It was a no good, very bad day

A friend had graciously volunteered to drop me off and pick me up for some one-way linkups, so we set off from Leadville reasonably early and headed down to BV to start at Cottonwood Creek. The plan was Columbia to Harvard to Pine Creek to Oxford/Belford then down to Missouri Gulch, where we would camp. I thought this would take 8 hours, 12 if I got into trouble. It was forecasted to thunderstorm.

 

The morning was beautiful, I love the basin of Harvard and Columbia, the wildflowers were blooming, CFI was out working on the new and improved Columbia standard route. There were an extraordinary amount of Alpine Spiders out, and especially some really big, wicked looking ones. I made a mental note to look up whether there are any poisonous spiders living in the talus (since that episode on the Sawtooth, I am no longer irrationally afraid of spiders, but I’d still like to know if they can kill me). (If you’re wondering, my research didn’t uncover much. According to the internets, black widows, brown recluses, and “hobo” spiders are the only poisonous spiders in CO that are a threat to humans. While the big black ones I saw in the talus were horrific, they weren’t black widows, so I guess it’s safe?)

 

As we neared the summit of Columbia, I started thinking I saw storm clouds coming FROM THE EAST. Which is impossible, right? I kept an eye on them, carried on, but as I descended the summit onto the shitty crazy gnarly ridge, it was impossible to ignore them and I began the bail into the even shittier, crazier, talus field, all the way into a lush, green valley full of willows to the NE of the ridge. By now, the sky was blanketed in storm clouds, and it was sprinkling, but not storming yet. I began a very long ascent towards the summit of Harvard, thinking that along the way I’d find a crest to cross over down to Pine Creek, without having to summit Harvard in a storm. The North side of Harvard is very cliffy, and of course I couldn’t find a safe place to descend, especially since I had Luna with me. I could see the beautiful tundra-covered North arm that is the Nolan’s route, but the further up we went the more obvious it became that there was no way to get to it besides crossing directly over that rocky summit. As we approached it, I almost slowed down, trying to make the call. Up until now, we weren’t very exposed, but the final talus climb to the precarious summit would leave us extremely exposed to lightning for just a couple minutes. If I did it fast, would it be okay? Then the thunder started. There’s something about thunderstorms above treeline that make you feel like the mountains under your feet and the sky are about to break apart. We ran for our lives, bailing all the way back to the willow basin we had come from. I couldn’t think of another safe solution, so we began to descend East, hoping to come across the Colorado Trail.

 

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lunchtime

At first, this was actually kind of a nice time. I sat down with Lu right around treeline and enjoying the epically beautiful, quiet, isolated valley while having some lunch. It rained off and on, but didn’t pour. Below treeline, things got nasty quickly. The rain picked up, and so did the piles of dead trees making a crazy tangled maze that it was impossible to climb over or under, so we had to wedge ourselves between trees and climb through. I was quite certain I’d come across bears, and spent the whole time yelling, and I also figured I couldn’t escape this without a host of ticks. There were freezing water crossings, more and more tree tangles, and it took hours to make it what had to be only 4-6 miles. When we found the Colorado trail, I thought I might burst into tears, but resisted, because I still had a long, long way to go and losing it is the perfect way to sap your limited energy.

 

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looking back on the ridge we bailed from, NE of Columbia

Maybe 15 minutes after gaining the trail, I saw a person! I asked her if she happened to know how far it was to Clear Creek and county road 390, and she said at least 11 miles. Which might have been disheartening, as that would make about 17 miles to get to my friend at Missouri Gulch, but 17 miles was reasonable on easy trail and road, and it was around 3pm so I figured I could make it before dark. The sky started to clear, and I jogged pretty contentedly. Crossing Pine Creek, I considered what it would take to off trail to Oxford from there, and finish my original route. Then, a trail junction. To ELKHEAD PASS. I took it, and up into the bowels of Pine Creek we went. It’s actually a beautiful area, if not a little creepy and very isolated. There are a ton of fairly intact mining buildings, with windows and padlocked doors. As we approached the southern slopes of Oxford, the thunderstorms rolled in again, so we continued on the trail to Elkhead Pass. I kept thinking we were going too far, that it didn’t make much sense. But as the sun began to set, I didn’t feel quite up to off trail route finding in a place that was unfamiliar, and I wished I had just ascended Oxford because at least I’d know where I was. After miles of going southwest, we suddenly wrapped around and headed North, and I understood that the trail had taken us several miles out of the way, only to bring us back around up through a valley we would ascend NE to the pass. It was one of the most beautiful basins I had ever seen. My knees had just about had it, the bail off the Columbia ridge had destroyed them and each subsequent mile was taxing too much. My nervous system was fried. I had been hoping and hoping that I could just make it back before dark, but darkness was coming too fast and I was moving too slow, and still had so many miles to go.

 

Gaining Elkhead Pass was another moment that I wanted to burst into tears. What a relief, after all the off trail, all the route finding and wondering, the bailing from storms, that I was on a trail that I knew. The thunderstorms raged over the mountains around me as the last bits of light dissipated. I got out my headlamp, the batteries needed replaced and I happened to have packed new batteries, but I couldn’t see well enough to change them. I descended as fast as I could, it still probably took over an hour from Elkhead Pass to Missouri Gulch parking lot as I arrived about 10pm. There I burst into tears, finally safe and sound. 35 miles, 11k gain, 15 hours.

 

The aftermath of that day has made me question what I’m doing with my life. I don’t ever want a day like that again. I didn’t even want to continue to pursue Nolan’s, as it will inevitably be a lot of the same isolation, loneliness, miserable off trail, painful gully descents that defy you to break all your bones. It’s hard to get past all that. The net gain of that day was, a week later, I realized that I don’t have to finish Nolan’s. Yeah, that doesn’t seem that novel. But I’ve always thought of it as a do-or-die situation, and it’s just not. I have to attempt Nolan’s, otherwise I’ll never be able to move on with my life. I can finally see, though, that days like this are the net gain of Nolan’s. You will get lost, you will find the way. You will be miserable, hopeless, and desperate, but you will be alive and you will be happy again eventually. You will run for your life, you may get hurt, but when it’s over, you will understand the value you place on your own life. The two years that I’ve been up here, training and route finding, planning and talking about it, running free in the mountains: that’s the glory of Nolan’s. I’ll have it forever no matter what happens in August. Maybe I’ll finish, or maybe I’ll call it hallway due to thunderstorms or a busted knee or whatever. Maybe I’ll finish in 66 hours. That stuff doesn’t matter. People say it’s the journey and not the destination, right? The journey is nearly over, and it has been the greatest of my life.

 

 

Mt Princeton (who’s the boss?)

Mt Princeton (14,204) is generally believed to be the crux of the Nolan’s route. Its long approach, almost entirely off trail ascent and descent, and the fact that it generally falls overnight in most people’s attempts have led me to believe that if Nolan’s were Super Mario, Princeton is the big boss. Once I make it past Princeton, nothing will stop me from finishing.

