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Archive for December, 2008

Skinner Hut

Bill, Sue and I met in Frisco on a snowy day-after-Christmas morning. The roads were snow covered and slick in spots and we didn’t exceed 40 mph on the drive to Leadville. Luckily, we didn’t have any problems reaching the Sugarloaf dam of Turquoise Lake and met Craig waiting for us.

The four of us geared up and crossed the blustery dam, racing for the shelter of the trees. Once we got moving and warmed up the weather didn’t seem to bad.

We were following some ski tracks through the 4+ inches of new snow so we didn’t have to break much trail on the way.

We made a few stops along the way to the summer trailhead at the far end of the lake. Other than a couple snowmobiles, we didn’t see any other people until we were caught by Alex and his mom who had left after us but we obviously moving quicker.

Craig and I mostly traded positions at the front of the group, but there wasn’t much real trail breaking to do since a couple was just ahead of us.

The trail was marked with the forest service’s blue diamonds on the trees we passed by and we concentrated on enjoying the day.

Around the time we hit the meadows we experienced 5 minutes of sun and blue skies. I was a little worried, since I recalled the forecast warning that temperatures would drop 10-15 degrees once the snow stopped.

After the meadows we worked up some steep switchbacks and I eventually caught up with John and Linda. They volunteer to visit the Skinner Hut and check in on it several times a year and knew the trail very well. They were also exhausted after breaking trail the whole way from the dam. I took over trail breaking duties for a ways as John pointed me in the right direction (they even knew where all the blue diamonds were when they were plastered in snow).

Craig soon caught up too and by now I was feeling the effort and gladly relented the job of breaking trail to him.

Once we worked up to the ridge top we only had a short distance to traverse to the hut. I was already imaging stepping inside a nice pre-warmed hut with hot water ready, courteous of Gary. Gary had skied in on Christmas day and camped at the lake. Waking up early he’d cached his sled of camping gear and set out on a direct route to the hut and should have beaten us there.

Up ahead I saw Craig suddenly talking to Gary and knew we must be really close to the hut. I was surprised to see Gary here, but was grateful that he’d decided to leave the hut and come out and break trail towards us and help us the last portion to the hut. I was curious why he was wearing a full backpack and had only one pole however.

Craig, Linda and I soon passed by Gary while Craig continued leading to the hut. It was then I began to realize that Gary hadn’t found the hut yet and had been wandering about on the ridge for a while. He’d reached the point where he had to start down with the idea of either finding us or returning all the way to the lake where his tent and warm gear were. Later I’d hear how he’d broken a pole on the climb up the ridge.

We reached the hut finally and proceeded to get the stove running and water boiling on the propane burners. Over the next hour everyone else filed in and began the process of recovering from the cold and hard work before falling asleep wrapped in warm down.

Saturday morning dawned a crisp -9 degrees Fahrenheit.

I warmed up with a few rounds of coffee and some honey wheat pancakes with strawberries (only a little crushed on the trip in).

We eased into the day with an impromptu yoga session in which I ended up on my back twisted in a pretzel.

Warmed up now we organized a shovel brigade and went to work on the drifts outside.

Our first goal was to widen the covered walk way around the hut’s entrance. We also wanted to knock down the huge wall of snow that was blocking a lot of light from entering the hut.

During this process, Gary noticed that the solar panel on the roof was covered with snow. We got on our skis to tour around the hut and look for the best way to the roof. A rock wall was ruled out as a safe climb due to the cold and snow covered rocks. Gary found a drift that lead to a shed he could mantle up and then reach the roof.

Meanwhile, Bill had started breaking down the snow cornice leaning over the roof and I shoveled away the debris. Gary and Alex started in on cleaning off the back deck.

By now I’d worked off my breakfast in the -2 degree temps and we all retreated inside to warm up and eat some lunch.

I was content with sitting around for the rest of the day, drinking hot beverages and trying to keep my reading material away from Sue. Alex and his mom decided to head out and get a few turns in on a road switch back nearby.

