Thursday, August 24, 2017


 Sunday was my birthday. Even though the number puts me unequivocally well into my late 30s, I looked forward to the turnover. 37 was not my best year. Autumn and winter brought a descent into increasingly poor health and fitness as I desperately tried to train for the most daunting adventure I had ever planned to attempt, the Iditarod Trial Southern Route to Nome. The harder I pushed, the worse I felt ... but the sensation was something more insidious than fatigue or burnout. It felt as though I was being smothered from the inside out. Desperation kept me (relatively) quiet about my deteriorating stoke, but I genuinely hated how I felt during some of these training efforts, and hated that I was starting to hate adventure.

In February, I was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune thyroid disease that forced me to withdraw from the race, which I considered walking away from a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In March, while snowshoeing in Juneau, I was caught in an avalanche (which I gratefully walked away from.) Spring brought the physical rollercoaster and an understanding that, no matter what, things are never going to be quite the same. In June, feeling wildly optimistic, I DNF'd the only ultra I attempted this year, the Bryce 100. Such failures always hit the ego hard, and I spent most of July believing I'd always be (relatively) enfeebled.

In August, my outlook noticeably improved — independent of anything happening in my life and despite the timing. August is usually my least favorite month. This one was cool and green and full of wildflowers. I felt jazzed about the tiniest moments, like viewing the soft morning light over Eldorado Mountain when I had to take out the trash on Thursday morning. As I told my sister, it feels as though this dreary fog had slowly enveloped me over the past two years, and now it's beginning to fade. The gray pall cast over my thoughts and emotions is brightening. If I could stay on this mental upswing, I'd embrace whatever physical limitations had to follow. Happily, my physical health is back on the right track as well.

 If I could choose anything in the world to do on my birthday, high on that list would be "climb Lone Peak with my dad." Lone Peak is a 11,253-foot summit in the Wasatch Mountains. I consider it my "home" mountain. I grew up in its morning shadow; the peak is less than five miles due east from my childhood home — and 7,000 feet higher. As a hike, it's considered by many to be the most difficult standard route to a summit in the Wasatch, rising 6,000 feet in six miles along a chunder-filled gully of a trail called Jacob's Ladder, followed by boulder-hopping in a granite cirque, and finally a class-3 to low-4 scramble up a narrow ridge of vertically-stacked monzonite slabs.

I don't quite remember the first time my dad guided me to this peak. I believe it was the summer after I graduated from high school, 20 years ago. My early memories of Lone Peak's difficulty all surround the steep slog of Jacob's Ladder. There are fewer memories of the slabs that bother me today ... probably because I have 20 years of physical conditioning behind me now, and also two decades of risk and personal ability assessment, which have made me much more wary of exposed scrambling. Much sharper than memories of difficulty are memories of amazement and joy — the quiet Alpine forest mere miles from my crowded suburban neighborhood, the sheer granite walls above the cirque, and standing on top of a peak barely as wide as I am tall, overlooking the entire Salt Lake Valley.

My unplanned trip to Utah for my aunt's funeral just happened to put me in position for a 20th anniversary/38th birthday visit to what is still my favorite mountain. Dad was available, and we also were joined by his friend Tom. Dad had Sunday afternoon obligations so we left at the crack of dawn, enjoying clear skies and temperatures just below 70 degrees. My legs retained a dull soreness from Friday's 14er adventure, but for the most part I felt fantastic. We made quick work of Jacob's Ladder and practically bounded through the wildflower-filled cirque. Dad is in incredible shape and I couldn't quite keep up with him, but I came as close as I could hope to. There was so much oxygen up there, at 10,000 feet.

When we reached the base of the peak, Tom decided to stop and take a nap in wildflower-filled meadow. Dad and I scrambled up a steep and tricky gully — boulders covered in sand — and continued onto the ridge. This photo that my dad took gives an idea of what the summit ridge is like. It's difficult to depict the scale, but the peak is only about 15 square feet. The tilted slab leading to the peak is about five feet long, and not nearly as wide as I'd like. A tumble from this ridge might bounce you on a couple of earlier boulders, but you'd probably land in the cirque, nearly a thousand feet below.

I pulled out my camera to take a photo dad scrambling up one of the first short class-4 maneuvers, and caught an rush of vertigo. It was similar to the sensation that I battled after rolling my ankle and tumbling onto my head on Grizzly Peak on Friday — the sensation that just wouldn't go away and effectively frightened me off the mountain ridge after I summited Grays. Again I felt dizzy, then began to teeter, panicked, and dropped the camera. It bounced once on the edge of a narrow precipice and disappeared into a seemingly bottomless crevasse. My dad and I both wedged ourselves into cracks underneath car-sized boulders, scanning dark hollows for signs of a small, black object. It was nowhere to be seen. Gone. I don't know what made me more sad — that I'd lost my $500 camera (which was several years old and very well used), or that I'd lost all of my images from Lone Peak. It had been such a gorgeous morning.

My camera was gone but the vertigo persisted. Watching an object bounce and rocks and disappear did not help the sensation that gravity was yanking me in every impossible direction. If Dad hadn't been there, I would have undoubtedly lost my nerve. He patiently coached me through the monzonite puzzle, pointing out the best handholds, warning me about slippery sandy sections, and even pulling me up by the arm up a ten-foot slab when my shoulders went weak while gripping a tiny handhold. Finally we were on the peak, perched next to thousand-foot drops in three directions, nibbling on Nutella-slathered pita bread. I was happy, but still ill with unsteadiness.

