El Pico Experience

A few months back, I was hiking up Sulphur, still deliberating whether to travel to Mexico. It had been my intention for some time to seek out mountains where I could experience altitudes higher than the summits of the Canadian Rockies. I could go to Colorado or California, but it was still winter in those places and the peaks that were viable required sizable approaches, in some cases on skis. In the Lower 48 I could only reach upwards of 4400m, which didn’t provide the heights needed to prepare me for my future goals.

In Mexico one could accessibly reach altitudes over 5000m and quickly return to civilization. My money would go a lot further; plus it allowed me to escape the deep freeze we’d been experiencing this winter in Banff.

My mind turned to the horror stories painted by the media. Not long ago I swore I’d visit Afghanistan before ever setting foot in Mexico, for I’d rather be kidnapped by radical Islamists who (I presumed) lived by a set of religious morals, as opposed to thugs motivated only by money. I pictured myself held captive by the Taliban, fed and watered, whilst discussing the finer points of religion, whereas in Mexico I imagined my body dumped in a ditch with my throat cut.

In terms of mountains, Mexico was the logical choice, but I couldn’t shake the sense of discomfort. On more than one occasion, including this hike up Sulphur, I had an utter meltdown.

I pleaded, why take “vacations” that upset me, that cause so much turmoil? The reasoning came back that the theme of this stage in my life seems to be about meeting my fears head-on as much as it is about traveling to cool places or bagging peaks.

And when all is said and done, this turmoil and the growth that results from it, is beautiful.

I made up my mind to go. I shot off a few texts to try to wrangle a partner but knew it was last minute and secretly relished the fact when replies came back negative. As nervous as I was about this trip, doing it solo just emphasized the elements of self-sufficiency and other reasons why I’d elected to do this sort of thing in the first place.

I delved into a book on Spanish, refusing to be in the same boat I’d found myself on trips to Italy and France. Flailing through a foreign culture was maybe cute the first time, but I knew it wouldn’t fly trying to climb mountains in Mexico.

I also researched altitude, learning the symptoms of altitude sickness and taking precautions to prevent getting it. As I would be relatively alone with no one to monitor me, it was imperative to be aware of how I felt, to make conservative choices and back off if symptoms presented themselves.

My objectives in Mexico were three mountains (volcanoes actually) increasing in height, with a couple days resting at lower altitudes in-between. As Steve House mentions in his book Training for the New Alpinism, “The body cannot easily do the work of acclimating while remaining up high”. The days spent low (~2500m) would help consolidate gains made at higher altitudes.

Looking back, my experience was wholly positive and as usual my fears were greatly exaggerated. However I don’t for a moment chastise myself for any precaution I took.

It’s easy to develop a narrow view of a broad and diverse country based off a few juicy stories printed by the media. Certainly Mexico has problems with poverty, organized crime and corruption but my experience was of very pleasant people living a simple lifestyle free from the pretense of norteamericano culture.

I was able to record my thoughts day-by-day as a way to occupy myself during the downtime, so I share with you the events of my adventure climbing the volcanoes of Mexico.

16/01/17 – Mexico City to Apizaco
I arrived at Mexico City airport early in the morning and proceeded to weigh down my already heavy backpack with six liters of bottled water. My next objective was to find fuel for my camp stove somewhere in the city.

I had three options and picked the one closest to the bus station. I took a taxi from the airport to Deportes Ruben’s (near the centro historico) which sold several different types of fuel as well as other hiking and mountaineering goods. From there, I traveled to Mexico City’s large and modern TAPO bus station.

After an hour on the bus, I got off and roved the busy streets of Apizaco, inspecting row after row of identical-looking colectivos for one destined for Centro Vacational La Malintzi, a campground at the base of La Malinche. Another forty-five minutes brought me to the campground where I settled in for the next three nights.

Although everything went smoothly on the first day, I felt way in over my head. The chaos of Mexico City, then Apizaco, certainly contributed, but I was also reconciling my motivations for taking this trip with the reality of actually being there.

The sun set behind the trees and though it was still afternoon, it immediately got chilly. Despite committing so much energy to this trip, now that I was there, my impulse was to go home.

At least there were doggies.

17/01/17 – La Malinche (4461m)

Putting melancholy sentiments aside, I woke up and started hiking shortly after 8am. Besides the altitude, the trail to the top of La Malinche was easy, its height ideal for acclimatizing for higher peaks.

When I got to the summit, I hung out with a lone Mexicano dude and for awhile we were the only ones up there. Eventually his friends arrived, and after chatting among themselves in Spanish, hollered over at me:

Amigo! Cannabis?”

I walked over and they handed me the pipe. I could tell by looking at it that it was pretty sad fare compared to what you might find in Canada, but said “gracias” and took a hit. On top of La Malinche, I was officially the highest I’d ever been — the weed contributed little to the situation.

As the crowds and clouds started to converge on the summit, I felt it was time to depart. I hiked back to the campground to eat lunch and play with puppies and stuff.

14.7km | 1369m | 6h24m | Movescount | Strava

18/01/17 – La Malinche (4461m)

I set my alarm for 4am but didn’t wake up until a half hour later, and had to climb over the campground gate as it was still closed for the night.

My little canine amiga tagged along, though a full-blown ascent of La Malinche was probably more than she’d bargained for. Numerous times she tried to curl up and go to sleep but refused to get left behind.

I felt way more sluggish than the previous day. Maybe it was the previous day’s ascent still in my legs, a lack of calories or a lack of sleep, but I was feeling it from the get-go. Hence I was a little late to catch the sunrise from the summit but still saw what I went up to see: epic alpenglow on Popo and Izta and the shadow of Malinche extending all the way to the horizon.

The ambitious pup followed right until the summit block but wasn’t keen on getting hoisted up the final couple meters of class III which puts you on the summit proper. She curled up along the ridge and waited as I soaked up the sun, the views, the solitude and the altitude this baby volcano provides.

19/01/17 – Amecameca
After another frigid night, I woke up at 7:30am and made coffee. Somehow, an hour and a half wasn’t enough and I was scrambling to pack up my camp and catch the colectivo back to Apizaco.

I traveled back to Mexico City TAPO, ate some fast food (mmm, sodium) and caught the next bus to Amecameca.

I’d heard that getting a ride to La Joya, the starting point for climbing Iztaccihuatl, wasn’t difficult, and taxi drivers would approach as you got off the bus. However, I stepped off the bus and saw no one, just the vacant streets of an unfamilar town.

I walked for a block towards the San Carlos, a hotel popular with climbers, before passing a lingering cabbie who asked me, “La Joya?” I said si but wasn’t sure what time and wanted to check into the hotel first. The driver handed me a business card and I kept on walking.

The San Carlos was located a few blocks from the bus station in the central zocolo. I walked across the square to discover a fleet of military vehicles arrayed around the hotel and the entrance blocked by two soldiers with assault rifles slung across their chests.

I walked up the stairs but they politely informed me there were no rooms available and pointed in the direction of different hotel.

I checked into Hotel Bonampak for one night and for relatively few pesos got a modest room (it had a hot shower so good enough).

The next step was to get a national park permit and arrange to sleep at Altzomoni Lodge. These were the only bits of red tape involved in climbing mountains on this trip and wasn’t difficult at all. As for Altzomoni, I’d decided to stay at this utilitarian bunkhouse instead of sleeping in my tent at La Joya to avoid freezing my ass off like the first three nights.

I filled out the permit application and made arrangements to sleep at Altzomoni at the Izta-Popo Zoquiapan park headquarters right beside the San Carlos. If only a permit is needed, it can be obtained at Paso de Cortes on your way to La Joya.

I walked back to the bus station to try to organize a lift up to La Joya the next day when I bumped into the same taxi driver I’d spoken to before. I asked if he could take me to La Joya and pick me up two days later; he said it was no problem and would pick me up at ten. If climbing Iztaccihuatl, “Bring tun, chocolate y… tequila,” he said. I told him I’d save the tequila for after.

20/01/17 – La Joya

Oscar was waiting outside the hotel at twenty to ten. I heaved my pack into the back of his car and we were off, whizzing along country roads bound for the “Sleeping Woman”.

We stopped at Paso de Cortes to get access bracelets and a key to the lodge. After crawling up the dusty road to the communication compound on top of the hill, I rifled through pesos but seemingly didn’t have enough cash. Oscar didn’t appear too concerned but I promised to pay him as soon as we returned to Amecameca two days later.

I’d developed a mild headache from driving abruptly up to the lodge, but went inside, dropped off my stuff, ate a snack, and headed out for a hike to help acclimatize. I chugged water every fifteen minutes and hiked up to the Grupo de Los Ciens hut (4700m) on Iztaccihuatl in about three hours. I poked my head in the hut, which was residence to a few sleeping mountaineers and mice who scurried around my feet.

Seventy kilometer-per-hour winds conspired to blow me off the mountain and send me sailing down to Puebla. My only course of action was to brace with my poles and move like molasses into the headwind.

Charming tufts atop of Izta and Popo mid-afternoon built into flying saucer-esque lenticular clouds by the time I got back to the lodge. The storms turned into cyclones that whipped through the volcanic rocks of each mountain’s respective summit. Soon it got dark and Altzomoni was engulfed as well.

I looked at the forecast on my phone — showing clear skies and decreased wind — set my alarm and laid it beside me. I went to sleep feeling optimistic that when my alarm went off a few hours later, the skies would be calm and starry.

21/01/17 – Iztaccihuatl (5232m)
I woke up at 1:30am, ate breakfast and got out the door just after two. The skies were clear, the air cool, and the moon’s crescent looked like a little happy face, as my poles click-clacked down the trail to La Joya.

I caught up to a bunch of my hut-mates who’d left shortly before me then slogged solitarily into the darkness. I made good time up to Los Ciens despite getting a little disoriented in the jumble of rocks below the hut.

