Monday, October 30, 2017


Last weekend, Google hosted a retreat for Beat's work team on Ka'anapali Beach in Maui. It was a quick trip — less than 72 hours on the island. A mechanical in Denver caused us to miss our connection in Seattle, and we missed all of the festivities on Wednesday while we languished at SeaTac, an airport where I have wasted *many* hours thanks to long layovers to and from Alaska. This led to some grumpiness about traveling to a place as far away as Hawaii for just a weekend, but one can't complain about any opportunity to visit such a beautiful and unique spot in the world. 

 On Thursday we set out for a quick run on Waihe'e Ridge. The trail is only two miles long, and took us nearly two hours to reach when our scenic drive along the coast hit a dead end (it was a scenic spot to end up, though.)

 Most of this outing was driving, but it was fun to spend an hour in one of the more lush spots on Mauna Kahalawai, running through the kukui and fern forest, and listening to a cacophony of bird calls. Recently I've slipped back into a physical slump, marked by many of the same symptoms I complained about in June and July. In the past two weeks I've had similar trouble breathing at 12,000 feet in cold winds on the Indian Peaks, at 5,000 feet in dry 80-degree air in Boulder, and here at sea level in Maui. The humidity made me feel like I was breathing through a wet dishrag, and I sputtered my way through this short effort.

Even though I didn't feel great, I was sad when the trail ended so soon. The sign warns to stay off the "Unsafe Natural Terrain."

That night we joined Beat's friends for a round of delicious nigiri, the best I've had since I moved away from California. This photo is the view from our hotel room, looking toward the island of Molokai at sunset. Our time on the island was short, so we never actually ventured out to the beach — I didn't put on my swim suit once — but there was enough proximity to feel like a typical Hawaii vacation while doing what we enjoy most, which is playing in the mountains.

On Friday we made our way over to Haleakalā, the 10,000-foot volcano that fills the eastern side of the island. Haleakalā is legendary among road cyclists because a well-maintained paved road winds from sea to summit, one of the longest sustained road climbs in the world. On the other side of the mountain is a foot trail with the same vertical gain, which we hoped to hike one-way. However, our shuttle fell through, and we didn't have time or adequate planning for the round trip, which would have taken 16 hours or more with limited water resupply. It's just as well, as my stamina is low right now, and I undoubtedly would have sputtered badly, even on the one-way climb. Instead we planned a 20-mile out-and-back from the summit.

Descending into the crater. I had stomach distress in the morning and was not the happiest of runners for the first couple of hours.

The otherworldly landscape more than made up for my poor physical state. The kaleidoscope of mineral colors and rare plants was stunning.

Along the route were a couple of backcountry cabins where Beat befriended habituated nēnē (Hawaiian geese.) They have adorable voices that sound like nasally humans grumbling under their breath. The nēnē is exclusive to the Hawaiian islands, believed to have evolved from Canadian geese who drifted off their migration course hundreds of thousands of years ago. They can both fly and swim but don't do much of either, instead opting to scramble along the rocky surfaces of volcanoes.

We descended into the marine cloud layer along a series of lava fields. I'm grateful the National Park built a crushed-gravel trail down here, as running shoes and shin skin would not last long on these rocks.

We reached our turn-around in a valley at 6,000 feet, where we met a group of backpackers at a cabin. They offered us coffee and suggestions for a number of routes and hitchhikes to avoid climbing out of the crater. "You don't want to climb Sliding Sands, believe me," one lady said, and assured us she had lived on Maui for 35 years and knew what she was talking about. Fun crowd, mostly locals who were impressed we'd made it as far as we had.

The valley itself was a spectacular place, with steep, fern-coated cliffs and waterfalls disappearing into the fog. It had a primordial aura that beckoned us further, and Beat was intent on finding a route up the cliffs based on vague, possibly wrong information from one of his co-workers. I was intent on not bushwhacking through a tangle of ferns and thorny brush with the possibility of a terrifying scramble, and my insistence won out. Still, we were both sad to turn around, and already are scheming our return with hard-to-get reservations for these cabins.

