Saturday, July 26, 2014

Our Ladakhi Lama

Yesterday my phone rang and it was a really odd, long number that I didn't recognize, but I'd been corresponding with an old colleague who lives in the UK and thought it might be him.  I answered and heard an excited voice say "Jullay!  It's Lama Tsephel!"  Wow, indeed it was:  Lama Tsephel is a Tibetan monk we met while we were trekking (that's Asian for "backpacking") in the Indian Himalaya fifteen years ago, and have kept in touch with him ever since.  Our friend Terri has remembered our tales of Ladakh for lo these many years and is finally going herself next week, and this combination reminded me how great that trip was and how fun it's been to have our own Tibetan monk.

When people think of India the most common vision is that of super hot and crowded, and indeed from Delhi southward I think that is the case.  But in the northern mountains - where India shares borders with Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan - it is neither cold nor crowded:  Ladakh's capital city Leh is at 10,000 feet with peaks soaring far above that so even in high summer it only gets warm, and given that the capital has a population of only 27,000 and it's a vast, very rugged area it's definitely not crowded.

We were drawn there because we had quite a bit of time and wanted to tromp in the Himalayas, but our travel window was in August when the monsoons typically are raging pretty hard.  However, much of the the Indian Himalaya are in the rain shadow of Nepal's mountains and as such it's really dry year 'round.  And we found out that it's called "little Tibet" because essentially all the people there are Tibetan refugees from the 1959 revolution yet because they are not actually in Tibet - and therefore not subject to the Chinese hegemony - they are free to actually be "Tibetan", which of course was appealing to cheesy westerners like us (we have since read a book called "Virtual Tibet" that explores Westerner's infatuation with all things Tibetan).  So armed with our backpacks (and I brought a kayak, but that's another story) and Lonely Planet guidebook we flew to Leh and after a few days commenced our trek.

Our general plan was to hike for a bit over two weeks, generally trending southward weaving our way up the valleys and over high passes.  We brought a bit of food but knew that not only could we resupply at a town mid-way but also understood that we could buy food from locals en route.  This only sort of worked out; it was hard to get enough food. The locals would give us a serving of spinach and rice, which I think was substantial for them and was usually the most that we were able to get, so after a week or so of all day tromping at high altitude without enough calories we were "leaning up" a bit, and we spent a fair bit of time talking about food and how to get more of it!

One day we were trudging up a long haul up to a pass when we realized that we were getting caught by a fellow traveler with a backpack. However, as he neared, we realized that this was no western trekker, this was a Tibetan monk, but instead of the typical sack held with a "tumpline" (great word) around the head he had a sporty Lowe Alpine pack, and spoke pretty decent english.  We chatted for a bit, and not surprisingly the conversation came fairly quickly to food, and he said "oh, my friend, he lives just up the valley, and he makes butter, if you want some of that."  Butter?!?!  As in full fat?  Oh my, we are all over that.  So with a bit more spring in our step we followed him to a shack that was a ways off the trail - and we'd never have seen it over the hills/dales - and introduced us to his friend, who was indeed willing to sell us some butter.
Our butter benefactor, weaving yak hair into yarn

Of course, making any kind of transaction in this part of the world means drinking plenty of tea beforehand, so we had the requisite sit-around-and-drink-tea-and-chat session for some time.
Lama Tsephel is on the left
And while we love tea, the tea of choice in that part of the world is yak-butter tea, which in theory is ok, but they prefer to add the butter after it's gone rancid to give the tea a bit more bite.   And even in our half-starved state, it was still hard to stomach the rancid butter. But we persevered, and soon enough he went into his shed that was essentially refrigerated by a creek and sold us a nice healthy slab of butter.

