Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Life below zero

It's a typical story of two air travelers stuck on the tarmac at Sea-Tac, twenty minutes after their connecting flight was scheduled to take off. It's the Friday before Christmas, the busiest travel day of the year, and weather is causing massive delays throughout the airport. All hope is lost, but after an hour of refreshing a flight status Web page, the connecting flight comes up an hour delayed. The crew finally lets them leave and they sprint through several terminals at top speed, ignoring the grumbles from a lumbering mass of fellow travelers. All of their heavy winter layers are drenched in sweat and endorphins are surging as they reach their gate, where the crew nods and ushers them inside, slamming the door behind them. 

There's a gap in baggage handlers today and no way their luggage will make it on the same plane. But somehow it does, and by 2 a.m. on the winter solstice, their rental car is cutting through thick ice fog in Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature is 35 below zero, and their luggage contains everything they need to survive for days outside in this ... they hope. 

Eleven hours later, it's 1 p.m. on the shortest day of the year — just after sunrise or dangerously close to sunset, depending on one's outlook. From a solar perspective, it's high noon. They've rearranged and repacked all of their stuff, and they're pulling into the trailhead at a seemingly abandoned state park, bracing for a three-day trip through these frosty hills. It's still 35 below zero.  Just 24 hours earlier, the Colorado air was a chilly 35 degrees and it was 70 degrees warmer — no less jarring than traveling from winter to 100 degrees. The shift in sensation is stark, like running and then slamming into a wall.

At an otherwise empty trailhead in Chena River Recreation Area, Beat and I pulled our sleds out of the car and tried to latch everything together as quickly as possible. At 35 below, fingers only have a few seconds before the cold clamps down and renders them rigid. I pulled my mittens on and off, trading dexterity for warmth in equal parts. My packing technique was rusty and I inevitably fumbled some of the steps. We were both shivering by the time we finally got moving, about twelve minutes after arrival.

Our planned route followed a low-lying winter trail through the valley for the first five miles. The temperature remained frigid down here, and we moved at a strenuous clip, trying to adjust to the heaviness of air and ground. The strain brought to mind an image of a deep-sea diver on the ocean floor, breathing recirculated air and taking short and labored steps through the frigid water.

We weren't aware of a solstice sled dog race happening on the same day, but suddenly we were inundated with 15 teams passing in both directions in short succession. I became more and more stressed about pulling off the narrow trail and wading into knee-deep snow to let them by. If I had to wait for more than two teams, I was shivering by the time I got moving again. In between these unwanted breaks, I pulled hard in an effort to reach our trail junction as quickly as possible, working up unwanted sweat. Meanwhile the dogs loped past, chins and shoulders coated in frost, mouths open and tongues lolling out, with not a care in the world.

Finally we reached Stiles Creek trail and left the race behind, climbing a corrugated snowmachine track that hadn't seen traffic in many days. The trail pitched upward at a fall-line grade, gaining a thousand feet in just over a mile. Dragging a loaded sled over frost-crusted old trail at such grades is true thirsty work. Although we didn't gain much in the way of degrees of temperature, I had to start stripping down — all coats unzipped, pant side zippers opened, hands and face fully exposed to vent heat. Once my coat was open, my interior hydration valve soon froze, causing an even deeper level of thirsty. A seemingly large number of moose or caribou — we couldn't quite tell by the tracks — had stomped deep, ankle-threatening holes into the trail for miles.

After the steep climb, the trail rolled for along a ridge for five more miles of punchy climbs and descents. I began to cool down, managed thaw my hose, and finally started to relax from the stress of the frantic start. The long twilight finally faded, plunging us into much longer darkness. Beat fished his foldable saw out of the bottom of his sled bag. We shined our headlamps into the woods, searching for deadfall and stumps that we could cut for firewood.

When we reached the Stiles Creek Cabin, the temperature had climbed to 22 below. This actually felt warmer. Beat went about chopping our hard-won wood as I fired up cook stoves and started melting snow. We only had enough wood to burn for five or six hours, and wanted to save some for morning. So once cabin chores were complete, dinner consumed and frosted layers mostly dried, we shut the stove for the night and crawled into our winter bags, braced for a cold night.

