Saturday, January 14, 2017

2016 in Review + 2017 and Fully Medicated

"If ever I can't see, the magic around me, please take my hands off my eyes." 
- Cloud Cult

It has taken several 2017 weeks to make sense of 2016. Reflection takes time, but mostly it takes space: stand too close to a mirror and you'll see why.

Here is a quick look at the 2016 by the numbers:


***Only mountains w/2000 feet vertical gain or better are counted








Total Mountain Summits (2,000+ vertical): 155
Total Vertical Feet (Ascent): 370,700 feet
Longest Day: 32 miles (Rattlesnake Wilderness)
Shortest Day: 0 miles (illness - homebound)
Highest Point: 13,809' - Gannett Peak, Wyoming 
Lowest Point: See 'Shortest Day'
Coldest temp on a summit (F): -12 (-25 windchill) - Mount Sentinel
Highest temp on a summit (F): 99 - Mount Sentinel
Most Mount Sentinel Summits in one outing: 3 (Ridge-Trail-Triple)

Mountain Summit Highlights of 2016 (this is only a fraction!):

1) El Capitan Winter Ascent (March): Nick, Brandon and I made a leisurely foray into the absolutely stunning Como Peak cirque in the Bitterroot Mountains in March. We spent three days exploring and climbing El Capitan, the 2nd highest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains. The weather was incredible and the company was top-notch.
Nick and Brandon on the summit ridge of El Capitan in the Bitterroot Mountains.
2) Gannett Peak - The Long Way (August): Brandon and I climbed the high point of Wyoming under absolutely perfect conditions. Again, taking our time, we enjoyed the 50+ mile round-trip journey to, up and from Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range. We encountered very few people along the way and had the summit day to ourselves!
Brandon and I on the summit of Gannett Peak.
3) Lolo Peak - On the Windiest Day (May): Linds and I climbed Lolo Peak - her first time w/ice axe and crampons - under some pretty extreme weather conditions in May. Upon reaching the North Summit, we were forced onto our bellies as the hurricane-force went threatened to rip us off the mountain. We slowly crawled away, regained our feet and returned to the land of the living. 

Linds ascending the north ridge of Lolo Peak in a blizzard.
4) Mountaineer Peak - A Bushwhacker's Paradise (October): We didn't know it then, but Cory and I had ventured into the Mission Mountains on what was to be the final summer-like day of 2016. Under blue skies and unseasonably warm temps, we journeyed up, up and up in the general direction of Mountaineer Peak. I will refrain from sharing the mishaps of the day as they are numerous and embarrassing to those involved (Cory and I). Where the trail ended, the adventure began. We bushwhacked our way around Lucifer Lake, up to Picture Lake and the foot of the real climb. A the foot of The Garden Wall, Mountaineer Peak looms 2,500 feet above and 3/4 mile distant via a boulder/talus-filled couloir. We made the descent sans shirts.
Snapshot of Picture Lake and Lucifer Lake from Mountaineer Peak.
Cory in the willows somewhere in the vicinity of Lucifer Lake.
5) Lolo-Sweeney Peak Traverse - Across the Bitterroots (November): Nick had the brilliant idea to traverse Lolo and Sweeney Peaks from Mill Creek to Sweeney Creek. And brilliant it was. The dawn-to-dusk outing including walking on dirt and snow, snowshoeing, ice axing, down-climbing and smiling. The route was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 miles and 7,000 vertical feet of ascent and very slow going at times! Similar to Mountaineer Peak, the day turned out to be among the finest days of its season (fall).

Nick, as we near the summit of Sweeney Peak, with Lolo Peak in the background.
6) Stuart Peak - The Many Faces Of (Year-Round): After three years of attempting a once-a-month summit of Stuart Peak (18-miles, 4,200 feet), I succeeded! Each of the last three years, although I had reached the summit 12+ times/year, I had failed to summit one month for varying reasons (i.e. injury, illness). This year, the goal was to hike/climb Stuart every month of 2016 by every possible route (I count 8). I achieved half of the goal: although I did summit every month, I missed one route on account of avalanche conditions. Here are the routes I hiked/climbed:

- South Ridge
- Southeast Face
- East Ridge
- South Ridge-East Ridge Traverse
- Northeast Face (my favorite climb!)
- Northeast Ridge
- North Ridge (standard route)
- West Slope

Summit self-portrait on the final summit of 2016. This proved to be
the most arduous of the year on account of deeeep snow. 
7) Rocky Mountain Traverse - Take Two (September): Cory and I made an attempt on Rocky Mountain - the high point of the Bob Marshall Wilderness - in May but were thwarted by blizzard conditions on a sketchy route (rime ice coated everything). Thrilled with the terrain, Cory and I returned in September for one of the most splendid days in the mountains of 2016. We made our way leisurely up the route and topped out via the West Face route, a fun scramble up and around ramps. Near the summit, I gained a ramp only to discover a pair of perfectly camouflaged ptarmigan - I near stepped on them! We enjoyed our time on the summit and descended down the east ridge and scree sleeps of the north face. A perfect day out.

