One of the things I’d been curious to see when running the Kodiak 50K in mid-August was how the summit snow band on San Gorgonio Mountain was holding up. The answer turned out to be fairly well. Now, a few weeks later, I was back on Gorgonio, chugging up the South Fork Trail, and on my way to see if any snow remained on the mountain.
Runoff from thunderstorms during the week had left the trail rocky and rutted. From the views of the mountain I’d glimpsed from the trail, I wondered if the rain had also washed away any remaining patches of snow.
In addition to that question, I also want to follow up on my earlier “field checks” this Summer and see how much water there was in Dry Lake, and if any snow remained in the avalanche debris above Dry Lake.
I was about a quarter-mile from the Dry Lake – Dollar Lake junction at South Fork Meadows, making decent time, when I heard footsteps behind me. I stepped to the side so he could pass, and we talked as we worked up the trail. Kevin said he’d been climbing in the Sierra just about every weekend and was really well-acclimated.
I asked him what route he was doing to the summit, and he said the Dry Lake route. I told him I was doing the Dollar Lake Trail route up and the Dry Lake route down. He was clearly moving faster than me and said he was shooting for a time of 4:20 to the summit. I mentioned the Dollar Lake route was shorter and faster, and depending on the number of stops for photos, I expected to get to the summit in around 3:45. We talked about some Sierra peaks and being in the mountains, and after a couple of minutes, he began to pull away.
The early morning temperature had been a little more chilly than my earlier trips up Gorgonio this Summer. I debated pulling on my sleeves, but by the time I was in the sun on the Dollar Lake Trail, the temperature had warmed to a comfortable 50-something — perfect for ascending the peak.
The summit of San Gorgonio was a very busy place when I arrived. I’d estimate 40-50 people were on or around the summit. Most were part of one huge group that had come up Vivian Creek.
Kevin caught up to me on the descent of the Sky High Trail. We’d both made the summit within a couple of minutes of our projections, leaving little doubt that the Dollar Lake Trail is the fastest route to the summit from the South Fork Trailhead.
I didn’t see any snow remaining in the avalanche debris above Dry Lake. The lake itself was in great shape, and the streams at South Fork Meadows were flowing nearly as vigorously as they had been a month ago.
Update November 26, 2019. A small amount of snow from the 2018-19 season has survived on San Gorgonio Mountain until the first persistent snow of the 2019-20 season! Copernicus Sentinel satellite imagery from November 17, 2019 showed small patches of snow in two areas. The first winter storm of the season brought snow to the mountains a couple days later, and more snow is expected over the Thanksgiving holidays.
As is usual, it’s been hot and dry in the Los Angeles area this summer. Most of the low elevation wildflowers have come and gone, and the last measurable rain at Downtown Los Angeles (USC) was more than 90 days ago.
Even so, there are still some colorful reminders of our wet 2018-19 rain season sprinkled along the trails of the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills.
In the wake of all that rain, and the blooms that followed, several chaparral shrubs have had large crops of berries and fruit, among them hollyleaf redberry (Rhamnus ilicifolia), holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).
Are they edible? While all three plants were used as food sources by indigenous populations, knowledge of appropriate use and preparation is essential for safe consumption.
Working up the rocky trail, I looked to my left across the broad valley to San Gorgonio Mountain. There was still a narrow strip of snow near its summit, bright white in the morning sun.
I was about 5.5 miles into the Kodiak 50K and nearing the top of 9952′ Sugarloaf Mountain. There wasn’t any snow here, but the morning had been cool — at least by Southern California summer standards.
This was my sixth time running Kodiak. The first four times were at the 50M distance, and this year and last, I’d opted for the 50K. There have been a lot of changes in the Kodiak Ultra Marathons since the first 100M & 50M were run in 2013.
Initially held in late September, the event moved to an August date in 2017. 50K options were added in 2015. For the first three years the Kodiak courses were run in the counterclockwise direction. In 2016 the direction switched to clockwise and then alternated direction each year through 2018. This year the direction was the same as in 2018 — clockwise.
