Sunday, February 10, 2019

RUFA




"It's hard to beat someone who never gives up" -- Babe Ruth

I realize that's a pretty bold statement to put at the start of a personal race event report, but it's not there to aggrandize me. It's to explain my seemingly ridiculous 6th place overall at the Salt Lake City RUFA (Running Up For Air). I probably wasn't the slowest person in this event, but I was close to it. In this event your placement is based upon how many laps up and down a mountain you can do in a set amount of time. My event was the 24-hour event. Now if everyone kept going for the full 24-hours, I might have been DFL, but they didn't. Some didn't because they didn't need to. My buddy Joe Grant won, doing ten laps in just 19 hours and 20 minutes.  Others quit because it was no longer fun or they were tired or got injured or cold. I just kept plodding along like a tortoise and only five hares beat me. So, while it is hard to beat someone that never gives up, it isn't impossible.

I'm trying to stay spry enough to remain partners with my son Derek for as long as I can. Now that is some serious motivation. Next on our list is an attempt on Fitz Roy in Patagonia in January 2020. I'm trying to toughen myself up so that I can be ready if we get a weather window to climb that peak. I have some friends that know their way around that area and they have advised me to be ready to go for 24-hours straight if opportunity arises. To that end I'm trying to do a long, hard adventure every month this year. In January, the best I did was Mt. Harvard, but in December I did the Top Ten Flatirons. I signed up for RUFA as a low-commitment (easy to quit) way to get in my long adventure for the month. That, and I just met Jared Campbell, the race director, last month when we climbed Squawstruck together and I wanted to support his event.

But shouldn't I be climbing instead of hiking and running? Maybe. But that's high commitment and best left for the next month. Always the next month. I tried ultra running once. It's hard. I found my joints didn't like coming downhill after 10,000 vertical feet. That's not an issue for a normal athlete, but it is for a mountain ultra-runner. I moved on to easier things. So, when I entered this event, I didn't consider it a race in any way. I just don't have the talent to compete against anyone but myself. So, my main goal here was to do 20,000 vertical feet. I'd never done that before. That, and I wanted to see if I'd be tough enough to just keep on going.

My best friend Mark Oveson lives in Provo and is also the timer for the RUFA events that use his awesome software OpenSplitTime. He was the real reason I was out there. Without his support and help, I'd have found something in Colorado. I'm a real burden, too, because I'm cursed when it comes to travel. I've known this for decades and after years and years of getting agitated I just roll with it now and try to let my wife handle as much as possible. To simplify things for this trip, I didn't check any baggage. Let me correct that: I didn't plan to check any baggage. I got to security in fine shape, well ahead of departure, and found that my trekking poles were classified somewhere between an Uzi and a thermonuclear device and therefore not permitted in carry-on luggage. Bummer. I didn't want to throw away my expensive poles so I ran back to the check-in counter to check my bag. But it was too late to check the bag for my flight. And I had a super cheap ticket that you can't rebook. But the agent took pity on me and put me as stand-by for the 2 p.m. flight and confirmed me on the 6 p.m. flight. Of course I didn't get on the 2 p.m. So I arrived at 8 p.m. and forced Mark to hang around Salt Lake City all afternoon. Go me.

We got back to Mark's house just in time to settle a dispute between Jason and Spencer (twins age four) about something to do with princesses and monster trucks and eat some ice cream. After 5.5 hours of sleep, Mark whipped up some waffles and we were on the road by 4 a.m. At the check-in I was shocked to see Joe Grant. He and Kyle were supposed to be doing the Ogden RUFA. I was supposed to be doing that too, but space opened up in the SLC event and I switched to it, since Mark was going to be there and it was closer to Mark's house in Provo. Kyle came down with food poisoning on the drive out and couldn't start, so Joe switched to SLC too. Cool. I'd have a friend out there. Another friend, Darcy Piceu, was also doing the event. Both Joe and Darcy we assumed to be locks for the win. I know fast people. Too bad that isn't enough to make me fast.

The venue, Grandeur Peak, had so much snow that they had to move the start/finish/aid area back a quarter mile. The course was a simple out-and-back that gained 2650 feet in 3.25 miles, for 6.5 miles per lap. At the summit the course didn't follow the trail, which was hopelessly buried and continually being blown over. Instead, the trail went straight up the ridge, via a 35-degree slope for the last 150 vertical feet. And it was soft snow.

