Sunday, July 26, 2020

Rarefied air

Thank you for all of the nice comments on my last post. It's been a low-key couple of weeks since. I don't have a lot to report, but I did want to post a few mountain photos for the archive. 

 After tumbling into the talus on Mount Bancroft, my leg remained sore for most of the week. Although I developed a big purple bruise below my hip, most of the pain concentrated in an outer quad muscle, just above my knee. Each morning the muscle felt just a little bit better, but it prevented me from attempting anything too ambitious during the past two weeks. Last weekend I still didn't feel up for running or hiking, which felt a little like a waste of what appeared to be the last nice weekend of mountain weather before the seasonal monsoon finally moved in. Beat suggested we return to Mount Evans.

 Since it was our third climb from Idaho Springs this season, Beat decided to spice it up by riding the Eriksen fat bike. Why? I was mystified. Sure, the heavier bike with its hard rolling resistance intensifies the workout. But with its 7,000 feet of climbing, Evans is already a hard workout. If you're going to challenge it multiple times, isn't it more fun to try to ride faster? But Beat was insistent. I took the gravel bike and put in a consistent but conservative effort — standing out of the saddle hurt my leg — and shaved six minutes off my PR, from 3:43 to 3:37. Beat rolled up about twenty minutes later, which I thought was quite impressive on a fat bike. We can now say that Erik has both crossed Alaska in the winter, and conquered a 14er.

 The summit was its usual fun. I was entertained by the antics of baby goats, as well as German tourists who asked for a photo and then spent at least five minutes positioning themselves around the huge German flag they carried to the top. I'm still amazed by the incredible weather we've enjoyed up here. I'm going to be so soft by the time I finally make my way up a "real" fourteener.

 Beat, of course, had the advantage for the long descent. The gravel bike helps smooth the pavement cracks and frost heaves, but I still took it gingerly. The climb is the fun part on Mount Evans, in my opinion.

While bouncing downhill, I came upon three bighorn sheep ewes strolling up the road. I pulled over to give them a comfortable berth and take a photo. As soon as I stopped, one veered toward me and broke into a run. "Hey!" I yelled a few times, but she was not deterred. When she was about thirty feet away I started to panic, as it seemed more likely this was a charge, and I was standing precariously close to a steep scree slope that she could conceivably push me down. I rushed to put my camera away, fumbling with a vest pocket as she nudged against my leg and then swung around behind me. I felt the unmistakable sensation of a rough tongue on the back of my calve, which was covered in thin leggings.

"Oh," I giggled. "Oh, sorry, no salt there." She still persisted as I hopped up on the saddle and pedaled away, hoping to pass her two friends without incident. Honestly, I was quite frightened for a few seconds there. But in hindsight, a kiss from a bighorn sheep is an interesting experience, and the charging photo is super cute.

 My next mountain adventure was Wednesday. I decided to buffer my weekly chore trip to town with a ride to the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass. (I'm probably not the only one who believes this, but "quarantine" supply-gathering is only getting more painful. I've been wearing a mask since March and that doesn't bother me at all. And it's nice that toilet paper is in stock, for now. But there seems to be more tension than ever, and I find myself feeling more perplexed by the behavior of my fellow humans. I do wonder if this bewilderment is a natural regression because I interact with fewer humans in real life, these days.)

Anyway, I feel justified in warming up for my shopping trip with a six-hour solo mountain bike ride.

 Rollins Pass feels like a mystical place. It holds the relics of humans that predate most of North American history. Archeologists discovered that this rare weakness in the Continental Divide was used as a game route by Paleo-Americans more than 10,000 years ago. In the 19th century, gold-seekers built it up as a wagon route, and then it became a railway in 1880. Trains chugged their way over these mountains until Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. The railway ties were torn out, and it became a road for automobiles. After Needle Eye Tunnel collapsed in 1990, through-travel became impossible and the road fell into a state of disrepair. The first ten miles are still open to four-wheel-drive vehicles, but rapid erosion is taking hold. Each year the roadbed becomes sandier, the gravel looser, and the babyheads and cobbles more prominent. It's a rough ride.

 I make this trip once or twice every year. It's gorgeous, and there aren't many places in these mountains where one can even ride a bike (most of the surrounding area is wilderness.) But each time I'm grinding through the cobbles, I question how much I really enjoy this type of riding. The railroad grade drags out the climb interminably, and negotiating the constant bumps and ruts makes it perplexingly strenuous. It feels like riding up a streambed. One Rollins climb for 3,500 feet in 22 miles is at least as hard as one Evans climb for 7,000 feet in 27 miles, in spite of slightly friendlier altitudes. Rollins tops out at 11,660 feet, at an intersection of the Continental Divide Trail.

 Looking west toward Winter Park — it's fun to drop in if you have the time. I was chuffed that my climb from Rollinsville almost broke three hours (3:03.) I spent some time hanging out at the pass, hiking a short stretch of the CDT, and eating my sandwich. I thought for sure I'd be down in five hours, but no, it pretty much takes just as long to descend as it does to climb this bumpy road — at least it does if you have a painful leg bruise and every move is about minimizing the beating you're taking from your bike.

 The old railroad trestles near the pass are a fun — but slightly unnerving — relic. Each time I ride or run over these trestles, they seem to be in worse condition. This time, I rode slowly and observed all of the wooden planks that have broken or completely fallen away, revealing open air and a rapidly eroding scree slope underneath. I do not want to be here when these rickety bridges finally come down.

