2007 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
 
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  MENDOTA RIDGE/VIRGINIUS PASS TRAIL WORK DAY  

TUESDAY, JULY 3

 
"We shoulda brought a tape recording of a little yappy dog.
Or maybe we should just turn the generator on.
- Jim, joking about keeping incoming campers at bay in our campground
 

 

We learned last year that the campgrounds around Silverton fill up rapidly in the week before the Fourth of July. The town goes all out for the holiday and folks come from all corners of the country to enjoy it. So it was important for us to get here well before the crowd to stake our claim. Then we watched as each day more and more folks arrived, until by last Friday it didn't look like any more campers or tents or vehicles could possibly fit into the campground. Adaptable folks were also filling in every available spot along Mineral Creek Road.

Each day we'd leave to run or do errands I'd be concerned that someone would block the entrance to our campsite, but fortunately that never happened. Nor did anyone put a camper right next to us (probably because they'd be too close to the bathroom). Most everyone near us in the campground has been friendly, considerate, and quiet.

It makes us wonder why we can't just all get along like this in "real life."

BTW, we have just about the quietest generator made, a Yamaha 3000, and it's facing a steep hill and woods, not another campsite. We want to be good neighbors, too.

We took three or four "easy days" after our long run on the Colorado Trail and Jim's tough trail marking day, catching up on e-mail, doing laundry, cleaning the camper, running errands, making plans for our aid station, and going down to Durango one day to rotate the truck tires and buy groceries.

We hope we've discovered the recent problem with the truck engine overheating when pulling the camper up long, high passes -- a defective radiator cap. When Jim described the problem to the mechanics at the auto repair shop where we'd purchased the tires last summer, a quick inspection under the hood revealed a problem with the cap and line. We won't know for sure if that's the cause until we leave Silverton and climb up to Red Mountain Pass again. At least it was a cheap fix.

The bad news is that Jim discovered not all the tires were rotated (he marked them), so we have to deal with that again next week when we return to Durango for more personal and aid station supplies. It's always something.

OPHIR PASS = OMIGOSH!!

This was Jim's first of four trail work days, and I decided to tag along for part of the trek up to Mendota Pass. We'd be under the direction of John Cappis, HRH course director. I have no need EVER for tickets into the race lottery, and needed to watch the dogs. It would be too long of a day to leave Tater in the camper, but she could hike up and run back down with me for a few hours. I was kind of crew, pet-sitter, and trail companion for part of the trek today.

The work group was to meet at the city park in Telluride. We'd been there once a few years ago when Jim was going to pace a friend in the race (the friend dropped when he got to Telluride, so Jim didn't get to pace that year) and we knew it was a looooong drive from Silverton to Telluride -- about 73 miles by paved road. There are two shorter ways to get there, but both require 4WD vehicles.

OK, we have a 4WD vehicle. One of those other shorter ways can only be driven in a jeep. The other way is over Ophir Pass. That's the way John recommended we get there. It did turn out to take about half the time as the long, paved route, but little did we know . . .

The road began innocently enough as it climbed higher and higher above the Middle Fork of Mineral Creek. The early morning views on either side of us were beautiful as we gazed at a number of named and unnamed 13ers and I asked Jim to take this shot out the driver's side of the truck:

As we got above treeline the terrain became very rocky with talus and scree. I felt like I was on another planet. The next two photos are approaching Ophir Pass and looking through it:

 

Then the really scary part began. We could see the narrow, rocky road meander down, down, down into the valley. My photo isn't very good quality, but you get the idea:

That was OK. What scared the heck out of me was one switchback where Jim had to back up several times to make the turn. It would have been fine in a vehicle with a short turning radius, but it was downright dangerous in our truck because of the huge drop-off in front of us. We resolved to return home the long way. We'll only drive that road again in a jeep. (I didn't photograph the turn.)

SEEKING CHAPMAN GULCH

Hardrock runners go up (this year) or come down (in even years) Swamp Canyon to the Chapman Gulch aid station on this road. It lies between Ophir Pass and the little town of Ophir. We kept looking for trail markers so we'd know where the aid station is located. We saw markers coming from Swamp Canyon to the south (below) and we think we identified Grant-Swamp Pass, but we missed the markers going up Chapman Gulch because there were several dirt roads leading up into the mountains to our north.

