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.

20151020-090251.jpg

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.

20150827-143532.jpg

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.

20150827-145901.jpg

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.

20150827-150015.jpg

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.

20150827-151009.jpg

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.

20150806-193202.jpg

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:

20150730-094131.jpg

20150730-094139.jpg

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.

20150730-094801.jpg

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.

20150730-095247.jpg

BUSHWACKING (if you feel lost, get lost)

Off trail is great for getting sticks in your hair, falling in rivers, discovering knee deep bogs, generally being terrified of fauna and the potential for never getting home, and adventuring in new ways that requires so much of your faculties that you can’t think about your other problems.

I’ve been having a lot of problems lately; feeling isolated, being incredibly stressed out by and generally hating my job, trying to manage my training schedule and upcoming trips, and a variety of smaller things. I’m finally doing the Nolan’s 14 un-official run through the first week of August and I have just realized how terrified I am to face such a big adventure when I really haven’t done much big and scary stuff all year. The two things that scare me the most about Nolan’s are navigating off trail and running through the night. I decided to tackle bushwacking today.

20150724-150900.jpg

In the winter, I did tons of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing with no apparent trails, but with 5 feet of snow everything is different. I discovered today that I have a totally unfounded fear of stepping on a rattlesnake. Plus, I apparently have decided that I’m relatively safe from bears and mountain lions only on trails (because why would bears and mountain lions hang out near trails? I don’t know, but thats when I’ve seen the most bears so nobody knows where the illusion of safety came from!)

The biggest thing I noticed about bushwacking back from Mt Massive was my heightened senses and focus. There was no time of effort left over worrying or stressing or thinking. Adventuring should always be like this, and was for me last year but now most of my day trips are kind of same old and I’m not so focused.

20150724-151552.jpg

Other perks included: finding all sorts of wildflowers I’ve never seen before, crossing the same river 5 times (only falling in it once!), climbing a veritable jungle gym of fallen trees, and seeing the unexpected. At one point we were wading through a bog in the willows and I stumbled upon what looked almost like a trail. There were many fresh footprints in the mud- none of them human. Game trail! Also, piles of poop EVERYWHERE. Clearly the animals of the wilderness poop a lot and they’re not doing it near trails.

20150724-152021.jpg

Finally, there’s the distinct fear of not knowing where you are. Yeah, you can get lost on trails. But it is a world of difference being lost in the wild. Because at least the trail goes somewhere. And that, I’m pretty sure, is that magical feeling of exploration. Once you’ve mastered it, you can go anywhere.

We stumbled across the Colorado trail quite suddenly and by accident, and at first I was relieved. 30 seconds later, I was almost disappointed, and I bet Luna that we could find a more interesting way home. (And we did)

20150724-152521.jpg

SNOW (and so I’ve had my mountains all to myself)

I’ve basically spent the entire winter dreaming of winter being over. Do I like winter sports? Yeah, of course I do. But whoa mg all of this snow is cold and wet and it gets in the way.

You know what I’m so tired of?? Post holing. It was so bad one time and my shins were so swollen and bruised that I felt like I had stress fractures all over again (you road runners know what this feels like).

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist.  MY WAIST.  I call this snowwimming

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist. MY WAIST. I call this snowwimming

Anyway, the point is that there was a two-part happening that’s made me realized why the snow is secretly good (it’s a theme this winter-something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about). I went down to the Front Range to visit a friend and had two days of most excellent summer trail running. It was more than magnificent. It was fast and wild and rolling and hard and FINALLY I was tired from fast elevation gain and not from dragging in the snow. We burned up Bear Peak, stood in the river and drank from waterfalls, raced mountain bikers. We also dodged all sorts of people, answered questions, listened to their small talk, and actually ran into some friends.

from Bear Peak

from Bear Peak

So then I came home to the mountains, where it was actually snowing (of course) but it didn’t stick. So we went up to Half Moon Creek. And get this-they’ve opened the road! It’s not passable yet but MORE THAN HALF was clear of snow.

LOOK!  It's the ground!

LOOK! It’s the ground!