I purposely started at the back of the pack so that others would break trail. How awful is that? Let everyone else do the work for me? Served me right to get behind some slower hikers. I just chilled. Going slower on the first lap was the right thing to do and if I wasn't limited, I'd have made the mistake of going faster. Why not pass? Because the track was only wide enough for one person and going off the track would plunge you to your waist. Wasn't this an issue with people going up and down by each other constantly? Yes, but most everyone was super nice about stepping off to the side and letting the downhill runners (only people going downhill were running, with very few, short-lived exceptions) pass. Is this technique of asking and answer my own questions getting annoying? Yes, I'll stop now.

After some re-shuffling, I fell in behind two guys, who were obviously friends: Mark and Jeremy. They were talking about Wasatch (one of the toughest 100-mile races) and I knew it would be unwise to pass these guys. I just followed them to the top of the peak. We started in the dark at 6 a.m., but after an 80-minute ascent, the sun was up and we had some great views. I didn't dawdle on the summit because my feet were cold. The descent took a slightly different path, so that we wouldn't ruin the nice steps going up. The way back down was basically a luge run. Most people sat on their butts to go down. Darcy wore shell pants to ease the slide down. I didn't want to get too wet as I was just in tights, so I tried to stand it up each time. I half skied down, flailing my poles wildly, half fell down the slope. Eventually a track probably 6-8 inches deep formed that was just one shoe-width wide. I'd put one shoe in front and the other in back and pretend I was telemarking. I fell about as often as I do telemark skiing, which is to say often.

My plan was to do laps every 2.5 hours - four per ten hours and eight laps in 20 hours. My goal was to do 20,000 vertical feet because I'd never done that much vertical in a day before. My first lap took me 2 hours, so I banked a bit of time. I refilled my bottle, took some food, changed out of my down mitts and into my gloves (a mistake), and was headed back up by 2h05m.

I spent a lot of time in this recovery area by this nice warm heater. Nice people would bring me drinks and food. The support at this race is stellar. The volunteers are outrageously good.

I went a bit faster on the second lap, mostly due to less congestion. I had no one in front of me and was motivated to go faster. I did, marginally, ascending in around 1h15m. My hands were freezing at the top. I wondered why I had taken off my down mitts. I had them in my UD running pack, but was too lazy to dig them out. I slid back and and transitioned into my shuffle. It wasn't a real run, like Joe and Darcy were doing, but it wasn't a walk either. I took 5 minutes at the aid station before heading up again. I ate and drank some, but mostly switched my gloves to my second, dry pair, and put my down mitts over them. I'd do the rest of the laps like this and my hands generally stayed warm enough. I never needed to use my chemical heaters, but I did ball up my hands at time, tucking my poles underneath my arm.

My mindset was to get four laps as efficiently as possible and then start taking more time to rest, warm-up, and dry off. The third lap was tough for me. I'm not sure why. Maybe not enough time to get warm and dry. My feet really froze on this lap, at least at the top. It was windy and cold above the trees and most of the ascent is out of the trees. I broke the ascent down into thirds. The first third covered about 1.5 miles up to a distinct switchback to the left. Here there was a sign just pointing out the trail direction, but it was a significant landmark for me. The next section was the long, rising traverse to the ridge. Most of this was above the trees. The trail hit the ridge and there was a short track off to the right, presumably a pee spot, and then the trail dropped below the ridge again for five more minutes before regaining the ridge. This middle third took the longest. The first third took me about 30 minutes and this second third took about 35 minutes. The final third, up the ridge, was the steepest, coldest, windiest, but also the shortest. The final steep section to the summit was intimidating, but I found that was my relative strength. Early on I figured out that it took 200 steps with my right foot to gain the summit once I started the final incline. I would put my head down and pound out these steps without ever looking up. There was no point in looking up and being disappointed with how far off the summit was. I'd get there when my 200 steps were done. Actually, it never took 200, but was always close - over 185 steps at least.

The first two laps I didn't listen to anything, but then I started to listen to one of my Audible books. This makes me feel so efficient: I'm exercising, I'm racing (sort of), and I'm reading. Sweet. I wasn't really doing any suffering. I knew if I went too fast, I'd tire, bonk, quit, something. I just kept the pace reasonable. I walked every step on the way up and shuffled mostly on the way down, with some walking when I was feeling tired.

