Four Days in Tennessee

Coordinating a transcontinental reunion is about as challenging as it sounds.

It was Laura’s idea.  She’d been looking into the Cummins Fall Marathon pretty much since we’d gotten back from Cuba. 2016 was not to be, at least for me.  Four international vacations had left me too broke to even pay attention.  And while I can’t say I skimped, I did have enough money for a long weekend in Tennessee for a Cuban reunion.  

Dallas would have signed up first.  It was his marathon, his pet project.  To save the area of Cummins Fall near Cookeville, TN from being developed, he and some friends put up the money to purchase the land.  The marathon is to ensure that dream is continued.  What a legacy, what a way to be remembered. Someday, hopefully, my name will be linked to such a project.

Friends of Cummins Fall Facebook

Laura, who lost her job in December and had to make sure it would all work, was next.  Somewhere along the line, John signed up as well.  The Cuban foursome would reunite in February for the Cummins Fall Marathon!

Lexi, my fellow Lifebus’er, started asking me questions about the race and our plans.  “I dunno, we’re running a marathon and doing stuff” was about the best I could come up with.  We hadn’t really made any plans. I had Marriott points, so I was in charge of the hotel, so Laura would take care of the rental car, which happily doesn’t cost much in Tennessee.  And a marathon.  That was about it.  We were flying into Nashville, the closest airport, and since Nashville was on Lexi’s Lifebus list, Lexi was the last to sign up.

Lexi is more the planner than the rest of us, so she soon had a music venue and a list of places to see.  And eat.  First was Gerst Haus, a German restaurant with of course beer.  The meal was not carb friendly but it was delicious–or maybe that should read “and it was delicious”.  It was Thursday night and Laura and I had landed mid-afternoon and checked into a Marriott near the airport.  It was a short drive to the restaurant (but due to an odd location, it took us a couple tries to get into the parking lot), where Lexi met us after her flight.

I got up early Friday for a short run to stretch out my legs before the three hour drive to Cookeville.  Check-in was that evening so we were trying to stretch our time in Nashville. 

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First stop  was of course a coffee shop.  We found a small shop with great coffee and even better danishes.  Laura was wearing the hat she’d gotten in Cuba and as we walked from the car to our coffee, a young man driving by started honking and shouting “I’m from Cuba!”.  Who would have thought.

Laura had to take an interview via phone, so Lexi and I drank our coffee and wandered the streets of downtown, discussing this, that and the other.  As much as we tried, we could not solve the world’s problems in the short time we had.  

After breakfast, we headed to the Johnny Cash museum first.  Despite my time in Texas, I’m no country music fan, but when in Rome.  

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It was eye opening.  I had no idea about the man, outside of the usual regarding marriages and drug use that seem to plague many stars.  If you haven’t listed to “This Old Flag” or his version of the NIN song “Hurt”, I highly recommend both.  

But it was his song “Man in Black” that hit me in the feels.  It tells of his awareness of the futility of our penal system.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I have read that he used that merely as an excuse to wear black but listening to the song, I believe him.

In the gift shop was a shirt that read “Hot Chicken”. Not quite sure what it was, we gave it a quick Google search, which revealed it was a famous dish local to Nashville. I bought the shirt (everyone needs a hot chicken shirt!)  and we added it to our list of things to do.

My little black cloud had followed me to to Tennessee and the weather for the Cummins Falls marathon was looking gloomy, so on our way out of town, we stopped at the only running store we could find, the Nashville Running Company, a fun little shop in a funky little area.  Laura ducked out for another quick job call as Lexi and I found a couple of long sleeve shirts to purchase. We were not prepared for the cold rain of Tennessee, even coming from Colorado.  Or maybe because of Colorado–50 just seems a lot cooler in the humidity.

We chatted for awhile with some fellow runners in the store. The Cummins Fall marathon was on their board of upcoming runs, but no one in the store had run it.  One employee had just moved to Colorado and had been regaling his friends about the amazing races there, so they were a little surprised that we had come from Colorado to run in Nashville.  Even without the reunion, it’s hard finding a marathon in February in Colorado. That whole snow and cold thing.

Lunch was well past us and, while I voted for I Dream of Weenie, we ended up at Local Taco, which advertised a taco version of Hot Chicken.  They do not joke around about the hot part.  Even the small street taco packed a lot of flavor and I was glad I’d only gotten one.

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Finding more local artsy shops, we wandered, Lexi purchasing a beautiful bag (partly for the plane ride home) and I found a great women’s focused bookshop, where I purchased “What I was Doing While You Were Breeding”.  I have only started it, but I am in love with the misadventures of a woman who wasn’t ready to settle down when our culture strongly suggests you should.  I can completely related.

Much later than anticipated, we were off to Cummins Falls and the race check-in. The falling of darkness and knowing we were running behind made the three hours drag by. It’s in the those moments where one notices the oddest things.  In Tennessee, they have mile markers every quarter mile.  This is one of those things that, once you see it, you cannot unsee it, and you spend many miles trying to ignore the quarter mile markers.  Every quarter mile. I still don’t know why.

Dallas and John had finished carbo loading by the time we got to the restaurant, but stayed with us as we ordered our obligatory pasta dinner and an optional glass of wine. John had brought his new/old girlfriend.  Friends in high school, they had lost touch until we had forced John into a Facebook account after Cuba so we could keep in touch.  Say what you will about Facebook, it looks to be a happy ending in this case.  

Dallas bid us farewell first.  The most (or possibly only) competitive person among us, he wanted to get his beauty sleep before the race.

I’m quite sure how to introduce the next character. He just kind of inserted himself at our table, cutting Laura off from the rest of us as he carried on what was a very intense conversation for a first meeting.  It eventually turned out he was actually trying to flirt as he attempted to convince Laura to go back to his hotel room, failing miserably and not just because Laura has a fiance.  

I’m not quite sure how to introduce him because part of me wants to portray him as an amusing drunk desperate for attention, but the truth is, he was more than a bit creepy.  We saw him again after the race, when he came up to us at a brewery and asked if he could insert some testosterone into our conversation.  I’d be lying if I said Lexi and I didn’t now use a similar phrase when going up to a group of guy friends. But really.  Really?

And the best part. A quick search on Facebook (thank you again) turned up that he’s married.  With a kid.

So I’m not portraying him amusingly.  I’m writing this as the hashtag “metoo” is taking over Facebook and I am going to honor that . We were trying to be polite when, in retrospect, I wish we done ourselves and possibly other women the favor of just telling him f— off.

For anyone who’s ever done a race, there’s no need to mention no sleep was had that night and the morning came too early.  The weather was in a very iffy place–would it rain, would the sun make an entrance–so we piled on clothes, took them off, then piled them on again.  The general rule for running is to start cold as you will definitely warm up, but I hate being cold.  I also hate carrying five pounds of extra clothing with me when I run, but instant gratification generally wins.

Dallas was easy to find at the start.  Dallas doesn’t know any strangers.  John soon showed up, pre-race photos were taken, and we were off.

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Laura and Lexi, training a little lacking–at least in their opinion–had opted for the half marathon.  The half had a crux–a challenging point one had to get across in order to complete the run: a bridge made of boards over kayaks.  Over really cold February water. On a very chilly February day.  

Falling is not an option.  

Both were far ahead of me by the time I reached the infamous “bridge” but a couple runners were crossing it, definitely not setting any speed records in the process. I happily continued down the road.

The race meandered down back roads, with only the occasional pickup truck traveling by.  The aid stations were the only times I really encountered anyone, so I paused to chat a bit at each one.  One aid station came with a warning about an oversized, over-friendly dog.  The gentlemen managing the station had done it every year and had learned that runners were a little intimidated by the enthusiastic pup.  But she was now getting up in years and was already napping when I happened by.  I gave her a quick pat on the head and continued on.

The last few miles gained the elevation lost in the first few miles, making for a challenging but scenic ending.  Around mile 23, John came into sight.  It took me another couple miles to catch him.  I commended him on his improved time–I had overtaken him at mile 15 in Cuba.  He told me I had been his motivation during training and he promised I wouldn’t see him at all during the next marathon we did.

My time didn’t set any records, but did earn me first place in the masters category, meaning that I’m doing pretty good for an old person.  My award had been misplaced but the race director promised me it would be mailed as soon as possible.  I’m not one much for awards but these were hand crafted from the wood of a collapsed barn on the property, so it had sentimental value.

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Laura has won the masters award in the half marathon.  On the way back into town for a shower (thank you, Marriott, for the late checkout) and celebratory beers, Laura realized her award said “Marathon” instead of “Half”.  I felt half bad about taking “her” award, but I was happy to get my award.  Hers was mailed after the race, so everyone got their award.

We enjoyed pizza and beer at the Red Silo (after some great steak, baked potatoes, and beer compliments of Outback after the race–hey, it’s why we run).  Lexi took off shortly after to head back to Nashville. Laura and I were meeting Dallas, John and his girlfriend for dinner for a last chance to catch up.

Crawdaddy’s is the best and one of few restaurants in Cummings so the wait was pretty long but seemed otherwise in the company of good friends.  It was only a couple days in Cuba, but when your soul recognizes itself in others, that’s all it takes.  We took our time catching up on our lives in the past two years, and as always, entertained by Dallas’s story telling.