The wind was no better than the previous day and if anything, worse. After reaching the hut, I decided to take the couloir on climber’s left to gain the rodillas (knees) rather than the trail that goes directly up the slope.

The path was a little indistinct to find in the dark, but enough tiny cairns existed to guide me into a channel where the way became obvious. As I picked my way through the rubble, I saw headlamps emerging from the hut.

It took more time and effort to reach the top of the knees than expected and I topped out relieved I was done the slog up the gully. But one challenge was replaced by another as atop the exposed knees the wind was at its worst, and as the sun hadn’t risen, I couldn’t see a thing.

The wind alone was sufficient to make me want to bail and it was easy to say, “Oh well, not today Izta.” I huddled behind a concrete pillar belonging to the old hut which ironically was destroyed by weather. I thought it would be safer to wait for the sun than try to find my way back down the gully I’d grovelled up in the dark and looked at my watch: 5:51am… I still had an hour until sunrise.

Wind usually blows in one general direction providing reprieve on the lee of some boulder or other large object, however it seemed the wind gusted from every angle, making nowhere remotely comfortable. I squatted in a ball with my arms around my knees as volcanic sand, hoisted by the wind, scoured the surface of my Gore-tex hood. The steel girders of the ruined hut creaked and groaned.

At last the horizon started to glow and lit the sleeping woman with rose-colored light. I saw the series of peaks and ridges and the faint path that sneaked through the scree from the summit I was huddling on, up to the next one. I’d intended to descend as soon as the sun came up — and spent the last hour bemoaning my situation — but with the sun dawned enough confidence for me to at least give it a try.

At 6:51am I descended the third-class step off the knees and worked my way up to the ridge. I growled as the wind froze my face but it wasn’t long before I was staring across the belly glacier and digging out the Microspikes. The surface of the glacier was like a dry icefield covered in tiny penetentes. Ice crystals sheared off and sifted around my feet as I walked.

After crossing the glacier, I tagged a series of false summits before reaching the real ones. I emerged onto a high plateau containing another icefield, ringed by a number of modest bumps. This icefield covered the volcan’s crater and these were its highest points, the pechos (breasts).

I came to a mound of dry earth on the west side which I assumed was the highest point. When I got there however, there was no marker besides a tiny stick and another peak at the far end of the icefield looked higher and had a cross on top. Realizing this wasn’t the true summit, I marched across the icefield to the mountain’s highest point.

I arrived at the summit but wasn’t any warmer and was still getting hammered by the wind, thus my experience was made brief by the feeling of extreme discomfort. Though somewhere deep inside I was stoked to be there, the selfie I took depicts a person not having fun at all.

The descent went smoothly although I continued to get battered by the wind, especially at any sort of saddle such as the belly glacier, where the wind was channeled by the surrounding peaks.

I didn’t encounter anyone else along the route until I got back to the rodillas where a bunch of mountaineers were lingering around the ruined hut, just as I had, debating whether to brave the wind. By the second portillo the weather became tolerable and I began to encounter a variety of folks: families out for a dayhike; trail runners picking their way up to the hut; montanistas on their way back from Los Ciens stopped to have a morning snack.

In many ways, that hour spent shivering in the dark was one of the highlights of the entire trip and vastly more rewarding than if I’d climbed Izta on a calm, sunny day. This is definitely an experience I’ll be able to call on for perspective when faced with challenging situations in the future.

19.8km | ~1300m | 8h46m | Movescount | Strava

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22/01/17 – Amecameca

I walked down to La Joya to meet Oscar and after twenty minutes thought to look around the parking area, which was inundated with the vehicles of weekend warriors. I located him standing on a small hill, searching for me on Iztaccihuatl with binoculars.

We drove down to Paso de Cortes where Oscar strongarmed the park staff to return a $100 peso deposit I didn’t know they took. We walked outside and I thanked him; he nodded and gestured with a couple blows to the chin.

We got back to town went to the bank so I could pay him. I handed Oscar a healthy sum, appreciative for his congeniality and not leaving me stranded when my pesos ran dry. I gorged myself on a torta, guzzled a cerveza, checked back into the Bonampak (the San Carlos was still occupied by soldiers) and got lost in the market.

The market swells one-hundred times in size on the weekend, or so I learned upon returning to Amecameca. For blocks I squeezed past hundreds of people engaged in various acts of buying and selling, cooking and eating, and returned home with a veritable bounty, from lychees to pizza to expired Indian cigarettes.

23/01/17 – Ciudad Serdán
I woke up at six to try to get to Ciudad Serdán, — the jumping-off point for my final mountain — early. While the bus left Amecameca before the sun came up, the bus to Serdán didn’t leave Mexico City till sometime in the afternoon, so I sat around TAPO listening to the Enormocast.

Google Maps said the drive supposedly takes three hours but the bus took closer to five, fighting our way out of Mexico City, then stopping at a series of small towns on the way to Serdán. Thus I didn’t arrive until nearly seven p.m.

I was anxious to check into the hotel and arrange a ride up to Orizaba the next day. As I hadn’t actually booked any hotels ahead of time, I was running the same risk I encountered at the San Carlos in Amecameca.

I checked into Hotel Monte Carlo for two nights and mentioned to the manager I intended to find a taxi to take me to the south side of Orizaba. She replied something to the effect that it couldn’t be done. “Atzitzintla” she said, which was another town a half-hour down the road.

I took her response as groundless pessimism, and with my mind firmly set, went to find a taxi to take me there.

I walked to the bus stop where a bunch of taxis were waiting. I approached the first one I saw and in broken Spanish explained I was looking for someone to take me to the Orizaba/Sierra Negra col first thing in the morning, wait for me to climb Orizaba and bring me back when I was done. The driver thought about it for a minute and with a swaggle of his head replied, “Sure, no problem”.

I verified the various components of the arrangement to make sure we were on the same page: He would pick me up at 6am? Si. Wait while I climb? Si. Drive me back to Serdan? Si.

Cuanto cuesta? 600 pesos. It was a hell of a deal but I shook his hand and said I would see him in the morning.

Content that I’d made a relatively complex arrangement using my shoddy Spanish, I trotted off to Soriana to procure the final implements for an ascent of Pico de Orizaba the next day.

24/01/17 – Ciudad Serdán, continued…

I woke up at 5am, made some breakfast, went down to the hotel lobby and waited. For a half hour I waited but the taxi never turned up.

Disappointed, I went back to my room but reasoned that this happened for some meaningful purpose, like things often do on trips for me. And while I didn’t feel like sticking around at 2500m another day, I didn’t really have another choice.

I headed into town, my first mission to procure coffee, my second to procure a ride to the saddle a.s.a.p., as my weather window on Orizaba was closing in a couple of days.

I spent most of the morning trying to arrange a ride but soon learned the taxis didn’t have enough power to make it up the road at 4000m. My whole plan to climb Orizaba from the south side was dependent on a misunderstanding I had made in presuming a cab could drive me to the col.

After asking the third driver, I sat down on a bench in the zocolo feeling pretty let down. I started considering a few bolder/stupider options (such as walking from Serdán — “Better start walking!” I said) but it was obvious I wasn’t prepared for that kind of endeavour.

As my final ditch, I went back to the hotel and asked if they knew anyone with a truck that could do it. The woman behind the desk pulled out a folder, ran her finger down a list, picked up the phone and — well, it wasn’t that easy but it was a start. By two in the afternoon, we’d tentatively arranged for a man named Hugo to drive me up to Orizaba the following day.

Hugo stopped by with his father to talk about the specifics. I estimated taking nine to twelve hours and he agreed to wait while I climbed. I explained I had a helmet (genuinely required), crampons (I had Microspikes — not needed), poles not a piolet… And tried to explain to Hugo’s dad why I had no need for a harness. I’d inspected the south side of Orizaba via webcam every day for the past few months and knew there wasn’t a flake of snow on it. I seemingly knew more about conditions on the mountain than they did.

I said I wanted to arrive at the saddle no later than 7am in order to avoid the ordeal on Iztaccihuatl. Hugo typed out a response on my phone and hit “translate”: “At the time you want to go out of here, you suggest at 6 am”.

I agreed to be ready and said I’d meet him outside at six the next morning.

25/01/17 – Pico de Orizaba (5636m)

Once more, I woke up at five, ate some breakfast, went down to the lobby and waited. Right at six, Hugo’s Jeep Cherokee came roaring along the otherwise silent streets and stopped in front of the hotel.

The trip to the saddle took a little over an hour and was passed mostly in silence, besides me prying from Hugo that he was indeed a mountain guia as evidenced by the stickers on his truck. We passed through a couple increasingly spartan farming villages as a faint glow appeared above the fields through my window to the east.

We turned onto the road to the saddle, which was surfaced for a few hundred meters with brick, then dirt and rocks.

A taxi would’ve gotten owned by this”, I thought.

At the top of the pass I expected Hugo to drop me off, but he kept on driving up the rugged 4×4 track towards the hut at the bottom of Orizaba’s south face. A half-kilometer from the hut the road became too rough, even for his Jeep. I asked Hugo if he wanted me to start walking but was already pulling over and simply said, “yes”.

I started chugging up the hill so Hugo wouldn’t be too worried but, truth be told, it took a good fifteen minutes to feel warmed up. Having sat around in town for the past three days, I was worried my acclimatization might be totally shot but I didn’t feel AMS symptoms, I just felt slow.

From the firetruck-red Fausto Gonzales Gomar hut at 4700m, one follows a well-worn trail through the rocks that tromps up to the base of Orizaba’s lado sur. I followed a footpath that started ascending the scree slope east of the bouldery ridge.

The scree wasn’t bad at first — granted I’m seasoned by the worst Canadian Rockies fare — but it soon became interminable. There was a traverse off the slope higher up but I didn’t want to wait that long; the ground was sliding under every footstep, so I clambered over to the ridge and started scrambling through the boulders.

