September in the North Cascades: Mts. Dickerman (5723′), Vesper (6221), Sperry (6140′), and Gothic (6213).
Dickerman is popular and straightforward, and whet my appetite. I was in the middle of my first week as a student and needed to prove to myself that the mountains on the skyline were more than abstractions. I slept in my car under towering firs in a steady rain, more than a little nervous, having totally forgotten how goddamn creepy the Northwest woods can be. Just as I was drifting off a pickup truck pulled into the empty lot and slowly circled my car, high beams flashing across my windows. It pulled up to the trailhead, a door slammed. There were footsteps. I was totally, irattionally afraid. The door slammed again, and the truck drove away.
It was my first run back after a week and a half off following Pine to Palm. I was rusty, and made myself sick, but it was worth it. Heather and huckleberries, views of glaciers and a mile of vertical relief in every direction from the summit. It was easy to decide to return on the weekend and explore the sawteeth across the valley.
Saturday was more ambitious. I jogged and hiked up to the basin below Vesper, then marched and scrunbled the gorgeous granite slabs to its precipitous summit. There was a climber rapelling from an anchor just below the peak, engaged in cleaning the 5.7 route he had set the previous year on Vesper’s North Peak. A route in perpetual shadow. We chatted briefly, and I began down the ridge between Vesper and Sperry, with no concrete plans in mind.
After some hemming and hawing I dropped far enough towards Sperry for the usual illusions to fade, and its initially intimidating steepness began to look more managable. Scrambling the remainder of the ridge to the base of the peak I was met with thick brush, and spent several minutes schwacking from goat path to goat path before finding one that put me head to tail with an actual goat. Trusting his judgement, I followed him until the route broke out into a small basin, whereupon the animal bolted to the left and settled down to bask on a snowfield.
I continued on to the summit, getting up and down the steep rock, krumholz, and heather by inelegant and imprecise means.
We gained the ridge to climber’s left of the snowfield, walking slanted slabs to the final pitch to the summit. Nothing particularly worrying, but the range of difficulty encompassed by “class 3″ is always interesting.
It’s been a weird month, and this is a weird post. I’m missing Gothic, obviously. But when I can remember that this part of my life isn’t actually optional, it’s clear I will be very happy in Beckey’s country.
All photos and miles 75-100 courtesy and (c) Patrick Fink
It’s just after 8PM and it’s finally honestly dark out, a poetic blood orange sun now sunk below the almost fractal pattern of endlessly receding ridgelines to the west, wizened heart of Klamath-Siskyou mountain complex. The very air itself had seemed to burn as the day’s last light refracted through the thick haze of wildfire smoke from a massive blaze just south of the OR / CA border, but that’s gone now, and the selfsame smoke responsible for these pyrotechnics has hastened dusk to an unnatural degree. I have no headlamp, and because of this, despite the past 25 miles of sad and gloomy walking, my stride has become a grim, fast hike towards the black triangle of Dutchman’s Peak (7400’). Improbably, there is club music playing, and it’s getting louder.
A light comes into view. There’s cheering, and Kate forces me into a chair.
I spend a minute trying to bring the arguments for dropping I had spent 7 hours constructing into a forceful and coherent whole, but she’s having none of it. We change my shoes, I drink soup and Coca Cola, and begun to run, one good headlamp between us but her mood bright enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Improbably, I start to enjoy myself.
The Pine to Palm Endurance Run, my first 100-miler, was intended to celebrate (or mourn?) the rapid changes my life has seen over the past month. I had just moved Seattle. I was about to start school again. I had just had my best season of running, ever. What better way to turn a new page than do something completely, beautifully pointless? It’s a race that had attracted me since I joined the sport, a compelling and aesthetic route in one of my favorite parts of the world. Giving Hal a ride from Aspen to Crested Butte for the Grand Traverse this spring and getting to chat about it with the RD himself cemented my resolve, and by July I was entered. Patrick and Kate agreed (for some unknown reason) to pace me, and we hoofed it out of Portland Friday afternoon, camping near the start in Williams, OR under a night sky of astounding clarity.
Williams to Seattle Bar (miles 0-28, 04:21)
The day’s mistakes begin early, as I nearly miss the start and run the first four miles without tightening my shoes, too caught up in the excitement of the early race to slow down. Which doesn’t really cause problems, but doesn’t say anything positive about my patience and maturity, either. The switchbacked 5000′ climb up over the saddle of Sugarloaf and Grayback passes quickly. I’m running in second, and running everything, which makes me nervous, a thought I try and tamp down with the reasoning that the best thing I can be doing is running a pace that feels easy, but natural.
But a second mistake becomes apparent as I reach the top of the climb, breaking out into tawny alpine meadowland. The first aid station, five miles in, was water only, and I had begun the race without a gel. Now over two hours into the day, I expect an aid station on the summit, but discover only tape leading back into the woods, and a sign indicating three miles until relief. I’m digging myself into a caloric hole way too early, and chinks are appearing in my armor of confidence.
As I hesitate around the first switchback of the descent, fast guy Bob Shebest (Hoka athlete, 2-time Tahoe Rim Trail 100 champ, and eventual winner) bears down on me. I jump off the trail to let him pass, but after a long stretch alone I decide to hang on for the company. It’s cheering, and before long we are out of the woods and onto the gravel road we’ll run for thirteen miles to Seattle Bar.
We clear the aid station quickly, my pocket and hands stuffed with gels, and hammer down the road. I hang with Bob for a little while, passing first place runner Ryan, dropping my fastest split of the race in the process, a mile in the low sixes. But eventually I concede I don’t have the downhill chops to hold on and let him and the heels of his Hokas disappear down the road.
Smoke begins to settle in the valley. I pass a small homestead, wondering idly how its owners deal with the omnipresent threat of wildfire this far from anywhere. Ryan catches back up to me. We’re running seven-thirty pace and it’s nice to have the company. I’m not feeling bad. Not great, but not bad. We swing onto what I’d call a carriage road if we were in New or Olde England, a nice break from the downhill road half marathon we’d just run, but it doesn’t last long and then we’re rounding Applegate Lake and dropping to Seattle Bar.
