Monday, April 12, 2010

Leaving spring behind

My first two days in Anchorage were an exercise in overcoming disorientation. On my bike, in my car, standing in line at Starbucks - if I drifted off into daydreamland for even a few seconds, I'd be rattled awake by sensory overload. Smog! Traffic! Moose! Strip mall! Traffic! Where am I? Smog! I thought I'd have a lot to do, but since I knew I was traveling to Salt Lake City soon, there wasn't much I could do. I admit I wandered aimlessly. After two hours of bike wandering on Friday afternoon, my knee started to bug me again. At the same time, the weather was amazing, low-40s and sunny, and I was feeling stir crazy to get out, even though I was already out. "I'll go for a walk instead," I decided.

I don't really know where to go walking in Anchorage. I Googled the name of the one mountain I could remember, just because it happens to be the most-hiked mountain in all of Alaska - Flattop. "At least there will be a good trail to the top," I thought. Google gave me directions to the trailhead, and didn't pack much gear because, you know, popular hike, good trail ...

Most of the hike on foot-packed snow was a piece of cake, but near the top there was a near-vertical step that had been packed slick by other (often spike-wearing, pole-wielding) walkers. I wasn't too keen on downclimbing it, and wasn't even going to go up for that reason when another hiker told me it was possible to descend the other side of the mountain.

I traversed across Flattop, dropped down into the back gully and decided to climb the next peak on the ridge (which I later learned is called Peak 2). Below that peak, the ridge narrowed with fun scrambling along the edge of the knife. I dropped a bit until things started to get gnarly, but the place afforded me a great view of other accessible areas in the front range - Powerline Pass and so many other places I have yet to learn about. It was an exciting moment of discovery for me, even on what has to be one of the most-traveled mountain ridges in Alaska.

After that I started dropping, down, down, down, and beginning to notice that the trail showed no signs of looping back around the mountain that I was on the wrong side of. I finally stopped a snowboarder and asked him where the tracks I was following led to.

"Um, the parking lot," he said.

"Is it the main parking lot?" I asked.

He looked confused. "Which parking lot?"

"I don't know, the state park parking lot. I think it had Alps in its name?"

"Glen Alps?" he asked.

"Yeah, that's the one."

A strained look swept across his face, like he didn't want to be the one to deliver the bad news. "That parking lot is nowhere near this one," he said.

A frown crept into my own face. "Oh, crap."

I turned and started running back up the mountain, because I had a barbecue I wanted to go to at 7:30, and it was already 6:45. I didn't follow the tracks; I went straight up the mountain, ascending a 50-degree slope in shin-deep snow as fast as physically could. A waterfall of sweat poured down my cheeks and neck, my lungs burned and my vision blurred. It felt amazing to be working so hard, and I completely forgot about that step I had to downclimb.

Until I reached it. It was about 100 vertical feet of sheer terror, because I'm really not a climber and I felt like every tentative step was going to sweep me down the face, into the rocks or off the edge of the shadow side of the mountain. And I admit I watched two guys wearing sneakers purposefully sit and careen down the slope on their butts, spinning out of control in a cloud of powder. I watched them not only live through it, but get up at the bottom and walk out. I still couldn't coax my body to move any faster. I kicked steps and dug my bare fingers deep into the hard snow. It got me down, but it was so slow that by the time I returned to my comfort zone, I really had to run. I felt pretty wasted, because my mellow afternoon walk had turned into something close to 3,500 feet of vertical on snow with 20 minutes of all-out effort and a terror downclimb thrown in.

By the time I reached the barbecue, the party had moved inside due to cold (it may be spring, but temperatures still drop into the teens during the night.) By midnight, I was at the airport, and by 1:55 a.m., I was in the air, jetting south.

Utah has been great so far. I met my 7-week-old nephew, visited all of my grandparents, and went to church with my parents, which allowed me to see a lot of familiar faces from my childhood, from my former piano teacher to a woman whose journalist daughter followed a similar path to mine and pulled it off successfully.

I borrowed my dad's Trek 820 to ride to the top of South Mountain and check out the trail conditions. Yeah, lots of snow and mud (don't worry, Draperites, I did not ride my bike on the muddy trails.) It was crazy windy, with Juneau-esque gusts (probably 40 mph), and brought with it a thick and ominous-looking storm that is forecast to drop snow at fairly low elevations. So much for spring. Today, however, it was on the overly warm side today for my Alaska blood - high 60s.

I learned a bit too late that the Trek's cantilever brakes on wet rims don't work, well, at all - not a super fun thing to find out when you are trying to descend 2,000 feet of elevation on pavement. The bike works fine for what my dad uses it for - exercising and to commute to trails where he can hike - but it's a bit rough for me. I put out a Facebook appeal for a loaner bicycle, and within an hour had an offer from a guy who recently moved to Sandy who had a mountain bike for me to borrow. I drove the two miles to his house and we talked for an hour about Utah, Alaska and snow biking. He lent me a DVD of "The Flying Scotsman" and gave me maps to some nearby trails in Lehi that he thought I would enjoy. If the weather somehow doesn't turn to snow, we may meet up to ride them on Wednesday. People can say what they will about blogs and Facebook and the deterioration of society, but my experience has been just the opposite. Social media has put me in touch with more great people than I can even count anymore, many of whom I have since become friends with in "real life." I'm really grateful for that. And all y'all, those of you who have made it this far in what have recently been pretty rambling blog posts, I am grateful for you, too. :-)