Friday, September 06, 2019

So much vert available

By Tuesday morning, the guys were already nearing the first life base at the 80K mark of PTL in Morgex, Italy. I was surprised to see them there that early ... PTL usually moves forward much more slowly than two miles per hour. But the night had gone well. Beat was gracious enough to text me at 7 a.m. to say that even though they were earlier than expected, I didn't need to come out. I'd already used a "get out of crewing free" card because I'm always neck-deep in deadlines by Tuesday afternoon, and often have to work throughout the night in this time zone.

But the also-stated truth was that I didn't want to crew Beat at PTL. It's pointless. I spend 54 Euros to drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy. This drive usually takes at least 90 minutes one way because of heavy traffic, and I've waited in the tunnel line for three hours in the past. Then I wait in the rental car for them to arrive. It's usually raining. I wave to them at the doorway of the life base, where I am not allowed inside, even to chat as they eat their dinner. They go to sleep for a few hours, and I sit in the car some more, occasionally stepping outside to walk through the rain for 10-20 minutes until I find some semblance of a public toilet, which I usually don't, so I walk for 10 more minutes far enough into the woods to be inconspicuous. (Okay, I do know where the public toilet is in Morgex.) They wake up, I give Beat and kiss, then stand outside in the rain some more while they pack up inside. Then it's one more kiss and they leave. Being a crewperson at PTL feels like being some kind of parasite, a scourge of U.S. trail-running culture. The French race organization makes it abundantly clear that I am not welcome. But, Beat likes me to bring him sandwiches, so I vowed to meet him at the second life base in Fully, Switzerland. Just please don't make me come to Morgex.

So I had all of Tuesday morning to use for my own selfish means, which I chose to spend near the French village of Vallorcine, exploring a segment of the PTL course. By now I've made it clear how much I dislike PTL and how strongly I feel that their often-ridiculous route choices are not for me ... and yet I'm plagued with curiosity. This segment passed by Lac d'Emossen, an enormous dam just across the border in Switzlerland, which I've long wanted to visit. I'd be traveling the route opposite of PTL, and the first racers wouldn't reach it for a couple more days. The trail was all but abandoned on this slightly hazy but still beautiful morning.

All but abandoned except for one other person — a French woman, early- to mid-20s, wearing nice trail-running shoes, a tank top and short shorts, and carrying only a small shoulder sack that seemed to be entirely filled with one 1.5-liter bottle of water and her phone. She passed me early, but for the entire climb I'd end up shadowing her in a way that annoyed me — she was lighter and faster, bounding up the trail ahead, but then she'd stop every ten minutes to look at her phone until I'd almost caught back up. Perhaps she was navigating by phone — can't begrudge her that. But I just wanted her to get farther ahead, and resented this game of turtle-and-hare that we were playing. Her motions cast a shadow on my lumbering, steady hiking style — large backpack and baggy pants, hunched over the steep pitches, click-clacking poles to support my 40-year-old knees and failing ankles (Yup, I already have a complex about being 40.)

Our game became more interesting on the final approach to Col de la Terrasse, as the route veered directly up a scree slope that tipped toward 50 percent grades. The scree was loose, a terrible slip-n-slide of moon dust and sharp pebbles, but there was a zig-zagging trail of sorts that offered a little more traction. The young woman missed the trail and was battling the scree on all fours, raining down rocks as she scrambled. In my old-woman wisdom, I stuck close to the track displayed on my old-school GPS (I made my own track based on the Strava heat map, as I do not trust PTL's tracks to properly trace the route.) I had an easier time, but felt rattled by the loose and steep terrain. I really hoped the trail would "go" beyond the pass, as I strongly didn't want to downclimb this route that everyone in PTL would downclimb. The young woman and I reached the final headwall at the same time. She seemed frazzled. The headwall presented a maze of a rock scramble above cliffs. Yellow dots marked what was likely the only viable route. Here my GPS was less helpful, and the young woman proved more adept at finding the hidden dots. I followed her closely, now grateful for her presence. We reached the col together, both grinning widely. I felt like we'd gained an understanding

To my delight, the Swiss side of Col de la Terrasse wasn't steep or loose at all — just a gently sloping rock bench dotted with snowfields and tarns. The route was pleasant tundra travel, easy enough to afford looking up at the incredible views of Mont Buet and summits along the French-Swiss border. Since we were in Switzerland now, the route was marked with red dots.

I started downhill before the young woman, but she quickly appeared behind me, seemingly eager to follow. We'd exchanged a few words at the pass, enough to realize that neither of us spoke much of the other's language, so I didn't know her plans. Either I was better at following the Swiss markers, or a better downhiller — both of these reasons seem implausible — but she frequently lost ground on me. Feeling some obligation for our unspoken partnership, I occasionally stopped and waited, taking photos and looking at my phone. Soon we reached the beaten path above the upper lake, where she took off running at an enviable pace.

For a while, the path was nicely straightforward — clean singletrack, a road, an enormous dam (they don't often let you just walk across dams in the U.S. Such fun.) From here the PTL route continued into Switzerland, but I needed to make my way back to France, so I'd set a track that looked fine on the map.

