The Tetons: remembering why I do this, over again

It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana.  I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance.  I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”

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summit of the South

Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer.  I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated.  Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.

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I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep.  In the morning I headed up Teewinot.  You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal.  The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying.  There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating.  My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?”  Well, shit got hard.  And scary af, to be honest.

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I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons.  Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day.  That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.

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On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton.  Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days.  I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured).  It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know).  What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs.  I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird.  I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb.  I turned around.

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Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand.  Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit.  I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day.  I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy.  He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.

 

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On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail.  I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it.  It was incredible.

 

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On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots.  It was overkill, but I felt totally secure.  The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route.  And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year.  That I would do anything to be here.  That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart.  That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless.  Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.

 

I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards].  The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this.  I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom.  Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.

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Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything.  It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you.  Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?

 

After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak.  The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4).  The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves.  After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity).  The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama.  Breathtaking.  I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo.  Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits;  the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.

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R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.

It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.

“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.

Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember.  Actually, it’s been…four months?  And I’m still crying as I type this.

“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.”  What to say?  To a random stranger.  What could I say that would make this kindly man understand?  The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded.  “I’m okay, really, thank you.”

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It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy.  But I’ll try.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up.  Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water.  There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail.  The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did.  If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply.  While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day.  Incredible, right?

Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night.  From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.

The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud.  It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River.  An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.

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I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.

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So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph.  Views were great though:

Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem.  You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill.  So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.

But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:

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and felt like pure joy.  The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.

Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them!  All kismet.

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After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles.  It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere.  No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with.  If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever.  It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.

Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for.  The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed.  I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top.  But, they didn’t speak English.  And they were still moving, so.

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I hit the North Rim at just over 5h.  It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp.  21 miles down, and hard earned.  I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise.  It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience.  As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.

Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal.  It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete.  Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone.  Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By?  1999.  “I’ve never been so alone.  And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.”  The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.

Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming.  And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.

Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace.  We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things.  I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language.  Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence.  With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body.  Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body.  To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style,  [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce.  I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.

This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended.  However.  About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me.  I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:

the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within.  I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally.  So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?].  And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up.  Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?

And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down.  Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all.  They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours.  I smiled.  Then, at like 430, the sun came up:

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And I staggered to the Trailhead.  And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help.  I walked to the car.  It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly.  I drove to the kennel.  I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise.  It was 75 cents.  I was there to get Lu the moment they opened.  And we carried on.

The time has come

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

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

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

Ready or not, here we go.

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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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BONKED (hitting the wall)

Hiking 30 miles and running 30 miles are incredibly different endeavors.

I’m used to very long distance hikes, and in those cases I carry food and eat along the way. When running, though, I adopted the philosophy over the winter that if I’m going out for less than 20 miles I don’t need to carry food or water. When it’s cold I lose less water and it’s available to me periodically in the form of snow and snowmelt [yeah yeah, it’s dangerous to drink wild water, I don’t care]. In the case of a big ascent, I might bring a little snack but I definitely haven’t spent much time considering my “refueling plans”..until now.

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I suppose it’s about right that I set 20 miles as the magic number, because now that I’m regularly exceeding it I’ve noticed that something terrible happens right around 21. I’m feeling great, then suddenly I’m barely dragging myself along; in pain and miserable. I don’t hang out with other long distance runners, so I’m figuring it out as I go and during my first 30 mile run, I learned about THE WALL.

First, let’s talk about how our muscles get energy [WARNING: shit’s about to get science-y. If that sounds boring, skip the next 5 paragraphs]

Digestion breaks down energy containing nutrients and sends them to your cells via blood. Once they’re in your cells, the nutrients are either built up into proteins, lipids, and glycogen OR converted [to pyruvic acid or Acetyl CoA] for energy production. If you’re wondering why people say B vitamins are important for energy, it’s because they’re very important in conversions to Acetyl CoA. There’s more detail here that we just won’t go into.

So now we head to the mitochondria. There’s basically two ways your body creates energy (and by energy I mean ATP- the official energy currency of your body). Glycolysis is quick and dirty- it gets results fast but isn’t very efficient, and there’s a lactic acid problem. Kreb’s Cycle is the tortoise- slow and steady, and much more efficient. This stuff is cool because it explains exactly why lactic acid (what makes muscles stiff and sore) happens. Glycolysis is anaerobic, it can happen without oxygen (like during strenuous activity when you just can’t breathe enough in) BUT it creates extra hydrogen, and that hydrogen needs to be pawned off somewhere. If oxygen is available, hydrogen will go home with him (creating water-nbd) but otherwise hydrogen gets dumped on pyruvic acid, and that’s how we end up with sad little lactic acid, gumming up the works.

Basically, when you start running your body is going to use ATP it’s already made to make your muscles work. It’s constantly working to produce more, but you’ll use it faster than you can make it. Desperately, glycolysis will bust ass for you (most of us are at this point when we exercise). But what happens if you keep going? Incidentally, your body stores enough glycogen to keep producing ATP for 20 miles of running. (I fucking knew it)

Once you’ve used your ATP stores, your cells raid the glycogen stores to make more. But WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR GLYCOGEN STORES ARE GONE!?

