Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Making plans in the sand as the tides roll in

I am having a February. I think many people in the Northern Latitudes will agree that February is a most gloomy month, depicted well in the movie “Groundhog Day” and summed up by Bill Murray as Phil Connors: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” 

Even though I personally love winter weather, and even though I live in Colorado which is glaringly sunny about 96 percent of the time, and even though it’s finally snowing again after too many tinder-dry months brought a fiery, apocalyptic end to 2021 … there’s just something about February, isn’t there?  

“Why are you so upset?” 

This is a question I ask myself often these days, wiping tears from my eyes when I have no direct reason to be sad, cursing the rerouted wiring in my brain. My mind feels like a jumbled mess, cables frayed by the cuts of little traumas, permanently knotted behind accumulating losses, no longer leading to the self I once understood. Meanwhile, my body finally started coming together. Three months of sharp back pain abruptly changed when I slipped down my stairs at home late the night of January 17. I injured two toes in the fall — likely broke the little one — and bashed my lower back. This forced me to stop hiking, rest some, and then actually get back on my bike. I’d more or less avoided riding outdoors since my back started hurting (and I developed a bit of road anxiety) after the truck collision in October. The stair fall resulted in new core issues that manifested in my left hip, but once I dealt with those, the biking felt — dare I say — good.

By February 7, it was time to start walking again. I’d been limping around in a medical sandal and had successfully kept weight off the right side of my right foot for three weeks. I carefully slid on stiff-soled hiking boots then hobbled out the door while admonishing myself to stop hobbling. It was a nice afternoon, sunny and 40 degrees. It felt cold. My steps were weird and tentative. There was ice on the road, prompting painful shimmies from my still-stiff hip. I neglected to bring a jacket and had to beg one off Beat as he returned from a run, as I was only able to move at a frustratingly slow pace of 2.5 mph. I hated feeling so weak and vulnerable. 

I’d started listening to the audiobook of “Nerve” by Eva Holland, which was supposed to be about confronting our misbehaving neurons. First, the author dealt with the death of her mother from a stroke at age 60. In visceral detail, Eva described what happened after the family removed life support. 

 “No,” I whimpered, and then more loudly, “NO NO!” as Eva watched her mother’s unconscious and dying body gasp for air. My toes ached. My weakened right leg shook like a baby lamb as I staggered and sobbed. After a minute I pulled myself together, shut off the triggering audio, and limped home. 

Beat met me at the door. “Tim had to be rescued,” he announced. 


The backstory: The previous afternoon, our friend and Alaska adventure mentor Tim Hewitt started a solo journey in Nome, planning to walk upwards of 2,000 miles to Knik and then back on the Iditarod Trail. With such a great distance, he had a tight schedule to keep. The weather in Nome had been dangerously windy all week; I’d been following the Strava reports of Nome biking friends, and wondered if Tim would have to postpone. When the North Wind blows, the narrow drainage along Solomon Creek will funnel the gusts until they reach hurricane force, sometimes over 100 mph. But Tim has dealt with The Blowhole before. He did not expect the North Wind to lift his sled off the ground and whisk his entire duffel into seabound oblivion. Suddenly he had nothing but the clothes he was wearing — no water, no extra layers, not even a headlamp. He had to pick his way through the darkness for miles, goggles removed so he could simply see through the blowing snow, and still falling over continuously on glare ice. He made it to a shelter cabin, but a Nome SAR volunteer reported that he was “super frostbitten with a swollen shut eye.” 

That was all we knew on Monday night. (A report and follow-up about Tim's condition are linked here.) I limped to the shower, where I no longer had to fight back tears. 

 “Tim is okay. He’ll be okay. Why are you so upset?” But I couldn’t stop crying. 

On February 9, I knew it was imperative to teach myself to walk again. I planned a five-mile loop from my physical therapist’s office in Louisville. I already had an appointment for PT on my back, and Louisville offers well-developed pedestrian paths with less ice and fewer hills than home. I wore normal shoes. My steps felt better. My gait was more controlled. My speed was a breezy 3.5 mph. The temperature had spiked to 58 degrees; even in a T-shirt, it felt hot, uncomfortably so in February. The Coal Creek path wound through a cottonwood grove and emerged in a neighborhood. The streets were abandoned: no people, no cars parked in the driveways, only the occasional sound of a pounding hammer to break the eerie silence. 

Then I turned another corner and met the devastation — full city blocks leveled by the Marshall Fire that roared through here on Dec. 30, destroying nearly a thousand homes. Driven by 100 mph winds, the fire burned a patchwork of grassy hills and suburbs. The lines of delineation between what burned and what was spared were nonsensical. Hotels and shopping centers disappeared but little parking lot shacks were left standing. Entire neighborhoods were torched but there would be a single home somehow unscathed in the midst. And all of this happened in the middle of winter, miles from the nearest forest, to homeowners who lacked adequate fire insurance because no one in a hundred years would have expected Louisville to burn in a wildfire. Amazingly the loss of life was minimal, but the damage is sobering. It feels like a window into the apocalypse, a glimpse of the climate change future that awaits us all. And I know, I know, none of us can know the future. It does no good to imagine catastrophe. But how can I not imagine it, when catastrophe is already here, hiding in plain sight around seemingly benign corners? 