It was not fine. Okay, it wasn't dire, but I struggled. The route tumbled down a gully strewn with all sizes of loose boulders. Along the way there were metal signs bolted to the walls lining the stream bed. These signs appeared often enough that I finally used Google Translate to figure out their message. The warning: Water levels could change at any time, even in good weather. Seek high ground if necessary. All around me were cliffs. High ground? I looked up at the dam, looming directly overhead. I fantasized about a sudden dam burst, the white wall of water blasting toward me, the end that would come so quickly. Meanwhile, all I could do was slowly pick my way down the boulders and scree, swearing loudly when I rolled my weak ankle yet again. I was amazed the joint had held it together after so many of these wrenching motions, and breathed a silent prayer to the universe that it would hold on a bit longer so I could escape the death gully. Grumble, grumble. But PTL didn't do this to me. I did this to myself.

Col de la Terrasse was another tough outing. I felt exhausted even before I launched into a work day that lasted until 6:30 a.m. All through the night, I watched Beat's tracker move slowly across a technical ridge in Italy, ominously marked in black on the map. So I was exhausted but grateful when he called at 8:30 Wednesday morning, reporting that all was okay. Unable to sleep anymore, I tried to get some more work done, but my mind was fuzzy. I often come on these trips with ambitions that turn out to be laughable, but I'd genuinely planned to take a "rest day" on Wednesday and chip away at a writing project. Ha. Easier, I eventually decided, to just go for a hike.

The sky was moody and threatening rain, and it was fairly late by the time I got out, after 3 p.m. So I picked a route that was close by and not too demanding — although it still had 4,000 feet of climbing. Mont Lachet above Les Houches.

I made my way up the marked course for UTMB, and reflected on my race in 2015. The memories came flooding back — the unbroken line of humans that stalled at every switchback here, the oppressive heat, sticky sweat on my back, feeling disconcertingly nauseated from the start. Gawd, I had a horrible race at UTMB. I never felt good, I had terrible chafing, I chased cutoffs the entire time, even before my breathing clamped down. Just forcing air into my lungs became more laborious than climbing; I had to stop to do so — Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Here, on the climb to Bellevue amid a lovely evening in 2019, found myself reliving it all — the dizziness, the desperation, the general malaise and hopelessness that comes with low blood oxygen, and also the crushing disappointment — both for losing the race, and a deeper lament about losing my health. August 2015 was the period when I realized that my breathing issues weren't a simple matter of recovery from pneumonia, but something more lasting. Lost health became my truth the moment the race marshal in La Fouly wordlessly and rather cruelly cut my bib in half, because I missed the cutoff. It's funny, or perhaps not so funny, how frequently I run through these past worst-of-times in my head while I'm visiting these mountains, years later, while I'm supposedly having a fun outing in a beautiful place. Why do I keep coming back here? There's a whole lot to unpack, in that question.

The answer partially lies in the undulation of depths and heights, and the ways one necessarily accompanies the other. I may be an awkward, stumbling human, but my heart remains unwilling to follow the comfortable path, to stick to even ground.

So on Thursday I was up again early in the morning, hoping to beat the growing influx of UTMB traffic on my way to Beat's second PTL life base in Switzerland. I didn't expect him to arrive until sometime that evening, which gave me plenty of time for another long day of vert. From the low-lying Rhone River Valley where the PTL crossed through Fully, the route ascended a dizzying 8,000 feet in a mere five miles, topping out on a prominent peak called Grand Chavalard. It was a compelling climb — you don't often see that kind of vertical relief in the U.S., even in Colorado. I'd watched several YouTube videos of the standard route and decided the climb was probably beyond my desire for this day. Doable, but a bit involved in terms of technical difficulty, and exposed in terms of weather. Thunderstorms were in the forecast that day, and there are no quick ways off of Chavalard once you're up there. Of course, the PTL racers would do it regardless of the weather — they even had a much more exposed, class 4+ traverse on the other side of the mountain. But I had choices. I chose to aim for the saddle, and skirt around Grand Chavalard across a cirque to reach the next refuge on route, Cabane Fenestral.

My chosen route still had 7,500 feet of climbing after some ups and downs, and I'd have to get all of that out of the way in the first seven miles before taking a long, 13-mile descent to make a loop of it. So a 20-mile day. The weeks' efforts made the math easy — 30-minute-mile averages became a clock I could almost set myself by. But there were enough easy miles during the descent that I figured I could finish in 8-9 hours. I set out at 10 a.m. and wanted to be back by 6 p.m., both because that was the earliest I calculated Beat would arrive, and because every single grocery store in Switzerland closes at 6:30. My sole purpose there, really, was to deliver sandwiches. Failing to procure the sandwiches would be the ultimate crewing failure.

