Friday, August 21, 2020


 If ever there was a birthday to ignore, it's your 41st — one yawn-inducing year past middle age, during the fire-ravaged month of August, in the forsaken Year of the Lord 2020. Oh, there were hopes and dreams — early in Quarantine, when optimism for the future could still be grasped. Even after I lost hope that I'd be riding across Kyrgyzstan in the Silk Road Mountain Race, I was sure by late August I'd be fit and ready to thru-hike the Colorado Trail. When I failed to generate the enthusiasm to train and prepare for that endeavor, I thought about a bike tour to Salt Lake City and onto Montana. When the pandemic raged on and more distant travel continued to look irresponsible, I thought about "Mummy Mania," a strenuous traverse of the Mummy Range summiting six 13ers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then the Cameron Peak Fire forced the closure of that portion of the park. A growing multitude of wildfires raged and cloaked most of the West in a toxic cloud of smoke. Finally, as the godforsaken day approached, I'd settled on "stay indoors and be depressed." 

After that decision was settled, Beat and his friend Daniel found a rare window to embark on a huge run they've been planning all summer, a 36-mile loop around Mount Massive. The route had lots of what Beat calls "PTL terrain" and sounded beyond my comfort level, especially at the pace those two prefer to hold. They headed out at 4 a.m. Wednesday. I awoke around 8 and prepared for a day of puttering around, pretending to write, and doom-scrolling until a dire need for distraction prompted me to revert to cleaning something. I had a 9 a.m. online meeting with my therapist, who begged me to do something fun on Thursday. After our session ended, I checked Beat's tracker and saw that he and Daniel were making good time up and over Mount Massive. Perhaps the smoke wasn't so bad in the Sawatch. Perhaps I should go there. 

The forecast for both days wasn't great — dry lightning with isolated storms throughout each afternoon. But I thought if I headed out Wednesday and camped near the trailhead, I could start early enough to summit a 14er on my birthday. It would be something. I hastily packed gear and water and left home around noon. As I drove toward the tunnel on I-70, smoke from the Williams Fork Fire billowed overhead. The haze was as thick as I've seen, a long black veil raining down ash like snow. I felt certain I was going to drive three hours to Leadville only to immediately turn around. "California Halo Blue" by AWOLNATION came up on my playlist and I broke into sobs, taking big, snotty gulps of recirculated air as I blinked away tears. Yes, emotionally, I'm back to the crying days of Quarantine. "California Halo Blue" is about a 2018 fire that destroyed large swaths of Malibu, and the singer's fantasy about salvation from the sky that never came. 

I arrived at my camp at 3:30 p.m. The air west of the Divide wasn't so bad, and even when I crossed back over to the east into Leadville, the bubble remained clear. I couldn't smell smoke when I stepped outside, a first in two weeks. But it was horribly hot for 10,000 feet — 85 degrees — and my plan to relax and read my Kindle did not seem so appealing anymore. The weather also wasn't great, as darker storm clouds had moved overhead and a few thunder rumbles echoed across the canyon. But I had five hours of daylight and a decent likelihood that the storms would dissipate by early evening. I decided to head up the trail toward Mount Elbert. A summit seemed unlikely, but hiking is pretty much always better than not hiking. 

When you start up a popular 14er at 4 in the afternoon, you're bound to hear scolding. Most of the people on the mountain at that time of day have been up there all day, and appear disheveled and downtrodden from their efforts — they're the stragglers, and you're just getting started. I brushed off the questions and tsk-tsks by insisting that I was camped nearby and was just out for a hike, which was true. To less condescending people I confessed my plan, which was to hike to treeline and assess from there. A few thunder booms hit loud and close, and then a short but intense hailstorm briefly coated the trail in ice. The storm infused the air with an energy that was palpable. The temperature dropped from the 80s to the 50s or even 40s. I shivered in my damp clothing as I breathed deep, enriching gulps of air. It had a sharp taste, almost metallic — almost like clean air. 

I climbed above the last patch of scrub trees at 11,900 feet. The summit was in view and looked close enough to touch, but I knew it was still 2,500 feet higher. The sky was now in view as well. It looked to be rapidly clearing. There was another band of dark clouds to the northwest that I would need to watch, but this window was too good to pass up. I passed my last group of hikers about 500 feet higher. They were draped in soaked ponchos and flattened puffy jackets, and regarded me with ashen-faced grimaces and a quiet but baffled, "You're going to the top?" They were caught in the hailstorm up high. I could tell it was not a fun experience for them. A hard wind still roared and the air was becoming downright icy. I still hadn't put on my jacket, because it was fun to feel cold for once. The last man in the group, who seemed to be the experienced one based on his calm demeanor, pressed a little deeper.

"Are you alone?" 

"I am, but I'm prepared." 

"Are you going to the summit? It's not as close as it looks."

