Recently, my friend Kim and I ventured out onto one of Grand Teton National Park's classic trail loops, from Death Canyon to the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, which climbs over 6,000 vertical feet in about 24 miles. We traversed an amazing amount of alpine terrain on mostly runnable trails. The loop travels from the White Grass trailhead, past the Phelps Lake overlook, up to the Death Canyon patrol cabin, hangs a right up to Static Peak divide, summiting Static Peak, then down across the basin on the west side of the range, into Alaska Basin, over Hurricane Pass and finally down the South and Main Cascade drainages to the String Lake parking lot.
I've been running for about five months now. I started out slowly, only running 10 to 20 minutes at a go. Sensible and steady increases in volume coupled with thoughtful rest and recovery have allowed me to entertain these longer efforts.
I have to say there's nothing quite like the feeling of getting to the end of a six- or seven-hour day in the mountains feeling relatively good running all the way to the end. I'm starting to understand this whole "ultra-running" thing. I'm a long way from doing one of those crazy 100-milers, not sure I'll ever get to that level, but I am seeing the attraction.
This outing starts with a car shuttle to String Lake. Heading off from the Death Canyon trailhead, the run starts out with a nice 10-minute opener to the Phelps Lake overlook. The gradient is mellow here—the perfect hors d' oeuvres for the day. Full recovery down the two switchbacks follows and a gentle grade greets you as you enter Death Canyon proper. The steepness soon kicks up for the next 30 minutes and I found myself walking here and there through rocky sections.
At the 48-minute mark Kim and I hit the patrol cabin after some easy running following the top of the climb. A right turn follows and it was nothing but uphill to the summit of Static peak nearly 90 minutes later. For me, this section was challenging to run. I walked a bit of it, taking pictures and keeping Kim in sight. There was a lot of bear scat around and I kept my eyes and ears peeled. I saw nothing.
Eventually, we gained a small pass with views to the east followed by more contouring and climbing to Static Peak divide. We took the short detour to the summit of Static since I had never been there before. It was frigid and we didn't linger in the wind for long. Once back on the trail we took the exceedingly civilized descent down into the basin to the west.? We detoured up to the head of Avalanche Canyon on a poorly maintained trail. We'd hoped to simply cut over to the start of the South Fork of Cascade but snow made the route impassable in running shoes.
A descent down steep scree got us back on route. The running there is spectacular: mostly flat to gently rolling.
Eventually we arrived in Alaska Basin and Sunset Lake. A steady grind up to Hurricane Pass followed with spectacular views of the Grand, Middle and South Tetons. From here it's over ten miles to the car, mostly downhill. The South Fork of Cascade is a beautiful drainage with lots of waterfalls and meadowed plateaus. Once in the main fork, the running is easy and wide open all the way to the horse trail before Jenny Lake.
A final steep descent down the horse trail is followed by the last mile or so along the lake shore to String Lake trailhead. Six hours and 50 minutes later we were done. Although we ran most of the loop, our effort was relaxed as we lingered here and there. I think with concerted, steady effort and avoidance of the detour towards Avalanche Canyon, a sub-5:30 is possible for a capable trail runner. Doubt I'll get around to another go this season but this loop should be on every backcountry runner's list for a great day out.
Brian's Death Canyon to String Lake Running Stats
6,500 vertical feet of climbing
2 liters of water
10 packets of Gu
4 packets of Chomps
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