While at dinner, Lexi had sent a text, directing us to not miss Ralph’s Doughnut Shop.

If you ever go to Cummins, TN, you can skip the marathon. You can skip the Red Silo and even Crawdaddy’s. But. Do. Not. Miss. Ralph’s Doughnut Shop.  I’m pretty sure heaven has one of these.  If not, I’m not sure I want to go.  More doughnut types than I can describe.  I got red velvet and something chocolately, thinking I would have a snack for later, but they did not last that long.

And yet again, I was able to prove that it takes a lot less time to consume the calories burned in a marathon.  

It was a painfully late three hour drive back to Nashville, so the morning started a little late as well, tired from the drive and the race.  

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Our goal for the day was to see Studio B, the recording studio of many greats of the past, Elvis, Hank Williams, and others.  We made good use of Google Maps through the morning and took the long way to Studio B, meandering through some interesting districts, stopping to see some history, do some shopping and of course more eating.  And while Google gives you all sorts of helpful information, it failed to inform us that the tour starts at the Country Music Hall of Fame,practically across the street from our hotel, and there’s no shortcutting the process.  It was a little tense walking back as the frustration built on the fatigue. But we’d put that much effort in so far, we had to finish it.

 

The upside is that we also got tickets to the Hall of Fame.  It showed the progression of music from the roots of the music and instruments of African slaves through jazz to country then rock and roll.  They are all sounds that I would never have put together, all so unique and related to seemingly different locations and cultures within the United States, but hearing and seeing them together, the influence is obvious and beautiful.  

The tour was a little abbreviated as we had a bus to catch to the place we’d already walked.  Studio B.  An innocuous, seventies-styled building that one never have guessed was the birthplace to so much music.  It is still used today, even though technology has left it long behind.  It still has magic, though, and no technology in the world can replicate that.

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The highlight of the tour is the room where all the music was recorded.  Near the middle of the room on the floor is a innocuous blue X that I would never have noticed had our guide not pointed it out.  It marks the place where the musicians stood as they recorded their music.  The piano played by Elvis was in the corner.   We listened to recordings made there.  

A believer in ghosts, I could almost feel their presence, energy, passion. Soul. The sacrifices that went into their creations, their legacies. They gave their lives to it, literally you might even believe.  I listen to that music just a little differently now.  

The last stop on our whirlwind music tour was to 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill, and a band called The Steeldrivers. But first, of course, after a nine miles walking day, we had dinner at Party Fowl, to try Hot Chicken.  A half chicken doused in spices that will light up your evening.  I admit I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food, so maybe a bolder palette would be unimpressed, but the flavor and the heat made for a memorable meal, and, for once, I drank my entire beer.

Google maps took us directly to 3rd and Lindsley, although we kind of wished it hadn’t.  It’s located in a dark, industrial side of town that looked nothing like the music scene we were anticipating, but the reviews online for both band and location had been great, and the price more than reasonable.  We finally had to ask directions to get us to the front door.  We we late arriving so it was standing room only in the bar, but we managed to snag some space to listen to the 2016 Grammy award winners.  

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My particular favorite of the evening was “Drinking Dark Whiskey (Telling White Lies)”, but I was also a bit partial to “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone”, which kind of says it all.

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Despite the late night, we had to get up early. Biscuit Love was on the menu for breakfast, and if you don’t want to wait an hour, you have to be there close to opening.  I’m not sure how I was still hungry after all the local cuisine sampling we’d done, but I was, and the food lived up to the hour wait we had avoided.  

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In all, a successful and fun four days in Tennessee.  I’m hoping the next Cuban reunion will be in Salida for the Run Through Time marathon. Stay tuned.

 

 

Rock Climbing Italian Style

The biggest challenge with the whole language barrier is, when someone says something that doesn’t entirely make sense, deciding if one should laugh, ask for clarification, or offer up a withering glare.

For example, when I asked the bus driver which stop was for my hotel, he responded “It is the stop before the last stop.”  

What do I do with that?

More applicable was the discussion I had with Carlo, my guide for three days of climbing, regarding what knot to use to attach the rope to my harness, to insure that the said rope stayed attached to said harness, a situation far preferable to its opposite.  In US climbing gyms, we use a figure-eight, a knot that takes time to master (and create) and once tight, is a pain in the fingers to untie.  But that’s the point, it’s hard to untie. It stays tied.

That’s a good thing.

Carlo wanted me to use the bowline, a simpler knot to tie and untie.  “Is easier to untie”, he explained.  

“Yes”, I responded.   “It’s easier to come untied.”

“No no. It does not untie.”

“But you just said–”.  This is my life we’re talking about here. Or at least my limbs.  I want clarification.  He gestured distractedly, searching for English words to explain the physics of knots.

He finally just shrugged. “No, it not unties.”

So I went for second best. I glanced around surreptitiously, watched what everyone else was doing and looked for obvious blood stains on the floor.

This was supposed to be the first day of three of rock climbing.  We had just finished five amazing days of trekking the Alta Via One, and it was Carlo’s unfortunate circumstance to be stuck with me for three more days.  

I was going rock climbing.  In Italy.  I just loved the sound of that.

At least he knew me a little by that time.  The only one up for the “bonus” hike after the morning of trekking, up for going past the pass, up to the peak. Taking minutes to admire the half-dead Edelweiss–the first I’d ever seen.  The one who wanted to go down the WWI tunnel, despite not having a helmet (and about knocking myself senseless in the process).  Not fast but not giving up either.

But the rain from the last day of the trek spilled into the first day of the climbing, and our climbing was relegated to the gym.  In hindsight, that was a good way to start.  

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Of course, climbing is different between Italy and America, the knots being just the beginning.  A climb two weeks prior in Boulder, Colorado went something like this:

“On belay, Lynda?”  Andrew is ready to climb.

“Belay on, Andrew.”  I’m ready for Andrew to climb.

“Climbing, Lynda.”  Andrew’s climbing.

“Climb on, Andrew.”  I acknowledge Andrew is climbing.

“Off belay, Lynda.”  Andrew has set up an anchor and is ready to switch to belaying me up.

“Belay off, Andrew.”  I’ve taken Andrew off belay and he can pull up the slack rope.

“That’s me, Andrew.” Andrew has taken up all the slack rope.

“Belay on, Lynda.” Andrew is ready for me to climb.

“Climbing, Andrew.” I’m climbing.

“Climb on, Lynda.” Andrew acknowledges that I’m climbing.

Typically American.  Overly conservative and overly verbose.

The same exchange in Italian.

“Oh-la.” Carlo is ready to climb.

“Rope finished?” Carlo can’t believe he’s already climbed the full length of the rope.

“Yes, Carlo.”  Confirming that I’ve got about three inches of spare rope and am pretty sure if he fell at this point, there’s not much I could do.

“Safe, Lynda.”  Carlo is at the anchor–I was never sure if he was actually tied in or just feeling secure.

— No response required or expected.

“Climb, Lynda”.  Carlo has pulled up all the rope and is ready for me to start climbing.

— No response required or expected.

“Oh-la”  I’m done with the climb.

Italian.  Succinct but open to interpretation.

Even the gym was less that what one found in an American gym.  In the U.S., almost all routes have “top ropes”, the rope attached to an anchor at the top of the climb, generally the safest way to climb.  The floors all padded, just in case something goes awry.  Warning signs everywhere, reminding you that what you’re doing is more dangerous than your virtual reality game.  To gain access, you must be able to prove you know what you’re doing and sign a waiver accepting responsibility if the warning signs prove out.

I had never even heard the phrases I was attesting to being able to do, but Carlo assured me it didn’t matter. The hardwood floors were a bit disconcerting. But the fact that Carlo had brought his own rope was what really stopped me.  Admittedly, I would prefer bringing my own rope because I would know where it had been and I know it would have been well cared for. But how did the gym make sure everyone was equally as attentive?

Oh, right. They were still alive at the end of their session.

Another difference:  we were able to practice multi-pitch climbing and rappelling (a quick way to get back down a route) without anyone batting an eye.   You just don’t do that in the U.S.  Too dangerous.  Or maybe just too much liability.

Getting the knots, commands, and other expectations aligned made the eventual climb go much more smoothly. Not that the climbs were all that extreme, but all climbing still seems pretty extreme to me and it often takes my full concentration not to succumb to my basic fears of falling and of dying. Not entirely irrational fears–in moderation, but often unnecessarily paralyzing.   I’d been reading “The Way of the Rock Warrior”, a book written mainly about the mental aspects of climbing but applicable to life in general, and had seen myself in many of the pages about self talk.

“This is too hard.”

“I’m not ready.”

“What if I fall/fail?”

“I’m not good/strong/fast/tall/short/light enough.”

“I can’t.”

I love climbing. The mental challenge. The physical aspect. The grace and fluidity of the movements, when done somewhat correctly.  Overcoming my fears.  But too often, I focus on my fears and only enjoy the climb in retrospect.  I wanted to focus on the climbing and enjoying the process during the actual process.  The book was helping in that regard.  I’ve been climbing for years. I know how to climb and I know I’m a conservative climber and I know there’s no safer way to experience climbing than with a guide, especially one who had been climbing since he was 13, as Carlo had.

