Mt. Elbert: until my heart explodes, until my legs collapse, I will love you.

It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Okay, okay, let’s start at the beginning.

I’ve been meaning to write this since, I don’t know, June? And especially again in September. But I wasn’t ready. This past Sunday, I was trying to get 4,000ft in in a blizzard and I had this really vivid flashback of a stormy day at 14,200 or so in November a few years ago. It was a major breakthrough for me, one of so many I had up there, but there’s not much to the story besides me screaming, “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?” at the top of my lungs. “I’M NOT GOING TO STOP.”

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Anyway, I knew then that it was time to revisit this, one of the most important relationships of my life. I met Mt. Elbert on a trip to Half Moon with my friend Mark. We did Massive the previous afternoon, then Elbert in the morning and we were proud that we managed both in 24 hours. I remember, in between the second false and the summit ridge, I said I was going to run to the summit. I laid down my pack and tried, and fell apart in like a hundred feet. Actually, I just realized this story starts much earlier than that.

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I have so many Elbert photos, rather than dig up relevant photos, this post will instead be all Elbert photos.

Okay, when I was 12, my aunt took me to Alaska to visit my grandparents and we traveled all over the great white north. We even saw Denali, in its full glory, despite how rare that is, but it didn’t have a major effect. On the fourth of July, we found ourselves in Seward watching the Mt. Marathon race. A couple years ago, Salomon made it super famous with this video. But then, it was this little known wild, brutal short distance mountain race up Mt. Marathon. We did some of the trail, it’s fucking hard. So the participants line up in town and run to the top of Mt. Marathon and back, but the trail is so steep it’s often class 3 and 4 rock, and it’s wet and foggy, so when the runners are coming back, their legs were torn to shreds and covered in blood. The whole thing was so badass, it became my definition of it. I didn’t live in the mountains then, but that’s the story of how I started running. I believed that when I was 18, I would go back and do it. Which didn’t happen, because teenagers don’t understand how expensive plane tickets to Alaska are, and eventually I forgot (until three years ago when I started entering the lottery, but have yet to get a spot).

me and lu on elbert

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

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

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It was my first night ascent, my first climb with literally all of the mountain running friends I’ve ever had, my first being-followed-by-a-mountain-lion, my first off trail summit. I’ve climbed it by 5 routes, three in calendar winter. My second winter in Leadville was back when conditions were too harsh for tourists to come up and pack down the S Elbert route for us, so I packed that trail down myself in snowshoes after every storm so that I could maintain a trail to run on over the winter (that’s actually when I racked up a lot of those tally marks). I remember, I met one guy on my trail that winter, he was from Arizona or California or something. In the parking lot, he told me he comes out every year and tries, but it’s so frustrating because it always works out to be during bad conditions and he has to turn back. I thought, bad conditions? That’s what it’s like every day. If you want decent conditions, come back in July.

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I managed to find a few of me-with-friends-on-Elbert, here’s Beth and I

On Mt. Elbert was the first time I realized that I would give all of myself to a mountain, and it was also where I learned that if you grind your heart and soul off, rip yourself to shreds, empty everything out, giving all of yourself up to it, the mountain will fill you up again, and you will be home.

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Bryan and I

 

Dear Mt. Elbert,

I remember one time, I was alone, and I told you that I understood about the earth and the sky. When I run hard sometimes, when I really burn on the ascent, and I taste the blood in my mouth and I think that I won’t be able to keep going, I can feel it. And I stand on the summit and it feels as though the wind moves through me, and I am a part of you. As if the sheer force of the space between earth and sky is too much for the atoms that make up my body to hold themselves together. And then I descend, my feet barely touching the ground, like I’m flying, so fast that I think the slightest misstep will kill me. But instead it feels as though I might evaporate into the sky.

I know it doesn’t matter to you what my watch says, but I know a fast time isn’t an award, it’s not for publicity. A lot of people think that’s what matters, that they set records for validation. I think it’s important because of the sacrifice. An ascent, a descent, is perfect when you give yourself wholly to it. There are lots of people who can run fast, but it doesn’t seem like as many do it out of love. Sometimes I forget, I’m imperfect, but I know it’s all about intention. Kripa, divine grace, means that I will honor you with my body, with my intentions, and attention. I will run so hard, I can’t believe I can continue. I will love you until my heart explodes, until my lungs collapse, until my legs fail.

You taught me so many things, to be strong, to never give up, to have faith in something. I’ve been thinking lately that toughness is a thing you never lose, but it is a thing that is extremely hard earned. It is beaten in by deprivation, struggle, the elements, the misery. You made me resilient. You gave me something to believe in, to fight for. You made me feel humble and shared your bigness at the same time. I’ve always believed that I could do anything, because I have such great parents, but you proved it. You let me prove it. You taught me about postholing, about what cold and wind really feel like. It was on your slopes that when my feet and hands were numb, I learned to start the clock. You made me a mountain runner.

