Running in CA: Western States

Friday June 28, 7:30am.  Morning sun in a yet empty parking lot just off I-80, Starbucks Chai in hand and I’m ready to get back into the car to continue the drive out to Squaw Valley.  I’m bone tired.  Work has been hell for the last month: no week below 70 hours (with one clocking in at 87 and another one at 94), insufficient sleep, tremendous amounts of travel over five countries and two continents including four red-eye flights, incredible stress levels and close to zero time for exercise. I don’t know this yet, but when I do the math after the race is over I’ll realize that my average mileage for the three months leading up to Western States has been 17.9 miles per week.  Good thing I have zero time to think through these issues before the race, or I might never have shown up for it in the first place.

California

ready for some mountain running

Well.  This is it.  I’m in California.  In 21 hours and 30 minutes I will have crossed the Western States starting line and be on my way towards Auburn, climbing up to Emigrant Pass in the first light of the sun. As I’m driving the temperatures rise.  72 degrees. 78 degrees. 85. 88. 91. 96. Auburn records a high of 99 degrees and is predicting even hotter temperatures for Saturday and Sunday.  This buckle is not going to be had without a fight. 

I arrive in Squaw Valley in the late morning, go through registration and med check, then – in the usual fashion – skip out on the mandatory pre-race briefing in order to have a bit more time to relax by the Lake.  I’ve managed a last minute reservation at Chaney House, the same charming Tahoe B&B where Katrin and I stayed for two days last September.  Happiness all around.  All that’s left now is to do some last minute gear shopping, pick up my boyfriend from the airport in Reno and get a good night’s rest.

Chaney House on Lake Tahoe

Chaney House on Lake Tahoe

Of course the plane, supposed to land at 6:30pm, gets diverted to Sacramento due to thunderstorms and doesn’t touch down in Reno until 9:45pm.  Instead of getting 6+ hours of sleep, we get about three and a half.  At this point it almost feels like I’m so ill prepared for the race anyway that it doesn’t even make a difference.

We’re at Squaw Valley at 4:30am.  I check in, we take some pictures, and then it’s time.  “Runners to the start! Two minutes!”…. “If you don’t want to run 100 miles to Auburn, now’s the time to get out of the way!” … “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, …” – and we’re off.  We get to run a few hundred yards, just enough to not disappoint the spectators, then the climb starts.  2,550ft in 4.5 miles.  Definitely something, but better than La Reunion.  The altitude and my lack of training are both noticeable; I settle into a slow and steady pace.  Towards the top of Emigrant Pass we find spectacular views of the sun rising above Lake Tahoe – what beauty.  I am sweating and sleep deprived but have a big smile on my face.  This is going to be good.

at the start in Squaw Valley

at the start in Squaw Valley

sunrise from Emigrant Pass

sunrise from Emigrant Pass

And good it is. The trails are beautiful.  The Sierras, canyons, mountains, forests – what a spectacular run. Heat is an issue, especially on the early exposed ridge trails that I pass right as the sun is beginning to burn down mercilessly.  I get out my phone and exchange a few texts with my boyfriend, asking him to make sure he has enough ice for me at Robinson Flat, the first crew access point at 29.7 miles.  Back to airplane mode, and I keep chugging along.

sun starting to burn down

sun starting to burn down

On the way down from the ridges I hear some chatter behind me.  Sounds like someone is on the fast track, passing runners left and right.  They’re getting close, and I hear a string of “Hi Gordy!”s from the runners behind me.  Sure enough, there he is: Gordon Ainsleigh, the original Western States ultra runner, white mane and short blue shorts, shredding the downhills.  “Hi Gordy!” I repeat as he flies by, marveling that I am indeed getting to be a part of this legendary race.

Western States Trail indeed!

Western States Trail indeed!

A few hours later the downhills have been replaced by steady rolling terrain, and there he is again.  He’s fast on the downhills, I’m a stronger climber.  We run at a similar pace for a while, leapfrogging one another between the ups and downs, water breaks and creeks to cool down in.  This is his 26th WSER start since he first inspired the race in 1974, and would be his 23rd finish.  We talk about how I worry about finishing, about the distance, the heat, my lack of training.  “Remember”, he says, “just keep moving.”

just. keep. moving.

just. keep. moving.

I do exactly that.  One foot in front of the other, one hill after the other, mile after mile, one aid station to the next.  The thought of seeing my boyfriend at Robinson Flat gets me through the heat.  I continuously monitor myself and more than once have the thought that I am in no condition to make it all the way to Auburn, but knowing that he’s flown all the way out here to be with me for this race is a compelling argument for me to fight the fight.  And then there’s Mark, pacer extraordinaire, whom I connected with on the Ultra List just a few short days ago and haven’t met yet in person.  He’s volunteering at the Miller’s Defeat aid station, and when I come down the hill towards the aid station I see a big sign with my name on it planted a few hundred yards out.  I have a big smile on my face as I come cruising into Miller’s Defeat and meet Mark for the first time.

pacer extraordinaire, Mr. Mark Swanson

pacer extraordinaire, Mr. Mark Swanson

The next 65 miles of the race blend together in one big blur.  It’s hot, it’s hilly, it’s beautiful.  I’m right on the thirty hour cut-off pace most of the time, keep filling my bra with ice at every aid station, force myself to eat every few miles.  I make it to Michigan Bluff past 8pm; Mark joins me a few miles earlier than intended.  At Foresthill, George looks at my feet because they’re starting to feel critical.  I reluctantly dig into my emergency ibuprofen, and pick up the pace markedly shortly thereafter.  Mark and I swap stories, time flies. We get to Rucky Chucky a bit after 3am.  Fording the river in the dark is fun.  My feet are hurting.  We keep moving.  Mark is trying to encourage me to run.  In the relative cool of the early morning hours I notice that I have stopped sweating and may be on my way to heat exhaustion.  What’s the problem?  Hydration? No, I’ve been drinking plenty.  Salt?  Maybe. Exhaustion? For sure. I take another two S Caps.  By the time we get to Brown’s Bar at quarter past seven I am sweating again and know that I’ll make the cut-off.  I alternate between quiet determination and vocal b*tching and moaning (much to Mark’s amusement), and allow my painful feet to dictate the pace. The sun has risen again. It is unbearably hot.

