Saturday, August 19, 2017

Upward over the mountain

Last week, my aunt Jill died at age 53. She had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer caused by malignant plasma cells. Her cancer was incurable and aggressive. She battled for three years, trying every treatment and several clinical trials. From afar, the treatments seemed painful and isolating. She must have felt hopeless at times, but she was brave. When faced with the prospect of a painful stem cell transplant that had only a small chance of success, she said, "this might not extend my life, but it will help doctors learn more about these treatments for the future." 

We shared the same name, Jill Homer. When I was a child, she impressed on me the value of finding joy in everything. My grandmother had given me some kind of chore after Thanksgiving dinner. I don't remember the chore, only that I was unhappy because I wanted to play with my cousins. My aunt said, "Don't look at it as punishment. It's just another type of adventure." I'm paraphrasing. The word adventure is probably something my memory inserted years later. But that was my aunt. Life is a great adventure, whether you're zip-lining down from dizzying heights (a thing she decided to do shortly after being diagnosed with cancer) or doing the dishes. 

I decided to drive out to Utah for the funeral this weekend. It was a beautiful service, attended by all of my aunts and uncles and a large number of my many cousins. As the years pass, I realize more how much I value my big Mormon family with our often messy and loud gatherings, the jello salads and funeral potatoes. It was nice to spend an afternoon with them and learn more about Jill's final weeks. Death inevitably leads to reflection about the fleeting nature of life, and its sources of joy. Jill never stopped embracing beauty, even when she was in pain.

In her spirit — or really, in my spirit, but I think we shared a lot of the same values as well as a name — I took advantage of the road trip to squeeze in a little adventure on two 14ers near the Interstate, Torreys and Grays peaks. Looking at a map, it seemed there was a more interesting route than the standard trail, starting from Loveland Pass. This route included a lot of climbing and descending and two smaller (13er) peaks in the way, but bonus: You start above treeline, just below 12,000 feet. Views the whole way.

 And ridge walking! Right out of the car I felt a bit rough — nauseated, mostly. My breathing was actually fine, despite the altitude. I slogged along and tried to eat some fruit snacks, but despite the stomach grumblings I felt pretty good. Sunny day, perfect weather forecast, and a trail to two 14ers with nobody on it. What more could you ask for?

 Looking toward Torreys and Grays from Grizzly Peak. Right off this ridge was a steep descent on loose talus, and I took a fall. It wasn't that bad. I have what I consider a "bad ankle," my left ankle, which I broke when I was 19. It's been the weak one ever since. I've been rolling it a lot lately, and I rolled it on top of a loose boulder and crumpled onto a thankfully smaller pile of rocks with my head downhill. I rose with no injures (save the tailbone I bruised when I fell down the stairs last week, which still hurts.) But I was dizzy and disoriented and really, really spooked.

 Why was I so spooked? It's difficult to justify now. I wasn't hurt and this wasn't terribly difficult terrain. Despite this reality, I was remorseful. "Why do I always go to the mountains? I'm not good in the mountains at all, and they scare me. Why, oh why, oh why?"

I inched my way down Grizzly's talus field and started up a new one to summit Torreys. This route that gains 1,700 feet in less than a mile, topping out at 14,275 feet. I tried to shake how spooked I felt, unsuccessfully, and struggled mightily with this climb. I stumbled to the summit with at least 15 people on top, and pointed out my ridge route to a guy who asked where I came from.

"I'd like to do that someday, but it's not a day hike," he said.

I looked at my watch. "I've only hiked five miles so far." Three and a half hours had passed. I still had more than six hours of driving ahead of me, and this hike was already taking much longer than expected. Of course you can't go to Torreys without tagging Grays, so I was looking at eight hours of hiking, which one might think unreasonable on top of a 530-mile drive. I would disagree. My aunt Jill might disagree. But I was admittedly terrified of returning to Grizzly, and already plotting an alternative. Perhaps, I thought, the faster way back from this mountain is around it.

Holding a borrowed sign on Grays, looking disheveled as usual. Six miles in four hours. I knew if I dropped down the popular trail, I could potentially run the gravel road, bike path, and a supposed trail along Highway 6, all the way back to my car. It was 15 miles instead of six, wasn't a beautiful ridge walk, and promised to be a slog of a gradual climb from the Interstate. But if I could run, I might arrive in Utah before 1 a.m.

