Sunday, August 30, 2020

Out of the smog

 It finally happened — my motivation to maintain fitness has finally started to crumble. I'm surprised it took this long, actually, in the thick of such a long and hot summer, with pandemic restrictions firmly entrenched, and no upcoming races or big adventures to inspire momentum. Then the bad air settled in for a long haul. After a couple of weeks of sputtering and choking, I gave up on exercising. In fact, I haven't embarked on what I'd call a regular workout — even then, just a sad "smoky afternoon wog" — in more than two weeks. But the mountains were still there, calling to me, as they do. 

Last weekend, as dozens of fires raged throughout California and Colorado, our local air quality index was regularly spiking into the 130s and even 150s — worse than the most polluted cities in the world, and unquestionably unhealthy for asthmatics such as myself. The situation became even more insidious because the bad air had become so widespread that it no longer carried the aroma of wood smoke. It was just hazy and infused with a high concentration of particle pollution and ozone. I couldn't trust my nose to detect dangerous air; I just had to avoid the outdoors any time nearby meters registered yellow or orange, which was basically always. It was starting to feel like there was no end in sight, but I was growing tired of sequestering myself indoors. No matter that this day was firmly in the red zone — I was just tired of it all. Beat and I languished around home all morning and finally talked ourselves into getting out for some sort of adventure. Like many locals, we've deluded ourselves into believing mountain air is better (it's delusion because the smoke is drifting in from so far away that high altitudes can often be worse), so we set out at noon to pedal 7,000 vertical feet up Mount Evans. 

Beat was feeling peppy after four days of rest and took off up the road. I became winded while trying to hold his pace, and my condition deteriorated rapidly. Within two miles I was a full half-mile behind him, and then my airways tightened enough to force high-pitched wheezing. I'd taken inhaler puffs before we started, so I didn't stop right away. But it only took another half-mile before I felt dizzy and deeply nauseated. There's no shoulder and not many pullouts off the road out of Idaho Springs, so I jumped off my bike into the weeds of what was effectively somebody's yard, doubled over and made dry-heaving motions that only produced coughing. This felt similar to a reaction I had during a ride back in June, when I blamed heat and electrolyte imbalance. But I was two miles into this ride, well-hydrated, in temperatures that had barely climbed into the 70s. The only similarities were a strenuous pace and terrible air.

I would have turned around right there if I had not already insisted Beat "go for PRs" by sprinting to the top without waiting for me, and now he was far ahead with no cell reception and the car keys in his pack. I was either going to have to find a shady spot to sit for five hours or continue limping up the mountain. I'd brought a KN95 mask to use if I had any trouble with headaches or breathing, but was loathe to put it on, as it's almost as difficult to breathe through the mask as it is to breathe through asthma-induced inflammation. But the coughing and nausea sealed my resolve to endure the obstruction. I took a few more puffs from the inhaler and slid the mask on, practicing the pressure-breathing technique that used to get me through workouts when I was most impacted by thyroid-related breathing difficulties. Short, forceful exhalations helped push CO2 out of the mask, and belly-assisted inhalations drew filtered air in. I synced each breath with pedal strokes to keep the rhythm. In this way, I acquired enough oxygen to pedal slowly but consistently up to 14,200 feet without experiencing any more attacks. And my lungs and throat didn't hurt afterword, the way they did following my birthday hikes and other long efforts from the previous weeks. I can't call it my best climb up Mount Evans, but the mask was an empowering revelation. 

