Fear of Discomfort, or Longs Peak

Earlier I was making a list in my journal of fears I hold: fear of failure (duh), fear of the appearance of failure, fear of discomfort. It might make some of you laugh, but I really do have a fear of discomfort despite my moving to Wyoming, by far the coldest and most rural place I’ve ever lived, and despite my endeavors to spend time outside in ways that could be seen as plenty uncomfortable to most reasonable people.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve done, though, was last weekend. Matt, his brother Michael, in town from San Francisco, and I woke up at half past midnight Sunday morning, drove for just under three hours to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and began the 7.5-mile hike to summit Longs Peak via the popular Keyhole Route. Longs Peak is what’s known as a 14er, a peak at over 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, weather changes can be drastic and unpredictable, exposure to the elements is dangerous, and lack of oxygen can cause all kinds of problems, including altitude sickness.

Majestic Longs Peak, photo from Wikipedia

Majestic Longs Peak, photo from Wikipedia

Sounds fun, right? Or does it just sound uncomfortable? Granted, a 7.5-mile hike doesn’t sound like a whole lot, even when you consider how that’s a 15-mile roundtrip. People do that many miles or more backpacking with overnight equipment all the time. However, consider that you gain just under 5,000 feet in elevation throughout the duration of the hike, and it becomes a different story.

Several hours before sunrise, we donned our headlamps and extra layers in the trailhead parking lot, deployed our trekking poles, buckled up our backpacks, and began. Walking in the dark in the middle of the forest is an interesting activity. It’s surprisingly calming – one foot in front of the other, seeing no further than the small hazy circle of the headlamp. My body knew it was missing out on sleep, but was simultaneously and primitively exhilarated. In my peripheral vision I spied other headlamps’ beams floating between trees.

The higher we climbed, the colder it became. I switched which hand held the trekking pole so I could alternate warming my fingers inside the pocket of my down jacket. After 3.7 miles out and 2,395 feet up, we reached the first privy (aka primitive toilet). We were noticeably above the treeline. The sky above was wide and pulsing with bits of light. People sat quietly beneath their hats and hoots, nibbling on dehydrated trail food. Our packed snacks included CLIF bars, bison jerky, bananas (not for me, thanks), Trader Joe’s trail mix, and dried mango. The National Parks Service recommends bringing 3-4 liters of water per person for the Keyhole Route, so water was by far the heaviest thing we carried.

The horizon shone pink over the granite boulders while we were at about 12,400 feet above sea level. The sun peeked over the horizon. One foot in front of the other. It grew colder despite the mild sunlight; the sun seemed too far away to warm us. The wind picked up enough to blow us off the trail which, at this point, had deteriorated to mostly steps formed from chunks of naked rock.

The Boulderfield below Longs Peak, above the tree line

The Boulderfield below Longs Peak, above the tree line, taken by Michael

We began passing people going the opposite direction, people descending from the summit. This was our first hint that the wind would get worse. And then, just before reaching the Boulderfield, I did the #1 thing you’re not supposed to do on a hike like this- I fell into a stream.

My battle wound! Bruised palm & wrist

My battle wound! Bruised palm & wrist

This was especially ironic because the vast majority of the water we’d encountered thus far had been frozen, and there were chunks of ice floating in this little stream as well. I’d been about to step over the stream when a strong gust of wind (and I mean like a 50-60 mph gust) appeared, I lost my footing on the icy rocks, and I toppled over. I tried to catch my fall with my right hand (hello, purplish bruise above!), but ended up in the water confused for a second before getting back on my feet.

Thankfully the water rolled off my water-resistant Prana pants and down jacket. It promptly turned to ice on my GoreTex hiking boots. I’d been wearing a glove that soaked up all the water, numbing my right hand, so Matt switched his right glove with mine. I always have cold hands; I’ve tested negative for Reynaud’s disease, but may still have the syndrome.

Needless to say, I was somewhat disheartened. The temperature of the water had also shocked me a little, and it can be difficult to catch your breath at high altitude. Once at the Boulderfield, we reached privy #2.

