Sunday, April 24, 2016

Unexpected 48

I've identified as a cyclist for two decades now.  Back in 1996, a poor health wake-up call prodded me into finding an activity to lose weight and improve fitness. I rode bikes as a kid, no differently than most. It is part of growing up.  In my 30's I rediscovered the joy of riding, especially off-road. It quickly became a passion that my life evolved around.

I moved from Michigan to New Hampshire in 1997. The decision to relocate to the northeast was driven in part by the topography. There are real mountains here! Southwest Michigan is pretty flat, and I was excited to explore more challenging terrain on my mountain bike.

As I lost weight and gained fitness, I discovered I didn't suck going up hill. Not only that, I enjoyed suffering on long, steep climbs. I sought out ski area service roads to ride up. There were only so many place you could ride up hill to summits, especially off-road.

I chose my parents wisely. I seem to have a genetic predisposition to turn large volumes of oxygen into power. I got involved with cycling competition and won a lot of races.

I dabbled in hiking over the years. I never solo hiked. It usually was a family or couples thing. There were a couple of non-trivial hikes, like the time I took my wife and mom up Tuckerman Ravine to the summit of Mt Washington. My mom still jokes that I was trying to get my inheritance early. The climb was a bit much for mom, but the descent left me with crippling DOMS for days afterward. Not mom.

Last year a cycling buddy who hiked regularly asked if I was interested in a Presidential Traverse. My first reaction was yeah, right, I wouldn't get half way across without being crippled. Even though I was highly fit as a cyclist, there's something about going downhill that debilitates unconditioned muscles. The motion is called eccentric muscle contraction, and it causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

If there was one hike to do before leaving this great state, it would be the Presi traverse. My wife and I may retire before too long, and now was the time to do this nearly 20 mile hike with upwards of 10,000ft of climbing. Early August 2015 was the date. It was less than two months away. Could I build any modicum of hiking specific fitness in time?

It wasn't the 10,000ft of climbing I feared. Cycling ensured I would handle that just fine. But what the bicycle can't give you is the ability to slow yourself down with your legs (not with any of my bikes anyway). So I set out on some training hikes.

I picked the Tripyramids for my first training hike on the first weekend of July. I was familiar with the Waterville Valley area from Nordic skiing. Hike up Livermore Rd, north slide, the peaks, south slide, how hard could that be?  It was "only" 10 miles. I hadn't hiked solo before, and I had never hiked a slide before. I quickly learned this is one of the scarier slide trails to scramble up. I was terrified. Not having the right shoes didn't help matters. I finished the loop at a respectable pace. The following days were a nightmare. Each day the DOMS got worse. I think it took a full week before my legs felt normal again. Six hour bike ride in the mountains? Could do it again the next day. A 3-4hr hike? Crippled for days.

I was aware the Tripyramids were 4000-footers. I don't think I was aware of how many 4000 footers there were in NH though. It didn't concern me.

The following four weekends I hiked locally, Mt Monadnock, the Pack Monadnocks and Cardigan in southern NH. The DOMS became progressively less severe with each hike. Would these five hikes be enough to tackle the big one on August 8?

The big day arrived. I didn't sleep well, and it was a very early start to the day, driving up the morning of. Three of us were making the traverse, starting on Valley Way and finishing on Crawford Path. At least we were blessed with near ideal weather conditions.

The hike went well, although my knees and ankles were ready to crap out descending Crawford Path. The sound of motor vehicles on Rt 302 was music to my ears that day. I was moderately crippled for a few days after, but not like after the Tripyramids hike.

The Presidential Traverse, August 8, 2015

I was left pondering deep thoughts after that epic hike. I had hiked every weekend six weeks in a row. It would be kind of a shame to throw what little fitness I had built up away. And besides, I kind of liked it. I got to peaks I can't ride to and saw sights I would not have seen otherwise. I did another local hike the following weekend while contemplating the future.

