Monday, October 19, 2020

Winter Wind meets Fire Summer

The sound is both familiar and chilling: a high-pitched whistle accompanied by a whoosh of tree branches, reaching a crescendo that resembles a frantic scream before fading to a low moan. There's a thrilling harmony to the wind that I can appreciate. Sometimes I sit next to the window and listen, watching the trees bend sideways while random debris tumbles through the grass. This is the downslope wind, heralding the onset of winter in Colorado's Front Range. Summers have their share of storms, but summer doesn't contain the temperature gradients necessary to generate these blasts of air rushing down from the Divide. The Winter Wind is different. By October I've almost forgotten what it feels like. Its return reignites a thrilling familiarity: the way a 50 mph gust will stop me mid-stride, frantically jumping off my bike to avoid being toppled, the exhilarating spice that ground blizzards add even to the most basic runs around home. Wind, like winter, is a dynamic circumstance that I've learned to embrace. 

Now, in this forsaken year of 2020, the sound of the Winter Wind has become chilling on a whole new level. By Saturday, that whistling sound sparked anxiety reactions that I couldn't fully control, so I took a CBD capsule and hid under a blanket, rolling from my stomach to my back and taking deep breaths. It was cold outside and a little chilly inside the house, which is how I justified the blanket. Truthfully, I was strung out and using the most basic comfort sources to pull myself together. If I had a higher tolerance for harder substances than CBD, I would have turned to them. On a better day, I would have set out on my bike. On this day, the smoke situation was too unpredictable. I didn't know whether situations might rapidly change and force us to pack up our vehicles and evacuate. Instead, I shifted between doom-scrolling and eyes-closed breathing exercises whenever a wind gust roared past. I'd ridden my bike for nine hours the previous day and planned for Saturday to be a "rest day." Of course, this was by far the most restless day of the week. 

It all started on Wednesday. The Cameron Peak Fire had a bad day on Wednesday. This blaze has been active for more than two months but had been holding steady around 130,000 acres for nearly a week. That period of relative calm ended when the west wind arrived, driving an explosive surge that pushed it to 155,000 acres in a single day, becoming the largest fire in Colorado history. Since then it's grown to 203,000 acres, making Wednesday's run seem almost small. But at the time, I took it hard. We'd enjoyed several days of deliciously clear air, freezing temperatures were in the forecast, and it was starting to seem like fire season was almost behind us. But as I drove to town for my usual weekly errands and appointments, all I could see was this smoke plume pouring into clear blue skies. The Cameron Peak Fire broke my heart all over again. 

It's difficult not to focus on all of the losses these fires represent — the forests and wildlife, the vistas and trails, people's livelihoods, their homes. It's difficult not to widen this perspective toward a difficult future, when all of this loss, literal scorched earth, is simply a new normal fueled by climate change. October fires are the scariest yet. When the worsening drought and heat of summer mix with increasingly convective seasonal winds, the outcomes can only be catastrophic. I couldn't help but ruminate on a dark future as I ran along the South Mesa Trail, grateful for this potentially last window of clean air as an enormous plume of smoke billowed to the north. I made strong time up Shadow Canyon and scrambled to the summit of Bear Peak from the ledge where Beat and I were married last month. From this vantage, I looked toward the smoke plume and broke out in tears. This isn't the first time I've cried about the Cameron Peak Fire. There was the trickle of tears that surprised me as I watched a single plume from a spot fire rise from a nearby valley while traversing Mummy Mountain. That was September 4, when the fire was still at 23,000 acres. I cried a little more openly on Mount Evans a week ago, as I sat more than 75 miles away watching a pyrocumulus cloud mushroom into the sky. This run on October 8 drove the blaze to official megafire status (over 100,000 acres.) That it keeps ballooning skyward is both predictable and surreal, not unlike watching COVID cases climb. Like any out-of-control phenomenon, the encroaching smoke is a reminder that for us, too, it's only a matter of time. 

On Friday, I just wanted to go for a long ride. I filed away a training excuse by signing up for the Fat Pursuit 200K, a winter fat bike race scheduled for early January in Idaho. In truth, I'm skeptical that I'll actually end up at the start line for this race. There are so many unknowns with the pandemic. Traveling to a different state to participate in a winter race, even if it's mostly self-supported, seems like an iffy proposition at this point. Still, for now, the Fat Pursuit is something to look forward to, to take my mind of the present. Any excuse to spend most of a day riding a bike is a good excuse. 

I headed south away from the Cameron Peak smoke plume and climbed toward Gilpin. The National Forest land to the west is threaded with a seemingly endless maze of jeep roads that, in theory, are fun to explore. I write "in theory," because by now I've learned that most of these roads are only marginally rideable and actually not that much fun — a morass of babyheads strewn along 25-percent grades with fleetingly rare flat stretches buried in ankle-deep sand. But it's still a place within a day's biking distance from home that feels new and exciting. At least a few times a year, I resolve to go exploring. 

