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. 


  1. The Horsethief to Bridge of Heaven to Bear Creek loop... Wow, and in the rain, no less! Followed by the climb up to Twin Peaks??? Could I have some of those pills?
    You got "game," Jill, and inching you're way back, albeit with ups and downs, but still, returning to the "player" you long to be.
    Congrats. So happy for you.

    1. Thanks Mark! I really enjoyed my too-short weekend in your hometown. I'd love to return with more time to explore, and to hold out for better weather. I'm curious now if the route I followed is the normal route to Bear Creek. There were nice signs at the Bridge of Heaven that said the Bear Creek intersection was only 8.4 miles, which is about the mileage I covered, but often off trail. I figured there must be a trail nearby, I just couldn't find it. In that fog, it may have only been a few meters away.

      The pills I take would make any normal person feel awful, of course. They'll make me feel awful if my natural balance shifts just a little bit. It's interesting to me how our bodies need such a perfect balance of chemicals to function properly, and yet can adapt to so many extreme situations. But yes, the ups and downs may follow me through life, even if I decide to have this rattletrap organ removed and commit to synthetic replacement hormone for the rest of my life. There's no great way to "win," but I do recognize that I still have it pretty good.

  2. I can't believe you wouldn't put 100% confidence in a 'Scott' GPX track. I never do anything dumb, or questionable, or dubious, or off-trail, or ill-advised!

    In seriousness, I can see how confidence would drop in the fog and going the other direction. The 'shortcut' that I improvised makes more sense in the other direction, I think.

    A few miles back there are infrequently traveled, and the trail fades out (happily) but I think I followed it until the track breaks for good over to Bear Creek. I had clear skies, though.

    I'm impressed you connected it with the Perimeter Trail from town, not to mention the solid bender weekend with the late volunteering too. Nicely done, and good to see you, even if it was briefly and at 4am!

    1. Ha ha. I appreciate the track. Your shortcut did work well. I suppose after I saw signs at BoH, I expected to follow trail or near trail the entire way. Then I came down with vertigo in the fog and worked myself into a lather about being perched over imaginary cliffs. All good fun. Hope to see you again before you escape Colorado.

  3. Jill, great to see you get such a block of positive experiences in. It's been a struggle to know what encouragement to offer from a distance, but I'd suggest looking back with an outsiders perspective there is a visible positive upswing over the last 2-3 months despite summer not being your happy time. It feels like you are starting to absorb not just your current challenge, but the overall change of location, elevation, home ownership etc that all have an often unrecognized impact. I'll chose to see the bright new masthead and light page design as another marker of you upswing. Take care. Enjoy the moments and carry on. You still inspire many of us, especially fans of long form writing.

    1. Thanks Michael. I appreciate your observations.


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