While still unsure if I wanted to continue hiking, I found myself on the Osceolas the following weekend. I found some more sketchy scrambling there on The Chimney.  Of all the times I've skied at Waterville Valley, both alpine and Nordic, I had no idea there were such fantastic views so close by. The people you'd meet on the trail didn't suck either. Maybe there's something to this hiking business.

I headed out west for vacation the first half of September. I actually packed my shoes and hiking poles! What did that mean? I was confused. I go on cycling trips, not hiking trips. To continue the momentum, I solo hiked one of Idaho's nine 12,000 footers. It was a beaut of a day, and that hike put me in a zen state that I thought only long trail rides through remote terrain could do.

After a hiatus for the Vermont 50 mile mountain bike race, I resumed hiking in the Whites. Flume and Liberty looked cool, easily accessible. More sketchy slide scrambling again!

The Twins, Dec 13, 2015

I started noticing physiological changes in my body. I was gaining range of motion in certain movements. My sense of balance seemed to be improving. Most importantly, I was starting to feel agile on my feet. I've always had unstable ankles and suffered a severe double-fracture several years ago. In fact, I always carried lace-up ankle braces with me on hikes for when my ankles started rolling. But the rolling wasn't really happening anymore. I think there were two factors behind it, both which hiking brought about. One was simply strength. Strength in the stabilizing muscles, strength in the connective tissues. The other was a neurological, or motor reflex response thing. I found that when my ankle started to roll, there was quicker response to correct it. These physiological adaptations helped fuel my stoke for hiking.

The Carters, January 31, 2016

I still had no goals for hiking. I was just going with the flow. Somewhere around this time I printed out the list of 48 4000 footers. I mainly wanted to see what the biggest peaks were and wanted to hike something new each weekend. Some of the hikes seemed lame, like Owl's Head or Mt Isolation. Why would I want to do those? Big commitment, little reward.

Winter came, or what little there was to this winter. People die hiking in the winter. Heck, people even die in the summer from exposure.  I hiked mostly solo. If I was going to continue, I needed to buy more gear. And buy I did. A bigger backpack. Snowshoes. Microspikes. Down jacket, Goretex and more. I generally avoided the most treacherous conditions by hiking more locally when it was tough in the Whites.

Mt Moriah hike, March 30, 2016

The list of 48 started accumulating a lot of check marks. Am I really chasing a list, something I said did not interest me? Maybe I shouldn't have left that list on my desk where I saw it all the time. Before I knew it, I had hiked Owl's Head, Cabot, Isolation and other out of the way peaks.  A group hike netted the Carters. The list was becoming tantalizing close to being completed over the winter. I crossed a threshold where I might as well hike all of New Hampshire's 48 highest.

Garfield and Galehead, January 9, 2016

I was down to three remaining peaks, the Bonds. I had hoped for a group traverse, but I have only a few friends into hiking at that level. Then I thought I'll wait until this summer, when talk of Pemi Loops start. I didn't really want to do a 20+ mile hike on snow and ice anyway.

As avid hikers know, this winter was almost a non-season.  Rarely were snowshoes needed. When a nice weekend opened up in mid-April, I decided to give the Bonds a go. I hadn't hiked in two weeks and just got back from an 8-day MTB cycling trip. How hard could a 24 mile hike be? My plan was to hike the three Bonds as an out-and-back from Lincoln Woods. That means I hit two of the three peaks twice, for five summits total. There isn't a whole lot of climbing once up on the ridge though.

Bondcliff, April 17, 2016

That hike was a marvelous experience. Short sleeve weather at the summits, barely a breeze and clear skies. The ice was softened up and very manageable with microspikes. The hike went much more quickly than I expected. I left home from southern NH after sunup and got back home before sunset. The views along Bondcliff are dramatic, among the best in the White Mountains. Was a treat to finish the 48 this way.

