Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Mountain mojo

I feel like my head is finally starting to emerge from the depths — you know, the murky place where the anxiety monster is always within striking distance and everything is dark and heavy. I don't know whether it was any of the 17 different things I tried that helped, or whether it was just the passing of time, as is usually the case. I do know that Monday morning, I woke up with a crushing dehydration headache and a sore Achilles, and this felt fantastic. Why? Because these minor physical maladies are highly preferable to the prickly numbness brought on by a creeping dread of the unknown, haunting my sleep for no reason. Is it gone for good? Probably not. But I will say that Monday, March 8 was my first somewhat-normal-feeling morning since February 13. 

I did start a new asthma medication on Wednesday. It's also probably too soon for that to have taken full effect. But I did feel a spike in stamina this week, no doubt working in tandem with warm weather that I either hate to love or love to hate — I have decidedly mixed feelings about the approach of summer. Winter is simple for me. Summer is complicated. Is there an endurance goal I want to pursue? More and more, I'm thinking if that goal is Colorado-based, the answer is no. I don't know how my worsening allergies will affect my breathing, whether air pollution has a harsher effect on my mental health than I can quantify, or how well I'll weather long days under the high-altitude sun, plodding through air thick with smoke and dust. Since I'm not sure when I'll feel okay about traveling, I am mulling a summer that will likely be a lot like summer 2020 — small adventures close to home. This reality is fine, but not particularly inspiring. 

Like many people in this pandemic, I feel like I have been untethered from my past life and am drifting farther out to sea. The question remains — whether to try to reel myself back in, or keep drifting and learn what else is out there?

Still, as the sun sets later each day and the rich, piney smells of spring begin to permeate the afternoons, I'm reminded of the simple joys of anchoring myself in the present. Why do I need some grand future adventure to pull me through the mundanity of the day-to-day? Why not be content with the day-to-day? I certainly have a lot of privilege in that regard. Sure, domestic life gets me down. It does. As my prescription medications and daily supplements stack up, I joke with Beat that I'm becoming the Mormon housewife I never wanted to be. But I still have an incredible freedom to move through the world as I choose. The world right in front of me contains more beauty and wonder than I could absorb in a lifetime. Why do I feel the compulsion to look farther? 

On Friday, I grabbed an opportunity to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. It's such a cliche — given it's the third most-visited park in the U.S., there's nothing original about my love — but I adore everything about this place. When wildfire tore through the park in October 2020, I watched the news updates in torment, as though this distant event was singeing a piece of my soul. My love, it seemed, blossomed during explorations in the pandemic summer. It was then I realized that RMNP could well be one of my soul places — like Canyonlands in Utah, and for its own special reasons, the Susitna River Valley of Alaska — where my heart flutters simply at the thought of being in its midst. I didn't quite realize the depth of my emotion until the East Troublesome Fire. In November, I visited the park for the first time post-fire — the entire burn area was still closed — and rode my fat bike up a snow-covered Old Fall River Road. When I saw distant evidence of fire damage and wispy clouds overhead that sort of looked like smoke, it all broke my heart just a little bit. I hadn't been back since. 

For my first visit of 2021, I decided to return to one of my favorite outings of summer 2020: Climbing various drainages to alpine lakes in Glacier Gorge. My first branch was to Dream and Emerald Lakes, but the trails were uncomfortably crowded. Ah, the price of loving the same thing everyone else loves. So I turned around early and veered up Glacier Creek. The people who broke the trail skipped the summer path on top of the shelf above the creek, and instead walked and skied straight up the drainage. This was a fun shift in perspective. So GORGEous. 

From there, the trailblazers cut straight across The Loch because why not? I approached a solo hiker who had suddenly realized he was standing on a frozen lake and had himself become frozen with fear. I recognized his stiff demeanor as something that happens to me when I'm smacked by one of my phobias — and ice is a strong phobia that still takes near-constant focus for me to overcome — so I stopped to ask if he was okay. 

"Is this safe?" he asked with a waver in his voice. 

"The ice seems solid and a lot of people have been across," I replied, pointing ahead to the broken trail. "But if you don't feel comfortable, you can go back on the safe ice you've already crossed. The summer trail follows the shoreline on the right." 

He nodded but didn't make a motion to continue in either direction. I decided to keep hiking, guessing he'd watch to make sure I wasn't going to crash through thin ice and then follow my line. But when I turned around again, I didn't see him. He went back. 

