Friday, August 31, 2012

Minimalist running

The appeal of mountain running is its simplicity. Basic running kit is all that is needed to get started and the endeavor appeals to a frugal mindset attempting to maximize experience over cost. It's possible to spend a lot of money on fancy technical gear...and I have some...but it isn't essential, and unlike other pursuits like cycling, where the expense is more evident and the technology more advantageous, it is remarkably accessible to all. When first moving to Boulder, CO my realtor pointed out that it is a "badge of honor" for many people to own a cycle that is more expensive than their car!!

As I reflect on the individuals I have got to know over the years who share this passion for mountain running, frugality seems to have been a common thread. A very good friend of thirty years ago accompanied me on a camping trip to the Gogarth peninsula on Anglesey, Wales - a trip we planned (or so I thought) meticulously. I would bring the tent, the food, the stove, the water, the climbing gear, and he would bring himself and the toilet roll. It wasn't an exactly even split but I wanted to be sure we had what we needed and this guaranteed it. Except the bit about the toilet roll.

We pitched the tent on the windy headland and sorted out stoves and gear and the point came when I needed the toilet roll.

"Did you remember to bring the toilet roll?"


"Where is it?"

     "I have it here in my pocket."

"You have a six day supply of toilet roll in your pocket?"

I was a little suspicious. His pocket showed no signs of having even one roll present, the necessary bulk not visible, and I had this picture in my mind of several toilet rolls in a bag somewhere. He shifted his position in the tent to reach inside his pocket. He had his back to me and I couldn't see enough to satisfy my obvious curiosity.

     "Here you go."

He handed me a single, perforated sheet of toilet paper. It was pink, if I remember correctly. I looked down at the limp and crumpled square.

"Is that it?"

     "Well, how much more do you need?"

The discussion was going in the wrong direction and I couldn't verbalize the technical intricacies of the situation.

"How much toilet roll did you bring?"

     "I brought twelve sheets."

"You brought twelve sheets?"

     "Yes. One each per day. I have them all here."

He unfurled his grubby fingers revealing 11 pink squares identical to the one he had given to me.

"I can't manage on one sheet each day."

This unreasonable comment of mine provoked three responses in quick succession.

     "You're not one of those 'toilet roll pullers' are you who needs half a roll for each wipe?" Quickly followed by...

     "Do you have a bowel problem and need to 'go' more than once a day?" His top lip curled a little in disgust at the thought. And then the frugal coup de grace...

     "Do you realize how expensive toilet roll is?"

I had no response. Seeing me perplexed he offered some consolation and assurance...

     "Look, it's not a single's two-ply." I had to think about that for a moment. Followed by...

     "You could always use both sides."

He was clearly affronted by my profligacy and lack of appreciation of his contribution. I wanted to question him about toothpaste but thought better of it.

I got in the car and made the short trip into Holyhead to correct this egregious error and returned with a "six pack" of the "soft and velvet" variety - a pack with a big puppy on the side.

He turned up his nose...

     "Now you are just showing off."

Other mountain ventures with friends have brought similar challenges, but these have had less to do with financial frugality than with the need to travel light and minimize weight - the "minimalist" approach is the popular description today. Competing in many mountain marathons in the UK, these two day events required careful planning and serious consideration to the weight being carried. Competing in pairs, runners have to bring all equipment, including tent, food and stove, as well as all clothing, across a challenging high mountain course.

I competed in this event over many years and knew the regimen. Sitting down with my running partner a few days before leaving for the event we planned out our food. We used a scientific approach by calculating calorific content against likely energy expenditure and then carefully weighed or counted out various foods that we would carry, before splitting up the load between our two back packs. Our evening meal at the high overnight camp would be a vegetable chili with red beans. We calculated 18 red beans per person. I admired our precision.

After an exhausting first day of difficult running and navigation in high winds and driving rain we hastily cooked our evening meal in a storm battered tent. It was at this point that we realized that 18 beans per person might have made scientific sense, but did little to assuage the current psychology of hunger and cold. At what cost would doubling the bean count have been? Never was I more disappointed at such precise planning.

My light weight approach has continued to this day, although I do prefer the selection of very good quality gear. Typically, in summer I run wearing a light technical tee, a pair of light shorts and my mountain shoes. I might carry a lightweight rain top depending on distance and altitude. I always carry a minimal first aid kit and a handful of dried fruit and nuts. I don't always carry water if the distance is less that 10 miles. In the fall and winter I bulk up the clothing and exchange a long-sleeve top and full length bottoms and a heavier grade rain jacket.

The focus is on having enough to be safe, but erring on the "light/minimalist" side. I never want to get to the point where concern for what I have to carry determines route choice, or where I can't take the route I want to because of how much stuff I would need to bring. Keeping the balance on the right side is a major attraction of high mountain running.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Neurology of running

Modern scientific discoveries in the area of decision making have threatened older established ideas of "free will." Regardless  of what we used to think caused this free will (many posit its origin in "God's" creation) the attraction of the idea of humans being their own agents has a natural and logical appeal that seems to meet our psychological need for self-efficacy and self-determination. Not only do we think we make conscious decisions every day, but we seem to do so against a backdrop of seemingly plausible options that, if selected, would lead to alternate outcomes. These choices seem real. But did we make those choices freely? If we were able to replay the reel of life would we (could we) make different decisions?