Our friend continued hiking with us, and of course - being a Tibetan monk and all  -he was not only fascinating but super nice, and invited us to stay at his "gompa" (monastery).  After another couple of hours it came into view:

Lingshed Gompa is well known as being one of the most-remote monasteries; it is a couple-day walk from any road if you are given'er and going light (staying in people's homes), yet it's over 1000 years old.  60 monks live there, and it's a pretty simple life:  pray, meditate, grow food, eat it. pray and meditate some more.  Lama Tsephel's room was about a 10 foot square room with a dirt floor and a mat, and near the requisite photo of the Dalai Lama I was surprised to see a Burton Snowboard ad of a guy jumping over a meditating monk; "is that you?"  Sure enough, some snowboarder and a photographer had made it all the way into Lingshed in mid-winter and took the shot and they used it for an ad (I didn't think to take a pic of the ad, nor can I find it online now).
Ash hanging with some of the monks in training
One of Lama Tsephel's buddies
After a great night of camping in the yard adjacent to the monastery - and getting well-buttered up! - we moved on, but not without exchanging contact info with Lama Tsephel.  The monastery had an office in Leh, and we asked him if we could send him something from the US, and if so what would be helpful?  "Shoes.  Our people need good shoes for the mountains".  Well, shoes is definitely one thing that I can help with.  So ever since then once or twice a year we put together a care package of mostly shoes  -and sometimes backpacks  -and send it off to Leh.  Even though part of the address is "near the new bus station" it always seems to make it there, because we'll get a letter back from Lama Tsephel thanking us profusely and telling us that all is well for monastery and wishing us and our family well. And he got a sat phone and an email address, so he sometimes gives us a call, which is great, tho truth be told we don't have too much to talk about.  But plenty of "Jullay!" which is a great catch all phrase of hello, hi, thanks, you're welcome, awesome, etc!

But having a Tibetan monk sort of giving us his blessing....if nothing else we got that goin' for us!

Years later our world-traveling buddy Abby went to Ladakh and was able to meet Lama Tsephel:
And now Terri will hopefully meet him in a couple of weeks.

A couple more random shots of Ladakh

what is this "frisbee" you speak of? 
My favorite pic from the whole trip

catching our breath on some random high pass
a classic Ladakhi chap

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wasatch Speedgoat Recap

As promised, the Speedgoat proved to be a considerable challenge this year.  The course was even harder than I anticipated, but at least it was hot!  But for once I seemed to overcome my dehydration demons and overall the race went well.

I tried to take it easy for the first long climb, and as such I had to sorta swallow my pride as I saw a surprising number of people ahead of me and not only ahead, but ahead by what seemed like a long ways.  But I just sorta shrugged and thought "whatever....this is the pace I decided to go, so it'll have to work."  My hydrate-early, hydrate-often plan was almost foiled when I downed my bottle in anticipation of a "self-serve" aid station at the mid-Gad restaurant that unfortunately did not exist this year.  This was a bummer, since there was still an hour of climbing to go and I was already bathed in sweat, but I remembered from scouting the course that there was running water as we climbed up the Gad Valley, but what I didn't anticipate was that water I remembered was from snowmelt 3 weeks ago and there was no  more snow so no more water!  Finally, however we crossed a decent trickle about a half-hour later and I was able to fill up with water that hopefully wasn't laced with old mine arsenic or effluent from the tram station that loomed far above.

It was in here that I caught up with the venerable Luke Nelson of Pocatello who has been top 5 or so at this race several times in the past; he was clearly not havin' one after pacing a friend for 50 miles at Hardrock last weekend, and we chatted a bit about the implications of that; I told him that no one cared, and he countered with "except my big fat ego!"  Indeed, and it was nice to see him keep chugging along to the finish; I'm sure that he was really tempted to drop.

Topping out at Hidden Peak in 1:45 I was in 26th place and felt good, and switched out the bottle for my Camelbak running vest that had more water capacity and my little featherweight BD poles strapped to it for the long climb out of American Fork that loomed ahead.   I probably should have busted them out for the "descent"which included a stout climb and the Mary Ellen descent is pretty gnarly babyhead rockville, but soon enough the double track flattened out on dirt as we made our way towards the Pacific Mine aid station.  This was an out and back section, which is the best way to see how you are doing relative to the people you're near.  By glancing at the time that they went by I was encouraged that I wasn't too far back; apparently my conservation of energy on the climb and gingerly baby head descent strategies were shared by others.

