Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Endless summer

Juneau has yet to experience a very deep cold snap this winter, and we haven't had much snow. This is following a near-record-dry fall and what I have been told was a record-warm summer. Our pattern since mid-November seems to be a couple of (relatively) warm and very wet days followed by so-extended-they're-almost-disorienting periods of sunlight and what can really only be described as light freezes. Yes, I realized temperatures in the single digits and teens is more than a light freeze. But in direct sunlight, when you're pedaling or climbing so hard you can feel the heat thrashing its way out of your clothing layers, this winter almost feels like summer.

This is the forest at 1,200 feet above sea level on Dec. 30. By this time of year, this elevation should be a few feet deep in snow. But this year ... happy green plants, bare dirt, sunlight glowing on ice-free bark ... what month is this? It's really quite odd. Global warming? Or maybe just timing. This is my fourth winter in Juneau. The first three were near-record snowfall years. The 2006-07 season actually is the record. The whole of my Juneau winter experience has been snow after rain after snow after rain, a constant struggle in slush and fluff. And of course I like snow. But I like it even better packed down, well-frozen, good for riding bikes and hiking. This is my kind of winter.

I went up to the Sun Bowl today at an unforgivably slow pace. I'm not sure what made me so slow. Perhaps the conditions? There is actually a lot of ice on the ground - pure, clear ice that is quite slippery unless you take great measures to go around it. And for some unknown reason, when I did hit snow, I refused to slip on my snowshoes just to see how far I could skitter across the hardpack before I punched into rotten gristle up to my hips. But it was three hours to the base of the ridge, and when I looked at my watch, I actually yelped, because I honestly thought it was more than an hour earlier. A steady stream of wind-driven powder poured off the ridge and I figured I was probably better off in my slowness, because it forced me to avoid what was probably a brutal below-zero windchill that would certainly destroy my delusion of summer.

Back down the mountain with sweaty hair frozen like a helmet to my head, and crampons on my feet because I really was struggling mightily with that ground ice. But the ride out was wonderful, crackling on the studded tires, balaclava pulled over my face, seeing through the frozen surface into a world of heat and light.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It only took a month, but

I finally got all of my book orders out today. Thank you again to everyone who ordered one, and stuck with me after the frustrating Fed Ex delay. If you don't receive your book(s) in the next few days, please e-mail me because it should be on its way. Even with a handful of cancellations, I still nearly sold out of a fairly hefty order.

This whole Christmas book sale experiment, while frustrating, has actually given me quite a bit of a boost for my new project. After my small disaster in the 2009 ITI and break-up with Geoff, I had pretty much put "Ghost Trails" behind me. But a trickle of sales throughout the year and this recent surge puts my total sales over 1,100 — not bad for a self-published book promoted solely by the author on a single blog. Given that royalties for self-published books are pretty hefty, that number divided by the amount of time I put into that book is almost an income - almost. But it does give me confidence to work on a new project, because I honestly think this one is shaping up better than the first, and I figure the worst I can do is self-publish it and I'll still likely recoup my time. But I plan to spend a little more time on the finished product this time around and hopefully find a commercial publisher.

Today I did a tempo road ride (on the Karate Monkey with studded tires) out to mile 33, about 46 miles round trip. The weather was gorgeous and I almost felt guilty "wasting" it on a road ride. But I just felt like putting in some steady, hard miles. I still train entirely on feel (moreso now than before because I don't even have a working odometer anymore), but I tried to keep my heart rate just below anaerobic, in that 75 to 80 percent range (though, of course, I'm just guessing on that front. I still avoid heart rate monitors or any other kind of technological measure of fitness because I'm now convinced more than ever that the kind of training I like to do, for the kind of events I like to train for, is all in my mind, anyway.) So my level of exertion today was just below "ouch" but still above the level that allows for any deep thought (beyond "Dang, I really overdressed today" and "Ice is pretty.") It felt really good to get out and push hard, possibly the first time I've made a solid effort to do so in months.

I really want to train again - good, focused training, and I think I'm nearly ready to start. I hope I'm ready. And yet, my head remains in the clouds, my heart in the mountains.

Support this blog by buying my book! Signed copies only $11.95 plus shipping.

