Issy Alps 100k Overview, or, We Started Our Anniversary Somewhere in the Woods on Rattlesnake Mountain

Roped in on Mailbox

The Surprise

Last Wednesday I had the day off, so I texted Angel to tell her that I was headed to Rattlesnake Mountain for the day.  She texted back, saying, "Have fun, but don't wear yourself out.  I have a surprise planned for this weekend."  Our anniversary weekend was coming up, and in some marriages such a message might connote something sexy.  In ours, promises of "surprise" are nothing but ominous.

When I saw her later in the day, she said, "So, I have a plan for this weekend.  Do you want to keep it a surprise?"

"I don't know - is it something I need to prepare for?"

She smirked in a way that implied "You don't even want to know..."

I asked, "Is it going to be hard?"

"Maybe...Well, yeah."

I hate painful surprises.

It turns out that the plan was to take a crack at the Issy Alps 100k Endurance Challenge - an approximately 65 mile route connecting some of the most iconic peaks along the I-90 corridor in the Cascade foothills: Mailbox Peak, Mt. Teneriffe, Mt Si, Little Si, Rattlesnake Mountain, and Tiger Mountain.  There's a 100 mile route as well, and that was initially Angel's 'surprise'.  Having done the first 50k before, I couldn't bring myself to even consider the 100 miler on a whim, so I talked her down to a shot at the 100k. 

It's a relatively new route designed by local mountain man George Orozco, and completed by only a few to this point.  A crew of about a dozen attempted it last year (myself included), but everyone quit.  Then the legendary Van Phan took on the 100 miler last summer, and for some time was the only person to have completed it.  (Her report is here.)  This year Ras "Ultrapedestrian" Vaughan took on the course in spring in unsupported fashion, navigating snow to finish in just over 67 hours.  Then, a few weeks ago, Jennifer Hughes took on the 100 miler - both she and Van have official finishing times of 37h58m.  Jess Mullen is the only runner to have a recorded time on the 100k, which she completed in 21h51m.  We knew that - no matter how long it took - if we could manage to finish we would be in illustrious company.  (Spoiler alert: We did manage to finish.)

George designed the course, in part, as a local counterpart and proving ground for races like the Hardrock 100 in CO, and there's an amazing amount of elevation gain for a route that could almost be described as 'suburban' , utilizing a combination of extremely well-heeled trails and boot trail connectors to traverse some of the best-known local peaks.  The elevation gain on the 50k: about 13,500 feet.  On the 100k: about 20,000 feet.  On the 100 mile: about 30,000 feet.  These routes are no effin joke.

The Planning    

Because we didn't decide to do this until mid-week before the attempt, we didn't do a lot of planning.  However, we have amazing friends which makes up for a lot in life.  We started organizing on Thursday by way of Facebook invite, and by Saturday had a good sense of the course due to tips from George Orozco and the maps available on his site, a ride to the start, five volunteer aid stations, accompaniment almost the entire way, a personal bush guide for the most complicated section (which we started at 2 am, BTDubs), random cheering sections at multiple points along the way, an impromptu pacer for the last three miles, and a ride to breakfast afterwards. 

Expecting that the course would take us around 24 hours, we packed basically for a two day fastpack.  We used our Solomon Skin Pro 14 +3 packs, filled mostly with just the food we'd need for the first 50k, along with small first aid kits, a water filter, some Body Glide, and Patagonia Houdini jackets.  We had a drop bag at the end of that first section at the Little Si trailhead, so there we picked up food resupplies, flashlights, jackets/thermals/hats, and SOL Bivvy's in case we decided to sleep (which we didn't).  We also tried out our new anniversary gifts to one another for the first time: Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles

The Experience

I always get a bit bored with blow-by-blow recountings of runs, so I'll try to spare you that with a bit of a narrative overview.

First, the spirit of the event:

We decided to take on this course for a couple of reasons:

1) In our 12 years of marriage, we've learned that the family that does epic things together, stays together.  It's kind of become our theme, and it seemed more appropriate than going out for stupid romantic dinner or something.

