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Solo, not alone

Chased off a high pass by hail, lightning and high winds (again) I got back to my camp in the Wind River range soaked and cold to find my tent looking like cross between a shredded garbage bag and a windsock.

This was the exact minute I learned how far I was willing to push solo mountain travel.

A squall had it’s way with camp, toppling the tent and exposing all the gear inside to an hour-long downpour.

I always figured (hoped?) the moment would come in mistakenly wandering into a Class 4 pitch above 1,000-foot cliff on a high peak or in near-miss with an avalanche. You know, something cool.

Instead, it couldn’t have been something simpler.

For the past two months, I’ve been backpacking and trail running my way around the West after quitting my job.

Shockingly enough, it’s not easy to find mid-career professionals willing to toss aside their jobs, families and beer fridges to live out of a truck or tent and bathe in lakes and rivers for three months. So I’ve done it all solo.

This isn’t out of character. I started down this path the first summer out of college. Living with my parents and with friends scattered about, I’d spend the weekends paddling a borrowed kayak along the coastline and inlets of my former New England home or riding my bike through the rural forests and farmland in the surrounding area.

Most of these were places I’d been through a million times as a kid, but they looked entirely more detailed and rich as an adult, like I was seeing all three dimensions for the first time. It reminded me of coming to the “The Great Gatsby” as an adult and realizing how brilliant it is after using a pirated photocopy of the Cliff’s Notes to slog through the test in high school.

The time alone was equally eye-opening. The quiet focus that came from having only yourself as a feedback loop was a perfect counterweight to the nonstop intellectual jousting that is the sport of the working journalist.

Over the years, I ramped up to backcountry skiing, trail running, backpacking further afield, moved out West and changed careers.

All along, I had my best days in the outdoors with friends, but I still craved my solo missions.

I’d ski Cascade volcanos solo with some regularity, go on random weekend backpacking trips, 20-mile trail runs and even a pair of two-week ski trips that were mostly solo.

To be sure, many times, it was simply a choice of doing it solo or not at all as partners were hard to find for exactly what I wanted to do, and I’m a brat that way.

Only occasionally did I feel tinges of doubt about going solo:
-When I put my leg up to mid-thigh through a glide crack on Middle Sister near Bend, Ore.
-The time I rolled my ankle on a run to the point where it swelled to softball size. 10 miles from a road. At 4 p.m. Without a headlamp.

But none of those twinges were because I was actually just lonely. They were about risk mitigation.

When the concept of this “vision quest” trip I’m on now came up, I didn’t really question that being solo for much of it would be an issue. I’d manage the risks conservatively: Back off overly technical climbs, play the weather smart, don’t drive at night a lot.

All at once, in a tangled mess of silnylon and wet sleeping bag buffeted by slushy hail and icy wind in Wyoming glacier basin, that changed.

I wanted to ruefully laugh and curse with someone at the ridiculous scene. I wanted to make dark jokes for a minute before dealing with the mess. I wanted to fantasize about tropical all-you-can-drink/eat buffets with someone. Some help drying all this crap out would be nice, too.

It was as unexpected as it was intense a realization, and I haven’t been able to shake it since: I’d crossed from being “solo” to “alone.”

On my other solo trips, friends or family were never more than a couple days away. On this one, it was weeks, and there was no job to counterbalance the social scales. Marmots are much more talkative than you’d think, but they weren’t getting it done.

Going solo for this long just isn’t as fun. As good as the scenery was and as satisfying as the athletic side of mountain travel always is for me, the whole experience began to feel a bit thin, as if skipping across the surface rather than sinking in.

After years of wondering just how much solitude I could take and still feel sane, I now had the answer. I felt the balance point acutely. It was time to come home, knowing that I was perfectly capable of pushing even further, but not wanting to.

I repitched the tent, and, just as I started soaking up the puddles on the floor with a towel, the sun came out.

Bears

Anyone who travels in the Western mountains gets asked The Bear Question. It can be accusatory (“Aren’t there bears there? You know where there are none? My couch.”) or matronly (“Aren’t you worried about bears?”), but it’s essentially the same.

And it’s fair. Bears are land sharks: scary monsters that awaken the part of our psyche that reminds us that if you take away clever toys like shotguns, there are many species against which humans have absolutely no shot in a fight.

