Thursday, March 23, 2017

Modern Romance, part 5

I intend to write about my week-long trip to the Yukon, but something happened on my "commute" back to Anchorage via Skagway and Juneau, and it's cathartic to write about it. I've written a series of posts about conversations with Thunder Mountain in Juneau, now spread across seven and a half years. You can read the first four parts here: Part onepart twopart threepart four.

 The Piper Navajo bucks violently amid swirling flurries, just a few thousand feet over the Lynn Canal. It's just me and one other passenger, and the pilot of course, in this eight-seat airplane. After spending the past week in Whitehorse, work schedules prevented me from driving back to Alaska with my friends. This is my convoluted commute — Canadian friends shuttled me over White Pass to Skagway, where we enjoyed smoothies and a walked around the mostly shuttered tourism town. This small plane will take me to Juneau. I'll catch a jet to Anchorage tomorrow. I had been looking forward to this scenic flight, but now I think I'm going to be sick.

I used to be frightened of flying. I like to tell the story about the day I lost that fear. It was after I boarded a flight out of McGrath following my first Iditarod ride in 2008. As the jet hurtled through the sky over all of the places where I struggled and shivered and huddled in terror, flying no longer seemed so bad.

As this lightweight plane lurches and shudders through a narrow corridor of mountains, I think maybe I should try being afraid of flying again. Nothing comes. It's weird with me these days. Anxiety is skewed toward the frivolous. Fear isn't firing at normal moments. I can become incredibly stressed about nothing. Two days ago, I had to pop a beta blocker after I became unnervingly worked up because I couldn't find transport for my bike. But right now I almost believe this plane will crash into the mountains, and my body doesn't seem to care.

The air smooths out as flurries clear. Over Juneau the sky is blue, despite a high chance of rain in the forecast. As the plane descends into Juneau Airport, I catch a glimpse of that lowly, flat-topped, 3,000-foot hill that holds a special place in my heart. Hello again, Thunder Mountain.

 I leave the airport and start walking toward the trailhead. Outside it's 45 degrees and the air tastes like springtime — crisp with hints of dirt and moss. What serendipity is this? An unplanned trip to Juneau on a beautiful day, a great trail within walking distance, and a whole afternoon to myself. Still, I'm not excited as I would expect to be. Just as a turbulent flight didn't make me fearful, this excursion feels surprisingly meh. It's been a fun but long month here in Alaska, and perhaps I'm just tired. Worn by a stress-sensitive body and the chronic uncertainty of traveling. Ready to go home to Colorado. Still, I don't want to waste this opportunity. Thunder Mountain doesn't fall into my backyard every day.

 The lower trail is a maze of footprints — that never changes. But I'm carrying a GPS this time, with a track downloaded from my last visit, in 2014. Three years. I smile at still-familiar scenery — towering Sitka spruce trees, carpeted in dazzling green moss. The snow is much deeper than the last time I was here, and the creeks are entirely iced over — they were open in 2014. There are trail improvements, too. I smirk at a "trailhead" sign that's still a half mile from the end of the road, its helpfulness limited by the footprint maze.

 And who put these ropes on the root staircases? Strange to see a modicum of accessibility added to Thunder Mountain. I'm accustomed to a trail no one can find — a muddy, root-choked, faint path trundling over dead trees as it shoots directly up a steep spine without a hint of a switchback. Snow just makes everything more invisible. I grip the wet nylon and pull myself forward. My shoulders shudder and biceps burn. Where has my strength gone? Is my physical capacity still declining, or am I just more aware of it these days? I climb the root steps on my knees because my quads aren't strong enough to lift my upper body. The route becomes steeper. "Thunder, you are a mountain for strong people," I say out loud. I feel something now, but it's melancholy. It doesn't help when I listen to the lyrics to "Moonn" by Radical Face.

