Location- side of trail
Elevation- 6,890 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 62 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 1,170.3 miles
Weather/Temp- smokey, cloudy, 70s
Injuries- scratches, hurt feet
Pain level- Very High
Wildlife encounters- Pronghorn, wild horses, jack rabbits, ptarmaghen, horny toad, deer, coyotes
Days without shower- 4
Days without laundry- 13
And so it began. Three long trails, three 24 hour challenges. Third times a charm, or so they say. It had been my goal to break the 60 mile mark since my original 24 hour hike attempt on the AT back in 2014. Then I came close to reaching it on the PCT last year, but it didn’t play out. Each time I felt like I had a good reason for not making it, but the sense of failure was always strong the next morning. This year I wasn’t in nearly as good a shape as I was on the PCT when I did my challenge last year, but this challenge had better results.
I wasn’t taking any chances this year. I pulled out all the stops. Making sure all food and snack levels were where they needed to be, as well as going overboard with the preemptive body gliding and body powdering. I would have liked to have had my endurance levels a little higher, but hey, I can’t have it all.
So I was up and packed with Puma at 6:30 am, then back up at the trail by 7 am. We milled around, ate some snacks, and psyched ourselves up for a few minutes. I let Puma start 5 minutes ahead of me. He’s a faster hiker, so I didn’t want to start the challenge while watching him slowly pull further ahead of me, I’d rather him just begin further ahead. At 7:15 am sharp, I began my 24 hour challenge for the third time. It was not uneventful…
To my immense frustration, the very first 6.5 miles were not even trail. It was a bushwack through sagebrush plains. Set a course, walk, check GPS, adjust course, repeat. In a nearly featureless landscape, it’s difficult to maintain a straight line.
Despite the lack of trail, I showed no mercy to the sagebrush. Rather than weave between them, I simply walked through, over, and onto them. As a result I maintained a 3.5 mph pace, but accrued some nice scratches at the base of my shins.
After the bushwack we joined a jeep track. Jeep road/track is basically any kind of remote/obscure road through the backcountry. The entire basin was nothing but a web of jeep track roads and cow trails.
As far as the physical act of hiking went, it was incredibly mundane. The terrain was not flat, however when it did climb or descend it was for the most part very gentle, sometimes imperceptible. There were a few steep climbs, but they were short lived to the point of being un-noteworthy. So with the mild terrain, the unvaried stride became monotonous…fast, but monotonous. Performing the exact same motion over and over again without any kind of deviation is immeasurably boring, and wears on the muscles and joints faster than if you were changing up your mechanics over varied terrain and inclines.
Speaking of the trail terrain, it was a constant mixture of broken rock, deep beach type sand, gravel, dirt, and shallower sand. The rock and deep sand was undoubtedly the least desired trail condition, and made for the hardest, slowest, or most painful hiking.
The uniform desolation of the Great Basin was breathtakingly beautiful. Overwhelming, harsh, and intimidating for sure, but the uniqueness of the landscape was undeniable. When I say there wasn’t a shred of shade to be found out there, I mean it. You could possibly find a rock overhang in certain sections, and even a few trees throughout one short, higher elevation section; but for the most part it was 100% exposure.
Water was scarce, but not un-findable. There were reliable natural springs throughout the entire Basin, but they were being guarded by hoards of cows, herds of wild horses, and throngs pronghorn. The water sources were always marked by increased animal presence, and animal presence was always present within the water (yeah, you guessed it).
The wildlife wasn’t only to be found around the watering holes. The entire Basin was positively crawling with animals; the first most common being cows. The next most common animal were the sharp eyed, quick as lightning Pronghorn Antelope. After the Pronghorn were the wild horses in all of their intelligent and magnificent presence. I could have watched the horses all day long, but I’m afraid they would have mostly just watched me back.
Most of the time the Pronghorn were tough to get close to. I couldn’t believe how well and far they could see. They could spot you cresting a hill from nary a mile away, then be well on their way across the plains at break neck speeds with nothing but a trail of dust to show for themselves. It was impressive.
However, for all of the impressive-ness to be found in the Basin, the wild horses took the cake for me. Although they are not native and are actually considered detrimental to the local environment, they couldn’t have looked more natural galloping across the landscape.
My first wild horse sighting came late in the morning as I came upon the top of a hill. More than half a mile into the distance I spotted two large masses streaking across the sagebrush, a huge trail of dust in their wake. It was two horses going full bore, wide open, one chasing the other. I’ve never seen anything like it. I stood and watched as they continued their chase; the trailing horse slowly closing the gap. I felt a natural urge to begin whooping and cheering them on. It felt like looking through a window into the past; the old west. They began to make a wide arc as they disappeared behind a small cone shaped hill formation before reappearing on the far side, doubling back in the direction they’d come from. They must’ve covered nearly two miles just while I was watching them before the trailing horse caught his target. They braked almost immediately and engaged in a violent bout of kicking, biting and butting while enveloped in a vortex of dust. Several moments later, the chase was back on. Twice more they stopped to fight before a victor was decided. Which one? I do not know. One headed west, and the other went back east across the trail to join a herd of more than twenty other horses in the distance that I hadn’t noticed until after the action.
At 12:30 I was a couple minutes ahead of Puma and 18.7 miles into the day. I was at one of the first water sources in the Basin, a spring. I knew I was getting close to the spring, but the animals crowded around it gave its exact position away. During my approach, the Pronghorn were the first to scatter, then the horses, then the cows.
