Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge: Olympic Coast, or Fun Times DNF

Angel and I are headed to Colorado next week to hang out for the Hardrock 100 and try to run the course over three days with some friends, but before we do I wanted to get out a report on last weekend's adventure - an attempt with our friends Nathan and Julie at completing the Olympic Coast Northern and Southern Routes in one push as part of the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge - a semi-formal competition organized by our friends Ras and Kathy Vaughan that encourages runners, fastpackers, hikers etc. to tackle specific wilderness routes for time, style, and creativity.  I don't have a lot of time to put this together, but I wanted to get out some beta for other people who want to do it while it's fresh in my mind, and, um...to offer up a bit of a warning. So I'll stay up late sacrificing once again for you, my beloved readers.

The Route, or Mother Nature's Cruel Traps

For some basic background, the route tracks along Washington's Olympic Coast between Shi Shi Beach in the North and the Oil City trailhead in the South, and is indeed a route - for the most part you aren't on trail, but are following beaches and/or boulder hopping.  You round a bunch of headlands and go over a fair number of overland crossings in places that aren't passable due to tide or coastal geography.  The route is spectacular, tough, and a real logistical challenge, and although it's a somewhat well-known hiking route, prior to a runner named John Barrickman posting his report last week, I wasn't able to find anyone who'd done it as one push.  (I would put up the link here, but Facebook seems to be broken right now and that's where it's located.  If you're interested in info on a successful completion of the route, join "Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge" on the BookFace and find John's post on the wall!) 

The route is 56-odd miles, and for the challenge, you are able to approach it either as a north to south or south to north run. Because our group wanted to do a car swap to aid with logistics, we tried both: Angel and Julie ran the course south to north, and Nathan and I attempted it north to south.  The idea was that we would meet in the middle and provide each other with tips about the road ahead, and we actually did meet almost exactly halfway through.

This particular part of the UPWChallenge was designed by Pacific Crest Trail speed record holder Heather Anderson to be a logistical challenge, and the major obstacle (or one of them, anyway) is the tide.  While there are a lot of overland crossings, there are also more than a dozen points that are only passable at low to medium tide, so one finds oneself in a giant real-life game of Frogger, where timing is everything and clever planning is essential.  If you time things incorrectly and get caught by a tide cycle that you didn't expect, you will lose at least 2 hours of time.  If that cycle is in the evening, you will probably be adding on a night's sleep, because the myriad wet boulder crossings are sketchy even during the day, and legitimately dangerous at night. And the overland trails are frequently not well marked - difficult to find during daylight, pretty much invisible without it. 

Another major concern is that it is essentially impossible to run for a huge percentage of the route because you are navigating wet boulders, sand that gives way, or overgrown overland trails.  As such, it's really best approached as a fastpack as much as a "run".  Your feet will be constantly wet from stepping in endless tidal pools. And of course the weather can be terrible - cold and rainy is pretty average there, and you can get soaked and cold really quickly - if it were raining and you ended up out overnight stuck by the tide, hypothermia could be a real concern even in the Summer.  There are only two realistic bail out points, and at various points you go for miles without seeing other humans.  And while the Greentrails maps show a bunch of ranger stations, we only saw one that was actually there - which is to say, help might well not be close by if anything goes wrong.  All elements to make for a real adventure, and enough potential peril for one to get oneself in actual trouble.     

On top of all of that, permitting is a minor pain - the Shi Shi trailhead starts on Makah land, so it is necessary to purchase a Makah recreation pass along with a national parks or Olympic pass, along with obtaining wilderness camping permits - all of which have to be procured at different locations that are open only at unpredictable hours, and all of which will fall within the time that you need to be at work or travelling.  And you are supposed to carry a bear canister if you plan to ever leave your food unattended or go to sleep.  And there is a large section of the beach where you can't sleep without a reservation.  And you can't actually park at the Shi Shi trailhead overnight, so you have to pay for private parking about a half mile away.

So, if you haven't been talked into it yet, I'll give you a rundown of my experience, which ended with Nate and I tapping out halfway, to see if that helps.

The Experience

By sheer luck and the good graces of John Barrickman, on the Wednesday before our run we found ourselves with a report that suggested that it was humanly possible (at least for a human like John) to complete the course in about 18 hours, if moving from North to South, and a plan for how to do so. There was a large tidal window starting around 4 am and stretching through to 2 pm that would allow one to (potentially) pass all of the low-tide crossings on the Northern part of the coast (about 30 miles) before high tide.  Then, during the high tide cycle, one could run a 9 mile segment of the course that is on road, which is required to cross the unfordable Quillaute River, before using the next low tide cycle to push through the southern part of the route (about 17 miles). (This southern section has more overland options and less low-tide crossings - though they are still a significant factor.)  We took John's advice, and planned to get up before the crack of dawn to hit the beach.

3:30 AM comes early when you don't get to the campsite until 12:30, so we got going maybe a little bit slowly.  By the time we got to the trail, signed in, and on the road, it was about 4:45 - about 45 minutes later than we should have started, it turned out. 

Nathan loves 4 AM
We had decent weather, and the Shi Shi end of the route is probably the prettiest part of the whole course, so we were in good spirits at the start.  We quickly started spotting wildlife - eagles, starfish, crabs - and some random deer standing amongst the tidal pools, eating sea urchins or something.

