Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Trip Report: Skiing Geissler Peak, CO

Bob and Lou skin off toward Geissler.

I took my skis down to Aspen just HOPING HOPING that we'd get some skiing in, but there was a huge dust storm at the end of the winter, and the dirt in the snow and the high temps has been making the snow melt fast, it hasn't been freezing and setting up, so the skiing has been icky. While I love icky skiing, because its skiing, its sometimes hard to get people to ski it with me.

On Thursday, we got the call from Bob Pearlmutter, "It froze last night, you guys wanna go skiing?" Are you KIDDING ME? You BET!

That night I hauled my ski stuff out of the car, I haven't made turns in a month, but getting everything together only took a few minutes, I realized as I checked my gear that I am finally FINALLY reaching some level of competency and familiarity with the gear. It used to take me hours to get ready, and quite a bit of anxiety over having everything ready, and having everything layered in the order that I'd probably need it in my pack... and then I proceeded not to sleep. At all.

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, I fell asleep at 4:45 or so...

We got up at 6, powered down the oatmeal, I stumbled around, pulling on my ski pants and putting on my beacon, turning it on, hearing the satisfying beep beep battery check that means an adventure is about to begin. The apartment complex was silent, the sounds of Kurt making tea filtering through my fuzzy brain as I hunted for Gu to put in my ski pants just in case. Fill the CamelBak, gratefully accept the tea that appeared in front of my confused face, and wander out to the car when Pearl pulled up a moment later.

We drove up the pass out of town, the boys chatting in the front about different favorite skis they've done. I sat, listening and wondering about where we were going. I've never skied off the pass before, and Kurt had assured me that I needn't worry, where we were going was very mellow and laid back.

As we wound our way along the road, the sun began to melt the frost in the field below, and Kurt pointed out little patches of ice on the river. "That's a good sign!" he said, beginning to be excited. We got a bit higher up on the road, and Bob and Kurt simultaneously exclaimed with glee at the ice patch on the shady curve. "Icy Patch! Another good sign!" Their excitement was infectious, and it was nice to once again be learning more about back country skiing, the signs you look for along the way, like ski condition detectives...

We pulled up into the turn out and there was another car there, two guys were waiting for us. Apparently, my sleep-addled brain had neglected to hear that we'd be skiing with other folks today.

I got out of the car and was introduced to Lou Dawson. Now, this was a landmark event for two reasons, first of all, this is the first time ever that I've been introduced to someone that everyone else in the skiing world seems to know and I actually KNEW who he was (Yay, my education is catching up! sllloooowwwly...), and second, because, Lou is the author of Wild Snow, writes the blog WildSnow.com, and I knew him because he's in my favorite movie of all time, Steep! Coolio!

Of course, I had no idea until Weems told me a few days later that Lou was the first guy to ski all the 14ers in Colorado. Oh. Well, there's that. You know, there are 54 of them. So, he's fit. Lou's ski partner for the day was Dave, luckily for me, a patient rippin skier from down valley.

Can you find Kurt rock climbing with his skis on his back? Multi Sport!

We geared up and headed across the soggy marsh up into the white, the mountains had gotten a dusting in the last few days, so there were no signs of the red dirt that we had seen from the top of Aspen Mountain a few days before. We shouldered our skis and tromped through the manzanita, and almost immediately, I thought... uh, oh.

I've had terrible nights sleeps before big skis in the past, and usually, I don't really feel it until we are done and I'm just pooped. But this time, something just felt... off.

We popped into our skis, and having not been out in the back country at ALL this year, I forgot how mine worked for a minute... oh yeah, lock your breaks down, touring mode... right... at least I remembered to dress for hiking and leave my helmet off till I got up there... hiking in a helmet is hot work!

We skinned away, Lou and Bob in the lead, sprinting away like lost playground playmates, Dave and I in the middle, and Kurt in the rear. We started off at a good clip, and Kurt soon overtook us when he saw that Dave and I would be okay hanging together, and he sprinted up to join Lou and Bob about 300 yards ahead of us. As soon as the pitch changed, it hit me.

I'm not sure what IT was, but the fatigue in my body was instant, intense and surprising. I had to stop every 30 yards or so, which was baffling, and I kept thinking, go at your pace, at a pace you don't have to stop, keep going no matter what, just go slowly... all the things I'd been training for the last 2 summers... but it was no use, I had to stop. Dave was amazing and patient, lovely and understanding, and he hung with me for quite a while, but I was moving at such a snail's pace that finally he joined the boys at the top of the skin track and made the switch over to bootpacking while I struggled up the last of the track.

Here is where I get to say THANK GOD FOR DAVE! While I felt terrible about making him go so so slow, and I wanted with every stop to say, "No, really, I'm in much better shape than this! I promise!" He just smiled and hung out and chatted with me. "I'm not in a hurry, I don't like to sprint. When you stop, I have a good excuse to rest. Don't worry." Thanks, Dave. You are awesome!