The more science uncovers about neurological processes the less likely it seems that we control what our brain suggests we should do. Experimentation has shown that electrical activity in the areas of the brain associated with certain types of "decision" occurs split seconds before we become aware of the actual "decision." This isn't a speculative discovery and repeated tests have established a consistent pattern. The fact that we feel we made a specific decision could well be an illusion if our brains are narrowing options before we are aware of them.

I don't want to dwell on the significance of the implications of this discovery on our sense of individual and personal responsibility, but they are immense. They include our whole approach to criminal responsibility, for example. But these discoveries shouldn't really be that surprising as examples occur naturally that we can see and understand. Trail running provides perhaps the very best illustration.

It's funny that we have developed a set of words and language to describe what these experiments are now revealing. We use terms like "instinctive" and "reactive" to describe actions that seem to be impulsive, or certainly not deliberate or deliberative. We have all seen the Moro reflex in babies and we see parallels as adults as we instinctively brace ourselves when falling or to protect our face from flying debris. Clearly these are not choices in the sense that free will implies, but we get out of this bind by attributing them to instinct...instinct related to "fight or flight" and survival. It's hard to make a conscious choice not to flinch when someone throws a fake punch. The problem occurs when we assume that all other decisions are made freely and without constraint. This could well be an illusion that provides comfort to our psychology and self-efficacy.

I've always prided myself on being a fast descender when running on rocky and steep ground. Never a fast runner I noticed that I could make up huge amounts of time and distance by running quickly down steep slopes when most others seemed more tentative. Call me reckless, but I seemed to be pretty good at descending quickly. I worked out that if I could descend twice as fast as another runner, I knew they couldn't ascend twice as fast as me, and this would result in me being ahead. Of course, in practice it never worked out so cleanly, but I was rarely passed when descending.

During the descent of a steep rocky trail it is remarkable to consider the sheer processing power of the brain. While preservation of the integrity of the body is prime, seemingly reckless decisions are taken within split seconds that are generally executed with near perfect precision. Leaving aside the processing power that starts by correcting inverse images of our world, the brain controls eye movement to highlight foot placements that lead to minor or major adjustments to balance, stride pattern and landing area - all to ensure that one foot lands in exactly the right spot to maintain momentum, usually at high speed. The brain uses sight to anticipate several of these steps ahead of current activity. There is no indepth study - the eyes flicker over the terrain and images are scrutinized in rapid succession. The brain is able to see safe foot placements and store them in order in a way that enables control of speed and movement of muscles and limbs. The position my foot lands in at the present moment was chosen from rapidly processing several options a few seconds earlier. As I reflect on the experience of running these trails, at no point am I aware of selecting decisions from options. Indeed, there are any number of occasions where I am unable to recall whole sections of trail that I have run. The concept of being on "auto-pilot" is very real, if a little discomforting. I know all this activity is taking place, but I have almost no conscious control or memory of it.

Sometimes things go spectacularly wrong. I've fallen many times...not because the brain failed to do its job, but usually because information feedback was interrupted - such as an obstruction to vision - or there were simply bad options and any foot placement would have resulted in a fall. Ultimately, the idea that I, personally, am making a whole series of decisions controlling my body movement is ridiculous. Why should it be otherwise when I think I have processing time to properly evaluate all of my other "options"?

Do we exercise any real discretion? I don't know the answer to this question. There seems no doubt to me that our options on any issue are not infinite. They seem shaped by our experiences, our environment, our values. The kind of options that might present to me in a particular situation may appear differently to someone else with different experiences and capacity - this might explain why, for example, some runners descend very quickly and safely and others do not. This may mean that a criminal, for example, hasn't chosen a life of crime, but that their experiences and conditioning have only surfaced these possibilities. I'm not looking to excuse personal responsibility...just explain that it is not as simple as we might have thought. And in any event, the reasons why people take the actions they do can be separated from whether they are held to account for those actions. The evidence seems to suggest that from whatever options our brain surfaces, our brain makes decisions without us showing any conscious awareness of them...indeed, we create the illusion of having made those decisions ourselves and then are able to build a narrative convincing us of that reality.

It's an interesting thought that, as we debate the age of criminal responsibility, discoveries in neuroscience might completely change the nature of the question we are trying to answer.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Woodland Lake, Skyscraper Reservoir, Bob & Betty Lakes Loop

Thoughts on pareidolia

Ever since a slice of toast showing a "likeness" to the Virgin Mary was sold on eBay for $28,000 I knew there were no limits to human stupidity. Sadly, this stupidity is an almost uniquely American phenomenon with credulous individuals falling over themselves to look more ridiculous than everyone else with their spiritual claims and apparitions. A South Carolina woman recently claimed to have discovered Jesus on the back of a stingray. A Florida woman is convinced that Jesus appeared on the front of her power meter. A California couple discovered Jesus on their granite countertop. It seems there is no limit to the places where Jesus has been seen.

