Monday, June 27, 2011

San Juan Verticality

The San Juan Solstice 50 tested this Indiana boy's legs and willpower. My normal preparations for traveling by foot in the Rockies actually went quite well. I drove to Colorado convinced that I had done a sufficient job of converting my 15 mpw legs into mountain climbing legs. I had, after all, done this many times before. And this preparation went as well as could be expected. So, I drove to the SJS50 knowing I would finish. I had hoped to complete the 50 miles well within my capabilities and without developing an injury. Mission accomplished. Barely.

As I ran along the Continental Divide at over 12,000 ft without any water and without the promised aid station in sight, I began to worry about even being able to finish. Then, after finally reaching the aid station 2.5 miles away from where it was promised, I camped there under the tent while drinking cup after cup of water. I also swallowed several salt capsules and a variety of calories from the selection. Once satiated, I staggered back into the intense alpine sun and began to run. Within minutes my head was clearing up and my legs found new life.

At about this time I began to once again run with Craig. We dropped below tree line and began to move quickly down the precipitous drop toward HWY 149 and the Slumgullion aid station. I even had thoughts of pushing hard enough to catch up with Tina and Josh, who had both flown through the divide aid station and were ahead of Craig and I on the descent. That was when my left knee began to ache. Again.

Though I turned my right ankle six miles into a 22-mile run at the end of April, I did not quit running 6:50 miles. I was, however, favoring that right ankle. By mile 14, when I was eight miles from home, my left knee began to ache. The dull pain came did not come from any place in particular. The whole knee just ached. I ended up bailing on that run and walking the last mile home due to the fact that my stride had lost all smoothness due to the problems in each leg.

I took three days off before rolling right back into my training. All seemed fine. A couple of weeks later I  felt the knee just a little in the closing miles of the Indy Mini. And that was the end of that - or so I hoped.

Knowing how much stress steep descents can put on a knee did cause me some concern regarding the SJS50. That concern turned to fear when I climbed up from and descended to HWY 149 on the Wednesday before the race. The fear was repressed by the renewed energy carried me down that same path during the race. And then, within just a few strides, the knee began to ache.

I slowed without hesitation or conscience thought. I never intended to race the SJS50 and I certainly did not want to get injured completing it. So, I began pampering that left knee. I did so throughout the final twelve miles of the 51 mile event.

By Monday morning my knee felt really good. Well, it felt better than all of the other parts of my legs. That knee certainly felt better than my right quad, which had suffered through harder impacts due to me favoring the left knee. Funny how that works.

I camped at 12K feet in the Yankee Boy Basin near the Mount Sneffels trailhead on Sunday night with the intention of climbing the 14er at sunrise. There was a 20% chance of precipitation overnight. At 2:25 I awoke to rain and a temperature of 46 degrees. When my alarm went off at 5:10 I slowly flexed and stretched my limbs like a cat would. Boy, was I tight. I was surprised to learn that I was really not very sore.

I was even more surprised to look outside and see snow. SNOW?! How? WTH!!? Large snowflakes were crashing diagonally into the already 3-inch deep snowfall. It was 29 degrees and near white-out conditions. What happened to 46 degrees! And where are those gazillion stars I was hypnotized by just hours earlier?!

After quickly dressing, I walked up the trail a few dozen paces. There was no way I would be climbing in these conditions. Not solo, even with these crampons and ice axe I thought. As I walked back to the RAV something awful occurred to me. I had driven along a narrow shelf in the face of the gorge on the way up. What was the temperature there? Was the snow sticking to the road like it was up here?!


Imagine my relief when the temperature rose to 34 degrees and the road cleared as I drove toward the shelf. You don't have to imagine what the scene looked like because I stopped to record the memorable wintry landscape I was traveling through just before the summer solstice. Note: I promise these pictures have not been computer enhanced. This is how it looked to my eyes that morning.




That is the road through the cut out on the right.
Hundreds of feet directly down to the left.




Approaching the cut out from above.
The sky was almost entirely clear by the time I had consumed a bison burger and a brew down at the Ouray Brewery. I ate the Scrap Cookie from Mouse's Chocolate Shop and Cafe while basking in that warm sun. Then I traveled to Silverton. Actually, I stopped several times along the way to sight see and to loosen up my legs by walking. Eventually, the challenge of the 11K foot pass got to me and I unloaded Kristy so that we could work on my summit fever.

While in Silverton I might have visited the Silverton Brewery. OK, I did. I am hesitant to admit that because someone might get the impression, or recognize the fact, that I spend an awful lot of time in breweries while gallivanting through the mountains. Also, I don't like to talk or write about bad experiences. Enough said!

