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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Winter Camping (taking misery to new heights)

If you’ve ever wanted to do extensive research on hypothermia and frostbite, not to mention crunching the numbers on temperatures, the gear you’re bringing, and the length of exposure, you should probably go winter camping.

If you’ve ever wanted to see icicles grow off of your dog’s coat, you should go winter camping.

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If you’ve ever wanted to restrict your meals to 4 minutes or less because standing still or sitting for longer will freeze you to death, you should go winter camping.

If you’re curious about game trails and very clear large animal prints, or if you’d like to know how easy it is to wake a bear up out of torpor (because their hibernation is SO LIGHT it’s not actually considered hibernation by most scientists), you should go winter camping.

I’m not going to mention going to the bathroom. Or the large frozen blood chunks in the snow. Okay, maybe we’ll talk about one of those. What I’m really not going to talk about is the LYNX tracks.

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So I told you, internet, that I had been fantasizing a lot about Nolan’s 14 and I briefly considered what it might be like to attempt a winter FKT, which as far as I know hasn’t been done. I also had high hopes for several day backcountry snowboarding trips this winter. Mark had some vacation time coming up and I was high off of the very exciting Capitol trip, and I wildly suggested a 3-day foray into winter camping to test the waters. And by waters, I mean several feet of frozen water.

Day one: We didn't hate our lives or the universe yet here

Day one: We didn’t hate our lives or the universe yet here

The day before I managed to use my excellent new knot tying skills and several feet of paracord to attach not one, but TWO sleeping bags to my pack. A nice 15 degree bag and an outrageously heavy outer bag made of flannel, some kind of vinyl or something, and probably filled with lead that I lovingly named BIG MAMA and cursed about 90 times during the trip, except while we were sleeping of course because Big Mama stood between me and death. Packed full of food and in every piece of winter gear I own, we drove 6ish miles west of Aspen on one of many “creek” roads where we parked and headed out into the wild.

And this is what my "pack" looked like.  By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear.  Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

And this is what my “pack” looked like. By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear. Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

So there were some foot tracks in just a little ways, the mystery of that is why would you bother to get there and start hiking in only for about 400 feet…but to each his own. What was worse was amongst these tracks was not just a little, but an incredible amount of frozen blood underneath a foot or so of snow. We speculated a bit but not that much…there wasn’t really an answer that’s not terribly disturbing I think.

Lu breaks trail

Lu breaks trail

Hypothermia. The body must maintain 97.7-99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As the limbs decrease in temperature, heat from the core goes outward to replenish and if the core can’t keep it up from there things start going downhill. There are four stages:

Stage 1: awake and shivering 90-95 degrees
Stage 2: drowsy and not shivering 82-90 degrees
Stage 3: unconscious, not shivering 68-82 degrees
Stage 4: no vital signs less than 68 degrees

1500 people die in the US every year of hypothermia. Then, there’s the other cold related problems, frostbite and frostnip. I don’t really even want to talk about Chillblains. You know a little girl in Sweden was revived after a body temperature of 54 degrees!? Did you see that movie about the mountaineer ice climbers that made the first ascent of some giant mountain in Peru or somewhere and there was an accident and anyway they were out there for a couple days and their skin was made up with all sorts of creepy sores? I’m thinking they were supposed to be Chillblains now that I know about them, and that’s all I have to say about Chillblains.

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I had a pretty interesting moment while climbing through extensive brush in order to fill up Nalgenes from the river (and btw, did you know that backcountry mountain water in the winter is THE MOST refreshing water that exists in the world? true story, it tastes nothing like the bottled water that is claimed to come from mountain springs either) because I realized that if *I* were a bear, I would most definitely hibernate in very thick brush by the river and since bears don’t officially hibernate they can be woken up at the drop of a hat (or by the brush breaking over them). I’m unsure how they can just pop up and attack you, since their body temperature drops to 5 degrees fahrenheit and their heart rate to 8-12 beats per minute. But what’s impressive is that mama bears go under pregnant and pop out cubs during. Also, by some miracle of supposed science their muscles don’t atrophy.