Looking back on the perhaps half-dozen times I've sat on the kitchen-table-sized summit, I remembered that I pretty much always feel this way on Lone Peak — like the cirque is rushing toward me, and if I stand up, I might collapse. I probably felt this way the first time, even when my 18-year-old ignorance of innate clumsiness was there to protect me. Vertigo is not exactly an enjoyable sensation, and yet I've loved Lone Peak ever since. I used to joke with friends that I was never going to get married, but if I did, it would be on top of Lone Peak (Technically I still haven't broken that promise.) I suppose dizziness and stomach butterflies and exhilaration are exactly the sensations of love. Twenty years and countless mountains later, Lone is still my favorite.

 I had birthday dinner with my parents and sister's family. It was just like old times — grilled salmon and vegetables with corn on the cob from the same local farmer, and mom baked a German chocolate cake for dessert. It was a great birthday ... hopefully that means it's going to be a great year.

On Monday I needed to drive back to Colorado. Although I wanted to beat all the of the eclipse traffic heading south from Idaho and Wyoming, it was too much of a temptation to stay in Utah through the early afternoon and view the partial eclipse from a mountain top. I'm one of those who wasn't that interested in the eclipse until recently ... I even had an invite from friends to go camping in Wyoming during the total eclipse, and shrugged it off. (I thought I'd be too busy wrapping up some deadlines before leaving for Europe this week. At the time I didn't have plans to be in Utah.) But then I fell victim to the hype, and decided to join dad on another tough hike to a 10,000-foot mountain called Gobbler's Knob.

 My legs were definitely aching as we ascended 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles. Dad didn't seem any worse for the wear. We arrived at the summit 50 minutes before the eclipse at its fullest — I believe around 92 percent. I don't think I've ever spent more than an hour sitting on a mountain top, and really enjoyed the relaxed lounging, watching a strange early twilight descend over the surrounding mountains and valleys, and occasionally donning the eclipse glasses to watch the moon take increasingly larger bites out of the sun.

No doubt the total eclipse would have been incredible. But this was special as well — looking up at the crescent sun, feeling a chill descend and putting on a jacket, watching birds bounce nervously across tree branches, and absorbing a silence that seemed to deepen as the sun nearly disappeared.

We descended the mountain quickly, as I was still hoping to beat I-15 traffic. I thought about the ways I appreciate getting older, because each day lived adds to a wealth of experiences and memories, and a deepening of perspective. I envied Dad's limber movements down the steep trail, and hoped that one day I can be 64 the way he's 64. He's had some rough patches in life, and emerged stronger, possibly as strong as he's been. For now I'm 38 the way I can be 38, seeking strength where I can find it, and excited about the year in front of me.
Saturday, August 19, 2017

Upward over the mountain

Last week, my aunt Jill died at age 53. She had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer caused by malignant plasma cells. Her cancer was incurable and aggressive. She battled for three years, trying every treatment and several clinical trials. From afar, the treatments seemed painful and isolating. She must have felt hopeless at times, but she was brave. When faced with the prospect of a painful stem cell transplant that had only a small chance of success, she said, "this might not extend my life, but it will help doctors learn more about these treatments for the future." 

We shared the same name, Jill Homer. When I was a child, she impressed on me the value of finding joy in everything. My grandmother had given me some kind of chore after Thanksgiving dinner. I don't remember the chore, only that I was unhappy because I wanted to play with my cousins. My aunt said, "Don't look at it as punishment. It's just another type of adventure." I'm paraphrasing. The word adventure is probably something my memory inserted years later. But that was my aunt. Life is a great adventure, whether you're zip-lining down from dizzying heights (a thing she decided to do shortly after being diagnosed with cancer) or doing the dishes. 

I decided to drive out to Utah for the funeral this weekend. It was a beautiful service, attended by all of my aunts and uncles and a large number of my many cousins. As the years pass, I realize more how much I value my big Mormon family with our often messy and loud gatherings, the jello salads and funeral potatoes. It was nice to spend an afternoon with them and learn more about Jill's final weeks. Death inevitably leads to reflection about the fleeting nature of life, and its sources of joy. Jill never stopped embracing beauty, even when she was in pain.

In her spirit — or really, in my spirit, but I think we shared a lot of the same values as well as a name — I took advantage of the road trip to squeeze in a little adventure on two 14ers near the Interstate, Torreys and Grays peaks. Looking at a map, it seemed there was a more interesting route than the standard trail, starting from Loveland Pass. This route included a lot of climbing and descending and two smaller (13er) peaks in the way, but bonus: You start above treeline, just below 12,000 feet. Views the whole way.

 And ridge walking! Right out of the car I felt a bit rough — nauseated, mostly. My breathing was actually fine, despite the altitude. I slogged along and tried to eat some fruit snacks, but despite the stomach grumblings I felt pretty good. Sunny day, perfect weather forecast, and a trail to two 14ers with nobody on it. What more could you ask for?

 Looking toward Torreys and Grays from Grizzly Peak. Right off this ridge was a steep descent on loose talus, and I took a fall. It wasn't that bad. I have what I consider a "bad ankle," my left ankle, which I broke when I was 19. It's been the weak one ever since. I've been rolling it a lot lately, and I rolled it on top of a loose boulder and crumpled onto a thankfully smaller pile of rocks with my head downhill. I rose with no injures (save the tailbone I bruised when I fell down the stairs last week, which still hurts.) But I was dizzy and disoriented and really, really spooked.

 Why was I so spooked? It's difficult to justify now. I wasn't hurt and this wasn't terribly difficult terrain. Despite this reality, I was remorseful. "Why do I always go to the mountains? I'm not good in the mountains at all, and they scare me. Why, oh why, oh why?"

I inched my way down Grizzly's talus field and started up a new one to summit Torreys. This route that gains 1,700 feet in less than a mile, topping out at 14,275 feet. I tried to shake how spooked I felt, unsuccessfully, and struggled mightily with this climb. I stumbled to the summit with at least 15 people on top, and pointed out my ridge route to a guy who asked where I came from.

