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,


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. 

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!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mount Jumbo Redemption and Camp Limberlimbs

Last week, my knee and a rock had a run-in on Mount Jumbo during a Sentinel-Jumbo double. The week that followed was filled with daily icing and ibuprofen doses. The result? Healing! 

Fresh of a life-giving weekend at Camp Limberlimbs, hanging out with the coolest kids out there who just happen to have Juvenile Arthritis, I had another go at the Sentinel-Jumbo double. Here it is:

Route: Mount Sentinel via the ridge trail to the summit then 1-mile to the Mount Jumbo trailhead and the standard trail to the summit and back to the base of Mount Sentinel
Vertical Feet: 3,500 feet
Distance: ~8.5 miles
Elapsed time: 2 hours 18 minutes
- 31 minutes of Mount Sentinel (20 minutes down)
- 33 minutes up Mount Jumbo (25 minutes down)
- 19 minutes transition time (from trailhead-trailhead)
Temperature: Too-warm-for-the-first-day-of-Autumn

What a lovely outing! I cruised up Mount Sentinel. Conscious of the heat, I eased off the pace slightly, particularly on the steeper sections: my tendency in heat is to dry out my throat and scorched my lungs. I tried my best to avoid this today. On the summit, I drank ~8 ounces of water while in motion. 

After an uneventful descent, I hit the drinking fountain at the trailhead for a ~8-10 ounce swallow of water. I immediately launched into my flatland power-stride and cruised the River Trail to Van Buren Street to Cherry Street to the TH (~10 minutes). I begin the easy cruise up Mount Jumbo. 

Although shorter than Mount Sentinel by about 500 feet, the shortest trail on the hill is about 3/4 mile longer than Mount Sentinel's 'Ridge Trail Express.' This provided a nice gentle grade to lock into a steady 4.5 mph uphill pace. On the way up I passed the rock that had impacted my knee just over a week earlier. I gave it the 'stink eye.' On the summit, I took a shorter swig of water (~6 ounces) and promptly began my descent.

I was careful to watch my footing this time. Success. Back at the trailhead, I retraced my steps back to my car at the M Trailhead. I took some more water and put in a solid 10-minute stretch session. I pleased to see the elapsed time of 2 hours and 18 minutes for the route. This I felt very good about considering the heat. 

Important non-sequitor: and oh my goodness, what a blast at Camp Limberlimbs this weekend! Camp Limberlimbs is a 3-day, 2-night camp for kids 7-17 with various forms of Juvenile Arthritis. Most of the kids that attended last year were there again. Every kid that I have talked with at the camp over the last two years has had a moment in their budding lives that they were unable to walk, play or get-around pain free on account of aggressive arthritis. A good many of them now are getting around splendidly thanks to wonderful treatment plans and the incredible breadth of drugs available to control the symptoms and the disease itself. 

We played games, did arts and crafts, did archery, swam, played various sports, laughed, told stories, played music, danced, sang, ate, jumped, ran, planned and executed pranks, snuck around, had a bonfire and laughed some more.

It truly was a wonderful experience. As a newcomer to the scene, the most impressive thing about all of this, is the commitment of past campers to the cause. A strong majority of the camp counselors began going to Camp Limberlimbs when they were 5, 6, 7, 8 years of age. And some of these folks are in there 20s, 30s and 40s. This means that most folks volunteering to help out the kiddos at camp have been going in some shape or form for 15+ years! It is remarkable! But it makes sense: it is a community of folks who have a relatively misunderstood - by the general public - and under appreciated diagnose. Most of the volunteer counselors are life-long friends that met at camp in elementary school! 

All right, that is all for now!

Onward and upward,


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Humbled on Mount Jumbo

Route: Bernice's Bakery to Mount Jumbo Trailhead to summit to Van Buren Street to Mount Sentinel Trailhead to summit to Bernice's Bakery.
Elevation Gain: ~3,500
Distance: I have no idea!
Fuel: two cups of Bernice's coffee
Elapsed time: 2 hours 58 minutes (from Bernice's-to-Bernice's)

I approached Saturday with big ambitions: a 25+ mile loop through the Rattlesnake Wilderness with ~5 summits and ~7,000 vertical feet.

Realizing, I had not the energy to force a 4:00AM start, I went to bed Friday night opting for an abridged outing of 24 miles with 2 summits. Upon waking on Saturday morning, I decided that a 19-miler on Stuart Peak would be sufficient. Then, realizing I had other life obligations that needed attention, I opted for a romp up Missoula's 'alphabet mountains.' And this I committed to.

