Category Archives: Meta

Money meets mountains

All this could have been yours


I really should not have let it bother me. My day from Fiesch over the Nufenen Pass was a mild and completely predictable version of what happens when money meets mountains, and Switzerland has plenty of both. It did not help that I had to defend myself against a thunderstorm at midnight, covering my gear with my rain jacket and huddling in my bivy. This worked as planned, and I survived with some discomfort and slightly damp things, but I would normally be living better on a bike or in my car. Because of my previous mission, I am traveling with the absolute minimum of gear for bike-packing and mountaineering, so when things get tough, I make up the gap with experience and suffering.

I lazed around much of the morning, waiting for my gear to dry and the weather to clear. There were lots of cyclists around, but none I wanted to talk to. There are two kinds of cyclists: adrenaline and endorphin junkies. I am the latter, but Fiesch has lots of gondolas, so the others were the former. They milled around the campground in their armor and full helmets, sometimes bouncing the suspension of their ridiculous downhill bikes, perhaps waiting for the trails to dry so they could go forth and shred. I was beneath their notice, and tried to ignore them in turn.

I finally managed to get started around 10:00, rolling back through the ski village to the main road, a winding two-lane artery. It leads to the head of the valley, then splits into three passes, the Grimsel, Furka, and Nufenen. The Furka is the most important, and has a railway tunnel beneath it to remain open year-round. I was headed for the Nufenen, which crosses the Alps’ spine into a valley that is geographically and culturally Italy, but for some reason politically Switzerland. Near the junction, I was curious to pass what looked like an enormous ren-fair, though I did not dare stop for a $20 turkey leg.

The Nufenen Pass is not as steep as the Iseran, nor is it gentle like the Grand Saint Bernard, so I found myself comfortably in my lowest gear for long stretches. I saw several cyclists, mostly roadies passing me, but it was more popular among motorists. None were overtly rude, but they were playing with their expensive toys on a weekend, and so could not help but be annoying. I did notice one large “hoonigan” decal, the international term for “unrepentant douchebag with a loud car.” I was riding into a bad forecast, and the clouds over the pass looked threatening. I looked around for possible shelter as I crossed treeline, and saw few likely prospects. So I pushed on as best I could, switchbacking to the col left of a small dam and several large wind turbines.

Fortunately the weather held, and I reached the pass to find sports cars cooling off and a horde of tourists milling around a small pond. Not wanting to take chances, I immediately put on a layer and headed down, bombing the descent to Airolo. The signs were all in Italian, but the road was striped and in fairly good shape, a jarring contrast reflecting the area’s Italian/Swiss nature.

I had a late lunch in Airola while deciding what I do. Part of me wanted to turn around and head back over the famous Gotthard Pass, but that would be foolish given the weather. Instead I headed down-valley on the winding local road, catching glimpses of the Autostrada as it passed in and out of endless tunnels. My plan was to head down to Bellinzona and over the San Bernardino pass, but by the time I reached Biasco I was sick of low elevations and main roads. I had noticed a road going up the Brenno Valley to another pass (the Songta Maria), and decided to take that. I made it as far as Acquarossa, where I decided it felt Italian enough to just camp out of the way. I sheltered from the evening thunderstorm below a shallow rock overhang, then eventually drifted off.

Switzerland has been a hard place for me to love, with everything more expensive than it “should” be and highly regulated. Sometimes it lives up to its stereotype as Mountain Disneyland. The closest I’ve come is to recognize that the Swiss like to do things right and follow the rules, two precepts with which I tend to agree. Things worth doing are worth doing right, and recognizing that you are not exempt from general rules is the basis of moral behavior (see the golden rule or categorical imperative). If you want to camp in the Swiss way, there will be clean restrooms, hot showers, and a comfortable shelter in which to play board games or even complain about the Swiss on your phone. That will also cost $25 per night, but camping right isn’t cheap. My problem is that I think some things, like campsites and trail food, aren’t worth the effort and expense to do right, and I don’t get that choice here. But I can at least respect the other approach.

Brouillard and Peuterey ridges

Aiguille Blanche and upper Freney


(This is long, but tries to convey the feel and decision-making of a big, serious day. It was also composed with my thumbs. I hate doing that, but have nothing but free time.)