The grind out of American Fork from 7500 feet to 11,000 (with another 500' descent) seems to be the crux of the race, and even though much of it was almost runnable, I decided to march hard on most of it and really use the poles, and that worked well; I found that I was hanging right with the guys who were still trying to run, but probably using less effort than they were, at a time when that that delicate line between going hard and conserving energy was wavy yet critical.  About halfway up was another little spring bubbling out of the ground and having already drained the two liters I'd started the climb with I was a bit flummoxed; how to get water out of the "bowl" of the spring and into my Camelbak reservoir?  I bent down to scoop some water into my hands, and immediately both my quads locked up and I almost fell over!    Ok, now it's very clear that I gotta get some of that water.   I then realized there was a trickle coming out of a pipe a little scramble below the road, so once I got my quads unlocked I sat there with my open reservoir watching both the water trickle in and the people trickle past me, which was a bit discouraging, but ultimately this extra time was fruitful because by the time I got to the next aid station I had sucked the reservoir dry again and was cramp-free.

Also in this section I made a point to not look up past the brim of my hat at the tops of Twin Peaks, Hidden Peak, and Baldy because they seemed sort of impossibly far up there, but as such I wasn't really paying attention and all of a sudden the nice trail I'd been marching up ended at a big cliff!  I hadn't scouted this section and I knew the trail got a little gnarly on this ridge, but grabbing a tree branch and swinging out over the cliff for a better look I knew that the route wouldn't go vertical for a hundred feet (why did a pretty nice trail even go there?), so I charged back a couple of minutes to where I'd missed about 5 blue directional flags (that everyone else had seen) and rejoined the upward trudgefest.
Topping out on Baldy after a long, hot, and mean climb.  I'd like to think I'm starting to run here, but.....
It always seems like ski resort service roads are "too steep", and Snowbird's are no exception.  Running down Chips was mean; because it was a road it seemed like I should be able to fly, but it was so steep that the poundage on my quads was excruciating.  But at least we veered off that onto much-steeper screed ski runs!  When the climbing resumed for the last 1800 or so foot grind back up to the top it was (almost) a bit of relief.

I had told Ash that way back in the day my dad used to cheer me on at track and cross country meets by yelling "Run Tom, Run!" which was an odd bit of encouragement/coaching; that's what I was doing.  And as I started working my way up into the Cirque suddenly I heard a familiar voice holler "Run Tom, Run!" and there was Ash, who was invoking the spirit of dear old Dad after riding her bike from home to Snowbird and then running most of the way up the hill to a great spot to cheer from, since it was a pretty lonely start to the last mean climb.  And in this case, the encouragement to "run" (vs walk) was actually legitimate!  So I did my best.

One of the guys who had passed me during my unanticipated hydration break was just enough ahead of me to be a good goal but still in sight, and because we were nearing the end I pretty much gave 'er all I had - again leaning on those poles - and ultimately did catch him right at the top.  When I finally left the ridge for the final grind up to Hidden Peak I was psyched to see Brother Paul, who marched along with me for a bit.  As he did so my watch buzzed for the 26th time that day with a mile split.  I declared to Paul "23 minutes.....well, that's great! I'm almost  -but not quite - going 3 miles per hour!"  Run Tom, Run, indeed.....
I'd like to think I'm smiling, but the difference between "grin' and "grimace" is thin....
Also on top was Ma Diegel, who had the opportunity to see her son mid-sufferfest. Hopefully she's not too scarred.....

A note as to my geeky wardrobe that earned me some well-deserved abuse (you know you're a geek when true geeks are giving you a hard time).....    I used a button down, loose-fitting shirt made of this new miracle fiber called "cotton" partly due to the suggestion by ultra vet Christian Johnson (he would not want to have credit for the button-down part!) that it would get wet and stay wet to keep me cooler, vs the other high tech fabrics that help evaporate sweat away quickly and therefore not let sweat do what it's supposed to do.  The shirt worked great other than the fact the vest pulled it down my back a bit and I got a bit sunburned below my neck.  And fortunately my one pair of equally-geeky calf-compression sleeves are a matching color!  And not shown here were the cycling gloves that I wore for most of the race to make sure I didn't crash on the descents and actually use them.  Therefore, my geekfest ensemble was quite complete.