After a delightful morning with Linds at Bernice's Bakery, I grabbed my pack from my car and walked down Higgins to Spruce and over to Van Burn Street and the Cherry Street trailhead of Mount Jumbo.

I had a lovely walk up the hill. ~30 minutes later I was on the summit of Mount Jumbo. I ran into a group of three sizable bucks on my way down from the summit.  As I reached into my pack to fetch my camera, they split, narrowly escaping the focus of my lens.

About 1/3 of the way down, I saw a woman about 100 feet down the trail on her way up. Adjusting my gait to the left edge of the trail I misstepped and promptly found myself on my hands and knees on the downhill side of the trail. My right knee screamed! My first reaction was to look up and see if the woman and seen me. She hadn't. She was calling to her dog to sit alongside her and had not seen me, now 50 feet away, take a spill. In an as ungraceful manner as possible, I roused myself and began the hobble in her direction. From what was a swift 4+ mph walk downhill, I was now limping along at 1mph or less. Oy vey. How silly!

Last year, I made it up and down 203 summits - some of them treacherous - without a single incident. Now, here I am with a swelling knee on the shortest, easiest mountain in the area. As I continued down, my limp became a hobble which became a stilted walk before turning into a semi-graceful downhill gait. It got better. Or at least those chemicals kicked in that keep your mind off the pain and the injury.

I decided to postpone my decision about going up Mount Sentinel until I had reached the bottom and could examine my knee. Back at the trailhead, I concluded that it was fine: nothing more than a surface wound. I continued my walk back to Van Buren Street across the Clark Fork River and over the Mount Sentinel Trailhead.

I made quick work of Mount Sentinel, gaining the summit in 29 minutes by way of the ridge trail. I spent .5 seconds on the summit before heading straight down. My goal was to hit the 45-50 minute round-trip range. I came in at 51 minutes and considered it a fine performance in light of my fall on Mount Jumbo. Back at the base of Mount Sentinel, I grabbed a drink of water at the fountain and then grabbed the river trail back to Higgins and up to Bernice's Bakery. Ahh.

Although the day turned out very differently than I had anticipated - both in terms of the outing and the injury - it was a delight. It had been awhile since I had done the 'alphabet mountain' jaunt and got me excited for my birthday hike next month. Now, here I sit with an icepack on my knee and joy in my heart that I was able to move with such confidence, ease and freedom. If it weren't for those factors, I would not have been able to put myself in a position whereby I sustain a minor knee injury: and for that, in a very strange (and rationalizing way), I am grateful.

Next weekend, I head to Camp Mak-A-Dream for 'Camp Limberlimbs' a camp for kids 7-17 with arthritis. I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Kings of Borah: the high points of Idaho and Utah

Kings Peak 13,528 feet at Sunrise from Dollar Lake (Utah). 
Chapter 1: Borah, Borah, Borah

After work on Friday, Phil and I headed south from Missoula through Darby, picking up several $1.59 “meat” sliders at the Peoples Market and proceeded over Lost Trail Pass into Idaho. Our destination: The Wagon Wheel motel in Mackey, ID. We arrived shortly after 9PM, sorted our gear and turned in for the night.

Throughout the night, we awoke to the intermittent spattering of rain on our window.  Our alarms sang us awake at 4AM. Outside, the glow of lightning illuminated the sharp high ridge of the Lost River Range. Although not encouraging, the distance of the system and the forecast allayed our concerns of being forced off Borah again by the range’s fickle weather. The forecast called for 40% of precipitation in the morning, decreasing through the day. We grabbed a bite and hit the road.

We were moving at 5AM. Short and steep, the standard route on Borah Peak climbs 5,267 feet in just over 3.5 miles (the trailhead is at 7,400 feet, the summit at 12,662). This was Phil's third attempt and my second attempt of Borah. Phil and I made quick work of the first 2,500 feet under the illumination of our headlamps. At tree line, ~10,000 feet, we doffed our headlamps and were provided the first glimpse of what the weather held for us. Although not particularly foreboding, streamers of rain underhanging growing cumulus clouds were amassing across the valley, directly West of Borah. We acknowledged the atmospheric instability and proceeded with caution, accepting the fact that we may be skunked again on Borah.