Cory nearing the summit the Rocky Mountain after gaining the ridge.
8) Mount Sentinel - Triple-Dip (untimed): Hungry for something strenuous, Mike (and his dog George) and I did a couple of laps on Mount Sentinel via the Ridge Trail (TH to summit to TH to summit to TH). Mike and George departed and I went up once more for good measure. This untimed, leisurely-paced 'Triple-Dip' was a significant step in the direction of letting go of the constant need for timing/setting PRs. 

9) Ranger Point - Redemption in the Bitterroot (July): Lydia, Dave and I had a 3-day, 2-night lark in the Bitterroot Mountains. We - really they - packed in a 30+ lb inflatable kayak - amongst all the other camping gear - 9.5 miles to our Big Creek Lake campsite. We paddled around and enjoyed some fabulous conversations. And some background...

...In the summer of 2015, I did a solo overnight to the area with the intention of climbing several peaks. I climbed Ranger Peak via the knife-edged and heavily pinnacled East Ridge. While bypassing one of the final pinnacles some rocks fell, one of them pegging me in the shin. Committed to the route and getting down to tend to my swelling leg, I was forced to climb up and over Ranger Peak and descend the headwall of the Ranger Cirque and bushwhack my way back to Big Creek Lake: a very exciting outing. The point is, I didn't get to Ranger Point, a subsidiary peak on the ridge. 

Flash forward to the first paragraph of this entry, July of 2016, and I found myself eager to have a go at Ranger Point. It isn't much of a jaunt from Big Creek Lake. I poised myself for a speed ascent and completed the round-trip in ~2 hours w/an ice axe. Unfortunately, on the descent I slipped on a moistened slab of granite and banged my knee and cracked my camera filter. Oy vey.

On the summit of Ranger Point. Big Creek Lake - where we camped - is visible in the center.
10) Point 8,000 - The Longest Way (July): During a 40-mile 3-day, 2-night Rattlesnake Wilderness backpacking trip with a couple of friends (and Linds - we are more than friends), I made an early morning foray to the northern-most point of the Wilderness Area. Although I failed to reach my objective (McCleod Peak), I had a lovely outing on a high-sustained ridge to the summit of the unnamed Point 8,000.

2017 and Fully Medicated:

I entered 2017 fully medicated, that is, on the full regimen of RA drugs: Humira (injection) and Arava to suppress the ol' immune system; prednisone to control inflammation; and celexa to ward off the specter of depression. They are working! After some rough patches of 2016 - struggling to dress myself and use my hands in any meaningful ways - I finally acquiesced and joined the ranks of those on the battlefield, actively fighting rheumatoid arthritis. 

For the first time in six years, I have opted not to set any weekly or monthly mountain goals: speed ascents, records, mountain frequency, etc. Instead, I have decided to take the year off. This does not mean that I will be inactive. On the contrary, I will continue to maintain a base level of fitness and embark on semi-regular forays into the mountains. The goal is to give my body a year of rest, to listen to and respect its desires irrespective of arbitrary standards.

Looking forward, I do have several objectives - body-willing - in 2017 that I am pumped about:

- McDonald Peak traverse (Mission Mountains, MT)
- Granite Peak (Beartooth Mountains, MT)
- Mount Hood (OR)
- Rattlesnake Wilderness Traverse (from Arlee to Missoula)
- High points of Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex - Great Northern Peak, Rocky Mountain and Red Mountain (in-a-day)

That's it. Nothing more, maybe less. If there is a goal in 2017, it is to slooooow down, focus on landscape photography and to enjoy feeling good. 

Be well,

Brian

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When socks become corsets (and other adventures in rheumatoid arthritis)

On the summit ridge of Rocky Mountain in the Bob Marshall
Wilderness over the past weekend. 

I had the humbling and utterly premature - by at least 50 years - experience of being dressed by another person this morning. Linds had the distinct honor of playing the part of my arms and hands as I clumsily, and quite painfully, ticked off the rudiments of my morning rituals. Left to my own devices, I would have been contented to go about my day in nothing more than boxer briefs. And, in the immortal and wholly sacrosanct words of Kurt Vonnegut, "so it goes."

To be fair, I could have dressed myself. It would be misleading to suggest otherwise. The process simply would have taken five times as long and been rich with more four-letter words than should be uttered before 7:30 on a Wednesday morning.  