This descent was fun. A herd of mountain goats sauntered along the trail (I've seen mountain goats three times in Colorado, always along popular routes to 14ers. It's like they want to be around people.) The trail was rocky and steep but mostly mindless. I finally felt comfortable turning on my iPod and shuffling along, although my bad ankle was throbbing, and I was still nauseated. Running was going to prove difficult. Dang, it was going to be a long walk back to the car.

Unfortunately I didn't start to feel better, and I ran out of food because I had banked on a four- or five-hour hike, not eight. The bike path on my map turned out to be paved, which was an unpleasant surprise. I slogged along on hot and sore feet, at least managing 18-minute miles with not too much effort (curbing the nausea), and scrolling through my map while pondering potential stream bed gullies I could climb back to the ridge. ("Don't do that," I reminded myself. "You'll regret that.") There was just enough shuffling to wrap up the 20-mile hike in eight hours, and not feel too worse for the wear. Better to not be shattered before the drive.

Driving west into the setting sun, I felt slightly ashamed for how poorly I'd reacted on Grizzly. Maybe it's an inherent knowledge that something small like a weak ankle could prove deadly in the wrong place. Maybe I'm hurt because I love the mountains so much, but I'm just a feeble thing pressed against cold, sweeping indifference.

Why do I go to the mountains? Because they're beautiful. And because I'm not very good in the mountains and they scare me. My aunt Jill might point out that perspective is what matters.
Monday, August 14, 2017


Claps of thunder were closing in as I raced down chunky gravel on Rainbow Lakes Road, spun out in my highest gear. Lightning hadn't yet made an appearance, but the thunder sounded close, and I was hurrying to reach an outhouse at the Sourdough Trailhead, about a mile downhill. I rounded a corner at high speed and saw the cow moose and her calf almost too late, screeching the wet brakes to a stop about 100 feet away. The moose stood on the right side of the road facing me, looking unperturbed but also unwilling to move. There was nowhere to backtrack for miles. So it would be a standoff.

"Hey moose," I called out, as though she didn't already know she was dealing with an annoying human. Lightning sliced through the sky directly in front of us. A shattering thunder boom followed within one second. The moose didn't budge. Still straddling my bike, I backed up a few feet and glanced into the woods, scouting for the darkest spot to hide from lightning with the kind of tree I could possibly climb should the moose decide to charge. Within seconds the indigo sky unleashed a shower of hail. Finally the moose and her calf took off down the road. I waited some more, wincing at the sting of marble-sized ice balls on my shoulders and hands ... but it was better than being stomped by a moose. Finally it felt safe to continue coasting down the road. Moose tracks pressed into the wet gravel for a quarter mile before they veered into the forest.

Hail was still pouring down when I reached the trailhead and ducked into outhouse, a relatively spacious and clean toilet that was as welcome as any shelter could be. I took the opportunity to pour a cascade of rocks and mud out of my shoes, and pulled on all of the same layers that I typically carry in my backpack in January — fleece pullover, waterproof shell, fleece hat, fleece mittens. As I waited out the storm for the next ten minutes, I continued to shiver. Every convulsion sent a shock of pain through my bruised back. Just three hours earlier, I'd also fallen down the stairs.

At home we have just a single set of stairs, but they're steep, uncarpeted, and about 15 feet high. I've had a few near-misses before and know better to watch my footing and hold the railing, but I was descending in socks while holding sunglasses in one hand and a GPS device in the other. Halfway down, a sock-foot slipped and I went down hard on my butt and back, bouncing down eight or nine steps before crumpling in a heap at the bottom. My backpack full of water and winter gear had twisted around and the strap was tight against my neck, almost choking me, and I was nauseated and hyperventilating. I thought I might faint. I fought to hold onto consciousness, both because I didn't want the backpack strap to suffocate me after I passed out, and because fainting after falling down the stairs at home was embarrassing enough even if I wasn't found dead in this position.

After several minutes of concentrating on breathing, I regained enough composure to stand. My butt was throbbing and my left calf had a strange knot that felt like a fist clenched against the muscle. My sunglasses and GPS had both exploded into pieces, but these luckily are "Jill-proof" items that I was able to put back together. I paced for several more minutes and concluded that I wasn't injured, just in pain. "It's not worse than crashing my bike. And I still ride after crashing my bike. So I guess I should ride."