The local backpackers did recommend an alternative trail that would return us to Sliding Sands, skirting around the calderas. This route proved to be even more spectacular than the valley.

Lava fields with a smattering of hardy plants.

As one might guess from my tundra fascination, I love a good moonscape. I was in heaven here.

Happy, but sputtering. Under normal circumstances I can usually keep up with Beat's casual pace, but here I was far behind all day, to the point where Beat occasionally hiked back to make sure I was okay. If I was alone I probably wouldn't believe I was doing so badly, but the shallow breathing does slow me down considerably.

More moonscape. I do the best I can, and am grateful for any ability that allows me to visit such places.

Starting the climb out of Sliding Sands. I didn't feel great, but it wasn't nearly so bad as the local made it out to be. Clouds socked in for the remainder of our climb out.

Even with my sputtering, we were still out of the crater an hour earlier than planned. We had timed our hike to return to the summit at sunset, but it was still an hour away. Beat was tired and hungry and seemed not too stoked on waiting around, but I talked him into it. The summit parking lot was full, so we parked at the visitor center and hiked to another nearby peak.

Sunset was at 5:54 p.m. At 5:30 it still looked far away, but I forget that the sun sinks straight into the horizon at these latitudes.

Looking out toward Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island, with the Sliding Sands trail in the foreground.

Beautiful light to the east.

The mountain's shadow on the horizon.

Hiking down a few minutes before sunset. Temperatures had plummeted and we were both still drenched in humidity/sweat and shivering. Also, we watched a steady stream of cars working their way up to the summit before sunset, and wanted to beat the traffic jam down the mountain. We're like those baseball fans who make all of this effort to attend a World Series game, and walk out of the stadium before the final pitch.

I took this photo from the passengers side window during the drive down. Something tells me we didn't actually miss anything.

We flew out on Saturday, and wanted to find a final hike on western side of the island, closer to the hotel. Outside the national park, public trail options were quite limited. Even on Strava — my go-to site for local insider knowledge — I didn't find much. But there was a route that seemed to lead to 4,000 feet — the highest shown up Mauna Kahalawai — so we set out. The temperature at the start was 89 degrees with 90 percent humidity. We were both drenched after five minutes. The trail was a pile of large lava rocks, with tricky footing and full exposure to the harsh sun. The black rock outcroppings and dry grass looked like a hillside in eastern Idaho ... with the exception of that big blue body of water in the background.

We skirted around a line of wind mills and ended up on an overgrown fireroad that continued to climb along a steep ridge. This area definitely had a "locals only" feel, and we saw no one for most of the outing.

Again we climbed into a thick bank of fog, but the clouds opened up oh-so-briefly near the top of the climb. The views were stunning. We're not in eastern Idaho anymore.

The overgrown road ended at a barely-there trail, which we followed for a short distance. Beat has a much higher tolerance for leg-shredding routes than I do, but luckily we found good views before too long.

The long, hot descent over lava rocks. We were stoked on this outing. It felt like a unique find, and a nice adventure to wrap up a short exploration of Maui.

Back at Ka'anapali Beach, we finally took the opportunity to sit on beach chairs and watch the sunset while waiting for our turn to take a complementary shower — which we badly needed after the day's sweat bath, coated in dust and drowned gnats, before boarding a red-eye flight. We chatted with some of Beat's co-workers about their weekend adventures, snorkeling and surfing. Although I'm terrified of moving water and was secretly glad I didn't have to subject myself to anything as difficult as that, I vowed to return someday and enjoy more of what Maui has to offer. Of course, the mountains themselves are more than enough. 
Thursday, October 19, 2017

Frittering away weekdays

After my forest road meltdown last Friday, I was hopeful I'd cleared my head enough to muscle through some projects this week. I'd felt unmoored. Last weekend was supposed to be my annual trip to hike the Grand Canyon with my dad. This is a tradition we've kept, with a few hiccups, nearly every year since 2004. Due to poor calendar-keeping, other travel plans overlapped those plans, and I had to cancel. Then the second trip fell through. So I ended up at home, feeling wistful about the passing of time, the unsettled world, and missed opportunities. Perhaps I should pour some of this angst into my work. Or, you know, do what I usually do, which is burn it off amid hard physical efforts. 