NOTE: I sold out of my current batch but have another on the way. I contacted the company and they should be sending it USPS, so I expect it in a week or so, accounting for publishing time. If you would like to order a book and have not yet done so, turnover time will be about 10-12 days.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 in photos

2009 has been a volatile year for me. I committed to leaving Juneau and at the last minute decided to stay. I took a more demanding management position at my place of employment. Then I flew to Anchorage for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, where I made the grave misstep of dunking my leg in a lake and pushing onward for seven hours in subzero temperatures, slowly freezing my right foot. I paid the price for my mistake in both the deep disappointment of dropping out of an adventure race I had poured my heart and soul into on the first day, and the surprisingly long recovery from frostbite that nearly took the tips of my toes. In April came the abrupt break-up with my companion of most of the past decade. I took leave from my job, traveled south and spent the summer reconnecting with my family and commiserating with my bicycle. In June I headed to Banff to start the Tour Divide, often touted as "the longest mountain bike race in the world," feeling lonely and underprepared and fairly certain I didn't have the mental stamina to make it out of Canada. In July, I arrived at the Mexican border to finish the race with the women's record for the Banff-to-border route. In mid-summer, I returned to Juneau, made peace with my ex-boyfriend and my demanding job, rediscovered mountains, met cool new people, lost cool new people, learned to use crampons, dreamed of learning to climb, dreamed of bicycle touring in far-away climes, and vowed to take on new challenges in 2010. This year was in some ways incredible and other ways horrible. I never wish to repeat it, but I do hope to take everything I've learned into the new decade.

As is my year-end tradition, I'm posting my favorite photos of 2009, one for each month. These aren't necessarily my best, my most unique or my most artistic photos of each month. They're just my favorites, often for the emotions and memories they're connected to as much as the images they capture. So here's my "Year in Photos:"

January, "False Outer Point:" During the first two months of the year, I was doing a lot of specific training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Once or twice a week I rode intervals from end to end on Douglas Island and recovered coming home. Usually, with my outdoor activities, I'm either in a good fitness routine or a good photography routine. This was a rare moment of both.

February, "Stoked:" This remains my Juneau favorite bike ride, ever. The Dan Moller Trail had been recently groomed, and inexplicably no one had been up there afterward. I rode the perfectly smooth, packed trail all the way to the ridge, caught my first glimpse of the sun over Stephen's Passage and proceeded to bomb down the silky, steep route at 30+ mph. I describe it to my skier friends as "the perfect powder run" — the one time where all the right conditions came together for a flawless climb and descent on the Pugsley. I vowed to hold that buzz in my heart for when things got bad during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which started one week later.

March, "The Race:" March was a particularly weak month for photos. I was laid up with frostbite and a really tough schedule in my new position at the Empire; I rarely got outside. This photo is of Anchorage cyclist Sean Grady on the first day of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, March 1. I spent a mere 12 hours on the trail before I was forced to drop out, but I still cherish those short hours in the race for containing both incredible cycling and a powerful life lesson.

April, "First Hike:" I took this photo on the Douglas Island Ridge toward the middle of April during the first outing in which I was able to walk on my frostbite foot for more than a few minutes. After nearly six weeks mostly off my feet, I ended up going much longer than was prudent, as is my custom. That single tree in the lower right is what makes this photo for me - a sprig of life in a frozen desert.

May, "Breakdown in Marin:" This is my favorite self portrait ever, not because it is a great image of me or the scenery, but because it effectively captures the emotions of the moment. Geoff and I were simultaneously traveling south and breaking up, and for me the crux point of both came in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. I was crewing for Geoff in the Miwok 100K, and trying to kill a four-hour lull with a mountain bike ride. It was a horrible day in early May: Fog, heavy rain, wind and temperatures in the low 40s. I was accelerating quickly down a fire road when I hit a wet metal pipe sticking out of the gravel and slammed directly into the ground at about 25 mph - probably the highest-speed bicycle crash of my life. For at least 10 minutes,, I was convinced that I broke my arm. The intense physical pain ignited a much deeper, more powerful mental anguish that put me in a very dark place for what seemed like a very long time. I curled up beneath a bush off the side of the road and let it churn through, and when I "came to," I stood up and took this photo. I'm still not sure what possessed me to take it, but I'm glad I did.