There were two days of the Alpine 4000-meter peak project that scared me: the Arete du Diable, and the peaks on the Freney side of Mont Blanc. Roping up with Kyle made the former fun, but the latter was the kind of challenging and uncertain terrain I could only do alone. Most of the “Peaks” are minor bumps, probably added to the list to force climbers to do the Brouillard and Peuterey Ridges. The only one with enough prominence to count as a separate peak is the Aiguille Blanche, the hardest of the “main” 4000ers.

My goal was to combine four peaks around Col Eccles: Mont Brouillard and Punta Baretti on the Brouillard Ridge, and the Aiguille Blanche and Grand Pilier d’Angle on the Peuterey. This has (once again) been a dry winter and hot summer in the Alps, so the normal Brouillard Glacier approach to the Eccles Hut and Col is in bad shape. I therefore wasted a day off-route trying to take the lower Innominata Ridge to get there, then sucked it up and went for the glacier.

I suspected that the couloir to Col Emile Rey, once a snow climb, would be dry, and knew that it was prone to rockfall, so I got an early start to tackle those peaks first. I woke at 3:00, drank a liter of milk with instant coffee, and started from my “camping sauvage” by 3:30. After running low on food the previous day, I wasn’t messing around: 400g chocolate, two large cheese sandwiches, and five junk food pastries.

I did the familiar via ferrata to the Monzino hut by headlamp, then turned it off near where the path splits to the Brouillard Glacier. At the glacier, I saw a band of ice and steep slabs above, but thought it would probably go, so I put on crampons, grabbed my axe, and started booting. I headed right, aiming for a good transition from snow and ice to rock to get above the steep section. The rock was an unpleasant sequence of slabs covered in grit and rocks, but better than the broken ice. I am slowly learning to be an “Alpine” climber, and found that these gritty slabs are easier with crampons, since they give more consistent purchase. I am still surprised by how much rock Euros do in crampons, but they are definitely on to something for this sort of post-glacial junk.

Above that, I made my way across easier glacier toward a mess of crevasses and ice blocks. What little information I found online suggested taking the far (right) branch of the couloir to Col Emile Rey, but the left one looked much more direct, and was of course dry. The problem was getting through the ice maze to its base. This sort of shenanigans is universally frowned upon without a rope, but it is not actually too dangerous if you are patient and follow the soloist’s rule not to make any moves you can’t reverse. With a moderate amount of backtracking, I eventually reached the left side of the glacier, descended a scoured slope below a large serac (still shaded), and reached the base of the couloir.

Despite the early hour, the sun was already hitting Mont Blanc’s upper face, sending down an intermittent shower of rocks with considerable speed. I therefore climbed the right side of the couloir, dealing with disgusting loose rock and wet sand rather than getting bombed. Along they way I found a weathered pack containing Nicolas Tormo’s classic 1970s prescription glasses.

At the junction with the right couloir, I saw the explanation for the rockfall. The Brouillard Ridge is mostly choss, and the ice on the steep step above and right of the col was melting. This meant that the rocks didn’t just bounce down from the col, but got a flying start from the wall above. Sometimes I would hear the warning clatter of pebbles, sometimes the hum of a larger rock, but not usually far enough ahead of time to do much about them. I therefore climbed the right wall until a subtle ridge emerged splitting the two branches, then prudently raced across the line of fire to its relative safety.

The rib was good rock by Brouillard standards, so I was able to relax a bit as I made my way to the col, ending the music of rockfall to my right. From the col, Mont Brouillard was a simple class 4-5 scramble away. I tagged it, then extended my middle finger in the direction of Punta Baretti. It is a silly bump, separated from Brouillard by another one that for some reason does not have a name. But I don’t make the rules, so I ventured out to tag it, passing several bivy platforms along the way, then returned to Col Emile Rey.

I took the same approach descending the couloir, then took the uphill branch hoping to reach Col Eccles directly via the glacier. I saw an old track, but it was unfortunately split by a large crevasse, with the only likely crossing being on the far left, directly under the wall of exfoliating choss. This was somewhere between discouraging and project-ending, so I hunted around some to the right. As is often the case, a large serac had filled in the gaps with its debris. This one was just getting sun, but it seemed to be inactive, the crossing of the fall zone would be short, and I saw a likely ramp/crack on the other side. This worked well, and I was soon scrambling toward the Eccles huts, both old and new, picking my way through the rusty cans and feces one usually finds beneath a bivouac hut.

