08 August 2017

Backyard Adventures: Darbghee

Saturday’s practice was canceled. I got an idea. I wanted to run from Darby Canyon to Grand Targhee and then ride trail from the resort back to Darby. The map seemed to indicate that those locations aren’t easily connected.

I put out a query on social media that was unsurprisingly answered by people that thrive on exploration. Results were…mixed. Lynne informed me that the singletrack connecting Alta with Aspen didn't go, or would at least be deeply unpleasant. Abby and Jason said there was a route between Darby and Teton Canyon, but others chimed in that it was impassable. I preferred yes to no, so I persevered.
I love my friends
On Saturday morning the air smelled like California. I only lived in Tahoe for one wildfire season and I’m on year four in the Tetons but for some reason the smell of smoke, the obscured peaks, the red eyes and thin sunlight through a veil of haze still remind me of 2013.

After parking our bikes at the Ghee and watching some Pierre’s Hole racers come through, we headed over to Darby. An unmarked but pretty obvious trail threaded its way off the canyon floor and quickly took us high onto the north canyon walls with big views of the Darby badlands and the three peaks, Meek, Jedediah Smith, and Bannon, that encircled them. We walked and jogged through meadows of cow parsnip, the blossoms leaving sticky sweet-smelling traces on our skin.
Looking down into the Darby badlands
All pics courtesy of Cy
As we neared the base of the Wedge I got nervous. I was somewhat prepared for the possibility of turning around but was also afraid I might get in over my head on a loose or precarious downclimb. We reached the saddle southeast of the Wedge and peered down. The bowl was dotted with snow patches, obvious and not-so-obvious cliff bands, and skree fields, but it looked like there was a way down and it wasn’t unmanageably steep.
The aptly-named Wedge
After snacks we started down, skating on ball bearings, eating snow, following ribbons of water cascading over rock faces. I moved slowly and methodically and we poked through the gut. A half-hearted glissade down the final snow bank and I made it onto the Teton Shelf.  Looking back up at the bowl, we realized we had taken the only viable route—every other line ended in massive cliffs.
Travel was fast and easy after that. I flowed down the trail with the Cathedral Group at my back and the depths of Teton Canyon before me. We purified water at the trailhead and started up the north fork. The trail to Table was reliably highway-esque but when we took the turn onto Fred’s trail it immediately steepened and grew thick with foliage. We climbed and climbed, pleased to be gaining vert so fast. By the top I felt depleted and my feet were ragged in worn shoes.
Devils Stair 
We surveyed the familiar backside of the resort. It looks even more dramatic in the summer. After a fast run down to the base and a slow beer on the deck overlooking the awards ceremony, we saddled up. The minor climb to Lightning Ridge was a punch to the gut but when I dropped into Colter’s and Mill Creek I got a solid attitude readjustment. Mountain biking is so much fun compared to running!
Pure Teton porn...too bad it was so smoky
We blazed the road to the Aspen trailhead, watching the bright pink sun dip lower in the smoky sky. Even though we were low on water, I really didn’t want to bail on the final section of singletrack, so we loaded up at a stream and put our heads down for the rocky up-and-down of Aspen. I felt surprisingly great until we hit the last six miles of gravel, where my paltry caloric intake caught up to me and I groused at Cy for dropping me.

The playground behind Targhee
No pictures of mountain biking because we were chasing sunset.
Hungry but stoked, we reached the car. Triscuits and beer quieted my angst and we ruminated with some disbelief on the amazing adventure. Connecting points on the map in a painful and aesthetic way...in my own backyard. Is there anything finer? 

20 July 2017

Muscle Memory

"I think I already know your answer, but I had to ask," said Molly, the new production manager at Tram Bar World, when she called me yesterday morning.

Apparently the factory was in crisis mode and needed bars made stat. I really, really didn't want to do it, but once someone puts an idea in my head, I have trouble saying no without a good reason. I had a bar-sized window of time between sending the paper to print and going to kid's practice. I was planning to veg out, clean up my piles, go mountain biking with girlfriends. Instead I donned a sleeveless tee and skate shoes and went to the factory.

I walked in with my trademark churlish swagger, accepting happy greetings but trying to broadcast a half-amused, half-resentful attitude. Then Molly told me what the crisis pay scale was, and I saw that my ingredients had already been measured out. Well, that's better.