Gary repaired his broken ski pole and a few of us made runs outside to gather snow to increase our water supply. Another group of 6 showed up and would be needing lots of liquids, plus we wanted to leave half a jug for the next group coming in tomorrow.

It was a little warmer when we woke up (about positive 9 degrees) on Sunday and we rushed through the morning more quickly than on Saturday.

We had to clean up the hut, stack more firewood and make sure everything was safe to leave and ready for the next group.

A bit before 9am we left the hut (after the other group who had to head over the continental divide) and followed the tracks toward Hagerman Pass. Before long we found the blue diamond markers pointing down into Glacier Creek. Gary on his telemark skis and I on the AT setup quickly dropped through the trees on this steep section of the trail. Once at the meadows I had to stop and put on my skins to make any forward progress.

In the second meadow I found wind-eroded day old tracks from Craig, Linda and John’s ski out on Saturday. The snow had compressed under their skis, but the soft snow around their tracks had blown away leaving a raised track instead of the more typical parallel trenches.

I continued to follow the old tracks which were mostly visible and only slightly filled in with wind-blown snow. Gary caught up with me and passed by while I took my skins off for the next downhill section.

Once back at the road I again re-applied the skins to the bottoms of my skis and started the long shuffle out to the cars. I hadn’t gone more than 5 steps when I found that I’d lost traction on my right ski. Looking back I saw the skin from that ski lying in my tracks. I shuffled back and put it back on a little tighter this time. Here I ran into the advance pair of the next group headed into the Skinner Hut. They were glad to know we’d freshly broken trail for them all the way to the hut. While talking to them I dug some duct tape from my pack and used it to make sure my skins stayed on.

Gary had dug out the sled of camping gear he’d cached nearby and we agreed to journey out together.

Numerous snowmobiles passed on as we slowly made our way back to the dam, but they did serve to keep the road packed down and made travel a little easier than if we’d had to break trail the whole way.

The sun was out and we barely noticed the wind as the temperatures had climbed up to the mid 20’s. I took off the skins one last time and double-poled my way down the final descent to the dam, barely keeping enough speed to continue gliding the whole way. Once back on the flats I re-attached the skins and crept along the dam and back to my car.

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Bill’s Photo Album

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Boreas Pass Road

Sunday continued to be much nicer than Saturday so I decided to head out for a short cross country ski jaunt on Boreas Pass Road.

Following an old railroad grade the road is like a an urban rail-trail: filled with lots of people out for a Sunday stroll. People are walking dogs, trying out snowshoes, or cross country skiing. Many make it just a little past the road cut known as Rocky Point.

I was going at least as far as Banker’s Tank (a restored water tank from when trains passed this way). At 3.6 miles in, it would get me past some of the walkers, but not far enough to get above tree line.

I thought about going further, maybe staying out long enough to reach Boreas Pass itself, but as I stopped by the tank for water and food the thought of homemade pizza and Anchor Brewery’s “Our Special Brew” in the fridge called strongly.

I gripped and glided my way back down the road thinking of that big lunch.

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Skinning Breckenridge

After a lazy Saturday – for which I blame a friend and the Banff book awards for recommending a good book, and the weather (single digit highs, windy, cloudy), I decided to redeem myself with a pre-dawn start to my Sunday.

At 6am I walked to the base of Breckenridge’s Peak 9 lifts and started skinning up a few different ski routes. A line of snow cats were out grooming the green terrain at the base requiring me to keep my headlamp on so I’d been seen and not ground into the fresh corduroy.

I moved off to an ungroomed run and cut under some chair lifts and through a few trees for more peace while studying the crescent moon to the south. The air temperature was about -1 F but I was pushing myself too hard and had to strip a layer or two.

