Friday, November 25, 2011

Enchantment me back to Sanity

    My off-season was wholly marked by the Mountains. Earlier in the summer, while schmoozing at the Seattle Bouldering Project’s grand opening party (SBP is the brainchild of Andy, one of my oldest, closest friends), I locked down a dream gig: build an alpine trail network on private Mountain property. The Universe once again noticed I’ve been listening a bit more, and has—with a cheeky smile— been tossing me reward after reward.

Another world is Here

    The property where I’d be flexing my muscles is located in Leavenworth on a plot of land bordering the federally protected and highly regulated Alpine Lakes National Wilderness area. Private land like this is not easy to come by. This particular eco-system—wrought over millions of years by the delicate, obsessive hands of our endlessly creative Nature - is extremely fragile - fragile to the point of zero-recovery when humans ‘eff it up with our slipshod ways.

 (A view from where I worked on the trails)
    The project would be a massive undertaking, about three-to-four weeks of labor. I was given the precarious and honorable job of designing and creating a low-impact hiking trail that would be used to explore the thirty acres of alpine wild-flower meadows, somber moss covered Ponderosa thickets, and craggy granite cliffs and overlooks.

    The steep mountain terrain, in conjunction with the fragile ecosystem, made the job difficult. The plant life here may look lush and serene, as if the land promotes rapid growth and vitality. But, don’t let the gorgeous landscape fool you. The environment is bitterly harsh and will kill anything but the hardiest, most patient forms of both plant and animal life.
    The only machinery I’d use is my lanky 6’5” frame, two types of shovels, a Pickaxe, a Pulaski, and leather gloves (I burned through gloves at a rate of one set per day. No Joke. Granite is awfully coarse). Every stone I had to find and carry bundled in my arms. Every shovelful of reinforcement dirt I had to haul up or down the winding trail. One false footstep and I could easily destroy thousands of years of growth.

 (First bit of winding slope through wild-flower meadow)

(Trail entrance)

(Here every stone was hand-laid on a steep downward section leading to the flat section that required reinforcements due to minimal top soil over a granite slab) 

 (First switchback located on lower loop)

 (Second switchback on main leg leading to first overlook. Notice the large stone retaining wall laid by hand. It took six hours to gather all the stones one by one)

 (Spiral staircase on lower loop leading to natural granite 'playground' formations)

 (Gorgeous in-cut trail navigating one of the most fragile sections of the trail. Here the trail narrows to ensure minimal foot impact and is reinforced by a small stone wall lining the edge.
    There are numerous reasons why this job was absolutely ideal for me. Mainly: I was getting paid good money to work long, enjoyably hard hours outside in stunning wilderness scenery on an elaborate project that required my creativity, intellect, and Mountain Man muscles. Need I say more?

      Obviously pulling ten-hour days was good for my broke bike racer financial situation. And, sure, it was good for my frail cyclist’s body (just image the cross training: shoveling and axing through dirt for hours and then running and up and down the trails I’d just built with my own muscles). But, the greatest benefit that overshadowed everything was: this job was necessary for my soul.

     To say the last year’s race season was rough is a downright understatement. For some reason I don’t bother questioning, Life has instilled me with an abnormal amount of Grit, which is the only reason I survived the madness of last year. How I didn’t crack last season is beyond my comprehension, but the fact remains: I didn’t crack. And this shows a hell of a lot about me as a human. (If you’re curious about the full extent of last-year’s insanity, keep on the lookout for my soon-to-come story, entitled, Controversy: Always move onward).

    To think that I could be paid to escape from it all and live by myself in the forest, under enigmatic stars, curled up next to the voice of the wise river, wrapped in the piercing air that purged demons from my mind, mingling with wildlife that eventually welcomed me as a long-term guest, in flow with the natural rhythms of the sun and moon (tangent: have you ever noticed how the sun and moon chase each other like two lovers blind to their mutual passion, an endless cycle of desire and needless resistance), was beyond a dream come true. Yes. I needed this badly.

    But, there was a catch. Since this job was temporary, I had to have other work seamlessly lined up in the city to keep me going after I completed the trail gig. The day after track National Championships I hopped off an airplane and had one day to get my ‘ish’ together in Seattle. The following day, at 6am, was the day InCycle at CycleU officially kicked off for the Fall.

    I organized my schedule so I’d be in the city coaching InCycle two days a week and in the mountains building the trail five days a week. I had to do this city-mountain commute twice weekly because my job as an InCycle coach is stable and long-term, one of the few jobs that lends this to an incessantly nomadic bike racer. Living entirely in the mountains for a month straight was not feasible, but five days a week would be more than enough to reset my psyche.

