Saturday, July 04, 2020

High season

Earlier this week, I received a classy invitation in the mail. At first glance, I thought it might be an announcement for an ill-timed wedding. Inside the square envelope was a card, nicely designed and embossed with a silver logo. "Frozen. Majestic. Wild. The Iditarod Trail calls for you to return."

Ah, focused marketing. The race director knows us Iditarod junkies so well.

That same day, the race director for the Silk Road Mountain Race sent an e-mail announcing the formal cancelation of the 2020 event: "It may well have been inevitable in the end, but it still pains me to accept that there won't be a race this year and we won't be seeing each other in Kyrgyzstan this August."

"It was always inevitable in the end," I thought. Like many people, I started 2020 with bright-eyed optimism that it would be my best year yet. I would complete the near-impossible notion of a thru-hike of the Iditarod Trail, and then I'd ride my bike all summer in preparation for a grand adventure in the Tian Shan, the Celestial Mountains, with my friend Danni. Such happy naivety dominated my world six months ago.

Danni and I deferred our SRMR entry back in early April, after it became clear that international travel would be iffy, if not outright banned, for some time. On June 15, we received an e-mail that the race was tentatively still on, and a final decision would be made in early July. The e-mail disclosed that of the 152 riders who signed up for the Aug. 14 event, only 21 had deferred or requested a refund. Which meant that a mere two months out, with everything we already knew about COVID-19, 131 people from all over the world intended to travel by air to a central Asian country that had yet to be hit hard by the pandemic (it has now), and ride bikes across an incredibly remote region with limited resources, in a largely self-supported event that depends on local supplies. I was incredulous. It seemed so entitled. I said as much to Beat, who replied with an apt observation:

"I always thought ultra-endurance racing was about the long view, but really they're just junkies."

Then I received that letter from the ITI, brazenly dangling my favorite drug wrapped in a bright, shiny package. Argh! Long before the COVID crisis was even on the horizon, I promised myself that regardless of the 2020 outcome, I wouldn't return to the trail. At least not right away, not in 2021. I'd give myself time to recover body and mind and make a sound decision about whether this is something I really want to keep doing. Because I've more or less devoted the past 14 winters of my life to endurance racing in Alaska, and it's grown into something I'm not even entirely sure is solely a passion, or whether it's simply become a habit. And yet, with the summer heat bearing down and all of these uncertainties about the future, the Iditarod Trail still occupies a perplexingly large piece of my mental real estate. When I'm feeling especially angsty or frustrated, I go to my happy place on the white tundra, locked forever in expansive silence and stark beauty. I don't want to go back. But I need to. Actually, scratch that. I don't need to go back. But I want to.

Then I circle back around, and of course there are still far too many uncertainties to make frivolous yet expensive plans for something that's just over seven months away. The reasons why I wouldn't want to interfere in remote communities in Kyrgyzstan are the same for rural Alaska. We as a collective world population need to starkly reduce our movements if we ever want to get a handle on this crisis, short of finding an effective vaccine, which is not a given. I struggle with this concept a lot. I'm fine staying away from bars, gyms, theaters, parties ... truthfully, give me an excuse to steer clear of crowds, and I will embrace it. But the concept of no travel — that hits hard. Still, limiting nonessential mingling at airports, hotels and gas stations is necessary, and I realize quite low on the spectrum of sacrifices.

And, truthfully, Beat and I have been getting out a fair amount. He took a few extra days off for a staycation before July 4. Although we planned to stick close to home for the holiday weekend, we took advantage of less crowded weekdays to enjoy high mountain adventures. The past few photos are from a ride through the Upper Apex Valley, a place close enough to ride from home, yet remote enough to enjoy relative solitude on a Sunday. There's an open meadow with fantastic views of the Divide, where I like to sit and contemplate the world. Getting there requires a loose and chunky beast of a steep climb that I have yet to clean in summer conditions (I've only done it once, in winter, because it's actually easier on packed snow.) The rewards are worth it.

On Monday, we embarked on a 20-mile hike from Rainbow Lakes. The initial ascent along the ridge to Old Baldy was breathtakingly windy and cold. Sheets of fresh ice still coated puddles in the late morning. Hiking directly into the gale, I felt as though the wind was stealing the breath from my throat, and I struggled to gulp down remnants of oxygen. The chill was strong enough that I stopped to put on all of my hat, mitten and shell layers despite lagging well behind Beat and straining to catch up.

It was the hottest day of the week in the lowlands, with temperatures climbing into the 90s in Boulder. But there is something about those katabatic winds that causes drastic temperature change at altitude. I'll have to read up on the specific weather phenomenon. We weren't expecting such intense wind or cold. It was both crushing and sublime.

Beat descending toward the east face of South Arapaho Peak. It's a majestic mountain from any aspect.

