Sunday, September 14, 2014

Humbled on Mount Jumbo

Route: Bernice's Bakery to Mount Jumbo Trailhead to summit to Van Buren Street to Mount Sentinel Trailhead to summit to Bernice's Bakery.
Elevation Gain: ~3,500
Distance: I have no idea!
Fuel: two cups of Bernice's coffee
Elapsed time: 2 hours 58 minutes (from Bernice's-to-Bernice's)

I approached Saturday with big ambitions: a 25+ mile loop through the Rattlesnake Wilderness with ~5 summits and ~7,000 vertical feet.

Realizing, I had not the energy to force a 4:00AM start, I went to bed Friday night opting for an abridged outing of 24 miles with 2 summits. Upon waking on Saturday morning, I decided that a 19-miler on Stuart Peak would be sufficient. Then, realizing I had other life obligations that needed attention, I opted for a romp up Missoula's 'alphabet mountains.' And this I committed to.

After a delightful morning with Linds at Bernice's Bakery, I grabbed my pack from my car and walked down Higgins to Spruce and over to Van Burn Street and the Cherry Street trailhead of Mount Jumbo.

I had a lovely walk up the hill. ~30 minutes later I was on the summit of Mount Jumbo. I ran into a group of three sizable bucks on my way down from the summit.  As I reached into my pack to fetch my camera, they split, narrowly escaping the focus of my lens.

About 1/3 of the way down, I saw a woman about 100 feet down the trail on her way up. Adjusting my gait to the left edge of the trail I misstepped and promptly found myself on my hands and knees on the downhill side of the trail. My right knee screamed! My first reaction was to look up and see if the woman and seen me. She hadn't. She was calling to her dog to sit alongside her and had not seen me, now 50 feet away, take a spill. In an as ungraceful manner as possible, I roused myself and began the hobble in her direction. From what was a swift 4+ mph walk downhill, I was now limping along at 1mph or less. Oy vey. How silly!

Last year, I made it up and down 203 summits - some of them treacherous - without a single incident. Now, here I am with a swelling knee on the shortest, easiest mountain in the area. As I continued down, my limp became a hobble which became a stilted walk before turning into a semi-graceful downhill gait. It got better. Or at least those chemicals kicked in that keep your mind off the pain and the injury.

I decided to postpone my decision about going up Mount Sentinel until I had reached the bottom and could examine my knee. Back at the trailhead, I concluded that it was fine: nothing more than a surface wound. I continued my walk back to Van Buren Street across the Clark Fork River and over the Mount Sentinel Trailhead.

I made quick work of Mount Sentinel, gaining the summit in 29 minutes by way of the ridge trail. I spent .5 seconds on the summit before heading straight down. My goal was to hit the 45-50 minute round-trip range. I came in at 51 minutes and considered it a fine performance in light of my fall on Mount Jumbo. Back at the base of Mount Sentinel, I grabbed a drink of water at the fountain and then grabbed the river trail back to Higgins and up to Bernice's Bakery. Ahh.

Although the day turned out very differently than I had anticipated - both in terms of the outing and the injury - it was a delight. It had been awhile since I had done the 'alphabet mountain' jaunt and got me excited for my birthday hike next month. Now, here I sit with an icepack on my knee and joy in my heart that I was able to move with such confidence, ease and freedom. If it weren't for those factors, I would not have been able to put myself in a position whereby I sustain a minor knee injury: and for that, in a very strange (and rationalizing way), I am grateful.

Next weekend, I head to Camp Mak-A-Dream for 'Camp Limberlimbs' a camp for kids 7-17 with arthritis. I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Kings of Borah: the high points of Idaho and Utah

Kings Peak 13,528 feet at Sunrise from Dollar Lake (Utah). 
Chapter 1: Borah, Borah, Borah

After work on Friday, Phil and I headed south from Missoula through Darby, picking up several $1.59 “meat” sliders at the Peoples Market and proceeded over Lost Trail Pass into Idaho. Our destination: The Wagon Wheel motel in Mackey, ID. We arrived shortly after 9PM, sorted our gear and turned in for the night.

Throughout the night, we awoke to the intermittent spattering of rain on our window.  Our alarms sang us awake at 4AM. Outside, the glow of lightning illuminated the sharp high ridge of the Lost River Range. Although not encouraging, the distance of the system and the forecast allayed our concerns of being forced off Borah again by the range’s fickle weather. The forecast called for 40% of precipitation in the morning, decreasing through the day. We grabbed a bite and hit the road.

We were moving at 5AM. Short and steep, the standard route on Borah Peak climbs 5,267 feet in just over 3.5 miles (the trailhead is at 7,400 feet, the summit at 12,662). This was Phil's third attempt and my second attempt of Borah. Phil and I made quick work of the first 2,500 feet under the illumination of our headlamps. At tree line, ~10,000 feet, we doffed our headlamps and were provided the first glimpse of what the weather held for us. Although not particularly foreboding, streamers of rain underhanging growing cumulus clouds were amassing across the valley, directly West of Borah. We acknowledged the atmospheric instability and proceeded with caution, accepting the fact that we may be skunked again on Borah.

The clouds clearing off of the upper half of Borah Peak
(on our way descent)
We moved swiftly up to 10,500 and then 11,000 feet, before engaging in a serious conversation about the changing weather. The rumbling of thunder had steadily increased in both intensity and frequency. The streamers of rain and grown into a wall of precipitation – rain, snow, sleet, its contents we did not know – and was moving quickly in our direction. We made the call to retreat off of the high ridge and gain shelter in the trees before making a final decision about Borah. On the descent, the lightning strikes became visible in our vicinity, striking near the base of the mountain and surrounding ridges. The seriousness of our situation apparent, we abandoned the ridge and began a speed hike/run down the northern slope of the ridge into a clump of trees and rocks.