"I know. I've been hiking for an hour fifteen and think it will take me about that long to the top.  I'm watching those clouds over there," I pointed. "If I hear any thunder rumbles, I'll turn around right away." What I didn't say, out loud, is that I wasn't so worried about wind and hail. I know it can be really bad, and I know that I've experienced much worse.

The man looked to the west. "I think you'll be okay. I think the storms are done for the day." 

I scarcely noticed the rest of the climb. The skies opened up to some friendlier white clouds, the sun came out, and the winds calmed to little more than a gentle breeze. I was probably plodding along, but I barely noticed I was working — lost in daydreams, marveling at the expanse. The Hard Climb: the only place in this world where I can always find peace. In the next heartbeat, I'd gained the sole position on the highest pile of rocks in all of the Rocky Mountains, the top of Colorado. Mount Elbert was deserted and eerily calm, with early evening light filtered through the dark clouds still hovering over the western horizon. I found a pile of these cardboard signs under some rocks, several with dates that happened more than a week ago. I took this selfie with one that had the proper date, and another with a prettier sign from the bottom of the pile. Why do people leave this stuff up here? I admit it's a fun prop, so I left the pretty sign and stuffed the other six into my backpack to pack out. 

I took a much longer respite at the summit than I normally do, only because it was so warm and calm. I felt like I could comfortably spend the night up there, but I did need to put on a light jacket and hat to sit and eat my sandwich. I dropped one of my prized iPod Shuffles, and battled a chipmunk to keep it away from my hands as I dug through a seemingly bottomless pile of rocks to find it (I did!) Finally, reluctantly, when my hiking math revealed that I was barely going to make it to camp before dark, I started down. 

It was such a nice evening, with magic light over the Arkansas River valley and the Mosquito Range. I was in bliss, but I still caught songs on my Shuffle that started the tears flowing all over again. "So Long, Honey," by Caamp. Songs that remind me of nervously sitting on an airplane on its way to Anchorage before the 2020 ITI. Songs that remind me of the before times. It's so interesting, the moments that seem so inconsequential at the time, that go on to become the meaningful memories embedded in our psyche. 

I met one more person about a thousand feet below the summit, a solo man in running garb. "Someone else as crazy as me," I quipped. 

"This is my 58th of 58 summits!" he exclaimed.

"Wait, you're doing them all?"

"Yeah, in 57 days."

I was floored. That's a major accomplishment. It takes a lot of endurance and skill, not to mention logistical planning, to squeeze all of those mountains into two months. He saved the tallest mountain for last. 

"Wow, big congrats," I said.

"Well, I'm not there yet."

"Oh, you're there," I laughed. 

A few days later I stalked him via Strava Flybys, and learned he had a harrowing experience in a sunset storm near the summit, with intense wind and hail. 

"It was ironic that my scariest experience on a 14er was my last one," he commented. 

I barely noticed that storm. I was just rounding into my camp at 8:30 when few sprinkles and wind gusts pushed through the thick tree canopy. Storms, like memories, can be so random and localized. 
I had a rough night, alternately sweating and shivering in my bag amid the weirdly hot 44-degree night. I emerged from my tent three or four times, craning my neck at a splash of stars and distinct glow of the Milky Way. The sky was still so clear, and the air tasted clean, but my throat was deeply sore and my lungs felt raw. Maybe I did inhale a hefty dose of smoke on that five-hour Elbert excursion. The haze is so widespread now. After three weeks, we're growing accustomed to it, like the children of smokers. I continue to question the wisdom and folly of spending any amount of time outdoors in these conditions. But it was, after all, my birthday. I was going for Mount Massive. Only thunder would drive me away. 

My alarm rang only about two hours after I finally fell asleep, and I dawdled and sulked but did manage a 5:30 start. My route followed the flat Halfmoon Creek Road for three miles. I intended to jog this stretch to save time, but instead, I strolled lazily along and sipped from my cooking pot that I'd filled with coffee. Darkness gave way to dawn, and strips of sunlight appeared on the mountains overhead. This is a gorgeous spot. I was so happy to be in this place, and even happier to be on a solo journey where I could make all of my own choices and no one cared if I wasted these few easy miles. Don't get me wrong. I love adventuring with Beat and spending time with friends. But when it's my birthday, I only want to do exactly what I want to do. 

The first couple of miles continued to snake lazily through the valley, as did I. But around mile five, I looked at GPS and contemplated the fact that I was still at 11,300 feet, and supposedly I'd hit the summit ridge at 14,000 feet in just over one mile. The forest began to thin, and I looked up at an imposing slope of cliffs and scree, with no intelligible line of ascent. I reached an intersection with a weathered wooden sign that I could barely read. But it was clear enough. Halfmoon Creek continued west. Mount Massive went straight up. 