February 10. I needed to decide once and for all whether I’m going to ride the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I mean, I can’t decide and probably won’t decide. It will just be another one of those years where I show up at the start undecided, or maybe I’ll surprise my past self and let my rewired brain make a completely different choice. But if I’m going to slump my way to the starting line, I need to be prepared for any and every catastrophe. So I took my fat bike to Brainard Lake, where the West Wind was cranking. The biking was pretty crappy. I’m out of practice, and riding atop drifted snow is like balancing on a thousand tiny and slippery ball bearings. I did fine on the foot-packed road, where a wider path didn’t hold me to a tight line, but I crashed several times on singletrack. I’d rip through the woods only to cross into an open meadow where the trail had disappeared entirely beneath windswept snow, and down I went. 

A little frustrated, I decided I’d just push my bike up to Lefthand Reservoir, a path mainly packed by alpine skiers because it gains a thousand feet in just over a mile. Just three days earlier I hadn't felt competent to simply stroll down my road, and now I was wearing my big boots while hoisting a heavy bike up a steep trail that had been scraped smooth by metal ski edges. A 50 mph headwind roared from the Divide. Blowing snow cut through my buff; the taste was sharp, almost metallic. The right lens fell out of my sunglasses and I didn’t even notice. Eventually, I thought, “my eye hurts; what’s wrong?” Then I put my hand to my face and realized the lens was missing. I found and replaced it, but even after just a few minutes of wind exposure, my eye continued to hurt for days. I thought about Tim Hewitt and how painful his injuries must be. 

As I approached the dam, I could tell I was walking into the heart of the tempest. I couldn’t even see the Continental Divide beneath of wall of wind-whipped snow. The photo makes the gale look like fluffy low-lying clouds. I assure you it is not. Still, gaining experience is good, so I pushed to the top of the dam. I hoped to continue just a few hundred yards, pushing my bike while exposed to the full fury of the West Wind. It was blowing at least 70 mph according to a weather station one ridge over. Gusts shoved me sideways when I tried to push into the wind, then grabbed my bike and lifted both wheels into the air. The entire 30-something-pound fat bike was blowing like a flag in the wind as I desperately clung to the handlebars, feet skidding on bare gravel as gusts threatened to shove me off the dam if I didn’t let go of my bike. 

I wrestled the bike to the ground and crawled off the dam, filled with exhilaration and wonder. I thought of those famous words that doomed British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his journal upon reaching the South Pole on January 17, 1912: “Great God! This is an awful place!” 

I thought about Tim Hewitt, who lost his gear to such a wind and had to battle for miles afterward. What would I do if I couldn’t just blaze down Lefthand Reservoir Road and leave this awful place? It would be a catastrophe. 

February 13. Two weeks to go until the ITI, and thus my last shot at a training ride. I loaded my gear in the car and left at 5 a.m. to crawl through Sunday ski traffic before crossing back over the Divide to Leadville. The forecast called for a warm day, 33 degrees. Under direct sunlight at 10,000 feet, that feels like something closer to 80. I’ll sweat in my base layer until I hit the shade or a wind-exposed slope and then freeze. Repeat. 

My bike was heavy. It was likely even heavier than my bike when I first rode the Iditarod in 2008; since then I’ve developed more experience and thus fears that I need to pack. I’m going to side-eye anyone who insists I don’t need my stuff. They don’t have to put their own safety and comfort in the trust of this less-than-trustworthy engine (by which I mean my brain, but also my under-trained legs.) 

Anyway, I was slow starting out but at least trail conditions were great — that is until I climbed to the more obscure old mining roads where snowmobilers on deep-track mountain sleds had gouged the soft trail into a morass of mashed potatoes. The West Wind was cranking — less harrowing than it had been at Brainard Lake, but still a stiff and shockingly cold breeze that added dissonance to the melting trail. I mashed pedals and swerved, drove my heart rate up to 170 bpm, then oozed off the bike to hike. Repeat. Nine hours later I was exhausted. Way more exhausted than seemed justifiable after a mere 35 miles, even if it did take nine hours.

The sun set over the Sawatch Range as I pedaled across the highway toward Turquoise Lake. The plan was to ride around the lake and then camp near the dam. The loop is 16 miles and I thought it would take four more hours. But as soon as I hit the lake track, my tires bogged down in some of the deepest snow chunder I’ve encountered. It had been warm all day and snowmobiles had churned up chunks of snow, impossible berms, and deep ruts. 

 I couldn’t find a rideable line. That was it. It was not a big deal. I had everything I needed and could camp anytime I wanted; it’s not like I had to push through exhaustion for 16 miles before stopping for the night. Still, I tried to keep my meager goal, flailing for three miles before the trail pitched steeply uphill. With my heart rate again near maximum capacity, I swerved and tipped off the bike, landing sore foot and then face down in the snow. 

That was it. It was not a big deal. But a dark shadow swept over my mind and suddenly I was crumpled in the fetal position, sobbing, wracked with chest pain. This sharp pain I recognized as an acute ache that I first experienced following my father’s death. Now, eight months later, it's broadened, sweeping over a larger range of thoughts. A soft trail is not a reason to give in to despair, but there is something about the combo of frustration and fatigue that crushes the scaffolding I've built around my grief, subsequently collapsing all of my emotions. The more fragile my body feels, the more vulnerable my mind becomes.

