Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Shoulder season bites back

This past summer seemed like a charmed one. It arrived late enough that it never wore out its welcome. Despite embarking on lots of day-long bike rides and not a small number of high mountain adventures, I was never caught out in a thunderstorm. (After June 21, that is. I was battered by a couple of terrible hailstorms when the season was still technically spring. But I'll count an easy July and August as a win.) Colorado's wildfire season was relatively tamped down, and there wasn't a single day that smoky air kept me indoors. I think I only complained about the heat once on my blog, and perhaps three times on Strava, which is a decent track record for me. Summer can be a tough season to endure, but this one just coasted. 

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the arrival of autumn seemed abrupt. After the trip across the Grand Canyon, I'd tentatively planned to head up to Wyoming and backpack the Teton Crest. We hadn't even left Arizona when my dreams were dashed by a late September storm that dumped more than three feet of snow on the Tetons — and I didn't have snowshoes, winter boots, or any camping gear that could withstand temperatures much colder than 25F.

Instead, I figured I'd spend an extra couple of days in Utah. I became fixated on the idea of climbing Mount Timpanogos, but Dad suggested that Sunday's winter storm likely dumped a fair amount of snow on its 11,749-foot summit, and I was still lacking winter gear. Instead, we embarked on mellow Monday morning hike along the Wasatch Crest Trail, straddling Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City.

For 13 miles we meandered along the ridge and descended through lovely aspen stands. This no doubt would be a spectacular fall color hike, but we were still early for the golden display. We stopped for lunch at Dog Lake, where we were harassed by a trio of ducks (ducks bite! Who knew?) One of the ducks had a badly broken leg, hopping around so pitifully that we gave her some bread, thereby contributing to the bad behavior. Dad and I spent the remainder of the miles scheming a hiking trip in Switzerland next summer. I think it really might happen!

On Wednesday I planned to head home, but I still couldn't get Timpanogos out of my head. Why? Well, I've been meaning to make a pilgrimage back here for some time now. Nearly two decades, actually, counting my failures along the way. Timpanogos was my first "big" mountain, which I climbed with my dad at age 16. Climbing 4,500 feet in 7.5 miles along the popular Timpooneke route, it was was massively challenging, shredding my uncalloused feet and wringing all of the strength from my young legs. Yet standing at the summit, gazing across Utah Lake and realizing that every single road and building in all of the Utah Valley was in view, I felt an effervescent mixture of astonishment and reverence. I felt both self-respect for declaring a place on top of it all, and wisdom in the realization that I was a speck on a vast mountain. 

My most recent trip to the summit happened sometime during the summer of 2000. It may have even been early October, as I recall a proximity to Halloween. Two friends and I met at the trailhead at 1 a.m. — our intention being to hike through the night so we could stand on the summit at sunrise. Predictably the night was cold and we were too sleepy to function, guzzling far too much Dr. Pepper and singing at the top of our lungs to stay awake, "Timpooneke, Timpooneke, pretty spooky, pretty spooky." I think we gave ourselves close to six hours to hike to the summit by sunrise and didn't achieve it, finally arriving well into the glare of daylight. I recall squinting toward the eastern horizon, with its ripple of mountain ridges rendered by the morning sun into a geometric gradient, and marveling at how far we'd come. I'd only recently graduated from college, and every horizon held seemingly infinite possibilities.

The Timpanogos night hike was a memorable journey. It was hard to believe I hadn't been back since. There were a few tries — a half-hearted effort while I was visiting from Idaho during summer 2005, when I just gave up because I was tired and my feet hurt and I was pretty sure I no longer enjoyed physical challenges. (Really I was just depressed and about to follow my quarter-life crisis to Alaska, and wow was my life about to change.) After that, there were only the two shoulder-season attempts — once in November 2012 with Beat and Dad, and once in October 2013 with Dad, when we were shut down by dangerous snow conditions. I know, there are thousands of mountains out there, why keep bothering with this one? But Timpanogos was my first love. Nineteen years is a long absence.