no shade to be had

no shade to be had

Highway 49 Crossing.  No Hands Bridge.  Robie’s Point.  All I can think about is the next five steps. And then there’s my boyfriend again, waiting for me with a big smile about a mile out from the stadium.  My feet are beyond good and evil, and I have to tell him repeatedly to slow down so I can save my last bits of pain tolerance for the jog around the track right before the finish line.

the final mile

the final mile

Placer High School.  In a state of happy exhaustion mixed with disbelief and pain I cross the finish.   100.2 miles and 29h42mins after leaving Squaw Valley.  The stress and sleep deprivation of the last weeks is forgotten; I managed to push through against the odds, underslept, on a measly 18 weekly miles of training volume, in close to record temperatures.  Because I’m stubborn. And because of my amazing crew and pacer.  Which begs the question of what it might feel like to run this race under good conditions.

Who knows, maybe I’ll find out some day…

Western States, baby!!

done!

done!

painful feet

done indeed.

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Running in AZ: Grand Canyon R2R2R #1

It’s 2am when my alarm rings. Even though I’m uncomfortably scooped up under a sleeping bag in the back of my rental car I have little desire to get up.  I hit snooze a few times and finally crawl into the driver’s seat at 4am, leaving another two hours until dawn – just enough time to reach the Grand Canyon before sunrise.  100 miles and several coffee pit stops later I’m parked in the El Tovar parking lot, less than a hundred yards from the south rim.  Thanks to my extended car nap I’m behind schedule before even starting the run and yet it takes a few minutes of imaginary pep talk for me to gear up and muster the courage to open the car door, for it is bitter cold and windy outside. In the end determination wins out over wimpiness, and I head out into the freezing dawn.

 From the parking lot I jog along the rim down towards Bright Angel Trail, past tourists waiting for the sunrise, bundled up in big coats and boots and hats. They glance at me curiously as I run by seemingly underdressed in my tights, thin primaloft and baseball hat, hydration pack on my back. And I feel underdressed – the wind gusts atop the rim are brutally cold – despite gloves, headband, leg warmers and an icebreaker top underneath my jacket.  Thankfully the wind-exposed section down to the trailhead is short.

about to head into the canyon's depths

about to head into the canyon’s depths

I drop in at 6:45am. The sun has yet to rise but there already is enough light for my headlamp to be superfluous. As expected I find the top section of Bright Angel Trail covered in snow and ice but I am moving reasonably fast regardless, trusting the profile on my Salomon Fellcross to keep me safe; I only break for some exposed hair pin turns.  Now protected from the wind I am warming up quickly, and I feel good about the run right up until I encounter the first stretch of black ice.  My shoes are no match for this kind of challenge so I slow down to gingerly dance across the offending trail sections.  A French hiker is gaining on me; I step aside to let him pass, then wipe out shortly thereafter. No harm done, but I have no desire to have some preventable injury end my run before it has even truly begun.  I curtail my pace even further, crawling past the 1.5 mile and 3 mile rest houses.  After the second rest house the trail condition improves, allowing me to start running.  I come into Indian Gardens (4.6 miles) at an hour and eleven minutes, thoroughly warmed up and hungry; it is shortly before 8am.  To gain the North Rim and return here I’m facing a roundtrip of 40 miles with roughly 19,000ft of elevation change.  Up on the rim the sun sets at 6:30pm, meaning I should have some light in the canyon until about 7pm.  11hrs for 40 miles and 19,000ft… it’s a calculated bet, but to minimize weight I decide to stash my headlamp at Indian Gardens along with my base layer, a bottle of Gatorade and an emergency cliff bar. I know that Indian Gardens sees heavy traffic during the day so I am careful to stash everything a bit off from the designated day use area, in a recognizable spot but hidden under rocks, out of sight for strangers.

sunrise on the way to Indian Gardens

sunrise on the way to Indian Gardens

 After Indian Gardens my next destination is Phantom Ranch via Devil’s Corkscrew.  Having been up and down here twice before I feel like I know this section of the trail well, and the conditions are perfect now.  I am running in mild temperatures through shady groves, beneath steep rock formations along a deeply in-cut creek, on a gently sloped single track trail that’s technical and exposed enough to keep things interesting but not so technical that it’s back-breaking.  I run along lonesome at a fast clip and let out the occasional holler out of pure joy.  THIS is why I run.

down towards the inner canyon

down towards the inner canyon

Once I get to the top of Devil’s Corkscrew I see hikers coming up far below, no doubt on their way back up after a night at Phantom Ranch.  I take a minute to catch my breath and take a few pictures, then head down into the switchbacks. I pass maybe a dozen hikers, and before I know it I’m down by the river.  Oncoming traffic is picking up as I make it to Phantom Ranch in only two hours and fifteen minutes.  Not too bad for 9.6 miles of technical trails the first third of which was covered in snow and ice.

I stop at Phantom Ranch to refill my hydration pack and handheld, which I’ve been carrying as backup because I know that there’s no water past the Ranch.  From here to the North Rim and back it’s about 27 miles with 11,600ft of total elevation change, and it’s uncharted territory for me: I’ve never been beyond Phantom Ranch. In characteristic fashion I’ve also not bothered looking at maps to prepare; I’ve read a trip report or two, and am now simply trusting the trail to be well-marked and unambiguous.  Beyond Phantom Ranch the first few miles of the North Kaibab Trail lead along the bottom of Bright Angel Canyon; the trail is fairly flat but follows Bright Angel Creek in a tight, steep, sunless canyon that seems to never end.  When I finally emerge on the other end it almost feels as if I’ve entered a different world: I’m still deep inside the Grand Canyon, but now find myself in a wide, open valley that has none of the steepness or feeling of enormousness that the central South Rim brings with it.  Yet I know that up ahead is a tough, tough climb up to the North Rim with plenty of steepness.  First, though, I stop briefly at Ribbon Falls Trail Junction to stash my handheld so I can use the remainder of it (maybe 250ml) as emergency water supply for the last five miles to Phantom Ranch on the way back. The next several miles go by in an uneventful manner – I come by Cottonwood Campground and Roaring Springs Trail Junction, slower now because I’m going uphill, because it’s warm and because I’m starting to feel that I’ve been on the move for about 5hrs even though I still feel strong overall.  At Roaring Springs I see a message board with warnings about ice further up the trail and the recommendation to use cleats.  I don’t have any but am not particularly worried – how much worse than the South Rim will it get? If nothing else I can always turn back early…