Seeing significance where there is none seems a common human response. Absent of rational explanations we simply seek patterns or just make stuff up. It is how we build narratives and attempt to make sense of the world. The fact that we know this ought to cause individuals to pause before declaring their stupidity so publicly...but it doesn't. And while we can all poke fun at them and laugh at their expense, the individuals concerned seem convinced that their "image" is the real deal. Of course it is. It's just as real as the invisible twin you see in the mirror each morning. This is more than gullibility, it is outright defiance of all logic and reason and individuals should bear some social cost for this nonsense.

I mention this in passing because the trail loop I ran this morning was absent of the usual naming convention of places in the mountains. Typically, I see lakes named after their physical appearance - Heart lake, for example, or Long Lake. But today I would visit Woodland Lake - a purely descriptive name - and Skyscraper Reservoir (I can assure you there is no skyscraper in sight), and Bob and Betty Lakes (presumably Bob and Betty were really nice people).

Back to the Hessie trailhead I made quick progress to the bridge immediately prior to the King Lake trail and crossed the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek onto the beautiful pastures alongside Jasper Creek. It was sunny but cool and there was a hint of Fall in the air.

This was apparent as the first signs of autumn color tinged the trees and foliage next to Jasper Creek. In two weeks time this will be much more evident.

At 3 miles and 10,000 feet the Woodland Lake trail breaks left and climbs steadily to the west. For the next 2 miles or so the trail is really steep making running least for me. Although the trail goes through dense woodland it breaks out into the open every now and then affording some nice views.

I was a little disconcerted this morning to read in a newspaper that a walker had been mauled to death by a bear yesterday in Denali State Park. I reflected on my bear encounter yesterday and realized how lucky I had been. Even though I never felt in the slightest danger, being 10 yards away from these magnificent creatures is too close and I was closer than the mauled walker. As I trekked through these steep woods I was a little more attentive to the shadows and movements than I usually am and once or twice I quickly looked behind me when noises caught my attention. Fortunately, today, I only experienced a series of suicidal rodents who seemed determined to be trodden on as they shot from one side of the trail to another. One particular chipmunk ran into my knee as it darted in front of me. It left a slight scratch mark that, when looked at from a particular direction bore an uncanny resemblance to Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, I am not the first to report this apparition but I am absolutely convinced this is a sign from above that will protect me for the rest of my life. Seriously.

Like so many mountain lakes, Woodland Lake is stunning. Benefitting from a surrounding of trees it lies just below 11,000 feet and is a popular destination for overnight campers. A couple I saw cooking breakfast seemed to be enjoying the cool morning. They had two really friendly dogs (I had no dog with me today) who ran across to greet me. One licked my hand and the other licked Pope John Paul II from my knee. Oh well, easy come, easy go. Now no-one will believe me.

It was only a short jog up the hill to Skyscraper Reservoir.

The route I followed from this point was off trail. I crossed the dam and took a rising travers to the low point on the sky line aiming to descend to Bob Lake about a mile away over the hill.

The view from the saddle was outstanding. It was getting warmer and there wasn't a breath of wind - much different to yesterday when I was cold at Red Deer Lake. Immediately below was Skyscraper Reservoir with Woodland Lake lower to the right. I was at 11,500 feet when taking this picture.

Bob Lake was ahead under Bob Knob on the Continental Divide. It is important not to descend too quickly as there is a steep cliff to avoid above the north east corner of the lake.

As I descended to Bob Lake, Betty Lake lay due east and about 200 feet lower. I would contour around and then run along the southern shore before heading south to join the King Lake trail back to Hessie.

I was tired and stopped for a break by Bob Lake. It had been a steep ascent over the saddle and I was still feeling the effects of running yesterday. It was warm sitting by the lake but I missed the company of Livvy or Otto.

Looking across Betty Lake to the depression holding Bob Lake.

One final look east across Betty Lake before turning south for the 5.5 miles back to the trailhead. All this time and I had only seen two campers. It was a perfect day.

A few weeks ago I made a navigational error when descending the King Lake trail and I lost about 15 minutes of time. I wasn't going to do that again and I made rapid progress down the valley. Before I had covered a mile I met a couple out hiking and the young woman took me by surprise when she said, "Do I know you?" This question is always a little unsettling as my brain rapidly scanned my memory banks (not as demanding a task as it used to be) and the only thing I could reasonably say was, "no, I don't think so", which I believed to be true. But I chuckled to myself as I ran off. Only 3 weeks earlier, on a flight to San Francisco, a flight attendant who had been giving me spectacular service in the first class compartment approached me towards the end of the flight and whispered in my ear, "I thought you were excellent in the Olympics opening ceremony." My similarity in appearance to the comedian and actor, Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) has been observed before.

Maybe one day I'll show up on a slice of toast?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Red Deer Lake

For the last few weeks the road signs throughout our neighborhood and the wider Boulder area have warned of the potential delays caused by the US Pro Cycling Race taking place today. It looks a grueling course and although I don't have the ability to ride it, I know the roads well. It factored into my trail selection this morning as I thought about how far I wanted to run and the likely timing of the race. I just didn't want to get caught up in the race and be delayed with a tired dog in the back of the car.

