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, with a rope 

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?

sunnystroeer-4674.jpg

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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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Kili #adventuremom (Gallery)

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Kili #adventuremom (Gallery)

Ever thought about going on a crazy adventure with your mom/dad/son/daughter?  There are plenty of horror stories about what can go wrong when you take non-outdoorsy loved ones into the mountains. Ignoring the stories, my mom (65) and I (31) decided to climb Kilimanjaro together - and we had a blast. Just take a look through the gallery below :)

PS... case in point: our trip leader Gavin, who runs the Colorado-based guide service Summit Xperience, brought along his fourteen year old son Max who also did wonderfully well.  
How many Kili summit teams can boast an age spread of 51 years!


Thinking about your own Kilimanjaro climb?  
There are many possible routes and many different outfitters. 
Be aware that any climb of less than 6-7 days is highly likely to produce altitude sickness - fast ascent attempts are the reason that the summit success rate on Kili is only ~40%, even though mountain is easy from a technical perspective.  The Machame route, best done in seven days, covers ~78 kilometers and is considered the most scenic way up the mountain. 

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Coming home: Nepal

Coming home: Nepal

Nepal has a special place in my heart.  It's almost impossible for me to explain why, but every time I return to Kathmandu I am taken over by a level of excitement and happiness that I don't find in many other places.  It's paradoxical: I don't like cities, I dislike crowds, I hate traffic. Kathmandu is the perfect combination of all three and yet I love it.  

Nepal is where I climbed my first big mountain five years ago, a spontaneous decision that started me on a path my mom isn't super excited about (sorry mom!) and led me to a series of expeditions to develop my alpine skills. 

Back then, the final steps across Island Peak's summit ridge at 20000ft felt like the hardest physical challenge of my life.  In the years since I have upped my game on the endurance front and become a stronger climber.  And now another spontaneous decision is bringing me back to the Khumbu: together with Mingma, the sherpa who introduced me to big mountains on Island Peak, I will attempt Kusum Kanguru - a rarely climbed 6367m peak not far from Lukla.  

Taking a break with Mingma on the descent from Island Peak, November 2011

After a month of hot and muggy sport climbing in Thailand I am excited to breathe crisp mountain air and stretch the legs, and test a ton of new gear too. And as far as my mom goes... well... she's in her final stretch of training before we climb Kilimanjaro together over Thanksgiving! Apple, tree :) 

Longterm love-hate-love, or: Why I climb

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Longterm love-hate-love, or: Why I climb

Climbing and I have a special relationship.  I am writing these words as I am sitting in Tonsai, the Thai sport climbing paradise, with sore fingers after a day of moderate toproping. I’ve been playing toprope hero for a few days and have yet to work up the courage to take the sharp end.  If you’ve climbed with me before this may not come as much of a surprise, but if you know me from outside the climbing universe you are probably scratching your head.  Me, the girl who quit her job to climb and run full-time, who’s been spending the better part of this past spring on big walls in Zion and Yosemite and in the Bugaboos - yes, that same girl can be a real candy ass on rock. 

Jugging one of the many steep pitches on Tangerine Trip, El Cap.  Photo: Paul Gagner. 

Climbing humbles me. It takes me apart and builds me back up; all too often it does more of the former than the latter.  I haven’t yet invested enough time and training to become a strong leader; with haphazard dedication I find my progress to be excruciatingly slow.  I am often scared of falling; even though I know how to fall safely and have taken my fair share of falls, the thought of it can paralyze me or send me into a panic.  

Then I don’t climb for a while and selective amnesia sets in: I forget about all those moderates that I’ve bailed from because I was afraid. Instead I remember the 5.10s that I have sent, and the Indian Creek warmups that I’ve been working on lead. I remember free soloing easy routes in the Flatirons and crazy exposed 4th class ridges in the Bugaboos.  I think about the strong, courageous girl I want to be and rope up at a new sport crag eying the easiest warmup.  Surely I can walk up a 5.8 with my eyes closed, right?  Hey, I’ve rope-soloed Space Shot and done all sorts of other badass stuff.  A little sport climb won’t faze me, will it? 