My plan for the day wasn't a small one — 50 miles, almost 6,000 feet of climbing, and exploration on what turned out to be a swampy mess of rocky doubletrack, Forest Service Road 505. I didn't regret my decision to ride until 505, when stepping off the bike to push it around knee-deep mud puddles clenched the invisible fist around my calf muscle, and bouncing on rocks aggravated pain underneath my ribs on the left side of my back. Then the hailstorm moved in, not unexpected but still stunningly swift in its consumption of the warm, sunny afternoon. Every bruised part of my body stiffened as I shivered in an outhouse, and I still had to propel myself back to Boulder.

Thunder continued to crack overhead, and I smirked at myself and these positions I'm often in. As I grow older, there are ways in which I continue to become more reckless and less risk-averse than I was in my 20s. I mean, when I lived in Utah 15 years ago, I was terrified of thunderstorms and wouldn't even go outside for routine bike rides if the sky or forecast looked bad. Now I'm in Colorado and the forecast has looked at least somewhat bad nearly every day for a month, and I don't really mind. I figure I can mitigate risk by staying below treeline and hiding in an outhouse when necessary. Still, these certainly aren't calamity-proof solutions. Fears of calamity used to have more impact.

I suppose I've figured out that I am the type of person who will more likely perish in a preventable household accident, so why be afraid of the outdoors?

Beat, grumpy about hiding under a tree during a hailstorm on Sunday
It has been a trying summer for thunderstorm fears. The typical monsoonal moisture is being ramped up by hot and dry weather in the Pacific Northwest, causing central Colorado to become more cool and wet. Lightning risk notwithstanding, I love these conditions. The storms keep outings interesting, occasionally lend to beautiful light and dramatic scenery, foster stunning wildflower blooms, keep the air clear and smoke-free, and reduce the usual stifling heat. My friend Dave in Colorado Springs posted the other day that he had seasonal affective disorder because the stormy weather was getting him down. I replied, "Really? I usually hate August, but this one's been okay so far."

Of course, that's just weather; it does nothing to stem the growing tide of unrest in the U.S. For that, August has been a particularly disheartening month. Nothing that is happening is surprising, sadly.

We do what we can to battle disheartenment ... donate to organizations that do a better job than we could alone ... meet with friends and commiserate ... attempt to gently expand on the situation with that high school friend on Facebook who still lives a relatively privileged and sheltered existence ... research the best ways to stock the nuclear bomb shelter (oh yes, we actually have a shelter at home, built by the previous homeowner who lived in Russia during the Cold War. Not that I'd even want to be among the survivors who envy the dead.) Ah, now I'm drifting into negative thinking again. I know it doesn't help anything, so I break the feedback loop with a nice ride on quiet forest roads, where my largest threat is probably lightning.

It is wonderful to have bikes in my life, especially when I've fallen down the stairs and am banged up enough to prevent running for little while. The daily hailstorm petered out and sunbeams stabbed through breaks in the clouds. A faint rainbow formed overhead. It became a great afternoon for riding ... overcast and cool with hints of sunlight sparkling on wet grass, still green in mid-August. It is a beautiful time of year, when I learn to live in the moment. 
Friday, August 11, 2017

Mountain benders ... good for what ails you

My alarm buzzed at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, but I languished in bed until 6:30. Finally slumped onto the floor, made instant coffee and oatmeal in the microwave, threw on a still-wet daypack with soggy bars in the side pocket, and walked out the door. Directly across the street was the Horsethief trailhead. I signed my name in the trail register, destination "Bridge of Heaven. Maybe Bear Creek, if weather okay." The trail shot skyward at sustained 18- to 25-percent grades. No room to even warm up the legs. The Bridge of Heaven was 5,000 feet overhead.

A misty rain swirled through the forest. The narrow trail pushed through shoulder-high brush that was saturated in droplets, leaving me as wet as if I'd jumped in a lake. The air had warmth to it, though, even though my hands were still slightly numb from yesterday's hailstorm. Groggily I plodded skyward, holding my tingling fingers against my neck to gauge my heart rate. It seemed good — low 140s. I know fatigue lowers heart rate, but that's effectively my goal. I'm never in the mood for morning activity, but this morning definitely felt better than most. Anyway, I live for a good, old-fashioned sustained climb, where I can knock off a vertical mile right out of bed. This climb would be the last for runners in the Ouray 100 — miles 90 to 100. Brutal, to say the least. Twenty-four hours hadn't yet passed in the race, and I doubted a runner had been through here yet. "They should be glad I'm knocking all the water off the brush," I thought. 

