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

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

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

“The Tetons”

“WHERE?”

“Grand Teton National Park”

“WHERE?”

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

“Okay but where?”

“It’s 14 miles long, man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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It was a no good, very bad day

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

 

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

 

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

 

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lunchtime

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

ARIZONA (can you see the end?)

It’s been about a week and a half since I got back from AZ. That trip is definitely in the running for favorite run trip, but the aftermath is forcing me to think very hard about my future in long distance running (and while it’s not the first time, I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to giving it up).

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Hooptie and I rolled out of Leadville on a Sunday morning and drove straight through, fueled by Coke and pb&j’s. we arrived at the South entrance of Grand Canyon National Park around 8pm. The forest roads that were recommended as good places to sleep were gated closed (this would become a theme in AZ, as if the sad remnants of a couple inches of snow constitutes winter) so I parked in front of a gate and hoped for the best.

I set an alarm to wake up before sunrise, and drove into the park around 5:30a. I had never been to the GC, I stopped at the first overlook and watched the sun come up over it for the first time.

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Teddy Roosevelt first saw the GC in 1903, and proclaimed it to be “the one great sight every American should see.” Despite his enthusiasm, a bill to make it a National Park failed 6 times from 1882 to 1919. 13 other National Parks gained their status during that time, making the GC the 15th (Yellowstone had long been a NP, since 1872). The Grand Canyon, 45 miles long, and 5-18 miles wide, is often considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, a list that is apparently frequently changing and now, according to Wikipedia, includes the internet. The original 7 were things the Greeks had seen, and included a mausoleum. Some current lists are 2-3/7 NYC buildings. The most legit one I saw is “natural wonders” like Aurora Borealis and Victoria Falls.

I geared up and headed down into the canyon. I had never had the opportunity to destroy my legs on a big descent at the beginning of a run, so I did exactly that all the way to the Colorado River in less than an hour and a half. Many people said many things as I passed them, but they will mostly remain a mystery as I was listening to my new 90’s hip hop playlist. Arriving at the river had a larger than life quality. Maybe it had something to do with the sign reading “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY” with an illustration of a man dying of exhaustion (marvel of graphic design). Maybe it was that just weeks ago I’d run to and from the CO river in Moab. Idk, maybe it was that I’d just run to the base of THE GRAND MOTHERFUCKING CANYON, which was carved out by the river 5-6 million years ago and has been a Native American holy site for 5,000 years.

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I didn’t go on, partly because I still had a cold (oh cruel fate!) but mostly because I couldn’t see how to cross the river (I would eventually find out the trail turned East before the river to a bridge that I couldn’t see). I ate a Larabar (sorry GCNP, I know you recommended 4 sandwiches but I didn’t, ok?) and headed back up. About 2 miles from the river, I saw an older gentleman that I’d passed early on the trip down. This is notable because we were far below the turn around point for nearly everyone, and I had only seen 2 or 3 backpackers. He stopped me, “do you remember, you passed me earlier?” I did. “I don’t think you heard, but I said ‘get the lead out!’ And I started running! With these legs! I haven’t ran for years!” He continued on, and so did I.

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The last 1,000ft up was a bit of a struggle because I could really feel the tightness from the fast high-impact rocky descent that my winter-in-Leadville legs were undertrained for. At the top I sat on the sidewalk and ate rice with vegetables with my camping spork out of my tiny camping bowl. I was high as shit (from running, not drugs); it was a wonderful run. I thought about where I might sleep (?) and what I would do tomorrow (run to the river again?) and chose to leave. Interestingly, I bought a bag of chips in the park for $1.29 which is like normal grocery store price, then bought a Coke just outside the park for $3.38 which is more than 3x regular price.

I drove to Flagstaff where I stocked up on food for the week, used a real bathroom for the last time, and noticed one of my tires was down to the steel. I drove to Sedona, hoping I’d find a place to sleep in the canyon that’s full of campgrounds and recreation areas, but they were all “closed” and worse, gated! Finally, almost out of Cottonwood I saw a sign for a trail and turned without knowing where I was going. The road turned into dirt that became BLM land! I had accidentally stumbled across the northernmost TH of the Black Canyon Recreational trail, that I would be sleeping, running, and racing on for the rest of my trip!

After a good night’s sleep, I went back to town to buy not two but FOUR new tires. The tire man pointed out that my tires are 11 years old, and that he believes they are being held together by sheer will, as he could not even put air in them and expected that they would disintegrate into thin air. On 4 new tires I headed to Bumblebee road.

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I could not have been more thrilled. This 80-mile section of BLM land housed a most excellent rolling technical trail and it was 85-90 degrees and sunny all week. I ran as fast as I could, and I saw at least five different types of cacti. It was as if someone painted a cartoon of Arizona for me to run in all week. I had a sweet Biolite stove with me and cooked real food on it in the evening. I ate pb&j’s, as usual, but also fresh fruit and copious amounts of avocado and cucumber (which are CHEAP in Az!). I slept 10-13 hours every night. I did yoga several times a day. I sweated everywhere (that’s a novelty for us highlanders, where it’s too cold and high to sweat). Every day I ran somewhere different but it always looked like:

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I knew I should taper for the race, but I couldn’t help myself. I ran 4-5 hours a day. It just felt so good. SO good! And that was how the whole week went. I rode my bike on any paved roads I could find. I resupped at this adorable little shack of a grocery store, filling several gallon jugs with water for a quarter out of a rickety machine in the parking lot and selecting vegetables from the tiny produce section next to the canned meat and salsa isle. I read books and went to bed early, to the regular howling of the coyotes.

Sooner than later, it was time to race. I’m going to cut it off here and make the race its’ own post since this is already pretty long. TO BE CONTINUED…!