Sunday, January 07, 2018

Then our skin gets thicker ...

With nine days in Alaska, we managed to spend eight in the backcountry. Yet we still returned from Tolovana in time for Corrine and Eric's Christmas Day feast with their family and friends, and I crammed in 15 hours of work between Monday night and Tuesday. Yes, it was a good week. And I've come a long way since we started planning these holiday "training trips" to Alaska in 2011. Back then, I would still shiver at the thought of spending more than one winter night many miles away from a working heater or humans with snowmobiles. Now I realize that five days alone in the Alaska wilderness is not enough. Not nearly enough. (But no, Beat, I'm still not ready to walk to Nome this year.) 

Fairbanks was about to wrap up its warmest December on record. One week before our planned four-night cabin trip in the White Mountains, the forecast was so bland that Corrine questioned whether we'd even see temps below zero. Of course the forecast changed, so abruptly that I'm not sure Beat and I were fully prepared, mentally, when we arrived in the pitch darkness of 9 a.m. at the Wickersham Dome. The temperature was 0F. "Brrr!" I exclaimed as I rigged up my sled. It was the warmest temperature we'd see for four days.

Languid daylight slowly revealed a low cloud ceiling and hazy fog. We futzed with adding and removing layers as we made our way along Wickersham Dome. The anemic spruce forest was colorless and soft around the edges. Our sleds were bloated with five overly generous days of food and fuel (each of us ended up carrying about a third of our supply out at the end of the trip) and all of the gear we thought we'd need to walk long hours in subzero weather, cross open creeks, or camp outside at 40 below, should that become necessary. Even with everything we theoretically needed to survive, the first miles were intimidating — walking into a silent fog at 0 degrees, feeling the cold air needling at the sweat on my shoulders as I grunted up a hill, and wondering if I really had what it takes. Though I'd been through this before, and had confidence in my experience, the margin for error is undeniably thin. Uncertainty persists.

Beat's home-made digital thermometer was borked. As we climbed and descended the undulating spine of the Dome, it read 66 degrees. By the time we dropped into the valley under clearing skies, the reading spiked to 80 degrees, and then 82. "I can say with some confidence that it is not 80 degrees," I said. Only a couple of days later did Beat realize what was happening — when he programmed the code, a mis-entered digit skewed the reading. To determine the correct temperature, we needed to subtract 64 from the reading, and then subtract that number from zero. So 80 degrees meant it was -16F. If we saw 90, it was -26F. The dreaded 100 degrees, oh, we'd see that too. Extreme heat became a cruel joke from Beat's thermometer.

So it was 18 below and dropping. I'd subtracted too many layers, so I stopped and added my fleece jacket, a balaclava, and my custom (sewed by Beat) double-walled knee warmers (I may be the only person in the world who can have toasty hands and feet, and cold knees.) Each year, my gear just becomes more eclectic. Half of it is homemade. The rest is stuff you don't typically see in any mainstream outdoor gear catalogue: A cheap off-brand (but windproof!) balaclava, primaloft shorts, a wind-shield furry fleece jacket that Mountain Hardwear took off the market years ago (sob), primaloft mittens with an opening in the palm so I never have to wear liner gloves (I so dislike having to eat with gloved fingers.) Time passes and we become more set in our ways — our heavily-individualized-and-not-recommended-for-anyone-else ways.

Cozied up in extra layers with the thermometer slowly ticking upward, we marched up and down the rolling drainages beside Wickersham Creek. Beat maintained a brisk pace, which I could not match at my own walking speed. I felt strong and energetic, but more limited by my own biomechanics and muscle strength. With a 50-plus-pound sled dragging behind me, my shuffle-jogging pace is no faster than my walking pace, so I have to mimic an all-out run to gain ground. Of course, an all-out run is maybe four miles per hour. Whenever I attempt to run with my sled, I imagine an old Looney Tunes cartoon: The character thinks he's running away, but Bugs Bunny is holding onto his suspenders, so he's not actually going anywhere. I'm running as fast as I can, but my sled just holds me in place.

