Running, back in the Butte

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Sunday’s outing. Start with espresso at the Sunflower, end with beer and pizza at the Brick.

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.

Skiing Mt. Audubon’s (13,233′) Crooked Couloir

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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.
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Looking north to Longs Peak massif and Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Peter wishes it weren’t windy.
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Blue Lake from the entrance to the couloir. Beginning at a welcoming 35 degrees, it quickly steepens.
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Home free.
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Mt. Toll (12979′)
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Crooked Couloir is the obvious top to bottom chute in the center of the frame.

Leadville and urban malaise

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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.

Lesson learned. When in doubt, stay higher.
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Some words in defense of “old” conservation

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Deep in the Bewani Mountains, Papua New Guinea, in 2010. The range, an isolated pocket of montane habitat surrounded by lowland rainforest, has never seen a comprehensive biological survey.

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.
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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.

The End

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You always want things to be tidy, at the end.

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.
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Patrick and Taylor, one month in to a summer road trip odyssey, joined me for my final days.
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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.
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I’d be lying if I said I didn’t choke up as Gothic Mountain shrank in my rearview mirror. Until we meet again.

Mt. Whetstone (12,527′) traverse

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Mt. Whetstone (12,527′) is the first major peak you see driving into Crested Butte. It’s a beautiful, imposing mountain, the sort you immediately want to trace lines on, but access is tricky due to an encircling belt of private property. Given this, and its distance from Gothic, I didn’t expect to get the chance to ski it this winter. Which is why when I met Sean during Saturday’s race and he suggested we ski something on Sunday, I mentioned it, and found myself hiking out of Gothic at 5AM on fried legs wondering what the hell I was doing.
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We started in Crested Butte, climbed over the insanely steep and forested ridge that backs the town to the south, lost a depressing amount of elevation and switched to hiking to get to the mountain’s base. From there, we skinned and booted almost 3K to the summit. Confession: I really enjoy hiking in ski boots for some reason (it’s situational, not ergonomic). I got to do plenty of it.
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Looking northeast, with Mt. Crested Butte visible across the valley, Gothic and Snodgrass on the far left, and most of the Elk Range in the distance.
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Our line of descent doglegged left into the mountain’s east-facing bowl, then followed the avalanche path in the trees below to a somewhat spicy exit gully full of rotten snow.
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Whetstone’s south ridge, with myriad wet slides. Temperatures were in the 60s most of the weekend.
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Carbon Peak (12,079′).
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Despite worrying about summiting too late in the morning during our endless approach, we ended up timing our descent perfectly on soft but supportive corn. Sean shreds. Since he’s a splitboarder, I think I can use that word with a straight face.
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After the snow ran out, we ‘schwacked out to a Forest Service road that eventually brought us back to 135, where Sean’s girlfriend obligingly picked us up. Thanks Kylee!
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My GPS eventually died, but the point to point route ended up being something on the order of 8 miles and 4500′ of gain, which undersells the difficulty of the terrain, at least in late spring conditions. I ended the weekend feeling thoroughly worked but gratified by my labors. The juxtaposition of snowy alpine above and budding willows and aspens below — from cornices to butterflies — was certainly a treat. .

Grabbing some Pliny at the Brick afterwards, even more so.

2014 Sageburner 25K: +2400′ / 2:02 / 3rd

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How does skiing fitness translate to running? That was the question of the hour at the 2014 Sageburner 25K at Hartman Rocks just outside of Gunnison, Colorado. Other than the odd jog when down in Denver, I had mostly stopped running after becoming snowed in last November. At the start of April, with (infrequent spells) of warmer weather hinting at a still-hypothetical but approaching summer, I started to make the trip down to Gunnison or Crested Butte to rehabilitate my legs to repetitive impact. After a month and a half, I had logged a few long runs in Boulder, a handful of decent track workouts, and a 15 mile tempo run in 1:39. Some quality, but not much in the way of volume, rarely getting out to run more than two or three times a week. I did, however, continue to ski plenty.