I reiterated to them to take off and that I'd follow the bootpack, I didn't want anyone to get fewer laps than they wanted to or to miss the corn, which is in such a small 30 minute window... but Lou was great, he said not to worry about it, he wanted us all together on the boot pack because there are several sections of scrambling where you can get suckered into going the wrong way.

I felt great on the bootpack, much better than skinning, and I though about all the long workouts on the Skiers Edge machine, I was grateful that my legs weren't tired or sore at all. This is the first time that I've done any scrambling on rocks in my ski boots, that was on the thrilling side, but my hands are strong from massage, and I feel comfortable moving on rock because of all the years in the climbing gym, so I picked my way up to the top and crunched happily over peak after peak until we got to the top of Geissler Peak.

The snow was just corning up, and I switched over to ski mode, happy that my pack turned over efficiently, all my gear layered in the order I'd need it. Kurt handed me a peanut butter sandwich and I sat there quietly marveling at the fact that this was my life.

Kurt joins Bob, Lou and Dave on the summit of Geissler Peak.

The sky was blue blue blue, puffy clouds just beginning to form, and a field of wild peaks stretched out in front of me. I was standing at 13,294 feet eating a sandwich in the sun with my friends. I felt strong, healthy, happy. Sweaty. Alive. Alone, but with friends. The boys were chatting about this and that, the hum of the summit, and I bustled quietly about checking my gear. This is the first trip where I have felt quietly competent, I've so far always had this nagging fear that I was forgetting something, or about to make some terrible goobery gaper mistake, or even worse, some knuckle head decision that was actually dangerous.

Don't get me wrong, I have lightyears worth of stuff to learn about skiing in general and skiing in the back country in particular, but I finally have some of the basics together, there is some ritual and routine that is finally finally built in.

We clicked in, I was testing out some new Cloudveil gear on this trip, and the first piece was the Zorro lightweight / breathable shell, I brought this piece along because while it was getting hot out, it had also been raining cats and dogs for the last few days, and I did not feel like getting pelted by sleet. The fit of this piece was terrific, wearing a pack over it didn't make it bind in the pits and pull up at the wrists as is so often the case, and the nice long pit zips let in enough air that I didn't feel like I was trapped in a plastic rain coat!

Now, a brief note on first turns for Kate after long hikes: those of you who have been following along with the Backcountry posts (and if you haven't you can search by label under Backcountry), you will be familiar with the ridiculous predicament that I so often face: hiking arduous terrain with very fit, excellent skiers, only for the first six turns to absolutely suck, sometimes leading to an embarrassing boot-out. (not something one wants to do on a questionable snowpack to begin with...)

Some of that has to do with the physical transition from walking to skiing, some from the physical stamina issue of having rubber legs from postholing up the bootpack and then trying to have a light touch in variable snow, some from just not knowing how to ski steep terrain very well, some from days or weeks since my last run so my legs forget what turning feels like...

Dave, Kurt, Lou and Bob have lunch at 13,294 feet...

Lets take just one more moment to say YAY for the Skier's Edge Machine!! So I made a rule for myself that I can't walk by it without getting on it for 60 turns. That takes about 36 seconds. So I'm on it about 12-18 times a day, I figure, and I usually go for about 2 and a half minutes, now. I am fairly certain that the major change in my back country skiing is highly attributable to this awesome dryland training tool, because NOT ONLY were my legs not absolutely dying after the bootpack (which, gentle reader, you will remember included some rock climbing), but I felt strong and ready for the ski. AND THEN, right off the bat, turn number one, strong and clean!

The snow was "Buffo Deluxe" as Kurt likes to call it, and we all hooted and hollered as we ripped up the perfect corn. Incredible. It was like a wild mountain groomer at 13,000 feet. It was wild to be back in AT boots and skis, they are so light and flexible that I felt WAY too far forward at some points, but I was just thrilled to look to my right and see Kurt playing against the blue sky, the corn snow spraying from his turns as he slid effortlessly down the hill, and Pearl below me, pulling up out of a huge GS turn with a giant shit eating grin on his face, Lou on my left, shooting photos, "KEEP GOING, KATE!", and Dave following down, and Lou hopping in right after him...

I was amazed at the power in the group, all four of these guys ski really well, they are strong and graceful, moving through the backcountry with ease and joy. It was thrilling to be with them, and I was happy to have skied just fine right off the top. I couldn't remember what I'd been working on at Academy, and I didn't care, I had thoughts like "Wow, I'm with my gear!" and "Whee, I can't believe I can make a turn like this out of bounds!"

The only hint that there was some extra fatigue happening was when I pulled out my camera to shoot Lou as he skied down, and my hands were shaking so hard that putting them on my ski poles did nothing to stabilize them.