I had two routes on my GPS — the loop I made for myself, and the PTL track. I started on the PTL route, which promisingly followed a nice trail until the trail dead-ended, buried under a landslide of sand and rocks. So of course, the PTL continued up the landslide. Because it's PTL. I picked my way up the loose boulders for about a hundred meters before I thought better of this nonsense. Seriously, PTL, WTF? Instead I backtracked, lost nearly 400 feet of altitude, and continued on the standard route, which was so much better.

It was still steep, though, and terribly hot — temperatures had already climbed to 30C when I left town at 10 a.m. I'd put tape on my back to protect the raw chafe spots, so my pack went to work on my hips, which were now also bleeding. Sweat poured off my neck and dripped onto the dirt. Three liters of water wouldn't last long at this rate, and this seemingly vertical slope was bone dry. I could only hope I'd find stream water to filter above the saddle. My route soon intersected back with PTL's, and we all needed to gain the first 5,000 feet in 3.5 miles. This seemed needlessly punishing. But I was enjoying myself. I'd chosen this, after all.

The cirque surrounding Lac Superier de Fully did prove to be a magnificent spot and worthy of the climb. My camera lens had fogged up amid the sweaty humidity surrounding my body, so the images from this day are smudged and blurry — not unlike the way I viewed the landscape through my slightly dehydrated fatigue.

I climbed to Col Fenestral amid rumbling thunder and threatening skies. This is the weather I would have encountered on top of Grand Chavalard, had I chosen that route. I was grateful I'd played it safe, but also felt some regret.

The descent was more enjoyable than expected. For several kilometers I traversed along a bench that seemed to float above near-vertical grass slopes and rocky couloirs plummeting 5,500 feet into the valley. The highway corridor looked close enough to make a jump for it, but I was mentally steeled for three hours of burning quads, sore feet, and all of the exhaustion that comes from fighting gravity the way I fight gravity. I retreated to a meditative state, down and down and down until the heat turned back on high and I was strangely lost in a wine farm, meandering through a maze of grape vines. GPS was not being helpful, and it was already past 6. Argh! Finally I employed my phone, thrashed my way to the nearest side street, and learned I was 3.2 kilometers from the store at 6:11 p.m. Could I even travel two miles in 19 minutes? That was something like running, not exactly fast, but did I even remember how to run?

Sandwiches were my sole purpose in Fully, so I at least had to try. I cinched up my big backpack and began to pound the pavement. The motion was thrilling. Blood rushed back to my deadened quads, electric shock went through my calves, my heart pounded, the phone called out confusing directions, I dodged children on bicycles and large construction trucks blocking the entire bike path, and then I was in the street amid busy rush hour traffic, crossing between stopped cars and leaping construction barriers as though they were track hurdles. What a strange way to break the solitude of this daylong hike in the mountains. What fun!

I hit Migros at exactly 6:27 p.m. and rushed inside, grabbing the last four sandwiches in the cold case, ten different drinks, chips, and some peaches for myself, still effectively running as I rushed down each aisle. Feeling deeply satisfied with all of my treasures crammed into my pack, it was difficult to slow down as I made my way back to the life base. There I realized I probably had at least five hours to kill before Beat arrived. Hurry up and wait. I made my way to a restaurant that proved a poor choice — the servers were sort of mean, didn't get my order right even when I tried my best to communicate in French, ignored me for most of an hour, and I ended up walking out having only received my drink and a salad, for which I paid close to 20 Swiss francs. Ah well. I gratefully retreated to the car, where I could read my Kindle in peace until the team arrived. Later I did put myself through 20 more minutes of wandering while looking for a public toilet, which I never found, then one more hard climb back into the woods on the same route I followed that morning, so I could pee on the PTL trail, for good measure.

The guys arrived just after midnight in good spirits, but Pieter had injured his quad/adductor muscles in one leg, and was unsure about his ability to continue. That's about all the news I received in the 2.4 minutes I was able to talk to the guys before they were whisked inside the life base. But it was worth it. 
Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Mountains, mountains everywhere

After seven years, what more can I say about Chamonix? It’s the birthplace of mountaineering, an idyllic French village surrounded by stunning spires of rock and ice. The trail development is extensive, the adventure opportunities endless. Buildings are centuries old, paths are beaten, even the congestion isn’t new. Much about this place became a cliche decades before I discovered it. There’s a massive trail-running festival at the end of August. My relationship with this event is … to say the least … complicated. Every year since 2012 we’ve returned so Beat can participate in a race that I despise to the core of my being. Yet I trace the lines on the course map longingly, resent that either of us can’t look away, admire Beat for facing the monster. I was going to boycott this year, really ... stay home and languish through late summer in Colorado, just to prove my disapproval. But the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc cyclone sucked me back in, easily.

