Turn to the Sky/Losing a Whole Year/F*** You, Heather

I’m reading Steve House’s book about the mountains. Not about training for alpinism, but the one about his adventures. And I notice that all those tempestuous storm clouds have turned pink. The sun is setting and I go outside and walk up to the top of the hill and I’m basking in the glow, then suddenly I sink down to my knees. My tears are so hot it feels like I have a sunburn. It’s cold outside. It almost feels like winter. I forget that leadville is like this. I’m not done thinking about this year but the weather feels like it’s wrapping up too fast. Im not sure I know yet exactly who I am.

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So why did I choose running? This wasn’t the first time I learned this lesson and I was all set to choose climbing, I had gone down that road so far I was about to make a career in it, and the certifications I worked so hard to get were certainly not cheap. Then I threw it all away at the last minute, for running? For that smug bitch Heather!? [You’ll meet Heather later. This is called foreshadowing, and it’s making you more likely to read on, apparently. Maybe.] The reasons that I’m not a better climber pile up: they are the Himalayas of excuses. My chest feels tight. Love is physical. So is fear.

 

My first trip to the Tetons was with my friend Chris. I remember we went up one night to the lower saddle of the Grand, or almost up there. On the way down, we sat on the talus and looked at Irene’s Arete. It was and maybe still is the most aesthetic line I’ve ever seen. I had never felt that way about a rock climb before, it doesn’t even lead to the summit of anything! [However, it is one of the many aretes of everyone’s favorite Teton, Disappointment Peak!] That thing is the dramatic, smooth prow of the coolest, most badass pirate ship that you want to be on. It was the first time I had ever looked at just a rock climb, not a mountain, and thought, “I want to climb that.”

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I haven’t. I’ve been back to the Tetons three times after that and I have not climbed Irene’s Arete. Why? I don’t know. Rock climbing scares me. You know what happens when something scares you and you neither do it nor face your fear? It gets fucking worse. You know what else scares me? People. Trusting new people, getting to know them. I looked through Mtn Proj a bit when I was in the Tetons this year for partners, and just said, “Nope.”

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So I was reading this trendy self help book, because they’re like Pringles, and the girl said to think about your hero, then imagine what they would do when faced with the same decisions. Once you start, the fun don’t stop. So I thought about my heroes. Mike Libecki is the first name that comes to mind, don’t even need to think about that. Brette Harrington is the second. Of course I thought about Kilian, also Jessie Diggs, Andy Anderson, and Nick Elson, sometimes Steve House. So the thing about this list of people is, and I don’t know them personally, but I don’t think a single one of them would say they’re primarily a runner. Some of them are runners. But I don’t think even Kilian would say, “I’m a runner.” if you asked him what he does. I think for a moment, what if I had made all of my decisions thinking, WWMLD, What Would Mike Libecki Do? Put on an animal mask and said, “Why ration passion?” And I laugh, why indeed?

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I pulled this photo off the internet so you could see what I mean, pc Mike Libecki 

I can remember the first time I felt like I knew I was risking my life. It was physical. I don’t have a very good memory. Actually, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I can tell from other people’s reactions over the course of my life that they think my memory leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t remember what we’re fighting about if it goes on for more than one day. I forget dates, like birthdays. I forget if ive told a particular person a particular story (although, you can tell me your stories over and over because I probably won’t remember them after a certain amount of time). I forget what happens in books and movies so I can watch the same ones over and over and not even realize it sometimes. Anyway, I have a physical memories that are so visceral that I will never forget them [who can forget being charged by a bear? Really.].

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summit of South Teton

I remember the first time I climbed a mountain and I thought, “I would die for this.” it was South Teton, and I was alone. You’re always unproportionately scared when you’re alone. But as I scrambled up this loose and snow filled gully, it wasn’t the first time I assumed risk and did something dangerous. It was the moment I realized the level of risk I was assuming and I said, yes. I will. It was a great relief, like a low pressure system moved in and the sky itself put less pressure on my body.

