Sunday, June 7, 2009

Turnaround on Pike's Peak

I don’t like to change course; least of all to turn around. Why cover the same ground? Maybe my motor is generally set to explore. If I run ten miles I want to see ten miles, not five miles twice. Changing course is like that, too. I don’t ever like the idea of wasting work that I’ve already done. I want to use it in getting somewhere – even if it’s not the place I originally intended. I like to think of this trait as “openness” to new experience. This is, in fact, the positive end of one of the five primary dimensions of personality measured by psychologists (as opposed to neuroticism).

No complex human trait exists without a reason, though, including neuroticism. My willful insistence on charting new courses, avoiding route changes midstream, and never (I am a guy) asking for directions, has gotten me into some tough places. At times I have been left with no choice but to get bailed out. The time when I went for “a 15 minute run” in the Red River Gorge at dusk and came back several hours later, I had actually finally stopped at a small house to ask for help. I chose it because it had a swing set out front. I asked to use the phone to tell my wife that I was alright. As the woman put the pieces of my story together – and realized the distance for me to get back – she insisted on giving me a ride.

One afternoon I left work to run a loop from Damascus, VA. I had been looking for ways to connect the Appalachian Trail going south with the Iron Mountain Trail coming back north. These two great trails roughly follow parallel mountain ridges. On a previous run, my buddy Nick Whited and I had descended the AT at Backbone Rock, stumbled around and found a forest service road and some jeep track that ascended back to the IMT. The run took us about 3 hours. My intention that afternoon was to try and replicate the route. It was getting dark by about 7:30, so I made sure to leave work at 4:00 so I could start the run at 4:30. I packed a small penlight “just in case.” The run was proceeding according to plan, and I was making good time. I found the IMT, though at a slightly different place. I threw down the hammer, to make sure I made it to Damascus before dark. As dusk approached, I expected to be descending off the mountain. Instead, I was climbing. My altimeter indicated I was over 4000 feet! I stopped. I took out my Clif Bloks and chewed on a couple to get some glucose back to my brain. It didn’t take long to figure out that I’d done a 180: went the exact wrong way on the IMT. I was deep into Tennessee and it would be dark soon. I was almost out of the small supply of water and food I had brought. And it was getting cold. It felt absolutely wrong to go back the way I had just come, but I had to make up the five miles I had just covered in the wrong direction, and then cover the five miles left to Damascus. In the dark. I tested the penlight. It worked, but the beam was still faint in the ambient evening light. I slowed, to conserve energy, to find my way on the trail, and to watch my footing on the semi-technical terrain. The night was closing in around me. I could feel the faint haunting of my absolute vulnerability -- a wisp as ephemeral as morning mist. Meanwhile I proceeded unhesitatingly in my method. I move fast enough to stay warm, slow enough to make my way. I ration my remaining food and water. I finally turn on the penlight, and hold it low so rocks and roots cast a shadow.

I find the intersection where I went wrong. I see the way to Damascus: five more miles of technical ridgeline in the dark. I’m cold. A sign indicates the trail to the right intersects a highway in 1.5 miles. I take it. I want to run instead of walk, and I think I can at least let Robin know that I am alright. My descent is rapid, and I’m soon at the promised road. Lights show me the way to a handful of houses. I look for something promising (like signs of kids). As I approach a house a large unfriendly dog checks my progress. No luck. I decide to run toward Damascus. The road meanders along the foot of the mountain. More dogs greet me, but they are wagging their tails. Folks inside already know someone is out here, I think. I start to run on, but it’s late, and I want to call home. I turn back, and climb up the steep drive toward the house. I stand out in the drive where I can be seen. A couple of dogs are caged up and continue to bark. A couple more dogs hang around me.

Finally a young man emerges from the house with a spotlight. He’s shining it around, though I’m standing where I can easily be seen, far enough from the house so I’m not mistaken for an intruder. It takes me quite a while to clue him in. Everything I say seems puzzling to him. But he’s hunted on the mountain, and when I describe the trail up top he makes the connection. At first he says he doesn’t have a phone, but I press the case of my worried wife. Finally he gets his mother’s cell phone from the house. I call Robin. It turns out she wasn’t worried. She’s gotten used to this kind of thing. I don’t let on though. I carry on the conversation with the young man listening. I describe what I’ve done so far to her, and how I will “try to find a way” to run back to Damascus, so that he will better understand my situation.

When I get off the phone, thank him, and start – slowly – moving away, he offers to drive me to Damascus. “That’d be really helpful,” I respond. He takes me in his mom’s minivan. I’ve learned to pack a little cash along with my food and water, so I give him money for gas. He doesn’t expect it, says not to worry about it, but I insist. When I finally get home, Robin tells me she got a call from the Mom. She wanted to know who her son was riding around with late in the evening. Robin has a hard time convincing her.

