Mt. Whitney &The Stoke Butterfly Effect

“Nothing you can do about hail. Just let it fall.”

The girl who said this was perfectly calm and sincere, dirty sandals and a bag of cheetos strapped to the back of her pack. Her friend smiled as thunder rumbled, “Have a good run.” And they were gone. I think you have to know what you’re looking for to recognize real through hikers, and you have to be open to inhaling some of their calmness. I am rarely calm, but I know their feeling of contentment, of acceptance, and I spent the next 13 miles thinking that there are two things I need to cultivate in my life, the difference between a hiker and a through hiker being one of them. The other is the stoke and joy and sense of community that I felt on Mt. Whitney.

GOPR0246.JPG

Mt. Whitney from the Portal NRT

Mt. Whitney is a remarkable mountain but it’s not hard to climb. It’s the highest in this country. And if you look at a map, you can see why I no longer consider Alaska to be a part of this country any more than Alaskans do. 70 feet higher than Mt. Elbert, which is a completely unimportant distinction, and 100 feet higher than Rainier. Its prominence and jagged summit block is incredible, it rises over 10,000 feet from the valley [we’ll all see if I remember to look this up] but it doesn’t have the distinction the Tetons do so really it just looks far away.

GOPR0271.JPG

Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp, summit being in those clouds on the right, the Chute being the steep snow to the left of all those pointy things

I was at the Whitney Portal for almost a week before I saw it, as it was mired in storms, getting dumped on 24 hours a day. Whitney is the only important mountain in California, if you ask Californians, who couldn’t be bothered to build a trail on any other mountain in the Sierras (maybe in Yosemite? I think that’s the only place I don’t have a trail map of). When I realized [decided? I guess] that I was going to Lone Pine I looked into the permit system, and was certain I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. You have to apply for permits in the winter, and they assign you your dates sometime in the spring, and from May 1st on, only those that had entered the permit lottery months in advance would be allowed to go above 10,500ft or so.

GOPR0275.JPG

looking west from Trail Crest

I went up to Lone Pine Lake a few times after arriving, which is the highest you’re allowed to go without a permit in hand, and talked to dozens of failed climbers. “The snow, it was awful.” “We only made it to the Chute.” “We only made it to Consultation Lake.” “We only made it to Trail Camp.” Those three milestones are all in the same place. By chance, I learned that once assigned a permit date, you still have to accept it, and because of this year’s snowpack (200%, I heard) a lot of the spring permits offered weren’t accepted. I went to the ranger’s station and gained a permit for June 3rd. The ranger shrugged while he filled it out, “Between all the new snow and the avalanche danger, nobody’s getting up.” I didn’t check the weather and was on the trail at 6am.

GOPR0276.JPG

Sequoia National Park I guess

Most of this story would be boring if I bothered to tell it. I took the standard route, because for $21, I wanted my best shot, and I was worried about getting off route and the resulting time loss if I went up one of the technical routes in the snow alone. The snow allowed for an alternate route, where I could don crampons and climb straight up and skip a whole bunch of miles. I arrived at Trail Crest in a little under three hours and was invited into a heatedly excited conversation about the battery lives of GoPros and Garmins. I assumed the folks I was talking to were all togteher, but they were parts of three different teams that were waiting on partners climbing up the Chute and jacketing up as the sky grew dark and the wind picked up, and they went on to happily speculate about the weather. A group of us departed to the next section on the west side.

GOPR0429.JPG

“Windows” looking east

Apparently it’s normally a trail that’s been carved into the side of cliffs, but in its current winter conditions, there was a narrow path one crampon wide stomped into the side of a nearly vertical wall of snow. I realized, looking at the fear in my new friends’ faces, that mountain climbing is just moving your feet until you arrive at an obstacle that is above your adventure level threshold. I lost my companions, and instead passed several on their way down, none of whom had summited. I passed one team telling another team to turn back. I had yet to see any reason to turn around, but I had even less faith of making it, if that were even possible, but I was still in good spirits. Every day in high altitude is a good day.

GOPR0436.JPG

Enter a caption

Finally, on this bizarre rock feature that felt like a cave when it was buried in snow, I met the first summiter of the day. He was a Californian by birth but has been in South America for the last 10 years or so. He planned to snowboard from Trail Crest. He looked at me intensely and said, “You’re going to make it, I can tell. But the summit’s socked in, no views.” I warmly congratulated and hugged this stranger and my heart was buoyed, it reminded me of a 100k finish, in the Black Canyon when I was completely resolved to drop, and crossing the finish line the official Finish Line Hugger looked me in the eye and said, “You did it.”

GOPR0431.JPG

looking west

I passed two teams on their way down and we celebrated together, with high fives and laughs and votes of confidence. I told them, with all of my sincerest happiness for them, “You did it!” And they told me, “I might as well congratulate you now because you’re going to make it, too, you’re nearly there!” I passed another solo climber, a man who was struggling with exhaustion, just before the last climb. I told him, “We’ve got this, man. That climb’s going to be rough but we’re almost there and we can do it.” I passed a team of three still headed up and they cheered me on. I made it to the top of that climb and saw a building.

GOPR0418.JPG

Somebody left the damn door open.

In front of the building was a box, and in the box was the summit register. I stepped around it and walked to the edge, clouded in it looked like the end of the world. And I was full of joy. There was a lot of doubt, but no struggle. There’s nothing hard about this climb besides it being long. Some folks were afraid of the exposure in the snow, but I had liked it. It was just enough to make it feel exciting. Someone had dug out the USGS seal.

GOPR0404.JPG

my cramponed feets with the USGS seal

 

I had a good amount of time alone on the summit, and I had a think about why I climb mountains. Now that I’ve done some difficult and super scary ascents, I know that there’s value in the struggle, in facing your fear. There’s something about finishing something that you didn’t think you could, whatever the reason. Like you have this mindset, we’ll keep going up until we find something that makes us stop. Turning around is perfectly noble as long as it’s not fear based. I think that’s the thing I’m still trying to put my finger on. You will face a lot of obstacles in mountain climbing, and most of them are fear based. Doubt, insecurity, lack of confidence, laziness, tiredness, weakness, and just plain unspecific fear. If you make it to the top despite all of those things, then you’ve won something important. It’s like a bet that you’ve made with yourself. If I am strong enough and brave enough …

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0409.

Me, summit of Mt. Whitney, not that you can tell

Before I left, I wrote in the summit register. There were dozens of huge pages, maybe the last year’s worth. The guys before me had squeezed their names in on the bottom of a page, well below the actual lines, fully filling it up so I pulled out the next one and in huge letters across the top of the whole page I wrote, “YOU DID IT!” And I hoped that everyone who read it would feel the way I did in that moment.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0422.

Mt. Whitney Summit Register with my YOU DID IT page

Running down the last climb, I met the solo climber, and he looked like he wished he was dead. I told him, “You’re there, that’s it, that’s the summit.” and he looked at me warily and mumbled something like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And I grabbed this stranger by the shoulders, and I got in his face, and I said, “Don’t miss this, don’t walk away now, you are 100 feet away, you just can’t see it in the clouds. You can do this.” And tears ran down both of our faces, and mine again as I’m writing this, and he continued, one lock step at a time. I saw the team of three heading up the climb and I whooped loudly and they threw their arms in the air and I threw my arms in the air and when we met, we high fived and they patted me on the back and I told them that climb isn’t so bad, and you don’t even realize how close you are until you’re there. I asked them to hug the guy in red when they saw him up there, and congratulate him for me. I passed a solo girl, and she asked if I thought she could make it. I said, “I mean, YEAH! You’re nearly there!” And we high fived and shared a moment of female solidarity before she went on to tackle that last climb with gusto. Over the next half hour, I could faintly hear victory whoops in the wind.

GOPR0414.JPG

Off the edge of the summit

Isn’t this how it should be? I know I’ve taken summits for granted because I love standing on top of things and do it so often. I know I let a variety of factors color my interactions with my fellow climbers. What made this different? All these strangers were cheering each other on, lifting each others spirits. It was like there was a line we all crossed, once you’re above this line, no one will be bitter about other people passing them, no one will complain about the climbs or advise anyone else to turn back. Could it have been that one guy? That guy that said to me, “You’re going to make it.” The stoke butterfly effect. Maybe that’s all it takes to change the vibe of the whole mountain for everyone on it. It wasn’t the difference between me making it or not, and nothing I said to anybody was the difference between them making it or not, because the ability to summit was in our hearts and heads and legs all along. Or … was it?

GOPR0440.JPG

Looking down on trail camp from the Chute I’m pretty sure.

 

Advertisements

Running & Cycling Guide to Whitney Portal/Lone Pine, California

This is a great place to run. There’s a local coffee shop with Wifi, decent coffee, and excellent donuts, a small but reasonably priced grocery store, lots of hiking/mountaineering stores, and tons of food options in town (WAY more than you’d expect from a town the size of Leadville). Expect rattlesnakes in the valley and bears in the mountains.

The Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake: Mountain/Trail Running 5.5mi RT, 1700ft

You can take the paved road all the way to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead. The trail is very switchbacked and low grade, so it’s very runnable, and you can go all the way to Lone Pine lake and back without needing a permit. There’s even a store at the TH if you forgot snacks or want a post-run Coke.

If you do have a lottery permit, or if you’ve managed to snag a last minute one due to a cancellation (if you go to recreation.gov and search Mt. Whitney, then select day use or backpacking, you’ll be able to see if there are any available permits due to cancellations), you can take the Whitney Trail as high as you like, maybe even up to the summit. The trail was buried in snow when I did it, but I am to understand that the whole thing is quite runnable in the summer months, and you’ll secure 6,300ft or so from the TH. Dogs are allowed all the way to Trail Crest, the rest of the route is in Sequoia National Park. I’ve heard folks have taken their dogs to the summit, but this area is heavily patrolled and I wouldn’t want to risk the fine, or getting kicked out.

img_20190528_151524-pano

Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail: Mountain/Trail Running 8mi RT, 2,200ft

My favorite run here was the combination of this trail, then adding the above Whitney trail to Lone Pine Lake. You can drive or ride your bike to the Lone Pine campground, which is just under the Portal road’s giant switchback, there’s day use parking, bathrooms, and water available here. From the TH to the Mt. Whitney TH is 4 miles and about 2,200 feet. The first 3 miles or so aren’t very heavily trafficked and have stunning views. The last mile winds through the campgrounds. Dogs are fine.

gopr0246_1558922531653_high

 

Meysan Lakes Trail: Mountain Running 10.8mi RT, 3,700ft [if you go all the way to Meysan Lake]

This is another one that you can do on its own or link up to the Whitney Portal NRT. The front end of this trail is also a heavily switchbacked, non technical trail so it’s easy to run. There was a ton of snow here in late May still, but like the Whitney Trail, it’ll clear up by mid summer. The last couple miles can be tricky to find, especially if there’s snow, as the trail gets grown over and isn’t well maintained so adventure at your will.

If you’ve taken the Portal NRT trail up, you’ll make a left at the first campground road intersection where there’s a sign for Meysan Lakes and follow the signs through the campground to the actual trail. Dogs are fine.

GOPR0233.JPG

Cerro Gordo Mine: Mountain Running/MTB 15mi RT, 4,600ft

This is a 13 mile drive from Lone Pine to Keeling, but I definitely found it to be worth it. Since it climbs almost 5,000 feet in just over 7 miles and is well maintained, you get excellent climbing but at a low enough grade that it’s very runnable and it was snow free much earlier than the Sierras. Be sure to read the historical sign when you park at the beginning of the road, and there’s a ghost town up top if you make it there (although some folks bought it in 2018 and have put up rather aggressive no trespassing signs so be careful about that). Unfortunately, this is a also a well used road for ATVers, so I don’t highly recommend going on a weekend (which I did, and it was still fine, but dusty and noisy).