After I made my way over the collapsed tunnel, I sat in this spot for a few minutes to gear up mentally for the painful descent. I always appreciate a good view of James Peak (far left.)

 On Thursday, Beat had a big mountain adventure planned with his friend Daniel, traversing a technical ridge over three airy peaks, then potentially looping around two passes for a 30-mile day. I did not feel mentally ready for the spicy traverse nor physically ready for such a long day. I'd only just embarked on my first run since my fall, two days earlier. My leg felt okay on this six-mile run, but I wasn't about to push my luck. So I planned my own conservative adventure: a seven-mile hike with 2,500 feet of climbing to a popular but new-to-me summit near Allenspark. The weather report was iffy, but the peak topped out at 11,400 feet, so I felt safe in only packing a small hydration vest with a thin jacket and gloves, 1.5 liters of water, and two granola bars.

 Of course, by the time I arrived at the parking lot at 8 a.m., it was overflowing. There were also signs at the entrance saying I needed one of Rocky Mountain National Park's timed entry permits, which I did not have. I didn't even realize that trailhead was in the park. Bah. Frustrated, I headed out, wondering where I even could go for a plan B. Brainard parking was sure to be full. I wasn't sure I wanted to slog my way up Niwot Ridge again. Just when I was thinking I'd just head home, I passed the road to Longs Peak trailhead. I've never been up that trail, any part of it — I've avoided it because I badly want to climb Longs, but I'm also afraid of the final traverse and I don't like to live with this stomach-churning mixture of desire and anxiety. Still, no reason not to check it out ... especially if I can find a parking spot at 8:30 a.m. (amazingly I did!)

A trail sign said it was 3.7 miles to Chasm Lake. I decided that sounded like a good destination for the day. I was feeling blasé about this outing — still frustrated about the full parking lot at Twin Sisters, and perhaps a little fatigued from my Rollins ride. But the miles passed quickly, and when I crested a small ridge to catch my first views of The Diamond and Mount Meeker, my jaw just dropped. A sheer face of granite perfection, as though chiseled by Greek gods. I mean, I've seen photos of Longs before. But photos don't capture the enormity or quiet splendor of this place, even remotely.

I had a similar reaction when I scaled a series of car-sized boulders to crest the cirque that holds Chasm Lake. I could hear the roar of cascading water echoing off the walls, but the lake itself was calm, as still as glass. Wispy clouds had moved overhead, and the rock face reflected a dance of light and shadow. A shiver moved up my spine. The physical reaction startled me. I tried to remember the last time I'd been moved to chills by scenery. I've seen so many beautiful places that I've almost become jaded. The sublimity of this place was an extra-strength dose of awe.

 Energized by Chasm Lake, I made my way back to the junction with the trail to Longs Peak. The sky was still surprisingly clear, and my leg wasn't hurting too much. I decided to make my way to the Boulderfield for another view of Longs. It was an easy climb. I had one encounter with a grumpy trail runner who assumed I didn't return his greeting, probably because I was wearing headphones. I was wearing a buff over my face and huffed out a breathy "hi," which he probably didn't notice. As I passed, he bellowed "Hello! Hello! Hello!" loudly, and then more quietly say something derogatory. I heard all of this, turned around to chide him by saying "I said hi! Sorry you can't hear." I let the encounter ruin my mood for the next few minutes. But this transferred grumpiness didn't last long, after I crested another knoll to this view. Sublime. I almost felt bad being a human in this place, because clearly we humans are a petty little species that does not deserve this place.

From Boulderfield I could see the famous Keyhole. It looked like a talus scramble, but not terribly hard. By now it was close to noon, and dark clouds were building ominously over the western horizon. I received a couple of comments from people descending about the lateness of my climb, and I assured them I wasn't going to the peak, just the pass. But I admit, a little summit fever was trickling in. I pushed it away.

The view west from Keyhole was another jaw-dropper. This is Glacier Gorge, another basin of granite perfection.

Keyhole itself is an impressive place. I've not yet visited another pass that reminded me so much of the European Alps, which are filled with tiny notches in sawtooth ridges that divide one insanely steep scree slope from the next. In my mind, this pass will always be "Col Keyhole" or perhaps a more proper "Col d' Trou de Serrure." If you can't tell, I miss the Alps. 

 Looking toward the standard route to Long Peak. If you squint at the center of the photo, you can see a hiker. The traverse makes its way along this talus slope, scrambles across an outcropping, and ascends the nearest gully. The most exposed sections, the Narrows and Homestretch, weren't in view, but none of this looked all that terrible. Keyhole is only 1.3 miles from the summit. It's a long 1.3 miles though — probably at least two hours out and back if I was making my best possible time. I shouldered my hydration vest. I'd already consumed most of the water and both granola bars. My little jacket and gloves would do nothing for me if a storm moved in and I needed to take shelter under a boulder. Also, Beat would be hurt if I made a summit attempt without him, and attempting an unknown class-three traverse so late in the day, and so and poorly prepared, would be quite uncharacteristic of me (I know I have readers who think I'm a reckless risk-taker, but mountains, in particular, have beaten me into meek submission.)

