Favorite Gear: Vasque Blur trail running shoes
I use to think that the only shoes one should hike in were hiking boots. That all changed on a three day backpacking trip with some youth in the Summer of 2006. By the end of that 15 mile trip my feet were blistered to the point that finishing the hike in Chacos seemed a better option than continuing in my boots. Meanwhile, the leader of the hike spent most of the trip praising the light-weight yet sturdy and durable nature of his new trail runners.
Now I’m not blaming the entire blister-episode on my boots–it could have been as much user error as boot error–but a short while after that trip I found myself in R.E.I. trying on several different brands and styles of trail runners. As soon as the laces were tied on a pair of Vasque Blur shoes, I was sold. They felt completely broken in right out of the box, in comparison to my boots the weight was next-to-nothing, and I knew the tread would cut through the muddy conditions found almost year round in the Pacific Northwest. They were put to the test on-trail the following weekend, and the refreshed feeling of my feet post-hike was closely mirrored by my refreshed outlook on hiking and backpacking in general. Over the next 3 years I hiked exclusively in my Vasques, and it was only when the tread was almost gone and a few holes on the exterior had developed from wear and tear that I finally put them out to pasture.
S0 out of roughly 3 year of hiking and backpacking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ miles that ranged from the Washington and Oregon coasts to the rugged mountainous terrain of Montana, how could I possibly boil all of the things seen while wearing those Vasques down to just one story? Actually, it wasn’t that difficult at all.
During the Summer of 2008 my future wife and I decided to go on our first backpacking trip together. After consulting a few online sources for potential hikes, we finally decided to follow the advice of the same person that had recommended trail runners to me two Summers earlier. Since he had hiked all over the state of Washington, we felt pretty confident that any recommendation that was labeled as “one of my favorite areas in Washington” would be pretty solid advice. His suggestion?: the Goat Rocks Wilderness, an area that falls almost directly in the middle of a diagonal line that could be drawn between the summits of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Southwest Washington. Our route of choice through this huge Wilderness area was a 13 mile loop, with a campsite in the middle that would serve as a base camp for a day-hike to the top of a peak named Old Snowy on the middle day of a 3 day trip.
Being roughly 3 years into our time in Seattle, and having done several hikes in the Mount Rainier area over those 3 years, we both went into the trip with a mental picture of what the Goat Rocks would probably look like: deep evergreen forests followed by alpine meadows of wildflowers with great views of the glaciated peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. As the slow climb through an evergreen forest gave way to wide open alpine meadows of wild flowers, our mental pictures seemed well on their way to being confirmed. Then we turned another bend in the trail, and our first glimpse of Old Snowy came into view.
With the only exceptions being the flat plateaus outside of Denver, Colorado and Glacier National Park in Montana that almost instantaneously give rise to mammoth mountains–a change that you have to see to believe–I don’t know that I had at that point ever seen as dramatic a shift in landscapes as what we saw with Old Snowy. In what felt like only a few steps, the landscape went from alpine meadow to vegetation-less rock, as if a single contour line on a map was established as the ending point of where all forms of flora ceased–and very few plants dared to venture even an inch further.
Throughout the first two days of our trip we were treated to one amazing vista after another: a waterfall tumbling off of a ridge-top that disappeared underground before resurfacing as a small creek near our campsite; hiking through the moon-like landscape on the way to the summit of Old Snowy; 360 degree views towards Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and even down to Mount St. Helens with it’s trapezoid-like profile that we were rewarded with from the top of Old Snowy. Every time we thought we had seen the best that this area could offer, we had to rethink that thought as we turned the next corner. It was almost an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which wouldn’t be top by another hike until this past Summer of 2012. Even amidst that embarrassment of riches, what happened the morning of the third day, as we were about to descend from the alpine meadow and rock ridge back into the evergreen forest on our hike out, became the enduring memory of that trip for me.
For the first two days we had enjoyed the best weather that a Pacific Northwest Summer can offer, complete with cloudless skies and a warm, but not uncomfortable temperature. During our second night at camp however, a Summer storm rolled in, giving us front-row seats to an impressive lightning show several ridges away. As we awoke on the third morning, the cloudless skies had turned metallic grey, and the warm air had turned damp with a slight chill.
The first third of our hike out of the Goat Rocks Wilderness on day three had us following a trail that traced its way half-way up the side of an exposed ridge line that towered above the horseshoe-shaped valley it encircled. At the rounded portion of the horseshoe lay Goat Lake–a decent sized lake that is frozen almost all year. Shortly after passing Goat Lake, the trail dropped suddenly from the high ridge line through more meadows of lupine, columbine, and indian paintbrush, back into a deep canopy of evergreens.
Even though the morning had been grey and threatening rain, we had avoided most of it by simply being at a higher altitude than the heavy rain clouds–they clung to the horseshoe shaped valley below us. Turning the corner of the horseshoe after Goat Lake we could tell that our luck was about to change as a strong wind had picked up and was pushing the rain clouds out of the valleys and up and over the ridge we were about to descend. We stopped for a quick snack, and to snap some pictures, hoping for enough of a break in the rain clouds for us to descend off of the ridge and into the trees. Seeing a break in the clouds, we began descending as quickly as we could. Roughly 100 yards into our descent we looked up to see a dark grey mass of cloud barreling towards us, sweeping up the side of the ridge like a wave. I remember freezing mid-stride in the middle of the steep trail, watching and waiting for the quick-moving cloud to sweep over us, unsure of what was about to happen.
The impact of the cloud as it swept over the ground around us ignited all of our senses almost simultaneously: the sight of a cloud mass that seemed to hug the ground as it swept up the side of the mountain, almost feeling as though it passed through us instead of the other way around; the sound of the wind rushing towards us before the cloud, followed by a muffling and deadening of all sounds as the cloud enveloped us; the feel of moisture that wasn’t so much falling on us as much as it was being pushed past us; and finally the almost metallic-like smell and taste of a fresh summer rain that was intensified by the wind forcing it into our rapidly-breathing lungs. One second we were mostly dry, and the next we were completely soaked. One second we could see most of the mountains around us, and the next we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. One second we were in the midst of an incredible backpacking trip with scenery that would stick with us for a long, long time, and the next we were standing in a moment and an experience that imprinted itself so deeply into my senses that I can still see the cloud barreling towards us, smell the deep metallic smell, hear the muffled silence, and feel the impact of moisture crashing into us.
Those are the moments that we venture into the wilderness for–those moments where time stops, our senses truly awaken, and nature makes us realize how very small and powerless we really are. That experience came courtesy of 2 solid pieces of advice from a friend, one of which resulted in me purchasing a pair of Vasque Blurs…one of my favorite pieces of outdoor gear.