I have a “I’ll figure it out” approach to, well, anything I’m trying for the first time, and I definitely have that attitude to trails and trail running. For example, I never never read trail descriptions for an ultramarathon race aside from the trail description in race marketing (e.g., rolling single track, some technical climbs). After some experience racing, I now know that “rolling single track” means hidden roots and rocks will cause you to fall over and over until your knees and palms are bloody, and “Some technical climbs” means the course will climb a mountain, maybe two, and I’ll lose most of my toenails by the end of the race. Other than the information I intuit from the race description, though, I don’t really feel like I need more information about the course. For me, knowing that a trail is going to climb for five miles and then steeply descend for three or that three last mile of the course will be straight uphill isn’t useful information.
In part, that’s because if I know what is coming on the trail ahead of me, I’ll get anxious about it until I’ve finished it. And the second reason is that the first reason is the only reason. I like to be kept in the dark about the course beyond the basics (e.g., distance). I don’t want to know what is coming on the trail ahead of me, because I want to enjoy whatever mile I’m in without anticipating (read: dreading) what is coming next. Plus, I know that climbs turn into descents, eventually. I admit that this lack of interest in the details is not always clever, especially when information about the course would be helpful, say if I’ll have several river crossings and should therefore bring an extra pair of socks.
In the spirit of complete disclosure, I don’t see this habit changing. It certainly didn’t when I climbed Mollie’s Nipple last week. As the pandemic has lengthened and all of my races have been cancelled, I’ve been finding alternate ways to combine my love for competition with my love of the outdoors while maintaining appropriate social distancing. My solution, then, is to try to climb and set speed records on all of the trails that are local to me. For better or for worse, my local trails haven’t been packed like those to the north of me – when I’m running, I rarely see more that five people. To find local trails, I’ve been using the AllTrails app (which I highly recommend). AllTrails lets the user search by current location, which has allowed me to identify all of the trails in my area. AllTrails also rates trails as easy, medium, and hard.
Now, those ratings are useful, or, at least, they should be. But this being the first time I was using the app to find a trail, I didn’t know how those classification decisions were made. And, of course, not reading the trail description much beyond the first few sentences, I couldn’t discern whether hard meant hard or hard. The mountain (and hike) names Mollie’s Nipple was rated hard, but since it was only four miles long, I figured it would be fine for a mid-run break. I downloaded the GPS for the start of the trail and used the AllTrails GPS app to stay on the trail during the climb. I should say, in my review of the hike, that all errors are mine. Had I read the full trail description and instructions, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have made the mistakes I did. But I didn’t, and I likely won’t for all the reasons previously discussed.
And so, I ran my planned six miles before heading to the start of the trail (I’d call it a trailhead, but there was not a trail nor any sort of label on this trail). I figured this hike would be a quick climb, perfect for a break before I ran back home. I started up the trail, which ran up to a water tank before the trail seemed to verge to the right, following the side of a stream bed. Had I looked more closely, I would have seen that the trail also diverged to the left. The trail to the left went straight up to the top of Mollie’s Nipple. The trail to the right climbed into the forest. I chose the right, and the right was wrong.
Almost immediately, I started to have trouble finding the trail. It completely disappeared within a half of a mile of the water tank, and I found that the only way I could stay on the gps path was to hug the stream bed. I tried, valiantly, to keep my feet dry, but hugging the stream bed né trail meant that first my left foot, then my right slipped into the water. I gave up on trying to keep my feet try, but I still found myself sure that there must be a real trail somewhere close to the stream but not in it, so I’d regularly leave the stream bed to bushwack to what I hoped was a trail only to find myself back at the stream bed because the foliage was too impenetrable or I got too far off of the GPS. At one point, I thought I found the real trail and climbed up a mountain, only to check my gps and find that I had headed a quarter mile off trail uphill. Several times during this first mile and a half I almost turned back, but I persisted. After a mile or so, the trail left the stream bed and was even runnable in places.
Relieved, I was able to run up the rest of the first ascent without watching my gps constantly, until I reached what must have been a utility road. I ran along it, immersed in my thoughts until I stopped to take a picture of the valley and checked my route to see that I was off the trail again. Chagrined, I took a picture and retraced my steps and found where I’d gone off the trail. From here, the trail was virtually indiscernable, and I had to keep the gps open and my eyes on it to ensure that I didn’t lose my way as I climbed to the summit. Having to hold onto my phone was frustrating, too, because it meant I didn’t have my hands for balance as I climbed over boulders and stepped on the uncertain, precariously places rocks. Luckily, I found a bit of a trail again, and I was able to climb up to the summit. Relieved to reach the top, I rested, took a few photos, and readied myself to head down.
As I stood at the top, I couldn’t see a trail off the mountain anywhere. I wandered for a bit, trying to find one, one eye on the gps, the other on my feet as I tried to stay upright. I never quite found the trail off of the summit, but as I wandered, the “20% battery remaining” notification flashed on my phone. I felt myself begin to panic, and I paused. Panic is the worst thing one can do whilst in the outdoors, so I took this opportunity to stop and scan my surroundings. I never found the “right” trail off the mountain, but I did find a trail further down that headed toward the trailhead, so I headed there. Finally, I found the trail – it was a relief, but the trail was so steep and technical that my descent was semi- controlled chaos. Yet, I made it down. After shaking the smaller boulders out of my shoes, I ran back home.
Like all type 2 fun, The climb to Mollie’s Nipple was totally worth it in retrospect. Aside from not understanding what the “hard” designation meant on AllTrails (scrambling, bouldering in places), I actually did the trail in reverse. I wonder, although I’ll never know, because I don’t do the same trail twice (with a few exceptions), if doing it the right ways makes the trail easier to find. I do have some epic reminders of this hike, in the form of scratches and scrapes from bouldering in shorts and when I got attacked by a few large tree branches. I won’t do it again, but I highly recommend that you do it at least once.
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