Thursday, August 06, 2020

August slipped away

I was caught in a thunderstorm yesterday, and it somewhat jolted me from a summer stupor. It's been one of the weeks (several of those weeks?), I suppose. My most productive activity has been working on a series of essays I'm writing as a reflection on social and spiritual isolation. What will become of these essays? Probably nothing. I think about futility as I work on them. It's simultaneously freeing and demotivating, and I drift back to doom-scrolling more than I'd care to admit. It's August. I dread August. There's something ominous about this month that hangs in the air, like the wildfire smoke drifting in from the west. It's stagnant, hot, wilting. Weariness solidifies and seems to become permanent — that is, until a sudden and violent storm crashes through the haze, full of electric wrath and hail fire. August could be viewed as a microcosm of 2020, made worse because it is still, in fact, 2020. 

For the third summer in a row, I've been grappling with a touch of tendonitis in my right Achilles. It's baffling that I can plod through deep snow for hundreds of miles with no issues, but a few steep mountains will flare up the old injury all over again. I'm trying to be more proactive with stretching and strengthening exercises. On Wednesday, I saw my physical therapist to try dry-needling. Interestingly, after I complained about the three-week-old hematoma and subsequent "dead quad" in my left leg, she conducted a few tests and decided this was my more pressing issue and spent most of the session on that. But she did send a few shock waves through my right calf to wake up the muscles surrounding my Achilles tendon. I was hobbling when I left her office, and probably should have taken this as a cue to rest. But I hate to waste an opportunity to embark on an outdoor activity that doesn't begin at my front door. 

I decided on a quick hike to Bear Peak. The forecast called for a 20 percent chance of storms, and it was 91 degrees and mostly sunny when I parked at Cragmoor. Within 15 minutes the sky flattened to a gray pall, and about 30 minutes in, the thunder rumbles started. By then I was deep in the canopy of Fern Canyon and thought this storm would probably just quickly blow past. As I crested the saddle a mere 45 minutes into my climb, I received a text from Beat. "Big hailstorm here. Be safe."

As the hummingbird flies, Fern Saddle is only about three miles from home. Just moments after Beat's text alert, lightning streaked overhead. It was one of those blinding flashes that momentarily whites out the entire landscape. The massive thunder boom that followed was almost instantaneous. Okay, this is a real storm; retreat. I turned to descend the steep canyon as fast as I could run, but my lower right leg was strangely frozen. The calf muscle had been fine for the climb, but descending rendered it stiff and painful. Stress may have triggered this immobilization, but I felt like I was running on a wooden peg. 

Lightning flashed and thunder boomed in an unbroken cacophony. The tree canopy seemed protective and was only a little frightened, but the forest couldn't protect me from a sudden deluge of rain and marble-sized hail. Pelted by ice, I had no choice but to duck under a rocky outcropping. Rain and hail continued to pummel my back as I pressed a shoulder to the sandstone. My fingers were numb and I was shivering. It seems like it's been so long since I felt this sensation. You know — cold. Hard to believe that only an hour ago, it was 91 degrees and the stagnant air was filled so much pollution that it was difficult to breathe. Now, my breathing as deep and urgent, drawing in large volumes of icy air. Adrenaline and oxygen surged through my blood. It seems like it's been so long since I felt this sensation. You know — alive. 