the message board at Roaring Springs

the message board at Roaring Springs

Then I meet Gerd.  Shortly after Roaring Springs I see a hiker coming down the trail, moving fast.  He’s wearing braces on both knees and looks like he knows what he’s doing.  Given that he’s coming down from the North Rim at 11:15am he must either be doing a staunch day hike from Phantom Ranch to the rim and back, or an R2R2R .  As we start chatting it turns out that he’s not only indeed doing a double crossing (starting from the South Rim at 1:30am, when I was blissfully asleep in the back of my car some 2hrs away from the canyon) but that this is, in fact, his 64th R2R2R.  And, of course, he’s also German and originally from Wuerzburg, a city about 45 minutes from where I grew up; we bond easily. He warns me about a short but critical icy section further up the trail that may turn around anyone who doesn’t have proper equipment and insists I borrow his cleats, which I finally accept with the promise of returning them at night.  I write down his number and am on my way again, newly acquired cleats in hand. The trail is getting steeper.  I know I must be about 5 miles from the rim; my progress seems to be slowing steadily.  When I finally come across the iced-up section that Gerd described I hesitate – the issue is not so much that there is ice on the trail (there is plenty) but the curtains of icicles that are looming large from an overhang 60ft above the trail.  It is those curtains of death that are responsible for the ice on the ground, as water is dripping off their tips straight onto the trail. What’s more, there is a significant amount of ice avalanche debris on the trail and just below it, evidence of the curtains’ instability throughout the last few days of melt weather.  As I consider the path forward I realize that I don’t like the risk of an ice avalanche from above, which would not only have the potential of injuring me critically (nobody told me that a winter R2R2R requires a helmet!) but could also easily sweep me off the narrow trail into the abyss below. Assessing likelihood vs consequence I decide that a straight crossing is not an option, and ponder my alternatives – do I need to turn back?  In the end I squeeze through a wet but safe tunnel on the inside of the trail right behind a lower set of icicle curtains, guarded from the threat above through some overhanging rock.  I don’t even need Gerd’s cleats for this maneuver, and stash them on the other side of the icy patch to not drag unnecessary weight up the final miles to the rim.

the icy patch

the icy patch

By now I can feel the exertion.  The final section up to the North Rim is a blur, with the exception of coming across another three R2R2R runners at least one of whom is from Texas – he’s wearing a Rocky Raccoon shirt so I strike up a short conversation with him. The trail is in desperate need of maintenance in a few areas: winter has taken its toll and several sections have suffered from serious rock slides, being close to impassable.  Regardless of those obstacles though I progress upwards and soon find myself on the final mile, now pushing on through continuous snow cover. I don’t have to break trail, but even trying to put one foot in front of the other is starting to feel hard.  I keep moving and finally top out at the trailhead at 6 hours and 59 minutes.  7 hours was my lose target for the south-north crossing – happiness all around.

final miles to the North Rim trailhead

final miles to the North Rim trailhead

I spend all but two minutes looking around, take a few pictures and snack on a victory pack of raspberry power drops before heading back down.  Thankfully going downhill in continuous snow cover is a lot easier than going uphill, and as the calories are kicking in I’m starting to perk up.  I’m moving quickly until the snow turns into slippery mud – this feels just like Tough Guy in real life. I wipe out once more but still make fairly good progress.  My main worry at this point is that I can feel myself getting tired; my mental acuity is decreasing (it’s taking me ever longer to think about my splits and pace), and it’s getting harder for me to pick up the pace even on easy, gentle downhill stretches.  I know I have the necessary reserves to get back to the South Rim, but I need to concentrate to not forget any of the gear I have stashed along the way – particularly Gerd’s cleats! Most importantly I really want to be back at Indian Gardens before nightfall, since I am not carrying a headlamp.  Given my current pace I’ll be cutting it close.

After an hour I’m back at the icy patch.  I retrieve Gerd’s cleats, squeeze through the same protected tunnel that I chose on the way up, and am on my way.  I have to ration my water now as I still have a long way to go to Phantom Ranch, but fuel up on cliff bars to restore my energy.  The plan works out as intended: I soon find myself running again through the valley leading up to Ribbon Falls, overtaking the Rocky Raccoon runner as I go.  The terrain is easing up, the weather is perfect, I managed the North Rim in 7 hours… my spirits are lifting.  The only downside is my limited water supply: I’m out of water right as I come up on the stashed handheld, but even the emergency backup is barely enough to get me through to Phantom Ranch.  I slow down and ration my sips over the next hour and a half, looking forward to reaching the ranch.

