Spearhead Traverse, Solo March 2019

 

Since my life changing knee injury resulting from a ski accident (I got hit in the air by a snow boarder) in December 2016, I have been chomping at the bit to get back into adventures that push my physical and mental limits. After my ligament and menisci healed up enough, I got serious about whitewater kayaking since it didn’t require much from my lower body, but in true adventurer style, I pushed my limits well above my skill level and had a few close calls and came away with a torn rotator cuff  and bicep tendon while paddling the Green River at flood stage. So it took about two years to heal my body enough from the two accidents to where I could even start to imagine endurance challenges like I used to do- and I am still a long way off from being able to push that hard again, not sure if I’ll ever want to. But I have had a growing desire that’s become something of an obsession, to get deep into the wilderness, into hostile unforgiving terrain far from the saddening effects of our species on this planet. The Coastal Mountains of Western BC provide such an escape and I’d been dreaming of the Spearhead Traverse which would take me on a 40km loop deep into the range-crossing 13 glaciers and cols along the way.

As far as epic ski traverses, the Spearhead is somewhat tame since you begin with a gondola ride up Blackcomb Peak resort and finish with a ski out through Whistler Peak resort. Howver, as soon as you get past the Whistler-Blackcomb sidecountry, the character of the traverse changes dramatically and you are deep in the land of rock, snow, and ice. As far as the eye can see in any directions, the world is nothing but glaciated mountain tops. Although I have done a few cool ski mountaineering trips including an amazing August 6 birthday ski on Mt. Daniel on the Daniel and Lynch glaciers-I hadn’t done anything as big as the Spearhead in years. So I was nervous, scared, and excited all at the same time as I drove up to Whistler.

 

After a cold night sleeping in the Subaru (it got down to 11F), I wondered just how cold it would be at 2600m on the glaciers. The forecast was only calling for -14C in the Alpine zone with calm winds, so I figured it wouldn’t be too much worse up there. My -20F sleeping gave me confidence to survive any cold the mountains threw at me, but that along with a 4 season mountain tent, made my pack much heavier than I like to ski with. I opted not to use a beta-mid tarp tent I mostly use for winter backcountry trips, and I am so glad I made that decision in hindsight.

Riding the express lift and then the T-bar with a huge pack was a bit nervewracking, especially in the brutal cold, but eventually I made it to the entrance of Garibaldi Provincial Park as I exited the Blackcomb resort boundary. There were about 60 side country skiers plodding up to the col between Blackcomb and Spearhead Peaks and I couldn’t wait to get a bit further out. My body was groaning under the weight of my pack (which wasn’t all that heavy-probably around 30-35lbs) but I made it to the top and had a great ski down to the Decker Glacier and the crowds began to thin out thankfully. I saw a guy with an avy airbag that had accidentally deployed and then I was on my own for most of the rest of the day. The skin up to the ridge of Decker Peak was rather long and I was nervous about the windloaded slopes, but fortunately the avalanche conditions were moderate that day. The views from the top of the ridge were breathtaking and I

paused to take in my surroundings. I felt like I had gone to ski-heaven. The snow was light and fluffy, it was extremely cold but in the sun without wind it felt really pleasant. I couldn’t believe my luck at the conditions and was glad the forecast was proving correct. I skied off the Decker Ridge and crossed Trorey Peak fairly high up on the glacier where I was again a bit nervous about windloaded slopes-though a fall here caused by a D1 avalanche wouldn’t have been too consequential. I continued merily on my way as I dropped down to the Trorey Glacier, then ascended to the col between Mt. Pattison and Trorey. I saw the last party I would see until late the next day. A group of three, they had planned to do the entire Spearhead Traverse in a day, but had only made it a few kilometers by midday, and were turning back. The traverse had proved more difficult and time consuming than they expected. I was surprised I had caught up with them as I had a huge pack and was going at 3 day, not a 1 day pace. They were wise to turn back there given their pace.

There is steep notch you have to boot up at the col so I had to A-frame my skis on my pack and climb up to the top. The views from that col were stunning, with expansive views of the broad Tremor Glacier and surrounding peaks. This was certainly ski-heaven I thought to myself. I stripped my skins and skied light fluffy powder down from the col to the Tremor Glacier and skirted the base of Mt. Pattison. The weather and snow conditions began to change as I ascended the Tremor. Much colder and more wind affected here-the snow had been light and fluffy and untouched by wind prior to this point, but it gave way to wind-board and sastrugi and would not have made for pleasant skiing. Still, I was surprised by the dramatic difference from one col to the next.

The climb up the Tremor Glacier is noted as one of the longest and hardest of the route. It felt that way to me as I was tired of carrying the heavy pack, was getting hungry and thirsty and feeling ready to make camp. At the top of the Tremor, the glacier becomes quite steep as you ascend to a hidden notch between Tremor and Shudder Mountains. These are aptly named as the terrain is forbidding and the weather is rather brutal up there.

The top of the col proved to be a wind tunnel and the gusts literally felt like they were biting my face as pulled up my face mask for protection. Someone had actually made a camp there recently so it must not have been as windy in the previous days (either that or the person was a glutton for punishment?). I thought to myself, what a silly place to set up camp. The Tremor Shudder col, I made my way across the Platform Glacier and winds had picked up dramatically. I was becoming concerned that the forecast did not apply to areas this far into the backcountry. I wish I had taken more pics of this area as it was absolutely, jaw dropping stunning. But it was too cold and windy and I had to stay moving for warmth.

To give a sense of how cold it was, I wore all of my layers and my heavy down puffy jacket which is made for stationary activity in sub zero temperatures, and I was still cold. Skinning up mountains on skis in incredibly physical, as any backcountry skier knows. Even on freezing days, I often skin up in nothing but a baselayer and light windjacket. Not so today. I quickly made my way across the Platform Glacier to a small notch on the ridge of Quiver Peak that leads to the Ripsaw Glacier, where I would finally make camp after an exciting and rewarding, though somewhat challenging day.

