Sunday, August 16, 2020


With the exception of two somewhat ill-advised mountain adventures that probably had the health equivalent of chain-smoking in a bar for ten hours, I've spent the past week indoors. And despite the awesomeness of these adventures, this cloistering has me feeling particularly gloomy, approaching the lows I was experiencing back in April when it felt like the whole world was closing in. I don't need to rehash everything that's going on in the world right now, but I think many would agree this year has not made a marked upswing in four months. And now Colorado is on fire. 

When it comes to respiratory health, I fall into those "sensitive groups" who are particularly affected by poor air quality. I grew up in the polluted Salt Lake valley and suspect that I've long been more susceptible to respiratory issues, but my sensitivities deepened after I contracted pneumonia in summer 2015. My allergic asthma developed shortly after that. This is likely a permanent issue that I can trace precisely this illness, which started with a measly cold during the Tour Divide and got real when X-Rays detected fluid in my lungs. My brush with pneumonia and its consequences is exactly why I'm boggled that Americans won't take the coronavirus more seriously. It's not a binary of surviving or dying; there is a vast spectrum of possible health outcomes within "recovery," many of which we don't even know because it's all so new and long-term impacts can't be studied yet. Do you really think your baby shower is worth risking permanent lung damage for your friends and family? 

But I digress. I'm just trying to make the point that I understand lung damage. My own might mean I'll have an even worse outcome with coronavirus, so I try hard to be careful and limit my time indoors with anyone who isn't Beat. My social interactions remain April-level stunted. I'm not yet willing to go to a friend's house for dinner, and I'm dragging my feet on inviting my parents to Colorado so Beat and I can stage a wedding ceremony. The outdoors remained a sanctuary, but right now, I don't have that. Outside has become a noxious place, a lung-searing plume of smoke with no end. I fantasize about getting on a plane and escaping to somewhere far north, somewhere where it's already almost winter. Planes aren't really an option right now ... although I'd almost rather take my chances with coronavirus and a long quarantine than this scary tinderbox of a summer. 

After my all-day hike last Sunday, I felt particularly bad. Wheezing woke me up Monday morning, I was coughing, and I had a headache. I started to wonder if I'd caught the 'rona, but no, it was just the fallout of inhaling large quantities of particulate matter from the Pine Gulch fire. Now that fire is at 80,000 acres and closing in on the podium spot for the largest wildfire in Colorado history. Since last week, three more big fires have erupted; one that's kept I-70 closed for more than five days, one that's raging north of Rocky Mountain National Park, and one just west of here. Every morning we have neighbors hitting the panic button on potential blazes in our region, but nothing has come too close ... yet. 

Meanwhile, I needed two days of recovery from my Pawnee Peak hike just to feel like I wasn't breathing through a smoke pipe. On Wednesday morning, I'd acquired another one of those timed entry permits to Rocky Mountain National Park. This year, to limit crowds, the park is issuing a fixed number of permits to enter any point of the park at two-hour intervals throughout the day. I think it's a great system, as it keeps crowds down to a more palatable size compared to the overwhelmed national forest trailheads in the region. But for obvious reasons, these permits aren't easy to acquire. I snatched up several for random days this month and next; 6 to 8 a.m. August 12 was one of my allowances. The weather looked stable, hot and dry ... terrible conditions for the wildfires, but exactly what you want for a long adventure above treeline. I decided a trip to RMNP was worth taking a few more huffs from the stovepipe (because just like a bar hopper, I all too often make decisions based on what I want versus what I need.)

Beat and I decided to aim for Mount Alice, a 13,300-foot summit on the Continental Divide. Thanks to its long approach, Alice is one of the more remote peaks in the region. The air quality was surprisingly good. There was a hint of smoke taste in the air, but the sky actually looked blue, versus the sickly brown color that has greeted us many mornings. My entry permit allowed us to park at the edge of Wild Basin, where six miles of trail leads to the shoreline of Lion Lake number one. Beat and I snowshoed to this spot last winter — from the highway, so the approach was closer to nine miles. Just reaching Lion Lake is a huge day hike in winter conditions, and we reminisced about the strenuous snow slog as we marched up a comparatively easy ribbon of dirt and rocks. Past Lion Lake, the trail ends and the laborious boulder-hopping begins. 

