Tuesday, July 12, 2011


My first sight of Takoma (the mountain aka Rainier) was from the PCT in 2005. It was love at first sight and I knew someday I would climb it. Fast forward to 2010. After living in the state for 2 years I decided to visit the beautiful volcano to the south and I backpacked the entire Wonderland Trail...taking in the amazing views of the mountain and the wonder(!) of it's creative power on a landscape. This year was to bring me to the summit at last.
A headlamp refracted by impenetrable granular fog creates a white noise that is all enveloping. Pair this with the relentless rhythm of booted feet rest-stepping relentlessly upward on a snowfield and you have the night of my 30th birthday–and a perfect chance for reflection. I became aware of the beauty and purity of an alpine style ascent: There stands a mountain. Aloof, majestic, living, and impervious to the desires and methods of those who seek to achieve the summit. There are humans–who cannot resist the enticement of the challenge–the mystery, the inarguable beauty. Some will try to siege the mountain and reach the summit through out-waiting and outmaneuvering. Then there are those who approach with the all or nothing chance, willing to accept whatever may come. No matter the style the mountain is enthralling. Yesterday I found myself approaching the mountain with the honesty of an empty pack–devoid of siege materials–and hoped the mountain would receive me with open arms.

The fog gave way to ice crystal snow glittering through the headlamp and cutting like so many diamonds as the wind hurled it from the sky. I remembered why I was here on the side of Takoma. I wanted to experience the mountain. I had no desire to conquer, only take the gifts offered. Those gifts happened to be challenge and denial. There was no attitude of spite. You cannot strong arm mother nature into giving you what you want. She and Takoma are elements with no cognizance of personal desire. You come to them to learn, not to take. I wanted the summit. I wanted to be comfortable. That is not what was offered. I chose to accept the challenges of the night and rejoice in them. To realize that the best destinations in life chose themselves.

Around 9,000ft I realized my climbing partner's headlamp was infinitely brighter and then he spoke, "It's clearing up." With a click my beam vanished replaced by the glow of the butter colored moon–naval of the night–slung low on the cloud-shrouded hips of the horizon. Stars sparkled across the sky. Below was nothing but silent, breathing, rolling whiteness. Around our feet lay the marred surface of the Muir Snowfield–suncups and footprints pocked the white with moonshadows. The Nisqually Ice Field folded and gaped, wrapping itself through the rocks. Anvil Rock and Little Tacoma stood black against the navy sky. Headlamps peeped at us from Camp Muir–still 1,000 ft higher.

Above us Takoma shone.

The beauty of the Mountain–white and rock and round and steep–beckoned. It was perfect and silent and glorious. I knew that that moment was why I was there. It was the gift of the mountain–not the chance to stand in the crater.

I remembered that this is what it means to be me. All the random moments of beauty and perfection that came through serendipity into my life–as long as I accepted them–crowded my mind. I was reminded that although I challenge myself and try to attain (sometimes I succeed) the rewards often are what come through the challenge and not simply the result. Accepting those moments for what they are was the lesson Takoma re-taught me last night.

By the time we reached Camp Muir we were 1.5 hours late. We'd lost a lot of time low on the snowfield, unable to see more than 5-8 ft. Difficulty finding the route in the inclement conditions had cost us. There were gear issues and by the time we were roped up and ready to proceed into the technical ascent, dawn was near. We knew that it would be dangerous to continue and be on the upper mountain late in the day–especially with the Ingraham Ice Fall loitering with deadly intent above the route. In the long time spent stopped I became so cold that I could no longer shiver and had become very nauseous. I had to spend half an hour in a borrowed sleeping bag to start shivering and regain the feeling in my hands. Once I could stand without needing to vomit and had regained dexterity we stepped outside

Into glorious dawn.

The eastern line was red and the clouds below were gold, blue, white, and lavender. Mt. Adams and the Goat Rocks peered at us from the distance. Behind, even the summit graciously allowed a daylit glance. As we descended into the newness of day clouds piled high on the mountains in the distance and Takoma was swirled into oblivion again. We glissaded riotously down the snowfield impervious to the thick mist.

As I flew through the twists of a steep and long glissade chute I was nearly thrown over the bank as momentum launched me into the air and I laughed.

For the first time in months, I laughed with genuine joy.

Thank you, Takoma, for the greatest birthday gift of my life: a reminder of who I am.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reflections on a Decade

Under my name on Facebook it says "Today is your birthday".


Without that little reminder I might have forgotten in the excitement of planning an attempt to climb Mt. Rainier tonight. It wouldn't have been the first time I forgot my birthday. Seeing as how today at 7:47am EST I turned 30, it seemed appropriate though to put a little more thought into a "holiday" that I normally don't really celebrate.