Kate and Patrick are there. I’m a little out of it. I’ve blistered from the dust in my shoes, running sockless, and do a little bit (but not quite enough) to deal with it. Ryan’s waiting for me on the trail out of the station, and racing is on my mind.
I leave too soon, and begin to undermine myself.
Seattle Bar to Squaw Lake 2 (miles 28-41, 07:32)
Stein Butte is the rumored crux of the course, a 3000′ grunt at longer-than-posted mileage, often steep, coming at a point in the race when it’s getting hot. 95 degrees hot. I have resolved to focus on self preservation, and do an okay job of this, but jogging still feels to be the order of the day. Ryan’s not doing so well, and I inch ahead a little. It’s still soft, and switchbacked, and runnable, a beautiful forest of pine and chinquapin and oaks and incense cedar.
We reach a ridge and ride a series of progressively higher and less-runnable humps to the aid station, which is not quite at the top. But as the climb progresses, the smoke from the nearby 100,000+ acre Happy Complex fire thickens. It’s not making me cough, but I’m keenly aware of it. And in unison, though I’m somehow not putting two and two together in the moment, I slowly begin to lose interest in my place, in competition, in the race. We come through Stein Butte aid station and a man in a ten gallon hat is playing Kenny Chesney. Fourth place passes us and becomes 2nd. I don’t follow immediately, but again leave aid too soon.
Ryan soon catches up and we run the quad-bashing descent down to Squaw Lake at mile 39. By this point I’m aware I’m having a low point, and Ryan is as well, so we’re trying to talk each other out of it and celebrate the fact that we’re actually running again. Before too long we’re at the lake, where Ryan’s crew is waiting. He is attended to. I immediately regret telling Patrick and Kate to skip this aid station in the interest of saving gas. I yet again leave aid too soon, jogging the two mile loop around the lake slowly and pensively. Bob Shebest is a couple miles ahead, maybe not looking so good, but moving well.
Halfway around Ryan catches up to me, headphones in. We return to the aid station and as I resolve to address my blisters in earnest he takes off down the road.
I am beginning to feel sorry for myself.
Squaw Lake 2 to Dutchman’s Peak (miles 41-67, 14:06)
Complications begin. I manage to run a few downhill road miles to the base of the next major climb up to Hanley Gap and Squaw peak. But as soon as the road kicks upwards towards a water-only aid station at mile 45, I implode. Attempting to run even mild grades feels incredibly taxing. My heart rate feels far higher than it should. There is nothing acutely wrong, but everything feels off.
I don’t know it yet, thank God, but I’m destined to slowly walk the next 25+ miles, jogging only for a few seconds at a time. I’m passed by Becky Kirschenmann, first woman and eventual 2nd place finisher. She has the strongest hike I have ever seen. I try to match her stride but quickly resign myself to the fact that it’s hopeless.
Nothing about the climb is particularly trying, but it is utterly beyond my abilities. It’s still smoky. My mind begins to take a downward spiral. I know dropping at Hanley Gap (mile 50) is a nonstarter, given the logistical nightmare it would pose for Patrick and Kate. But yeah, I’m thinking about dropping, a preemptive admission of defeat that dramatically increases the odds I’ll actually do so. I roll into the aid station in 5th, then amble up a mile to the lookout on Squaw Peak. I sit on its steps, watching clouds and smoke and mountains and trees and subjecting the blameless photographer to far too much uninteresting detail about why I’d be justified in calling it quits. Probably another five runners pass me in this stretch, grabbing the green wire flags at the summit to prove their passage. Eventually, I start heading back to aid, unable to even run a downhill road grade. (As I write this, I have no satisfying explanation for this failing — my stomach was fine, and I was mechanically sound. I can only chalk it up to smoke, to heat, to the mysteries of the distance.)
Eight miles from Hanley’s to the aid station at mile 60 pass with excruciating slowness. There is a moment when I seem to touch on the idea that if I can grind out a slow run, things will get better, or at least I’ll be able to quit earlier. But the activation energy to reach that state is simply too high. More runners pass me in an admirably resolute death shuffle. I walk.
At mile 60, I stop at aid and inquire about Kate and Patrick. My Volvo with Vermont plates and bumper stickers is hard to miss, but no one seems to have seen it. I tell them I’m dropping at the top, just like I told the photographer at Squaw Peak, just like I told pretty much all the nice people who passed me and asked how I was doing. “You’ve come a long way to drop,” they tell me. Noted. Unconvinced.
Despite my skepticism that food will solve anything, and my assurances that I really have been eating, I let them sit me down and have some soup, some Gu chews, a banana. I look at my watch, and it’s 6:30, meaning I have maybe an hour and a half to push the 5 miles up to the aid station before dark, because in my self-assuredness (read: arrogance) I neglected to plan for the possibility that I’d need a headlamp before mile 67. It’s time to get going.
I hike, and I hike pretty hard, gauging my pace off my watch, focusing on turnover, working with more attention than I have in seven hours. I climb higher and higher up the shoulder of the mountain, and the trees are beginning to drip with lichen, huge familiar Doug firs, and there are breaks where I start to see the sweep of the mountains beyond. It’s a spectacular sunset, and I’m not running but I’m moving, and because of all these things maybe just the tiniest shred of a possibility of wanting to finish the race eeks its way into my mind.
It’s finally cool out, too. The air is cleaner here, less reminiscent of a house fire and more just like someone has a campfire nearby. I push up to Kate.