I suppose this concession isn't surprising. It's the French Alps ... I'd be crazy to pass up any opportunity to visit. And after six finishes in seven starts of the Petite Trotte à Léon, Beat had proven himself capable of making good decisions and surviving such an endeavor — 300 kilometers of brutal and often dangerous terrain, in all weather, all night and day, while the race organization effectively throws darts at you. Of course the PTL is not all terrible, or even mostly terrible. A lot has improved since my foolhardy and ill-fated attempt in 2013 — not the least of which is that there are 14 more hours to complete the course. This is everything — the difference between sleep deprivation so intense that one loses their ability to focus and eventually their mind, and enough rest to simply be mind-numbingly fatigued.  Of course, it's still 24,500 meters (80,000 feet) of gain and then descent on the steepest possible grades, across crumbling knife ridges littered with scree, boulder-choked moraines, grassy slopes so steep that crampons are recommended, glacial traverses late at night with only a bit of tape to distinguish the safe route from a minefield of crevasses, and chossy scrambles with heart-stopping exposure.

Anyone who makes the mistake of asking me about UTMB or PTL will get an earful about how sad I am that I'm such a terrible mountain runner, how much I resent that I haven't been able to make a full loop around Mont Blanc, and how my fermenting frustration and the compounding commercialization of the event has drained away any remaining desire, and I might never again try. It's been four years since I last attempted UTMB. Even a self-supported hike on the TMB route doesn't really appeal, compared to all of the other things one can do in the Alps. But Beat loves PTL, even though he promises "never again" each time. So every year at the end of August, I find myself back in the throng, jostling for shoulder space on the streets of Chamonix with all of the Euro-trailers in their Salomon tights and headbands.

Meanwhile, I compensate for feelings of inadequacy by trying to outdo myself with mountain efforts, racking up as much vert as I can in the day hikes that I squeeze in between contract deadlines and inevitable race support duties. It's gotten to the point where I need to ascend more than 50,000 feet in the seven to nine days we're in town, which isn't possible to do enjoyably unless the weather is perfect and my crewing obligations are minimal enough to allow for sleep and meals somewhere in there. This year, all of the stars aligned and I reached my arbitrary goal — in eight hikes with one actual rest day. 115.8 miles. 50,479 feet of chasing the sky. 45 hours of moving time.

The whole band was back together — Beat's original PTL partner and friend, Daniel, who lives in Denver, as well as Pieter, who returned from Belgium in hopes of avenging their DNF from last year. We arrived Friday evening and thus had all day Saturday to burn. Pieter wanted to climb to La Jonction, the intersection of two glaciers tumbling off of Mont Blanc. The highest point one can travel on land ends in a chaotic jumble of ice at 8,500 feet. Climbing there from the valley nets a clean vertical mile (5,285 feet of gain) all in one five-mile-long grunt. It's an incredible route, skirting the edges of a sharp ridge with magnificent glacier views almost the entire way. There's some slightly technical maneuvers toward the top, but nothing daunting, so it's all of the fun and none of the fear. If anyone asks about a "must do" outing in Chamonix, I recommend this trail. As fresh as we all were, it only took a little over two hours to climb to the ice. Much stoke was shared among Pieter and Beat, who had a whole lot more of this to come.

The guys had registration and race prep all day Sunday, so I took advantage of the free afternoon to hike the Grand Balcon Nord, an alpine traverse high over the valley. This day was the best of the week, in that the air was brilliantly clear, there wasn't a breath of wind, and temperatures were so mild as to be undetectable. Perhaps 60-65 degrees. I felt like I was experiencing some kind of virtual reality — a mountain walking simulator. Even my legs didn't need to do much work — my knee is finally gaining strength and stability, and my breathing has been a non-issue, as my fitness cycle always seems to hit a high point in late August. The best of times. Glad I could take advantage.

I traversed the balcony and climbed to a high point overlooking Mer de Glace. The glacier has lost more than fifty vertical feet of ice since I first visited in 2012, and it's always a humbling sight — to witness something so vast changing so quickly. I hoped to descend to the ice caves to view the latest demarcation line, but the stairs below the gondola were utterly mobbed. It was like waiting in line at Disneyland. So I retreated back to quiet places — a boulder-strewn ridge hundreds of feet above the moraine, picking my way through the rocks and stealing glances at the crumbling gray ghost of what once was.

The 2019 Petite Trotte à Léon started at 8 a.m. Monday. 117 teams from around the world set out from downtown Chamonix under yet more perfect weather. Beat's team has long been "Too Dumb to Quit," but last year they had to leave the course because Pieter injured his hip, and thus quit. This year they were officially registered as "Just Too Dumb," marching across the tracking page under Swiss, Belgian and U.S. flags. Beat, as he often does, claimed debilitating dread before the race and refused to smile for the photo.

This year, there were also at least two all-American teams. That's actually a rare thing in PTL, so I looked forward to tracking them. In one team was Gavin Woody, a strong runner from Washington who alongside David Johnston won the foot division of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 the year I was also out there on foot, 2018. After 110 kilometers Gavin would quit the PTL, citing reasons I find deeply relatable:

"Now, I’ve done a lot of things that most people probably wouldn’t consider fun, but PTL pushed me over the edge from 'this is exhilarating and I’m so thankful to be in these beautiful mountains' to 'this is really scary and I want to get out of here.' .... There were so many opportunities where, one misstep on the sand or scree would have caused an uncontrollable slide for hundreds of feet. I knew there would be dangerous parts but I actually had no idea what we were getting into."

