Scouts, Lewis And Clark and Toll

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While Apache Peak is undoubtably the crown jewel in the Indian Peaks – it's the highest mountain in the range – for a skier there is a certain right-of-passage to a jaunt to Mount Toll in May and June that defines spring skiing in Boulder County. It is the most popular spring skiing destination in the area, and because of this I have often found myself shunning it in favor of more obscure peaks, especially when going out on a weekend where it can often be a veritible zoo (these terms in backcountry skiing are relative…on a very busy day there may be 20-30 people on this mountain making turns…compare that to the hundred-plus mountain bikers who visit West Mag on a weekend day). Nevertheless, there is usually a reason something is popular. A conical, beautiful peak, a wonderful snowfield, the ability to ski right off the peak, a lake and easy access are something any backcountry skier relishes. When Elaine asked me recently what my favorite backcountry ski is, it's hard not to put Toll on the top of the list.

We've intentionally been avoiding the Indian Peaks so as to experience offerings from other ranges and because, simply put, our backyard has more snow than anywhere else in the state. Meaning, most of this stuff will be skiable well into late-July and August and I don't want to burn out on it. So we held off on the peaks until today.

How much snow is there? A few years back, on the 4th of July, my parents came out and we hiked in the Long Lake, Lake Isabelle area. Pretty much bone dry that day. Last year Elaine had e-coli sickness, but we managed to get out of the caboose and hike up to Blue Lake, also on the 4th. Again, bone dry. This year was a completely different story. The snow is deep, and it starts right at the trailhead. It's not just drifts…it's deep snow, all the way, unrelenting. A ranger at the entrance gate told us of a couple last week who showed up in flip-flops. The guy ended up cutting up his Gore-tex jacket to wrap around his girlfriends feet because they were getting cut-up and frozen by the snow. It's going to be ugly up there next Tuesday, because I honestly think folks from the flatlands don't believe there is that much snow up there or are simply in denial. It's like nothing I've seen since moving to the area.

Of course there was no trail, but I know this route well. We followed a loose route and then bushwhacked our way up past Mitchell Lake.  The snow had frozen solid last night and the going was easy.  A few times we ended up in rivulettes and pine groves, but these are part of the adventure. Elaine and I talked a bunch about our early outdoor experiences, and the subject of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts arose. Elaine was a Girl Scout in the local troop and was fortunate to have a leader who was into actually doing stuff, not just selling cookies. They hiked Mount Elbert, went to Fish and Owl Creek Canyon and did lots of good things to develop a future outdoors woman.

I was a Boy Scout for awhile as well. My dad was in the army, and we were living in Greece when I started Scouts. My memories of this time are spotty, but I do remember a backpacking trip in the winter where a foot of snow fell. This was unheard of in Greece and I remember tents collapsing and general chaos. I remember the leaders of the group were fairly frazzled. I of course loved the whole affair – my love for snow started early in my life and even living in a Mediteranean climate did nothing to squash it.

We later moved for a couple years to – of all places – Dickinson, North Dakota. It was hard fitting in here, and honestly the geography didn't appeal to me all that well – it was dead flat. My folks used to load up the car on Friday after work and drive eight hours across Montana to the closest good skiing – Red Lodge. More than once the trip was cancelled because of ground blizzard conditions. I didn't like being so far from skiing, but I thank my parents for these epic trips. They kept me skiing and paved the way for me later in life.

Anyway, I was in a Boy Scout troop around this time. There was this place called Theodore Roosevelt National Park – part of the Badlands – and I remember some backpacking trips with my troop in this gnarled land of mesas and buttes. It was cool country – country for the imagination. Around this time my mom and dad somehow procured the entire unabriged Lewis and Clark Journals and I read them, cover to cover – all seven volumes. Pretty unusual for a 12-year old I think. I loved adventure, and I was kind of a loner with a very vivid imagination, so it wasn't much of a stretch for me to imagine I was Lewis and Clark on these early backpacking trips. They of course passed through this country on their way to the Pacific Ocean. I remember I had a sweet LL Bean 4-season tent – quite expensive – and it was my domain. When I was in that tent, I was an adventurer, exploring far-off lands, new horizons. I still distinctly remember a cold November night with that troop, camped out on a high mesa in my LL Bean tent, and waking up to a fresh coat of snow. It was a great moment in my young life.