Despite the language barrier, Carlo was encouraging.  He was surprised and pleased when I easily climbed the first route in the gym, a 5c, a rating which meant nothing to me, the rating systems of course being different as well.  I intentionally did not research them, having already learned that I could climb a 5.10 when I believed it was a mere 5.8 but not when I knew it was a 5.10.  Ah the brain and its clever tricks.

Even with long breaks between climbs, four hours was all I could survive in the gym.  Although I’ve been climbing since my twenties, it’s never been consistent and I’ve never really taken a class, so I still climb with my arms.  Arms don’t have the endurance legs do (unless you’re really into handstands), so my climbing sessions tend to not be long.  Also, it was still day one of three, and the weather promised to improve the next day.

Despite standing there in the rain when the weather forecast called for clear, Carlo insisted the weather forecasts were normally very accurate. So the plan for day two was a fun little via ferrata up to a cave on Tofana, then when the rain stopped (currently predicted to be about 11am), we would head to Cinque Torri.

True to prediction, the rain stopped at 11.

It started to snow.

Another fascinating difference between Italian and American hiking is the use of umbrellas.   Umbrellas are just unheard of in at least the Colorado wilderness (except for my friend, Dale, but that’s a different story).  On the last day of our trek, it was predicted to rain, and Carlo had called a friend to bring him his umbrella.  To truly understand this, it helps to know that Carlo had done the entire five day trek with nothing but a jacket and a small bottle of water.

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Not even a Nalgene bottle–that was too heavy. I know this because he took my Nalgene on our final climb and kidded me about the weight (then drank my water when he ran out).

So an umbrella was his third essential.  He brought one for me for the via ferrata, and I’m still not sure if it was a joke or not, thank you language barrier. I’ve never hiked with an umbrella.  Heck, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve even owned an umbrella.  Jackets with hoods work good enough.  

There is a certain rhythm to doing a via ferrata.  Clip, clip, slide, hike. At each piton, you move one “lobster claw”–a carabiner on a piece of webbing attached to your harness–at a time, so that you are always attached to something. This works beautifully when you have two hands for moving the claws, as most of us do.  Put an umbrella in one of those hands, however, and the rhythm becomes more like impromptu jazz: clip, grab, shake, slide, swear, go back, clip, hike, grab.  

I tried clipping my pack around it, then looping it around my harness, all with limited success.  It just wouldn’t cooperate, always wanting to be in the wrong spot.  Via ferratas are right next to the rock and you are often walking on a ledge that made the streets of Venice look like freeways.  So the umbrella has to be angled out to avoid hitting the rock–often far enough to make the umbrella somewhat pointless and a bit of a counterweight when you’re desperately trying to hug the nice solid rock wall.  On the positive side, though, many of the pitons were right in a rain funnel and the umbrella made itself worth the rest of the struggle.

Carlo, in the meantime, had hooked one claw into another so he could clip with just one hand, so was managing the whole claw-and-umbrella situation with Italian grace, albeit with slightly more risk than is allowed (or wanted) by me the client.

It was a bit of a relief to get to the cave and out of the snow.  The cave was a loop, created like all of the Dolomites (but unlike most of the caves) from the ocean thousands of years ago (most caves were created during WWI as protection from the weather and the enemies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

).  It was beautiful and still, and I’m sure I would have appreciated it more had I known more about geology.

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We considered briefly waiting out the storm in the cave (that was a first) but after the tour, the snow was coming down even harder.  We had three pairs of gloves between us and two were soaked. The shoes had not fared any better.  Rain we were prepared for. This much snow, not so much.  

It wasn’t so much a mad dash as controlled chaos getting back.  Carlo would get far ahead so he could stop and warm his fingers, while I continued my jazz routine with the umbrella. The last section was under water when we returned, but by that point, it just didn’t matter.  All we could do was laugh and shake the snow off the umbrellas. Oh-la.

That afternoon was back at the gym.  Carlo had given me some pointers that I had absorbed and we had a good few hours at the gym.

I had booked three days in anticipation of at least one day being bad weather, so being down to the last day and no actual climbing, I opened my eyes with a bit of dread.  Was that really sunlight streaming through my hotel window? It was! It’s considered rude to be early in Italy, but I didn’t care. I was ready to climb.  I was going rock climbing! In Italy!

And was it worth the wait.  The first climb was the perfect introduction to Italian climbing.  The limestone rock offered many handholds and footholds and I felt like an actual climber, fluidly putting the moves together to ascend higher and higher, breathing and fear controlled.   I was grinning ear to ear when we reached the summit.

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Three short rappels and a small hike and we were back to where we started, ready for the main event, a harder and longer route.  

It started with a slightly overhanging move.  There was a German couple ahead of us on the first pitch and she, petite and agile, seamlessly climbed the move. I watch her and Carlo carefully.  But when it came to my turn, the rock looked like a glass sphere–completely smooth and devoid of any way to get up it.  I gracelessly put my foot here and my hands there. I tried my foot a little higher, to the left, right. I let my hands scrabble over the rock, looking for anything to cling to, all the while desperately ignoring the tiny but growing voice in my head.  I tried to muscle it, put my knees and elbows into it. I could feel the new bruises and scratches begin to decorate my skin.

The voice in my head became more persistent and I finally succumbed–“I can’t”–and basically allowed Carlo to pull me up the moves.

A frustrating way to start the climb, to say the least.  

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The next few pitches went more smoothly, the moves connecting easily, but I still felt the frustration.  One pitch was more of a traverse, and I felt my mental power slipping again as I calculated the pendulum I would take if I were to slip.  I tried to employ singing to ease the trepidation in my steps, but the only song that came to mind was “Walking on Broken Glass.”

I made it across only to find myself at another slight overhang with no footholds to be found. I took a breath and looked behind me at the ground far away.  I told myself I was rock climbing.  In Italy. I was standing on Cinque Torri, rock climbing.  Who cared if I sucked or not.  

“Just lean back on your hands and let them walk you up.”  He made it sound so easy.

And it was.

I felt myself in practical disbelief walk up the rock, hands and feet almost at the same elevation.  It was incredible.  It was almost effortless.  Inch by inch–or centimeter by centimeter, I suppose–I made my way up the feature.  I took my time, thrilling in the feel of it.  Then I was up over it.  

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It was the boost I needed to work my way up the rest of the climb, occasionally adding more scrapes and bruises.  Using my butt to get up one move (adding yet another hole to my backpack). Fighting up a small crack, twisting limbs awkwardly this way and that.  

But confidently.  Eventually placing my hands and feet where they needed to be on each move, trusting them to do what I knew they could.  Feeling my mind and body working in tandem.  Feeling each muscle doing its part, from the large, strong ones in my back and legs, down to the small ones within my fingers. It’s an amazing dance that brings it altogether.

As I clambered to the summit, Carlo grinned at me.  “Superb!”

I didn’t need a translation app to appreciate that.

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The Marabana

Somehow, I never really connected that Cuba is a third world country.  That changed before I ever left Miami.

Which was about twelve hours late.

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1am, waiting for our luggage

I’m not sure what time we were supposed to leave originally–some say the flight was originally scheduled for 11am, which is when I first arrived at Miami airport for the meet-and-greet with other runners.  I arrived in Miami the day before, because, well, Murphy is a good friend.  

I need not have worried.

Like many travel passionate Americans, I wanted to see Cuba before it became Americanized.  The myth and mystery that is Cuba.  The eclectic architecture. The spicy flavorful beans and rice staples.  The rum.  The classic cars.  The coffee.  The clashing irreverent colors And of course, the dancing, sensual, uninhibited.  All romance all nostalgia.  Did I mention the coffee?

I had originally started looking for excuses to go about a year prior, early November.  I remember the date because it was a week after the Marabana: the Marathon Habana.  As soon as I saw the advertisement on InsightCuba, I knew I had found my excuse.  I signed up for the notification that the trip was open again for the next year, which of course never came.  Seasoned traveler that I am, though, I had a monthly reminder set up before I ever left the page.

Not long after I submitted my registration, President Obama began the process of opening the borders.  It was both good news and bad, in many senses, personal and political. I knew intuitively the culture wouldn’t change overnight, but I didn’t want to see a single Mickey-Dees or Starbucks in my four days away.  For Cubans, the news was all good: it was the first place I have ever visited where people were truly excited by the idea of being “invaded” by Americans.  They see our democracy as their salvation, their freedom.  But I imagine they’re not entirely sure what they’re in for.  In many aspects, the romance we feel towards them is the same tinted, slightly skewed view they have of us.

capital

Cuban architecture

I wasn’t long at the meet and greet before I noticed a familiar face.  I asked the hostess, Jenny,  if that was really THE John Bingham and she (his wife, it turns out) confirmed it.  Mr Bingham is the face of us “penguins”, the back-of-packers, the turtles, the never-winners, the slow ones..  He single-handedly turned being slow into cool.  He’s a big hero of mine.  In typical introvert style, I smiled politely at him and then studiously avoided eye contact the rest of the hour. But John is outgoing and friendly, and we shared a couple of conversations over the weekend.  Jenny was coaching many of the runners that weekend.  In the first few minutes of meeting, she made jokes about ultra runners and comments on how hilly the Marabana is, not knowing I am a Colorado ultra runner.  We got along famously.

