Desert Tracks: A Photo Journal

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Desert Tracks: A Photo Journal

Road tripping with my parents as a kid in the 90s

If you and I have adventured together before, there’s a chance that you have heard me tell this story - the story of how I fell in love with the desert when I was 12 years old. 

The occasion was a big road trip with my parents, the three of us having traveled across the Atlantic from our native Germany in order to sample some of the famous national parks of the American West during summer break.  A bucket list vacation, right?

Truth be told, I didn’t love it then. Hour after hour in our rental car, too many early morning wake ups and mandatory hikes. I wasn’t all outdoorsy back then - books were more my jam, but I’d get car sick from trying to read in the backseat. So, yes, the trip was cool but no, it wasn’t love at first sight when my parents dragged me through the Utah desert at age 12.

That is… right until the end of our time on the road, when we pulled up to a big concrete parking lot a hundred yards or so from Bright Angel Point at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t even want to get out of the car anymore because I’d already looked at what felt like a hundred other canyons in the Southwest and I was officially over the whole road trip thing. Well - I’m glad my parents would have none of my pre-teen willfulness and forced me off the back seat and onto my feet; I irrevocably fell in love with the desert about 45 seconds after I slammed the car door shut. 

12 years old and still trying to be grumpy about being made to look at yet another random desert canyon.

But how could you not fall in love with this landscape! A moody analog shot of the Grand Canyon from my dad’s archives.

Okay, okay. Maybe this place doesn’t totally suck. Moi ca. 1997

I’ve come back to the Grand Canyon what feels like a million times since that day in 1997. I’ve run it Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim on three occasions, I’ve tasted its obscure trails and off-trail sections far beyond the main corridor, I’ve floated a few stretches of the river. I’ve gotten stuck in snow on the rim and nearly passed out from heat exhaustion in the inner gorge, and I keep coming back for more: for the last twenty+ years, the Grand Canyon has been one of my favorite spots in the world. I think slowly but surely Paul might be starting to develop a deeper appreciation for it, too - even after my misguided first attempt at sharing my love for the big ditch with Paul a year and a half ago the story of which I shared here.

Below are a few shots from our recent nine day backpack through the northwestern reaches of Grand Canyon National Park and surrounding wilderness earlier this month; no big epics to report this time (phew), so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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Aconcagua 360: Runs and Records

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Aconcagua 360: Runs and Records

“I am curled up in the fetal position on bare rock behind a two foot boulder that I spotted minutes ago just steps off the trail; barely protected from the bone-penetrating wind, my eyes are closing on me. I am alone, surrounded by foreboding darkness. The forecast is predicting a punishing -22 degrees Celsius for the summit over night; shivering, I wrap my paper-thin emergency bivouac bag tighter around my legs and adjust the hood of my parka in the vain attempt to bury my nose and forehead in it. 

I know I can’t win the fight against the laden sleepiness that has been circling in on me for hours but I fight to stay awake for just a minute longer, to take off my gloves and set the alarm on my phone for half an hour from now.  As soon as I allow my eyes to close I rapidly drift off into the sleep of exhaustion. It is freezing cold.”

———

I wrote these words in February 2018, a few days after I became the first woman to circumnavigate and summit 22,838ft Aconcagua in a single push.  My experience on the so-called 360 Route was one of extremes: scorching temperatures and dark trail-side naps in subzero temperatures; a raging river in the day, dangerously unsettled recent mudslides at night. Rangers who first denied me permission to enter the park on my existing permit only to later became proactive supporters. 

In the tent on Aconcagua while preparing the 360 speed mission

The 360 record has been in the news again recently thanks to the efforts of Sonia Procopio, a 39-year-old Argentinian woman who embarked on her own 360 record run just a few short days ago. Sonia faced great difficulties in her mission yet completed a circumnavigation of the mountain in 45 hours and 45 minutes, a little less than two hours faster than I had been the year prior.  

Sadly, controversy erupted shortly after - the lack of a summit photo and some other factors have caused critics to question the veracity of Sonia’s accounts. In the wake of the debate, I’d like to offer a few reflections.  

  • I firmly believe that the act of breaking a speed record, or the state of being in possession of one, has very little significance.  The inspiring part is not where you succeed - it’s the fact that you’re willing to try.
    Simply taking on a challenge of the magnitude of running the Aconcagua 360 is something that I find incredibly impressive, and it’s sad to see that what should have been a time celebrating a woman’s achievement has turned into great controversy instead.

  • The current situation and high emotions drive home why it is helpful to have agreement around a strong set of community ethics when it comes to speed records, just as they exist in the United States among the Fastest Known Time (FKT) community.  Thanks to FKT pioneers Peter Bawkin and Buzz Burrell, the rules in the US are clear - advance notification, real-time GPS tracking and complete records are expected for major record attempts.  It seems time that the verification prerequisites for Aconcagua records should move beyond the token summit photo and start to require real-time GPS allowing third parties to observe progress while a record attempt is under way. 

Sunny Stroeer summit Feb 2 2018

Sunny Stroeer summit Feb 2 2018

  • Unfortunately, Sonia did not have a GPS device.  But she does have independent witnesses who attest to the fact that she made it to the Cueva (~150 hard meters below the summit), at which point the evidence gap and inconsistencies begin.  I have no first-hand insight into whether Sonia reached the summit or not, but I do know this: even in the case that she did not complete the final meters of the climb, her physical accomplishment is tremendous - circumnavigating the mountain and getting to within spitting distance (mileage-wise, not time-wise) of the summit requires an incredible amount of mental and physical perseverance, and to do so without having been to this altitude before (as in Sonia’s case) is even more mind-boggling.  In the end, without photos or GPS or independent eye witnesses for the summit, Sonia alone knows the true extent of her achievement and I hope that she takes pride in what she was able to do.

  • Regardless of what happened in Sonia’s summit bid above the Cueva, there is a new time to beat for any record hopefuls in order to put the controversy to bed once and for all:  45 hours and 45 minutes is the time it took Sonia to complete the circumnavigation, even though vision problems forced her to rest at high camp for eight hours while on the descent.  I can imagine that Sonia would agree with the statement that both her and my posted times (I took 47 hours and thirty minutes) include a lot of slack and have ample room for improvement.  Sonia had to sleep for eight hours in Nido de Condores; I was stalled out for two hours resolving permit issues early on, and later I spent two and a half hours at Plaza de Mulas celebrating my summit and eating pizza with friends.  I then encountered several major mudslides in the Horcones Valley which slowed me down, and finally I did not run a single step on the final outbound leg as there was no need, meaning no prior time for me to beat.  

To any woman who would like to attempt the 360 record I say this: the record is achievable but it takes more than simple speed and perseverance.  To be able to complete the upper mountain safely, knowledge of the route and weeks of acclimatization are required prior to any speed attempt.  To succeed on an endeavor like the 360 in a push we must combine the best of the trail running and the high altitude mountaineering world, and possess the skills and experience of both. 

———

“I have been here before.  I have climbed this mountain before, I have reached this summit before - three times to be precise. But this time is different.  I am alone in the middle of the night, on a mad mission to become the first woman to circumnavigate and summit the mountain in a single push. Why am I here?

I left basecamp four hours ago.  Basecamp, with its friendly faces and warmth and food and even bunk beds.  At 11pm, when everyone else on the mountain is just burrowing deeper into their sleeping bags to shut out the chill of yet another high altitude night, I pushed open the kitchen tent’s door to step into the cold dark, leaving behind a group of warmly smiling friends; friends with an equal mix of worries and well-wishes on their lips.  The basecamp manager’s radio starts to crackle; the park rangers are checking in.  “Does she have a team on the upper mountain? Is there somebody waiting for her at Camp 1 and Camp 2 or at least at Camp Colera?”

The answer is no, I do not have anybody waiting for me in the three camps on the upper mountain.  I am by myself.  And so I walk off into the night - all by myself.  I know that the next twelve to eighteen hours will be the hardest challenge of my life to date.”


Mileage, vert and time splits for Sunny’s 2018 360 run

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Catching up

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Catching up

Hi everyone, it’s been a couple months since I wrote the last ChasingSunshine post - and there’s good reason for it; lots and lots has happened.

Here’s the cliff notes version:

  • Moved out of Boulder and full-time into Merlot-The-Van with Paul

  • Climbed all over Yosemite and the Southwest in the fall

  • Got my US green card - I’m officially a permanent resident!

