Friday, May 27, 2016

After School Special

Viktor and Lukas recently spent some time catching up with each other in Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea. Apparently, they had a splendid trip and put lots and lots of miles on their road bikes.

You can't go to Mallorca without doing a little clubbing. There's a story behind this photo, but I'm not going to tell it on this blog.
Lukas and Viktor
Meanwhile, Etienne, Galen and Anna recently went with some friends out to Prince William Sound, about an hour east of Anchorage, for a little boat-in skiing and camping.  Looks like they found some good snow and some good fish out there.

Apparently, nobody told Etienne the first rule of hitch-hiking:  Position yourself near a road.
And finally:
Andrew and his friend Jesse assumed that because flowers are in full bloom in Anchorage, spring must be fully sprung everywhere, so they figured they'd make a little mountain bike trip over Devil's Pass and Resurrection Pass.  Read the full story behind the photo below:

Straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak:
Keep in mind if you read on, that the leading agenda item for my Saturday was to get down in the dusty, poorly lit crawlspace and install a moisture-sensing fan with venting to the outside. Calisa and I are closing in on bringing our new house from a 2star home to a 5star home in terms of energy efficiency that means 10k back in our pocket to go towards fixing our roof and updating our kitchen. Needless to say when Jesse Carlstrom gave me a ring Friday night with a scheme to arrive at Robert and Holly's “Hope Sufferfest Party” via two wheels and human powered glory through Devil’s and Resurrection Pass, I jumped at the chance to do the storied point to point ride I had pinned to the top of my bucket list for quite some time.
It was funny that he called me because I had the same idea bouncing around my brain since the party invites went out and we’d seen nothing but weeks of 70 degree highs and nights above freezing. Surely we’d be able to traverse the 38miles with minimal contact to snow and mud. Plus we’d be able to coast in from a high point of 2600’ to the cabin party at sea level in style while the rest of the Sufferfest attendees punished each other on foot up Hope Point and back. With plans in place, I filled my backpack with clothing and tools, finding no extra room for bear spray after the can of organic Portuguese sardines my dad gave me in Buckland was stuffed in along with some pilot boy crackers, trail mix, and a Luna bar.
The drive south from Anchorage offered the usual twist and turns with showers and clouds draping the Chugach Mountains that Turnagain Arm and the Cook Inlet are famous for. Steady rain in Girdwood tapered to a sprinkle and then a mist as we made our way over the pass, to Devils Creek Trailhead in Jesse’s 1989 Ford Ranger. He calls her the Silver Bullet but she seemed to complain that morning about speeds over 60mph so we kept it light on the gas pedal. No other cars had found the parking lot by 10:30 as we shot-gunned two breakfast tacos and laced up the bike shoes. With a BBQ full of good people and ice cold beverages waiting for us on the other side, we both flashed a grin as we clipped in and began the initial descent to the river before the climbing to the first saddle began. “The whole ride is going to be like this right?” I joked. This was going to be great.
The first hour of the journey was smooth, with rideable inclines and manageable switchbacks. Plus the misting had ceased so we stripped to t-shirts and shorts even though the down valley breeze foretold of colder air masses ahead. We started seeing snow patches creep closer to our trail, but it was another 30min before we actually had rubber connect with the frozen granular. The gullies we darted in and out of offered dense spring snow a place to commute to flatter ground so we soon found our selves off the bike and pushing short stretches. We could walk right on top and the riding continued with minimal interference for another few hundred feet of vertical gain. I had asked Rob the night before how long he thought it would take to get to his cabin in Hope, and I was starting to think we were going to crush his high ball estimate of 6 hours, giving us enough time to retrieve the Bullet before the party really got going.
Devils Pass summit made its way into view, and I knew we were making decent progress, only problem was, the width of the slide paths holding snow were getting wider and we had started spending a little more time pushing than riding. The trail even evaded us for a quarter mile as we hopscotched from tundra tuft to tundra tuft. At one point I felt it safe to ride across the tundra but before I could get the second pedal clicked in, my front tire found the backside of a deep hummock and I was hurled over the handlebars. “Wish I had that on video!” was my reward for the awkward front flip, that and a new cut on the top of my right knee. Apparently I had found a hidden rock and blood began to ooze down my shin at a good flow before we got to the next snow patch and I could ice it.
The terrain we were ascending was getting flatter and at one point even sloping downhill. This presented a new problem, while the avalanche debris patches were dense and made for easy walking, the snow on flat ground was completely rotten, leaving us up to our knee and axels if we didn’t pick a good line.
