This post comes from Chris Cloyd, a TMS Ambassador and lover of endurance sports. When Chris isn’t training for his next big run in the mountains or out exploring the Eastern Sierra on bike or splitboard, he’s training clients at the Performance Training Center by Julia Mancuso.
Distance running is a wild beast, and in my 3 years spending big days on foot in the mountains I’ve worked to accrue a very unique and obscure skills set to allow me to dance with her. This past month, I used every last tool in the box to run across the Sierra, from East to West (Whitney Portal to Crescent Meadow), via the High Sierra Trail (78 miles) with the company of two of the best mountain athletes I know, Steven Benesi and Adam Broderick.
Logistically, this specific run is a nightmare. Permits are impossible (good luck with 3 overnight Whitney permits on short notice!), the vehicle issues are immense (an 8+ hour car shuttle each way is necessary unless you get creative/know crazier people… more on that later), and the route is incredibly committing (at mile 39 you’re 39 miles from the nearest road in every direction – bailouts are not an option).
Getting permits required aiming for a start date on the calendar, and waiting for the Inyo Rangers to release their crop of unclaimed Whitney Lottery permits on May 1. Unfortunately for us, they release them in small batches throughout the day, randomly, so as to not overload their server. As such, I spent most of May 1 sitting in front of a computer hitting refresh every 15 minutes or so until 3 unclaimed permits on July 9th became available. By some stroke of fate, exactly 3 were available, I jumped on them, and our golden tickets were in hand. This run became real for the first time.
Solving the car shuttle was actually solved first, and was the impetus for this event in its nascency. A fellow distance runner, Sarah Thompson of Reno, NV, reached out to my local run club – the Donner Party Mountain Runners – with the impossible idea of shuttling the HST with a runner from the opposite direction. Finding someone to do that should have been hard, but I’d been toying with the idea of this run for 2 years and was more than intrigued about using her request as the Archimedes Lever I needed to get this idea off of the ground. We would run in opposite directions, swapping cars at our respective finish lines, and meet back in the Tahoe area when we were both done with the run. This was a no-brainer when we hatched the idea, but I’d be lying if I said the stress of the logistics (what if her van had trouble? what if she chose to bail on the route and ran back to Crescent Meadow, stranding my truck at Whitney Portal? what if my car gave her trouble when she got down?) didn’t weigh heavily on me in the final hours of our prep. Beyond all that, we were both swapping vehicles with total strangers and hoping for the best. Somehow, given the audacity of our run, this didn’t seem like too big of a crux, and we agreed to a plan and took our respective swan dives of faith.
After a few weeks of prep and planning, Sarah committed to running the route in a single push, end to end. This was going to be her biggest run yet, and a remarkable accomplishment. Steven, Adam, and I chose to pursue running the route in 2 days, with a bivouac at Kern Hot Springs, the virtual midpoint of the route. It seemed, to us, silly to run 39 miles into the woods and not stop at the hot spring near the river in the literal middle of nowhere for a bit of relaxation and a few hours of sleep. As such, we’d start on July 9th, spend the night halfway, and finish on the 10th. Meanwhile, Sarah would start at midnight on the 9th, run through the 10th, and finish the same day (in under 24 hours!).
Adam flew into Reno (he’s currently based out of San Diego) on the evening of the 7th, and we immediately met up with Sarah (the first time Steven and Adam had ever met her!) to swap finish-line bags. These bags were all-important, as they’d include everything we’d need/want when we arrived at the end of our journey at a mild acquaintance’s car somewhere in the parking lot at a trailhead we’d never seen. I dropped some clean clothes, flip flops (I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want shoes at that point), some water, a recovery drink, and some toiletries. Sarah was kind enough to pick up a 6 pack of craft beers for us, and kept in in her solar-powered fridge (thanks again Sarah!). We took her bag, bade her farewell, and headed down toward the Eastside. The next time we’d cross paths would be dozens of miles into the heart of the High Sierra.
