It’s an ever more widely acknowledged fact that if you’re a climber, Squamish is the best place to be in North America during the summer months.
I was regretting having ever left as I poured with sweat and strained, teary-eyed through the smoke from the nearby Yosemite Rim fire. Thankfully we soon located the Trader Joe’s amongst the sweltering and smoke-filled strip malls of Reno and, after loading up on dried fruit and boil-in-a-bag curries, our little Californian vacation didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
Karina is first and foremost a rock climber. She likes low-stress climbing on good rock, preferably in the sun. I may be growing ever softer, but I still like to pretend that I’m an alpinist. This means walking long distances to climb poor rock in often miserable weather in the hopes of standing on a pointy summit. Since the Sierra are home to pointy summits as well as solid rock and great weather, it was a roadtrip destination we could both agree on.
Our first stop was Tuolumne Meadows. In spite of having spent a great deal of time in Yosemite Valley, I’d never actually climbed in nearby Tuolumne. The Meadows turned out to be a perfect introduction to the Sierra with short approaches, great rock and a relatively gentle topography.
We climbed a classic moderate route every day for nearly a week until the winds changed and the smoke pouring in from the Yosemite Rim fire became too much.
Scrambling along an airy ridge or climbing solid rock on a backcountry peak is pretty much my definition of type-1 fun (fun while it’s happening). Not surprisingly, Karina’s personal fun scale doesn’t line up perfectly with my own, so on occasion she was able to experience a touch of type-2 fun (only fun in retrospect) without which her introduction to alpine climbing would have been woefully incomplete.
When the smoke forced us out of Tuolumne, we headed south to Bishop where an unsettled forecast kept us from climbing anything too committing. A romp up the Southeast Face of Mt. Emerson proved to be a good opportunity to practice moving quickly over easy terrain while the West Face of Cardinal Pinnacle turned out to be one of the most enjoyable short rock climbs either of us had done in ages.
When the forecast improved, we drove south with hopes of climbing Mt. Whitney. After spending the morning securing a wilderness permit, we were able to squeeze in a few pitches of rockclimbing at Whitney Portal – an wonderful and seemingly under-appreciated area.
The next morning we hiked into Iceberg Lake below Whitney’s East Face and I went for quick jaunt up the Mountaineers route. Our goal the following day was the popular East Face route, so we were disheartened in the morning as numerous parties hiked past our tent in the dark while we made breakfast. Thankfully everyone was headed for the East Buttress route and by some miracle we were the first people to get to the East Face.
The East Face turned out to be a very enjoyable route. As is typical of routes from the 1930s, it wanders around quite a bit in order to find the line of least resistance up the face. The rock isn’t always perfect, but then again, if all we wanted was perfect rock we would have stayed in Squamish.
By this time Karina was becoming a seasoned alpinist, so although we were the last party to leave the lake, we were the first to return. I even had time to scramble the delightful East Ridge of nearby Mt. Russell.
With our roadtrip coming to an end, we made a final stop at Lover’s Leap where we climbed the moderate classics Traveler’s Buttress and The Line. The steep climbing on ladder-like horizontal dykes was a unique experience and a great way to end our short trip.
After you run an ultra-marathon, it’s apparently compulsory that you write a long and painfully detailed report agonizing over the minutiae of your race. I know this because I read countless race reports in preparation for the Kneeknacker which was to be my first ultra. Maybe all the running I’ve been doing has jiggled my brain into mush, but instead of finding these reports to be coma-inducing as might be expected, I actually found many of them to be strangely compelling. It seems that attempting to run a long ways lends itself to good narrative; there are guaranteed to be plenty of obstacles to be overcome and plenty of time in which to dwell on them. So before I forget the minutae (having a poor memory is the only way to do these sorts of things repeatedly), here’s the story of my first Kneeknacker.
Less than a year ago, I started running consistently for the first time since 2005. I was initially motivated by the fact that it provided a way to challenge myself in the mountains without the risks and stresses of serious alpine climbing. As my interest in racing grew, I eventually came around to the idea of running ultras. My opinion that they were long, ache and pain-wracked shuffling ordeals didn’t change, but for some reason I began to think that the ordeal might be enjoyable.
Thankfully, at 30 miles the Kneeknacker is about as short as ultras come and it’s actually not uncommon for me to do hard efforts in the mountains on skis or on foot of a similar duration. When I learned I’d been picked in the lottery, I wasn’t terrified, but I was well aware that it was twice the distance of any running race I’d ever done before.
