Monday, September 22, 2014

Glen Alps to Falls Creek Ridge Line Traverse: Abort

Creative Credit on this one goes to Dan “The Colt.”

The plan was to start at Glen Alps, and traverse the ridge dividing Power Line Pass and Rabbit Creek valleys back to the Falls Creek drainage. Along the way, we’d tag Ptarmigan and North and South Suicide peaks, along with the lesser Flat Top, Peak 2, 3, and Flake Top.
Ambitious; as Dan noted, the advantage was that if we needed to bail, it would be pretty easy to exit.
Despite an optimistic forecast, the weather over the Front Range spun in the wrong direction as the day went on. We started early and cruised along Flake Top Ridge with clouds clinging to the upper reaches of our higher destinations, but appearing to maybe be breaking up, or maybe we were just optimistic.
We summited Ptarmigan via the west ridge, climbing into a soup, but following a descent path, and picked our way back down the wide south gully in hero scree. As we dropped, it was obvious it was taking longer to descend back out of the clouds then it should have, and the clouds wrapping around us felt darker. When we finally dropped down low enough to see where we were, we had emerged into a stormier world, and had also passed well below the ridge line and were closer to the valley bottom.
We could hardly even see the Suicides anymore, let alone the crest of Homicide Ridge. We decided to head up valley to Rabbit Lake in the hope that the weather would turn again and show us the way.
No such luck. We caught only a few momentary glimpses of the day’s final, but much more committing objectives, and each time, a wall of clouds would come barreling up the valley, socking us back in. I'm sure we could have picked our way through, but climbing slippery rocks surrounded by cliffs with no views had no appeal. We turned into the wind and headed back down valley, veering north at the end of Canyon Road up the back side of Flat Top and back over to Glen Alps. Along the way we jogged through a 40-degree rain, and passed back over Flat Top for the second time of the day with far less to see and far more people. Delightful.
We assumed that when we got back to the car, the skies would lift and the sun would shine, but instead I had the wipers on high headed down Toilsome Hill as a fall downpour cut loose from above.

No regrets though. This circuit was 13 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing, and we were both pleased with the climb up Ptarmigan, which had a few interesting scrambles near the top, but super smooth on the way down. I’d do it again for sure.

Desert Southwest?

Looking down at the Ptarmigan Tarn from the west ridge of Ptarmigan just before disappearing into the clouds.

Re-emerging from the clouds lower than planned to a gloomier world.

Looking down valley during a momentary break. A wall of clouds on the way up to block it back in.

A quick view of South Suicide from Rabbit Lake. Not going to happen today.

The sweet smell of desperate September skiing.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Eighteen and on a Mission to Mountain Bike in Alaska

One day, 10 years ago, I got on a plane, and flew to Alaska.
I was 18 years old, and on a mission to mountain bike in the last frontier.
I was headed to a place called the Kenai Peninsula. I wasn’t really sure where that was, except that I had read about a bunch of bear attacks there in some book about bear attacks in Alaska.

All summer I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to say in this post.
Coming to Alaska was a dream for that 18 year old; living here now is a fact of life to this 28 year old.
That I can recount every day, and every ride of that trip like it happened last weekend, is telling of its impact; the fact that those same mountains and trails have become the backdrop to my life is the evidence.
Over the course of a few days that summer, about 100-miles of remote trail and a group of people changed the course of the rest of my life more than any other trails I’ve ridden since then.

I spent the first two days in a hostel in downtown Anchorage, riding the nearby Eklutna Lake and Powerline Pass trails.
In retrospect, these seem like pretty boring rides, except that, everything I saw blew my mind: the color of Eklutna, the jagged edges of the Chugach, the soaring view from Powerline over Turnagain Arm, the hissing wind that spit small stones and made the high-voltage wires sing, eating a handful of the icy crystals from a decaying cornice in mid-July.
Perhaps what surprised me more, was how near all this apparent wilderness was to the hustle and bustle of downtown Anchorage.
I’d only been west twice in my young life. Snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and grizzly bears, among other novelties, existed only in pictures and my imagination.
I also grew up in a rural Vermont town. While I’d visited some of the metropolises of the Northeast, those visits often highlighted one fact: cities weren’t for me.
A resident of Anchorage now, I’m hesitant to sing its praises, as its shortfalls are many; but then, wandering around downtown and the Coastal Trail on those warm summer evenings, it was the first urban setting I had ever felt comfortable in.

On day 3, the tour group formed, and we packed into a van and drove south.
We set up a base camp on the shores of the Kenai River in Cooper Landing.
Crescent Lake, Russian Lakes, Seward, and Johnson Pass were on the agenda for the remainder of the week.
I had never seen country like this.
The white and green, snow-streaked Kenai Mountains felt towering.
The change in climazones as we rode fascinated me.
In the Northeast, if you drove in your car on a highway for 6 hours in any direction, you would still essentially be in the same environment. Here, I was riding my bike, and the environment seemed to change every five minutes.
I found myself near the front of our group with whomever the lead guide of the day was, and around each corner I expected to be greeted by a terrifying brown bear, ready to induct someone else into the next publication of that book I’d read.
While my fear was blatantly irrational, could you blame me?
It was a never-ending ying and yang of fear and awe with each corner and vista.