I arrived at camped thirsty, hungry, and tired as is typical after a long day in the mountains. I looked forward to setting up camp and melting water to rehydrate then eat a warm meal in the relative comfort of my tent. Although I was sheltered at the base of the Quiver Peak somewhat, the winds ripped across the Ripsaw Glacier with biting intensity. I quickly pitched my tent and crawled in, so happy to escape the wind and cold. I wondered just how cold it would get overnight if it was that cold in the sun!! Once I crawled in my tent, I snapped the image below as best I could while the tent door flapped in the wind-the view was just incredible and despite the discomfort I was truly happy to be there and can think of nowhere I’d rather be. I finally took out my stove and went to turn it on only to find that for some reason the fuel was not getting through the fuel line to the burner. I tried everything I could think of to get it to function. I took it fully apart, tried to warm the fuel, tried to melt any ice that may have built up in the fuel line with a lighter that was barely working due to the cold. It was so cold that all my gear was being put to the test. I tried to fight off the feelings of panic that began to settle in. I was already thirsty I thought, it is going to be awful trying to get back to safety 24 hours from now with no water. But I calmed myself and thought- “You are ok in this moment, just take it moment by moment”.

I finally gave up on my stove and tried to force myself to eat the dry sugary snow. It didn’t really provide enough water to fight dehydration, but it helped with dry mouth. I was able to force myself to eat a Clif Bar too keep up my energy reserves for the long night and day that lay ahead. From about 5pm until the next morning I had no option other than to curl up in my sleeping bag and do my best to stay warm. I couldn’t even stick my head out of the bag as the air in the tent was cold enough to freeze my hand sanitizer solid! But I was ok-cold but not dangerously so, thirsty but not dying of thirst.

I made it through the night, just taking it moment by moment and even slept for periods of time. When I could really bring myself into the present moment, I even enjoyed myself and was still happy to be there. I knew the ski out would be hard, but I also reminded myself that this was all well within my experience and ability levels. There was really nothing to fear other than the coming dehydration headaches. But that was tomorrow-for the time being I was fine, curled up in my sleeping bag.

As the sun began to rise, it was so cold in my sleeping bag that my remaining bit of water (which I was saving for the ski out) began to freeze! Ugh, even less water now I thought to myself. I moved around in my sleeping bag for extra warmth and hoped that the sun would shine on my tent before 9am, afterwhich I would be forced to leave the tent to make it back before dark. Thankfully I had purposefully positioned my tent in an area of the glacier that was east facing and started to get sun around 7:45am.

As soon as the rays of sun hit the tent I scrambled to pack everything up inside the tent, then ran out quickly and brought my skis into the tent to put the skins back on. Unfortunately the skin glue froze and they wouldn’t stick to the ski. I feared that this would make an already hard day even more difficult. I was glad to have a tent that sets up and breaks down from the inside, so by the time I crawled out, all I had to do was stuff the tent in my pack and set off quickly to build up some warmth in body and regain feeling in my toes.

My skins were worthless on any kind of sidehill/contour, which meant just about the entire traverse. Fortunately I had packed several extra backcountry ski straps and used them to strap my skin onto the ski-which worked incredibly well. Bootpacking out in all of that snow was not really an option. I retraced my route back to the Tremor Shudder Col which was so cold and windy it literally took my breath away. I ran down from the col carrying my skis until I found some shelter before skiing down the Tremor Glacier. The skiing was terrible-the winds of the night had scoured it out, leaving nothing but windboard and bulletproof ice. I skied a bit higher up on the glacier at the base of Pattison where the winds had loaded the slope with fresh snow. It was a bit risky but I wanted to get off that slope and glacier quickly. As I ski cut the slope, the top 5-10cm of snow released behind me and  I watched the entire slope collapse. It was just a D1 avalanche, nothing that could have buried me, but I was glad I was just traversing that slope rather than skiing down it where I would have been caught.

I finally made to the flat part of the glacier, full of adrenaline from the scary ski descent of the Tremor. I would give steeper slopes a wide berth the rest of the day. The climb up to the notch was too steep to skin so I booted it up with skis on my back. This was really exhausting now that I had gone about 18-20 hours with no water and only a couple of bars for calories. But I made to the notch and peered over the steep section I had climbed up the day before. It looked much steeper looking down. It was flat at the base so I dropped my skis and pack down ahead of me so I could downclimb with no weight. I was glad I did this as the downclimb proved to be somewhat challenging. I managed to push down my fear of a fall and climbed to the base successfully.

From here the snow and weather character changed back to the conditions that had been forecasted. The snow was soft and untouched by winds, the avalanche hazard was low, and the winds were much calmer. This allowed me to relax a bit as I made my way back over the next few glaciers, ridges and passes. As I neared the ridge of Mt. Decker I began seeing backcountry skier groups from Blackcomb in the distance and felt like I was back in safety. The ski down to the Decker Glacier was awesome, though I was so spent that it felt really hard to make turns. At the bottom of the slope I rigged up my skins for the final ascent across the Decker Glacier and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t have to reclimb Blackcomb Peak-I could just contour around the base of the peak and reenter the resort. I was safe and water was near. I got a bit too excited and skied faster than I should have given the state I was in and took a fall, but used my whippet pole to self-arrest quickly and was back on my way. 5km and 3000ft of vertical later, I was back at the lodge and gulped down several cups of water before ordering a plate of French fries which I devoured.

Amazingly, only a few short hours after returning safely, I was already dreaming of my return to the winter paradise, a ski mountaineers dream of snow, rock, and ice. I think next time I won’t pick a weekend with record breaking cold temperatures, I will choose a better a stove, and perhaps go with a partner. But overall I was very happy with the experience. I was able to overcome a difficult situation and keep myself relatively safe. I had been able to finally return to the wild, harsh, alpine landscape that has captivated me my entire adult life. I feel like this trip closed a chapter in my life where I learned so much and gained an appreciation of the mountains I had lost somewhere along the way. Its no longer about proving myself or competing, its about using the skills I have gained over an adult lifetime in the mountains to access areas that inaccessible to all but a lucky few. I am so fortunate and blessed to be one of those few again.

 

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Mount Rainier, Fuhrer Finger: a 9000ft ski descent in walk mode

I’d been dreaming about skiing the Fuhrer Finger on Mt. Rainier since hearing about it a few years ago when I moved out here. One of the most direct lines up the mountain from Paradise-the Fuhrer Finger is a steep chute that connects the upper Nisqually Glacier to the Wilson Glacier and bypasses the worst of the Nisqually Icefall. I was also apprehensive about skiing such a full on route on Mt. Rainier. Rainier is never easy. The glaciers are always crevasse riddled, snow is always variable as is the weather. Since injuring my knee in a ski accident where I got hit by a snowboarder in the air and ended up tearing all my ligaments both menisci and broke my tibial plateau I haven’t fully regained my confidence in ski mountaineering or skiing steep lines. Still, I thought it was within my abilities when Brian and I decided to go for it on Cinco de Mayo, 2019.

