Category Archives: Meta

Swimming in the P-trap

I do it for the views


“Peak-ness” is like pornography: as Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it. The Matterhorn and Rainier are clearly peaks; so are North Maroon and Mount Morrison, rising above Maroon and Convict Lakes. Impressive though it is, Castleton Tower is not. Shiprock? It’s hard to say. While a peak is intuitively a notable highpoint, trying to quantify that intuition is not easy. Elevation alone is clearly not enough: the town of Leadville lies above most of Washington State, but the North Cascades are far more peak-like than the talus mounds of the Sawatch. Other measures include isolation (distance to the nearest higher thing), prominence (rise above the connection to that thing), and combinations of those two. Then there are even more elaborate ones like Reduced Spire Measure, the integral of angle from the summit to all surrounding points.

Watching the definition of a seemingly-simple concept spiral into endless complexity is a delight to philosophers, but seems overdone for something trivial like peak-bagging. When it comes to lesser peaks in unfamiliar areas, I find prominence sufficient: it favors large solitary mountains and range highpoints. Unfortunately it has the weakness of favoring volcanoes and small ranges, i.e. Oregon and Nevada, so chasing prominence leads to what one could call the “P-trap.”

After Shastina, I found myself faced with an extended period of bad weather in the northwest, and therefore took a dive into the P-trap of northern California and southern Oregon. This area at least has trees, so it’s not as grim as Nevada, and many prominent peaks have roads leading to antennas and/or fire lookouts on their summits, making them attractive bike-and-hikes. Here are some of the summits I scaled in this brief effort to improve my “P-index.”

Black Butte

Black Butte is Shasta’s mini-me, a basalt cone next to the highway to its west. It is a nightmare of loose volcanic talus, but fortunately it had a lookout, and therefore a trail. Only the concrete foundation remains of the former, and the latter is slowly being reclaimed by the rubble, but it is still an improvement over the peak’s original state, making it a good short objective. As I ascended, I watched Shasta being swallowed by clouds, grateful that I had skied (most of) it the day before. It was cold and windy on top, so I did not stay long before hobbling and jogging back to the car.

Goosenest

Goosenest is another old volcano north of Shasta on the way to Klamath Falls. It would ordinarily be a good bike-n-hike from the pavement, but it was afternoon and raining off and on by the time I reached it, and I did not want to get my bike dirty and did not have enough daylight. I was worried about the dirt forest roads, but they were well-packed and not yet saturated, so my sorry vehicle had no trouble reaching an intersection a few miles from the summit. From there, I took the direct route, hike-jogging a road to an old quarry on the south side, then following a trail from there to the summit. The upper trail had some big snowdrifts, and it was snowing with no visibility on the summit, but it was worth just as many peak points. I jogged the descent, then continued to Klamath Falls.

Stukel

Lying well on the rain shadow side of Oregon, Stukel is another classic Oregon ride to radio towers. To make it a bit more challenging, I started from town, taking the canal bike path to a rail trail heading east of the city. The rail trail continues remarkably far out of town, but I turned south on some farm roads, then located the gravel road to the summit. This was challengingly steep at first, and I barely managed to keep my rear wheel from spinning out while toiling up in my lowest gear. Fortunately the grade eased beyond the first couple switchbacks, and I had an easier time the rest of the way to the summit. I once again had a magnificent view of clouds where Shasta and McLoughlin should have been, with clearer skies to the south and east.

Hogback

Hogback is Klamath Falls’ Atalaya, a “workout peak” with 1500-2000 feet of elevation gain and many routes leading to its summit. It was a good target for a morning of miserable weather. After looking around for awhile behind a closed and gated church, I took the wrong path for a bit before getting on the direct route to the summit, an unofficial trail that is relentlessly steep at first. I crossed the road from the other side, tagged the lookout, then quickly retreated in a storm of ice pellets. If I lived in Klamath, I would no doubt put in dozens of laps and loops on this peak.

Walker

Walker is another lookout and comms tower, east of the highway between Klamath and Bend. It would normally be a moderate ride, but snow turned the last couple miles into a hike. I biked from the highway, taking a well-maintained main road to the turnoff, then following the lookout road until the snow became too continuous to make pushing the bike worthwhile. This road had some interesting rubber water bars, which were several inches high, but just flexible enough to make it almost unnecessary to bunny-hop them. I checked out the lookout and its outbuildings, examined the weather stalled on the Cascade crest to the west, then returned to my bike for an unpleasant, hand-freezing descent.

Odell

Odell Butte is a near-perfect cone near Crescent Lake. I had been hoping to ride the road to the Oregon standard lookout and antennas, but the storm arrived in earnest the night before, so I ran it from the car, about 6 miles each way. The snow began as a dusting, which gradually turned into moderate postholing, with a large old drift blocking vehicles at the “road closed to tourists” sign just below the top. I got a brief view of Crescent Lake on the way down, but was mostly in the clouds, with only the nearby rime-covered trees for distraction. I turned up the speed a bit on the final, more runnable road, and enjoyed some time at an actual running pace; it had been too long.