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a strange beast. As with many conditions, particularly those whose symptoms are rooted in chronic pain, its manifestations are as wide-ranging as its keeper. Imagine: pain as unique as the innumerable snowflakes that descend from the heavens. Beautiful. Painfully and tragically, beautiful. 

It has been a solid four or more years since I have experienced anything like a major symptom of RA. That all changed in the middle of January when distant, yet distinct, twinges of pain begin returning to my hands and arm joints. Not unlike the topography of the Wind River Range in Wyoming as one moves closer to its central thrust, the peaks of the pain have been steadily rising and the valleys along with it. And so it is with RA, and I imagine, with all chronic pain: the intensity of pain in the valleys grows to match the initial levels of pain first experienced on the peaks. Over time the pain simply exists in the background. Some days it is infuriating and many days it is mild nuisance, like doing dishes. The past eight months have been marked by a movement towards the central thrust of - what I hope to be - the highest peaks of this wholly metaphorical pain experience.

So it was today that I found myself on the verge of helplessness as I readied for the day. It is indeed a strange feeling to find oneself sitting on the edge of one's bed engaged in a stare-down with a pair of socks wondering, "how in the hell do I get those things on?" Confounding. The socks may as well have been a corset, an item of clothing of which my knowledge base begins and ends with its spelling. Utterly foreign.

Here's the thing: in spite of struggles and warranted moments of sincere frustration, I am happy. First off, it could always be worse. Cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes, heart disease, asthma: all these things, all threatening life to varying degrees, scare the hell out of me. And people suffer from them! Bah! Yes, it could be worse. 

Secondly, it could probably be better. Yes, it - life absent of chronic pain - would be better. When deeply mired in the pain, as I am now, this equates to hope. It WILL get better. It always has and always will. I know it will. Empirically I know this to be true and as a hopeless optimist, I highly suspect it will come to pass. 

And back to the first point, about my circumstances being worse, they could most assuredly be! I do feel an infinite level of gratitude for the continued health of my legs. In spite of all of the upper body pain, my legs and hips continue to perform pain-free and gracefully. With my first love being mountain travel, I am incredibly grateful that this is the case. In my early days with RA, my knees would routinely balloon up with fluid and require draining and cortisone shots. 

What's next? Well, I have an old friend, Humira, an injectable RA med, waiting patiently for me in the refrigerator. Tonight, we will be reunited and I will humbly accept the circumstances in which I find myself.

Onward and upward,

Brian

P.S. I am nearing the 100th summit mark (2,000 feet of ascent or better) for 2016. Additionally, I am a couple of weeks out from standing on top of Mount Sentinel for the 600th time and on top of ol' Stuart Peak for the 50th. Stay tuned throughout the next couple of months as I reinvigorate this blog with tales from the mountains! In spite of the RA setbacks this summer, it has easily been the richest in terms of mountain travel. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tour de Sentinel 2.0

The redline traces the route. The first lap followed the route left to right with the second lap reversing the route. 
Route: 
First lap (ascent): Ridge Trail (M trailhead) to north summit to south summit
First lap (descent): Pengelly Ridge to Maurice Ave. Trailhead
Second lap (ascent): Pengelly Ridge to south summit to north summit
Second lap (descent): Ridge Trail (M trailhead)
Distance: ~9 miles
Vertical: 4,000 feet
Time: 2 hours 12 minutes (1h 8m on the first lap and 1h 4m on the second lap)

Tuesday marked the start of a new chapter in mountain travel. The past six months have been, in effect, recalibration units, each month serving as an opportunity for retrospection and identification of the way forward. It was six months ago that an old injury flared up and prevented me from going on a fabulous twofer climb of Gannett and Granite peaks with my friend Phil (Phil succeeded in summiting both Gannet and Granite in less than a week's time, a remarkable effort).

Staying home back in August reminded me of the fragility of this whole mountain-ascension enterprise. It seems that sidelining injuries are just a part of the game. It is the love for mountains and the drive to go up them that continues to propel me through recovery.

I entered the New Year in good health, my legs strong as ever and rheumatoid arthritis controlled. Per tradition, I established a slew of mountain-related goals for the upcoming year:

- Stand on top of Stuart Peak each month of the year (an ongoing, 3-year's old goal)
- Climb the southeast and northeast faces of Stuart in under a cumulative hour
- Stand on top of Mount Sentinel at least 100 times (an ongoing, 4-year's old goal)
- Aim for a double (under 2 hours) and triple (under 3 hours) dip of Mount Sentinel from base to summit
- Take a stab at Granite OR Gannett during the summer months
- Take a stab at Mount Whitney and Mount Hood in the late-spring

This set of mountain goals has become pretty standard over the past 4-5 years.

