Friday, October 30, 2009

Venture into the new season

It's been a good weekend. What I expected was rain and lots of time spent indoors catching up on chores; what I got was pretty much everything but.

I was in the middle of doing my laundry Thursday afternoon when I first noticed sparkles of sunlight breaking through the clouds. I stopped the dryer and figured I'd just air-dry the load on hangers, later, and hauled Pugsley out of the back seat of my car.

I took a quiet two-hour ride around all the trails of the Valley, rolling and fun with no real destination. A light freeze set in and the trails firmed up nicely.

And, of course, riding the big wheels on the beach is always a good time.

It was a great little breather between shopping and cleaning and laundry and going to see that new Michael Jackson movie. Like a whiff of the sublime amid the mundane.

I lingered for a while on the shore of the Mendenhall Lake to watch the sunset. I see so few of these.

For as serene as Thursday was, today was the polar opposite. I've been wanting to get out and play with my new mountaineering toys, but the weather, which has been seriously wet, just hasn't been cooperating. Today was overcast and windy but at least dry. I've been interested in tackling some winter mountain treks but I realize I need to start small. I decided to head up the Mount Roberts route, which is easy to follow and has a more mellow grade than most of the routes around here. It also happens to be in the windiest area in this entire region. Roberts and its adjacent ridges act as a funnel for Arctic blasts from the Interior. It was probably not the best place to go when the weather forecast was calling for northeast wind, but I figured retreat would be easy and fast. As I approached the mountain, I observed a startling lack of snow compared to the mountains surrounding the Mendenhall Valley.

By the time I cleared treeline, I fully understood why there was no snow ... it had all blown away. I worked my way toward Gold Ridge, sometimes swimming through waist-deep unconsolidated snow drifts; other times walking on barren rock. Crampons would have been useless in that powdered sugar, so I didn't bother to put them on, but toward the top a breakable crust was starting to form. The wind howled and I pulled on all of my layers, which included too much rain gear and not enough warm stuff. But I was warm enough, and there wasn't nearly enough snow to create any kind of avalanche danger, so I relaxed and let myself believe I was having fun.

When I crested the ridge, however, the entire force of the wind funnel broke open right where I stood. I dropped to my knees and clutched my ice ax as the jet stream roared past. Sharp ice blasted my face like thousands of tiny shards of glass. My eyelids clamped shut and refused to open again. As much as I tried, I could not physically open my eyes, as though some subconscious part of my brain that controls muscle movements believed that would be the last thing they would ever see. As it was, the ice shards were scraping the small strip of exposed skin on my forehead with such force that I felt like I was bleeding. Finally, the gust calmed down from what was likely near 80 mph to a more manageable 50 mph, and I was able to open my eyes and stagger to a more protected slope and hunker down with my back to the wind. As I looked back toward my route up, I realized the footprints I had just laid in the knee-deep snow were completely gone; scoured clean by the wind in a matter of seconds.

It was so brilliantly intense that I was gleeful. I tried to pull my hood over my hat but it just flapped around wildly like it was going to tear right off my flimsy little raincoat. My fingers ached from the short period of time in which I took off my mittens to snap some photos, and I wondered about the windchill. Minus 10? Minus 20? There's something about finding myself in an environment that extreme that I just love. Something that makes my whole life seem so small and inconsequential, but at the same time makes my body feel so alive. To be alive is a wonderful feeling.

Of course, I would probably feel differently about it if I had to spend several hours up there rather than the 10 or so minutes that I actually did. I retreated quickly as the lower-elevation wind picked up force. By the time I took this photo, my camera was almost completely coated in ice. I ran down the powder snow and ducked into the safety of the trees. My eyes and face burned, my fingers ached as though they had been smashed and my toes were starting to go numb, but I was happy, because I had faced the blinding winter wilderness, and it allowed me to see so much.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

First day of Pugsley season

(photo by Michael Penn)

Poor, neglected Pugsley. I finally headed out to my storage unit to extract him from cobwebs and dust. He still has the tiny road racing saddle I used as a placeholder after I stole the original seat to use on the Great Divide (and subsequently wore it to shreds and threw it away.) The lube is probably six months old. I don't even know what's up with the brakes. Much maintenance is needed, but today it did not matter. There was snow on the Eaglecrest Road, and it was fully necessary to get out and lay some first tracks.