Dutchman’s Peak to Finish (miles 67 – 100.5)
From where this interminable blog post began we run about ten miles together, down to Patrick, down to Long John Saddle at mile 74. Kate’s running beautifully, back from a long season of injury and frustration, and that makes me so happy I feel like crying as we cruise the first four miles in the quickest running I’ve done since I left Stein Butte. We only have one functional headlamp, but it doesn’t matter much. Reaching the PCT, it’s still net downhill, but here and there are short climbs as well, and these begin to take the wind out of my sails again, out of my lungs. My heart rate is still far higher than it should be. I am suddenly resolved, however, to finish this thing, and begin to do the math to see whether a sub-24 hour finish was possible. This is certainly a quick and dramatic adjustment from my attitude not 45 minutes before, a testament to company, I guess, or at least Kate’s company (one of the many reasons I date her).
My legs are okay. From each break to walk or urinate or just sit for a moment and savor stillness it takes a good minute before running feels natural again and I’m moving smoothly. But I need to get calories in, and gels are starting to sound pretty bad (as if they ever sound good), so we slow way down as we near the next aid station, a bit further than the posted mileage lead us to believe, one of those minor blows to morale that leaves you reeling this late in the game. Regardless, I still manage to feel that our time together is over way too quickly, as we drop off the PCT for good. We see a tent with fairy lights, volunteers, and Patrick, eager as a labrador retriever after having spent far too many hours waiting for me.
Soup, grilled cheese, several cups of Coca Cola, sitting in a chair to relieve the pressure on my feet. This becomes my modus operandi at all subsuquent aid stations, a five-minute insurance policy against leaving the light without adequate mental and physical preparation. Patrick and I jog down the road, moving well for maybe a mile before our progress devolves into comical slow-motion walk / jog fartleks, shadow to shadow, tree to tree. I am sure he is dreading the slowest marathon of his life but he lets on nothing.
Whatever. We hit the next aid, and I’m happy, the sort of happiness that comes when you know you are botching something but have managed against all odds to grasp the sheer pleasure of the present moment. It’s a steep climb up Wagner Butte at 7140′, the last peak on the course, the last climb of the race. It’s actually the steepest climb I’ve seen all day, but I am legitimately enjoying the change in muscle recruitment, a return to the grades familiar to me from training. We hike as strongly as I could be expected to, staying between 3 and 4 miles per hour. Counterintuitively, the final pitch to the summit flattens, and I begin to feel taxed again. We are made to scramble a collusion of boulders to reach the bones of an old fire lookout, where we retrieve the final flag of the race. 5500′ below and untouchable are the lights of Ashland, tempting and taunting us.
Most of the descent to the next aid station is steep and overgrown, nearly a game trail, albeit well marked. As we approach mile 90, and my quads are beginning to give me lip with each jarring footfall, I remark to Patrick that I’m pretty much resigned to everything that is happening to me.
“Ethan,” he says. “If you want to go under 24 hours, you’re gonna have to happen to this race, not just let it happen to you.”
That was it. The stark economy of effort and reward, laid out in front of me. We hit the aid station, and I had my customary soup, grilled cheese, Coca Cola. We left, and I try to happen to the race.
I let Patrick pace us, and we grind out six excruciating miles in the single digits. And then there’s a sign saying four miles to the finish, and it’s one of those transcendent moments the entire ridiculous idea of running 100 miles promises. I feel invincible, and we run 7-minute pace and blast by someone and I’m leaping off little mountain bike berms, possessed by an idea more than harnessing any untapped reserves, but it’s a powerful idea, and it does the trick.
The last mile was downhill on steep pavement and sucked. But before my mood could really dip, I was in Lithia Park, the finish line in sight. 23:03:59 after starting it was over, good for 16th place.
Kate came up, hugged us, and Hal took our photo. “So,” she began. “Do you want the good news or the bad news? Because your car broke down six miles up Mt. Ashland.”
She never told us the good news. I think I knew what it was, though.
Obviously, I owe a great deal of my finish to the inscrutable dedication of Patrick and Kate. I can’t thank them enough, or really let them know what it means to me, but it was wonderful to share those final, surreal miles with them.
I thought about registering for Hardrock 100 within an hour of finishing, so clearly I didn’t do the race quite right. I came into this thing as fit as I’ve ever been, and that let me coast through some tough spots with relatively little physical damage, with less mental effort than I’d have needed otherwise. I know there was far more suffering out there that day than I experienced, far more dramatic turnarounds, far more mental resolve, and people who ran far smarter races. But what can you do?
The same reasons that pushed me to run Pine to Palm were destined to work against me, at least a little. Moving is stressful. Starting school is stressful. Stress is stress, whether from training or life, as everyone says but no one heeds. The success I had been having in training and racing had prompted a subtle shift in attitude, an increase in competitive confidence, certainly, but also perhaps an adjustment away from some of the stoicism the prospect of long, slow miles had brought. I could have used a bit more of it, as things turned out.
Regardless, the soul of this sport lies in its immense variability, the singularity of landscape and disparate skillsets of competitors. We play the hands we are dealt, either making the most of them or not, which is why those days when everything comes together are so magical, and seeing a bad through is so satisfying. September 13th might not have been a great day, but I’m very happy with it.
Six days out, my legs feel normal, though I’ve resolved to take most of two weeks completely off. Then I’ll fool around with some 5K workouts and get out to the mountains in an unstructured way, but before you know it next year’s goals will begin to demand commitment.
The chase continues.
This blog tends towards the abstract and wordy (Patrick calls it “occasionally erudite”; others might call it “pretentious.”) For some reason, this is the mode I’m most comfortable writing in, probably because it’s public and I am not quite enough of a digital native to live a good chunk of my life online.
Sometimes, though, inspired writing fails to materialize on schedule. This has been the case over the past month, but as a new chapter in my life begins, I feel compelled to establish good habits early. Basically, writing is important to me, and I want to keep it up, even when laying lexical bricks feels particularly dull and laborious.
In that spirit, here’s what’s happened over the past month, in bullets and photos.
- I live in Seattle now.
– I’ll be here for 5-7 years, working on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington. And getting to know every crag, cirque, and valley I can in the North Cascades.
– I spent a good bit of August traveling. Oregon for a wedding, Vermont to see my family, Wyoming en route to my new home.
