Saturday, September 15, 2018

Chamonix, after

After "only" 115 kilometers with 10,000 meters of climbing in the PTL, both Beat and Pieter decided they could use a little rest and relaxation in our quaint little village chalet. I was grateful that we didn't need to leave the Chamonix Valley right away. Beat still planned to start the Swiss Peaks 360 on Sept. 2, which meant not much rest for him, but three more days of hiking for me. Yay! 

Pieter and Beat lounged around the chalet and Beat enjoyed the company of the neighborhood cat. We never figured out the name/sex of this cat or who he/she belonged to, but the cat showed up at the window at regular intervals in the morning and evening, almost on schedule. He/she seemed completely uninterested in the kitty treats we purchased, but loved to bask in attention.  

Rain persisted through Wednesday night, and Thursday brought a low cloud ceiling and light drizzling rain. It seemed a dull day for hiking, but no opportunity should be wasted. Beat and Pieter recommended I follow this year's PTL course to the Albert Premier hut. The high mountain refuge is part of the famous Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, but PTL shirked the popular trail in favor of an obscure track along a sharp ridge that gains most of the necessary 5,000 feet of altitude in less than three miles. Pieter called it "efficient."

The trail proved even sketchier than I anticipated — although I really should know PTL better by now. Mist wafted through the fog as I clung to wet rocks and thin branches, skooching along ledges slicked by greasy mud. There were spots where slipping could have been catastrophic, and whether or not my feet would stick to the muddy ground was always in question. Usually I am frightened when footing is bad and exposure is high, but on this morning my mood skewed more insolent. "You really should know PTL better by now."

As I cleared treeline and found better traction on a rocky spine, the fog began to thin. Soon I rose into something I definitely wasn't expecting — another bluebird day. Hazy views of a gray moraine sharpened to jagged blue ice on Glacier du Tour, crowned by pretty peaks like Grand Fourche.

Okay, Beat was right. This was an awesome route.

I suffer from extreme shyness when I'm traveling internationally, to the point where I will go out of my way to avoid public spaces where I might have to talk to someone. It's unfortunate, I know. Not only does it mean I don't meet new and potentially interesting people, but it also means most of my meals are a variation of bread, cheese, tuna, raw vegetables, and fruit that I purchased one time at a grocery store. I walked past the Albert Premier refuge and marveled at this huge modern building (140 beds, built in 1959) built atop a rugged ledge beside the lip of a glacier, thousands of feet above the nearest road, with any amenity one could hope for in a hotel-restaurant ... and kept walking. I rounded a saddle and continued along the moraine beneath Aiguille du Tour, where I enjoyed my apples and cheese as a cold wind carried the billowing fog closer. Brief lulls amplified an expansive silence. This was no place for a human, this desolate land of rock and ice. There may not be much wilderness in Europe, but you don't have to walk far beyond the fingers of civilization to feel infinitesimal.

At 9,000 feet, it was too cold to sit for long. Amid my revelry in solitude and the raw indifference of nature, I noticed a long string of people making their way across the Tour glacier. There must have been at least 20 in the group, moving in an evenly spaced single-file row over a steep section of ice. I speculated that they were a group of novices learning glacier travel by following a guide — and what spectacular trust this would take on such intimidating terrain. My main mental barrier to learning new things is that I don't trust anyone to make good choices, least of all myself.

For the return, I opted to follow the main trail. Even still, I didn't see that many hikers. Just this group on the ridge, then three more groups heading up with big backpacks, helmets, axes and ropes. Later I learned that the cable car, which was running when I left for my hike, had shut down. I know this because I stopped and asked about purchasing a ride down the hill (so lazy, I know, but I was proud of myself for approaching someone and talking to them.) The guy seemed extremely apologetic — not the usual attitude I see in France. I guessed he'd already told a number of disappointed tourists that they were going to have to human-power themselves down the mountain.