The little town of Ophir is more easily reached from the west end of this road, which is much smoother dirt and not all rocky like the east end off CO 550. The town is pretty spread out, and probably doesn't have more than a hundred residents. We were amused by the 15 MPH speed limit -- we hadn't gotten up that fast since we got off paved Hwy. 550!

We especially liked the little bitty post office:

We were happy to get on paved Hwy. 145 the rest of the way to Telluride. From our campground outside Silverton, it was just over an hour including photo ops and construction delays. I think we aged a few years on that switchback, though!

HAULIN' UP MENDOTA RIDGE

We reached Telluride about half an hour early and found the nice city park where we'd meet the rest of today's group. The parking area is quite close to the location of a major aid station during the race. We got ourselves and the dogs ready to hike from 8,750 feet up to over 12,000 feet. We chose to keep the truck in a four-hour limit space at the park, so I had to get back down within that time. I wasn't sure how far up I'd get before I needed to turn around.

We met the other runners/work crew -- John Cappis, group leader, shown below on the left consulting with Jim. Paul Ralyea is in the background:

This is Paul's first year to run Hardrock -- maybe. He's still on the wait list and doesn't know if he'll get to run. That's gotta be tough mentally, as much preparation as this race requires.

These are our Oregon friends Jim Ballard and Kathy Lang:

Jim has run Hardrock several times. This is Kathy's first time as an entrant instead of crew/pacer. She was high enough up on the wait list to get the go-ahead to run a few days ago. Go, Kathy!!!

Rounding out the group was Robert Andrulis, who we'd recently met at Bighorn, and James Varner. Both are on the wait list, hoping to run HRH for the first time this year (and collecting tickets for next year if they don't make it in). Rick Hodges got a later start, but caught up with the group just after I turned around.

We started about 9:20 AM and walked steadily UP for the next few hours. The street, then trail, out of town was pretty steep. The next series of photos heading up to Mendota Pass are in the opposite direction from how race participants will run the course this year.

Everyone but me carried a tool which with to work -- an ax, shovel, McLeod rake, etc. No one had a saw, so whenever we came to a tree across the trail, John said not to try to move it because the trail marking crew could take saws and get those. Ballard was determined to get this one out of the way, however:

The main task today was widening and rebuilding trail near the ridge that had been washed out during the spring thaw.

BUILDING A LEGACY

A word about trail work . . .

Four days have been designated this year for trail work. Runners who complete two work days receive a ticket for next year's race entrance lottery, or tow tickets for all four days. Jim has signed up for all four days.

A week or two ago Rodger and Jimmy Wrublik, an ultra running father-son team from Arizona and now Colorado, scouted out all or most of the course to determine snow levels and trail damage. John designed the four work days to fix most of the problems identified by the Wrubliks.

Another word or three or four about Rodger and Jimmy . . . this family is well-known in ultra circles. Rodger and his wife own Nardini Manor, a facility which hosts large weddings and other events in the Phoenix area. Several years ago they offered their property -- and a newly built one-third mile track -- as headquarters for the popular Across the Years 24-, 48-, and 72-hour races. (The races span the end of one year to New Year's Day of the next.) In fact, these races have become SO popular that a lottery is being used for entrance into this year's race for the first time.

The Wrubliks recently purchased the Wyman Hotel in Silverton and are now an even more integral part of the Hardrock race, which Roger has run previously. They are leasing one of Charlie Thorn's houses, the one that's been used as race HQ. It's like Grand Central, with runners congregating here for two to three weeks before the race to meet friends, check on trail work and marking schedules, use the shower, and generally hang out. Runners are even helping Charlie this summer with renovation work on the adjacent house he owns and may occupy in the future.

Jimmy Wrublik sounds like the kind of son any parent would want to claim as theirs, a young man mature beyond his years. He helps with the family businesses and is a rising star in the ultra community. He just turned 18 this week, yet he's already served as race director for the popular Javelina Hundred in the Phoenix area. He is running Hardrock for the first time this year. If he finishes, he'll be the youngest finisher EVER of this race. We hope he reaches his goal.