I carried my own hiking pack and poles to the start so I could hit the trail as soon as the guys took off. I waited for 15 minutes at an intersection I thought they would pass (they didn't) then turned the opposite direction to climb the famous "Vertical K" route, a tightly zig-zagging trail underneath the Planpraz gondola that gains a kilometer in less than five (3,300 feet in 2.6 miles.) Pieter questioned why I would want to slog this loose and ugly trail out of the valley when there are so many nicer ones, but I like the VK because it's efficient, and out in the open so there are views the whole way (at least, when you're not seeing spots because you're aiming to push your Vertical K under an hour this time, which you won't achieve because you're going to push too hard from the start and then dizzily falter on the technical chains-and-steps part of the climb.)

The Vertical K was just a small part of the day I had planned, which was a relative epic of 25-some miles with 12,000 feet of climbing. I wanted to log at least one big day this week, both as early ITI training — to reacquaint myself with difficult walking all day long — as well as a chance to explore new-to-me territory. With the Vertical K wrapped up, I ascended another 2,000 feet to Brevent and then began a long descent into the beautiful and reasonably remote Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges.

I love being back here. It feels like something closer to wilderness, silence broken only by the sound of cascading water echoing from distant walls. The weather on this day was much hotter, already climbing into the mid-80s in town. It was cooler than that above treeline, but the sun felt strong, and my body was beginning to demand more for the miles. I hauled three liters of water up the Vertical K and went through it more quickly than expected, so I made my way to a small stream and scooped water into my filter bottle, sipping it suspiciously. It's funny, because Beat drinks straight out of the streams here, but I tend to trust the wild water in Europe less than the western U.S. There are just so many cows and sheep everywhere. And I'm weird about water.

Eventually I refilled my hydration bladder at a refuge. Now that my pack was full of liquid security, I gulped down several handfuls of peanut butter pretzels from home and felt invincible. I love being up here. The only catch is that there are no easy routes off these high benches. It's a steep gorge that plummets from 7,000 feet to 2,000 feet in almost no distance. I planned to traverse around the mountain toward the town of Servoz.

My route wrapped around Lac de Pormanez, a lovely spot that reminded me of Island Lake in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Then I spent some time a little lost — the map showed a trail, but it wasn't easy to trace, and I mostly made my way around a contour line above a shallow cliff. Every so often I'd come to a boulder scramble with a fixed cable bolted into the rock, and think "well, I must still be on route." When I finally found the trail it was dropping straight off the mountain, just down and down and down, into the traffic noise and heat of the valley. My torso was sticky with sweat, my pants were soaked through, my back was already bleeding where I neglected to lube around the bra line, and my legs threatened to buckle under the relentless tug of gravity. Long descents are hard, but that's the price one must pay for the heights.

To return to Chamonix, I planned to climb back to the heights, over Aiguillette des Houches. The altitude rises from 2,500 feet to 7,400 feet, so it's just another ho-hum vertical mile. This third long climb was reasonably easy, at least compared to the descent. The "trail" was an old jeep road that cut directly up the fall line on a 25-30-percent grade. Mindless stuff, which is my brain's most direct route to mindfulness — steady motion at the upper limit of my fitness, with the fatigue of a long day casting a pleasant shadow over my brain, no mental space for anything beyond the most immediate moments. Each step simply leads to the next, and I find peace here.

The road faded to a rocky trail, the grade became even more relentlessly steep, and in no time I was back on the skyline, looking toward Brevent. I'd passed by there just a few hours earlier, but it seemed so long ago, in that slow but substantial way in which time passes when you're walking all day. The light was growing long. There was no one around.

I sat for a few minutes to tighten my shoelaces and enjoy the view from Aiguillette des Houches — all of the "this is exhilarating and I'm so grateful to be in these beautiful mountains" and none of the "this is really scary and I want to get out of here." I'm grateful for these opportunities to make my own way here. I actually don't think I'll ever participate in one of these races again, as disappointed as I remain in my attempts ... although I'd make space for the Tor des Geants in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose. I lack confidence, though. Watch me make my way down the third big descent of the day, and you'd understand why.

I crossed the broad ridge as evening light began to fade. I'd hoped to make it down before dark, but it didn't seem like that was going to happen.

I passed by groups camped in enviable spots beside Refuge de Bellachat and dropped into an imposing couloir. Supposedly there was a trail all the way to valley, but I couldn't fathom where it would continue without plummeting off some cliff. Just follow the faint zig-zags, and hope for the best.