The reality is that, like most mythic fears, bear attacks are exceedingly rare. Wikipedia (insert veracity joke here) shows fewer than 10 in the past three years in North America.

But no one wants to be No. 11, so I take the recommended common sense precautions like not cooking near camp, hanging food as far off the ground as possible and not covering myself in glazed doughnuts before bed like I do at home.

As it turns out, the people who manage our public lands are as concerned about bears as your mother.

However, they’re more concerned about the bears than about you (Much of the messaging on signage regarding bear issues focuses the fact that if bears get ahold of human food they might ultimately have to be euthanized, rather than the potential of a grizzly turning your head into a Jack O’ lantern. A miss, in my opinion.) and manage that concern with as much consistency as your friends’ mothers did when you were a kid: Yellowstone National Park is the one that lets you drink underage so long as you don’t drive anywhere, while Yosemite doles out 9 p.m. curfews and groundings for an “A-.”

One example: In Grand Teton and Yosemite National Parks you are required to use plastic bear canisters, pony keg-looking things that are the exact opposite of the fun that implies. They’re designed to be impossible for bears to open. However, bears, black bears in particular, are clever enough that hard for bear is equally hard for human. They’re at least as effective at generating human tantrums as preventing bear incursions.

Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, which is physically connected to Grand Teton, ask if you need a bear canister and people look at you as if you asked if wearing Chicago Bears gear as a show of solidarity would help.

A summary of the “spirit” of the bear regulatory environment in the places I’ve been so far this summer:
-Yosemite: Use one of the bear canisters we like or we’ll kill you if the bears don’t, man.
-Yellowstone: Why the hell would you use a canister? Just hang that shit up. No biggie.
-Grand Teton: You’re going to use a bear canister, right? (Wink). Eh, there aren’t going to be any bears in alpine anyway.
-Bridger-Teton National Forest: If the signs were at all legible I bet they’d say something about bears.
-Kings Canyon/Sequioa National Parks: Put everything in the bear box (metal boxes designed to melt everything placed in them). If you leave a Chapstick in your pocket, you’ll definitely die. And if you come upon a marijuana plantation, report it. Immediately. In fact, call this number and ask for Big John.

Layer on the jaded local advice (everything from “I’ve worn a t-bone raincoat for years and never had problem” to “I wear a suit of armor, but it’s pretty light because I drilled a bunch of holes in it.”) and it’s tempting to throw up your hands.

As is the case in almost everything, the correct answer becomes: Don’t be an idiot and don’t get fined. And call Big John.

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Snow levels have hovered at or slightly below Paradise on Mount Rainier, which is at 5,000 feet, for the past week (it got warm today DAMMIT), making it time to go get my annual fall beatdown in the Muir Snowfield area.

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While I’ve certainly had a handful of amazing early days in this area (video proof!), Rainier in the fall in winter tends to be a trip borne of desperation. The stuff worth skiing when the coverage is low in early season is all above treeline, and therefore exposed to the worst of the weather.

The lower elevations are only thinly covered in snow, making them minefields of rocks and stumps waiting to end your season by destroying your ACL.

But, there are few other options this time of year, so on Friday, I drove up to Paradise.

Being able to skin from the parking lot was a huge plus, but the soaking, barely frozen mist was not. Within minutes, I was soaked to the skin.

The climb up to Panaroma Point was straightforward (switchback up to Pan Point seen in photo at right), but just above that, the fun began.

The wind picked up as did the snow.

Is it worth calling in sick to ski pow? Did it change to rain, or stay snow? Should I bug out of work early to night ski? Webcams can help answer these questions. Here are my top 5, with a bias toward Seattle/Eastside-based people and usefulness for making decisions, not inspiring views:

1. Snoqualmie Pass at I-90. My own traffic would justify a huge ad buy on this page. This cam faces West on the highway. While it points somewhat down, so you can’t see what’s up on the hills, if it’s snowing on the screen, it’s on. There are plenty of times when it’s raining here and snowing at the base of Alpental or slightly above, but if it’s snowing here, it’s snowing everywhere. Added benefit: knowing if the pass is actually open. Backup: The Hyak cam points west and give you a view of Alpental and Central in clear weather, and is a solid backup if the Snoqualmie Pass cam is covered in snow, ice, or is just broken.