I had to carry my microspikes for the 4 miles in to the TH because there wasn’t enough snow to wear them! But, here’s what I realized is the problem with such magic. When the snow is all melted off of Half Moon Creek road, you’ll be able to drive right up to the TH (imagine that!) and even camp along it! When the trails are clear of snow, it will be downright easy to summit my mountains…which is fantastic, until I think about the piles upon piles of fair weather Coloradans that will come out when it’s easy again. The snow: it makes me cold and wet, it exhausts me and causes me to carry all kinds of different equipment, it bruises my shins and knees and other things when I fall dramatically on my face. And the snow: it’s the exact reason why I’ve spent an entire winter almost completely alone in my beautiful mountains in perfect quite and solitude.

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Someone told me after I moved here that the other long distance runners in town do road miles and skate ski on the groomed paths around town, but they most certainly don’t run trails in the winter. Like it’s dirty and wrong! Which is why I’m probably the only one filling out those Mt.Massive Wilderness use permits.

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

As much as I’ve enjoyed running with my feet on the ground, I’m going to continue loving my peace and alone time while I have it.

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

...and me looking awkward, just for good measure.  By the river on the way up Mt. Yale

…and me looking awkward, just for good measure. By the river on the way up Mt. Yale

Winter Camping (taking misery to new heights)

If you’ve ever wanted to do extensive research on hypothermia and frostbite, not to mention crunching the numbers on temperatures, the gear you’re bringing, and the length of exposure, you should probably go winter camping.

If you’ve ever wanted to see icicles grow off of your dog’s coat, you should go winter camping.

20141125-220631.jpg

If you’ve ever wanted to restrict your meals to 4 minutes or less because standing still or sitting for longer will freeze you to death, you should go winter camping.

If you’re curious about game trails and very clear large animal prints, or if you’d like to know how easy it is to wake a bear up out of torpor (because their hibernation is SO LIGHT it’s not actually considered hibernation by most scientists), you should go winter camping.

I’m not going to mention going to the bathroom. Or the large frozen blood chunks in the snow. Okay, maybe we’ll talk about one of those. What I’m really not going to talk about is the LYNX tracks.

20141125-220645.jpg

So I told you, internet, that I had been fantasizing a lot about Nolan’s 14 and I briefly considered what it might be like to attempt a winter FKT, which as far as I know hasn’t been done. I also had high hopes for several day backcountry snowboarding trips this winter. Mark had some vacation time coming up and I was high off of the very exciting Capitol trip, and I wildly suggested a 3-day foray into winter camping to test the waters. And by waters, I mean several feet of frozen water.

Day one: We didn't hate our lives or the universe yet here

Day one: We didn’t hate our lives or the universe yet here

The day before I managed to use my excellent new knot tying skills and several feet of paracord to attach not one, but TWO sleeping bags to my pack. A nice 15 degree bag and an outrageously heavy outer bag made of flannel, some kind of vinyl or something, and probably filled with lead that I lovingly named BIG MAMA and cursed about 90 times during the trip, except while we were sleeping of course because Big Mama stood between me and death. Packed full of food and in every piece of winter gear I own, we drove 6ish miles west of Aspen on one of many “creek” roads where we parked and headed out into the wild.

And this is what my "pack" looked like.  By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear.  Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

And this is what my “pack” looked like. By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear. Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

So there were some foot tracks in just a little ways, the mystery of that is why would you bother to get there and start hiking in only for about 400 feet…but to each his own. What was worse was amongst these tracks was not just a little, but an incredible amount of frozen blood underneath a foot or so of snow. We speculated a bit but not that much…there wasn’t really an answer that’s not terribly disturbing I think.

Lu breaks trail

Lu breaks trail

Hypothermia. The body must maintain 97.7-99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As the limbs decrease in temperature, heat from the core goes outward to replenish and if the core can’t keep it up from there things start going downhill. There are four stages:

Stage 1: awake and shivering 90-95 degrees
Stage 2: drowsy and not shivering 82-90 degrees
Stage 3: unconscious, not shivering 68-82 degrees
Stage 4: no vital signs less than 68 degrees

1500 people die in the US every year of hypothermia. Then, there’s the other cold related problems, frostbite and frostnip. I don’t really even want to talk about Chillblains. You know a little girl in Sweden was revived after a body temperature of 54 degrees!? Did you see that movie about the mountaineer ice climbers that made the first ascent of some giant mountain in Peru or somewhere and there was an accident and anyway they were out there for a couple days and their skin was made up with all sorts of creepy sores? I’m thinking they were supposed to be Chillblains now that I know about them, and that’s all I have to say about Chillblains.

