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).

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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.

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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.

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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 Grand Teton

A couple weeks ago I did a race called the Speedgoat. It’s a highly specialized kind of race for mountain runners, and represents, at least to me, the big show. Leading up to it, I thought I had something to prove, at least to myself. I wanted to know that I’m a great mountain runner, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to see it in print in the results. When you work so hard at anything, it’s natural for anyone to want to be successful at it, right?

Well, I failed. I came in 20th. It was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually race a race, to give it my all. No matter how bad I felt I would think, “Am I going as hard as I can right now?” and the answer was always, “Yes.” I went as hard as I could, and I still failed. It was heartbreaking. I had thought being a mountain runner was my identity, and now here I was, not even good at it.

I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Teton for years, long before I ever saw it in person 3 years ago. About 3 million people go to Grand Teton National Park every year to stand on the sidewalk at one of the overlooks and take their picture in front of that big elegant beast. I’m sleeping at the park boundary, and I drove past it today, and saw dozens of the people posing with arms outstretched, no doubt for Instagram. I dreamed of the Picnic, of the Grand Traverse, of putting a fast time on the Owen Spalding route, just of standing up there.

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First Teton trip, pc Skylar Lincoln

My second trip to the Tetons was to climb, but we got rained on pretty much every day and it was later in the season so the Grand was covered in verglass, we had just missed the window to climb it. On the last day of our trip, we had a rare beautiful day and summited the Middle Teton. The route up the Middle starts from the south side, so when you gain the ridge you get a breath taking view of the Grand. It made my heart rage in my ribs like a jungle cat, it brought tears to my eyes. I said, probably out loud, because I’m weird like that, “I’ll come back for you.”

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Grand Teton from the Middle Teton

It was on that trip that I understood what it is to fall in love with a line, a mountain, and thus to have a responsibility to it. I don’t know if people that don’t climb can understand climbing objectively, from the outside. It takes years to develop the strength and skills and confidence to even have any business going up there in the first place, let alone attempting it, let alone actually being successful and summiting. I know people don’t get it because they’re always asking “why?” Because you have to.

I sped into the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 1:10am, I was late because I hadn’t ever measured how long it takes me to get there and I had underestimated it (nobody’s surprised). I met my partner for the first time, the night before we had set up this climb last minute through Mountain Project. His name is AJ, he works for the forest service. We’re packed up in a matter of minutes and blazing on the trail with headlamps. I say blazing because the guy is like eight feet tall and hikes extraordinarily fast, so fast I’m often running to catch up with him. It wouldn’t have been a challenge, except that just a few hours before, I had run the Middle Teton,

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And then gotten no sleep, not even for a minute, so I was a little tired. When we reached the meadows, we could see the headlamps of a handful of other climbers both above and below us, getting ready for what promised to be an extraordinary day, however it turned out. Just above the first rock climb, we couldn’t find the trail and so did what turned out to be a totally unnecessary snow climb, but at least we used our axes since it turned out they were unnecessary for the mountain, the remainder of snow on the upper mountain had just finally melted off.

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My partner AJ

Twilight came, and then sunrise. As we got higher, the views of the middle and the rest of the southern part of the range got more and more incredible. I read once that when you’re in nature all the time, when you make it your home, it ceases to be beautiful and it just becomes normal. I don’t think the guy that said it meant it in a bad way, but I hate that. It’s never happened to me, and I was fortunate to have an equally incredulous partner, both of us continually astounded by how beautiful everything was. After a lot of difficult and high consequence scrambling, we roped up for 2700 feet of exposed and difficult rock climbing.

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Yeah those people up there, other climbers getting ready to start the ridge

Throughout and after the climb we couldn’t stop saying how awesome and amazing it all was, and I’m not sure what else to say about it. There was tons of exposure, there was tons of beautiful climbing, there was some shitty climbing. Some parts were easier and we simul climbed (still roped up, but climbing at the same time instead of one belaying to protect the one climbing), some parts were harder. I hand jammed with gloves on and pulled off a heel hook on wet, snowy granite. AJ climbed beautifully and confidently but I don’t think we made any of the same moves on any pitch, we climbed so differently, which was very cool. The V Pitch was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever climbed.

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Here’s me at the top of the V Pitch, this amazing photo by AJ

The confidence that I lack in climbing was really on display, at least three times I yelled to AJ checking that he had used gear to anchor himself to wherever he was in case I was about to fall on my next move. I never did fall, but I suppose it’s apparent why I don’t like to lead trad (confidence? what confidence?) Every time I do something hard and scary, I think, “Now I am fearless!” But then, something harder and scarier happens.

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AJ on the Exum ridge

I broke several of my toenails in the Speedgoat race, and all the steep and technical running I’ve done since being in the Tetons hasn’t helped, so 10 hours in climbing shoes was more painful than I can describe. There’s a last little bit of easy but high consequence simul-climbing to the summit, and the pain was so extraordinary that I thought I couldn’t bear another step. Getting those shoes off was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll never again make fun of people that complain about their climbing shoes. Also, there were summit gummy bears!