"I'd like to do that someday, but it's not a day hike," he said.

I looked at my watch. "I've only hiked five miles so far." Three and a half hours had passed. I still had more than six hours of driving ahead of me, and this hike was already taking much longer than expected. Of course you can't go to Torreys without tagging Grays, so I was looking at eight hours of hiking, which one might think unreasonable on top of a 530-mile drive. I would disagree. My aunt Jill might disagree. But I was admittedly terrified of returning to Grizzly, and already plotting an alternative. Perhaps, I thought, the faster way back from this mountain is around it.

Holding a borrowed sign on Grays, looking disheveled as usual. Six miles in four hours. I knew if I dropped down the popular trail, I could potentially run the gravel road, bike path, and a supposed trail along Highway 6, all the way back to my car. It was 15 miles instead of six, wasn't a beautiful ridge walk, and promised to be a slog of a gradual climb from the Interstate. But if I could run, I might arrive in Utah before 1 a.m.

This descent was fun. A herd of mountain goats sauntered along the trail (I've seen mountain goats three times in Colorado, always along popular routes to 14ers. It's like they want to be around people.) The trail was rocky and steep but mostly mindless. I finally felt comfortable turning on my iPod and shuffling along, although my bad ankle was throbbing, and I was still nauseated. Running was going to prove difficult. Dang, it was going to be a long walk back to the car.

Unfortunately I didn't start to feel better, and I ran out of food because I had banked on a four- or five-hour hike, not eight. The bike path on my map turned out to be paved, which was an unpleasant surprise. I slogged along on hot and sore feet, at least managing 18-minute miles with not too much effort (curbing the nausea), and scrolling through my map while pondering potential stream bed gullies I could climb back to the ridge. ("Don't do that," I reminded myself. "You'll regret that.") There was just enough shuffling to wrap up the 20-mile hike in eight hours, and not feel too worse for the wear. Better to not be shattered before the drive.

Driving west into the setting sun, I felt slightly ashamed for how poorly I'd reacted on Grizzly. Maybe it's an inherent knowledge that something small like a weak ankle could prove deadly in the wrong place. Maybe I'm hurt because I love the mountains so much, but I'm just a feeble thing pressed against cold, sweeping indifference.

Why do I go to the mountains? Because they're beautiful. And because I'm not very good in the mountains and they scare me. My aunt Jill might point out that perspective is what matters.
Monday, August 14, 2017


Claps of thunder were closing in as I raced down chunky gravel on Rainbow Lakes Road, spun out in my highest gear. Lightning hadn't yet made an appearance, but the thunder sounded close, and I was hurrying to reach an outhouse at the Sourdough Trailhead, about a mile downhill. I rounded a corner at high speed and saw the cow moose and her calf almost too late, screeching the wet brakes to a stop about 100 feet away. The moose stood on the right side of the road facing me, looking unperturbed but also unwilling to move. There was nowhere to backtrack for miles. So it would be a standoff.

"Hey moose," I called out, as though she didn't already know she was dealing with an annoying human. Lightning sliced through the sky directly in front of us. A shattering thunder boom followed within one second. The moose didn't budge. Still straddling my bike, I backed up a few feet and glanced into the woods, scouting for the darkest spot to hide from lightning with the kind of tree I could possibly climb should the moose decide to charge. Within seconds the indigo sky unleashed a shower of hail. Finally the moose and her calf took off down the road. I waited some more, wincing at the sting of marble-sized ice balls on my shoulders and hands ... but it was better than being stomped by a moose. Finally it felt safe to continue coasting down the road. Moose tracks pressed into the wet gravel for a quarter mile before they veered into the forest.

Hail was still pouring down when I reached the trailhead and ducked into outhouse, a relatively spacious and clean toilet that was as welcome as any shelter could be. I took the opportunity to pour a cascade of rocks and mud out of my shoes, and pulled on all of the same layers that I typically carry in my backpack in January — fleece pullover, waterproof shell, fleece hat, fleece mittens. As I waited out the storm for the next ten minutes, I continued to shiver. Every convulsion sent a shock of pain through my bruised back. Just three hours earlier, I'd also fallen down the stairs.

At home we have just a single set of stairs, but they're steep, uncarpeted, and about 15 feet high. I've had a few near-misses before and know better to watch my footing and hold the railing, but I was descending in socks while holding sunglasses in one hand and a GPS device in the other. Halfway down, a sock-foot slipped and I went down hard on my butt and back, bouncing down eight or nine steps before crumpling in a heap at the bottom. My backpack full of water and winter gear had twisted around and the strap was tight against my neck, almost choking me, and I was nauseated and hyperventilating. I thought I might faint. I fought to hold onto consciousness, both because I didn't want the backpack strap to suffocate me after I passed out, and because fainting after falling down the stairs at home was embarrassing enough even if I wasn't found dead in this position.

After several minutes of concentrating on breathing, I regained enough composure to stand. My butt was throbbing and my left calf had a strange knot that felt like a fist clenched against the muscle. My sunglasses and GPS had both exploded into pieces, but these luckily are "Jill-proof" items that I was able to put back together. I paced for several more minutes and concluded that I wasn't injured, just in pain. "It's not worse than crashing my bike. And I still ride after crashing my bike. So I guess I should ride."

My plan for the day wasn't a small one — 50 miles, almost 6,000 feet of climbing, and exploration on what turned out to be a swampy mess of rocky doubletrack, Forest Service Road 505. I didn't regret my decision to ride until 505, when stepping off the bike to push it around knee-deep mud puddles clenched the invisible fist around my calf muscle, and bouncing on rocks aggravated pain underneath my ribs on the left side of my back. Then the hailstorm moved in, not unexpected but still stunningly swift in its consumption of the warm, sunny afternoon. Every bruised part of my body stiffened as I shivered in an outhouse, and I still had to propel myself back to Boulder.