Back to Tuesday's new chapter. It was a new chapter in the sense that I pushed myself physically within a standard that accounts for my whole health. Far from myopic, before the enterprise, I asked myself if I was in condition to undertake a speed-double of Mount Sentinel, and, if I did, how would I fair post-outing? Although I couldn't have known the answer to the second question, I based the answer on how I have recovered in the past given my current state of health.

So, I went for it.

I disembarked from the M Trailhead at 6:02PM. I arrived on the north summit of Sentinel ~26 minutes  and 2,000 vertical feet later via the Ridge Trail. Although not my fastest time, I felt confident and strong with the time and especially reassured that I would not have to do the ridge again on this outing (I have done laps on the Ridge Trail in the past and it can be a challenging mind game on that steep trail).

I carried on to the south summit as the last light of dusk cascaded into the West. Icy in spots, I noted that without a headlamp - which was my situation - the return journey down to the saddle would be a treacherous one on the ice that was tucked away in the forest between the summits. I crossed up and over the south summit of Sentinel and carried on down the Pengelly Ridge with a smile on my face.

I love descending the Pengelly Ridge. As a power-hiker, I can take full advantage of the relatively shallow angle and lengthen my stride and increase my overall speed. I cruised! ~30 minutes later I had covered the ~3 miles back to the base of Mount Sentinel at the Maurice Avenue Trailhead. I tagged the garbage can, checked the clock (7:10PM), pulled an about-face and headed back up the mountain.

I was pleased that I had covered the first lap in 1 hour and 8 minutes.

The shallow slope virtue of the Pengelly Ridge trail extends to the ascent as well. I enjoyed lengthening my stride and adjusting my posture to power up the trail. I felt strong and giddy from the effort: laughter and smiles abounded.

The ascent up Pengelly, although enjoyable, was relatively uneventful. As I crossed over the south summit for the second time Tuesday evening, I checked my clock: 7:45PM. I was pleased to have covered the ~3 miles up in 35 minutes.

As expected, I had a heckuva a time descending through the wooded saddle without the aid of a headlight. Truly stubbornness is at play here. I have probably summited Mount Sentinel over 350 times at night without a headlamp. It is a matter of principle. What that principle is founded on, who knows? Pride? Probably. Anyways, I used my trekking poles to feel my way through the woods, losing the trail here and there, but always maintaining the generally trajectory of my next destination: the north summit.

Finally, I cleared the woods and took the final steps to the north summit. Hurray! It was all downhill from there.

On the summit for the second time that evening, I felt strong, happy and contented. I felt like I had done exactly what I was made to do. It is hard to express how much joy is generated through these types of challenges. It is the culminated of thoughtful planning, dedicated training, natural beauty and endorphins that make these types of experiences truly transcendent.

I enjoyed the descent down the Ridge Trail. Steep equals expedient. I listened to my Ridge Trail descent standards: "Untitled 4" and "Untitled 8" from Sigur Ros' "Untitled Album." I reached the M Trailhead - and the end of my journey - before "Untitled 8" concluded. The time read 8:14PM: 2 hours and 12 minutes total (1 hour 4 minute second lap).

I was pleased with the time. I had been aiming for a sub-2 hour 30 minute finish. What's more, I was pleased with how I felt: strong, durable and accomplished.

What's next? Time will tell! I am aiming for a sub-3 hour triple round-trip in March. I am fully committed to calling the endeavor off should my body protest. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do the double on Tuesday.

Onward and upward,

Brian

Saturday, August 1, 2015

500

 "This is the price you pay for loss of control" (Brand New)

In the summer of 2009 I strolled into Missoula a broken human.

Emotionally, spiritually and mentally, I was most certainly not at my strongest, but physically, I was a a complete wreck. The previous two years (2007-2009) had been rich with running, including 700+ consecutive days of high-mileage running, with the final 365 days clocking in at a 16-mile-per-day-average. I had quite-nearly-literally "run" myself into the ground.

But I didn't know it. The hopeless optimist within me refused to accept the writing on the wall: my best runs were behind me. Because running - distance (always further) and speed (always faster) - had become my litmus test for overall vitality, acceptance of this simple, poetic and wholly self-evident fact, meant accepting that life as I knew it was over. 

From 2007-2009, my social life, in effect, had been put on pause. Unknowingly, and certainly unintentionally, I had culled the relationships in my life down to the few who were hopelessly loyal and the handful that served important functions (baristas, colleagues and friends with free tickets to things). It was a completely and utterly selfish chapter of my life. So consumed by running was I that all sacrifices - social and otherwise - appeared noble.

All right, so my stroll into Missoula in July of 2009 was a step into the beginning of the end: or so I thought. Although it took me years to actually admit it to those close to me, I knew deep within  that my running days were winding down and I also knew that it was necessary to find the 'next big thing' in my life.