The Mount Massive North Halfmoon Trail was incredible, a work of art, my favorite kind of trail — only as long as I am climbing and not descending. I didn't take photos of the lower section, where it cut tight zigzags through tumbles of talus, and crept around cliffs that I was certain couldn't be cleared. It was crazy steep, which I love, but it was also good trail — not a scramble. It reminded me so much of the well-beaten paths of the Italian Alps, every col in the Tor des Geants, the beautiful pain of gaining 2,700 feet in 1.3 miles. The cool morning air and subtle rock spires along the ridge put me right back in Italy, an imaginary journey that I cherished. 

It hit me, recently, how sad I am about not visiting the Alps this year. Beat and I have traveled to Europe every late August since 2011, and I'd come to take this privilege for granted. My birthday had come to signify finally escaping from the fearsome realities of late summer to a mountain paradise where pretty much all I do is hike and eat amazing pizza. In this forsaken year, all I have is whatever brief moments of peace I can squeeze from my lungs and legs on a 40 percent grade in Colorado. On this morning, my birthday, I had the southern slope of Mount Massive — and it was everything I needed. 

And then, like magic, I was there. This 4,500-foot ascent had taken me four hours, but it was still only 9:30 in the morning. I felt reasonably well, even though I was starting to smell smoke in the air. The impressive bulk of Mount Massive stretched out in all directions — except from the direction I came, where Mount Elbert still looked deceptively close. I found the inevitable cardboard sign and laughed at how both depicted altitudes different than what I expected. I thought Mount Massive was 14,429 feet and Mount Elbert 14,439. In the 1970s, there was a Quixotic movement to designate the much more deserving Massive as the highest mountain in the Rockies. People built a giant cairn on the summit in order to raise the height of the mountain, replacing the rocks as quickly as the opposition dismantled them. People are strange. 

I dawdled a well-deserved 45 minutes at the summit, finally starting down as cumulonimbus clouds appeared over the western horizon. I descended the main trail, and it was there I finally encountered the masses. Everyone who started at the trailhead at 4 and 5 a.m. was pretty much marching in procession, easily four dozen people on their way to a summit I had to myself. And then, after that mile-long parade, the trail was abandoned again — except for Sage Canaday, who bounded past me like I was standing still on his way to a Mount Massive Fastest Known Time (I Strava-stalked him later to confirm. Out and back in 2:12!?!) 

My lumbering loop was closer to seven hours, but I loved every minute of it. Two 14ers for my 41st birthday. It was the best present I could have asked for. 


  1. Take it from a geezer "outdoor" guy on the freaking brink of 70 (Blink! Wha Happened?") time marches on, with or without us. First, Congrats on reaching the unremarkable age of 41 :) Yes, you are now "in your 40's," and will be for quite some time. But the longer one survives, the faster the "clock" ticks. Suddenly, you are 50...and feel the stiffness and soreness of every super endeavor you ever accomplished. Advil will become your constant companion, always with you where ever you go. But hey, as I remind myself over and over...especially THIS beats the alternative. So, I just pull on my "Life is Good" hat as a reminder of my good fortune and keep on truckin'.
    Great post. I'm glad you found some ozone to breathe and scored a couple of summits on your birthday.
    Mark, from Lovely, but smokey, Ouray

  2. I quit bike racing in the 80's, but when I lived in Jerome, AZ we had a 7.5 mile, 2,000 ft road climb behind town up to the the 7,000 ft pass at Potato Patch; a perfect hill for an occasional "stress test". The fastest time I ever set was when I was 47 years old. Don't write yourself off yet.

  3. Happy Birthday! I wish I could be 41 again. What's up with the cardboard signs? I've never seen or heard of that.

  4. I’m so happy for you to have achieved two 14ers on your birthday. I was starting to think it wouldn’t happen for you with all the wildfires. BUT & of course you MADE IT HAPPEN! By the way, 41 is still very young and you have many more years of adventures ahead of you.

  5. Happy 41st Birthday! And congratulations on doing something fun and conquering two "14ers." You are remarkable!

  6. Yay! Congrats on the summits and finding in the mountains. The 40s are... Such a challenging decade 😁

  7. For those who don't know about it, there's a private network of air quality monitors with $230 monitors from a company called PurpleAir. I have one at my house. Not as many along the Front Range as I'd expect--lots in Grand Junction, Salt Lake and here in Fairbanks.

    Using the drop-down menus you can see other readings, including temperature, although they sensor isn't designed for accurate temperature reading and won't be accurate if in sunshine.

    Happy Birthday! What a wonderful way to spend it. Did the 58 in 57 guy mention you?


  8. Happy Belated Birthday!!!!! A great way to spend it. I have to agree with you about this August - I'm a summer-lover but this one has been rough. Too much smoke, too little rain, and too much heat. But I keep thanking our lucky stars that it isn't burning right here.

  9. Happy birthday and congratulations on the 14ers! Perfect way to spend a birthday! In a time when traveling for leisure is not much of a reality, it's particularly refreshing to read your adventures and admire the gorgeous mountain photos. Thank you for sharing! I look forward to your posts always! Victoria


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