Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Summer snow

I took my first steps back toward hiking and running this week. It's never the triumphant return I visualize at the onset of injury. Fitness has faded. The wobble-leg remains. Every little tinge from my knee raises alarm, and my leg muscles still feel unreasonably tight and sore. I long for freedom in motion, and instead find weakness and uncertainty. 

Here I am on my first hike in five weeks. When I announced my plan to walk up Mount Sanitas, Beat protested loudly. I balked. "I don't think you realize all of the hard biking I've been doing for the past few weeks," I argued, reasoning that my knee has already handled a lot of strenuous movement without incident. Beat put on his stern face, so I reluctantly amended my plan to the Sanitas Valley. Turns out he was right. I wasn't ready for a mountain. Under weight-bearing motion, my right leg tired quickly, and felt like it might buckle. I dug in my trekking poles and concentrated on the position of my hips and shoulders in an effort to realign by balance. It was a rather boring slog, but the morning was gorgeous and the Boulder foothills are as green as I've ever seen them, especially for late June. By the end of this four-mile meander, I felt like I regained control. This gave me a surge of exhilarating confidence. 

Here I am on my second hike, three days later. Look how happy I am, drenched in sweat and surrounded by fresh snow! This was the Great Summer Solstice Storm, an abnormally cold system that dumped as much as two feet of snow at higher altitudes in northern Colorado. I watched it in the forecast for days, and told Beat of my plans to go to Niwot Ridge on Saturday so I could hike slowly in the snain and maybe, just maybe, taste some fresh snow above 11,000 feet. He thought I was being silly, and it was silly. He declined to join because the weather was supposed to be cold and wet, unpleasant for any season, and my slow hiking pace wasn't going to be much of a workout.

 I set out under gray skies and drizzling rain. The precipitation tapered off after a mile or so, and I started to see hints of sunbeams through the fog. It was reminiscent of mountains I used to climb when I lived in Juneau, breaking through the marine layer to a bright blue world that felt like mine, and mine alone. Sunshine is not in short supply where I live now, and indeed I purposefully drove to the mountains to enjoy a brief escape from summer. But I still felt the thrill of potential sunshine tugging at my heavy legs, and marched harder to break out of the weather before it closed in for the afternoon.

 Driven by the external motivators of mountains, snow and sunshine, I felt no tinges in my knee or wobbly uncertainty. And sure enough, as soon as I cleared tree line, blue skies opened up overhead. A layer of fresh snow covered a frozen crust, offering perfect traction and almost effortless walking across the tundra. Beat and I often train on Niwot Ridge in the winter, in part because the weather up here is reliably awful, and thus good practice for the worst Alaska can throw at us. Niwot can be a harsh taskmaster, but it was laying out the red carpet on this day, the first full day of summer.

This ridge is always wind-scoured. So I was surprised to see more snow covering the ground on June 22 than the last time I was here, in February.

Kiowa Peak, a beauty.  This is also one of the watershed peaks that is off-limits to public recreation. Every summer I vow to spend more time in these mountains, climb more peaks, boost myself out of my comfort zone more often ... and I fail at this ambition. This summer, with record high snowpack and subsequently volatile weather patterns, may prove to be another season that slips away. But I do have some "projects" on my mind. I can't believe it's almost July, already.

 I marched to a high point on the ridge, still running scared from those dark clouds boiling up from below, which I feared held electrical energy as afternoon approached. As much as I think thundersnow is a cool phenomenon, I'd rather not experience it up close and personal. I did take the time to shoot a few selfies of my amazing achievement, walking on rocks and tundra. On my own two legs! The novelty!

I also stopped to admire the hardy little tundra flowers, straining for the sunlight of their short growing season while surrounded by patches of fresh snow. 

 Then I descended into the boiling clouds. Snow flurries swirled around me as the landscape darkened and blurred.

 By tree line it was nasty again, with fog so thick that I fretted about finding my footprints so I wouldn't become hopelessly disoriented and wander down the wrong drainage. Losing 2,500 feet in altitude proved more tricky than gaining it, but the ascent to the glorious heavens was well worth the wet and wobbly descent back to Earth.

On Monday, I made time for a ride up Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. I missed this year's window to ride Trail Ridge Road without traffic, and this looked to be my last chance for Old Fall River before it opens in July. The weather forecast was promising, but then I woke to howling gusts of wind whistling through the trees and rattling the windows. In Estes Park there was a wind advisory, calling for gusts to 50 mph. At 7 a.m.! The volatile and unpredictable weather patterns continue. For the past few weeks I have not felt particularly strong, and hiking and jogging had ignited new pains. I nearly bailed, but reasoned that this likely was my only chance to ride RMNP this season.