– I ran the Race to the Top of Vermont up Mt. Mansfield’s toll road. Finished 4th in 36:44. A tough but satisfying race in a new discipline for me, against a number of Olympic-caliber nordic skiers.
– I ran 440 miles, 74 hours, and +71,000′ in August, certainly the best month training I’ve ever logged. In four days, at Pine to Palm, I get to see if the ends justify the means.
– Moving is hard, and always bittersweet. But I am very happy to be back in the PNW.
I’ve been taking photos, too.
Astoria, OR on a rare day of brilliant weather. The wedding deities must have smiled on the pairing.
A lonely valley in the Gore Range, CO, following a quick escape from a storm cell that caught me on the summit of Keller Mountain (13085′).
The happy bride (right).
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolius)
Their “first” dance.
The sinuous, half-mile scramble to Keller’s true summit, top center and left of the half-moon shaped snowfield below the saddle.
I am really, really going to miss fall in the high country.
Vermont is still brewing better beer than almost anywhere else.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
The famous sugar maple, Acer saccharum, hinting at the coming fall in northern Vermont.
And finally, halfway through the move from Denver to Seattle, I visited the Tetons for the first time. I spent the morning circumnavigating the group, a spectacular and satisfying introduction to a storied range.
Onward. More to come.
I was the kind of kid who was into Captain Cook and tall ships. It wasn’t long before this interest blossomed into a fascination with the Pacific, that incomprehensibly vast ocean with its myriad constellations of islands both windswept and verdant, flat and precipitous, tiny and vast. I read a lot about it. Adventure tales at first, but as my fascination with biology grew, it became the nexus for this as well, especially the particularly biodiverse and wild southwest corner known as Melanesia.
From 2008-2011, I spent four summers in the tropical Pacific — in Papua New Guinea, Guam, and the Northern Marianas — working, traveling, conducting research, taking meticulous daily notes in black leatherbound journals that sure better be fodder for a book some day. Despite having been away from it for several years, it remains an incredibly important place to me. Certainly in an intellectual sense, but also emotionally, something tied tightly with my sense of self, as anything so huge to your formative years is sure to do.
Two weeks ago, I had the chance to return, this time to Fiji. Kate’s mother, Elizabeth Holland, has (for the past 3 years) been a professor of climate change at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, the nation’s capitol, and with extraordinary generosity served as our conduit and host in the islands that have become her home. The dry and oppressive heat of Denver in the summer left behind, we flew ten and a half hours from Los Angeles to Nadi (pronounced Nandi), crossing the dateline and the lion’s share of the world’s largest ocean.
The trip was unusual for me in solidly qualifying as a vacation: short in duration, with no fieldwork to lend it purpose, with plenty of time planned in comfortable accommodations. But perhaps because of this flexibilty (and its languid pace), it was a pretty good one for taking pictures, and looking for cool birds and plants. Below lies a lengthy photo essay of sorts, with numerous digressions that I hope someone finds interesting. Probably long enough to merit a coffee or beer, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The day after arriving in Suva, and visiting the doctor to pick up a prescription for antibiotics to treat the strep throat I had conveniently picked up, we left for on the island of Kadavu (again, pronounced Kandavu) on the ferry Sinu-i-Wasa (formerly the Straightsman out of Hobart, Tasmania). Boarding at 8PM, we slept fitfully for the ten-hour passage on blue benches on the main deck. My fever broken, I was still in relatively poor shape, and grateful when at dawn we arrived at Vunisea, Kadavu’s sole town of note.
Kadavu, at 411 square kilometers, is the fourth largest of the Fiji group’s 333 islands, and the southernmost of any significant size. Because of this, and its greater exposure to the massive South Pacific, it has a bit of a reputation among other Fijians as being “cold” (a “little New Zealand,” as one put it.)
We scoffed, but arriving in what was already an unsually chilly Fijian winter, found its reputation warranted. I am not sure what the mercury read our first day, gray with rain and windlashed, probably something in the 50s, but I know I wore my wool sweater far more than I could ever have anticipated.
Most of Kadavu’s serpentine coastline is undeveloped, and the only way to get from one village to another along its length (barring a short stretch of road near Vunisea) is by boat. We stayed at a small resort in the Fijian style — individual bures, or bungalows — in a bay along the north coast, riding a dingy through the spray for an hour or so.
The first few days were quiet, mostly, as I got over my illness and we watched the sky and the ocean in its daily pageant of change. At night, we were treated to the incomparable wonder of the milky way from the South Pacific — where, due to vagaries of the earth’s orbit and a lack of pollution, seven times as many stars as can be seen in the northern hemisphere are visible — and at dawn, the pale fire of a sunrise we couldn’t quite see but that spilled over the forest to the tops of the palms and the breakers on the reef.
Both good things, though in terms of quality respective to one’s peers, Matthiessen wins. I’ve often found reading about some environment diametrically opposed to your surroundings — in this case, the Himalaya — to be a nice pairing.
A common and beautiful plant of the dry forest understory (possibly Vavaea amicorum; Meliaceae, though the orange venation is unusual. Identification courtesy of Tom Gillespie.)
Mangroves along the Kadavu coast. You’ve probably heard of mangroves: their intertidal swamps are of great importance for biodiversity, the stability of coastal ecosystems, and (most importantly for Homo sapiens) as breaks against storm surge, sea level rise, erosion, and other nasty things. Predictably, it’s an endangered habitat.
Taxonomy nerd digression: mangroves are not a monophyletic group, meaning there is no mangrove family or genus. Instead, it’s a grouping based on growth pattern, ecology, and life history comprised by species from various unrelated families. I like taxonomy, so I find this fascinating, though I’ll forgive you if you do not.
Canopy cover is typically estimated with the help of a device known as a densiometer, which quantifies the portion of light breaking through the trees. I think this photo depicts what, exactly, a densiometer is measuring nicely.
This corner of Kadavu is covered in cyclone-disturbed tropical dry forest, reminiscent to me (minus the nasty limestone substrate) of forest in the Mariana Islands. With few emergents and relatively small boles, it’s not a dramatic habitat, but nonetheless high in biodiversity and critically endangered across the Pacific, where it is usually the first forest to be cleared for agriculture.