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn't mauled by 5 degree bears

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn’t mauled by 5 degree bears

I’m not really sure what else to say about the fateful trip. You don’t sleep, then after hours of not sleeping you get suddenly warm enough to sleep for 30 minutes and you wake up freezing again. The forecasted high temperature does not apply to the mountains, even if it’s forecasted for the mountains. Even worse, there’s hardly any sun (it’s obscured by MOUNTAINS). Baked beans that were boiling are amazingly cold in less than three minutes. We still don’t know if it’s better or much worse to clear the snow below the tent (don’t worry, before winter’s out I will be able to build a snow cave and I’ll tell you about it). You can’t put up a tent in your giant snow mittens so you have to do it with bare hands and they FREEZE, so bring a second pair of less-warm-but-more-workable gloves. I thought I was a bigger badass for some reason, but the backcountry reminded me what hardcore means. What is miserable suddenly becomes less miserable once you admit you’re miserable.

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Oh- and snow covered mountains and icy rivers are gorgeous and epic.

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Collegiates pt 3 (no sleep till Columbia)

If you’ve been following along, on my quest to summit 28 mountains over 14,000 feet this year before my 28th birthday, I just bagged 5 summits last week in two days-my biggest trip yet. However, it was planned for 6, but in the last moments I had to make a decision that was disappointing but necessary-to call it before traversing the ridge to Columbia.

This meant I’d have to go back for Columbia. And I’ll tell you now, it was not a good day.

On Sunday I realized I hadn’t made any Labor Day plans, and my schedule the way that it is allows me to head to the mountains after my Monday morning class if I can be back for my Tuesday late night class-that’s *almost* two full days! So very last minute, I started copying down TH and route directions loosely for my next 6 peaks that would finish off the Sawatch Range- Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Antero, Shavano, and Tabagauche. Obviously, I wasn’t going to make those 6 in this trip (especially since there are no link ups, and the roads to several of these TH are sketchy at best, which means my mileage walking in to get these peaks is going to increase exponentially). I was hoping for 3: Columbia and Princeton on Monday, Yale on Tuesday.

yeah I only took pictures from the summit on this trip.  So.  I'll just spread them out through the post.

yeah I only took pictures from the summit on this trip. So. I’ll just spread them out through the post.

I started out at the Cottonwood Creek TH to hike in 3-4 miles towards Harvard before I veered East for Columbia. This was actually quite pleasant. The weather was excellent-warm and sunny, with no forecasted storms whatsoever. The trail wasn’t even crowded. We hit treeline and approached a gully. This is where my “loose” copying down of route directions failed me. When I’m taking a standard route, I copy down turns that must be made in case there are no signs, and anything that’s out of the ordinary (“the route is hard to find through the talus, go SE”, or “turn at the rabbit eared rock formation”). There wasn’t really much of note in the Columbia directions, but I had a recollection of reading about the route being hard to find “but follow the cairns” and something about a gully. So as the trail headed up a gully, I followed right along with it. It got lost but was vaguely findable the whole time. The problem was, it was EPICALLY steep and all loose dirt and tiny scree. About 20 minutes in, I was bear walking on hands and feet. We were in a west-facing gully, and the wind was just whipping us around. It literally knocked me over several times. The ascent up this gully was slow going, and I’ve never felt like I made so little progress in so much time. I was frustrated, even angry. If this route were alive, I wanted to kill it. It was a different type of the “I’d rather die than keep going” mentality. I wasn’t really tired, just miserable. I kept thinking “this isn’t that big of a deal, calm down!” but I couldn’t calm down.

We reached the summit ridge, FINALLY, and not only was the wind relentless, but we had a ways to go before the summit. At one point I actually leaned into the wind and it held me up. It was approaching 50mph. The only people we’d seen so far were beginning their descent, so we had the summit to ourselves. Now this was a satisfying summit to make, and we spent about 5 minutes feeling awesome about it and taking excellent pictures (I know, I should be a professional photographer). We also shared a banana-my last bit of food (I’ve been packing light. Damn. Fail.)

yep.  Really good photographer.  Plus, the wind blown hair makes me look like a professional model.  So.

yep. Really good photographer. Plus, the wind blown hair makes me look like a professional model. So.

We headed to the descent fast and dirty, I was so ready to be off this mountain. I didn’t bring wind protection either, expecting excellent weather, so my head was starting to hurt pretty good from the cold wind in my ears. I also left my sunglasses on the summit. Angry face. We passed our fellow descenders as we ran down as quick as we could-and we did find that we missed the turn out of the gully to take the shoulder up to the ridge, which was much better (but still slippery and steep in places). Coming down the lowest segment of the gully, where the routes meet, I attempted the snowless version of glissading (aka, sliding down the steep parts on my butt) but that’s problematic because of the rocks. What did seem to work was kind of skating on my feet, which my hips just above the ground, and my hands steering on the rocks. This was pretty great (although most of the time you’re halfway between being in control and falling) until I landed my right hand on one of those giant, evil thistle flower plants. And now I’ve got 20 splinters, that are going to have to wait until later because I’m not carrying a first aid kit. Angry face. [update: there were four that I couldn’t get out. FOUR. ugh.]