I made it as far as the waterfall below Lake of Glass before meeting my comfort-level limit: The class-three scramble up a series of head-high rock steps to a shelf only thirty feet higher. But with only snowshoes — no microspikes or crampons — and a visible confirmation of glare ice beneath the snow, it was thirty feet too far. Returning down the trail, I recognized the purple cap of the hiker I met on the Loch. 

"Hey, you made it," I exclaimed, and he grinned as we both kept walking. I was seriously proud of that dude: He encountered a challenge he couldn't surmount, but instead of quitting or taking unnecessary chances, he found a way around it. I wondered if he'd turn around at the waterfall, or whether he simply wouldn't be as bothered by ice-slicked heights. 

I returned to the trail intersection and continued up Glacier Gorge. A long track across Mills Lake ended in a patchwork of overflow at the far end of the lake. It was incredibly warm (40s) and lake water had streamed onto the ice, covering the surface in light ochre slush. The ice underneath felt as solid as before, but I continued with the skittering caution I always take on overflow, ready to skitter backward at the first hint of a crack. As overflow goes, I'd give it a 3 out of 10 on the scary scale. Still, no one else had ventured beyond this section recently. The snow surrounding Jewel Lake was untrammeled and I couldn't find any evidence of tracks along the GPS-verified summer trail. Suddenly, I was all alone in this vastly popular park that is still vast enough to swallow all hints of humanity. It was a thrilling sensation. 

I decided to continue breaking trail along the summer path, only to find it impossible to follow. Every time I glanced down at my GPS, I was off track by at least a hundred feet. The valley was rippled with small streambeds and strewn with deadfall that became more tangled the closer I ventured to Glacier Creek. The swamps surrounding the streambeds were a minefield of hidden hollows, waiting to swallow my legs whole when I ventured onto the wrong patch of crust. A couple of times a snowshoe became almost hopelessly stuck in the tangle of brush below, clinging to branches as I thrashed and writhed. It was disconcerting enough that after the second time it happened, I loosened my shoelaces and the top of my gaiters, just in case I needed to pull a foot out of the trapped snowshoe and extract it by hand. It was frustrating, but not dangerous, so I continued up-canyon, eventually landing on a logical corridor that — surprise surprise — GPS would later confirm as the summer trail. 

I made my way to Black Lake, where the valley appears to rise abruptly in a near-vertical wall. Maps also show that the trail ends here, but I knew from summer explorations that a social trail continued beside a steep cascade to the left. The snow seemed stable amid these warm temperatures, and while the cascade is steep, it's not steeper than 30 degrees, so I decided to check it out. 

Indeed, there was a nice ramp rising toward the upper valley. But it was insidious, too, with blue ice hidden beneath only an inch of snow where the frozen cascade tumbled down the slope. I hit this ice with a snowshoe and froze as stiff as the hiker I'd met earlier, afraid to make any moves. If I slipped it was going to be a long slide down, and I did not have an ax — not that it would have helped with so little snow over the ice. Trembling, I pressed the precarious snowshoe's cleats as hard as I could into the ice and returned my free foot back to its anchor in slightly deeper snow. After that foot weighted more securely, I skittered to the far left of the gorge. There the powder was thigh-deep beside the trees, so I continued with a sort of swimming motion, grateful for the exhausting anchor. 

My reward for maybe not-so-smartly taking on the frozen cascade was the Upper Glacier Gorge, pristine and grand, beneath skies so clear they took on a disorienting hue of midnight blue to contrast the brightness of snow and granite. 

I continued up the valley, slowly, feeling out the path of least resistance through the thin snow cover over jumbled rocks and tundra. I took breaks to nurse greedy sips from my last bottle of water — wind was all but absent and the snow reflected a blaze of sunlight that felt as hot as summer at 11,000 feet. I enjoyed looking back at my tracks, drawing a thin line through the expanse. 

As I marched I slipped into a beautiful trance, that state I only achieve when I am locked in deep concentration on the motion of my body, setting my mind free to tumble and flow through an exhilarating stream of consciousness. The Zone. I'm reminded of a passage I read recently about finding clarity in the external world: "I stop being myself and disperse." 

As I neared the far edge of the valley, I took the final few sips of water remaining in my bottle. The return trip required six tough miles of hiking, and it was already past 4 p.m. Even as threads of my dispersed soul soared ever higher, my body knew we must turn around. But as I gazed up at Longs Peak, I felt a rush of something that has been elusive for the past month, even as I fought for it in similarly beautiful places: Pure, unobstructed joy. 