Generally speaking there are two types of fun. Type A fun, where life is great, the weather is perfect, and the activity rewarding and enjoyable. The first hour and a half easily fell into this category. Then there’s Type B fun, where you’re still enjoying yourself outdoors, but the challenges begin piling on top of each other causing the overall pleasure level to drop. Between my knee getting stiff and not clotting because I kept having to bend it, and the supportable snow becoming harder to find, we had entered the realm of Type B fun. Now I have never encountered a Type C fun, but I could imagine that I would start to choose the ins and outs of installing a crawlspace fan over that type of recreation. Jesse and I admitted that we were now well within the confines of Type B fun and the first words of questioning our ability to make it through all this snow began to enter our heads and slip from our vocal chords.
The top of Devils Pass now lay before us, and even though there was snow all around us, we decided to push on toward a bend where we thought we might be able to see what challenges remained. I found a patch of tundra and fished out my sardines and pilot boy crackers, giving one fishy sandwich to Jesse, while keeping two for myself. Snow sloped off the steep mountainsides and dove under a lake leaving it pale and blue. Jesse remarked how the last time he conquered this trail he went swimming there, on this day we celebrated the first summit by putting our jackets back on. The cloud level still wouldn’t allow us to see more than 500ft above our position and the mist and had returned. The Portuguese Sardines didn’t stand a chance.
Peering around the next bend we were happy to see what looked like a half mile of sustained riding sloping down to the junction with Resurrection Pass. We hadn’t seen that in an hour or so. Combine this mirage of hope with the thought of turning around defeated only to push back through all snow we had just aerated, and we had the courage to press on.
Unfortunately about 5sec into our descent we were back off our bike, having plowed into a hidden gully chalk full of avalanche snow. This would repeat itself over the duration of the stretch that had advertised smooth riding. But nonetheless we had joined the trail that would take us to the land of fermented merriment and I for one was hopeful that the worst was over.
What I didn’t know yet was that the next pass was a full 500ft higher than the last! About 10 minutes into our second ascent Jesse stated that he would of turned around had he known how much snow we’d have to push through. I didn’t reply, but was confident in my choice to keep our ride to Hope alive. It wasn’t ten minutes later that my viewpoint merged with his. What were we doing? Pushing our bikes through 2-4in of slush on top of corn was now our lot in life, and I began playing with techniques to make it easier. I found that by putting the bike uphill of me I could drape my arm over the seat and lean my upper body down onto the frame for a little respite. Plus I didn’t have to fight the direction my Santa Cruz Bicycles wanted to go and I was less likely to sink in the snow. I started staring at my tires slowly churning the frozen mashed potatoes, picking up clumps and either transferring them to my fork and frame, or in some cases making multiple revolutions before finally dropping off. I found the visual distraction helpful, because the longer I stared at my tires slowly turning, the closer I got to the next bit of willows and tundra. Again the terrain leveled off and the snow got deeper, perhaps even deeper than before thanks to the diurnal temperature cycle reaching its high point of the day. At one point I think Jesse started hallucinating because he stated he was pretty sure the water was flowing towards Hope now and that the mountains around us were 11,000 feet. While the summit elevation estimation was simply a misspeak, it was pretty clear to me that it was just the slight breeze at our backs that was pushing the surface water in the direction of burgers topped with bacon and avocado on a Kaiser bun with some cheese, ketchup, spicy mustard and whatever side salad full of carbs and fat I could let me mind gravitate towards. I stopped for some trail mix and water.
Finally there it was, a faded wooden sign just peeking through the snow marking the top of Resurrection Pass. From here at least, it would be all down hill to the cabin. For the next mile the snow began to only be concentrated in the valley floor having slid off the hillsides. Dry ground was agonizingly close to us but to seek it out meant pushing through a tangle of stubby willows that had evolved on this earth solely for the purpose of getting stuck in your back derailleur. The fun level had now reached Type C, and I gave a sarcastic chuckle when I thought about how nice it might be to pop out of my crawlspace with a properly installed fan. I ate some more food and took a sip of water.