 Not today. With a sore leg and long descent from 13,200 feet, I turned away from Longs. On the way down, I made a brief stop to check out this shelter. I was surprised to learn it was first erected in 1927 in commemoration of a lady mountaineer, Agnes Vaille. Agnes was the first woman to climb Longs Peak in the winter, in January 1925. During the descent, she slipped and fell more than 100 feet. She recovered from this fall mostly uninjured, but she was so exhausted amid the -14F temperatures and strong winds that she told her companion she needed to lay down for a rest. He tried to dissuade her, but she never got up. The plaque on the shelter reads:

This shelter commemorates
A Colorado mountaineer
Conquered by winter
After scaling the precipice.

Conquered by winter after scaling the precipice ... so beautiful. If such an epithet is written about me someday, I wouldn't mind.

Clouds built rapidly as I descended, and streaks of rain filled the sky to the north. I was glad to not be on any precipice on this day. It was a fantastic, unexpected day. Fifteen miles and 4,100 feet of climbing weighed heavily on my leg and the Achilles tendon I admittedly have not been stretching enough over the past two weeks. But so worth it. I hope to return soon. 
Sunday, July 19, 2020

Living intensely still

I thought about backing out. A 5:30 a.m. alarm jolted me back to semi-rigid legs, lips parched to the point of blistering, and shoulders aching from 130 miles of rough, high-altitude cycling. Beat had an ambitious plan for Sunday, the full extent of which I didn't know until I returned from a 98-degree pedal into Eagle and drive home while consuming 100 ounces of icy liquid and never once needing to stop to pee. I still felt like a sun-dried tomato. 

Beat recounted his plan, ascending 4,000 feet to a 13,300-foot summit, scrambling and boulder-hopping along a narrow spine to another 13er, descending a long boulder field to a reservoir, then more climbing, more descending, and a jog over to Beat's latest sanctuary: a gorgeous and relatively hidden high alpine lake. All in all, it was a big circumnavigation of a mountain that has been a favorite since we moved to Colorado, James Peak.

"That's going to go long," I replied. "Maybe past dark." 

He punched the plan into Strava's route builder. "No, it's only 23 miles. 9,000 feet of climbing. Just 7,000 feet if we skip Ute Trail and go through Tolland instead." 

The large parking lot surrounding Moffat Tunnel was nearly full at 8 a.m., setting the stage for a furious march out of the gate. Beat dislikes crowds. So do I, but they're hard to escape when it's a beautiful weekend morning in mid-July. I was ready to settle into the stream of humans for the privilege of moving slowly on tender legs. But Beat just wanted to put distance on everyone. He charged ahead, while I stumbled, faltered, and tried to keep up.

When people ask when, where and how Beat and I met, it can be a simple story. "July 2010. Columbia Falls, Montana. He was the only runner smiling at the finish of the Swan Crest 100." That was my first impression of Beat — he seemed deliriously happy for someone who had just emerged from a brutal beatdown in the Northern Rockies. I was a volunteer checking runners in at the finish line, and most of their demeanors ranged from nonplussed to shell-shocked. Beat alone was grinning from ear to ear. We struck up a short conversation. I told him I was an endurance cyclist but not remotely a runner. 

"You could run a 100-miler. You could do it next week!" he encouraged me. "In fact, I'm running another one next Saturday. You should come!" 

Beat charged hard the entire climb to James Peak. He stopped to wait for me at frequent intervals, at times playfully admonishing my slowness. He teased me about overdoing it on my bike trip, while I insisted that I was just naturally slower in the mountains, this was the best I was ever going to be, and after a decade, he really should know this by now. He stayed cheerful, but I was becoming frustrated and surly. The sun was fearsome at this altitude, and my breathing had become somewhat strained. I was pushing myself too hard, but it was difficult to pull back.

Our early courtship can't be condensed into a simple story. I was settling into my relatively new life in Montana after abruptly abandoning Alaska, and training for Trans Rockies, a mountain bike stage race. Beat, as I first described him on my blog, was "a Swiss-German software developer who works for Google and lives in the Bay Area — as in California. In his free time, he invents things, like a satellite-enabled remote control for his espresso maker so he can fire up the machine from a half-hour away. He also runs. A lot. He's completed seven 100-milers this year alone, eight if you count his last race twice. That one was more than 200 miles."

That race was the first annual Tor des Geants in Courmayuer, Italy. He mentioned it briefly when we met in late July. I was so struck by our first conversation that I guessed his name (which I had forgotten) from a list of Swan Crest 100 finishers and looked him up on Facebook. The first post I saw from him was a disgusting photo of his mangled feet going into the Headlands 100, which was his followup race to Swan Crest. We struck up an online conversation that evolved over the next few weeks. At one point, I asked him why he felt compelled to endure all of this abuse, month after month.

"I just want to experience the intensity of life," he wrote. 

In my 30-year-old, single, newly independent life in Montana, I realized this was also everything I wanted — to spend my short time on Earth riding the highest waves, to battle the troughs of hardship and drink deeply from crests of joy. Truly, I didn't want to float along in comfort and security. The hard edge is where life sparkled. 