With mask empowerment in hand, I continued to pursue an overnight backpacking trip I started planning six weeks ago when I applied for the first available permit to an intriguing spot just west of the Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Indian Peaks Wilderness permit system is so convoluted and James Peak Wilderness so crowded, that the heavily regulated RMNP actually seemed like the most appealing place to backpack close to home. But when you apply for an Aug. 26-27 permit in July, you're going to get what you're going to get. As the dates arrived, it looked likely that we'd see heavy smoke followed by afternoon thunderstorms and a rapid cooldown. I called it our "wheeze then freeze" tour. 
It's been a little hard to sell Beat on backpacking for the sake of backpacking. He likes big mileage days and deep mountain explorations. Packing 20 or 30 pounds on your back just so you can sleep on the ground when neither is required seems like unnecessary drudgery. When it looked like we'd have bad air on Wednesday, we almost called it off. Then the winds shifted and drove much of the smoke south, and we had our first "green" day in weeks. Suddenly the horizon no longer disappeared into the haze. 
When I applied for my permit, I picked Hollowell Park as a starting point, mostly because it was farther away and led to trails that would likely be less crowded as we ambled through lovely meadows and woods along Mill Creek. I received a reply back from a ranger that effectively said, "No, that's not possible; you can't reach July Camp from Hollowell Park." I plugged the direct route into Strava and learned the one-way trip was 11 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing. Not possible? Really? Ah, the plight of a wilderness ranger in a high-traffic national park. I had to e-mail back with a list of credentials to convince them we wouldn't succumb to exhaustion and set up camp on fragile tundra miles shy of our destination. I didn't include our full trip plan, which included side trips to peaks and lakes and would clock in closer to 24 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing on day one, and 20 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing on day two. 
With an approved permit and heavy packs full of both luxury items (extra socks and poncho) and required ballast (bear barrel), we set out from Hollowell Park at 7 a.m.
Clouds moved in before 9 a.m., and with most of 11 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing just to get up and over the Divide, we were racing to beat the storms.
The building clouds made for nice light and shadow over the mountains as we climbed above 12,000 feet. The tundra was a patchwork of gold and crimson, already past its autumn prime. I've been seeing golden leaves on cottonwood trees since Aug. 6, so these fading fall colors weren't surprising. Because of drought stress, leaves started changing early while temperatures still spiked into the 90s. This has been both encouraging (winter is coming!) and disheartening (everything is dying.)
Clouds began to clear and the forecasted afternoon storms held off, so we made a quick side trip to tag the 12,713-foot summit of Hallett Peak before continuing west. 
Views from the top of Hallett Peak were still hazy, but so much clearer than they've been.
We descended from the Divide on the nicest above-timberline trail in Colorado, all crushed gravel and huge cairns to help hikers find their way in a fog. Even with all of this built-in luxury, it's apparently still not possible to hike 11 miles in one day here. 
A few wildflowers were still thriving despite the late-autumn look of the tundra. 
After we passed our camp, clouds began to build again. The now-12-mile hike with close to 5,000 feet of climbing had not been exactly easy, and we had to admit we were dragging under our heavy packs. The lakes I'd mapped out involved a 1,500-foot descent, a 1,500-foot climb, and the same to return to camp. But it was still early in the day, and really the whole point of backpacking is to spend time exploring remote places.
To our surprise, on this day with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms from noon onward, precipitation and thunder remained absent as we climbed along the gray cliffs toward Nokoni Lake. More than ten miles from the nearest trailhead, it was a peaceful and lovely spot with no one around.
Due to overcast skies, my photos came out looking gray and flat, but we were awed by the grandeur of this place. Even Beat, ever the dutiful rule-follower, suggested just setting up our camp near one of these lakes, because who's going to know?
Lake Nanita with Ptarmigan Mountain in the background. This diminutive 12er looked spectacular to us, and we spent our time at the shore drawing potential routes up slopes that might allow us to conquer its intimidating spires. An adventure for another day. 
Beat still admiring Ptarmigan as I face Andrews Peak. From this spot, we could also see Mount Alice, the cliffy 13er we climbed a couple of weeks earlier. From the west, it looks like a gentle mound, although we'd no doubt have to negotiate a beast of a bushwhack to reach it from this remote aspect. 
We returned to camp around 6 p.m. and set up Beat's mountaineering tent — the only tent we own that's large enough to comfortably hold the two of us — and heated up dinner. Just as we finished cooking, the sky finally broke open. We crawled into the tent as a barrage of hard rain and lightning moved overhead. The lightning was unnerving, as we didn't have all that much forest protection at 10,700 feet. But it was nice to crawl into the tent while we were still warm and dry, and remain that way. 
Initially, our approach to camp had been blocked by two young bull moose that stood their ground for twenty minutes while we filtered water and waited for them to leave. This wouldn't be the last we'd see of the "moose brothers," as they continued to graze nearby throughout the evening. The following morning, they wandered into our camp as I was brushing my teeth and Beat was away at the outdoor loo (another luxury in the national park backcountry.) This bull came within 100 feet of the tent and made aggressive nodding motions as he passed, which frightened me enough to scramble ten feet up onto a nearby boulder. 
He then circled around to another spot still only a hundred feet away and continued to regard me with this vaguely menacing expression. He seemed not in the least perturbed by us humans. I didn't know whether to interpret this as good or bad, coming from a moose. 
Then he settled in and made himself comfortable. At this point, Beat had returned and joined me on top of the boulder. Our hoped-for departure time came and went. Eventually, we decided we were going to pack up despite this intimidating vigil. The moose continued to not care. 
Just as we were leaving, he stood and reunited with his brother. They continued to basically block the trail as we snuck past.
As we climbed from camp, another unperturbed denizen of the national park blocked our trail. We had to cut a large switchback by scrambling up a rocky slope to get around him.
This elk believed he was King of the Mountain. Although we'd probably just interrupted his plan to also climb to higher altitudes, he continued to shadow us as we rounded up the switchbacks. I couldn't figure out why he'd follow us except to intimidate us. I was growing weary of bold ungulates, and looking forward to being among only pika and marmots once again. 
Our day two plan included an extended side trip along the Divide. From here, Beat wanted to scope all of the drainages for potential escape routes that might make for a more interesting descent than Flattop. Unsurprisingly, they all looked extremely steep and chossy with snowfields that one would likely have to cross over 50-degree angles at some point. Beat still deemed them "doable" as I registered a firm veto.
We made our way toward Sprague Mountain, a second Continental Divide summit that is the exact altitude of Hallett Peak — 12,713 feet. 12ers seem like my kind of thing for a Colorado-based goal. Everyone wants to do the 14ers, and serious peakbagger types target the 13ers. But what if I ignored the higher summits and instead made it a life goal to climb every 12er in the state? There would be so many obscure and wonderful mountains in that list. There are also, according to expert Gary Roach, a staggering 1,056 mountains that fall in this range — and probably much more exposure and technical approaches than I could stomach in a lifetime. But it's fun to dream. It would be nice to have a goal — anything to motivate me out of the lazy stasis I seem to be drifting toward. 
To approach Sprague, we had to leave the trail and traverse the ridge through a morrass of marshy, boulder-strewn garbage. I was surprised to see so much wet ground so late in the season, and right on top of the Divide. It's the most tedious type of walking, hopping from boulder to tussock to loose boulder while gaining little in the way of distance and actively losing altitude.
We were both worn out by the strenuous shambling when we reached the base of the mountain, where we still had to gain a thousand feet as dark clouds gathered overhead. The forecast that called for a 60 percent chance of storms yesterday had the odds at 20 percent today, and it wasn't even 11 a.m. But such is the way of mountains. We decided to make a dash for it.
We hit the summit just as the drama really began to build. We found a summit register and I was curious to see the entires, as Sprague seems like a remote and unassuming summit that not a lot of people would target. But the register itself was just wads of wet paper stuffed into the bottom of a plastic canister. As an archivist, I found this so disappointing. 
There are some incredible views from the top of Sprague, which is pretty much the dead center of Rocky Mountain National Park, and about as remote a place as one can stand between Trail Ridge Road, U.S. 34 and the Peak to Peak Highway. Looking northwest, I could see the postage-stamp-worthy "Circle Peaks" that would also be on someday wish list, were it not for the technical approaches. I wondered if from here, from a far distance down the Divide, it might be more doable. Mental note to research Bear Lake to Milner Pass routes. 
We paused to eat a quick lunch of tuna and crackers before a few thunder booms convinced us we had to make more haste than we hoped. While climbing, Beat scouted a more direct route down the ridge that might prove easier than the marshy Divide traverse. We could see where we'd connect with the Tonanutu Creek Trail a few hundred feet below timberline. It would add an extra mile and a 700-foot climb back up the trail, but seemed more than worth it. 