Walking with a sled is not really like walking at all. It's not even like walking with a heavy backpack, at least on solid ground. The combination of heavy resistance behind you, resistance underfoot, and subzero temperatures cooling your muscles, all conspire to demand the limits of strength. Sled-dragging is strenuous. But not in the same way running is strenuous. The impact is lower. Heart rate is lower. It's sustainable, but just barely. Your body is fully engaged in the task, without relief. Every muscle fiber seems to be firing, with heart beating strong and steady, warm blood pumping, and all four limbs straining for every step of forward progress.

I love sled-dragging. I really do. It's almost impossible to explain succinctly, because the outside observer will correctly assess: "it's cold, it's slow, and now you're telling me you have to work hard all of the time? No coasting at all? No thanks." Even those on the inside of this esoteric sport know that I own a fat bike, a very good one, and used it well enough to ride a thousand miles across Alaska a couple of years ago. So why. Why? But there's this thing about bikes. You're always thinking about them. You can't even help it. You're forever searching for the best lines in the snow to maximize efficiency, so intently that even I all too often fail to look up at the scenery. Use of a bicycle manufactures a dependence that demands constant attention — "is my tire pressure too high? Too low? The brakes need adjusting again. What's that clanking? Is my crank arm going to fall off? If my crank arm falls off, I'll be stranded out here! I'll die!" ... etc.

Sure, there are things that can break on my sled, or my survival gear, or my shoes. But for the most part, it's just me. Me and my body, straining against its anchor to this hard world, and a singular focus that frees my mind to wander to the edges of the universe.

We'd covered about 22 miles by the time twilight faded for good, and headlamps were needed to avoid the knee-deep moose holes that threatened to fracture a fibula. I'd scarcely noticed the time passing. My body felt strong with no complaints, so my head was free to drift into tranquil revery. But trail conditions were deteriorating. Where we climbed a long bench above Fossil Creek, winds had swept several inches of spindrift over the older snowmobile track. No one had been through in days. Walking felt like wading through ankle-deep sand, occasionally sinking to our shins. The grainy nature of the snow meant snowshoes wouldn't help much. My hamstrings groaned, tightening by the minute. All through our Tolovana trip, I'd labored under the delusion that when my breathing is good, all physical efforts are virtually free. But clearly that's not the case. Clearly I have limits beyond my lungs.

My pace slowed to 2mph. Unacceptable. I looked for motivation from iPod, where I can often find a maudlin yet catchy pop song to play on repeat and sing out loud to rev up my cadence. In this case, it was "Choke" by OneRepublic:

"I'll keep a picture ... of you on the wall, of you on the wall,
and choke on the memories.
I'LL KEEP A MESSAGE OF YOU IF YOU CALL ..." (I imagined myself shouting. I really wasn't.)

I was having fun. Enough so that I slipped into happy memories and forgot to take the song off repeat, so every once in a while my recollections of Rainy Pass in the sunshine would be broken by a background church chorus singing "Choke! ... Choke!"

Through occasional knee-deep drifts, we plunged awkwardly into Fossil Creek Valley. After an icy overflow crossing, we encountered the first fresh tracks we'd seen in miles. My first thought was, "That's a weird dog team. Where did they enter this trail? They're all over the place. And there's no sled track." Beat was the first to point out what were obviously fresh tracks from a pack of wolves.

Enormous wolves. The realization sent a chill down my spine, even though I knew that the pack was probably long gone — their tracks headed one way in the opposite direction down the valley. And logically I understood that documented wolf attacks on humans are so rare as to be statistically zero. I knew all of this, but that primal fear lingers, just the same. Through this valley, wolves travel the same narrow corridor as humans. Would they come back?

