Sunday, August 30, 2020

Out of the smog

 It finally happened — my motivation to maintain fitness has finally started to crumble. I'm surprised it took this long, actually, in the thick of such a long and hot summer, with pandemic restrictions firmly entrenched, and no upcoming races or big adventures to inspire momentum. Then the bad air settled in for a long haul. After a couple of weeks of sputtering and choking, I gave up on exercising. In fact, I haven't embarked on what I'd call a regular workout — even then, just a sad "smoky afternoon wog" — in more than two weeks. But the mountains were still there, calling to me, as they do. 

Last weekend, as dozens of fires raged throughout California and Colorado, our local air quality index was regularly spiking into the 130s and even 150s — worse than the most polluted cities in the world, and unquestionably unhealthy for asthmatics such as myself. The situation became even more insidious because the bad air had become so widespread that it no longer carried the aroma of wood smoke. It was just hazy and infused with a high concentration of particle pollution and ozone. I couldn't trust my nose to detect dangerous air; I just had to avoid the outdoors any time nearby meters registered yellow or orange, which was basically always. It was starting to feel like there was no end in sight, but I was growing tired of sequestering myself indoors. No matter that this day was firmly in the red zone — I was just tired of it all. Beat and I languished around home all morning and finally talked ourselves into getting out for some sort of adventure. Like many locals, we've deluded ourselves into believing mountain air is better (it's delusion because the smoke is drifting in from so far away that high altitudes can often be worse), so we set out at noon to pedal 7,000 vertical feet up Mount Evans. 

Beat was feeling peppy after four days of rest and took off up the road. I became winded while trying to hold his pace, and my condition deteriorated rapidly. Within two miles I was a full half-mile behind him, and then my airways tightened enough to force high-pitched wheezing. I'd taken inhaler puffs before we started, so I didn't stop right away. But it only took another half-mile before I felt dizzy and deeply nauseated. There's no shoulder and not many pullouts off the road out of Idaho Springs, so I jumped off my bike into the weeds of what was effectively somebody's yard, doubled over and made dry-heaving motions that only produced coughing. This felt similar to a reaction I had during a ride back in June, when I blamed heat and electrolyte imbalance. But I was two miles into this ride, well-hydrated, in temperatures that had barely climbed into the 70s. The only similarities were a strenuous pace and terrible air.

I would have turned around right there if I had not already insisted Beat "go for PRs" by sprinting to the top without waiting for me, and now he was far ahead with no cell reception and the car keys in his pack. I was either going to have to find a shady spot to sit for five hours or continue limping up the mountain. I'd brought a KN95 mask to use if I had any trouble with headaches or breathing, but was loathe to put it on, as it's almost as difficult to breathe through the mask as it is to breathe through asthma-induced inflammation. But the coughing and nausea sealed my resolve to endure the obstruction. I took a few more puffs from the inhaler and slid the mask on, practicing the pressure-breathing technique that used to get me through workouts when I was most impacted by thyroid-related breathing difficulties. Short, forceful exhalations helped push CO2 out of the mask, and belly-assisted inhalations drew filtered air in. I synced each breath with pedal strokes to keep the rhythm. In this way, I acquired enough oxygen to pedal slowly but consistently up to 14,200 feet without experiencing any more attacks. And my lungs and throat didn't hurt afterword, the way they did following my birthday hikes and other long efforts from the previous weeks. I can't call it my best climb up Mount Evans, but the mask was an empowering revelation. 