After the summer-long, pandemic-fueled rush on recreation, it feels like the crowds are finally calming down. It helps when it's still 32 degrees at noon and the winter wind is howling out of the west. I like this weather. It feels safe to me, quiet, and with a couple extra layers, I can ride as hard as I want without becoming thirsty or overheated. It's bliss. Well, it's bliss until it isn't. As I rolled along a series of drainages below Yankee Hill, I had to contend with a continuous ribbon of ice threading through the babyheads. Since I didn't have studded bike tires, the ice made all of the easy lines impossibly treacherous. If I wanted to ride at all, I had to hug the eroded berms, bouncing over all manner of rocks and ruts.  

Somehow in the midst of battling ice and rocks, I climbed to nearly 11,000 feet, where the lovely pine forest opened to the scrub spruce and brush of the subalpine zone. Up there, the wind was so strong that I could no longer ride west. It was impossible. Gusts pushed me sideways and backward as I swerved and bucked over babyheads. Even hiking proved difficult. The wind seemed determined to grab the bike from my hands, wrenching my arms as I marched, head lowered, into an invisible wall. I scanned my GPS and saw the road would soon turn north, so that was something. I could see a ribbon of dirt rising up a hill to my right, but I wondered if I even had the strength to push my bike to the top. 

"This is the winter I remember," I thought. "Hello, West Wind, my old friend."

Shoring up the sum of my strength, I shambled to the top of the rise and caught my first unobstructed view of the full and ominous power of the West Wind — a smoke plume, stretched into lenticular waves thousands of feet over the Continental Divide. Smoke almost entirely blotted out South Arapaho Peak, which was only a dozen or so miles away. The base of the plume was almost black, dark enough to see a distinct red glow reflected from a not-so-distant fire. "East Troublesome," I thought. East Troublesome was the latest fire to erupt in Grand County. On this day it doubled in size from 3,800 acres to nearly 8,000. And of course, it's nearly doubled again since. 

Still buffeted by a strong crosswind that carried a chill so deep it seemed to flash-freeze my gloved fingers, I wrestled the bike to a clearing. An awkward gust nearly toppled me, but I jumped just in time to avoid a shoulder hit. This was as good a spot as any. I plopped down in long-dried grass that has been ready for winter since August and slowly removed my backpack. The wind genuinely seemed strong enough to blow the entire pack away if I wasn't careful, so I kept a tight grip as I removed a sandwich from its container and leaned into my pack to take gulping bites. It was a terribly uncomfortable spot for a lunch break, so cold and windy. The East Troublesome smoke plume was alarming from this vantage, to the point where I involuntarily shuddered and looked away. Still, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the moment in this way. 

Sometime during my weird apocalypse picnic, Everclear's 1993 hit "Fire Maple Song" floated up from a deep abyss of memory. For much of the bumpy descent into Mammoth Gulch and Tolland Road, I probed this memory for lyrics to a song that I'm not even sure I've thought about since the '90s. Impressed with my recapture, I rewrote lyrics that better fit my mood: 

Lying down in the grass with the wind around us as we watch the smoke erupt. 
Listen to doomsday reports on the radio. 
They tell us how the mountains turn to fire, every year now. 
We’ll lay in the grass all summer just to watch the world burn to the ground. 
I can’t smile. 
Now I can’t smile.

As I neared home, the smoke plume grew closer and darker. I was lucky it stayed south of me throughout the day, but my luck was running out. I could see flakes of ash wafting through the air, and then I tasted something acrid in my throat.  

My breathing soon began to sound like a high-pitched whistle. I was glad I was only about twenty minutes from home. I carried an N95 mask for such situations but opted to race the encroaching plume rather than fiddle with putting it on. I had no idea how bad the smoke had become near Boulder. Our home meter registered an AQI over 400; some places in town recorded 600. Both are so far beyond hazardous that the EPA doesn't even have a health rating for that level. The sky over town turned an apocalyptic shade of orange. Beat was caught out in it during a run, and had no choice but to stumble home in air so bad he was barely able to breathe. I'm not even sure what I'd do if I met an AQI of 600. I doubt my mask would offer protection enough to allow even a slow walking pace before my asthma became unmanageable. I feel like I'd be wholly trapped if the AQI rose to 600, like I'd just have to lay down and die. I know this is overdramatic and it would certainly not be that bad. But it feels that way. 

In hindsight, it's a risk to venture outside at all during such a volatile fire season. I can't know which way the wind will shift, and what will happen to air that was perfectly breathable only an hour before. But on this evening, I simply slowed my pace to reduce the wheezing. I reached smooth gravel and finally pavement, where I could pedal easily and watch the evening sky with a renewed sense of awe. 

I felt guilty for feeling such awe. This was still smoke, carried by the West Wind at such a high speed that it looked like molten lava flowing through a volcanic stream. I hated it, but I had to admit it was beautiful. 

Then came Saturday. My Friday ride took most of nine hours — 68 miles with nearly 10,500 feet of climbing — so it seemed prudent to take a rest day and try to get a few things done. I did not get anything done. Instead, I managed to catch a super early report about a new fire in Boulder County. It was only an acre at the time and seemed trivial. But within the seconds it takes to write a Twitter comment, the report grew to eight acres, and then twenty. Suddenly it was hundreds of acres, then thousands, racing down Lefthand Canyon toward North Boulder. People way out in Denver posted photos of an all-encompassing black plume that reminded me of The Nothing from "Neverending Story." I caught news of friends evacuating, friends who were certain they would lose their homes, and then the fire jumped the divided highway and continued burning near suburban neighborhoods in the plains. People who live miles east of the foothills started evacuating. It was chaos, true chaos. It took two months for the Cameron Peak Fire to become the largest fire in Colorado history. It only took six hours for the Calwood Fire to become the largest fire in Boulder County history. 