High up in a sea of sandstone on Space Shot, my first bigwall rope solo; completing the route took me two attempts á three days, and included a massive fall on the crux pitch.  Photo: Travis Spaulding

Enter the meltdown. Hanging at the second or third clip, my mind is spinning with scenarios of unsafe falls and reasons for why I might not stick the next few moves and excuses for why I shouldn’t go for it.  More often than not the gap between who - or how strong and brave - I want to be and who I actually am is too large for me to reconcile; rather than focusing on the climbing in front of me, I allow self doubt to lead me down a rabbit hole and bail. More often than not, once I’m back on the ground the rabbit hole expands into a black hole. Why am I doing this? I am such a coward; I shouldn’t have bailed. I’m not sure I even enjoy climbing. Maybe I should sell my climbing shoes. More often than not, what was supposed to be a fun session at the crag turns into me being immensely frustrated and not in the mood to climb anything at all. 

But I haven’t sold my climbing shoes; in fact I own five pairs. And I’m in Tonsai now — for at least a month if not longer.  Not climbing is not an option for me. 

Tonsai beach: sport climbing paradise. 

I climb because I love the joy of moving over rock. I love the movement, I love the exposure, and in a twisted way I absolutely love that the rock forces me to be brutally honest with myself.  Because climbing holds a mirror up to me and stubbornly refuses to let me get away with posturing; the rock doesn't care how well I think I *should* be able to climb, it simply shows me how well I really am climbing on any given day. 

Simple movement over rock...  the ultimate joy of climbing. Shoes or no shoes, clothes or bathing suit.

There's a simple beauty to becoming a better climber.  I believe that at its essence there are only two questions that matter, and I'm not talking about finger strength and technique or about better footwork and more mileage... unless you're an elite climber who is approaching the limits of human physiology in the 5.14+ range, I think what matters is something much more personal:

  1. Am I willing and able to embrace falling?  Do I have the guts, the grit to push all the way to failure, and is it safe for me to fall.
  2. Will I get back up for another go after I have fallen? Am I willing and motivated to push towards that point of failure again and again and again until I've given my body and mind the chance to learn enough so that I can gradually turn failure into success. 

Growth: to be okay with falling, and keep getting back up.  Climbing or slacklining or life - if we play it safe and stay away from the margins of our ability, we're not truly learning. Or are we?

I firmly believe that if both of these questions are a "hell yes", then improving your technique and strength and endurance is mainly a matter of how much time you can spend climbing. Remember the meltdowns I was describing earlier? The situations where I have been the most frustrated with myself were always the ones when I would answer "no" to either one of the two questions above.  I have never yet walked away from a hard climbing session where I got after it and took multiple falls thinking "wow that was a terrible day." I only get sucked into the black hole of frustration when I approach a climb with an expectation of what I *should* be able to do, don't deliver on the expectation and end up losing my joy and motivation to keep trying.  

As the saying goes: happiness equals reality minus expectations. Replace expectations with humility and openness towards learning, and all a sudden frustration about not achieving a particular outcome gives way to excitement about the journey. 

In the end it's not about sending this or that route, or any route. I know that there is no absolute level at which I will be content with my climbing. If I'm sending 5.10s today, redpointing a 5.11 tomorrow won't make me happy; if I'm starting to work on 5.12s (ha! hopefully in the not too distant future), sending my project won't be the journey's finish line. What brings me joy and makes me happy is not a tangible outcome, but the attitude that allows me to work towards getting stronger: it's having the confidence in myself to try something that I'm not sure I'll be able to pull off, and to be okay with the possibility of falling. 

Week two in Tonsai, working a 5.10b - my boyfriend somehow managed to take butt shots AND catch my falls, of which there were a few :) #climbsafe
Clothes: adidas OutdoorPhoto: Paul Gagner.

I want to be that strong, courageous woman who moves confidently on rock and uses sound judgment to push her own limits, a woman who continues to learn and grow every day.  To become her, there’s only one thing to do: get back on the wall and climb.  So that’s what I’ll do.  Take the sharp end, fall, get up again, and keep climbing. 

Let's go climbing! 
Waterproof pack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  Clothes: adidas Outdoor.  Photo: Paul Gagner.


Thinking about your own sport climbing trip to Thailand?

November through January is the best season meaning dry and reasonably "mild" temperatures, but it's also high season.
Expect crowded crags, beaches, and bungalows; on the bright side, you won't have any trouble finding climbing partners if you're traveling solo, and fun nightlife is guaranteed.  If you're not into crowds and would like to save money, consider traveling in the off-season where you can rent basic private bungalows for 200-400 baht (~$6 to $12) a night. Despite plenty of rain, many crags are steep enough to remain climbable during monsoon season. 