With mask empowerment in hand, I continued to pursue an overnight backpacking trip I started planning six weeks ago when I applied for the first available permit to an intriguing spot just west of the Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Indian Peaks Wilderness permit system is so convoluted and James Peak Wilderness so crowded, that the heavily regulated RMNP actually seemed like the most appealing place to backpack close to home. But when you apply for an Aug. 26-27 permit in July, you're going to get what you're going to get. As the dates arrived, it looked likely that we'd see heavy smoke followed by afternoon thunderstorms and a rapid cooldown. I called it our "wheeze then freeze" tour. 
It's been a little hard to sell Beat on backpacking for the sake of backpacking. He likes big mileage days and deep mountain explorations. Packing 20 or 30 pounds on your back just so you can sleep on the ground when neither is required seems like unnecessary drudgery. When it looked like we'd have bad air on Wednesday, we almost called it off. Then the winds shifted and drove much of the smoke south, and we had our first "green" day in weeks. Suddenly the horizon no longer disappeared into the haze. 
When I applied for my permit, I picked Hollowell Park as a starting point, mostly because it was farther away and led to trails that would likely be less crowded as we ambled through lovely meadows and woods along Mill Creek. I received a reply back from a ranger that effectively said, "No, that's not possible; you can't reach July Camp from Hollowell Park." I plugged the direct route into Strava and learned the one-way trip was 11 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing. Not possible? Really? Ah, the plight of a wilderness ranger in a high-traffic national park. I had to e-mail back with a list of credentials to convince them we wouldn't succumb to exhaustion and set up camp on fragile tundra miles shy of our destination. I didn't include our full trip plan, which included side trips to peaks and lakes and would clock in closer to 24 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing on day one, and 20 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing on day two. 
With an approved permit and heavy packs full of both luxury items (extra socks and poncho) and required ballast (bear barrel), we set out from Hollowell Park at 7 a.m.
Clouds moved in before 9 a.m., and with most of 11 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing just to get up and over the Divide, we were racing to beat the storms.
The building clouds made for nice light and shadow over the mountains as we climbed above 12,000 feet. The tundra was a patchwork of gold and crimson, already past its autumn prime. I've been seeing golden leaves on cottonwood trees since Aug. 6, so these fading fall colors weren't surprising. Because of drought stress, leaves started changing early while temperatures still spiked into the 90s. This has been both encouraging (winter is coming!) and disheartening (everything is dying.)
Clouds began to clear and the forecasted afternoon storms held off, so we made a quick side trip to tag the 12,713-foot summit of Hallett Peak before continuing west. 
Views from the top of Hallett Peak were still hazy, but so much clearer than they've been.
We descended from the Divide on the nicest above-timberline trail in Colorado, all crushed gravel and huge cairns to help hikers find their way in a fog. Even with all of this built-in luxury, it's apparently still not possible to hike 11 miles in one day here. 
A few wildflowers were still thriving despite the late-autumn look of the tundra. 
After we passed our camp, clouds began to build again. The now-12-mile hike with close to 5,000 feet of climbing had not been exactly easy, and we had to admit we were dragging under our heavy packs. The lakes I'd mapped out involved a 1,500-foot descent, a 1,500-foot climb, and the same to return to camp. But it was still early in the day, and really the whole point of backpacking is to spend time exploring remote places.
To our surprise, on this day with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms from noon onward, precipitation and thunder remained absent as we climbed along the gray cliffs toward Nokoni Lake. More than ten miles from the nearest trailhead, it was a peaceful and lovely spot with no one around.
Due to overcast skies, my photos came out looking gray and flat, but we were awed by the grandeur of this place. Even Beat, ever the dutiful rule-follower, suggested just setting up our camp near one of these lakes, because who's going to know?
Lake Nanita with Ptarmigan Mountain in the background. This diminutive 12er looked spectacular to us, and we spent our time at the shore drawing potential routes up slopes that might allow us to conquer its intimidating spires. An adventure for another day. 
Beat still admiring Ptarmigan as I face Andrews Peak. From this spot, we could also see Mount Alice, the cliffy 13er we climbed a couple of weeks earlier. From the west, it looks like a gentle mound, although we'd no doubt have to negotiate a beast of a bushwhack to reach it from this remote aspect. 
We returned to camp around 6 p.m. and set up Beat's mountaineering tent — the only tent we own that's large enough to comfortably hold the two of us — and heated up dinner. Just as we finished cooking, the sky finally broke open. We crawled into the tent as a barrage of hard rain and lightning moved overhead. The lightning was unnerving, as we didn't have all that much forest protection at 10,700 feet. But it was nice to crawl into the tent while we were still warm and dry, and remain that way. 
Initially, our approach to camp had been blocked by two young bull moose that stood their ground for twenty minutes while we filtered water and waited for them to leave. This wouldn't be the last we'd see of the "moose brothers," as they continued to graze nearby throughout the evening. The following morning, they wandered into our camp as I was brushing my teeth and Beat was away at the outdoor loo (another luxury in the national park backcountry.) This bull came within 100 feet of the tent and made aggressive nodding motions as he passed, which frightened me enough to scramble ten feet up onto a nearby boulder. 
He then circled around to another spot still only a hundred feet away and continued to regard me with this vaguely menacing expression. He seemed not in the least perturbed by us humans. I didn't know whether to interpret this as good or bad, coming from a moose. 
Then he settled in and made himself comfortable. At this point, Beat had returned and joined me on top of the boulder. Our hoped-for departure time came and went. Eventually, we decided we were going to pack up despite this intimidating vigil. The moose continued to not care. 
Just as we were leaving, he stood and reunited with his brother. They continued to basically block the trail as we snuck past.
As we climbed from camp, another unperturbed denizen of the national park blocked our trail. We had to cut a large switchback by scrambling up a rocky slope to get around him.
This elk believed he was King of the Mountain. Although we'd probably just interrupted his plan to also climb to higher altitudes, he continued to shadow us as we rounded up the switchbacks. I couldn't figure out why he'd follow us except to intimidate us. I was growing weary of bold ungulates, and looking forward to being among only pika and marmots once again. 
Our day two plan included an extended side trip along the Divide. From here, Beat wanted to scope all of the drainages for potential escape routes that might make for a more interesting descent than Flattop. Unsurprisingly, they all looked extremely steep and chossy with snowfields that one would likely have to cross over 50-degree angles at some point. Beat still deemed them "doable" as I registered a firm veto.
We made our way toward Sprague Mountain, a second Continental Divide summit that is the exact altitude of Hallett Peak — 12,713 feet. 12ers seem like my kind of thing for a Colorado-based goal. Everyone wants to do the 14ers, and serious peakbagger types target the 13ers. But what if I ignored the higher summits and instead made it a life goal to climb every 12er in the state? There would be so many obscure and wonderful mountains in that list. There are also, according to expert Gary Roach, a staggering 1,056 mountains that fall in this range — and probably much more exposure and technical approaches than I could stomach in a lifetime. But it's fun to dream. It would be nice to have a goal — anything to motivate me out of the lazy stasis I seem to be drifting toward. 
To approach Sprague, we had to leave the trail and traverse the ridge through a morrass of marshy, boulder-strewn garbage. I was surprised to see so much wet ground so late in the season, and right on top of the Divide. It's the most tedious type of walking, hopping from boulder to tussock to loose boulder while gaining little in the way of distance and actively losing altitude.
We were both worn out by the strenuous shambling when we reached the base of the mountain, where we still had to gain a thousand feet as dark clouds gathered overhead. The forecast that called for a 60 percent chance of storms yesterday had the odds at 20 percent today, and it wasn't even 11 a.m. But such is the way of mountains. We decided to make a dash for it.
We hit the summit just as the drama really began to build. We found a summit register and I was curious to see the entires, as Sprague seems like a remote and unassuming summit that not a lot of people would target. But the register itself was just wads of wet paper stuffed into the bottom of a plastic canister. As an archivist, I found this so disappointing. 
There are some incredible views from the top of Sprague, which is pretty much the dead center of Rocky Mountain National Park, and about as remote a place as one can stand between Trail Ridge Road, U.S. 34 and the Peak to Peak Highway. Looking northwest, I could see the postage-stamp-worthy "Circle Peaks" that would also be on someday wish list, were it not for the technical approaches. I wondered if from here, from a far distance down the Divide, it might be more doable. Mental note to research Bear Lake to Milner Pass routes. 
We paused to eat a quick lunch of tuna and crackers before a few thunder booms convinced us we had to make more haste than we hoped. While climbing, Beat scouted a more direct route down the ridge that might prove easier than the marshy Divide traverse. We could see where we'd connect with the Tonanutu Creek Trail a few hundred feet below timberline. It would add an extra mile and a 700-foot climb back up the trail, but seemed more than worth it. 

