On Friday evening, I arrived at the trailhead later than planned. Bedded down for 6 hours, then got up and made last minute tweaks to my kit. Began the attempt at 6:30 am. The beginning went well. The first 12 miles up to the Florence Way junction went smoothly in near perfect cool weather and only minor trail obstacles. The work by Siskiyou Mountain Club and regular traffic to Pine Flat is a big reason for that.
After cresting the high point behind Bald Mountain, things start to get messy. I'm flying down a hill and realize at some point it's a game trail. I re-orient uphill to get back on track; no biggie. Then the vines mixed with small blowdown slow the pace to a seeming 45 minutes per mile. I pick through these obstacles in a cheerful mood, still happy the rain is light and the cold breeze is almost refreshing.
I'm holding back, trying to stay loose and not lay down the hammer till Silver Creek. However, I miss another trail turnoff and have to stop again. After double checking the map, I am not far off. But the trail down from here is nearly swallowed by the continuous outfall of our "unsuccessful" burnout operation 20 years ago during the Biscuit Fire. Complete stand replacement, and then the Klondike Fire rips through again to reset the brush. It is a harsh stretch. No patchy, mosaic quality to it, and very few signs of large mammals. It burned hot here. Real hot. The trail is difficult to follow, particularly at the higher downhill pace I'm trying to hit, knowing the sub-6 hour one-way FKT goal is starting to slip away. I lose the trail two more times or maybe more. It's a blur. Finally I can see the junction with the Collier Bar trail, knowing to make a hard right and water sources are not far off. I only have 2 oz of water left. I stop at the first small seep, but the flow is too little. After 5 minutes, only 6 oz of clean water. I finally move on knowing bigger water sources are ahead.
I continue past Silver Creek, scampering across the bridge and across a small slide. Then, I somehow miss a re-route and run smack to the edge of a larger slide (see photo above). Here I scramble up and over the slide, but struggle to find the correct trail. Finally I start crashing through vines and brush in what I know is a good direction. A few hundred yards later, I see what is obviously a trail. Phew. The grind continues but the clock is ticking. I crash around more blowdown and finally reach Black Rock Creek. This is the source I've been waiting for since Pine Creek. I refill both water bottles and also start cold soaking some instant mashed potatoes in a ziplock bag. I know this calorie boost will be needed soon. I also remove a rock from my shoe. Continuing in, I make a mental note to stop here and refill on the way back. Soon I pass Conners Place and marvel that Fantz Ranch has seemingly survived another big one (Klondike Fire).
Climbing to the intersection with old 1166. Here, I see clues that the fire crews defended against the Klondike from this ridge. There's some slop down to Indigo Creek, but it looks like they were able to keep the fire from marching past the creek! I cross the bridge and check my watch. Ouch. Will I even make sub 7 at this point? I make some rough calculations and decide it's going to be close, but do I care at this point? It's about the journey and I've already stopped and taken a bunch of photos. Should I just savor the trip knowing that I am well ahead of the previous one way time?
My pace quickens anyway and I churn out the steady climb to Buzzards Roost. Another glance at my watch. Oh wow, I could do it in theory, but will it trash my legs for the return hike? I mentally battle this point until deciding to just let gravity rip. I hear my watch beep but can't tell if I'm going 6:12 pace or 8:12 pace. If it's 6:12 then I could get it in 6:59ish. I decide to pick up the pace and all the sudden my right shoe starts to loosen. The lace is untied. I can't decide if stopping to tie the shoe is worth the time penalty. I don't stop. My watch beeps indicating another mile. I see it's actually 8:12 pace. My enthusiasm.plummets. I slow to a modest run and reset emotionally to be totally ok with not breaking 7. It was just an arbitrary goal anyway. I cruise to the finish, tap the lap button on my watch and see one way is 7:05:25. A new one way FKT!
I text a status update to Twitter and my Garmin InReach map page with the news. It takes me several minutes to figure out my next moves. Should I run down the half mile to the river for a water source? Should I turn around and start hiking back immediately? Seeing the deck with a picnic table showing off a nice view of the river, I decide water is not yet necessary. Instead, I laid down on the picnic table and do some yoga and stretches to try and loosen my back. My biggest physical weakness at this point is my lack of core strength and lower back pain, and swinging a pair of trekking poles for 28.2 miles can really add to that fatigue. Next, I strip my gaiters and socks, rub petroleum on my feet, and put on a fresh pair. Next, I repack my vest so that the calories I saved for the second half are accessible, and decide to put on my synthetic puffy. It is starting to rain again, and I know the trip back will be much colder.