The last "descent" took an hour and included some burly down scrambling as well as a stout, scrabbly climb, and I finally rolled into the finish at 6:35-and 16th place.  I was a little surprised at the placing; looking at the entry list I was guessing that time would have put me in the mid-20's, but some of the really fast guys didn't show and a couple were pretty off so the field depth was a bit weaker than anticipated.  I hung out in the finish area for a bit and finally moved out to socialize but standing up and moving put me over the edge and I almost fainted.  Ash and Christian rallied to get some ice and a rag on my head and finally - after nearly an hour - I started coming back around; I think I literally was overheated and boiling over.  It made me realize that the folks who were out there a long time that day had that much more time to have to deal with the sun and the heat.

Thanks to Brother Paul for hauling Ma Diegel up top, and of course thanks to Karl Meltzer for putting on a good show; the logistics of a race like that are daunting.  And as always the volunteers are amazing; that's a super long day of standing around for those folks, and it was nice to see many of the local ultra-ites out there taking their turn at volunteerism.  A good reminder that if I carry on with these silly self-flagellating events I should do the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Preparing to Goat

Some years ago I ran hard up the Pfeifferhorn in mid-July and felt pretty good, and when a friend said that he was bailing from the inaugural Wasatch Speedgoat 50k at Snowbird I decided to take his entry and give it a go.  I told myself that I would quit before I got hurt, and as it turns out I did indeed quit, but at least I did it AFTER I pulled a groin muscle that precluded me from running the rest of the summer.  It was a good lesson to me that running big races takes a lot of preparation, especially when it's "the hardest 50k in the country" (is there a harder 60k? 40k?), and as such I have not done it over the ensuing years as the race has grown dramatically in stature.  But tomorrow I will "sharpen my hooves" as race director Karl Meltzer likes to say and give 'er a go.  Here's a link to the site with some race info:

I read a preview of this race that called it "short and fast", and I guess that it is if you are accustomed to big ultras that are long and slow.  But for this non-ultra runner (it'll be my first "real" ultra) it sounds really long; I've run for 6-9 hours really easy with plenty of nice chitchatting and snacking, and I've raced pretty hard for 3-4 hours a couple of times, but going hard for 6-7 hours - and on foot, not the less-poundage skis or bike - have not done that, and it's intimidating.  It sounds long enough for a pretty protracted sufferfest, but short enough that there is a strong allure to go fast and hang on (and create said sufferfest).  And even though I've "trained" (lots of good hard 10-13 milers, a few longer ones, and an encouraging outing at the Logan Peak race 3 weeks ago) and have scouted most of the course, it's still quite daunting to me.  And given the fact that I've ended up on the wrong end of an IV line more than once at the end of hot bike races I'm no camel in the heat.

In talking to folks about the race it seems like "Speedgoat" and "hard" are synonymous.  So I guess going into it with the mindset that indeed it will be "hard": too steep, too hot, too loose, too technical, too high, and too mean will likely help the head a bit as the inevitable fatigue and quad ache sets in.  and hey, this is what you pay your hundred bucks for!

It's been interesting setting up a strategy for the race; with the ability to have a drop bag (seems like the running world should adopt the cycling's far more romantic term: "mussette" bag) at the summit of Hidden Peak and lots of aid stations there are some gear options:  how much water to carry for each section?  how much food?  And after the last scouting mission this week with the indomitable Tom Goth who was sporting some 100g carbon fiber nordic poles, what about poles for the considerable steep marching?  I think I have a "plan" but of course I haven't actually executed my plan in practice, so it'll likely be a cluster.....

But I think if I keep myself in control on the first big climb and the first big descent and focus on moderation with the goal to feel "good" and charge in the latter  - and harder terrained - hours of the race and keep reminding myself of Ash's description of me as a "food and water weenie" and take the appropriate actions it should work out ok.  However, I've often said that nearly all race places are pretty well-set at the top of the first climb, and it'll be hard not to be lured into a "hard moderate" pace in the first third of the race getting dragged along by other folks and one's own adrenaline. But if I can sustain "hard moderate?"  That's good.  But it's likely that not sustaining it and blowing up would be worse than good .

But the truth is that it appears that this race is pretty stacked with plenty of phast pholks who will leave me far behind (success is a function of who shows up), so I will just chug along and whether I get 12th or 20th or 31st or 40th or 72nd......well, no one cares.  Begs the question of "why race?"  especially on such a wacky, contrived course that ekes 30 miles out of a medium-sized ski resort.  But that's perhaps fodder for another blawg post.