At least I was about below treeline. So when I’m in the mountains I always think about wanting to be a better person. How to make more out of my life. What unnecessary junk I can and need to get rid of. This ascent, being particularly miserable, gave me more to think about than usual. I’ve been tragically hooked on Netflix lately, letting House run while I’m cleaning, while I’m trying to go to sleep, and while I’m eating. Awful, and I just keep letting it go on! What a time suck. I’ve also let my yoga practice sort of go by the wayside, not practicing at home and skipping class some days. Finally, I realized that sugar is causing my digestive problems. It’s time to make drastic changes.

more summit pictures!  Lu's glamour shots.  Here she is, looking regal

more summit pictures! Lu’s glamour shots. Here she is, looking regal

I made the decision on the way down to call it for the day, find a campsite, and do one summit in the morning. I was really looking forward to making dinner, reading, and doing some yoga. I had to drive to the next trailhead, so I headed toward Princeton. No camping at the Princeton parking lot, so I headed up the Mt. Princeton road (supposed to be 4wd only but it’s not THAT bad). After driving several white-knuckle miles up, I gave up and turned around. I hoped there would be better luck near Antero, so I drove further in towards Baldwin Gulch. On the way in, I saw lots of “no camping” signs. Hmmm, promising. Arrived at the Antero TH surrounded by ATV trails and parking, and no camping. More “no camping” signs. I drove in further with very little hope, then gave up and turned around. I could’ve gone back to Harvard but couldn’t stomach adding another 45 minutes of driving into the national forest. Frustrated and disappointed, I turned tail and headed home.

This trip gave me a lot to think about. “Learning” doesn’t come from outside of you; as you pick your way through experiences, you expose who you are and what you’re about.

Coming up: Sarah gets serious about putting miles in the saddle for the Long’s trip (164 bicycle miles, 14 running up Long’s, 15,000ft gain in 24 hours), and the Collegiates fire is burning a hole in something.

Collegiates: two days of peakbagging, part deux

Day two was planned to be three summits: Huron Peak (14,003), Harvard (14,420), and Columbia (14,073). Plus much more mileage (26) and similar gain and loss (10,000ish ft).

Day 2 total elevation gain and loss: 8,900ft

Day 2 total mileage: 25miles

I didn’t wake up until just after 7a (that’s right, if you read day one you’ll know I slept almost 12 hours!) so I didn’t get an early start today either. Good things, though, it was raining all morning and I got up just in time to start Huron in the sunshine. Even the hike in to the Huron Peak TH was absolutely gorgeous, which would be a trend on this mountain.

That's not Huron Peak, it's to the left and hard to see from the hike in.

That’s not Huron Peak, it’s to the left and hard to see from the hike in.

Luna was running in every direction, as if she wasn’t tired at all. At the TH there’s a brief bit through the forest, then the switchbacks start right away and they’re arduous but somehow don’t go on as long as you’re expecting, or don’t seem as miserable as they should. I didn’t see my first human until treeline; he was on his way down and gave me the dl on the rest of the hike. As promised, at treeline the trail opens up to cross this breathtaking meadow with spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. It is one of the world’s greatest tragedies that I did not take a picture on the way up (you’ll see why when you see the way down picture). We crossed the meadow then head into more switchbacks up the shoulder toward the ridge. This is where I started feeling the gain from yesterday in my legs, but more so in stiffness and not burning. I came across a group of 6 on the final ascent, they were all experienced hikers and we discussed the impending weather which seemed to be going from bad to worse. 2 of them made the summit and the rest turned around as I was heading up. I was only 400 feet off or so so we went for it. And my god, it was maybe my favorite summit so far.

