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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The East Side: Scrambling/Bushwacking 

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

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Whitney Portal, Jane Austen, & The Lynx

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

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

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

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

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Hitting the trail in Kingman, Arizona

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

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

“Strange that it would!” Sense and Sensibility

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alabama Hills site

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

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

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

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

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

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Bighorn Meadow, near Lone Pine Lake on the Whitney Trail

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

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

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

“And your defect is to hate everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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Me scrambling on the east side

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

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Pip on the east side, Mt Whitney mired in clouds

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

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

“That is not enough, be more serious.”

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

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

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

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

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Whitney from Alabama Hills

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

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

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Girl’s gotta stay clean(ish)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Freedom in the Desert 20 miles East of Sedona

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

 

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

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The Bell Trail in the Wet Beaver Wilderness

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

 

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

 

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

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Doesn’t need a caption

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

 

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

 

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

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Sterling Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Canyon: Breaking down and the break in

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

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From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm

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

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Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Hermit’s Rest trail

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

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From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off

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

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

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

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

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The only picture of me I took this year

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

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Sun setting from Cedar Ridge

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

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

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

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just below Cedar Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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).

me and lu on elbert

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

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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.

lu on a cloudy elbert

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

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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.

AJ sitting on exum ridge

AJ on the Exum ridge

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

aj and I on summit of the grand

Summit of the Grand motherfucking Teton

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

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

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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.

me on exum ridge

Me on Exum, photo by AJ

 

 

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.

It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.

“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.

Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember.  Actually, it’s been…four months?  And I’m still crying as I type this.

“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.”  What to say?  To a random stranger.  What could I say that would make this kindly man understand?  The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded.  “I’m okay, really, thank you.”

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It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy.  But I’ll try.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up.  Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water.  There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail.  The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did.  If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply.  While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day.  Incredible, right?

Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night.  From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.

The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud.  It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River.  An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.

grand-canyon-warning-sign.jpg

I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.

Update: I found it. KIMG0169.jpeg

So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph.  Views were great though:

Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem.  You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill.  So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.

But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:

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and felt like pure joy.  The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.

Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them!  All kismet.

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After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles.  It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere.  No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with.  If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever.  It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.

Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for.  The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed.  I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top.  But, they didn’t speak English.  And they were still moving, so.

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I hit the North Rim at just over 5h.  It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp.  21 miles down, and hard earned.  I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise.  It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience.  As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.

Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal.  It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete.  Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone.  Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By?  1999.  “I’ve never been so alone.  And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.”  The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.

Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming.  And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.

Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace.  We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things.  I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language.  Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence.  With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body.  Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body.  To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style,  [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce.  I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.

This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended.  However.  About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me.  I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:

the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within.  I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally.  So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?].  And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up.  Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?

And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down.  Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all.  They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours.  I smiled.  Then, at like 430, the sun came up:

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And I staggered to the Trailhead.  And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help.  I walked to the car.  It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly.  I drove to the kennel.  I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise.  It was 75 cents.  I was there to get Lu the moment they opened.  And we carried on.

Lake City (and now I’m 30)

I’ve been putting off writing this one you guys, because I think it’s gonna be rough, and I’m gonna cry.  But here it is, finally.

I came up with all sorts of wild ideas for my bday this year, but since even the greatest ideas fail sometimes, instead I opted for tried and true.  In the grand bday tradition, I dropped a pile of money at Whole Foods, packed up Lu and Hooptie, and off we went.

Lake City was founded in 1873 as a supply center for miners and prospectors in the San Juans (not super successful mining, especially when compared to the other mining towns).  Now, it has a population of 400.  LC is so awesome because it’s like a teeny town got smashed between mountains, and a river runs through it.  As if the natural boundaries weren’t restricting enough (I think they’ve got maybe a four-block width max), the town ends abruptly when it runs into the lake to the south.  Incidentally, I always assumed “Lake San Cristobal” was another example of Colorado recreational reservoirs- but it is A NATURAL LAKE, and Lake City’s obvious namesake.

san-cristobal

I stole this photo from lakecityswitchbacks.com because I’ve never been willing to stop on this narrow road to take one myself.