We made a dash for lower altitudes as the dark, grumbling clouds drifted north and finally away. It seemed like all was clear, and we decided to continue along the three-mile-long ridge traverse back to Flattop. Of course, "all clear" never lasts long on a summer afternoon. Within a mile we were caught in the thick of a hailstorm. 
It was a precarious position on this wide-open plateau high on the Divide, but the part of my brain that prefers "interesting if scary" over "mundane if safe" found the storm quite refreshing.
I still wanted to make a dash off the ridge at our first chance, even as Beat teased me about climbing Hallett one more time so I could earn "local legend" status on Strava. (I also climbed this peak on Monday when I dropped by the park to pick up my backpacking permit, and then decided since I'd driven all the way there I might as well embark on a 15-mile hike for good measure. So that would be three Hallett summits in four days. Fun idea, but as I looked west toward the next approaching storm, I again registered a firm veto.)
Another bout of rain caught us around 11,000 feet, but we were able to enjoy the long hike out when almost nobody else was on the trail, wrapping up a 20-mile day in which we spent nearly 15 miles above treeline. And look how clear it is! The clear air only lasts as long as the wind and rain. Our big Colorado fires are still only partially contained, and the nearby Cameron Peak fire not at all. There is still tons of smoke wafting in from California, which is now far-reaching enough to hover in pockets over the Atlantic Ocean. Summer is far from over, but just yesterday we woke up to 52 degrees and rain. It almost felt like fall, and everyone on social media agreed. Summer may not be over, but the snow will return sooner than it seems, and I will miss this easy access to the mountains I can't help but love. 


