Saturday, December 13, 2014

Winter is coming

November in Norway is a torturous time of year, nay a season in its own right. Waiting season. The days grow shorter and the nights longer, and our lives grow darker for lack of snow. This is the season when I pedal to work before dawn, and pedal home in equal darkness.

In the narrow, 5-hour strip of daylight, sunlight takes on an entirely different quality than during the rest of the year. It filters through the trees light liquid gold, warming nothing but the morals of those of us who are waiting for winter.

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Audun, Dad and Sebastian the dog enjoy a late season run above Bårdsgarden in Storlidalen.

We have been having alternate frost and thawing cycles. A cold ground covered in frost makes for beautiful late season biking and running, but each thaw brings cold mud and horrible conditions.

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Out for a frosty ride with Sigurd, Silje and Audun.

November became December, bringing colder temps, lots of ice and light snow cover, but still no relief from the in-between, waiting season. Last weekend, Audun and I decided to go out to the coast in an effort to find snow-free hiking. We arrived at the remote parking lot on the island of Tustna at 9 pm, many hours after sunset, and hiked in to Gullsteinvollen cabin by the light of our headlamps. Even though it was short hike, it felt like an adventure just being out there in the dark.

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In which I try to take a cool night picture without a tripod.

The next morning we awoke to realize there was snow on the peaks above us. The weather looked alright, however, and we were still hopeful that we could make it up to one of the peaks on the island. The island is tiny, maybe 20 km in diameter, and 900 meter peaks extended straight up from the sea.

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Winter in the mountains

The weather quickly turned to snow and mist, and we wallowed up to the pass between the two main ridges on Tustna in the snow, just barely able to find the trail markers.

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It was beautifully and wintery, but not exactly the hiking conditions we had hoped for. We made a half-hearted stab at Skarven, but turned quickly, regretting the lack of crampons in our arsenal.

As we headed down from the pass, the mountain seemed to have felt it won. First a gap in the swirling mist and snow appear, illuminating the fjord below us with a shaft of sunlight.

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The fjord below.

I was breath-taken. This was exactly the reason I go to these places, for the moment when you’ve struggled and are suddenly allowed to see something beautiful. These are the moments you cannot buy.

The weather grew better as we headed downs Trollstua, the cabin we would stay at for the night. I almost wanted to shake my fist at the mountain - why couldn’t it have cleared off while we were up there?

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Still summer in the forest.

The next day was much of the same, only it never cleared off. Thick snow turned to freezing rain and we arrived back at the car, soaking wet and cold.

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A situation which begs the question: is this your idea of fun?

We’re crossing our fingers that this was the last hike of the year - next time we’ll bring skis!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Steve Peat and me: seven days on Costa del Sol

Every fall, as the dark starts to sink in Norway and the forest trails grow increasingly wet and slippery, a group of my friends travels south to warmer trails and guided enduro biking for a week. This year, we choose Fuengirola, Spain, an unashamed haven of everything that is beach vacations in Spain. Walking around the streets of the touristy town, I always felt like I had to defend my presence. This isn’t me! I wanted to shout. I don’t do beaches. I do mountains. 

And mountains we did. Our team of two guides, Simon and James from Sierra MTB, took us all over the mountains above Fuengirola and Malàga, away from the masses of white flesh rolling under parsols on the sunny beaches.

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Simon on a fireroad in the Sierra Mijas.

Our first day in Fuengirola brought pouring rain, not what we were expecting from Costa del Sol. We dutifully loaded our bikes into the van and got in, hoping that it would clear off as we drove up. It didn’t. By the time we reached the trailhead for the day’s ride it was raining so hard we could barely see the landscape around us. Looking out doubtfully at each other, AP finally voiced what everyone was thinking. “We’re here to have fun. Maybe we should got find somewhere to hang out until the rain lets up.” So we went for a coffee, in which time the rain only let up slightly.

