Rest & Relaxation + Nature

I love it when people visit us in Laramie, Wyoming. I love to show them our little house (on the prairie? almost), our fun frontier town, the mountains that surround us, the stark and undeniable beauty of the West.

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My parents waving from the pedestrian bridge to the oncoming trains that run right by downtown Laramie, just in the distance

Most of my family came to visit me this summer after a long roadtrip or flight/s. We explored Laramie as well as Fort Collins, Colorado (since that’s where I’ll spend much time next year). Thankfully the weather stayed sunny and warm for most of their visit, unlike the last time.

We went back to Vedauwoo (pronounced VEE-dah-VOO) for a little hike on the Turtle Rock Trail. My mom was impressed by how lush everything was. Most of Wyoming in the summer is like dried herbs on a cracker crisp- sagebrush, dust, sun, wind. But because the granite in Vedauwoo leads the rainfall into certain pooled areas, through June and July many wildflowers bloom in the shade of lovely aspen groves.

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Libby took this photo of my dad on the Turtle Rock Trail through quivering aspen leaves

The granite at Vedauwoo is unique for its roughness (local climbers don’t call it “Bleed-auwoo” for nothing) in addition to its unusual shapes. The Sherman Granite is thought to be 1.4 billion years old.

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Sam and Boone enjoying the hike through sagebrush and wildflowers

I kindly allowed Sam to struggle with walk Boone the whole hike. They both seemed to enjoy it.

Matt and I also took everyone on a more intense trail in Medicine Bow National Forest which we’ve dubbed “the ridge hike.” We originally scouted out the trailhead via online maps of the area, but it was very difficult to spot from the dirt road you take to get there. The trail eventually emerges the further you walk up the very steep hill and into the woods, and is occasionally marked by helpful cairns.

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Parents enjoying a break from hiking while the kids take selfies and contemplate life

We refer to this trail as a ridge hike because, at several points, you get an almost 360º view- from the Rockies down in Colorado to the Snowy Range west of Laramie, and out toward Nebraska to the east.

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In the distance, Sam, Libby, and Boone enjoy the eastern view

It’s also a fairly exposed hike, with few trees to cover you, despite being in a national forest. You wouldn’t want to be up there if a storm rolled in.

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Introspective Ben on the right

After living in Wyoming for 3 years, I still can’t get enough of its beauty. I am continually surprised by the openness, the almost silence, the skies, and- let’s be honest- the wind. I am afraid I’m now used to the practically empty trails (I’m told this is not the case in Colorado). I believe we saw one other person the entire couple hours we were hiking.

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Even Boone, a Kansas native, prefers Wyoming hikes

Each year Laramie celebrates Wyoming’s anniversary of statehood, July 10th, 1890, with a week-long series of events it calls “Jubilee Days.” There are concerts, a parade, a carnival, a local beer festival, and- you guessed it- multiple rodeos.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I moved here but, what with everyone visiting, it seemed like as good a time as any to experience the cowboy side of this state. I took my folks to the ranch rodeo which, unlike your typical rodeo, isn’t full of professional bull riders and events like barrel racing, but is instead made up of local ranch cowhands (both men and women).

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Almost got ’em!

They were all trying to do the same thing within a six-minute period: rope steers, get one into a fenced-in pen, and another into a trailer behind a shiny new truck which was provided somewhat riskily by a local car dealership. The announcer jokingly asked if there was anybody left in the town of Walden- a small ranching town in nearby northern Colorado- that day, and dozens of people in the audience whooped and cheered.

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Got ’em this time

At the beginning of each round, one participant had to stand without her or his horse on the side of the ring opposite the rest of their teammates and horses. When the timer began, another teammate on their horse had to gallop across the ring, pick up the horse-less cowhand, and they both had to ride back across the ring so the first person could get their horse. Most of the horses were okay with having two adults on their backs for that short of a period of time, but one horse wasn’t so sure. The audience began to giggle as the horse refused to go forward. Then, very slowly, the horse stepped forward in lurches, eventually bucking its way across the ring, making for a very bumpy ride for the cowboy sitting on his haunches, and uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Though the roping was of course entertaining and impressive to watch, my family was slightly traumatized by the treatment of the cattle. Sometimes the poor animals ran face-first into the metal fencing at high speeds, which resulted in nosebleeds. Despite their black fur, you could still easily see the red blood dripping from their nostrils as they fled from the horses.