If you could take a six year old to the top of a mountain like this, this is what he would look like just before you handed him his shiny skis. The indomitable Mr. Pearl, ready to ride.

There was a brief conference about where to ski next, and Lou decided that since I'd never been to the top of Geissler 2, where we can have a true summit, we'd ski that rather than one of the couloirs across the way. We started off across the flats, and the minute that the gliding stopped and the skinning started, I knew I was in trouble.

Suddenly, I moved about ten steps and had to stop. I didn't feel out of breath, my heart and lungs didn't hurt, but my legs felt like they were full of lactic acid and fatigued, I had a headache, and I was not tired or exhausted, but simply out of energy. I was a bit taken aback by this, nothing like this has ever happened to me except in Nepal after passing 12,000 feet. It occurred to me that this was probably altitude related, and as long as it was just weariness from altitude and not more, I decided to push on without worrying too much about it. Kurt, Bob and Lou were far ahead, Bob and Lou already cutting a skin track up the steep section. Kurt had stopped at the break to wait for me, and Dave and I were slowly slogging across the low angle stuff.

It got harder with every step, my body was absolutely failing me, and I was getting frustrated. I was grateful that it didn't hurt, I've felt that incredible searing pain in my lungs and felt that big boom beat of the heart that feels like its going to explode, and that wasn't happening, but I would just suddenly be out of breath and out of energy. When we reached Kurt, Dave continued on up, and Kurt slid in behind me. I knew that I must be frustrating the hell out of them, because I was moving so slow they'd get two laps in instead of three or four, but I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't focus on that, or I'd feel just terrible and move even slower, I had to focus everything I had on taking just one more step, please. Try not to stop. Kurt had me practice some kick turns before I got on the high steeps, and I had to re-learn to lift my downhill leg and bring it in close to the standing boot before kicking the free ski so the tip rises. It was nice to have something else to focus on, and my mind relaxed a little.

My headache was getting intense, and I was now dizzy and increasingly nauseous, but we were only about 150 ft from the top. I could see Pearl wandering over, and I looked up at him and smiled. "Its getting hot up here, Kate!" he called out. I couldn't help it, I had to stop again. A wave of dizzy washed over me followed by the powerful urge to hork up my lunch. Not gonna happen, I hate hate hate throwing up. Kurt had moved past me, and when I caught up with him as he took off his skis, I told him I was trying to decide whether to give into the nausea and just puke and get it over with or keep it all in. He grinned at me, shouldered his skis, and walked out over the rocks. I took my skis off and had to stay down for a few minutes as the nausea made me break out in a gnarly sweat (not to be confused with the sweat from the sun high up in the sky cooking our perfect corn while I farted around with my gear). I stood up slowly, decided that passing out on top of a mountain with the group on the other side of the rocks would be a bad idea, leaned over, picked up my skis, shouldered them, took two steps, and puked into the rock pile. Bleh.

Lou at home in his playground.

But much better. I rinsed quick with water and started over the rocks, grateful that they'd left me behind to deal with that on my own. I instantly felt much better, I rubbed some clean snow on my forehead as I walked on, feeling glad that I was going to do this all the way on my own, carying my own gear, hauling my own pack, dealing with my own issues. I want to be able to be self sufficient like this, because I want to be able to climb bigger mountains than this, I want to be able to be part of a ski expedition one day, I want to be a reliable strong member of the party. A gentle breeze hit my sweaty skin, and I smiled to myself, proud of working through feeling like crap, and walked on. Kurt appeared over the knoll without his skis, and walked up and took mine. My face fell, but I tried to stay positive.

"Well, that's just humiliating." I said, trying to keep it light. I wanted to let him know that I knew why he did it, I was grateful he did it, but I wished it wasn't necessary.

He looked at me. "Its about time, Kate. Its a matter of time." and he marched off with my skis. And that's the point, isn't it? The snow was turning, we weren't in wet slide danger yet, but we were in the mountains, and time is important. Never mind that the corn was slushing, it was just time to move, and I understand this.

I walked somewhat sheepishly back up to the group, mumbled my thanks, and Lou graciously told me that they had just been remarking that they would just be leaving now to ski anyway, so I hadn't really slowed them down (yeah, right), Kurt handed me half a sandwich, which I began to wolf down, and then realized that would probably start another round of yacking. I had a quick and efficient gear changeover that I did myself, and was ready to ski quickly.

My legs felt strong, and the nausea was gone, I followed Lou down the first grade and made about a dozen turns on some more beautiful corn.

I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that its always worth it. Always. No matter how hard the hike is, the summit is always spectacular, and the skiing, the feeling of falling, flying toward the valley below, the effortless speed in this wild place, that filled up any doubt and hardship that had been there.

Its always worth it.