From down near the rifugio, I’d spotted a party two-thirds of the way up the mountain, easily identified by the bright orange of someone’s mountain apparel. By the time I reached them, they’d barely moved.

They asked “Que tal?” and I joked, “muy bien“, feigning (not really) hyperventilating and/or a heart attack. The momentary contact with other humans was a pleasant reprieve from the incessant slogging. Alhough I managed to move consistently, I could only actually hike or climb for a handful of moves before I had to stop to catch my breath.

At 5400m, the convenient ridge came to an end and I was faced with an expanse of chalky white scree before reaching the “pulpito”, a rock tower at the top of the route. The ruta sur followed an aesthetic curve from the saddle to the summit, but here that curve ramped up and became chaotic like the whitecap of a wave.

I took a few steps and found it almost impossible to avoid kicking down rocks. I take pride in being adept in this sort of terrain but it was testing the limit of any skill I thought I had.

I premeditated each move, from semi-solid rock to semi-solid rock, which would shift in the mounds of scree when I put any weight on them. I mused half-philosophically whether I’d rather have rocks knocked down on me or be responsible for killing someone in the party below… before grimly electing that I preferred to be above.

I was getting annoyed, feeling it was irresponsible to bring clients up this technically easy but objectively hazardous route, which was for all intents and purposes a shooting gallery. As it was, I managed to knock most of my debris into the gully east of them and quickly scrambled up the side of the pulpito and out of sight.

Crawling around climber’s-left of the pulpito I discovered the remains of a small crashed airplane which provided the best handholds on the entire route. A small field of penetentes provided more things to hold onto, unless one happened to snap off.

Atop the pulpit, one can see the summit cross and from there, it’s only a short distance to reach the top of Orizaba.

I got to the summit and no one was there. I’d expected to meet a mob of mountaineers who’d come up the north side but I was alone to take in the 360° view of Mexico. The weather was pleasant besides a cold wind that whistled through the mass of steel on the summit adorned with prayer flags, crucifixes, and other objects non-religious in nature. Behind, El Pico’s crumbling caldera yawned.

After hanging out for an hour, members of the guided group started to appear. I apologized for kicking rocks on them but they seemed unfazed and we all exchanged congratulations. The group contained two Americans, the first gringos I’d met on this trip, but everybody spoke English, so it was nice to not struggle to make conversation for once.

By this point I was getting pretty cold, so I took a group picture and left them to enjoy the same solitude I’d been able to.

During my approach, I’d seen a perfect line of light gray scree descending from the summit all the way to the rifugio at 4700m. This appeared to me like the perfect descent and I was anxious to try to ski it in my runners on the way down.

I said adios, tightened my sombrero and dropped off the summit majestically but the hard-packed slope was covered in a fine layer of rubble and my attempts to ski resulted in me spinning, sliding and swearing. Below the pulpit, it became easy to plunge through waves of soft, pillowy scree. I plummeted a thousand meters in a half-hour, giggling and gasping for oxygen all the while. Sure, I had a small mountain of rocks in my sneakers when I was done, but gaiters are for wimps 😉

A short traverse brought me over to the rifugio and back to Hugo’s Jeep, where I found him waiting on top of a huge boulder. Five hours and one minute after leaving I’d returned, dusty and deliriously happy.

Pico de Orizaba was supposed to be the climax, the final test of this trip, but felt anticlimactic while climbing it. After the ordeal on Iztaccihuatl, the ascent of Orizaba felt fairly easy, lazily scrambling over boulders on a calm, sunny day. However I won’t deny that Orizaba loomed in my mind as a big challenge, a feeling that wasn’t reduced when I saw it from Malinche for the first time earlier that week.

The challenge of climbing the south side of Orizaba had little to do with climbing and more with the logistics of getting there. As Aleister Crowley wrote in his Confessions: “We had intended to finish our programme by climbing Citlatepetl; but there were difficulties about mules and none about the mountain”.

Arranging the means of supporting one’s mountain goals; building a (hopefully accurate) mental map from scraps of beta and information gleaned from books and the internet — these to me are important components of going on big adventures. As one gets into bigger or more remote mountains, red tape and the hurdle of organizing transportation and porters seems almost as big a challenge as the mountains themselves. It thus appears helpful to be as skilled in this capacity as one is as a mountaineer.

6.9km | 1125m | 5h01m | Movescount | Strava

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27/01/17 – Nevado de Toluca
You might think after Orizaba I’d be satisfied, but I’d hardly finished dumping the scree out of my sneakers when I started thinking about another volcan. I was ahead of schedule and had two days to kill, so rather than visit cultural sites like a normal person I elected to camp in a crater instead.

I left the Monte Carlo early in the morning and traveled back to Mexico City TAPO. I caught a cab to Observatorio bus station on the west side of the city and from there bussed to Toluca.

The nevado was further from town than I’d imagined and the taxi driver was asking a hefty fare to take me up there and bring me back, but it was the end of my trip and I was resigned to pay for one last experience.

The driver had lived in Chicago for a few years so we talked in English about a variety of subjects, not least the trainwreck of American politics. As we came around the curve of the dusty road we happened on the sight of two people whose double backpacks — overloaded trekking bags on the back, daypacks on the front — immediately marked them as free-spirited-hippy-traveler types.

Aliah was from Quebec and met his girlfriend Isabel in Mazatlan; now they were taking the scenic route back to Mexico City. As camping inside the nevado was prohibited, we pitched our tents on a patch of sand outside the crater rim.

We ventured up to the rim to catch a glimpse of the nevado’s famed sun and moon lakes. As the sun was setting behind El Fraile, the volcano’s highest point, details at the bottom were hard to make out. Aliah and Isabel did yoga poses over on an adjacent summit while I soaked up the remaining few minutes of daylight.

We met back at the campsite after they descended into the crater to get water while I went the opposite way, to the forest, to scavenge for firewood. The evening was spent having what felt like the quintessential Mexican experience: cooking over a open fire in the dry, high mountains underneath a canopy of stars. The only thing missing was our donkeys tied up nearby.

28/01/17 – Toluca to Mexico City to Home

We endured a freezing night in our tents, which was little surprise as we were perched high on the side of a volcano. Aliah immediately got a fire going as I jogged around in circles trying to restore circulation in my limbs. The next challenge was defrosting the Nutella jar…

When the sun peeked over the crater, it was like a godsend. We finished off our haphazardly conceived, but delicious, camp granola, struck down our tents and headed up to see the lakes one last time. With the sun at our backs, the Sol and Luna lagunas displayed their respective hues, set in a landscape uniformly yellow with variations of orange, brown and red. Again the volcanoes of Mexico suggested the features of another planet.

As we were all headed to the same destination, we split on the taxi to Toluca, caught the bus to Mexico City, then they helped me navigate the subway to the airport. It was nice spending the last two days with a couple hip, friendly strangers to whom I related in a surprising number of ways.

I returned to the airport accompanied by a sense of accomplishment and pride. I thought back to how I felt when I’d landed twelve days prior: how heavy my bag was; how embarrassed I was to speak Spanish; how worried I was about getting killed or robbed.

Now I was back, filthy, sunburnt, clothes caked in a layer of dust, with three Mexican volcanoes under my belt. I strutted through the airport feeling like the fucking man.

After going through security came the last and most important objective of my trip to Mexico: purchasing high-quality tequila.

The duty-free shop appeared and welcomed me as though I’d entered the pearly gates of agave heaven. After spending a half-hour discussing the science which distinguishes an anejo from a reposado, I made off with a bottle of sweet, smooth, amber-colored Herradura which spent two years aging in a Jack Daniels cask.

I boarded the plane, stashed the tequila and reclined into my seat. I’d not only survived this adventure, better yet, I had a great time and achieved every goal. I’d traveled to Mexico for its mountains but was leaving with a bit of a crush on the country itself.

El Pico Experience

Shoulder Season of Giants

After a year spent wrestling with a handful (footful?) of injuries, I’m elated to be moving in the mountains again consistently, racking up vert with frostbitten extremities, just like normal.

Based on the potential I saw in 2015, I expected 2016 to be my peak as a trail runner but it was largely spent doing a bunch of other activities like riding my bike and swimming in frigid bodies of water instead.

That isn’t to say I’m disappointed with last year at all: despite persistent biomechanical issues, I trekked hut-to-hut in the Dolomites and ran a 20km skyrace; Glenn, Tyler and I tagged Athabasca; I rode my bike to Lake Louise, climbed Temple, then rode back to Banff; and also biked, swam and ran to the top of Mount Aylmer with a couple of friends.

2016 was the year I really diversified my movement in the mountains and learned to value what I’ve got.

I’d normally take a break from running and bagging peaks this time of year, but since gaining an, er, foothold on my foot problem, I’ve tried to get out as much as possible to make up for what’s felt like a relatively inactive year.

I now find myself the fittest I’ve been all year, during what would otherwise be little more than “shoulder season”.

Where have I been? Mostly Sulphur, trying to tag the scrambly peak SE of the helipad (S3) in increasingly wintry conditions; and EEOR, hauling jugs of water up a thousand meters of snowy scree in an effort to simulate my next adventure.

Glenn and I on a late-season traverse to Sulphur’s true summit
Minus a million degrees on EEOR
Tagging Sulphur 3 with skis

Sometime last summer — just before going to the Dolomites, or maybe after getting back — I was sitting around thinking about my life and said,

“The only thing I’m good at is going on adventures.”

That is to say, the thing that comes naturally, if left to my own devices, is to research a place meticulously until I’ve developed a mental picture; scrupulously assemble the gear needed for the adventure, leaving behind anything I don’t; arm myself with any special skills needed for the challenge; then going off and doing it.

This has been my general M.O. for the five years I’ve lived in the Canadian Rockies and is same formula I’ve started applying in traveling to mountain locations elsewhere.