The crags of Tonsai, Railay and Phranang beach are all within walking distance from one another.  Tonsai has the highest concentration of climbers and cheap accommodation; Railay is closer to Phranang (best beach and a couple good crags), has more variety of restaurants, resorts, and comes with a nice beach as well as ATMs.  Regardless of where you decide to stay, fly into Krabi or Phuket before taking a longtail boat or ferry to Tonsai / Railay. 


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An Ode to Life on the Road (1SE)

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An Ode to Life on the Road (1SE)

Yesterday I wrote about what's hard about living on the road.  If that didn't deter you, here's what eight months on the road actually look like - because, yes, the freedom of #vanlife *is* glorious!

[Powered by 1SE

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Vanlife, the easy way

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Vanlife, the easy way

What's your reaction when somebody tells you they are living in a van? I don't fully remember what my first encounter with vanlife was, but I'm willing to bet that it had to do with some climbing legends and seemed like a completely glorious thing and probably sounded like I was going to automatically become a crusher if I only was to have the guts to buy a van and live in it. 

That guy.  Buy a 2002 Ford Econoline and you too will freesolo crazy s*** like it's no big deal!  (Image from Outside Online - click on it to see the original article.)

That guy.  Buy a 2002 Ford Econoline and you too will freesolo crazy s*** like it's no big deal! 
(Image from Outside Online - click on it to see the original article.)

Well.  It's been about ten months since I bought a van and I've been living in it for eight. For some reason, shockingly, I'm still not a crusher.  But has it been glorious? Completely, yes.  

Non-outdoorsy types are always curious when I tell them about my chosen living situation.  “Where do you go to the bathroom?” and "how do you shower??” are standard questions that seem top of mind for every nine-to-fiver. (Answer: same as you when you’re on a long drive.) Very rarely do I get asked about the finer nuances of van life, you know, the ones that I care about: ‘How much water do I need to carry to stay out in the desert for two weeks without resupply?’ or ‘Will my avalanche shovel survive digging the van out of those pesky sand traps that I seem to have a talent for finding?

My trusty steed Eddie on a desert mission 

Earlier this summer though, an Instagram friend asked a question that made me stop and think: “What’s been the hardest part about transitioning from your old life to the one you’re living now?” 

Oy.  The hardest part? I was ready to give a quick-fire answer. Figuring out where to shower. Learning the difference between awesome, good, marginal and outright-desperate-and-totally-terrible bivy spots. Or fitting all that outdoor gear into a little Chevy Astrovan.  Building out the van in the first place, complete with self-taught carpentry basics. Learning how to be OK with those evenings where you’re falling asleep by the side of a road, by yourself, feeling disconnected from the world. But, no, none of those answers felt true.  

Working on the buildout.  Yes, I did everything with a handsaw and I'm damn proud of it.

Here is the one answer that’s true: the hardest part about vanlife is finding the guts to actually do it and go through with it.  

When I first started talking about moving into a van it was mostly a joke.  Then I started to think about renting a camper van for a couple months to run around the US for an extended holiday. Then a friend remarked how much cheaper it would be for me to buy a van outright.  Then I started telling people I was going to buy a van.  And all a sudden the train was picking up speed to the point where I didn’t want to jump off anymore. 

Eddie at the time of purchase. A world apart from my day job as a strategy consultant. 

That is… until I bought Eddie the van. You see, I was based in Houston, and the market for adventure mobiles on the Gulf coast is limited.  I scoured Craigslist for vans in the $3000 range; the best I could find was a little 2002 Chevy Astro with 213k miles on the chassis, 93k on the engine.  The van was running fine but had been abused by its previous owners.  The interior was in terrible shape, filthy and smelling, with plenty of duct tape fixes. At the time I was still living in a nice neighborhood in Houston, renting a high-end apartment, working a prestigious job, commuting to work by plane every week; while one half of my oversized walk-in closet was mountain and trail clothes, the other half was still boardroom dresses and suits and high heels. The contrast was stark.  

Contrasts.  Dressed up soon-to-be dirtbarbie and a barely-built adventure mobile. 

Back to the van: I could see that Eddie was my best option in the Houston area, so I forked over $2800 in cash and drove the van home. Sitting in traffic on I-45, immersed in the stink of this tattered old vehicle and a universe away from the brand-new premium sedan rental cars that I was used to, I felt a tidal wave of “oh my god this is terrible” coming on.  All a sudden I was no longer just talking about turning my world upside down - I was actually doing it.  I had already terminated the lease on my apartment, and given notice to quit my job.  And now I had the van that was going to be my home going forward.  Turning back was no longer an option. 