Mount Taylor (Quad-style)

Mount Taylor is a prominent mound north of Grants, named for President Zachary Taylor, a president who is mostly skipped in High School history and, given his period, was probably warlike and otherwise mediocre. Amid the current trend of renaming peaks, I note that it has also been named Cebolleta (tender onion) by the Spaniards, continuing the food-themed naming scheme demonstrated by nearby Sandia (watermelon) and Manzano (apple tree). The Navajo named it Tsodzil (blue bead mountain), one of their boundary peaks along with Blanca, Hesperus, and the San Francisco Peaks. The other local tribes, the Acoma, Hopi, Zuni, and Laguna, predictably gave the large stratovolcano their own names as well. People like to refer to landmarks, and therefore give them names; take your pick.

As it is a big tree-covered mound with Forest roads all over it, one must get creative to make it a challenge, and the best way to do that is the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, an event almost as old as I am. Starting from the town of Grants, participants (or teams) bike 13 miles to the end of the pavement, run five up graded forest roads, then ski and snowshoe about two apiece to the summit before reversing the process to finish back in town. I was in the area and had the fitness, and in addition to enjoying racing, I believe it is healthy for the mind and ego, so I signed up.

Though I did not take it seriously enough to, say, do intervals, I did want to actually be a contender, so I borrowed my friend Mike’s fast carbon bike, and gave some more thought to gear choices. With six transitions, I focused on minimizing the time they took, which meant using the same shoes and clothing for every activity. To do that, I put flat pedals on Mike’s bike, and borrowed a pair of Altai Hok skis from a friend in Albuquerque, which have both snowshoe-style strap bindings and built-in kicker skins for the steep ascent. I also wore plastic bags inside my running shoes to protect my feet from the starting cold and snow higher up.

In retrospect, I should have focused more on performance, particularly on the ski. I may have saved about a minute per transition, but those six minutes were easily lost on the downhill ski, which was much slower than it would have been on my AT skis. Also, a one-minute transition probably costs 30 seconds or less, since it doubles as a one-minute recovery. In the future, I would still use flats, because it is a mass start and therefore easy to hang with the lead pack on the bike up, but would use aero bars for the descent. I would also use AT skis, which would make the downhill ski both much faster and a semi-recovery period. I would need a spare pair of shoes for the snowshoe, since doing it in my AT boots would be painful and slow.

All those changes might have saved me about ten minutes, enough to place higher, but not to be a contender. I was about 15% off the winning pace, far too much to be made up by better tactics and nutrition, and probably more than I could make up through better training. As I have written before, it is important to know your place, and that is mine. Interestingly, I was not beaten by a bunch of younger guys, but by four men around my age (the winner was 50!) and one woman who I gather has been utterly dominating local races recently. There were plenty of younger participants, but all ended up farther down the leaderboard. While age and place are positively correlated as expected for the top 100 (corr=0.12), they are negatively correlated for the top 20 (-0.20) and 10 (-0.34). Whether this is due to experience, interest, or equipment (i.e. money), I cannot guess.

In any case, conditions were near-ideal for this race through a wide range of ecosystems. A recent storm had added a few inches to the meager La NiƱa snowpack, but the day was sunny and calm, and the roads had dried the day before. Grants being subject to the high desert’s huge daily temperature swings, it was still in the low 20s for the 8:00 AM start. I easily hung in the lead pack on the flat roll out of town and the gradual lower climb. I seemed to be working slightly less hard than most of the guys (and one woman) around me, so I liked my chances. Unfortunately I had tried to adjust my seat beforehand and, fearful of breaking Mike’s fragile bike, failed to sufficiently tighten the seat post bolt. Therefore by the time we neared the end of the bike, the seat was far too low, slowed in its descent by the tyvek number taped around the seatpost.

A couple of stronger cyclists turned up the pace where the climb steepened, and I made the mistake of trying to keep them in sight. This made no difference in placing, as I passed them in the transition, but did put some hurt in my legs. I lack experience pacing for multi-sport events, but immediately noticed my mistake as my legs were sluggish on the run. I had expected multiple runners from teams to pass me, but only one did on the gradual five mile climb to the ski transition. About half of the road was bare dirt, the other half packed snow.

I liked my chances at the ski transition, and was happy with the Altais, which had just enough grip for most of the steeper parts of the climb. I was passed like I was standing still by one skimo guy, and saw another person behind me going up Heartbreak Hill, but still made decent time. I started losing on the snowshoe, where I walked some gradual uphills that I should have been able to run. I laughed passing the Viking aid station, then started the hike up the summit meadow with the next person just behind, who turned out to be a ridiculously fast woman. We chatted a bit on the climb, then she took off jogging where it flattened out, while I continued walking.