200 feet above the trees, the wall of precipitation revealed its true contents. First rain, then sleet, then hail. The wall engulfed us. I had sped ahead to find some semblance of protection for us to sit out the storm. After careful going with 20-50 feet of visibility, Phil and I found ourselves nestled safely in at 9800 feet, 1200 feet below our high point. Lightning struck and thunder sounded in our vicinity, but never seriously threatened our position. The hail and rain persisted for no more than 15 minutes before easing off to drizzle and then dissipating entirely.

During those 15 minutes, Phil and I weighed our options: 1) descend and give it another go the following day; 2) descend, head south to Kings Peak in Utah and return to Borah in 2-3 days; or 3) wait it out and give it another go from our position. Option ‘3’ was the most attractive choice as it kept us on our original itinerary and saved us from having to re-ascend 2,000 feet in several days time. And who knew what the weather would do!

The soft echo of thunder receding to our east, we made the decision to give it another go. We quickly re-gained the ridge crest and caught up with a couple that had waited out the storms below the trees. As it turns out, an early start was not to our advantage!

From the ridge, it was clear that the worst had passed. Although precipitation swirled the valley and low clouds continued sweeping over our route, there was little threat of lightning.

Within an hour we were back at our high point, just below ‘chicken-out ridge.’ We picked our way up and over the ridge, climbing and down-climbing sections of the exposed ridge. As we reached the final section of ‘chicken-out’ clouds swept over our windward perch, bringing with them 30-40 mph winds and snow. So it goes.

Chicken-Out Ridge as seen from the summit ridge of Borah
(photo taken on descent)
 As it snowed upward – the snow literally blowing from the valley below up – we pressed on to the summit ridge. With 50-100 feet visibility, we picked our way up the ridge with the occasional cairn guiding our progress. I built several additional cairns along the route up to the ridge crest. We hit the summit just after 10:30AM. This was Phil’s 45th state high point (and his third attempt)! Hurray! Although the snow was easing off, the wind chill was enough to limit our time on the summit. We took a few perfunctory summit shots and headed down.

Phil on the summit of Borah Peak, his 45th state high point.
On the summit of Borah Peak with wedding prayer flags.

The descent was happily eventless. As we descended the clouds began to thin. By the time we reached the bottom of ‘chicken-out ridge’ the summit of coming into view. And by the time we reached the car, blue sky peeked through broken clouds. We reached the car at just after 12:30PM.

Phil descending the summit ridge of Borah 
Sometimes you have to go up to go down. Phil climbing on our
way down 'chicken-out ridge'

Total time: 7.5 hours
Total vertical ascent: ~6400 feet
Total mileage: ~8.5-9 miles

Chapter 2: Kings Peak

Next stop: Kings Peak! Kind of. From Borah’s trailhead we headed back to the town of Mackey for a celebratory burger and fries. We continued south through Idaho, into Utah, before heading east into Wyoming. At 8PM we found ourselves in the town of Mountain View, Wyoming, the gateway to Kings Peak. With damp gear and a rather damp 12-hour forecast, we opted to stay at the Country Cabin Inn in Mountain View rather than camping at the trailhead. We spent the evening drying out our gear and organizing our packs for our overnight in Henrys Fork basin.

We awoke at 6AM on Sunday with the intention of hitting the road. Again, Mother Nature had different plans for us. With rain and lightning hammering Mountain View, we took our time gathering ourselves for departure. We hit up ‘Maveriks’, the gas station next to the inn, for a day’s old Krispy Kreme donut breakfast and coffee.

We tentatively departed for the trailhead under the curtains of rain and flashes of lightning. All the forecasts we looked at promised back-to-back clear days from Sunday to Monday. We rested all of our hopes on this being the case.

From our northerly approach, we crossed the border into Utah. The rain abated at this time. We arrived at the trailhead (~9,400 feet) just before 9AM. This was later than we had planned on, but it was, as it turned out, the best of all possible outcomes given the weather. We disembarked at 9AM under breaking clouds and a glimmer of blue. The rain on the drive in would be the last precipitation of the trip.

5.5 miles up Henrys Fork towards Kings Peak. Phil looking up trail
at the range.
Our spirits buoyed by the stabilizing weather, we cruised up the gentle slope of the basin to Dollar Lake. After a delightful 8-mile hike we hit Dollar Lake at 12:15PM. The weather was stunning: blue skies, clear atmosphere and 50 degrees with a light breeze. We quickly erected the tent, cached all unnecessary gear and hit the trail at 12:30PM for the summit.

An hour later, we found ourselves at Gunsight Pass. From Gunsight Pass, the trail proceeds down into Painter Basin, skirts West Gunsight Peak and then heads up to Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge of Kings Peak. We received intel from a couple of hikers that there was a well-cairned route that traversed high on the back of West Gunsight Peak, effectively trimming an hour or more from the standard route. We quickly found the route and clawed our way up to the expansive alpine that is the northern slopes of West Gunsight Peak. What a lark! The walk was beautiful around the mountain. Kings Peak comes into view quickly, dominating the skyline on our bearing.