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I remember what it felt like the first time Chris and I climbed Middle Teton, gained the ridge to the north and suddenly stood face to face with the Grand Teton, it was like I could open my ribs up like Hanuman and anyone could see my heart beating for it. I remember standing on the summit of Harvard, and being able to see the entire Nolan’s line in both directions and finally understanding the aesthetic of that line, each summit lighting up like the Plinko board and it was as if I could feel the routes and the summits and all the miles I’d spend on them cumulatively, it was like my heart grew outside of my body and wrapped itself around this mountain range like a bubble. I remember falling into a crevasse on Rainier (like it was yesterday!) I could feel the blackness yawning beneath me, and of course the melting relief of getting down safely, every cell in my body vibrating with joy, nearly exploding like tiny fireworks when we got back to the parking lot and sang “We didn’t die! We didn’t die!”

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I’ve had some good ones running, too. This isn’t anything against just running in general, it’s against Heather. Don’t forget. I remember the first time I ran up something so hard that when I summited and stopped moving, it felt like my whole body evaporated into the air, and I swear I could feel wind pass through me, gravity clearly not being strong enough to hold my cells together. I remember coming down Elbert so fast, my toes barely brushing the ground and I felt like I was flying. I can only vaguely remember any of the races I’ve done, the most memorable things being, of course, the vomiting and the pain.

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I’ve stood up, walked back to the truck, and laid down in the back, on my belly, on top of the sleeping bag. I have Steve House’s book open before me [actually, it’s on a Kindle, if you’re really trying to picture this, and I’ve got a forkful of eclair that’s hanging precariously in the air] and I’ve just read “Now that I’ve finished it, I am afraid I may have failed. Failed to answer questions such as why I take deadly risks, why I leave home for months at a time, and why I routinely spend my savings on air tickets to remote lands. But I see success in degrees, and failure provides valuable lessons. The depth of any story is proportionate to the protagonist’s commitment to their goal, the complexity of the problem, and the grace of the solution. Success must never be assured.”

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My chest gets tight, which, not being something I feel very often at all, is immediately uncomfortable. It feels like my ribs are closing in on my heart and lungs. I read on, “When I stood on the greatest summit I’ve ever achieved, success vaporized. The moment we think we have atained the goal, we lose it. Success is empty. The sum of all our luck, judgments, lessons learned and heeded, elevation gained and lost, our fitness and skill is zero.” the forkful of eclair continues to be suspended in midair, so near my dumbfounded mouth, but so far.

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The universe puts things in your way when you need them. I would’ve read this book ages ago but I didn’t know he’d written such a thing. I’m cried out, I guess, probably too dehydrated for more tears as the altitude is ravaging my body once again. I’m always thirsty. It’s clear now in that one word, success. My mind is waging a war of ideals, and this year, success won. It buried what I wanted to do, it asked me to bleed for it. But mountain running is an honest sport. I’ve given the same advice to several people regarding their first ultra, “You need to know what you’re fighting for, because when you really start to suffer, your mind will do anything to make you stop, and if you have nothing to fight for, you will.” the values or ideals I had around success asked me to lay my body down for it. And I didn’t.

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I mean, I didn’t stop, I finished the damn thing. I’ve thought a lot about what the most important value is to me, and I know it’s Never Give Up. That’s the thing I aspire to be, and when I am that, it’s what I’m the most proud of. I’ve now spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in that race. Didn’t I give up? I described it afterwards as, “I blew it, and I knew I was blowing it, and I didn’t care.” It took some suffering to really polish up my underlying motives and see what I was up against. There I was, asking my body for something that I wanted, SUCCESS, but that I also knew I didn’t really want at all. Gosh it’s hard to explain, and certainly I’m writing all of this because it’s helping me work through it more than you care to know this much about the inner workings of my warped, forgetful, prideful, obsessive, but at least devoted brain. I finally eat the eclair.

 

[Let’s give the-values-or-ideals-I-had-around-success-and-pride a name, and that smug bitch shall be called Heather, not because of anyone I know personally named Heather, but because I recently watched Heathers.]