I was not having my best day, and felt quite woozy above 12,000 feet. I did my best to shamble to the summit, trailing behind a group of tourists speaking an eastern European language I couldn't quite identify. (Beat guessed they were Polish.) Every summer before this we spent several weeks in the Alps, and I'm used to sitting on summits while people chatter in languages I don't understand. But I admit, it feels a little strange and off-putting right now. Do they live here, or did they travel here?

We all shared South Arapaho Peak with a silly mountain goat who had little interest in distancing itself from people, and posed for us on top of the summit marker.

Despite not feeling terribly chipper, I was eager to stay high and enthusiastically agreed to Beat's suggestion to drop into the Fourth of July basin and climb to a half-frozen lake we spotted from the summit, sitting right on the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass.

The wind died down as we made our second ascent, and it started to feel just as intensely hot as the wind had felt cold earlier in the day. The UV exposure at high altitudes always seems to have this effect. Even when I'm mostly covered, 65 degrees can feel like 90 at 12,000 feet.

This route had so many fantastic views. I'm actually trying to refrain from posting too many photos.

There was a lot of lingering snow as well, with more snowfields to cross than I expected.

Beat surged ahead and stopped often to point out silly marmot antics as I shambled downhill. I was just not functioning that well, stumbling a lot and feeling mildly dizzy. Inexplicable, really. Because ultimately I'd feel better later in the week when I should have been more tired. As usual, I love mountains, and I struggle with mountains, but they're always worth it.

 This is one of the topics I've been discussing with my therapist recently — anxiety in the mountains. I've been hoping to muzzle some of my fear in order to move more comfortably and confidently in this world that I love, and it's been helpful to acknowledge and accept lingering trauma. I told her about a recurrent nightmare that evokes images of a terrifying midnight storm high on an exposed ridge during PTL in 2013. I still have this dream, seven years onward. It tends to wake me up on nights that I go to sleep feeling particularly anxious. And mostly I feel ashamed of this aspect of my psyche, but the therapist has a soothing way of assuring me it's normal to feel traumatized by traumatizing experiences, even if they were part of a recreational activity that I chose of my own (naive) volition. I most certainly jumped into a particularly deep end before I learned how to swim, and the justified feelings of inadequacy still haunt me. Finally, it's okay to just be a hiker and hike on trails; I don't have to achieve total badassery in everything I do. I can still find joy on the shallow end of the mountains. Living in Boulder sure does crank the FOMO up to 11, though. It seems like everyone here free-solos 5.7 pitches on 14ers and runs self-supported 100-milers every weekend.

 These adventurous locals still plant too many ideas in my head. One intriguing route made a loop around James Peak after crossing raging spring runoff in South Boulder Creek, then ascending through cliff bands to gain a long, open ridge at Nebraska Hill. As soon as I pointed out the route to Beat, I understood that I did not really want to try this, but now I'd planted the idea in his head. So I urged him to recruit his friend Daniel, as the two of them can move much more efficiently without me, and then he could tell me about it later. Indeed, the cliffy ascent proved terrible. They were able to cross the creek on a bridge of flash-flood debris without much trouble, but then they had to route-find through the cliffs over endless deadfall. Both had torn-up backpacks and legs from 'shwacking. The effort earned them a scenic, quiet spot by a lake though. I heard a little bit about it as they made their way down from Rogers Pass. I had a morning meeting to discuss mountain trauma with the aforementioned therapist, so I couldn't join them for a 6:30 a.m. start even if I was feeling more adventurous. Instead, I decided to embark on a solo, standard route ascent at 10 a.m.

 I made reasonable time to the summit, but I still felt awkward and did my share of stumbling along the muddy singletrack that winds through swamps paralleling South Boulder Creek. The weather was unbelievably mild — clear blue skies after 12 p.m., and almost no wind. Weirdly, I only saw one other group — besides Beat and Daniel — along the entire ridge. I had the summit all to myself. Well, I wasn't entirely alone, as I was continually hounded by a persistent marmot who practically sat on my shoes as I ate my sandwich. But it was a rare moment of peace, and it felt distinctly sublime. Still, I was haunted by my feelings of inadequacy and the thought that I didn't really want to have to stumble down that slippery, swampy trail.

 The south side of James Peak is a continuation of the Continental Divide Trail, and from there I knew I could connect with a rugged jeep road that I've explored with a bike in the past. Kingston Peak is not a ride I'd recommend; it's a loose babyhead nightmare, and so steep that it's precarious to walk down — in hindsight, the muddy trail is easier. But I knew the way. It seemed at once familiar and novel. It was probably far. It was probably at least twice as far. But also, likely to be runnable for much of the distance. On a whim, I veered south with a loosely understood loop in mind.

I loved being back there. I saw no other people. Gentle, rolling slopes stretched out for miles, and the alpine tundra still clung to the early season, with tiny yellow flowers peeking from the edges of snowfields. It reminded me of the grassy velds along South Africa's Great Escarpment, evoking happy nostalgia. I couldn't see whether the trail ever connected to the distant road, so I cut overland, padding across tussocks and taking care to never step on a flower. It was probably some of the more graceful walking and/or running I've managed yet this season.