Looking north from Gunsight Pass. Our route took us
under the cliff band on the right and up the talus slope to
the high bench center.
Under blue skies, we reached Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge (12,400 feet) at 2:30PM. We scrambled our way up the ridge, exchanging pleasantries with many of the folks heading down. At about 12,800 feet we passed a pair of gentlemen working their way up the ridge. One of the men was moving by way of a pseudo-crawl, using both hands to brace himself on easy terrain while his friend kept a close watch, occasionally guiding his progress. I stopped to chat with them briefly and they gave off the vibe of being very experienced outdoorsmen. Interesting.

Phil looking out over Henrys Fork basin - from whence we came -
from just below Anderson Pass en route to the summit.
The Kings Peak summit ridge is a very pleasant walk/scramble. At about 13,450 feet, the ridge juts sharply up, providing a fun scramble to the top. At 3:30PM we stood on the 13,528-foot summit of Kings Peak and the top of Utah. So beautiful was the day, we were in no hurry to descend. We were equipped with headlamps and plenty of warm clothes should we find ourselves descending the final miles in the dark. We ate, drank, took pictures, chatted with a gentleman from Idaho, laughed and celebrated Phil’s 46th high point. We observed the fact that we had – unplanned – summited the high point of Idaho and Utah in two consecutive days. There was a group of rather boisterous young men – dare I say my peers – tempting fate with various summit hijinks i.e. peeing off the summit, throwing rocks. One of men had a rifle protruding out of his pack. I asked him why he had it and he said he was hoping to bag a ptarmigan or two. Huh.

On the summit of Kings Peak, the high point of Utah.
Phil's 46th high point. 
At 4:10PM we began our descent. We passed a total of 6 folks still scrambling their way to the summit on the way down the ridge. At about 13,200, we ran into the gentleman that was ‘feeling’ his way to the summit. As Phil and I approached the duo, Phil suggested that perhaps he was blind. Plausible. We reached the men and chatted again. I asked, “I don’t mean to be offensive, I am simply curious, what is your technique all about.” He took the question with grace and responded happily. He explained that he had suffered a brain injury many years back and half of his body was not especially responsive, while his balance suffered severely. Wow. Amazing. It was an inspiring moment. This man was literally crawling his way up the mountain, moving no faster than ½ mile an hour while his friend patiently guided his movement. He went on to explain that this is a part of recover journey back to climbing. At this pace, they were likely to summit around 5PM. Phil and I expressed how impressed we were and carried on with a new sense of respect, understanding and appreciation for those that strive in the face of serious adversity.

The upper portion of the summit ridge of Kings Peak.
Pain-free with my health, suddenly rheumatoid arthritis faded to white noise, an innocuous diagnosis made manifest only by the pillbox that lie in our tent below.

We stopped below Anderson Pass to filter a few liters of water for the rest of the return journey to Dollar Lake. We picked an easier line around the backside of West Gunsight Mountain and cairn-hopped our way back down to Gunsight Pass. The glow of the setting sun illuminated the red, brown and white rocks of surrounding mountains as we cruised down the trail into the basin. It truly was the ‘most beautiful day in recorded history.’  We reached our campsite around 7PM, 10 hours after we had left the car. The GPS read exactly 18 miles with ~4,300 feet of ascent on the day.

Gunsight Peak and Gunsight Pass on the descent.
We filtered several additional liters of water and watched the sun set on the surrounding peaks with a woman from Bountiful, UT. We split a 3-cheese pasta Mountain House meal – I prematurely put in half-heated and unboiled water into my mac and cheese, rendering it uncooked and possibly bacteria-ridden - and hit the rack. I woke up several times to relieve myself and found the sky to be among the clearest I had ever seen. Layers of stars succumbed to even deeper layers of stars.

Phil sitting on a rock at Dollar Lake as the sun sets.
We awoke at 6AM to a cloudless sky. I surprised Phil with cinnamon rolls I had packed in for our final breakfast on the mountain. We watched the sun rise from the point we had watched it set the evening before. With Starbucks coffee and cinnamon rolls we dined like kings of Kings Peak. “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is,” said Kurt Vonnegut. And in this moment – as in so many moments in life – it rang true. We had succeeded and in so many ways. From safely gaining the summits of two state high points in consecutive days to edifying conversation to awe-inspiring beauty, it was all a success. Although our primary objectives were peaks, the underlying drive was the pursuit of beauty and life through mountain travel.

The trail to Kings Peak from Dollar Lake at sunrise.
We broke camp at 8:30AM. I walked 100 feet from our camp to relieve myself. Looking up, my gaze met the eyes a cow moose some 50 feet away. Accompanying her was a calf several feet further. She didn’t seem to mind my presence. Careful not to disturb the animals, I grabbed Phil and we viewed from a safe distance.

Look closely! A cow moose and calf. 
With the day ahead of us we opted for the longer and less traveled route out of Henrys Fork. We hiked about a mile up the trail to 11,000 feet and crossed the basin. The terrain was breathtaking: lakes, ponds, marshes and stands of trees all back-dropped by 13,000-foot peaks. The trail we were on disappeared and we proceeded to bushwhack 1-2 miles across the valley. We came upon another moose, this one 100-yards distant, in a marsh near one of the myriad ponds. The topographic map had us below the trail and so we traversed up and over a couple of knolls before catching sight of a massive cairn marking the trail. On the trail, we got back up to our 3-3.5 mph hiking pace and cruised on down the valley.