In the sheltered valleys along streams, a much wetter microclimate prevailed, with more typical moist forest vegetation, including beautiful Cyathea tree ferns. Improbably tall, improbably ancient, they are gap specialists, and at the small theatre of cascades that was terminus to all my runs, they arced gracefully in front of the falls.
I never did get a camera up there.
Casuarina spp. of the understory. Casuarina is so named after its needle-like leaves’ resemblance to the quills (feathers) of the Cassowary, a dinosaur-like flightless bird of New Guinea and Australian rainforests. Despite resembling a pine, the Casuarinaceae are not conifers, but angiosperms.
A young breadfruit (Artocarpus altillis). This ubiquitous fruit tree was the trigger for Captain Bligh’s (Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) ill-fated voyage to Tahiti, where he intended to pick up breadfruit plants to transport to the West Indies in the hopes it would be a cheap and nutritious source of food for slaves. As the well-told story goes, his crew mutinied, dumping him in a 23 foot launch and prompting one of the most remarkable feats of navigation and survival ever, a 3618 nautical-mile journey from the central Pacific to Timor.
Staying on Kadavu, we managed to squeeze in three dives. I was SCUBA certified back in 2008, but have barely had a chance to use it since. Returning to the sport six years later was uncomfortable at first, but once I readjusted to its decidedly unnatural premise and equipment, I became much more relaxed, and remembered what a strange and wondrous joy it can be.
Fiji is the so-called soft-coral capital of the world, and relatively unaffected by coral bleaching. While I have little experience to confirm or deny this boast, I can say the reefs we visited, though seen only on modest dives near the resort, were healthy and spectacular.
A fifteen-minute paddle across the lagoon brought us to an unihabited islet covered in dense brush. Beneath the scrubby, windswept forest that covered the islet grew a surreal carpet of spikey, purple-green houseplants. (I’ve been unable to identify them, though they were common elsewhere along the Kadavu coast as well.)
As elsewhere in the rural Pacific, the presence of Cocos nucifera along the coast indicates the location of a village, either past or present, coconut palms being critical sources of food, water, and building materials across Oceania.
Interestingly, the geographic origins of the coconut palm are hazy. While currently found throughout the world’s tropics, it’s theorized the species probably originated somewhere in the Indian Ocean, its current pantropical distribution being mostly a result of human migration, though likely partly also due to its incredible dispersal ability (think floating coconuts.)
As fun as the ferry was, we were lucky enough to snag a flight back to Suva from Vunisea. The Vunisea airport begins about 20 feet inland from this beach. Pulling the dinghy up on the sand, we waded to shore, pushed through the littoral scrub, and entered the terminal. Things like this are why I love traveling.
We returned to Suva on a Wednesday, five days before our flight home. As is my unfortunate tendency, I took nearly no photos of the city itself. Which is a shame, as it’s a fascinating place, the beating heart of the South Pacific, as it were.
Lying at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, the city has relatively high standard of living, a functional benign dictatorship, the best university in the region, and the presence of numerous Western governmental agencies. As a result, its cultural influences are numerous, from the Indo-Fijians brought over by the British to work sugar cane plantations, to Solomon Islanders from the remote province of Temotu. There are mosques, Hindu temples, evangelical churches, international schools, shanty settlements, expat apartment complexes, and the best museum this side of Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología. The food is even passable.
Colo-i-Suva lies 9km north of the city, a mix of reclaimed mahogany plantation and remnant old growth. We spent Thursday morning hiking in the park, primarily for the purpose of birding.
Bird nerd digression: Bird photography is beyond the limits of my camera and my skills, which is why birding receives little mention on this primarily image-driven blog, but it’s another fascination of mine. Fiji is a rewarding place to do it. Species numbers are relatively low, as the theory of island biogeography would predict, but endemism — both local and region — is incredibly high.
Kadavu alone has four endemics (the Whistling Dove Ptilinopus layardi, the spectacular Kadavu Shining Parrot Prosopeia kadavensis, the Kadavu Honeyeater Xanthotis provocator, and the Kadavu Fantail Rhipidura personata), all of which I managed to see during our relatively long stint there. Viti Levu has its own raft of endemics, and while having only a single morning to devote to finding them meant I missed plenty of species, even easily-spotted ones, we saw plenty to keep us occupied. Highlights included Masked Shining Parrots (Prosopeia personata), Barking Pigeons (Ducula latrans), Blue-crested Flycatchers (Myiagra azureocapilla), and Fiji Goshawks (Accipiter rufitorques), among others.
Most of my experience with birds has been in New Guinea and Australia, and the taxa present in Fiji are primarily of Australasian derivation, making the broad groups — if not the species themselves — pleasantly familiar to me. (One exception to this rule are the enigmatic Prospeia parrots, believed to have originated in New Zealand.)
Beth’s colleague Pete is heavily involved in the resurrection of traditional sail travel in Oceania. You get the sense it’s an exciting time to be working on it: with an upcoming trip in a traditional voyaging canoe to Sydney in time for a global conference on climate change, and the collaboration of skilled boat-builders from all corners of the Pacific, momentum seems to be building to resurrect this ancient art to a level not seen since the end of the 19th century. (For more information on the movement, the Vaka Tamakau Project is a good place to start. We had the chance to meet crew members Simon Salopuka and Dixon Holland Wia, both from the Solomon Islands, prior to our departure for Kadavu. Good people, who were kind enough to let me practice my Tok Pisin.)
Pete’s work centers around the canoe-builders of the Korova in Suva. Korova is a settlement adjacent to USP consisting of several families from the Lau group in remote eastern Fiji, a region historically renowned for its boat-building. Korova was initally settled by drua, a fantastically fast and agile dual-hulled voyaging canoe that hasn’t been built for the greater part of a century.
