Sunday, November 17, 2013

Constant frustration

Enduring an enforced 3 month layoff at the beginning of this year due to a serious achilles injury was one of my low points in recent mountain running memory. It wasn't just the loss of about 600 miles of potential running that disappointed, it was the extreme frustration of just not being able to get out. Only aggressive therapy pulled me through and my mileage picked up during spring and summer. In truth, I never fully recovered and even today the left achilles still feels vulnerable and I have to be really careful.
The road at the entrance to our community at its junction with 36.

Being careful isn't one of my character traits when it comes to physical exertion. But 8 weeks ago I was smacked right between the eyes with a second serious achilles injury - this time to my right leg. There was no sign of this coming at all and even as I reflect on the incident and think it through I still can't see the trigger. I was on an innocuous run on Boulder Valley Ranch from Neva Road. It was a week or so after the great Boulder flood and the ground was incredibly heavy - maybe that was it? Huge balls of mud would form on my shoes that added weight to my normal stride pattern. They would eventually drop off and then reform (the mud, not my shoes). It was an unpleasant cycle but then, so was being stuck in the house without exercise.
Looking east across Lost Lake

Lost Lake - early winter ice
Lost Lake outlet
With a couple of miles to go back to the trailhead I felt a sudden pain in my right achilles. This was all too familiar. I slowed to a jog hoping it was just a twinge. No such luck. A moment later and I was walking. It didn't feel too bad I kept deluding myself, but I was limping quite badly and I even wondered whether I could continue walking. But I did. At the car I scraped the mud off my shoes and drove home. I could barely limp to the shower and I laid up for a few hours with an ice pack. Back on the treatment table the apparent miracle that got me going so quickly last time has been frustratingly illusive. Two months into my "recovery" and I feel in no better state.
Crater Lake already in full winter dress

The best I can do is to walk, but even then I seem to pay a price in stiffness and pain. It is difficult for me to push off the ball of my foot. I am like a bear with a sore head. I had so many plans for the fall running season and all have come to nothing. With winter taking its grip in the high mountains it is equally frustrating not to take advantage of these last opportunities to get high before the trails and access roads become snow-bound.
Friendly moose heading to the low ground for food

With running in short supply there hasn't been the raw material to write about. My running dogs are as frustrated as I am. Every morning there is a fading hope of a jangling leash and the smell of running shoes...oh, the smell!! It seems like I need to take a protracted period of downtime over the winter to see if I can really put these injuries behind me. I fear again for 2014 if I don't do this. I have so much more that I still want to do that this is the only thought that applies discipline to my usual poor patient behavior. We'll see.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Apache Peak 13,441' - Navajo Peak 13,409'

This traverse dominates the skyline from Brainard Lake and is clearly visible from downtown Boulder, Denver and the airport. I have wanted to complete this trip ever since I made my first trip up Pawnee Pass and the monolith at the top of Navajo caught my attention. It's an interesting mountain when viewed from a distance because the summit cliffs look vertical on all sides and impenetrable. I knew this wasn't the case but I speculated about the kind of route that reached the summit. I just had to do it.

