Hope Epic Zombie Loop & Wild-Cat Ideas pt 1

“’I suppose you have got one of your wild-cat ideas.’
‘Yes, I have,’ Earnest owned, smiling a little, ‘at least you will probably think it’s a wild-cat idea.’”

I was camping at Half Moon, two miles from where the Colorado Trail crosses it and heads up towards Mt. Massive in one direction and Mt. Elbert in the other. I had already done a series of small loops by utilizing the CT, loops I’ve done before and loops that I hadn’t yet thought of. I’m not sure where the loop thing came from, but suddenly I’m obsessed with loops. I guess, I hate the inefficiency of a one-way, which necessitates getting rides and stashing cars. But an out-and-back is even less appealing, especially when you’re doing parts of the Nolan’s route. It’s all the Grand Canyon’s fault, really. Those damn well-organized and maintained bike paths and extremely convenient shuttles would ruin the thing for anyone.

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From La Plata, looking SW at the ridge I would take to the basin

So that’s how I suddenly came to think, what if I left from my campsite and did Elbert and La Plata on the Nolan’s course, then used the CDT and the CT to loop it back (I’m still relatively new to Strava, you guys, and just imagine what a loop like that would look like overlayed on a satellite map! Damn Strava, it’s your fault, too). You know how you get an idea and it’s obviously the best and most brilliant idea you’ve ever had? I mean, I was planning a run. A rather grand run, but still. It played up in my mind. I must run this wonderful loop! And in the way of all the best and brightest ideas, I planned extremely poorly and set out as soon as I could.

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From Massive, a couple days before I did the Loop

The first week I had been back in Leadville, I did 25,000 feet of elevation, which wasn’t unusual for my training, and I was so exhausted that I was cutting every run short and existing in the world like a zombie. I took two days off, because I could hardly imagine how I could get out to run at all (I’ll talk more about this in the next post, which will be called something like over training: How to Lose Everything). Then I made a hard effort on Elbert, and the next day I planned to do my loop. Without doing the math or looking anything up, I had loosely added up miles in my head and determined vaguely that the loop was probably somewhere in the 30’s. As I had just done the Broken Arrow in 6:28, I imagined that such a loop should take me 8 to 12 hours, making allowances for what I expected to be rather poor snow conditions (and poor, they were). I packed my headlamp, some bars, and an emergency blanket in addition to the stuff I normally carry on mountain runs (shell jacket, life straw, sunglasses) and rode my bike to the north Elbert trailhead. At, like, 10:30am. Alpine starts are for organized, responsible people who want to get back at a reasonable time and avoid afternoon storms. “And you, button, are none of those things.”

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from Elbert summit

It was a beautiful day and the Elbert ascent went fast and easy. I cruised over the summit to the confusion of startled summit-sitters and passed a large group of annoyed teenagers that had probably come from the Black Cloud trailhead on the talus, before I dropped out of sight, off trail, toward Bull Hill. I got a view of the ridge. “I’m worried that the snow conditions in the basin off La Plata will be so bad I’ll get stuck.” I said days ago, to a friend who knows the route. He said, “No, Hope Pass is going to be the snow crux.” We were both wrong, I thought, as I looked over the steep slopes covered in heavy, sun-wet snow just begging to slide off the ridge to Bull Hill. As I traversed I also descended, aiming for lower angle snow at least to cross in, knowing how steep it was above me. I kept thinking, I should turn back, I should turn back, but I thought, no it’ll get better, it’ll get better as it got worse and worse. Because I couldn’t find a place to safely ascend Bull Hill itself, I went further south and tried to ascend its south ridge. As I climbed the snow towards it, I could finally see the cornices at the top, and the cracks in the snow beneath them. At this point, Pippa had already crossed over and I knew that was the fastest way out of this situation. So I did, too.