No sleep.
There is no comfort in the pillow 
My mind starts drifting through the woods 
Climb up the moonlight, ground beneath me
'til I find myself all wrapped up 
in the fog above the world

I ponder the question I often ponder now. How much of my identity is wrapped up in an ability to move freely through the outdoors? It's not just endurance racing. I could walk away from racing and live a happy life, although I'll always miss the early days — back when it was easy to believe there were no limits. But what if my limit drops so low that I can't even haul myself up a mountain? What then? Much of my adult life has been centered around this — working to play, spending large blocks of time in the mountains, in the desert, on the tundra, outside. I've formed many of my relationships around these shared interests. I've bonded with my family through this. I developed into a writer who mostly writes about this. Who even am I?

And up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone

The packed trail peters out after just a thousand feet of altitude gain, and then I'm trudging through unbroken snow. The saturated surface feels as heavy as wet cement. I want to turn around. It feels like something is urging me to turn around. It's that quiet little voice that tells me I can't do the things I want to do. I hate her.

I focus on keeping my heart rate down. It's the opposite of what most workouts aim to achieve, and thus not easy. I trudge a few steps and rest. Trudge a few steps and rest. The spruce forest begins to thin, and views open to the Mendenhall Valley and Douglas Island. Dark clouds are gathering from the north. The storms have followed me from Yukon. Rain is coming.

My stomach grumbles. "Just a few more steps," I lie. Trudge, trudge, rest. Trudge, trudge, rest.

Do I cling to this motion because I'm fearful there's nothing else? That Beat won't love me anymore if I can't handle big outdoor efforts? That all inspiration will fade, and I'll no longer have any interest in writing? Or taking photos? What will I do with all the quiet, empty days? I kneel into the snow to give my quads a rest. "Today is a bad day," I think. There were actually a lot of good days before this one.

I take a selfie in that same spot I believed I took this photo seven years ago. Turns out, this time around I was a fair amount lower. "She had it pretty together," I think of 2009 Jill. After all, she was residing in Southeast Alaska where it rains 90 inches a year, living on a fairly small budget, suffering through middle management, working upwards of 60 hours a week until 1 a.m. most nights, bike commuting from Fritz Cove, venturing far outside her comfort zone to date new people, and still finding the energy to venture into the mountains at every opportunity.

Of course she was miserable. She was definitely miserable. I think about Colorado and Beat and smile. "I'll spend afternoons by the pond watching the goldfish," I think. "Maybe find a way to plant a garden and somehow keep out the deer. And hike up Bear on good days."

I wouldn't trade the present for the past, at any moment. I prefer everything that's happened since. This realization brings me comfort.

 I watch myself there as a little one 
And wonder why they could never hear me 
I watch them hold me down beneath their calloused thumbs 
To hide the fears deep down inside me

Trudge, trudge, rest. I look up at the summit and think about rounding the last stand of trees for an unobstructed view. I have no intention of ascending the final headwall — it's too steep to risk without an ice ax, and I hadn't checked the avalanche forecast before I left. Right now I'm not worried. The snow feels like concrete underfoot, incapable of going anywhere. I'd turned off my iPod after I started breaking trail, and I haven't heard any evidence of collapsing snow layers. Sticking to low-angle terrain should be safe. I feign confidence I haven't earned.

I reach the plateau below the headwall and venture close to the edge for the view. "This is fantastic," I think, letting a hint of satisfaction seep through my emotional iron wall. At that moment, I'm startled by a loud "whomp" from above. I look up to see a slab of snow peeling away from the ridge a couple hundred feet directly overhead. I leap into a sprint; it feels as though I'm running in slow motion. My legs have no spark. There's nothing there. No adrenaline. "I can't run and I'm going to die because I have Graves Disease," I think. Some of these words escape in a scream.

My entry point and exit point — this is how far I was pushed
It's too late. The avalanche is nearly on top of me. I turn to face it, arms raised. "Time to swim," I think, and jump toward the onslaught like surfer plunging into a wave. I feel no emotion. No terror, no regret, no acceptance of fate. No, just "time to swim." I manage to remain upright, lunging forward in a skittering motion atop rumbling blocks of snow. The moments feel eternal. Then, suddenly, the mass lurches to a halt. It takes several shorter seconds to register that the slide is no longer moving. I'm not going down the mountain beneath a crushing avalanche. This is an incredible outcome. And yet, I don't feel relieved.