As an introduction to Cuba, we were entertained and taught by Cuban dancer Lilian Lombera, a professor of Cuban Music and a member of 3Tres Musas Producciones, a network of female producers in America,  about the history of dancing and the many types of dancing in Cuba.  Dancing is more natural in Cuba than walking here–or maybe it would be more appropriate to say driving.  Her enthusiasm and passion were contagious and she had many of us out of our seats and reliving our awkward teenage years trying to follow as she confidently and seductively maramba’d throughout the room.

Locating the check-in for the flight was next mini adventure.  Turning left when I should have turned right is how I met Dallas Smith, a fellow runner in the group.  It was one of the best wrong turns I’ve ever made.  Dallas is a fellow ultrarunner, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard him describe himself as such.  At this time, he has completed the VolState 500k twice, the oldest person to do so.  He’s also a big hero of mine.

Dallas and I stuck together and eventually found where we needed to be, got our neon green t-shirts and our visas.  Our athlete visas.  As a certified penguin,  it made me feel pretty special to have an athlete visa.  Like I was a real athlete.  

nino

“Ninos” sounds like a better category than “Masters C”

It was 2pm.  The flight was now scheduled for sometime around 4pm.   We decided not to push our luck and kept together to locate the gate.  Which of course changed shortly before we got there and is how we met the final two of the quartet that completed the weekend.  John is from Seattle and Laura from Houston.  They were self-appointed gate directors to keep people from going to the wrong gate.  The flight now scheduled for six, Dallas and I opted to assist them in their duties rather than spend more time on the cozy airport seating.

 

Six became ten o’clock.  Sensing a mutiny, the InsightCuba representative gave everyone all the cash he had on hand, which came to about $16 per person.  Most headed straight to the one bar in the remote Miami terminal.  

The four of us decided to bet on the American Airlines club, where $20 each got us unlimited access to food and beverage.  Dallas kept us entertained with stories from his life in Tennessee. Marveling at his storytelling skill, Laura told him he should really write a book.  “Oh I have! Two of them!”  

They are both well worth the read.

Finally around 10pm, nearly twelve hours later, the plane took off, landing a mere ninety minutes later and the adventure truly began.

Customs.  

A Cuban stamp on my passport!

And ended.

With a two hour wait for luggage at the airport (with any checked electronics never to be reunited with their owners), Dallas, who had everything packed in a small well-loved backpack that he brought on the plane, waited patiently with us.  We still are not sure why, but what a friend.

And began again.

And ended again.  

I had paid extra for my single supplement (the always needling “single tax”) which that earned me an extra bus ride at 1am to another hotel, the first hotel having run out of rooms.  That is how I met Luke, a Las Vegas fire fighter.  The magic of Cuba–every negative event leading to an encounter with a never-to-forget friend.

My work project at the time was in Clark County, NV, and he had heard of it.  We met for drinks and a bite to eat at 2am.  I’m sure we chatted about building codes and running but my muddled mind didn’t retain much of the conversation.  Just the marvel of meeting someone else I knew would stay in my life, if only for a short while.

7:30am cruel wakeup call.  It was one of the swankiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, a true five star.  I heard no English being spoken at the breakfast buffet which went on farther than I was due to run that day.  Continental treats, eggs in every shape and form, fruit from around the world  Breads from the same.  Coffees. Teas. Juices. Oh my.  My stomach refused to play along, the three hour sleep fogging my entire body.

I was deeply regretful at having committed to the 9am pre-marathon 5k fun run–actually the kid’s run, but really open to kids of all ages.  I dropped off my bag and met up with Laura, having left her the night at the original hotel. We enjoyed a nice easy run in the heat and humidity of the Havana streets, the joyful abandon of the local kids running propelling us along.

theFoursomeRunning

Shortly after the run, I checked into Hotel Gran Caribe, walking distance from the capital and the marathon start the next day.  My room was on the third floor, one floor shy of the only two floors currently with running water.  I’m not entirely certain how only the top floors ended up with water, but, well, Cuba.  The difference between a four and five star hotel.  The building itself was classic Cuban, a courtyard in the center, high ceilings and limited furniture which lent space to otherwise efficient rooms. I was happy to see I had my own bathroom, even if I couldn’t use the toilet until running water returned  I’ve no idea how to properly describe architecture, but the lobby itself is worth the Google search.  Walking the hallways was a step back in time, I could almost hear Hemingway’s typewriter.  

The other upside to being on an athlete’s visa (aside from the heightened ego) and slow opening of the borders was that all we were required to do was run the race.  Normally when visiting Cuba as an American, you’re required to have every waking second filled with cultural activities: lectures during meals, visits to cultural centers, tours of the areas of Cuba the government wanted you to see. We however were free to walk the streets with no plans and no chaperones.

The first order of course was lunch.  The quartet had met up for our first real Cuban meal at a small restaurant not too far from the hotel.   We were not feeling too daring the day before our marathon, but like many countries, following the directions of the locals proved beyond our abilities, so we ended up where we ended up.  The food was delicious, not too spicy, but proved to be the downfall of Dallas.  He excused himself from our afternoon excursion and spent much of the day in his room, hoping to recover before the race.

The remaining trio went first to La Prado, the art gallery on the street.  The artwork varied from the mundane to the obscene to the overtly political.  We each searched for a piece that defined how we felt about Cuba, all of us falling short.  We wandered the length of it, debating where to go next.  

laPrada

I don’t know if it was the mystique of Cuba or simply the desire for forbidden fruit, but it many things are better from Cuba.  Laura and I were in quest for Cuban coffee and Laura was searching for Cuban music as well.  John and I were after Cuban cigars, and John wanted to partake of a real Cuban sandwich.

GPS devices are mostly prohibited in Cuba, so we made our way around with our old-fashioned paper tourist map.  Only partly intentional, we circuitously made our way Old Towne Square, where we found three of the four–all but the Cuban sandwich.  One of the interesting side effects of a communist way of life is that there is little motivation to sell. Unlike the markets of Mexico, one is not bombarded by hawkers selling their wares.  It’s rather a pleasant silence, being able to peruse without pressure.  John and I made our cigar purchases and Laura and I our coffee purchases. Laura held off on a music purchase, wanting to make sure what she purchased was legitimate Cuban music, not government issue.

We found some side shops and chatted with the shop owners. Laura and I ended up buying Cuban hats, which made for interesting coincidences in other adventures (including meeting a Cuban in Nashville).

It was a long day of walking the day before a marathon, but with limited time, we wanted to make the most of it, and we continued to meander through Havana, the amazement of truly being there never far from our hearts.  

Our feet stopped outside of a bar, only to start some American “dancing”.  The best music we would hear all weekend was dancing through the air.  Laura immediately ducked inside to purchase a CD. I wasn’t far behind her.  Heartbreakingly, once home, we learned it didn’t play.  But the music was already a memory, a feeling.  Lively, uninhibited, passionate.

treeInBuilding

You’ve heard of a tree house…

Not far from there, we saw possibly the most bizarre sight of the weekend: a tree growing out of a dilapidated building.  The next day, I was talking with Luke, who had spent the day talking with local fire fighters, countries and language not separating this brotherhood.  They had told him that building regulations were more than a bit lax.  Many tourists came for the architecture, so buildings that should have been condemned weren’t, and were left until they collapsed or burned.  The true tragedy being the families using them as homes who were killed in these events.

 

Dinner was late at the hotel.  It was then we learned the tragic truth about Cuban sandwiches.  In Cuba, there is no such thing.  Another American fabrication.  John was heartbroken.

The 7am race start meant that breakfast was from a box.  I hadn’t slept well again and couldn’t eat much of the stale, strange nourishment. I had no problem, however, downing a couple cups of generously sugared Cuban coffee.  The water was again not working at the hotel, so we went in search of public restrooms.  

What we found will never be erased from our brains.  As a runner, you have a certain jadedness when it comes to port-a-potties. But this exceeded anything in running lore.  We had no choice–we had to pee.  I still have nightmares.

theRace

Somewhere around five thousand souls were out in that humid morning, running once again erasing the barriers between all of us.  Less than 500 were from the States, up from less than one hundred in years prior.  I had worn my t-shirt from a race in a French territory and found myself speaking French to a couple race participants and locals.  I had to smile.

We four started together, ducking under a barrier to avoid walking an extra half mile to the end of mass of runners, but quickly lost each other in the bustle.  I put on my music and started my slow pace, knowing the heat and humidity would hurt more than the flat would help.  The race began by the capital and headed past La Prado onto the Malecon.  It wound around the city featuring only the best, much like any city marathon.  I had read that Castro, with the potential of new relationships with the US, was attempting to put communism a bit underground.  There was still some propaganda on the streets and building, but it seemed to me to be not much different from any other city.

The marathon was two loops which was a little disappointing. I would have loved to have seen 26 different miles of the city.  But the second loop did give me a chance to pick up the pace a bit to see if I could possibly beat the 5 hour cut-off, a lofty goal just two weeks past a hundred mile race.  Not long after the start of the second loop, Dallas surprised me, coming up from behind. I was surprised to think he was behind me–he owns many age group records–and was passing me but he had stopped at an aid station and saw me running by.  We spent a few minutes together, but his stomach was still bothering him.  It was probably a good thing for him that the aid stations did not serve food, only plain and oddly flavored water.  