Mountain bikers with legs of steel could totally bike this road, or as much of it as they want to. Dogs are fine, but because of the traffic you’ll want them on a leash and note that there’s no water on route. Once you drive to Keeling, on the other side of “town” the Cerro Gordo rd will be your first left and you can park anywhere you’d like.

https://www.strava.com/activities/2400364216

GOPR0248.JPG

 

Mobius Arch & Alabama Hills: Trail Running/MTB .5 miles to infinity

The Alabama Hills are comprised of a vast network of dirt roads, both maintained and unmaintained, with tons of interesting rock formations that you could climb or boulder (Goal Zero was here shooting their athletes climbing the shark’s fin, which was like 1000 feet from my campsite), and one trailhead, which is Mobius Arch. The Mobius Arch trail itself is a .5 mile rolling, super fun loop with the Arch and other cool rock formations, but there’s also an unsigned mountain bike trail that branches off of it to the left that goes on for miles (I went out four miles and could still see it going on and on in the distance). Combined with the network of Jeep roads that don’t have that much traffic, there are vast possibilities here to rack up miles on foot or bike, just without much gain to speak of. Dogs are fine, but there’s no water.

img_20190529_133453

 

Horseshoe Meadows Rd: Road Biking/Road Running 46mi RT from Lone Pine, 39mi RT from Whitney Portal Rd/Horseshoe Meadows Rd JCT, less if you drive HM rd a bit and park in any of the pullouts. From Lone Pine, you’d climb a little over 6,000ft.

I was heartbroken to find out this road was paved, but on the flip slide, road runners and cyclists will be stoked for the opportunity to ride 10 paved miles with 5,000ft of gain (that’s if you parked in one of the pullouts just before the climbing starts, if you rode Horseshoe Meadows road in its entirety from the Whitney Portal Road or even from Lone Pine, you could have a big mileage day). At the top of this road are some (paid) camping options and the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead.

 

Cottonwood Pass: Mountainish Trail Running 7mi RT, 1,200ft

You’ve already driven (or ridden your bike) a lot of the gain to get here, so there’s not a ton more to do but you are at altitude in mountain conditions, and there are vast options for linking up to do some bushwacking, climb a mountain (like Mt. Langley, route directions here https://www.summitpost.org/mount-langley/150246), or join up with the PCT.

In the height of the summer months, you need to stop at the Ranger’s office in Lone Pine and pick up a free permit, as there is a daily quota in place, even for day use. As you do pretty much everywhere in the SIerras, you also need a permit to backpack up here (there’s also a USFS campground), if you were inclined. Dogs are fine, but if you’re linking up, know that dogs aren’t allowed in the National Parks.

 

The Whitney Portal Road Itself: Road Biking/Road Running 13.5mi and 4,600ft one way from Lone Pine, less starting in Alabama Hills

Is a truly excellent bike ride from Alabama Hills or Lone Pine. I ran it a couple times to the Lone Pine Campground to meet up with the Portal NRT (approximately 5 miles and 1,500ft depending on where you’re starting in AH), which was fine because it’s not that heavily trafficked, but pavement is pavement. I wouldn’t run it above the Lone Pine Campground because it gets narrow at the switchbacks and all the cars driving it are overheating their brakes so it reeks, and why would you when you have the opportunity to go up the trail instead? This downhill on a bike is the most perfect downhill grade of a paved road, plus it’s been recently repaved.

 

The East Side: Scrambling/Bushwacking 

There are [often overlooked] mountains to the east of Lone Pine. While they don’t have any good developed trails, there are a bunch of abandoned, unmaintained mining roads that you can find and mix with some off trailing and scrambling if you’re feeling intrepid and want to do a little exploring. I took the Long John Canyon abandoned mining road up till it ended, and found a delightful cairned social trail above the Beveridge mine ghost town, and also scrambled up a random ridge. Chances are you won’t see any people at all, and you have pretty much unlimited opportunity for elevation gain if you don’t mind bushwacking. In the late summer, there won’t be water available anymore.

Whitney Portal, Jane Austen, & The Lynx

“She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation.” Sense & Sensibility

“What delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigor. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains?” Pride & Prejudice

Who’d have thought after reading through the complete works of Jane Austen I’d have thought, “That lady, she gets it.”

It was snowing when I left the Grand Canyon. I rolled through Flagstaff to pick up my mail, buy new tires (overdue), stock up on things, do laundry,  and go nuts in an Olive Garden on unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks. I’m not usually in situations that make me feel awkward for being … outdoorsy? Is that the adjective I’ll use? My hair unwashed, my legs swathed in their off day camouflage sweatpants, probably streaks of dirt on my face. And it’s not just my appearance, sometimes I find myself eating with the voracity of a lion and realize that through living alone in the wilderness and being single mindedly focused on The Task, I don’t exactly have the manners of polite society anymore. So at the Olive Garden, I felt somewhat like a grizzly bear walking around on its hind legs and asking for, “MORE BREADSTICKS PLEASE!” I said thank you about 85 times in a clumsy attempt to make up for my fish-out-of-waterness.

img_20190521_151614

Hitting the trail in Kingman, Arizona

“You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.”

“As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.”

“Strange that it would!” Sense and Sensibility

 

On the road again, I stopped at a McDonald’s in Kingman, Arizona and while I was getting a Coke, an elderly man asked me about the rig and we chatted about old things and he warned me about the wind going forward, especially through the desert. He said there had been a number of accidents that morning, including a truck and trailer getting flipped into the median and smashed into oblivion. The wind was 60mph. I can’t really imagine what that kind of wind is doing at low elevation, because those are mountain winds. Actually I looked it up, and 60mph is the first level of tornado classification.

img_20190521_154344

Pip hanging out on the Coyote Pass/Monolith Gardens/Foothills loop trail

So I elected to stay here, in western Arizona, for the night, as the wind was expected to slowly die down by midnight. We camped on BLM land at the Coyote Pass trailhead, which was apparently the official location for everyone to wait out the wind storm, and had a really excellent run on a super cool trail system that Pip and I did the outside loop of.

img_20190521_134733

The official location to wait out the wind before crossing the Mojave

“Whatever be his pursuits, his eagerness in them should show no moderation, and leave him no sense of fatigue.” Sense and Sensibility

The next day we arrived in California, and the rest of the trip was quite uneventful except I suppose that I found out in Barstow that gas was $5 a gallon(!!!) We pulled into the Alabama Hills at the Mt. Whitney Portal and found a truly excellent site to be our base here. Whitney was mired in storms, which I’d find out was the absolute normal. It snowed every day up there. I was dying to see her and it took like five days before I ever got a glimpse.

img_20190522_190135

Alabama Hills site

“There was certainly no harm in his traveling 16 miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve.” Emma

So I was reading two books at the time. One was a compilation of all of Jane Austen’s novels, and the other was a self help book called “The Courage to Be Disliked” and I still haven’t finished it but it’s mostly about not caring about other people’s expectations and figuring out what you want to do with your life and doing it, I’m pretty sure. The thing that really struck me about all of Jane Austen’s books is how much the characters value good character. Obviously, Jane’s pretty satirical and is always making fun of pretension and wealth and “society”. It’s pretty clear though [I was just going to say, “especially in Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, well and I guess in Northanger Abby, and I guess in Sense and …] that what she values over those things is kindness, politeness, industriousness. After reading these books, I had the sense that the best qualities of a person must be to always make the people around them comfortable and to strive to better yourself every day. They acknowledge that there are actually wicked people, but that seems rare. So when there are bad qualities in someone, it’s because they’re shallow or don’t work very hard or gossip.

gopr0246_1558922531653_high

I didn’t keep any pictures of Whitney in the clouds. Mt. Whitney from the Portal NRT

“I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly- it depends upon the character of those who handle it.” Emma [did you guys know Clueless was based on Emma? I was like 1/4 of the way into it when my brain was like, EUREKA! Although, I didn’t figure out that Mr. Knightley is Josh until almost the end]

A couple days later, I’m running up the Whitney Portal road (it’s paved, because I’ve learned that in California they’ve paved EVERYTHING, no matter how long or steep the road is, and no matter if it goes anywhere at all or not. Inevitably, at the end of the road you’ll find a trailhead with a sign that says, “Practice Minimum Impact.”) The other book I’ve been slowly weeding through, the self help one, says that a lot of people tend to make other people their enemies when they should be their comrades. At first I thought, okay, yeah, I do that sometimes. Then, with me in the shoulder on the left side of this pretty sparsely driven road with a dog, a speeding car rolls by and doesn’t even try to get over, despite that the oncoming traffic lane is empty and there’s perfect visibility. I jump into the ditch with Pippa and I’m instantly pissed, why is this world full of just the absolute worst people in the world? That are so careless, they’d risk other people’s lives for it. Plus, I’ve had this thought a million times, the only thing at the end of this road is a trailhead, so there’s zero possibility that this guy is a pediatric surgeon rushing to the hospital for emergency surgery to save some poor kid. Then it occurred to me, ah, enemies and comrades.

img_20190528_151524-pano

Bighorn Meadow, near Lone Pine Lake on the Whitney Trail

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” Elizabeth, I totally get it. I feel this way 100%, but I don’t want to. I don’t want it to be like that.

It happens when I pass people on trails, too. After years of doing it, I’ve honed what I believe to be the best possible system of, “Good mornings,” and, “Mind if we sneak past you?” With different volume levels and always trying to sound friendly because I really believe that if everyone out recreating could just be respectful and use trial etiquette and friendliness, everyone could use the trails and have a good time. But that’s not how it works. There’s always somebody that won’t let me pass them, or says something snarky when I do. And guess what? Everybody in those situations walks away mad! I’m quite sure it doesn’t make them happy to be rude to me, and I can never think of what to say so I usually say nothing and stew about it for the rest of the run. We could’ve both walked away saying, “Have a great day!” and instead we’re all agitated, because that person had to be a dick. Comrades, eh? Further, especially at a crowded place like the Whitney trail, I might have 30 good interactions, with friendly folks, and I often did, and stopped to have interesting chats with loads of people. But it’s the one bad one, the one enemy, that just blows it every time.

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil- a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

“And your defect is to hate everybody.”

“And yours is to willfully misunderstand them.” I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure, that that is obviously Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

img_20190529_133453

Mobius Arch with the Sierras (Whitney in the clouds) behind it

So then something happened where *I* was the jerk. We were running on the Portal NRT trail, which is a gorgeous and vastly underused connector, so that folks don’t have to drive up the 2,000 feet of steep switchbacks to the Whitney TH and can instead walk up them. National Recreational Trails, if you didn’t already know, are trails so excellent and spectacular, they’ve been awarded the special designation of being funded for their building and maintenance forever. We rarely saw other people on it, but it’s one of my favorite trails. There’s two steep climbs, connected by about a mile of traversing the side of this cliff. We had just rolled over to the traversing part and picked up a bunch of speed when I hear a bunch of rustling above me on the cliffs, I look up and whirl around just in time to see a lynx descending rapidly, who then landed on the trail behind me, like three feet behind me. It was a juvenile, approximately Pippa sized so around 45 pounds. I know because right at the same moment it landed, two other things happened: Pip trotted up as she had been behind a ways, looking interested in the manner of, “Hey guys, what’s going on here?” and I screamed like the first victim in a horror movie.

“I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.” Emma

GOPR0216.JPG

Me scrambling on the east side

Oh I feel so terrible about that! The little lynx, which I’m sure meant no harm at all, descended further to get out of what it perceived to be immediate danger, and stopped to look back at us. Did I imagine that its face looked hurt? But how could I explain to this happy little/enormous kitten that I had, a week ago, ran over a rattlesnake that launched into the air and tried to strike me, coming so close that I was sure it actually had bitten me? And now my nerves were destroyed. [I just had the best typo ever, you guys, when I first wrote that sentence about a rattlesnack.] I can’t say what would’ve happened if I didn’t scream like that, I’ve never even screamed like that! Usually things happen too fast for me to even have a vocal or intentional response of any kind,  including with the rattlesnack, or the time I was charged by a bear. But I got the impression that the lynx kiddo was feeling playful when it elected to join us. And I screamed at him.

GOPR0225.JPG

Pip on the east side, Mt Whitney mired in clouds

“You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.”

“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world-especially those-whoever they may be-with whom I happen to be in company.”

“That is not enough, be more serious.”

