OUTER MOUNTAIN LOOP 24-Hour Challenge I
Big Bend National Park: January 5 & 6, 2013
The story of my unofficial/unsanctioned Age Group World Record: 18:48:08
OK, so I've been to Big Bend maybe 25 times, with my friends and with my family; backpacking, car-camping, truck-camping on back-country roads, etc. Way back in the day we'd backpack and hike to some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the park. I even summited El Pico Cerda (aka The Schott Tower) in the Sierra Del Carmen range in Mexico in January 2001. Beginning in 1994 Laura and I, along with Ryan (then 14 y.o.), Austin (joining us in early 1997), and a large, diverse, and amazing group of friends spent Spring Break and/or Thanksgiving every year for about 15 years. Big Bend has been the stage for many of my life's most memorable moments and is one of the wildest and most beautiful places on Earth.
In December 2010 three friends and I did the Outer Mountain Loop, a 33 mile back-country circuit with 10,000'+ in elevation change ( I say 20,000' because of the constant up-&-down nature of the Dodson Trail and Blue Creek Trail), in the “standard” 4 days/3 nights. As we finished this beautiful trip, sore, sore, and tired, I posed the question, “Can the Outer Mountain Loop be completed in one long 24-Hour push?” Much discussion ensued and the consensus was “maybe”.....and thus my idea for The Outer Mountain Loop 24 Hour Challenge was hatched.
By the time we put a date on the calendar our original group had dwindled to three: Aaron, Keith, and me. We penciled January 3-6, 2013 and began to train and plan. I ran many miles over the preceding Summer but tapered-off by Winter...I was fit but not ripped. Aaron ran regularly up until mid-December and was also fit. Keith is fit by default and so we were all set to give it a go.
Our plan was to leave the Chisos Basin parking lot at Midnight and hike the OML in a clockwise fashion: Up Pinnacles Trail, past Boot Springs, down Juniper Canyon Trail, across the Dodson Creek Trail, up Blue Creek Canyon, and then down Laguna Meadows Trail back into the Chisos Basin parking lot. We felt the critical portions of our hike, from a route-finding perspective, were The Dodson Trail (a rarely traveled, vague sparse trail from cairn to cairn through very rough terrain) and the first +/-2.5 hours of The Blue Creek Trail, a steep trail winding up through the rock strewn and sandy gravel-bed with barely-there cairns, no discernible route, and a very very critical turn-out point where the trail leaves the creekbed and begins up the canyon switchbacks. We wanted to hike these critical sections in full daylight.
Aaron, Keith, and I had a final conference-call on December 27 to wrap up our final logistics: We were all confident and ready to rock & roll! Keith and I were gonna drive separately to meet Aaron in Leakey around Noon Thursday 1/3...then we'd all ride together to Big Bend in Aaron's pickup truck.
On New Year's Day Keith got called to Alaska to help in the recovery of a break-away Shell Oil drilling rig grounded in a Huge storm.....Bummer that he would have to ditch! Suddenly it was only me and Aaron. We discussed the safety issues with only two hikers and decided we'd have two potential bail-out points along the way and that we'd carry a tarp and an extra polartec layer in case of an injury....so the hurt guy could stay warm/dry while the other went to get help. With confidence high we kept a wary eye on the weather report as a Very Large Winter Storm was forecast to hit Big Bend exactly the same time as us! Some forecasts predicted up to 8' of snow and temps in the low teens Friday night....the night we start our hike. Dang! Two extreme weather events, 4,500 miles apart were complicating our trip.
So, Onward & Upward.....I packed up, drove out from my house at 7:30am on Thursday 1/3, and drove into cold air and snow flurries, West to Leakey to meet Aaron by Noon. We dropped my car and drove North to Junction where I tried to eat vegan: Subway. Then we drove on West on I-10 out to Ft. Stockton where we gassed up and headed South on 385 down through Marathon in the National Park hitting the Chisos Basin campground just before dark....and setting up our tents as the wind picked up, the temperatures dropped, and sideways sleet/snow started blowing. I crawled into my tent and sleeping bag about 9pm and fell asleep listening to windy sleet/snow.
After a great night's sleep I woke up around 7am, poked my head outside the tent, and saw 3' of snow/ice on the ground. Very cool!! We made coffee and then walked up to the Basin Ranger Station to discover that the Basin Road was closed (we were trapped in the mountains) and so was the road to Homer Wilson Ranch....along, by the way, with I-10 and I-20: West Texas got dumped on by the Winter Storm! We were facing the possibility that we might not be able to drive out and stash water/food for our hike....Dang!! We stocked up on beer (the store was selling out fast!) and went back to our campsite to eat lunch and ponder alternate plans in the event the roads stayed closed. At about 2pm a park ranger drove by and told us the roads were thawed and open....we scrambled into Aaron's truck and headed out to stock out water/food stashes at Juniper Canyon/Dodson Creek junction and Homer Wilson Ranch!