I thought I was mentally committed to staying out for my eight laps, but was a bit demoralized finishing my third lap. I was pretty tired, wet and cold. I wondered how I'd get five more laps, especially since it was logical and reasonable to expect a slow and steady decline in my ability to keep going. But ultra-running (walking) isn't a reasonable thing to do. While very inexperienced at this, I did know that people go through ups and downs and that things could get better, but at the time I didn't think this. A low-point this early wasn't expected. I'd done less than 8000 vertical feet and felt worse than I had finishing my training run of nearly 11,000 feet. This time I took 18 minutes in the aid station and wanted more, but was concentrated on getting the first four laps out of the way.

The fourth lap felt a bit better, even though it took me a minute longer. When I got down my feet were really soaked and cold. In the shuttle van up to the start of the race I heard people discussing how many pairs of socks they brought. As soon as I heard this, I knew I had screwed up. I only brought two pairs. I wasn't thinking about the aid station enough and this aid station is what makes something like this possible for me. If I couldn't warm up, change socks, dry out, I'd never have been able to go as long as I did. In this sense it isn't like a real mountain adventure. I still have a long ways to go there. As this page on OST shows, I spent a lot of time in the aid stations, especially after completing lap four.

I spent a ridiculous 46 minutes in the aid station after lap four. That's embarrassing, but it helped me so much. I changed socks, dried out my shoes a tiny bit (they were still pretty soaked), changed my shirt, ate, drank, warmed up, and rested. I talked with others in there, most of whom seemed like they were stopping. This isn't dropping, as you can't DNF this event unless you fail to do a single lap and no one failed at this, though a couple didn't start, like Kyle. So they weren't dropping out of the race, they were just electing to stop. Some claimed the nice, warm aid station contributed to their stopping. It felt so nice in there that they didn't want to go back out into the snow and the wind and the cold.

This extended stop marked the turnaround for me. I settled into a groove. It wasn't fast, but it was steady. I just cranked out my thirds on the way up and shuffled down. In the past my joints have really started to hurt after 10,000 feet of descending and I had planned to walk all the descents after getting this much vertical, but I was surprised to find that I could still shuffle down most of the way on all laps. I think this was due to my slow pace and the joint-friendly softness of the snow.

Mark's daughter Alice was entered in the 12-hour event and was doing it with her friend Logan. On m my first descent I saw them coming up (they started an hour after me at 7 a.m.). On each lap I'd be further down the mountain before I saw them until, finishing my fourth lap, I met them on the paved road less than 100 yards from the aid station. After some recovery, I headed up for lap five and caught and passed them just before the steep final section. I saw them again in the aid station afterwards. They were done, doing four laps. I was trying to do double that, but in double the time. Three to go.

In the aid station I found my Wasatch buddy from the first lap, Mark, was stopping after four laps. He'd had enough of the lumpy terrain. Another guy, much faster than me, was also thinking about stopping. I left before him, but he'd run by me while I descended my sixth lap.

Just like I was catching up to Alice, Joe and Darcy were catching up to me. Joe lapped me on my fifth lap. Darcy caught and passed me on my sixth lap, but then a strange thing happened. I didn't get dropped. It was dark now and when I found myself approaching another racer I figured it was someone else that Darcy had passed, but it was Darcy herself. Granted she was a lap in front of me, but I didn't figure I'd ever be able to go her pace. Obviously, she was fading a bit and lacking some motivation. She was way ahead of her competitors, but it was only 7 p.m. or so and a lot of time to go. I ended up following her all the way up and even passing by her on the final steep section, when she stepped to the side to call and congratulate her daughter for a stellar swimming performance. I told her that she'd run by me on the way down, as I'd be walking. But I didn't. I could still run and did pretty well. Darcy did catch and pass me, but it was near the bottom and when she stopped again to adjust something I went by and finished my sixth lap before she finished her seventh lap. She stopped after that so I narrowly avoided being lapped by her.