After Margaret, my older sister, flew up to join us, we drove down to Fort Collins for the fourth of July.

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Old Town of Fort Collins on the 4th of July. Photo by Libby.

We walked around downtown and Colorado State’s campus, ate burgers and sandwiches at Choice City Butcher & Deli, and tried local beers at Funkwerks Brewery, which specializes in refreshing sours, saisons, and Belgian ales.

The next day everyone but Margaret departed, so we began packing the car for a trip to Ten Sleep Canyon, a rock climbing destination in the western part of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. It’s about a 5.5-hour drive, though a pleasant one, from Laramie. We were able to reserve a nice campsite (nice meaning with a picnic table and near a well-maintained pit toilet) at Leigh Creek Campground, which is at the bottom of the canyon on the banks of Tensleep Creek, for the first two nights of our trip. Though we’d never seen any poison ivy in the canyon before, the plants seemed to really enjoy living right by the creek. I’m actually surprised none of us ended up with any rashes. Anyway, after setting up camp, we went CLIMBING!

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Margaret on her FIRST EVER outdoor top-rope rock climb!

Ten Sleep is known for long, sustained, and really fun limestone sport climbing routes. This is kind of the opposite of what Margaret was used to climbing- short, powerful boulder problems. At first it was hard for her to get to the top of several climbs, even though she was strong enough to do every move of the route separately, but by the end of the trip she easily got to the top of a 100-foot climb. I hope we successfully convinced her that roped climbing is SO FUN!

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Me belaying Matt in the Lake Point area of Ten Sleep Canyon, WY. Photo by Margaret.

The approach trail to the Lake Point area, which crossed over a small CCC-built dam above Meadowlark Lake, was stunning.

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Boone on the trail toward Meadowlark Lake, through sagebrush and wildflowers, with the Big Horn Mountains in the distance

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Matt and Boone at Meadowlark Lake in the Bighorn National Forest

On our second full day in the Big Horns (our third day climbing), we decided to take a break and go for a hike instead. I’d only ever been climbing in this part of Wyoming, so I was excited to see more of the area.

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Margaret in front of a small waterfall just off the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Matt decided on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail, just the portion that would take us to Mirror Lake, which was about 7 miles round-trip. We started at the West Tensleep trailhead, which is adjacent to a campground and picnic area at West Ten Sleep Lake.

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At two points, the trail crosses creeks in lush meadows surrounded by lodgepole pine

We didn’t start hiking until midday because we had to change our campsite to an area higher in the canyon that didn’t require reservations, but the skies were clear and the trail was practically empty. We passed a few people in the first mile, and then ran into two more on our way back, but that was it.

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Margaret and Matt on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Our hike was very quiet and peaceful, except for our run-in with a marmot. He stood on his hind legs atop a rock pile and chirped loudly to alert his fellow critters that we were entering their territory.

It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to spot Mirror Lake from the trail; it was somewhat hidden behind a low-lying area of pine trees. At first we weren’t sure that was the right way since there wasn’t a distinct trail down to the shore, so we kept walking for another half mile or so. We never once saw the lake again, so we turned around and walked toward the lake through the trees, away from the trail.

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Margaret at Mirror Lake

Here we drank water, ate a few Clif bars, swatted away a few mosquitoes, and basked in the cool air coming off the lake’s surface. Then we headed back for the car and to our new campsite for dinner.

There was another day of climbing and camping, and an evening of visiting the town of Ten Sleep as well as the Ten Sleep Brewing Company to escape a brief thunderstorm in the canyon. This microbrewery opened almost three years ago, and their beer is really terrific. In the summer, dirtbag climbers drive up in their dusty rigs to pay for a shower and a beer, which they drink under strings of lights and stars at outdoor picnic tables. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough. Should you find yourself in this part of western heaven, get thee to the brewery.

After driving back to Laramie, Margaret and I showered and went out for dinner in downtown Laramie during the height of the Jubilee Days festivities. Streets were blocked off for live music, dancing, drinking, and the carnival. We walked around for people-watching purposes, but were too tired to join in.