Eventually, I connected with the babyhead nightmare road and rolled my left ankle several times while trying to make my way down a veritable rock slide. Luckily my left ankle is made of rubber by now. I'd be genuinely interested in getting an MRI someday to see just how many ligaments have fully ruptured. The road kept descending and descending, and still I didn't connect to Mammoth Gulch. Where was I? There was no one around. Literally no one — no jeeps, no motorcycles. It was weird, even on a weekday, that no one was out four-wheeling. I quickened my pace to a steady jog, dipping below treeline on a rolling traverse with more climbs than I expected. I encountered snowfields that looked as though they hadn't been touched all season. I know summer snow changes shape quickly, but there was no evidence of tire tracks, footprints, or human travel of any kind. This was beginning to creep me out — the fact that I was a little uncertain where I was, and that I was running through this seemingly abandoned place on a beautiful day in July. Was the road private? Was a psycho going to emerge from the woods to strangle me and bury my body in a gully, never to be found? A rabbit darted across the snow and startled me. I ran faster. Finally, I arrived at the familiar Mammoth Gulch Road and a gate that had my answer — the road doesn't open to vehicles until July 15. But I really let my imagination run away for a few miles there. Truthfully, I'm sort of a neurotic mess. It's amazing I get out at all.

I still had seven more miles of dirt road running to return to East Portal, turning my 13-mile hike into something closer to 20. It still only took six hours, which is what I had planned for the outing. Worth it.

On Thursday, our "before the weekend" weekend was almost over, and Beat was keen on a redemption ride to Mount Evans. Since I have been relishing the speediness of his gravel bike, he's all but gifted it to me. (This is how I acquire most of my bikes. The only bike I ride that was my bike from the start is my beloved Moots Mooto-X YBB, circa 2012.) But that means he now needs his own gravel bike, so he's been researching options. (Beat and I work great together, in that he loves bikes and I love bike riding. And he can tolerate riding while I feel that bikes are perplexing and needy machines that must be tolerated if one wants to ride bikes.) Anyway, we agreed that he'd ride my (ahem, his) gravel bike to assess wants and needs, while I'd take our (ahem, my) road bike that I've avoided taking up Evans because I don't want to descend 7,000 vertical feet of frost heaves and potholes with rim brakes and 700x28c tires.

I will always choose too much bike over too little bike, but it was mean of me to drag Beat up here on his 29er hardtail just so I could ride the gravel bike last time. This time, we both had more fun on skinner tires. Beat took a measured approach to the initial 13-mile ascent from Idaho Springs and then proceeded to crush me once we were above 11,000 feet. Altitude. Just another one of my many nemeses.

I blame stopping maybe once too often to take photos of wildlife. There were so many animals out and about — bighorn sheep, marmots, pika, ptarmigan, ravens, adorable baby goats. Now that the road is closed to vehicle traffic for the season, it seems like the animals are particularly brazen.

I reached the summit about three and a half minutes behind Beat — as per Strava — and about the same amount off my PR. Earlier I told Beat that my PR for the 27.5-mile, 6,600-feet-of-climbing ascent from Idaho Springs to Mount Evans was 3:43, and I really had to bury myself to do it. Now I better understand my performance at altitude and can pace myself, and also this time I was on a tiny road bike, which provides a much higher advantage than I care to admit. But I was happy with 3:46 and Beat was chuffed with his 3:43, until later when he realized it was 3:43:06 and my PR is 3:43:04 ... two seconds faster.

"Two seconds!" he exclaimed more than once. "I could have gotten those two seconds anywhere!"

I think Beat left a lot on the table. He was much too chipper on our final hike to the true summit. I felt like I was shambling along at 14,000 feet. We were both amazed at the incredible weather. It wasn't early — we left the trailhead around 9:30, so it was close to 2 p.m. — and we enjoyed gentle skies and a mild breeze. Well, it was mild for 14,000 feet. Anywhere else you'd accurately characterize it as a 15 mph wind. But it felt calm and downright warm.

There were two large herds of mountain goats near the summit, pawing something out of the barren dirt. Salt, maybe? Left behind by overhydrated human visitors? Hard to say. But they were sure fun to watch, especially the moms accompanied by tiny kids that mimicked their every movement.

This time of year, mountain goats aren't all that pretty. While climbing I noticed several tufts of white hair on the pavement and pondered picking them all up and making a mountain goat sweater. But I refrained.

The whole family was shedding together.

Mom and kid beat a retreat as Beat descended, also well in front of me. I was jealous of his larger tires and disc brakes, but I survived.