When I get to Phantom Ranch 10.5 hours into my run I find out that I managed to hit the dinner window, the one time when the ranch canteen is closed to non-guests.  Earlier dreams of splurging on a coke or Fanta disintegrate, but just being able to refill on water and drink to my heart’s content is quite something.  A few ranch guests who saw me run by earlier in the day come up to ask about what I’m doing (or rather why I’m doing it), but I cut the conversation short to make it back to Indian Gardens before dark.

back at the river shortly before sunset

back at the river shortly before sunset

I hike along the river as the sun is setting, and get up Devil’s Corkscrew feeling surprisingly strong.  The light is fading now. I’ve got about a mile left to Indian Gardens, and even though I have a flashlight function on my iPhone I don’t really want to use it unless absolutely necessary.  I hike through the last bits of light and reach Indian Gardens just as it is getting too dark to see the trail.  Relieved about the timing and looking forward to some electrolytes (stashed Gatorade!) I walk up to the spot where I hid my headlamp and the bottle of Gatorade and find… nothing. I’m startled, not quite trusting my sense of orientation given that I’ve been on the move for over twelve hours now.  I get my iPhone flashlight and carefully look around for the cues that I memorized earlier in the day to ensure I wouldn’t miss my stash.  Sure enough – I’m looking in the right place and remember exactly where my headlamp should be, but there’s nothing.  I search for about ten minutes until I reluctantly admit to myself that my stash is gone – Gatorade, cliff bar, icebreaker top and, most importantly, my headlamp. Probably $200 all in all, but the worst part is that I now don’t have a light to hike out with; my iPhone battery will only support the flashlight app for 30-40 minutes.  I am baffled at who in their right mind would steal or move an obvious runner’s stash with critical supplies, but now see myself faced with a big decision: bivvy at Indian Gardens (I am carrying a windbreaker, an emergency blanket and a bivvy bag), or hike out without a light.  In the end my decision-making process is cut short as I see a number of headlamps moving out on the trail. It seems like they may be on their way back up; maybe I can catch up and tag along.  So I get going, only to realize soon that the headlamps didn’t belong to hikers but to campers who are staying in Indian Gardens.  Regardless – at this point I’m committed to making it back out; after all I’ve got only 4.6 miles to go and Gerd’s cleats for the dicey black ice sections further up.

 To preserve my phone battery I hike in the dark.  It takes time for my eyes to adjust, but in the end I manage to hike almost solidly at a slow pace while the trail is reasonably flat, losing my footing only a few times.  The moon won’t rise until past midnight but the sky is cloudless; at least the stars are providing a bare minimum of light.  As the trail becomes steeper and more technical it gets harder to hike in the pitch black, but I know I still don’t have enough battery power to tide me over to the rim.  I slow down even more, gingerly stepping across obstacles I barely recognize in the dark. I lose the trail a few times but finally make it to the 3 miles rest house.  If I was fresh I know I could force the upcoming steep three miles in about 40 minutes, but I feel the opposite of fresh.  So instead of switching on the flashlight I put on Gerd’s cleats, and keep hiking slowly and gingerly in the dark.  Another hour or so later I come up on the 1.5 miles rest house, where I finally get to use the flashlight.  Even though I now can see where I am stepping I am still moving slow, feeling physically and emotionally drained.  The reassuring crunch-crunch-crunch of Gerd’s cleats in the snow and ice paces my breathing.  I’m trying to keep my mind empty, especially since the other alternative is my silent (or not-so-silent) cursing whoever took my stash at Indian Gardens. My Suunto has died by now; other than my exhaustion-distorted feeling I don’t have any conception of how fast I’m moving or how far I have to go. And then, about half an hour later, I take a turn and suddenly see the bright lights of the South Rim lodges only 100ft above me.  Relieved, exhausted and happy I reach the trailhead at Kolb Studio at 14 hours and 58 minutes, about an hour slower than the time I was tracking towards before the headlamp debacle.  Close to 50 miles and 21,300ft of elevation change; conditions running the full gamut with snow, ice, heat, dehydration and two hours of hiking in the pitch black.  What an adventure!

15hrs after I set out, a tired blur. home safe!

15hrs after I set out, a tired blur. home safe!

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Running in SD: Lean Horse 100

Caveat: not really a true travel post and rather lengthy, but it felt like this blog would be the most appropriate home for the race report; especially since my first “inadvertent” race report is buried somewhere in these archives as well.

It’s Friday afternoon, and in a few hours I’ll be running my first 100 mile ultra marathon: the Lean Horse 100 in Hot Springs, South Dakota.  Since I can’t take time off work I am flying out late in the afternoon and don’t arrive in Hot Springs until after midnight, but thankfully the race organizers were nice enough to drop off my race packet at my hotel. After I check in I get dressed for the race, stuff my hydration pack with gels and bars, bandaids, an emergency blanket and a lightweight shell, and finally am off to bed around 12:30am.

I am woken up at 3:50am by the noise of people on the floor above me starting to move around – other ultra runners getting ready.  Somehow I manage to keep dozing until 4:25am, then it’s time for a quick breakfast and soon I’m out the door to catch the 5am bus that’ll shuttle us to the trailhead where the race is scheduled to start at 6am.

It is fairly chilly outside; I’m grateful for the shell that I brought and try to keep warm until we start running.  At 6am on the dot we’re off, setting out just as the sky is starting to show some color.  The temperatures are somewhere in the low sixties, the trail is primarily flat and easy to run thanks to smooth, small gravel – a perfect start to the race.  My original strategy calls for walking breaks starting at the 30 minute mark, but I’m feeling so strong and happy that I can’t help but keep running through the sunrise, letting a few 50k and 50m runners pull me along at a fast clip, averaging somewhere around an 8:45m mile (my marathon pace is 9:15m miles).  As my heart rate is creeping up towards 160 after an hour I finally start to break things up, reverting to intervals of 10 minutes of running and 5 minutes of walking. I’ve been chatting with different runners since the start but soon come across Peter, an ultra running veteran and lawyer from Houston whose pace and personality both neatly match with mine.  We run together for probably somewhere around two hours, swapping stories about crazy travel adventures and the outdoors.  Time flies, and before long we’re pulling into the 16.3 mile aid station where I lose him as he’s slowing down to join up with his wife and another friend.

I’m not running by myself for long: after a while I begin playing tag with Anna, an energetic Boulder woman somewhere close to my age. As I catch her for the first time she’s doubled over by the side of the trail losing some of the calories she’s just filled up on, and when she catches up to me a little while later and we start talking she excuses herself mid-sentence to step to the side for a second time, swearing she’s feeling good and just needs to be more careful to not overdo it on the food.  Despite her stomach issues Anna does look very strong and we keep chatting on and off for a while, until she’s fully recovered and leaves me in the dust.

