Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Another round in Chamonix

Beat and I arrived in France on Sunday night for our annual sojourn (of pain) in the Alps. Beat has his nearly-back-to-back-200-mile races that he can't quite pry himself away from, and so we're back in Chamonix for the 2015 Petite Trotte à Léon. 

Friends know I have no love for PTL, which pits a hundred teams on a high-mountain course that combines difficult terrain, long distances, often tricky navigation, and a time limit that ensures extreme sleep deprivation. Basically, it's light mountaineering with compromised strength under moderate sedation. Of all the things Beat does that cause me to fret, PTL is the most unnerving. Every year, the organization switches up the course to make it even harder, which only ensures it's more dangerous. Oh, but it's okay, because slipping is "forbidden." 

This year, Beat is racing with Pieter Schaaps, a young Belgian that he met last year at the Tor des Geants. The race started under heavy rain and high winds on Monday evening, where they launched straight from Chamonix up the local vertical kilometer course, climbed that vertical kilometer, and then dropped straight back down to a point that normally is only five flat kilometers from Chamonix along a nice river trail. This is PTL being nice, because at least the runners were on a trail while climbing and then descending 3,000 feet elevation in five miles.

Beat called me last night after about 28 hours in the race, just as he and Pieter were leaving a refuge. They hadn't slept yet, and Beat was on edge because they were running uncomfortably close to the cutoffs, even though they were near the front of the pack — 16th position out of just over a hundred teams that started. At least 30 teams have dropped. Beat expected time controls or attrition would get most of them unless the organization implemented some alternatives to the course, which he said has become "impossibly hard."

"They basically just linked up 300 kilometers of the 'best' (so, the worst) of PTL, without actually considering whether anyone can actually finish in 142 hours," he said. Even with "just" 26,000 meters of climbing, it's the technical difficulty that makes this event so slow. Because Beat is who he is, he's hanging on with all of his determination. Physically, both Pieter and Beat are fine beyond the predictable bad feet and sore legs. I'll be glad when it's over, whenever it's over. I sort of feel like that spouse at home while her husband gets wasted at a bar — livid at the bartender for serving him alcohol, but aware that the fault lies with the spouse who just can't get enough.

So what am I up to? Alpine touristing at its best. My parents are in town this week as well. They were in Switzerland all of last week, but arranged their Europe vacation to experience the spectacle of UTMB week in Chamonix (and hang out with me.) On Tuesday we did the best-of sightseeing with an all-day tram pass.

The remnant clouds from the previous night's downpour were just clearing at Brevent.

Of course we took the gondola to Aiguille du Midi. Visiting this high-mountain station just below Mont Blanc is the pinnacle of Alpine tourism, but you really have to do it, at least once.

I mean, you really do.

Glaciers tumbling off Mont Blanc.

Views of the Chamonix valley 9,000 feet below.

Next we took the train to Mere de Glace. It's a beautiful valley, and yet another unsettling reminder of just how quickly the ice of the world is melting away. To reach the glacier, we had to descend at least 300 vertical feet below the noted demarcation line of the glacier's level in 1985. Just thirty years ago. Even as recently as five years ago, the surface was 50 feet higher.

We toured the man-made ice caves, which were very cool (in both senses, as the weather here has become quite hot since the rain cleared out.)

Today Dad and I hiked from town to La Flegere, which I always remember as this flat and short hike by Chamonix standards, but it still climbs 3,000 feet over four miles of root-choked trails.

Also, this happened. UTMB starts Friday afternoon. I've been saying all summer that I wasn't going to race this event that I signed up for in December — before I decided to ride the Tour Divide, and well before I dropped out of that race after 1,700 miles with severe bronchitis and far too few running miles on my legs — but all the excitement has gotten the better of me. I have a strategy for my lungs, and some emotional acceptance of a number of disappointing outcomes, but I'm not going to pretend this is a good idea. Most of my best ideas aren't.
Friday, August 21, 2015


While looking for a photo for this post, I realized I hadn't taken any photos of my outdoor excursions (all runs) in a couple of weeks, and I haven't posted a California picture on my blog since May. How far my blog has fallen from its original intent (a day-to-day journal and cycling log.) This photo is from July, taken during one of Beat's favorite running routes — a 16-mile grinder in Portolla Redwoods State Park to visit a 1,200-year-old redwood called "Old Tree." Seems an apt image for a birthday post.