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Bull Hill

As I predicted, on the other side of the corniced snow was bare tundra and rocks and the Bull Hill descent was no trouble at all. As I crossed 82, I looked at my mileage so far and realized that I had under calculated. But, that’s ok. Even if it adds up and I end up at 40, it’ll still be okay. But, if I don’t want to go on, I should really decide that now because this is probably the point of no return. Once I cross over La Plata, I’ll be committed to this loop. Committed, I was. Because of my late morning start, I hit the La Plata trailhead late enough that I only saw one group still making their way down on the 100 switchbacks. We stopped to chat about dogs and weather and things, and one of the guys said, “I bet you could still make it to the summit if you pushed it.” Hahahahaha. It was 5:45pm. I said, “Well, I sure hope so because I’m going over to the other side.” I hoped, at that point, that I’d make it to 390A on the other side of the SW La Plata TH before dark, as I was still worried about the unknown snow conditions and also about route finding in the basin.

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the ridge to Bull Hill

“What’s on the other side?” He asked, incredulous. I thought for a moment, the probably snow-filled basin? 390A? Winfield? Salvation? A cold, honest night alone in the mountains? “Nothing at all.” I said, and went on climbing, my thighs were burning and progress slowing. My first yoga teacher was always saying when a pose was hard and your legs were burning, it’s “Burning Enthusiasm.” Because you can choose it to be burning enthusiasm instead of burning misery. And the burning, besides, is what burns up all the garbage, all the thoughts and worries and fears and past you’re gripping, tapas, the physical struggle, can burn them out and leave you alone with yourself. Each slow step burns and I try to think, “Burning Enthusiasm.”

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from La Plata, looking west at the setting sun

I had started thinking about what I’d call the loop. I love naming routes. And the longer and more strenuous they are, the more you suffer and the more the mountains abuse you, the easier it is to just know suddenly what they should be called. Something always pops into mind, or makes itself apparent. At this point, after the carefree, sunny Bull Hill descent and the casual, if slow, La Plata ascent, I had in my mind that song that’s by Fallout Boy or Panic at the Disco that the chorus is like, “Always had high, high hopes …” [we’ll see if I remember to look up the lyrics to this song, because you know how you can get a catchy song stuck in your head just from hearing it on the radio or in a store or something even if you don’t know exactly the words?] And of course, it seemed obvious to use a play on Hope Pass, as that was the hinge that made the loop possible. I trudged upward as the sun got lower in the sky, oblivious to the miles adding up freely and much more quickly than my harried math had allowed for. “I’ll call this the High High Hopes loop.” It’s a lot easier to be positive and delighted when the sun is still up.

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This is my GPS track, up until the point my watch died partway up Hope Pass

The ascent took so long that I rushed down the talus towards the basin, just blindly hoping to get off that heinous trail and onto the road before dark at this point, thinking that once I was, any potential troubles would probably be over and I’d be easily navigating clean trail in the dark. My knees were really bothering me, and I was exhausted. Still exhausted from last week or the altitude or whatever it was that had been hindering my performance. Like everyone that’s crossed the threshold and is suffering from over training (but do not know it yet, because they do not wear a heart rate monitor regularly as God and Steve House agree everyone should), I believed I must be unfit and continued to push harder to make up for it. I arrived at the steep gully I had to descend into the basin, the place I was worried about the snow being the most dangerous. But, I was in luck, because though full of snow, I could skirt it and come down on undesirable but not particularly dangerous very steep mud instead. I switched to snow as the angle lessened at the bottom and skated a little into the flat part of the basin. It was completely full of snow, like the end of a bowl of Cheerios when you had piled on white sugar at the start, and now it had soaked in milk for the 10 minutes or so it took to eat the cereal.

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I know I already posted a similar picture from La Plata looking SW but I’m out of pictures, these were the last I took

Unlike milky sugar, however, the approximately two feet of snow was just a front to disguise a foot, and in some places 2.5 feet, of standing water and willows. And the snow, being what, July? Was not weight bearing at all. So with every step, I broke through the wet, granular snow and into the standing water and tangled willows and the sun continued to set. “Don’t give in to the sadness, Artex!” I yelled at Pippa, but Pippa is Pippa and she frolicked and rolled and thrashed about in the Basin of Eternal Sadness as happy as a Pippa could be, as that’s how Pippas do. Just when I was accepting my fate, that I would live here forever, until I died here, I came to the edge of the snow and happened upon the trail. The trail that would weave down between the cliffs and the river and carry me to 390A, the dry Winfield promised land. It was when I set foot on this beautiful road that I looked at my watch and realized, while I had also under accounted for the miles on both the Elbert and La Plata traverses by a few, I had not included a single mile of 390A or the CDT that would take me to Hope Pass in my mileage number. I tiredly tried to add in my head, guessing mostly but knowing that from the top of Hope Pass, I knew for sure I’d have 13 still to go. …And miles to go before I sleep.