I have no problem riding most of this steep road in the summer, but it's a beast with a 36-pound bike atop wet powder with a film of ice. I walked most of the way up with a group of hikers, who, like me, just wanted to get out and enjoy what feels like the season's "first snow."

It was cold and windy at the top — a small taste of the raging northeasterly Taku blast that is reportedly on its way.

I was dressed in rain gear rather than frigid-wind-blocking snow gear, a mistake I make a lot this time of year. So I couldn't linger up high as long as I would have liked.

Looking out over the top of the ski hill, Fish Creek canyon, and the Mendenhall Wetlands far below.

Much of the road had iced up by the time I went down, so I skirted to the side and rode the shoulder — with occasional forays over frozen tundra — through an exhilarating blast of wet powder. Pugsley's tires, still coated in spring mud, effortlessly floated on top of the ice-crusted surface, and for a few beautiful minutes, all was silent except for the wind. Silence and speed ... those are the origins of bliss.

I wonder who missed it more ... me or Pugsley.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Saturation

It's thrilling, really, that first moment your defenses are breached, that first trickle of water between your shoulder blades, like a slow, icy tickle on hot skin. Then the rain pants soak through, followed by the slow saturation of wool long johns. Then the neoprene gloves become clammy; they drip water when you clench your fists. Then more water seeps in from your neck line; it creeps up your arms and your waist; your fleece hoodie absorbs it like sponge, swirling water vapor inside your plastic jacket, condensing until there are more droplets on the inside of the sleeves than the outside. When the wool leggings won't hold any more moisture, lukewarm water trickles down your vapor barrier socks to your liner socks, which are already soaked with sweat anyway. You wriggle your white wrinkled toes and breathe in the thick humidity, the vapor of warm sweat and cold air surrounding your own personal biosphere. And you pedal harder into the geyser streaming from both sides of your pathetic fenders, and you smile, because you and the rain are finally one, and you are free.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Geoff's big dream


Dark days are coming; really, they're already here. It's the time of year to build up body fat, pray for snow, and start dreaming about 2010. Most of my ideas for next year encompass things that even normal people would consider a fun vacation (ski touring in Banff), local epics (traversing the Juneau Icefield to Atlin, B.C.), and real big-time bike races (TransRockies).

But, so far, nothing truly huge. I admit that I wish I had something big, even in the abstract sense, lined up for 2010 or 2011 — if nothing else, because it might add some depth to this state of flux I feel like I'm drifting through. But, no, now is not the time for that. Now is the time to focus on the bigger picture and let the adventures fall where they may.

I think that's why I'm feeling excited about an ultramarathon that Geoff has been cooking up that he is calling the Tongass 100. It's not particularly new to me (a lot, though certainly not all of the terrain is stuff I've seen). It's not particularly far away (always within about 10 as-the-crow-flies miles from Juneau city limits). It's not even something I could participate in (Someone like me would require three to five days to complete the route, and even then I would call it "fastpacking.") But there's something about it that feels huge; maybe it's just potential - this twinkle of something larger, like when those Iditabike crazies in the '80s looked at the Iditarod Trail and said, "Let's try to ride our bikes on this."

From what I know about 100-mile foot races, the Tongass 100 would be similar to, well, none of them. There would be times racers would be sloshing through shin-deep mud or balancing on slippery wooden planks; others where they would be plodding up or swinging down 60-degree slopes; and then there's the alpine — hand over head scrambles up peaks, crossing massive snowfields, glissading down and repeating over and over and over again. The crux of the route involves the crossing from Nugget Peak to Ptarmigan Ridge. Either Geoff will have to drop the route several thousand feet and ford Lemon Creek (which is a raging river in my opinion), or stay high and cross over the Lemon Glacier, which I've heard has been done by people in running shoes, but still ... glacier. Big, shifting river of ice that tends to be full of large crevasses (usually exposed in summertime).

Of course, this race would be unofficial. It's an insurance nightmare, dangerous in many ways, but oddly doable. People could run this route. It would be one of the toughest 100-milers ever attempted in the U.S., for sure. I wouldn't be surprised if the elevation gain is in the 30,000-35,000-foot range. But it wouldn't be anything like the big climb-fests of the Rockies. Sure, there's no real altitude in Juneau, but what we lack in elevation we make up for in bad trails, treacherous terrain, horrible weather, and sheer remoteness even so close to a populated area.