Our semester ended on Friday and I attended HU’s 37th commencement where one of my Environmental Studies students and former iNATURE research intern was commencement speaker. It was great to see my first cohort of students walk the stage. I had the privilege to mentor them and watch them grow as students and as people over the past four years. Because of graduation, the Season Finale for YAMA (yamamusic.org a local charity where I serve on the Board) and an event for La Casa Hogar (http://www.lacasahogar.org/) at Bale Breaker Brewing, where Brian runs the lab, we decided to ski it on Sunday-Monday. This also helped us avoid the weekend crowds somewhat.

We left Yakima at around 7:30am and drove to Paradise leisurely. Arrived around 11am and got the run around from the park service. We had to walk back and forth between the climbing permit office and the Visitor Center three times before we were finally set to go. It was getting really hot by the time we packed up and left the overnight lot for our ascent to the Castle at 9200’ from a starting elevation of around 5400’.

It was a zoo as usual as we headed up from Paradise. It was incredibly hot-coming straight out of winter- neither of us were used to such a beat down from the sun. We sweated our way up to the look-out then dropped out skins and skied a few turns down to the Nisqually Glacier. We crossed a few crevasses as we traversed over to the Wilson Glacier and the skinning was made harder by the bootpack trail created by the 60-80 or so people doing a crevasse rescue course just above us on the glacier. I am always surprised how many people the guide services are allowed to take up the mountain in a single group. As we ascended the ridge up to the Wilson we were thankfully out of the zoo that Paradise becomes this time of year.

 

Several parties had climbed and skied the Finger the day before and were making their way down as we ascended. We got minimal beta from the first group and watched a couple others descend-they looked absolutely exhausted as we knew we would be the next day. I just hoped I wouldn’t feel as ragged as some of those folks looked. A bit higher up on the ridge a skier and snowboarder kicked off a wet slide that carried the skier 100 ft down the glacier toward a few open crevasses. The sticky mashed potato snow stopped his momentum but one of his skis continued all the way down to a flat step on the ridge a few hundred feet below. We heard him call up to a group above and ask for a shovel! We thought-what the hell is he doing up here without a snow shovel! The boarder didn’t communicate that he had his buddy’s ski, so the skier kept looking until we call up to him that his ski was down below and he needed to descent. He almost dropped straight down into the crevasse but fortunately his buddy told him to go around it. Pure shenanigans!

We made a long traverse to the top of the ridge and then negotiated some particularly nasty snow before we got onto the upper Wilson Glacier. From there it was a fairly mellow climb to the Castle- a formidable fortress shaped rock formation at 9200’ that offered a perfect campsite for the night. I was knackered from carrying the heavy pack and wondered if I was up for such a large climb followed by a difficult, consequential ski.

We set up camp and melted snow to rehydrate. After we at our dinner and filled our bottles the sun was beginning to set and I was reminded why I always keep coming back to the mountains. There is just no place more beautiful than being on the side of a massive glaciated mountain at sunrise or sunset. Though exhausted, I felt extremely lucky to be in a sacred place like this. We chatted with a group of three guys who came up to the Castle shortly after us. I was actually thankful to have a few more folks climbing the next day in case the need for crevasse rescue-which is very difficult with just two people- arose.

Slept relatively well and was awake at 2am even though the alarm wasn’t set to go off until 3am. I just relaxed and tried to focus on the task at hand for an hour then got busy making breakfast and coffee in the beta-mid before we got suited up for the ascent. I had a bit of a poo-mergency thankfully just before I put my harness on, so I scurried down the ridge for a bit of privacy before trying to poo in my wagbag right at the edge of the glacier-it was pretty exciting. We didn’t get moving until about 4:30am which was pretty late considering how warm it was forecasted to be that day.

We traversed with our skis on all the way over to base of the Fuhrer Finger before roping up and putting on our crampons. We settled into a nice rhythm up the steep couloir for the next several hours as we kicked steps in the gnarly avalanche and ski debris, occasionally commenting on how awful the skiing was going to be in the way down. The top of the Finger was the steepest and we needed a rest after we exited it and traversed onto the upper Nisqually Glacier, which is more of an icefall at this point on the mountain-full of huge crevasses and seracs. Ominous, but absolutely stunning.

We started to post hole through the new snow that had fallen a few days before, crashing through as the sun warmed the breakable crust-which made the going more difficult. We were also feeling the altitude a bit at this point. The pitch of the slope backed off for a bit and we tried to skin up the glacier with our ski crampons on, which was a mistake, at least for me. I felt super insecure and kept sliding down until my ski crampons bit into the ice. I got a little spooked as I switched back over to the relative safety of my boots and crampons. We also de-roped when we put on our skis since the terrain had eased, but we quickly neared the bergshrund and the most complex terrain of the climb. I looked over to my right and saw the monstrous gaping shrund and called down to Brian that we had re-entered some sketchy terrain and to look for a safe spot to rope again. Brian lead us over to an ice patch that we knew was solid-we just didn’t know how large the solid patch was. We set our packs down and I began flaking the rope. I moved my foot a few inches to avoid stepping on the rope and the snow collapsed below foot into a gaping hole, so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom. I definitely got more spooked than I care to admit here until we had the rope back on. Even then, with crevasses this size, I wasn’t comfortable until we had navigated our way above the bergschrund.

After that, the climbing was relatively straightforward, though it was a long slog to the top. We made it to the crater rim right around 11am. The wind was howling up on top and I was extremely cold and anxious to start the descent. Brian was worked from the climb, and super hungry, but not feeling the cold too much. I quickly de-skinned and put my skis back on and in my haste I forgot to put my right boot into ski mode. This would be major problem for most of the descent.

