It’s been over a year since I last posted here, and I’m a little sad about it. Beyond the Ranges has been a labor of love, a reminder that I love taking photographs, and the archive of a half decade of adventure between the end of college and the present day. But lately, there have been a number of reasons I can’t keep it up. Writing for The Stranger and my subsequent increase in freelancing activity certainly cut in to my desire to pen 3000-plus carefully considered words about sliding on snow. My own interest in reading about running and skiing has decreased lately. Blogs in general appear to be a thing of the past. Most importantly, I needed to start a real professional website, which became my primary home on the internet, and BTR proved a bit too big and clunky to import from WordPress.
I can’t pretend I haven’t missed it, though, and I always intended to start writing casually again. So I’d ask anyone who enjoyed reading BTR to bookmark the address for my new blog, where I hope to regain momentum. It might not stick, and I’ll be leaving this site up for posterity, but it’s time for a change. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it more succinct and more fun, for longer. Expect fewer detailed race reports, a more curated selection of photos, and more biology. I’ll try and get a comments section up soon – thanks to everyone who’s stopped by over the years.
100 mile races are stupid, and as far as I’m concerned, no one really knows how to prepare for them. It appears there are nearly as many training philosophies as there are racers, running the gamut from programs with limited weekly mileage and a handful of excessive long runs to programs topping 200 miles a week and featuring back-to-back weekend 50-milers. Choosing among these belief systems to seems to be as much a matter of culture, available free time, and outlook as anything data-driven. All of which is to preface my own unsolicited opinions with a disclaimer that I’m no more of an authority than anyone else, and largely do what I find fun.
And what makes up this “fun,” you ask? Broadly speaking, I subscribe to a Lydiardian doctrine in theory, if not always in practice. Its tenets are simple: run a lot, most of it easy, regulating volume and effort to consistently hit hard workouts (but not too many of these!). Since April, this has meant 70-95 miles and 10,000-15,000’of climbing a week, usually with some number of 1.5-3 minute hill repeats one day and a tempo-paced effort another. I’m happy with my consistency, but what I haven’t done are the sort of 8-hour slogfests many 100 mile runners swear by, opting instead for back-to-back 20 milers and 2-5 hour runs in the mountains at a decent intensity, often the day after a race. Whether this is enough will become clear sometime on Saturday, but I’m fit, healthy, and used to running on trashed legs, so I suspect the final outcome at Leadville will depend more on execution, psychology, and luck than anything else.
In keeping with this broad plan, then, I decided my peak weeks of training in late July would be punctuated by two shorter distance mountain races at high altitude. The first of these, The Kendall Mountain Run, has been on my radar for a few years, mostly because it’s an appealingly pure event based on a 1908 barroom bet: start in downtown Silverton (9308′), run to the top of Kendall Mountain (13,066′), and bomb back down as fast as you can. Thanks to this aesthetic simplicity, a spectacular location, and a large prize purse, it’s become one of the most competitive mountain races in Colorado, perhaps this year especially so. Among the contenders were Dakota Jones, Timmy Parr (who I raced in the 2014 Silver Rush 50, and who thoroughly trounced me here), East African marathoners Daniel Haids and Gebrekedian, and the usual stable of dark-horse local runners.
Arriving in Silverton around 7, I jogged a couple of miles before we lined up on main street — just enough to know I wasn’t feeling particularly fresh. At the gun (literally a Colt 45), we shot off the line quickly, holding around 6 mpm pace before the grade kicked up on the slopes of Kendall itself. I had initially planned to keep Timmy in my sights, but quickly realized he was going to easily drop me, and so settled into my own groove instead. It was a surprisingly brutal climb, and one of the only times during the season I had to consciously fight thoughts of stopping. Other than a few moments of power hiking, though, I managed to run almost every step of the ascent until the summit scramble, albeit feeling weak throughout.