I slept reasonably well, cocooned in my bag as the indoor temperature settled into something resembling the outdoor temperature. Beat fired up the stove again early and we lingered as long as we could, awaiting a dawn that wouldn't arrive until 10 a.m. For the second day we had about twelve miles to cover. This would take a strenuous five hours, and we wanted to enjoy all of the daylight.

The route continued along the ridge with ongoing steep ups and downs, and temperatures climbed as high as 12 below. I felt toasty and basked in the sunshine, loving all of this heat. But feeling too warm when it's not warm comes at a price. While I know this all too well by now, it's still hard to resist the urge to work up a good sweat. We descended steeply into the valley where it was again 30 below, and I could feel this deeply.

Beat was moving quickly and I wanted to try to keep up with him, but I struggled as my core temperature fell. I knew I should stop to deal with it — add a layer, at the very least — but I figured we were only a couple of miles from the cabin and we'd be there soon (this is always a terrible assumption.) This low trail was swampy and drenched in overflow — luckily mostly frozen, but also coated in frost so thick that we didn't even slip on the ice as we walked. This sticky frost also clung to the trail, creating terrible resistance. In a way it felt like that time I dragged a 70-pound bag of concrete over gravel, back at home in Colorado. It was so warm that day — warm enough to melt the snow on the road, I thought with a wistful sigh. 

The chill settled in — not dangerously so, but enough to slowly drain the energy from my body. These types of chills can be the most insidious, because by the time you think better of your situation and do something about it, you're in a much tougher spot to recover.

It didn't help that it was such a beautiful, wholly distracting afternoon. For several miles I easily ignored my stiffening shoulders and knees as I looked around in awe. Everything was coated in delicate strands of frost that looked exactly like tiny feathers when viewed at close range. From afar, the entire forest was incandescent, radiating the soft pastel light of the lazy sun.

By the time we arrived at Colorado Creek Cabin, it was 27 below and I felt cold. I stood in the musty and frigid cabin feeling dazed as Beat used a small amount of leftover wood to start a fire. He asked why I was so quiet. In my big down coat I felt okay, but certainly not comfortable. It was 2 p.m. and starting to seem like I would never feel comfortable again. Like I'd always straddle the hard edge of this insidious chill.

We headed out to gather wood before the darkness clamped down again. Beat used his saw, but in this cold I found I could walk up to dead trees with trunks thicker than my arm, pull them down and snap them into pieces like they were toothpicks. Although we were able to collect several big bundles, the wood did almost nothing to warm the cabin — the small room was too airy, with too many big windows, and this wood was probably too soft and rotten to put out much heat. It was still well below zero inside as we cooked dinner and gulped down hot chocolates, climbing into bed by 6 p.m. I did a bunch of reading. Beat, who is still recovering from a man cold, was able to sleep for the better part of twelve hours.

Even feeling warm in a good sleeping bag, it's still rough to spend a whole night in such cold. Having arrived at the cabin cold and scarcely finding an outside source of heat, we burned through a lot of energy during the long night. By 7 a.m. Beat was bored enough to rouse me, and we prepared to leave. We planned these short mileage days to get reaccustomed to the hard work of fully loaded sled-dragging, but it had gotten to the point where sitting was more difficult than moving.

Our final day was just six miles back to the trailhead. While we again planned to head out in the daylight, we just couldn't wait that long. At least, we reasoned, an early return would give us an opportunity to rearrange our systems, acquire new supplies, and bolster our defenses. 35 below is pretty chilly, but it may have just been a little taste of what was coming.

"Alaska plunges into deep freeze as the rest of the nation thaws," one headline read.

"You could easily see minus fifties in the Whites. Maybe 60 below in a cold hole," our weatherman friend Ed warned us.

"Interior Alaska hasn't seen a cold snap like this in years."