These days, the artisans at Korova are hard at work preparing a camakau, or single-hulled outrigger canoe, to be used in training a new generation of Oceanic voyagers. Meanwhile, ambitious plans to complete a new drua simmer.
We spent our final afternoon in Fiji at Korova, drinking kava and eating cassava and coconut bread. Kava, the famous intoxicant of the South Pacific, is prepared from the roots and bark of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. In some regions, such as Vanuatu, it’s incredibly potent; in Fiji, the effects are more muted, and you can drink more of it more often. It remains hugely important for both ceremonial and entertainment purposes, though the taste takes some getting used to, to put it mildly.
It was perhaps as perfect an ending to our time in the archipelago as we could have asked for.
On July 12th, in the Mosquito Range east of Leadville, I won my first race, the Silver Rush 50 miler. To win was both incredibly gratifying, and seemed somewhat beside the point.
Feeling as though I raced to my potential is a marker — however ephemeral — of some success in a sport I’ve put a lot of myself into over the past few years. But like most days that go well, I don’t have much of interest to say: there is little narrative interest to be had in recounting successes. Nonetheless, I’ve been in the South Pacific for the past two weeks, and will soon be subsumed by writing about the South Pacific again, so it’s time to get this one out of my head, per the terms and conditions of any blog with a M/U/T focus.
A brief lead-up: I’ve never really been able to train consistently in the summer, due to the conflict of fieldwork overseas, and so seeing a month and a half of uninterrupted time in Denver, I knew I wanted a target race. I liked Leadville, and Silver Rush 50 fit the bill timing-wise, so I signed up. I ran decent volume and some fast workouts, and knew my lungs could work in the thin air. I tapered a little bit. I camped with Kate near the base of a favorite pass, woke up early, drank coffee, stripped down in the cold of the predawn hours at 10,000’ in the sky.
Following Choulber’s shotgun blast people sprinted up the steeply graded ski hill at the race’s start in vying for LT100 entry tokens. I jogged slowly, and then ran easily to the front of the pack, where I lead the first seven or so miles on jeeptrack through lodgepole pine forest on a clear and beautiful morning. As the course began to climb more in earnest, the sound of a snot-rocket (glamorous business, trail running) alerted me to competition approaching, and then Timmy Parr drew even with me. I had been laboring under the vague idea he was somewhere up ahead, having come to the race considering him the major competition, and so was pleased if unsurprised to see him. I figured he’d be on his way shortly, but tucked in behind him for the remainder of the first climb, a long, straight, low-grade grind to 12,000’, at the base of Mosquito Range 14er Mount Sherman.
We then turned onto a broad dirt road contouring the ridge to our north, and ran fairly hard for several miles back downhill, and to the west the high peaks of the Sawatch emerged from a sea of cloud in a blaze of lucid sunlight, and it was hard not to smile at the wonder of it all. Which is certainly preferable to succumbing to the fear of hard miles and sore quads and failure that always flits about at the edge of your subconscious, early on in these things.
We ran more jeeptrack through lodgepoles, Timmy pointing out mining-related landmarks of historic interest. Timmy is a history teacher at Leadville High, and thus was good company to have on a course that climbed back through the years as it climbed up through the Rockies. We began a second long ascent to another pass above 12,000’, circling Ball Mountain, where the tundra was green and lush with early summer snowmelt. We ran down to the mile-25 turnaround, still matching each other stride for stride, and passing through aid, to the cheers of Kate and Sue, I felt a bubble of confidence slowly rise within me, the faintest hope that perhaps, just perhaps, I was relaxed and fit enough to pull off the win. We mostly hiked back up to the pass, learning en route third place to be some 20-30 minutes back.
We ran some more, chatting now and then, though more often in companionable silence. We passed through two more aid stations, maybe running a bit more slowly now, but still hanging together. And though I was tired and my legs were growing sore the confidence grew, stemming less from any tactical calculation of Timmy’s effort or pace than from feeling there wasn’t much in the world I’d rather be doing, and that this feeling mattered. The protracted and fatiguing climb to the final 12,000’ mark of the day was clearly not the strongest running either of us had done, but as soon as we began the last long descent I noticed something hesitant in Timmy’s step, and in a few minutes I passed him, thinking only to lead for a while, perhaps shake him slightly psychologically. But then, on irrepressible impulse, I began to pick up the pace, and didn’t look back. Feeling I had enough water for the last 7 miles, I blew through the final aid station, and began to really race. Racing, as in to run as hard as you think you can hold for the rest of the course, a touch harder, even, the kind of discomfort bordering on ecstasy you do twenty-mile marathon-pace runs to discover within yourself and be able to summon (on rare occasions) on command.
The road went ever on and on, winding here and there, but all things must come to and end, and so did this. I crossed the line in 7:01:26, in first place, to the relative hoopla of a Leadville Race Series event, feeling gratitude in having had, as they say, my day. It began to rain not long after Timmy arrived about 12 miles later, and I soon left for a burger and a beer at the Dillon Dam. And then, a few days later, I left for Fiji, where I write these words, in a a bizarre coda to this report, from a world away.
What’s next? In September, I’ll be running Pine to Palm 100, my first (official) stab at the distance. Maybe I’ll run well, maybe I won’t. But I’m grateful that I’ll now always have one perfect July day flying through the high mountains of Colorado to look back on, where running, if not quite effortless, richly rewarded my efforts.
And of course, grateful for Kate and Sue’s wonderful support, Timmy’s day-long company, and the Leadville Race Series for a beautiful and smoothly run event.
I went back to Crested Butte and Gothic last weekend for the first time since leaving for good in May. I ran a race, ran for fun, drank some beers.
First, a note on the seasons. During the winter, when I’d see photos of the area taken in summer, they’d seem fake. Too intense were the colors. They were photoshopped, subject to tacky HDR manipulation, I’d think, staring back out the cabin window at the monochrome sweep of snow and dark trees. But now, here in high summer, the dog days, I’m forced to eat my proverbial trucker’s cap. Turns out Crested Butte really is that spectacularly hued. The totality and depth of its greenness in July cannot be exaggerated. The aspens and skunk cabbage in their brief months of growth and glory. Emerald tundra draping itself around the last long fingers of solstice snow. Tourists with marijuana-themed shirts.