The weather was beginning to clear at lower altitudes, and I still had extra time on my schedule thanks to a lightning-fast descent on real trail, so I opted to make a side trip across the Swiss border via Col de Balme and the Croix de Fer. Grassy exposure! It was a bit of excitement, and then it was time to walk my own butt down the mountain.

By Friday morning, the rain had settled in at all altitudes, just in time for the start of UTMB (every year!) I lounged around with Beat and Pieter, but by late morning decided it would be best to get some steps in. Why? I don't even know. I tend to become a bit manic here in the Alps, and even drizzly, gray days are not to be wasted. PTL had passed right through Les Tines, so I followed the GPS track blindly up the nearest mountain. The route worked its way from a steep trail to a faint path along rocky outcroppings with waterfalls, until I was clinging to ladders and precarious cables strung along a narrow ledge slicked with mud. Oh, PTL, I really should know you better by now.

Somewhere along the cliffs, my GPS batteries died. After I replaced them, the GPS took a full hour to find satellite signal again. Since I no longer knew where the PTL route went, and didn't really care, I veered onto a faint cat track. Hard rain pelted my coat as I crawled up a grassy slope so steep that at times I was literally on my knuckles and knees. Weirdly, I was really enjoying myself. There's something so eerie about a ski area in the summer, shrouded by fog, with lift chairs creaking in the wind. Chamonix, after the apocalypse. I cued up a Modest Mouse album — The Moon and  Antarctica — and indulged in exquisite melancholy.

So long to this cold, cold part of the world.
So long to this bone-bleached part of the world.

After my GPS came back online, I chose to descend something that looked like a road on the map, but was merely a cat track that plummeted off the mountain with frequent 50-percent grades and gravel so loose and muddy that I had to walk backward and dig in with my knuckles to prevent butt-sliding (which would have ripped apart my pants and most of the skin on my backside.) Ugh. I should have stuck with the PTL cable luge, although there was likely at least one easier way off this mountain. Well, at least I was back in time to meet up with British friends who now live in Les Houches. We gathered at their favorite pub to watch 2,500 UTMB runners pass, eight kilometers into the race. I was enjoying my drink and too lazy to join the fray, so this is the best photo I got — Jim Walmsley blasting through the streets about ten seconds in front of the pack. Most people who read my blog probably followed UTMB to some degree, so you know what happened. Most of the top runners — and all of the U.S. favorites — gradually imploded in both predictable and odd ways, until the guy who was disqualified from Hardrock won. (Blah blah blah.) It was an exciting race to be sure, but I admit to caring less about UTMB as years go by. I was avidly into this race when we first came to Chamonix six years ago, but now I have doubts I'll ever go back myself. No, my failure to complete a loop around Mont Blanc will likely outlive me. And that's okay.

Okay, maybe I still care a little about UTMB. On Saturday afternoon I set out toward Flégère with some hope of spectating the leaders as they blasted down their final descent. I missed seeing Xavier but did manage to catch two through four. This guy is Norwegian runner Hallvard Schjølberg, who went on to finish fourth. Go underdogs!

After passing the aid station, I continued into thickening fog toward L'Index, for no other reason than a desire to rack up some vert and close out a big week. For the Sunday to Saturday seven-day stretch, I ended up with 36,383 feet in 70.6 miles, which on paper closely shadows but in reality doesn't even compare to Beat's 34,500 feet in 71.5 miles of much more difficult terrain that he did in about 50 hours of PTL. In writing these blogs two weeks later, one issue I forgot to mention was the shin I bashed on my birthday, which continued to bother me throughout the week. I wrote it off as a deep bruise until Saturday, when it occurred to me that I might have actually fractured the bone in a minor / stress-fracture sort of way. This possibility gnawed at me throughout the night — how could I have been so stubborn to keep hiking on it? And even worse, what if I can no longer hike the rest of the time we're in Europe? Since Swiss Peaks 360 started the following day, I opted not to confess my fears to Beat. But I did decided that if my shin continued to hurt in this way in Switzerland, I'd take it easy, for real this time. 
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Before the end of an era

Hello blog! I'm back. I didn't mean to drift away for three weeks. It's just that you're no longer an entrenched habit. You're a sort of a sidebar, an extraneous detail to be ignored when I can no longer focus. I've been traveling and busy with the typical traveling busyness, but that's not really an explanation for the way my thoughts fragmented until it took all of my remaining mental energy to piece together a few sentences for Beat's race updates on Facebook. 