We have a second trip into the White Mountains planned, starting Thursday morning. The forecast is uncertain and predictions have been all over the place, but we're braced for and feel we're prepared for the worst. I admit for a day or so, I wanted to back out. I've never experienced 60 below, and I have no desire to experience it. But I have dealt with long periods of 40 below, and I've at least refreshed my personal battle plan thanks to this little jaunt in the minus 30s. Honestly, I'm still nervous, but this will be good for me and my goal of truly preparing myself for the Iditarod. Also, I've become so comfortable with the Whites, a place for which I feel an almost reverent affection. It will be good, I think, to become reacquainted with the same sinister side that greeted me on my first visit in 2010. Love isn't love without both light and darkness. Really, this is what keeps me coming back, year after year, whenever the sun reaches its lowest point over the northern horizons. 
Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The good kind of grind

Making small talk with strangers at trailheads is not my favorite thing, but it's bound to come up when one is hoisting a loaded five-foot sled out of the back of a Subaru. "Just training" is generally not an sufficient answer, so a long spiel about a thousand-mile walk across Alaska and some of the gear involved usually ensues. One question I receive more than I would have expected is, "How many women have done this?"

My quick answer: "Oh, about a dozen or so." 

Sometimes, folks press for more details. I derived "a dozen or so" from the known number of women who have powered themselves the full thousand miles of the traditional Iditarod Trail (north or south route) within a single season. Until recently, I wasn't even certain how many women have walked the route, so I finally did some digging. The answer, as best as I can ascertain, is just three. One of those has finished the route twice. Here's the list:

2019 — Southern Route
Kimberly Riggs, bike; 21 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes
Melissa Schwarz, bike; 21 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes

2016 — Northern Route
Jill Homer, bike; 17 days, 3 hours, 46 minutes
Katie Newbury, bike; ~22 days (not part of ITI)

2014 — Northern Route
Ausilia Vistarini, bike; 17 days, 6 hours, 25 minutes
Loreen Hewitt, foot; 26 days, 6 hours, 59 minutes
Shawn McTaggart, foot; 28 days, 17 hours, 30 minutes

2013 — Southern Route
Ausilia Vistarini, bike; 22 days, 7 hours
Shawn McTaggart, foot; 30 days, 12 hours, 10 minutes

2011 — Southern Route
Tracey Petervary, bike; 18 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes

2010 — Northern Route
Tracey Petervary, bike; 18 days, 6 hours

2008 — Northern Route
Kathi Merchant, bike; 25 days, 12 hours, 58 minutes

2000 — Northern Route
Janine Duplessis, foot; 41 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes

These statistics are interesting to ponder as I head toward three weeks of "peak" training — our annual Christmas trip to Fairbanks, followed shortly by the 200-kilometer Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho (I will most likely walk a 100-mile version of this, although I'm still undecided. What's the bigger risk: A DNF that will batter my confidence, or feeling disappointed that I short-changed myself even if I finish?) Anyway, the stats — in 20 years, just 10 women powered themselves to Nome. This is of course a tiny, self-selecting group of privileged enthusiasts who have not only the desire but also the time and resources to make the trip. It's still a dauntingly low number, and there isn't much data out there in regard to "what it takes."

It reminds me of a conversation a couple of weeks ago at my gym, with an older gentleman who was nice enough, so I won't judge him too harshly. The conversation veered to my training, and rather than lie, which is what I usually do, I went through my spiel about this self-supported, thousand-mile walk across Alaska. He perked up. "Oh, I read about the woman who won the Alaska race a few years back." (I assumed he was referring to the late Susan Butcher, who is still arguably the most well-known woman musher. Or perhaps Aliy Zirkle.) Then he furrowed his brow. "But she was ... you know ... very tough" — inferring that I, a basic-looking white woman who just stepped off an elliptical machine on a sunny day in suburban Colorado, was not so tough. I did a half-shrug and sidled away toward the locker room so I wouldn't have to endure more mansplaining from a guy who read one thing about an endeavor I've been embroiled in for the better part of 12 years. Still, I caught myself doing a guns flex in the mirror and smirking at my reflection. He wasn't wrong.

I may not have Aliy's biceps, but I have been cramming in a healthy share of tough workouts this month, and I'm feeling pretty stoked on the work right now. Dare I say — my training is going well. I'm putting in regular efforts and becoming stronger, which sounds foolishly obvious, but it's been years since I experienced such regular, ongoing progression. It's as though my body is — dare I say — almost normal now. Sure, basic 40-year-old white woman normal, but normal!

