Thursday, August 06, 2020

August slipped away

I was caught in a thunderstorm yesterday, and it somewhat jolted me from a summer stupor. It's been one of the weeks (several of those weeks?), I suppose. My most productive activity has been working on a series of essays I'm writing as a reflection on social and spiritual isolation. What will become of these essays? Probably nothing. I think about futility as I work on them. It's simultaneously freeing and demotivating, and I drift back to doom-scrolling more than I'd care to admit. It's August. I dread August. There's something ominous about this month that hangs in the air, like the wildfire smoke drifting in from the west. It's stagnant, hot, wilting. Weariness solidifies and seems to become permanent — that is, until a sudden and violent storm crashes through the haze, full of electric wrath and hail fire. August could be viewed as a microcosm of 2020, made worse because it is still, in fact, 2020. 

For the third summer in a row, I've been grappling with a touch of tendonitis in my right Achilles. It's baffling that I can plod through deep snow for hundreds of miles with no issues, but a few steep mountains will flare up the old injury all over again. I'm trying to be more proactive with stretching and strengthening exercises. On Wednesday, I saw my physical therapist to try dry-needling. Interestingly, after I complained about the three-week-old hematoma and subsequent "dead quad" in my left leg, she conducted a few tests and decided this was my more pressing issue and spent most of the session on that. But she did send a few shock waves through my right calf to wake up the muscles surrounding my Achilles tendon. I was hobbling when I left her office, and probably should have taken this as a cue to rest. But I hate to waste an opportunity to embark on an outdoor activity that doesn't begin at my front door. 

I decided on a quick hike to Bear Peak. The forecast called for a 20 percent chance of storms, and it was 91 degrees and mostly sunny when I parked at Cragmoor. Within 15 minutes the sky flattened to a gray pall, and about 30 minutes in, the thunder rumbles started. By then I was deep in the canopy of Fern Canyon and thought this storm would probably just quickly blow past. As I crested the saddle a mere 45 minutes into my climb, I received a text from Beat. "Big hailstorm here. Be safe."

As the hummingbird flies, Fern Saddle is only about three miles from home. Just moments after Beat's text alert, lightning streaked overhead. It was one of those blinding flashes that momentarily whites out the entire landscape. The massive thunder boom that followed was almost instantaneous. Okay, this is a real storm; retreat. I turned to descend the steep canyon as fast as I could run, but my lower right leg was strangely frozen. The calf muscle had been fine for the climb, but descending rendered it stiff and painful. Stress may have triggered this immobilization, but I felt like I was running on a wooden peg. 

Lightning flashed and thunder boomed in an unbroken cacophony. The tree canopy seemed protective and was only a little frightened, but the forest couldn't protect me from a sudden deluge of rain and marble-sized hail. Pelted by ice, I had no choice but to duck under a rocky outcropping. Rain and hail continued to pummel my back as I pressed a shoulder to the sandstone. My fingers were numb and I was shivering. It seems like it's been so long since I felt this sensation. You know — cold. Hard to believe that only an hour ago, it was 91 degrees and the stagnant air was filled so much pollution that it was difficult to breathe. Now, my breathing as deep and urgent, drawing in large volumes of icy air. Adrenaline and oxygen surged through my blood. It seems like it's been so long since I felt this sensation. You know — alive. 

