The Stein Valley wilderness played a formative role in my development as an ultralight backpacker, and repeated trips there have grown my heart fonder, and led to me writing a modestly popular online guide to the Stein Valley.
Back in 2012 after trying my hand at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, I was keen to push the limits of fast and light wilderness travel. That fall I challenged the speed record for the ~95km (58 mile) Stein Valley traverse, which at the time stood at 35 hrs 45 min. The Stein Traverse starts with 12km up an old logging road to the alpine, followed by a 26km high route across the alpine including numerous steep climbs, talus fields, some minor scrambling, lots of rocky footing and then a steep descent (3km, 3000′) to the valley. Lastly there is ~57km of trail to the finish, which is sometimes good but usually too rocky, sandy, rooty or undulating to run. It’s relatively flat, but not easy miles.
On my 2012 attempt, I put in a pretty good effort, as described in my trip report, but my inexperience shined through. I didn’t bring any electrolytes and ended up with pretty serious heat exhaustion by midway. I did actually cover the traverse in 26 hrs of movement, but also logged 17 hrs in bed (2 nights) for a total time of 43 hrs.
A week ago I found myself in great physical shape and with some free time for another attempt after wildfires derailed the final leg of a double traverse of the Canadian Rockies that T and I have been hiking since June 1. We’re just 145km shy of our 2300km goal (we hope to resume this soon), so we’ve been hiking ~30km nearly every day for the past few months (she was too smart to come on this trip though).
Since 2012, the fastest known time (FKT) for the Stein has come down a lot. It improved to 28 hrs in 2013 by 4 men who were the first to use an ultra runners approach. This time was then slashed to 23 hrs 37 min in 2016 by two more ultra runners: Nicola Gildersleeve and Peter Watson. To beat their time, I knew there couldn’t be any slacking off in a sleeping bag. A new FKT would require a strong, uninterrupted hike with a fair bit of running where the terrain permits.
While hiking is my forte, I’m barely acquainted with trail running. I’ve never run more than 10km in my life, and never more than 5km off pavement. If you tallied up all the running I’ve done in my lifetime, the total might be around 300km. All I really knew about distance running was what I learned from my 2012 Stein FKT attempt: bring some electrolytes. So the afternoon before my attempt, I stopped in as Escape Route in Squamish to check out the “running vests”. I was utterly unfamiliar with these devices, but apparently everyone uses them on long runs. I wound up with a tiny (5L) Nathan running vest, selected primarily because of its low sale price.
The Escape Route folks were also helpful in other ways – educating me on novel products like energy gels. I asked if they were great, and they said lots of runners like them. I asked if I should bring some. They said maybe, but stick to what I’m used to. I said I wasn’t used to anything, so I bought two.
Having never attempted anything of this intensity before, I wasn’t sure how many calories to pack. 3000 seemed like a reasonable number and was the max I could fit into my tiny pack anyways (actually this food overflowed into my pants pockets). I pooled my 2 gels with some Cliff and Lara bars, pepperoni and a box of cheap granola bars. Along with the food, I packed some electrolyte power, Starbucks Via, bear spray, mitts, camera, InReach tracker, baseball cap and a windshirt. I decided against anything warm, as that might encourage lounging around.
While running is not my strong suite, the Stein is. I’ve hiked the full traverse 3x before, and sections of it several more times. I’m intimately familiar with the navigation involved, so I left the map/GPS behind and relied on memory. I also knew that most of the traverse is a pain to navigate in the dark, so I planned to start relatively late (compared to past attempts) at 3:45am so the sun would be up when I reached the alpine.
Video Trip Report
I think the written trip report below is more enjoyable, but here’s a short video of the trip:
On Friday September 15, the alarm went off at 3:30am in our micro-camper van parked at the start. My first thought was to question this whole thing. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night, to suffer all day, by myself, in pursuit of some record that no one cares about? I did some second guessing, but I had already expended a lot of spouse points in asking my wife to come here and then drive around to the Lytton side to wait at the finish, so I was committed to giving it a shot.
I started up the new (2016) bypass trail at 3:45am at a brisk hike, not wanting to over-do it this early in the game. It felt like I was moving quick, but it’s hard to judge in the dark. I arrived at Lizzie Lake 2 hrs later – a solid time (~12km, +1000m). Back in 2012, this section took me 2.5 hours and I felt like I was really hustling then. I continued into the alpine with the sun rising as I reached Lizzie Cabin (2.75 hrs, 6:30am). At Lizzie Cabin I signed the log book while waking up the cabins lone occupant, who apologized for not having coffee ready.
I motored past Caltha Lake a full hour faster than my 2012 attempt. Segment after segment, I was besting my previous attempt that I was using as a gauge because my 2012 progress was similar to the current FKT over the first half (before going off the rails). I started to think I might be able to put in a fast traverse if I could avoid having the wheels come off due to over exuberance or some rookie mistake. Whenever I get too stoked in endurance events, I remind myself that there will be plenty of time to destroy myself later if I still feel like it, so no sense pushing too hard just yet.
The alpine section of the Stein Traverse was just as amazing as I remembered it. Caltha Lake with it’s moody, shaded emerald green and then Tundra Lake in it’s deep royal blue.
