MOAB (running for freedom)

I went to Moab because I had forgotten why I love running. Training has become a miserable chore that I have to force myself to do, leading me to constantly bash my own self discipline and question pretty much my entire life (including and especially living in Leadville, and pursuing a serious race season this year). I had 3 days off coming up, and what could solve my problems better than a run trip?

The area that would become Moab was first populated by settlers attempting to cross the Colorado River between 1829 and 1855, when it became a trading post of Latter-Day Saints. Another group settled there in 1878 and Moab was established as a city in 1902. The name Moab is either biblical, referring to “the far county” that’s populated by sinners apparently (because of which the city dwellers have petitioned to change the name unsuccessfully multiple times) or the Paiute word for mosquito, maopa. Moab has about 5k permanent residents, boasts millions of tourists, is home to an incredible amount of restaurants that are mostly closed, and has weather that’s generally better than forecasted. [in the course of the extensive Moab research I just did, I saw a statement that the Potash mine near Moab dyes the water in its evaporation pools blue to speed the rate of evaporation, is that a thing? Does it even make sense? If you understand why, please leave me an explanation in the comments]

Friday morning the sky was dumping snow over my mountains so hard it was challenging even to get out of the high Rockies at all, it took over 5 hours to drive to Moab. But it had stopped snowing by the time we hit Utah, and by the hwy 191 exit to Moab it was sunny and getting warmer in spades. I drove straight to the Hidden Valley TH, jumped out of Hooptie, and started running up. The Hidden Valley trail goes up to a pass that marks a gateway to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area, something like 50,000 acres of un-trailed wild desert.

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At the top of the pass, you could go straight to remain on the Hidden Valley trail down to the mesa, or you could go right. Going right was rewarded by walls covered in petroglyphs.

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Petroglyphs are rock art carved or otherwise scraped on (as opposed to pictographs that are painted on). Apparently there’s some evidence as to the period the petroglyphs represent, but they can’t be geologically dated, and the best guess is that they were made by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in Utah between 200 and 1200.

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The social trail I was on descended and connected back to the HV trail, that ends when it meets the Moab Rim Road. West from that connection is desert as far as you can see. The downside of desert running is the sand and the cacti, but the upside is the vegetation is sparse and allows you to run easily wherever you want without a trail. I kept a close eye on the landmarks of the pass from when I came, but was overcome by the thrill and fear of going nowhere as fast as possible, how easy it would be to get lost, and that scarce possibility of what if I don’t make it back? It’s been a long time it seems like since I’ve felt that thrill.

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After dark (since I had indeed made it out of the desert safely) I took Hooptie West of Moab, a ways down an access road bordering the CO river to a parking lot along the Poison Spider 4×4 road, to sleep where I would run in the morning. Eat, sleep, wake up, eat, run. On the network of 4×4 roads in this area, you could run all day easily over sandstone and past arches, caves, and all kinds of interesting terrain without seeing a single person. You can stick to the roads or you can wander off in any direction, hoping you can figure out the way back (which takes a surprising amount of time and energy to think and worry about, thereby pushing any other problems you’d been worrying about straight out of your mind). Safely returning to Hooptie again just before dark, I headed to the south side of the Kane Creek Canyon, past all the TH parking lots, stopping at an overlook to eat and sleep.

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I woke but didn’t run where I was, by Hurrah Pass, I drove back to town (for coffee) then East to the Sand Flats to run the famous Slick Rock Trail. Running on sandstone for 3 days was starting to get a little rough, but something turned over and I picked up speed, flying over technical for 12 miles up and down rock formations wild and free. The previous 2 days, and the previous 3 months or so, had caught up with me, and I was finally free of all of it. I continued on a 4×4 road called Fins N Things (I know, I know), but at the end I just wasn’t done running.

I went back to the canyon I’d slept in the night before, already 22 miles in or so, and went flying down the Amassa back road at almost 10 miles an hour (which is really fucking fast for me) and continued that ridiculous pace for over an hour.