Ironically, for being a shoe guy my entire career, I had a bit of panic recently on shoes; I basically realized in the last week that all my viable shoes were shot.  So I'm about to run the hardest course I've ever done, but at least I'm doing in in new shoes......

In the meantime I gotta start eating pasta, drinking weird beverage products, smear too much sunscreen on and fill in my pores, pull on my geeky compression socks, cover my balding pate with a hat, get all my gear (for a simple sport like running!) in place, make sure my outfit looks good and all my many sponsors' logos are showing prominently, kiss my crucifix, and....sharpen my hooves.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Heaps Canyon - between monsoons

Since my first canyoneering adventures 9 or 10 years ago I have heard about the infamous Heaps and Imlay canyons in Zion.  As with challenging kayaking, it always seems like “the best” in terms of coolness are also the most challenging, and Heaps and Imlay both represent that; long, remote, committing, difficult…..and The Best.  And as our posse’s experience and skill grew with each canyon, we felt like we had the confidence and skills to give those a go, but the timing/conditions/personnel and permits (it’s hard for me to plan ahead) hadn’t really come around together to make one/both of them happen, but it finally came together this past weekend. 

Our team of Brother Paul, Colter, and Chad headed out of town on Thursday with a Heaps permit for Friday and a spot in the lottery for the same on Saturday, our preferred day.  As we rolled out we got a message that we had indeed won the lottery for Saturday, so we had a good day to do a warmup canyon.  We chose Icebox, which sounded good on a day when the high in the Zion valley was going to be in the triple digits. 

Icebox is in the Kolob Canyons area; as you look to the east from the overlook there are a bunch of impressive peaks and walls, and there are two low points which represent two different entrances.  One is a “big wall” entrance which sounded appealing since we needed to practice our big wallin’, but the mid-wall anchor apparently only has room for two, so we opted for the aesthetic slickrock couloir entrance, which is super cool:
worthy of contemplation
Just steep enough and rolling ever-steeper to be a bit spicy, just mellow enough to be tempted to solo it. 

Not a huge wall, but a nice one
Once down in the canyon the going was easy and fun, and was complete with a refreshing swim that we knew we would need to keep in our minds for the 7 mile hike up and out of the canyon.  

Some nice artsy shots from Colter of Icebox Canyon:

some nice red/green contrast

Chad had remembered this section as having multiple crossings of La Verkin creek, but as we clomped through the bone-dry wash multiple times, the splashing sounds we made with our voices weren’t quite as refreshing as the real thing!

That evening Colter and I hiked up to Emerald Pools, the go-to easy, more-than-a-hundred yards but less-than-Angel’s Landing hike in Zion to stash Chad’s monster 250 meter rope for our exit the next day.  As we were about to leave suddenly we heard a whooshing noise and a whump and we realized that a rope had fallen out of the sky!  Soon enough a person came sliding down the rope, and upon reaching the ground he introduced himself as “Deaps”.  “Deaps from Heaps!?!?” Apparently so, and one of his pards high above was the venerable Tom Jones of Canyoneering USA.  Deaps related that he and his crew had spent a couple of days in the canyon and that the pools were chock full from the first of the seasonal monsoon rainstorms that had arrived within the last week and it was therefore “a romp”, which was both a bit of relief and a bit of a letdown; when the pools aren’t full the represent a good challenge to exit, and we had the full arsenal (minus a bolt kit) of pothole-escape gear, including the secret weapon:

But it was reassuring to know that for our virgin trip we were probably not going to be doing an unplanned bivouac (many people do the canyon as an overnight or two; we were planning on doing it in a day) or be desperately trying to escape the seemingly inescapable. 

We were hiking by 5am and made the top of the West Rim in about 2.5 hours, trying not to “waste” time ogling at the sunrise as it bathed the soaring red walls and towers of Zion
wasting time

top of the West rim, looking into the Heaps valley below
A very cool ridge scramble:

took us down to a long rap off the ridge and into the beautiful Heaps valley. 