After a brief side-trip to touch the summit sign (I am, first and foremost, a peak-bagger), I ran the down-trail as best I could, singing “We come from the land of ice and snow…” to encourage the Vikings as I passed. I caught the woman ahead of me in the transition, but she was gone by the time I was gone, and since she was on AT skis, I knew I would never see her again. I had expected to lose some time descending on the Altais, but it was far worse than I had hoped. Not only were they slow and hard to control, but I had to work kicking and poling where I would have coasted on real skis, obliterating both potential recovery and any time I gained in the transitions.

I found a decent rhythm on the downhill run, but my legs were toast on the short uphills before the transition. Partly they were just fried from too many similar activities back-to-back, but partly I was running out of energy. I had brought only solid food, and was too dehydrated and breathing too hard to chew and swallow much of it. Between the sinking seat and my fatigue, my bike performance was fairly pathetic, but I made decent time on the downhills and flats. The one climb reduced me to a pathetic grind. I was glad for the race to be nearly done, as my feet and calves had begun to cramp, but I was passed with authority by a guy on aero bars with a TT helmet only a couple miles from the finish. Like everyone else ahead of me, he was in my age group, but I did not have the energy to jump on his wheel.

I ended up sixth overall, fifth man, and fourth in my age group. (Results here.) I was happy with my overall place, surprised to be crushed by an amateur woman, and disappointed by my age group place. As noted above, there are some easy ways I could improve my place and time via only gear and nutrition, but I would be hard-pressed to train well enough to podium. Still, I would like to return to a wonderful race to see how I could do with more refinements, and am sad that other priorities will probably send me elsewhere next winter.

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.

FKTOY nominees

WY 13ers accomplished!


Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell have recently announced the nominees for the Fastest Known Time of the Year, and I am honored to be included for my Wyoming 13ers speed record. With the increasing commercialization and professionalization of Fastest Known Times or “FKTs,” especially during COVID times, there are fewer ways in which middle-aged amateurs like Yours Truly can meaningfully contribute. Most of the time, if I set a speed record for a route these days, it is because no one truly fast has tried; these Only Known Times (“OKTs”) usually have little interest or value, like a race with one contestant. Given that only five other people are recorded to have climbed all the Wyoming 13ers, my outing is not far from an OKT, and knowing the level of effort I put into it, I have no doubt it can be done faster, especially with full support. However, the peaks require a wide range of skills and a long time commitment, and the record is moderately obscure, so I believe my time will stand as both a record and an inspiration for quite awhile.

The winners will be chosen by a private voting process, but here are some efforts that caught my interest:

US

Alex King (Rainier)
A world-class, mind-bogglingly fast time on a hotly-contested course.
Nika Meyer (Colorado Trail)
The unsupported CT is at the upper limit of how much food one can carry in a backpack, and therefore involves significant weight loss in addition to suffering and sleep deprivation. The supported version relieves food pressure, but is still brutal. I have never wanted to try this record, but have always held it in great respect.
Jason Hardrath (Bulgers)
Massive logistics, mental fortitude, and physical resilience to climb 100 remote and often challenging peaks.
Kelly Halpin (Gannett Peak)
While I have not done Gannett by this route, I have seen the terrain, and it is rugged and hard to cross efficiently. Not to mention the Green River crossing, which is enough to deter me…
Pawel Szafruga (CO 14ers)
Through-hiking is a fresh take on this done-to-death objective, greatly increasing the effort required and obviating the need for elaborate rules necessitated by Colorado’s drive-up peaks.
Alex Borsuk (Glacier Peak)
I briefly held the record on this one before it was utterly crushed. It’s cool to see a solid female time on a classic and incredibly beautiful route.

non-US

Luis Alberto Hernando Alzaga (Aneto)
A solid time on the Pyrenees’ highpoint, which deserves a record. I did this one on my trip to Europe, though of course nowhere near as fast.
Tyler Andrews (Cotopaxi)
Beating Karl Egloff, even by only 20 seconds, is no mean feat, as is negotiating Ecuador’s arbitrary guiding and permitting rules.

Book delays

I apologize to those of you who have ordered books a little or long time ago. I did not end up where I expected to this winter, and therefore my supply of books is over 1000 miles from me. I’m working on uniting us again, at which point you will all get your books. This will definitely happen well before Christmas, if that matters. Thank you for your patience and forbearance.

Update 12/6/2021: The books are slowly making their way through the constipated bowels of the USPS. They began their journey on 11/23, with an expected delivery date of 12/2, and are currently farther away than they started, with no expected delivery date.

