This Friday at midnight, hundreds of brave souls will voluntarily venture into a cold, hostile, barren environment. Many of them have been looking forward to the adventure all year long. Their collective goal? Travel, by ski, 40 circuitous, snowy, back-country miles and climb over 7,800 vertical feet to arrive at the Aspen base area smiling.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (aka EMGT, aka GT, aka “the Traverse”) is an annual ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen, CO. In the racing world’s seemingly endless search for “furthest”, “fastest” and “highest” superlatives, the GT is America’s oldest ski mountaineering race. It’s one that I’ve competed in four times and finished only twice.
The race can be brutal. It requires navigation of serious avalanche terrain in the dark. The race rules stipulate mandatory two-person teams rather than individual racers, as the dangerous nature of the event is somewhat decreased by traveling with a partner. Frostbite, gear failures and whiteouts have caused countless evacuations over the years, and occasionally the race changes format to an out-and-back loop due to treacherous, impassible conditions.
I’ve never had a really good race run in the Traverse. Twice my team had to turn around because of gear or body failures. The two times I’ve finished, my partner pulled me across the line (I was dragging ass) and I pulled my partner to Barnard, at which point he had to be evacuated on a snowmobile (he was dragging ass). In sum, none of these conditions were ideal and none left me with a satisfied, accomplished, “I (and my partner) really showed that race who’s boss” feeling.
That’s why, all the way in Flagstaff, Arizona, I’ll be watching at midnight on Friday. Racers are required to carry tracking devices and fans can watch their progress live online. I’ll be watching Smithy and Wick, JB, Billy, Ryter, the Western State Colorado University endurance ski team and all my other friends from back home, as they sprint up warming house hill and venture into the cold, dark night. I’ll feel their elation as they crest Star Pass and steel themselves in preparation for the decent into the basin below. I’ll feel the anxiety as the leaders take their mandatory 10-minute respite at Barnard Hut, nervously watching the trail behind them, strategically gauging their lead. And I’ll celebrate, with my hot coffee and fuzzy slippers, comfortable on the couch, as each of my Gunny/CB friends glides across that finish line in Aspen.
I’m looking forward to the night that I can once again step into my skis and try to raise my finishing average over .500.
“This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”
For best results, please have the following tune playing (loud) whilst reading this post…
Pick me up and turn me round
(So I) guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It’s ok I know nothing’s wrong . . nothing
Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you’re standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight
But I guess I’m already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this where I’ll be . . . where I’ll be
Hi yo We drift in and out
Hi yo sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
Share the same space for a minute or two
Love me till I’m dead
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head Ah ooh
(Thanks, LJ, for the care package. And obviously, I own zero rights to Talking Heads property and I’m broke so don’t sue me.)
Across the room, the shining red digits of the clock taunted my restlessness.
“Just close your eyes, the more you dwell on it the less you’ll sleep,” I told myself. I drifted in and out of consciousness for what seemed like hours and gave myself permission to check the clock again.
On the other side of the bed I could sense a similar sleepless agitation from Joan. We tossed and turned for a while longer, with the optimistic hope that sleep would come and give us passage to a more reasonable hour of the morning. “Want to get up and catch the sunrise at the Canyon?” I asked sarcastically.
A long pause.
“Umm…yeah! Let’s do it!”
We had already been planning on taking a day-trip to hike around the Grand Canyon. Sure, we weren’t planning on leaving for another seven hours, but what the heck? Neither of us was really getting any rest. How cool would a sunrise at the 7th natural wonder of the world be?
Turns out, really cool.
Yes, I look incredibly smug in this picture.
We found an excellent perch away from the crowds and prepared ourselves for a breathtaking dawn.
We were started cold but knew the sun’s warmth would soon be upon us.
And in came the sunshine…
The sun began to spread, showering the landscape in light.
As the the day began, so did our hike.
Signs warned of the dangers of heatstroke.
The trail crisscrossed and lead us down, down, down.
Cheerful morning hike!
A look back at where we started.
Walls all lined up.
Deadwood. Ooooor live wood.
The return trip. All uphill from here.
Adventures need good partners. I’ve got the best.
The view from the top is much different from being down on the Colorado River. This was my first trip to the rim of the big ditch, and Joan’s second (but first in adult life.) In case I’m stating the obvious, it’s enormous. Like, really, really big. Friends, come and visit us and we’ll got check it out. Seriously, it’s only 90 minutes from our house. How crazy is that?
