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?

MOTHER NATURE (and how I learned about expectations

Mother Nature exposed and made light of my weaknesses by dumping foot after foot after foot of fresh snow on my mountains; they that were so near to being clear.

When it started snowing on Wednesday I was annoyed. When it continued snowing on Thursday I was already pissed. I thought after work I would run all day. I adjusted said plan to spend the afternoon swimming laps instead, but when I arrived at the pool the sun was coming out and I cut my swim short to run Ptarmigan…only to find the sun immediately replaced by another snowstorm. And how it stormed. Friday I woke up to a full foot of new snow, and to put this in perspective that’s enough snow that I couldn’t open the back door to let Lu out in the morning. I shoveled the foot of snow off of my car and went to work, only to return to another FOOT OF SNOW in the afternoon; so much snow you couldn’t even see the dent in the driveway from the foot of snow I took with me in the morning (I totally got stuck in my street). Saturday it snowed, and Sunday it was occasionally sunny but it also snowed.

You may remember that I was recently thrilled about the amount of exposed trail up here, and the impending spring and summer when I would get to run on the ground again. I can’t even dredge up hope for that dream anymore, and here’s why:

So yesterday I looked at conditions reports on the southern Sawatch, and as recently as 8 days ago someone was on Mt Yale reporting that the first couple MILES were dirt, and there wasn’t enough snow anywhere to ski. The weather was reporting 50’s and sunny in Buena Vista, so I thought good enough, let’s go. Lu and I drove to BV in the mid-morning, coffee-in-hand, and arrived at the Denny Creek TH parking lot that had been thoroughly plowed and sunned and was perfectly empty at 10am. It was sunny and relatively warm. I did Yale towards the end of last summer but I was racking my brain trying to remember where the TH actually was from the parking lot, and boy I wish I had taken a picture because it was comical when I realized that it was so thoroughly buried with snow that you couldn’t see the sign, and there were no tracks to speak of.

I’ve gotten used to this common mountain scenario since I’ve moved here: there’s a baselayer of snow, someone makes tracks on it, when it snows again you still have the packed snow beneath it. Well. This was much different. There was no baselayer and no previous tracks, just the dirt trail. Like this was the first snow there ever was. And it was three. fucking. feet.

I dug out my snowshoes and sighed.

Luna doesn't care if she's buried or not

Luna doesn’t care if she’s buried or not

An hour later, we had lost the trail and the sun and it had begun to snow. We arrived at a river crossing and I nearly fell in. Each sluggish step in the wet snow dragging each snowshoe miserably. Yeah, I was totally angry. I know it’s not right, but I’m just done with winter and I’m so mad it snowed again [and hey, guess what! This is the usual for the high Rockies. Silver Lake, Colorado holds TWO U.S. records for snowfall-the most snow in 24hours (76”) and the biggest continuous snowfall (100” in 85hours) and it was a late April storm]. The reality is, our snowfall was really light this year and we NEEDED this huge storm so we have water this summer; okay, I totally get it! But it doesn’t make me feel better about the current state of dragging ass in the cold woods [especially when I tasted summer in that glorious weekend I spent running the front range]

this water.  was delicious.  and the coldest water that exists in the world.

this water. was delicious. and the coldest water that exists in the world.

It gave me a lot to think about. When I was still teaching yoga full time I did a 5-week series about expectations. How and why we have them and their effects on our lives and well being. Others expectations of us. What it boils down to is something we all already know-expectations set us up for disappointment. I’ve been dreaming so hard of summer and the weather was good so I expected it to stay that way and get better. It took moving up here to realize that you can never rely on anything when it comes to weather. I know, I know, in your part of the country the weather is CRAZY and unpredictable and you can have all four seasons in the same day (are you realizing for the first time that you’ve totally said that, because EVERYBODY thinks that about where they live? Is your mind blown!?)

But here’s the thing about the high country. It goes from 50 and sunny to 0 and storming in less than five minutes, and I’m not exaggerating for effect. I counted (for the first time) and it went from sunny/clear/warm to FULL ON SNOWSTORM and back 7 times today. SEVEN. It might be 60 degrees and sunny for two weeks, then it drops the biggest storm of the year on you and pummels you for days with January temperatures. It’s also not unusual for this to happen once summer is in full swing; in fact, it’s likely to happen several times this summer that we get sudden snowstorms. Plus, at high altitude (I’m at 10,200) the sun feels hotter and it warms us (people, land, air, whatever) up faster, and the thin air doesn’t hold heat very well, so the temperature swings can be truly incredible.