The miles to the turnaround in Hill City at 47.9 miles blend together; it is sunny and hot and I am running alone. An aid station volunteer nudges me to fill up my hat with ice – I didn’t think I was overheating, but the ice on my scalp feels fantastic and makes all the difference.  About a mile from the turnaround I see a runner with a mane of white hair coming towards me (63 year old Bobby, as I would later find out), who’s giving me an encouraging shout out and touting me to catch him.  I’m feeling good as far as energy goes but my feet are hurting big time by now so I laugh it off and tell him “maybe next year”. A little later I’m at the turnaround, where I allow myself to briefly switch on my cell phone for some text and facebook updates.  I also reunite with Anna who has picked up her first pacer (she came with a crew of 7!).  We hit the trail together, but I soon let her pull ahead again.

I’m running without a GPS, so I can’t quite tell when I cross the halfway mark; based on my pace, though, I must have covered the first 50 miles in somewhere between 10h35 and 10h55. I’m still feeling strong, only my feet and legs are hurting.  While this morning I didn’t know if I would have it in me to finish at all (or at least within the cut-off at 30hrs), I am now scheming towards finishing in under 24hrs and claiming one of those big buckles.  I know that I can afford to relax the pace a little, and to conserve energy adjust my strategy from going as fast as possible on run/walk splits to hitting aid stations within certain cut-offs to track towards the 24hr finish.

I’m playing tag with Anna again, who keeps encouraging me and generously asks if I want to leverage her crew; since she came with 7 pacers they’re not fully stretched and some are itching to get a few more miles in.  It is dark by now and I’ve slowed to a steady powerwalk; initially I decline the offer politely, but as I’m covering more and more miles on more and more tired legs in the dark and cold (temperatures have dropped to the mid forties, and I wish I had brought gloves!) I change my mind and gladly join up with Brie, one of Anna’s friends, at the 76 mile aid station.  Brie keeps me company for about two hours and is a lifesaver – not only does she keep me walking briskly, she distracts me with conversation ranging from running over transatlantic relationships to athmospheric science (which she’s just finishing her PhD in) and climbing (she’s a 5.12/7a sport climber). Brie also recognizes the signs of me coming close to hitting the wall, and coaxes me to get food and caffeine into my system despite my nausea-based protests –without which I most likely would have crashed during those final miles.  I’m sad to see her go two aid stations later, but immensely grateful for her support as well as for Anna’s graciousness in suggesting her pacers come help me out.

By now we’re coming up on the dreaded Argyle road, the final detour before heading back into Hot Springs.  Argyle is large, loose (i.e. painful) gravel with long downhills and a number of steep uphills.  It is 1:30am, I have 16.6 miles to go and four and a half hours to the magic 24hr mark. Thanks to Brie’s final kindness of charging ahead to refill my hydration pack and meet me on the trail with a cookie and two banana chunks, I’m blazing through the Argyle aid station in a matter of seconds.  One of the volunteers walks with me for a few hundred feet to make sure I don’t miss the slightly confusing turnoff, and urges me to run the downhills and push hard for the sub 24.  Right as he turns around to head back to the aid station, another runner closes in on me and cheers happily as he catches up. “It’s YOU! I knew you’d catch me!” – it is Bobby, the white-maned 63 year old from shortly before the turnaround.  He pulls up next to me and, matching my pace, takes a good look at me.  “Your legs are fried, aren’t they?” I nod. He rummages through his pockets, gets out a Ziploc bag and drops two capsules into my hands.  Ibuprofen.  I have the strong urge to hug him and gladly accept the pills.  Bobby keeps me company for a few minutes; as we start talking about sub 24 he almost seems surprised: he hasn’t been keeping track of his pace and the remaining miles as closely as I have and is quite happy when I confirm multiple times that we have a very good shot at making it.  At this point the first long downhill of the Argyle road is beginning, but the Ibuprofen hasn’t kicked in yet for me and I urge Bobby to run ahead.  He is looking strong and takes off easily, with the parting comment that I better catch up with him soon.  And indeed, after another ten or fifteen minutes of walking I tentatively transition into a shuffle, and after four or five cycles of short shuffles interrupted by recovery walks I find myself jogging solidly for ever-longer intervals.  A while later I see a runner’s light up ahead of me; as I come closer I can see them stumbling repeatedly and having trouble to walk a straight line. Only as I come up right next to the runner do I realize that it is Bobby, who went from looking indefatigable to miserable over the span of an hour. Seeing him stumble reminds me of myself a few hours ago when I was running on empty, right before Brie got me to eat. We walk together for a few minutes and, sure enough, Bobby is saying that he has been feeling nauseous and doesn’t want to eat to avoid upsetting his stomach further. I plead with him to ignore the nausea and at least nibble at food; he finally promises to do just that, and I set off running again.  There’s a long, long downhill stretch into the next aid station, and I’m running the whole thing – feeling like I’m flying. At the aid station, some of the volunteers holler and cheer as I come running in.  Brie is there with encouraging words; I tell her about Bobby, ask her to look out for him and make him eat if he’s still looking wobbly by the time he gets into the aid station – because I know he can recover and still finish sub 24.  Then I’m off again, with 10.6 miles to go and 3 hours to spare.  By now I know that the 24h buckle will be mine, and I’m tired enough that I can’t be bothered to run anymore.  I settle into a comfortable walking pace that I know will get me across the finish line in time, and do everything I can to take my mind off the road – I play music and sing along, dream of other adventures, replay moments and conversations in my head, talk to myself.  Just as I’m starting to wonder if I’ll have the mental fortitude to push through, I see someone closing up on me from behind.  They’re too far away for me to know who it is, but I am hoping for it to be Bobby.  And as the headlamp catches up to me at a swift jog, sure enough, it is him looking strong again.  I let out a little cheer while he is scolding me for walking, thinking that I’ve crashed.  When I tell him that it’s calculated and tracking to just under 24hrs his face lights up and he matches his pace to mine.  We walk side by side for the final two hours, swapping stories and encouraging each other.  After another aid station (that seemed like it would never appear) and a few more rolling hills we finally come into town just as the sky is starting to light, with – per my time/pace-based guess and googlemaps (since I’ve reactived my iPhone) – about 2 miles to go assuming the race course follows the shortest route to the finish. We have 40 minutes left, so should easily come in with four to five minutes to spare if we just maintain a comfortable walking pace.  After ten minutes we see two volunteers on the road who direct us off to the right onto a little back alley, telling us that we have “about” 2 miles left. Bobby and I look at each other with alarm; it should only be 1.5 miles by now, and we only have 30 minutes until the 24hr mark. Half a mile more than expected could push us over the limit.  “Run?” I ask. “Don’t have a choice, do we.” Bobby grumbles as we break into a fast, painful trot. As we’re running down the trail I track the detour on googlemaps, and soon realize that it shouldn’t add more than a few hundred feet to the overall distance.  And sure enough, after just five or six minutes we come upon another two volunteers who now tell us there’s “about” one mile left. Bobby and I are both breathing hard and hurting so we decide to take our chance and revert back to a fast walk, prepared to sprint the final minutes if necessary.  But, happily, we soon rejoin the main road two blocks from the Mueller Center where the race is centered.  One last tiny uphill and we can see the finish line, with the clock ticking at 23 hours 49 minutes a few seconds.  The team that’s assembled around the finish is trying to coax us into running to finish sub 23:50 but Bobby and I look at each other and are happy and content to finish gracefully with a strong walk, joking with the volunteers that we should grab a beer before finishing since we’re ten minutes early. We stroll across the finish line side by side at 23:50:11 – Bobby first in his age group, and I first in mine. What an excellent first 100 miler, in every possible way!