There are so many things I love about Lake City: the coffee shop that advertises their friendliness towards bikers and doesn’t have an actual espresso machine (or actual iced coffee, but they do have 32oz styrofoam cups!)(and I don’t have anything against bikers in coffee shops, I just never knew before that bikers needed a special sign to know they’re welcome), the tiny, sassy grocery store (the sign on the door tells you exactly how far away the nearest Safeway [Gunnison] and Whole Foods [Frisco] are), the old gas pumps with cranks and little plastic numbers that actually flip (that I forget how to use every single time).  But mainly, it’s the fact that Lake City is on the slopes of 5 major mountains.  I love Leadville, and living in the shadow of the Sawatch, but it would be as if they picked up Leadville and moved it 10 miles onto the slopes of Mt. Massive. Oh! Or into the middle of Missouri Gulch!

Monday morning I rolled into the city, and onto the Alpine Loop.  Naturally, it had just snowed (this was on Oct 3rd), because that’s when the first snow always happens in the mountains that I spend my birthday in.  The fresh snow made the Wetterhorn road a little more “fun” [terrifying] than usual.  As Lu and I got out of the car, I thought ‘we’re turning around when it’s not fun anymore.’

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you can’t see my legs. also, those sunglasses were a bday present to myself. because, duh, they are amazing.

The higher up we got, the harder it snowed.  I was just about to turn around when we crested the ridge and found epically high winds that’s slap you in the face and try to knock you over (try?) and amazing views:

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Still my bday, we headed next to American Basin to spend the night.  Because the storms cleared up (briefly) Lu and I did a quick one up Handies (because it’s short, not because it’s dirty), then settled in to Hooptie for an evening of reading Steve House’s alpinism training book.  I sang Happy Birthday out loud to myself, and cut a lemon Miracle Tart in half.  (I didn’t think it was sad when I did it, but I later heard that the Mars Rover sings itself Happy Birthday every year, which makes me tear up a little, even though it’s a robot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxVVgBAosqg&feature=youtu.be I think the song starts around 1:17).

I knew it’d be cold.  But that night in American Basin, it was 11 mf degrees.  Lu and I got up to pee around daybreak, and the 30 seconds we were outside of Hooptie (and the covers) had us both shivering and shaking until we were fully submerged under the sleeping bag pile once again.  I smuggled the bottle of iced coffee I brought, my headlamp, and my book under there with us since none of my skin could be exposed without frost nipping it [that’s not actually true, you might remember from an old post about winter camping that it’d have to be colder than that to frost nip skin that quickly.  On that note, CHILLBLAINS!].  I later discovered that all of the water in Hooptie froze (including the gallons) overnight.  Which means that the only liquid in the truck that didn’t freeze was the iced coffee.  Was it because there’s sugar in the almond milk? Was it the acidity of the coffee?  What changed the freezing point?  We’ll never know.

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all the way up here just to get some water

Needless to say, we didn’t leave our nest until after 10, when the sun finally filled the valley between [aptly named] Sunshine and Handies Peaks.  There wasn’t a lot of snow in the valley, it was just cold.  This trip, I should point out, was soon after we got back from the Tetons, and I was still buzzing with the implications of everything that happened there.  Just before (quite literally, 1 or 2 days before) we left for the Tetons, I sent out resumes and cover letters to a couple jobs I had been thinking of for a couple months.  Grown up jobs.  Real jobs.  In California, NM, all over. Why would I do such a thing?  I’ll call it the Year-I-Turn-30-Rolling-Life-Crisis.  All this year, I’ve questioned all of my life decisions every couple weeks or so, and made [occasionally ridiculous] massive overhaul plans to fix everything I thought went wrong.  And I thought it was time to move on.  I had literally given up everything to move to Leadville and pursue Nolan’s, and after dedicating something like 3000 hours just in training and route finding, and two full years of my life, I had failed again.  All I could think was, how could I possibly have gotten here?  30 years?  And what have I done with it?  I haven’t done anything with my life.  It’s over.  And I sent out my resumes and prepared to leave Nolan’s behind.

Bear with me with all the jumping around here.  So then I’m in the Tetons, and I have that moment where I realize something I’ve known all along: when you fall in love with a line, it is your responsibility to run it or climb it or ski it as fast and flawless as you can, and that is the most perfect thing in the world.  That suffering and struggling in the mountains breaks off pieces of your soul that you leave behind there, but they fill you up, and not only is that how the mountains become your home, but further, these mountains are my daemon-a part of my soul that lives outside me.  And (as you read in the last post), that was when I knew that I will never be able to go back.  That moment was the threshold.