A few miles later and John jumped in beside me, giving me a start.  He too was lagging a bit, so we enjoyed a couple miles together before parting ways again.  Jenny, there as support only, was a couple miles away from the finish, cheering us the last little bit.  She had already told me she wasn’t too worried about me, and I was happy not to disappoint.

I finished five minutes before the cutoff, Dallas and John not far behind.  Laura was already at the hotel.  She had completed her own race, having unintentionally turned around  at the 10k cutoff, but deciding to complete the half anyway, for a nice 30k race.  

It was another hour before the water was on at the hotel and another two before it was hot.  I was still too warm to care about a hot shower.   The after was open and we decided to hit a few highlights of the city, including Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Floridita.  We were hoping to have a drink but the crowd drove us back out.

There were several museums we wanted to visit, but trying to visit them on a Sunday proved fruitless.  We were able to get into the Museum of the Revolution and a memorial to the Bay of Pigs.  Both were stark reminders of how history is written by the victors.  The Museum of the Revolution was in Spanish, but the memorial was in English.  Reading what seemed to me to be a grossly slanted perspective made me wonder how slanted are the views with which I’m familiar.

Dinner was a group event, the only one of the weekend.  We had not seen much of the other runners outside a couple chance meetings at the hotel.  We all dressed up in our post-race finest, which mainly meant we didn’t wear the race shirt to dinner.  Luke was in the lobby when we met up, so we dragged him with us to dinner.  The Havana rum served with dinner came with an appropriate warning–it was definitely not for the faint of heart.  I don’t know if it was the race that day or just the mystique, but the rice and beans dinner was better than any I’d ever had.  We were treated to meeting native runners, one who sought me out in particular, having heard I am a fellow ultra runner.  He had won a 100k in Havana, so in a different class but still a fellow runner.  

He invited me to dance and I was grateful I had risked ridicule at the airport for the practice for a perfectly romantic Cuban moment.

theFoursome

The First Annual Silverton Double Dirty 30

I sat in my car, watching it snow, as I chatted with my friend Dale, world renowned weather nerd. I was trying to get a feel for just how bad it was going to be. “Not great but improving” was about as good a forecast as we could come up with–Dale always emphasizing the difference between a “good” forecast and an “accurate” one. If I had only known when I signed up in February–who am I kidding, I still would have signed up.

I had heard rumors of this race for a couple years. A 100k in the breathtaking–literally and figuratively–San Juan mountains.  Like many, I am in love with this corner of Colorado. The mountains are fiercely beautiful, steep, rugged, unforgiving.  Her sister race, the Dirty 30, had her own reputation for being challenging, but this race–this race would far exceed that.

I had crossed paths with race director, Megan, over the years, first at Leadville, then as support at the Dirty 30. I loved her approach to races: that she wanted, strove for, planned on everyone finishing. I’m a confirmed back-of-the-packer, so this is of special significance to me. I have a DNF on every race I’ve attempted in that area, missing cutoffs on the San Juan Solstice and the Ouray 100. Ultras are hard to coordinate, to balance not abusing your volunteers, the souls of ultra races, with the desires of all runners to be able to finish. Megan’s passion, knowledge and experience makes this balance seem almost effortless.

I signed up as soon as I heard registration was open. It wasn’t really even a conscious thought. I knew this race was something I was going to do. I trained. I read every email. I studied the course.

I trained.

When Megan added fund raising for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it just made a great race even better. Ultra running is considered to be one of the most selfish pursuits a person can undertake, and for good reason.  But the members of this community are among the most giving people I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.  

“Go big or go home.” It was the perfect motto for the fundraiser, taken straight from the ultra-runner’s how-to-manual.   It was truly inspiring how many of the runners jumped in and helped out.  I wish that I could count myself among those who raised thousands for this cause.  

And now I was at the start.  I was way overdressed, as usual, at least for the start, my pack full of items I hoped I wouldn’t need–extra food and clothes, a satellite messenger for contacting people in case I was lost or injured, first aid kit. The headlamp, though, I was pretty sure I was going to need.  A 22 hour cutoff almost guaranteed that. And I knew much of this race was remote and would climb twice to 12,000 feet, above treeline, exposed.  

There was the potential for a lot to go wrong.  

An easy six miles, belying the rest of the course, was a welcome beginning–at least I would run some of this race. The climb began in the aspens, the yellow leaves accented against the newly white mountains in the distance.  My phone refused to take photos, so I had to content myself with simply absorbing the view.  I would like to say the course climbed quickly to the vistas for which Silverton is famous–and, really, the course did, but I didn’t.

With thirty runners, I quickly found myself DFL (dead f—– last).  It’s not my ego that’s bothered–I do count those sitting on the couch as my competitors and I was definitely beating them.  But with so few runners and so many volunteers, I hated that I was keeping them out potentially hours after they could have been back.  Their cheering and words of encouragement had me believing that they really did want me to finish as much as I did, and I did my best to keep my pace, eat lots, and keep moving.

The course is in a figure 8, the center point also the high point at 12,000.  It was still cloudy but thankfully not windy when I finally reached it for the first go-round.  The upside to being last: I got to drink all the remaining Coke and take all the chocolate, being no one else to feed and the aid station volunteers all too happy to not carry it down.  

I welcomed the downhill–at least for the first couple miles. I settled into a steady pace, finishing out the southern loop of the figure 8.  The sun, finally coming out, was now beginning to set as I entered the fourth aid station, the last before the final climb.  I took the time to change into warmer clothes, mine damp,  with sweat and maybe a bit smelly.

As I left the aid station and began the second and final climb to 12,000 feet, I started to feel nauseous. I had eaten a lot at the aid station (being last again and getting all of the quesadillas), but in retrospect, I didn’t drink enough. I swallowed a couple of Tums which seemed to help a little.  I sipped at my water, finding it hard to drink and breath at the same time as I climbed out of the trees and into the wind.

I glanced at my watch and realized four hours had passed since I left the aid station.  I stopped immediately and fished some gels out of my pack, forcing myself to eat them. I waited a few more minutes, then gathered myself up and continued the slog to the top of the pass.  It was well into nighttime now and I was heartened to see a headlamp not too far in front of me, respite from the loneliness. I continued up, watching the light, my small beacon in the dark.  

The winds picked up and I burrowed as best I could into my clothes, watching for the glowing trail markers and the footsteps that preceded me in the snow.  Soon the wind had obliterated the prints, and I alternated between following the headlamp ahead and the glowsticks. It was close to midnight.

Not soon enough, I was over the pass, and headed gratefully down and out of the wind.  I heard later it was about 10 degrees on the pass, and I would not argue with that number.  Not much later, I overtook the headlamp, attached to a very fatigued runner.  After making sure he had food and water and was, if not warm enough, at least not hypothermic, I continued to pick my way down, fatigue and the dark making progress slow.  

I knew it was only a couple miles from there to the next aid station and I was sincerely looking forward to the people and more food, my nausea finally subsiding.  The two miles passed, and no aid station.  I went another mile.  Still nothing.  Concern began to creep into the back of my addled mind.  I should have known the area, having done the July trail maintenance weekend in the same area. But the snow and darkness and fatigue rendered everything unrecognizable.

I pulled out my GPS, the route provided by Megan, proving her experience as a race directorin providing the download to all the runners.  I saw that I was about a mile from the third aid station.  Momentary confusion morphed into slight panic as I realized what I had done.  The course was a figure 8–I had missed the turn on the pass.  It was at least three miles back up, then another couple down to the fifth aid station.  I wasn’t looking forward to the wind and the climb, but I didn’t have a choice. I’ve run hundred mile races. I knew I could do this if I stayed smart.

As I was putting my pack back on, two headlamps appeared on the trail in front of me and a voice called out hopefully “Are you looking for us?”  It was Dan, a runner I had chatted with at the beginning of the race and his pacer, whose name I have regrettably forgotten. They had been lost for four house, attempting twice to go back to the pass and find the correct route down. Their GPS had long since died and they were cold and tired from the effort.

Half expecting their response (the one I was leaning towards), I told them I had a GPS and could get us back on track, but they were finished and looking for a quick way out.  Unfortunately, at that location, there wasn’t a quick way. The closest aid station was a long drive from Silverton and finding a closer trailhead would require miles of hiking.

Once at a trailhead, getting a ride would fortunately be to do.  Ever prepared, Megan had sent out in one of her numerous pre-race emails (it had been tempting to say ‘enough of emails!’ but they were so informative and upbeat) an email address to load into our satellite messengers.  Someone in a warm room somewhere was monitoring the inbox, and I quickly had a response to my slow-typed text.

Stay put. Megan was on her way.

We paced back and forth in an almost futile attempt to keep warm in the dropping temperatures, dipping before the dawn that was due in a couple hours. Food and water just seemed impossible at that point, s \o there was much relief when the headlights appeared.

But the saga was to continue.

The runner I had passed had never caught up to us and was officially declared missing, along with two aid station volunteers who had been dispatched to search for him.  The San Juan Search and  Rescue team had been alerted and now needed help with communications, and of course, Megan is a HAMM radio operator.  The three of us didn’t care that we had to stay until they were found–we were in a warm car and minutes from sleeping sitting up in the back.

