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I live by four seasons, except mine are dictated by snow and not astronomy.

Tease season (Usually late September until mid-December): This is when I alternate between bull-rushing the first faint hints of snow to ski grass, rocks and glacial ice, leaving my skis looking like they’ve been lapped by a road grader, and telling people I enjoy trail running in 45-degree rain with a straight face. Like Radiohead’s recent work, there are a few nice moments you feel almost obligated to like, but in reality it mostly sucks.

Winter (Dec.-May 5): Defined by the opening and closing days of my local ski area, Alpental, winter always comes too late and ends too soon. No one needs to ask what you’re doing this weekend, only where. It ends with Cinqo de Mayo, which is the Fat Tuesday of winter around here: an atavistic embrace of everything skiing, fermented and grilled.

Volcano or touring season (May-mid July): The roads accessing the higher routes begin to melt, the snow has thickened and become less avalanche prone on steeper slopes and the sun has returned. It’s Eden here in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of vertical feet of dream skiing to the car and your flip flops and cooler EVERY WEEKEND (saliva on keyboard).

Trail Running/Backpacking season (August and September): The snow that’s hanging around usually resembles a jackhammered  sidewalk by this time, so the trail shoes and tent come out. Sure, you can ski during this time, but you can also mow your lawn with nail clippers. This season is like a family visit: It’s incredibly cool for a short period of time (“Man, this is great, we should do this more!”), but then you wake up one morning and realize you need to get the hell out or you’re going to kill someone.

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This past Sunday, Brandon and I went up to Heliotrope Ridge on Mt. Baker’s northwest flank to get tease season fully launched. After missing the apparently excellent September tease while goofing off in Arizona, I’d have skied on a thick frost.

Thankfully, that spectacle was averted thanks to a foot or so of new snow above about 4,500 feet.

The play in tease season is to get onto permanent snow or glaciers where it only takes about six inches to cover up the old junk. There are also some meadows or grassy slopes that don’t need much coverage to be skiable.

The downside of this is that these places tend to reside at higher elevations on featureless slopes. This being the Pacific Northwet, there’s also a very strong chance that poor weather will leave you with visibility akin to having a sheet over your head.

Therefore, a typical tease season run is blindly hurtling down barely-covered rocks and snow that might as well be rocks. Getting back uninjured is the goal.

So when big patches of sun began appearing on the drive north from Seattle, it felt like a cruel joke.

“We should have run around Green Lake today.”

Ascending toward the trailhead on Glacier Creek Road, the snow began to pile up, and the sun remained.

There was barely enough snow to skin from the 3,650-foot trailhead, but we did anyway, stomping around dirt, blown-down trees and open streams that caked slush on our skins to annoying effect.

About three miles and 1,500 vertical feet later, the snow got deeper and the views better. While there would be plenty of rock-dodging, we’d at least have visibility on our side.

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We’d not have solitude, however, as Heliotrope is among the most popular early season spots. This was mostly fine (save the couple times people decided to fully lie down on the skin track) as there was plenty of space to find fresh tracks.

After a couple hours of skinning, we reached the 6,200 ridge crest and ripped the skins. The view of Baker and its surrounding features was incredible. An ocean of cotton candy clouds heaved and rolled just below our sun hole while ghostly branch-like clouds clawed at the main peak, beaten back by wind only to return again.

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Turning downhill to ski for the first time since mid-June, my longest gap in several years, I took a couple tentative turns off the ridge … then took another maybe eight definitely not tentative turns and was down entirely too fast. It’s very likely there was some screaming.

The snow was a smooth eight or so inches of slightly wind-packed powder that begged you to go faster. Perfect.

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In those eight turns, everything else in the world vanished. Mountainous areas are often described as vast, and spatially that’s often true. But when I’m skiing or running in them, no matter how remote or grand, I’m blanketed with a sense of completeness and comfort that feels close and almost small, as if everything I want is in easy reach.

What was immediately within reach was another lap, which we quickly burned through before doing battle with the barely covered middle slopes. This is not the place to bring new skis.