Despite my best preventative efforts, I did manage to bring a virus home from Utah, as I've done every Thanksgiving for the past five at least. The congestion clamped down hard, so I took it fairly easy during the first week of December. Happily, the cold never migrated to my lungs, and I think I'm mostly past it now.

Last Monday I loaded up our three-foot "baby sled" with five gallons of water plus food and clothing, for a haul in the range of 50 pounds. I've been training heavy with the cart, but I still haven't had that many sessions on snow. I headed to Peaceful Valley, which is popular with skiers and fat bikers, so I hoped to find packed trail. It was packed for the first 3.5 miles, and I enjoyed chats with several cyclists including my friend Betsy. The broken trail mostly ended at a gorge — I did follow the postholes of one intrepid cyclist who decided to push their bike through virgin powder for another mile. But the going became tough. I spent more than an hour traveling 1.5 miles — maneuvering the sled through a tight corridor of trees and boulders ... stopping to lift the 50-pound weight and hoist it over small but seemingly endless deadfall ... inching across a snow-covered footbridge that was not quite as wide as my sled and spanned a mostly open creek (sphincter-clenching, that one) ... and lifting each knee as high as it would go to clear the deep powder. I had a destination in mind but turned around about a quarter mile early. The cold wind and blowing snow picked up intensity as I neared the Divide, my nose was running like a sieve, and eventually all of these little annoyances hit a boiling point. I was done. It was useful to experience this mental shift, as it will help me strengthen my mental toolkit for similar days of compounding irritations.

By Thursday the gale reached hurricane strength, but I still managed to talk my friend Wendy into an outing at Brainard Lake. She's training for the Arrowhead 135, so dealing with trail-breaking and 65-mph winds will likely not be an issue in her race. Still, self-management in difficult conditions is always good practice. I'd hoped to drag the unplowed road, as singletrack is tricky with big sleds. But wind had scoured the road to pavement, so we moved into the merciful wind protection of the winding forest trails.

For this outing I brought my Nome sled, which is a five-foot-long piece of high-molecular-weight polyethylene molded to a low-profile toboggan shape. Beat designed and built it himself, and added nice features like a rollable rear enclosure and a canopy so I can sleep inside of the sled. I had my waterproof sled bag, which Beat also made himself several years ago, and a new harness, which Beat modified from an off-brand backpack. Because I was bringing real stuff, I also packed most of my soft gear — sleeping bag, pad, bivy, spare clothing, down coat. All of that stuff was far too light to provide adequate training, so at the last minute I hoisted my five-gallon jug of water into the mix. Five gallons of water alone weighs 42 pounds. The full set-up was easily more than 60 pounds, which I needed to drag through fresh snow, into a proper headwind.

It was good fun, though. My head cold had finally subsided, and I was feeling strong. We took turns breaking trail and made it five miles in, all the way to Mitchell Lake. There I had to add a bunch of layers, as my body switched from 90-percent to 50-percent effort while we descended our now-broken trail with the wind at our back. Wendy also stopped several times to grab snacks and add layers, and admitted she felt daunted by the demands of it all — stopping for even a half minute left her hands uncomfortably cold, and the ten miles became disproportionately tiring. "It probably didn't even drop below 20 degrees today," she said.

"Wind is everything," I mused. "Give me 40 below over 50 mph winds at any temperature, any day." Then I admitted I have relatively little experience with deep subzero temperatures. While I strongly dislike it, I'm a little better acquainted with the wind. But I still make mistakes, sometimes big ones, every single time. I launched into several "back when I was in Nome" stories to prove my points.

On Sunday, Beat and I were back in the mountains with the sleds. Those strong winds swept in a large snowstorm, dumping as much as two feet of powder on the higher elevations. The storm moved out and a mass of colder air settled in. It was 14 degrees at the trailhead. The air was almost unbelievably still. When was the last time I ventured up here when there was no wind? I don't even remember.