So I was driving away from my parents' house not terribly early Wednesday morning, and stopped at a light about two blocks away, wavering on whether to turn north, toward my route home, or south, toward Timpanogos. I genuinely couldn't decide — snow cover still seemed likely, and it was a long effort to take on for a day that was also supposed to contain a nine-hour drive. But almost without deciding, I found myself veering toward Draper and the winding climb over South Mountain to American Fork Canyon.

When I arrived at the trailhead, it was 34 degrees and breezy. I'd dressed for what I assumed would be a mild-weather jaunt on either Grandeur Peak or some sort of trail run in Wyoming, so I quickly added more layers, water and food to my backpack. The first 3,500 feet of climbing were uneventful. There was almost no snow on the trail, which was a surprise. The temperature was brisk, so I moved with purpose, more or less keeping pace with a trail runner who was wearing shorts and light vest over a long-sleeved shirt while carrying a tiny pack. He really didn't seem to be dressed for the weather and was actually running, yet I kept seeing him on switchbacks just ahead. Sure enough, I saw his silhouette briefly crest the saddle before he promptly turned around. He passed without a word, descending quickly. "It's always crazy windy up there," I remembered.

I had no idea what was coming. Just above the saddle, the summit ridge was completely enshrouded in cloud. I snapped this photo during a rare moment of clearing, but more often visibility was near zero; I could barely see my shoes when I looked down. Fog tore sideways across the talus on a fearsome gale; it was difficult to brace myself against the gusts, which likely topped 50 mph. It was *so* cold. If trailhead temperatures were close to freezing, I think it's fair to say it was 20 or even 15 degrees here at 11,700 feet ... but windchill is what counts. If you asked me to guess the temperature, I would have said 20 below. Of course it's early in the season and these things always feel worse than they do once you become more acclimated, but damn. This felt like the worse place in the world. I wanted to be anywhere else but here.

A deeper fear of failure drove me forward, picking my way along narrow rock shelves notched against sheer cliffs, scrutinizing each step into the white void. Here was a place I hadn't been in 19 years, and I was relying on memory to piece together a route that involves a few short scrambles up rock faces, and a trail that's barely discernible in the scree. And this slope is popular enough that there are footprints everywhere. At one point I picked my way down the edge of a cliff, thinking I needed to scramble up an adjacent gully. But as I began the climb, the loose-scree gully quickly became steeper and steeper, until the grade was clearly, "If you start to slide, you'll probably keep sliding."

"There aren't any death gullies on the main route to Timp, are there?" I loudly vocalized my question into the wind. "No, pretty sure no death gullies on the main route to Timp." I turned around, and had to consult my GPS several times for breadcrumbs pointing the way back.

GPS told me I was only about 150 vertical feet to the summit, and by that point I was truly done. I very nearly turned around there. I couldn't see the trail, I was so very cold, my fingers were numb, my toes were numb, and I was definitely not going to Alaska this year, no way, I'm done being cold, cold wind sucks. It was just then that two faint figures appeared in the fog. They were only about five feet away when I finally saw them, and standing next to me before I realized they weren't dressed all in white — they were coated in frost. Their black wool hats and fuzzy black hoodies were fully encrusted in white ice. One looked at toward me with frosted eyelashes and a bright-red face, and I realized they were both young women, probably about 21 or 22 years old. Given our location, I assumed they were BYU students, enough so that I consciously censored my inner monologue. Instead, I shouted:

"Holy cow, you guys are frosty!"

"I know!" the red-faced woman shouted with an electric sort of glee in her voice. "Isn't this awesome?"

With that, we all continued. No stopping in this gale. But I was awe, and revitalized by her buoyant enthusiasm. "There is a woman who is going places," I thought.

Of course my body was still uncomfortably cold and not warming up, and the wind was still as fearsome and scary as every. At the little summit shack I tore open my backpack and put on everything I had with me — a puffy over my shell jacket already covering a primaloft vest and base layer. Hiking gaiters over my shoes. Mittens over my gloves. That was it. My backpack was empty. Really, that amount of clothing is nearly what I would wear if it was -20 in Alaska, but it was early October in Utah and it didn't feel like nearly enough layers. Luckily I had no problems route-finding on the way down, and escaped the terrible summit ridge quickly. At least my heart warmed with the satisfaction of finally, after all these years, achieving the summit of Timpanogos. The hoards who climb it in August have no idea what they're missing.