Update 12/20/2021: So… My books are currently on a road trip similar to one I’ve taken some summers:

  • 11/23/21 – Independence, CA
  • 11/28/21 – Los Angeles, CA
  • 12/6/21 – Seattle, WA (um… what?)
  • 12/7/21 – Denver, CO (okay, back on track)
  • 12/14/21 – Seattle, WA (WTF, DeJoy?!)
  • 12/20/21 – ??? (Skiing in the North Cascades? Climbing in Red Rocks?)

Update 12/22/2021: After rolling into Denver (again) late on the 20th, they traveled right past Santa Fe to spend the next night in Albuquerque. Realizing their mistake, they returned the following day to finally arrive at my door. This was Media Mail, but I did not expect it to take a month. Anyways, I’ll send them out tomorrow.

Update 12/23/2021: All books shipped 12/23/2021. Happy MLK Day, everyone!

Wyoming 13er speed record (8d23h)

As some readers may already know, I have spent most of the past two weeks climbing all of Wyoming’s 13,000-foot peaks. These 13ers consist of five peaks in four isolated clusters (Francs in the Absarokas, Cloud and Black Tooth in the Bighorns, Wind River Peak in the southern Winds, and the Grand Teton), and the remaining thirty packed together in the northern Winds. The four clusters are all reasonable dayhikes on well-defined routes, although the Bighorn pair are a grind.

The northern Winds, however, require multiple days and, unlike the California 14ers, there is no established, clearly optimal route. In addition to topo maps, I went in with photos of Joe Kelsey’s guidebook, and Eric Gilbertson’s well-written and thorough trip report from his climbs last summer. Both were helpful, but neither was sufficient to plan a complete route ahead of time. Route conditions in the northern Winds depend upon the time of year, the previous winter’s snowpack, and global warming’s inexorable march. An easy couloir in June can be be blocked by a gaping bergschrund in September; north-facing class 4 slabs can be covered in treacherous ice and snow from a late summer storm; and certain routes in Kelsey’s guidebook, last updated in 2013, have changed beyond recognition.

The previous record for doing this, set by Gilbertson in 2020, was 16 days, 18 hours. Beforehand, I expected to complete the peaks in 11-12 days, and was pleasantly surprised to do so in just 8 days, 23 hours, about 4 days and 13 hours of which were spent on foot. My route involved approximately 220 miles and 82,000 feet of climbing. The time I saved all came in the northern Wind River Range, where I was able to link more peaks together than I had expected, and to hike out the same day that I completed the northern ones. With support (e.g. car shuttles and horse packers), it should be straightforward to cut a day off my time. With less sleep and better link-ups, it may be possible to cut off another either with or without support. However, since relatively few mountaineers have the skills, free time, and desire to attempt this record, I suspect my effort will remain the fastest for some time.

What follows is a brief description of each day; I will write my usual detailed/verbose trip reports as I am able.

  1. Summit of Francs

    Francs: This was a dull hike to a dismal peak. Smoke from burning California marred the views, which were mostly barren choss reminiscent of the dry Andes. The road to the trailhead is Element-able, but has a few stream crossings that may short-circuit your Prius.
  2. Black Tooth from near Cloud

    Cloud, Black Tooth: Cloud by itself is a long, rocky pack trail followed by a long, easy boulder-hop. Adding Black Tooth spices it up with some class 3 and adds some distance. The hike back down the valley to Cloud’s northwest is interminable, passing endless lakes while losing little elevation.
  3. Wind River Peak from Tayo Lake

    Wind River Peak: Like Eric, I came in from Block-and-Tackle Hill, using a bike beyond the Forest boundary. ATVers have cleared the road of deadfall to the Wilderness boundary, but a microburst over Labor Day weekend 2020 has covered portions of the trail all the way to Little Sandy Lake with downed trees. The standard route from Worthen Meadows Reservoir may be faster in the future, as this trail seems unlikely to be cleared.
  4. Ugh

    Bow: Backpacking sucks, but is sometimes necessary. I lugged 16 pounds of food, both cold and wet weather gear, and crampons and an ice axe from Green River Lakes along the Highline Trail and over to Shannon Pass, at which I dropped my pack to tag nearby Bow Mountain via easy slabs and talus.
  5. American Legion from Henderson

    Henderson to Whitecap (6 peaks): There were two question marks on this leg: the ridge from American Legion to Knapsack Pass, and the one from Split to Whitecap. Kelsey speculates that the first is class 5, and says nothing about the second. Both were indeed low fifth class, though the descent from American Legion was fairly spicy with fresh snow on its north-facing aspects.
  6. Harrower/Ellingwood

    Ellingwood (Harrower) to Jackson (4 peaks): These make a natural loop from the Indian Pass trail junction. Ellingwood’s standard route is only class 4, but the 5.6 north ridge is amazing and probably no slower if you feel comfortable at that grade. The route from Ellingwood to Knife Point is somewhat convoluted, crossing broken, deglaciated slabs and gullies.
  7. Fremont, Sacagawea, Helen