As the morning lightened up I continued my upward progress on the Upper Lehman trail and found a little more wind. I stopped to put on my face mask and continued up, eventually cutting right to end at the top of the Mercury chairlift – about 2,000 feet above the Peak 9 base area and the highest lift on this mountain.

After stripping off my skins, tightening my ski boots and watching some snowcat drivers chitchat I prepared to head back down.

I took a few extra seconds to enjoy of the views, most of the dawn color had already drained from the sky, but the views of Bald Mountain and the 14ers: Grays and Torreys were impressive this morning.

I skied down the Cashier run, one of my father’s favorites. Now it is well known throughout the midwest that the old man is a connoisseur of long, groomed cruiser runs, and Cashier seemed like a good descent option. The few patches of steeper terrain would have ended quickly and finished up with a long and slow flatter run back to the base.

I concentrated on linking my turns, carving throughout the whole turn and letting my skis do the work – all the pointers I’d gotten recently at the training clinics for the adaptive ski program. Without muscling my skis I felt much smoother and actually enjoyed the descent. For the first time I might have enjoyed the ski down more than the skin up. I wonder if I’m actually becoming a skier, or this was a momentary lapse?

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Bill, Gary and I carpooled out to East Portal, a popular backcountry skiing and snowshoeing trailhead for the James Peak Wilderness. Overnight we’d gotten 6+ inches of new snow around town and the temperature had plummeted. At the trailhead the wind was blowing and we quickly geared up and dashed for the safety of the trees.

Numerous skiers jockeyed for position as relative paces were sorted out then disrupted as people adjusted layers or gear. We enjoyed watching one dog steal someone’s glove and then play keep away while the owners tried to keep the offended skier from killing their pet.

We debated where to go at each trail junction until we finally decided to head up to Forest Lakes, a place Bill had been several times but would be new to Gary and I. Gary started out leading the way up the initial climbs.

About half way to the lakes he let me go first, not that we really had to break trail, since another group had already proceeded us.

We took a short lunch break in the middle of switchbacking up a steep slope. It was about here that my fingers started to go numb and when we continued to the lake I was pushing a bit to try and warm up. At the lake the terrain was less sheltered and windier and I put on another layer and threw some handwarmers into my mittens.

Gary took off down the gentle path that should have been our ascent route. Bill and I left our skins on for the rolling terrain then finally removed them about half way down. While taking off the skins I experienced the “screaming barfies” (the painful feeling of having numb fingers come back to life) and knew the handwarmers had started working.

We zipped quickly down all the hard-fought elevation and then hit the low angled trail leading back to the parking lot. We sidestepped, skated and duckwalked the hills we couldn’t carry enough momentum to glide over and avoided several groups of nordic skiers or snowshoers before reaching the car again.

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Little Scraggy Peak

I was a little early for our meeting time at The Fort near Morrison. So occupied myself with taking photos of the full moon I hardly saw on last night’s Full Moon Ski Tour while waiting for Dwight.

From the trailhead we started south through the woods with a light snow cover.

As we got further from the car and gained some elevation we were rewarded with numerous rock formations.

Some had possible climbing routes, others just looked really wild.

We scrambled up one of the shorter and easier formations for a view of North Little Scraggy Peak, a soft-ranked peak we wanted to collect on our way to Little Scraggy itself.

On top we signed in at the register while Dwight verified that the neighboring formation wasn’t any higher.

We then scrambled back down and continued south to Little Scraggy Peak. Along the way we found ourselves having to downclimb a short cliff that was probably rated about 5.0.

We worked out way over a lot of blown-down trees, small brush and slick snow on smooth rocks before coming out on the south side of Little Scraggy on sun-warmed rock.

We took a longer break on Little Scraggy while we took in the 360 view of peaks we’ve climbed and others that we will. We also debated what our next objective should be and finally settled on the unnamed peak that was 7,774 feet high.