Thunder continued to crack overhead, and I smirked at myself and these positions I'm often in. As I grow older, there are ways in which I continue to become more reckless and less risk-averse than I was in my 20s. I mean, when I lived in Utah 15 years ago, I was terrified of thunderstorms and wouldn't even go outside for routine bike rides if the sky or forecast looked bad. Now I'm in Colorado and the forecast has looked at least somewhat bad nearly every day for a month, and I don't really mind. I figure I can mitigate risk by staying below treeline and hiding in an outhouse when necessary. Still, these certainly aren't calamity-proof solutions. Fears of calamity used to have more impact.

I suppose I've figured out that I am the type of person who will more likely perish in a preventable household accident, so why be afraid of the outdoors?

Beat, grumpy about hiding under a tree during a hailstorm on Sunday
It has been a trying summer for thunderstorm fears. The typical monsoonal moisture is being ramped up by hot and dry weather in the Pacific Northwest, causing central Colorado to become more cool and wet. Lightning risk notwithstanding, I love these conditions. The storms keep outings interesting, occasionally lend to beautiful light and dramatic scenery, foster stunning wildflower blooms, keep the air clear and smoke-free, and reduce the usual stifling heat. My friend Dave in Colorado Springs posted the other day that he had seasonal affective disorder because the stormy weather was getting him down. I replied, "Really? I usually hate August, but this one's been okay so far."

Of course, that's just weather; it does nothing to stem the growing tide of unrest in the U.S. For that, August has been a particularly disheartening month. Nothing that is happening is surprising, sadly.

We do what we can to battle disheartenment ... donate to organizations that do a better job than we could alone ... meet with friends and commiserate ... attempt to gently expand on the situation with that high school friend on Facebook who still lives a relatively privileged and sheltered existence ... research the best ways to stock the nuclear bomb shelter (oh yes, we actually have a shelter at home, built by the previous homeowner who lived in Russia during the Cold War. Not that I'd even want to be among the survivors who envy the dead.) Ah, now I'm drifting into negative thinking again. I know it doesn't help anything, so I break the feedback loop with a nice ride on quiet forest roads, where my largest threat is probably lightning.

It is wonderful to have bikes in my life, especially when I've fallen down the stairs and am banged up enough to prevent running for little while. The daily hailstorm petered out and sunbeams stabbed through breaks in the clouds. A faint rainbow formed overhead. It became a great afternoon for riding ... overcast and cool with hints of sunlight sparkling on wet grass, still green in mid-August. It is a beautiful time of year, when I learn to live in the moment. 
Friday, August 11, 2017

Mountain benders ... good for what ails you

My alarm buzzed at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, but I languished in bed until 6:30. Finally slumped onto the floor, made instant coffee and oatmeal in the microwave, threw on a still-wet daypack with soggy bars in the side pocket, and walked out the door. Directly across the street was the Horsethief trailhead. I signed my name in the trail register, destination "Bridge of Heaven. Maybe Bear Creek, if weather okay." The trail shot skyward at sustained 18- to 25-percent grades. No room to even warm up the legs. The Bridge of Heaven was 5,000 feet overhead.

A misty rain swirled through the forest. The narrow trail pushed through shoulder-high brush that was saturated in droplets, leaving me as wet as if I'd jumped in a lake. The air had warmth to it, though, even though my hands were still slightly numb from yesterday's hailstorm. Groggily I plodded skyward, holding my tingling fingers against my neck to gauge my heart rate. It seemed good — low 140s. I know fatigue lowers heart rate, but that's effectively my goal. I'm never in the mood for morning activity, but this morning definitely felt better than most. Anyway, I live for a good, old-fashioned sustained climb, where I can knock off a vertical mile right out of bed. This climb would be the last for runners in the Ouray 100 — miles 90 to 100. Brutal, to say the least. Twenty-four hours hadn't yet passed in the race, and I doubted a runner had been through here yet. "They should be glad I'm knocking all the water off the brush," I thought. 

The effects of trying to shoot a photo of wildflowers with a wet camera in the rain. As I crossed over the Bridge of Heaven, I was met with a brisk wind. Drizzling rain continued to slap my face as I pulled more layers over my saturated clothing: rain jacket — still a bit damp from yesterday — my last dry cap, mittens. "It's cold at 12,000 feet," I thought. The day promised to be gray, flatly lit, wet, and cool. "But morning rain probably means there won't be afternoon thunderstorms," I reasoned. Below the Bridge was a narrow cirque, carpeted with flowers and surrounded by a cathedral of jagged ridges. Where does it even go? I was going to find out.

Scott had given be a GPS track of a route he completed the previous week. The route dropped into the cirque, climbed to another saddle, and skirted along a ridge before descending into a broad valley. Fog cover was thick and visibility was limited, and I lost sight of the trail. For a half mile I followed Scott's track along a creek, blind to anything else but that thin purple line, completely confused about why it was veering so far away from the ridge. Where am I?

I found the trail again along the aptly-named Difficulty Creek, just as hints of sunlight were breaking up the fog. I climbed to another saddle at 12,600 feet and sat on the wet grass, eating a snack and scrolling through the map on my GPS. There was still little I could see through the clouds, but so many possibilities on the screen. The map showed the trail continuing east toward the other side of Engineer Pass, which was far away — like adding 10 or 15 miles to my day far away. Scott's track swung southwest over the tundra.