Adam, Steven, and I chose to camp outside of Convict Lake that night, and woke the morning of the 8th to clear skies and calm weather. We wanted to shake the legs out ahead of our big run, so we went out for a jog from Convict Lake, toward Laurel Mountain. I knew a 4th/low 5th class that would go in running shoes route existed up the NE gully, and I’d always wanted to climb Laurel, so I suggested we extend our jog toward the summit. Steven and Adam obliged, but about 1/3 of the way up they decided they’d rather save their legs and turned around. I honestly can’t blame them, as, to that point, the route had been remarkably friable and loose. I wasn’t enjoying the rock as much as I’d hoped, either, but was feeling strong and motivated and chose to poke around for a little while longer looking for better rock. I found some more stable sections, linked a few pitches of flowy climbing, and found myself alone on the summit just 2:14 from leaving the car. The view from the summit was remarkable, and it was fun to spend some time on top admiring a zone I’d seen very little of before. I have every intention of exploring Mt. Morrison and Bloody Mountain this upcoming winter. I’d love to return in summer, as well, and spend a few nights amongst Lake Dorothy and its neighbors. I crashed back down to the car via the N ridge, and met Steven and Adam at the lake for a quick swim.
We drove south toward Lone Pine while simultaneously quintuple-checking everything we could think of, knowing that once we hit Whitney Portal we were committed to our plan with whatever we had on our backs, essentially. Satisfied with our preparation, we picked up our permits, headed up to the Portal, and enjoy a last supper of sorts in the parking lot. We decided on a 3 AM alarm, aiming for a 4 AM start. As we were splitting the 78 mile route into 2 days, we had the luxury of a late start and a pretty solid night’s sleep. By 9:30 PM we were all horizontal, fidgeting away as we contemplated our fates. It seemed, after weeks of planning, we were really going to do all of that running we’d talked about for so long.
As is often the case, the alpine start alarm always comes too early and too late at the same time. I never sleep deeply the night before big undertakings in the mountains, so more minutes with my head on the pillow would always be appreciated. From the other perspective, having lain awake and looking forward to the adventure for most of the night, I always feel as though the alarm never comes soon enough, and that we may as well just get up and get on with the whole thing. We made a crude breakfast and slammed down some hot coffee, performed our last checks, and met at the trailhead just after 4 AM. My car keys were left in the gas tank for our compatriot Sarah, who should arrive here in less than 2 days’ time.
I’d climbed Mt. Whitney before, so I was excited to pay a visit to an old friend to start our run. At the same time, I’d only ever ascended via the Mountaineer’s Route and descended via the trail in the dark, so running up the trail in (mostly) daylight was a treat. Sharing the experience with two great friends who had never been there was incredible. We ran/trotted/powerhiked our way up to Trail Crest, and arrived about 2 and a half hours from starting. I argued with myself about whether that was too fast or too slow, given the nature of the rest of our weekend, and eventually concluded that it didn’t matter – it is what it is, and we were up and spent the energy we did already. The mountains are transparent like that, sometimes. With the exuberance of youth and the fuel of a mountain sunrise, we scampered up the remaining 2 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney (and the proper endpoint of the HST) and enjoyed the vista offered by the highest peak in the contiguous US. On the way down, I extolled the summit block of Whitney’s neighbor, Mt. Muir, and convinced Steven and Adam that adding a second 14er to our trip was well worth the time and energy. As such, we left the trail about 1.5 miles below the summit of Mt. Whitney, and climbed Mt. Muir via the normal route. On the summit we enjoyed chocolate truffles and agreed that the view was finer here than from Whitney’s highpoint.
Descending from Muir to Guitar Lake was a roller coaster of both granite and emotions. After hours of climbing, descending was a pleasure. Meanwhile, I was uplifted by the new terrain – I’d seen this zone from the summit of Muir previously, but never ventured West past the JMT intersection. We crashed down to Guitar Lake and filtered water in one of the nearby pools (long overdue). Staying hydrated was of the utmost importance, and the sun and altitude had us all on the back foot already. We agreed to all drink a liter and a half, eat some food, fill up all of our reserves, and then take the next few miles easy to preserve our energy. As we filtered we shared one-way conversations with some local marmots, who paid our comments no mind and focused only on what crumbs we dropped.