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I don’t often share all of this stuff. I think it’s because I don’t know that people will understand if they haven’t felt it. I’m continually surprised that the thousands of people that climb Mt. Elbert every year don’t give up everything, move to Leadville, and do it every day like I did. I mean, how can you go back to normal life after that? Once you feel the bigness, you touch the sky? I don’t know, but they do. Which means that even people who should understand this stuff don’t. The reason I haven’t written this yet is two fold: one, it is not easy emotionally, because this summer I left my Mountains to explore new ones, and two, I knew I would have to be really honest about my relationship with mountains, my unusual beliefs, and that scares the fuck out of me.

lu on a cloudy elbert

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

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Anyway. I had it in my mind that I would say a proper goodbye to you when I left town at the beginning of the summer, by running up and down as hard as I could, because that’s how you honor a mountain, a line. Unfortunately, it was another super crowded day, and to make matters worse, CFI was doing trail work. With all the distractions, people dodging, and Pippa being weird about all of the people dodging, it was not the perfect, fast, free run I expected. I knew I had to come back at the end of the summer to empty out my storage unit, so I thought I’d give it another go then.

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While I was in Jackson, I did a race to the top of Jackson Hole, the Rendezvous. It was six miles and 4,200 feet gain (sound familiar? Elbert from Half Moon is somewhere between 4200 and 4300 and 4.5 miles). I finished that race in 1h25m, which meant that if I kept up that training and maybe tweaked it a little with more speedwork, I could go under two hours round trip on Elbert. Unfortunately, my time in the Tetons exhausted me on a higher level than I might have ever been before, and I was pretty much done running by the time I left and headed to Leadville. (I remember saying “I don’t want to think about running, I don’t want to talk about running, I’m definitely not fucking running.”) I ran a couple mountains half heartedly.

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Matt, E Dag, and I (and Luna)

It became obvious very quickly that this was not the goodbye that I wanted to have, like I was fighting something, or out to prove something. The amazing run I knew we both deserved, where I laid down my body for my mountain. I would give it everything, because I am so grateful for all that its given me. So I let that other crap go, because this was so much bigger than that. It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Heart beat and breath are the only things constant in your life. And I can no longer focus on anything else; single point of focus, single minded devotion. And I do not have to break open my ribs like Hanuman to prove to you that my heart beats for this.

me on elbert

The summit is the buzzy existential margin of all possibilities; the space between earth and sky tugs the atoms that make up this finely tuned body that I am so lucky to wield, and I will never be able to describe the feeling of being infinitely humbled and infinitely powerful at the same time. I say I’m not going to cry, because it was Mt. Elbert that taught me to stay calm until it’s over, because crying is a waste of energy you might need. But I cry anyway, at 14,440, where the earth meets the sky and the air tastes sweeter and there are electrical storms you can’t see from below. I wipe my tears, and I nod, as if something is finished. (Is it finished?) Descending at 12mph, feet just barely brush the rocks and it seems like I’m flying, but the slightest misstep on this technical, high consequence terrain might kill me. But I don’t misstep, I’m sure because of my commitment to honor the environment I run in with my focused steps. Kripa, divine grace. The rocks, the dirt, the trees, the sky; all of it is made of protons and electrons, just like me, and sometimes I honestly believe I might evaporate into it and all of that validates itself. I am in love with this. 

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The only photo in this post that’s not taken from the summit

It was everything I wanted, the perfect run, the best run of my life, I touched the sky. The blood taste, the burning, the feeling that if you don’t stop you might die, the lightness, the flying, the bigness, the feeling protected. I didn’t go under two hours that day, but I can see how possible it is and I intend to. Actually, I don’t think it’s outrageous to go after the men’s record of 1h42. I stopped my watch, and I deleted the file. Because that run wasn’t for anybody else, it’s just between me and my mountain. It’s not that I’ll never go back again, but now I know it was time to move on.

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Totally aside, if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in mountains. So here’s where I’ll shamelessly promote my new Threadless store, where you can find fun mountain themed graphics that I designed and photographs I took, and Threadless will put them on mugs and stickers and baby onesies for you! I’m really insecure about whether or not anybody’s going to like my stuff so please check it out!

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The Tetons: remembering why I do this, over again

It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana.  I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance.  I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”

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summit of the South

Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer.  I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated.  Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.

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I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep.  In the morning I headed up Teewinot.  You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal.  The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying.  There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating.  My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?”  Well, shit got hard.  And scary af, to be honest.

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I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons.  Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day.  That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.

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On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton.  Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days.  I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured).  It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know).  What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs.  I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird.  I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb.  I turned around.

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Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand.  Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit.  I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day.  I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy.  He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.

 

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On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail.  I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it.  It was incredible.

 

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On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots.  It was overkill, but I felt totally secure.  The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route.  And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year.  That I would do anything to be here.  That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart.  That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless.  Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.

 

I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards].  The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this.  I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom.  Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.

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Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything.  It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you.  Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?

 

After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak.  The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4).  The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves.  After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity).  The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama.  Breathtaking.  I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo.  Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits;  the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.

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