My interest in the troop fizzled as they became more-and-more focused on earning merit badges. I just wanted to go backpacking and go on adventures. One summer there was a camp in Minnesota, and the troop leader made it clear that the emphasis was for all of us to earn as many merit badges as possible. I was luke warm about the camp at best. When I got to the camp they had us all meet in a big tent where we were to sign up for various merit badge classes – citizenship, archery, religion, etc. While wandering around, I found a booth with a 20-something year old guy simply labeled backpacking. The proposal appealed to me – instead of spending the five days at camp earning merit badges and such, he was going to take Scouts on a five day backpacking trip into the heart of the Minnesota wilderness. I knew our Scout Master would not be happy, but I didn't care. I signed up for that backpacking trip. I got criticized by our leader for "wasting a valuable opportunity" but nevetheless, the next morning myself, one other student two or three years older, and the 20-something year old guy were off into the wild.

It was hard work. The packs were old frame packs and I think we were carrying cast iron skillets for cooking. I remember one day – it must have been 95ยฐ with 95% humidity where we hiked 20 miles in a day – that still stands out as one of the most brutal outdoor experiences I have ever embarked on. But the thing was – I loved it. I loved the challenge, the feeling of utter exhaustion. I loved the wild and the woods. When I got back I had more of a sense of accomplishent and pride than any merit badge could ever provide. I remember the other kids – there was almost an awe that I did the backpacking trip. I felt a lot of pride.

I never was much of a scout, at least in terms of ranks and all that. I think I earned the First Class rank and decided that was plenty good enough for me. After all, there were mountains to ski, baseball games to play in, and trails behind our house that needed to be explored on my bicycle. Still, looking back, it's fairly obvious that those early scouting trips were a precursor to this life I have now where – after my wife and family – the outdoors and the mountains are priority number one.

Elaine and I shared our stories while moving ever up. At Blue Lake we put on the ski crampons and worked our way up the lower slopes of Toll. It was hard day – the heat was oppressive even up here – but we kept moving. I let Elaine lead the way. I have climbed most of these peaks and I have experienced the thrill of being the pathfinder, of reaching the summit first. I think, right now, it's important to let her have that experience, to be the first one to crest the summit. There is a power to that that is undeniable. Halfway up the face of Toll we strapped our skis to our packs and booted up the stairway to heaven. Before we knew it, we were at the top.

It was a perfect summit day – not a breath of wind and warm – and in all honesty could have spent the whole day up there. But alas, the sun was doing its thing and the snow was softening rapidly and it was time to ski down. The turns were perfect – outstanding, smooth, velvety corn. We took turns leading, with Stella running in a dead sprint behind. There is something about the Mount Toll cirque that feels huge, and Elaine expressed as much to me. It's a humbling place where it feels good to feel small next to nature. A little further down and Elaine commented how some of the best skiing in her life has happened, oddly enough, this June. That's the magic of spring skiing – it combines the beauty of skiing with the solitude of backpacking and the granduer of the big mountains. Because of this it is, I believe, the greatest sport in the world.

We slogged it back to the trailhead – home at 1 pm – and have spent the rest of this hot summer day lounging in the caboose – reading, writing, listening to music, drinking iced tea (Monday and Tuesday are our weekend). A lazy day, enjoyed as a result of climbing mountains and sliding down them on snow.

Today is the latest sunset of the year. In 15 minutes it will drop below the horizon, and it will not be up again this late for another 365 days. The cycle of life, the cycle of the seasons – never ending and always awe inspiring.

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Call of the Wild

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It is officially summer. I know this not by the calendar, nor the heat, but by the simple fact that I am writing this blog entry, at 3:41 am, as a result of getting woken from sleep by a dive bombing mosquito. They hadn't been bothering me at all till tonight, but this particular little guy is making up for it in one evening.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been skiing a lot. It's a little different this year, as I'm trying to get in a lot of my skis before work, and then on days off head somewhere bigger for turns. A nice result of the big snow year is that one of the very standard hills we venture to even in the winter – and that lies only between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, is still skiable. It's actually quite good. I went four days last week and it was smooth and silky corn. Alas though, the amount of smooth section is getting less by the day, replaced by sun cups, which are a result of melting and pooling on the snow surface. These are not so much fun to ski. The snowfield itself is also shrinking, oddly enough from the top where there are more rocks to heat up and melt. The days of before work skiing are dropping – maybe to the single digits, maybe the low teens, but the end is in sight.