We continued on the HST past some stunning alpine lakes, and eventually linked up with the JMT/PCT for a short section heading North. This marked a stark change in terrain, as we descended into some treed corridors and found a bit of reprieve from the relentless solar bath. We made steady time, stopping every so often for photos and videos and to pick our jaws up off of the trail. Once we hit Wallace Creek we immediately began descending down to the Kern River Canyon. The descent expedited our pace, but the views stopped us in our tracks more than once:
Despite the easier terrain, the midday sun was starting to take its toll and we were all feeling pretty tired by the time we hit the Kern river. Here, we took things considerably slower as we knew that we only needed to arrive at the Hot Springs by sundown to accomplish our day’s goals, and gave our bodies a bit of a reprieve from our insidious pace. At about 6:30 PM we arrived, safe and sound, although noticeably fatigued. We filled the hot spring tub, soaked our aching feet, and rejuvenated our flagging spirits. The evening was to be filled with a ton of drinking (water), a robust meal of salami and cheese, and a small fire to keep the mosquitos at bay. Laying down in the dirt has never felt so good.
I’m always a bit wary of waking up the day after an alpine bivy on a long run. How will our bodies respond? Will we find the energy to press on with good tempo? Will the aches and twinges of yesterday be gone, or worse? On this day we all awoke at dawn to some noticeable fatigue, but all of us were in good spirits and had no debilitating injuries to speak of. The mission was on. After topping off all of our water and striking camp, we were on our way. Running the river trail was a great way to wake up; with cool temps and threat of bears our pace was brisk. Upon hitting the start of our climb up to Moraine Lake, however, Steven and Adam felt that a conservative pace was more in line with what their bodies were willing to extend, so I ran ahead. Riding a wave of enthusiasm and good legs, I arrived at Moraine Lake with some time for a quick dip and some beach time. Stopping at Sky Parlor meadow on the way up was an experience I won’t soon forget – that spot is as unfiltered as any glimpse of nature I’ve ever enjoyed with my own eyes. As I rested at Moraine lake, our “teammate” Sarah trotted up – she had been running for about 8 hours by this time, and had seen almost no one! We conversed for a bit, elated to see a familiar face and thrilled to have a landmark to break up the many miles of running. I shared with her some beta on the miles ahead of her, and wished her luck. She looked great, and I was optimistic about the prospects of the rest of her run. She skipped away, and only 15 minutes or so later Adam and Steven arrived. Moraine Lake is worth the stop, and we all sat on the beach and filtered water til we were all refreshed enough to press on.
Running from Moraine Lake, we ascended up to our last “highpoint” before Kaweah Gap, around 10,000 feet. Some great running along the rim of Big Arroyo Canyon provided unforgettable views, and some good pace. We all arrived down at the river in grand style, feeling strong. From the river, we ascended upward again, this time toward Kaweah Gap. The terrain from Big Arroyo up to Kaweah Gap is unbelievable. I’m still catching myself daydreaming about the scale and splendor of that valley, and of its insulating peaks and ridges. I will return, without a doubt. After an hour or so of running and about 1,246 pictures taken, we crested Kaweah Gap – our last highpoint on the run. It was “all downhill from here”. Still punchdrunk from the panorama below us we staggered over Kaweah Gap into the Precipice Lake basin, where I was blown away by another jaw-dropping locale. Have you not run out of moves yet, Sierra? Precipice Lake was made famous by Ansel Adams, and I can now say he knew what he was doing. The clouds had not yet burned off from this zone, and the feeling of floating above the earth haunts my memory still, pushing all other sensations to the side as it dominates my dreams. That lake and its towering neighbor peaks are forever etched into my consciousness.
Here at Precipice Lake we drank water and topped of our reserves, delirious with happiness. I felt untouchable, and was ready to stride all the way (about 17 miles) to Crescent Meadow. Steven and Adam, however, had been nursing some little twinges and hints of injury that had popped up on and off during their training toward this weekend. We all felt confident in our ability to finish in style, but it was apparent that our ideas of ideal pace would be discordant from here on out. As such, I asked their permission to run ahead, which they offered without hesitation. I will always rather run with these two men than not, but on this day our destinies would run parallel. We hugged it out, and I leapt away, down toward Hamilton Lakes and, eventually, our finish line at Crescent Meadow. Steven and Adam would continue behind me, comfortable with their own pace, writing their own end to our journey. We all knew that we were pursuing what we needed, individually, and I’ll always be grateful for their understanding and support in that moment.