I would hope my contribution to this race would be to man a checkpoint at a place near Cairn Peak called Camp 17. It would be located between to two huge ridge traverses, where runners would gain an endless string of peaks and a large bulk of their elevation, all without touching any hint of civilization. I would have to backpack in any provisions, over a seven-mile, 5,000-feet-of-climbing hike for me and anyone I could convince to do it. But I envision setting up shop in the unheated quonset hut, rolling out the extra sleeping bags I carried, firing up the camp stove to melt snow for water and filling up a small number of water bottles with some kind of endurance drink. And if I could find a really good friend with a big backpack, there would also be sliced oranges. Runners would drop in after their long traverse of Heinzelman Ridge, summit run over Nugget Peak and crossing of either Lemon Creek or Lemon Glacier. I would hand them a water bottle and a sliced orange and say, "there are only seven more peaks and maybe 10,000 feet of climbing and then a huge drop to sea level before the next aid station." Yes, that would be lots of fun ... for me.

But it is inspiring to watch Geoff dream up this monster, and maybe even talk others into joining him. I hope he pulls it off, and I hope I can somehow be a part of it. So if anyone out there has any crazy ultrarunning aspirations, I encourage you to get in contact with Geoff. It's not about how fast you can do it — it will be amazingly impressive if anyone can even do it, even Geoff, with his hometown advantage and superhuman endurance. But the Tongass 100 may be just crazy enough to become the next big thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I'm in the photograph

It has been a rather dull weekend - dull meaning, mostly, that Juneau's normal autumn weather came back. It still has no real teeth to it ... a little rain, a little wind, nothing hurricane-ific. I rode 57 miles on Thursday, 27 miles today and did a 3.5-hour hike up Thunder Mountain on Friday.

The hike was inspired by a semi-sunny sucker hole that closed in very quickly. I decided to try out a new trail to the top. I located the trailhead on my map, and after about a quarter mile came to what looked like a three-way fork that was not on the map. I chose the path that went straight up the mountain, because that seemed like the most logical route. It petered out quickly and dumped me in a drainage - an obvious deer trail. But, bull-headed as I am, I continued to zig-zag between that drainage and another, bushwhacking through barren alder and blueberry bushes, until I was scrambling up a virtual waterfall, slipping all over the place and clutching devil's club stalks because they were everywhere, and consequently the only thing to hang on to. I'm still picking thorns out of my palms. By the time I crawled out of the jungle, I was nearly to the ridge, soaked in muddy runoff and frustration and determined to take the familiar Heinzelman Ridge trail back to civilization, even though it would have dumped me on the Glacier Highway, where I faced a four- or five-mile jog to my car. I didn't care. I traversed the ridge through sideways rain and gray-out fog. Upon return, I found the Thunder Mountain trail, which turned out to be a real trail, and also was nowhere near the place where I hiked up. Live and learn.

But I was disappointed by the lack of photographic inspiration this weekend, and even more disappointed by the way the gray sky and wet pavement seemed to strip away any motivation I had to ride. The 57-miler was the first truly tedious thing I've done in a long time. I stuck with it mostly because I had planned it. Then, after Friday's debacle of a hike, I had an even harder time coaxing myself out the door today.

It wasn't so much the weather - to be perfectly honest, I have been pretty lucky with the windows I've caught and I didn't even get rained on during both of my rides. But those gray drab landscapes were just uninspiring. It was cold and windy and I just wasn't feeling the same nervous energy that has propelled me to new heights this season. Instead of big dreams and realizations, my mind remained as gray and blank as the sky. I was just bored. And it was enlightening to realize the reason why I was so bored ...

There was nothing to photograph.

Despite my proliferation of pictures, photography hasn't been a major driving motivator for me in the past. There's a reason I still only own a single, simple digital point-and-shoot and photograph landscapes almost exclusively. I'm not a photographer on a bicycle, I'm a cyclist with a camera. My art isn't photography, it's the outdoors - or, more specifically, my enthusiasm for the outdoors, and my zeal for documenting the things I see and feel.

But the fact remains that I've become increasingly more attached to my camera as an outlet for my art. If I've had a particularly good day on a mountain, I won't let the thing out of my sight until all of the pictures have been downloaded. While I was riding the Great Divide, another touring cyclist in Colorado asked me what I'd rather lose - my camera or my wallet. I breathed a long pause and weighed the choice - my wallet, which was my only means for acquiring food and shelter and bike parts and really even continuing the ride; or my camera, which I received for free and had used to shoot hundreds of pictures from the previous 1,500 miles. I looked at him and answered, in all seriousness, "I'd rather lose the wallet."