  • Doubled down on guiding by formalizing Aurora Women’s Expeditions as a Colorado LLC and adding several new expeditions to Nepal, Argentina and Tanzania for 2019/2020 - go check out the expedition schedule.

  • Agreed new 2019 partnerships with LEKI, LOWA, and GU

  • And: making lots of plans for the coming months and years.

Now scroll on for the more detailed update and all the photos that I never get around to posting on Facebook, too.


If we’re friends on social media you may already know some of this, but let me start from where I left off a few months ago.

After winning the Ouray 100 and setting an FKT (fastest known time) on the Pfiffner Traverse within ten days from one another, August was the time for a summer holiday! Paul and I love far-out adventures, but this time we stayed close to home: a ~2hr drive took us to the Indian Peaks where we climbed magical Lone Eagle Peak, a Colorado classic that had been high on our combined tick list for a while.

Having enjoyed a few days of climbing in perfect sunshine, it was full steam ahead towards a singular goal: moving out of our Boulder apartment and into #MerlotTheVan by October 1. While Paul was wrapping up his obligations at Nite Ize and working frantically towards his final day of employment (gasp…), I worked equally frantically to build out Merlot from scratch and get us moved in.

Merlot, in case you’re curious, is a 2003 Ford E350XL with a great amount of character and equal amounts of rust. In true going-for-broke dirtbag fashion we decided against buying a Sprinter van or Promaster, opting to spend less money upfront ($7k!) and more money on repairs.

We got everything done on time and launched headfirst into vanlife on September 29, with not much on our minds other than wanting to spend as much time as possible together, outside, climbing and adventuring, and evading bad weather. Of course October isn’t the greatest time to be looking for barefoot and shirtless summer days, but we got to enjoy many beautiful weeks in and around Yosemite, Joshua Tree, as well as in the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. I didn’t achieve my objective of climbing El Capitan with a partner different than Paul (who was up on the big stone for 10 days to send the rarely climbed Heartland 5.10 A4), but spent lots of time on Washington Column and also helped Paul, Wayne Willoughby and Chris Van Leuven with their single-push adaptive ascent of Zodiac in November.

With winter settling in across the western US we finally found ourselves playing hide-and-seek with blizzards, below-freezing-temps, and the ever-elusive calm and sunny conditions. Enter the holidays, and family visits across three countries and two continents with lots of smiles and celebrations, great meals, and plenty of leisurely walks and sunny skiing.

And last but not least!! I became a US permanent resident and promptly doubled down on Aurora Women’s Expeditions (AWE) to turn it into a proper business. I’d been hoping to do this for several years but wasn’t able to do so prior to obtaining my green card, so I am now doubly excited to have everything up and running as a small Colorado business. The inaugural expedition schedule includes trips to Aconcagua, Everest Basecamp and Island Peak (this trip is open to men as well btw, and will be co-guided by Paul!), and Kilimanjaro; more to come as time goes on.
If you are interested in any of those climbs or know someone who you think would enjoy a women’s trip… please share the love! Aconcagua 2020 only has one spot remaining, but the other two trips still have plenty of availability. And if you can’t think of anyone who would be interested, I’d love it if you at least check out the AWE website, let me know what you think, and subscribe to the AWE newsletter.

Finally… a nod of gratitude to my outdoor industry partners for 2019: I’m excited to be working with LOWA Boots, Backpacker’s Pantry, Leki USA, and GU Energy. And I am equally stoked to be thinking about and working towards all the big projects that are bubbling up towards the top of my list: more speed records in the US and Nepal, putting work in on some first ascents, and prepping a big polar mission. So much time, so little to do! But first, off to Argentina for an AWExAconcagua climb starting on Saturday - if you like seeing photos and realtime updates from the mountain please follow along at the new AWE Instagram account @awexpeditions. Much love and I hope we cross paths somewhere in the great outdoors this year!

Sunny

PS / *** technical note: If you’ve enjoyed getting expedition field notes in the past, please be aware that those are all moving over to the new AWExpeditions website which means that you need to (re-)subscribe over there in order to continue receiving updates from the mountain in your inbox.

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The Mile High Outdoor Show

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The Mile High Outdoor Show

I recently had the opportunity to record an hour long talkshow segment with Miles Dunklin of Mile High Sports.  It was a fun conversation going deep into a number of topics that I don't talk about that often. This article contains links to the full-length Mile High Outdoor episode as well as to a few other podcasts that I was a guest on in Q2/Q3 2018.

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Making Vanlife Work (#3/3) ... as a Content Creator in the Outdoor Industry

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Making Vanlife Work (#3/3) ... as a Content Creator in the Outdoor Industry

To get paid directly for going on outdoor adventures of your own design really just means that you are an outdoor industry content creator.  Maybe you're an athlete; maybe you're a talented photographer, or a hard-working writer. Or maybe you're simply a relatable guy or gal with a distinctive voice who enjoys telling stories. No matter which of those categories you fall into, content is your bread and business.  

The good news is that brands are always hungry for fresh content.  The bad news is that content creators are a dime a dozen, and establishing yourself as a content creator whose work is worth money doesn't happen overnight; like anything else, it takes a lot of time and effort. 

So how do you break into getting paid for content?

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Making Vanlife Work (#2/3): Savings vs. Income On The Road

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Making Vanlife Work (#2/3): Savings vs. Income On The Road

A couple days ago I shared the first post in this mini-series, talking about what’s a realistic #vanlife budget. I also talked about how much lead time you may want to plan on to get financially - and physically - ready (read the full thing here), and then I said this: 

“You can cut down your lead time, and the amount of savings required to quit your traditional day job, by setting yourself up to work from the road and try to earn a living while traveling.”

But really… before I get into specifics, let me ask you a basic question: why are you thinking about vanlife in the first place?

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Making Vanlife Work (#1/3): The Budget

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Making Vanlife Work (#1/3): The Budget

I shared a post the other day talking about how @clmbrlifr and I are going to return to full-time #vanlife in short order.  It'll be my second stint in a van in the last three years and Paul’s return to his old dirtbag roots after working corporate for the last three decades: he used to be an itinerant climber in his twenties.  

Financing life on the road

‘How do you make it work financially?’ is one of the questions that I get asked most frequently these days.

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me?  It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”

My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s.  I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued. 

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Where man himself does not remain

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Where man himself does not remain

A conjugal scramble in the Flatirons above Boulder

The sound of an ambulance washes up from the plains far below.  From up here at 6600ft, in velvet early dark below the summit, Boulder’s lights and the humming noise of civilization are a short half mile away; the tumultuous ocean of humanity washing over rocky mountain shores. 

I love the mountains; Colorado is good for that. I am charmed by Boulder’s easy access to the wild, yet I yearn for more. More wild, more free, more silent solitude: unadulterated untouched country. I drift off into memories of space. 

Two months ago I found that untouched space.  I walked for weeks, four weeks and four days to be exact, from one side of Utah to the other.  I walked through desert canyons and high mountains, sand and water, I waded and I bushwhacked and I climbed and fell and scrambled.  I walked across the Colorado Plateau, right through the heart of one of the most remote desert backcountry out there: Grand Staircase Escalante. An untouched roadless area so vast I didn’t see another human soul for days, where I could walk for weeks without ever setting foot on asphalt. A dream for some, nightmarish desolation for others: true wilderness.  

Day 3 of 32 on the 812-mile Hayduke Trail, heading into the unknown

I grew up in Germany, just one among eleven million German children with their seventy-one million parents and grandparents and grownup aunts and uncles all crammed into an area not even quite as big as California. Germany is exemplary: so safe, so clean, so civil. Every last little spec of usable land has been improved upon, to build neat towns and well-run farms and autobahns and big grand metropoles and tightly-managed forests.  Germany’s rise from the ashes after World War II is the stuff of textbooks; chaos and destruction turned systematically to meteoric order and success.  A triumphant return to civilization, and in its march there is but one thing that got overlooked: the necessity of wilderness. 