I guess I shouldn’t say the horses scattered. It was actually very beautiful and intriguing what they did. While the cows would brainlessly panic, scatter, and begin their incessant baying; the horses were far more organized. They would gather together into a tight knit group with the foals near the center. Once pressed tightly to each other and all facing the threat, they would move off all together as one, like a school of fish. I was in awe at their intelligence and organization.
After a half hour water/lunch break, it was back to the grind. Miles ticked by with more of the same; rolling plains, wild horses, fleeing antelope, stubborn cows, sun, no shade. We came across a water cache near a junction around 5 pm, and as happy fate would have it, there were two orange Gatorades left in the wooden box. This was 30 miles into the day…
At around 37 miles and close to 8pm, we stopped to eat dinner and watch the sun set over a mesa. My feet hurt. The ground had been far from soft. Usually too soft (sand) or too rocky, but mostly too rocky. Still, I always get a second wind when the sun goes down, and I could feel new life breathing into my sails.
The sun was gone and so were we as the first stars began winking into existence. Luna was waning, but only recently so, so when she would finally rise, there would be more than enough natural light to steer by.
Slightly after 9 pm we rolled over the 40 mile mark and the headlamps came out. Darkness was total without the moon up over the horizon yet. When she would finally appear, I wasn’t sure. Puma kept a comfortable several hundred yard lead ahead of me; I could see the glow from his lamp rising and falling over the climbs, turning and sometimes disappearing suddenly behind rocks, corners, or sharper drops. It was nice to be able to anticipate the the twists and turns of the trail in total darkness.
Sometime between 10pm and 11pm a 3/4 full moon made its appearance. I didn’t have to put my headlamp back on for the rest of the night. I finally rejoined with Puma near a scum pond halfway to midnight. We’d accrued 47 miles and were both exhausted and hurting. This was the first wall. The urge to go to sleep was stronger than the pain. Even though the negative thoughts of stopping early were creeping into our minds, we knew it wasn’t an option. Onward we went, this time sticking together.
Our next break came at the 52 mile mark sometime around 1 am at the top of a longer climb. We heard the wicked laughs of a score of coyotes celebrating a recent kill, no doubt. Had it been daylight, I’m sure they would have been within easy sight; they sounded close.
The breaks were getting closer and closer together, as the next one we took was only 3 miles later at the 55 mile mark, a new personal record for myself. Every mile after 34 miles had been a new personal record for Puma. Here there was another spring, but we did not drink. Instead we sat for close to 20 minutes, griping about the pain in our feet and legs, as well as how nice sleep would be. No stopping yet.
It was during that final break that I decided how many miles I wanted to do. We were making great time despite the exhaustion and physical discomfort. If we kept on the way we had been, we could easily break 70 miles. All we had to do was…keep going. I decided I didn’t want 70 miles. I didn’t even want to beat my girlfriend’s new record of 62 miles. No, I just wanted to match it. We would be hiking together later this year and also next year. We could be equals now, then set a new personal best later when we were together; and be equals then too. This sounded much better than going head to head in “one up” competition. I felt content once I’d made this choice.
Puma and I set out once again for one last 7 mile push. Two miles from our goal, the sound of either a lone wolf, or a lone coyote broke the night. We listened for several minutes before more isolated calls broke out on two more sides of us, surrounded. I have no fear of coyotes or wolves, as they are not aggressive or predatory towards humans whatsoever. It feels more privileged than eerie or scary to share space with these creatures. Eventually we pushed out of their interest and perception.
It was when we were one mile out that the scariest moment of the night occurred. We were paralleling a small, decrepit barbed wire fence on our left. What its purpose out here was, I do not know, but they hadn’t been wholly uncommon throughout sections of the Basin. As we walked, I heard the distant thundering of hooves beyond the barbed wire. I strained to see the source, and at first could not. Slowly, my eyes adapted as they drew in more moonlight to look further than beyond my two feet. I could see two horses galloping parallel to the bright white sandy bottom of a dried stream bed several hundred feet adjacent to us. I described to Puma what I was seeing. He couldn’t see them. Suddenly they turned and leapt across the bright sand, turning even more sharply in our direction once on the far side. “They just turned straight for us,” I announced excitedly but nervously. “I still don’t see them,” Puma replied. “They’re not slowing down…” When it became apparent that these two horses were aiming straight for us at full speed, I became terrified on the inside. There was no where to hide, take cover, or use as a barrier; only this tiny barbed wire fence. If the horses meant us harm, they would get what they wanted.
They were a hundred feet away when Puma spotted them. We stopped dead and began to walk backwards. I thought for sure the horses would jump the fence or break through it, but they ground to a halt, stopping on a dime about 20 feet in front of us, leaning against and over the barbed wire while snorting and huffing loudly. I felt insignificant and helpless out there in the open. We were both scared to try and go past them, so we just stood there and waited. The horses continued their aggressive charade for a couple more minutes before causally walking away from the barbed wire to begin grazing on some nearby sagebrush. We made our escape past them without any trouble.
How serious our situation with the horses actually was, I do not not know. It felt fairly serious and dangerous however. After slogging through deep sand for another 20 minutes, we finally hit the 62 mile mark and threw down our pads at the next open area of trail. It was between 4:30 am and 5 am when I curled up in my sleeping bag, too tired to feel accomplished. My feet were throbbing, my knees were pounding, and my bones were aching. Despite the hurricane of discomfort… I was asleep in minutes.