Monday, July 12, 2010

A Morning on Mt. Judah

This past weekend, while at Sugar Bowl near Donner Summit for LRC2's wedding, I decided to go for a run. As this decision was made on Saturday morning, or the day of the main event, I knew that I had about three hours until the wedding began. I also knew that, based on the location, any run would involve an elevation gain of at minimum 1,000 feet, would test my total lack of altitude acclimatization, and would be mind-blowingly beautiful. Indeed, even if I just ran to the end of Sugar Bowl's parking lot and back, I'd still be treated to a vista of Mts. Lincoln and Disney, the shade of lodgepole pines, and bright patches of mid-summer snow. In other words, I couldn't lose.

Since I currently live in Skyscraper National Park, however, I wanted to make the most of my (perhaps) only high Sierra run of the summer, and so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I settled on the Mt. Judah loop. From the Sugar Bowl lodge, this run would take me up and onto the Pacific Crest Trail above Donner Pass, skirt around the eastern flanks of Mt. Judah, lead me up to and over the summit, then circle down between Mt. Judah and Mt. Lincoln back onto the PCT, once more past Lake Mary, and finally back to a shower and my waiting wedding guest garb. Based on the map the complete route looked to be about seven miles with 1500' of elevation gain, and despite little sleep and acclimatization, I sensed that I could run the trail, stop to enjoy the view, and shower/get ready all in time for the ceremony. I slathered on some sunscreen, drank some water, and ran out the door.
Donner Lake, as seen from Donner Pass Road not far from the PCT trail head
The run up to the PCT trail head felt surprisingly easy; granted, I was taking it slowly, but the altitude and searing sunlight--which was exacerbated by the black tar of the Sugar Bowl access road--didn't take as much of a toll as I would have expected. Once on the PCT, I enjoyed picking my way among the loose and dusty rocks up the switchbacks, which is a skill I rarely get to use on the smoother bridle path of Central Park. The trail rose quickly and consequently so did my heart rate, such that the "good morning"s I uttered to the hikers I passed were more strained and breathless than normal. Donner Lake loomed into view below the Pass, and I spotted several hikers enjoying a late morning snack on the rocks above the vista; less than a mile later, I was running east above them on the Mt. Judah loop trail.

Jeffrey and lodgepole pines cast the trail into a cool shadow, and giant cabbage-like plants carpeted the mountainside. Pine needles muffled my footfall as I climbed a bit for half a mile, and then as the trail turned south towards the summit, I encountered my first massive patch of snow. By "massive" I mean I could see the trail disappear underneath it and was at a loss as to where it emerged! Fortunately, a hiker coming from the opposite direction was crunching his way across the snowbank; he said that the trail paralleled the creek running to my left, mentioned that there were several other patches higher up, told me that I'd have no trouble crawling across them, and wished me a great run. I crossed my fingers, splashed up the creek, found the trail as it resumed switch backing out of the snow, and emerged with it above the treeline on Mt. Judah's eastern side, just below the summit ridge.
Almost at Mt. Judah's summit
From here I could see the mountains of Squaw and those ringing Tahoe's western side, as well Mt. Rose to the east in Nevada. With the exception of a light breeze that rustled the treetops, the world was silent. I stretched my arms and looked up at the sky, then turned and immediately ran into a second massive stretch of snow. Luckily, the muddy footprints of previous hikers gave me some idea of where the trail lay; unluckily, my trashed running shoes lacked the grip that their boots had given them. After slipping twice--and catching myself, barely, with my hands on wet, relatively grip-less snow--I chipped out two footholds with my toes and stood up to survey what lay ahead. Since I knew the trail paralleled the ridge line until it joined the ridge and lead over the summit, and because I was above the treeline, I was able to see where the trail "should" be. I decided that my safety lay on the rocky slope just above the snow, and so I scrambled up and then slowly made my way along the scree before scrambling back down to the trail once it re-emerged. I breathed a sigh of relief, ran along the trail as it skirted the flank just above a drop-off into a verdant valley far below, and then, right as the clear path to the summit came into view, hit a snowbank so long and so wide that I knew that I had no choice but to crawl across it. Fortunately, there were no ominous black clouds in the sky! I crouched down and carefully picked my way across, stepping into muddy footprints to the best of my running shoes' ability and squinting against the glare of brilliant white snow in bright sunshine.

I finally cleared the snow and ran the now-dusty trail up and over the Mt. Judah summit; worried about the time since it took so long to make my way over and around the snowy patches, I didn't stop to look around. The summit, at about 8250 feet, marked the high point of my run, and from here the trail commenced a beautiful and relatively languorous descent back to the PCT. I dipped back into the trees and enjoyed the dancing feeling that comes from trail running downhill; right as I turned back onto the PCT, I caught up with two ultramarathoners who were out for a decent, oh, twenty-five miles! I tailed behind them and their dog all the way down the mountain, watching their nimble footfalls and noticing how their arms--complete with a water bottle strapped to each hand--tucked up against their ribs. As I ran off the PCT and towards Lake Mary, they flashed me a grin and gave me a hearty salutation--"great running!"--that sated my ego for the rest of the weekend!
Looking towards Mt. Judah (on the left) from the top of Mt. Disney
Knowing that my mother would be worried, I sprinted the final mile down the access road and to the Sugar Bowl lodge where, sure enough, I found her seated on the deck with an iced tea and a magazine. "I know, I know!" I said, as she smiled and pointed to the time. I ran upstairs, plugged in the kettle for some post-run fuel (instant oatmeal), and hopped in the shower. Within an hour, I was dressed, high-heeled, and waiting for the bride's arrival--and with an aisle seat, no less!

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