The clouds clearing off of the upper half of Borah Peak
(on our way descent)
We moved swiftly up to 10,500 and then 11,000 feet, before engaging in a serious conversation about the changing weather. The rumbling of thunder had steadily increased in both intensity and frequency. The streamers of rain and grown into a wall of precipitation – rain, snow, sleet, its contents we did not know – and was moving quickly in our direction. We made the call to retreat off of the high ridge and gain shelter in the trees before making a final decision about Borah. On the descent, the lightning strikes became visible in our vicinity, striking near the base of the mountain and surrounding ridges. The seriousness of our situation apparent, we abandoned the ridge and began a speed hike/run down the northern slope of the ridge into a clump of trees and rocks.

200 feet above the trees, the wall of precipitation revealed its true contents. First rain, then sleet, then hail. The wall engulfed us. I had sped ahead to find some semblance of protection for us to sit out the storm. After careful going with 20-50 feet of visibility, Phil and I found ourselves nestled safely in at 9800 feet, 1200 feet below our high point. Lightning struck and thunder sounded in our vicinity, but never seriously threatened our position. The hail and rain persisted for no more than 15 minutes before easing off to drizzle and then dissipating entirely.

During those 15 minutes, Phil and I weighed our options: 1) descend and give it another go the following day; 2) descend, head south to Kings Peak in Utah and return to Borah in 2-3 days; or 3) wait it out and give it another go from our position. Option ‘3’ was the most attractive choice as it kept us on our original itinerary and saved us from having to re-ascend 2,000 feet in several days time. And who knew what the weather would do!

The soft echo of thunder receding to our east, we made the decision to give it another go. We quickly re-gained the ridge crest and caught up with a couple that had waited out the storms below the trees. As it turns out, an early start was not to our advantage!

From the ridge, it was clear that the worst had passed. Although precipitation swirled the valley and low clouds continued sweeping over our route, there was little threat of lightning.

Within an hour we were back at our high point, just below ‘chicken-out ridge.’ We picked our way up and over the ridge, climbing and down-climbing sections of the exposed ridge. As we reached the final section of ‘chicken-out’ clouds swept over our windward perch, bringing with them 30-40 mph winds and snow. So it goes.

Chicken-Out Ridge as seen from the summit ridge of Borah
(photo taken on descent)
 As it snowed upward – the snow literally blowing from the valley below up – we pressed on to the summit ridge. With 50-100 feet visibility, we picked our way up the ridge with the occasional cairn guiding our progress. I built several additional cairns along the route up to the ridge crest. We hit the summit just after 10:30AM. This was Phil’s 45th state high point (and his third attempt)! Hurray! Although the snow was easing off, the wind chill was enough to limit our time on the summit. We took a few perfunctory summit shots and headed down.

Phil on the summit of Borah Peak, his 45th state high point.
On the summit of Borah Peak with wedding prayer flags.

The descent was happily eventless. As we descended the clouds began to thin. By the time we reached the bottom of ‘chicken-out ridge’ the summit of coming into view. And by the time we reached the car, blue sky peeked through broken clouds. We reached the car at just after 12:30PM.

Phil descending the summit ridge of Borah 
Sometimes you have to go up to go down. Phil climbing on our
way down 'chicken-out ridge'

Total time: 7.5 hours
Total vertical ascent: ~6400 feet
Total mileage: ~8.5-9 miles

Chapter 2: Kings Peak

Next stop: Kings Peak! Kind of. From Borah’s trailhead we headed back to the town of Mackey for a celebratory burger and fries. We continued south through Idaho, into Utah, before heading east into Wyoming. At 8PM we found ourselves in the town of Mountain View, Wyoming, the gateway to Kings Peak. With damp gear and a rather damp 12-hour forecast, we opted to stay at the Country Cabin Inn in Mountain View rather than camping at the trailhead. We spent the evening drying out our gear and organizing our packs for our overnight in Henrys Fork basin.

We awoke at 6AM on Sunday with the intention of hitting the road. Again, Mother Nature had different plans for us. With rain and lightning hammering Mountain View, we took our time gathering ourselves for departure. We hit up ‘Maveriks’, the gas station next to the inn, for a day’s old Krispy Kreme donut breakfast and coffee.

We tentatively departed for the trailhead under the curtains of rain and flashes of lightning. All the forecasts we looked at promised back-to-back clear days from Sunday to Monday. We rested all of our hopes on this being the case.

