Building up to Wonderland

Long distance running is dumb.  Marathons are a pain in the ass.  Ultras are even worse. You have to plan your training, suffer through all kinds of tortuous workouts, and then limp around like a gimp trying to accomplish all of the normal everyday tasks that other people were doing while you were out running.  Forget about relaxing on your weekends. Instead, you’re going to squeeze into some retarded compression outfit & prance around city parks wearing a kindergarten-sized hydration backpack.

We’re planning to fastpack the 100 mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier over three days in late July. It’s about the dumbest thing I can think of doing and I’m pretty sure I’ve completely lost my mind. The furthest I’ve ever run is 50 kilometers and the last time I did that was more than a year and a half ago.  We have 2 months to ramp up from 60-90 minute maintenance runs to running and hiking pretty much all day for three straight days.  Fortunately I’m not the twee queen of skyrunning Emilie Forsberg, so I’m in no way obliged to pretend that any of this is going to be fun.

That said, Week 1 was better than I expected.  On Saturday, we ran a 26 kilometer loop with 1200 meters of elevation gain in the Snoqualmie Pass area up to Melakwa and Pratt Lakes and around Granite Peak. Melakwa means mosquito in Chinook, but thankfully it’s still too cold for bugs to be an issue.  It was foggy, so we missed all of the subalpine scenery, put our heads down, and ground out the distance.  We were both surprised by how easy this felt despite our lack of training, but it probably helped that about a third of the trail was unrunnable.

Then, after much grumbling from me about the early wake-up time and not enough sleep to recover properly from Saturday, we drove out to the Teanaway area near Cle Elum for what Andy will probably insist was a “ski”.  It’s true that we brought skis, and it’s even true that we put them on at one point.  But this was mostly just a long hike.  Like Saturday, it was too foggy to see much of anything, so frankly I was relieved when the snow turned out to be too sticky and mushy to make skiing even halfway reasonable.   Andy and Brandon went all the way to the top of Fortune Peak, but I bailed in Headlight Basin.  Lack of sleep and Saturday’s run had wiped me out, plus I couldn’t really see how going all the way up would be worth it, considering how awful the ski down was going to be.  Zero visibility on the mountain freaks me out; you can’t see what’s coming.  So we skinned partway out, then put our skis back on our packs & hiked downhill for a couple of miles.  We even got a few meters of running with packs in when an aggressive grouse chased us down the trail.  In the end, hiking all day with 40 pounds of skis and gear on your back is great strength training, so I guess it’s safe to say that training for Wonderland is off to a pretty good start.

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Larch in Headlight Basin.

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Red Mountain (Snoqualmie) Scramble

After crawling up the heap of loose scree called Red Mountain yesterday, I’m either totally utterly done with alpine scrambling or about to throw myself whole hog into it.  At the summit, I swore to myself that I’d never set foot on such crappy rock again.  Period.  But after a surprisingly easy descent, I was ready to reconsider.

Located near Snoqualmie Pass, the trek to the summit of Red Mountain is about 4-6 kilometers long, depending whether you follow the PCT or the “old trail”, and it climbs about 800 meters to reach 1795 meters or 5890 feet at the summit.  It’s a fun if muddy hike through the forest to the base of Red, with a couple of creek crossings, and plenty of snow still covering the trail in places.

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As for Red itself, I’d read the summitpost description beforehand, and because it warned of loose, tumbling rock, I brought my helmet.  This was the right choice.  I’d also seen some snow at higher elevations and was ready to bring my ice axe.  Andy laughed at this and guffawed that there was no way I’d need it.  “We’ll just go around that snow,” he said. So I left it behind.  This was not the right choice.

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Andy on the “nice” part of the scree trail.  There was still a sort of “trail” at this point.  After that, the route turned into a class 3 scramble.1425218_10152799972221674_2625023576022345945_o

About 300 feet below the summit, we hit a large patch of snow.  This is the part where I kicked myself (again) for not bringing my ice axe.  The slope was quite steep, and the snow was 1-3 feet deep.  I was nervous about both postholing and having absolutely nothing with which to self arrest.  But we used our hands to dig into the snow and made it to the top with no real issues beyond frozen fingers.

