Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Jochpass to Bierstadt

Our three days in Valais was a magnificent crescendoing finale to this year's Alpine ├ętude, and I probably should have left it that way. But I was greedy. We climbed the Barrhorn and returned to Beat's mom's house via an unexpected train shuttle through a 17-kilometer tunnel and a three-hour drive on Friday. We were set to fly home from Geneva early Sunday. Saturday evening was reserved for an Italian restaurant dinner with Beat's brother and sister-in-law. But a few hours remained free on Saturday, and I was determined to cram in one more gorgeous Alpine mountain. I'd fixated on a particular route I had eyed earlier in the week, literally, when we climbed to a ridge on the other side of the basin. I could access this pass from the next valley over, out of a resort town called Engelberg. The route was only 11 miles with 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I set my time limit at seven hours, which included the projected 2.5 hours for the round-trip drive. 

Of course there was a crash in the bottleneck of tunnels through Lucerne that caused more than an hour of gridlock, so there were already 2.5 hours on the clock by the time I arrived in Engelberg. It was a long time to be trapped in the car during the morning hours, and my bladder was bursting at the seams. A row of tour busses had arrived minutes before me, and the line for the bathroom was at least 40 women deep. I tore around the cable car station as quickly as I could waddle, but there were no other options — only thicker crowds. Finally I just fired up my GPS, figuring I'd just start the hike and duck behind a tree en route. But the entire first 1.5 miles climbed along the fenced-in path beside open pastures, with signs at every turn warning in three languages to not litter and not trespass and "The nature is not a toilet." A whole steep uphill mile passed and I was still marching with my legs pressed together. By that point I figured I was going to end up soaking my pants and that would just have to be okay. Finally, nearly a thousand vertical feet above the village, I found a discrete enough cluster of trees where no one was around. Once I was done, I heard a buzzing sound and realized my backside was only about a foot away from an active electric fence. Ga! 

I was certain I wouldn't have time to reach the pass at this point, but I hiked as hard as my tired and sore legs would carry me. It was a beautiful day, and the quiet trail now winding through forest was a welcome relief from the traffic and crowds and pee-panic. I decided I could "run" downhill to shave time and went for it, eyeing my watch closely and buzzing with adrenaline as I marched. I often do these casual solo trips with some sort of tight deadline to chase, and I think I prefer to recreate this way. Racing is fun.

The summit was a lovely spot called Jochpass. I enjoyed a delicious sandwich of fresh Swiss bread and cheese (I'm going to miss this) and began my race downhill. To shave distance, I set out along a ski hill access road that was more direct than the trail, and also incredibly steep. You see something that's a road on a map and think it will be reasonable, but this road was a direct fall-line cut into at least a 30-percent grade, littered with loose ball-bearing rocks and sand. I shuffled as best as I could until I hit a large stone slab hidden under a thin layer of sand, where I started to slide. The grade was steep enough that it wasn't inconceivable to assume I'd just keep sliding all of the way down the mountain. With instinctual panic, I reached backward to grab one of the boulders lining the road. My outstretched left hand landed hard on something sharp, followed by the rest of my body, which continued to slide down the sandy slab for another ten feet or so.

Slowing to a stop was the worst part. My hand throbbed with a fearsome pain, and at first I was afraid to look because I was convinced I'd find a piece of bone sticking out of my palm. Of course that initial shock of pain always fades quickly, and when I found the courage to peel off my padded glove, there wasn't even any blood. There was obvious swelling beginning to form around my wrist, so a sprain seemed likely. I popped two Aleve and carefully folded and stashed my trekking poles, because those weren't going to do anything for me anymore. Carefully I stood and continued downhill with my elbow cradled in the strap of my running vest — Kilian Hardrock 100 style — to immobilize the sore wrist as much as possible. The steep and loose terrain continued, and I had to take it slow, wincing as waves of pain continued to wash over me.

To make a long story shorter, my hand wasn't broken. Beat helped me wrap my wrist when I returned — after all that, still in plenty of time to make our dinner reservation, although I absent-mindedly ordered pizza, and then had to commit a European dining sin by asking the server to slice it for me since I was unable to hold a knife. We flew home the following day. An international flight into the sprawling London Heathrow and Denver airports while in pain is never fun, but this one went as pleasantly and smoothly as possible. On Monday I went to see my doctor and had an X-ray, which showed no broken bones. At this point my wrist was quite swollen, and a dark bruise had formed around the base of my hand. My doctor speculated I had possibly bruised a bone and sprained my wrist, so I'm going with that. I've been in using a wrist brace since that doctor visit, which at this writing was two weeks ago, with continued improvements. But it sure is annoying to have an injured hand. I dealt with severe carpal tunnel syndrome and surgery recovery in my right hand for four months in 2016, and I started to feel like I was right back there: Hard to cut vegetables. Hard to drive. No riding bikes.

No bikes. Sigh. Instead I pulled "Allen" out of his rightful place in the back of the woodshed. Allen is a modified Allen Sports bike trailer that Beat turned into a cart which we can tow on dirt to mimic dragging a sled. ITI 2020 training has officially begun. I started with six gallons of water, which together with the weight of the cart equals about 60 pounds to haul up and down the gravel roads near my home. There are even disc brakes to add resistance, which turned my usual six-mile run from home into a truly mean, two-hour-plus power-lifting effort. My hamstrings were in shreds. I hate Allen, I really do. We're going to be spending lots of quality time together this fall and winter.

Finally the awful week of jet lag / hand pain / re-acclimating ended. By Wednesday I saw an opportunity to escape to Rocky Mountain National Park for a leaf-peeping tour. As it turned out, Sept. 25 was too early for autumn color even at the highest altitudes, but it was a beautiful morning nonetheless.