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Past the point when your muscles can’t keep up and you’re out of breath, past the soreness of joints worn from 3 days of impact, past the achilles tendon pain and tightness I’ve been dealing with for a few weeks. Past the questions of success, age, choices. Past fear. There was no question of where I was (I had gone so far I had no idea) or if I would get back. My feet didn’t stumble over obstacles, they landed softly and in perfect balance; just brushing the ground and rocks that technically anchored me to the earth. I’ve tried to explain what long distance running feels like over and over, both because I’ve been asked and because I want co-conspirators to share in this extraordinary adventure. It’s like this: suddenly you feel very light, and it’s as if the molecules that make up your body and spirit evaporate into the environment around you. Simultaneously, the molecules of the terrain and the sky are evaporating into you. And you know that you are inextricably linked to the earth and the sky, as the smallest piece of a vast working universe, but every tiny atom of you exactly the same and just as important as every other atom that exists now or has ever existed. It is freedom and joy that are hard to find in the world that we’ve built where we work and buy things and interact with each other in strange ways, with little community and a lot of dishonesty.

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I remembered why I run. Why I’ve made the choices I have and how I’ve come to be here. It doesn’t happen like that every time, to be sure, but every time it does I remember how important it is to live honestly, to bare my passions and dreams, to take risks. It’s time for positive change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouray & Silverton: does sleeping in your truck make you feel like a badass?

Last year I started a new tradition of mountaining for my birthday, continuing this year in the beautiful (and relatively remote) towns of Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. Of course, in true Sarah’s birthday tradition, there was snow. And mountains! And coffee.

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

I had been dreaming this trip up for months; I hadn’t yet been to Silverton (my planned trip was postponed in favor of going to Lake City to meet up with my badass runner friend Trish) and basically I’ve been wanting to get back to Ouray ever since the last time I was there in March. In sharp contrast to my usual running trips, I had wild designs to stock up on all sorts of pre-made food from Whole Foods, so I might eat like a queen on the road. With a full cooler, piles of sleeping bags and blankets, and a new playlist, I + dogs left Leadville on the morning of my birthday for the 4.5 hour drive to Silverton.

I make a lot of jokes about how I live in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is Silverton is the middle of nowhere. It’s a tiny, ragged town (both tinier AND more ragged than Leadville, which is apparently possible) situated so deep in the middle of the mountains that it’s only accessible by gnarly mountain passes. Red Mountain Pass, from Ouray, is so gnarly in fact that it’s closed nearly every day now for construction because the outer lane is falling off and they’re trying to blast deeper into the mountain so the future pass can be more than one single lane. Red Mountain Pass (also called the Million Dollar Highway, which is great because I think at this point they’ve spent WELL over a million dollars on this road and it makes me think of Dr. Evil saying “one MILLION dollars”) is named for the iron oxide in the slopes of the surrounding San Juans (it’s true, they’re really red, the San Juans of Silverton and Lake City are extremely large piles of red dirt). I just found an amazing article (http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20140624/NEWS01/140629751/Highway-to-hell-) that says not only is Highway 550 one of the 12 most dangerous roads in the world, but also that it is notorious for having the highest avalanche danger per mile, and this beautiful piece of prose “the narrow road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.” In fact, there are no guardrails because it would be too hard to push the snow off, and let me tell you, the stories of snowplow driver deaths are so harrowing that I can’t even fathom how much that job pays at this point.

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

Anyway, I rolled into Silverton, was amazed by the decrepit and tiny town I found, then promptly drove up a Jeep road looking for a campsite. What I stumbled upon was EPIC. Up on a hillside, miles into the wilderness, waterfall in proximity, spectacular mountain views. “Welcome to Silverton, Sarah, please enjoy this, the best campsite of all time, in honor of your birthday.” I almost considered setting up a tent and making a campfire, but chose instead to bunk down in the back of Hooptie in a cozy, warm nest, and read until I fell asleep.

the view from the best campsite of all time.  Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

the view from the best campsite of all time. Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

Waking up in the morning in your truck in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot to distract you. You get your chameleon cold brew out of the cooler, throw some nutella on a tortilla, and put your running shoes on. I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I rarely even change clothes for the duration of a running trip. Who’s going to care? The mountain? Then you run all day, sleep all night. You’re limited to the food you brought with you (plus the Snickers and Coke you’ll inevitably buy when you go into town later), so I pretty much eat Nutella and tortillas, pb&j’s, and on this particular trip chips and (fancy) buffalo fake chicken wraps (for the two days they lasted). And I don’t even care. At home I wouldn’t touch a pb&j at this point I’m so sick of them, but sitting on the tailgate between trails it’s pb&j mow time. Read by headlamp, fall asleep. The next day is much the same: wake up, drink cold brew, eat Nutella and tortilla, put on yer shoes. Run mountains, come back for lunch, run more mountains, go into town. Snickers and Coke. Find a new camping spot.