Soon enough, though, everyone was found and we headed down, into the sunrise.  We reached Silverton at 7am, a full twenty-four hours after we had begun our journey.  Coffee from an ever-selfless volunteer, then a shower in the room the wife of the last runner to return, and I was almost normal.

I was bitterly disappointed in not finishing the race. I felt I had let down Megan and her amazing crew.  I can’t say I regretted missing the turn, because I know it led to helping a couple of fellow runners, and that is ultimately what this trail running community is all about.  There is always another year for the race and another adventure. I’ve already started the training for September 2017.

Switzerland and Italy – Part Due

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It was fitting that the one day it rained, my friend Linda left to head back to reality.  It wasn’t fun to bid her farewell, but she had a family to be with and I had mountains to climb.

It was equally good timing with my trip. A forced rest day between adventures.  I’m never quite as invincible as I fancy when I plan these trips. I had planned one rest day between my three day trail run and my five days of mountaineering. I can run one hundred miles in a day; certainly eighty in three wouldn’t be so bad.

Focused in the Gorner Gorge.jpg

So I could blame the rain for the extra day.  Instead of taking the gondola–teleferique–up into the sweeping mountain vistas, we dove down into the gorge.  Gorner Gorge has been in the making for thousands of years, carved patiently by the Gornera River.  There is a guide-required route which utilizes some sketchy looking planks and logs and include one Spiderman-type swing and a few rappels.  The turquoise layered rock was exquisite.  Steve had gone the day before to check out the route and said I really missed some amazing blue water.  That day, it was muddied from the rain.

It’s a three hour excursion, leaving time for a coffee on the way back down and time to pack and re-pack and pack once again for four days in the mountains.  A different experience from backpacking in the US, the only food I had to take was snacks for the day.  One outfit for the four days, plus an extra, semi-clean shirt for the huts made up my clothing allotment.  I brought a silk sleeping bag liner, which was not really necessary, but a nice alternative to contact with the scratchy blankets provided at the huts.

I slept surprising well that night. It didn’t hurt that everything happens at a civilized hour in Switzerland.  Coffee and croissant for breakfast and a brief walk to the gondola.  It was still overcast, but the snow had stopped above, so it was a good time to begin.

The gondola carried us away from grey dreariness into blinding sunlight reflecting tenfold off the new snow.  The Matterhorn’s so-familiar silhouette commanded the view. It was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent and we had met the winners of Backcountry’s online contest to summit the eternal peak.  It didn’t look like they would be successful in that regard, but they weren’t ones to complain, after first class tickets from Colorado to Switzerland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The day could not have been more spectacular.  It was late in the season and the new snow replaced the hard ice we would have otherwise been climbing.  Sardines had more room than we did that morning, people catching up from the bad weather, and I strained to peer around, taking in as much as I could, forgetting  I would have four glorious days to absorb it all.  I didn’t want to blink and miss a second of it.

Steve and I took our time with final preparations once the gondola deposited us at 12,000 ft.  We were happy to let other teams break trail.  We put on crampons and helmets, pulling out our ice axes.  He showed me how to use the Mammut RescYou, a system for getting yourself or someone else out of a cravasse.  It is an odd feeling to hope, if it had to happen, that you would be the one that fell.  I had complete faith in Steve’s ability to get me out safely–not so much faith in myself to do the same for him.  We were both counting on people being around to help.

Most teams on the mountain were five or more, so we move more quickly than most, able to time our breaks and keep pretty good pace.  Pollux was the first–and only–peak of the day.  My first 4000 meter European peak.  A steep and slightly icy climb, a bergschrund (the crevasse that forms when the moving ice pulls away from the stagnant ice at the top of a ridge or mountain, often very difficult to cross), and a knife edge  preceded the summit, making it all the more rewarding to achieve the summit.

As I discovered on the run, downhill isn’t any easier on European peaks, and it was a long descent to the first hut.  Not that I can really complain.  If you ever want to mountaineer in comfort and relative ease, huts are the way to do it.  Our mountain climbing was done by about 2pm.  There is soup and light snacks available for purchase when you get there, then it’s nap time.  I was too excited to sleep that first day–a problem I did not have after that–and pulled out my journal to write down all the poems and adventures that were playing in my head.

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I wanted to share my amazing day with fellow travelers, but language proved to be a formidable barrier.  Not to mention attitude.  I’m just not cool enough to be European. I was almost bouncing with my enthusiasm but it wasn’t shared.  So I found a quiet place in the sun and kept writing.  A couple of Germans joined me after a bit and we held a short conversation, not sharing many words in either language. I would share a room with one of them again on the last evening of my trip, his laughter over my paper journal (he wrote everything in his phone for his blog) cut short by a very serious bout of altitude illness-all over the floor of the room we shared.

Breakfast was toast and coffee–there is no shortage of carbs in the Alps. Best, they filled our thermoses with hot tea to take with us into the cool morning.  I was still full from dinner (soup, pasta, meat, veggies and dessert), so I didn’t mind.  I was appreciative of Steve’s suggestion that I bring dried fruit and nuts to counterbalance the bread laden diet.  It was another one peak day–the Naso de Lyskamm: Lyskamm’s Nose.  Below the gloriously intimidating summit of Lyskamm, it was another knife edge traverse, more straightforward than Pollux and every bit as breath-taking.

Done again with time for a snack and nap. After a short nap, I went back outside and soacked in the sun and the view.  I half wished I had brought my nice camera, but was equally relieved to be able to sit there and simply enjoy the view.  As the sun set, I pulled out my little camera to take some shots.  Steve walked up behind me and scoffed “What are you taking pictures of?”  My mouth worked, unable to find words for exactly what I was photographing. I turned in time to see his smirk.

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“Another shitty sunset.”

The next two days were the big days, in opposite ways. The first day was all up–five peaks up to the Margherita Hut at 14,941.  Now three days past the storm, the tracks from the many groups crisscrossed over the snow–shorter trips and shorter routes crossing the more leisurely expeditions.  The first peak had a larger-than-life statue of Jesus.  In Italy, all peaks have some sort of religious statues.  It seemed somehow fitting, but a ritual I was glad had not been adopted everywhere, although I have often thought of leaving a small Buddha statue behind on a peak or two.

The short descent of one of the peaks had my attention, the snow soft and the pitch steep.  Not having secure steps is one of my nemeses in the mountains.  I pulled the first happy song out of my head. “Raindrops on roses; whiskers on kittens.”  I didn’t realize I was singing aloud. Steve’s mouth twisted as he said “This is the only down of the day–I can’t believe you’re not enjoying it.”

Margherita Hut was our last hut stop–and the best.Sitting atop the summit of Signalkuppe, completely renovated in the 1970s, it is one of the largest huts in Europe.  It was dedicated to Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, in 1893.

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They had just gotten a supply of food, and the fresh vegetables had the exquisite taste that only completely fresh food after a hard day of physical exertion can have.  Fresh fruit and chocolate completed the meal. The meals are served “family style” with everyone sharing the courses.  No one was eating much and I found myself finishing everything, half embarrassed and half envious that these people were so used to this kind of flavor that they didn’t partake more.

It wasn’t until I was awaken by my roommate’s vomiting that I realized what was probably the real reason no one was eating.  Coming from Colorado and used to climbing 14,000 ft mountains, I was one of the few not suffering from the altitude.  It made me love my home state all the more.

An interesting aside: the nearest settlement to the Margherita Hut is Macugnaga–the third stop on my three day trail run.

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The last day contained the highest peak of the trip, Zumsteinspitze, which is on the way to Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in Europe.  A small statue of St Mary greeted us at the summit.  From this point, it was a long hike back down to the gondola back to Zermatt, nearly ten thousand feet below where we stood.  I reluctantly began the journey.

It didn’t take long for us to be in the crevasse ridden glacier.  Steve’s tone had gotten more abrupt, warning me that this was real.  Each step was carefully placed, my arm quickly growing tired from the death grip I had on my ice ax  My left brain reviewed how the Resc-You worked as my right brain cycled through more “Sound of Music” tunes.

At one point, we were following a group speaking a unique dialect of Italian-German, very sexy to hear in kind of a scary way.  The trio stopped as the first climber came to what seemed to be a bit of a precarious step.  I couldn’t understand a word that was spoken, but I understood every intonation and body movement made.  He was convinced death would be immediate if he continued.  The guide, patience worn thin, recited I’m sure the same words Steve had said to me many times.  The climber refused to move.  The guide, pushed now past his patience, grabbed the rope, raised it above his head, shaking it and shouting. The climber finally took the step–and lived.  As did the next climber and the guide.

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My turn now and I could see what had given the climber significant pause.  Eventually, that one step across the crevasse would fail, an obvious crack between the step and semi-firm ground. “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and I made the step–and lived.  As did Steve, happily. I hadn’t gotten any more confident that I could save him, but I know I would have given everything if it had come to that.

We weren’t down yet, but the crevasses became shallower, and soon we were able to discard the rope.  Where we stopped, Steve pointed out that we were at the absolute beginning of the Gorner Gorge.  Full circle again.

We came to the Monte Rosa hut, our last stop.  Coffee, removal of all external layers and the application of sunscreen.  We were off the glacier and on solid ground.