The stash-trip was largely uneventful and we got back into our Chisos Basin campsite by about 5pm. I stashed a quart of gatorade, 1.5 liters of H20, a Clif Bar, a Pro Bar, a green pepper, and a Hershey's dark chocolate bar at the Juniper Canyon/Dodson Trail stash-point and the same thing, except an apple and carrot instead of the green pepper, and a 5-Hour Energy, at Homer Wilson Ranch. By 8:30pm we'd eaten supper (ramen and a can of mixed veggies for me) and I was crashed....hoping to sleep a few hours....until 11:30pm. We planned to start our hike at Midnight from the Basin Lodge parking lot. As I'm laying there trying to go to sleep, excited and nervous, the last thing I remember thinking are extremely positive/optimistic thoughts. Good Omen.
At 11:25 I wake up, enthused and ready-to-go! It's cold, mid 20's, as we ready our packs and drive up to the Basin Lodge parking lot. At exactly 12:00 Midnight we step off the sidewalk by the Basin Store and begin our 24-Hour Challenge Adventure.....heading up The Pinnacles Trail.
It's c.o.l.d. As we hike with reported low temps in the low 20's. Up, up, and up...we actually pass the Emory Peak spur trail much soon than expected and soon are winding our way along Boot Springs Trail. At one point we saw the Moon shining through the trees and it was so bright it startled us...it shone like a headlight! After what feels like a very short time we hit the Juniper Canyon Trail and, after the initial steep climb up over the ridge, we begin the long steep & rocky downhill, down out of the Chisos Mountains, down some 3000' to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. As we started down we saw the most incredible sight I've ever seen (or at least one of the Top 10 in my life so far)...the desert floor, some 3000' below us was covered in a thick compact fog-cloud, remnants of the fierce Winter Storm, and the Moon was shining down onto the fog which appeared as if it were a shimmering sea suspended within a vast valley pierced by the towering mountains of the Big Bend....The scene defies description...we just stopped and checked it out for 10 minutes or so. Unbelievably Beautiful....I'll never forget it.
The Juniper Canyon Trail was a logistic concern for us as it's steep and very rocky and it was pitch black as we hiked....it was this 11 mile trail segment that represented the most likely opportunity for injury. However, much to our surprise, the snowfall the night before was a huge positive factor for us: It sorta glued the rocks and gravel together and actually made for much better footing than in our previous hike down this trail!! We made excellent time and reached the Dodson Trail junction, in the pitch black darkness by 5am. Did I mention it was freezing cold??!!
We'd stashed water, Gatorade, and munchies in the bear box in the gravel parking lot where the Juniper Canyon and Dodson Trails meet so I drank a quart of Gatorade, munched on a Clif Bar and dark chocolate, and tried to stay warm. We were reluctant to head out onto the Dodson in the dark...that trail is vague and whispy in many spots...so our plan was to try and time our arrival at the trail junction (and our first stash point) at around Sunrise. We were early. And it was dark...and cold. So we sat....and froze our balls off for about an hour waiting for the Sun to rise...until Aaron says, “Dude, screw this. I'd rather get lost walking in the dark than sit here freezing!” So we packed up and started out on to the Dodson Trail at almost exactly 6am...by headlight in the freezing pitch dark.
As we start out it's foggy (we're down in the cloud bank we saw from above several hours ago), pitch black dark, and very strange-looking in the glare of our headlamps. It's so cold, and the atmosphere is so unsettled that our breath fogs up and hangs in the air, not dissipating...the scene is cool and surreal. The trail is easily discernible for about 50 steps and then disappeared completely...it took us a few minutes to poke around and find the trail and we trudged on, slowly & vigilantly up & down...mostly up, in fits & starts as we navigated from cairn to cairn by headlamp. By 7am we're wondering where-the-hell-is-the-Sun? It's still pitch black up until 7:25 and then, as we're making jokes about the Mayan calendar being off about 15 days, the Sun pokes through the foggy haze! By 7:30am we're finally able to turn off our headlamps...almost as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch!