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0236.JPG

The first time I saw Mt. Whitney after she was buried in storms for the first five days of my stay

So what did we learn? Well, nothing new at all. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Stop holding on to every little stupid thing that happens, especially since it probably has nothing to do with you. When someone’s a jerk, know that if their life is that miserable that they’ve taking it out on a stranger on a trail, it’s certainly not your fault and not something to be upset over. I also realized that I’m so anxious about other people being rude or mean that I’m sure it is palpable, that I’m probably almost expecting it. Now that I’ve had this mindset change, I can tell you [foreshadowing!] that when I do Whitney, I had 100% positive interactions, and not just positive, but like, fully joyous.

“So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0266.JPG

Whitney from Alabama Hills

The whole lynx story might be a hard to understand example of how I had this revelation, but after an hour or so of feeling guilty for scaring the poor guy I realized, I don’t think that lynx walked away thinking, “God why was that lady so mean!?” and I don’t think he thought about it for the rest of the day, either. Really, it had nothing to do with him. So be more like a lynx and turn the other cheek, or bound down a cliff to safety. Be cheerful and friendly, always ready to play with strangers and hoping for the best, and don’t worry about things.

“I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0252.JPG

Girl’s gotta stay clean(ish)

You guys, this also feels like the right post to include a shower I’m particularly proud of, I practiced placing gear in these cracks while I stayed in Alabama Hills and hung the shower off of some cams. It was one of the most beautiful shower locations I’ve ever had.

“By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self complacency on the score of some quality of other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” P&P

Later this week, I’ll put up my guide to running and cycling in the Whitney Portal/Lone Pine area, because I didn’t find what I thought to be sufficient information on this on the internet when I got here. Early next week I’ll put up a write up on my Mt. Whitney summit day.

Also, you guys I filmed a yoga class here, in Alabama Hills with Whitney in the background, it’s free and on youtube: https://youtu.be/AS4ZEWUID58

As usual, don’t forget to check out my shop on Threadless: https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/

 

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0239.

 

Freedom in the Desert 20 miles East of Sedona

I was in the Sedona library bathroom washing my face and a woman walks out of a stall and to the sink next to me, and she says, “Wow, you look so happy.”

 

I feel like I need to mention that if you read my last post about the Grand Canyon, this is about the month before that and I just wrote them in the wrong order. Because when I was in the desert 20 miles east of Sedona, it wasn’t the right time to write about being in the desert 20 miles east of Sedona, if you know what I’m saying.

img_20190410_161211

The Bell Trail in the Wet Beaver Wilderness

So when I conceived of going to Arizona for the month of April, I didn’t realize that places like Flagstaff are still experiencing winter-like temperatures. [Please remember, this is all before I went to Flagstaff and was burgled and left in a hurry, and back when I thought Flagstaff had a strong running and outdoor community and would be a good place to train] Looking at the weather, nighttime lows in Flag were going to be around 20, daytime highs in the high 40s, maybe up to 50. That wasn’t very appealing for the type of glorified pseudo camping I’d be doing.

 

My previous trips to Arizona had been to the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon, and honestly the Black Canyon sounded ideal but I wasn’t too keen on going that far out of the way. I was looking at Google Maps and Campendium and whatever else I could get my computer screen on and noticed a variety of dispersed camping areas along 17, with many favorable reviews of a road (I think it was called Beaver Creek)  that was at the exit for the other highway that goes to Sedona. It was 40 minutes or so south of Flagstaff and 3,000 feet lower, so it was experiencing summer temps while Flagstaff was still snowy. I was totally in.

 

I drove directly there, and in the next couple of days realized that I was in the desert version of Paradise. Long, winding dirt roads that didn’t go anywhere at all [they could’ve been more rolling, but I shouldn’t complain]. A nearby creek and slightly further away but still nearby river. I finally accidentally stumbled upon the trail system after being there for a couple of days, as the end of this road was actually the access for the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness.

img_20190410_153929

Doesn’t need a caption

Of course the first time I saw this sign I thought, they honestly felt like they needed to specify that Beaver Creek is Wet? I feel like I need to tell you that the river I’ve referenced is the “Wet” Beaver Creek. On a bike ride to Oak Creek, I finally noticed that the scenic byway actually crosses DRY Beaver Creek and guess what? It IS dry. Fair enough, USFS.

 

Not a ton of miles of trails, but still. There’s apparently even also a national monument there called Montezuma Wells, but when I tried to go there, the entrance is plastered with US Government Private Property, No Trespassing signs (I wish I still had that picture to post but I don’t). Like 100 of those signs, and most of you know that I’m given to exaggeration but I’m not exaggerating. So I never saw Montezuma Wells, whatever that is.

 

Anyway, to the point. Each day, I would sleep until I naturally woke up, make coffee, and read until I felt like I was done reading. Then I’d go outside and do yoga for a while, however long I felt like. Eventually I’d go for a run, and because a lot of the miles were on dirt roads with limited elevation change, runs didn’t take long even as I was ramping up mileage. I’d read and eat in the afternoons, run again or go for a bike ride in the evening. I hauled water usually by bike from the streams to then filter at the campsite and cooked outside on the Biolite.

img_20190405_142512-1

Sterling Pass

Sometimes I drove to Sedona to run Sterling Pass. To be honest, the trailheads were so hard to find and comically unmarked that I found Sterling Pass when I was looking for Mt. Wilson and liked it so much I went back there twice. The mountains of Oak Creek Canyon are mysteriously also the desert, so there’s 2,000 foot tall sandstone rock features looming, but there’s also forests and snowmelt streams. There’s javelinas and bears and rattlesnakes all in the same environment (I saw all of those things. Javelinas! Somebody told me they’re supposedly violent, but they seemed cool. Their little furry butts look like the rear ends of bear cubs, until they turn around and they’re clearly of the pig families). Sometimes you run on sand or sedimentary rock, sometimes you’re running on cushy pine needle covered dirt and tree roots. It’s the most conflicting, bizarre environment I had never imagined.

javelinas

I didn’t take this picture, I borrowed it from Pinterest so you can see what javelinas looks like

Sedona’s interesting. At first I couldn’t stand it, thinking it was all the pretension and weird rich art hippie culture of Boulder on steroids. Have you ever heard of the McDonald’s there? It’s the only one in the world that doesn’t have golden arches. They’re blue. BLUE. Why? Because the city of Sedona has strict rules about the signage of businesses to prevent color clashes with their famous red rocks. I wish I was clever enough to make something like that up, but we all know I’m not Jules Verne (that’s foreshadowing!)

1408551454955_wps_13_DDCR8X_McDonalds_teal_arc

This isn’t mine either, I took a picture but I can’t find it. Luckily, the internet has thousands of pictures of the blue arches, this one’s from Daily Mail.

But it quickly grew on me, because the people there were so fantastically nice and sincere. And multiple conversations I had with the people of Sedona (Sedonians? Sedonites? Sedoners?) started with them pointing out that I looked like having such a good day or I looked so happy. I just was, you guys. I was totally free. I was building up mileage, running fast and hard. On my weekly day off I’d take Once a Runner down to the big river, there’s rock formations in it that form these little pools and Pip and I would go swimming, or just lay around in the water. I read tons. I slept a lot but I wasn’t exhausted. I watched the sun set pretty much every night.

img_20190410_155948

The Wet Beaver Creek. Official motto: “It’s wet.”

The desert 20 miles east of Sedona was everything I love about this lifestyle. I was left alone, I had space, I was in the wilderness, I could do whatever I wanted. The only thing that place was missing was mountains (Snake Mountain, in case anyone was following along on Strava, was the biggest climb in this area, it was maybe a 1,000 climb in a little over a mile on the world’s worst abandoned mining road, really just a trough full of baseball sized loose rocks and snakes up to the top of a plateau). If I could’ve had all that, I might have never left.*

img_20190414_133737

“Summit” of “Snake Mountain” on a fewer-snakes-than-usual day

* (But I did, because it suddenly became hot like Hades and it was time to go back to elevation).

*******You guys, I started filming yoga classes at the various extraordinary places I’ve been lately, if you’re interested, they’re free and on You Tube here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2mwL0whYVMCR7un_RrdpsA*************

As always, you can find cool graphics for mountain folks in sticker, tshirt, shower curtain, or whatever format you like in my Threadless Shop here https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/

The Grand Canyon: Breaking down and the break in

I was soaked to my skin, rivers running down my face and jacket, shoes squishing, and now with each step I climbed higher above Skeleton Point, I brought myself further into a winter storm. 40mph winds whipped around hail and snow, the clouds shifting quickly hid then revealed bits of the canyon below. It was the last day of my almost month in the Grand Canyon, and of course I had wanted, needed, felt compelled to do S. Kaibab to the river and back just one more time. While I knew I wasn’t in mortal peril if I kept moving, my teeth chattered so loudly as a constant reminder of my misery (honestly, I’ve been cold af before and overwhelmed with bouts of shivers but as my teeth chattered somewhat painfully, I was so surprised when it happened that it must not have before).

img_20190519_152511

From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm

The day before, I had attempted to mountain bike through the national forest to the Grandview Trailhead, but had given up the run without ever finding the trailhead (what a blessing GPS is, for I then got to look upon the map of my ride and see how very close I came to such a trailhead indeed before giving it up for lost and turning home). That night I put in some token miles on 302, just so I didn’t get too far behind, but secretly I was hoping that this day that I didn’t run to the river and back would leave me unusually well recovered for Sunday’s S. Kaibab run, and that maybe I might just PR on the 4,800ft climb.

img_20190519_152511-pano

Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point

When I got on the orange line bus at the visitor’s center to be taken to the trailhead that day, the bus driver warned the occupants, “You’re not going to see anything. If you want my advice, walk over to the blueline bus and get a drink in the village.” And everyone shrugged, got off the bus, and walked over to the blue line. Sure it was raining, but I knew better, because the Grand Canyon in a storm is a sight to behold. The steep, technical trail my heart was set on, however, that I now refer to fondly as the River Kaibab (WordPress won’t let me post a video of the river Kaibab) was not for the faint of heart. I slip slided my way down in delight, because having the trail to myself was plenty to make up for the fact that nobody is going to PR when the trail’s a slip and slide, and though I knew I should’ve brought a real goretex shell instead of a water resistant ski jacket, I couldn’t be that bothered to be concerned, because the temperature rises enormously from rim to river. They (the national park staff) say it’s an average of 20 degrees, but I’ve seen days where it’s a 40 degree difference.

img_20190503_172118

The first picture I took on my first trip down Kaibab this year. The Colorado River from S. Kaibab

The GC is a real mindfuck for folks used to mountains, or any folks at all, hikers or otherwise, because even though it’s obvious that you *go down first* then have to *go back up* it’s somehow not obvious to the majority of people. All hikers of a certain age, personality, or disposition will always say to someone who is running down something when they are laboriously walking up it, “Sure is easier to go down!” And I’ve always taken issue with it because while it’s slightly less tiring than ascending, the wear and tear is much higher and more painful so I’ve always thought of them as different but equal challenges. Until I spent a month in the Grand Canyon running down 4,800ft FIRST. I’ll never change my stance on the much higher wear and tear from descending, but I do now concede, fine, yes, it’s easier. Which means in the Grand Canyon, the every run or hike will become harder and harder from the second half to the bitter end with no relief until you’ve crossed the last step and are safely back on the bus.

img_20190517_115108

The CO river from Kaibab, on the edge of the moon curve

So here’s how I ended up spending almost a month in the Grand Canyon. I had mysteriously thought Flagstaff would be a cool place to do some between seasons training. I say mysteriously because now looking back, I can’t figure out why I thought Flagstaff was such a mecca for runners. Was it some combination of the internet and running magazines? The fact that so many famous runners choose to live in that heinous cesspool? I had this idea that it was basically Boulder but in Arizona. I told someone that, after everything happened, and he said, “No, Flagstaff’s really methy.” And I thought truer words were never spoken but this is the wrong time to be hearing them.

img_20190421_110616

The only picture I have from Flagstaff, backside of Mt. Elden

After spending 16 days in desert running paradise, it was getting too hot and I was itching to order shoes for the season, and have access to citylike things, like grocery stores. I was also stoked to get in on what the internet advertised as a bunch of different running groups that hosted regular group runs, so I headed up to Flagstaff. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. I found a lot of the national forest was closed for “logging operations” and the only forest road that was open, I pulled the trailer down and discovered a permanent homeless camp. I thought the situation was remedied when I moved to the east side of town onto State Trust Land, which was conveniently closer to the Mt. Elden trailhead and situated right on the Arizona Trail. For the sake of wrapping this up, while I was out running laps on Mt. Elden one afternoon with Pippa, someone broke into the camper. They appear to have only stolen a stun gun, leaving three pairs of skis and all of my climbing equipment that were in plain view for the sake of ransacking the whole place, presumably looking for cash. I’ve never been burglarized, and I can’t even tell you how much it upset me. It removed my sense of safety, it destroyed my optimism in humanity, it broke my fucking heart. I packed up immediately and ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I hid in its splendor for almost a month.