The snow swaths narrowed still, until the only remaining snow was a ribbon of white exactly where we needed to be. At least now we could pedal again here and there and actually ride through some of the smaller patches. Soon the downhill pitch increased and I began to forcibly remind myself to enjoy what I was doing! Though we weren’t completely free of the snow yet we had at least graduated back into Type A fun, well maybe type B considering my knee was hurting still and my back had begun cramping. Not to mention my bike seat had somehow come loose. We stopped and high fived, we were going to make it! I looked at my watch and although I had little idea of how far we still had to go, I thought we could still sneak into Hope under six hours. Jesse’s bike seat had come loose too, so we took a moment to tighten them. Must’ve been all that extra force from behind over the past several miles that lead our seat screws to lose their grip. Thankfully this would be the only bike mechanical issue we would face during our journey.
The snow gave way to mud and although we were traveling downhill now, we still had to keep pedaling. It felt like my back tire was flat and I even looked back a few times to make sure it wasn’t. When soil freezes and thaws it elevates itself more than it should until the first idiots of spring come through and start tamping it back down. It took sustained pedaling in the high gears to keep downhill progress noteworthy over the next 1,000’ of vert. I owe some volunteer hours on trail crew after that one.
The speed accelerated as the ground became more thawed and we even had to employ our brakes now and again! Though I couldn’t recognize any mountains yet that I had seen near Hope in my five years in Alaska, I figured me must be getting close. I was dismayed however when we encountered some uphill to get back out of feeder stream gullies. This would be the first of several shorter uphill’s that forced me to lock in the rear shock and focus to the top. At least we were covering ground now. We did an energy check at the crest of the third unwanted uphill and found it to be pretty low. I reached into my trail mix bag and was dismayed to find only enough for one handful each. I took a hard pull on my camel back hose and felt the dreaded moment when its cinches down and gives only one more drop if you suck extra hard. No more water.
The next downhill took us careening into the first people we’d seen since the highway, a group of six women with big backpacks. We must be close if this group is here I thought. I chuckled when I thought what I must look like, soggy and covered in mud. Then I looked down and realized I wasn’t that muddy aside from my low back and shins. Time to press on. The trail widened and more people appeared, though mainly they were jumping off trail to avoid us. I thanked them but was too tired for much more. A few more climbs had strands of my leg muscles fighting me back and urging for an end to this madness. We came across another group of three on bikes heading up. Jesse knew one of them and we made small talk. I looked at her bike and took note of the slick street tires and big back pack she was carrying. If I had had any extra glycogen stores left I might’ve warned her that she might be in for a slog on par with ours, but I didn’t. She had a screen on her handle bars that said she’d gone for 3.6 miles. I ended the small talk there. 3.6 miles to go. Still farther than I’d thought and way farther then when I first saw that all female hiking team.
The trail widened into a two track and threw one last stinger of a climb. Jesse managed to stay in the saddle all the way to the top, but I threw in the towel half way up. My legs were jello, my back and legs on lock down, and now my neck seemed to be begging for a chiropractic adjustment.
The rain brought in a short burst of weather and we struggled to keep our glasses clean. I eventually bagged it and resorted to squinting. Finally we hit a big foot bridge and saw our first car in six and half hours. My sense of relief quickly faded however when Jesse dropped a verbal bomb that this access road was annoyingly long and we still had a little bit to make the Hope Road. That 3.6 mile point was did not equate to the distance to the beer cooler. Nothing to do but keep moving. That nice little shower a few moments ago had subsided but left the ground glacial silt road base with a nice gray sheen and a skiff of water. Perfect for a mud bath. The glasses came out again but were quickly covered and I futilely wiped and smeared the dirt as best I could while Jesse inadvertently set a brutal cruising pace on his 29” wheels.
A stop sign appeared through a gap in the mud-coated lenses and the subsequent contact to pavement brought overwhelming relief. We had Hope! We were a sight to be seen as we made our grand entrance to the party. Cameras came popping out from every pocket and for a few staggering moments I felt like a B-rated street show. Soon the beer began flowing and the snacks came pouring in. The grill had yet to be lit, but we engorged ourselves anyway on the hospitality of Erin Whitney Witmer, Holly, and Aubrey Smith who came at us from all sides with salty chips, hot drinks, cold beer, first aid, water, a towel for a cold bath in the river and the undisputed title of Sufferfest Champions. The look on our faces in the last picture of this album perfectly sums up what the experience was like. Although we couldn’t really claim it was the best day of our biking lives, at least we could claim we did something. Yes, we certainly didn’t do nothing… So if anyone is considering a ride over Devils and Resurrection Pass into Hope, I’m here to tell you, I’d give it another month.