Since I left, the factory has seen almost twenty people cycle through, attempt to make bars, and quit with little ado, so my princess treatment was warranted. It's not often one gets acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time, but my bar-making record backs that up.

That said, I was pretty nervous that I wouldn't remember how to do it. My brain had already deleted the file, confident that it was obsolete information. I couldn't mentally walk through the steps beforehand. But once I was in front of a tub of ingredients, dressed in my whites, muscle memory took over and it was like the last nine months had never happened.
Back in my native habitat
I flowed through the steps, performing my weird little granola dance, barely thinking, luxuriating in nostalgia. This was the thing I was better at than anything else I've ever done. But to be excellent isn't enough when there is no personal growth, when my brain melted into custard even as my arms gained definition, when I did the exact same thing day after day.

I left the factory many dollars richer and reeking of peanut butter and honey. I was dehydrated but not as achey as I expected. Deeply-ingrained skills don't go away that quickly.

18 July 2017

The Fire

Once you open the door to housesitting in a new place, you get tons of requests. I watched my coworker’s big dumb Goldens for a couple weeks and then her wealthy friend enlisted me to watch an independent Bernese, some chicks (she described their care with bemusement—her kids were in charge of the poultry), and a semi-feral cat.

The house was nice-not nice, a model I’ve seen so many times when housesitting. Shockingly expensive touches (immaculate gas range, flagstone flooring) compete with chintzy touches (all of the doorknobs barely functioned). I have stayed in modest, thoughtful houses and I have stayed in garish houses where the thoughtful touches happen to exist because they were the premium option.

I am hopelessly nosey. When I stay at a house, I poke around, observe, judge. My biggest takeaway is often a suffocating claustrophobia—how can these people own so much STUFF? I have moved almost twenty times in my adult life and the thought of filling every drawer, closet, rafter, and bureau in your four thousand square foot house makes me choke on anxiety. I was in the midst of moving the last time I stayed at this particular house, and I stashed all my earthly possessions in a single bay of their three-car garage.

Four days after they returned from their most recent trip, I was lazily checking Facebook in bed and started seeing posts about a fire.

The house had burned to the ground. Every matched pair of toy firetrucks (twin boys), every elaborate wall hanging, the countless drawers of stainless steel specialized-use kitchen implements (pizza scissors?), the three sets of flatware ordered by occasion, the pantry full of organic kid’s energy bars, the four-post king-sized bed with decorative throws, the shower with multiple heads and a sauna setting, the four bikes, three stand-up paddleboards, and two lawnmowers…all gone.

By some divine grace, a neighbor saw flames coming from the house at 2 a.m. and was able to wake the family. It sickens me to consider the alternative. The gregarious Bernese also survived.

I went to the property, shifting roles from family acquaintance to journalist. I took photos of the blackened shell, smelled the aftermath of the burn, registered the empty space where the big wooden chicken coop had been.

The outpouring of support online was immediate, because people are good. Well-wishers were offering food and clothing donations. The family’s friend took me aside and asked how the newspaper could help head off this generosity—she didn’t go quite so far as to say, “They don’t want other people’s used clothing,” but it was implied.

Their cell phones and three (four?) cars burned. Their friends quickly provided them with new phones and a new car. Someone in their network set up a GoFundMe page and it’s currently sitting at an incredible $24,000.

Looking at that number, more than I make in a year, and thinking about the size of the insurance check that I know they’ll get, makes me sick and confused. The tragedy of losing everything, birth certificates and wedding photos and special art, is a terrible blow, but these people are positioned to weather it with minimal suffering. I couldn’t help thinking what $24,000 could mean to nonprofits, other families, people less blessed with opportunity, affluence, or a support system.

It made me squeamish to question this family’s right to benefit from the generosity of others, but I also kept imagining the McMansion they’ll be able to build with their insurance pay-out--bigger, better laid out, more storage space for newly-acquired possessions.  

Then I ran into her at the grocery store. It was the first time I'd ever seen her without make-up. I was scared to engage but she didn’t mind talking to me about the fire. She said they were looking for a long-term rental while they rebuilt. “Housing here is hard,” she said with tired amusement. I choked out an agreement. Housing here is hard, and it’s harder if you have a limited budget and if insurance isn’t footing the bill.

I used my mournful tone (I’m so awkward with condolences) and tried to express how glad I was that she and her husband and their two boys had made it out alive.

There is no right answer.

