Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in photos

This is my favorite blog tradition — the "Year in Photos" review. The idea with these posts is to choose one favorite photo from every month. For me, this means images that best represent momentous events or perspective-shifting experiences.

The above photo is my overall favorite, from a solo tour I attempted on the Iditarod Trail in March. My intent was to ride from Unalakleet to Nome, about 250 miles, over the course of a week. From the moment I rolled away from the Unalakleet Airport, the North Wind shut down every preconceived notion I had about this trip, and every shred of confidence I had in myself. The trails became so drifted in that I could scarcely locate them, and even if I could, I was scarcely strong enough to hoist the bike through knee-deep drifts that had the consistency of sand dunes as 30-50 mph winds continued to blast me in the face. It took me four long, extremely difficult days to cover 60 miles. When I turned around at Little Mountain Cabin, it was because Beat was returning to Anchorage with Steve after tragedy struck Steve's family. But even before I'd heard the terrible news, I was wavering on continuing any farther. I strongly doubted my ability to survive the sea ice crossing to Koyuk. I write about my fears frequently and overstate the odds of dying on occasion. That isn't the case here. Here I explored the situation from the most objective rationale possible, and I realized I wasn't strong enough, or experienced enough, to accept the risk of a 35-mile crossing with no shelter in that weather. I still feel that way. But I learned an incredible amount from this trip, and I actually feel more confident about taking on the journey to Nome because of it. I believe I'll make better decisions, knowing what I know now.

This photo, taken from a slough off the Shaktoolik River, represents the bewilderment and awe I felt in that vast, desolate place. It also represents the way I feel about 2015 — this year was about being a little bit broken, and a little bit frightened, but continuing to press forward with optimism that something better waited just beyond the horizon.

January: Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho. I can't write about 2015 without zeroing in on my lung angst, which first cropped up during this 200-kilometer fat bike race in Idaho. I spent most of the last 60 miles gasping, hyperventilating, and spitting up phlegm. I blamed altitude for my breathing difficulties, but in retrospect, these symptoms mirrored others that I associated with illness and exertion later in the year. There are still a lot of questions and uncertainties surrounding my health, and I'm reasonably nervous to return to this race on Jan. 8 (next week!!). A tight cut-off for the 200-miler means I have no choice but to at least attempt to ride as hard as possible, at altitude. If I again struggle with breathing and congestion, it will be a strong indicator of how fit I am. Perhaps my lungs are no longer equipped to process the amount of oxygen I need to push myself in endurance sports. I need to be ready to face the possibility. That's what this photo means to me — a soft, blurry kind of melancholy, punctuated with hope.

February: Pacifica, California. Most of what I remember about February is that it was unseasonably hot in the Bay Area, and I put in lots of solid training for two big goals in March — my Alaska bike tour, and racing the White Mountains 100 on foot. This photo is from a big loop my friend Jan and I rode around the northern San Francisco Peninsula. We checked out some new-to-us trails in Pacifica and ended up on a harrowing illegal DH trail (after this photo was taken.) But it is a gorgeous region. This is something I will miss very much when I move to Colorado — the Pacific coast.

March: Iditarod Trail, Knik, Alaska: After the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I rode my bike out to Flathorn Lake and back to cheer on runners. I like the frosty trees in the background of the photo, contrasted by the sunny, almost spring-like conditions in the foreground, as well as the smiling faces of friends who were embarking on the thousand-mile trek. Intense weather and tragedy struck later in the race, and no runners reached Nome this year. The Iditarod is a journey of extremes, and this photo hints at this dynamic — from icy to green in moments.

April: Portola Redwoods State Park, California. Another place high on the list of "things I will miss most about California" is the Slate Creek Trail, and our occasional 16-mile visits to Beat's "friend," the 1,200-year-old redwood known as "Old Tree." This combination of bright sunlight and lush forest is truly unique to California.

May: Ventana Mountains, California. Beat, Liehann, and I embarked on bikepacking trip to ride through the Ventana Mountains, climb Cone Peak, and return. Before that, I rode my bike from home to our starting point, hitting a number of fun trails along the way. That 140-mile day convinced me I was ready for the Tour Divide the following month, because I enjoyed every pedal stroke and felt driven to continue even when I reached the campground. This was back when I still believed that mental willingness trumped physical fitness in this kind of endeavor. I can't say I believe this any longer.

June: Great Divide Basin, Wyoming. I think just about every Tour Divide participant took a photo of this old Chevy hood rusting beside an extremely remote doubletrack in the Great Divide Basin. But I love this particular "bike selfie" for what it represents to me — the incredible places, and great distances I can reach on mental willingness alone. I was not well on this evening — in fact, this was a particularly bad one, where my lungs were so congested and breathing so limited that I had to hike up every hill, and couldn't top 9 mph on the flats. But I kept going that day because I so badly wanted to keep going, and because I was in the middle of nowhere and effectively had to keep going. That night, after crashing on the oil field road and deciding to set up camp right there, I caught rare sighting of an incredible aurora flare — the Northern Lights in Southern Wyoming. It was an incredible reward — a reminder of why I'm driven to keep moving. I wouldn't trade this experience, even if I did believe my failed Tour Divide was my undoing (I don't.)

