Monday, July 16, 2018

I am so infinitesimal

Nearly 90 degrees at 10,000 feet, and a steady flow of sunscreen-saturated sweat reduced my field of vision to bursts of light between rapid-fire blinks. After a hard left the road shot skyward at a 20 percent grade, its surface a backward conveyor made of moon dust and loose rocks. With impaired vision and Jello legs, my path resembled a drunken meander, carved in the sand. As has been my recent habit, I conjured an obnoxious but catchy song in my mind to force better cadence. This time, it was "Infinitesimal" by Mother Mother. 

There’s a million, billion, trillion stars 
but I’m down here low 
Fussin’ over scars 
on my soul (on my soul)
on my soul (on my soul)
On my soul, I am so

The rear wheel bounced and skidded in place. I mashed harder. My heart pumped sludge, my blinking vision narrowed and my head spun, but this sensation felt right again — power-generating desperation, rather than poor oxygen saturation. Then I heard the sound that was my only fear in this tunnel-vision place: a vehicle rumbling uphill behind me. The narrow road forced me to veer to the impossibly soft edge, where I applied every last strand of strength to keep my line straight through inches of chunder. After an agonizing span of time, the small sedan rumbled past at 5 mph (meanwhile, I was clocking about 2 mph.) Finally free of the oppressor, my legs faltered. The bike's rear wheel skidded sideways and I was forced to throw a foot down. Gah! 

The road was far too steep to generate new momentum, so I commenced pushing. Even walking in this heat, under this harsh sun, up this steep chundery road, pushed the limits of my fitness. I barely had the strength to look up when I passed a parked truck flanked by an older gentleman — most likely 70-something — with baggy overalls and white whiskers. He was working on firing up a small chainsaw, and paused as I passed. 

"You're supposed to ride that bike, not push it!" he exclaimed with playful gruffness.

"I'm not strong enough to ride here," I panted in reply. 

"You've got another mile to walk before the top. Good riding up there, though. Worth it." 

The "top"
I thanked the chainsaw-wielding local and continued the upward trudge. I smiled at the thought of how pathetic I probably looked, because that morning, for once, I woke up feeling strong. So strong that I decided to launch my weekly long ride into Boulder on the hottest day of July so far, starting at 9 a.m. when the temperature was already 85 degrees, then head up high to scout new-to-me terrain. My route would require at least 70 miles and close to 9,000 feet of climbing, thus the early start (the goal in these weekday rides is to race the clock so I can cram as much mileage as possible before a sharp 5 p.m. deadline.) My interpretation of fitness vacillates so frequently that it doesn't even mean much to me anymore, to say "I feel strong today." But I try to embrace sensations of strength when they occur, even on the hottest day of summer. 

Since I spent four hours climbing up here, I figured it was time to head down, but vowed to return as soon as possible to explore higher. During the long descent on Sugarloaf Road, my speed topped 40mph as I approached two animals racing along the paved shoulder. Just barely moving faster than them, I soon saw it was a doe chasing a large coyote, with a bushy tail flicking rapidly as it darted into the grass and back into the road. For more than a mile this continued — the kind of thing I would have had time to photograph had I not been descending at break-neck speed myself. The doe was not relenting and none of the coyote's evasion tactics worked. Coyote didn't have a fawn in its jaws, so I figured the deer was winning this battle. I was rooting for her. Finally coyote spotted an escape route and took a hard right into brush, the doe still hot on its heels. 

I reached Boulder Canyon with an hour to spare. Even though I was by then well-toasted, I veered up Chapman trail for an extraneous thousand-foot climb as the temperature soared past 98 degrees. Usually this popular route is crowded with runners and cyclists by 4:30 p.m., but on this afternoon, sweat was my only companion. There were no cyclists on Flagstaff Road, either, which is downright eery. I felt fantastic. Usually heat is kryptonite, but eventually there's a tipping point where it's so bad that it taps into my ridiculousness ethic, and then I thrive (as long as I have access to four-plus liters of water, that is.) 