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

Then I was in OURAY. I fucking love Ouray. Headed up to Mt. Sneffels (I know.) it’s immediately obvious that there’s a whole lot of snow above 12k. Sneffels, from Ridgeway to the West, actually has incredible vertical prominence (7,200) for the Colorado Rockies, and as this section of the San Juans have very distinct jaggedness and striped ridges, she was named for a volcano in Iceland, Snaefell, that appears in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Apart from some silly Kansas tourists who don’t know the number one rule of Jeep roads (if you can’t drive faster than you can walk, then you or your car don’t belong) the drive in to Yankee Boy Basin was absolutely spectacular and fully otherworldly. I parked a ways below the basin for the extra mileage and headed out, woefully under prepared (while I suspected I would come across snow, I didn’t manage to bring spikes, wool socks, or gaiters). The trail up Sneffels crosses the basin, heading to Blue Lake Pass, then you take a sharp right to climb a crazy steep gully all the way to the ridge. It was actively snowing pretty good, and near the sharp right I ran into a guy hiking with his dog. “I was heading to Blue Lake Pass but there’s blizzard conditions! Where are you going?” I smiled awkwardly and lied through my teeth, “Oh, just hiking until I feel like turning around.” He accepted my terrible lies and went on his way, and I took the sharp right and started climbing the gully full of two feet of wet snow.

this was taken in the basin.  up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow!  and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

this was taken in the basin. up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow! and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

The climb made me question my sanity, as usual, because when you’re climbing so steep that you can barely ascend in the snow, how do you think you’re going to get down? And as usual, I relegated that question for later thought and powered up. The ridge boasted stupidly hard gusts of wind, and I thought about the TH sign that warned of the wildly high winds (up to 200 MPH!!) one might find on the Sneffels ridge. I pulled my buff over my face and carried on. By the time we made it to the summit, Lu was coated in wet snow (and a little pissed) and I was trying to remember how long it had been since I felt my feet. We paused long enough to turn my phone on and hope that it would stay on despite the cold for the 15 seconds to take this selfie:

the black at the bottom is Lu

the black at the bottom is Lu

then turned around. Tramping through the thigh deep snow on the ridge was cold but fine, and an excellent preview of winter. Descending the gully was about as I expected (not possible without spikes) so I took advantage of the lack of exposure and excellently slippery wet snow and glissaded almost the entire way. When we were back in the basin, Lu gave me the familiar “you can’t be serious, we’re going back already?!?” look and I wish you could argue with dogs sometimes because it was very different than the “you can’t be serious, why the fuck are we up here!?!” look that she had on no less than an hour ago. The basin offered stunning Northerly-ish views that I hadn’t noticed on the way in:

an entirely different world

an entirely different world

Descending to where we parked took us below snow altitude and apparently out of the storm going on in and around the basin; it was sunny and hot and I had to strip all the winter gear in a hurry. Back in Ouray it was nearly summer again. We ran the Ouray Perimeter trail and it further and further cemented my mad love for this teeny tiny town. Also, this is great, I found a campground on the edge of the city

really.

really.

My speculation is that because you can drive your rv’s and trailers into Ouray from the North, but to camp anywhere you’d have to take them up on Red Mountain Pass or on one of the various Jeep roads (towards Sneffels or Imogene Pass or off of Auditorium), the alternative is to park in town I guess. Get a Coke in town, pb&j, find a place to camp, read by headlamp until you fall asleep. Wake up, drink cold brew, nutella on a tortilla, put on yer running shoes. Find a mountain, run up it. Pb&j. Repeat. Coke in town, find a place to camp, read by headlamp, fall asleep.

Ouray

Ouray

What all of this means is: I love the simplicity. There’s no distractions. I always bring my journal but I almost never write in it, unless it’s to record one of my profound breakthroughs during a run (here’s one from Silverton, it’s fucking gold: we’re not looking for anything, we’re trying to find ways to sacrifice more and pay the price of freedom-for it is steep. Sometimes you have to break the things you love, and sometimes you have to love the things you fear; most often both). I run all day, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat, it’s just fuel. I don’t have to do work around the house, or go to work. I rarely talk to anybody, and I never, ever feel lonely on these trips, despite that I spend all of my time completely alone. I come back glowing, and it’s because I’m completely rejuvenated. When people say “no worries or cares” I think what worries most people isn’t even the worries-it’s the constant process of making the 3,000 decisions that go into your daily life. Those constant decisions are there in most vacations, too. The simplicity of a running trip…I think I’m onto something.