The lead five or so runners were coming off this loose, rocky knob as I pushed up it, topping out in 7th place before being summarily passed on the descent by three runners tight on my heels. Somewhat bumbling and slow as I skated back to the jeep road, I mainly focused on not eating shit, picking up the pace as the footing mellowed out. But again, running downhill hard required constant focus, and as my mind wandered into complacency I found myself slowing down. Finally, however, the high volume of my recent training began to pay off, and I reeled in one of the runners who had passed me shortly before hitting the final flat / gentle uphill mile to the finish in the town park. Per Peter’s report from last year’s event, I knew this was likely to be the spot my wheels came off, but while my legs did indeed feel like lead I managed a 6:30 split to cross the line in 1:50:37, in 9th place.
Thanks to the excellent advice of Jonathan Thompson, Kate and I spent the rest of the day eating and swimming in the Animas. If I get the chance to spend next summer out here as well, I’ll certainly be back to Kendall, and give it focused training and a taper.
A few years ago, visiting Gothic, CO and the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab for the first time after ending my stint as a winter caretaker there, I commented on this blog about how summer in the East River Valley overwhelms the senses.
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.
This summer, living 55 miles away in Paonia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time at RMBL — crashing on Peter’s floor, running, watching talks, running, giving a talk. (I also hopped into the Gothic 1/3rd Marathon unacclimated and ran :53 for 6th, a few minutes slower than 2014 but a nice kickoff to the next month of training in the high country.) None of which is as quite as good as living and doing research in this magical place, but given the constraints of my Ph.D., it’ll have to do for now.
One things for sure: my feelings on the colors of the Elk Mountains this time of year haven’t changed.
Mt. Bellview (12,520′), myriad forbs.
The Ruby Range from Beckwith Pass, in between Crested Butte and Paonia.
I spent most of the months of May and June in San Francisco as a visiting researcher at the California Academy of Sciences. It’s the second time I’ve (briefly) lived in the city and worked at the museum, but both my science and my ability to appreciate the city have come a long way in the past three years. (Living just off vibrant 24th Street in the Mission District, in a storied artists’ haunt where SFO rock legends Flipper recorded the seminal Album – Generic Flipper, certainly helped).
My time at CAS marked the official start of my dissertation research, with the help of collaborators Zach Hanna, Anna Sellas, and Jack Dumbacher. I’ll write more about the underlying questions and motivations behind the project later, but the proximate reason for the trip was to attempt to collect genome-wide sequence data from the highly degraded DNA found in historical museum specimens. Zach, Anna, and Jack had been testing a newly described method to do this, and the ornithology collections at CAS had many of the specimens I needed for my research, so it was an obvious place to do the work. The push to finish data collection and run analyses before the 2016 Evolution Meetings in Austin, Texas meant long hours and a drain on everyone’s time, but we got it done. Once again, I feel lucky to have such wonderful collaborators. (If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of the method we were using, I’ve written about it previously over at The Molecular Ecologist.)
The six-week stay also completed my transition from spring training to preparing in earnest for Leadville 100, now only weeks away. Without a car, I spent most of my time running in the city, linking together hilltop open space and cruising around Golden Gate Park, where CAS is conveniently located. When I did make it out of town to run, it was usually on BART, either hopping off in Berkeley to grunt up Tilden’s fire roads or south to San Bruno Mountain Park, an appealing chaparral coated ridgeline south of the city proper. The one exception to this public-transport trail running was an idyllic weekend on the Mendocino Coast with old college friends, where I tore around in the redwoods and survived a night in the fog without a sleeping bag. (Strong beer before bed, emebrs in the fire pit, and a wool blanket did the trick.)