I didn't take it well. It was just so sad, and so close to home, with so many unknowns. We live a few valleys to the south and weren't under immediate threat. But this whole region is such a tinderbox right now. It's hard to feel secure, and everyone is on edge. Beat and I discussed our evacuation plan. I imagined escape routes I might take if a smoke plume erupts nearby while I'm out running on trails — it could happen. I might get out with only the clothes and pack on my back. If we're lucky, we'll have time to fill a vehicle with bikes. Of course, if we're truly lucky, a neighborhood wildfire won't happen at all. What are the odds, really? I didn't want to think about it. I knew another day of doomscrolling would do me no good, so by late Sunday morning, I decided another long ride would be prudent — nay, necessary. 

It was another day of strange weather. There was a thick fog and temperatures near freezing when I set out a few minutes before noon. The inversion brought much-needed humidity and drizzle to Boulder, but it also prevented the air assault that firefighters had planned for the now-nearly-9,000-acre fire that had already burned 26 structures in fewer than 24 hours. I had mixed feelings about the fog. Any wet weather was a good thing, but I knew it couldn't last. Indeed, as I climbed above 8,000 feet, the inversion cleared. It was much warmer than it had been on Friday, and nearly as windy. 

I effectively rage-pedaled into the headwind, burning off a fair amount of negative energy as I repeatedly glanced to the north for evidence of a Calwood smoke plume. So far, the smoke didn't seem too bad. I climbed to the top of Caribou Hill, another huge rock-strewn grunt, and sat in another dry field of grass to eat a sandwich while facing the wind. This time, I faced James Peak. It was a nice view. I love James Peak.

When I turned to descend, I saw a dramatic smoke plume that I hadn't noticed before. It was confusing. It looked fresh, and far too close to be part of the Calwood Fire. The Calwood Fire started north of Jamestown, which from this vantage would be a fair distance to the northeast. This plume looked like it began mere miles away. A new fire? Was that even possible — a new fire just one day later, in the same general area, in October? It seemed so unlikely. But this looked real. And it looked like it might be burning near Ward or Gold Hill, which was the direction I had planned to ride to close my loop. As I coasted along Peak to Peak Highway, I didn't see fire trucks or other indicators of a close fire. But just to be safe, I cut downhill early on Sugarloaf Road, rather than take the Switzerland Trail to Fourmile as I'd planned. 

Later I'd find out this was a new fire. The Lefthand Fire, which forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in and around Ward, and grew to several hundred acres over just a few hours on that windy, warm afternoon. It seems so surreal. The hot and dry weather only reigned above 8,000 feet. Below that altitude, the inversion held, which was a blessing for the Calwood Fire. Indeed, the shift between microclimates was dramatic. I crested the final rise of Sugarloaf in full sun with the hard wind at my back, then plunged into a thick fog that dropped the temperature at least 20 degrees in seconds. My fingers again flash-froze, and I started to shiver. It felt calm, quiet, and safe. I wished the freezing fog would never go away. 
Monday, October 12, 2020

Gasping for goals

Like many people, I'm adrift right now. A thick fog has obscured the horizon, and it feels strange to try to set a course. What will life look like in 2021? Is it even worth training for a race, or trying to finish any one of my now-silly-seeming book projects? Every day seems to bring new waves of absurdity, and it's tempting to at least daydream about abandoning ship and taking my chances with the abyss. Marrying Beat has been a comforting anchor to toss into this maelstrom of a year, but there's still a lot of uncertainty out there. I've become better at taking deep breaths, observing what's directly in front of me, and acknowledging the beauty I see and the gratitude I feel. But I've gotten so used to anticipation, to planning, to goals. What does one even do with a day, if not make progress toward a foreseeable future? 

It helped to remember that there were a few more things I wanted to do with summer before snow swept over the mountains. Despite that September snow that now feels like it happened years ago, summer has dragged into a particularly long, hot, and smoky October. Beat recently purchased one of those Purple Air sensors, and these days I check the Air Quality Index before I even bother checking the weather. If pollution has climbed into the orange zone (above 100), I avoid going outside ... although lately, I've become increasingly stubborn about this. I see shadows of the person I was when I was living in Juneau, where it was often 37 degrees and raining. Even though I knew there was pretty much no way to avoid becoming hypothermic (I tried everything), I'd go out for long bike rides anyway. I'd accept and then suffer the consequences because I want to do what I want to do. Smoky days are like that, but with lung-searing particulate matter that may have long-term health consequences. Those days of wet underwear and uncontrolled shivering seem so quaint. 

Air quality was nudging dangerously close to the orange zone when Beat and I set out last Sunday morning to do the second thing on my top-three list: The Pawnee-Buchanan loop. This Front Range classic ascends two passes over the Continental Divide and packs 7,200 feet of climbing into 27 miles. I'd had some trouble recovering from the beating my legs took during our "Big Lonesome" bushwhack, and air quality had been poor all week. But I took faith in a forecast for strong west winds, which I hoped would drive out the smoke from fires that were mainly burning to the south and north of these mountains. 