Sheep at Summit Lake. Four big mountain trips over five days was a welcome respite from another angsty week. We decided to hunker down for the actual weekend, as it just seems like not the best time to be among crowds. And in Colorado on July 4, crowds are hard to escape. Several weeks ago I applied for a permit to backpack in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which was denied. It's frustrating that it's so hard to simply go camping in the local mountains. Really, this is another reason I wish I could be more calm and confident on tough terrain because I'd love to have more options to escape the crowds of a Colorado summer. 

It's funny, because when I soothe myself with dreams of snowy tundra, I think that all I need to do is sign up for a winter race, and my angst will go away. I'll no longer need to worry about crowds, afternoon thunderstorms, sitting in traffic, clinging precipitously to cliffs, or rolling my ankle endlessly as I shamble over boulder fields. I'll just pull a cart around on my local roads, or find some other mindless form of physical training, and while away the loud months with purposeful quiet. But I know I'd miss the mountains. I'd miss them in a millisecond. Which is why I keep finding reasons to go back. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A tale of three rides

Recently, I've been struggling with the frivolity of my passions. Endurance racing has brought my life an actualizing sense of meaning, but what does that actually mean? Writing gives shape to my life through stories, but what truths have I uncovered in the process? A couple of weeks ago, as part of my resolve to reduce anxiety-stoking screen time, I picked up my high-school-era colored pencils and started sketching again. I no longer own a pencil sharpener, nor have I boldly ventured to a store that sells them, so I've been scrawling away with the nubs, using the odd colors that survived even my neon comic phase of twelfth grade AP Art, imagining great beauty while scowling at the muddled motions of my unruly right hand. Carpal tunnel didn't take away my ability to draw, but decades of disuse have done their damage. Does one ever get it back? Or are lost passions much like our teenage selves, a wholly different conglomeration of cells linked to the present only by memories and a trail of shifting convictions about what it means, to live a life?

Sometimes I feel like I'm just spinning my wheels. Wednesdays have become their own weird day. I have my morning meeting with my virtual therapist (she's a real person, but it's weird that we've only interacted through screens.) Then I pack up masks and insulated grocery bags for my weekly grocery trip to town. Last week I needed to schedule an allergy shot, and the clinic only had 11:30. After they pump me full of allergens, they always warn me not to exercise afterward, as stress can trigger a reaction. I admit I usually ignore this warning. But I try to avoid doing anything too strenuous because, at best, shots leave me feeling like garbage for the rest of the day. However, Wednesday feels like a rare escape, an opportunity to embark on a solo adventure from the far-away lowlands. I don't like to waste this opportunity. 

As I drove away from the allergy clinic at 12:45 p.m., my car thermometer read 91 degrees. Smoke from distant wildfires hung in the stagnant air, and the state issued an ozone alert for sensitive-lungs folks who react poorly to pollution (raises hand.) I'd skipped lunch but had no appetite, so I decided I'd start on an empty stomach but carry some snacks in case I felt peckish. The car needed gas, so I stopped at a gas station and gave in to the temptation to buy a 32-ounce bucket of iced Diet Pepsi. I gulped it in ten minutes on my way to the mouth of Lefthand Canyon, relished the rush of cold liquid surging through my system, and climbed on my road bike to begin the 5,000-foot ascent to Brainard Lake. 

Things were fine, for an hour or so. Despite the heat, I felt reasonably peppy and not overheated. The iced water in my bladder had stayed nice and icy while stored in a cooler, and I slurped it greedily. Then, suddenly, things became not fine. I felt dizzy. My heart was thumping. I thought it was a matter of oxygen deficiency, as exercise difficulties usually are for me. But when I stopped to catch my breath, my status did not improve. I kept pedaling, hoping it would pass, but a growing sense of desperation persisted. My hands started to shake enough that the front wheel shimmied somewhat. Finally, I decided I might just be on the verge of something terrible like allergy shot anaphylaxis — something I'd been warned about by my asthma doctor, but I'd long since written off the possibility. I turned the bike around and descended 400 feet to a large shaded pullout. My stomach was lurching but I forced down a package of cheese crackers and lay on my back in the dirt, watching puffy white clouds waft across the sky. 

The carbs and salt went down, and after I few minutes of resting, I began to feel more centered. Maybe this wasn't allergy-shot-related, I thought. Maybe this was an electrolyte imbalance. It might also have been hypoglycemia. However, like most people who have been involved in endurance racing for years, my body is well-conditioned to move for hours without calories. It would be weird for me to have such a severe reaction after a single missed meal. But drinking a bunch of liquid with minimal salt and then sweating like a snowman in hell is something I'm more prone to — and also a recipe for hyponatremia. 

The crackers revived me enough that I stubbornly continued to the lake and then descended without issue. Back at the car, my thermometer read 107 degrees — because it had been sitting in the sun, but doesn't that mean it's basically the "feels like" temperature? It felt like 107 degrees. I masked up, staggered around the grocery stores, and headed home. I felt off for the rest of the evening, even after eating dinner. Only when I finally took a couple of salt tabs did the hand tremors finally cease altogether. Mild hyponatremia seems a likely culprit, and I resolved to be more careful in the future — heat is so much scarier than cold. 