Most recently my goals have shifted from trail racing to mountain adventures at high altitude.

I developed an infatuation with altitude while trying to set a fastest time on Mount Temple in 2013. I remember slogging into the cobalt blue as my muscles seared, starving for oxygen. At the same time, I found myself relishing the sensation, discovering pleasure deep within the pain.

The feelings flooded back to me this past summer when I rode my bike to Moraine Lake and hiked up Temple, basking in the “tranquility and power that permeates the alpine zone at 11,000 feet.” Around here, however, 4000m is as high as you can get and any route on Mount Robson is well beyond my abilities as a mountaineer at present.

20160826_113151

Fortunately there are five and six thousand meter high piles of scree elsewhere in the world and I intend to climb them!

First stop, Mexico

My first exposure to the volcanoes of Mexico was via Aleister Crowley, whose writings I devoured as a young adult. Crowley trained in Mexico for an attempt on Kangchenjunga, and this account I remember reading while living in suburban Toronto. I remember desperately wanting the experience of climbing mountains but not knowing how I would ever even get to the mountains in the first place.

Ten years later, and traveling to Mexico has become the logical next step for me, just as it is for dozens of (especially American) mountaineers who make the pilgrimage down south for their first dose of thin 5000m oxygen.

Just as the Rockies prepared me for forays in the Alps, forays in the Alps have helped prepare me for this. I see the mountains of Mexico as the first step in a series of goals that has the potential to occupy me (my winters, anyway) for the next few years.

5426m Popocatepetl as seen from 5230m Iztaccihuatl, a view I’ll hopefully see in a few days.
Shoulder Season of Giants

Dipping into the Unknown: Aylmer Triathlon

23It was mid-September. The mornings were chilly; leaves were turning vibrant yellow; snow had already fallen on the mountaintops. And there I was in my wetsuit about to slip into the freezing-cold lake.

Ever since I saw the video of David Gonzales’ Grand Teton Triathlon (AKA “The Picnic”), I’d wanted to attempt the same sort of challenge here in the Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if Sean and I had even bagged Aylmer for the first time, but I’d already selected it as the perfect playground for this sort of type 2 fun.

After my Temple duathlon, my focus shifted to this objective. I’d been riding my bike all summer — plus did Aylmer by bike last fall — so the cycling component wasn’t in question. And I was fairly confident about the running and scrambling parts as long as my gimpy foot held up. But when it came to the prospect of getting in the frigid lake and swimming across a wide part of it — that’s where the unknown lay.

24I actually possess a fair bit of experience both as a swimmer and dealing with mild hypothermia. I’ve been a swimmer my entire life, eventually teaching swimming as a young adult, where I shivered for hours in chilly lap pools with zero body fat to keep me warm.

But those were pools, and this was a lake. A very cold lake, with a good amount of chop on the water most days, not to mention a terrifying sea monster that resides within it.

Once on land, one isn’t much safer: the Minnewanka lakeshore trail is prime habitat for grizzlies and is restricted to groups of four, bear spray, etc., for most of the summer. I planned to attempt the triathlon September 17, as soon as the restrictions ended, and rounded up a couple buddies to join me for the cycling and running parts of the trip.

Jordan joined me from Edmonton and Chris from Canmore. The weather leading up was stellar but as the weekend approached, the forecast deteriorated. I’m used to pretty wild chinooks but the evening before the triathlon, the winds gusted harder than I’d ever felt them before. I laid in bed thinking about having to swim in the lake the next morning.

When we awoke, the wind had died but the skies were dismal — you couldn’t even see Aylmer from the window as it was engulfed in dark clouds. We cooked a couple of breakfast wraps and headed out the door around 7:40am. I was already wearing my wetsuit so I wouldn’t have to change when we got to the lake.

We met Chris at Whitebark Cafe and started cruising at 8:10am. We rode the 10kms up to Minnewanka in 31mins. I left my bike in Chris’ car (which was parked in Minnewanka parking lot) and organized my gear for the swim.14455702_10157413456095487_1913531413_oAs I intended for this trip to be self-supported (i.e. carrying all my own gear), I planned to tow everything behind me in drybags bundled in a PFD. As we approached the water we could see a considerable chop flowing west into the Stewart Canyon outlet. “I’m not very optimistic about this,” I said considering I had yet to test the dynamics of my tow kit.

I looped a long sling into an improvised harness, tied my tow bag to the back of it and placed the PFD into the water. I slipped into the lake, immersing my hips, my chest, then my shoulders, then launched off.

I swam about a quarter of the way out, noted that although the water was rough, it wasn’t impeding my swimming and my tow bag wasn’t being affected my the current either. I gave the thumbs up to Chris and Jordan and kept going.

The two-thirds point was the lowest point for me, as the opposite shore just didn’t seem to get any closer and waves kept lapping me in the face. I definitely had thoughts of the “bit off more than I can chew” variety but I had little choice but to just keep swimming.

14456735_10157413455535487_2076362924_oI stumbled onto the opposite shore amid the beached driftwood grunting like a beast. Even though I was unbelievably cold, I had to change into dry clothes and start hiking immediately. Although the transition was slowed by the numbness of my extremities, once I got into my running gear and started moving, I warmed up quickly.

2I traversed along the shoreline, stashed my wetsuit, then bushwacked up through the foliage to find Chris and Jordan.

Now for the fun part. We jogged along the rolling and incredibly scenic shoreline for 6km before reaching the junction for Aylmer Pass. After heading in that direction for a bit, I elected for us to head up the old fire lookout trail as opposed to the avalanche gully. I’d only taken the avi gulch before and wanted to try something new.

4The trail backtracks a bit before breaking out of the trees and gaining the location of the old lookout, which is no longer present. We gazed in the direction of Aylmer. Chris asked if a pointy peak, pretty far away, was Aylmer. No, I don’t think so, I said. We shifted our view a little. Even further away, behind that summit, was Aylmer.

5From the fire lookout, one traverses along the ridge towards its intersection with the avi gulch. This, I thought, would be straightforward, and though it wasn’t difficult, it was more bushwacky and route-findy than expected.

7Soon we arrived at the avi gulch to behold the behemoth Mt. Aylmer socked in the clouds. After a snack, we made our assault on the final mass of the mountain, aiming to dash up to the summit and back down to that spot.

8We traversed beneath the ridgeline and gained the notch in the ridge which permits views into the Ghost Wilderness on the other side. The final climb through loose rubble is nothing less than a slog, and compounded by relatively thin oxygen. If one consistently bags peaks in the 2500-3000m range (which in the Rockies is easy to do), one can expect to be feeling it at 3100m+.

10As we ascended the final hundred meters, clouds rolled in and it started to snow. When I got to the top, I found Chris sitting on the summit grinning with nothing to be seen anywhere around him. I personally tagged the summit at 6h28m after leaving Banff — Chris was a few minutes before me and Jordan a couple minutes after.

11We hung around on the summit for only a few minutes, as there was nothing to see. I fixed the piece of lumber usually jammed in the summit cairn. We said, “Peace out, Aylmer,” and headed back down.

13The descent went smoothly. We boot-skiied through shitty rock to the notch, traversed along chossy ledges below the ridge, then bombed down the screefield in the avalanche gulch to meet up with the Aylmer Pass trail.

I’d elected to hit up the Aylmer Pass trail for our exit rather than bushwack back along the ridge to the fire lookout. The Aylmer Pass trail was pretty runnable, I thought, and we would be able to make good time.

14We jogged for a few kilometers until Jordan caught a toe and went down hard. He tumbled into the bushes and was silent. I asked if he was okay. Not really, he said. His tooth was embedded in his lip and blood was pouring down his chin.

16Jordan removed his tooth from his lip. Chris cracked open a first-aid kit and we applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Jordan’s teeth seemed to be okay, and he’d probably need a couple stitches, but it became apparent after awhile that he might have a concussion.

This didn’t impede his ability to walk or run, so we did just that and trotted back along the lakeshore so we could get him some stitches and afterwards hopefully some beer and chow.

17In his semi-concussed state, Jordan repetitively asked (among other questions) whether I was planning to swim again. The day was supposed to have two swims, and as the model for the “Picnic” goes, you bike, then swim, then climb, then do it all in reverse.

Although I can use Jordan as an excuse (and I joked that I would), I really didn’t want to swim again. Or rather, the desire not to swim was stronger than the desire to swim, as I weighed my decision up until the very last moment. I could say that it was cold and rainy (it was); I could say the water had too much chop (possibly true); I could say I was tired (I was); I could even say that one of my friends was injured and it was more appropriate to stay with them… The truth remains that I simply didn’t want to get back in the water though I was surely capable of swimming across one more time. And I don’t consider the triathlon complete until I do it with two swims.

18We reached the parking lot around 9h14m. Chris and Jordan loaded their bikes into Chris’ car and headed down to get Jordan some stitches. I saddled up on the roadie for the downhill rip into town.

Ten hours and twenty-three minutes after leaving Banff, I returned to civilization, having biked, swam and ran/hiked my way to the top of a lofty mountain tucked in the front range backcountry. Furthermore I had a great adventure with friends and challenged myself to push (well) beyond my comfort zone.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-36-50-pmSplits:
00h31m  Lake Minnewanka parking lot
01h00m  Minnewanka swim start
01h18m  Minnewanka swim finish
02h38m  Lakeshore/Aylmer Pass jct
03h38m  Aylmer Lookout
06h24m  Aylmer summit
07h36m  Aylmer Pass trail jct
08h23m  Lakeshore/Aylmer Pass jct
09h43m  Lake Minnewanka parking lot
10h23m  Banff

55km (11.5km bike/482m swim/33km trail run/10.5km bike) | 2328m vertical | Movescount

Dipping into the Unknown: Aylmer Triathlon

The Summer That Was No Bummer

96When I got back from Italy in July, I started running in the mountains like I’d forgotten all about the saga of injuries I’d been dealing with most of the year, and pretty much made the same mistakes I made back in May. I ran the Cory-Edith loop with friends, then tagged Edith a couple days later, then biked and hiked to Egypt Lake a few days after that. I stopped doing physio exercises partway through my trip to Europe — the dorm at Rifugio Lagazuoi was the last time I used a resistance band — so it was little wonder when my tib-post/plantar issues flared up after getting back from Egypt Lake.