The general idea has remained the same. The 100 milers run a loop around Big Bear Lake. On the way, they ascend Sugarloaf Mountain, and also descend thousands of feet into the dank depths of Bear Canyon. The 50 milers run from the north side of the lake to the Finish, climbing either the Siberia Creek Trail if the course direction is counterclockwise, or Sugarloaf Mountain if the course is run clockwise. The options for 50Kers have varied from year to year.
This year the 100M start time was moved to 6:00 p.m. This put 100M runners beginning the descent into Bear Canyon between about 8:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. — a much cooler time of day. The trade-off was that they would be doing the 3000′ climb up Sugarloaf Mountain with about 67 miles on their legs, and many of the runners would run into a second night.
There were two notable changes in the Kodiak 50K this year. One adjustment is that it started two hours earlier — at 6:00 a.m. The other is that it was a couple of rocky miles longer than last year. The mileage was added on the descent of Sugarloaf — with runners looping down Wildhorse Meadow Road instead of retracing their route on the Sugarloaf Trail. My watch recorded a distance of about 34.5 miles and corrected elevation gain of about 6800′.
Because of the change in the 100M and 50K start time, we were ahead of many of the 100M and 50M runners, but we did get to see the 100M leaders flying down Sugarloaf.
The weather was cool in the morning and warm in the afternoon. At Big Bear Airport the overnight low Friday night was 37°F and the high on Saturday was 77°F. With the clear skies, it was hot on exposed, south-facing trails. The Converse RAWS (5618′) recorded a high (inside a ventilated instrument housing) of 84°F; however the “fuel temperature” of a pine dowel in direct sun hit 106°F. In my experience, the fuel temperature is a better indicator of the temperature runners might encounter on sun-baked sections of trail.
My run went well. There was no repeat of the leg cramps I experienced near the end of this year’s ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 50K. This 50K was longer, had more elevation gain, was at higher elevation, and was generally more technical, but my legs behaved the entire time. That’s the riddle of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC). Sometimes you get leg cramps and sometimes you don’t. In this race I made sure that I stayed well-hydrated and fueled. I also used poles on the steeper climbs.
This was one of those races that I could just run and enjoy. It was great to talk with Diana, Gloria and Greg along the way. The runners you meet during races are often very accomplished and usually have some unique stories to share!
Many thanks to Kodiak Race Director Susie Schmelzer, Course Director Harald Zundel, and Communications Director John Emig and to Team Kodiak, all the volunteers, sponsors, Bear Valley SAR, HAM operators, medical personnel, City of Big Bear Lake, US Forest Service, Big Bear Trails Foundation, RIM Nordic and Open Air Big Bear, and everyone that helped put on the event.
The weather was Southern California perfect. Shorts and short-sleeves were the dress of the day. Winds were light, no thunderstorms were in the forecast and no large wildfires polluted the air. Although temps in the valleys were nearing 100 degrees, the weather on the summit of 11,499′ San Gorgonio Mountain was altitude-conditioned bliss.
I’d spent about 15 minutes enjoying the summit, then run back down the Summit Trail. Turning left onto the Sky High Trail, I continued a keyhole loop that had ascended the South Fork Trail, Dollar Lake, and San Bernardino Divide Trails. Altogether, the route was about 21 miles long and the approximate elevation gain/loss was 4700′.
From the start of the run, the effects of the wet 2018-19 Winter and big snowpack were everywhere. Wildflowers bloomed in profusion, seeps and small streams greened the landscape, and grasses and ferns grew thick beneath the trees. The roar of the streams at South Fork Meadows left little doubt as to what kind of Winter it had been.
On the way up the Dollar Lake Trail, I’d seen elongated patches of snow in the chutes along the crest. While there was no snow directly on the trail between Dollar Lake Saddle and the summit, there was more snow than usual on the north side of the peaks.
But there was snow on the Sky High Trail. Topping out at over 11,300′, the Sky High Trail is one of the most spectacular trails in Southern California. I marvel at its airy location every time I run it. Near the top of the trail, I’d crossed a small patch of snow and thought, “Well, at least there was a little snow on the trail.”
A little disappointed, I’d put my poles away and continued running down the trail. At around 11,100′ I rounded a corner and surprise, surprise — there was a much larger patch of snow on a southeast-facing section of trail. It was about 100 yards across and steep enough that a fall would be a bad idea. Fortunately, the snow conditions were perfect. A few hikers had recently traversed the snowfield, and I followed in their footsteps.