It's been more than a little weird, to be honest — this bout of "brain fog." Perhaps I'm too much a creature of routine, dependent on my own odd but consistent patterns to function. Perhaps this is because I'm old (see previous birthday post, and now I'm nearly a month older.) Perhaps it's a reoccurring symptom of my mostly controlled but certainly not cured autoimmune disease. Perhaps it's classic fatigue, although hiking has been my only (temporary) cure for feeling generally confused, anxious, and "out of sorts." Maybe there are no reasons, and it doesn't matter. I've returned to my blog to do what I always do here, which is sort through all of my fragments and save the shinier pieces.

So we'll take it back to Aug. 26, a couple of days after Beat and I arrived in Europe for yet another round of ridiculous 200-mile mountain races — this year, the Petite Trotte à Léon and the Swiss Peaks 360. I speculate about the effects of being thrown off my routine, but have to admit after seven years, late-summer trips to the Alps are now part of the routine. Whether racing or simply crewing, these events are beautiful, overwhelming and exhausting ... and perhaps we're both too comfortable with the effects? For this reason, I tried my hardest to talk Beat out of racing this year. Although I'll never complain about an opportunity to visit this place, I thought a different sort of adventure could do us both some good. But his habits are the toughest to break. So we returned to Chamonix for the last week of August, although he vowed that this year would be the last for such racing (for at least a while.) And I vowed that if he was insincere (which I suspect), I will say home with new-to-me Rocky Mountains next summer.

But I do love being in the Alps. With only a few work obligations and fairly minimal support duties for PTL, I'd at least have a lot of time to hike. As Beat and Pieter arranged and rearranged their race gear on Sunday, I set out from our small rental chalet in Les Tines toward Mer de Glace. Similar to most bodies of ice in the world, this glacier has shrunk substantially in just the six years I've known it. The visual change was disheartening enough that I didn't feel like descending hundreds of feet along a staircase that marks the glacier's dramatic retreat in mere decades, so I continued uphill toward a viewpoint at Le Signal Forbes.

A cog railway deposits hundreds of tourists not far from these rocky paths, and it often becomes a humorous scene of folks in open-toed sandals and jeans clinging precipitously to edges. As usual, I had a deadline and wanted to cover as much ground as I could manage before it was time to head down, so at first I felt annoyed that I had to shoulder my way around all of these people. But as I watched them waver and grapple for handholds, I felt a kind of rapport. I never really belonged on the ultra trail among the fit athletes in streamlined Salomon gear, dancing over boulders as though they were tiny cobbles on a street. No, I belong with the lumbering hoards, battling our best instincts to reach a beautiful place.

The calm before the race, looking toward Mont Blanc from Les Tines at sunset. It looked like we would see beautiful weather for a few days at least.

Team "Too Dumb to Quit," Beat and Pieter, standing at the starting line of the 2018 Petite Trotte à Léon in downtown Chamonix. Beat had finished six PTLs in six years, with his Belgian friend Pieter as a partner since 2015. Each year, PTL follows a varying series of trails around Mont Blanc for 180 or so miles with up to 90,000 feet of climbing. It's not the distance or climbing that makes it a difficult endeavor, but the technical terrain — everything from chossy gullies to endless boulder moraines to unnervingly steep grassy slopes to exposed scrambling along ridges. PTL can be succinctly described as "300 kilometers of nonsense." The difficulty is compounded by fatigue, unavoidable weather changes and sleep deprivation, and the potential danger of PTL has led to my open opposition of Beat's participation since I attempted this nonsense (and realized what it really requires) in 2013. Of course, this is a battle I lose every year. So Monday morning began Beat's seventh attempt. Even he seemed less than enthused.

