Monday, November 04, 2019

Winter closes in

All of my favorite weather happened this week, and yet stoke fell flat. I couldn't quite understand the reason. Maybe fatigue? Is the strength stuff is starting to wear me down? Not enough protein? The skin on my upper legs and ankles broke out in a rash, which I've come to associate with an unidentified "flare" of sorts that brings other symptoms, including occasional breathing difficulty, moodiness and increased anxiety.

Whatever the reason, I was weirdly anxious this week. It started with the insidious polar vortex. You'd think I'd be a fan of polar vortex, but I'm really not. These atmospheric ridges that push Arctic cold down toward the center of the continent, where I live, create unseasonably warm weather for Alaska and the fire-stricken Pacific Coast. I empathized with friends in California affected by these wildfires, while more selfishly tracking weather systems over Alaska. If the cold doesn't settle in soon, Alaska rivers won't freeze properly, which could cause unworkable conditions along the Iditarod Trail. I'm already bracing for the probability of a warm and wet March across Alaska, which would carry a high likelihood of damp misery, wet-snow slogging and macerated feet.

I know it's useless to fret about such things at any time — especially in late October — but I almost couldn't help myself this week. My primitive brain was weirdly affected by nebulous negative energy, and not all that amenable to my conscious positive suggestions. One night I had an anxiety dream about one of the scariest places I know, which is the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, shrouded by pre-dawn darkness during the 2014 ITI. In my dream, like in my memories, I was walking over the black ice of the river and I could hear water rushing beside me. When I turned my headlamp toward the sound, I could see the cascade of black water, gurgling out of a lead in the thin ice. The crack was widening. It was about to consume me. Then I awoke in my bed in Colorado. My lower back and legs were damp with sweat. The bedroom was unbearably hot. It was 3 a.m., and only 2 degrees outside.

A few days later, I read a news story that unnerved me, about a school teacher from Colorado Springs who was lost on Mount Shavano during that same cold night that brought my anxiety dream. He wandered through the night, losing a shoe at one point, but kept walking because if he stopped, "my life went away from me." He made it down to his truck and called 911, so he did succeed in self-extracting and surviving. But by the time the news story came out on Friday, he'd already had both of his legs amputated below the knee.

"That is a severe case of frostbite, for just one night," was my first thought. But I continued to ruminate on the story, imagining the scenario that might have a person much like myself chasing a mountain a little too late into an early-season winter day, losing a trail normally familiar to me, being lost and confused after dark as temperatures dipped well below zero, and feeling the life force drain out of me as I stumbled along, losing hope. Margins are so thin in these environments, and one error can spiral out of control with alarming speed. As a maker of mistakes, I try to bolster my own margin for error  — beyond the obvious spare layers and emergency bivy gear, I carry a GPS with spare batteries to avoid getting lost, and a satellite messenger beacon with two-way communication. But any loss of self-sufficiency greatly reduces one's odds of survival. I could see myself in this scenario, and it was unnerving.

 This week had a whole lot of good in it, too — beautiful snowy scenery, lots of time outside, and all of my training efforts went well. I wrote the preface to this post because darkness occasionally persists, anyway. It casts a shadow over the most beautiful vistas, chattering away about everything that can go wrong — in my adventures, in my life and the whole world in general. Learning to recognize the nebulous shadow and make efforts to battle it will be an important part of my training, too. Because when it closes in while I'm alone and scared, it will be that much more difficult to vanquish.

With that, here's my week in training:

 Monday morning brought another fresh coat of snow and temperatures around 10 degrees. This is the best winter cycling weather, so I pulled out the fat bike purely for fun. No one had been out to break trail at Walker or Meyer Homestead, so this turned into a solid strength workout with an element of agility — often hidden ice or rocks underneath the powder caught me by surprise. It was so lovely, though, that I didn't mind churning along at 4 mph or swerving erratically until I finally threw a boot down to bike-ski for several meters.

 By Tuesday, the polar vortex had encompassed most of the flyover states, and the Denver-Boulder metro area was right in the center of its cold, snowy heart. All kinds of October temperature records were broken. By Wednesday morning, Boulder officially measured the most snowfall from the storm — 13 inches. Beat worked from home to avoid the commuter mess in town, so we headed out in the morning for a sled- and cart-drag. It was 8 degrees with light snowfall. In the absence of sunlight and accompanied by a stiff breeze, the humid air felt especially brisk. In the interest of training with something more realistic than 70-plus pounds of concrete pressing against a tiny surface area, I loaded up a duffel with six gallons of water in one-gallon jugs. This, sadly, is probably close to the weight that my Nome sled will hold. It was heavy.