From our northerly approach, we crossed the border into Utah. The rain abated at this time. We arrived at the trailhead (~9,400 feet) just before 9AM. This was later than we had planned on, but it was, as it turned out, the best of all possible outcomes given the weather. We disembarked at 9AM under breaking clouds and a glimmer of blue. The rain on the drive in would be the last precipitation of the trip.

5.5 miles up Henrys Fork towards Kings Peak. Phil looking up trail
at the range.
Our spirits buoyed by the stabilizing weather, we cruised up the gentle slope of the basin to Dollar Lake. After a delightful 8-mile hike we hit Dollar Lake at 12:15PM. The weather was stunning: blue skies, clear atmosphere and 50 degrees with a light breeze. We quickly erected the tent, cached all unnecessary gear and hit the trail at 12:30PM for the summit.

An hour later, we found ourselves at Gunsight Pass. From Gunsight Pass, the trail proceeds down into Painter Basin, skirts West Gunsight Peak and then heads up to Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge of Kings Peak. We received intel from a couple of hikers that there was a well-cairned route that traversed high on the back of West Gunsight Peak, effectively trimming an hour or more from the standard route. We quickly found the route and clawed our way up to the expansive alpine that is the northern slopes of West Gunsight Peak. What a lark! The walk was beautiful around the mountain. Kings Peak comes into view quickly, dominating the skyline on our bearing.

Looking north from Gunsight Pass. Our route took us
under the cliff band on the right and up the talus slope to
the high bench center.
Under blue skies, we reached Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge (12,400 feet) at 2:30PM. We scrambled our way up the ridge, exchanging pleasantries with many of the folks heading down. At about 12,800 feet we passed a pair of gentlemen working their way up the ridge. One of the men was moving by way of a pseudo-crawl, using both hands to brace himself on easy terrain while his friend kept a close watch, occasionally guiding his progress. I stopped to chat with them briefly and they gave off the vibe of being very experienced outdoorsmen. Interesting.

Phil looking out over Henrys Fork basin - from whence we came -
from just below Anderson Pass en route to the summit.
The Kings Peak summit ridge is a very pleasant walk/scramble. At about 13,450 feet, the ridge juts sharply up, providing a fun scramble to the top. At 3:30PM we stood on the 13,528-foot summit of Kings Peak and the top of Utah. So beautiful was the day, we were in no hurry to descend. We were equipped with headlamps and plenty of warm clothes should we find ourselves descending the final miles in the dark. We ate, drank, took pictures, chatted with a gentleman from Idaho, laughed and celebrated Phil’s 46th high point. We observed the fact that we had – unplanned – summited the high point of Idaho and Utah in two consecutive days. There was a group of rather boisterous young men – dare I say my peers – tempting fate with various summit hijinks i.e. peeing off the summit, throwing rocks. One of men had a rifle protruding out of his pack. I asked him why he had it and he said he was hoping to bag a ptarmigan or two. Huh.

On the summit of Kings Peak, the high point of Utah.
Phil's 46th high point. 
At 4:10PM we began our descent. We passed a total of 6 folks still scrambling their way to the summit on the way down the ridge. At about 13,200, we ran into the gentleman that was ‘feeling’ his way to the summit. As Phil and I approached the duo, Phil suggested that perhaps he was blind. Plausible. We reached the men and chatted again. I asked, “I don’t mean to be offensive, I am simply curious, what is your technique all about.” He took the question with grace and responded happily. He explained that he had suffered a brain injury many years back and half of his body was not especially responsive, while his balance suffered severely. Wow. Amazing. It was an inspiring moment. This man was literally crawling his way up the mountain, moving no faster than ½ mile an hour while his friend patiently guided his movement. He went on to explain that this is a part of recover journey back to climbing. At this pace, they were likely to summit around 5PM. Phil and I expressed how impressed we were and carried on with a new sense of respect, understanding and appreciation for those that strive in the face of serious adversity.

The upper portion of the summit ridge of Kings Peak.
Pain-free with my health, suddenly rheumatoid arthritis faded to white noise, an innocuous diagnosis made manifest only by the pillbox that lie in our tent below.

We stopped below Anderson Pass to filter a few liters of water for the rest of the return journey to Dollar Lake. We picked an easier line around the backside of West Gunsight Mountain and cairn-hopped our way back down to Gunsight Pass. The glow of the setting sun illuminated the red, brown and white rocks of surrounding mountains as we cruised down the trail into the basin. It truly was the ‘most beautiful day in recorded history.’  We reached our campsite around 7PM, 10 hours after we had left the car. The GPS read exactly 18 miles with ~4,300 feet of ascent on the day.