20141125-220536.jpg

I had a pretty interesting moment while climbing through extensive brush in order to fill up Nalgenes from the river (and btw, did you know that backcountry mountain water in the winter is THE MOST refreshing water that exists in the world? true story, it tastes nothing like the bottled water that is claimed to come from mountain springs either) because I realized that if *I* were a bear, I would most definitely hibernate in very thick brush by the river and since bears don’t officially hibernate they can be woken up at the drop of a hat (or by the brush breaking over them). I’m unsure how they can just pop up and attack you, since their body temperature drops to 5 degrees fahrenheit and their heart rate to 8-12 beats per minute. But what’s impressive is that mama bears go under pregnant and pop out cubs during. Also, by some miracle of supposed science their muscles don’t atrophy.

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn't mauled by 5 degree bears

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn’t mauled by 5 degree bears

I’m not really sure what else to say about the fateful trip. You don’t sleep, then after hours of not sleeping you get suddenly warm enough to sleep for 30 minutes and you wake up freezing again. The forecasted high temperature does not apply to the mountains, even if it’s forecasted for the mountains. Even worse, there’s hardly any sun (it’s obscured by MOUNTAINS). Baked beans that were boiling are amazingly cold in less than three minutes. We still don’t know if it’s better or much worse to clear the snow below the tent (don’t worry, before winter’s out I will be able to build a snow cave and I’ll tell you about it). You can’t put up a tent in your giant snow mittens so you have to do it with bare hands and they FREEZE, so bring a second pair of less-warm-but-more-workable gloves. I thought I was a bigger badass for some reason, but the backcountry reminded me what hardcore means. What is miserable suddenly becomes less miserable once you admit you’re miserable.

20141125-220704.jpg

Oh- and snow covered mountains and icy rivers are gorgeous and epic.

20141125-220654.jpg

Capitol Peak (and I discovered I will risk my life)

As you know, Capitol was planned to be the piece de la resistance, the 28th summit over 14,000ft of my 28th year, and we were to summit on the morning of my birthday. It is occasionally referred to as the most technically difficult 14er in Colorado, and it certainly makes the top 5 for most dangerous and most deadly due to its long ridge ascent that is sometimes class 4, very exposed, includes challenging route finding, and, of course, the crossing of the famous “knife edge” ridge.

Capitol Peak (14,130ft) 17miles, 5300ft gain

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

Dan and I at the TH

Dan and I at the TH

We had the game plan of hiking in to the lake (5.5miles from the TH) on Thursday so we could be ascending to the ridge early in the day on Friday, giving us the best possible chance to summit. We left later than we had planned, and then there was the snow. Oh, did I forget to mention? It’s been snowing ALL WEEK in the Elk Range and there is now FEET of snow. So in order to set up before nightfall, and because we assumed the temperatures would be even lower near the lake, we made camp a mile or so out from the lake in a relatively flat area beneath some trees.

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we're not dragging ourselves through snow yet

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we’re not dragging ourselves through snow yet

I crawled immediately into my sleeping bag, hoping to get warm, because as darkness fell shit was getting cold. To no avail. I did my best to eat my frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drink some water because I knew I needed to, but it’s hard when you’re cold. That might be the biggest struggle, is that you don’t want to eat or drink. Dan brought me a bottle of boiling hot water to put in my sleeping bag with me and that was a real game changer. Not to imply that I slept more than about 45min total over the course of that horrible night. This was my first experience in winter camping. Don’t let the horribleness of the situation fool you, now I’m hooked on winter camping. It was 15 degrees that night.

This was taken on my birthday morning.  It's what it looks like to camp in January.  But it was October.

This was taken on my birthday morning. It’s what it looks like to camp in January. But it was October.

Waking up in the morning, you have to surrender your sleeping bag and put your shoes back on, that have frozen completely solid. You know that when you get moving, there’s a better chance of being warm again, but that seems very far in the future. Dan said, “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” Yep.

During a river crossing, I slipped off the snow covered log I was on and ended up directly in the river. We also refilled water bottles here, and let me tell you that ice cold mountain river water is the freshest water I’ve ever tasted. Up until just before the lake we were fortunate enough to be following a trail that a man with two horses and a dog had made (I suppose he was an actual cowboy), but his trail disappeared and we were left to break trail through knee deep snow on our own. Breaking trail is so much work. At the lake, you turn and head up the ascent to the saddle that will bring you to the ridge.