When we rode Russian Lakes as a point-to-point, we rode for over four hours – the pace was generally leisurely to account for the range of abilities in our group – even so, it was clear that we were covering some ground on this ride. There was nothing that even remotely hinted at civilization between our start and finish.
Along the way, we passed cold-water lakes fed by glacier-capped peaks beyond. I saw my first Alaskan salmon. Holding in the crystal clear waters of the Russian River where the trail runs alongside, kings so big, I stared at them for at least several seconds while our guide Paul pointed at them, thinking I was looking at three oblong stones.

It was more than just those couple of days though.
As I’d grown up, I’d dabbled with different kinds of riding, but in the end, all I ever really wanted to do was ride, and ride all day. I cobbled together link-ups of networks of unmapped logging roads, ATV trails, vigilante single track, and quiet dirt roads in the heart of the Green Mountains. These maze-like loops were fun, but in the end, it was rare I ever drifted more than a dozen miles in a straight line from where I started.
I yearned for more, and here, I was finding it.

All summer I’d been preparing for this.
I don’t know what exactly triggered it, but in the weeks leading up to the trip, I started doing something I’d never done on a bike before: training.
I’d been mountain biking for 5 or 6 years at this point, I rode a good bit, and every now and then I went off on some mis-guided epic that often ended with a pay phone call to home asking a distressed mother for a ride home from who-knows-where; but I was still a kid, and I rode on a whim and in spurts.
In retrospect, calling what I did in advance of my trip north “training” is a pretty loose use of the word, but for once, I was consistently doing short-distance, mid-distance, and long-distance circuits every night and weekend.
I had spoken with tour operator Tony at some point in the spring, and he definitely stressed that we would be doing fairly long, remote rides, and it would help to be in shape.
I’d done enough group rides where I was hanging off the back sucking wind to know without a doubt, that was not how I wanted to spend the week.
I wanted the most out of my trip, and I knew that I would have to work a bit to get there.
The consistency or hitting the same loops, noticing that I was riding them smoother and faster as the weeks went by, and the positive feedback loop that was built off of it, was something I liked, and I guess I never really stopped afterward.

A secondary off shoot of this was diet. Though it was chance, on the flight up, I was flipping through a mountain bike magazine, and I stopped on an article about fueling and nutrition.
These diet articles in cycling magazines are a dime a dozen it seems, but this was 2004, and the low-carb, whole grain craze was kicking into overdrive.
I’m fortunate for many reasons, and one for sure is to have had a mom who was a brilliant cook and a savvy shopper. We ate well: lots of fresh local vegetables, lean proteins, balanced with healthy servings of carbs.
Up to this point, I’d never really thought much about eating; what was there to think? Mom cooked dinner, and I was a skinny little Italian kid who couldn’t seem to gain weight if I tried.
With the increased load in riding, I’d begun to see the effect that fuel choice had on how I felt on my rides. Some of the lessons I learned were obvious: you can’t do an 8-hour ride fueled by a single snickers bar. Others were more complex, as I saw how the effects of a late night out with friends or pigging out on junk food translated to a rougher, less enjoyable ride.
I was just a few months away from leaving behind mom’s home cooking, and would soon enough have to decide what was for dinner on my own. Grasping some of these concepts was likely pivotal, and though I’m sure this article said nothing that isn’t obvious to most athletes about the importance of diet, at the time, it clicked.

Day 5 was the day it all happened though.
A planned rest day, the other clients headed off to give their legs a break by taking a scenic cruise or kayaking in Resurrection Bay.
Guides Jen and Paul were eager to ride a trail they’d been talking about under their breath all week called Lost Lake. They didn’t have a permit to guide on this trail, and made it clear we were just going out for a self-paced group ride, but they invited me along.
All week, I’d been riding in this awesome land with people from all across the country in every stage of life: a soon-to-retire doctor and his son – fresh out of med school – both from southern California; a newly-wed couple from the mid-west on their honeymoon; a middle-aged lawyer couple from the east coast with children about my age. Then of course, there was Tony, Paul, and Jen. Their passion for riding and for living the Alaskan life came out in everything they did, whether it was talking about climbing distant peaks in the valleys we rode through, using their mountain bikes to transport moose out of the bush, or surviving the cold dark winters.
I learned a lot from each of these people, and all these people had one thing in common: they loved mountain biking. That common bond was the foundation of a camaraderie that can sometimes only be forged on a trail, and yet can still be as warm as the glow of the evening campfire where we shared life stories each night.
When we hit the plateau above Lost Lake, reveling in the hot July sun and splendor of the blooming alpine flora, my mind was set: I could see the beginning of my adult life as clear as we could see into the glistening Resurrection Bay.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bird to Glen Alps

Creative credit for this one goes to Phil. Recently, Phil and Natalie took a long weekend to hike from Girdwood back to their doorstep on the Anchorage Hillside, a trek that has always caught my eye.
It’s just that, all that pesky biking gets in the way of long hikes like these.
Looking for a shorter, though still solid day-trip this past weekend, Phil suggested Bird to Glen Alps on Sunday.
I was stoked!