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It was incidental that last summer, as I hammered down every part of the Nolan’s route, I tread nearly every piece of Princeton except the summit. I spent 3 days route-finding from the Avalanche Gulch trail, putting tons of miles in figuring out the [long] way up off trail on the NE arm. I spent a day in Grouse Gulch, learning the descent. But I didn’t summit. Princeton was the only Nolan’s mountain that I did not stand on top of all year.

As I considered my winter training, I knew that I’d have to push harder on winter ascents this year (no matter how miserable! I would prevail), especially since I planned/am planning an ambitious July attempt (if you don’t remember from last year, there was still waist-deep snow in the mountains at the end of May, summer doesn’t generally start until the end of June). I knew that I had to do Princeton in the winter.

When I drove to Arizona in February, I hadn’t yet managed to do more than Elbert, Massive, and La Plata (I was busy skiing I guess). Passing Princeton as I drive through BV, gracefully and commandingly taking up the sky, I thought “Princeton is such a boss, I have to get up there.” (I not only thought this but texted a running buddy, who was not thrilled like I was).

After AZ, I came back injured and spent a month trying to get back on my feet. One week ago, I went out for my first long(ish) run. Basking in the glow of Princeton on the East side of BV, I resolved to get up there. Another friend asked if I wanted to run together, I suggested Princeton, and ultimately plans fell through.

It’s not that Princeton (or any Sawatch Range winter ascents) is inherently dangerous or harrowing or even difficult.. just long, somewhat miserable slogs. Which is why I was hoping for company (because good company can make even the longest of drags fun) but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. Despite a lousy forecast, I headed up Princeton on Friday. The weather was beautiful when I got there, clear and sunny and warm, but turned terrible about 6 miles in. I got this picture just before it started snowing and visibility was totally lost (and my phone turned off because it wasn’t willing to suffer the new frigid wind),

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Terrible weather in the winter doesn’t scare me or even affect me that much (as long as I know the route well enough). It’s even kind of appropriate, because it’s slow and miserable to begin with so the weather’s like “hey, why not take away your view, too?” (“Bwahahaha”, because I think the weather should be personified). Someone asked me after if it felt good to be in the mountains again, and I didn’t really know what to say…it felt normal. It wasn’t “fun” and there wasn’t the thrill of standing on a summit (conditions were so bad you could have been standing anywhere and just seen gray). I had kind of forgotten just a little what it feels like to endure…so at least I still had that sort of toughness to push on.

The truth is, some days I’m so pumped to get back to climbing mountains and running again, and other days I don’t even want to go outside let alone spend another full day dragging my legs through the snow. I heard a team went up the Maroon Bells, and at first I was inspired, then it faded to meh…fuck that. As does everything eventually, I think this whole thing boils down to GOOD VS INTERESTING. Would you rather your life be good or interesting? Most people say good. If you read that question and thought “why would you ask a question like that?” Or “why can’t it be both?” That’s ok, I get it. Sometimes I admire you, a lot of times actually. I’ve come to realize during this time off that I can’t just read and watch TV, or study yoga or design or whatever I get into. I need the full spectrum of pain, the challenge, the risk, the fear, the incredible doubt. I choose interesting, and I don’t care at all if it’s good. Good is such a relative term. When someone asks you how you are, you say “good.” I don’t want easy, and as much as I sometimes regret moving up here because it is quite the POLAR opposite of easy, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.

It’s hard being 29 for a lot of reasons. There’s the cultural/societal pressure around 30, and there’s this “return of saturn” business that I would have never believed in except that I’ve been having rolling emotional/life crises for months. Sometimes I think “how the fuck did I get here?” Or “what have I DONE in the past 10 years!?” But I will never measure success by my job or my house, my friends, my bank account. At least I don’t ever feel like “why aren’t I married?” It’s more like “WHY haven’t I been to Banff!??”

I guess the point of all of this is, I climbed Princeton and it didn’t feel like epic or harrowing or victorious. I just quietly surpassed my recent (injury-induced) doubt and accepted that this is who I am. Some days I am NOT okay with it, and I wish I could stay at home and eat pizza and watch TV all day…and sometimes I do (and whether you know about chakras or believe in them, let me tell you when I stay home it physically hurts beneath my sternum and in my solar plexus). And sometimes I go out and run mountains.

AZ (can you see the end?) pt 2

The day before the race I went to the finish line so I could visualize it when things got rough. I packed a drop bag for the first time that would wait for me at mile 37. I filled my vest with the same things I had been eating on my runs all week: cucumber slices, blueberries, avocado, and Larabars. My legs felt tired. I hoped a good night of sleep would change that.

At 4:45 I boarded a bus that would take us to the start in Mayer. It was full of runners, and you guys, sometimes I’m disparaging about runners but it’s because most (not all) of us are self absorbed assholes. Mostly they were posturing; talking PR’s and saying things like “a marathon is a really honest distance” and comparing toenails lost (which, ok, that is a fun pastime among us). There was a lot of buzz before the start, and especially at the start line, which has always been one of my favorite things about racing.

The very moment I started running, both of my calf muscles seized up (gastrocnemius, if you’re wondering), and not only would they stay that way, but my other leg muscles would follow suit over the course of the very long day. I don’t race much, but I have cultivated a long practice of staying rational when shit goes wrong, and this was no different. I Scott Jureked the sitch: what is wrong? My calf muscles hurt and are barely working. What can I do about it? Run anyway. I put myself in a solid 5mph pace and stayed there.

I’ve heard other runners say they race to experience community, which is missing from our long training runs, even when we’re out with a running buddy. But I’ve said it before, runners are assholes, and they will literally push you off the trail if you don’t let them pass you quickly enough, and nobody spoke a word to each other besides “on your left” for almost the entire day.

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There was a 4 mile stretch or so that my legs started to feel strong between mile 23 and 27, but that was the only 4 miles that I loved running that day. My hip flexors began spasming, which sucks (besides being painful) because if they’re not working well it’s very hard to climb. My thighs seized. By the time I made it to the 37 mile aid, running on my legs had escalated to the worst pain I had ever been in. I’ve never had problems with my legs cramping, and this was so far beyond cramping. I have no explanation other than putting in too many miles that week. While I was getting some food in me and repacking, a girl was checked out by the medic, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The runner next to me leaned over and said: “dizzy? Nauseous? Welcome to ultras.” I checked the time, I was still looking at 5mph, and if I had managed this far, I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t keep it up. I was still eating and drinking fine. I looked at my phone. My dad had texted “Sarah take it up a notch, you can do this.” I tried, and I did.

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The 9 mile stretch to the next aid station contained the biggest climb of the day. I powerhoused up it, ascents being my strength, and when my hip flexors failed I pulled my legs up by my pants with my hands. My left knee had been hurting on descents for a while, but now my right knee started throbbing in the PCL area on ascents. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. And I thought, human relationships and support are good, but I must be able to overcome the worst by myself. The worst pain, the worst fear, the worst day of my life. Nobody can be in my head and fix this but me. Then the nausea started, and let me tell you, once you start vomiting the fun don’t stop (I had a lot of time to think about what I did wrong and I’m going to go ahead and bet it was the salt tabs someone suggested for the cramping). I finally staggered into the remote aid station just as twilight gave way to full dark.