June, "Summitville:" This was a dynamic day, both my highest physical elevation and lowest mental point in the Tour Divide. I pedaled out of Del Norte, Colorado, elevation 7,800, and climbed to nearly 12,000 feet, the site of an eerie and toxic mining ghost town called Summitville. These clouds are the beginning of an intensely violent thunderstorm that pummeled me with heavy rain, hail, and endless streaks of lightning above timberline. Soaked to the skin in plummeting temperatures, I became so wracked with shivering that I could hardly steer my bike straight. After a terrifying and severely cold hour, I caught up to the ambulance that held my friend and fellow Divide rider, Pete, who had been hit head-on by a truck. He wasn't critically injured in the crash, but I did not know that at the time, and as I came to believe the worst, I fell into a dark place of grief for my friend and apathy for my dreams.

July, "The Fourth of July:" How I managed to keep my head in the game and stick with the Tour Divide after Summitville is still a mystery to me, but this photo represents as close to an answer as I have been able to find. I was two days out from the border in a remote part of the high New Mexico desert, just outside Gila National Forest, when I was engulfed by two spectacular thunderstorms. Near-constant streaks of lightning exploded all around me, but I inexplicably remained in the calm space between the massive storms. The last hints of sunlight slipped below the mountains and the sky erupted in a blaze of light. Across a 360-degree panorama, rainbows shimmered through sheets of rain and clouds bled crimson and orange. It was incredible, and impossible - beyond impossible - to capture in a photograph. But what really made the experience special was climbing into the foothills and glancing back to view the last hints of lightning-streaked sunset over the valley, and seeing in the far distance the tiny blasts of Independence Day fireworks over a ranch. It spoke to the smallness of humanity amid the powerful expanse of time and space.

August, "First Hints of Fall:" I came back to Juneau in mid-July, a little burnt out on bicycling and captivated by all the mountain walks within a short distance of my home. I took this photo on Blackerby Ridge on the first day of a seven-day mountain binge in late August and early September. I think it nicely captures the trail, the dashes of color, the wisps of clouds and the Mendenhall Wetlands 3,500 feet below.

September, "Dan on Grandchild:" My friend Dan Lesh and I climbed up the Grandchild Ridge on a foggy, rainy afternoon in mid-September and started hiking down just as the storm broke into a spectacular display of clouds and sunlight.

October, "Above the Fog:" Yes, I realize all my late-year photos are mountain landscapes. What can I say? They're very photogenic. I took this photo just above the Mount Roberts tram terminal during a "three peak" day that eventually landed me on Sheep Mountain. This is actually very early in a trek that just got better and better as the day wore on, but this remains my favorite photo from it.

November, "Warm Light on a Winter's Day:" This is yet another photo looking west from the Douglas Island Ridge, but wow, that was a day just filled with incredible light.

December, "Solstice With Wolves:" Of all the months this year, I had the hardest time picking a favorite photo from December. The one at the top of this post is my very favorite, a self portrait I shot during sunset just before descending Blackerby Ridge. In this one, my friend Bjorn and I are checking out the myriad tracks from a pack of wolves we saw on top of Thunder Mountain on the solstice. I like the play of light and shadow in this photo, and because of Bjorn's position, it almost looks like he is one making the canine prints.
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Joy to the snow bikers

All is quiet on Christmas Day. The city is dark. The roads are empty. The trail is dusted in a fresh layer of White Christmas, packed only by the tiny paws of a single dog team. I have to leave Canada on Boxing Day, go back to a place where Christmas is gray and 39 degrees and heavy rain. But everything in Whitehorse is still holiday card perfect: minus 10 degrees Celsius, light winds, and hints of winter sunlight trying ever so cheerfully to peek out of the thinning snowstorm clouds.

Sierra, Anthony and I set out for a snow bike ride. Sierra is fairly ill and Anthony admits that the night before contained too many ribs and glasses of wine, but the conditions are too perfect to pass up. I met Sierra and Anthony at a 24-hour bike race in 2007. That was the race I discovered kindred spirits in Yukon mountain bikers - people mad about cycling and yet totally lax about it at the same time, just like me. Since then, they've adopted me as sort of an American cousin. Now, every so often I drop in to Whitehorse, usually half-plowed by yet another endurance cycling pursuit, and they take me in without complaint, let me use their sauna, give me a big bed to sleep in, and feed me until I burst. Then we all go for a ride.