Those mere two miles on the summit ridge beat every last ounce of energy out of me. It was enough that I couldn't bare the thought of the nine-hour drive that awaited me at the trailhead. But ... if I spent enough time on this hike ... I'd have the perfect excuse to only drive partway and spring for a hotel room so I could sleep with the heater cranking at full blast. This was how I made the decision to loop the route by crossing the snowfield below the cliffs and joining the southern trail into Aspen Grove. Thus, this became a 20-mile day with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing. But it sure beats driving!

Early in the climb I neglected to blow the water back into my hydration bladder, and the hose had been solidly frozen for hours. I'd been too cold to eat anything as well. By hour five without food and water, a bonk had clamped down hard. Still the shiver monster continued to stalk me, and I was too anxious to stop walking. I was nearly to Aspen Grove and still wearing everything. By this point temperatures were balmy 42 degrees, and I was again meeting trail runners in shorts. I imagined myself as the reanimated corpse of a dead mountaineer, frozen stiff inside this puffy jacket and zombie-walking down the trail.

I connected the two trailheads on a series of horse trails — Lame Horse and Horse Flats were two of the names — that looked like great mountain bike trails but seemed to see a lot of motorcycle use. This whole route is fantastic ... well, minus the flash-freezing summit cloud ... and I hope to return again, hopefully sooner than 19 years from now.

I blasted the car heater on high all the way to Rock Springs. En route I also indulged in necessary rehydration with a 64-ounce (yes, you read that correctly) tanker of Diet Pepsi. My most egregious vice ... which I'd ultimately pay for with a terrible night of sleep when I had to get up five times in the night, either with a full bladder or painful cramping from my hamstrings. The following day I was still driving and still in possession of an excuse for an rest-stop adventure, so I veered down to scenic highway 130 and a newer favorite of mine, Medicine Bow Peak.

This seven-mile loop starts at 10,000 feet and tops out at 12,000 feet. A lot of the route is on talus and boulders, so it's not all that runnable, but I was feeling surprisingly peppy given the altitude and how much I'd buried myself the previous day. It helped that it was a good 50 degrees warmer — 62 at the trailhead, and although breezy not that much cooler on the summit. At 12,000 feet in Wyoming. Weird. I had been chatting with two friends about embarking on a bike overnight the following day. Since I still hadn't really tried to use my left hand since I injured it three weeks earlier, I made the logical decision to remove my wrist brace and do the whole seven miles with my single trekking pole in my bad hand, to make sure it was up to the task. This all went quite well, as long as I chose to ignore the dull, aching pain, which I did.

From the summit of Medicine Bow Peak, gazing south toward Lookout Lake and an expanse of buttes and basins, eventually reaching the North Platte River gorge where it flows into northern Colorado. I appreciate the way summits put the landscape and consequently life in perspective. Sometimes the climb is effortless and you can see a hundred miles in all directions. Sometimes it's arduous and tears you to pieces and you can't even see your feet through the fog. Sometimes 19 years go by between visits, and even amid the whiteout you can clearly see how everything is both different and unchanged. Sometimes only a year has gone by, and already the memories are blurred enough to blend with the present, and you'll simply wonder if you're stronger than you were in 2018. You'll ask yourself, "does it matter?"

Time marches on, either way.
Sunday, October 06, 2019

Lucky 13

Dad and I first crossed the Grand Canyon together in 2004, when I was 25 and he was 51 years old. In one of those mundane yet still-jarring realizations, I acknowledged that someday, not all that long from now, I'll be the same age as he was then ... if I'm lucky. If I'm even luckier, we may still be planning a fall Grand Canyon crossing for that year. It's not outside the realm of possibility. Although he has his share of somewhat odd health setbacks and accident-related injuries — a genetic legacy I reluctantly carry — he seems as likely to become a spry 77-year-old as I am a capable 51-year-old. And I really want this tradition to continue. It doesn't get old — gazing across the Grand Canyon, or crossing its main corridor on an always-unpredictable autumn day with my dad.