Of course, fires have been burning great swaths of forest since July. Most of the West is shrouded in smoke by now. The wind was merely a conveyer, driving smog that had settled into the valleys directly into our path. While driving to the trailhead in the hot and smoky predawn darkness, I became deeply nauseated. I blamed car sickness, but really, it was closer to pollution reactions I experienced earlier in the summer. We arrived at Brainard Lake just after 7 a.m. and the parking lot was already full. We took the last spot among dozens of cars with tailgates swung open and babies screaming from all directions. Beat seemed agitated and I knew he was going to take off like a flash to gain distance from the crowds. I choked down bile and pushed to keep up with him. 

I think there might have been a time, in the distant past now, when feeling so terrible at the start of a marathon hike would have caused me to concede that it wasn't my day. But I'd infused these arbitrary goals with a racing mindset. In a race, nausea is not enough of a setback to justify quitting. You've just got to power through. And maybe if you're lucky, your body will give you a little reset in the form of vomiting. But this was not that kind of nausea — not anchored in my digestive system, at least. This was a vague yet full-body queasiness, clinging to a bit of a headache, that I imagine the beginning of a migraine might feel like. What else could cause this sort of reaction besides smoke? I took a few big sips of water and continued shuffling over the loose rocks littering the trail.

I began to feel better as we ascended a mire of moondust and ball-bearing gravel to gain Buchanan Pass. Winds were still relatively light and inversions still held most of the smoke to the valleys. We descended into the golden forest along Buchanan Creek, which we were pleased to find hadn't been knocked down by the straight-line winds that ravaged nearby valleys a month earlier. That must have been such a strange storm. I imagined fingers of microbursts flattening one drainage while sparing another. 

We commenced the 4,000-foot ascent to Pawnee Pass, and I turned on an audiobook of Stephen Hawking's "Brief Answers to Big Questions." I recall reading the theoretical physicist's "A Brief History of Time" a seeming hundred years ago when I was a college student roiled in a faith crisis. Now, like then, I found great comfort in Hawking's frank discussions of nebulous ideas rooted in complex science. It's a lot to chew on when your brain is addled with fatigue and clouded with smog, but it's also more nourishing to digest in this state. An affirmation of: "The universe is infinite, time is a construct, you're nothing more than a story you tell yourself, and that's okay." 

On this day, my story was a bit of a hero's tale where I overcome the smog of body and soul and conquer a mountain. I like this story, which is why I pursue it often. I know it's silly and fleeting, but then again, so is much of this story we call life. 

As we ascended into a fortress of rock shrouded in haze, Beat seemed to flag as well. Pawnee Pass is an impressive col, carved into formidable cliffs where passage appears unlikely until you're standing on top of the Divide. The trail is narrow and it's difficult to focus on anything but the obstacles directly in my path: the rocks and rubble, the dropoffs, the steep grade. But when I turn my gaze skyward, I'm struck by an all-encompassing awe that consumes any emotional wavering or physical complaint. In the scope of the unknowable, I can almost see where all of these disparate pieces link together. Hawking has a quote for this, too: 

“So, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult may life seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” 

We made our way over the pass as the autumn daylight grew long, darkening the smog layer over the plains. When I caught up to a Beat he was sitting on a rock, looking nonchalant. But then he told me he took a tumble, jamming his thumb and slamming his chest into sharp rocks. The chest hit knocked the wind out of his sails. His hand was bleeding. He'd spend the rest of the week unable to lie comfortably in bed while nursing a deep bruise. Usually, I'm the one to take these sorts of hits, so I empathize. It sucks to have to limp out afterward. It sucks to face however many days or weeks of injury because of a moment's lapse of balance. But there's nothing else you can do. Just keep moving forward. 

Beat and I spent the next few days recovering — he trying his hardest not to roll over in bed, and me waiting for that burning sensation in my lungs to subside. The parched and hot weather continued, with Denver enduring its first October 90s in more than a century. But there was a storm on the horizon, slated to drop snow on the mountains on Sunday. I hoped for many feet of snow but also acknowledged that this might close my window for summer mountain goals. One goal that stayed on my shortlist despite its redundancy and silliness was to leave home on my bike, ride all the way to the top of Mount Evans, and return home that day. I mapped out a loop that added up to 148 miles with 18,000 feet of climbing. Phew! 

The impending storm made it clear that I only had Thursday or Friday to attempt this silliness. Air quality is tough to predict; it's a localized condition affected by wind direction more than anything else. But with heat and low humidity intensifying all of the nearby fires, it seemed likely to me that the air was only going to become worse until it snowed. The forecast predicted stronger southwest winds on Thursday, which would add quite a bit of resistance to the Evans climb, but stood a chance of driving away smoke from the fires to the north. Either way, it was a gamble. I was split evenly on stay or go when I went to bed. Five minutes before my 5 a.m. alarm, I woke up in a start and checked the AQI on my phone before I'd even fully opened my eyes. 164. That's bad. I laid back down, blinking into the hot blackness of the morning. 