However, that wasn’t the last of the snow. At an elevation of about 10,200′, not far past the C-47 crash site, the trail crosses a long chute that extends nearly to the top of Gorgonio. The snow in that chute had melted just enough that a thin strip of trail was exposed.
Thinking that had to be the last of the snow, I continued the traverse to Mineshaft Saddle (9936′) and began the descent of the Dry Lake Trail. Once past a rocky section of the trail, I picked up the pace, energized by the increased oxygen at lower elevation. Enjoying the downhill, I descended into an area of converging chutes and gullies, when the path through the lodgepole forest abruptly ended.
The trail was obliterated. Large trees were ripped from the ground, broken, tossed, and piled up as if they were matchsticks. Underneath the debris were mounds of dense, icy snow — the remnants of an avalanche. This report on SoCalSnow.org includes photos of an avalanche in February 2019 on the north face of San Gorgonio and mentions previous avalanches.
That snow, at an elevation of about 9400′, had finally been the last on the trail. Because the compressed snow is effectively a big block of ice, it could be around for a while.
In the area of the avalanche, the Dry lake Trail enters a large area of rocky rubble that extends into the Big Draw. According to the Dibblee Geologic Map for San Gorgonio Mountain, this rubble is glacial till, produced by the largest of several pocket glaciers that existed on San Gorgonio Mountain, Shields Peak, and San Bernardino Peak.
Continuing down the trail to Dry Lake I saw where some of this season’s meltwater had gone — for the first time since 2011, Dry Lake was full in late July.
Last Saturday’s run was so enjoyable that yesterday I went back to Gorgonio and did it again. As might be expected during a Southern California Summer heatwave, the snow on the Sky High Trail, and elsewhere, is melting fast and won’t be around for long.
Here are a few photos taken along the way. The album includes photos from both the July 27 and August 3 runs. A couple of photos from a run on September 7 were also added.
Following our five year drought, Downtown Los Angeles and many neighboring areas recorded above-average rainfall in two of the last three rain years. This has had obvious and observable effects on the area’s plants and animals and aided in the ongoing recovery of habitats affected by drought and wildfire.
This is the first time since the Summer of 2011 that there has been flowing water in upper Las Virgenes Creek in mid-July at the crossing near the Cheeseboro connector. It’s just a trickle, but keep in mind that during some of the drought years, this section of upper Las Virgenes Creek never flowed.
Update November 19, 2019. Increased surface water and pooling in Upper Las Virgenes Creek. See the post Running Into Fall.
Update August 28, 2019. The surface flow of Upper Las Virgenes Creek near the Cheeseboro connector is down to a bare trickle and some small pools.
Update August 7, 2019. Upper Las Virgenes Creek is still trickling.
Notes: In rain year 2016-17 Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded 19.00 inches of rain from July 1 to June 30, and in 2018-19, 18.82 inches. During the intervening rain year, 2017-18, only 4.79 inches was recorded.
The race was going well. We’d made the 3:05 p.m. cutoff at West Fork (Mile 26.5 of the 50K) with an hour to spare and I was feeling good. One reason was that temps for the race were not nearly as hot as in 2017 and 2018. For the most part heat had not been an issue. Even so, with the clear sky and strong sun, it had still been toasty on the climb up to Lawlor Saddle and descent from Red Box.
On the way down from Red Box, I’d started running with German, who was running the Angeles National Forest Trail Race (ANFTR) as his first 50K. He’d run the Los Angeles Marathon a few months before and was curious to see what ultras were all about. He knew he’d picked a good one. I told him the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 50K was a favorite, and one of the best organized races that I had run.
Born in the ingenious mind of RD Gary Hilliard in 2005, the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races are unique. Most mountain ultras start low, climb to one or more high points, and eventually descend to the finish. The ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment courses do the opposite. They start on top of Mt. Wilson, and many miles later, finish with a grueling 5.5 mile, 2600′ climb from West Fork back to the top of Mt. Wilson.
We’d refilled at West Fork, taken a couple of minutes to cool down, and then had continued west on the Gabrielino Trail, jogging the level stretches and avoiding the poison oak prevalent on that section of trail. Reaching the Kenyon Devore Trail, I said something like, “The fun begins!” and we headed up the steepening trail. Both of us had done Kenyon Devore recently in training, and I’d done it many times in previous ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races.