On the way up, Simon, the guide who was driving, talked to AP about how challenging the trails were. “It’s really steep here,” he emphasized, “And there are lots of sharp rocks and switchbacks, and prickly bushes you get stuck in if you fall.” I was already worried about the level of riding. I’m the worst rider in the group, and I’m always afraid that they’ll be laughing down trails that I’m terrified of. The anticipation of biking in new territory, combined with Simon insistence that biking here was dangerous and difficult drove me over the edge, and I started to think that this mountain biking thing was a bad idea. I started crying and saying something to Audun about selling my bike and going home.

Seeing that he had scared me, Simon then explained that he was used to cocky young guys showing up, thinking they were going to bomb down everything, and getting injured on the first day. I’m just the opposite of that - I need to be motivated, not warned. We finally got riding, and it wasn’t as bad as Simon had described. It was awfully muddy, though, although it gradually cleared off as we road.

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Clearing skys on the first day

The ride was mostly wide, rocky, loose trails, and I felt rather successful, given that I was planning to give up biking a few hours before. We were joined by an older, but suprisingly spry, English chap named Neil during the last half of the day. I biked with him, enjoy someone that was as slow as me, even if he was old enough to be my grandfather.

Sierra MTB provided a whole vacation house for us seven Norwegians to use, complete with a pool. Back at the house, we had to wash all of the clothes we wore and spent a considerable amount of time clean mud out of our bikes. That wet day was the benchmark for the rest of the trip, and it was all uphill from there as the trails dried out during the rest of the week. 

The second day brought us up to the telecom towers above Fuengirola, down a rocky, loose piece of singletrack that the guides called Full Telecom. There was yet another addition to our group - Mike, an American from rural Virginia who lived in Kazakstan, working in the oil industry. He was on vacation with his family, but joined us for a couple days of fun. 

After Telecom, we biked San Anton, a nice, fast piece of singletrack with some more technical shoots in the foothills down to Fuengirola. We had done it the day before, and it was so fun we decided to race it, staggering  our starts and chasing each other down the trail.

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Ingvild on the second part of the Telecom trail.

We quickly relaxed into the rhythm of being on a bike trip. A full English breakfast cooked by our hosts at 9, ready to bike by 10, and riding until somewhere between 3 and 5 pm. Every ride brought us back to the coast, and lead us to the obligatory ice cream stop at the Helateria where we quickly became regulars (it was called 900 if you are looking for good gelato in Fuengirola!).  

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Synne enjoys an enormous ice cream after a good day of riding.

In the evenings we would wander around in the touristy center of Fuengirola until we found a place to eat. Our best meal was probably the first night, when we ended up at a pretty authentic tapas place, Charolais.

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Mixed desert at Charolais

I don’t mean to brag, but the boys I travel with - Audun, AP, Øyvind and Mats - are pretty exceptional bikers. It’s always fun when the guide goes, “Oh, well, no one bikes down this part,” and then they do it anyway. On such place was this set of stairs, on a trail called Johnny’s trail after the guide who found it.

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Øyvind concentrated on making it down the treacherous (to my mind) set of stairs.

The stairs we treacherously steep and surrounded by the aforementioned prickly bushes. Worst of all, they end it a sharp switchback which I probably couldn’t clear without the stairs in the way.

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Audun nearly sits on his back wheel.

Johnny’s trail ended with a series of short stairs through dirt-packed forest trails. I was in the back, and I couldn’t decide if the stairs would get steeper, or if they were slippery. As a consequence, I keep braking to see what would happen and would loose so much momentum I would stop. My only triumph was rolling down the rocky stairs at the end of the descent - while everyone was watching.

The biking was very much dominated by sharp switchbacks and loose, rocky sections. This is everything I’m bad at, and I was equally happy every time I drifted over a loose, rocky section rather than stopping.

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Øyvind and Ingvild hit the rocks.

All of the descents brought us all the way down to the coast, but only after biking one of the two routes through the foothills of the mountains. Our favorite was San Anton, which we biked a number of times, faster each time. The other way down was on wider trails which afforded more of a view.

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The more spectacular descent through the foothills.

The worst trail we biked was the Bikepark. This single track is built up by locals, but had gotten completely washed out by the rain. Everything was so soft, and if you didn’t have enough speed to go high on the banked turns, you ended up in the washed out, mushy crude in the middle. Luckily it was a one time experience!