I then ventured into the cafe to acquire a more palatable taste. Unfortunately, they were about to close, so I was back out on the street within minutes. After walking all over town and realizing that most of the town shut down after the last Durango-Silverton Train pulled out, I walked into a souvenir shop.

Inside I came upon Dakota Jones and another guy talking to the shop owner. I soon learned that the other guy was none other than Matt Hart. Cool. To those of you who are not familiar with trail running - think Drew Brees and Peyton Manning or Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon. We talked for awhile and then we talked some more in the morning when we met up at the cafe. Both of these guys are talented and humble. I certainly appreciated being able to talk to them.

Once my mocha fix was complete I began my drive back up HWY 550 to Sneffels. What a difference a day makes. The RAV and I once again experienced the long, bumpy drive up to the trailhead.




The cut out in the sunshine!

Notice cliff at right of cut out.


Within minutes I had strapped on the crampons, grabbed a water bottle and some snacks, and started walking toward the edge of Yankee Boy Basin. I was surprised that the snow held my weight in the hot 10 am sun. Onward and upward I walked as I craned my neck to see all of the beauty surrounding me. It was upsetting to see  how far I had walked from the RAV without a camera. I walked some more.

Eventually, I was walking up a very steep face. I haven't spent a lot of time walking in crampons, so I was giddy like a school boy about being able to stick to the steep icy mountain face. Then I reached a ridge over which I could see desert ecology. The ground under foot was still covered with crusty snow, so I just let the crampons do their thing. And I walked upward until I could not walk any higher. Though I had expected to take a short hike when I left the RAV, I had reached the summit of Mount Sneffels. I was smiling broadly as I sat down and ate the two energy bars I had stuffed in my jeans pockets. Yes, jeans. I had only intended to go for a short walk to test the crampons on the snow condition.

Upon returning to the RAV I traded the water bottle for the camera and walked part of the way back out to get some pictures of the basin. By then the sun was intensely hot and I could not stay on top of the snow. Post holing to the waist while wearing jeans is not at all pleasant.











Next up was Telluride. Though it was only a couple of miles from the Sneffels trailhead, I had to drive all the way out of and halfway around the San Juan range to reach this ski town. I stopped first at the Ouray Brewery for a celebratory meal.

Telluride turned out to be a neat town, but nothing spectacular for summer adventure. I did walk around a bit in town and I even, believe it or not, stopped in Smugglers Brewery where I drank a pretty good ale. Then I drove to the edge of the mountains where the road turned directly upward in a series of switchbacks toward Bear Pass. Though I wanted to drive up it, I wanted even more to get back to the Lake City area where I could climb some more 14ers. A drive of more than two hours was required to reach that area.

On Tuesday morning I awoke at sunrise and drove into Lake City where I enjoyed a mocha at Mean Jean's before continuing on up beyond Lake San Cristobal to the Handies Peak trailhead.

The sky was once again an unblemished blue. I smiled knowingly as I looked up and thought about all of the stars I had been studying just hours earlier. They were still there.

After loading the summit pack and starting up the trail I realized how good my legs felt. Incredible, I thought. Because I was only a few hundred meters up the trail, I returned to the RAV and retrieved my Garmin and heart rate strap. I was going to climb this one quickly to make it a workout. When I reached the RAV a lady with a pack ran by me as she turned onto the trail. Hmmmm. She had on Hokas. And she was running up a mountain. She had to be a mountain runner and she was likely training or the upcoming Hardrock 100.

The Hardrock 100 is one of the most brutal mountain races on Earth. This race does to runners' legs what a tenderizer does to steak. There are over 33K feet of ascending and descending as the course loops through the San Juan mountains. And the course goes right over the top of Handies Peak.

I did push the pace early on, running most of the first mile up. When I caught the lady I slowed to her pace and we began to talk. Amazingly, the runner was Diana Finkel. I had just read a feature article about her in the latest TrailRunner.

That article discussed her incredible 2010 Hardrock race (she came up just short of being the OVERALL winner) and the nightmarish aftermath she experienced when her kidneys stopped functioning properly. She spent sixteen days in the hospital and twice received dialysis to clean her toxic blood. The article, written by her pacer and husband, Ben Woodbeck, did not indicate her current status or whether she would be running mountain races any time soon.

Within minutes we had struck up a great conversation. Diana is also a teacher, so we shared a lot of our personal teaching experiences while comparing the state of education in our two states. We also talked a bit about mountain ultras and gear. Diana was wearing a pair of the recently introduced, and freakish looking, Hoka running shoes. Though many people have reported having issues with this cushy shoe, Diana has not had any issues.