Gunsight Peak and Gunsight Pass on the descent.
We filtered several additional liters of water and watched the sun set on the surrounding peaks with a woman from Bountiful, UT. We split a 3-cheese pasta Mountain House meal – I prematurely put in half-heated and unboiled water into my mac and cheese, rendering it uncooked and possibly bacteria-ridden - and hit the rack. I woke up several times to relieve myself and found the sky to be among the clearest I had ever seen. Layers of stars succumbed to even deeper layers of stars.

Phil sitting on a rock at Dollar Lake as the sun sets.
We awoke at 6AM to a cloudless sky. I surprised Phil with cinnamon rolls I had packed in for our final breakfast on the mountain. We watched the sun rise from the point we had watched it set the evening before. With Starbucks coffee and cinnamon rolls we dined like kings of Kings Peak. “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is,” said Kurt Vonnegut. And in this moment – as in so many moments in life – it rang true. We had succeeded and in so many ways. From safely gaining the summits of two state high points in consecutive days to edifying conversation to awe-inspiring beauty, it was all a success. Although our primary objectives were peaks, the underlying drive was the pursuit of beauty and life through mountain travel.

The trail to Kings Peak from Dollar Lake at sunrise.
We broke camp at 8:30AM. I walked 100 feet from our camp to relieve myself. Looking up, my gaze met the eyes a cow moose some 50 feet away. Accompanying her was a calf several feet further. She didn’t seem to mind my presence. Careful not to disturb the animals, I grabbed Phil and we viewed from a safe distance.

Look closely! A cow moose and calf. 
With the day ahead of us we opted for the longer and less traveled route out of Henrys Fork. We hiked about a mile up the trail to 11,000 feet and crossed the basin. The terrain was breathtaking: lakes, ponds, marshes and stands of trees all back-dropped by 13,000-foot peaks. The trail we were on disappeared and we proceeded to bushwhack 1-2 miles across the valley. We came upon another moose, this one 100-yards distant, in a marsh near one of the myriad ponds. The topographic map had us below the trail and so we traversed up and over a couple of knolls before catching sight of a massive cairn marking the trail. On the trail, we got back up to our 3-3.5 mph hiking pace and cruised on down the valley.

The peaks of Henrys Fork from Elkhorn Crossing. 
Our trail junction came quickly. At the junction we ran into a couple that had spent several days up the basin picking off several 13,000-footers in the area. They introduced themselves as Jennifer and Gerry from Montrose, CO. They were extremely – an understatement - knowledgeable about the state high points and Gerry disclosed that he had completed all of the high points. Jennifer asked if we were familiar with the Colorado 14er books. It immediately clicked: this is the Gerry Roach! The Gerry Roach of mountaineering and guidebook fame. He was the 2nd person to climb the highest point of all seven continents and has over 2,000 Colorado Peaks under his belt.  We chatted with Jennifer and Gerry for a couple of minutes longer before heading down the remaining 5.5 miles to the trailhead.

As was our wont, we made quick work of the final, relatively flat, section of trail. We were back at the rental car around 1:30PM.

And that was it. Just like that, it was over.

Total distance: 30.5 miles
Total vertical ascent: 4,600 feet
Total elapsed travel time: 15.5 hours (27.5 hours on the mountain)
Moose sightings: 3

En route to Salt Lake City, we stopped off at Don Pedro’s Family Mexican restaurant in Evanston, Wy. Phil and I shared some laughs, stories and fajitas. All good things. We made the gorgeous drive to Odgen and down to Salt Lake City to our hotel just off the Salt Lake City airport campus.

A couple of hours ago Phil and I exchanged our farewells and headed on our separated paths: he to Chicago and I back to Missoula. Back to our lives and loved ones. The trip was a short, but rich lark. It was beautiful, gorgeous and life giving. With a full cup – life-filled - I return to the venerable vagaries of normal life and give back. Phil once shared this poem with me:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever;
You have to come down again …
So why bother in the first place?
Just this: What is above knows what is below,
But what is below does not know what is above.

One climbs, one sees.
One descends, one sees no longer,
But one has seen.

There is an art of conducting oneself
In the lower regions
By the memory of what one saw higher up.

When one can no longer see,
One can at least still know.”