I did my "homework" ahead of my trip. I knew I needed to start the dark...and I memorized the major obstacles along the route. I read as many online articles as I could find and compared these to Gerry Roaches "Indian Peaks" guide. Judgment in route-finding seemed to be the key and this is an area where I am generally strong. I wasn't concerned about the more technical sections of the traverse, I was just concerned to keep safe and also move as quickly as possible.
Long Lake - air temperature much colder than the water temperature
It was pitch black at Long Lake trailhead and I put on a long-sleeved top. Jogging along the wooded lake shore I was aware of lots of wildlife darting across the trail. I kept a steady pace without pushing too hard and arrived at Lake Isabelle in good time. The sky was lightening and the rising sun illuminated the high peaks. It is a beautiful sight.
Lake Isabelle trail split
I could see no hikers anywhere, although there was a tent pitched on the far side of the lake. No one stirred and i enjoyed the solitude. The sun rose as I skirted the lake and I removed my long-sleeved top as the temperature increased.
Sun rise over Lake Isabelle
Navajo on the left, Shoshoni on the right, Apache dead center
It was spectacular running in the crisp morning air.
Leaving Lake Isabelle with the sun rising
The hard work now started. Leaving Lake Isabelle the trail contours across the stream valley before reaching an unnamed higher level lake around 11,000'. From here the Isabelle Glacier trail strikes up to the north in a series of tight switchbacks and I was blowing hard as I reached the top of these.
Just below the higher level lake
The key decision is when to leave this trail and head directly to the basin below the Navajo Glacier. I picked the right place. Just after cresting the rim of the valley immediately above the upper level lake I saw a faint trail go straight on as a switchback cut right. I took this line and found myself able to run across shallow rock slabs that enabled quick progress. I crossed a busy stream and took a gully line that brought me right to the point in the basin where an ice pond marks the line to the East Ledges on Apache. This was going to be my line - a photo below that I took on the descent marks the exact route I took and it was very straight forward.
The summit spires of Shoshoni tower over the high level trail
Half way up the East Ledges I met a breeding pair of Ptarmigans
View of Navajo and Dickers Peck from the East Ledges ascent on Apache
There were some wet sections on the ascent of the East Ledges, but the route was obvious. It was a long slog but it took less than an hour to reach the summit. There were fabulous 360 views and I took a short break. There was a cool breeze that took the edge off the warm sun.
The route to Navajo from the summit of Apache - very straight forward
I descended quickly from the summit and skirted the minor summit between Apache and Dickers Peck before arriving abruptly at a steep rocky ridge leading down to the Dickers Peck col. If you intend completing this route let me give you some advice - don't try to descend the dirty gully to the left (east). I am sure it is possible, and I am sure many people have done it, but you are missing the best line. The steep ridge is the line to take. Yes, it looks a little intimidating and improbable, but once started it is ridiculously easy, just a few steps down here and there, but very good hand and foot holds and much less loose rock than in the dirty gully. I arrived at the base of Dickers Peck in no time.
Looking from the descent towards Navajo summit. Dickers Peck is in the foreground. The route goes left of this and then climbs the obvious easy ramp up and right to the base of a steep chimney shown in the next photo
The steep chimney viewed from the top of the rising ramp shown in the previous photo. Take the left is easy.
Looking back from the same point as the previous photo was taken. The steep ridge I descended is obvious on the left side of the picture.
The chimney was steep in a couple of places, but there were plenty of holds and I reached the top quickly. A few cairns pointed to the south along another obvious ramp and this brought me back into sunlight on the south ridge at the point where the Airplane Gully route arrives. A few easy steps over steep rock and I was on the summit - one of the best summits in the wilderness (only Lone Eagle Peak and Mount Toll have more impressive summits).
Navajo summit with Lake Isabelle (left) and Long Lake (through my legs). Niwot Ridge stretches to the east.
Arikiree on the left and North Arapaho on the right
I didn't hang around long on the summit, even though I'd had the mountain to myself. I toyed with the idea of completing Niwot Ridge, but I was running out of time and wanted to leave that for a direct ascent. Anyway, I had an airplane to catch in the gully below.
Navajo summit from the top of Airplane Gully
The descent is loose but obvious and I arrived at the top of airplane gully and looking forward to the trip. So many people have described this gully as a horrible place and I was keen to find out for myself.
Approaching the plane wreckage from above
More grisly remains
The wing perched precariously above the steep drop
The wreckage of the airplane is perched precariously towards the top of the gully. 3 people died in this crash in 1948 and remnants of the plane are scattered down the gully. It's a grim place. I picked my way by the wreckage and found the best descent line hugging the right wall (looking down) of the gully. It really wasn't that bad and I was back at the trail in no time.
View of the Kasperov traverse connecting Shoshoni to Apache
The East Ledges ascent on Apache from the bottom of Airplane Gully
Descending to the small lake above Lake Isabelle
Back on the Interstate above Lake Isabelle
This was an outstanding trip.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lone Eagle Peak, North Face

Sometimes my running shoes are left behind and are replaced with sticky rubber. There was a time when I used to run to keep fit for rock climbing before it became an end in itself, but it has been difficult finding a consistent climbing partner in the US and running has dominated my outdoor pursuits. But an annual "boys vacation" has developed and this enabled a trip to the high country, and on this occasion it was for an overnight excursion to the remote Lone Eagle Peak.