The old hut was in sad shape, but the new one looked great, and even had some inexplicable hand lines leading through the final rocks. A young couple watched me as I approached, and we ended up talking for awhile. Peter and Magda turned out to be friendly Austrians (from my small sample, they seem to be more outgoing than the average Euro-climber), surprised to see someone descending Col Emile Rey. They were planning to do the Pilier Rouge the next day, and asked me about the approach. When I told them what I was doing, they quickly figured out my project. Unlike many climbers, who imply skepticism or warn/chide me for doing “unsafe” things, they were positive and encouraging, a huge morale boost in a stressful and uncertain day.

I tried to skirt around Pic Eccles before realizing that I had to cross right over to the col. The saddle itself was a knife-edge of snow, but the transition was tricky. Rather than trying the slabs right on the crest, I descended the Freney side a few yards, then made a delicate traverse with my crampon points in a crack until I could stick my tool in my ice. There was an old track on the snow/ice below the col, but I crossed to the rock on the far side, which seemed safer and led to the flat portion of the upper Freney Glacier. I descended the rock face and rib as far as I could, then awkwardly transitioned to snow to make a descending traverse through yet another rockfall zone and reach an old track on the Freney.

I happily followed the bootpack up to the saddle, then eyed what was supposed to be the day’s crux: the Aiguille Blanche. There was a convenient track leading to the start of the rock, and regular bolted belays above to keep me on track. I saw two of the people who made that track continuing toward Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. The Peuterey Ridge is one of the most fearsome features I have seen, and almost inspiring enough to make me want to bring a partner, rope, and bivy for the Peuterey Intégral.

The rock on the Aiguille Blanche’s high side was good for a change, and while the climbing felt serious in a few places, it was a welcome change from the day’s constant risk mitigation. With some methodical climbing below and sometimes left of the anchors, I soon reached the foresummit, and thence the top. I took awhile there eating my second sandwich, partly to delay the downclimb, but that proved similarly methodical and uneventful.

Now only the non-peak of the Grand Pilier remained. I followed the helpful bootpack to the schrund crossing, burying my axe and wallowing up the slush, then began picking my way up 1000 feet of class 3-4 choss to the summit. There is no clear best path here, likely because until recently it was normally climbed in snow. Surmounting one more the big steps, I pulled on a large flake and it came loose. There is a balance between dodging rashly and risking falling, and accepting a glancing low-speed blow. I ended up doing the latter, and instantly knew it wasn’t great. I lifted my pant leg to find a large flap of flesh hanging off my shin, and took off my shoe to find my big toenail almost completely detached and the bone showing. I have taped up shin flappers before and so, hoping for the best, I wrapped plastic bags around my toe and shin, tried to apply some compression with my sock, and continued up. If there was any chance of continuing the project, I did not want to throw it away by turning around so near the top when most of the challenges were below me.

I tagged some high points on the ridge, one of which was apparently the stupid Pilier, then sketched my way back down the loose face. I took a shortcut, hopping the schrund farther right before rejoining my route. At the Col Eccles, I considered my traversing crack before using a wider jam crack on the other side that seemed more secure. Then I took off scrambling toward the hut, not feeling sociable but wanting to show Peter and Magda that I wasn’t dead yet. We spoke quickly from a distance – I didn’t want to explain the blood – then they wished me a safe descent and I was off.

A group had ascended the glacier to the hut that morning, but their tracks were already faded. I descended sideways and facing in, following the tracks where I could to find places to cross or jump the crevasses. With each step my right foot left spots of blood, my shoe by now largely soaked, but even when front-pointing I did not feel excessive pain. I took another scoured ramp below a serac left of the main difficulties, then followed the bare ice to the right before working around an ice cliff on wet, gritty slabs to the left. This was tenuous at times, but my crampons gave me confidence on the outward-sloping rock.

Finally I was able to boot-ski the lower glacier, finding joy in my rapid descent. Crampons and axe stowed for the last time, I was finally able to relax and follow the trail and via ferrata past the hut to camp. With no technical challenges to occupy my mind, the pain in my foot came to the fore, and I painfully limped the final mile to my bivy.

