Finding Light in the Darkness of the Wonderland Trail

I wasn’t always a runner. In fact, I set out on my first run ever May 2017 huffing and puffing after an embarrassingly low distance. Climbing was my main squeeze but after dealing with a traumatic assault in the city that involved broken ribs and cheekbone, I just needed my time outdoors to be alone. My husband, stay at home dad extraordinaire, convinced me to quit both my jobs in emergency/wilderness medicine, transition back to stay at home mom, and take some time for myself. As you can imagine, time alone was difficult with twins at home but every week he gave me an entire day to get out by myself.

At first, I spent it exploring new trails and enjoying the time to just “be.” I quickly realized running the trails would maximize my views and time. I fell in love with the full body experience of running (not so much the full body stitches). There is something enchanting about the learning process; figuring out your body, the movements, and learning how to take shape and mold to a new environment. Running alone was cathartic, no pressure to feel like I needed to perform better than the level I was at. I could walk when I needed to, run and feel powerful, and best of all come home refreshed.

Taking in the view of Mt. Rainer.

Unintentionally, my solo running grew to longer and longer distances and I was stoked to the moon when six months later I celebrated this new found love by single day, solo runs of the Four Pass Loop, Teton Crest Trail, and my dear friend Raquel joined me for the Zion Traverse. My favorite memories from these trails aren’t the “sexy” ones. It’s the nauseated, in pain, tired, can’t move another muscle yet somehow the grit is there to keep going. Being vulnerable, defeated, discouraged and persevering is something that has helped me though some of life’s most difficult moments and it’s interesting to see how this mind-state translates to different mediums.

Raquel, who joined me on the first Zion Traverse, planted the seed of me running the iconic 93 mile Wonderland trail. I remembered laughing, “I mean, even though I run I am not really a runner.” I’ve never felt worthy of the title…I am not a sponsored athlete so I can’t really consider myself a runner, right? When I write it, it sounds silly. Running has given me the clarity and confidence to pursue my dreams, start my own philanthropic wilderness medicine business, feel rejuvenated and a l i v e.

The Wonderland Trail – 93 miles around Mt. Rainer.

While browsing a thrift store, I found a good ol’ weathered copy of a book on the Wonderland trail. I brought it home and couldn’t help but feel inspired. When March 15th (the NPS permit day) rolled around I submitted my permit to run. My rules for myself were simple: be safe, have fun, don’t feel rushed and enjoy alllll the views…meaning no running in the dark. This immediately eliminated the option of doing all 93 miles in a single push. The next option was splitting the adventure into two days. Doable, but I would definitely feel rushed if I needed to stop, filter water, take photos and all that jazz. I decided on a three day run starting at Longmire and having Zack meet me at the campsites each day with the tent and lots of good food.

Day 1: Longmire to Mowich

The first day was breathtaking, both from views and the hills. Living and training above 8,500’ in Colorado definitely helped! I quickly learned the speed I needed to run to not get bitten by mosquitoes, and I found my stopping to take a photo thought process to be, “Is this photo really worth three mosquito bites?” Most of the time, it totally was. Zack greeted me at Mowich with a big hug, chicken noodle soup in a bread bowl, rainier cherries, and Nerds (he’s the best).

One of many waterfalls on the Wonderland Trail.

Day 2: Mowich to Mystic Lake

I slept in until 10am (AMAZING) and then boogied on. I was making good time and projected getting to camp well before dark. Late afternoon, I  was in a groove heading down towards the Winthrop River crossing. I turned the corner and there was a teenager walking up the trail. We locked eyes and I knew something was terribly wrong. He murmured a quiet “please help” under his breath. I put my arms on his and sat him down. Ethan told me minutes before he had witnessed his father, Phil get swept off a log while crossing the river. He saw his pack float up immediately but never saw his dad and left to find help. I knew we needed to contact the National Park Service (NPS) immediately and get a team out looking for his dad. In addition, Ethan needed food and a calm, supportive atmosphere where he could feel as safe and comfortable as possible. The closest campsite was two miles away uphill. We walked together and halfway up he stopped, and gestured his elbow out for me to wrap my arm in his. We exchanged a heartfelt sigh and nod of acknowledgment as we quietly walked towards the camp. Once we got there, I had him hang back while I explained the situation. The first people I spoke to happened to be two social workers, and they graciously took Ethan into their camp, offered him food and a tent and sleeping bag to relax in.

First sight of Winthrop.

Due to their longer response time, and daylight fading, I knew it would be better if I could get a few people to go down to the river and do a preliminary search. As a wilderness Paramedic, I have a long history in Search and Rescue and knew how to effectively search and provide care in these situations. The last campsite over happened to be an ICU nurse, psychologist and an EMT. What are the chances? They were backpacking the loop in 10 days and had lots of great gear.  We combined medical supplies, dry clothes, materials for a hypo-wrap, headlamps, and enough food and warm clothes for all of us. We headed down to the river, and had excellent communication around our techniques for searching, talking through patient assessment, and assigning roles.