And what a motley crew I found there. Nearly everyone at mile 46-47 was miserable, and while the wonderful girls working tried to bolster our spirits and pump me full of ginger, we all discussed dropping. “I’ve just been so miserable for so long, I don’t remember what it was like to be happy” which sounds melodramatic NOW, but at the time we all thought “that’s exactly how I feel!” It was 4.5 miles to the next aid station, 5 of us set out with the hopes and dreams of dropping if we could just make it there.

It’s funny (or terrible) how misery makes you so apathetic. Earlier in the day, I would not have considered dropping. I was thinking, Sarah if you can just make it to the finish you never have to run again. But suddenly, I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing (or anything), I just wanted this terrible day to be over. We staggered in to aid, mile 51.2. Here again was an unbelievably supportive staff, rushing around trying to help us as much as possible. Two of my dropping compatriots had a mental turn around and set out on the last 11 miles. I sat next to a 4th. Finally, I asked the crew what the process was to drop. They weren’t hearing it, and said all sorts of encouraging things, including lies about how far the next aid was. They lent me a jacket (as I had forgotten mine 14 miles back), and just as I was gearing up our 5th came in, shouting “I’m done! I’m dropping! Enough!” I left, and the 4th not too far behind me.

Very soon I realized, I had gotten my feet wet after dark and they were starting to burn. My spare shoes were back at mile 37 with my jacket, neither of which I needed at the time, in the daylight my feet had dried quickly. The burning intensified into crazy sharp pains: the formation of about 40 blisters (that is not an exaggeration). On the tops of my toes, between my toes, all around the perimeter of my feet, all over my heels. I don’t generally get blisters, so I faced another new but major problem that I didn’t know what to do about. At about mile 55, the weeping started, and by 58 I had
a. Gotten slightly lost
b. brushed a cactus that stabbed my foot with spires (which are like FISHING HOOKS) that sliced right through my shoes and deep into my feet
c. Taken more than one weeping break

I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but I hadn’t eaten in 20 miles and my body felt like very painful metal. Rather than pass me, a very nice man convinced me to pick up the pace and stay with him, and having company pulled me just enough out if my misery to keep on.

When I staggered across the finish line, I just wanted this day to be over. Another very nice man, the official finish line greeter and hugger, congratulated me with great enthusiasm and sincerity. He hugged me and said “you did it! You finished! You did a great job!” And I realized, I DID finish. It wasn’t how I thought it was going to go, but I DID do a great job. I sat down with my new friends, 4/5, and we talked about how we would have dropped if it weren’t for the rest of us and those wonderful aid station crews. And some insane number like 100 did drop. As we were eating our finish pizza, number 5 crossed the finish line. All 5 of us had picked ourselves up and carried on to finish. I was so miserable that I wouldn’t have been ashamed to end it by dropping. But it wouldn’t have been me.

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I couldn’t have imagined how bad the recovery was going to be. It subsided after several days, at which time it became obvious that something is actually wrong with my left knee. It’s a repetitive motion injury, probably from the cumulative week of overdoing it (including the race, I ran at least 130 miles). I’ve wondered over and over, when is enough, enough? Sometimes I’m psyched to get back into training and redeem myself. Mostly, I think it’s time to give it up. Long distance is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve justified pushing my body so hard because I believed I was making it stronger. But am I? Really? Naysayers tell us we are destroying our bodies. Are they right?

In Kilian’s book he says you have make running your whole life. Every other part of you has to work together to support it. I know I can do this right.

Obviously it is not time to give up yet.
I identify as a runner not because I have nothing else, but because I know it’s who I am.

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ARIZONA (can you see the end?)

It’s been about a week and a half since I got back from AZ. That trip is definitely in the running for favorite run trip, but the aftermath is forcing me to think very hard about my future in long distance running (and while it’s not the first time, I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to giving it up).

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Hooptie and I rolled out of Leadville on a Sunday morning and drove straight through, fueled by Coke and pb&j’s. we arrived at the South entrance of Grand Canyon National Park around 8pm. The forest roads that were recommended as good places to sleep were gated closed (this would become a theme in AZ, as if the sad remnants of a couple inches of snow constitutes winter) so I parked in front of a gate and hoped for the best.

I set an alarm to wake up before sunrise, and drove into the park around 5:30a. I had never been to the GC, I stopped at the first overlook and watched the sun come up over it for the first time.

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Teddy Roosevelt first saw the GC in 1903, and proclaimed it to be “the one great sight every American should see.” Despite his enthusiasm, a bill to make it a National Park failed 6 times from 1882 to 1919. 13 other National Parks gained their status during that time, making the GC the 15th (Yellowstone had long been a NP, since 1872). The Grand Canyon, 45 miles long, and 5-18 miles wide, is often considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, a list that is apparently frequently changing and now, according to Wikipedia, includes the internet. The original 7 were things the Greeks had seen, and included a mausoleum. Some current lists are 2-3/7 NYC buildings. The most legit one I saw is “natural wonders” like Aurora Borealis and Victoria Falls.

I geared up and headed down into the canyon. I had never had the opportunity to destroy my legs on a big descent at the beginning of a run, so I did exactly that all the way to the Colorado River in less than an hour and a half. Many people said many things as I passed them, but they will mostly remain a mystery as I was listening to my new 90’s hip hop playlist. Arriving at the river had a larger than life quality. Maybe it had something to do with the sign reading “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY” with an illustration of a man dying of exhaustion (marvel of graphic design). Maybe it was that just weeks ago I’d run to and from the CO river in Moab. Idk, maybe it was that I’d just run to the base of THE GRAND MOTHERFUCKING CANYON, which was carved out by the river 5-6 million years ago and has been a Native American holy site for 5,000 years.

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I didn’t go on, partly because I still had a cold (oh cruel fate!) but mostly because I couldn’t see how to cross the river (I would eventually find out the trail turned East before the river to a bridge that I couldn’t see). I ate a Larabar (sorry GCNP, I know you recommended 4 sandwiches but I didn’t, ok?) and headed back up. About 2 miles from the river, I saw an older gentleman that I’d passed early on the trip down. This is notable because we were far below the turn around point for nearly everyone, and I had only seen 2 or 3 backpackers. He stopped me, “do you remember, you passed me earlier?” I did. “I don’t think you heard, but I said ‘get the lead out!’ And I started running! With these legs! I haven’t ran for years!” He continued on, and so did I.

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The last 1,000ft up was a bit of a struggle because I could really feel the tightness from the fast high-impact rocky descent that my winter-in-Leadville legs were undertrained for. At the top I sat on the sidewalk and ate rice with vegetables with my camping spork out of my tiny camping bowl. I was high as shit (from running, not drugs); it was a wonderful run. I thought about where I might sleep (?) and what I would do tomorrow (run to the river again?) and chose to leave. Interestingly, I bought a bag of chips in the park for $1.29 which is like normal grocery store price, then bought a Coke just outside the park for $3.38 which is more than 3x regular price.