My running over past few weeks has been a series of steady and deliberate efforts to get my "wind" back, through whatever biological mechanisms aid in this process. What it's felt like is a slow strengthening, from the early days of July with tight constrictions in my bronchi and a weak heart (resting at 90 bpm but too taxed at 130 bpm) to clearer breathing and a strong heart. (I did seek out medical tests during this process. Lung X-Rays were clear, and heart checked out fine. Peak expiratory flow was well below normal — which could be a sign of chronic asthma, although my doctor was dismissive of this, and I haven't been inclined to seek out further tests for asthma as my breathing continues to improve.)

My resting heart rate dropped back down to 60 bpm, I'm back to running comfortably at 160 bpm, but I still don't have the oomph for high intensity. I still feel breathing constrictions when I venture into zone 4. I haven't attempted a max effort. The jury's out about whether running is aiding in the recovery process, but it felt like it has — my chest really does feel more "open" after runs. I think at worst it had a neutral effect. I only had one asthma attack since the Tour Divide, during a mountain bike ride in mid-July.

The runs have been really enjoyable, although summer is just not my season. I do not get excited about venturing outdoors when temperatures are in the 90s or higher, and come up with plenty of excuses for rest days (so believe me, I mostly ran when it felt great and I was enjoying myself. There was no forced running on my agenda.)

Last weekend saw record highs and an atmosphere choked with smoke from wildfires in Northern California. Beat wanted to squeeze in one last long run before we head to Europe this weekend, but even our go-to "cool" escapes — Big Basin and Santa Cruz — registered a temperature of 101 degrees. Somehow, while avoiding going outside all day on Saturday, we decided to embark on on a night run in Henry Coe State Park. These inland hills are typically the hottest zone in the Bay Area — temperatures in the 90s in November are not out of the question. So why, oh why, oh why? Well, it's also the only trail system nearby where it's legal to be out after dark. Bah, California.

Thank goodness temperatures were only in the high 80s as we launched up the steep, dusty hill at 9 p.m. Fist-sized tarantulas skittered across the trail — over the course of the run, we counted at least 25 — and we also shared the night with a curious fox, mice, deer, and other creepy unidentified glowing eyes. The 89,000-acre state park is just remote enough to catch only slivers of city light from the highest ridges, and moonlight cast the grassy hillsides in silver and indigo hues. Coe is a former ranch, and occasionally we'd pass a creepy abandoned building or piles of twisted and rusting metal. It had a thrilling "haunted old Coe" factor that kept me invigorated even as I shed buckets of sweat over relentlessly steep, loose terrain for three and a half hours. We returned to the car well after midnight, absolutely saturated in sweat.

Ten years, and still seeking the frosty sides of life.
This week was my 36th birthday. As I just released "Becoming Frozen" — a memoir about the year I was 26 years old — I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what's changed in 10 years. My recent bout with respiratory illness — which at times made me feel 106 — also led to reflection on the fragility of health and the physical deterioration of age. But I realized that there are several ways in which I'm stronger at 36 than I was at 26.

1. My knees are better than they were at 26. Of course I don't know the precise condition of the tissues in my joints, but I do know my knees feel a lot better than they did for most of my 20s. During a cross-country bicycle tour in 2003, I developed patellar pain in my right knee that persisted for years. I remember several of my friends were training for marathons in 2004, and I lamented that I could never aspire to be a runner, because I had "bad knees." The pain was manageable but more prevalent when I started endurance cycling in 2005. During the 2007 Susitna 100, I twisted my knee painfully near the start of the race and still finished, which put the nail in a massive overuse injury that was diagnosed as grade 3 chondromalacia. My doctor in Juneau, who was an Ironman triathlete and sympathetic to the whole endurance cause, said I'd probably battle osteoarthritis for the rest of my life. A physical therapist said my vastus medialis quad muscles were extremely underdeveloped (weird for a cyclist, right?) and suggested running to build muscle strength and bone density to support the joint. I started hiking more frequently that year, but the pain really started to subside after 2010 ... when I took up running.