My mojo is down, I admit. I blame Longs Peak for stealing some of it. I don't really know what it is with me and this mountain. For years I've built up Longs in my mind as this impossible place, and I'm not sure I'll ever surmount the trepidation. It doesn't even help that casually outdoorsy acquaintances assure me it's no big deal. "It's not that hard," they'll say. "I climbed it when I was a teenager." That's great, I think. I probably would have been fine when I was a teenager, too. Now the years have pummeled me into an emotionally bruised, timid bit of pulp. 
Anyway, Beat and I made an attempt a week ago on Wednesday. We set an alarm for 3 a.m. and rolled up to the trailhead just a few minutes before 5. The parking lot was nearly full; 5 a.m. is late by Longs Peak standards. But there wasn't much electrical activity in the forecast, and we expected to move quickly enough to be on the summit around 9. What was unexpected, and disconcerting, was the strong wind whistling through the darkness at 5 a.m. Since when does the wind arrive before sunrise? It was blowing at least 15 mph, enough to shake the tree branches towering over the trail. 
I felt rough from the start. Beat was marching hard, and I pushed through drowsiness and nausea to try to keep his pace, falling farther behind. I felt downtrodden from a sleepless night and increasingly stressed by the wind. We rose above treeline with sunrise. Up there, gusts were knocking me all over the trail. I flailed and stumbled, threw a pole down to catch my balance, and stumbled again. I can't count on my awkward feet to keep me anchored to the Earth on this nice Class-1 trail, I thought. The wind would almost certainly become stronger as we ascended increasingly technical terrain. 
Indeed, my tenuous confidence unraveled in the boulder field. The west-facing keyhole acted as a funnel, sending unbelievable blasts of wind down the talus. As we crawled over boulders, I put my poles away so I could maintain three-point contact at all times. When a gust came, I often had to press both knees into the rock, because even a squat was too precarious of a position for maintaining balance. I felt like I'd never be bipedal again, and the thought of crawling the entire exposed traverse above Keyhole was too much for me to bear. We watched other hikers retreat from the pass, most of whom turned around early. But there were a few who made it to the summit. "It gets better," they shrugged. "I mean, it gets a little better. It's still really windy." 
Beat and I made it to Keyhole, where standing up straight was not an option. The wind had whipped my anxiety into a frenzy, and I was unwilling to go any farther. But Beat was game to at least try, so we agreed to separate and meet back up at Chasm Lake. He disappeared behind a rocky outcropping, and I retreated a few meters below the pass. 
The gusts were so strong — easily topping 60 mph — that I could barely move with gravity, and had to ooze over the rocks like a quivering slug. I watched an older man lose his balance and topple. He didn't seem to hit anything all that hard, but afterward, he seemed dazed. He insisted he was fine and rushed down the rocks more quickly than I could manage. I passed him again near the camp, where he had huddled in the meager lee of a small boulder, legs splayed, chin down and eyes closed as though he was taking a nap. I thought about asking him again if he was all right, but I guessed he maybe just needed a moment. I hoped that was the case. 
I continued to ooze over the rocks. I'd already removed my sunglasses and stowed them in a pocket because I didn't want them to blow away. But I neglected to do the same with my hat, and it wasn't long before a gust caught me from behind and whisked the cap into the sky. I jerked my head upward and watched it spin toward the sun. I never saw where it landed. It probably caught an updraft into the jet stream, and eventually touched down somewhere in Kansas. I felt a sharp sense of loss. Yes, it was just a hat. It was an old hat at that. But it was my lucky hat. I wore it during the 2014 Iditarod; it symbolized my triumphant return to the trail, and it's accompanied me on many winter adventures since. Of course, Longs Peak would steal my favorite hat after I got scared and turned my back on it. Of course. 
There was nothing I could do but continue oozing down the rocks. For a long time, I shadowed a young man who moved at a similar pace as me, but with much more confidence. Tall and lanky, he seemed to dance over the boulders as I crawled, and I couldn't understand why he didn't pull away. A sudden, powerful gust slammed into us. In a way I can't describe, I heard the gust coming and crouched onto all fours on the dirt before it hit me like an invisible freight train. The man wasn't so lucky; he was already teetering on the tip of a table-sized boulder when the gust came. I looked up just as he lost his balance. His long legs seemed to briefly arc toward the sky, just like my hat. But instead of spinning into the jet stream, he slammed into the endless jumble of sharp boulders below. This fall looked bad, like he might have hit head-first. I scrambled toward him, convinced I was about to fire up my InReach and call for a helicopter rescue. But the man stood, dazed but apparently okay. I was amazed. "Lucky he's young," was a thought I had. I'm not sure my 40-year-old bones would have weathered such a blow. 
My nerves were already raw, and watching these two mishaps was upsetting. I thought about a Denver Post article detailing an incident several years ago. A hiker was dancing along the boulders through the Narrows, accidentally rolled an ankle, lost his balance, and toppled hundreds of feet to his death. It just doesn't take much, which is why I don't like to venture to places where there is no margin for error. I thought about Beat teetering on narrow precipices in these gusts — gusts that were at least twice as strong as the prevailing wind, near hurricane force, and difficult to predict. 
I made my way down to Chasm Lake, stomped around a bit, and then started climbing back into the wind toward Beat. We met near the trail junction below the boulder field, and he was — of course — fine. He said the wind really was at its worse in the corridor below Keyhole. As he made his way up the face, the wind mostly just pushed him up against the rocks rather than knock him toward the abyss. Interestingly, there was almost no wind on the summit. Most of the air was being funneled through tight corridors — it was barely a breeze out in the open. 

I was annoyed with myself — that I chickened out and failed on Longs Peak, after years of avoiding it because I'm such a chicken. I also felt, with some tinge of certainty, that I did not want to come back. Sure, it's beautiful. It's the most beautiful place I've visited in the Front Range. But who needs all of the other stuff surrounding it? The 3 a.m. wakeups, the nausea, the awkwardness, the stress. Some of us just aren't built for the mountains. 
I convinced Beat he should make the side trip to Chasm Lake. He was tired but giddy with his success, and agreed. We sat on a rock near the shoreline, nibbling on sandwiches, when a man pulled up beside us. We'd passed him while ascending the rocky cirque, stooped and moving slowly over the steep terrain. I'd thought he was just another struggling hiker, but as he removed his hat and sunglasses, it was clear he was older. 

"I'm 86 and three days old," he announced. "And I made it!" 

I wasn't quite sure I'd heard him right, but he rattled off a few more numbers about wanting to do this with his son when he was 85 and 364 days old, but the weather wasn't conducive to a planned birthday hike, so he was making a solo trek a few days later. Slowly it dawned on me that this sturdy man with rock-hard calves was in fact 86 years old. 