Admittedly this fear factored into my vote when decision time came. Originally we booked Windy Gap cabin, 38 miles from the trailhead, as our day one stop. Trail reports indicated the route was impassable to snowmobiles due to open water, and we didn't expect the trail to be broken after recent snowstorms. So we booked our "backup" as Caribou Bluff, 30 miles from the trailhead. We stood at the trail junction at 8 p.m., looking at a trail broken only by wolves, knowing it would take at least five more hours to travel ten miles. Temperatures were closing in on -30, but over the swift-flowing creek, there were no guarantees that open water crossings weren't still a problem. I backed down and voted for Caribou Bluff. I'm not totally proud of that, but hey, we were on vacation! Sure, it was a training trip for the rigors of the Iditarod Trail, but as a wise Alaskan friend once observed, "You don't need to practice suffering."

Caribou Bluff was still a 30-mile day, ending at a cute little cabin perched on what must be the most scenic setting in the Whites — a narrow bluff overlooking two mountain drainages, surrounded by craggy peaks. And we even arrived early enough to complete cabin chores before the clock rolled over to a new day — chopping wood, melting snow, drying frost-crusted clothing, thawing too-cold toes, cooking dinner, and knocking back a couple of Fireball-enhanced hot chocolates. Cabin life is the good life.

We also had Caribou Bluff booked for the second night of the trip, with ambitious hopes to explore a side canyon we'd never visited. But Fossil Gap trail wasn't broken at all, and traveling through deep snow over the unknown ice conditions on Fossil Creek seemed unwise. Instead we opted for a loaded day trip toward Windy Gap. Although we both thought it a little silly, I did not object when Beat offered to carry the cabin ax as protection against wolves, just in case.

Temperatures plunged to the mid-minus-20s as we descended into Fossil Creek. Towering limestone cliffs lined the narrow valley, ensuring we wouldn't see a speck of direct sunlight. Beat seemed not all that enthused about this day hike, but I thought it was the loveliest segment of the trip, and took many photos with half-frozen fingers before stuffing my hands back in the pole pogies. (As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to not use liner gloves, although I do carry them just in case. I learned that as long as my core is warm, I can go bare-handed down to -30, but the amount of time I can use my hands outside of my pogies becomes increasingly short. Below -30, it seems, my preferred mittens become necessary at all times.)

All day long, the sky was painted in the soft pastel light of sunset or sunrise. I never kept track of which was which. Really, this time of year, they're one in the same.

We started out wearing snowshoes for the punchy trail, but eventually took them off because both of us had cold feet. Later, we added overboots, which was the best idea yet. For winter biking, I subscribe to the theory that "feet cannot be too warm" and load up my feet with multiple layers at all times while wearing vapor barrier socks to contain the inevitable moisture. This practice is more dangerous on foot, where constantly wet or overheated feet result in blisters, painful maceration, swelling, and even heat blisters from literally steaming skin in its own juices .... as I learned during the 2012 Susitna 100. But when temperatures are well below zero, it seems fairly safe to use vapor barriers and overboots, and the alternative of always-cold feet is definitely worse. This is why we embark on these training trips. The Alaska-specific lessons are valuable.

The softest hints of sunlight swept over the limestone crags. I was warm and content, but Beat had cold feet and seemingly low motivation. We bickered a little on when to turn around.

Trail conditions weren't great. BLM employees broke the trail three weeks earlier, then posted a dire trail report that probably deterred most traffic since. So although there was a base that looks not bad in these photographs, it was punchy and deeply drifted in spots. I like to watch my pace on my Garmin eTrex, and along Fossil Creek I was often dropping below 1.5mph even when I felt like I was moving well. If we'd continued to Windy Gap the previous evening, we probably wouldn't have arrived until 1 or 2 a.m. if we made it at all. Ouch.

Still, I was perfectly content, cocooned in a warm feeling of bliss. This Fossil Creek corridor feels out there by any stretch of imagination — more than 30 miles from the nearest road, which itself is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of uninterrupted wilderness.

The morning's breeze calmed and silence was absolute. When I stopped walking, I could hear ice crystals chiming like tiny bells. Something was crunching through the snow. The sound had a loud yet distant tone, a result of subzero atmospheric conditions bending sound waves toward the ground. It could have been a moose behind a nearby tree, or a mile away.