An unobstructed view toward Mont Blanc drenched in crimson light was my reward for this tricky descent. My knee was finally beginning to feel a bit tender, and the chafing on my back felt like a hot iron underneath my backpack. I rolled my weak left ankle for at least the fifth time that day. There had been a couple of bad rolls earlier, enough to cause me to fall onto the ground, but amazingly I hadn't incurred a sprain. So all in all, the day had gone well. I made my way through the busy streets of Chamonix to a pizza spot on the edge of town, and treated myself to a veggie pie with a liter of San Pellegrino all to myself. 
Monday, August 19, 2019


I admit this is a birthday I wanted to ignore. I mean, 40. Phew. The number might explain why I was so dog-days-of-summer tired, burnt out on sun and heat, and dreading a commitment to upcoming months of intensive training. I suppose this would be the best time to submit to a much-needed reset. But what would that say about my impending senescence, if a milestone birthday brought the perfect excuse for a silly adventure, and I just let it pass me by?

I'd first imagined the adventure one year ago, as I was jogging down Old Fall River Road after summiting three 13,000-foot peaks that just happened to be a ridge I wanted to traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park. "I did three 13ers for my 39th, which means I need to do four 14ers for my 40th!" The math didn't actually work out, and I don't even care all that much about 14ers. Mountains are mountains. But I admit, there is transcendental draw to climbing as high as one can go. The air is rarified in more ways than simple lack of oxygen.

I’m not sure when I decided that birthdays were for adventure. It was probably my 12th, when I pushed to host my own party at Magic Waters, the rundown waterpark near the prison. Being a kid with a late-summer birthday was always sort of hard. Friends were either out of town or busy with back-to-school. It felt anticlimactic to become the age that my peers had been for months. Twelve is probably the hardest age of them all, but it marked my becoming a “young woman.” I wanted to acknowledge this as something special. 

 The day of my birthday proved bleak with threatening thunderstorms. Pools cleared out as thunder rumbled, and then one of the shoddy waterslides was shut down due to an unspecified failure. A wildfire burned in the foothills, and black smoke billowed overhead. I remember gazing at the ominous sky and feeling a kind of foreboding, a gloom that lingered as adult hormones began to take hold — a sense that life was always in the process of ending … not beginning.

For my Four-14er adventure, I schemed a fairly straightforward route. The knee I injured in May remains slightly unstable, and some lingering pain was enough to justify taking no big chances with difficult terrain. I researched 14ers with reasonable proximity and routes that didn't go harder than an easy class two, and came up with Huron, Belford, Oxford and Missouri — four rubbly summits in the Sawatch Range. Sticking to standard routes would require 34 miles of hiking with 12,000 feet of climbing. Some of this could be cut off by driving a road, but even in my contrived adventures I am something of a purist, so I planned to hike every mile. I considered trying to knock it out in one day, but didn't want to risk wrenching my wobble knee on rubble in the dark. Plus, it's my birthday. This didn't have to be a sufferfest.

The day I turned 18 was my first and last experience with bungee jumping. I was accompanied by my senior-year boyfriend, Eric, who was a few years older and attended community college. He won my heart by offering to pick me up from high school every afternoon in his Saab, which saved the indignity of walking. After graduation, I returned the favor by dragging him on difficult hikes in the Wasatch Mountains. He always obliged, even when it was clear he was terrified of exposure. (In hindsight, 40-year-old me is even more fearful that he ever was, and I miss the chutzpah of my youth.) 

The final straw was the Pfeifferhorn, with its razor-thin ridge and loose-scree scramble up a vertical-looking face. During the descent, I crossed onto the steep snowfield above Lower Red Pine Lake and pulled a gallon-size Ziplock bag out of my pack. “Easier way down,” I suggested, knelt onto my “sled,” and immediately plummeted into an uncontrolled slide. I attempted to kick my body sideways — the way one stops a snowboard — and began to spin. The world gyrated in a blue and white blur. I remember feeling confident that if I couldn’t stop before I hit the lake I’d just swim, not acknowledging that my body would probably be spinning at freeway speeds when I hit the shallow water. Eventually the whirling slowed, my head stopped spinning, and I staggered onto my feet. The summit ridge was now hundreds of feet overhead. “Made it!” I called out, although Eric was too far away to hear. I wasn’t surprised when he turned to climb down the rocky side of the ridge. He still swears that he watched my limp body bounce across an exposed boulder field. He was amazed when I stood and raised my arms, apparently unscathed. We would never hike together again. 

He did, however, agree to go bungee jumping. We drove to the Fun Dome, a tower that loomed almost directly over Interstate 15. We paid for three jumps each. I remember the experience being nothing like I expected, noting like hiking big mountains. There was no thrill, no affirmation of life — just pain and nausea. This was the day I realized that I wasn’t, and would never be, an adrenaline junkie.

Thursday and Friday brought an encouraging weather window. It was a few days early, but the days surrounding my birthday were busy, and I'll avoid weekends at any chance. I found a lovely campsite just a quarter mile from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, where I was packed and ready to start at 11:30 a.m. The campsite was ideal; it meant I'd get all of the road-walking — 12 miles' worth — out of the way on the first day. Although I'll admit that I quietly love boring, predictable road-walking. I don't have to watch where I put my feet, and there's no real concentration or effort to it. I can look up as much as I want, trace the contours of the mountains, wander through the landscape of my mind, and reflect on the past and future. Birthdays moved to the forefront of my mental reel. For a day of contrived importance during a month I never liked, I was surprised how impactful many of my birthdays have been.