In the lead-up to the race, I was very fortunate to have great running partners in Brad and Eric, and also to have a chance to run with Adam and Gary who were very generous in sharing their hard-won knowledge and experience. I also spent/wasted quite a bit of time researching ultra-running (ie. surfing running sites on the internet), so I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. However, no matter how much you know about something, there will always be something missing until you experience it (philosophically, this is actually a highly contentious proposition).
In spite of the fact that we were apparently “born to run”, it’s incredibly difficult to run a lot without getting injured. In this regard, I think that the fact that I’m a bit less “type-A” than your average ultra runner might actually work to my advantage. If something hurts (generally it’s been my IT band, but sometimes also my heel) I’ll happily use it as an excuse to ease off a bit or just go climbing instead. It’s a cliché, but getting to the start line healthy really does seem to be half the battle.
I got to the start line thanks to my aunt Sue who was not only volunteering, but had agreed to help me out at some of the aid stations throughout the race. Karina and Eric also drove up from Squamish to cheer me on, so I had plenty of support out on the course.
I rolled out of bed at the last possible minute which was unfortunately still 4am. I’ve noticed that Nutella is a dietary staple for many great ultra runners and it has been no great hardship for me to incorporate it into my pre-race breakfast.
Once at the start, I ran around a bit, but didn’t really bother with much of a warm-up as I figured I’d have plenty of time to ease into things during the race. This turned out to be true. In fact the start was a bit anti-climactic; I’d been feeling nervous and had been mentally preparing myself for the suffering to come, but once “go” had been shouted, we took off at a very sensible jog and I could have almost mistaken it for just another group run.
While strategizing prior to the race, I decided that I should start as conservatively as possible. Owing perhaps to having watched too many Steve Prefontaine movies at an impressionable age, this strategy always seems to be a difficult one for me to execute. On this day, however, I managed to hold myself back and tuck in behind Gary who I knew would pace things wisely.
When I started to get back into running, uphills were my biggest weakness. In retrospect, I was just out of shape. Nonetheless, running and power-hiking uphill is something that I’ve consciously worked on since and I would now say that at the very least I’m more than just a downhill specialist. As a result, I felt great during the ascent of Black Mountain. In fact I had a peculiar experience: I enjoyed myself. I still don’t think that’s supposed to happen in races.
As the ascent steepened, Shaun Stephens-Whale took off ahead and Graeme Wilson hung back with Gary and myself. We hiked steadily, but I was still able to admire the views and chat a bit with Gary. We crested Eagle Bluffs and cruised towards the Black Mountain aid station on one of the nicest sections of the entire course. Once beyond the aid station, the trail switchbacks down towards Cypress and I got my first taste of how Gary would be running the downhills. In fact, after so much hiking it felt great to finally let my legs turn over more quickly and so I stayed right on Gary’s shoulder as we ran towards the first major aid station.
After spreading out a bit through the aid station, Gary, Graeme and I quickly bunched back together and eventually passed Shaun as we traversed across Hollyburn and began to make the long descent to the Cleveland Dam.
I consider myself to be a pretty respectable downhill runner. I’ve got good balance (years of climbing?), decent leg speed (remnants of high school track?), good momentum (ice cream and beer diet?) and a cavalier attitude towards falling (under-developed frontal cortex?). I knew I could run downhill very quickly; unfortunately this is pretty much irrelevant in a race like the Kneeknacker. What actually matters is how fast you can run downhill without destroying your legs for the remainder of the race and this wasn’t something I was confidant about. It’s also a difficult thing to judge because running downhill has a fairly minimal aerobic component so it’s easy to feel great while you unknowingly trash your legs.
Knowing that Gary would push the descents, I was prepared to let him go if he did anything crazy. In the end, I judged that his pace was reasonable and along with Graeme, we careened towards the Dam with Gary occasionally shouting out warnings like “heads”, “sharp left” and “deer”.
As we approached the half-way point of the race, Gary said something along the lines of “The race ends at the Dam, right?”. In retrospect this was wonderful piece of sandbagging, and as an experienced sandbagger myself I ought to have recognized it as such. I was feeling great, however, and as I ran through the aid station I actually thought to myself that I was just getting warmed up and it was probably time that I started racing for real. As a result, I pushed the pace up Nancy Green Way and as I reentered the trail amidst the throngs of Grouse Grinders I had opened up a lead.