The closest mountain trailhead to home is Camp Dick at the head of Peaceful Valley. If I could do a 15 mile circuit on about 3.5hrs I should be done before the cyclists came through.

The first three and a half miles of the Buchanan Pass Trail to its intersection with the Coney Flats spur is good underfoot and fast. It was 50 degrees leaving the trail head and Livvy was pulling to go faster. The trail was deserted. There are no appreciable climbs on this section, just gentle rises and we only gained 800 feet of altitude.

Despite the proximity of the AWD course a few hundred yards away, I have never heard any vehicles in all the time I have run this section. The closeness of the St Vrain Creek effectively masks the noise pollution and even emerging into open pasture the still and quiet persists. As the trees part I catch quick glimpses of Sawtooth Mountain dominating the skyline. This is one of my favorite mountains.

The open alpine pastures were beautiful, as always, but lacking the flowers of spring and early summer.  The sun felt warm even though the temperature was 55 degrees.

We crossed the Wilderness boundary at the point where the St Vrain Mountain trail heads north and relatively flat running took us to the St Vrain Glacier Trail split at 6 miles and 9,900 feet altitude.

The footbridge over the creek was in an even worse state than last Fall when, completely iced up, I crossed the river and fell through the ice. No trouble today and we ran up the wet and muddy section into the forest. I kept an eye open for bear tracks. Each time I've been on this section of trail, heading back southeast below Red Deer Lake, I've either seen fresh bear skat or bear prints on the trail. Today was no exception and I saw several different sized paw prints in the fresh mud.

There's nothing particularly unique about Red Deer Lake. At 10,500 feet it sits to the east of the Divide and it is easy access up the short spur from the Buchanan Pass trail.

The wind was quite strong as Livvy and I sat down for a break just above the water line. There was still a little snowpack holding below 11,000 feet and it was a cool perch. I would normally stop for 15 or 20 minutes, but I was cold and decided to head back sooner. It was just over a mile from the lake to the junction with the Beaver Creek trail and it is a pretty section.

It's a fast, rocky drop back to Coney Flats and the welcome relief of a cool pond to lie in - well, for Livvy, not me. The loss of altitude brought the temperature up to 60 degrees.

The water had been clouded by the passage of several AWD vehicles - they were parked on the far bank and their drivers were taking a break. It's a beautiful place and I am still not sure about these AWD courses and their environmental impact. This is a topic I will return to in future.

The view back towards Sawtooth is spectacular.

I've seen quite a few black bears in the mountains while running. I saw six in a two mile section high up in Eldorado Canyon in the spring, but although I had seen lots of bear tracks and skat in this area I had never laid eyes on the culprits. That all changed this morning. Running east towards Beaver reservoir, a hiker's trail takes a short cut away from the AWD track and cuts through thick woodland. It's a section I always run quickly because the ground is forgiving and there is protection from the sun. Livvy was in front as we rounded a corner at a stream crossing. I first thought it was a big dog, but within seconds I saw two cubs and the mother bear turned and faced us. We both stopped quickly. Livvy was alert but perfectly still. I didn't sense any imminent threat and both cubs disappeared immediately. The mother was more wary. She walked a few paces away and then ran along the trail and headed up into the woods.

I fumbled for my camera and managed these two shots before the mother ran up into the woods to the right. What beautiful creatures. A few hundred yards further on we met a party of elderly walkers heading up the mountain and I relaxed a little - I couldn't outrun a bear but I knew I could outrun this group!! I warned them about the bears and then ran the final section back to Camp Dick.

I quickly put the bears out of my mind. That's not true. I was actually thinking about whether I would avoid getting caught up in the Pro Cycling race and being delayed from travelling home when my mind became preoccupied by the news that Lance Armstrong had cheated in his Tour de France victories...and whatever other races he had won. This was dispiriting news. I've come to accept that politicians seemed to have cornered the market on spectacular falls from grace, but Armstrong takes the biscuit. It's inconceivable that he would give up the fight knowing he would lose everything. The only path open to him to gain any self-respect would be a full and contrite admission. But that seems unlikely. Even his prepared statement was argumentative and dismissive and proclaimed his innocence. From ironman to strawman. I hope to never hear about him again and while his foundation is one that I have supported...and I hope it can recover to continue to do good's impossible to create a lasting legacy as a cheat. Has he no shame?

Friday, August 24, 2012

On risk

A week in the mountains

Few get to experience the kind of trust where their life literally depends on another person. There are certainly occupations where this occurs, such as firefighting or the armed services, and there are fields of medicine where the Hippocratic Oath defines life saving as a professional requirement and expectation, but there are few examples beyond this that truly exemplify trust in a non-contractual sense. And I am not talking about the kind of trust, so beloved by professional team building facilitators, in which blindfolded executives are encouraged to "fall" into the waiting arms of their colleagues in order to exemplify the "trust" that is so evidently missing at all other occasions...otherwise why the need for the activity in the first place? I'm talking about the kind of trust where a mistake made by one person could result in the death of another.  OK, that was a little melodramatic but I want to illustrate.