For the next half hour, we sat by the lake and shared an engaging conversation with the man, Chris. I learned he was a newspaperman — well, a lawyer by trade, but a syndicated columnist for years. He continues to write witty political satire on a blog, "Human Race and Other Sports." He mused about his first visit to Chasm Lake with his parents at age 6 — 80 years ago. Although a near-lifelong Coloradoan, Chris was born in Switzerland. He remembered enough Swiss-German to hold a conversation with Beat. He was wearing an Obama '08 fleece jacket and a smothering green bandana as a face covering. We found him delightful. His mental sharpness and physical fitness would be enviable for a person half of his age.
Beat and I briefly hung back to walk with him down the cirque — not that he needed the help, but he seemed grateful to have folks watching out for him here. I thought about how much Chris reminded me of my father — fiercely independent, strong-willed, and drinking up life well into his twilight years. Not that I think of my father as occupying his twilight years. But it is interesting. Back in 2002, I wrote a column for a Salt Lake City weekly magazine that more or less marveled at what my dad could do at age 49. What can I say? I was 22, and 49 seemed ancient to me then. Around that same time, Dad and I met a 68-year-old man on a knife ridge below Pfifferhorn, and we both marveled that someone could make their way up such a difficult mountain at 68. Now my dad is 67 and as fit and adventurous as ever. And I'm looking to Chris and thinking — "86. Now that's #goals." 

Meeting Chris did add nice moments to what was otherwise an admittedly frustrating day. I didn't get my motivation back right away — because #goals are never as easy as they look on paper — but I'll work my way back. And I'll probably find my way to Longs ... eventually ... someday. 
Sunday, July 26, 2020

Rarefied air

Thank you for all of the nice comments on my last post. It's been a low-key couple of weeks since. I don't have a lot to report, but I did want to post a few mountain photos for the archive. 

 After tumbling into the talus on Mount Bancroft, my leg remained sore for most of the week. Although I developed a big purple bruise below my hip, most of the pain concentrated in an outer quad muscle, just above my knee. Each morning the muscle felt just a little bit better, but it prevented me from attempting anything too ambitious during the past two weeks. Last weekend I still didn't feel up for running or hiking, which felt a little like a waste of what appeared to be the last nice weekend of mountain weather before the seasonal monsoon finally moved in. Beat suggested we return to Mount Evans.

 Since it was our third climb from Idaho Springs this season, Beat decided to spice it up by riding the Eriksen fat bike. Why? I was mystified. Sure, the heavier bike with its hard rolling resistance intensifies the workout. But with its 7,000 feet of climbing, Evans is already a hard workout. If you're going to challenge it multiple times, isn't it more fun to try to ride faster? But Beat was insistent. I took the gravel bike and put in a consistent but conservative effort — standing out of the saddle hurt my leg — and shaved six minutes off my PR, from 3:43 to 3:37. Beat rolled up about twenty minutes later, which I thought was quite impressive on a fat bike. We can now say that Erik has both crossed Alaska in the winter, and conquered a 14er.

 The summit was its usual fun. I was entertained by the antics of baby goats, as well as German tourists who asked for a photo and then spent at least five minutes positioning themselves around the huge German flag they carried to the top. I'm still amazed by the incredible weather we've enjoyed up here. I'm going to be so soft by the time I finally make my way up a "real" fourteener.

 Beat, of course, had the advantage for the long descent. The gravel bike helps smooth the pavement cracks and frost heaves, but I still took it gingerly. The climb is the fun part on Mount Evans, in my opinion.

While bouncing downhill, I came upon three bighorn sheep ewes strolling up the road. I pulled over to give them a comfortable berth and take a photo. As soon as I stopped, one veered toward me and broke into a run. "Hey!" I yelled a few times, but she was not deterred. When she was about thirty feet away I started to panic, as it seemed more likely this was a charge, and I was standing precariously close to a steep scree slope that she could conceivably push me down. I rushed to put my camera away, fumbling with a vest pocket as she nudged against my leg and then swung around behind me. I felt the unmistakable sensation of a rough tongue on the back of my calve, which was covered in thin leggings.

"Oh," I giggled. "Oh, sorry, no salt there." She still persisted as I hopped up on the saddle and pedaled away, hoping to pass her two friends without incident. Honestly, I was quite frightened for a few seconds there. But in hindsight, a kiss from a bighorn sheep is an interesting experience, and the charging photo is super cute.

 My next mountain adventure was Wednesday. I decided to buffer my weekly chore trip to town with a ride to the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass. (I'm probably not the only one who believes this, but "quarantine" supply-gathering is only getting more painful. I've been wearing a mask since March and that doesn't bother me at all. And it's nice that toilet paper is in stock, for now. But there seems to be more tension than ever, and I find myself feeling more perplexed by the behavior of my fellow humans. I do wonder if this bewilderment is a natural regression because I interact with fewer humans in real life, these days.)

Anyway, I feel justified in warming up for my shopping trip with a six-hour solo mountain bike ride.

 Rollins Pass feels like a mystical place. It holds the relics of humans that predate most of North American history. Archeologists discovered that this rare weakness in the Continental Divide was used as a game route by Paleo-Americans more than 10,000 years ago. In the 19th century, gold-seekers built it up as a wagon route, and then it became a railway in 1880. Trains chugged their way over these mountains until Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. The railway ties were torn out, and it became a road for automobiles. After Needle Eye Tunnel collapsed in 1990, through-travel became impossible and the road fell into a state of disrepair. The first ten miles are still open to four-wheel-drive vehicles, but rapid erosion is taking hold. Each year the roadbed becomes sandier, the gravel looser, and the babyheads and cobbles more prominent. It's a rough ride.