My first year in Missoula included two knee surgeries and the subsequent, but unrelated, diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Talk about humbling. Within months of arriving in Missoula, I was reduced to short painful walks/hikes. But I did it, I walked. And walked and walked and walked.

And I continued walking through the surgeries, injections, medication changes, physical therapy sessions and the ever-present fear of permanent, irreversible disability. Throughout the entire transition, mountains remained my obsession. Why shouldn't they? It was the love for movement up, down and around mountains that drove me west to Colorado from Southern Minnesota eleven years ago. 


Linds and I on Mount Sentinel for the first time together!
Mount Sentinel, the guardian of Missoula and home of the city's iconic "M", looms 2,000 vertical feet above the valley floor, abruptly forming the city's eastern boundary. Ask the average Missoulian on the street if they have hoofed it up to the “M” and they will invariably respond with a fervent “yes!” as if it were right of passage (which it is). Ask the same individual if they have stood on the summit of Mount Sentinel - some 1,300 feet higher - and the answer will likely be no, they have not. I will not get into the reasons for this, because I do not know those reasons. What I do know is that if you haven’t been to the summit, you should. It provides quite arguably Missoula’s best view, particularly in the evening. 

My second day in Missoula saw my first attempt at the mountain. Pretending to be a runner, I ran from my residence in the upper-Rattlesnake in-and-around-Missoula on a sweltering summer day. Smitten with the sight of such an accessible and steep mountain, I headed for the base of Mount Sentinel. Halfway up, my nose began to seethe blood. Oh no! I immediately removed my shirt and began tearing it into strips that could be used as nose plugs as I continued the ascent. A few hundred feet from the top the situation became untenable: my shirt was completely soaked with blood and the nosebleed showed no sign of abating. Regrettably, I turned around and began the bloody descent and return run home. 

I don’t remember if it was the next day or a few days later, but within a week of the first attempt, I stood on top of Mount Sentinel. And it began.


102 degree summit in June of this year. 
Six years and 492 ascents later, my love for Mount Sentinel has done nothing but grow. I have hiked and climbed the mountain by over a dozen routes, including six different routes up the steep, trail-less north face. I have been on top during the hottest and coldest days (during the hottest and coldest time of day) of the last three years. I have completed run, hike, sled, mountain bike and snowboard descents of dozens of routes. Needless to say, Mount Sentinel - in addition to dozens of other peaks - replaced running as my physical obsession.

Now, here I sit, within striking distance of 500 summits and my attitude has shifted. The need for balance and health has finally supplanted my irrational fixation on a single summit. My poor body! It has withstood countless ascents and descents against its will (and my better judgment).

Unable to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime climbing trip, I find myself sidelined by yet another overuse injury, but this time it feels different. No, not the injury (it's the same), but my attitude (it's different). Peace. I feel the kind of peace that comes from knowing that something terribly committing and wholly consuming is over. If my life were interesting enough to fill the pages of a book, this would be the section with the epiphany, the awakening that leads to a substantive life change. 


Negative temps and a beautiful day after climbing in the
shadows of the north face of Mount Sentinel.
One of my biggest fears in life - if not the biggest - is losing a sense of purpose. Fortunately, over the past several years my life has taken on a renewed sense of purpose. Linds, friends and a meaningful job have buoyed my day-to-day sense of purpose. All of these things are wonderful, but there remains a deep primordial need for movement in the mountains. I can trace back my introduction to this need to a a single fateful event: hiking Hallet’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with my family when I was 13-years-old. Boom! In a single moment my passion for mountain movement was unlocked. And it began.

And it continues. My imagination continues to outpace my bodies’ physical capabilities. I look into the mountains and see infinite opportunities for creativity and flow. 'Traverse this, climb that, can it be done in a day, half-a-day, an hour?' These are the thoughts that pervade my day. 

But what of the ‘substantive life change’? My actions - and it will not be perfect, at first - will be driven by my bodies' ability and not by my mind’s desires. This means abundant rest, substantial cross-training and a deep well of patience.

I made my way back to physical therapy this week. It feels like the right thing to do. If picking a passion was as easy and simple as Pinterest, I would have swapped out endurance-ultra mountain movement with knitting years ago. In spite of all of the evidence - injury, risk, etc. - against my pursuits, the flame, albeit a flicker, continues burning.

At this point, I suspect the 500th summit of Sentinel will probably come around the end of August or maybe it will come in September, October, November or December. It doesn't much matter. I am no longer in a hurry. The summit is no longer of interest to me as another number on a spreadsheet, but rather as a test of overall health and vitality. Moving on injured legs is no longer a part of that formula. My body, not my mind, will dictate when I stand on top again. And again and again and again. In this way, it will be a cause for celebration. I will share the 500th summit with family and friends. We will celebrate life while listening to ‘Sail’ on my compact speaker system. We will rejoice.