While I’ve been in Colorado Springs, I’ve had come to terms with the out-and-back mentality. Nippert and I have been running together in the afternoons. Nippert doesn’t like loops. He wants to get the minutes right without any guesswork. What do you do at the end of a loop if the time isn’t right? So we run up the canyon and back. He gives me my workouts, and since I’ve been out here, many of them have specific routes; out-and-back routes. He’ll have me go 10 miles out along the Sante Fe Trail, then turn around and come back. I will rarely do that on my own, but I try to follow my training schedule.

Yesterday my workout was an out-and- back, but one that I have been looking forward to since I got here. I was supposed to climb Pike’s Peak via the Barr Trail. I’ve been watching the mountain daily, though, and it has been blanketed in snow. Last Tuesday white-out conditions near the peak turned back all four of the trains that carry counted-on tourists to the top. Yesterday morning’s paper (that I didn’t read before I left) warned hikers against climbing the peak, calling the route a technical climb in these conditions.

The brilliant sunshine bode well for my run, though, and I set off at 6am from near the Cog Railway station. I was determined to get “as far as I could.” The elevation at the start was 6700 feet. I ran the initial climb through the W’s conservatively, knowing it would be a long day. It took a little over an hour to run the section of trail that took 51 minutes during my “tempo run” over a week ago. I didn’t have to burn my lungs and legs to do it, though. I stopped briefly at Barr Camp; they said it was clear to the timberline. I was up over 10,000 feet. My breath got shorter and quicker, and I walked for a few stints, but the impact of the altitude was markedly less than on previous forays up high.

Above timberline the sun was blazing. Even with the strong winds, I felt warm in my t-shirt and shorts. In less than a mile I found myself in snow, and lost the trail. I found a way up toward the top, and stumbled again into the trail, which had switched back to head west toward “the cirque” a large scale erosion gully that scoops down from the center of the mountain. A single hiker was out, trying to make the summit. He looked reasonably equipped. He was making slow progress, post-holing through the snow. I caught him quickly by running lightly on top of the snow. This crust held my weight as I contoured around the slope, moving upward somewhat, guessing the approximate location of the trail underneath. We talked briefly. Like me, it was his first time on the summit approach. We discussed strategies for crossing the cirque, which was completely enveloped in deep snow. The pitch was steeper, and the drop off below it was menacing. He was post-holing with every step. I was beginning to break through the crust myself. The ice scraped at my bare ankles. Snow got in my shoes. Every step sucked the energy out of me.

I decided to go up – instead of across. There were rock outcroppings above us that I hoped would promise better footing. I scampered on all fours for 20 yards at a time, and then had to stop to catch my breath. My altimeter indicated I was over 13,000 feet. I was only 1000 vertical feet from the summit. I could hear the train whistle at the top. I wanted so badly to fight upward – to complete my mission, to see what it was like up there! I had ascended nearly 7000 feet, I didn’t want to waste that. The boulders were spaced apart, though, and immersed in a sea of snow. When I looked down at my own tracks I knew the descent across the snow would be a lot more difficult than the ascent had been. I had started post-holing about every third step. I had been out over 3 hours.

I turned around. I followed my own footsteps backward. For a moment I despaired the lost bid – then I realized the difficulty of my downward traverse. The added downward velocity of every stride caused me to either post-hole or slide – two bad options. For this inexperienced and ill-equipped mountaineer, my best (and safest) technique was the crab walk. I scampered on my feet and hands, keeping my feet pointed down the mountain. I was able to walk the horizontal traverses in places where the snow crust was thicker. In a reasonable amount of time I was back at the 12,700 foot sign, marking the big switchback in the Barr Trail. I was able to get running again. The descent from there took about 90 minutes.

My good friend Dave should be proud – he’s been encouraging the development of a 100 mile “temperament” as I approach the Western States. This is an interesting word, because it honors the dual virtues of stable character and pliable resilience. Those of us struggling to do something difficult surely need this potent combination: unwavering determination and adaptability. I may not have made the summit of Pike’s Peak yesterday, but I had a good adventure, and I turned around in time to ensure that I could tell the tale.


  1. I like your blog a lot and hope you do well at WS100 coming up. I am looking for a 50 miler in Oct and was wondering if you're gonna hold the Iron Mtn. again this year?

    Anyways, keep on havin' fun in CO!

    - Greg

  2. Grossman, keep on fighting the fight and conducting the experiment on yourself to overcome variables that have previously been out of your control at Western States. There are so many other variables to contend with in that race that you will have confidence to handle them because you are controlling the ones that have possibly contributed to an earlier fatigue factor that is not experienced when not at altitude while participating in an ultra. Enjoy the family and their arrival and take a break mentally and enjoy the desert and the heat in the coming weeks!


  3. Thanks for the well wishes, guys.

    IMTR is on this year, with Kevin Townsend directing.

    The date is set for the first Saturday in September. The new website is on googlesites.