Wednesday, October 12, 2016

High mountain air

Well, I'm at my allergists' office for my first round of "cluster" immunotherapy, where I'm subjecting myself to five courses of shots over the next three hours while monitoring allergic reactions. Should be fun! I figure while I'm waiting, I'll update my blog.

On Thursday morning, our neighborhood received its first snowfall of the season. Beat left before dawn to fly to California for the weekend. I was surprisingly jealous of his trip. The past few weeks have brought a higher degree of homesickness for the Bay Area. Perhaps this sparked after returning from Europe to Boulder and having it all finally sink in that this is where I permanently reside. Perhaps it's the way I feel when I'm exercising — a bit downtrodden, a bit anxious about my breathing — and remembering how effortlessly I used to breeze up hills in California (of course it was never actually effortless. Nostalgia is a liar like that.) Perhaps it's just sadness for the passing of time, an acknowledgement that all of my California experiences spread out across five years are now gone forever, and I'm never going to get them back. For whatever reason I'm homesick for a place where I don't even want to live anymore, but my friends there sent me photos of redwood groves, and this made me feel melancholy.

Instead, I set out on Thursday to follow the snow as it melted away from the lower elevations. The previous day I got both an pneumonia shot and a flu shot, and I was feeling especially downtrodden with a left arm so sore I could scarcely lift it to drive. But that early winter air tasted so good that I had to find some more, so I headed out to Eldora to hike up 4th of July Road.

It was a little silly to put all that effort into walking on a road, but mild flu-like symptoms made it too difficult to run, and there was too much ice to drive any higher. Instead I ambled along the quiet corridor as thick snow squalls blew in and then suddenly cleared, again and again. This made me happy. What is it about walking that makes everything feel more centered?

Just had my first round of shots. Suddenly my shoulders feel sore and I'm lightheaded. I wonder if this is an actual reaction or in my head? With my recent health issues, I'm conflicted about what's real and what's imagined. That uncertainty extends to most aspects of life, when you think about it.

On Friday, temperatures at home rose into the sixties, and I wondered whether I could find more of that tasty winter air. I set my sights on an easy 13,200-foot peak that I hadn't yet visited, Mount Audubon. The previous day I'd felt overheated while walking a mellow grade in 35-degree weather, so I admittedly packed too lightly — a softshell jacket, cap, mittens, and buff. I headed up to the trailhead in the mid-afternoon.

The temperature at 10,000 feet was 37 degrees, and the wind was breathtaking. It ripped through the parking lot as I stuffed a couple of granola bars into my pack. I knew I was a bit underprepared, but I'd driven all the way there and paid ten dollars to enter the park. I figured I could at least hike to treeline and see how things went. 

Predictably I heated up considerably while wading through thick slush in the forest, bolstering my confidence. At 11,500 feet, the wind hit gale force. It swept down the mountain with such ferocity that I could scarcely breathe when I faced it directly, and felt like I was pushing against a wall of ice. But I was intrigued. My experiences with cold weather have made me more bold than I probably should be, but I wasn't anywhere close to my limit and decided I could turn around anytime. So I continued to crawl upward with my chin buried in my light jacket, eyes squinted almost shut behind sunglasses, ears becoming slightly sore beneath a flimsy hat. The thin cover of snow was heavily drifted — bare in spots, knee-deep in others. I couldn't find the trail so I followed one set of tracks. I found the maker of the tracks reclining just below the ridge. He was heavily bundled up with his back to the wind, but looked comfortable. I asked him whether he went to the top. He had, but the upper slope was "very treacherous."

"It's snow around boulders," he said. "Easy to fall through."

I knew exactly the kind of conditions he described, so I told him I planned to go for just twenty more minutes before turning around. That was my time limit for returning before dark.