I continued to climb well across the eroded flanks of Grouse, but it dawned on me that I had left behind the group run and was now properly in a race. It was exciting because I was in the lead and feeling strong. However, it also brought with it doubts and uncertainties about what lay ahead and what was going on behind me. As a result, I think that I tightened up imperceptibly and tried to force my way across the slopes of Grouse and Fromme when I should have been focused on staying relaxed and floating over the roots and rocks with as little effort as possible (it sounds so easy now!). As part of my onerous pre-race preparation I’d watched hours of Kilian Jornet youtube clips and the biggest thing I’d noticed is that Kilian makes running fast on technical ground look easy. Trail running is deceptively technique-intensive and I’d been practicing trying to run like Kilian. By the time I arrived at Mountain Highway, I still felt strong, but I don’t think anyone would have said I was making it look easy.
There’s a long set of stairs that descends into Lynn Valley and when I arrived at the top my first thought was that I ought to bum-slide down the railing. I quickly decided that it was not worth the slivers, but in retrospect, I think my legs may have been trying to tell me something.
As I ran along the Varley trail in Lynn Valley I was looking forward to the upcoming aid station but still feeling as though I was running at a sustainable pace. The trail ends with a short climb, and it was here that seemingly out of nowhere my right leg seized up. I’d never experienced cramps before in races or training so it came as quite a shock. I swore and laughed (it’s the kind of pain that makes you laugh involuntarily) and stood there stretching for 30 seconds until it subsided. I then jogged across the bridge to where my aunt was waiting with her hands full of supplies. I choked down an electrolyte pill and tried to eat some potato chips without much success. I also had to swallow my pride as I walked up the gentle hill past the crowd of volunteers and spectators that were cheering me on.
I was frustrated and feeling a bit sorry for myself. I had energy to spare but my legs had other ideas. Thankfully, beyond the aid station there was a relatively gentle section of trail where I was able to ease back into running. I discovered that as long as I stayed relaxed, I could run on the downhill and flat. Unfortunately, when I tried to push the pace or lift my foot more than an inch off the ground, I’d seize up immediately. While on the short but steep climb that leads up to Lillooet Road, I had some doubts about whether I’d make the top of the hill, let alone the finish line.
As I passed the Hyannis Road aid station I took some encouragement from the fact that no one had caught me yet. However, I hadn’t made it far down the trail before I could hear cheering coming from behind me. I was barely shuffling up a moderate incline when I saw Adam. I told him that my legs were cramping and he reassured me that that was how I was supposed to be feeling at this point in the race. Then, in a shamefully unsportsmanlike moment, I may have pleaded with him to take out Gary for me (sorry Gary!) since by that point I figured that a Tonya Hardingesque attack with a tree branch was pretty much my only hope of maintaining the lead.
Sure enough, as I made my way up the steepest part of the climb I caught a glimpse of Gary behind me and by the time we’d reached the top, he’d hiked his way past me and out of sight (welcome to ultra running).
As the course dropped down the Mushroom Trail towards Seymour Road I tried to open it up and run a bit faster, only to find that my legs were now threatening to cramp on the downhills as well. It was at this time that I heard someone behind me and before I knew it, Mike Murphy came sprinting past. In fact, he was running so quickly that he slid out on the next corner and went down hard. He was immediately back on his feet and powering past me a second time and there was still nothing I could do.
When I popped out onto the Indian River Road, I could see that Mike was quickly closing the gap on Gary. When Gary passed me, I’d asked him if there was anyone close behind and he’d replied that he didn’t think so. When I saw the way that Mike was running, I felt almost certain that he’d catch Gary by surprise and go on to win. As it turned out, Gary was able to draw on his years of experience and mental toughness to find another gear when he needed it most.
I left the road and began the final descent to Deep Cove 40 seconds behind Gary and Mike. My only hope was that both guys might somehow be slowed by an errant dog or a large group of hikers (this is actually a real possibility on this section). I pushed hard towards the finish, only to come to a grinding halt on the first small climb. Both my legs had seized and I was getting some strange looks from the group of hikers that I had just scattered as I charged past. I resigned myself to just trying to make the finish line and, although the trail seemed interminable and the hordes of hikers impenetrable, eventually I did.
After I finished, I lay down (collapsed) on the grass for a while and was fortunate to have so many wonderful people around to attend to my needs. During the race, I had been mildly devastated to be leading and then to be passed so close to the finish. But once I finished and had a chance to reflect, I realized that there were plenty of reasons to be happy about how I’d run in my first ultra. In fact, it was a privilege and a great learning experience to compete against such a strong field. Gary and Mike were faster and smarter than I was and I think I learned a thing or two from both of them that will help me in the future.
A few miscellaneous technical details (in case you’re not yet comatose):
• I finished in 4:44:07 which was the 5th fastest time in the history of the race. Gary’s time of 4:41:28 was the second fastest ever (behind Aaron Heidt’s 4:39:52) and Mike’s 4:42:32 was 5 seconds faster than Kevin Titus’s previous masters record. Conditions were obviously conducive to fast times but I’m still quite ecstatic with how quickly I ran.