Andy and I on the summit.  11202581_10152798789375872_1233151843659521761_n

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View of Kaleetan Peak and the Cascades around it.11170300_10152799972181674_1846086165270707750_o

As for the descent, I was ready for an utter shit show.  Climbing up had freaked me out pretty seriously, as the rock was so loose and at least half of the time, whatever I tried to grab hold of broke off in my hand.  Plus we both kicked a fair bit of rock loose, and that’s the last thing you want flying at your head.  But, oddly enough, I found it 1000 percent easier to clamber down than I had to scramble up, and apart from a tense moment above the snow field where I snarled at Andy about how this wasn’t going to go well, the descent was no big deal at all.

The whole thing took us, um, almost 6 hours – so, more than a bit longer than I had anticipated.  I’d only brought a liter of water, and with temperatures up in the high 70’s, by the time we got back to the car, I had one thing on my mind: Gatorade.  So of course we checked out DruBru, the new brewery at Snoqualmie Pass.  It’s pretty swell.

North Cascades National Park: Birthday Tour

With bluebird skies & warm temps on the forecast, I had ambitious aspirations for getting up into the alpine last weekend. The plan was to spend Saturday skiing the Washington Pass area of N. Cascades National Park, sleep in a bit on Sunday, and then head out to the Snoqualmie Pass area for a trail run up to Melakwa Lake, one of the alpine lakes accessible from the I-90 corridor just east of where we live.  Andy and some friends skied a route known as the “birthday tour” near Washington Pass about a month ago.  I haven’t quite put my finger on what it is, exactly, that makes the N. Cascades so enchanting, but looking at the photos from their trip, I was immediately smitten. It’s the Cascades, but as if through a filter with the contrast turned up.

The route known as the “birthday tour” is an approximately 12 kilometer (8’ish mile) loop that begins northwest of Liberty Bell Peak and the much climbed Early Winters Spires.  We found a dark & quiet rest area off Highway 20 to camp at on Friday night, and I had what I think may have been one of my best nights of sleep ever, under an almost full moon, layered up in a down sleeping bag with an extra quilt as a buffer against the frigid air.

We rose to bluebird skies and a bit of a chilly breeze on Sat. morning.  One of the nice things about Andy’s truck-top tent is that you can roll back the canvas window covers on all sides, and gaze out at the early morning sky without leaving the warmth of your blankets. Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.25.19 PM

According to my Garmin, we were finally en-route & moving on skins by the crack of 10:06 – a bit later than our original, if informal plan to get going by 8:30.  Truth told, this sort of lollygagging is pretty normal for us, and the consequences aren’t typically too serious, especially with later daylight hours now that spring is in full swing.  Today, however, we definitely ended up wishing we’d gotten a bit of an earlier start.

The snow was hard and icy as we skinned up slowly through the forest and then out into the open.  The narrow skin track felt more like an icy single-track bike trail to me, and it wasn’t all that long before we both had ski crampons on.  Unfortunately, most of the time, I’m convinced my skipons aren’t actually doing anything at all.  Here’s the problem: you have to use your ski boot to exert downward pressure to force the prongs down into the snow or ice below your ski.  But once you raise your binding heels, it’s impossible to produce this necessary downward pressure.  And, most likely, the places where you’re going to want to use ski crampons (skinning uphill), are also precisely the places where you’re going to want to use heel lifts.  What’s more, Andy recently added shims under my bindings.  I actually really like the shims; they’ve reduced some of the pressure on my quads, especially on flatter traverses.  But because shims raise the front of the binding, and by extension, also the ski crampons, they seem to aggravate the problem of lacking traction on the uphill.  In short, I’ve used my skipons twice, and although I like the concept, and especially the fact that they’re much lighter and more compact than boot crampons, they’ve turned out to be pretty useless.  I think I may need to look for some with significantly longer prongs.

The Early Winter Spires were in full view just east (ahead) of us.  Squinting, we could spot tiny climbers making their way up the rock.IMG_1143 IMG_1148 IMG_1151 IMG_1159 IMG_1160

At the bottom of a rather intimidating looking boot pack to Blue Lake Col, we stopped for a few minutes to eat and put skis on packs.  We could see Kangaroo Ridge from this point, and, Andy pointed out the various couloirs (basically just avalanche chutes) along the ridge that he wants to ski.  I just shook my head and swallowed back my nausea.IMG_1161

At this point, I realized that I should have brought my ice axe, and that the boot pack was going to be a bit much for me without something stable to hold onto.  Andy lent me his whippet and we headed up, just left of an enormous cornice that I prayed wouldn’t decide to break off on this particular morning.