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CAPITOL PEAK PT 5 (this is about love, perseverance and terror)

It’s very nearly one year since my first attempt on Capitol Peak; as it was I intended to summit the glorious and dangerous peak as the 28th 14er on my 28th birthday. Things went awry, to say the least, kicking off what would turn out to be a long and tumultuous quest to finally stand on top of the mountain I now love the most.

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So if you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that last year’s birthday Capitol attempt failed because the Elks got 3 feet of snow the day before. It became my first winter camping trip, and going up on that class 4 ridge drowned in snow was maybe the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.

Because of my fanatic single-focus Nolan’s training this year, I didn’t even leave the Sawatch until the end of August when I made a glorious and successful attempt on North Maroon Peak, one of my favorite ascents of all time and my first class 4 Elk summit (the “Maroon Bells” along with Capitol are recognized as both the deadliest and most technical of the 14,000+ ft mountains in Colorado). Naturally, now free of Nolan’s (for the rest of this year anyway), Capitol was scheduled and I was so ready to get back to that magical valley, which has definitely become my favorite place in Colorado.

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Maroon Bells 💙

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I made two unsuccessful attempts on Capitol with the toughest mountain runner I know, my friend Trish. I believe that Mama Elks was physically shaking us off the Northeast ridge with the loudest, wildest thunder you’ve ever heard. [okay listen, did you know if you can hear thunder then lightning is less than 10 miles from you? And even crazier, if there’s less than 30 seconds between the thunder and lightning then it is less than 6 miles from you…ipso facto if there’s only a few seconds between…I’m just saying it’s fucking close! Also, we apparently know now the talus in our beloved mountains conducts lightning (because of the indirect lightning strike on Handies during Hardrock this year) but I couldn’t find any full explanation]

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After a week including two trips to Aspen (and beyond) and two sadly unsuccessful attempts (that were still most excellent days in the mountains AND we discovered CP Burger so really great days overall) I have to admit I was more crestfallen than ever before. Capitol looms like a beast from Lord of the Rings over the Capitol Creek valley and you can see it from the TH and almost the whole way in. Honestly there is no place more epic, this mountain is just it.

Hayden Survey named Capitol Peak in 1874 (which you may remember was during the gold rush in the High Rockies), comically because of its “resemblance to the Capitol Building”. No one attempted to climb it until 1909, because it appeared to be an impenetrable fortress and it wasn’t thought possible. Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark of Aspen summited for the first time on August 22, 1909. These pioneers also gained the first ascents of North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, and many of the treacherous 13ers in the Elks (yes, Hagerman and Clark Peaks are definitely named after them). Hagerman said later “there is one rather sensational bit of 40 ft where the ridge is so sharp that one must get astride of it and move along hands and knees…the drop here is something like 1,500 feet, not straight but appallingly steep and smooth”

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I attempted Capitol a fourth time by myself. The result was a hyperextended knee, my first real knee injury and let me tell you it struck terror into my heart. I’ll talk about this more at some point in the future, when writing about it becomes cathartic instead of heart wrenching.

Anyway, still injured I saw what appeared to be one last glimmer of hope in the form of a 3-day weather window, which will probably be the last before the Elks are covered in snow for the year. I got up balls-ass early (I don’t understand what that expression means either) and Hooptie and I drove to Aspen (then 14 miles North, and something like 12 miles west until the Jeep road ends…) and I got out and started walking. And boy has it been a long time since I WALKED a trail! It takes for fucking ever, just sayin. It was a perfect clear sunny day and I couldn’t help but see it for what it was- Mama Elks was finally saying I was worthy. Not gonna lie, my knee hurt and it was disconcerting. But I kept on; I knew it was my last chance this year and I wouldn’t give it up for anything (if you’ve read this blog before we all know how irresponsible I am, and you guys I just don’t care). The first time things get weird is downclimbing K2, especially since that was the only part of the route with snow on it. Shortly thereafter you see the “baby knife edge” and you’re like REALLY!?! No way…then you get to the real Knife Edge and you’re like OHHHHH ok I get it. And you throw a leg on either side and squeeze your knees into the rock and cross the thing on your hands. So, I’m not afraid of heights. And by the end I was gasping for breath. I wasn’t SO freaked out that I DIDN’T take a Knife Edge selfie though