Soon it was the end of July — the finest months for peak bagging squandered — as I laid on the couch describing my state of inactivity over the phone to my girlfriend: “How are you dealing with that emotionally?” she asked, knowing I was probably clawing at the walls.

One perspective, I answered, was that the situation was frustrating, that I was deeply unhappy, that my life lacked meaning and I was facing identity issues. But that wasn’t the perspective I walked around with day-to-day. Instead, I tried to stay patiently optimistic and furiously did physio exercises like there was no tomorrow.

LG-H831One upside to my inability to run has been embracing the bike more wholeheartedly. Last fall I completed an “Aylmer Duathlon“, riding from Banff to Lake Minnewanka, tagging the 3163m summit of Mt. Aylmer, then riding back to town. When I was forced this past spring to look to the bike as my only means of getting around and maintaining my sanity, it took a few weeks to come around to it. What began with bitter and aimless rides evolved one day into a concerted mission to ride to the Continental Divide on Highway 93 and back. After that outing, I started seeing the bike as a tool that can be used to tick objectives that lend the same sort of warm, fuzzy ego-stroking feelings of fulfillment I get from bagging summits.

LG-H831Luckily, this summer wasn’t solely restricted to riding my bike, and by mid-August my foot was healthy enough to fathom the prospect of trotting up and down eleveners and stuff:

Athabasca
Partway through August, my buddy Glenn put the idea to scramble up 3491m Mount Athabasca in my ear. Though my foot was still iffy, I agreed to go, if only to resolve a simmering vendetta between us and the mountain — though Athabasca is by all appearances a glacier-clad behemoth, last summer Glenn and I reached a snowy arete spitting distance of the summit and were turned back by my idiotic decision to leave the ice tools and crampons in the car.

Joined by our friend Tyler, we hit the road at 4AM, driving for two hours through the Rockies, arriving at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier at dawn. The morning was chilly. Seracs crashed down from Snowdome. After eating and gearing up in the parking lot, we marched up the road intended for glacier buses, then scampered through the sea of moraine into the AA valley.

Ten years ago the AA glacier probably spanned the whole valley but its shrinkage (and that of other glaciers in the area) now allows intrepid scramblers to sneak up beside the icefall and sidehill in tedious scree to the summit, no glacier travel required.

4Jokes about “uphill swimming” were aplenty as our shoes sifted through the fossils beds and we looked for any trilobytes. Eventually we reached the ascent gullies that lead to Atha’s summit ridge: steep, hard-packed, and littered with choss. The scrambling isn’t difficult but managing rockfall is the real hazard. As we all stayed out of each other’s way and were keen to call out falling rocks, we made it to the ridge in no time.

78The grind up the ridge to Silverhorn was less technical than the gullies, but dark clouds were hovering, making me uneasy, and I could sense the altitude was starting to tucker out Glenn.

79 We made it to Silverhorn, Athabasca’s snowy sub-summit, and prepared for the moment of truth: would snow conditions allow us to climb to the summit?  This year we were prepared, packing Microspikes, and I had an ice axe, refusing to let any snow climbing stop me. The west side of the ridge leading to the summit was completely bare of snow, allowing us to tread solely on scree. The only detour of any technicality was the need to cross an icy gully by leaping between two rotten, chossy ledges.

83At last we were on top. An elevener bagged. The vendetta was resolved; Athabasca and I were on good terms. I kicked steps up the huge fin of snow that sits atop the summit, gazed out at the sea of mountains, and drove the shaft of my ice axe into the snow triumphantly. Only problem was that the jagged pick of the ice axe was embedded in my leg. Still working on this alpinism thing, I guess.84We hung around for a half-hour soaking up the epicness that surrounded us. The Columbia Icefield is a crazy place, giving the impression of a different epoch in Earth’s history. Though the outlet glaciers have dwindled, it is easy to imagine these immense mountains as humble nunataks protruding from the icecap many eons ago.

16.6km | 1660m vertical | 10h29m | Movescount | Strava

82Temple Duathlon
The idea to do a Temple Duathlon came about rather organicly. After riding to the Continental Divide, the next step was to ride to Lake Louise and back, or so I reasoned. Throw a peak in there for good measure — Mount Temple being the ideal, the veritable monarch of Lake Louise with a third-class route up its backside. It would be an audacious undertaking, one I filed in the back of mind under “crazy ideas”.

The primary red tape when it comes to climbing Temple is seasonal restrictions that require hiking in groups of four, carrying bear spray, etc. to minimize encounters between hikers and grizzlies. This year, the bears were still feasting on berries down in the valley below, so the typical rules hadn’t been put in place. The opportunity allowed Adam Campbell and Andy Reed to blast up and down Temple in 2h42m, crushing both my 2013 Temple time and a slightly faster one that had been put up a week previous.

The lack of trail restrictions at Moraine Lake was the last impetus I needed to try my hand at a Temple Duathlon, reasoning I might never have another crack to ascend my favourite mountain solo.

My alarm went off at 2:30am. I proceeded to make espresso and whip up a couple of fully loaded breakfast wraps. I poured two more espresso shots into 1.25oz GooToobs and stuffed them in my pack. In my Ultimate Direction PB vest I had a pair of Kahoola Microspikes, an Arcteryx Gore-tex shell, a pair of running shorts, bear spray and all of the food I would need to fuel my effort throughout the day. It was my intention to carry all my supplies and not rely on anybody else, so that this effort would be truly solo and unsupported.

95I left the house at 3:41am and started spinning. The ride went by mostly in the dark which was my wont; not a single car passed me on the 1A until I got to Lake Louise. When I saw the silhouette of Mount Temple, so huge and still so far away, I shuddered and doubts started to creep into my consciousness.

I refilled my water bottles at Lake Louise village then pedaled off to tackle the most sustained climb I would face on the bike all day: nearly 400m of ascent over 10km from Lake Louise village until the viewpoint that delivers one’s first view of the Valley of the Ten Peaks.

tenpeeksBy the time I reached Moraine, my quads were completely pooched and my right foot (the shitty one) was completely numb and felt like a big chunk of ice. I wasn’t sure if Temple was in the cards but the subtle shift in modality from cycling to hiking seemed to infuse a little pep to my legs. I started marching towards Temple anyway. If I didn’t have enough gusto to take on Temple, I could always tag something else like Eiffel Peak instead.

By the time I reached the turn-off for Eiffel, my foot was all thawed out, so I kept on trekking towards Sentinel Pass. I pounded back a package of Honey Stinger chews on the way up to the pass so I would be all fuelled up to tackle the ascent of the mountain proper.

I spent no time at Sentinel Pass and immediately started slogging towards the first of Temple’s three rockbands. I felt uncharacteristically weak and devoid of power; tipsy, toppling over, and completely lacking core stability. Maybe it was the little hiking I did this summer, or maybe it was the 70km ride in my legs, but I questioned whether I would actually make it to the top.

I picked my way through the chossy slabs comprising the first rockband. I wasted no time and immediately started climbing the short pitch of difficult scrambling that leads to the top of the second rockband. And within minutes of topping out, I was charging up the scree and scrambling up the gullies of the third, final cream-colored rockband.

Past Temple’s technical and routefinding challenges, the only thing left to do was slog straight upward through a jumble of rocks and increasingly sparser oxygen. I was surprised and a little appalled at my need to stop and catch my breath while charging up the mountainside above 3000m, evidence of my lack of conditioning and relatively a weak VO2max.

98I tagged the top of Temple in 3h20m from Moraine Lake, 7h56m since the start of the day — not my fastest time on this mountain but definitely faster than most. Though the path up the mountain was a highway of hikers and mountaineers, the summit was host to only four other people. After exchanging the favor of taking summit pictures for each other, the group headed down, leaving me alone to bask in the tranquility and power that permeates the alpine zone at 11,000 feet.

97I didn’t stick around long, only spending six or seven minutes lingering at a place I practically consider a holy site. For three years I’d been yearning to stand once again on this cold, blustery, barren summit. A big bank of clouds started rolling in and the views weren’t about to improve any. But as usual, Temple didn’t disappoint, truly lending the feeling that one is soaring over the entire Canadian Rockies (save for ten other mountains, that is).

The descent proceeded fairly smoothly, even through the rockbands. The feeling of weakness was gone and I was actually looking forward to the ride home. I reached Sentinel Pass and jogged all the way back to Moraine Lake, the most concerted amount of running I’d done since Cortina Skyrace in June. And before that, May.

99I got back to my bike at Moraine Lake and scarfed down one of the pizza slices I’d been carrying in my bag, then saddled up on my bike for the exhilarating ride down to Lake Louise village.

I stopped at the village to refill water, eat my last slice of pizza and knock back a couple shots of espresso I brought with me from home. The last time I rode to Lake Louise, the two double espressos I got from Summit Cafe essentially powered my ride home. This time, intent on carrying all my own food and gear, I brought the espresso myself. The first shot was like a dream. The second shot was mixed with a good amount of unrinsed dishsoap, I realized, after it was already down the hatch. It felt like I was burping up soap suds all the way to Castle Junction.

Aside from the dish soap ordeal, the ride home was bomber. The weather was great, my cycling felt competent and I was clicking off kilometres at a decent pace. My legs were toast, but in a good way. I’ve spent way too much of this year sitting on the couch, so the burning pain of three vertical kilometers in my muscles and a sunburn on my face felt absolutely sublime.

