Team UltraPedestrian Completes First UP North Loop

Kathy on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com
Backcountry travel

Although 100-mile ultra runs are a relatively popular “thing” these days, several regional athletes are upping the ante just a tad. A few recent “ultra-ultra” projects include:

1. In the summer of 2017 mother/daughter duo Tania and Martina Halik became the second team to ski the entire 2,300km length of the Coast Mountains from Squamish, British Columbia to Skagway, Alaska.

2. Skier Jason Hummel (2017) and splitboarder Kyle Miller (2018) became the second and third people to complete the Cascade Crest Traverse.

3. In 2018 Richard Kresser completed a Tour de Volcanoes in which he enchained all of the “currently active” Cascade volcanoes by riding a touring bicycle from one climb to the next.

4. Also in 2018, Kathy and Ras Vaughan aka “Team UltraPedestrian,” became the first to complete a 2,600+ mile Pacific Northwest multi-state route they dubbed the UP North Loop. The route links parts of the Idaho Centennial Trail, Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Pacific Northwest Trail. The epic journey took them across the breadth and width of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and even included brief travel in Montana and Nevada.

They began the UP North Loop on May 14th, 2018 by first hiking south on the Idaho Centennial Trail from Hammett, Idaho. After covering over 2,600 miles in 174 days, 22 hours 25 minutes, they completed the loop on Monday, November 5th At 4:22:00 pm.

Kathy and Ras are rather unlikely ultra athletes. Kathy was recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. When Ras and Kathy met in 1996 neither had any formal athletic experience, and Ras was doing his utmost to become a member of the obesity epidemic. Despite their self-described “ordinariness,” they are at the leading edge of a niche ultra trail running discipline they call “UltraPedestrian“-ism. To support others interested pushing their ultra limits, they host an annual “UltraPedestrian Challenge.”

Kathy says the route showed them that they have barely scratched the surface of what the Northwest has to offer.

“The whole route, every section, was so unique from all the others. The terrain of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho offers so much untold beauty: deep canyons, sage steppes, the Cascade Crest, ancient cedar groves, rugged river valleys, and small towns rife with history. Ras and I feel like we barely touched this immense landscape. We came away from the UP North Loop with images of a magnificent land and the desire to delve even further into the surrounding wilderness.”

Kathy and Ras on the abandoned Thunder Mountain Railroad line, Idaho Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com
Kathy and Ras on the abandoned Thunder Mountain Railroad line, Idaho Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com

The Future Of Long-Distance Hiking?

While studying a map of all the long trails in North America, Ras realized that parts of the Oregon Desert Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail could be linked together to form a huge loop through the Inland Northwest. This loop would be comparable in length to the Big Three long trails (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail, completing all of which is known as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking), with the notable exceptions that it would end where it began and it would never leave the Northwest. Rather than running north and south between Mexico and Canada, the line they envisioned connected some of the most challenging sections of the PCT with the three other lesser known, less traveled, and less established routes.

“Ras and Kathy’s Up North Loop was inspiring on many levels,” said Renee ‘She-ra’ Patrick, Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Triple Crowner. “Their accomplishments go far beyond hiking 2,634 miles in the Pacific Northwest: the Vaughans pioneered a challenging cross-country desert route I had only identified on maps to connect the Idaho Centennial Trail to the Oregon Desert Trail, then they went on to complete the extremely challenging Oregon Desert Trail in a cold and wet Oregon spring, hike the ‘easier’ trail miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail, then found themselves along the backbone of Idaho in fall amid early snowfall with what must have been exhausted legs! I can’t wait to see what Ras and Kathy get up to next.”

The “Wild Effect” is the name given to a recent influx of hikers seen on the PCT inspired by the book and film “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed. Ras asserts that projects such as the UP North Loop could be seen as the secondary impact of the Wild Effect, as evidenced by increased traffic on newer and previously less traveled long trails.

“With thousands of new thru-hikers and section hikers pitting themselves against the Big Three each season, a subset of the hiking community has gravitated away from those now high-traffic trails. The same quest for challenge, solitude, and immersion in the natural world that drew people to long-distance hiking in the first place is now guiding them onto the lesser-known and less populated routes, such as the PNT, ODT, and ICT. The UP North Loop may very well be a glimpse of what the future of thru-hiking looks like.”

Kathy on the Alvord Playa, Oregon Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com
Kathy on the Alvord Playa, Oregon Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com

Only Known Times

The couple has made a name for themselves in the adventure scene dreaming up and attempting one-of-a-kind pursuits like this. In an era when elite level runners, climbers, and thru-hikers compete to shave days, hours, or even mere minutes off the Fastest Known Times for established routes, Ras and Kathy have created a unique niche for themselves. They attempt Only Known Times (OKT): new routes or new iterations of classic routes that have never before been completed.

“Recent advances in navigation and route mapping technology have opened up a whole new playing field for those in pursuit of unique achievement,” Ras points out. “Online mapping resources make it possible for anyone to dream up a line, create it on a map, download it to a phone or GPS, and go out and draw it on the earth with their feet.”

A number of converging factors are make it possible for activists to envision and do routes like the UP North Loop:

1. Previous knowledge and experience powers the progression and evolution of every sport. Hiking is no different.

2. In some cases, changes in infrastructure enables new access. For example, in 2016 Seattle’s Ellen Lavoie completed an only known time of the Palouse to Cascades Trail over terrain that was previously privately held.

