Friday, September 16, 2022

One last summit with Dad

Dad and I stand on the summit of Lone Peak on July 27, 2011.

Journal entry from August 27, 1999: 

Today I went hiking with my dad. Finally, finally, after two years of trying, I made it to the top of Lone Peak. We started up Jacob’s Ladder at 6:30 a.m. We were well up the serious incline when the sun rose. It’s such a grueling, unforgiving hike. When we made it to the valley at the base of the mountain, I was exhausted, but we kept going. 

It was beautiful — a vast meadow of grass and rocks at the cirque, before a long climb up the peak, scaling boulders where one slip would send me spinning down into oblivion. Thunderstorms were moving in but we kept climbing. The wind was blowing and the Salt Lake Valley was miles below. 

And then we made it, finally. Lone Peak is a tiny peak, just a point. Dad and I sat up there eating bagels and signed the guest registration — a Tupperware box bolted to a rock. All is beautiful at 11,250 feet: Scrawny trees winding down the mountain, the urban sprawl only a blur of lines. We watched lightning creeping into Sandy, so we had to book it down.

Dad and I pose at the Jacob's Ladder trail junction on July 27, 2011.

Lone Peak was my dad's soul mountain, so I made it mine. He spoke of the summit with reverence, calling Lone "The hardest hike in the Wasatch and also the most beautiful." We made at least two unsuccessful attempts during the summers of 1997 and 1998, turned back by the threat of thunderstorms and heavy fog. Dad was always cautious, and I felt completely safe when I was with him. After we finally reached the summit in 1999, I was understated in my journal but gushed about the experience to my friends. 

On my first personal Web page, which I designed for a class at the University of Utah, I displayed Lone Peak prominently as "my favorite place in the world." I told friends that if I married at all, the ceremony was going to be on that summit. I remember mentioning this wedding plan offhand to my parents. My Mom scoffed and seemed somewhat scandalized, but Dad didn't seem to mind. Years later, while Dad and I were hiking and somehow landed on an offhand discussion about death, Dad said, "I'd like to have my ashes spread over Lone Peak." 

August 20, 2017 — the last time I was on Lone Peak with Dad.

Blog entry from August 20, 2017:

If I could choose anything in the world to do on my birthday, high on that list would be "climb Lone Peak with my dad." Lone Peak is an 11,253-foot summit in the Wasatch Mountains. I consider it my "home" mountain. I grew up in its morning shadow; the peak is less than five miles due east from my childhood home — and 7,000 feet higher. As a hike, it's considered by many to be the most difficult standard route to a summit in the Wasatch, rising 6,700 feet in six miles along a chunder-filled gully of a trail called Jacob's Ladder, followed by boulder-hopping in a granite cirque, and finally a class-3 to 4 scramble up a narrow ridge of vertically-stacked monzonite slabs. 

I don't quite remember the first time my dad guided me to this peak. I believe it was the summer after I graduated from high school, 20 years ago. My early memories of Lone Peak's difficulty all surround the steep slog of Jacob's Ladder. There are fewer memories of the slabs that bother me today ... probably because I have 20 years of physical conditioning behind me now, and also two decades of risk and personal ability assessment, which have made me much warier of exposed scrambling. Much sharper than memories of difficulty are memories of amazement and joy — the quiet Alpine forest mere miles from my crowded suburban neighborhood, the sheer granite walls above the cirque, and standing on top of a peak barely as wide as I am tall, overlooking the entire Salt Lake Valley.

Lost in a boulder field in the Lone Peak Cirque on August 29, 2010.

From 2000 to 2002, I managed two or three more summits with my Dad and one unsuccessful attempt with a friend who succumbed to altitude sickness. Then I upended my life in multiple ways: becoming a cyclist, moving away from Utah, moving to Alaska. Eight years passed before I made my next summit attempt. The circumstances were traumatic. My grandfather — my father's father — was dying. I drove down from Missoula to visit him, clasping his frail hand with the understanding that this would be the last time I'd ever see him. 

I'd lost my grandmother — my mother's mother — in 1996, when I was still a teenager. Losing Grandpa Homer was my deepest experience with grief as a fully formed adult, and I was reeling. I chose to visit my favorite place in the world, my soul mountain, as a way to honor him. It's interesting because I remember embarking on this climb after he died. But that wasn't the case — re-reading my blog entry, I realized I climbed Lone Peak the day following my final visit with Grandpa. It was August 29, one week before he died on September 4. Grandpa was still in this world when I scaled a summit to send my final goodbye. 

I'd never summited Lone Peak without my Dad. I lost my way from the start, bashed through the brush, wove aimlessly along the granite slabs, got terribly off route, crawled through a minefield of boulders across the Cirque, and scared myself senseless on the exposed summit ridge. I kept telling myself I had to do this for Grandpa and also for Dad, who was losing his Dad. It was so hard. I was frightened. I wasn't meant to be here without him.

After briefly tagging the summit, I scooted back along the talus blocks, buffeted by a strong wind, barely keeping it together. When I reached the end of the scramble, I propped against a rock to collect myself and breathe. I wrote about this moment on my blog: 

Bracing against the wind along the summit ridge on August 29, 2010.

Blog entry from August 29, 2010:

Tears fill my eyes. I know the worst is over, but I can't help myself. I never feel so lonely as I do when I'm alone and afraid. I just want to see somebody, anybody, just so I know I'm not the only person perched on this wind-blasted vertical moonscape. But it's 4 p.m. and no one is left on the peak. I haven't seen anybody for hours. 

I think about the notepad in my backpack. I carry it with me sometimes to write down thoughts. I take it out and rip a corner off a sheet of paper. On the scrap, I write a note to my grandpa. 

"Dear Grandpa Homer, Thank you for your love, your example, and your kindness. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I love you."

I stick the pen in my mouth and in nervousness chew the end right off. Then I remember to add, "Please don't be afraid. Love, Jill." 