If was lucky to survive to see 18, it was pure fluke that got me past 19. For the celebratory weekend, my friends and I went to the “beach” — the rocky shoreline of Jordanelle Reservoir. I had recently taken a short-lived interest in long-distance swimming, and announced plans to swim to the opposite shoreline and back. The water was cold, and I was relieved when my limbs adjusted to the shock. It took about 20 minutes of swimming to realize I was in a greater deal of trouble. My legs were so numb that I could no longer effectively kick, my shoulders were quaking, and my torso felt like a sack of refrigerated meat, too heavy to keep afloat. Survival instinct kicked in as I turned back toward shore. Fear was absent, but there was an urgency to my movements, and a primal understanding that sleepiness was my worst enemy. By the time I made it back to land, my core temperature had dropped substantially. I staggered onto the beach, feeling no relief, only numbness and blurred vision. My friends offered me a towel. There was a sharp electric jolt when my teeth finally started chattering. I huddled in direct sunlight amid 100-degree heat for the rest of the afternoon, shivering.

The jaunt up Mount Huron was fantastic. The trail cleared out by early afternoon, the skies remained friendly, and I made great time for relatively little effort. I even snagged a "CR" on a Strava segment out of 137 hikers — keeping in mind that women who label their ascents as runs aren't included in the hiking segments. Still, the recovery from my knee injury has been a little frustrating. There were times when I wondered if I'd ever be able to use it normally again. That I can still charge up a mountain at a reasonably fast clip is gratifying.

Huron is just barely a 14er at 14,003 feet. But it's high, and somewhere above 12,000 feet, I found myself wavering. After a number of years dealing with asthma and thyroid-related breathing difficulties, I've become well-acquainted with oxygen deprivation — both physical and mental effects. Low blood oxygen often begins as a mild euphoria, a feeling of transcendence, before plummeting into crushing fatigue and depression. But those early effects, I will admit, are magical. I floated through the rarified air, dancing through a semi-dream state. Such an empty, gorgeous place to have to myself, so unhindered. I can't believe this life has given me 40 years. What a gift.

The universe has often been kind to me when I didn’t deserve grace. My 21st birthday demanded a night of low-rent debauchery at the Red Garter, a rundown casino in Wendover, Nevada. My friends were at the bar when I snuck off to the roulette wheel. Empowered by my legal adulthood, I put two dollars on 21, which landed. Seventy dollars in hand, I was about to walk away, but a flutter of still-unappreciated adrenaline hit. I placed $20 back on the number 21, reasoning that the rest was more than enough winnings. To my utter astonishment, the number landed again. What I felt in that moment was less like an adrenaline rush and more like horror, as this was an obscene amount of undeserved money. 

Embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friends about the big win. A few months later, the saved money would go toward the purchase of a ’96 Geo Prism. I’d burned out the engine of my ’89 Toyota Tercel during the return trip from Wendover, while attempting to max out the speed gauge across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I wrapped up the first leg in about seven hours, which gave me all evening to cook dinner, relax, and read my Kindle in the tent. This felt like undeserved opulence during my supposed birthday vision quest. I slept poorly though, weirdly overheated at 9,000 feet, and a little anxious about the following day. Mountains do scare me. They didn't so much when I was 18, but the fear is worsening as I age, mistakes stack up alongside experience, and my understanding of consequences deepens. Just because lifespans hit 80 or 100 years old, doesn't mean we'll get another minute. The chaotic workings of the universe decide our timeline. We have some say, though, and it's counterproductive to take risks. Risk-taking may not be the best path to a long life, but few would dispute that risks are necessary for a good life. So I seek, and also I fret.

Anticipating a long day with more uncertainty about the weather, I was back on the trail by 5:30 a.m. The trailhead parking lot was already full, and dozens of people had set out in the predawn darkness. Colorado 14er culture is amusing. I can't say I fit in with this crowd, with their alpine starts and cardboard signs bearing the altitude of each peak, but I'm here, all the same. It was a lovely morning, but the wind was already howling by sunrise. I crossed a valley scoured by recent avalanches. It looked as though a bomb had hit, with massive trees littered like toothpicks down the slope. The power of mountains ... we underestimate it, all of us.

The day I turned 24 was the day I embarked on a 3,200-mile bicycle tour to New York. Having spent most of the summer driving around Alaska and only casually hiking and mountain biking, the weight and wobbly handling of my fully loaded touring bike was an unpleasant surprise. The rim brakes squealed as we descended out of the Avenues neighborhood. We merged onto Interstate 80, sadly the only way east out of Salt Lake City. For the rest of the afternoon we pedaled that unpleasant freeway shoulder toward Park City, under the hot August sun, with barely any training on my young legs. My heart soared with an exhilarating sense of freedom. This would be my greatest adventure. Life wasn’t just ending one day at a time; it was always in the process of beginning anew.