The peaks of Henrys Fork from Elkhorn Crossing. 
Our trail junction came quickly. At the junction we ran into a couple that had spent several days up the basin picking off several 13,000-footers in the area. They introduced themselves as Jennifer and Gerry from Montrose, CO. They were extremely – an understatement - knowledgeable about the state high points and Gerry disclosed that he had completed all of the high points. Jennifer asked if we were familiar with the Colorado 14er books. It immediately clicked: this is the Gerry Roach! The Gerry Roach of mountaineering and guidebook fame. He was the 2nd person to climb the highest point of all seven continents and has over 2,000 Colorado Peaks under his belt.  We chatted with Jennifer and Gerry for a couple of minutes longer before heading down the remaining 5.5 miles to the trailhead.

As was our wont, we made quick work of the final, relatively flat, section of trail. We were back at the rental car around 1:30PM.

And that was it. Just like that, it was over.

Total distance: 30.5 miles
Total vertical ascent: 4,600 feet
Total elapsed travel time: 15.5 hours (27.5 hours on the mountain)
Moose sightings: 3

En route to Salt Lake City, we stopped off at Don Pedro’s Family Mexican restaurant in Evanston, Wy. Phil and I shared some laughs, stories and fajitas. All good things. We made the gorgeous drive to Odgen and down to Salt Lake City to our hotel just off the Salt Lake City airport campus.

A couple of hours ago Phil and I exchanged our farewells and headed on our separated paths: he to Chicago and I back to Missoula. Back to our lives and loved ones. The trip was a short, but rich lark. It was beautiful, gorgeous and life giving. With a full cup – life-filled - I return to the venerable vagaries of normal life and give back. Phil once shared this poem with me:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever;
You have to come down again …
So why bother in the first place?
Just this: What is above knows what is below,
But what is below does not know what is above.

One climbs, one sees.
One descends, one sees no longer,
But one has seen.

There is an art of conducting oneself
In the lower regions
By the memory of what one saw higher up.

When one can no longer see,
One can at least still know.”

An abandoned cabin on the hike out. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Drawing new circles (wedding, new job, Denali and power-hiking)

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment." Ralph Waldo Emerson, from 'Circles' 
Jumping for joy on the summit of Mount Tiny (9869 feet)
in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness during our honeymoon.
Since my last post in late-May, I have drawn many new circles: I have changed jobs, moved, GOTTEN MARRIED, had my first photo show, confirmed a spot on a 2015 Denali expedition and set a new power-hiking PR on Stuart Peak (in that order, with the Stuart Peak PR happening today). Today, I will touch on the job, marriage, Denali and Stuart Peak.

New Job:

I have the best job in the world! I now work for The Flagship Program as a Youth Development Coordinator at Hawthorne Elementary School. In my role, I am responsible for developing/planning out-of-school time enrichment programs (reading, sports, outdoors, gardening, art, etc.) for K-5 students. I am so grateful for such an amazing job!


Linds and I committed ourselves to one another in front of ~150 of our friends and family on July 26th up at beautiful Snowbowl. It was, without a doubt, the most joyous occasion of my life (and hopefully Linds' life too, although X-Men movie releases are pretty high on that list). I have never smiled so much in my life!

There were, of course, countless highlights. From our officiant Brian Marsh's beautiful words to the echoes of our audience's affirmations off the mountainside to seeing so many of the people that we love. With all of that goodness, there is one memory that stands above the rest: our first dance.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not particularly keen on dancing. Of course, the wedding would stand as an exception (this I had known well in advance). Linds had selected our first song and had been communicating with the band, in secret, about how our first dance was to go. After clearing the dance floor of the tables and chairs, we go in to hold one another, in preparation for the song to begin. Faint acoustic guitar strumming began. As the intro crescendoed, my mind formulated what song it was that we were hearing. It was one of Linds and I's favorite songs 'Taillights' by David Boone (a local Missoula artist). What a treat! And if that wasn't enough. Linds leans in and whispers to me, "he's playing a 30-minute set." At this point, it began to sink in: that was not one of our band's musicians covering David Boone that was, in fact, David Boone! Linds, unbeknownst to me, had hired David Boone to play a 30-minute set, including our first dance. Wow. I was mildly in shock, still struggling to understand the enormity of it all.

"Move to Montana and lay your burdens down...
and our feet don't touch the ground." Taillights, by David Boone
Our first dance!
The morning after the wedding, Linds and I packed up the car and headed to Anaconda-Pinler Wilderness for a 3-day backpacking trip. Just as we were disembarking from the car, Linds mentioned that her wedding dress was in the car. Should she bring it along? Of course! My wedding clothes were packed amongst the myriad wedding decorations and odd-and-ends from the mountain wedding. We opted to pack our wedding clothes and a few decorations for a mountaintop photo-shoot.

The first day, we hiked in 4 miles to Goat Flat and set up camp on the edge of a stunning alpine meadow at 9,200 feet. This would be our home the next two nights. We took our first day out as a serious rest day. Upon setting up camp, we rested.

Our campsite replete with our wedding prayer flags.
The two days that followed were a total lark. We did our mountaintop wedding shoot, stood on two summits, read, wrote, ate, laughed, stargazed (amazing!) and napped. It was, in short, spectacular. 

Linds airborne on top of Mount Tiny. 
All told, from the Friday before our wedding through the Tuesday that marked the end of our honeymoon and the beginning of real life, joy abounded. These go down as easily the happiest 5 days of my life! And it is just the beginning...