The Dodson Trail is +/- 11 miles of constant up & down, into and out of innumerable arroyos, gradually, but dramatically climbing for the first 5.5 miles up the Fresno Creek Drainage....and then a long slow descent on the last half of the trail down to Homer Wilson Ranch and Blue Creek. The trail was fairly easily discernible even with snow over big sections of it...and there were footprints in that snow from hikers perhaps a day ahead of us, and the cairn-system was helpful too! The views of the surrounding desert swells, up close and off into the far distance, were amazing and profound and awe-inspiring. Imagine ocean-like green swells 40'-200' high all around you with a tiny/thin/rocky-whispy trail winding through the tempest. Looming above us to our right (to the North) the Chisos Mountains slowly passed by us as we hiked, dusted with snow, incredible...one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
It was like hiking through an 11 mile and 6 hour postcard.
With full-blown sunshine most of the day and a strenuous trail we're warm while we hike but every time we stop we're reminded that it's still cold...still well below freezing. By about 11:30 we've passed the Dodson Ranch and the Elephant Tusk trail spur and soon we've reached the high pass that designates the point where it's literally “all downhill from here”....to the Homer Wilson Ranch that is. We're several hours ahead of our 24-Hour goal pace and so we take a few minutes to video our surroundings and, in a wild technological anomaly, we have cell phone service! I use this opportunity to call Laura and shoot a few texts to Austin and my friend Mark.
We set off again after the photo/technology break and with the sense of renewed strength that comes with the realization that we're WAY ahead of schedule we make great time down down down to the Homer Wilson Ranch where we've stashed our last stores of food & drink and where we'll begin the most physically challenging trail section: The Blue Creek Trail.
The bear-proof food container is about 300 yards uphill from the Homer Wilson ranch house and so we drop our packs at the house and head up the hill to fetch our last re-stock of food/drink. I have a big Gatorade (which I'm really really looking forward to), several various energy bars, and an apple. Oh, and a 5 Hour Energy drink, my first ever. We see several people visiting the ranch house and they're all shocked to hear that we started our “day” at midnight last night and have been walking 12 hours and +/-22 miles. Since we have some time to spare, we laid in the Sun and I took off my boots and socks to assess and relax my feet. NO blisters!! But the balls of my feet are bruised and sore so I change my socks and pretty soon we're ready to hit the trail again.
The first 2 hours up Blue Creek Trail is brutal....Brutal. The trail follows the creek bed up up and up the sandy rocky wash. Every step is in deep sand AND uphill so the net effect of already tired legs is relentlessly brutal & painful. Again, one of our main concerns in the timing of our midnight start was to make it up and out of Blue Creek onto the switchbacks before nightfall. There's a critical point where the trail exits the creek bed and begins the actual climb....to miss this trail junction would mean potential hours backtracking to find the correct trail up to the switchbacks. It's very very important we not miss that junction!! So up and up we hike...our process is slow and painful plus it's full-on Sun now, in the heat of the afternoon with temps climbing into the high 70's to low 80's....we're sweating heavily for the first time during our adventure. Trudge trudge..........trudge. Up, up, and up, in and out of the sandy and rocky creek bed.
After about 2.5 hours we finally reach the thankfully large cairn marking where the trail exits the creek bed (halle-freaking-lujah..no more sand!!) and begins to climb up out of Blue Creek Canyon via a series of long & steep switchbacks. This uphill is damn near never-ending and we can see the creek bed Waaaaaaay below us, slowing fading into the maze of desert trailing off South toward Mexico and we can see the mountain walls towering over us, barely getting closer.
The scale is immense and our progress is barely discernible! By now we're truly 100% slammed with fatigue. We've been working pretty much non-stop since midnight and we're about 25 miles in! However, during one water stop we come to the dual realization that we are Kicking 24 Hours in the Ass and we have a chance to make it to the Basin Lodge in time to eat supper in the restaurant! Renewed with that realization (and the fact that I drank the 5-Hour Energy drink) we speed uphill!
I've hiked the Laguna Meadows trail maybe 50 times over the years and it always takes about 20 minutes longer than I remember....this time was no different, and by the time we reached the point where we could actually see the parking lot I would've guessed that 4 full hours had passed!!
But we had done it!!!!We walked onto the sidewalk, to the exact spot we'd stepped off exactly 18:48:08 hours ago!
We successfully completed the Outer Mountain Loop in less than 24 hours, all 33 miles and 10,000' elevation change (I say 20'000'), and did it surprisingly quicker than we expected despite our several stops along the way.
Stoked, sore, hungry, and tired we limped into the Basin Lodge restaurant and gobbled down some hot food. Mine was vegan although I did eat french fries with my veggie burger...and they were delicious! Bellies full, it was immediately to sleep once we got back to our campsite. The drive home was uneventful....good music and conversation. Planning the next event of our 24-Hour Challenge Series. Stay tuned.....