 A couple of quiet days passed. I tapped some words into the void and ignored my abraded colored pencils, reasoning that I need to buy a pencil sharpener and thus can procrastinate what was supposed to be a therapeutic outlet that became another source of disquiet. A storm moved into the region, driving the daytime temperature into the 40s and driving out the smoke pollution. It rained and rained, more than an inch of solid water in less than 24 hours. Beat and I went outside for a drenching run and I marveled at the sensation — to go for a run and not feel crappy. He asked me what I wanted to do on Saturday, and I suggested riding bikes to the top of Mount Evans.

 Every Coloradoan knows Mount Evans. It's often the only fourteener than many Coloradoans have visited. In the early days of Colorado tourism, the state envisioned a scenic byway that could carry motorists to the sky. Construction began in 1916, but wasn't completed until 1930 following almost insurmountable hardships, which included — according to Wikipedia — steam shovels performing poorly at high altitude, a flu outbreak in camp, damaging windstorms, the difficulty of hauling coal and water, horse suicide (?) and more. The last 600 feet were finally built by hand.

Thanks to the road, Mount Evans is a popular destination, even though the highest temperature ever recorded on the summit is 65 degrees, and the average wind speed is 30 knots (35 mph!) It's also a famous hill climb for cyclists. However, thanks to the aforementioned weather and oxygen-starved altitude, it often becomes a "one and done" endeavor. I, of course, love it, although I'd admittedly only ridden it twice before, once each summer in 2018 and 2019. I never expected that Beat would want to join me. If you start riding in Idaho Springs, the route climbs solidly for 28 miles — no reprieve — gaining 7,000 feet in the process. Long, grinding rides hurt his back, and this is a road ride with annoying traffic and no hike-a-bike to speak of. But this year, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and need for long-standing repairs, the state decided not to open the road to vehicle traffic. For the entire summer, Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the nation's highest paved pedestrian path. It's a boon for cyclists, and Beat has been weirdly into cycling lately. Riding on Saturday was practically his idea.

A friendly forecast lulled us into a late start Saturday morning. But as we drove south toward the higher summits, I was floored by the thick coat of white descending from the peaks, almost to treeline. Clearly, temperatures in the 40s and rain at 7,000 feet mean lots of snow at 12,000 feet. I'm not sure why this didn't occur to me sooner, but it was disheartening. I know, it's weird that I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of snow. But I had a gravel bike, and the possibility of several inches of snow did not bode well for reaching the summit. We decided to chance it, reasoning that turning around early was better than no Mount Evans at all.

I was coming off of a bad night, after I worked myself into an anxious lather over Saturday's Trump rally in Tulsa. My catastrophizing mind conjured images of false flags, violence, massive illness spikes, terrible things. I was still stewing over all of this as we set out, but the rhythm of pedals and my beating heart soon worked their meditative magic. Beat set the pace on his mountain bike. He's usually a stronger climber than me, and I wasn't able to hold his pace when we rode Trail Ridge Road together on similar set-ups. But he was having his off day for the week, and our shared speed was perfect. Not too fast. Not too slow. Just the perfect equilibrium of relaxation in motion.

We rode past the Echo Lake gate to enter the cyclists' haven — friends riding side by side, roadies pegging the descent, dozens of cyclists out enjoying a gorgeous morning. At Summit Lake we sliced through our first slush patches, and then they became thicker. Others began to turn around. We encountered a group of three young men who were torn on continuing. One seemed particularly unenthused, and we leapfrogged several times as we surged, swerved, and then trudged through the snow. Beat caught up just as they announced they were "calling it."

"You have to hike-a-bike to the summit," Beat urged them. "I'm going to stalk you on Strava, and if I see you didn't make it ..."

The threat of Strava-stalking seemed to do it, and the guys shouldered their road bikes and marched forward, pressing their awkward clipless shoes and thin socks into the snow. Together, the five of us trudged the final switchbacks, nearly two miles of hand-built road soaring from 13,300 feet to 14,200 feet, as our legs wilted beneath the cumbersome dead weight of our bikes and our lungs begged for oxygen. It was all so frivolous and silly, carrying a bike up a mountain buried in fresh snow on the summer solstice. I hoped the roadies wouldn't resent us for this, while simultaneously wondering if their hearts were soaring like mine. When we reached the empty parking lot, the guys looked elated. They thanked us for nudging them forward.

The true summit is about 150 feet above the parking lot, and the hike up those final switchbacks is always such a kick in the gut. Beat was feeling quite bad. He's usually good at hiding it, but I could tell he was flagging, and he complained of nausea and fatigue. I was briefly concerned, but then we approached a runner who was truly discombobulated, stumbling over small rocks and walking so slowly that I wondered if he was drunk. The man tripped on a boulder and toppled just as we reached the summit. We struck up a conversation with a woman, and I learned they had run the road all the way from Echo Lake, nearly 14 miles one way. He was from New York, but the woman assured me he didn't have coronavirus.