My mojo is down, I admit. I blame Longs Peak for stealing some of it. I don't really know what it is with me and this mountain. For years I've built up Longs in my mind as this impossible place, and I'm not sure I'll ever surmount the trepidation. It doesn't even help that casually outdoorsy acquaintances assure me it's no big deal. "It's not that hard," they'll say. "I climbed it when I was a teenager." That's great, I think. I probably would have been fine when I was a teenager, too. Now the years have pummeled me into an emotionally bruised, timid bit of pulp. 
Anyway, Beat and I made an attempt a week ago on Wednesday. We set an alarm for 3 a.m. and rolled up to the trailhead just a few minutes before 5. The parking lot was nearly full; 5 a.m. is late by Longs Peak standards. But there wasn't much electrical activity in the forecast, and we expected to move quickly enough to be on the summit around 9. What was unexpected, and disconcerting, was the strong wind whistling through the darkness at 5 a.m. Since when does the wind arrive before sunrise? It was blowing at least 15 mph, enough to shake the tree branches towering over the trail. 
I felt rough from the start. Beat was marching hard, and I pushed through drowsiness and nausea to try to keep his pace, falling farther behind. I felt downtrodden from a sleepless night and increasingly stressed by the wind. We rose above treeline with sunrise. Up there, gusts were knocking me all over the trail. I flailed and stumbled, threw a pole down to catch my balance, and stumbled again. I can't count on my awkward feet to keep me anchored to the Earth on this nice Class-1 trail, I thought. The wind would almost certainly become stronger as we ascended increasingly technical terrain. 
Indeed, my tenuous confidence unraveled in the boulder field. The west-facing keyhole acted as a funnel, sending unbelievable blasts of wind down the talus. As we crawled over boulders, I put my poles away so I could maintain three-point contact at all times. When a gust came, I often had to press both knees into the rock, because even a squat was too precarious of a position for maintaining balance. I felt like I'd never be bipedal again, and the thought of crawling the entire exposed traverse above Keyhole was too much for me to bear. We watched other hikers retreat from the pass, most of whom turned around early. But there were a few who made it to the summit. "It gets better," they shrugged. "I mean, it gets a little better. It's still really windy." 
Beat and I made it to Keyhole, where standing up straight was not an option. The wind had whipped my anxiety into a frenzy, and I was unwilling to go any farther. But Beat was game to at least try, so we agreed to separate and meet back up at Chasm Lake. He disappeared behind a rocky outcropping, and I retreated a few meters below the pass. 
The gusts were so strong — easily topping 60 mph — that I could barely move with gravity, and had to ooze over the rocks like a quivering slug. I watched an older man lose his balance and topple. He didn't seem to hit anything all that hard, but afterward, he seemed dazed. He insisted he was fine and rushed down the rocks more quickly than I could manage. I passed him again near the camp, where he had huddled in the meager lee of a small boulder, legs splayed, chin down and eyes closed as though he was taking a nap. I thought about asking him again if he was all right, but I guessed he maybe just needed a moment. I hoped that was the case. 
I continued to ooze over the rocks. I'd already removed my sunglasses and stowed them in a pocket because I didn't want them to blow away. But I neglected to do the same with my hat, and it wasn't long before a gust caught me from behind and whisked the cap into the sky. I jerked my head upward and watched it spin toward the sun. I never saw where it landed. It probably caught an updraft into the jet stream, and eventually touched down somewhere in Kansas. I felt a sharp sense of loss. Yes, it was just a hat. It was an old hat at that. But it was my lucky hat. I wore it during the 2014 Iditarod; it symbolized my triumphant return to the trail, and it's accompanied me on many winter adventures since. Of course, Longs Peak would steal my favorite hat after I got scared and turned my back on it. Of course. 
There was nothing I could do but continue oozing down the rocks. For a long time, I shadowed a young man who moved at a similar pace as me, but with much more confidence. Tall and lanky, he seemed to dance over the boulders as I crawled, and I couldn't understand why he didn't pull away. A sudden, powerful gust slammed into us. In a way I can't describe, I heard the gust coming and crouched onto all fours on the dirt before it hit me like an invisible freight train. The man wasn't so lucky; he was already teetering on the tip of a table-sized boulder when the gust came. I looked up just as he lost his balance. His long legs seemed to briefly arc toward the sky, just like my hat. But instead of spinning into the jet stream, he slammed into the endless jumble of sharp boulders below. This fall looked bad, like he might have hit head-first. I scrambled toward him, convinced I was about to fire up my InReach and call for a helicopter rescue. But the man stood, dazed but apparently okay. I was amazed. "Lucky he's young," was a thought I had. I'm not sure my 40-year-old bones would have weathered such a blow. 
My nerves were already raw, and watching these two mishaps was upsetting. I thought about a Denver Post article detailing an incident several years ago. A hiker was dancing along the boulders through the Narrows, accidentally rolled an ankle, lost his balance, and toppled hundreds of feet to his death. It just doesn't take much, which is why I don't like to venture to places where there is no margin for error. I thought about Beat teetering on narrow precipices in these gusts — gusts that were at least twice as strong as the prevailing wind, near hurricane force, and difficult to predict. 
I made my way down to Chasm Lake, stomped around a bit, and then started climbing back into the wind toward Beat. We met near the trail junction below the boulder field, and he was — of course — fine. He said the wind really was at its worse in the corridor below Keyhole. As he made his way up the face, the wind mostly just pushed him up against the rocks rather than knock him toward the abyss. Interestingly, there was almost no wind on the summit. Most of the air was being funneled through tight corridors — it was barely a breeze out in the open. 