Which basically means I care more about the past than the future.

But it also means I've become too focused on the visual side of my art — let's just call my art "creative cycling" (slash-beginner-mountaineering). I'd like to find ways to get back to the roots of expression - the way I used to experience the changes in my body and the startling movements in my mind. Part of me thinks it's about time for real training; that I need to find a concrete goal and drive full-bore toward it. Another part thinks it's time to plan another adventure, even if it's a long way off, and focus my outdoor activities in a way that helps me become more self-sufficient and better prepared for a wider range of demands.

I don't know. I know that right now, I go outside to go outside. And as rewarding as that has been and still is, sometimes it's just not enough.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This amazing autumn

(My newspaper trail column for this week)

By Jill Homer
Juneau Empire

I feel like I have been getting away with something I shouldn’t be.

That first subtle tinge of guilt came as I crested the snow-swept summit of Mount Roberts one bluebird Friday, gazing out at a carpet of fog as it disintegrated over the shimmering Gastineau Channel.

“This is not what Oct. 2 should be like,” I thought.

And again, during a five-day stretch of unconscionably dry weather, when I climbed up to the Grandchild Ridge north of Mount Stroller White and sprawled in short sleeves on the soft tundra.

“This can’t be Oct. 14,” I thought.

My guilt about my glutinous consumption of late-season vitamin D reached a full boil on Tuesday as I marched through the soft snow near the summit of Mount McGinnis, looking at the startling contrast of light and shadow on the Mendenhall Glacier. “Oct. 20 and it’s still beautiful,” I thought. “This just can’t be real.”

In short, I have been getting out. A lot. In the sunlight. A lot. And something about that just isn’t right.

Call it seasonal reflective disorder. Autumn sunshine just isn’t normal. In Southeast Alaska’s climate, I’m not even sure it’s legal. And yet it’s so sublimely intoxicating that it’s revealed high gears I didn’t even know I had. I come home from work at midnight and set the alarm for 6 a.m., drag my battered legs along a leaf-strewn trail or rocky ridge for several lung-busting hours, and then I do it the next day, and the next. I feel like I can’t slow down unless the usual sheets of cold rain are falling from the sky — which they rarely are, and so I don’t.

And yet, I don’t get tired. At least not in the way I should. Quite the contrary — I open my eyes to yet another sun-drenched morning, and I’m instantly injected with a shot of highly potent energy that feels like it’s going to somehow become toxic if I don’t work it out of my system.
The resulting pursuits to purge that energy and soak up sunshine have taken me places I could hardly dream of during the infamously dreary summer of 2008: the Juneau Ridge, Cairn Peak and Sheep Mountain, just to name a few. Last year, I waited for months for a weather window to open wide enough that I could simply climb Mount McGinnis. It never came. This year, an entire season’s worth of mountaineering opportunities opened up in the six weeks that are normally reserved for short, soggy mud runs followed by guiltless consumption of carbs.

I can’t say I’ve earned it, although I did endure three Southeast Alaska autumns prior to this one. In 2006, I dabbled in the experimental sport of “bike-swim” by trying to pilot my mountain bike around the heavily flooded Dredge Lake trails. In 2007, I finally bought a boot drier after each and every one of my running shoes became caked in mildew. In 2008, I just accepted that I had seasonal affective disorder and ate a copious number of cookies.

Last year was the year Juneau broke all kinds of uplifting weather records. We had wind records, daily rainfall records and consecutive days of rain records. According to the National Weather Service, Juneau received 15 inches of rain in October 2008. Fifteen! I'm going to come right out and say that's as much precipitation as those whiners in Anchorage receive in a year.

It could be worse. In 1999, Juneau only saw two dry days in the entire months of September and October. In 2005, torrential rains led to mudslides. In fact, it seemed record-breaking wetness was becoming the norm, until this year.

As of Oct. 21, Juneau’s monthly precipitation total was a measly 3.23 inches. Three-point-two-three! Those are June numbers. The perfect numbers to bust out a full-on fall trekking frenzy.

