Friday, January 01, 2021

2020 in photos

Well, so long 2020 ... it's been a year. I agree that we should drop the pretense that 2020 was a solely terrible year, or blindly celebrate that it's "finally over," because what has ended? That said, I think all of us can go back and laugh at our bright-eyed, hopeful predictions at the end of 2019. I certainly believed 2020 was going to be "my year." I had turned over that milestone of being 40 years old, I'd brushed away what seemed like the last strands of five years of ongoing health issues, and I was going to walk all the way to Nome on the Idiatrod Trail. My ultimate challenge! After that, the fun would only continue — the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgystan, big plans for big mountains in Europe, perhaps my most ambitious adventure year yet! 

That none of it worked out hardly seems worth mentioning at this point. I realize I am one of the lucky ones ... so far, at least. 

But we did make it through 2020, a feat in and of itself. Back in the spring, I watched a great YouTube video where a woman laments to her drunken alter-ego that she hasn't accomplished even half of what she set out to do. The alter-ego fires back, "It's pandemic. Any day spent not sick is good day."

Indeed. And on this first day of a brand new year, I'm going back through all of my 2020 photos and compiling my favorites — one for each month, plus the photo that best represents the year for me. The above photo of an Anchorage friend riding a fat bike beside the expressive icebergs of Knik Glacier evokes all of the feelings, so that's the one. 

It was Friday the 13th — March 13th. That was probably the last day that felt somewhat "normal" for most of us in the United States. I was just two days removed from the Iditarod Trail. My adventure became a 300-mile march through deep snow, relentless wind, and intense cold that utterly broke me. I'd never before felt so physically depleted. Emotionally, I was a wreck as well. Between training and focus and desire, this was as hard as I'd tried for any of my endurance goals this decade, and still I fell drastically short of finishing the thousand-mile trek to Nome. But I'd depleted everything in trying. I couldn't even find the energy to leave the depressed solitude of my hotel room in downtown Anchorage and walk across the street to the natural foods grocery store, even though I was so outrageously hungry. 

Still, when my Alaskan friends Missy and Jen invited me to tag along on this ride to Knik Glacier, I knew I could not say no. The early uncertainties of the pandemic were exploding, Beat was still somewhere out there on the Iditarod Trail, and I was an anxious mess. Even a 20-something-mile ride on snow had nothing on my energy-draining ruminations. It was refreshing — healing — to push my tired legs into the pedals of a borrowed fat bike and propel myself through a wonderland of ice and friends. That night, we went out to dinner at a crowded bar — the type of place where you're shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. We hugged when we said goodbye. It was the last I'd experience of restaurants or hugging friends for the remainder of the year. 

But it was a beautiful day to punctuate what had already been a life-changing journey. I look back on March with a warm nostalgia, to a time and place that will never quite be the same, regardless of what the future holds.  

January: Two Top

On January 10, Beat and I, along with our friend Daniel, participated as "beta runners" in the Fat Pursuit, a fat-biking ultra in Idaho that has always managed to be heinously difficult. Everything about the 2020 race was a slog — from barely making it home after delayed flights following a work trip to Anchorage, to a long drive diverted by avalanches and pummeled by snowstorms, to the fact that more than three feet of snow fell during our 55-odd hours on the course. At times we were wading through waist-deep drifts. If I dropped more than a hundred meters behind Beat and Daniel, all traces of their tracks would be erased by wind and snow. We actually found some of our best trail conditions on top of this famously stormy pass over the Continental Divide, although Two Top continued to be famously stormy. This photo captures the mood of the Fat Pursuit well.

February: Storms on the horizon

Shortly after the Fat Pursuit, Beat and I both became quite ill and remained under the weather for most of the rest of January. In February I played a lot of catch-up from that down time, engaging in my final strength-training sessions and preparing for the Iditarod. So I don't have many adventure photos, but this photo of sunset following a day of high winds also captures the moody aura of the month.

