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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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