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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Lake City (and now I’m 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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all the way up here just to get some water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Tetons”

“WHERE?”

“Grand Teton National Park”

“WHERE?”

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

“Okay but where?”

“It’s 14 miles long, man.”

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

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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.

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maroon Bells 💙

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The time has come

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

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

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

Ready or not, here we go.

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Nolan’s 14 (can you ever be ready?)

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

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

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

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

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

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Bierstadt/Sawtooth/Evans (or fear, perspective, and finishing what you started)

I’m terribly afraid of spiders. And as I reached up to the next rock to grab a hand hold, there was a big one with hairy legs and everything, inches from my hand. I didn’t even flinch. I said “fuck you” and kept going.

On the right is Bierstadt.  In the middle is the Sawtooth.  On the left  (the summit isn't actually pictured) is Evans.

On the right is Bierstadt. In the middle is the Sawtooth. On the left (the summit isn’t actually pictured) is Evans.

This was on Monday, during my hardest climb yet. I posted the night before we did it about being a little fearful. That didn’t let up much. I packed up and headed to Guanella Pass anyway, but partway up Bierstadt (the first fourteener) I stopped to chat with a fellow hiker and when the Sawtooth came up I said I was 60/40, which was probably true. I had the idea that I could turn back if it was too rough. To be honest, I did turn back. After summiting Bierstadt, we didn’t even stop before we headed down to the Sawtooth ridge. I put ropes on Luna, just in case. It was more challenging than I expected, and lowering myself down from large boulders on a narrow ridge with thousand foot drops on both sides was enough to freak me out pretty good. I turned tail and headed back up.

On the summit of Bierstadt

On the summit of Bierstadt

Didn’t get very far though. I stopped dead in my tracks, and thought NO FEAR NO FEAR NO FEAR NO FEAR. THIS IS YOUR LIFE. So, on we went. Shortly thereafter a group of four passed us and I took a good amount of solace in the fact that there were going to be other people on the ridge, it’s not a very popular destination (there’s only been one reported trip across it this year on 14ers.com).

A lot of interesting things happened in the three hours it took to cross the Sawtooth. I slipped and fell, and caught myself, but that may have been the moment in my life that adrenaline was at it’s very highest. I found obstacles over which Luna needed help, for the first time ever. I happy cowboy-ed along the top of a 13,000ft ridge. I am no longer afraid of my biggest irrational fear (spiders). I also gained a whole heck of a lot of perspective. Teaching about fear this past week has made me think a lot about how my stress list is very fear based, and why am I afraid of such silly, trivial things?

Looking back from where we came: the Sawtooth ridge

Looking back from where we came: the Sawtooth ridge

Once we made it across the Sawtooth, we soon caught up with a group of hikers and joined them. The idea of hiking directly down the gulley and back to the Bierstadt trailhead (thereby skipping Evans) was temporarily a good one, but after the Sawtooth I felt invincible so we grueled on. The hike was longer and harder than I thought, but we made it to the summit of Mt. Evans.

One of our new friends took this picture of me (in my cool outfit and goggles) on the summit of Mt Evans

One of our new friends took this picture of me (in my cool outfit and goggles) on the summit of Mt Evans

We were even rewarded with close ups of mountain goats! Who recognized Luna as their kin.

Lu on the summit of Evans

Lu on the summit of Evans

The hike back down was long and very wet. We got to spend a fair amount of time in the gulley glissading (what is that, you’re wondering? it’s sliding down snow covered mountain on your butt). It was definitely a couple hours that would have been miserable had I been alone, and it would’ve been a Pike’s Peak replay (can’t I just lay down for a few minutes??). We also found the bog of eternal sadness from the Neverending Story (don’t give in to the sadness, Artex!).

Looking back as we crossed the bog of eternal sadness.

Looking back as we crossed the bog of eternal sadness.

Fear. (how it’s always creeping in and trying to ruin things)

MAN for someone who thinks and talks so much about not letting fear get in the way, I get scared too often.