By far Matt's favorite photo of the trip, taken by Michael

By far Matt’s favorite photo of the trip, taken by Michael

People have stacked stones atop one another to form rings in which you can sit and be sort of protected from the wind. I wouldn’t say I was pleased to sit for the first time in ~6 uphill miles, but my agitation-turned-anger at the wind was significantly mitigated.

Not angry at all... photo by Michael

Not angry at all… photo by Michael

While I chatted with other hikers, Matt and Michael made the short but treacherous trek up to the Keyhole, the area through which you pass to the other side of the mountain, which is much more exposed. From the Boulderfield to the Keyhole, and the Keyhole to the summit, are by far the two most difficult parts of the hike, folks say. Less hiking, more climbing/scrambling.

I can’t be sure, but from what Matt, Michael, and the following pictures tell me, the hurricane-force winds on the other side of the Keyhole made it all but impossible to summit.

"Can't... breathe!" Photo by Michael

“Can’t… breathe!” Photo by Michael

Hyped up on lack of sleep? Photo by Michael

Hyped up on lack of sleep? Photo by Michael

After goofing around up there for who knows how long, the guys came back to join me in the semi-functional wind shelter for snacks before we officially gave up on the possibility of summiting that day. Wind has been known to take people to their deaths on Longs Peak before, so I think this was a smart decision.

Back across boulders we went!

Michael walking across the Boulderfield, photo by Matt

Michael amid the Boulderfield, photo by Matt

Hiking downhill may be the least comfortable form of walking ever, especially many miles of it all at once. It finally began to warm up enough for us to remove layers of clothing on the way down. I managed to not fall in any more streams, hooray!

It was our impression that day that no one summited, with the possible exception of a few macho guys. We advised those who asked on the way down against reaching the summit, and that the wind would grow much worse.

I removed my gloves at long last about two miles from the trailhead. We started to pass people in shorts and t-shirts, and then small children, so we knew we were close.

Beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park

Beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, shot from the drive

I celebrated at the car by quickly changing into my Tevas. It was still before noon, but felt like late afternoon. Much barbeque and beer were in order, obviously, so we stopped in Fort Collins on the way back to Laramie.

Moral of this story? Don’t fall into streams! Wear gloves! And, maybe, being uncomfortable for a relatively short time can reap big rewards, even if you don’t summit.

Love to all.

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Summertime

I much prefer Laramie this time of year. All the flowers bloom at once as the season is so short; the zinnias I planted out front have been at it for almost a month.

I'm posting this picture of the best-looking zinnia, obviously

I’m posting this picture of the best-looking zinnia, obviously

Hollyhocks grow around Laramie like weeds

Hollyhocks, perennials, grow around Laramie like weeds

I can leave all the windows open at home, day and night. Train brakes and whistles, like a chorus of upset piccolos, wail a little louder through open windows (we’re five blocks from the train tracks), but I don’t mind. The first thing I do when I get to the office each day is to open all the windows. I also leave the front door wide open for the better part of the morning. The wind is less of a constant nuisance, as well as a reason to keep my hair short, and more of a pleasant breeze. Cool evenings and early mornings feel quaint, unlike the harbinger dawns of the summer south: “Ugh, it’s this hot already? Let’s just go back to bed.”

It’s also tourism season in Wyoming. Parking lots are full of cars with license plates from places like Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and California. People wander around downtown Laramie, staring wide-eyed at passing trains and licking ice cream cones which, in all honesty, would probably be beers if that were legal.

R.R. = Railroad, duh

R.R. = Railroad, duh. Photo by Libby

My parents, my younger sister, and two of my younger brothers came to visit me in Laramie a couple weeks ago. I did a lot of cleaning to prepare: mopping, scrubbing, vacuuming, chasing devious tumbleweeds of Abe fur across the kitchen floor and under the table. Matt washed all the dishes, per usual.