    Fremont to Febbas (8 peaks): This was pretty wild, and saved me a day. Kelsey’s couloir from Fremont down to the Upper Fremont Glacier was too hard and steep for my gear, and also ended in a massive bergschrund. Fremont’s east-northeast ridge is not mentioned in Kelsey’s guide, but goes at class 4-5 on and south of the crest, and leads to the glacier. The normal route on Helen looked too steep and icy, but the east ridge is straightforward and not much longer. Spearhead Pinnacle has a short class 5 crux on the east side of its north ridge, but is mostly easier scrambling. Warren is a mix of scrambling and choss. Turret is a bit tricky, especially with snow descending the north slopes to Backpackers Pass. I started up the “west ridge” route (not really a ridge), then made a tricky downclimb into the “west gully” used on the first ascent. Sunbeam and Febbas are not hard. The long return down Blaurock Pass and over Bonney Pass was depressing, crossing endless moraines while staring at the much-diminished Dinwoody Glacier.
  8. Woodrow Wilson from Pinnacle Ridge

    Woodrow Wilson to Desolation (5 peaks): This was a last-minute plan that worked fairly well. From camp at the Indian Pass junction, I hiked up to the Sphinx Glacier, thus making my time climbing the Sphinx two days prior mostly a waste. I then traversed around to Wilson’s (dry) west chute, ascending that and descending the north chute to reach the upper Dinwoody Glacier. The upper glacier was crevassed but, as I had hoped, not too steep and retaining some new and old snow. I stayed high on the way to Glacier Pass (a horrible scree field on both sides), with a detour to Pinnacle Ridge. From the pass, I reached Gannett via class 4-5 climbing east of the ridge leading to the standard Gooseneck route. I then descended and crossed a col to the Minor Glacier, which was flat and easy, and the slabs below it, which were not. Koven is, as Eric indicated, low fifth class by its south ridge, which can be reached from the lake below the Minor Glacier. Beyond, I found a good camp at the Desolation-Rampart col, then made a quick evening side-trip to Desolation, setting up a potential exit the next day.
  9. Winds from Downs

    Bastion to Downs (6 peaks): Starting at first light, I climbed to the plateau, walked around Rampart, and tagged Bastion. From there I headed north, roughly following Eric’s route all the way to Downs over a mixture of talus and tundra. The stream south of Downs leads to a high plateau with many lakes and gentle undulations, though this valley may be impassable earlier in the season. I then followed a pleasant path I had plotted on the topo, passing high above Bear Lake before dropping to Faler Lake, which lies at treeline. The steep descent to Clear Lake was slightly ugly, and things only got worse going around Clear Lake, then down Clear Creek to the maintained trail at the Natural Bridge. From there it was a simple slog to the car.
  10. Dawn on the Grand

    The Grand: I was hoping to finish on the Upper Exum, but needed to be down by 10:00 to finish under nine days. I therefore went up and down the Owen-Spalding, which is easier to do in the dark.

Statistics

Since I recorded everything on Strava, I have the moving time, miles and elevation gained, and even a dubious count of calories burned for each day:

Day mi ft time cal
Francs 15.67 5338 5:32:08 2839
Cloud 29.01 7799 11:14:23 4919
Wind R 22.34 4963 8:38:41 3609
Bow 23.46 5564 9:29:14 3765
Henderson 15.74 11332 11:54:21 3810
Ellingwood 24.62 9040 12:50:15 4486
Fremont 23.14 13774 15:25:56 5023
Wilson 20.29 9010 13:04:33 4355
Bastion 27.46 7472 14:11:57 5021
Grand 15.05 7584 6:03:33 3078
TOTAL 216.78 81,876 4d12h25m01s 40,905

A few things seem worth noting: First, the mileage is close to Eric Gilbertson’s estimated mileage for his previous record. Second, I spent just over 4.5 days moving out of just under 9 days total. Given that some of the remaining time was spent driving, this is a sustained effort, but nothing extreme. Other than the last night, before the Grand, I did not seriously short myself on sleep. Finally, if the whole thing required about 41,000 calories (plus base metabolic rate), the $100+ I spent on food seems about right, since I ate cost-inefficient things like pepperoni and Clif bars. I probably spent slightly less than that on gas to drive 600 miles during the record, so the driving cost less than the hiking, as it should.

Thanks and reflections

Thanks of course to Eric G., who planted the idea of doing this in my mind, and whose detailed trip report simplified my planning. I would especially like to thank Renee for her infectious drive and positivity, which were crucial in overcoming my doubts and lack of motivation before trying this. She and my friend Dan were both a source of motivation during the effort as well, thanks to a surprising amount of cell coverage. I spent some time with friends both before and after this attempt, some of whom I probably could have prevailed upon to provide support, but that is not the kind of effort I wanted. This needed to be all me.