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Audun hitting the banked turn in the bike park perfectly.

The most challenging day for me was the day we biked Steve Peat. Steve Peat is a professional downhill mountain biker who has been competing at the top level since the 90’s. He apparently comes to Fuengirola to train, and has a downhill track named after him. On the first day, before the guides knew what we were capable of, they told us “we don’t usually take riders down Steve Peat. It’s for the more crazy riders!"

Yet somehow on our fourth day in Spain, I was standing at the entrance, about to head down Steve Peat. The first run was awful. The rational part of my brain kept telling me that nothing was particularly difficult, I just I had to roll over it, but I couldn’t let go of my brakes, and the trail was strewn with obstacles, no relief from the challenge of picking a good line and letting up down the hill. Ingvild biked slowly in front of me for the second half, giving me a wheel to follow, and I started to bike marginally better.

At the bottom, I was shaking. Everyone assumed I wouldn’t want to do another run, but I did. I simply couldn’t leave a trail like that, that I knew I could do better. So I invoked the Boyfriend Clause, and Audun bike in front of me on the second run, to help me see the lines and encourage me. It went much better - I biked everything, except one steep, root-covered shoot that I couldn’t bring myself to let go and roll right over.

No one took pictures on Steve Peat - we were all too busy biking. 

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Synne flying over a jump in motorcross park.

Our most spectacular day was probably the day we ascended Pico de Mijas, fondly known as "the Golfballs". A bit of climbing on fire roads and a lot of bike pushing lead us to a summit crowned by one of those white, circular radio tower structures that looked exactly like a gigantic golfball. Our view extended to Gibraltar in the southwest to the Sierra Nevadas in the north.

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The gang on top of Pico de Mijas.

The descent was a difficult one. At one point I traded bikes with Synne, who has a bigger suspension, beefier bike than me. I was surprised at how much of a difference it made on a technical section - maybe I can at least partially blame my bike, not just my head, when it comes to technical stretches.

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Me on - gasp - Synne’s bike.

The steep switchbacks off the top of the mountain teetered out, and the trail became faster and flowy-er through the forest.

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Mats at the bottom of the descent from Pico del Mijas


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AP jumps in the foothills on the way back to Fuengirola.

On the last day, our group grew considerably with the addition of some new Brits. We drove the two enormous vans 20 km down to the coast to Malàga to check out some new trails that the owner of Sierra MTB, Allen, had found. The first run was kind of boring, mostly a steep fireroad, and I was already tired, to I considered calling it quits. But the second run brought us down this spectacular ridge: 

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Rolling ridge above Malàga on our last day as a full group.

 …and my enthusiasm grew anew.  The trial did these big rolls, going up and down steep, loose rocky sections. It was super hot, and the descents were so loose and steep I could barely cling on. But I made it down, and enjoyed traversing the rolling ridge above Malàga and the sea.

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Our guide James on the trail.

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This is fun! Me back on my own bike

On the last day, everyone except Audun and I left on a super early plane. We had a evening flight, and got to enjoy one more day of biking, joining our guides with several other of the British guests. We repeated the same trails as day 3, traversing the rolling fireroad balconies above Fuengirola before descending on Johnny’s trail, a zig-zaging, rocky piece of fun. I had one goal: biking down all the stairs that I had hesitated and consequently stopped on at the first go round. Using the trick from Steve Peat, I made Audun bike directly in front of me, and made it down them all. In many ways, it’s good to be able to repeat trails so that you can see progress.

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Johnny’s trail

I biked for seven days straight on this vacation, partially because there was nothing else I wanted to do in the city. At the same time, this is a proof that I am somehow growing stronger. On our previous bike trips, I’ve been tired and sick of challenges after 3 or 4 days. So much biking on terrain I struggle with was really good, and this may have been our best enduro vacation so far.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

JMT Part 10: The end of all things

This is part ten in my series about hiking the JMT. You can read the rest here: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9Part 10

 

Can’t get enough of our trip? Check out my dad’s trip report on trailspace.com


August 1, Day 24: Mount Whitney and Mt Muir


In the dawn light wafting over our little campsite, I realized it was August. “Rabbit, rabbit!” I exclaimed, a saying my family uses meaning good luck for the next month.