The sun was setting, I was soaked to my thighs, I had a half a bar left, and I was getting painfully near the 12 hour mark (upon which my Garmin watch would give up and die, as anyone would after working constantly for 12 hours, even a tiny computer), with an end that wasn’t nearly in sight. Suddenly I could hear something, which was crazy because I hadn’t seen anyone since those folks on the other side of La Plata which felt like days and many conditions and mental states ago. There was a large group, with maybe five or six tents, camped near the road. A bunch of 30-something front-rangers were talking and laughing and playing that bean bag game and drinking beer and playing music. The music was Zombie by the Cranberries. (To be continued…)

The Grand Canyon: Breaking down and the break in

I was soaked to my skin, rivers running down my face and jacket, shoes squishing, and now with each step I climbed higher above Skeleton Point, I brought myself further into a winter storm. 40mph winds whipped around hail and snow, the clouds shifting quickly hid then revealed bits of the canyon below. It was the last day of my almost month in the Grand Canyon, and of course I had wanted, needed, felt compelled to do S. Kaibab to the river and back just one more time. While I knew I wasn’t in mortal peril if I kept moving, my teeth chattered so loudly as a constant reminder of my misery (honestly, I’ve been cold af before and overwhelmed with bouts of shivers but as my teeth chattered somewhat painfully, I was so surprised when it happened that it must not have before).

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From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm

The day before, I had attempted to mountain bike through the national forest to the Grandview Trailhead, but had given up the run without ever finding the trailhead (what a blessing GPS is, for I then got to look upon the map of my ride and see how very close I came to such a trailhead indeed before giving it up for lost and turning home). That night I put in some token miles on 302, just so I didn’t get too far behind, but secretly I was hoping that this day that I didn’t run to the river and back would leave me unusually well recovered for Sunday’s S. Kaibab run, and that maybe I might just PR on the 4,800ft climb.

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Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point

When I got on the orange line bus at the visitor’s center to be taken to the trailhead that day, the bus driver warned the occupants, “You’re not going to see anything. If you want my advice, walk over to the blueline bus and get a drink in the village.” And everyone shrugged, got off the bus, and walked over to the blue line. Sure it was raining, but I knew better, because the Grand Canyon in a storm is a sight to behold. The steep, technical trail my heart was set on, however, that I now refer to fondly as the River Kaibab (WordPress won’t let me post a video of the river Kaibab) was not for the faint of heart. I slip slided my way down in delight, because having the trail to myself was plenty to make up for the fact that nobody is going to PR when the trail’s a slip and slide, and though I knew I should’ve brought a real goretex shell instead of a water resistant ski jacket, I couldn’t be that bothered to be concerned, because the temperature rises enormously from rim to river. They (the national park staff) say it’s an average of 20 degrees, but I’ve seen days where it’s a 40 degree difference.

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The first picture I took on my first trip down Kaibab this year. The Colorado River from S. Kaibab

The GC is a real mindfuck for folks used to mountains, or any folks at all, hikers or otherwise, because even though it’s obvious that you *go down first* then have to *go back up* it’s somehow not obvious to the majority of people. All hikers of a certain age, personality, or disposition will always say to someone who is running down something when they are laboriously walking up it, “Sure is easier to go down!” And I’ve always taken issue with it because while it’s slightly less tiring than ascending, the wear and tear is much higher and more painful so I’ve always thought of them as different but equal challenges. Until I spent a month in the Grand Canyon running down 4,800ft FIRST. I’ll never change my stance on the much higher wear and tear from descending, but I do now concede, fine, yes, it’s easier. Which means in the Grand Canyon, the every run or hike will become harder and harder from the second half to the bitter end with no relief until you’ve crossed the last step and are safely back on the bus.

