding Canyon. The Utah desert holds so many wonderful treasures. April 2017.

Kaytlyn and Ely running into Ding Canyon. The Utah desert holds so many wonderful treasures. April 2017.

But back to this whole traveling out of a backpack for six months deal. The first few days back at home were a bit odd, not waking up in a new location every few days, speaking English all the time, the familiarity of home and the city around. Part of me will definitely miss waking up each day to a new adventure, but part of me is excited to be home as well. I’ve learned a lot in the past six months, but I don’t feel like I’m a different person, just an evolving one. Normally I’d pull on thoughts from my journals for all this rambling, but being that I’ve had 90% of my journal writing stolen, I’m only left with my memories, which I guess is the more important thing. I started this journey with no idea where I was heading or why, only that I had a plane ticket to Thailand and eventually I wanted to make it to Nepal and Patagonia, filling in the gaps along the way. It’s such a different feeling living the adventure day to day and just seeing where life takes you, and it’s made me realize that while planning is a great way to maximize what you see in a location, are you really seeing what matters most? Anyone can hop on a tour and take the postcard shot or follow the guidebook directions, but what really makes a trip special are those unexpected moments where you get to experience the real culture, not the tourism, where you get to meet the real people, not the facade put on for foreigners. I think anyone who travels is guilty of rushing to the iconic site or the stereotypical experience that we’re told we’re supposed to have, but we need to remember that the journey of getting anywhere is a big part of traveling.

Temples of Ankor in Cambodia.

Temples of Ankor in Cambodia.


Steve watching sunrise on Annapurna from South Basecamp.

Now to say my travels went smoothly would be a lie. There were numerous transportation mishaps, a few mis-schedules, I was robbed twice (losing ALL my ID, credit cards, cell phone and SD card once), got sick a few times and did numerous stupid things along the way. So is life, make mistakes and learn from them (hopefully). But of course the negative happenings and mishaps were a minor part of what was a fantastic journey. I met so many wonderful people from all over the world (made some new friends), saw countless amazing sights, had innumerable new experiences and had my eyes opened a few times to new ways of thinking. I’ve definitely been bitten by the travel bug, but I don’t really have the desire to sell off all my worldly belongs and hit the road permanently for years to come.

Chatting with some of my students in Shishaghat, Nepal.

Chatting with some of my students in Shishaghat, Nepal. Photo by Zahariz.

Enjoying sunrise over Bagan with new friends.

Enjoying sunrise over Bagan with new friends.

While I love the unknown that comes with traveling new places, visiting new cultures and meeting new people, I’m also a little bit of a creature of habit. I like my group runs with friends, Mondays at Southern Sun, playing with my kitty, climbing Colorado’s 14ers, and having more than 3 changes of clothes to wear on a weekly basis. But mostly, I just love where I live. I love Boulder (for its good and bad), I love the Rocky Mountains, I love my friends and I love the lifestyle my home affords me, so being home is a pretty darn good thing. Though it doesn’t hurt that Colorado is a great launching off point for all kinds of far flung adventures; I can drive to Moab in 6h, the Tetons in 8h, fly to the West coast in 2.5h, Mexico in 4.5h, Colombia in 10h, meaning that adventure is never more than a day away. Even after traveling my list of places to go and things to see is pretty large. As anyone who has traveled will tell you, each time you travel and check off a bucket list item, you add another half-dozen (or more) to the list, its one of those good problems to have. So I look forward to continuing to check off bucket list items and adding many more. For now I’ll enjoy running, climbing and skiing at home in Colorado for a little bit, but just until that next adventure presents itself and the wanderlust grows so great that it needs to be heeded. Thanks to all who shared travels and experiences with me and to the Pro-Leisure Tour for making this all possible.

Sometimes when you don't share a language, it doesn't matter. Making friends in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Sometimes when you don’t share a language, it doesn’t matter. Making friends in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Marveling at the Torres, in Torres del Paine Parque Nacional.

Marveling at the Torres, in Torres del Paine Parque Nacional.

Sunrise over Paine Grande town, pinch me, because this can't be real....

Sunrise over Paine Grande town, pinch me, because this can’t be real….

Lastly just a few take homes from things I’ve learned along the way.