I promised myself I’d walk for one more hour after the meltdown, to relearn my old strategies for pulling myself together. But I couldn’t stop crying. Finally, I found a nice spot to camp, high above the frozen lake, beneath ice-tinged spruce trees glittering in the moonlight. The temperature plummeted quickly under clear skies, dropping to near zero. I was perfectly cozy in my big coat and enjoyed a leisurely dinner and hot chocolate, gazing at stars in the sky. This, I thought, would surely make me feel better. But as soon as I crawled into my warm and cozy sleeping bag, the tears erupted all over again. 

 Why was I so upset? Genuinely, I couldn’t parse it out. When I closed my eyes and let my mind relax, my thoughts trickled back to upsetting memories — the burned Louisville neighborhoods, the black sky during the 2020 East Troublesome Fire, the early pandemic, the eerie ghost town that was Sea-Tac Airport in March 2020, the Iditarod Trail ten days before that, huddled in my sleeping bag and strung out by exhaustion when it was 45 below. 

Finally I dozed off, only to wake up startled by vague nightmares. One finally stuck: Beat and I were in the Iditarod together, inside a large unfinished building that had been a checkpoint in 2014. It was crowded, lots of familiar faces, and everyone was getting ready to go. My camp stove was in pieces and I couldn’t put it back together. Beat was frustrated with me; the fix should have been simple. He wouldn’t wait anymore. He stormed off. I stood just in time to witness him trip and fall down a set of stairs that were exactly like our stairs at home, only four times longer. He was somersaulting. He was going to die. I awoke gasping in my bivy sack. I couldn’t breathe. I had to push out of the sleeping bag and lay in the snow in my base layer, unprotected from the zero-degree air, still gasping. 

 Finally, I pulled myself back together and sat up. It was a beautiful night rendered in dramatic detail beneath a nearly full moon. Still, my mind couldn’t break free from its shadow. What is the point of seeking beautiful places if we can’t even step outside of ourselves? 

 “Great God! This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.” 

After the terrible anxiety dream and subsequent panic attack, I managed to sleep until sunrise. It was a beautiful day. I was feeling better. I made coffee and headed out. My plan had been to just head home, but I decided to embrace a 4 mph average pace and explore the more obscure trails around Turquoise Lake: A ski track leading high up to a mountain hut on the wilderness boundary; a summer boat launch where a faint snowmobile track wended along the shoreline for some distance; and finally, Hagerman Pass Road. The road was reasonably well-packed but discovered a little too late to explore for long. 

The only snowmobilers I met all day passed me around mile four of Hagerman. Two men that looked and sounded like Alaska Natives, but I didn’t ask, stopped to chat and have a smoke. They told me the trail had been groomed to a “cabin” near the pass, about three miles farther and a lot of feet higher. Because of wind-drifting, conditions could be treacherous for their machines. They didn’t want to get stuck, but they were going to check it out anyway. They continued smoking, seemingly in no hurry.

 I wished them luck and stopped to make a late lunch. The West Wind had kicked back up and there was nowhere all that protected from it, but it seemed a good spot to practice using my stove in the wind. I heated up Cup Noodles with coffee and sat in the sunlight, taking in a sweeping mountain vista and grinning. This felt more like the old me. The one that found joy in hard things. The one that got knocked down but could always get back up.  

Still, my night had been … disturbing. I acknowledge that I need to be more proactive with my mental health. There is a combination of mild but ongoing anxiety and depression that I am not managing well. Wishing it away is not going to work. Crying, panicking, and being generally terrorized by my own mind while out in the middle of nowhere is also, frankly, an alarming prospect. And yet, I have self-care and coping mechanisms in my arsenal. I now have a better awareness of triggers and ideas about heading off the monster before it tackles me. 

I certainly don’t want to give in to the monster, to let it control my life, to let it deprive me of the soaring joys of Cup Noodles beneath the Continental Divide, or all of the joys I could potentially find on the Iditarod Trail. It’s not like I have to be fast in Alaska, just persistent. I have no ego invested in this game, not in my current state, so I’ll quit if it’s too hard. I finally broke free of the worst of my back pain. My foot is sore but better. I can walk. I can push my bike. I’m healed! And yet, I’m still broken. 

How does one decide? What is an irrational fear and what is an acceptable risk? What is a punishment and what is a reward? Aren’t we all a little bit broken? Don't we all face an unknowable future? Aren’t we all susceptible to loss? Do we have any other choice but to hold onto hope? 

“Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough to have labored to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend tomorrow. Now for the run home and desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”
Monday, January 10, 2022

2021 in numbers


2021 was a weird training year for nearly everyone. Early in the year, a lot of us were still "virtual racing" and it wasn't clear that any of our scheduled events would actually go. I charged into 2021 with vigor and subsequently collapsed, more than once. I accomplished a couple of athletic goals that I could maybe feel proud about. But no ... not really. I'm in a strange place right now — do I still want to dabble in the occasional race? Do I want to go all-in for something specific so I can focus my training in a way that will at least be new and interesting? Do I want to quit racing altogether? 