Again I was blindly following the purple line, stumbling over rocks and tussocks, and marveling at the vibrantly green tundra across this misty mountainscape — so close to Ouray, and somehow rising to a different dimension. Having seen no one on the way to Bridge of Heaven, I could safely assume I was the only human wandering through the mist for many miles.

Ouray carries the tagline "The Switzerland of America," a slogan that Beat vehemently disagrees with. However, there are definitely hints of the European Alps in these mountains, with limestone cliffs and rolling Alpine meadows. Even on this gray day with poor lighting and no chance of a good photo, the landscape was stunning. This hillside evoked fond images of a candy from my childhood, Fruit Stripe Gum. So random, the memories that stay close to your heart.

Just as I started into a steep off-trail descent, an enveloping bank of fog rolled in. I watched it with dread — "no, no, please stay over there." The mystery of the route had worn me down, and my phobias about getting lost reared their ugly head. Since there was no trail to follow and absolutely no visibility, all I had was Scott's purple line ... in which I was admittedly losing trust. It just dropped straight down this wet, grassy slope, weaving through rock bands. Were there cliffs in the way? Was there an uncrossable stream in the way? I was convinced I would be bashing my way back to Bridge of Heaven soon.

The phobia hit a fever pitch so I sat down for a few minutes to collect myself. It's always so funny to me ... in hindsight ... how I overreact when I feel "lost." I was still following the purple line, and Scott made it through, so clearly it was doable. I even had extra batteries for the GPS and enough remembered landmarks on the route to backtrack if necessary. But it's difficult for me to reconcile logic with an instinctual fear of the unknown. The fog was so thick I could barely see anything beyond my feet, and this felt like descending into a white tunnel from which the bottom might drop at any moment. My GPS map showed intimidating topo lines in every direction. I taught myself map and compass navigation in 2014, and while that mainly just provided more insight into why I should not trust my own navigational decisions, it did give me better "big picture" understanding. I scrolled through the map and pondered where I'd choose to go if there were no GPS track to follow. Cliffs, streams, cliffs. No bearings. I'd turn around.

Unsurprisingly, the route went without incident. The wet grass was quite slippery and I fell twice, but that kind of thing is to be expected with me ... which is exactly why I'm so leery of being forced onto cliffs. By the time I reached the Bear Creek Trail and Yellow Jacket Mine, the fog had cleared and the sun was out.

The Bear Creek Trail is an engineering marvel, carved into the side of a gorge by miners in the 1870s. Imagining those guys perched 700 feet over the creek, chipping away at these cliffs, is enough to make me feel pretty silly about fretting over an ambiguous GPS track. It's a little vertigo-inducing just to walk on top of this fairly wide and secure trail. About two miles from the highway, I began to see my first fellow hikers, and suddenly there were dozens of people. It was right about here that I suddenly and urgently needed to pee, and ended up scrambling up a precarious gully to get out of sight.

In total, the loop was 20 miles with more than 7,000 feet of climbing. After descending Bear Creek, I made my way back to town by way of the Ouray Perimeter Trail. I expected it to be a slog, but instead found an engaging route through a box canyon along the Uncompahgre River. What makes the water this color? I like to imagine it's gold.

The hike was slow-going but still only eight hours, which left plenty of time for an actual meal and a nap before my shift at Fellin Park, which was both an aid station for several legs, and the start/finish of the Ouray 100. All this time, runners were still grinding away at their route, more than 38 hours into the race when I showed up for my shift. The aid-station captain had one-upped me by climbing Mount Sneffels starting at 3 in the morning. She was upbeat and efficient, which made me feel a bit unneeded. But I did have fun meeting runners and hanging out with the race director, Charles, who after 40 hours operated in two modes — manically busy, and unconscious in a chair.

Around 2 a.m., the first finisher of the 50-mile race rolled in, bursting with energy. He was being closely shadowed by the second-place runner as he descended steeply from Bridge of Heaven, causing him to "miss" a switchback and fall a dozen or so feet. He was banged up and bleeding, but even more adrenaline charged because of the fall. I recognized him ... how did I know him? ... oh! Bryce 100! He was leading the Bryce 100 when I last saw him. I mentioned that, and we launched into an animated conversation about our experiences in Utah. He seemed genuinely interested to hear about my race, which was gratifying ... to be regraded as a runner. He was such a nice guy, too. I kept insisting that "I didn't finish Bryce. I was too slow. I timed out."

"Yeah, but you did 75 miles! That's great!"

Runners are the best. Really. This guy wins a 50-mile mountain race, limps into the finish at 2 a.m. covered in blood, and still takes the time to encourage an aid station volunteer.

Eszter finished just before 4 a.m., looking as fresh and strong as ever after 44 hours of near-continuous running (she said she took a couple of trailside catnaps.) The Bridge of Heaven 10-mile section took her close to eight hours, I believe, mainly because her feet were macerated from being wet for so long. I can *definitely* relate to how painful that can be. On a downhill that steep, every footfall would be agony. But she seemed to have no other issues, which is incredible. Big congrats to Eszter, who was the second woman ever to finish the Ouray 100, in three years of the race's existence (also the second this year.)

I wasn't nearly so tough, and staggered back to bed after my shift for another three hours of sleep, waking up groggy, again, just before 10 a.m. I did want to be back in Boulder around 8 p.m., but that still gave me time for a two- or three-hour hike. I chose a recommended classic, Twin Peaks.

This trail seems like a casual stroll compared to the Bridge of Heaven-to-Bear Creek route, but it still gains 3,500 feet in 3.5 miles. I set out feeling perky, heart rate steady, breathing calm. As I ascended, I felt this strange sensation in my legs. Sort of an ... ache. Was this ... tired legs? I imagined my lungs laughing at my legs for finally being the wimpy one. "What's wrong, having a little trouble down there?" For once in a long while, my breathing was good while another body part struggled. This felt amazing.