The next morning we met up with several friends to show Margaret the bouldering in Vedauwoo. Before this, she’d asked us why we don’t just go to Vedauwoo every day to climb, why we bother driving to places like Ten Sleep. After trying it herself, I think she understood why.

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Our friend Bart Cubrich on “Bombay Hooker,” a crazy-looking and very hard V6 boulder problem in Vedauwoo

Not to say that Vedauwoo’s climbing and bouldering are bad- they certainly aren’t. They’re just- well, different. They take some getting used to, both mentally and physically. Callouses help. Physical callouses. Although if you’ve built up some mental callouses, those could quite possibly help here too.

We especially enjoyed the start to “The Hatchet,” another V6, which was seemingly made for campusing, meaning only your hands are on the rock while your feet dangle beneath you. Yes, we do these things for fun.

After a quick shopping experience in downtown Laramie, I took Margaret to the Denver airport for her flight back to North Carolina. This past week has mostly consisted of me sitting inside at work and putting off cleaning and organizing our kitchen. It’s hard to be productive inside when the weather where you live is only this good for four months a year. Live on, Wyoming summer! Live on!

Love to all.

Being Injured, Being Humbled

Being Injured, Being Humbled

I’ve never understood why people respond to winning awards or recognition with “I am so humbled by this.” My instinct says the opposite of that should be true – now that everyone knows you’re the most eligible bachelor in Tampa under the age of 30, or whatever, you should feel like hot stuff. And feeling like hot stuff isn’t inherently bad; there’s no need to feel guilty for celebrating our accomplishments or the qualities we love about ourselves. (After all, loving ourselves is the root of loving others.) We are, however, always balancing those feelings with humbling experiences, too. Failures. Close calls. Setbacks.

I’ve had a couple of setbacks myself recently. Part of how I define myself is through what I’m able to do, and worked hard to achieve, physically. I am a rock climber. I am a yogi and yoga teacher. I get outside and play outside.

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Can’t do this right now 😦 Working through the moves last July on “Butch Pocket and the Sundance Pump,” 5.12a, at Wild Iris, WY. Photo by Andrew Hudson.

Last September I woke up one morning after “camping” in my car in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, with an intense ache in my neck. While driving back home, the pain worsened. When I woke up the next day, I could barely look up or down, much less side to side. I immediately booked myself a massage, but walked out feeling about the same level of crappy as I’d felt before. After a referral and a physical therapy consultation, I learned I’d acquired an inflamed cervical disk.

This immediately had consequences for me. No more headstands. No more backbend-y yoga poses where I need to gaze up and back. And, as I learned on our next climbing trip, it also meant I couldn’t look down to find my next foothold, or up at the climber I was belaying.

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Couldn’t do this either. Tripod headstand playtime in the park with Jessie (center) and Amy (right), summer 2014

After months of physical therapy, I’d finally reached a point of comfort (and I mean physically, not financially- yikes). My neck still hurts on occasion, but the muscles in my back no longer seize up to protect it, and I have almost the same range of motion as I had before that doomed morning in September.

Come late October the outdoor climbing season ended and, in late November, ski season began. Knowing I’d improved my skills significantly over the course of the last season, I was excited to get back on the snowy slopes.

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A beautiful snowy Sunday in Steamboat Springs, CO

After the new year, I went down to Steamboat Springs with friends Georgia and Tom, and Tom’s family. Saturday night it snowed over a foot, maybe around two feet, even. In the morning we laughed as we tossed armfuls of snow off our cars. The lifts carried us out of the sun and into the icy clouds surrounding the mountaintops, still dumping snow.

On what became our last run of the day, the front end of my right ski lodged itself in a mound of heavy, powdery snow, twisting my foot out to the right. The rest of my body didn’t get the message and kept sailing downhill until my right knee jerked inward, and popped. I dropped to my back, dug out my sunken ski, and held my right knee into my chest while I made some pathetic wails. Fortunately Tom and Georgia heard/saw me, and came over. After about five minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I swallowed the pain, got up, and we made our way to the bottom of the mountain- slowly.

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Just before I hurt my knee! Steamboat Springs, CO. Photo by Tom Ashley.

