Tuesday, January 29, 2019

More than I bargained for

Forgive me, winter, for I have sinned. Long weeks of playing in your shadow lulled me into complacency. I was impetuous and I was arrogant. I didn't show you respect. For this I was punished. 

 It started with a Wednesday morning "run" to Bear Peak. I'd just been out on these trails two days earlier, and expected similar conditions. But while I was holed up inside all day on Tuesday, you blasted these little mountains with several inches of snow. Wednesday brought gale-force winds. Gusts shook my car violently as I suited up at the Cragmoor trailhead: a thin pair of tights, the tiniest pair of gloves, my summer Hokas, hat, long-sleeved shirt, a thin shell, and — luckily — short hiking gaiters and microspikes. I followed a single set of footprints through the Styrofoam snow, skittering over hidden patches of ice.

 I crested the saddle, ending my relative protection from the wind. The blasts were Arctic in proportion and feel; wind whisked the breath from my lungs if I faced it directly. The footprints I'd been following disappeared beneath thigh-high drifts. The trail was invisible as well, but it's simple enough here to just follow the ridge. I punched my own bottomless postholes up the steep incline. It was thirsty work and my drinking water hose had long since frozen. Still, reaching the peak was exhilarating. There was one other person up there, a man who hiked from Shadow Canyon. He was wearing hard boots and carrying an ice ax, and gave me a "silly trail runner" side-eye as I expressed my plan to carry on to Green Mountain.

 I shouldn't have been surprised, but still was, when Monday's friendly route down the west ridge had been erased. Now it was a mire of snow drifts as deep as my waist in spots. "Where did all this snow come from?" I marveled. It probably blew in from miles away, based on the gusts still pummeling my face. About a quarter of a mile and 20 minutes into my descent, I knew I was in some trouble. My feet ached with cold, but the pain was diminishing, which is always a bad sign — numbness means frostbite. I'd been complacent and thought I could get down the ridge quickly and start running, but that was obviously not going to happen. Now my options were to turn around for the slow hike back to my car, or continue knowing the trail intersected the road to my house in another mile. So I continued, slogging through the thigh-deep drifts and tracing the general route from memory, with single-minded focus on my wooden feet.

Within another half mile I was back in the forest. Sheltered from the flash-freezing wind, my core temperature rose quickly, which brought pain, and then life, back to my feet. At the road intersection I decided not to go home — where I still would have needed to figure out how to get back to the car — and instead continued toward Green. The trail remained unbroken, and I made comical efforts to "run" through the Styrofoam drifts.  In Boulder's weird way it felt hot for a while, and I was stripping layers less than an hour after my intense brush with cold distress. The slog never let up for a second, though, with deep drifts replaced by slush and mud as I traversed around the base of the mountains. Thirteen miles took me five and a half hours. My legs were cooked, but thankfully my feet weren't frozen.

 So, Thursday. I was sufficiently humbled, or so I thought, and was not going to venture outside. Snow fell all morning long, leaving six to eight more inches on the ground. I worked on a project, did some housework, felt blissfully grateful that I had nowhere to be. Then the sun came out. Suddenly it was one of those sharp bluebird afternoons with frosty air and new snow. How could I not take my bike out for a little ride on a day like this? "It will just be an hour," I reasoned.

 All I did was suit up and jump on my bike. I didn't carry extra layers or food; I didn't even bring any water. The temperature was 18 degrees and the omnipresent west wind kicked up with surprising fury. Clumps of snow rocketed from tree branches, with an glittery effect that was mesmerizing.

 I arrived at the eastward turn toward home, and instead followed the siren call of the wind, pedaling west. What can I say? I'm a weird human who feels most alive along the hard edges of existence. Blowing snow pummeled my face and I felt this as an infusion of power. Exhilarating energy prompted me to continue ever farther from my neighborhood, toward the deserted reservoir road, where no one would find my unconscious body for hours if I were to crash. But I felt invincible. I descended all the way to the bottom of the canyon and saw that the road toward the dam was freshly plowed. I'd never explored this route before, and again couldn't resist.

Now I was an hour and a half into my "short" ride, and finally acknowledging that I had a fair amount of climbing left in the ride home, the hard wind was beginning to needle through my only layers, and I was thirsty. But I just wanted to see where this road led. It kept climbing and climbing, and I questioned my sanity, but my resolve was locked in. Finally, just minutes from the top, I approached a massive snow plow. He was the only human I'd seen since I turned away from the road home.

The driver stopped his vehicle. "Great, I'm probably not supposed to be here," I thought. As I pulled up beside the plow, feeling penitent and ready to receive my verbal warning, the driver stuck his head out the passenger-side window and yelled, "I just want to let you know that you're my hero."

Ha! "Oh, uh, thanks," I muttered. "I mean, thanks for plowing the road. You make this too easy."

Weird and awkward thing to say, but what can I say? I'm a middle-age woman shirking weekday afternoon duties to pedal a bike through a frigid windstorm on a road to nowhere. I'm the definition of weird and awkward. But thank you, Mr. Snow Plow Guy. You made my afternoon, and it was already a great afternoon.