I drove to Flagstaff where I stocked up on food for the week, used a real bathroom for the last time, and noticed one of my tires was down to the steel. I drove to Sedona, hoping I’d find a place to sleep in the canyon that’s full of campgrounds and recreation areas, but they were all “closed” and worse, gated! Finally, almost out of Cottonwood I saw a sign for a trail and turned without knowing where I was going. The road turned into dirt that became BLM land! I had accidentally stumbled across the northernmost TH of the Black Canyon Recreational trail, that I would be sleeping, running, and racing on for the rest of my trip!

After a good night’s sleep, I went back to town to buy not two but FOUR new tires. The tire man pointed out that my tires are 11 years old, and that he believes they are being held together by sheer will, as he could not even put air in them and expected that they would disintegrate into thin air. On 4 new tires I headed to Bumblebee road.

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I could not have been more thrilled. This 80-mile section of BLM land housed a most excellent rolling technical trail and it was 85-90 degrees and sunny all week. I ran as fast as I could, and I saw at least five different types of cacti. It was as if someone painted a cartoon of Arizona for me to run in all week. I had a sweet Biolite stove with me and cooked real food on it in the evening. I ate pb&j’s, as usual, but also fresh fruit and copious amounts of avocado and cucumber (which are CHEAP in Az!). I slept 10-13 hours every night. I did yoga several times a day. I sweated everywhere (that’s a novelty for us highlanders, where it’s too cold and high to sweat). Every day I ran somewhere different but it always looked like:

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I knew I should taper for the race, but I couldn’t help myself. I ran 4-5 hours a day. It just felt so good. SO good! And that was how the whole week went. I rode my bike on any paved roads I could find. I resupped at this adorable little shack of a grocery store, filling several gallon jugs with water for a quarter out of a rickety machine in the parking lot and selecting vegetables from the tiny produce section next to the canned meat and salsa isle. I read books and went to bed early, to the regular howling of the coyotes.

Sooner than later, it was time to race. I’m going to cut it off here and make the race its’ own post since this is already pretty long. TO BE CONTINUED…!

THE DARKNESS (watching TV and changing my life)

Every once in a while, I have a week that differs significantly from my normal life and I don’t know where it comes from but I’ve finally figured out why it needs to happen. Near the end of last winter (read: late May, because it seems as though our weather is worse than Alaska), I wrote about this week. I re-read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, it stormed and raged every single day, and nothing would make me leave my apartment. I struggled so hard with my psyche that week, feeling pathetic and abysmally lazy; furious that I couldn’t turn it around.

Tonight, I finished re-watching season 3 of True Blood and hopped on my bike for a few intervals before bed when I realized that I’ve just had another one of those weeks (…slightly longer, like 9 days). It didn’t look much like May of last year (exception being that I submerged myself in dark distraction). I still trained, and I got back on the Nolan’s course:

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But the energy I was wielding was frantic and wild. Every day I’ve felt desperate to take risks, to make big changes, and feeling like you’re on the brink of something great or terrible 24/7 is exhausting. I’ve started calling it a rolling life crisis; it peaks, but it doesn’t resolve, and builds again like a wave. As it consumed me I scrambled about either putting a huge effort towards completely changing my life (and applying for grown up jobs and looking at houses in other parts of the country) or dulling my mind completely. There are two common factors to these weeks: whatever I’m doing, I can’t change the course, no matter how unhealthy it is and how angry I get at myself. And I will face the darkness that I’ve finally come to love (as of tonight, while doing sprints to Die Antwoord).

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There was a good, long, blissful time when I lived in Denver while I was teaching yoga, and more importantly living yoga, that I was calmer and more content maybe than any other time in my life. I didn’t watch TV or look at Facebook, or read the news, or listen to hard music. But while I was going around studying and chanting and existing out of love for my students, I saw the darkness in other people (other TEACHERS) and was honestly shocked by it. And hurt by it. It burst my bubble and I would spend another year or so doing my best to take care of my students but feeling increasingly worn down and beaten. Light without darkness is not the real world. I didn’t understand it then.

I didn’t understand it when I was injured last fall, or this past week of extremes. Or any of the very many times in my life that I’ve panicked, starved, and beaten myself until I was raw and ragged, made myself sick, wept, or looked upon the world with horror.

It’s no secret that I believe that you do not value your life until you’ve risked it. And you don’t understand risk unless you’ve both lost and won. I didn’t know how to feel free or full of joy until I had been trapped and full of pain. I’m not a victim of anything, and I’m not broken, I just feel with great intensity, and I believe that is the greatest gift of being alive. Someone asked me once what my biggest fear was, and I told her my biggest fear is that I’m fucking crazy. I don’t know what my biggest fear is anymore, but it’s not that. All those dark bits of myself are a very important part of me, and blocking them out doesn’t evaporate them. I can’t burn or starve them out. I have to love them. Without darkness there is no light; and you have to love both just as much. I’m always going to be imperfect. I’m capable of deceit, impatience, hate, jealousy, laziness, and destroying myself and everything around me. And so are you. It’s what makes us human. Sometimes I’ll have days (or weeks) when I eat crap and drink Coke and watch TV. Some days or weeks I’m going to feel panicky and desperate and angry and question all of my decisions; but without that why would anyone be motivated to strive for better? We’re also capable of great kindness, of trust, compassion, incredible strength and endurance, and love without expectation or exception. I have to love all of it, all the good and all the darkness.

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MOAB (running for freedom)

I went to Moab because I had forgotten why I love running. Training has become a miserable chore that I have to force myself to do, leading me to constantly bash my own self discipline and question pretty much my entire life (including and especially living in Leadville, and pursuing a serious race season this year). I had 3 days off coming up, and what could solve my problems better than a run trip?

The area that would become Moab was first populated by settlers attempting to cross the Colorado River between 1829 and 1855, when it became a trading post of Latter-Day Saints. Another group settled there in 1878 and Moab was established as a city in 1902. The name Moab is either biblical, referring to “the far county” that’s populated by sinners apparently (because of which the city dwellers have petitioned to change the name unsuccessfully multiple times) or the Paiute word for mosquito, maopa. Moab has about 5k permanent residents, boasts millions of tourists, is home to an incredible amount of restaurants that are mostly closed, and has weather that’s generally better than forecasted. [in the course of the extensive Moab research I just did, I saw a statement that the Potash mine near Moab dyes the water in its evaporation pools blue to speed the rate of evaporation, is that a thing? Does it even make sense? If you understand why, please leave me an explanation in the comments]

Friday morning the sky was dumping snow over my mountains so hard it was challenging even to get out of the high Rockies at all, it took over 5 hours to drive to Moab. But it had stopped snowing by the time we hit Utah, and by the hwy 191 exit to Moab it was sunny and getting warmer in spades. I drove straight to the Hidden Valley TH, jumped out of Hooptie, and started running up. The Hidden Valley trail goes up to a pass that marks a gateway to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area, something like 50,000 acres of un-trailed wild desert.