Our first sight of the river was heavy. I swallowed the lump in my throat, seeing the bridge submerged in strong rapids, and the deep solemn sounds of giant boulders rolling under the current. It was completely impassable. My hope was that if Phil was in an eddy, he would at least get dislodged. We stayed on one side of the river searching until we got cliffed out. There was no sign of his backpack washed up on shore. Two of us scrambled high to get a better vantage point and there was no sign of any clues in sight down as far as we could see. Right before total darkness hit, we all held each other tight and tears glistened in our eyes. I knew Ethan would be waiting for us. We were all hoping Phil would have washed up on shore and be safe on the other side. I couldn’t help but think of Ethan’s courageousness and strength to have searched and left for help. That must have been the hardest decision of his life; the mental strength he had was astounding.

Search team headed to the river.

We turned back to head up towards Mystic Lake Camp and Kyle, the ICU nurse said “I hope Zack doesn’t come looking for you down here if you don’t show up to White River tonight.” My heart sank. He was right. If I wasn’t there by dark, Zack would walk down the trail until he saw me so I wouldn’t be alone for the last bit. This being my shortest milage day, I knew he would be concerned if he has walked more than a couple miles and didn’t see me. My mind raced. When we got back to camp I sent a second message via sat phone to both Zack’s phone and the rangers at White River telling them I was safe and staying at Mystic Lake.

Day 3: Mystic Lake to White River

Ethan asked me to stay with him during the night. Nobody could sleep. When sunrise hit, the rangers were there to take Ethan back. It was one of the hardest goodbyes. There was no word on Phil or if Zack had got my message. Our tent was up at the campground but he wasn’t there. The four of us stuck together and went back down to cross the river when water levels were lowest. The log still had water covering some of the first half and it wasn’t impassable but all of our nerves and emotions were high. I tied cordelette around the boulder and Kyle who felt the most comfortable crossing went over first and secured it to a boulder on the other side rigging a handrail for the rest of us. Kyle was Taylor’s dad and it was extremely emotional and difficult for her as he crossed. We held her tight until he was safe. Once we were all on the other side, I spotted a ripped section of a green Patagonia pack. Just like Zack’s. I felt paralyzed. I shook and sobbed. We were all so emotional, a contagious cry for everyone. Big tears and big hugs. We pulled ourselves together, and walked away from the river knowing the NPS swift water team was minutes away and my mind-state was irrational. We walked as the sounds of the violent water faded in the distance. I kept thinking about how tranquil and calming those sounds felt the day before, now they made me feel nauseous.

We all were heading towards White River so we stuck together. I’m incredibly grateful for the instant family they became and the strong bond we all developed. Several miles up the trail, I turn the corner and there was Zack.

Finally finding Zack!

You know that cartoon of a person whose face goes completely blank and then tears fly out like fountains?

Yep. That was me. I’ve never hugged anyone so tight. Zack was with two strangers that he was deemed as his instant family. He had come looking for me and ended up meeting Sarah and Tim who offered him a place to sleep since it was dark and cold out. There were rangers near their camp that had gotten the memo and told him I was safe so thankfully he didn’t have a worried night.

My trail family and his trail family joined forces and we made a much needed stop along the trail at Sunrise Visitor Center for burgers and root beer floats. We passed rangers heading the opposite direction as we were heading down to camp. I noticed steel cable coiled in his pack. I stopped him and asked if her was heading to Winthrop. He told me he was putting the cable up over the crossing. I asked him how Ethan was doing and if they found his dad. It wasn’t good news on Phil. He told me Ethan’s mom was flying into Seattle to get him. My heart just ached. I couldn’t imagine getting that phone call. I kept thinking about her buying her ticket and getting on the plane for such a tragic situation. Poor Ethan, sitting and waiting with the Rangers. Once we got to White River campground, I was ready to call it quits. I can’t do the last 30 miles I told Zack. I don’t have the physical or emotional strength. The search the previous night was physically and mentally exhausting. We hung at the campground and I made every attempt to not be the hermit in the tent I wanted to be, but to actively be around others. I’m glad I did. Everyone leaned on each other and we were all fighting our own battles with it. When we went to bed, Zack told me he would respect any decision I made, but asked if I thought finishing would provide some mental clarity or healing like running has done in the past for me. I wasn’t sure but when the sunlight woke me up in the morning, I decided to give it a go.

Day 4: White River to Longmire

I ended up starting a mile further down the trail than the the correct trail to avoid having to cross White River. I knew I couldn’t stomach that. It was so lonely and outrageously hard. I have never been so emotional (even pregnancy hormones don’t come close). Every rushing creek or waterfall would set me off which is 75% of the time on the Wonderland Trail. I learned my inability to run and cry at the same time. So I walked until I knew I wouldn’t cry and then booked it. Not the greatest idea because I was just wearing myself out.