My weakness this past week has been my expectations. But I’m not going to get anywhere training for Nolan’s holding a grudge or staying inside to avoid snow because I was ready for summer. I could let every step be wretched, feeding the anger and frustration. Or every step fuels the fire that burns out my weaknesses. Self discipline through austerity-and once that garbage is burned off I won’t even notice the snow, excepting the lightness of burdens being lifted.

fresh tracks

fresh tracks

Leadville (or, how I moved to the middle of nowhere)

I haven’t posted in a while and it’s because this all happened last December in the two weeks after my last post. Let’s catch up.

So I’m not really sure when it started. The 28 was kind of a catalyst and a game changer that infiltrated my life in a whole bunch of ways, but very slowly so I barely noticed. I had been thinking a fair amount about how frustrating it was to pay this high rent and you’re always broke anyway. The American Dream Cycle: work more to pay more. When it occurred to me that my exorbitant-rent lease was going to be up in January I thought, where do I want to move? I looked at all the areas in Denver. Something centrally located but safe but still reasonably affordable and also decently sized that happens to allow pets…classic city problems. Somehow, my craiglist search suddenly arrived on High Rockies instead of Denver Area. At first, it was just a little light browsing on apartments/housing. Then I was looking at jobs. Then I was scouring rooms/shares and temporary/sublets and all the other housing categories. Then I applied for jobs. Suddenly I was taking my training up to Leadville and incidentally checking out houses. I interviewed for jobs.

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The whole thing felt very surreal-like it wasn't actually happening and I wasn't committing to anything and it wasn't crazy at all. [side note: this was exactly how I felt when I got my cats…I have experience with this magical process]

I told my dad on the phone that I was thinking about moving to the mountains on a Friday…and on Monday I accepted a job. A job that I started on Tuesday. That is exactly how fast it went from casually browsing craiglist to REALLY fucking moving to the mountains. All said and done, the whole thing was less than two weeks.

I also thought I'd be going back and forth for a while. Taking my time moving, seeing friends, teaching my classes. But once I started moving to Leadville, I didn't want to leave.

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I’m blocks-BLOCKS!-away from miles of wilderness. Not to mention the two tallest mountains in Colorado.

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Sometimes, on casual dog walks in the woods near the house, you come across large dead animal carcasses.

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Then your roommate goes out to find them and hang them on your shed.

Here in Leadville, we go to bed when it’s too cold (or sometimes just when it’s dark). I was a little worried that when I lost the internet and Netflix, I’d fall back on dvds and spend evenings bingeing on Sex and the City. I didn’t. I do yoga and read Sherlock Holmes. And I spend nearly all the daylight hours snowboarding, running, and snowshoeing.

Here’s what amazed me the most: so now I spend hours upon hours every day wandering around in the wilderness. And the backcountry in winter is especially lovely because with all that snow people see a barrier and leave it alone. There is nowhere more quiet than miles into the national forest when they’re sunk in more than 5ft of snow. So it seems like everywhere you go you’re blazing the trail (and I totally think PIONEERS O PIONEERS even when it’s an established trail that’s covered in snow). But here’s the sweetest thing, when you’re blazing trail, there’s not really a destination. Piles and piles of things go wrong, they slow you down, and eventually you stop expecting to get anywhere at all. You don’t need to. The longer you’re just out there you become an integrated piece of the stillness. It’s perfect freedom. Paradise.

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Mt Lindsey (will I EVER finish the 28?)

Decisions made in the mountains are so different than in the real world. There’s also something to be said from beginning any endeavor with a “it’s in the bag” mentality.

from the meadow just after the TH

from the meadow just after the TH

After the Capitol attempt, I felt really good about the 28…basically like that chapter was almost closed, and it was just a matter of finalizing it. I knew I wouldn’t head back to the Elks again until I do Av training and buy an ice axe, so I estimated that the official 28th would be Mt. Lindsey. I put it off a couple weeks so that I could go with Mark, and celebrate proper. The day before, we were texting things like “finally finishing the 28th!” “28 is in the bag!” the weather was forecasted to be clear, sunny, high of 42, 10mph winds. Not bad, not bad at all. The round trip was 8.25, all class 2, and aside from some snow and ice it was in pretty good condition.