Anyway, the race. Friday, July 4th was the 46th annual Gothic to Crested Butte 1/3rd marathon. Clearly, an event with some tradition. The course, a bit under 9 miles, grinds gently uphill for the first 4 miles on dirt road to 9600′ or so, then plummets five hard asphalt miles to town at 8900′. It’s a road race, but a classic, and given the vast number of times I had skied the first half of the route to get to town during the winter, I had to sign up.
We showed up at 2AM that morning and slept out next to the car at the fringe of a crowded campsite north of the town. I netted 3 hours of sleep before waking in a gentle rain to brew coffee and eat a banana. A few hours later, at the wave of a butterfly net, I was running off the starting line (a garden hose, actually) a bit too fast. The altitude hit, I slowed down, and got passed by three runners: two from Western State College in Gunnison, one from Grinnell (working at RMBL for the summer).
This moment in any race is always discouraging, and I’m not very good at seeing any other eventualities beyond the present reality, at least in these short, fast affairs. Fitness seems too fixed, the competition’s stride too fluid, my world too painful and narrow. But because everyone is hurting, more often than not, something gives. On this day I inexplicably began to gain on the second WSCU runner, then passed him on a short hill. As I pulled onto the pavement the Grinnell runner held 2nd place some 30 seconds up, and for the next few miles of hard downhill running he slowly increased that gap. I turned my feet over as quickly as I could, and didn’t look back for fear of the pursuit, but assumed my place was secure in both directions.
Queue the dramatic finish: as the grade lessened a mile from town, I began to gain on him, slowly but surely. With a half mile to go I pulled even and we blazed towards main street. We were both in a lot of pain, and some softer part of my being compelled me to clap him on the shoulder and offer an encouraging word as I began to pass. At which point he kicked hard and crossed the line a second or so ahead. Next time, I’m going to try to be demoralizing.
I ended up running 50:19 for my 3rd place finish, or around 5:45 pace, which I’ll take without complaint.
Third, a run for fun. Sunday, sore but less sore than Saturday, I joined Sean and Peter (who had also raced and finished a strong 4th and 7th, respectively) for a classic bit of Crested Butte mountain running. Leaving from Elk Avenue, we ran up the east ridge of Red Lady (12392′), traversed Scarp Ridge, bombed down to Lake Irwin, and cruised a mix of dirt road, adjacent singletrack, and asphalt back whence we came. Someday, I’ll try and put some words down that do justice to how life-affirming this sort of running is, to try and capture the electric thrill of looking up from filling your bottle with snowmelt rushing through the tundra at the mountains before and behind wearing nothing but shorts and racing flats. Suffice it to say it was a perfect morning. 22 miles and 4600′ was a bit of a stupid move taper-wise, but it toured as spectacular a landscape as I’ve seen in Colorado, and finishing something like that feeling as strong as I did is always a big confidence builder.
More importantly, though, life is short, and you just can’t pass these opportunities up.
Another prosaic skiing post following a long winter of them. Except maybe not so prosaic for its novelty, because it’s mid-June. At any rate, Peter lured me out to Indian Peaks Wilderness against my better, dirt-loving judgement. We ended up climbing Mt. Audubon (13,233′), and skiing its south face via the Crooked Couloir. It’s a fantastic line: 1600′, much of it sustained over 40 degrees, plum-lining but for a slight dogleg towards an alpine lake that even now in the onset of a hot summer was still frozen over and showing only veins of aquamarine on its surface. Firm but edgeable up top, creamy and not too ridged down below. Certainly a pleasing descent.
The rest of the day highlighted the absurdity of ski mountaineering as an end unto itself. We spent nearly 7 hours out to slide down that vein of snow, the vast majority hiking in trail shoes. This included a solid 6 miles of asphalt road in getting to and from the trailhead from the winter closure gate. Why this gate is still closed is a secret known only to the Forest Service — it will probably open tomorrow — but as we failed to bring bikes, the joke is on us.
Certainly the crux of the trip was the usually mellow tundra walk up Mt. Audubon’s east ridge, which became a draining ordeal in constant, 35 mph + winds. Talus-hopping required particular patience, as a poorly timed leap into the ravenous gusts could easily sweep you off the feet. We huddled in the summit’s rock castles for some time, trying to muster enthusiasm for the unseen plunge.
As reported, it turned out great, and we soon were at the shores of Blue Lake, faced with at least six miles of slogging over melting snow and that cursed asphalt back to the car, a slow, relatively low-exertion sort of travel that is nonetheless uniquely exhausting to me. Inevitably, we joked half-seriously about whether it was “worth it.” Perhaps not, but I think the beauty of the sport is how thoroughly it ignores, defies, subverts such valuations. An old axiom in mountaineering (c.f. “Conquistadors of the Useless”), but one that bears repeating, I think.
And once in a while, relearning firsthand.
Looking north to Longs Peak massif and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Peter wishes it weren’t windy.
Blue Lake from the entrance to the couloir. Beginning at a welcoming 35 degrees, it quickly steepens.
Peter, halfway down.
Mt. Toll (12979′)
Crooked Couloir is the obvious top to bottom chute in the center of the frame.
Went to Leadville, read Stegner in my sleeping bag, as you do. I bookended a night under the lodgepoles — droning mosquitoes, skies of impossible clarity — with runs up Mt. Elbert (14,440’) and Hagerman Pass to the Continental Divide (12,100’).
What is it about running at high elevation that is so captivating? Perhaps it is the world reduced to a handful of parameters: breathing, footfall, stark lines and golden light. Simple, symmetrical goals. Struggle and resolution. I’ve lost my acclimation down here in the mile-high, but that’s okay. I can still move pretty quickly in the thin air.
