Nordic Ski Touring VIDEO!!!

There is a severe lack of hype around nordic ski touring. This is a good thing in many ways, but not at the cost of the sport dying in this country as folks take to snowbiking (French for can't cross country ski) and A.T. skiing exclusively (I love A.T. skiing I will add). Decided to make a little film of today's ski on the Sourdough Trail. One of these days I'm going to get some real video equipment, but for today holding the point-in-shoot in one hand and my poles in the other will have to suffice. Fun day doing the best sport in the world.

 

Keep Hessie Wild

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Alpenglow along I-70 on Vail Pass. 

On Friday I went to Vail for my final visit with Dr. Hackett. After pulling and prodding for a few minutes the doctor announced that I was good to go. The rehabiltation process, which began on May 26th and extended the entire summer and fall, is largely over. I won't be hucking 40-foot cliffs anytime soon – not that I ever did – but so long as I make reasonably intelligent choices I'm not limited anymore. He suggested telemark skiing at the resort some to build strength, and also gave a clean bill of health for spring steep skiing. It means game-on for Elaine and I. That's a beautiful thing because exploring the mountains is our favorite thing to do. 

IMG_4205Currant Creek, one valley over from Vail Pass. 

It was a long day of driving so we decided to break it up with a sunset ski on Vail Pass before heading home. The route we chose, along something called Currant Creek, was full of contrast. It was poignant because it forced the question, what was this place like before there was a giant interstate higway bisecting the land? Currant Creek is one valley east from Vail Pass. And while the drone of the higway can be heard faintly, it's a much more pleasant experience than the return trip home on a trail between the east and westbound lanes of the highway.

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Alpenglow on the Ten-Mile Range. 
 In Currant Creek the valley falls away beautifully as the silence of the winter meadow hangs over the land. One valley over, along I-70, the drone of diesel trucks drowns out the world, the snow is brown and the air dirty from exhaust. But then, there is that sky. I'm not sure what it is about the Leadville, Copper Mountain, Camp Hale area, but this zone gets better alpenglow than anywhere in the state. It was strange to be surrounded by amazing light and glowing peaks while at the same time feeling and seeing the harsh impacts of human technology on the natural environment. Because of that beauty, it was almost more painful. 

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A morning pre-work ski to a lake with a stormy view of our backyard. 

Of course, if the highway were not there, we likely wouldn't be either. I'd be willing to trade it back to its original state.  In the original plan, the builders of I-70 had actually planned to send the road straight thru Eldora town and up over Arapaho Pass. What a difference that would of made to this paradise. And because I live here, and living in a place equates to loving and defending it, I'm glad they located the highway 30 miles to the south. And yet for somebody, that valley where the highway now cuts was home, that was their place of peace and beauty, and for that person the construction of I-70 over Vail Pass – and where ever else it goes – is a loss of the greatest magnitude. It's a trading of natural beauty for human convenience and that's a choice we tend to make altogether too often.

As we await decision on Eldora ski areas expansion into the Hessie Valley, I hope this is something the decision makers take into consideration. It's much easier to destroy something than it is to go back, and for everything gained, there is also a lot of untold loss. 

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50 years ago there were plans to build an Interstate Higway here. Today, there are plans to expand a ski area down here. This is better. 

Recovery and Renewal

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When I got injured in early April 2014 – a final aggravation of a bum knee that I tore and had mis-diagnosed back in 1992 – I didn’t think much of it. Yeah, I definitely tweaked the right knee, but I had done that numerous times over the past decade plus. That right turn where a slow, wet pile of goop grabbed my ski and pulled it under screamed with pain, but after a few minutes to regain my composure I gingerly skied down and walked home under my own power. That evening I wrote in my journal, “Tweaked knee. Feels good tonight. Dodged a bullet.” 

I continued skiing for the next few weeks, mostly nordic with a few downhill days. It felt OK, but I’d notice there was still some lingering tingling. I went home to visit my folks, went for a run around Point Lobos, and it hurt for a week after. That definitely wasn’t right. Still, we continued skiing, including a fun spring day up Mount Quandary, but in the interim I made an appointment to see renowned knee physician Dr. Hackett. As the day of the appointment loomed, I almost cancelled it because the knee felt pretty damned good. In the end, I didn’t, probably in part because I wanted to see the place – the Steadman Clinic – where all these famous athletes had their knees fixed. In the athletic world, the Steadman Clinic is a place of legend. 

As it turned out, my knee was messed up. The PA came in, moved it around and found nothing. Five minutes late Dr. Hackett entered, cool and confident, moved my knee in seemingly the same fashion, an announced my ACL was gone. He suspected I’d had about 95% of it torn back in 1992, and I was hanging on with the remaining 5% that I blew in April. A claustrophobic MRI confirmed exactly that, and on May 26 I had ACL reconstructive knee surgery using a cadaver graft. The only part of the knee surgery that hurt was when they tried to find my veins with the I.V. needle. After that, I remember nothing.

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First walk of a mile after surgery. 