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We even didn’t plan to leave until 6:30a because we weren’t worried about getting an early start. And we went to Slohi, where the people are very sweet but it takes a very long time for them to make your drinks (do they realize how funny that is?) It was a four hour drive from Denver, there’s a long network of forest service access roads that will be totally impassible come winter. We started off at the TH at like 11am. The hike in was nice. We got mildly lost when the snow blocked a twist in the trail, but we found it again. Arriving at the saddle, the wind picked up. The route seemed obvious, we took a dip down from the ridge on the snowy side and it was a little tricky with the ice but definitely okay. When we got to the point where we could see the gully we’d be ascending, it was very icy and long. We chose to ascend early, climbing the rocks in a rockier, less snowy part and heading to the ridge. I knew there was a ridge route so I thought we’d be able to summit from the ridge. I was route finding.

from the saddle

from the saddle

On the ridge, things were definitely a little dicey. Lu was okay, but I was getting a little worried about her. The wind was picking up quickly, making the climbing feel unsteady. I saw what was ahead and stopped suddenly. Mark caught up and said “I don’t know about this” and I was strangely optimistic. I kicked my foot out on a ledge to the left to see better, and saw what was below me (nothing). It was like a mini version of the knife edge. And on the other side was the crux wall of the ridge route. I was enamored by it, but I couldn’t think of any safe way to get Lu to the other side. The wind was whipping at this point, throwing bits of ice into our eyes (10mph my ass). We decided to head back, and almost immediately regretted taking the ridge back, trying to down climb on the ice. Lu couldn’t find the way that we got down one part and she spent the better part of 5 minutes pacing back and forth and whining, freaking out. She could get down fine, but she just didn’t see the way down. It was terrible, poor girl.

Mark, descending the ridge.  Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

Mark, descending the ridge. Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

We found a way down from the ridge back to the trail, and headed back out towards the saddle. Arriving at the saddle, we estimated if we should go back and try the route the way we were supposed to, going up the gully. The wind I’d estimate was nearing 50mph, as I could lean into it 45 degrees and be held up. We agreed to call it and headed down the saddle as fast as possible (by that I mean we glissaded on the ice! Or rather, I did). It wouldn’t have been that hard or taken that long to finish it. I’m not actually sure why we gave up and headed back.

Mark and I, over the icy river

Mark and I, over the icy river

It was a nice trip back. I didn’t feel that bad about not summiting, it was a gorgeous day in the mountains. I would like to finish the 28. It’s been an epic journey and now that I’ve done 98% of TWO 28 attempts, it’s going to be nice to call it closed. I’ve talked a lot before about how good I feel in the mountains, how I want to be a better person. How just existing there is enough. Then we go back to the city…it’s enough to make me move out there…

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In other news, I’ve been training for the next adventure. I’m about ready to make it official.

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

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

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

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

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

Dan and I at the TH

Dan and I at the TH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We kept going.

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

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

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

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

It just gets deeper from here.

It just gets deeper from here.

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

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

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

Collegiates pt ? (progress is progress)

The morning after where we left off, I had just summited Shavano and Tabegauche, and attempted (but failed at) Antero. On the docket today is Yale and Princeton, but I woke up feeling a little beat.

Planned: Mt. Yale (14,196) 9.5mi, 4300ft gain and Mt. Princeton (14,197) 13.25mi and 5400ft gain
Total planned: 22.75mi and 9700ft gain
Actual: Mt Yale 9.5mi and 4300ft gain

I started out actually pretty damn early, so I felt great about that. I wasn’t feeling great in general, however, and the first couple miles were a bit tainted by the idea of rushing this ascent in order to make it to Mt Princeton, ascend, descend, and make it all the way back to Denver in time to teach an 8:30p class. The rushing was much more strenuous than the elevation gain.

Then I had a brilliant epiphany. What if I didn’t do Princeton today? I struggled pretty hard with this decision. I’m already behind on mountains and at this point I had everything scheduled. I considered all of my options in terms of rescheduling. I did my best to justify skipping Princeton. But, ultimately I didn’t want to do it and once I made the decision to summit Yale then go home I felt a big burden being lifted. Part of this process is surpassing what I thought to be my limits, but part of it is understanding why and if I really want to do things.