I can’t be the only Juneau resident who feels this way. I’ve seen others out there, riding bikes along Glacier Highway, hauling paragliding gear up Thunder Mountain, paddling the calm waters near False Outer Point long after all the kayaking tourists returned to the balmy south. Every single one of them, like me, had a big smile stretched across their face, as though they, like me, had been let in on some great secret that no one else knew.

The secret: It’s always sunny in Juneau.

OK, I know it can’t be a secret if it’s not even true. But this autumn, it felt true — true enough to be the source of much fun, and much guilt.

But like all guilty pleasures, Juneau’s amazing autumn couldn’t last forever. Based on Friday’s forecast, I’m guessing that as you read this column, sideways rain is pelting your window while 25 mph winds blow the 40-degree air around like an unwelcome blast of air conditioning.

And yet, next week, hopes for dry days re-emerge.

In fact, the weather forecast for Tuesday is a simple “mostly cloudy.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve soaked up too much sunshine this year to take the path of pessimism. Maybe it will be Oct. 27, dang near winter, but I’m going to hold on to hope. And come Tuesday morning, I’ll most likely be at the trailhead of some mountain, ice ax in hand, still hoping.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My goodness, McGinnis!

I feel like I'm getting away with something I shouldn't be.

I blame this mountain, Mount McGinnis, which I first scaled on Aug. 20 as something entertaining and symbolic to do on my 30th birthday. Sure, there were mountains before McGinnis, but I feel like that one trip sparked the embers of what has become a full-flame fall trekking frenzy. I keep pinching myself, waiting for the weather to close in for good. But I also keep monitoring weather reports, wind data and the local radar with my own brand of analysis, and now there's a science to my madness.

Or pseudo-science, if you will. Take today: It was Tuesday, which has historically (since Aug. 20) been a good day for sunshine. Weather reports called for a 40 percent chance of rain. Less than half! Radar was noncommittal - therefore, non-damning. And it was Oct. 20, two months since the trekking frenzy began. Nice round anniversaries are good omens. Based on that data, I knew this: There was an 82.4 percent chance that it would be a good day on Mount McGinnis. I came home from work at 12:15 and set the alarm for 6:30.

Which, at this late date, is before sunrise. Icy fog clung to my eyelashes as I moved through the thick morning. The beam of my headlamp collided with a wall of water vapor and streamed out sideways. The light was nearly useless so I switched it off and broke out into a blind jog.

I rose out of the fog and into the monotone shade of overcast skies. I was not discouraged. I had faith in the sun. The trail steepened and I slowed to a walk, picking my way across a minefield of stream crossings and wet rocks. At about 1,900 feet I hit the ice - a slick layer of frozen rain cascading like a ribbon over the entire rocky route.

My progress slowed to less than a crawl. I veered into the brush, where the slope was covered in its own crazy-slick, frosted rotten groundcover, but at least there were branches to cling to. Every once in a while, I pulled out my ice ax and chipped away at the ice layer, hoping to expose a rock foothold beneath. I wasn't so much annoyed by the effort or how treacherous it was - I just wanted to pick up the pace. Fourteen miles plus 4,228 feet of climbing before my early afternoon meeting meant I was going to have to start moving a lot faster than a half mile per hour.

But I held on to my patience, slowly chipping away at the icy rock face until I finally reached snowline. I turned the ax around and started using it for its intended purpose - as an extra point of contact in the snow. The fresh-fallen, single layer of wet powder was so malleable that I didn't even need the ax, but it's fun to play with a new toy. I just bought the thing Thursday, after weeks of ignoring necessity, and I was amazed how dramatically it improved my confidence while I stomped up the steep slope.

In almost perfect line with my predictions, the sun poked out of the clouds right as I was relaxing into my snow stride, and quickly the sky opened to a dramatic cerulean blue. With its shimmering colors and sharp contrasts, the landscape was so mesmerizing that I forgot all about my tight schedule and stopped frequently to wipe the sweat from my eyes and stare off into a far-reaching horizon. It was a beautiful day.

It was just after 10 a.m. when I crested the false summit, about 500 or so feet below the real summit. It would have been a fairly simple jaunt to the top, but I just couldn't swing it. I budgeted six hours for the hike, three each way, based on how long it took me to reach the summit in August and the fact that it always takes me just as long to descend a mountain as it does to ascend it. Three hours came and went and even though I jogged most of the West Glacier Trail (last time I biked half of it). The glare ice slowed me enough that I was at least a half hour below the peak at crunch time. Late for work is one thing; an hour late for work is quite another.