17 July 2017

Thirty-Six Hour Vacation

In Gilmore, Idaho, there is a piece of cardboard nailed to the side of a shack with a handwritten for sale message: “Lot and house $10,000.” There is nothing available in Teton Village for under a million.

But six miles up the road is a campground more beautiful than any car-accessed one in Grand Teton National Park, a small cerulean lake abutted by a towering chunk of rock in a cirque of crumbling spires. On a Saturday afternoon in July, there are two sites free out of fifteen. We claim one and immediately try to figure out how accessible that chunk of rock, Gilmore Peak, is.
Next to the lake there is a broad mellow trail through woods carpeted with rich greenery.  We branch off it and follow a faint trail churned into the talus on the shoulder of the cirque. We are on top barely twenty minutes later, looking across the basic at Gilmore, but a storm is scudding toward us so we bail. Tomorrow!
Waking up is so easy in summer. Oatmeal, coffee, ablutions, and back up to the ridge. We scramble over dalmatian-spotted feldspar, waiting for the difficulty of the route to match the drama of the scenery, but it never does. We summit by nine. Long couloirs and precipitous drops and warm-colored peaks of red and ochre surround us.
Descend fast, feet in the lake, drinking Coors at ten. We get restless and pack up camp to pursue another adventure—a twenty-mile backcountry ride. The road is studded with tombstones that scrape and jolt the little car. A cow-wallow stops us several miles before the trailhead so we start pedaling.
The hot, unpleasant doubletrack turns into a long mellow singletrack climb from the mouth of the gulch to an alpine pass. We contour around the base of Yellow Peak, spot elk cows and calves below us in a clearing, and push up a darkened shale path unlike anything I’ve ever traveled by bike. I throw myself into the snow patch up top and stuff my hydration bladder with snow. I’m out of water, it’s hot, we already climbed a mountain this morning.
The descent is appropriately backcountry’esque, rock-cluttered erosion channels, downed trees, mud bogs, but also huge views of adjacent peaks. We slog through the last five miles thirsty and hot.

The closest open gas station is a hundred miles away but we still have cherries and Oreos and snow to melt and beer to drink. I am shelled, burned, my eyes red and my lips chapped, but I am content. 

Most of my Saturday mornings are consumed by bike practice but I’ve gotten much better about GTFO of the valley the second practice ends and taking advantage of my full thirty-six hours of weekend. There are incredible places within a five-hour drive of here and I’ve only scratched the surface.

19 June 2017

2017 Teton Ogre 8-Hour Adventure Race

Abby, the race director, emailed me late on Monday evening:

“There are still a few hours left to sign up for the Ogre. We extended registration through tonight. The course is full of adventure biking- you'd crush it. Just sayin'. Here's a code for 50% off for you and your teammate if you wanna do it.”

I had been waffling hard and had decided against it, but apparently I could be easily swayed by some ego-stroking and a discount code. I registered and bullied Cy into joining without too much trouble.

I wanted to go for a run on Wednesday and I wanted to cover some unfamiliar ground and increase our shot at knowing where the Ogre was. I suspected that the top of Pine Creek Pass could be the venue—on the map there was a tantalizing expanse of land criss-crossed by ATV and pack trails, and there was plenty of parking.

I traced out a little loop south of the pass and we ran it, steep powerline to undulating ridgeline to an incredible descent through balsamroot meadows and lodgepole groves, the Grand prominent far to our northeast. It would’ve been the ideal bike ride and I pledged to get back there ASAP to ride it, maybe the day after the race if I was feeling spicy. Abby and Jason had set the course earlier that week and I kept an eye out for the flags, hoping to get some confirmation of my suspicion, but didn’t see any.
The most important tool
When we checked in and got our maps on Friday, I unrolled it…saw the Teton-Bonneville county line snaking across the middle…let out a whoop. I was right! And, upon further inspection, I realized there were three bike checkpoints on the fun loop. I was utterly delighted. What were the chances?

Cy and I plotted the points and then spent the rest of the evening obsessing over route choice, debating the order, talking contingencies. Last year I had been surprised that all of the top teams cleared the course (found all the CPs) so I decided that was our only option. Plus we move pretty damn fast, running and biking, so I knew the navigation would be the crux.