It had only been a few weeks since I’d last seen my family as I went home at the end of June, but it felt like longer. I was excited to show them this little world in which I now operate. Unfortunately, their time in Laradise began with two full days of almost constant rain. Though the locals call summer the “monsoon season,” rain like that is highly unusual. We’re used to the typical afternoon thunderstorm or weekday blizzard, but rain is a different animal.

First, I’m not the only person to write about “the perfume of sagebrush after rain,” (Edward Abbey was in Arches National Park) but it’s absolutely lovely. Sagebrush is a bleached mint color and covers the prairies of Wyoming.

Sagebrush in Wyoming, photo by Getty Images

Sagebrush in Wyoming, photo by Getty Images

If you rub a bit of its leaves between thumb and forefinger, the aroma is like sage, as the plant’s name suggests, but more peppery. This is the same scent that wafts up into roadways while you coast across the state after a rainstorm, a glorious earthy smell.

Second, there’s not much you can do outside while it’s raining (kayak, raft, get wet?), and there’s not much to do in Laramie when you’re not outside.

So we hit up a lot of museums. Two ten-ish-year-old boys in matching T-shirts and white gloves led a tour of the Ivinson mansion, like a much smaller, local version of the Biltmore outside Asheville, NC. (If the Vanderbilts had a house in Wyoming they needed to heat during winter, they would’ve had a smaller house too!)

It seems like the dark ages of Laramie were from the ’60s through the ’80s, or what the two boys referred to as the “vandalism period.” During this time many historical buildings in Laramie became derelict, were graffiti’d and ransacked and looted. Handmade stained glass windows were shattered; irreplaceable light fixtures were removed and sold. The Wyoming Territorial Prison, a federal institution that once housed Butch Cassidy, became a university-sponsored home for cattle and livestock. When a group of Laramie citizens rallied to purchase the property in 1989, I’m certain there was much cleaning of manure and things. No manure there now, I assure you!

Sam and I with Butch Cassidy at the Territorial Prison

Sam and I with Butch Cassidy at the Territorial Prison. Photo by my dad

Visiting the territorial prison sparked a family discussion over dinner about how the prison system in America largely fails at its primary objective, which is to rehabilitate criminals into functional, productive citizens. If this is a topic in which you have any interest, I highly encourage you to watch PBS Frontline’s “Prison State” episode about incarceration in the US (and its sister episode, “Solitary Nation,” about solitary confinement in the US). You can click here to watch it for free online.

Tuesday morning before the rain started, Matt took my family up to the Happy Jack area of Medicine Bow National Forest about 10 minutes’ drive east of Laramie while I was at work. They went for a leisurely hike up to a small sport climbing area known as Brown’s Landing or Beehive Buttress, which sits at the edge of an aspen grove.

Matt helps Libby saddle up at Beehive Buttress

Matt guides Libby through wearing a harness at Beehive Buttress. Photo by my dad

Aspen are like birch trees with their stark white trunks and small, heart-shaped leaves that yellow come fall. My favorite aspect of aspen (see what I did there?) has to be how the underside of their leaves is a slightly lighter shade of green than the top of the leaf, which means that every time the wind blows (if you haven’t read much of my blog, the wind blows here often), the leaves appear to shimmer as they pivot back and forth on their stems, flashing in the sun. Appropriately, the Latin name for aspen is Populas tremula. In this Forest Service video, you can watch some footage of beautiful aspen, and at the 3-minute mark, the narrator discusses the exact phenomenon I mention here.

Libby climbing a 5.8

Libby climbing a 5.8, “Back to Bucket Country.” Photo by Dad

Anyway, after they came back from their morning hike to meet me for lunch in Laramie, it rained for two days. C’est la vie *shrug*.

Thursday morning we made the most of the good forecast and drove up to the western section of Medicine Bow National Forest to hike Medicine Bow Peak, a two-mile trail to the summit that sits at about 12,000 feet above sea level. The first mile of the trail is mostly flat and circles around Lewis Lake before heading to the base of the mountain. The second mile is almost entirely switchbacks up about 1,000 feet or so. The last bit of the trail peters out into loose rock piled upon loose rock, which necessitates all-fours-scrambling.