By 8 a.m. I reached the summit of Mount Belford, a tiny nipple on a broad ridge soaring 14,203 feet over far-away oceans, and closer to 4,500 feet over Clear Creek, where I'd camped. The ridge was windy and cold, and I didn't linger.

The steep descent to the saddle between Belford and Oxford brought a bout of dizziness. I'd been too high for too long. This segment wasn't going to be quite as effortless as the previous day, but I was resolved to keep up as strong of a pace as I could manage, because the "weather" was coming — and I can't always count on the universe to be kind.

Oxford is a little lower than Belford, 14,160 feet. I hit this summit at 8:45 a.m., and tried to stuff down a protein bar. My stomach was having none of that nonsense. Ugh, altitude. The rapture of the heights had faded. Gloom and doom crept into the foreground. "It's just oxygen," I told myself, a reminder that my perceptions were shaded by body chemistry, and reality wasn't nearly so dark.

By 26 I was embroiled in a quarter-life crisis. My parents visited me in Idaho Falls and brought a birthday gift, a cabinet set for my apartment. The furniture felt like a sign that I needed to stop being so wishy-washy, set better anchors, and focus on my career and future. Two days later, my long-distance boyfriend — with whom I believed I’d finally severed ties; I was even dating other people — decided to drive all the way down from Alaska and talk me into returning with him to the Last Frontier. Adventure lust took hold, an unstoppable force set in motion. Everything after that happened in quick succession, as though the universe was making decisions for me. By mid-September I had a newspaper job, an cabin high on a ridge above Kachemak Bay, and a whole new life in Homer, Alaska.

Descending just a thousand feet made such a difference. The ridge from Belford to Elkhead Pass was stunning — high basins and peaks over every horizon. I skidded down snowfields to return to Missouri Basin, where I'd connect with the final 2,000-foot climb to my fourth peak, Missouri Mountain. My emotions were in a brighter place, but I felt solidly nauseated by this point, forcing down applesauce to keep the glucose flowing. My calves started to cramp. At times I was forced to kneel down and wait for the gripping pain to release. The route snaked through a tumble of boulders beneath a cliff face, well-defined but far from easy. Clouds began to gather overhead. The steep side-slope made me feel uneasy. The 13,000-foot mark is where the mental darkness returned. Misery mountain. It's probably best I saved this one for last.

The summit ridge was longer than I'd expected, rolling ceaselessly toward never-ending false summits. The off-camber surface was loose and rubbly, and the footing was bad. As I neared the peak, exposure became more pronounced. At times I knelt low because I didn't trust my shoes not to slip off the side. I rounded a rock outcropping just in time to see a man I'd been shadowing for some time, scrambling on all fours up the seemingly vertical side slope. His motions were frantic. Dust swirled around him as he emitted a harrowing, guttural growl. I could only surmise that he actually did slip off the trail. He recovered his stance and looked up at me. I couldn't quite see his expression, but I could sense what he was communicating. Be very careful. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to be here anymore, on this high mountain with its poor footing, clouds already rolling in, stomach and leg muscles revolting. The true summit of Missouri Mountain was now less than 500 horizontal feet away. Could I really justify turning back now? Why are mountain summits so symbolic?

By the time I hit 30, the boyfriend had broken it off for good, and I was bitterly single, somewhat homeless, and stuck in a stressful and all-consuming job in isolated and rain-soaked Juneau, Alaska. Unsurprisingly, I took this milestone birthday hard. I planned a barbecue at the house where I was crashing, inviting the few friends who hadn’t shrunk away amid the awkwardness with my ex. I dreaded this party, and posted sad memes on Facebook about how I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. The night before my birthday, I spent hours after work preparing food in my friends’ kitchen, staying up well past 3 a.m., just so I’d have the time to check out for most of the following day. My new plan was to finally tackle Mount McGinnis — and thus, make my own way "over the hill." The nipple-shaped peak over the Mendenhall Valley was one of the most prominent summits in Juneau. The 4,000-foot ascent on muddy roots and tundra was exhausting, and it rained most of the way down. Near the bottom I took an hard fall that would prove to not be my last injuring accident on a mountain on my birthday. Still, I hadn’t felt so satisfied in a long time. There was a sense that the mountains would always be there. No matter what changed in my life, mountains would remain.

Symbolism, and the stories we tell, form the base of our lives. I knew I couldn't turn my back on four 14ers at this point. Cold wind buffeted my legs as I side-stepped off the crumbling trail and climbed onto the rock outcropping, hoping the scramble would go. It was such a relief to be back on solid ground, even ground that was somewhat technical and exposed. I scooted up a few pitches that proved more tricky to down-climb with heavy fatigue, knotted calves and a wobble knee, but nothing was terribly difficult. Suddenly I was standing on top of Missouri, elevation 14,075 feet. Mountains conquered — if not fear.

I looked back at the tiny nipple of Mount Belford. The profile reminded me of Mount McGinnis, which renewed reflections on a birthday adventure that's now a decade in the past. How does so much time just slip away? I suppose that's why we seek out these memorable experiences, these connections to the stories that go on.