The trail hit a bumpy crossing of Fossil Creek, and after that, evidence of any former trail faded away. I didn't take photos in that section, which was closed in by the narrowing canyon walls and a dark spruce forest, but we spent about two miles following only the wolves. They put in a good path, but the going became more difficult, and the woods increasingly more spooky. The cold clamped down and sunlight was fading. Beat convinced me it was a good time to turn around.

It was just as well. This gave us a chance to catch a few more sunset views in the open areas of Fossil Creek before the 20-hour night returned.

There goes the sunlight, clear up there. It never came close to reaching the valley floor.

And here comes the moon, nearly bright enough to throw some light of its own.

Since I felt warm early in the day, I never pulled on my balaclava, and paid for it with vision-obstructing ice-lashes. It's difficult to thaw ice-lashes, because by the time you've held your fingers against your eyelids long enough to melt the ice, your hands become painfully cold. Instead, I just blinked and squinted against a increasingly blurry and white-spotted landscape.

My head gear also is based on personal comfort. I dislike having my vision and breathing obstructed in any way, so I dislike wearing goggles and face masks. The vision issue is the main reason I haven't been interested in using a fur ruff like Beat's. I carry goggles at all times, because they're non-negotiable in cold wind without a ruff. But I find I don't need goggles otherwise, even in extreme cold, as long as I have warm air circulating around my face. This warm air circulation is easy enough to contain with the cupped mouthpiece of a balaclava, and creates a cozy little biosphere for easy breathing. The main drawback is that all of this respiration freezes to the material, and eventually I'm wearing an ice helmet. But I've found this doesn't bother me — even frozen solid, balaclavas still retain their warmth. So I'm a buff and balaclava person. I probably won't change.

We ended this day with 11 miles in five hours of walking. It was a tough five hours. "In the ITI we just need to go four or five times that far each day, hopefully in fewer than 25 hours." I pondered the harsh realities of the adventure I am training for. The bare minimum mileage I need to achieve each day during the race is 35, and the goal is around 50. Future failure math was needling its way through my bliss, and I tried to shove it away.

For this day, even in a remote canyon with persistent subzero chill, the demands were not nearly so harsh. We just had to hike up the bluff to our cozy home for the night, where a "real" (not freeze-dried) dinner of couscous and chicken sausage awaited. The thermometer outside the cabin had plunged below -20 — up on this bluff above the cold air sink — and we wondered if we'd see minus 40 the following day. Beat volunteered to wake up every two hours and restock the stove with wood. Though I felt bad, I didn't object (I'm the type who tends to get up in the night and stay up for hours, so I don't like to voluntarily interrupt sleep.)

The wood stove was cranking, but I felt compelled to cozy up in my Arctic sleeping bag all the same. Even with all of this comfort surrounding me, there was something primal about that depth of cold ... like a pack of wolves closing around us, just waiting for the fire to go out.
Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Still my perfect holiday

Our timing was impeccable. We stepped off a plane at 10:45 p.m., rented a car, grabbed a stack of frozen pizzas and trail snacks at Safeway, and even snuck in a long winter's nap at Corrine and Eric's house. Fewer than ten hours after arriving in Fairbanks, we hit the icy road north to the place where Christmas dreams come true: The Magical Land of Tolovana Hot Springs. 

How much do I love Tolovana Hot Springs? Let me count the ways. There's the frequent promise of an epic approach. The trailhead sits at one of the windiest, coldest spots south of the Yukon River. The 10.5-mile trail takes the most direct line to the springs, descending into a frigid valley before ascending 1,500 feet straight up the wind-blasted Tolovana Hot Springs Dome. Spindly spruce fade to open tundra. Spindrift buries the trail, often forcing 1mph post-holing into windchills of 60 below. Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is one of the most intense places I've experienced, second only to the sea ice across Norton Sound. It's surreally brutal. 