(reprinted with permission from Andrew Kastning)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Clarification

In the past week, several of my friends have contacted me and expressed concern for my health because they saw my post on this blog about how I'd caught a slight case of cancer over the winter, and how I'm now stopping by the hospital each day for a little blast of radiation. While it's true that it's t-cell lymphoma - real cancer - it's also true that it was detected very early, so dealing with it should be a simple and safe matter.

Here's the full story:  I found a tumor during the winter. It was around the time Hanna had her bad headache in New Mexico. I thought it was a swollen lymph gland. When it didn't go away after a while, I saw a doctor and we decided to fire up the scalpel and cut it out. The doctor didn't think it was cancerous, but she recommended we get it tested just to make sure. Turns out, it is a rare type of t-cell lymphoma. That news was a bit of a shock and it had me kind of worried, as most people would be. For a few days there, I found myself having to focus pretty hard to keep my mind from wandering off down all sorts of doomsday paths.

I was referred to an oncologist. It just so happens that the year that I was at Wyoming and second place at the NCAA Championships in the skate race, my (current) oncologist was at Dartmouth, and second place in the classic race. We've known each other a long time. So I went to his hospital and we did all kinds of tests, and my old friend and new oncologist said to me, "First of all, don't worry about this.  You're going to be fine. You caught it early so it hasn't gotten into your bloodstream or your lymphatic system yet and we've already removed the tumor so it'll be a simple matter of going through some radiation for a while this summer and that will take care of it - for sure - you don't need to worry about this."

So I'm not just being optimistic when I say this will not be a big deal. It truly is not a big thing - because we caught it early. The radiation I'm getting is tightly focused on the area on my arm where the tumor was found, and it's very possible that the cancer was already 100% removed in the surgery. The radiation we're doing now is just insurance, to make sure we zap every last possible cancer cell in that area that may have escaped the scalpel. I was told I may get a little radiation burn, but that will be about it. The doctors dealing with me are not at all worried, and neither am I. And neither should you. Thank you for your concern. It really means a lot to me. But I'm probably in more danger of getting hit by a car while riding my bicycle to the hospital each day than I am of having this lymphoma turn into something big and serious.

This is the tanning bed where I've been spending my free time lately. Maybe after all this is over I'll pick one of these rigs up for myself, just to mess around with. Friends could come over and we could have "Make Your Own Photons and Electrons" parties. I'm sure I could find a used one cheap on Craigslist.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


When I was in college, my roommate and I lived at 1112½ Flint Street, in a dark little hole under a house that cost us $60/month in rent, and we didn't even have to pay for heat or electricity.  It wasn't the most appealing place to live, but we were in college so it seemed pretty normal. This evening, I was invited to dinner with the UAA coaches at Mack, Pati and Hanna's house, so of course I figured we'd be hanging out in a dark grimy cellar in the back of an alley someplace because that's just college life. So you can imagine my surprise when we were all hanging out on the back deck, overlooking the expansive fenced yard in the evening sunshine.

What a lovely evening I had with my friends!  Dinnertime on this team is always the best part of the day; a time to stop and just hang out together and tell stories and share each other's company. And tonight was the best of all. Mario has been mountaineering on Denali for the past few weeks, and just got off the mountain today. He lost a lot a weight up there, and had lots of fun stories about pull-up contests at 14,000 feet, staying inside his tent for days waiting out storms, and watching the Euros wander around all over the mountain, unroped. He'll fly back to Italy soon for a short visit before coming back to New York City where he'll be starting a new job in the upper east side of Manhattan. Pati will be staying in Alaska for three more weeks before loading up her silver car and driving south to the desert with her sister before starting her graduate degree next fall in Switzerland. Hanna is leaving town this weekend, headed toward Sweden where she'll teach kids how to be successful business owners and entrepreneurs like herself. Mack has plenty more college ahead of her, so she'll be taking classes this summer and a full load next year to finish in the spring.  That's good for us - maybe we can talk her into coming out and training with the ski team! Sara and Zach just got back from Mexico, and they start coaching a biathlon training camp early tomorrow morning.  And we're fortunate to have Andrew with us because it sounds like he almost didn't make it back from an epic mountain bike saga in the Kenai Mountains last weekend.