Iconic mountain images conjure precipitous slopes and sharp peak summits. Just think of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. The very first time I saw a picture of Mount Everest and became aware of what it represented as a challenge, I recall how disappointed I was that it seemed to lack the dramatic profile I hoped for. While impressed with so much of the great climbing on Mount Blanc in France, its rounded snow dome seemed to take the edge off the Brenva Face and the Pear Rouge. Only on the more minor summits and ridges - such as the Peuterey Arete, Les Drus (not so minor) and the Tour Ronde - does the classic profile match expectation. The Pyramid du Tacul and the Dent du Geant also make the case. So when I first saw Lone Eagle Peak on the cover of Gerry Roache's Indian Peaks guide I was taken by the dramatic image. It encapsulated so much excitement and apprehension - was it really a sharp pinnacle summit? Were those summit cliffs really as vertiginous as they appeared? It simply demanded to be climbed.
Lone Eagle Peak with brooding thunder clouds as backdrop
The classic North Face was well within capability and undaunted by the 8 mile approach from Monarch Lake along Cascade Creek Trail, the plans were laid. It could be climbed in a single day trip but it seemed better to overnight at Crater Lake. The long walk in was surprisingly easy with only 2000 feet elevation gain. There were no persistently long steep climbs and a steady pace saw us at the overnight camp around 5.30pm. During the last 2 miles we were welcomed by heavy thunder but very little precipitation - so typical of afternoons in the high mountains. My freeze-dried Katmandhu curry failed to inspire the aroma of Tibet and a fitful night on hard ground brought the welcome dawn.
Closer view from our camp at Crater Lake
It's a short, steep pull to the start of the climbing - a short, water-streaked wall that ends on a grassy terrace. We followed this terrace up to the south for about 4 pitches of simulclimbing. It ended beneath a nasty, wet chimney that was really awkward to ascend with a pack. A nice crack towards the back of the right chimney wall encouraged my efforts and the wet rock posed few problems. It was just a strenuous thrutch and I got to the top with a feeling that effort triumphed over style. What followed was more grassy scrambling interspersed with short sections of proper rock climbing and I began to wonder what this climb was all about. I knew the crux pitch was just around the corner and it couldn't come soon enough.
Looking down the long pitch above the wet chimney

And there it was. A rising traverse onto the north wall ended in a steep drop. Across this drop a sling was strung around a flat spike signaling the belay at the foot of the pitch. It looked stupendous. A series of disconnected cracks and bulges rising vertically for about 150 feet. This looked the business and I hurried across the steep gully and brought up my partner.
At the top of the rising traverse about to cross the gully to the steep crux pitch

The guidebook (and various online websites, such as Mountain Projects) goes to great lengths to poorly describe the start of this pitch. It warns against choosing an earlier set of cracks to the left, yet omits the most important feature of all - the gully. "Climb the rising traverse to the right until you can cross a steep gully and belay at the foot of the crack system to the right" is the only description you need. It is that simple. The Roach guide writes five sentences and still gets this wrong. Maybe it was just too obvious to me? Anyway, stories of climbers getting off route on this section raise more questions about their competence and general judgment than they do about the descriptive quality of guide books...but the book descriptions could be better.
Looking at the belay below the crux pitch from the position of the previous photo
All concerns about this route disappeared once I left the belay and started up the wall. The climbing was exceptional. It was also quite fact, I found the chimney pitch mentioned earlier to be much more difficult. Yes, the climbing is at altitude, and it is steep, but the holds are huge and there are plenty of them. But these are minor quibbles. It was a feeling of kinesthetic and aesthetic joy that pulsed through my body as I cruised up the wall. The exposure was wonderful; the protection was excellent. There were supposed to be 4 metal pegs but I could only find 3 and none were really necessary. The movement was natural and composed. It was a disappointment when the pitch ended.
Topping out on the crux pitch

The remainder of the climb was easy - a short traverse to the left and a longish pitch to the summit and wonderful exposure on the narrow summit crest. At about 1 meter wide the summit ridge is really exposed and at its tip the precipitous cliffs seem to drop right to the ground about 2000 feet below. A beautiful calm summer day rendered the situation harmless and enjoyable, but high winds, cold and rain would dramatically alter this feeling.
On the summit

Descent route from the top of the climb. There are two gully options - we took the right hand one, but the left hand (yellow) option looked better. Either way you have to end up on the promontory at the top of the gullies.
Much has been written about the descent from Lone Eagle along the route of Solo Flight. The Roach guide isn't much good as it is written from the "ground up", but there are many detailed online descriptions and photos of where to go. They all seemed to make a bit of a meal of it to me. As I stood on the summit and pondered the options it all looked very obvious, and it was. Did climbers really try to descend that horrible gully? All anyone really need know is to climb up the horrible gully rather than descend. Far from being "tricky"the navigation across the descent was easy. Arriving on the shoulder overlooking the Lone Eagle summit we unroped and packed away our gear for the slog back to the campsite and the even longer walk back to the car.

