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by Joe Prusaitis
Our rocky ledge route runs up between majestic Grand Turk and Bear Mountains. Enormous rock flows from both mountains spill into the tiny sliver of Bear Creek, well below us. Well up and under a thick stand of tall pines, I stop to help Letha. Her hands and gloves are soaking wet, and she's shaking. I help her remove the wet gloves and put on fresh ones. It doesn't take long and we're both back to hiking up the mountain quickly. We follow Rollin past treeline into the skunk cabbage of upper Putnam Basin. It helps to know and avoid all the Ďeasy to missí splits through here, but Rollin and I know the route pretty well, so we stay on course. We go from dirt, to rock, to tundra, and eventually to the summit. The higher we go, the more abundant the wild flowers. Alone on top, I dodge the flowers as I chase the flag markers along the ridge. They bend left and down a steep tundra slope into the saddle. I drop like a rock, losing Rollin and Letha, but adopting Leonard.
The flags attempt to hide in the flowers, so I aim for the next saddle without trying to find them. My vision is fading and I need to wear glasses, but they mess up my depth perception. I seem to run better without them, but I struggle with finding the markers. Iím able to find my way during the day, but after dark, my pacer leads. Sometimes, I run directly at the next flag, but usually, I see them in my peripheral vision, if I see them at all. Leonard follows me across the saddle and into Porcupine, but I cut loose on the rapid descent and lose him. Descending around composite rocks that guard legions of wild flowers, I blow through hairpin turns and ledge drops, as I fall recklessly down to the creek and across. My clean socks get wet and muddy as I sink into Porcupine Creek. A turtle going up the mountain morphs into a rabbit going down. Feels strange to be going fast after being so slow, I canít seem to get my mind around it. My turtle mentality wants to stop and visit while the rabbit just wants to ping-ping-ping down the mountain. I zip through the woods and around the edge of the Twin Sisters Peaks before dropping once again onto the heels of the Heaphys. Ducking fall downs, we chase each other down the steep dirt trail, and slide into the muddy wallow at the bottom. Last year, I crossed a raging torrent here, today itís no more than a kids wading pool.
Kamm Traverse [10600ft]: 11.5mi; cross Grant-Swamp Pass [12920ft]
I search for a route between the butt sliders going down the scree then descend quickly, surfing past Dale Perry and the others. The stunned look on their faces tells me they had not thought to simply run down. I stop at the base to empty the rocks from my shoes. This crease in a field of rocks is as rough and rugged a single track as there is, and the path that I follow. A fall here would cut, break, or cripple, and it seems easier if served quickly. Each time I slow down, I stumble, so I increase my speed to stay upright. The moonscape rock garden continues for a good distance but stops suddenly at the trees. A sheep herderís campsite begins a pine covered ride down into the basin. I must be dawdling because Dale passes me at the creek. He cuts through the water while I take the side trail over some logs to land in Chapman.
I expect no support here but instead get the very best care possible. Shan and Barbara take me under their wing and the shady side of the tent for care and feeding. What an unexpected and wonderful surprise. A coke and a smile topped with a hug. Last thing they do is spray me down with bug juice before sending me out.
Chapman Gulch [10190ft]: 18.4mi; cross over Oscarís Pass [13140ft]
No more than a road of rocks, Oscarís Pass Road leads me down one hundred yards, before turning left to climb a snow bank to the landmark wooden post on Wasatch Saddle. I stop for a moment and find the Heaphys right behind me yet again. They run past me, but when I fall in behind them, they move over and insist that I pass. I had hoped to steal their energy, but now I feel obligated to generate my own. I keep checking to see if I'm slowing them down but to my surprise, I pull ahead. The upper meadows of the Wasatch Trail are unbelievably lush and beautiful, with a wide color variety of flowers, cascading waterfalls, and snow bridges. High above the valley full of color, I find Jeff Heasley looking rather worn and colorless. I ask if he needs anything and he replies, "Iíd love a Sprite on ice". Itís one of those at once, both funny but serious things people say. Well, I donít have a Sprite but I do have a bottle of ice, so I give it to him. Jeffís running buddy Scott is waiting on him, but it looks like Jeff is done, so I suggest he keep going if he wants to finish. The trail drops quickly. But not near as fast as Bear Creek, which is now 100ft below us. I pass the old Nellie Mine and some solid old wooden bridges that hug the rock walls well above Bear Creek. Bear Creek Falls appears just before I land on the main tourist road. I make a left and I keep running towards town. Scott joins me for the final quarter mile into Telluride.
As George climbs out of his chair, I sit in it. Paul waits on me, hand and foot, feeding me pizza and coke while he checks and repairs my feet. Paul offers up a fresh clean shirt and then I change my shorts also.