It doesn't seem like it was 9 years ago that I lay on the lawn at the Mission House, staring up at the stars, and reflecting on what it meant to be 21 and an adult (No, I hadn't been drinking excessively). I remember at the time being so overwhelmed by my age and the end of childhood. I was entering my senior year of college and planning to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I definitely didn't see the events of the next 9 years coming.

My 20's. They are gone now, but it isn't really with sadness that I meet my 30's. Age has never been that important to me, at least once I stopped counting it on my hands and in halves and quarters. Age is life. Life comes with age and vice versa. I love life. I love the gifts that every year brings. My 20's were amazing. When I look back I can hardly believe the things I did and experienced. I can hardly keep up with the radical changes of my personality and direction in life. It's like the lifespan of a Phoenix with a new endeavor and path in life growing out of the former.

10 years ago I went on my first backpacking trip. I hiked my first miles in the deep, hot canyon known as Grand. I was woefully inexperienced, but my bullheaded determination took me places, got me into situations, and it got me out of them. Little did I realize that those hot, sweaty, mistake laden trips were prepping me for the next 10 years of adventure, and had begun to alter my plan in life. Within a year I was no longer looking at going into the priesthood, or becoming a missionary. I was sold on the life of a nomad in the cathedral of wilderness.

My 20's saw me solo hike across the country. And they saw me fall in love and repeat trans-continental journeys with my soulmate two more times. My 20's were full of wonder in wild places. They brought me within feet of grizzly bears, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. They brought me into a job with the National Park Service that I loved and I miss every day. They took me to the only place besides Michigan that has ever felt like home: Glacier National Park.

My 20's saw me married. And divorced. They took me through losing 2 grandparents and through the marriages of dear friends. I've seen my childhood friends start their own families. I've climbed the highest mountain in the lower 48. And countless peaks besides. I've lost and gained friends. I've seen two of my nieces marry. There has been heartache and loss, but also indisputable joy. The balances of these extremes are what make life bearable, beautiful, and unique.

My 20's have seen me lose 70 lbs and go from couch potato to athlete. In typical twisted fashion, fate and life have taken me from abhorrent of running (and unable to run 1 mile without walking) to running 50 miles at a stretch–logging up to 90 miles in a single week. I left the track and the sidewalks and stepped onto the trails...once I did, there was no turning back.

My 30's start kind of like the last decade. Single and unsure of where I'm headed next in life. Stepping out of the previous ties and commitments into my own space. Once again time sprawls out ahead and I lay in my papasan chair, staring out at the ocean. I've left childhood behind. I've also stepped beyond my formative adult years. Perhaps this decade I will be able to call my own. To truly find whatever it is that I seek in life. When I recap the next ten years I can only hope that it will be as full and beautiful as the last...

I will start by climbing a mountain.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

New Plateaus

I don't remember exactly when I ceased doubting whether I could backpack 20 miles in a day. I think it was somewhere in Virginia. By New York I no longer doubted I could cover 30, no matter the terrain. That mentality has indeed gotten me into some tight spots, but the great thing about backpacking is that I always have everything I need to survive strapped securely to my back. I am self-sufficient.

Lack of self-sufficiency is something I struggled with (and still do) when it comes to ultra-running. About 1 year ago I finally gained the confidence that I could complete a 50k no matter the terrain within the cut off. Although I had not worried about a hiking itinerary that included that distance for years, getting to that point in the context of a supported running event was very difficult for me. It was a great feeling of freedom to finally be able to stop worrying about the distance and simply go. It's also fun to be able to sign up for a 50k race at the drop of a hat and not have to really think twice about it.

I feel I am very close to reaching that point with 50 milers. Not that I'm particularly fast or good at them, but I certainly find the distance far less intimidating now. I've backpacked them a few times, and run the distance 5 times in 2 years. I can't say that I feel the same way about them as I do 50k's. I don't feel a level of confidence that I can just show up, no matter the terrain, and count on beating cut offs. But, it is no longer a break-out-into-a-nervous-sweat moment to sign up for one. I've run 2 unsupported 50's in the back country. They have been challenging, but rewarding, and they have helped ease my sufficiency concerns. Eventually I hope to reach a comfortability with them that rivals that of shorter distances.

I am approaching a new plateau, therefore it's time to kick the challenge level up a notch. My break-into-a-nervous-sweat sign up moment now comes for 100 milers. My first one is about 7 weeks away. I alternate between being scared to death about being out there alone and excitement about the adventure of it all. I think I'm ready for the challenge, but just as it was for my first few 20 mile days on the Appalachian Trail, then my first 50k's, and most recently 50 milers, I am still not comfortable and confident I can make the distance within cut off.

But, just as it was for the other challenges: There is really only one way to find out.