One thing I do know is that "training" gives me a daily meditation and yes, a small sense of purpose, without which I may not have weathered 2021. After June, it stopped mattering whether I was training for anything. I just kept going, with whatever time I could spare in the day, working around whatever little physical injury I was nursing. I rarely felt tired or sore — managing everything else about life was more difficult by orders of magnitude, so exercise was a way to "rest." 

By early October, I realized I was on pace to hit a longtime goal, which is climbing one million feet in a calendar year (1 million feet is the cumulative total between all of my workouts.) I quickly let the idea go after being hit by the side mirror of a truck on Oct. 10, which resulted in back pain and limited my tolerance for cycling and wearing a backpack. Over Thanksgiving, when I still had nearly 100,000 feet to go, I swung around again and thought "why not?" Here was a ready-made excuse to stomp up and down mountains to my heart's content. So I formulated "Climb-cember" and set out to log at least 4,000 feet of climbing every day until the Solstice. (I wanted to wrap up the goal before we headed to Alaska.) 

I loved "Climb-cember." I didn't have to justify any of the silly things I was doing — marching up Ennis Peak in Utah a couple of times or repeats on the Eldo Canyon overlook trail in a subzero windchill. My daily meditation gained tangible purpose, which was of course just the purpose of an arbitrary goal. But it was all-around wonderful. 

It helped that December gifted me with unseasonal weather that made summer activities possible during the darkest month of the year. By December 19, I only had 5,000 feet left to go. With a glance at the forecast and consideration of the dismally low snow totals thus far this season, it occurred to me that I could log my final vertical mile with an audacious mountain bike ascent of a Colorado 14er, Mount Evans. I mentioned my plans to Eszter as we were ascending Green Mountain two days prior, and she was game to join. 

We started out from Idaho Springs on a 28-degree morning with a light breeze sweeping down the canyon. Neither of us was well-acclimated to the cold, and my back became stiff and sore early in the ride. I will admit, completing a seven-hour ride with 7,000 feet of climbing and three liters of water on my back after two months of minimal riding was not great for my ongoing recovery, but I deemed this adventure worth it (and still do.) 

We chatted and pedaled for hours, turned serious to fight the buffeting headwind above treeline, stopped to watch bighorn sheep until our hands froze, took one coffee break in the middle of the road, and reached the 14,265-foot summit one day before Winter Solstice. Ambient temperatures were in the low teens with an oh-shit windchill. We had nothing but two hours of descending in front of us. I brought all of my puffiest layers to weather the chill — Eszter said I looked like Michelin Man — and regretted nothing. I had reached my million-feet goal unceremoniously somewhere around 12,500 feet and looked forward to coasting through the rest of the year (in Alaska, dragging a loaded sled through styrofoam snow at 25 below.) 

With that, here are my stats for the year:

2021 in numbers:

Bike: 5,225 miles with 549,078 feet climbing

Run/Hike: 1,613 miles with 464,745 feet climbing

Total: 6,838 miles with 1,013,823 feet climbing

Total hours: 1,036 (43 days and 4 hours)


Usually, when I write this post, I break down my month-to-month stats. I didn't feel like doing that this year, so for my own entertainment, I looked over my Strava calendar and chose a notable workout from each month. 

January 8: Pb Pursuit

Snow ride
Leadville, Colorado
125 miles, 11,693 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 30 hours, 8 minutes

The Fat Pursuit, a 200-kilometer winter bike race in Island Park, Idaho, had been cancelled and moved to "virtual" status. A few friends and I figured we could mimic the conditions of a high-altitude snow race to near-perfection in Leadville, where deep snow and punchy climbs torn up by paddle-track mountain snowmobiles are the norm. It's exhaustively slow and difficult cycling, but the scenery is stunning! I proposed a figure-eight route that was 41 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing, to be ridden three times. Five of us started our "Pb Pursuit" at the crack of noon. I was the only one who stuck it out to the end, as the whole thing was quite silly, but I had so much fun. My favorite parts were riding through the zero-degree night around a moonlit Turquoise Lake, taking a four-hour nap in my big sleeping bag, and of course the first few hours when we all stuck together, laughing and sweating in the weirdly hot glare of a sunny winter day at 10,000 feet. 

February 11: Old Man Winter Bike Rally

Winter "gravel" ride
Lyons, Colorado
63 miles, 5,151 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 5 hours, 12 minutes

I am a fan of virtual racing. Not necessarily the type where you take something like the 2,800-mile Tour Divide and ride a similar distance over many months on your indoor trainer (come on, that's just a different thing altogether.) But when you can challenge a popular course without the crowds at your leisure, that's good fun! The morning I picked to challenge the Old Man Winter 100K route turned out to be a poor choice. It was much colder than it had been in previous weeks, so my water bottles froze. And the air quality was terrible, causing breathing issues that day and (I believe) a spike in anxiety and deterioration in mental health following the ride. Still, I tried. My stretch goal was five hours and I nearly hit it for the official course (5:03. I know that seems slow for 100K, but keep in mind I never train to ride flat terrain with any speed, my bike had studded tires to slow the paved climb, and then there were two full miles of hiking through rotton ankle-deep snow. So I consider it a good time for a winter ride.) Anyway, despite the consequences that in hindsight were quite bad, I did enjoy my "race."