My running was consistent to a fault — perhaps seeding some muscle imbalances I’m still sorting out after compulsively running around Bernal Heights the same way most mornings — but the hours of asphalt, exhaust, and hard dirt eventually took their mental toll. To shake the onset of complacency and burnout, I ended up racing twice last my two weeks in town, first jumping into the San Bruno Mountain Run Half Marathon, and then into the Rodeo Valley Trail Run 50K in the Marin Headlands. I won both events, but with markedly different degrees of satisfaction in my performance. On the one hand, the half marathon went off without a hitch: I could tell early on I was going to be able to pull away from the rest of the field without destroying myself, and ran a effortful but controlled race that resulted in a (very young) CR. On the other hand, the 50K was a far more uneven affair, building a 10+ minute lead over the first 20 miles and then nearly losing all of it to Jeff Quinn’s smart pacing after bad leg cramps set in. I’ve suffered from similar cramps before, and the common denominator seems to be running hard down dirt roads. Something to train for in the future.
I’m currently in San Francisco as a visiting researcher at the California Academy of Sciences, a position that gives me a month and a half at one of my favorite institutions in a vibrant city, but sadly cut spring and summer skiing in the Pacific Northwest short. A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the move and a premature end to the season, I took a Thursday off to climb and ski Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker; 10,781’) with Erik, via the Easton Glacier.
The Easton Glacier route, though heavily crevassed, is a popular ski — popular enough that I joked with Erik that I was surely the only skier in the Northwest to have knocked out both the Enchantment and Chiwaukum traverses in a day, but not this relatively straightforward objective on one of our sentinel stratovolcanoes. Regardless, it’s a truly classic line: 7,700’ of more or less uninterrupted descent from the summit, with superlative views of the North Cascades and Puget Sound.
Leaving Seattle at 4AM, we were skinning by 6:30, on the summit 5 hours and 40 minutes later, and back to the car for beers and potato chips in 7:45 elapsed or so. The snow on the relatively steep Roman Wall was just about perfect corn; below 7K things got mushy, as only to be expected on route spanning such a large elevational gradient. The most notable aspect of the conditions we encountered was a thick cloud band that had us skiing by braille from 4500′ to 6500′ and made for surreal views up high.
Back under grey skies in Seattle for a formal dinner that evening, it was hard not to feel a little smug.
Steaming, sulfurous fumaroles, just here to remind you Mt. Baker last erupted in 1880.
Mt. Shuksan (center) and the northwest corner of the North Cascades.
On the Easton, immediately after breaking out above the clouds.
Erik demonstrates whippet use #29.
Migration is closely associated with birds in the popular imagination, from the writings of Aristotle and Homer to modern documentary films. Which is why it may be surprising to learn tracking migratory birds remains a significant scientific problem. While radio telemetry and GPS geologgers can both reveal the movements of birds across the landscape, they are limited to larger species that can tolerate their weight, and to small sample sizes due to their expense. Small samples sizes, never ideal in science, are a particular problem here because of the inherent stochasticity of migration: individuals may veer off course, and are frequently subject to predation. Because of this, it’s hard to know whether those individuals researchers do successfully track are representative of their population or species.
An alternative to this “direct” approach of inferring migration patterns is to use population level data and determine whether densities of a particular species in a particular region change over time, possibly indicating many individuals of that species are going somewhere else (e.g., migrating). For example, the citizen science initiative eBird records bird observations from across the globe and archives them in a freely accessible online database. These records can be then used to visualize patterns that would otherwise escape us, as my labmate CJ did by taking records of Rufous Hummingbirds from western North America and plotting them across the months to show their circular migratory pattern around the Rockies (see the captivating .gif here).
However, though eBird’s international records are improving, its data remains biased toward the United States and Western Europe. Aggregated museum specimen records offer relatively large datasets with better geographical and historical representation, and are a natural extension of this indirect (or metanalytical) approach. These data do, however, come with their own biases, particularly regarding the lack of any standardized information around collecting effort, or how much time a given scientist spent sampling birds in a given region. Without this information, it’s hard to know whether a large number of individual specimens represent high population densities, or simply the fact that the collector spent a long time in that area.