2. I really do have an iron butt these days, evidenced by making it through 1,700 miles of the Tour Divide in 14 days with no chamois and my same old Terry Butterfly saddle, and no issues.

3. My feet are so much tougher than they used to be. Thank you, running.

4. My co-workers in Idaho Falls gave me the flattering nickname "Gimpy McStiff" because I'd always come back from weekend adventures completely hobbled. Actually training on a regular basis — even for recreational activities — really helps reduce the Monday rigor mortis.

5. My endurance continues to improve. My struggles in recent years have been linked mainly to injuries — specifically blunt force injuries, caused by falls — and illnesses. When everything goes right, even in an extremely taxing effort like sled-dragging 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail in seven days — I'm able to bounce back to normal quickly, in a matter of days.

6. I've got a better handle on my sleep, although I still have occasional bouts of insomnia. My sleep patterns were terrible through my early 20s, and became more consistent when I developed a regular outdoor exercise habit.

7. Anxiety is largely gone from my life. I still feel anxious when it's justified — such as clinging to precipitous mountain ledges. But I used to struggle with a more pathological anxiety, and occasional bouts of panic when such a response was not even remotely justified. I was actually a fairly fearful person in my early 20s, and I've never been particularly good at reacting to stressors. Newspaper journalism was a rewarding occupation, but it wasn't always great for my psychological health. And before I became (you guessed it) a regular exerciser, I had no coping mechanisms. This aspect of my personality is a large reason why I started and continue to participate in adventure sports — I extract immense satisfaction and ultimately peace in confronting my fears. Regular outdoor activity has been part of my lifestyle for long enough that I can't even fathom feeling the same disconnected anxiety, but I always wonder whether it would return if I were to lose my ability to stay active.

So there you go. Getting older rocks. Bring on 36.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Becoming Frozen

Today (August 17) my latest book was released. "Becoming Frozen" is my own story about falling in love with Alaska, after a rash decision to follow my then-boyfriend to the North completely changed the trajectory of my life.

The release coincides with the tenth anniversary of that decision, which was set in motion during the week of my 26th birthday. Coincidentally, I was camping in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming when I had my fateful "why not?" moment, and I hadn't been back those mountains since, until last week. It's funny how life continues turning in circles.

This book is one of the accumulating projects that I finally just had to push out the door. I don't blog much about my book projects, which are part of the day-to-day work I do. (People often wonder what I "do." I'm a freelance copy editor, if you weigh my career by the bulk of my paid contracts. Secondarily I'm an author, and book sales bring in my next largest chunk of income. Then I'm a journalist who contributes to newspapers and magazines. Last, I'm a blogger. Thank you for your clicks.)

Books, however, remain my ambition. I had some encouraging success with "Be Brave, Be Strong," and initially felt confidence that I could bulk up my fish wheel with frequent releases and modest sales, similar to other independent authors I admire. It hasn't quite worked out that way, mainly because I find book writing to be frustratingly difficult. Blogs are a breeze. But books ... they tend to take on a personality of their own that isn't always agreeable. I struggled with "Becoming Frozen." I'll admit that right here. It will be interesting to watch how it's received.

Books are also a challenging market. I saw all this potential with the rise of independent publishing, and it has worked out for me to some extent. I've sold more than 20,000 copies of a book that an agent told me she "loved, but there's no market. Nobody reads books about bicycling." I have three other books that have had reasonable sales. Still, it's difficult to convince people to part with their money for what amounts to low-tech entertainment. So much highly entertaining content is available for free. Even I am guilty of buying and reading only a dozen or so new books per year, and spend many more hours reading newspapers, online magazines, and blogs. I think that's what I struggle with the most in my for-profit projects. Why should/would anyone pay for this?

I've also ventured back into the traditional publishing game to pursue a project about Ann Trason. I've already found a couple of interested publishers, but each has a specific idea of what that book should be. Meanwhile, both my and Ann's ideas about the book continue to shift, and I feel like I'm approaching an impasse. In all honesty, I have no personal interest in traditional publishing. The validation of it does nothing for me, the numbers I've yet seen are not inspiring, and the micromanagement is exasperating. And yet for projects like this one, and others I have in mind, it's really they only way to go.