And the skiing seemed to help, to a point. I struggled tackling uphills with any measure of speed, and felt the miles in my legs much earlier than I would have liked, but overall leg strength let me hang on once my shallow running base failed me. I ran in 6th for the first third of the race, before slipping past Bobby Reyes on one of the more technical descents and moving in behind Timmy Parr before he decided to get down to business and jump into second place ahead of Sean and a Western State cross country runner. The WSCU runner eventually blew up, and I had a nice time chatting with Sean before I pulled into 3rd on an extended downhill, a position I held for the rest of the race, with a brief scare around mile 12 when Bobby pulled back into my peripheral vision and goaded me into picking up the pace. I hammered the final descent down from Hartman’s slickrock spine and crossed the line in 2:02:30. Slower than I was hoping, but the race ended up being close to a mile long, so I’ll take it.

The course itself is a deceptively challenging bit of running, but beautiful.The trails at Hartman Rocks were designed with mountain bikes in mind, alternatively technical or buffed, rock or sandy, and constantly rolling. Bobby described it a bit like running fartleks: you’re either hitting 12 minute pace uphill or 5 minute pace downhill, and never get the chance to fall into a groove. You’re also always between 7800′ and 8400′ elevation. But spring in sagebrush country is lovely, pale green affair, and you get to soak it in for 25K, winding in and out of little washes, around rocky outcroppings, and through the odd grove of marooned aspens. Certainly a race worthy of your consideration.

The Camel’s Humps (13,043′)

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Picea englemannii up close and personal. A large number of individuals around Gothic show red-orange bark (versus a more typical gray). I like these trees.

The Camel’s Humps are locally prominent twin peaks in the Copper Creek drainage, visible from much of Crested Butte. Besides holding their own on the horizon and sharing a name with my favorite mountain, they manage to earn 13er status by 40-odd feet, the closest summits to Gothic to do so. With winter hanging on like a lamprey (22 inches of snow in 24 hours from Sunday to Monday, 12 degrees this morning, no imminent respite forecasted), it seemed time to tick ‘em. Two and a half hours of alternating skinning and booting brought me to their apogee, having climbed the final pitch in the footsteps of a mountain goat. Where it was going, I’m not sure, but it showed an uncanny ability to find firm purchase among the deeper drifts and loose stones of the peak.
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The Camel’s Humps are the twin peaks to the right of the frame. Photographed in drier conditions a few weeks ago. I skied from the rightmost summit, sticking to climber’s left of the exposed scree ridge.
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Looking to the southwest from the the summit. The craggy ridge in the center of the frame terminates in Avery Peak’s diamond slab. Gothic and Snodgrass are visible in the middle distance, with glimpses of Mounts Axtell, Emmons (Red Lady), and Owens left to right in the background.
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Looking east at White Rock Mountain (13,540′, right) and its smaller sibling the White Widow (left).
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Unfortunately, the morning never really warmed up as predicted, instead clouding over and bringing unwelcome snow squalls. I ended up descending on a hard crust, with here and there a skim of powder. I’ve done a bunch of skiing on relatively steep, hard, consistent snow lately, and have managed to refine my technique to the point where it’s fairly comfortable and I don’t skid out too much (doing so on light skis and tech bindings replicates the sensation of having your legs hammered repeatedly with a baseball bat). The “loud powder” (as Patrick calls it) can be its own sort of fun. Stem christies help.
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Someday I’ll ski with other people again and they can take photos of me.
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The ominous devil goat from an earlier tour remains. Watching. Ever vigilant.

The mundane

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One of the winter’s effects has been to transform the spectacular to the mundane. The sheer quality and quantity of notable experiences overwhelm critical faculties. A perfect morning of solitary skiing in a landscape of endless drama becomes routine and unexceptional.

Today was one of those mornings. I circumnavigated the Avery Peak complex by linking up Rustler’s Gulch and Copper Creek. It was one of the first routes I mentally traced on a map last fall, but has been too avalanche prone to ski for most of the winter. Rustler’s Gulch was particularly impressive, but somewhat foreboding in its long expanse of barren white emptiness. I found myself smiling to be back in dense forest flanking Copper Creek — I think I’ll always be most at home in the trees. 14 miles, 3600′, and back by 10 for coffee with G+K. During any other period of my life, a standout tour. Here, a blurb only to jog my memory, because as things wind down I am again trying to not to take things for granted. I am trying not to forget.

Would have been easier not to forget if I hadn’t bumped a dial on my camera and overexposed all the day’s photos, though.