Each time into the aid station Mark would dry out my shell and my pile. Jared lent me a pair of socks and I changed into these after the sixth lap. On my seventh lap I got caught and passed for the second time by Joe. He was on his ninth lap. Considering he owns the FKT on Nolan's, I wasn't surprised. He's such a nice guy and we chatted a bit before he passed me and moved on, but then a strange thing happened. I didn't get dropped. Being two laps ahead, 5200 more vertical feet than me, even the great Joe Grant can slow down. When he noticed me just below him on a switchback he was excited for me and called down, "Right on, Bill!" On the final steep section to the summit Joe paused for just a few seconds to catch his breath and I nearly ran into him, my head being down and all. He turned around, shocked to see me, and said, "Bill! Alright!" He is perpetually positive and encouraging. One of the nicest superstars you'll ever meet. I passed him at the summit, because he paused for a bit while my freezing feet forced me into an immediate descent. It wasn't long before he came zooming by though and I'd never be close to him again.

With seven laps down, I was feeling pretty good. I did the easy calculations and knew that I'd have time for a ninth lap if I could hold my pace. In the aid station before my eighth lap I even mentioned it to Mark. Doing so was risky, because now if I didn't go for nine it would be clear that I just wasn't tough enough. My eighth lap went fine, pretty much the same pace as my last couple. The main difference was that the course was getting lonely. People were stopping. I headed out for lap eight just before midnight. High on the peak, the lack of racers and the wind was filling in the track a bit and things got more difficult and more slippery. Jared recommended descending the steep final section via the ascent route. Now that hardly anyone was out there, this was reasonable and kept me upright and drier.

I rested 30 minutes after lap eight, less than I rested after lap seven, before heading up again. My last three laps I'd gone without poles and I felt that made me faster on the way down and kept my hands a lot warmer. But on this last lap, my ninth, I decided to take the poles because I'd probably be walking all the way down. This turned out to be a mistake. I was tired and knew it was my last lap and I didn't have any time pressure, so I went a bit slower. I even went into the aid tent on the summit for the first time. I had some hot chocolate, some food and chatted with the three people in the tent. They had a propane heater going in there and it was toasty. On my descent from the summit, I slipped and fell. No big deal, as I had done that many times, but this time my pole was planted deep and I didn't let go of it and I broke it. Bummer.

I finished DFL! At least it looks that way now. I thought I was the last guy out there, but when I was descending on my last lap I passed a guy coming up. I forgot his number. I looked at my watch and said, "You've got time" and he responded, "Yup." But I didn't see a finishing time after mine in the results on OpenSplitTime.  I don't think any other event (there were multiple 6-hour events, a 12-hour event, and the 24-hour event) finished at 6 a.m. Curious. In fact, I ran a lot more on my final descent than I would have, just in case this guy blazed his descent and passed me. That wasn't likely, as I calculated I must have had at least a 25-minute lead and I only had 45 minutes to go. I finished with 40 minutes left on the clock (anyone who finishes past the 24-hour cut-off doesn't get credit for their last lap). Maybe he didn't make it. (Note: I found out later that this guy, unfortunately, turned around before reaching the summit and while he finished after me, he didn't complete the lap, so didn't get credit for it).

As usual these days, it was my friends that made it possible. Mark, despite being the head timer for this race, served as my man Friday at the aid station. Joe, Kyle, Darcy and most of the other runners kept encouraging me. And, maybe most significant of all, I didn't want to appear too wimpy to Mark and Homie who I knew would be watching the results. If my choices are sitting in a nice warm tent, eating lots of good food and getting some sleep or having the respect of my friends...it's not a hard decision.

While this was very significant for me, without exaggeration, I must be the least tough person with which I adventure. Homie did the same amount of vertical as I did on Green seven hours faster. I was ready for Homie to say, "Dude, if you didn't spend so much time in that tent, you'd have done ten laps."I was prepared with my response: "If it wasn't for that aid tent, I'd have quit after four laps."  But Homie didn't say that. He just was super positive, of course.

So, February long adventure is done. What will I do in March? Derek and I need a winter Longs Peak ascent to keep our streak going. If I'm slow enough that could qualify...