Here’s to making yourself feel small once in a while. Cheers.
If an apprehensive vibe was felt on the first day of the hike, on the start of this day the nervousness was palpable. We knew we were waking up to the most physically demanding effort of the trip: First, we’d be faced with a climb up the Barranco Wall, a pitch that rises straight out of camp and gains 1,000 feet before you’ve even started to digest your breakfast. After that, the day becomes a long approach to high camp, dipping into the Karanga Valley for a spell and then soaring to 15,000′. Once arrive at camp, we’d be treated to a quick meal and a three hour nap before setting of on our midnight summit bid.
Climbing the Barranco Wall is very similar to Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak: some exposure, a few hands and feet moves, but mostly fun stair-step type climbing. I’d consider it the most difficult climbing of the trek, if altitude was eliminated. Nothing more than easy class three makes it clear why so many people attempt this mountain each year.
Kyle, looking back from where we came. This was a really enjoyable section of climbing.
The porters impressed us further on this section, carrying tons of weight on old shoes and taking the most difficult path in order to get around us slow gringos. They’re amazing people.
Arriving at the top of the wall, we were blown away by the view of the peak. It was right there, in front of us, in all it’s majesty. Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341′ above sea level. And we were climbing it.
Boom. Thar she blows.
For the rest of the day, Kili loomed large above our heads. We dipped into the Karanga Valley shortly. Sean and I lamented the lack of a ladder bridge spanning the valley, which would have cut two hours and several hundred vertical feet off the day. Those Westerners sure can dream
..and regaining lost footage.
Topping out above Karanga Valley put us at Karanga Camp aka “Dirty Camp”. Because it’s gross. Lot’s of people get sick here, Sean said, and for this reason we made a quick lunch stop and kept moving. Onward and upward.
A quick break in the clouds to refuel.
We were working towards a ridge that seemed to get further and further away as time went on. I started to believe it was a mirage, but we finally crested it.
Dropping down the backside, we could see our work laid out in front of us. Camp was up on the next ridge, and we knew there was only one way to get there. Keep climbing.
Cairns on the final pitch.
After a long a tiring day we reached camp. We knew there were just a few short hours remaining before we’d have to get up and put in a solid physical effort once more, so each team member set to the task of making final summit preparations.
I made a few gear alterations and ate as much food as I could muster on an exhausted stomach. Terry told us she would not be accompanying us during the summit attempt as her health issues had gained the upper-hand. It was tough to learn our entire group wasn’t going to make it up to the top, but so it goes in mountain climbing. I deeply respect her decision and applaud her for having the strength to call it quits. More often than not, that’s harder than going on.
Sean took the opportunity to make a few people smile and break up the seriousness of the atmosphere by donning “Big Sexy”: a ridiculous outfit consisting of a red onesy (complete with trap door butt) and Soviet-style mad bomber hat.
I made sure to think about the reason I was up on the mountain. Survivors. I thought about friends. I thought about family members. I thought about those who didn’t survive. Most of all, I thought about my goal for the trip: to give just one current cancer patient something to look forward to. To let one patient know that he could do this some day. I hope I reached that goal.
I went to bed thinking about the climbs I’ve done in my life. Some were more difficult than others. I knew this one would be like nothing else.
This post is going to be a bit different, because I let my dog Friday write it. Well, not actually write it (her paws aren’t dexterous enough to type) but dictate and proof-read it for me. She’s approved the format and content, I was only the typing dummy. I, er, we, hope you enjoy it.
Written by Friday
HI I AM FRIDAY I AM A DOG AND I LOVE HIKING!!!!!!!!!
WE DID HIKING ON THE WEEKEND. IT WAS FUN!!!!!! WE DID HIKING ON MISSOURI MOUNTAIN AND MT. BELFORD AND IT WAS SO PRETTY!!!!!!!
THEN WE WERE ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. WE WERE ON TOP OF MISSOURI MOUNTAIN. I ATE BEEF JERKY AND I LOVE BEEF JERKY!!!!!!
WE WENT DOWN AND THEN WE WENT UP AGAIN. GARRISON LOVES TO GO DOWNHILL FAST. I LOVE TO GO DOWNHILL FAST TOO!!!!!!!!
TO GET TO MT. BELFORD WE WENT UP ELKHEAD PASS BUT THERE WERE NO ELK. I LOVE ELK I LOVE TO CHASE ELK!!!!!!! THEN IT HAILED AND WE ALMOST WENT BACK BUT THEN WE KEPT GOING.