I knew my project was over, but was too tired to think about it much, so I ate most of the food I had left in camp, then tried to find a way to lie without pressure on my shin or toe. I probably got a few hours of sleep, then lay in bed until it was warm enough to ride into Courmayeur. Amazingly, there is no hospital in this “extreme” sports town, so I took the bus to Aosta, then rode up to the emergency room. The doctor chastised me for taking so long, saying that I had earned a helicopter and ambulance (he would know), but I took some stupid pride in getting myself out of the trouble I had brought upon myself.

At least on Internet forums, climbers like to endlessly dissect accidents for “lessons learned,” descending into a bottomless spiral of hypotheticals. I find most of these discussions egotistical and masturbatory, but I have earned my right to comment here. First, I should have brought some gauze to hold things together. Second, mountaineering is irreducibly hazardous, with risks that simply must be accepted. Third, the most difficult terrain is not necessarily where most accidents occur. Even in the Alps, the majority of one’s time is spent on easier ground, where one is often tired or must move quickly, and the consequences there, however unlikely, can be just as severe.

Escape from the Lower 48

Doing it my way


Reaching the place you want to be is always one of the most brutal parts of international travel. Airports are invariably dehumanizing, airlines indifferent to their customers, airplanes crowded and late. Foreign transit has unfamiliar rules you learn only by making time-consuming mistakes. And this increasing strangeness is met with increasing sleep deprivation, so that by the end you find yourself trying to read a bus schedule or check into a hotel in a foreign language when your brain is barely working well enough to do so in your own. The misery of the ordeal is yet another reason to stay as long as possible.

This trip began at 2:00 AM in Denver, when I woke an hour too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was already packed, so I puttered around and ate “breakfast,” or whatever you call the last meal before extended transportation hell at a time that will soon be “dinner.”

I drove to some long-term parking near the airport, dragged my boxed bike out of the car, and shoved it onto the shuttle, where it annoyed the driver and most of the other passengers. There was a family with a confused baby, a professional woman, and some Asian tourists politely masked (I had forgotten mine in the rush). Once at the airport, I dragged the box around for awhile until I found the right counter, then had to open it and add the smallest, heaviest, least threatening items to my carry-on to avoid the $100 overweight baggage fee. Thus burdened, I wound my way through security, which fulfilled my dream of being groped by a rent-a-cop despite having pre-check status and no metal objects. At least the flight was on time and I had a window seat, so I could watch the sunrise, some interesting clouds, and a lot of cornfields on my way to DC. The guy next to me emitted more farts than words, but the plane’s HEPA filters took care of that fairly quickly.

Expecting at least one flight to be late, I had a long layover scheduled in DC. All of the accessible lounges were in other terminals, and the airport requires more walking than most, so I would get some exercise between bouts of sitting. I met an interesting Canadian couple in the Turkish lounge. I talked to him because he was taking dozens of photos of a Lego couple in front of the window. Expecting this to be some hashtag-desperate play for Instagram fame, I was overjoyed to hear that he was just practicing with his camera, and that the Legos were a way to put a subject in his photos without turning them into selfies. Very Canadian. He and his partner had both left jobs in Nunavut to travel the world, and this was the first leg of theirs journey.

After talking with the Canadians for awhile, I left to proceed to my gate, only to learn that my flight was delayed by an hour, which soon became three. I guess an engine had fallen off to original plane or something, because the eventually located a replacement and pulled it around. Fortunately and uncharacteristically, the new plane was both fader and bigger than the old one, so I had two window seats to myself, and we hit ground speeds over 600 MPH. Also, flying directly over New York City at night, I got to watch a dozens of small fireworks displays from 20,000 feet.

This flight was shorter and farther south than my last one from Seattle to Dublin, so it got dark and I had no Greenland to see. I may have slept an hour or so, but the double seat was just a bit too small to get comfortable, and others had taken the middle rows. I was half-awake as I went through Swiss customs, but they didn’t ask me any questions. The surveillance state seems more overt than in the States: my European cell plan required a photo of my passport, and the airport Wi-Fi demanded a scan of my boarding pass. Of course, in the States the government simply buys this information from a private data broker.

