Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breaking things

Sorry about the lack of a post last night.
As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday the plan was to bike Pike's Peak. It started out well enough. I slept in a bit too much (not a bad thing, though, as it means I'm dealing with the altitude better) and got headed out from Leadville around 8, arriving at the base of the mountain at roughly 10:30. I started up the highway, 19 curving miles leading from somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 feet up to the summit at 14,115 feet. The first ten miles were fine. After that point it got a bit windy, but it was manageable. At 13 miles there's a second gate, where they can close the road if weather's bad, but they hadn't, and I kept going.
The wind above the 13 mile mark got a bit worse, until all of a sudden I hit a saddle between two higher points at a bit past the 17 mile point, with an elevation of between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, and the wind was just impossible. I had just managed to stop and had no time to turn the bike around and head back before a gust knocked it over, breaking the clutch lever and derailing the chain.
Gary and Janice, a nice retired (it seems) couple from southern California were, quite luckily passing by, and gave me a ride down the mountain (there was one car that passed before they did, but didn't bother to stop). Upon passing the 13 mile mark, we learned that they'd closed the upbound road as a result of winds of 102 mph that had been causing trouble for bikers (including people other than just me) and that had been blowing out the windows on some cars.
Once I was down at the base of the road, I called a tow truck and a few hours later the bike and I were sitting outside of a motorcycle shop in Colorado Springs. I left the bike there with a note about what was wrong with it and, with the help of my ground crew back in Charlottesville, found a nearby motel at which to spend the night. Luckily I've adopted the habit of always carrying at least one book with me, even if there isn't any time for me to read it in the plan.
This morning I went by the shop and explained what was broken, and they did one quick check of their storeroom and said, yep, we've got the part you need in stock. Forty-five minutes later I was back on the road, and after a quick stop by the motel to pick up the stuff I'd left there I was back on my way to Leadville.
About twenty miles outside of Leadville I passed an intriguing-looking side road that led up into the hills, so I followed that some ten or so miles until it became too snowy to continue. I took a few pictures of a cool overlook but I haven't pulled them off the camera yet.
From there, it was just back to my room in Leadville to begin packing and planning for the next leg of the trip, down to New Mexico and then over to California to hike Mt. Whitney.
I don't know if it's because of the trouble I had with Mt. Elbert, the bike accident on Pike's Peak, the highly mixed trip reports I've read about Whitney, or the fact that I've been away from home and on the move for a week, but this afternoon I was just hit with a massive wave of... I don't know exactly the right word for it. Malaise? Apprehension? Sadness? Not sure. Something like that, about the rest of the trip. Not really sure what to do. It's not like I can just say, oh well, trip over, and instantly be home. It's a three day trip from here, and once I get to California it's either four or five days. And even if I could just head back home, I'm not sure that's what I'd want. I absolutely hate going back on what I said I'd do, even if the only person I really said it to was myself.
Oh, well. I'll do some more reading and packing and see if my mood improves at all.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fixing broken stuff (my bike and my skin)

I took today off from hiking because of the amount of snow still here. Given the amount of time it took for the hike yesterday, any of the other ones I had planned would've taken probably 14 hours or more. I'd have to either start or finish after dark, and given the difficulty in seeing the trails even in the daylight, that just didn't seem safe. I'll hike Massive and Harvard some other time I'm in Colorado, when it's later in the season, or when I'm not traveling alone. Instead, tomorrow I'm going to motorcycle over to the top of Pike's Peak, and Tuesday, well, I'll figure out something to do on Tuesday.
Today, as a result of both some tough offroad-ish riding yesterday and the long ride tomorrow, I needed to improve the fix on the motorcycle. Here's what it looked like initially, in its very ghetto form (about a thousand miles after it was initially applied):

Now, after being replaced with hopefully better materials, here is its current form:

Note that there aren't soda markings anymore, because this was actually done with real sheet metal and not the scraps from what I drank along the way. Apart from that it's pretty much the same, admittedly, but this metal is thicker, and hopefully the new design of how I put the pieces on will do a better job of keeping everything securely sealed and in place.  It's still aluminum, though, so it'll burn away eventually.  I have a steel can of refried beans that I can use to patch it (once I eat the contents, of course), but they're still sitting unopened on the desk.