• The Kneeknacker is a wonderful race. It’s a community event put on exclusively by volunteers with all the proceeds going to charity. Just about everything is top-notch from the aid stations to the banquet to the race t-shirts. It’s got a long and storied history (for a trail race) and attracts a strong local field. This may be sacrilege to North Shore locals, but I don’t really think that the Baden-Powell is a particularly great trail. It travels predominantly through dense forest with plenty of sections that are an eroded mess due to heavy rain and heavy use. Nonetheless, it somehow makes for a great race with distinct sections and plenty of character.
• A thank you to everyone who cheered for me, fed me or sent me photos. Thanks to Scott W. for the shoes and shorts, Tim B. and his mom for the potluck, and Sue, Eric and Karina for the support on the course.
It would be a bit hypocritical for a person with a blog (no matter how neglected) and, as of recently, a twitter account (the horror!) to claim to be against shameless self-promotion. So what the heck, here are a few photos and details from a couple of days spent trying to ski efficiently in the mountains.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about speed records in climbing and skiing. These are activities where what matters most are that you come back alive and that you enjoy yourself. The values of most skiers and climbers reflect this, and justifiably so. Looking at the bigger picture, trying to shave a few minutes off someone else’s time (and now blogging about it) sometimes makes me feel like a bit of an egotistical jerk.
On the other hand, attempting something that requires you to try as hard as you can is rewarding regardless of how you happen to compare to other people. And while skiing quickly for a few hours on a popular peak or traverse is more an athletic feat than a committing adventure, you can’t help but learn things that can be applied to more remote or technical objectives in the future.
In 2001, Greg Hill skied the Spearhead in 4:01. It goes without saying that Eric and I are not as badass as Greg (not even close, in fact). Thankfully, when we attempted to make an efficient trip around the traverse, we had lighter gear than Greg had, as well as an intimate knowledge of the route and excellent conditions. As a result, we were able to ski from the Blackcomb backcountry gate to Whistler Village in 3:10. I spent the majority of that time suffering with my head down while Eric pushed the pace up the climbs. Nonetheless, it was an awful lot of fun to feel the many glaciers and high cols passing beneath our skis in such quick succession.
The Garibaldi Neve
The Garibaldi Neve is another of the classic ski traverses of the coast and starting as it does above Squamish, it’s practically in my backyard. A few weeks after doing the Spearhead, there was a day of nice weather with good conditions when my usual partners all seemed to be busy or injured, so I made a last minute decision to ski the Neve alone. My fueling strategy was not exactly ideal: I ate breakfast at McDonald’s and filled my pockets with gummies since I only had a few gels. Nonetheless, I felt strong on the long but gentle climb to the highpoint and only started to bonk while skating across Garibaldi Lake. The route down the Barrier appeared too melted out to be worth trying so I stuck to the trail and eventually ran the last 3km or so (thankfully downhill running in ski boots is one of my specialties) to finish the traverse in 4:27. The highlight of the day was taking off my boots and putting on the flip-flops which I had carried with me specifically for the hitchhike home.
Eric had to cross the border to pick up a package and decided that in spite of the fact that he was still recovering from a back injury, he might as well ski Mt. Baker. I had embarrassingly never climbed Baker and decided to tag along. It was a warm day but the snow was still firm on the lower mountain so we sweated profusely while falling repeatedly as our skins slipped on the ice. Eric was not quite his usual self and I’ll admit that it was a nice change to be able to look back and see him suffering a bit. I reached the summit 2:45 after leaving the trailhead but didn’t linger up there as it had become quite windy. We took our time skiing down and arrived back at the trailhead 3:37 after leaving it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Baker has been skied more quickly, but we enjoyed ourselves and some of Eric’s enthusiasm for Cascades Volcanos might even have rubbed off on me (as a climber, I’d always considered them to be rather dull).
Karina encouraged me to bail on climbing with her so that I could go ski Mt. Rainier with Eric and Stano. Bailing on climbing to go skiing – what has become of me?
Having never been to Rainier before, I enjoyed seeing a new place and climbing on a peak which has had a very central role in the development of North American mountaineering.
We had excellent weather and conditions, and despite the exertion we were able to look around at the other large volcanos that dominate the skyline. The major disappointment was that Stano, likely the strongest and most accomplished of us, didn’t feel well and selflessly decided to turn back. I didn’t feel so hot myself as we slogged up the Disappointment Cleaver and towards the summit but perhaps my extensive previous experience with AMS came in handy and I was able to continue grinding upwards.