 So, Saturday. Beat had been wanting to get out for one more overnight shakedown with his Nome sled. At first I wasn't going to join — sled-dragging has been rough on my hamstrings, and I have my own races coming up that won't benefit from a pulled leg muscle. But, unsurprisingly, I became greedy for adventure. Our friend Daniel recommended Homestake Reservoir Road. He mentioned something about a piston-bully groomer, and good campsites along the way. I looked up the location and noted low avalanche danger. We debated enduring the misery of I-70 traffic and discussed local options, but there were high winds again this weekend. Towns near Homestake were supposed to have mild — but at least not horrifically windy — weather. Leadville's forecast called for a high of 28 and a low of 15.

 So we headed all the way out there. Traffic was awful, and the roads were so nasty that we ran out of windshield washer fluid. I threw a little temper tantrum and threatened to turn this car around and go home. By the time we hit the trail it was 2:30 p.m., much later than we hoped. It was a beautiful day, though — 24 degrees with a breeze just stiff enough to necessitate layers, dramatic views of red cliffs and snowy peaks, and whole lot of high-altitude sunshine.

Homestake Reservoir Road showed no evidence of grooming, at least not since several feet of snow had fallen. There was a single, soft skin track that had seen limited use — we chatted with the skiers who set the track on their way out. Dusk had settled in by the time we reached the end of their trail, about six miles into our hike. A sign said it was three more miles to the reservoir, but it would turn out to be closer to four. We knew these would be slow miles of trail breaking, and also that we could camp anywhere we wanted. But the reservoir was our goal. We were locked in.

 The road pitched upward on a series of steep switchbacks, which where buried in two to three feet of windblown snow. We were punching to our knees even while wearing snowshoes. The snow had that strange consistency of Styrofoam, but felt as heavy as cement and broke away in large clumps. Every step strained the limits of my hopelessly tight hamstrings. My heart and lungs were nearly maxed out as well on "The Endless Stairmaster," as Beat calls such trail-breaking.

I didn't even realize how slowly we were going, but our pace had dropped to a truly glacial mile per hour. The night deepened. Beat sputtered to a stop and I took my turn up front. Hot blood surged through my limbs and every drop of energy and focus went into the effort. I lost track of time. Hours passed into nothingness. Onerous inches slowly became miles. A touch of cold found its way into my butt and shoulders. My feet started to hurt with cold whenever I wasn't the one breaking trail. I debated putting on another layer, but I was already drenched in sweat.

 We reached an intersection just below the dam and decided it would be a great spot to camp out of the wind, but still elected to climb to the reservoir because, well, I suppose we'd locked in. It was another three quarters of a mile of intensely steep climbing. Beat was struggling more than I realized. His feet had become numb, and he hadn't taken in calories in a while. I looked at my watch, which was about to tick over to seven hours. Seven hours? For eleven miles? Where did all of that time go? We trudged up to the frozen shoreline, noted the mountain scenery that we could scarcely make out with no moon in the sky, and rushed back to our designated camp spot. Beat looked at his thermometer.

"It's minus 1," he announced.

Wait, what? When did it get so cold?"

 We stomped out a clearing and set up Beat's lightweight winter tent, which both of us should know by now is not the way to go. I thought it would be nice to snuggle in together, but there's a reason bivy sacks are the much more popular option for winter racing. When you're sweaty and bonked and the temperature is below zero, you benefit most from immediately hopping into your sleeping bag. We wasted all this time setting up the tent, and by then Beat had lost use of his hands and I'd started to shiver. We jumped into our bags, but those, too, were just as cold as the subzero outside. And when your body is depleted and damp, sleeping bags do not warm up quickly.

 The minutes passed like hours and I was painfully alert, shivering until my feet went numb and then massaging my toes with stiff fingers. There was nowhere warm to escape to, and while I knew things would be okay, those long minutes felt desperate. Meanwhile, Beat was deeply bonked and complaining of nausea. I had a bottle of Diet Pepsi in my sled bag — I didn't want to leave it to freeze in the car — so I ventured outside to find it. The soda did that crazy thing where it was mostly liquid, and then as soon as I cracked the lid (outside, thankfully) it instantly turned to slush and exploded everywhere. There was a small amount of carbonated liquid left, which Beat drank to help settle his stomach. Minutes later he rushed out of the tent to vomit — I didn't realize this until he told me about it the next day. But I could tell that he, too, felt similar desperation. I thought this was interesting, with all of his Alaska experience — but winter can catch anyone off guard, anywhere. We had made mistakes. We worked too hard and let ourselves become too sweaty, we didn't deal with our nagging issues — such as bonking and cold feet — when they first cropped up, and we hadn't expected subzero temperatures and thus didn't approach the night with the proper preparations. We'd been complacent, and we'd have to pay the fine.

 I must have dozed off, because seeming minutes after the Diet Pepsi episode it was midnight, and I finally felt warm. Our tent door was still wide open, so Beat got up to close it. We discussed making dinner and decided it was worth it, so we crawled outside in our down coat and pants to sit in the snow and fiddle with our stoves. It was now minus 10, and we finally weren't desperately cold anymore. Still, a hot drink and a few calories would make everything even better. My first sip of hot chocolate was an amazing elixir of life — I could genuinely feel warmth surging into my toes.