It goes without saying, how much I admire my dad, but I'm not sure I've really said it here before. He raised three girls, working hard for a single-income household so my mom could stay at home. We enjoyed an idyllic childhood with lots of love and regular family vacations and important traditions. Things have never been all that difficult or contentious in our immediate family, even when I made a choice to diverge from some of those traditions. For this I am grateful. Dad was always athletic, but he picked up hiking in force when I was 13 or 14 years old, which would have made him about my age now, 40. I wasn't yet 15 when he started inviting me to join his hiking group on shorter jaunts, and about to turn 16 when he accompanied me up my first big mountain, Timpanogos. I remember having the sorest legs and terrible heel blisters, but it was a formative experience — one of a handful of truly life-changing moments I count from my youth.

Dad was able to retire a few years back, and some people close to him questioned how someone so healthy and relatively young could step away from his career. What was he going to do for the rest of his life? His reply — "What I want to do." I think I admire him most for this. He doesn't need validation or ambition to stay vibrant. He simply wants to experience life at its brightest edges, and ride the exhilarating waves through every crest and trough. I think it helps that this is all I want from life, too. He worked hard, planned well and earned his freedom to wake up whenever his sleep-challenged body has had enough rest, and set out for a day-long ramble through mountains he has lived near for most of his life.

 As with all traditions, life happens and we've missed some years in the past 15. I crunched the numbers because as usual I'd forgotten but was curious about how many crossings we've shared. Including the doubles of 2015 and 2016, this year was my 13th rim-to-rim with Dad. This was a lower-key year where we'd spend fewer than 24 hours in the park, and cross our favored route from south to north on the Kaibab trails. Because room reservations have become so difficult to obtain, our trip has skewed earlier in recent years, from mid-October to late-September. This usually means hotter weather, and I was braced for the worst, having lost any heat acclimation while in Europe.

 We were joined this year by Chad, one of Dad's original hiking buddies. We set out at first light, in pleasantly mild weather with a temperature near 40 and a light breeze. As rich morning light saturated the layered expanse of sandstone and sky, I smirked at the memory of how unsettled I used to feel while gazing across the chasm. Before our first crossing in 2004, I trained specifically all summer so I'd been in prime condition. I greatly feared the prospect of faltering during the long climb out and disappointing my dad. I barely slept the night before the hike, because I was so nervous. It was a huge undertaking. Now, I'm not even sure I'd rank the rim-to-rim in my top five toughest outings since my birthday fourteeners, six weeks earlier.

Much about this trip has become routine, but the views are still as awe-inspiring as ever. Still, as I was packing my little running vest with minimal supplies, I wavered on bringing my camera. I mean, I love photos, and I take thousands of them even on my most mundane running routes near home. But would I even have anything new to share about the Grand Canyon? This feels like a trail everyone has traveled and views everyone has seen, in locations I've already documented a dozen times now. I tend to forget how special this place is at all times, and how unique every crossing can be.

 On this morning, amid ideal temperatures, all of the confidence of 15 years, and lots of leg pep and energy, the friendly skies opened up for some stunning magic light. Everything felt as perfect as it could possibly be.

 Sadly, about two miles in, there was a bout of bad luck as Chad rolled his ankle and fell forward onto the trail. It's strange, really, that out of a dozen crossings that involve both Dad and myself, there hasn't been an injury on this trip yet. It's even stranger that the first occurrence didn't happen to one of us. Chad is a talented runner and mountaineer who rarely has such mishaps, but he got unlucky. He wrapped his swollen ankle and walked for another quarter mile before deciding his injury was untenable for a full crossing. I was lucky to find the one spot of cell phone reception in the canyon, and was able to get ahold of my mom, who was preparing to drive around to the other side and pick us up. So Chad was able to hike out and get a ride without drama, only disappointment. 

 Dad and I continued deeper into the canyon, where the shadow and light continued to inspire. We didn't do a lot of talking on this year's trip — Dad and I are a lot alike, and if you put the two of us alone together, there probably won't be an overwhelming exchange of spoken words. He seemed as content as I felt, but I did worry that he might be in more pain than he was letting on. For the past few weeks he's experienced sharp pain in his upper leg, near his hamstrings. When Dad complains about pain, I know it's bad, but he claimed he only felt it when bending over or sitting for long periods of time. While hiking, he felt much better. A few days later he would be diagnosed with a bulging disc impacting the nerve in his right leg.