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Summit of the Grand motherfucking Teton

Upon the summit, we found several other teams, some we had been in proximity with throughout the day. Climbers are such cool folks. I’ve complained a lot about the people I come across in the mountains of Colorado, but you don’t find those sorts of folks in the Tetons. There’s no jealousy or competition. The Tetons are so brutal, I wonder if it’s that the sort of folks that are badass enough to climb them are much too cool to be competitive, and the people that can’t climb them are so humbled they feel inspired instead of jealous? Anyway, the folks on the summit were so badass and cool, and I feel very fortunate that these are the people I’m surrounded by now.

We hadn’t taken pictures yet, but teams started leaving and we hoped to tag along so we didn’t have to find the rappel stations ourselves, so we rushed to put away the rope and a very cool dude from Bozeman took a couple quick pictures (above) for us before we hastened out. At that point, we had no idea that the downclimb would easily be the crux of the route. The rap stations weren’t hard to find, and the raps themselves were extraordinary. The following downclimbing was just awful. Miserable, way too difficult, butt puckering, sometimes exposed, and everything made worse by our bodies hurting and a day’s worth of adrenaline ebb and flow. And, probably, a hard climb yesterday and a night of no sleep to speak of. I said many times, “I’m never doing this again.” And as usual, when things are scary and high consequence and also really, really scary (it bears repeating), I thought, “I’m done with mountains.” Only once, I warned AJ that he might be about to see me cry, on a 20 foot chimney with a roof that you have to downclimb, but I somehow kept it together, despite my nervous system being well over capacity and my fear and adrenaline being far outside what I considered to be my acceptable limits.

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Middle from the Exum ridge

I texted several important people “It was everything.” Afterwards. and I couldn’t mean it more. It was beautiful, painful, terrifying, surreal, brutal, fierce, extraordinary, powerful, life-affirming, joyous, crippling, heinous. At one point we even called the route disgusting. It’s hard to pick and describe any particular moment, but I often felt the most scared and the happiest I’ve ever been at the same time. An alpine climb like this, you get the entire range of the human experience all in the same day, and sometimes all in the same moment. Every cliched quote imaginable is applicable here, I kept thinking “you’re stronger than you seem and braver than you believe” afterwards, but in the moment all you can think of is, “I don’t have a choice I have to do this no matter how hard it is or terrified I am.”

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the Exum ridge to the Grand

Our bodies had been so broken by such an accomplishment, 7100 feet gained, 14200 total change (my knees and toenails will never be the same), 2700 feet of rock climbing, 2 long rappels, approximately (here I’m guessing) 2700 feet of downclimbing, we struggled to put one foot in front of the other for the last few miles back to our cars. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.” And in one day. We divied up our gear, hugged, and went our separate ways. The moment I started driving, I wept. Not for one particular reason, but for all of them. I had just realized an enormous dream, years in the making, and it was harder and more beautiful than I ever could have conceived. I’ve done lots of things now that I never believed I could, I’ve had lots of wonderful successes in the mountains, I’ve stood up to and overcame fear many times before. Each time it’s like it’s on a bigger scale.

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Me on Exum, photo by AJ

 

 

There’s a part in Again to Carthage where he talks about ascent, unfortunately I’m in Jackson at the library and not a home where I can look it up (and I just checked, this library doesn’t have it). The quote also isn’t on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. He’s talking about how different regular adult life is from running full time, and how when you’re running full time, you’re always on an ascent. You’re always bettering yourself, and the results are measurable. Day to day, year to year, you’re getting stronger, faster, etc. But in regular life, it’s sort of like you have wins and losses, things happen, and it all goes along pretty steadily. And he misses so much that feeling of always being the ascent. I’m pretty sure I’m very lucky to have a life like that. Looking back on the race, now, after something so much bigger and more important, like the Grand, I can’t even believe I bothered to do that race, let alone be hurt by the results. There is no race that makes you extraordinary, it wasn’t even a particularly interesting experience. Every moment that you choose to overcome, to be stronger or better, to be scared out of your mind and do it anyway, that is what makes you extraordinary.

Rainier pt 1

One week ago, we were in our sleeping bags, going to bed at Camp Muir after summiting. I’m not sure if that feels longer or shorter, but it was an entirely other world apart.