It's all good. I am pretty much over peak-bagging now. There is so much more to a mountain than the top - like fingers of snow reaching across the talus, pointing the way to a whole new perspective.

I look at them differently, every time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tempo

For the past three days, I've been down with a slight sinus infection that was threatening to work its way into my lungs. I had been feeling like I was on the ledge of a full-body rebellion as it was, so I reacted by sleeping and going to work and sleeping some more. Meanwhile, the refreshingly normal Juneau skies purged themselves of a lot of pent-up rain and my cold retreated, probably due to boredom.

This morning I woke up with actual energy for the first time in days, and all my body wanted to do was run out those last droplets of viral sediment. The rain seemed to cease and their were patches of sunlight in the clouds. I pulled the Road Monkey down from my car, where it was threatening to rust to the roof rack; amazing how a full week can go by just like that. "Today," I told myself, "I will ride hard."

Swirls of steam rose up where cars streamed down the wet road. I wanted to emulate that, so I laid hard into the pedals, breathing deep, raspy breaths as I focused on the acute burn of individual fibers of quad muscles. I was an explosion of pent-up energy, burning off three days worth of night sweats, morning mucus and gurgling gunk. I powered out to Eagle Beach and back, about 36 miles round trip, in something that felt like 20 minutes, but was probably closer to two hours, although I have a bad habit these days of not keeping track of mileage, speed or time.

But it feels like I rode fast, and that's what matters.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Higher

There is this peak in Juneau that I've wanted to climb ever since I first noticed it looming over my office building on a cold September day in 2006. It's called Observation, which I agree is a lame name for a mountain. But there's something about that name ... Observation ... as though all I would have to do is climb to the top, and I would be able to see everything, all of it. I coveted that view. It's never come together for me, most often for lack of time, others for weather closing in, others for outright intimidation by the scope and length of it. But lately I've been practicing mountain trekking, a lot. I have more experience, I'm more efficient, and I knew, based on weather reports, that Thursday was going to be my last chance this year.

Conditions were not perfect. Winds were still high, and the lateness of the season meant the ridge would be covered in ice. Clouds were supposed to close in by mid-afternoon, and I was coping with a heavy fatigue, possibly brought on by a minor virus, but most likely due to how hard I've been pushing recently, between mountains and work, and how little recovery I've actually had. Still, last chances loomed in my mind. I sent an e-mail to my ex, Geoff, asking him if he had been up there recently and, if so, what the snow conditions were like. He called back and asked if he could go with me.

Geoff and I have both spent a lot of time in the mountains this summer and fall. I walk, and he runs. He can go to Observation and back in less than five hours. I estimate on my best days it would take me at least eight, more often nine or 10. But there are often days where we'll unknowingly be on parallel treks ... I'll be over on the Grandchild Ridge while he traverses Heinzelman; I'm on Roberts while he's across the way on Juneau. I get the feeling that we're both seeking the same things.

But I was surprised when he said he wanted to come with me. For starters, in his world, I'm slow. No way around it. This is a guy who finds walking to be an exhausting activity, compared to running, because to him running is a much more natural way to move. And secondly, Geoff and I haven't spent any real time alone together since we parted ways in San Fransisco in May. It was going to be awkward, I just knew it. But at the same time, it would be a great chance to test out all of the theories about myself that I had formed during all of my autumn solo treks up high - that I really was ready to move on.

I woke up feeling just slightly on the up-side of awful. I started up the Blackerby Ridge trail at 8:30, knowing Geoff wasn't going to start until 9. I was hoping to beat him to treeline, so he wouldn't see just how much I was struggling on the steep approach. I didn't quite make it. At about 1,800 feet, he came breezing up the trail. I was still clutching the large cup of coffee that I had cradled on several hands-over-head scrambles, and I was breathing hard. "I'm sorry if I become a total drag today," I gasped. "I'm not feeling even close to my normal self, and even that's not very good."

Geoff just shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not in a hurry."

We launched into stories about our recent runs/hikes, which developed into discussion about what was going on in our day-to-day lives. Geoff had a lot to tell me. He walked quickly. I followed quietly, and listened. I expected the things he said to hurt, but they didn't. What I felt for Geoff was strong compassion, for the way he was exposing himself to me, up there in a place that meant so much to both of us as individuals. What Geoff was looking for was understanding, and what he offered me in return was closure, and it felt real ... and good.