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The CO river from Kaibab, on the edge of the moon curve

So here’s how I ended up spending almost a month in the Grand Canyon. I had mysteriously thought Flagstaff would be a cool place to do some between seasons training. I say mysteriously because now looking back, I can’t figure out why I thought Flagstaff was such a mecca for runners. Was it some combination of the internet and running magazines? The fact that so many famous runners choose to live in that heinous cesspool? I had this idea that it was basically Boulder but in Arizona. I told someone that, after everything happened, and he said, “No, Flagstaff’s really methy.” And I thought truer words were never spoken but this is the wrong time to be hearing them.

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The only picture I have from Flagstaff, backside of Mt. Elden

After spending 16 days in desert running paradise, it was getting too hot and I was itching to order shoes for the season, and have access to citylike things, like grocery stores. I was also stoked to get in on what the internet advertised as a bunch of different running groups that hosted regular group runs, so I headed up to Flagstaff. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. I found a lot of the national forest was closed for “logging operations” and the only forest road that was open, I pulled the trailer down and discovered a permanent homeless camp. I thought the situation was remedied when I moved to the east side of town onto State Trust Land, which was conveniently closer to the Mt. Elden trailhead and situated right on the Arizona Trail. For the sake of wrapping this up, while I was out running laps on Mt. Elden one afternoon with Pippa, someone broke into the camper. They appear to have only stolen a stun gun, leaving three pairs of skis and all of my climbing equipment that were in plain view for the sake of ransacking the whole place, presumably looking for cash. I’ve never been burglarized, and I can’t even tell you how much it upset me. It removed my sense of safety, it destroyed my optimism in humanity, it broke my fucking heart. I packed up immediately and ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I hid in its splendor for almost a month.

**EDIT: important new information came to light last night when I was packing for Whitney and realized those useless [probably] meth head scumbag robbers took my mountaineering axe. I bought it at Smokey’s shop in Leadville for $15 like five years ago. Congratulations, assholes, you’ve stolen the least valuable piece of equipment I had, but now I have to buy a new one!

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The CO river, looking south from the S. Kaibab bridge

Anyway, so I was telling you about my last run in the Canyon, in that totally insane storm, but that wasn’t really wanted I wanted to tell you about. In the previous years, I’ve run a lot, even getting up to 100 mile weeks not last year but the year before. But I’ve always only run because I wanted to, because I felt like it, because I loved it, and because it’s fun. I’ve never gone through break down training, always preferring to comfortably recover as long as I thought I needed and I’ve always run by feel. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’ve ever truly trained. Until now. I ramped up my base in the desert and in Flagstaff, kind of painlessly really. When I arrived at the GC, it was time to finish what I started in Flagstaff which was adding tons and tons of elevation gain to that high mileage and doing it all as hard as I could on that day, without proper recovery.

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From the Hermit’s Rest trail

This is a controversial method of training and I don’t highly recommend it, but when I made the decision not to go work for RMI this season and instead commit myself to running as hard as I possibly could, and really seeing what I’m capable of, I knew there was no other way to do it. “Denton called it ‘breaking down,’ although Cassidy preferred the nomenclature of certain Caribbean quasi-religious groups; walking death was much closer to it. Quite a bit more, really, than the simple exhaustion of a single difficult workout, breaking down was a cumulative physical morbidity that usually built up over several weeks and left the runner struggling to recover from one session to the next.” OAR always puts it better than I do, and my deepest comfort in these last weeks has been reading and rereading the Breaking Down chapter because, since I have no friends going through it simultaneously, Cassidy understood what was in my totally crazy, swinging, weary mind the best.