**EDIT: important new information came to light last night when I was packing for Whitney and realized those useless [probably] meth head scumbag robbers took my mountaineering axe. I bought it at Smokey’s shop in Leadville for $15 like five years ago. Congratulations, assholes, you’ve stolen the least valuable piece of equipment I had, but now I have to buy a new one!

img_20190430_115839

The CO river, looking south from the S. Kaibab bridge

Anyway, so I was telling you about my last run in the Canyon, in that totally insane storm, but that wasn’t really wanted I wanted to tell you about. In the previous years, I’ve run a lot, even getting up to 100 mile weeks not last year but the year before. But I’ve always only run because I wanted to, because I felt like it, because I loved it, and because it’s fun. I’ve never gone through break down training, always preferring to comfortably recover as long as I thought I needed and I’ve always run by feel. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’ve ever truly trained. Until now. I ramped up my base in the desert and in Flagstaff, kind of painlessly really. When I arrived at the GC, it was time to finish what I started in Flagstaff which was adding tons and tons of elevation gain to that high mileage and doing it all as hard as I could on that day, without proper recovery.

screenshot_20190509-114512

img_20190512_115028

From the Hermit’s Rest trail

This is a controversial method of training and I don’t highly recommend it, but when I made the decision not to go work for RMI this season and instead commit myself to running as hard as I possibly could, and really seeing what I’m capable of, I knew there was no other way to do it. “Denton called it ‘breaking down,’ although Cassidy preferred the nomenclature of certain Caribbean quasi-religious groups; walking death was much closer to it. Quite a bit more, really, than the simple exhaustion of a single difficult workout, breaking down was a cumulative physical morbidity that usually built up over several weeks and left the runner struggling to recover from one session to the next.” OAR always puts it better than I do, and my deepest comfort in these last weeks has been reading and rereading the Breaking Down chapter because, since I have no friends going through it simultaneously, Cassidy understood what was in my totally crazy, swinging, weary mind the best.

img_20190519_133701

From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off

Frequently, I found myself struggling greatly to drag myself the last 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet out of that damned Canyon and thinking, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never been this tired. It’s like the end of a race. My joints are all tin man-ing, my muscles so thoroughly exhausted they’re useless, my mind just desperate to stop, stop, stop, make it stop. It’s actually been the perfect training for mental toughness, because it’s hard to imagine what feat I might put my body up to that will hurt more than running to the river and back day after day after day. “Didn’t I see you here yesterday?” The mule train leader asks innocently. “No, that was on Kaibab. I mean yes, I saw you yesterday. But not here. Yesterday I did Kaibab down and back, today I came down Kaibab but I’m coming up this way.”

img_20190519_140358

The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river

img_20190514_102154

Here’s the river after a week of storms, it turns brown from all the run off. Looking back at the tunnel and the S. Kaibab trail, the opposite perspective from the last photo

For an example, I tried reading Moby Dick and got stuck reading and rereading the first page for 40 minutes. It may have well been in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word. I eventually started listening to podcasts during recovery time because my eyes were too tired to read for very long for a while. I did find myself depressed, which isn’t a state that’s normal for me and made dragging myself out for yet another, Jesus God, 17 miler, the worst thing I could possibly do. I would fixate on something I said or something someone else said in a recent or not recent at all conversation and think about it all day long. I also thought about everything I’ve ever done that I wasn’t proud of, that wasn’t very fun or inspiring. I was frequently too tired to cook or eat.

img_20190430_140012

The only picture of me I took this year

The real saving grace of this misery was the Canyon itself, because who could ask for a more inspiring place to run? Or a simpler place to carry out the miles and elevation gain that needed to be done? Through combinations of biking and running and riding the shuttle buses, I was easily conveyed wherever I wanted to run and to the store and home again without ever having to drive or the inconvenience of starting or ending in the same place as my car. Despite that heinous winter storm on the last day, the weather was consistently cool up high, hot on the bottom, and when storms did happen they weren’t dangerous like they are in the mountains. I was sleeping at 7000 and staying reasonably acclimated, and anywhere I went had free potable water available. Plus, if ever too hot, I could jump in the Colorado River. Every step I took brought me new, extraordinary views. The S. Kaibab trail is the absolutely most spectacular trail I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s so spectacular, that I wish I had never used the word spectacular before, so that I could use it now and it would feel like that word most solemnly belongs in the Canyon and nowhere else. Plus it has this vibrancy, which I’ve never really understood until Skylar came out and visited for a couple days, went to the Yavapai Geology Museum and told me that the rocks at the bottom are 1,700 million years old. Of course! The bottom of the canyon is one of the oldest places on this planet! And sometimes despite Everything, I would feel strong and tireless even just for a moment and I’d know it was the Canyon itself filling me back up.

img_20190503_184529

Sun setting from Cedar Ridge

Or there’s those bridges, the two bridges over the river, running across those bridges is delightful and restorative somehow. Maybe the water from the springs is also restorative? I learned while I was there that all the water that supplies the park, its millions of visitors, and the small town of Tusayan comes from a spring somewhere in the canyon, which they don’t know the source of and they don’t know how much is left. So that sounds sustainable. Something else I never learned the source of is the plumbing at the bottom of the Canyon. At Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, there are actual bathrooms with tiled floors, mirrors, tan stalls with locks that barely work, electric lights, and toilets that flush. Toilets that flush! Why?! Every other bathroom in the canyon (and there are many, for obvious reasons) are solar-assisted composting pit toilets. But at the bottom of the canyon they have some sort of sewage system!? I’ve never been willing to inquire about this because I either don’t want to ruin the mystery or I don’t actually want to know the answers.

img_20190514_101730

The bottom of the canyon (s kaibab bridge in the distance) from the Bright Angel Creek bridge

Writing this, you guys might already know I’m at the Whitney Portal and looking back. I don’t yet know if the break down training worked, I’ve just finished high mileage and after Monday, I’ll start an almost three week gradual taper (during which, in theory, I will finally recover!). But what I do understand about it is this, every day, I’d go out and run further and higher than I wanted to, than I knew was wise, and I did it as hard as I could. Every day. For no other reason than I said I had to. “But then his life was most certainly focused on The Task. And hadn’t he decided at one time or another that he would do whatever was necessary to become … Whatever it was he could become?” I had decided that this week, I’d run 85 miles and 20k and next week I’d run 90 miles and 21k and somehow or another, those miles must get done. A random guy I saw resting on the side of the trail said to me one day, “That’s a good pace, but are you having fun?” And I smiled and said something like, “Who could not be having fun here?”

img_20190519_123820

just below Cedar Ridge

But when I really thought about it after, yeah, somehow, I’m having fun. Despite all of it, “weary beyond comprehension,” sometimes I go out and run and it feels amazing. I don’t know, I mean maybe fun’s not exactly the right word, or your definition of it. But every day, I work as hard as I can to get better, faster, stronger than I was before, and that makes me feel free. It is profoundly satisfying. And it feels primal, like this base necessity to see what I’m really made of. Do you ever watch an inspirational sports movie and the football coach is making an outrageously dramatic speech about luck being what’s left after you’ve given your all? It makes good movies, seems a little silly in real life, but I honestly think things like that in my exhausted mind all the time. I don’t know that I’ve made it sound all that great, I don’t know that it could be made to sound that great, because even someone gifted with words like old JLP made it sound pretty miserable, “All joy and woe.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.*

img_20190514_105158

I think this is the only picture I have from the Bright Angel trail

*Except when I ran over a rattlesnake and it launched itself up in the air and tried to bite me, that was fucking terrible. The worst. I still love you GC, but that was a shitty thing to do.

You guys, check out my Threadless store. There’s one R2R2R graphic that I’d already made. I meant to make a couple more GC themed pieces before I posted is but then this would have never gotten posted. https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/

https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/grand-canyon-r2r2r

Mt. Elbert: until my heart explodes, until my legs collapse, I will love you.

It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Okay, okay, let’s start at the beginning.

I’ve been meaning to write this since, I don’t know, June? And especially again in September. But I wasn’t ready. This past Sunday, I was trying to get 4,000ft in in a blizzard and I had this really vivid flashback of a stormy day at 14,200 or so in November a few years ago. It was a major breakthrough for me, one of so many I had up there, but there’s not much to the story besides me screaming, “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?” at the top of my lungs. “I’M NOT GOING TO STOP.”

009.JPG

Anyway, I knew then that it was time to revisit this, one of the most important relationships of my life. I met Mt. Elbert on a trip to Half Moon with my friend Mark. We did Massive the previous afternoon, then Elbert in the morning and we were proud that we managed both in 24 hours. I remember, in between the second false and the summit ridge, I said I was going to run to the summit. I laid down my pack and tried, and fell apart in like a hundred feet. Actually, I just realized this story starts much earlier than that.

me and cricket on elbert

I have so many Elbert photos, rather than dig up relevant photos, this post will instead be all Elbert photos.

Okay, when I was 12, my aunt took me to Alaska to visit my grandparents and we traveled all over the great white north. We even saw Denali, in its full glory, despite how rare that is, but it didn’t have a major effect. On the fourth of July, we found ourselves in Seward watching the Mt. Marathon race. A couple years ago, Salomon made it super famous with this video. But then, it was this little known wild, brutal short distance mountain race up Mt. Marathon. We did some of the trail, it’s fucking hard. So the participants line up in town and run to the top of Mt. Marathon and back, but the trail is so steep it’s often class 3 and 4 rock, and it’s wet and foggy, so when the runners are coming back, their legs were torn to shreds and covered in blood. The whole thing was so badass, it became my definition of it. I didn’t live in the mountains then, but that’s the story of how I started running. I believed that when I was 18, I would go back and do it. Which didn’t happen, because teenagers don’t understand how expensive plane tickets to Alaska are, and eventually I forgot (until three years ago when I started entering the lottery, but have yet to get a spot).

me and lu on elbert

When I chose to move to Colorado, it wasn’t for the mountains. Then my dad visited and asked if I wanted to hike Grays and Torreys, and of course I did, and we dragged our miserable butts up there in a full day sufferfest with lots of breaks for Whole Foods raspberry trail mix, And lo and behold, we were fortunate to spot one of those rare creatures, a mountain runner. She just casually ran past us. I was in awe. I thought, I want to be that strong. I want to run up and down mountains. Now that is the whole story of how things began, and we can go back to Mt. Elbert.

pippa on elbert

I’ve summited Mt. Elbert 273 times. I know, because I kept this super professional record:

20181206_001556

It was my first night ascent, my first climb with literally all of the mountain running friends I’ve ever had, my first being-followed-by-a-mountain-lion, my first off trail summit. I’ve climbed it by 5 routes, three in calendar winter. My second winter in Leadville was back when conditions were too harsh for tourists to come up and pack down the S Elbert route for us, so I packed that trail down myself in snowshoes after every storm so that I could maintain a trail to run on over the winter (that’s actually when I racked up a lot of those tally marks). I remember, I met one guy on my trail that winter, he was from Arizona or California or something. In the parking lot, he told me he comes out every year and tries, but it’s so frustrating because it always works out to be during bad conditions and he has to turn back. I thought, bad conditions? That’s what it’s like every day. If you want decent conditions, come back in July.

beth and i on elbert

I managed to find a few of me-with-friends-on-Elbert, here’s Beth and I

On Mt. Elbert was the first time I realized that I would give all of myself to a mountain, and it was also where I learned that if you grind your heart and soul off, rip yourself to shreds, empty everything out, giving all of yourself up to it, the mountain will fill you up again, and you will be home.

bry and i on elbert

Bryan and I

 

Dear Mt. Elbert,

I remember one time, I was alone, and I told you that I understood about the earth and the sky. When I run hard sometimes, when I really burn on the ascent, and I taste the blood in my mouth and I think that I won’t be able to keep going, I can feel it. And I stand on the summit and it feels as though the wind moves through me, and I am a part of you. As if the sheer force of the space between earth and sky is too much for the atoms that make up my body to hold themselves together. And then I descend, my feet barely touching the ground, like I’m flying, so fast that I think the slightest misstep will kill me. But instead it feels as though I might evaporate into the sky.