The rest of Yale went smoothly, I passed several groups and was the first on the summit, then even had it to myself for a while. It was an absolutely gorgeous summit. I made a fast but not rushed descent, stopping to chat with a bunch of people on the way down. There was a girl that asked to take a picture with Lu as if she was her and her boyfriend’s dog…that was weird.

me and my Luna bug, feeling the bigness of summiting Yale.

me and my Luna bug, feeling the bigness of summiting Yale.

On my way home from Buena Vista I spent a long time thinking about my schedule between now and my birthday, to see how I could adjust to add Princeton and Antero. Tomorrow was supposed to be an all day training ride for the planned 82mi ride to Long’s, Long’s ascent, and ride back to Denver that was schedule for next Monday Tuesday. What I realized is, if I wanted to get all the peaks in before my birthday without subbing any classes I’d have to do Long’s tomorrow so there’s time to go back to BV for Antero and Princeton next week.

Wednesday morning I did not want to set an alarm, so I woke up around 8:30 and hung out making breakfast and drinking coffee. I got lost on the way to Long’s after mixing up some highway numbers and ended up starting out from the TH a bit after 11:30. And yeah, there were storms forecasted.

I did not take this.  But I accidentally deleted my picture from this viewpoint of Long's, on the long way in.  I'll go to the right, around the back, and pop up through that notch you can see about 1/3 from the left to climb to the summit.

I did not take this. But I accidentally deleted my picture from this viewpoint of Long’s, on the long way in. I’ll go to the right, around the back, and pop up through that notch you can see about 1/3 from the left to climb to the summit.

I burned in pretty hard and fast, but stopped to talk to a nice old man right before the trail splits toward the lake and the boulderfield. He was headed in to fish until the weather turned, and was highly disturbed that I was starting a summit ascent so late in the day. I tried to explain to him that I know what I’m doing, but he was unconvinced, and asked me if I’ve been on a fourteener before. 🙂

It’s a good long ways to get to the technical part. Even crossing the boulderfield takes ages, winding about then up a talus field to the keyhole that looks much shorter than it actually is. Once you cross through the keyhole to the other side of the mountain, you’re rewarded with epic views and it’s all class 3 from here. The route’s well marked so it moves pretty fast. Long’s Peak is technically a part of Rocky Mountain National Park, and dogs aren’t allowed so I left Lu home for this one so it was nice to enjoy the scrambling without having to keep track of her. I met some clearly very high gentlemen headed down the very steep and technical gully, and I was amazed that Colorado stoners are so motivated as to climb such long and technically difficult routes (14 miles with a good amount of class 3 technical that is mildly dangerous but also takes a pretty long time). The last two guys I saw claimed to be the last heading down from the summit, which would make me alone on the route for quite a while. They estimated 30 minutes to get through “the narrows” then another 40-60 on the final ascent. I was thinking that when I got to the top of the gully I wouldn’t be too far off from the summit, so the rational part of my brain worried slightly about the impending storms…the rest of my brain felt a little too excited.

from the keyhole

from the keyhole

Turns out, the two guys that gave me the time estimates (who appeared to be competent climbers themselves) were either very slow themselves or had highly underestimated me and given me an inflated time to the summit, because 30 minutes later I was standing on it, confused as all get out, trying to figure out how I ended up there so quickly, and if it was possible that I was not, in fact, on the summit. But I found the metal seal and the capsule containing the register so I knew I was there. I took some pictures then headed down, hoping to make it through the technical before getting rained on.

coloradical

coloradical

I made it to the top of the gully where I’d be downclimbing before traversing that class 3 west ridge again when it started hailing. And I wasn’t scared. Maybe I should’ve been. I moved as quickly as possible coming down the now hail-covered slippery rock, feeling like a kid out playing in the rain.

I didn't take this either, and I don't know these people.  But I stupidly deleted almost all of my pictures of the sweet route I was on to clear up memory for a later trip, you'll hear about soon

I didn’t take this either, and I don’t know these people. But I stupidly deleted almost all of my pictures of the sweet route I was on to clear up memory for a later trip, you’ll hear about soon

After getting back to the keyhole and crossing over to the east side again the storm was gone and I ran the whole way back fast and dirty, hoping to have time to catch some dinner in Boulder before I had to be at the search and rescue meeting. (victory). 14.5mi, 5100ft gain

Collegiates: pt 4 (finish the Sawatch range?)

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

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

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

BAM!

BAM!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously.  This is a real picture.

Seriously. This is a real picture.

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

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

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

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