Except when it's not. Sometimes, you show up at the trailhead just a couple days after winter solstice, and it's 15 degrees above zero and eerily calm. You know the weather on the Dome will be similar, so you remove the many layers you nervously applied during the drive north, and step into the sunshine. It's a subtle sunshine, just barely peeking over the southern horizon at noon, which might be considered late morning here, about one hour into a 3.5-hour day. 

Tolovana carries the promise of a relaxing soak in thermal hot springs, a delicious feast of pizza and ice cream hauled in by sled, and a long winter's snooze in a wood-heated cabin. For these reasons, it's easy to convince friends to join in the fun. For the first night, we were joined by Corrine on skis, Eric with his kicksled, and fat-biker Steve, an Iowan in Fairbanks for an extended stay. We all left the trailhead within 20 minutes of each other. Bracing for what is usually a 4- to 5-hour strenuous slog, I was determined to be the slowest by only a small increment. (3:24 for the hike in. Woo!)

The miles passed with surprisingly little effort as the barely-risen sun began to sink behind Denali. From Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, in every direction, we viewed hundreds of miles of wilderness — swamps and rivers and domes and far-away mountains, almost unbroken by human interface.

Sunrise to sunset may only span three and a half hours, but lingering nautical twilight nearly doubles the length of a winter day at 65 degrees north. All seven hours are filled with pastel and golden light that renders the landscape in striking hues. For a beauty seeker, the fleeting daylight of the far-northern winter offers uninterrupted awe.

Our home for the next two nights was a two-room log cabin, one of three small structures at this privately-owned destination. The luxurious accommodations include a nearby cold spring for drinking water, a wood stove and stocked firewood, solar-powered electric lights, and a propane oven. I received complements for my masterful frozen-pizza-baking skills (I didn't drop the pizzas on the floor! Which did happen the first time we were here.) Then we were off to the tubs for a midnight soak, by which I mean it was about 8:30 p.m. Alaska time, six hours after sunset. Corrine teased us for donning our expedition down coats, which led us to coin the term "down shaming." It was our turn to smirk as we crawled out of the water into single-digit air and slipped on instantly warming outfits.

Several times during the night, I got up to walk outside in my underwear and booties and look at the sky. The first three times yielded no discoveries, but a chance 6 a.m. bathroom break elicited a gasp when I finally looked up. I thought 6 a.m. was too late for the Northern Lights! Quickly I rushed back inside to put on a down coat and pants.

For more than an hour I wandered through a maze of foot paths circling the hot springs, slipping and skidding in my down booties as I craned my neck skyward. At first I was looking for a good vantage point to take a photo, but my point-and-shoot camera wasn't really up to the task. All of these images were shot with long exposure and high ISO while attempting to hold the camera as steady as possible in my hands. Professional-quality shots were not going to happen, so after a few somewhat adequate attempts, I put the camera away.

After skidding back to the cabin, I laid on my back on top of Beat's empty sled and watched the aurora dance in the sky. The temperature was just a notch over 0 degrees, perfect for comfortable reclining in my "down-shamed" puffy coat and pants. Waves of celestial light rippled across the sky, and I entertained childish musings about Christmas Eve and Santa's sleigh — after all, it was already Christmas morning across the International Date Line, just a couple of time zones to the west. I could have watched this astonishing ballet all night long, but around 7:30 a.m. the green light finally began to fade. Subtle hints of deep violet dawn outlined the southern horizon. Morning comes too early here in Alaska.

Our friends packed up to head out, and Beat and I set out for a Christmas Eve day-hike to what was still the most beautiful destination within range, the top of the Dome. I packed a picnic lunch of bagel sandwiches, piled with prosciutto and butter, and cookies. Usually on winter trips we eat trail mix and Mountain House meals, so this was high gourmet.

Beat took the opportunity to practice his trail-breaking snowshoeing skills, just long enough to remember how much this sucks.

