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.