That’s why I so value the existence of unspoiled wildness. Because I remember what it feels like, having none of it.  I remember being a kid in Germany, standing in our back yard, looking out across the fields.  I remember feeling the urge to explore and to get lost, and I remember how disappointingly the world closed in on me once I was old enough to walk the talk, to head off on my own to see my little German world: there was no exploration to be had. The fenced-in backyard of my childhood was bordered by a field was bordered by a road and three more fields and the two local farms and fences and more farms and roads and fields and towns. You see, less than 1% of the land in Germany is undeveloped; there was no wilderness. 

Deep, dark, unspoiled wild

That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw the American West’s great public lands at age 12. I remember that first time I tasted the desert, feeling small and feeling wild. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since.  It’s the feeling I set out to live fully and taste deeply when I started my long solitary walk across the Utah desert along the Hayduke Trail. 

The fence line on the left marks the boundary of Arches National Park 

I set out north of Moab at the northern edge of Arches, enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. The first few miles of my month-long journey take me through protected lands inside the iconic national park.  Soon I find myself traversing along the very edge of the national park boundary, and this is what I find: on the inside of the fence, cryptobiotic soil, deep and undisturbed; on the outside of the fence, inches from the boundary, dirt roads and natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Stark contrasts and a powerful reminder of the importance of protection.  

Weeks later I walk through the roadless heart of Grand Staircase Escalante: a 1.9 million acre landscape so complicated and fantastic in its revelation of progressive sandstone layers that 'Staircase' had to be its name.  Days go by without me seeing another soul; I feel more alive and human to the core than I have in years.  Living among wilderness brings out human essence; there is a primal peace to existing simply, a natural rhythm of living with the land. Being small and part of nature drives home life’s beautiful simplicity. 

I spend hard long days on the Kaiparowits Plateau, crossing through its hellish heat and desolation. “It is a fierce and dangerous place, and it is wilderness right down to its burning core.” I didn’t know these words before I headed off into Kaiparowits, but having come out the other side I know first-hand how true they are. 

Surface coal on the Kaiparowits plateau

It is here on the Kaiparowits that I first walk alongside surface layer coal beds. It is here I realize that I have no excuse to not speak up for public lands. The Kaiparowits drives home for me what wilderness entails: existential clarity, unforgiving solitude and irrevocable experience. Development is just the same but on the flip side of the coin: unforgiving, irrevocable. Once development starts up there is no going back; once wilderness is lost, it’s lost for good.  

There’s a funny thing or two about how natural treasure works.  

Size matters. Three individual parcels of wilderness don’t carry the same value as a single area three times the size of one.  Contiguous wild spaces are the most powerful form of preservation, for wildlife habitats and historic study just as well as for adventure and explorers. 

Pure existence matters. We don’t have to actually be out there hiking and exploring; simple knowledge of wilderness’ existence changes our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future.  We don’t have to constantly - or ever! - venture off into the wild to feel its value; simply knowing that it’s there, that we CAN get lost if we just wanted to, and that our children have that very option, changes our lives. 

Do you remember the feeling you had when you got the keys to your first car: all a sudden, the possibilities are endless; you could drive over to your friend’s house, or even all the way across the country! Did you actually drive all the way across the country? Your answer doesn’t change the power of the notion. 

The car... wreck? 

Another ambulance starts blaring. I am far above the lights of Boulder still, abruptly taken from my desert dreams.  My Hayduke hike was a dream. This, here, is life; it’s real.  And for now it’s time for me to sink back into the depths of the turbid ocean of humanity.

For now, wilderness is far away yet still in reach.  Out west, just on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, there still are those places that are vast and wild and free.  Grand Staircase is still wild; Bears Ears is still on the brink of monument protection. For how much longer… we don’t know.  
Go visit your wild lands while they are wild, go see the marvels that may soon be paved and mined; and if you believe in the value of knowing wilderness is out there, for yourself and for your children: speak up, post and tweet, and let Trump know that public lands deserve protection. 

Spotted in Moab, Day 1 of 32 on the 812 mile Hayduke trail

As I head down the well-built trail towards Chautauqua Park, Congress’ definition of wilderness reverberates within me: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How I long already to return to those areas where I may not remain. 


'Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.' [Edward Abbey]

Existential clarity, unforgiving solitude; irrevocable experience.

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The gift of #vanlife, or: Will you be Eddie's new owner?

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The gift of #vanlife, or: Will you be Eddie's new owner?

If we’ve been friends for a while you’ll recall that I quit my fancy shmancy strategy consulting job at the end of 2015 to become a full-time nomad and live in a van down by the river. It was amazing, it was terrifying, and depending on your perspective it was hands-down either the dumbest or the best thing that I have ever done in my life. And it was all made possible by a loyal little roughed-up dream mobile that I discovered on Craigslist and subsequently rescued from a series of abusive (or at least non-caring) prior owners. 

3A7A2040.jpg

That roughed-up little dream mobile is Eddie the Van.  Eddie is the first vehicle I ever owned. He spoiled me with a long honeymoon and many incredible moments that have been indelibly burned into my memory.  Eddie was there and patiently waiting when I placed top 10 in the US Track and Field National 100K trail championships; when I celebrated my 31st birthday - my first birthday of freedom - in Goblin Valley with my mom and her husband; when I fell in love with the incredible man who has since become my best friend and as of late my husband; when I almost sank my inflatable SUP on Lake Powell and had to get an emergency evac back to the marina; when I headed off to Yosemite to climb El Cap with Paul as our sixth date; when I signed my first outdoor industry sponsor contract and when I got my first paid photography assignments. Every time I drive to a trailhead for a long training run, Eddie is the one who sees me off and waits for me to get back; no big run is complete until I slap him on the butt. Except that now… well, now I am married and as incredible as Eddie is, he’s just no match for two 6ft+ people with hundreds of pounds of payload from big wall gear to full-strength winter mountaineering equipment. 

So Paul and I bought a bigger van to accompany us on our adventures.  And Eddie… Eddie still has too much life in him to consider putting him down, but it seems heartless to just put him up for sale and try to get the highest price (in case you’re curious, I bought him for $2800 back in 2015, and have since put and additional ~$2-3k of labor and parts into him).  Which is the reason that I am giving Eddie away to an individual who loves and values the spirit of vanlife as much as she or he values having a functioning four wheels. 

Eddie is awesome. He’s an old gentleman with almost 270,000 miles on the chassis (150,000 miles on the engine) and a couple of ailments, but chances are that he’ll keep running for many more thousands of miles if you are gentle with him. I took Eddie on a hard 1000 mile trip through the desert as recently as two months ago; starter, alternator and battery have all been replaced within the last 24 months. The interior is built out in simple fashion - a bed platform, storage box that doubles as seating area, and little table in the back; no solar or insulation - designed for one person but Eddie is also workable as a fun weekend mobile for two.  Don’t expect to *sleep* two people in there with the current setup, but with some basic carpentry it should be quite easy to modify the bed platform so you can extend it into a double.

As far as old man ailments go, here is what you’re looking at…

Permanent / too pricy to fix

  • Electrical: there is a short in the system leading to warning lights on the dash (breaks and engine; I’ve had both checked out regularly; they’re fine) and screwy door actuators - doors must all be locked manually
  • Air Conditioning is broken, would be $1000+ in labor and parts to fix.  I have lived with out A/C for the last 20 months

Easy / affordable fixes

  • Windshield: big circular crack right in the middle; been stable for a year, but probably wouldn’t pass inspection… 
  • Rear hatch: doesn’t open due to a stuck actuator; should be an easy fix, I didn’t bother since I knew there was going to be a new van soon… 
  • Spare tire: needs replacing, the old one is cracked - this one is a safety issue should you break down with a flat, so I’d highly recommend addressing this. 

Eddie is still running well enough that I could get a bit of money out of him on Craigslist, but that just doesn’t feel right.  Instead I want to share the happiness that he’s given me over the last 2.5 years and gift the joy of vanlife. So, here’s the deal: if you want Eddie, find me on Instagram and direct message me there (since that's where most of my engagement happens, this will allow me to keep everything in one spot and not lose track of submissions in different places). Share your story of why you love the idea of owning Eddie and what you’re hoping to do with him.  I’ll choose his new owner this Friday June 22 based on my favorite story. 

If your story is the one that wins, Eddie will be yours for free! The only costs you'll have to cover are any applicable state taxes (not sure about the details but I think this might be zero for a gift?), and standard title transfer/registration costs. 

And if you're still on the fence about vanlife... here's what my first six months on the road looked like. 