I know it doesn’t matter to you what my watch says, but I know a fast time isn’t an award, it’s not for publicity. A lot of people think that’s what matters, that they set records for validation. I think it’s important because of the sacrifice. An ascent, a descent, is perfect when you give yourself wholly to it. There are lots of people who can run fast, but it doesn’t seem like as many do it out of love. Sometimes I forget, I’m imperfect, but I know it’s all about intention. Kripa, divine grace, means that I will honor you with my body, with my intentions, and attention. I will run so hard, I can’t believe I can continue. I will love you until my heart explodes, until my lungs collapse, until my legs fail.

You taught me so many things, to be strong, to never give up, to have faith in something. I’ve been thinking lately that toughness is a thing you never lose, but it is a thing that is extremely hard earned. It is beaten in by deprivation, struggle, the elements, the misery. You made me resilient. You gave me something to believe in, to fight for. You made me feel humble and shared your bigness at the same time. I’ve always believed that I could do anything, because I have such great parents, but you proved it. You let me prove it. You taught me about postholing, about what cold and wind really feel like. It was on your slopes that when my feet and hands were numb, I learned to start the clock. You made me a mountain runner.

008.JPG

I don’t often share all of this stuff. I think it’s because I don’t know that people will understand if they haven’t felt it. I’m continually surprised that the thousands of people that climb Mt. Elbert every year don’t give up everything, move to Leadville, and do it every day like I did. I mean, how can you go back to normal life after that? Once you feel the bigness, you touch the sky? I don’t know, but they do. Which means that even people who should understand this stuff don’t. The reason I haven’t written this yet is two fold: one, it is not easy emotionally, because this summer I left my Mountains to explore new ones, and two, I knew I would have to be really honest about my relationship with mountains, my unusual beliefs, and that scares the fuck out of me.

lu on a cloudy elbert

The Nakoda people, of the First Nation of Canada, inhabited the mountains where Banff is now. They recognized that God is in the mountains, and they believed they had a relationship with them. They knew if they had a loving and reverent intention toward their mountains, that their mountains would protect them. I learned about these people in a course about mountains, and my heart grew three sizes, knowing it wasn’t just me, even reading that other people had these beliefs. I learned everything I could, because I have never come across an organized belief system that so closely matched my own.

sunset elbert

Anyway. I had it in my mind that I would say a proper goodbye to you when I left town at the beginning of the summer, by running up and down as hard as I could, because that’s how you honor a mountain, a line. Unfortunately, it was another super crowded day, and to make matters worse, CFI was doing trail work. With all the distractions, people dodging, and Pippa being weird about all of the people dodging, it was not the perfect, fast, free run I expected. I knew I had to come back at the end of the summer to empty out my storage unit, so I thought I’d give it another go then.

sunset mt elbert

While I was in Jackson, I did a race to the top of Jackson Hole, the Rendezvous. It was six miles and 4,200 feet gain (sound familiar? Elbert from Half Moon is somewhere between 4200 and 4300 and 4.5 miles). I finished that race in 1h25m, which meant that if I kept up that training and maybe tweaked it a little with more speedwork, I could go under two hours round trip on Elbert. Unfortunately, my time in the Tetons exhausted me on a higher level than I might have ever been before, and I was pretty much done running by the time I left and headed to Leadville. (I remember saying “I don’t want to think about running, I don’t want to talk about running, I’m definitely not fucking running.”) I ran a couple mountains half heartedly.

e dag and fam on elbert

Matt, E Dag, and I (and Luna)

It became obvious very quickly that this was not the goodbye that I wanted to have, like I was fighting something, or out to prove something. The amazing run I knew we both deserved, where I laid down my body for my mountain. I would give it everything, because I am so grateful for all that its given me. So I let that other crap go, because this was so much bigger than that. It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Heart beat and breath are the only things constant in your life. And I can no longer focus on anything else; single point of focus, single minded devotion. And I do not have to break open my ribs like Hanuman to prove to you that my heart beats for this.

me on elbert

The summit is the buzzy existential margin of all possibilities; the space between earth and sky tugs the atoms that make up this finely tuned body that I am so lucky to wield, and I will never be able to describe the feeling of being infinitely humbled and infinitely powerful at the same time. I say I’m not going to cry, because it was Mt. Elbert that taught me to stay calm until it’s over, because crying is a waste of energy you might need. But I cry anyway, at 14,440, where the earth meets the sky and the air tastes sweeter and there are electrical storms you can’t see from below. I wipe my tears, and I nod, as if something is finished. (Is it finished?) Descending at 12mph, feet just barely brush the rocks and it seems like I’m flying, but the slightest misstep on this technical, high consequence terrain might kill me. But I don’t misstep, I’m sure because of my commitment to honor the environment I run in with my focused steps. Kripa, divine grace. The rocks, the dirt, the trees, the sky; all of it is made of protons and electrons, just like me, and sometimes I honestly believe I might evaporate into it and all of that validates itself. I am in love with this. 

GOPR4398.JPG

The only photo in this post that’s not taken from the summit

It was everything I wanted, the perfect run, the best run of my life, I touched the sky. The blood taste, the burning, the feeling that if you don’t stop you might die, the lightness, the flying, the bigness, the feeling protected. I didn’t go under two hours that day, but I can see how possible it is and I intend to. Actually, I don’t think it’s outrageous to go after the men’s record of 1h42. I stopped my watch, and I deleted the file. Because that run wasn’t for anybody else, it’s just between me and my mountain. It’s not that I’ll never go back again, but now I know it was time to move on.

before the storm.jpg

Totally aside, if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in mountains. So here’s where I’ll shamelessly promote my new Threadless store, where you can find fun mountain themed graphics that I designed and photographs I took, and Threadless will put them on mugs and stickers and baby onesies for you! I’m really insecure about whether or not anybody’s going to like my stuff so please check it out!

earn your turns.jpg

 

 

The Grand Teton

A couple weeks ago I did a race called the Speedgoat. It’s a highly specialized kind of race for mountain runners, and represents, at least to me, the big show. Leading up to it, I thought I had something to prove, at least to myself. I wanted to know that I’m a great mountain runner, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to see it in print in the results. When you work so hard at anything, it’s natural for anyone to want to be successful at it, right?

Well, I failed. I came in 20th. It was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually race a race, to give it my all. No matter how bad I felt I would think, “Am I going as hard as I can right now?” and the answer was always, “Yes.” I went as hard as I could, and I still failed. It was heartbreaking. I had thought being a mountain runner was my identity, and now here I was, not even good at it.

I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Teton for years, long before I ever saw it in person 3 years ago. About 3 million people go to Grand Teton National Park every year to stand on the sidewalk at one of the overlooks and take their picture in front of that big elegant beast. I’m sleeping at the park boundary, and I drove past it today, and saw dozens of the people posing with arms outstretched, no doubt for Instagram. I dreamed of the Picnic, of the Grand Traverse, of putting a fast time on the Owen Spalding route, just of standing up there.

teton map

First Teton trip, pc Skylar Lincoln

My second trip to the Tetons was to climb, but we got rained on pretty much every day and it was later in the season so the Grand was covered in verglass, we had just missed the window to climb it. On the last day of our trip, we had a rare beautiful day and summited the Middle Teton. The route up the Middle starts from the south side, so when you gain the ridge you get a breath taking view of the Grand. It made my heart rage in my ribs like a jungle cat, it brought tears to my eyes. I said, probably out loud, because I’m weird like that, “I’ll come back for you.”

DCIM100GOPRO

Grand Teton from the Middle Teton

It was on that trip that I understood what it is to fall in love with a line, a mountain, and thus to have a responsibility to it. I don’t know if people that don’t climb can understand climbing objectively, from the outside. It takes years to develop the strength and skills and confidence to even have any business going up there in the first place, let alone attempting it, let alone actually being successful and summiting. I know people don’t get it because they’re always asking “why?” Because you have to.

I sped into the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 1:10am, I was late because I hadn’t ever measured how long it takes me to get there and I had underestimated it (nobody’s surprised). I met my partner for the first time, the night before we had set up this climb last minute through Mountain Project. His name is AJ, he works for the forest service. We’re packed up in a matter of minutes and blazing on the trail with headlamps. I say blazing because the guy is like eight feet tall and hikes extraordinarily fast, so fast I’m often running to catch up with him. It wouldn’t have been a challenge, except that just a few hours before, I had run the Middle Teton,

me on middle.jpg

And then gotten no sleep, not even for a minute, so I was a little tired. When we reached the meadows, we could see the headlamps of a handful of other climbers both above and below us, getting ready for what promised to be an extraordinary day, however it turned out. Just above the first rock climb, we couldn’t find the trail and so did what turned out to be a totally unnecessary snow climb, but at least we used our axes since it turned out they were unnecessary for the mountain, the remainder of snow on the upper mountain had just finally melted off.

AJ on exum ridge

My partner AJ

Twilight came, and then sunrise. As we got higher, the views of the middle and the rest of the southern part of the range got more and more incredible. I read once that when you’re in nature all the time, when you make it your home, it ceases to be beautiful and it just becomes normal. I don’t think the guy that said it meant it in a bad way, but I hate that. It’s never happened to me, and I was fortunate to have an equally incredulous partner, both of us continually astounded by how beautiful everything was. After a lot of difficult and high consequence scrambling, we roped up for 2700 feet of exposed and difficult rock climbing.

wall street real

Yeah those people up there, other climbers getting ready to start the ridge

Throughout and after the climb we couldn’t stop saying how awesome and amazing it all was, and I’m not sure what else to say about it. There was tons of exposure, there was tons of beautiful climbing, there was some shitty climbing. Some parts were easier and we simul climbed (still roped up, but climbing at the same time instead of one belaying to protect the one climbing), some parts were harder. I hand jammed with gloves on and pulled off a heel hook on wet, snowy granite. AJ climbed beautifully and confidently but I don’t think we made any of the same moves on any pitch, we climbed so differently, which was very cool. The V Pitch was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever climbed.

me on the v pitch

Here’s me at the top of the V Pitch, this amazing photo by AJ

The confidence that I lack in climbing was really on display, at least three times I yelled to AJ checking that he had used gear to anchor himself to wherever he was in case I was about to fall on my next move. I never did fall, but I suppose it’s apparent why I don’t like to lead trad (confidence? what confidence?) Every time I do something hard and scary, I think, “Now I am fearless!” But then, something harder and scarier happens.

AJ sitting on exum ridge

AJ on the Exum ridge

I broke several of my toenails in the Speedgoat race, and all the steep and technical running I’ve done since being in the Tetons hasn’t helped, so 10 hours in climbing shoes was more painful than I can describe. There’s a last little bit of easy but high consequence simul-climbing to the summit, and the pain was so extraordinary that I thought I couldn’t bear another step. Getting those shoes off was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll never again make fun of people that complain about their climbing shoes. Also, there were summit gummy bears!

aj and I on summit of the grand

Summit of the Grand motherfucking Teton

Upon the summit, we found several other teams, some we had been in proximity with throughout the day. Climbers are such cool folks. I’ve complained a lot about the people I come across in the mountains of Colorado, but you don’t find those sorts of folks in the Tetons. There’s no jealousy or competition. The Tetons are so brutal, I wonder if it’s that the sort of folks that are badass enough to climb them are much too cool to be competitive, and the people that can’t climb them are so humbled they feel inspired instead of jealous? Anyway, the folks on the summit were so badass and cool, and I feel very fortunate that these are the people I’m surrounded by now.