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When Heather asked me to destroy my body for her, I didn’t. My mind struggled with this a bit, and mind you, at this point I was what? 6,000ft of climbing and somewhere around 17 miles in? I thought, if I don’t pull it together now, I’m going to be a failure, I’m going to be humiliated. Like I’m suddenly the center of the universe and anyone cares about the nonsense I get up to! Heather asked me, “But what about your dreams!?” and I thought, THIS? Heather, is this my dreams? I have a big long list of dreams and “climb a long Jeep road to nowhere as fast as you can because if you’re better at it than other people, you’ll get some kind of recognition for being strong.” is nowhere on the fucking list. Actually, when I think of the list, I’m ashamed, because I didn’t do a single fucking thing on it this year and instead I wasted all my time on …. Ugh, we’re back here again. No, I don’t regret it, because I had to know. Now I know. [Fuck you, Heather!]

 

I hope I go back through and edit this before I post it and somehow make it funnier. I’m not sure how, but I aspire to do that. Although, Steve House is basically never funny, so if I thought right now, WWSHD? It wouldn’t be, go back through and make your writing funnier. Ugh but if I thought, WWMLD? It totally WOULD be, lighten this up a little. Why my heroes got to be conflicting me like that? I’m not sure how, but this is all Heather’s fault.

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No, actually, you know what? Heather, that asshole, wanted me to fight for something that is not in line with my values, but is moreso culturally ingrained in me. But I stood up to her, despite that it meant I’d have to walk away with nothing, whether anyone else cared about it or not. And muddled in there with the moping and failure and waste and feelings of nothingness, also the identity crisis and the crushing lack of confidence, I actually am proud of that.

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I went climbing a couple times this week. It was hard. Some of the time I felt strong, some of the time I felt weak, some of the time I felt frustrated, some of the time I felt inspired. It’s just like anything else that’s worth doing, I suppose. Heather showed up on one pitch, and I wondered if I’d always be fighting her, trying to trick her or slap her or pull her hair and hoping she’ll leave me alone to pursue what I actually want. This was certainly not our first fight, but at least I know her style better now. I’m starting to learn her weaknesses. I climbed a new mountain the other day, during a linkup of other mountains I’d climbed before. It was like, 13,9-something which means that it has no trail and never gets climbed, despite being less than 100 feet off of being a coveted 14er. I looked out at the inifinite mountains, over the Sawatch, towards the Elks. I closed my eyes and I could feel the pull of the space between earth and sky; the groundedness in my feet on the summit’s talus, the lift of my heart to the sun. I get this feeling a lot, but it’s still my favorite. I think, “This. I will do anything for this.”G0031035.JPG

[And there’s no sign of Heather anywhere]

you guys, don’t forget to check out my Threadless store for graphics for mtn fohttps://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/ks

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1,400 Miles

Funny thing is, I wrote a similar post last year, and the real truth is I didn’t fully learn my lesson and spent 1,400 miles learning it all over again this year. Last year by August, I was sick of running, I had just come off a lousy performance at the Speedgoat (in every possible way, really), I went to the Tetons and had the best time climbing, and I realized I loved the running/climbing combo, I needed to get better at climbing, and I would focus on that. Somewhere in the next couple of months I decided I wanted to apply to RMI to guide Rainier for summer 2019 (the one we’re currently in) they enthusiastically responded immediately that I’m an excellent candidate and scheduled me for my test date in person in March. I scheduled the prereqs I didn’t yet have (WFR and avalanche) and set up in Ouray for the winter to climb ice and ski.

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winter in Ouray

Then suddenly, in January or February, I had this thought, am I sure I want to guide? Like, this seemed like an obvious career path if I was done racing and ready to climb more and bigger mountains. I’ve never been able to find a consistent partner to go to big mountains and definitely not for the bigger projects of my dreams, nor could I afford many of these trips in my current lifestyle, and guiding was the obvious answer. But my favorite thing in the world is to camp in remote places and run new and old big mountain routes alone! So now I’m confused, I’m sitting here thinking about the actual day to day of guiding and what I would be giving up should I go that route. I make a pro/con list with three categories:

  1. Finally committing full time to training and racing
  2. Personal projects
  3. Guiding

 

So I’ve always wondered what would happen if I actually trained. I’ve posted several times about that this year already, so I suppose the cat is out of the bag. But the clincher on the pro/con list was, under training/racing, I will always regret it if I don’t give it a shot and see what I’m capable of. I told RMI I’m not coming and started training immediately. I left Colorado early and went to AZ to train on the actual ground. I lived in the Grand Canyon for a month, doing the 5,000 foot south rim climb from the river 3 or 4 times a week. I put in 90 mile weeks with 20,000ft of climbing. I ran laps at Mt. Whitney and at the Druid Stones in Bishop. I ran boring roads and awkward trails just to get the miles in. I skipped over climbing in the Sierras because I needed to be running and didn’t have the time for daily snow climbs and scrambles and definitely not roped climbing in favor of these lesser, boring runs.

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This post has a disturbing lack of its own pictures, this is from the Mt. Whitney Portal, where I ran 180 miles

Then I drove to Truckee, California, for a race. As the Blazer climbed out of Reno and into the mountains, my heart was raging around like a barefoot contemporary dancer inside my rib cage from the excitement of going all the way to California for a big race. It really lends a sense of gravity. I worried that all that ice climbing over the winter, and lack of winter training, would be the thing that made me fail. I wondered if I would be good enough. I wondered wtf to eat because I am always getting sick in races, although I can’t say that I’ve done that terribly many. I tried to strategize and visualize and plan the perfect three week gradual taper. I watched half of the 15th season of Gray’s Anatomy trying to distract myself the day before. I showed up to the Broken Arrow Skyrace and had an amazing run. The course was beautiful, I met lots of amazing people, and although the last major climb and the last four miles of blasting downhill hurt a little, I barely suffered at all. I ran 6:28, which I considered to be a very respectable time for a 50k with 10,000ft of climbing and placed 14th, which was the harsh reality of a stacked elite field. But I looked back on it and thought, I know I did not suffer enough to say I gave it my best. But that’s okay, because the Speedgoat is coming and that is why I ran the 1,400 miles. At the Speedgoat, I will do my best.

 

And besides, the Speedgoat is more my kind of race anyway. The brutal climbs and the horrific descents are things that I’m stronger in, and the miles and miles of soft, easy, rolling trails at Broken Arrow were a great advantage for everyone else. The kind of training I’ve been doing and the type of running I like to do are all aimed at the Speedgoat. I have done an incredible amount of research entailing last year’s splits, my competitor’s training and their last year’s splits, and I think, if I go out and work harder than I’ve ever worked, I could get a really great time. Then I immediately begin to dread it. You know on old rollercoasters, the first hill the train is dragged up slowly, click, click, click, and there’s that pause as you’re going over the top as the weight of the cars transitions to the downhill and it feels like your stomach is reaching for the sky and your whole body is wild with the anxiety and excitement and anticipation? That fucking hill was 1,400 miles long, and now, as I’m driving to SLC, arriving at the campground, packing up my vest, setting the alarm, I’m in the last car of the train and we’re just hanging there, waiting to go over.

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I don’t have photos from SLC, I took this yesterday

The first almost 4,000 climb goes well. There’s more flat miles mixed into it than I remember, but I’m on a good pace and I’m feeling strong and great. I come through the first aid station and carefully don’t eat or drink much before the upcoming almost 4,000ft descent. It is a nightmare that never ends. It’s hard to explain how bad it is, it’s an old creek bed that is basically a trough of loose baseball and volleyball sized rocks, and there is a jeep road next to it that we are not allowed to run on, because at every opportunity when building this course he said, “How could I make this worse?”. And it goes on for almost 4,000ft. By the time I reach Pacific Mine, my whole body is battered (although I thankfully did not fall) and my mental status is already in a garbage disposal. I grab snacks and water and gel and start the next climb, 3,700 feet of entirely unscenic jeep road to nowhere in particular and I immediately realize, my gas tank is empty.