Here's the ridge.  We'd be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture.  The right is Capitol Peak.

Here’s the ridge. We’d be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture. The right is Capitol Peak.

This part was arduous. I imagine when it’s not covered by feet of snow, the trail switchbacks because it’s so steep. You do a lot of sliding back down, and some parts I couldn’t even bring myself back up to standing and ended up crawling to a less slippery place. My feet were freezing but my torso was burning up and sweating. It’s that weird feeling like you’re warm again, but that’s a very tenuous moment. Dan and I sat on the saddle for a few minutes, eating frozen clif bars and speculating about the upcoming ridge.

Up until this moment, we had been thinking that the ridge looked rocky, like the snow had mostly blown off of it. We could see now that most of the ridge was covered in several feet of snow, including terrifying cornices that obscured the actual location of the ridge itself. Heading out, Dan tested traversing through a cornice and it was successful. Each success doesn’t really make you less afraid, I think. But it does make you more likely to go on to the next dangerous decision and choose to keep going. There was a bit of steep scree scrambling that was unsettling as it was mired with ice, then some technical climbing. Dan waiting for me at the top of this bit and once I stepped onto the rock above and he turned to take a step forward, the cornice beside us, one foot away, broke off suddenly and avalanched down the side of the mountain. I think that moment was the hardest my heart has ever beaten. [I’m unsure if it’s acceptable to use avalanche as a verb…I’ll look into that in the future]

We kept going.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

Before each increasingly dangerous obstacle, Dan would turn around and say “you okay?” and I’d say “I’m okay if you’re okay” and we’d trudge on. There was another technical bit that made it apparently exactly what class 4 is-it’s complete vertical climbing with very obvious ledges and handholds, kind of like 5-.2. Another interesting section as most of the good foot ledges were covered in ice and snow. The best part of this bit was, directly underneath it is a slide into a gully that would likely result in 100’s of feet. Do you remember the first time I climbed, and I was fascinated that each time you make a move and take a risk, it feels very much like you’re risking your life, but you’re really not because someone at the other end of the rope will catch you. In this moment, the risk was very much your life, and you don’t think you’ll make a mistake but you don’t know. This was a pivotal moment, I realized I will without flinching risk my life to touch the sky. Before you judge me for that, is it so much better to waste it?

As we began the traverse around K2, the snow got increasingly deeper and it seemed we were not only casually walking into the complete unknown (wtf is under 3-4ft of snow? we don’t have any idea what we’re stepping on) but also putting ourselves right in the middle of what could later be a big old snow slide. After a decent amount of this waist deep trail breaking, we stopped and looked at each other. We agreed it was time to go back. The truth was, we had long since passed any idea of “safety” and although successfully crossing various obstacles made us believe it was okay to attempt increasingly harder ones, the second half of the ridge promised to be much more terrifying, much more technical, more exposed, etc and when we reached those obstacles it was going to become more and more likely that we really wouldn’t be able to cross them at all. The danger we could see, too, was that even if we kept going, made it past the knife edge and other terrifying ice and snow covered feats, by the time we got back we might not be able to cross snowy traverse we were standing in without a snow slide that would certainly be fatal, due to the perfect sunshine that would’ve beaten on it for hours.

It just gets deeper from here.

It just gets deeper from here.

I knew when I chose the most epic of peaks that there was a risk of not making the summit on my birthday. Even before the early-season snow. I knew I would be bummed if we didn’t make it. But, attempting that ridge in January conditions was the most epic thing I’ve tried. At the point where we decided to turn around, I was not upset at all. I knew I’d get my 28th summit. Last year on my birthday, I went shopping at the second hand store, got ice cream for Lu and I, and had dinner with my girlfriend at the time (and she was late). This could not have been a more perfect way to cap off a year of doing epic shit, of blazing, of adventuring.

28 fourteeners did not actually seem possible when I considered the idea. But, I’m not the type to let such little things stop me. I didn’t finish today, but I will. And it will be epic.

Side note: coming back across the ridge and downclimbing the technical sections might have been even more terrifying. We drank my summit beer on the hike out.

27 (all systems go)

I headed to Buena Vista on Monday with certainty that this time, the Sawatch Range was going to get wrapped up. With just Antero and Princeton on the docket, what could go wrong? Well, the weather was forecasted to be terrible. But I wasn’t overstretching myself this time, I planned Monday and Tuesday for this trip so there was basically 98% chance that I’d make both summits.