We hadn’t taken pictures yet, but teams started leaving and we hoped to tag along so we didn’t have to find the rappel stations ourselves, so we rushed to put away the rope and a very cool dude from Bozeman took a couple quick pictures (above) for us before we hastened out. At that point, we had no idea that the downclimb would easily be the crux of the route. The rap stations weren’t hard to find, and the raps themselves were extraordinary. The following downclimbing was just awful. Miserable, way too difficult, butt puckering, sometimes exposed, and everything made worse by our bodies hurting and a day’s worth of adrenaline ebb and flow. And, probably, a hard climb yesterday and a night of no sleep to speak of. I said many times, “I’m never doing this again.” And as usual, when things are scary and high consequence and also really, really scary (it bears repeating), I thought, “I’m done with mountains.” Only once, I warned AJ that he might be about to see me cry, on a 20 foot chimney with a roof that you have to downclimb, but I somehow kept it together, despite my nervous system being well over capacity and my fear and adrenaline being far outside what I considered to be my acceptable limits.

middle from exum ridge

Middle from the Exum ridge

I texted several important people “It was everything.” Afterwards. and I couldn’t mean it more. It was beautiful, painful, terrifying, surreal, brutal, fierce, extraordinary, powerful, life-affirming, joyous, crippling, heinous. At one point we even called the route disgusting. It’s hard to pick and describe any particular moment, but I often felt the most scared and the happiest I’ve ever been at the same time. An alpine climb like this, you get the entire range of the human experience all in the same day, and sometimes all in the same moment. Every cliched quote imaginable is applicable here, I kept thinking “you’re stronger than you seem and braver than you believe” afterwards, but in the moment all you can think of is, “I don’t have a choice I have to do this no matter how hard it is or terrified I am.”

exum ridge

the Exum ridge to the Grand

Our bodies had been so broken by such an accomplishment, 7100 feet gained, 14200 total change (my knees and toenails will never be the same), 2700 feet of rock climbing, 2 long rappels, approximately (here I’m guessing) 2700 feet of downclimbing, we struggled to put one foot in front of the other for the last few miles back to our cars. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.” And in one day. We divied up our gear, hugged, and went our separate ways. The moment I started driving, I wept. Not for one particular reason, but for all of them. I had just realized an enormous dream, years in the making, and it was harder and more beautiful than I ever could have conceived. I’ve done lots of things now that I never believed I could, I’ve had lots of wonderful successes in the mountains, I’ve stood up to and overcame fear many times before. Each time it’s like it’s on a bigger scale.

me on exum ridge

Me on Exum, photo by AJ

 

 

There’s a part in Again to Carthage where he talks about ascent, unfortunately I’m in Jackson at the library and not a home where I can look it up (and I just checked, this library doesn’t have it). The quote also isn’t on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. He’s talking about how different regular adult life is from running full time, and how when you’re running full time, you’re always on an ascent. You’re always bettering yourself, and the results are measurable. Day to day, year to year, you’re getting stronger, faster, etc. But in regular life, it’s sort of like you have wins and losses, things happen, and it all goes along pretty steadily. And he misses so much that feeling of always being the ascent. I’m pretty sure I’m very lucky to have a life like that. Looking back on the race, now, after something so much bigger and more important, like the Grand, I can’t even believe I bothered to do that race, let alone be hurt by the results. There is no race that makes you extraordinary, it wasn’t even a particularly interesting experience. Every moment that you choose to overcome, to be stronger or better, to be scared out of your mind and do it anyway, that is what makes you extraordinary.

Rainier pt 2

so here we areGOPR4481.JPG

We’ve ascended this nightmare headwall, and arrived on top of this ridge. In this picture, you can see my partner in the very corner, but just down the ridge from him you can barely make out the two figures of Zach and Tom, our friends from camp.

I think I already mentioned that I, at least, had the feeling that any moment we would come to the obstacle that was the reason that only one team had gone all the way up. At this point, we were well off the GPS track of our route, on this ridge, looking up at heavily crevassed danger field. We speculated on potential routes, and thought we’d collaborate with our friends when they headed up.

GOPR4483.JPG

That’s Mt. St. Helens in the distance

The guys came up the ridge, and they felt pretty confident about the line they’d been scoping from a little lower, so they headed up slowly betwixt two large crevasses that may or may not be connected, hoping for a strong snow bridge, Tom driving his axe in with every step.

We headed up behind them, and I thought, once this was all over, I would share the morale apple cobbler with our new friends.

GOPR4486.JPG

This part was nerve wracking, and I was very nauseous and a little shaky now after all that adrenaline had worn off. It’s more than a little unnerving to know that under each step, there may or may not be anything but a couple inches of snow and a lot of nothingness. As we crested the next point, the top of this section, we could see that actually, this steep snow climb just continues forever.

Which is a mindfuck, right? Just side step after side step of steep snow and bears everywhere, although they’re getting smaller as we get higher. Sometimes, they look filled in, and sneak up on you. Sometimes, they look filled in but they’re not, really.

This section really dragged. I was still wondering what was yet to come. My watch said we had quite a lot of gain left to go, and I was unsure if over the top of one of these crests we would find something really spicy, or what anything might look like. I started to think about, if I died, how screwed my family would be trying to sort out my life. This is silly and very specific, but I thought, my parents won’t know where my storage unit is, and the bed my dad made me is in there, and they wouldn’t want to lose that probably, but since they don’t know where it is, they won’t know to get it out (nor would they have the key, which was in that monstrous rental car in the Paradise parking lot) or pay the rent on the unit, and what if Jim sells my stuff because the rent’s not paid? And I though, well at least Pip is with her family.

Dan stopped, and I don’t remember why it came up, but I admitted to him that I was struggling with morale, despite that high morale is usually one of my major strengths. “Actually, I’m thinking about what would happen if I died.” He looked nonplussed, and handed me some chocolate. “Don’t do that.” I’m pretty sure is what he said.

I started counting my steps, 1-100, and we carried on. Side step, side step, side step, side step, switch axe to other hand, change foot direction. Side step, side step, side step, side step. 98, 99, 100, 1, 2, 3 … infinity side steps.

I saw on my watch when we had 1000 feet left, and I couldn’t believe it. Side step, side step, step over tiny crevasse, side step. Cross over. As we ate up more feet and rose in elevation, I started wondering if this was really going to be it. Could there be one more pit of despair that blocked us from the summit? When we were getting really close, something caused us to stop for a moment, and neither of us were that stoked. My belly was raging and I couldn’t do anything besides apologize and poop into a blue bag. When we got back up to continue, it was mere moments before we reached the crater rim.

We saw our friends’ packs stashed there, and the guys in the flesh heading towards us across the crater, after being the 4th and 5th people to stand on the summit all winter. We removed our packs and adjusted our gear so we were only carrying essentials, and headed across the crater.

GOPR4528.JPG

We arrived at what looked like the high point of the rim to find that another point further along the rim looked higher, so we continued.

I wish so much that I could say we were celebrating, that it was all joy and excitement and maybe even tears, high fives, and hugs. I think the anticlimax had a lot to do with the descent that we still had ahead of us. But looking back, after all that had happened, we were there. Standing on top of motherfucking Mt. Rainier in the winter. We had done it, despite the 5% whatever chance that Ranger Seth had given us. Despite the crappy weather forecast, and the playing of the weather lottery that we were doing in the first place by booking plane tickets for a notoriously volatile mountain. Despite the bears that were fucking everywhere. Despite the piles of new snow accumulation that might have created a high chance of avalanche. Despite our legs that were screaming from carrying around an extra 50 pounds for a couple days. Despite the fucking fear that plagues anyone doing anything interesting. Fear that you could die here, fear of discomfort, of falling, of failing, of not being good enough, of being alone up there. Of feeling so, so very small. I’ve met a lot of climbers that have big egos, which is so absurd because if you spend any time up there, the mountains will put you in your place.

GOPR4495.JPG

But here we were. This holy mother of mountains had allowed us to share her bigness just for this moment.

Of course, it didn’t seem real, yet.

GOPR4517.JPG

We were the 6th and 7th summits of the winter.

GOPR4525.JPG

Looking back from where we came from, it looked like that point might actually be higher. So we trudged back and took more summit pictures just in case. When we got back to camp, I’d ask the Zach if they knew which point was the summit, and he said no. We then asked the other Dan, who had summited Rainier 8x, and he also said no. We consulted a map, and Dan told us that every time he’s been on either one, the other looked higher. I would eventually find out, after making it back home to CO, that the difference was between Point Success and Columbia Crest, and that the northern point, the second we visited, was actually slightly higher. So we have a lot of summit pictures.

GOPR4541.JPG

We had a snack back on the crater rim, and I sent the “summit” message on the SPOT, as I had left it in my pack and neglected to take it to the actual summit.

Mt. Rainier is still an active volcano, which is very easy to remember when you’re standing upon its crater. It last erupted in 1894, and I can’t find exactly how high it used to be, but apparently it lost a lot of height in that eruption. It’s on the decade list, one of the 16 volcanoes in the world most likely to erupt in the next 10 years. They say that the ash and mud flows could bury the PNW, from Vancouver to San Francisco. Apparently, up to five earthquakes are recorded near the summit of Rainier every month. I hadn’t ever yet met a mountain that was this alive.

The story of the descent isn’t very interesting. I tried not to trip myself and we came down the steep snow quickly.

GOPR4546.JPG

We had to down climb the steep headwall, which scared the shit out of me. It was steep enough, remember, that one could not see their own feet beneath them. I laid out our options: building a deadman anchor with our picket and rappelling off of it, untying because a fall would take us both down and self arresting was unlikely on this steep of grade, or remaining tied in and attempting to belay each other off an axe anchor which might decrease the magnitude of a fall.

Dan said he wasn’t worried, and planted his axe to makeshift belay me down the first 20 feet or so, the steepest part of the down climb. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I was shaking visibly, and had to kick each step in 3 or 4 times to make sure it was good before I bore weight on it. There was a brief section that my axe and front points bit into like ice, which was glorious for about 10 feet of stability, then back to the unpredictable snow for what seemed like forever. Much longer, anyway, than the up climb of it. Dan came down like he was casually descending a ladder from his roof or something. Down climbing isn’t a strong suit of mine, but I feel as though I at least got a bachelor’s degree in it after what seemed like hours but was probably 30 minutes of gritting my teeth and hoping for the best.

GOPR4547.JPG

Dan had shit to do for a minute, so I stopped and took some pictures and sat still for a bit. I thought about how I would describe this day to my parents. It was terrifying, beautiful, really hard, and amazing. We weren’t down yet, but we were most of the way to Camp Muir, and certainly past the worst of things, and I cried and cried, finally. My nervous system is well trained to stay calm and not cry until I can afford that energy to be wasted, and apparently I felt safe enough here.

GOPR4560.JPG

Still, this place is just full of sleeping bears.

We wove through the icebox and bowling alley area, carefully following the route we took up. We jumped over the crevasse that had tried to eat me earlier. We tapped down the ridge on fresh ice, thick like the bottom of a tourist boat. We stood atop Cathedral Gap and looked back at Camp Muir. We had come a long way, and it looked like home.

GOPR4561.JPG

“What is there to eat?” Dan asked.

“Noodles.” I answered.

The snow on the Cowlitz glacier was so wet from the sun, it was balling badly on our crampons and actually being pretty hazardous, so we stopped to take them off. The snow immediately hardened on the next part of the route, of course. When we pulled into camp, we untied ourselves, and I managed the rope immediately (why?). We were welcomed with congratulations and whoops of victory from all of our camp friends. I had been hoping they’d be here, instead of trying to descend the whole damn thing that night.

We had heard that the new forecast might include very high winds on Sunday, with a new storm system rolling in. We had discussed going down to Paradise on Saturday night, whatever ended up happening on Summit Day, but throughout the day it had become apparently that we would stay at Camp Muir that night, and especially moreso when we found our friends all still there, ready to spend the night.

“I think it’s going to be a while before either of us gets up to melt snow and make the noodles.” I admitted.

 

“Well, are there eggs?” Reese’s eggs, and yes, there were. Victory Reese’s.