My physical therapy appointment for my knee is later this week, but the preliminary diagnosis is a partially torn MCL. This means no more skiing, climbing, or running (honestly I won’t miss that one), and avoiding certain yoga poses- again.

I hate being injured, and not just because of the pain. I hate the limitations it brings. I find myself sitting at work, feeling blah, and thinking, “Oh I know- I’ll just go to the climbing gym tonight,” and as soon as I start to feel cheery again, I realize I can’t. Yoga class? Nope, not if there are any deep lunges or squats or psoas stretching. So I settle for gentle movement on my mat followed by some resistance band nonsense to make my knee feel more stable.

So much goes into those Instagram photos of flexible yogis in breathtaking poses, or YouTube videos of skinny guys break-dancing. So much has to go right. Just because that guy in the gym is only lifting 5 pounds or walking around the track instead of jogging doesn’t mean he’s lazy or unmotivated. He could very well be recovering from illness or injury. He could be on chemo and unable to do any high-impact exercise for fear that his fragile bones could fracture underneath him. Maybe that woman in my yoga class is in child’s pose instead of the pose I’m teaching because she just had a baby, or she has a herniated disk in her spine, or that pose is just too intense for her and that’s not what her body needs right now.

So. What do I do when I’m not climbing up mountains or skiing down them? I cook. I eat. I read. I tell our new puppy that I don’t appreciate his chewing a hole in the curtains, or constantly sniffing our butts, or jumping on our laps while we’re on the couch so he can gnaw on our fingers. I stress about being out-of-shape. I scroll through social media sites feeling envy at all the beautiful photos of my able-bodied friends. I paint my nails. I clean my closet. I cry. I drink wine. I play the piano. I try some yoga, and slowly back out of all the poses I can’t do, and try to be kind to myself.

Last night I met with my friend Amy (pictured above doing tripod headstand) to discuss our plans for the kids/adults yoga event we’re leading next weekend (learn more about it here!). Our theme for the classes is kindness, and Amy shared with me a kindness-centered visualization and meditation exercise she has used in the past as a kids’ yoga teacher. I invite you to try it.

Kindness Visualization:

Situate yourself in a comfortable seat, or lie down comfortably. Now, begin to visualize a person you love- not a person with whom you’re mad right now, or with whom you’ve had a recent argument- but for whom you just feel love. Maybe it’s a family member, or a partner, or a best friend. Picture this person’s face with as much detail as you can muster. Maybe you find your lips curling into a smile as you think of them. Now, with this person’s image in your head, say silently to them, “May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

Begin to shift your focus inward. Notice your breath. Notice the feeling of your clothes on your skin. Notice the parts of your body touching the floor. Notice how you feel. Now say silently to yourself, “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.” It may be hard to repeat this words to yourself, but try to be receptive to them. “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”

~

Love to all.

Rainy Weekend at Shelf Road, Colorado

For Memorial Day weekend, Matt and I drove down to Shelf Road, Colorado, which is an area of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of Cañon City. We met up with some friends we knew from UNC (that’s North Carolina, not Northern Colorado), John- who is doing a multi-week road trip out west from Asheville, NC with his friend Stephanie- and Kevin, an adventure videographer and photographer now living in Boulder, CO. We knew it would be a little crowded at the campgrounds since it was a long weekend, and we ended up sharing a campsite with a very kind and obliging group of parents and small children, which ended up being fine since we didn’t stay up very late anyway.

The drive to Shelf Road from Laramie takes us through Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, so we hit a lot of traffic on the way, despite leaving Laramie before 5PM.

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

We didn’t get to Shelf Road until about 11, and it rained a little as we set up the tent and chatted. Poor Kevin tried to come in from Boulder down Shelf Road itself, which was closed because of flooding. Colorado normally gets a large amount of precipitation this time of year, and this spring has been no exception. Kevin drove his Subaru up to a bonafide stream running across Shelf Road, and decided to test the current. He picked up a rock which he described as weighing about 30 pounds, tossed it in, and watched with shock as it barely bounced off the road underwater before being swept downstream quickly enough to dissuade him from fording it Oregon Trail-style.

