Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Monday was my birthday, marking the end of my 39th trip around the sun. Thus far, I've enjoyed the process of growing older. Each year brings new experiences, adding to a wealth of memories. As my reality expands, my priorities tighten. I become more secure in who I am, less susceptible to social and cultural influences, and a little less beholden to my own ego. Whatever you believe about growing older, it's obviously better than the alternative. 

An existentialist comic who I follow on Twitter recently posted an observation along these lines: When you're a teenager, you believe no one gets you. In your 20s, you realize you don't even get yourself. By your 30s, you start to understand there's not much to get. I'm human, and in many ways just a rehash of a story that has been told and retold throughout history. I live inside an aging body, full of all these hormones that control what I feel and shape "who I am" more than I like to believe. I still like to believe there's a soul trapped somewhere inside, an independent entity that becomes free when I journey toward enlightenment or gaze into The Void. Most journeys, what I discover is that I'm still just a body — hungry, thirsty, aching in new places because I am almost 40, looking forward to returning to comfortable routine and the company of the people I love. 

The best thing about birthdays is a guiltless free pass to do whatever you want. When I was in my 20s and didn't really get myself, I sought out thrills like bungee jumping and energy-draining celebrations — usually the barbecue-type parties one throws at the end of summer. Now that I'm 39, I think a solo excursion in the mountains is the best way to spend a birthday — and most days, really. So I told Beat I was heading to Rocky Mountain National Park to climb Mount Fairchild, and maybe don't wait up for me.

Lama train along the Lawn Lake trail — this is the first time I've seen one of these, actually. I shadowed them for a while just because it was so entertaining to watch lamas. When the guy leading the pack finally noticed me and let me pass, he said, "The lamas thank you, because now they can eat a snack." As they frantically ripped at the grass beside the trail, I thought, "I feel you, lamas. I feel you."

The sky was still crystal blue at noon when I reached the saddle between Mount Fairchild and Hagues Peak, appropriately named "The Saddle." This photo looks toward Hagues, which has a short section of exposed scrambling, and thus falls a little beyond my current solo comfort level. Two-plus years of living in Colorado have cemented an acceptance that I am just not that good at moving my body in the mountains, and you know what — that's okay. I can continue to work on improving my skill set, but there's no need to take big leaps (like I tried with my ill-advised races in the European Alps several years back.) I turned my back to Hagues and began the off-trail ascent up the broad face of Fairchild.

The climb was steep, and amid the harsh air between 12,000 and 13,500 feet, exhausting. Monday afternoon remained clear and relatively windless, but this also made for a bad smoke day. Pale brown haze settled over the valleys, thickening with each passing hour. An aroma of hickory and chipotle filled my nostrils — and with my dull sense of smell, I realize that if I can smell something, it must be bad. I pulled a buff over my face — still something I do from time to time to help with breathing, although I have doubts it protects my lungs at all. As I neared the peak, the terrain shifted from rocky tundra to a bottomless boulder pile. I put my trekking poles away and picked a line, opting to scramble up couch-sized boulders rather than take my chances in steep gullies full of loose talus. As I crawled, I noticed patches of new snow and rime left behind by a recent storm. I ran my fingers through the icy snow and smiled — my first of the season.

Top of Mount Fairchild. Happy birthday to me.

While researching this hike the previous evening, I noticed a ridge that appeared on the map to be traversable, and would allow me to turn this route into a loop, snagging a couple more 13ers with a few extra miles. (Okay, six extra miles.) A quick Internet search didn't reveal tons of beta about the route, but one hiker claimed it went at class two. I'd reached the summit of Fairchild in just over three and a half hours at 1 p.m., so I had daylight to work with. How long could six extra miles take, really? I hopped and crab-walked over a rock-strewn shoulder, which abruptly ended at the edge of an abyss. A veritable rock slide plummeted off this edge, dropping more than 1,000 feet in a half mile. Looking down, I felt frightened. I didn't want to attempt this descent. But I thought about the ways we become comfortable as we grow older. We stick with what we know. We don't take chances. Those sharp-edged memories begin to soften. I don't necessarily want this. So I crouched onto my butt and slipped into the abyss.

