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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.*

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“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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.*

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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