Beat was feeling the first symptoms of my Utah cold, so we decided to forgo the steep climb up Niwot Ridge for a drag along five miles of Rainbow Lakes Road. The road still climbs a thousand feet, so it's not nothing, and the deep powder was only marginally broken by a few snowshoers and skiers who mostly ventured only a mile out.

I thoroughly enjoyed this open road walk. The views were nice, and the soft light of this latitude in December reminds me of Alaska in February. Amid air as still as water and no obstacles to navigate, I had the mental freedom let my imagination wander. This expanse of time and mental space in which to think about everything and nothing is a large part of why I love the slog. I listened to Amy Petty's new album, "The Darkness of Birds," and imagined I was back in Alaska, walking among the birch and black spruce of the Susitna River Valley. These daydreams brought a satisfying sense of peace, refreshed by the calm, cold air. 

Eventually we were fully breaking trail through deep powder, and my daydreams faded into that murkier mental space I need to dig into when things get tough. This is also an interesting place, and one I look forward to spending more time exploring, as I don't know what I'll find in there. Maybe true self-actualization ... or full insanity. I don't even know. It's exciting!

We stopped at the trailhead to fire up a stove, which Beat also modified so we can use the better Primus pumps with our preferred MSR stoves. How lucky am I to have this guy in my life? We had both become quite sweaty amid the hard effort, so this was a shivery stop, even with the big down coats. I need to give more thought about how I will best manage my stops in the future. My typical style is to just go and go and go and make one longer stop to do everything else — eat, sleep, boil water. But breaking up the day is important for many reasons, and I hope to formulate better strategies for myself.

Monday's forecast was quite cold, for this region — single digits for the towns along the Peak to Peak Highway, and subzero at 12,000 feet. I had morning appointments but thought I could squeeze in an outing to Niwot Ridge, leaving the sled behind so I could move as quickly as possible. I wanted to try out my new wind fleece, which I consider a crucial part of my layering system. Beat and I purchased these Mountain Hardwear air-shield jackets back in 2013, and unfortunately the company stopped making the jacket not long afterward. Over the years my fuzzy blue jacket proved its worth in just about every winter condition imaginable, and also slowly wore to threads. There are open holes in the back of the jacket now. A couple of years ago, Beat found a similar women's jacket on Poshmark, sold by a person who also probably held onto it for years, but never wore it. I've been saving the fuzzy black jacket for a special occasion, and the thousand-mile is definitely that occasion.

I couldn't have asked for better testing conditions. It was 8 degrees and windy at the trailhead, and my thermometer continued to drop digits as I climbed. The woods provided some protection, but nearby weather stations at similar altitudes were recording 45 and even 55 mph gusts. A rough track had been broken on the steep ascent, but it was still punchy and hard work. I took off the jacket to avoid soaking up too much sweat, and completed much of the climb wearing only my base layer. Heat poured from my body as my heart beat steady at 155 bpm — a satisfyingly high number for this altitude, where shallow breathing often restricts my efforts. Every so often a gust blasted through the tree canopy, taking all of my hard-earned warmth away. So I marched faster.

At the last stand of trees, I stopped to put the jacket on, along with a balaclava and mittens. Looking up, all I could see was a roiling white cloud in place of the usual mountain views — as though the ridge just dissolved into a vaguely blue sky. Stupidly I neglected to put on my goggles, reasoning that I could add them later "if it gets bad" ... and stepped into a ferocious gale that was among the worst I've experienced. What made this ground blizzard so bad, I think, was the sheer amount of fresh snow sweeping down from the Divide. It felt as though thousands of tiny bullets were pelting my face. The windchill was amazing; I took one hand out of a mitten to set up this self-timer, and within seconds my hand flash-froze. I couldn't move my fingers anymore. Then the camera died.