I made a few turns to get out of the full force of the wind while I waited for Brian. It was bullet proof ice with the occasion section of windboard and sastrugi. I was struggling with my ski turns but figured it was because my legs were tired or from the altitude. Brian caught up to me and began to lead the way. He is one of the best skiers I know-no matter what the terrain is like, he makes perfect, calm, nonchalant turns as if he is on a bunny slope at a resort. He found our route back through the complex bergshrund terrain-I was skiing terribly and felt uncomfortable in the heavily crevassed terrain in such variable snow conditions, but it quickly soften up and I felt more confident in my turns, even if they were super sloppy.

As we traversed back over to the Fuhrer Finger, the snow turned from softened crust to horrible, ligament tearing mashed potatoes. Where was this mythical corn snow we had dreamed about? We never saw any… The entrance to the Finger was a cruxy section too, hard skiing with crevasses everywhere, but we picked our way through it without issue. We were back in the Fuhrer Finger proper and made super steep turns through the thankfully softened avalanche and skier debris. It was really ugly skiing, but felt relatively safe, unless the slope released, which was a real possibility that day.

I continued to struggle with my turns as we made our way down through the Finger for several thousand feet. Finally as we exited the couloir out onto the apron I reached down to check my boot and found that I had been in walk mode the whole way!! No wonder I had such a hard time skiing that day. Once I was in ski mode I could control my skis normally and had a great time making tight, nice turns as we descended to camp. It reminded me that I could ski!! I hadn’t lost all of my ability. Whew!

We took our time packing up camp, knowing that the snow would continue to worsen in the heat as we descended to Paradise. When we left camp, we were pleasantly surprised by about 500 feet of great skiing (on [almost] corn snow!) which quickly gave way to knee deep mashed potatoes. Every turn took serious effort on our already exhausted legs. Plus we were now carrying our overnight packs! We just took our time and skied carefully to avoid any knee injuries and quickly made our way down the Wilson Glacier and across the Lower Nisqually. The skin back up to the Muir trail from the Nisqually is always dreaded, but never as bad as you think. We quickly made our way up to the ridge at Panorama Point. From there the skiing was even worse. In addition to being sloppy mashed potatoes, it was incredibly sticky. We couldn’t turn at all and even pointing our skis was like skiing in slow motion. But we finally made it to the car, exhausted but stoked on skiing such an amazing line. Even though the snow conditions were pretty horrible, it was one of the better adventures I’ve had on skis and felt so energized and ecstatic to have skied it successfully. Skiing the Fuhrer Finger will be tough to top this summer, but I’ll do my damndest find something else equally exciting. On the drive home, as we reveled in our accomplishment and the alpine splendor of our adopted home state of Washington, I couldn’t help but think how lucky and priveledged I am to live in such a place and to have my body recovered to a point where I can enjoy adventures like this on a given weekend. SO much abundance. SO much gratitude.

Knee Injury!

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Its been nearly a year now since I suffered a catastrophic knee injury where I tore all the ligaments in my knee (except the PCL), both menisci, and a tibial plateau fracture in a skiing accident. Well, more like I got hit in the air by a snowboarder. I am hoping to write a story about the recovery at some point in the near future. While recovering, I have turned my attentions to whitewater kayaking and playing the ukulele amongst other things.

I am currently at about 60-70% of normal so it will be a while before I battle back to ultra-endurance racing shape, but I am back on the bike, surfboard, and even skis and training hard-so stay tuned.

Comstock Epic 550 2016

This story was also published on Bikepacker.com.

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I know Neil already wrote a report from the winner’s perspective of the Comstock Epic 550 for 2016. This report is what it was like for those of us in Neil’s dust. It’s a true tale of two races.

It had been a while since I’d done a multiday bikepacking race. After getting 1st Place Rookie (the category for first timers on the course) in the 2014 Trans North Georgia, I spent a year living in Ecuador where I raced a lot of endurance races and did a lot of exploratory bikepacking expeditions (stay tuned for some stories to come about that). I then moved to China where I spent some time bikepacking in Kham Tibet. By the time I moved back to the States in late 2015, I had more or less missed the season. I also began my first faculty position at a university in the PNW at that time, so my training over the winter and spring was not what it should have been. All of this lack of preparation gave me a nagging sense of doubt whether I could really even ride 550 miles across the Great Basin Desert, crossing over 15 mountain ranges, much less race across it. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to bike unsupported across the most remote, sparsely populated area in the contiguous United States.

It was a long drive from Yakima WA down to Reno, but I was excited to return to the area as I had spent 5 years in the Reno-Tahoe area and it was good to be back. I arrived in Reno late Wednesday night and spent a nice evening prepping my bike and having a great last meal with friends. Thursday morning, I left my friend’s house at 6am to bike across town to the pick-up site for the shuttle to the start point of the race on the Utah-Nevada border. It was really fun riding with other  racers across the great state of Nevada, though I definitely felt even more nervous since everyone seemed to know each other and had been racing a lot of ultra-endurance races  this last year or so. While I was busy traveling for research and teaching (and to be honest, skiing more than training on the bike over the winter!), it sounded like a lot of these guys were training like machines. Oh well I told myself, its more about the adventure than the race!

After a pit stop at Middlegate, site of a former brothel turned bar n grill and motel in the middle of nowhere (this was actually mile 362 of the race and our first provisions for over 250 miles on the course!). We made it to the Border Inn on the Utah border late afternoon, just in time to gorge on greasy bar food and have a beer (no IPA though so I was bummed!).

The race started at 6am Friday am if memory serves, and after a quick group picture, we were off. We all hung together more or less for the first couple miles on pavement, but once we hit dirt, 5 of us broke into a lead pack, and shortly thereafter I fell behind Neil, Kurt Sandiforth, and Blake Bockius. Those guys were hammering a pace I knew I couldn’t keep for 24 hours, much less the amount of time it would take us to cross the state. I can suffer with the best of them, but not sure I could handle trying to race neck and neck for that kind of distance, so I was all too happy to drop back. Isaac Chilton must have had the same idea, and we started keeping pace together.

We hit the first of 15 mountain ranges and the ascent didn’t feel that bad-it was nice and gradual and the wind hadn’t begun to pick up yet. After the climb we had a nice fast descent on dirt before hitting Hwy 50 for another couple of miles. We quickly turned off the highway and hit what would turn out to be the worst sand of the race. At the time I didn’t know it, so I became a bit more apprehensive. Its easy to rationalize these type of races by looking at the stats. I convinced myself it would be “easy” since there was so much doubletrack and only ~36,000ft of elevation gain. The stats didn’t really describe the reality of this course which I found out rather quickly. I told myself, you can do this Al, just keep on pedaling.