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The worst thing about solo ascents of Capitol is being alone on the Knife Edge/not having a buddy to take a sweet badass picture of you on it (ok I’m kidding…I really think the exposed scary bits would have wreaked less havoc on my nervous system if I had a friend). So Mr. Badass Hagerman says that after this point the climb is “arduous” and I think that’s a beautiful euphemism. This sums it up, I think: the route on Capitol is great because for hours you’re like ok I’m on route, climb, climb, super exposed, where the fuck is the route, nbd I guess I’ll just traverse this cliff until, infinity later, you’ve nearly circled the summit it seems like and you’re finally there. I summited to greetings from two friendly gentlemen, who immediately asked me where my helmet is and ARE YOU ALONE!?! I wasn’t even initially annoyed though, they weren’t being condescending at all (like the usual tough guy mountain nit wits) and I don’t think it had anything to do with my being a small girl.

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The weather was a real treat-above treeline lately it’s been winter for sure but today with the perfect sun and no wind it was warm and sweet. Those guys told me they’d been napping and I believe it. I have to admit it was anti climactic. I was content but not deliriously happy. Maybe I knew the way down wouldn’t be easier?

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I peaced off the summit first and in a hurry. It was all going great, and actually the return trip over the Knife Edge I kind of spidermonkeyed super fast with some kind of renewed confidence. All was well until below the ridge after K2, where you have the high road/low road options and I chose high because it’s faster. The high route is harder to find, in fact I’ve never been able to keep it on the return trip but I was overly confident because I’d followed it all the way in. The trouble here is that it cliffs out between, and if you’ve chosen the high road and lose the route you’re…fucked.

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I don’t know what happened, it’s safe to say that at this point I was a little mentally exhausted. I was following cairns and the route disappeared. I climbed up and down looking all over for it and suddenly I was stuck. And for the first time I can understand why someone might call Search and Rescue…they’ve backed themselves into a terribly dangerous corner that will require some serious climbing to get out of…and maybe they’re alone and without ropes. And then they[I] panic. Huddled on a ledge, shaking so violently I bumped my head, I was desperately trying to calm down and get enough courage to turn around and start the long climb down. I kept hoping to see ANYBODY descending appear at the top of the rock field, but I had apparently put myself over an hour ahead of them. I turned my phone on and by some luck I had service. I called a friend and immediately burst into tears and told her I was in a bad climbing situation and I needed to calm down. I also swore I was giving up mountains, and I was going to be a nurse and have a normal life and watch Netflix (BWAHAHAHA YEAH RIGHT. Look mountains, I’m really sorry for those crazy things I said but you know they’re not true). The phone call worked though and four minutes later I was shaking much less and steeled to climb down to (eventually) solid ground.

So basically, MAD respect for Capitol, who makes every other ascent (including North Maroon Peak) look like child’s play. After so many hours of exposure, my nervous system was just fried, but now I know it’s that much stronger. By the time I was back to Aspen I was thinking about my next ascent (yeah when I got back to Hooptie I was still decompressing) and by the time I was home I was ready to say THAT WAS AMAZING. Hard earned, to say the least, summiting Capitol felt like a real accomplishment. 77 miles on foot, 20+ hours of driving, every kind of storm, lightning, hail, an avalanche, a sprained ACL. 💙 You Capitol.

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FAILURE

I looked up the definition of failure (you’re not surprised) and it’s pretty heavy:

1. Lack of success
2. Omission of required or expected action
3. The action or state of not functioning

I’ve [obviously] spent a whole lot of time thinking about what happened, and simply put it’s that I made a mistake that was too big to recover from. I chose to call it in favor of starting over and hoping that at least the big problems are out of my system. I think all three definitions of failure are appropriate.