The most important thing I learned was there is never a ‘perfect’ time for anything, and if an opportunity presents itself sometimes you just need to leap full in and figure the rest out later.

When I first left I didn’t think I could actually live out of an 11-12kg backpack for six months, but turns out you really don’t need a whole lot for life on the road, and I could have gotten by with less (ping me if you want specifics).

Having never traveled Asia the language barriers made me nervous, but in the end many people spoke English and even those that didn’t were eager to help out. Hand gestures are surprisingly useful, and I learned a lot of Spanish along the way.

Sometimes you just need to trust that things will work out. Countless times I was on a bus or in a taxi going somewhere, never knowing exactly what was going on, or where we were, but it always worked out in the end.

Learning the local language (even a few phrases) can go a long way.

Say Yes to new experiences, new foods and new ideas.

Not every location is right for every person. The big city party scenes of SE Asia weren’t my thing, but the small towns offered so many wonderful experiences that were more my style. It’s ok if you don’t want to booze it up every night with the 20-somethings, be you.

Most people are wonderful (locals and travelers); friendly, kind, helpful and mean you no harm, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of your situation as there are a few rotten eggs out there.

When something bad happens it’s no use crying over spilled milk, clean it up and get on living and enjoying the present and future. Losing my SD card sucked, but once it was gone there was nothing I could do but go make new memories.

Lastly, it’s ok if you don’t have a definitive plan for your life. Life is too short to be locked into one single mindset/path, be open to evolution and change.

Embracing the Unexpected

First views of the mountains reflecting in Lago Pehoè.

In my first blog after I quit my job I wrote about how I wasn’t sure what I expected out of my long term travels. Maybe some adventure, cultural enlightenment, new friends, but more that I’d just take the journey in stride, one day at a time. In my previous life as a working stiff, travels had always been very well planned out, because you don’t want to waste a day when you only have a few weeks. This is what really separates long term travel from it’s shorter counterparts (for me), the freedom and flexibility one has to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. In a 2-3 week trip one can visit all the beautiful places I’ve seen (obviously not in one trip), and meet lots of amazing locals and travelers, but what if an opportunity arose mid-travel? You probably couldn’t/wouldn’t change your entire trip to do something completely unplanned.

Don’t feel bad I didn’t get to backpack the loop, I got in two pretty nice long runs.

The volunteer crew at Erratic Rock before heading out. Photo courtesy of the @TDPLegacyFund

After being shut out of the multi-day trekking options in Torres del Paine, I did some long day runs (see earlier blog), returning to Puerto Natales each night to relax at Erratic Rock. One night while sitting and having a glass of wine I overheard the hostel staff Bill and Jess talking about a volunteer trail building opportunity that they were helping to organize in Torres del Paine the first week of March. For those of you who know me well, you know I have a passion for giving back to the parks and trail systems that so many of us heavily use, and sometimes neglect and abuse. I’ve even taken several courses on trail design, maintenance and construction, along with how to lead volunteer groups in such settings (Thanks Boulder Country Parks & Open space!). So with all that in mind I couldn’t pass up the possibility of joining the group and proceeded to beg my way into the team. Thanks to the folks at the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund I was now part of the team of volunteers, and I’d be back in Puerto Natales the first week of March to head into the park for a full week of camping and trail building.

The team enjoys the catamaran ride across the lake.

The sea of tents at Paine Grande town.

After a five day stint in Ushuaia and a little over a week playing around on the trails of El Chalten and El Calafate I caught a bus back to Puerto Natales for a few nights at Erratic Rock before heading into the park to work. It was kind of like hanging out with the family, and I even got put to work by Bill a little bit, always happy to help out. Friday March 3rd much of the crew met up and made some last minute arrangements before heading out. The group was comprised of several of us gringos from the States, a couple Chileans from up north, a few local guides, a traveler from France and a whole bunch of the local Guarda Parques (park service). On Saturday afternoon we loaded into several vehicles and drove the back road into Torres del Paine. Those of us non-locals marveled at the views of the mountains reflecting off a dead calm Lago Pehoè, how did we get so lucky? We then transferred all our gear from the vehicles onto the catamaran at Pudeto and set off on the 30min journey across the lago to Rifugio Paine Grande, our home for the next week. We were treated to beautiful views as we slowly motored across the Lago. Saturday was spent setting up camp and getting to know our colleagues as we dined in the rifugio, fancy living.