 He's now trying conservative treatments, and hopefully they will work. But a bulging disc can be terribly painful; it's impressive he managed a Grand Canyon crossing with this issue. I thought back to something Dad shared with me while I was still in high school, about meeting a 68-year-old man on the knife ridge below the Pfeifferhorn in the Wasatch Mountains. He marveled at the man's strength and hoped he could still move so well at that age. At the time I could not picture my dad as a 68-year-old man. It really won't be long, now.

 Dad's nerve pain seemed to stay away, and we moved at a steady clip past Phantom Ranch and through the box canyon towering over Bright Angel Creek. Even on cool days, this spot is often an oven. But the morning cloud cover remained, and temperatures stayed stunningly mild for September. I don't think it was ever much hotter than 70 degrees.

We planned our usual lunch spot at Ribbon Falls, a mile-long diversion from the main trail. Signs at Phantom Ranch indicated the bridge was out, so we cut across the canyon early and made our way through a tangle of tamarisk and the creek crossing. My Dad and I make a humorous team when it comes to off-trail navigating, but he found a way across and did not get his feet wet. I was not so lucky, but then again I was mostly worried about falling on my bad wrist, so I was not really trying.

 The sun stayed away for most of the day, but it came out briefly at lunch time, just long enough to provide a warm spot to sit on the rocks beside the falls, and enjoy the sparkle of cascading water over brilliant green moss.

 We continued up the canyon and caught a view of the broken foot bridge. It was really broken. I couldn't fathom the kind of flash flooding that would have to occur to cause that amount of damage to a sturdy bridge that had been in place for years, well before my first trip down the Canyon. I wondered if anyone was around to see it happen.

 Then it was just up and up and up, on this perfectly cool afternoon with continuing beautiful light at a relaxed but steady clip. We speculated on our fastest crossing, so of course I went home and combed through past data. This was our second-fastest trip since I started Strava'ing (2011), with a moving time of 7:31. Our fastest was the second crossing in 2016, but that included no faffing around to cross the stream or a side trip to Ribbon Falls. I have my good years and not-so-good years, but Dad seems to only become stronger — especially now that he spends so much of his time hiking. Someday we may end up on a R2R2R "run" of this canyon, but I mostly doubt it. Dad seems to be all about the love and the enjoyment, with only the tiniest bit of pride about performance. I think his friend Chad nearly has him talked into a 50K, though.

One of my favorite aspects of traditions is the way time seems to stand still within them. Here in the Grand Canyon, surrounded by the expanse of light and shadow, cliffs carved by millennia and changing before our eyes, I still feel like that 25-year-old in her cotton tank top and New Balance road shoes, eyes wide and heart fluttering. I have no doubt I'll feel the same when I'm 50, if I make it that far. 
Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Jochpass to Bierstadt

Our three days in Valais was a magnificent crescendoing finale to this year's Alpine ├ętude, and I probably should have left it that way. But I was greedy. We climbed the Barrhorn and returned to Beat's mom's house via an unexpected train shuttle through a 17-kilometer tunnel and a three-hour drive on Friday. We were set to fly home from Geneva early Sunday. Saturday evening was reserved for an Italian restaurant dinner with Beat's brother and sister-in-law. But a few hours remained free on Saturday, and I was determined to cram in one more gorgeous Alpine mountain. I'd fixated on a particular route I had eyed earlier in the week, literally, when we climbed to a ridge on the other side of the basin. I could access this pass from the next valley over, out of a resort town called Engelberg. The route was only 11 miles with 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I set my time limit at seven hours, which included the projected 2.5 hours for the round-trip drive. 