As mentioned above, I think this could go much faster with a full “Cave Dog”-style (or “Hamiltonian”…) effort, involving extensive scouting and route optimization, and a full support crew. That is not something I want to do, and I do not have many ideas for major time-saving route improvements, but I hope someone makes it happen. This could also probably go faster for an unsupported individual, but I don’t know anyone right now with the skill, time, and interest. I would also like to see a women’s record, solo and preferably unsupported, but the necessary skill and especially interest seem even rarer.

Santa Cruz: it doesn’t suck

The closest I get to surfing


Though I spent years on the California coast before Dr. Dirtbag, I never ventured north of Malibu or south of San Jose. That has changed this winter with my spending significant time in the Santa Cruz area. While I have not been peak-bagging, I spent plenty of time outdoors as I normally do in the winter, engaged in shorter local fitness activities. Santa Cruz is about the same size as Santa Fe and, because it is bounded by the ocean and mountains, anywhere in the city is close to the periphery. The local mountains are low and undramatic, but surprisingly good for staying fit, with 2000 or so feet of relief from the ocean.

The climate, while far from tropical, is strongly moderated by the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to get out year-round. It is damp, though, making temperatures feel much colder than they do in the desert. I run in tights and mitts in the low 40s here, while I would normally wear shorts and thin gloves. Cycling is particularly hard on my hands, and I find myself wearing something more like my cross-country ski gear. It is particularly damp and cold in the redwood groves that follow most drainages, and there is a frequent inversion and occasional fog in the San Lorenzo. One can quickly go from being comfortable in short sleeves in the sun, to being deeply chilled in a “majestic” (i.e. dank and drippy) forest.

Running

The local coast is lined by roads and trails above the sea cliff, and frequently by sandy beaches below, all of which make decent flat running. There is also a network of trails in the surrounding hills, connecting local parks to form a defensive green belt. (Santa Cruz, like Boulder, has set aside surrounding undeveloped land in an effort to freeze itself as its current residents prefer and avoid being swallowed by a larger neighboring city. As it is already separated from San Jose and the Bay Area by mountains, and connected by only a single winding freeway, Highway 17, it is better-situated than Boulder, which is naturally separated from Denver by only grass and cows. Both cities have predictably expensive housing and a slightly cartoonish feel.)

I no longer have the speed I did when I last lived near the Pacific in LA and trained for road races, and doubt I will regain it, but it has nevertheless been fun to work on my flat running form at sea level. Both form and fitness should translate to the mountains in limited ways, and higher-intensity running is an efficient way to get my necessary exercise. And in the highly unlikely event that I race another ultra, I will be well on my way to adapting to that type of muscular and joint stress.

Cycling

I have ridden or raced bikes off and on for most of my life. This has often meant riding a road bike in places where there are only a couple of rides, some of them grim. For example, my normal ride in Houston began with ten straight miles along a busy multi-lane road out of the city, and ended with the same in the opposite direction; at least, on the return, I could judge the day’s pollution by whether or not I could see the skyscrapers. I still rode around 200 miles per week, enough to stay reasonably fit but not to be much good as a racer.

In contrast, Santa Cruz is a road cyclist’s paradise: Highway 1 along the coast has broad bike lanes and bearable traffic, Highland and Summit Roads parallel it along the crest of the hills, and many small residential and rural roads connect them. Thus one can ride loops of various lengths and difficulties, beginning with a climb and ending with a descent to the coast and a return via the coast, usually with a tailwind when headed south. I have so far visited Eureka Canyon, Soquel-San Jose, Mountain Charlie, Hutchinson, Zayante, Bear Creek, and Empire Grade Roads, plus the various roads connecting to Empire including Felton-Empire, Alba, Jamison, and Pine Flat. While a couple of these side roads are popular two-lane highways, many are unmarked and little wider than an asphalt driveway. With generally polite drivers and many fellow roadies, the overall cyclist vibe reminds me a bit of the Alps, though without the high peaks.

There are also both a network of fire roads and extensive single-track in the hills, though I have explored them less on my gravel bike. I have ridden fire roads in Nicene Marks and Henry Cowell, and seen many expensive full-suspension bikes both being ridden and riding on the back of people’s pickup trucks in those places and along Highway 9. One seemingly popular area is a network of bandit trails on the upper UCSC campus, which has been taken over by cyclists in the students’ absence.

2020 in review

Screwing around on rock


2020 was a hard and uncertain year for many of us, though my year was challenging and unstable in different ways from most people’s. In previous years I have been most successful in the mountains during the summer, generally from June through September, and less active in the winter and spring. This year was almost the opposite, with my best months in the winter and fall, for various external and internal reasons.