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Switzerland and Italy – Part Uno

I can’t say I’m a big fan of math, but I’ve found it helps pass the time when running a long distance.  Trying to figure out my average pace (without looking at the GPS), how long it will take me to reach the finish line or the next aid station, by how much I will beat the cutoff (or not).  I’m getting pretty good, too, at converting kilometers into miles.

But as I stood at Colle Del Turlo, the final high point of day two, I was really hoping my math was completely off.

The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) was the first race I signed up for in 2015.  It was also my first stage race–a race across multiple days.  My first true international race (yes, Canada is not the United States, but as far as travel goes, it’s as close as you can get to staying home without actually staying home).  The days between paying the entry fee and boarding the plane to Geneva put molasses in January to shame.

This was the zero edition of the race, something else that was new to me.  I just assumed the first running was the first edition.  For me, a new race is appealing, with more potential for unforeseen challenges.  This one, it turned out, had an incredible crew behind the scenes, and it went off pretty much without a hitch.  The race was three days, beginning in Cervinia, Italy, and ending in Grachen, Switzerland. It promised spectacular views of the Monte Rosa mountain range, home of the Matterhorn and Dufourspitz, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in the Alps.  I would see both during Part Due of this trip.

My friend, Linda, who had crewed for me in Zion, had also decided at the last minute to join me for the race, for the trip if not the actual running.    We met up in DC and boarded the plane.  An understaffed flight meant free alcohol for the entire trip, and it wasn’t long before we were singing along to the golden oldies supplied by the seat radios.

We spent a couple days touring Geneva (I was thrilled the French I had learned for another trip was holding up) before boarding the bus to Cervinia.  Transportation was our first learning curve.  In Geneva–all of Switzerland for that matter–public transportation was a science that bordered on a work of art.  Not so much in Italy.  We did find bus routes between the cities of the race, but we were hoping for something more reliable.

I had reached out on Facebook a couple weeks prior and had received a couple of responses from people with a spare seat, but had not finalized any arrangements.  Fortunately, what they make lack in public transportation, the Italians make up for in hospitality and genuine friendliness.  By dinner the evening before the first day, Linda had secured a ride at least to Macugnaga.  Which, while a huge relief, Macugnaga was the one place where we could not figure out how to get her back out again.  I like to be prepared, especially when it comes to my friends (who wants to be friends with someone willing to desert you an a small Italian village?), but for now, it was the best we could do.

Fabio and Daniella were the stereotypical perfect Italian couple.  Fabio was dark complected with a perfect runner’s body. Daniella was as beautiful as her name, dark hair and lovely eyes. She spoke five languages, which came in handy in this area–on the last day of the race, whenever a hiker would step to the side to allow me passage, I would murmer “Grazie, Merci, Danka and Thank You,” not certain which language would be understood.

So the next morning at 6am, Fabio and I toed the line, while Linda and Daniella cheered.  This was the shortest day, at 16 miles.  In addition to a map and GPS, I had an Italian language app on my phone, just in case. But the trail was perfectly marked and the weather even more perfect.  Each day contained two high points, with an aid station between them. With the lower elevation, I easily kept up on the uphill, but quickly fell behind these mountain goats on the downhills.  I was still done a couple hours before I expected. Fabio was well ahead of me, and Daniella and Linda, driving the steep winding roads showed up a few minutes later.

We were spoiled by having almost the entire afternoon to relax.  The bus ride the day before had gotten us to Cervinia late in the afternoon.  The packet pickup and obligatory gear check took another couple of hours. We had just a few minutes to relax before dinner at 7pm.  I was doing my best to not be completely stressed out, but quickly lost that battle.  It took the race actually beginning before my nerves finally calmed down enough for me to say without lying that I was having fun.

An amazing lunch of ravioli and fondue was followed by a gondola ride up to a glacier lake.  We had the unbelievable luck of staying with our new Italian friends in a beautiful bed and breakfast.  I sat while the other three walked to the lake and back.  We took a few minutes to enjoy a drink before taking the last gondola back down.

Our three other suite mates had settled in by the time we returned. Another perfect coincidence: it was the Cecilia, the other person who had responded to our plea for transportation.  She was there running with her good friend, Sylvia, and crewed by Riccardo, another good friend.  All Italians, they were currently living in London.  It was Sylvia’s and Cecilia’s first stage race as well.  Sylvia had extended her day by getting lost a couple of times–I knew her pain.

Dinner was another wonderful affair, the five of them slipping easily between Italian and English, Linda and I doing our best to hang on to the English parts, exchanging bemused looks.  I was envious of the lingual skills, and the ease in which they all became fast friends.   I was fading quickly quickly with the wine, rich food and lack of sleep, but managed to make it through dessert.  Even an Italian espresso did not keep me from sleep that night.

Another 4:30am wake-up and 6am start.  Linda got up to see me off, then unapologetically went back to bed for a more reasonable wake-up and breakfast.  Another straight up climb out of the village.  Another spectacular sunrise over the Italian Alps.  Another day devoted to nothing but running.  I could not imagine it growing old ever.

 

The aid station that day is one that will never be met in terms of quality. Meats and cheeses, squares of sugar, petit fours, muesli–even wine!–everything but the normal packaged tasteless bars normally associated with a food station.  I didn’t want to leave. It didn’t help the biggest climb was yet to come.

I fortunately knew that and was prepared. At the race briefing, they had assured us the highest point was the first one.  What they didn’t mention was the aid station in between was three thousand feet lower than the start, so the thousand foot difference, still left and extra two thousand feet of climbing for the last half.

And an extra six miles of running.

Which is why I was standing at the pass, hoping my math was wrong. If it was correct, I had four thousand feet of elevation to lose in two miles.  It also meant I had missed the last aid station, which was a few kilometers before the end of the stage.  Which pretty much meant I was lost.

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But the now familiar pink dots and black dotted pink flagging were obvious, so I knew lost was not an option.  The day would be long, at least at that point I was hoping.  I would take a couple extra miles over that much drop in that little distance.  With my lack of downhill skill, it would take a lot less time.

My only glimmer of hope was overhearing someone mention that the pass was ten kilometers (six miles) from the end of the stage.  It made the day four miles longer than it was supposed to be, but made the downhill much more bearable.

So I began the relentless downhill, switchback after switchback.  A couple I had passed long ago on the uphill quickly overtook me on this terrain.  I was battling my internal impatience.  All I knew for certain was I had four thousand feet to lose.  I had no idea how many miles–and therefore how many hours–it would take.  I just ran and stumbled best I could.  I turned up my music and stepped into the moment. I ran and ran and kept running.

The six miles was beginning to look like a reality.

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Finally, miraculously, after five miles, the aid station came into view. Another mile to go.  It was already past three o’clock–no leisurely lunch and tour today.  “Just another five kilometers to go!” chirped the aid station attendant.  Wait, what?  That’s three miles, not one.  I still had another three miles to go?

I did. And of course the last kilometer was uphill.  For some  unknown reason, it became critical to run that last kilometer, end the day running.  I passed the couple at the beginning of the final kilometer. I saw them begin running again, which only pushed me to go faster.  At that moment, I didn’t care I had one more day of this. I just wanted to be finished and in front of my pasta dinner and wine.

Fabio had finished just ahead of me, looking as ragged as I felt.  Riccardo asked me how the day was.  The endorphins had kicked in–or maybe hypoglycemia–and I told him it was an amazing but tough tough tough day.  Amazing maybe that I had finished.  Daniella and Linda told me that people were walking across the finish line and dropping their chip into a bucket–taking themselves out of the race.

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Photo by Linda Charron

I wanted to wait for Sylvia and Cecilia, and I didn’t want to move, but  Daniella was our ride to our room a mile (uphill) away, and I didn’t want to delay them.  Our luck had not held and all of us were in different hotels that night.  I had seen the two ladies early in the day, but not again. The extended cutoff time for the extra miles meant the Cecilia made the cutoff but Sylvia missed it by a hair. Sylvia immediately dropped, but Cecilia took the evening to think about it before deciding to try again the next year.  London is a hard place to train for a race with this kind of elevation.  It speaks volumes to their tenacity that they made it through the two days.

The last day came the earliest. Daniella had decided to make the drive to Grachen and Linda and I were grateful, both for the ride and for more time with these dear people.  I had no design on the day, happy and sad it was the last day.  I had easily made the cutoffs so far, so my plan was simply to enjoy whatever the day brought.

 

The first pass came and went quickly if not easily, and welcomed us back into Switzerland.  Comparatively, I was moving more quickly than many of the others and found myself passing different people than I had the two days prior.   We had to bring our passports with us (I had had it with me the whole time anyway, afraid to leave it anywhere), in case of a border patrol at the pass, but all we saw were clouds.  And gondolas–it didn’t seem fair that people could simply ride to where we had just run.

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The aid station was in Saas Fee, a Swiss town know for perennial skiing on the glacier.  The people in warm winter clothing and ski boots were a sharp contrast to  the runners in shorts and t-shirts. I had pretty much worn the same outfit every day, switching out my t-shirt and sports bra only, but keeping the same long shirt, jacket and leggings.  The up-to six thousand feet of elevation difference made it hard to predict the weather, and I’d much rather be over- than under-prepared. I had managed a shower every day, but I still did not smell good.  Another contrast to these skiers.

As I left the station, I was warned of an imminent “terribly technical, very exposed” section. I swallowed my panic, exposure being my nemesis.  My legs were shaky at best.  I wasn’t going to turn around at this point, so I had no choice but to face it.   And worrying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good.