It rained through the night and the morning was chilly and wet with heavy clouds that never released their burden. Twenty-six teams poured off the start line heading mostly in the opposite direction of our route, but some of the most experienced racers, including my future landlord, went the same way we did, which was a nice route validation.
Skeletons from last year's Tie Canyon fire
We rode a powerline track through tire sucking sandy mud and then dropped off-trail into the Tie Canyon drainage, catching the first CP. Cy got to experience the high of punching the passport, a better rush than doing a bump of coke. Then we traveled up marshy singletrack, grabbed another CP and dropped the other teams.

We got to the transition area and swapped into running gear. The trail was ankle deep in muck and thrashed by horses. We got the first trekking CP off a tree in a saddle, churning through thigh-high wet greenery. I was glad I decided to wear tights, protected from the burn of nettles and the slash of grass. 
Wet and green
We climbed a bump on the landscape, barely noteworthy on the map with its spacious contour lines that hid steep climbs, and got our fourth point. Then everything went sideways. We didn’t pay close attention to the oh so critical topo lines on the map and plunged into a drainage northeast of the ridge, convinced we’d hit a trail in the creek bottom. We stomped around down there for far too long, befuddled and frustrated, before reexamining the map and realizing our expensive error. We regained the ridge, cursing our stupidity, and swept up a couple points to placate our disappointment. Damn.

During each bushwack and hike-a-bike, we remembered some of the other thankless crap we’ve done recently. Turns out pushing through peanut-butter mud in the Caribous, exploring new trails during an endless spring of swollen creek crossings and bogs, getting lost on Teton Pass and skinning up 2000 feet at 7:00 pm, and running countless miles over stupid-deep snow was great training for the Ogre. 
Back on track after an hour of faffing about
The CPs were whimsically placed and it seemed like Abby and Jason were sharing with us these special little pieces of land. Cy climbed a dead tree, and we dropped a knife ridge and gained another mini slice of ridge, a place you would never have a reason to be if it weren’t for the Ogre. We then traversed overland to another bump on the map and were rewarded with the sight of a photographer up there with her dogs, and another flag flapping from a tree.

Then we dropped, a long and precipitous descent to a rushing creek, tripping over the wealth of downed trees, pushing through alder and baby aspens, slipping on the layer of organic matter on the group.

We occasionally followed the trail of others, leaves and stems left bruised and muddied, a subtle confirmation that even if we were off-route, someone else had already made the same mistake. We called these invisible predecessors the herd of cats, and eventually just the cat herd, as in “Oh, here’s the cat herd again.”

I promptly fell in the creek when we reached it but was already so wet it didn’t matter. We bushwhacked downstream hunting fruitlessly for the next CP, until we saw a gang of girls clustered around…the wrong CP. We had blown by one somehow. We punched the passport and decided to backtrack for the missed one because…no regrets, right?

It was hung high above us on a steep embankment. So worth it. We hauled ass back down the stream, trekking portion of the course complete with a comfortable margin of time to finish the bike leg. We jogged back to the transition area and remounted our bikes to start climbing.

Ouch. I was more shelled than I’d thought, and somehow the anticipated fun bike loop was way harder than it seemed when it was a mellow after-work run. We scored two more CPs and rode the descent, which was as flowy and awesome as anticipated. A real gigglefest.
The beginning of the most fun rarely-ridden descent in the valley
Then we put our heads down for the final brutal powerline climb from the bottom of the pass to the top. We happened upon another team that gave us a heads-up about the last CP, and Cy backtracked and found it hiding down a hollow. We were really pushing it on time so the only thing to do was keep slogging, gasping in pain. And then we emerged on the mellow road at the top and booked it to the finish line.

Jason greeted us. We were three minutes late, which meant nine points docked from our score. He saw our passport, raised his eyebrows, seemed impressed. Everyone else was clean and relaxed at the finish line and I convinced myself that we’d been crushed, hadn’t even scratched the top five. I cursed that mistake again, knowing we could’ve been there at least forty-five minutes earlier.

But we discovered at the after party, reclining in the grass drinking beer in the sun, that we were one of the few teams to clear the course, and we took second in co-ed behind seasoned Ogres Maura and Shane, and we were fourth overall. And got a big cookie as a prize. My stoke immediately returned because I’m terribly addicted to podiums.

We ruminated over the experience and analyzed the good and the bad. I was really pleased at how smoothly (ish) it had gone relative to how unpleasant it could’ve been. Another incredible Ogre in the books, eight hours of getting lost in beautiful country.