Mountain Lion Encounters At The Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier
A few days ago KREW member Kyle Long ran the entire Wonderland Trail, 87.65 miles with 23,527 vertical feet climbed. Ridiculous terrain, crazy weather, a 1am standoff with a mountain lion and another bucket list run done. Read our latest guest blog post by Kyle about his absolutely epic day out.
Kyle: I like drawing big circles with my feet.
Since moving to the PNW, I’ve found that circumnavigation runs are my favorite way to take in what there is to take in. You see every inch of the mountain you’re running around and there’s always the daunting moment that you stand at both the start and finish line. If you look right you see where you’re headed and if you look left you’ll see where you’ll come from hours or days later, finishing on the same ground as you started, but with a life changing experience in between.
The Wonderland Trail has been on my hit list for over a year. It’s a 87-92 mile (depending on your GPS) loop around Mt. Rainier with over 22,000ft of gain. You cross through everything from dense forests to glacier fields to lava flows and get a 360 degree view of one of the most stunning mountains in the US.
In 2020 I journeyed to Mt. Rainier on three separate occasions to tackle it, only to be rained out each time. I made the trail my main goal for 2021, ramped up my training, partnered with an amazing company in PATH Products who provided some of the best gear I’ve ever used to help with my runs and I got myself as ready as I could be over a span of 6-7 months leading up to the run.
I poke my head just above average in the world of ultra-running, so the plan was based on finishing well and enjoying myself rather than ripping out a FKT or anything close to that. Under 32 hours was a goal I felt confident in and so the general outline of the plan of attack was as follows:
- Break the loop down into smaller segments. I ran clockwise starting at Cougar Rock, so the sections were going to get shorter as I went which was ideal. The break down was: Cougar Rock to Mowich Lake (34 miles), Mowich Lake to White River (26 miles), White River to Box Canyon (19 miles), Box Canyon to Reflection Lakes (9 miles) and Reflection Lakes to Cougar Rock (4 miles). The major positive to this set up was that you get more than half the climbing and distance done in the first two segments.
- I had amazing help that met me at each camp listed above. It rained most of the day so being able to change socks and resupply on food/warm up in the car was a lifesaver. People run this route unsupported but I don’t know that I’d ever want to do that.
- Nutrition was pretty simple. I carried Tailwind with me at all times, some Cliff Bloks, RX Bars and some trail mix. At the car I had your basic aid station snacks: chips, cookies, soda and was delivered some life saving McDonald’s at mile 60.
- Gear wise was also fairly simple. I went through three pairs of PATH Products Sykes PX Shorts (with their Torch FX Base Liner), 3 PATH T-Shirts, 4 pairs of Darn Tough socks, 2 pairs of Altra Lone Peak 5.0’s and then wore a PATH Muir Cap the entire time along with my favorite piece of PATH gear, the Pyrenees T19 hooded long sleeve. It was a cool wet day so I tossed a windbreaker into my pack, but overall that made up my primary gear, all of which performed flawlessly.
I woke up around 3am the day of the run and at 4:30am sharp stepped off down the dark trail. The miles came easy as the sun rose, taking me through dense forests and over countless raging river crossings (thankfully all the bridges were in!). The vertical gain accumulates over every step you take and before I knew it I was at the car, 34 miles in and 10,500ft in the bank. It was misty with a gentle rain the entire section so I was soaked to the bone but in good spirits. 5 cookies, a Diet Coke and some chips later and a fresh set of PATH clothes and I was off again.
The next segment is the crux of the loop. After a few miles of steep descending, you climb a vertical mile followed immediately by another 2,000ft climb up a glacial scree field.
It’s slow going but has gorgeous views of the glaciers which are constantly gushing water. Once topping out on this section, the remaining back half of the segment alternates between beautiful wide open meadows full of elk and deep, beautiful forests and river valleys.
As the sun set I entered a deep wooded area with around 8 miles to the next resupply. Things were going well until a glowing set of eyes sent shockwaves through me. The mountain is notorious for being home to a large mountain lion population and from previous run reports, it seems like it’s about a 50/50 chance of whether you’ll see one (100% chance of one seeing you!). Me and the cat had a roughly 20 minute standoff, it circling me around 25 yards away, stopping periodically to scope me out, while I yelled and flailed my arms in the dark like a lunatic. Eventually it made its way into the shadows, never to be seen again, which made the last 8 miles a little nervy, wondering if we’d meet again. Thankfully we did not.
Coming into camp, rattled from the cougar and cold and wet, I quickly changed layers and got calories in. It was around 11:30pm and the reality hit me hard that I had a lot more running in the dark left. The silver lining was that the biggest efforts were behind me and I knew that sunrise would bring a lot of positive energy knowing the end is in sight. I headed off feeling optimistic and as fresh as you can feel 60 miles and 15k vertical feet into a run, but things went south quickly.
The first few miles of this segment rolled through some dark woods which offered a few cougar scares that turned out to be deer. After several miles the trees fell off and I entered the exposed glacial fields that typically offer beautiful views of Rainier. Unfortunately, a moonless night and a now howling wind was creating white out conditions by whipping up a freezing mixture of mist and rain which, in the high-beam of a headlamp, make visibility about 2-4 feet max. The conditions mixed with my sleep deprivation about as well as tuna and peanut butter, and resulted in me bunkering down for a trail nap 2-3x, huddling behind boulders in an attempt to get out of the weather. It’s easy to get caught up in rest during the low points, but every minute sitting is a minute you’re not getting closer to the finish and so I trudged on, eventually making it to sunrise which brought a new flood of energy. The trail opened up into Indian Bar, a gorgeous waterfall filled valley of wildflowers and more elk and a 6 mile descent into camp. Everything here was great except the trail which was built mostly from log steps, so miles of ascending and descending stairs beat the legs up pretty good. I finally rolled into camp to resupply for the final two legs.
Knowing the big stuff was behind me, and only a 9 mile and 4 mile segment left, I changed gear pretty quickly, ditching a few layers and shoving in some calories. My legs felt good and at this point finishing was just a formality. The last segments passed through some more pretty river valleys and looped around a couple big lakes before descending into the final river crossing and finish at cougar rock camp, the same patch of dirt I started at 31 hours prior. The Wonderland Trail was complete.
I’m always hesitant to write after action reports. I don’t think people take much away from hearing about me eating cookies in the woods and being cold and tired at night. This run felt different though. This route is done by the best of the best, elite ultra runners battling for FKT’s and setting unbelievable times over a massively challenging trail. I’m not one of those runners. I’m a 210lb guy who lifts a bunch of weights and eats family sized meals by himself for dinner and somehow has learned the value of suffering over efforts like this. Passing the hikers who were doing the trail in 7-8 and 9 days made me feel like one of those elite ultra runners and that was a fun experience, but it gave me perspective on the fact that as an ultra runner, even a slow one, you’re still “that endurance freak” to someone in the same ways an elite ultra runner is a freak to me. To not be complacent with something, to take your own personal limits and test them and find what breaks you and what doesn’t, regardless of your abilities compared to others, is a really cool and valuable thing and something I hope experience at some point.
Lift heavy, run hard, pet dogs,
PATH projects gear that Kyle ran in: Sykes PX Shorts,