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Race to the top: Nepal

I arrive in Nepal three weeks later than initially planned, having moved back my departure date from Turkey twice because I am not quite ready to leave the climbing paradise that is JoSiTo.  But after a little over eight weeks in Geyikbayiri and three flights I finally find myself in the back of a dilapidated Nepali cab headed from Kathmandu’s airport towards Thamel, backpacker central.  I drop off my bags at a guesthouse and am immediately back out the door, headed towards what from the cab looked like a climbing wall three blocks away from my guesthouse.  And sure enough, after a five minute walk I come across a little back alley with a boulder wall, a top rope area and a climbers’ cafe.  Heaven!

the Astrek climbing wall in Thamel

At the wall I quickly make friends with Julien and Michka, two Frenchmen that have been spending a good amount of time in Nepal to climb several 6000m peaks.  What starts out as a friendly catch among climbers turns into daily climbing sessions and a terrific friendship complete with many shared meals, a Nepali punk concert and a hilarious bicycle excursion to one of Kathmandu’s sport crags.  On top of all that, the guys and their mountaineering stories give me the last little nudge I need to actually go off to climb a peak myself.  Great fun is had for the four or five days that we overlap in town, and the day after the guys fly out to continue their journey in warmer climates I set off for Lukla to go tackle my first 6000m mountain: Island Peak, a 6,189m summit that requires some determination and gear but is not too technically challenging.

the boys

climbing in the outskirts of Kathmandu

packing for Island Peak

I leave Kathmandu on the morning of November 9 together with Mingma, the climbing sherpa who also guided Michka and Julien earlier in the season.  After a short but dramatic mountain flight into Lukla at 2,800m we spend five days hiking farther and farther into the mountains gaining an average of almost five hundred meters a day until we arrive at 5,100m in Gorapshep, the last cluster of teahouses before Everest Base Camp.  The next morning we are up at 4am for an acclimatization hike up to the 5,650m summit of Kala Patthar, a side peak of Pumori which offers great sunrise views of Mount Everest, Mount Nuptse and Ama Dablam.

waiting for our plane to Lukla

halfway up the 600m pass to Namche

Mingma Sherpa in Namche

en route

Mt Nuptse!

on the way back down from Kala Patthar

Since we’ve been moving fast and without rest days I definitely feel the altitude on Kala Patthar but fortunately we’re headed back down to 4,400m for another night before moving to Island Peak Base Camp.  And then, only six days after leaving Lukla I find myself curled up in my down sleeping bag in a tent in the biting cold of Island Peak Base Camp, being utterly grateful to Mingma for keeping me warm with a seemingly never-ending supply of hot soup and hot tea.  Sleep that night is short since our summit day begins at 1:30am.  For almost four hours we are climbing in the quiet of the night, relying only on the light of the full moon.  Then dawn comes, and right as I am considering giving up and turning back (the night climbing was a completely non-technical scramble on rock, but steep and strenuous and utterly draining) the sun finally comes up and we have reached the glacier – halfway mark, and the beginning of the more technical part of the climb.  Mingma feels my hesitation and pushes me to rope up, then swiftly leads me across the glacier trail towards the headwall which is the most serious section of the route.  By the time we reach the wall I am so exhausted from the lack of oxygen and long climb that every meter is a battle, but I also have the summit in sight now and just know that I won’t turn around – especially since this is where the fun really starts: the terrain is getting steeper, my ice tool finally gets some use and the views are getting better and better.  Mingma and I are behind another climbing team that is setting up fixed ropes to navigate the wall more easily, but after a few minutes of idling down on the glacier Mingma decides that the steepness of the wall is matched by my climbing abilities, and we set out without fixed lines.  The first half of the wall is no problem with nothing but a short rope, but for the last part the fix ropes are already set and I gratefully take advantage of them – I am so tired now that even ascending the fixed line is starting to be difficult.

Island Peak & base camp

onto the glacier

view from halfway up the headwall

The (exposed but non-technical) summit ridge is the hardest 100m I’ve ever walked.  Every step is a battle, and even though the summit is just a stone’s throw away I am beginning to doubt if I will be able to reach it after all.  In the end I summit briefly after 10am, more than 8 hours after beginning the climb.  Now all that’s left for the day is the long way back down to base camp, and then the hike out to Chukkhung so we can sleep at a more reasonable altitude.

the ridge

summit whiteout

looking back on the way down

Two strenuous days later and 48hrs ahead of schedule I am back where Mingma and I started the trek ten days earlier: in Lukla. Because of bad weather there haven’t been any flights to or from Lukla for six days, and we end up idling for a couple of days waiting to get out to Kathmandu.  We finally leave just in time for me to make my flight to Buenos Aires where I’m planning to meet up with Katrin for the last leg of our respective travels. Hard to believe that it’s only a matter of weeks now until real life will start again!