 First came Sunday, when Beat and I wanted to put in a solid six-hour "run." We like to pepper our "long runs" with 5,000 feet of climbing and a little ridiculousness, like this descent into Eldo Canyon.

 Remnants of autumn were hanging on in the meadows below Shadow Canyon.

 Beat secretly chased another dude up Shadow Canyon, then bonked. It was pretty cute. Our late-afternoon descent was accompanied by stunning light — a white glow on branches in the burn, and glistening snow on mountains in the distance. It must have been more subtle than my memories, because none of it showed up in this photograph. Long runs really are mood and sense enhancers.

 On Monday I was going to buckle down and write, really, but then my friend Wendy inquired about a hike on Niwot Ridge. Wendy recently "retired," by which I mean she left a many-hours-a-week position to pursue her own creative and entrepreneurial projects. I'm an avid supporter of such endeavors when they're feasible, so how could I say no to weekday fun? It was a beautiful and warm afternoon although quite windy. I'm becoming more of a connoisseur of wind thanks to living within a funnel of near-constant winter gales and a weather station to measure them. I'd guess Niwot's wind was steadily in the 30mph range — enough to knock you around and seemingly pull the air from your lungs. Wendy and I babbled away for miles through the woods, but above tree line, all of our strength was needed for breathing. We couldn't hear anything but wind, anyway.

 Wendy's dog, Scout, seemed unfazed although I have to feel for a ~40-pound animal fighting these gusts. The sastrugi was so wind-hardened that we didn't even leave footprints, except in the rotten places where we punched through to our shins.

 It was a great outing, although I was knackered from fighting that wind. This was a humbling reminder of what it means to fight wind all day, possibly for many days, in Alaska. Niwot Ridge is a great spot for winter training because of its position in a wind funnel and relatively low avalanche danger. I hope to return frequently.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought my normal weekday deadlines and many errands. On Wednesday the temperature hit 80 degrees and I stupidly went out right after lunch to run hard on Mount Sanitas. Unsurprisingly I crapped out early yet still fought for it, stumbling over rocks and wondering if I was going to rip open a knee on Sanitas' easy descent, yet again. After that I went to the gym and refilled my water bottle at least five times while grunting through a hard lifting session, because I felt guilty for missing my Monday routine. Anyway, after efforts that were unimpressive on paper, I was surprisingly shattered for my next slacker day, riding fat bikes up Rollins Pass with Cheryl.

I love riding by this old schoolhouse in Tolland. I always imagine I'm a miner's kid in the 1880s, sprinting across a meadow in my prairie dress with an armful of books. The interior has polished wooden desks and a stern teacher at a chalkboard, and then the illusion is shattered as I pass the building and see the boarded-up windows and flaking yellow paint.

 Cheryl and I weren't sure we'd find any snow up here, but there was still a lot of ice in the more shaded sections at lower elevations. I didn't take any photos in the frosty woods, but there was a lot of skidding and spinning and near-misses. Cheryl actually did crash twice, a fate I only narrowly avoided because of platform pedals and fast dabs to stabilize while actively spinning. Cheryl knocked her elbow hard, then cut her leg open and bled all over her frame bag. She seemed unfazed by these injuries.

 Near 12,000 feet we began to hit unrideable slush drifts, so we stopped at the collapsed tunnel. I insisted on hiking to the top of the next mound "for the views."

 The views.