Day one of trail work, the team getting acclimated.

Relaxing back in camp after a successful day.

Work began on Sunday with John (ex-US forest service ranger) from Oregon heading up the trail design and organizing the team. I’d take a secondary role alongside Legacy Fund leader Emily helping organize the teams of workers and answering questions about trail design and trying to translate to the Spanish speakers when possible (my Spanish is still pretty rough, but getting better). We built waterbars, cut bushes, cleared calafate (damn thorny bastards) and dug new trail thread from 9-5 each day. For those of you who haven’t done this it’s a heck of a cross training workout. We then spent our afternoons unwinding in Paine Grande town, multi lingual chatting, playing games and drinking beer/wine. It was such a wonderful mix of personalities and people from all backgrounds, and while we slaved away all day, we had plenty of fun in the process.

The Milky Way stretching over Lago Pehoe. Not sure why it won’t rotate.

Sunrise on Paine Grande town from the catamaran dock.

Digging new trail, with some nice views.

We had to trim a shit ton of brush and stubborn calafate.

Torres del Paine (and Patagonia ) is known for unstable weather, and after three days of hard work in misty conditions Wednesday looked terrible (3-4cm of rain). We decided a day of rest would do us all good, so we kicked back, wrote in journals, played games and just enjoyed each other’s company, because boy did it rain, just nice and steady all day. When I awoke Thursday morning the rain was tapering off, but I found a lake around my tent, and that several of my neighbors were less fortunate and their tents were IN the lake. We made a mild effort to dry some things out, and moved tents out of the lagoon before heading out to inspect how our handy work on the trails had held up to the rain.

Working away on both sides of the outlet of Lago Skottsburg.eventually there will be a bridge here.

Afternoon break to enjoy the views.

Relaxing in the dining hall as the rain fell.

Lago Rifugio, my tent sat front and center on the hill, while four others sat in the puddle to the right.

Obstacle #1 was crossing the shin deep river that had appeared between us and the guard shack. Thursday we split into two groups, one building boardwalk over a marshy section, while Emily and I took team #2 back to keep cutting new trail. Obstacle #2 came in the form of our usual river crossing, formerly on stones, but now fully submerged. Many of us resorted to damp feet, then it was back to cutting, weeding and digging. Though our group was slowly dwindling, those that were left made for a fun crew, as we got to know each other even better. Friday dawned our last day of digging in the dirt, after bidding John (our fearless leader) farewell, we finished up some last sections and called it a successful week. We’d dug more than 1km of hard fought new trail and built 37 waterbars.

Crossing the river at peak flow .

How pretty is this newly cut trail? Our final segment of the week.

Before and after construction #1.

Before and after shot of some new trail #2.

The last thing in the agenda was a night of celebration with all our new friends as a full moon rose into clear skies illuminating the mountains, lakes and fields. It was fitting that our final morning dawned clear, as the sun’s rays slowly melted their way down Paine Grande and into camp. Sadly this is where we had to bid many of the Guarda Parques farewell, while the rest of us headed back to Puerto Natales before eventually going our respective ways. Simply getting to work in the park for the week was an absolute treat in its own right, but getting to meet and share the experience with such a wonderfully diverse group of people made it just magical. Our Spanglish games in Paine Grande town, dance parties on the trail, plenty of poor translations (many by me), realizing you pitched your tent in a stream bed and quiet mornings with friends watching the sun rise over the the magical land of Torres del Paine. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the week, and am so glad I decided to say “screw the plan, I’m doing this”, when the opportunity arose. While most people won’t have this flexibility while traveling I’d implore you not to be afraid to say yes to the unexpected, and let life be fluid, because who knows what opportunity might come your way, and when it might happen. A life of experiences and memories is much better than one filled with “What IFs”.

Enjoying some vino and pisco by moonlight.

Taking in one last sunrise.

One last boat ride out of the park with some new friends.

Goodbye for now, but not forever.