The Dome was again warm and calm, stunningly so. Basking in the faint rays of the high noon sun, we plopped down on our sleds and gnawed on the thick bagel sandwiches that had already partially frozen. Although temperatures were relatively warm still, there was just enough of a breeze to drive down the chill. In the time it took to masticate the icy sandwiches, we started to shiver. Still, we had a picnic on top of the Second Worst Place in the World That I've Ever Experienced! On Christmas Eve! Yes, this place is magical.

We were back just in time to watch sunset from the upper pool. This pool was too hot, and many minutes of shifting the cold and hot water intake did not change the scalding temperature. We did most of our sunset-viewing sitting naked on the icy rim, submerged only below our knees. Somehow we managed to stay warm like this at 0F.

Christmas morning dawned, and all too soon, our revelry had to come to an end. Christmas Day is always a let-down. At least we had the hike out, which included two steep climbs instead of one. For having almost no sled-drag training this season, I felt strong. My hamstrings complained a little. But my breathing was good, and when my breathing is good, everything else comes for free (to an extent, I suppose.) Still, just 3:55 for the hike out. Woo!

Down in the valleys, temperatures had dropped to -5F. Just enough to take a frosty-face photo, without feeling the more crushing effects of deep cold. Perfect in every way. I'd call the perfection of this trip a Christmas miracle, but I think it's just the magic of Tolovana. 

2017 in photos

Just about every blogger and journalist I read and respect ended the year with more or less the same message: 2017 can go right in the trash can, where it belongs. Of course, just one year ago, we were ranting about the awfulness of 2016 and hoping that somehow the advancement of a single digit would turn things around. But then the daily news cycle became even more surreal, the weather increasingly weird, the lines between fact and rhetoric more blurry, and the outlook just a little more bleak. Beat and I recently talked about the ways current events have affected our day-to-day actions in ways we didn't expect. Personally, I struggle most with my worst impulse, which is nihilism ... or the resigned belief that "nothing matters." Even with daily affirmations that this isn't true, I still question why I should bother with anything. It was, well ... it was a year.

And now it's 2018! I procrastinated on getting around to my annual tradition of posting favorite photos from each month of the year. So I didn't spend as much time combing through the images as I would have liked. For a while I tried the challenge of choosing my best "frosty photo" for every month, but by any stretch of imagination, I couldn't find frosty in June and July. So these are the photos are more or less the best representation of each month of this garbage year. (Okay, 2017 was not garbage. I continued to stay alive and have amazing experiences, so I'm grateful.) 

January: Niwot Ridge

Less than 12 months on, January 2017 has already, for the most part, faded from memory. Although I didn't yet know the cause, I was the most sick with symptoms of Grave's Disease as I had been before or since. I was often simultaneously agitated and exhausted, jumpy but lacking strength, mentally muddled and emotionally depressed. In the midst of this, I continued to believe I'd ride my bike across Alaska in a few short weeks, and forced my training far beyond the extent of reason. When I attempted the Fat Pursuit 200-mile fat bike race in Idaho, my breathing became so bad that I was convinced I was having momentary blackouts ... moments where I found myself wrestling for awareness like a drowning swimmer reaching for the surface ... and it was 40 below. It was a grasping, desperate time for me. But some experiences were still good, like this hike I did on Niwot Ridge with my sled-dragging friends, who were training for foot races. The afternoon was misty, warm, gorgeous.

February: Walker Ranch

Thanks to a training trip to Alaska and a casual observation from my physician friend Corrine, I went on the fast-track to the Grave's Disease diagnosis — a hyperthyroid condition that wasn't even on my radar prior to February. In less than a week I transitioned from holding the last strands of optimism to withdrawing from the Iditarod and beginning the rollercoaster ride of treatment. My motivation for most things withered. If I'm being very honest, I have to admit that February is about the last time I was making reasonable progress on book projects, rather than writing and discarding pages or formulating fragmented notes for numerous projects that may never become anything else. Yes, sigh. At least I didn't have to thrash through futile training efforts anymore. Still, if I don't get outside to soothe the monkey mind, my worst impulses all too quickly take over. Without training pressure, my rides and runs did become more enjoyable. This misty romp through an ice-coated Walker Ranch was dreamy, until I slipped on the ice and bashed my knee so badly that I barely limped out. Still better than gasping for air.