Practicing my topplin'-technique for my next trip to Goblin Valley!
I was unsuccessful....
The “valley” very abruptly becomes a slot, and we wriggled into our wetsuits to commence the swimming and groveling.  It seemed hard to imagine the need to stay as warm as possible with the searing sun overhead, but Heaps is notoriously deep, dark, and wet and we knew that not only wetsuits but (except for dumb me) neoprene vests with hoods over the top of the wetsuits (I’ve got one on order!). 
Goin' in.....
The canyon is sort of broken into four sections:  two narrows with lots of potholes separated by brilliant canyon strolling:

and the last, long technical section that has lots of swimming and obstacles but not as many potholes, then the final 500 foot rappel sequence.  As we anticipated from the beta provided by Deaps from Heaps, the potholes were a non-issue:  we got in, swam to the other side, and pulled ourselves out.  One section that was ‘supposed” to take 1.5 hours took us something like 20 minutes, and the quality was about as good as canyon scenery gets.  We were pretty giddy about the awesomeness; we had high expectations for the cool factor and were not disappointed. 

And thus we traversed down canyon ‘til we finally arrived at the obvious exit; we could hear the tourists far below cavorting in the upper Emerald Pool.  The exit starts with a short climb up to a nice starting platform, goes down 60 feet to a tree, drops vertically down the wall to 4 bolts at a 2.5 foot square block, then goes free for nearly 300 feet to the pool.  As I said a couple of times to try to lessen the tension that we all felt, a 300 foot rappel is not much different than a 100 foot rappel, but with four guys with healthy-sized packs jammed together in a tight spot, four ropes in play, four bolt anchors, and plenty of hardwear in play there were lots of opportunities for small mistakes that potentially represented big repercussions, especially at the end of a long day.

Once down onto the “Bird’s Nest” block our plan was to tie our 200 foot rope to our 125 foot rope, one person puts his rappel device onto the rope below the joining-knot, the anchormen belay the first down to the end of the first rope (which is then anchored), then he rappels down the long rope to the bottom.  Whereupon he retrieves the big, stashed rope (that hopefully has not been absconded in our absence), ties it to his descent rope, and the Bird Nesters haul that up to rappel down.  Colter led it off, and it was a bit of an odd feeling for him to be lowered pretty much hands-free for quite a ways until he finally was able to start rappelling.  Prepping for this sequence was pretty time consuming, mostly because we were pretty much quadruple checking all of our moves, and many of them proved to need modifications to ensure that everything was just right.  But once we got the big rope up we got more efficient and Chad and Paul slithered on down out of sight.  Brother Paul was the first to go down the 13+mm rope as a double-strand, which was challenging; he could barely go down the rope (forgetting to unclip his anchor didn’t help matters!). 
chucking the rope towards the Emeral Pools far below
As Chad was preparing to fly from the Nest I thought it would be good to let the party above us that was patiently waiting for us to exit that we were soon to be gone.   In talking to one of them Chad found that they were some sort of military search and rescue team, so I yelled up “Hey Air Force guys!  We are heading down!” and Chad quickly admonished me:  “They’re Navy!”  I know that military types absolutely hate that, so I yelled “Navy!  Whatever!”. 

I wasn’t surprised that they were military ops guys, because they were pretty classic, ripped, bulky military types.  They had asked us from above if there was indeed room for four and we said sure, we were making it happen, so they could to. But as the first guy descended to me – still in his wetsuit – I realized that 4 skinny aerobic geeks fit just fine, but their types perhaps not so much!  But I didn’t stick around to find out and headed down myself, but not before my new nestmate said “um, do you want me to unclip your anchor?” Ah, yes. That would be nice.  Must run in the family. 

And thus was Heaps.  I’d like to go back again and spend the night in the canyon and have less-full potholes, since that problem solving bit is one of the funner parts of slot-groveling. 

We wrapped up a great weekend by a quick descent of the classic Pine Creek canyon which – far from being anticlimatic after Heaps – proved to be a gem itself, despite it’s proximity to the Zion tunnel and park hordes.

Thanks again to a great team for some swift, fun, and safe descents.  The monsoons seem to be starting up again in earnest this week and will probably become more consistent over the next 6 weeks, so it’ll probably be early fall again before we head back down.  Maybe Imlay next! 

Here’s a link to Chad’s helmet-cam - “Blair Witch Goes Canyoneering”  - 6.5 minute video and his blog post: and thanks to Colter and Chad for all the good pics above.