Sunday, April 02, 2017


Although I felt incredibly lucky that I wasn't literally flattened, the avalanche of March 22 left me deflated, both physically and emotionally. After hiking down Thunder Mountain in a daze, I checked into a hotel room and lay awake for most the night, running the experience through my mind again and again — the startling "whomp," the concrete blocks of snow tumbling down the hillside, the way my brain screamed to run but my body didn't seem to work, the slow-motion moments as a waist-high wall of snow came upon me. But at least I jumped on top, and stayed upright, otherwise I might have been buried just enough to never come out. Even in slow motion, I was able to run far enough to meet the edge of the slide, where there was less volume of snow. The avalanche stopping where it stopped was sheer grace — had it continued over that cliff, nothing would have saved me. I recognize both my complicity and fortune in the situation. It was an intense life lesson I won't soon forget. 

Wiser, perhaps, but everything else had been exhausted. It took an enormous amount of energy just to schlep my stuff to Juneau airport in the morning, trudging toward the terminal as snain pelted my face. I flew over the southeastern coastline with supreme indifference, landed in both Yakutat and Cordova without summoning the will to look out the window, and limped into the Anchorage airport in a surprising amount of pain.

After my right foot was buried in the avalanche, panic set in and I yanked at it violently. At the time I believed I would probably pull my sock foot out of the too-large shoe, and was prepared to walk away without it, fully believing that another slide was seconds away. So I was yanking hard, and the force must have pulled or possibly torn one of my quad muscles. Enough of the shock had worn off to reveal the injury.

With renewed pain came a long-overdue shot of adrenaline, or at least cortisol ... something caused me to start reeling and become increasingly jittery. I still wasn't ready to face other people — solitude is my coping mechanism during distressing experiences; it's just who I am and how I deal — so I didn't call Anchorage or Palmer friends as planned. Instead, I drove to Eklutna Lake, limped a half mile onto the ice, and sat on my fleece jacket to soak in the warm (22-degree) sunshine. I'm not even sure how long I sat there. My hat and gloves were off; I wasn't cold. I looked at my phone to acknowledge 24 hours since the guessed time of the avalanche (4:45 p.m.) Gratitude is what I wanted to feel — damn I got lucky. I'm alive, mostly unhurt. That in itself is incredible. But I didn't feel any sort of relief. Instead, that deep, dark side of myself — the one I battle frequently to suppress — clawed her way to the surface. My inner nihilist.

"It doesn't matter. None of it matters."

I again slept fitfully and briefly Thursday night, tossing as I churned through the unsettling memory of my initial reaction to the avalanche — my failure to run. I was disturbed by the realization that I felt no surge of adrenaline — as though on that deep, dark, inner nihilist level, I didn't so much care if I lived or died. That's not how I operate normally. Logically I know this, but it's a disturbing idea to chew on, nonetheless.

First light came, and it was time to drive to Fairbanks to meet Beat, who was flying in that afternoon. I really looked forward to seeing him; had I kept to myself much longer, no doubt my jumbled emotions would have whipped into into a full-blown existential crisis. Outside the distant peaks were bathed in almost neon pink light; it was a stunningly clear morning, and cold — 13 below in Wasilla at 6:30 a.m.

A few hours passed on the winding highway as my thoughts continued to churn into a nauseating lather. Just before 10 a.m. I approached the entrance to Denali National Park and robotically turned left, without having made a fully conscious decision to do so. As I drove up the park road, I realized that I had a few extra hours to burn on the timeline to meet Beat at the Fairbanks airport. Those hours in Denali could do me some good. When I stepped out of the car, my right leg was still stiff and sore, but felt notably better. The temperature was still deeply cold, -16, but the sun felt warm on my face. I limped into the visitor center, where I found a ranger to ask a dozen questions about a familiar trail.

"What are the trail conditions like on the Mount Healy overlook? Have people been up there recently? Is there avalanche danger? What's the weather forecast? Wind? ... "

The ranger was gracious with information and seemed to smirk a little when I grilled him some more about avalanche conditions. Here was a frequently traveled trail to an exposed, wind-swept ridge that hadn't seen fresh snowfall in several weeks. The risk wasn't zero; it never is. But he was clearly unconcerned about my chances.

I won't pretend it was a good idea to hike up a snowy mountain less than 48 hours after the Thunder Mountain debacle. My right leg still ached and my energy levels were close to zero. I could have taken a nap and probably would have been just as happy in the peaceful oblivion of badly needed sleep. But something deep inside deemed it necessary to climb that mountain. Deep inside I needed to acknowledge that I was afraid, but I did care. Up the well-packed trail I trudged, feeling more at ease with each switchback. I watched three unconcerned moose nibble on alder branches a few hundred feet from the trail. I thought about turning around because, you know, moose danger — but it really felt right to be there. The moose acknowledged me with a sort of bored nod and went back to eating.