 

During the Broken Arrow, I consumed four gels, copious amounts of water, sips of coke and gingerale, and almost nothing else (I think maybe a cookie, a chip, and a strawberry but regular food makes me sick and that day I learned that GU doesn’t). I am 1/3 of the way into the Speedgoat and I’ve already eaten all of my gels and am now relying fully on the aid stations and I have somehow underconsumed both calories and water to the extent that in addition to feeling mentally void, I’m starving and my well trained legs have nothing to give. That’s ok, I tell myself, because it’s 99% mental anyway, and there’s time to fix this. Then maybe 1,500 miserable feet into this climb I realize, I don’t want it.

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I don’t have any photos from Broken Arrow or Speedgoat. This is just me running in my Speedgoat shirt in Jackson, photo by Mark

““You’ve gotta want it!” Yelled Sten Fjeldheim, and there was the whole truth. In the first five syllables, in the first few seconds of the first day of school, Sten told us all we really had to know about cross-country ski racing or likely anything else. “And if you want it bad enough you can train on the moon. But if you don’t want it bad enough you may as well head for the dorms … If you don’t want it bad enough to show up on time, you don’t need me.”” From Momentum, Pete Vordenberg’s memoirs of Olympic ski racing. I read those words this morning before I went out to run. Although I’ve read that book a dozen times, it both stings and feels liberating now. Nothing is more true than that, the whole truth.

 

I didn’t want it. With perfect clarity, I looked around myself at the completely uninspiring landscape, I looked at my feet as they shuffled up this dirt road and the sweat from my forehead dripped onto the dust, and I looked in myself as my morale spiralled lower and lower and I realized that I would never be a great race runner because competition wasn’t what inspired me. I knew going into it that I would have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, and it terrified me because I knew I didn’t love racing or the Speedgoat or this course enough to max myself out, to work as hard as I could. I knew this already. I know I did, I had to have. I can only run hard because I love something, because I want to stand on top of it, because it’s a route so aesthetic that it inspires me, because it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it and the only response I could possibly have is to give my body over to it at whatever the cost.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I found myself telling someone out loud that boy was my morale spiraling down the toilet (clockwise or counterclockwise, US or Australia style, it doesn’t matter), that I felt a profound sense of deja vu. All of this had happened last year, and I had blocked it all out in my mind. I had walked away saying it was the worst day of my life, and all I remembered about why was because I was undertrained and the course is heinous. And now here I was again, trudging up the same boring, Godforsaken climb, feeling beaten and ready to give up running forever, exactly like last year. Blowing it, unwilling to give it my best, exactly like last year.

 

I learned the price of a podium finish, and I neither could nor would pay it. I hiked the rest of the climbs and jogged the downs with lackluster and finished faster than last year in a time I don’t remember and don’t care enough about to look up, and it turned out I was 10th but that doesn’t matter either. I spent the last descent thinking, just please let it be over. Let it be over, let it be over. And then it was, and I was so relieved to cross that finish line but I didn’t feel proud, just elated to sit the fuck down and drink my recovery drink and eat my pizza and chat with my new friends. That is one thing, I’ve met really good folks at every race I’ve done. And the Speedgoat especially, for all its misery and the cruelty and brutally that Karl put into the course, it brings us together, because at least we’re traveling through that ring of hell together.

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From just below the saddle of the Grand, taken this year

I drive straight to the Tetons, and just like last year I spend about a week playing the guitar and reading and eating pastries at the Jackson Lake Lodge and pizza from Jackson Whole Grocer and mountain biking with Pippa, and of course I still run, but I only ran 40 miles that week and only one of those runs was in the park. I don’t climb a Teton until the day before I’m set to leave. I go up Disappointment Peak with my friend Mark. I suppose I should tell you, in case you aren’t familiar, Disappointment is a peak so directly in front of the Grand that it’s very difficult to see its summit within the Grand’s big, beautiful face. It’s so named because the first ascent attempt of the Grand ended when they summitted Disappointment Peak and realized that there is a cavernous and impossible gap between their bodies and the Grand Teton. Disappointment is certainly one of my favorites, there’s no long miserable talus hopping and you get straight to the good stuff, very exposed but easy scrambling. I’ve done this route enough times now that I know all the parts of it, and I know that because we’ve been climbing the east side, and the Grand is on the west side, when we finally crest the ridge that we’ll take to the summit, suddenly we’ll be face to face, eye to eye with the Grand.