We stop to sit on a large metal platform and remove the loose rock weíve picked up in our shoes. Deb offers up a warm can of coke which reminds me about my bottle full of ice. Weíre aware enough to combine the two for a wonderfully ice cold drink of coke. Life is good! The road from here is quite runnable and a volunteer leaving Virginius demonstrates this by sprinting past us. I try to hang on but lose Deb in the process and pass the Heaphys also.
Ouray [7870ft]: 43.9mi; up to Engineer [11800ft]
Paul and I escape the morgue and drift out of Ouray. I have eaten too much and need some time for it all to settle, so we walk. Past the Ice Park and the water pipe, over the river, up to the highway, and back to the river, before arriving at the tunnel. Still, my tummy roils, a brick bouncing around inside. We start up but slowly and it just seems to get worse. Time flies bye as I drag along, getting sleepy now as well. My eyes struggle to stay open as my stride becomes erratic and shaky. Time and again, Paul grabs my shoulder to keep me on the trail. I sit down once and again, falling asleep on the trail. John DeWalt, back from the dead, passes me while I lie on my back and watch him go bye. For the first time, I begin to get cold, my depressingly slow crawl generating very little heat. And so it continues up past Grizzly Bear and Yellow Jacket mines, and then Engineer aid station. Paul peeks into the cave at Grizzly Bear to see somebody peeking back. A cave man had only stopped to catch a nap.
I see Liz Hodges when I arrive and get the (good?) news that we still have time. DeWalt is just leaving while we sit down for some breakfast. I'm in a foul mood of my own doing and just want to escape, but I do realize that I need to eat. My emotions and my body are on high speed spin and Iíve got plenty of quarters to keep it going. Just as I get up to leave, Doug comes strolling in with Shan. It looks like resurrection is in the air this morning. There seems to be more than a few people hanging on against all odds.
Mark starts out first with the rest of us a few minutes back. We cross the footbridge over Cottonwood Creek and then up the very clean pine needle coated tourist trail. A loud cascading creek crashes to our right, offering contrasting combinations of white waterfalls and dark rocks. Brilliant blue and white Columbine flowers in one natural bouquet after another line the trail. Breathtaking views at every turn: Columbines, waterfalls, distant summits. Simply beautiful! The climb goes on for a long ways such that the deafening crash of the falling water eventually becomes no more than white noise. We cross over the creek just below a major fall and then again just above it. Hot from the climb and the sun, we stop to soak our bandanas in the refreshingly cold water. We cross yet again just before the field of busted rocks at treeline. In the upper meadows, one plateau leads to another, and a single trail cuts down the middle. With a line of mountains on either side, our path maintains a relatively flat course near to 12000 ft that goes on like this for miles. Paul offers me a turkey and cheese sandwich which I eat, and then he hands me a salt cap. I stuff the cap in my mouth and promptly blow chunks, doubling down onto my knees. Takes me a few minutes to recover, but it doesnít seem to slow me down. Making pretty good time, we pass Cataract Lake and then the Continental Divide Lake before beginning our descent.
Doug extracts his laminated course card and tells us that we need to reach the Pole Creek Station within the next 15mins to be on the 48 hour pace. I think about it for a few minutes, and that pretty much ends our comfortably peaceful second day. Iím certain we wonít reach the station until 30 or 40 minutes later. So itís beginning to look like we wonít finish in time after all. I tell Doug that he needs to stop waiting on me, and get after it, if he wants to finish, as this is the only pace I got right now. Minutes later, I can see him way off in the distance, running very strong. Pole Creek is plenty wet with creek crossings, mud bogs, and spongy wet grasses, such that my feet are sopping wet when I stumble into Pole Creek.
Pole Creek [11460ft]: 80.9mi; another 4mi at 12000ft before going over Maggie-Pole Pass [12530ft]
I power over a few creeks and a bit of snow and mud, until I take the summit and sit down to wait for Paul. Itís 8:20pm. Paul asks me how far to Maggie when he arrives. Itís just over the rise: 20mins max. Doug should be there by now and mighty pleased with himself. I began to think that just maybe I can finish this thing after all.
Crossing the road, we head for the darkness in front of us, which should be Green Mountain. We're just chasing flags now anyway, which is pretty much what everybody else is doing too. Across the mountain, tiny streams of light move back and forth in short arcs, each one searching, for the next flag. This is the new route, full of rock and snow, but there is no trail. Tufts of tundra and piles of rock is all there is. We catch one of the lights lying on the ground and discover DeWalt again. Heís taking a break while his pacer looks for the next flag. Our group spreads out to find the way but Paul and I are going faster so we move ahead. But then we overshoot the turn and drop down too far. The flag is well above us and on our left, perched on an overhang, laughing at us for the extra bit of climbing we must do to reach it. Each shelf leads to another until finally we take the top of Green Mountain Pass. We both sit down and then we both puke. We move away from each other as we seem to be making each other sick by the sound of our own spew. We need to get down lower, and then there is but one last mountain to climb.