I was annoyed with myself — that I chickened out and failed on Longs Peak, after years of avoiding it because I'm such a chicken. I also felt, with some tinge of certainty, that I did not want to come back. Sure, it's beautiful. It's the most beautiful place I've visited in the Front Range. But who needs all of the other stuff surrounding it? The 3 a.m. wakeups, the nausea, the awkwardness, the stress. Some of us just aren't built for the mountains. 
I convinced Beat he should make the side trip to Chasm Lake. He was tired but giddy with his success, and agreed. We sat on a rock near the shoreline, nibbling on sandwiches, when a man pulled up beside us. We'd passed him while ascending the rocky cirque, stooped and moving slowly over the steep terrain. I'd thought he was just another struggling hiker, but as he removed his hat and sunglasses, it was clear he was older. 

"I'm 86 and three days old," he announced. "And I made it!" 

I wasn't quite sure I'd heard him right, but he rattled off a few more numbers about wanting to do this with his son when he was 85 and 364 days old, but the weather wasn't conducive to a planned birthday hike, so he was making a solo trek a few days later. Slowly it dawned on me that this sturdy man with rock-hard calves was in fact 86 years old. 

For the next half hour, we sat by the lake and shared an engaging conversation with the man, Chris. I learned he was a newspaperman — well, a lawyer by trade, but a syndicated columnist for years. He continues to write witty political satire on a blog, "Human Race and Other Sports." He mused about his first visit to Chasm Lake with his parents at age 6 — 80 years ago. Although a near-lifelong Coloradoan, Chris was born in Switzerland. He remembered enough Swiss-German to hold a conversation with Beat. He was wearing an Obama '08 fleece jacket and a smothering green bandana as a face covering. We found him delightful. His mental sharpness and physical fitness would be enviable for a person half of his age.
Beat and I briefly hung back to walk with him down the cirque — not that he needed the help, but he seemed grateful to have folks watching out for him here. I thought about how much Chris reminded me of my father — fiercely independent, strong-willed, and drinking up life well into his twilight years. Not that I think of my father as occupying his twilight years. But it is interesting. Back in 2002, I wrote a column for a Salt Lake City weekly magazine that more or less marveled at what my dad could do at age 49. What can I say? I was 22, and 49 seemed ancient to me then. Around that same time, Dad and I met a 68-year-old man on a knife ridge below Pfifferhorn, and we both marveled that someone could make their way up such a difficult mountain at 68. Now my dad is 67 and as fit and adventurous as ever. And I'm looking to Chris and thinking — "86. Now that's #goals." 

Meeting Chris did add nice moments to what was otherwise an admittedly frustrating day. I didn't get my motivation back right away — because #goals are never as easy as they look on paper — but I'll work my way back. And I'll probably find my way to Longs ... eventually ... someday. 


  1. I find contemplative time spent pays off big in the long run with a better "sense making" paridigm....but "doom-scrolling" has a strange allure. :)
    :) :) ozzing over rocks had me laugh and cringe at the same time with a flash back to a solo close call in AK...most everything is tethered to me after that and not shy about hugging the earth.
    #goals is great framing, it takes on more meaning with each passing year. I take great joy, and encouragement/insight, in people who have such passion for whatever walk of life they are on. Which is why I enjoy you blog and books so much!! :)

    Jeff C

  2. No guarantees, I know, but I've set my course to be that young "old man."
    Lord willing,
    Box Canyon Mark

    1. These are my heroes and inspiration. I don't care about fast runners and record holders, but it's folks like that inspire me with awe and there is a chance and goal that I can get there myself. John DeWalt who finished the Hardrock at age 73 (sadly I think cancer has taken him, RIP), an Italian guy in his 80s I met on a high mountain pass during the TDG, and Chris. Brilliant.

    2. I echo your sentiments! But know that you have entered that realm of inspiration with your passion and grit.... imo! Godspeed in health for us all! :)

      Jeff C

  3. “the years have pummeled me into an emotionally bruised, timid bit of pulp”! It’s so easy for me to feel the same especially because of 2020. I’m so ready to be done with it. Your adventures continue to inspire me to keep moving no matter what. I cherish every word you write. Thank you for always sharing.

    Those essays: please share them with us.

    Linda D. (From Iowa)


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