TRANS SIERRA EXPRESS
Or how to run across the Sierra Nevada and beat the car – introducing the Trans Sierra Express!
This summer I thought about the following challenge: I bet that I could cross the Sierra Nevada range running and go faster than a car which would have to drive around it! And I won (kind of)!
I decided that the race would start from Cedar Grove / Road’s End on the west side of the Sierra Nevada and end on the East Side at Onion Valley Campground. By foot (running) it’s a 22 miles trail run (with 7,000 ft of climbing eastbound, less westbound). By car, it’s a 354 miles ride taking 7 hours according to Google maps (not counting pit stops). I thought I could beat that both ways so I got started with preparations.
Initially, I was going to have a friend drive me to Kanawyers / Road End and drive to Onion Valley. I wanted to document the adventure as a race against each other. It didn’t work out that way and the alternative was that my family and some friends would go camping at Onion Valley. I would run from Cedar Grove, sleep at Onion Valley one night and run back the next day.
For the schedule, taking the weather into consideration, it seemed that the end of August would be fine, although I thought that thunderstorms are more frequent then. The Onion Valley campers would leave Los Angeles and set up camp there on the 22. I couldn’t leave Los Angeles before the 23 so I decided I would leave home at 3 or 4 am, drive to Cedar Grove and run right away!
Regarding the route I would take there weren’t many options. I chose this part of the Sierra because it’s actually the shortest crossing, there is a maintained trail and there is no serious climbing. I studied maps (National Geographic Topo software, USGS maps, and the Topo app for the iPhone), photos (satellite and the great Quicktime VRs at Virtual Parks ) and a guide book (King’s Canyon National Park by Mike White). Although figuring out which way to go was easy the big unknown remained the condition of the trails.
Would I be able to run with Vibram 5 fingers or should I wear something more sturdy? Because I thought the trail could be quite rocky I decided to wear some light hiking boots. I was concerned about getting a sprained ankle so I wanted some ankle stability (never mind that I run 60 miles or more of trails every week in Vibram 5 fingers!). But… one rolled rock, ankle rolling with it and you’re two days limping out of a canyon.
GEAR AND SAFETY
Obviously the other big prep item was safety and gear… and total weight. I took my Black Diamond Speed 30 backpack and I packed:
- First Aid Kit
- Sleeping Bag (a 20F i don’t have anything else)
- Nemo Gogo
- 2 Nalgene wide mouth bottle w/ iodine water decontaminant, electrolyte caps.
- Food for two days (bars, jerky, [so sick of jerky], dried fruits, green tea energy shots)
- Knife, compass, map, sunscreen, iPhone, watch, headlamp, matches, DEET anti-mosquito spray (cancer in a bottle!)
- A light shell jacket, sunhat, and beanie
- Trekking poles
- I wore: long light trekking pants, compression socks (not for compression but because I believe they make it harder for snakes to bite), long sleeve technical white shirt. No cotton.
The full pack was around 30 pounds. The worst-case scenario I could envision at the time was to have to spend one night in the mountain. I wanted to feel as safe as possible and it’s mostly snakes that I don’t like so the terrain there doesn’t make me feel very cozy just sleeping under a tree (hence the bivy tent which would keep me dry if it rained). If I’d break or hurt something I would be less than eleven miles from help. I didn’t pack a beacon neither do I own one at this point. I believe in taking care of safety and the Spot isn’t entirely reliable (the only beacons that are fail-proof are the ACR Electronics products).
It doesn’t sound like much but it’s too much already. The guys at Onion Valley had the change of cloth and the refills for the way back. See below what I’ve learned and will modify for next year.
READY // SET // GO
On August 23 I got up at 3 am and was in the car at 3:40 am. It’s pretty awesome to go on the road at this time. I was already on the 99 when the sun was rising over the Sierra. Tonight I will be on the other side of this mountain range I thought! I chose to take the 245 to Cedar Grove, it has been resurfaced and it was a lot of fun to drive on it. My car is a lot of fun to drive on mountain roads.
I actually worked up a sweat driving! That is why they call them sports cars right? I didn’t go over the speed limit as I got a ticket last year and there are another two years until I can speed again (they should really sell speed permits don’t you think? We would be happy to pay what I spend on speeding tickets).
I reached the park entrance at 8:00 am and I parked at Road End at 8:50 and went to the ranger cabin to sign in but I didn’t need to since I wasn’t staying in the park overnight. Wasted a good 30 minutes there – well at least it was probably the right thing to tell them was I was up to. The ranger lady looked at me a bit weird first when I said I was about to run to the other side. When I said I was planning on less than 10 hours she relaxed a bit… The weatherboards gave a slight thunderstorm forecast but the ranger reassured me it was a very slight probability.