After I bought Eddie, I went through a few days funk.  He was too ragged and old and too filthy and on second thought way too small anyway.  But he was mine - and I was going to have to live in him. I researched buildout options and sat in front of at an empty sheet of paper, at a loss of what to do.  A day later, the sheet of paper was still empty.   The next day, I ripped out the seats and started cleaning.  Two hours later, sweaty and disgusted and nowhere near the “clean” stage, I drove Eddie to a carwash where I handed over $200 for a head-to-toe detail.  And all a sudden, dread was being replaced by excitement again.  The road from the carwash led to the hardware store, from the hardware store to the roof of my building’s parking garage and finally, three weeks later, from parking-garage-roof-turned-van-workshop straight towards the life that I had dreamed of for so long. 

Planning the buildout

The result

If you’re a free spirit and adventurer, vanlife is completely glorious.  To wake up with the sun, fall asleep wherever you want to and live days full of adventure in between - what could be better. It really is as good as it sounds, and the most beautifully unencumbered way to live a life of wanderlust and exploration. Yes, there are moments when it’s tedious and dirty and you’re feeling totally up in the air and like you’re going for broke and it’s scary and desperate.  There are nights when you are parked in the wrong spot and you can’t sleep because you’re uncomfortable or because there is a cop’s flashlight blinding you through your window at 3am.  And there are days when the van breaks down and everything is a mess and you wonder how you’re going to make it all work out.  But those moments are far and few between.  At its very essence, vanlife means your happiness is your own choice: if you end up in a spot that’s not what you wanted, just jump back into the driver’s seat and hit the road again! 

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High adventure in the Bugaboos: an epic classic

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High adventure in the Bugaboos: an epic classic

"I’m telling you, it’s incredible.  Warm sunny granite, splitter after splitter, up at 10000ft; no crowds.  It’s absolutely incredible." Chris’ words echo through my mind as we’re scrambling along the summit ridge of South Howser Tower looking for the first rap station. There are two or three parties visible on the upper rappels ahead of us, a team of two from Calgary just free soloed past us. Another party of three is about to start the final ridge traverse a few hundred feet behind us. This is Chris’ and my second day on the route and we’re losing daylight; thunderheads are rolling in on the horizon.  

Turns out the Bugaboos are a well-kept secret no more: after years of rave reports from the adventurous few who embarked on the long trek to the Bugs, the crowds have finally caught up.  Compounded by a very short season, the campground, hut, and classic routes are now frequently at or beyond capacity for those elusive few summer weeks that offer the best chance of sunshine and mild temperatures.

Climbers at the rope-up ledge on the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. It's a party!

That’s not to say that the Bugaboos are no longer a worthy objective - aside from the ‘no crowds’ part, everything you’ve ever heard about these granite spires still holds true: the setting is spectacular, the climbing wonderful, the location of Applebee campground exquisite, and the weather fickle. In the last two weeks, Chris and I had so much rain that we were already beginning to pack up - resigned to beating an early retreat - when an updated forecast finally promised two days of stable high pressure and blue skies. 

Climbers on approach to Bugaboo Spire

Climbers on approach to Bugaboo Spire

So here we are. It’s the second day of the weather window, our second day on the Beckey-Chouinard; not only are we running out of daylight and good weather... we’re also just about out of calories and water.  For the two weeks leading up to this climb, all Chris and I could do is talk about how excited we are to get on the route - after all, if you’re a trad climber the Beckey-Chouinard with its 2200ft of stellar granite needs no introduction.  For the last two hours, all we’ve been talking about is how ready we are to be off this mountain.  Alas, first there's work to be done: we are looking at 11 rappels, getting over the bergschrund, crossing the Vowell Glacier, descending the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col, and then traversing the periphery of Crescent Glacier to reach Applebee Camp.  I take another look at the clouds brewing in the distance, glance at the setting sun, and take off my pack to dig up my headlamp.  It is going to be a long night. 

When Chris and I started atop pitch eight this morning, we took our time - we slept in, ate breakfast, and waited for the sun to reach us before putting our climbing shoes back on. With twelve more pitches to the summit, we figured we'd easily be able to finish the route by mid-afternoon and have plenty of daylight for the descent.  What we didn't take into account was how slowly we would be climbing at altitude and with heavy packs, or the fact that we were inevitably going to become entangled in the congo line of in-a-day parties catching up to us from below.  Case in point: by the time I started out on the first lead of the day, we had already let two parties pass and another one climbed past us while I finished up the pitch. As Chris geared up to lead the crux a few pitches later, we were in the middle of a full blown traffic jam and marooned on the belay ledge for over two hours.  Now the sun is setting on us, and we are still miles out from the safety of camp. 