I muster up the courage to stand and face the full brunt of the wind. It roars in my face as I hold the note to my side and release it to the gale. I turn around quickly but I don't see it go.

Dad crosses the Jacob's Ladder meadow on July 27, 2011.

I didn't want to have to be the one to spread Dad's ashes over Lone Peak. That was the emotion I had about it, although it was difficult to determine why I felt this way. My experience surrounding my grandfather's death was more traumatic than I realized at the time: Exposing all of that unprocessed grief to ego-driven summit fever and fear. I had been to the summit three times since: in 2011, 2015, and 2017. But those were all excursions with my dad, who kept me safe on the mountain. I believed this unquestioningly, even when I was closing in on 40 and old enough to understand that this childlike comfort was more imagined than real. 

I wondered if this was the reason I was reluctant. Was I simply frightened of Lone Peak? But when I envisioned standing on the summit with dad's ashes, a prominent emotion I felt was anger. And when I probed this anger, I recognized its source. Dad died because he fell from the summit ridge of a well-loved Wasatch mountain. Could I really toss him off another?

The Jacob's Ladder meadow on September 3, 2022. It was a little heartbreaking to see it so dry.

This statement sounds callous, which is one reason I didn't bring up my conflicting emotions with my family. It was incredibly important to me to fulfill Dad's final wishes. He named three specific spots where he wished to have his ashes spread — two in Canyonlands National Park and the last on Lone Peak. He somehow had the prescience to point out the Canyonlands spots while hiking with Beat and me in April 2021, just two months before he died. Lone Peak had a longer-standing place on this list. I don't remember when exactly he brought it up to me, but he also discussed it with my mom. Lone Peak appears prominently on the mountain skyline east of her house. Whenever she steps out of her front door on a clear day, she can look up at the pyramidal summit and think of him. She said she took comfort in the idea that he'd be up there, looking back at her. 

Dad climbs toward the Lone Peak Cirque on July 27, 2011.

We spread Dad's ashes over his chosen spots in Canyonlands in April 2022. It was a beautiful experience that we all shared — mom, my sisters, and Beat. Lone Peak was different because the mountain is so difficult to access. As I described in the 2017 blog entry, there are nearly 7,000 feet of climbing in just 6 miles, and the upper section is technical and exposed. My mom wouldn't be able to join, and I felt my sisters weren't ready, either. Forcing it seemed likely to lead to an experience that would be more traumatic than peaceful, similar to my ordeal surrounding my grandfather's death in 2010. My sisters agreed, but it was difficult to not include them. 

Beat searches for the route along the granite slabs on September 3, 2022.

Thankfully, I had fantastic support from Beat — who flew out to Salt Lake just for this — and our friend Raj, a longtime hiking buddy of my dad. Raj also lost his father in 2021 and offered his support and empathy when I was reeling through the aftermath in Salt Lake City last summer. I also invited another longtime hiking buddy of my dad's, Tom. Tom was with my father in his final moments on Mount Raymond. He scrambled down a treacherous slope to reach Dad's body after he fell and spent hours awaiting a Search and Rescue helicopter. I'm endlessly grateful to Tom for his actions that day. Tom was unable to join us on Lone Peak but was with us in spirit. 

Dad points toward the summit ridge with Tom in the Lone Peak Cirque on July 27, 2011

I chose Labor Day weekend because I needed a reliable day after we returned from Europe that wasn't likely to be hampered by bad weather. There was also an element of continuity with the date. As I looked back through my old records, I realized that late summer was often the "time" for Lone Peak — my first attempts at the end of August in 1997 and 1998, finally reaching the summit on August 27, 1999, my Aug. 29 memorial climb in 2010, my 38th birthday ... 

What I couldn't plan for was the massive "heat dome" that settled over the Western U.S. during the first week of September. The bullseye of the high-pressure system sat directly over Salt Lake City. The temperature shot to 107 degrees on Thursday and nearly that on Friday. The forecast high for Saturday was 103 degrees. I read trail reviews online and learned there was no water, absolutely none, anywhere along the approach. It was a far cry from the Lone Peak climate I remembered — lush meadows, gurgling streams, and snowpack in late July.  

Beat points toward the summit ridge with Raj in a similar location on September 3, 2022.

I set the date but I wasn't ready. During the week leading up to September 3, anxiety consumed my thoughts. I stayed indoors and rode my bike trainer because I felt uneasy about even going outside. Many nights, I woke up at 2 a.m., drenched in sweat and reeling from nightmares about people jumping from cliffs as I helplessly watched from a distance. 

I'm currently spending most afternoons doing remote shift work for a newspaper. On Thursday, I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to carve out a window to drive to Salt Lake City. I essentially drove straight through without stopping, which gave me 90 minutes that I used to march up a brutally steep trail near my Mom's house. I hadn't planned to hike and only had a 16-ounce bottle of water to drink. It was 106 degrees. I angry-hiked up 1,500 feet of sandy trail in 40 minutes and had to blearily wobble-jog down, long out of fluid, still just days removed from hypothermia after being caught in a hailstorm during a long bike ride. Through a daze of early heat exhaustion, I wondered how I continued to make such terrible decisions, how I came to be so frightened of my soul mountain, how I came to feel so lost.

Caught in a haze of wildfire smoke at the top of Jacob's Ladder on August 6, 2021

Gratitude journal from August 6, 2021:

I have nothing for today. I'm done looking for the good in this awful year. I still don't feel ready to climb Lone Peak, but I thought since I'm out here, I could climb to the meadow below the cirque. It is such a beautiful spot; it used to feel like this secret place that only Dad and I knew about. 