Denali 2015:

After much consideration and conservations with my climbing friend Phil, we locked in a 2015 climbing date for Denali. May 5th, 2015, Phil and I will head out on the trip-of-a-lifetime to climb Denali. Our original play of 2014 fell through on account of several life circumstances and now, here we are, primed for the climb. We have been confirmed on RMI's first team of the season and could not be more thrilled. More to come on this in the near future!

Stuart Peak power-hiking PR (today!):

Eager to get back to some semblance of mountain fitness, I set my sights on a speed-hike of Stuart Peak for my August ascent of the ol' mountain. In preparation, I did a couple of speed hikes up Mount Sentinel and University Mountain over the last couple of weeks. I was able to nail down a 50-minute round-trip on Sentinel in 95 degree heat and a 2-hour round-trip on University a couple of days later.

Feeling strong and excited to sink my teeth into a challenge, I packed my larger camelbak bag with a few Clif Bars, 2-liters of water, a GoPro and sunscreen. 

Now, I will spare you the details of the outing, as these things tend to be rather uneventful (and it was, in the best possible way). My plan was to hike as fast as I could, with only a 1-2 minute stop on the summit for pictures,  up and down Stuart Peak without running a step. I would drink a modest volume of water every 15-30 minutes and eat half of a Clif Bar at strategic points on the trail. The fueling worked perfectly! I felt like a million bucks throughout the duration of the hike. What fun!

Here is the breakdown (Stuart Peak trail 517):

Distance: 9.5 miles one-way (19 miles round-trip)
Elevation exchange: 4,200 feet ascent and 4,2000 descent

Trailhead to summit (ascent): 2 hours 17 minutes (1.5 minutes on summit)
Average ascent pace: 4.2 mph
Summit to trailhead (descent): 1 hour 59 minutes
Average descent pace: 4.8 mph
Total round-trip time: 4 hours 17 minutes
Average overall pace: 4 mph

Overall, I am quite pleased with al it went. I still have some work to do on my uphills. That said, I am very pleased with an 3.7 mph average uphill for 8.5 miles. And, ultimately, I had a blast!

On the summit of Stuart Peak for 1.5 minutes. What a glorious day!
Today's outing ultimately got me excited for the prospect of a Stuart Peak double-dip: 34 miles round-trip with 8400 feet of climbing and descending. I am going to lay off of the speed stuff until mid-September, when I prepare for the 'Mount Sentinel Hill Climb', but I foresee the Stuart Peak double dip power-hike in the near future :-). 

As I mentioned, I am laying off of speed-hiking for a bit so I can thoroughly enjoy hiking some mountains with Linds this month while staying healthy for Phil and my 'double-dip' at the end of the month. More to come on this!

El Fin:

All right. That is all for now. I sincerely hope that my next post is not filled with so many big life changes. All of the above were welcomed, needed and dearly loved, but stability is also nice. Ah, there they are: my feet. They are below me firmly planted on the ground. Life is good.

With love and gratitude,


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A dose of reality and other news

Jumping for joy on the summit of Stuart Peak with
the Love of My Life (sometime in the last 6 months).
 Earlier this month, I missed doses of Humira and methotrexate during the same cycle. The old saying "you don't know what you have until it is gone" more or less holds true here. The doses were not missed intentionally. I simply had a lapse in memory and mistakenly left the Humira in the fridge and the methotrexate in its child-proof - and RA-proof - container when I should have been administering both.

You do not know what you have until it is gone. It is surprising how easily deluded we can become. Upon becoming aware of the fact that I had missed a dose, I convinced myself that because I had not had a flare-up in a very long time - at least 6 months - I was cured and had graduated out of my pill-a-day containers! Not so. Within a few days of missing my doses, dull aches begin to settle into my wrists and shoulders. A few days later, my left wrist began to act like its old self, pre-meds: achey, with occasional bursts of sharp, radiant pain. The rest of my body joined the protest: Humira, Humira, Humira. I won't pretend like I was crippled by the experience, fortunately my body communicated its dissatisfaction with my lapsed doses and I responded swiftly with an injection of Humira, methotrexate and ibuprofen. Success. 

This experience of missed doses, was a reminder of how far I have come in managing inflammation and pain through lifestyle and medication choices. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a rheumatologist and dial in the right combination of medications that allow me to be active and lead a "normal" life.

That is that.

In other news, I began going to physical therapy again to get my back, hips and legs back on track. I have been had issues with inexplicable - until PT - aches and pains in my leg (may or may not be associated with RA). I am committed to working hard at getting the proper muscles strengthened and the proper training regimen established. It is critical that this be so if I am to have any longevity in my active, outdoor life. I couldn't be more thrilled with the new clinic that I am going to: they seem to get me and what I am trying to do.

And that is that.

In other-other news, I took my brother up Pikes Peak last month on a two-day climb up the east face. We had a splendid time. It had been almost 15 years since we had stood on top of a mountain together. The outing - both as a climb and a reunion of sorts - goes down as one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences in the mountains. Here are the highlights:

Jason, my brother, raising his ice axe to
sun on the east face of Pikes Peak.
Jason and I on the summit of Pikes peak after a 4AM start.

And finally, in other-other-other news, Wade Balmer with the Arthritis Foundation wrote a really nice article about this blog and last years adventures. Click here to check it out!

