Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mount Meek

Two days ago, my friend Bjorn and I made plans to climb Mount Meek on Sunday, "rain or shine." I expected the former to a brutal degree: heavy rain, breathtaking wind, and eyeball-freezing whiteouts above 2,000 feet. But I had never been to Mount Meek before. I didn't even know what Mount Meek was until I finally bought a USGS Juneau map about a month ago. It's the last prominent peak on the Douglas Island Ridge, about 3,000 feet high, accessed by an unmarked hunting trail/muskeg traverse on the north end of the island. And I was going to go there in November. This was an important detail: Mount Meek would be another small step into the hugely intimidating world of mountaineering.

So I first met Bjorn on the Sheep Creek Trail about a month ago. He was the guy who expounded on the cleansing power of Taku winds. With nothing more than my first name and the place where I worked to go by, he tracked me down - the magic of owning a heavily Google-crawled Internet blog - and e-mailed after he saw me prowling around The Alaskan in my tiger costume on Halloween. He's officially the third friend I've met this summer on Juneau's largely deserted trails, which makes me feel lucky - most women have hang out at bars to meet single 20-something guys. (Ha ha, just kidding, Bjorn, since I suspect you'll see this blog post. :-)

The weather was forecasted to be not good, and it hasn't been good since before Halloween, which was why it felt so strange to wake up at 7:30 this morning to soft peach light amid the swirling clouds. Could it be possible? Was Mount Meek going to bless me with an easy passage? It seemed too good to be true, so I packed the face mask, the expedition socks, crampons, ax and a slew of dry layers.

Bjorn was a good hiking partner ... kept an even pace and insisted on breaking trail. Turns out this guy is a serious alpinist with all kinds of Brooks Range and Alaska Range trips behind him. He taught me french stepping and we talked about avalanche signs.

I was so enthralled with the warm light, swirling clouds and sparkling ice that I forgot we were climbing, and suddenly, we were at the top, surrounded by rime and intense blasts of cold air.

As we braced ourselves against the 40 mph winds, I stood facing Mount Ben Stewart and loudly declared my desire to traverse the ridge over to that summit. Bjorn looked over at me like I was crazy and I added, "Probably not today. I have to go to work today."

We lingered on the peak only a few more seconds and quickly dropped below the brutal exposure. He said, "OK, now we're back in a happy place." I scanned the expansive horizon, heart vibrating the way it always does up high, and realized that my inexperience is what makes everything about this so beautiful. Bjorn and I talked about some of his more harrowing climbs, and his tendency to "take all of my angst out on the mountain." I, on the other hand, seem take all of my happiness out on the mountain. I come to a small peak like Mount Meek, climb snowsteps to a summit bathed in the glow of unexpected sunlight, and suddenly I remember what it was like to be 5 years old and clinging to the top of the big slide at Liberty Park with a warm summer breeze whipping through my hair. I remember exactly what that was like.

This is my happy place.
Saturday, November 07, 2009

Now it's October

I feel like I should have a better blog post lined up after four or so days away, but, sadly, the weather has just not been conducive to good outdoor blogging. On the indoor front, I have been socializing more than normal, finally worked out of the writing block I've been struggling through in my winter project, and finished the books "Swimming to Antarctica," "Addicted to Danger" and "Me Talk Pretty One Day." I really liked "Swimming to Antarctica" by Lynne Cox. Talk about someone going far in life on pure determination (and a fair bit of natural resistance to cold water.) Highly recommended.

So the weather: Gray and cool and raining. I continue to rave to anyone who's willing to listen to me what an amazing autumn I had. But I'm slowly starting to realize that I didn't actually get a free "out" from Juneau's autumn. It just came a month late. September was August. October was September. This month, this late-year month that is supposed to see a fair amount of white stuff, feels a lot like early October. I've been doing lots of drenched road riding on the Karate Monkey, a couple runs, and a few trips to the gym. On Thursday morning, I got out for a hike with my friend Sean. He wanted to take me to see his favorite place to ski, the dramatic, cliff-encircled bowl above Fish Creek. We climbed to about 2,500 feet elevation and it was still warm and still raining, hard. In November. I could almost hear his skier's heart breaking.

He'd never hiked to the bowl in its "summer" phase (as he described the route, which was still carpeted in bright green plants and moss.) He sloshed confidently across this fast-flowing creek and I followed at the same speed, forgetting what a super klutz I am compared to most people (especially skier types). I went down hard and started sliding just above this waterfall, and likely would have plummeted down it if I hadn't blindly groped at the rushing water and managed to grab a random piece of driftwood wedged between two rocks. I was elated that, while I may have poor balance, my reflexes seem good. Sean seemed to think I should be upset that I fell full-body into a creek when temperatures were in the high 30s. Given the state of the weather, I didn't think it mattered.