The fracture line in the upper lefthand corner. The fracture was much larger to the right. That whole slab slid.
I lunge forward again, but my right leg is buried to the shin. I can't pull it out — the snowshoe is trapped beneath a layer of compacted snow. I chip at it with my trekking poles, but it's harder than ice. Finally, panic burbles to the surface. "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God." I chant. Danger isn't yet averted. The weight of this snow plus my movement could trigger another slide. As I glance over my shoulder, I notice the steep horizon line and realize how precariously close to an edge I've been pushed. I start manically pounding with the sharp end of the poles. If they break through the ice, I'm going to stab my foot, but I don't care. Another seeming eternity passes, and I've finally chipped away enough concrete to yank out the snowshoe, The broken snow slab is slumped against a sheer dropoff. I tiptoe along the edge with frantic carefulness. "Please, God. Please, God."

I'm marching in autopilot, whirling between sputters of panic and strange robotic indifference. I shuffle quickly, barely lifting my feet off the snow, as though soft steps could prevent another avalanche. Although I know it would be better to keep an eye on the higher slopes, I don't dare look up. In a flash I'm off the plateau, paddling down the ridge, winding through scrub spruce, descending into the towering forest. Ground disappears beneath me as though it were a cloud.

This photo shows the steep dropoff just meters below the avalanche runout.
As the objective danger lessens, the floodgate finally opens. Tears stream down my neck and soak into my hair. First I feel shame for having carelessly gotten myself caught in an avalanche, for not being more cognizant of conditions and terrain, for foolishly ignoring my intuition and being so indifferent to one of my worst fears. Shame dissolves into embarrassment, and then sadness at the odd thought that because of this, I can never return to Thunder Mountain. This sparks a jolt of anger. I feel deeply betrayed. How could Thunder Mountain do this to me, after all these years? Of course I know that Thunder Mountain has never cared.

Anger collapses into aimless rage. The pulsing fury causes me to make careless mistakes. I slip down a series of roots and tumble onto my head. My soaked hair fills with snow. Psychological coping mechanisms rush to the rescue, demanding gratitude. The memory that rises to the surface is soothingly random; I'm 17 years old, running my fingers through the red dunes of Sand Hollow, near St. George, Utah. Intense sunlight turns the sky white. I can feel its warmth on my skin. This gives way to more happy memories. There are so many, filling empty spaces with the depth and richness of existence. And yet everything I am, and everything I've been through, could be obliterated in an instant.

There is no son there is no daughter 
There's only arms they've never named 
You are not you, you are a mirror 
You only work when you're the same

The sun begins to sink into the horizon. The maze of footprints finally reaches an end. Back on quiet neighborhood roads, I walk backward. I can't take my eyes off Thunder Mountain. The memory barrage has stalled, and I'm looping through the most recent: A slab of snow tumbling toward me, and when I turn to run, I'm unable to run. It was such a terrible dream. Did it actually happen? I can't be sure. Even squinting, I can't locate the fracture on the mountain. I think it's off to the right, hidden from view. But I can't be sure.

I hold up my hands; they're trembling forcefully, just like the airplane this morning. Was the flight just this morning? Was it only a few hours ago that I was consumed by petty insecurities? Worried that I'll lose my identity because I'm shallowly defined by what I do? Another lifetime has passed. There's nothing to fear. My heart swells with love for everything around me, with the joy of being alive.

"Thank you," I say to Thunder Mountain, because I'm not angry anymore, because I'm grateful. This could have been the afternoon I did not come down from the mountain. But it wasn't.

But up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone

Monday, March 20, 2017

Road trip

My Canada plans necessitated a quick turnover — drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage, return the rental car, meet up with my friends, and continue to Whitehorse, Yukon the following day. It involved more than a thousand miles on winding, icy, frost-heaved roads over two days. I didn't mind. I love road trips. Especially when I'm solo — I can guzzle gas-station coffee, stop at road pullouts, and take photographs to my heart's content. 

The mountains south of Nenana in the morning.