We made a dash for lower altitudes as the dark, grumbling clouds drifted north and finally away. It seemed like all was clear, and we decided to continue along the three-mile-long ridge traverse back to Flattop. Of course, "all clear" never lasts long on a summer afternoon. Within a mile we were caught in the thick of a hailstorm. 
It was a precarious position on this wide-open plateau high on the Divide, but the part of my brain that prefers "interesting if scary" over "mundane if safe" found the storm quite refreshing.
I still wanted to make a dash off the ridge at our first chance, even as Beat teased me about climbing Hallett one more time so I could earn "local legend" status on Strava. (I also climbed this peak on Monday when I dropped by the park to pick up my backpacking permit, and then decided since I'd driven all the way there I might as well embark on a 15-mile hike for good measure. So that would be three Hallett summits in four days. Fun idea, but as I looked west toward the next approaching storm, I again registered a firm veto.)
Another bout of rain caught us around 11,000 feet, but we were able to enjoy the long hike out when almost nobody else was on the trail, wrapping up a 20-mile day in which we spent nearly 15 miles above treeline. And look how clear it is! The clear air only lasts as long as the wind and rain. Our big Colorado fires are still only partially contained, and the nearby Cameron Peak fire not at all. There is still tons of smoke wafting in from California, which is now far-reaching enough to hover in pockets over the Atlantic Ocean. Summer is far from over, but just yesterday we woke up to 52 degrees and rain. It almost felt like fall, and everyone on social media agreed. Summer may not be over, but the snow will return sooner than it seems, and I will miss this easy access to the mountains I can't help but love. 
Friday, August 21, 2020