 I make this trip once or twice every year. It's gorgeous, and there aren't many places in these mountains where one can even ride a bike (most of the surrounding area is wilderness.) But each time I'm grinding through the cobbles, I question how much I really enjoy this type of riding. The railroad grade drags out the climb interminably, and negotiating the constant bumps and ruts makes it perplexingly strenuous. It feels like riding up a streambed. One Rollins climb for 3,500 feet in 22 miles is at least as hard as one Evans climb for 7,000 feet in 27 miles, in spite of slightly friendlier altitudes. Rollins tops out at 11,660 feet, at an intersection of the Continental Divide Trail.

 Looking west toward Winter Park — it's fun to drop in if you have the time. I was chuffed that my climb from Rollinsville almost broke three hours (3:03.) I spent some time hanging out at the pass, hiking a short stretch of the CDT, and eating my sandwich. I thought for sure I'd be down in five hours, but no, it pretty much takes just as long to descend as it does to climb this bumpy road — at least it does if you have a painful leg bruise and every move is about minimizing the beating you're taking from your bike.

 The old railroad trestles near the pass are a fun — but slightly unnerving — relic. Each time I ride or run over these trestles, they seem to be in worse condition. This time, I rode slowly and observed all of the wooden planks that have broken or completely fallen away, revealing open air and a rapidly eroding scree slope underneath. I do not want to be here when these rickety bridges finally come down.

After I made my way over the collapsed tunnel, I sat in this spot for a few minutes to gear up mentally for the painful descent. I always appreciate a good view of James Peak (far left.)

 On Thursday, Beat had a big mountain adventure planned with his friend Daniel, traversing a technical ridge over three airy peaks, then potentially looping around two passes for a 30-mile day. I did not feel mentally ready for the spicy traverse nor physically ready for such a long day. I'd only just embarked on my first run since my fall, two days earlier. My leg felt okay on this six-mile run, but I wasn't about to push my luck. So I planned my own conservative adventure: a seven-mile hike with 2,500 feet of climbing to a popular but new-to-me summit near Allenspark. The weather report was iffy, but the peak topped out at 11,400 feet, so I felt safe in only packing a small hydration vest with a thin jacket and gloves, 1.5 liters of water, and two granola bars.

 Of course, by the time I arrived at the parking lot at 8 a.m., it was overflowing. There were also signs at the entrance saying I needed one of Rocky Mountain National Park's timed entry permits, which I did not have. I didn't even realize that trailhead was in the park. Bah. Frustrated, I headed out, wondering where I even could go for a plan B. Brainard parking was sure to be full. I wasn't sure I wanted to slog my way up Niwot Ridge again. Just when I was thinking I'd just head home, I passed the road to Longs Peak trailhead. I've never been up that trail, any part of it — I've avoided it because I badly want to climb Longs, but I'm also afraid of the final traverse and I don't like to live with this stomach-churning mixture of desire and anxiety. Still, no reason not to check it out ... especially if I can find a parking spot at 8:30 a.m. (amazingly I did!)

A trail sign said it was 3.7 miles to Chasm Lake. I decided that sounded like a good destination for the day. I was feeling blasé about this outing — still frustrated about the full parking lot at Twin Sisters, and perhaps a little fatigued from my Rollins ride. But the miles passed quickly, and when I crested a small ridge to catch my first views of The Diamond and Mount Meeker, my jaw just dropped. A sheer face of granite perfection, as though chiseled by Greek gods. I mean, I've seen photos of Longs before. But photos don't capture the enormity or quiet splendor of this place, even remotely.

I had a similar reaction when I scaled a series of car-sized boulders to crest the cirque that holds Chasm Lake. I could hear the roar of cascading water echoing off the walls, but the lake itself was calm, as still as glass. Wispy clouds had moved overhead, and the rock face reflected a dance of light and shadow. A shiver moved up my spine. The physical reaction startled me. I tried to remember the last time I'd been moved to chills by scenery. I've seen so many beautiful places that I've almost become jaded. The sublimity of this place was an extra-strength dose of awe.

 Energized by Chasm Lake, I made my way back to the junction with the trail to Longs Peak. The sky was still surprisingly clear, and my leg wasn't hurting too much. I decided to make my way to the Boulderfield for another view of Longs. It was an easy climb. I had one encounter with a grumpy trail runner who assumed I didn't return his greeting, probably because I was wearing headphones. I was wearing a buff over my face and huffed out a breathy "hi," which he probably didn't notice. As I passed, he bellowed "Hello! Hello! Hello!" loudly, and then more quietly say something derogatory. I heard all of this, turned around to chide him by saying "I said hi! Sorry you can't hear." I let the encounter ruin my mood for the next few minutes. But this transferred grumpiness didn't last long, after I crested another knoll to this view. Sublime. I almost felt bad being a human in this place, because clearly we humans are a petty little species that does not deserve this place.

From Boulderfield I could see the famous Keyhole. It looked like a talus scramble, but not terribly hard. By now it was close to noon, and dark clouds were building ominously over the western horizon. I received a couple of comments from people descending about the lateness of my climb, and I assured them I wasn't going to the peak, just the pass. But I admit, a little summit fever was trickling in. I pushed it away.

The view west from Keyhole was another jaw-dropper. This is Glacier Gorge, another basin of granite perfection.

Keyhole itself is an impressive place. I've not yet visited another pass that reminded me so much of the European Alps, which are filled with tiny notches in sawtooth ridges that divide one insanely steep scree slope from the next. In my mind, this pass will always be "Col Keyhole" or perhaps a more proper "Col d' Trou de Serrure." If you can't tell, I miss the Alps. 