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

It's an honest question: Why do hard things? 

I may not be the most natural person to pose this question, given that I seem to have somewhat of an unnatural propensity towards suffering or what we like to call Type II fun: "fun in retrospect". And yet, I wonder: Why? 

In a way, I believe that choosing to do hard things is a privilege: having the freedom and the drive to go out and actively pursue difficult challenges tends to be an indicator of a life that doesn't include a great deal of day-to-day hardship.  At least that's the conclusion that Brad Stuhlberg arrived at in his 2017 piece for Outside Magazine Why do Rich People Love Endurance Sports, and I have to admit that the logic (and research) resonates.  

On a very personal level, though, I have a completely different answer to the question of 'Why do hard things': for me, taking on challenges is all about accessing the full range of human experience.  It's not that I want to suffer - but I want to take on projects that require me to give my all, to be fully present, to creatively solve problems, to strategize, to improvise, to persevere and to live and work through the joyous high of successful progress as well as the lows of unexpected roadblocks or the threat of defeat.  I want to feel the full amplitude of human potential; my weapon of choice is mental and physical challenge rather than mind-altering chemicals. 

Pretty sure my mind was bent at this point, 78 miles into the fables Western States Endurance Run: the infamous 'Rucky Chucky' river crossing. 

On Running 100 Miles... 

So in case you were wondering what on earth made me sign up for an ultra hard mountain 100 miler - did I mention that the Ouray 100 has 83,000ft of elevation change?? - at the end of July... this is your answer.  More pragmatically though, and in response to several inquiries, let's talk about how to get ready for a race like this.

I have completed three 100 milers in the past, and attempted another two which I ultimately DNF'd (Did Not Finish). The successful finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were in three races of wildly different character but they all had one thing in common: I did not train very much for them.  Let me quantify that. Lean Horse, my first Hundred, was the one I took most seriously; I was happy to be able to carve out 35 flat, sea-level miles per week (mpw) for the four months leading up to the race. In 2013 I completed Western States - averaging less than 18 mpw in the six months before the race, even though that time period included several ultra races.  In 2014 I finished the very rugged and tough Ghosts of Yellowstone... and I have no idea what my average weekly mileage was,  but I am willing to bet that it was closer to 18 than 35 mpw as I was working on a difficult project and towards a major promotion at work that summer.

With my pacer and friend Mark Swanson on the final yards of Western States 2013 after running  100.2 miles.  Can you tell I was hurting? Running a 100 miler on <18 miles per week of training volume... possible but not recommended. 

Why am I sharing my old 100-Miler history? For two reasons: one, to let you know that it is possible to be an ultra runner and complete long-distance races without committing to a training regimen that feels like a part-time job (I even managed to pull off a sub-24hr finish on the 35mpw training schedule). Two, because I want to put into context how major a stepup my training for the upcoming Ouray 100 is. Now let's talk tactics. 

Sunny's Ouray 100 Training Plan

I am notoriously terrible at following training plans - life always ends up getting in the way, doesn't it?! The way I use this plan is mostly to have a concrete goal for my overall mileage each week, and an idea of the number of long runs that I'll need to make time for in order to hit the goal.  I rarely execute the plan precisely as it's written, but tend to shuffle things around as my life schedule evolves.  

Here is my conceptual training plan, and what my actual training log looks like. 

My actual training plan for the 2018 Ouray 100.  Note: you need a healthy base to up mileage as quickly as this plan proposes, or you'll risk injury. 

Actual training log, totally old-fashioned scribbles. 
Note that all I'm really focused on is my weekly mileage goal, and what days I know that I'll be able to put in a big effort potentially coupled with an overnight at altitude (the big boxes). 

A few other things that I place great value on - beyond having an actual training plan but approaching it with a notion of flexibility - are sleep, food, and altitude. Sleep and nutrition should be no brainers (the body needs more and better quality of both when undergoing this type of effort).  Altitude is a specific twist to the Ouray 100, the race I am training for: with a course that tops out at 13,300ft and never dips below 7,600ft... acclimatization is key. You can bet that I will spend as much time as I can training and sleeping above 10,000ft. 

And with that... time to go for a run.  Happy training! 

When this is your playground, training is happiness.

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Off to the Desert

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Off to the Desert

A quick note to keep you all in the loop of what's happening.  So much has been going on in the last few weeks, and there are lots of exciting changes happening and projects developing that I will share with you as time progresses.  In the immediate future, though, is one massive project that I am incredibly excited about: the Hayduke Trail.  

I am leaving civilization behind this afternoon to start a (hopefully) speedy thruhike of the 812 mile Hayduke trail through southern Utah and northern Arizona.  Find out more about the project here or check in on GPS to see where I'm at!  I expect to be out there for the next ~month, and look forward to hopefully finishing the trail with plenty of time to get myself to Yosemite (and take a shower...) before Jim Bridwell's memorial on May 19.  

I will be fully off-grid for 95% of my time on the Hayduke.  If you want to get a hold of me between now and late May, feel free to use the GPS link above to text me.  I'm beyond stoked to spend a month in the desert and hopefully come back with lots of beautiful memories, random stories and powerful imagery of our public lands. 

And until then... see you later! 

Looking forward to lots of desert sunsets like this in the next 30+ days!

Looking forward to lots of desert sunsets like this in the next 30+ days!

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Waaah!

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Waaah!

Sometimes, life is beautiful.  Actually - scratch that.  Most of the time life is beautiful!  But sometimes it's just particularly perfect.  For me, and for my better half, that particular kind of perfect is something we most often go to seek (and find) in the Utah desert.  But little did I know that the 2018 desert season opener was going to have a special surprise in store.  

Sun, sandstone and awesome car camping - happiness

A short six hour drive across the Rockies is all that separates Paul and me from what sometimes feels like our second home, the vast expanse and beautiful towers and cliffs and mesas of the desert that sprawl for miles - hundreds of miles, depending on which direction you're going - around Moab. We love the desert so much that we made the long drive on eleven different weekends last spring; not great for our carbon footprint (though at least Paul had a hybrid Toyota Prius for most of the season) but splendid for the soul and for adventure climbing, too.

It's no surprise then that, once I returned from my latest multi-month high altitude stint, the desert was #1 on Paul's and my weekend wish list.  It took us a few weeks to make schedules work but one early Friday afternoon in March finally had us westbound on I-70, ready to cross over snowy Vail Pass in order to chase sunshine and warm rock in the Utah desert. 

It was long dark by the time we reached camp on Friday evening, and we made quick work of setting up the tent and seeking warmth in our sleeping bags.  Saturday morning rolled around in exactly the way that we had hoped for: sunny with pleasant temperatures, and not another soul in sight.  Paul and I have a tradition for desert camping by now: start with coffee, add bacon and eggs and top it all off with camp mimosas.  It's both decadent and dangerous, because by the time we're done feasting it's often a challenge to rally for the transition from comfortable camp chairs to steep trails and sorta-heavy packs. 

Paul aka @clmbrlifr - always strong, always stoked for climbing <3

Well.  This time wasn't much different, but the weather was splitter and so were the cracks. Long story short: we did rally and started the thirty minute approach to our familiar crag.  A gentle trail gradually steepens into an unpleasant scree scramble which leads straight to a ten-foot vertical cliff band that is surmounted with the help of a fixed rope.  Right above the fixed rope, the terrain flattens out onto a beautiful terrace before the final steep ascent up to the base of the crag.  I was a minute or two ahead of Paul, who was carrying a quadruple rack (the joys of desert crack climbing), all the way to the top of the fixed rope where I waited briefly so we would finish up the approach together. 

It seemed to me that Paul was having to work harder for the approach than he typically does, and I couldn't quite tell if I had simply gotten faster from my high altitude work or if Paul had slowed down from prioritizing bouldering over cardio exercise while I was gone.  Once he caught up to me at the top of the fixed rope we started hiking across the flat terrace, me still in front; just a few steps later Paul veered off the trail towards the edge off the terrace and said "Hang on - I want to take a break. I need to take my pack off for a minute." I was confused; the crag was just another five minute climb up the hill.  Why wasn't he continuing on? I was starting to worry; maybe Paul's fifty-seven years were finally starting to catch up with him... but could he really have lost all of his endurance over the course of those few short months that I was gone? 