And rejoice and rejoice and rejoice.

Peace, love, gratitude and all that good stuff,

Brian

                                                       Mount Sentinel Snowboard Descent (2014)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stuart Peak Ultra Marathon: Trip Report and Reflection

Noah, Steph, Linds and I on the trail of Stuart Peak. It was
wonderful to have these three lovely people on the trail
throughout the day!
Route: Rattlesnake Main Trailhead to Stuart Peak summit to Main Trailhead to Stuart Peak summit to Main Trailhead (via trail 517)
Elevation exchange: ~16,800 feet (8,400 ascent, 8,400 descent)
Total Distance: ~38 miles
Total Elapsed time: 8 hours 48 minutes (includes 9-minute footwear change between laps)          
Mode of travel: power hiking (no running)

I don’t think it is an accident that we, as humans, have come to celebrate the days of our births. It hasn’t always been this way, but I suspect that, henceforth, it will remain this way.

Birthdays serve as milestones: opportunities to stop, breath and celebrate.

Tomorrow I turn 29. Last year, at this time, tomorrow was 28. And next year? Well, next year tomorrow I will turn 30 and finally have the opportunity to celebrate my ‘golden’ birthday, a milestone unto itself.

Since my 21st birthday, I have pitted my mind and body against endurance challenges in an effort to stretch my sense of what is possible. It began as annual distance runs at the distance of my new age. Rheumatoid arthritis and knee problems in my mid-twenties forced a shift from running to alternate endurance feats i.e. mountain ascents, hiking, mountaineering, long-distance stationary biking.

For last year’s birthday challenge, I hiked/climbed Stuart Peak and a neighboring peak in winter conditions, beginning at my house in central Missoula. The outing was ~31 miles and full of joy!

This year, looking to up the ante, I set my sights on a Stuart Peak double round-trip. Rather than a single out-and-back or a loop, I wanted to pit my mind against the concept of doubling up on a long trail. Stuart Peak provides an 18-19 mile round-trip experience on a relatively flat trail (~4,200 vertical gain). The mountain is often done in two days or a single long day. My goal was to do it twice in less than 10 hours (although doing it at all would be an accomplishment in my books!).

Here we go.

Illuminated by headlamp, I hit the trail at 6:20AM. I would remain under the guidance of the light for the next hour and a half.

The trail went off wonderfully. I had done ~27 miles on this trail a couple of weeks ago and over the years have come to know its every twist, turn, steeps and flats. On several occasions I caught the ‘deer in the headlamp’ looks of, well, deer. Companions!

About 6 miles up the trail I doffed my headlamp, allowing the predawn light to illuminate the way. The cloud ceiling oscillated between 8,000-9,000 feet (the summit of Stuart and most of the surrounding mountains is ~8,000 feet). This made for a lovely dawn as the broken clouds made allowance for the rising sun, permitting its rays to strike the upper reaches of the Rattlesnake Mountains.

I hit the wilderness boundary in good spirits. How could I not! It was such a freaking beautiful morning. When I arrived at the Stuart Peak saddle and the base of the summit ridge a distinct ray of sun broke through and lit up the lakes below the peak while leaving the rest of the land in shadow. So beautiful was the sight, I was compelled to cuss: “holy s**t! This is so beautiful. Ahhhhhh!!!!” I howled and sang out the praises of the morning. This is the privilege of hiking alone.

Moments later I was on the summit. I had prepped my camera before the summit ridge to ensure that it was locked and loaded for the perfunctory summit self-portrait. I snapped the shot and promptly headed down.

First summit of the day! 
I had opted to begin the day in my winter boots as I was unsure of what season it was on the upper mountain. As it turns out, it is still fall: very little snow. “Rather be caught with them than without them” was my mantra – thanks be to my brother Jason for that one – as I considered footwear the evening before. Well, I didn’t need them. I began feeling a hot spot forming on my left foot on the descent and made the decision to do a quick footwear – socks and shoes – change back at the trailhead.

The descent passed with a lot of singing aloud and math calculations. I was working out my pace, elevation exchange, distance to the rest of the hiking party, etc. I suspected that I would pass Linds, Steph and Noah, who had begun at 8:30AM on their Stuart Peak hike, between miles 3 and 4 at the bottom of the mountain.

At about 3 miles from the trailhead I heard voices. Hurray! It was the crew. They cheered and I cheered and we exchanged ‘high fives’ as we passed on the trail.

What a buoy to the spirit!

I picked up the pace. I purposefully did not check my split to the top of Stuart on the first round trip because I was certain it wasn’t great. I was eager to find out how long the first round-trip had taken.

I hit the parking lot and checked the time... 10:36AM! The first round-trip had taken only 4 hours and 16 minutes! I quickly changed my footwear, restocked on liquids and was off at 10:45AM for the second lap. 