The sun had settled behind jagged peaks by the time I returned to the frozen cascade. I think this photo of the drop into Black Lake does a better job of conveying its steepness. Since I'd punched a series of anchors into the deep snow, I felt confident in my descending path. 

The overflow had also extended quite a bit in the three or so hours I'd been gone. Well, at least now I knew this was a particularly active flow and probably should be avoided on future treks. Weirdly, much of it had already iced over, even though the temperature couldn't have dropped more than a few degrees below freezing. At least I could skitter across without getting my shoes wet. They were effectively soaked already, and I felt a notable chill as I slowed my pace. Night was coming. I needed to keep moving. 

It is a strange sensation, to feel both ravenously thirsty and chilled at the same time. I scooped a few handfuls of snow to stuff in my mouth as I jogged down the trail, now abandoned. This felt almost exactly like the last time I was here in July, racing twilight down this same trail to catch a shuttle bus. I missed the bus then, and just the memory of this boosted my pace even though my legs ached and I had nothing to gain by reaching my car 15 minutes sooner. Still, it felt fantastic to run. I had mojo again! It had only been gone for a month, but a month without mojo feels so much longer. 

Beat had a strong case of FOMO, so we made plans to return to the park on Sunday. I almost suggested Saturday, but as soon as I came down from my mountain high, I felt rough. Dehydration clamped down and I felt headachy and groggy. My glutes and hamstrings were shredded from battles with hidden snow holes. My shoulders were sore from aggressive poling. Mmmm, slog hangover. The best kind of hangover. 

I recovered well enough for Sunday, and we set an early alarm in hopes of getting out in front of weekend crowds. The forecast for Denver called for a high of 71 degrees, the first 70+ of the year. Even Estes Park was supposed to be 55, and the wind forecast didn't look too bad — 15-20 mph. And while I should know the Continental Divide better by now, I figured it would be "basically like summer" and packed my typical July layers. Even in the summer, one needs to expect thunderstorms, hail and temps near freezing, so I carried a puffy, softshell jacket, mittens, and a buff. Remembering my scary wheezing episode on Niwot last week, I threw in a balaclava and light wind breaker at the last minute.

Our objective was Hallett Peak, a 12,720-foot summit that sits on top of the Continental Divide. If conditions were okay, we hoped to continue either south toward Otis Peak, or west along the Tonahutu Creek Trail (which we later learned is still closed due to wildfire damage) to enjoy a day up high. Temperatures had already climbed above freezing when we set out at 8 a.m. The packed trail was slicked with an icy sheen that made us glad for microspikes. 

We climbed the steep grade under the strengthening glare of morning sunlight. Sweat beaded on my skin as we pulled off hats and rolled up sleeves. As we cleared the final stands of scrub spruce at treeline, a switch flipped and the winteriest of winter winds blasted us directly from the west. We stopped three times to add more layers until I was wearing everything I had, minus the 2-ounce wind jacket and mitten shells because I can't help but always save something for a dire emergency. The balaclava was the last layer to go on. It felt amazing, instantly warming my half-frozen cheekbones and circulating warm air into my lungs. But I had nothing extra for my lower body, and my butt cheeks turned to blocks of ice.

Beat scouted a route to the summit, which was not trivial with a patchwork of boulders and snow drifts of unknown depth. The west wind raged and at times it was difficult to see through a fury of swirling snow backlit by the bright March sun. 

We made it to the summit after a brutal 1 mph battle. The temperature was definitely a few notches below freezing because my water valve kept icing up after just a few minutes, even if I blew the water back into the bladder after drinking. I kept taking sips because I wanted to avoid another painful deyhdration hangover, but exposing my lungs to the wind for even a few seconds made them feel scratchy. I would have been hosed without that balaclava. It was humorous to think about the reality that it probably was 70 degrees in Boulder at that moment. The Continental Divide does not play games. 

Views toward His Eminence, Longs Peak, and the rugged skyline above Glacier Gorge. When it's reasonable this summer, I hope to trek to Otis and Taylor Peaks. I'd love to connect McHenry's and Chief's Head, but I know it gets extra spicy in there with that class-five notch, so it's likely forever beyond my personal limit. Still, baby steps. At least the prospect of mountain adventures gets me excited for summer, even if mountains also give me anxiety. 

In March conditions, Hallett is plenty spicy. This is the view toward Tonahutu Creek Trail, traversing the broad ridge toward Sprague Mountain. That's another traverse I think I could manage with a lot of time and a little bravery — Sprague to Cracktop, Mount Julian and Terra Tomah, descending to Trail Ridge Road. Maybe I could even bike shuttle the traverse. Mmmm, I can't wait.