An exhausting day, but truly memorable. I might even do it again just for that one pitch of perfection.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hoka One One Stinson EVO B Review


I am naturally skeptical and resistant to hype that sounds contrived. With so much focus over recent years being directed (with good effect) towards minimalist running, the appearance of a great big clod-hopping "clown" shoe like the Hoka One One seemed one misdirected fad too far. Even the testimony of highly reputable ultra runners was easy to discount as I rationalized product endorsements, sponsorship and back-handers. At the most fundamental level I didn't like to entertain the thought that every premise of my running shoe choice and practice for over 35 years had potentially been wrong. Even my more recent serious injuries and knee and joint pains couldn't provide the evidence for me to challenge my own bias. But over recent weeks my mind was "tipped".

4 months ago I had a long discussion in Boulder Running Company with one of the sales associates. "Just try them," he said. And I did. And they were weird. I jogged around the pavement outside the store. I am sure I was more concerned about how they looked ("clownish") than how they felt and I didn't want to pursue the issue any further. How could I, in all honesty, wear these monstrosities in public? I had a certain style to maintain...standards to uphold...there were issues of public decency. There are reasons why few men wear yellow and purple striped suits. And although in the "style vs. function" balance I trend heavily towards function, this doesn't make style irrelevant. And Hoka's have no style...well, they have style, but in the purple striped suit variety. Wear these, so I reasoned, and I become a clown. So I didn't.

Another store, another discussion. This time in Vertical Runner in Breckenridge. Another sales associate hooked on the Hoka. Was I the only one immune from the hype? Was everyone getting back-handers? But if I explore my psyche, I went into the store to look at the Hokas. It was as irresistible as a boogie on a stranger's nose.  I wanted another drooling experience of sheer horror, disbelief, petulance and disregard. I wanted confirmation about just how stupid these things looked...about how, despite many claims to the contrary, these things just wouldn't work on technical my ankle would I would be unable to "feel" the trail beneath my feet...that I would lose touch with my feet wallowing in these great marshmallows. I desperately wanted to be right.

Then two things happened in quick succession. First, I tweaked my calf muscle injury again last week and this was a major blow to my recovery. It happened on a straight forward trail after about 8 miles and I was shocked because I had felt nothing for weeks to even begin to hint that this was possible. Was it my shoes? Second, I had three or four days of serious knee pain during the day that made it difficult to ignore. I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes without getting up and stretching and walking around. It was distracting and annoying and I worried what my body was telling me about my physical well-being. Would my running days be coming to an end? Was it my shoes?

What stuck in my mind was the testimony of older runners, just like me, extolling the virtues of the Hokas. How they provided protection against the knees. How they nullified the effects of joint pain. How they...well, prolonged the running lives of keen runners like me. So I tipped. And I went straight out and bought a pair. Not the unisex version, but the full bloodied "men only" version. The Stinson Evo B...whatever that means. Not only were the shoes an obvious joke, but the joke of the name was too subtle even for me to understand. I asked the cashier for a bag in order to conceal my embarrassment and hurried back to the car glancing around incase anyone should point at me and laugh. "Another idiot in clown shoes."

And they do look ridiculous.
They are a big shoe, but surprisingly light, despite their bulk. The size 9's fit me perfectly. I deployed the single pull lacing system after remembering to tighten the front eyelets, and they were very snug and tight. I don't wear socks and need a close fit. These shoes fit better than nearly all my other pairs...and I have a lot of pairs. Of course, fit is only one issue - how did they perform?

I was tentative departing the Button Rock trailhead. It was raining a little and the rock was wet. Puddles were forming and this was going to be a decent test. I had bought the new Brooks Cascadia a month ago and was extremely disappointed with their poor performance on wet trails - they had horrible traction on wet rocks and consequently I couldn't trust my placements. As underwhelmed as I was with the Brooks, I was pleasantly surprised with the Hokas. They just worked.

I worried about the spongy ride and then realized that once I started to focus on running the trail this disappeared as an issue. I just got used to it. In fact they felt quite pleasant. I discovered that I didn't have to worry about smaller rocks because...well...I didn't feel them. I cruised across the edges of hardened mud ruts caused by vehicle tires without the usual ankle tweak. I began to enjoy them.

There is one point that needs to be made - it is important to pick your feet up and not drag low on the stride pattern. I sometimes do this when I am tired and going downhill and it has caused a few falls. These shoes would be more prone to that and I was very conscious to keep reminding myself to pick up my follow-through on my trailing leg. Thankfully no falls so far, but I wonder what they will be like when I get really tired?