Nate and Wilderness Friend
 A lot of the beach at the beginning was fairly runnable, but before long we found ourselves bogged down with miles of wet, mossy boulder hopping.  We were keeping the pace that we needed to, but particularly south of Ozette (the first bailout point), a several mile stretch of boulders slowed our pace to a crawl.

Stupid Rocks
We had fun though, and took time to stop and enjoy the detritus.

You can never be too clean.
Whale Rider 2: It's Easier When They're Dead
Nothing dramatic happened to cause the attempt to turn south, thankfully, but across several hours of rough terrain and unstable footing, Nathan's ACL (which had been surgically reconstructed several months ago) started to flare up unexpectedly, and continued to get worse across time.  By about noon Nate was hobbling (read: moving as slowly as I do on a good day because of intense nauseating pain) and we were talking about potentially bailing.  I'm not a big DNF fan, but I'm even less of a fan of pushing your friend to potentially ruin his ACL to experience a few more miles of sand and rocks.  We were making decent time, and I could've gone on myself, but I knew that I would feel terrible if my partner had to get burgers by himself while I was out enjoying the cold, wet, pain and suffering of the southern Olympic coast.  We came within about a half hour of making all of the low tide crossings on the Northern part of the route, but high tide did finally catch us at about 2:30, which meant that we'd be forced to nap for a couple of hours to wait it out, and would have no chance of beating John's time.  By that point though, Nate had made the decision that he would have to drop, and I had decided that I would drop with him.

That's when Mother Nature decided to grab us by the neck and shake us around a bit.

All joking aside, once the tide started to roll in, things got a bit sketchy. Our tendency was to try to push things, and to test out whether we could make it around headlands in places that were questionable because speed was a consideration and we were hoping to get to the next bailout point ASAP.  Because of that, we sometimes found ourselves standing in water several feet deep, with waves crashing against us, trying to scramble over wet rocks instead of waiting a few minutes for the tide to drop.  I took a fall that was hard enough that I had to stop and assess for a minute that everything was okay, and at one point I found myself wondering why I'd made the decision to boulder across wet rocks above crashing waves.  This was at the end of our last, and probably sketchiest headland rounding:

Shortly after we made it around this one (near "Hole in the Wall" north of Rialto Beach), we met up with Julie and Angel, who had been held up similarly by the tides.  They were in great spirits, but I think we were personally feeling a bit down about having to drop out.  I personally was also a bit worried about them continuing on into the night - knowing that we'd taken some risks that were at least close to reasonable during the day, but would be genuinely dangerous in the dark.  They were prepped for a two day trip though, and are smarter than I am, so I was pretty sure they wouldn't take unnecessary risks. (Turns out they didn't - they holed up for the night just at dark, and moved at a comfortable pace the whole way, finishing the full south to north course in around 40 hours.  That's a story for one of them to tell though!) 

At that point though we were finished with all of the headland crossings, and were on the homestretch south down Rialto Beach - the spot of the best bailout point on the route due to the paved road and parking lot full of cars just waiting for some hitchhikers, and about 30 miles from where we'd started.

About a mile from the parking lot, running at least 10 feet above the tide line on the beach, we were chatting away when a rogue wave randomly smashed into us, knocked us both over, dislodged a large log directly in front of us, and put us both into a brief panic before we realized that we were totally soaked and that a small family was pointing and laughing at us.  Mother nature is a saucy wench who sent us home with our tails between our legs, but we were thankful that the wave had hit then, when we were far up the beach, rather than 30 minutes earlier, when we were crossing rocks and occasionally in the surf.  

From the parking lot at Rialto, we changed into dry clothes from our packs and hitchhiked to Forks, which was thankfully the location of the only taxi between Port Angeles and Aberdeen.  The driver and her teenage daughter drove us the 45 minutes or so of dirt road to the Oil City trailhead to pick up Julie's truck, and head back up the coast to our campsite near Shi Shi.


A few summary thoughts:

1) This route is really no joke.  It's an amazing experience, but you have to be prepared because it would be easy to get yourself in trouble for a variety of reasons, and help is rarely accessible.  Being prepared to keep fed, warm and dry overnight is key, because you essentially have to thread a needle to be able to complete in a day.  If you're an average or slower runner, it might not be possible in a day.

2) John's 18 hour finish was stout because it required impeccable timing.

3) We wouldn't have finished under his time in best case scenario, but would have been out overnight - likely finishing around 30 hours after we started if we'd continued on.  We finished the North Coast Route in about 12 hours.

4)  Do your homework if you're planning to do this route.

5)  It would be very hard (or maybe impossible?) to time a South to North trip that could be completed more quickly than John's approach due to the locations of low tide crossings.

6) This was one of the most interesting running experiences I've had.  The tides create all kinds of drama.

7) The Olympic Coast is crazy beautiful.

8)  I took just a bivvy and we had a tarp.  If I were to do this again, I'd probably approach it as a two day and bring a light tent and maybe a sleeping bag in a larger pack.  Running doesn't happen that often on this route, unless you have crazy technical skills over wet rocks.

9) I've run a lot of races, but I've actually only ever DNF'd events organized by Ras.  (If you don't include a Ragnar Relay where my team imploded.)  You know what they say: If you haven't DNF'd, you haven't been trying enough of the crazy ass shit that Ras plans.

10) I really like this Wilderness Challenge idea. 


What a fun read! I'd love to hear all about the gear that you took including what kind of pack you wore and what all you would take/change next time.
spaceneedl said…
this exploit is well above my ability/risk threshold, but it sure sounds intriguing. thanks for the vicarious adventure!