Onward and upward,


Sunday, March 23, 2014

University Mountain: A Re-Awakening

Objective: Northwest Face of University Mountain
Vertical Feet: ~3200
Elapsed time: 3 hours 10 minutes

Hungry to explore new terrain on familiar mountains, I ventured onto the unknown - to me - ribs, gullies and faces of University Mountain. The whole affair was hugely impulsive and based on a last-minute panic: should I not get out now - 1PM on a cloudless Saturday afternoon - a pall will be cast over the weekend and I shall return to work on Monday unchanged. 

I disembarked at the 'M' Trailhead, trekking poles in hand and the echoes of Spoon's heady 'Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga' album ringing through my earbuds. My chosen objective for the day was the north ridge/northwest face of University Mountain. Both the ridge and the face, although relatively safe, offer the most challenging terrain of Mount Sentinel's big brother. The north ridge direct can be thought of as the line of passage to gain access to the northwest face, a hanging basin ~750 vertical feet directly below the summit. The recent freeze/thaw cycle followed by a good freeze, portended firm snow and good climbing.

To reach the base of the route, I walked about 2 and 1/2 miles along the Kim Williams River Trail. The north side of both University and Mount Sentinel rise steeply and uniformly from the edge of the Clark Fork River, the water feature which the Kim Williams River Trail parallels. This is fortuitous for the bushwhacking, weekend explorer as it allows for easy and immediate access to the flanks of the massif. 

I reached what appeared to be the base of the north ridge direct (the ridge that rises directly to the summit,  not the false summit), shortened my trekking poles and began the steep bushwhack up the slope. 

The north side of University Mountain is littered with fallen trees and thickets, a bushwhackers nightmare. Fortunately, there remained a consistently thick and firm enough layer of snow to cover the fallen trees and the base of the thickets. What wonderful travel! The lower fourth of the mountain passed as many of the other ribs and ridges of the north side have: an exercise in navigation, weaving in and out of stands of pines and clumps of thickets. 

About a quarter of the way up, I found myself a hundred feet higher than and parallel to a steep snow-covered talus - basketball-sized rocks - field. I descended to its base and climbed the obstruction free slope. Near the top of the talus field (~500 feet from its base) the slope steepened and the snow deepened, effectively covering the stones. The snow was a hard-packed, barely granting the mark of my boot with the full weight of my body applied to its surface. Earlier in the day, I had opted to leave my crampons and ice axe at home, and was now regretting that decision. No matter, I put myself to the work of methodically kicking steps up the slope. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, left foot step. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, step. And so it went. 

Reaching the top of the talus field I re-entered the dense wood. The slope continued to steepen, but the hard-packed snow remained. Although a fall on the hard snow without an ice axe to self-arrest would have undoubtedly resulted in a good slide, my fears were allayed by the density of the trees and thickets to stop such a fall.

Fifteen minutes later I found myself on the shoulder of the ridge. From this new perspective I was able to see the summit proper and the whole of the northwest face through the thinning trees. My position was a couple hundred feet above the base of the gully that led into the northwest face and about half of a mile to the west. I opted to do a downward traverse to the base of the gully.

Upon reaching the base of the gully, and in effect, the northwest face, I was discouraged - but not surprised - to find a harder snow pack with intermittent patches of ice covering the virtually treeless gully and face. Although a relatively gradual slope (~30-35 degrees), I would not be afforded the psychological and, in all truth, the real protection that the trees below had a provided. No, a slip here here would result in non-stop slide to the base of the gully. I weighed the risk. Had the slope been any steeper, I would have abandoned the route and regained the trees. With time and patient kick-stepping, I knew it could be done safely without an ice axe or crampons. 

So it began: the climb to the top. The face itself isn't anything to write home about, but a fairly special feature so close to Missoula. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, left foot step. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, right foot step. The snow consistently hard, the rhythm was wholly meditative. This is mountaineering at its best. 

With the true summit out of sight, I oriented myself to what I thought to be the most direct line up the face. As the tempo of my rhythmic steps towards the summit increased, the shadow that threatened to ensconce my weekend in stagnancy began its retreat. Upward, upward, upward! My pace increased. I progressed into my standard heavy breathing rhythm: high-er, high-er, high-er, each syllable an out-breath, followed by a large soundless in-breath. Ah! Sweet, sweet freedom of movement and exploration. 

Several minutes later, I crested the upper slope of the face and was greeted with a view of the towers of University Mountain, marking the summit. I was a mere 200 feet away, the slope laid back, allowing me to walk normally on the shallow grade. I increased my pace and power hiked the remaining distance to the summit. Success!

After a quick gulp of water and a couple of deep breathes, I began the descent down the standard trail. What a delight to walk on even relatively level ground! 

In my life, mountain adventures have become a necessary function of living. My outing up University Mountain this weekend re-enforced this very fact. It is in the mountains that one can pit the mind against new objective; re-invigorate the soul with exposure to the raw, natural world; and challenge the body with formidable physical obstacles. I will return to work on Monday changed. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Into the Thermosphere: 2013 in review

The epitome of joy. This self-portrait taken by Linds and I just after the
marriage proposal captures the spirit of 'Into the Thermosphere' and marks the
most exciting and significant mountaintop experience of the project.
Stuart Peak, June 9th 
December 31, 2013 meant more as an annual chronological cultural milestone, than it did as the final day of the 'Into the Thermosphere' project. In spite of its significance as a definitive end-point for the project, the day passed with little thrill, zero vertical feet and no summits. Instead, the day served as an opportunity to spend quality time with the Love of My Life (LOML), sharing a meal, watching the ball drop and falling asleep with pleasant dreams of a New Year's Day ascent of Stuart Peak. 
A  wet day on the summit of Mount Sentinel with Linds.
All told, the project - 500,000 vertical feet and 100 summits of Mount Sentinel in 2013 - was a total success. These numbers waned in importance as the year progressed. The point was to get myself moving on a fairly intense program while maintaining a healthy balance with my personal and professional life. And in this regard, success was achieved. As for the initial objectives? I came up short on the vertical feet, but greatly exceeded the Mount Sentinel goal. Ultimately, it does not matter. What matters is that the year was one full of rich, life-giving mountaintop experiences, including getting engaged and deepening relationships with friends and family. Throughout the year, I shared mountains with Linds, Lydia Hess, Dave Massey, Stacy Keogh, my Dad!, Phil Goss, Austin Graef, Wes Bowman, Trevor Marsh and many, many more folks! 