The descent was genuinely enjoyable (unlike the ascent which is only fun in retrospect) although since I was feeling light-headed I skied with a bit of extra caution down the most exposed sections of the Cleaver. We made it back to the trailhead at Paradise 4:19 after we’d left. Eric and Stano have written about it in a bit more detail if you’re interested in our splits and whatnot.
Rainier is an iconic mountain with an interesting and at times bizarre history of speed ascents. Even in the likely event that our record is short-lived, I’m rather pleased to be a part of the story. Interestingly, in spite of all the attention it receives, I think Willie Benegas was right when he said that his record of 4:40 was a bit soft. We came from sea-level with no prior acclimatization whatsoever and we carried a rope and avy gear, so I imagine our time will be improved upon significantly in the future.
In any case, skiing quickly in spectacular places is a lot of fun; I suppose I’d better get training.
For the months of December and January I was silently detested by a group of Indian men who only wanted a quiet game of Table Tennis. I was in Oman working as a Mountain Safety Operative on a seismic survey, and every day after work I would run on the treadmill in the air-conditioned recreation skid. My running would shake the trailer so violently that using the adjacent Ping Pong table was quite impossible and I would be left alone to listen to bad music and dream of winter (which is only natural when you’re stuck in the middle of a desert).
It may seem shocking that I spent more time on the treadmill than in the camp bar, but it can be entirely explained by the principles of operant conditioning. Being hungover while performing physical labour in the already stultifying heat of the desert is such a horrible experience that if you repeat it enough times (which I did) you will surely condition yourself to avoid the behaviour which invariably precedes it. So I had little choice in the matter (I’m a bit of a free will skeptic) and was stuck running on the treadmill even though drinking beer would have been much more fun. The result being that when I eventually got back to Canada mid ski season, I was not entirely out of shape.
However, any delusions of great fitness I might have harboured while jogging on the treadmill were quickly dispelled when I tagged along with my friends Eric and Brad for some interval sessions on skis. Being dropped by these guys was a good reminder of the importance of sport specificity in training (something that ought to be obvious, and yet is neglected by people who buy into fad workouts that are unrelated to their actual sports). In order to ski quickly, you have to spend time on skis; excepting a few climbing relapses, this is what I tried to do when I got back from Oman.
Last winter I made my first forays into the world of ski mountaineering racing. After many years spent focused solely on climbing (which is essentially an anti-competitive sport), getting back into racing has been a shock to my system in a number of ways. However, it’s also been very fun and has taught me a great deal about things like efficiency and training which I can hopefully apply in the future to more adventurous skiing and climbing projects. This is essentially a shameless plug for a sport that I hope will continue to grow here in Canada, but I really do think that there is a lot to be learned from “ski-mo” racing even if you don’t aspire to be the next Killian Jornet or Reiner Thoni. Plus, lightweight skis and boots are great for morethanjust racing.
This year I was only able to make it to two races: the Dogtooth Dash in Golden and the Ken Jones Classic in Lake Louise. The races were on consecutive weekends so Karina and I drove out and stayed with our friends Tony and Hannah in Golden and did some ice climbing and skiing during the intervening week.
The Dogtooth Dash was designated as the North-American Championships this year, so even with a couple of the top Canadians off racing in Europe, it still attracted a fairly competitive field. I didn’t have particularly high expectations going into the race; my goals were to improve on the technical elements of ski-mo racing and to try to race myself into shape. Nonetheless, in what seems to be my default race strategy (“fade from the front” – a painful way to race), I found myself skiing with the leaders through the first two climbs. Not surprisingly, this didn’t last. However, in spite of some skin failure issues I managed to avoid fading any further than sixth place (and third Canadian) which seemed perfectly respectable given the caliber of the guys ahead of me.
By the following weekend and the Ken Jones Classic I had managed to convince myself that all that was required to close the gap of a couple minutes between me and the spandex-clad guys in front was a bit more mental toughness. As you can imagine, this is precisely the kind of thinking that leads to poor strategy decisions. I was so tired by the top of the first climb that I promptly crashed and bent my pole on the descent. Things failed to improve from there as my water froze and I began to really suffer. When Stano caught and passed me on the final climb my supposed mental toughness was nowhere to be found when I needed it most.
One of the benefits of racing is that it’s actually pretty good training. By suffering through the races I gained some good fitness which came in handy while trying to ski efficiently this spring.