The majestic Chiefs Head, another 13er that looks particularly inviting for another 2020 adventure. I have my stupid birthday coming up this week and hoped to carry on a tradition of summiting a mountain. A crazy early start (to avoid thunderstorms, with fingers crossed and rain dance activated in hopes the storms actually arrive) to climb a RMNP 13er would be perfect. We'll see. I may end up indoors and depressed instead, so I don't want to talk up my potential birthday adventure too much. 

For now, Mount Alice was proving to be the wonderland I thought I wanted but actually needed — grand mountain skylines, wildflowers, gurgling cascades, and expansive isolation — the good kind of isolation. The air was tinged with smoke, but it wasn't nearly as bad as it had been on Sunday. I found I could hike hard without wheezing. And I could see I was going to need my strength as we approached Hourglass Ridge, the crux of the route. Hourglass Ridge was rated as Class 2+ with a few exposed chokeholds. Approaching from the northeast, perspective foreshortening made the lower face of the ridge look vertical. I was plenty nervous. 

Beat's route-finding put us on a confidence-inspiring path, out of sight from the dizzying exposure to the west, but also avoiding the chossy garbage to the east. We clambered up a ladder of relatively solid boulders (Beat pointed out the lichen as evidence of stability — a helpful route-finding tip I hadn't considered before.) The ridge was strenuous — rising from 12,400 feet to 13,300 feet in just over a quarter of a mile — and completely satisfying. 

Views from the top of Mount Alice, looking toward Chiefs Head, Longs, and Mount Meeker. We tagged east and west summits and found but didn't sign the summit register (the "register" was crumpled pieces of individual notepaper stuffed inside of a plastic canister. As a person who respects archiving, I didn't see a point.) We ate our lunch and connected with the one other hiker we encountered beyond Ouzel Falls. He was completing the same loop in the opposite direction and tacking on Chiefs Head for good measure. We compared notes and decided the descent down Boulder Grand Pass sounded fine ... in hindsight, I should always assume that everyone hiking these types of mountains has a higher tolerance for exposure than I have. 

The tundra walk along the Divide. It looks so flat and inviting, but the constant boulders and ankle-turning tussocks make it surprisingly strenuous and slow. Isolation Peak is in the background. That's another 13er I want to ascend, but not from this aspect. 

Before heading down, we decided to tag a 12er, Tamina Peak, for good measure. Tamina didn't look like much from the ridge, but there were some surprise class-three moves near the summit. 

Views back toward Mount Alice from Tamina. Alice is an impressive mountain from all aspects. Afternoon weather was beginning to build; time to head down. 

We had fantastic views of the RMNP patriarch, Longs Peak, and his little brother Meeker. 

The wind picked up as we descended toward Boulder Grand Pass. Gusts were strong enough that I needed to remove my hat and sunglasses as I teetered uncomfortably while trying to balance over rocks. Thanks to perspective foreshortening, the views over the edge made it look as though the chute went straight down. Indeed, it plummets more than 400 feet in the horizontal space of about 1,000 feet. And it was loose, chossy and terrible. I was plenty nervous and had to empty my bladder (my real bladder, the one inside my body) before starting down. More surefooted folks would just run down this stuff, but I am the type who would absolutely lose my balance, tumble headlong, and keep tumbling. Gravity is never my friend when it's with me, only against me. 

Our shoes filled with rocks as we crept down the slope, but it went without incident. We arrived at the shoreline of Lake of Many Winds. The aptly-named alpine tarn was mesmerizing. As the swirling wind swept across the surface, the water rippled in a triangular pattern that resembled the surface of a geodesic dome — back and forth, expanding and contracting. I should have taken video, but this photo shows the contrast between dark and light water moving toward the outer edge. 

Looking back toward Boulder Grand Pass. It feels steeper than it looks — and every bit as chossy as it looks. If I had approached the pass from this direction as I'd originally planned, I likely would have opted out, especially with that snow cornice reaching to the edge of the gully with no way around. The somewhat hidden couloir to the right is the correct route. 

Now there was nothing left but a nine-mile hike out, past more gorgeous alpine streams, wildflowers, and Thunder Lake. We decided to loop through the Ouzel Falls alternate for good measure, even though it added a mile and some climbing. We passed some pretty waterfalls, but also had to deal with all of the crowds concentrated along a single mile of trail when everywhere else had been effectively deserted. Still, it was a great day. My throat was a little sore by the end, but I had no regrets.