On Saturday, we woke up to sunshine, discovered Abe had made his way from the back of Matt’s car to the front passenger seat (fur everywhere!!), made breakfast, and decided to hit up the Sand Gulch area of Shelf Road since we could hike there directly from our campsite. Unfortunately, the recent rain thwarted us.

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John and I, with the “trail” between us. Photo by Kevin

The guide book describes the trail to the climbing area from our campsite as going down a hill, then following a dry creekbed for a while before a sign points you up a trail toward the near end of the cliff line, or you can keep going down the creedbed for the second trail, which takes you to the cliff’s far end. Unfortunately, as you can see above, the creekbed had turned into a stream. The picture makes it look worse than it really was; the water was actually quite shallow and manageable, but still deep enough to thoroughly soak your shoes and socks, and to scare Abe.

Abe hates water- he doesn’t seem to have inherited a love for water from any labrador ancestors he may have. Matt had to carry him across a couple times, and we were able to coax him across a few more narrow sections.

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

The worst part of this amended trail wasn’t actually crossing the stream, but then bushwhacking our way alongside it as we searched for the trail where it exited the water and took us to the climbing. Never a dull moment!

We did a couple of warm-up routes before rain and thunder loomed in the distance. Up on a cliff is not exactly the best place to be during a thunderstorm, so we cleaned our routes (climber-speak for “retrieved all of our gear”) and retreated back down toward camp. Abe hates thunder, so Matt and I vacated the climbing area before John, Stephanie, and Kevin. Because we couldn’t follow the trail due to the stream it had become, Matt and I (and Abe) got separated from the rest of the group. The storm passed fairly quickly (but lasted long enough to make the trail muddy and the rock damp) so, after it ended, Matt and I headed back up to the climbing area- crossing the creek again on the way- to catch up with everyone else. We hiked part of the length of the cliff and didn’t see them, so we sat down and had lunch. Finally, convinced they must have either gone back to camp or to a different climbing area (there isn’t reliable cell phone service near the actual climbing), we packed up and headed back down toward the menacing creek, crossed it several times to navigate the “trail,” and made it back to our tent. Everyone was down there waiting for us- oops.

The view from our campground. My photo

The view from our campground. My photo

When you’re in a canyon like you are in Shelf Road, the steep hills and cliffs block oncoming bad weather and make it almost impossible to anticipate storms. This is why hikers and climbers in the mountains get caught in surprise thunder- and snowstorms so often. By the time you see and hear the weather, it’s sometimes too late to act upon it.

In the meantime, after we reunited at camp, the weather had calmed down again and the sun was shining like nothing had ever happened. Since the rock was still too wet to climb, we took a break. Some opted for naps; John and I opted for a private yoga lesson! John took a great video from Saturday, including sped-up compilations of morning and afternoon climbing as well as our yoga session. Check it out!

While Matt was relaxing on the ground outside of the tent, and next to Abe, one of the little girls sharing the campsite wandered up and said to him, “Do you want to hear something embarrassing?”

Matt said, “Uh, okay.”

She responded, “I peed outside- over there,” and gestured to some bushes and cacti behind our tent.

Matt said, “Yeah, I think a lot of people do that.”

The little girl insisted, “No, I peed outside,” possibly referring to the pit toilet located inside a shelter about twenty yards away. After this heartfelt confession, she walked away and rejoined her family.

We decided it had been long enough for the rock to dry out, and got ready to do some more climbing. Literally as soon as we began buckling our packs, it started raining again. “I thought this was supposed to be a desert!” Someone said. The cacti everywhere had tricked us.

Cactus, the liar! My photo

Cactus, the liar! My photo

We went climbing anyway, this time hiking to a different area of Sand Gulch called the Freeform Wall, which involved precisely ZERO river crossings, to everyone’s relief.

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

We climbed another few routes and I got shut down by a height-dependent dynamic move to a small pocket on the start of a 5.11c. Afterwards, we hiked back to camp and cooked dinner under some intermittent rain showers.

The next morning, we drove up to a different campground to hike into a climbing area called, ironically, The Gym. We spent about 15 minutes in the car waiting for the rain to stop before beginning the approach, which involved a much smaller and more manageable stream crossing. Nonetheless, Abe didn’t appreciate it.