As we descended the rocky road, my rear tire went flat. Hope springs eternal, so I tried pumping it up. We rode a few hundred meters, and it was flat again. I removed the rear wheel to change the tube, fumbling every part of the process because I haven't ridden the fat bike in eight months, and can't even remember the last time I actually had to swap tubes on any bike. Then I was stymied by the valve extender, which I couldn't budge with my bare hands. I really tried. I had no gripping tools with me (I almost always have a multitool, but it was on my mountain bike at home.) So I put the wheel back on, pumped it up again, and made it about a 100 more meters.

Cheryl decided she would ride ahead so she could "get the car." It happened quickly, I didn't really have time to protest. Rollins Pass Road is rugged and so much longer than it seems, even after you've climbed it. We were still ten miles from the nearest spot she could reasonably bring her car. After she left, I had a little panic because it was late enough in the day that running ten miles would probably leave me there after dark, although I had lights, and the wind was picking up and temperatures were dropping, although I had warm clothes. I didn't have much food. I ran a few hundred meters before deciding that I needed to give the flat my best effort, and removed the wheel again.

I was embarrassed about stranding myself with something as preventable as a flat tire, and concentrated my frustration and rage on that valve extender. In the process I actually managed to tear the tube, which was a fat bike tube and not exactly a flimsy thing. This angered me so much that I went ballistic on the tube and tore several shreds, then went for the valve extender with my teeth. Luckily I couldn't get my mouth around it, as I probably would have broken a tooth, but the next effort with my fingers was successful. Success! Actual success! I swapped with the spare tube, pumped, and continued on my way, so happy about rolling that all the frustration dissolved in an instant. But adrenaline took its toll, and I was again knackered.

I vowed to be less complacent and better prepared in the future, although I had everything I needed except a multitool, and a little more patience.

It has been fun to get out with friends on weekdays, a rare treat anyway. These slacker days have left me surprisingly tired. Perhaps I'll finally sit down and work this weekend. After playing in more mountains, that is. 
Saturday, October 14, 2017

Forest Road 509 made me cry

Those first groggy minutes of morning have never been my best, but lately they've become more difficult to face. I know I'm not the only one — waking up to a vague sense of dread, brewing a pot of artificially flavored vanilla coffee without shame because it's comfort food, and scrolling through the news. This has more or less been my morning ritual since I had to pay slightly less than my weekly food budget to have the New York Times delivered to my duplex doorstep in Utah during college. But now I can hardly stomach it, this ritual of sitting in a room and sipping comfort coffee as long-held convictions crumble. Is it because I'm nearing 40? The much-hyped middle-age crisis? Or is the world really so much worse than it used to seem?

The general advice is to step away from the Internet. Although I definitely need to limit my time on social media, I don't really benefit emotionally from sticking my head in the sand. Everything is still happening, and I'm just depriving myself of the means to try to understand. Sending in a few bucks to relief efforts or the ACLU feels like doing something, but not really. It's like seeing that boulder from "Indiana Jones" rolling toward you, stepping in front of it, and holding out your hands.

I'm a generally happy person with mostly sound mental and physical health, living in a beautiful and safe place that I love, and I enjoy lot of privilege. I understand this. But we all have our demons to battle. My most persistent is a nihilist who sits on my shoulder, shouting that nothing matters.

My hormones feel out of whack again. So I fear another thyroid "flare." Feel inexplicably anxious. Stare at blank documents on the screen for far too long. California is burning. It's the disaster du jour, but the ones that hit close to our experiences, hit close to our hearts. Life is alarmingly delicate, and fleeting. Why risk ... anything? Why bother ... with anything? Shut up, little nihilist. Just shut up.

Recently I read a blog post about mindful perception and downloaded the book it cited, "A Life of One's Own," published in 1926, about a seven-year period in which British psychoanalyst Marion Milner sought to discover a path to genuine happiness. Declaring that the things we pursue the most frantically are those least likely to bring lasting joy, Milner trained herself to focus on the quieter, more ethereal aspects of existence. I've only started to read her book, but the blog writer cited some compelling observations:

"So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs."

On Friday morning I set out on my bike, feeling hormonal and unmotivated and vaguely anguished about world affairs. But I was armed with a few of these observations from Marion Milner to eschew my comforting habits and likely futile efforts to feign productivity, and instead do one thing that never fails to bring joy ... moving through the world.