"You know what, who cares?" I grumbled quietly and sat back up. "There's no bad weather, only bad mask-wearing." 

I got out of bed and went through the motions. I ate some banana-maple oatmeal that I'd strongly regret for the first eight hours of the day. Then I wheeled my bike into the driveway at 6 a.m. The predawn sky was a blackboard dusted in chalky haze, high smog mixed with distant light pollution. The half-moon glowed overhead in an alarming shade of pumpkin orange. The air smelled like smoke. I have a terrible sense of smell, to the point where I have my doubts that I'd even notice this particular symptom should I ever come down with COVID, but I could smell smoke. 

"Sorry lungs, we're doing this," I thought. 

I started out with a KN95 mask on. My plan was to wear this mask at intervals throughout the ride to mitigate exposure. Of course, I gave up on it about two miles from my house and didn't bother to put it on again until I finished the climb up Gap Road, three hours into the day. It is just too hard to push my exhaled breath out of that mask, and mild asthma was already making exhaling difficult. I climbed along the rural roads of Gilpin County, passing more Trump signs than I have ever seen in Colorado before drifting onto intimidating backcountry jeep roads. I hoped they weren't private. I hoped they didn't dead-end on the property of an unfriendly gun owner. The bike bucked and shimmied as I surfed through deep sand, finally spilling out onto Virginia Canyon Road, a gravel track that was a lot rougher than I remembered. I reached Idaho Springs feeling fairly exhausted, coughing from airway inflammation. This is usually where a hard ride to Mount Evans starts. The summit was only 27 miles and a solid 7,000 feet of climbing away. 

For this long day out, I downloaded two audiobooks: "What Unites Us" by Dan Rather, and "Where There's a Will" by Emily Chappell. Dan Rather's book was a comforting stream of commentary, like a warm cup of ginger tea for my unsettled mind. Dan Rather was a childhood hero of mine. Really, I admired all of the news anchors on television as well as the faceless bylines of the columnists I read in the Salt Lake Tribune. I've been an avid consumer of journalism for as long as I can remember. Now I long for those days that seem like a hundred years ago, when we trusted our news sources, when an investigative reporter's exhaustive pursuit of truth still held clout over the people who spout baseless opinions about what they want to be true. Now Dan Rather is nearly 90 years old and still commenting on current events via social media. He has some of the more realistic and yet hopeful observations of most of the journalists I follow, so I'll seek out his Facebook account whenever something particularly disheartening has happened. He is my breath of fresh air. I enjoyed the seven hours I spent with him via this audiobook he wrote and recorded back in 2017. It reads like a blueprint for the next three years. The notion that he so clearly saw what was coming, and still maintains hope, gives me something to cling to as well.  

Just after 3 p.m., I rolled past Summit Lake at 12,800 feet and waved to the last two cyclists I'd see that day. I was the last person on the mountain, grinding what felt like the last strands of leg muscle into every pedal stroke and breathing through increasingly ragged lungs. By now "What Unites Us" had ended and rolled over to Emily Chappell's account of the Transcontinental Race across Europe, which she narrates herself with lyrical storytelling. I became a bit weepy early in the book, well before the truly crushing events commenced, when she was still dealing merely with the insecurities and physical pains of the race. For much of the climb, I had to step off my bike so I could stretch my back and take careful bites of a peanut butter sandwich between nauseated gulps. During one of these stops, when I was still about two interminable miles from the summit, she described post-race depression in a way that unexpectedly launched the waterworks. 

"The world is right there — just past your fingertips — but you can't reach it, no matter how close it seems, and how easy it should be just to step forward, or kick harder, or stretch a tiny bit farther, and grasp it in your hand." 

I reached the summit just after 4 p.m., which was the exact time I'd projected when I mapped out this ride, but in the moment felt irresponsibly late and shamefully slow. I had the entire mountain to myself now. A southwest wind neared gale force at 14,000 feet, but it still wasn't cold. I could no longer smell smoke, but I could see it all around me. There were no views of Denver or even the Indian Peaks. All I could see was this gray haze, and above it, the pyrocumulus cloud of the Cameron Peak Fire blowing up more than 75 miles away. I paused my audiobook player and sat on the platform where the summit sign used to be, choking down the rest of my sandwich. After Colorado decided to keep the road closed through 2020, the governor issued an order to remove the sign and review a possible name change. Mount Evans was named for a territorial governor who was implicated in, and later defended, the Sand Creek Massacre, in which as many as 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans were murdered. It all so ... just ... argh! Why does it have to be this way? Why does everything we love in America have to simultaneously be rotten at the roots and burning out of control? 

I'd already gotten my cry out of the way, so I turned my back to the Cameron Peak Fire and finished my sandwich while looking for mountain goats. It seemed they'd moved on for the season. What do mountain goats do all winter long? I've long wondered but never taken the time to research it. I made a mental note to Google it later and put on a jacket for the upcoming 10,000-foot descent. It was the first time in more than ten hours I wasn't either climbing or hanging on for dear life on a rocky or dusty downhill, and I relished the sense of relief as I coasted the lonely road at speeds that for too long seemed unfathomable. Normally I find the Mount Evans pavement jarring, but it's all relative. I was floating on air, and I was happy. I really was. It takes some real energy for me to work out my demons these days. But when they've finally settled somewhere far away in a distant haze, the tranquility is sublime. 