"Is he going to be okay?" I asked. "He doesn't look okay."

"He'll be fine," she laughed airily. Poor dude from New York, dragged all the way up to 14,000 feet with a long run ahead of him. I felt concerned, but at least he had a friend to help him.

Later I mentioned the altitude-drunk man and this conversation to Beat, and he didn't remember much of it. He was having his own issues, but he was happy to reach the summit. The views up there are incredible — to the east, a 9,000-foot drop into Denver. To the west, snowy summits rippling over the horizon.

We retreated to the shell of a burned-down restaurant to eat our lunch, where we shared space with this mountain goat who I believe was purposely striking a majestic pose. Beat only ate a few bites of his sandwich. All we had left was 28 miles of effortless coasting, back to the oxygen-rich, snow-starved real world. We gave in to the temptation to stop in Idaho Springs for another tanker of diet Pepsi, a decision I again regretted when the gas station was packed with people who were mostly not wearing masks. It was the least social-distanced situation I've encountered in three months, which I suppose is a mark of my privilege. But next time, I will just walk out. If the pandemic can continue keeping me away from the devil soda, that will only be a good thing.

None of my worst-case scenarios of the weekend came true, although the current state of affairs isn't great. I was again stewing and sleeping poorly on Sunday. This is just the way things are going to be for a while. 2020 is hard for everyone. I recognize that there won't be straightforward solutions anytime soon, so for now a few band-aids will have to do. Cycling. It's never the wrong answer.

Old Fall River Road is another classic, a gravel byway in Rocky Mountain National Park. I'd hoped to ride this with a friend, but our schedules didn't quite line up. So on Monday morning, I headed out solo with Beat's gravel bike, on which he just installed a light new set of Spinergy wheels. It's so snappy and fun right now.

I made quick work of nine-mile, 3,000-foot gravel climb to 11,700 feet. My legs felt strong and my mood was weirdly neutral. Maybe it was the haze of a sleepless night or the emotional fatigue following a volatile week. The kind of week where the weather I experienced outside swung from 90-plus degrees and hazy to 48 degrees with heavy rain to near-freezing in a stiff wind atop fresh snow. And the emotions I experienced swung from dizzy desperation to cool relief to soaring joy. On this morning, this beautiful morning in one of my favorite places, I felt mostly — nothing. Honestly, it was sort of nice.

After I turned onto Trail Ridge Road and joined the relatively light weekday traffic, I started to wake up a bit. I took some photos.

Elk grazing near the summit.

Views from Rainbow Curve.

It was nice. Just nice. I decided to turn around and ride the alpine zone again, a 12-mile out-and-back that added another 2,000 feet of climbing. I didn't ride hard, and it didn't feel hard, although the altitude was beginning to catch up.

When it was again time to return to the lowlands and real life, I did feel disappointed. My mind would be easier to manage, and my life probably easier as well, if I could just ride bikes and do nothing else. But life doesn't work that way. Bodies don't really work that way. Which is why we return to real life and continue toiling for mundane things. Turn in my ballot. Finally file my taxes. Mask up and buy more groceries. Make a donation. Call my parents. Scrub the counters. Realize that living a life entails all of this, and all of it is frivolous, and also none of it is.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Faith in geography

A blister finally formed over my lower lip. This has been a painful rite of passage every spring —one that I do my best to ward off, to no avail. People whose skin can tolerate the sun just don't understand; prevention efforts are futile. I can apply lip sunscreen every time I take a sip of water; the high-altitude UV will still win. I've become that middle-aged lady who wears dorky arm *and* leg sleeves on bike rides, slathers on SPF50 to go for a run even if it is actively raining, wore a buff around my neck well before the pandemic for the sole purpose of protecting my neck, and is one REI visit away from owning one of those full-brim hiking hats that I hate for the way they obstruct vision and flap in the wind, but I'm running out of options. Still, none of these things can save my lips. Even surfer sunblock won't withstand a relentless urge to wipe away lip snot, and then I just end up with white or blue goop smeared on everything. No, the sun has won. Now I look forward to a couple more months of breaking into tears every time I raise a balsamic vinegar-soaked lettuce leaf to my mouth. 

