We reached the trailhead at 11:30 pm and had just enough time to eat a light breakfast and throw on our packs before starting exactly at midnight. We were both traveling very light, with packs weighing barely 20lbs. Together we brought 1 bivvy sack, one small first aid kit, crampons, helmets, ice axes, 2 fleece jackets and shells, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, headlamps, cell phones, maps, compass, 1 sausage, a few granola bars, 4 liters of water, and about 20 packages of GU.
We started off extremely fast, practically running up the trail. The small world illuminated by my headlamp gave me a sense of tunnel vision, as it was mostly a white blur, with occasional rocks and roots, barely discernable, moving through my field of vision. I did my best to hop and skip over them, but the lack of depth perception with my LED headlamp caused regular tripping and cursing, but with each stumble I maintained my momentum and kept my stride fast. By 1:30 am we had reached Photographers Point, nearly 5 miles up the trail.
Next we had a long downhill portion that took forever. Larger rocks made hiking downhill at 4 mph difficult, and after a significant jarring to our knees, Joel and I quickly ascended back up to Seneca Lake, reaching the far shore by 3am. So far so good.
The hiking was tedious at times, as hills seemed to come at random, with no end in sight for their ascent or descent, but I did my best to match the terrain to the topo map in my head to determine our progress. Overall though, the terrain flew by, and at 4:40 am we reached Island Lake. Joel commented on a nice looking beach that we should soak on feet in on the way back and then we began a final climb to the Titcomb lakes. Beyond the lower outlet, the trail began to fade and was often interrupted by marshes and stream crossings, so in the dark, our speed slowed. By about 6am we reached the far shore of the upper lake.
While I took my time refilling my water, Joel announced he was taking off on the cross-country portion, but would go slow so that I could catch up. I hiked quickly up the grassy meadows and rocky slabs, but Joel was nowhere it sight. At one point I came across some campers tending some goats (?!) that tried to follow me, to their annoyance. Eventually I crossed the permanent snowfield trickling down from Mt Helens and sat on a prominent rock to wait for Joel, as I assumed that I had passed him in the maze of talus.