Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shut down

Nearly every autumn since 2004, my dad and I have traveled to the Grand Canyon to hike from rim to rim. Traveling from Idaho or Alaska or Montana or California, rain or snow or 110 degrees at the Colorado River, south to north or north to south, hiking with a big group or a few friends or just my dad and me — I love our annual R2R. It is my favorite tradition. We always plan the trip a year in advance, and 2013 was to be a first for me — a Rim to Rim to Rim, over two days, spending a relaxing night with my mom on the South Rim before turning around and heading north again. But it was not to be. The federal government shutdown cut access to the Grand Canyon, and Arizona's deal to reopen it wasn't reached in time to save the trip. I already had nonrefundable tickets to Salt Lake City, so I decided to travel out for the weekend anyway, and salvage some of the tradition by spending time with my dad in the Wasatch Mountains.

Of course, I had to hit the double jackpot of bad timing when my trip coincided perfectly with a winter storm that hammered the mountains. In the two weeks prior, my dad had climbed a couple of favorite mountains and enjoyed warm weather and good conditions. But this storm was likely the one that will close off the Wasatch high country to anyone who isn't a serious backcountry skier or mountaineer for the rest of the season. I had traveled out to Utah with Grand Canyon gear — ever the optimist — and wasn't well equipped for winter conditions in the mountains. But I had rain gear so we set out on Thursday for a peaceful and sleety hike to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon. I enjoyed the brisk weather and time with my dad. 

By Friday we were feeling ambitious and decided to check out the conditions on Mount Timpanogos, starting from Aspen Grove near Sundance Ski Resort. We should have known better, given we tried this route last year around Thanksgiving and discovered that it's not doable under snow cover given the steepness of this aspect. But I was hopeful that the recent snow was just a dusting and we'd be able to follow the summer trail. 

Starting out around 8:15 a.m., temperatures were in the low 30s and it looked like it would be a fabulous bluebird day. 

A low fog moved in but the sun continued to needle through, highlighting a fading but diverse pallet of fall colors. 

The snow cover quickly became deeper as we gained elevation, and was already windblown enough that drifts frequently buried the trail. Soon the steep switchbacks were entirely hidden underneath a smooth, powdery snow slope, climbing at 35- to 45-degree angles, sometimes steeper. The powder snow didn't consolidate underneath our feet and we had a lot of difficulty gaining traction as we crawled up the slope on our hands and knees. Of course it didn't take long to lose the route. And from this aspect of Timpanogos, you really have to stick to the route because everything else is a cliff. We ended up right back where we were last year, somewhere around 9,500 feet altitude, staring up at the cliffs in bewilderment and declaring a dead end. 

I've never hiked to Timpanogos from Aspen Grove, even in the summer, so I didn't know where the route was. But after observing the rim earlier, I had a sense that it was likely cut into a more open drainage to the right, and I was determined to find a way over there, "just to look and see." I punched a trench up this near-vertical gully and then picked my way along the base of an imposing cliff band. Although I told my dad I'd return after my scouting trip, he followed my tracks along the meandering and sometimes precarious route. Later, we would look up at this spot from below and be flabbergasted at how we managed to pick our way through that section; it all looked like cliffs. But I never sensed it was too dangerous (not enough snow cover for avalanches), and sure enough we did find our way back to the discernible outline of a switchbacking trail. 

 Of course, even trail travel wasn't easy, with shin-deep snow drifted to thigh-deep in sections. We crested the rim of the cliffs and reached the Emerald Lake basin, where the trail was still nearly impossible to follow. So we just punched tracks over hidden boulders and stumbled frequently.

Meanwhile, snow was ripping off the Timpanogos summit at an alarming rate. When I lived in Juneau, I learned how to gauge summit wind speeds by observing the movement of clouds streaming off the ridge. I'm rusty on this skill, but based on past experience I'd say it was easily blowing 50 to 60 miles per hour up there. And it was not warm. My Camelback valve and hose froze outside my coat, indicating temperatures below freezing at that elevation. Even in the relative protection of the basin, the wind blew 20 to 30 miles per hour, and windchills cut through to the core. 