I struggle with summer. Can you tell? It is my S.A.D. season for the heat and bug bites and pollen-choked air, for the hard sun and surging crowds, for the unpredictable threats of lightning and hail. This summer feels particularly sinister as it moves toward more extreme weather and a potentially bad wildfire season, and, oh yeah, one almost forgets that still lurking everywhere is a deadly virus about which little is understood, except for that it appears to be coming for us all and we've collectively decided to just get on with it. But getting on with it doesn't mean that life will go back to normal or that we can start traveling or running races again. It just means that we decide what line of magical thinking to adopt while a rampant and little-understood virus does the actual work of getting on with it. The future is nothing if not uncertain. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Okay, now I feel better having written away some of my bad mood. Honestly, I don't know why I'm so grumpy on a Tuesday evening. I'm heartened by recent societal developments, even if they are droplets of rain over the dumpster fire that's consuming 2020. But I've also improved on my resolution to spend less time scrolling through Twitter and stewing over news articles. And personally, I had a great week. I enjoyed my first social outing since March, my first overnight camping trip of summer, more ventures into the high country, and a hike above that soaringly magical 4,000-meter mark. Also, it snowed. It happened a week ago and was only the lightest of dustings. But it gifted me with a 37-degree morning in June, and for that my lips were grateful.

Amid work deadlines, I was able to get out for a quick morning jaunt to South Boulder Peak, where I could see snow frosting the ridge. It was disappearing fast despite temperatures in the 30s, with the warm ground and a misty rain to speed the melt.

 Recently my fitness has been on a bit of a downswing. I suspect high pollen season still affects my airways, and I can't boost my heart rate nearly as high as usual before heavy breathing and lightheadedness slows me down. The inhaler helps some, but what helps even more is a 37-degree morning with a dusting of snow to clear the air. I felt amazing, charging up the west ridge of Bear with lungs full of oxygen. I figured my fast pace would give me enough time to scoot over to South Boulder Peak before I needed to get back to work.

 Snowline was still clearly visible from the top of SoBo. It crept down to about 8,000 feet, the closest I've seen yet to a June winter storm hitting home. If anything this wisp of cold weather was probably just a harbinger for a particularly hot summer to come, but it was a welcome respite all the same.

For the rest of the week, I sought respite in altitude. On Wednesday I took my road bike to Brainard Lake, again. Tuesday's cold front lingered as a harsh breeze swept down Lefthand Canyon. I was simultaneously annoyed that I had to pedal so hard against a headwind and relieved that the late-morning air felt downright cold. I even wore a jacket. On Thursday evening, Beat and I set out to run the loop around Walker Ranch, and were shocked to find quiet trails. The weather was perfect, but perhaps just cool and breezy enough to deter the now almost constant crowds. Solitude in the Colorado frontcountry is a rare treat these days.

 On Friday, for the first time since March, I met up with friends for a social bike ride. Betsy invited me and Cheryl to join her on an overnight camping trip on Boreas Pass. The whole thing felt so novel — seeing people I know in real life, sharing real conversation, all while embarking on a journey to a far-away place. Even a hundred miles from home feels far away these days.

We met at a parking lot off I-70 in Frisco, and made quick work of the bike path into Breckenridge before continuing toward Boreas Pass. This route is all part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and I carry mixed feelings about this section in particular. The Frisco parking lot where we started pedaling is just a few blocks from the house where I officially quit the Tour Divide in 2015. I was so sick and so disappointed; I can still feel these emotions viscerally when I ride through the streets of Frisco. Occasionally, I'll reflect on how I stomped all over my good memories of the Tour Divide when I became too ambitious about the endeavor, and wonder if I've done the same with the Iditarod. After all, despite all of the real-world problems happening everywhere, I admit I'm still preoccupied with ruminations about my 2020 race. Approaching Boreas Pass brought a host of conflicting emotions. This isn't to say I wasn't excited to be out for a little adventure, riding in the mountain sunshine with friends. I only mean that life is a spectrum of experience, and the memories that remain will inevitably cast shadows over the present.

 Boreas Pass — the first GDMBR pass I failed to reach in 2015, and a big goal should I ever return to ride the full route from Canada. It's fitting that I still have the same bike and all of the same bikepacking bags. Cheryl teased me about the grimy state of my stuff, but the bike is in better shape than it has been in years. Beat has been on a kick to upgrade all of our bikes, and I'm enjoying a new fork, new headset, new grips, and a snazzy titanium seatpost. Beat even replaced the warped brake rotors that I rode all of last summer, until I just learned to live with constant squealing. He replaced the kinked cable housing that was causing the chain to drop off the cassette every time I tried to crank up a steep hill. He also freed a loose bolt that had mysteriously found its way into the handlebars, and had been rattling around for months. My bike maintenance is atrocious, but Mootsy has been well-loved.

 Fittingly, while we were snacking and chatting near the old railroad depot, we ran into Bonnie, who is perhaps the Tour Divide's most prominent advocate. Friday also happened to be the day that the 2020 Tour Divide was set to start in Banff, before the event was effectively canceled by Canada border closures and individual state limitations. Bonnie wanted to celebrate the date, so she planned her own ride to Boreas Pass. She recently moved to Boulder, fulfilling a longtime dream to live in Colorado. Although we've been virtually connected for years and now live in the same zip code, we had yet to meet in person. I was a bit muddled and socially awkward after months of relative isolation, but it was fun to chat with her in person, finally. She took this photo of me, Betsy, and Cheryl, but I failed to get one with her in it.

