The Risks We Take

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The Risks We Take

“I’m not going to go.”  My stomach flip flopped as Paul finished his sentence.  “The last couple days helped me decide. I’m going to stay here.” Paul had just gotten down from multiple days and nights on El Capitan, and he was telling me that he had decided to nuke his plans to go on a climbing expedition in Pakistan in the summer.  It was a gorgeous May morning in Yosemite.  Our friend Jess Roskelley had died in an avalanche on Howse Peak less than a month ago.  

Paul and I in El Cap meadow after a (for Paul) sleep deprived night on the Captain.

Us not climbing, or running, but blissful.

Fast-forward to July 11.  Paul and I both have tears in our eyes as we embrace tightly at the airport in Denver.  The luggage cart next to us is overloaded with two oversized duffel bags and smaller carry-on. “This is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Paul. He isn’t talking about the climbing he’ll be doing in Pakistan, but about leaving me for seven week. I pull him closer. 

Life is a risk.  You never end up regretting the things you do but the things you don’t do. Decisions should be based on love not on fear.  So many platitudes to go around.  

The real question is: how do you decide between pursuing a potentially risky trip to a place you’ve wanted to see for decades - the type of trip that is woven into the very fabric of your identity - on one hand and on the other hand having found bliss in low-commitment adventures and daily life with the partner you love? It’s a question that Paul and I debated a lot: each of us individually, consulting friends and in conversations with one another. 

We found an answer: Paul is on his way to basecamp in Pakistan as I am writing this.  To have an incredible alpine climbing adventure, I hope; even though deep down I know that a big part of his decision to go was so he could give me space to pursue my own big mountain running projects. The decision to go was anything but clear cut.  

Long runs = big time.

Doing hard things is character building.  Suffering is privilege.  Time apart makes time together that much more valuable. More platitudes. 

We’re independent.  We both charge hard, and we’ve spent longer chunks of time than this apart.  Hell, I left Paul ten days after we got married to walk across the Colorado Plateau for a month all by myself. And yet… this feels different.  

Maybe it’s because this time I’m the one who is staying ‘at home’ (though not really - I’m going to run the Ultra Gobi in China while Paul is in Pakistan… but I’m not leaving for a few more weeks). Or maybe it’s because Paul was on the fence on whether he really wanted to go or not, and the risks involved in remote alpine climbing are all too real.

Me on the Hayduke shortly after Paul and I got married

Paul on recent day of carefree alpine cragging in Chamonix

I do know one thing: as excited as I am for Paul to finally get to climb in the Karakoram, and for me to run far in amazing places… I am even more excited at the thought of Paul’s return to Colorado in late August. Happiness is only real when shared!

If you want to see where Paul is and/or exchange (free) messages with him via his Garmin GPS, you can use this link: https://www.clmbrlifr.com/gps.

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Chamonix: A Photo Journal

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Chamonix: A Photo Journal

Mont Blanc and the surrounding valleys, particularly Chamonix, are often considered the birthplace of alpinism; climbing in the Mont Blanc massif is a rite of passage for any serious mountaineer. Alas, neither Paul nor I had ever climbed in Chamonix until earlier this summer. I’d been there once or twice as a hiker and runner, which mirrors my strong suit: non-technical high altitude work. Paul - who is the bona fide alpinist among the two of us with his ascents of Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, and Denali’s South Face - had never even laid eyes on Mont Blanc.

With big alpine objectives coming up this summer, we decided to rectify this gap in our respective mountaineering resumes and set plans in motion to spend the better part of June in Europe. I’ll mostly let the photos speak for themselves, but here are a few things we learned during our inaugural climbing visit to Cham:

Enjoying what may just be the world’s second-most photogenic 5.4 on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere

Enjoying what may just be the world’s second-most photogenic 5.4 on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere

  • Access to the mountains above Chamonix is truly unparalleled. Unfortunately it comes at a steep price - literally, if you decide to use one of the many cable cars to cut what would otherwise be a 9000ft+ ascent approach down to an easy walk.

  • Another side effect of the easy access and prominence of mountain sports in the area is that it gets busy up there; REALLY busy. We found that if you spend time on easily accessible routes in decent conditions you 100% will get climbed over, passed or elbowed - unless you choose to do the same to the parties ahead of you, or get up several hours prior to the typical alpine start to ensure you are the absolutely the first among many eager parties queuing up for the same route.

  • It IS possible to get away from people and enjoy an uncrowded experience as long as you are willing and able to walk farther, climb stronger, and spend more nights away from town. After our experience this past month, Paul and I are already jonesing to get back to the Mont Blanc massif with more local knowledge (and time, and stable weather) and do just that.