Exploring the Fitz Roy region

20 years ago El Chalten didn’t exist, merely a guard shack in a pristine mountain valley with Fitz Roy looming overhead. Today the quaint little town is the self appointed backpackers capital of Argentina, and rightfully so. Radiating from town are a network of trails that access some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world. Incredible peaks, crystal blue lakes, immense glaciers and lush green valleys abound. The one problem, this town and it’s visitors are growing faster than the infrastructure. The few groceries in town have an incredibly limited selection, fruits and vegetables of barely edible quality, the one atm is often empty for a week at a time and prices are some of the highest you’ll find anywhere in Argentina. But it’s a place worth dirtbagging it and spending quite a bit of time.

Sunset over El Chalten from the edge of town, not too shabby.

I decided to setup shop at Kaiken hostel, a nice little house with 14 beds, a small living room and kitchen. It felt more like home than a hostel, and was within 10m of the nearest trail! With a nice weather window on tap it was time to go big and run as much of the park in my one week as feasible. Below I’ll give a short intro to each area I explored and some photos for those interested.

Laguna Torre, 2/21

I hit the trail right out my hostel door, smooth double track and very runnable trail most of the way to the laguna. Normally this trail would have fantastic views of Cerro Torre, but a thick layer of clouds hung over the mountains that day, and a light rain blew off the mountains. Consequently a vibrant rainbow formed right over Laguna Torre, so while there were no mountain views, it made for a pretty spectacular scene. I added a short scramble up the hill for a better view before running back down. 14.5miles, 2600ft, 3:29.

A clear view of Cerro Torre from the trail to the lake.

Rainbow over Lago Torre.

Glacier Grande dipping into the lake.

Lago de los Tres, 2/22

Another casual crack of 9am start, this time I trekked across to the Lago de los Tres trailhead and on up. The trail started with a steady climb, but then leveled off into beautiful runnable tread. The views from Laguna Capri of Fitz Roy were phenomenal on the clear sunny day. The first 9km flew by and then I hit the wall that climbs up to Laguna de los Tres, a steep 1km accent to the top of the moraine and a breath taking view of Fitz Roy and more. I hopped around the right side of the lake to a secluded lunch spot, then to a small hill left of the viewpoint that looked down onto Laguna Sucia and the glaciers. But the day was young and I had energy so I cruised back down the trail, took the spur past Hija y Madre lakes until I finally reached a small saddle where I struck up into the forest on animal trails, bound for Loma de las Pizarras. After bushwacking through the forest I picked up a good use trail that climbed to treeline and above. I entered into the talus and broken shale and continued on the class 2 terrain to a nice view high above the lagunas below. Great view of the peaks, glaciers, and town. 23.1miles, 6400ft, 5:23.

The main trailhead for Lago de los Tres.

Running the smooth trail to Lago de los Tres.

The climb up to Loma de las Pizarras.

View from Lago de los Tres with Laguna Sucia to the left.

View from near Loma de las Pizarras.

Cerro Torre and the Glacier Grande

Chorrillo del Salto and Mirador de los Condores, 2/23

If you’re looking for shorter and easier hikes near town, both of these are great for the less adventurous or as an off day. Chorrillo del Salto lies about 4km outside of town along the gravel road, so if you hitchhike to the trailhead it’s only 0.5km. Very nice waterfall in a grotto, and if you hike above the falls (left), there are several wonderful swimming holes and secluded spots. The Mirador de los Condores lies only 1km from the visitors center on the edge of town. But it offers some fantastic views of Fitz Roy and the surrounding area, and is well worth the short trip.6.6mi, 700ft, 3:22. 1.6mi, 350ft, 0:39.

Chorrillo del Salto, the swimming holes are a short hike uphill to the left.

View from the Mirador de los Condores, pretty amazing for 20min of effort.

Loma Pligue Tumbado, 2/24

In my opinion the best view (of the popular spots) in the park. From the visitor’s center the trail starts with a steady climb through the meadows and forest up to the junction with the trail to Laguna Toro. From here the trail climbs slowly up very runnable terrain to the mirador, a lovely viewpoint of Fitz Roy and the lagos. The final climb is a steep 1km hike straight up to the summit, where the views are truly breath taking. I enjoyed a 30min break on the summit, all by my lonesome, marveling at the 360 degree panorama. Then I bombed down the trail, the first part being a bit steep, after that it’s a nearly perfect trail run. 23km, 1100m, 3:07.