 Looking toward the standard route to Long Peak. If you squint at the center of the photo, you can see a hiker. The traverse makes its way along this talus slope, scrambles across an outcropping, and ascends the nearest gully. The most exposed sections, the Narrows and Homestretch, weren't in view, but none of this looked all that terrible. Keyhole is only 1.3 miles from the summit. It's a long 1.3 miles though — probably at least two hours out and back if I was making my best possible time. I shouldered my hydration vest. I'd already consumed most of the water and both granola bars. My little jacket and gloves would do nothing for me if a storm moved in and I needed to take shelter under a boulder. Also, Beat would be hurt if I made a summit attempt without him, and attempting an unknown class-three traverse so late in the day, and so and poorly prepared, would be quite uncharacteristic of me (I know I have readers who think I'm a reckless risk-taker, but mountains, in particular, have beaten me into meek submission.)

 Not today. With a sore leg and long descent from 13,200 feet, I turned away from Longs. On the way down, I made a brief stop to check out this shelter. I was surprised to learn it was first erected in 1927 in commemoration of a lady mountaineer, Agnes Vaille. Agnes was the first woman to climb Longs Peak in the winter, in January 1925. During the descent, she slipped and fell more than 100 feet. She recovered from this fall mostly uninjured, but she was so exhausted amid the -14F temperatures and strong winds that she told her companion she needed to lay down for a rest. He tried to dissuade her, but she never got up. The plaque on the shelter reads:

This shelter commemorates
A Colorado mountaineer
Conquered by winter
After scaling the precipice.

Conquered by winter after scaling the precipice ... so beautiful. If such an epithet is written about me someday, I wouldn't mind.

Clouds built rapidly as I descended, and streaks of rain filled the sky to the north. I was glad to not be on any precipice on this day. It was a fantastic, unexpected day. Fifteen miles and 4,100 feet of climbing weighed heavily on my leg and the Achilles tendon I admittedly have not been stretching enough over the past two weeks. But so worth it. I hope to return soon. 
Sunday, July 19, 2020

Living intensely still

I thought about backing out. A 5:30 a.m. alarm jolted me back to semi-rigid legs, lips parched to the point of blistering, and shoulders aching from 130 miles of rough, high-altitude cycling. Beat had an ambitious plan for Sunday, the full extent of which I didn't know until I returned from a 98-degree pedal into Eagle and drive home while consuming 100 ounces of icy liquid and never once needing to stop to pee. I still felt like a sun-dried tomato. 

Beat recounted his plan, ascending 4,000 feet to a 13,300-foot summit, scrambling and boulder-hopping along a narrow spine to another 13er, descending a long boulder field to a reservoir, then more climbing, more descending, and a jog over to Beat's latest sanctuary: a gorgeous and relatively hidden high alpine lake. All in all, it was a big circumnavigation of a mountain that has been a favorite since we moved to Colorado, James Peak.

"That's going to go long," I replied. "Maybe past dark." 

He punched the plan into Strava's route builder. "No, it's only 23 miles. 9,000 feet of climbing. Just 7,000 feet if we skip Ute Trail and go through Tolland instead." 

The large parking lot surrounding Moffat Tunnel was nearly full at 8 a.m., setting the stage for a furious march out of the gate. Beat dislikes crowds. So do I, but they're hard to escape when it's a beautiful weekend morning in mid-July. I was ready to settle into the stream of humans for the privilege of moving slowly on tender legs. But Beat just wanted to put distance on everyone. He charged ahead, while I stumbled, faltered, and tried to keep up.

When people ask when, where and how Beat and I met, it can be a simple story. "July 2010. Columbia Falls, Montana. He was the only runner smiling at the finish of the Swan Crest 100." That was my first impression of Beat — he seemed deliriously happy for someone who had just emerged from a brutal beatdown in the Northern Rockies. I was a volunteer checking runners in at the finish line, and most of their demeanors ranged from nonplussed to shell-shocked. Beat alone was grinning from ear to ear. We struck up a short conversation. I told him I was an endurance cyclist but not remotely a runner. 

"You could run a 100-miler. You could do it next week!" he encouraged me. "In fact, I'm running another one next Saturday. You should come!" 

Beat charged hard the entire climb to James Peak. He stopped to wait for me at frequent intervals, at times playfully admonishing my slowness. He teased me about overdoing it on my bike trip, while I insisted that I was just naturally slower in the mountains, this was the best I was ever going to be, and after a decade, he really should know this by now. He stayed cheerful, but I was becoming frustrated and surly. The sun was fearsome at this altitude, and my breathing had become somewhat strained. I was pushing myself too hard, but it was difficult to pull back.

Our early courtship can't be condensed into a simple story. I was settling into my relatively new life in Montana after abruptly abandoning Alaska, and training for Trans Rockies, a mountain bike stage race. Beat, as I first described him on my blog, was "a Swiss-German software developer who works for Google and lives in the Bay Area — as in California. In his free time, he invents things, like a satellite-enabled remote control for his espresso maker so he can fire up the machine from a half-hour away. He also runs. A lot. He's completed seven 100-milers this year alone, eight if you count his last race twice. That one was more than 200 miles."

