Starting out before light on a steep downhill trail with Mark and Lorelei, we were excited to be getting under way and looking forward to the day’s adventure. Although my light was not as bright as I would have liked, we picked through the rocky single track with a minimal amount of stumbles. We reached the bottom and the footbridge fairly quickly and dropped our bags of supplies for later on the return trip.
As the sky lightened and the sun began creeping up over the mountains, the beauty of the canyon became more and more apparent. The single track trail paralleling the North Fork of the American River provided amazing glimpses of the water below and the trees above. We could see the evidence of bears and mountain lions, although we didn’t see any face to face.
We made one small wrong turn that forced us to scramble up the hill back to the correct trail when the trail we were on came to a sudden end. Running away from the river, past the farm, up the road, through the gate, we came to the first climb and there is where the running came to a stop for a while. We hacked and bush-wacked our way through the blackberries up the old Pioneer Mine to find our first book and remove our respective pages. We stopped to read our pages (in order) aloud, which made us feel much better about tearing pages out of a book; we certainly were not destroying literature. Continuing on the, slightly better, trail, we soon reached a jeep road and could run again. Here is where we met up with Ingrid and Ray, who had missed the turn and were doing this loop in reverse. We continued back around, wondering if we would meet up with them again at the other end of the loop and increase our party by two. We made good time running down the gradual descent on good road and soon found ourselves on very runable single track again bordering the creek as we made our way towards book 2.
We repelled down a small drop with a handy rope left for that purpose and took a couple of pictures crossing the creek. The instructions we had directed us to proceed up “the steepest way possible.” What we were not quite prepared for is how steep Ebeneezer’s Highway turned out to be. Crawling, pulling, climbing! No running and very little standing up right took place on this. At one point I lost footing and slid for some distance back down toward where I had come from. I grabbed a tree and stopped myself just before the slope’s steepness increased dramatically and it was here, hanging onto that tree looking down at the creek, hundreds of feet below me, that I realized this was not your typical weekend run.
There were no safety patrols or sweepers. There were no EMTs or medics at aid stations. There were no aid stations. This was real risk! It occurred to me there that I could actually get seriously injured or even die out here.
From there we picked our own paths up to the ridge. We wove our traversing trails back and forth across each other’s. we came across others, one on his way back to a DNF and a couple on their way back to a complete run, as well as some going the same direction we were. We didn’t even all see the same people, re-emphasizing just how vast this hillside is. We joined forces again at Humbug Ridge and ran much of the way to the drop bag location. Although we somehow spread out, with Mark up front, Lorelei behind and myself somewhere in between. At least, until I ran past the turn and got a half mile too far up the road before Race Director, Sean, caught me and guided me back. Lorelei was resting and decided to cut the day short. Mark had already left to go back and Starchy, who had been on the same hill with us had just arrived as well.
After some food and refilling the water and Gatorade and some rest, Starchy and I headed back down the ridge. Our thinking was that, if we could angle down Ebeneezer’s and cross the creek closer to the river, we could save some time and make it back to the footbridge to maybe have time to climb the last hill and get our last book page. That’s where things went wrong.
We found a relatively easy way down the hill and, with a lot of zigging and zagging, we climbed down to the creek and took a couple of pictures before we crossed the ankle-deep water and found a way up the other side. Knowing that we would have to go right after crossing the creek, we angled up and right. We soon discovered that the climb was tougher, steeper, and longer than we thought it should be to get back to the road. If we could just make it up this cliff we would have a better vantage point and be able to get our bearings to plot the remainder of our course back.
Leaves and loose rock made climbing/hiking/crawling/scrambling difficult. It seemed like the top of an outcropping of rock would provide a better view and easier climbing. About 10-15 feet up a hand hold came free and I was headed back down, back first, head towards the bottom. I landed with a crash that sent leaves and rocks and dirt down towards Starchy. When the dust settled and he called out “you OK?” My response was that I was taking inventory. After a few moments I replied that I had hurt my thumb and my ankle, but nothing seemed broken. Once I could stand we made it to the top of the rocks and discovered we were no more than halfway up the side of this mountain. Time to check the map and compass.
Starchy discovered that we were getting further from our former trail and that, in fact, we had crossed the river and not the creek and that we were actually angling away from our destination. Time to turn around and head back. The climb back down to the river was at least as treacherous as the climb up and it took a combination of sliding, falling and climbing to get down to the water. Now we needed to head down stream to the creek and get back on course. But now we were almost out of light, the temperature was falling and we were miles off course in an area that no one would even think to look for us.
We crossed the river several times, but headed in the right direction, in order to walk on whichever side looked more walkable. Several times we had to scramble up and around and back down because the river was too deep to cross or walk thorough. Realizing that we were at least 3 miles from where anyone would look for us, I was beginning to feel anxious and thinking of news reports I have seen over the years that start with “the bodies of two hikers were recovered…”
As a follower of Jesus Christ, it comes naturally to me to pray in times of crisis, although often later than I should. So I prayed. I prayed for courage, knowing that fear was a huge adversary here. I prayed for physical strength. I prayed for wisdom. I prayed for guidance. I suddenly felt calm and warm and prayed, “God, You told us that with the faith of a mustard seed we could move mountains. I don’t need You to move a mountain, just a creek, or us. Put us on the right path.”
In the next five minutes we stopped to take another look at the map and Starchy suddenly got excited and scrambled up the hill. “Get up here!” He calls out, “I’ve got good news.”
“You found the creek?”
“You found the path?”
“I’m not spoiling the surprise.”
I scrambled up the hill and found myself standing on the path. THE path. We were now on our the same trail we started on, at least two miles downstream of where we thought we were. We were on the other side of the creek, although we had not crossed it. We were less than 3 miles from the footbridge and food; 5 miles from the finish. One last climb. 1800 feet up… and drive home. What started as 25 miles with 10000 feet of climb ended up being 30 miles with 16000 feet of climb.
Much of the “adventure” I put in my life has no real risk. Many of the things I do to overcome my fears contains no real danger, but feigned danger… a safety net… a cushion. This didn’t. This was real.
Truth be told, many will probably explain God out of this, but I won’t.