The year’s defining event, the novel coronavirus pandemic, scrambled my plans from March onward, and impacted my life less than most people’s but more than I anticipated. I had originally planned to return to the Alps this summer to climb the 4000-meter peaks as fast as possible under human power (i.e. biking between trailheads and not riding lifts). I was hoping to fund this expensive endeavor by writing a book and promoting it with slideshows during my spring travels. Both the trip and presentations things became increasingly unlikely and then impossible as the pandemic spread, leaving me without a main project for the summer. While I scrambled to put together some alternative goals, I was never truly inspired as I have been in the past.

Another defining event for some people was the California wildfires. They destroyed homes, torched beautiful wilderness areas (including the Huntington Lake area where I passed on my first bike tour), and filled the Owens Valley with smoke for most of the late summer and early Fall. The smoke, and the dry heat that preceded it, scuttled my backup plan to make something of the season, driving me east to the San Juans and southern Utah. This proved fortunate both athletically and socially, leaving me starting 2021 in a different and in many ways better place than I had anticipated. Unusually for me, I enter 2021 with a partner, a place to live, and plans for the winter and spring. I hope the new year is a similar time of reassessment and growth for you too, dear reader.

South America

Summit view on Ojos del Salado


My trip to the High Andes was the year’s mountaineering highlight. Between mid-December and mid-March I visited two new countries, rode over 3000 miles, and summited 21 peaks, including a dozen 6000-meter peaks (nine over 20,000 feet). The low number of peaks per day compared to e.g. my trip to the Alps can be excused by the facts that I was cycling between peaks, and that one often has to gain 15,000 feet to summit peaks from town in the high Andes. The peaks were only part of the journey, though, and I equally enjoyed the outgoing and laid-back people of rural Argentina. Both it and Chile are huge countries, ranging from the southern hemisphere equivalents of central Mexico (in the Atacama) to northern Canada (in the Tierra del Fuego). I saw only their central regions on this trip — roughly 25 to 42 degrees latitude, or north-central Mexico to southern Wyoming — so I hope to return to see both ends.

  • Puna de Atacama: Though it tested the limits of my endurance and sort of broke me, my two week crossing of the Puna de Atacama by bike, summiting seven 6000-meter peaks, was the unforgettable pinnacle of my trip. With only two natural water sources other than snow in the 300 miles between Fiambala and Copiapo, and nowhere to buy food, it is the harshest and most remote place I have traveled to climb, and peak-bagging there required maximum effort.
  • Mercedario: This was the first big Andean peak I did town-to-town, and the second-highest. I was still learning about how best to trade off between hiking and hike-a-bike, and met the only other bike mountaineer of my trip along the way. The climb was unremarkable, but typical of the high Andes for, among other things, its barren dryness.
  • Nevado de Famatina: This is a high and prominent peak seldom climbed by foreigners because it stands by itself, far from other 6000-meter peaks. Climbing it was less a mountaineering than a cultural experience, as I spent time before and after in the tiny town of Famatina, and got a ride with Argentinian tourists up to the remarkable La Mejicana mine near 14,000 feet on the peak’s side.

FKTs

Montgomery from south


Since 2012’s California Fourteener record, I have tried to set a few Fastest Known Times (FKTs) each year, and this year was no exception. I set new FKTs for the White Mountains Traverse and Buckskin to Paria Gulch, though the former was more of an “Only Known Time,” and the latter was soon crushed by an actual runner. However, I recognize that my advancing age makes these “records” increasingly meaningless and absurd. I am a decade past my peak athletic potential, and while mountaineering’s skill-heavy nature allows older athletes to remain competitive, I am more or less past that point. Rather than setting times on increasingly obscure and meaningless objectives, I should consider moving on.

My most rewarding FKT experience this year was probably helping my friend Renee set a record for the Sierra High Route in late August. She is a competent and driven all-around athlete, meticulously prepared, and a thoroughly decent person, so I was happy to see her both accomplish a personal goal and receive some recognition. The High Route is not my kind of objective — I tried backpacking it back in 2013 and wandered off-route on the second day — but it is a great route, and an impressive accomplishment to cover so much cross-country distance in 50-mile headlamp-to-headlamp days.

San Juan trip

Final tricky section


The San Juans are my favorite Colorado mountains: they are far from Denver’s hordes, beautiful in the fall with their turning aspens, and widely varying in character, ranging from the almost drive-up peaks around Silverton to the rugged and remote Weminuche. After being forced out of the Sierra, I spent most of a month there, tagging 88 peaks and visiting regions both familiar and new.

  • Cimmarons: I had seen these peaks many times while driving through Ridgway, but never visited until this fall. Though their rock is mostly rotten, they have some spectacular cliffs, vast aspen groves, and a few good scrambles, including Coxcomb.
  • Beartown: After years of chipping away at the remote Weminuche 13ers via dayhikes from pavement, I finally had the opportunity to tag many of the more mundane summits via an overnight from the northern Beartown trailhead. Thanks to Dan for providing both the vehicle to reach it, the motivation to lug in a tent, and the quick thinking to punch a mouse to death.
  • Vestal Basin: I normally think of Vestal Basin as a once-a-year approach, but I ended up doing it three times this summer: for an overnight with Ted, to tag the peaks between Tenmile and Noname Creeks, and to connect the Grenadiers from Arrow through Storm King. I am therefore probably done with this beautiful area for a few years, but I realized that, at only a few hours of easy headlamp, the approach is not something to dread.