It still didn’t feel real, that we had summited. I guess because we weren’t all the way down to safety, and so the climb wasn’t yet over. But it felt glorious, sitting out in the sun and shooting the shit, telling stories, looking at maps. Talking about all of our respective climbs. Craig and Dan had seen all of us converge on that ridge above the headwall.

“There’s two of them.”

“No, there’s all four of them.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, look. They’re all up there together.”

And turned around shortly thereafter, too late of a start.

We made noodles and ate them. We sat outside a little longer. It’s tricky, because you can’t let yourself get cold, as you won’t be able to warm yourself up if you do. So one by one, we all ended up retiring to our sleeping bags. I got up a little later and made the Victory Apple Cobbler, a foil Backpacker’s Pantry bag that contained “apple mix” that I would cook in snowmelt for 10 minutes, or more at altitude, then “cobbler mix” that I would mix with snowmelt, spread on the “apple mix” and cook for another 5 or so. Kind of complicated for dehydrated backpacker food, I thought. I gathered the bowls of all of the occupants in the shelter and distributed a scoop to each, which wasn’t a large volume of food, but it was fucking delicious. Like, one of the most delicious memories I have in my life. And I’d wager, with the stunning realness with which I can taste it in my mouth right now, that I will always remember the taste of the victory cobbler, as we celebrated two teams’ successful Rainier summits with our friends at Camp Muir.

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, unfortunately, and since it makes your body struggle to keep itself warm, you can’t hold it. So I got up and found a snowdrift by the door. I pushed it open, stepped out, and the wind knocked me flat on my ass. There was a raging storm.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed, because nobody even started getting up until around 9am, which means we were all laying in our sleeping bags silently for hours, hoping that the yowling wind, that sounded like an earthquake or another natural disaster, would go away. 70mph winds. The atmosphere in the shelter was as different as it possibly could be. Soberly, we melted water, made our oatmeal, packed our bags.

Zach and Tom were ready to go first, and, as they would be navigating with map and compass, which they were totally proficient in, I told them if they had any trouble, I  was using trackback on the GPS and we would be following our track up precisely. A few minutes later, the other four of us were ready to go. Craig and Dan were on skis, and they were suddenly gone. Tom and Zach were still standing outside by the door. “I think we should stay together.” I agreed. The wind was so loud and hard that it drowned your voice immediately, and to talk, you had to lean to each others’ ears. Dan asked, “Are we going?” and I said, “Let’s go.” As we shouldered our packs, Dan disappeared, and Zach and Tom suddenly said “I think we should wait, I don’t think we should go.” And just like that, they were through the door into the shelter.

I turned to talk to Dan, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. I started yelling his name, and heard no response. Visibility was literally your feet, and that’s it. It turned out, Dan was less than 10 feet away, and the reality of the situation was as heavy as this mountain all of a sudden. We only needed to be a few feet away from each other to lose each other completely. And we would navigating fully blind, relying totally on the GPS to keep us from walking off a cliff or crossing onto the Nisqually glacier. I told Dan the other guys were going to wait, I didn’t know if we should too? He said, “Wait for what?” and he was right, the storm could have gone on for days, we had no reason to suspect it would clear in a few hours (it didn’t, it went on for several days).

So we started down the mountain. I was in front, pulling back my expedition mitts to check the GPS every minute or two. Dan immediately behind me, so that I could see his snowshoes, and he, mine. We took tiny steps. Because we couldn’t see anything at all, there was also no depth perception, and grade changes or even just changes in the amount of windsweptness threw us off and sometimes caused us to fall. The wind also knocked us down several times. Sometimes the wind blew so hard for so long, it seemed like we would never be able to move again, and might freeze into statues right where we were, in our stances trying to resist it. I followed every weave we had made on our GPS track. With no way of knowing what was meandering that we did, or what slight turns were made to avoid ridges or cliffs, I had to. I’ve never been so hot, but meanwhile, every inch of skin had to be covered because the wind would destroy it. Adjustments were obviously no option at all. We stopped twice, once for each of us to re-attach rogue snowshoes that had tried to bust off on the weirdly angled terrain, in addition to all the times we stopped to resist the wind and check the GPS.

It seemed like days. This was another good mindfuck, because you never felt like you were getting anywhere. There was only white, in the whole world. Just white, barren, hostile. Because I was responsible for navigating us off safely, the thought of dying out there was pushed into a corner of my mind, so instead, I could use all of my brainpower to stay calm and make good decisions. 1, 2, 3 … 98, 99, 100. We crossed light ski tracks a few times, and hoped our friends were safe.

I could tell we were getting to the base of the snowfield, and the steep, shitty couloir we’d have to descend to get off of it, but it was hard to tell which was it. The turn would be to the right, but all signs pointed to walking off of a cliff,  basically. Dan thought he recognized one of the chutes, and there was suddenly a snow wand like two feet from my foot. It was marking our turn.

The descent in boots and snowshoes was already quite painful, and I already have a lot of toenail problems (including several dead and marked for falling off, but not quite there yet) and now, on this even steeper part, I ground my teeth against the excruciating pain of my right big toenail actually coming off, and the left about halfway. After leaving the snowfield and approaching treeline, the storm was much less terrifying, and we could vaguely see two figures about 30 feet away. We assumed them to be Craig and Dan, the skiers, and approached them, only to find two complete strangers. They were a couple that had plans of ascending the snowfield to Camp Muir to practice their skills, but had gotten lost in the storm the night before and now couldn’t find their way back to Paradise. We brought them along, and continued on.

After another seemingly hours (but was probably 45 minutes) there were tents, and people. Like, hundreds of people and tent cities everywhere. There was hustle and bustle, like the winter version of Burning Man. There were folks geared up everywhere, laying on the ground, being “rescued” by their partners. These were guided groups being trained in crevasse rescue and glacier travel, but presumably because of the storm, they were doing it right outside Paradise. This was the greatest feeling of culture shock I have ever experienced. My eyes were crusted thick with ice, as I had abandoned glasses because they were immediately fogged and covered in ice. We felt weathered, as we wove through these camps of humans pretending to do all the things we had just done.

The overnight parking lot at Paradise had two cars in it when we left, one of them being ours, and now it was full. There were maybe 75 cars. We dropped our packs and screamed at the top of our lungs, “WE DID IT! WE FUCKING CLIMBED MT RAINIER! OH MY GOD! WE REALLY DID IT! WE SUMMITED MT. RAINIER!” We hugged and congratulated each other and Dan said, “I finally don’t feel like we’re going to die anymore.” We got the Rainier beer out and cheersed.

Looking back, yeah, we risked our lives. We did some really dangerous shit, faced major objective hazards, and came out okay. It wasn’t because we were lucky, which we also were, but because we were ready. Hidden crevasses is one of the additional dangers of winter ascents, but that accident was handled perfectly, textbook, and I’m lucky to have such a good partner that did everything right. That’s why we take courses, practice, train. Climbing up and down that headwall was one of the scarier parts for me, but it wasn’t as dangerous as it was scary, that’s one of those mindset things. Navigating the Muir snowfield blind is how 200 something people have died on it, but we had our GPS and knew how to use it, acted carefully, and made good decisions, and it delivered us back to the car in excellent, if bedraggled and shaky, condition (along with some extra hikers that didn’t know how to use their GPS). Sure, we were uncomfortable and scared lots of times, but we weren’t in over our heads. I’m just so very proud of us for being calm and doing everything right, for being brave and strong enough. I had told the climbing ranger that we’re risk averse, and we are.

We stopped at Longmire to check out with our permit. “What should I write in comments?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Wait, did you actually write that?”

“Yes.”

The rangers were concerned about our friends Zach and Tom, as Zach’s mom had been calling, and I guess there was a discrepancy of when they were supposed to be back. They must not have a SPOT, since our moms were watching our every move on a map via satellite. We told the rangers every detail of the story, and that they were waiting it out safely at Camp Muir, and that yes, their moms could call us if that would help them feel better (they did). Climbing ranger Kelly called that evening to let us know that they made it out okay, they must have decided to go for it a few hours after we left.

We stopped to drop a few things off and use the bathrooms at Whitaker, and Dan said, “I want to tell everyone.” So we did. At the first gas station, we stopped for snacks, and it was overwhelming that you could have whatever you want, all laid out there in front of you. We weren’t even on the mountain that long. That afternoon, showered and dressed in regular people clothes after removing our sewer-smelling layers in the middle “transition section” of the rental car, we were eating pizza in Seattle, altitude: 3 feet above sea level. I can tell you, there is nothing more surreal.

The next morning, we packed up all of our [soaking wet] things and got in a metal cylinder with wings, that lifted up into the sky and brought us back to Colorado in about 2 hours. Just like that, it was over. The culmination of years of training, experience, courses, climbing, running, and living in the sky, just like that, was over. We had won the weather lottery, the trip was a complete success. We had summited Mt. Rainier.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars. You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more, and no less. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’” East of Eden, Steinbeck

GOPR4469.JPG

For anyone who’s interested, here’s our GPS tracks:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484642139/embed/ead8fd472b750eaa278860b7953358baf9623fa6

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484642873/embed/1b771a629db605eabb42d104ca12acb5f200d1e7

https://www.strava.com/activities/1484643337/embed/d89e3285455babd6e0782f6e025746d9abe91dfe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rainier pt 1

One week ago, we were in our sleeping bags, going to bed at Camp Muir after summiting. I’m not sure if that feels longer or shorter, but it was an entirely other world apart.

 

GOPR4561.JPG

Camp Muir is in the near middle of this picture, just to the right of that snowy peak in the distance

 

“You just need to adjust your expectations, and take everything one step at a time.” The climbing ranger told us while they were processing our permit. He told us we had everything we need, and it seemed like we knew what we were doing. I got the impression, though, that what he meant was, “I trust that you two will know when it’s time to turn around.” I asked him for route conditions information, and all he could say was, he didn’t know. The first team of the winter had only just made it up the week before, three Russian guys, and they had checked out per the conditions of their permit, but hadn’t left any beta on the upper mountain. Apparently, none of the guides had even made it up this winter. “You’re going to have the mountain to yourselves. It’s unlikely that anyone is even heading up to Camp Muir this weekend, and we haven’t issued any other permits. I also need you to know, rescue isn’t really an option, and conditions permitting, it would take at least 48 hours to get anyone up there. There’s no helicopters in the winter. Just realize, you’re alone up there.”

We weren’t relying on SAR or anything, but the whole speech was a little chilling.

The Monday before we left for Washington, I ran Elbert to test out the GPS, as I hadn’t ever used it for navigation before. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get up high, either. Mt. Rainier is 14,410, which is 30 feet below Elbert. I thought about the relationship that I have with these mountains, my home. I’ve thought for years that it was my love of the Nolan’s line that brought me here, that led to thousands of miles of snowmelt stream crossings, talus hopping, getting lost, numbing my feet in the snow, destroying my legs running uphill and down. The lions, the cold, the lightning, the storms. The 245 times I’ve stood on top of Elbert. And I finally understood, it was never Nolan’s. That was just this idea of challenge and aesthetics that was appealed to my brain, that’s wired in this particular way. These were the first mountains I fell in love with, that I gave my heart and my body to, and that filled me up in return. I know there are a lot of ways that people can feel like their heart is too big to fit in their chest, but this is mine. I knew then, that while it was very scary, I was ready for Rainier, it was just time to move on. These mountains used to make me feel scared, too, but not for a long time.

 

GOPR4444.JPG

This is obviously from Mt. Elbert, not Rainier

 

There are a variety of weather forecasts that include Mt. Rainier, and I checked all of them several times a day for two weeks before we left. I think they changed hourly. Everyone who lives with mountains says that they make their own weather, but it’s truer with Rainier. I imagine the 13,212 feet of prominence has something to do with it. There aren’t other big mountains around it, it’s just this massive volcano in the middle of nothing, right next to the fucking ocean, to create the least predictable and most harsh weather anywhere outside of Denali. The week of our trip, it was mired in storms, with a lot of snow accumulation likely, high winds, and only one possibility for a small break in the weather before the storm cycle picked up again: Saturday.