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I was feeling great, having a good day of various challenges (downclimbing a waterfall, confusing elk for bear, my very first backcountry snake-on-my-feet). I knew the route, I was going east looking for a Jeep road going South and uphill. Maybe a half mile later I stopped and pulled out the map. I knew I was going the right direction-this is the part of the story that I haven’t been able to reconcile. When I looked at the map, it appeared that the road I was looking for was the one I had already passed at N Half Moon TH (that goes South and uphill) and I turned around to go back-despite that I felt very iffy that it was right. I ran that road (south and uphill) to a clearing where the road evens out and there’s a rocky gully on the left (exactly like the course description) and started climbing.

It was crazy steep to begin with, but when it got rocky the real problem became the loose rocks. I’m going to go ahead and give you this description: it was like climbing a vertical ladder made of loose boulders that could easily crush me, covered in tiny rocks like marbles so I never had solid footing anywhere. When I talked to my parents later they noted that it took me a REALLY long time to ascend this section. No. Kidding. I don’t believe it was possible to downclimb any of that crap, so my best bet was to keep going. Unstable class 4, rivers of loose rocks…I kept hoping for better and it kept getting worse. Of all the risky things I’ve done, this was the worst, the longest, and the stupidest. At one point a rock broke off in my left hand and I fell, onto my back and rolled a ways before I could get purchase on something to stop. I would eventually be covered in bruises, but otherwise miraculously uninjured (and it reminded me so much of the time I was hit by a car on my bike and I flew at least ten feet and landed on concrete, with a little road rash and otherwise fine and I just couldn’t believe how I made it out unscathed). I continued up because there really wasn’t anything else to do. It was probably the most afraid I’ve ever been; by the top my nerves were fried and I was fully hysterical.

After a fair amount of weeping, I got up and carried on, now on much more stable ground. When I reached the high point on the ridge I realized in horror that I was looking at Elbert and I could feel my mistake in every cell. I was on the wrong fucking mountain. I think it took almost 4 hours to get up there (I had budgeted 2.5 for Elbert). I started looking for a route to descend, and I turned on my phone and called my dad. We agreed that I was so far gone, if I wanted a chance to get 60 hours I would have to start over. I made that decision so quickly and started to descend. The descent was gnarly (still 1000x better than the ascent from the other side) but every minute I spend bushwacking, especially route finding over rocks and cliffy sections and struggling through thick awful brush, I get more comfortable doing it and it starts to feel more normal and less retched. It was another 2+ just to get down and several more miles to meet my crew.

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In the next 24-48 hours I would face my demons like never before. Every moment I was in the mountains this week I was struggling with how I felt about everything, what I was going to say, and when and IF I was going to go out again. My stars, I still don’t know. It seems easy to put up a date for the next attempt (a week from Sunday) but I’m still wavering on the IF.

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There was something in the moment after I fell that was different than the other close calls I’ve had in the mountains. Before, they’ve made me want to push harder, bigger, faster (after Capitol I believe I wrote something like “Now I know that I will unequivocally risk my life to touch the sky, because what is the alternative!?”). But this time…it felt more like ENOUGH. Since then, I’ve had a few solid days of ascents (I even re-did the one I fucked up on Sunday) and off trail. I don’t have a solid thing to say either way to finish off this post. I’m just still working it out.

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The time has come

I don’t have anything real to say. All week I’ve been so full of every kind of emotion I don’t even know what to tell people when they ask how I am. At this point I’m strangely calm, and it’s like in the Simpsons when the doctor tells Mr Burns that he has so many diseases that they’re all in some kind of crowded balance, and Mr Burns says “you mean I’m indestructible?”
And the doctor says “No Mr Burns, the slightest breeze could kill you”
And Mr Burns says “I’M INDESTRUCTIBLE!”

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I don’t doubt that I can do it. I don’t actually have a concept of what it would feel like to be “ready”, but it is what is, it’s what I’ve trained for, and it’s time to go. I can hardly wait to go.

Everything else is done, except the place I was going to rent a SPOT from was overbooked so I won’t be carrying a tracker. Which is okay, because I’m the only one that needs to know I did it. I’m leaving early on Sunday morning from the Fish Hatchery to climb 14 14,000ft mountains in 60 hours and 100 miles. Whatever happens, Tuesday night will be a hell of a celebration.

Ready or not, here we go.

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Night Ascents (are you afraid of the dark?)