I hammered it most of the way back to town, elatedly pulling up to my apartment 13h56m after leaving. In the same way my “Aylmer Duathlon” intended to express my love for that mountain through a wholly human-powered ascent, my trip to Temple meant to express the same and more.

Temple is the “ultimate scramble”, as per Kane, that the Canadian Rockies hosts. My first season bagging peaks, Temple was my own ultimate scramble, and it proves to be many others’ as well. The following year, Temple became the object of my greatest efforts as a mountain runner. Now at the close of my fifth summer in Banff, it became only appropriate to tag this magnificent mountain entirely under my own power.

Splits:
01h36m  Castle Junction
03h01m  Lake Louise Village
04h36m  Moraine Lake (T1)
05h59m  Sentinel Pass
07h52m  Mt. Temple summit
09h31m  Sentinel Pass
10h14m  Moraine Lake (T2)
10h57m  Lake Louise Village
12h27m  Castle Junction
13h56m  Banff

166km | 3100m vertical | Movescount | Strava

Screen shot 2016-09-01 at 7.31.11 PM

The Summer That Was No Bummer

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

22/06/16 – Pomagagnon/Crepe de Zumeles
jordinsourmannn
A late day run with Jordan after shopping in the morning for groceries and, of course, lots of beer and wine. We checked out the Cortina Skyrace course, which was useful because I intended to run it the following day. 

First off, it was fucking hot and I wore a black Mountain Stride shirt and black shorts. Second, neither Jordan nor myself had run a step for weeks before heading out and by the end of the first kilometer, I was dying. I know it usually takes awhile to start to feel good during a run — and figured this time might take longer than usual — but I more or less felt how non-runners describe feeling when attempting to run. There was no “conversation pace” to be had in this inferno where it was my immediate impulse to drink my entire 500mL water bottle in one gulp.

We attained some respite from the heat in the subalpine, traversing beneath Pomagagnon’s craggy face. At the notch in the ridge called Crepe de Zumelles, we searched for a “water source” marked on the map that was practically non-existent in reality. At last, I found a trickle of water flowing out of the ground and slowly filled my bottle. We headed back over the top of Crepe de Zumelles and down the front of Pomagagnon where that same spring emerges gushing from the mountain, building into a solid stream by the time it reaches the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat. Jordan and I headed directly down the mountain, sliding through cow pastures/ski slopes, and followed this watercourse most of the way home.

tomclimbingrope
^Pic by Jordan Sauer

23/06/16 – Cortina Skyrace (20km/1000m/2h26m/65° position)

21A fairly pedestrian attempt at running the Cortina Skyrace. With no meaningful training this year, I couldn’t take on the 119km Lavaredo and wasn’t sure if racing (or running) would be in the cards for this trip at all. After scoping out the course with Jordan the previous day, I felt strong enough to run the 20km skyrace without inflicting too much damage.

There were a couple elements that were essential in doing well in this race:  the course begins on a wide bike path before funneling some three hundred runners onto narrow singletrack once it starts cranking up the hill in earnest. In order to beat the bottleneck, you had to gun it off the starting line, but once you hit the climbing section you could chill. Well, “chill”.

With a lack of high-end fitness and an iffy foot, I knew I couldn’t gun it, so I resolved to run the race at an easy pace and make up any places I could later on.

The race started and most people ran way too fast. I say this because as soon as we hit the climb, movement halted and I saw everyone around me was dying: breathless, red faces, questioning motivations for even entering this race. I stood there, enjoying a (for me) moderate pace — that run on the pavement was way too fast — and politely popped in front of other runners wherever I could.

CT_skyrace_mapThis first climb eased, we swung a right turn and started traversing below the towering cliffs of Pomagagnon. Soon the singletrack widened and we reentered the forest.

The course turns vertical once again for a 300m climb through the alp called Crepe de Zumelles. I was largely locked into position in a long line-up that zig-zagged up the mountain and plumbed through the chossy forcella above.

I filled my bottle from the spring I’d recced the previous day then scooted back into line. We proceeded through the forcella, headed east and began descending on rough trail. I’d mistakenly thought from looking at maps that the descent back to Cortina was on shitty gravel access roads, but this was delightful. We hooted and hollered, flying then plummeting down rocks and roots.

The feeling of fun soon turned into one of cramping in my calves and I prayed for electrolyte drink at the ~15K aid station, the only one of the course. I soon arrived and after some linguistic mix-ups (No, not coke. Eee-lec-tro-lyte?), they filled up my bottle with electrolyte drink and I was off.

We slid through sloppy cow pastures that double as ski runs in the wintertime… Pain. I longed for the end. I wanted to see the neighborhoods, the little houses, the stream rushing beside me. Soon, we came ripping down onto pavement, running through the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat, and turned back onto the bike path for the last kilometer.

What an awful kilometer it was. Though it was a benign bike path, the final approach to town, I’m sure I cursed that kilometer with every slur in my repertoire.

We soon arrived in downtown Cortina amid a cheering crowd and I somehow summoned up the means to come sprinting through the finish line, bottle in hand, half-nude — a curiosity in a land where compression prevails.

24/06/16 – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
16
Went to see the Tre Cime. This wasn’t a run, not even a hike; it was a tourist outing with components of both running and hiking.

I’d decided not to run Lavaredo, therefore I wouldn’t get to see the Tre Cime — the iconic three-peaked mountain which can’t actually be seen from town — which is sort of like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. So I took a bus to Rifugio Auronzo, got off and marveled at the pinnacles of Tre Cime. I was hungry though, so I went to get coffee and a sandwich at the rifugio first.

Though there’s a circuit one can do around the base of the mountain, I reasoned it would be better appreciated from afar, rather than right below it, and identified a suitable hill that looked like a good one to march to.

This point of vantage gave better views of neighbouring Cadini di Misurina, a venerable cathedral of Patagonia-esque spires. There’s a technical hiking route/via ferrata with no pro, called Sentiero Bonacossa which traverses this range. Although I’d researched it before I left, it was hard to gauge from across the internet how techy/sketchy the terrain truly was.

15All this is an aside, because today wasn’t the day such a venture and my only real intention was putting around Tre Cime. I went back to the rifugio for another snack.

From that hill, I could only really see two towers of the famed Tre Cime. In order to see the third tower, I had to follow part of the circuit then cut over to a hilltop to the east.

I saddled up and booted out to the viewpoint across veins of karst pavement interspersed with terraced meadows. The view of Tre Cime from the east reveals the three peaks, an utterly bizarre-looking mountain which rises from the plain like some huge alien monument.

17I raced back to Auronzo and caught the bus back to town. For the past couple months I’d had this epic picture of the Tre Cime as the background on my phone. I looked at the picture: “The Tre Cime doesn’t look like that,” I said.

But that’s how Tre Cime looks from the north, the side I never saw.

25/06/16 – Cortina Trail 50K (spectating/support)
The 25th of June was Cortina Trail, a race two friends of mine, Jordan and Mikale, were running. The previous evening was the start of the 119km Lavaredo Ultra-Trail. About an hour before the start, the skies clouded over and unleashed what forecasts suggested for weeks but hadn’t delivered: rain poured; waterfalls cascaded off of roofs and gutters; lightning flashed every minute. One could almost feel the population of the town, bloated by thousands of runners from all over the world, collectively pooping their pants that very moment.

The next morning the skies were clear. We got up early before the race, as one does before an ultramarathon. After requisite deliberating — Do I bring this? Do I bring that? — and countless checks of gear we proceeded to the start line.

The race started at 8am and I watched as a deluge of happy-looking ultramarathoners rambled through the main street and out of sight.

I was fairly bent on obtaining a cowbell and ringing the shit out of it on a hill somewhere as a show of support. The Cooperativa possessed a variety to suit my needs. With an big honking red one in my hand, I caught a bus to Passo Falzarego, the halfway point of the Cortina Trail race.

The bus ride was hair-raising and begs numerous questions as to how they deal with this situation every day: the problem is like trying to fit a square object in a triangular hole, except we’re talking about big coach buses and crazy European traffic on very narrow, switchbacking roads. Every time the bus turned a corner, traffic coming the other way had to slam on their brakes and there would occur a momentary standoff to see who would back up to let the other vehicle by. Somehow they make it work.

I hopped off at Col Galina as runners came down one side of the valley and went trotting up the other side. I hiked up the course to find a good spot to ring my bell. Most of the runners going down to Col Galina looked pretty shellshocked; a few of them tripped or completely ate it at the techy little spot where I was posted.

It probably didn’t help anybody’s concentration that I was my clanging my stupid cowbell and shouting phrases of encouragement in three different languages. However, most of the runners looked heartwarmed to see me, the same way I felt when I’d seen and heard the locals ringing their cowbells on tops of hills and at aid stations in CCC*.

*That of course was Val d’Aoste. Cowbells didn’t seem as prevalent in the Dolomiti — I think I was the only person ringing one.

LG-H831I saw my friends and we ran into the aid station together. They were doing awesome, still feeling fresh and stoked about the course as well. The weather was still looking good too. Who could ask for more?

Jordan and Mikale trotted off to tackle the second half of the course and I was left to ring my cowbell and trip up other runners coming down the hill.

After awhile, I marched up the road to Falzarego to catch the bus to take me back to Cortina. I’m already inept when it comes to riding buses, so when the bus didn’t arrive on time I told myself to relax and wait. So I waited, and waited and waited, until I decided I’d waited long enough and was just gonna walk back to Cortina.

Within minutes of walking along the road, I learned there was an accident blocking traffic, then the bus arrived. Good thing, because I probably would’ve died if I attempted to walk down that crazy road back to town.

After a smoke and an espresso, the driver was ready to go, so I got on the bus and chatted with a girl who’d been watching the race and also got stranded up at Falzarego.