After jogging up and down Elbert, a glissade thrown in for good measure, I soaked in the headwaters of the Arkansas, frigid and raging with snowmelt. That evening I was utterly rejuvenated, a touch of tendonitis I’d been managing all but gone. I set out for an evening shakeout along Turquoise Lake, my legs feeling the best they’d felt all week. The body often defies mechanical logic.
The next morning, Hagerman beckoned, and the long, mellow incline to to the spine of the continent slipped away without much effort. There are still some impressively deep drifts of snow up there: even in a dry subrange of generally dry mountains, I’m always impressed at the vagaries of land and climate in producing these patches of lushness. Back at the car, I basked and ate a banana.
But now I am back in Denver, discontented. I left Leadville midday after hemming and hawing about staying another night, but some sense of obligation and rationality drove me down. I should look after the house while Kate’s away; I should be in the city because it’s less fun and makes me feel more like I have a real job; it’s in the name of injury prevention. Reasons that got me on I-70, but were immediately regretted when I hit the Front Range. When I’m feeling charitable, Denver has its perks but can be a hard place to live. When I’m feeling uncharitable, this town sucks.
There are good reasons I’m here, but busyness and the need to be productive isn’t one of them, as my job is based elsewhere and mostly remote — should I have needed to call in, City on a Hill would have been fine. I am not a more moral creature for coming down early. Probably the opposite.
The May 12th issue of the New Yorker (available here from the E.O. Wilson Foundation) features an article by D.T. Max, profiling The Nature Conservancy (TNC) CEO Mark Tercek, and more broadly detailing a rift in the conservation community that has arisen over the past decade or so. The rift, between so-called “new” and “old” schools of conservation thought, is of great interest to me, both in its intellectual and personal implications.
Briefly put, the rift has arisen between two ideological strains within the greater movement. On the one hand, “new” conservation (best embodied by Tercek, TNC Chief Scientist Peter Karieva, Stuart Brand) moves away from traditional modes of land protection to emphasize “sustainability”, less strident rhetoric and inclusivity (particularly courting urban populations), climate change, and works to create partnerships in the corporate world (this is a particular focus of the Max article). On the other hand, “old” conservation (best embodied by Michael Soulé, Dave Foreman, E.O. Wilson, Reed Noss) puts primacy on biodiversity, and the permanent protection of land parcels selected for their biodiversity value — national parks, wilderness areas, refuges.
Despite these ostensibly aligned goals — and let me emphasize off the bat these goals are all good things, in theory — debate between these factions has proved acrimonious. “Old” conservationists accuse “new” conservationists of being conciliatory, of supporting a water-down, domesticated version of nature, wherein (to quote Michael Soulé) “wild places and national parks [are replaced] with domesticated landscapes containing only nonthreatening, convenient plants and animals.” “New” conservationists in turn accuse the old guard of being unrealistic, unpragmatic, misanthropic, perhaps racist.
There is, of course, truth to some of these claims. We need novel solutions. Historically, nature preserves (notably in Africa) have been created with utter disregard for indigenous inhabitants. The old guard of conservation, mostly pioneers from the emergence of conservation biology as a science in the 1980s, are a uniformly white, over-educated, privileged lot (Soulé, Noss, Wilson). But then again, so are Tercek and his ilk, so I’m not sure this criticism carries much weight, at least as a reason to choose one camp over the other.
So goes the synopsis. But why is this relevant to me and this blog? Because I am at once a member of the generation that has come to understand environmentalism almost solely in terms of “new” conservation as an ideology (the urban-chicken, web-activist, composting set) and yet grew up ensconced in “old” conservation culture, courtesy of my parents’ professions. And ultimately, it is the latter set of values, not the former, where my sympathies lie.
I read Peter Karieva and Michelle Marvier’s (notable nü-conservationists) textbook on ‘Conservation Science’ during a seminar class in 2012. My dislike of it was immediate. From its cover (featuring a monoculture — a rice paddy) to its passive-agressive jabs at conservation biologists (not a holistic enough field, apparently, for the authors), the book grated. Moreso did an infamous article by the same authors entitled Conservation in the Anthropocene. To quote one of its defining passages: “…instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.”
In other words, conservation should be guided by our own self-interest. In my mind, nü-conservation as a package reeks of intellectual and moral laziness: we are nature, ergo everything we do helps nature, ergo there is no need to modify our behavior. (Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity posts a great rebuttal here.) But more important to picking a side than simply disliking this approach, I feel a strong allegiance to the word view and values of the old guard. Values that are distinctly lacking in environmentalism’s post-modern iteration. To again quote Michael Soulé, from the Max article: “It’s emotional…I don’t mind admitting that I’ve just always been in love with wild nature.”
This is the reason I wanted to become a biologist as a grade schooler, why I’ve signed off the next 5 years of my life chasing a Ph.D., probably even the reason I run too much. But I sense little room in the self-professedly “inclusive” tent of nü-conservation for non-anthropocentric world views, and little to inspire the requisite passion for conservation in a movement to protect convenient species in domesticated landscapes while dismissing conservation of our relictual wildlands as “misanthropic.”
All of which may come of as an arcane, academic, inconsequential debate. But it matters to me, and if it matters to you, too, I’d like to hear from you.
The results of illegal logging operations in the Bewani foothills await export in Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. It’s a sad cliché, but we’re losing species before we even know they exist.
It almost never happens, though. And slowly, I’m starting to see that as a good thing. I’ll always be tangled up in the places I’ve lived or stayed. Too many messy endings. But those same loose ends will hopefully drag me back someday, or at least maintain a stronger connection in memory than something that provided more closure.
Last Thursday, the county plowed the road into Gothic, and then the following day opened it for public traffic. I spent one last weekend at my cabin, no longer snowbound or alone, surrounded strange things like other people and laughter and headlights and wildflowers, before loading my life into my car and driving down to Denver.
Patrick and Taylor, one month in to a summer road trip odyssey, joined me for my final days.
We skied up Copper Creek with the intention of climbing White Rock Mountain, but spooky snow and bad navigation foiled our efforts. Not that I had much to complain about.