 

Our preparations started with being woken by Dad’s ludicrous bird sound (“Hing!”) at 5:15. It was colder than I was used to on the trail; probably because of our early start. 

 

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Looking back at Guitar Lake. Photo by Rick Strimbeck

 

We had set up our Wag-bags (waste disposal bags with powder to neultralize the odor) on a bear canister in a make-shift latrine. Originally members of the party were skeptical, but in the end it was deemed a great success. Dad, the inventor, was allowed to carry this particular bear canister (followed by loud rounds of the joke, “He’s carrying a load of s***!”)

We left camp at 6:50 am, first climbing gradually, then beginning to traverse the motherlode of switchbacks. They sure do a lot of trail building in California compared to Norway! Switchbacks with a low grade were a given on any hill.

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The switchbacks up to Trail Crest. Photo by Rick Strimbeck

I was feeling a little queasy as we headed up, and so I lagged behind. The weather was beautiful; not a cloud in sight. But we knew the clouds could come int quickly. We were in the shadow of the cool mountain, with a brightly light valley full of deep blue lakes spattered below us. Distant peaks glimmered through the haze.

The switchbacks eventually led to a junction, Trail Crest, where we left our packs. There were people pouring in from all three forks of the junction: one trail lead to the top, one to Guitar Lake where we came from, and one down to Trail Camp and Whitney Portal. It was the most populous stretch of the trail since Happy Isles, oh-so-many days ago. At the corner of the trail sat Worldest’s Fattest Marmot, glowering from under a rock, waiting to be fed. It literally looked like it had swallowed a bowling ball.

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Trail Crest. Photo by Pennie Rand

Once we left our packs and started the 2 mile ridge traverse to the top of the Continental USA, I started to feel better. Maybe I was actually acclimatized, and it was just my pack weighing me down all this time. I will never get used to carry big packs, I thought, not until I find one that fits me properly at least. 

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On the ridge: Karin, Zoe, Annavitte and me. Photo by Rick Strimbeck

I hiked with Annavitte and Karin, stopping frequently to take in the breathtaking rock formations and peering over the edges all the way down to Lone Pine and the hazy desert, thousands of feet below us.

There are several passages known as the ‘Windows’ along the ridge line to Mt Whitney, so-called because they are open on either said. Mom had heard and consequently obsessed about them. She asked every Northbound hiker for the last 4 days about them, and choose to believe the testimony of people who claimed they were ‘terrifying’ rather than others who said they were no big deal.

Quoth Mom crossing the broad, smooth path across the first Window, stopping to take in the view: “Is this a window?"

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Mom crosses the first window.

Me: “Yes!"

Mom, dubious of the non-terrifying opening: “Are you sure?” The windows were not a big deal after all.

As we came around the slope and saw the final massive, rocky, but not steep, slope to the top of Whitney, I saw Dad and Zoe far down the trail ahead of me and something came over me. I can catch them if I want to.

I wanted to. So I did.

It felt great. We were a high altitude now, and I booked up the trail. I passed hikers who had come straight up from Whitney Portal, gasping for air like fish on land. I was immune; I was something more powerful. I didn’t need as much oxygen as everyone else. I drunk in the felling of being fast, enjoying the feeling of all of my muscles urging me forward.

I caught Dad and Zoe a few hundred meters before the top, and broke out in a run. I was the first of our group on top (not that it mattered!), and by passing Dad and Zoe I ruined their JMT experience for the last time.

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Summite yoga on Mt Whitney.

On the top, there was homemade beef jerky, hugs and many pictures. Matt made a little speech about how we would take the completion of the JMT with us as a strength. Mostly, I think the JMT was about putting one foot in front of the other. We each got a surveyors mark pin of Mt Whitney. 

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We made it! Photo by Pennie Rand

Matt then held an impromptu mandolin concert to the general enjoyment of the 30-odd people on the summit. I took to summit yoga pics, and we headed down, not wishing to risk exposure to afternoon storms.