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From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off

Frequently, I found myself struggling greatly to drag myself the last 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet out of that damned Canyon and thinking, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never been this tired. It’s like the end of a race. My joints are all tin man-ing, my muscles so thoroughly exhausted they’re useless, my mind just desperate to stop, stop, stop, make it stop. It’s actually been the perfect training for mental toughness, because it’s hard to imagine what feat I might put my body up to that will hurt more than running to the river and back day after day after day. “Didn’t I see you here yesterday?” The mule train leader asks innocently. “No, that was on Kaibab. I mean yes, I saw you yesterday. But not here. Yesterday I did Kaibab down and back, today I came down Kaibab but I’m coming up this way.”

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The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river

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Here’s the river after a week of storms, it turns brown from all the run off. Looking back at the tunnel and the S. Kaibab trail, the opposite perspective from the last photo

For an example, I tried reading Moby Dick and got stuck reading and rereading the first page for 40 minutes. It may have well been in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word. I eventually started listening to podcasts during recovery time because my eyes were too tired to read for very long for a while. I did find myself depressed, which isn’t a state that’s normal for me and made dragging myself out for yet another, Jesus God, 17 miler, the worst thing I could possibly do. I would fixate on something I said or something someone else said in a recent or not recent at all conversation and think about it all day long. I also thought about everything I’ve ever done that I wasn’t proud of, that wasn’t very fun or inspiring. I was frequently too tired to cook or eat.

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The only picture of me I took this year

The real saving grace of this misery was the Canyon itself, because who could ask for a more inspiring place to run? Or a simpler place to carry out the miles and elevation gain that needed to be done? Through combinations of biking and running and riding the shuttle buses, I was easily conveyed wherever I wanted to run and to the store and home again without ever having to drive or the inconvenience of starting or ending in the same place as my car. Despite that heinous winter storm on the last day, the weather was consistently cool up high, hot on the bottom, and when storms did happen they weren’t dangerous like they are in the mountains. I was sleeping at 7000 and staying reasonably acclimated, and anywhere I went had free potable water available. Plus, if ever too hot, I could jump in the Colorado River. Every step I took brought me new, extraordinary views. The S. Kaibab trail is the absolutely most spectacular trail I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s so spectacular, that I wish I had never used the word spectacular before, so that I could use it now and it would feel like that word most solemnly belongs in the Canyon and nowhere else. Plus it has this vibrancy, which I’ve never really understood until Skylar came out and visited for a couple days, went to the Yavapai Geology Museum and told me that the rocks at the bottom are 1,700 million years old. Of course! The bottom of the canyon is one of the oldest places on this planet! And sometimes despite Everything, I would feel strong and tireless even just for a moment and I’d know it was the Canyon itself filling me back up.

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Sun setting from Cedar Ridge

Or there’s those bridges, the two bridges over the river, running across those bridges is delightful and restorative somehow. Maybe the water from the springs is also restorative? I learned while I was there that all the water that supplies the park, its millions of visitors, and the small town of Tusayan comes from a spring somewhere in the canyon, which they don’t know the source of and they don’t know how much is left. So that sounds sustainable. Something else I never learned the source of is the plumbing at the bottom of the Canyon. At Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, there are actual bathrooms with tiled floors, mirrors, tan stalls with locks that barely work, electric lights, and toilets that flush. Toilets that flush! Why?! Every other bathroom in the canyon (and there are many, for obvious reasons) are solar-assisted composting pit toilets. But at the bottom of the canyon they have some sort of sewage system!? I’ve never been willing to inquire about this because I either don’t want to ruin the mystery or I don’t actually want to know the answers.

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The bottom of the canyon (s kaibab bridge in the distance) from the Bright Angel Creek bridge

Writing this, you guys might already know I’m at the Whitney Portal and looking back. I don’t yet know if the break down training worked, I’ve just finished high mileage and after Monday, I’ll start an almost three week gradual taper (during which, in theory, I will finally recover!). But what I do understand about it is this, every day, I’d go out and run further and higher than I wanted to, than I knew was wise, and I did it as hard as I could. Every day. For no other reason than I said I had to. “But then his life was most certainly focused on The Task. And hadn’t he decided at one time or another that he would do whatever was necessary to become … Whatever it was he could become?” I had decided that this week, I’d run 85 miles and 20k and next week I’d run 90 miles and 21k and somehow or another, those miles must get done. A random guy I saw resting on the side of the trail said to me one day, “That’s a good pace, but are you having fun?” And I smiled and said something like, “Who could not be having fun here?”

