It is pitch-black dark in the woods, just past 3 a.m., when I see the eyes. They catch in my headlamp beam, yellow and beady and low to the ground, about 15 feet in front of me. My legs freeze while my heart turns into a jackhammer.
I can now see the full body of the mountain lion as it shifts, slowly and silently, from a lazy crouch to standing on all fours. Though I have no previous experience with mountain lions to draw from, I sense that this one is more curious than aggressive. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves of the trees around us.
For the better part of the past two days, I’ve been plodding through these mountains in a solitary reverie. It is my second night out in the woods, and I’m less than two miles from my finish line—the High Point Trailhead and terminus of the Issy Alps 100, an unofficial course wending through the mountains east of Seattle.
I back slowly down the trail while adrenaline continues its frantic gallop through my system. As I ponder the possibility of not finishing this very arbitrary thing I’ve set out to do, I shake my head and think, Damn you, George.
It isn’t the first time someone’s cursed his name in these mountains.
I’d originally met George Orozco at a fatass-style 50K in this very place, Tiger Mountain, five years earlier, in 2011.
We’d become fast friends,bonding over our mutual love for the trails. It wasn’t long after that that he began poring over maps with the idea of creating a 100-mile linkup of local mountains and foothills. His vision was to create a “sea-level Hardrock,” a route with some 30,000 to 40,000 feet of vertical climb that anyone could go attempt anytime, independent of lottery luck, financial resources, altitude adaptation or travel constraints. For many runners with full-time jobs and families (like Orozco, who once told me having two full-time jobs was “good sleep-deprivation training for ultras”), such an opportunity immediately piqued local interest.
As he worked out the details of connecting various peaks, he often invited others along on his bushwhacking explorations.
“I probably feel the most kidlike when I’m running with George,” says Jenn Hughes, 38, of Issaquah, Washington, and a longtime friend and training buddy of Orozco. “He’s always scheming and dreaming, and there’s just so much excitement over discovering the trails.”
Because he and I both mistook the other’s sheer enthusiasm for mountain running to suggest more experience than either of us possessed at the time, most jaunts I accompanied him on turned into what climbers call “an epic.” We’d forget to pack food; we’d descend into the wrong drainages; we’d ensnare ourselves for hours in blackberry briars. But, mostly, we laughed. We chalked up our foibles to “a Barkley day,” and marveled at all the simple, exquisite pleasures that running in the woods afforded us.
If you’d asked him a decade ago, Orozco, now 40, never could have imagined he’d someday be a runner. He grew up in eastern Washington, where he’d participated in Boy Scouts and played basketball and baseball. But after high school, he lost interest in sports and the outdoors altogether.
“One thing led to another, I got out of shape, made bad decisions and got into a downhill spiral,” he says. By the time he reached his thirties, he weighed 340 pounds and had been smoking a pack a day since he was 18. When he and his wife at the time had their first of three children, Orozco got motivated to make changes: “My kids were the best things to ever happen to me, because they got me back on the straight path.”
Several years later, he read Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, which inspired him to sign up for a 12-hour trail race near Seattle. Still pushing 250 pounds on race day, he showed up in a gray baseball shirt and basketball shorts. He nearly bailed as soon as he arrived. Everyone was wearing what he remembers as “really funny outfits, with knee-high socks and different colors and really short shorts. I felt so out of place.”
But the race directors,Christina Ralph and Tom Ripley, went out of their way to introduce him to the other runners. He spent much of the day getting passed on the loop course, but recalls the way so many people patted him on the back as they went by, telling him, “Keep it up. You’re doing great!”
Those words motivated him to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 12 hours nonstop, no matter his pace. When the race clock ticked down its final minute, he’d covered 44.44 miles. His feet felt as though they were fractured in every bone. But he also felt overwhelmed with the sense of accomplishment and the friendliness of this new community he’d stumbled into.
Another book soon piqued Orozco’s curiosity: Bone Games, by Rob Schultheis. Written in 1984, the book introduces a cadre of colorful characters, ranging from climbers to mountain runners to shamans, who all, in their own ways, use “risk, exhaustion and so forth to break through into more intense, potent states of being.”