The morning started out lovely, but as I crested Enniss Peak, I looked back to see a massive wall of brown fog enveloping the Salt Lake Valley. The fog was a cold front moving in from the north like a freight train — a train carrying wildfire smoke from Oregon and Idaho. Within minutes the smoke moved over me, reducing visibility to a few feet while spiking the air quality index to an intolerable 350. I couldn't breathe. It happened so quickly. My KN95 mask and a dozen inhaler puffs did nothing. I was gasping, wheezing, choking. I've never had such a scary asthma attack, not anywhere, and I was alone in the wilderness 4,000 feet above the valley floor. 

Breathing felt like sucking air through a straw, but if I focused on taking deep breaths and not hyperventilating, I could do it. In this moving meditation, I managed to pick my way down the mountain. Visibility was so low that I became lost and accidentally descended Jacob's Ladder when I intended to return via Cherry Canyon. For quite some time I had no idea where I was. Finally, I dropped onto the gravel road, still three miles from the trailhead, but at that point, I thought, "I'm going to make it!" And I was so happy. And I suppose ... I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful I'm alive, but also for feeling happy to be alive. It's maybe the first time I've felt this way in two months. 

Dad and Tom on the summit ridge on July 27, 2011.

On Friday night, Beat rifled through my overstuffed pack and pulled out a green dry bag.

"What's this?" he asked. 

"It's my puffy," I protested. "I need my puffy."

"You do not need a puffy," he scolded. "When are you going to wear this?"

"I don't know. Weather could turn. I just had hypothermia last week. It was one week ago!"

"It's going to be 100 degrees! You do not need a puffy!"

I grumpily tossed the jacket and other warm gear into a pile outside the pack. Beat is always looking out for me and my sore back, which still bothers me 11 months after the driver of an old F250 hit me with his side mirror while I was riding my bike home. Geez, 2021 was an awful year.  Little by little, my back becomes stronger and my heart more resilient, but the increments are difficult to notice.

Apparently, I wasn't going to be able to protect myself from surprise hailstorms, but I still carry an N95 mask in case of surprise smoke storms. At least now I'd have room for the six liters of water I'd actually need. While filling up my hydration bladders, I smiled at the memory of my dad's first time on Lone Peak. I was 14 years old and had already started joining him for shorter hikes, so I was enthralled as he described packing a plastic Coke bottle that he'd refilled with water, thinking two liters was a lot. It was so hot, he was so thirsty, and he thought the climb would never end. It sounded awful, but his eyes were wide and his smile stretched across his face as he described the view. I knew I'd climb that mountain with him someday. Someday. 

Beat and Raj on the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

We met Raj in the parking lot of the Draper trailhead at 6:30 a.m. The Cherry Canyon Logging Trail instantly shoots upward, gaining the standard 1,000 feet per mile along a mostly bald west-facing slope. To the east, the sun rose behind the crest of Lone Peak, casting the mountain's long shadow across the valley. The morning was already warm. With each passing minute, the shadow grew shorter. Something — maybe the encroaching sunlight — spiked my anxiety, so I breathed in rhythm with the lyrics of "Sun" by The Naked and Famous.

But it keeps on coming,
And I stop, 
But it keeps on coming,
And I just stand still
But it keeps on coming,
It keeps on coming,
So I start running.

Dad and Tom pick their way along the summit ridge on July 27, 2011.

We made quick work of the 4,500 feet of vert to Enniss Peak and climbed onto the granite slabs as Raj regaled us with his tales from climbing the face of Lone Peak — meaning multi-pitch alpine rock climbing — earlier this summer. While descending from their base camp, Raj became terribly lost in the dark and had to bash his way into Suncrest after midnight.

I felt slightly lost on the slabs. It's easy to do — it's a white, blank slate of a trail with cairns everywhere because hikers seem to like creating their own chaos. Dad always seemed to effortlessly find the way through here, although I reminded myself that he, too, had been terribly lost on this mountain before. Once, while aiming for Cherry Canyon, he managed to descend into a different drainage and bashed through the brush for hours before emerging from an obscure side canyon.

Beat and I pick our way along the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

Confused on the slabs and fully exposed to the unavoidable sun, my stew of anxiety neared a boiling point. I didn't quite notice how stressed I was feeling because my energy level had plummeted. I stumbled and faltered as Beat and Raj climbed along the bone-dry creek toward the cirque. It was here we encountered a large group — at least 10 hikers who clearly were mostly beginners. We did not see all that many people on the mountain, but the large group just happened to be clogging up a bottleneck on the route. Beat and Raj disappeared as I got stuck behind the group — 10 people crawling every possible way up a steep boulder field and nervously calling out to each other for help. It was fine. They were doing what they needed to do to get through this tricky terrain, but it was not where I wanted to be and Beat was nowhere to be seen. 

Scrambling over talus blocks with Tom on July 27, 2011.

I finally caught up to Beat and Raj at a crucial junction, where it's easy to continue straight following the drainage and end up in a horrific boulder field — which is what I did in 2010 — or take an obscure left turn around an outcropping to access a faint trail across gentle tundra. I didn't quite remember the correct way. The big group approached, we chose left, and Beat again took off impatiently. His action — as understandable as it was — was the hair trigger that shattered my frayed nerves. I tried to hold it in. I couldn't breathe. I tried holding my breath, but I lost it to a gasping, blubbering meltdown.

Beat hiked back down toward me as I doubled over and sputtered, "I can't do this. I can't do this."

Two of the young men in the large group passed and one asked in a mocking sing-song tone, "Do you need a hug?" He probably thought I was crying because this hike is hard and I was a big middle-aged baby. If there had been a cliff to pitch myself off of right there ... 

View from the summit on September 3, 2022.

Grief hits me like that still, after all of this time. It hurts so much; I'd almost wish for a cliff or a collision with a truck. Anything else to not have to feel that way, not now or ever again. These breakdowns tend to take everything out of me. The anxiety pot boils over and then there's nothing left. I thought I was done. Lone Peak wasn't going to happen today. 

Surprisingly, as I stood and calmed my breathing, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I'd carried this particular anxiety monster for so long that I didn't notice the weight until it crushed me. But in doing so, it released me. 