Even though I only see them a couple times a year, it made a strange amount of sense to visit them on Christmas. And if it's Christmas Day, well, it only makes sense to go for a bike ride. Sierra rides a Pugsley painted white and embellished with glow-in-the-dark snowflakes and glittering spoke lights. She wears a pink hat with little pig ears and a snout. We pedal through the powder and joke about dinner: "Lutefisk pretty much just tastes like herring bait that was left out in the sun for a few days," I muse. "Honestly, I was expecting something more ... poisonous."

"You have no idea!" Anthony says. "This year's batch was actually one of the better ones."

Thoughts of Christmas fade away as we cross a frozen lake and begin the long climb. The trail is soft and I have to punch it with everything I have just to inch up the semi-steep pitches - like pedaling up a sand dune. The steep ones we have to walk. Sweat drips into tiny craters in the snow and we pull off every layer we can either stuff away or wrap around our bodies. The sun comes out and it almost feels like summer.

But the landscape looks like something incredibly different. Different than the places I know and love in Juneau, because this place is harsh and wide, and opens into seemingly forgotten corners of the continent. Riding through here reminds me of the Susitna Valley and the Farewell Burn and makes me ache for the faraway places I will never forget. We crest a wide pass and Anthony points out the names of new places I plan to etch into my memory. "That over there I think is Lake Lebarge," he says. "Like in Sam McGee!" I say, and I let myself believe that if we only had the hours to drop into the valley far below us, we'd find a way to travel back in time.

All is quiet on Christmas Day. We turn away from the yawning wilderness and ride home.
Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve climb

Whitehorse is my kind of place in nearly every way. The mountain biking is amazing in the summer, and, if you can get around that fact that it's 0 degrees out, it's also amazing in the winter. Snowmobile trails form an elaborate web of possibilities for many dozens of miles in all directions. Walkers and skiers pack down hard singletrack trails all around town. Snow is light and dry and winter thaws are very rare, so nice trails tend to stay that way. And, if you're feeling up to it, you can ride away from town and climb ~3,000 feet to the top of a 5,000-foot-high mountain. Weeee!

Anthony and I set out late in the morning to climb Mount Mcintyre. I managed to show up for my Christmas snow biking vacation just in time for the first fresh snowfall here in weeks, but on the bright side, it "warmed" up, which means it's 0 to 15 degrees instead of -20. I'm kind of bummed I missed the bluebird clear skies those temperatures tend to bring, but even under flat lighting, the Interior is beautiful.

Above treeline, the wind was blowing steady at about 30 mph and the occasional gusts were beyond harsh. I had good wind layers on and, with the exception of my head, didn't feel the chill too badly, but the wind really was as cold as it looks. Brutal. The trail had drifted in quite a bit and the light was too flat to pick a good line in the sandy chop, so after much struggling and jumping on and off the bike, we finally resigned ourselves to the death-march push to the top.

At the top of the mountain, I realized another kink in my system. I had brought a really warm pair of pogies and only a thin pair of gloves. I quickly realized that I couldn't separate myself from my bike for more than five minutes before my fingers froze. The long, gradual slope of Mcintyre is deceiving, like those volcanoes in Hawaii. You can be more than 2,000 feet vertical below the peak and it still looks like it's just a quick skip to the top. But, elevation-wise, this is higher than any mountain I've climbed in Juneau yet. Pretty cool to be this high this far north, on Dec. 24.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all no frostbite!
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Brief holiday escape

I am in Whitehorse for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - a short trip with a lot of traveling, but worth it. I have never been to the Yukon in the winter, and what I saw (and felt) on White Pass before darkness fell was simply breathtaking - and unphotographable because of bad light: Black spruce painted white with rime, big mountains and hard blasts of wind. The wind chill was forecast to bottom out at 39 below. I don't think it was nearly that cold, but I guess it's possible.

My friends here have a big Christmas dinner planned. I spent most the evening helping my friend Sierra assemble several complicated and stress-inducing Norwegian delicacies. I finally perfected the Lefse by pretending I was making tortillas. We made three kinds of increasingly complicated cookies, which Sierra admitted were really all just elaborate versions of the sugar cookie I grew up frosting with food-dye powdered sugar paste. "Really," she said as she held up a pillowy wafer of batter that had been whipped up, dipped around a metal mold, deep-fried into a golden rosette and coated with sugar, "they're all just vehicles for butter and sugar that take a long time to make, which makes sense, because Norway is like here and it's dark and cold and there's not much else to do."