I don’t know if you ride in airplanes a lot, but the idea that you can strap yourself and your belongings into a metal cylinder, and said hunk of metal will speed down a road and somehow end up airborne is ludicrous. In two hours, we would be transported from Colorado to Washington. We had to bring extra bags to hold all the crap that gets strapped to the outside of our packs normally, because you can fly with your weapons (ice axes and crampons) if they’re packed inside a bag. We could see the mountain above the clouds as we approached Seattle.

We got our permit to go up the mountain, but there was a whiteout at Paradise, the trailhead, so we stayed in the giant rental SUV the first night. Our expectations needed no tempering, we were already bummed. It’s a big risk to plan a trip like this when the weather is so volatile, and in the winter, when the success rate is something like 10% or less. I had still been feeling like, we go up and see what happens, but man, climbing ranger Seth really put the smackdown on our hopes and that night I think we both went to bed feeling a little down. There was Rainier beer, though, undoubtedly made from water direct from the Nisqually glacier itself.

GOPR4453.JPG

In the parking lot, there were two weathered-looking gentlemen (some of you might not see that for the excellent compliment it is) packing up very aggressive packs and prepping alpine touring setups, and it turned out that we wouldn’t be alone, so I guess there was one glimmer of hope. One of them was a local, they had Rainier summit experience, and they proffered, “we might try to go up on Saturday.” While I do love to be alone, and a big part of choosing a winter attempt was avoiding the hordes (10k climbers attempt each year, the success rate is less than 50%, and 99.99% of those attempts are in the summer), I loved the idea that we would have some buddies up there. Our new friends, Craig and Dan, headed up that night, and we told them we’d see them at Camp Muir tomorrow.

We headed out of Paradise in the morning, shocked at how heavy our packs were and hoping that we’d catch a glimpse of the Mother of Waters herself. We weren’t disappointed,

GOPR4456.JPG

I thought my heart might explode.  Aside from being immensely prominent, Rainier has 27 major glaciers, covering 35 square miles. It is almost constantly surrounded by a ring of clouds that hangs between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, making you feel like you’re in a constant fog. We got this view when the wind picked up for about 6 seconds. Then it was back to the long slog up the Muir Snowfield, that looked about like this:

GOPR4459.JPG

The Muir Snowfield is just one of the so very many objective dangers on Rainier. It’s just a long, brutal snow climb (while they say it’s 4500ft to Camp Muir, my watch said 5,246), but the thing is, in low visibility (like basically always) you could easily walk off the edge of it and over a cliff, or accidentally cross over and find yourself on the heavily crevassed Nisqually glacier (I called this the Snoqualmie glacier for the entire trip. There is no Snoqualmie glacier). Between 90 and 100 alpinists have died on the high mountain during summit attempts since the 1890’s … 294 deaths have occurred elsewhere on the mountain, mostly on the Muir Snowfield, charmingly described as “A huge, featureless killing field.”

Anyway, because of the cloud ring, you can’t tell what the weather’s actually like.

GOPR4457.JPG

Then, suddenly (after taking jackets off and putting them back on 60 times):

GOPR4460.JPG

GOPR4461.JPG

We are above the freaking clouds and it is windy but sunny and clear. I had thought that I was appropriately trained enough, and did zero hauling practice, and greatly underestimated how different it would be to climb a mountain with an extra 50% of my bodyweight (I know Steve House *says* to carry a pack full of rocks and gallons of water when you’re training, but … then you go slower, and it just didn’t seem necessary). Our legs were sort of crushed.

GOPR4465.JPG

But it was super beautiful.

GOPR4464.JPG

And we were getting really close.

GOPR4462.JPG

GOPR4466.JPG

The Camp Muir public shelter was built in 1918. There’s a sign inside that I should’ve but didn’t take a picture of that says “The Camp Muir Public Shelter is an historic building, built in 1918. Out of respect for its namesake, John Muir, please pack everything out. Do not defecate in the shelter. YES, PEOPLE HAVE DONE THIS. DON’T DO IT.”

The shelter has a dutch door for when the snow’s piled up, and inevitably, the area around the door is piled high with drifted snow. There’s a counter, cubbies, and bunks. In the summer, climbers don’t get to sleep in here, but one of the (few, decidedly very few) benefits of a winter ascent is that we got to live in the shelter. A half hour or so after arriving at Camp Muir, we had some company, and it wasn’t the skiers we were expecting, it was two badass young guys from Golden, Tom and Zach. They, too, wanted to make a go of it during the possible weather window on Saturday, which still didn’t look great, but promised a huge decrease in wind speed. The comradery caused us to start saying things like, “Saturday’s our day.”

We got down to the delightful business of melting snow for water; our new friends offered to share their garbage bag of collected snow with us, in return I gave them a coveted morale-boosting Reese’s Easter egg, and a lifelong friendship was forged. An hour or two later, our skier friends arrived, and we set up our beds in a cheerful cabin, stationed way up high on a big, scary mountain.

GOPR4467.JPG

Because I don’t have any foresight, this blurry picture of all our stoves lined up melting snow is the only one I have from inside the shelter.

Now that morale was officially boosted, we were all making preparations for summit day. Packing our bags, melting snow, discussing route beta, worrying about avalanche conditions, wondering about crevasses, and eating (and burning a layer of Tasty Bites onto the bottom of the stove that would flavor our water Cajun for the remainder of the trip). It was basically like all of the Christmas Eves of your childhood culminating on this one, penultimate Christmas day: SUMMIT DAY. In the midst of all of the excitement, I went outside to brush my teeth (even mountaineers brush their teeth, because nobody likes fuzzy sweater teeth):

GOPR4468.JPG

GOPR4471.JPG

Yeah these pictures still make me cry. Camp Muir is so fucking heartwarming, I can’t even describe it. You can see the public shelter in that second photo. It was originally called Cloud Camp, you can guess why.

Just as everyone was getting settled, two more guys showed up, friends of the skiers, and in the wonderfully charming, weathered mountaineer way, came inside asking “Is there cocoa?” I wish there was, man. I wish there was.

Anyway. Did anybody sleep on Summit Day Eve? I doubt it. When the alarm went off at 3am, I was buzzing like I had been electrocuted. And so, all the stoves are lit, and the pots filled with snow to melt (and a layer of burnt Tasty Bites), and everyone is eating their oatmeal and tying up their boots, and the first person goes outside to pee and comes back saying, “It is fucking beautiful. The wind is low, it’s perfectly clear.” And it was. The most optimistic forecast: Saturday, partly storming, is suddenly: Saturday, perfectly clear. Tom and Zach headed out to Gibraltar Ledges, and Dan and I roped up and headed for Disappointment Cleaver and the Ingraham Glacier. I don’t know that either of us thought we’d get a summit, there were so many objective hazards that we had to evaluate, and the chance that weather would hold AND all the other things would line up was … well, it seemed like it would take a miracle.

The discussion of when to rope up went something like, “Well, you don’t have to be roped up until you’re on the Ingraham Glacier, but I’m worried about knowing when to make that decision.” So, because we’re smart and safe individuals, we roped up there.

And I’m sure glad we did, because what happened was exactly what I was worried about. One moment, you’re on a perfectly safe snowfield, and then suddenly, you’re surrounded by huge crevasses (or as I like to call them, Glacier Funhouses). Meanwhile, the sun was rising:

GOPR4476.JPG

Sorry about the blurry pictures, I’m not a photographer, ok. That’s Little Tahoma Peak, 11,138, which, they say, is a remnant of a much higher Mt. Rainier, from before its last eruption. While it’s a satellite peak of Rainier (aka Mama Tahoma), it’s technically the third highest peak in Washington (Mt. Adams, 12,281, is #2).

So, by way of necessary explanation, let me tell you that sometimes the crevasse danger is lower in the winter, because massive amounts of snow might partially fill in some of the smaller crevasses/funhouses. However, the snowpack is lower than usually there, too, with the unfortunate consequence that the crevasses in this middle section were not only not filled in, but covered with a mean little snowy ice crust. That said:

So we were walking along an enormous Funhouse. I was leading, still following the GPS track, which was an obvious mistake, since we were entering the icebox area and would need to start navigating the crevasses, but I hadn’t realized we’d already passed Ingraham Flats and were heading into this famously spicy section yet.  I said, “They’re like a sleeping bear. It could wake up and eat you, but it probably won’t.” And mere moments later, I punched through the crust covering a crevasse I didn’t see and, just like that, was dangling above an opening in the glacier that started white, turned to blue, and eventually black. I had apparently gotten bottlenecked at the top, where the walls were narrowed, and was tenuously suspended by my shoulders in the snow. I yelled to Dan to self arrest, as if that somehow hadn’t crossed his mind after I had disappeared into the glacier, and once he told me he was secure, I kicked my front points into the wall of the sleeping bear that had thought about eating me, but didn’t, and climbed out.

Yeah, it was fucking terrifying. I had looked down, and after the loose snow had finished falling away, there was absolutely nothing beneath me. It was so deep, it was improbable, right, because theoretically, there’s a mountain underneath there somewhere. I felt pretty dumb, being the crevasshole and everything, but there it was. And that’s why we were roped up, and that’s why you take crevasse rescue and glacier travel courses, etc, so that if something like this happens, you’re protected and you know what to do. After that whole to-do, we had to cross my nemesis somewhere, and found the spot where it’s most narrow to jump over it. It took some doing to work myself up to do it, but I did. and my body was just coursing with adrenaline. I’d pay for that later.

GOPR4478.JPG

In retrospect, I didn’t take enough pictures looking into  mouths of the bears.

GOPR4479.JPG

Then, there was a long time of winding through crevasses intermingled with what was basically steep uphill crampon walking. A lot of this is steep enough that the most energy efficient way to climb it is by grape vining in your mountaineering boots.

GOPR4480.JPG

When we finally came out of the icebox/bowling alley crevasse-filled adventure section, we were significantly off-route, headed the wrong direction, and it appeared that what was between us and the official route was just one large funhouse the size of Disney World. The only option, it seemed, was to head for a terrifically steep headwall, ascend it, and figure out what the fuck to do. During this vertical snow climb, we saw a couple folks on the ridge above us, and we all waved and shouted like friendly neighbors. It was our friends from camp (who else could it possibly be?), coming up the Gibraltar Ledges route.

As usual, the scariest part of a vertical snow climb is knowing that you have to downclimb it. But what was also fun, was when Dan got to the top and said, “Don’t look in the crevasse.” Which was exciting for two reasons:

  1. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb.
  2. No one has ever resisted the urge to look in the crevasse after someone tells them not to.
  3. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb?!
  4. You really, really had to cross a crevasse on this vertical snow climb.
  5. I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of nothing besides crevasses and avalanches anymore.

If it wasn’t such a sketchy situation, I would’ve loved to take a picture of the crevasse-in-the-vertical-snow-climb situation, because it was fucking cool and beautiful. Anyway, here’s Dan on the top of the ridge:

GOPR4482.JPG

And another shot, same place different angle,

GOPR4481.JPG

This is about where I started to feel really sick, I think from the adrenaline wearing off. And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. To be continued …

The Tetons: remembering why I do this, over again

It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana.  I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance.  I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”

DCIM100GOPRO

summit of the South

Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer.  I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated.  Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.

View of the Tetons in afternoon.JPG

I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep.  In the morning I headed up Teewinot.  You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal.  The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying.  There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating.  My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?”  Well, shit got hard.  And scary af, to be honest.

Climbing on Teewinot.JPG

I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons.  Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day.  That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.

Teewinot.JPG

On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton.  Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days.  I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured).  It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know).  What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs.  I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird.  I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb.  I turned around.

DCIM100GOPRO

Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand.  Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit.  I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day.  I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy.  He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.

 

DCIM100GOPRO

On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail.  I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it.  It was incredible.

 

DCIM100GOPRO

On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots.  It was overkill, but I felt totally secure.  The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route.  And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year.  That I would do anything to be here.  That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart.  That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless.  Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.

 

I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards].  The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this.  I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom.  Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.

view to the south from south.JPG

Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything.  It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you.  Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?

 

After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak.  The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4).  The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves.  After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity).  The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama.  Breathtaking.  I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo.  Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits;  the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.

DCIM100GOPRODCIM100GOPRODCIM100GOPRO