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Matt’s mando on Mt Whitney.

Dad and I decided to charge ahead; we had a mission in mind. It was called Mt Muir, a second 14-thousand foot peak along the ridge line back to where we had dropped our packs, and involved a scramble to the exposed summit (route description here). Mom, of course, was worried about gathering clouds, but Dad said they were fair weather cumulus. We had time yet.

We had trouble finding the actual gully up Mt Muir. At one point we started to scramble up the ridge just to get a vantage point, and in the end we found the steep talus slope that wound its way to the final, class 3 scramble to the summit. There was a trail broken into the loose slope. Once at the cliff to the summit, we went out to the far right, as in the red line below:

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Photo from summitpost.org

But the move to get up to the shelf at the end of the red line turned out to be too long for me. Dad went up, and I first I thought I would just let him go to the top and wait it out. But then I started to think about the other possible route, and decided to go down and try it.

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On the climb. Photo by Rick Strimbeck

The other (blue line) route was great, it basically consisted of a series of big steps up through the sheltered gully. After I met Dad on the ledge, we continued climbing, mostly easy, but with one ass-in-the-air traverse across a big boulder. Finally we squeezed into a crack between two rocks and we were just below the summit, with a thousand foot drop on every side of us except the way we had come.

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Dad on the downclimb

The final move to the top was easy, just pulling yourself up a sloped boulder covered in nubs. I knew I could do it, but the exposure was just to scary. So I sat just below the top, and let Dad go up and open the tiny summit register. We could see the trail below us, and I waved to the Rands passing below. We scrambled back down, satisfied to have done something a little extra.

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Mt Muir as seen from a distance - looking like the boss of the ridge even though the taller Mt Whitney is hulking behind it!

The rest of the day was a zillion switchbacks down a crazy steep slope to Trail camp. We got down and found a site just as it started raining. After the rain storm, I crawled out of my tent and watched stragglers coming down from the mountain. It would not have been cool to be out there during the thunderstorm.

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The last night at Trail Camp. Photo by Pennie Rand

Late in the evening, the final three stragglers came down. There was a couple, lightly dressed, who had been caught in the thunderstorm. The women was delirious from heat stroke or exhaustion or something, and could barely walk. She was being supported on one side by her husband and on the other by a boy scout who had helped them down. All respect to the boy scout for helping them, but I find it difficult not to be cynical. What did they expect, headed up a 14 000 foot mountain in t-shirts and shorts, starting late, with a little water and couple of Power Bars? Although the first death accident we heard about at Tyndall Creek had shocked me, after seeing people climbing the mountain, I’m surprised more people don’t die.

August 2, Day 25: Wotan’s Throne

The last day would be a 6-mile hike downhill to Whitney Portal and civilization. Dad and I geared up for one final side trip: sunrise on Wotan’s Throne. We started climbing around the steep, rocky massive above Trail Camp 45 minutes before sunrise, our tiny headlamps illuminating a few meters ahead of us. The back of the Throne was steep, but not as steep as the front, and we picked our way up. The sunrise was dramatic, red and black and illuminating the face of Whitney behind us.

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Dad on Wotan’s Throne

I chewed on a granola bar and looked down the valley where the trail would take us to our final destination. Hot showers waited, and endless food of our choosing. No more tortillas with peanut butter! There would be internet - I would final talk to Audun, after 16 days of silence. Then I turned back and gazed up at Whitney, and the sharp peak of Mt Muir. For a little while longer at least, it was just us and the mountains. Twenty-five sunrises and sunsets, and each more satisfying than the last.

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Summit yoga on Wotan’s Throne

We turned and headed down the slope to Trail Camp. It was almost over. We just had to put one foot in front of the other. Again. And Again.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Recovery Racing?

Today, I pinned on a bib, tied my running shoes and ran up a hill. But I wasn’t racing. What is racing, anyway? Most of the time, it’s a state of mind. It is the willingness to find your limit and find out what all your training is really worth.