 

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Camp Muir is in the near middle of this picture, just to the right of that snowy peak in the distance

 

“You just need to adjust your expectations, and take everything one step at a time.” The climbing ranger told us while they were processing our permit. He told us we had everything we need, and it seemed like we knew what we were doing. I got the impression, though, that what he meant was, “I trust that you two will know when it’s time to turn around.” I asked him for route conditions information, and all he could say was, he didn’t know. The first team of the winter had only just made it up the week before, three Russian guys, and they had checked out per the conditions of their permit, but hadn’t left any beta on the upper mountain. Apparently, none of the guides had even made it up this winter. “You’re going to have the mountain to yourselves. It’s unlikely that anyone is even heading up to Camp Muir this weekend, and we haven’t issued any other permits. I also need you to know, rescue isn’t really an option, and conditions permitting, it would take at least 48 hours to get anyone up there. There’s no helicopters in the winter. Just realize, you’re alone up there.”

We weren’t relying on SAR or anything, but the whole speech was a little chilling.

The Monday before we left for Washington, I ran Elbert to test out the GPS, as I hadn’t ever used it for navigation before. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get up high, either. Mt. Rainier is 14,410, which is 30 feet below Elbert. I thought about the relationship that I have with these mountains, my home. I’ve thought for years that it was my love of the Nolan’s line that brought me here, that led to thousands of miles of snowmelt stream crossings, talus hopping, getting lost, numbing my feet in the snow, destroying my legs running uphill and down. The lions, the cold, the lightning, the storms. The 245 times I’ve stood on top of Elbert. And I finally understood, it was never Nolan’s. That was just this idea of challenge and aesthetics that was appealed to my brain, that’s wired in this particular way. These were the first mountains I fell in love with, that I gave my heart and my body to, and that filled me up in return. I know there are a lot of ways that people can feel like their heart is too big to fit in their chest, but this is mine. I knew then, that while it was very scary, I was ready for Rainier, it was just time to move on. These mountains used to make me feel scared, too, but not for a long time.

 

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This is obviously from Mt. Elbert, not Rainier

 

There are a variety of weather forecasts that include Mt. Rainier, and I checked all of them several times a day for two weeks before we left. I think they changed hourly. Everyone who lives with mountains says that they make their own weather, but it’s truer with Rainier. I imagine the 13,212 feet of prominence has something to do with it. There aren’t other big mountains around it, it’s just this massive volcano in the middle of nothing, right next to the fucking ocean, to create the least predictable and most harsh weather anywhere outside of Denali. The week of our trip, it was mired in storms, with a lot of snow accumulation likely, high winds, and only one possibility for a small break in the weather before the storm cycle picked up again: Saturday.

I don’t know if you ride in airplanes a lot, but the idea that you can strap yourself and your belongings into a metal cylinder, and said hunk of metal will speed down a road and somehow end up airborne is ludicrous. In two hours, we would be transported from Colorado to Washington. We had to bring extra bags to hold all the crap that gets strapped to the outside of our packs normally, because you can fly with your weapons (ice axes and crampons) if they’re packed inside a bag. We could see the mountain above the clouds as we approached Seattle.

We got our permit to go up the mountain, but there was a whiteout at Paradise, the trailhead, so we stayed in the giant rental SUV the first night. Our expectations needed no tempering, we were already bummed. It’s a big risk to plan a trip like this when the weather is so volatile, and in the winter, when the success rate is something like 10% or less. I had still been feeling like, we go up and see what happens, but man, climbing ranger Seth really put the smackdown on our hopes and that night I think we both went to bed feeling a little down. There was Rainier beer, though, undoubtedly made from water direct from the Nisqually glacier itself.

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In the parking lot, there were two weathered-looking gentlemen (some of you might not see that for the excellent compliment it is) packing up very aggressive packs and prepping alpine touring setups, and it turned out that we wouldn’t be alone, so I guess there was one glimmer of hope. One of them was a local, they had Rainier summit experience, and they proffered, “we might try to go up on Saturday.” While I do love to be alone, and a big part of choosing a winter attempt was avoiding the hordes (10k climbers attempt each year, the success rate is less than 50%, and 99.99% of those attempts are in the summer), I loved the idea that we would have some buddies up there. Our new friends, Craig and Dan, headed up that night, and we told them we’d see them at Camp Muir tomorrow.

We headed out of Paradise in the morning, shocked at how heavy our packs were and hoping that we’d catch a glimpse of the Mother of Waters herself. We weren’t disappointed,

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I thought my heart might explode.  Aside from being immensely prominent, Rainier has 27 major glaciers, covering 35 square miles. It is almost constantly surrounded by a ring of clouds that hangs between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, making you feel like you’re in a constant fog. We got this view when the wind picked up for about 6 seconds. Then it was back to the long slog up the Muir Snowfield, that looked about like this:

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The Muir Snowfield is just one of the so very many objective dangers on Rainier. It’s just a long, brutal snow climb (while they say it’s 4500ft to Camp Muir, my watch said 5,246), but the thing is, in low visibility (like basically always) you could easily walk off the edge of it and over a cliff, or accidentally cross over and find yourself on the heavily crevassed Nisqually glacier (I called this the Snoqualmie glacier for the entire trip. There is no Snoqualmie glacier). Between 90 and 100 alpinists have died on the high mountain during summit attempts since the 1890’s … 294 deaths have occurred elsewhere on the mountain, mostly on the Muir Snowfield, charmingly described as “A huge, featureless killing field.”