    For four weeks I lived a duel life: At 6am Tuesday morning I’d teach my first class, then, over the next two days I’d teach a total of five classes while also running errands like mad (During the race season ‘normal life’ ceases for a bike racer. The off-season is riotous catch-up time). On Thursday morning at 6am I’d teach my last class, thus leaving me a few hours to get ready for the mountains.

    After morning rush hour traffic died down I’d leave Seattle and drive north and east along mystical Highway-2.  Three hours is a hell of a commute, but when you’re driving on an empty two-lane highway through the vast colors of landscape bowing to the impenetrable change of seasons sitting in a truck with a hot mug of tea and a bowl of rice pudding ain’t so bad. With windows down and a couple jackets hugging me tight I puttered in my truck at 50mph through fresh air only found in the Cascade Mountains; the scenery danced by me with the same magical force recorded in fairytales. Then, after working in the mountains for the rest of Thursday through Monday, I’d hop back into my truck early Monday evening and make the return trip to the hustle and bustle of a city that always seems to draw me back like the voice of an inescapable Siren.

    Every time I got to the mountains I had to haul all my gear in on foot for about a mile. A slippery, halfway constructed bridge over Icicle Creek made it tricky to carry in coolers of food and haul-bags. There was no front door to my base camp. It was trek that usually took three trips and the better part of an hour to complete. Luckily a rusted and wobbly wheelbarrow helped me out on the flat part of the gravel road that led to the narrow trail I followed down to my nook next to the river. There, my tent was set-up and waiting for me.

(Base camp by the river)

(My kitchen. Everything I need to cook up a mean gypsy stew)

(Often I went old-school and cooked by fire. There's no rush in the forest)

(One of my inventive concoctions: beats, yams, kale and rice. Check out my HappyTiffin. I can cook in it and store my food in its stainless steel, environmentally friendly, non-plastic goodness. I ended up dropping this off a 50ft cliff and it survived with nothing but a dent!!!) 

(The good ol' trusty wheelbarrow helping me lug in supplies for the week)

 (Icicle Creek viewed from the halfway constructed bridge)

    Each day I’d wake before dawn, crawl out of my tent, take a huge pee, and then stand with my head craned upwards so I could soak in the tales of a glowing moon. My mind would wander and daydream as celestial thoughts wove in and out of me and other worlds only imagined. After I was filled with the stories of the crisp dawn I’d set up my kitchen, set the water to boil, make a huge breakfast and big ol’ healthy snack to eat later on up on the trails, and then I’d sit quietly with only the company of my thoughts and the murmurs of Nature all around. I need no other companions.

    With two large thermoses of tea to keep me going I’d pile gear into my back-pack, select my tools of choice, and make the twenty minute hike up to where the trails I was building began. The hours would slowly walk around me with the arching sun and after a productive day I’d hike back down right as shadows fully engulfed the adjacent cliff side, which meant it was time to make dinner by the flicker of firelight and prepare for a nightfall bedtime.

(The moon and I cannot be separated)

(One of the many spectacles Nature offered me)

    The city-mountain schedule was crazy. But totally worth it. Every week I slept under the stars, cooked my food next to a camp-fire, bathed daily in a frigid glacially fed river, and moved in ways my body desperately needed after being tweaked and kinked from sitting on a bike for hours upon hours over the past 20months.

    The day arrived when I had all the trails built. A bittersweet time of breaking down base camp to haul everything back to my truck and make the harsh transition to fulltime city-life. The four weeks spent in the mountains flew by too quickly. But, it had a lasting impression I still feel in my mind as I write this story.

    To celebrate success of a job well done I planned an epic hike: book-it up to the Enchantment Lakes Wilderness area in minimal time with minimal gear. At around 1pm on my last Sunday in the mountains I finished loading all the tools into my truck. I drove a few miles down Icicle Creek road and parked at the Snow Creek trailhead.

    I was determined to hike into the Enchantments through the night. By the time I hit the trail it was 3pm. Not a lot of light would be left in the day. I brought with me a small pack filled with a warm jacket and a few base layers, a couple bottles of water and three power-bars, and a lightweight sleeping bag. I wanted to go light so I left the camp stove and other unnecessary items back in the truck. If I did this right I would make it to the Enchantments around 2am, sleep until dawn, wake, explore the Enchantments, snap some photos, and then hike back mid-morning so I could return to my truck no later than 2pm in order to make it to Seattle right before Monday madness traffic hit.