Because of the late flight, I only made it as far as Grenoble on transit, where I finally turned my bike from an awkward box to a useful machine. I booked the closest cheap hotel to shower, organize my gear, and try to sleep for some normal hours. Things started to look better at the Carrefour, where I picked up a baguette ($1), a half-pound of Camembert ($1.30), and other sundries. In my search for cheap, dense, durable local calories, I went for a bag of pain chocolat and a large chocolate bar. I will need to carry multiple days of calories in a daypack at times, and it looks like chocolate bars and perhaps sausage may fill that role.

A half-day of trains and buses later, I finally got going under my own power at the turnoff to Ailefroide, riding about ten miles up a wooded valley to a cute town that happens to be a bouldering destination. I must have passed 100 cyclists on the climb, a few even going my way, and none passed me, so I was feeling pretty good despite my heavy and awkwardly-loaded bike. I checked into the campground, then headed into town to forage and find a way to make my load more stable. The weather looks good for the forecast window, so there’s no good reason not to get this thing started.

Silent Spring and Alps again

Finsteraarhorn from Lauteraarhorn


I have now been on the road for about three months — less time than I had planned, but still quite awhile. Though I have done a few moderately interesting things, I have not visited a major destination like the Canadian Rockies, or done much in the way of “real” outings. However, as those who follow me on Strava know, I have not been idle. This Winter was a time for consolidation, and Spring has been one for building on that foundation. Rather than adventuring, I have been turning my body and mind into the tools necessary for my larger summer objectives. I came out of the winter more interested in preparation than exploration, and that attitude has held on the road. My goal has been to improve my skills and cardiovascular fitness as much as possible while minimizing risk and wear. In other words, I have been trying to embody some level of professionalism, rather than just indulging my enthusiasm.

As some of you may remember, back before the pandemic I was planning to return to the Alps to climb the 4000-meter peaks while riding between them. With international travel reopening, and cognizant of my limited window for such athletic goals in advancing middle age, I have decided to revive that plan. Unlike last time, I have hewn closer to the principle of autonomy that has guided most of my past mountaineering. While I have not been particularly secretive, I have not sought sponsorship, publicity, or other outside aid with its concomitant constraints and obligations. The tickets are booked (thanks, Ted!), the money has been set aside, and I will be starting next week.

I plan to climb all 82 UIAA-recognized points, not just the 50-some with 100 meters of prominence I had previously planned. This adds a little time and a significant amount of technical difficulty, primarily in the Aiguilles du Diable in the Mont Blanc massif. My main concerns are having the technical skill for the cruxes, and not succumbing to overuse injury. To address them, I have spent most of May climbing in a gym as much as possible without tendon damage, and engaged in a variety of aerobic activities with an emphasis on cycling for its lower impact. This has come at the expense of longer days on my feet and harder scrambling, but I have found that those things come back quickly thanks to years of experience.

My optimal timeline is forty days, moving at a steady but sustainable pace. Some of the mountain days are ambitious, particularly in the Mont Blanc area where the huts are awkwardly placed and sometimes costly or reservation-only. However, many of the longer days are similar to ones I did four years ago, and none of the cycling days is longer than a hundred miles. In reality, with weather and improvisation, I expect the effort to take me closer to fifty days. This will leave me with a feeling of incompleteness, knowing that the route will go faster if done “right,” but I will be satisfied by setting down a mark for others to surpass.

I have always enjoyed bringing my mountaineering adventures back to inspire and share with others, so I still hope to write at length about this tour of the Alps. However, I will only have my phone with me, and just time for cursory updates between climbing the peaks, so any detailed account will have to be written afterward. What emerges will depend upon how much of my time is taken by other obligations, and how well I am able to organize my thoughts on a prolonged and intense activity. It is easy to write a book’s worth of trip reports, since they are self-contained, describe recent events, and have a natural sequential structure — I do this every year. It is much harder to write a book, even broken into chapters, as one feels obligated to add some sort of unifying structure and deeper insight. I won’t know until afterwards what that will be, or even if I will have some honest larger thing to say. I appreciate those of you who have come along for the ride so far. Onward and upward!

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 Niña 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.