After the hike, despite being soaked head-to-toe-to-core, I still took Pugsley for a quick jaunt up the mountain at Eaglecrest. The snow was rain-saturated and as thick and mushy as warm oatmeal. I abandoned the quest about halfway up the hill and hiked without the bike the rest of the way to the ridge, where it was still raining. I think I could skiers' hearts breaking across Juneau. If November doesn't come soon, it's going to be a long winter.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dressing for cold and crappy

"How can you possibly ride a bicycle this time of year?"

It's a question I hear a lot from people around Juneau, even outdoors-type people. I think it's because people around here understand that I'm not simply trying to ride in the rain or the cold or the snow, but rather a volatile combination of all three. Weather forecasters call it "wintry mix." I call it "snain." It's seriously wet, right on the cusp of freezing, and a stream of slush is falling from the sky. It mixes with the night snow and day rain to form a putrid, gritty Slurpee that covers icy roads and trails inches thick. Ride through it, and one will have to endure the barrage of a frigid gray geyser that no fenders can hold back. Not to mention there's still Slurpee falling from the sky. It's like that often here, especially in November, December, January, February, March .. well, often. And it guarantees two things: You're going to get wet, and you're going to be cold.

So when I want to ride my bicycle when it's 35 degrees and slushy, I just assume I'm going to get wet. Trying to stay dry is an excercise in futility, and I've been a lot happier since I gave up the battle and turned my strategy to "wet and warm." I've found a system that works really well for me:

Base layer: I like to wear a thick synthetic base, such as polypro and polyester long johns, which maintain nearly all of their insulation capabilities even when wet. I have a couple of wool base layers, but usually don't wear natural fibers when it's wet because they absorb so much moisture; you start to feel like you're wrapped in a clammy towel. (And, yes, I am talking about Smart Wool here.) Synthetics absorb much less water and maintain more of a semi-dry feeling even when they're soaked. Also, they're much cheaper, so you can throw them away when the start to hold onto that lovely laundry-soap-mixed-with-sweat odor.

Mid layer: When temperatures are in the 30s, I need a mid-layer on my torso. I usually wear one of an assortment of polar fleece pullovers, which also maintain most of their warmth when soaked, although these tend to become quite heavy under saturation.

Outer layer: I have an $8 pair of Red Ledge rain pants that I love, although like all nylon products, they only hold rain out to a certain extent, which is to say not very long. What they are really good at is blocking the wind. I rely on my thick polyester long johns to keep me warm. On my torso, I usually wear a plastic jacket, which is a completely nonbreathable jacket made out of PVC. Basically like wearing a Hefty bag. Some cyclists complain about the sweat condensation generated in this miniature biosphere, but since I don't believe it's possible to stay dry, I don't really care about where the sweat moisture ends and the snain moisture begins. It's all the same, wet and cold, and after more than three years in Juneau, I've resigned myself to the fact that moisture is going to seep in no matter what I wear. Rain even finds its way into my plastic jacket, usually through the neck, arms and bottom.

Outer Outer layer: If I am going out for a really long ride, longer than five hours, I will actually carry a Gortex winter shell or another large polar fleece to throw over my plastic jacket when my core temperature starts to drop, which it inevitably does. The wet and warm strategy can only work as long as I am pedaling at a certain level. During long rides, when my effort starts to drop, so does my body temperature.

Head: I release a lot of heat through my head and hands, so I go pretty light in these places. On my head, I usually just wear a fleece ear band. During long rides, I will bring a thin polyester balaclava to throw on when I start to get cold.

Hands: I usually wear fleece liner gloves with snowboarding mitten shells (Sometimes I start with just the liner gloves and throw on the shells later). Like my leg system, these eventually soak through but do well enough to block out wind and hold in heat. On the long rides, I will simply throw my pogies on my handlebars. Pogies are actually perfect for cold rain. They take a long, long time to soak through, so if you want your hands to stay dry, pogies are the way to go. I usually have to go bare-handed with pogies because they are so warm when it's above freezing, however.

Feet: Lately, I have been a big fan of insulated vapor barrier socks like the ones made by RBH Designs. I just wear a wool liner sock with these, and my regular running shoes (which means you clipless types could wear them with your bike shoes.) They do a great job of keeping out the slush water for a long time, and when they do soak through, they still stay relatively warm. I've completely converted to these, over from neoprene socks and booties. If I want my feet to stay completely dry, I wear a pair of NEOS overboots. I usually only do this for particularly long or wet rides, because they're floppy and annoying. I may have to start wearing them more often, however, because I've noticed my frostbite toes on my right foot are particularly sensitive to the wet cold compared to the toes on my left foot, and I should probably take more precaution to avoid further nerve damage (read: trench foot).

But that's just my system. I wouldn't expect it to work for everyone. Maybe there are some out there who still claim it's possible to stay dry while riding in slushy weather. I'm beyond skeptical, but I'd love to hear your strategy.