Tomorrow we tackle Lutefisk, but not before copious amounts of Pugsley riding on hard, frozen trails.

I worked on my writing project during the entire seven-hour (somewhat delayed) ferry ride between Juneau and Skagway. I made enormous progress, and feel encouraged by it. Not sure if I worked past my block of if writing for me is simply a matter of being trapped in a place where it is impossible to ride my bike.

But on all fronts, it's been a great trip so far, and I haven't done a lick of biking yet.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solstice with wolves

Sunrise came at 8:45 a.m. on the shortest day of the year. The highest mountain peaks glowed apple red in the morning light as I drove my car to Foreign Auto to finally get my studded tires installed. I dropped off my car, hoisted my backpack and hoofed a half block over to Heritage Coffee. The frosty dry air outside hit me like a wall. "Dang, it feels like Anchorage out here!" I thought. It was probably single digits. Certainly not cold enough to cancel, well, anything ... but the air inside of Heritage swirled with warmth. I cradled my massive cup of coffee, nibbled a cheese bagel, and wondered about the simpler joys in life ... like spending a lazy morning lounging at a coffee shop while holiday shoppers and harried commuters and school children suffering through the short days before holiday break all moved through the hard air outside.

My friend, Bjorn, shattered my comfort illusion by walking in the door. We ducked into his car with the ice barely scraped from the windows and drove to the Thunder Mountain trailhead. I looked at my watch. Four and a half hours until I had to be at work; five and a half hours until sunset. We started up the trail and it wasn't long before I was down to my base layers. I don't think it matters how cold it is — everything feels like a sauna when you're gaining 1,500 feet per mile. Shadows stretched long over the white snow, and the mountains reflected the warm gold of the winter sun. "You know," I said to Bjorn, "The thing that bums me out about solstice is that it means less and less of this amazing light." The more the sun climbs high in the sky, the more it washes out everything, like a florescent overhead light versus a single dim bulb in the corner of a room. The summer solstice is overwhelmed with light to the point of hollow gluttony. Winter solstice forces you to savor every taste.

Not that I am complaining about the coming of the light. But as I enter my fifth winter in Alaska, I find more every year that I have a deep appreciation for the gifts and challenges of the season. Including the final pitch of Thunder Mountain, a snow wall that's a serious challenge for the likes of me. I took my sweet time axing my own steps out of the crust, breaking through the ice glaze on top only to watch my carved step collapse in a hole of unbonded powder. It's the kind of condition that raises alarms for those of us who haven't worked beyond the basic tips of Avalanche 101 yet, but I figured Bjorn knew what he was doing. And, anyway, he was long out of sight and the wall hadn't come down on me yet.

As I finally crawled over the lip and walked tentatively over the glaze ice surface, I saw Bjorn sprinting toward me. He grabbed my shoulders and thrust my whole body sideways. "Wolves!" he said. "Six, maybe eight, over there!" And sure enough I heard low, short barks echoing through the still air. I turned my head to see their sleek bodies bounding along the crest of the ridge, less than a quarter mile away. We both stood still, frozen as though by not moving we could hide our existence, as the pack of wolves congregated from several points along the ridge. They continued to call out, "Woo! Woo! Woo!," which we interpreted to mean, "All right, everyone, time to get out of here." We watched in awe as they peeled down the ridge and out of sight, and then Bjorn put his arm around me and said, "Now that's solstice!"

We waited a few more minutes to see if they were going to come back and then decided to follow their tracks a ways down the ridge. The tracks confirmed that there were at least six wolves, running together in long paths across the open plain. As we traveled tentatively toward the site where we had spotted them, it occurred to me just how special the moment really was. Wolf sightings are rare, even in Alaska. Even Bjorn, who has more Alaska and mountain backcountry experience than anyone I know, only claims a handful of them. I have but two, which are both slightly dubious in nature - one is Romeo, Juneau's half-domesticated glacier wolf, and the other was a scrawny gray youth that I saw staggering up the Alaska Highway in western Yukon as I was moving from Homer to Juneau. I stopped my car to take his picture and he turned and started walking toward me, with this creepy, crazy demeanor that made me dive back into my car and drive away. As Bjorn told me, "Wolves decide whether or not they're going to let you see them."