The stories in Bone Games immediately intrigued Orozco. Schultheis waxed poetic on the ability of solo endeavors in the wild to “break down the everyday consensual reality most of us never escape.” He wrote of the way “magic becomes a kind of habit after we do the difficult, the near impossible, over and over and over again,” and of how emotions like pain and fear “could be alchemized into blissful, sublime confidence.”
In service to that quest for transcendence—the “bone games,” as Schultheis dubbed them—Orozco began training for and running progressively longer ultras. In 2012, he applied to run the Plain 100. A low-key, self-supported race near the unincorporated town of Plain, Washington, it has no course markings and no aid stations or water stops. Pacers are not permitted. For the six hardy souls who showed up to run the first year, in 1997, Plain provided nothing but paper maps and directions. No one made it to the finish.
In more recent years, the 100-miler (a 100K option was added in 2014) usually sees about a dozen finishers per year, give or take. Those who find success are often the same sorts of people drawn to similarly demanding events such as Hardrock, the Barkley Marathons and Italy’s Tor des Geants—quiet, social-media-eschewing legends of the greater ultrarunning community.
When Orozco applied to run Plain, the race directors at the time—the same couple who organized the 12-hour race he’d done—apologetically told him no.
“They said, ‘We feel like you’re a liability,’” says Orozco. “And I understood. I told them, ‘Thank you for being honest with me.’ Plain is a very remote course and everyone’s on their own. I probably would have gotten lost, and it would have been a bad thing.”
But the rejection lit a fire within him to develop his map-reading and route-finding skills, and to get more comfortable venturing out alone. When he got accepted into Plain a year later, his 100-mile bid ended with a DNF. The next year, he signed up for the 100K instead, returned more motivated and better trained than ever, and won it outright.
Running Plain that year, he’d experienced a deep sense of ease and mind-body connection, teetering on the edge of the kind of spiritual transcendence Schultheis had described in Bone Games.
“Issy Alps” is short for the “Issaquah Alps,” a nickname given in the 1970s to the mountains east of Seattle by the cantankerous conservationist and prolific writer Harvey Manning. The role Manning played in the preservation of public lands in Washington cannot be overstated. Breathtaking places ranging from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area to North Cascades National Park to the Issaquah Alps themselves (where Manning lived in a cabin) might not otherwise exist as they do today without his fierce advocacy.
No doubt, his christening of the term “Issaquah Alps” was tongue-in-cheek; compared to their jagged, glacier-covered eponyms in Europe, the Issaquah Alps are modest, no more than 2,000 to 3,000 feet in elevation. Their trails are dark mazes through towering old-growth forest and moss-coated rocks, frequently damp with the dew, drizzle and fog so characteristic of the Pacific Northwest.
Though Orozco’s Issy Alps route spends about two thirds of its mileage within these foothills, its first 30 miles bag a series of more prominent peaks to the east. The rocky summits of Mailbox Peak, Mount Teneriffe and Mount Si pop out above the trees and, on a clear day, offer spectacular views of the glaciated Mount Rainier more than 50 miles to the south. If you squint, it’s also possible to glimpse the Seattle skyline, tiny and silhouetted against the backdrop of Puget Sound and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains looming beyond.
Despite feeling remote at times, the Issy route does not sit in the secluded backcountry or vast wilderness areas that blanket other parts of the state. While many sections traverse long-forgotten footpaths grown over with stinging nettles, other stretches pass through residential neighborhoods and utilize crowded hiking trails.
It is practically a rite of passage for Seattleites to hike up the first mountain on the Issy route, Mailbox Peak, so named because someone hauled a literal mailbox to its summit in the early 1960s. The well stickered, graffitied mailbox is stuffed with an ever-changing supply of tchotchkes, and the summit is nearly always bustling with hikers. (Over the years, the mailbox has been replaced numerous times—once, for a while, by a newspaper distribution box consistently and mysteriously stocked with up-to-date copies of Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger.)