Sunrise to the east (not south, as is the case at this latitude near the winter solstice.) I loved watching the sun come up at a not-early hour. I am a big fan of Daylight Savings Time — later sunrises, later sunsets, more daylight where it's useful. There's nothing not to like for outdoorsy night owls. People who complain about DST either have small children, are morning people, or must never travel to different time zones, because how can a measly one-hour shift ruin your whole week?

Moonset over the Parks Highway.

Sundog. The car thermometer registered temperatures as low as -37 shortly after sunrise.

The burgeoning metropolis of Healy, Alaska. The thermometer in the background reads -16F, although my car still showed -26. It felt -26, I'll tell you that much.

Besides being nose-hair-freezing cold, the wind was incredible. Spindrift raced across the road, capturing the morning light until it looked like glowing curtains, caught in a vacuum. Through the narrow corridor of the Nenana River valley, the wind was easily blowing 30mph, gusting to something much higher. At one stop, as soon as I opened the driver's-side door, a gust ripped it out of my hand with such force that I thought the entire door would break off its hinges. It did not, but as I stepped out, a equally strong gust pushed me onto my knees, bare hands slapping the icy pavement, windchill flash-freezing my face. There were several screamed swear words as I stood up to face the wind, grinning at its sinister roar. How do people ever survive going outside during the Alaska winter? A few hours in a climate-controlled vehicle is enough to let me forget.

Between plans to meet my friend Jorge in Anchorage for an early dinner (Jorge is a Colorado friend who'd recently dragged a sled 500 miles between Big Lake and Ruby as part of the Iditasport race) and meeting Jill and Morgan to load up the truck, I couldn't dawdle too much. But if the weather was clear, which it was, I'd calculated 2.5 extra hours into my itinerary to take a side trip into Denali National Park. The park road had been cleared to a picnic area ten miles from the entrance. My rental SUV was the only vehicle there for the duration of my visit, judging by tire tracks. 

This wasn't surprising, as it wasn't the nicest day to tour a national park. The temperature was -15, and the wind was still blowing fiercely. I just wanted to take a few photos, so I donned my puffy jacket, mittens, and balaclava, and set out on the Mountain Vista loop trail, which was an unsatisfying one kilometer. Although I was still wearing jeans and only a thin pair of socks in boots, I continued across the road to the Savage Alpine Trail.

The scenery was beautiful, with sparkling mist and impressive plumes of snow streaming off the mountains. In a happy daze I managed to walk two miles before I'd climbed above treeline and felt the full brunt of the wind pummel my body. Suddenly my butt and thighs were on fire. The jeans did nothing. I turned around and started jogging, but the pain only became worse. So I broke into a full run. In this direction the wind was at my face, and my legs were unhappy to say the least. It was exhilarating in its own way, though. How long does it take to frostbite legs?

This is my "I hiked too far through a -30 windchill in jeans" face. My thighs and butt were beet red, and didn't come fully back to life for another two hours. But for the most part, no worse for the wear.

Leaving Denali National Park.

The low-lying pass that allows the Parks Highway to climb over the Alaska Range.

Looking back at the crazy cold wind.

Although my butt was still numb a hundred miles later, I walked a few hundred yards into a closed rest area to catch one last glimpse of Denali.

The following day we made the 700-mile trip between Anchorage and Whitehorse. I spent most of the drive sitting in the back seat of a truck with tinted windows, so didn't take any photos. My friend Jill was towing a long wooden row boat on a trailer, for the purpose of leaving it in Canada for a while. So it was a 14-hour-long drive where we only made a couple of too-quick stops for gas and snacks. Slow and meandering is definitely the preferable way to go with these sorts of trips, even if it does result in frozen butt.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Taking flight at Angel Rocks

After our White Mountains trip, Beat decided to fly home from Fairbanks for two weeks before returning for the White Mountains 100. I'd made prior plans with friends in Canada, so I opted to stay in Alaska. On my own again Monday morning, I decided to check out a place I'd never visited — Chena Hot Springs. 

Although Chena Hot Springs is famous for Northern Lights viewing and of course a warm pool, I had no intention of going for a soak. Instead, I planned to hike through the granite formations of Angel Rocks, and if conditions were conducive, traverse 8.5 miles to Chena Hot Springs. It was a gorgeous morning — still 10 below zero at 11 a.m., but sunny and clear.