March 5: Glacier Gorge explores, winter edition

Snowshoe hike
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
17.3 miles, 3,904 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 8 hours, 9 minutes

The weeks after February 11 were a rough time for my mental health, but mountain excursions in March helped boost my brain closer to baseline. This was one of my favorites — avalanche risk had settled several days after a storm but there wasn't much in the way of broken trail. I set my own track for a long solo trudge amid the stunning skyline above Glacier Gorge. 

April 10: Grand Staircase bikepack day three

Grand Staircase Escalante National Mounument, Utah
50.7 miles, 5,246 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 9 hours, 45 minutes

In April, my friend Erika and I set out for a three-day trip around the Grand Staircase Escalante bikepacking loop, a 160-mile route through the incredibly remote southeastern corner of Utah. It's a gorgeous route that I would do again, but the terrain is difficult, the services are few, and the sand can be soul sucking. Erika and I were unintentionally separated the second night. She opted to ride the highway back to Escalante, so I ended up solo on what turned out to be the most difficult day of the trip — rolling along a high rim on barely-used doubletrack, far from any glimmer of a water source, in 85-degree heat. I had just four liters of water left from the 10 I'd packed from Big Water the previous day. In the late morning, miles from where I'd seen the last vehicle, I met a little dog who was alone, skinny and very thirsty. I gave him some beef jerky and water in a folded ziplock bag. After initially running and hiding from me, he lapped up my offering and then followed me for the next ten miles. He was visibly straining to keep up when I was moving at riding speeds, and darted into the meager shade for rest whenever I slowed to push. I still had 25 miles to ride to Escalante and feared what might happen if he followed me the whole way. I continued sharing water with him, but I didn't have much to spare ... at that point, I didn't even have enough to keep myself happy. Happily, I encountered a local couple in an enormous truck — the crumbling road was supposedly closed to vehicle traffic, so I didn't expect to see anyone. I flagged them down. The elderly man, who reminded me so much of my paternal grandfather, was initially surly about the prospect of rescuing this dog, but still spent 20 minutes working with me to corral the reluctant canine into his cab. A couple of hours later, I did end up running out of water, but thankfully rode by the single remaining patch of snow on the mountain exactly when I needed it most. It was, all in all, a most fortuitous day. 

May 14: Independence Pass from Mushroom Gulch

Gravel ride
Buena Vista, Colorado
118.6 miles, 7,759 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 10 hours, 14 minutes

I was meeting friends in Buena Vista for an 80-mile gravel ride, and decided to head out a day early and complete a long solo ride to log 200 miles in two days. What was I training for? I don't even remember, but I did have summer ambitions before everything fell apart. This ten-hour ride was particularly enjoyable — just gorgeous scenery and appropriate difficulty while mostly feeling good the entire day. I did a lot of ruminating about life and the universe while listening to a Carl Sagan book, and emerged with a positive outlook — easy to cultivate when Covid seemed to finally be waning, air quality was pristine, and prospects for the rest of the year looked bright. May 2021 was a good month. I miss it. 

June 13: Ride to End ALZ

Road ride
Fort Collins, Colorado
100.1 miles, 5,505 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 6 hours, 52 minutes

I had effectively forgotten about this ride before I scrolled through my Strava calendar the other day. It was three days before my dad died. A California friend recruited Beat and me to join his team to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association. We completed a virtual event in April, and then the organization invited me back to an in-person event in June. I signed up for the century, because of course, and managed to raise more than $3,000 for Alzheimer's research between the two events. This was a hot day with a huge climb in the middle, my time to shine. (Most of the ~four dozen 100-mile participants were from out of town and not acclimated to the altitude.) I rode steady but well and (I believe) finished in fourth position overall, but of course it was not a race so I will never know for sure. 

July 5: Evening LCC

Road ride.
Sandy, Utah.
34.9 miles, 5,023 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 3 hours, 21 minutes

When I think of the weeks between mid-June and mid-July, all I remember is the hot heat, oppressive sun, summer haze and zombie daze that I could only shake myself out of, somewhat, during hard climbs on my gravel bike. I spent four weeks in Utah to help Mom transition to her new life without Dad. Much of the time was spent sitting in rooms, sorting through stuff with Mom and crying with my sisters. I barely slept and was often up well before dawn pedaling the empty streets of Draper and Alpine. In the evening, after dinner, I made a regular habit of climbing Little Cottonwood Canyon until the sun set and then descending into the twilight. The darkness, quiet and chilled mountain air brought me a measure of peace that I didn't find anywhere else. 