To overcome this problem, Sievert Rohwer (emeritus curator of ornithology at the Burke) developed a formula known as an abundance index, or AI for short.* AIs correct raw specimen counts of a particular species at a particular time and place for collecting effort by transforming them into a ratio over the total number of birds of other species at the same time and place expected to be collected in a similar way. What this means is that using AI values, species are assumed to be abundant only if their specimens make up a high proportion of the total load of individual birds in that region and interval. Sievert and colleagues have already used abundance indices to illustrate migratory double breeding and faunal change in NW Mexico, and the method seems likely to continue to provide opportunities to use natural history museum collections in new ways.
Which brings us back to migration. Recently, I worked with Sievert and colleagues at University of Oklahoma and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to apply AIs to the question of where Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) went after arriving in Mexico for the winter from their breeding grounds in the southern US. Both Sievert and the team at Oklahoma suspected the western population of Painted Buntings (our focus) first arrived in Sinaloa in the fall before moving down the coast later in the winter, eventually traveling back to their breeding grounds up the gulf coast. In other words, we thought the birds were tracing a circle around Mexico’s central mountains.
Using a comprehensive database of all Mexican birds in museums worldwide assembled by Adolfo G. Navarro-Sigüenza, we plotted AI values across the months to visualize any potential patterns in space and time. We then tested for the statistical significance in the change in bunting densities among regions (in case our eyes were tricking us), and using remote sensing data, tested to see if these changes we observed were correlated to changes in live green vegetation (known as the “green wave” hypothesis). The result? Our hypothesis of “circular” movement was supported, and bunting specimens were nonrandomly distributed on areas with the greatest amount of live green vegetation across the winter.
There’s a lot more you could do with AIs and museum specimen records, which seem like they might be particularly useful for determining crude population trends in difficult-to-survey regions. In the mean time, you can read our paper here.
*Interestingly, a group of Japenese botanists developed the abundance index method independently, which they used to assess changes in medicinal plant population sizes with herbarium records.
Unless you’re a dedicated Washington-based backcountry skier or hiker, you probably haven’t heard of the Chiwaukum Traverse, or even the Chiwaukums in general, a subrange of the eastern Cascades between Icicle Creek and Highway 2. Though their northern flanks are visible from Steven’s Pass, the Chiwaukums tend to be overshadowed by the fame of the nearby Stuart Range / Enchantment Lakes region, and are nowhere easy to access. But despite their relative obscurity, the group boasts what is arguably the best ski terrain in the Pacific Northwest: grand vertical relief graced by a relatively large area above treeline that is neither excessively craggy nor glaciated. Because of this, a north / south transect of the Chiwaukums has become one of Washington’s premier multi-day ski traverses for skiers of a certain persuasion. In fine Cascadian style, it’s wet, wooly, and remote — and thoroughly devoid of the European comforts of huts, lifts, or beta. (America!)
Which is why over a month ago now, though still reeling physically from the Grand Traverse, I found it impossible to turn down Todd Kilcup’s invitation to ski the route in a day. Todd is typical of talented PNW ski mountaineers in pushing the envelope in an understated, under-the-radar style. It was a pleasure to share the day with him, which turned out to be one of the more memorable I’ve spent on skis.
Other than the two of us, Todd’s frequent partners and coworkers Pat and John joined us, intending to ski the route at a slightly slower pace and reciprocally facilitating a car shuttle. Arriving in the Icicle Creek drainage late Friday night, we slept out under shifting clouds and stars, laying out pads and sleeping bags in a margin of grass that yielded at least one tick (Todd ended up picking it off on the summit of Snowgrass Mountain the next day).
The next morning, Pat and John left our roadside bivy shortly after 3AM. Todd and I followed at 4, following several false starts in which I managed to sequentially leave my socks, gloves, and water in the car. Though we had hoped to drive all the way to the trailhead, we were disappointed to discover the road remained closed some five and a half miles from our assumed starting point, and so began the day in running shoes, shuffling over asphalt, dirt, and dirty snow. At some point, the snow became continuous enough that I was fooled into thinking I might make faster time skating. but after less than a half mile bare ground again predominated and I was forced to transition back to running shoes, sheepishly catching up to Todd at the trailhead proper some five minutes behind.