I pulled up alongside Lou, who wanted me to push off around the horn to a neat terrain feature, a wind lip we could play on. The act of attempting to glide my now waxless skis across the hill took every last ounce of energy I had. I didn't want to loose elevation because I wasn't sure where the feature was and Pearl was above me, so I was trying to sidestep my way and glide at the same time, but I just had nothing. It was like someone had sucked all the energy out of my body. I wasn't nauseous anymore, but the headache was back, and the thought "Go down now" was repeating itself in my head. Lou skied past me below, and I realized I could go down further, so I let go, let it glide, and saw the lip.

I wanted to play on it, to ski it like a curtain, hopping from one side to the other, but I had nothing, no mental faculty to make judgments, so I decided to just make playful turns in the clean corn next to it, and enjoy taking it easy. I got to the bottom and turned around to see Bob and Kurt hopping on the lip, getting little playful airs and calling back and forth to each other.

They came down, talking and laughing, and we took off into the flats, it was all down hill from here, and man was I happy about that!! We skied into a gully, still corn, and I skied up a little ramp, thinking about my friends Justin and Oliver from Academy, thinking about Alex at Bridger, and I did a little uphill 270 in honor of those awesome ski partners, all of whom I miss.

The rest of the ski was like a high speed low angle bump run on buffo corn snow. Through some bushes, over a creek, playing while sliding, making quick decisions and having a blast. Suddenly, we were at the dirt, time to shoulder the skis, I put them on my arm and took a step. Wham. Fatigue.

Pearl loving the corn.

I stumbled through the brush, thinking about the summits, about the beautiful experience of standing up there, of seeing the endless peaks of the rocky mountains, of feeling my body so acutely alive and capable, of having such distinguished company to play with, all of whom were gracious and friendly, just another day of skiing...

Never mind that three years ago I was at least sixty pounds heavier and winded walking up Kirk Hill (1.5 miles in my back yard), and barely could ski... Never mind that three years ago I thought my life as an athlete was over, never mind that I thought I was dead, that I'd given up my me-ness without realizing I'd signed up for that.

Here I was, squelching through the mud in my ski boots, a brand new blister burning on my heel, soaked in good sweat, two runs on a big mountain under my belt. Still in my mind, the thought tromps on "HAPE, HACE, Go down now, go down now..." And I take off my skis and rinse them in the creek, rinse off my boots, take off my gear, my discipline is slipping away, all I want to do is lay down in the cool dirt next to the car and sleep.

Kurt takes some cold chocolate milk out of his bag and passes it around, the cold milk is refreshing, the sugar is immediately welcome. My headache bangs with a vengeance behind my eye, the nausea returns in waves, and I need to get in the car and keep it together till we are down the pass. I have to go sign papers at the Aspen Club in an hour, I need to shower first and not look like I'm going to puke.

I crawl in the back seat with Kurts chocolate milk next to me and the thought goes in cadence with the pounding in my eye and head, go down now, go down now. We pull out and Pearl navigates the pass with the ease of someone who travels this road several times a day sometimes, we pass the turn out for climbing and I have the insane thought that its nice enough out that I wish we could go make some laps on the wall...

We get out of the canyon and the insane desire to get down eases suddenly, we drive through town and now its time to unload the car, sort the gear, clean and dry everything, I can't think anymore, I can't think about what to do, I don't know where my skins are or what gear is mine, I start mindlessly ferrying gear to the stoop, now the thought has changed to "lay down now, lay down now..." the nausea is back and bed is so close all I want to do is climb in in all my sweaty gross clothes and close my eyes for ten minutes so the world will stop spinning in such a sickening way.

Kurt and Pearl play on the windlip all the way down.

I drag my gear to my truck and load it into the back, Kurt is taking my liners out of my boots, he finds my skins and hangs them to try, puts my gloves up for me and god knows what else, I finally stumble down the stairs, and decide to head into the shower. The water on my blister, which is about an inch and a half across, sends me into unexpected shocking pain and I have to shower off with my foot up on the wall as high as I can get it so no water runs in.

Come on, Kate. Its a blister. Suck it up and get it clean, I think. And then I think, screw it, I need to get clean and lay down. So I take the pride hit for being a baby, keep my foot out of the water, get rinsed off and stumble into bed where I fall into a deep sleep for about a half an hour. Time to get up and go sign papers at the club. I still have a fierce headache, but the half hour of rest has made me feel much better. I wake up feeling confused and out of it, but I get my butt to the club, get the papers, and get out of there.

I fall back into bed and sleep again as soon as I get back and wake feeling like the whole thing was a strange and delirious dream.

That I managed to get in on what might be the ONE good day of skiing this season has left me feeling psyched and greedy for more. Lucky me, Bob calls the next day. Lou was up there again, the snow is still good, wanna go skiing tomorrow?

You bet!

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