An abandoned cabin on the hike out. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Drawing new circles (wedding, new job, Denali and power-hiking)

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment." Ralph Waldo Emerson, from 'Circles' 
Jumping for joy on the summit of Mount Tiny (9869 feet)
in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness during our honeymoon.
Since my last post in late-May, I have drawn many new circles: I have changed jobs, moved, GOTTEN MARRIED, had my first photo show, confirmed a spot on a 2015 Denali expedition and set a new power-hiking PR on Stuart Peak (in that order, with the Stuart Peak PR happening today). Today, I will touch on the job, marriage, Denali and Stuart Peak.

New Job:

I have the best job in the world! I now work for The Flagship Program as a Youth Development Coordinator at Hawthorne Elementary School. In my role, I am responsible for developing/planning out-of-school time enrichment programs (reading, sports, outdoors, gardening, art, etc.) for K-5 students. I am so grateful for such an amazing job!


Linds and I committed ourselves to one another in front of ~150 of our friends and family on July 26th up at beautiful Snowbowl. It was, without a doubt, the most joyous occasion of my life (and hopefully Linds' life too, although X-Men movie releases are pretty high on that list). I have never smiled so much in my life!

There were, of course, countless highlights. From our officiant Brian Marsh's beautiful words to the echoes of our audience's affirmations off the mountainside to seeing so many of the people that we love. With all of that goodness, there is one memory that stands above the rest: our first dance.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not particularly keen on dancing. Of course, the wedding would stand as an exception (this I had known well in advance). Linds had selected our first song and had been communicating with the band, in secret, about how our first dance was to go. After clearing the dance floor of the tables and chairs, we go in to hold one another, in preparation for the song to begin. Faint acoustic guitar strumming began. As the intro crescendoed, my mind formulated what song it was that we were hearing. It was one of Linds and I's favorite songs 'Taillights' by David Boone (a local Missoula artist). What a treat! And if that wasn't enough. Linds leans in and whispers to me, "he's playing a 30-minute set." At this point, it began to sink in: that was not one of our band's musicians covering David Boone that was, in fact, David Boone! Linds, unbeknownst to me, had hired David Boone to play a 30-minute set, including our first dance. Wow. I was mildly in shock, still struggling to understand the enormity of it all.

"Move to Montana and lay your burdens down...
and our feet don't touch the ground." Taillights, by David Boone
Our first dance!
The morning after the wedding, Linds and I packed up the car and headed to Anaconda-Pinler Wilderness for a 3-day backpacking trip. Just as we were disembarking from the car, Linds mentioned that her wedding dress was in the car. Should she bring it along? Of course! My wedding clothes were packed amongst the myriad wedding decorations and odd-and-ends from the mountain wedding. We opted to pack our wedding clothes and a few decorations for a mountaintop photo-shoot.

The first day, we hiked in 4 miles to Goat Flat and set up camp on the edge of a stunning alpine meadow at 9,200 feet. This would be our home the next two nights. We took our first day out as a serious rest day. Upon setting up camp, we rested.

Our campsite replete with our wedding prayer flags.
The two days that followed were a total lark. We did our mountaintop wedding shoot, stood on two summits, read, wrote, ate, laughed, stargazed (amazing!) and napped. It was, in short, spectacular. 

Linds airborne on top of Mount Tiny. 
All told, from the Friday before our wedding through the Tuesday that marked the end of our honeymoon and the beginning of real life, joy abounded. These go down as easily the happiest 5 days of my life! And it is just the beginning...

Denali 2015:

After much consideration and conservations with my climbing friend Phil, we locked in a 2015 climbing date for Denali. May 5th, 2015, Phil and I will head out on the trip-of-a-lifetime to climb Denali. Our original play of 2014 fell through on account of several life circumstances and now, here we are, primed for the climb. We have been confirmed on RMI's first team of the season and could not be more thrilled. More to come on this in the near future!

Stuart Peak power-hiking PR (today!):

Eager to get back to some semblance of mountain fitness, I set my sights on a speed-hike of Stuart Peak for my August ascent of the ol' mountain. In preparation, I did a couple of speed hikes up Mount Sentinel and University Mountain over the last couple of weeks. I was able to nail down a 50-minute round-trip on Sentinel in 95 degree heat and a 2-hour round-trip on University a couple of days later.

Feeling strong and excited to sink my teeth into a challenge, I packed my larger camelbak bag with a few Clif Bars, 2-liters of water, a GoPro and sunscreen. 