 Betsy planned the route to fulfill the requirements for a virtual 70-mile gravel race she was aiming to complete. It was 90 miles in total, and she had to ride 70 on the first day. After cresting and descending Boreas Pass, we headed out for a 25-mile bonus loop through South Park. I was unenthused about this part of the ride, as I've only experienced terrible weather — smoke, hail, wind, or all of the above — in this open basin with nowhere to hide. Indeed, as soon as we crossed Highway 285, we were blasted by a strong west wind and sideways rain.

 But, as summer weather does, the storm cleared out in less than an hour. The loop turned out to be a pleasant tour through rolling grasslands with big views all around us. I do love a good swath of wide-open space.

 We returned through Como, where an older man and his wife pulled up in a truck and told me we couldn't ride our bikes to Boreas Pass because the road was closed and "it's against the law." He claimed to work for the sheriff's department and kept repeating this, suggesting that we instead make a death-defying shalom run through weekend traffic on Highway 285 and Highway 9. I'd rather take my chances with Park County jail than ride those highways at dusk, and was about to say as much when Betsy pulled up and authoritatively stated that she was certain the road was open to nonmotorized use. The man finally got tired of arguing and pulled away, probably to call the county sheriff. I pondered what it is about human nature that makes some people so determined to ruin a stranger's day.

We raced to leave Como and return to welcome solitude behind the closed gate. The final ten miles were a grind on loose gravel up an interminable railroad grade — perfect for quiet meditation. Near the pass, I stopped to filter water trickling away from a snowfield, as fresh and cold as water comes. Betsy rolled up to complete her 70-mile virtual race, smiling wide on her loaded fat bike.

 We descended about a mile find camp, which we set up in the forest near a precipitous dropoff toward Indiana Creek. We pitched our three tents well away from each other and sat in a socially distanced circle to cook and eat dinner. I filled my entire cooking pot with hot tea and sipped as we chatted well into the dark hours, mostly about dreams of future adventures. The night was bizarrely warm at 11,200 feet, but the altitude robbed us of a good night's sleep. I was about a half-hour away from giving up and going for a 4 a.m. hike up Boreas Mountain when I finally dozed off. Betsy needed to be back by noon the following day, so in the morning we pack up and coasted the 20 miles back to Frisco, wrapping up the entire trip in fewer than 24 hours. It was a brief but much-appreciated excursion.

 On Sunday, Beat and I set out for a half-day hike in the Indian Peaks. Our intended destination was South Arapaho Peak, but we were thwarted by a closed gate on Rainbow Lakes Road. Not wanting to run five miles of boring road each way, we made the somewhat strange decision to head over to Brainard Lake, where another gate closure still required a three-mile road approach to the nearest trailhead (looking back, I think we probably would have been happier aiming for what would have almost certainly been complete solitude on the Arapaho Glacier Trail, but that would have made for a 25-mile day.)

 Anyway, we set out from Brainard's winter lot and fought through the already-thick-at-9 a.m. crowds toward Mount Audubon. At 13,200 feet, Audubon is one of the most accessible 4,000-meter peaks in the region, so it's immensely popular. Beat had never been up here, thwarted several times by either thunderstorms or harsh winter weather. Indeed, Audubon seems to sit directly in the funnel of the jet stream, and the wind is always brutal. If there's a light breeze wafting across Brainard Lake, I know it's going to be blowing at least 30mph on Audubon. On this day there was more than a light breeze, and the winds up high were gale force — strong enough that I was reluctant to hold my camera in one hand for fear the wind would rip it away. The windchill was sublime.

 Views to the northwest. Beat and I spent a little time, amid shivering in the cold wind and stuffing down sandwiches, analyzing the ridge that wraps around Brainard Lake basin. It appears to be a mostly class-2 boulder crawl, with an impossible-looking but apparently doable crux over Mount Toll. We may try it soon. I waver between a strong desire to explore these mountains and the knowledge that I'm quite fearful of exposure and objectively bad at negotiating tricky terrain. These ridge traverses would be equal parts exhilarating and mentally exhausting — the trick would be getting through before stress shuts my mind down and causes my body to make an awful mistake. We'll see. As you can see, I think about this a lot. Another reason I look forward to the end of summer is that I don't need to torture myself with alpine fever dreams for another nine months.

  Views toward Rocky Mountain National Park. So many mountains!

As we began the long descent back to 85-degree heat in Boulder, I was already missing that fierce windchill. My breathing had been rough all day, and I lagged well behind Beat for much of the hike. I thought about blaming too much time at altitude, as this week was by far the most time I've spent above 10,000 feet since last summer. It could also be that I'm preoccupied with wanderlust and not paying any attention to training, and thus have put in some unintentionally big weeks — this one, for example, held 23 hours of moving time, and 23,000 feet of climbing. But I feel like I'm finally venturing back out into the world, and it helps keep the negativity at bay.