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just below Cedar Ridge

But when I really thought about it after, yeah, somehow, I’m having fun. Despite all of it, “weary beyond comprehension,” sometimes I go out and run and it feels amazing. I don’t know, I mean maybe fun’s not exactly the right word, or your definition of it. But every day, I work as hard as I can to get better, faster, stronger than I was before, and that makes me feel free. It is profoundly satisfying. And it feels primal, like this base necessity to see what I’m really made of. Do you ever watch an inspirational sports movie and the football coach is making an outrageously dramatic speech about luck being what’s left after you’ve given your all? It makes good movies, seems a little silly in real life, but I honestly think things like that in my exhausted mind all the time. I don’t know that I’ve made it sound all that great, I don’t know that it could be made to sound that great, because even someone gifted with words like old JLP made it sound pretty miserable, “All joy and woe.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.*

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I think this is the only picture I have from the Bright Angel trail

*Except when I ran over a rattlesnake and it launched itself up in the air and tried to bite me, that was fucking terrible. The worst. I still love you GC, but that was a shitty thing to do.

You guys, check out my Threadless store. There’s one R2R2R graphic that I’d already made. I meant to make a couple more GC themed pieces before I posted is but then this would have never gotten posted. https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/

https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/grand-canyon-r2r2r

SNOW (and so I’ve had my mountains all to myself)

I’ve basically spent the entire winter dreaming of winter being over. Do I like winter sports? Yeah, of course I do. But whoa mg all of this snow is cold and wet and it gets in the way.

You know what I’m so tired of?? Post holing. It was so bad one time and my shins were so swollen and bruised that I felt like I had stress fractures all over again (you road runners know what this feels like).

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist.  MY WAIST.  I call this snowwimming

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist. MY WAIST. I call this snowwimming

Anyway, the point is that there was a two-part happening that’s made me realized why the snow is secretly good (it’s a theme this winter-something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about). I went down to the Front Range to visit a friend and had two days of most excellent summer trail running. It was more than magnificent. It was fast and wild and rolling and hard and FINALLY I was tired from fast elevation gain and not from dragging in the snow. We burned up Bear Peak, stood in the river and drank from waterfalls, raced mountain bikers. We also dodged all sorts of people, answered questions, listened to their small talk, and actually ran into some friends.

from Bear Peak

from Bear Peak

So then I came home to the mountains, where it was actually snowing (of course) but it didn’t stick. So we went up to Half Moon Creek. And get this-they’ve opened the road! It’s not passable yet but MORE THAN HALF was clear of snow.

LOOK!  It's the ground!

LOOK! It’s the ground!

I had to carry my microspikes for the 4 miles in to the TH because there wasn’t enough snow to wear them! But, here’s what I realized is the problem with such magic. When the snow is all melted off of Half Moon Creek road, you’ll be able to drive right up to the TH (imagine that!) and even camp along it! When the trails are clear of snow, it will be downright easy to summit my mountains…which is fantastic, until I think about the piles upon piles of fair weather Coloradans that will come out when it’s easy again. The snow: it makes me cold and wet, it exhausts me and causes me to carry all kinds of different equipment, it bruises my shins and knees and other things when I fall dramatically on my face. And the snow: it’s the exact reason why I’ve spent an entire winter almost completely alone in my beautiful mountains in perfect quite and solitude.

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Someone told me after I moved here that the other long distance runners in town do road miles and skate ski on the groomed paths around town, but they most certainly don’t run trails in the winter. Like it’s dirty and wrong! Which is why I’m probably the only one filling out those Mt.Massive Wilderness use permits.

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

As much as I’ve enjoyed running with my feet on the ground, I’m going to continue loving my peace and alone time while I have it.

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

...and me looking awkward, just for good measure.  By the river on the way up Mt. Yale

…and me looking awkward, just for good measure. By the river on the way up Mt. Yale