An adventure: Virginia Basin to Copper Creek

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Adventure is a wonderful concept and an overused, abused word. I’ve been lucky enough to spend the winter in a beautiful, fairly remote, place, but infrequently have I had real adventures. Adventure mandates discomfort, the unexpected, perhaps even being scared. Most of the time, as I’ve explored this valley, its veins, and its attendant peaks, things have gone my way. Which I am grateful for: luck and conservative decisions have kept me safe on hundreds of solo outings in an inherently risky pastime.

This morning, however, things were different. I had a (small) adventure.
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The idea was to link up Virginia Basin to the Copper Creek drainage by way of a pass that drops into a small basin below two locally prominent peaks known as the Camel’s Humps. Two days prior I had skied from their flanks, garnering a view of the descent from the ridge dividing the two basins. It seemed doable, if steep and cliffy, and my interest was piqued in the possibility of the loop. With a seasonally-unwelcome but conditions-refreshing storm arriving on my return from New Mexico, skiing has again been the order of the day, and I’ve spent the week enjoying the higher reaches of this corner of the Elk Range.
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After negotiating larges patches of dirt on the initial climb to the basin, I skinned absentmindedly up to treeline. Yesterday, with my attention turning towards training and the coming summer of mountain running, I did a time-trial ascent of Red Lady, and so this morning’s effort was kept relatively low by intent. The Virginia Basin has been one of my favorite Gothic-area spots since first visiting it with Kate in December, but I’ve not returned nearly as often as it deserves. With balmy 20-some degree temperatures, even in the shade, it was easy to catch myself pausing (resting) to take it all in.
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I topped out after a 3000′ climb in about 1:30, and spent a while exploring the ridge and enjoying the views as I scoped out my descent. I first headed west, before turning back at the prospect of punchy snow and a large cornice. Returning to exposed scree, I tagged the summit post and decided to ski from the low point of the saddle, where there was no cornice to manage.
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I dropped in and cautiously approached the rollover. The snow was good, boosting my confidence, but as I lost elevation a clear way down failed to materialize. I turned first left, and then right, each possible line seeming to terminate in a cliff band. Pausing for a moment, I though about booting back up, but below me was a thin ridge of stunted firs, and I figured they might offer an exit. Plus, booting is hard.

But no exit came. It was more apparent with each steep turn that I was in a no-fall zone, and I had to work to stay focused and keep the exposure from getting to me. Another avenue closed itself, and I found myself perched above those stunted firs, contemplating my options, and kicking myself for making the wrong choice, for not better preparing for a serious descent. Nervously edging to the right, I finally saw my only option.

There was a way through: steep and narrow and with poor coverage, but a line traceable on snow alone nonetheless. I took it, sideslipping to its entrance. Two more turns triggered waves of sluff, and I stopped. The descent, a maze of cliff bands whose breaks were misaligned and demanded sketchy traversing, was beginning to look improbable, particularly in its choke, whose width appeared not to exceed the length of my ski. Should a tip catch an edge of rock, I would be launched down over the subsequent band of cliffs, which was an undesirable outcome. I hemmed and hawed, before deciding the safest option was to downclimb. Anchoring myself to the 50+ degree slope, I shouldered my skis and begin kicking steps backwards.
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I am becoming more comfortable with exposure, and with climbing steep snow, and am proud I was able to stay focused and keep a mostly cool head. But, as ever, situations like this force unwelcome thoughts into your head. You wish for a second whippet (it would be useful, certainly). You wish you had studied photos of the the slope and known where descend (you should have). You regret not telling someone where you were headed (a mistake). You think about falling (even though you probably won’t).
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The crux came as the snow grew more shallow and I struggled to seat each foot against some sort of heinous tallus substrate. Nevertheless, I stuck to the wall and inched downward, and a short eternity later, I was safe. I reaffixed my skis, and made a hop turn around a patch of krumholtz to gain access to the slope’s runout. It was covered in avalanche debris and choppy, but I didn’t care. I only felt relief.
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Within minutes, the ordeal had already diminished in my mind, and I was congratulating myself for overcoming an unexpected obstacle — for surviving the adventure unscathed. But then, charging down to the creek in a gully of perfect corn, an omen appeared. A coyote, shaggy and wild, was tugging at the carcass of a mountain goat. There but for the grace of god, as they say.

I skated the remaining miles back to the cabin, relishing in that particular joy that its rhythmic, gliding grace offers. Some days, nordic skiing skiing seems like all the thrill I need.

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