Views east toward the land of warmth — far, far below. 

Beat took a brief break to gulp down his coffee and hot chocolate mixture. He shared a few sips with me. Then we rushed to get off that mountain, which is to say we crept down the loosely snow-covered rocks at a snail's pace. Breaking an ankle up here would not be fun. 

I like this photo looking back at Hallett as we descended. The mountain looks like it's leaning with its back to the wind, about to peel off the ridge and blow away. 

We were so chilled that we kept the puffy coats long after we descended below treeline onto a trail that had become a greasy pile of slush, and even as we passed hikers trudging uphill with sweat-drenched faces. We didn't see many hikers though — I think we made a good gamble on a Bear Lake-area trail that would not be all that popular on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in March. 

Still, we wanted to make the most of the beautiful day, so we took a side trip toward Lake Odessa. I had vague memories of this trail from one of my longer summer runs two years earlier. It does a lot of sidesloping along the steep slope above Mill Creek, so I was glad the trail was well-broken. 

As we traversed toward Two Rivers Lake and the stunning face of Little Matterhorn, I occasionally caught side glances toward the fresh burn scar on Mount Wuh. Back in October, when the East Troublesome Fire blew up and tore through 100,000 acres in a single day, the firestorm jumped that broad and barren ridge pictured in my earlier photos. Having cleared the seemingly impossible barrier of the Continental Divide, the flames charged down Spruce Canyon toward Estes Park. The way East Troublesome was burning that day, it really seemed like it would just consume all of Rocky Mountain National Park and that would be that. It was one of several really tough October days for me — the day the Calwood Fire blew up was another — when, lacking a weighted blanket, I collapsed on the bedroom floor under my down comforter, continuously updated Twitter and quietly cried. It was traumatizing; I'm not ashamed to admit that. These fires were a physical embodiment of one of my worst fears: "Climate change is destroying everything I love in real time." Remembering the way I felt in October is helping me gain a better grasp on my anxiety flare-up in February. And viewing the aftermath of the fire on Mount Wuh — a blackened slope of toothpick tree skeletons and only thin patches of snow — was cathartic in its own way. But I did not take a photo. 

After letting this months-old grief flow through me like water, I turned my attention to the beauty in front of me, and Beat with the biggest grin on his face because this really is an incredible place. Even if every tree burned to ash, the mountains would remain. They would be changed, and every creature that moves and breathes in this world would suffer. Still, nature adapts. The world remains. 

The packed path ended at Lake Helene. The sidesloping summer trail down to Lake Odessa was indeed a precariously steep slow slope in winter conditions. The margin for error was thin — one slip could result in a slide of unknown length and increasing velocity until a tree broke the fall. So I called it. Beat was more reluctant, wanting to keep going, which I understood. I felt like I'd seen enough. The mountains had given me enough. My love — and mojo — was restored. 


  1. I'm so glad that you're starting to feel better. I like what you said about wondering whether you'll let yourself keep drifting and see where it takes you or bring yourself back in. I've been feeling that same thing.

  2. Amazing mountains, amazing vistas! Glad you are doing better overall.

  3. Yup, I'm looking at local too. It was surprisingly good last summer, so it won't be too bad.

  4. We live in an amazing state full of such beauty and variety, I am totally ok being "stuck" and not travel past the state line. It sort of "forces" to discover places, mountains, little towns with their coffee shops, and it's going to be so much adventure fun...I love your photos, and believe me, every time I am on one of those winter slogs and get edgy, I think how much you enjoy pushing through the snow, cold and wind:)

  5. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us. Your photos are fantastic!

  6. Greatly appreciated you adventure! Pulled up a Alaska map and envisioned a adventure where " I stop being myself and disperse" later this year since I was denied the option last year. Upped my workouts lately to that sweet spot of "doms" to feel more alive.....always feel a bit odd being sore but feeling mentally better. Lol. Your opening paragraph reminded me of a old Jerry Jeff Walker song "David & Me" for some reason....maybe the thought of letting time go by.
    I resonate with becoming untethered from my past self in many ways....but I am of the mind now that I don't want to go back, more adventure in building a new future. The choice was always there....as V I.C says in Red vs Blue "OK dude, do better" :).

    Jeff C

  7. Glad your mojo has been restored. What a GORGEOus, stunning outing!


Feedback is always appreciated!