In photos, slopes never look as steep as they really are or seem when you’re up on them, looking back down.  The photo below really illustrates this; the bootpack looks like a walk in the park with barely any elevation gain at all.  This is not the case.  I would not have made it up the final 5-10 meters, nor over that cornice, without Andy’s whippet. Thank you whippet!IMG_1162

Andy at the top of Blue Lake Col.IMG_1167 View from Blue Lake Col. IMG_1173 At the top of Blue Lake Col, we transitioned, and skied down a long, fun run called Madison Avenue.

Andy in the valley at the bottom of Madison Avenue.IMG_1177 IMG_1178 Looking back at Madison Avenue IMG_1182

From the bottom of Madison Avenue, we put our skins back on and traversed through a long beautiful valley.IMG_1184

At the end of the second long climb of the day, we came to the top of the final col on the route.  Apart from a brief mention that I might find it a little bit spicy, Andy hadn’t said much to me about this feature.  Basically, you have to drop into a steep, rock-lined chute that’s about 20 feet wide for about 5 meters before it opens up into an wide slope.  The snow in the chute was shaded, hard, and icy, and I decided that the combination of these challenges, each of which I could handle in isolation, would be too much for me to bite off together.  Basically, I was terrified of losing control and slamming into the rocks that lined the chute.  Andy took this totally in stride.  He took my skis, strapped his poles to his pack, and sort of jump turned down the slope.  Then he waited – for more than an hour – while I booted down the slope, backward, kicking one step after another into the hard-packed snow. This was exhausting.  By the time I’d descended far enough to put skis on, I’d started getting charlie horses in both of my feet, probably from dehydration. We’d been out under the full force of the sun, radiating from all directions all day, and I hadn’t brought or drunk enough water to keep up with the warmer conditions.  I desperately wanted nothing more than to drink three liters of Gatorade, and to lie down in the snow for a nap.  IMG_1185 IMG_1187 IMG_1188 IMG_1189 IMG_1190

Ski conditions from this point on were pretty rough.  It was probably close to 5 p.m. by this time, and anything that had softened up under the midday sun had refrozen, hard.  Plus an avalanche had run down the center of the last wide slope, rendering it essentially unskiable.  We decided to try to go around it by veering off to one side into the trees, but to do this, had to actually cross it.  Andy deftly found a narrow ski track through the large ice boulders, but my skiing abilities were almost nil by this time, and I missed it, which meant trying to boot across the slide.  That’s as close as I’ve ever been to an actual slide, and I found it pretty intimidating.  Moreover, in practical terms, it was tough to hike through, being both hard packed and very icy.  Halfway across I lost my balance and dropped my skis, almost losing one down the slope.  Nothing about this was anything I wouldn’t be able to handle under normal circumstances, but I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and probably couldn’t even have skied down a groomed green run without falling.

When I caught up to Andy, he reminded me that the Birthday Tour isn’t a complete loop, and that you have to hitch a ride on Highway 20 to get from the exit point back to the trailhead, about 2 miles down the road.  So, even though we could see the road, being the last ones off the mountain meant we were probably nowhere near done.  Luckily we happened across a couple of climbers who’d just gotten back to their car as we reached the road, and they were more than happy to shuttle us back to ours.

Never has beer tasted so good.IMG_1192

I loved 75% of the “birthday tour”  and overall it was a really fun day.  But I need to get some more experience on steep, narrow slopes if I’m going to be comfortable dropping into chutes like the one on this tour.  I’ve also become a bit too reliant on Andy to always tell me about the terrain we’ll be on, whether or not I’ll need an ice axe, what level of technical difficulty there’ll be, and so on.  I need to start collecting more beta independently, and making my own judgment calls about what’s going to be appropriate for my abilities.  This should be obvious, but the dynamic between us as ski partners is contextualized by the fact that Andy basically taught me to ski, and that most of what I know about backcountry skiing I’ve learned from him.  So apart being romantic and activity partners, there’s a definite “student-mentor” relationship that comes into play when we ski.  Combined, these factors have led me to lean on him when it comes to making judgments about the difficulty-level of terrain.  And this has mostly worked out in my favor, as Andy tends to over-estimate my abilities, is very encouraging, and talks me through situations that I would definitely have turned away from if left to my own devices.  So I’ve learned more, and much faster, with him, than I would have otherwise.  But it’s never wise to rely too much on someone else’s judgment, and this is especially true in the backcountry.  So I need to start paying a bit more attention to the plan, in advance.