See the disappearing snowshoe prints? Those are mine, only seconds old.
I did a few arm windmills to push some blood back into my hand, then continued marching west, directly into the wind. Ground became sky without any delineation. Gusts nearly pushed me over. I learned to kneel into the snow when the roar increased a few decibels. After the invisible fist loosened its grip, I stood and shambled some more, weaving like a sail against a wind I could scarcely face. By this point I badly wanted my goggles, but the gale was too strong to risk opening my pack. I punched knee-deep tracks into the crusty powder and tripped over stastrugi I couldn't see. I didn't plan to spend much time up here, but it needed to be sufficient time to justify the gear test. Also, it was such a unique, exhilarating place to experience — I was both anxious and reluctant to leave the chaos behind. Knowing I could simply turn downhill and run for ten minutes to escape the monster did help me feel like I wasn't dying. Because otherwise, being up there actually did feel like dying. Every snow blast tore away threads of life, and my core temperature started to fall.

What did I learn from this excursion? Goggles. Always put on the damn goggles. Don't expose my hands for any reason. It's not worth it. The windchill up here was somewhere between -25F and -30F, and I definitely need extra socks and overboots for such conditions. A full pant shell would be better as well. But at least the wind fleece works. Even wearing only this and a sweaty base layer, my torso stayed warm — it was the lack of wind protection nearly everywhere else that did me in.

I still don't know whether I have "what it takes" to walk to Nome, and I'll never know until I manage to cross under that burled arch stashed in an alleyway, long after everyone else has gone home. But the process of exploring the "what" has surely been rewarding, and fun. 
Monday, December 09, 2019

All of the Utah snow

In the hours after I returned from my bike trip around the White Rim, hard rain turned to sleet, then heavy snow. I planned to spend an extra day in Moab, mainly because I had so much work to catch up on. But as I watched white flakes accumulate outside my hotel room, I knew I needed to carve out some time. Sleepy and sore from all of the saddle miles, water hauls and mud carries that filled the previous week, I sat down at my laptop and pried my eyes open until 2 a.m. I knew when daylight returned, I'd want those extra hours to visit Arches National Park. 

Some of my earliest outdoor memories are from Arches — camping beside the redrocks in the family's beige Coleman tent, crawling on sandstone, renaming landmarks and balking when something that clearly should be "The Three Wise Men" was called "Three Gossips." When I was a teenager and my world was still small but my library research of philosophy literature was extensive, I concluded that consciousness turns inward after death, thus we all essentially choose our own heaven. My heaven, I decided then, would be a quiet, snow-bound winter day in Arches.

 By the time I was college-age, I'd read "Desert Solitaire" and understood that tourism ruined Arches, and that humanity ruined pretty everything else that was good and pure in this world. Friends and I would escape to the parts of the desert that few people sought, at least in the late 90s — corners of the San Rafael Swell at the end of long and bumpy jeep roads, obscure slot canyons far from an already seemingly abandoned Highway 95, and plenty of wilderness study areas. By then I mostly snubbed national parks — these were for the hoards, the masses, not for enlightened 20-year-olds who only seek the good and pure. As you can imagine, these arrogant ideals faded, but by then Arches and I had drifted apart. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've been in here as an adult. 

And, despite my teenage convictions about heaven, I don't believe I've ever visited Arches after a snowstorm. Snow is rare here, even in the depth of winter. Late-autumn squalls are especially unique. That's why I didn't want to pass up this opportunity. Although my ambition had me setting an alarm for 6 a.m., it was well after 7 when I finally boosted myself out the door with a deadline to be back at the desk by 11. It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough.

The road hadn't been plowed and was slick as snot, which I suppose isn't surprising — not many snow plow crews based in this region. I crept along and stopped at several pullouts to take photos, then turned off the main road to visit the Windows section. Here is the spot I possibly remember best from childhood. My memories recorded an expansive place that required interminable walking to see all the many dozens of arches amid a virtual city of sandstone. Imagine 40-year-old Jill's disappointment when I realized it's really more like four or five arches, and a loop of every available trail nets about two miles of hiking.

I had fun breaking first tracks on the primitive loop. The footing was extra dicey with crusted powder over glare ice over sandstone. I was wearing my studded shoes and still slipped once on a steeper slope, landing hard on my right hip. You know what's funny about that incident, though? My lower back had been bothering me after the bike ride, and it stopped hurting altogether following this hike. Chiropractic care, courtesy of gravity.

When we were kids, we called this "A-OK Arch." I learned its real name is Turret Arch.