EVER UPWARD

But I digress . . . let's get back to this serious ascent to Mendota Ridge.

We steadily climbed up a non-motorized jeep road as two young ladies, one carrying a baby in a backpack, passed us. Ouch! They probably weren't going as far as we were. As we got higher and higher, John pointed out several good views of Telluride and the valley to the south where runners would head after leaving the Telluride aid station about 73 miles into the race:

Somewhere in the distance in the photo above, the runners head up to the Wasatch Saddle (elev. 13,060 feet) via the Wasatch Trail. That's one of thirteen high passes the runners cross during the race. The course is constantly up and down, from valley to pass to town to pass, like a roller coaster on steroids.

The sun was hot today. We were in and out of shady evergreen and aspen forest until reaching timberline. The trail looked mostly runnable going back down, unless you were carrying an ax, shovel, or McLeod! Because of the dry conditions, however, the little rocks on dirt were like ball bearings on some of the steeper sections. 

You can see Mendota Ridge somewhere in the distance:

A little below timberline John stopped to give us an interesting history lesson about the Liberty Bell Mine. I thought that was appropriate, since the Fourth of July is tomorrow.

In the valley beyond us, a boarding house was swept away one winter by an avalanche and everyone inside perished except a baby that was later rescued. Earlier along the trail he had pointed out the ruins of other buildings used by the miners:

I decided I'd better turn around at the gathering spot two photos above. We were probably about three miles into the hike. I felt strong and really wanted to continue on to the pass, but I didn't want a parking ticket or towing hassle down in the park. I had about an hour and a half to get back down, plenty of time if I ran part of it.

Meanwhile, Jim and the work party continued on up the trail to Mendota Pass. The next series of photos are ones he took. I'll try to do his story justice, but it's hard when I wasn't there. He won't write journal entries. <sigh> I'm happy that he's willing to take photos when I'm not there.

The group began seeing snow soon after I turned around:

I'm sorry I didn't get to see these great views from higher up:

 

Nearing Mendota Ridge:

Now, after climbing from 8,750 feet to almost 12,560 feet (at the top of the ridge) in just over four miles, the group starts the REAL work -- rebuilding trail that has washed out or been covered up by melting snow:

Once that job was done, they climbed up to the summit . . .

. . . and received this reward -- the impressive view down into Marshall Basin:

 

INTO THIN AIR

We don't know when John decided it would be a good idea to continue on the Virginius Pass, but it wasn't on the original agenda and Jim hadn't counted on seeing it this year. It was "only" another 7/10ths of a mile. There was plenty of time and no threat of rain (look at that gorgeous blue sky!) so why not keep on going?? Virginius is notorious for its steep pitches on one side and its minimal aid station (Kroger's Canteen) at 13,100 feet.

They traversed Marshall Basin on the the Mendota Ridge Trail on their way up another 540 feet to Virginius Pass. John presented more history when he pointed out some abandoned electrical poles in the distance in the photo below. This area was one of the first in the country to get alternating current (AC).

There were two dogs romping in the snow in the basin. When Rick went down to check on them, they ran off. They had collars on, but their owner wasn't anywhere around. Hope they find their way back home . . .

More views of the trail between Mendota Peak and Virginius Pass:

 

Just before the pass is a steep 200-foot climb up or down loose rock into which last year's aid crew built a set of steps. Some years it's covered with snow. The HRH course description describes the pass with three succinct warnings: Cornice, exposure, acrophobia.

This is the location of Kroger's Canteen, the epitome of aid stations along the Hardrock course -- not for its wide variety of goodies, but for its remote, precarious position on a tiny ledge at 13,100 feet in the air. It's definitely in the tradition of the "hardrock" miners this race honors.

Imagine huddling up there in probable wind, possible sleet, and definite darkness for hours on end, waiting for runners to straggle in. Since it's near the middle of the course regardless of direction, Chuck Kroger's band of hardy volunteers are up there for half a day or more. Chuck began the tradition but usually runs the race now -- it's probably easier than manning that aid station!