As we continued toward the summit ridge, I felt as though a terrible burden had lifted. I felt light, free, maybe even a little bit sure-footed. We stopped near the talus blocks so I could put on my approach shoes — Beat had carried a second pair of shoes all the way up the mountain for me so I could avoid blisters in the brutal heat while still feeling more secure on the exposed scramble. He did this because he wanted to be supportive. Although I still felt a sting of irrational hurt for being "abandoned" in the boulder field, I was grateful for his presence. I could not have done this alone.

Raj, the experienced rock climber in the group, led the route through the talus blocks. I was grateful for his calm, confident presence as well. 

Spreading Dad's ashes on September 3, 2022.

The summit ridge was crowded with a few more groups. We moved through them quickly, following Raj's direction and not making a big deal out of scrambling along a narrow spine where hundreds of feet of exposure loom on both sides. Magically, we had the tiny summit to ourselves for a few minutes. We took advantage of the privacy to send Dad on his way. We each took a turn and said just a few brief words. 

I said, "I hope you're happy here, Dad." It was sweet. Cathartic. I let myself feel my Dad's presence. I understood he was at peace, dissolving into everything, his last molecules becoming the mountain. 

Forever gazing over his home from this lofty place.

We stood on the summit for a few more minutes, enjoying the silence. A thousand-foot vertical wall fell away from our narrow perch, and I felt no particular emotion about that reality. I'd tossed Dad over a cliff because it's what he wanted. When I put it that way it sounds macabre and strange. But I had put it that way in my dreams and the thought stressed me out, so I was both grateful and surprised to realize I only felt peace in this place, this vertical moonscape. I had made an emotional mountain out of something simple and sweet — sharing a summit with Dad one final time. I scanned the valley until I recognized the bluff near my mom's neighborhood. From there I could almost pick out her house in the line and shapes. It was such a clear day, so blue, so warm. Dad will be happy here, and Mom can look up at the mountain and know he's happy here. I felt deep gratitude for a thousand moments of grace that made this possible. 

Scrambling down from the summit ridge on September 3, 2022.

As we descended from the summit ridge, Raj mentioned that I was a lucky person to have had all of the wonderful moments with my dad that we had. I wholeheartedly agreed. It wasn't enough time, but there's never enough time. What I still have are thousands of moments of grace, the little joys that I can carry in my heart, that can still lift me up when the burdens of life become too much. 

Beat descends the granite slabs on September 3, 2022.

I was bursting with energy for most of the descent. I'd finally released a massive burden and Dad was free. An oven of afternoon heat baked the rock. The air was eerily still. We saw almost no one after the summit ridge — the world had retreated under the September heat dome. I greedily slurped down liters five and six of my water, still cold thanks to a freezer strategy I'd carefully honed over the long summer.  The notion of needing a puffy or fearing hypothermia was a strange, laughable joke. We spent much of the winding descent describing to Raj what it feels like to sleep outside in the snow when it's 45 below. By the end, we had practically talked him into buying a house in Alaska. 

Still, I couldn't fight off the melancholy entirely. In the perfect world, Dad would be here with me. In this imperfect world, I'm still alone and afraid. While I feel bound to Lone Peak, I'm not sure I'll be able to face it again. The love runs deep, but so does the hurt. All I have left are my memories. Lone Peak will continue to be a mountain, just a mountain, beautifully indifferent to everything I love. 

Dad descends the granite slabs on July 27, 2011.

Blog entry from August 29, 2010:

It's too hard now, not to think about the end. I can believe that my grandpa isn't afraid, but I have to admit that I am. Everything that makes me who I am is wrapped up in the people, and the moments, that all seem to slip away before I'm ready. Life sometimes moves in fast-forward motion, spinning in a blur of color and noise. In my dizziness I look to the past for clarity, only to acknowledge that those moments are gone.
Saturday, September 10, 2022

My belated birthday ride

Saturday, August 20 was my 43rd birthday. 43 was also the number of hours Beat and I had been home since arriving from Europe on Thursday. It felt like a mere hiccup in the space-time continuum as I made my way back to the Denver airport to pick up my Mom, who was flying in for a short visit. I looked forward to seeing her and the timing was good — given my degree of jetlag and the high chance of thunderstorms, it wouldn't have been a choice weekend for an adventure regardless. But it wasn't my favorite birthday — up at 3 a.m. due to jetlag, making the long commute to the airport, waiting in my hot car, delays in finding my mom and more in leaving the airport, finally doing the grocery shopping I'd put off since Thursday, and returning home to a power outage that delayed dinner until 9 p.m. 

I was ready to write the day off, but still, I felt cheated. Birthdays are the best excuse to spend a day doing whatever I want, no matter how selfish or ridiculous, and no one can question it. And every year — despite decades of wishing I was a more normal person who enjoyed parties and pampering — when I search my heart for "whatever I want," I come up with a ridiculous slog that I can grind out alone. That's all I want for my birthday — a day to get out of my head and into the world, numbing my worries with strenuous physical activity while enjoying the freedom of solo travel.

My mom flew home in the middle of the week and then Beat headed out for a bro-trip with his friend Daniel to run a 100-mile ultramarathon in the San Juan Mountains. I was a little surprised that Beat didn't ask me to crew for them, but also grateful. It gave me a guiltless weekend to myself. I envisioned quiet days of much-needed recovery (pretty much everything about August 2022 was exhausting.) But then I woke up much too early the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27 (recovering from jetlag takes so long on the back end.) My first thought: "I should go for a long ride."

No matter that I had barely touched a bike in two months or that I was still grappling with lingering asthma symptoms. The adventure my jetlag-addled brain came up with was to ride my gravel bike to the crest of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, starting from home. How far could it be? In 2020, I rode to the summit of Mount Evans from home and that ride was around 150 miles with 18,000 feet of climbing. It couldn't be longer than that, could it? (Reader, it was exactly that.) I checked the weather forecast, which called for brutally hot temperatures even at higher altitudes but otherwise looked okay — high of 88 degrees in Estes Park with a 15% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. 