  • The local ibexes are about as habituated to hikers and climbers as elk are in Estes Park! On the same note, there may not be any friendly humming birds (Paul and I greatly enjoy their frequent visits to our van all over the American west) in Chamonix but the butterflies do a pretty darn great job to make up for that.

  • When it rains, it pours. Literally. We put our GoreTex layers to great use throughout our time both in the mountains and valley over there.

  • Wine is cheaper than beer. And while food is pretty pricey all in all, you can buy yummy gazpacho in any super market for next to no money. I wish the US was like that…

But, now I’m rambling. Without further ado: hope you enjoy the photos!

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Breaking Barriers: The $5,000 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship

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Breaking Barriers: The $5,000 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship

SCHOLARSHIP ANNOUNCEMENT!
Come climb a Himalayan 6.000m peak with AWExpeditions…for free. Read on below for details.

When I talk about breaking barriers, it’s often about speed:  about becoming the fastest woman to complete a high altitude mission, or about doing something that no other woman has done before.  But this is different. 

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Today, I want to talk about breaking economic barriers.  I want to talk about economic barriers because I know that a number of the things that I do, and the experiences that I hope to share with others, are an expression of privilege and of economic opportunity: only a subset of people have the luxury of being able to afford big adventures, and to pursue the boost of confidence and inspiration they provide.

I know first-hand how empowering a life of outdoor adventure feels, and I love sharing that life with others.  I bring my family along, introduce my friends to my favorite far off-grid places - and now, as the owner and head guide of Aurora Women’s Expeditions (AWE), I regularly lead teams of women into the same big mountains that have been so formative for me.  

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But expedition climbing isn’t cheap: between mountaineering gear, airfare and on the ground logistics, big mountain expeditions tend to run in the thousands of dollars. That’s why I am incredibly excited to be able to announce the AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship, a $5000 grant that will enable a hand-picked woman to participate in this October’s AWE Nepal Expedition at minimal cost. 

The intent behind the Summit Scholarship is this: to enable a woman who might not otherwise have the means or the opportunity to do so, to participate in a big mountain expedition to Nepal.  The scholarship, which is powered by Nite Ize and supported by Lowa Boots, covers the full expedition fee, a stipend towards international airfare, and top-of-the-line mountaineering footwear.  The AWE Nepal expedition has Everest Base Camp and 20,305 Island Peak as its objectives, and is suitable for a first-time mountaineer as long as she possesses a high level of cardio fitness and a healthy appetite for long hard days in the mountains.  

Find out more and apply for the scholarship here: the 2019 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship.

I know that there are plenty more pressing causes in the world than advancing gender equality through adventure sports.  Providing a platform for more women to experience big mountain adventures is not solving poverty or world hunger - but it is my way to share my passion for both gender equality and the mountains with the world, and I’m excited to be able to share this new scholarship with all of you!

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Five Things You Should Know About The Wave

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Five Things You Should Know About The Wave

The Wave, located on the border of Utah and Arizona, not far from the town of Kanab, is a geological marvel and has in recent years become a bucket list destination for many hikers as it moved from an obscure insider’s desert gem into the adventure limelight.

Sunny Stroeer admiring the Wave’s magnificent geology. Credit Paul Gagner

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Wave joins the ranks of Horseshoe Bend or Antelope Canyon - places that seem to rival Disneyland in their popularity and are routinely overrun with hundreds if not thousands of visitors a day. Terrific landscapes and magnificent photo opportunities, yes, but only if you don’t mind using your elbows to shove your way into that prime photo spot… and no trace left of the wildness or serenity of the desert.

The Wave is different. Here, you’ll have to work for your reward. It’s not a matter of “pay $300 to buy into a private photo tour and have your guide shoo the crowds out of the way for you” (Antelope Canyon), nor is it a question of pulling off the highway, parking your RV, and completing a fifteen minute flip-flop slog through the sand to get to that famous turn in the river (Horseshoe Bend). On the contrary, getting to the Wave requires a serious amount of research, planning, luck and tenacity. In exchange you get to experience one of nature’s finest masterpieces - and you won’t be sharing that special moment with more than a dozen or so like-minded desert lovers.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, keep on reading because you’ll want to know the following five things.

#1 Only 20 people a day are granted permits

Human-caused sandstone damage (rope grooves) in Leprechaun Canyon. Photo Credit  Red Desert Adventures

Human-caused sandstone damage (rope grooves) in Leprechaun Canyon. Photo Credit Red Desert Adventures

Yes, you read that right. Twenty people total, not twenty groups… and there’s good reason for it, too. The Wave consists of spectacular sandstone layers which you are literally walking through, and stepping on, as you’re visiting this outdoor cathedral. The exposed edges of those layers are what makes the Wave so unique but they are also incredibly fragile. No matter how careful we each try to be individually, over time the damage done to the Wave by large numbers of visitors would be irreversible.