From the park entrance to the Alpine Visitors Center is 13 miles, gaining 4,000 feet mainly in the nine miles on dirt — so it's reasonably and consistently steep. Add the persistent 20-30mph headwind and wet, wheel-sucking dirt ... well, it was an enormous battle for me. Enough so that I didn't question my motivations or anything else. All of my thoughts were a pinprick of light, just out of reach. Classic pain cave.

 As I neared the summit, slush replaced mud, and the wind diminished to a brisk but not quite fierce 10mph breeze. It was so strange ... how does the weather get better above 11,000 feet? It happened on Niwot. It happened here. It doesn't make much sense. But at least I started to have fun again, straining to power through the slush rather than simply survive each pedal stroke.

A few hundred feet from the top, the road had been cleared at one point, but had since filled with with about two feet of snow. Postholing fun! I wrecked an already poor showing on the Strava segment by covering the final three quarters of a mile at 1.2 mph.

 I admit I battled to the Alpine Visitors Center because I was not looking forward to the cold slush and mud bath that awaited me on the descent, and hoped to loop around on the paved road. But the visitors center was closed, as was Trail Ridge Road on both sides, as snow-removal equipment cut away at snow drifts deposited by Sunday's storm. The wind up here was again fierce, and the chill felt Arctic. Icicles that clung to the building weren't even dripping. Outhouse floors were covered in drifted snow. It felt like any typical winter day in a shuttered national park, on June 24.

A ranger was standing outside the building when I approached, and looked at me quizzically. The paved road was closed and blocked by working machinery and snowdrifts, and Old Fall River Road was considered impassable, so where, he wondered, did I come from? I explained the mile of postholing on the dirt road and admitted I hoped to escape on pavement, but was now aware of the road closure, so I'd go back the way I came. The ranger smiled and pointed up the road. "Around that corner there are still ten-foot drifts. If you think you can get around them, you can go."

Funny guy, that ranger. What he was suggesting was technically against the rules and probably somewhat dangerous, but he knew I wouldn't try it. My feet were already soaked and I was freezing in my little florescent roadie vest and sun-protective leggings. No way was I going to continue postholing at 12,000 feet for hours longer. Instead I settled for a brief pause to cross the road and enjoy the wintry view. One last snowy vista. I mean, summer has to come eventually, right? Temperatures in the high 80s darkened the forecast later in the week. But one can dream.
Postholing downhill is not much easier than going up. That snowy peak in the background is Ypsilon Mountain, which I've come to think of as my "birthday nemesis." It was the second of three 13ers I climbed on my birthday last August, and it nearly broke me after I slipped and fell in the loose boulder minefield on the north ridge. For a mountain enthusiast, I'm fairly bad at mountains. I'm nervous about exposure, I flounder on technical terrain, and I seem to become worse with experience. In some ways this injury feels like a bit of reset. I'm working on my stride, I'm more aware of my imbalances, and I'm focusing on the way I move. Will there be enough time left in this truncated summer to tackle some difficult problems? Should I make this a birthday goal? I climbed three 13ers for my 39th, so maybe four 14ers for my 40th? Truthfully I'd rather do something more fun and less harrowing for my birthday, but you only turn 40 once.

Summer gives me such anxiety. I'll be relieved with the peacefulness of winter returns.

Two intrepid cyclists, one with a fat bike, decided to push through the path I blazed. I followed another biker who opted to bail. We descended in a blast of slush and mud, stopping occasionally at hairpin turns to stomp some feeling back into our feet. He later texted me a nice photo that he took of me during the climb:

Yes, summer isn't all bad. But these snowy respites sure were nice. 


  1. I embrace summertime...mostly above 11,000 feet. :)
    Enjoy your upcoming 40's, which I recall fondly as the prime years of my athletic life, for beyond them lies more leg soreness, body stiffness, fewer PRs, and the inevitable slow decline that comes with age. The trick to keeping that line of decline as near flat as possible is to keep moving, keep pushing, and more days off to rest between epic events. I think you will do just fine. Until then, enjoy your upcoming 40's...they are not to be dreaded. :)

  2. I'm heading out to Estes tomorrow and hope to be able to get up Old Fall River Road before it opens. I'm ready for the snow to done up there! :)

  3. Don't ever change, I love these stories about you showing up to the surprise of people. 40s are great, but 50s can be great too!


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