Monday, June 08, 2020

Return to mountains

 It's been another one of those weeks, hasn't it? Despite my efforts to limit time on social media, I still caught some of the terrible videos that have been circulating. I may have spent nearly as much time crying in the bathroom as I did during those emotionally volatile weeks in mid-March. But it is beginning to seem like positive change is happening. Coronavirus may still have the upper hand, but there's reason to believe that the deeper, more persistent diseases in our society are, at the very least, rising to the surface and being exposed to the light.

I've been fairly quiet on social media because this seems like a time to watch and listen rather than interject. But in the context of this blog, I think it is important to address the issue of diversity in the outdoors. I believe outdoor endeavors can add so much beauty, joy, personal growth and understanding to people's lives. Over the years I've followed several organizations that work to empower underrepresented women to opt outside:

Black Girls Trekking: A couple of years ago, I read an article in the Guardian about the anxiety of hiking while black. Embarrassing as this is to admit, it didn't occur to me until recently just how justifiably vulnerable women of color can feel when it comes to "bad things that happen in the woods." This organization focuses on equipping individuals with knowledge and support to address these fears and confidently venture outside.

Unlikely Hikers: Jenny Bruso launched an impressive initiative with this group, which promotes the stories of underrepresented individuals and, prior to the pandemic, organized dozens of group hikes all over the country. She welcomes anybody who sees themselves as an "unlikely hiker," including people of size, people of color, people with disabilities, queer, trans, gender-nonconforming, and others.

Color Outside: This group offers workshops, retreats and coaching for people of color. 

Indigenous Women Hike: An Instagram-based community of indigenous women who find healing and connection to the land through hiking. In 2018 they led a hike on Nüümü Poyo — also known as the John Muir Trail — while exploring the often-uncomfortable truths and complex history surrounding the region. Their stories have led me to work harder to learn the names and histories of ancestral lands that I have grown to love.

Native Women's Wilderness: Another group that works to bring indigenous women together in the outdoors. The nonprofit organization has been raising funds to send COVID-19 relief packages to the Navajo Nation.

The BIPOC Bike Adventure Grant: Bikepacking Roots created this grant program to reduce barriers so black, indigenous, and people of color can discover the joys of this relatively new and admittedly homogeneous sport. The grant is set up to help recipients pursue adventure by bicycle, whatever their vision of adventure might be. It seems a worthy cause to donate a few dollars, after putting your money to work in justice-seeking organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.

I'm incredibly grateful for the time I was able to spend outside this week. After what feels like — and in fact, was — months away, I was finally able to venture toward the higher mountains along the Continental Divide. Our home peaks and trails have been nice, but I missed these mountains in a visceral way. I even started to dream about them ... once the anxiety dreams about the Iditarod Trail began to fade, I started seeing alpine tundra and craggy ridges in my sleep.

Anyway, on Wednesday most of the snow along Brainard Lake Road had melted, and I was finally able to coax my road bike all the way to the basin — 50 miles and 5,600 feet of almost continuous climbing toward the puffy white clouds in the sky. Physically, I've been feeling a bit off this week — I'm not sure if it's the emotional turmoil, recovery from Beat's birthday run, the fact that it's June and June is just a bad month for me, or a simple environmental shifts such as heat, pollen, etc. Really, it could be anything. My watch hasn't even been scolding me for unproductive workouts, but my fitness feels like it's slipping a bit. That's okay.

I will mention that I finally had a check-in with my endocrinologist two weeks ago. Throughout March and early April, I grappled with night sweats, more debilitating anxiety, high blood pressure, high resting heart rate, and other classic symptoms of Graves Disease — which, I acknowledged, could also be classic symptoms of being undone by an endurance race. So I waited until May to get checked, and was surprised by the results. My blood pressure had dropped to 100/60 — borderline low. My thyroid hormone levels are on the low end of normal, and my TSH is higher than it was in November, and now nearing the high end of normal range. I became concerned that the Hashimotos antibodies I carry may have been activated, but my doctor didn't seem worried. There's not much I can do about it unless my TSH skyrockets, and for the most part I feel fine, so I'm optimistic. I am also very relieved that Graves Disease hasn't relapsed, because the implications would be more serious.

On Thursday, Beat and I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park to ride Trail Ridge Road. After the park re-opened in late May, I'd hoped to head up for one ride before the highway opened to vehicles. I planned a date and Beat took the afternoon off. Then, on Wednesday night, the park announced the road would open the following morning. Blast. Beat doesn't love riding roads, so I thought he wouldn't want to deal with national park traffic — which can be the most annoying kind of traffic. But I had talked up my love of the scenery on this route enough that he still wanted to try it out.