Zion scrambles

What’s over there?


Though I had visited Zion on family trips growing up, I first scrambled there in 2013, doing the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. Coming from Red Rocks at the time, I was disappointed by the gritty sandstone and did not take much time to explore. Buzz Burrell clued me into the park’s scrambling potential this year, and I was not disappointed on my belated return visit. Coming a bit late in the season, my efforts were frustrated and cut short by cold mornings, short days, and snow, but I saw enough to make me want to return.

  • Cowboy Ridge to West Temple: This is a classic and fairly challenging linkup. I had previously done the standard route on Kinesava, but adding Cowboy Ridge and West Temple significantly upped the length and difficulty. The hand-crack crux on Cowboy was unavoidable and challenging, but secure, while the crux on West Temple was shorter and scrappier. Connecting the two involved some unexpected difficulties descending from Kinesava along the ridge.
  • East Temple: This one was a bit scary, in part thanks to some lingering snow and wetness on the crux upper slabs. Though the route is improbable, bighorn sheep apparently use it to visit the summit, keeping it much freer of nasty desert shrubbery than West Temple.
  • Lady Mountain: Tourism was a lot more fun in the 1920s and 1930s, when women in full skirts could climb 4000 feet from the Zion Lodge to the summit of Lady Mountain via an improbable route consisting of natural climbing up to class 3, steel handlines, chipped steps, and a couple of ladders. This grownup version of Angels Landing, now long decommissioned, is still a fun low fifth class route, for which I want to return to Zion and attempt an FKT. Maybe next fall…

Bike touring stats, part 2

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the second (blue) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Osorno, are 1625 miles and 103,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 47 days. That’s about 35 miles and 2200 feet per day, which is not so bad considering that some of those miles were over ridiculous terrain like the Paso de las Damas.

Unfortunately I only summited seven peaks, which makes me question whether I can still call myself a peak-bagger. This was partly because I did not have a “mother lode” of peaks like the Puna de Atacama on this leg, but mostly because I was burned out on high-altitude choss. By the time I reached Bariloche, where both the rock and my motivation greatly improved, COVID-19 and the world’s response to it cut my travels short. I explored the Andes from about 25 to 41 degrees south on this trip, but there is a lot more left to see. Hopefully I will be able to return sometime in the future. With almost 3000 miles under my belt on this trip, I can almost call myself a real bike tourist, though I’m nowhere close to matching Daniel, Marilyne, Kevin, or some of the others I have met down here.

Some software reviews

I was a flip phone holdout until late 2017, I have since become utterly dependent upon my smartphone (an iPhone SE, the last of the pocket-sized phones), and all of my international trips would have been somewhere between difficult and impossible without it and a few apps. I am also utterly dependent upon a few pieces of desktop software and web pages.

maps.me

Maps.me is a convenient way to use OpenStreetMap data offline for both mapping and route-finding. The maps are usually good and reasonably complete, even in small South American towns. The route-finding is quirky, though. Sometimes it will not see roads that clearly exist on the map; other times it will suggest utter nonsense. While it claims to be able to plan routes for cars, bikes, and pedestrians, the car routes tend to be the least nonsensical. It can usually be trusted for short distances within cities, but you should always double-check longer routes.

Peakbagger

This has been my go-to offline mapping program for several years. It offers offline USGS/USFS topo maps within the United States, and usable computer-generated “global topos” elsewhere. These topos can be downloaded either for the area around a peak, or for that around an arbitrary GPX track. The app also keeps track of peak-bagging statistics, for people who play that game. However, its offline maps have always been unreliable to download over slow connections, and have recently stopped working for me entirely. I am currently looking into other options, and have high hopes for the CalTopo app currently being developed.

CalTopo

I do all my route-planning with CalTopo, which has a variety of maps and satellite images for the whole world. I used the free version for a long time, but recently became a subscriber, partly to support the project, and partly to eliminate some restrictions on the app. While the iOS app is still a work in progress, I hope to someday use it to replace Peakbagger for my offline topo needs.

windy.com

Windy has horrible, useless graphics on both its website and mobile app, but I use it anyways because it provides worldwide point forecasts from three different models: the European ECMWF, considered the best in the world; the American GFS, which is also good; and Meteoblue, which focuses on mountains and has higher-resolution models for some ranges (e.g. the Alps). Meteoblue’s summit temperatures seem to be most accurate, while ECMWF may be better at wind speeds. Comparing the three models is a good way to get a rough idea of forecast reliability: the closer they agree, the more you can trust the forecast.