March: The last days of innocence

This photo captures the state of the Iditarod Trail in 2020 — buried. I was snowshoeing toward Finger Lake in the late afternoon, barely able to pick out trail markers amid the blowing snow, squinting into goggles, and feeling for threads of relatively packed snow through waves of spindrift. Temperatures dropped below zero. The wildchill was breathtaking. The onset of darkness brought out my worst phobias about angry moose, and I breathed shallowly, almost holding my breath so I'd hear the crunch of hooves over the wind. This was pretty much what I did for nine solid days until it broke me, and I quit the ITI in McGrath. Even though I wouldn't have made it to Nome either way — the pandemic effectively shut down the trail before anyone after the top three cyclists reached Nome — I remain deeply disappointed about quitting. Not that I believe I could have realistically completed the journey, which in its own way is even more disappointing. Still, the warm nostalgia of those final days before the pandemic filters into this experience as well. It was time to think, and space to move — so much expansive space. I miss Alaska deeply. 

April: Quarantine

Like most people, Beat and I were very much at home during the month of April. Beat's office closed before he ever had a chance to go back and collect his things — there are probably empty soda cans on his desk that will still be there in July 2021. I canceled appointments and set up virtual visits with doctors. We'd leave for runs from our front door and stayed within a small radius of our rural neighborhood. It was the month that the city streets and storefronts felt empty, but local trailheads were mobbed. We made efforts to stay away from the crowds, which caused me to feel even more cloistered. I brought my tired legs back to some semblance of life by running on gravel roads, which was physically refreshing but mentally tedious. Still, we were at least gifted a few April snowstorms to clear out crowds and blanket the world in a quiet tranquility that I cherished. 

May: Beat's birthday run

The first time I took my road bike along on a weekly shopping trip and ventured up a canyon more than a few miles away from my house, it felt like a vacation. Most of our adventures still started from home, and exploring new and unique local routes — ideally away from the increasing crowds — became Beat's overarching goal. For his May 31 birthday, he wanted to run a loop around the traditional Boulder Skyline Route — five peaks, 26 miles, nearly 8,000 feet of climbing — but overnight, when all of the other trail users would be home in bed. We started out about an hour before sunset under menacing skies. We were pummeled by rain and tormented by flashes of lightning for a couple of hours, and then the clouds opened to reveal beautiful night. Still, the mood remained unsettled. The end of May marked the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests. Again, it felt like there was much uncertainty in the world. As we traversed the skyline 3,000 feet above the city, I heard sirens and looked down at flashing lights. I wondered what might be happening in the volatile streets below, and what changes might finally begin because of the unrest. 

June: Venturing into the world

By June, some of Colorado's stay-at-home mandates had been lifted. I decided to join two friends on a bikepacking overnight outside of Breckenridge. It felt so strange to get in the car and drive for two hours away from home. But it was refreshing to ride a bike across the Continental Divide and sleep on a mountainside. It was a welcome respite. 

July: The proposal

All of my favorite days of summer were the big days Beat and I spent in the mountains — even with the 3 a.m. alarms, the wary weather watching, and my heightened anxiety amid long hours of managing movements that are most challenging for my blundering body. I'm more than a little ashamed that "hiking" is so difficult for me, and that almost five years as Coloradoan with technical trails in my backyard has only increased the frequency of my missteps and struggles — and yet, I love it. As with most aspects of life, the most emotionally charged moments are the most memorable. This July 12 traverse was one of our more ambitious trips. We climbed 4,500 feet to the top of James Peak and then picked our way along a jagged ridge with a few exposed maneuvers. Beat was kind about my misgivings, waiting at intervals and pointing out handholds and footholds along the way. The sky had become moody by the time we topped Mount Bancroft. I was feeling jittery but walked around the perimeter of the broad peak to take photos of the view. This was the final vista I captured before walking back toward Beat. There, as I pulled a sandwich from my pack and took a huge bite, he cleared his throat and asked me to marry him. It was the most beautiful and perfect moment I could ever imagine for myself and my partner in life. 

August: Mount Alice

The beautiful alpine adventures continued into August. I took advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park's new permit system — an effort to address COVID by reducing crowds — to enjoy relative solitude on incredible routes throughout the park. Mount Alice, in all of her dramatic cragginess, was one of my favorite mountains. 