August 23: Orsières to Glacier d'Orny

Orsières, Switzerland
16.9 miles. 8,807 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 9 hours, 32 minutes

My father's death and subsequent life difficulties left me unexcited and anxious about traveling to Europe and Beat's plans to race another PTL (An extreme 200-mile mountain ultra with a lot of difficult terrain and exposure.) Luckily I was in a perfect position to turn to my best coping mechanism, marching up and down mountains. During the week of August 23 to August 29, I logged 111 miles with 48,968 feet of climbing, all on foot. PTL started the morning of August 23 in the idyllic Swiss village of Orsières. After Beat and his team took off, I marched away from PTL's starting banner and straight up the closest trail that would take me as high as possible. It was, for the most part, a dreary and foggy day with light rain and stiff winds. Beat's team was mired in low visibility as they crawled along the horrific sawtooth of a crumbling knife ridge on the other side of the valley. In the meantime, I managed to find the most brilliant sucker hole and then climb above the clouds for jaw-dropping views of Glacier d'Orny and the Trient ice field (shown with an impressive 3,170-meter mountain hut, Cabane du'Trient, in the foreground.) I was feeling sparks of real joy, an almost alien sensation that I hadn't experienced in more than two months. 

September 19: Rochers de Naye for our anniversary

Villenueve, Switzerland
13.5 miles, 5,561 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 5 hours, 24 minutes

We visited many stunning and scenic places in Switzerland and Germany during our month in Europe this year. But honestly, one of my favorite outings was a fogged-in summit over Lake Geneva during my final day in Switzerland. We were en route to Geneva so I could get a COVID test and catch a flight first thing in the morning, but I wanted to mark our anniversary. (Beat was pretty cute about it whenever I mentioned our anniversary. He asked, more than once, "So what is this? The tenth?" and I replied, "No, it's our wedding anniversary. Our first wedding anniversary. Remember how we got married last year?" After a solid month of ideal weather, we were finally hit with a typical autumn day in the Alps: Temperatures near freezing, high winds, spitting rain, sleet, and zero visibility. It didn't even matter. We had so much fun! How lucky am I to have this man in my life?

October 9: Top of the World with Lisa and Sara

Aliso Viejo, California
8.1 miles, 1,179 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 3 hours and 34 minutes 

The first weekend in October was supposed to be the annual rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon with my Dad. And for the first time, my sisters were on board to join. It was not to be, and this year was too soon for the three of us (although I hope it happens someday, perhaps next year.) Instead, we blocked out the weekend to spend together at Sara's home in Orange County. My sisters had long dropped their Grand Canyon training regimen so didn't expect much hiking, but we ended up out for an excursion every day. These hikes were really special — beautiful California hills, the Pacific, and great conversations with my sisters. Our final hike took us to a lovely overlook above Laguna Beach called "Top of the World." It's notable to me now that on October 9 I was on top of the world, and my very next Strava activity was titled “First time I’ve been hit by a truck.” Seriously, 2021.

November 26: Gobbler’s Knob with Raj and Beat

Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
8 miles. 3,176 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 3 hours, 57 minutes

Of everything I tried to help process my grief after Dad's death, this hike was among the most meaningful. For much of the past decade, Dad and I kept a Thanksgiving tradition of hiking to the summit of Gobbler's Knob on Black Friday. I wanted to carry on the tradition with Beat and a Salt Lake friend who was a good friend of my Dad's, Raj. The whole climb proved to be so much more difficult than I expected — all of the memories washing over me, followed by the suffocating shock of having to face Mount Raymond at close range. The emotional pain overshadowed what was already a physically painful endeavor, thanks to my sore back, sloppy trail conditions and a large backpack. I was a mess, but Beat and Raj were very supportive, and ultimately we did reach the top. The peace and gratitude I found was well worth the difficulty.

December 24: Colorado Creek cabin trip in

White Mountains, Alaska
13.4 miles, 1,427 feet climbing
Elapsed time: 6 hours, 22 minutes

After a strange 21 months of absence, Beat and I finally made it back to Alaska. As the initial shock of grief wanes, it's been interesting to experience a seemingly longer-term shift in my psyche. My appetite for adventure just isn't there. I continue to crave the meditative benefits of movement — Climb-cember proved a huge success in this regard — but my head and heart seem to have lost the capacity for bigger, bolder endeavors. So I have made no solid plans for 2022, and am struggling with what to do about the Iditarod. 

Early in 2021, I signed up to bike to Nome (I'm now a definite no on that. It's a leap too far.) I'm currently set on sticking with the short race to McGrath, most likely on a bike, just because a week in the frozen wilderness may prove beneficial and wonderful ... or it may just be another emotional disaster, like the Utah Mixed Epic. I'm genuinely frightened about that prospect, especially now that my brain has rebooted to a setting that doesn't recognize any part of dragging a bike through the snow for 300 miles as particularly desireable. Seriously, what have I been doing for the past 16 years?

But ... I did enjoy our trip to Alaska. The weather was unworkable and we had to scale back our backcountry plans dramatically, but I still enjoyed being out in one of my favorite places in the world, the White Mountains, when it was 26 below and the only sound was the squeak of my feet on the cold snow, or a distant echo of footsteps from an animal seemingly miles away. 

It's difficult to feel ambitious right now, and even more difficult to feel optimistic. But I do look forward to the small moments in 2022, the simple pleasures, the beauty in my backyard. 

Happy New Year; I am grateful we've all made it this far. 
Wednesday, January 05, 2022

2021 in photos

I suppose I couldn't resist. Of all of my blogging traditions, this seemed a reasonable one to skip: Sorting through the photos I took in the past year and picking a favorite for each month. I too have become bored with my ongoing premise that 20_ _ was a tough year but there were beautiful moments and now it's a fresh new start! Still, the main reason I've maintained an online journal for so long is for my own benefit, so I can save a few memories to hold up to the light before my screen fades to gray. It seems somewhat a shame to let 2021 slip away in that regard.

