Monday, July 09, 2012

The fourteener circuit

Photogenic mountain goat. Photo by Beat
We didn't come to Colorado to bag a bunch of 14er's. Personally, I waver between thinking the whole concept to be a little silly, and wanting to see the tops of all 53 Colorado high points myself. I thought the weather would chase us lower today, but we awoke to partly sunny skies and a diminishing chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Daniel was interested in doing some "speed work" and invited Beat and I to saunter along at hiking pace somewhere well behind him. Only later did we find out that Daniel was after an unofficial speed record — on the circuit that connects Mount Democrat, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Bross. 

 After my hypoxic episode yesterday, I committed to not exerting myself as hard today. I love steep climbs on foot, and it's mentally difficult to feel like my legs aren't even getting a workout while my lungs threaten to explode. But as much as I kinda enjoyed the short-lived glimpse into the rapture, I did not want to actually black out, nor did I love the reality of killing a bunch of brain cells or the remote possibility of stroke. So I didn't push my pace ... too much. Because of this, we had a decidedly less eventful hike than Quandary, so this is mainly a photo post.

 View from Mount Democrat, elevation 14,148

 View from Mount Cameron, elevation 14,239. Mount Cameron doesn't have enough topographic prominence to be considered a real peak.

 Beat at the top of Mount Lincoln, elevation 14,286. As I staggered toward the top, still gasping for air, Beat said "A Democrat and a Republican in the same day. Who says you can't be bipartisan?"

 To prove we were there? Because no one made a nice laminated sign with the date for any of these peaks.

 We were caught in a few short rain squalls, but the weather was substantially better on Sunday than Saturday. After spending a couple of hours near or above 14,000 feet, I came down with much less fun mountain sickness in the form of nausea. Even though I know better by now, I couldn't force myself to eat anything the entire time, and only managed a few sips of water. I think acclimation is coming along, although we did force it the hard way. For his part, Beat is doing much better with the altitude. He has been using a breathing device for the past several weeks, as well as taking Diamox to help with acclimation. But of course altitude tolerance is highly individual. Even when I was living at higher elevations, I usually felt okay until I topped my personal ceiling, which seems to be around 12,000 feet. I've always struggled beyond that.

We rolled over Mount Bross, elevation 14,172, after two hours and 45 minutes. I was at that point deeply nauseated and didn't want to aggravate my shin, so I inched down the talus slope. Here, the route loses 2,000 feet elevation in just over a mile. It was brutal. We met Daniel hiking back up the trail. He told us he succeeded in "tumbling" down Mount Bross in 16 minutes (two thousand vertical feet!), wrapping up the circuit in 1:49 — which, according to a Web site that tracks such things, bested the fastest known time by six minutes. Wow, Daniel. As for me, it took damn near an hour to stumble down the whole descent, and we finished at a comfortable 3:39. I wouldn't mind descents like that if I could at least climb well. Ah, well. In good time. All in good time.

My sore shin doesn't like descending. But the condition hasn't deteriorated at all in the past two days. Now we're entering our work week, in which Beat is going to taper for Hardrock and we're all going to try to be productive even with these mountains taunting us from every angle (Frisco is a scenic town.) I think I may find a bike to borrow and take at least a day off my feet, but I'm more optimistic about injury recovery.  
Saturday, July 07, 2012

Straight up to 14

When our friend Daniel asked us what we wanted to do with our first day in Colorado, we said "something easy." Beat is still trying to figure out his lower back injury, I'm still trying to figure out my shin splints, and we were both sleeping at sea level until last night. Daniel said, "I know a good 14'er. It's an easy 14'er." 

We started hiking toward Quandary Peak around 11:15 a.m. Not your typical Colorado 14'er early start, but widespread rain showers had already trumped the usual chance of afternoon thunderstorms. We decided to gauge the weather on the fly, and move fast when we could.

Similar to my experience on Mount Whitney two weeks ago, above 12,500 feet I began to feel like I was breathing through a straw. Beat tried to show me pressure breathing, but the action left me light-headed, so I decided I would just increase my air intake by breathing hard and fast. To the dozens of hikers who passed me descending the mountain, I must have sounded like I was in labor.