The tread holds well ascending steep, loose, rocky trails. They stuck to the surface and I didn't feel any scrambling or slipping. But these shoes come into their own going downhill. They were exceptional. I could attack the descent and ignore the usual imperfections in the running surface. They also enabled a fuller downhill stride. Typically, in low profile shoes like my Walshes or Salomon Speedcross, I would be very careful to avoid golfball-size rocks or uneven rocky outcrops - in the Hokas I quickly learned to ignore them. The deep cushioning on the sole simply absorbed them. With the rounded sole I was also able to strike my heel more fully and confidently and this meant a much faster and safer descent. With low profile shoes the heel takes significant punishment on steep descents and my stride pattern shortens to compensate resulting in a slower pace. It is the exact opposite in the Hokas - full stride, confident placement, more even feel and much faster pace. It was just how I remember running when my joints and ligaments were younger and more supple. It was fun.

But the "clown" feeling is still there. It's strange, because I've never had the remotest concern about what other people might think, it's just that these shoes look completely ridiculous. However, I am going to clock up some mileage in them especially on the high level technical trails. I am actually looking forward to it, not only because I think they will be great, but because I rarely encounter anyone. My "clowning" will be relatively private.

UPDATE - August 10th 2013

The Devil's backbone trail near Loveland, CO was a perfect test for my new shoes. Although the trail has no steep ascents or descents there are long sections of nasty terrain with sloped rocks and loose choss. If these shoes were going to fail they would fail here. And because the trail is fairly level that meant the test would be at speed.

Two things are now really clear to me. These shoes are really good on rough, loose, stony ground. You really can ignore most of the loose rocks and undulations that would cause careful foot placement when wearing low profile shoes. Second, they are great for running quickly downhill. I find that I can take a fuller stride and not have to worry as much about an uneven landing. Because the sole is so soft the pain of striking hard surfaces is diminished and my original fear of twisting my ankle has so far proved illusory.

There are some things I don't like...but are unavoidable. First, the lace holder is very poor and I find that the lace pull bounces around across the top of the shoe - it is distracting and it is annoying. I don't know why Hoka couldn't build a lace holder like Salomon on the Speedcross 3. Second, it is hard to accelerate up steep climbs without the cushioned sole absorbing some energy. This is noticeable. Push hard on the ball of the foot and quite a bit of energy is just absorbed by the sole and this makes it hard going up long climbs. It's a trade-off between overall comfort (which I like) and loss of impact (which I don't).

Overall, these are quickly becoming my running shoes of choice for longer distances on rough trail surfaces - particularly those involving nasty, technical descents.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wekiwa Springs State Park, FL

A trip across the Florida Alps

I hate flying into Orlando. Even a flight from San Francisco with a 1am arrival time is unpleasant. Yes, it’s great for families and kids to travel with heightened anticipation of the vacation to come but for a 100,000 miles a year traveller like me the shine has worn off a little. 5.5 hours of intermittent shrieking, screaming and crying were quickly left behind on the suffocating jet bridge and the roads were deserted on my way to my Mickey Mouse infested hotel. 3am to bed and 6 am back at work, but I had a few hours free in the afternoon that I intended to make the most of.

Sitting in my car at Wekiwa Springs State Park I pondered my options. The heavy rain drumming the car, the black sky split by searing lightening bolts, suggested a damp afternoon. The Park Ranger struggled with my ridiculous question – “Will the trails be muddy?” It’s awkward getting running shoes dry in time for a return flight.

I removed my tee shirt and emerged into the rain – no point carrying redundant weight – and once my GPS satellites had been detected I jogged off along the White trail. Thirty miles south in Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the log flume ride “Splash Mountain” where, on entry, the greeting states, “You will get wet, you may get soaked.” It was a more appropriate warning for my trail run. I started in a downpour that quickly became a drenching and deteriorated into a deluge. Apart from the fact that it rained the whole 2 hours of my run, it was completely dry. As my father used to helpfully point out during rain storms in the UK – “It isn’t raining between the raindrops.”

The initial section of trail meanders west through thick woodland before swinging to the north where the woods thin out. It was completely deserted except for deer and lizards. I’ll come to the insects later. The trail surface wasn’t too bad, just occasional pools but not much mud. There was heavy sand on the trail surface that turned into oatmeal in heavy rain and this made running very challenging. The second mile was on a harder surface and I ran this in very quick time. Otherwise I just kept a steady pace and enjoyed the solitude and quiet.