Arriving home from 7 days straight mountain biking in Spain (more of which later) late last night wasn’t the best recipe for a race to begin with. But my friend Ivar was directing the race, and donating the proceeds to the annual national charity cause, which this is year is to help give people access to clean water. Running uphill in the mud? And for charity? I couldn’t resist.

My thoughtful boyfriend, Audun, said I could participate on one condition: that I didn’t race. That I ran it as recovery off of 7 hard days of biking. “Alright!” I said. “You can run with me, and watch my heart rate monitor! We’ll be slow together!"

So that’s how I got to be standing in the chilly Sunday morning breeze at sea level, fresh off the plane from Costa del Sol, ready to head 530 meters up to the top of Gråkallen

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Julie, Audun, me and Dad - ready to race (or something)

The start gun went off and 150 people charged up the hill. Audun and I jogged off, joking that we should have started sprinting as hard as we could go, just to bait the forerunners. Before we knew it, we were at the back of the pack, letting people slip by as they inevitably got caught up by the excitement of racing.

Part of me wanted to catch them, pass them and let them eat my dust. The other part of me was just enjoying the sunshine, the sensation of running, and Audun’s company.

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Working hard or hardly working?

We cruised steadily up the hill, stopping to walk any time it was steep enough for my heart rate to exceed 162 bpm. It was an interesting experience, racing against a heart rate monitor rather than people or myself even. I tried to do yoga breathing, to see if I could lower my heart rate. I couldn’t.

It was clever to give the heart rate monitor to Audun. That way, neither of us could lie, and we kept a steady effort up the hill, passing several runners who had started to hard. Sunday hikers cheered us on through the forest, but it felt kind of like I was hiding something from them. “I’m not actually racing,” I wanted to tell them, “I can be much faster than this.” 

The day was beautiful, and the trails wound passed a series of charming dams to Skistua, where the ultimate, steep climb up the ski hill to the top Gråkallen loomed. I got the same sensation I felt looking up the hill at Oslos Bratteste - like we would literally be going up a cliff. We jogged the final flat stretch before walking slowly, painfully slowly up the ski slope.

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What am I doing here? Halfway up the ski slope

The last stretch passed surprisingly quickly, and I felt guilty for not being in pain and giving my all the final meters to the finish in a burst of lactic acid.

All said and told, I prefer actual racing to this new form of recovery racing I tried today. Why go at it without giving it your all? It was an interesting exercise in restraint, but one I would rather go through in training. I’ll be back giving my all soon - once I’ve recovered for real!

Strava stats here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, October 13, 2014

JMT Part 9: Dark and light

This is part nine in my series about hiking the JMT. You can read the rest here: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9Part 10

 

Can’t get enough of our trip? Check out my dad’s trip report on trailspace.com


July 30, Day 22: Center Basin - Tyndall Creek


The day we hiked over Forrester Pass started overcast but warm, pregnant with the possibility of thunderstorms. We started early, wanting to get over the highest pass on the John Muir Trail before any bad weather could set in.

 

 

On the climb. Photo by Annavitte Rand

 

As we passed above tree line and into a moonscape of rocks, I motored ahead of the group. The view grew more dramatic the higher I climbed, although it was hazy. Long, spiny ridges extended on either side of us. Finally I came over a crest in the hill and saw a small notch in the ridge - the pass!

 

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Matt, Pennie and Karin on the last stretch to the top.

 

I really chugged up the last stretch to the pass. Dad was closing in, motivating me to keep ahead and race to the top. I finally felt like all the time we had spent at altitude was starting to pay off. We were at 13000 feet and I could go hard. The top itself was pretty narrow, and sky pilot flowers dotted the rocks as the only vegetation. The trail heading down the other side was carved into what I would under most circumstances call a cliff. 

 

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Sky pilots on Forrester Pass.

We could see far into the distance, but were unable to identify Mt Whitney. We did, however, identify some ominous grey clouds above the valley in the direction we were headed. I put on my wool shirt, rain pants, and rain jacket in anticipation of some waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. Slowly they trickled in, and I was pretty chilly by the tim I had eaten my blueberry Caveman Bar. We had a quick photo session, and headed down behind a couple to whom Mom regaled the whole Muffintop saga.