As bad as the sand was, at least we were protected from the wind by the towering mountain range that lay ahead. After finally pushing through the sand trap, the climb over mountain range number 2 felt like a nice stroll on a rails-to-trails. We dropped down the other side and hit a campground where we could fill our bottles. We were right at the 50 mile mark at this point-sweet I thought, only 500 miles to go! It should have been a fast leisurely descent from the campground to the valley below, but by this point, the wind had picked up and we had to pedal downhill. The winds were really disheartening- I knew we would be traveling West the entire time, so we would have a headwind every afternoon at the least. The course took a southwesterly directions for about 30 miles which was the exact direction of the wind. So what should have been a cruiser flat section became a headwind sufferfest.

We finally hit the mountains after crossing the desert plain, and the uphill was a welcome relief from the wind. The 3rd mountain range involved a pretty long and steep climb to the pass, but since it was blocking the wind, I wasn’t complaining. I got ahead of Isaac a bit on the uphill, but he destroyed me on the descent. We would continue like this for the next little while.

After mountain range 3 you hit your last town/resupply for 250 miles in Preston NV. That’s a long haul with no services in a desolate area with next to no water and even fewer people. Being a pretty steady eater, I had packed about 9000 calories worth of food for this section, though I calculated I would need more along the lines of 16,000 calories. Knowing this, Isaac and I ate a huge diner meal, and I downed about a gallon of water and even some soda, something I rarely drink. By this time, Zak Tourville caught up to us and we all rolled out together at dusk. The winds, though still heavy, were starting to die down by this point, so we could almost relax and enjoy ourselves. Despite the headwinds, we were actually making really good time and keeping a fast pace for bikepacking race standards. I guess the pace was a bit fast for Zak and he opted to fall back after about three hours together. Isaac and I pushed on ahead, trying to make it over mountain range #4 before resting bit. This mountain range actually had some of the most difficult terrain yet, with a lot of washed out, rocky doubletrack. It might’ve been easy in the daylight, but was super difficult with my headlamp running at about 150 lumens. After several hours we made it over the mountains and wasted a bit of time trying to find the water source.

Water scarcity is a major crux of this race. It could be downright deadly not to refill at every possible opportunity, so although I had a fairly full drom and bottle, I drank my fill and refilled my reservoirs to capacity. We pushed on, but by about 3am I knew I need to get off the bike for a bit and opted to rest for 1-2 hours. I had planned on sleeping for a maximum of 2 hours per 22 hours of riding, so I was right on track. Isaac didn’t bring enough gear to sleep comfortably in the cold so he pushed on. I hoped I would catch up to him since we were going to continue crossing through some extremely remote, lonely country.

I rolled out my emergency bivy sack, which is pretty much a glorified trash bag and passed out immediately. The alarm sounded painfully 1.5 hours later and I drug myself out of the bag (I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag so I was pretty cold) and got back on the bike as quickly as possible. It took me quite a while to warm up in the chilly desert pre-dawn. The sun finally crested behind me to reveal ominously gray skies and lenticular clouds. I knew at that point I would get some weather that day.

Neil had warned me that the forecast was calling for nasty weather in central NV on Saturday afternoon so his plan was to hammer until he got over Ophir pass (the high point of the race at about 10,500ft) in an effort to beat the weather rolling in. I knew I couldn’t make it 360 miles that quickly so I resigned myself to whatever the weather gods brought on. I figured, it’s the desert, how bad can it be? I would find out shortly.

The next few valleys and mountain ranges were both stunningly beautiful and hauntingly stark. I didn’t see any signs of life for mile after mile. The only wildlife I saw in Antelope Valley was dead livestock and antelope skeletons. This was a forbidding place. There is absolutely no water here. Fortunately, the NV Department of Wildlife puts out “desert watering stations” that are fenced off to keep livestock out, but antelope and other desert critters (including silly, intrepid bikepack racers) are able to access the water. After skimming a bit of pond scum off the top, the water was actually quite drinkable after treating with chlorine tabs.

Though I was definitely feeling like I had ridden 250+ miles, I was thoroughly enjoying the raw beauty of the land and relishing the solitude. My mind started to wander a bit and I swore I saw Isaac just ahead of me. I called out to him and tried to chase him down for what felt like hours before realizing it had probably been a figment of my wandering imagination. I finally hit the next watering point, this time a foul sulfur smelling hot spring. I filled my drom with piping hot water that smelled like rotten eggs, but was pleasantly surprised that after the gas escaped, and the water cooled, it was quite delicious!! I guess this is the artesian well water rich folks pay exorbitant sums to drink. Ha I thought, all I had to do was bike several hundred miles into the desert and I could drink it for free-suckers! As you can tell, my mind may have been slipping a bit at this point.

I rolled on and came across an old homestead. I thought about stopping for a bit as I saw the ominous clouds ahead but tried to push on. Not even 5 minutes later, the heavens seemed to burst and I was caught in a deluge of rain. I turned around and hammered back to the homestead where I could at least change into my rain gear with some protection from the elements. I was hoping the weather would pass quickly but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere despite the wind, so I hopped back on the bike, suited up in my raingear and suffered through the storm for the next several hours.

The rain came in squalls, then would let up a bit, before blasting me again. I was wondering if I had it in me to continue in these conditions. One advantage of this race is that it’s actually almost as hard to pull out of as it is to just continue on. I think it was something like a 100 mile ride to the closest real town with supplies/services from this point. I decided I would get over Ophir Pass, the crux of the race that night regardless of the weather. I didn’t realize just how bad it would get.

After crossing yet another mountain range (I was beginning to lose track of how many at this point), I had to cross a seemingly endless desert valley. From the east side of the valley, it actually looked like I would hit the Toiyabe Range in no time, but scale is really tricky out here-the Toiyabe mountains average over 10,000ft, so these towering peaks made the valley look small, when in reality it was probably something like 20 miles wide!

I pedaled for what felt like forever, and actually hit a welcome couple of miles of pavement that felt effortless after the difficult terrain the course had taken us through. I was proud of myself for averaging over 15mph on pavement despite having ridden for 300 miles at this point. I pulled off the pavement at the small dirt road that leads to Ophir Canyon then up to the pass at 10,500ft. The weather actually cleared at this point so I ate some food in preparation for the 5500’ climb in under 9 miles I had to tackle. Assuming the doubletrack was similar to that which I’d already crossed, I figured I would be over the pass in a couple hours and be able to roll into Middlegate at mile 362 (or close to it) by 3am or so. Boy was I wrong.