  1. What an incredible 2 day adventure. And with up close animal visits! I can't believe those moose just hung out in your camp for so long. Obviously not worried about humans. Glad you guys got out. I love backpacking!

    1. There are so many human-conditioned animals in that park. I still find moose to be deeply intimidating.

  2. I did a 30+ mile BPing trip in RMNP this summer as well, we did Tonanutu Creek Trail to North Inlet, we started at Grand Lake(ish). I was amazed at how many elk and moose we saw and how few people..the west side of the park is where its at.

    1. I agree! Although I've noticed the park in general is less crowded this summer compared to last summer. I'm a big fan of their timed entry permits and hope they keep this system.

  3. I'm curious about that backpack. Is it a Gossamer Gear or a DIY?

    1. It's an Osprey pack. The Osprey Levity 45. Beat got it for its frame. It's funny because I've never been as sold on a rigid frame backpack. I never really liked my Osprey Stratos and other older packs I used to use. I'm still sticking with the good ol Go-Lite (Now My Trail) Jam 50.

    2. Great pack (they also have a woman's specific version). I did add the hip and shoulder pockets myself though. I used it particularly because that way the bear barrel didn't push in my back. And it's as light as many non-framed packs (at least the ones that are sorta comfortable). So far it's been reasonably durable though obviously materials are much lighter. Beware of the outside bottle pockets though ... they're not fully closed, so if you put small things in there, you may lose them.I modified that as well.

  4. So, what's Beat's determination on backpacking? Worth another go or not?

    1. I thought he might chime in here. I'd have to ask him, but it did seem like he had some fun. But you know Beat. He'd choose to hike 45 miles in one day over 45 miles in two days, every time.

    2. No it was good fun, though I never sleep particularly well/comfortably (despite a decent air mattress) and some sore-ish shoulders. Part of that is that I rarely carry the pack on my hips as one should, since I don't like a tight hip belt. The shoulder straps on that pack are also not the softest - a concession to light weight. RMNP does allow a bear bag with alu insert which would have opened up some choices pack wise, but they're of course sold out at the moment ...
      I will say bikepacking is a great compromise here ... the extra weight doesn't hurt nearly as much ;)

    3. Bikepacking is fun, but there are places you can't get to reasonably on a bike. In any case, I like mixing it up and doing a variety of things. That way you have to buy more gear! I've been having lower back issues with the Neo Air mattresses we have. I just went backpacking and brought an egg-crate pad to use on top of the Neo Air to provide a firmer surface. More weight to carry but I slept much better.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful trip! I'm just getting back into your blog after after an eight(?!) year absence, and reading through all of your adventures that I missed has been quite the journey.

    I'm surprised that you and Beat didn't decamp up to Alaska to wait out the pandemic, but it sounds like Colorado is giving you all of the diversion needed.

    1. Oh wow. I remember your Blogger name. Glad to see you here again. Beat and I have talked about an extended stay in Alaska. He runs into trouble with inadequate internet service, which is more widespread in Alaska than you might believe. But it's not off the table yet. Our favorite season has yet to arrive.

  6. Your backpacking trip looks amazing. I too have lost my mojo - as has my biking buddy Emily - and I'm pretty sure it's the normal end to a summer of getting out. There have to be breaks from going long and hard as much as possible. Shoulder season is coming.

    1. I agree down time is mostly a good thing. Late August-September is usually the time of year I have a big burst of activity while we're in Europe, and I think I've been missing that this year (as shown by the number of time I've snuck out to go hiking despite how terrible it makes me feel to spend 8 hours breathing bad air.)

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  8. What a camp site!! I'll have to try that "pressure breathing technique" some day, you seem to always come up with a workaround :). Was wondering if your wog in "smokey afternoon wog" is the shipping definition "with out garantee"? If so it's cryptic and funny. External Goals used to be a great motivation but in time morphed into a undulating felt level of I. I maintain a base level of fitness to feel good with bouts of ramping it up to "how bad do I want it" level. :) my ego litmus test.

    Jeff C

  9. If the face mask has bands you should hold it in your hand with the nosepiece or top of the mask at your fingertips thus allowing your headbands to hand freely below your hands. A used face mask should be treated as contaminated. Disinfect or boil it.


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