The first week was rough, but motivating. I rotated the bike a full pedal stroke at PT less than 18 hours after surgery which I was told is unusual. There were all these exercises to do and I felt stoked. By the end of the week, I was taking short walks, and by four weeks out we actually snuck up to a snowfield on Trail Ridge Road and I skinned around the flats, keeping our streak of skiing every month alive. I had a big scare when I crashed my bike on the 4th of July Road and landed smack dab on the bad knee. But, other than a very skinned knee and a bruised ego, I dodged a major bullet. 

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Skinning around the snowfield on the top of Sundance Bowl four weeks after surgery. 

The PT exercises were monotonous, so twice a week I’d drive to Vail to work out with my physical therapist Jenna at the Howard Head Recovery Center. Those days were very motivating, as the walls were covered with pictures of famous athletes who had gone through the same thing. Jenna pushed me hard and I got stronger. Elaine would hike while I would do PT, and as such, I had a lot of time to explore Vail, sometimes making the knee swell from too much walking. I even got a library card to the town library! 

Solo divide

July 9, 2014 before finding out my dad died. 

The hardest part of the whole recovery process was, by far, the separation from Elaine on our normal adventures. For awhile I was under strict orders to do nothing outdoors, than limited to a bike on the road. Problem is, we have a dog who needs exercise, and neither of those activities works for a dog. So Elaine would hike and run Stella, which was great, but we missed each other. Elaine recounted a story where she did the Eldora-King Lake-CDT-Devils Thumb-Eldora hike, was hanging out above timberline, and started to cry because it wasn’t the same without me there. Turns out, on that very day, my dad died, so I think those tears had double meaning. 

Through my dad’s passing, funeral and memorial, I continued to try and get stronger. It was harder after July 9. I felt drained and maybe a little less motivated. There were a rash of other emotions swirling around so recovering the knee took second string for a bit. On the morning of my dad’s funeral I went for a run on the West Point campus, and did my knee exercises near a monument overlooking the Hudson River. I felt close to my dad, because no doubt 55 years earlier he’d run on the same trails. From that point on, I’d try to go uphill on trails as much as possible, because when I did that, I felt close to him. 

Willow

Our first real hike post-surgery was up to Willow Lake under the Mount Sneffels. We stayed in one of the San Juan Huts and enjoyed an amazingly relaxing trip of hiking in the fog and rain, reading and cooking. It was a perfect way back to the natural world I love.

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First hike back up to Arapaho Pass, one of my favorite places. 

In September and October I biked. Pretty much every damned day. Uphill mostly, building strength and getting the legs equal. Lunch rides up NCAR, morning rides up Shelf or 505 or 4th of July. It felt like old times, back to when I was a bike racer, timing laps, doing intervals, headphones blasting Tupac, Rise Against, Nikki Minaj or some techno beat. I haven’t ridden consistently like that since the pilot days. It felt good. 

Ride

We also started hiking quite a lot in October – joyfully together again – and managed to get up more 14ers than we’ve ever climbed in a summer. In early November, I did my run up a mountain in our backyard that is kind of my test piece.  It’s a steep, rocky 20 minute lung buster. I was pleased to keep the motion going – however slowly it was – to the top on the first go. It broke a mental barrier in my recovery.

Elbert

Top of Mount Elbert and Colorado with good friends. 

In November, snow finally came, and after a very dry early December it came again in droves. This has turned into a nice early season. The skin tracks are supurb, the nordic touring trails are running perfect and the backcountry is filling out well. 

40J early snow

The ski from Eldora town to 4th of July Campground is a great ten-mile workout. It's been a regular item on the menu this fall and early winter.

We’ve been doing a lot of long nordic days so far, with some A.T. backcountry days interspersed in there as well. Since we’ve committed to the Crested Butte Alley Loop 42 km in February, this makes a lot of sense, but for me, it’s a chance to build from the ground up. We have two main goals for the first part of this season – build endurance and improve balance. Both goals play in well to nordic skiing. I believe nordic skiing is the base for all skiing. Skiing is a balance activity and the skinny nature of the nordic skis and free floating boots and bindings ensures your balance improves. There are a couple things in my skiing that I don’t like, and they generally relate to wanting more fluidity. Fluidity comes from balance and the goal of this early season is getting that balance better than ever. It’s a rare chance to build from the ground up and set a solid foundation for the future.

Early pow

Early season Indian Peaks powder. 

It’s been a good season thus far. Today was the 42nd day on skis for the winter, a ten-mile classic ski around the beautifully manicured trails of the Eldora nordic area. Say what you will about Eldora, their nordic grooming is better now than it’s ever been. 

Bottom line, it’s good to be back, and while I'm not mentally 100% recovered from the knee yet, it’s getting close. Steady consistent work and an intelligent build to this season will get it there, so when it’s time to go further and higher into the mountains, we’ll be ready. 

Overlook

Arctic Forest Night Love

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As we passed the bank sign in downtown Nederland, the temperature read 18° below zero. The sign switches from “Celsius” to “Fahrenheit” to “Time” slow enough so you can’t really see them all in a single pass, so I had check again to make sure the little “°F” was there. It was. 

