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. 


  1. It seems "junkies" in all walks of life have a deep anti-social personality disorder, by nature or nurture/culture...kinda zero sum underlying vibe to it all.
    I have had 3 lighting strikes within 50 feet, over my life so far, even tho the thunder storm looked miles away. The thought of being alone, exposed and vulnerable lingers in the back of my mind always. Knowing out in the wild I do not dominant nature but yield to her whims is part of my ongoing Toaism. Control is ephemeral, imho.
    Thanks for sharing the giant playground out your back door...right now my circle of adventure is very small...hoping to get back to Alaska next the mean time, i seek out information, ponder, have deep reflections, move towards a personal reset of what works and has meaning in this new age.

    Jeff C

  2. My lungs here at nearly sea level in Houston are impressed by what you manage to accomplish every week out there in CO. I've spent a tiny bit of time in the Denver area and any time I've gone above 8K I've been winded. Living vicariously through your adventures---and wishing we had more of those options here.

  3. All your adventures make me want to come visit again someday. But I'd need 2 weeks to acclimate before I could even think of keeping up with you guys. Love all the photos, especially of the mountain goats!

  4. Haha, move here and you will be the most badass of all. Except for a few mountain runners, I don't feel the same self imposed lack of badassery that I did in Sun Valley. People think I'm badass which makes me laugh. As for mountain anxiety, I am feeling it more. I wonder if it has to do with wisdom..?

  5. I think 2022 will be the year we can do the things.

  6. Mind blowing hikes and rides...its like you both are retired already and do whatever you want any time you want! Love the mt saw more in a week than I have my entire life!

    No idea what Beat is looking for in a gravel bike...I picked up a Trek Checkpoint 2 years ago (it was a brand new model)...LOVE IT! Its such a Jekyll and came w/ 35mm tires, will fit up to 50mm knobbys (they claim 45, but I have a set of 45s and 50s will fit). It has all the mounts for road touring racks/panniers (a big part of why I got it...I REALLY want to do some road touring). I now have 3 sets of wheels/tires for it...28s for the road, the stock 35s for road/dirt road, and 45mm knobbys for more serious dirt. Change the wheels, change the bike...takes 2 mins to change wheels out (took a bit of work to get all 3 wheel-sets disc rotors aligned the same, so they swap in w/ no disc-rotor rub, but doable).

    Anyway, glad you are really getting out there..I am still amazed by the distance you blaze thru in a knees hurt just thinking about it! Flew to FL yesterday, sad to leave Boulder behind..its sure nice in the summer, and I really enjoyed my near daily hikes!


Feedback is always appreciated!