I followed Paul off the trail and to the edge of the terrace.  The views were beautiful, yet I was preoccupied thinking about my boyfriend's condition as he proceeded to take his pack off to take a rest.  What was going on?  I too dropped my pack and turned around, looking at Paul quizzically.  He was breathing hard. I put my hands on his chest and felt his rapid heartbeat. 'Oh boy' I thought to myself. 'Getting up here really isn't that strenuous. This is not good.' My face was close to Paul's, and he pulled me in for a kiss; a second later, he dropped to the floor.  'Ah crap, is he having a heart attack?!' was the immediate thought that entered my mind as he grabbed my hand.  An instant later, I realized that he was kneeling and looking up at me with tears in his eyes. "Suz, you mean so much to me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want you to marry me." A beautiful, one-of-a-kind silver ring in the palm of his hand. "Will you marry me?" 

And the rest is history.  HELL YES!!

We're engaged!

My super strong rope gun.  No, he was NOT having a heart attack when he took a knee ;) 

Yes, yes we do. 

 

 

 

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Annapurna Circuit FKT Video ++

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Annapurna Circuit FKT Video ++

It's been a couple months since I ran around Annapurna, but there's been a frenzy of activity regarding the run lately!  First of, a two minute video on what it was like to complete the whole trail in less than four days (spoiler alert: it was HARD). 

Secondly, Outside Magazine published a write-up of the run here - I'm not quite sure I agree with their title assessment (ha!) but I'm certainly stoked to have been able to pull off the FKT at moment's notice. 

Finally, if you're an ultra runner and considering a big mountain FKT attempt like this yourself... you may enjoy the beta that Himalayan Adventure Labs published in their "Behind the Scenes" post a little while ago; I hope it's useful to you. 

  

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To ALL Women I Say This: An Epistle to Women, by Sarah Richards

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To ALL Women I Say This: An Epistle to Women, by Sarah Richards

women-7366.jpg

If y'all have been reading my blog or social media posts for a while you know that I care massively about women empowerment - and that I believe the outdoors are a great avenue to help address gender equality.  It's why I make it a point to lead all-female teams on high altitude expeditions each year, and it's been the topic of a number of my posts and interviews in the past. 

It's also the reason why, today, I want to turn over the stage to Sarah Richards.  Sarah just wrote the most beautiful piece about being a woman adventuring in the outdoors, and if you're a woman you'll want to read it; if you have a daughter, sister, wife or mother... you'll want to read Sarah's piece and then pass it on to the women in your life. 

An Epistle to Women

by Sarah Richards.

Twenty-four hours ago I came off the water from a 100-mile solo canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness. The magnitude of the experience is only just beginning to sink into my bone marrow and become a part of Me, this list of moments, images, smells. Navigating in the fog on big water, listening to an eagle tear meat from bone as he ate his lunch with gusto, breathing in deep of wet forest, waking to a fierce west wind (and initially thinking it would be of great benefit since I was going east – it was not – quite scarier when you can’t see the rollers coming), paddling into an equally fierce headwind for three days, talking to a pair of stalker otters that stayed close to my canoe for nearly a mile late one afternoon, speaking urgently into my imaginary military sat phone to call down an air strike every time I encountered a beaver dam (there were many and this strategy didn’t work), hoisting my muddy pack onto my back while cursing at her and calling her a wretched water-retaining whore, scraping smashed banana slug off my small pack (poor slug – he was in the wrong place at the wrong time), screaming (with a canoe on my head) in pain and frustration in the middle of an interminable bog, absolutely certain I was going to lose my mind right then and there if I had to take another step…
But I took another step…
And another…
And another...
I slept on a bed of dried sphagnum moss.
I scrounged, sawed down to size, and split my own firewood.
I stared down a bull moose (actually, he grew bored with me and disappeared into the trees).
I dispensed with all table manners, shoving food into my maw, wiping at my mouth with the back of my hand. 
I blew my nose onto the ground (this takes skill to not get it all over your face). 
I stood on a great slab of bedrock in the rain with my face lifted and my arms spread wide.
I pissed the perimeter of my campsites.
I was, at different times (sometimes all at once), cold, wet, tired, sore, hungry, hot, angry, exhausted, exhilarated, at peace, and struck abjectly dumb by the beauty all around me.
I felt powerful.
Prior to my trip, when people would ask where I was going, upon learning what I intended to do, for some, my Woman-ness was an important consideration. 
“You’re going alone?!” “Aren’t you afraid?”
Afraid of what exactly? A woman’s most prevalent predator is a man, and I didn’t expect to see very many of those at all.
Yes, I am going alone.
Men do it. Go into any bookstore and look at the travel writing section. Men do it AND write books about it.
That I was a woman, who plotted her own route, who had taken two prior solo canoe trips, who is physically fit and most days of sound mind…that is enough. 
Sufficient resume for man or woman.
But since the Woman-ness factor was introduced into my trip (I’d thought I was just a human going on an epic adventure), I will address it.
To ALL women I say this:
Break through those boundaries. 
Smash those walls into a million billion pieces and roll naked in the rubble.
Travel through your life as you see fit.
Cut your hair off. Or don’t. It’s YOUR hair.
Ride a motorcycle.
Make yourself strong, be it physically, emotionally, mentally – Be HUGE.
You do not need approval or justification.
Never apologize for being female. It is a strength. Not a liability.
Own your existence and shape it to YOUR liking.
Pay homage to the millennia of warrior women who have come before.
Swear like it’s a second language.
Do not let fear be your guide.
Sing at the top of your lungs and dance with abandon.
Accept nothing but the best from yourself and from others.
Be your own Motive.
Wear that dress because it makes YOU feel sexy – fuck everyone else.
Let your blood race through your veins, red like fire.
Paint your face on a flag and march into battle.
Don’t be afraid to give voice to your mind.
Let no one tell you what you are capable of doing – that is for YOU to decide.
Be your own hero.
Reject the moniker "Rebel". 
We are not rebels. 
We are Women.
And we are far more powerful than comic book caricature politicians or an objectifying culture can begin to touch.
We ARE life.
It ought to be on OUR terms.
Square your shoulders, hold your head up proud
And go forth.
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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

Do you know that feeling of having a really wild and somewhat crazy dumb idea… and then going through with it?  That seems to be how I run my life - literally.  It’s how I came up with the idea of going for a speed record on Aconcagua last year (coincidentally also an idea that I hatched while adventuring in Nepal).  And it is how I came up with the idea of running the Annapurna Circuit - a ~220 kilometer high-altitude trek that’s commonly done in seventeen to twenty-five days.  I had the Annapurna Circuit idea one random November weekend in lakeside Pokhara, mostly because I was starting to go stir crazy and knew I was looking at another two weeks of free time before leaving Nepal. Sure, I could have gone paragliding or rafting or signed up for a yoga retreat or any number of things… but trail running is what I do, and I’d never yet been to the Annapurna region, and I felt like I should be training for other high altitude projects anyway - so my natural thought process was: what’s the longest, toughest, baddest journey run that I can come up with without having to do much scouting or complicated logistics planning?  Ah, yes, the Annapurna Circuit.  

One of the many spectacular views on the Annapurna Circuit... but not Annapurna!  This is Dhaulagiri, one of the three 8000 meter peaks that the circuit passes by. 

There.  Crazy, dumb idea.  Let’s go run the Annapurna Circuit - after two and a half months of not running at all because of a sprained ankle, and right on the heels of a nasty infected blister on my left big toe that had me pathetically limping in flip flops for almost a full week (thank you, Mera Peak expedition, for that particular souvenir).  But hey: running the circuit is going to be fun, right?? And what’s the women’s fastest known time on it anyway?  Ah, 4 days and 14 hours.  Mmmmh. For how many miles again?   

The circuit in all its g(l)ory: ~220 kilometers and more than 10,000 meters of ascent. 

Next step: a WhatsApp message to my boyfriend Paul at home in Colorado. “Hey love, I’m thinking I might try to run this big trail around Annapurna and see if I can’t set a new speed record on it. Talk me out of it…?” - Paul’s response: “Cool. That’ll be great training for your upcoming Argentina trip.  Have fun, and CRUSH IT!!” Well, okay then.  I guess I’m going for it now.  