The cold wind that had been sweeping around us along Blackerby Ridge grew to hurricane force as we reached the face of Cairn Peak. It blew so hard that it seemed to whisk all the oxygen away before I could draw any in. I gasped. I couldn't breathe. I dropped to my hands and knees on the ice-coated talus. My face burned but I didn't want to take off my pack to pull out my mask, for fear that the wind would carry the entire thing away. I looked up and saw Geoff, who is substantially more sure-footed than I am, clinging to a rock outcropping and yelling something at me. There was no sound but the roaring wind. I crawled up to him.

"You OK?" he yelled, still difficult to hear even as I crouched right next to him.

"I'm scared," I admitted. "I'm scared of the wind."

"It's like 95 percent mental," he said. "Five percent of it really will trip you up, but most of it is getting past that mental block."

I nodded. In all the years we spent together, that was the most substantial thing Geoff taught me: That most of my "can'ts" are mental. That sometimes I focus too hard and spend too much time in my head. That sometimes I need to shut out everything else and only be in the absolute present. That's something Geoff has always been very good at. No worry for the future, no regret for the past. The wind won't blow you off the mountain if you don't let it. Just grit your teeth and plow forward.

We crested Cairn Peak in a frigid blast. My cheeks burned and my eyes watered. My heart was racing. I felt nauseated to the point where I doubted I'd be able to get any food down. I couldn't remember the last time I felt so weak and vulnerable. I pulled on my face mask and mittens. Geoff was wearing all the clothing he had with him - mostly wind layers, not much to block out the driving cold. He stood facing Lemon Glacier and Observation.

"Wow, it really is pretty close," I said as I wavered against a jet stream of air.

"We're not going to Observation today," Geoff said, which I already knew. We weren't prepared for two to three more hours of that kind of exposure, in that extreme of an environment. I was wheezing, Geoff was coughing, and we were both shivering in the brutal chill. But as I braced against the wind for a few quick gasps of view on top of Cairn Peak, I realized that Geoff and I were both completely exposed, and it was exactly where we needed to be.

There's Observation on the left, Mount Olds on the right - both recent failures of mine. But oddly, I'm completely OK with that. Because Thursday's hike, especially, feels like a success.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

This weather is killing me

I'm tired.

I climbed up Grandchild Ridge today. I didn't run my GPS, because I'm starting to burn through a lot of batteries as it is. But the ridge starts rolling at about 3,500 feet, and that's where I went, buffeted by cold wind and wheezing, not because 3,500 feet is particularly high, but because I was particularly tired.

OK, OK. It's easy to say. Aren't you bored of this stuff yet? Why not just take a day off? But look at that sky. I can't. Can't you see? I can't. I have the time. I have this perfect weather window that just won't quit. The only thing I don't have much of anymore is energy. These mountains lift my soul, every time, but my body is starting to wear down.

October Consecutive Bluebird Day Number Four. I woke up to my 7:30 a.m. alarm and debated it. I really did. I slumped out of bed, only to realize that the coffee beans I just purchased were decaf. Decaf! How am I supposed to survive like this? But pink hints of sunlight poured in through the window, and, well, I've been through this decision-making process before.

Everything was coated in a thick layer of frost, but at least the muddy trail was solid. I rode the Road Monkey to the trailhead and hoofed it from there. About four and a half hours time total. Slower than I should have been. I had to stop and catch my breath, somewhat frequently. Pull on my face mask in the wind and then take it off in the lulls. Rub that left quad muscle that is now in a perpetual state of soreness. Of course I know I'm overtrained. Of course I know that. But do you see that sky? That sun-bathed, nearly-snow-free ridgeline? That isn't going to last forever.

Or is it?

I wish I could say rest was coming my way, but I anticipated one more day - perhaps just a half day - of possibility and scheduled an epic tomorrow. It's a little late for me to back out of it, although a lot of it is dependent on weather and snow conditions and of course whether or not I can get these legs and lungs to rally. It seems unlikely that all will fall into place, but if it works out, it could become the culmination of what has been a very good fall. But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what I want to see out my window when I crawl out of bed early Thursday morning.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The wind we call Taku

Yesterday, as I was coming down the Sheep Creek trail, I crossed paths with another hiker wearing a big pack. "Headed to the ridge?" I asked him.