    I’ve hiked this trail before (the long-route up Assgard pass, which I avoided this go-around because of heavy-snowfall) with my friend Andy. He and I, along with two other friends, hiked in, climbed Prusik peak, and hiked down to Snow Creek, all in one day. It was not an enjoyable experience in the most enjoyable of ways. More importantly, it was a while ago, and I had forgotten this by no means is an easy hike. In addition, we had scrambled the most dangerous section of trail in the middle of the night, sharing two headlamps between four of us. So, my knowledge of the trail was probably not as good as I assumed…

    The first section of the hike is a straightforward, pretty steep, yet well-marked trail. By the time night had completely fallen, I had already made it to the top of upper Snow Lake, which is about three-quarters of the way up distance-wise. I’d been cruising so fast that despite the freezing temperatures I was running in only an army tank top, jeans with lycra tights underneath, and light gloves—that had holes in every finger.

Views from the lower lakes:

    Though I was way more than halfway up, I still had the most difficult section to navigate. From the top of upper Snow Lake the trail disappears and you must scramble up exposed granite slabs.

    At the top of upper Snow Lake there is a log bridge that traverses over the large creek that feeds the lower lake system. The source of this small river originates above the upper Enchantments, fed from the glacier snowmelt way, way in the mountains.

    It was almost a full moon, so I had yet to put on my headlamp. I was hauling ass, and had crossed many bridges before, so I carried my blistering momentum right over this log bridge. After all, one of my favorite outdoor pastimes is to run like a mountain goat across boulders lining riverbanks. Often they are slippery, and this never falters my step. Sure, this particular bridge I flew over had the same sheen as a mossy river boulder, but I wasn’t worried.

    For some reason the thought didn’t cross my mind that perhaps this sheen wasn’t wet moss, but ice. I got halfway across the bridge and before I could even think of how big of an idiot I was, I slipped righteously into the air and fell right smack into the river. The water went up past my waist, soaking me through with ice water up to my chest. Luckily I landed on my feet and not my back. If I wasn’t alert before, I was now bursting with the instincts of a panther spooked by its own shadow.

    In a burst of adrenaline I pulled myself back onto the bridge and started to run as fast as I could. Half the reason I ran was to prevent myself from freezing – I had to keep circulation going – but the other half was from sheer embarrassment of doing such a dumb thing. I was my own audience and I had handfuls of rotten lettuce I was throwing at myself. I also kept running because the instincts from spending a lot of time outdoors throughout my life told me I needed to use my body heat to try and dry out these clothes as much as possible since I didn’t bring a lot of extras. Hopefully, I could dry them out enough where sleeping in my sleeping bag would suck out the rest of the moisture so I could wake up the next morning relatively dry. These were my thoughts as I blitzed up the mountain with footfalls that would make a gazelle blush. No time for a headlamp. The moon was strong with me still. Must get warm.

    My anger at my stupid carelessness pushed aside any notion of hypothermia. I knew I was fine, I just needed to limit the amount of shittiness of sleeping in wet clothes during cold night. So I gritted my teeth and swore aloud that I would make it to the upper Enchantments before stopping to sleep.

    After thirty minutes of running the trail no longer was a trail. Woops, I forgot about that too. It became a technical unmarked scramble up decently exposed slabs of granite partially covered in thickening ice. Nothing very technical in the daytime. But, at night, with a crappy headlamp and chattering teeth, it took a long time to find the cairns (stacks of rocks) that more or less led me in the right direction.

    At one confusing section I had to stop. It was a particularly icy slab. I couldn’t find the route. Still in my wet clothes, I squinted into the darkness trying to find the next cairn. My headlight panned everywhere. I spent a good hour walking in circles trying to find the route. This lull in my break-neck pace caused the cold to claw in.  I was shaking like a morphine addict kicking heroine.

    A fist of wisdom punched me square in the face. It wasn’t going to happen tonight. I wasn’t going to make it to the Enchantments and stay alive. Time to tuck my tail and cash in. I’d have to wait until dawn to hike the rest.

    I stripped naked in the freezing air and pulled on all the warm clothes I had stuffed in my bag. Once I started running again I warmed up right quick. My tights were mostly dry, but my socks still sloshed in my waterlogged boots. My jeans were another story. I wrung them out best as possible and then shoved them still dripping into the bottom of my bag. Tonight would be interesting.