After eating a bunch of mashed potatoes, seaweed snacks, gummy worms, licking a chicken bouillon cube, and swallowing most of my water, I stand up. It's time to start the hard part. I know it will be difficult. I can hear Rachel's voice reminding me to be honest with myself. I am fully aware of the terrible forecast for this night. I could just send a satellite message and sleep the rest of the day on this picnic table. But I want to return. It is what I signed up for. I am prepared. I have an emergency blanket bivy. I have enough calories to get me through a snowstorm. I have the survival skill to start a fire in wet conditions. If I twist my ankle, I've got hiking poles and duck tape and athletic tape. If I lose the trail and my phone breaks or dies, I've got a paper map and a compass. I've got several alternative exit strategies to get to lower elevation more quickly. If push comes to shove, I'll make it alive. Only a freak accident is going to take me out. I know my limitations, and this isn't quite the edge. I start walking.
I reach the first stream and start warm soaking the next round of mashed potatoes (warmed by stashing in pocket near body heat). Another rock has somehow made it under my gaiter into my right shoe again. I'm starting to see a pattern. My right shoe has untied twice and gotten rocks in them twice. I lace it tighter and triple tie both shoes. This better not happen again. I continue up to Buzzard's Roost and stop to admire the view. It's a wonderful spot. I pass two backpackers who are loaded up. They warn me of ticks, and have a surprised look on their face when I tell them I've already come from their direction this morning and flicked off several of those nasty buggers. I continue on at a steady hiking pace, knowing it could be critical to get through the most difficult sections before dark. My mind drifts back to the long march we did 20 years ago. I see the old dozer lines that were backup contingencies if the fire jumped our lines. I stop to admire Indigo Creek again and the meadows nearby. This is truly one of my favorite spots anywhere in Southern Oregon.
The sun pokes through the rain clouds and a dazzle of light spills its way across the canyon. If only the route didn't climb back up to 3,800' tonight, I would be in heaven. I continue pass Fantz Ranch again. Somewhere near Conners Place, I see a figure ahead. Is he running towards me? No. Who could this be? How did he get by me? Did he come all the way from Briggs Creek this morning? I soon get my answers. He asks how much left to the finish, and I look at my watch. About 6.5 miles for him. Is he on pace to break my time? I'm guessing he is. What are the chances that someone else would even think to run this trail at this time of year. I don't recognize him. This guy must know something. He must work in forestry or be an avid backcountry hunter or maybe he's a hotshot or smokejumper. Wildland firefighters who pound dirt on 45% slope have this kind of tenacity and endurance. He introduces himself as Scott and wonders what my one way time was. I tell him, knowing he will soon break the FKT I had just set a few hours ago. I knowingly let him go; knowing he needs to keep moving. Who is this guy?
Hopefully I will find out later. My thoughts return to the trail. The sun starts to dip beyond the canyon walls. I keep moving and top off my water supply. I know the slide is coming up, and angle myself well above it, thinking I will get past all the confusion below. I don't see my tracks from earlier, or Scott's tracks. I must have overshot it. Wow, I really overshot it. I precariously downclimb some steep bluffs to try and get safely to the Sliver Creek bridge. I zig zag, and finally I see a portion of the trail below. But in total, I've wasted at least 20 minutes by trying to take the shortcut. Oh well. Gotta keep moving. I cross Silver Creek and start to climb. I nearly step on a salamander right on the trail, and stop to take a video of it for the kids. I get moving again. The quads finally start to feel the climbing, but I lament how much easier it is to follow the trail going uphill. I pass the Collier Bar junction again and catch myself daydreaming of what that trail is like. I could just try hiking that and get back via Old Pups Way trail. Who knows what condition those trails are in. And this is not part of the planned route. And I would be giving up the FKT. I slap myself back into reality, turn left, and begin the zigzag up the long evening up to Bald Mountain.
Each mile up feels like three miles. I need more glucose, so eat the last of my fruit juice gummies and the one Gu I brought for this exact situation. That gives me the boost to keep climbing without bonking, and I steadily make my way up through the skeletons of forests that once were. As it gets darker, the rain seems to pick up velocity. I do a mental check and pop a salt tab with caffeine just to maximize my alertness in the growing darkness and growing storm. I can see the upper part of the mountain shrouded in a storm cloud. It gets colder and more windy each half mile until visibility is less than a 50 yards. The cold freezing rain starts to pelt me, but I need to take off my sunglasses in the last wisps if light. I reach back and pull out my headlamp. Somehow I have not missed a single turn on the way up, and I know the next four miles are the crux. With each half mile in the dark, I become more focused on the importance if continuing to move and not lose the trail. At this point, I'm soaked to the bone. The rain turns into wet snow and gusts are digging into me from the west. I pass familiar landmarks and know I've just got two more miles to the Florence Way trail junction.