I hear, all too often, trust being defined by the absence of certain behaviors antithetical to the construct. Declarative statements to the effect of not lying, stealing or cheating are taken as apparent illustrations of trust. They are not. While lying, stealing and cheating destroy trust, the absence of them doesn't necessarily build trust. Trust is built by the presence of something rather than just the absence of destructive components. It's essence is relational and evidence for it is accumulated over time. Seeing a person behave in varied situations over a long period enables confidence to be built. The more predictable and consistent their behavior is, the more likely it is that trust will result.

Partnerships in rock climbing are a good example. As I reflect on a climbing career of nearly 40 years I have only really had three climbing partners and these partnerships are not trivial, nor based on convenience. Thinking back to how each partnership evolved reveals a consistent pattern which sees passage between three stages. First, is there mental compatibility around the objective and the kind of climbing to be pursued, and is each person as concerned for the safety of the other partner beyond interests that purely serve themselves? Second, are the behaviors (and attitudes that drive them) around safety consistent and predictable over time - is each partner as attentive to each other as they go about achieving shared objectives? Third, is there mutual interdependence and a confidence in each other that influences behavior and decision making? It took time in each partnership for these elements to establish, but I know I couldn't climb with a person if they were absent.

I've climbed for long enough to see people I know well die. While it is far from the case that these deaths were the result of poor partner selection, it seems that a disproportionate number of accidents occurred in more transient relationships - particularly where an individual's drive to achieve led to them compromise standards on partner selection, and where availability was the dominant selection criteria. Maybe this says more about me, but my views over personal safety consistently override my ambition. Even in the day when I was pushing the hardest grades, soloing 2000 foot routes in the Verdon Gorges in France, my line on personal safety was always clearly drawn, despite what others might have thought or feared.

Harold Drasdo, in his excellent essay, Margins of Safety UK Alpine Journal, 1969, argued that the best climbers operated close to their personal safety margin and that equipment advances didn't widen the margin as much as increase standards of climbing. While agreeing with him, he omitted reference to climbing partner selection and the impact of this on climbing standards and ultimate safety. Just as much as equipment advances produce rises in climbing standards, so too does the level of trust between climbing partners contribute to the same. The more secure, in psychological terms, the relationship...the stronger the trust between partners, the more likely that calculations on risk will lead to more difficult climbs being undertaken but with greater safety. As I reflect on the rare occasions where I have climbed with a "temporary" partner I have always exercised caution regarding the difficulty of route attempted and this has always led to dissatisfaction. Not knowing the limits of trust, not being able to assume certain standards and protocols, generates uncertainty and the margin of safety is only maintained by reducing route difficulty.

As I currently climb well below the standard of my younger days the relative nature of risk is clearly apparent. At the easier grades I look for more poorly protected lines - it's not that the margin of safety has narrowed but I seek risk in uncertainty and there is more uncertainty in lines that are more difficult to protect. This can only happen with the high level of trust and dependence on a climbing partner who understands these motivations and I have been lucky to climb with similarly minded individuals who know risk and how it is calculated.

There will come a time when risk means nothing to me in absolute terms...when my capacity to even experience danger is so limited due to physical and possibly mental limitations. Until then I'll continue to enjoy weeks like this last one...spending the best of times in the mountains climbing routes closer to the current limits of my abilities, and doing so in the company of a trusted and trusting friend. 

Photos from Jurassic Park, RMNP, Longs Peak, RMNP, and Eldorado Canyon, Boulder, CO.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lion's Gulch and Homestead Meadows and the plight of Native Americans

The treatment of the many and varied tribes of Native Americans during the 1800's is an historical embarrassment...a national disgrace. The demonizing of these tribes, the stealing of their access to land, their general abuse and mistreatment has been well documented. The whole episode exists as a scar on the national psyche in much the same way as the Holocaust does in modern Germany. It isn't the only scar. The puritanical motivation behind prohibition and the long opposition to civil rights were also damaging in different ways - not to establish any of these as equivalent, but just to highlight them as obvious errors and transgression, some of them egregious.

An earlier trip with Otto.

I was thinking this when running the Lion's Gulch trail which climbs a steep stream bed before emerging on a meadow of 19th century Homesteads. Scattered over a fair distance the ruins of these Homesteads tell one story (that of the struggle to survive of their owners) and conceals another (the theft of access to land from Native Americans and their subsequent displacement). The Park Service tell the first story on interesting display boards, but completely ignores the second. 

These last few days in the foothills have seen cooler mornings and daytime temperatures lacking the searing heat of the last two months. Perfect running weather. I unloaded Livvy at the trailhead and we began the short descent to the footbridge. I was traveling light. With only about 10 miles to cover I carried nothing with me. Livvy could drink from the stream and I usually don't need water for only a short run like this. There is an initial sharp rise for 300 feet followed by a descent back to the river and then a longer undulating section to complete the first mile. The tree cover keeps the sun off and makes running very pleasant.