2) Running through the woods overnight is our idea of a party.

3) The course, I think, will develop into a local classic.  The combination of difficulty and accessibility make it a perfect route for Cascadians looking for a real physical challenge with straightforward logistics.  We couldn't resist getting in on that action early.

Now, the run details: 

In short, the course was both brutal and beautiful, and I came away feeling like we'd had a low-country peak-bagging adventure as much as a run. 

After dropping a bag at the midway point (I twisted my ankle trying to find a hiding spot behind a tree), our friend Trey Bailey was gracious enough to drop us off at the Mailbox Peak Trailhead, where we were joined by a group of friends for the first section - Adam and Broeck and Brandon and Bennett.

Trey, in the spirit of the event.

The first two peaks cover about 8,000 feet of climbing, and are completed within about 12 miles of the start, which means that your quads and hamstrings have been set up for destruction before you've really even started knocking out mileage.  Mailbox is locally known as a really steep, really tough hike, but the boot trail up Teneriffe is steeper and tougher.  The two mountains are connected via pleasant trail and old logging road (even if it was overgrown with nettles during this part of the year).  A few notes: our completion should have an asterisk attached, because the intended route follows the Granite Creek Trail for a couple of miles after Mailbox, and it was closed for bridge construction. We took an alternate route along SE Middle Fork Road which probably took off a half mile of distance and several hundred feet of elevation change.  Also, the climbs on this section made me a huge convert to hiking poles on steep terrain: it's like having good hand-holds to pull up on with each step.  Broeck, Bennett and Brandon went up Mailbox with us, and Adam accompanied us for this whole section.  Our friend Julie joined us at the base of Teneriffe with a bunch of food, which was amazing.

Friends on Teneriffe
The next two hills - Mt Si and Little Si - felt like minor inconveniences after the former two, though at this stage we were definitely getting tired.  Of all of the trails on the route, Mt Si is both the most straightforward and the one I know the best, but we still managed to get off course. We stepped off of the Old Si trail onto the new Mt Si trail accidentally, commenting about how much the trail seemed to have improved before noticing some landmarks after a quarter mile or so and realizing we were dumb. 

Just before getting lost on a mountain with only one trail intersection.

On Si, one of our inspirations - Van Phan - also met us with a roving aid station of coke, watermelon, burritos, and homemade energy bites, among other things.  We had to bow down to her as a 100 mile finisher.  We were already realizing the ridiculous magnitude of that accomplishment.  By sheer coincidence, on Little Si we ran into Will Thomas, who did the 50k route last year.  "Are you guys out for a sunset hike?"  Sort of.  Also a sunrise hike.

Roving aid station by Van.  Can't beat that support.
The Little Si trailhead marks the end of the 50k, and the pull to quit was really strong.  We had no friends joining us on the next section, 13,500 feet of climbing were behind us, both of us felt exhausted, the sun was going down, and our friends were there with pizza and a potential ride back to our car (Thanks Callista, Reyna, Andy and Pat!).  But that's the reason you tell people you're doing this sort of thing before you do it: we didn't want our friends Van and Jess and Jenn and Ras thinking we are wimps.  (Then again, maybe we're hanging out with the wrong people.)

After Little Si you take the Snoqualmie Valley trail all the way to Rattlesnake Lake - a pleasant 6 miles in the dark for us, and a nice reminder that what we were doing was actually a run, as it was a flat gradual uphill the whole way.  Just before we started this section, some creep in an SUV drove up slowly behind us.  We realized quickly that the creep was our friend Susie, who had also brought a bunch of food and drinks but had been parked in a different lot at Little Si and had missed us!  While she was waiting for us she threw a party by herself, dressed like this:

As Susie pointed out, a pink hard hat would be a fashionable and practical accompaniment to a pink unitard.
I heard from a reliable source that the next section is a route that Scott Jurek used to use when he'd connect Rattlesnake to Tiger on training runs.  Starting at the lake, you can follow the Rattlesnake Mountain Trail over the mountain before turning off to the left at the powerlines about a mile from the Snoqualmie Point Trailhead, and follow them all of the way to Tiger.  Our friend Jenn met us at the powerlines to act as our tourguide, because who wouldn't want to go for a nice stumble through the blackberry bushes at 2 am?  This section is the only place where we got anything like "lost", because though you follow a powerline road for a significant portion, there is a network of boot trails that you have to follow at one point to navigate around a ledge.  We spent at least 30 minutes wandering unmarked trails in the dark (Jenn said I could give her shit for leading us in a circle and not realizing it) before finding a trail (which was blocked by a tree-fall and we didn't notice initially, leading, in part, to the aforementioned circles) that took us to the right place.  (Some debate here about whether we were exactly on the official course, but it was something approximating it...)

We finally came off of Rattlesnake and onto Tiger at about 5 AM, and were greeted by our friend Greg Manciagli and his delicious, delicious coffee before starting our final ascent, to East Tiger Summit.  Having stayed up all night, one naturally perks up when the sun rises, but having climbed 18,000 feet, one's legs don't naturally perk up at the prospect of 2,000 more.  So, from the base of Tiger, we were slow (if usually optimistic), and the last 13.5 miles took us over 5 hours to complete.

Along the way though we started running into friends: near the top of East Tiger we ran into Ben Leudke, Simon Gale, Kevin Smythe, and Lars Larson, who'd been out for a run and were apparently looking for us.  The small cheering section was just what we needed to get to the peak.

Kevin, Ben, and Simon.  Friends are a good excuse to take a break from climbing.
We didn't, however, need to discover on the way down from the peak that the trail we were planning to take (East Tiger Trail) no longer officially exists between Preston Railroad Grade and the peak.  East Tiger Summit Trail is not the same thing, it seems, and we ended up off track by about a half-mile - which sucks when you just want to get out of the stupid, stupid woods, sleep forever and never run again.   

The look of a trail angel
Though we got back on track, my navigational ability was pretty much totally gone due to lack of sleep and physical exhaustion, and for a mile or so I was cursing Tiger Mountain (with it's uncanny ability to get me lost even under the best circumstances).  In the midst of a minor emotional breakdown, we ran into Lars Larson, sitting like one of Tolkien's elves on a log listening to the sound of a creek.  (Not making this ish up.)

 "Hey, do you guys want a pacer?! I'm just headed out."

I wanted to cry and hug him.  Knowing the kind of guy Lars is, he probably would have been fine with that, but I would have been embarrassed later.  And so, for the next three miles we just tried to keep up with him (Thanks for the distracting stories, and sorry for all of the cursing Lars!) and made our way out to the High Point Trailhead - our finish line - at about 10:25 AM - just under 26 hours after we started.

After the run we were just taking our shoes off and collapsing behind our car when our friends Broeck and Adam ran up to celebrate and make fun of how bad we looked and smelled.  Friends, from beginning to end.

The Reflections

Today, the day after the run, we are so tired and everything hurts.  We are "Oh crap that was as hard as Cascade Crest (and took us only about 10 minutes less time)" tired and sore.     

Also, we're feeling that glow you only feel after doing something really difficult. 

And, we're feeling that cheesy sense of gratitude you only feel after doing something really difficult that you couldn't have done without the help of a bunch of other people.  We kind of set out for this to be an adventure we did together as a couple (it was our anniversary, after all).  But the reality is that, in marriage, life, and trail running, no couple is an island.

We're profoundly thankful for all of the work George Orozco did laying out this challenge, and even marking sections of the course for us when he heard we were going to be doing it.

And we're of course profoundly thankful for the friends who provided inspiration and support from the time we started planning until we were gorging ourselves at a restaurant afterwards. 

And maybe most of all we're thankful to have worked our way into this weird little community of people who like to experience life in a microcosm by going out into the mountains, testing their limits, and getting back to the basics of eating and moving through nature.


Awesome and congratulations! You have inspired me to put this on my long list of things to do.