On the bike
Summer is in full swing, and I found out tonight how wonderful it can be to ride across Spenard in the late evening sunshine, carrying an orchid. The girls sent me home with a backpack full of thoughtful gifts and an orchid to carry.  When you're biking with an orchid, it's important not to ride too fast so the petals don't all blow off the flower in the wind. Going so much slower than normal, though, you get to notice so much more detail. You get to meet so many new people. Tonight, I finally chatted with a couple of people who live in a thicket of brush in a neighborhood near where I work. Closer to home, I got a wave and a little grief about my purple flower from a working girl who I see often on my way to and from work, though we rarely acknowledge each other when I'm riding normal speed on my bike and we're both thinking about getting to work and making money.

In my beloved Spenard, with an orchid from Mack, Pati and Hanna
And I stopped to read the poster on my street corner about Tweak, the lost cat.  It felt good to be home again in Spenard where even the pets are called "Tweak". If you see Tweak kicking around, please help him find his way home.

I like to live pretty fast.  I don't like to sit around too much. I don't always notice everything around me, and I don't always soak up the good vibes from my friends. Spending this evening with my UAA Ski Team friends, and biking home with the gifts that they gave to me felt very special.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Like Visiting Grandma

I was browsing through the on-line Anchorage Daily News this evening from here on Kodiak Island and I came across this article which made me think of Mario. It made me think of Mario because he's on Denali now, making his way up the mountain. (Or, if he's not on the mountain he's in Talkeetna, camping out next to the airstrip, waiting for a weather window to allow him to fly in to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp.) 
There's been heaps of good skiing lately. All the APUers have been in the thick of it every damn day.
Mario dropped by my little brown house in Spenard last week, asking if he could borrow some mountaineering gear so he could go climb Denali. He had a specific list of things he needed. He brought Hanna along with him. Hanna tried on a bunch of my clothes, attempted unsuccessfully to read the Swedish tapestry on my living room wall and said "...this is so exciting - just like visiting Grandma's house!"  I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Last time I saw Mario was about a week or so ago. I was just arriving at Davis' hangar in Palmer for the big graduation hoe-down as Mario was leaving.  He was headed for Talkeetna early the next morning. The weather hasn't been that great. I hope he was able to fly in to base camp.

Etienne graduated from college last week.
So did Davis Dunlap.

And all of these people, too, I think.  Pati, Sean, Cedric, Mackenzie, Etienne, and Hanna.
The snow on Center Ridge wasn't as firm as we'd hoped on Sunday.
As for me, I seem to have come down with a slight case of cancer over the winter. I must have picked it up off a toilet seat in one of those truck stops on a UAA road trip.  Or maybe it was some undercooked chicken in one of those tacos Sparky made for me in Red River after I'd spent the day getting Alix to the Denver airport when she torqued her knee in training. I'm not sure - can you even get cancer from undercooked chicken? Anyway, the doctors are calling it a very rare type of T-cell Lymphoma or something like that, and after a surgery a few weeks ago to cut out the tumor, they now want me to spend the first half of the summer hanging out near the hospital in Anchorage, dropping in each day for a dose of radiation. I'd been planning a big motorcycle trip; the hospital option sounds a lot more boring. Of course it's always a bummer to come down with a case of cancer, but on the other hand it's pretty cool if your cancer is really rare like mine - something for the resume!  The doctors all tell me I'll be fine, so I'm not worried about it. But I'll admit I lost a little sleep over it earlier this spring.
Hatcher Pass. This past weekend. 
My advice from all this? Live in a country that's got universal health care. Or get yourself some health insurance. Getting doctors to draw lines all over your body and stick you inside machines costs a lot more than a new car - unless you're buying a car that costs several hundred thousand dollars... in which case it costs about the same as a new car.
The Talkeetna Mountains this week.