So I allowed every excuse I could think of to get in the way of biking to Mt. Evans tomorrow. I mean, some of them were legit:
-probably can’t afford to get my Tuesday classes subbed right now
-have not gotten a new hitch for Lu’s trailer because the Croozer people are assholes
-skipped my training test ride on Friday to go with friends to Evergreen and let the dogs run around, so unsure if I’m ready for the mileage

BUT. I know better. And ultimately, I was letting those things get in the way of something I really want to do because I’m fucking afraid. The ride itself is almost 50 miles. That is FAR from home. Plus what like 5000ft elevation gain? Towing Luna’s trailer. Jesus Christ Lizard. I have a pretty high baseline, folks, and that is a lot (when you’re considering another 15-20 mile hike and 1-2 fourteeners in the same day-I was considering some different routes).

So then, once I called off the ride idea I decided to hike Evans and Bierstadt together tomorrow (and drive there with Lu, instead of biking). At least I’m getting out right? Taking the Sawtooth between Bierstadt and Evans makes it my first class 3 climb. I was familiarizing myself with the route, map, and pictures today when I FREAKED THE FUCK OUT about the gendarme that makes it class 3. Really? Yes. I really considered calling the whole thing off. Which is crazy, because this is just the beginning and if I’m going to continue with this mountaineering business I’ll be hitting much worse by the end of the summer. You’ve got to start somewhere, Sarah! You have to want it more than you’re afraid to fall. The risk increases with the awesomeness, that’s something I’ve already thought a lot about and accepted.

Thar she blows, that beautiful jagged monster

Thar she blows, that beautiful jagged monster

I know better than to let fear get the best of me. I talk about it all the time. And, coincidentally, I’ve been talking about it ALL WEEK in class. It keeps appearing in different places. Like that Jim Carrey video that’s all over the internets right now. And other teachers whose classes I’ve gone to this week are talking about it. It’s like the universe was building me up to let go and be ready and I failed. Which isn’t a healthy way to look at it, is it.

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Of course I’m going ahead with the hike tomorrow. I’ve got rope to secure Lu’s harness to me. I’m still unsure if that’s more unsafe than letting her handle herself. Yet another thing to be afraid of, right? We’re going to tackle that Sawtooth, and we’re going to be fine. The technical part is NOT EVEN VERY LONG. Sigh. Fear is a hard one. It creeps itself in everywhere and sometimes you don’t even see it. Courage comes from faith. I cannot let the doubt in, and the fear take over. THIS IS MY LIFE. I will not waste it.

Peakbagging (2/4 is better than none, baseline is elevated)

On Monday I was aiming to summit the four fourteeners that are all in a ring in the Tenmile range. We got a late start, going up after my class at Root. Heading up to Kite Lake we had to leave the truck and hike the last two and a half miles in to the trailhead. Lots of snow everywhere still! Kite Lake was still so thoroughly frozen over and covered in snow that we couldn’t figure out where it was, so we headed East to go up Bross first. There’s a break in the snow/ice that reveals what looks like a full on rushing river from the snow melt underneath 5 feet of snow. We threw our packs across and jumped it. The elevation gain in the first mile or so is huge.

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It’s not technically legal to summit Bross right now, apparently due to politics or something. We speculated a lot on this (best guess: somehow part of the mountain is owned by some outrageously rich guy that rides around in a helicopter shaking his fist at all the nare-do-wells that are out hiking) but ultimately what we know is that there’s a sign that says “no legal access”. Did we summit Bross? We don’t know. What we do know is, it was peanut butter jelly time.

No snow up here!

No snow up here!

So now it’s epically windy and we’re crossing the ridge from Bross to Cameron. Still feeling great, I might add.

TAKE NO RISKS when it comes to sunburn.

TAKE NO RISKS when it comes to sunburn.