This was Monday mid-morning.  The very next evening I am agonizing over whether or not to pack my big Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero jacket for the route’s high point Thorong La - a pass which rises to almost 18,000ft in height and is going to be COLD.  Wanting to minimize volume and weight I decide against the jacket. The sleeping bag stays behind, too. 

Before I have a chance to reconsider it’s 5:30am on Wednesday morning; just a little over 48hrs since the Annapurna Circuit run idea first crossed my mind. I am on my way to the bus station in Pokhara where I can catch an early-morning ride to Besisahar, the official starting point for the full Annapurna Circuit. At this point I am still telling myself I might use the next several days simply to scout the trails in a fastpack mission, to then decide if I want to return and give the women’s FKT a proper go the following week.  

But of course that’s not how it plays out. I arrive in Besisahar shortly before noon; the gateway town looks about as uninspiring and dirty as I was expecting, and I just want to get moving - so that’s what I do.  I start running at noon in the heat of day.  The jeep track is hot and dusty; I find myself dodging speedy motorcycles and sputtering local buses.  

Lowland scenery on day 1

Darkness catches me five hours later. I am now twenty-five kilometers into the ~220 kilometer circuit. Running through the night is one of my least favorite things: not only is it cold and lonely and much harder route-finding than during the day, but the mental energy it takes me to keep pushing when I know that I have hours and hours of darkness ahead is monumental; the nights here are long.  I also know that I need to manage my reserves: I am looking at three to five days of big mileage in a row, and I have no experience with multi-day efforts of this caliber. I don’t want to flame out going too hard, too fast.  

I arrive in Jagat as it is getting too dark to see without a headlamp; a tea house owner beckons me, wanting to sell me a room, and I gladly take him up on his proposal. 100 Rupees (the equivalent of $1) for a bed to catch a few hours of sleep seems like just the thing right now - and since I am not carrying food I have to stop for dinner anyway.  Five minutes later my already-tired feet are happily propped up on a chair; I am warming my hands on a cup of strong black tea.  

Sleep strategy is one of the biggest levers I have for going after the speed record: Patricia Franco, who set the original women’s record of 4 days 14 hours and 45 minutes, rested and slept for a full twelve hours each of the first three nights on course. I am considering a half-night approach; hitting the trail in the middle of the night will not be fun, but it should allow me to bank miles and time towards the record.  

My strategy scribbles on the (in places highly inaccurate) elevation profile that the Annapurna Conservation Area Projects issues to trekkers; this is how I was initially planning to "scout" the trail before deciding that I really didn't have it in me to run around Annapurna twice in two weeks!

My alarm rings at 11:10pm. I rub my contact-crusted eyes and grudgingly sit up in bed.  Twenty minutes later I am ready to get back on the trail.  Shoes laced, headlamp clicked on, fence hopped - it is customary in Nepal to lock the gates at night - and a few short steps take me to a world where I am utterly alone and surrounded by darkness. Over the constant roar of the nearby river I can hear dogs barking in the distance.  The night is pitch black, yet I can sense the presence of enormous mountain ridges towering above me.  The snowy summit of Annapurna is still some 30-odd miles away but as I’m traversing the cold, deep cut canyons of its surrounding valleys the massif looms large in my imagination. I try to focus my thoughts in the narrow beam of my headlamp, and remind myself of the secret to long distance endeavors: it’s all just about putting one foot in front of the other.  Relentless forward motion.  

My toe before the Annapurna Circuit (L: 3 days prior - R: the morning off the run)

And that’s exactly what the next seventy plus hours come down to: relentless forward motion.  I run, I power hike, I bonk, I crawl until I can run again.  I am diligent about picking up snacks along the way, making quick pit stops in many villages along the way.  I maximize daylight to avoid the psychological toll of moving through the dark all by myself. Every few hours I take off my shoes and take care of my toe, which is still raw from that nasty blister infection which had just barely begun to heal when I set off on the circuit.  

Forty long hours after starting the trail I have made it to eleven thousand feet and the start of the long, hard climb up Thorong La Pass.  Thorong La tops out at 17,700ft; it is the very same pass where 43 people died in a snowstorm in 2014.  To give myself the best chances of a successful crossing I stopped in Manang last night, to wait out the night and fuel up with a proper dinner and a few hours of sleep in the last big village below the pass. But now it is 5am and go time. I lace up my shoes, shoulder my Mountain Hardwear running pack, and open the door into the dark pre-dawn morning to find an unwelcome surprise: it is snowing.

Snow. This is not good. I am wearing running shoes rather than mountain boots. Thin liner gloves with big holes at the tips of several fingers.  And I only brought the lightest one of the three puffy jackets that I typically layer atop one another once I get above 16,000ft.  I need good weather to safely cross this pass. 

My feelings about Thorong La. 

I tentatively step into the night. There is half an inch of fresh accumulation on the ground and the snow is continuing to come down. I know that Thorong La’s highpoint is more than ten miles out from where I am, and there are a few more teahouse settlements along the way.  I am worried about the conditions but I know what I have to do: put one foot in front of the other, stay alert, wait for daylight to arrive, and not make excuses for myself to give up before I have even tried. I have no desire to climb Thorong La in the snow but that is a decision to be made once I reach the last cluster of teahouses right below the pass, sometime later this morning. Onwards and upwards. 

As so often, dawn saves the day.  At daybreak the snow is starting to let up; I can see in the distance that the clouds are clearing on Thorong La pass.  A deep-seated feeling of relief powers me up the next steep section, and then some.  At this point I am quite confident that I can break the record, as long as my body just doesn’t break from the unaccustomed stress of a multi-day ultra push.  

2,000ft below Thorong La Pass and glorious weather

And so I push on.  Relentless forward motion, one foot in front of the other.  Thorong La comes and goes. I bomb down the backside of the pass, losing almost nine thousand feet of elevation in just a couple of hours.  Muktinath appears in front of me. I stop to register my trekking permit at the official checkpoint. The officer asks where I am coming from; when I say that I started my day in Manang he nods and says “Ah, yes, helicopter.” Too tired and indifferent to explain, I push on.  I’ve been on trail for 53 hours.  

Because sometimes trail running actually means ladder scrambling. 

Night catches up to me once more. I welcome the darkness as an excuse to stop in Kagbeni for a warm meal and a bed.  From here, my map is telling me, it’s another 80 kilometers and all downhill. 

Miraculously my body seems to be getting stronger through this ordeal, not weaker as I had feared.  The ankle I sprained three months ago is stable and strong. My badly blistered and infected big toe, which had almost sent me running to the emergency room in Pokhara a few days ago, seems to be healing more and more with every mile I put on it.  My lungs, which are known to occasionally succumb to intense-exercise-induced asthma, are humoring me through dust and cold air and altitude. My blood oxygen clocks in at 99% after crossing Thorong La Pass, even though it’s been almost ten days since I was last up high. 

At this point my internal dialogue changes.  It’s no longer about breaking the existing women’s record: I am starting to believe that I can do that.  But can I get to the finish line in Nayapul before noon on Sunday, to complete the whole circuit in less than four days? If I’m just willing to endure another midnight start on my last day I might just be able to pull it off.  The only thing that is fueling me now is my own ambition and curiosity to see what I can do.  

Into the dark once more

Another midnight start.  Another big day.  Another big climb of more than 6,000ft to get across Poon Hill, Nepal’s most loved-to-death introductory trek. And then the equally steep and long descent on the other side which finally gets my body to start complaining: my right shin seems to want to explode.  At least I should only have some fifteen kilometers of downhill left to the finish line! Only of course the map is grossly inaccurate for this section. What shows as a two kilometer stretch between villages turns out to be ten, and what should have been a casual stroll towards Nayapul turns into a chase for my self-imposed Sunday noon deadline. Once I am down the steepest sections of the trail I pick up the pace and force my exhausted feet to start running again - because what’s that old ultra running saying?  Pain is temporary, glory is forever.  

And just like that, a mix of stubbornness and relentless forward motion and inspiration from the runners who came before me carries me to Nayapul, across the bridge that marks the official finish line, at 11:39am on Sunday morning.  After 219 kilometers and more than thirty-three thousand feet of climbing, just twenty-one minutes shy of four full days on the trails that circumnavigate Annapurna, I don’t care anymore that I am confusing a few random bystanders with my level of elation and the size of the grin on my face. Because the only thing that I care about right then and there is this: I finally get to stop moving. 