My legs felt as strong as ever on the second outing. I received many strange looks from folks who had seen me lower on the trail moments ago headed in the other direction. So it goes…

The second round-trip did not prove as challenge as I had anticipated. Not to say that it was easy, but I was expecting some sort of mental or physical breakdown and instead smiled a lot as I appreciated the fact that this was the last trip of the day.

I dreaded the steepest section of the trail between mile 3 and 4 on the lower part of the mountain. I opted to sink my teeth into it and just do it, like Nike. I did it and then, again, appreciated, the fact that I ‘just did it.’

I was eager to get to mile 5+ where the trail becomes relatively flat and provides an easy cruise (4-5 mph). And an easy cruise it was. What a relief it was to get to that section of the trail! It was at that point that I knew that I was doing it: that I was going to complete the challenge and in good form.

I ran into a man with two horses at the wilderness boundary and smiled. I continued on, with the summit now in sight. I expected to run into Linds and company somewhere between the wilderness boundary and the summit. To my pleasant surprise they came into view at the Stuart saddle at the base of the summit ridge. I stopped to say hello for a quick second and then finished the job!

I have to admit that the final push up the summit ridge was less than speedy. I treated myself to a ~2 mph finish. I nearly cried upon reaching the summit for the second time. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work – training and RA healing. But more than the challenge itself, it was the release of a helluva lot of joy. Life is so good! I have an amazing wife, wonderful family, incredible job, great health, lovely friends, kick-butt dog and so much more. I sang out praises to god, God and gods. Everyone was thanked. As it turns out, that’s what this was all about: a celebration of life through movement.

For the second time of the day, I snapped a summit self-portrait and headed down.

Second summit of the day!
I ran into the crew moments later on their way down. I stopped and thanked them for coming out and supporting the effort. We took some pictures together and I took off.

Linds and I (with Stuart Peak background left) on the trail
at our final crossing of the day.
The final hike out was relatively uneventful. I chowed down on gummy bears, a Clif Bar and an oats-and-honey bar. Mmm mmm. At no other time do I allow myself the indulgence of gummy bears. Good stuff.
 
Hiking away from the crew after our final passing of the day.
In no time I crossed out of the wilderness, below the 3-mile marker and to the 1.3-mile marker. Upon hitting the main trail (1/2 mile from the trailhead), I kicked up the pace into the 5.5-6mph range.

I hit the trailhead and checked the time: 3:08PM. Holy cow! Only 4 hours and 25 minutes on the second round-trip. What a pleasant surprise. I was hoping for a 9-10 hour finish and came in at 8 hours and 48 minutes.

It was a pleasant surprise, but moments ago, on the summit for the second time, I resolved to dismiss all association with a ‘good time’ or a ‘bad time’ and determined that the measure of success was that I, in fact, had had a good time. And a good time I had had. Success. The icing on the proverbial cake (birthday, in this case), was that I had also come in with a good time.

And so another milestone comes and goes. Without question I am better for these annual challenges. This year’s birthday challenge marks the furthest I have moved in one go as a part of a birthday challenge: a milestone within a milestone.

Pitting mind and body versus the world is a daily battle. It is in choosing to contrive situations wherein we are tested to the extreme that we learn just what we are capable of. Applied to our daily lives, it can be considered training. Unapplied, it is simply a self-serving exercise in futility.  

This year, I feel stronger and more capable than ever. I am grateful to Linds, my family, friends and The Great One for the wisdom and fortitude to persist.

With love and gratitude,

Brian

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Triple Crown of Missoula

A couple of years ago for my birthday I set out to do what I dubbed 'the triple crown of Missoula': Mount Sentinel, University Mountain and Mount Jumbo in one fell swoop. It was fun, moderately challenging and above all, local.

Yesterday, eager to establish a new PR, I had another go at it. Feeling in the best shape of my hiking life, it wasn't out of the realm of possibilities!

The Triple Crown of Missoula


The Triple Crown of Missoula. Mount Sentinel's north summit is visible with
the south summit just out of frame on the right. Mount Jumbo's summit
lies just out of frame on the left. 
Route: 

Start: Van Buren Pedestrian Bridge to the M Trailhead
Next: 'NW Ridge Trail' up Mount Sentinel to north summit, then over to south summit
And then: down to Sentinel/University saddle, then up west ridge of University Mountain to summit
Next: Reverse route back to Sentinel/University saddle, then back up to Sentinel's north summit and down the 'NW Ridge Trail'
Then: back to Van Buren Street, under the interstate up to the Cherry Street Trailhead of Mount Jumbo
And next: up Mount Jumbo's standard 'L Trail' to summit and reverse route back to trailhead
Finally: Cherry Street to Van Buren Street to Van Buren Street Pedestrian Bridge