Beat urged me to come run with him. He proposed the Bear 100 in Utah as a meeting place, less than a week after he was set to return from the Tor des Geants. The 200-mile race over the giant mountains of the Italian Alps sounded like the most intense experience imaginable — with the exception of the Alaska winter races I'd been talking up for as long as Beat had tried to sell me on trail running. There was no way he could run another 100-miler after TDG. I didn't believe him for a second, and made no real plans to join him as his pacer. Anyway, I was going to be away in Las Vegas at a bicycle retail convention until the weekend. Everything about the proposal was impossible. 

At the top of James Peak, Beat asked me how I was feeling. "Okay enough," I said. "I can probably handle Bancroft." Mount Bancroft is the next peak in this James group, at the crest of the Continental Divide. If you take a tumble while picking your way along the ridge, your blood could trickle toward the Atlantic or the Pacific, depending on where you landed. I've been intrigued by this line but intimidated by the committing terrain. James to Bancroft sounded doable enough. If it was still 2010, I'd have jumped at the opportunity without a second thought, but a decade of bruises and torn ligaments have made me leery. I scoured the Internet for photos, observed the boulder field, the shark teeth rock formations, the chokehold that supposedly held a few class three moves. Honestly, it was all straightforward and not that hard. But factor in fatigue and recent struggles with proprioception, and the traverse proved challenging.

Beat called me from his hotel room in Logan, Utah. Hearing his voice came as a small shock — both because it was our first phone conversation and because he was actually in Utah. I was still at a hotel in Las Vegas. My work at the Interbike was mostly done, but since I'd ridden down from Montana in a van with co-workers, I had no way to leave early. It was Thursday night. The race started early the next morning. Beat wondered if I could meet him at the mile 52 checkpoint by early evening. 

"Well," I replied. "Hmmm."

I asked him how he was feeling after the Tor des Geants, which he finished in a shell-shocked heap after five days on five hours of sleep, just days earlier. 

"Oh, you know," he said. His voice sounded quiet and a little defeated. We hung up. I looked up flights to Salt Lake. Nothing arrived in time. I looked up one-way car rentals — that was crazy expensive. I popped back on Facebook to message Beat — less painful than making a bad-news call — and saw a status update from a friend in Los Angeles, posted the previous day. "Trying to prepare myself mentally for my nonstop drive to Salt Lake in two days." That would be ... Friday. I messaged my friend. 

"My son has this dental appointment. I have to leave crazy early. But I could pick you up in Vegas at 5."

"Perfect," I replied. 

Beat and I picked our way down the south ridge of James. As is typical on the Divide, it was a jumble of car-sized boulders that were barely anchored in place. I teetered precariously, testing whether each step could hold my weight. Beat scouted a line and then pointed out a better one if he had any trouble. When we arrived at the shark teeth, he navigated a tricky downclimb, then directed my hands and feet toward solid holds as I shimmed down backward. He was kind and patient, not at all in the hurry he'd seemed to be in earlier. My frustration dissolved in a potent mixture of gratitude and trepidation.

My ride was late, but miraculously he showed up, pulling up to a random hotel in Vegas in the predawn darkness of 5:30 a.m. Because his son was late for his dental appointment in Salt Lake, he had to drop me off at an I-15 offramp, about two miles from my parents' house. They were gone that week, on vacation in Germany. So I shouldered my large duffle bag and hoofed up the hill. I broke into their house by scaling the fence and rummaging for the secret key in the garage, then rifled through the front closet for running gear: Dad's jacket, some cotton gloves, a knit beanie, bedazzled sunglasses that probably belonged to my baby sister. At least I had my own shoes. They were cheap white trainers for running on a hotel elliptical machine, but they'd work. My training, thus far, had amounted to one four-mile run and one eight-mile run. I was heading to the northern Utah mountains in late September with the most basic gear imaginable. My hydration was a cheap book-bag type of backpack holding plastic water bottles and snacks from a gas station. I found the spare key to "borrow" my dad's truck for the drive to Logan. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. 

After nearly three hours of rush-hour traffic with a stop at a gas station to buy the aforementioned water and snacks, along with REI to buy a headlamp and some reasonable socks, I pulled into Tony Grove in the late evening. The mile-52 checkpoint was staged in a granite amphitheater high in Logan Canyon. The rock walls were lined with aspen and bathed in the golden light of sunset. Beat had been carrying a SPOT tracker, but since this was the age before I owned a smartphone, I hadn't checked his status all day. I had no idea where he was, when he'd arrive, or whether he'd already passed through. And yet, as soon as I exited the truck, I saw his tell-tale smile flash from a large group of runners crowded around a table. I walked up to him, still wearing my jeans and a hoodie. 

"Well," he said sternly. "Are you running?"

"Uh," I stammered. "Uhhh." We hadn't made any sort of plan. I thought I'd meet him here and figure out where to start pacing him. We were at this point 50 miles and untold climbs and descents from the finish line. If I started running here, where would I end up?"

Another man, who I didn't know but would later learn was Beat's friend Harry, turned to me and said, "You know he came all this way for you." 

"Uh," I stammered again. "Give me five minutes to change my clothes." 

Beat and I reached the low point on the ridge and ascended a tundra ramp to Bancroft. Gray clouds billowed overhead, growing darker but not yet threatening. We scrambled up a steep talus slope to reach the broad summit. James had been crowded with hikers, but Bancroft was abandoned and silent, save for the shrill chirps of pika. I walked around taking a few photos as Beat sat next to a rock wall. The wind was stiff but not yet howling, and there was a chill to the air that felt more refreshing than biting. I pressed against Beat's shoulder as I sidled into the small wind shelter, pulled out a sandwich in a Tupperware container, and took a large bite. My mouth was full when Beat turned to me with a crooked smile. 