I use ‘jogging’ because ‘mountain running’ sounds a bit pretentious when used to describe the shuffling and brisk walking I’ve been doing.
When I returned from Alaska, my desire to climb serious alpine routes was at a bit of a low. I’ve always tended to waver (as the name of this blog suggests) in my assessment of whether the rewards justify the risks, and for a large part of the summer I simply felt more motivated to eat ice cream, drink beer, and top-rope than I did to scare myself in the mountains.
If this sounds as if I’m on my way to becoming completely soft, I’d like to reassure you that this is not the case. All I have to do is think of my numerous ex-climbing partners who have changed hobbies to things like jogging, mountain biking and yoga, to get an idea of what my life would look like if it were completely devoid of adventure. And thankfully fear is a powerful motivator.
Being an intrinsically lazy person, the ice cream, beer and top-rope lifestyle ought to have been enough to occupy me while waiting for my motivation for serious climbing to resurface. However, a few factors conspired to rekindle my interest in distance running.
There are very few things I enjoy more than rock climbing, and since I live in one of the best climbing areas anywhere, I tend to do quite a bit of it. You couldn’t climb as much as I do and not be somewhat skilled: this summer, after months without climbing, it didn’t take me too long to get back to climbing 5.12 on gear. This, I think, qualifies me as a competent rock climber but little more; and it’s competency achieved through years of practice rather than any particular natural talent. There’s a particular dignity in doing what you love regardless of how good you are at it; but sometimes it’s nice to focus on your strengths. And my strengths are things like endurance and pain-tolerance rather than say agility and power.
The London Olympics, and in particular Cam Levins, were another source of inspiration. Cam grew up a few kilometres down the road from where I did on Vancouver Island. He’s five years younger than I am, but comparing times, he wasn’t all that much faster in high school than I was. He went to a semi-obscure college in Utah where he developed into one of the best distance runners in North America. As far as I can tell, the secret to his success is simply hard work and dedication: he runs 150 miles a week. While I’m not delusional enough to think that I could ever run at anywhere near his level, it was still motivating to see such a normal-looking guy from practically next-door competing with the best in the world in London.
Having spent the summer running sporadically in the mountains at a leisurely pace, I thought that I was likely the next Kilian Jornet and should probably enter a race. The Rubble Creek Classic seemed like as good an event as any to resume my competitive running career after a seven year hiatus.
For the first kilometre or so, I felt like my old running self (the trail was essentially flat). Unfortunately, after crossing the Cheakamus River, the course began to climb, and continued to do so for more than 1000M of elevation gain. It didn’t take long for me to realize that perhaps my fitness was not quite as top-notch as I had assumed. My legs filled with lactic acid and I faded to fifth place as those around me ran where I was forced to walk. Thankfully, the grade of ascent eventually slackened and although my legs were heavy and tight, I was able to avoid a complete meltdown. Upon beginning the descent from the high-point of the course, I was relieved to find that the uphill muscles in my legs (which by this point were barely functional) were not required to run downhill. I was also relieved to find that my ice cream and beer diet was now working in my favour: my substantial upper body mass (at least relative to say a Kenyan marathoner) was resulting in good momentum which at the very least helped to scatter the groups of hikers on the trail who might otherwise have been in my way. Brad and Eric, both fit and skinny ski-mountaineering racers who had made me suffer on the climb, came back to me over the course of the 10km, 1300M descent. However, there was no catching Ed who, fresh from representing Canada at the World Mountain Running Championships, broke the course record by a whopping six minutes. Nonetheless, finishing in second place, with a time just over two hours for the 24km race is nothing to scoff at, even if it wasn’t accomplished in the style I might have hoped for. Perhaps, contrary to what I swore to myself while walking an embarrassingly low-angled incline in the middle of the race, my running career isn’t quite over yet.
I spent the month of June hanging out on Denali with Colin Haley. Ultimately, we didn’t succeed on our main objective. It’s always difficult to fail after investing a month of time and energy, and in this case it was particularly difficult because it was mostly my fault.
In any case, climbing with Colin was a great learning experience and although this was my third trip to Denali, spending a month in such beautiful surroundings was as inspiring as ever.
However, I’ve yet to be inspired to write anything particularly insightful or soul-searching about the trip, so what follows are simply some photos.
Karina and I spent a week skiing in Nelson that included the Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival. It was a well-deserved vacation for Karina, whereas for me it was more a case of ‘getting away from already being pretty much away from it all’ (incidentally the title of a David Foster Wallace essay that I read during our trip while curled up next to the fire).