Very quickly the doubletrack turned into an unrideable, steep, rocky mess that weaved its way up the Ophir Creek drainage by crossing the stream every few hundred feet. The stream crossings were actually the most rideable part of this section, at least in these wet muddy conditions. As I paralleled the creek, I swore I heard some folks talking on the other side of the creek, but I later realized it was just the gurgling sounds of the stream. I was starting to worry about my mental state a bit. But, I thought to myself, “at least it isn’t raining.” That changed rather quickly and I spent the next couple of hours trying to push and pull my bike up the impossibly steep, rocky track in a downpour. I thought, it can’t get any worse than this. It can. The rocks I had been complaining about turned to mud so slippery that I couldn’t make upward progress, not matter what I tried. Instead I had to get off the track and thrash my way through thick brush while carrying my bike up the steep slope. To say this part sucked would be a serious understatement.

But even that misery can’t compare to what it was like when the rain switched to snow and I approached the top of the pass. Before getting serious about cycling a few years ago, I had spent over a decade climbing mountains and guiding all over the world, so I’m no stranger to mountain weather. But, I’m usually well prepared for anything I might face in the high mountains. Bikepack racing is different. You cover so much ground that you might experience valley heat and mountain snow within a few hours. You are also racing so you have to try to balance safety gear/clothing/etc. with weight if you hope to compete. Because of my mountaineering experience, I had brought just enough clothing to survive freezing conditions, but I realized I couldn’t last the night up there in a serious blizzard with gale force winds and blinding snow, accumulating quickly. I knew I had two options at this point, either dropping all the way back down to the previous valley, or pushing up over the pass and dropping several thousand feet down the other side until the snow switched back to rain.

Being stubborn as a mule, I opted for the latter. In hindsight, it was heuristic hubris and perhaps a bit of delusion at that point, but I reasoned that there is nothing the mountains can throw at me that I couldn’t survive. So I pushed on. It got worse and worse as I ascended until I finally approached the pass. My heart sank as I realized forward progress was blocked by an overhanging cornice of snow. I would have to traverse the steep snow slopes below the cornice and look for a way over. This was doubly hard since I couldn’t see more than a few feet and bike shoes weren’t made for kicking steps in hardpack snow and ice. In these conditions, my mountaineering sense and abilities were being thoroughly tested and I felt like I was in a dangerous situation. My shoes were barely getting purchase in the steep snow traverses and I was carrying my fully loaded bike. A slip wouldn’t have been deadly but it would’ve hurt. I was actually really worried about the guys coming up behind me in this blizzard-it would have been deadly to anyone without serious mountaineering experience-and that is not an exaggeration. I just hoped no one else with perhaps less mountaineering experience would put themselves in this situation.

Had it not been for the gpx track on my gps screen, I would have never found my way over. I could barely tell up from down in this whiteout. Aside from the few footsteps Neil and the Comstock 300 mile racers ahead of me had kicked in the snow during the day before the blizzard hit, there was no indication of a path over the snow cornice. Even these steps were quickly covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Finally, miraculously, I found a way up and over the pass, and after a while, was able to mount my bike and begin the descent. It was still snowing, and the track had become a river, literally, but I was getting seriously hypothermic so I had to ride down as quickly as possible. Confusion set in, and I tried to fight it as I descended what was actually pretty difficult riding (or at least it felt that way in these conditions). The snow turned to slush then to rain as I lost elevation until I was finally back in the desert. I could actually see some lights off in the distance, so I decided I would try to make it to those lights and ask for help.

I kept riding, and the lights didn’t seem to get any closer. I was at my wits end by this point and figured I was confused enough that I could have been imagining those lights or they could’ve been stars. I decided the best thing to do would be to crawl into my emergency bivy sack. I dismounted my bike and could barely remove my hands from the brakes and grips. My hands were so frozen I couldn’t open my seatpost bag. I had to use my teeth to get the clips open, which was quite gross since the bag was covered in a thick layer of mud with the consistency of peanut butter. Blah. I wrangled my bivy sack out, crawled in it, and shivered for the next 4-5 hours. I was in a daze, not sure if I was asleep or awake-cold was my only sensation. I had decided I would pull out of the race. I had just been through too much that night to continue. Since I was calling it quits, I had no qualms about spending some extra time in the bivy sack.

The sun finally crested the mountains and began to warm the bivy sack. After a few minutes in the sun, I was still shivering but finally able to pull myself out of the bag. In the light of day, myself and my equipment were a rather disgusting sight to behold. Everything was caked with a thick layer of peanut butter mud. Mud had even made it into my chamois-at least I hoped it was mud (just kidding!). I scraped things off the best I could and hoped that my bike would be rideable. I recalled what Blake Bockius had told me after encountering mud like this in last year’s race. The mud, which is full of small rocks and pebbles actually chewed through his carbon fork as his mud caked wheel spun round and round. He ended up having to throw it away after the race! Luckily I was on a Ti bike with a burly Fox fork so didn’t have to worry about that, but I was pleasantly surprised that my drivetrain was still functioning.

Still planning to pull out of the race, I hopped on my bike and headed toward Middlegate about 50 miles away. I was still on the race course since Middlegate was the closest place with services. The sun began to warm my chilled core and my spirits began to lift. I was definitely feeling destroyed after the previous night, but started to rationalize finishing the race. I had never pulled out of an endurance race before, and I knew I would regret doing so now, no matter what I had been through the night before. And besides, the sun was out and it was only a matter of time before I would be warm again. “Yes!” I told myself, “you’re gonna do this”. “Buck up princess”. “Don’t be such a wuss”. “No need to call the wah-mbulance”.

Just as I was warming up from a combination of sun and the climb over yet another mountain range, the clouds came back in. As I descended down from the pass (I had lost track of mountain ranges by this point-it was probably #8 or so), I hit another headwind near the ghosttown of Ione, NV. At least it wasn’t raining yet as I made my way across an expansive desert plain toward the final mountain range between me and the first services in 250 miles.