Anyway, because of the cloud ring, you can’t tell what the weather’s actually like.

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Then, suddenly (after taking jackets off and putting them back on 60 times):

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We are above the freaking clouds and it is windy but sunny and clear. I had thought that I was appropriately trained enough, and did zero hauling practice, and greatly underestimated how different it would be to climb a mountain with an extra 50% of my bodyweight (I know Steve House *says* to carry a pack full of rocks and gallons of water when you’re training, but … then you go slower, and it just didn’t seem necessary). Our legs were sort of crushed.

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But it was super beautiful.

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And we were getting really close.

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The Camp Muir public shelter was built in 1918. There’s a sign inside that I should’ve but didn’t take a picture of that says “The Camp Muir Public Shelter is an historic building, built in 1918. Out of respect for its namesake, John Muir, please pack everything out. Do not defecate in the shelter. YES, PEOPLE HAVE DONE THIS. DON’T DO IT.”

The shelter has a dutch door for when the snow’s piled up, and inevitably, the area around the door is piled high with drifted snow. There’s a counter, cubbies, and bunks. In the summer, climbers don’t get to sleep in here, but one of the (few, decidedly very few) benefits of a winter ascent is that we got to live in the shelter. A half hour or so after arriving at Camp Muir, we had some company, and it wasn’t the skiers we were expecting, it was two badass young guys from Golden, Tom and Zach. They, too, wanted to make a go of it during the possible weather window on Saturday, which still didn’t look great, but promised a huge decrease in wind speed. The comradery caused us to start saying things like, “Saturday’s our day.”

We got down to the delightful business of melting snow for water; our new friends offered to share their garbage bag of collected snow with us, in return I gave them a coveted morale-boosting Reese’s Easter egg, and a lifelong friendship was forged. An hour or two later, our skier friends arrived, and we set up our beds in a cheerful cabin, stationed way up high on a big, scary mountain.

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Because I don’t have any foresight, this blurry picture of all our stoves lined up melting snow is the only one I have from inside the shelter.

Now that morale was officially boosted, we were all making preparations for summit day. Packing our bags, melting snow, discussing route beta, worrying about avalanche conditions, wondering about crevasses, and eating (and burning a layer of Tasty Bites onto the bottom of the stove that would flavor our water Cajun for the remainder of the trip). It was basically like all of the Christmas Eves of your childhood culminating on this one, penultimate Christmas day: SUMMIT DAY. In the midst of all of the excitement, I went outside to brush my teeth (even mountaineers brush their teeth, because nobody likes fuzzy sweater teeth):

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Yeah these pictures still make me cry. Camp Muir is so fucking heartwarming, I can’t even describe it. You can see the public shelter in that second photo. It was originally called Cloud Camp, you can guess why.

Just as everyone was getting settled, two more guys showed up, friends of the skiers, and in the wonderfully charming, weathered mountaineer way, came inside asking “Is there cocoa?” I wish there was, man. I wish there was.

Anyway. Did anybody sleep on Summit Day Eve? I doubt it. When the alarm went off at 3am, I was buzzing like I had been electrocuted. And so, all the stoves are lit, and the pots filled with snow to melt (and a layer of burnt Tasty Bites), and everyone is eating their oatmeal and tying up their boots, and the first person goes outside to pee and comes back saying, “It is fucking beautiful. The wind is low, it’s perfectly clear.” And it was. The most optimistic forecast: Saturday, partly storming, is suddenly: Saturday, perfectly clear. Tom and Zach headed out to Gibraltar Ledges, and Dan and I roped up and headed for Disappointment Cleaver and the Ingraham Glacier. I don’t know that either of us thought we’d get a summit, there were so many objective hazards that we had to evaluate, and the chance that weather would hold AND all the other things would line up was … well, it seemed like it would take a miracle.

The discussion of when to rope up went something like, “Well, you don’t have to be roped up until you’re on the Ingraham Glacier, but I’m worried about knowing when to make that decision.” So, because we’re smart and safe individuals, we roped up there.

And I’m sure glad we did, because what happened was exactly what I was worried about. One moment, you’re on a perfectly safe snowfield, and then suddenly, you’re surrounded by huge crevasses (or as I like to call them, Glacier Funhouses). Meanwhile, the sun was rising:

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Sorry about the blurry pictures, I’m not a photographer, ok. That’s Little Tahoma Peak, 11,138, which, they say, is a remnant of a much higher Mt. Rainier, from before its last eruption. While it’s a satellite peak of Rainier (aka Mama Tahoma), it’s technically the third highest peak in Washington (Mt. Adams, 12,281, is #2).

