Don't Cry For Me, Ensatina: An Ode to the Joys of Cooper Canyon
Today was the final stop on my Tour of Otherwise Enjoyable Places That Will Make Me Cry on Race Day. Six days hence, I will be running my third attempt at the Angeles Crest 100. While the course is stunningly beautiful, and enjoyable recreation opportunities abound in the San Gabriel Mountains, attempting to enjoy 100 miles of it in one go is not necessarily recommended, nor is it necessarily enjoyable. Some places are worse than others, though, and those are the places I spend a little more time in as the race approaches. I've been hiking and birding Cooper Canyon since I moved to southern California in 2003. To the casual observer, the place seems innocuous enough: Typical San Gabriel mountain rugged topography with widely-spaced and often sizable conifers, and no shortage of rock outcroppings and pretty flowers. During the Angeles Crest 100, however, the base of Cooper Canyon (5,706 feet) is the beginning of the runner's opportunity to experience all nine Circles of Hell detailed in Dante's Inferno, as the runner ascends to just over 7,000 feet in the next 3.8 miles during the hottest part of the day and what turns out, in most years, to be the hottest part of the Angeles Crest 100 course. The aid station at the top of the climb, Cloudburst Summit, is located at mile 37.5 of the race, and also happens to have the tightest time cut-off of the entire race. As such, Cloudburst Summit is the end of many a runner's day each year, and this 'race within the race' almost reminds me of "weed-out" courses at large universities, culling the weak from the herd early.
I've had the good fortune of experiencing the joys of Cooper Canyon during races in 2013 and 2014. While the weather was surprisingly cooperative in 2014, I did get to experience the full effect of this special place in 2013, and realized that year that the legends I had heard about it were absolutely true. Below, I've put together a pictorial ode to the Cooper Canyon climb, describing in some detail what the lucky runner may experience on race day.
Little Rock Creek - Hell's Inauspicious Beginnings
We begin our tour of Cooper Canyon with a crossing of Little Rock Creek. The title of this post is a nod to that. I have no actual idea if there are really Ensatina in this creek, but this blog is mostly about biology, and I'm a biologist, so please work with me here. If there was one watching me as I crossed this stream, I would probably talk to it if I were already delirious. The conversation could go something like:
Ensatina: "..." [Ensatinas don't talk. Probably.]
Me: "No need to shed amphibious tears for me, little buddy. If I die here, I died doing what I love."
If it's hot out, I may just sit in the stream for a minute and chill with it. Eventually, though, I must trudge on.
Just Above the Creek: Start Climbing
Looking at this photo, you probably think I'm ridiculous. Look at all that shade! How awesome are those giant cedars? And you would be correct on a normal visit. This is not a normal visit. The runner has already run a mountainous 50K and is starting a big climb. This shade doesn't last. Enjoy it.
Head Toward the Light! A Hint of Things to Come
The first quarter or so of the climb alternates between patches of shade and wide open areas of bare, white rock. What does white rock do? It reflects. Have your sunglasses on, but be aware that this is nothing compared to what lies a little ways ahead. The climb starts to take its toll here on many runners. The heat begins to build, both in terms of actual heated air and the black bulb effect of the sun on your skin. There's a lot of leap-frogging here, with people stopping in the shady patches to recover for a bit. Recover well, because up next is...
Science and Art
The two pictures above show the worst portion of the climb, all on a steep and exposed slope comprised entirely of white decomposing granite. The first picture is the start of this section, and the second is what lies after a curve to the right at the top of the first picture. If you aren't religious, you might become so here. The lucky runner receives lessons in the physics of reflectivity and the flow of hot air: It is typically over 100 degrees when most runners pass through here. If you are more of the artsy type, you very well may get to study the colors of half-digested gels and sports chews. If you don't leave your own here, it is likely you will see such art left by others. If you love both art AND science, then you very well could have a wonderful time here. I know I did in 2013.
Next up is a very long section of trail with very little shade following a strip of willow scrub. The trail undulates up and down on a slope that climbs steeply out of the drainage. It seems that the trail route through here changes every year: In past years, the trail was almost entirely right at the edge of the willows, and the branches of these trees would constantly reach out and grab for you. Some benevolent group has rebuilt the trail further up, so that won't be a problem this year. Still, I don't like this section, and I don't believe any number of endangered willow-dependent birds (such as Bell's Vireo) could change my mind.