The descent took ages. Oozing slowly over boulders with frequent five-point body contact, I still managed to dislodge several rocks, prompting adrenaline-charged leaps of faith to the next boulder. I promised myself I could turn around at any time, but every move made me more anxious to get off this mountain forever. My watch buzzed with 1:10:34 on the screen — a one-hour, ten-minute mile — and I thought, "can't afford too many of those." Finally I arrived at the foot of a knife-edge ridge. From a thousand feet higher, it looked like it could be easily bypassed, but of course the boulder face was much steeper and chunkier than it looked from that height. Just a few minutes into the ascent, I stepped onto a flat table-sized boulder that tilted sideways and threw my body into another rock. I caught myself before a full face-plant, but managed to bash my right shin badly on the edge of the smaller boulder. Intense pain flooded my already-stressed brain, which massively overreacted.

"You just cracked your tibia. You're alone in the mountains and you haven't seen another human since Lawn Lake, and now your leg is broken. You're going to die. On your birthday."

Looking back toward Ypsilon Mountain
It didn't take long to decide I wasn't going to die just yet, but as the cortisol settled, pain continued to throb through my limb. Putting weight on the leg worsened that pain, so I lay down on the flat boulder that I already knew wasn't stable, and soothed myself. "You can just text Beat on the Delorme. He can send help. You have everything you need to survive a night up here ... although if there's another storm like the one that deposited that snow, you're going to have a rough night."

The pain began to diminish, and I became more convinced I'd be fine to hike out. Since I had no knowledge of the route ahead, turning around would have been the prudent move. But as I looked up at the slope I'd just descended, it seemed impossible. Too steep, too cliffy, not something I'd choose to do of my own volition. "But you were just there," I reminded myself. "Climbing is easier than descending." I rolled up my pants to assess the injury. A purple goose-egg was growing before my eyes, like a silly cartoon, but it was clear that I hadn't broken my leg. The unknown looked less scary, at least in my immediate view, so I continued forward.

Little pika, how do you move so effortlessly over these rocks?
My right leg continued to throb, and the bruise caused me to feel even more wobbly. I didn't want to rely on the limb too much, so I crawled on my knees at times, working slowly up a ramp of television-sized boulders. This brought disturbing flashbacks of my experience in the 2014 Tor des Geants, after I tore my LCL in a fall and could no longer put my full weight on my knee, so I army-crawled along boulders to reach the next checkpoint. This is the part of amassing memories that I do not like — the visceral flashbacks.

Finally I reached a saddle below Ypsilon Mountain and looked up. Tundra ramp! I gratefully pulled my trekking poles out of my pack and let them hold some of my weight. My watch buzzed another hour-plus mile. Now more than six hours had passed, and it was 4 p.m. Hmmm. I might have to do some hustling.

The pain from my bruised shin continued to improve until I was chuckling about how much I overreacted back there. But it still hurt, and left me thoroughly exhausted. Those two miles between Fairchild and Ypsilon took nearly everything I had to expend. In a daze I stumbled along the tundra to Mount Chiquita, where I found a trail. A trail! Now for sure I knew I was going to get out of here!

Even with a trail in place, the route continued to traverse rock gully after rock gully. Near Chapin Pass, I saw a duo of gorgeous bull elk just chilling near treeline. This guy repeatedly wrestled with a scrub brush — probably sharpening his antlers or scratching something, but I imagined his emotions as my own. Happy to be back in the trees. "I feel you, elk. I feel you."

I hit Old Fall River Road at 5:10 p.m. and texted Beat. How long did those extra six miles take me? More than four hours. "Eight more miles," I told Beat, mostly as a warning to not expect me home for dinner. I finally paused long enough to eat the first snack I'd consumed since Fairchild, an unbelievably delicious birthday treat of pretzels and Nutella. Buzzed on sugar, I began jogging down the road. My lower leg was swollen and still hurt, but running didn't make it feel any worse, so I picked up speed.