Overall it was a pretty big week of hiking. Since Monday — 83 miles, 30+ hours, 28,300 feet of climbing. Not even an Ouray 100 spread out over an entire week, but a robust effort nonetheless. My breathing and stamina, however, had actually improved throughout the week. It followed a general upward trend of well-being that I can probably attribute to several factors — happiness about being in the mountains near the top. But the overall arc is one I've experienced before, and understand that it's mainly the result of two and a half little pills that I take every morning, recently upped from two, to stop my thyroid gland from flooding my body with hormones.

When my body is on a downswing — as I felt I was for much of June and July — my perspective changes. The world becomes a little bit darker, less interesting, and there are more moments I want to escape than there are moments I'm glad to experience. These psychological impacts are something I find perplexing and disheartening. I used to believe in the autonomy of self — that my body is a vehicle I drive, and my mind is an independent operator. "Mind over matter" and its mastery became my driving motivation in endurance racing. Experiencing how deeply my mind can be affected by hormones ... chemicals ... something over which I have no control ... has been a humbling dose of reality.

So once again I'm musing about sense of self. Is there any part that I can still call "me?" When I gasp while climbing a set of stairs and brood about nuclear winter ... is that me? When I breathe easily while ascending a mountain and marvel at the simplicity of joy ... is that me? Or are these just chemical reactions to moments, from which both body and mind can't exist independently? I don't want to think about this right now. It's easier to just let go. It's always easier to let go.

At the trail's end, I perched next to the precarious gap between twin summits and watched storms roll in, again. There was a hint of sunlight on Sneffels, and much more over shimmering on Umcompahgre River Valley to the north. I could even see golden plains on the northern horizon, and imagined the Colorado River corridor, the stage for some of the best memories of my youth. This was a wonderful moment, of which I'd had more than I could count in just a week. And really, it was more than enough. 
Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Mountain benders ... always the best plan

Less than one week before the Ouray 100, Beat conceded that his hip pain wasn't improving, and he couldn't start this monstrous mountain race without jeopardizing his "A" races in Europe later this month. I sympathized with his decision but selfishly felt bummed for myself. Even though I'd already decided pacing wasn't in the cards (shallow breathing = no higher gears = too slow), I was looking forward to visiting Ouray, hanging out with punch-drunk hilarious runners and volunteers at aid stations, and hiking in the San Juans. Beat pointed out that the hotel room he'd already paid for was nonrefundable, and there was no reason I couldn't still do all of those things. I contacted the race director to volunteer for an aid station shift and made a plan — leave Boulder at 8 a.m. Thursday, return at 8 p.m. Sunday. That was 84 hours minus 16 hours of driving and 8 hours of volunteering, leaving 60 hours for hiking. Of course the dull necessities of sleeping and eating would have to cut into that limit.

The route between my house and Ouray is a solid seven hours without stops or traffic. Between the two points are steep and winding highways that traverse a swath of big mountains. I thought I could carve enough time out of Thursday to climb one of them. A quick glance at a map told me the trailhead to Mount Shavano was one of the closest en route. I made the calculations that I call "failure math" (the numbers one uses to justify backing out of big adventures, i.e. when's the latest I can leave? What's the slowest possible speed? What's my absolute cutoff?) I needed to arrive in Ouray before 9 p.m., or the hotel's front desk would close and I'd be locked out for the night. Stupidly, I did not bring any camping gear as a contingency plan.

Arriving at the trailhead around 12:15 p.m., failure math concluded that I had four hours to spare, with five hours as the absolute cutoff — but that would leave no leeway for traffic or slowdowns, no time to stop for dinner, and I'd still probably end up sleeping in the car. Dark clouds were already gathering over the valley. Could I tag Shavano in four hours? Nine miles round trip with 4,500 feet of climbing, at an altitude between 9,700 and 14,200 feet, weather iffy, trail technicality unknown? It seemed unlikely, and didn't really matter, but I hadn't yet visited a single fourteener since moving to Colorado. I was going to be at least a little disappointed if I didn't make it.

From the start I pegged my current maximum ability — heart pounding and wooziness building despite my best efforts not to breathe like a panicked child. I was unwilling to ease the lung-searing pace, but did bank on those dark clouds chasing me off the mountain and relieving me of this misery.

Although dark clouds continued to swirl in nearly every direction, the sky overhead was stunningly clear. My maximum pace is not impressive, but it is demanding. After two hours of marching into a narrowing tunnel, I arrived at a saddle. The summit was right there — although GPS informed me it was still a thousand feet over my head. "Well, I'll be faster on the descent," I reasoned (all of my history with steep mountains has revealed that this is almost never true.) "It's only about a half mile away" (and 1,000 feet of climbing.) "Ah, who cares if I have to sleep in the car." Summit fever had taken hold.

Have you ever attempted to rush yourself at 14,000 feet, when your body already operates at oxygen debt in the best of situations? I was borderline euphoric, head spiraling into the clouds as an invisible weight pressed into my chest and legs. The rapture of the deep ... or high. Delirium set in. I slumped down to use my knuckles for balance. I do remember leaving the boulder stair-step trail and crawling directly up larger rocks because that seemed easier. Somehow I managed to stagger to the summit register box without incurring a head injury. I acknowledged the official top with 2:40 on my watch. I took five seconds to look north toward the ripple of Sawatch fourteeners and smiled. Then I looked south toward Salida and the stunningly dark clouds that were moving toward the peak. Time to go.