Actively seeking out lousy conditions is something we tend to do too often. Whether it be heading up a pass in the San Juan Mountains in a crackling thunderstorm or up Bald Mountain in the dark in 70 mile per hour winds, we both enjoy the wild. It’s not really a glutton for punishment so much as just wanting to feel as alive as possible. 

Skiing in -18° F isn’t unprecedented by any means, but around these parts at the 40th latitude on earth in this era of global warming, it’s rare. It’s rare enough that it’s something to experience, if for no other reason than we are skiers and being a skier means being privy to all conditions. It’s a sport because of nature, not in spite of nature.

There are concerns though. An injury at -18° F could be serious. There isn’t much time to just stand around before the body temperature drops dangerously low. As such I decided to put one winter sleeping bag in the pack just in case.  “Just in case” is usually a substitute for experience, and since I have little experience skiing in temperatures this cold I figured we needed the “just in case.” 

Heading up the Peak-to-Peak highway we saw a car pulling a U-Hail trailer stuck in the ditch. Mountain living means helping neighbors out in a bad situation, and this guy was in a spot. We couldn’t do much, as I don’t have a tow hitch attached, but I did happen to somehow remember that 303-258-3250 is the phone number for the police. It was a crap shoot – I was convinced the number was for either for the cops or the now defunct (sadly) Neo’s Italian Restaurant. The police took the call and sent for help. The shivering man who drove the truck into the ditch thanked us and we were back on our way.

We winded our way north on the Peak-to-Peak and then up the switchbacks of the Brainard Lake Road. A couple cars were parked in the parking lot, but they were long vacated, their occupants likely sitting around the roaring fire at the Brainard Lake Warming Cabin. The parking lot felt cold and stark, so I kept the heater on just to preserve that lifeline to the known and safe. We dressed, prepared, shut off the heat, and reluctantly and excitedly went into the outdoors. 

The first thing you notice in temperatures like this is the crunch. The snow – and it’s a bit cliche but 100% accurate – sounds like styrofoam. We were bundled to the hilt, three layers on the bottom, four on top, hoods up, big mitts and hats pulled on tight. The cold pinched the cheeks and nose. Hoods up, we snapped into our three-pin bindings and headed west.

At first, it all felt alien. The hood shut off the world, and with just a headlamp guiding the way and Elaine’s shadows striding through the woods, and bits of oppressive cold smacking the face, it truly felt like the planet Hoth or the summit of Everest. It was uncomfortable, so I lowered my hood, and the cold rushed in. After that initial shock, it was better, all the senses being used instead of covered up. 

Cross-country ski touring through a deep winter forest at night is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s a tunnel of adventure, with childhood stories and images rushing forward. It’s a trip through a forgotten world of elves and trolls and story time. The woods echo with ski strides, shadows promise wolf howls, a warm, foggy breath our entrance of passage. We slide through Wilderness, both in nature and ourselves. 

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Our route for the evening.

The cold is there, but it is not a problem. Occasionally I ask Elaine, “Are your feet warm?” She responds yes every time, because I’m honestly not sure if my feet are actually warm or the cold is causing me to lose my mind and not realize that they have frozen off. But alas, they are warm. Hands are toasty, and at one point, on a brisk climb I can almost feel a slight sweat building, although it soon subsides on the flat. Make no mistake – it’s cold. We’re wearing almost double the layers we normally do nordic skiing, we’re moving hard and we’re barely heating up. To stop is out of the question.

The snow is very slow even with Polar wax. On a night like this, you might not need any wax. At times, it feels more like skinning with Mohairs on, and the descents are quite mundane as a result. But it’s still fun. We break out onto the road and stop briefly as the ghosts of Mount Audubon and Mount Toll glorify the land under the moonlight. It’s back into the woods, past the hut, where a yellow glow and stunned onlookers watch our passing. We briefly lost the trail, found it again, and – thanks to the slow snow – moseyed down a hill that is usually a roller coaster of adventure. This is the only place I’ve seen Gary Neptune crash, and that speaks volumes. 

In the silence we continued. This is a special spot for us. Six years ago, under vastly different circumstance, I think it was here that Elaine and I began to fall in love despite the impracticalities and massive obstacles. Skiing in the woods, in a beautiful place, with a person you connect with better in the world than anybody else can do that. I don’t know…it’s hard to put into word, but I know, on this last day of 2014, that the feeling I have skiing through the woods with her are just as – and really much more – strong. It’s a great thing, and it’s the fuel that drives us. Mushy and idilic perhaps, but as real as can be. 

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Up out of the woods we came. The last few whoops brought shouts of joy, and as we crested the top of the last hill, and gazed at the divide, I captured one quick iPhone photo, hands freezing, for posterity sake. It was a wild frost kind of night, a Jack London kind of night, a night of love in the wild winter.

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Post-ski first decent down Mount Tebo…on leathers and nordic touring skis!