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.)


  1. If you can get up and down Shavano that fast, you are not in bad shape at all. That's a steep hike!

  2. Beautiful pictures and writing.

  3. I love how big mountains and bad weather drives introspection...
    A fine adventure and post.

  4. It's quite the journey you are on. Thanks for sharing.
    And I always love seeing Colorado! (Almost as much as your Italy photos!)

  5. Shucks, Jill. You could have spent all that time binging on Breaking Bad like any decent American. Now wouldn't that have been more satisfying?

  6. Congrats on your first CO 14er! I think you can now officially count yourself a Coloradoan. I definitely notice a precipitous drop-off in my ability to make upwards progress around 13,500 ... it becomes like a trudge through molasses in winter.


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