Planned (and actual): Mt Antero (14,269) 16mi, 5200ft gain and Mt Princeton (14,197) 14mi, 5400ft gain

Antero.  I took this the next day from Princeton.

Antero. I took this the next day from Princeton.

As I mentioned before, Mt Antero is a part of the “highest network of ATV trails in the country” (congratulations, whoever thought wilderness was a good place for that) so you hike up the ATV road pretty much the whole way (and btw, whoever is in charge of trail building, I will learn how to build trails just to build a real trial up Antero; it is insane that nobody’s done it). And it’s just mileage and gain. Mileage and gain. There was some rain on the way in, but not by any means the worst thing that’s ever happened. Because of all the water, though, the rivers were wildly flooded. The first river crossing is so wide that it spread out the extra water and I could still cross at the designated crossing. The second crossing, however, was well above the rocks to cross it. I ended up taking off my shoes and pants to wade across. It was one of the coldest moments of my life (spoiler alert-things get much colder next week). It was maybe 40 degrees and I wasn’t up high yet, I wasn’t about to spend the rest of the mileage in wet pants.

Needs no caption.

Needs no caption.

The rest of the way up was pretty uneventful. When you finally reach the top of the road, you’ve got maybe less than two miles left climbing up the talus field to the summit. It was actually partly sunny for this part.

On the way up the talus field

On the way up the talus field

Arriving on the summit, the view was epic and the clouds, with all the crazy wind, felt like they were on some kind of turbodrive. You know how people build forts on the summits for protection? Someone had built one like a throne looking out to the west. Lu and I stayed there about ten minutes, snacking on trail mix (you know, Whole Foods apparently discontinued my favorite trail mix!? Even more reason to finally make my own. Some day.)

At first, it was cloudy and windy on the summit

At first, it was cloudy and windy on the summit

then, it looked more like this.  Taken from my THRONE atop Mt. Antero while I snacked gloriously on trail mix.

then, it looked more like this. Taken from my THRONE atop Mt. Antero while I snacked gloriously on trail mix.

Then, suddenly, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and the wind picked up. I packed up the trail mix and Lu and I ran off the summit as fast as we could. We made it back to the road, where a nearby smaller peak offered marginal protection, before the storm rolled in. It got dark and wild fast, the wind picked up so much I could lean most of my body weight into it and it took an incredible amount of energy to continue. The precip was what I like to call RAILS. Rain/hail/snow. It was hard and sharp but wet and frozen all at the same time. Things were pretty iffy until we got back to treeline, but honestly the experience (though miserable) made me wonder why I worry so much about storms.

Back below treeline, the precip mostly stopped and the wind was broken by the environment. I saw a herd of mountain goats (picture turned out AWFUL even though they were SO CLOSE) then the sun actually came out eventually for the last bit. I passed a guy on an ATV headed in and he stopped to ask me if I’d been caught in the storm and if I’d seen any mountain goats. He confirmed that he’d seen the same herd the day before, then shared with me that he’s an archer and has a permit for hunting mountain goats. Insert horror/crying here. Hunting mountain goats. Is a thing. Have I mentioned lately how I sometimes question humanity?

Tuesday was serving up Mt. Princeton and I woke up in good spirits, ready to rock. For what I’m pretty sure is the very first time, I was on the trail early enough to see the sunrise.

FINALLY I get to see a sunrise.

FINALLY I get to see a sunrise.

Princeton is another sob that has no trail of its own until you hike up an insane ATV/Jeep road for miles and miles and miles. (again, who do I talk to about this? I will build the damn trail myself.) Not surprisingly, no traffic on this mountain either. I eventually saw a car pass me with an older couple in it that stopped, got out, and got back in and drove back. They were the only people I’d see for the whole day.

and after the sunrise.  still awfully nice.

and after the sunrise. still awfully nice.

So you finally get on a trail for the last couple miles and it’s all talus from there. I mean miles, and miles, and miles of talus. When you finally see Princeton for the first time, it looks so big and so very, very far away.

so. far. from here.

so. far. from here.