The rock at Shelf Road is limestone, which is essentially squished marine life from when this part of the country used to be underwater. Sometimes you can spot fossils in the limestone while climbing. Limestone is also heavily featured (meaning lots of great places to put your hands and feet), but has a tendency to be sharp, which is tough on one’s skin.

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym. Photo by Kevin

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym (also, helmets are cool!). Photo by Kevin

I top-roped (meaning we already put the rope up, so I didn’t have to) a pumpy 5.11+ with a roof called Pulley Mammoth (roofs are kind of my nemesis) and led a fun 5.10b called The Crack of Dawn which followed a very distinct flake up a sheer face. Matt got on a really challenging 5.12c called Gym Arete Direct, which joins up with Gym Arete, a 5.12a, but has a particularly tough start with very small holds.

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Before the sun set, I wanted to get in a route we had passed on the hike up called The Raw and the Roasted. It was a beautiful 5.11c sheer face climb, and several people were climbing it as we’d hiked by. We climbed a fun 5.9 to the left of it called Ga-Stoned Again, so I’d heard a couple climbers fall at the top of the route.

We don't have any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

We didn’t take any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

The first three bolts of the climb are very easy, a 5.9 sort of warm-up, as you approach a ledge from which the clean limestone face emerges, and the real climbing begins.

Since we moved out to Wyoming, I’ve been working on my leading technique and all the little things leading a route entails, almost more than I’ve worked on my actual climbing technique. On a sport climb, every 5-15 feet or so, depending on the route, are bolts that have been drilled into the rock. The first climber to put up the route ties the rope to her harness and brings up as many quickdraws (essentially two carabiners connected by very strong fabric- see this post for what it looks like) as there are bolts. As she reaches a bolt, she clips one carabiner on her quickdraw to the bolt, and then clips her rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, which is now hanging from the bolt. This is purely a safety measure and essentially keeps sport climbers from hitting the ground or hitting any protruding rock feature (e.g. a ledge) below them should they fall. There are 13 bolts on The Raw and the Roasted, plus an anchor (made up of two bolts next to one another, marking the top of the climb), so it’s a pretty long route.

Face climbing, where the rock is almost exactly at a 90° angle, is probably my favorite type of climbing. It requires balance, body awareness, finger strength, and finesse. It’s beautiful to both do and see done.

In the picture above, you can see a small roof by the climber’s right knee. I kept climbing and clipping quickdraws methodically, pulling past a hard move around that little outcropping and continuing onto the face. I shut out any fear of but-what-if-I-fall-here-oh-wow-that-would-be-scary and kept going. The handholds were smaller and required more finger strength at the top, but I did it! I on-sighted (i.e. ascended a climbing route without falling, and with no prior practice or advice on how to successfully complete) a 5.11c on our first climbing trip of the summer season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the summer for us.

We plan on meeting up with John and Stephanie again as they continue their road trip, and we hope to climb with Kevin again soon, but he sure is a busy man. If you’ll be in the Colorado/Wyoming area this summer and want to spend some time outside, let me know!

To the summer! Love to all.

Mountain Vocabulary

Autumn this year is perfectly lovely in Wyoming. It’s been in the high sixties and sunny almost every day these past few weeks. Last weekend Matt and I spent the night in Denver to see a concert, but primarily to buy ALL THE PUMPKIN SPICE THINGS at Trader Joe’s. We left with pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin croissants, pumpkin butter, pumpkin cereal… you get the picture.

While reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire over the past few weeks, which takes place in & around Arches National Park in Utah, it occurred to me that there exists an entire vocabulary for the mountains, some of it even distinct to the high altitude – the Rocky Mountains here, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Canadian Rockies. Enjoy the quick vocabulary lesson, and comment with any additional words you find yourself hearing or using!

1. Trailhead – A very good place to start, eh? This is the beginning of the trail, usually next to a road or parking lot, and marked by a sign detailing the  name and mileage of the trail on which you’re about to embark.

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2. Switchback – If you’ve ever been near a real mountain, you’ve taken a switchback, which simply describes the sharp zig-zagging route a road or trail must take up a steep incline to both prevent erosion and encourage ease of accessibility, for either legs or engines.