After a few stream crossings the trail becomes extremely loose and rocky as it climbs more steeply up the gulch. With nose to the ground I dug in hard and ran the whole way with Livvy sometimes in front and sometimes behind. Although there were a few cars at the trailhead there were only isolated groups on the trail and this didn't pose any problems.

At exactly 2 miles the trail crosses the stream one last time and the angle of ascent eases somewhat and after another half mile we emerge into the meadow. At 3 miles we encounter the trail junction with one option heading over towards Pierson Mountain. I have run that trail several times with both Otto and Livvy, but today I was going to do a circuit of the Homesteads. To be precise, the Meadow Loop, a very pleasant and easy angled trail.

I've read most of the information boards before and wasn't stopping today for a refresh. Quite a few of the Homesteaders were immigrants from the UK - a woman from Leeds being one of them. How much promise must this trip have held for them? The chance to discover a new life and potentially make their fortune. But this is an inhospitable place in winter and the higher elevation (about 8,500 feet) must have been difficult to deal with. No surprise that these settlers didn't last for more than a couple of generations.

The a homesteading story unfolded similarly across most of the west. Claims were literally staked. Land was registered (eventually) and the passing down of this land obtained by theft has made thousands of very wealthy Americans. The spoils certainly go to the risk-takers and there is no denying these settlers risked all.

But now we have a backlash...of sorts. Vocal groups of Native Americans are seeking recompense and are attempting to turn the clock back. It is understandable at one level, but also quite ridiculous. With the support of high profile backers ( the significance of some of the decisions will be immense.

I have no connection with the concept of an area of earth being "sacred". I don't even know what that means. Attaching some significance to an area of land because a group of people regard it as having "spiritual" significance is mumbo jumbo. It's not dissimilar to the roadside memorials we all too frequently see memorialising the death of road accident victims - tragic, indeed, but of no geographic significance. I haven't seen any memorials erected in supermarkets for those who die there, or even in elevators ( for that matter - apparently an average of 27 per year die there. 

While I have empathy with the plight of Native Americans who were uprooted at the time, there has to be some limit to how past grievances can be redressed. Leaving aside, for a moment, the disputes that went on between different native tribes, oft the cause of local warfare, it is impossible to put effective boundaries around what is claimed and impossible to establish fair redress to be given to descendants who themselves have not suffered at all. Even different native American groups are divided about what to do -

Furthermore, the lands in question are now invariably public - they are often protected lands preserved for and accessible to everyone. The Sioux and Lakota claims on the Black Hills represent an attempt to place these grounds under their ownership for tenuous reasons that have nothing to do with the public good, or with any attempt to protect public access. As such, their claims represent a serious threat to free access for the taxpayers expense.

Of course, the real problem is that the "religious sensitivities" of many lawmakers have been tweaked. The tactic of declaring lands sacred appears to establish them as having special worth. Claiming "spiritual significance" to a bunch of rock formations has no foundation in fact and the Government should not pander to these claims. Our current lawmakers, themselves enamored with their own version of mumbo jumbo are now torn with the possibility of being seen to oppose someone else's mumbo jumbo. The losers will be the wider public. I do not appreciate the possibility of being excluded from public land because a small group of people believe it holds special powers and significance for them.

There is no doubt the treatment of Native Americans represents one of the more repulsive aspects of US history. Seeking to redress this damage through re-designating long held public land into private ownership is just not the way forward.

It's funny what running on a trail can do to one's emotional state!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Learning to Run

A perfect running style is a joy to watch. Precise, purposeful movement optimizing strength with an economy and efficiency that stands in stark contrast to those human specimens least gifted in this area. I remember watching the perfection of a Carl Lewis sprint or a Heike Dreschler long jump and admiring what was obvious to even the untutored eye. But for all the accomplishments of hominids, the grace and beauty of a "running machine" really only exists in the animal kingdom. There is much to admire. From the power over short bursts of a cheetah, to the sustained energy of a race horse. These animals are not only built to run but they they are at their most elegant and compelling when they do run.

None of these characteristics describe Andrew. Although Lurchers are very fast over short bursts, they are not pure breds. Their lineage, such that it is, is drawn from parts of Greyhound, Whippet, and with a hint of Saluki. There are likely even more varieties than this, but the outcome is similar - an effective running machine, but not a honed running machine. Lurcher's are a compromise - they are built for speed but they are required to kill. Consequently, they carry some muscle bulk in order to wrestle their catch to the ground.

When Andrew first arrived we introduced him to Jet (our Doberman/Labrador cross) in a neutral field near home. He was a thin and spindly dog and we weren't sure how he would run with having had so many operations on his forelegs. Our concerns were unfounded. My initial apprehension and anxiety melted into unrestrained laughter as this uncoordinated beast tore around the field, tripping over just about anything, almost falling over as his hind legs slipped from under him. Jet didn't know whether to run towards him, run with him or run away from him. Her face screamed "what is that?" She had good cause. 