What's funny about writing is, I don't really believe people should pay me for this. I enjoy writing as much if not more than cycling, and I don't expect to receive payment for the cycling I do. But I do need income, to at least a small extent. Also, Beat is waiting for me to create a million-dollar bestseller so we can retire and move back to Alaska. I tell him I'm way too out of touch to formulate such successful content. I write about what I love. It's pretty esoteric. I'm okay with that. It can still fund groceries.

So with all that, I'm introducing "Becoming Frozen." This book is about the year I lived in Homer, Alaska, and has elements of the typical cheechako tale. A series of random events led to my discovery of endurance racing, and there are also tales of my often humorous "couch-to-100-mile-snow-bike-race" training efforts. For each chapter, I took an excerpt from an original blog post and expanded on it. It was funny to read through all the old entries of a blog I still update and think, "Ah, so young." It also had me wondering what became of readers from the days of yore. If you still check in here and remember commenting on "Up in Alaska" back in 2005 or 2006, I'd love to send you a free digital copy of "Becoming Frozen." E-mail me at jillhomer (at) gmail with your old Blogger (or Typepress, or whatever) handle, and whether you prefer a PDF or eBook file. You'd make my day. (Juancho? Doug? Are you still out there?)

For everyone else, your support is greatly appreciated. I plan to offer signed copies, but I've nearly sold out of what I'll have available before early October. I'll post that link then, but for now you can purchase an eBook (with a free app the file can be read on any device) or paperback at Amazon.

Thank you to Tonya Simpson for editing, and David Shaw at Wild Imagination Photography for the cover photo.

And thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

This one time at Fat Camp

A few weeks ago, while I was nursing weak lungs and a festering disappointment about my failed Tour Divide, I received a text from my friend Danni in Montana, who I've missed and haven't seen in at least two years. She asked if I wanted to join a group of friends for a backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, playfully dubbed "Fat Camp." I was unsure about my health and the logistics of wedging another trip into this already-packed year, but at the last minute decided I couldn't bear to miss it. 

"I SO want to join you," I replied. "Otherwise this will be the worst summer ever, seriously." 

"I'm really pathetically fat and out of shape, so don't worry even if you still have pneumonia," Danni wrote. 

I couldn't ask for better backpacking companions — self-contained and capable women from a variety of backgrounds. There's Amber, a fish biologist and fast mountain biker/skier from Kalispell, Montana; Lora, another biologist/skier/climber in Corvalis, Oregon; Danni, a lawyer/mother who is not fat and out of shape, but is understandably too busy to spend much time on recreation; me, with slightly asthmatic and decidedly clumsy tendencies who arguably doesn't bring a lot to the table on a trip like this; and Meghan, a fiercely fit trail runner who floats effortlessly up steep boulder fields, lives in Moab, Utah, and co-manages the popular ultrarunning news site, iRunFar.

 It's a natural and yet unique dynamic — five thirty-something women in the woods. With no husbands or boyfriends in sight, we were an anomaly, and nearly everyone we spoke with made some sort of comment along the lines of "wow, all girls." Calling the tradition "Fat Camp" is something of a play on this, I think. Fat Camp refers to the perpetual hunger one often experiences in the backcountry, but also alludes to the stereotype that the only reason women engage in physical activity is to lose weight.

I hate going hungry, more than I hate struggling under big backpacks, so I packed an enormous amount of food. I thought my supply was reasonable for five days, but I was still thinking more in terms of the Tour Divide, when I was mowing through 5,000-plus calories a day. Out here, even with difficult terrain that pushed our 11-mile days into the 5- to 9-hour range, 3,000 calories were about all I could stomach. I ended up with nearly three days' worth of extra food, but it's nice to know I can carry what I need for a week or more in the backcountry.