Together, we meandered through the snow in the basin below Handies. Diana had snowshoes in her pack and I wondered why she didn't get them out when we started post holing. I did sink deep deeper and more often than the diminutive lady, which made me wonder if those Hokas would have kept me on top more often. As it was, I was sinking thigh deep over and over, especially when I closed in on warmer exposed rock. More than once I found myself laughing as I struggled to get out of snow that was above my waist. Diana patiently waited while I floundered.

We eventually acquired the rocky footing of the ridge where we could get back to a steady pace. I was looking around and was surprised to be at the summit when we reached it. Diana unfolded her hiking sticks and used one to point out the Hardrock course through the vast snow fields beyond the summit. Within seconds of reaching the top she shook my hand before turning and QUICKLY descending the other side of the mountain. I sat on a boulder and ate the sandwiches I had prepared as I watched her amazing descent. I wondered if I could hold that downward pace. She made it look so easy. It will be interesting to see how she fares at this year's HR100. I wish her the very best!

After twice having the good fortune of running with top female mountain trail runners on this trip, I know that much can be learned from them. I took notes and hope to benefit from my experiences when I return to CO for the SR50. Believe me, I will be watching both the HR100 and the LT100 with great interest as I root for Diana and Tina.

After finishing my meal I took what few pictures my exhausted camera battery would allow before starting my own descent.  That descent was tough! The slushy snow could not be walked on. Glissading on it was also nearly impossible. My butt would slowly sink in and I would come to a stop with a crotch full of slush. Yes, that was certainly cold! It actually took me ten minutes longer to get off of the summit dome than it had to ascend it.


Diana traversing a snow field


The big toe on the big foot does not like mountain ultras!
I brushed the snow and ice from myself when I finally reached the water-filled trail in the basin. Then I ran back to the RAV with the same kind of effort I exert on a road run in Indiana. It felt good. This was an 8.2 mile trip involving 3700 ft of ascent/descent.

Next up, after a thorough clean-up in the shade, was a drive up the 4x4 road to the American Basin near Cinnamon Pass. What an adventure! The RAV was certainly tested by the terrain, despite the fact that I drove her as gently as I could. We didn't bottom out or drag one time. The mountains surrounding the basin were so awesome under that deep blue sky. The smell of the spruce forests and the various sounds of the streams carrying snow melt from the basin made this an experience to remember.

I camped up there in the basin and then drove down to the Redcloud/Sunshine trailhead just a bit before sunrise. This trailhead is actually in a high meadow (10,400 fT) just across the road from the Handies Peak trailhead. At 4:15 a couple and their dog started up the trail to Redcloud. I relaxed and waited until the sun came up to finish my preparations.

It was 5:55 am when I started running up the trail. Within minutes I reached the first snow field. It was, more precisely, an avalanche field. The trail followed a stream through a deep and narrow gorge which had several even steeper side gullies that had once been filled with snow.  That snow had avalanched and was now packed tightly in the bottom of the gorge. It was fairly easy to run over this snow.

I ran every time the rocks under foot would allow me to. I even darted across streams that were littered with ice-covered stones. It only took that one slip to produce a soaked and frozen right food. I grumbled that it should have been the left foot which bore the blackened big toe.

The climb to Redcloud's approach ridge also involved a snow field. Luckily, the sun had not reached this steep slope, so the post holing was minimal. Having learned from the previous day's experience on Handies, I turned around several times to plot my descent. I passed the couple with the dog just as we reached the ridge.

Handies summit dome was as steep as any that I have encountered. The loose rock and scree was also covered with a few snow fields which hid several portions of the trail. Eventually, I reached the short switchbacks that preceded the summit.

The view was spectacular! I could see hundreds of snow capped peaks to the north and west. And I could see the high desert plains through which HWY 149 snaked to east and south. I could also see the summit of Sunshine, the smallest 14er at 14,001 ft. It called out to me from a little more than a mile away, so I paused only long enough take several long drinks of water before moving forward.

I was able to run almost every step between the two summits. That allowed me to relax for almost an hour on the summit of Sunshine. What a sensual treat! I could go on and on about the view, but I won't. Instead, I'll share some pictures and let the words form in your minds.

Because I somehow LOST one of my crampons, I chose to drive down to Los Alamos, NM to raft, run, listen to music, and visit wineries with some cousins instead of climbing more 14ers. That is fine. Now I have a NEED to return to the San Juan Mountains. Well, two needs. I also need to experience the normal SJS50 course.

Enjoy the pictures!



Avalanche chute littered with spruce debris


Majestic!
Redcloud summit dome from ridge at saddle
First peek at Redcloud summit
The Red summit

Hello, Sunshine!
That Clif package is about to pop at the pressure of 14,001 ft.

As far as the eye can see . . .

Looking back at Redcloud from Sunshine



So many mountains . . . 

All this beauty and the camera gets pointed at that!



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