Postscript:
We got back to Mark's place around 7 a.m. and after a shower I went to bed at 7:30 a.m. for 2.5 hours. I got up, packed my bag and had breakfast with Mark, while chatting with his family. Since they were headed to church, Mark told me to take his truck and drive to the train station in SLC. I'd ride the train to the airport and Mark would pick up his truck later that day. There were two options for catching the train and Mark thought he gave me the directions for the station with the best chance of catching the train. I got there, parked, hung the keys on the bolt hidden behind the front wheel and hopped on the train with a minute to spare. All went well on my return trip, but later that night I got a call from Mark. He couldn't find the truck... After some stress we concluded that he was at the wrong station. I told him, "Whew, I was afraid the truck was stolen." I hung up and Mark made his way to the correct station. Fifteen minutes later, Mark called again. No truck. We confirmed he was in the right location and indeed the truck was gone. By coincidence, a police car was nearby and Mark flagged it down. Shortly afterwards he was watching a security-camera video of a guy stealing his truck. Bummer. I felt horrible about my part in this, but Mark just said, "Don't worry about it. I didn't even like that truck." Pretty blase for a guy whose truck had just been stolen.

A few days later the police recovered the truck. They weren't looking for it. They found it at a drug bust. A guy was sitting in it outside of a suspected drug hangout when the police asked him if this was his truck. It still had Mark's plates on it, so the police knew it was stolen. The guy said, "A guy lent it to me." "Who?" "Just this guy Paul. I just met him and know nothing else about him." From the video the police knew that the guy wasn't the guy who stole the truck, but they arrested him for receiving stolen goods.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Mt. Harvard with Homie and Danny


Photos (not many as using a camera wasn't possible up high)

Wind. Besides snow conditions, either too deep or too dangerous, this is the strongest force that climbers must battle. The wind is legendary in Patagonia, but the winter winds in Colorado aren't far behind. The winds we encountered today might not have been the worst I've experienced, but they were in the top five, probably. They were without a doubt the strongest winds I've ever continued to ascend into. I'll try to describe them, but I fear there is no way for a person to understand winds like these without experiencing it firsthand.

All my significant adventures these days follow the same script: Great friends, super strong friends agree to take me along, do all the work, and make it nearly impossible for me to quit, despite my best efforts. Without these partners, my life would be so different. But that's true all throughout life. The people that surround you are the ones that determine the course of your life. Yes, my character has some influence in the friends that I have, but it seems I've been unduly luck.

Homie is one of the all-time Colorado 14er masters. He's 28 peaks through this second pass through the winter 14ers. Danny's done 31 of the hardest 14ers in winter. I've done 26 of the easiest. All of us like to get at least one winter ascent each year. I wanted to write "a few winter ascents", but after today I wonder when I'll be mentally ready for another. This one might have scratched that itch for the entire year. In selecting a peak, we need to find the intersection of Danny's and my remaining winter 14ers and a peak Homie hasn't done in the current month (he's working on gridding the 14ers - a truly insane project). We narrowed the list to Belford, Oxford, Columbia and Harvard. Of those Danny said, "I've heard Harvard is kind of a bitch...so that's my first choice." Makes sense. For him. it would have made it my last choice.
Homie leads and I'm following
The safest route in winter, is via Frenchman's Gulch, a route that is 18 miles and 6000 vertical feet. Of course, Homie had done it before and served as chief guide. Danny was the assistant guide and main workhorse. And I was the client.

We decided on skis for the approach and it is a great choice for this route. The entire route, save the final ridge, is at a gentle angle that allows for reasonable skiing on the way down, despite the single-track trail. The lower part of the trail is on a 4WD road that is wide enough to allow for snowplowing as a speed control mechanism. Even Homie concluded that skis were the right choice and he generally prefers snowshoes. Danny was all hot to use skis, having recently acquired a slick AT setup. Homie and I went without NNN (Nordic) gear, which is light, but much trickier on the descent.

We met at my house (another concession to me at Danny's suggestion) at 2 a.m. We piled all our gear into Danny's car for the long drive to the trailhead at 8600 feet. We were skinning up the road at 5:15 a.m. in our little pools of light. We had to break trail the entire way. It generally wasn't too deep, but was continuous and tiring. We averaged maybe 45 minutes per mile. Homie broke trail for a mile and then stepped aside. Danny, ever the over achiever did a mile and a half. I barely made it through my mile, at a reduced pace. Then Danny again for another 1.5 and then Homie took us to treeline.

We skied up into the basin and atop a hill at around 12,000 feet. Above the snow was intermittent and rock hard or sugary. We opted to drop the skis and continue on foot. Homie and I pulled Microspikes over our skis boots and Danny switched out of his boots into a pair of gaitored running shoes!