Our friend Gabi was in town all week, and Beat set up elaborate shuttles to guide her on all of his favorite run-commutes from work to home. My Achilles was tight after all of last week's mountain adventures, so I couldn't join the running fun, but was happy to help with the necessary one-way bike commutes. Thursday brought steady afternoon showers. I thought I'd be thrilled to beat the heat and ride in the rain, but I underestimated how cooked I remained after Wednesday's ride. Dust mixed with light rain turns into an irritatingly sticky paste that bogs down wheels, and I was admittedly a grumpy bear for most of the three-and-a-half-hour slog I'd chosen. 

Notable from this ride was the way I worked so hard to grind up a climb that has become one of my cherished Strava segments, then later learned I'd botched it more than 11 minutes off my PR — the slowest I've ever ridden this route outside the winter months between 2016 and 2017, which included slush and snow. Strava is known for its kudos and achievements and PRs, so I joked with Beat that someone should write an app to send an e-mail that plays sad trombone with the message "You really sucked this time" for every personal worst. I would pay for this app. One needs to have balance in life. 

On Saturday I swiftly made good on my promise to return to the Apex Valley/James Peak region with more time to explore a compelling maze of jeep roads. My body felt better but my bike kept dropping its chain during the slow churning climb — probably my fault for mounting the rear wheel incorrectly; it's always something simple like that. No matter, as soon everything would be solid granny gear terrain, no shifting necessary.

Next time I decided to go jeep road exploring, I will try to find a weekday to do so, as four-wheeler traffic was thick on Saturday. I stopped at this viewpoint to admire James Peak, where a family in a red jeep expressed amazement at seeing me, since they'd passed me near the bottom of the hill at Tolland and had barely arrived themselves. (That's another positive of rugged roads. With the exception of the occasional dare-devil motorcycle, most traffic is creeping along so slowly that they don't even kick up dust.) The man urged me to ride down the trail they were about to hike, and I explained that the trail entered a wilderness area where bikes weren't allowed. It was clear he didn't understand what I meant by this, and continued to express confidence that I could handle it.

"You rode all the way up here, that would be nothing for you."

Instead I pushed my bike up a gut-busting ladder of rocks (that I would later walk down as well.) I crested a saddle just below Kingston Peak. The weather up here was unbelievably perfect — no wind, few clouds, and 70+ degrees at 12,000 feet in mid-afternoon. Exploration possibilities on the other side seemed almost endless, but on this day I was racing daylight, thanks to a 12:30 p.m. start. I mostly doubted I'd make it around for a loop, but I was going to try.

I found a delicious piece of tundra singletrack to ride toward the town of Saint Marys. I could see dirt roads climbing hills in the distance and convinced myself I'd connect them, so I descended a long way.

Then the trail ended at the tongue of Saint Marys Glacier. The snowfield was surprisingly solid and icy for a hot summer afternoon, and it became clear I wouldn't be able to negotiate it short of butt-scooting with my bike. I stubbornly persisted, hiking along the boulder-strewn edge. But as this became more arduous, I also questioned the legality of dragging my bike down a glacier to the crowded access trails at the mouth. The prospect of breaking the law — not the slogarific hike-a-bike — eventually turned me around.

The steep return was nearly all bike-pushing. By the time I crested the Kingston Peak saddle again, it was after 5 p.m. The simple option would be to go back the way I came, but then I met some nice motorcyclists ("Wow," one greeted me. "You are a long, long way up here." ... after I'd descended a thousand feet) who described a way to descend into Central City, where I knew I could connect back to Apex Valley. I must have taken a wrong turn, because I veered onto a steep and baby-head-strewn doubletrack through a deep and buggy canyon, aptly named Mosquito Creek. This was slow, slow descending, and by the time I hit Upper Apex Valley Road, it was after 6 p.m. I used my brand new Garmin InReach Mini (which I love!) to text Beat. "Running really late. You should probably go ahead and have dinner without me."