Yet another waterfall.

I took a breather on a boulder with a great view and this group of female runners stopped by to take a break too. They asked me to join them.  They were so cheery. I was fighting my personal struggles that day and didn’t want it to show so I declined. I regretted not being able to just say “Yeah, that would be amazing. I am having a hard day but don’t want to bring down your spirits but it would be great to tag along.” I tried to re-examine why this was affecting my so deeply. As a person that has made a career out of emergency, wilderness medicine and education, you harbor and are involved in many sad stories and events. This was different than anything I had ever felt. I’ve helped people multiple times on solo endeavors, but all were relatively “fixable,” broken arms, gashes, allergic reactions, psychological events, etc. Maybe I didn’t have time to put an emotional shield up on this situation? As a mom that takes the kids outside daily and values the immense lessons taught from spending time in vulnerable places, what if it were my kids watching me fall into a river and having to find help? I struggled with the fact that our little team was SO ready and had all the tools and knowledge to help and we couldn’t do anything or even find Phil. I wrestled with all of my thoughts for miles until the pain from my feet outweighed my mind. I stopped at a stream to fill up on water and tend to my blisters.

I just sat there watching the water, in a daze, watching schools of minnows swim around searching for that calm I used to have with rushing water. I mumbled under my breath, why the f*ck am I the even doing this? Who am I finishing this for? I just sat there feeling completely disheartened and discouraged. The group of girls came by again stopping to refill their water as well. I closed my eyes, took and deep breath, approached them and said “Hey, is that offer still on the table?” With big smiles, they graciously invited me into their crew, shared delicious pop tarts, soda, candy, and chips with me (these Seattle gals do ultras right). Their energy was infectious, as they were singing and laughing along the way. Total game changer.

Finally back in the parking lot with the authors new family of Trail Sisters.

My cheeks started hurting from smiling and the fact my legs were bright red and covered in stinging nettle didn’t even matter. There were several times, I just shook my head happily, watching their smiles, thinking  about all the amazing people that had come into my life the past few days. What an incredible community. Pretty soon, signs for Longmire began. They made a tunnel and cheered everyone on back into the parking lot. All of our husbands were there waiting for us. Tears of joy and exhaustion. My incredible family of Trail Sisters. It was strange to be standing in the same spot I had started a few days before. So much physical and mental intensity had happened after such a short amount of time. It’s baffling that I started these 93 miles alone, but was ending it with such a tight knit community.

I hesitated writing this article, as I was unsure of putting this experience into words. I hoped it would be okay to share my side of the story and also hope that in no way my emotions or feelings are thought to be minimizing the tragedy Ethan’s family was (is) going through. My hope and takeaway is how impactful community is on the trail. You never know what someone is working though, or their reasons for being on the trail. When you tighten up your laces or buckle your vest, let those motions be a reminder to be kind and support anyone and everyone on the trails.

Rachel Sapp

Rachel Sapp

Rachel is the CEO and Founder of Backcountry Pulse (@backcountrypulse), a philanthropic wilderness medicine company that is eliminating obstacles surrounding medical education, diversifying ouutdoor leadership communities, and facilitating environmental and humanitarian impact projects globally. She lives in Nederland, CO with her six year old twin daughters, husband, pitbull, and two fluffy cats. Instagram: @map.in.hand

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!

Comments

4 thoughts on “Finding Light in the Darkness of the Wonderland Trail”

  1. just… wow. Thank you for writing this and sharing it with us.

    my heart goes out to you and to Ethan & his family

    feeling thankful for trail sisters.

    Reply
  2. This post made me hold my breath and tear up all at the same time. Happening on someone else’s tragedy in the outdoors is hard. I once found a dead body while out hiking. I helped rescuers locate the body (and was called crazy a few times) and I also, through strange circumstance, met his family weeks after the fact to try to give them some comfort with how I found their loved one.

    I’m so glad that you found supportive people to help you through your experience of Phil’s death. I’m also a former firefighter and an EMT and I know, beyond my one difficult outdoor experience how crucial that is.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Reply
  3. Hi Rachel,
    I’m hopeful you see this and are able to respond.

    I am Phil’s youngest sister/Ethan’s aunt and a friend of mine found your blog and shared it with me. I am extremely grateful you were there for Ethan–I believe you and the others with you were sent by God to care for him.

    Would you continue your kindness by emailing me as I would really find it helpful to ask you a few questions about that day?

    Thank you again for sacrificing your time, energy, and heart for Ethan and our family.

    God bless you!
    Jenna Grigsby

    Reply
  4. Rachel, thank you for writing about your experience. I am very grateful that Ethan met you, not only because you are a wilderness paramedic, but also because you are a mom. Thank you for being a mom to my son in the darkest of hours.

    Here is a link to the audio file of Phil’s funeral service. I hope it can speak to your heart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztu0vc_CtoM

    Reply

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