When I arrived at Tundra, I marvelled with incredulity at how I had hopped it’s 2.5km of talus in just 70 minutes last time. I felt like that was talus hopping at it’s most reckless, and yet somehow by the time I was past Tundra I had knocked nearly 40% off that time – travelling from the Caltha/Tundra divide to the exit of the Tundra basin in a mere 45 min (a section where many hikers allocate a full day). I’m sure other folks could do most of this traverse much faster than me, but I reckon my 45 min for this section is near unbeatable. Such haste was not without mishap, and did cost me two trekking poles:
This report is getting rather verbose, so I’ll speed things up. Once I had scrambled up onto the main ridgewalk, I motored along this waterless stretch motivated by my near empty 500ml water bottle and the thought that I might make it to Stein Lake quite a bit faster than the current FKT (11.5 hrs). I thought I might come in under 10 hrs, so I kept cruising and ended up reaching Stein Lake in just 9 hrs (most parties allocate 4 days).
Mentally, a huge shift happens as you descend to Stein Lake because there are no bail options on the Stein Traverse. Prior to Stein Lake, you’re continually wondering if you should turn back. Then as you descend out of the alpine, the easiest path of escape becomes the finish ~60km ahead, so the mental anguish over bailing is replaced with commitment and intimidation for tough terrain ahead. It’s not easy to get deeper into the woods than at Stein Lake, so being there solo around lunch time with little more than a few granola bars is an unsettling feeling.
With a 2.5 hr lead over the current FKT, and “only” 57km of remote but less rugged terrain to the finish, I left Stein Lake telling myself to stay patient lest I overdo it. In 2012 I was feeling good at this point too and that didn’t last. Working against this patient plan was the knowledge that darkness falls early in mid September, and if I wasn’t at the better defined trail east of Cottonwood before nightfall, I might end up floundering in circles in the dark. So I started jogging the easier bits but mostly I could only hold a 5km/hr walk on the rocky trail, which has quite a bit of deadfall thanks to a windstorm last fall (but is still far better than it was before the 2016 trail work).
I reached Cottonwood at 6:20pm (14.6 hrs) – an hour before dark and faster than my wildest hopes. I said hello to two folks there with my miniature vest on. I’d seen 3 other parties on this traverse, and each time enjoyed the ridiculousness of telling them I was “just out for a dayhike” while being up to 50km from any trailhead.
At Cottonwood, I still had 8 hours left to set a new FKT, and with only 30km remaining I knew I was well positioned. Part of me wanted to stay patient, ensure a finish, and not wreck my legs, but I also wanted to put in my best effort. No sense making it any easier for the next guy/gal. I figured I’d run at least until dark, after which walking might be safer. I’d already whacked a pinky toe off a boulder while running – giving me a nice blood blister.
So I hustled and cruised through Ponderosa Creek as darkness fell (21km to go) and kept up the intermittent running even after. By the suspension bridge (9:25pm, 13km to go) I was hours ahead of the minimum pace and still feeling pretty good, so I started to push the time. Lots of the trail was still too rocky or steep to run, but when I could, I did. I realized that a sub-20 hour finish was possible, so I pushed for it and wished I could have those 20+ minutes back that I’d spent chatting with various parties. I ran most of the last 13km (by itself the longest run of my life).
Finally I rolled up to the big Stein Valley sign at the finish at 11:36pm – 19 hrs and 51 minutes after starting. My knees and hip flexors were sore, but overall I felt way better than I expected, and I was elated to have put in a sub 20 hr time.
I walked over to the parking area, hoping T had a safe drive to our rendezvous point. I told her I’d arrive between midnight at 9am, but she had been tracking my Delorme InReach, so she knew I would be in early and was still up.
Anyone curious/skeptical can view my InReach track for this hike, provided you can make it out amongst the mismash of my other InReach tracks in the Stein.
Future FKT Challengers
I’m sure a good long distance runner could shave off a nice bit of time, but you’d want to be well acquainted with the traverse so you don’t waste time navigating. I think my 7 hr time between Lizzie Lake and Stein Lake doesn’t leave too much room for improvement, but a strong runner could jog up the logging road at the start, and put in more/faster running in the final 50kms to shave a few hours. I did squander perhaps 30min chatting with about 6 other parties over the traverse and could have pushed harder in the upper valley, so I suspect a perfect run for me might be closer to 18 hrs. An elite runner might do 14-16 hrs or better?
If you’re planning to smoke my time, I recommend going in mid-August for more daylight and starting 1-2 hours before dawn so you’ve got daylight in the alpine. Don’t hesitant to get in touch if you want some pointers for the route (e.g. micro-navigation). I’d love to grab coffee at chat about the Stein.
[Update: Someone did indeed smoke my time. Nick Elson – resident of Squamish, BC and holder of many notable FKTs including the Squamish Chief (1st Peak), Half Dome in Yosemite and the Grand Traverse in the Teton’s ran the trail in 13:30 on August 28, 2018. His time represents a strong effort by an elite runner and thus poses formidable challenge to anyone looking to go faster.]
Start (3:45 am at west end of 2016 bypass trail)
Lizzie Lake: 2 hrs
Lizzie Cabin: 2 hrs 45 min
Heart Lake: 3 hrs 25 min
Top of Climb (White Lupine Ridge): 3 hrs 55 min
Caltha Lake: 4 hrs 45 min
Caltha/Tundra Divide: 5 hrs 10 min
Leave Tundra: 5 hrs 55 min
On Ridgewalk: 6 hrs 25 min
Stein Lake: 9 hrs
Stein River Cable Car (lower): 9 hrs 55 min
Avalanche Camp: 11 hrs 25 min
Logjam: 13 hrs 15 min
Scudamore Ck: 13 hrs 55 min
Cottonwood Ck: 14 hrs 35 min
Ponderosa: 15 hrs 55 min
Suspension Bridge: 17 hrs 40 min
Devil’s Staircase: 19 hrs 18 min
Finish: 19 hrs 51 min