March: Thunder Mountain

Admittedly, the darkness followed me into March, even as I wandered through my favorite places. An illness forced Beat to drop out of the Iditarod. Despite having no real purpose there once Beat went home, I stayed in Alaska — keeping prior trip plans with friends, and sometimes just going through the motions. Toward the end of the month, a weird reshuffling of plans gave me an unexpected afternoon in Juneau. During the layover, I walked away from the airport and up a mountain I'd climbed many times when I lived there, Thunder Mountain. The path follows a sub-ridge through the forest toward a headwall. From the start I didn't intend to ascend this steep section of the mountain; I just wanted to reach a bench with a view of the channel. Warm weather and solid spring snow conditions didn't betray that anything was amiss, until I reached my destination and triggered a wet-slab avalanche that came down on top of me from at least 300 feet above. As I ran in slow motion toward the edge of the slide, snow blocks tumbled into me. It's only by grace that the slide stopped before carrying me over the edge of a veritable cliff. One leg was buried to the shin, but I managed to chip myself out quickly and float downhill on in a post-adrenaline haze. I learned much from this experience. I've since read four books about avalanche science and skills, and from these mostly concluded that no one should go into the mountains during the winter. (I'm being facetious. But wow. Avalanche conditions are complex and the variables are endless.) I also experienced that cliched affirmation that life is, indeed, precious, and can literally be ripped away at any moment. Now when I look back on Thunder Mountain, I no longer see my old friend and "Modern Romance." I see the menacing and indifferent force of the universe that proves how much we really have to lose.

April: Spring storm on Bear Peak

My emotional state improved substantially in April. Perhaps this was because of my renewed appreciation for life, or perhaps my medications were finally kicking in. Several spring snowstorms also helped my mood, because there was still a bit of winter that I was healthy enough to enjoy. Running was a relative breeze and I renewed stoke by scheming a glorious comeback at the Bryce 100 in June.

May: Snowmageddon

Much like this winter, most days of the actual winter months of 2016-17 were warm and dry, while snow fell in droves in March, April and May. I am banking on the same happening this year ... otherwise wildfire season will be horrific. Nearly three feet of snow fell on our home during a May 18 storm that knocked out the power and effectively stranded us in the hills above Boulder. This image is our attempt to plow the road the day after the storm. It's a departure from my usual "small person in a big land" theme, but it makes me smile.

June: Capitol Reef

In June, my health rollercoaster veered downward, and I unsurprisingly struggled with breathing during the Bryce 100. Finally, after 70 difficult and hot but mostly enjoyable miles, I timed out. Bryce was my first and final ultra for the year, and I look back fondly on the experience. Sure, my body isn't always up for it anymore, but I still crave the intensity and emotion of endurance challenges. In 2018, for the sake of my tenuous self worth, I am keeping race expectations grievously low. Yet I won't shy away from a big challenge ... not yet, and perhaps not ever. After the failed race, I treated myself to a scenic drive home via the Southern Utah desert. I visited bristlecone pines in Cedar Breaks, hiked in a 105-degree furnace at Kodachrome State Park, and enjoyed a morning stroll at Capitol Reef National Park. It was a beautiful way to decompress. I truly wasn't all that discouraged about my rather predictable result at the Bryce 100, but the drive home was soothingly satisfying.

July: Continental Divide Trail

My fitness continued to swing downward in July, but I could hardly say no when my friend Leslie invited me to join her on a small segment of the CDT during her summer thru-hike. I shadowed her for three days through Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness, and got a small taste of what thru-hiking life is really like — which is notably different than simple backpacking. Despite being an endurance junkie, my backpacking style is quite lax — I like to sleep in, cook meals, read my Kindle. A thru-hike is much more similar to endurance racing — a race to beat winter. The clock is always ticking. The routine can be brutal. Leslie woke up at 5 a.m. and drank cold instant coffee out of a peanut butter jar while walking, for example. I am now deeply intrigued by thru-hiking, and am scheming to plan a "short" one — like the Colorado Trail — during this summer or next.