 Beat dragged Allen the Taskmaster through the fresh snow. The road was recently plowed but had its own layer of glare ice underneath dry powder, which was incredibly slippery in unpredictable patches. Beat took two hard falls in a row (I didn't witness them, as he was way ahead of me) and turned his ankle, resulting in swelling and bruising. I slipped in the same spot and did a single-footed boot ski for at least ten feet before I caught some traction, amazingly without falling over.
 On Wednesday morning, October still wasn't over but our neighborhood was encompassed by solidly mid-winter conditions. The overnight low at home was -2.2F — and it's rare to see subzero here at any time of year. I planned to meet Beat in town at 4 p.m. and wanted to travel there on foot. There's a 14-mile route that's mostly trail with around 2,500 feet of climbing — most of that in the first four miles — which usually takes me about three and a half hours in dry conditions. How long would it take today? I gave myself five hours, but should have sprung for six.

 On the West Ridge of Green Mountain, not a soul had passed through since the 13 inches of fresh snow. This is a trail I know well, but it became difficult to locate at times. This was Wednesday and I didn't yet know about the man lost on Mount Shavano, but I'd think back to breaking trail on Green as I visualized his situation. You can believe you know a trail like the back of your hand, but when the facade of familiarity is buried, you realize you don't have a clue.

 The going was slow through the fresh snow, and I was frustrated about that. I found it almost impossible to boost my heart rate over 130, even as my quad muscles quivered and burned. My legs felt like they were on that edge of seizing up, yet my breathing was calm and I had plenty of energy to burn. I decided the endeavor was a good practice in patience for now, and limits for later. In a race like the ITI my legs will be just as tired, all of the time, and I won't have the excess energy to waste on feeling frustrated.

 The familiar view from the top of Green Mountain was so lovely. There was only one track descending the Ranger Trail, and it was the first of its kind I've ever seen on Green Mountain — an alpine ski track! Green almost never has enough snow coverage for skiing, and even when it does, it's a steep and heavily wooded slope with abundant boulders and drop-offs. Thirteen inches of powder over dirt with that many hidden rocks was difficult to navigate even with my slow and well-anchored feet. I was in awe of this person defying gravity to weave through every obstacle, threading their way down the hidden trail with improbable precision. Kudos to you, fearless skier with one hell of a pair of rock skis. Thanks for showing me the way.

 The trail-breaking continued for most of the miles to town ... Chapman had only old ski tracks, mostly buried under the fresh layers of powder. Tenderfoot was untrammeled, and Flagstaff was sprinkled intermittently with footprints ... probably because a lot of snow was raining down from the trees, amounting to more sunny-day accumulation. By Gregory Canyon I was wholly exhausted, and had only 15 minutes to run to Beat's office, which was 3.2 miles away. I called him about meeting up at Gregory instead, but I think he was worried about making me wait in the cold, and told me he'd wait for me at work. I made my best effort at running, truly. My legs were heavy and tired, and the sidewalk conditions were far from ideal — mostly they were a mess of stirred-up sandy snow, with the occasional ankle-deep slush puddle, or bumpy ice. I still arrived in 30 minutes, with ice cubes tangled in my untied shoelaces and a single base layer drenched in sweat at 20 degrees ... only to find Beat annoyed that I'd taken so long and didn't answer my phone, which I didn't hear, probably because I was breathing so hard.

Photo by Eszter
I front-loaded the week with too much snowy fun, so Thursday and Friday contained many chores and also two gym weight-lifting days in a row, which was probably a bad idea. Yet I still couldn't pass up an opportunity to ride bikes with Scott and Eszter, who were in town for an oh-so-brief visit before escaping to New Zealand for four months of Southern Hemisphere summer. They don't love winter the way I love winter, as you might imagine. Yet they were the ones who suggested a ride up Sunshine Canyon on this 35-degree day. This surprised me, because I can't imagine a more frigid activity than descending 3,000 feet over 9 miles on a low-geared mountain bike when roads are wet and temperatures are near freezing. Of course I agreed.

It was a fun ride up, and I hardly noticed the effort as we chatted about my and Scott's childhoods in Salt Lake City, as well as the latest endurance cycling gossip. At the top of Gold Hill, we stopped to add layers. A few seasons of winter cycling in Boulder have taught me to carry the kitchen sink for winter rides — coasting for 45 minutes with a 30 mph windchill in temperatures near freezing is truly the worst pain I've experienced in any workout here. There were times that I'd show up at Beat's office almost in tears, unable to move my arms, and he'd have to make me a hot cup of tea. Of course you can put on six or seven extra layers and it's still not enough. It's never enough. But after we suited up, this descent wasn't so bad. Eszter, who is originally from Boulder, called it "fairly to moderately miserable" and said it wasn't anywhere near the top of her list of worst descents from "Hypothermia Canyon."