After that, I read a fair amount more (I'm now done with Invisible Cities and three chapters into Under the Black Flag) and went for a run (3.8 miles at an embarrassingly slow pace). After that, it was nearing sundown, so I biked up into the hills northeast of Leadville to try to get some good pictures of the sunset. Had there been a good sunset I'd have gotten some good shots, as I found an excellent vantage point, but there were too many clouds to the west and the sky just gradually darkened without much excitement. Here's a picture of where it would've been, though:

Now, as some of you may know, I kinda majored in physics (it's really weird to put that in the past tense). One of the things that I studied in my last physics class was radiation, its reflectivity off different materials, its effects on bodily tissue, and how its intensity changes when it travels through different substances. Somehow, yesterday I completely forgot all of this when hiking. I neglected to think about the fact that UV radiation 1) is more intense at higher altitudes, because there's 14,000 fewer feet of air to block it, 2) reflects extremely well off snow, and 3) has nasty effects on skin. As a result of forgetting all this and just thinking, it's cold, you can't get sunburned when it's cold, I neglected to put on sunscreen (despite bringing it with me from home, the thought of using it yesterday never even crossed my mind). Now, I have a nice, rather impressive sunburn over almost all of my face, the exceptions being where my hat and sunglasses covered the skin (on a side note, I simply do not know how I used to survive in the midday light without sunglasses). It's the first time I've had a second-degree sunburn, which is cool, but it makes it a bit painful to have anything touch my face (such as the shirts I'm wearing or my motorcycle helmet) because the skin's started to blister away in two places (none of this wimpy drying and flaking off a week later nonsense).
However, it's not all bad. There aren't many times in your life that you get to say that you've got a sunburn on the bottom of your nose (thank you, reflective snow), and the hair that wasn't under my hat or my jacket is now bleached as close to pure white as my hair's ever been, so I get to make women even more jealous of how my hair acquires excellent highlights without any work on my part.
Even stupidity can have its benefits sometimes, it would seem.

On an unrelated note to all the rest (except partially the mention of physics), here's an illustration of the effect of different altitudes on air pressure. Once I reached the summit yesterday I refilled the water bladder in my backpack from one of my water bottles, and here's the bottle after returning to 10,150 feet from the 14,440 at which it was sealed:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This just in: Memorial Day weekend has apparently been rescheduled for the middle of winter