But the wind is howling and my lips are starting to get cold. I pull up my buff, and keep drinking the Perpeteum in my second bottle. It's cold, but I know I need to keep pounding calories and keep moving. I lose the trail. I attempt to backtrack, but can't see my own tracks. I hide behind a large tree so I can pull out my phone and get my bearings. This turns out to be a good move, as I veered in the wrong direction. I angle back to the trail but the brush and poison oak is thick and dumping buckets of cold water, hundreds of droplets at a time. My fingers are getting colder, so I'm relieved to see the trail and put my phone away. The wind is pelting wet snow at me horizontally at this point. I take two small breaks in the shadow of large trees so I can get more calories in. I'm also on the lookout for some kind of reasonable shelter from the storm. Some place where I can start a fire. But no such luxury appears.
Each 100 yards now feels like a mile, but I have to be close. Another 30 minutes leaning into the freezing snow and wind goes by. I can barely see 10 yards. It looks like the trail veers right. But wait, this is Florence Way. I'm at the junction! I start jogging as fast as I can, knowing this side of the mountain is not getting pounded.Within 200 yards the wind dies down and the snow turns to a light rain. Visibility increases to 100 yards. I know I've done it as long as I don't do anything stupid. Just 11.5 miles to go. I start dreaming of what I'm going to do as soon as I reach the truck. Ouch, the steepest section remaining, as I drop down quickly it is hammering my quads. My shin hurts from slamming it into a rock.
Just 10 miles left and the trail grade is almost runnable? How quickly can I safely descend and not screw this up? I'm hiking fast now, but I can feel my ankles starting to swell. I had twisted one of my ankles while getting around some logs earlier. This caused a slight shift in my gait which was putting too much force on my left. Ok, so running these last 9 miles is not in the cards. "Just hike them as fast as you can" I mumbled to myself. I need to start singing. Stay upbeat. I'm finishing this thing. The last 6 miles seem to take forever. I start counting down the remaining creek crossings to the Briggs Creek bridge. I hit the final half mile hiking so fast I'm basically running. The trail itself has turned into a small stream, but it doesn't bother me. I can't get any wetter than I already am.
My pipe dream is that someone has a fire going at the campground. As I cross the bridge, a bout of laughter hits me. Someone would have to be insane to be camping out here right now, and it's 2:58 am. I press the button on my watch. Wow. It took roughly 12.5 hours to get back. Not the time I had been shooting for, but still a job well done! I took a quick photo in front of the sign, then fumbled for my truck key. Yup, the key is there. Imagine losing your key after all that?
I immediately strip naked. Grab the towel waiting in the passenger seat, and put on the warmest clothes. It's too rainy to setup a tent. I quickly eat the first foods I could find (salami and M&Ms), because going to the food bins out in the back of the truck would require going out in the pouring rain again. No thanks. I easily fall sleep while sitting in the drivers seat.
I wakeup a few hours later and decide to drive out to Cave Junction for donuts and cell reception. I also order a breakfast burrito and drive down to Rough and Ready Botanical Wayside for a linger nap (my family will meet me here in our way to Gold Beach for vacation. I clear out the back seat of the truck and shake out a sleeping bag.
A few hours later I wake up. Something doesn't feel right. There is a pain on my waist. OMG. It turns out the one thing I did not do is check myself for ticks. These are western blacked legged ticks (basically deer ticks) that carry Lyme's disease. I can't find a pair of tweezers, so I use my thumb. Got the buggers head out! There's already a bullseye forming. I squeeze it hard, then drop some alcohol on it.
My wife pulls into the parking lot. "Rachel, I need your help for a few minutes. Step out of the car." I explain that I fear more ticks are on me. I strip naked, clearly visible to the traffic on Hwy 199. She finds another tick on my back, pulls a pair tweezers from the first aid kit. Unfortunately she isn't sure that she got the head out. Luckily the hospital in Brookings is open till 6pm. I got the antibiotics. Phew! Crisis averted. Now I just need to get to our place and get as much of these poison oak oils off me as possible. I know it's pretty much a lost cause at this point. Wildfires in the Siskiyous have taught many a crew member about poison oak. The closer to the coast, the shorter and more potent the plants are. The further inland you go, the taller and thicker this poison oak seems. There was never any doubt that I'd get it and not be able to keep the oil out of my blood stream. The best treatment I've found is to take really hot showers, which serve to scald "scratch" the itches without clawing the skin.
So in the end, was going after this FKT worth it? Yes. Will I do this particular FKT again? At this point, probably not.