In no time at all Andrew was exhausted. Three laps of the field and he was finished. There was no gas left in his tank. I even wondered if there was a tank. Twelve months of serious injury, surgery and rehabilitation at the rescue center had taken its toll. At least one thing had been confirmed - Andrew found it easier to operate without troubling his brain. Still, the meeting with Jet had been a success. There had been no fisticuffs. No-one had been bitten, injured or dominated. The dogs weren't exactly in love, but it wasn't WWIII either.

It was my wife's idea that I take both dogs running together. I am sure this had nothing to do with Andrew being an absolute nuisance in the kitchen - raiding the trash can...even when it was "locked" in a cupboard...and scattering the contents around the house. I am also sure that it had nothing to do with his flatulence. It's not that Andrew was an excessively windy dog, but what he lacked in force he made up for with quality and the sudden interest of my wife in scented candles began to make sense. I also doubt whether his drinking from the toilet bowl came into it. But my protests were futile. What's one more dog in open countryside? Indeed. But what a dog.

A common feature of the northern English countryside are dry stone walls - enclosures built in the 1800's by farmers to mark territory and retain animals. The network of public footpaths and rights of way crossed these boundaries by way of stiles - wooden or stone "steps" - and there were lots of them. Agile dogs like Jet would leap over these without breaking stride. Andrew was another matter. To be fair to him, some of these dry stone walls were six feet high and were built with protruding stones - it wasn't easy or obvious for a dog like Andrew to figure out what to do.

I can remember Andrew's very first run. I took him and Jet off leash on a short 6 mile circuit that didn't include much ascent. I didn't want to tire him out. It was a wet, miserable day and the ground was thick with mud. We arrived at the first stile and, as I clambered over, Jet just leaped over the wall. I descended the other side and began jogging along the trail. Where was Andrew? I looked back and there was no sight of him. I was more than a little anxious. My wife had told me that my life wouldn't be worth living if anything happened to him - in our family of pack animals I knew where I stood!

I re-climbed the stile and from the top could see Andrew. Completely confused he was running the length and breadth of the wall trying to work out where Jet and I had gone. "Andrew, you blithering idiot" was the best I could muster- it's all positive behavioral management in our house - and I climbed down to help show him the way. He was all eager and clueless in equal proportion. Once I had his attention (well, I like to think I had his attention, but I'm not sure he had any attention) I climbed the stile patting my leg and encouraging him. He got all excited for no apparent reason and began running along the wall again from one side to the other. Jet had jumped onto the top of the wall wondering what was holding us up - she knew the next field usually had rabbits and was impatient.

I climbed back down and called over Andrew. This time I tried physically lifting his front legs onto the first step and then shoved him from behind. I realized that, if seen, this wouldn't look good and quickly gave up. He had no idea what was going on and I was facing an embarrassing return to the house with a "this dog can't run" report. That thought actually had some merit to it and to this day I saw it as a lost opportunity. I was completely stuck with what to do. Andrew was a big dog, but why couldn't he just hop up the steps like Jet and we could get on running? I was getting cold and more frustrated. Poor Andrew just didn't have the processing power to do anything more than breathe.

I was out of options and wasting time. I don't know when the idea came into my head, but it was one thing to come up with an idea and a completely different thing to execute it successfully. I called Andrew to my side and knelt beside him. I patted his head and stroked his chin. This unusual show of affection didn't seem to raise his suspicions and he seemed happy to stand for a while. Then, with a move that must have both puzzled and perplexed him, I ducked my head under his body and staggered into a standing position with Andrew laid across my shoulders- his front legs dangling down my left side and his hind legs to the right. If I could have seen his face I am sure his eyes would have been crossed. Andrew was a big dog and I had to get over the stile with him on my back before he started to wriggle and get free. If this move was a shock to Andrew it had the effect of calming rather than spooking him. I hadn't accounted for the fact that Andrew had filthy wet mud clinging to his underside  and this was now smeared all over my shoulders and neck. It was disgusting. I cut an impressive sight. I was anxious about being seen - I was close to home and the questions could be embarrassing - "Was it you I saw with that dog wrapped around your neck?" "You like your dog...don't you?" "The only think that was missing was the music." It all went through my mind as I glanced quickly in every direction.

I reached the top of the stile and it must have been a ridiculous sight. Thankfully no-one was around to witness this crazy spectacle - no-one, that is, except for the farmer who was approaching from the other direction. I froze and looked at him. He froze and looked at me. He had one of those puzzled expressions that text messagers today call "wtf?" - was the dog injured? - was I some kind of nutcase with a penchant for draping dogs across my body? - was I a dog thief running away with a reluctant animal?...was I enjoying it too much?...what had been going on over the wall? There was no end to the range of possible questions.

I quickly came to my senses, slithered down to the ground, dropped Andrew on to his feet and we were off running. As the farmer's jaw opened to speak I interrupted - "Don't mind the dog," I spluttered, "he's scared of heights." And we were gone.

There were three more stiles to navigate and I had to repeat the treatment at each one. Andrew didn't seem to mind. I, on the other hand, had a filthy muddy smear all across my shoulders, neck and upper back. I think it was just mud although goodness knows what else Andrew had run through. The stench was disgusting.