We climbed over 2500′ in two or so miles, moving quickly on dry trail with relatively few blowdowns for its winter of unuse, at least until the transition to snow near 4500′, where we caught up with Pat and John. Here, rotten, slushy drifts and thickets of slide alder presented significant obstacles, as did a few sporty crossings of creeks raging with snowmelt. But before long things began to firm up, and the forest opened to reveal a long, hanging valley, terminating in a col that was the top of our first major climb.
Skinning became tedious once we left the trees, with crusty (albeit manageable) conditions. The sun was rising, illuminating the stunning tableau of the Stuart Range behind us, but it had yet to soften the snow for us. Topping out somewhere to the west of the usual pass, which is presumably a mellower descent, we stripped skins and and made 400′ of steep turns in breakable crust before the slope mellowed and we began a long traverse to the base of the next climb.
We ascended to a second col, where we again dropped only a short distance before beginning a long, nearly flat traverse on east-facing slopes, here and there broken with spines of rock and groves of pine that required a change in trajectory.
More quickly than we would have liked, we began to gain elevation again, aiming this time for the summit of Snowgrass Mountain (7993′). The sun now high in the mid-morning sky, we began to feel both the heat and the day’s effort, taking turns alternating the lead and saying little.
After a steep pitch of skinning and a scramble over ridgeline choss to the true summit, we paused to soak in one of Washington’s more marvelous views, and watch Pat and John on their own traverse below us. The subsequent descent to the NE of Snowgrass was surprisingly steep, with snow that alternated between bulletproof and breakable crust. I took my time on the first few committing turns down its doglegged ramp before my muscle memory kicked in and let me fall into a comfortable rhythm.
It was another relatively short trip down, taking us only to the base of a moraine where we transitioned to crampons and kicked up an icy, shaded chute to regain the sunny eastern aspect of the range. Back on skis, we lost little elevation traversing to the north, and were forced to run across a nasty slide path riddled with frozen debris, cornices hanging precariously in the heat above us. Though originally planning to summit Big Chiwaukum (8081′, pictured at top of the post), our flagging energy levels and knowledge of a 1500′ climb near the end of the day left us content to peer down a couloir on its northern shoulder before continuing on to the next col.
There, we were treated to some of the best skiing we were to encounter en route, dropping nearly 2000′ into a long, scenic valley, dotted with lakes and larches. Though the crust that had been dogging us all day remained in places, it was predictable, and didn’t take too much body english to manage. Elsewhere, the snowpack was mostly consolidated and beginning to turn to corn. Whooping ensued, at least until the grade leveled off, the snow became slushy, and the scale of the final ascent — baking in the midday sun — became evident.
Todd went to see a man about the proverbial horse, and after killing the rest of my water, I began to skin up a steep, broad gully as quickly as I could towards a bench with a rocky outcropping and some trees that promised an island of safety. There was nothing to indicate wet slides of any sort were imminent from the snowpack itself, but the relatively late hour and high temperature (80+ in Seattle, we learned on our return) gave us little inclination to linger. Once Todd rejoined me, he took over, setting endless kickturn after endless kickturn through whitebark pines up the relentless, 35-degree slope. Attempting to avoid positioning ourselves above cliff bands, we trended right, blindingly shooting for the ridge and climbing well above its lowest saddle. “I hope we don’t get cliffed out,” Todd said quietly near the end of the ascent. I tried to put it out of mind.
Topping out, then, to see nothing but rolling meadows dotted with larches — as well as the only other human beings we’d seen all day, skinning slowly in the distance — was a relief. We skipped over to the edge of our sightline, and after following a rounded ridge half a mile, peered down on our final, massive descent to Highway 2.
Of course, endings are almost never tidy, and the first 500 feet of the Swath (a 4000+’ slide path prominent from Steven’s Pass, and the terminus of our trip) were rock hard and very steep. Todd tentatively lead the way, gaining confidence once he realized his edges would bite. After ten minutes of hopturns, sideslipping, and the “falling-leaf” maneuver, the snow softened enough to let us open things up, and we quickly lost 2000′ in fine style before hanging left to grab a logging road we hoped would let us glide most of the way to the car.