We soon switched to boots and quickly hiked back to the car as the setting sun sprayed orange pink over western slopes.

The requisite beatdowns are sure to come before winter arrives, but a tease this good is as good a way to start things off as I could ask for.

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Like many wannabe mountainpeople from the Northeastern U.S., the “high school” years in my learning process – the period where you flail about trying everything for the first time – took place almost entirely on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

It was there that I was first almost struck by lightning, danced with hypothermia, hitchhiked after getting lost, got cozy with an avalanche, and passed out and puked from exhaustion. Those last two follow the high school metaphor quite well.

Yes, after all that, I was hooked for life. It was where trail running, backcountry skiing and mountaineering got in my blood, never to leave.

The grey giant
The Rockpile, or George or various other less regal nicknames, is 6,288 feet of worn, grey rock punctuated by a series of variably dramatic ravines, that are sometimes called “gulfs” for some reason.

By Western standards, it’s pretty droll affair: a drooping, gentle giant shorn of it’s sharper edges by ancient glaciers.

For those of you in Seattle, it’s bit like Granite Mountain off I-90, but with trails of rounded river rock, legendarily awful weather and a road to the top terminating in a bland restaurant, gift shop (“This car climbed Mt. Washington”) and weather station.

It isn’t even among the top 10 tallest peaks east of the Mississippi (they’re all in the South and Mid-Atlantic). But, it is the tallest peak in the Northeast, and, as we all know from watching or reading ANY national news outlet, anything that happens in the Northeast is far more important than anything anywhere else.

That said, Mt. Washington is more alpine (big areas above treeline) than the more southerly peaks and its fearsome weather provides a sexy sheen of danger.

A terrible idea gone good
Prior to 1999, my mountain experience consisted entirely of riding lifts up them and then skiing down.

My college friends and I would heap scorn on the outing club geeks when they’d invite us on trips.

“Dude, I can get high right here. Inside. Where it’s warm and there are Doritos.”

Completely out of the blue, I suggested to my girlfriend at the time that we try to hike Mt. Washington. Her shock was understandable. She had been doing this stuff her whole life, while I maxed out on the outdoors with a bit of road running, lying on the beach, playing whiffleball and the rare use of a grill.

To this day, I don’t know how the wild-card synapses in my brain coalesced around this idea, but many of the best things in life are random occurrences so powerful that they feel like fate.

As is my habit, I prepared for the attempt by doing basically nothing other than daydreaming about bragging to my friends that I had bagged the peak. No map, no research, not enough food or water, head-to-toe cotton – though the “co-ed naked skiing” t-shirt was a deft touch.

“Screw it. I’ll just figure it out when we get there.” will be on my headstone.

Tux!
The most popular trail to the summit is the 4.2-mile Tuckerman Ravine trail, and that was the call, as it was the shortest drive and had “Tuckerman” in the name.

Tuckerman Ravine – usually shortened to Tuckerman’s or Tux – is the best-known feature on the mountain, in large part because some of the best backcountry skiing in the east is there. It’s synonymous with “extreme skiing” to most people in the region, though most of the routes are well short of extreme, or even difficult.

(An aside: “Tux” on a warm spring day is one of the best shitshows in all of outdoor sports, and the hole you feel in your life is because you haven’t been: Naked guys with mullets in rear-entry boots. Blow-up doll as toboggan. Sunburns so severe they turn instantly to cancer. People rag-dolling down 800 vertical feet into rocks, and then being heckled. It’s fantastic.)

After 2.4 dull miles of hiking on annoyingly-rounded river rock from the parking lot, you finally clear the forest and are bashed in the face by the drama of Tuckerman Ravine, as well as the realization that you have to somehow get up it.

It’s basically a rocky half-bowl. A bowl being something that’s easy to picture sliding down.

I dropped myself on the deck the ranger station and pounded water and what little food I had, torched and shamed by an approach on which small children and the elderly blew past with regularity after the first mile or so.

To be sure, my girlfriend was having no such difficulty, which predictably served to goad me into action.