I packed my favorite backpack exactly as I had for two dozen mountain outings in Europe: an eight-hour day's worth of snacks, three liters of water, a Befree filter flask that I'd end up using three times, a light rain jacket, skull cap, and lightweight shell mittens that were reasonably waterproof when I took them to Iceland in 2013, but have long since passed their lifespan. During my hikes in the Alps, I usually also carried a synthetic puffy along with primaloft mittens and a warmer hat. But I'd needed the puffy once in five weeks and the rest of the winter gear never. Given this day's forecast, all of it seemed like overkill. And given how overheated I'd felt for most of my time in Europe, I figured I'd welcome any weather that wasn't oppressive heat.  

I set out at the respectable time of 6:48 a.m. and descended through toasty morning air toward Boulder, skirting the western edge of town before commencing the long, long climb beneath a cloudless blue sky. Even though I know these roads by heart, my memory still oversimplifies them. There isn't one long climb to the Divide — it is a series of long climbs, first on Old Stage Road, then the brutal 16% grades on Jamestown Road, and then endlessly undulating rollers for what turned out to be 30 miles of the Peak to Peak Highway. By the time I reached the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, it was 1 p.m. and I'd traveled 62 miles with some 8,000 feet of climbing just to start the climb I'd come here to do. Well. Hmm. It was later than I hoped and farther away than I expected, but I had a water filter and I had lights. The weather looked fine. Why not?

My legs were beginning to feel the burn but I was otherwise enjoying the experience. It was a beautiful afternoon and fun to be back in Colorado — these mountains are different than the Alps, but I missed being here. I was listening to an engaging audiobook that helped soothe the hard-grinding miles of Old Fall River Road. I probably didn't eat enough and definitely neglected electrolytes as I continued to suck down cold, clear water that I'd filtered from the adjacent creek. It was going to be a long grind home — the climbing would not even be close to over once I hit the top — but that was okay too. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

As I neared the crest of Old Fall River Road, I noticed dark clouds looming over the horizon. Blurred sheets of rain were clearly dumping on the Mummy Range to the north, but isolated thunderstorms are a thing. This storm looked like it had already missed me. Arriving at the Alpine Visitor's Center and catching my first view over the Divide quickly flattened my optimism. The entire western horizon was a wall of apocalyptic clouds. Already the landscape was darkening to an ominous mid-day twilight. I wanted to turn around and retreat right there, but I couldn't. As long as it's open to car traffic, Old Fall River Road is a one-way gravel road. Legally I had to ride the rollers along Trail Ridge Road, which exposed me to altitudes above tree line for more than 10 miles. I quickly pulled on all of my layers, ate a handful of peanuts, and commenced the steep climb to the top of Trail Ridge. 

Trail Ridge Road is one of my favorite scenic rides and I planned to take a bunch of photos, but I have none. The reason I have none is because survival mode commenced almost immediately. Within a half mile of leaving the visitor's center, I was hit with a frigid gale-force crosswind that demanded all of my strength just to keep the bike upright. Trail Ridge Road is already narrow with precipitous dropoffs, and there was a steady stream of downhill traffic from drivers who also seemed eager to escape the storm. I was all over the road and genuinely could not help it. I'm surprised no one hit me. I have to admit at the time I was almost disappointed, because everyone was driving slowly, so I wasn't likely to be hurt badly, and the prospect of being placed in a warm vehicle and carried down the hill sounded wonderful ... although I wasn't about to stick out my thumb and beg for it. 

Just as I started into the long, long descent, what had been a light rain exploded with stunning force. There was heavy rain, and then icy sheets of what I assumed was sleet, and then a pummeling of pea-sized hail that blanketed the surrounding tundra in a white veil. The hail and sleet seemed to stick to the pavement and form an icy sheen. While coasting I detected this strange sensation from the back of the bike — the best way I can characterize it is a sudden lack of vibration — almost as though the rear tire was hydroplaning. This would have been terrifying if I wasn't already succumbing to the early effects of hypothermia. My rain jacket had soaked through, my mittens were worse than useless, my steering had been erratic before I lost the sensation in my hands, and I was mostly just thinking about how great it would be if someone hit me with their car and put me out of my misery. 

Then it got worse. From the crest of Trail Ridge Road at 12,000 feet to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at 7,500 feet are more than 20 miles of steep descending with no opportunities for shelter. In hindsight, I should have gotten out of the saddle and started running to boost my core temperature. This visible act of desperation also would have likely earned me the sympathy ride that I was too proud to beg for. But I wasn't thinking clearly. I kept weaving all over the lane, riding the squealing brakes because my numb hands were locked in place, and frequently slipping off the pedals because I could not feel my feet and also could not feel a large portion of my legs. My shoulders shook violently, my teeth chattered painfully, and then the shivering hit my core. I can't remember whether I'd ever involuntarily shivered with my abdominal muscles before — it hurts, a lot. Any part of my body that wasn't numb was wracked with painful convulsions, and I was still trying to steer a bike over icy, hail-streaked pavement as heavy rain pelted my face. 

The last fully coherent thought I formed during this descent was, "I'm so miserable. I have never been more miserable in my entire life, and I am definitely too old for this." Saying to this myself brought levity to my situation. I smiled, but then everything began to blur. The convulsions began to subside, which was a relief. But also not a relief, because I know how hypothermia works. There's the painful part, and then the not-so-painful part, and then you start acting really weird, and then you lose consciousness. 