Two switchbacks and four portages later, it was clear our exit was going to take much more work than either of us wanted. Todd dealt with the situation by running all the way to the car in his ski boots; I plodded along at 2.5 mph, solidly over it. Over it until the moment I broke out of the trees at Cascade Meadows, 11.5 hours from our start and moments from a Dale’s Pale Ale, at least.
General beta: With a fully consolidated snowpack and a hard freeze, traveling north to south would certainly be quicker; possibly under 6 hours for a fit team with race gear in a hard effort. On the other end of the weight spectrum, bringing overnight gear and exploring some of the many alluring couloirs and summits along the route would be highly rewarding. I can’t recommend the area enough — but like any remote trip in the Cascades, don’t underestimate its difficulty. It can be a very 26 miles and 10K of gain.
The view from my old living room. I’ve been putting this off for one reason or another for over three weeks now, but it’s time to get a report off my shoulders, as the rest of my life hasn’t come to as much of a standstill as my blogging. I’m not sure why this is so long — it just came out that way. Consider yourself warned.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse — a 40 mile, point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, starting at midnight one day in late March each year — is expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, and extremely alluring. For better or worse, the EMGT has also taken on more importance in my life than races usually do. There are reasons for this. I used to live few miles from the start of the course, spending day after day doing the sort of low-angle skinning that is requisite training for successfully competing in the race. Kate and I started the 2014 event together, a “Grand Reverse” beginning and ending in Crested Butte due to avalanche danger, but were forced to drop with an injury only a few miles from the finish. And this year, my close friend Peter has himself been spending the winter in Gothic as a RMBL winter caretaker. As we are about as tightly matched in fitness and skill set as I can imagine, it was an obvious decision to team up once I determined I had the week free from teaching. We both very much wanted to do well.
I skied as much as work and relationships would permit all winter, honing my fitness with regular track work and a few short running races. I flew out to Grand Junction. Following a lovely but anxiety-tinged week in Paonia, Kate and I spent Thursday night in Gothic, my first time back since I left Colorado two years ago. Skiing in under shifting clouds and a bulging moon, my headlamp jumping among the ghostlike aspens, brought back a flood of memories — and an inevitable rish of sadness for a period of my life rapidly receding into the past. Stegner’s doppler effect.
We stayed up later than we should have, drinking whiskey and chatting about the very particular things only people who spend the winter in a shambolic cabin in Gothic can know. The next morning, cooking a huge breakfast and waxing our skis, we watched the weather put on a concerning pageant of wind, snow, and brief, tantalizing glimpses of blue sky. Though a storm had hit the high country Wednesday, snow totals and avalanche danger had remained low through the end of the week. However, with another system predicted to strike shortly after the race got underway on Saturday, the question of whether we’d be pointing our skis at Aspen — or anticlimactically looping around the East River valley — was going to be settled by how quickly and how hard the storm rolled in. As of 9AM the morning of the race, things weren’t looking encouraging.
Still, there was nothing to do but ski out, get our mandatory gear cleared, and pick up our packets. We skied back to the car in a white-out, but by the time we started to drive the mile or so down to Mount Crested Butte, the sky was clearing. We didn’t dare get our hopes up, but after rushing over to the pre-race meeting (already underway), another racer at the back of the crowd confirmed it for us: conditions were safe enough to send us over to Aspen.
Elated, our spirits quickly dropped again after realizing we had misread the website and entirely missed gear check. But after pleading our case to the race directors, they graciously allowed us to go through the process anyway. Then, with 10 hours until the gun would go off that evening, we were left with little to do but anxiously organize our gear, drink coffee, and eat.