After 3 days, 23 hours and 39 minutes... elation. 


Note: when I decided to run the Annapurna Circuit I had just spent weeks leading a team to the summit of 21,247ft Mera Peak which provided the necessary acclimatization for me to attempt this on a whim.  Do not try to tackle a high altitude run without allowing time for acclimatization first.  

You can find GPS tracks and a few video snippets using the links below. 

Suunto move
Suunto Ambit animated track
Video journal from the top of Thorong La Pass
DeLorme GPS track (if the page doesn't load auto-centered on the Circuit...
zoom out and manually navigate over to Nepal)

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Why I Run (via the San Miguel Rich List)

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Why I Run (via the San Miguel Rich List)

Earlier this year, on a crisp Colorado spring day, I was sitting at a Starbucks in Boulder trying to get a bit of photo work done before hitting the trails in the afternoon... when I saw an email from the UK pop up in my inbox, asking if I had heard about the Rich List and how I'd like to be part of it in 2017.  

Um, wait, the Rich List? What Rich List? And why me, when I'm a Starbucks-is-a-lavish-expense dirtbag now?? 

Well, long story short... I did my research, I said yes, and half a year later the project has come to fruition.  I am excited to share the resulting 360 VR film that I got to work on with San Miguel in Zermatt this past September.  Watch in high-res with sound on and make sure to look around!

I think the VR City crew did a great job capturing why I do what I do these days, and why I made the decision to leave my old life as a strategy consultant some 20 months ago.  

Also check out my official Rich List profile (all photography by the one and only Tyler Roemer) and, more importantly, the collection of incredibly individuals and the stories of everyone else on the San Miguel 2017 Rich List. I'm honored to be part of this beautiful campaign. 

 

 

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Defining Badass

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Defining Badass

Here's a question: How do you define 'badass'?  

Alex Honnold's freesolo of Freerider was badass.  Definitely.  BASE jumping is badass. But do you need to jump off stuff or climb ridiculously hard and/or without a rope to qualify as badass?  Does being 'badass' mean that you must be willing to risk life and limb? 

Badass views,&nbsp;with a rope&nbsp;

Badass views, with a rope 

I don't think so. OK, you may ask, then what does it mean to be (a) badass? Here's what the dictionary definition for 'badass' is according to Google: 

badass -- ˈbadas/
adjective

  1. 1.
    tough, uncompromising, or intimidating.
    "a badass demeanour"
     

Mmmh, funny.  Yeah I can see the 'tough' part; I disagree quite heartily with the 'uncompromising' bit. Yes, when I think of examples of badassery I think of folks like Jess Roskelley and Clint Helander on the Gauntlet Ridge.  I think of Paul and his lifelong big-wall exploits.  But I also think of someone like Kristine, whom I met at an AndShesDopeToo Rendezvous last year, who wouldn't let others tell her that she couldn’t, and shaped herself into a long-distance runner despite her asthma.  I think of my best friend Katrin, not an athlete, who decided to complete an Ironman... and did.  I think of my mom, who trained for and summited Kilimanjaro at age 65 - for no other reason than to see if she could.  I'd venture to argue that being tough plays into all of these feats, yet none of them require you to be uncompromising.

Bad-ass climbing or mostly just a pretty picture? (Hint: the route is 5.6, and this section is a 4th class scramble)

Bad-ass climbing or mostly just a pretty picture? (Hint: the route is 5.6, and this section is a 4th class scramble)

In my view, badasses are people who defy conventional expectations of capability; not just other people's expectations but also - and maybe most importantly - their own expectations of what they should be capable of.

67 years old and still stoked to get on a via ferrata? Badass in my book. (Hi dad!)

67 years old and still stoked to get on a via ferrata? Badass in my book. (Hi dad!)

 Yes, badasses are people who push outside their comfort zones and go beyond what others believe should be possible - but also people like you and I who are willing to try something that they themselves aren't sure will be within their realm of the possible. Clint and Jess on Mt. Huntington - badasses measured by the absolute level of their achievement - just as much as Kristine and her first half marathon. 

So how about the third part of that Google definition: 'tough, uncompromising, or intimidating'? I'd like to suggest replacing 'intimidating' with 'inspiring.'  Yes, the more of us dare to try and surpass our own expectations of what we think we can do, the more we all (current, aspiring, and non-badasses alike) lose our excuses for not going after hair-raising goals, really big ambitious projects and far-off dreams.  So maybe that makes the badasses among us a touch intimidating to the rest of the world; but they're also a fantastic source of inspiration, for me at least.  I'm not suggesting you go off and try to free-solo El Capitan, but seriously... as far as those other big dreams of yours are concerned: what are you waiting for?

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Going Down

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Going Down

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" My boyfriend looks at me quizzically.  "Just saying... Mike and Rich really know their Grand Canyon stuff, and they both think we're crazy for attempting this in July."  

'This' is a 32 mile roundtrip with a total of 20,000ft of elevation change to climb a formation in the canyon called Zoroaster's temple.  Paul has been wanting to climb Zoroaster for decades, and I have a mad love affair with all things Grand Canyon - so of course I was excited to give Zoroaster's Temple a go when Paul first brought up the idea.  All we needed was a permit and a long weekend; because, you know... twenty-four hours of driving, thirty-two miles of steep hiking and a six pitch chossy adventure route on top of it.  

With lots of enthusiasm and little research I convinced Paul to do the climb over Independence Day. What better way to escape the holiday weekend crowds than to pursue an obscure, off-trail Grand Canyon objective in the heat of summer, right?

Paul blazing past tourists near the South Rim trailhead 

Having been to the Grand Canyon about a dozen times before (including three solo runs of the 42 mile Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim), I should have known better. Actually, I did. I know it gets hot on the South Rim, and when it's hot up there it's REALLY hot down in the inner gorge.  On one of my early visits to the Canyon I almost passed out from heat exhaustion on Tonto Plateau after an easy and flat two-mile walk.  Yes, I knew better than to think that hiking heavy packs into the depths of the Grand Canyon in July is a great idea.  But I figured we're fast, we'll be smart, and while it's going to be hard we should be able to cheat the heat.  Mike and Rich disagreed.  "Bring superglue", they suggested. "Your shoes will be delaminating from the heat." 

In the days leading up our grand adventure Paul makes last-minute efforts to convince me that we may want to find an alternative.  "Have you seen the forecast? There's an excessive heat warning for the area.  The temps over the weekend are projected around 108 degrees..." - "Yeah, but!" I interject. "The route is northeast facing.  It will be in the shade. And it's high up anyway.  We just gotta get through the approach, and we'll be fine."

Heat makes you wear funny outfits. 

It's Saturday afternoon when we pick up our backcountry permit at the South Rim's wilderness office.  "Yes, yours is the only bivy permit we've issued for this whole backcountry area over the weekend" the ranger confirms.  "Nobody wants to be out there in these temperatures. Good luck!" And off we go.  

As we start our hike on the South Rim at 7,000ft it's a balmy 88 degrees.  We are hiking in late, at 3:30pm, to chase shade. By the time we hit the bottom of the Grand Canyon at 2,000ft ASL the temperatures are well above 100 degrees, even though it is now 8pm and the inner gorge has been in the shade for several hours.  The heat is oppressive.  I am glad to reach the Colorado River where I drop my pack to walk straight into the cold water, shoes and all. Paul is a few minutes behind me and not as keen on a cool-down session in the river.  Soon we are hiking again. Only two miles and 1500ft of climbing to our bivy spot now. 

Looking down on the Colorado River; the rim is 3000ft above us at this point

And that’s where the heat starts to wrestle us down.  Paul’s energy is zapped, his pace crashing. Sunset turns to dusk turns to a beautiful moonlit night while we continue our ever-slower crawl towards camp. We are traversing steep exposed sections without headlamps; the moon is guiding us brightly.  The final two miles feel like forever; behind every turn there is another stretch of climbing. It’s a spectacular shadow world that we have entered, the rapids of the river sparkling far below us, pale cliffs towering all around intercepted by deep darkness where the moon can’t reach.  How can a landscape that looks so peaceful and calm be such a hostile furnace, an unlivable wasteland where every breath heats up your core until the body shuts down as from a high fever.   It is long after dark, and the heat is still oppressive.

