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.