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Me, Karin, Zoe and Annavitte on Forrester Pass. Photo by Pennie Rand

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Nice trail work! Photo by Pennie Rand

Just before the ominous storm clouds brought rain, I took the most magnificent picture of a pika, poised at the edge of the trail, peering at me like it had never seen a human before.

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Why hello there!

The rain started a couple of switchbacks down the pass, and it came down hard, soaking us and hitting us with hail. We could see and glimmer of sun in the distance, and with that glimmer rested our hope. The glimmer became a beam that shone on us as we traversed the plane beneath the steep slope of the pass.

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Into Mordor. Or something. Photo by Pennie Rand

Unfortunately, a dark, broiling storm cloud had been hidden behind the first hit of rain. In anticipation of lightning strikes, our group decided to hunker down behind some boulders and wait for the worst to pass. Personally I would have preferred to continue and get even lower down, as we weren’t at a high point in the first place. The Strazilchek family hunkered under a tent groundcloth, while the Rands were a few meters away under a tent fly. I disliked the anticipation, being cold and wet and waiting. Listening to the thunder was worse than being out in it. I started to sing, and my family joined me - “My Favorite Things”, “Rocky Racoon”, “Part of That World”, and some Stan Rogers. 

The closest lightning strike was about 3 seconds away, on a ridge line well above us. When we finally decided to start hiking again, it was still raining and I was freezing cold. We hiked fast - racing, really - towards tree line and cover, but I couldn’t help but admire the spectacular vista before us: The dramatic light, with dark clouds ahead of us and blue sky behind. A mountain ridge that looked like it had been sculpted with a giant chisel.

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Enjoying the view. Photo by Rick Strimbeck

We reached the first patch of trees, and had to cross one more open stretch before ducking into the trees for good. Annavitte was terrified of crossing the open patch. We discussed it. Dad and I were vehemently opposed to waiting anymore; I knew I wouldn't stay warm unless we set up our tents and I got into my sleeping bag, and we needed to hike at least a few more miles. We also didn’t see crossing the open patch as so dangerous. The actual probability of being hit is so low, especially when you’re not really at a high point. But perceived risk is very subjective, and the consequences of actually being hit are catastrophic.

In the end, we went for it, and charged through the cold rain to Bullfrog Lake/Tyndall Creek, where there was a bear box (very handy). This was about 1 mile from where we actually had planned to stop, but more sheltered, so we decided to call it quits for the day.

Zoe and I found a stretch of ground where the water wasn’t pooling, and set up our tent as fast as we could, but everything still got wet. And the floor still wasn’t waterproof (we need a groundcloth!). I threw in all of my dry bags, and clambered in, dripping. I then went through a complex process of changing clothes and unpacking in an order which minimized wetness. When I finally made it onto the dry(ish) haven of my sleeping bag in (semi)dry clothes, I realized that I had to pee. I stripped of my down jacket and made a mad dash out into the rain, returning to the tent shivering. That was the last straw. Zoe and I crawled into our sleeping bags and snack on crackers and cream cheese we had cleverly pilfered from the lunch bear canister, and read until the rain stopped.

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Zoe in the tent with Fritos.

That wasn’t until 5 pm, a full six hours after it had started! Matt, for some reason, stood outside for the whole time, jogging around the camp and chatting with the rest of us in tents. He said he wanted to save his dry change of clothes for when he knew would they stay dry. Personally I’m glad I got in the tent.

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Here comes the sun! Karin dries off.

Blessedly, the sun came out, and we crept out of our dripping tents. Everyone spread their wet stuff around on the rocks, and we basked in the warm glow. There was thick, hot potato cheese broccoli soup for dinner, and all was well. We just hoped we could stay dry the next day.