After leaving a car at Glen Alps, Natalie dropped us off in Bird. As though that weren’t awesome enough, she told us there would be homemade mac’n’cheese waiting back at the house!
We power-hiked and jogged the 18.9 miles back to Anchorage in 7:45 with somewhere between 8,500-9,000 feet of vertical between. We had great visibility and a moderate breeze most the day, with only about a half mile spent working through some soup near the summit of Bird Ridge Overlook. That part made for interesting route finding on the slippery/crumbly rock. Things got a little extra spicy for about 5 minutes when we tried to drop down too soon, realized we had erred and were heading for a big rock face, and on the climb back to safety, I set off a mini landslide. It just proves the point that pretty much all activities will devolve into trying to push big rocks down a hill just to see them explode…

Phil knew the route well, and the tricks and secrets to avoid the schwack crossing Indian Pass. Fall colors were at their peak too: bright red tundra up high and vibrant orange in the valleys; with lots of juicy and sweet low bush blueberries to eat as we marched over the slopes.

Bird Creek Valley

Banks of clouds and clear views over Turnagain Arm on Bird Ridge.

Emerging from the soup descending off Bird Ridge Overlook.

Bird Ridge Overlook on the left, the Beak on the right.

The rock face we were looking to avoid...
Looking back toward Indian Pass before heading over Ship Creek Pass.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Jingle Bells

I love Christmas, but I hate jingle bells.

Not the popular holiday song, but the little bells so commonly found on Alaska trails during the summer.

“Bear bells,” they are commonly called.

“Travel in Bear Country 101” tells us to make noise; lots of it.

At some point, someone realized attaching a jingle bell or two to themselves, their pet, or their bike, would accomplish this task.

Alliteration is great, so why not call them bear bells?

I don’t really care so much if someone uses a bear bell or not to be honest, so long as they’re not riding a foot off my back wheel for hours on end, then, my opinion changes.

Suffice to say, I’ve never used so-called bear bells in the backcountry, or until recently, the front country for that matter.

My disdain for them is less founded in my hate for all things jingly and merry, but because they’re ineffective at their supposed name, scaring away bears.

I spend a lot of time in the summer riding through the Kenai backcountry. Sometimes, I’m accompanied by other riders who sport these jingle bells.

When the cow parsnip and other thick vegetation lining the trails goes into photosynthetic overdrive, it can tower 6 feet above the ground and form a nearly impenetrable wall on either side of the trail corridor (and often enough right across it).

With more than 30 feet between myself and a jingly riding partner, I can’t hear their bell anymore in these conditions.

Now, I’m no good at “mathes,” but I can get by, so here’s a little algebraic fun.

If a mountain biker is traveling 7 miles per hour (an average pace), according to my advanced abilities to use Google, that means they are traveling 10.2 feet per second.

This means that, at least for my own auditory senses, I would not hear them until they were just under 3 seconds away.

Obviously, in an open, alpine meadow, or somewhere with less sound dampening, the noise of the jingle bell will carry a lot further, but then, hopefully the hiker/biker is following Bear Safety 101 Point Number 2: Stay alert, use all your senses, like, your eyes.

I will grant too, that bears have a much better auditory sense than I do so they might pick up on an approaching Christmas caroler before I would.

Another mark against the bear bell I learned of recently: bears don’t know what bells are, nor that they should be frightened by them.

I’m going to call this, “kind of true.”

I’m pretty sure that bears aren’t into music-making devices, and if they were, I’d guess them to be heavy metal rockers with a soft spot for jam bands (in keeping with their copious consumption of mushrooms and fermented meats and berries).

So, a bear isn’t really going to know what the doofy jingly, biped is, and in remote Alaska particularly, the bell might just as well be announcing “dinner!”

On the Kenai, and closer to “urban” Alaska, I’m willing to bet a lot of bears have had varying levels of encounters with humans, and if the bears frequent trails where jingle-bell-wearing users pass by regularly, they have probably established some kind of relationship between the two.

That doesn’t really do much about the limited ability of the bell to cast its sound though.

So what works?

For bikers, a good, handle bar-mounted, spring-loaded bell can give off a piercing ring, bet how easily can they be rung in key places (fast down hills, curvy sections, or areas of thick vegetation), as opposed to just constantly and dully.

Maybe one of the best bets, our own flappers.

Constant communication is a good place to start, and easily fills the void of an incessantly ringing bell.

Like the jingle bell though, a conversation may not carry over distance. For this, I recommend a baritone friend.

A loud shout as is good as any, and will inform a nearby bear that a human is coming through.

Whether that whets their appetite or not, well, that’s a different issue.