I'd just spent the past month doing nightly sauna training and biking in 80-degree heat just so I'd be well acclimated in case it was a hot year in the Grand Canyon. All of that preparation did me exactly no good here in the Wasatch. These were full winter conditions, complete with fierce wind and sugary snow. My gear was not great — Hoka trail-running shoes and a single pair of Drymax socks on my feet, a single pair of fleece gloves that was neither water nor windproof on my hands, and an old rain coat instead of a real winter shell. But I had a great new Patagonia primaloft puffy that I'd recently acquired for Alaska, and I was very grateful to have that piece. Because my torso was toasty warm, my extremities managed to stay relatively comfortable. My dad struggled a bit more with his hands and feet, and had to break out the handwarmers. 

We climbed above Emerald Lake Basin to the edge of the cliffs over the Timpooneke basin, 500 feet below. The first 200 feet are a sheer drop, and the mountain tumbles steeply into them. In the summer there's a good trail carved into this rim, but it was entirely obscured by wind-loaded powder. Sometimes we be flailing around in waist-deep drifts, only to have the next step be onto slippery, ice-coated rocks covered in about an inch of polished snow crust. Meanwhile, the sideslope became steeper, the cliffs grew closer, and both my dad and I were nervous. At this point the saddle wasn't far, and we were nearly as high in altitude, but I had strong doubts we'd want to continue to the summit. "The windchill is going to be zero degrees or lower up there," I reasoned, "and the wind is probably so strong that we'll feel like we're getting blown off the mountain." Continuing this sketchy traverse where any slip on hidden ice would likely mean a 500-foot death plunge, just to reach a saddle where we'd turn around right away, did not seem worth it. My dad asked if I was disappointed that we missed a summit yet again. Hell no. "I've had enough terror hiking this summer," I told him.

We ate a quick and uncomfortable lunch in the little hut above Emerald Lake. The back wall, the one facing the wind, was half blown off and the shelter provided little protection from the brutal windchill. "Just think," I said to my dad. "Right about now we'd be at Phantom Ranch, sitting in the shade in 80-degree sunshine and sipping on fresh lemonade. But the Grand Canyon shut down so instead we're here!" I'm not sure he found this as humorous as I did. He didn't laugh. 

Luckily, we found the real trail to follow downhill, so the descent was uneventful. The cold wind only picked up in strength as we lost elevation, making me feel grateful we didn't attempt to climb higher. 

It is gorgeous, this mountain and its surrounding valleys. 

Oh, Timpanogos. You win again.

Timpanogos was the first mountain I ever climbed, back in the summer of 1995. I haven't been back to the top since 2000. But I will return someday. Dad says I should try visiting during a proper summer month, the time of year when one can run to the top on a nice, smooth trail. But I do enjoy the challenges of the shoulder seasons, even if they shut me down time and time again. 
Monday, October 07, 2013

Day touring the Diablo Range

You know what I really love? Bike touring!

Sure, purists will argue that unless a cyclist has camping gear strapped to their frame, or at least plans to spend one whole night away from their own bed, their ride is not a tour. But the way I look at it, bicycles are the ideal exploration vehicle, and any ride conducted with exploration in mind takes on the best characteristics of a bike tour: gawking at scenery, connecting geographic puzzles, snacking on potato chips and purple Gatorade on a weathered picnic table in front of some tiny backroad bar. "Day touring" is also a great way to cover some new ground relatively close to home, that one might overlook if planning a longer trip.

Just a few weeks after his double 200-milers in Europe, Beat was already jonesing for a long trail run, so he signed up for the Diablo 50K on Saturday. I was emphatically not interested in running 50 kilometers so soon after being severely ground down by my own Alpine adventures. However, I saw an opportunity to embark on a ride I've wanted to try for more than a year now — linking up the two most prominent mountains in the East Bay — Mount Diablo (3,864 feet) and Mount Hamilton (4,196 feet.) It's difficult to do this without riding at least 100 miles, so I took advantage of the one-way opportunity. With little prior experience in most of that area, I solicited the help of Strava Route Builder to design a route. In a matter of minutes and just a few clicks, I had a map linking "Strava preferred" popular cycling segments, as well as the total distance, elevation profile, and even the estimated moving time based on my own past cycling stats, along with a .gpx track to load onto my Garmin eTrex. The ease and usefulness of this tool is impressive. I have been a Strava skeptic in the past, but with this tool I am fully on board. Well done, Strava.