Nice views on the way to the summit

Nice views on the way to the summit, photo by Libby

Sam and my parents looked after Abe while Matt and I took Libby and Ben to the top. The wind was fierce at the summit and we had to walk through a snowfield (between areas of loose rock) to get there. Some of the snow was stained pink from, I think, the minerals in the granite around us. The view was magnificent – lots of crystal clear alpine lakes and lush green areas, fed by snow-melt. The tree-line was clear below us.

SUMMIT!

SUMMIT! Photo by random guy.

SUMMIT again!

SUMMIT again!

We’d taken a walkie-talkie to the summit with us, and my dad had its twin. Ben, corresponding with Dad, tried to stand at the edge of the summit and wave for Dad to see him. They were a long way away. We took some pictures, talked about how awesome we were, and made our way back down over the slushy pink snow and cracked granite chunks, following cairns and wooden posts to mark the trail.

We stopped for lunch in Centennial, a small town west of Laramie with fewer than three hundred residents, though we wondered how often they update their sign. The weather was nice enough for us to sit outside and eat at the picnic tables behind the Beartree Cafe. A black and white, medium-sized mutt named Memphis, according to her tag, trotted into the restaurant’s backyard to beg from customers susceptible to her cuteness. At one point we heard a distant whistle and the dog ran away, only to return several minutes later. My mom remarked that it was a good way to keep the place clean. I remarked that Memphis probably enjoyed her secret social life.

We mostly ate out for dinner, but on a couple of occasions we had dinner at our house.

The whole crew in our kitchen

The whole crew in our kitchen

The first night we had bison sausage (poor vegetarian Libby), green chili polenta, tomatoes with oregano and olive oil, and sauteed zucchini with mint, basil, and walnuts. There was lots of leftover polenta for our second at-home dinner, which included sauteed homegrown kale with onions, Mom’s yummy Indian chickpeas and stewed tomatoes, more tomatoes, and watermelon for dessert. Ah, I almost neglected to tell you about the ginger beergaritas I made for my parents – the recipe can be found here.

I made sure we stopped by some of my favorite Laramie curiosities, including Night Heron Books & Cafe, the co-op grocery store, our local chocolatier’s shop, Murdoch’s (a ranch supply store), our farmer’s markets, Coal Creek Tap (a self-described nanobrewery), and Atmosphere Mountainworks (where a local man sells his handmade jackets, pants, backpacks, and bags). I think everyone found at least one Laramie memento.

On Friday we went hiking up at Vedauwoo, where Matt and I occasionally go climbing when we feel like punishing ourselves in uncomfortably abrasive cracks and tape gloves.

Me, climbing up at Vedauwoo last month. Photo by Evan Martin

Me, climbing up at Vedauwoo last month. Photo by Evan Martin

We avoided all of that mess, but enjoyed seeing climbers struggle up granite mounds from afar. The Turtle Rock trail we took goes from dry and rocky to lush and swampy (snow-melt again) and back, which is a pretty incredible thing to witness if you’re from the generally lush South. We were a little more careful about sun protection on this hike; I think Ben actually put sunscreen on all of his face this time, instead of just the part below his eyebrows.

On Saturday morning it came time for them to head back across the country. Everyone was sad to say goodbye to humidity-free air as well as Abe, primarily. Abe was extremely happy to have 8+ hands petting and hugging him all at once while Dad loaded all the luggage plus acquired Laramie goods into the back two rows of the minivan with Tetris-like skill.

With much waving, the minivan eventually got to the end of the street and turned the corner, leaving Abe and me in the driveway alone. I spent the rest of the warm, sunny day mostly doing nothing, a.k.a. cleaning out the refrigerator, reading, and painting my nails. Abe spent it also doing nothing, a.k.a. napping. However, this is what he does most days.

It was wonderful to share my little slice of Wyoming with my family. Next year – REAL SUMMITS! Just kidding. But maybe Jackson and/or Colorado too? Libby – don’t get a summer job anywhere but Wyoming!

Photo by Libby

Photo by Libby

Love to all.