Somehow I continued to steer myself past the park entrance and rolled into the visitor's center. It was after 5 p.m. and closed, but the bathroom was still open. I threw my bike onto the sidewalk and waddled inside on wooden legs that were not my own. It was comical, how little control I had over my legs. I had no hope of using these legs for pedaling so it was good that I was able to coast all the way to shelter. I sat on the tile floor, removed my shoes and socks, and awkwardly pawed at my toes, unable to massage my numb feet with numb hands that I also had no control over.

It seemed like I spent a long time in that bathroom, but it probably wasn't that long. Only a couple of women walked in while I was there. They did their best to avert their eyes as I probably looked dangerous in my bedraggled state — soaking wet with bare feet. One of the women left almost immediately, which I didn't find strange at the time but later thought — "yeah, that was probably because of me." The shivering recommenced and then I started to feel more lucid. Suddenly I felt desperately thirsty, which was weird. I hobbled outside to the drinking fountain and filled my hydration bladder so I could gulp down at least 1.5 liters. Feeling even better, I chased the water with a Kind protein bar. Something about that bar — or more likely the hypothermia and drinking way too much water when I was possibly also a little hyponatremic — made me feel extremely nauseated and faint, so I had to sit down again. 

After a few more minutes, my head stopped spinning and I felt all-around better but utterly exhausted. Hypothermia takes a lot out of a body even without 95 miles of cycling behind it. I considered looking for a hotel room in Estes Park, but as soon as I pulled out my phone to look, I remembered that it was a Saturday night. The whole town was likely to be booked solid. And even if it wasn't, I wasn't sure that a bail-out was what I wanted. It had been a while since I'd had an old-fashioned misadventure — you know, bite off more than I can chew, come underprepared but not in an unreasonable way (a 15% chance of storms on a summer day does not portend certain doom), be completely pummeled by natural forces I can't control, and yet somehow battle my way to some semblance of victory. Sure, this was more of a thing for me when I was younger — and I am justifiably still teased about many of these youthful mistakes — but it had been a while. Nostalgia — and yes, a still-addled brain — drove me back to my overturned bike. 

I still had some 60 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing to pedal home — indeed, I'd close out the ride with 152.5 miles and 17,800 feet of climbing. And while the wave of nausea abated it never entirely went away. I don't remember whether I consumed another calorie after that Kind Bar. I probably did, but there's also a chance I didn't — I only had two or three bars left at the Alpine Visitor's Center, didn't resupply in Estes Park as I had planned, and still had two bars in my pack when I got home. 

As I merged back onto the Peak to Peak Highway, the setting sun lit up the fading remnants of the thunderstorm. The wind calmed to a gentle whisper. The air felt warm, almost hot, once again. My body, no doubt grateful to be alive, filled my blood with adrenaline. I had transcended pain, transcended fatigue, transcended any remnant of weakness that could stop me from sprinting up the steepest hills. Also, my core temperature was still low enough that any time I stopped pedaling, I started shivering, so there was a survival component to my relentless motion. 

Dusk faded and the stars came out, so many stars. Traffic ceased and I was alone in a vast world, feeling warm and safe. I rolled through an empty Nederland and rolled along the washboard gravel of Magnolia Road, which usually rattles me to the bone but seemed to have lost its bite now that I'd transcended being human. 

I turned onto a considerably more rugged road while continuing to descend at a fast clip. The road was sandy and mottled with embedded rocks. I had essentially forgotten I was riding a bike in the real world, let alone a gravel bike with questionable traction. Within seconds, my rear wheel washed out and slammed me onto the dirt — a hard, dead-fish sort of slap that happens when gravity catches me unaware. Having no idea the hit was coming, I managed to stay loose through the fall so the impact didn't have that much effect on me. It was a surprise that jolted me back to reality, but not much more. 

There I was, nearly 150 miles into a spontaneous ride, alone on a rugged back road at midnight, as a 43-year-old woman — well, 43 and one week — who really should know better by now. The ridiculousness of finding myself sprawled out in the dirt amid this reality hit me before any semblance of pain, so I burst out laughing. My brain conjured a scene from the movie "Everything Everywhere All At Once" — the characters wake up in a universe where life never formed and they exist as rocks, and one decides that rocks can still be spontaneous and wear googly eyes, because there are no rules. There are no rules! We can do anything we want!

Of course, in this universe, I accept that there are still rules. Gravity is a rule, one I respect. I decided to walk most of the remainder of the jeep road — some four miles — since I clearly could not trust my riding. I finally pulled up to my house at 1:33 a.m., shivering in the still-damp rain jacket that I was still wearing. My home thermometer read 71 degrees. It was a hot summer night following a hot summer day. Did any of it even happen?

I took a shower and went to bed, waking up the next morning and still feeling unsure about that question. If it hadn't been for the bruises on my legs and the chaffing on my bum, I may have continued to question the veracity of my memories. But my feelings were clear: That was such a fun day. I'm definitely too old for such nonsense, but also, I suppose, not too old. For the latter, I'm grateful.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Return to the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn. When I was a child it was a mythical place, evoked by its namesake ride at Disneyland and by the bodice-and-red-skirt-clad women sounding the alpenhorn for Swiss Days in Midway, Utah. As a teenager, I watched a documentary about the first ascent of the Matterhorn and decided as an aspiring mountain adventurer, I would someday make my way to this storied pyramid. 

But then I never did. I met a Swiss man and traveled with him to Europe nearly every year since 2011, touring far-flung places all over the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. Over that decade, I skirted the valleys beneath this summit several times but never quite caught a glimpse of it. Finally, in 2022, Beat signed up for a foot race that circumnavigated the Matterhorn and I finally saw the mountain from the Italian side. When we came upon our fifth and final week in Switzerland and the question of where we should spend the last few days arose, I proposed a visit to the Swiss side of the Matterhorn, from the village of Zermatt. 