And these wolves let us see them. It felt like a moment of grace, and it's these simple joys that are worth climbing for.
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowmobiling, sans motor

My friend Abby and I were planning to go for a hike/run today. Because of recent snow, wind, avalanche concerns, her lack of snowshoes, etc., we planned to head up the well-traveled Dan Moller Trail. She called this morning with a sore throat and cancelled, but since I already had my head set on that trail, I decided to head up there anyway, with my bike.

Juneau has but two areas where people can ride snowmobiles, and one of them is the Dan Moller Trail. As a purely human-powered winter enthusiast, I am actually pro-snowmobile, within the realm of responsible use. Modern-day machines aren't the gas hogs they used to be. And yes they're loud and yes they smell, but only when they're fairly close to you, which they don't tend to be for very long. And snowmobiles pack down great bike trails. Great, fun, swoopy, powdery bike trails. Trails that don't leave a permanent imprint on the backcountry, unlike summer bike trails (which I also support, of course, within the realm of responsible use.) But, yes, I think snowmobilers get a bad rap from other human-powered types. And it's really the place of only a few of us to criticize. Yes, their sport - and mine - is dependent on motorized use. So is Nordic skiing, which requires machines to set trails. So is lift-served skiing; resorts are an enormous energy drain not to mention a blight on the land. Even backcountry skiers generally drive, sometimes for hours, to their favorite powder stashes. If you walk out your back door, strap on a pair of skis, and skin up the mountain and ski back down, then you may criticize me and my support of snowmobiles.

That said, my own snowmobile is fairly low-impact. It presses gently into the snow and emits only tiny amounts of carbon dioxide and salt through the breath I exhale and the sweat I release. Powered by oranges, Chex cereal and copious amounts of coffee, it carries me slow but true up the long climb to the ridge. Sometimes I have to push it along. Often, I have to push it along. But I know once I reach the top, I will be rewarded with wind-scoured crust riding, steep rolling trails and views that never fail to make my jaw drop.

I rode as far as the bottom of a couple of crazy-steep high-marking lines, dropped the bike and followed the ridgeline on foot up Mount Troy. These are some of the hoodoos of Mount Troy; finding the route around them is a maze of puzzles, trying to climb while not post-holing up to my neck.

The summit of Mount Troy. On my way back down, I ran into a couple of high-markers who had both rolled their machines. A thin trail of oil marked their tumble down the hill, and I picked up a couple small broken bits of plastic as I approached them. They were huddled beside one of the machines with the hood open, and when they saw me they burst into an endorphin-charged story about their narrow escape from death as they summersaulted downhill in front of several hundred pounds of metal and plastic. I could hardly understand their burst of words, but I surmised that the driver of the broken machine panicked and bailed, downhill of his machine, near the top of the curve, and his friend went to his assistance only to panic as the out-of-control first machine tumbled toward him. I tried not to project a disapproving grimmace as I asked them if they wanted me to hike back up to the peak, where I could get a thin cell phone signal. They told me they thought they could fix the machine themselves, and I continued down, hoping I could manage to ride off the ridge before they caught up to me.

As I said, I only advocate responsible snowmobile use. Idiots should stay home. :-)

But my human-powered snowmobile use turns slightly less responsible as I start down the steep stuff myself. The trail loses 2,500 feet of elevation in something less than five miles, down a dramatically rippled, sandy-powder-coated, narrow line in the snow. All I can do is hold on tight, throttle the sometimes useless brakes, occasionally throw my right foot down as a ski, launch off the whoop-dee-dos and hope the rubber side stays down. Whee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee! It's a wild ride, tear-jerking and breathtaking, and can strip away three and a half hours of climbing/ridge riding in less than 30 minutes.

On a different note, and sorry I never posted this earlier, but I still have yet to receive my order of books. I am very sorry about the inconvenience. Basically, I can't believe Fed Ex screwed me again. My publisher used to ship USPS priority, and I wasn't even aware they had made the change to their basic shipping service until after I received my tracking number, and by then it was too late. Otherwise, I would have never bothered to order the books, or at least looked into the viability of an expedited service. The contractor that deals with Fed Ex Ground in Juneau is super sketchy. The last time I used them, my snow bike disappeared into the Fed Ex void for two weeks ahead of my first Iditarod race. Days before the race, I had no idea where it had gone. Luckily, at the time I had a regular interview spot on an NPR program called the Bryant Park Project, so I had the whole angry power of public radio and a fair number of helpful blog readers behind me, and at the 11th hour my bike was hand-delivered from the back seat of a small car to its destination. This time, I have no such power, and the company has completely written me off. As I said before, if you were depending on these books for Christmas, just e-mail me for refunds. Otherwise, I will send them off as soon as I possibly can.