 I felt great on this day — the best I've felt all month. It's one of those random things — I haven't felt quite so wonderful since. However, this day was perfect for ridge walking. I marched along the Chena River, where the air was so still that I could hear the squeak of small animals walking along the snow. Frost swirled around my face and clung to my eyelashes and nose. The first thousand feet of climbing disappeared beneath my snowshoes in a seeming instant.

After a mile and a half, the packed trail more or less ended. From there the going wasn't quite so effortless as I punched through fragile wind crust into bottomless sugary powder. The sub-ridge was steep and relentless, and while I encountered old snowshoe tracks, they were too windblown to follow for long. By the time I reached the high point on the ridge — a 2,800-foot dome surrounded by an 360-degree ripple of mountains — my throat was on fire. You know, that feeling you get when you've been breathing hard in cold air — deep, penetrating breaths. The kind of breaths I don't often achieve these days.

Up to that point, I hadn't even decided if I'd attempt the whole traverse. But as soon as I tasted that cold fire, I started bounding down the ridge at a full run. My lungs seared as I paddled through the crusty snow, kicking up a fountain of powder. Although my breathing quickened, it didn't cause distress, so I continued at a hard jog as the ridge undulated upward. Fire-tinged oxygen flowed from lungs to heart and filled my body with vitality. It's an incredible thing — running. Why did I ever take it for granted? Why do I ever take anything for granted?

 Fearing that this energy could implode at any minute, I did eventually slow down my stride to a brisk walk. Still, this never caught up to me — the gasping listlessness that clamps down every time I push myself too hard. This time, a hard effort wasn't too hard. It felt incredible. I sauntered down to Chena Hot Springs as though I was riding on a cloud.

The resort was packed to the brim with tourists. I stopped for a coffee at the activities center (Because of the symptoms of Graves Disease, I have been trying to cut back my rather extreme coffee habit by only drinking one cup in the morning, two if I must, but no mid-day coffee allowed. But I deserved this coffee, damn it.) I probably could have asked someone leaving the hot springs for a ride, but I felt stoked about nine-mile road walk.

Clouds had moved in, along with a stiff breeze, and flurries swirled in the subzero air. It must have looked a bit dire, because about three miles down the road, a van passed and then braked hard to pull over fifty meters in front of me. I jogged toward the vehicle and found it full of 20-something Japanese men — five passengers and a driver, excitedly asking me if I was okay.

"Yes, I'm okay," I said. "I'm just hiking back to my car. It's six miles down the road. Do you mind giving me a lift?"

I had the impression that not a single word had been understood, but the driver motioned vigorously and two guys squeezed together to make room for me. Within a minute, every one of the passengers went back to staring at their phones, and the driver was bobbing his head gently to Bon Jovi on the stereo. Another Bon Jovi song came on, and I realized it wasn't the radio — these 20-something guys were listening to Bon Jovi on purpose. I caught a glimpse of the mile marker I'd been waiting for, and leaned forward to motion to the driver.

"Angel Rocks Trailhead is coming up," I said. "Can you let me off there?"

He glanced at me with a confused expression. I pointed straight and then motioned to the left. Then I saw the sign. "Over there. Angel Rocks Trailhead."

He took the hint that I wanted to pull over, and did so. As soon as he stopped, he turned to me with a bewildered look on his face.

"I'll get out here," I said. "I can walk down to my car."

"Out here?" he asked with a tone of concern.

"I have a car down there," I said, pointing down a narrow, snow-covered driveway that wound into the thick woods.

"A car?" he asked with similar bewilderment.

It was quite clear he didn't want me to leave the safety of his warm vehicle. So I said a quick, "Thank you. Thanks so much for the ride!" and hopped out before he could lock the doors. The van continued to linger at the pullout as I walked down the road and out of sight.

Ten minutes later, as I drove out in my rental vehicle, the van was gone. Now I wonder what those chivalrous young men thought about this strange American woman who appeared and then disappeared into a scary, frozen wilderness.

I hoped that maybe the incident inspired them to look up from their phones to the world outside.