I had expected the flats on this race to be cruiser, but with the now muddy roads and the steep headwinds slowing my progress, they became slow and grueling. Still, there is a stark beauty to these wild places that I tend to find inspiring where some might find it boring or empty or wasteland. So I took comfort in the splendor of my surroundings rather than focusing on my discomfort and pushed my way through to Middlegate. I got hit by a few brief rainstorms along the way, but fortunately just as the heavens broke yet again and sheets of rain began, I was pulling into the station.

The timing was great-I was really happy not be out in that weather and figured it would quickly pass. I also had to deal with my SPOT beacon issue. I hadn’t been showing up on the map for the entire race up to this point so I called Trackleaders and we spent about an hour and half trying to resolve the issue. We finally figured it out but I had wasted a lot of time by this point. I was still in the race, but not really racing anymore thinking I was in 5th place, so I wasn’t too worried about it. It was also still pouring rain-so I dawdled a bit more re-organizing and cleaning my gear and throwing away food that had been destroyed by rain and mud. After ~2 hours in Middlegate with no sign of the weather abating, I donned my rain gear and hopped on my bike in the downpour. I was soaked to the core in minutes, but was actually glad that the rain was washing off my bike and clothes. I was on the longest paved section of the race, about 20 miles on Hwy 50. It was actually quite scary as the speed limit is 70mph and trucks were buffeting me with wet blasts as they whizzed past.

As I cruised down the highway I noticed that my gpx track was about to end near the highway turn off. I was totally bummed. After just dealing with a tech issue for two hours, now this-wtf? It was my first time using a Garmin Etrex, which unbeknownst to me, cuts off the end portion of your track when you exceed 5000points. I hadn’t noticed this before now, and was unsure how I could continue without a track. I had printed some very small maps for emergencies, but it would have been impossible to navigate off of them and still maintain a decent pace. Frantically I pulled over behind the guard rail on Hwy 50 and thankfully had cell service. I couldn’t find Trevor the race organizer’s number but Blake had sent his phone number to all the racers in an email thread so I called him. He informed me that all the guys in front of me had dropped out for one reason or another except for Neil. That put me in 2nd place! He also informed me that no one behind had made it over the pass in the blizzard. A couple racers had tried, but wisely backed off. One of the racers even had to use his SPOT beacon to call for a rescue. None of this news surprised me in the slightest. I was just glad no one was hurt. Blake relayed my dilemma to Trevor and I soon received a call and he kindly agreed to meet me in the middle of the desert near Fallon NV after I had crossed the salt flat (playa). What a nice guy. The rain actually let up at this point and I was treated to some much needed sunshine. I proceeded with gusto from here.

I definitely wasted a lot of time trying to find my way through the playa without a gpx track. I was also sinking pretty deep into the salt pan due to the big downpour. Like many things in this race, it just wasn’t going well for me. But hey, I was in 2nd, which with Neil in the race, felt like 1st to me! It helped keep me going. I met Trevor on a dirt road after finally crossing the big salt playa and we quickly loaded the final 2 segments on my Etrex-I’ll never make that mistake again! Armed with the gpx, the navigating became much easier. I cruised the next 20 miles or so into Fallon and hit the Dairy Queen, the closest food source to the race course. I ordered 4 burgers and a couple orders of fries. I ate 2 of burgers and the fries and packed the other two for the night. As I was leaving and really charismatic guy came up to me and asked me what I was doing. He said, “Man, when I saw you, I knew you weren’t just biking down the block! I had to come ask what you were doing.” He was pretty blown away by the idea of racing across the desert and cheered me on as I pulled out of the DQ parking lot.

The light was fading at this point, and I turned on my lights just as I was getting off of the improved roads and back to desert doubletrack. The track through the next section was fairly pleasant, but the dark desolation allowed my mind to wander and play tricks on me. I rolled through a pack of desert foxes, but later I was unsure if I had really seen them. I then saw strange lights making impossible patterns in the sky. I thought how cliché, UFO’s in the middle of the desert. But I saw it again and it seemed so close I actually ducked down while riding my bike, thinking it was about to swoop over me. In my delirium, I thought wow, UFOs are real, but being a skeptical scientist, I couldn’t believe my own eyes and worried that I was in shape than I thought and was hallucinating. I gnawed on these thoughts for the next hour (or two? time was kind of blending that evening) until I solved the mystery.

I saw the lights again but this time I was close enough to make sense of what was going on. There was a road high up on the mountain side across the valley that must have had a couple of switchbacks, causing the light to have erratic patterns. I had been so far way earlier that the two headlights blended into one. The valley was so devoid of light other than the stars, and the air so absolutely clear in this incredibly arid section of desert, that it really had seemed like a UFO. I can now empathize with those that think they saw something in the desert, but I’m also even more skeptical now of their accounts.

At around 3 or 4am I made it Fort Churchill State Park. I had thought about sleeping in the bathroom there, but there were bright lights I couldn’t turn off, so I instead hid behind the welcome sign (which also served as a wind block) and crawled into my bivy sack. I slept about 1.5 hours and got on my way just before sun up. The next section was pretty nasty washboard dirt road and was rather unpleasant all around. I rolled past a decapitated jackrabbit and thought, what kind of sicko would do such a thing? Well, later I would find out that one of the Comstock 300 racers actually hit the poor bunny at night. He said it darted out of nowhere and its head went right into his spokes, and its head snapped right off. How crazy is that?

I finally hit the Maverick’s gas station in Dayton NV. This is the Shangri-La of gas stations. I couldn’t believe the selection of calorie dense breakfast sandwiches, donuts, you name it. I got four sausage egg biscuits and ate all but one, then got a few more with bacon. I think altogether I ate 4 sandwiches and got 4 for the road.  I also got a couple of maple bars which didn’t last two long in my bike bags. After Dayton, I made the rather unpleasant 2000’+ paved climb up to Virginia City. VC is a really neat place and it had really grown up since I had moved away from the area 5 years before. When I left, they had maintained the Old West frontier feel with just an old saloon and couple of eatieres. Now it had everything- fine dining, breweries, fitness centers, and even open air tourist trollies. The town has reinvented itself and is probably more profitable now than it was during the gold rush. Since I had eaten my bodyweight in junk food, I didn’t need to stop here so I rolled straight through. At the edge of town the route takes you right back onto rough double track as you climb up to the higher peaks of the Virginia Mountain Range. It was a beautiful day with amazing weather, but at this point, I just wanted to be finished, and knew I still had to tackle the final mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, to get to Lake Tahoe and the CA border.