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And the drying process begins. Photo by Pennie Rand

July 31, Day 23: Tyndall Creek - Guitar Lake

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Foxtail pines in the morning light

The day dawned sunny, and the trail brought us up through a magnificent foxtail pine forest. Beams of light that I wasn’t able to properly render on cameras shone through the trees. We stopped before Bighorn Plateau, and spread out our things to dry before taking a side trip up Tawny Point. It was a 30 minute scramble, going hard without our heavy backpacks. Everyone but Mom and Zoe went. We could see Mt Witney from the top - the end was finally in site.

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The log book on Tawny Point. Photo by Pennie Rand

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Me and Dad enjoy the top. Photo by Pennie Rand

Fat, fluffy clouds materialized in the short space of time we were on top, but they were ‘fair-weather cumulus’ as Dad said, and nothing to be worried about. I ran down from the top, skirting the rockiest face to find soft soil on a ridge that descended into the foxtail pines. We packed up quickly and traversed Bighorn Plateau, a large flat area among all of these mountains, with a circular lake in the middle. There were marmots frisking in the grass near the lake.

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Looking down at Bighorn Plateau from Tawny Point. Photo by Pennie Rand

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Zoe and Mom cross Bighorn Plateau.

Us girls broke ahead and together we headed down to the intersection of the JMT with the High Sierra Trail at Wallace Creek. On the way, we met a rangerette named Chris. Apparently there would be a chance of thundershowers for the rest of the week. But she also said that in 8 years as a ranger, yesteday was the worst storm she had seen.

By the time our parents caught us at the crossing, it was high noon and we stopped to devour cream cheese, hummus and cheddar cheese with tortillas and chips (the luxuries of resupply!). My trail mix had gotten wet and sticky during the storm the day before due to some small perforations in the ziplock. 

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The Tyndall Creek Rangerette and Mom. Photo by Pennie Rand

Mom had also talked to the ranger. Apparently a 75-year-old man had gone missing on Mt Whitney, and was just found dead on the north side of Whitney. His wife had been waiting below at Whitney Portal. 

After lunch, we climbed up and over to Crabtree Meadows before started the ultimate ascent towards Mt Whitney. Near the Crabtree Meadows ranger station we met a huge troop of boy scouts. They nearly walked past the (mythical, but real) box of Wag-bags at the junction, until we shouted that they needed to stop. The Wag-bag system, which is intended to keep the amount of poop on Mt Whitney to a minimum by making people carry refuse out in plastic bags, definitely isn’t without flaws. 

A helicopter also landed near the station. Mom saw an older woman, who she reckoned was the deceased man’s wife, get in. I wonder what happened to him. The Tyndall Creek Ranger didn’t know the cause of death.

From Crabtree Meadow, the trail climbs steadily to Guitar Lake, tucked in a sort of valley below Mt Whitney. I was really hungry, and tried to eat the gross, vegan Rise protein bar (which I had selected because it had the most calories of all the bars). My pack was weighing me down like an anchor, but I knew we were close, so close to our goal - no stopping us now!

The sun was stilling shining directly above us, be we appeared to be right between two large thunderheads: one above Mt Whitney, and one behind us. I hoped no one was up on Whitney right then; it looked really dark.

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Whitney - or Mt Doom?!

We arrived at Guitar Lake, the base camp for assaults on Whitney from the west. There were tons of people camped there compared to what we had seen on the rest of the trail. I found it rather ironic; remote places like Rae Lakes and Evolution Valley are much more beautiful in many ways, but much less crowded. But that’s the reality of mountains that are the biggest!

Luckily there was no shortage of sites, and we camped between some big boulders on a rise above the lake. Although the area around Guitar lake is mistreated due to its proximity to Whitney, it’s still pretty spectacular. We seemed to be on the cusp of a battle between dark and light, of thunderstorms and sun. The sun was winning at Guitar Lake.

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The camp at Guitar Lake. Photo by Pennie Rand

We swam in the lake. It felt magnificent, cool and clean and close to nature.

A rodent chewed a hole in my soggy trail mix bag.

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Dad cooks at Guitar Lake. Photo by Pennie Rand

We had tuna pea wiggle with double cheese for dinner. It was great. Matt played the mandolin. We purified water. We steeled ourselves. We were ready for Whitney. 

- The Wild Bazilchuk