We backtracked from the summit to the saddle between North and Little Scraggy Peaks then headed down to the east. The slick snow over rock slabs was our most treacherous obstacle. Dwight experimented with his new 6 point crampons in negotiating these hazards. I relied on a series of tree-belays and a full pack to cushion the falls. Once we descended to about 8,000 feet we started heading north, crossing numerous small drainages getting some extra hills in this way.

Dwight stopped to investigate why his boots had been bothering him all day and eventually fished out a inch long twig from under his boot insert. In the meantime I occupied myself taking photos of the snow’s melting patterns.

Once back at the trailhead we drove about a short distance north and started walking on a closed dirt road. After a couple miles we turned off and bushwacked toward Peak 7,774. As we started to near the peak we noticed the clouds beginning to build up into the expected storm.

To the east the skies were still mostly clear and sunny and we took several pictures of the jagged ridge forming Long Scraggy Peak.

We were both surprised when the final summit tower of 7,774 came into view, it looked a little like a miniature Devils Tower.

We suspected there was an easier way to the summit around the other side, but the rock looked easy enough to climb on its left side. My route turned out to be a short section of 4th class scrambling followed by easier 3rd and 2nd class. Neither of us had expected such a great finish to this peak and were glad we’d decided on this one. Dwight and I scrambled back down our ascent route, then retraced our steps back to the car while a couple snow flakes fell around us.

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Four of us were hoping for clear skies tonight and the conditions looked good as we left Golden. We drove up into the mountains and saw the moon peek out over the hills before we entered the clouds and found new snow falling.

At the trailhead we geared up inside heated cars before rushing out to clip into our bindings and begin to generate some warmth.

Marilyn lead us up the closed road, now the Bakerville to Loveland trail. The sounds of the interstate weren’t far off, but gradually melted into the background as we kicked and glided through a night thick with falling snow.

We took it easy for a little over 2 miles, taking a few breaks along the way and enjoying being sheltered from the breeze.

I took up the rear of our group on the way back down, and decided to turn off my headlamp. The moon was barely visible through the clouds, but with all the lights from I-70 filtering through the clouds we had enough light to glide back to the cars in a dull grayness.

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My favorite day of the year isn’t my birthday, Christmas, the Spring equinox or any other normal holiday. No, my favorite day of the year is the first Saturday of December when the Tecumseh Marathon is held.

The race is in its 6th year and every year I’ve been there to serve as race sweep. I get to run and walk the course for free, following the last runners and letting all the aid stations know they can close up and there’s no one laying injured on the course. The event is a fundraiser for the Hoosier Hikers Council, a trail maintenance group I used to volunteer for quite a bit, and all the aid station volunteers are people I’ve worked with over the previous 7 years.

It was snowing when I made the dawn drive to the finish line and race headquarters. The snow was already starting to pile up a bit and I figured we’d be in for an interesting day.

Once we were bused to the starting area (in Morgan-Monroe State Forest) runners queued up for the rest rooms then waited on the heated bus for the starting time to near. I got out and located the HAM radio operators who hooked me up with an APRS tracker, which was a GPS unit and HAM radio that regularly broadcasted my location. Several of the HAM operators had equipment that could pick up my signals and they could monitor my progress throughout the day. I was carrying my own HAM radio so I could stay in contact with the race officials and organization. A couple years ago I actually got my HAM license just to help out with this event.

Right about 10am the last shuttle bus arrived and Brian, the race director, announced a start time of 10:10am. Runners began lining up behind the start line. Unfortunately, when Brian went to start his van and pull forward the battery had died. Quickly another volunteer drove up and performed the quickest jump start I’ve ever witnessed.

At 10:20am we had our start and some 400 runners took off down the short road stretch before heading into the woods on a wide forest road (dirt and gravel) that would continue for about 2 miles and let the field get well spread out before the first single-track.

I scanned the start area and it looked like everyone had taken off, so I settled in behind the group and started meeting a couple of the runners I’d see on and off all day. I also met one of the Hoosier Hikers Council’s new volunteers who was going to de-flag the first 10 or so miles of the course.