There was a thick inversion over the valley. Just a few hundred feet higher, the air felt significantly warmer. My cluttered mind began to clear. The strained quad muscle loosened significantly. I was able to walk normally, almost briskly, as I traversed the wind-swept ridge. Incredibly there was almost no wind up there. It was warm enough to melt the frost from my face and hat.

You know when you're finally feeling happy after a few rough days, and you take a selfie in which you believe you're smiling, but it comes out as a pained grimace? Yeah.

When I turned around, my mind and body were filled with more energy and life than I expected to feel for a while. I noticed Denali peeking over the skyline to the south.

Sometimes when I'm walking in the mountains, I emerge from those disjointed places deep inside to realize there's no barrier where I end and everything surrounding me begins. It's just this, here, now. Everything as one.

It seems appropriate in those moments to say "Thank you."
Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pecha Kucha 2017

Photo by Jenn Roberts
This trip feels like it was a long time ago, but I like to put these things on record. "Pecha Kucha" is an annual tradition that in actuality has only happened twice — in 2012 and 2013 — wherein Canadian friends Sierra and Jenn, along with Americans "the real Alaska Jill" and I gather for a winter bike tour. As these things go, the reason it's called Pecha Kucha is an inside joke that no one really remembers, and we all have nicknames that we never use at any other time (The other Jill only this year figured out that I'm "Jilly-Ho" because my name is Jill Homer.)

After my Nome plans unraveled, we decided to make it happen again, despite the lot of us being somewhat to far more decrepit than we were four years ago.

We planned for a two-night bike tour from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Carcross and back. Although the total distance was about 80 miles spread across three days on well-used trail, I was admittedly nervous about the physical demands of the tour after my poor performance in the White Mountains one week earlier. Jill also was a bit apprehensive, having recently had neck surgery and cancer treatments in short order. She invited her friend Morgan from Colorado Springs, who is a partially disabled veteran. Sierra is a high-level Yukon government official with a toddler at home. Jenn was probably in the best shape of anyone, but didn't seem to mind when a relative snowpocalypse slammed the region and buried any hints of trails. With nowhere to ride bikes, we shifted to a "hiking and skiing Pecha Kucha" from Sierra's cabin in Carcross.

Obviously I was in the hiker camp. While the other three went cross-country skiing on Bennet Lake, I conned Jenn into joining me on an unbearably slow snowshoe slog. It was a late afternoon start in temps around 0F with a fierce wind (from which we were mostly sheltered, thankfully.) We climbed toward Montana Mountain, skirting the relics of an old tramway from the Mountain Hero mine. Jenn described mountain biking this trail in the summer, descending tight switchbacks at breakneck speeds. She said she'd never really noticed the features — thick iron cables strung across the trail, rusted mining carts, and two-story tall wooden towers that were in incredible condition for being more than a hundred years old. It was a lovely afternoon, with hints of turquoise light escaping through sucker holes in the clouds. We watched snow swirl through sunbeams as the forest thinned and views opened to the wind-swept lakes below. I am an advocate of sub-2mph travel.

Photo by Jenn Roberts
Eventually I was breaking trail through knee- to thigh-deep heavy powder. It was real thirsty work, but I love this type of physical activity because it's satisfyingly strenuous without too much strain on my heart or lungs. Jenn didn't seem to mind too much, but I don't think she realized that we'd slowed to something closer to one mile per hour. She'd describe a place that she was certain was a few minutes away, and we'd slog and slog while it never arrived. We'd long since lost the "trail." Finally she casually mentioned that it was 6:30 p.m. I was stunned — we'd been at this for three hours, going almost nowhere. I suggested we turn around so as to not get stuck out after dark, seeing that we'd already secured being late for dinner and possibly worrying our friends. The irresistible draw of the slog strikes again.

The following day, Sierra joined us for a less deep but incredibly steep hike up a wind-swept ridge on Caribou Mountain.

Views of the Klondike Highway.

Beautiful scenery sucked me up ridge. I ended up a few pitches higher than my friends, who decided they wanted to stop at 3 p.m. (again, I wasn't watching the time.) So I had to rush downhill to meet them.

Views of Bennett Lake. Carcross was a fun spot to spend a weekend, even if we weren't riding. Sierra cooked a big salmon dinner at the cabin, and we stayed up late making more inside jokes that no one will remember.