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I reach it first and I just stand there for a moment, staring, then step aside and usher Mark into my spot so he can experience that bigness, that sense of fullness and awe for his first time, that I still get every time but of course I remember the first especially keenly. And I begin to weep. Because it’s just all come down on me like the roof of an old, closed down bowling alley in a heavy snow year. I’ve wasted this whole year, for nothing. I should’ve been doing this, this thing that I love so much. Climbing mountains, bigger mountains, harder mountains. Climbing at all. Playing around in and doing alpine things. And instead, there were all those 12, 14, 16 mile runs. There was day after day of the trial of miles, just filling in the boxes of my training log. And all of those 1,400 miles (and something like 350,000 feet, mind you, which was no small thing either) led up to this miserable day on which I proved that I am mediocre at running [racing] and I always will be.

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looking SW from Disappointment Peak

I say the short version of this to Mark. And he reminds me, but I had to do it. I needed to know, I would’ve always regretted it if I didn’t give it my best shot and see what I could accomplish. Then I realize, I hadn’t thought I might fail. Of course, when you set out to do something big, you could succeed or you could fail. I’m still struggling to put my finger on this, because it’s not yet clear if all of that work, all that 1,400 miles, is built up in my body just waiting to do something useful. Because on neither race day did I push myself to my limit and come up short. I blew it at the Speedgoat on the second climb and I knew I was blowing it and I just couldn’t make myself care. Which is still failing at my objective, but I think it’s more of a principles thing and now that the race season is over, I’m free to do with my fitness what I want and work on these personal projects that were and are so much more important to me. When I summit Disappointment, I stand there on the edge, over that huge, sheer gap that’s so deep and vertical that it gives you vertigo. I close my eyes and feel the wind and the bigness of the Grand and I’m so full of delight, it’s like my body can’t hold itself together and might just evaporate. And although my heart is beating so hard I can feel my pulse in every part of my body, it slows, because now I am perfectly calm.

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I’m sitting on the couch in the camper as I write this, we’re in the middle of nowhere at Clear Creek now, and both so relieved to be out of Jackson because now Pip can run in any mountains she wants again and we don’t have neighbors and there’s water and it’s not so hot. I’m drinking coke over snow I carried down from the mountains earlier today and eating a big hunk of Tillamook cheese and trying not to think about all that time I could’ve been doing fun shit. Today we did a linkup in a big loop, not as big as the Epic Zombie Loop and not nearly as disastrous [why haven’t I written about the Epic Zombie Loop!? It’s like I blocked that 24 hours out of my brain completely. God I have been thinking I should write about something and not being able to think of ANYTHING interesting I’ve done lately, and there’s that juicy topic, just sitting there]. I could feel the altitude even though we were at 7k for three weeks, I guess I only went up really high twice in that time. I jogged descents, I stopped for snacks and water filtering, I filmed Pip rolling around in the snow, I cavorted, I looked for a new route and failed to find it, I sprinted the last mile, and I burned one of the ascents nearly as hard as I could, we got rained on when the sky opened up just as we got below treeline. I’m crying into my snow-cold coke right now in relief, because when you’re free to do whatever you want in the world again, you look back and see that when you couldn’t, it was all in your own mind to begin with.

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.

 

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.”

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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,

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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:

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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.

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

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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.

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But it was super beautiful.

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And we were getting really close.

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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.

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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):

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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:

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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.

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

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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.

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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:

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And another shot, same place different angle,

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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The Tetons: climbing, purpose, and jumping off the deep end

When I told a gal at work that I was going to the Tetons for a week, she said “Well I wish *I* had money for vacations like that” which I thought was pretty comical, because a climbing trip isn’t a vacation anyway, and if you’re planning to sleep in a van and eat PB&J all week it’s not as if you’re breaking the bank, per se.