If you type “why are humans” into Google, the third option that comes up is “why are humans afraid of the dark?” Mostly, the internet says that fear of the dark is an evolutionary response-built into us over 100’s of years of big cats prowling the Savannah at night much like our fear reactions to snakes, spiders, and fires. This supposedly also explains why most of us are afraid of the dark and not of cars or saturated fat (mountain lions kill less than one person/year on average in the US and Canada, spiders average 2/year (from allergic reactions), while 610,000 die of heart disease in the US per year and 32,000 die in car accidents in the US).

I’ve said before that I’m most afraid of navigating in the dark on Nolan’s. The last time I was in the mountains in the dark was towards the end of last summer when I had that big 5 summit day and came down Harvard in the dark in a storm. I was so afraid of what lie past the edges of “safety” ie the light of my headlamp that I sang Sanskrit devotional songs at the top of my lungs, comforting myself and hoping to stave off the hungry, evil predators that were sure to be waiting just on the edge of the dark. I didn’t know then that mountain lions don’t even kill one person every year, but I don’t think that makes it seem less scary when your headlamp is reflecting on felled trees and you’re sure you’re seeing things that go bump in the night.

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Things that go bump in the night here in Colorado:
Rattlesnakes (there are 7-8,000 venomous snakebites in the US/year, and 5-6 fatalities)
Black Bears (2-3 fatalities in the US/year)
Mountain Lions (2 attacks in the US/year and .8 fatalities)
Lynx (I could not find statistics, I assume that speaks to how common deaths are)
Grizzly Bears (are not believed to exist in Colorado, which means there have been no attacks or fatalities in a loooong time here)
Wolves (there’s proof this year that they’re back in CO, but no attacks or fatalities in years either)

So all of this means I’m 610,000 times more likely to die from Mozzarella sticks than a mountain lion, and 6,400 times more likely to die in the car on the way to the trailhead than from a rattlesnake bite. WHAT ARE WE SO AFRAID OF!?

This whole time I’ve been in Leadville, I haven’t run with a buddy one single time. Incidentally, I finally met another female mountain runner here and she asks me if I’d be interested in a night ascent. How serendipitous, since Nolan’s is coming up fast and that’s the one thing I haven’t been willing to face (the other night on the phone I said “No I’m sure not going to practice running at night, I’m only willing to take that risk ONCE and it’ll be during Nolan’s and never again”). The very next night, at 11pm after work I find myself driving Half Moon Rd to the TH.

And let me tell you, not only was I not scared at any moment during our run, but it was incredible and fun. Even living up here, at high altitude and in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never seen the stars glowing quite like they did above treeline. There was a lightning storm maybe 30 miles in the distance. We couldn’t figure out what was causing so much lightning but it was so incredibly beautiful-and just for us, because who else was up high enough to see it in the middle of a Sunday night? The felled trees reflected in our headlamps weren’t mountain lions at all, they were felled trees. And I only fell a couple times which isn’t really even above average for me…(and I expected closer to 50).

Now that I know how not-scary-at-all it is with a friend, I wonder if I’ll go right back to terrified next time I’m alone…or if I’ve faced the things that go bump in the night and overcome my fear of the dark.

DOUBT

I ran my first ultra distance race, and it was so much harder than I expected (what was it that I expected exactly?? I don’t seem to remember anymore) (also, I didn’t want to do a recap but I did finish, 50 miles and 12,000ft gain, just so you’re caught up).

Then I scoped out the off trail parts of Nolan’s and who knew that the miles BETWEEN the mountains would be the most terrifying and dangerous. And I feel like I’m in over my head (and maybe a little post ultra depression).

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri.  It's reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there.  Just saying.

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri. It’s reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there. Just saying.

DOUBT.

All week I’ve faced the decision over and over again: am I really going to do this? It’s on a level of hard that’s beyond what I could have believed, let alone what I’m equipped to face. If I’m going to do this I have so much to do. So much to do. So so so much to do.

The last time I was going through a crisis like this I taped up notes all over my house, as is my tradition. “timshel-this is the ladder to climb to the stars” and “THIS IS YOUR LIFE!” They’re still there and sometimes they motivate me and sometimes they mock me. During the race I said to myself more than once STOP MAKING EXCUSES AND MOVE YOUR FUCKING FEET and I think that deserves a new sign on my door.