As we talked, the driver came around a corner which, as usual, forced oncoming traffic to slam on its brakes and reverse. The driver tried to squeeze past the other vehicles, but as we turned, a loud creaking sound erupted from the side of the bus as it scraped against the guardrail. The driver exploded in a flurry of Italian expletives and went out to assess the damage; he came back a minute later still muttering swear words and drove off.

Still unsure if I would make it back to town alive, we emerged from a tunnel and downshifted to descend the steep grade of the verdant hills surrounding Cortina.

After waiting for an hour at the finish line, I started thinking my friends had already finished the race while I was putzing around at Falzarego, and were probably crushing beers at the house. I waited a little longer but just as I decided to leave there suddenly appeared Mikale and Jordan, gloriously exhausted and sweaty, Cortina Trail 50K finishers, no small feat. The aura of physical brokenness but complete spiritual awesomeness imbued them.

The finish line had been set up beside a church but the main street of Cortina had become a cathedral, crowded with smiling, wincing, crying faces. Holy ghosts.

26/06/16 – Venice – Home
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I thought I had more time to spend in Cortina but realized after coming home from watching the race that I was going to have to leave the next morning. Bummer.

Jordan said goodbye as we were caught in a downpour and I ran to the station and got on the bus soaking wet. I dried my stuff on the back of the seat whilst admiring the scenery on the ride from Cortina to Belluno.

Maestre was hot as hell and I didn’t have much interest in actually visiting Venice, but I had a huge amount of time to kill before catching my flight the next morning. Also, transportation to Venice is really fast and cheap, so I bought a ticket and hoped it would be cooler on the island.

It was just as hot, if not hotter, and packed with tourists (of which I was one). I strolled past an endless series of shops selling the same cheap merchandise, which was actually educative about Venetian culture (i.e. masquerade masks and Murano glass). Indian folks persuasively hawked selfie sticks on every bridge while African dudes sold fake purses on every corner.

The elements that make Venice unique — the canals; its antiquity — were neat, but beyond that I wasn’t super impressed. Any of these places — Rome, Florence, even the Mer de Glace  — are surely not what they used to be, even a hundred years ago, but one can’t avoid that I suppose. I realized I’m not much of a “cultural city” sort of person. Transport me to the little villages of the Dolomites, Aosta Valley or French Prealps any day.

28Once it got dark (not cooler, only more humid), I returned to the airport reasoning it would be as comfortable a place to spend the night as a comfy hostel in Venice. Though I found a quiet area and ended up sprawled in my sleeping bag on the floor, I never really got much sleep — the continued lack of which eventually proved to have bizarre effects.

I left Venice the next morning at 11:30am. I took two flights, Venice to Toronto then Toronto to Calgary, totaling fifteen hours in which I further failed to sleep; I simply head-bobbed myself awake for fifteen hours instead.

My trip didn’t end once I reached home. Even when I got to to Calgary airport, I waited for a bus to take me to Banff. I wandered across the top level of the parking deck and thought, “Although I am still in the process of waiting around for transportation, is this not a perfect end to the trip?”

I stood there watching planes taxi, take off and land as the warm sun slowly dropped towards the mountains on the horizon. The breeze started to pick up and grow cool. It was a perfect end to the trip.

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28/06/16 – My Strange Trip
The bus pulled into Banff around midnight. I was so far beyond sleeping and waking that neither meant anything anymore.

I was dropped off downtown and still had a few blocks to walk my apartment. “I’ve been living out of this pack for ten days,” I said to myself. “I don’t mind hauling it one last time.” I shouldered up my hefty pack and strolled down Banff Ave., which was quiet yet sporting the usual nighttime fare.

I got home and spent a while unpacking my bags and sorting laundry. After half an hour or so, I wrenched myself from this activity and forced myself to lay down and sleep.

But I couldn’t. My mind was racing. I couldn’t disconnect from my trip. I couldn’t disconnect from travel, from waiting, from moving. I felt disembodied, like I was going to spontaneously astral project. Suddenly it felt like I was still at the airport, overlooking the planes with the warm sun on my face and the breeze on my skin. And then everything fell apart.

I wish I could describe this process more vividly, but I had a complete breakdown in identification and consciousness. My last thought was something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to connect to”, and it felt like the linkage, the adhesive that holds everything together into a cohesive experience fell apart, and I didn’t know who or where I was.

Existential terror flooded my veins like acid, my heart started racing and I opened my eyes. I was home in my apartment, I could tell myself, but even that was alien. I felt distinctly like I was on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD, and my heart was still pounding trying to hold back terror. I looked at my scrawny, bearded self in the mirror — everything appeared normal — but it was simply appearance, still nothing to connect to. I had to tell myself, “You are here, in your apartment; this is your body; everything is normal,” but it meant nothing. Everything was stark and alien and cold and meaningless.

These were not philosophical thoughts; I could easily have dealt with that. Sadly it was the psychological reality of starkness, of meaninglessness. Within a moment, my ego — the central organizing function of consciousness — had been shredded up, crumpled and disposed, and I was a naked eye on the verge of panic.

I was still able to think, and assumed circumstances had contributed to this experience — hours of travel; jet lag; lack of sleep; dehydration; having returned from a peak experience and finally laying down to rest, attempting to end the process of travel and transition back to “normal life”… These factors I assume created a perfect storm for my psyche when I finally laid down and tried to sleep. I focused on my breathing and eventually fell unconscious.

The next day was a bit weird but after a few days everything became normal. I remember having the thought during this episode, during the part where I was disoriented as to whether I was still at Calgary airport or at home in my bed that, “This must be what schizophrenia is like.” It seems from cursory research on the internet that there’s a relationship between psychosis and jet lag/desynchronization, and I feel like I experienced an aspect of it.

As much as I talked about letting go of expectation and embracing “virgin novelty” leading up to this trip, this was the deep-seated psychological reality and it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

10When God created the mountains, He made sketches of their various forms and deposited them in northern Italy. He scooped together a big lump that looked like Mont Blanc, plastered its north face with snow, and that was Marmolada. He crafted the perfect pyramidal shape of K2, with a little tuft of spindrift blowing off it, and that was Antelao. Last, He worked on towers and spires like those of Patagonia, and that was the Cadini of Misurina and Tre Cime. God, gaily at play in His mountain sandbox, was how the Dolomites came to be.

I decided to visit the Italian Dolomites last fall after returning from Chamonix. I whipped up a spreadsheet of the Alps’ coolest mountain races all organized by date; while Dolomites Skyrace was appealing for its location and tenure on the Skyrunning calendar, I couldn’t justify travelling to Europe for so short a race and wanted something earlier in the season. Lavaredo Ultra Trail was ideal, a gruelling 119km ultramarathon which took place among the same incredible scenery. It also became a focus of this trip early on to stay in some of the mountain refuges that dot the hills around Cortina before joining my friends in town before the race.

When I rolled my ankle in February, I expected it to be a small hiccup until I found myself in May struggling even to walk. My plans abruptly changed. I signed up for the 20km Cortina Skyrace but at my bleakest moment wasn’t sure my “cloven hoof” would allow me to walk around Calgary airport, let alone hike in the mountains or run a race.

Fast-forward through a series of physio appointments and rehabilitative exercises. On June 16th, vastly improved yet still on the injury fence, I stuffed ten days of supplies into my trekking pack and said, “Arrivederci, Banff!”

17/06/16 – Cortina to Croda da Lago
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After fifteen hours flying and two more on the bus, I arrived in Cortina at 2pm and immediately started hiking. It was a 10km/800m ascent to Rifugio Croda da Lago and to be honest, I was doubtful of my fitness and didn’t want to get there after dark. With the help of Google Maps, navigating out of town was easy and as all of the trails in the Dolomites are numbered and well-marked, finding the way to the rifugio wasn’t tough.

While climbing steep hills with a big pack is foreign to my body on a good day, I made fast progress up the muddy cowpath. This trail is also the final descent of the Lavaredo and Cortina Trail courses, so as I ascended I asked myself what sick, cruel course designer picked this slick, techy drop for fatigued runners in the last throes of those races.

Despite worrying about arriving at the rifugio after dark, I got there sooner than expected and dinner wasn’t served until 7pm anyway, something that was characteristic of rifugios I stayed at. So I went for a stroll to admire placid Lake Federa and returned to a meal of spinach dumplings drenched in butter sauce.

18/06/16 – Croda da Lago to Nuvolau
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For months leading up to this trip, the forecast had shown thunderstorms and rain, every single day, without any real nuance for how or when bad weather occurred. The prospect was thus a little daunting in the context of a trip based on sustained hiking above treeline. A little rain fell overnight at Croda da Lago but when I woke to a bluebird sky, I scarfed down breakfast and headed out the door.

I marched up to Forcella Ambrizzola, rounded the rear of the big spires that comprise Croda da Lago, then dropped into the Dolomites backcountry. For the next few kilometers, I played leapfrog with a couple mountain bikers resigned to pushing their bikes through the subalpine meadow more than actually riding them. Once we all reached the top of Forcella Giau I still felt relatively fresh, but one of the bikers turned to the other and asked, “Why did we bring these bikes?”

I descended the other side of this col en route to Passo Giau, a wide, paved pass that was clearly a popular destination for weekend motorcyclists and road bikers. At the rifugio, I ordered an espresso and apple strudel, then proceeded on my way.

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I traversed around the back of the imposing white tower Ra Gusela to a saddle called Forcella Nuvolau where Rifugio Averau is located. My destination for the night was Rifugio Nuvolau, precariously perched a hundred meters higher on a peak of the same name.

There was plenty of time before I needed to check in at Nuvolau, so I popped in to Averau and ordered another espresso and apple strudel. Then I headed down the hill to check out famed Cinque Torri below.