Review of Lizzy Hawker’s new book, Runner

Among women in the world of ultra-endurance running, Britain’s Elizabeth or “Lizzy” Hawker’s accomplishments dazzle.  Named National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurer of the Year, her victories includes five wins at the UTMB, the 246 km Spartathon, Comrades, Run Rabbit Run, Transgrancanaria, Zermatt, the San Francisco North Face Endurance Challenge, Manaslu, the Everest Sky Race, and countless others.  She was also the 2006 100km world champion and held the world record for 24 hours of road racing until May 2013.

In her first and newly published book Runner, Hawker tells the story of how she stumbled into and then came to dominate the world of ultrarunning.  Readers not already familiar with Hawker’s bio might be surprised to learn that the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was her first ultra-distance mountain race, and that she won it with what seems to have been almost no intentional training, strategy, or understanding of what she was biting off in setting out to race 100 miles through the Alps.

Runner is organized into three main sections.  In Part I: A Journey of Discovery, Hawker recounts her ultrarunning beginnings and her first UTMB win in 2005.  In Part II: A Journey of Exploration, she tells of her time in Nepal including her run from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu.  Part III: A Journey of Realization turns to her attempts to recover from several serious running injuries.

Readers looking for details about Lizzy’s training regime, racing strategies, or dietary secrets will find few specifics in Runner.  Understated and deeply introspective throughout, the book positions Hawker as a beginner in the spirit of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  Heavily influenced by a broad swath of Eastern religion and philosophy including Tibetan Buddhism, Hawker’s book is really a meditation on how endurance running became, for her, a vehicle for self discovery and self actualization.  And if Runner relies a bit heavily on quotations by Lao Tzu, Carl Jung, Douglas Adams, Robert Pirsig, the Buddha, Carl Sagan etc. – it is nevertheless a very personal and at times, emotional story.  For readers with a philosophical orientation and an interest in running as vehicle for self actualization, Runner is a recommended read.

So many reasons to love Bend

For trail runners who love craft beer, there’s really no place like Bend.  Buff, gently rolling, red dirt trails wind through Ponderosa Pine forest, alongside the volcanic rock-lined Deschutes River.  For a sun fiend like myself, the open skies & dry, sunny high desert climate of Central Oregon are such a welcome respite from the rainy coast, and although the trails we ran were a breeze compared to what we’re used to in the Issaquah “alps” (i.e. not at all technical, and much flatter), they were fun in the best kind of easy, simple way.  Next time we’ll branch out and find some tougher terrain, really!

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IMG_0998IMG_1055IMG_1048IMG_1058 We also skied.  Most of the resorts around Seattle are closed for obvious reasons (not enough snow), so the option to lift ski at Mt. Bachelor made Bend a doubly attractive destination.

Volcanoes!  View of South and Middle Sister, and Broken Top, from Mt. BachelorIMG_1029 IMG_1022

Me at the summit.  Photo by A. Winstanley.11156232_10152740335070872_3454264197754187061_nIMG_1017

Luxury camping at a nearby snow park (i.e. parking lot on forest service land).

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Checked out Crux – one of Bend’s hottest breweries.  We were not disappointed.IMG_1003

The letting go

It’s been quite the year for running-related setbacks.  I lost most of the summer mountain running season due to a pulled calf, and now, just before my first Boston Marathon, I’m three weeks into what’s turned into bronchitis & pneumonia.  Also, despite being about as fit as I’ve ever been and set-up to run around a 5 hour time, I pulled out of the Chuckanut 50k last month when this “little chest cold” thing got going.

When is it ok to run with a cold?  After a week on the lam, Andy and some friends were going out for a little trail run on Tiger Mountain.  I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, and so, despite knowing that it might be too soon, I joined them for 2 hours in the pouring rain.  The pace was much slower than Andy and I normally run, so I hoped for the best and even went out for beers afterward.  But by the next day I was clearly paying the price with a barking cough and a lingering low-grade fever.

By the following Saturday, I was starting to get antsy about Boston.  Two weeks of almost no running had put my training way behind schedule – to the point where I’d decided it would be perfectly fine to treat the marathon as a “fun run” and jog it in around 4 hours instead of my original plan – shooting for 3:10 and a new personal best.  So, since I was feeling a little bit better,  I went out for an easy 10k road run.  This time the consequences were much much worse.  Within an hour of running, I was coughing nonstop, and the cough had deepened to the point where I sounded tuberculoid.  A couple of days later I finally saw a doctor, and am now well into a round of antibiotics.  Having spent most of the past week sleeping all day and coughing all night, it could, realistically, be another two weeks before I’m strong enough to contemplate running around the block, let alone 42 km’s.