Six miles into the run I was feeling pretty good, but didn’t expect to find the surprises yet to come. At this point the trail veers east and joins a bridleway. Almost immediately I was thigh deep in swamp water. The trail blazes on the trees told me this was the right way and I waded along getting into deeper and darker waters. I was anxious about gators as I knew there were some in the park. It was a little disconcerting to be splashing through deep dark water with the thought of gators in my mind. At one point I was surprised to run next to a pool containing about a dozen eels writhing close to the water surface. They didn’t look pleasant and I didn’t want one sinking its teeth into my leg. At another point I steeped on something that looked hard but that moved under my foot. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. My worst fear was over with before I even realized it had happened. Simultaneously wading through deep water and ducking under low branches I missed movement in the undergrowth to my right. Had I seen it I would have stopped and that would have been really bad, but I didn’t and I emerged on a small dry plateau just as the gator rested its heavy jaws a few feet away. I leaped forwards quickly and covered 50 yards before turning around to check the pursuit. Thankfully, the gator still hadn’t left the plateau and I was able to admire it from a safe distance, ever aware that where there was one there may be others.

This swamp running lasted for nearly 4 miles. The trail switched from easterly to southerly and wound in and around clumps of trees and bushes. Along one section there were intermittent deep pools, some of which were waist deep, and this made the going very slow. No sooner would I get into my stride than I would disappear into a hole full of water. It was frustrating and refreshing. I don’t know whether I ever broke into a sweat because the rain water was streaming down my head and body. All the time the heavy thunder rain hammered down.

Of course, this is Florida so it is always warm and humid. Different swamps and pools were of different temperatures. Wakiwa is a cold spring and some of the pools were refreshingly cool, but other pools were so warm they felt like bath water. But the never ending swamp running was wearing and I felt very tired. As the trail meandered south I just wished for the parking lot and the chance to get dry.

After spending the last few years living and running in the Colorado Rockies I have been spoiled by the clear, dry mountain air and the almost complete absence of nasty bugs and insects. Florida is a little different. As my pace slowed I became more aware of the leaves, branches and tall grass fronds that brushed my bare upper body. I wasn't surprised, therefore, to see that I was covered with small leaf and grass fragments and I would sometimes try to brush these off. But I wasn't having much of a success. Stopping to navigate by a really deep pool I tried to do a better job and noticed that they weren't bits of leaves and grass at all - they were shiny-backed green insects enjoying a really good meal and as I looked at them I began to feel their nibbling activities. I picked up a twig and began scraping them off my body. So much for running without a tee shirt.

At 11 miles I turned a corner in the trail and came head-to-head with a fawn deer. I stopped close enough to reach out and touch this beautiful creature. It didn’t seem afraid, just anxious. I took a couple of steps back and allowed it to wander into the woods before resuming my run.

After I returned to my hotel and downloaded my data I couldn’t believe that I had clocked nearly 1000 feet of ascent, this being Florida after all. I also couldn’t believe that I had achieved my fastest ever run for a one mile distance. It didn’t seem like I had been running fast.

On reflection, this was a fun trail to run. The swamp trotting turned out to be better than I expected. But this isn't a place to run in dry shoes. Even on a dry day it is difficult to imagine these trails ever being dry.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The House of Pain

When running the high mountains I fall over for fun. I expect to fall and I do. In truth, it happens far less than it should given the terrain I traverse, but when it happens it is always a shock and I have been fortunate to escape with bloodied knees, elbows, palms and forehead. Typically I wait for the flush of nausea to work through...sit up...check body parts...stand up...dust myself down...and then start running again. This private spectacle exposes me to some risk...but if there was no risk I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much.

My mileage is picking up. After a painful incapacitating achilles injury earlier in the year it has taken me a long time to find my pace and feel comfortable on longer runs. I planned for a 45 mile long weekend which got off to a punishing start very early on Friday morning. Every time I have ascended James Peak I have eyed the severely undulating ridge line containing 4 x 13,000'+ peaks ending with Mt Flora to the south. It was too big a trip from the East Portal so I planned a loop starting from Falls River Road. This looked aesthetically pleasing on the map, but it had a 6.5 mile long ascent to reach the first summit - Mt Flora.

Emerging from tree line to wonderful long distance views of Grays and Torreys Peaks to the south west
I parked where the Continental Divide trail crossed Falls River and struck south west through steep woodland. This is a wonderful section of trail along a beautifully built narrow winding route. It was very hard work with some very steep pulls and at 10,000' I felt as though I was working too hard so early in the run. It was about 6am and the temperature was nice and cool.