In recent years, a gently graded trail to the summit has been built, partly in response to the sheer volume of search-and-rescue calls from those lost or injured on the mountain. However, the Issy Alps route uses the old, unmaintained trail to the top—a mercilessly steep slog up the mountain’s flank that climbs 4,000 feet in two and a half miles.
One of the trickiest sections to navigate of the entire Issy route is a faint path, largely swallowed in blackberry brambles, between Rattlesnake and Tiger mountains. It lies beneath a network of power lines and towers, and crosses a river directly beneath a noisy highway overpass. During my own attempt, I lost the trail for hours there. Like someone flailing in quicksand, I couldn’t move either forward or backward; in trying, I slipped again and again on slick, exposed roots and plummeted into briars that gashed my legs into a bloody mess. It was a strange juxtaposition—my own lonely reckoning in a landscape while the clamor of civilization buzzed overhead.
Manning had a name for these semi-urban wilds. He called them “the wilderness within.” And, as he once advised in a 1996 profile in Backpacker, they’re every bit as valuable as more remote places; in them, he said, “A person can walk along for hours with a pleasing internal dialogue, undisturbed by the outside world.”
By Orozco’s own rules for Issy, you must declare your intentions prior to starting. The route now has four options: the point-to-point 100-mile, 100K and 50K courses, plus the “100K Hard” option, a yo-yo of the 50K course. Unless you complete the precise distance you stated, it doesn’t count. (No one has taken the brunt of this rule’s harshness more than Orozco himself, who’s attempted his 100-mile course twice and quit both times 100K in, but never credited himself with an official 100K finish.)
Despite his own obsession with doing the route solo and self-supported, Orozco says the community aspect of Issy is also what makes it special. After all, it was the support and kindness of other runners at his first trail race that really sold him on the sport in the first place. Since then, he’s been on a tireless mission to pay it forward.
The course’s online watering hole is Orozco’s “Issy Alps Ultra(s)” Facebook group, where runners frequently post their intentions and GPS tracking links. Photos are shared and advice is sought. Those who choose to run Issy supported are often showered with beer, pizza, milkshakes and other assorted “trail magic” sundries, delivered unexpectedly along the way by friends and fellow group members.
“To this day, it’s one of the most fun running experiences I’ve ever had,” says Jenn Hughes, who finished the 100-miler in 2014. “You get this crazy, out-of-body adrenaline feeling, and the whole freaking community is there to cheer you on. It makes you want to be that kind of person who’s out here for people. And George brought that all together.”
The original iteration of the Issy route made its debut four years ago as a casual 100K group run. The next year, Orozco upped the ante, designating the new and more grueling 50K, 100K and 100-mile courses.
One morning in early May of 2013, 18 people set out to tackle the new Issy. Deep snow put a stop to everyone’s efforts that day. Two months later, Van Phan, 45, of Maple Valley, Washington, returned and became the first finisher of the 100-mile route. Her time (supported) was 37 hours 58 minutes. She was the only one to complete it that year, and to date is the only person who’s finished the thing four times, including once in reverse.
Phan is a Northwest legend in her own right, nicknamed “Pigtails” for her signature long, black braids and quirky affection for pigs. Tough as nails and a self-described sufferer of “ultra-compulsive disorder,” she’s completed more than 400 races of marathon or ultra distance, 50 of which have been 100 miles or longer. At finish lines, her signature post-race outfit is a bathrobe and slippers.
“Van is all business when she’s focused,” says Orozco, who began running with her years ago. “She took me under her wing without even knowing. I felt like a rag doll being dragged from switchback to switchback. If you want to go out for a leisurely hike, you can do that. Just not with Van.”
Hughes says what really stirred her interest in doing Issy was reading Phan’s recap: “She wrote about almost crying, and I thought, ‘Anything that can make Van cry, I want to do.’”
Phan works full-time as a physician assistant in orthopedic surgery. In 2012, she wanted to try a 200-miler, but didn’t want to travel across the country to do so. So she decided to organize one in Washington called the Pigtails Challenge. (Shorter distances were also offered; 100-mile finishers got buttons that said, “I only did the half.”) The first year, she crossed the finish line in third place overall, and was the only female 200-mile finisher.