Double Arch. I have a less-clear memory of naming this one "Spaghetti Arch."

Looking back toward Windows. I was enamored with the sagebrush snowy puffballs. I think about five inches of snow accumulated, but it consolidated quickly in the sun. Temperatures still weren't all that warm, about 35 degrees.

Afterward I had a bit more time, so I drove to Delicate Arch trailhead to see if I could cover the three miles out and back in 45 minutes or so. Seemed doable, but I was not prepared for the trail to be inundated with humans. I know, I know ... if you don't want to be inundated with humans, don't go to Delicate Arch. The crowds were discouraging but I still made break for it, jogging the flats through ankle-deep slush and wending my way around people — mostly families with small children — often wearing wildly inappropriate footwear. My Dad later asked if I saw anyone wearing cowboy boots. None of those, but there were plenty of fashionable tennis shoes, Uggs, cheap plastic-soled snow boots and at least one pair of open-toed sandals. I also passed countless children bundled like that poor kid brother from "A Christmas Story" and whining at their parents, "I'm hot."

Trail conditions were dicey. The sandstone had mostly dried in the sun, but that only made the shady spots even more deceptively slippery. I felt vicariously nervous for the other humans with their small children and wildly inappropriate footwear. But that didn't really stop me from (safely) shouldering my way through tight spots and scrambling up sandstone outcroppings to dodge what had become a molasses-like flow of tentative hikers.

Then, there it was. Delicate Arch surrounded by snow. Worth it? Yes, worth it.

Strava selfie! This photo happened seconds before one of those people in the background ventured onto the black ice to attempt to stand beneath the arch. Inexplicably she had veered quite low, where the sandstone sloped steeply toward the lower bowl, and she was walking like a deranged chicken with her butt low to the ground and her arms straight out. Nearby, people she presumably knew called out, "You can do it Karen!" A guy next to me turned and said, "It's a bad time to be a Karen" ... presumably referring to that internet meme about entitled middle-aged women who want to talk to a manager. Either way, I couldn't watch anymore, so I turned around and left. I figured there were enough people around to call 911, and I couldn't bear to watch Karen's seemingly inevitable demise. Karen's name never turned up in the news, so I presume she made it. But it's sad to note that just three days later, three people fell and two died in what sounded like this exact spot.

One last Arches shot. Everything was quite muddy and slushy at this point in the morning, and I think I annoyed some people with my shameless splashing as I ran toward my impending deadlines. I again sympathized with the roasting children whose parents dressed them for blizzard before they climbed the steep, sun-baked sandstone.

The following morning I expected the snow to be gone, and was surprised when it was not. Temperatures were still just 35 degrees in town. I headed to Moab Rim to squeeze in a run before heading north to Salt Lake in a brief window before another forecasted storm.

I was feeling fierce. It surprised me how fresh and snappy my legs felt, as I expected to need more recovery time following the 300-mile ride. I think my body was just happy to not be bent over a bicycle, although my hip was sore following the previous days' icy sandstone slap.

Because of that hip pain and the memory of what caused it, I didn't run all that fast. Footing was tricky for me, and I took extra care to manage each step through the snow-covered sand and ice-covered slickrock. Also, I spent too much time gawking at scenery. It was a beautiful, quiet morning, though. Moab Rim is one of the most popular jeep trails in Southern Utah, and I didn't see a soul.

I understand why Moab became overrun with humans. And I also understand why they drift away when the cold and snow arrive. I understand, but I don't relate. My world may be a little bit bigger and my understanding of philosophy more nuanced these days, but this is still as close to heaven as any place I've found.