January: Cottonwood Crusher

2021 is the first year of this blog's long life (16 years!) that I didn't complete a single race. I did start a couple, the first being a free and self-supported fat bike race outside of Buena Vista, Colo. I started full of optimism because I'd ridden myself into fantastic shape and was excited for this opportunity after 2020 left many of us wondering if in-person races were a thing of the past. There was a good crowd at the start — maybe 30 cyclists — which was weird and exciting. We were still in that awkward phase of the pandemic when some of us wore masks whenever we were around people, even outside, and refused to go inside buildings just to err on the safe side. (Ah, the good old days.) Typical of these mountain events, trail conditions at the Cottonwood Crusher weren't all that rideable and the weather was very windy and cold. I was genuinely having a great time, but as I neared Cottonwood Pass, my shifter stopped working and I let that mechanical end my race. I was so mad. I drove straight home via a long detour necessitated by a terrible snowstorm and rode 100 miles on my indoor trainer instead. It's kind of amusing to remember the silly things that upset me just a year ago. 

February: Out of the depths

I continued to train fairly hard for ... nothing? And then I set out to time trial a 100K snowy gravel race called Old Man Winter on a dreary morning with terrible air quality. I'll never know whether this was a catalyst for what came next, but the following day I experienced a frightening panic attack and collapsed. Even my physical fitness crumpled. I spent much of the rest of the month trying to recover from an exhausting cycle of jitteriness and lethargy. Amid the many remedies for anxiety I've tried, I find "slog therapy" — my term for mindless yet physically immersive activities — to be the most consistently effective at calming the inner storms. I took this photo while out for one such outing. The temperature was below zero and it was, as usual, very windy, but this made for gorgeous glittery scenery. 

March: Mountain mojo

I don't remember a lot about March, but when I scroll through my photos I see that the month was delightfully snowy and I spent a lot of time in the mountains. When I scan this blog, I see posts called "There's still magic" and realize I was still coping with mental health issues that had settled into a low-level depression. I was especially sad after a shooter opened fire at a grocery store in South Boulder and killed ten people. (And now, reflecting on the Dec. 30 wildfire that roared through Louisville and Superior, 2021 has just been a whole lot for my community.) But I knew then, as I know now, that the only way forward is to keep moving. 

"Life as a human in the modern world can be sad and full of drudgery," I wrote. "But then sometimes, in the midst of these low moments, the universe returns with a barrage of magic so astounding you can scarcely breathe."

April: The Sentinel

This one is hard. My Dad was planning his annual visit to Canyonlands National Park and invited Beat and me to join. We were only recently vaccinated and I was still outdoor masking, so I was uneasy but agreed. We met at the Subway in Moab, our first reunion since January 2020. I still shudder at the memory of Dad walking up to give me a hug and me initially pulling away — he would become the first person (besides Beat) that I hugged since March 2020. We spent four days camping and hiking to all of Dad's favorite places. It was a wonderful trip that I now cherish more than anything else about 2021 — Beat's first time in Canyonlands (he was like a kid in a candy store), and as it turned out, Dad's last. This is a photo that I printed in poster size to display at his funeral. When I posted it on Instagram on April 26, I included this caption: 

"Over the weekend, Beat and I joined my 68-year-old father on his annual journey into Canyonlands Needles District, where he revisits some of his favorite places in the world. Here, my dad is overlooking a spot where he would like his ashes spread someday — overlooking "The Sentinel." I told my dad that he'll probably outlast that rock formation."

May: Before the storm

A lot of the issues I'd dealt with earlier in the spring had calmed, and my mojo was back in strong form. I remember because Beat and I had somewhat traded head spaces — the Delta variant surge in India had become an inflection point for his "weltschmerz" (German for world-weariness) while I was cultivating new optimism rooted in a kind of big-picture existential perspective (which I wrote about here.) I had formulated big plans for the summer and I was excited! As part of my renewed training, I set out for a longtime goal of riding to the top of Mount Evans from the town of Golden, a solid 10,000 feet of vertical relief. The day started out green and lovely, but by the time I climbed above treeline, the weather had turned to a white-out windstorm with gusts topping 80 mph. The frigid wind was enough to blast me off the bike and send me skittering on my back across black ice like an overturned beetle. And of course, the road is lined with tenuous drop-offs. I turned around. The following day, Beat crashed his mountain bike just 300 yards from our house and broke his collarbone in several places. It was another turning point for both of us — a long and difficult physical recovery for Beat, but something that renewed his appreciation for the simple goodness in life. I, in turn, was headed for more darkness. But not quite yet. 

June: All that really matters

Early in the month, my sisters arranged a trip for the entire family to St. George, Utah. (With the exception of Beat, who was recovering from clavicle surgery.) It was the first trip of its kind my family had taken — the first of many, we proclaimed. It was 110 degrees, there was a lot of lounging and laughter, and I was waking up to 4:30 a.m. darkness each morning to squeeze in a bike ride before the heat of the day and flurry of socializing cooked me thoroughly. It was wonderful. It was the last time I hugged my Dad. That's all I want to write about June. 