At Apex Valley, I could have easily descended into Central City and taken the highway home, but curiosity drove me skyward, from 9,000 feet back up to nearly 11,000 feet in the rich evening light. The road surface deteriorated and steepened, until I was again churning on a bed of loose boulders, applying most of my upper-body strength just to maintain a minimally straight forward line. The air was still and utterly silent. I enjoyed gazing over the ripple of foothills and sprawling plains to the east, feeling dwarfed by the grandeur. Some people go to the mountains to feel they've conquered something big. I come here to embrace my reality as an insignificant piece in a big, spectacular world.

Of course, I am still human, and can't always prevent my useless ego from roaring back to life. The bumpy descent atop a primitive road bed filled with loose babyheads was so exhausting that I was on the verge of tears. I took increasingly extended walking breaks — while descending a hill I could technically ride — just to "rest." Finally at the bottom, I texted Beat again to let him know I was still alive. "Finally back at Rollinsville. That ride was so hard. 34 miles in seven and a half hours."

You can bet I'll be back for more.

Sunday was Beat's turn for a long effort — his last long training run before the Ouray 100 in two weeks. Beat has this thing he calls the "InFERNo Half Marathon," which is five times down and up Fern Canyon with a three-mile round-trip approach on the west ridge of Bear Peak. Those 13 miles include 10,000 feet of climbing, and it's difficult to emphasize how difficult the whole thing must be, spending hours negotiating a 40-percent grade either up or down. (I've only ever managed two Ferns, so I don't even know.) Beat thrives in this kind of ridiculousness, and did the whole thing — 10,000 feet of climbing — in less than seven hours.

Conditions were close to perfect on Sunday, with fog and steady warm rain that cooled the air, cleared out the crowds, and coated the dirt parts of the trail (admittedly rare between the rocks) in sticky hero mud. I set out in the mid-afternoon to do just one lap — still 3,000 feet of climbing in five miles — and noted the rarity of these ideal conditions. "PR conditions," I thought.

I descended from Bear Peak extra slowly, and bid Beat goodbye on his fifth climb, since I couldn't even keep up with him then. At the lower trail post, I dawdled in the warm mist until my watch hit 1:20:00, then launched up the muddy trail. With determined focus to keep a steady pace and not drift off the occasionally perplexing route, I marched in a near-red-lined daze until I hit the top, some 2,000 feet higher. My watch read 1:57:xx. 37 minutes! My old PR is over 40 minutes, so that was solid! I was giddy.

Then, at home, a downloaded my track and saw that my GPS had a major hiccup and instead recorded an erratic spider track all over the walls beside Fern Canyon, so the actual segment never recorded. I was mildly devastated, because if it's not on Strava, it didn't happen.

I suppose I'll have to wait for the next rainy afternoon to try it again. You can bet I'll be back for more. 
Monday, July 09, 2018

Bit of a mountain bender

Every week, when I say I want to take it easy and spend more time sitting in air-conditioned coffee shops and catching up on writing I want to do, I really mean it. A weary moodiness sets in, and I can only conclude that my cumbrous body just doesn't want to do a bunch of stuff right now. Then there's the other side that asserts this is just a hormonal wave, we can ride it, no big deal. Then friends from out of town come to visit, and we want to show them our favorite places. Adventure desire burns hot enough to snuff out the weariness. 

Then another seven days pass, and I realize I've schlepped this clunker body through 95 mountain miles, with their exhausting rocky descents and 13,000-foot summits and wheezy meanders through pine forests. It sometimes takes a few hours, but I'm always grateful I went out, and not necessarily worse for the wear afterward. So I get up and do it again the next day.