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Climbing in Turkey: two months at JoSiTo

It is Tuesday afternoon.  After a weekend of cold, dreary, beautiful solitude in Norway I am standing at Antalya’s international airport, rope & rock gear in tow, looking for the driver who is supposed to pick me up as I am reporting for work at JoSiTo, a climbers’ camp in Geyikbayiri on the Lycian coast.

JoSiTo! the view

JoSiTo! the view from my tent

beautiful Oekuezini, one of the sectors in Geyikbayiri

I arrive at the camp about an hour later, and even though it is completely deserted (the season is yet to begin – the summer months in Turkey are too hot to climb) I am immediately in love with the place.  Cliffs all around, a big mountain towering over the area, lovely little huts dotted along the camping areas and a bar/restaurant that has as much character as the team running the camp.

part of the JoSiTo gang behind the bar

a day in the life... Ela, Eddie and my tent

I soon meet the crew and all a sudden find myself in the middle of the best summer adventure I could possibly have asked for.  It feels as if the world has stopped turning, and for two amazing months (which initially were supposed to be four and a half weeks, then turned into six weeks, finally into nine – and even so it is still hard to leave at the end) life consists of nothing but climbing, eating, sleeping, and a little bit of working in the kitchen in between.   Great people, great climbing, for the most part great weather and great guests.

bar fun with JoSiTo guests

happy on a multi-pitch route

One of the highlights of my time at JoSiTo is a day of deep water soloing close to Olympos, where my climbing partner Tim and I team up with two guests to spend a day at the sea, soaking up the sun and loving life amid crystal clear water and glistening cliffs.  What a life.

deep water soloing

ZimTim

Climbing continuously for two months is pushing my limits, both physically and emotionally.  At times I am frustrated and struggling with the question of why I climb at all, close to throwing out my rock shoes.  Then there are moments of crystal clear focus where every move feels right, every contact with the rock is joy, and every route I start feels like a meditation.  All in all I spend an amazing nine weeks expanding my comfort zone and living an fantastically simple and intense live.  I come away from my time in Turkey with great new friends, the knowledge that climbing will be an essential part of my life for a long long time to come, and the firm intent to return to JoSiTo as soon as possible – Christmas 2012, if not before.  Thanks for an incredible time, team JoSiTo!

JoSiTo's master of disaster - Tobi on his project Aaron

one of the final days, sad to be leaving

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Mountains beyond mountains: Europe

Europe is a complete whirlwind.  I finally arrive in Germany after three days and as many countries since my last shower, with two days of climbing in between.  A short weekend visit to Obernburg – complete with delicious food and my first attempt at recreating my favorite Death & Co cocktail (since Jason Littrell was kind enough to send me the recipe after I bugged him on Facebook and Twitter) – is the quiet prelude to two surprisingly action-packed weeks.

my backpacker alter ego

After dinner on Sunday Mom drops me off at the station so I can catch the night-train to Munich, where I have my visa interview at the US consulate first thing in the morning.  I get my H1B visa approved, briefly stop by Globetrotter to buy a new climbing harness and play on their rock wall, then hop on the next train to Immenstadt.  Or at least I think I’m on the train to Immenstadt until about two hours later when I suddenly realize that I’ve been traveling due east and steadily away from my dad’s place instead of towards him.  I get off at a tiny station somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  There isn’t even have a public telephone (I canceled my cell phone when I left the States), but thankfully the station ward is nice enough to let me use his landline.  A couple of ever more frantic phone tag iterations and two hours later I’m back in the western Alps.

at least it's a pretty train ride

 Dad and I do some more mountain gear shopping, then call it an early night.  The alarm is set for 2:45am so we can hit the road by 3:30am.  By 9am we’re in Grindelwald, Switzerland, ready to catch the cable car past/through the Eiger North Face up to Jungfraujoch, “the top of Europe” at 3,454 meters above sea level.  We trek across the glacier towards the hut we’ll be staying at for the night, have a quick lunch, then make an afternoon attempt at the Moench summit.  Due to bad weather moving in and zero acclimatization on our part, though, we turn around after only twenty minutes.

ordinary day with Dad

Dad en route

back at the hut, killing time 'til dinner

hut

In the morning the weather has cleared, but dad is still feeling the altitude so I set off on my own.  With no intention to go all the way to the summit because of avalanche danger I set myself a turnaround time two hours hence, then start scrambling up the Suedsporn.  An hour and a half later, though, I am still about a hundred feet below the ridge trail. I’ve been scrambling up lose but steep rock, losing the trail repeatedly.  When I finally come up on a 20ft step that looks to me like 5.5/5.6 climbing, with no protection, I decide to call it a day half an hour early and turn around.  The climbing looks doable, but I don’t trust myself to not fumble – and a slip in this section could easily send me back down the 400 vertical feet that separate me from the glacier.  So much for the easy hike with occasional second class scrambling that the route descriptions promised.  Or maybe I’ve once again lost the trail.  Either way, despite a bruised ego I’m on my way back down: live to climb another day.

sunrise from the hut

Jungfrau Panorama

the step that turned me around

steep enough for a klutz like myself

Dad is already waiting for me at the trail junction on the glacier.  We hike back to the train station, zip down through the Eiger north face and are on our way to France.  Next stop: Mont Blanc!

Dad waiting for me down below, past two small crevasses

the summit - I'll be back soon

We spend the night in Argentiere, Chamonix’s sleepy cousin, where Dad treats me to a delicious dinner – escargot, St. Emilion, chocolate fondue, cognac… life is good.

French hospitality

dessert!