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At the top of the pass, you could go straight to remain on the Hidden Valley trail down to the mesa, or you could go right. Going right was rewarded by walls covered in petroglyphs.

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Petroglyphs are rock art carved or otherwise scraped on (as opposed to pictographs that are painted on). Apparently there’s some evidence as to the period the petroglyphs represent, but they can’t be geologically dated, and the best guess is that they were made by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in Utah between 200 and 1200.

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The social trail I was on descended and connected back to the HV trail, that ends when it meets the Moab Rim Road. West from that connection is desert as far as you can see. The downside of desert running is the sand and the cacti, but the upside is the vegetation is sparse and allows you to run easily wherever you want without a trail. I kept a close eye on the landmarks of the pass from when I came, but was overcome by the thrill and fear of going nowhere as fast as possible, how easy it would be to get lost, and that scarce possibility of what if I don’t make it back? It’s been a long time it seems like since I’ve felt that thrill.

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After dark (since I had indeed made it out of the desert safely) I took Hooptie West of Moab, a ways down an access road bordering the CO river to a parking lot along the Poison Spider 4×4 road, to sleep where I would run in the morning. Eat, sleep, wake up, eat, run. On the network of 4×4 roads in this area, you could run all day easily over sandstone and past arches, caves, and all kinds of interesting terrain without seeing a single person. You can stick to the roads or you can wander off in any direction, hoping you can figure out the way back (which takes a surprising amount of time and energy to think and worry about, thereby pushing any other problems you’d been worrying about straight out of your mind). Safely returning to Hooptie again just before dark, I headed to the south side of the Kane Creek Canyon, past all the TH parking lots, stopping at an overlook to eat and sleep.

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I woke but didn’t run where I was, by Hurrah Pass, I drove back to town (for coffee) then East to the Sand Flats to run the famous Slick Rock Trail. Running on sandstone for 3 days was starting to get a little rough, but something turned over and I picked up speed, flying over technical for 12 miles up and down rock formations wild and free. The previous 2 days, and the previous 3 months or so, had caught up with me, and I was finally free of all of it. I continued on a 4×4 road called Fins N Things (I know, I know), but at the end I just wasn’t done running.

I went back to the canyon I’d slept in the night before, already 22 miles in or so, and went flying down the Amassa back road at almost 10 miles an hour (which is really fucking fast for me) and continued that ridiculous pace for over an hour.

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Past the point when your muscles can’t keep up and you’re out of breath, past the soreness of joints worn from 3 days of impact, past the achilles tendon pain and tightness I’ve been dealing with for a few weeks. Past the questions of success, age, choices. Past fear. There was no question of where I was (I had gone so far I had no idea) or if I would get back. My feet didn’t stumble over obstacles, they landed softly and in perfect balance; just brushing the ground and rocks that technically anchored me to the earth. I’ve tried to explain what long distance running feels like over and over, both because I’ve been asked and because I want co-conspirators to share in this extraordinary adventure. It’s like this: suddenly you feel very light, and it’s as if the molecules that make up your body and spirit evaporate into the environment around you. Simultaneously, the molecules of the terrain and the sky are evaporating into you. And you know that you are inextricably linked to the earth and the sky, as the smallest piece of a vast working universe, but every tiny atom of you exactly the same and just as important as every other atom that exists now or has ever existed. It is freedom and joy that are hard to find in the world that we’ve built where we work and buy things and interact with each other in strange ways, with little community and a lot of dishonesty.

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I remembered why I run. Why I’ve made the choices I have and how I’ve come to be here. It doesn’t happen like that every time, to be sure, but every time it does I remember how important it is to live honestly, to bare my passions and dreams, to take risks. It’s time for positive change.

ICE MOUNTAIN (what doesn’t break both your legs makes you stronger)

I realized today what it means to find comfort in discomfort (and it only took me 29 years to understand). I was climbing Mt. Elbert from the south, and after 2 hours of mind- and foot-numbing post holing, I was above treeline where intense wind and below 0 temps made a usually mellow mountain into a harrowing summit bid, which is the best time to think about my life. And I remembered the miserable day I spent on Ice Mountain probably two months ago.

It was one of those days where I was ready to give up mountaining and get a real job, but it started out lovely; clear, sunny skies, even decently warm. First you drive nearly to the middle of nowhere on a Jeep road, then you park in an empty TH parking lot and run a handful of miles. You scramble up this very long and unstable talus field (and hope nothing worse happens than a few rolled ankles and smashed fingers and toes as the rocks you’re putting your weight on slip and slide and rock disturbingly beneath you) then begin ascending a gully.

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Ice Mountain is one of the three Apostles (in the middle above). Three beautiful, jagged, sheer, and rocky peaks all rated class 3 and with only one logical route to ascend any of them. I’ve never been told this by someone who’s done it, but I had thought for quite some time that it sounded like a fun day of scrambling and I finally managed a day to do it before the weather turned [into winter]. I began the ascent to the gully, which was supposedly the crux of the route, and thought it was iffy at best. I actually felt a little silly for being annoyed with the instability of the talus field before it, because this gully defied logic. Had I not been sure I was on the route (there is no alternative, just sheer rock faces and this one gully) I would have been sure that there just was no safe route up this mountain. It was extremely steep, and mostly comprised of loose, slippery clay topped with smatterings of pebbles and frequently featuring loose boulders that threatened to dislodge themselves at any moment.

Ascending terrain like this sucks, but more importantly on anything so unstable is HOW THE FUCK WILL I GET DOWN? About halfway up I was suddenly pissed, because I felt insecure about my situation, and I wanted to blame it on everyone who’s ever climbed this mountain (which is the kind of excellent logic of a girl who knows she’s about to get injured, deep in the middle of nowhere). Meanwhile, the weather took a sudden turn and the dark sky looked like it might break all hell loose upon the Apostles any moment.

So why did I keep going? I was thinking about that a lot today. What makes anybody keep going when they want to turn around? I’ve finally realized the things that make me miserable (for example: snowshoe running, unstable gullies, climbing at night) aren’t inherently bad. To be home in the mountains, you have to be supremely comfortable, up, down and sideways. I’m just not that comfortable with all of it yet. It doesn’t seem mindblowing, but it blew my mind.

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Today, on Elbert, I discovered that there’s horrible, excruciating pain on the other side of numbness (and I wondered if it was the early stages of frostbite). It was so bad that I thought all the bones in my feet were simultaneously breaking. But I kept going. The wind became so harsh above the first false that I sometimes had to bear down so it didn’t push me back down the mountain, and meanwhile my eyes were starting to freeze shut (is it a thing to wear goggles when it’s this cold? I feel like I should, but I’d feel silly kind of). But I kept going. It only barely occurred to me that I maybe should turn around and come back when the weather was better.

