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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Snoqualmie Pass or Bust, After Action Report

We are disappointed, but not discouraged. As we often joke, “Yeah, we only did a marathon!” And this time? Through the middle of the night, after a full day at work.


So, let’s get this out of the way: the attempt was a bust.

We didn’t make it to Snoqualmie Pass.

And, so what? While The Pass was our goal, it was not our purpose.


What was our purpose?

  • Train together (it’s been 18 months since we’ve seen each other).

  • Test our fitness (sleep deprivation, navigation, self-support, and yes - physical)

  • Learn from the test (what worked? what didn't? what to do more of? what less?)

  • Enjoy the rails-to-trails of the Pacific Northwest


So, this was an attempt. A way for us to see how ready we might be for the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge. A way to gauge our status on the way to confirming our qualification for 2022 race. You see, we must finish a 100-mile(160-km) race this year for that confirmation!


So, while we missed our goal, we were pretty successful in fulfilling the purpose.


How did it start?


We have been training separately since fall of 2019. Partly because of COVID, of course, but mostly due to Chris being stationed in Florida. We have a WhatsApp group and share all the workouts with each other and a small group of others. It keeps us "together," but not "on the trails at the same time," together. So, this outing, running, if not side-by-side, still, with a companion, was great! Indeed, while we generally run “together, alone” because of our different paces, this time we stayed together for a pretty good distance. (By the way, you may note our on-again, off-again masks. We wore them! But, alternated and kept distance...and we're outdoors!)



1928 Department of Transportation Railway Map

The route we followed is mostly rails-to-trails, providing links between cities and towns. However, in those towns, things can be a bit complicated. Sticking together ensured that we wouldn’t get lost and need to call for our families to rescue us. That meant that from the shores of Lake Sammamish through Issaquah, until we were well and truly on the Issaquah-Preston Trail, we stuck together.


Sadly, the start wasn’t trouble free. We got a late start. There was some preparation that had too little time, and got rushed. There was other preparation that had way too much time, and got overdone! There were quite a few technical problems. We basically started in the dark. This made the early part of the run a bit frustrating, and was already a morale low. (Lessons will be posted separately - this is the after action report!)


Issaquah to Snoqualmie

Even so, we hit our stride after Issaquah and trooped up past Tiger Mountain towards Preston. The climb, indeed most of the entire route, is something of a grind. As you can imagine, it has a very steady and slow upwards grade. There is very little variation. This makes for uninteresting travel. Add to it the darkness, where your whole world narrows to the light of a headlamp? It gets lonely and boring.


During this part our “together, alone” started to play out. However, the technical issues continued to nag at us. Chris is very familiar, he’s played the role of scout and recce’d the entire route, and even done the Sammamish to Rattlesnake Lake portion at one go. Michael was following it for the first time. It was important to get navigation and related tech right. After all, much of the travel is through the boondocks! Getting lost and wasting time is a reality, and getting aid can be difficult!



Hours on end, here are the ends of your earth. The headlamp's glow.

Those needs kept us tethered and, happily, we wound up not all that far apart. We wound up relying on mobile phones and WhatsApp location messaging. Can you believe it? (I will have a lot to say about Garmin at another time!) Indeed, Michael noted that without it, he may have missed the main turn off! “Saved my life,” he said. It’s an exaggeration, but still - missing the Deep Creek turn would mean a lot of wasted time in a dead end, retracing steps and all the demoralization that comes with it!


Why was navigation so difficult? It was dark. Dark, dark, dark! We were tired, having started after a full day at work. By the time we passed Preston, it was already midnight. By the time we got to Snoqualmie Ride, it was approximately 02:00. Chris’s morale was flagging pretty hard. The whole world seemed to have shrunk to a tiny pool of light. The thought of bears and cougars was not far off. The swish-swish of the gear started to sound like voices. The navigation issues continued to nag.



With this, plus a WhatsApp location, "saved" Michael's life.

Funny enough, our connection about the turn off was also the confirmation that we weren’t far apart. When we touched base, about the turn, Chris had just finished the Snoqualmie Ridge climb and was re-filling water, while Michael was just beginning the same climb. Over the space of a couple hours, Michael was only about 20 minutes behind. Great work!


Also funny was that Chris finds that climb among the toughest parts, while Michael really enjoyed it! Chris seems to set a rhythm and plods along to it, disruptions wind up feeling difficult, and the amplified by the dark. Michael finds the variations enjoyable, forcing a change of stride that he finds invigorating. To each his own!


Once up the ridge, runners need to wind their way through suburbia. A very lovely, but very convoluted neighborhood sits atop the hill. Looping roads, circle back on each other and each looks the same as the others, with no obvious “main” one. That makes it easy to get lost, and indeed, Michael had a little trouble. Once again, WhatsApp proved way better than Garmin! (I know, right?!?!)


Coming down off the ridge, crossing Snoqualmie city and getting to the Snoqualmie Valley trail started to feel like “the home stretch.” From here, it would be an easy to follow shot. Not straight exactly, but no more difficult twists or turns. Navigation, even in the dark, would be simple! Indeed, first light was just a couple hours away, and that would make it not only easier, but more pleasant!


Imagine the disappointment then to get to the Snoqualmie Valley trail only to find it gated! What?! Chris had misremembered. The targeted access point is at the Mt. Si golf course. As fate would have it, the trail was about 20 yards (~20 meters) beyond the gate. Chris really would have sworn it was the other way around, with the gate after the trail head. As Michael was making his way out of the looping neighborhood and towards the city, Chris was looking for ways to nevertheless access the trail. A clock on a nearby school read 02:50. Guess what you don’t want to be doing at 3:00AM!!!


The only way forward was to walk the roads, and access the trail in North Bend. This would not be easy. Those roads have no shoulder. No sidewalk. While there wasn’t much traffic, what there was seemed...dangerous.

So, we consulted and ultimately decided to learn the lessons, save the energy and make another attempt sooner rather than later. Sadly, that meant we only got about 25% of the way there. As you can see from the image, where the blue lines with dots is our Breaking Impossible MapShare, the red line the intended route and blue circle and arrow the goal (the railway tunnel at the top of Snoqualmie Pass).


Are we discouraged with all the disappointment? Nope! After all, it’s not “broken impossible.” Nor “breakthrough impossible.” We reached a limit, we’ll be exploring it and breaking through that seeming impossible blocker!


Besides, there were breathtaking moments which always make it worthwhile.

Look closely, you can see the enormous scale of the universe, written in the starry sky!





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