And the thing about talus is, it takes so long to pick through it that it doesn’t feel like you get any closer. This was the theme of the trip. It’s taking forever and the summit is not getting any closer. The weather was turning slowly but surely as I headed up, but after the two storms I’ve been in in the last week or so, I’m honestly not that worried. Unless there’s lightning. The final ascent was a real practice in triumph of the human spirit. Definitely one where I thought I’d rather be doing anything else but this. Just slogging and dragging and misery all the way up. Didn’t spend long up on the summit, the view was…lacking.

check that view!  of...clouds.

check that view! of…clouds.

The talus field on the way down and out didn’t go any faster. It was maybe even slower. Needless to say, I wasn’t in high spirits anymore at this point. However, the trail mix I had with me had peanut butter cups in it. So I had that going for me, which was nice. Making it out of the talus field though….now that was an epic moment. Maybe even better than summiting? Although if I hadn’t summited I wouldn’t have felt so good right then. The whole way down the road I daydreamed about attempting Nolan’s. (if you’re curious…http://www.mattmahoney.net/nolans14/)

On Wednesday, Mark and I were scheduled to go back for the 2 Mosquito Range summits that we had missed back in like May (Lincoln, due to dangerous icy ridge and Democrat due to a cut on Luna’s foot), and back Sherman while were out there. Sherman is the most depressing 14,000ft mountain I’ve ever been on. The trail is an old mining road, the mountain itself is unappealing, and there are no good surrounding views either.

the one and only picture we took on #25, Mt. Sherman

the one and only picture we took on #25, Mt. Sherman

Lincoln and Democrat, however, offered epic views and a little bit of fun.

Summit of Democrat.  I ran up it, collapsed on that rock until mark got up there, and posed like a badass for this picture.

Summit of Democrat. I ran up it, collapsed on that rock until mark got up there, and posed like a badass for this picture.


I'm totally up there.  That's the summit of Mt. lincoln

I’m totally up there. That’s the summit of Mt. lincoln

It had been a long day with the driving, Mt Sherman, more driving, and two more peaks to bag, but we were still keeping it together. There was much discussion of 80’s movies, which made the elevation gain pass faster than anything ever. There were a lot of people out, including a couple different groups of stoners (again, hiking fourteeners is what stoners do in Colorado?! Amazing. I only played the sims back when I smoked pot.) Summiting Democrat felt especially good since it was NUMBER 27.

TWENTY SEVEN 14,000+ft SUMMITS IN ONE YEAR

TWENTY SEVEN 14,000+ft SUMMITS IN ONE YEAR

20141007-095907.jpg

In anticipation of my birthday next week, and my 28th peak in my 28th year, without further adieu here is the list:

Quandary
Pike’s Peak
Gray’s Peak
Torrey’s Peak
Mt. Evans
Mt. Bierstadt
Mt. of the Holy Cross
La Plata Peak
Mt. Massive
Mt. Elbert
Mt. Oxford
Mt. Belford
Missouri
Huron Peak
Mt. Harvard
Mt. Columbia
Mt. Yale
Mt. Princeton
Mt. Antero
Shavano
Tabegauche
Long’s Peak
Mt. Sherman
Mt. Lincoln
Mt. Democrat
Mt. Cameron
Mt. Bross

#28: CAPITOL PEAK, coming up next week

Collegiates: pt 4 (finish the Sawatch range?)

I had this trip planned since Columbia, hoping to finish the Sawatch Range in one fell two day swoop.

Planned for Monday: 28 miles, 11,000ft gain, 3 summits: Shavano 14,229, Tabegauche 14,155, and Antero 14,269

Actual: 22 miles, 9,000ft gain, 2 summits: Shavana, Tabegauche and one attempted (DNS): Antero

BAM!

BAM!

I raced home after class on Sunday night, picked up Luna and my bags, stopped at Jimmy John’s, and headed for Salida. Rolled into the TH parking lot at 11p, I figured no one would notice or care if I slept in the car in the parking lot so I did. Set my alarm for 6a.

My alarm never went off, it turned out my phone got too cold overnight and killed the battery. I didn’t bother to turn on the car to see what time it was, but I’d guess based on the sun that it was 8am ish. There were two other groups of two on the trail to Shavano, as I passed them both told me they were going to head to Tabegauche. As of yet, I still did not know how to pronounce Tabegauche, and neither did anybody else. Oh the other downside to my phone dying overnight was that I had no camera…another reminder that I NEED TO GET MY CAMERA FIXED so I don’t rely on my phone.