The descent from Precipice Lake to Hamilton Lakes has earned my “favorite stretch of trail in the world” award (for now). The combination of running that descent, feeling so strong, the fantastic waterfalls and sheer granite walls surrounding the landscape, and the delirium that only 15 hours of running can provide contributed to a surreal experience. The tunnel on the HST is beyond belief, and the scale of the Angels Wings’ 2,000 foot face is indescribable. An effortless descent brought me to the bottom of the canyon, and (I thought) the start of more blissful running. Unfortunately, Bearpaw Meadow (my next intermediate destination) was not a meadow at all, nor was it at the bottom of the canyon (as I assumed). A few miles of climbing back up to Bearpaw Meadow tested my resolve, but with a ton of swearing and shuffling I made my way up. I had mentally jettisoned all climbing strength at Kaweah Gap, so these were HARD miles for me. I arrived at Bearpaw Meadow ready to be done with the run, but my desire to finish in good style and feeling strong remained. I topped off my water for the last time, and left Bearpaw with a ton of optimism. Only a few hundred meters later, however, I was aghast to find the trail continuing to pitch upward. Did I make a wrong turn? Was I losing my mind? No, that couldn’t be so. I consulted my digital reference – a custom Caltopo map hosted on my Avenza GPS map – and confirmed that Crescent Meadow was (like Bearpaw Meadow), virtually on the side of a mountain, at a similar elevation to where I currently stood. I would do some descending still, but not to the valley floor as I had anticipated. This knowledge allowed me to exhale, regroup, and recommit to what was necessary. Again in the mountains, what is, is. Confident in my ability to equal their demands, I soldiered on. It took a few miles to rediscover my rhythm, but with about 7 miles to go I found my stride and the last segment of my journey flew by. I sailed above the trail on air, light on my feet and as fresh as I’d felt since leaving Trail Crest the day previous. The work was done, and these miles were the reward. All weekend I had looked to the finish line and a ceasefire on my legs as the impending compensation for my efforts, but now I know that those blissful miles were the payment I had earned. I hope to feel that strong as a runner again in my life, if only once.
I arrived at the Crescent Meadow parking lot at about 6:30 PM on July 10th, and immediately sat down and took my shoes off, barely coherent. I was so elated to be done, so tired, so excited, so delirious, so exhausted, so relieved, so grateful for the experience. Now, it was time to find Sarah’s van and start to piece myself back together. I hoped she was feeling as strong as I had felt, and that she was in good spirits atop Whitney at that moment. I found the van, took off my filthy clothes and heavy (not really, but damn did it feel good to shed that layer) vest, and slammed a liter of water in about 1.4 seconds. Bit by bit, I calmed my body down, started to relax, and let my recovery systems start to do their work. I drove the van to the very closest spot I could find to the trailhead, and turned on the fridge to cool our beer. There, I waited for Steven and Adam, resting in the front seat. Given their condition when we split up I expected them many hours later. I shouldn’t have been surprised, knowing these two athletes well, when they arrived just before 9 pm in the very best of spirits. They found great strength in the final miles, and outperformed all expectations. They even snuck up on me, as I was ready for headlamps to signal their arrival – they never even thought about turning them on, committed to beating the sun to their finish line. Their resilience left an impression on me that I hope to carry with me on all of my runs in the future.
WE MADE IT.
Sarah continued her journey from Moraine Lake, and pressed on into the heat of the day. The solar and some issues with the rigors of the trail slowed her some, but she made it to her destination (my truck at Whitney Portal) in under 24 hours. I continue to applaud her efforts and her accomplishment. Steven, Adam, and I celebrated at the trailhead for a bit, regrouped, and shoved off for civilization with a ton of apprehension. The serenity of the trail and the grandeur of the mountains would not and could not be replaced by man’s developments, but we figured we all needed to take on some calories and In and Out was open down in the valley. Perspective: the goings-on of a Central Valley In and Out at near-midnight on a Sunday are more alarming and stupefying than anything we found on the trail in 2 days and almost 80 miles.
I’m incredibly proud of our achievement, and honored to have shared the experience with such great friends. I encourage anyone reading this to plan big, take leaps of faith, and at least once measure yourself in the mountains with company you hold in the highest regard.
Notes: Chris and gang almost exclusively used Salomon trail running shoes, Salomon running vests and their Sawyer Mini Filters as just some of the gear to get them through this incredible journey. Kudos to a successful mission!