2. East Stevens Summit. This is basically the Stevens version of the Snoqualmie cam: No mountain views, but the road conditions are telling: Rain on the camera: hit the snooze button or have another beer.

3. Paradise East. Some might argue that the Mountain cam is better as it shows the upper mountain and meadow just above the lot, but that view if frequently socked in in the fall and early winter when you’re looking for detailed snow level data. The Paradise East view not only provides some depth perception thanks to any car as well as the guide and ranger shacks, but you can the bastards who got the day off and are skiing while you’re at work. The bonus is that Paradise East, in good visibility, also shows a bit of Mazama Ridge, to give you a solid idea of snow levels.

4. Crystal Mountain Gold Hills. Yes, it’s up high enough to be in the clouds quite a bit, but with decent visibility, you get a perfect view of the snow level at the resort across the valley. Probably the best overall view from a web cam of any Washington ski area.

5. Timberline Lodge. This is the lift jockey’s version of Paradise East. It’s a clutch in early and late-season. Facing the upper mountain, this cam can help make the call if it’s going to be worth driving the INSUFFERABLE 4 hours from Seattle to lift-ski the first or last puffs of pow. An aside: Hood might be prettiest of the volcanoes from a distance, a shimmering white pyramid gleaming above the Columbia River. Up close, the upper mountain looks like the leftovers of a mining project that was looking for the shittiest rock on the planet.

It’s coming…

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This was the Webcam image this morning from Paradise on Mount Rainier. And once I saw it, ski season started. Sure, I won’t be able to actually, you know, actually go there likely for about a week and a half due to work and travel, but seeing snow down to the parking lot at Paradise means fall is dead and winter is here.

What follows will sound a bit dramatic considering that ski season only really ended for me in August. I recognize there are those who live in less temperate areas where the season lasts maybe six months. There are also people who live in the desert, so take your relativity and shove it. I’m used to a 10 or 11-month season. It’s been almost two months, let’s get on with it.

Aside from actually going skiing there are several other important behavioral changes that happen once The Season starts.

  • Checking weather data every 15 minutes even though it updates every hour. In Washington, we’re blessed to have the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, an awesome organization that provides avalanche and weather forecasting as well as avalanche education. You should give them money, as they’re reliant on public funding to maintain their programs, which help keep dumbasses like me alive.Their Web site has all kinds of good stuff, but the true black hole once The Season starts is the mountain weather telemetry. Telemetry is basically just weather data: temperature, wind, precipitation amounts, etc. That data dictates what I do for the next 10 months.The telemetry tells you where the most snow is and how likely it is to be good. Too warm at Snoqualmie Pass? Stevens it is. Surprise wraparound snowstorm at Mission Ridge? Set the alarm for 5 a.m.It’s also like watching a Web gamecast of a storm as you sit there hitting refresh to see how much snow was fallen in the past hour, which is about the interval in which the data updates.

    In mid-winter, that’s relatively rational behavior: “Hey, I’m just trying to stay safe here by trying to find the best place to ski tomorrow so sorry if you need something work-related in the next five hours.”

    However, in October when you can’t even ski for almost two weeks it’s utterly idiotic. And, yet, here I am at the first mention of snow hitting refresh on telemetry. It’s a sickness.

  • Web cam photo Facebook posting. Of course, I posted the photo above on Facebook as soon as I saw it this morning. I’ll do the same damn thing all year at the detection of even the slightest unique image. Oh! The pass is CLOSED! Hey! Snow is COVERING THE CAMERA! It’s sunny out! No one cares, but it’s slightly healthier behavior than printing color copies at work and waving them at colleagues.
  • Gear caressing and fondling. I tell people that all the ski tuning, binding fiddling and edge buffing is a simply a matter of safety and performance. Others will tell you that they want to know their gear as well as their own appendages because their life depends on it. Nice try. It’s simply an excuse to touch gear. Nothing more. And it happens … a lot.
  • “Would a full suit of armor violate the dress code?”Starting in early September, I get incredibly paranoid about getting hurt and missing part or all of The Season. Mountain biking? Not a chance. Help you move? I’ll direct traffic or help pay movers. Jay-run through Boston traffic? I’m not Evel Knievel, buddy. Somehow taking chances while skiing is totally different. But getting hurt not skiing? That’s plain crazy.
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