3. Tree Line – Quite literally the “line” of elevation at which trees can no longer grow due to environmental limitations like persistent cold, high winds, and lack of moisture. Though typically associated with higher altitudes, actual tree line elevations vary widely by location. In Rocky Mountain National Park, the tree line varies from 10,700 to 11,600 feet above sea level, whereas cool summers in Chile result in a much lower tree line, at around 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. What the tree line really means is excellent sunrise views and terrible thunderstorm conditions.

Matt and I above the tree line below Longs Peak, in the background

Matt and I above the tree line below Longs Peak, in the background

4. Scree versus Talus – [pronounced TÄ-luhs] Scree is loose rock piled up toward the base of a mountain, produced by much rockfall over a long period of time. It is by nature unstable and difficult to walk on. A talus deposit is a large area of scree. They are often used interchangeably, but “scree” is more fun to say.

5. Cairn – [pronounced KAY-urn] Cairns are used to mark trails, especially in places (like scree fields) where other trail markers, such as colored plastic stapled to tree trunks or spraypaint, is difficult. Cairns are just stacked towers of small stones to guide you on your way.

A cairn + a large stick toward the summit of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming

A cairn + a large stick toward the summit of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming

6. Summit – The highest point of any distinct mountain is its summit. Sometimes you can reach summits just by hiking without any technical equipment, but oftentimes roped climbing is required. Matt believes no hike is complete unless a summit was reached.

7. Couloir – [pronounced KOO-lawr] Often filled with scree or snow, a couloir is the steep ravine-like feature on a rocky mountain, or between two such peaks. Many backcountry skiers (and snowboarders) talk about skiing down couloirs, which I regard as highly technical and challenging!

Two couloirs can be seen to the left of this photo, in the Snowy Range Mountains

Two couloirs can be seen to the left of this photo, in the Snowy Range Mountains

8. Belay – [pronounced buh-LAY] In a rock climbing context, this is when the climber’s partner is controlling the opposite end of the rope, primarily to catch the climber (via the rope and a metal belay device) should he or she fall.

Me belaying my brother Ben up a climbing route in Medicine Bow National Forest

Me belaying my brother Ben up a climbing route in Medicine Bow National Forest

9. Anchor – At the top of a rock climb or pitch (see below), a climber can build an anchor out of specialized climbing protection gear, or can utilize a fixed anchor, if available, which usually consists of two drilled bolts in the rock, and maybe some other metal gear, like chain links or steel carabiners.

10. Pitch – Climbing routes can be single pitch or multi-pitch. A pitch describes a portion of the vertical length of a climbing route in which a typical 60-70 meter climbing rope can be used. For example, if you are looking to complete a 50-foot rock climb, that would likely be a single pitch route, since you can easily use a 60m climbing rope to reach the top and be lowered back down to the group through an anchor. If, however, you are looking to ascend a 2,000-foot mountain, there will be numerous pitches. Between each pitch is an anchor point so that the first climber can belay the second climber up behind them, and on and on.

11. Rappel – [pronounced rah-PEHL] “Rapping” for short, this is a technique many climbers use to descend from the top of a pitch or climb. Firefighters, military personnel, and other emergency workers also rappel to travel down steep terrain quickly. Usually the person rappelling wears a harness of some kind and attaches a metal rappel device to both the harness and the rope to descend.

12. Glissade – [pronounced gliss-AID] If you’ve reached the summit of a snowy mountain and you need to quickly descend, one option is to glissade, which is just a fancy word for sliding on your butt down a snowfield. If the sliding gets out of control, simply use your handy ice axe to dig into the snow over your shoulder, thereby creating friction and slowing your descent to a comfortable pace.

Get outside this weekend, even if there aren’t any snowfields or talus deposits near you! Love to all.

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.

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.

Salt Lake City Weekend

For the long MLK weekend, Matt and I bid adieu to Laramie and headed for Salt Lake City, where fellow UNC graduates and friends Kyle, Tallie, Sara, and Dan now reside. Both Dan and Kyle are in graduate school at the University of Utah there. It took a little under six hours for us to get there, but it’s fairly easy driving across wide open Wyoming plains. Of course, this is easy for me to say, as I did zero driving and 100% passenger-ing.