His eyes were watery and his voice cracked a little. "There's never really a right way to do this." He reached into his pack and pulled out a rock, a kind of quartz stone similar in size and color to one I first held in my hands ten years ago. "So do you want to get married?"

I gulped hard to push down the sandwich. I didn't want to ruin the moment like I sort of did the first time. "Yes," I spoke as clearly as possible. A cascade of tears filled my eyes. "Of course I do."

Together we ran into the darkness. We talked about particle physics and adventure cycling. We talked about Alaska and dreams for the future. The miles disappeared underneath my feet, and Beat ran as though all of the fatigue of past efforts didn't matter at all. Each mile came to us in a dream, as fresh and new as the previous. We reached a high point on the Bear 100 course, near 10,000 feet, somewhere around mile 75 and sometime in the middle of the night. Beat pulled a golf-ball-sized rock from his pack, shale with veins of quartz. 

"It's from TDG," he explained. "I picked it up on the second pass and carried it the whole way." 

I took the rock and cradled it in my palm, filled with warm-fuzziness. As a kid I was always picking up pretty rocks, carrying them home and stowing them in the bottom drawer of my dresser. How did he know?

Beat looked toward the dark horizon. "So do you want to go out?" he asked. 

"I thought we were out," I replied. The response was just what popped into my head, because I had been hoping this "pacing" gig was a date. 

Beat looked at me, perplexed. "No, I mean to do want to start dating?"

"The California-Montana thing is complicated," I said, apparently persisting in an effort to ruin this moment with awkwardness.

"We'll figure it out," he replied. 

On the summit of Mount Bancroft, sometime around 2 p.m. on July 12, 2020, Beat and I became officially engaged ... finally, most might say. The concept of marriage is a strange one. It's strange to me still. I've never been against marriage, I just hadn't seen it as a necessary step. It's wonderful to form a committed relationship to a person who can be a partner in every aspect of life — from the mundane drudgery to the exhilarating crests. But it's also satisfying to maintain a thread of independence, since ultimately we must travel through life alone. When my last long-term relationship ended, it was emotionally devastating but logically simple. We each took a cat and walked away. Beat was previously married, and it ended badly. Perhaps he and I were both gun-shy at first, and then complacent. But we work so well as partners. We have strong reason to believe we can be happy together indefinitely. It became a question of why not?

I was thrilled about Beat's proposal. It surprised me, how emotional I became. Even as the sky filled with gray clouds, a kind of verdant, vibrant color saturated the landscape. We started down Bancroft, hoping to make quick work of a tundra-ramp descent to Loch Lomond. But of course, the ridge was minefield of loose talus and boulders. I leaned on my trekking poles for support, hoping they'd help me make sense of this jumble. But I miscalculated, moved too quickly, put all of my weight on a pole pressed into a loose boulder, and toppled into the rocks. My hip slammed down first, and I also hit part of my upper leg and knee. Beat rushed toward me as I writhed on my side.

"You know how this goes," I said through gritted teeth. "I'm fine. I just need a moment."

As dawn approached, our conversation quieted. We were both sleep-deprived and delirious, him from the Tor des Geants and 85 miles of the Bear 100, and me from a long week and Vegas and this crazy adventure. I wondered what it would be like to date Beat, a European man who was ten years older, a California resident with an interesting career, impressively smart, a logical thinker next to my flighty artist personality, and an insanely prolific runner. I had yet to finish a 5K, but I was holding my own on this back half of this hundred miler. As dawn light appeared over distant mountains, the temperature plummeted to 23 degrees. We crossed streams coated in ice, and I shivered profusely as our pace slowed on climbs. I had a bare minimum of warm clothing, the kind of stuff my mom bought so we could walk to school in sixth grade. It wasn't enough, but it was enough. I was so amazed and grateful that this had all worked out.

Rain and cold wind found us as we crossed the dam over Loch Lomond and renewed a climb toward the east ridge of James Peak. My leg was throbbing with pain, with the bruise near my hip radiating down a quad muscle toward my knee. It felt like muscle soreness, although I'd characterize it as some of the worst muscle soreness I've yet endured.

"It's like mile 60 of the H.U.R.T. 100," Beat observed.

"Yeah, pretty much like that," I agreed.

The rocky singletrack and surrounding granite cliffs reminded us of the Alps, and we talked wistfully of memories from the past nine years. This will be our first year together without a visit to Europe. It's disappointing, like much of 2020 has been for everyone. But these home mountains hold their own unique intrigue — even favorites like James that we've summited a dozen times.

The trail veered closer to James, away from the direction we needed to climb toward Kingston Peak. Beat decided to take a direct path to the road, putting us in the thick of a brushy marsh. Our feet were soon soaked, and my leg screamed at the motion of stepping over knee-high bushes. Beat zig-zagged through the grass, searching for dry ground, but there was none. Overhead, the storm clouds grew darker. Flecks of rain felt almost like sleet, although the air was still warm. Beat apologized multiple times, but I wasn't bothered.

"I didn't know any better than you," I reasoned.

As he continued searching for a way out of the marsh, I thought, "The best relationship is the person you'll happily follow into the weeds."