During our midnight dinner I drank so much hot water that of course I needed to get up three more times in the night to pee, and hardly slept otherwise. Instead I laid in my sleeping bag with my drinking water pressed against my back, marveling at the miracle of warmth. When I stepped outside, minus 10 air surrounded me and I'd look up at the sky, with its stars upon stars, and the snow-capped mountains now illuminated by a wedge of moon, and marvel at everything.

 It was a long but magical night. We arose at dawn to find we'd climbed far above the valley below. The views and morning light were gorgeous, and we were in a rare place to feel like the only people in all of Colorado. Then it was time to hike out, and we learned that the walking had not become much easier despite the downhill grade and cold temps to set up our track. My legs were half dead and my "bad" hamstring — a grumpy little muscle in my right leg — was throbbing in a way that was disconcerting.

"If I can't race in Steamboat next week because of this, I'm going to be mad at myself," I thought.

Then again, the beauty, the intensity of the experience, the hard but invaluable lessons — it was worth it.

So thank you, winter, for the trials that come my way. Lead and guide me away from comfort and complacency, toward understanding and joy. Amen. 


  1. Love reading of your adventures. You are a true inspiration to myself and I'm sure many others! Please never stop sharing your stories and pictures of your wild outdoor adventures!!

  2. When travelling in the mountains, please consider bringing extra layers, checking the forecast, knowing the conditions, and taking better care of yourself every single time, all year around. This is said with genuine concern from a search and rescue volunteer, sincerely not trying to be a jerk.
    Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    1. Of course I agree with you. I really do tend toward "overpacking" in most cases, but I definitely become complacent about my outings near home. I have nothing but respect for search and rescue volunteers, and always try to keep in mind the other humans my decisions might affect.

    2. Note that I always do (and Jill does when she remembers!!); on our Homestake adventure we had another day of food, two Inreach messengers, spare batteries, spare tools, spare headlamps and I had all my Iditarod clothes that have previously gotten me through -50F temps. Even when I just run home I have a puffy layer, an emergency blanket and my Inreach on me. Even in the summer I consider what would happen if I had to wait for 5-6 hours for help, and generally have some dry baselayer, a warm layer and rain layer.
      We did also check the forecast (which was 20 degrees off, but that didn't really surprise us since we know local variations can be large).

    3. Good to hear, Beat. I suspect I am only remembering what makes it onto the blog; i.e. the more interesting times when things don't quite go as planned. I am sure you guys are prepared 99% of the time, otherwise, you'd surely be goners by now with all of the hardcore adventures you've had.
      Cheers, Tanya

  3. I admire your perseverance. And I hope you carry a beacon. I know, I know, but I have capitulated so even if I do something crazy then my body can be found. That being said, I don't rely on it. And also: winter kind of scares me how danger can creep up relatively quickly.

    1. I do carry a satellite messenger. Not yet an avalanche beacon. I know, I know. I do a fair amount of research with CalTopo and the Colorado Avalanche Center, and try to stick to winter outings on low-angle ridges and open valleys where the avalanche risk is low. I know it's never zero, but neither is the risk of a mountain lion attack, and it's not like I'm carrying pepper spray. But yes, I do fear a scenario where search and rescue volunteers are risking their lives to dig up my frozen carcass. I really wish there was some kind of legal agreement I could sign so that if I disappear and am almost certainly dead, no one comes looking for my body. I know it doesn't work this way, though.

    2. Avalanche "science" is a precise, highly accurate forensic science. A predictive science? Not so much.....

  4. I'm glad you are still alive. This sounds like quite the ordeal.

    Sometimes whem I'm hiking and I get tired or cold I think, "Jill would be loving this" and it helps give myself a swift kick.

  5. Consider yourselves schooled.


  6. Always enjoy your stories!!
    Your post title is apt, no matter how one gears up, does the math and nerfs the edges Gaia does not care :). I found that "locked in" (concentration ?) increases as one gets older, but when I don't pull back and get focused on "being" in the "now" bad things can happen. I like pushing to a 9 on a 10 scale with things in life that I find fulfilling, but have "warning cards/triggers" in my head to start my Ooda loop "Observe-orientate-decide-act" so I don't crash. I think there is a difference between being "in trouble" and "in danger" but it is a slippery slope in between.....especially when I am out there solo.

    Jeff C

  7. A compulsive read, as always. What does 'bonk' mean, though?

    1. In short, bonk means running out of energy because your glycogen has run low. If you continue to demand high power output from your body, digestive issues tend to develop, causing the paradox of needing calories but being too nauseated to take them in. I think the term is mainly used this way in American English. Apparently in Australia, bonk means something else entirely. ;-)

    2. Thank you for the explanation! Bonk means to have sex in the UK too. :)

  8. I do love your photographs. God, how I miss winter! It's beautiful. You're correct, though, FB is such a wrong platform for long comments or any sharing, and Instagram is simply soul-less. It is exactly why, despite continually saying I am quitting, I am still blogging. I have way too much in my head that needs out:)


Feedback is always appreciated!