Coming into Salt Lake City, the highway cuts through Echo Canyon before descending through the ski areas and surrounding mountains into the valley. There was actual traffic, which was unnerving.

We arrived late Friday night and had some beer with our leftover birthday cake (Matt turned 26 on January 15, me 24 on the 13th). I can’t resist sharing my little birthday cake photo collage with you all. So proud.

Matt delves into the first slice

Matt delves into the first slice

I followed the recipe from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook by the letter to make this red wine velvet cake with whipped mascarpone cheese. Lots of butter, cocoa, and pinot noir were involved. Yum!

Kyle and Tallie were kind to host us in their apartment on the upper edge of the valley. Their street dead-ends into an amazing view of the city sprawl.

Saturday we went bouldering in Joe’s Valley a couple hours outside of the city.

Carrying crash pads up the trail

Carrying crash pads up the trail

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing where, well, you climb boulders. Because the routes are much shorter than routes on a rock wall or up a mountain, the routes tend to be more difficult, and ropes aren’t used. Instead, boulderers use crash pads, which you can see in the picture above. Climbers unfold the crash pads beneath a route they want to try and overlay them so you don’t hit the ground when you fall.

Matt on a boulder problem

Matt on a boulder problem

Because of the way most boulders are shaped, boulder problems (routes on a boulder) tend to involve an overhanging section, and then a top-out, where the climber makes their way up over a ledge to the top of the boulder, as you can see Matt doing above.

Kyle and the blue, blue sky

Kyle and the blue, blue sky

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. In the sun, with zero wind, you could easily strip down to a t-shirt. Occasionally.

Unfortunately I managed to injure myself on the second problem I tried. On the way off a dynamic move, one in which the climber has to jump, my left shoulder popped out of its joint briefly, then went back in. Ouch! I chalk it up to a combination of not climbing enough and doing too much yoga, thereby having unusually loose joints and weaker upper body muscles.

I therefore spent most of the remaining afternoon hanging out, spotting friends (standing nearby with arms out to catch their head and push them onto the crash pad in case they should fall), petting the dog, and making Matt take pictures with me.

Squinty in the sun

Squinty in the sun

You can see how pretty Utah is in the background!

On Sunday we went up to Snowbird to ski and snowboard. Only later via some Googling did Matt and I learn that Snowbird is not a good place for beginners like us. As Tallie said, when she and Kyle bought season passes this year, they figured they would have to get good FAST.

I’m starting to learn how snow conditions really affect the way you ski and how skiing feels. Fresh powder is nice, but deep fresh powder can cause some problems if you’re me, on skis. Ice makes a very distinct sound under your skis and inhibits control.

Riding a lift at Snowbird

Riding a lift at Snowbird

The Salt Lake City-area hadn’t seen any snow in a while, so conditions were icier than any of us would have liked, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the view and the sun!

Sara took this picture of us on the lift! L to R: Matt, me, Tallie, Sara

Sara took this picture of us on the lift! L to R: Matt, me, Tallie, Sara

It was so warm in the sun that I wore just one long-sleeve shirt under my rain shell. Defeated after a couple unsuccessful attempts on Tallie’s skis, I went to the rental shop and got some shorter skis and gave Tallie hers back.

Photo credit to Sara for this panorama shot of me & Tallie. MOUNTAINS!

Photo credit to Sara for this panorama shot of me & Tallie. MOUNTAINS!

Sunday night we finished off the cake while Matt picked up our friend Jon from the Salt Lake airport, who was flying in from Durham, NC to represent Mammut at the Outdoor Retailer show, and also to ski.

Sunday morning we went out for brunch at a cute, busy place called Eggs in the City.

Yummy breakfast scramble

Yummy breakfast scramble

Afterwards, we stopped by Trader Joe’s so I could stock up on delicious things like almond croissants and jalapeno cilantro hummus before heading back across Wyoming toward Laramie.

Because Matt is attending school full-time and I’m working full-time, I feel grateful to have the opportunity to go on these fun weekend adventures and outdoor getaways. Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah make up a beautiful, wild part of this country, and we are lucky to be here, especially when it’s not too cold!

Love to all.