 On Sunday we finally pulled out the bikes for a slow but enjoyable ride on Fish Lake.

The wind was wicked out on the lake ice, but this was the warmest day of the week — nearly freezing. After spending two weeks in the frigid interior, this felt downright tropical.

 The trail kept going but again it was time to turn around. Without a wilderness trip to keep us anchored, everyone made different plans for the time surrounding our short outings, so PK2017 ended up feeling rushed and disjointed. I decided I need to return to Whitehorse as soon as possible.

 On Tuesday, Jill and Morgan left for Anchorage without me. This was a result of poor communication and planning on my part, but there was no way I could spend 14 hours in a vehicle away from the Internet on a Tuesday. Our friend Ben helped me work out the Skagway-Juneau-Anchorage flights for not a lot more than the cost of gas, but the miscommunication continued regarding the transport of my bike. I was disproportionally stressed about the whole thing. Eventually I worked out bike transport with a woman from Whitehorse who was racing the White Mountains 100, and could drop it off in Fairbanks. So all was fine. But I was not.

I couldn't even figure out why I was so stressed out; I was just so upset. My whole body was reacting negatively with a racing heart, tremors, and blurred vision. I tried to work through it with a short ride on the local Whitehorse trails. They were barely broken out — often only a tire-wide ribbon with soft and deep edges. I crashed a couple of times, which only made things worse.

I feel there's nothing to blame but my weird hormones, but this was the beginning of a physical unraveling that hasn't gotten better, despite a long string of "good days" prior to March 22. I took this photo of White Pass during the drive to Skagway that morning. It's one of those photos that isn't good, but it's meaningful to me as a harbinger of the murkiness that followed.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. 
Thursday, March 23, 2017

Modern Romance, part 5

I intend to write about my week-long trip to the Yukon, but something happened on my "commute" back to Anchorage via Skagway and Juneau, and it's cathartic to write about it. I've written a series of posts about conversations with Thunder Mountain in Juneau, now spread across seven and a half years. You can read the first four parts here: Part onepart twopart threepart four.

 The Piper Navajo bucks violently amid swirling flurries, just a few thousand feet over the Lynn Canal. It's just me and one other passenger, and the pilot of course, in this eight-seat airplane. After spending the past week in Whitehorse, work schedules prevented me from driving back to Alaska with my friends. This is my convoluted commute — Canadian friends shuttled me over White Pass to Skagway, where we enjoyed smoothies and a walked around the mostly shuttered tourism town. This small plane will take me to Juneau. I'll catch a jet to Anchorage tomorrow. I had been looking forward to this scenic flight, but now I think I'm going to be sick.

I used to be frightened of flying. I like to tell the story about the day I lost that fear. It was after I boarded a flight out of McGrath following my first Iditarod ride in 2008. As the jet hurtled through the sky over all of the places where I struggled and shivered and huddled in terror, flying no longer seemed so bad.

As this lightweight plane lurches and shudders through a narrow corridor of mountains, I think maybe I should try being afraid of flying again. Nothing comes. It's weird with me these days. Anxiety is skewed toward the frivolous. Fear isn't firing at normal moments. I can become incredibly stressed about nothing. Two days ago, I had to pop a beta blocker after I became unnervingly worked up because I couldn't find transport for my bike. But right now I almost believe this plane will crash into the mountains, and my body doesn't seem to care.

The air smooths out as flurries clear. Over Juneau the sky is blue, despite a high chance of rain in the forecast. As the plane descends into Juneau Airport, I catch a glimpse of that lowly, flat-topped, 3,000-foot hill that holds a special place in my heart. Hello again, Thunder Mountain.

 I leave the airport and start walking toward the trailhead. Outside it's 45 degrees and the air tastes like springtime — crisp with hints of dirt and moss. What serendipity is this? An unplanned trip to Juneau on a beautiful day, a great trail within walking distance, and a whole afternoon to myself. Still, I'm not excited as I would expect to be. Just as a turbulent flight didn't make me fearful, this excursion feels surprisingly meh. It's been a fun but long month here in Alaska, and perhaps I'm just tired. Worn by a stress-sensitive body and the chronic uncertainty of traveling. Ready to go home to Colorado. Still, I don't want to waste this opportunity. Thunder Mountain doesn't fall into my backyard every day.

