Well, this weekend it was time for a big hike. Dave is in the final weeks of tapering before competing in the triathlon Worlds in Las Vegas (November 5th) and focussing on short and fast stuff right now. And I had spontaneously decided to run the Victoria Marathon last week, so a long hike was a perfect recovery activity. (And I ran a personal best of 3:58, beating my previous record by 45 minutes! So this summer of having Dave kick my butt on the Port Alberni trails has obviously had some positive effect!)
April had also run the marathon (also achieving a personal best of 3:23 – she is very fast) and it was her idea to go for a long hike. I am all for hiking – both for the fun of getting out to wild areas, but also as really good training for ultramarathons. Running is not the only way to train for a running race – and if you try to do it as your only training for something long like an ultra, you are likely to get injured. Time on your feet really matters, to strengthen your feet as well as to work your muscles without the impact
of running – so walking and hiking count for a lot, too.
April called up Ryan – who is not a runner, but is a bad-ass bush guy (his adjective here – most of the good things in Ryan’s world seem to be “bad-ass”). He knows all of the obscure hiking routes around mid-Vancouver Island – seems to have done them (or attempted them) numerous times. He doesn’t ackowledge that there are mountains here – he calls them all “hills” (he claims that his mom worries about him less if he says he is climbing a hill). Ryan suggested Mount McKenzie. (The route is shown in the Backroads Mapbook as the Climbers Trail).
Well! We knew we were in for some tough terrain. But April and I were still surprised by how steep it was. The trailhead is about halfway between Port Alberni and Tofino, about 15 km west of Sutton Pass. The first few hundred metres were walking up an overgrown logging road, then we crossed a creek, and from there we really started climbing. And I mean climbing, not just walking uphill.
The day was absolutely gorgeous – the nicest day in a month at least: warm, sunny, and windless. (The windlessness was so appreciated as we got higher). Ryan told us that we wouldn’t reach the actual summit, because the last bit involved technical climbing and appropriate gear, but that we would get to within about 100 vertical metres of it. Our total ascent would be 1300 m.
Even though it was sunny, the bush was wet and slippery. The trail is not used much – it was overgrown, with lots of fallen trees and rotting logs across it. Definitely the kind of terrain where you have to pay attention every second. If any of us got injured badly enough that we couldn’t walk, there was no hope of a heli-rescue – it could take SAR crews days to get assemble enough rescuers to work a stretcher rescue. So going slowly and being smart about everything was very important.
We ascended through forest, but with lots of steep and slippery slopes to climb with our hands, clutching on roots and branches to help ourselves up. We got our first open views at 11am, having hiked for nearly two hours by then. Ryan checked his GPS watch – we had covered 1.9 horizontal km (route travelled, not straight-line!) and ascended nearly 600 m. But the view was spectacular, west across Kennedy Lake and beyond, to Long Beach and the open ocean.
Our next stop was at 1pm, now 4 hrs in. We had covered 3.2 km (for an average ground-speed of 0.8 km/hr!) and ascended 900. The terrain became steeper and steeper – more and more climbing with the hands, sometimes over steep muddy and rooty slopes and sometimes over rock – the kind of steep that I knew would be very tricky to descend, lowering yourself belly-to-the-face, unable to see where the foot-holds were.
I tried not to think of the downhill – just knowing that we had to keep moving at a sensible pace, so we would not be rushing on the descent, and stick to our 3pm agreed-upon turnaround time.
The last section was pretty much all climbing – mostly steep rocky sections linked by a trail that at times was hard to find. In some places the trail was obvious, but in many sections it took a bit of searching to find the route – it is definitely not very well used.
But when we finally got up to that top section – wow! We scrambled around the talus slopes below the several peaks of Mt McKenzie. The sun was warm, and there still was no wind! Although it was mid-October, there were all sorts of alpine flowers blooming – valerian and violets and paintbrush, and others that I don’t know the names of.
But it was nearly 2:50pm – 10 minutes to our turnaround. We had been going for 5 hours and 45 minutes – and it would be dark in just over 3 hours And the terrain was SO steep that we wouldn’t be a lot faster on the descent than we had been on the ascent. We sat down for a final snack before heading down. At 3pm, Ryan worked hard to convince April and me to go up to one last lookout. We resisted – neither of us too keen to be hiking this rough terrain by headlamp – then finally indulged him, went up to that last lookout, and at 3:10 started heading down.
We continued our sensible pace, taking all of the tough terrain very slowly and carefully, and helping one another find the footholds as we worked our way down the vertical stuff. I also made sure that everyone ate regularly – it’s so easy to forget to do that on the way down, and then start to lose your focus and fall and injure yourself. April and I had let Ryan take lots of breaks on the way up – but on the way down we whipped his bad-ass and made him keep going.
We still ended up coming out by headlamp, though. We had five lights between us (each of us with a headlamp, and Ryan with his new bad-ass flashlight, and I had also for some reason had the urge to bring a spare headlamp). And that ended up being good – April’s batteries were low, so she ended up using my spare light. So our last hour or so was in the dark – and at times that made it really hard to spot the trail, and to find flagging that marked the hard-to-follow parts. But we made it, back out to the highway at 7:30pm, after a 10 hr 15 minute outing that saw us travel a total of 11 km!
Lots of hard work for so few km travelled – but what a great day. (And I have to say – I am very glad I wore boots rather than trail runners for this one!)