Less than two hundred yards from the summit, my vision went black. Without deciding to, I could feel myself dropping to a squatting position and lulling my head around. My vision came back in flickers as I stood up, staggering drunkenly while Beat waved his arms from the summit. "Give ... me ... a ... minute," I called out. The words emptied my lungs and I took a deep breath to retaliate. As oxygen returned to my head, a sudden, intense sensation of euphoria washed over me. For a few short seconds the whole mountain was vibrating, the sky was singing, and I stood frozen in astonishment at the incredible power of all things. And then it faded. I have to say, there's no high like that of cerebral hypoxia. Not that I would promote such things but ... wow ... And strangely, I felt quite a bit better after that short episode. My lungs felt less constricted, my brain less panicked. It did help that I didn't have anything left to climb.

We could see dark clouds on the next ridge over and began the descent just five minutes later. From there, the sky rapidly grew darker. In less than fifteen minutes, no thunder turned to distant thunder, then turned to flashes of lightning and thunder right on top of us. Rain fell in sheets, followed by stinging hail. I jogged as quickly as I could muster down the wet, slippery rocks while shielding my face with my arms. We passed several groups still descending, including a huddle of boy scouts. Lightning flashed as I passed and they counted one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three ... BOOM!, followed by the curdling screams of six ten-year-old boys. I was scared, too. Hail fell harder, hurting my back and stinging my hands. Directly behind me came a bright burst of light followed by no Mississippis, not even a one. Flash and BOOM, deafening and instant. There were no boulders large enough to cower behind. "Just keep going down," I chanted to myself. "Keep going down."

When we finally descended to tree line, I was so relieved that I could feel another Rocky Mountain high coursing through my veins. I didn't have a moment to think about my shin splints, but I wore my new brace and they're not bothering me much tonight, so that's encouraging. In all, we spent three hours and ten minutes on Quandary mountain. It was one of my more eventful seven-mile hikes, ever.

Into July

It is unfathomable to me how it became mid-summer (yes, in my opinion, the Bay area summer begins in April and trickles to an noncommittal type of close in October. We have summer the way Alaska has winter.) It's a cliche thing for adults to say, but it's already July, really? Where does the time go? Leah and I got out for a mountain bike ride on July 4 at Skeggs, the local favorite singletrack maze. We relished in the relative ease and freedom of unloaded bikes. I even pulled my full-suspension Element off the wall for the first time in weeks. Despite it being a near-perfect seventy degrees on the fourth of July, we only saw four other mountain bikers, two who were Leah's friends (every time we go riding it seems Leah runs into people she knows, which would seem less weird to me if this wasn't a population center of 7 million people. I guess the bike community is tight-knit no matter where you go.)

And today, July 6, I'm in Frisco, Colorado. Beat snagged a rare spot the near-impossible lottery for the Hardrock 100, so we are staying here with a friend for a week while he attempts to acclimate for that grueling race. I tagged along in hopes of getting some solid UTMB training, but I admit I'm still worried about my shin. Ah, at least I don't have to run the Hardrock in any capacity. That's a load off my shoulders. (Poor Beat. He is also still struggling with a lower back injury and isn't thrilled about his odds, but the impossibility of the lottery means he couldn't pass up this chance by backing out.) We arrived just in time for what I've heard is the first major rainstorm in weeks, with liquid sheets pummeling I-70 as we drove out of Denver beside rocky slopes shrouded in clouds. I had great nostalgic moments while traveling through this small section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, pointing out the reservoir bike path where I became nearly hopelessly turned around and riding in circles, and the Silverthorne Wendy's where the late-night drive-through employees refused to serve me because I didn't have a car, until I pulled my best puppy dog face ever and said, "Please? Please? I'm so hungry."

I'm so excited to be in Colorado. The air is so thin here at 9,000 feet that even climbing a few flights of stairs leaves me winded. And yet I want to tell my shin to just harden up buttercup for a week so I can run free through these mountains. If that's not to be, then I'll rent a mountain bike. I know it's a charmed life, I know, which is why time is unravelling so quickly right now.