 Friends from Australia, Roger and Hailey, came into town on the Fourth of July. After serving up a bunch of " 'Merica food" — burgers, sausage, corn on the cob, watermelon, and ice cream — we dragged our severely jet-lagged friends up Bear Peak to watch fireworks displays over a wide swath of the Front Range. While we awaited the close-range show over Boulder, a thunderstorm moved through and graced us with beautiful natural fireworks. This lasted about five minutes before we decided the lightning strikes were too close for comfort, and beat a quick retreat in the rain.

 Roger is in Colorado to race the Hardrock 100 in two weeks, so we helped him jumpstart his acclimation with a trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness on Thursday. The loop between Buchanan and Pawnee passes is a local classic that I hadn't yet experienced. The route covers 27 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing through a variety of gorgeous settings. There's not a bad mile on that route, but they're all hard.

Roger started out strong, then was noticeably hit by the altitude. I imagine this was a little frustrating for him, with Hardrock on the horizon. Altitude affects everyone differently, and the lucky can handle big jumps more easily (Hailey, who has been injured and opted for a shorter trip over Mount Audubon that morning, had few issues with her jaunt over 13,000 feet.) Roger still has two weeks to acclimate before his race, but I don't envy him. I remember how much I struggled when I jumped from sea level in the Bay Area to much more moderate races at 8,000-9,000 feet.

 Roger was able to experience a best-of-Colorado tour, though, including a moose family along Buchanan Creek.
 Lunch break near a roaring waterfall.

 Hiking in the shadow of Thunderbolt Peak as thunder began to rumble in the distance.

 Heading toward Pawnee Pass. Looking at the wall of mountains in front of us, I wondered where, exactly, the pass even was. I continued to be confused until we were standing on top of it.

Nearing the pass, and still just walls in front of us. 

 Nasty weather to the northwest. The clouds and thunder seemed to be moving laterally to the east so we continued toward the pass, but there was a bit of urgency in the talus ascent.

 Views from Pawnee Pass. It was well-hidden but surprisingly non-technical.

 Descending toward Brainard Lakes to close out the loop. One of the advantages of being out all day — beautiful evening light. With thunderstorms surrounding us all afternoon, we didn't experience even a drop of rain, so lucky all around.

 On Friday we took Roger and Hailey on another alpine jaunt to South Arapahoe Peak. I admittedly felt awful for the first two miles. It was like last summer all over again, with labored breathing and stumbling dizziness. Although I continue to have ups and downs with my fitness, I really believed I was past this level of weakness. It was a case where I would have turned around had I been alone, but I do have that unfortunate fear of missing out.

 Happily, I perked up as we gained altitude. Possibly a reaction to pine pollen? The frequent question of "why can't I breathe?" has so many possibilities, and the answers most people expect — like high altitude or fatigue — often don't have much correlation. During my recent outings, I've felt the worst early on, and improve with distance and time outside, so fatigue or exposure to allergens don't offer much of an explanation. The lack of understanding frustrates me, so I just continue to be grateful when I can breathe.

 Beat and Hailey at the summit of South Arapahoe — 4,083 meters, which is the number that impresses our friends from across the ponds. (14,000 feet doesn't mean as much to them, so they're just as happy with a 13'er north of the 4,000-meter mark.)

 Roger and Hailey were on their way to Durango as our friend Gabi from Switzerland arrived, so we had another friend to drag around the mountains. On Sunday, Beat wanted to show Gabi his favorite route, climbing to James Peak (4,054 meters) then continuing along the Continental Divide before descending into the lush and magical valley of Forest Lakes.

 From the start I said I was just going to hike slowly to James Peak and back while they did the 21-mile loop. My breathing was better than the previous day, but my mood was in shambles. Why? I don't know. Nighttime temperatures have been quite hot and I haven't been sleeping well, but I have been overly moody for a few weeks now. Sunday morning rivaled the sadness I felt after I returned from the Iditarod Trail in March, when the world was such a dark place and life was unravelling. Meanwhile, my body was just hiking through a beautiful forest, and the logical side of my mind was chiding me, "What is your problem? There is no problem." I've mentioned before that I believe these brief bouts of what might be mild depression are related to a hormonal cycle, but I have no concrete evidence. There probably is a connection to physical fatigue as well. What I do have is confidence that these moods go away, and so I don't give them any credence. Shut up, stupid sadness.