We worked up the basin and then across a wind-scoured slope up to the next tier. While it was breezy below, what we encountered above was an entirely different force, an other-worldly force. For the next four hours we'd battle this swirling, unpredictable demon. Gusts would hit with such force that you'd have to drop to the ground or be blown over. They seemed to come from every direction. There were small lulls occasionally and movement during these periods was so much easier that I found myself doing intervals to gain as much ground as I could during these relative easier times. Intervals over 12,000 is not an ideal approach. I'd be so winded at the end of each one.

Danny was leading the way, then Homie and then me, as usual. The wind was so ridiculous and the summit so far away, that I was already thinking of turning around. I just didn't see any way I could succeed. Danny knows me well. He knew what I was thinking. And he wouldn't let me catch up to him because he knew I'd mention retreat.

The raw temperature couldn't have been that cold because if it was, the wind would make things truly life threatening. All of us had cold feet, mostly because of the wind, but also because we all had minimal footwear for winter climbing. We all wore our shells, hoods, googles, and balaclavas. Any exposed skin was in danger.

Progress was slow and draining, especially for me as I spent considerable energy wondering if I should turn around, wondering if my feet were freezing. I took stock of the rest of my body. My hands were okay. I was wearing my big down mitts with chemical heaters in them. I was worried also about my nose, though. I couldn't tell if my balaclava was covering it sometimes. Otherwise I was okay. So, fatigue and feet, fear and frostbite.

We regrouped at the start of the long ridge leading to the summit. It was so far away. It seemed impossibly far. Danny moved on. I told Homie I might turn around and not to wait for me. I wondered which direction to move. Up or down? I wiggled my feet. I didn't think they were numb. I could feel them moving. I was torn between my desire to summit and the damage to my self esteem if I was the only one to turn around. Whether I doing any damage to my feet for a silly summit or whether I was imagining that damage as an excuse to turn around that made me seem smart instead of weak. My buddy the Loobster is still climbing mountains and he's twenty years older than me. I wondered how old I'll have to be before I'm content to sit in my chair on the weekend. That thought made me think of the Bob Dylan song with the line: "How many seas must the white dove sail before she can rest in the sand." Only then did I realize that song was "Blowin' in the Wind." I shed my pack and continued on, going as light as I could.

Movement along the ridge was brutal, with frequent sections where we'd be crawling. We didn't start off crawling. We started by using our hands on steep terrain and staying with it until the terrain was nearly horizontal. The climbing was only 3rd class, but the slopes below us were steep and covered in rock-hard snow and the gusts so strong that being blown off wasn't out of the question.

All of our goggles were icing up. With as many winter 14er ascents that Homie had done, he'd been here before. Ironically, he brought two pairs to the trailhead and left his second pair behind, trusting the weather report. Removing the goggles wasn't an option, as the wind was driving the spindrift so hard that it was quite painful and impossible to keep your eyes open. Homie would clear his by licking on the lens. Danny got some luck with breathing on them. I tried scraping them with my gloved fingers.

Halfway across the traverse, Danny dropped his pack as well. We were all pushed to our limits. After rounding a significant gendarme, I thought I saw the summit - a prominent rock tower. Despite three ascents of this peak, I asked Homie if that was the top. He told me it was on the ridge in the background. The far background. Despair descended upon me. Later, Homie would admit that he considered turning back when we were probably within fifteen minutes of the summit. It was that bad. My goggles got worse and worse until I could only see vague shapes. I crawled the last twenty feet to the summit. The only reason I made the top was because my companions kept going and, this is key, they never got too far in front of me. I'm not sure if they were wasted or waiting for me. Probably some of both, but if they had gapped me by a sizable margin, I'd have turned around. No one could wait in weather like this and I wouldn't have trusted myself to negotiate the ridge alone.

Needless to say, we didn't linger on the summit. Homie made a point of patting me on the back. I think he was as amazed as I was that I had made the top. I can suffer compared to the average person. I know that. But I'm such a wimp compared to these two. On our trip up Antero last year, I was a net negative. Going with these two is a conundrum. On the one hand, my chances of making the summit are greatly improved. On the other hand is the pressure of being the weakest, of contributing nothing, and the fear of failure. The night before this trip I sent Danny an email saying they were stronger without me and that I was looking for an excuse to bail. A reasonable response would have been: "Maybe we are faster without you, but it's up to you." That might have been enough. Instead he wrote back, "Nah, you're going." One can do a lot worse than following in the footsteps of these two. It's going to be up to me to know when I shouldn't tag along. Hopefully I won't wait until I'm a serious liability.