Within my home range — meaning the places I can ride to in a few hours — there are still so many spots I haven't begun to explore. Before I headed into tranquil 60-degree weather — the early-week snow already a faint memory — I mapped out a route to trails surrounding Gold Lake. I chatted with my neighbor for a few minutes, then mashed pedals up the muddy road. With every hard crank, motivation surged and anxiety faded. It's just that easy. It was true when I was a nervous 23-year-old novice, and it's true now. We can yearn for many complicated things in life, with a sense of purpose or meaning at the top. But happiness, in itself, is fairly simple.

I blasted down one long hill and climbed another, sharing heart-felt pleasantries with other cyclists and walkers as we crossed paths. The music on my iPod was really good, my breathing and legs felt strong, and it was a perfect autumn day. "October is your favorite month of the year," I reminded myself. That actually hasn't been true for a number of years. But it was true when I was young, before the scars accumulated, and the world had endless possibility.

After turning right off of Sunshine Drive, the rest of the ride would be new territory for me. I discovered a surprisingly fun trail, wrapping around a hillside with cliffs on one side and steep-drop offs on the other. Then I crossed Lefthand Canyon and took a hard turn onto a dirt track, Forest Service Road 509.1. I'd done a modicum of Internet research about my route, and understood that this road had once been rated "moderate to difficult" by an off-road driving Web site, and was closed to motorized traffic after the 2013 floods. I expected it to be steep and eroded, but I really had no idea. It's barely a route now; more often it's just a chute of chunder and loose boulders, like climbing an avalanche gully. The kind of terrain where you have to hike on your toes, so pushing a bike is just heinous.

I averaged 1.4 miles per hour. My shoulders ached even though I've been working on my shoulders, back and arms at the gym, and really I've made a lot of improvements, but you wouldn't know it from my real-world abilities. I bent in to move some of the weight to my lower body, only to continually knocked my shin and calf on a pedal. It was brutal work. I tried to find the good. "Great training" is an appropriate fiction.

Then my foot slipped backward on the loose surface. With already poor balance that I blame on the awkward stance of wrestling a bike uphill, I toppled over. I stood up, fuming, and took a few more steps, only to slam my left knee into the pedal. For a second I only saw red. We all have our limits. Mine was apparently quite low on this day, and I lost it. I cried. Not just little whimpers that I indulge in occasionally, but the blubbery, snotty kind that I usually reserve for my most overwhelming difficulties and low points. I just sat on the rocks next to the bike that I angrily shoved aside, and let it flow.

I'm ashamed, of course, but privately I love a good cry. They're always followed by astonishing clarity. Most often these moments of clarity are variations of "you have no reason to be so upset." This was one such moment. I took a few satisfying gulps and looked toward Lefthand Canyon and the surprising elevation/perspective I'd gained while shambling up the road. A patchwork of yellow aspen dotted the evergreen slopes, and the sky was that piercing, October shade of blue. Sure, I had snot streaks on my face. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, I felt happy. Pure and simple. Yes, we humans can be unhelpfully complex and stunningly short-sighted in our thinking. But at our core, I do believe we have capacity for understanding — the understanding that Milner described, the understanding beyond intellectual comprehension, that can only be found through unhindered awareness.

Milner wrote, "By finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness."

