Day9 Monday 29th. I headed back out for the trailmarking today. A bit ginger after my 'altitude migraine' of a couple of nights ago. The plan was to leave a few cars (4WDs) at Grouse Gulch and drive the long rough mountain track to Burrow Park near the Sherman aid station. After experiencing the Cinnamon Pass road in the back of Charlie's truck last year (picture 6 or 7 adults in the back of a ute with a fiberglass canopy on the roughest, steepest mountain road you have ever seen!) I swore never again. So I stopped at Grouse with Marcia and John who planned to go up over Handies Peak in the opposite direction, then come back. This saved another hour and a half of shuttling as well.
We (well John and Marcia) carried a heap of marking flags up to American-Grouse Saddle for the others to use on their way across, but we didn't do any actual marking. I was pleased to get away from Grouse Gulch, site of my near DNF last year. Starting at 10,800ft we climbed up a narrow, but open valley under clear blue skies. There were lots of marmots out, standing their ground territorially. They are cute furry little critters, not unlike a cross between a ferret and a cat. Lots of chipmunks scurried across our path as well. Much cuter than those cartoon versions.
High up the valley the trail hit a few snowbanks before we topped out on a broad grassy saddle with the imposing Handies Peak bearing down on us across the American Basin. We stopped here on Grouse-American saddle to have something to eat. 13,020ft and what will be 'summit' number 7 during the race. In typical sadistic Hardrock fashion we then descended into American Basin at 12,400ft before the real ascent of the highpoint of the course: Handies Peak, summit number 6. We had to pick our way through boggy creek drainages, rocky outcrops and big snowbanks before the climbing got serious. You could feel the air getting thinner as you sucked in the big ones. Several long switchbacks later and we were on the steep lead up to the summit. I was using my poles to help pull me up. The conversation faded as we got higher and the grade got steeper. Then without warning the world opened before us and we were on the summit. Wow, what a breathtaking view. Literally. We dropped our packs and had a snack and tried to spot the trailmarking team coming up the other side.
They had split into two groups: markers with Charlie and those who wanted to go on ahead. We decided to drop down to meet the others coming up fromGrizzly Gulch while we could still only just make out the following group far below in the valley. We crossed paths on the steep, slippery, shaley slope below the false summit. John and Marcia went on (they are not racing this year but organising Putnam Aid Station so had no concern about how far they went) but I decided to turn around at the first big, steep snowbank. As it was I had dropped a few hundred feet and had to really work hard to get back to the summit.
I stopped on top to chat in the now warm sunshine to Roland and Jim, who had followed us up from Grouse, before setting off to catch the lead group. There were families hiking and picnicking along the trail, having come up the short route from the Handies carpark. I caught the others at the bottom of the basin. We picked our way across and up onto American-Grouse Saddle (again for me) where we stopped for another snack. Then the fun part: the long, long descent down narrow singletrack to Grouse. I stopped only to retie my shoes and take some pictures. Otherwise making good use of gravity and toughening up the quads a bit more. I experienced a bit of altitude headache again at the start of the descent but by the bottom felt fine.
After waiting for the rest of the advance party to arrive we piled into the back of one of the trucks for a dusty, bouncy ride back into town.
Grouse Gulch over American-Grouse Saddle 13,020ft, across American Basin, up Handies Peak 14,048ft down the other side then back again 10.5miles in 7 hours.