So, by way of necessary explanation, let me tell you that sometimes the crevasse danger is lower in the winter, because massive amounts of snow might partially fill in some of the smaller crevasses/funhouses. However, the snowpack is lower than usually there, too, with the unfortunate consequence that the crevasses in this middle section were not only not filled in, but covered with a mean little snowy ice crust. That said:

So we were walking along an enormous Funhouse. I was leading, still following the GPS track, which was an obvious mistake, since we were entering the icebox area and would need to start navigating the crevasses, but I hadn’t realized we’d already passed Ingraham Flats and were heading into this famously spicy section yet.  I said, “They’re like a sleeping bear. It could wake up and eat you, but it probably won’t.” And mere moments later, I punched through the crust covering a crevasse I didn’t see and, just like that, was dangling above an opening in the glacier that started white, turned to blue, and eventually black. I had apparently gotten bottlenecked at the top, where the walls were narrowed, and was tenuously suspended by my shoulders in the snow. I yelled to Dan to self arrest, as if that somehow hadn’t crossed his mind after I had disappeared into the glacier, and once he told me he was secure, I kicked my front points into the wall of the sleeping bear that had thought about eating me, but didn’t, and climbed out.

Yeah, it was fucking terrifying. I had looked down, and after the loose snow had finished falling away, there was absolutely nothing beneath me. It was so deep, it was improbable, right, because theoretically, there’s a mountain underneath there somewhere. I felt pretty dumb, being the crevasshole and everything, but there it was. And that’s why we were roped up, and that’s why you take crevasse rescue and glacier travel courses, etc, so that if something like this happens, you’re protected and you know what to do. After that whole to-do, we had to cross my nemesis somewhere, and found the spot where it’s most narrow to jump over it. It took some doing to work myself up to do it, but I did. and my body was just coursing with adrenaline. I’d pay for that later.

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In retrospect, I didn’t take enough pictures looking into  mouths of the bears.

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Then, there was a long time of winding through crevasses intermingled with what was basically steep uphill crampon walking. A lot of this is steep enough that the most energy efficient way to climb it is by grape vining in your mountaineering boots.

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When we finally came out of the icebox/bowling alley crevasse-filled adventure section, we were significantly off-route, headed the wrong direction, and it appeared that what was between us and the official route was just one large funhouse the size of Disney World. The only option, it seemed, was to head for a terrifically steep headwall, ascend it, and figure out what the fuck to do. During this vertical snow climb, we saw a couple folks on the ridge above us, and we all waved and shouted like friendly neighbors. It was our friends from camp (who else could it possibly be?), coming up the Gibraltar Ledges route.

As usual, the scariest part of a vertical snow climb is knowing that you have to downclimb it. But what was also fun, was when Dan got to the top and said, “Don’t look in the crevasse.” Which was exciting for two reasons:

  1. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb.
  2. No one has ever resisted the urge to look in the crevasse after someone tells them not to.
  3. How could there be a crevasse on a vertical snow climb?!
  4. You really, really had to cross a crevasse on this vertical snow climb.
  5. I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of nothing besides crevasses and avalanches anymore.

If it wasn’t such a sketchy situation, I would’ve loved to take a picture of the crevasse-in-the-vertical-snow-climb situation, because it was fucking cool and beautiful. Anyway, here’s Dan on the top of the ridge:

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And another shot, same place different angle,

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This is about where I started to feel really sick, I think from the adrenaline wearing off. And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. To be continued …

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.

Mt Princeton (who’s the boss?)

Mt Princeton (14,204) is generally believed to be the crux of the Nolan’s route. Its long approach, almost entirely off trail ascent and descent, and the fact that it generally falls overnight in most people’s attempts have led me to believe that if Nolan’s were Super Mario, Princeton is the big boss. Once I make it past Princeton, nothing will stop me from finishing.

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It was incidental that last summer, as I hammered down every part of the Nolan’s route, I tread nearly every piece of Princeton except the summit. I spent 3 days route-finding from the Avalanche Gulch trail, putting tons of miles in figuring out the [long] way up off trail on the NE arm. I spent a day in Grouse Gulch, learning the descent. But I didn’t summit. Princeton was the only Nolan’s mountain that I did not stand on top of all year.

As I considered my winter training, I knew that I’d have to push harder on winter ascents this year (no matter how miserable! I would prevail), especially since I planned/am planning an ambitious July attempt (if you don’t remember from last year, there was still waist-deep snow in the mountains at the end of May, summer doesn’t generally start until the end of June). I knew that I had to do Princeton in the winter.

When I drove to Arizona in February, I hadn’t yet managed to do more than Elbert, Massive, and La Plata (I was busy skiing I guess). Passing Princeton as I drive through BV, gracefully and commandingly taking up the sky, I thought “Princeton is such a boss, I have to get up there.” (I not only thought this but texted a running buddy, who was not thrilled like I was).