That race was the first annual Tor des Geants in Courmayuer, Italy. He mentioned it briefly when we met in late July. I was so struck by our first conversation that I guessed his name (which I had forgotten) from a list of Swan Crest 100 finishers and looked him up on Facebook. The first post I saw from him was a disgusting photo of his mangled feet going into the Headlands 100, which was his followup race to Swan Crest. We struck up an online conversation that evolved over the next few weeks. At one point, I asked him why he felt compelled to endure all of this abuse, month after month.

"I just want to experience the intensity of life," he wrote. 

In my 30-year-old, single, newly independent life in Montana, I realized this was also everything I wanted — to spend my short time on Earth riding the highest waves, to battle the troughs of hardship and drink deeply from crests of joy. Truly, I didn't want to float along in comfort and security. The hard edge is where life sparkled. 

Beat urged me to come run with him. He proposed the Bear 100 in Utah as a meeting place, less than a week after he was set to return from the Tor des Geants. The 200-mile race over the giant mountains of the Italian Alps sounded like the most intense experience imaginable — with the exception of the Alaska winter races I'd been talking up for as long as Beat had tried to sell me on trail running. There was no way he could run another 100-miler after TDG. I didn't believe him for a second, and made no real plans to join him as his pacer. Anyway, I was going to be away in Las Vegas at a bicycle retail convention until the weekend. Everything about the proposal was impossible. 

At the top of James Peak, Beat asked me how I was feeling. "Okay enough," I said. "I can probably handle Bancroft." Mount Bancroft is the next peak in this James group, at the crest of the Continental Divide. If you take a tumble while picking your way along the ridge, your blood could trickle toward the Atlantic or the Pacific, depending on where you landed. I've been intrigued by this line but intimidated by the committing terrain. James to Bancroft sounded doable enough. If it was still 2010, I'd have jumped at the opportunity without a second thought, but a decade of bruises and torn ligaments have made me leery. I scoured the Internet for photos, observed the boulder field, the shark teeth rock formations, the chokehold that supposedly held a few class three moves. Honestly, it was all straightforward and not that hard. But factor in fatigue and recent struggles with proprioception, and the traverse proved challenging.

Beat called me from his hotel room in Logan, Utah. Hearing his voice came as a small shock — both because it was our first phone conversation and because he was actually in Utah. I was still at a hotel in Las Vegas. My work at the Interbike was mostly done, but since I'd ridden down from Montana in a van with co-workers, I had no way to leave early. It was Thursday night. The race started early the next morning. Beat wondered if I could meet him at the mile 52 checkpoint by early evening. 

"Well," I replied. "Hmmm."

I asked him how he was feeling after the Tor des Geants, which he finished in a shell-shocked heap after five days on five hours of sleep, just days earlier. 

"Oh, you know," he said. His voice sounded quiet and a little defeated. We hung up. I looked up flights to Salt Lake. Nothing arrived in time. I looked up one-way car rentals — that was crazy expensive. I popped back on Facebook to message Beat — less painful than making a bad-news call — and saw a status update from a friend in Los Angeles, posted the previous day. "Trying to prepare myself mentally for my nonstop drive to Salt Lake in two days." That would be ... Friday. I messaged my friend. 

"My son has this dental appointment. I have to leave crazy early. But I could pick you up in Vegas at 5."

"Perfect," I replied. 

Beat and I picked our way down the south ridge of James. As is typical on the Divide, it was a jumble of car-sized boulders that were barely anchored in place. I teetered precariously, testing whether each step could hold my weight. Beat scouted a line and then pointed out a better one if he had any trouble. When we arrived at the shark teeth, he navigated a tricky downclimb, then directed my hands and feet toward solid holds as I shimmed down backward. He was kind and patient, not at all in the hurry he'd seemed to be in earlier. My frustration dissolved in a potent mixture of gratitude and trepidation.

My ride was late, but miraculously he showed up, pulling up to a random hotel in Vegas in the predawn darkness of 5:30 a.m. Because his son was late for his dental appointment in Salt Lake, he had to drop me off at an I-15 offramp, about two miles from my parents' house. They were gone that week, on vacation in Germany. So I shouldered my large duffle bag and hoofed up the hill. I broke into their house by scaling the fence and rummaging for the secret key in the garage, then rifled through the front closet for running gear: Dad's jacket, some cotton gloves, a knit beanie, bedazzled sunglasses that probably belonged to my baby sister. At least I had my own shoes. They were cheap white trainers for running on a hotel elliptical machine, but they'd work. My training, thus far, had amounted to one four-mile run and one eight-mile run. I was heading to the northern Utah mountains in late September with the most basic gear imaginable. My hydration was a cheap book-bag type of backpack holding plastic water bottles and snacks from a gas station. I found the spare key to "borrow" my dad's truck for the drive to Logan. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. 

After nearly three hours of rush-hour traffic with a stop at a gas station to buy the aforementioned water and snacks, along with REI to buy a headlamp and some reasonable socks, I pulled into Tony Grove in the late evening. The mile-52 checkpoint was staged in a granite amphitheater high in Logan Canyon. The rock walls were lined with aspen and bathed in the golden light of sunset. Beat had been carrying a SPOT tracker, but since this was the age before I owned a smartphone, I hadn't checked his status all day. I had no idea where he was, when he'd arrive, or whether he'd already passed through. And yet, as soon as I exited the truck, I saw his tell-tale smile flash from a large group of runners crowded around a table. I walked up to him, still wearing my jeans and a hoodie. 