August: Wind River Mountains, Wyoming. Sadly, I don't think I took a single photo in July. I scoured my Lightroom folders and couldn't find anything. That says a lot about how I was feeling that month — I was extremely weak and feverish for the first week, and continued to struggle with breathing issues for the rest of the month. I didn't get out much. So I have no photos — a lost month. Instead I'll include two from August. This photo is from a five-day backpacking trip with friends in the Wind Rivers. Everything hikers write about this place is true — it's the most stunning mountain range I've visited in the United States. If you squint at the righthand corner of this photo, you can see our tiny camp in the big, big world.

August: Col Ferret, Switzerland. Ah, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I captured a number of beautiful images during my time in this race, but chose this more muted scene — descending the pass from Italy into Switzerland as the moon rose. The gasping and wheezing had returned, I had raging IT band tightness, and knew I was limping to the inevitable cutoff in the tiny village of La Fouly. Amid a persistent angst about failure and poor health, my overwhelming emotion was awe. I felt lucky to be there. I knew from the beginning that starting UTMB, after a being so sick during June and July, was a mistake. Failure was too likely, but that wasn't quite a compelling enough reason to pass up the opportunity to make yet another attempt to circumnavigate Mont Blanc. It was a beautiful run while it lasted. Most of my friends don't understand the appeal of this crowded, over-hyped race, and they wonder if I'll go back and try to get that Alps-ultra finish I so badly desire, once and for all — the answer is I'd love to, but it seems doubtful I'll qualify for the lottery again, at least anytime soon. Perhaps someday.

September: Augstmatthorn, Switzerland. Recovering from UTMB proved to not be so bad. I was already regaining stamina, and for unknown reasons, I haven't had any major breathing issues since (I haven't used my inhaler since October.) After the races in Chamonix, we spent two weeks with Beat's mother in Switzerland. I was able to get out for a handful of "recovery" adventures in the Swiss Alps that were pretty incredible. This narrow ridge above Interlaken is a place I fully intend to return to someday.

October: Greys Peak, Nevada. On the drive home from the Grand Canyon trip, I made a "quick" rest stop to climb an obscure peak outside Wells, Nevada. It turned out to be a tricky route-finding challenge, and I like this photo for the mystery it conveys. Where am I going? Why am I here? Such questions frequently cross my mind when clinging to ragged ledges, as they do in life.

November: Gobbler's Knob, Utah. Thanksgiving with my family meant several opportunities to climb Wasatch Mountains with my dad. This photo is from the descent from Gobbler's Knob, amid a swirl of blowing snow and a stiff chill on Black Friday.

December: Corrine's front porch, Fairbanks, Alaska. This photo reminds me of the first photo in this post — a frosty landscape with delicate light and stark shadows. But instead of depicting cold desolation, this photo is warm and exuberant. This coming year will bring ventures out of my comfort zone and rapid changes — I admit to feeling nervous about 2016, but also brimming with excitement. Happy New Year!

Photo posts from years past:
2010 part one, part two


  1. It's great to catch up with you through your posts and pictures though it would be nice to see you and hear you. Anyways, I'm happy to hear all is more than well with you and I'm envious of your photography skills!
    -Anna S. ("the Red")

  2. Great photos, Jill. I love your year end recap. You really did a lot this year in spite of your breathing difficulties. Hopefully they are behind you! Here's to a great 2016 with more adventures.

  3. Jill, Love the pictures as always. I don't know if I've been reading your blog for 10 years for the great writing or the wonderful pictures. Must be both. I retired my blog in 2012. A few days ago I got the bug to start over again. This morning I did a post of my favorite pictures of 2015, one from each month. I didn't realize I was copying you until I saw this post.

  4. Wow, great photos. That leading photo is beautiful, and your photo of the Wind River Range makes me want to explore there. Never been, but has been on my list for quite some time. Someday I'll make it over there, but at least I have the Sierras relatively close for now.

  5. I love it! Especially the photos from Wyoming.

  6. I've got six more posts like this in my queue from other bloggers too and always love to see the highlights of everyone's year. I'm looking forward to hearing about your adventures in Colorado.

  7. Wonderful and amazing.
    Took me ages to find your 'tiny camp in the big, big world.'

  8. Wonderful pictures of amazing places! Never thought Wyoming could be this beautiful! Lot's of luck and health for 2016 in Colorado - there are worse places :)

  9. Honored to have my butt to make the selection :) Yes, the Pacific coast is a big part of California magic. We will miss you guys!


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