Skiing this time of year is actually more of a morning hike than anything else. We can do the round trip in 1:30, and about 1:25 of that is spent hiking, with about 15 minutes of that actually skinning with skis on. In all honesty, it's a morning walk in the mountains. I'm fine with that. My skis this time of year are exceptionally light, as are my boots, so it's really not that much more than walking with a day pack on.

One of my favorite books is Call of the Wild by Jack London. There is a scene, near the end, where the main dog Buck is living a lush life with his owner who is an Alaskan gold miner. They really don't do much mining though. Most of the time is spent wandering through the Alaskan woods, heading deeper and deeper into the mountains, up the swelling creeks, through the wildflowers, enjoying a summer ramble.

My adventures with Elaine and Stella feel very similar to this. These two girls are the most amazing companion. We too explore the woods. We figure out efficient ways to cross raging spring creeks. We smell the pungent aroma of pine on a spring morning. We see strange ice formations near the melting drifts, and the first cornocopia of color with the blooming wild flowers. We hear the cracking cry of the marmot, the thundering lumber of the elk, the northwoods cat-call of the moose. The snow capped mountains loom over head and the morning crisp is warmed by the sun as we dance across the rock strewn, muddy trail.

When we reach the top, and we click on our skis – basically 50 minutes to an hour in – it is a short thrill. Or maybe not a thrill, because that is something different…adrenaline, danger…and this is neither of those. This is more a thing of freedom. You see, everytime we make these turns down the hill, down this smooth field of snow in a sea of heat, well, we can't help but laugh out loud. Why do I like skiing? It is as close to flying as I've ever come. Turning on snow, above timberline, with the world whizzing by.

A few weeks ago Elaine and I grabbed breakfast at a local establishment that is up on a hill overlooking the peaks to the west. We watched as a couple large birds – hawks perhaps – danced and circled above the valley, and then darted west with intent over the big mountains. I couldn't help but be jealous. But jealousy is a toxic emotion. So instead I try to emulate flying by going for a ski. It's why I've skied 154 days this winter, with more to come, starting in about two hours. This time of year, that means going for long walks in the woods for a brief thrill. But that thrill is not all it is, or really even the essence right now. Like Buck in Call of the wild – the ramble in the woods is the reality, the turns on snow are the gold. The latter is fleeting, important, yet not really the point.

Water is prevelant this time of year. Snowmelt. The normal rivers are downright scary and powerful, the normal creeks are rivers, and the dry tributaries are strong flowing creeks. The run-off is everpresent and toxic. Elaine and I realized a few days ago that my camera is indeed billed as waterproof, and even has a feature for taking underwater pictures. There is something non-intuitive about dipping a camera into streams and snapping pictures, but we took the chance on a recent ski and got some neat results. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope you get out into the woods – whatever your means…skis, bike or foot. It is a beautiful time out there.

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Wow

First ride back on Johnny today. A transformation, instantly. From a practical, geometric side…two impressions. The bike climbs like a banshee. Hills that have been a struggle the past two years were easy. And on singletrack, it's incredibly precise. Visualize in your mind where you want the wheel to be – exactly – and it goes there. The bike just screams ride me, let's keep going. It's a bike designed for adventure. I don't think it's an accident that my favorite years riding corresponded exactly with my ownership of this bike. And I also don't think it's an accident that my waning enthusiasm for the sport paralled moving away from it – to 29ers, and fancier, more expensive bikes. More is not always better.

Then there are the places I've been on this bike.  The Yukon. Alaska. The Kokopelli. Montezumas. And then, countless rides in the neighborhood. We know what each other can do, and know it's a lot. Basically, the limits are the imagination. This bike and I, we talk. We have a good relationship, we know each other. We caught up today…and we were both exuberant. What's new, where shall we go, what shall we explore. This mornings ride was simple, but it was thrilling. I extended it a bit with a longer loop and a bit more climbing. Johnny has that effect.

I switched handlebars from my Moots onto Johnny after my ride today. Tweaking it to get it perfect. Gone are it's days of being my 2nd option, my commuter, my loaner. Beginning today, it's on the starting line-up for adventure. Just like it was always meant to be.