I searched on the internet about how to overcome self doubt and pretty much all the internets has to say about it is about acceptance. I feel like that’s one of those things that sounds all very nice but is much different in practice. I think I read something too about using the fear and doubt to fuel you. HOW DO YOU DO THAT?!

this is the only picture I took during the Pike's Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

this is the only picture I took during the Pike’s Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

I realized I don’t think I’ve had to deal with self doubt of this kind before…I was raised with a solid belief that I can do anything at all, and most of my endeavors (though some very challenging) I’ve seen within the scope of my capabilities. Even the 50 mile race- I was very confident going in and that turn was very hard for my self esteem to take.

Doubt is fear based, obviously. I’ve faced my fears so many times and different ways that I wouldn’t say I’m fearless but I’d say my perspective is a lot different than it used to be (how about the time I slipped and almost fell off the Sawtooth ridge and conquered my fear of spiders, the time I was charged by a bear, when we started an avalanche, or one of multiple times I was lost in the winter on Pike’s). But doubt is such a different kind of fear. I’m used to risking my body or my well being. But what about trying when you don’t believe you’ll do anything but fail? Gosh seeing that on screen brings tears to my eyes. I’ve given up everything else in my life to move here for Nolan’s, basically, it’s about time that I admit that it’s why I moved here. And if I can’t do it? What will my life be then?

See, now we’ve gotten to the heart of darkness here. Not only have I spent the last NINE MONTHS with the single point of focus of training for Nolan’s, but I’ve made it my life, too. Can I really not look back on all the thousands of hours of training and say that I had fun? That I suffered but I also felt the greatest joy? I struggled, I fought, I believed; I saw the most beautiful places, I touched the sky, and I triumphed. The highest highs and the lowest of lows. Is the trial of miles really just about the end point? No. I’m underestimating and devaluing myself. It’s the miles and miles of trials. If I finish Nolan’s it will be the greatest moment of my life. But if I don’t, it’s not as if I don’t have so many smaller triumphs to look back on. To be proud of. I RUN MOUNTAINS. I mean I run mountains, 14,000ft mountains. I am stronger and tougher than I ever have been. As rough as it was, I crossed the 50 mile finish line running strong. I’ve earned every piece of these accomplishments.

glorious fucking summits.  I am mad in love with summits.

glorious fucking summits. I am mad in love with summits.

The thing that I love about long distance running (that I think is also the hardest for people that don’t do it to understand) is when you have nothing left to give, you wish you could lay down and die rather than keep going, and you dig into the deepest bits of yourself…that’s when you see who you are, what you’re made of. When I’m there, in the lowest of soul crushing lows, and I see what’s really in there, it’s I WILL NEVER GIVE UP. I see now that that’s what really matters. The finish line is a great moment for anyone, but it’s not the only moment, and the finish of Nolan’s is not my life. Every piece, every minute, every new friend, every brutal climb, every perfect blue sky, every painful struggle and every summit that brought me this far-THAT is my life.

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just another day in paradise

just another day in paradise

Nolan’s 14 (can you ever be ready?)

All this week I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I know it’s because I’m so scared of what’s coming. I’ve spent the last 8 months or so fully dedicated to training for Nolan’s. I don’t know that there’s anything that can fully prepare you for real adventure.

Here’s two words that I think are constantly misused:

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You know I just read that feeling AWE strengthens your immune system? I’ll never get sick again!

Fear is a big part of this game. I’m starting to understand what a big role it plays. My boss said it sounds like Nolan’s is “type 3 fun”- it’s not fun to talk about before, it’s not fun to do, but maybe’s it’s fun to talk about after” but I don’t think that is true to what it means to me either. It is the hardest, scariest, most brutal, riskiest thing I have ever tried to do. When I finish, it will be my moment- not because it’s fun, but because overcoming all of that will be the highest of highs. Rising above fear-that’s the triumph of the human spirit. The ladder to the stars.

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This weekend is my first ultra distance race. I didn’t think I was going to race this year, but I suddenly wanted to get one in before the season’s over. I’m worried about it, I’ve never raced more than 8 miles. I am hoping that it will be a kind of fun. Then Sunday I’m heading out for my practice run of the Nolan’s route. Doing it backwards because it makes the most sense ride-wise to get dropped off by Salida so I’m closer to home when I finish. Last week’s bushwacking was just a little peek at how wild it’s going to be. I’ve got 4.5 days to do it, cross your fingers for me. If I’m strong enough and brave enough, I’ll touch the sky.

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