That’s when you “hit the wall”. Your liver will start converting fat and protein to use in the energy making process but it’s not terribly efficient and takes up energy. Now refueling makes a whole lot of sense: GET MORE GLUCOSE INTO YOUR BLOODSTREAM!

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So I did a lot of research about refueling and I have to say, most of it sounds gross. Eating while you’re running sucks. Period. The big problem I guess is getting food down without puking it back up. Yuck. So you need things that are palatable and go down easily. You’ll also want a good mix of simple carbs that get into your bloodstream asap (in minutes) and complex carbs that break down slowly and release small amounts of glucose into your blood over a long time. You don’t want to refuel with protein or fat; those two are the professional ebay sellers at the post office-holding everybody else up.

Here’s a knowledge bomb for you: compared to the type of machines we can build, our body is EPICALLY efficient. Through these processes we capture a whopping 38% of the energy available from what we consume (and the rest is RELEASED AS HEAT-boom. Why do you get hot when you work out? That’s why. You’re welcome.)

There’s a psychological aspect to hitting the wall for sure. I read somewhere that your discomfort when you’re dehydrated or under-fueled has a bigger effect on your performance than the physiological problems themselves. I’ll say firsthand that hitting the wall HURTS EVERYWHERE. I’ve noticed that I’m basically never sore anymore, muscle-wise, but when I’m on really long runs everything starts to ache. I get dizzy and woozy. My legs don’t feel like jelly, it’s more that I become the tin man. Yeah, it’s so uncomfortable it’s hard to continue. To cope, I’ve started counting. At first I count up to high numbers, and the deal is that when I get to 780 or something I can stop, but when I get to 780 I tell myself okay, now you just have to get to 780 again. Then when it gets really, REALLY bad I’m counting to 20. Interestingly, the promise of a fuel down is not an incentive anymore when I’ve made it past the wall; the idea of eating anything is gross and horrible and the only thing I can stomach the idea of is bananas or plain romaine lettuce.

Yeah, I know this post sounds terrible to those of you who haven’t experienced it. It’s so very hard to explain why we do what we do, especially when there’s a fair amount of suffering. I like to think of my training program as RELENTLESS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love doing it. That first 30 mile run that I mentioned earlier; yeah it was painful and terrible and taught me lessons I’ll never forget. It was also when I realized that I can do Nolan’s. As far as I can tell, there are two barriers to cross: long distance and elevation gain. But you only need to cross them each once, after that you’re just building. Long distance mountain running is the highest of epic, joyous highs. And it’s the lowest of soul crushing, wish-you-were-dead lows. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
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Nolan’s 14 (do the mountains make you want to be a better person?)

I’ve said before that when I’m in the mountains I feel like I can do anything, be anything. And I want a simpler life. I make all sorts of resolutions, about how when I get home I’m going to stop watching TV and be more sustainable and appreciate every moment. That generally fades sometime on the drive home and after a long day and a lot of mileage I generally end up watching something like Ugly Betty, drinking Coke, and eating everything I can find.

I’ve been wondering if prolonged exposure to the mountains would lengthen that feeling, or wanting to be a better person and waste less time vegging out and dinking around

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In the wake of the 28 (which, although not “technically” over, feels mostly finished) I certainly felt good about my ability to test my limits. I want my only limits to be my imagination, and never my perception of who I am. Trying to decide what my next adventure would be started towards the end of the 28. I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking about Nolan’s, but I do distinctly remember spending the entire long Princeton descent fantasizing about it.

Nolan’s 14 was thought up in 1991, although the first actual event was in 1998. It’s an 88-108 mile course, according to Matt Mahoney’s website. It takes about 44,000ft gain and loss to summit FOURTEEN 14,000+ft mountains. It’s the most grueling course I know of, and the elevation gain is much, much higher than any 100mile ultra race I’ve heard of (including hardrock). The Forest Service apparently shut down the idea of holding a regular race on the course, but hardcore ultrarunners still attempt to finish the course within the cutoff time of 60hrs.

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As far as I can tell from the records, 13 men have completed the course since 1998. But. There IS NO FKT (fastest known time) set by a female yet. The most summits completed by a woman is 12.

Why? I estimate you’d have to move about 1.5 mph over 60 hours to finish this course. Thats not even that fast. But, and it’s a BIG but, 44,000ft gain is gnarly. And when I say gnarly, I mean epic. To continue dragging yourself up summit after summit (not even to mention high altitude problems) is so incredibly difficult.

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I’ve been a bit apprehensive about putting my intention to set a FKT on Nolan’s when the weather breaks because it is so huge. But, I learned something during the 28. It was a pipe dream of sorts, that I thought up while in the mountains (of course, because I feel unlimited in the mountains). At the time, I didn’t believe I could do 28 summits in a couple months, but then I did it, and along the way I broke all sorts of barriers that I believed would hold me back. I dreamed up setting a FKT while in the mountains too, and while it seems so huge, the first step is to put it in writing and get down to training.

And there will be some adventures along the way.

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