Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Climbing the unknown mountain

When I feel a need to reflect and reset, I like to go for long walks in the mountains. There are times when I'm seeking the mind-opening freedom of sweeping vistas, when even bicycles add an unwanted layer of complication, and I want to engage my body in the effort that never fails to ignite strong feelings of peace and well-being, the one thing I almost believe I could do forever — climb. Of course, every mountain has its top.

I admit I've been feeling a bit of unrest since the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. No matter how much I truly believe the journey is everything and the destination is only a very small part; and no matter how non-competitive I claim to be with others, I am actually very competitive with myself. I don't like to be defeated by myself. And my DNF in the TRT100 was most definitely a defeat. It caused me to question my abilities in everything involving trail running, in my capabilities to even engage in my big goals coming up at the end of the year and farther-reaching goals in the future.

This uncertainty extends to my current "career" goals, the writing projects I launched and the ones I'm working on. For whatever reason, the manic activities and sometimes unimaginative ease of summer always seem to sap my creative energy. I've never found summer to be my most creatively productive season, but it's been tough to feel somewhat stymied in not only my passions (such as trail running), but also in what is currently my sole occupation. Some days, I feel so frustrated with my writing efforts that I find myself enviously eyeing the "Help Wanted" signs at Peet's Coffee. "Maybe I should learn how to be a barista," I think with a tinge of ambition, until I remember that I'm a terrible candidate for the customer service industry (not to mention that I'm so impatient that I wouldn't even let Beat teach me how to make a cappuccino on our home machine, preferring instead just to buy them at Peet's Coffee.)

It's not that I'm ungrateful for my opportunities and freedom to pursue creative goals. It's just the opposite — I'm scared that I'm squandering this opportunity. I set specific specific goals, benchmarks for myself. Like the minutes passing in the TRT100, these have mainly served to reveal that I'm falling short. I admit I fear the looming DNF.

My dad and I were driving home from Zion on Friday evening when Beat called me with fantastic news. He had finished Le Defi de l'Oisans — The Challenge of the Oisans — a 180-kilometer mountain run in the French Alps. For 59 hours he battled steep and exposed trails across the loose shale and mud-slicked slopes, often in heavy rain. Mile for mile, Beat said it was the toughest race he had ever encountered — much more rugged and steep than the Hardrock 100 and even the Tor des Geants, and more daunting and dangerous than the Susitna 100 and White Mountains 100. His biggest challenge wasn't fatigue or foot pain or effort. It was fear — fear of falling — and several times it was all he could do not to retreat from the slippery shale that offered no margin for error. Needless to say I had been worried about him, and I was very relieved and proud that he finished. But Beat — who has already completed five 100-plus-mile races this year amid injuries, lots of bike riding and surprisingly little non-race running — has a unique way of making things like this seem like no big deal. And I know now, really understand, that traveling 100 miles on foot in one solid effort is significantly harder than it looks.

My dad and I didn't return from Southern Utah until midnight, having hiked for eight hours and driven for five, including nearly an hour sitting in a Utah County traffic jam. On Saturday morning I was feeling tired from the week's efforts but knew I'd only have one more opportunity to go into the mountains. I only had four or five hours to spare so I decided to put in a hard hike/downhill run on a mountain that promised to be fun — the steep and shapely Pfeifferhorn, still surrounded in snow at the end of July. I packed an ice ax, hiking poles and crampons, and set out from the trailhead at about 1 p.m. I really wanted to be back to my parents' house by five, so I just put my head down and charged. My leg muscles ached after stumbling across rocks and rushing water all day on Thursday, and my breaths were raspy after a week of hard efforts at high elevations. My lungs hurt but I just marched higher and harder, clawing up a snowfield and gaining the first ridge in what seemed like no time.

But as I looked down at the icy water in the basin below, I felt a rush of disappointment.

"Oh, that's not Lower Red Pine Lake."

Somehow, in my red-line rush, I had marched up the wrong drainage. I wasn't even fully sure where I was — either White Pine fork or Maybird Gulch, but it had been too many years since I did any regular hiking in the Wasatch Mountains to even have a good guess. I looked to my left at a towering pile of granite boulders that seemed climbable. If I was in Maybird Gulch, it might even take me to the Pfeifferhorn's summit ridge. It seemed worth a try. As I picked my way up the rocks and thorny tundra, the truth slowly revealed itself. The perfect pyramid of the Pfeifferhorn rose to the west, at least a half day's worth of craggy class-four ridge scrambling away. To the east, I recognized the American Fork Twin Peaks; to the south, the granite spires of Timpanogos; and to the north, the humbling wall of the Broads Fork Twin Peaks. I stood on a rust-colored peak in the center of it all, the unknown mountain.