We turn another corner and breathe a sigh of relief as the trail finally flattens out.  I can just make out the silhouette of two huge cairns which mark our bivy site.  Packs off, pads thrown in the dirt; it is finally time to sleep.  The plan? Wake up four hours from now, cover another four plus miles and three thousand feet of climbing before sunrise, then climb Zoroaster’s Northeast Arete. 

Paul fast asleep after a long day of hiking with Zoroaster's temple in the back; though it looks close, Zoroaster is still ~4 miles and over 3,000 vertical feet from where we are bivying 

The alarm rings after what seems like just a moment of sleep.  I am not excited.  Paul grunts and rolls over on his sleeping pad to look at me.  “I feel terrible.”  I nod.  He’s not one to bail or to ask for help lightly, but he went into a deep bonk on the final miles last night - just a few hours ago.  “What do you want to do?” Paul stares up at the sky and doesn’t answer. 

Fighting to recover

I can imagine what’s going on in his head right now. The climb isn’t that much farther from where we are.  We’ve come all this way to climb Zoroaster.  We’re way down in the canyon.  Bailing sucks.  There’s no shade where we are camped, but if we could just get on the route! The route will be in the shade.  It’s only another three thousand feet of ascent to get to the base of the climb.  But three thousand vertical feet in this kind of setting can take forever…. 

After what seems like an eternity Paul turns to me and makes the hard but smart call to bail. “I'm not sure I can safely do this today. Just thinking about hiking those eleven miles back up to the South Rim right now seems really borderline…” I agree, and am glad for Paul’s reflected level-headedness. 

Even with Zoroaster out of the picture now we are still looking at a big day to make it back to our car. We decide to stick to our original schedule and spend two nights at the bivy site, to take a full day of rest before the strenuous hike out. At this point it’s all a question of hiding from the sun, finding little spots of shade, hydrating and fueling, and trying to keep from overheating. 

36 hours later we are back on top of the rim, wiping sleep out of our eyes as we’re watching the sunrise from Grand Canyon Village. What an adventure it has been. “Maybe I’m just getting to old for this stuff…” Paul says into the silence as we’re looking out over the vast expanse of gorges and towers and temples bathed in early morning light.  Then he shakes his head. “Bullsh*t. We’ll come back next year and get it done. But let's pick a weekend when it’s not 108 degrees, yes?” He puts his arm around my waist. I nod. "Deal." We can see Zoroaster’s Temple clearly, a long ways away towards the North Rim, and there's no place I'd rather be.  

See the pinnacle on the far right? Zoroaster, we'll be coming back for you soon.

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Because who wouldn't want to be a Force of Nature!

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Because who wouldn't want to be a Force of Nature!

Hey boys, it matters.  Oh boy does it matter.  What, you ask?  Encouraging increasing women participation in the outdoors. 

I’m a woman.  I’m an outdoorswoman.  I am friends with many other outdoorswomen, a lot of whom are certified badasses (unlike myself; though I like to think of myself as a badass-in-training, ha!). And I firmly believe that getting more women into the great outdoors has the power to make a huge positive social contribution - a contribution that reaches far beyond what REI calls “the largest level playing field on earth.”  

I said something to the same extent in a recent NBC interview, and it drew a surprising amount of negativity and criticism; most of it from boys.  So here are a couple things that I want to clarify - because I think they’re important, and because I care.  

Chicas en Aconcagua - climbing with an all-female team!

Chicas en Aconcagua - climbing with an all-female team!

  1. Promoting the notion of women empowerment, female role models and, gasp, the occasional all-female climb or activity is not an anti-male statement.  It’s not suggesting that men are misogynists or that climbing with guys is no fun.  It’s not about segregation either, but rather an acknowledgement of the unfortunate truth - as shown by many different studies - that in mixed-gender environments, women tend to fall behind and men tend to dominate.  And I’ll say it again: this is not about men being misogynists. It’s just how team dynamics, on average, tend to play out when you have both genders present. There’s a term for it too: second-generation gender bias. This is how Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School, defines it: “Second-generation forms of gender bias aren’t the result of conscious, discriminatory intent; rather, they arise from a million micro interactions, cultural assumptions, and historic ways of doing business that still carry the imprint of our history of gender hierarchy.” Skeptical if it's real? Start by reading this article in the Atlantic
     
  2. On the topic of segregation: the NBC interview drew some responses that suggested that gender shouldn’t matter, and that we should be gender blind because anything else promotes segregation.  Conceptually, I would like to agree.  In practice, it just doesn’t work that way. Because even with the best intentions gender discrimination is rampant - it’s not something that’s specific to the outdoors, nor is it something that has to be a deliberate act; it’s simply deeply engrained in our societal history and pervasive across too many aspects of daily life. Again, second-generation gender bias.  If you are a guy who is (like I would think most if not all of you!) NOT a self-professed misogynist, you’ll most likely not ever experience this gender bias firsthand - though you might witness it in many social interactions around you. Take this anecdote, which is just one among countless others:

    On a Thursday in March, a coed climbing party makes a call to a ranger station to enquire about snow and climbing conditions in the backcountry, sharing their plans for a weekend climb.  The ranger readily and happily provides beta and advises the team to pass good judgment on their climb but to have fun out there and enjoy the weekend.  One day later, the climbing party passes by the ranger station on their way to the trailhead and decides to check in on conditions once more for good measure. The woman in the party, who has many more years of mountain experience than her partner, heads into the ranger station; she’s greeted by the same ranger that her partner spoke to on the phone the previous day. As she asks for an update on conditions - which haven’t changed - the ranger gives her a slow up-and-down, and says “Oh you shouldn’t be going out there honey.  It’s dangerous in the backcountry.  And you’d need flotation devices anyway - you know, like skis or snowshoes.  This is not the weekend for you to attempt this.”

    Thinking “what’s the big deal” as you’re reading this? If yes, my guess is that you probably have a Y chromosome.  Because if you are a girl, these interactions do matter - not because we can’t get over a one-time, unnecessary sexist remark, but because it happens over and over again, in all sorts of different situations and across the whole universe of imaginable contexts.  It suggests to us that we’re weak, that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there, and that we shouldn’t be confident in our abilities.  No matter how strong and irreverent a woman may be, this kind of interaction leaves its mark if it happens again and again and again, year after year after year.  That’s why being gender blind doesn’t work: because even if you, male reader of this article, may be the most wonderful man and not ever discourage or diminish the women in your social circles, there are plenty of others - men and women both - who do, and many of them without even realizing it (I’m sure the ranger who told me that a climb which he deemed perfectly acceptable for an unknown and for what it’s worth, inexperienced, guy was a really bad idea for me had no bad intentions but simply wanted to keep me safe) and until they stop, and until we consistently tell our little girls and young women and adult females that they’re just as capable as their male counterparts, being gender-blind is a noble thought but utterly amiss of what’s actually happening in the world. 
     
  3. Next point: Why do I believe that we should put effort and investment and, yes, airtime into promoting all-female activities and into supporting and showcasing female role models? Because when I look at Sharma or Adam Ondra or Tommy Caldwell, I think to myself “Wow those guys are incredible.  They’re so strong. I could NEVER do that.” When I look at Beth Rodden or Margo Hayes or Libby Sauter, I think “Wow these girls are incredible. They must have put a ton of work into getting where they are. If they could do it, I wonder how far I could get if I really focused and got after it?”  Inspiration is a powerful thing. Women mentors and role models matter, not because male mentors are bad or misogynist or only interested in sex, but because having role models of your own gender is a fantastic source of motivation as well as a huge confidence builder.  And it's motivation and confidence that'll enable more women to get outside and experience the joy and freedom that comes from moving competently in the great outdoors. 
Nepal at 17,000ft, attempting to establish a new route

Nepal at 17,000ft, attempting to establish a new route

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I firmly believe that women who get to experience and embrace adventure sports are poised to develop a higher level of self-confidence, that they're more likely to challenge the status quo and be strong leaders and female role models for their communities. There's so much more to why this matters, but for now I want to leave it at this: supporting women empowerment in the outdoors is NOT synonymous to accusing men of misogyny; it is not a publicity play, and it shouldn't be divisive either - on the contrary: it should be a no-brainer that unites adventurers and outdoor lovers, male and female alike.  

Guys, be part of the solution.  Ladies, let's continue to get after it! 

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