Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mount Olds

I seem to wake up these days with single-minded purpose. The cell-phone alarm rings out. I groan and nuzzle deeper into my down comforter. My cat wanders over and plops down my my chest. I exhale involuntarily, grab her, and sit up, blinking vacantly toward the window until I remember my name, my location, the year, and finally, the fact that the weather is supposed to be good today!

I carry my cat over to the door and throw it open. Outside, a thick blanket of fog hovers over Auke Bay, shrouding everything beyond the driveway. "What do you think, Cady?" I ask my cat. (Oh, yes, I talk to my cat, because she is the vocal type who always answers back.) "Do you think it'll clear up?"


"Yeah, I don't know either. But it is Sunday, so I don't have to go into work until later. I have five hours, maybe six. But what to do?"


"Maybe, Cady. You think I should go for it?"

The final indifferent glare from my cat as she struggles to free herself and dart outside is my answer. I dress quickly, grab my pre-packed Camelbak - pretty much just hoping there's enough water and food left after Friday's Camping Cove cabin trip - and go.

I used my newly remodeled Road Monkey to shuttle myself up the Perseverance Trail, stashed the skinny-tire bike and started up Granite Creek with a single-minded focus on Mount Olds. The fog was lifting quickly, but the peak was still shrouded in clouds. But Granite Creek Basin, always a smorgasbord of color, did not disappoint. Streaks of crimson and gold swept over the basin like brush strokes.

I crested the upper basin and started scaling a rocky drainage the became progressively steeper until I was climbing with my hands more than my legs, finding plenty of good holds but willing my head not to turn around and look down. I gained the ridge, vowing NOT to return on that same route, and yet I was a little uncertain how exactly I would get down (I knew Olds had been summitted before, by lots of people, so I figured there was a way it could be done without down-climbing a virtual cliff.) Still, I had a little bit of that anxiety that hits me when I realize my skills don't exactly live up to my alpine dreams.

That anxiety swirled around as I made my way up the face of Olds. The week-old snow had melted and refrozen and melted and refrozen to a solid sheen. The final 100 feet of the mountain looked steep - as steep as the drainage I had just climbed up - and was glazed in the same icy snow that was barely making an imprint below my feet. I stood on that final saddle, just a couple hundred feet from the summit, with a frown stretched across my face. I remembered how much I struggled on Sheep Mountain last week, and the scrambling up Olds looked even worse. I still have yet to obtain a pair of crampons (not for lack of trying. I really need to figure out when Foggy Mountain is open.) But I was weaponless, facing a ladder of rock and ice with bare fingers and rubber-soled hiking boots.

I knew before I set out this morning that snow conditions might turn me around, but it wasn't easy to let that happen when I was so close to the top. Summit fever gripped me and I paced back and forth, dropping a few dozen feet and then returning, double-back-tracking and stewing, squinting at the mountain and wondering if it was really so bad or if I was just being a chicken. A fierce wind drove up from the valley and cold-slapped some reality into me.

"It's OK," I told myself. "I'm a lover, not a fighter. I don't need to slay this peak."

I admit mountaineer aspirations have slipped into my dreams, but such things take practice and also take time, and not taking chances until I have more of both is probably wise.

I down-climbed a narrow notch filled with loose shale and found my way back to the ridge. I figured at worst, I would have to climb the next peak and regain the regular Juneau Ridge route on the other side. I found a less-steep drainage into the basin and started down, only to discover it confluenced with a waterfall halfway down. Undeterred, I worked my way down the wet rocks, soaking up large quantities of frigid water through my clothing as a below-freezing windchill whipped by. The scrambling was never too sketchy, but now I'm really curious where the "normal" route up Olds is. In hindsight, I probably should have just stayed on the Juneau Ridge and looped back down.

As always, I learned a lot. These solo mountain adventures have been great at forcing me outside my comfort zone, learning to breathe and trust and love in the grip of the indifferent unknown.
Friday, October 09, 2009

And then I went for a bike ride

The weather forecast for the next week is jaw-droppingly unbelievable. I keep re-checking it, scarcely letting myself believe that "mostly cloudy" and "partly cloudy" days could really carry into mid-October. But even if the predictions hold partly true, there may still be more opportunities to run up mountains, and maybe I'm not in such a hurry after all. I got a lot of stuff done this weekend that I've been putting off. And I finally rode out to Echo Cove for the first time ... well, probably the first time in 2009.

It's only 62 miles round trip from my new place in Fritz Cove. It took me a little less than four hours with a snack break, so my pace wasn't totally slacking, but the time just flew by. It was one of those rides where I reached the end of the road, slowed to a stop, and stared at the boat ramp that marks the absolute dead end, wondering how I could possibly be there already. I was totally zoned in, or maybe zoned out is a better word - in heavy bike therapy mode, spinning pedals and letting my mind wander all over the landscape of my life. By the time I returned to Auke Bay, I had drawn three strong conclusions that I said out loud to myself, which felt great. Honestly, I don't know why people pay others to help them work through therapy when bikes are so good at that sort of thing, and free.

Today I woke up late and had more errands to do, so I only got in a fairly quick run (oh yes, I went running) up the Dan Moller trail. I made it to the cabin in about 40 minutes and decided to continue up to the ridge for good measure ... which turned out to be surprisingly treacherous. It's a quick jaunt in the winter, so I didn't think twice about stomping up the same steep drainage sans snow. But I slipped on the wet, rotten grass, fell to the ground hard on my hip and started sliding down the mountain. I clawed at the slimy slope as I gained momentum, laughing even as I was falling because it seemed ridiculous that I was going to slip-and-slide my way all the way back down to the bowl. Finally I reached out and grabbed onto a spruce branch, suspending my downward slide, and used that line of trees as ropes to pull myself up to the ridge. It was pretty humorous ... Here I've been, all worried about impending snowfall, when what I really need an ice ax and crampons for is autumn groundcover.

I'm headed back out the road tonight, this time to go camping at a cabin for a friend's birthday. It was a great, mellow weekend, but if that unreal weather forecast holds up, I'll probably have no choice but to ramp it up again next week.
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.