Today was the first hike of the trip. I decided to start off both ambitious and lazy, with the easiest hike I had planned, which happened to be up Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the state (and the second highest in the contiguous 48). According to the guidebook, it's a 6-9 hour hike, depending on how good of a hiker you are.
I left Leadville at about 7 and got to the trailhead around 7:30. There are two different start points for the trail I used (the South Mt. Elbert Trail), and I used the higher one, or as close to it as I could manage. The higher one (which, as you may have guessed, results in a shorter hike) was at the end of two miles of fire roads that are designed for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Well, my vehicle has one-wheel-drive, but I gave it a shot anyway and managed to make it about three-quarters of the way up before a section of the road was flooded. (Side note: it's a lot of fun to ride on back roads like this, but I think in the process I knocked the muffler and now need to fix it again.)
From where I started, the trail was an 8.5-mile round trip, with a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The first mile wasn't bad – it was a bit steep in places, but this is a fourteener, so that's kinda the point. After that, though, I hit the snow.
Now, I realize that I'm currently at both a higher elevation and a higher latitude than in Virginia, and both of these tend to result in colder temperatures, but it's Memorial Day weekend, basically the start of summer. And I knew there was snow on the mountains when I got here – it's pretty hard to miss. However, the sheer amount of snow was the surprise.
At first, it didn't seem like much. My boots sunk an inch or two, but that was it. Then, all of a sudden, I was up to my knee. I'm rather grateful that I made it back without a broken knee or ankle given the number of times I sunk in without warning, while my body kept moving forward.
It was a pretty even mix of ice-topped snow that would at least mostly hold my weight, and fluffy snow that I sank right through. Some of it was only a few inches deep, but after another mile and a half or so the snow started getting deeper, to the point where there were multiple times I sunk in all the way to my waist.
This waist-deep snow happened to unfortunately coincide with a section of trail that I could only discern by the snowshoeprints left by someone else, and also unfortunately coincided in many places with a stream. Now, I have relatively waterproof boots, so the occasional quick dip into the shallow stream when my foot went through the snow wasn't a terribly big deal. However, my boots are only waterproof up to my ankles, not my waist, so the snow still got them soaked inside and out.
The trail turned pretty steeply uphill, and it felt as much like climbing as hiking. The waist-deep snow continued, and the trees got a bit denser. Not enough to make it impassable, but enough to be an annoyance.
Eventually, I reached the treeline. This brought with it a revelation that, based on the trail condition, I'd been somewhat expecting: I wasn't on the trail. The snow covered any markings on the ground, so all I had to go by were the snowshoeprints, and apparently whoever left them decided to be adventurous.
(Random side note: Mushroom/pineapple/jalapeno pizza is delicious. Especially after a day of hiking.)
Past the treeline, the trail itself isn't incredibly important for navigation purposes. I was going to the highest point for three hundred or more miles, so it was pretty easy to see which way I needed to go. However, trails are designed to follow relatively easy slopes, instead of going straight uphill. What followed was by far the most tiring two miles I've ever hiked. It was pretty much straight uphill, through the snow, although there weren't any spots in this section more than thigh deep.
By the time I was approaching the summit I was stopping every minute or two to catch my breath. Above 13,000 feet, 50 steps was the most I was able to manage without a break.
The terrain thankfully leveled out about five hundred feet from the summit, and the last section was a much gentler slope, culminating in a mound of rock and snow that made me the highest man in Colorado (with the possible exception of the folks who run the medical marijuana dispensary in Leadville).
For as far as I could see in any direction, there was no one. I passed two folks who were coming down while I was struggling up the last thousand feet, but that was it my entire time on the mountain, and they were long gone by the time I made the summit. It was 3:30 at that point, a full eight hours after leaving the trailhead.
I rested for a few minutes and took some pictures. It definitely ranks in my top 4 scenic landscapes. The first is a valley on the Vietnam/Laos border, the second is the area around the Temple of Delphi in Greece, and the third is the view around a lake in Norway (there should be pictures up of that one, back in late April or early May of 2009). The view from Elbert is definitely at least fourth, possibly higher. The exact rankings fluctuate based on my mood (right now, for example, the warmer the place, the more appealing it is, hence Vietnam and Greece taking the top two spots).
After enjoying the top for a few minutes I headed back down. However, it was a bit difficult to find the proper trail, because there are trails leaving in three or four directions, and only the footprints even indicated these. I initially took the wrong one, but it quickly became apparent when I compared the surrounding terrain to my map, and I was able to make my way around the slope leading to the summit to reach the trail I had intended to follow up to the top in the first place. Getting down from there was relatively simple, although still tiring and long. I got back to the bike at 7:15, nearly twelve hours after starting on a hike that wasn't supposed to take longer than nine even for a relatively inexperienced hiker such as myself. Right before reaching the bike it started raining, but just a few drops, not enough to really bother me.
After that, I hurried back to Leadville, and am currently sitting in the Tennessee Pass Cafe enjoying pizza and still suffering a bit from altitude sickness. On the one hand it's annoying – getting out of breath so easily sucks, and the trouble sleeping is also a bother, but the fact that after less than half of a 12” pizza I'm full, when all I've eaten today is trail mix and sunflower seeds, is a nice change from my usual overeating.
Anyway, all in all hiking Mt. Elbert was something that I'm very glad I did, but also something I'm very glad is over. I had planned on also hiking Mt. Massive and Mt. Harvard, but given the amount of remaining snow, as well as the fact that there's more in the forecast for tomorrow morning, I might just rest up and run a bit and try to get more used to the altitude before Mt. Whitney on the 7th. I don't particularly want to die in a snowdrift or have to be medevaced off a mountain, and given that I'm hiking solo, if something bad happens (as easily could've today, were it not for me being, as one friend put it when marveling at how life just seems to work out for me, seemingly protected by divine forces) those are the only two options. At the very least, I'll take tomorrow off. I might hike Massive on Monday or Tuesday if I'm feeling up to it.
And now, as a treat for those of you who've actually stuck it out through the past thousand-odd words, photos:

This is the trail intersection where I made a wrong turn. See that massive trail that goes straight, and the tiny little thing off to the right? I think you can guess which one is the correct one, based on what happened.