5 While the Summitpost page aptly describes these five towers as “amusing”, they exemplify the Dolomites in somewhat reduced scale. Rising from a plain, five bizarre, hulking structures seem to have been arranged — or emerged organically from the ground — as though in a great Zen garden.

6As the first storm of the day rolled in, I sheltered in one of many World War I-era bunkers built into the hill around Cinque Torri. When the rain momentarily let up, I made a break back up the hill for Nuvolau, as I heard thunder rumbling and could see another storm coming.

Before dinner at the rifugio, I lingered outside taking pictures as my skin began to tingle and the air got thick and fuzzy. The thought suddenly occurred that standing on a mountaintop with a metal box in my hand wasn’t the smartest thing to do, so I retreated beneath the overhang instead. The snow started to accumulate on the patio tables and the scene was transformed into winter.

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Dinner was spaghetti in olive oil and garlic; so simple but so tasty. I chatted with some folks from Oregon who are, safe to say, a model of how I hope to be when I am “old” and/or if I had kids. It’s supremely inspiring for me to see fitness and adventure carried into middle and old age, and furthermore to encourage it in one’s children.

After a long meal and varied discussion with the Oregonians, the storm cleared up and we rushed outside to observe Nature’s majesty. I don’t mind the crosses and Jesuses on top of every summit, but just look at the surroundings — especially at sunset, from a mountaintop, after a storm has passed — that’s the church, man.  7

19/06/16 – Nuvolau to Lagazuoi
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The day started a little stormy but not too bad. I made my way over Forcella Averau and beneath Croda Negra on a few of the more technical steps of this trek, although that isn’t saying much. It was simply that snow still choked a few steep descents through narrow gullies and a slip here would have sucked. Luckily I was able to spyly ski down them instead.

I reached paved Passo Falzarego (2105m) appallingly early so I killed time looking in the souvenir shops and brooding over an espresso — something which goes against both the meaning the word and the practice of drinking it in Italy.

After a brief episode looking for my poles (which the shopkeeper placed alongside umbrellas in some kind of storage bucket), I started the long slog to Lagazuoi. The path was like a museum of old war fortifications, which ascended to the mouth of gusty Val Travernanzes where I saw Rifugio Lagazuoi perched in the clouds.

9I’d learnt from my Oregonian rifugio-mates that the final stretch to Lagazuoi was still snowed in, and now I could see that it looked like a ski slope — in fact, I longed for my featherlight Dynafit PDGs and a pair of skins, that way I could get some turns in as well. But as it were, I only had my sneakers, so I slogged up the bootpack, cursing and wheezing in each labored breath.

I reached Rifugio Lagazuoi and proceeded to the slightly higher summit and watched as an aggressive-looking storm started rolling in. A wall of snow squall ominously devoured Antelao, then Sorapiss, then blotted out the Tofane group as well. By the time I made it back to the rifugio, conditions were so whiteout I could hardly see it fifty meters in front of me. For a group of German guys and two New Yorkers still struggling up the slope to Lagazuoi, apparently it was pretty nervewracking.

0We dined over a four course dinner as the skies cleared and the sunset lit it on fire. Then we all rushed out to take pictures. When you do a Google image search for something like “Dolomites rifugio”, this is the image that usually pops up: Rifugio Lagazuoi on the edge of a great cliff, above a sea of mountains bathed in golden light. Truly a powerful experience.

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20/06/16 – Lagazuoi – Giussani – Dibona
33I took my time leaving Lagazuoi in the morning as I’d consistently made good time and this was to be the shortest of my days. I had a few challenges navigating the snowfields in Val Travernazes but soon found myself travelling underneath a row of offensive positions tunneled into the face of Tofana di Rozes, a couple hundred meters off the deck. After spotting some chamois, I came to a big notch in the mountain separating peaks of the Tofane massif. Here I had a choice: I could see Rifugio Angelo Dibona, where I intended to lay my head , a little ways below. However, it was again too early to check in and do nothing, plus I had the opportunity to visit some neat, old rifugios up in the col above.

Going into this trip, I had planned to use the Dibona hut as a base for an ascent of Tofana di Rozes the following day. Throughout my trek, however, the summit had appeared really snowy, and though I’d brought Yaktrax expecting a little bit of snow, it looked more like an ice ax and crampon sort of scenario.

Slogging up to Rifugio Giussani confirmed my suspicions. The whole east face was still covered in deep snow with avalanche paths that streamed down and fanned out to the valley bottom. I popped into the rifugio and inspected the route a little closer over a bowl of soup. A few postholey bootprints started up the face but disappeared when they got to the avalanche path. While the route to the summit of Tofana di Rozes is supposed to be a “trail” of sorts when in good condition, it was more of a mountaineering endeavour at present.

Rifugio Giussani was one of the cooler rifugios I visited. While Lagazuoi was elegantly situated but had no real character of its own, Giussani had a true mountaineering tradition to it, as a base for daring ascents of the Tofane group.

The same was true of Dibona, down at treeline, where I spent the night. A hip and surprisingly young couple ran this rifugio where pictures of Angelo Dibona — dangling from rope ladders off the side of the Tofanes — covered the walls.

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21/06/16 – Dibona – Ra Vales – Cortina
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My buddy Jordan from Edmonton was due to arrive in Cortina later this day, but I still had lots of time to kill so I continued traversing around the base of Tofana di Mezzo and up to the last alpine rifugio of my trek, Ra Vales.

The snowy slog up (actual) ski slopes was giving me flashbacks to Lagazuoi. As I approached the rifugio, I saw no activity except for two guys smoking cigarettes who invited me inside anyways. The rifugio was still closed for the season and they were working on the cable car yet insisted on giving me coffee, Fanta and serving up a platter of meat and cheese. One of them held up an empty wine bottle with a disheartened expression and apologized for their lack of wine.

15-2After lunch we parted ways and I plummeted down the snow slope back to Forcella Ra Vales in a fraction of the time it took to get there. On my descent to town, I stopped to get water at Rifugio Col Drusie, then proceeded to visit Lake Ghedina, which was crystal clear and stocked with huge fish.

Not long after, I emerged onto the outskirts of Cortina and a big smile erupted across my face. The past five days had started out a little daunting but proved to be incredibly satisfying. On my trips to France last couple years, I’d rented a room in the valley and made daytrips into the mountains. On this trip, however, I found trekking hut to hut with everything on my back a much more fulfilling experience.

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The occasion called for pizza and beer, a combination Cortina caters in a way that is exquisitely gourmet. I took off my hiking pack and plopped onto a seat on the patio of Pizzaria Porto Rotondo, my table furnished with pristine linen, meticulously arranged cutlery and polished glasses. I was sunburnt, dirty and probably reeked; I found the juxtaposition amusing. The waiter took one glance in my direction and already knew what I wanted.

“A large beer?” he asked.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

Cloven Hoof

k2With a matter of days until I fly to visit the Dolomites, almost everything is ready to go, except for my body. I’ve long spiritualized my ankle injury, thinking (perhaps a little too deeply) about the meaning of why it occurred. Because I could never just roll an ankle, of course; I must’ve fucked it up for some reason I fail presently to grasp but will see clearly in retrospect…

In my more far-out fantasies, I busted my ankle for it to be replaced with a goat hoof that will propel me to mountain running greatness. Haha, a funny scenario, until last month’s “plantar fasciitis” graduated into a crippling disability to walk down hallways and such. I returned home from an attempted bike ride to find my foot physically disfigured, my arch being painfully wrenched back, the knuckle of my big toe driving into the ground. I sat on the floor appalled, feeling like my foot was actually transforming, and suddenly the jokes about a goat hoof weren’t funny anymore.

bIn the course of this episode — somewhere between racking up a buttload of km’s and vert on a shitty ankle last month and sobbing hopelessly because I can’t walk — I came to terms with not racing Lavaredo. With zero meaningful training this year, I was cool with trekking hut-to-hut and having more time to explore an incredibly beautiful area. Plus I got my name on the starting list for Cortina Skyrace, just in case. But as I sat there on the floor staring at my deformed foot, I felt very far away from the basics needed to make any of that happen.

So I did something radical and went to see the physio. A little internet research had already revealed the relationship between the thing that hurt (the inner arch of my right foot) with the thing I knew didn’t work properly anymore (my right ankle, especially on the inside). Once my rolled ankle had seemingly healed, I simply assumed it was good enough to run on: I can hike competently, I said to myself in April, therefore I must be able to run. And though things started smoothly, when I read my record from the second part of May, it reads like a record of stupidity.

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Thank God Glenn is not my physio.

Several sessions with Fabienne Moser at Banff Physical Therapy have helped elucidate and resolve the problem, deemed to be posterior tibial tendonitis from improperly rehabbing my ankle sprain. A few measurements revealed glaring differences in strength and flexibility between each ankle, so it’s no wonder I developed issues once I started running consistently. And “running consistently” last month meant up and down Sulphur almost every other day. Now I’m relegated to resistance band exercises on the floor as my foot slowly heals and the days tick closer to my departure for Cortina.

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One thought which keeps occurring to me is how different this year is from last. Last year was the first season that I approached training in something of a structured way and felt like I performed really well. I was pretty proud of my achievements last year. This year was supposed to be even better: my training more dialed-in; my mental game stronger; my name higher up on the list of race results… But so far I feel like I have nothing, like everything has been stripped away, like I’m even being asked to suspend my hopes and fears leading up to this trip. To be objective, I have vastly improved in the past two weeks (hiking is possible now, if slow) yet my foot is still quite weak, a glimmer of my usual state of mobility.

However I’m optimistic and still feel there’s a positive outcome to be gained from all this, and that letting go of expectations and embracing the virgin novelty of this situation is somehow part of it.

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Paddy finishing in 7th place at Canmore’s 5Peaks “enduro” trail race.
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#injuredlife… No, I don’t actually own collapsible poles.

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Cloven Hoof