 I managed the descent fairly well, although the ankle that I rolled while hiking on Monday was throbbing with occasional shooting pains. I feared a tendon would snap at any moment, but the threat of lightning felt riskier, so I continued making small, swift steps with unsure footing on an unstable ankle. As I dropped below treeline, the sky grew so dark that I considered taking out my headlamp. At the very moment that I stumbled back to my car with 4:45 on the watch, the clouds unleashed an incredible deluge. The entire car shook underneath sheets of rain. The windshield wipers had no chance against the barrage, so I'd just have to wait it out. Ten minutes later, I was creeping forward in still-heavy rain, squinting through the blur of droplets to find the road. I managed to take a wrong turn and didn't realize this until the track had narrowed to a single lane and dropped into an impossibly steep and rocky drainage. Carefully I managed an eight-point U-turn and fretted that the Subaru Outback would never make it up this rock-crawler of a road. Incredibly it did, with patience and one frantic gunning of the gas at the top (it was so steep that I feared Subaru would tip over backward. I know this isn't possible on that grade, but panicked anyway.)

On a mechanical note, three days later the anti-lock brake system went on the fritz. Beat asked me about my trip and I said "100 percent pavement" ... conveniently forgetting about the Shavano adventure. The ABS failed several days after the fact and I don't think the incidents were related, but perhaps.

 The deluge continued as I turned onto Highway 50 and made my way toward Monarch Pass, where precipitation turned to violent hail, and then something like graupel, and then ice pellets mixed with snow. Snow! On August 3! The car thermometer read 34 degrees and the pavement was extremely icy. A truck towing a trailer in front of me was fishtailing all over the lane, luckily moving slowly enough to regain control. I slowed down to give him a wide berth, only to have my own wheels slip out when I pressed the gas again. My thoughts were: "Well, I'm glad I'm off Shavano." "Why is it that I can't take a long road trip without sitting in traffic during a scary winter storm? It's August for crying out loud." And, "There goes my time margin. Guess I'm sleeping in the car."

The weather cleared and traffic thinned. By the time I drove through Gunnison, the temperature was back up to 68 degrees. Colorado, sheesh. There may have been a tiny bit of speeding outside Montrose to reach Ouray at 8:50 p.m., with ten minutes to spare. After finishing my hike seconds before the rain, I have to say my timing was impeccable on this day ... winter storm notwithstanding.

In the morning I set out on the Ouray 100 course, about two hours after the race started. I hoped to see some of the runners on their return trip (the course consisted of a number of out-and-backs, a convoluted design that was necessary to stay out of wilderness areas, and also to generate the maximum amount of climbing possible — 41,000 feet in 100 miles.)

Admittedly I was blindly following a GPS track and didn't realize the first ten miles of the race were largely on a heavily trafficked gravel road. I wouldn't have chosen this route for a hike if I'd known — but I did choose it. I tried not to be grumpy about the traffic as I strolled up the road, enjoying the scenery and cheering for runners.

Before I left not-early in the morning, there may have been some sweeping pipe dreams about checking out the route to Mount Sneffels — which I knew to include quite a bit of "easy" class 3 scrambling — "if the weather held." By 11 a.m. the dark clouds were pronounced and I already knew this wasn't to be, but figured I could do some exploring above treeline in Yankee Boy Basin. I'd barely surpassed 11,000 feet when the sky unleashed a barrage of hail. It was awful. Admittedly I was a bit smug about dealing with the weather because I hadn't yet heard thunder, and "don't care about cold rain or snow" because I had a ton of gear in my backpack. But hail. It was near nickel-sized, and felt like standing directly underneath a front-end loader as it dumped a pile of gravel. I ducked beside the largest tree nearby — it was only about as tall as me — and crouched into a ball to let my back take the abuse. This is how I was found and rescued by a very nice family from Lubbock, Texas, who drove past in a truck that looked like it had just been through a winter storm.

"It's much worse up there," the wife said when I told her I was hiking toward the basin. "You really should get in. Don't worry, we have kids. We're not serial killers."

This is how I came to embark on a gold-panning adventure with a Texan and his teenage son. It was still raining hard and the temperature was 42 degrees, but they were determined to pick up some quality ore from the defunct Lady Bird Mine.

 The venture required a crossing of Sneffels Creek, which was swift-flowing and thigh deep on the far side of the bank. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the mine, and upon return, the continuing heavy rain had raised water levels another several inches. The increased flow was enough to make the crossing feel very treacherous, with chocolate-milk-colored water pushing against my butt cheeks. The three of us were holding onto each other and moving against the current in the diagonal formation that increases safety, but I already harbor an irrational fear of water, and struggled mightily to hold myself together. My thoughts were: "These Texans are going to kill me." "I should have taken my chances with the hail." "I'm going to die. I'm going to die."

Before the horrifying stream crossing that I obviously survived, I did have fun exploring the mine. I couldn't find much information online about "Lady Bird Mine" and am not certain it isn't just a part of the still-operating Camp Bird Mine. The Texan informed me that this, like many old Colorado mines, was home to hundreds of people in the late 1800s, and mainly produced gold and silver. Miners processed the ore with cyanide, creating an environmental disaster that still scars the landscape. The Texan collected chunks of quartz as we clawed our way up the steep hillside. I mostly wandered around the ruins and tried not to step on old nails, although I wasn't too worried because I was wearing my "big" Hokas (Stinson ATR.)

As the sky cleared, we could see accumulated hail on Sneffels. Yeah, it's good I didn't attempt that one. After the hailstorm, exploring the mine in the rain, and the butt-deep creek crossing, my core temperature dropped and didn't improve during the ride down. By the time the nice family dropped me off in Ouray, I was a shivery mess and couldn't even cope. A hot shower probably would have helped, but instead I put on the down pants and coat that I brought for the overnight aid station stint, curled up in bed, and went to sleep.