At the airport, my pack weighed 28 pounds before I added water, bear spray, electronics, and fuel. It was an unwieldy thing, and I have been spoiled by bikepacking, which lets the bike do the carrying and only requires extra leg work from me. Having all that weight on my upper body threw me off kilter. I stumbled and fell a number of times during the first two miles, which descended 2,000 feet into the Long Lake valley. Near the bottom I fell hard on my left arm, spraining my wrist. This minor injury would bother me a lot for the next two days, but healed just in time to negotiate the most difficult scrambles of the route.

Volatile thunderstorms greeted us on the climb up Pine Creek Canyon, and then it proceeded to rain for the next ten hours. We constructed a small tarp shelter and cooked soggy dinners before setting up our tents. My Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 is now six years old and leaks in a few places, but the two-person tent allowed enough room to keep my sleeping bag centered in the dry spot as it rained and rained through the night. It would have been more of a hazard if I'd shared the tent with someone else. Unfortunately I left my backpack in the collapsed vestibule, and most of my other gear got wet.

 Day two took us from our camp on Trapper Lake to the Highline Trail, and deeper into high country. The Wind Rivers are a spectacular mountain range, rising abruptly from the high desert of central Wyoming. During the Tour Divide, I rode along the foothills of these mountains en route to the flat expanse of the Great Divide Basin. That section of the GDMBR isn't particularly exciting, and from a distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Winds are merely pretty. I didn't really know what to expect going into this trip, but I now understand why this range is a backpacking paradise. Just one day of travel from any trailhead will put you deep into craggy alpine terrain, almost entirely undeveloped and mostly above tree line, with the soaring skylines of 13,000'ers all around you.

 We thought our plan to average 11 miles per day would give us lots of time for lounging, and it did. But travel wasn't easy — there was lots of climbing and the terrain was rocky, even when we had a trail to follow. We did manage enough extra time in the evening for a scramble above the Green River, where Danni and I laughed about being ill-prepared with Hokas. They're great shoes for running and all-day walking, but less ideal for shorter bouts of ankle-rolling, crack-wedging, boulder-hopping hiking.

 Day three took us to the end of the Green River Valley, over Shannon Pass, and then up the steep face of Knapsack Col. I once rafted a long section of the Green River across Utah, and it was fun to visit its topmost headwaters, where the wide, muddy river I know and love is just a clearwater trickle beside bursts of wildflowers.

 Scaling a steep boulder field toward Shannon Pass.

 Looking back down the Green River Valley. Those cliffs even remind me of the Book Cliffs north of Green River, Utah.

 Skirting the edge of Peak Lake.

 Starting the 2,000-foot climb up Knapsack Col. Here we met our first northbound CDT thru-hikers. They warned us of a tricky descent off the backside, and we could see weather forming on the pass. This especially made Meghan nervous, as she harbors a particularly sharp phobia of lightning. I'm also scared of electrical storms, but my greatest sources of terror in mountains are tricky descents in slippery, wet conditions.

 We worked to pick up the pace as best as we could, acknowledging that our not-quite-alpine start of 9:30 a.m. didn't serve us well. Above 11,000 feet I started to feel my airways tighten. I took a hit from my inhaler, which helped, but it was obvious that slow and steady is the only pace I have right now. We climbed increasingly steeper scree slopes as the sky darkened.

 The forbidding crest of Knapsack Col, elevation 12,280.

 Happily, rain and lightning held off, but the descent was indeed tricky — a 42-percent grade boulder field where the footing was anything but secure. Lora and Amber opted to walk/boot ski down the loose talus to the side of the boulder field, but I didn't feel confident enough in my balance to attempt this (a fall there had the potential to rip my pants, as one of the better outcomes.) Instead, I ended up in a minefield of extremely loose boulders, so I veered over to a snowfield to butt-slide. This proved to be a poor decision. From above, the snowfield appeared to end in scree, but in actuality the lower slope was glare ice covered in a thin layer of dirt. It was too steep and slippery to walk, and more sliding amid the ice-covered rocks would certainly rip up my pants — and likely the flesh on my butt and legs. With trekking poles still stashed in my pack, I had to balance my clown shoes on tiny protrusions of rocks, tip-toeing sideways toward the open scree slope, knowing any fall would result in torn-up legs — and I had already taken a lot of falls during this trip, on much easier terrain. It was nerve-wracking! Backpacking is stressful! But I made it without incident.