After AZ, I came back injured and spent a month trying to get back on my feet. One week ago, I went out for my first long(ish) run. Basking in the glow of Princeton on the East side of BV, I resolved to get up there. Another friend asked if I wanted to run together, I suggested Princeton, and ultimately plans fell through.

It’s not that Princeton (or any Sawatch Range winter ascents) is inherently dangerous or harrowing or even difficult.. just long, somewhat miserable slogs. Which is why I was hoping for company (because good company can make even the longest of drags fun) but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. Despite a lousy forecast, I headed up Princeton on Friday. The weather was beautiful when I got there, clear and sunny and warm, but turned terrible about 6 miles in. I got this picture just before it started snowing and visibility was totally lost (and my phone turned off because it wasn’t willing to suffer the new frigid wind),

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Terrible weather in the winter doesn’t scare me or even affect me that much (as long as I know the route well enough). It’s even kind of appropriate, because it’s slow and miserable to begin with so the weather’s like “hey, why not take away your view, too?” (“Bwahahaha”, because I think the weather should be personified). Someone asked me after if it felt good to be in the mountains again, and I didn’t really know what to say…it felt normal. It wasn’t “fun” and there wasn’t the thrill of standing on a summit (conditions were so bad you could have been standing anywhere and just seen gray). I had kind of forgotten just a little what it feels like to endure…so at least I still had that sort of toughness to push on.

The truth is, some days I’m so pumped to get back to climbing mountains and running again, and other days I don’t even want to go outside let alone spend another full day dragging my legs through the snow. I heard a team went up the Maroon Bells, and at first I was inspired, then it faded to meh…fuck that. As does everything eventually, I think this whole thing boils down to GOOD VS INTERESTING. Would you rather your life be good or interesting? Most people say good. If you read that question and thought “why would you ask a question like that?” Or “why can’t it be both?” That’s ok, I get it. Sometimes I admire you, a lot of times actually. I’ve come to realize during this time off that I can’t just read and watch TV, or study yoga or design or whatever I get into. I need the full spectrum of pain, the challenge, the risk, the fear, the incredible doubt. I choose interesting, and I don’t care at all if it’s good. Good is such a relative term. When someone asks you how you are, you say “good.” I don’t want easy, and as much as I sometimes regret moving up here because it is quite the POLAR opposite of easy, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.

It’s hard being 29 for a lot of reasons. There’s the cultural/societal pressure around 30, and there’s this “return of saturn” business that I would have never believed in except that I’ve been having rolling emotional/life crises for months. Sometimes I think “how the fuck did I get here?” Or “what have I DONE in the past 10 years!?” But I will never measure success by my job or my house, my friends, my bank account. At least I don’t ever feel like “why aren’t I married?” It’s more like “WHY haven’t I been to Banff!??”

I guess the point of all of this is, I climbed Princeton and it didn’t feel like epic or harrowing or victorious. I just quietly surpassed my recent (injury-induced) doubt and accepted that this is who I am. Some days I am NOT okay with it, and I wish I could stay at home and eat pizza and watch TV all day…and sometimes I do (and whether you know about chakras or believe in them, let me tell you when I stay home it physically hurts beneath my sternum and in my solar plexus). And sometimes I go out and run mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUSHWACKING (if you feel lost, get lost)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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dads (and how they can get you to do 80 miles)

I’ve known my dad was coming out to Leadville to visit for months, and he warned me that I’d better get good on the passes (on a bicycle). But alas, it was winter still until just a couple weeks ago and thus I’d only been on my bike a dozen times or fewer by the time he arrived to visit.

My father is the type of guy that can ride over 100 miles per day every day for weeks.

total badass

total badass

So we were making plans for what we’d do while he was here, and he asked if I wanted to do Independence Pass. I said yes immediately, because that’s just how I roll, but after the fact I had to think about it very seriously and I discovered I was nervous. He asked what the longest distance was I’d done in a day so far, and it was somewhere in the thirties [it is tragic how I rode 25+ every day in Denver and now I only do that once or twice a week!]. He told me Leadville to the top of Independence Pass and back was about 70 miles.

I did spend some time thinking it over and the reason I was nervous was because I was concerned I couldn’t do it, and kind of legitimately so. The thing about out-and-backs is that at the point you turn around, you’re going to have to do just as much distance back. What a mindfuck. If you can’t, you never get home. Let me tell you though, the premise that if you stop you’ll never get home is EXCELLENT motivation. The other thing is that 24 back to Leadville is miles and miles of brutal and relentless uphill.

So yeah, I was worried. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But what on earth was I going to tell my [totally badass] dad? Like I would puss out. No, I would do this thing.