I like portrait photography, but as I'm traveling alone, I have to choose less-than-human subjects, like my hiking pole.

See that mound of snow in the center, the one covered in glare from the sun? Yeah, I hiked that. And this wasn't even taken from the bottom of the trail. There were still at least two miles left. (And the actual peak isn't even visible in this, it's a bit farther back and to the left, but because of the change in slope it's blocked from this angle.)

A layered shot of the lake and trees at the base of the mountain.

This is a flower that was growing in the snow on the eastern slope of Elbert. Reminds me of the flower from Batman Begins, but I didn't check to see whether it gets you high.

A photograph from the summit. If you look at it upside down it can almost (not quite, but almost) pass as the snow-covered shore of a lake, with the clouds reflected in the water.

(I apologize for none of the photos being post-processed, but I don't have any editing software on my netbook.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

The past few days

I'm going to start giving sections of the trip titles to sum up their general feelings.  Tuesday was "Biking".  Wednesday morning was "Macgyver".  Wednesday afternoon was "Tilting at tornadoes".  Thursday morning was "Flatland", and Thursday afternoon was "Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville".  Today is "Ultramarathoners are insane".  Now, to explain each of those.

On Tuesday evening in Santa Claus I wrote about the issues with the bike, about how it had been overheating.  As it turns out, it wasn't overheating.  Or, more accurately, that wasn't the primary problem.  The primary problem was that one of the mufflers had become almost completely detached.  In addition to making the bike annoyingly loud, this also messes with engine compression, hence some/all of the problems.  Luckily, with a mix of muffler tape, soda cans, and hose clamps, I was able to patch the very inconveniently placed holes.  It is probably the ghetto-est looking automotive fix I've ever done, even beating out the time I fixed an engine with just a ballpoint pen because this is nice and out in the open, but for the most part it's been working fine.  All I've had to do is occasionally tighten the clamps.
On a note unrelated to the fix, I also came closer than I'd ever come before to being in a motorcycle accident.  First, a couple informational points for non-motorcycle riders:
1. Head and tail winds can be annoying or helpful, respectively, but crosswinds are straight-up deadly.  If they gust they can force you off the road or into another lane of traffic, and if they're constant they force you to effectively bike at a slight angle to counteract the force (this is especially true for tiny bikes like the one I ride).
2. Tractor trailers (or any large object) block the wind for an area around them.  If there's no wind, the only dead spot is behind them, and a common hypermiling technique is to drive in this area of no wind in order to cut down air resistance.  If there's a cross-wind, there are also dead spots like this on the sides. 
These side dead spots are the important ones.  I was cruising along in the right lane as I usually do when a tractor trailer came to pass me, going significantly faster than I was.  Once it got past me, I hit the dead spot, and because I'd been correcting for the crosswind, I started moving towards the truck, which forced me to correct quickly in the other direction.  As soon as I could do this, the truck got ahead of me and the dead spot passed.  At this point the crosswind came back, knocking me strongly to the right, which was already the direction I was headed to avoid the truck.  As a result I had to screech to a halt on the shoulder to avoid going into the weeds at highway speed, which wouldn't have been very good.
Tilting at tornadoes
While stopped at a delightful combination gas station and liquor/fireworks store (we really need one or ten of those in Charlottesville), a passerby informed me that she hoped I wasn't heading west, because there was a tornado warning just past St. Louis.  Unfortunately, that's exactly where I was headed, and because I was already running late for the day and don't have as much flex time as I would like built into my schedule before hiking Mt. Whitney, I kept going, as fast as possible to make it through the storm quickly.  Not necessarily the smartest move (in fact, I think it's safe to say that it's definitely the  dumbest move I could've made in the situation), but it's what I did because, well, why not.  I ran into hideous traffic going through St. Louis (one of the reasons it's now my least-favorite US metropolitan area, and second worldwide), and as soon as I got through that I hit the storm.
Rain wise, I've seen worse.  Wind-wise, I've seen worse.  Combination of the two, well, I've still probably seen worse, but never on a motorcycle on the highway.  There were parts of it where the only way I could see where the road went was because of the taillights of the cars ahead of me, and the strong winds, plus slick road that prevented quick steering, meant I was drifting the entire width of the lane.  I never went into another lane (I had my default position be the far left side, and the wind was coming from the left), but it was close.  Luckily after Mt. Whitney I won't be on as tight a schedule and I'll be able to stop and sit out storms like that.
Because of going through the storm, though, I made it to Salina, Kansas.  Because of how wet and cold I was I just checked into a motel instead of the campground I'd been planning on using, and it was completely worth the extra cost.