Junction of the Laguna Toro and Pligue Tumbado trails, super smooth.

The trail above treeline near the mirador, beautifully smooth with some nice views.

Panorama from the summit of Loma Pligue Tumbado.

Laguna Sucia & Laguna Piedras Blancas, 2/25I’d hit all the major viewpoints so it was time for a little adventure. If you look at a good Topo map of the Fitz Roy region you’ll see many trails that are not listed on the general tourist maps. These are climbers trails and old trails that are no longer maintained, so require a bit of navigation and exploration. My first destination was Laguna Sucia, starting from the Laguna de los Tres trailhead, follow the standard trail all the way to the base of the final climb. Immediately after the last crossing of the Rio Blanco head uphill 20ft and take a hard left onto an unmaintained trail that parallels the North side of the Rio Blanco, don’t use any of the other use trails along the Rio Blanco, as you will then be forced to ford the river (dangerous). From here rock hop and scramble (class 2) upstream until you reach the Laguna, and the amazing views up towards Fitz Roy. Return the way you came, but to reach Laguna Piedras Blancas head straight across the main trail and head North along the West side of the Rio Blanco. The old trail is eroded in sections, but in general stay near the river as you head North. After several kilometers you’ll reach a broad plateau just before the Rio Piedras Blancas, head up the river for 1km to reach the Laguna, and views of the cascading Piedras Blancas Glaciar. Return the way you came, and if it’s a nice day stop for a swim in Laguna Capri. Lots of slow rough trail, but a fun day of adventure. 19.5mi, 2850ft, 5:30.

Rock hopping up the Rio Blanco toward Laguna Sucia.

Laguna Sucia and Fitz Roy.

Following the Rio Blanco downstream toward Laguna Piedras Blancas.

The Laguna and Piedras Blancas glacier.

Afternoon swim in Laguna Capri. Nice way to end the day.

Laguna Toro, 2/26

My last full day in Chalten I went for the long run into Laguna Toro and to see the Rio Tunel Glaciar. Starting from the same trailhead as Pligue Tumbado one splits off about 3km up the trail to the left continuing the slow climb through the forest and into castle pastures (muddy mess). Then comes the steep descent to the Rio Tunel valley. All the water sources in the first 12km are contaminated by cattle, so I don’t recommend grabbing water until the rocky delta that feeds into the Rio Tunel. The last 6km to the Laguna is cruiser flat terrain. The campsites and Laguna at Toro are not very pretty, but if you follow the trail behind the Laguna there are several small Lagunas, and views up the deep glacial valley of the Rio Tunel Glaciar. For the more adventurous one can scramble the rocky hill behind the Laguna for a closer view of the glacier and upper valley (class 3-4). Crossing the Rio Tunel requires harness and equipment for a tyrolian traverse. I’ve then jogs out the way they came in, including the now 250-300m climb back up the ridge. While this is a nice quiet valley with good views, it’s not as spectacular as the other runs I did. 26.1mi, 4550ft, 6:19.

Running though some beautiful forests to Laguna Toro.

Dropping into the Rio Tunel valley.

Sending some class 3-4 rock for a better view.

Laguna Toro and another small laguna from my scramble.

Additional Runs not Done:

Lago Electrico

Lago Azul and Lago del Diablo

Lago del Desierto

Paso de Viento (gear required)

El Calafate doesn’t have much to offer besides the massive Perito Moreno glacier. There is a decent walking path along Lago Argentino and an extensive trail system in the privately owned Calafate Mountain Park (11.8mi, 2600ft, 2:08) near town, use at your own risk. The town does have all the necessary supplies and several good bakeries with lots of facturas.

Flamingos and views across Lago Argentino from El Calafate.

Perito Moreno glacier in all its glory.

Calafate Mountain Park view, trespass at your own risk.

How Argentina does pastries, facturas, 10 pesos each.