My dad told me in the morning that it was more like 76 miles. We set out with tons of snacks and water. From Leadville to CO 82 is pretty much downhill (which explains the evil uphill) so we were cruising pretty good. We made good time to Twin Lakes.

la plata TH

la plata TH

The trail over Independence Pass has been in use possibly since prehistoric times, and most definitely by the Ute Native Americans that occupied the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s pretty much the only way through. Like most of the High Rockies, Roaring Fork and Aspen were rushed by miners in the 1870’s (slightly later in the decade than the mining towns to the East) and in 1880 one of the boomers paid a crew using hand tools to build a real road over the pass. At each bridge a toll was charged-$.25 for horses and $.50 for wagons. Also in 1880, a town developed around the ore mill three miles west of the pass. It was called Independence, and at its peak housed 1000 residents. The last resident of Independence left in 1912. The pass had previously been known as Hunter Pass, and was re-named in honor of its new neighboring town.

To say CO-82 is scenic is a wretched understatement. I’ve spent so much time on Fremont Pass (between Leadville and I-70/Copper Mountain) that I forgot how gorgeous passes can be. The road to Independence is winding, forest-lined, and right in the middle of a beautiful valley. Rushing rivers, canyons, and completely epic mountain views line the road. I wasn’t really that tired when we approached the first switchback, but my crotch HURT and the steepness of the switchbacks was terrifying. [I still don’t understand the steep/steepness deep/depth conundrum, despite how much time I spend thinking about it].

I’d never done a mountain pass on a bike before, and I’ve discovered it’s much like ascending a fourteener…you always think you’ve gone further than you have, you always think there’s less left to go than there is, and most of the time you can’t actually see where the route goes in the future (so you spend a lot of time thinking about it). At first I had a can’t stop-won’t stop mentality and I somehow thought I could bust ass up THE WHOLE PASS without slowing or stopping…but I think each time you turn into a new switchback, it’s like realizing you’re on a false summit, and I’m not going to lie my friends I slowed down and took two breaks during that ascent. It felt great though. Someone spray painted encouraging things along the road for cyclists…YOU CAN DO IT!.

Yeah it was a lot of work but trucking up the final ascent to the pass felt light and triumphant. At this point (much like on fourteeners also) I was thinking “the hardest part is over” but that was not at all the case.

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In most endurance sports, you can plan to race twice the mileage you’ve been training. The 80 miles (yes, 80) we ended up doing for the round trip was definitely more than twice my previous high mileage. I hadn’t written the last post yet, about the physiology of endurance, but I knew well enough to eat as much as I could before I got too hungry and drink more than I could stand [here’s a fun fact-if you drink solely to thirst you’ll be about 70% hydrated. Most studies agree that your body can still operate very well at 70%, and that at the end of the session you can catch back up]. I still had to take a few breaks though. By the time we got to 24 my vag hurt so much I could barely put it on the seat anymore, and now my shoulders felt like they could barely support my torso on the handlebars. I think we had about 15 miles to go at this point. Uphill.

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So here’s what I mean about another person helping you push past your limits. It would not have occurred to me to ride 80 miles on Monday, let alone in our mountains and up a pass, because 80 is so far beyond my comfort zone. But because my dad asked me to, I said yes and attempted it the best I could. And we made it. From Leadville to the top of Independence Pass and all the way back home (for pizza, fries, and Cokes). I don’t know if I even believed I could do it until we were ascending, but I went for it anyway. My dad literally rode circles around me. The whole thing was such an eye-opener; I surpassed what I believed to be my limits running and climbing in the mountains in the past year to such an extent that I stopped believing I have them. But now I can see that it’s not full circle-I still see limitations in myself when faced with different types of barriers. Friends, this is a new frontier.

*not* training (what is your definition of laziness?)

When I first read East of Eden (Steinbeck) I was obsessed with the part about Timshel. Without dragging it out forever [because it is a huge topic], they say that these scholars have been studying Hebrew to better understand the bible and they’ve realized that the word Timshel has been mistranslated to English as ‘do thou’ and ‘thou shalt’ but really it means more like ‘thou mayest’, then it goes on to explain the significance:

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘thou shalt’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel-‘thou mayest’-that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘thou mayest not’…It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of a deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it, the way was set.’ But think of the glory of choice! That makes a man a man…This is a ladder to climb to the stars. You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

It’s a long excerpt but I tried to cut out the non-essential parts and backstory. I posted some version of this on my bedroom door so it would be the first thing I saw every day for years. When I didn’t feel like doing something, I’d think of it. If thou mayest, it is also true that thou mayest not. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. It has certainly been inspirational, but I’m starting to think it has contributed to lots of disappointment in myself.

do I run a lot?  Well if by "running" you mean drag my soaked and freezing legs through the snow then yeah, I do it all day every day.

do I run a lot? Well if by “running” you mean drag my soaked and freezing legs through the snow then yeah, I do it all day every day.