Forest Service Road 509.1 climbed to the top of a ridge and faded in a grassy meadow. This was  the beginning of a network of trails that were so much better than I expected. Even at 9,000 feet they were mostly dry, surprisingly smooth for Front Range singletrack, and had great flow. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a little while focused only on the most immediate sensory inout — a narrow focus often demanded by trail riding. I didn't think about disturbing news reports or friends' Facebook photographs of incinerated neighborhoods or even my still-painful knee. It's useful to remind myself, once in a while, that sharp awareness of a moment is more fulfilling than all of my flinging efforts to understand the world. Which is why, after all these years, I still ride bikes. 
Monday, October 09, 2017

Nice summer-winter days

It was the perfect Colorado weekend, which is to say it was 70 degrees and sunny over the Front Range on Sunday, then dropped to 30 and snowing by Monday morning. Beat is still trying to ease back into training after hip and shin issues pestered him for most of the summer, so he didn't want try anything too ambitious. It seemed like a good opportunity for the High Lonesome Loop, which is a 16-mile, relatively mellow climb over the Continental Divide. I hoped we'd have a chance to do some running, but packed gaiters and spikes. Although it had been warm for most of the week since last Monday's storm, I didn't hold out hope that all of the snow had melted.

Beat at King Lake. Note the bare calves and rolled-up sleeves. We were both overheated. It felt downright summery in the forest below the lake, although I later learned the high in Nederland was 51 degrees. It was probably just 35 to 40 degrees at 12,000 feet.

Post-holing our way to the Divide.

Looking toward James Peak, feeling satisfied about deciding against this more ambitious mountain as the day's destination. It's a steep climb with the switchbacking trail, which was obviously buried.

An icy wind swept down the Divide. I'm used to the prevailing west wind, but this gale came from the north — the direction of the approaching storm. Upon cresting the ridge, the ambience quite suddenly shifted from summer to winter. I put on a shell and pulled a buff over my face. It seemed Beat only had his two-ounce wind jacket and no gloves.

Travel was slow and treacherous up here, with a breakable crust disguising sugary drifts of unknown depth (ranging from ankle- to knee-deep.) While slogging into the icy wind, my breathing became labored and I panicked a little about it. I really think I'm mostly healthy right now, but it's still difficult to gauge my breathing or trust a higher heart rate. I'm not sure how or if I'm going to rebuild that trust. Yes, when working hard, it's normal to feel winded. I know this. And yet even whispers of hard breathing or oxygen deficit set off internal alarms. I don't want to push too hard, yet winter conditions often leave no choice. It will be an ongoing battle, I think, this transition from "sucking wind and crawling" to "tranquil respiration while moving and happy about that" to "breathing fire and scorching ground." If I ever again reach the third step. I remain stoked about the second.

The view near Devil's Thumb Lake. On the slope you can see my and Beat's tracks where we scorched a deep-snow descent. Beat didn't have pants and his poor shins where torn and bleeding from the icy crust. But that was really the worst of the experience. It was a beautiful outing, not easy by any means, and took exactly the six hours that I estimated even though there was a fair amount more snow than I even expected. This may be our last Divide trip for the season, although this would be a decent place to snowshoe when regional avalanche conditions are well in the green.

On Monday morning, as forecast, we were hit with eight inches of heavy, wet snow. In the afternoon the temperature climbed a few degrees above freezing and there were blasts of sunlight through patchy breaks in the clouds. I headed out for a "run" that many times actually did involve a strained shuffling motion through slush. It still feels weird to call 20-minute-miles "running," although I tend to qualify most of my on-foot efforts as runs. Whether I'm pounding out the rare downhill 7-minute-mile or scrambling a rocky uphill 60-minute-mile, my effort level remains fairly consistent. It's the level where my breathing doesn't yet scare me.

Heading into Walker Ranch. Sure, it was Monday afternoon, but I was still surprised no one had been out yet. 

The leaves only recently began to change in this area. I enjoyed catching brief glimpses of color.

Snow makes everything so much prettier. I can't grasp why some people, maybe even a majority of people, don't like winter weather. No, the reality that there are people who don't want to put on gaiters and strain to move slower than two miles per hour up a hill is something I'll never understand.

South Boulder Creek.

Looking through Eldorado Canyon, toward Denver and the Plains. Looks like they got some snow, too!

Weirdly my legs were quite a bit more sore after these six miles than 16 miles in the mountains on Sunday. A good reminder that I don't have the slogging fitness dialed in just yet. But if we continue to have this perfect mix of heat and snow, I'll get there.