So now what?  I kind of feel lost without some new direction. For some, completing the 48 is a huge goal. It is a very attainable for most people. Around 12,000 people have hiked the 48. I don't need a goal to push myself, I've done that to a fault on the bike for years. I need ideas for new pursuits.  There are many other lists out there, There's the winter 48, which I'm probably half way through just chasing the 48. Then there's the grid, doing each of the 48 climbs in each of the months of the year. I just don't see myself as a gridder, or gridiot as some might say.  But then again, I didn't see myself hiking 48 peaks in short order either.  The New England 67 looks interesting, as it adds the 4000 footers in VT and ME to the list. Lot more driving to reach some of those peaks though, probably requiring overnight stays. Maybe roll-your-own hikes, bushwhacks or slide scrambles to get off the oft traveled path. Nothing wrong with repeating favorite hikes. I hit the same trails over and over again on my bike and do not tire of them.

One thing is certain. Future trips won't solely be cycling. Hikes will be planned into the itinerary. I hope to visit Colorado again this fall. The places I like to ride have many 14ers nearby, the equivalent to New Hampshire's 4kers. Only there is a lot less air to breath two vertical miles higher above sea level! My time is becoming evenly split between on-wheels and on-foot.  This makes me wonder, is hiking my primary passion and cycling that other thing I do? Hard to tell where this goes from here.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tucson Trip in Photo per Day

Another annual pilgrimage to the desert southwest was completed relatively unscathed.  I went a bit later this year so I could join Alex and Jason from Connecticut.  Rented a house this time, a much better way to go.  We arrived in Tucson on schedule, built bikes with no problems and had two hours of daylight left. Time to ride!

Unstable weather moved into the southwest as we arrived. Of course! Hill Junkie always brings crappy nor'east weather with him on trips. But it was actually a blessing in disguise. The temps had been pushing into the mid-90's. All-day sufferfests don't end well in that kind of heat. At least not for me. The Sweetwater trails were just 4mi from the house by road. We pedaled over and got in a quick 12 miles of singletrack before it got dark. Jason and Alex set a pretty sporty pace for eight days of riding, which gave me great consternation.

Day two led us to the nearby Tortolitas, one of my favorite places to ride in the Tucson area. The trail system here is relatively new and developed with riding in mind. It rained mightily in parts of the city this day, but only spit on our ride a few times.  Here Alex rounds one of many benchcut turns at the height of land on the Ridgeline Trail.

A planned capstone ride of the trip was hitting the Arizona Trail (AZT) from Picketpost to Kelvin. I hit this a few years ago with Dave and was blown away by the rugged beauty, remoteness and difficulty of this ride. There is nearly 40 miles of continuous singletrack which entails considerable climbing with no bailouts. We self-shuttled the loop by first climbing 2000ft over the Rt 177 pass into Superior. Topped water off there, then we had to be self-sufficient for the next 6+ hours moving time. A clear day, it was quite a bit warmer than the first two, but still not hot. Low humidity can deceive you into thinking you're staying hydrated. I fared poorly on this loop a few years ago, running out of water with about 2hrs of hard riding to go. Here, Alex is riding a fine example of benchcut you find on this segment. Later he reached a scary level of dehydration. It didn't help there was 2000ft of punchy climbs in the last 15mi in full sun with no water. Like dumbasses, we didn't leave water in the car either, and there are no business close to where our car was waiting. Fortunately, I spotted an older couple in their yard with a garden hose hooked up just as we were finishing. Sweet, We wouldn't need to wait another 40 minutes until we got to a store.

After a big day on the AZT, the plan for Day 4 was to back things down a notch, head out for a short "recovery ride." Uh-huh. At least the ride was short, around 1.7hrs. Had to be, due to threat of rain again. But it was anything but easy. As one of our friends commented, "you can only go fast at Fantasy Island!" There seems to be exponential return on fun-factor with speed. The place was designed for speed. Here Alex and Jason are carving around a giant ever-present cholla cactus. It would ruin your trip to crash into one. Heck, it would ruin a lot more than your trip. A sporty pace was maintained about three-quarters through, then Jason ramped it up to 10. Only 15hrs of riding were planned over the next three days, so why not?