Orozco was among the eight other 200-mile finishers that year, along with Ras “UltraPedestrian” Vaughan. Vaughan, whose formidable dreadlocks distinguish him in any pack of runners, is a vocal proponent of tackling ambitious “projects” that combine elements of ultrarunning, fastpacking and occasionally mountaineering.
In March 2014, Vaughan, now 45, set out to try to put up the first men’s and first unsupported time on the 100-mile Issy route. He was enticed by the additional challenge of navigating through heavy snow on the course. With a fully loaded pack of gear including Microspikes, an ice axe and a GPS, he set out alone.
“Don’t get me wrong; I love races,” he says. “It’s tons of fun following bright ribbons through the woods and being handed snacks and beverages by your friends every few miles. But for someone like me, who comes from a backpacking background, has spent years living off grid and working and playing in the woods, the race paradigm is a very narrow way to approach the trail. If I’m not self sufficient, I feel like I’m cheating. It just feels too luxurious.”
It took him 67 hours to complete his unsupported winter Issy. The days and nights of postholing through snow, getting rained on, struggling to navigate and shivering in the cold took their toll. But at the end of it all, says Vaughan, “It was a huge expansion of my perception of my abilities and what I considered possible.”
More recently, he teamed up with another local mountaineer and ultrarunner, Gavin Woody, to tackle the “Rainier Infinity Loop.” The 120-mile route comprises a double summit traverse and circumambulation of Mount Rainier in a single push. Legendary climber and Washington native Chad Kellogg first conceived of the loop, but never had a chance to do it himself due to a fatal climbing accident in 2014. Vaughan and Woody were the first (and currently only) people to complete Kellogg’s masterpiece.
Outdoor aficionados in the Pacific Northwest have a long tradition of devising rugged challenges for one another through their local wilds. Generally, such grueling lines through the mountains offer no set dates, no formal aid stations, no course markings and no finisher swag. And yet, for all their arbitrariness and self-induced suffering, they’ve become an irresistible magnet for many runners.
One of those runners is Jeff Wright, 55, of Burien, Washington. Though a runner since childhood, Wright’s foray into the ultrarunning scene was via skiing and alpine climbing, and the realization that he could move even faster and farther through the mountains by lightening up his pack. After a familiar progression through increasingly longer race distances, Wright found himself curious about the realm beyond supported races. He signed up for Plain.
“That made me realize I could be self sufficient,” he says. “Before Plain, I kind of relied on aid stations and directions. Doing research on how to do it was no different than planning a weeklong backpacking trip—just all sped up, in fast-forward motion. It created a mind shift for me.”
Though he still runs some formal races, increasingly Wright feels himself drawn to other challenges. On a rainy spring day in 2016, he snagged the unsupported FKT on the Issy Alps 100K course (since broken by John Barrickman, another disciple of many of Washington’s gnarliest, below-the-radar challenges).
“Finishers’ buckles are nice when I get them,” says Wright. “Now they collect dust on a shelf in the corner of my office. I feel the experience I had during the run means more to me than any token award. Running events like Issy Alps grounds my soul and helps me be the person I long to be.”
In recent years, Ras Vaughan and his wife, Kathy, have also established an annual, informal series of adventure routes. New challenges are designed by local runners and introduced annually. This past year, the UltraPedestrian Mind/Body Challenge had three components: cover an 86-mile route through the rugged North Cascades, tagging the Canadian border between back-to-back summits of the 6,100-foot Desolation Peak; read or listen to one of Jack Kerouac’s works inspired in part by a summer he spent alone on Desolation Peak in the 1950s; write a trip report tying your own experience to Kerouac’s literature.
Another of the 2016 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenges was a 56-mile route traversing Washington’s Olympic Coast. It was designed by Heather “Anish” Anderson, the self-supported FKT holder for both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. At first, even Anderson herself wasn’t certain it could be done in a single push because of the complexity of the tide patterns; at high tide, swaths of the route disappear. Barrickman was the only one to pull it off the first year without getting hung up overnight by the whims of the Pacific Ocean.