"Well," he said sternly. "Are you running?"

"Uh," I stammered. "Uhhh." We hadn't made any sort of plan. I thought I'd meet him here and figure out where to start pacing him. We were at this point 50 miles and untold climbs and descents from the finish line. If I started running here, where would I end up?"

Another man, who I didn't know but would later learn was Beat's friend Harry, turned to me and said, "You know he came all this way for you." 

"Uh," I stammered again. "Give me five minutes to change my clothes." 

Beat and I reached the low point on the ridge and ascended a tundra ramp to Bancroft. Gray clouds billowed overhead, growing darker but not yet threatening. We scrambled up a steep talus slope to reach the broad summit. James had been crowded with hikers, but Bancroft was abandoned and silent, save for the shrill chirps of pika. I walked around taking a few photos as Beat sat next to a rock wall. The wind was stiff but not yet howling, and there was a chill to the air that felt more refreshing than biting. I pressed against Beat's shoulder as I sidled into the small wind shelter, pulled out a sandwich in a Tupperware container, and took a large bite. My mouth was full when Beat turned to me with a crooked smile. 

His eyes were watery and his voice cracked a little. "There's never really a right way to do this." He reached into his pack and pulled out a rock, a kind of quartz stone similar in size and color to one I first held in my hands ten years ago. "So do you want to get married?"

I gulped hard to push down the sandwich. I didn't want to ruin the moment like I sort of did the first time. "Yes," I spoke as clearly as possible. A cascade of tears filled my eyes. "Of course I do."

Together we ran into the darkness. We talked about particle physics and adventure cycling. We talked about Alaska and dreams for the future. The miles disappeared underneath my feet, and Beat ran as though all of the fatigue of past efforts didn't matter at all. Each mile came to us in a dream, as fresh and new as the previous. We reached a high point on the Bear 100 course, near 10,000 feet, somewhere around mile 75 and sometime in the middle of the night. Beat pulled a golf-ball-sized rock from his pack, shale with veins of quartz. 

"It's from TDG," he explained. "I picked it up on the second pass and carried it the whole way." 

I took the rock and cradled it in my palm, filled with warm-fuzziness. As a kid I was always picking up pretty rocks, carrying them home and stowing them in the bottom drawer of my dresser. How did he know?

Beat looked toward the dark horizon. "So do you want to go out?" he asked. 

"I thought we were out," I replied. The response was just what popped into my head, because I had been hoping this "pacing" gig was a date. 

Beat looked at me, perplexed. "No, I mean to do want to start dating?"

"The California-Montana thing is complicated," I said, apparently persisting in an effort to ruin this moment with awkwardness.

"We'll figure it out," he replied. 

On the summit of Mount Bancroft, sometime around 2 p.m. on July 12, 2020, Beat and I became officially engaged ... finally, most might say. The concept of marriage is a strange one. It's strange to me still. I've never been against marriage, I just hadn't seen it as a necessary step. It's wonderful to form a committed relationship to a person who can be a partner in every aspect of life — from the mundane drudgery to the exhilarating crests. But it's also satisfying to maintain a thread of independence, since ultimately we must travel through life alone. When my last long-term relationship ended, it was emotionally devastating but logically simple. We each took a cat and walked away. Beat was previously married, and it ended badly. Perhaps he and I were both gun-shy at first, and then complacent. But we work so well as partners. We have strong reason to believe we can be happy together indefinitely. It became a question of why not?

I was thrilled about Beat's proposal. It surprised me, how emotional I became. Even as the sky filled with gray clouds, a kind of verdant, vibrant color saturated the landscape. We started down Bancroft, hoping to make quick work of a tundra-ramp descent to Loch Lomond. But of course, the ridge was minefield of loose talus and boulders. I leaned on my trekking poles for support, hoping they'd help me make sense of this jumble. But I miscalculated, moved too quickly, put all of my weight on a pole pressed into a loose boulder, and toppled into the rocks. My hip slammed down first, and I also hit part of my upper leg and knee. Beat rushed toward me as I writhed on my side.

"You know how this goes," I said through gritted teeth. "I'm fine. I just need a moment."

As dawn approached, our conversation quieted. We were both sleep-deprived and delirious, him from the Tor des Geants and 85 miles of the Bear 100, and me from a long week and Vegas and this crazy adventure. I wondered what it would be like to date Beat, a European man who was ten years older, a California resident with an interesting career, impressively smart, a logical thinker next to my flighty artist personality, and an insanely prolific runner. I had yet to finish a 5K, but I was holding my own on this back half of this hundred miler. As dawn light appeared over distant mountains, the temperature plummeted to 23 degrees. We crossed streams coated in ice, and I shivered profusely as our pace slowed on climbs. I had a bare minimum of warm clothing, the kind of stuff my mom bought so we could walk to school in sixth grade. It wasn't enough, but it was enough. I was so amazed and grateful that this had all worked out.

Rain and cold wind found us as we crossed the dam over Loch Lomond and renewed a climb toward the east ridge of James Peak. My leg was throbbing with pain, with the bruise near my hip radiating down a quad muscle toward my knee. It felt like muscle soreness, although I'd characterize it as some of the worst muscle soreness I've yet endured.

"It's like mile 60 of the H.U.R.T. 100," Beat observed.

"Yeah, pretty much like that," I agreed.