I wish I could say the remaining eight hours of the ride were equally peaceful. Shortly after a brief climb above Echo Lake, a wasp hit my face and stung the side of my nose. For the remainder of the descent into Bergan Park, things were bad. I couldn't even open my left eye and had tears streaming out of my right eye. My skin pulsed with pain. I thought my entire face would swell into an unrecognizable blob. But as these things do, the fierce pain eventually subsided and nothing much happened to my face. By the time I had to turn on my headlights, I was able to open both eyes again. I dodged an alarming stream of Thursday-night traffic on Lookout Mountain, including a clearly drunk guy who darted right in front of me while screaming "biker, hey biker!" (I abruptly swerved and did not stop. No way.) I became lost while winding through the maze of Golden, finally happened on a gas station that elicited a yelp of glee (I had been out of water for a while.) Inside the gas station, I wandered around in a daze unable to decide on anything, and instead of purchasing anything appetizing, walked out with two blue Gatorades and a peanut butter cookie. ("Why? I'm sick of peanut butter.") I was still lost and looking for bike paths when I wandered onto the singletrack of North Table Mountain and thought ... eh, why not? So I bounced and bucked on my gravel bike with my tired legs and still-teary eyes, finally greeting the busy shoulder of Highway 93 with a sigh of relief. It was all downhill from here, except for all of those rolling climbs, and, oh yeah, the 2,500-foot ascent to the top of Flagstaff Road with its 14-percent grades that still wouldn't quite bring me home. My lungs whistled with every breath. I took the Walk of Shame on the Wall of Pain and was stopped twice by cars full of college students who I presume were heading to lookouts. I was tired of everyone and bleary-eyed, but when I turned around to look at city lights shrouded in haze, I felt like I could see clearly again. 

"That's the world. It's everywhere around you. Maybe it's dark and shrouded in uncertainty, but as long as you can move forward, there are no limits."
Friday, October 02, 2020

Shades of the apocalypse

I was quarantined for four days but it felt like weeks — sleeping alone, jogging along empty dirt roads, and ruminating on doomsday until I felt genuine gratitude for 2020, because "these are probably still the good times." During these darkening autumn days still singed with record heat and wildfire smoke, I decided that should health prevail, I was going to finish up the summer endurance projects I mapped out at the beginning of the season. I wanted to run the Pawnee-Buchanan loop, ride to the top of Mount Evans from home, and finally connect Devil's Thumb Pass to the elusive Caribou Pass on a loop I called "Big Lonesome." 

Big Lonesome was the most interesting and also arguably the easiest endeavor on my list — 28 miles with 7,200 feet of climbing, but all on trail and topping out just above 12,000 feet. Compared to the endless block talus, chunder gullies, steep ridges, and relentless high altitude of our recent mountain traverses, Big Lonesome would be a piece of cake. "We can even run some of it," I said to Beat, as though actual runnable terrain was the most compelling part of all. 

Monday's forecast called for real cold. A high of 37 at 9,000 feet, which would mean if the wind was cranking at 12,000 feet, it was going to be brrrrr. I speculated as much to Beat — "remember Niwot Ridge in January?" and packed insulated shorts and a balaclava on top of my usual mountain layers. Beat still wore his thin bib shorts, insisting that "my legs rarely get cold." Let me just state for the record that this argument baffles me. Legs are part of the same vascular system as everything else in the body. Cold wind on exposed skin will cool blood rapidly, and that cold blood is going to end up in your core. Where does this reasoning from shorts enthusiasts even come from? 

The temperature for our 7:15 a.m. start was 24 degrees, causing Beat to scrunch up his face as soon as we stepped out of the car. I thought it felt amazing. The crispest of crisp autumn mornings — the kind where I'm cozy in my pants and vest, but when a breeze brushes my face, I can almost taste a sharp infusion of energy. This exhilaration was almost immediately followed by sadness. I recently spent far too much alone time reading about climate change research, which shows how even mild cold will become increasingly rare  — confined to higher latitudes, deeper winter, and unpredictable shifts in the Arctic Vortex. Whenever I think about change, I feel a preemptive sense of loss. But I refused to stifle the frosty zing of mountain air with dull heartache. Not today. One lesson 2020 has taught me is to not pin anything on an uncertain future. All we have is now.

This cold and stunningly clear morning was more than enough. The summer crowds have largely faded, and we only passed one other couple near Hessie townsite during our blitz to Devil's Thumb Pass. Fall colors in the region are muted this year, with only patches of gold amid the faded green of aspen groves. The tundra is now copper and beige. As we crested the Continental Divide, I remembered the way this ridge used to burst with life, when it was a thick carpet of green speckled with wildflowers, just three months ago. Change is swift, here and everywhere. 

The breeze was already brisk at 9 a.m., and my water hose froze. After criticizing Beat's shorts, I ended up feeling underdressed myself. I had plenty of layers in my backpack, but I felt a strange reluctance to stop for the jacket and balaclava that dominated my thoughts. Why? Beat was marching, and I wanted to keep up. The wind was cranking, and I didn't want to stop moving. Beat noted that he could smell smoke, but my sinuses were so clogged that I no longer bothered trying to breathe through my nose. I just put my head down and marched, and hoped the wind would relent soon.