After daybreak, I started to fall apart. Perhaps the spell had worn off, or perhaps 40 miles was all my untrained, nonrunner feet could endure. They felt like they were being stabbed with hot pokers while walking on broken glass. The pain was exquisite. With ten miles to go to the finish, on a remote mountain ridge somewhere north of the Idaho-Utah border, I could no longer walk. It was too cold, and I had too few layers to sit at an aid station and wait for a ride out. So I limped alongside Beat, who was as patient as a person could possibly be in such a scenario. 

"You have to leave me," I insisted. "This is your race. I'm supposed to be your pacer. I can get there eventually. You should go." 

Part of Beat's plan for this engagement hike was a side trip into the basin below James Peak, a gorgeous and well-hidden valley dotted with alpine lakes. The diversion wasn't trivial — a steep descent losing a thousand feet on chundery trail — also, in its own way, very Alps-like. But this was Beat's special spot, an alpine sanctuary he'd recently discovered and wanted me to experience. It sounded wonderful, but then I had to go and ruin the moment by injuring myself.

"I still want to go," I insisted as I limped gingerly down the rock-slide off of Kingston Peak. "It's worth it."

Beat didn't leave me behind. He followed at my excruciatingly slow pace as I side-stepped the trail and finally started walking backward down the final descent. It was the only way I could coax myself away from crawling — putting pressure on my heels was unbearable. Below us, Bear Lake sparkled blue and silver beneath the late morning sunlight. It looked close enough to touch, but it was still seven miles and 4,000 feet of vertical descent from the finish line. I inched backward, step after slow step. 

"Please," I said again, almost begging. "Go finish your race."

Beat just shrugged. "Steve and Harry haven't passed yet, so I'm still beating them."

James Peak Lake was indeed a magical spot. But I acknowledged, as the throbbing in my leg grew louder, that perhaps it was a step too far. You'd think, after a decade of "running," I'd have a better handle on my body's limitations. But I still want it all. Beat filtered water from the lake as I paced the shoreline, swatting at mosquitos and trying to calm the pulsing in the muscle — almost like a cramp that wouldn't quite go away. If I stopped walking for even five seconds, it would become stiff and immovable. We discussed our options. We could skip the climb back to Rogers Pass and take the Tolland way back, but it was still eight miles of mostly rough descending. It was runnable, but I didn't think I'd be able to run. Beat offered to race ahead and grab the car, which would allow me to skip the last three miles to East Portal. He said he didn't want to leave me, though, since this was supposed to be our shared moment.

"I think we'll both be happier if you go," I insisted.

I had tears in my eyes because I was so frustrated, walking backward down a road while the lake glistened and taunted me below. But I was laughing out loud, too, because you can't just expect to go out and run 50 miles without consequences. It was an amazing thing — running 50 miles on a whim. There was too much serendipity in the sequence of events to be random. This was meant to be. Beat probably didn't believe in fate, but I couldn't help but let my imagination run wild.

About four miles from the finish, he finally agreed to run ahead, acknowledging that he could still get in under 30 hours, and I could take an easier way to the road. I hobbled into the finish almost an hour after he'd collected his buckle and found a nice, shady spot by a tree. He congratulated me on finishing my first ultramarathon. I hadn't quite thought of it that way before, but he was right. In my blog entry, I wrote, "It was still before noon and the shuttle bus wasn't set to leave the finish line until 7 p.m. There was nothing for us to do but wait, so we settled into a shady spot on the grass, where the lake glistened and gold and green leaves rustled in the wind and wisps of clouds streamed through the bright blue sky. The pain in my feet faded into the background, my mind settled into a pleasant fog, and the only thing I understood was that I was in Fish Haven, Idaho, and I could scarcely comprehend how I got there, but I lived every mile of it, intensely."

As I hobbled toward Tolland, I frequently stopped to look back at James Peak. The colors and light continued changing, from blue to gray to an early evening silver. I listened to my iPod and clutched at every song with happy nostalgia. My leg throbbed and it didn't matter, but every so often I'd hit it just wrong and surprise myself by yelping out in pain. The pain did nothing to dampen the joy. James Peak was so beautiful. There was still so much possibility in the world, so many more miles to live intensely.

Beat was already waiting in the car by the time I reached Tolland, and I teared up all over again.

"You're the best," I said as I leaned toward the driver's seat to kiss him.

"No, you're the best," he said through his ever-illuminating grin. He turned on the engine and we headed home. 
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Heating up

Summer has really started cranking, with temperatures climbing into the high 80s and 90s every day. Now that he works from home, Beat better understands the oppression of indoor temperatures in the 80s, and trying in vain to extract creative productivity from the haze. He went so far as to finally fix the house's ancient air conditioner, in this, our fifth summer in Colorado. But that didn't happen until this week. Last week was a full immersion in heat training. 

 I have a story to tell about Sunday, but it should stand alone. This post is a mashup of the week of July 6-11 — so much beauty, so much time in the sun. On Monday morning, I met up with my friend Wendy for the first time since February winter training.

 We had an interesting exchange about this outing, after I suggested an easygoing romp on a favorite trail route, the 16-mile High Lonesome Loop. She replied with suggestions for a much harder day in a remote corner of the Indian Peaks, with a long ridge traverse and lots of exposure — both to weather and class-three scrambling. I surprised myself by becoming apoplectic, firing back that I am not the right adventure partner for such an endeavor. We sent a few back-and-forth messages before I conceded that I had overreacted, and admitted this is a "thing" for me right now ... mountain-shame. I'll continue working through it, I promised. For now, maybe we can just go for this easy hike?