Now, back to Tuesday October 4th, my first full day as a 30 year old.  I’m here:

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And it is a gorgeous [fucking cold] day in the San Juans.  Since I got back from the Tetons, I felt pretty tumultuous.  I had those really important realizations consuming me, but I didn’t yet know what to do with them and they were still conflicting with that idea that I needed to DO SOMETHING WITH MY LIFE.  That I needed to act like a GROWN UP.  30 is a huge cultural milestone you guys.  I think people can get away with screwing up and messing around in their 20’s, but 30 is like for real grown up time.  And up here on Redcloud, in the cold sunshine with the wind blowing the day after my 30th birthday, I finally felt at ease.  I don’t think I’ve felt completely at ease all year, because it has been in the back of my mind all of the time, and the front of my mind quite a bit.

I felt at ease because I knew the answer to all of the questions.  How did I get here?  I chose this life every damn day.  I worked so hard for this.  Mountain running, ultra running, people ask me all the time how you get into them.  The answer to that is, you work so fucking hard every day.  You run until you feel like you’re going to die, then you hope that the next day you can run faster and higher before you feel like you’re going to die.  You revolve your entire life around it, because if you didn’t do 3 hours of yoga every night or massage every inch of your legs, or cut sugar and flour out of your diet because they’re inflammatory, your legs wouldn’t work to run as hard as you can the next day.  You get a job that you hardly have to work and live in a town that’s cheap to live in but close to the mountains so you can run more than most people work.  I didn’t just magically appear here.  I’ve chosen this life every day, every step, and I’ve given up nearly everything else for it.  Can you imagine what I could have done with my life if I had devoted it this intensely to something else?  I can certainly imagine, I’ve been imagining all year.  BUT I FINALLY DON’T WANT TO ANYMORE.

And on to the bigger one.  “I haven’t done anything with my life.”  WTF!  Do my values really align with the standard American culture?  White picket fence. 9-5. Arguing with the contractor about the renovations. Pick up the kids from school. Happy hour with friends or coworkers. Going shopping, out to dinner.  No, you guys. Those aren’t my values. So why would I define success in terms of things I don’t care about?  Living in this society for 30 years, it makes you think you should have those things, or some semblance of them.  It gives you all these ideas about what success is, what it should be, as if one definition could be the same for everyone.  It is really hard to define success personally because there are so many other factors trying to influence you all the time!  And I finally did it. When you are scared out of your mind, and you look at your fear, and you wrap yourself around it, and you move on.  That’s it, that’s what success actually, truly means to me.  And honestly, I think that is also what freedom means.  There’s a famous quote about the mountaineer knowing what it means to be free, and that’s what it’s about.  The price of freedom is that you have to be the most intimate with your fear, and then transcend it.  Finally, 7 miles west of Lake City, on a Tuesday, I just understood everything.  “I haven’t done anything with my life”? I HAVE DONE EVERYTHING WITH MY LIFE.  I have always done exactly what I wanted, never what I thought I should.  Always what I wanted.  And for that, I am deliriously happy and totally fulfilled.  There is no substitute for the highest of highs and lowest of lows.  All I can ask for is to be scared out of my mind and so happy I’m about to explode.

Finally, I’m done using terms like “grown up” and “real”.  This is real life, here in the mountains and the sky.  What could possibly be more real?  Climate controlled houses?  Grocery stores? Museums? Schools? Office jobs? My life is real. My job is real, I get to engage with our little community and be nice to people, and it pays for me to live and eat so I can do what I love the most.  And I am a grown up.  I don’t need to look like other 30 year olds to prove it.

also sarah on redcloud.JPG

On Tuesday, October 4th, I felt at ease about all of these things.  And I knew that I’m not going anywhere (and that I’m also going everywhere).  I’m definitely not going to get one of these “grown up” jobs and moving to a city where I have to go to an office and work more than I run.  I’m not giving up on Nolan’s, she is the line of my life (and hopefully one of many).  I actually made a 1, 5, and 10 year plan for myself while I was eating the other half of that Miracle Tart.  And it is terrifying!  And exactly what I want! I’ve never been happier.  I think it’s safe to say now, I’m never going back.

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.

ice flow lakes.JPG

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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summit of the middle.JPG

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]

 

oliver-twist-can-i-have-some-more

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