Here are the raw numbers for 2013:

Number of vertical feet ascent: 437,250 feet
Average daily vertical ascent: 1,197 feet
Most vertical feet in a month: 62,700 feet (January)
Most vertical feet in a day: 6520 feet (November 23rd - Stuart Peak/Mosquito Peak/Stuart Peak)
Most vertical feet in an hour: 4000 feet (October 2nd - Mount Sentinel double)

Total number of mountain summits: 208
Mount Sentinel: 140 (9 routes)
On the summit of Mosquito Peak, looking back at Stuart Peak.
November 23rd
University Mountain: 34 (5 routes)
Stuart Peak: 12 (3 routes)
Mount Helena: 7 (2 routes)
Mount Jumbo: 4 (2 routes)
Mosquito Peak: 2

Pikes Peak: 1
Lolo Peak: 1
Mount Dean Stone: 1
Murphy Peak: 1
Point Six: 1
Swiftcurrent Mountain: 1
Apgar Lookout: 1
Point 5315: 1
Blue Mountain: 1

Personal Records (non-running): 
Mount Sentinel ascent: 24 minutes 45 seconds (September 18th)
Mount Sentinel roundtrip: 41 minutes (October 2nd)
Mount Sentinel double roundtrip: 1 hour 25 minutes (October 2nd)
University Mountain roundtrip: 1 hour 40 minutes (April 29th)
Mount Helena ascent: 16 minutes 55 seconds (January 25th)
Mount Helena double roundtrip: Sub-1 hour (January 23rd) 
Point Six/Murphy Peak roundtrip (from Snowbowl parking lot): 3 hours 23 minutes (August 17th)

A friendly game of Scrabble on top of Mount Sentinel
with Austin Graef. The scenery won. 
Mountaintop Experiences:
Scrabble games; reading; engagement! (Stuart Peak); napping; jumping pictures; bringing a ladder to a summit (Mount Sentinel); bringing a table/chairs/sound system to a summit (Stuart Peak); eating fresh baked donuts on a summit (Pikes Peak); and snowboarding from summits (Mount Sentinel and University Mountain)! So many wonderful things!

2013 marked the first full year with Rheumatoid Arthritis that I have not had a major flare-up and my levels have been stabilized. This past year taught me nothing if not discipline in listening to my body's needs. What is the ache or pain? Should I take a rest day? The answer, I learned quickly, is invariably YES! Take a rest day (or two), fully recover, then get back out there and do it again. 

It was not difficult to get out almost every day and climb a mountain. I am wired this way! It was more difficult forcing rest and recovery days and finding something for my 'idle' self to do in the daily climb's place. Although this chapter of the 'Into the Thermosphere' project is coming to a close, I am grateful to shed the nagging feeling of the need to stand on top of a mountain every spare moment.

The New Year
On the summit of Pikes Peak with Linds!
July 6th
In 2014, I am shifting my goals to ultra-hikes (27+ miles), bigger mountains and single-day Wilderness crossings. With so many big objectives out there, I am looking forward to moving away from ongoing training goals and onto large, one-off objectives. Here are a few of my projects for 2014:
  • Rattlesnake Wilderness single-day crossing (from Missoula to Arlee by way of the Rattlesnake Wilderness)
  • Stuart Peak, Mosquito Peak, Murphy Peak, Point Six (in-a-day)
  • South Face of Stuart Peak
  • Borah Peak (Idaho)
  • Mount Rainier (in-a-day)
  • Elkhorn 50 mile race (power-hike)
  • Granite Peak (Montana high point)
I am thrilled to continue sharing periodic trip reports on the 'Into the Thermosphere' blog. That, in my mind, only makes sense. Additionally, I will continue to stay steady the course with RA updates. Fortunately, on account of stabilizing at the end of 2012, RA rarely entered as a topic of conversation throughout 2013. And it is for that that I feel extremely blessed and am thrilled to share my experiences as a person that has RA with the rest of the world!

Here's to a happy and healthy 2014! 

Onward and upward,


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stuart Peak Double-Take

Take one (December 7): 

Two weeks ago Saturday I had a go at Stuart Peak. The high at 7,000 feet (1,000 feet below the summit of Stuart Peak) was -15 degrees with wind chills predicted to be in the -40s. The weather was predicted to be stable, clear and cold!

I made good time, covering the first 4.5 miles in about 1.5 hours. There was 1-2 inches of snow on the ground up to the that 4.5 mile mark. The snow depth increased rapidly from that point (~5,000 feet) up. I donned my snowshoes at about the 5 mile point and began the slog!