 Even though I felt like I was just plodding along in a gray fog (that also included a real hail storm), I somehow reached the summit just minutes after Gabi and Beat. Gabi was exuberant in the high mountain air, and urged me to join them on a traverse along the Divide. The thought of stumbling along uneven tundra in my already ponderous state made me want to cry, but I held back on pouring my dumb emotions onto this beautiful place. I considered the traverse as we descended James Peak, and concluded that I didn't have anything to lose by spending more time in the mountains with friends.

 Predictably, I perked up as I followed Beat and Gabi along the ridge, where we stopped with frequency to gaze down the cliffs and express awe.

 For the rest of the day, my mood continued to improve. The darkness retreated as swiftly as it moved in. The real weather shifted from gray and drizzly to sunny again. My legs felt strong and I didn't roll my ankle once. My breathing was calm, and I ran the descent better than I had during our outing here two weeks earlier.
By the end of 21 miles I felt great, and grateful that I pushed through the low point and emerged triumphant on the other side. As I concluded last week, resting and hiding indoors really isn't what's best for me, but I realize there's a better balance between nothing and all mountains all the time. Now it's Monday following a long holiday weekend, and I need to spend the day indoors catching up on tasks I neglected last week. This place is nicely air-conditioned and the coffee is delicious, but what sparks a smile is new memories of scrambling up the loose rocks of South Arapahoe, laughing at marmot antics, listening to Roger say "Woooow" at least eight dozen times, drinking sweet water from a stream, nailing a rocky descent on the other side of weariness. Bodies are a frustrating mystery but they still take us through life, which is what matters. 
Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Not hibernating yet

Last week, when the forecast called for temperatures in the mid-90s through the weekend, I pushed my usual weekly long ride up to Monday. With temperatures in the 70s and a Camelbak full of ice water, I thoroughly enjoyed a sweat-soaked grind up Carbiou. I hate and love this climb, which is so punishingly steep that I need to breathe while imagining the choppy four-beat rhythm and lyrics from "Caribou" by the Pixies, in order to maintain cadence:

I live cement 
I hate this street
Give dirt to me. 
I bite lament 
This human form 
Where I was born 
I now repent

Pleased with the effort, I pulled into the parking lot at Beat's office and hid in the only patch of 5 p.m. shade, next to a malodorous dumpster. "Bring on hibernation season," I thought. 

Caribou Road, near Klondike Mountain
Recent bouts of moodiness and rough breathing convinced me it was time to embrace the slump and take it easy for a while. High temperatures / pollen / wildfire smoke / more reasons not to venture outside just cemented the excuse. But then Beat wanted to do another after-work car swap on Thursday. The temperature at 1 p.m. was 95 degrees, and I decided if I was going to punish myself, I was really going to punish myself, via Winiger Ridge and the East Mag Dots. Yes, it must be obvious by now — I am not an avid trail rider. Around here, bike-legal singletrack is limited and largely full of rocks. At some point, I decided that I do not need to take a beating from my bicycle to prove I like to have fun. I'm nearly 40 years old and fine with my true identity as a fireroad-climb-loving fun hater. 

The initial hike-a-bike up Winiger began after an hour of steep climbing on washboard gravel and hot pavement, followed by rutted jeep roads. Before I even crossed the gate onto the punishing trail, my neck and arms were already coated in dozens of drowned gnats. Sweat streamed down my forehead into my eyes; I hadn't been able to open the left one for at least twenty minutes. My temple was throbbing ... no doubt an early symptom of heat exhaustion. The maniacal laughter in my head was probably another symptom. This was brutal. Ha ha ha! 