I’ve been struggling this week to get out and train. Mainly because of our god-awful weather up here. It’s stormed every single day multiple times, and there’s nowhere that you can go more than a couple miles on a trail before you hit the inevitable snow. [what I’m missing right now is why the fuck isn’t the rain melting the snow?!]

the rivers in Denver are flooded from all of our mountain storms

the rivers in Denver are flooded from all of our mountain storms

Every day I have good intentions, I wait for it to warm up a little [if you’ve forgotten, the climate up here in the high rockies is called “high desert” and it means that there’s so little humidity and the air is so thin that we warm up quick with the sun but as soon as it sets the temperature drops 30 degrees at least]. I go out to run, and 3 miles in I’m wading through snow [at this point in most places the snow is ankle-knee deep now, but some places like Mt. Massive it’s still hip-waist] and it’s suddenly thunderstorming again. So I turn back, go home, and hope that I can wait it out and go back out after it clears up. It then clears up for a half hour and as soon as I get out again it’s snowing and 20 degrees suddenly.

This was the story of my whole fucking week. I never got more than a few miles in, and I didn’t get out on the bike at all because the storms made the path slippery and I also don’t like my gorgeous new bike to be ruined like all of my previous commuting bikes.

In other news, I got a library card. And I re-read the entire Millenium Series [it’s the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if you don’t know, and that’s a total of about 1,500 pages]. That’s basically what I accomplished in this entire week. So I’ve weeble wobbled back and forth about how I feel about it. Because when I don’t get out and do epic shit every day, I feel like I’m wasting my life and I’m wholly disappointed in myself because TIMSHEL. I have the choice and that word cuts the feet from under my laziness and I still chose to sit around anyway. Then I’d think-I don’t fucking feel like running in 30 degrees and pouring rain. I don’t feel like wading through the snow it is NOT FUN ANYMORE. And isn’t that the point? It’s starting to feel like a job that I hate. Usually, days where it storms are occasional and those lousy training days are balanced out by all the amazing gorgeous mountain-climbing sweeping vista views days. But suddenly storms are every single day.

it wasn't the worst day on La Plata Peak

it wasn’t the worst day on La Plata Peak

I finally went out yesterday to La Plata (particularly because the weather was forecasted to be decent for once) and although it looked like serious storm clouds I headed out on the trail, hoping the clouds would pass. It rained lightly but not bad and started clearing up. However, as per usual, only 1 or 2 miles in the snow drifts started and not only do you have to wade through them which is bad enough but they often camouflage the location of the trail. There’s usually tracks where other people who know the route have passed, so it’s generally okay. But after the river crossing, the snow suddenly gets knee-deep (plus) and the tracks disperse in 3 complete different directions then stop entirely. It’s sort of a field that heads uphill and goes back into the forest, and you could see the bushes sticking up out of the snow so I couldn’t see anywhere that there was a break in the bushes. I’ve done this trail in the summer [and attempted once this winter but didn’t make it much further, even with the route instructions in hand] but nothing looked particularly familiar. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that should the Forest Service or whoever’s in charge like a free helper to mark these fucking trails so we can all stop wandering around like helpless idiots, I’m volunteering.

water stops for no one and nothing (on La Plata)

water stops for no one and nothing (on La Plata)

I wallowed for a while yesterday, because I thought I was finally going to get on track with the la plata ascent and it turned out all wrong, just like everything else in the past week or two. And I’m really struggling with this idea-am I just lazy or do I have the right to say I don’t want to do this right now? Is that okay? I’m so far behind in my Nolan’s training because the snow and the weather are 1,000x worse than I could have imagined and even on good days I can’t physically move fast enough through the snow to get the mileage and gain in that I should be at this point. As a longtime practitioner and teacher of yoga, I feel like I’m listening to myself and choosing to do what I need, even when it means staying home and reading instead. But on the other hand, if I’m going to achieve my dream of Nolan’s then when I need is to be out there all the time, despite all obstacles. What is the difference between laziness and choosing to do what I want?

The second the rain let up yesterday I was out on my bike. I rode hard and fast for 24 miles, until it was raining so hard I couldn’t see the path in front of me and my face was burning from being slapped by the raindrops(/hail, we rarely get away with rain that’s *just* rain). I wondered if it was punishment for my laziness or that the fire I’ve been smothering staying inside just needed to blaze.

storms...so dark you can barely see the picture even after I lightened it as much as possible

storms…so dark you can barely see the picture even after I lightened it as much as possible

I know I’m supposed to learn something from this terrible clash with mama nature, but every time I think I understand it gets so much worse. It stormed all the rest of the day yesterday, and instead of letting up last night it turned to snow and dumped 6”. It’s still snowing right now as I write this. [update: I wrote this on Tuesday and now that I’m posting this it is snowing AGAIN and I’m thinking I’ll go home and watch Cool Runnings which I picked up with my handy library card]

“This is a ladder to climb to the stars.” But where are the stars?