 The lower trail is a maze of footprints — that never changes. But I'm carrying a GPS this time, with a track downloaded from my last visit, in 2014. Three years. I smile at still-familiar scenery — towering Sitka spruce trees, carpeted in dazzling green moss. The snow is much deeper than the last time I was here, and the creeks are entirely iced over — they were open in 2014. There are trail improvements, too. I smirk at a "trailhead" sign that's still a half mile from the end of the road, its helpfulness limited by the footprint maze.

 And who put these ropes on the root staircases? Strange to see a modicum of accessibility added to Thunder Mountain. I'm accustomed to a trail no one can find — a muddy, root-choked, faint path trundling over dead trees as it shoots directly up a steep spine without a hint of a switchback. Snow just makes everything more invisible. I grip the wet nylon and pull myself forward. My shoulders shudder and biceps burn. Where has my strength gone? Is my physical capacity still declining, or am I just more aware of it these days? I climb the root steps on my knees because my quads aren't strong enough to lift my upper body. The route becomes steeper. "Thunder, you are a mountain for strong people," I say out loud. I feel something now, but it's melancholy. It doesn't help when I listen to the lyrics to "Moonn" by Radical Face.

No sleep.
There is no comfort in the pillow 
My mind starts drifting through the woods 
Climb up the moonlight, ground beneath me
'til I find myself all wrapped up 
in the fog above the world

I ponder the question I often ponder now. How much of my identity is wrapped up in an ability to move freely through the outdoors? It's not just endurance racing. I could walk away from racing and live a happy life, although I'll always miss the early days — back when it was easy to believe there were no limits. But what if my limit drops so low that I can't even haul myself up a mountain? What then? Much of my adult life has been centered around this — working to play, spending large blocks of time in the mountains, in the desert, on the tundra, outside. I've formed many of my relationships around these shared interests. I've bonded with my family through this. I developed into a writer who mostly writes about this. Who even am I?

And up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone

The packed trail peters out after just a thousand feet of altitude gain, and then I'm trudging through unbroken snow. The saturated surface feels as heavy as wet cement. I want to turn around. It feels like something is urging me to turn around. It's that quiet little voice that tells me I can't do the things I want to do. I hate her.

I focus on keeping my heart rate down. It's the opposite of what most workouts aim to achieve, and thus not easy. I trudge a few steps and rest. Trudge a few steps and rest. The spruce forest begins to thin, and views open to the Mendenhall Valley and Douglas Island. Dark clouds are gathering from the north. The storms have followed me from Yukon. Rain is coming.

My stomach grumbles. "Just a few more steps," I lie. Trudge, trudge, rest. Trudge, trudge, rest.

Do I cling to this motion because I'm fearful there's nothing else? That Beat won't love me anymore if I can't handle big outdoor efforts? That all inspiration will fade, and I'll no longer have any interest in writing? Or taking photos? What will I do with all the quiet, empty days? I kneel into the snow to give my quads a rest. "Today is a bad day," I think. There were actually a lot of good days before this one.

I take a selfie in that same spot I believed I took this photo seven years ago. Turns out, this time around I was a fair amount lower. "She had it pretty together," I think of 2009 Jill. After all, she was residing in Southeast Alaska where it rains 90 inches a year, living on a fairly small budget, suffering through middle management, working upwards of 60 hours a week until 1 a.m. most nights, bike commuting from Fritz Cove, venturing far outside her comfort zone to date new people, and still finding the energy to venture into the mountains at every opportunity.

Of course she was miserable. She was definitely miserable. I think about Colorado and Beat and smile. "I'll spend afternoons by the pond watching the goldfish," I think. "Maybe find a way to plant a garden and somehow keep out the deer. And hike up Bear on good days."

I wouldn't trade the present for the past, at any moment. I prefer everything that's happened since. This realization brings me comfort.

 I watch myself there as a little one 
And wonder why they could never hear me 
I watch them hold me down beneath their calloused thumbs 
To hide the fears deep down inside me

Trudge, trudge, rest. I look up at the summit and think about rounding the last stand of trees for an unobstructed view. I have no intention of ascending the final headwall — it's too steep to risk without an ice ax, and I hadn't checked the avalanche forecast before I left. Right now I'm not worried. The snow feels like concrete underfoot, incapable of going anywhere. I'd turned off my iPod after I started breaking trail, and I haven't heard any evidence of collapsing snow layers. Sticking to low-angle terrain should be safe. I feign confidence I haven't earned.

I reach the plateau below the headwall and venture close to the edge for the view. "This is fantastic," I think, letting a hint of satisfaction seep through my emotional iron wall. At that moment, I'm startled by a loud "whomp" from above. I look up to see a slab of snow peeling away from the ridge a couple hundred feet directly overhead. I leap into a sprint; it feels as though I'm running in slow motion. My legs have no spark. There's nothing there. No adrenaline. "I can't run and I'm going to die because I have Graves Disease," I think. Some of these words escape in a scream.