August: Climb up the moon (Red Mountain)

An injury forced Beat to withdraw from the Ouray 100. I headed out to Ouray anyway, using a single volunteer shift at the race to justify four days of hiking in the San Juan Mountains. During the second day of trip, I was caught in a horrific hail storm and rescued by a nice family from Texas, who took me gold-panning. After a short nap, I opted to head back out and watch racers on the course near Ironton, a refreshingly nontechnical but stunningly scenic loop around one of the Red Mountains. My health had only recently hit an unexpected upswing. This was the first time I noticed the correlation of better balanced thyroid hormones, and a substantially brighter outlook on life. It's almost like taking happy pills — nothing has really changed, but I'm over the moon about the simplest things. This eight-mile hike around dirt roads outside of Ouray was one of my favorite outings of the year.

September: Colle Berrio Blanc

It's difficult to pick a favorite picture from our annual sojourn in the Alps. Big mountain vista after big mountain vista, it's rare for one to stand out, and that was the case this year. I chose this photo for the memories behind this particular hike, where I climbed from Courmayeur to Col Arp and crept along the jagged and intimidating ridge of Monte Favre over a dusting of snow and ice. Here is a place where, in the crowded shadow of Mont Blanc, one can hike for hours and not see another soul. Where impossible terrain fills the horizon, and the faintest of paths allows tentative passage. Where I'm endlessly reminded of past moments of agony and angst, while experiencing an enduring sentiment not unlike romantic love. After I descended this ridge, I encountered the abandoned belongings of a distressed hiker who I later learned had died of hypothermia. It was an eerie scene of clothing and gear strewn along a steep talus slope that already had me riddled with anxiety. Again, life is volatile, and so valuable.

October: Haleakalā 

A Google retreat gave Beat and me an opportunity to visit Maui. We carved out a day to run through the deep crater of a volcano and back. I acknowledge that this photo is odd, but I like its ethereal depiction of a vast moonscape. I did not feel good for the entire outing, and in fact had such breathing trouble while hiking out that I genuinely fretted about getting myself out of the crater. Such seems to be the current nature of my fitness. I can feel on top of the world in August, climb nearly 100,000 feet over mountains in Europe in September, and return to being a wheezy mess in October. "Life is volatile and valuable" may be my lesson of 2017, but "Take nothing for granted" is a close second. 

November: The West Wind

Although tempted to use a photo from my Thanksgiving backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park, I couldn't let the year pass without a depiction of an authoritative presence in my home in Colorado — the West Wind. Autumn was punctuated with impressive gales, often blowing hurricane-force during weekend outings on nearby mountains. It blows at home, too, and we often return from a trip away to find our Iditarod tripod toppled, branches strewn across the driveway, or door mats and buckets blown a hundred yards away. I am forging an appreciation for the West Wind, for the strength it demands and the intensity it adds to otherwise bland sunny days. 

December: Fossil Creek

Similar to past years, we spent the Christmas and New Years holidays on a "training trip" in Fairbanks, Alaska. This included a five-day hike through the White Mountains, where we pulled our sleds into the narrow corridor of Fossil Creek on a trail that hadn't been traveled in a number of days. The fresh tracks from a pack of wolves pressed into wind drifts, reminding us of their intimidating proximity. In four days temperatures never rose above zero, and we saw as low as -36. Even though I felt remarkably strong and well-prepared for this trip, I couldn't deny the primal fear creeping around the edges. It was a wonderful journey that I'll write about soon, but I wanted to post by 2017 photos before I went too far into January.

Happy New Year! I really do believe 2018 will be better. 

Photo posts from years past:

2010 part one, part two