Monday, October 05, 2009

Overtrained for regular life

People only seem to call me when I am traipsing up and down mountains. Twenty hours a day, I am inside a building, surrounded by all kinds of social media, but the phone calls ... from my friends, from my boss, from my family ... only seem to come when I am clinging to Sitka spruce roots on a precarious ledge of some muddy slope that absolutely should not be located in cell-phone reception range ... but is, all the same. I guess maybe those calls come then because those hours, the morning hours, are the hours I'm supposed to be "around." But, lately, I haven't been "around." I've been everywhere else.

"Can't talk long," I told a friend from Utah who called Saturday morning. "I'm about to head down and the trail has turned really slimy. I'm going to need both hands."

My friend groaned. "Where are you?"

"Grandchild," I said.

"Again? Weren't you just there, like, last week?"

"Probably," I said. "But I have to get these in while I can. We had another nice day today. Can you believe it? That's like, two, at least, in October. More than we usually get in the whole month. I have to take advantage while I can, because you never know when the clouds are finally going to sink in for 36 days of rain. That's how many we had last October."

"There aren't 36 days in October," she said.

"I think the streak carried over into November," I said.

"Don't you have better things to do?" she asked.

"Oh, tons. I haven't gotten anything productive done, well, besides my job, since, well, probably since August."

But it's true - around here, I have to roll with the weather. I just have to. Every day, I track the forecasts and monitor the cloud ceiling and gauge the snow line - the combination of which threaten, every day, to shut me out of most of Juneau's high country until next summer. And every time a good weather window opens up, I think "this could be the last one." And I suit up, and set out.

And another window opened up Sunday - high overcast, a bit of wind, but no rain. "This could be my last chance to go up Ben Stuart," I thought. Ben Stuart is one of the few established trails in town that I had not yet set foot on. It was a horrible trail ... shin deep in mucky mud and decaying slippery grass. I'm usually not a rubber boot person, but my one of my running shoes pulled off my foot in sinkholes, twice, and I had to reach into the stinky swamp and dislodge it with a sickening slurp. By the time I hit the alpine, I was grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. I plopped down and stuck my feet in a stream, watching the clear water whisk away large chunks of mud. The vegetation on the ground, ravaged by too many killing frosts, was slimy and brown. Even though I had been walking across a level basin, my heart was racing. I had a headache and felt hungry, but the thought of eating the Power Bar I had in my pack was nauseating. And as I sat soaking my aching feet in the frigid water, the thought suddenly occurred to me ... "Holy cow, I'm totally overtrained!"

Overtrained for ... what? All I've been doing since I returned to Juneau is enjoying myself. And then I enjoyed myself some more. And then I enjoyed myself into a hiking habit that sometimes stretches to upwards of 20 or even 30 hours a week, or more, with exercise that is decidedly more strenuous than the biking I usually (used to?) do. And then there was that 30-hours-in-three-days bike tour in the Yukon ... was that just last weekend? It's all a blur. All I see is mountains, mountains, mountains.

A big fall storm moved in today ... 25 mph winds, 45 degrees, 1.25 inches of rainfall. I was grateful. I did my laundry. I typed e-mails. I talked to my sister. I pet my cat. I called my friends.

I felt a little more human. A little more grounded. I put bandaids on my blisters. And checked Tuesday's weather ...

Which calls for decreasing clouds. Again.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Into October

OK, I've already done the post where I talk about how amazing and un-fall-like the weather has been. And I've already done the post where I talk about how much I love walking around areas that are a little higher than the place where I live. And I've done the post where I publish an obnoxious number of pictures with cursory captions to justify their exsistence. I've done them all, a lot. And here I go again. Be annoyed if you want to. This is my blog.

Today I set out to slay some peaks. How many, I didn't know. I was feeling ambitious, but I knew I was heading into snow, and the possibility of a large chunk of terrain that was unknown, and I was alone. So I expected, even early in the day, that restraint would trump ambition.

I headed up the Mount Roberts trail, later in the day than I really should have. I had this crazy idea about looping around the Clark Ridge and connecting up with Granite Creek Basin. If it was early still, I even had grand illusions about hitting up Mount Olds. The whole thing would have involved six peaks and more than 10,000 feet of climbing. I didn't even begin to anticipate how much the new snow would bog me down while subsequently freaking me out. In hindsight, my original goal seems ridiculous.

But that didn't even seem to matter while it was beautiful and bright and I had all day to bask in the sun.