Of course there was a crash in the bottleneck of tunnels through Lucerne that caused more than an hour of gridlock, so there were already 2.5 hours on the clock by the time I arrived in Engelberg. It was a long time to be trapped in the car during the morning hours, and my bladder was bursting at the seams. A row of tour busses had arrived minutes before me, and the line for the bathroom was at least 40 women deep. I tore around the cable car station as quickly as I could waddle, but there were no other options — only thicker crowds. Finally I just fired up my GPS, figuring I'd just start the hike and duck behind a tree en route. But the entire first 1.5 miles climbed along the fenced-in path beside open pastures, with signs at every turn warning in three languages to not litter and not trespass and "The nature is not a toilet." A whole steep uphill mile passed and I was still marching with my legs pressed together. By that point I figured I was going to end up soaking my pants and that would just have to be okay. Finally, nearly a thousand vertical feet above the village, I found a discrete enough cluster of trees where no one was around. Once I was done, I heard a buzzing sound and realized my backside was only about a foot away from an active electric fence. Ga! 

I was certain I wouldn't have time to reach the pass at this point, but I hiked as hard as my tired and sore legs would carry me. It was a beautiful day, and the quiet trail now winding through forest was a welcome relief from the traffic and crowds and pee-panic. I decided I could "run" downhill to shave time and went for it, eyeing my watch closely and buzzing with adrenaline as I marched. I often do these casual solo trips with some sort of tight deadline to chase, and I think I prefer to recreate this way. Racing is fun.

The summit was a lovely spot called Jochpass. I enjoyed a delicious sandwich of fresh Swiss bread and cheese (I'm going to miss this) and began my race downhill. To shave distance, I set out along a ski hill access road that was more direct than the trail, and also incredibly steep. You see something that's a road on a map and think it will be reasonable, but this road was a direct fall-line cut into at least a 30-percent grade, littered with loose ball-bearing rocks and sand. I shuffled as best as I could until I hit a large stone slab hidden under a thin layer of sand, where I started to slide. The grade was steep enough that it wasn't inconceivable to assume I'd just keep sliding all of the way down the mountain. With instinctual panic, I reached backward to grab one of the boulders lining the road. My outstretched left hand landed hard on something sharp, followed by the rest of my body, which continued to slide down the sandy slab for another ten feet or so.

Slowing to a stop was the worst part. My hand throbbed with a fearsome pain, and at first I was afraid to look because I was convinced I'd find a piece of bone sticking out of my palm. Of course that initial shock of pain always fades quickly, and when I found the courage to peel off my padded glove, there wasn't even any blood. There was obvious swelling beginning to form around my wrist, so a sprain seemed likely. I popped two Aleve and carefully folded and stashed my trekking poles, because those weren't going to do anything for me anymore. Carefully I stood and continued downhill with my elbow cradled in the strap of my running vest — Kilian Hardrock 100 style — to immobilize the sore wrist as much as possible. The steep and loose terrain continued, and I had to take it slow, wincing as waves of pain continued to wash over me.

To make a long story shorter, my hand wasn't broken. Beat helped me wrap my wrist when I returned — after all that, still in plenty of time to make our dinner reservation, although I absent-mindedly ordered pizza, and then had to commit a European dining sin by asking the server to slice it for me since I was unable to hold a knife. We flew home the following day. An international flight into the sprawling London Heathrow and Denver airports while in pain is never fun, but this one went as pleasantly and smoothly as possible. On Monday I went to see my doctor and had an X-ray, which showed no broken bones. At this point my wrist was quite swollen, and a dark bruise had formed around the base of my hand. My doctor speculated I had possibly bruised a bone and sprained my wrist, so I'm going with that. I've been in using a wrist brace since that doctor visit, which at this writing was two weeks ago, with continued improvements. But it sure is annoying to have an injured hand. I dealt with severe carpal tunnel syndrome and surgery recovery in my right hand for four months in 2016, and I started to feel like I was right back there: Hard to cut vegetables. Hard to drive. No riding bikes.

No bikes. Sigh. Instead I pulled "Allen" out of his rightful place in the back of the woodshed. Allen is a modified Allen Sports bike trailer that Beat turned into a cart which we can tow on dirt to mimic dragging a sled. ITI 2020 training has officially begun. I started with six gallons of water, which together with the weight of the cart equals about 60 pounds to haul up and down the gravel roads near my home. There are even disc brakes to add resistance, which turned my usual six-mile run from home into a truly mean, two-hour-plus power-lifting effort. My hamstrings were in shreds. I hate Allen, I really do. We're going to be spending lots of quality time together this fall and winter.