Until then, bah humbug to Fed Ex!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book update

I wanted to thank everyone who bought my book recently. I wanted to update you all on the status of shipping, which is unfortunantly not working in my favor right now. My bulk order shipped out on Dec. 6 via FedEx (I deeply dislike FedEx. I believe my bike Pugsley, which once spent two weeks wedged in a corner of the Juneau depot, would vouch for that company's uselessness in this region). The package arrived in Anchorage on Dec. 10, and I have yet to receive it five days later. I've been trying to track it down, to no avail yet. I'm optimistic that if I receive it by Friday, I can still get packages out to people in 2-3 days via the much more trustworthy U.S. Postal Service. Canada should be pre-Christmas as well. Anyone outside of there is pretty unlikely at this point. I'm very sorry about the delay. I will post again if I don't get the package by Friday. I can issue refunds to anyone for whom this might be a problem. Just e-mail me at Yeah, I'm bummed about it, too. But I do appreciate all the orders.

In better news, named "Up in Alaska" the "Best Cycling Blog of 2009." Much thanks! For those who worry that this blog hasn't been "bikey" enough as of late, here's what I have in store for 2010: Snow bike training, winter overnight bikepacking trips (possible in the Yukon), the White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks, hopeful long summer bike tour, TransRockies mountain bike stage race on a mixed team with a wild Canadian, and more! Remember, It's Not About The Bike ... and yet, it really is.

As for my new book project, I have not made much progress on it. It feels like there are a lot of reasons I've stalled out on it, and writer's block isn't one of them. Every time I sit down at my computer, my head is flooded with images, but I'll just stare at it for a while, close the screen, and start reading one of the many bike touring and mountaineering adventure books I've picked up at the local library. I've found more inspiration in my daily life than I could ever hope for, and yet I can't write it down. I feel like I'm in a deep rut right now, personally, professionally and creatively. The only thing I haven't been disappointed in lately is my photography, and as I've said before, I never set out to be a photographer. I have a hard time taking personal satisfaction in the images I take because they don't feel like mine - they feel like the world's. The world makes the images and I merely observe them. But I guess the same could be said about words.

Digging back through this story I'm trying to write, I noticed a passage in my chapter about my frostbite experience in this past year's Iditarod race. In some ways, it echoes the way I'm feeling right now - not about my toes, but about the parts of myself that are holding me back:

"I pressed my forehead against the cold glass, hoping to numb the pain-seared blood that still coursed through my veins. Every capillary tingled with the reverberations of rewarming. The only parts of my body that I couldn’t feel were my toes. I looked down at the alien digits, nearly consumed by black and purple botches and puss-colored blisters. I tried to wiggle them and they only quivered, like a moldy slab of meat that had been left out of the freezer too long. They no longer felt like part of me. Imposters. Parasites. If I could only work up the courage to hobble into the kitchen, I could carve them off with a butcher’s knife and free the parts of me that still ached to continue the journey. But pain kept me pressed against the window in a cramped building, consumed with a helpless sort of yearning."

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The bender ender

(Note: A bookend morning of sunlight gave me one last day to bask in the mountains before a forecast storm dumps several inches of heavy snow on a really rotten surface layer, thus creating avalanche conditions that I'm not equipped to deal with. I snowshoed up the Grandchild Ridge with Sean. It was a fun, beautiful day, but this point, it's probably best left to short photo captions. So I'm including the first draft of my Empire Outdoors column with the photos. Now, time to sharpen up the snowboard and finally get down to bicycle training for the White Mountains 100. Who wants to go to Eaglecrest on Saturday?

Sean follows wolf tracks up to the Sun Bowl.

SAD? Winter joy just a matter of perspective

By Jill Homer
Juneau Empire

The extended week of Dec. 4 to Dec. 12 was perhaps one of the sunniest I have ever experienced in Juneau.

It didn’t matter that it was out only for six hours a day, hovering low on the horizon and casting long blue shadows between intermittent flecks of gold light. It didn’t matter that temperatures were in the 20s, sometimes in the teens, and bulbs of frozen sweat clung to my air. It didn’t matter that thick fog hugged the shoreline, forcing me to gasp and claw my way to new winter heights. I spent a week-plus basking in sunlight. During these short days when many Alaskans are perched in front of full-spectrum florescent bulbs, that really matters.