THEN WE WERE ON THE TOP OF MT. BELFORD. IT WAS SO PRETTY!!!!
MAYBE WE WERE GOING TO DO MT. OXFORD TOO BUT THEN THERE WERE CLOUDS THAT MAKE THE LOUD SCARY NOISE AND WE WENT DOWN INSTEAD.
I LOVE WHEN WE GET TO THE TREES BECAUSE I CAN RUN THROUGH THE TREES AND I LOVE TO RUN THROUGH THE TREES!!!!! I AM VERY FAST!!!!
WE GOT TO THE BOTTOM AND GARRISON WANTED TO SIT BY THE RIVER. I WAS READY TO GO!!!!!
GARRISON HAD A SNACK AND I WAITED TO LEAVE. I LOVE HIKING!!!! I LOVE DAYS LIKE THAT DAY!!!!!!!
(Note from Garrison: I tried to explain to Friday that on the internet, caps lock indicates yelling, but she wanted it written that way. Even though she grossly overused exclamation marks, I think she has pretty good grammar for a dog and I like her simple phrasing. I’ll have to let her make posts more often. Good job, Friz. Regarding the mountains we climbed, Missouri Mountain and Mt. Belford are both 14ers and sit in the Belford Group of the Sawatch Range. They measure 14,067′ and 14,197′ respectively and are accessed easily off of US 24 outside of Buena Vista. Mt. Oxford, 14,153′, is often combined with these peaks and sits only 1.2 miles east of Belford. As mentioned, nasty thunderheads prevented us from the triple-header even though Friday had more than enough energy to get it done. We’ll save that summit for another day. -G)
(Note from Friday: I LOVE WRITING!!! WRITING IS FUN!!!! I LOVE HIKING MORE!!!!! THANK YOU FOR READING!!!!!!)
The goal for the day was aclimitization. We’d begin from Shira camp at ~12,000′ and climb up to the Lava Tower just below Arrow Glacier at an altitude of 16,000′. After reaching the high point, we’d descend back down to and camp at 12,500′. Woohoo, elevation!
It certainly wasn’t t-shirt weather, but it wasn’t too bad.
The trail was very gradual and pretty smooth. It was interesting to see how the elevation played with my fitness.
Just as we reached the Lava Tower, the wind kicked up and blew the high clouds off of Uhuru Peak (the high point on Kilimanjaro). We got a great view of the Arrow Glacier route and the immense magnitude of the summit we were attempting to gain.
With Lava Tower as the high point, we had a nice long descent to get to camp. Some of our hikers discovered how difficult hiking downhill can be. We moved slowly.
I took in the sights…
…enjoyed the unusual fawna…
…and thought about the task before us.
We camped at the Baranco Huts, knowing the next day we’d have to face the storied Baranco Wall, a thousand vertical foot pitch that rises dramatically out of the valley floor. I couldn’t wait.
I feel like I’ve finally caught up after my trip to Africa. Caught up on work, rest, diet, everything.
That mean’s it’s time to play.
Weather willing, I’m aiming to hit some 14ers this weekend. Possibly hit the trifecta of Oxford, Belford and Missouri on Saturday. I hear there’s a pretty awesome meteor shower going on, so camping Saturday night could be sweet. Again, weather willing. (Tough to watch a meteor shower through the rain and clouds.)
Our August monsoon season is in full force. It’s been dumping water most of the day. We’ll see if that pattern holds through the weekend. If it does, no worries. I’ll find something to do locally. There’s always beer to brew…
This is a pretty late post for a Friday afternoon, but if you’re interested in joining me for some Colorado mountains, drop a line.
We awoke to Gasper, our server, knocking on the nylon of our tent. Groggily, I unzipped the door.
“Coffee or tea?” he asked, holding a tray with an assortment of morning beverages.
What a way to wake up.
Kyle, my tent-mate (and all around cool guy, check out his long-term cause at everestendeavor.com) and I sat in our tent in disbelief about where we were and what we were doing. “Oh, just having a cup of coffee in my tent on Kilimanjaro. What are you doing today?” It was time to pack up and get moving for our second effort of the trip. Our mission today was to reach Shira Camp at around 12,000 ft.