At the top of the pass in the Virginia Range, I thought it would be cruiser downhill all the way to Carson City, but the route takes you up one pass after another before you finally hit Washoe Lake, thousands of feet below. Like everything in this race, it was taking longer than expected. From Washoe, I had actually ridden the section to Carson City, so it was nice be on familiar terrain. I soon hit a greenway that went past a community college. Unfortunately there was no cafeteria, but there were vending machines so I stocked up on a few snacks to prepare for the 10,000ft of climbing involved in the last 35-40 miles of the course.

I had been dealing with horrific saddle sores since the blizzard and rain storms in Central NV. By this point after being wet then dry, wet then dry, they become open flesh wounds that would adhere to my chamois, then get ripped open every time I changed position. I feel like I’m fairly pain tolerant, but these were so bad I would actually get nauseous or woozy every time it happened or when a sore would touch the saddle. This made riding incredibly unpleasant and awkward. I had to sit on the very nose of the saddle. My hands were in pretty bad shape too, as were my feet. As I was walking up a section of singletrack my shoes felt like they had small sticks or pebbles in them. I took them off and dumped them out, but there wasn’t much debris in them. Huh I thought, better check my socks. I took my socks off and noticed the pads of my feet had separated from my feet so I was actually stepping on folds of thick foot skin. Gross! I almost threw up just from the thought/site of it!

“Buck up sweetheart” I told myself. Pain is temporary. Suffering is optional. Usually this kind of self-flagellation does the trick but my body was starting to mutiny. Every step or pedal stroke began to take serious effort and concentration just to go on. To make things worse, the wind had picked up and was getting ruthless as I climbed in elevation. I was trying to negotiate a switchback and a blast of wind actually knocked me off the trail and tumbled into manzanita bushes, sharp rocks, and logs. It was a pretty bad fall, but could have been worse. It took me a while to collect myself and crawl back up to the trail. Finally I hit tree line which offered some shelter. But then the course dropped back down another 1000-2000ft before climbing again. Ugh. No mas por favor!!

The final couple thousand feet to Spooner Summit really tested my mettle. I was tantalizingly close, but every inch felt so difficult at this point. I began to worry I would have to stop again and rest which would mean finishing the dark or the next day. I didn’t know if my mind could keep forcing my body to go on. I took it step by step, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. Somehow I managed to make it to the top of Spooner Summit and was back on terra familiar. The last section of trail was the famed Flume Trail which I had ridden a few times before. I knew I had a nasty steep climb up to the start of the Flume, which would be hard, but I knew I could do it. I got weepy knowing that the race was almost over. My adrenalin began to leave my body. I was a mess.

I had to walk an embarrassing amount of the climb up to the Flume, but I made it. I was then re-energized by the beauty of Lake Tahoe and the fun singletrack riding. The Flume went smoothly, then I dropped down to the lake itself near Incline Village. From here I had one last climb to the casinos at Crystal Bay on the NV-CA border where my friend Cheryl was waiting to pick me up. I was so destroyed I could barely ride up this mellow paved climb, but I managed it somehow and finally saw Cheryl waiting for me at the Border. I’ve definitely never been happier to get off the bike.

After some sleep and time to heal, I was able to process and appreciate just what an amazing area we had ridden through. There are few places in the lower 48 with such sparse population. There are more mountain ranges in NV than any other state. NV is not a wasteland, its absolute natural treasure. I only wish I had explored more of it when I lived there instead of spending all my time in the Sierras. Would I do the race again, not sure. Am I glad I did it, a resounding yes.

 

 

i-NATURE: Indigenous iNtegration of Aquatic sciences and Traditional-Ecological-Knowledge for Undergraduate culturally Responsive Education (an NSF I-USE funded program)

After racing at WEMBO, I worked at a feverish pace to submit my first institutional level National Science Foundation Grant. Miraculously, I was funded and have since embarked on journey to get more underrepresented minority students involved in Science and higher education.

Learn more about the project here: https://www.heritage-inature.org/

Students are motivated and empowered by contributing to the solution of problems faced by their community. They can see how their science degrees can transform not only their lives, but also have a great impact in the economy of the region and the protection of the environment where they live. In this regard, the i-NATURE project-, place-based curriculum that includes extensive applied research experience on local problems will be definitively transformative and have lasting influence on both student and community. i-NATURE seeks to create a new model for STEM curriculum that can provide a seamless transition from high school through graduate school to the STEM workforce. i-NATURE is an innovative and novel approach to STEM curriculum building for four reasons:

(i) the uniqueness of the tribal influence of the program through partnerships with the Yakama Nation and Salish Kootenai College, which could serve as a model for recruitment and retention of Native American students in STEM for other institutions,

(ii) the development of a regional partnership with graduate institutions Oregon State University (OSU) and University of Idaho (UI), the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and the Spokane Tribe of Indians,

(iii) the hands-on, data driven, project-based curriculum, which will better prepare students for success in the STEM workforce and graduate career paths, and

(iv) the place-based educational immersion of students in the local heritage, culture, and landscapes as a foundation for the study of science and math.

The primary objective of i-NATURE is to create a culturally relevant, learner centered, project based curriculum that will better attract and retain students, and particularly AI/AN students. The components of this model include: (i) an Experiential, Place-Based Learning Model with an emphasis on understanding, analysis, and communication of local environmental issues, (ii) Intergenerational Mentoring, and (iii) Indigenous Research Internships. The second objective of i-NATURE is to develop a Regional Partnership to create a program uniquely tailored for underrepresented minority success in STEM.

 

WEMBO 2015

Its been a while since I’ve updated my blog, partially because I was submitting content to Bikepacker Magazine, and partly because my new life as a professor is busier than my grad student/athlete life. But I’d like to try to catch the blog up in to real time. After Tibet, I began my Faculty position at Heritage University in Toppenish Washington and began my new life in the PNW. I love my position and the area-its been rewarding in so many ways.
In my first semester as a faculty member, Heritage University let me take time off to compete at the World 24 Hour Solo Championship Race in Weaverville, California on Chumba Stella Titanium. It wasn’t my favorite race course ever but it was great to get to meet and ride against the best of the best.

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