I dropped down the narrow ridge and started scrambling toward the higher-looking summit when another hiker popped his head over the rocks. When we met, I sheepishly asked him where the heck we were. He opened his backpack and fished out a map. "Let's see; this is Red Baldy," he said. He looked down the ridge. "Gotta be. This is Red Baldy, that's White Baldy and that clear over there is the Pfeifferhorn. That's where we're going."

"You're going to the Pfeifferhorn from here?" I said incredulously. "Where did you start?"

"Early this morning at the Snowbird Tram," he replied.

"Snowbird, huh. How far was that?"

"We figure this is about halfway," he said. "But on the way here we hit a couple sections that were definitely Class Five. Ahead looks like there may be more of the same. So we're debating right now."

"Eek," I said sympathetically. "Well, that's way too much for me. I guess I'll have to be happy with Red Baldy today."

And as I followed the hiker and his partner across the summit ridge, I realized that the quiet vistas of the unknown mountain really were enough. Goals don't always work out as planned, but they usually work out beautifully all the same.

I drove all day Sunday through Nevada heat and California traffic with just an hour to spare to meet Beat at the airport. He shuffled through the gate with a jet-lagged blankness spread across his face, but wrapped his arms around me in a powerful embrace. "Happy Anniversary," he said. It was July 31, exactly one year since the day we met.

Sometimes I need to go to the mountains to reflect on where I've been. But even more than that, I need to come back to California, to Beat, my home, to realize where I'm going. The possibilities are still endless.


  1. I was wondering how you did in the TRT 100. I'm glad you got to experience the trail though...so beautiful up there!

    Nice to meet you at the High Sierra Brewery in Carson too!

  2. Yup, in the grand scheme of things, TRT is like one single training run for the big dance. As you know, training runs have value whether or not they go as planned. Sounds like you've been letting the post-race malaise get the best of you, but that you're seeing the end of it? Come visit. I have great options for you the next three weekends (13th (Logan to Goat Haunt), 20th (Floral Park (off trail)), 27th-28th (Keith and Leslie are coming and we are backpacking)).

  3. Chin up my friend. Life has lots of rewards and the beauty of it is ... there is no schedule or benchmarks. It just happens anyway.

  4. One of your best... and that's saying a lot!

  5. Hey, this is Danny Stull, founder of Venturepax.com. I just wanted to get in touch with you because I enjoy your blog and I think we share a passion for the outdoors.

    Please check out our website, venturepax.com, and let me know what you think and if you have any questions. I'd love to see if there's an opportunity for us to work together.


  6. Jill, Great post and, as always, amazing photos. I no that words won't really change how you feel about your effort at TRT. But, in light of your recent anniversary, think about what you've done in the past year. Amazing!

  7. Happy anniversary, in so many ways.

  8. You are probably writing too much about running. I can't believe your audience didn't notice Beat showing-off a new bike. Looks good!

    El Animal

  9. Thanks everyone. Danni, I would love to come up to Montana sometime this month. Tough thing is, Beat's and my schedule is so full already. But perhaps. One can dream.

    El Animal, I think you're right. I must of scared off most of my cycling readers long ago. Beat's bike is a Specialized S-Works Roubaix, the sexiest bike in our stable. It's so nice I'm almost to too scared to ride it, but I did borrow it once. It almost pedals itself uphill. Definitely an awesome road bike.

  10. not all the cycling readers are gone.

    Jill, try Steven Pressfield's "Do the Work" then follow up with his "The War of Art". You'll get it; then you'll get it. (Amazon Kindle editions)

  11. Alaska, Alaska, Alaska!

    Your work there is unfinished Jill!

    Want variety? Interested in Alaska? The Peninsula Clarion is seeking a police and courts/general assignment news reporter to become part of its team in Kenai, Alaska. Applicants must be able to write accurate and engaging stories; have a good grasp of grammar and AP style with solid editing skills; and be able to work well under deadline. InDesign experience a plus.

    The Kenai Peninsula is an outdoor lover's paradise and a great place to contribute to a community paper and hone your skills as a journalist. The position includes evenings and one weekend shift. The Peninsula Clarion is a Sunday through Friday a.m. paper with a circulation of 6,500. Email a cover letter, resume, clips and references to Will Morrow, editor, at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

  12. Anon, I'm in agreement with you about unfinished work. Wouldn't that be something, going back to work for Morris Communications again. I'm certainly not against it. Community newspapers are something I'm passionate about, and may be the only newspapers to survive the all-but-inevitable meltdown of the coming decade. But I try not to be a pessimist. I do hope the publishing industry will sort itself out and I'll be able to make my way back to the newspaper biz someday, sans 60-hour workweeks and mass layoffs.

    Beat is intrigued by Alaska, too. It will be a few years at least, but I have a hunch we'll make our way to the Great Land eventually.


Feedback is always appreciated!