“There’s a real sense of competition and community as multiple people try to figure out a giant puzzle,” says Tim Mathis, 36, of Seattle, an Issy Alps 100K finisher.
After the tides forced Mathis and a friend to call it quits halfway through their Olympic Coast Wilderness Challenge attempt, he reflected on his blog, “You know what they say: If you haven’t DNFed, you haven’t been trying enough of the crazy-ass shit that Ras plans.”
And when it comes to trying crazy-ass shit, there may be no better poster child than Richard Kresser, whose first big ultrarunning achievement was completing RAGBRAI—an annual, 416-mile bike ride across the state of Iowa—on foot. A former US Army engineer, the 31-year-old Kresser is liberally bearded and rarely without a grin on his face.
“We get addicted to ultramarathons, because they make us feel things we could never feel in our daily, normal lives,” he says. “I’ve constantly broken through barriers I once thought were impossible, and that has given me the confidence to chase other dreams in my life, such as quitting my job and living out of my van.”
For him, setting the supported FKT on the Issy Alps 100-mile route last March was “spring training” for some of his other 2016 ambitions, including three 200-mile races. Of those, he won two outright; the third, the Tahoe 200, he and a friend acted as course sweepers from start to finish while, just for the hell of it, drinking 50 beers apiece. His other big project for the year, which he dubbed “Dick’s RASH,” entailed summiting and circumambulating four of the Northwest’s major volcanoes—Rainier, Adams, St. Helens and Hood—in less than a week. (Two-hundred-forty-seven miles with 74,000 feet of elevation gain, in case you were wondering.)
“Races like Hardrock and Tor des Geants really would provide that challenge too, but are so tough to get into,” he says. “In the meantime, while I am waiting for lotteries, I need to go elsewhere and seek out harder stuff to keep me entertained.”
Beyond Issy, Orozco also devised something several years ago that he calls the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge—a solo, no-pacers-allowed, choose-your-own-route peak-bagging quest to summit 18 mountains in a single push. (It probably merits mention here that Manning himself, a staunch believer in the sanctity of moving slowly through the backcountry, once referred to trail running as an “act of war.” Nonetheless, there’s nary a trail runner in the state of Washington who hasn’t benefitted from Manning’s tireless advocacy work.)
So far, the Peak Challenge has no finishers.
[Editor’s note: over July Fourth weekend, Washington runners Ras Vaughan and Seth Wolpin became the first people to complete the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge, in 78 hours 36 minutes. Read about their accomplishment.]
Last June, I made my own unsupported attempt on the Issy route. Forty hours in and smelling the barn, I’d gotten lazy about making noise in the dark woods to alert animals to my presence. And so abruptly, to the surprise of both of us, the mountain lion and I came face to face.
Ultimately, it was not this sighting that stymied my Issy effort, but a simultaneous navigational error and a brief, unsettling encounter several minutes later with a stranger in the woods. In retrospect, the man was probably harmless—perhaps just someone like me, enjoying a solo amble in the pre-dawn shadows. But in the fog of my exhaustion, fear got the best of me and I simply lost my will to finish. My friends’ house in Issaquah was an easy bailout, so I went there instead.
Still, I had a rich sense of satisfaction with the whole experience. Outside my bedroom window, birds began chirping, anticipating the sun. As I drifted at last into a deep, blissful sleep, a passage from Bone Games echoed through my mind.
“There is a peculiar joy to planning and putting together an expedition, even the smallest, most quixotic one,” wrote Schultheis. “It is a child’s idea of what adult life is supposed to be like, really … It is how we should live all the time—full of naiveté, innocence, a sense of profound, playful importance—and almost never do.”
And, with a faint smile, I thought, Thank you, George.
Yitka Winn is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. In hopes of redemption, she attempted to cover the final mile of the Issy route two months later, only to run into a bear. Someday she’ll make it to High Point Trailhead.