Friday, June 4, 2010

Pocatello 17

May 29, 2010

Snow mixed with sleet smashes into us, driven by a 40 mph wind. Every inch of exposed skin on my left side stings from the assault. To protect my face, I pull the Buff over my left eye and snug down my hat. This leaves only one half-blind eye to find my way and two bare legs to do the walking.

Even though I worry terribly about Joyce, she seems to be doing fine. She's got 2 layers under a rain jacket, with mittens, heater packs, and a wool hat, but only shorts and leggings to protect the lower half of her body. I help her adjust the jacket hood for better protection, but now she can only look down and right. She raises her left arm to protect her face just a little.

We are on the wrong side of the ridge, a knife's edge, in the path of the hawk. There is no protection from the wind except for a few bushes and some scattered rocks. The wind blown sleet and snow turns the air white, reducing visibility to little more than 30 feet. I search for markers and have trouble finding any. Not sure if they're blown away by the wind, covered by snow, or I simply cant see them.

I go ahead to search out the route, but only far enough so that I can still see Joyce behind me. I sit behind a rock and wait for her, then I go again, and again. When I reach a ridge of broken rocks, I not only have Joyce with me, but also a few other ladies. Maybe they trust me, as I seem to be going the right way, but they wait for me to start again each time after I stop.

The wind is howling so loud I cant hear anything other than the sleet and snow pellets beating into the side of my face. My hands are cold and swollen, fingers numb and tingling. The inside of my right leg is bright pink and stinging like mad. I reach down to touch the skin, but can't feel my fingers... only cold. I need to get Joyce off this mountain. She has Reynauds Syndrome and must be hurting a hell of a lot more than I am.

I stop to adjust my gloves and the Buff, take the time to snap a few pictures of Joyce as she climbs up from below. I figure that a few pictures might do more justice that all of these words. They are the only pictures I will take. I try to use my fingers but they don't seem to be working correctly, so I push the button with the frozen nub of my knuckle. I notice the pockets of my pack are full of snow.

I am quite comfortable with running mountain races and thought I had taken all the right precautions with food, water, and gear, but this storm is a whole lot more than I had bargained for. A not so subtle reminder that in the mountains the weather can change in an instant. Nothing should be taken for granted... ever! Ok, so I have been duly reminded.

My hat is ripped from my head and flung down the mountain. I go after it and get lucky, then take the time to remove my pack and shove it inside. By the time I'm done with the diversion, Joyce and the others are well above. I hurry to catch up just as they top out and start down the other side. Our small group hurries down a snow covered jeep road, but we're finally out of the worst of the storm.

It's an awkward run on frozen limbs, sloshing in the snow and slopping in the mud. We bumble ahead searching for flags. Its almost comical, being stiff and cold, with the snow and the mud making every foot plant an iffy proposition. There is no certainty that one foot will stay long enough for the other to come round and replace it. Balance becomes a priority, with all muscles firing on every stride in order to stay upright.

Somebody is running towards us form the opposite direction and he stops to ask how we're doing. It's the RD and he's genuinely concerned. He tells us what to look for at the next critical turn that many have already missed. Following his direction, we go the correct way, and begin the long descent out of the cold.

Taking inventory, I note how my hands and fingers are still very swollen. I'd be in a lot of pain if I still had my wedding ring on. I'm so glad I removed it back at the start. It was such a minor thing at the time, the weather nice, the mood easy. We started the race at sunrise on the paved road with no warning of what was to come.

...just a few hours ago...

On a pretty single-track trail that rises easy enough for us to run, Joyce and I go around groups of 4 and 5 people at a time... until we reach a group running a pace we are comfortable with. Once on top, the trail settles into a simple traverse. In and out of each fold of the mountain, the trail runs fast and easy with excellent views all around. Its a beautiful morning... just a bit misty.

Ever so slightly, the mist turns to sleet. It feels pretty good coming from the Texas heat just two days ago. The only effect is a bigger smile. When the sleet starts to get heavier, we stop to put on our rain jackets and quickly hook back up with the same group of women.

Expecting the sleet to stop in a short time, it gets heavier instead. These mountain storms usually blow through pretty quick, but I'm all wrong this time. The beautiful single-track dirt trail becomes a sloppy wet slip-n-slide. We're ok with the mud and being wet, so we keep running, but it quickly becomes clear that we can't do as we please and just keep running. I bust my butt really bad, landing in the muddy path. When I get up to look behind me (to see if Joyce saw my comeuppance), I see her do the same... a graceful 180 half pipe, feet high, one handed landing, and face plant. Its so comical, we both laugh at each other.

I try a sort of ice skating glide when the trail is flat-ish, but more typically its rutted with one or two grooves. Its tough to keep both feet in the same groove and far enough apart for some semblance of balance. On the steeper descents, I simply stand still and slide forward. It becomes a game, a puzzle to solve, that I sink my thoughts into to. I check back to see how Joyce is doing and note that I'm either doing real well or she's not. I try to stop, but I can't, so I keep on sliding down the trail. The muddy mess becomes our new world all the way down into Gibson Jack.

I'm surprised that we're still under 2 hours. Without the mud, we might have been much quicker, so I'm pleased with our progress despite the handicap. Halfway to City Creek and feeling good, we stop to eat some food and top off our water bottles.

Going uphill on mud is not nearly as much fun, but it doesn't take long before we regain solid ground. The denseness of the sleet seems to be on the rise and its getting thicker, mixing with snow. We do not get much snow in Texas, so its pretty exciting. The markings take us off trail for the next turn and heading strait up the mountain. It's a non-trail bush-whack, but its easy to follow at first. All those in front of us have crushed the ground foliage to create a path through the rocks and cactus.

I love this sort of weather, the snow, and being out in the mountains. I'm feeling pretty good, climbing well, enjoying the run. I check behind me to see how Joyce is doing and realize she's back a good way, so I stop to wait. The snow is starting to come down pretty thick and its getting colder. Joyce is doing great and enjoying herself as well, so we push on. The snow is accumulating quickly on the ground and the wind is rising up as well. I stop to wait again, and repeat, as we climb to once again join the same small group that we've been with all morning.

Its so subtle that I do not notice exactly when it shifts, but the recognition is all at once when I realize that the snow is deeper and visibility is way down. Its about then that I feel the wind begin to bite. I go from comfortable to damned uncomfortable real fast. We're in a full blown blizzard before I recognize what's happening.

As nasty as it is, as cold as we are, we keep smiling. What an adventure! I know that what we are doing is dangerous, but still... we're living life at its fullest right now. Its exhilarating. Every time I check Joyce's mood, she's tuned the right way. Certainly, we'd rather our hands weren't so damn cold, but still, we're glad to be in it.

On the downhill side, heading to City Creek aid station, Joyce tells me she has no intention on going back out. We both have some gear in a drop bag at the station, but neither of us has blizzard gear: winter jacket, waterproof snow pants, waterproof gloves, wool hat, and goggles. As good as I feel, my fingers are still tingling and my feet have yet to thaw, so I know better than to head back out into the deep freeze. I tell her I'm done too. We're surprised to see all our friends waiting for us when they should be well ahead. Somebody tells us the race has been cancelled, that its over. We hear snippets of info about where everybody is and who is still missing, but it'll take hours before we know all of it.

They have a car warm and waiting for us, but we're covered in mud and soaking wet. We peel off a few of the muddy top layers, including shoes and socks, then climb into the heat. It's disappointing, certainly... but there is nothing we can do about it. Back to the hotel to hose off, then a large lunch and our entire gang retires for a few hours of bowling and beer.