Lu was putting on at least 4x the miles we were, as usual. As we approached Cameron, we noticed a trail in the snow heading East to Lincoln. Most of the tracks we saw were skis, btw. Anyway, Lincoln looked gorgeous but it was still thoroughly covered in snow, which is fine, but the ridge out to it looked really treacherous at best so we decided to pass, heading up the final ascent to Cameron. We couldn’t find the registry on Cameron, we were even at the point where we thought perhaps we weren’t on Cameron at all, but I compared pictures and maps and it was definitely Cameron.

The air at 14,200 is sweeter.  But somebody get this girl some Doggles!

The air at 14,200 is sweeter. But somebody get this girl some Doggles!

So heading down from Cameron, and noticing how far down the saddle went and how far back up the Democrat summit was, even though we were still feeling good and the weather was great, we needed a little pep talk.
When I’m wavering on a mountain, there are two things I think of that comfort me and help me go on:

From Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go”:
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked
Some windows are lighted but mostly they’re darked
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin
Do you dare to stay out?
Do you dare to go in?
How much could you lose?
How much could you win?

From Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

Heading down the saddle from Cameron and towards Democrat

Heading down the saddle from Cameron and towards Democrat

Democrat was a steep and snowy ascent. Steep steep. There were tracks to follow but it was steep enough and there was enough evidence on the north side of avalanches that I was a little nervous. We kept on trucking. Slowly slowly. I kept thinking (and probably saying out loud): this is your life right now. If you don’t like it, change it. If you can’t change it, accept it. You are walking up this mountain, deal with it. Being present is really liberating. Nothing else existed, including my past, my worries. Not having to get my registration renewed or laundry or grocery shopping or disagreements with friends. Just one foot in front of the other.

Hey, Mt. Democrat.  You beautiful mountain.

Hey, Mt. Democrat. You beautiful mountain.

So we’re about 100 feet elevation wise (Mark’s got one of those crazy awesome watches that can tell you stuff like that. Evidently it will also provide us with our route via GPS once it’s uploaded to a computer! What!?) from the summit when I realized Lu was bleeding. There was a little tear in her pad but because it’s in her foot it was bleeding more than you would expect. On the side of the steep ass mountain I took out my first aid kit and bandaged it up, she was limping weird and I couldn’t take it so we called it and started our descent. Yeah, it was a bummer not to grab another peak when we were so close. But, we had a great day, and at the end of it I’ll never risk Lu.

Part way down the saddle, we spotted what we could only suspect were butt tracks from sliding down the steep snow. We looked at each other, and I immediately was like NO WAY that is DANGEROUS. We’d probably tear our MCL or break our necks or run into a patch of rocks…then I thought WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF? I tell my classes all the time NO FEAR. So, with Luna on my lap, I slid down that gorgeous mf mountain. It. Was. Epic. We may not have summited Mt. Democrat, but that descent was the most memorable.

It’s funny how in the beginning of any wintery hike you all try to keep your feet dry, walking through snow gingerly or avoiding it. Coming down the rest of the descent and through the valley-ish around Kite Lake was not only deep, deep wet snow but underlying was SO MUCH water. We may have hiked through Kite Lake. We were only ever 40% sure where it actually was. When it came to jump over the river crossing again, the break in the ice had widened and I started to have those creeping what if’s (if one of us falls in there, the water’s moving too fast and the snow is too loose, we wouldn’t be able to get out). Mark jumped it and I threw my pack but I was freaking out. Then I thought, why? No fear. Just be here. Jump this crazy river! I did, and made it. The 2.5 back to the truck was dominated by talk of fueling down. Fries and Coke? Should we stop at a brewery in Breckenridge or Frisco? Ultimately, it was fries and Coke. 3 large fries? Yes.

What did I learn on this hike? My baseline is elevated. I felt strong the whole time. That felt amazing. It was also a reminder that “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” (Helen Keller). Fear is never a good reason not to.

Update: NO SUNBURN on my skin or eyes.