I soon found out that 800+ feet can quickly stamp down newly fallen snow into a compacted and very slick surface. This slowed a lot of the runners down, and was especially exhausting on the up and down hills. A couple runners made it as far as the second aid station before deciding that they were moving too slowly to finish in these conditions. After they dropped I had to run ahead and catch whoever was next ahead. I ended up running nearly the entire distance from #2 to #3 where the volunteers said the last runner was only 100 yards ahead of me.

This last racer was actually a strong and fast hiker. We chatted as we traversed the section of the Tecumseh Trail that I used to maintain and I told him that there were definitely a few runners not far ahead of him. Not more than 5 minutes later he caught and passed a few runners temporarily reduced to walking.

Our group went through the 4th aid station and then up Carmel Ridge Road before ducking back into the woods.

The strong walker decided to drop at State Road 45 where his wife would come pick him up. He said he had a great time but hadn’t really trained for a marathon. However, I suspect he knew about the huge hill coming up on Indian Hill Road and was wiser than the rest of us.

Exhausted after the climb, we ambled on until the Tecumseh took us back into the woods and eventually spit us out at the 6th aid station. One of the runners debated about continuing on in the slick conditions and decided to drop after hearing a volunteer talk about the upcoming hill and the hand line they’d installed to help runners.

I now got to catch up with one of our regulars, Nick, who has done a lot of ultramarathons and interesting trips. He’d kept ahead of me the last couple years so we had a lot of catching up to do.

By now I was also starting to work out our pace and figure our chances of making the 5pm cut-off at the #9 aid station. I was warning runners that they’d need to pick up their speed a bit to ensure being allowed to finish the full course. Unfortunately, with the early December running time the sun sets quickly and darkness often descends before the last runners are out of the woods.

The #7 aid station is the most anticipated all day – the loyal HHC volunteers serve up hot chocolate and plenty of food at this “trailside cafe”. From here we headed down a ridge and into a ravine before the last major climb of the course. We were a little way out from the #8 aid station when I calculated that I’d have to run/walk the rest of the distance to #9 to get there by 5pm. I left my well-equipped runner with the knowledge that he knew the course and wasn’t expecting to make the cut-offs at this point.

I ran for about 10 minutes to arrive at #8 with 20 minutes remaining to 5pm. I said a quick hi/bye to Fred, one of my HHC and Bloomington Hikers friends, then took off. I passed about 6 runners on my way to #9, warning them that they may not be allowed to finish the full course. A few accepted this news and others wanted to argue that they should be allowed to continue.

I reached #9 (mile 22.8) right at 5pm. Suzanne, the HHC director, was there and was going to let some of the runners continue on the full course. So we waited for the last ones to come in and then I took up my accustomed spot at the back. For the last couple minutes through the woods to aid station #10 I pulled out my headlamp to help us follow the trail and avoid the expected root and rock obstacles.

From #10 we just had to walk the gravel road to the finish area – however the packed snow made the walking a little treacherous and I helped one runner who wasn’t used to icy conditions with a few pointers on how to walk without friction.

Usually the slight downhill into the finish chute is the perfect place to jog into a satisfying finish. The icy conditions continued to haunt us and we were reduced to shuffling our way to a finish just under 8 hours (about normal for my sweep time).

One of the amazing facets of being involved in this race is the way it has grown every year and the huge number of positive comments we’ve gotten on the race (check out MarathonGuide.com to see for yourself). I think all of us with DINO or the HHC have been caught a little off-guard my how well received and popular this race has become.

So just why is this my favorite day of the year? I think the Tecumseh Marathon is the one place were I can use my endurance and fast walking speed to really benefit an event and an organization. Instead of just being out in the woods by myself or leading some other like-minded people, serving as sweep is rewarding for how useful I can make myself. I hope the HAM operators and other race volunteers get as much out of the experience of using their special skills and hobbies to assist this event as I do.

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