The effects of trying to shoot a photo of wildflowers with a wet camera in the rain. As I crossed over the Bridge of Heaven, I was met with a brisk wind. Drizzling rain continued to slap my face as I pulled more layers over my saturated clothing: rain jacket — still a bit damp from yesterday — my last dry cap, mittens. "It's cold at 12,000 feet," I thought. The day promised to be gray, flatly lit, wet, and cool. "But morning rain probably means there won't be afternoon thunderstorms," I reasoned. Below the Bridge was a narrow cirque, carpeted with flowers and surrounded by a cathedral of jagged ridges. Where does it even go? I was going to find out.

Scott had given be a GPS track of a route he completed the previous week. The route dropped into the cirque, climbed to another saddle, and skirted along a ridge before descending into a broad valley. Fog cover was thick and visibility was limited, and I lost sight of the trail. For a half mile I followed Scott's track along a creek, blind to anything else but that thin purple line, completely confused about why it was veering so far away from the ridge. Where am I?

I found the trail again along the aptly-named Difficulty Creek, just as hints of sunlight were breaking up the fog. I climbed to another saddle at 12,600 feet and sat on the wet grass, eating a snack and scrolling through the map on my GPS. There was still little I could see through the clouds, but so many possibilities on the screen. The map showed the trail continuing east toward the other side of Engineer Pass, which was far away — like adding 10 or 15 miles to my day far away. Scott's track swung southwest over the tundra.

Again I was blindly following the purple line, stumbling over rocks and tussocks, and marveling at the vibrantly green tundra across this misty mountainscape — so close to Ouray, and somehow rising to a different dimension. Having seen no one on the way to Bridge of Heaven, I could safely assume I was the only human wandering through the mist for many miles.

Ouray carries the tagline "The Switzerland of America," a slogan that Beat vehemently disagrees with. However, there are definitely hints of the European Alps in these mountains, with limestone cliffs and rolling Alpine meadows. Even on this gray day with poor lighting and no chance of a good photo, the landscape was stunning. This hillside evoked fond images of a candy from my childhood, Fruit Stripe Gum. So random, the memories that stay close to your heart.

Just as I started into a steep off-trail descent, an enveloping bank of fog rolled in. I watched it with dread — "no, no, please stay over there." The mystery of the route had worn me down, and my phobias about getting lost reared their ugly head. Since there was no trail to follow and absolutely no visibility, all I had was Scott's purple line ... in which I was admittedly losing trust. It just dropped straight down this wet, grassy slope, weaving through rock bands. Were there cliffs in the way? Was there an uncrossable stream in the way? I was convinced I would be bashing my way back to Bridge of Heaven soon.

The phobia hit a fever pitch so I sat down for a few minutes to collect myself. It's always so funny to me ... in hindsight ... how I overreact when I feel "lost." I was still following the purple line, and Scott made it through, so clearly it was doable. I even had extra batteries for the GPS and enough remembered landmarks on the route to backtrack if necessary. But it's difficult for me to reconcile logic with an instinctual fear of the unknown. The fog was so thick I could barely see anything beyond my feet, and this felt like descending into a white tunnel from which the bottom might drop at any moment. My GPS map showed intimidating topo lines in every direction. I taught myself map and compass navigation in 2014, and while that mainly just provided more insight into why I should not trust my own navigational decisions, it did give me better "big picture" understanding. I scrolled through the map and pondered where I'd choose to go if there were no GPS track to follow. Cliffs, streams, cliffs. No bearings. I'd turn around.

Unsurprisingly, the route went without incident. The wet grass was quite slippery and I fell twice, but that kind of thing is to be expected with me ... which is exactly why I'm so leery of being forced onto cliffs. By the time I reached the Bear Creek Trail and Yellow Jacket Mine, the fog had cleared and the sun was out.

The Bear Creek Trail is an engineering marvel, carved into the side of a gorge by miners in the 1870s. Imagining those guys perched 700 feet over the creek, chipping away at these cliffs, is enough to make me feel pretty silly about fretting over an ambiguous GPS track. It's a little vertigo-inducing just to walk on top of this fairly wide and secure trail. About two miles from the highway, I began to see my first fellow hikers, and suddenly there were dozens of people. It was right about here that I suddenly and urgently needed to pee, and ended up scrambling up a precarious gully to get out of sight.

In total, the loop was 20 miles with more than 7,000 feet of climbing. After descending Bear Creek, I made my way back to town by way of the Ouray Perimeter Trail. I expected it to be a slog, but instead found an engaging route through a box canyon along the Uncompahgre River. What makes the water this color? I like to imagine it's gold.