Beat was reluctant for all of the reasons we never made our way here before. It's touristy, it's crowded, and it's ridiculously expensive. I countered that I was accustomed to such crowds. For years I had been crammed into Chamonix during UTMB week, sharing the narrow streets with tens of thousands of racers, spectators, and other tourists. It was madness that Beat never had to experience because he was galavanting off in the remote backcountry of the PTL course. Zermatt is expensive, but not necessarily more than any other place if we stuck to our usual habit of preparing our own food and hiking all day. And yes, it's touristy ... but we're tourists. 

Beat agreed: "You have to see it once."

The week before Zermatt was really rough for me. We were spending those days with Beat's mom in her small apartment. The asthma symptoms that have been exacerbated all month hit a level I haven't experienced since my early days with the condition. I was wheezy most of the time and woke up in the middle of the night to terrifying attacks. It's difficult to say what sparked this, although I suspected I might be reacting to Beat's mom's cat. When I first tested for allergies in 2016, I showed a strong reaction to cat dander ... which I found strange because I had lived with one for more than 10 years. The doctor shrugged, said we sometimes desensitize ourselves to specific allergens, and suggested he'd add cat to the list of serums they'd be injecting to help desensitize my body to a much more severe grass allergy. Allergy shots are essentially micro-dosing our personal poisons and agreeing to unpleasant micro-symptoms, and I've been subjecting myself to this for six years. Everything got better for a while, but the past two summers have brought setbacks. So a sudden flare-up of cat allergy makes some sense. 

I also, admittedly, was starting to mentally unravel amid a near-complete lack of alone time. It seems to me that most introverted people emerged from the 2020 quarantine either a little more outgoing or leaning hard into their introversion. I'm in the latter group. Put me in a dark room by myself with nothing for stimulation but my own thoughts, and I'll still be happier than I am in an overcrowded airport. For a week, my only chance for alone time was to go stumbling through the woods, physically unable to run because my breathing was too pinched, until I found a quiet picnic table to sit in 90-degree heat and write on my laptop. 

Unsurprisingly, I arrived in Zermatt in poor shape. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday when we stepped off the train, schlepped our gear to our rental studio — which was lovely — and made a quick turnover to squeeze in a hike before evening. Beat mapped out a random route and I tried on my new hiking boots, which we purchased in Switzerland when I realized that many of my troubles with loose terrain and boulder-hopping might be solved with more supportive footwear. Most people on these rugged Swiss trails wear boots, not trail runners, and I think there's a good reason for that. It's not that they haven't discovered sneakers ... it's that sneakers suck on talus and boulders unless you are nimble and sure-footed. And I am not. 

Still, I haven't seriously worn hiking boots in 20 years. I should have taken some precautions to prepare my baby-soft feet for a trek of any distance. Mistakes were made on this day.

We took off toward downtown Zermatt, which was pulsing with noise and music. As we approached, we realized that the main street was blocked by huge crowds watching a parade. There was no way to get to our route without cutting through the parade, so that's exactly what Beat did. He wove through the crowd at a clip I could barely manage, shouldering spectators, weaving through marching bands, and ducking as people tossed batons. I was horrified. All of my social anxieties boiled to the surface and I couldn't breathe. Why did we have to cut through the parade? Why couldn't we just turn around and go back to our apartment and maybe spend the afternoon crying in bed? 

We made it through the parade, but my breathing was already compromised when we hit the trail. And of course, this trail that Beat chose was "Zermatt's Ultimate Fitness Test" — an Ultraks "Vertical" that gains 2,200 feet in just 1.4 miles. The average grade is 43%. It's not a great spot for an asthmatic 40-something woman wearing hiking boots and fighting off a panic attack. 

Beat surged ahead and I stumbled and gasped behind him for some time, maybe 1,000 feet of vert, before I faltered so badly that I almost lost consciousness. My head was spinning and by vision was blacking out. Inhaler puffs did nothing. I texted Beat and told him that I didn't care what he did, but I was stumbling my way back to that terrifying parade to wait until he returned.

He called and urged me to follow a side trail toward a gondola station. My memory from this point is hazy, but eventually, we reconnected and stumbled back down to town. It was about here that  screaming foot pain finally cut through my oxygen-deprived daze. Indeed, after something like five miles and maybe 2,000 feet of climbing in the Gore-tex boots, I'd already managed to develop a heel blister, some serious maceration, and partially detached skin on the bottom of one heel. 

The following day, our plan was to climb the Mettelhorn — at 11,175 feet, it's one of the highest hikeable peaks (meaning no special gear or climbing skills needed) in the Alps. Our route plan had nearly 7,000 feet of climbing in just 12.5 miles. I lamented that I had failed Zermatt's Ultimate Fitness Test, so clearly Mettelhorn would be a non-starter. Beat urged me to try. The week's forecast called for increasing chances of rain, and Sunday — which was overcast but lacking thunderstorm threat — was likely our only shot. 

I was feeling better and had taken some care of my feet — which is to say I slathered on a bunch of lube and hoped for the best. We climbed and climbed, and Beat was patient with me ... I was moving slowly, but my breathing improved as we gained altitude. Not much pollen up here! I was glad to wear boots for the glacier crossing; the stiff soles held my microspikes like a serrated knife. I couldn't slide if I tried. 

The views from the Mettelhorn were stunning, even when muted by the flat light. It also was shockingly warm for this altitude, which is how I could describe our entire five-week stay in Europe. 

From the glacier below the Mettelhorn, we decided to climb to an adjacent peak called the Platthorn. My feet were in rough shape but my breathing finally felt clear, and I was buzzing with all of the accessible-to-me oxygen in this high-altitude air. 

The Mettelhorn as seen from the Platthorn. Those zig-zagging switchbacks to the summit are as steep as they look. I feel like this grade would have been impossible to ascend if my breathing was as pinched as it had been just a day earlier. So glad my lungs cooperated. 

The Matterhorn continued to loom in the distance. This is the view from the summit of the Platthorn, where we called Beat's dad to show him the view. He was so excited ... Mettelhorn is one of his favorite places. At 83, he still hopes for an opportunity to visit one more time. With some planning, training, and perhaps a night in the mid-mountain Trift Hotel, I bet he can do it. 

