2021 in review

This year I had no great overarching plan, and therefore have little to show in terms of notable achievements. Instead, I mostly have done a mixture of things of no particular significance, some of which were nevertheless enjoyable or memorable.

Bike touring

Nice pastoral riding


I had some larger plans on the bike, none of which came to fruition. However, I made some discoveries that may inform future tours. First, global warming’s inevitable advance is creating a widening window between when seasonally-closed roads in the National Parks and Forests are rideable and when they are open to cars. Prominent examples include Highway 120 over Tioga Pass, the Cascade River Road, and the road to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, but many dirt Forest Service roads are also closed to prevent damage while muddy. In addition to offering miles of quiet riding, the closures return unbearably-crowded parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon to the blessed quiet of an earlier age, without tour buses and hordes of selfie-stick-wielding tourists.

Second, while the American Pacific Coast is short on interesting mountains, it has miles of good riding, such as the Big Sur coast. The mountains behind Santa Barbara and the greater Los Padres National Forest, while not quite coastal, are another revelation, containing a network of dirt roads permanently closed to vehicles due to repeated fire and flood, but not yet completely washed out and overgrown.

Box-ticking

Scrambly bits of Zebra


Without major goals, this was a year of checking off minor items on my to-do list. Some of those include:

  • Lonesome Miner Trail
  • This route on the east side of the Inyo Mountains, connecting springs and old mining trails, is one of the most remote-feeling places I have been, cut off from the lifeless Saline Valley by slot canyons and from the sparsely-populated Owens Valley by a 10,000-foot ridge.

  • The Zebra
  • I had been defeated twice trying to summit this obscure and minor peak west of Mount Moran. I finally reached it with Robert, approaching via Moran’s northeast shoulder and the western Triple Glacier and exiting via the Skillet Glacier for a long, wild day.

  • Torment-Forbidden traverse
  • The overcrowding of Greater Seattle and hence the North Cascades has hit this route particularly hard, but a washout along the Cascade River Road kept the crowds at bay. When not overrun, it is a deservedly classic scramble.

  • Blum-Hagan-Bacon
  • These peaks between Baker Lake and the Pickets feature several surprisingly large and low glaciers, and views of some of the range’s most remote and inaccessible terrain.

  • Buck, Clark, and Luahna
  • The territory between Stevens Pass and Glacier Peak includes a number of high and spectacular peaks separated by deep drainages. In particular, climbing Buck is either difficult or long from any direction. I chose to go up the hard way (northeast face) and down the long way (Buck Creek Pass), for a mix of steep bushwhacking, tricky scrambling, and superb trail-running.

  • Little Tahoma
  • What looks like an unpleasant choss-pimple on Mount Rainier is actually a fun scramble, far more interesting than the standard routes on its looming parent.

WY 13ers

Gannett from Koven


Perhaps the only notable thing I did this year was to climb Wyoming’s 36 13,000-foot peaks quickly, taking just under nine days. Most of the peaks, and most of the challenges, are found in the northern Wind River Range. This area is home to the best Rockies glaciers south of Canada, and is one I have been meaning to revisit since doing Gannett way back in 2012. The 13er speed record was the impetus I needed to go backpacking, and once committed, I also managed to scramble Ellingwood’s north ridge, another to-do item and a candidate for the final Classic Scrambles list.

Et l’avenir, quoi?

I had opportunities to step back from my nomadic life in 2021, but realized that I harbor some remaining ambition, and value my hard-earned autonomy. With Covid’s risk for me on the level of the flu, which has never limited my plans, and with restrictions on international travel easing due to a mixture of decreased risk and increased fatigue, I hope to reclaim the plans I set aside in early 2020. The specifics will depend on my fitness and the state of the world in a few months, but you can hopefully look forward to summer dispatches from Dr. Dirtbag from Europe, Asia, or at least the Great White North.

8 responses to “2021 in review

  1. Richard says:

    Back in the mid-80s, when I got sick of corporate life, I headed up to June Lake for nearly a year…plenty of road bike rides up 120…and a couple on my mountain bike…incredible feeling, passing the entrance with nobody else around…and surprisingly rideable packed snow…fond memories.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      It was indeed incredible to see places like Olmstead Point and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon without other people around, and remarkable how all it takes to empty them is closing a few miles of road to cars. It reminded me how amazing these places are, and why they were protected in the first place 100+ years ago. Snow-riding 120 in the Spring sounds wonderful — I’ll have to try to make it up there one of these years.

  2. Matt says:

    Really excited to see the Wyoming 13ers make the FKT top ten list. I know the recognition isn’t the goal but that was a really inspiring thing to follow this summer and seemed really wide ranging and remote. Thanks as always for the words and the inspiration!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thanks, Matt! The Winds are a special place, combining aspects of the Sierra and Alps. I hadn’t even noticed that the top ten had been chosen, but it’s cool that a middle-aged guy’s wandering in Wyoming is still in there. ;-)

      It’s a shame your Norman’s run didn’t make the initial cut, since it was a solid time on an elegant route. I’d really like to try it sometime, but there are so many other new places to spend the summer, and it doesn’t look like 2022 will be dry enough to do it early like you did.

      1. Matt says:

        I’d really like to get into the Winds if time allows next summer! Pingora and the whole cirque of towers area looks stunning!
        Was reading my journal of this summer and called my 2:40 start a “dr. Dirtbag” start, feel like I could recite every word of the 14ers speed record blog…it was invaluable. Excited to see whatever you pull out next summer haha

        1. drdirtbag says:

          The Cirque is indeed beautiful, but can be kind of crowded, and many of the peaks are walk-ups on one side, and too hard for me on the other. I personally find the Titcomb area better fits my skills and interests, though it helps to have at least a bit of experience with glaciers to get the most from it.

          You should visit both if you can. The weather can be unstable late in the season (late August to mid-September), but when it’s good, it’s glorious.

  3. Matt says:

    Wicked year! Excited to see what you get up to in 2022.
    I’ll be getting out to the LMT this year thanks to inspiration from you. I’ll also have to get that Low to High FKT back, I was one of the folks “loudly enthusing about burritos” in 2017 ;).

    Keep smashing it!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thanks, Matt! I read Anthony’s TR, but hadn’t found yours yet. It’s not the first time I’ve been awakened by other early-risers while sleeping at a trailhead, and yet I can still be grumpy about it. I still think L2H can be done in two brutal legs with one sleep in between, but even just sleeping less the first night would save a few hours. Like most FKTs, it’s also faster to go solo. And sleep low (but above inversions)! Your night up at Cerro Gordo looked miserable, and the route’s enormous elevation changes give you plenty of options.

      It sounds like you’re more of a desert person than I am, and even I enjoyed the LMT (and other time spent on the east side of the Inyos), so you’ll really appreciate that one.

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