Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Modern romance

"Don't hold on.
Go, get strong.
Well don't you know,
there is no modern romance."
— "Modern Romance," Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Tuesday morning rose misty and warm, with flecks of sunlight burning through the cracks in a disintegrating ceiling of clouds. I packed up my Camelbak the way I did back in July, with just a light shell and gloves, extra socks, my GPS, and water. I held my camera in my hands, wavering on whether or not I should stuff it in the outer pocket. Maybe, maybe just this once, I thought, I should leave it behind. Maybe this one will be a quiet trek. I won't tell anyone, and I won't have any evidence I was there. It will be a secret.

I stuffed my camera in the pack, just in case, and set out into the promising morning with the same sense of irresistible anticipation and cautious reserve I have been feeling recently in other areas of my life. I thought again about leaving the camera behind. Already, some of my friends have been hinting that I have a problem. That I spend too much time in the mountains. That I have only just emerged from a very long, committed thing (a-hem ... the Tour Divide), and in my drive to get back out there, and the overzealous way I am going about it, I may be setting myself up for a long fall.

"It's not so much about being tired," my friend said as I told her about my Sheep Mountain trek and how I've been feeling a little under the weather ever since, but can't seem to stop as long as the actual weather is nice. "What do you even think about when you're out there alone, just out in the woods with the bears and wolves, for like seven hours all the time? Aren't you scared? Don't you go crazy?"

And all I could think of the answer is, "I don't know. I think about everything, I guess. That's really the only time I have to think." But why has it been so hard for me to decipher what "everything" actually is? All of the time I've spent stomping through the mountains lately, I've had a lot of time to sift through the pieces of my life, to look for ways I can fit them together in a puzzle that makes the most sense and makes me the most happy. And all I seem to have found is a flight of ideas surrounded by exhilaration in the high country, transforming flawlessly to fear when I am back in the low country. The ideas feel something like love up high, something like insanity down low, and the pieces stay scattered. As I come down, I cling to appreciation for the "regular" life I have, and the new friendships I've found, and mountains.

"Time, time is gone.
It stops stops who it wants.
Well i was wrong ...
it never lasts ...
there is no ...
this is no modern romance."

So I thought about keeping it a secret that I was heading up Thunder Mountain on a tranquil Tuesday morning. After all, I can hardly complain about achy muscles if I am the one who keeps pounding them into the ground. It could just be me and the mountain, a quiet October morning, where instead of gathering and analyzing the pieces of my life, I could just scatter them in the gentle breeze. But as I worked my way up the mountainside, hands clasped around the exposed roots of 100-foot-tall Sitka spruce trees that filtered flecks of sunlight down their moss-coated trunks, exhilaration started to take over again. Confidence swelled, and in those perfect photogenic moments, I believe I could do it, all of it: living the dream, the cabin, the writing, the trips to Nigeria and Banff, the skiing, the winter bike touring, the freedom, the unhindered freedom. There are so many chances out there waiting to be taken, so many feelings ready to be exposed.

Clouds floated along the edges of the ridge, which looked more like a rolling, Midwestern prairie than a mountain top. I like this world because it is so close, but so different than mine. I love this world because it is mine. Every time I'm really tempted to mix things up, all I need to do is come up here and realize that I actually have it pretty good. Still, the empty spaces remain. Some of my married, parenting friends have expressed envy at my freewheeling, single-girl lifestyle, which on its margins must appear to be all fun and hottie potential, with no room for dull responsibility. And, of course, I look at the margins of their lives and I want what they have - partnership and love. Why would anyone want more? Why do people always think they want more?

But up in the mountains, above the confusion and contradiction, it's easy to condense what I know about life and love. I know life is short and hard. I know love is long and abstract. I know I want to experience both to the very edges, the very heights of my abilities, because I know, in the end, they're all I have. But I know fear is powerful and pain is unbearable, and those two things will battle life and love, always. And as the battle rages on, I know it will be difficult to fight when there is so much I do not know. If I am brutally honest with myself, I know that right now there are just two things about life and love that I actually do know:

I know I love mountains. And I know they do not love me back.
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.