Chris leading out on one of the lower pitches of the Beckey-Chouinard, day 1

Chris leading out on one of the lower pitches of the Beckey-Chouinard, day 1

"Hey, over here - I found it!" Chris waves at me and is already starting to thread our rope through the first rap station.  Almost simultaneously, a lone figure appears on the skyline about twenty feet above us and surveys the territory ahead. "You guys know how to get down?" he shouts in our direction as two more climbers appear on the ridge behind him.  Chris and I have studied the beta for the descent; the other party has a second 70 meter rope that'll help us get across the bergschrund with a bigger margin of safety. We decide to team up even though we are fully aware that it'll be slow progress getting five people down eleven rappels. 

By the time we drop down on the glacier it is well past midnight. The distant thunderclouds have moved in closer; flashes of lightning illuminate the sea of ice and imposing spires all around us. Electrical storms are one of my big fears in the mountains, and yet this night is beautiful - I take comfort in knowing that we are no longer high up on the exposed ridge, and also in the knowledge that there simply is no other option than to keep moving.  Nothing to be done than to put one foot in front of the other, to cross the Vowell Glacier until we find the steep col between Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spire, to descend it safely one last time, and then to stubbornly not give in to the desire to sit down until we've dragged our beaten bodies all the way to camp, to safety. 

Looking at Snowpatch Spire from Applebee Camp, climbers descending the col by headlamp.

I know what it means to be exhausted.  Big walls, 100 Mile ultra marathons, an Ironman - I've put myself through the paces of big days.  Now as I take the last steps up to our campsite, 46 hours after starting out, I welcome the familiar feeling of euphoria and gratitude that floods my veins.  A new day is starting to break in the east, and I am finally sinking into the warmth of my sleeping bag. 

Home at last. 


Thinking about your own trip to the Bugaboos? July and August are the best months.
Camp at Applebee - $10 per person per night, first come first serve, water and vault toilets.
The BC Parks website has lots of useful resources, including a map of the park here.
Heads up: The guidebook by Chris Atkinson and Marc Piche is currently out of print
(as of summer 2016). Borrow it or do your research online ahead of time!


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Running Aspen

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Running Aspen

I don’t know if you’re a trail runner; I am. Chances are if you’re reading this blog you’ve got some adventurous gene and either already are a trail - or ultra - runner, or you should give it a try. Because it’s really quite something, and entirely addictive.  

Addictive, yes.  That’s the reason why I am sitting in Aspen as I’m writing these lines, sore and tired and happy after just having run the Adidas Outdoor Aspen Backcountry Marathon off the couch. I may not recommend the off-the-couch approach, but the race itself… man. Here’s a new addition to my list of favorite trail races (which so far was all about Transvulcania, a jewel of a 74km race in the Canary Islands, and the original US 100 miler Western States). I didn't have any expectations for the Aspen Backcountry Marathon other than to get a good workout in, but this little race came out of left field putting a big grin on my face for miles and miles. 

Blissed out at the finish.  Happy to see that I can still bang out a marathon on just four days and ~40 miles of running-specific training.

Blissed out at the finish.  Happy to see that I can still bang out a marathon on just four days and ~40 miles of running-specific training.

It’s hard to decide where to start with the accolades: the beautiful, perfectly smooth single track that characterizes much of the course; the climbing, which is just enough to keep it challenging and interesting but not so much to be torturous; or the wildflowers that were out in full force where forest single track switched off with the occasional mellow dirt road through high mountain meadows… 
My personal favorite was the scenery, which is always a big determinant for how much I enjoy a race; and by scenery in this case I mean not so much expansive mountain vistas - though those are to be had, too - but running through infinite hushed aspen groves as the day’s first rays of sun are just starting to find their way into the forest.  The course is fast, too, thanks to large stretches of wonderful runnable single track at mostly moderate angles. Case in point: the winning times for the marathon this year were meaningfully sub-4h.  

To round things out, the race was smoothly organized and combines the intimate feel of a small field - roughly 350 runners for both the marathon and the half marathon distance - with the fun finish line atmosphere that’s typically reserved for much bigger races.  The trick? The race coincides with the Aspen Ducky Derby, a big charity festival that shares a location with the start/finish.  

Why hello there Ducky!

Why hello there Ducky!