The next morning we catch one of the first rides up la Flegere across the valley from Mont Blanc, for a beautiful two hour hike across to the next peak.  After lunch we head back down to the valley and finally up Aiguille du Midi all while watching (in my case, with considerably envy) countless rope teams in various walls and on the glacier.

Hoehenweg

who can spot the most climbers...

not me, for now anyway

also not me, this time

two of many, many rope teams

By now it is Thursday afternoon and time for us to commence the journey back: tomorrow my sister and her boyfriend will be stopping over on their drive down to Italy and pick me up for Mom’s surprise 60th birthday party in Tyrol on Saturday evening.  The surprise is a full success; good times are had.  Before we know it it’s Sunday afternoon and once again time to get in the car, this time to head back up to dad’s place.

Mom's surprise birthday

this doesn't suck

definitely doesn't suck

As it turns out an old friend and his girlfriend are vacationing about twenty minutes away from my dad’s.  We rendezvous on Monday for a leisurely day hike up a 2,200m peak that turns out to be a bit more involved (or rather, exposed) than some of us bargained for, but it’s an intensely fun day nonetheless.

"fatal danger", ha

And then, to top things off, Dad and I hop in the car and are off again – this time towards Austria, for a visit to the Dachstein massif. This time we go our separate ways during the day: while Dad heads up to the glacier to look around I link up with a mountain guide (not having a climbing partner is starting to get old) to tackle one of Austria’s classic routes, the Steinerweg.  After a day of questionable weather Peter and I leave at 4:15am, spend two partially excruciating hours scrambling up to the base of the wall in the dark, then start our 2,700ft climb right at the first light of day.  In the end I am more than grateful that I am climbing with a guide: route finding would have been a big issue had I climbed with someone not as familiar with the wall, despite the big red arrows that are painted on the rock in places where in the past too many climbers have had to be plucked from the wall by helicopter after getting trapped off route.  Following Peter, who sets a sharp pace (and solos the entire climb except for the crux, shortening a 23 pitch route to about 16 and placing no more than two cams in the process, solely for my benefit), I manage to get up the wall in about three hours and fifty minutes.  Just in time for a victory beer before the clouds roll in, and about 20 minutes ahead of the other rope team that set out at the trailhead at the same time as we did.  When Peter reveals that this particular rope team consists of another guide and a local cross-country ski world cup champion I start to feel a bit better about the amount of huffing and puffing that it has taken me to get up those 2,700ft at Peter’s pace.

Steinerweg

nothing tastes sweeter than a beer carried up 850 vertical meters of climbing

After our beers and a quick lunch back down on the Dachstein glacier we’re in the gondola back down to the valley, and then Dad and I start the long drive back.  It’s Thursday now, and I am to report to Turkey for work (really: to climb) in five days but not before a stopover in Munich to say hi to grandma plus a quick excursion to Norway to check out the fjords and Hardangervidda, and for some much needed solitude and quiet after my highly enjoyable but also exhausting alpine odyssey.

the beautiful, bleak emptiness of Hardangervidda

back to Bergen, off to Turkey!

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This time for Africa: Waterval Boven & Kruger

South Africa welcomes me with cold weather and massive thunderstorms on the Highveld. Determined to not let a little rain get in the way of my adventures I hop in the car anyway after a night in Jo’burg and head towards Waterval Boven, South Africa’s premier sport climbing area.  As I arrive there – after narrowly avoiding lightning and passing four accidents including two overturned vehicles within one half hour stretch – the rain has turned into hail and the prospects for climbing are nil.  I briefly swing by Roc’n’Rope, the local climbers’ lodge & hangout, to chat with the owners, then decide to get back in the car and drive on to Kruger National Park.  I get lucky: the storm clouds clear, and I end up spending a day and a half criss-crossing the southern half of the park.

my new favorite animal

one of the many obligatory elephant shots

hyena!

After a night in a Jo’burg hostel, lots and lots of driving, the frustration of accommodation in the park being 100% booked and the anticipation of fantastically basic accommodation in Waterval Boven for the following days I decide to splurge (gotta do it once every trip, after all) and spend the night at a four star resort right by one of Kruger’s entrance gates.  In addition to a luxurious home for the night I also get the benefit of being so close to the park that I can head out for a sunrise drive right as the gates open, then return for breakfast and to collect my bags before hitting the road for good and taking the long way “home” to Waterval Boven northwards through the park and through the picturesque highlands around Sabie.

the resort

sun! on day #2 in Kruger

and on the way back to Waterval Boven

I arrive back in Waterval Boven after nightfall, pick up the keys to my refuge for the next two nights (Roc’n’Rope’s “overflow” housing since the military has filled up the regular climbers’ lodge with a unit of their people that are in for a couple of weeks of climbing / mountain combat training), and introduce myself to my roommates: a pair of Israeli and a foursome of Austrian climbers, all of whom are staying for multiple weeks.  Five guys, one girl, none of them big talkers – at least not when I’m around – but all strong climbers.  Martina, the girl, has just sent Jack of all Trades on her second attempt… a 5.13b/c, and one of the area’s classic routes.

Roc'n'Rope

front porch, complete with toilet

The guys invite me to tag along for the following day, but I know that I climb nowhere near their level and in addition it’s been almost three months since I’ve touched rock.  The crags that they are targeting have no easy routes for me, so in the end I link up with Jan, one of the guys from Roc’n’Rope, and climb with him for two days. It feels great to be climbing again, and while my muscles have definitely atrophied in Madagascar my mind seems to have become stronger – the exposure on our trad climbs on the first afternoon feels fantastic, and on the second day I lead three sport routes without much cursing or complaining, including a 5.8 onsight.

Jan at the top of an easy trad route

sweet sandstone

the resident pig on our approach on day #2

Even though we end up doing no more than 9 easy pitches in two days I am incredibly sore by the time I head to the airport to fly back to Germany for one last stopover in Europe before Turkey, Nepal and LatAm.  I can’t wait to climb for six weeks straight come September!

last trad route, done... awesome climbing!

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