We looped around to ascend one more 3,000-meter peak, Wisshorn. Summits aren't easy to achieve in the Alps, so it was fun to tag three in one day. My feet were in so much pain. A thick layer of heel skin did fully detach although I wouldn't be able to remove it for a few more weeks, and the high temperatures meant my feet were soaking in a warm bath of sweat and mottled with heat rash. I am still sold on the potential of supportive hiking boots, but decided that maybe these eight-hour grinds were not the place to break them in. It was a good test, but I'd give my feet a break by completing eight-hour hikes in worn-out trail runners for the rest of the trip. 

Monday was supposed to be rainy, so we were surprised to wake up to partly cloudy skies. Our plan for this day was to climb to the Gornergrat and traverse along the Monte Rosa massif — the other side of the valley from the Mettelhorn. A cog railway travels to the crest of this ridge. We looked into riding the train but discovered that a round-trip ticket for the two of us would cost $265. That was close to the price of my new hiking boots. Although I didn't plan to wear them for a while, perhaps I could at least justify the expense if we saved the money and hoofed the 6,000 feet of vertical gain. Beat, of course, always prefers to hike. 

I understand why Switzerland can justify charging what they do for access to the Gornergrat — the route is stunning. Once at the top, the trail is a pleasant stroll with unceasing views of the Monte Rosa massif and the Gorner glacier pouring down the valley. 

We traversed to the lip of another glacier. It had been a nice respite of easy walking, soon to be broken when Beat marched us up yet another white-blue-white trail that gained 1,100 feet in 0.7 miles. 

Beat and the crest of the Hohtalli ridge ... I suppose the steep trail was worth it. We enjoyed our relatively cheap grocery store ham sandwiches and nut tarts, which are so much more delicious than anything you can purchase from a grocery store in the States. 

We looped around a minor peak with a closed gondola station and descended an unbelievably steep ski slope. Zermatt can host its share of crowds — not only did we find our way into a summer parade, but the town's annual folk festival was also that weekend. Like any mountain town, though, it's not that difficult to escape crowds. We'd make our way onto these lesser-known routes and see nobody else for an hour or more. 

Tuesday was forecast to be the rainiest day of them all. I was scheduled to work a full shift on Alaska time starting around 8 that evening, so I had the day to burn, but little faith that the weather would allow for much. We made amendable plans and then woke up to shockingly bluebird skies. 

On Sunday we'd explored north of the valley when we climbed to the Mettelhorn. Monday we turned and went south to Gornergrat. On Tuesday, we went west, climbing directly toward the Matterhorn through the Zmutt valley. 

This route was comprised almost entirely of reward. We knocked out nearly 4,000 feet of climbing in the first three miles, and then enjoyed a long traverse above the valley with stunning views of the Matterhorn. Beat went on a short diversion in search of a technical challenge, and I enjoyed an hour of alone time. 

The only segment I did not love was a short section along the edge of a crumbling moraine. This part of the trail has been rerouted and was not mandatory, but Beat headed up there anyway. I admit that it did seem like the more scenic route but soon became difficult to escape and so severely eroded that every step seemed precarious. 

As we climbed higher up the valley, we began to wrap around the north face of the Matterhorn. For having never viewed this mountain before 2022, I can now say I've seen it from all sides: From the south and west while hiking around the Italian side, and the north and east from Zermatt. 

We climbed as high as the Schonbielhutte, with stunning views of the Dent d'Herens. A few clouds arrived in the afternoon, but it was altogether an unexpected clear day. 

Wednesday was our final full day in Switzerland and would be a long day of transitions to Geneva for an early Thursday flight. We still squeezed in a shorter hike to the Europaweg — a trail that traverses the main valley — to check out the longest suspension bridge in Switzerland. The bridge is 500 meters across and rises 80 meters above the crumbling gully it traverses. I was intrigued but also concerned ... I'd freaked out on the bridge spanning the Aletsch glacier valley just a couple of weeks earlier. This one wasn't as bad — there was no raging torrent below and higher cables on which to cling. 

It is impressive that Switzerland invests in this level of infrastructure for hikers. A similar route in Colorado would almost certainly traverse a crumbling path through that avalanche gully and its gauntlet of rockfall, and for obvious reasons would be an unpopular and little-used route. That also is the difference between "wilderness" and "mountains which have been utilized by humans for hundreds of years and heavily developed in the process. 

I appreciate wilderness, of course. Wilderness immersion is why I cherish my Alaska experiences, why I'm drawn to the desert even though I'm terrified of it, and how I soothe my social anxieties in a world of 7.7 billion people. Still, I'm grateful for the nearly endless network of trails — more than I could hike in a lifetime — and other infrastructure — I suppose, yes, even the gondolas and $200 trains — that make these beautiful mountains so accessible. 

Despite my physical and mental difficulties, I'm grateful for my experience in the Alps this summer. My 40s have brought emotional turmoil that I would not have expected when I was a 20-something diving head-first into my first Alaska and bikepacking adventures. If you asked me about my motivation then, I would say that I was an anxious person who wanted to face my fears, which was true, but I also carried this assumption that you tackled a problem and thus conquered it. I was going to will myself to be brave and strong and that would be the end of it. 

Now, I have this sense that life is likely to only get harder, that I'm becoming weaker and less equipped to confront a growing roster of monsters, that my anxiety is getting away from me, that it might just become sentient and take over entirely. Even what many would consider the relatively benign and undoubtedly privileged experience of getting on a plane and traveling to Europe for five weeks was intimidating, and I didn't always cope well. But ultimately it was a wonderful experience — so much beauty and shared joy with Beat, so many exhilerating moments interspersed with a few of abject terror. 

And I got to see Zermatt — at least once, but after these incredible few days, I hope I can go back.