 If ever there was a birthday to ignore, it's your 41st — one yawn-inducing year past middle age, during the fire-ravaged month of August, in the forsaken Year of the Lord 2020. Oh, there were hopes and dreams — early in Quarantine, when optimism for the future could still be grasped. Even after I lost hope that I'd be riding across Kyrgyzstan in the Silk Road Mountain Race, I was sure by late August I'd be fit and ready to thru-hike the Colorado Trail. When I failed to generate the enthusiasm to train and prepare for that endeavor, I thought about a bike tour to Salt Lake City and onto Montana. When the pandemic raged on and more distant travel continued to look irresponsible, I thought about "Mummy Mania," a strenuous traverse of the Mummy Range summiting six 13ers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then the Cameron Peak Fire forced the closure of that portion of the park. A growing multitude of wildfires raged and cloaked most of the West in a toxic cloud of smoke. Finally, as the godforsaken day approached, I'd settled on "stay indoors and be depressed." 

After that decision was settled, Beat and his friend Daniel found a rare window to embark on a huge run they've been planning all summer, a 36-mile loop around Mount Massive. The route had lots of what Beat calls "PTL terrain" and sounded beyond my comfort level, especially at the pace those two prefer to hold. They headed out at 4 a.m. Wednesday. I awoke around 8 and prepared for a day of puttering around, pretending to write, and doom-scrolling until a dire need for distraction prompted me to revert to cleaning something. I had a 9 a.m. online meeting with my therapist, who begged me to do something fun on Thursday. After our session ended, I checked Beat's tracker and saw that he and Daniel were making good time up and over Mount Massive. Perhaps the smoke wasn't so bad in the Sawatch. Perhaps I should go there. 

The forecast for both days wasn't great — dry lightning with isolated storms throughout each afternoon. But I thought if I headed out Wednesday and camped near the trailhead, I could start early enough to summit a 14er on my birthday. It would be something. I hastily packed gear and water and left home around noon. As I drove toward the tunnel on I-70, smoke from the Williams Fork Fire billowed overhead. The haze was as thick as I've seen, a long black veil raining down ash like snow. I felt certain I was going to drive three hours to Leadville only to immediately turn around. "California Halo Blue" by AWOLNATION came up on my playlist and I broke into sobs, taking big, snotty gulps of recirculated air as I blinked away tears. Yes, emotionally, I'm back to the crying days of Quarantine. "California Halo Blue" is about a 2018 fire that destroyed large swaths of Malibu, and the singer's fantasy about salvation from the sky that never came. 

I arrived at my camp at 3:30 p.m. The air west of the Divide wasn't so bad, and even when I crossed back over to the east into Leadville, the bubble remained clear. I couldn't smell smoke when I stepped outside, a first in two weeks. But it was horribly hot for 10,000 feet — 85 degrees — and my plan to relax and read my Kindle did not seem so appealing anymore. The weather also wasn't great, as darker storm clouds had moved overhead and a few thunder rumbles echoed across the canyon. But I had five hours of daylight and a decent likelihood that the storms would dissipate by early evening. I decided to head up the trail toward Mount Elbert. A summit seemed unlikely, but hiking is pretty much always better than not hiking. 