Two of Karina’s longtime friends, Rob and Michelle, live in Nelson and own ROAM, an outdoor store that was the title sponsor for the ski-mountaineering race held during the festival. Their involvement with the race went far beyond simply kicking in some prizes; they oversaw the whole event, from timing, to organizing the volunteers, to re-breaking the skin track at 6:00am the morning of the race. And they were too polite to object to us imposing on their hospitality during such a hectic time.
Rob and Michelle were also great tour guides to the backcountry terrain around the Whitewater resort. Although the avalanche conditions were a bit too touchy to ski any of the really impressive lines that are pretty much within spitting distance of the lifts, we still skied lots of great powder. Our most exhilarating run of the week, however, wasn’t on skis. We went for dinner at the wonderful home of Rob and Michelle’s friends Randy and Nella. They live high up an unplowed road, so Randy rode down on a quad and ferried us up (an adventure in and of itself). After dinner (and a few glasses of wine) we each chose a GT snow racer and took off careening down the three kilometers of icy and rutted switchbacks by headlamp. In spite of crashing repeatedly, I had so much fun that I’m considering giving up skiing in order to more fully pursue the exciting sport of tobogganning. Decidedly less fun, however, was hiking back up the hill the next morning to look for (and miraculously find) Karina’s car keys.
The Coldsmoke Powder Festival lived up to its name – it started snowing on Friday and didn’t really stop until the events had concluded on Sunday. With so much snow, the festival could’ve hardly failed to be a success; I certainly came away with a favorable impression of skiing at Whitewater.
With the abundance of new snow and much of the course being outside the ski area boundary, the randonee race felt like a genuine Kootenay backcountry adventure. Although Rob was out putting the skin track back in at some ungodly hour the morning of the race, it’s fair to say that the new snow created a lot more work for the racer(s) at the front of the field. Thankfully, I think that people generally finished in the order that they deserved, with the field simply being more tightly bunched than it would have been otherwise.
Overall, I was pleased with the way that I raced. I felt slightly fitter than I had two weeks prior and I was able to avoid repeating some, though not all, of my previous mistakes.
The main technical aspect that I struggled with throughout the race was getting my skins to grip in the soft snow on the steeper climbs. There are few things more demoralizing than slipping and sliding backwards. I would flail and try to muscle through with my arms only to plunge my poles up to their grips in the deep snow next to the track. I was reminded of classic technique cross country ski races in my youth where I’d missed the right wax. The real challenge is trying not to dwell on it too much since there’s no guarantee that anyone else’s skis are any better and at least you’ve probably got good glide. I think that the ideal would be to have a quiver of skins so that for races with soft snow or extra steep climbs you could carry a backup pair with extra width and grip.
My other demoralizing moment came when I skied off course on the penultimate descent. I’d studied the map, so I was able to correct my mistake before it was too late, unlike another unfortunate racer who got completely lost. However, the minute or two that I lost shuffling cross-country to get back on track was enough that I lost contact with the group in front and I was never quite able to close the gap. I ended up finishing in fifth place in about 2:53.
After the ski-mountaineering race in Golden, Paul Backhouse and I did some ice climbing in the Rockies.
For a few consecutive seasons, I spent quite a bit of time ice climbing in the Rockies. I took many overnight greyhound buses from Vancouver to Canmore during reading weeks at school. I slept in my friend Stefan’s van, in employee housing in Lake Louise (where slipping on someone else’s frozen urine on your front door step was a recurring cause of injury), and I even spent a month living in the Canmore trailer park with some French-Canadians. I may not have been much good at ice and mixed climbing, but I did a lot of it.
During the past few years, I’ve only managed to make occasional, brief trips. This time was no exception, but it was enough to remind me of why I used to go to so much trouble to climb there. Although a couple of things we had hoped to climb had either collapsed or were not touching down, there were still so many good climbing options that each day it was difficult to decide what we wanted to do the most.
The range is justifiably famous for its scenery. Unlike the steep-sided V-shaped valleys of the coast where you can drive along the roads oblivious to the vastness of the alpine landscape above, the broad open valleys of the Rockies mean that views of the high peaks are ever-present. I think that the visual prominence of such impressive mountains has as much to do with the strong tradition of alpine climbing in the Rockies as does the actual quality of the climbing (they also don’t have the distraction of quality granite rock climbing like we do on the coast).
The day after the race, Paul somehow convinced me to climb Nemesis, a classic pure ice route that neither of us had done before. The climb was excellent, although both my body and mind were exhausted. Thankfully Paul can always be counted on to be highly motivated. Given how pathetic I was throughout the day, it seemed somehow fitting to top it off with a few face-plants during a headlamp-illuminated ski down to the car through bottomless facets on my race skis.