I also told a regular at work that I’d be in the Tetons for a week, and it went like this: “WHERE?”

“The Tetons”

“WHERE?”

“Grand Teton National Park”

“WHERE?”

“The Teton range.  Of mountains?  In Wyoming?”

“Okay but where?”

“It’s 14 miles long, man.”

I’d been to the Tetons earlier this year, with the intention of scoping them out.  It was a bit of a wash because there was still so much snow I couldn’t even get into Garnett Canyon, and the mountains were mired in storms the whole time like Mt. Doom.

teton maps.jpg

The first thing to know about the Tetons is that they’re only 9 million years old, max.  Sure 9 million years seems like a long time, but when you compare that to the Rocky Mountains’ 300 million, it’s clear that the Tetons are an adorable baby range and we can expect a variety of interesting and tumultuous things to happen up in there since that fault is still active.  You may already know that I’m in love with the Grand Teton, 13,775, with around 7k prominence.  It’s been a dream of mine for a bit to stand on top of that beautiful pile of (mostly) metamorphic rock, along with the fairly major goals of completing the Picnic and the Grand Traverse.

http://www.outsideonline.com/1868436/picnic-teton-triathlon

http://www.outsideonline.com/1908886/grand-slammed

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Anyhow, so we went to the Tetons.  And the very first morning we woke up to this (above) and it was amazing.  We had no idea what we were in for.  Even to get to the jumping off point (“the meadows”) you have to hike your equipment miles and 1000’s of feet.  There’s some crazy reason that you think once you make it up there, that’s when the climbing starts, but you would be quite wrong.  In fact, there are still several miles and many more 1000’s of feet of iffy talus, scrambling, and just generally exhausting steepness before you can even begin any route at all.  I thought it was funny that apparently on Tony and Kilian’s first trips to the Grand Tetons, both managed to get lost by going left at the first big glacier and ending up at the saddle between South and Middle wondering where they went wrong.  I can tell you, it’s really that easy.  If you take the wrong path through any of the various talus fields, you could end up miles away from where you need to be.

chris in the talus field.JPG

Day 2, after having experienced all of the madness and misadventure that awaits in Garnett Canyon, we thought we’d wise up and get permits to haul all our gear up there and sleep in the Meadows.  I had a wonderfully useful discussion with a climbing ranger about where to drink wild water (once you’ve already had giardia like he has, you’re immune for life!), and we were off.  While dropping our gear, it quickly became apparent that I had forgotten the tent poles (later: “I really appreciate that you didn’t get mad about my forgetting the tent poles, because that really wouldn’t have helped anything.”)  Assuming we’d figure something out later, we headed up to climb up things.  In retrospect, we should have listened to the book that said “don’t climb anything at all until you see Ice Flow Lake”.  Since we didn’t listen, we had a lot of fun that turned terrifying, and a bail off that really was the stuff of dreams (especially when you compare it to future bail offs).

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I think it’s safe to say that the take away of this and the next several days is, the Tetons are: epic, terrifying, super fun, an elaborate and very long maze, stupidly beautiful, longer on the descent, and demanding of our utmost respect.  A few days later, we were bailing off an arette belonging to Disappointment Peak, and decided to head up in the general direction of the Grand’s lower saddle as the sun was going down. [I would like to point out that this was my first trip using my new camera, and I had not yet figured out how to keep random body parts out of the picture yet]