Another one of my favorite rides near Tucson is the AZT south of town, roughly from Sonoita back to I-10. This was another self-shuttle with paved road and about 2000ft of climbing before picking up dirt. The 51 mile loop crests at nearly 6000ft before undulating back down to 3000+ft. The flora up high looks nothing like the flora around Tucson. It looks more like prairie grasslands. It was even a tad chilly here, where Jason is cruising on a buff section. It is not all buff. There are numerous steep punches on the way back, many of them loose and chundery. That "recovery" pace the day before, yeah, that was felt during this ride. There were some F-bombs on botched obstacles. The trail condition was mint though, the best ever for me, due to recent rains. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

On Day 6, we backed it down a notch again, hitting a section of the AZT near Pistol Hill, east of town. I hadn't ridden a portion of this yet. It looked nice in Strava Route Builder with a seven mile near monotonic descent towards the end. Like many of the other rides on this trip, we self-shuttled on paved roads to quickly bridge the two ends of the AZT we planned to ride. This segment turned out to be spectacular and enjoyed by all. There were tricky ledge sections in the middle, and the buff parts were fast, flowy and long. At 3hrs duration, it was hardly a recovery ride, but it was not a hard ride. This segment will definitely see inclusion in future trips.

We got high on Day 7. No, not that kind of high, the Hill Junkie kind of high! We climbed more than 6000ft above Tucson to the summit of Mt Lemmon. This turned out to be another capstone ride, if a single trip is allowed to have two capstone rides. The prize for reaching the top? A cookie bigger than your head at the Cookie Cabin! I ate a whole cookie for the first time, and a slab of pizza too. The sustained effort up this beast on my 28 pound bike had me on the verge of cramping - 3.4hrs of nearly continuous climbing. Another prize for climbing this beast is some tasty singletrack on the way down, namely Bug Springs and Molino Basin trails. Bugs involves some hike-a-bike to get to the good stuff. There was some grumbling in the ranks, especially when the "good stuff" is pretty gnarly and you're tired with 8000ft of climbing in your legs. Here Jason and Alex are pulling away from me through hoodoos on the climb, as I made a conscious decision to back off in hopes of avoiding total implosion before the summit.

Our final, 8th Day saw temperatures approaching 90F. Glad the big ride days were behind us. I was wicked trashed from Lemmon the day before. We kept it local, riding from the house like the first day, hitting Tucson Mountain Park (TMP). TMP has a lot of diversity, leaning more towards the gnarly end of the spectrum. Many opportunities to hurt bike and body. Our 30 mile loop swung south into the newer Robles trails before swinging back north on the uber difficult Cat Mountain trail. Alex and Jason wanted only enough hours to bring the trip total to 30 hours. We got that and then some. Oops. So hard to estimate average moving speed in terrain like this, especially when you are tired and it is hot out. Here Alex is working his way up Cat Mountain. I had many dismounts on this trail.

After our TMP ride, we had all afternoon to pack up bikes, drop them off at FedEx and head to Phoenix for out last night to catch a very early morning flight. I often wonder how long I'll be able to keep going on trips like these. At 53, the body doesn't recover like it did at 35. I reached a level of fatigue at the end of this trip not experienced before. Young whipper-snappers!  I was impressed with Alex and Jason though. They had a fraction of the training volume for the year than what I had. Plus they had done no endurance riding, all short intensity work. It worked for them! Quality, not quantity. Most of my riding these days is junk training value, but it is fun.

Someone asked if I had a record number of Strava PR's on this trip. I really don't pay much attention to Strava BS anymore, but the question piqued my curiosity. I tallied them up, and yes, I rode 131 segments my fastest ever. I should have been fatigued at the end of this trip! The last thing I want to do on a trip is strive for PRs or KOMs. Every day at the office requires a PR effort from me. Why would I want to stay in that mode in the wild when I'm trying to flee from it at the office? Riding with others that share much enthusiasm for riding will net you a lot of PRs without even trying.  Anyway, I logged 333 miles with about 31,000ft of climbing in 30.7hrs moving time on this trip. A great trip, no crashes, mechanicals of flats were had by any of us. Now I'm already thinking about a fall trip to Colorado...