Now, I will spare you the details of the outing, as these things tend to be rather uneventful (and it was, in the best possible way). My plan was to hike as fast as I could, with only a 1-2 minute stop on the summit for pictures,  up and down Stuart Peak without running a step. I would drink a modest volume of water every 15-30 minutes and eat half of a Clif Bar at strategic points on the trail. The fueling worked perfectly! I felt like a million bucks throughout the duration of the hike. What fun!

Here is the breakdown (Stuart Peak trail 517):

Distance: 9.5 miles one-way (19 miles round-trip)
Elevation exchange: 4,200 feet ascent and 4,2000 descent

Trailhead to summit (ascent): 2 hours 17 minutes (1.5 minutes on summit)
Average ascent pace: 4.2 mph
Summit to trailhead (descent): 1 hour 59 minutes
Average descent pace: 4.8 mph
Total round-trip time: 4 hours 17 minutes
Average overall pace: 4 mph

Overall, I am quite pleased with al it went. I still have some work to do on my uphills. That said, I am very pleased with an 3.7 mph average uphill for 8.5 miles. And, ultimately, I had a blast!

On the summit of Stuart Peak for 1.5 minutes. What a glorious day!
Today's outing ultimately got me excited for the prospect of a Stuart Peak double-dip: 34 miles round-trip with 8400 feet of climbing and descending. I am going to lay off of the speed stuff until mid-September, when I prepare for the 'Mount Sentinel Hill Climb', but I foresee the Stuart Peak double dip power-hike in the near future :-). 

As I mentioned, I am laying off of speed-hiking for a bit so I can thoroughly enjoy hiking some mountains with Linds this month while staying healthy for Phil and my 'double-dip' at the end of the month. More to come on this!

El Fin:

All right. That is all for now. I sincerely hope that my next post is not filled with so many big life changes. All of the above were welcomed, needed and dearly loved, but stability is also nice. Ah, there they are: my feet. They are below me firmly planted on the ground. Life is good.

With love and gratitude,


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A dose of reality and other news

Jumping for joy on the summit of Stuart Peak with
the Love of My Life (sometime in the last 6 months).
 Earlier this month, I missed doses of Humira and methotrexate during the same cycle. The old saying "you don't know what you have until it is gone" more or less holds true here. The doses were not missed intentionally. I simply had a lapse in memory and mistakenly left the Humira in the fridge and the methotrexate in its child-proof - and RA-proof - container when I should have been administering both.

You do not know what you have until it is gone. It is surprising how easily deluded we can become. Upon becoming aware of the fact that I had missed a dose, I convinced myself that because I had not had a flare-up in a very long time - at least 6 months - I was cured and had graduated out of my pill-a-day containers! Not so. Within a few days of missing my doses, dull aches begin to settle into my wrists and shoulders. A few days later, my left wrist began to act like its old self, pre-meds: achey, with occasional bursts of sharp, radiant pain. The rest of my body joined the protest: Humira, Humira, Humira. I won't pretend like I was crippled by the experience, fortunately my body communicated its dissatisfaction with my lapsed doses and I responded swiftly with an injection of Humira, methotrexate and ibuprofen. Success. 

This experience of missed doses, was a reminder of how far I have come in managing inflammation and pain through lifestyle and medication choices. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a rheumatologist and dial in the right combination of medications that allow me to be active and lead a "normal" life.

That is that.

In other news, I began going to physical therapy again to get my back, hips and legs back on track. I have been had issues with inexplicable - until PT - aches and pains in my leg (may or may not be associated with RA). I am committed to working hard at getting the proper muscles strengthened and the proper training regimen established. It is critical that this be so if I am to have any longevity in my active, outdoor life. I couldn't be more thrilled with the new clinic that I am going to: they seem to get me and what I am trying to do.

And that is that.

In other-other news, I took my brother up Pikes Peak last month on a two-day climb up the east face. We had a splendid time. It had been almost 15 years since we had stood on top of a mountain together. The outing - both as a climb and a reunion of sorts - goes down as one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences in the mountains. Here are the highlights:

Jason, my brother, raising his ice axe to
sun on the east face of Pikes Peak.
Jason and I on the summit of Pikes peak after a 4AM start.

And finally, in other-other-other news, Wade Balmer with the Arthritis Foundation wrote a really nice article about this blog and last years adventures. Click here to check it out!

Onward and upward,