The hike was slow-going but still only eight hours, which left plenty of time for an actual meal and a nap before my shift at Fellin Park, which was both an aid station for several legs, and the start/finish of the Ouray 100. All this time, runners were still grinding away at their route, more than 38 hours into the race when I showed up for my shift. The aid-station captain had one-upped me by climbing Mount Sneffels starting at 3 in the morning. She was upbeat and efficient, which made me feel a bit unneeded. But I did have fun meeting runners and hanging out with the race director, Charles, who after 40 hours operated in two modes — manically busy, and unconscious in a chair.

Around 2 a.m., the first finisher of the 50-mile race rolled in, bursting with energy. He was being closely shadowed by the second-place runner as he descended steeply from Bridge of Heaven, causing him to "miss" a switchback and fall a dozen or so feet. He was banged up and bleeding, but even more adrenaline charged because of the fall. I recognized him ... how did I know him? ... oh! Bryce 100! He was leading the Bryce 100 when I last saw him. I mentioned that, and we launched into an animated conversation about our experiences in Utah. He seemed genuinely interested to hear about my race, which was gratifying ... to be regraded as a runner. He was such a nice guy, too. I kept insisting that "I didn't finish Bryce. I was too slow. I timed out."

"Yeah, but you did 75 miles! That's great!"

Runners are the best. Really. This guy wins a 50-mile mountain race, limps into the finish at 2 a.m. covered in blood, and still takes the time to encourage an aid station volunteer.

Eszter finished just before 4 a.m., looking as fresh and strong as ever after 44 hours of near-continuous running (she said she took a couple of trailside catnaps.) The Bridge of Heaven 10-mile section took her close to eight hours, I believe, mainly because her feet were macerated from being wet for so long. I can *definitely* relate to how painful that can be. On a downhill that steep, every footfall would be agony. But she seemed to have no other issues, which is incredible. Big congrats to Eszter, who was the second woman ever to finish the Ouray 100, in three years of the race's existence (also the second this year.)

I wasn't nearly so tough, and staggered back to bed after my shift for another three hours of sleep, waking up groggy, again, just before 10 a.m. I did want to be back in Boulder around 8 p.m., but that still gave me time for a two- or three-hour hike. I chose a recommended classic, Twin Peaks.

This trail seems like a casual stroll compared to the Bridge of Heaven-to-Bear Creek route, but it still gains 3,500 feet in 3.5 miles. I set out feeling perky, heart rate steady, breathing calm. As I ascended, I felt this strange sensation in my legs. Sort of an ... ache. Was this ... tired legs? I imagined my lungs laughing at my legs for finally being the wimpy one. "What's wrong, having a little trouble down there?" For once in a long while, my breathing was good while another body part struggled. This felt amazing.

Overall it was a pretty big week of hiking. Since Monday — 83 miles, 30+ hours, 28,300 feet of climbing. Not even an Ouray 100 spread out over an entire week, but a robust effort nonetheless. My breathing and stamina, however, had actually improved throughout the week. It followed a general upward trend of well-being that I can probably attribute to several factors — happiness about being in the mountains near the top. But the overall arc is one I've experienced before, and understand that it's mainly the result of two and a half little pills that I take every morning, recently upped from two, to stop my thyroid gland from flooding my body with hormones.

When my body is on a downswing — as I felt I was for much of June and July — my perspective changes. The world becomes a little bit darker, less interesting, and there are more moments I want to escape than there are moments I'm glad to experience. These psychological impacts are something I find perplexing and disheartening. I used to believe in the autonomy of self — that my body is a vehicle I drive, and my mind is an independent operator. "Mind over matter" and its mastery became my driving motivation in endurance racing. Experiencing how deeply my mind can be affected by hormones ... chemicals ... something over which I have no control ... has been a humbling dose of reality.

So once again I'm musing about sense of self. Is there any part that I can still call "me?" When I gasp while climbing a set of stairs and brood about nuclear winter ... is that me? When I breathe easily while ascending a mountain and marvel at the simplicity of joy ... is that me? Or are these just chemical reactions to moments, from which both body and mind can't exist independently? I don't want to think about this right now. It's easier to just let go. It's always easier to let go.

At the trail's end, I perched next to the precarious gap between twin summits and watched storms roll in, again. There was a hint of sunlight on Sneffels, and much more over shimmering on Umcompahgre River Valley to the north. I could even see golden plains on the northern horizon, and imagined the Colorado River corridor, the stage for some of the best memories of my youth. This was a wonderful moment, of which I'd had more than I could count in just a week. And really, it was more than enough.