So I was sick last week, just a regular cold but I realized while I was trying to burn up Shavano greasy-fast that I was not back to 100% (what doesn’t kill you…makes you weaker?). There’s a pretty fair amount of my snot all over that mountain, and I was hacking up my lungs pretty good. I made decent time but not good by any means; taking way longer than I thought.

I summited Shavano and headed down the North ridge as quickly as I could negotiating the rocks. The Tabegauche ascent was mildly grueling in my already tired state. I passed two more guys on their way back to Shavano, they commented on my “speedy” pace (it’s all relative).

No filter.  Looking back on Shav and Tab on my way to Antero

No filter. Looking back on Shav and Tab on my way to Antero

Tabegauche was my 20th fourteener this year. When Abby and I were sitting in the Snug in January talking about 20 14ers, the idea seemed possible but far fetched. When I just recently amended it to 28 14ers, the idea seemed ridiculous. Standing on that 20th summit, I could see how far I’ve come. How much I’ve changed. The mountains don’t change you. YOU change you. Every choice you make, every step, every breath. A year ago on Gray’s and Torrey’s I was dying and we watched a woman run right up Gray’s. I never thought that would be me. You don’t learn new things, these experiences strip away the things that aren’t really you.

Back on the summit of Shavano, I caught up to the boys and we met up with an older gentleman hiking by himself. He told us the two groups of two had both turned back. AND he told us that it’s pronounced TAB-A-WASH. The descent was normal, but the whole thing took longer than I expected, as I mentioned. We got to the Antero TH at 2pm-looking at a 16 mile round trip. If you do the math, I’d have to avg almost 3mph to make it down before nightfall. I started up Antero as fast as I could (let’s be honest, my pace was barely even a “wog” at this point). Antero’s fun because instead of building a trail, you use ATV/Jeep roads. So you’ve got the lingering exhaust and smell of gasoline to deal with, not to mention the actual silly little trucks getting in your way all the time.

The good news was, I charged my phone (PICTURES!) and the views were gorgeous.

I'm pretty sure we're looking at Princeton through a grove of fall color Aspens.  And that little speck is Lu

I’m pretty sure we’re looking at Princeton through a grove of fall color Aspens. And that little speck is Lu

The bad news was, it started raining off and on. The other bad news was, I was exhausted. The even worse news was, I was keeping track of my time and mileage and I was not making 3mph average, in fact by mile 4 or so I’d downgrade “wog” to “staggering”. I was fully determined to make this summit when I started out, even if I had to come back in the dark. Now, I kept thinking mountain lions. Bears. Things were getting a little twisted up in my head. Exhaustion really messes with you. To be honest, I actually considered calling it but saying that I did it. Which is not a thought I’d ever have in my right mind. Nobody cares about 28 14ers other than me, and if I was sane I would’ve known that a fake summit would be worthless to me. But I absolutely wasn’t sane. Right after mile 5, I turned a corner and realized that what I had been thinking was the summit was a false, and absolutely horror is the best way to describe my reaction. I looked at the time, and realized that it was going to be a long time to the summit, and if I carried on I’d be making pretty much the entire 8 mile descent in the dark. The forest at night is now my number one fear, apparently [but guess what’s still not-I actually RESCUED a SPIDER from drowning in my tub while it was filling for my bath]. I turned back.

Seriously.  This is a real picture.

Seriously. This is a real picture.

The descent was long and painful, my knees were already a little crushed from the day I’d had. I did get to dream of picking up some snacks and a Coke in BV before I headed to the TH for tomorrow. I don’t like the decision that I made giving up on Antero, it makes me feel weak, inadequate; but, being recently sick and obviously feeling the effects from it, I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so exhausted. I know it was a good call, and I can’t change it so I don’t regret it.

From our way back down.  Miraculously, the weather cleared up (jerky weather, only looking ominous when I'm still headed to the summit).  This mountain (that I have yet to look up on a map, Antero is behind us) actually was rainbow colored.  And that light magic just happened on its own.

From our way back down. Miraculously, the weather cleared up (jerky weather, only looking ominous when I’m still headed to the summit). This mountain (that I have yet to look up on a map, Antero is behind us) actually was rainbow colored. And that light magic just happened on its own.

Coming up: tomorrow holds in store Yale & Princeton, but there are two problems: I’m exhausted, and I really have to push if I’m going to make 21 miles before I have to be back in Denver to teach my Tuesday night class.