For climbers the susceptibility of sandstone to damage likely needs no further explanation. The reaction of a non-climber or a non-geologist might fall more along the lines of ”But wait: This is ROCK! How fragile could it be??” If that is what you’re thinking right now, consider the photo above which shows manmade damage (rope grooves) on rock quite similar to the Wave - and in an area that still receives meaningfully less visitation. Sandstone is fragile.

#2 Walk-in permits have much better odds than the advance online lottery

There are two ways to obtain a coveted permit for the Wave: you can apply to the online lottery which allows four month advance reservations for 10 lucky visitors a day, or you can try your hand with the walk-in lottery in Kanab the day before you are hoping to visit the Wave. The walk-in lottery, of course, creates a lot more uncertainty and makes advance planning much more difficult - but it also has significantly better odds than the online permit drawing.

Case in point: the online lottery, which runs on the first of each month four months ahead of the requested permit days (meaning April permits are being allocated on January 1) tallies up to ~1000 people per day vying for the ten available permits. Depending on the time of year and the day of the week, your chance of getting an advance permit ranges somewhere in the 1-5% range - your odds of being successful are one in twenty on a “good” day which is equivalent to “midweek” and “off-season”. If that’s not bad enough, things are continually getting worse: the official permit website actually cites success chances in the 4-25% range… but that was for 2013, and permit request have been skyrocketing; just take a look at the side-by-side comparison between 2016 and 2019 below.


The walk-in lottery in contrast “only” sees between 60 and 300 hopefuls who congregate at the permit office in Kanab each morning to put their name in the hat, quite literally, for access to the Wave the following day. According to the local rangers, the record for walk-in permit hopefuls to date was set on Black Friday 2018 with close to 400 permit applicants crowding the office - which still makes for better odds than the advance lottery.

Let’s assume you actually managed to get one of those elusive slips of paper… now what? Surely the hard part is over! (Or on the flip side, if you didn’t get a permit, surely you could just sneak past the trailhead and take a quick look around in a victimless crime, right?**) Not so fast.

#3 It’s a three mile cross-country hike from the trailhead, and for long sections there is neither trail nor cairns to show the way

Getting from the car to the Wave is 100% manageable for most able bodied folks but it does take work and it is an adventure in off-trail navigation. After you’ve managed to get a permit, the ranger station will provide you with a little pamphlet that contains photographs of turn-by-turn directions and critical landmarks to use for orientation. While the trailhead and the first mile or so of the trek are obvious, the well-worn dirt trail soon turns into slick rock with no trail markings or foot prints to follow. You need to know where you’re going and be aware of your surroundings.

**This may be an opportune spot for a comment on attempting to circumvent the permit system: sneaking in without the benefit of the permit is not a good idea; besides the route finding challenges and the fact that attempting to see the Wave sans permit is ethically indefensible you’ll also risk $100,000 in fines and up to a year in prison should you get caught. For what it’s worth, on the day that Paul and I got to hike out there we ran into not one or two but THREE permit patrols. Don’t be that guy (or gal).

#4 The Wave’s trailhead is 8 miles down a dirt road which frequently washes out or turns into a clay Slip N Slide

Contrary to Horseshoe Bend, the trailhead for the Wave is not right off a major highway. To reach the start of your hike you have to get through a little more than eight miles of dirt road driving, which can range anywhere from mellow to completely impossible. I have driven the access road about a dozen times by now, and I’ve seen it smooth enough for a Kia but also so slick and rutted from just six hours of continuous rain that a 4x4 jeep was at the verge of getting stuck. The road crosses two drainages that are prone to flash flooding, and then there is the road surface itself: nasty desert clay which may be solid when dry but offers all the friction of black ice when soaked.

#5 You can pay a guide to help you get out to the Wave…

…but you still have to win the permit lottery to be allowed to go. A guide can help you both with the off-trail navigation and with vehicle trailhead access if the road isn’t passable for your everyday car, but hiring a guide doesn’t change any of the permitting requirements. That said, there are plenty of guide services in Kanab that can be hired on short notice; many will have next-day availability should you decide in favor of the guided approach on a whim after you’ve secured a walk-in permit.

Bonus: A thought on photography

If you’re a photographer, you know the importance of the golden hour: many destinations are best photographed right after sunrise or shortly before sunset. Not so the Wave - even though its main feature has an easterly aspect that seems to make the landscape prone for sunrise shots, the surrounding topography is such that the sun doesn’t hit the Wave itself until after golden hour. In fact, the best light for the classic shot is right during mid-day when there are no stark shadows obscuring parts of the main feature.

Finally, a question that I’ve been asked repeatedly: is the Wave really worth the effort? My answer: unequivocally YES. Go put your name in the hat for the lottery; good luck!

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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. 

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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

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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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