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I kept going because I don’t want to be comfortable all the time. People who never face fear (in all of its manifestations-especially pain, misery, doubt) are so afraid that it controls their lives. I don’t want to climb unstable gullies because I’m afraid of [the very real possibility of] rock slides. If I had turned around that day, then I wouldn’t have made it safely up and down, thereby gaining a new [small] shred of comfort. There’s more than just our big fears to face, there’s dozens of smaller discomforts that we can’t keep avoiding. Discomfort is not the reason to turn around (or to stay home, as Dan’s mom famously said on our snowy Capitol attempt last year). That’s what it means to find comfort in discomfort: you experience discomfort, you own it, you accept it…it would be easy to turn away or avoid it but you don’t. You spend time is discomfort. You face all of its sides and angles. You sit in it (and climb and run and go about your business in it). Once you surpass fear, then you’re at home in the mountains.

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

My sister and I were texting this morning and I finished the conversation with something like “you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. With gratitude, imagination, and enthusiasm for the present moment.”

Immediately thereafter, I left my cozy house to ascend La Plata. It’s been winter here for a while now, much longer than most of the country. I spent the first few weeks transitioning, I took a few trips down to Boulder for long runs (where winter is mild at worst) and things really started looking up when I picked up alpine touring (a sadistic form of skiing where one puts on a full but specialized downhill ski setup, then adds “skins”- long strips of rubber that have glue on one side and fake fur on the other side- in order to first ski uphill before removing the skins and skiing down) which is nowhere near as fun as mountain running, but is at least 75% more fun than running in the snow. AT is very popular amongst runners (in fact what put the idea in my head in the first place was an article about Rob Krar coming off a season of AT to win Western States with little distance running) but I had a nagging feeling that I know I need to be on the Nolan’s course this winter regardless.

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Some of you might remember what I might refer to as a “4-part series on the challenges of winter” last year, but was really 4 posts in a row of my relentless bitching and misery. In the last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my attitude towards the weather, the mountains, and particularly the snow. How to run with it instead of against it. Having a sense of humor about the challenges, finding fun in there somewhere, becoming tougher. Acclimating to my environment, until it feels comfortable (instead of avoiding discomfort at all costs). I thought I was making good progress.

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Today I arrived at La Plata TH and noticed dozens of tracks heading back from the parking lot, which I took to be an overwhelmingly good sign, and which caused me to leave my snowshoes behind. I pulled on my new “booties”- tall neoprene sleeves with a thick sole and miniature crampons built into the sole, Kahtoola’s answer to Salomon’s Snocross I think-then realized my gaiters wouldnt fit over them and left those in Hooptie as well (there’s two big mistakes already, if you’re counting).

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Within the first mile, all of those promising tracks disappeared except one lone set of snowshoes. By the end of the second mile, the trail reaches a section prone to slides and drifting where the snow gets deep and the trail becomes harder to locate, and it so happens that the lone snowshoer turned around here-when the going got tough. The first time I post holed to my upper thigh I tried to think of it like “here’s where the tough get going” but after an hour of glorified swimming it became harder and harder to stay positive.

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I lost the trail, but found it again. I stumbled over rocks underneath deep snow that I couldn’t see. I tripped and fell and floundered a few times. There is a profound difference between snow that is less than mid-thigh deep and it’s evil, painful counterpart. It’s the difference between post-holing and “swimming”; post-holing sucks, but swimming is 1000x worse. I don’t know what compelled me to keep going. I kept thinking “basically anything else would be better training for Nolan’s” and “I’m wasting an entire day”. Because the only thing post-holing and snow swimming are good training for is more of the same. After hours of misery, I ultimately put down 7 miles and 1500ft gain if I was lucky. I turned around once I’d lost the trail for the 3rd or 4th time, after it had become clear that the snow would never get better and even the dogs were over it.

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After turning around, I almost immediately caught a rock with my spikes and fell face first into the deep snow. After righting myself, I burst into tears that quickly froze to my face and I shouted “WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!” I wish the sky had opened and spoken to me, “IT’S FUCKING WINTER SARAH, AND YOU’RE CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT??” But the sky didn’t say anything at all, and neither did the snow or the trees. And in the complete silence of the mountains in winter I remembered what I had just told my little sister: you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. I struggled to remember in that hopeless moment what the tools are for overcoming it: gratitude. Imagination. Enthusiasm for the present.

As frustrated as I was, I gained some perspective, because at least I had a strong body to take into the mountains in the winter. I remembered these mountains are my playground and my home; they are neither the enemy nor the source of my suffering. The source of my suffering is myself, and my expectations that the mountains in winter should be anything else. I choose to be here. Amongst the mountains, the sky, the forest, and the snow that blankets the scene with the most peaceful kind of quiet, that is complete without being deafening or lonely.

Maybe I’ll always struggle with this. Maybe I’ll move past it onto the next challenge. In retrospect I am so grateful for the opportunity to be challenged so forcefully and painfully sometimes, to struggle and ultimately learn and grow. It’s getting easier all the time, I know it is. Sometimes you really have to face it though, like today; to cry and yell at it, to really fight the darkness. Always coming out stronger.

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So I actually made up my race schedule for 2016 finally, and I’m really jazzed although there are a couple contingencies to be discussed in the future. My first race of the season will be in February in Arizona to get my hands dirty and take a break from winter (the Black Canyon 100k). Nolan’s is going to be the first week of July, the absolute earliest I can go after the snow’s run off. That’s all I’m going to say for now.

Ouray & Silverton: does sleeping in your truck make you feel like a badass?

Last year I started a new tradition of mountaining for my birthday, continuing this year in the beautiful (and relatively remote) towns of Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. Of course, in true Sarah’s birthday tradition, there was snow. And mountains! And coffee.

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

I had been dreaming this trip up for months; I hadn’t yet been to Silverton (my planned trip was postponed in favor of going to Lake City to meet up with my badass runner friend Trish) and basically I’ve been wanting to get back to Ouray ever since the last time I was there in March. In sharp contrast to my usual running trips, I had wild designs to stock up on all sorts of pre-made food from Whole Foods, so I might eat like a queen on the road. With a full cooler, piles of sleeping bags and blankets, and a new playlist, I + dogs left Leadville on the morning of my birthday for the 4.5 hour drive to Silverton.

I make a lot of jokes about how I live in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is Silverton is the middle of nowhere. It’s a tiny, ragged town (both tinier AND more ragged than Leadville, which is apparently possible) situated so deep in the middle of the mountains that it’s only accessible by gnarly mountain passes. Red Mountain Pass, from Ouray, is so gnarly in fact that it’s closed nearly every day now for construction because the outer lane is falling off and they’re trying to blast deeper into the mountain so the future pass can be more than one single lane. Red Mountain Pass (also called the Million Dollar Highway, which is great because I think at this point they’ve spent WELL over a million dollars on this road and it makes me think of Dr. Evil saying “one MILLION dollars”) is named for the iron oxide in the slopes of the surrounding San Juans (it’s true, they’re really red, the San Juans of Silverton and Lake City are extremely large piles of red dirt). I just found an amazing article (http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20140624/NEWS01/140629751/Highway-to-hell-) that says not only is Highway 550 one of the 12 most dangerous roads in the world, but also that it is notorious for having the highest avalanche danger per mile, and this beautiful piece of prose “the narrow road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.” In fact, there are no guardrails because it would be too hard to push the snow off, and let me tell you, the stories of snowplow driver deaths are so harrowing that I can’t even fathom how much that job pays at this point.