Yay for fun-hater-rewarding endorphins.

I bounced along the rock-strewn ridge, stopping frequently to admire wildflowers and catch my ragged breath, then crossed onto the Dot trails. This trail system, like most trail systems, is a hopeless maze that often leaves me disoriented and lost even when I'm not heat-addled. Unintentionally I ventured onto an unsanctioned social trail that became progressively more overgrown, until finally I faltered on rocks hidden in the grass and toppled over, jamming my thumb. Ugh. Grumble, grumble. Eventually I bashed my way out of the hidden forest and realized I'd forgotten my phone, so I had to race home before riding into town. Head throbbing, lungs searing, thumb sore, dizzy near the top of each climb ... and yet, my weird body perversely rewarded me with exhilaration and satisfaction. Just another reminder that it is more "fun" to do hard things than it is to complacently coast through my comfort zone.

Of course, by Friday, wind had blown in so much wildfire smoke from the west that just pushing my bike up the stairs outside our house sparked a painful bout of wheezing and coughing. Thankfully, I'd already formulated a great excuse to put my bike in the car and leave Boulder County. My friend Corrine from Alaska is riding the Tour Divide this year, and the tracker indicated she'd be passing through Breckenridge and Como sometime in the morning. This was the perfect opportunity to do some stealth dot stalking / spectating / cheerleading for my favorite race.* (*outside Alaska)

I caught up with Corrine on the Gold Dust Trail, just as I was wheezing my way up a steep pitch near 11,000 feet, and she was creeping down on her loaded bike. She stopped to cheerlead my climb, calling out "Yeah! You got this!" and waving her warms. She didn't recognize me until several seconds after I stopped next to her. So that whole time, she paused her own racing effort to offer enthusiastic encouragement to someone she thought was a random stranger. That's Corrine. It warmed my heart, even if it did take a little bit of the wind out of my sails, since I had intended to stop somewhere along the trail and cheer for her.

With a promise to catch her once more so we could enjoy a short break in the hot sun, I continued up to the pass and met Phillipa and Chris, two friends from the U.K. who are also riding the Tour Divide. After brief introductions Chris asked me, "Oh, did you do the race?"

"Yeah," I replied, "in 2009 and in ..."

"Beautiful course. I've ridden the TMB," he cut in. That's when I realized he was talking about UTMB. I'd forgotten I was wearing a UTMB shirt.

"Oh yeah," I said, blushing, hoping the conversation wouldn't veer to my embarrassing Alpine racing odyssey. "I raced in, uh, (looking down at my shirt) 2012."

"That's a tough go," Chris said. "I'm always impressed with you runners."

"Yeah, well, it's not a run for most of us," I mumbled. "More like a trudge."

"More like Tour Divide."

"Yes! Exactly."

I followed Chris and Phillipa down the Gold Dust Trail, where they promptly buried me in the fine, not-so-gold dust. I suppose anyone who can ride the Tour du Mont Blanc trails must be a fairly proficient technical rider, so I wasn't surprised, even if they were riding loaded bikes and 21 days of fatigue. I did see them one more time, as they took a wrong turn off the trail and spent 20 minutes retracing their enthusiastic descent.

I caught Corrine once more near the bottom of the trail. We ate snacks from our own stashes (no support here, no worries) and chatted too much about me (Corrine is a physician and always asks me questions about my health, which is appreciated, even when I'd rather hear her stories.) With an enthusiastic wave, she continued south into Como. She had a rough go early in the race, but seems to have found a rhythm, even though "every day is hard." It was fun to see her in the midst of such a significant adventure, in good spirits.

Propelled by Tour Divide stoke, I turned and continued back up Boreas Pass, then descended a jeep road / stream bed into Breckenridge. The final climb on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route back to Boreas Pass was full of happy nostalgia.