Several friends were also running the Diablo 50K, including Jochen who was visiting with his wife and baby after moving to Shanghai a couple of years ago. Beat and I headed out the night before to visit our friend Steve and spent the night at his mom's house in Concord to avoid the long drive first thing in the morning. There were several other familiar faces at the race start — quite the early-morning social gathering. Once there, I was filled with FOMO about not running this race —perhaps a good sign that I'm turning around on my resolve to quit trail running and maybe even endurance racing altogether. (Ha ha, not really. Mostly.)

But once I got on the road, regret about skipping the race dissolved into stoke about the flow and ease of two wheels rolling on pavement. I had a lot of new ground to cover and was excited about the possibilities.

There was a big wildfire on Diablo one month ago, and the scars across the hillsides were still fresh. I caught up with several runners at road crossings, including Steve, but just missed seeing Beat. The summit museum was closed for construction, and vehicle traffic was almost nonexistent. Just a solid climbing grade, a blood-pumping effort, and sweeping views. Pure bikey bliss.

As expected, the daytime heat started cranking around 10 a.m. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the mid- to high-80s in the valley, and the air often feels at least 10 degrees warmer in the breezeless oven of these Diablo Range canyons. Beads of sweat formed on my skin even at reasonable biking speeds, and I started to feel grumpy about the prospect of cooking in the sun all day long. However, for nontechnical bike tours I have become fairly good at willfully ignoring minor physical discomforts — thanks to a well-tuned autopilot mode. By the time I descended from yellow rolling hills and farmland of south Diablo into the town of Livermore, I was "in the zone" deep enough that a red traffic light was a jarring sight.

Beyond Livermore was the big unknown — fifty miles of two relatively remote backroads through the heart of this small mountain range. I expected typical California secondary road construction — steep grades, narrow sweepers, hairpin curves, and no shoulder. This road was exactly that, but with the noticeable and almost complete absence of vehicular traffic. There's really just nothing out there for people to drive to — a few ranches, and that's about it. On a Saturday afternoon, I saw about ten cyclists — all in the first five miles — and more motorcycles, perhaps two dozen. Maybe five cars and trucks? In fifty miles of pavement located in close proximity to a metropolis of 7 million people. The road climbed to about 2,000 feet elevation and snaked through a narrow canyon for miles of rolling climbs and descents, swooping curves, and more empty vistas. Road cycling has its pros and cons, but pedaling a winding, open stretch of pavement at full throttle is as close to the sensation of flying as I've experienced. Pure bikey bliss.

The little discomforts did start to stack up, though. My senses were now fully engaged in the excitement of "discovery mode" and thus sharp enough to highlight nagging pains. I left Livermore with three liters of water, but started rationing early when I drank half of my supply before I even hit the top of the ridge. I had some beta that there was a small bar at a road junction leading out to the Central Valley, about 35 miles from Livermore, but had no idea if it was open and didn't feel comfortable relying on it. The air was stiflingly still at climbing speeds, the heat burned straight into my core, and the little sips of tepid water did almost nothing to quench my thirst. Also, I just haven't put in much time in the saddle this summer, and my out-of-shape lower back muscles were sore and spasming. Happily, a little bar called "The Junction" — probably the only service establishment in a 30-mile radius — was open with a few items for sale. The rehydration break did wonders for my deteriorating mood.