Still, I had a bit of summit fever, and continued up the mountain past my own cutoff. My strategy for the treacherous boulders was to hopscotch the exposed rocks, trying to avoid the snow of unknown depth. In my haste, I finally planted a foot into a drift, where it immediately plunged into a knee-deep hole and twisted painfully. I winced and pulled myself onto a boulder to take the weight off my throbbing ankle. It didn't feel sprained, which was lucky. But in the short time I sat there, the wind ripped most of the heat from my body and I started shivering rapidly. I was wearing all of the clothing I had with me, with only a space blanket as backup. The realization finally hit that if I hurt myself, things would become dire quickly. As soon as I stood up, I turned around — 200 feet shy of the summit.

On the way down, I moved extremely carefully to avoid twisting my ankle again. Without the heat-generating effort of the climb, I slowly lost feeling in my fingers. My shoulders ached with cold. But I felt as centered as the day prior. The frosted mountains were tinged with pink light, and a vast expanse of now-familiar hills and plains spread out in front of me. It was calming to be in this place in this moment, even with temperatures in the low 20s and a relentless wind pushing against my back. I should have brought a coat.

Just got the second round of shots. Now I feel a bit nauseated and my heart rate has increased, thought that may be because I'm writing about feeling very cold. Anyway, on Saturday temperatures were again in the 60s and I went for a bike ride in shorts, yet still longed for more of that high mountain air. My friends from Fairbanks, Corrine and Eric, arrived in the evening. Since my parking pass was good through Sunday, I suggested a short hike to one of the Brainard Lakes.

"Probably just four miles or so," I promised my Alaskan friends — who live at 1,000 feet. "We can take it slow."

We got a late start Sunday morning and traffic was heavy on the highway. This and the nice weather caused us to shy away from Brainard Lakes — one of the most popular trailheads in the area — because we feared crowds. Instead we veered toward Eldora, where we still had to park in town, a mile from the trailhead. I told Corrine and Eric about this fantastic run I did here in June, the "High Lonesome Loop."

"We should hike to King Lake," I suggested, knowing it would be 12 miles round trip. "It will be longish, but worth it."

Maybe predictably, when we arrived at the lake and looked up at the Continental Divide, Corrine and Eric wanted to go there. At the pass, temperatures were mild and the wind was nothing more than a soft breeze — shockingly different from Friday's weather. We saw two guys who told us they hiked from Devil's Lake, and the ridge was "covered in a few inches of slush." (I had expected deep, wind-hardened drifts.) Even though I was thinking, "the ridge walk would be awesome," I didn't say anything because we'd already hiked seven miles, the ridge skirted 12,000 feet, and my poor friends had just arrived from the lowlands. But I didn't even have to say anything, because it was Eric who suggested, "Let's just go around the loop. We know we all want to."

The ridge walk was fantastic. The Divide was inexplicably warm and windless, and snow-frosted mountains stretched out in all directions. My friends had to slow down in the thin air, but I felt the best that I've felt since I returned to Colorado. I'm pretty much convinced now that high mountain air is the cure for breathing woes, although friends and medical providers insist that allergy shots work better.

It did get late and we had to hike the last three miles in the dark with two headlamps between the three of us. The hike ended up being eighteen miles, which was truly not what I had in mind, but I think everyone enjoyed the long walk — even if I was perhaps the only one who really enjoyed the thin mountain air.

Third round of shots. They keep upping the dose and this one sort of burns. Well. It's all an experiment, or experience. Meanwhile, I'm scheming my next return to the high country. 


  1. Haha, both times I've been on Audubon I was under-prepared for the cold and nearly knocked off the summit by the wind. Other friends have confirmed that they've never been on Audubon when it wasn't gusting to at least 40 or 50.

  2. We did enjoy the long hike, Jill. And we enjoyed the thin mountain air, even if it slowed us down. It tasted great! Thanks so much for all your hospitality (Beat, too)!

  3. I love Escorted Tours. They are amazing. Such a beautiful journey to discover. This time we are hitting to California. Keep exploring. Thanks for sharing.


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