For the hikers and trail runners out there El Chalten is a little paradise, as long as you don’t mind paying a bit more and dirt bagging it for a bit. Helpful hints are to bring much of your groceries into town from El Calafate, obtain Argentinan pesos before coming to town, and if you reserve lodging via email or in person it’s often cheaper than via a hostel website. I’m sure in the coming years the town will change dramatically, but hopefully it retains its low key dirt bagger charm.

One of the several crappy grocery stores in El Chalten, what you see is all they got.

Social thanks to Vfuel for powering my adventures, the Pro Leisure Tour for giving me lots of time and Hostel Kaiken for giving me a home for the week (Miguel was a wonderful host, email him directly for a discounted price).

Sunrise glow on Fitz Roy.

Trail Running Patagonia

I came to Chile without much of a plan or an idea what I’d be doing. All I knew was there was a lot of wilderness, volcanoes and this magical land called Patagonia. Upon arriving in Chile I started to look around and do a little more research. First thing I learned is that Patagonia is really frickin big. The iconic photos of the Torres del Paine and Fitz Roy only encompass a very small portion of what Patagonia is, a largely undeveloped expanse of rolling hills, mountains and ice. In fact the whole of Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia covers roughly a million square kilometers and stretches for half the distance of Chile from the Lakes District southward to Tierra del Fuego!

Torres del Paine as seen from near the visitors center.

The second thing I learned is that because of crowding a new permit system had been introduced in Torres del Paine NP and things were booked up for all of January and February, well damn. Also to add to the pain, three different websites currently manage lodging (rifugios and camping) in the park and it’s up to you to create an itinerary and sort out how and where to book, not so easy. After trying to line up lodging and work out any itinerary I said screw it, it’s time to be an ultra runner. If you have more questions on the current state of booking O or W multiday treks in the park feel free to drop me a line, as I now know the system quite well, but won’t discuss it further here.

So with all the headaches out of the way, I could get back to the adventure at hand. After a few days in Puerto Varas I caught a flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas ($130) and stayed the night in town to stock up. Then it was off to Puerto Natales and Erratic Rock to lay down done plans. I made the decision to run most of the W trek over two days, to the Mirador de los Torres on day 1 and Valle Frances on day 2 (good weather window). Torres del Paine National Park is about 1.5h from Puerto Natales, and buses only run a few times a day (730/1130 to, 1430/2000 return), and cost between 12000-15000 roundtrip (JB bus is the cheapest). The bus arrives at the laguna amarga visitor center where everyone has to buy a parks pass (21000 in cash for foreigners, line can take 15-60min), and if you want to use it for up to three days of reentry you need to have them stamp the pass. After that you have the option of paying 3000 pesos for a shuttle ride into the park or walk/run the 7km alongside the dirt road.

If you choose to run or hike the road the views are actually pretty good.

NOTE it is technically illegal to run in the park per their rules, silly as it may be, make your own decision about the rule. Though no one bothered me, but make sure to be respectful of others on the trail as it’s very busy.

I paid the shuttle fee and was dropped off at Torres Central where I started jogging down the road and hitting the double track trail, taking the spur towards Chileno and the Torres. The trail was quite runnable up to Chileno, but there was a wicked wind that rushed down valley throwing dirt at us. After Chileno one enters a pleasant forest and then starts the steep trek up toward the Torres. The trail is a bit rocky, but easy to follow with plenty of clean water access (I never treated any water). Soon I crested the moraine and an awesome basin of granite lay before me, holy $h!?. It had only taken me 1:40 to get up so I spent 30min just relaxing, taking photos and just reveling in the majesty. Then jogged down the trail all the way back to Laguna Amarga and the bus pickup at 14:30, taking care to be respectful of all others on the trails. Fantastic half day run, amazing view, and a must see if you’re I the area.

Starting the trail into Torres del Paine NP.

Some super smooth single track through the forest near Chileno.

Views down the last hill before reaching Torres Central.