But my back soreness was only getting worse, to the point where I did a bicycle version of "downward dog" anytime I had a chance to coast for a while. The legs finally chimed in with "we're tired and done" right when I came to the crux of the whole ride — the climb up East Hamilton. Thanks to a couple of steep rollers it gains nearly 3,000 feet in a scant five miles — a steep lung-buster that would probably be fun with zero-mile legs, but is decidedly crushing on 95-mile legs. A cloud of bickering filled my head. The legs and back said, "We want to walk." I said, "No, this is a road ride. We can't walk." The stomach said, "This is stupid. I want ice cream. And a Slurpee." I couldn't argue with that. But my legs were in near revolt and my lower back was twitching painfully, so I made a deal. "Next bend, we'll walk." Then stomach chimed in. "Walking's too slow. It will take too long. I want a cold drink. And ice cream. Don't be such a pansy." I couldn't argue with that. The legs and back continued to mount protests any time I rounded another bend and didn't stop, but I didn't stop.

The trip odometer clicked over to 100 miles right when I crested 4,200 feet and caught sight of the big white domes of the observatory. Victory! I had conquered Mount Hamilton! The summit came in a rush of relief and satisfaction because I had nearly crushed myself to get there — dizzy, aching, hungry, thirsty, but immensely happy. I often don't dig that deep even when I'm racing, but it felt especially rewarding in this context — a meaningless little victory, but it mattered to me.

I had to resort to stiff, brake-throttling coasting down the first miles of the descent just to recover from the shattering climb, all while stuffing my face with jelly beans because I had really let my blood sugar crash. But once my legs came back around I felt surprisingly strong — proof yet again that the feeling of being broken is usually a wrong assumption pushed by the mind in moments of weakness. The 18 miles down into the Santa Clara Valley followed by 18 "commuter" miles across San Jose passed in what felt like a few minutes. Strava even took me on a pleasant route through the city, following quiet neighborhood streets and connector roads with wide bike lanes. Thanks Strava! Final stats were 135 miles with 11,159 feet of climbing, and 10:16 moving time (Strava estimated 10:09 — impressive accuracy.)

Beat finished his 50K, which had 8,000 feet of climbing and was just as hot, in 6:50. He was fifth overall. And felt good. Of course. He seems to have discovered the secret to near-endless endurance, which I'm still trying to crack.

Now that I've discovered this route building tool, I'm excited about the prospect of designing more new-to-me bike tours and local link-ups. Next up, I'm thinking "A hundred miles of Santa Cruz Mountains" mountain bike tour. Oh, the possibilities. 
Thursday, October 03, 2013

I see stars and go weak

Autumn isn't the prettiest season in the Bay Area. The hot, cloudless days of summer have given way to parched hills, crackling brush and dusty trails that mimic a sheet of Teflon coated in corn starch. The leaves of oak trees turn a sickly shade of green; maples might change yellow in November if the leaves don't dry up and fall off first. Even the poison oak, which turns a stunning shade of crimson in the late summer, has started to drop singed leaves that will soon disintegrate to itchy dust. Grass has withered, creeks have dried up, and even the redwoods seem to sag with a certain weariness. Thirst. Autumn is a thirsty season. We're all just waiting for the winter rains to revitalize the trees, green up the hills, and add some tack to these slippery chunder trails.

Revitalization. It feels far away, yet inevitable, like the waning daylight and winter clouds. In September my spirit felt withered; sometimes I'd go to quiet places and ponder the reasons why. The motions were there but the zest for the activities I love was missing. "I'm still recovering," I'd tell myself, but I knew it cut deeper than that. "I met demons out there, in the shadows of those beautiful Alps. They were heartless and cruel, they showed me the worst sides of myself, the apathy and hopelessness and unfocused fear. They brought out the worst in me and I did not vanquish them. No, they won."

So I went through the motions. I did some work. I did some writing. I did some oblivious staring off into space. I'd get out when I could. Some nights when I woke up at odd hours, I'd walk out on the deck, lean over the railing and gaze at stars. Maybe you recall when I wrote a few weeks ago about seeing a shooting star in France and believing that it was a person who had fallen off the mountain? That memory still haunts me. Even though I know it wasn't real. The mind is strange like that.