After the race started, I walked up the street to the start of one of my favorite climbs out of Chamonix, the "Vertical Kilometer." This tightly-switchbacking singletrack up a ski slope gains a thousand meters in about three kilometers — 3,000 feet in 1.75 miles — for a cool average grade of 35 percent. By the final hundred meters, you're clinging to cables along a narrow spine, but you're so blasted you don't even notice the exposure. My goal, as usual, was hike fast without blowing all of my fuses. I have yet to break an hour, but enjoy the challenge of trying and then mildly berating myself when my watch says 1:06. For the last 20 minutes I closely shadowed a woman who was clearly a runner (my own identity here in the Alps is more subtle, wearing baggy hiking pants and huge backpack.) I never caught her, and I think she was pleased she held me off. "That was the worst thing I've ever done," she gasped in a British accent as we crested the final pitch, which was a staircase to the cable car.

"Steep one, isn't it?" I replied. She did a little summit dance there on the platform of Planpraz, and I pumped my fist in response. But I didn't stop walking, because I'd already formulated an ambitious plan for the day amid the endorphins, and I had ground to cover.

I continued another 2,000 feet up to Brevent, then turned right to follow the broad ridge for a relaxing and scenic stroll on a most spectacular day.

Toward lunch time, I arrived at what may be my favorite place yet near Chamonix, the Aiguillette des Houches. With 360 degrees of incredible vistas and nice grassy spots to have a picnic, I settled in to check my phone for Beat's position and munch on ... let's see, what made it into my backpack today? An apple, one of those small containers of Nutella that traveled here from the World Market in Boulder, a Snickers Bar from Pieter's work (Mars Belgium.) Actually I didn't have a lot of food on me, but I was still jet-lagged so my appetite was skewed and I wasn't that hungry anyway.

Instead I just sat and enjoyed the views — looking north toward the nature reserve and the Ayères cliffs.

And west toward the village of Servoz. To the south of course was Mont Blanc, with Brevent already an impressive distance to the east. Starting down, I eyed the spot directly across the valley in front of me, a narrow ridge between the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers called "La Jonction." From my perch, it looked so close — almost as though I could reach out and pull myself across. Of course, actually reaching this spot meant descending all of the 5,000 feet I'd climbed and then regaining it on the other side of the valley. It was a ridiculous notion, but I was operating on fear of scarcity — how many bluebird days would I see here, when I had a whole afternoon more or less free?

Of course, it takes a long damn time to descend a vertical mile, and I became disoriented on a maze trails I still remembered from 2012's UTMB, then had to regain a bunch of altitude to correct my position. By the time I returned to Les Bossons, I'd consumed all of my aforementioned lunch items, as well as half of a Payday bar I'd unearthed from the bottom of my pack. I already had to filter water from a small spring, and collected more from a fountain in town. I was exhausted. The car was less than a mile away. Still, the glaciers loomed overhead, calling to me. Happy memories of my birthday adventure, which was a week earlier, lured me farther. A six- or seven-hour hike, that's just tiring. But a ten- or twelve-hour hike? Transcendent.

Up, up, up. Actually, it takes a long damn time to climb 5,000 more feet. The half of a Payday bar did not last long, but I resolved not to eat the other half until I turned around, so I'd have enough glucose to not pass out on my way down the mountain. Still, I was quite bonked, but in that dazed, fluffy way that feels more ethereal than painful. Hoards of people passed on their way down the mountain, and then there was no one. It was blissfully quiet, with traffic from the valley humming like a far-away song — one that promised pizza.