I said it right after I crossed the finish line, and I’ll say it again: if you’re looking for a beautiful, not-quite-ultra-distance trail race to add to your calendar - make it this one.  I know I’m already thinking about coming back next year for a second go at the race (which in 2017 will follow the reverse course) and to see how fast I could actually be on these trails with a bit of training...

Here are the stats: 

  • 2nd Saturday in August
  • Full and half marathon options
  • 4100ft elevation gain for the full marathon
  • 6am race start (8:30am for the half, may be moved up to 8am in 2017)
  • $75 entry for the marathon which this year got you a shirt, a soft cup for the race (since it is cupless) and at the finish line a stainless steel finisher’s pint, free beer and a $10 to use at any of the Ducky Derby food stands
  • $2400 cash prize purse and lots of non-cash prizes sponsored by Adidas Outdoor
  • www.aspenbackcountrymarathon.com
Another bonus: sweet free camping on Independence Pass

Another bonus: sweet free camping on Independence Pass

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Signing Off - Bugaboos Here We Come!

I've been in Canada for a little over half a week now, and am about to head off into the mountains for the next 2ish weeks.  Super excited to get to know a new area that's been on my ticklist for a LONG time: the Bugaboos. 

 Here's Chris checking out my half of the kit; thank god the hike in is only ~3hrs - this pack is going to be heavy...

If you'd like to see what we're up to and where we're hanging out, https://share.delorme.com/SuzanneStroeer will have location updates starting this evening. 

See y'all on Facebook or Instagram in a couple days when we hike out for resupply! <!

Escaping the Heat: Return to Mt. Shasta

This past weekend, I had the privilege of joining forces with this lady crusher on Mt Shasta as her first 14er as well as mission prep for our girls’ expedition to Aconcagua this coming December/January. 

A few years ago Shasta also was my first 14er in the US.  I already had a 20000ft summit in Nepal under my belt by then, yet Shasta felt like my first 'full value' alpine experience: I was finally climbing with friends rather than with a guide, in contrast to the Island Peak summit that I owe to Mingma Sherpa of Outdoor Himalayan Treks.  

At this point, climbing on Shasta is a bit like coming home and yet... I still remember how exciting the climb felt when I was just stepping into the mountaineering world.  With those memories fresh in mind, what a joy it was to share the same thrill and wonder with a friend who is still at the beginning of tracing her own path in the mountains.  It’s humbling and exciting for me to see a young woman push beyond her comfort zone and overcome physical and emotional exhaustion to go after her dreams. Way to go Teresa!!!

When things don't go as planned...

Inspired by a weekend of hard aid with Paul Gagner and Jeremy Aslaksen, I went to work on my first big rope solo project: Space Shot 5.7 C2 IV.  Day #2 was supposed to end at Earth Orbit Ledge, just a pitch shy of the top - but then there was the crux pitch and a whipper...

 Dwarf Tosses and Caked Mud Fireworks

Dwarf Tosses and Caked Mud Fireworks

I love being on the road.  What I love most about it is that #vanlife means I am not keeping a schedule; I have the capacity for spontaneity, and it’s this spontaneity that turns serendipitous encounters into open-ended adventures.  Case in point: a Facebook message from Paul Gagner on a random Thursday in April, inviting me to come climbing (and by that I really mean hump loads and shoot the breeze) with him and his climbing partner Jeremy in the Mystery Towers the following weekend.  Here’s the fun part: I don’t know Paul.  Well, I do, I ran into him once while soloing the Flatirons in Boulder, and I’ve seen him pop up on my Facebook timeline a few times since.  But I really have no idea who he is other than that he likes to put up ridiculously hard, bold aid lines.  So of course when he suggests that I come hang out in the Mystery Towers while he and Jeremy scope a new route, I don’t think twice.  The instructions are simple: “Bring beer and a big pack.” 

In the days leading up to the outing I read up on the Mystery Towers a bit more.  The laconic final paragraph of the area’s Mountain Project description maybe should have warned me: Expect mud or dry mud, advanced and innovative aid, including but not limited to: bat hooks, ring angle claws, beaks and peckers, fishhooks, bugaboos, warthogs, ice axe tosses, dwarf tosses, and general lassoing skills.  Enjoy! I chuckle as I read through the beta and think to myself those timeless, famous last words: “How bad can it be…” 

A few days later I am sitting on one of Eddie the Van's rails at the Fisher Towers Parking lot, a PBR cracked open, monitoring the approaching cloud of dust that marks Paul’s arrival.  The campground is full, the weather forecast looks dismal, Jeremy won’t be showing up for at least another 24 hours, and Paul announces that the objective he wants to go after is a formation called Gothic Nightmare; he thinks that there’s new route potential there. For reference, the Mountain Project description of Gothic Nightmare reads …from the south it looks like a long haired hippie who stuck their finger in a light socket and from the west it looks like a bad, bad tower. 