I took another lung recovery day so I'd be in as good of shape as possible to join my friend Betsy on her first ride up Mount Evans on Friday. Since there were no thunderstorms in the forecast, I encouraged a later start. Smoke tends to settle in near the ground with overnight inversions, and early mornings seem to have to the worst air quality. We set out from Idaho Springs a little before 10 a.m. I wore a KN95 mask for the first five miles, but struggled to draw enough air through the mask to feel properly oxygenated, even at a fairly easy pace. Finally, I just decided to risk inhaling smoke rather than climb to 14,000 feet while dizzy and discombobulated from further oxygen suppression. 

We had a great day. It was pure fun, pedaling and catching up on life as the lovely alpine landscape rolled past. The views were hazy and dull, and I found myself frequently apologizing to Betsy about that. "You should see this on a clear day!" But with a continuous warm breeze, temperatures were pleasant and the air quality was better than I expected. Betsy was stoked to reach the summit, her first self-powered 14er. 

Beat and I were actually thinking about returning to Evans, yet again, today. He recently built up a new gravel bike that he's itching to ride, and we wanted to ride somewhere high in the mountains (because in addition to being smoky, it's been terribly hot), but also free from weekend traffic. And we both love this climb and could pretty much ride it every day if time and energy allowed. But we woke up to some of the worst air quality yet. Boulder's air quality index was "unhealthy for sensitive groups" and a few monitors near Idaho Springs were in the red, meaning unhealthy for all. We opted out. It's just not worth the risk. So I find myself stuck indoors in a way I wouldn't be if facing a whiteout blizzard or temperatures of 40 below. August is the cruelest month. 

This week has me thinking back to a proposal I was working on in March 2019, back when I was spending the month on a writing retreat of sorts in Nome, Alaska. At the time, Nome was experiencing one of the wettest, warmest, windiest, and objectively worst-weather months on record. I was attempting to train for the White Mountains 100, hoping to run well and set a hundred-miler PR. But the weather often thwarted any hope of "running." I'd head outside to find the wind had buried every road in town under knee-deep spindrift. As I pushed through the gale, freezing rain would coat every inch of clothing. Even my best waterproof coats and pants were useless. I'd be encased in glare ice and shivering within an hour. Nothing I tried kept me warm, and I'd head home after three or four miles of useless postholing while slamming into snowbanks because visibility was zero. (And I mean zero. I'd carry my Garmin eTrex on these "runs" just to assure myself I was still on the road and not wandering out to sea.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about weather conditions that keep you indoors, no matter how determined you are to go outside, and how this is going to increasingly be a problem as climate change advances. I was drawing up a proposal to research all of the potential scenarios and how outdoorsy types might deal with these realities — not only the warm winter hurricanes that increasingly impact coastal Alaska, but also the extreme heat and wildfire-ravaged air that much of the West is experiencing now. Fitness types can survive and even thrive in a virtual Zwift world, but what about those who need the outdoors as much as they need oxygen? It's an interesting concept, one I'll probably revisit if smoke keeps me inside this week, which seems likely.  A strategy for loving an increasingly difficult and inhospitable outdoors is a concept I need to face, for my own sanity as much as anything. 


  1. What I selfishly worry about is what i am already seeing: people will start fleeing to rural places like mine with pretty perfect summers. However, the winters might keep them out. Luckily we haven't had fires here...yet. We may escape fire season again.

  2. Have you ever considered moving somewhere like Scotland or Wales in the UK? Zero fires, mild summers and excellent air quality, with plenty of beautiful mountain scenery.

  3. Living thru this epoch sharing a finite planet with a thin veneer of troposphere, there is no "other place" where change will not happen and people (cloistered by environment (social or geographical) bounded by money) try and find a new normal of living. Interesting time to be alive!
    Trying to pull enough air thru a N95 while working hard is anarobic style training and a mental workout as well :). I used a battery powered full face air filter system when I've turned wood on a lathe or sprayed foam as a pressurized mask stops any leakage at the edge of a normal mask. Was nice having a constant easy breathing air flow which kept the face shield clear of fogging...well in a shop environment anyway. Hopefully our world will not require a bio suit to visit the outdoors in the future.

    Jeff C


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