The light began to deepen and I finally looked at my watch. 7 p.m. When was sunset? Just two hours until it would be quite dark. Of all of the items in my large pack, a nice headlamp was not one of them. All I had was my emergency light that throws a dim beam — not great for the kind of steep, loose, and rooty descending that this trail contains. Hiking after dark with poor visibility when I was already a bit dizzy seemed a bad idea, so reluctantly I started down from the saddle about 600 feet below La Jonction. I still ended up with 11,000 feet of climbing in 23 miles. And I finally had an excuse to gobble the rest of my Payday bar, which made me feel like I could fly ... for about 20 minutes. 5,000 feet is a long damn way to trudge downhill with low blood sugar.

On Tuesday morning I went grocery shopping in Argentiere and ended up hiking from there toward a prominent point called Bec de Lachat. A wide, smooth trail became tightly switchbacking singletrack, which quickly faded to a brushy game trail that shot straight up the mountain on a 45 percent grade.

The "top" revealed a long ridge that kept climbing, but it was the kind of grassy choss that I do not love, and would soon become narrow enough to tip my exposure comfort scale. So I called Bec de Lachat good, although it seemed a "short" hike at just seven miles round trip with 4,000 feet of climbing.

Nice views toward the Glacier d'Argentiere

And Glacier du Tour

Looking toward Mont Buet and that huge dam that I think is in Switzerland.

Amid the crush of Alaska time zone deadlines, I was up all night on Tuesday, but still wandered out the door reasonably early Wednesday to trudge up to Flégère. This was prompted by a sense of urgency, as there were two portents of doom on the horizon. First was the weather forecast, which promised an end to the string of bluebird days, bringing cold and rain. Second, Beat's recent voice mail informed me that Pieter had taken a bad step on a loose descent and had sharp pain in his hip that wasn't improving. They'd gone through the night in an effort to gut it out, and by morning had taken on an extremely difficult via ferrata route to a high alpine rifugio in Val Veny, Italy. They were going to attempt it, but Beat wasn't optimistic they'd continue beyond there. PTL is a team event, and with a single partner, both must continue in order for either to stay in the race. If Pieter had to drop, Beat would as well.

Clouds moved in with astonishing quickness. When I left the chalet at 9:30 a.m., skies were still crystal blue, and by 11 a.m., stinging rain pelted my face. Beat's call came in with the rain. Team Too Dumb to Quit had finally smartened up. After seven years, it seemed like the end of an era. Selfishly I was not too disappointed, because even though it meant cutting my wet hike short and driving through the tunnel into Italy, Beat's safe return from PTL meant a lot less fretting for me. I was glad I binged on mountains in the first four days, because I figured this visit to Chamonix would probably be cut short as well. 
Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Monday was my birthday, marking the end of my 39th trip around the sun. Thus far, I've enjoyed the process of growing older. Each year brings new experiences, adding to a wealth of memories. As my reality expands, my priorities tighten. I become more secure in who I am, less susceptible to social and cultural influences, and a little less beholden to my own ego. Whatever you believe about growing older, it's obviously better than the alternative. 

An existentialist comic who I follow on Twitter recently posted an observation along these lines: When you're a teenager, you believe no one gets you. In your 20s, you realize you don't even get yourself. By your 30s, you start to understand there's not much to get. I'm human, and in many ways just a rehash of a story that has been told and retold throughout history. I live inside an aging body, full of all these hormones that control what I feel and shape "who I am" more than I like to believe. I still like to believe there's a soul trapped somewhere inside, an independent entity that becomes free when I journey toward enlightenment or gaze into The Void. Most journeys, what I discover is that I'm still just a body — hungry, thirsty, aching in new places because I am almost 40, looking forward to returning to comfortable routine and the company of the people I love. 