"We're heading back down into the trees," Beat reasoned when I asked whether he planned to put on a jacket. 

"All downhill from here," I quipped. I appreciated that this mountain adventure only briefly tagged the frigid alpine zones. I looked forward to easy trail miles as opposed to an arduous ridge traverse. My legs felt peppy and my feet more nimble than usual. I was able to dance around rocks and pick up speed as we descended toward the valley. Running! In the mountains! There's no better feeling. If I had been looking at something besides the ground, I might have noticed the bigger picture — a ripple of flattened trees, perhaps, or the ominous haze darkening the horizon. Living in the moment is exhilarating, but in hindsight, some forward-thinking can prevent a lot of misery. 

We soon dropped below treeline and almost immediately encountered piles of uprooted trees strewn across the trail. Deadfall is a frequent obstacle in these pine beetle-ravaged forests, so I didn't think much of it. But within a half-mile, we found ourselves climbing over fallen giants, wending around 15-foot-high walls of roots and dirt, and groping for weaknesses amid impenetrable tangles of branches. 

"This is dangerous," Beat argued. The deadfall pile continued down-canyon as far as we could see. Massive tree trunks had snapped and splintered into treacherous blades. Some trees were suspended more than six feet off the ground, propped up by still-healthy limbs. Going over or under these precariously suspended widowmakers seemed like, well, a death wish.

"It has to be avalanche debris," I reasoned, imagining a spring slide driving concrete-like blocks of snow and ice down from Devil's Thumb Pass. Wet slides can be destructive but they don't travel far, usually. I felt confident that if we could find a way around the pile, we'd be free of the tangle and back to running easy on the trail. 

"This trail is part of the CDT," I reasoned. "It's a major trail." 

We picked our way to the edge of the canyon, climbed until the slope became too steep to support solid footing, then descended back to the slightly more stable ground only to encounter yet more impenetrable deadfall. The trail itself was entirely buried. I could trace the track on my GPS, but from 200 feet away, all I could see was mayhem, as though someone dropped a bomb here. Deadfall wasn't confined to the creekbed; it extended hundreds of feet up the mountainside. Evidence was mounting that this was not the work of an avalanche, but I'd created such a convincing story in my mind that it was difficult to see past it. 

"We just need to get lower in the valley," I reasoned. "There's this road on the map; it's not far."

Beat reminded me that at our pace — crawling up and down sideslopes at a half-mile per hour — any distance was far. Maybe the road was buried as well. Maybe the mayhem went on for miles. How could we know? 

I blustered back that such a scenario was so unlikely. "I was here just three years ago, with Leslie when she hiked the CDT. It was an easy cruiser trail then. How could it possibly change so much in three years?"

We continued along the sideslope, balancing precariously across a loose rockslide before dropping back to the bomb blast. It was only getting worse. The road marked on my GPS was nowhere to be found. I vocally conceded defeat, but then Beat suggested climbing to the top of the ridge to seek cleaner ground. From there, we looked down on an open swamp that looked not terribly far away, and I knew this was where the trail turned north and climbed out of this godforsaken drainage. It had to get better from there. Still, it was clear the ridge dropped precipitously from where we stood, and it seemed unlikely we'd find a way down it without getting cliffed out. 

"I don't want to go back through what we've been through, but ..." Beat hesitated.

"Neither do I," I replied. "But ... what is it they call this?" I scoured my fatigued brain for the term. "Sunk cost fallacy! You know, when you've invested so much, and you don't want to lose what you've invested because you're convinced you're so close to your reward, so you invest just a little bit more. But all this leads to is more loss."

"Let's see if there's a way down," Beat suggested. "And set a turnaround time."

The descent off the ridge wasn't as bad as we were expecting, although there was one more unstable rockslide where Beat nearly gave in and I urged him forward. We reconnected with the trail, which brought vocal rejoicing. But within a hundred yards we were hopping matchsticks again, and then huge tree trunks, and then we were back in an expansive mire of destruction. We picked our way to both sides of the valley and found no way around. Here, I was the one to concede defeat. "I'm out of ideas. Let's turn around." I need to state for the record that at this crucial junction, it was Beat's idea to try to crawl over the deadfall pile. Both of us ripped pants and skewered limbs during the battle, and my knees came out badly bruised. But we didn't want to go back. We really didn't want to go back. 

We found our way back to the trail just as it began to veer uphill, and I felt a wave of relief. Finally, we were free of the drainage of doom. This freedom, sadly, was extremely short-lived. The trail dropped into another drainage and ran parallel to the creek. Trees were down everywhere. 

"This isn't an avalanche," Beat said.

"No," I mumbled. "No, it's just wind. It must be. But I've never seen anything like it."

At this point, nearly six hours and only four miles had passed since we dropped off of Devil's Thumb Pass. It felt like time had ended, like we were experiencing a world after the end of the world, after the forests had fallen and humans were no longer around to sweep up the damage. This idea replaced the misguided avalanche story that had been looping through my head. After that, I saw only a macabre dreamscape —splintered wood and dried grass drenched in the eerie light of a smoke-shrouded sky.