You can see in the video how quickly the weather can change. By the time I get all the way around the 360, you can see the storms getting so much closer. The snow got much worse as we headed down, and we ran down as fast as we could. By the time we arrived in the meadow again, it looked like this:

The ghosts of mountains in the distance cast a much different feel on the meadow

The ghosts of mountains in the distance cast a much different feel on the meadow

Once below treeline, it poured on us. Which really wasn’t bad and it wasn’t even that cold. The storm broke as we hit the TH, and the sun came out. Which was good news for the Harvard/Columbia attempt. I was feeling great. Huron was a straightforward 11 miles and 3,800ft gain, and it served to warm me up rather than tire me out (so I thought). Lu and I both had peanut butter sandwiches, and we headed for Harvard.

The first few miles in through the forest were sunny and nice, but the weather was turning slowly but surely. When we broke out of the trees and into the valley there were extraordinary views on all sides. It’s really miraculous how enormous 13ers and 14ers are, before you climb them. They humble us, certainly.

As I say in the video, I was feeling pretty rough at this point. The mileage and slow elevation gain was emptying me out just as slowly but surely as the weather was going bad. By the time we hit the talus field to start the last big ascent, I was pretty miserable. This is fun for me because the cool thing about 14ers is that you have that moment where you think “I’d rather die than keep going” but I haven’t felt that in a while, maybe since that miserable Pike’s ascent. So to find that again felt good in a weird way. Peakbagging and endurance hiking isn’t about conquering, as much as it may seem to be. You become a part of the mountain and you leave yourself on it. You always have a choice-to stay or go back. And if you stay, not just to stay but to dig deeper and go harder than you believe you can. That’s why I planned this trip, because the elevation gain was much more than I’ve ever done in the amount of time I was setting out to do it. Since I believed it to be past my limits, I wanted to prove that I could break out of them.

There was a mountain goat on Harvard, we actually came pretty close to it but it was around the corner and I didn’t want to spook it.

Can you find Waldo?  Me neither.  I know he's in the frame!  We're not even that far away.

Can you find Waldo? Me neither. I know he’s in the frame! We’re not even that far away.

The weather was turning quickly and the Harvard ascent took longer than I had imagined it would; which meant we were losing daylight too.

Right next to the summit, where I did not take even a single picture :(

Right next to the summit, where I did not take even a single picture 😦

We reached the summit and did another one of those quick taps and immediately started to descend, thinking we’ve got to bust ass if we’re going to make the Columbia summit before dark. It didn’t feel like a celebration or an accomplishment, making it to Harvard, which it should’ve! And I really wasn’t as familiar as I should’ve been about the route to and down from Columbia…I was a little nervous about doing it in the dark. We would descend from the Harvard summit to a saddle, then hike up an unnamed 13er, descend to another saddle, and head up to Columbia. That traverse would’ve been 2.54 miles, and was slotted to take over an hour due to difficulty and route-finding, and once on the ridge there’d be no escape if the weather turned.

On the saddle before the unnamed 13er, I stopped, stared at it, and just shook my head. It was 7:20pm.

In 2 parts because my phone wouldn’t upload it in onehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G570j-QO4EU

Here’s what’s really funny about the whole thing: the ridge I show you in the video, and the peak in the distance that I believe to be Columbia? It’s not! I told you, I wasn’t familiar with the route…whoops! Turns out, when I show you the creepy death eater fog coming over that ridge to the Northeast? That’s the ridge to Columbia. It doesn’t change the fact that I had to call it due to weather and losing light. We started descending immediately and were in the talus field (read: broken rock field) when the fog made it into the valley. Visibility wasn’t even 20 feet anymore, and then it started pouring (that was a close call!). Darkness fell completely while we were in the forest, we hiked back a little over 3 miles (felt like so much more) in total darkness. I had a light, but that doesn’t go very far. Darkness in the forest feels very heavy and thick. I sang devotional songs in Sanskrit to ward off the bears (and to help keep me from losing my mind-I’ve never been afraid of the dark, I didn’t know this would scare me so completely). I also discussed the impending fuel down at length with Luna.

Unfortunately for both of us, everything in Buena Vista closes at 8 or 9pm. Coming out of the Collegiate wilderness, it was a little after 9. We found one gas station still open until 10 (“summer hours” for one more week!) and got a coke. Coming back from BV you go through a variety of small towns (Fairplay, South Park, eventually Conifer) that also have no amenities “late” at night, so there was no fuel down to speak of. We didn’t roll back into Denver until 11:30p and by that point I just wanted to hit bed so hard.

5 summits over 14,000ft. 19,700ft gain and loss. 42 miles. I can be good with that.

Coming up: no sleep till we summit Columbia and finish the Collegiates. Sarah gives up sugar, and starts training for the Long’s Peak ride