The best thing about birthdays is a guiltless free pass to do whatever you want. When I was in my 20s and didn't really get myself, I sought out thrills like bungee jumping and energy-draining celebrations — usually the barbecue-type parties one throws at the end of summer. Now that I'm 39, I think a solo excursion in the mountains is the best way to spend a birthday — and most days, really. So I told Beat I was heading to Rocky Mountain National Park to climb Mount Fairchild, and maybe don't wait up for me.

Lama train along the Lawn Lake trail — this is the first time I've seen one of these, actually. I shadowed them for a while just because it was so entertaining to watch lamas. When the guy leading the pack finally noticed me and let me pass, he said, "The lamas thank you, because now they can eat a snack." As they frantically ripped at the grass beside the trail, I thought, "I feel you, lamas. I feel you."

The sky was still crystal blue at noon when I reached the saddle between Mount Fairchild and Hagues Peak, appropriately named "The Saddle." This photo looks toward Hagues, which has a short section of exposed scrambling, and thus falls a little beyond my current solo comfort level. Two-plus years of living in Colorado have cemented an acceptance that I am just not that good at moving my body in the mountains, and you know what — that's okay. I can continue to work on improving my skill set, but there's no need to take big leaps (like I tried with my ill-advised races in the European Alps several years back.) I turned my back to Hagues and began the off-trail ascent up the broad face of Fairchild.

The climb was steep, and amid the harsh air between 12,000 and 13,500 feet, exhausting. Monday afternoon remained clear and relatively windless, but this also made for a bad smoke day. Pale brown haze settled over the valleys, thickening with each passing hour. An aroma of hickory and chipotle filled my nostrils — and with my dull sense of smell, I realize that if I can smell something, it must be bad. I pulled a buff over my face — still something I do from time to time to help with breathing, although I have doubts it protects my lungs at all. As I neared the peak, the terrain shifted from rocky tundra to a bottomless boulder pile. I put my trekking poles away and picked a line, opting to scramble up couch-sized boulders rather than take my chances in steep gullies full of loose talus. As I crawled, I noticed patches of new snow and rime left behind by a recent storm. I ran my fingers through the icy snow and smiled — my first of the season.

Top of Mount Fairchild. Happy birthday to me.

While researching this hike the previous evening, I noticed a ridge that appeared on the map to be traversable, and would allow me to turn this route into a loop, snagging a couple more 13ers with a few extra miles. (Okay, six extra miles.) A quick Internet search didn't reveal tons of beta about the route, but one hiker claimed it went at class two. I'd reached the summit of Fairchild in just over three and a half hours at 1 p.m., so I had daylight to work with. How long could six extra miles take, really? I hopped and crab-walked over a rock-strewn shoulder, which abruptly ended at the edge of an abyss. A veritable rock slide plummeted off this edge, dropping more than 1,000 feet in a half mile. Looking down, I felt frightened. I didn't want to attempt this descent. But I thought about the ways we become comfortable as we grow older. We stick with what we know. We don't take chances. Those sharp-edged memories begin to soften. I don't necessarily want this. So I crouched onto my butt and slipped into the abyss.

The descent took ages. Oozing slowly over boulders with frequent five-point body contact, I still managed to dislodge several rocks, prompting adrenaline-charged leaps of faith to the next boulder. I promised myself I could turn around at any time, but every move made me more anxious to get off this mountain forever. My watch buzzed with 1:10:34 on the screen — a one-hour, ten-minute mile — and I thought, "can't afford too many of those." Finally I arrived at the foot of a knife-edge ridge. From a thousand feet higher, it looked like it could be easily bypassed, but of course the boulder face was much steeper and chunkier than it looked from that height. Just a few minutes into the ascent, I stepped onto a flat table-sized boulder that tilted sideways and threw my body into another rock. I caught myself before a full face-plant, but managed to bash my right shin badly on the edge of the smaller boulder. Intense pain flooded my already-stressed brain, which massively overreacted.

"You just cracked your tibia. You're alone in the mountains and you haven't seen another human since Lawn Lake, and now your leg is broken. You're going to die. On your birthday."

