A Magnificent Failure – 300+ miles on the Idaho Centennial Trail

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

“Be wise enough not to be reckless, but brave enough to take great risks.” – Frank Warren

6:30 AM, June 14th (Day 18) – I am waist deep in Marble Creek, wading across just moments after packing up camp, and I am wearing every piece of clothing I have with me including my down jacket.  Jess starts across behind me, almost goes down in the swift current and looks up. “What should I do?” Should we cross in tandem, look for a better place to cross, wait until it warms up a little more? “Go back.” I say between strong breaths caused by the icy cold water rushing over my legs. I mean go back to the bank and we’ll figure it out, but by the time I return to the muddy bank I realize I mean go back, go all the way back, home.  We are 320 miles into our thru-hike of the Idaho Centennial Trail, deep in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho and it has been a wild ride.  Wild in the oldest, most serious meaning of the word.  We are 85 miles from our next backcountry resupply along the Salmon River, and 40 miles from the closest vehicle access point at the Boundary Creek Boat Launch for the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.  The last 40 miles have been some of the hardest ground I have ever covered.  Years of wildfires have left hundreds of trees littered across the trail, countless creek crossings have kept my feet wet for weeks, nonexistent tread on treacherous gravel and bedrock hillsides and bloody legs from ‘schwacking through thriving rose bushes have all worn me down.  Is it possible to continue?  Our we strong enough?  Capable?  Yes, but the errors are starting to creep in.  Small navigational mistakes, falls while bushwhacking, a water filter that has been compromised by an unknown animal during the night and lower mileage days than anticipated resulting in food rationing and calorie debt are all manageable now, but both my gut and my logic are in agreement – it is no longer safe or prudent to continue.  Type II fun (that which is only fun after the fact) is about to become Type III fun (that which is only fun for outsiders to think about) and I just don’t want it bad enough to continue enduring what I am enduring.  When it gets hard, you have to have a great reason to continue and following an arbitrary pink line that was mapped and hiked 25 years ago is just not great enough for me right now.

Standard fare on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Zero tread slope traversing. No good photos of the no-fall consequence sections.
The roses smell so good, and hurt so bad.
Rose exfoliation and sock-tan treatments.

I am proud of what we did, and am almost free of regret as we agree to turn around.  Was I at my limit? No, but it was no longer worth the risk to continue into terrain that the last ranger we met described as “horrendous” based on last fall’s thru-hiker reports, no longer worth it to venture into terrain where serious mistakes would have serious consequences.

Catatonic bunny that was soaked and unable to move after a nasty hail storm in the Owyhee Desert.

Over the last 300 miles I have experienced such extreme highs and lows (emphasis on the lows) and gained so many skills.  I have crossed the Owyhee Desert with only one reliable water source at the 55 mile mark, cooked over fires in place of using a stove, and navigated across miles of snow with no signs of trails or humans.  I have crossed raging streams that knocked me down, crawled under, over and around trees for over 60 miles and I lost enough weight that my backpack’s waistbelt no longer cinches against my hips.  I have also rediscovered what I love – both by experiencing it and by missing it tremendously.  I love being outside, pushing my limits, exploring new places.  I love sharing the experience and falling into the routine.  I also love taking time to recharge, to read, to draw, to slow down and to take the time to appreciate and develop a sense of a place.  Because of the time limits of my summer break, and because of the food planning done months ago and a thousand miles away, we are pushing hard everyday and coming up short on distance due to the unrelenting terrain.  There is no time to recharge, to take it in, to get to develop a sense of place. This trail does not lend itself to fast and light pursuits, it requires a little more of a siege-tactic approach – lots of time, lots of food and lots of gear.  We are short in all three departments. The highs and lows experienced while attempting to go fast and light were astounding however.  After the trauma of consistent water-stress in the desert and reaching a mental breaking point around mile 160, the first day in the Sawtooths renewed me and I rediscovered a deep appreciation for a simple creek, for a field of grass, for the abundance of life that can be found in the mountains.  Crossing our first stretch of snow over Ross Pass I hit another low as the adrenaline and resulting fatigue from being stalked by a mountain lion wore me down.  Two days later I had one of the most serene alpine experiences of my life as Jess and I walked across untracked snow, in complete silence above Spangle Lake – alpine peaks in ever direction.  Many in the ultrarunning community talk about the highs and lows that arise on a long run, but the extremes of both while hiking the Idaho Centennial Trail were so much greater than anything I have experienced to date while running.  The 40 nightmarish miles of log-strewn trail that we had to retrace to reach the nearest road gave us both plenty of time to mull over and process our decision and while I am certainly disappointed not to have done “the thing”, I believe we made the best decision, and my stoke-tank is starting to refill as we discuss plans to follow other dreams.

The beauty of a simple creek, and the wet feet that accompany it.
Alpine serenity near Spangle Lake.

Now, I am focused on a great season of mountaineering, mountain biking and alpine climbing, getting into top form for Run Rabbit Run and taking the time to both push the limits and to slow down, reflect and refresh.  Oh, and I plan on eating as much Indian food and as many peaches as possible. Many thanks to my parents, friends and family for their support before, during and after this adventure, to Tailwind Nutrition for their encouragement and great product, to Pearl Izumi for their support this year and for creating a shoe that caused ZERO BLISTERS after 380 miles of trail – Trail N1, I can’t wait to meet Version 2 of you in July.  I could not have done what I did alone and admire those that have ventured on the Idaho Centennial Trail by themselves.  My partner Jess Condon was instrumental in dreaming this dream, taking charge when I was low and an essential part of the tandem stream crossing strategy when the creeks were more than either of us could take on our own.

Now it’s time again to “Get outside and have an adventure!” – Rob Pizem

14 thoughts on “A Magnificent Failure – 300+ miles on the Idaho Centennial Trail

  1. So glad to hear about you two. I have been following the Spot and wondered if you were deciding to stop. I admire you both for what you have done. These memories (both good and bad) are yours forever. Good job and it will be good to have you home. Love, Sue


  2. Wow, great risks generate great rewards. finishing would have been just icing on the cake. jess and gift you earned the greatest reward and that is one that only others who challenge themselves in the same way will earn. props and cant wait to see you two!! piz : )


    1. Thanks for the encouragement and training before hand. My upper body and core are in need of some serious work before the fall racing season comes around. Can’t wait to see you and start training. Jess says “Piz, I want you to make a man out of me” after losing some serious weight and muscle mass on trail.


  3. Well done sir. You both may have stopped short of your original goal, but I think you were indeed victorious. You returned with invaluable tools, skills, and insights honed from experience. Well done.


    1. Such a great surprise to hear from you Shari! Jess sends all of her best and really wants to rope up with you one of these days. Hope you are doing great and living a wild life wherever you are.


  4. Giff and Jess:

    I’ve been following your SPOT and wondering what was up. Now I know. Those Marble Creek crossings were tough for me on 20 June 2013 (my 31st day) — and those were the easy ones. Just so you know, the prediction is for record-breaking high temperatures in Idaho for the next week, so I was worrying about you.

    It’s no shame to attempt a difficult task and fail — failure is part of life. What *is* worthy of shame is to *not* attempt a difficult task because of fear of failure.

    Yours in truth,
    Dan Styer


    1. Dan – You are a true inspiration. Jess and I were awestruck many times on the trail thinking of how you were able to do this alone. I really hope our paths cross again, and thank you so much for you invaluable help.


  5. What a challenge! What fortitude! Most important lesson for those that read this or follow in your foot steps is the ability to know your limits and be brave enough to stop


    1. Thanks Dan. To quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s got to know his limitations”, never has that line felt more true.


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