 These are some of the more popular trails in the region, with a small parking lot that tends to fill up by 6 a.m. on weekends. Since this was a Monday, I suggested a 7 a.m. start. We hit a jackpot of gorgeous weather and relative solitude without having to wake up too ridiculously early. It was fun to catch up with Wendy after all of these months. I almost forgot about the current times and nearly went in for an arm-hug during this selfie, when Wendy politely reminded me about social distancing.

We traced the ridge of the Continental Divide, where it is nearly always windy — but not on this day. I've read that monsoon season is late this year, contributing to exceptionally nice mountain weather. Although we've had days of afternoon storms, they've been more spring-like, not nearly as violent as the typical July maelstrom. On this day it was hot, hot, hot, until a few late morning clouds moved overhead, and then we had gentle rain to accompany the final miles.

 The wildflowers are popping right now. In five Colorado summers these are the best wildflower displays I've seen, both at home and above treeline. A winter of normal precipitation followed by a swift warmup may have contributed to the blooms.

 Devil's Thumb Pass had its usual cornice, with one only sees as a horizon line descending into nothingness when approaching from the west. If I hadn't been here before and understood that it's short and very navigable, I might have had a little anxiety cry. Even still, without microspikes, descending the cornice is a bit spicy. Wendy had microspikes, and proclaimed that it was "just the right amount of spice."

During the week, I had a couple of regular workouts that went really well. The nighttime cooldowns have been minimal — I've been waking up at 7 a.m. to 75 degrees — and no amount of morning grogginess is worth 10 or 15 degrees. So I've embraced the heat, grinding all-out efforts in the harsh afternoon sun. And I'll admit, it feels sort of amazing. There's a tip toward extremes that I tend to enjoy, be it cold or heat — for the endorphins and also the exhilaration of conquering something hard. On Tuesday at 85 degrees I ran one of my faster "Tuesday Bison" five-milers. On Thursday at 88 degrees I scored a third-fastest time on my favorite local climb, one I've completed dozens of times, the Homestead Trail.

Given my proclivity for extremes, one might think I'd enjoy a little more "spicy" in my endeavors. But I don't. Believe me, I'm trying. Willingness and ability to venture away from beaten paths opens up so many incredible places. This is Beat's joy. Since we're sticking close to home this summer, he's taken advantage of the opportunity to explore new routes from home. His latest discovery was a loop tracing the shoreline of Gross Reservoir and then climbing Twin Sister's Peak. The route sounded benign enough. I asked him how much bushwhacking — because my grass allergy will cause me so much grief if I venture off-trail in shorts.

"Hardly any," he replied.

He failed to mention the traverse of steep slopes along a loose and chundery social trail, or the scrambling along rocky outcroppings over water that was just deep enough to mask piles of boulders, but not so deep as to cushion a fall into them. It was slow and awkward travel, and I grew frustrated. When we first ventured beyond the established trail, I speculated that "this is going to be one of those eight-mile runs that takes three hours."

"No, not at all," Beat replied. Then mile two clocked in at 75 minutes.

As we began the steep grind up Twin Sisters, Beat suggested cutting out the summit, since this "run" was taking much longer than advertised.

"No way," I fired back. "If we're going to suffer through the shitty part, at least we should do the fun part."

I think Beat was a little hurt by my surliness, but, as I mentioned earlier, this is a "thing" for me right now. I'm struggling with proprioception again. It's hard to explain to folks who never feel "off-kilter" themselves, but I liken it to driving a car with one flat tire. There's an awkwardness I can't quite pinpoint. My body doesn't move in sync with my mind. It does the repetitive stuff, the pedaling and running, just fine. But specialized movements, such as balancing on boulders, set off alarms. And I've been making mistakes. I rolled my ankle badly when I was hiking with Wendy on Monday. It essentially turned all the way inward, and I'm amazed it didn't cause more damage — something I chalk up to what I believe to be already-damaged-beyond-repair ligaments — but for the next few days it felt sore and especially wobbly.

But, my bad ankle did get through the reservoir adventure without incident. And Beat and I enjoyed a fantastic evening summit on Twin Sisters. It had been 89 degrees when we set out at 4:30, but with the wind cranking at least 40 mph, the peak felt almost chilly. We soaked it in for as many minutes as we could brace ourselves against the gusts, knowing we were heading back to our 80-degree house.

For Friday and Saturday, I had a fun overnight planned with Erika and Betsy. Taking an idea from Strava, I proposed riding from the town of Eagle to Hagerman Pass, a 12,000-foot pass over the Continental Divide west of Leadville. The route was about 110 miles with 10,500 feet of climbing. Everyone thought this sounded imminently doable in our ~30-hour window, and Erika had ridden most of the roads before. She even suggested gravel bikes for the route, so Betsy brought her new Salsa Cutthroat. I stuck with good ol'Mootsy. The heat had already turned on high by the time we set out at 10 a.m., and we were all anxious to gain some altitude.

