Squaw Peak, Emigrant Peak and the Western States Trail
"Now and then nature produces a combination of land, water, sky, space, trees, animals, flowers, distances, and weather so perfect it looks like the hatching of a romantic fantasy. Every time we go out into the wilderness, we are looking for that perfect, primitive Eden. This time, we have found it."
– – Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1938)
I am a guest lecturer at a cardiology conference this weekend in Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, California. After arriving yesterday, I ran four miles around the valley to get the lay of the land and find the trailheads. I took a few hours this morning to run a portion of the course where the legendary Western States 100 begins.
The resort where I am staying is actually located about a mile from the WS 100 start at Squaw Valley Village. Fortunately, there was a pleasant wooded trail I was able to take instead of running along the paved road.
I had skied here when I lived in Reno 11 years ago. It was odd to see the resort quiet and empty like a ghost town, without snow and with a lot of dry-rotted wood and peeling paint. Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympic games but it has lost much of its original glory.
It was unclear to me where exactly the WS100 begins. I did not have any maps with me but the WS100 website was very helpful. Here is a view looking back down the valley. There are some nearby controlled burns going on, which made the sky an uncharacteristic hazy-gray. Here in the high Sierra, we usually expect crystal-blue skies with few clouds and no haze.
Going up the mountain, it was confusing to choose which trail/road to take. There were dozens of maintenence roads and trails. The ski lifts were hanging motionless, only swinging slightly and creaking in the breeze, adding an eerie mood. The snow making equipment is out and ready to go, in a few weeks this mountain will be snow-covered and busy with skiers. Today it is quiet with only me, a few hikers, some maintenence men and the ever-present squawking ravens.
My goal was to go to the Watson Monument and then run a few miles down the other side on the Western States trail before turning around. There were no signs pointing the way. The hikers I passed had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the Watson Monument or Western States Trail.
The above road is not the way to the WS100 trail. It turned out to be a wrong turn, going up Squaw Peak as I would discover later.
The lady at the hotel from whom I asked directions the previous day had not been helpful. She advised me: "Go up to High Camp and turn left." Well, there were many lefts. She should have told me "…and go west."
But I didn't know that at the time. So as advised, I took the most obvious"left" and went south.
It was beautiful here. I soon realized that I had taken a wrong turn. No matter. I was curious where the trail led so I continued. I saw a red tail hawk floating below me. As I approached the pass, the wind picked up, but not cool enough to be uncomfortable, and the scent of woodsmoke was on the air.
As long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the mountains…the Appalachians, the Alps, the Rockies, the Tetons, the Wind Rivers, the Bighorns, the San Juans, the Flat Tops, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada… all mountains everywhere. I cannot explain why. It is something deep in my soul, almost spiritual, and impossible to put into words. Some folks go to church…. I prefer the high lonely places.
Jeanne and I spent six months riding our horses and pack mules on the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Wyoming the summer of 1998 as our honeymoon. Perhaps what draws me to trail and ultra running now is the opportunity to spend some time in my beloved mountains? Jeanne and I might never again be able to take off six months, but I can run 50 (and someday I hope 100) miles in the mountains over a weekend.
On the top, I realized that I had mistakenly climbed Squaw Peak. The Watson Monument and next to it the WS100 trail, was beyond Emigrant Peak a couple of miles or so to the north.
I enjoyed the views, ate an energy bar and took a few photos. In the above photo looking to the southeast, there is Lake Tahoe, hazy and difficult to see, because of the smoke. In the distance, just over the ridge and to the left, you can see one of the fires burning.
I enjoyed running back down the mountain. Down is definitely easier than up.
I saw a inconspicious trail that appeared to go in the correct direction so I took it. The mountain pictured above is Squaw Peak which I had just climbed.
As soon as I reached the pass, I knew that I had found the correct way.
At the top is the Watson Monument, named after Robert Mongomery Watson. Constructed in 1852, the Placer County Emigrant Road served overland emigrants before later becoming a supply route for Virginia City, Silver City and other towns of the Comstock Lode.
In the summer of 1931, the horseman Robert Mongomery Watson along with the "Sons of the Golden West," completed marking the trail from Auburn to Lake Tahoe, which is now known as the Western States Trail.
Since 1955, a 100 mile 24 hour horse race from Truckee to Auburn, called the Tevis Cup, has been run on these trails.
In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh became the father of trail ultramarathon running and a legend in his own time when he became the first human to complete the entire course on foot. He had ridden in the Tevis Cup in 1971 and 1972 but in 1973 his horse was pulled at mile 29 due to lameness. When his horse again came up lame before the 1974 race, Gordy declared he would run the race on foot. He finished incoherent but with a still impressive time of 23:47.
And that is how the Western States 100 Endurance Foot Race, and of all mountain ultramarathoning in the US began. Other runners attempted the same feat in 1975 and 1976. In 1977, the first official WS100 footrace was run. Of the fourteen runners in that first race, eleven dropped out or were pulled by midpoint.
Since then, Western States has become one of the world's best known ultra-running events. It is literally the "Boston Marathon" of 100 mile trail ultramarathons. In 1988, the Granite Chief Wilderness Area was formed, resulting in four miles of the trail being in the wilderness boundary. Because formal races are not permitted in Wilderness Areas, it took much negotiating with the Forest Service and finally an act of congress, before the race was permitted to go on.
The number of runners allowed to run, 369, is set at the number of runners who participated in 1984. The Forest Service allows the 369 to be an average over five years, so some years there may be more or less than this magic number "369."
The event is so well known and so much in demand, that the lottery for last year gave an only 16% chance. Like any other ultrarunner, I dream of running WS100. However, with the odds being so poor and there being so many other ultramarathons out there, chances are slim that I'll ever even bother applying.
This past summer, the WS100 was cancelled for the first time ever, due to smoke and forest fires. The runners for 2008 were automatically offered slots for 2009. With the lottery for 2008 accepting only 16% of applicants and the outlook for future lotteries no better, this run may be the only way I ever get to see these trails
From the photo above, I believe it would be another 95 or so miles to Auburn.
I ran a couple of miles on the trail, but soon had to head back. My total today was just under 18 miles, a little longer than my anticipated 10 or 15 miles, but the extra miles and side trip up Squaw Peak was well worth it.
The Western States Trail and the surrounding mountains are hallowed ground in my opinion. I am glad to have had the opportunity to have seen just this tiny portion of it. The ill-fated Donner Party met their untimely end not far from here. I can only imagine the hardships faced and challenges overcome by the others who have come before.
I might never get a chance to run the WS100 but I can still dream, can't I?