Not that the race or the climb to this aid station is easy by any means. Jim got to go up the "easier" side and peer down the even steeper (north) one. Here John is gauging the descent into Governor's Basin:

This year runners (slow hikers at this point) have to climb three steep pitches up to this aid station, a wicked 700 feet in only half a mile. There is usually snow on this side and a fixed rope is placed there for the race, whether runners are going up it or down it.

Or you can be a wild child like Ballard and John and "glissade" down on your butt before the rope is attached! Here are three photos of a series that Jim took of the two kids sliding down to an intermediate plateau far below. (All ultra runners are kids at heart or we wouldn't be out playing in the woods -- and snow -- to begin with.)

Ballard went down first. That would be the same Jim Ballard who's been having chronic back problems:

 

When Ballard got down to the plateau, John started down. I cropped the next shot to show some perspective regarding the pitch and distance they descended:

And then they crawled right back up! My Jim said he would have slid down today, too, but he didn't want to climb back up. Doggone it, I wish I'd been there. That looks like as much fun as Jim and I had once in the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. I yelled all the way down, then wanted to go back up and do it all over again.

The group worked hard and played hard today. But they weren't quite done yet. They had the little matter of going back down to Telluride, a net drop of 5,350 feet in five miles. That's a pretty steep pitch, on average. Jim took a couple more photos on the return trip:

And this one toward Bridal Veil Falls in the basin east of Telluride:

Ironically, about the same time he took that shot I was driving east of the city toward the same basin and got this "ground-level" photo of Bridal Veil and other falls in that beautiful valley:

Someday I'd like to drive back closer to the falls. Our detailed San Juan map shows what looks like a serious 4WD road switch-backing up Ingram Peak and east to Hwy. 550. It is a one-way road going west, so you'd actually be driving down it. Could be fun in a jeep!

SUE'S AFTERNOON

Meanwhile, I was having a relaxing afternoon in Telluride after leaving the group. Other than the ball-bearing sections where I had to proceed slowly, I was able to run most of the way back down to town pretty quickly with the dogs. I took more photos of the trail in that direction and of flowers. Not only were there pretty wildflowers along the trail despite the hot, dry conditions recently, there are some beautiful flower gardens in Telluride. I think the race course goes by this one on the steep street I ran back down into town:

Along the trail we enjoyed wild roses, blue flax and penstemon, several varieties of white and yellow flowers, orange Indian paintbrush, and other varieties. I'm sure there were lots of alpine flowers above treeline that I didn't get to see.

This is a pretty dry section so take plenty of water for yourself and any canine companions. In the approximate three-mile stretch I did, there was only one convenient stream for the dogs to get water. Jim said there were a few little streams above the timberline, but I'd guess they're seasonal.

When I got back to the truck I gave the dogs some food and water and had some lunch in the shade. I waited another half hour before driving east out of town to hunt for another shady spot to kill time before returning to the park and trying to stay another few hours there. I never did see anyone patrolling the parking lot for violators of the time limit, and when I returned mid-afternoon there were empty spots until Jim called me about 5 PM to pick him up a few blocks away. I napped and used the computer until the inverter we use in the truck died. Like I said, it's always something -- one more thing for Jim to have to fix.

I watched as the trail work crew hiked back down the steep hill at the edge of town and listened to their stories for a few minutes. Then Jim and I headed back to Silverton the LONG way -- a big loop west, north, east, and south through Placerville (not quite as far west as the California one, however), Ridgway, Ouray, and our campground north of Silverton. Seventy-three miles took over two hours with stops in Ridgway for a Subway sandwich and Ouray for ice cream, but it was a beautiful drive -- and we didn't have to go back over Ophir Pass!!

I asked a very tired Jim to take this photo out his side of the truck as I was driving us home. This is on Hwy. 62 between Placerville and Ridgway:

It's looking back across a ranch toward the range of mountains where we were today. Beautiful, isn't it?

Next entry: another trail work day for Jim and play day for Sue on Thursday.

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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