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Climbing the Grand, quite unfortunately, was not in the cards on this trip as there was a lot of very fragile, thin ice (verglass) posing quite the obstacle.  On our hike up, I was thinking of Kilian’s FKT on the Grand [I didn’t know this at the time, but a Teton NPS ranger beat Kilian’s time 11 days later by 59 seconds] that’s just under 3hrs (2:55).  From the parking lot, to the summit, and all the way back in under 3hrs.  It sounds amazing when you hear about it, but when you’re hiking all those miles of talus it just seems so outrageous and extraordinary.  But if he can do it, I could do it.  Not right in that moment, of course, but if that’s what I wanted to pursue with my life, I could do that.  His physical feat proves that it’s possible.  So naturally, I started thinking about Nolan’s in 30 hours (or any ridiculous, truly fast time that blows the current FKT’s in the 50hr range out of the water).  I actually met Tony for the first time in the coffee shop right before this trip, and we talked about the Nolan’s in 30 hours thing.  I’ve talked to a lot of people about the possibility of Nolan’s in 30 hours and the general consensus is that it’s not possible for a variety of reasons.  I maintain that if anyone can do it, Tony can.  So back to current time, sunset near the saddle of the Grand, this is what I’m thinking: how wonderful that these amazing people can do these things that blow your mind, and that sets the standard for what I believe is possible.  Chris and I argued about this for a while, then we argued about FKT’s.

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It’s getting dark, and I suddenly realized that I want to see Tony do Nolan’s in 30 hours so badly because I want to believe that it’s possible.  But I don’t need him to show me, just like I don’t need Kilian [or Andy Anderson, the actual record holder at the time] to show me that it’s possible to ascend the Grand Teton (or the Matterhorn, for that matter) in less than 3 hours.  Anything is possible.  For a long time I’ve thought of myself as someone that doesn’t believe in limits; limits are self-imposed by your imagination.  But all this time, I’ve actually been using other people to adjust my perception of limits.  The reality is, if I want Nolan’s done in 30 hours I better fucking do it myself.  I had told Chris on the drive to Wyoming that I’ve been sort of teetering on the edge lately, that sometimes I think I should have a normal life, and sometimes I think I should really jump off the deep end.  I had also been teetering with climbing in general: getting so frustrated that I never climb again, or falling madly in love with climbing.  It was so suddenly obvious what my purpose in life is.  Just as the sky transitioned to true dark, I pressed my face against the rock and cried.

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Another thing I hadn’t thought about much was how I really feel about FKT’s.  I’ve battled this in my head for a while, and there’s certainly a lot of controversy and mixed feelings about this in the mountain community.  Until I defended them, I didn’t know this was how I felt.  Sure, some people put down FKT’s because they’re competitive and they want the speed record.  That’s not everyone, though.  I’ve been working on Nolan’s for a very long time now, and I finally understand that as I destroy myself on that course, and I suffer, and I fall apart, and I keep going despite all of this, those mountains fill me up again, and that process is how you get to find your home.  Nolan’s is my home, and it belongs to me as I belong to it.  When it’s time, I’ll run that course as fast as I can.  Not for a record or for recognition from the very small community of people that care about Nolan’s, but because I am in love with that line, and it is my responsibility to run it as fast and light as I can.  That’s what grace is, to honor something with your presence.

As we suffered and struggled in the Tetons, and sometimes fell apart a little bit, I realized that the Nolan’s course aren’t the only mountains that will be home to me.  Every time I go back to the Tetons, I’ll break off bits of my soul for them and they’ll fill me up just like the Rockies have been doing for years.  And eventually, I will belong to them too, and this process will continue to happen every time I fall in love with new mountains and new fantastic, aesthetic lines through them.  Then, it will be my duty to run and climb those lines as fast as I can.  That is the most perfect thing in the world.

Because Mama Teton watched us struggle with hard climbs, long exhausting days up before dawn and to bed at 11, and kind of scary weather, she rewarded us with a perfect day on the Middle Teton right before we had to leave Wyoming.  The route along the sw ridge crossed over briefly and dropped below the North side of the ridge, and suddenly the Grand Teton appeared.  Awe is a very powerful emotion, current research tells us that it strengthens our immune system and improves our general health to feel it regularly.  In this case, I could hardly breathe, and it filled up my chest so much it hurt.  I told the Grand Teton that I would come back as soon as I could.  Because, like many mountains before her, the Grand Teton will become a part of my soul that lives outside me.

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Lastly, Oliver the Fox definitely deserves mention here.  He’s my best friend. [unsure why I capitalized fox, guys, but I’ve decided it stays]

 

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Right?? I can see now why people are tempted to feed wild animals.

It was a no good, very bad day

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

 

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

 

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

 

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lunchtime

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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