TRAILS AND LAKES
So at 9:30 am I was on the trail toward Bubb Creek Trail. Not exactly running but hiking really fast to warm up. I wanted to make it to the Onion Valley before nightfall but I had to be careful to not burn out, like any other endurance adventure (I train to run up to 50 miles in mountain terrain). My watch was indicating that nightfall was around 19:00.
I stopped about 10 minutes every hour as recovery, eating and to refill my water bottle from the creek or waterfall (sierra water tastes so nice and the coolness feels so good!). I took some notes regarding my position and time every I stopped. The trail wasn’t too exposed up until the lakes (Bullfrog Lake) but it was hot, maybe in the 90s. I was drinking a liter per hour.
The trail was tough at times, a lot of stairs! I was pretty happy to get going and going. That’s what I do. I made it to Junction Meadow by13:30 (about 12 miles in). At 16:00 I crossed the John Muir Trail, just before Bullfrog Lake. I met people here and there. It’s not a very crowded trail so it’s nice to run into people and chat a little. I met some guys traveling on horseback (A human on foot goes faster by the way!).
TRAILS AND HORSES
I met a guy who was in his 70s and looked like the healthiest person in the world. He and his friends were traveling for weeks on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). They had mailed their foods to stations along the way. How inspiring.
I stopped a little longer at Charlotte and Bullfrog Lakes because I’m just a sucker for alpine lakes. Fewer trees and foliage approaching the Kearsage Pass, higher altitude. The Sierra is just so beautiful. I could see the risk of a thunderstorm but it didn’t look like it was going to happen! Climbing up to Kearsage Pass was a little tough, mountaineer steps all the way up, no running at that point! The pass is at 11,800 ft or so. I was really happy when I got up there at 1800. It meant the bulk of the effort was done! Phew. The sky was looking amazing and I could see the other side of the Sierra, the Owen’s Valley! Going down to Onion Valley now!
This was a fun descent, I felt inclined to cut through some switchbacks to go faster, it’s a little bit like running down, skiing on rocks with shoes. Very fun. It’s illegal to cut switchbacks so I exercised restraint there. I passed a couple of beautiful alpine lakes. Then around 19:00, I could see the Onion Valley Campground parking lot. I could see my kids play on the parking lot! How fun! I made it! Almost there! This was great! I found the camp where everyone was.
Dinner had just been cooked, I made it in less than 10 hours. I was spent. More than even after an Ironman. I didn’t look too good according to my older son! I didn’t wear my sunglasses so I had a sunburned eyeball. But it was good to see everyone although everything seemed to happen in a blurry slow motion. I got cold as soon as night fell. And it was time to go to bed in the tent.
It was nice to have the camp and the food, thanks to all who helped there and set up camp a day earlier. Two nights and some relaxing at camp and it was time to go back. Must faster on the way west. I left on the 25 of August at 7:15. It took me 2 hours to get to Kearsage Pass in the beautiful morning light.
Then it was pretty much down all the time so I ran more! Yoohoo! I tripped a bunch of times and it was good to have the trekking poles to prevent falling. Eventually, I stubbed most of my toes (through the boots!). I made it in less than 7 hours and I took a break every hour. The last hour was very hot, in the flat going to Road End. My watch was showing temps above 100F. Still running and drinking! I was happy to see my car. I was feeling pretty strong – much easier that way and I beat the Google maps car estimate!
DRIVING BACK TO LA
Driving to LA wasn’t so much fun though. After 10 minutes driving, a park ranger pulled me over… for speeding! She didn’t give me a ticket though and oddly enough she asked: “Have you been running?”. How could she tell? Very strange! Then I decided to take the 180 instead of the 245. Big mistake, it was all under construction (and I should have known because I was stuck there a couple of weeks before!). Then there was a huge crash on the 5 right after the Grapevine and stop and go traffic for two hours. It took me longer to drive from Road End to LA than it took me to cross the Sierra by foot… happy to be home. All my family had driven from Onion Valley.
I haven’t felt such a sense of athletic accomplishment since my first Ironman or the first time I sailed a boat by myself on the ocean. I will do it again, running with 5Finger Vibrams each way and with a lighter pack. I’ll carry a small water bottle and a large one instead of two large ones (drinking from the small one while the iodine does its job for 30 min in the big one – I could also carry only one bottle and use a Steripen – although I’m not sure the Steripen is 100% reliable). I’ll pack a summer sleeping sheet and no sleeping bag and cut the breaks to 5 minutes only. Also, I’d get more high altitude run training (I was slow on the last climb to the pass at 11,800ft).
Finally, after I was done and while I was stuck in traffic I started to dream about doing the same course but in winter. It will take a while but it might be possible depending on snow conditions, mostly avoiding avalanches. And in winter days are shorter… Just something to think about!