Breakfast was served. Each morning we could count on porridge, fruit and sausage (and every once in a while, eggs.) The sausage was actually hot dogs and the porridge was akin to watered down Malt-o-Meal, but I ate ever last bit I could stomach. Your body works a lot differently at high elevations, and I had discovered how much fuel mine needed each day.
The morning began in a dense, lush rain forest setting but quickly transitioned into more barren moorlands. Like, really quickly. Like, in four steps. The contrast between the previous ecosystem and the point to which we ascended was stark. In a matter of feet it seemed that all had dried out and the thick vegetation was replaced with rocks and alpine grasses. This section rose very quickly and we found ourselves on steep, switchbacking terrain.
Up, up, up we went, through the mist and out of the clouds.
Soon the sun was shining and we took a break for lunch. A hot meal was waiting for us, prepared by Double D and Gasper.
Recharged and refreshed, we hit the trail again. The terrain had leveled out a bit and we faced an ascending traverse to reach camp. The hiking was a bit of connect-the-dots through boulders, finding the best line and stepping from rock to rock. It was a fun change from the previous steep climbing.
We got to camp and were treated to beautifully wispy clouds, rolling over the lower peaks.
As the sun set, we prepared for the next day.
It’s good to be on a mountain.
There was plenty of nervous energy in the air when we awoke on Day 1. We didn’t really know what to expect, but thought we had our bases covered. Sean had checked our gear out the day before. Some climbers had it totally dialed, others were planning on carrying a pretty hefty load, but Sean helped ensure everyone had what they needed.
We had met our guides the night before and were excited to see them again. Zaratours.com was the agency we went through and I recommend them completely and without hesitation. “A1” the entire way.
The bus was loaded with our gear and then our nervous bodies. The trail head sat an hours drive from Moshi town. As the pavement turned to dirt and the desert shifted to rain forest, casual conversation was struck up with the friendly Canadians hitching a ride. Sean’s story is endlessly impressive, but he would never tell it without a little prying. Luckily, mom was along to spin the yarn. I reflected on how much this guy has done as she sat and chatted up the Canucks. I felt more and more honored to have the opportunity to do this with the Cancer Climber Association.
Tanzania is a pretty cool country, for a number of reasons. One reason that sticks out to me is that they require all Kili climbers to be accompanied by a guide (and usually a number of porters.) We were no exception. Upon arrival at the Machame Gate, our porter bags were unloaded and weighed.
(Yes, dear reader, a porter carried my stuff. A porter will carry your stuff, too, if you ever do this mountain. I hope that doesn’t shatter the majestic image I’ve built up to this point. During the day, we all carried day packs with essential items. Food, water, extra clothes. Pretty basic. I brought a super light CAMP pack and hardly felt the weight most days. I’d be strolling along in my own little contemplative world when a porter would blaze past me, an enormous back pack strapped on his shoulders and an even bigger burlap sack balancing on his head. He’d be dressed in worn out dress shoes and sweat pants. And he’d be singing.)
Once the weigh in was completed, we snapped a few typical trail head shots and began our trek.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is not a fast hike. The motto on the mountain, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is “pole, pole” which translates to “slowly.” Guides will constantly remind you to slow down. While I live in Colorado and did my best to get in a good amount of high altitude training, I trusted their expert opinion and never balked at the slow pace. It paid dividends later.
The section from Machame Gate to Machame camp was pretty smooth and pedestrian. We stopped for a nice boxed lunch, but other than that moved pretty consistantly and arrived at Machame camp at 10,170′ in about five hours.
Our camp site gave us a beautiful and intimidating view of our ultimate goal. Kilimanjaro looms large in the distance, no matter where you might be. It stalks you. Only one thing to do: keep climbing.
Highlights from the 2012 Cancer Climber Kilimajaro Expedition.
Hakuna Matata …
Tembea pole pole
Kunywa maji mengi
Bwana: Respectful address
Habari gani: How are you?
Mzuri sana: Very fine
Wageni, mwakaribishwa: Foreigners, You are welcome
Hakuna matata: There are no worries
Tembea pole pole: Walk slow, slow
Utafika salama: Come safe
Kunywa maji mengi: Drink plenty of water
Our guides would break into songs and echo calls when you’d least expect it. It served as a big morale booster to call back their cries of “Koochie koochie!”, “Jip jip jip!”, “pop pop pop!”, and “daron daron daron!” It also let them know how gassed we were.
“Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.”
-Ken Kesey, One Flew Over The Cuokoo’s Nest