Looking back toward Ypsilon Mountain
It didn't take long to decide I wasn't going to die just yet, but as the cortisol settled, pain continued to throb through my limb. Putting weight on the leg worsened that pain, so I lay down on the flat boulder that I already knew wasn't stable, and soothed myself. "You can just text Beat on the Delorme. He can send help. You have everything you need to survive a night up here ... although if there's another storm like the one that deposited that snow, you're going to have a rough night."

The pain began to diminish, and I became more convinced I'd be fine to hike out. Since I had no knowledge of the route ahead, turning around would have been the prudent move. But as I looked up at the slope I'd just descended, it seemed impossible. Too steep, too cliffy, not something I'd choose to do of my own volition. "But you were just there," I reminded myself. "Climbing is easier than descending." I rolled up my pants to assess the injury. A purple goose-egg was growing before my eyes, like a silly cartoon, but it was clear that I hadn't broken my leg. The unknown looked less scary, at least in my immediate view, so I continued forward.

Little pika, how do you move so effortlessly over these rocks?
My right leg continued to throb, and the bruise caused me to feel even more wobbly. I didn't want to rely on the limb too much, so I crawled on my knees at times, working slowly up a ramp of television-sized boulders. This brought disturbing flashbacks of my experience in the 2014 Tor des Geants, after I tore my LCL in a fall and could no longer put my full weight on my knee, so I army-crawled along boulders to reach the next checkpoint. This is the part of amassing memories that I do not like — the visceral flashbacks.

Finally I reached a saddle below Ypsilon Mountain and looked up. Tundra ramp! I gratefully pulled my trekking poles out of my pack and let them hold some of my weight. My watch buzzed another hour-plus mile. Now more than six hours had passed, and it was 4 p.m. Hmmm. I might have to do some hustling.

The pain from my bruised shin continued to improve until I was chuckling about how much I overreacted back there. But it still hurt, and left me thoroughly exhausted. Those two miles between Fairchild and Ypsilon took nearly everything I had to expend. In a daze I stumbled along the tundra to Mount Chiquita, where I found a trail. A trail! Now for sure I knew I was going to get out of here!

Even with a trail in place, the route continued to traverse rock gully after rock gully. Near Chapin Pass, I saw a duo of gorgeous bull elk just chilling near treeline. This guy repeatedly wrestled with a scrub brush — probably sharpening his antlers or scratching something, but I imagined his emotions as my own. Happy to be back in the trees. "I feel you, elk. I feel you."

I hit Old Fall River Road at 5:10 p.m. and texted Beat. How long did those extra six miles take me? More than four hours. "Eight more miles," I told Beat, mostly as a warning to not expect me home for dinner. I finally paused long enough to eat the first snack I'd consumed since Fairchild, an unbelievably delicious birthday treat of pretzels and Nutella. Buzzed on sugar, I began jogging down the road. My lower leg was swollen and still hurt, but running didn't make it feel any worse, so I picked up speed.

Endorphins overtook my system, and my stumbling daze shifted to flowing joy. Eleven-minute-miles slipped effortlessly behind me, and the motion soothed my pain. The sun slipped behind a curtain of smoke, casting strange light on the canyon walls. I smiled and waved at steady one-way-traffic still creeping up the road. Some drivers rolled down their windows to question whether I was okay, since I was miles from anywhere. I was happy to be back in civilization.

I replayed the day in my head. Since I'd climbed three 13ers, the math worked out perfectly. 3x13 for my 39th birthday. Also, I'd close the loop at just over 24 miles, meaning I'd also inadvertently run (well, hiked/crawled/jogged) my age in kilometers. I took chances, but nothing overly reckless ... the fall was a bit of a fluke, although entirely expected from this awkward body. But I attempted something that scared me and challenged me, leaving a more satisfying feeling of accomplishment than I've had in a while, fitness PRs and all. Giddy that I survived yet another thing. Life is good.