Gothic Nightmare, with Paul and Jeremy nearing the top of pitch 1. 

Turns out that not only the climbing is dicey; the approach is a bit on the tricky side as well, particularly if you decide to ignore the obvious trail and instead scramble up the decomposing, steep and exposed flanks of the wash that leads into the Mysteries; or if you stubbornly complete a - beer - supply run through flash flood territory in the middle of a rather substantial downpour (thankfully both beer and porter completed the journey mostly unharmed).  

In the end, the weekend comes together as a grand adventure with lots of laughter, improbable placements and new friendships - as well as wonderful inspiration for my own aid and big wall ambitions.  Lessons learned: 

  • Caked mud is an actual thing. It can be climbed. 
  • You can never carry in enough beer.  You might assume a supply of two thirty packs for 36hrs is enough for three people, but really - think again.
  • If you stash supplies because you keep returning to the same project over and over for a number of months, your cache may get looted in-sesason.  If you stash supplies and forget about them, they’ll likely still be there seven (!!) years later… nice work, Jeremy.
  • Fireworks are essential equipment any time you’re sleeping on the wall.
  • You may think ice axe tosses are a joke; they’re not. If you don’t believe me, get your hands on a copy of Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock III and take a look at the beta for Wondermonger VI 5.9R A3 on Atlas. The jury is still out on dwarf tosses.
  • Don’t trust any Paul Gagner route that’s said to go at A1+ 5.9+.
  • Bounce-testing is so last year.  Just ease onto it.

No rock was harmed in the making of this climb, as Paul and Jeremy didn’t like thediscontinuity of features on their potential new lines and instead decided to repeat a 650ft A4 route called Nightmare on Onion Creek.  As for myself… I went from the Mysteries straight to Zion to try my hands at a bit of ultra-classic C2 5.7 big wall soloing, decided that bounce-testing was overrated, and promptly went for a massive ride a few hundred feet off the deck that sent me back to Moab with my tail between my legs to rest up for another go at the route. Aid climbers sure know how to have fun!

Eddie the Van

Eddie parked under the stars in Big Bend National Park during our first week on the road.

Eddie is a little 2002 AWD Chevy Astro Van that was acquired the proper dirtbag way - straight off Craigslist, for a whopping $2800 before taxes and DMV fees.  While the odometer officially clocks in somewhere around 220000 miles, the engine was replaced and at purchase in late 2015 had ‘only’ 93000 miles on it.  Built out for a single occupant over the course of a few days (Sunny’s first carpentry project which she’s mighty proud of!), Eddie carries all the dirtbag essentials and then some: climbing gear for rock, ice and big walls; plenty of ultra trail equpiment; a slackline; two crashpads; the gamut of high-altitude expedition supplies; an AT ski setup; and a SUP and paddle. All without a roofbox… It’s tight quarters, but thanks to a bit of storage ingenuity there’s enough space to hang out and cook meals or do work inside the van during periods of bad weather.  

The buildout. 

Tales from the Road: Red Rock Rendezvous 2016

It’s 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon, and I’m in Valley of Fire State Park taking a shower.  That shower was direly needed (ha! the joys of dirtbaggery), but it also means I am running late - late for the ultimate climbing festival that is Red Rocks Rendezvous.  I love climbing in Red Rocks, yet in the past I always avoided being there during Rendezvous time: you see, I’m not much of a crowd person; the idea of climbing and partying with 1000 of my closest friends that I haven’t met yet never seemed all that appealing to me.  This year is different, thanks to a generous invitation from The North Face via the Gear Coop: here I am, on my way to a weekend full of people and celebrations after I spent the last several weeks in mostly solitary places. I’m a bit skeptical, but forward is the only way to go at this point. 

 

And with that, I arrive freshly showered at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park just south of Red Rock Canyon. The park has exploded into a massive tent city; I am lucky to snatch one of the last parking spots for Eddie the Van.  I make my way down to the main lawn area to say hi to the North Face team as well as a gaggle of Gearcoopers that have come out from Costa Mesa to partake in the climbing and general revelry.  Before I know it, I find myself drawn in twenty different directions - turns out there is a familiar face around every corner.  All a sudden my Saturday outlook has exploded from ‘no plans’ to ‘too many options’: Do I want to head out with TNF and the Gear Coop for a bit of multi-pitch? Or maybe go cragging at Calico Basin? How about some bouldering instead… and then thereare those anchor placement and safe bolting clinics at Spring Mountain Ranch that would be really useful; the idea of a group trail run sounds like fun, too! Or slacklining, or acroyoga, or… ! 