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The final leg of the journey was of course the longest.  Fabio had been at the aid station while I was there, then I didn’t see him again, and assumed he was long gone. The course weaved in and out of gulleys.  As each far edge was reached, more of the trail revealed itself, each time a little higher than before. Again and again and again.

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I turned yet another corner and saw the sign, warning of the exposure.  I looked at the section.  Really? That’s it? I was equally relieved and annoyed–I had dealt with way worse without a thought.  But I still held on to the proffered handline, not willing to risk karma.

Finally, finally. We reached the second high peak of the day. The second aid station was a short ways down and was managed by the race director, Lizzy Hawker’s mother.  I had been reading Lizzy’s book “A Short Story About A Long Run” and told Lizzy’s Mother that she had an amazing daughter.  She gave a short laugh, and said in a clipped British accent that she was a bit odd as well.  I laughed as well and said my dad said the same about me.

Another two kilometers and the finish line.  The race was supposed to have been four days, but in that moment, I did not mind at all.  I crossed the last of the prayer flags and I was done. Linda, Daniella, Cecilia, Sylvia and Riccardo were there to receive sweaty, happy hugs.  My crossing before Fabio added to what I found out was Daniella’s great concern.  She flitted around nervously until Fabio finally appeared.  Linda brought me a glass of wine and the most delicious melted cheese snack.  Pure heaven.

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Dinner and awards that evening.  We all met the next morning for a goodbye espresso.  We had already found each other on Facebook and were mentioning upcoming races sure to be of interest to such a strong, passion group.  It made the goodbye less difficult turning it into “until the next time”.

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A Crusty Butt Weekend

“Don’t worry, I’ll make solid steps.” It wasn’t exactly the solidity of the steps that worried me. It was the fact that the width of the snow onto which we were stepping was more narrow than my feet.

The fact that I have pretty big feet didn’t help my feelings.

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The Life Bus deposited me in Crested Butte for a sunny late May this past summer. Crusty Butt for some. It’s just too beautiful for such a nickname. This was my first times spending any time in CB. I had ridden my bike there several times from Gunnison, with a brief stop for coffee. This weekend was to be spent participating in one of my two passions: mountaineering.

From the Crested Butte website (http://www.crestedbutte-co.gov/): The Town of Crested Butte, fondly referred to as the Gateway to the Elk Mountains, sits at an elevation of 8,885 feet and is located 28 miles north of the City of Gunnison in the County of Gunnison. Crested Butte and the surrounding area was originally home to the Ute Indians. Placer miners were present in the area as early as the 1860’s. The Town of Crested Butte was named because in 1873 a geologist named Ferdinand Hayden was on expedition surveying the Elk Mountains and from the top of what is today known as Teocalli Peak referred to present day Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as “the crested buttes.” Howard F. Smith, the founding father of Crested Butte, laid out the Town by 1878. While Smith was originally attracted to the area because of the extensive coal deposits, he first built a smelter and sawmill to service the hard rock mining camps located in the surrounding areas. This established Crested Butte as a major supply center prior to becoming a long-term coal producer.

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Crested Butte is on my way to Switzerland. It’s not as circuitous as it sounds. I am doing a trail run there near the end of August. As I’ve never been to Europe, I decided to add in some mountain climbing, so started the hunt for a guide. Most guiding agencies design tours that anyone could complete. I wanted something more.

Irwin Guides of Crested Butte ended up being the only guiding service that gave me a personal response to my query–and eventually a personal itinerary. But more on that later.

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Thanks to a very odd May–the wettest on record–there was still snow at the end of May to climb. The bad news was that there was too much snow in many places. Crested Butte ended up being the best place to go. Steve of Irwin Guides, my guide for Switzerland, found two really “fun” peaks to play on: Purple Peak and Ruby Peak.
I arrived in CB Friday afternoon and met briefly with Steve to sign all the requisite paperwork: the waivers promising that, if I die, I won’t sue anyone. Always my favorite part of any activity. It’s “just a formality”, but it always gives me pause, especially if the lawyers get creative listing the ways one could die doing said sport.

Since it was early enough in the season, I stayed in the CB Hostel–clean, inexpensive and quiet due to my being the only person there. The open sitting and kitchen area gave me a nice place to read and relax between adventures.
Dinner at the Ginger, a small and delicious Thai restaurant, then back to organize my backpack. Crampons, ice ax, warm jacket, even warmer jacket, food, water, helmet, and several pairs of gloves made up the bulk of it. Couloir climbs can get wet, so lots of dry clothing can save one from a miserable day. Then an early bedtime and seemingly earlier wakeup.
The best part of hiring a guide is having someone’s footsteps to follow in the snow. Snowshoes work on the flatter parts, but the couloir is very steep and crampons are usually necessary. The first person has to “build” the steps that the rest follow. Sometimes, you luck out and someone was there the day before, but often your team is doing it on their own, taking turns as people tire out.
While I am happy to pull my weight, it’s also a matter of balancing strengths. Steve, as a professional guide, is obviously stronger and faster, so for expediency, which can equate to safety in the mountains, he went first and set the steps. Also, as the more experienced (and stronger) one, he could catch my fall. On Purple Peak, Saturday’s goal, I was comfortable enough for the first part to be without the rope.

Which is a huge accomplishment for me. I have learned that, while attached to a rope, I can do almost anything. No rope, and every move feels much more critical. It’s a matter of risk. And it’s hard to explain and I’m not entirely certain the explanation is logical.

Too much risk and the fun factor starts heading to zero. It happened a couple times that day. The first was when the couloir slope became close to vertical. I felt like I was standing on snow instead of solid ground, and all I could picture was the snow falling out from under me. I asked and received the end of a rope and pulled myself up to where Steve was sitting.
The view as I pulled myself over the edge almost literally took my breath away. It looked like a glass slope, the snow untouched across the entire steep surface. It hardly seemed possible that I could step on the snow and not slide down into oblivion. But of course it was possible and I encouraged my shaking limbs to trust the snow and found that the climbing was actually easier for a few moments. I stole glances around to take in the views but my eyes always returned quickly to what was immediately in front of me. Up there, where each step seemed life-or-death, I couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum.

“That far”, however, included a sliver of a knife edge, and short scramble over some rocks (always fun with sharp pointy things on your boots), a slightly wider (albeit longer) knife edge. Steve has a wry sense of humor and it’s often hard to tell when he’s joking. So I wasn’t sure what to think when he told me to throw myself on the opposite of the ridge if he happened to fall. It became a theme for me to worry more about something happening to him than to myself. I was pretty sure he was fine without me. I, however,….
Then the summit.
Halfway there.
Many years ago, I hired a guide to teach my navigation. We had a lot of time to chat, and I asked him what it was like to guide. I always remember his response when I’m with a guide. “Most people think you hire a guide to get you to the summit,” he said. “That’s not why you hire a guide. You hire a guide to get you back to your car.”
Steve and I joked about the figurative ups and downs of mountaineering. How it went so quickly from “Mountaineering is AWESOME!” to “Mountaineering SUCKS!”. Standing on the summit was most definitly an awesome moment, in the true sense of the word: pure awe. It is not just the view, but the effort made to appreciate the view. To overcome fear, to develop new skills, to reach a goal–is there anything more rewarding?

Colorado is where I learned that downhill isn’t necessarily the easy part. It’s sometimes faster, but not always. This time was no exception. It was more my lack of confidence thinly disguised as caution that slowed progress. Now, I was in front, so Steve could still catch my fall, and I jad no footsteps to follow. Snow is not a well understood medium, at least by me. It can hang out in one spot indefinitely or seemingly change its mind and suddenly decide to be elsewhere, in the form of an avalanche. Softer snow can catch your fall–ice-like and you’ll just keep going. I don’t know the difference, so each step is placed with great purpose–the closest I ever come to a life of  purposeful intention.

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(all photos of me by Steve Banks)

I don’t know how each step can be an eternity yet get you back to the beginning with no time passing. Already we were back at our stashed snowshoes, then back to the snow machine, the car, and back to town. I bid Steve a short adieu until the morrow and went back to the hostel for a shower and to dry my gear.
It was early in the afternoon, so I was able to get in a little site seeing. Lots of cute shops and friendly people. The majority of my money was spent in the local bookstore and coffee shop, Rumors, my biggest retail weakness. Three books and a large latte later, I went in search of dinner. I found a good American bar and restaurant, The Last Steep, and enjoyed soup and salad for dinner. It was’t a long day, but it had been strenuous, and my appetite hadn’t quite caught up.

 

Sunday was as breathtaking as the day before. Ruby Peak. Compared to Purple, it was less technical and my comfort level was much higher on the steep terrain. The up was much more “mountaineering is awesome!”, but the down definitely sucked. The snow was soft and thigh-to-waist deep. The sun was warm and I could feel my cheeks burning even as I wiggled my toes in a futile attempt to warm them.

Even with the suckiness, the climb–and now the weekend–were over much too quickly. We drove in silence back to town, me happy at having found the perfect guide for my Switzerland/Italy trip, and excited for our next climb in July. A quick stop at Camp4Coffee for the best cup of coffee in Crested Butte and I was on my way back to reality.

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