By the time I woke up it was 6 p.m., still raining hard, and I felt awful ... both from the mild hypothermia and the nap. The only cure for hypothermia hangover is more hiking, clearly. I chose the Red Mountain Loop on the race course because I figured it would be safe in this weather. On my way out, I just happened to run into Eszter coming into the aid station. (Although the race had tracking, I wasn't able to follow it closely because I had no cell reception and limited Internet access. So as it turns out, timing the hiking while crewing for Beat wouldn't have been easy.) The Ouray 100 was Eszter's first 100-mile foot race. Given the gnarly design of the course — easily one of the more difficult 100-milers in North America — most would consider this an audacious first attempt. But with her endurance racing resume, I think few would doubt her chances. She seemed to be crushing it, although I didn't have any context due to lack of tracking.

Since it was too early in the race for runners to have "pacers," I only chatted for a few minutes and left her alone. After this I felt more bummed that Beat wasn't here — not only because he would have loved this particular race, but also because spectating is more meaningful when shared. If I wanted an ideal hiking vacation, I could have done a solo backpacking trip. Clearly I came to Ouray and chose to follow the race course. A strong emotional drive keeps pulling me toward endurance racing. I question this constantly, but answers are elusive.

This Red Mountain Loop became my favorite hike of the week. There were objectively better ones — longer, more scenic, more adventurous, better weather. This one was an understated gem, though — eight miles, mostly on jeep roads, circling "Red Mountain Number One," which is, in fact, a dazzling shade of red.

In the clearing skies I caught a glimpse of the moon rising over the giants of the San Juans. I shuffled through the iPod to listen to the Radical Face song that I've adopted as a sort of theme song for my year so far ...

"climb up the moonlight, ground beneath me ... 'til I find myself all wrapped up in the fog above the world."

My thoughts on this hike drifted toward musings about identity, and how one's sense of self can be as fleeting as the seconds our experiences occupy. I identify with being a writer, an endurance athlete, or an adventure enthusiast, but there was a time that I was none of these things. And I'm not the same person I was when I adopted these characteristics. Change is constant, even from within. At no moment am I the "me" that I'm always going to be, nor will there ever be such a moment. No one remains static. We will never "find ourselves." We will never "reach our destiny." Choices take us in unexpected directions, perspectives shift, emotions expand and fade, and memories ripple outward until we die. Until then, identity is just an figment of the present — that moment so fleeting that by the time we've perceived it, it's already passed.

"You are not you, you are a mirror. You only work when you're the same."

Yes, I suppose I've again found myself hiking and listening to Radical Face, thinking about life beyond the adventure pursuits that defined my past decade. Of course the alarming state of the world and fears for the future always come into play during these musings. This time, however, instead of dread, I felt this bizarre surge of excitement. "My body sort of turned on me already and I'm only 37. Politics are ridiculous and I've lost faith in my country, like a child who finally realizes that her parents don't know everything. The world's climate may change dramatically in my lifetime ... if there isn't nuclear war first. My hair is falling out and I hope it stops. But wow, this place — the jagged mountains, the violet sky, the fog creeping up the valley. The air tastes sweet, like autumn. This is now and in a second it will change. So this moment is either nothing or everything. I choose everything. Just this moment and nothing more. Why does there need to be anything more?

"I'm not awake; I am not sleeping ... as I walk along the in-between of everything come and gone."

At the high point on the loop, I stopped for a few minutes to chat with runners who were working their way around the loop in the opposite direction. I learned they were about 31 miles — and 12 hours — into the race. A guy with a bunch of tattoos pointed to a dirt road winding up a slope on the far side of the valley and said, "isn't that the top?" and didn't seem to believe me when I told him otherwise. A Japanese man spoke in broken English — "mountains. Many, many mountains." Fog enveloped us and then moved on again. The last hints of daylight faded. Moments rolled forward. I envied the journey these guys were experiencing. These endeavors have a way of tearing you apart and forcing you to choose how to put yourself back together. You surprise yourself, sometimes, with the choices you make. Moments roll forward, perspectives change. These runners wouldn't be quite the same at the end of their race, regardless of the outcome. But then again, I suppose, neither would I.

It was dark by the time I started downhill. My headlamp was dim because the batteries were nearly dead — rookie mistake. I actually had spares, because I over-prepare for most contingencies. But instead of stopping to change them, I decided to try to cover the four miles before the light went out, which required running. Loping downhill on my sore ankle, with rain pelting my face, barely able to distinguish the road from the surrounding forest, I felt free. It was a frenetic kind of freedom, as though my 17-year-old self had re-emerged to take the wheel for a few moments. She wasn't a runner or athlete in even the most basic sense, but she did relish the exhilaration of darkness, and she was secure in her sense of invincibility, ignorant of dangers. Sometimes I almost believe I'm reaching into the past, but these are just illusive memories. That self doesn't exist anymore, not even on a cellular level. The realization does bring sadness.

When I returned to the aid station, I was bursting with energy. I wanted to run 100 miles, but was again aware that my current conglomeration of cells doesn't have the stamina. Not even two months have passed since I tried and failed at the Bryce 100. I'm frustrated with my body, made apparent by the way I cringe when I look at my reflection in the mirror (before leaning in to examine my scalp for bald spots.) I know I still have a lot to be grateful for, and life is good. I become frustrated with my frustration. The best way to surmount frustration is to flow with the moments, when I can. There are still all the memories ... there are still all the moments of pure joy ... and there are still plans for the future, or at least there's a hope to gain a semblance of control amid the relentless current. And of course there were still all the runners pressing into the night, perhaps glancing up at the moon and embracing the exhilaration and torment of time.

(I have even more photos from yet more hikes last weekend, but this post is already going quite long. I guess it will have a part 2.)