Betsy at our first summit, Crooked Creek Pass, 10,010 feet. In twenty miles we'd climbed 3,500 feet, and this wasn't even our big ascent for the day — the next pass clocked over 4,000 feet of gain. Erika felt ill and had some difficulty reaching Crooked Creek. She conceded that this probably wasn't her day. We offered to set up camp nearby, but she thought it might be better to head home and recover. Betsy was still game for the adventure, so she and I continued.

We descended amid the gorgeous peaks of Holy Cross Wilderness, down, down, down toward the aptly-named Fryingpan River.

Fryingpan was a true cooker of a valley. For the next ten miles the route climbed gently but persistently on a paved road, fully exposed to the afternoon sun. Since I usually exercise in the afternoons, I have weeks of heat acclimation built into my system and wasn't too bothered. But Betsy was suffering. She became nauseated and slowed considerably. I started to worry about her, because I had an incident with heat exhaustion a few weeks ago, and I know how quickly it can creep into the danger zone. We rolled past a campground that was about a half-mile off route, down near a reservoir. I suggested grabbing a site there. She could rest, and I'd go onto the pass and meet her in the evening. It was nearly 3 p.m., and I knew I'd really have to push to tag the summit and return by dark. We'd originally planned to wild camp along Hagerman, but I wasn't sure how far we'd have to climb before we found a flat spot with water, and Besty wasn't looking so good. She continued for another three miles before deciding to head back to the campground.

Alone, I made my blitz for Hagerman. The first seven miles were incredibly easy — smooth gravel, gentle grades. But at mile eight, I'd only gained 1,000 feet since hitting the dirt, with 2,000 to go in a mere six miles. I started to feel a little concerned about what was coming. The road hit the 10,000-foot mark, and became rougher, riddled with babyhead rocks and sand. I looked at my watch — ten miles in an hour and fifteen minutes. Four miles to go. How bad could it be?

There was a sharp left turn, and the road pitched skyward. Babyhead rocks became basketball-sized boulders. The roadbed was filled with them, where it wasn't carved with knee-high ruts. My watch registered impossible grades. 13 percent. 21 percent. 27 percent! As you might guess, I was walking. My legs strained against the dead weight of my gear-loaded bicycle. Sweat trickled down my neck and dried into salty streaks on my buff. The mountain air was hot and still, even at 11,000 feet.

Those final four miles felt as hard as all of the first fifty. Okay, so this isn't a completely accurate assessment, but they did take me an hour and a half to cover. The strain was worth it to arrive at this place in the golden light of 6 p.m., no one around for miles.

The view toward the Mosquito Range, with the road descending steeply toward Turquoise Lake.

I ventured toward some towers on a knoll to better view the scenery of Mount Massive wilderness and the Sawatch Range. The eastern face of the Continental Divide is often so much more dramatic than the western side.

I didn't dally long because I knew it would be nearly dusk by the time I descended 20 miles to camp. I bucked through the rowdy rocks and sand, stopping briefly to fill up my water bladder at a stream ... just in case. I returned to the campground around 8:30 p.m. to find it filled to the brim with people. I don't know why I'd be surprised that a Colorado campground was full on a Friday night, but I was. It's been a while since I've done much car camping. Back in my day, you just showed up at a site and set up your tent. But that's not how it works anymore. These spots were reserved weeks in advance, and were now overflowing with trailers, family-sized tents and tightly clustered groups of ten or more. Honestly, this crowded campground was about the last place I'd want to spend a night, especially in these current times. But I circled every loop of the large venue, covering another few miles in the fruitless search for my friend. Clearly, this campground was full when Betsy arrived, and she had to find something else. She didn't have an InReach and there was no cell reception anywhere along our route, so we had no way to communicate. I found it sad that on this bikepack trip that was supposed to be a gathering of friends, all three of us ended up separated. I felt guilty for my selfish venture toward Hagerman, and wished we'd just stuck together.

I used my InReach to fire off a few texts that I knew Betsy wouldn't receive. Then I let Beat know that — long story — but I was camping alone tonight. As dusk faded to twilight, then darkness, I fitted a headlamp beneath my helmet, turned back toward Hagerman, and climbed for six miles to a spot I noticed earlier. It was a perfect place to camp, in the forest at the edge of a meadow, near a mountain stream. I was bummed that Betsy didn't continue just a few miles farther. I wondered what she ended up doing. (As it turned out, she pedaled all the way up to a gorge just below Crooked Creek Pass, nearly 15 miles with a brutally steep climb, and paid the price with a bad night of muscle cramping and nausea.) I spent the rest of the night feeling bummed and guilty, but Betsy wasn't upset about it. We both appreciate each other's independence.

I tossed and turned and woke up late, descending Fryingpan before turning upward on the brutally steep Thomasville Road — which has a mile-long section of 14-percent grades — in full sun. Still, it felt nice to climb higher, so I tacked on another 1,000 feet to ascend over Hat Creek pass into East Brush Creek valley. Altogether, my little diversions added up to 132 miles with 12,500 feet of climbing in a 30-hour overnight. It was 98 degrees by the time I returned to Eagle, lips parched and body fully cooked. It had been a big week, with big miles and hard efforts in the heat. I hoped I hadn't overspent myself, because I knew Beat had a mountain adventure planned for Sunday. I hadn't asked a lot of questions about the hike, and hoped it wouldn't be too involved.

Narrator: "..."

But there was plenty still to discover tomorrow.