My entry point and exit point — this is how far I was pushed
It's too late. The avalanche is nearly on top of me. I turn to face it, arms raised. "Time to swim," I think, and jump toward the onslaught like surfer plunging into a wave. I feel no emotion. No terror, no regret, no acceptance of fate. No, just "time to swim." I manage to remain upright, lunging forward in a skittering motion atop rumbling blocks of snow. The moments feel eternal. Then, suddenly, the mass lurches to a halt. It takes several shorter seconds to register that the slide is no longer moving. I'm not going down the mountain beneath a crushing avalanche. This is an incredible outcome. And yet, I don't feel relieved.

The fracture line in the upper lefthand corner. The fracture was much larger to the right. That whole slab slid.
I lunge forward again, but my right leg is buried to the shin. I can't pull it out — the snowshoe is trapped beneath a layer of compacted snow. I chip at it with my trekking poles, but it's harder than ice. Finally, panic burbles to the surface. "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God." I chant. Danger isn't yet averted. The weight of this snow plus my movement could trigger another slide. As I glance over my shoulder, I notice the steep horizon line and realize how precariously close to an edge I've been pushed. I start manically pounding with the sharp end of the poles. If they break through the ice, I'm going to stab my foot, but I don't care. Another seeming eternity passes, and I've finally chipped away enough concrete to yank out the snowshoe, The broken snow slab is slumped against a sheer dropoff. I tiptoe along the edge with frantic carefulness. "Please, God. Please, God."

I'm marching in autopilot, whirling between sputters of panic and strange robotic indifference. I shuffle quickly, barely lifting my feet off the snow, as though soft steps could prevent another avalanche. Although I know it would be better to keep an eye on the higher slopes, I don't dare look up. In a flash I'm off the plateau, paddling down the ridge, winding through scrub spruce, descending into the towering forest. Ground disappears beneath me as though it were a cloud.

This photo shows the steep dropoff just meters below the avalanche runout.
As the objective danger lessens, the floodgate finally opens. Tears stream down my neck and soak into my hair. First I feel shame for having carelessly gotten myself caught in an avalanche, for not being more cognizant of conditions and terrain, for foolishly ignoring my intuition and being so indifferent to one of my worst fears. Shame dissolves into embarrassment, and then sadness at the odd thought that because of this, I can never return to Thunder Mountain. This sparks a jolt of anger. I feel deeply betrayed. How could Thunder Mountain do this to me, after all these years? Of course I know that Thunder Mountain has never cared.

Anger collapses into aimless rage. The pulsing fury causes me to make careless mistakes. I slip down a series of roots and tumble onto my head. My soaked hair fills with snow. Psychological coping mechanisms rush to the rescue, demanding gratitude. The memory that rises to the surface is soothingly random; I'm 17 years old, running my fingers through the red dunes of Sand Hollow, near St. George, Utah. Intense sunlight turns the sky white. I can feel its warmth on my skin. This gives way to more happy memories. There are so many, filling empty spaces with the depth and richness of existence. And yet everything I am, and everything I've been through, could be obliterated in an instant.

There is no son there is no daughter 
There's only arms they've never named 
You are not you, you are a mirror 
You only work when you're the same

The sun begins to sink into the horizon. The maze of footprints finally reaches an end. Back on quiet neighborhood roads, I walk backward. I can't take my eyes off Thunder Mountain. The memory barrage has stalled, and I'm looping through the most recent: A slab of snow tumbling toward me, and when I turn to run, I'm unable to run. It was such a terrible dream. Did it actually happen? I can't be sure. Even squinting, I can't locate the fracture on the mountain. I think it's off to the right, hidden from view. But I can't be sure.

I hold up my hands; they're trembling forcefully, just like the airplane this morning. Was the flight just this morning? Was it only a few hours ago that I was consumed by petty insecurities? Worried that I'll lose my identity because I'm shallowly defined by what I do? Another lifetime has passed. There's nothing to fear. My heart swells with love for everything around me, with the joy of being alive.

"Thank you," I say to Thunder Mountain, because I'm not angry anymore, because I'm grateful. This could have been the afternoon I did not come down from the mountain. But it wasn't.

But up here those walls will never reach me 
I am not bound by where I'm from 
I'm not awake I am not sleeping 
As I walk along the in-between 
of everything come and gone