A fairly large slab avalanche slides off the ridge.

It’s that time of year again in Alaska. And no, with the exception of the most holiday-crazed among us, it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. It’s dark. It’s cold. Winter solstice offers but a small glimmer of hope, and it’s not even here yet. Time to flick on the SAD lights.

I’m no stranger to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve had my fair share of bouts. I remember one particularly strong flare-up in 2008, when I climbed up Mount Jumbo in a summer gray-out only to be hit with the full fury of a snain storm (for those new to Juneau, that means a chilling swirl of snow and rain.) It was July. I don’t think I’ve felt so SAD about anything weather-related in all my life.

This is the kind of photo we take because it says, "Dear Mom, Alaska is great! Merry Christmas." As I backed up to get the full profile of Mount Stroller White, I broke through the deep fracture of a separated cornice that hung over a very precarious, avalanched slope (see previous photo.) That's the part we don't tell moms about. (Sorry, Mom.)

But in December, there’s something wholly joyful about pulling on layers of fleece and wool, wedging oneself into a winter coat and pushing out into the wind and ice and yes, sometimes snain. Beyond the initial “yuck” factor of cold weather and sometimes difficult-to-navigate trail conditions, the best-known cure for SAD is out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Take this past week for example. A high-pressure system moved in, bringing lots of sun, light winds and only mildly cold temperatures. I wanted to take full advantage of what for me is ideal winter weather with an outdoor binge:

Sean chips his way up the steep ridge. Later, these slopes would provide humbling lessons in the art of self-arrest.

On Dec. 4, a friend and I trekked up Mount Jumbo, punching thigh-deep snowshoe tracks in the seemingly bottomless fluff. In four years of endurance cycling training, I have yet to experience a more endlessly strenuous workout. But as we stood on the saddle with endorphins pulsing through our blood and basking in full sunlight, I doubted if I’d ever experienced a more satisfying one.

On Dec. 6, I rode my snow bike up the Lake Creek Trail to Spaulding Meadows. I followed the narrow tracks of cross-country skiers as they weaved across a frost-feathered blanket of clean snow. It’s still too early for snowmobiles; the meadows were soulfully quiet and reflective on a Sunday morning.

On Dec. 7, I cycled out the road, studded tires crackling like sizzling bacon on the cold pavement, and frosty wind chill amplifying the thrill of movement in warm muscles.

On Dec. 8, I mountain biked around Dredge Lake, where frozen beaver ponds provided easy passage and hoarfrost-coated alder branches sparkled.

On Dec. 9, I climbed Thunder Mountain, tracing the tracks of a mountain goat along the sun-drenched ridge.

On Dec. 11, I hiked Blackerby Ridge, which rose like a breathtakingly scenic bridge over the thick inversion that kept most of the city in fog.

And on Dec. 12, another friend and I returned to Mount Jumbo. We followed those well-earned snowshoe tracks from Dec. 4, nicely hardened into a express “stairway to heaven,” and continued on to the ice-glazed peak.

Looking toward the majestic Chilkats.

All in all, it was one of my best outdoor weeks in three and a half years of living in Juneau. I wouldn't have traded it for a dozen 60-degree days in July. I’m not saying every Juneau resident should immerse themselves in the same activities. After all, not everyone has a job that doesn’t require them to be at the office until the sun has nearly set. And some winter enthusiasts prefer regular storms and fluffy powder stashes to the hardpack crust and sun that winter bikers and hikers thrive on. And, really, after a week of playing hard for three, four, and sometimes eight-hour stretches in the freezer of December, I’m pretty much exhausted. But I also have enough quality stoke in the bank to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, at least through Christmas.

Goodbye to the Sun Bowl, goodbye to the sun ... at least for a little while.

And that’s my point. Whether you’re a cross-country skier, a downhill skier, a snowboarder, a snowshoer, an ice skater, a bundled-up beach walker, an ax-wielding ridge trekker or a studded-tire-clad cyclist, the rewards of venturing outdoors in December far outweigh the discomforts. Analyze the risks. Choose some good equipment. Don’t push past your abilities. Dress warm. And just get out there!

It can’t be worse than snain in July.