Summits: Mount Sentinel (north and south summits), University Mountain, Mount Sentinel (north summit) and Mount Jumbo
Vertical ascent: ~5,000 vertical feet
Distance: Unknown
Total elapsed time (car-to-car): 3 hours 13 minutes

Mount Sentinel and University Mountain (1 hour 54 minutes)

I was pleasantly surprised with my performance on every part of the route yesterday, but it was on Mount Sentinel and University Mountain that I was stunned. I felt like a million bucks! My only regret was not taking splits for the ascent portions of the route. I was overly concerned with my overall pace while at the same time not wanting to become a slave to time, so I opted to check splits only at the completion of each stage of the outing.

I hit the M in the 8-minute range and the north summit of Mount Sentinel at around 25 minutes. I enjoyed the cruise - with an ear-to-ear grin - up and over to the south summit before dropping down to the Sentinel/University saddle and up University Mountain. I dropped my pack on the false summit and accelerated up to the true summit of ol' University before reversing the route.

I cruised back up to the north summit of Sentinel and headed back down the ridge trail.

The power-walk over to Mount Jumbo was a treat and a nice break from the steepish downhill of Mount Sentinel's ridge trails.

Mount Jumbo (56 minutes)

As I approached the base of Jumbo, a light rain began to fall. Mixed with an increasing wind, the combination pushed the edge of comfortability in my light long-sleeve top. I felt very strong all the way up.

I hit the L in the 8-10 minute range and proceeded to fly up the switchbacks on the west face. How great it is to be alive!

I finished it off with a strong stride up the relative flats of the rolling summit area. What had been a pleasant steady drizzle turned to something more substantial. After tagging the summit, I donned my rain coat. The skies opened up! It was glorious.

I continued the wet walk down the hill and pulled out my phone at the trailhead to check the time. The screen flashed then went black. Uh oh. As it turns out, excessive water is not good for non-waterproofed electronics. So it goes.

Eager to get dry and warm, I hurried my way back down Cherry Street to Van Buren and back to my car at the foot of the Van Buren Street pedestrian bridge.

In Closing

Success! I checked the time back at my car and was shocked to see that the total elapsed time from car-to-car was 3 hours and 13 minutes. Easily my new PR for the trifecta (although the route choice yesterday was notably shorter, it was still worth celebrating tagging all the summits in a smaller window of time).

I went out yesterday with joy and intentional. The joy came from the celebration of all that is good in life - an amazing wife, awesome new dog-child, a great job, fine health. The intentionality stemmed from the purpose of training: to push myself while preparing for a bigger challenge.

Two weeks from today I will be heading up the Rattlesnake Valley for the Stuart Peak Ultra-Marathon. Yesterday was a great confidence boost to my overall physical and mental fitness for this challenge. Although very different from the relatively steep route of the 'Triple Crown', the idea of heading up and up and up is there and will be a significant part of the challenge. I am ready!

Onward and upward!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mosquito Peak Marathon

Route: From Rattlesnake Main Trailhead to trail 517 to Stuart Peak summit to Mosquito Peak summit to trailhead back to the 1.5 mile point on trail 517 back to trailhead
Elevation gain: ~5,500 feet
Total Distance: ~26.5 miles
Total Elapsed time: 6 hours 20 minutes (5 hours 45 minutes without the 3-mile extension)          

The end of October marks my annual birthday challenge. This year, the challenge is The Stuart Peak Ultra-Marathon (don’t look it up, it isn’t a real race). The Stuart Peak Ultra will simply be a double round-trip of Stuart Peak (~8200 vertical exchange and about 38 miles). My goal is to accomplish this in under 10 hours without running a step, power-hiking only.

In an effort to get in shape – physically, but mostly mentally – for the Stuart Peak Ultra, I have been adding increasingly taxing outings to my training line-up. This has included speedy double round-trips on small mountains around Missoula as well as link ups of mountains.

This week I had my eyes on Mosquito Peak and Stuart Peak. It had been a couple of months since I have been up Mosquito Peak and about a month since Stuart. I opted for a ~24 mile route that would take me up Stuart over to Mosquito and back down the standard trail. What a lovely route!

Illuminated by headlamp, I hit the trail at 6:21AM under a very light drizzle. I felt so-so. Truth-to-tell, I ate most of the contents of a large buttered-popcorn at the movies last night and more than once it threatened to come up throughout the hike. Ultimately, it didn’t prove to be a hindrance. 

I hit the summit of Stuart Peak at 8:47AM.

The summit of Mosquito Peak came at 9:32AM.

I was back at the trailhead at 12:06PM.

I returned to trail 517 for a 3-mile extension, bringing me back to the trailhead at 12:41PM


Onward and upward!