Cooper Canyon Camp - Go the Right Way!
You eventually arrive at Cooper Canyon Campground. Not even half-way through the Nine Circles of Hell, this area does mark a transition point where you pull away from the steeper walls of the canyon proper. I know I am smiling in the photo above, but I took that picture today on an easy jaunt. At this point on race day, the smile and thumbs up are probably still sitting in a folding chair at Islip Saddle.
This is also where the race used to go one direction and now goes another.
The Kindly Slopes of Winston Ridge
The top photo shows an important junction. In years past, the race continued straight up the fire road. A few years back, the race course was changed to go right here and follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) where it winds along Winston Ridge and, ultimately, the slopes of Winston Peak. Having trained on both, I can say that, while the new route is longer, it is far more enjoyable. The enjoyment, though, is really measured in units of "degrees of suck".
The Long and Winding Trail
The photo above really captures the beauty of this section. You may also notice, that while not as severe, it is still climbing. It is also still open and sunny. In fact, the wildflowers look sunny and happy. I expect that I will talk to them during the race, and ask them what the f*** they are so happy about.
The photo above shows the upper end of the real climbing on the Winston Ridge section. See those rocks? Legend says that they are comprised of the decomposed bones of runners that didn't make it out of this section.
The photo above shows Winston Peak. The trail undulates up and down on the flanks of Winston Peak toward the left. You can probably run here if you are able. Many can't though, and plod along in silent misery knowing they will eventually either reach Cloudburst Summit Aid Station or die trying. Both seem like valid options on a bad day.
Hal Winton Junction
If you've survived this far, you eventually encounter the road you left earlier. If you are lucky, Uncle Hal (Hal Winton, all around great man and co-Race Director) will be sitting at the junction with his vehicle, making sure you actually did go the right way. You continue straight, and on to the final path toward salvation.
One Final Climb
The start of this section seems innocuous enough. A lot of initial trail after crossing the road is either downhill or level. Regardless, you will almost certainly pass zombie runners walking here, unless you are a zombie runner yourself. While the Cooper Canyon section was a huge contributor to me vowing to give up ultrarunning in 2013, even I was still able to run this section. The picture above shows an area I call "Sapsucker Meadow", as the cedars on the left side of it gave me all but one of my sapsucker species records for my Big Year this year (in early January). If there are sapsuckers there during the race, odds are that I won't notice. If I do notice, I won't care. Just past here is where the big climb begins.
You can see the trail here in the center of the picture, and it shortly switches back to the left. The climb is steep. The climb is rocky. You may be low on energy and fluids because of your art installation further down. It's OK, though. You are almost there.
'Hallelujah! I can see the Angeles Crest Highway to the left, and I am almost as high up as it is! I'm saved!'
[Sudden realization that the Angeles Crest Highway rises in elevation before reaching Cloudburst Summit.]
Eventually, you will reach this spot. You can see the cars in the parking lot in the upper right. This is the aid station, and your salvation. But first, you have to snake back to the left and then to the right again, climbing all the while. There are people on the slopes cheering here. There are photographers. I recall stumbling up this section in 2013, almost crawling, and stopping to lean on nearly every tree next to the trail. Someone yelled down "come on! You're almost there!", and I meekly (and probably unintelligibly) replied "I'm trying..." Yes. It happens. And I am not the only one.
On race day, this parking lot is the Cloudburst Summit Aid Station. It may also be the most glorious thing you have ever seen. Hopefully, you've made it here on time. You can chill out in a chair, eat some food, drink some fluids, and recover. The next section is easy (or so they say), and many runners have arrived here nearly dead and gone on to finish the race.
Side Note to My Friends and Fellow Runners of the 2015 Angeles Crest 100
The above may or may not be an accurate account of your experience in this section on race day. If the current forecast holds true, this section may be brutal. This account does reflect my race day experience in 2013 (2014 was cool and fairly benign), and I know that many others have experienced all that the wonders of Cooper Canyon have to offer in much the same way. It is what it is. We don't do this because it is easy. Keep moving and you'll get there eventually.
If you are running this year, have a great race, and I'll see you at the start in Wrightwood on August 1!