This explains how Andrew became the cause of a running tradition - washing at the water troughs. I could hardly turn up at home in that state. How would I explain it? The solution was right in front of me as I entered the village a quarter mile from home. I washed down my legs then removed my tee shirt and washed the slime from my neck and shoulders. Oh, I nearly was November. Hmmm. Cool. I lifted Andrew's front legs onto the front of the troughs and began splashing him on his chest and midriff. I didn't hear the car pulling up. I turned to see the same farmer driving past. He slowed to a crawl, wound down his window and stared in disbelief. He was clearly trying to create a narrative around a bare-chested runner hugging a filthy dog while splashing water over each other. As he started to accelerate away I could see him slowly shaking his head. I quickly rinsed my shirt in the water troughs and then put it back on. It wasn't quite dry.

I protested walking through the door at home - "Look, I have a reputation to think of..."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mount Neva

The ridge line approaching Mount Neva from Caribou Pass to the north is a fun but tricky scramble. It's not a walk and it's not for walkers lacking a head for heights or who are overly intimidated by exposure. A good number who attempt the trip, I am led to believe, decide to turn back before or below the crux - a 40 foot high wall that leans towards a steep gully above Lake Dorothy. As a lifetime climber it would be all too easy for me to dismiss their concerns but, objectively, for non-climbers this is an intimidating place. Livvy was still carrying an injury from a few days ago so I was without a dog and this made the trip possible.

The sun rose as I approached the 4th July Mine. The cold morning was now warming nicely. I had run this trail last month when heading to Santanta Peak and was familiar because of that and many other trips up this pretty trail.

The sun was lifting above the shoulder of South Arapahoe Peak and early morning mist was clearing.

Passing Lake Dorothy the route comes into view. It follows the ridge from right to left. The initial ascent is on a very good trail and I was surprised at how solid the ground was.

From the first summit the route to Neva follows undulating and extremely rocky ground. No running here. It's a really enjoyable route. The down climbing tends to be to the left and there are a couple of steps in the ridge that require forethought. But I found it fairly easy to follow the scratch marks and it was always obvious which route to take.

This picture shows the first significant step in the ridge. It is visible as a clear notch on the skyline. It's a very straightforward climb directly up the shaded groove bottom center. Maybe 20 feet high it might feel a lot higher because of the sweeping gully that falls away about 600 feet to Lake Dorothy. There are hand and foot holds galore and a word of encouragement should be enough to move a novice along.

This is the view from the top of the first notch. To the left of Lake Dorothy it is possible to make out the Arapahoe Pass trail. The grassy ridge line running towards South Arapahoe Peak ends with  Quarter to Five Peak.

The crux section comes fairly quickly. After another descent to the left and a scramble down some steeper steps there is a large notch with a lot of loose ground. The following picture was taken on the descent to this notch.

The base of the notch isn't visible, but the route up this ridge is easy and takes the gentler angled rock in shadow towards the obvious V-gully top center. This final gully is a narrow notch leading up to the right and the crux section is the final wall to the left of this notch.

The crux wall is easy. The guidebooks classify it as 4th class but it is barely 3rd class at most. There is no arm pulling at all as footholds are plentiful. The only problems are psychological - it is above a steep drop and some walkers will find this disconcerting. I was disappointed it ended so quickly and was keen to get to the summit of Neva.

Once on top of the crux section it is a short jog to the summit. There are a few large boulders on top and it is possible, as I did, to jump from each of them, but this wouldn't be recommended if you left the contents of your stomach in the final notch.

This is the view back along the ridge line from above the crux notch. All the work arounds are on the sunny side - to the left as you are walking.

The unnamed lake below Mount Jasper lies at the head of the North Fork of Middle Boulder Creek. It is one of an adjacent pair of lakes and my descent would bisect them on a fairly direct, off trail route back to the 4th July Mine and from there to the trailhead.

I can't recommend this trip too highly. Of necessity there is a lot of walking and scrambling but this is always interesting. There isn't an obvious trail descending from the col to the south of Neva, but this wasn't a problem. It was enjoyable leaping from boulder to boulder before hitting the shore of the south lake.

It is an isolated place and more enjoyable because of that. I descended the first boulder gully from the ridge, crossed the snow patch and rested by the lake outlet stream. Mount Jasper, which is rarely visited, forms the southern watershed for this lake.

I followed Middle Boulder Creek, first on the south bank and then on the north bank before the creek turned south east and I climbed 300 feet up the the Arapahoe Pass trail as it met the 4th July Mine. This section is good underfoot, although there are some boggy ponds to circumnavigate.

The old workings at the 4th July Mine were deserted. Usually, when I pass, I am encouraged to keep running by the hordes who use this as a stop off point for drinks and recovery.

I did meet a few walkers on the last two mile stretch back to the trail head, but this was a very peaceful and tranquil day in the mountains. Back at the trail head a group of three older ladies enquired about "mushrooms". Had I seen any? As it turned out I had and I showed the eager trio the location on a map. Unfortunately they didn't fancy trekking 3 miles to pick them, no matter how "magic" they were. I think they made a good choice.