"Hawthorne," he answered. Hawthorne is a big peak, a majestic peak, one I covet but accept I won't reach this year. "How far did you go?" he asked.

"To about 3,000 feet," I answered. "There's some pretty intense wind up there; I got knocked around a bit, so I came down."

He took a big draw of air and sighed. "Taku winds are like medicine," he said. "Clears all the shit out." I nodded, and we continued on our way.

Taku is a Tlingit word for "stormy wind." Taku winds are big, mostly localized northeasterlies that hit Juneau in the fall and winter. Typically, they blow about 30-40 mph steady, gusting to 70 mph occasionally. Trees topple. Boats flip over in the harbor. The Taku winds stuck around today. I debated another day up high and decided against it. I headed out for some skinny-tire trail riding.

I have ridden enough bad-weather miles in Juneau to know where the wind-protected areas are. I fought a few gusts out to Dredge Lake and started looping around the maze of singletrack. Sometimes I forgot I was riding 80 psi and a rigid fork and got jolted around more than I was comfortable with, but as I settled into my flow, I also forgot about the Taku wind.

You know how it is when you're mountain biking - especially with a challenging bike. Every ounce of focus zooms in to the few square feet in front of you; there is no room for anything else. You pedal and brake and squint at every bump on every root in your path, sometimes thinking too hard about it, more often not thinking at all. On singletrack, the world becomes very small, which I think is a big part of the appeal.

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time in mountains thinking big, in a large part because I'm admittedly struggling right now. I'm trying to decide whether I'm in a holding pattern or moving forward; I'm trying to decide whether I'm blissfully happy with my life in Juneau or just scared to change; I'm grappling with new feelings and coming to terms with old ones. I feel like something needs to be done but I'm not sure what it is. So I seek out mountains, and I reflect, and I hope that answers will come.

On my mountain bike, I just ride. Which is why, when I stopped for a break by the shore of a moraine lake, it didn't occur to me how strange it was that the air had become completely calm. The surface of the lake was still, like ice. I rubbed the sweat from my eyes as I looked up at a near-perfect reflection of the landscape beyond. I didn't wonder where the Taku winds had gone. I didn't think about what I should do with my life. I just smiled. Everything seemed clear.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The weather's beautiful; Wish you were here

A fair number of my Juneau friends are out of town right now. They're in places as far-flung as Australia and Argentina, but they all seem to be following the over-arching theme of being as far south from Juneau as possible. It is, after all, October. Like January for Fairbanks-dwellers and every month that isn't January for people who live in Phoenix, October is the month we Juneauites scratch out on our calendars months in advance. "Rain season! Run! Run away!" And most of us do. Even I, ever year up until now, scheduled a Grand Canyon trip in October. I wasn't able to this year, because I took three whole months off during the summer to tour around Utah and the Rocky Mountains (places which, for the record, were uncharacteristically rainy.) So this autumn, I get to be the one who's stuck here.

Recently, I was hanging around a friend's place on one of those uncharacteristically beautiful bluebird September mornings when he pulled out his Hawaii maps to go over his ambitions for a three-week October trip to Kauai. And I, seething with jealousy, said, "You should just stick around Juneau next month." He glanced out the window and said, "You know, if it was going to be like this, I would." He turned back to me and smiled. We both knew the truth. It wasn't.

Last autumn, Juneau set a number of Seasonal Affective Disorder-inducing records: 34 consecutive days of rain, a deluge of record daily rainfall, record-high wind speeds. That's what I was braced for when this autumn rolled around, and that's why I am in such a mountain-madness-inducing state of shock over what we've had, which has been, for lack of a better word: Seasonable.

This morning was just that. Crystal blue sky. Frosty temperatures climbing into the high 30s. Golden sunlight glazed across the Gastineau Channel. OK, it was windy. OK, it was really windy. We here in Juneau take what we can get. I donned my ridiculous-looking-but-warm expedition fleece balaclava and foldable-to-free-up-climbing-fingers mittens, and headed up Sheep Creek. The 45 mph wind gusts carried a hard chill from the northeast that bit at ever millimeter of exposed skin, and knocked me around enough that I only ventured a few hundred feet above treeline. I thought it was beautiful all the same. I took a self-portrait to send as an e-postcard to my friend in Hawaii.

And I'm sending it out as an open invitation to my friends (especially you, Jen): Come to Juneau; the weather's fine, and I will take you to meet my mountains.