When you start up a popular 14er at 4 in the afternoon, you're bound to hear scolding. Most of the people on the mountain at that time of day have been up there all day, and appear disheveled and downtrodden from their efforts — they're the stragglers, and you're just getting started. I brushed off the questions and tsk-tsks by insisting that I was camped nearby and was just out for a hike, which was true. To less condescending people I confessed my plan, which was to hike to treeline and assess from there. A few thunder booms hit loud and close, and then a short but intense hailstorm briefly coated the trail in ice. The storm infused the air with an energy that was palpable. The temperature dropped from the 80s to the 50s or even 40s. I shivered in my damp clothing as I breathed deep, enriching gulps of air. It had a sharp taste, almost metallic — almost like clean air. 

I climbed above the last patch of scrub trees at 11,900 feet. The summit was in view and looked close enough to touch, but I knew it was still 2,500 feet higher. The sky was now in view as well. It looked to be rapidly clearing. There was another band of dark clouds to the northwest that I would need to watch, but this window was too good to pass up. I passed my last group of hikers about 500 feet higher. They were draped in soaked ponchos and flattened puffy jackets, and regarded me with ashen-faced grimaces and a quiet but baffled, "You're going to the top?" They were caught in the hailstorm up high. I could tell it was not a fun experience for them. A hard wind still roared and the air was becoming downright icy. I still hadn't put on my jacket, because it was fun to feel cold for once. The last man in the group, who seemed to be the experienced one based on his calm demeanor, pressed a little deeper.

"Are you alone?" 

"I am, but I'm prepared." 

"Are you going to the summit? It's not as close as it looks."

"I know. I've been hiking for an hour fifteen and think it will take me about that long to the top.  I'm watching those clouds over there," I pointed. "If I hear any thunder rumbles, I'll turn around right away." What I didn't say, out loud, is that I wasn't so worried about wind and hail. I know it can be really bad, and I know that I've experienced much worse.

The man looked to the west. "I think you'll be okay. I think the storms are done for the day." 

I scarcely noticed the rest of the climb. The skies opened up to some friendlier white clouds, the sun came out, and the winds calmed to little more than a gentle breeze. I was probably plodding along, but I barely noticed I was working — lost in daydreams, marveling at the expanse. The Hard Climb: the only place in this world where I can always find peace. In the next heartbeat, I'd gained the sole position on the highest pile of rocks in all of the Rocky Mountains, the top of Colorado. Mount Elbert was deserted and eerily calm, with early evening light filtered through the dark clouds still hovering over the western horizon. I found a pile of these cardboard signs under some rocks, several with dates that happened more than a week ago. I took this selfie with one that had the proper date, and another with a prettier sign from the bottom of the pile. Why do people leave this stuff up here? I admit it's a fun prop, so I left the pretty sign and stuffed the other six into my backpack to pack out. 

I took a much longer respite at the summit than I normally do, only because it was so warm and calm. I felt like I could comfortably spend the night up there, but I did need to put on a light jacket and hat to sit and eat my sandwich. I dropped one of my prized iPod Shuffles, and battled a chipmunk to keep it away from my hands as I dug through a seemingly bottomless pile of rocks to find it (I did!) Finally, reluctantly, when my hiking math revealed that I was barely going to make it to camp before dark, I started down. 

It was such a nice evening, with magic light over the Arkansas River valley and the Mosquito Range. I was in bliss, but I still caught songs on my Shuffle that started the tears flowing all over again. "So Long, Honey," by Caamp. Songs that remind me of nervously sitting on an airplane on its way to Anchorage before the 2020 ITI. Songs that remind me of the before times. It's so interesting, the moments that seem so inconsequential at the time, that go on to become the meaningful memories embedded in our psyche. 

I met one more person about a thousand feet below the summit, a solo man in running garb. "Someone else as crazy as me," I quipped. 

"This is my 58th of 58 summits!" he exclaimed.

"Wait, you're doing them all?"

"Yeah, in 57 days."

I was floored. That's a major accomplishment. It takes a lot of endurance and skill, not to mention logistical planning, to squeeze all of those mountains into two months. He saved the tallest mountain for last. 

"Wow, big congrats," I said.

"Well, I'm not there yet."

"Oh, you're there," I laughed. 

A few days later I stalked him via Strava Flybys, and learned he had a harrowing experience in a sunset storm near the summit, with intense wind and hail. 

"It was ironic that my scariest experience on a 14er was my last one," he commented. 