 Descending the talus amid the once-proud remnants of the Twins Glacier. The map I'd looked at before the trip made it look like the glacier filled the entire basin, enough so that I routed my GPS track around it, over a small pass and down a much steeper gully. (Meghan and Amber designed the loop, and I took their descriptions and created a GPS track that proved to be fairly accurate. This was a source of pride for me, as I'd drawn the track by looking at topo lines on an electronic map devoid of trails and names, and guessing the most logical route. Of course, I was the only one who cared, as I was the only one carrying a GPS.)

 Descending into the Titcomb Basin. The cold wind and rain finally picked up, and we shared a frigid lunch behind a boulder, shivering but starving. This was proving to be a tough 11 miles! Our day stretched out for nearly nine hours, and there wasn't even as much stopping as other days.

 Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was lots of leisure. Even when things were a little cold and scary, we never failed to have lighthearted fun, giggling over the biceps of sleeveless climber boys and discussing all the ways Danni can condition her 17-month-old daughter to want to join her for a thru-hike of the CDT someday.

 Looking back at an imposing skyline — Mount Woodrow Wilson, The Sphinx, and Bonney Pass. This is just a few miles south of Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming.

 We found a beautiful, secluded spot just below the lower Titcomb lake to set up camp for the next two nights.

 We kept it cozy.

It was a great breakfast spot. Every morning I ate oatmeal, a dollop of peanut butter, and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was salami and cheese on a tortilla, and dinner was Mountain House — a variety of the less-desired meals from the remnants of Beat's Iditarod stash. I also had lots of hot chocolate and tea — because what purpose is there to camping without hot drinks? What I brought far too much of was snacks. I couldn't even convince my friends to eat my granola bars, cookies and candy, even though Danni was only packing about 1,200 calories per day (she takes this Fat Camp thing seriously.)

On day four, we hoisted light packs for a day hike up Indian Basin.

 More boulder hopping. My quads and glutes were quite sore by day four, and I wished I had easier access to mountains like this. The Sierras are still reasonably far away from my home, but I'm pretty sure I'd at least lessen my clumsiness if I had more opportunities to develop mountain-specific fitness.

As you can see, it's hard not to spend the whole time looking up, which translates to tripping over things.

We climbed along the sad remnants of Harrower Glacier as we boulder-hopped our way to Indian Pass, at 12,200 feet on the Continental Divide.

On the pass, Danni found a cozy nook out of the cold.

 Lora and Amber found a high perch amid the blasting wind.

 Another group shot from Indian Pass.

The eastern Wind Rivers are almost entirely undeveloped wilderness, stranded between the Continental Divide and the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, most peaks and lakes are unnamed, there are very few trails, and tricky terrain and route-finding would keep one necessarily focused on the immediate present at all times — no cruiser daydreamy hiking here. Someday I would love to return to the Winds with ten days of food, a good map and compass, several self-made GPS tracks, real hiking boots, and the exuberance one can only feel while moving slowly and steadily through a truly wild place.

 Looking west again, a small tarn provides a splash of color beneath Knife Point Mountain. Still a wild place here, even on the popular side of the Divide.
Fremont Peak and flowers. So many flowers!

 In the evening, I went out for a stroll to take photos of the mountain paradise surrounding our camp.

 This place is just unreal.

On day five, all we had left to do was connect the loop.

 The previous day had been the only consistently sunny one, and rain returned for the last day. Overall, though, we lucked out with the weather — the only drenching rain came as we slept, and cold and lightning were minimal. As we hiked out, we heard reports of a massive storm approaching the area, set to bring heavy rain and snow to the higher elevations. Sure enough, as we drove away from Pinedale on Saturday, apocalyptic-looking clouds were approaching at breathtaking speeds.

"It looks like a Japanese painting," Danni said of the scenery as we raced raindrops out of the high country. We moved quickly to ensure enough time for hot-tubbing and copious amounts of fried food in Pinedale. It was a wonderful trip and a rare opportunity to get to know a fantastic region and a great group of women a little better. I'm a lucky girl to have had the chance to attend 2015 Fat Camp, even if I didn't lose any weight.

Thanks again, ladies!