We got a relatively late start and the weather became intermittently stormy as soon as we hit the road. We climbed toward 12,000 feet, where the wind was biting and sinister clouds gathered around the peaks. Thunder rumbled, and at times we were surrounded by curtains of rain, but managed to dodge all but a few errant sprinkles. The views were lovely but we were buffeted by a hard-gusting, quartering headwind that knocked us around quite a bit — especially me, who made the mistake of riding a gravel bike rather than a more stable mountain bike. We descended to the Alpine Visitor Center in hopes of escaping on the still-closed Old Fall River Road. We knew the gravel alternate was likely still buried in occasional snowdrifts, but we were willing to endure some hike-a-bike rather than descend with the bully wind threatening to blow us off ledges or into traffic. But the route was closed with a ranger guarding the entrance. The entire visitor center was blocked behind tape, so the only wind-break was the outhouse, which we huddled behind to eat our sandwiches. Even with a coat, I was shivering by the time we got going again. I think it was close to 90 degrees in Denver that day, but there's something about that Trail Ridge corridor that holds onto winter, almost year-round. I sure do love it up there.

Sunday brought us back, finally, to the edge of the Indian Peaks wilderness. Since April, recreationists have been out in droves and everything feels much more crowded than last year. Given my support for more inclusivity and diversity in the outdoors, I won't complain. But the recent explosion in outdoor activity has made it more difficult to find places where we can enjoy late starts and solitude in a half-day of hiking. Niwot Ridge is no secret, but it feels like one of those places. We'll take one of the last open spots in a large parking lot, push through a steady stream of family hikers along a half-mile of the Sourdough Trail, then veer over to the rugged doubletrack that climbs to the research station. Often we'll see nobody. On Sunday, we saw about a half-dozen other groups spread out over four hours.

Niwot Ridge is our go-to spot for testing winter gear, because it is home to some of the most fearsome weather in Colorado. It's a treasure trove of extreme conditions, which is why CU built a series of research stations along the ridge. Winds frequently top 90mph, and it's rare to find any winter day without a 50mph gust. Windchills dip far below zero, and it's nearly impossible to remain upright, let alone walk directly into the wind. Thus, it's perfect for Alaska training.

The research station buildings are currently locked tight. These weather-ravaged sheds look a bit apocalyptic in the best of times. The waterlogged COVID-19 signs really make it seem like a place left behind at the end of the world.

Returning to Niwot Ridge feels like coming home. But it also feels strange in June, when I can make the ascent from the trailhead to the boxcar shelter in just over an hour rather than three, and then march confidently into the teeth of the wind without feeling like it might take my life at any moment. We made quick time to far research station, about 6.5 miles from the trailhead, and continued a bit farther along the rocky and increasingly narrow ridge that rises toward Navajo Peak.

We headed up there mainly for the views, and to look for a wind-sheltered spot to eat our sandwiches. I wanted a closer look at the ridge, to assess whether I could work up the courage to climb Navajo Peak someday. The answer is no. There's a nasty-looking chimney — shown right of Beat's head — and as it turns out that's a false summit, not even all that close to the real summit. I love mountains, but I sure am afraid of mountains. I even teetered uncomfortably while picking my way along the boulders. Every summer my body gives me fewer reasons to trust it on dangerous terrain. I fear I am slipping farther away from many of my Colorado ambitions, rather than building the experience and confidence I hoped would develop when we moved here four years ago. I'll probably never attempt a mountain ultra like the Ouray 100, an Indian Peaks traverse, or the Nolans 14 line. At this point, I'll be stoked if I can coax myself up Longs Peak someday. My mountain legs just haven't materialized. The season is too short, the rocky training grounds too distant, the sense of balance too precarious, for me to hold much hope that I'll ever become a competent traveler in this world. But I can still visit. And I can still dream.

A few large snowfields remained lower on the ridge, and it was fun to break out into an awkward, loping run for the descent. The afternoon heat and rapidly rotting snowpack turned the surface into a slippery, punchy minefield perfect for destroying ankles, but I let loose all the same. I wish I could be so carefree all of the time. It feels like so much time has passed since I last relished such an unhindered sense of freedom — the wind, the snow, the vast horizon of hills and plains spread out in front of me. The wait was worth it. 


  1. I have been using a Whoop Strap (they have added many features over time) to track myself for the last 12 months (its scolded me constantly :) ) and have made some good improvements in autonomic function for recovery. Next month's plan is to add TSH testing/tracking along with Journaling to discover any coralations there as well.

    Life for me has been a cyclical wave of turmoil to new clarity,  which then begets new questions of nature vs culture. A never ending and undulating path of eyes wide open into the void of existence.

    Jeff C

  2. I am seldom caught without a "Life is Good" hat when outdoor outdoor mode (I have a huge collection). I wear them as a reminder—in spite of age, serious bouts with a genetic blood clot disorder, sub par fitness, and a host of other negative afflictions/attitudes/world injustices—of the luck of my landing in Southwest Colorado, that I remain alive enough and healthy enough to get to my favorite places mountain places. While I lament the loss of topping out on some of the more dangerous peaks, I can still be in their midst...looking up, instead of down. Even a bad day on the trail beats most alternatives...
    thanks for this, and all your posts.
    Box Canyon Mark, Lovely Ouray Colorado.

  3. I was just pondering the other day that I feel more cautious in the mountains than I used to. Old age? I don't know.


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