Finally the awful week of jet lag / hand pain / re-acclimating ended. By Wednesday I saw an opportunity to escape to Rocky Mountain National Park for a leaf-peeping tour. As it turned out, Sept. 25 was too early for autumn color even at the highest altitudes, but it was a beautiful morning nonetheless.

I climbed to the 12,720-foot summit of Hallett Peak, where it was shockingly cold and windy. All of the folks I passed on the way up retreated once they hit Flattop, so I had the entire wind-blasted plateau to myself.

I huddled behind the summit wind block, which didn't do much to stem the shocking chill, and used the completely numb fingers on my good hand to stuff down a lunch of Swiss Biberli pastries. Not the healthiest, but I was proud of the fact they'd been hauled over several Swiss mountains and across the Atlantic before they finally made it through the backpack food rotation here on Hallett Peak.

Below Hallett Peak, I followed the Tonahutu Creek Trail along the rim of this high plateau for a few miles, enjoying the muted crimson and gold hues across the tundra. This diversion continued for longer than I expected, because the frigid wind was still raging, and I expected I'd grow weary of it much sooner. But this wind was fierce and cold enough to chase all of the other humans away. I relished the solitude along this expansive moonscape that seemed to float over the forests and lakes down in the real world.

The side trip added to the already healthy effort I'd planned for the day, so what I ended with was a marathon distance with 7,000 feet of climbing. Long, higher-intensity and loaded hikes are going to be my bread and butter in training for the ITI, but spending a long block of time above 12,000 feet put me over the edge for fatigue. My shredded hamstrings were the victims of frequent muscle cramps. I was fairly wasted by mile 16, and continued to muddle along for another 10 miles. Much of this was descents that I'd planned to jog, but I couldn't coax my legs into a running motion — it was just too hard.

The pursuit of "forever fitness" — the ability to keep moving consistently and at a reasonably high level regardless of conditions and distance and time — remains an interesting journey. My path has ebbs and flows that rarely sense to me, but learning to accept the ebbs and commit to the goal in spite of them continues to be my most important lesson in endurance. It's not even about mental strength, really. It's about mental peace, a Zen-like outlook and spiritual transcendence of both body and mind. I found a calm contentedness — admittedly not much of a stretch on such a beautiful afternoon — and floated through the final miles.

The following morning I was heading to Salt Lake City to join my parents for our annual fall trip to the Grand Canyon. The commute always makes a great excuse for a little adventure, "to break up the drive," so I decided to tag a 14er, Mount Bierstadt. I committed to this idea the previous evening, but then woke up with a terrible headache (altitude? probably.) My injured wrist was sore, probably from swinging my arm briskly for 10 hours on Wednesday. For these and other reasons I did not feel up to the effort. I had the Grand Canyon to cross in two days, so it wasn't even necessarily a good idea to push the envelope. But this Zen-forward-motion technique is something I intend to continue working on this winter, so to Bierstadt I went.

I wish I could say I harnessed the Zen and burst through to the other side, but the whole 3.5 hours was a battle and a slog. 14,000 feet is still 14,000 feet. It hurts even when you're sitting down. The best part of the hike was the summit ridge, which was a class-two boulder field that I hadn't expected (Bierstadt is supposed to be the easiest 14er, so I guess I expected there to be an escalator to the top.) My hand was still sore enough that I didn't want to risk putting any pressure on it, so I managed the boulder field the way I dream of managing boulder fields, which is leaping between rocks on my two feet rather than oozing over them like a rock slug. Never mind that losing my balance and toppling off a car-sized boulder was going to be a lot more costly than balancing on a sore hand — the important part was that this didn't happen. I had so much fun with the rock hopscotch that I didn't notice the crushing altitude, for a short distance at least.

There was still eight more hours of driving to Salt Lake City, but I always feel so much better when I've put in a little time in the fresh (albeit thin) air, even if I don't feel so good during the respite. Mountains are usually worth it. Okay, they're always worth it.