Monday, October 3, 2011

The EPIC Great Salmon Run

To simply say that the Great Salmon Run was difficult would be the same as saying that a category 5 hurricane feels breezy.  I am writing a couple of different reports on this trip and I think the combination of the reports will get closer to painting the entire picture from various angles, here I'm mostly just going to write what comes to mind as I chronologically illustrate what went down.

As I said in my previous blog post I have been looking forward to running down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River for quite some time.  When the time finally came to leave my house on Thursday afternoon, I felt a little nervous.  This trip had a lot of "unknowns" and all I could do was hope they would all come together without too much difficulty.  Ty Draney, Handsome Matt Irving, and I made the drive to Stanley on Thursday, ate at The Bridge in Stanley and headed to the Boundary Creek Put-in.  The campground was all torn up so we drove right to the launch area, hopped out of the truck and quickly changed into running clothes to try to catch some of the fleeting light.  Handsome Matt had come to try to document the beginning and end of the trip and we wanted to make his efforts worthwhile.  The light was pretty flat, so we went back to the truck, threw our sleeping bags on the ground and spent some time covering logistics and making sure we all had an idea of the route. We then went out and got a few more pics before heading to bed.

Me running! Photo Ty Draney

We woke around 6:00 am and finally got out of our bags about 6:45.  It was pretty cold (weather showed it was 25 in Stanley) and Ty and I got antsy to get moving.  We planned on taking some more pics but a huge day pushed us out before the light got very good (sorry Matt).  The first miles felt pretty good, we were fresh, the trail was dusty but smooth.  All in all things went really well all morning.  It did seem that it was taking longer to get to the mile notes I had put on the map, but they correlated to river miles and not trail miles, we figured we were covering extra mileage but not sure how much.

We bummed cokes off of some very friendly rafters that were putting in at Indian Creek (river mile 28) and got moving again. We cruised in to the Middle Fork Lodge around 2:00 pm and headed in to thank them for supporting us and Save Our Wild Salmon.  It took a bit to find the workers, but they were friendly and supportive.  After the Lodge it got really hot, both Ty and I were drinking a 16oz bottle every 20 minutes or so, and we felt like we were still getting behind.  This slowed our progress some, and it soon became evident that we were not going to make it to the Flying B in time for dinner.  Headlamps came on around mile 53, and we pressed on shooting for Camas Creek (60) to sleep.

Ty cruising some awesome Middle Fork singletrack Photo Luke Nelson

We got to Camas about 10:00 and found a small group of 3 rafters who had just gone to bed.  Irwin, one of the rafters, introduced us to his friends, let us sit by the fire and even gave us some hotdogs and muffins.  It was awesome.  We were able to dry our socks over the fire, eat the best hot dog I had ever had and sleep about 5 hours on the soft sand.  I have to mention here that our "bivy" consisted of Patagonia Ultralight down hoodies, and Speedwork tights.  I had thrown in a SOS reflective blanket just in case which was nice to lay on adding a little warmth.  We got up just after 3:00 am and before 3:30 we were moving again.

The next 8 miles went relatively quickly and we rolled into the Flying B just after 5:00 am.  Some of the ranch hands were up getting things ready to take out a hunting group, we hoped we could join them for breakfast. Turns out on most mornings they serve breakfast at 7:00 but today it was 6:00 for the hunting group.  We both sprung for the buffet ($20) and waited the 40 minutes for food.  While the hunters talked about what we were doing we proceeded to stuff 6-7000 calories of bacon, hash browns, fried eggs, and tang into our hungry bodies.  At 7:30 we headed back out on the trail. We had been out 24 hours and only covered half of our distance.

Ty near the end of the Middle Fork Trail Photo Luke Nelson

Because of our massive food consumption it tool a while to be able to run again, but when we could we both felt really good.  10 miles later we left the Middle Fork and began to climb into the Bighorn Crags.  Within a half mile the whole trip began to start a downward spiral.  We took a turn into Waterfall Creek and after 15 or so minutes it vanished.  We searched around, scoured the map for clues, hiked up a ridge, saw what we thought was the trail, and bushwhacked down and across to it. We followed it for a while and it to disappeared, more bushwhacking, staring at the map, followed by bushwhacking, a faint hint of trail, bushwhacking, bloody shins, desperation, and suddenly a trail.  We debated which way to take it and after some deliberation we followed it back to the north.  It led us to within a half mile or so of where we went wrong.  We spent 5 hours off trail to get back nearly where we started.  Back on track we tried to make good time to the Crags, so we could meet Handsome Matt for pictures before losing the light.