Gastineau Peak. 12:11 p.m. Elevation 3,666 feet.

Here's the part where I have to admit that I still don't own an ice ax and crampons. I didn't anticipate needing them - it was only 1-6 inches of soft snow, with a few deep drifts in spots. The gear wouldn't even have completely helped with the obstacles I met later, but they would have been nice to have, for sure.

Mount Roberts. 12:42 p.m. Elevation: 3,819 feet.

The stress started when I made my attempt on Sheep Mountain. I've only been up here once before. I'd forgotten how steep and exposed it can be in places. Much of the route up would be class 3 or 4 scrambling when dry, and today the rocks were covered in all manner of rotten rime, wet glare ice and crusty snow.

I didn't take any big chances, alone as I was, but I did spend more than an an hour working my way up to an unmanageable spot, inching back down, and then wandering around the perimeter of the face looking for the "easy" way up. I wasn't stoked on heading back the way I came, and still had the grand illusion of making it all the way around the loop, which wasn't possible if I couldn't summit Sheep.

I was less than 100 feet from the top when I was inching my way along a not technical but exposed spot and made the mistake of looking down. It dawned on me that if I slipped, at all, I was going to plunge 15 feet and break my legs or worse. The thought hit me like a brick, and I froze with the kind of focused fear that is aboslutely debilitating. I was paralyzed. I clung to the rocks for a few mintues, head spinning, eyesight dark, before I finally relaxed enough to slowly back off the ledge and regain my senses. All that time, I had good footing and a four inches of soft snow to hold me in place, but the fear of falling was amazingly acute. I didn't want to go through any more of that, so I made the decision right there to go back the way I came. But as I started working my way down, I spoted a fairly straightforward, deeply drifted ramp to the peak.

Sheep Mountain. 2:56 p.m. Elevation: 4,065 feet. I dropped the camera in the snow, so there's water all over the lens.

I'm bummed I didn't make the Clarks Loop this year, but it wasn't meant to be. Even with the right equipment and a partner, it still probably wouldn't have been a good idea. As soon as the sun started to sink enough that parts of the mountain fell into shadow, the wet snow froze solid almost immediately. I was lucky to have my own deep tracks to follow.

As always, I learned a lot. I'll be better prepared next time, or at least more cautious.

The day slipped away just the same. I was back at the tram just before sunset. It's closed for the season, which was disappointing. I was exhausted from stress and a day full of stomping through the snow. I could have really used a ride down.

Three summits. About 14 miles round trip. Total elevation gain according to GPS: 7,062 feet. Total time: 7.5 hours.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September I'm in love, still

Frost-crusted silt crunched under our boots as we walked along the Mendenhall Lake shoreline. It was nearly midnight; the sky was washed in stars; the orange tint of the setting moon cast a warm glow over the water, sparkling with the night. Mountains cut massive silhouettes through the encompassing shimmer. I glanced upward in wonder, startled by the simple vastness of the moment, sandwiched as it was between two mundane workdays.

We lingered late by the fire and set up camp atop a thickening layer of frost. I own but one truly warm sleeping bag. It's rated to 40 below zero - my favorite piece of gear. I curled up in my own private mountain of 800-fill down, billowing heat and perfect comfort, lulled to sleep by the vast simplicity of life.

We were up at sunrise, a direct consequence of the mundane demands of a Tuesday, but the world stayed still for a moment, frozen in ice.

First snow, first frost - the drum beat toward winter. It makes me feel excited and anxious, content and alive.

I still had several hours to kill before I had to be at my own job as the morning brightened into the kind of day that touches on the sublime. Some northern municipalities have "powder days." In Juneau, we have "sun days" - those days where all of your co-workers call in sick; people wave as they pass you on the street; commuters grin from their cars. Everyone wants - no, needs - to get outside, even if they have laundry to do, even if their leg muscles feel slightly shredded and they have to eat Twix Bars for breakfast because they haven't been grocery shopping since August. It doesn't matter. Sun days trump all.

I hiked up Mount Jumbo because it's convenient, fast, and I've climbed it so many times that I understand the obstacles well enough to jog on the way down. Plus, it's west-facing and washed in sunlight.

Temperatures rose quickly, into the mid-50s, but the ice of the morning still clung to the trail. I moved with speed and purpose and didn't slip once - one of my smoothest mountain traverses by far.

An awesome way to wrap up an awesome month.