We enjoyed a couple of days of cragging in Field and at Haffner Creek, but for me, the other highlight was an ascent of Polar Circus. Although I’d climbed the route a couple times in the past, this year a feature called the ‘Pencil’ was formed. Part of the perverse appeal of ice climbing is the ephemeral nature of the routes; when something like the Pencil (which I believe last formed in 2005?) is in good condition, it feels like a rare privilege to be able to climb it. Of course, everyone wants the privilege, and the pillar was fairly hooked out and not really too bad at all. Seeing as I’m weak and a wimp, that suited me just fine.
For years I’ve been afraid of competing. It is easier to harbour delusions of athletic talent if you never test them. Being injured actually gave me an excuse to sign up for a race. I felt that I could cope with mediocrity if I could claim (mostly to myself) to be an off-the-couch cripple. Admittedly, nearly two months after abandoning my crutches, I’m getting less and less sympathy in the cripple department. Nonetheless, I’d never done a ski-mountaineering race before and had no idea what I was doing, so I figured that entering the Dogtooth Dash in Golden was an experiment my ego could handle. The whole thing was also made more attractive by the fact that I could combine the race with some ice climbing in the rockies.
In short, the race was a lot of fun and I didn’t embarrass myself too much. I was eighth overall, and although I was miles behind the top two racers, I felt like I was generally competitive with a group of competent racers (and one elite woman) for most of the course.
What follows are a few thoughts on the race; probably only of interest to my future self should I do another one.
• Transitions matter. I practiced taking my skins on and off while skiing to Red Heather a few days before the race, but I really wasn’t very concerned about losing a few seconds in transitions here and there over the course of two hours of skiing. However, the race contained roughly 15 transitions, so not only did the seconds begin to add up, but again and again I was demoralized to arrive at a transition at the same time as another skier only to leave with a 20 meter gap to close. Besides being generally slow, I also made a couple of rookie mistakes in the transitions. On the second climb, I didn’t attach one of my skins properly and it soon fell off, forcing me to stop and reapply it. At the top of one of the boot-pack sections, the transition was in a rather precarious spot. I ripped the skins off my skis before putting them down on the snow which made stepping into the bindings a very delicate and slow procedure so as to avoid kicking my skis off the ridge.
• I strongly believe that ski-mountaineering races should be as technical as possible (I suspect that liability is the limiting factor in North America); otherwise you may as well be cross-county skiing. The race in Golden had a few challenging descents where the snow was a bit variable and choppy. On one of these, about two-thirds of the way through the race, I crashed and broke a pole. I’m not sure how much less efficient it is to ski with only one pole, but it was certainly a blow to my morale at a critical point in the race. I noticed people using a variety of different types of poles, but in the future I think I would use light aluminum ones if I thought I might fall on any of the descents.
• I finished with a time of 2:25. During that interval I ate two gels and drank about a liter of water (I carried five gels and 1.5 liters of water). It’s something that requires further research, but I suspect I would have done well to eat and drink a bit more. After breaking my pole, I felt as though I was suffering and slowing down quite a bit on the final two climbs. No doubt my pacing could have been better, although I really did feel relaxed and comfortable through the first half of the race. I feel that I bonked at the end of the race partly due to lacking a solid aerobic base (1.5 months ago I was in the worst shape of my life), partly from not taking on enough water and gel, and partly from a lack of mental toughness that comes from racing experience.
• I was pleased to be the first non-lycra-clad finisher. Unfortunately, I was way overdressed and I can now see the benefits of a dedicated ski-mountaineering suit. Not only was I sweating profusely, but I had a hard time getting my skins to stay put inside the front of my windbreaker on the descents.
• There were a number of sections of boot-packing on the up-hills. I felt that I really struggled on these compared to the sections of skinning. The pre-kicked steps were generally far enough apart that considerable leg strength was required. Given that slogging up snow slopes is pretty much my greatest skill as a climber, I had hoped to be stronger with my skis off.
• I think that it would be worthwhile to ski the course (or at least the descents) before the race. Although the course was always well marked, I still found it difficult to focus on skiing while still keeping an eye on the red flags. At one point, I actually skied slightly off course even though there was a marshall there clearly directing me in the right direction. I also often skied more conservatively than necessary because I didn’t know what was coming up around the next corner or what the snow was going to be like.
• The race was extremely well organized and the course was excellent. There’s no reason that ski-mountaineering races shouldn’t be both well-attended and competitive in Canada. Having high quality races like the Dogtooth Dash is a good start.
• A short video that gives the flavour of the race can be seen here.