After a last dose of internet and espresso at First Ascent, Kate headed back to Paonia to grab some sleep before rushing over to Aspen and meet us on our (hopefully) early morning arrival. We decided to camp out at the base lodge, and nap if possible, steeling ourselves for a long night in the mountains. We chatted race strategy, tried to manage our excitement, and visualized plunging down to Aspen in sunshine, exhausted but thrilled.
There was only only one catch, which was that it hadn’t stopped snowing and things looked to be getting worse. Though the weather was off our mind for most of the afternoon, we couldn’t help but overhear another team of racers furtively discussing a distressing possibility: the possibility that race might be canceled. It was hearsay, but it quickly sent our moods in a spiral, and left us feeling hollow for the next few hours. Our veggie burgers (pre-race food at slope-side pubs is tough) did little to alleviate the sudden, unwelcome tension.
Finally, at 9PM, an email came through. Due to unexpectedly severe weather and already-huge snow totals, the reverse course would be implemented after all. It was, undeniably, a punch in the gut, mitigated by the relief of finally knowing what was in store for us. The problem of how to get a ride from Crested Butte to Paonia now that Kate had left was non-trivial, but something to worry about another day. The clock ticked on, and before we knew it, it was time to get going.
The start of the race can’t help but be thrilling, even in a Reverse year. There’s a spotlight on the horn of Mount Crested Butte, a dance party at the lodge. An old-hippy-style “rite” is read to racers, and then things get underway, with 450 racers sprinting psychotically for 50 paces before settling in to march rhythmically up the slope. Miraculously, the storm had finally broken, and in its post-coital calm the moonlight broke through receding clouds.
From our brief warm-up lap, I was aware my heart rate was spiking as I attempted to hang on Peter’s heels, a predictable result of having spent just enough time at high altitude to throw my body for a loop. (Paonia, at 5600’, doesn’t really qualify, and day-trip excursions above 10,000’ tend to make you taste blood but not affect performance to the same degree.) This proved true as we jockeyed for position and jogged toward the top of the slope but I am nothing if not proud, and I didn’t ask Peter to slow down. Absolutely nailing the first transition, we blitzed off skating, only to find immediately that we had dramatically miscalculated our wax, our skis dragging and squeaking and muscles burning with effort.
Again, this had more of an effect on me than Peter, who was relishing the change in technique. We dropped off the back side of the mountain, skated some more, threw on skins, and then climbed and careened through sagebrush, somewhere in the top 10. At the entrance to Brush Creek, there was a bonfire, and some teams passed us as Peter took a leak, but with considerable effort (on my part, at least) we closed the gap. Death Pass, a narrow section of trail on a steep gully, had mostly melted out the week before, and I cringed as I nailed a series of rocks negotiating it. (Luckily, Hagans are exceedingly durable for their weight).
Crossing streams and meadows as we gradually climbed toward Friend’s Hut, I began to struggle more and more. I wasn’t eating, and despite trying to store my water against my body, it was freezing, so I wasn’t drinking much either. After deciding to pass a team moving just slightly slower than us, Peter jogged for 50 yards, and in trying to hang on to his heels, my heart rate again spiked dramatically, only gradually returning to manageable levels. This was probably the point at which we went from competing to surviving, as I was never able to summon much more than a slog from then on. Teams we had passed repassed us, and I succumbed to the tow rope. It didn’t help much. We hit the turnaround point, tantalizingly close to Star Pass and the promise of Aspen, and then descended, making turns in soft snow and then skating and double-poling with difficulty in the same, facing down oncoming traffic.
The 2016 Grand Reverse route was modified from the version Kate and I had skied, cutting straight over the summit of “unremarkable but impressively girthy” Strand Hill rather than endlessly skirting its lower slopes. This was a welcome improvement, but at our slow pace dawn still caught us before we topped out. Our Carbondale-based friend Sean and his partner were also having a rough go of it, and we traded places for a while, eventually passing them for good on a stretch of gravelly skating following the descent from Strand, easily best bit of real skiing all day.