No trail here and nothing but pitch black below, we slide down the steep dirt and tundra in the direction of the one flag we see. We go past it and then scan left and right for the next with no luck. I would think that itís strait ahead but Paul espies it on our left. Covering as much distance sideways as we do strait ahead, we go in a bumbling gait: left, right, stop, start, and ahead, but always down. We shoot about with our lights as eyes, searching for the next flag, and paying dangerous little attention to where we put our feet. Paul almost breaks his leg when he postholes into a marmot den. Iím reminded of my last time up here in the dark and Iím so glad that we donít see any sheep this year. With each flag, we gain a few more feet of descent in our mad keystone cop escape off the mountain. At the confluence of two creeks, we find better ground that provides a faster pace. My emotions are as wrecked as my body by now and for some inexplicable reason I feel everything welling up in my face. Iím not certain if Iím going to cry or scream. Paul would think Iíve gone nuts if I start crying so instead I start to yell. ďYou ok JoeĒ He asks me? Hell no, I say. Iím a flippin mess, but Iím getting off this rock and weíre going to get this thing done. Good thing we canít see each other. Anyway, I think Paulís getting worried about me because he sure as heck picks up the pace. We positively fly down the nasty old sheep trail.
We drop very steeply down and left, the ground sliding away under us. Weíre on a canted trail that slopes off a very tall cliff with nothing but darkness under us. The tall grass makes it difficult to see the ground thatís littered with rock and rarely flat or strait. Weíre close now but still a good bit of very rough scrambling to gain the floor where the final aid station awaits us. I can tell by the lights in front of us that there are a few others on this ghost of a trail, and theyíre all descending slowly. We of course, are less intelligent, so we scream down with blind faith and panache. We pass one after another, until we catch Doug, who hooks on and prays, I suppose. The final slip and slide down into the rock and weed garden is a nasty obstacle course of broken ankles and damaged toes that deposits us onto the Cunningham Road. As it is, we walk into Cunningham alongside Doug.
My dry feet get soaking wet and damn cold yet again as we cross Cunningham Creek and the delta of small streams at the base of the waterfall. It is of small consequence at this point as our focus is now on the final climb. Paul again takes lead and with the same aggressive pace he had coming down the last mountain, he starts up this one. I hang on, enjoying the ride and the idea of getting over this beast as quickly as possible. We can see groups of lights ahead of us, further up, and we take one after another quickly. Paul is relentless and I stay on his heal, even when he stops now and again to puke. Initially, itís all short switchbacks, and then it becomes longer strait-a-ways that are very steep. A woman is lying on the trail and we have no choice but to climb over her. Past the mine and onto tundra, Paul is really struggling, stopping to puke, trying to clear his breath. Oddly, Iím taken by a sneezing fit that lasts for 15 minutes about the same time that Doug and Shan catch us. I climb wide legged as I blow snot between my legs into the tundra. We go back and forth with a silent big fellow and his pacer while we make the final ascent. Doug and Shan roll on over the top while Paul and I both stop to puke again on our final summit.
It seems much colder so I put my jacket back on, but I suspect that itís probably just me. My thermostat must be completely out of whack. We catch up to Doug and Shan and I pass them going down the rough scree, but Paul drops his water bottle and has to chase it down the side of the mountain. Doug ends up with me while our pacers follow behind. The steep rough trail becomes a maze of rocks and twisted turns as it leads to the road. The road is nastier than I recall: hard and rocky enough to beat the hell out of our feet. Doug and Shan take off while Iím taken by another knee dropping puke. The road is at least 3 miles of misery in which Paul and I follow. I can see a tunnel of light well ahead now and again, but itís a long haul. We end up ahead of them for a time and then together again by the time we reach the turn across Arrastra Creek.
The final 3 mile journey along the Animas River is not strait or flat, but then again, itís no mountain either. All of it under the trees, a few rocky jeep roads, a tricky u-turn, numerous streams to cross, a few mud holes, a beaver pond or two, then a house, a mill, and a ski lodge. We find the Heaphys, visit for a moment and let them slip behind. Paul wants a shower bad and drives us to push on in. He keeps yelling back at us as he splashes through each stream. Eventually we find the ski lodge and the road into town. We slow to a walk for a few moments but I insist that we run it in: not for the time, but just because weíre finishing the race. So the four of us struggle on in with Doug and I kissing the rock on opposite corners at the same time. The last thing I do is thank Paul for believing in me and for always keeping me going. A better pacer I could not have had. Paulie is the simply the best!