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

Anyway, I rolled into Silverton, was amazed by the decrepit and tiny town I found, then promptly drove up a Jeep road looking for a campsite. What I stumbled upon was EPIC. Up on a hillside, miles into the wilderness, waterfall in proximity, spectacular mountain views. “Welcome to Silverton, Sarah, please enjoy this, the best campsite of all time, in honor of your birthday.” I almost considered setting up a tent and making a campfire, but chose instead to bunk down in the back of Hooptie in a cozy, warm nest, and read until I fell asleep.

the view from the best campsite of all time.  Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

the view from the best campsite of all time. Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

Waking up in the morning in your truck in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot to distract you. You get your chameleon cold brew out of the cooler, throw some nutella on a tortilla, and put your running shoes on. I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I rarely even change clothes for the duration of a running trip. Who’s going to care? The mountain? Then you run all day, sleep all night. You’re limited to the food you brought with you (plus the Snickers and Coke you’ll inevitably buy when you go into town later), so I pretty much eat Nutella and tortillas, pb&j’s, and on this particular trip chips and (fancy) buffalo fake chicken wraps (for the two days they lasted). And I don’t even care. At home I wouldn’t touch a pb&j at this point I’m so sick of them, but sitting on the tailgate between trails it’s pb&j mow time. Read by headlamp, fall asleep. The next day is much the same: wake up, drink cold brew, eat Nutella and tortilla, put on yer shoes. Run mountains, come back for lunch, run more mountains, go into town. Snickers and Coke. Find a new camping spot.

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

Then I was in OURAY. I fucking love Ouray. Headed up to Mt. Sneffels (I know.) it’s immediately obvious that there’s a whole lot of snow above 12k. Sneffels, from Ridgeway to the West, actually has incredible vertical prominence (7,200) for the Colorado Rockies, and as this section of the San Juans have very distinct jaggedness and striped ridges, she was named for a volcano in Iceland, Snaefell, that appears in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Apart from some silly Kansas tourists who don’t know the number one rule of Jeep roads (if you can’t drive faster than you can walk, then you or your car don’t belong) the drive in to Yankee Boy Basin was absolutely spectacular and fully otherworldly. I parked a ways below the basin for the extra mileage and headed out, woefully under prepared (while I suspected I would come across snow, I didn’t manage to bring spikes, wool socks, or gaiters). The trail up Sneffels crosses the basin, heading to Blue Lake Pass, then you take a sharp right to climb a crazy steep gully all the way to the ridge. It was actively snowing pretty good, and near the sharp right I ran into a guy hiking with his dog. “I was heading to Blue Lake Pass but there’s blizzard conditions! Where are you going?” I smiled awkwardly and lied through my teeth, “Oh, just hiking until I feel like turning around.” He accepted my terrible lies and went on his way, and I took the sharp right and started climbing the gully full of two feet of wet snow.

this was taken in the basin.  up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow!  and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

this was taken in the basin. up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow! and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

The climb made me question my sanity, as usual, because when you’re climbing so steep that you can barely ascend in the snow, how do you think you’re going to get down? And as usual, I relegated that question for later thought and powered up. The ridge boasted stupidly hard gusts of wind, and I thought about the TH sign that warned of the wildly high winds (up to 200 MPH!!) one might find on the Sneffels ridge. I pulled my buff over my face and carried on. By the time we made it to the summit, Lu was coated in wet snow (and a little pissed) and I was trying to remember how long it had been since I felt my feet. We paused long enough to turn my phone on and hope that it would stay on despite the cold for the 15 seconds to take this selfie:

the black at the bottom is Lu

the black at the bottom is Lu

then turned around. Tramping through the thigh deep snow on the ridge was cold but fine, and an excellent preview of winter. Descending the gully was about as I expected (not possible without spikes) so I took advantage of the lack of exposure and excellently slippery wet snow and glissaded almost the entire way. When we were back in the basin, Lu gave me the familiar “you can’t be serious, we’re going back already?!?” look and I wish you could argue with dogs sometimes because it was very different than the “you can’t be serious, why the fuck are we up here!?!” look that she had on no less than an hour ago. The basin offered stunning Northerly-ish views that I hadn’t noticed on the way in:

an entirely different world

an entirely different world

Descending to where we parked took us below snow altitude and apparently out of the storm going on in and around the basin; it was sunny and hot and I had to strip all the winter gear in a hurry. Back in Ouray it was nearly summer again. We ran the Ouray Perimeter trail and it further and further cemented my mad love for this teeny tiny town. Also, this is great, I found a campground on the edge of the city

really.

really.

My speculation is that because you can drive your rv’s and trailers into Ouray from the North, but to camp anywhere you’d have to take them up on Red Mountain Pass or on one of the various Jeep roads (towards Sneffels or Imogene Pass or off of Auditorium), the alternative is to park in town I guess. Get a Coke in town, pb&j, find a place to camp, read by headlamp until you fall asleep. Wake up, drink cold brew, nutella on a tortilla, put on yer running shoes. Find a mountain, run up it. Pb&j. Repeat. Coke in town, find a place to camp, read by headlamp, fall asleep.

Ouray

Ouray

What all of this means is: I love the simplicity. There’s no distractions. I always bring my journal but I almost never write in it, unless it’s to record one of my profound breakthroughs during a run (here’s one from Silverton, it’s fucking gold: we’re not looking for anything, we’re trying to find ways to sacrifice more and pay the price of freedom-for it is steep. Sometimes you have to break the things you love, and sometimes you have to love the things you fear; most often both). I run all day, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat, it’s just fuel. I don’t have to do work around the house, or go to work. I rarely talk to anybody, and I never, ever feel lonely on these trips, despite that I spend all of my time completely alone. I come back glowing, and it’s because I’m completely rejuvenated. When people say “no worries or cares” I think what worries most people isn’t even the worries-it’s the constant process of making the 3,000 decisions that go into your daily life. Those constant decisions are there in most vacations, too. The simplicity of a running trip…I think I’m onto something.

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CAPITOL PEAK PT 5 (this is about love, perseverance and terror)

It’s very nearly one year since my first attempt on Capitol Peak; as it was I intended to summit the glorious and dangerous peak as the 28th 14er on my 28th birthday. Things went awry, to say the least, kicking off what would turn out to be a long and tumultuous quest to finally stand on top of the mountain I now love the most.

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So if you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that last year’s birthday Capitol attempt failed because the Elks got 3 feet of snow the day before. It became my first winter camping trip, and going up on that class 4 ridge drowned in snow was maybe the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.