July: Simple goodness

July was full of darkness. I spent much of the month in Utah, trying to help my mom wrap up Dad's affairs and transition to her new reality. I wasn't writing and didn't retain many memories, but I do have photos from the better moments. Most of them came from hikes in the Wasatch Mountains with my sister, Lisa. This is from the trail to Lake Blanche.

August: There's still magic

I didn't complete any of my ambitions for summer 2021. I scarcely even spent time in Colorado, but I did have a couple weeks at home between Utah and traveling to Europe. In mid-August, I managed one Pawnee-Buchanan loop with Beat. It was my one visit to the local mountains that brought so much joy to the pandemic summer of 2020. This was a 27-mile grind, and yet a much-needed respite. My July outings with Lisa had been worth it but still a source of physical pain, as a raging bout of Achilles tendonitis flared up in June. I'd hardly been able to run or even hike without pain for most of two months. This chronic injury was finally starting to settle again by early August, and I figured out — much as I had in February — that I was most at peace when I was hiking in the mountains. The storms in my mind would calm and I would feel as though my dad was walking beside me. 

September: Switzerland

I did so much hiking in Europe. So much. I haven't tried to quantify it (Yet. The "2021 in numbers" post is probably coming), but there was at least one week in there with nearly 50,000 feet of climbing. One week! On foot! Not even racing! Beat dropped out of his PTL race fairly early and joined me for a lot of these micro-adventures. We were blessed with weeks of jaw-droppingly amazing weather and a lot of opportunities to get high and experience the incredible landscapes of the Swiss Alps. This was another gift from 2021 that I suppose I took for granted. And Switzerland is so abundant with incredible chocolate, yogurt, cheese, and bread that even with all of this hiking I still managed to gain back the 15 pounds I lost while grieving my father's death. I felt much more physically and mentally robust following this trip (the failed Utah Mixed Epic attempt notwithstanding.) 

October: A beautiful autumn

Both Boulder and Salt Lake City boasted beautiful fall weather this year. Early in the month, I spent a lot of time with my sisters — more hiking with Lisa in the Wasatch Mountains, and then a lovely weekend with both of my sisters in Orange County, California. On Oct. 10, a truck driver hit me from behind with his side-view mirror while I was riding my bike home up Flagstaff Road in Boulder. Initially, I thought I wasn't injured, but since then I've dealt with ongoing back pain. While not greatly limiting my mobility, this pain has become increasingly frustrating in its persistence. It's a low-level but chronic pain that, in part, conspired to welcome back some of the darkness. I continue to fight it by moving forward in the best way I know how — staying in motion. 

November: Zion

My friend Danni has been wonderfully supportive this year. For one reason or another, I backed out of every adventure we'd planned together since September 2020: Idaho Hot Springs route (I was alerted about a COVID exposure as I was packing up to leave for Idaho), self-supported Fat Pursuit (again, reluctance to travel on my part), an August gravel ride in Eastern Idaho (wildfire smoke was terrible), the Silk Road Mountain Race, riding as a team in the Utah Mixed Epic. Despite my flakiness, she still dropped everything in June to fly out to Utah and attend my father's funeral. She's a good friend. I really wanted to make a Thanksgiving backpacking trip in Zion National Park happen, but my back pain just wouldn't allow this. We still met up in Utah and had a great trip all the same. She and Beat completed a 38-mile Zion traverse, and I enjoyed shorter day trips with my new fanny pack. 

December: Alaska

Beat and I managed to transport ourselves back to the Far North just in time for the omicron variant and biblical storms that complicated everything about travel all over again. We managed to squeeze in one nostalgically normal sled-dragging trip to Colorado Creek cabin in the White Mountains (26 below with sandpaper trails. Ah, perfection. We stayed with our friend Corrine and Eric, and Corrine blogged about the trip here.) After Christmas, the region was slammed with a foot of snow, followed by nearly a half-inch of freezing rain, followed by another foot of snow. Travel was completely hobbled. We finally set out Dec. 30 when road conditions were downgraded two notches from "hazardous" to "difficult" (this meant a narrow corridor of ice-slicked and rutted packed snow that was so bumpy we could never drive faster than 20 mph. I'd be terrified to see what those roads are like when hazardous.) And of course, the thermometer had plunged back to 10 below, so no one else bothered to brave the trail beyond Wickersham Dome. We had to break trail through thigh-deep drifts of the worst wind-compacted snow possible. I'd compare the conditions to walking through a bottomless field of styrofoam that collapses beneath your feet. We were barely able to hold 1 mph while walking, and the effort was exhausting. The cabin we'd booked was 17 miles from the trailhead and it would have taken it until morning to reach it, but we were lucky to meet a musher who reserved the mile 6 cabin and was happy to share. We ended up having a fun night with Sean, his three huskies, and his eight beers that he apparently planned to drink by himself. And the remote cabin afforded me one day of ignorance about the suburban firestorm that was incinerating the southern communities of Boulder County at the very moment I was bundling up against an 18-below night to watch the northern lights. 

Happy new year, I hope. 

Photo posts from years past: 
2010 part one, part two