Bike Rides & Hikes

Rescued runner’s two-night ordeal need not define Western States Trail

Day turned to night and then day once more and, still, search-and-rescue teams on foot, horse and ATV had not found trail runner Robert Root.

Lost in the wilderness, on a fairly remote section of the Western States Trail, Root apparently had gotten horribly turned around on a routine Sunday morning run with his Modesto training group. Media reports sounded increasingly grim by Tuesday.

The nearly 10-mile segment of the Western States trail where the search was taking place, Michigan Bluff to the Swinging Bridge, was being described with scary adjectives.

The Bee quoted John Trent, president of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, as saying: “It’s a rugged wilderness area. There are rocks, there are roots.”

The Auburn Journal quoted Gordy Ainsleigh, the creator of the Western States run: “There are a lot of places to get lost up on Deadwood Ridge, a lot.”

TV talking heads spoke ominously about worsening weather and exposure and racing the clock.

We all know the happy ending, of course. Root, 55, was found, hypothermic and dehydrated but very much alive, and airlifted to an Auburn hospital, where he was later released.

Naturally, my immediate thought was that the Michigan Bluff-to-Swinging Bridge portion of the Western States Trail would be the perfect selection for this month’s Fresh Tracks feature. If I could first just get you, valued readers, to sign this release protecting The Bee from any liability. Yes, initial here and here. OK, we can proceed …

My thinking was, it couldn’t be as fraught with danger as it was made out to be, right? I mean, you know the media, always blowing things out of proportion. After all, over the years, thousands of running shoes, hiking boots and hooves have put their stamp on this well-trod trail, which later this month will be the part of the route of the annual Super Bowl of Suffer-fests, the Western States Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

Sure, this stretch is mighty hilly – you traverse three canyons and more than 5,000-feet in elevation, one way – and hot in the summer, but entirely doable for anyone of sound body, if not mind.

As for getting lost, the great thing about the Western States Trail is the series of brown, plastic markers strategically placed along the path, giving mile updates and assuring users they still are on the correct trail.

But before I laced up my shoes and pointed the car toward the Michigan Bluff trailhead, about 5 miles from the town of Foresthill, I reckoned I had better contact Root to get his lay of the land, ask where, precisely, his run went awry, and any words of wisdom for fellow travelers.

I’m happy to report he sounded chipper and in good health. In fact, he said he’d run a half-marathon the previous weekend, only about three weeks after his 39-hour ordeal in the foothills.

“I have some numbness in two toes of my right foot and one in the left, but that’s about it,” Root said. “It’s not affecting my running – as long as I just keep moving forward.”

When I asked where, precisely, he got lost, Root knew the exact spot. He is, after all, an experienced trail runner, not a newbie to the area.

“It was just after the El Dorado (Creek) bridge – and I turned right,” he said.

Ah, so that was his undoing. El Dorado Creek comes about 2.7 miles into the trek. It’s in a canyon after a prolonged steep descent, where you can’t help but think about the dread of ascending this same stretch on the return. Once you cross the bridge, you follow the trail as it wends around a little to the right, then swerves left as you begin an almost 5-mile uphill slog to Deadwood Cemetery and then Devil’s Thumb.

The problem was that, like many trails, this portion of the Western States has many offshoots. If you aren’t vigilant, you could be led off the main path. And that’s apparently what happened.

“There’s some hairpin turns and then I came to some kind of opening, lost the trail, then found another and that’s when I figured I (was lost). I’d say about 15 or so minutes after (crossing the bridge.)”

One wrong turn and then two nights sleeping in a bush. That’s rough.

But Root is not a timid sort. He survived in the wilderness for two days on water and Clif Shot Bloks for sustenance. And Root didn’t hesitate when I asked if he would return to run the Michigan Bluff stretch. He said he and a buddy were planning another trip.

So if this guy is OK about traversing this portion of the Western States Trail, you have no excuse not to.

Besides, it’s a beautiful run with lots of great views down into canyons and Gold Rush history dotted along the way and, closer to the turn-around point, you can view, up-close, some of the damage from last summer’s American wildfire.

It’s also an excellent chance for merely mortal trail runners to experience what it’s like to run this stretch of the famous ultra-marathon. (Western States runners, of course, will be going only on the return trip of our Fresh Tracks run.)

Swinging Bridge comes at about Mile 45 of the race, and you can only imagine the agony of runners chugging up a sadistically steep, 2-mile climb to the relative flatness of Devil’s Thumb. Even doing it as part of a 20-mile training run is thoroughly taxing. And then you think of them having to climb the next canyon, the 2.7 miles from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff. That climb, steep at first, doesn’t flatten out much and loses the shade of trees near the summit. Just think: By the time these runners conquer these two canyon climbs, they still have half the race ahead of them.

What I’m suggesting is much more sane. The great thing about an out-and-back run is that you can shorten (or, I suppose, lengthen) it depending on your mood and level of fitness that particular day. If you go all the way to the Swinging Bridge – damaged badly in last summer’s fire, and still officially closed, so take a plunge in the creek – you’re talking about 20 miles with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and some killer switchbacks. If you turn around at Devil’s Thumb, you cover 16 miles and almost 5,000 feet of elevation. If you go short and turn around at El Dorado Creek, it’s 5.5 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation.

Assuming you don’t take Root’s route, you’ll breeze down some switchbacks through black oak, gray pines and manzanita. This part is part of an old hydraulic mining operation, but the hillside seems to have recovered nicely from the erosive and corrosive effects. The 5-mile climb to the Deadwood Cemetery is winding and, in a few spots, narrow to the point where a fall would lead to a precipitous tumbling into the canyon. This section is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it being a former Gold Rush toll road for travelers going through Deadwood and the Half Way House hotel.

All that remains today is the cemetery. You can see the arch on your left after you complete a climb and before you veer right to stay on the trail. Take the time to mosey over to the cemetery, even though it’s a tad out of your way (and uphill). Deadwood is where several trails meet, so be alert to stay on the correct path. Yes, there are signs. You’ll know you’re going the right way when, a little ways after the cemetery, you reach the Deadwood water pump.

This is the only potable water on the route, so be sure to stop. After filling up, the trail goes a little right and runs parallel with a fire road almost all the way to Devil’s Thumb. You’ll have to claw your way over three large downed trees, but that’s part of the fun.

Devil’s Thumb, about 8 miles in, is the next junction. Several trails converge because people use the spot for camping and picnicking. Again, look for the sign, which adds the warning “Hazardous Trail Section.” This is the start of many, many switchbacks – some runners have counted 37, others 40 – and you know you’ll have to turn around at the water and climb.

You would think that, after having successfully completed the “out” portion of the journey, that it would be nigh impossible to lose your way on the “back” portion. You would be wrong. You’ll be getting tired by this time, and the mind can play tricks. Stay vigilant and look for brown posts every mile or so. Eventually, you’ll hear the rushing water of El Dorado Creek. This being June, you’d be a fool not to stop and douse yourself, or maybe take a long soak.

Eventually, though, that climb back to Michigan Bluff awaits. Take it slowly. Walk or crawl if you have to. Know that you’ve accomplished something simply because Placer County Search and Rescue wasn’t called out for you.