While I was playing in that skiff of desert snow, Beat was buried under nearly three feet of snow in Boulder. His truck slid into a ditch while he was plowing the road, and he couldn't even snowshoe through the heavy powder. He was essentially stuck at home for the holiday. Meanwhile, I skirted a similarly large storm in Northern Utah. By Thanksgiving morning there was a foot and a half at my aunt's house. We enjoyed dinner and other Thanksgiving traditions that have changed little in 40-plus years. On Black Friday, the day that my sisters indulge in shopping traditions, my dad and I have formed our own — hiking to the top of Gobblers Knob. Thanks to this storm, that wasn't possible this year — avalanche danger was just too high. Instead we opted for snowshoeing to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

The "hiking" was a little ridiculous, but fun. Dad let me do most of the trail-breaking, since I'm the one in training for such silliness. There were long stretches where I sunk to my hips, even wearing snowshoes. For a mile or so we connected with a well-packed skin track, and felt so zoomy that we passed several uphill skiers. The skiers veered off toward slopes and we continued in the mire of the valley. At one point Dad used his 130-centimeter trekking pole to test the depth of fresh powder to the base, and it almost disappeared. So four feet of snow.

It was serene up there, to a degree. As you can see we're on nearly flat terrain, but the base underneath us collapsed several times. That eerie "whomp" is the worst sound. Along the steep bowl surrounding the lake, we could see several natural slides. Eek. Even on low-angled terrain far from run-out zones, I felt terribly uneasy.

Heading back, the storm picked up ferocity. Snow was blowing and accumulating at an impressive rate as we charged downhill, shivering amid the windchill. When we returned to the trailhead, Dad said, "That was almost epic!" ... but the adventure was just beginning. A steady stream of traffic was creeping down the canyon. Visibility was close to zero, and we couldn't see the row of brake lights until we were almost on them. Then traffic stopped. We sat. For hours. I pulled out my phone and scanned for news updates, and even recruited Beat at home in Boulder to dig around for more information. The best info we received were vague Twitter reports from UDOT, followed by hilarious replies from others stuck in the same traffic. At one point UDOT tweeted that the accidents had been cleared and traffic was moving again, please drive home safely ... and we sat in place for another 45 minutes. At this point my Dad and I were wet, cold, hungry, thirsty, shutting off the car engine to save gas, and terribly irritable. We're both impatient people who can't bear feeling trapped. It was pretty much Twitter that saved one or both of us from a temper tantrum. One reply to UDOT's disingenuous "updates" had Dad roaring:

"You sit on a throne of lies!"

Twitter is the best and worst of social media wrapped together, in my opinion. The site is home to so much meanness and inanity and misinformation, but it also offers the most up-to-date news and instant community in any situation. I joined others in the 280-character commiseration. Eventually traffic did begin to flow and we emerged from the canyon at 7:33 p.m., four hours after we left the trailhead. Four hours for nine miles. We hiked through four feet of snow faster than that, but not by much.

The following day, I didn't want to go to the mountains. Avalanche danger, traffic, Saturday crowds, no thanks. But Dad knows his Wasatch Mountains, and he had a good idea about where we could travel a through a relatively safe valley away from the hoards — Bowman Fork in Millcreek Canyon.

It was a gorgeous morning — cold and clear until more storm clouds moved in, but these only gave the skyline an ethereal quality.

Early in the trail we were passed by a lone hiker moving at a fast clip. A couple of miles later we caught up to him, and I figured out that he was breaking fresh trail. I hung back a little, as he seemed so gruff and determined when he passed that I didn't want to bother him. But as we approached, he just stopped and stood in place. There were a few seconds of something like a standoff, and then I broke the ice: "I guess we should take a pull." I moved in front and commenced punching through the hip-deep snow. The lone hiker followed behind us and chatted amicably with Dad for the next mile.

The thing about breaking trail through four feet of snow is that it's incredibly strenuous for the person up front, and of course so ridiculously slow that the people following behind are cold and bored. At White Fir Pass, the stranger turned around without much of a word about it. Dad and I opted to continue on with a spring as a hopeful destination, but we only managed about another half mile of ridiculously futile effort. I was climbing an interminable Stairmaster, punching through drifts as deep as my stomach and flailing as though I was swimming. Dad was understandably bored with my sub-mile-per-hour pace. We had lunch at a trail junction and turned around.

Hints of autumn clinging to the maple trees.

The descent and commute home went much more smoothly, and we made it home with plenty of time for a long-standing family Christmas tradition of dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and touring the lights at Temple Square. With the crowds and chaos of my six nieces and nephews in tow, it was overwhelming at times, but I'm grateful for these traditions.