This trail clearly doesn't get much traffic and it was overgrown in several places, although not unpleasantly so. After 2.5 miles the trail levels out and begins a long, slightly descending contour before crossing Mill Creek and the start of the hard ascent of Breckenridge Peak. The quality of the trail throughout this section is spectacular and many hours of hard labor has been spent laying large slabs across steep, loose talus and this made the going a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. Breckenridge Peak tops out at 12,888" and wouldn't be counting in today's itinerary.

I was exhausted when I eventually summited Mt Flora. There was a stiff breeze and I didn't hang around in the cold. I looked to the north east and was daunted by what lay ahead. My final peak - Mt Bancroft - was a speck in the distance. I had climbed one 13,000'+ peak and had three more to go.
Mt Bancroft, my final peak, is the last summit on the extreme right, from the summit of Mt Flora
I picked my way across the shoulder of Witter Peak (12,884') - this involved losing about 600', climbing back up 400', losing another 300' and climbing another 500' to reach Mt Eva at 13,130'.
The red line traces my route across the shoulder of Witter to Eva, Parry then Bancroft
My legs were tired on the descent of Eva and Mt Parry - the highest peak on the trip - was next. It was slow going and the terrain was rough, especially on the descents. I topped out on Parry (13,391') and made the fairly quick trip across to my final peak, Bancroft, at 13,258'.
Mt Parry with Bancroft beyond

Cloud closing in on the top of Bancroft
Looking back along the route. Mt Flora to the left, then Eva and Parry on the right from the summit of Bancroft
I took a quick drink and began the laborious descent down the ridge towards Loch Lomond. I aimed to pick up an old mining trail ay about 11,900' but had to cross a few large boulder fields on the way and this made the going slow. Another 3 miles and I was back at the car.

On Saturday I decided to take it steady and run the short 9 mile trip up Estes Cone from Lily Lake. This was a completely runnable trail (except for the final 500') and gained 2500' of vertical ascent. It was a beautiful day and the intention was to conclude the weekend with another long run on Sunday.
Mt Meeker and Longs Peak from the summit of Estes Cone

Jurassic Park climbing area from Lily Lake
And on Sunday it was all going so well. I left Hessie aiming to run a circuit of the High Lonesome trail which was about 15.5 miles and 4,000' of ascent. The perfect way to end the week. It didn't last long.

I passed a few early walkers on the climb up to the trail split and once out of the trees the rising sun was warm on my back. I worked up the steep section above the bridge on the Devil's Thumb trail and reached the flatter meadow section. I was stepping out quite quickly and feeling good and looking forward to a long hard workout.

I don't know the cause of the distraction because I didn't sense any distraction at the time. I could see two hikers a quarter of a mile ahead and the trail isn't particularly rocky at this point. It was a bit of a blur - isn't it always - as I threw my hands and arms out in front of me to brace the impact. I remember hitting the ground hard at full stretch and seeing lots of dust and debris as my hands and fingers grated across the rocks and rubble. The funny thing is that I didn't feel any immediate pain, but I was looking at my left hand as it rested on the trail surface and I thought "My middle finger seems to be tracing the route I need to take", as it twisted in two directions.

I knew it was dislocated before the nausea hit. I quickly got into a seated position and allowed the pain to flow. I knew it would be short lived, but I didn't want to pass out. I ducked my head low between my knees to increase blood flow and the nausea was replaced by a sharper, searing pain. When this happened I knew I was through the worst and I stood up, dusted myself down and examined the source of pain.
A double dislocated and broken middle finger photographed outside the ER

It was an impressive dislocation. I thought I would try to snap it back into place myself, but after three attempts and much pain I gave up. The two hikers were in the distance so I jogged along and asked if they could help. I underestimated the sight my finger would have on them and one hiker took a look and felt queasy. I sensed the reluctance of the other and decided to return to the car. It was a bitter blow given my aim for the day.

I passed a couple of other runners on the way back and they were attempting the same route. It was all I could do not to turn around and join them. After all, what's a little nagging pain between friends? But that was the point - it was painful and constant pain grabs your attention like nothing else. Not being able to swing an arm because of the pain didn't augur well for another 10 miles and I couldn't risk either passing out or falling again.

The doctor in ER was great. After icing the swelling she took a grip of my hand and yanked my finger with all her strength...several times. It was an obstinate dislocation. She called for a burly nurse who held my hand and she wrenched it again. A gristly "click' was music to my ears as I smiled my way through the treatment.