I climbed to the 12,720-foot summit of Hallett Peak, where it was shockingly cold and windy. All of the folks I passed on the way up retreated once they hit Flattop, so I had the entire wind-blasted plateau to myself.

I huddled behind the summit wind block, which didn't do much to stem the shocking chill, and used the completely numb fingers on my good hand to stuff down a lunch of Swiss Biberli pastries. Not the healthiest, but I was proud of the fact they'd been hauled over several Swiss mountains and across the Atlantic before they finally made it through the backpack food rotation here on Hallett Peak.

Below Hallett Peak, I followed the Tonahutu Creek Trail along the rim of this high plateau for a few miles, enjoying the muted crimson and gold hues across the tundra. This diversion continued for longer than I expected, because the frigid wind was still raging, and I expected I'd grow weary of it much sooner. But this wind was fierce and cold enough to chase all of the other humans away. I relished the solitude along this expansive moonscape that seemed to float over the forests and lakes down in the real world.

The side trip added to the already healthy effort I'd planned for the day, so what I ended with was a marathon distance with 7,000 feet of climbing. Long, higher-intensity and loaded hikes are going to be my bread and butter in training for the ITI, but spending a long block of time above 12,000 feet put me over the edge for fatigue. My shredded hamstrings were the victims of frequent muscle cramps. I was fairly wasted by mile 16, and continued to muddle along for another 10 miles. Much of this was descents that I'd planned to jog, but I couldn't coax my legs into a running motion — it was just too hard.

The pursuit of "forever fitness" — the ability to keep moving consistently and at a reasonably high level regardless of conditions and distance and time — remains an interesting journey. My path has ebbs and flows that rarely sense to me, but learning to accept the ebbs and commit to the goal in spite of them continues to be my most important lesson in endurance. It's not even about mental strength, really. It's about mental peace, a Zen-like outlook and spiritual transcendence of both body and mind. I found a calm contentedness — admittedly not much of a stretch on such a beautiful afternoon — and floated through the final miles.

The following morning I was heading to Salt Lake City to join my parents for our annual fall trip to the Grand Canyon. The commute always makes a great excuse for a little adventure, "to break up the drive," so I decided to tag a 14er, Mount Bierstadt. I committed to this idea the previous evening, but then woke up with a terrible headache (altitude? probably.) My injured wrist was sore, probably from swinging my arm briskly for 10 hours on Wednesday. For these and other reasons I did not feel up to the effort. I had the Grand Canyon to cross in two days, so it wasn't even necessarily a good idea to push the envelope. But this Zen-forward-motion technique is something I intend to continue working on this winter, so to Bierstadt I went.

I wish I could say I harnessed the Zen and burst through to the other side, but the whole 3.5 hours was a battle and a slog. 14,000 feet is still 14,000 feet. It hurts even when you're sitting down. The best part of the hike was the summit ridge, which was a class-two boulder field that I hadn't expected (Bierstadt is supposed to be the easiest 14er, so I guess I expected there to be an escalator to the top.) My hand was still sore enough that I didn't want to risk putting any pressure on it, so I managed the boulder field the way I dream of managing boulder fields, which is leaping between rocks on my two feet rather than oozing over them like a rock slug. Never mind that losing my balance and toppling off a car-sized boulder was going to be a lot more costly than balancing on a sore hand — the important part was that this didn't happen. I had so much fun with the rock hopscotch that I didn't notice the crushing altitude, for a short distance at least.

There was still eight more hours of driving to Salt Lake City, but I always feel so much better when I've put in a little time in the fresh (albeit thin) air, even if I don't feel so good during the respite. Mountains are usually worth it. Okay, they're always worth it. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this series of adventures of places I will most likely never see. The pictures hint but I can only imagine the grandeur of such palces! Your foreshadowing on the previous post made me reluctant to read this one LOL. But my fear was not warranted. Allen sounds like a great best friend...always willing to be there and give :) and listen as you train. Good to see more flow and lesser ebbs and I had to laugh at pushing ones limit just enough to grow and not break....that takes control but the joy of dancing a little nearer the edge is fulfilling and the wisdom gained is that you can do it again tomorrow :). Having the world fall away is truly zen, a place I can strive to visit but am never able to stay. Totally worth it!

    Jeff C

  2. Even on a bad day, you are a whirlwind. On a good day, a tornado.
    I love racing, too!

  3. Oh, I hate to giggle a little but since I still have a sore head from the rapids swim (and J has giardia) I can definitely relate to the falls and injuries. Unfortunately in my case I feel like I am getting too cautious. Maybe? Anyway, I read this sitting in an airport with many, many delays so it was good to be transported elsewhere.

  4. I'm fascinated/haunted by the pursuit of "forever fitness" and can relate to your description of the journey. Always inspiring to see the places you go and the routes you take.

  5. I was in Engelberg on 10th Sept,it's funny to read about your adventures in a place that I have recently been on the other side of the world from where I live. Your energy and discipline always amazes me. Cheers.

  6. Hi Jill - beautifully written,as always.

    Was wondering if you ever switch it up by including a swim in an icy mountain lake? I thought that kind of endurance trial might be your kind of thing.

  7. We did Mt. Bierstadt about 40 years ago, it was totally socked in, could only see a few yards ahead, so we just kept following the ridge and kept from veering off either side. We got to a point where we it was downhill in every direction, and noticed the USGS summit marker so we knew we were at the top even though we could only see like 30 feet away. We shared the summit with a curious and very fast weasel. Then the mist started getting brighter and brighter, suddenly the clouds parted and we were above a sea of clouds with only the highest peaks poking thru. We had sun for the descent. Pretty magical hike.


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