I barely noticed that storm. I was just rounding into my camp at 8:30 when few sprinkles and wind gusts pushed through the thick tree canopy. Storms, like memories, can be so random and localized. 
I had a rough night, alternately sweating and shivering in my bag amid the weirdly hot 44-degree night. I emerged from my tent three or four times, craning my neck at a splash of stars and distinct glow of the Milky Way. The sky was still so clear, and the air tasted clean, but my throat was deeply sore and my lungs felt raw. Maybe I did inhale a hefty dose of smoke on that five-hour Elbert excursion. The haze is so widespread now. After three weeks, we're growing accustomed to it, like the children of smokers. I continue to question the wisdom and folly of spending any amount of time outdoors in these conditions. But it was, after all, my birthday. I was going for Mount Massive. Only thunder would drive me away. 

My alarm rang only about two hours after I finally fell asleep, and I dawdled and sulked but did manage a 5:30 start. My route followed the flat Halfmoon Creek Road for three miles. I intended to jog this stretch to save time, but instead, I strolled lazily along and sipped from my cooking pot that I'd filled with coffee. Darkness gave way to dawn, and strips of sunlight appeared on the mountains overhead. This is a gorgeous spot. I was so happy to be in this place, and even happier to be on a solo journey where I could make all of my own choices and no one cared if I wasted these few easy miles. Don't get me wrong. I love adventuring with Beat and spending time with friends. But when it's my birthday, I only want to do exactly what I want to do. 

The first couple of miles continued to snake lazily through the valley, as did I. But around mile five, I looked at GPS and contemplated the fact that I was still at 11,300 feet, and supposedly I'd hit the summit ridge at 14,000 feet in just over one mile. The forest began to thin, and I looked up at an imposing slope of cliffs and scree, with no intelligible line of ascent. I reached an intersection with a weathered wooden sign that I could barely read. But it was clear enough. Halfmoon Creek continued west. Mount Massive went straight up. 

The Mount Massive North Halfmoon Trail was incredible, a work of art, my favorite kind of trail — only as long as I am climbing and not descending. I didn't take photos of the lower section, where it cut tight zigzags through tumbles of talus, and crept around cliffs that I was certain couldn't be cleared. It was crazy steep, which I love, but it was also good trail — not a scramble. It reminded me so much of the well-beaten paths of the Italian Alps, every col in the Tor des Geants, the beautiful pain of gaining 2,700 feet in 1.3 miles. The cool morning air and subtle rock spires along the ridge put me right back in Italy, an imaginary journey that I cherished. 

It hit me, recently, how sad I am about not visiting the Alps this year. Beat and I have traveled to Europe every late August since 2011, and I'd come to take this privilege for granted. My birthday had come to signify finally escaping from the fearsome realities of late summer to a mountain paradise where pretty much all I do is hike and eat amazing pizza. In this forsaken year, all I have is whatever brief moments of peace I can squeeze from my lungs and legs on a 40 percent grade in Colorado. On this morning, my birthday, I had the southern slope of Mount Massive — and it was everything I needed. 

And then, like magic, I was there. This 4,500-foot ascent had taken me four hours, but it was still only 9:30 in the morning. I felt reasonably well, even though I was starting to smell smoke in the air. The impressive bulk of Mount Massive stretched out in all directions — except from the direction I came, where Mount Elbert still looked deceptively close. I found the inevitable cardboard sign and laughed at how both depicted altitudes different than what I expected. I thought Mount Massive was 14,429 feet and Mount Elbert 14,439. In the 1970s, there was a Quixotic movement to designate the much more deserving Massive as the highest mountain in the Rockies. People built a giant cairn on the summit in order to raise the height of the mountain, replacing the rocks as quickly as the opposition dismantled them. People are strange. 

I dawdled a well-deserved 45 minutes at the summit, finally starting down as cumulonimbus clouds appeared over the western horizon. I descended the main trail, and it was there I finally encountered the masses. Everyone who started at the trailhead at 4 and 5 a.m. was pretty much marching in procession, easily four dozen people on their way to a summit I had to myself. And then, after that mile-long parade, the trail was abandoned again — except for Sage Canaday, who bounded past me like I was standing still on his way to a Mount Massive Fastest Known Time (I Strava-stalked him later to confirm. Out and back in 2:12!?!) 

My lumbering loop was closer to seven hours, but I loved every minute of it. Two 14ers for my 41st birthday. It was the best present I could have asked for.