I have a rock climbing trip planned for 4 weeks time. I don't have long for this to heal!!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Grays Peak and Torreys Peak

As late as mid-week I still hadn't settled on a location for my overnight trip to the mountains. One consideration was to do a long loop around James Peak from Heart Lake, but I had been there only a week ago and you can get too much of a good thing. Another possibility was Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge, but I wanted to spend more time in this location over several days and pick off more than one peak. The Mount Evans-Bierstadt trip was ruled out because the connecting arete is impossible for a dog. I settled on a trip to Grays and Torreys.
Grays Peak left and Torreys Peak right from the ridge on Kelso Peak

I pitched camp just above the trailhead at 11,400'. It was late afternoon and it was cool in the breeze and sprinkles of rain were falling. With 5 hours of remaining daylight I decided on an evening run up Kelso Peak. At 13,100' this is no slouch, but it didn't look particularly difficult and at 5 miles it was just the job to warm up for tomorrow.
Summit of Kelso with Grays and Torreys behind

Livvy and I left the rain behind and as we gained altitude it felt a little warmer. We reached the trail split in about 30 minutes and reached the col where the west turn takes you up the Kelso ridge of Torreys Peak. We turned east and scrambled over rough rock ridges to ascend a series of rising grassy knolls. The view back along the Torreys ridge was spectacular. We reached the very windy summit in about an hour. It was free of snow although a large drift was lingering on the east slope just below the summit.
Early morning sunshine illuminates Grays peak (Torreys is poking above the right ridge line)

I didn't want to return the same route so struck directly down the steep hillside before intersecting with the Grays trail and jogged back to the campsite. It was cold overnight with heavy rain but this cleared around 3am and we woke around 5.30am to face the day.

I had already worked out a plan for the trip. I knew it would be extremely busy on a Saturday and I also knew that most hikers would leave between 4am and 6am so that they could summit before noon. I knew it would be easier running up by them than trying to dodge them on the way down so I thought a 6.30am departure would see me overtake them all on the way up and then only face the stragglers on the way down. It almost worked.
On the summit of Grays with Torreys in the background

Livvy and I ate breakfast in the cold valley as the sun touched the mountain tops. We saw a steady stream of hikers walking up the trail...what seemed like several hundred of them...seriously. I packed up as much of the camp as possible and left the tent to dry out in the morning sunshine. I slipped on my running shoes and wearing shorts and teeshirt jogged over the footbridge to join the trail. The first 3/4 mile is deceptively steep and I slowly jogged past lines of hikers. Reaching a long gradual incline we picked up the pace and by the time we reached the trail split we took last night we had overtaken 135 people (yes, I counted them!!).
Descending Grays

Hitting the lower slopes of Grays the ground steepens considerably and we alternated between steady jogging and fast walking. We had no difficulty passing many more hikers as, by now, most of them had been walking for between 90 minutes and an hour (we had been moving 40 minutes) and were either sitting by the trail taking refreshments, or were standing catching their breath in the altitude. Just above the point where the direct ascent of Torreys cuts across to the right there is a large granite pinnacle near the trail - we passed 45 people sat resting in this one place.
Summit of Grays from the summit of Torreys - lots of walkers and many more ascending

What remained was just steady, steep trail to the summit ascending in a series of switchbacks. It wasn't difficult, but once above 14,000' it required significant effort to keep the pace high. There were only 2 people on the summit when we arrived and they had started at 4.30am. It had taken us about 1hr 25 minutes without stopping - not particularly fast, but we had passed over 240 hikers. The descent of Grays and the ascent of Torreys wasn't remarkable. The trail was rocky but well worn and I knew there would be hikers who had chosen Torreys as their first (maybe only) peak and we began to pick them off one by one.
On the cold, windy summit of Torreys

It was particularly windy and cold on the ascent of Torreys and I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket. It still only took 15 minutes to ascend to the summit and as I looked back across to Grays I could see many more people had reached the top. In the far distance towards the west I could make out Holy Cross mountain and more closely the peaks above Breckenridge. The lake at Dillon looked pure blue in the morning sunshine.
View down the ridge to Kelso Mountain with the trail visible in the valley below

Before descending I removed my jacket - anticipating rising temperatures - and picked my way down the steep, loose trail. At the col the trail cut across a steep snow slope before reaching the switchbacks on Grays. My calculations weren't perfect - there were still many people ascending. In fact, many of the people we were passing on descent we had previously overtaken on our way up - and many of them didn't look in great shape. But they were well spaced and it wasn't difficult getting by them. The most awkward people to pass were those who had given up and turned back - a number were wearing iPods for reasons I don't understand and they didn't hear us behind them. They were annoying.
Crossing the snow slope on the descent

It was a pleasant run back to the camp. Two fourteen thousand foot peaks in a little over three hours was a great morning. I am now planning the next trip.