The misery wasn't over at the top. The upper few hundred feet were the worst of all and next 45 minutes were a serious struggle. My goggles were useful only as skin protection, as I couldn't see out of them. I'd lift of the bottom for just a few seconds and try to memorize the next six feet of terrain, then put them down and feel my way. I thought of my blind friend Erik Weihenmayer. He never has problems with his goggles.

Whenever I could cheat, I'd keep my goggles up and go as fast as could until the wind whipped the spindrift into my eyes with such pain I wondered if it damaged my eyes. Homie led the way and I followed as close as I could. I lost a Microspike somewhere along here. If it has been the Hope diamond, I wouldn't have gone back looking for it. I wondered if I had pushed things too far. If I stumbled and injured myself to the point where I couldn't walk, I felt like I'd die there. How could I be rescued when it was all anyone could do to move themselves? At least I wasn't wrestling with the decision of whether to go on or not. I know this sounds overly dramatic and I doubt my partners had such thoughts, but it was running through my mind. Keep moving, I kept telling myself.

Once back at my pack and off the ridge, I knew I'd survive. The wind still pelted us mercilessly, but it was less here and if I got knocked down, it would be on gentle terrain. I still couldn't see out of my goggles, but now the wind seemed to be primarily at my back and I could travel long stretches with my goggles up.

Back at our ski cache we were shocked to see only one of Danny's skis. We had placed all six skis in a pile between two rocks. Danny started looking for the ski down the slope. I started thinking what it would be like for Danny to get out on one ski. Walking wasn't much of an option because, once in the trees, he'd have dropped to his waist for nearly ever step. I've skied on one leg before when I broke a ski halfway through the day. It's an incredible leg workout and I'd switch legs every time I stopped. But that was at a ski area. Back when I was an expert skier. And twenty years old. Danny was going to be in trouble and we weren't going to be able to help that much. It had me thinking how dependent we are on this gear to survive.

Before Danny had searched for even a few minutes, Homie spotted the ski. It was 40-50 feet uphill! Homie wasn't looking for the ski there. No one would look there. He just happened to be walking back to rock and saw it above. We concluded it must have been the wind, that is so crazy that I'm not sure. It just seems to be the best explanation...it seems the least impossible answer, but still seems impossible. It must have been a freak gust...that just plucked one ski and left the other five undisturbed? I wondered if an animal got caught in it and dragged it a ways. We saw elk or goat scat up there, but no animals. It was pure luck that Homie saw it. If he hadn't, we'd have spent at least an hour looking everywhere downhill for it before giving up and watching Danny suffer through an all-night wallow back to the car. That Homie is handy.
So happy to be back down in the trees
We were all weak from the lack of food and water. The wind above didn't allow us any respite to fuel ourselves. Each of us forced down whatever food and water we could. Fueled by a strong desire to reach to the shelter of the trees, we quickly switched back into our skis and started our descent. We kept on the skins for a bit, to control our speed and climb the small rises we knew were coming, but soon the desire to glide was too great for Danny and I. The skiing was pretty fun with nice soft powder to side of our track to provide a speed break. Despite this, I fell a couple of times. Getting back up in this bottomless snow was a real chore. Homie pulled me from one of my falls. The other times I found myself completed winded by time I was standing again.

Halfway down we ran into a group of five or six snowshoers. We knew a few of them. They were doing a 2-day ascent and thanked us for the track. Unfortunately, they had no way to avoid dorking up our nice ski track with snowshoe craters. Danny and I could zip down the gradual trail fine, but any rise was very difficult for us. We had to herringbone or sidestep up the hills and it was tricky to use our poles since if you didn't plant them in the track, they'd nearly disappear into the snow. Homie kept his skins on, preferring the speed control and the grip on the climbs. We regrouped often, to make sure no one had an injury or equipment failure.

We made it back to the car completely exhausted, but quite elated. The round trip took us just over 12 hours. We seem to recycle the same comments about the wind and our doubts all the way home.