In the afternoons, I'd embark on my daily exercise — mellow rides or runs. I didn't feel great, and I didn't push it, but I had a strong sense that couch sitting was not going to aid in my recovery. After all, most of the damage was not in my body, but my mind. Going outside for at least a short time every day was the best course of action. So I cranked out some heavy-legged rides, and plodded through the most basic newbie running pains, like IT band soreness and side stitches. The weekend came, and Beat installed a blingy new drivetrain on the Fatback, so of course I had to go for a fat-bike ride. Beat and I rode four and a half hours over the parched hills, churning up dust and tentatively reintroducing ourselves to loose descents. I cranked Fatback's new teeny-tiny granny gear up a steep hill until I felt dizzy and pukey and had to get off and hike. I made it a little farther than Beat did on his medium-geared singlespeed ... but not much.

"I'm out of shape," I'd shrug. "I'll get it back."

"2013," I remarked to Beat, "has not been my best year for racing." I'd think about this year's races and wonder where they'd left me. I'd chat with friends about training rides and remark that I sometimes regretted having such a thorough record of my routine activities. "All of my best times are more than two years old," I'd lament. "I really was a better cyclist back in 2011, and not that much worse of a runner." What's happening? Age? Too much racing? Or am I just losing heart?

Today after a productive but mentally exhausting morning of writing, I decided to head out an hour early on the road bike. With about three hours to burn, I opted to pedal a favorite loop, from home up Highway 9, along Skyline Drive to Page Mill and back. The ride is about 34 miles with 3,700 feet of climbing. It's a climby loop with bone-shaking chipseal and a hairpin descent, and consistently beautiful even amid the bland hues of autumn. I used to ride this route frequently when I first moved to California in 2011, but it's become more of a once-a-month-or-less outing these days. As I spun along Foothill Boulevard, I noticed my legs felt peppy today. Maybe peppy is not the right word, but they felt a bit less like chunks of cement. I rolled along the shoreline of what was once Stevens Creek Reservoir but is now a stagnant puddle amid a cracked mudflat, and reflected on memories of the route. "Back in 2011 I use to ride in the rain. There was sleet, actual sleet, on Skyline, remember that? Oh, I miss the rain here. It needs to rain."

My best time on the whole loop was something in the low 2:20s. I remembered that, and I wondered how much longer it would take me to ride the route today. But as I spun up the Mount Eden climb, that tiny little voice that I so seldom listen to — I'll call her my competitive spirit — said, "Screw 2011 Jill and her strong cycling legs. We could ride faster if we wanted to."

And that was that. It was on! I had soft-pedaled most of first six miles, so I'd have to make up some time. The Mount Eden descent is mostly broken pavement, but it was as good of a place as any to lay on the throttle. There was one bucking bounce that nearly launched my body skyward, but soon enough I was settling into the 2,500-foot climb to the top of Skyline Drive.

I tried to hit that sweet spot of efficient climbing, where a bit of bile burns in my throat but I don't have to resort to open-mouth breathing. It felt like I reached the crest in no time, and then there was the chipseal to contend with. My wrists won't soon forgive me, and there were two pavement crack bounces that convinced me I'd squeezed all of the air out of my tubeless rear tire (thankfully I did not.) But I ignored the rough surface and throttled that rolling traverse before turning onto Page Mill. Last weekend there was tons of loose gravel on Page Mill, and rangers have told me horror stories about peeling injured and bloody road bikers off the pavement, so I took the descent easy. But back on Foothill it was on again, cranking the big ring past a long line of backed-up rush hour traffic. Back at my home intersection, I hit stop on my watch and looked at it for the first time since I consciously started "racing." 2:17:41!

At home I did some digging in Garmin Connect and concluded that 2:17 is a new PR, possibly my first "frequently ridden cycling route" PR of 2013. Of course I had to go upload my track to Strava to check my status against the geeky Strava'ing subgroup of the Bay Area road cyclist community. Moved up to ninth on the popular Highway 9 climb segment. That's definitely an improvement over 2011 Jill's standing, I'm certain. Yay. Another small victory in the battle of matter over mind. Sometimes all it takes is acting strong to feel strong, which in turn leads to becoming strong.

The wind eventually sweeps the withered remnants of autumn away. Winter is coming. :)