The temperature, although in the -10s, was bearable. On my feet I sported two pairs of wool socks stuffed inside of boots rated to -20 degrees. My legs were covered with two pairs of long-underwear under light trekking pants. On my upper body, I wore 4 layers underneath a winter parka (down mittens with over mittens on my hands). And finally, on my noggin, I wore a balaclava, a fleece neck warmer and a beanie.

Labored breathing laden with the moisture of my breathe froze instantly on any  surface within 7 inches of my mouth. Fortunately, the approach to Stuart Peak lies in a well protected gully, making the wind a non-issue for the first 5-6 miles.

That said, the strong winds combined with the snow of recent days resulting in a 2-3 inch crust on top of 6-8 inches of fairly light powder snow. The crust was weight-bearing 5% of the time: slow-going. Every step required patience as I broke through with each snowshoe and regained purchase on the packed powder beneath the crust.

6.5 miles up, the trail rounds a corner providing the first view of Stuart Peak. With the turn of the corner came the first encounter with a bitter wind in the -30s. The last time I felt winds that cold was in Great Falls  in 2008 when I would go for long runs in -20 to -30 wind chills (this required goggles and 0% skin exposure).

I continued slowly for another 150 feet breaking through the crust, gaining traction and taking another step. At such a frustratingly slow pace, I had another 2-3 hours to the summit, which meant another 3-4 hours exposed to the brutal wind that was increasing in strength and decreasing in temperature. I stopped to assess the situation: the tips of my right toes were getting pretty dang cold and required frequently 'wiggle-stops'; exposure to the wind/cold was only to increase over the next 3-4 hours and the wind roared overhead! Uninterested in frostbite in such a low-reward scenario, I opted to make this point (~6800 feet) the day's high point. I snapped a picture and headed down to the warmth (-8!). This trip goes down as the first time in 5 years that I have not seen another soul in the Rattlesnake (on the trail or at the trailhead).

Self-portrait at the high point on 'take one'.
Take two (December 14):

Exactly a week later - and 25 degrees warmer - I came back with a secret weapon: fellow Rockturnal, Lydia Hess. Fueled by Bernice's Coffee and a touch determination, we hit the trail around 7:30AM. 

Since my last trip a week before, about 6 inches of snow had fallen in Missoula and 1-2 feet higher in the mountains. I was glad to have snowshoe packed what there was of a trail up to the 6.5 mile mark a week before.

Lydia and I moved swiftly, hitting the 4-mile point in about 1.5 hours. About a half-mile later, we donned our snowshoes and enter into a pleasant amble through 6 inches of fresh powder. A mile further the snow's depth was closer to a foot on top of the previously packed trail. Accordingly, our pace slowed. 

By the time we reached my previous week's high point and the end of the snowshoe-packed trail, the snow was closer to 18 inches on top of the old trail. The end of the snowshoe-packed trail meant the end of the easy 'cruise' up Stuart Peak. One step beyond the previous week's high point resulted in a snowshoe-post-hole through 12-18 inches of powder onto (and through) a weak 2-3 inch crust and down to the next layer of firmer snow where purchase was final achieved. 

A slice of humble pie! Our pace slowed from 3-4 miles/hour to less than 1. With 2 miles remaining to the summit of Old Stuey, we had a long slog ahead of us. We trudged on, route-finding to the best of our ability, eventually stumbling upon the Wilderness Boundary marker. 

We stopped for a brief snack break at the Wilderness boundary marker. Now in a cloud with 100-200 feet visibility and a 1.5 mile slog ahead of us to the summit, it was all business. We trudged on!

The snow remained consistently inconsistent: powder, crust, firmer snow. We post holed 1-2 feet with every step (likely waist deep without snowshoes!). As for route-finding, thrown off by the slow pace of travel and assuming we were further along the southeast ridge of Stuart Peak, I (I will take credit for this mistake) moved us onto the crest of the ridge too early, resulting in a disorienting, circuitous approach to the summit ridge. At one point, Lydia protested "are we walking in circles!?". She was angry or upset, she had a valid question, and as we came to discover on our way down, for good reason! 

So I (again, Lydia had her senses) led us in semi-circles, combing the ridge for any sign of the drop from the southeast ridge to the summit ridge. Just when I was beginning to give up hope that we would find it with such poor visibility it appeared: a sharp change in the slope up the south ridge! 

We stopped at the base of the summit ridge for about 1-minute to assess our situation, sort of a council of war (we were moving slowly and we needed to get back by 4:30PM (it was 12:15PM). We decided to go for it and finish what we had worked so dang hard for: the summit!

Fortunately, as anticipated, the crest of the south ridge being exposed to some very strong winds was pretty dang firm in spots. Although, we soon discovered the truth...consistently inconsistent snow pack. Onward and upward!

Lydia and I hit the final summit slope with a seriously strong 'let's get this done!' sort of push and landed on the summit around 12:45PM. We killed it! 30-minutes for that final 1/2 mile steep push. 

We exchanged fist bumps, took the obligatory summit photo, honored the fact that we were inside of a cloud and had no view whatsoever, felt the cold/wind and got the heck out of there (we spent 3 minutes on top!). 

On the summit of Stuart Peak!
In an effort to get ourselves warmed up and get back by our self-imposed timeline, we made quick work on the descent. Thanks to our work snowshoe packing the trail and with the steady pull of gravity this took little effort.

The descent was uneventful, save for meeting up with 3 telemark skiers 3/4 mile from the summit (they had followed our tracks from the bottom!).We took one break on the way down to remove our snows at the 4.5 mile mark and soldiered on, making the total descent in about 3 hours. Wahoo!

Onward and upward,