The final three or four miles, circling back around the west side of Mount Crested Butte, were a solid dose of misery. After a getting brief second wind while skating past Sean, the return to grinding uphill on hiking trails made me acutely aware of how much I was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. We crawled along, and crawled some more. I began to take “breathers.” At long last and after many false summits, we broke back out into the ski area, and immediately faced a gradual uphill skate I only managed as an exaggerated waddle.
We descended 600 feet to finish in 23rd place and 8:53. For the only time since my very first ultramarathon, I briefly teared up, utterly beat and grateful to be done.
On finishing, the dilemma of how to get home immediately reared its head, and so the usual post-event comforts of rest and race analysis were postponed until the memories had begun to fade. Because of this, it’s hard pinpoint exactly how I feel about finishing (once again). I am at once disappointed in slightly underperforming my own (unreasonably high?) expectations and happy with how well we did on an off day. More than anything else, I am grateful to be able to do these things at all, and for the images the race left indelibly imprinted in my head. The mile-long chain of headlamps stretching behind us. The shimmering crest of the Elk Range in the moonlight. Dawn from 10,000′. Scarred aspens, sage, melting snow.
Next time, I’ll keep my water warmer, eat more, and respect the altitude more. It’s probably too soon to say this — and for playing chauffeur all weekend, I think I owe Kate and Sarah the same favor next year — but goddamnit, I’m going to ski to Aspen some day. I hope Peter will be there with me.
The Enchantment Lakes region, a pair of alpine basins sandwiched by the parallel crests of the Stuart Range, is the most storied backpacking destination in Washington State. In summer and fall, despite a strict permit system for overnight trips, the crowds are equally storied: on a given weekend, it can seem like most of King County has made the 2.5 hour drive over the crest to secure a lakeside tent site. Habitat degradation, wilderness character, and basic manners are perennial concerns.
But in winter, solitude returns to the Enchantments, with heavy snowfall down to Icicle Creek at ~1300’ ASL closing road access to the popular Stuart Lake Trailhead, and a very long approach to the high basins via Snow Creek discouraging day trippers from going the other way. The majority of human visitors in the offseason are campers at Colchuck Lake, or climbers and skiers headed for aesthetic routes on menacing Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks, a relatively small area. The remainder of the classic 19-mile horseshoe remains largely abandoned to wolves and wolverines. Which is why, since I’d yet to complete the full circuit, winter seemed the best time to do it.
Erik and I knocked it out two Saturdays past, starting at 5AM at the Snow Creek trailhead. Our full route (including the ski back to Icicle Road from Stuart Lake TH, a road run to retrieve Erik’s van, and a ski descent of the summit of Little Annapurna) was approximately 27 miles with 8500’ of gain, which we covered in a hair under 12 hours.
Photo credit and (c) Erik.
It’s a long, remote, laborious day, and not something to underestimate: there’s unlikely to be a skin track for most of the traverse, and travel both 1) up Snow Creek as far as the lower basin (~11 miles and 5700′ above the car) 2) down from Colchuck Lake to the trailhead can be very tedious. But with efficient gear that still affords a margin of safety, it’s a doable fast-and-light tour of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most spectacular high country.
Possibly the crux of the day: navigating steep granite slabs coated in isothermal snow on the way up to Lake Vivian. Erik demonstrates exemplary kick-turn technique.
Our first view of the lower Enchantment Lakes basin, with Little Annapurna merging into cloud center horizon.
Erik, with Prusik Peak arrears.
It’s a long, long way down to Ingalls Creek.
While I tagged Little Annapurna, Erik opted to briefly bivy above Asgard Pass. Weather was closing in, and we were both glad to have the option to continue. Unfortunately, the descent to Colchuck Lake — 2500′ of steep, fall line skiing, and usually highlight of the traverse — was an ordeal, alternating between skittery ice and breakable crust. It’d be nice to return and milk the run in friendlier snow conditions. However, given the low elevation of much of the Snow Lake Trail, waiting for a reliable corn cycle would likely mean substantially more hiking.