There’s an annoying voice in my head that wants to point out the pattern here; I’ve made these mistakes before.  More than a decade of such good health that I almost never even caught colds ended last winter when a chest cold turned into a nasty two weeks in bed with bronchitis.  That time, too, I chose to run through the cold.  Until it turned into something much worse.  And this summer as well, when I pulled a muscle in my calf, I couldn’t accept the prospect of no running for as long as it would take to heal.  So I ran anyway and re-injured it – three times – before facing up to the reality that I’d have to hang up my trail shoes for a couple of months.

There’s a lesson in here, somewhere.

Truth told, I couldn’t care less about missing the Boston Marathon.  I only registered because I happen to have qualified.  For runners, Boston’s regarded as something of an accomplishment, but it’s not the end-all be-all.  For me, it’s evidence that you’re a somewhat decent runner, and that’s about it.  Plus, I’m almost 41 and the older I get, the more aware I feel of my own mortality.  I figured that I might never get around to doing it again if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity at hand.

But if I don’t care about Boston itself, I certainly do about the reasons why.  I do believe that getting sick, like getting injured, can be symptomatic of something out of balance.  And both can force you to stop, reflect, and adjust.  As a practice, running puts me very much in touch with both my physical and emotional selves.  I’m one of those runners who knows right away when they’re fighting off a virus of some kind as the fatigue is impossible to ignore.  And just as I feel stress, anxiety and sadness as, quite literally, a heaviness in my chest, with happiness comes a kind of lightness when running.

I’ve been struggling with this move to Washington from the get-go, and I’m pretty sure that constant stress and worry is taking a toll on my health.  There are so many maxims about accepting change, and the truth is that this kind of “wisdom” tends to be about the sort of emotional manipulation used to try to motivate workers to be more accepting of lower pay or other demotions.  “We’re reorganizing.  Here’s your new job with half the salary you earned before.  It’s necessary to embrace change!”

But change is inevitable.  And changing course is one of the toughest things to do; letting go of a goal or a vision, small or large, and exposing yourself to all of the uncertainty of not knowing where you’re headed.  You have to let go of some parts of yourself in the process, and trust that the pieces will fall into place, even when you know they might not, or not the way you’d hoped.

I can honestly say that I have no idea where we’ll be, this time next year.  But for the near future, alpine trails in parts of the Cascades are starting to open up, and I’m genuinely excited about the prospect of exploring the I-90 corridor and beyond.  We’re also making plans for a bunch of fun backpacks, skitours and longer runs, mostly in the Cascades, including the Enchantments,  Glacier Peak, Stevens to Snoqualmie on the PCT, and the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier.

Now if I could just kick this lung infection & get on with it …

There’s always the volcano …

It’s a sad year to be a skier in the Pacific Northwest.  The resorts are closed or closing; it’s been consistently warm and raining or warm and dry in the Cascades, and there’s been a lot of muttering about global warming, El Nino, and/or some other tropical weather pattern.  UW meteorologist and local weather expert Cliff Mass does a pretty good job of explaining all of this on his blog.  But whatever side of the weather debates you find yourself on, the same disappointing outcome seems here to stay.  For the snow sports enthusiasts, this winter has been a royal bust.  If you count the day we went to Snoqualmie Pass and skied one run through mostly mud, I’ve skied a total of 7 days this year.   Three of those were trips to Rainier.  There’s always snow on the volcano.

Twice this past month, we’ve skinned and hiked up the 3,000 feet or so from Paradise to ski the Nisqually Chutes on Mount Rainier.  The conditions have been what I’m told you should expect in June or July, with lovely corn snow in the chutes, and chunky, icy crap pretty much everywhere else.  But at least we got to ski a bit, and for me, a full day out on the mountain in the blazing sun is always a good thing.  Here’s a few shots from our last few trips to Rainier.

Me at the top of the Nisqually Chutes (photo by Andrew Winstanley)

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Andy & Brandon, part-way up IMG_0828

Looking back at the chutesIMG_0722 (1)

Icy transition for AndyIMG_0724 (1)

Looking down into the chutesIMG_0817 (1) Parking lot at Paradise IMG_0827

Brandon skiing the chutesIMG_0826