"It's terrible, but beautiful in its own way," I thought.

I wish I could say that conditions improved shortly after that, but they did not. Beat's prediction of miles of mayhem is what came true, and he was not happy about it. There was much swearing, more skewering, slogging through swamps, and route-finding through a maze of 15-foot-high slash piles. I abhor bushwhacking and have been known to complain loudly after just a few minutes of it. But in this case, I kept my mouth shut, acknowledging my fault in the matter while quietly marveling that my "easy trail run" had somehow become more of a scramble than I could have ever imagined. 

"I really have hiked this trail before," I mumbled. "Something isn't right. Did we pick up an abandoned trail? How does something become so destroyed in just three years?"

We discussed what we'd do if we couldn't get through to Caribou Pass. If we had to spend a night out in the 20-degree weather. I thought hunkering down or descending Meadow Creek Road to Tabernash would be safer than trying to return the way we came, bashing through the mayhem in the dark. It would be miles to town, though, likely 10 to 15. Beat speculated that the road could be in as terrible shape as the trail, and I couldn't disagree with him. I'd been wrong about everything else. Did Tabernash even still exist? I couldn't be sure. 

Early evening light had saturated the sky by the time we turned off the High Lonesome Trail/CDT onto Caribou Pass Trail. Here we saw evidence of trail work — fresh sawdust sprinkled over the dirt — and we were able to walk more than a hundred yards without hopping over a downed tree or snagging torn pants on a tangle of branches. About a mile later, we encountered a crew of four young forest service employees hauling an enormous crosscut saw, along with other hand tools. We stopped a woman in the crew and asked her about the trail ahead. As we expected, they hadn't worked much beyond where we were standing, but she guessed we'd only have to negotiate a couple more miles of deadfall before we climbed above treeline. 

"This is all from that storm earlier this month," she said. "Thousands of trees came down."

Suddenly, all of my disjointed stories finally clicked together. I couldn't fathom how an entire forest could come down in just three years. But a single storm, three weeks ago — that made sense.

We told her about our descent along the High Lonesome Trail. She wasn't even aware of the damage to that trail. They'd only assessed and worked on a few miles of the most popular day hikes around Grand County. They were trying to clear as much as they could before winter, but expected to only reach a fraction. Most of this forest is designated wilderness. Power tools are prohibited, and that includes chainsaws. I got a little teary-eyed as I thanked the woman for the crew's hard work.

"I'll never take trail work for granted, ever again," I said.

She shrugged. "Hey. It's job security." 

The following day, I'd spend more than two hours digging around for information about what happened here. Surprisingly, I found little. No trail closures were listed on the U.S. Forest Service web sites, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition included only a vague warning about trail damage in Grand County. This storm happened more than three weeks ago. It was the same strong front that dropped nearly a foot of snow on Boulder and blasted Salt Lake City with 110 mph winds. I'd heard strong winds also hit Winter Park and Steamboat Springs, but again, there was little in the way of official reporting. Finally, that same day — Sept. 29 — 9News aired a report about the damage. The report included enlightening footage and quotes from district rangers:

"What we've seen so far is tens of thousands of trees that have blown down."

"It was such a violent wind coming from the east, it laid everything down, similar to a nuclear blast."

"Where chainsaws are not allowed, it could be several summers before this is cleared out."

All information that would have been nice to know yesterday. We had berated ourselves for not researching trail conditions before embarking on our loop, but much of this information wasn't even public before we set out. How many others were caught out unaware? Out of curiosity I did some Strava stalking and was only able to find one other person who had definitely been through since the storm. He titled his run "Through the blowdown to Monarch Lake" and took more than 12 hours to travel 17 miles. 

The trail worker's assessment proved true, and we did have to climb over and under trees all the way to treeline. From there, we still had to negotiate steep and rocky terrain as a hard wind drove the chill into frigid depths. When I planned this loop, the segment I'd fretted about the most was the final traverse to Caribou Pass, which wraps around cliffs over precipitous and loose dropoffs. Twice in the past, I've tried to get through and have been stopped by snowfields. I knew if any snow lingered from the Sept. 8 storm, it would be frozen to hard ice and a definite no-go. With this knowledge, I planned the loop in this direction anyway, because I figured we could find some way over and around if the trail proved impassable. But I wasn't sure. Wouldn't it be funny if, after all that, we couldn't get through to Caribou Pass and had to turn around anyway? Luckily the snow was gone, and the traverse, while a bit spicy, was a nonissue. 

From there, it truly was just down and down and down. We could finally breathe sighs of relief, fairly certain that the popular Arapaho Pass Trail remained passable. It was a lot later than we'd planned, and eerily quiet. If we hadn't run into that trail crew, I would have probably become more convinced that my end-of-the-world daydream was, perhaps, reality.

Our loop wrapped up with four miles on Fourth of July Road. We'd both dreaded this part since it was a road slog, but in this context, I found it pleasantly enjoyable — just to shut my brain off and jog effortlessly with no obstacles in the way. Never mind that my knees ached and my legs were so tired after ten miles of climbing and crawling through a jungle maze — mostly downhill — that I was only able to boost them to 14-minute miles. We'd had an adventure, that was for sure. And that was all we could ask for in the end.