I remembered the last time I rode along this road, while visiting our friend Daniel in Frisco in 2012. I borrowed Daniel's rickety old hardtail and pedaled up the pass to cheer for another Tour Divide rider ... I forget her name after all these years. Tracy, perhaps? She had fallen far off the back of the pack, and was lonely and struggling, but determined to finish. After Tracy and I chatted briefly on that cold, rainy July afternoon, I felt so inspired by her determination and the mountain scenery that I decided yes, definitely, I would return to ride the Divide someday.

I wasn't able to climb Boreas Pass when I made that return in 2015. I quit the race just before this point, wracked with pneumonia and too many bad memories. I still wonder what the Tour Divide is to me, exactly. But it's simple, on a beautiful afternoon after another three years have passed, to promise myself that yes — I will return to ride the Divide someday.

Just over the pass, the sky was filled with a billowing plume from the Weston Pass fire, which erupted just hours earlier and had already grown to several hundred acres. Smoke was spreading so rapidly that I became convinced the fire was just over those mountains, and would move through and consume my car before I could get back to it. In reality the fire was more than a dozen miles away, but the proximity of all of these fires is disconcertingly close to home. This could be a tourism slogan for the state: See Colorado, before it burns.

Beat and I have been laboring at our own fire-mitigation project — brush and branch removal near our house. We've hauled at least twenty truckloads of debris up steep slopes, and the effort has proved to be a serious strength workout. This consumed our Saturday in what was hardly a rest day, and then our friend Eric — Corrine's husband, who is road-tripping down the Rocky Mountains while she labors on her bike — dropped by for a visit.

On Sunday, the three of us headed into Rocky Mountain National Park for a trail hike/jog. Eric — who has lived in underpopulated Alaska all of his life — got a kick out of the Sunday traffic heading into Estes Park, and took photos of the three-quarter-mile-long lineup at the park entrance while Beat and I grumbled. Of course the reason RMNP is so popular is because it really is an incredible place (and also well-developed and conveniently close to the Front Range.) Beat and I agree that we don't take enough advantage of the close-to-home adventure potential here.

Luckily we picked a more obscure trailhead within the park to start our outing — a long loop to Hallet Peak at 24 miles with 6,000+ feet of climbing. Eric decided to do a slightly shorter out-and-back to Flattop. My breathing was rough from the start — whether caused by hard efforts during the week while breathing pollen and smoke, or simply the timing in my health pattern, I don't know — but the first miles were a struggle. When Beat informed me we were only at 8,000 feet and I was already gasping, I urged him to go ahead while I tried to capture better rhythm. As I stumbled along the rocks, I stewed over a conviction that I will never have "normal" fitness — just good weeks and bad at inconvenient intervals, independent of training, medication, or anything else I can control. Then, after a number of miles had passed and the altitude soared, my breathing randomly improved. I switched to positive thinking about undulating toward balance ... or, even if this pattern continues, it doesn't really matter. I can still get outdoors for beautiful outings, regardless.

By the time I rose above treeline near 12,000 feet, my breathing had strengthened enough to manage lung-emptying blasts from an intense headwind. It was quite incredible, this wind, with 50+ -mph gusts that reverse-thrusted my body to a complete stall and drove a bone-piercing chill on a hot summer day. I stumbled along the rocks, struggling to maintain upright balance as Beat came down from Hallet Peak. He agreed to endure double-time in the wind to climb the mountain one more time with me.

Beat is such a sweetheart. We hid in the windbreak on the summit, just long enough to enjoy a sandwich and views on a mountain we had all to ourselves.

Battling our way back to Flattop. Not pictured: 50mph winds.

The wind calmed and the heat cranked up as we descended. I felt continually better as we went and made a determined effort to keep up with Beat, with marginal success. When I start an effort with shallow breathing, it usually stays that way or worsens. So this was encouraging, if perplexing. What should I even do with this unruly body? I don't know the correct answer, but I do know that hibernation is not a real option.