3. New rugged ultra-lightweight gear makes fast, efficient travel better than ever.

4. In addition to using GPS for planning and travel, GPS technologies enable friends and fans to follow the progress of the athletes during these adventures. And, emergency beacon technologies provide a way to get rescued, or worst case find a body. Maybe this also reduces the perceived commitment and danger of some of these routes.

Ras’ adventures include the Double Wonderland in 2012, a sextuple crossing of the Grand Canyon in 2013, an un-resupplied traverse of Washington state in 2014, a yo-yo of the Arizona National Scenic Trail (with Kathy) in 2015, the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop and Mount Adams Infinity Loop both in 2016, and the un-resupplied Rainier-Adams_St Helens Traverse in 2017.

Kathy’s projects include establishing the Women’s Inaugural Fastest Known Time for the Arizona National Scenic Trail in 2013, completing the first ever Methow Trails 200k Nordic Ski Challenge in a single push in 2015, and the first ever yo-yo of the Arizona National Scenic Trail (with Ras) also in 2015.

Kathy, State Line Ridge, Idaho-Montana border. Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com
Kathy, State Line Ridge, Idaho-Montana border. Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com

Managing Type 1 Diabetes on The Trail

The UP North Loop was Kathy’s first Only Known Time project since being diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic.

“I had 40% of my pancreas removed in 2007 because of a growth encapsulating it. Sometime during the spring of 2017 the remainder of my pancreas stopped producing insulin,” Kathy explained. “In July of that year I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic. I had just come off an attempted yo-yo of the Grand Enchantment Trail. I had been experiencing diabetes symptoms for a number of weeks while hiking and had become quite thin. Once diagnosed, I began insulin therapy and never looked back. It was time to try a thru-hike now while using insulin.”

“Despite having some scary low blood sugar episodes, in the end, I was able to complete the longest of my thru-hikes yet, feeling strong and healthy. I paid a lot of attention each day to my blood sugars, how I felt, what I ate, and how much insulin I needed based on those assessments. Terrain, elevation, and weather impacted my physical output and effected my numbers, causing fine-tuning to my insulin injections daily. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I will always need to manage my blood sugars using insulin therapy. I now know I can do it while living on the trail.”

Ras & Kathy, Cartwright Canyon, Idaho. Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com
Ras & Kathy, Cartwright Canyon, Idaho. Photo by Ras Vaughan for UltraPedestrian.com

Uniquely Challenging Logistics

“The UP North Loop is a fascinating concept, linking together vastly different regions and remote trail and route systems,” says Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson, holder of multiple long trail FKTs, first female triple Triple Crown-er, and first female to complete a calendar-year Triple Crown. “Similar to (Andrew Skurka’s) Great Western Loop, it has the added complexity and challenge of being entirely in the northern tier of the country; thus greatly limiting the weather and seasonal window of completion.”

The logistics of the UP North Loop differ substantially from those of the Big Three. On one of the north/south long trails, one can either begin early in the year at the south end and follow spring north, or begin later in the year at the north end and follow summer south. The UP North Loop, however, has a far more limited weather window. The blazing temperatures of the Oregon and Idaho deserts, along the south edge of the route, make travel during the heat of summer life-threatening, so these sections must be completed in the spring or fall. Conversely, the northern section and the areas at higher elevation can only be done once the previous year’s snow has melted and before the new snows of the coming winter begin to accumulate. These logistical demands up the ante for anyone attempting this new Inland Northwest Loop.

“We see this as the next great North American thru-hiking challenge. It’s a route as long as any of the Big Three (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail), but instead of running point to point north and south, it describes an immense loop through the incredibly diverse and relatively untraveled terrain of the Inland Northwest,” says Ras. “After covering upwards of 2,600 miles on foot, you end up back at the very point at which you began. But we envision it more as a spiral, than a circle. Hopefully, when you return to your starting point you arrive there on a whole other level.”

“Just as a bunch of us hiker trash were wondering if it could be done, these two just up and did it,” effuses Scot ‘So Far’ Forbes, Triple Crowner and former board member of the American Long Distance Hiking Association. “Kathy and Ras are pioneers among pioneers. Weaving between going with and against the grain of the mountains of the Northwest, they’ve given us a route for the ages.”

Opportunities for Unique Achievement

The “Purist Line” that Ras and Kathy designed as their primary navigational goal, links the official routes of all four trails using connections designed by Renee Patrick of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. At a number of points in their epic journey Ras and Kathy were forced to detour from their planned route due to trail conditions, fire, weather, and time constraints. For fastest known time (FKT) players, the Purist Line remains the obvious first objective.

“Our hope is that the UP North Loop will never be codified into one official line. While the Purist Line is still very much up for grabs for a strict first send, our vision is for each hiker to design their own alternates and reroutes to truly make the UP North Loop their own,” Ras opines. “If someone wants to hike the exact footsteps of thousands of other people, they can download an app and follow the PCT from Mexico to Canada. But taking on the UP North Loop requires an amount of research, route finding, navigation, and creativity that harkens back to the early days of thru-hiking.”

UltraPedestrian Supporters and Sponsors

Kathy and Ras’ adventures are made possible by private supporters and corporate sponsors. Folks interested in supporting Team UltraPedestrian and their quest to explore the limits of human endurance can do so by visiting their Patreon site.

Team UltraPedestrian is sponsored by Altra Running. Kathy and Ras also receive support from Gossamer Gear, Injinji Performance Toesocks, Trail Butter, Nathan Sports, and Seven Hills Running Shop.

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