In the end, the decision is an easy one: the promise of a highline in Calico Basin leads me to ditch any climbing-related plans for Saturday. I only just started slacklining two months ago and keep falling off even the easiest groundlines, but the idea of highlining is incredibly appealing to me.  Since I know lots of climbers but very few folks that rig highlines, this is too good an opportunity for me to pass up.  

And just like that, one thing leads to another; all a sudden it’s 2am on Sunday night as I am dancing on Eddie the Van’s roof with a pirate and his girlfriend, long after most Rendezvous-goers have left to start their travels back to their day jobs. This is after two days jam-packed with slackline practice, hijacking a big-wall clinic or two, lots of sweet sunshine, even more free beer, awesome food, and lots of badass new friends. As the icing on the cake I walk away with a ton of shiny new toys from The North Face (who as one of the main sponsors of #livethatvanlife not only invited me out to the Rendezvous but also equipped me with an impressive amount of gear), loads of RRR swag, and to top it all off one of my high lining photos scored a $100 Mountain Hardwear shopping voucher in the #RRR16 photo contest. 

Van party!

On Monday morning Eddie is one of the last cars in the parking lot, and I slowly pack to start making my way back up north. I am looking forward to a few days of detox and solitude, but I leave Vegas with a huge smile on my face and glowing with happy memories.  I have a feeling that this will not have been my last Red Rock Rendezvous… 

Sunny's Story

Hi!  I’m Sunny.  I am 30 years old; I am a climber, mountaineer and ultra runner, and I live on the road full-time in search of sunshine and adventure.   

All that is true, but it’s not really my story.  Up until the end of 2015, I wasn’t Sunny; my colleagues and friends knew me as Suzanne (or Suz if we were close).  I was living and working in Houston, Texas, right in the middle of the take-off of a high-octane strategy consulting career.  I have an MBA from a terribly prestigious school; until a few months ago I used to crush it on all the “right” dimensions: acing those tests, landing that job, working my way up the ladder.  Now my home is ~150cft of space on wheels, stuffed to the brim with sandy, muddy gear; I am constantly thinking twice before I spend $5 on a Starbucks coffee or even $1.50 on a truckstop cup of joe - and then usually end up deciding against it. How did all of this happen?

In a way it all goes back to when I was 12 years old and my parents took me to theGrand Canyon for the first time - but that’s going back way too far. Let’s start in my early twenties instead: they consisted mostly of work, bar nights and being a couch potato.  A dear friend and mentor encouraged me to take time off to go traveling before grad school, so I did; with a budget of $5k I covered ten countries in five months.  Coming back from the trip my appetite for adventure had been awakened. I was still mostly a couch potato but learned to climb at the local rock gym during my first semester in business school and quickly fell in love with it.  Mountaineering and ultra running were the result of another extended backpacking trip right after graduation - my first ultra trail was essentially ‘off the couch’ (not something I would recommend), and I somehow even managed to like it enough to come back for more afterwards. 

Fast forward to the last four years - I was working long hours based out of Houston, and gradually came to realize that my true passion has very little to do with business and a lot with being outside, pushing myself and exploring.  On many Fridays and Mondays you’d find me at the airport in shift dress and high heels, still feverishly typing on my laptop, trad rack and climbing shoes slung over my shoulder; I occasionally pulled up to the Red Rocks campground in business attire with a consultant carry-on spilling out of the car - you get the idea. In 2015 I came to the realization that the main reason for why I needed a big paycheck was that I lived in a big apartment in a big city that I didn’t appreciate, and spent lots of money on plane tickets and rental cars to get into the mountains for rushed getaways: once I was out there, I wasn’t spending very much.  I also knew that I would be in a position to pay off my remaining student loans by December 2015, and with that my path was as clear as a yellow brick road - or rather a red dirt trail: save up as much as I could, dare to quit the promising job, downsize, get rid of the expensive apartment, buy a dirtbag mobile, and instead of spending lots of money on plane tickets to quickly get to the places that I cherish… just never leave them. 

That’s where I am today, it’s who I am.  The big question is what’s up next and for now, the answer is simple: the open road, until it stops being fun or my money runs out.  Judging by my first couple months of vanlife I have a feeling that it’ll be the latter!