Day 2 saw me doing the same, but skipping the 1h line. This time I headed for Cuernos and Valle del Francés. The trail to Cuernos was buttery smooth and views of the lakes and mountains were phenomenal. I cruised on past Cuernos and Francés to Italiano camp and quickly struck up Valle del Francés. The trail in this middle section of the ‘W’ is rocky and rooty, so much slower travel. The view from mirador Francés and Britanico are phenomenal, a combination of RMNP and Glacier NP; soaring peaks and glaciers abound. I slowly wound my way back down past the crowds and headed toward Paine Grande. From here I had the option of catching a ferry (18000 pesos), but had 3h so decided on the long slow route 17km back to the visitor center. The trail started with rolling hills and spectacular views across Lago Pehoe toward the Torres, then flattened out and was a grind back to the visitor center. I finished off my long Trans-Torres NP run of 55km in 7:50, not fast, but beautiful with lots of photos taken. The final piece was to catch the bus around 1830-1900 back to Puerto Natales, finally reaching town at 2130, hungry and tired.

Lake side single track and expansive views at the start of the Torres park.

A little stint along the lake shore enroute to Cuernos.

VALLE deL Francés, pretty awesome views.

Looking back at the Cuernos from the trail.

Looking back across Lago Pehoe at Torres del Paine.

The next day I moved on to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego by bus (12h). Quaint little town with an abundance of fantastic runs within a few kilometers of town. In my opinion a great place to post up for a bit and explore, because there are also great facilities available. I’ll briefly mention the runs I did, but note there are quite a few more I didn’t do.

Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego on a nice day are pretty spectacular.

Day 1 I followed the trail up Cerro del Medio to the summit for a view of town, the surrounding mountains and the Beagel Channel. I descended a faintly marked trail on the west side into the forest, squished through a peat bog and over to the Glaciar Martial view point before jogging back to town 30km).

View from the summit of Cerro del Medio.

Looking down on Ushuaia and the Beagel Channel from the summit.

Following cairns through the scree and lush greenery.

For peats sake. Looks innocent, but it’s like walking on a sponge, soft and wet.

All the water in Tierra del Fuego makes for some lovely scenery.

Day 2 a few friends and I hitch hiked into the National Park, paid the entry (160 pesos) and followed the trail up to the summit of Cerro Guanaco, another fantastic view point with amazing views of the entire park. The trail isn’t long (16km), but it’s a 1000m climb with some steep and muddy sections.

The final pitch to the summit of Cerro Guanaco, pretty decent views.

360 degree panoramic views from the summit, pretty awesome.

We made a friend on the summit, a local zorro (fox).

So it rains a lot in Tierra del Fuego, and sometimes things get muddy.

Winding or way through the trees down Cerro Guanaco.

Day 3 I went big and set out from the hostel through the dirt bike park and up into Valle de la Oveja. Fantastically runnable trail high above the valley, finally topping out at the pass in a barren scree field surrounded by mountains. Then I dropped down into the lush Valle Andorra, with a spectacular side trip to Lago Caminante and Superior. Both are amazing blue glacial lakes set in deep green valleys. The run down Valle Andorra was slow due to very muddy trails mixed with some beautiful single track. The 35km run took me 5h, and I was able to hitchhike back into town with a local, saving me 11km of road. Fantastic loop, with almost no one on the trail and expansive views.

Climbing up Valle de la Oveja.

Lago Superior and it’s compete solitude.

Descending Valle Andorra through some beautiful forest.

Notes for Patagonia:

Crossing between Chile and Argentina for US citizens is now fairly easy. No fees, just stamps and passports needed. But don’t bring any fruits, vegetables or meat.

For those coming from the US or Europe, bring a lot of your local currency to exchange  (or use without exchanging) because ATM fees are high and ATMs are often empty in popular places.

Many of the cities aren’t near the best trail running, you’ll have to do some work to get there; bus, rent a car, hitchhike, or ride a bike a long way. Ushuaia, El Chalten and Bariloche are the exceptions, with fantastic running right out of town.

If you’re having trouble finding trails, turn on strava and check segments for running and riding. I’ve used this to find all kinds of trails. You can also contact locals and trail groups for information, though response can be slow.

Traveling around Patagonia is fairly easy by bus or hitchhiking for the more adventurous. Cheap flights also exist within country, but crossing borders is expensive. Chile is cheaper than Argentina.

So that’s just a few thoughts and lots of photos, next up El Calafate and El Chalten. Special thanks to Vfuel for powering my adventures and the PLT for making all the fun possible.

Lago Caminante and all the colors.