Johnny’s Back

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I've skied five days this week. It's been my go-to activity of choice. The skis, over the bike. But then today…something happened. Johnny came back. The single speed bike that for me was my steed of choice during my hey-day of biking, 1999-2004. I had lent it to a friend a few years back, and as she had gotten a bunch of new steeds was going to lend it to another friend who is going through some tough times right now. Johnny has the ability to make it all right. We went over and picked it up. And I got psyched. It looks exactly the same. Orange bright, titanium fork, hutchi tires. Singlespeed. The prettiest bike I ever did own. Johnny has been with me everywhere – the first (and many more) Intergalactics in 1999. Two victories at the 24 Hours of Light in the Yukon. Record distance for a single speed in Montezuma's Revenge. Across the entire desert that constitutes the Kokopelli Trail.  The top of Greys and Torreys. Through snowstorms, thunder, deep woods, slickrock. It's seen bears, elk and possibly even a wolf. It is a great bike, I dare say a bike of legend.

I went outside just now and looked at it. Admired its lines. And thought – I think I want to ride this bike this summer. I want to ride it up 505. I want to explore the new trails everywhere. I want to sling it over my shoulder, over snowbanks, and adventure. The Moots is fancier and more expensive but it doesn't have Johnny's soul. Johnny is a 26 inch bike, and in a world of 29ers that's antiquated. Who cares. 26 inch bikes work just fine by me. It has V-brakes. Who cares again. They work and I know how to adjust them. The bike world has gotten bigger and more plush. Bikes today are like galactic star destroyers. Johnny Rotten is an antiquated X-Wing fighter. But the X-Wing blew up the Death Star.

I'm thinking – I may keep Johnny and give the Moots to my friend.

It needs a few things. Those red grips need to be replaced with blue ones. I need to check what gear is on it. And of course it needs pedals. These things are all minor. What matters is that Johnny is back, and with it my stoke to be a mountain biker again.

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Happy Summer Solstice

I read yesterday that the land above 12,000 feet has 45 growing days in an entire year. Today, June 21, the summer solstice, was not one of them. In fact, at 14,270 feet above sea level on the summit of Grey's Peak, it was a powder day. Thank you Gulf of Alaska and arctic cold front that dropped a foot of snow up high. What was this summer solstice about? A beautiful place, a familiar mountain from my past and present life, my best friend and wife. And of course snow and skiing. What more could you ask for? Except for this little fact: on a intergalactic level, on a universal level, the trend towards winter begins tomorrow.

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June Images

It's been a nice week of skiing, riding and general lolly-gagging as we enjoy the last few weeks of the off-season. Three days a week in the weight room starts in July where squats and lunges and core work and all sorts of fun starts in preparation for winter 2011-12. And longer bike rides with more climbs. And backpacking, and some skis in the peaks. I guess the on-season isn't too bad. We've been feeling a little lazy the last week though, and are enjoying it with some smaller adventures where we catch the little changes in spring. Here are a few images…

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A dusting of snow greeted us today for our morning ski. I love this mountain when it's like this.

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Out for a lazy ski at the local hill with my family. Pre-dawn start for a spring ski? Not today…try 9 am!

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My two girls playing in the snow. Yay we live here!

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The last snow bridge crossing the creek melted out yesterday. Fortunately the wood nymphs constructed a little plank that keeps the fun going!

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Back down low, saw the first Indian Paintbrush of the season.

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I like the bug hidden in this one. Nature is rad.

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The new pine sprouts take flight.

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Not everything survived the winter. This aspen tree was a victim, but there are tale-tell signs that this was the work of humans.

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Nature at work.

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The moose have been very prevelant this spring.

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Bikes and skis are great, but when I want to spend quality time with people I care about, and really immerse into the world around us, I walk.

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Enjoying the local loop with m'love.

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Up higher, the ice still holds tough in the early mornings.

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What does a winter person do in the summer. Go up. We're getting into tundra season, when Elaine and I use our successive days off to don the mega-mid, the packs and some Backpacker's Pantry dinners and head into the cooler high country. There upcoming overnight trips are definitely a highlight for us both.

Three days till the solstice. And then, the long trend where the earth tilts back towards winter and the snows eventually come again. Enjoy it wherever you may be!