    (I know jeans aren’t the best outdoor attire of choice, but I love hiking in them because they move around your body better, especially with a layer of lycra underneath. They are also comfy and robust when clamoring around on granite, plus I just think these particular jeans are hot and I wasn’t planning on swimming)

    I hiked back down to the upper Snow Lake’s campground and connected up with two hikers camping there. At a coffee shop the day before, I approached these two girls who were obviously packing up for a long weekend in the mountains. They were laidback, the northwest adventurer type. Over coffee and cinnamon rolls we talked about the various hikes and scenery the area offered and they told me they were heading into the Enchantments. I told them I was planning on going up as well, and that if I saw them, we should hang out.

    They remembered me by the sound of my voice in the darkness and welcomed me to join them. After a few minutes of small talk while looking at the stars I tried to play my cards cool and not tell them about my stupid river mishap, but I caved and told them the story half laughing to myself. They offered to let me sleep in their tent, but I refused. Just ‘cause I was a little wet didn’t mean I was gunna die. I had a sleeping bag and small sleeping pad. I would be fine for the night.

    After thirty minutes curled tight in my sleeping bag I got decently warm. Until it started to snow. Not heavy snow. Even worse. It was small, wispy snow, a sign of a cold snap, meaning the temperatures outside were hardly in the warm category.

 (How jeans look after being frozen stiff through the night)

 (Waking from a cold night)

    I did manage to sleep for a few hours. The next morning I woke at the same time as the girls. They girls shared some coffee (thank the gods for that coffee!) and made me warm oatmeal. I thanked them kindly and then hit the trail an hour after dawn. I decided to leave my pack back at camp and finish the rest of the hike with a water bottle and a power bar. No need to lug extra weight.

    With the feeling of an animal possessed I ran all the way to the base of the upper Enchantments in a little over an hour (a hike that would take your average hiker at least half a day to complete). I was on the level and trusted every footfall. I leapt from boulder to boulder and clambered up steep granite, glancing blissfully down hundred foot cliffs just inches away from me without a fleck of fear.

    And, when I got to the top, I was rewarded with serenity. A landscape constructed for the gods. I was the only person here. Surrounded by beauty. In this moment I felt completely alive. No drug could replicate the feeling. I felt transported out of this universe and into an enchanted fable.

    I climbed to the top of a snow-covered hill. The sound of my feet crunching through the layer of ice sounded like cymbals clashes in the silence. Every small sensation stood alert with a heightened awareness the Wilderness brings. Standing outside a thicket of golden Aspen I gazed over the scenery.

    Before me an enormous waterfall fell from Inspiration Lake and mixed with the flow of Perception Lake. The sound of the waterfall caused a peculiar phenomenon that altered the mind. From where I stood the waterfall was at least a mile away. Yet, the sound and stillness was so heavy around me that the distance roar of the falls swirled thickly and filled the area with an almost tangible voice. It was if the entire landscape was quietly murmuring to itself and I was privy to hear the titter and guttural gasps of its conversations.

    It is a true rarity to step into the Enchantments on a day where the sun sheds a crystal light, when the Aspen are burnt into a golden flame for a very short time, when a light snow covers the tooth-like ground, when the calmness and stillness of a content day fills the restless wild. I was very lucky to be here. Very lucky to be alive inside all this beauty.

    This beauty is not real, but it is real, and it is everywhere. We humans forget this because we lock ourselves up in big cities and walk around in circles our whole lives without experiencing everything that is out there. Don’t get me wrong. I love the city. I actually live in the densest part of Seattle right in Capital hill. But, I also know that to be alive I need to escape in to the Wild as much as possible.

    When you train fulltime as a cyclist these weekend outdoor trips do not happen often. Running up and down mountains doesn’t make for fast legs on the bike. And falling into icy rivers isn’t the best way to avoid getting sick. (How I didn’t get sick absolutely stumped me. My mind is strong these days. Getting sick is mostly in your head. If you listen to your body, if you connect your mind to your body, you rarely get sick).

Memories from the Enchantments: 

    In the couple hours that I explored the beauty painted before me I found an inner peace that would last me many months. With a resolute farewell I knew it was time to leave and exit this Enchanting world. The beauty would still be there waiting for my eventual return. And return I will.

    In the grand scheme of things this was a mild adventure compared to the feats of Reinhold Messner, Mark Twight, and Ranulph Fiennes, but I still thought it was a savage trek. Most importantly I felt savage.  I felt strong. I felt alive. I felt ready to return to the bike.

    The Enchantments offered an incredible adventure that gave me mental motivation needed to train through the hard winter ahead. I had officially fallen back in love with the Northwest, with its rain, with its cold, with its harsh beauty and timelessness. I was home.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds so fun! I'm excited to see authors vlog.
    I LOVE this. Great, great advice and such wonderful words.
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