The rocky singletrack and surrounding granite cliffs reminded us of the Alps, and we talked wistfully of memories from the past nine years. This will be our first year together without a visit to Europe. It's disappointing, like much of 2020 has been for everyone. But these home mountains hold their own unique intrigue — even favorites like James that we've summited a dozen times.

The trail veered closer to James, away from the direction we needed to climb toward Kingston Peak. Beat decided to take a direct path to the road, putting us in the thick of a brushy marsh. Our feet were soon soaked, and my leg screamed at the motion of stepping over knee-high bushes. Beat zig-zagged through the grass, searching for dry ground, but there was none. Overhead, the storm clouds grew darker. Flecks of rain felt almost like sleet, although the air was still warm. Beat apologized multiple times, but I wasn't bothered.

"I didn't know any better than you," I reasoned.

As he continued searching for a way out of the marsh, I thought, "The best relationship is the person you'll happily follow into the weeds."

After daybreak, I started to fall apart. Perhaps the spell had worn off, or perhaps 40 miles was all my untrained, nonrunner feet could endure. They felt like they were being stabbed with hot pokers while walking on broken glass. The pain was exquisite. With ten miles to go to the finish, on a remote mountain ridge somewhere north of the Idaho-Utah border, I could no longer walk. It was too cold, and I had too few layers to sit at an aid station and wait for a ride out. So I limped alongside Beat, who was as patient as a person could possibly be in such a scenario. 

"You have to leave me," I insisted. "This is your race. I'm supposed to be your pacer. I can get there eventually. You should go." 

Part of Beat's plan for this engagement hike was a side trip into the basin below James Peak, a gorgeous and well-hidden valley dotted with alpine lakes. The diversion wasn't trivial — a steep descent losing a thousand feet on chundery trail — also, in its own way, very Alps-like. But this was Beat's special spot, an alpine sanctuary he'd recently discovered and wanted me to experience. It sounded wonderful, but then I had to go and ruin the moment by injuring myself.

"I still want to go," I insisted as I limped gingerly down the rock-slide off of Kingston Peak. "It's worth it."

Beat didn't leave me behind. He followed at my excruciatingly slow pace as I side-stepped the trail and finally started walking backward down the final descent. It was the only way I could coax myself away from crawling — putting pressure on my heels was unbearable. Below us, Bear Lake sparkled blue and silver beneath the late morning sunlight. It looked close enough to touch, but it was still seven miles and 4,000 feet of vertical descent from the finish line. I inched backward, step after slow step. 

"Please," I said again, almost begging. "Go finish your race."

Beat just shrugged. "Steve and Harry haven't passed yet, so I'm still beating them."

James Peak Lake was indeed a magical spot. But I acknowledged, as the throbbing in my leg grew louder, that perhaps it was a step too far. You'd think, after a decade of "running," I'd have a better handle on my body's limitations. But I still want it all. Beat filtered water from the lake as I paced the shoreline, swatting at mosquitos and trying to calm the pulsing in the muscle — almost like a cramp that wouldn't quite go away. If I stopped walking for even five seconds, it would become stiff and immovable. We discussed our options. We could skip the climb back to Rogers Pass and take the Tolland way back, but it was still eight miles of mostly rough descending. It was runnable, but I didn't think I'd be able to run. Beat offered to race ahead and grab the car, which would allow me to skip the last three miles to East Portal. He said he didn't want to leave me, though, since this was supposed to be our shared moment.

"I think we'll both be happier if you go," I insisted.

I had tears in my eyes because I was so frustrated, walking backward down a road while the lake glistened and taunted me below. But I was laughing out loud, too, because you can't just expect to go out and run 50 miles without consequences. It was an amazing thing — running 50 miles on a whim. There was too much serendipity in the sequence of events to be random. This was meant to be. Beat probably didn't believe in fate, but I couldn't help but let my imagination run wild.

About four miles from the finish, he finally agreed to run ahead, acknowledging that he could still get in under 30 hours, and I could take an easier way to the road. I hobbled into the finish almost an hour after he'd collected his buckle and found a nice, shady spot by a tree. He congratulated me on finishing my first ultramarathon. I hadn't quite thought of it that way before, but he was right. In my blog entry, I wrote, "It was still before noon and the shuttle bus wasn't set to leave the finish line until 7 p.m. There was nothing for us to do but wait, so we settled into a shady spot on the grass, where the lake glistened and gold and green leaves rustled in the wind and wisps of clouds streamed through the bright blue sky. The pain in my feet faded into the background, my mind settled into a pleasant fog, and the only thing I understood was that I was in Fish Haven, Idaho, and I could scarcely comprehend how I got there, but I lived every mile of it, intensely."

As I hobbled toward Tolland, I frequently stopped to look back at James Peak. The colors and light continued changing, from blue to gray to an early evening silver. I listened to my iPod and clutched at every song with happy nostalgia. My leg throbbed and it didn't matter, but every so often I'd hit it just wrong and surprise myself by yelping out in pain. The pain did nothing to dampen the joy. James Peak was so beautiful. There was still so much possibility in the world, so many more miles to live intensely.

Beat was already waiting in the car by the time I reached Tolland, and I teared up all over again.

"You're the best," I said as I leaned toward the driver's seat to kiss him.

"No, you're the best," he said through his ever-illuminating grin. He turned on the engine and we headed home.