September: A crush of 13ers

Beat and I were married on September 19 in a beautiful sunset ceremony on the summit of our backyard mountain, Bear Peak, with my family and several friends in socially distanced attendance. We have some great photos from the evening, but my general policy with these year-end photo posts is to choose images that I took. So I picked one more dramatic alpine photo of Beat standing on the saddle below Chief's Head, overlooking the spectacular upper cirque of Glacier Gorge. This was another tough day for me, and I remember thinking that I looked forward to the downtime of winter, when I wouldn't have to feel so anxious about my outdoor excursions. It was always rewarding, and always hard. Now that it's winter, I again find myself dreaming of these places, and of traveling on foot along craggy ridges and interminable boulder fields. There are so many mountains that that I consider out of reach given my insecurities about exposure, but still ... as long as I am living and loving mountains, there will always be a desire to go "higher." 

October: Fire summer

I am still angry about October. Colorado's fire season, which had scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and choked the skies with smoke since July, is usually winding down by the time the katabatic winds of late autumn arrive. But not in 2020. It was hot, it was dry, and a half dozen local fires exploded with a fury and level of destruction never before seen in this region. We experienced California-like megafires, roaring through more than 100,000 acres in a single day, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people. In total, more than 625,000 acres burned in 2020 — more Colorado acreage than burned in 40 years between 1960 and 2000. Yes, forest needs to burn to clear out sickly beetle-kill trees and make room for healthy seedlings. But a lot of the fires torched forests that some researchers believe won't recover in our lifetimes, if ever. As the climate warms, Colorado is likely to become more like New Mexico — grass and shrublands at altitudes where we currently have pine and hemlock forests. Wildfire is going to expedite this transition, and witnessing the conflagerations was more upsetting that I even imagined it might me. For much of the month, I watched the sky turn black. I choked on my own breath. I lost interest in going outside, for a time. It's not a global pandemic, but in many ways, watching the environment change before my eyes is similarly disheartening, less likely to turn around, and more permanent. Yes, I am still angry about October. 

November: A soul-warming — if bone-chilling — escape

Late-arriving November storms finally brought some relief to the fire season, and we could finally breathe easier — literally. My mood and outlook improved substantially as winter weather arrived. Some of this I credited to CBD supplements. Some I credit to the personality quirk that causes me to love winter most. Not a small amount is relief about the U.S. election, which was not wholly confidence-inspiring, but better than some of the alternatives. I also believe a lot of my well-being is based in the air that I breathe. When breathing is difficult, both body and mind slip into malaise. When breathing is clear, it feels like there's nothing I can't do. Thus was my experience in November — lots of biking, lots of local adventures, none of the struggles of summer. Toward the end of the month, I made my first "escape" since March, crossing the Utah border for a week of biking in Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and the San Rafael Swell. This was a wonderful trip, a chance to see friends and absorb stunning vistas in the gorgeous, empty desert. I was a little unprepared for the realities of camping every night when temperatures dropped to single digits and I had no indoor respites. So I froze. But I was in heaven. 

December: Keeping the long view

My gratitude for breathing easy and moving freely in the big world continued into December. After a few early snowstorms, the month was mostly warm and dry — admittedly, terrible for both the stability of mountain snowpack and our longterm prospects for avoiding another catastrophic fire summer in 2021. Right now I am not letting myself think about that, because I'm already saddened by the huge surge in COVID numbers, the lethargic nature of the vaccine rollout, and all of the travel plans I've already canceled in anticipation of a similarly cloistered 2021. Beat and I nixed a March trip to Alaska. And after maintaining hope that my friend Danni and I would pursue our Kyrgyzstan bike trip in August, we've already deferred our plans to 2022 — if ever. Sigh. I certainly am grateful for the opportunities I still have. But like everybody else, I too leave 2020 behind with a sense of loss. 

I took this photo of two mountain goats near the summit of Mount Evans, that hulking 14er with a controversial name and a road to the top that I pedaled a half dozen times in the second half of the year. Each ride brought new perspectives — the snowy optimism of June, the summery warmth of July, the smoky oppression of August and October. Finally, in December, the solitude and clarity of winter. It's been a difficult year, but I'm thrilled to have reached the proverbial starting point of another trip around the globe. Here's to more beauty, gratitude, and hopefully the more positive sorts of challenges in 2021. 

Photo posts from years past: 
2010 part one, part two


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