Because of my fanatic single-focus Nolan’s training this year, I didn’t even leave the Sawatch until the end of August when I made a glorious and successful attempt on North Maroon Peak, one of my favorite ascents of all time and my first class 4 Elk summit (the “Maroon Bells” along with Capitol are recognized as both the deadliest and most technical of the 14,000+ ft mountains in Colorado). Naturally, now free of Nolan’s (for the rest of this year anyway), Capitol was scheduled and I was so ready to get back to that magical valley, which has definitely become my favorite place in Colorado.

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Maroon Bells 💙

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I made two unsuccessful attempts on Capitol with the toughest mountain runner I know, my friend Trish. I believe that Mama Elks was physically shaking us off the Northeast ridge with the loudest, wildest thunder you’ve ever heard. [okay listen, did you know if you can hear thunder then lightning is less than 10 miles from you? And even crazier, if there’s less than 30 seconds between the thunder and lightning then it is less than 6 miles from you…ipso facto if there’s only a few seconds between…I’m just saying it’s fucking close! Also, we apparently know now the talus in our beloved mountains conducts lightning (because of the indirect lightning strike on Handies during Hardrock this year) but I couldn’t find any full explanation]

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After a week including two trips to Aspen (and beyond) and two sadly unsuccessful attempts (that were still most excellent days in the mountains AND we discovered CP Burger so really great days overall) I have to admit I was more crestfallen than ever before. Capitol looms like a beast from Lord of the Rings over the Capitol Creek valley and you can see it from the TH and almost the whole way in. Honestly there is no place more epic, this mountain is just it.

Hayden Survey named Capitol Peak in 1874 (which you may remember was during the gold rush in the High Rockies), comically because of its “resemblance to the Capitol Building”. No one attempted to climb it until 1909, because it appeared to be an impenetrable fortress and it wasn’t thought possible. Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark of Aspen summited for the first time on August 22, 1909. These pioneers also gained the first ascents of North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, and many of the treacherous 13ers in the Elks (yes, Hagerman and Clark Peaks are definitely named after them). Hagerman said later “there is one rather sensational bit of 40 ft where the ridge is so sharp that one must get astride of it and move along hands and knees…the drop here is something like 1,500 feet, not straight but appallingly steep and smooth”

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I attempted Capitol a fourth time by myself. The result was a hyperextended knee, my first real knee injury and let me tell you it struck terror into my heart. I’ll talk about this more at some point in the future, when writing about it becomes cathartic instead of heart wrenching.

Anyway, still injured I saw what appeared to be one last glimmer of hope in the form of a 3-day weather window, which will probably be the last before the Elks are covered in snow for the year. I got up balls-ass early (I don’t understand what that expression means either) and Hooptie and I drove to Aspen (then 14 miles North, and something like 12 miles west until the Jeep road ends…) and I got out and started walking. And boy has it been a long time since I WALKED a trail! It takes for fucking ever, just sayin. It was a perfect clear sunny day and I couldn’t help but see it for what it was- Mama Elks was finally saying I was worthy. Not gonna lie, my knee hurt and it was disconcerting. But I kept on; I knew it was my last chance this year and I wouldn’t give it up for anything (if you’ve read this blog before we all know how irresponsible I am, and you guys I just don’t care). The first time things get weird is downclimbing K2, especially since that was the only part of the route with snow on it. Shortly thereafter you see the “baby knife edge” and you’re like REALLY!?! No way…then you get to the real Knife Edge and you’re like OHHHHH ok I get it. And you throw a leg on either side and squeeze your knees into the rock and cross the thing on your hands. So, I’m not afraid of heights. And by the end I was gasping for breath. I wasn’t SO freaked out that I DIDN’T take a Knife Edge selfie though

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The worst thing about solo ascents of Capitol is being alone on the Knife Edge/not having a buddy to take a sweet badass picture of you on it (ok I’m kidding…I really think the exposed scary bits would have wreaked less havoc on my nervous system if I had a friend). So Mr. Badass Hagerman says that after this point the climb is “arduous” and I think that’s a beautiful euphemism. This sums it up, I think: the route on Capitol is great because for hours you’re like ok I’m on route, climb, climb, super exposed, where the fuck is the route, nbd I guess I’ll just traverse this cliff until, infinity later, you’ve nearly circled the summit it seems like and you’re finally there. I summited to greetings from two friendly gentlemen, who immediately asked me where my helmet is and ARE YOU ALONE!?! I wasn’t even initially annoyed though, they weren’t being condescending at all (like the usual tough guy mountain nit wits) and I don’t think it had anything to do with my being a small girl.

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The weather was a real treat-above treeline lately it’s been winter for sure but today with the perfect sun and no wind it was warm and sweet. Those guys told me they’d been napping and I believe it. I have to admit it was anti climactic. I was content but not deliriously happy. Maybe I knew the way down wouldn’t be easier?

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I peaced off the summit first and in a hurry. It was all going great, and actually the return trip over the Knife Edge I kind of spidermonkeyed super fast with some kind of renewed confidence. All was well until below the ridge after K2, where you have the high road/low road options and I chose high because it’s faster. The high route is harder to find, in fact I’ve never been able to keep it on the return trip but I was overly confident because I’d followed it all the way in. The trouble here is that it cliffs out between, and if you’ve chosen the high road and lose the route you’re…fucked.

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I don’t know what happened, it’s safe to say that at this point I was a little mentally exhausted. I was following cairns and the route disappeared. I climbed up and down looking all over for it and suddenly I was stuck. And for the first time I can understand why someone might call Search and Rescue…they’ve backed themselves into a terribly dangerous corner that will require some serious climbing to get out of…and maybe they’re alone and without ropes. And then they[I] panic. Huddled on a ledge, shaking so violently I bumped my head, I was desperately trying to calm down and get enough courage to turn around and start the long climb down. I kept hoping to see ANYBODY descending appear at the top of the rock field, but I had apparently put myself over an hour ahead of them. I turned my phone on and by some luck I had service. I called a friend and immediately burst into tears and told her I was in a bad climbing situation and I needed to calm down. I also swore I was giving up mountains, and I was going to be a nurse and have a normal life and watch Netflix (BWAHAHAHA YEAH RIGHT. Look mountains, I’m really sorry for those crazy things I said but you know they’re not true). The phone call worked though and four minutes later I was shaking much less and steeled to climb down to (eventually) solid ground.

So basically, MAD respect for Capitol, who makes every other ascent (including North Maroon Peak) look like child’s play. After so many hours of exposure, my nervous system was just fried, but now I know it’s that much stronger. By the time I was back to Aspen I was thinking about my next ascent (yeah when I got back to Hooptie I was still decompressing) and by the time I was home I was ready to say THAT WAS AMAZING. Hard earned, to say the least, summiting Capitol felt like a real accomplishment. 77 miles on foot, 20+ hours of driving, every kind of storm, lightning, hail, an avalanche, a sprained ACL. 💙 You Capitol.

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