By Saturday, temperatures were creeping back toward normal — 46 degrees, which is still below normal for November 2, felt unseasonably warm. I did a three-hour cart-drag. Soft mud and packed snow added to the resistance, and the effort was harder than I cared to admit to myself. I came home and couldn't find much in the way of mental energy for writing, but tried anyway, because I should not be so tired after three measly hours. Maybe I am pushing myself too hard in my strength workouts, and should try backing off for a bit. Still, I am just getting started, and I have less than four months now to become so much stronger than my current state of fitness. What to do. What to do.

 On Sunday, the plan was to head up to Brainard Lake for more wind training. The forecast called for 35-45 mph gusts in Ward, which usually means 60+ at higher altitudes. I was dreading this excursion. My state of mind was soured by thoughts of the man who lost both of his feet to frostbite because of a mountain, as well as a weird situation with a friend who posted a vague but alarming Facebook update and then went missing. As far as I can tell that situation still hasn't resolved, but there are indicators that he's currently all right. Still, I was thinking about this for much of the day. What if?

 It was, indeed, a brutally windy morning. I was having a tough time breathing amid the fearsome headwind as we trudged up the snow-covered road toward Brainard Lake. Temperatures were warm though, about 37 degrees at the trailhead, and all of my wind layers were doing their job by blocking so much of the chill that I was sweating heavily. But if I pulled down a zipper or face mask to vent heat, the result was instantaneous flash-freezing.

 Above Brainard Lake, we set to the task of breaking trail. Beat enthusiastically did all of the hard work, which was considerable with deep powder in the trees and a breakable crust near treeline. I remained grumpy, complaining about the stiff bindings on my "rock snowshoes" and proclaiming that I didn't feel comfortable with the force of the wind. Bracing against gusting crosswinds left me convinced that I wasn't leaving this mountain without taking at least one end-over-end tumble. Hopefully it would happen somewhere soft.

 As expected, the unobstructed wind above treeline was almost unworkable, a heaving and unpredictable force that I visualized as wrestling with a ghost. The tundra was mostly scoured, but there were still frequent drifts to contend with, so we tromped over the rocks in our purpose-intended, already-beaten-up snowshoes. We also didn't feel fully comfortable stopping to take off anything, even snowshoes, for fear that they would blow away before we could secure them to our packs.

 Such is the difficulty of managing anything in such strong winds — you can't stop. You really can't. I learn this in new ways each time I venture into the wind. One of the most enduring lessons was crossing the sea ice on the Iditarod Trail in 2016 — completely exposed to 35 mph winds at -5 to 0 degrees. First, I realized that stopping to drop my pants and relieve myself let the cold cut so deep that it left me in physical pain, so I stopped drinking water to eliminate this need. Also, during one of those excruciating bio breaks, I anchored a bike pedal in the ice and turned my back on my rig for about ten seconds, during which time the wind managed to spin the bike and capture a semi-loose bag of trail mix that must have weighed more than a pound, along with a Snickers bar, some fruit snacks and a chapstick, and whisked them all into oblivion. That was all of the food I had out for the rest of the day, but I wasn't about to open up my bike bags and risk losing anything else. I had to keep moving. Such is the demand of the wind.

 Here, on these wind-scoured Colorado mountains, my biggest fear is that I'll lose my balance and start tumbling over the rocks, or take a long slide down a snow field. Gusty winds moving at freeway speeds one moment and only half that speed the next are highly destabilizing, especially for someone who feels unstable in the best of conditions. So I did not want to continue beyond the lower ridge, and Beat agreed it would be a ridiculous mission. Earlier this week we had talked about summiting Mount Audubon. It seems doable when memories of August are still fresh, but becomes highly ridiculous in the face of reality just a few months later. It might as well not even be the same mountain.

 Instead we headed down toward Mitchell Lake, where the wind was relatively pleasant in the trees ... again, perspective is everything, because the wind hadn't improved much from the morning, when weather stations were measuring 57.5 mph gusts down in Ward.

Overall, I'm actually pleased with how this week of training went. It was difficult, I had some low points, and I'm tired ... but what training would be effective if I never felt tired? I know it's important not to overdo it, but there are limits I need to push. It probably is better to explore them now, still months out from the event. I'm already feeling better, because the Brainard wind training was an exhilarating adventure. My rash is clearing up, so I'm hopeful this short "flare" is also subsiding. I hope my friend is okay. I don't quite know yet, but I reached out in the only way I can right now. And I also believe the injured school teacher will be just fine, based on his last status update:

"Trying not to feel two defeeted."

If I ever survive an ordeal like that, I hope I'm still in high enough spirits to make Dad jokes. Or whatever it takes. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I'd want to survive with amputations like that. Which probably shows a deep character flaw in myself. That and other recent stories...did you read about Rachel Lakuduk in the Cascades? Have kind of made me much more of a chicken lately. I'm glad you're prepared out there. Way to get after it, as usual.


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