Terrace Lakes looking back towards the Middle Fork.  Photo Luke Nelson

The Crags themselves are one of the most amazing places I have ever been, but it was hard to enjoy them with how worked we felt, and how much we still had to cover.  We pushed through the lakes, and found no sign of Matt.  It tuns out he left an hour before we got there...oh how different it would have been if we had met him!

Running in the Bighorn Crags. Photo Ty Draney

We kept pressing forward now with darkness settling in for a second time during the trip, our bodies ached, but we knew it would be too cold to hunker down near the lakes at nearly 9000'.  We had to keep moving.  Just as the sun set we heard an amazing sonnet of an elk bugling quite near to where we were, we joked that he was cheering us on, but now I think he was trying to warn us...

Darkness settles in over Mt. Mcguire (?) Photo Luke Nelson

The trail down Clear Creek from Mirror Lake was rough, very rough.  It looked to be a relatively low angle trail following the creek. I even had been told it was a "great trail".  Just after negotiating a weird section of trail we saw a sign pointing to Panther Creek.  I felt relieved, that was our final destination so we were going in the right direction.  The trail continued to deteriorate, but we kept moving.  Soon the trail would be ok, then vanish. We would bushwhack around, cross the creek, and then find something resembling a trail again.  This went on for hours.  After losing the trail for the millionth time around 1:00 am, Ty said he needed to lay down to sleep for a little bit, to try to recharge.  We went back up the trail to get out of the cold by the creek, put on our Ultralight Down coats and Tights and laid down.  Then we heard thunder.

39 hours of being on the move, we lay down to take a break and it starts to rain, luckily the Forest Service Maps are huge, we both took one, spread it out over us and laid under the map during the downpour.  Ty dosed off for about 40 minutes but woke up to me shivering under my map and survival blanket, time to move again.  The next couple hours were some of the most desperate times I have ever had in the mountains, the trail was essentially non-existent and seemed to continuously be crossing the creek.  At one point we searched for 20 minutes without being able to make forward progress.  We had to hunker down until daylight.

The canyon walls were tight, no flat area.  Ty found a log and we propped up our feet against it, put all of our clothes on and wrapped the SOS blanket over our shoulders.  Waiting out the 2 hours until daylight.  We didn't get much rest at this point. About every 20 minutes we would have to change our position either because we were shivering too much or because our bodies hurt too much. This cycle lasted most of those two hours until daylight. To make it worse, we were not sure where we were, we felt very lost and were pretty much exhausted.  When it got to the point that we could hardly handle to discomfort any longer, it started to get light (and very very cold).  With light on our side we were able to make better route-finding (all bushwhacking at this point) and made ok time down canyon.  Every once and a while a small section of trail would appear, but then quickly disappear.

5 hours of travel later, we heard a yell.  I immediately asked Ty if he heard it too, as we had both been having some visual hallucinations during the night, he did and we scoured the area for signs of life.  After a few minutes we saw him, HANDSOME MATT! He had started up from the truck with food figuring we were out.  He had been moving for about an hour, and he affirmed we were in the right area but he hadn't been able to find the trail either.  We devoured the bananas and apples he had brought up (even though we still had a few gels left) and continued the tedious process of bushwhacking our way down.  It seemed easier though now that we knew we were going the right direction and that we were going to get out without requiring some type of rescue.

At 11:20 am, we had finally reached the end of our journey. We had been out for 51 hours an 50 minutes, ran 130+ miles, and climbed nearly 20,000 feet. It is still way to soon to fully wrap my head around this trip and all that happened out there.  It will take weeks, months or maybe even years for me to fully process it.  I will be posting a full gear and nutrition report later this week or next, as well as look forward to a post from Ty, on the La Sportiva Mountain Running Blog, and a few other places.  We have raised about $1000 so far for Save Our Wild Salmon, it is no too late to donate to them, they are really passionate about what they do and really are making a difference.

A very special thanks needs to go to Patagonia for making the kind of gear that make this trip possible. I am quite certain I would not be writing these words if it wasn't for their quality gear.  Also La Sportiva, they make an incredible shoe that can perform under all conditions and keep my feet as intact as possible.  I need to thank my wonderful family, particularly my wife, Tanae, this trip was tough on them, and they were doing a lot in the background to make sure we would get home if something went wrong.  Finally, thanks Ty, that was a big one and you didn't kill me for coming up with the idea, and you kept me motivated and moving the whole time. THANKS!


  1. Epic run guys! Reading about running when it's attached to a cause gives it a totally different feel.

  2. Man, crazy stuff. You guys are tough.

  3. Well played. Real adventure begins when things go wrong, real accomplishment when the outcome is never certain.

  4. Awesome. I've often thought about what it'd be like to run that. We float the Middle Fork almost every year. You're welcome to come along.