I felt the first twinge around mile 29. Just a little flicker in an adductor. I’m used to this. Although I’ve not had any chronic mechanical issues with my knees and feet, in about two-thirds of my 50K and longer races I’ve been hit with leg cramps. Researchers refer to this type of cramping as Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC).
EAMC is no fun at all. The cramps, usually in the active leg muscles, can be intense and painful. They often occur late in a race — right around the time you’re getting excited about finishing and want to pick up the pace on the final few miles of the course. They are disconcerting and frustrating.
I’ve researched EAMC for many years, followed the science, and tried many remedies and solutions. Everyone has their favorites. Two of mine are pickle juice and jalapeño chips. Nothing I’ve tried has worked reliably and the research I’ve reviewed suggests there is no magic bullet for dependably preventing this type of cramping.
Much has been written about EAMC. Following are links to a couple of papers that summarize some of the research:
Like many who experience EAMC, I seldom get cramps in training runs — even very long and difficult training runs. For those of us that are prone to cramping, there are a multitude of interrelated factors that determine if cramping occurs, and if it does, how severe the cramps will be.
The most common scenario for me is that somewhere in the last few miles of a race I will feel a twinge in an adductor or hamstring. I’ll stretch; drink more water; maybe take an electrolyte tab or two and continue. Sometimes that will be that, but more often than not, the twinges develop into a familiar cycle of disruptive cramping — a sequence of the adductor and hamstring muscles in one leg cramping, followed sometime later by the adductor and hamstring in the other leg.
Once cramping starts, I walk. In my experience, walking usually helps to alleviate the cramping, particularly on level and downhill sections. If I can keep moving the cramps will often resolve in a few minutes. Then I can continue more or less normally, and can go back to running. Once the cramps have cycled through both legs, they usually don’t reoccur.
This time around I’d continued to feel various twinges, and then around mile 30, WHAM! It felt like every muscle in both legs cramped at once. I had no choice, but to sit down in the middle of the trail.
I’d been telling German about my cramping woes, so he wasn’t caught totally off guard. In the middle of all the drama, I kept saying I had to get up and get moving — not because I was worried about the time — but because I thought it would help resolve the cramps. At one point the cramping started to subside, but just trying to stand up was enough to trigger them again.
Eventually I was able to stand and slowly start hobbling up the trail. It seemed like I had been sitting for a long time, but according to my GPS track, we were only stopped for about 5 minutes.
At first, I had to be very careful about re-triggering the cramps. There were a few places where the trail steepened, and I could feel I was on the brink of cramping again. Keeping a constant, easy pace that didn’t overtax any individual muscle group was key. Gradually, I was able to resume a more normal gait. Not wanting to cramp again, I kept the pace slow.
My legs behaved for the remainder of the climb, and German and I happily reached the top of Mt. Wilson and crossed the finish line with a smile. We even jogged the last few steps! I congratulated him on finishing his first 50K and thanked him for hanging with me through the cramping episode. After finishing, I walked around for about 10 minutes. In my experience this helps to keep the post-race cramps at bay, and they didn’t reoccur.
As in every race in which I’ve cramped, I’ve asked myself what I might have done differently. I was heat-acclimated. I did several ANFTR-specific training runs starting and finishing at the top of Mt. Wilson. Maybe these runs could have been longer, done at a faster pace, or in combination with another strenuous run — with the idea of being more fatigued on the climb back up the peak. My fueling and hydration seemed to be pretty good, but maybe I need more carbohydrates and fluids than I think. I tapered normally, but have noticed in other races that less of a taper may help with cramping. One thing that might have really helped on this course is the use of trekking poles.
Follow-up December 2019: I had no cramping at all during the Kodiak 50K in August, but did have some moderate leg cramps during the Rocky Peak 50K in October.
This was my twelfth finish of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 50K. It is a challenging, superbly organized race on a spectacular course. Many, many thanks to RDs Gary & Pam Hilliard; the aid station and ham radio volunteers; Sierra Madre SAR; Angeles National Forest; the race sponsors; and all those that make this such an outstanding event.