Endorphins overtook my system, and my stumbling daze shifted to flowing joy. Eleven-minute-miles slipped effortlessly behind me, and the motion soothed my pain. The sun slipped behind a curtain of smoke, casting strange light on the canyon walls. I smiled and waved at steady one-way-traffic still creeping up the road. Some drivers rolled down their windows to question whether I was okay, since I was miles from anywhere. I was happy to be back in civilization.

I replayed the day in my head. Since I'd climbed three 13ers, the math worked out perfectly. 3x13 for my 39th birthday. Also, I'd close the loop at just over 24 miles, meaning I'd also inadvertently run (well, hiked/crawled/jogged) my age in kilometers. I took chances, but nothing overly reckless ... the fall was a bit of a fluke, although entirely expected from this awkward body. But I attempted something that scared me and challenged me, leaving a more satisfying feeling of accomplishment than I've had in a while, fitness PRs and all. Giddy that I survived yet another thing. Life is good. 


  1. Happy birthday, you amazing woman!

  2. I'm really glad to read that you carry a beacon!

    1. I've carried satellite beacon on the majority of my outdoor excursions since my parents bought me a SPOT for Christmas in 2008. Cell reception was spotty both where I lived in California and here in Colorado, so I don't rely on phones even when I'm recreating near home. I've only used 911 once, when my friend Keith was hit by a motorcycle in Yosemite NP. Was glad to have it then, too. I'm an advocate.

  3. I think practically every paragraph I was thinking "this is my favorite sentence of this wait this is..." Congrats on a long hard day and thanks for writing it up so we'll.

  4. I love it! You tend to capture those decision-making processes really well. Well, should I? Should I? Oh, why not! Those days are the most fun.

  5. You're right about your buff not being much help for smoke. It's the very small particles (PM 2.5) that cause long-term lung damage. For those you need an N95 rated face mask. I've never used one, but I suspect I'd find it uncomfortable--and my beard would compromise its effectiveness.

    The good news is that according to our local Fairbanks MD expert on such things, you can get a good idea of how safe the air is by how far you can see. If you can see 5 miles out, it's probably safe for regular/heavy exercise for those not in any risk categories. Less than that you need to be more concerned.

    Fifteen years ago when we had a couple of weeks of heavy forest fire smoke he was on a call-in show and all the frustrated exercise-addicts kept asking if it was OK since it had been so long. He was very patient explaining that since it wasn't OK a week ago, it isn't OK today!

    The elk was probably scraping the velvet off his antlers, although it looks like it was mostly gone from the upper parts. It's skin with blood vessels that facilitate the growth of the antlers. It dies and sloughs/gets rubbed off in late summer. I assume it itches!


  6. Loved this post. Nice work getting out of your comfort zone...while enjoying he view!

  7. One of my favorite quotes: "Do something every day that scares you." Eleanor Roosevelt. Happy 39th Birthday!

  8. I'm a firm believer in enjoying every day as I grow older. 40's are a great decade for adventures. I've often heard that I should think about acting my age, but how can I know how to do that when I've never been this age before! When in doubt just go for it!

  9. Happy belated birthday, Jill! Thanks for the comment on my hike, too. I hope we get to hike together once or few once I move up to CO next summer!

  10. Happy Birthday, Jill!

  11. We are birthday twins!!! Almost to the year ... I turned 40 this year.

    Sucks about the fall! Guess it will make for a memorable one.

  12. I had long since quit bike racing, but when I lived in AZ, for 19 years I used to regularly ride the 7-mile, 2,000 ft. climb behind our house. When I was feeling good I would do a timed effort to see how my fitness level was. My fastest time was at age 46. I think you still have a lot of life left....

  13. Happy birthday! It's a good age, nice balance between youthful energy and life experience. I used to ride the climb behind my house in Jerome, AZ - 7.5 miles and 2,000 ft of vertical. Periodically, when I was feeling good, I'd do a TT up the mountain to gauge where I was at fitness-wise. The fastest time I ever set was at age 46. You are just hitting your prime.


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