Sadly, that motivation lasted about 20 minutes. Maybe halfway up the bowl, and nowhere close to the summit, I waited a couple minutes so no one else was around and then quit.

“I can’t do it. No gas in tank.”

The spot where I stopped held a vertiginous view across the ravine that I’ve never forgotten. Something about being above the trees, clinging to the side of an alpine bowl was exotic and dramatic enough to light a spark. The embarrassment of getting dropped by the extreme ends of the age curve brought the flame.

Those dual motivations – it’s beautiful, and I need to kick your ass while I’m in the neighborhood – have never ebbed.

It’s the latter that gets me in trouble, or frostnip, or a concussion.

Ice fighting
My first successful summit of Mt. Washington is a good, and really the inaugural, example.

Following that first failure, I picked up some more appropriate clothing, but did absolutely nothing else to prepare other than tell everyone short of random people on the street that I was climbing the mountain that weekend.

Vanity would have to carry the day.

That first trip was a crystalline summer day. This one served up more typical Rockpile weather: dense, cold fog that became a treacherous ice haze above the ravine.

Somehow, the lack of visibility was comforting. Not able to see how far I’d come or had to go, I kept my head down and powered on, passing my past stopping point on the north wall of the ravine.

At the crest of the ravine, the slope flattens dramatically, allowing for easier sighs of relief. It was, however a cruel tease: what felt like Easy Street for 10 minutes became a death march among angular boulders increasingly covered in a slick of ice painted on by the fog.

The next couple hours – that’s right, it took that long to go less than two miles – were round after round of excuses battling motivations:
“All this to see nothing but a fog bank and giftshop? Idiot.”
“It’s not like you’re gonna die, you coward. Old people do this. OLD.”
“Wait, are those icicles on your eyelashes?”
“You really want to go back and tell everyone you flamed out AGAIN?”
“You could just lie and say you did it. There’s a good pub in North Conway.”

The ice fog was so intense near the top that it would form a creme brûlée crust on any flat part of clothing that would peel and shatter gently when I moved that part of my body.

By the time I reached the summit, I was a shambling, exhausted wreck. I collapsed onto a cafeteria seat and buried my head in my arms nearly sleeping for a while before I had the energy to eat and drink.
The summit complex is a blessing and curse: It’s hard to feel like much of a badass when you’re seated next to fanny-packed Québécois tourists after walking past the smokers at the front door. On the other hand, you can get a Gatorade and hot dog.

What goes up must suck to come down
After about 30 minutes of mental triage and trail mix, it began to occur to me that I had to get back down. Strangely, this came as a bit of a shock.

The realization was devastating. The thought of walking 10 feet to the bathroom inspired nausea, never mind miles of death fog and leg-eating boulders.

I assessed options:
-There’s no way they’d let me sleep like a bum in the restaurant overnight.
-Begging someone for a ride down the auto road was plausible, but too shameful.
-Paying $50 for a ride on the commercial van service seemed like a winner, but they didn’t take credit cards.

So I started walking. Perhaps I was pulling from a reservoir of energy I didn’t know I had or just too toasted to care, but the trip down, while long, went relatively smoothly.

In goes the hook
In a cycle that now repeats itself perhaps twice a week, but first presented here, I went from pledging to never hike again, to conceding I’d need a couple days off to planning to come back the following weekend and shave a half-hour off my time within 24 hours.

For the next couple years, I returned to Mt. Washington every day I could swing the 3-hour drive from Maine. Getting up before dawn to get back in time for dinner plans or well after dark as fall arrived.

Soon, I was trying to best my previous times by running sections, taking longer routes, climbing in the snow, ice and cold of winter and then skiing in the ravine.

Many dangerous mistakes, close calls and unforgettable days later, I still think about Mt. Washington frequently. When red flags go off in my head about incoming weather, an avalanche slope or a route-finding decision, the memory that triggers them is likely either from the Rockpile or Mt. Rainier.

My mother gave me a framed topo map of the mountain not long after this obsession started. I unpacked it the other day as part of a move, and it felt like a birth certificate.

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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.

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