Thursday morning was nothing but heading west through Kansas, and Kansas is flat.  If you've never been there, you really can't appreciate the accuracy of that statement.  There are points where the horizon is, as near as I can tell, a flat line all around.
I stopped for a picnic lunch at the highest point in Kansas, Mt. Sunflower, although calling it a mountain is misleading.  The prominence over the surrounding farmland is a whopping 19 feet, and it takes hundreds of feet in any direction to find a point that much lower.
Getting to Sunflower requires miles of driving on largely unmarked back-country Kansas gravel farm roads, and multiple times I thought I was lost, but I managed to make it there, and then back to the interstate, without any wrong turns.  I also got to experience the rare feeling of not actually knowing which state I was in, because the back roads criss-crossed from Kansas to Colorado without any sort of marking.

Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville
After leaving Kansas, the first part of Colorado wasn't much different.  The elevation was slightly higher but the overall feeling was the same.  Once I got past Denver, though, I finally realized that the unmoving clouds on the horizon were, in fact, the Rocky Mountains.
As I've mentioned before, I ride a 250-cc motorcycle.  That is, by most definitions, quite small, and as a comparison, it generates one-tenth the horsepower of a modern sport bike (20 vs. 200).  On the east coast, that's fine.  It can't quite make it to the speed limit on the uphill parts of I-64 where the limit got raised to 70, but overall it manages just fine.  Here, it struggled at times to maintain 45mph.  I had to drive in third gear (out of five) on the interstate.  However, despite these struggles, it made it, despite the common perception of 250s as being neither touring motorcycles nor good on hills.  And I'll confess, it certainly isn't ideal for either of these, but when you need it to, it can pull through just fine.
Anyway, after all the mountains, both the incredibly slow uphills and probably slightly too fast downhills, I made it to Leadville, Colorado, roughly 1,750 miles west of, and approximately two miles above, Charlottesville.

Ultramarathoners are insane
As some of you may know, it's harder to breath the higher above sea level you are.  I'm not sure about the number for Leadville, but on the summit of the highest peak I'll be hiking, Mt. Whitney, which is 4,300 feet above Leadville's elevation, you're only getting 58% of your normal oxygen.  Here it isn't quite that bad, but it's still enough to make breathing noticeably more difficult, even when you're just sitting there.  This hypoxia (lack of oxygen) causes what is known as altitude sickness, which I'm currently suffering.  The symptoms are headaches, trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite (there are more, but those are the ones I'm feeling).  They've been getting better the longer I spend here and they'll continue to improve as I stay at elevations like this, as my body acclimates to the air.
As some others of you may know, there's an annual race in Leadville, the Leadville Trail 100.  It's been held each August since 1983 and it is, as the name might suggest, a 100-mile trail race.  Such "ultramarathons" have grown in popularity the past few decades after the realizations that humans are actually not all that bad at running seemingly absurd distances.  Leadville was started because someone wanted to combine those absurd distances with altitude sickness, because 100 miles on its own just isn't tough enough.
I feel completely confident in saying that I'll never run 100 miles.  The farthest I've ever run is a little over a half-marathon, and I doubt that I'll break that anytime soon.  Earlier today, I went for a shorter run, just 2.6 miles, and I have to say, anyone who willingly runs in the Leadville 100 is insane.  2.6 was tough enough, although admittedly at the end it wasn't that bad.  You're already out of breath when you start, but it didn't really feel that different from running, say, the last 2.6 miles of a 5 or 8 mile run, from a breathing perspective.  However, running that 40 times is just crazy (not that that's necessarily a bad thing, I should point out.  I'm sure many people would consider a lot of the things I do to be crazy, but that doesn't make me think they're bad ideas).
The rest of the day has been spent getting ready for hiking tomorrow: getting maps, washing all the clothes that unfortunately got soaked and smelly as a result of one of my saddlebag rain-covers blowing away during the storm outside St. Louis, and reading.

I've taken a fair number of pictures, but I forgot that Windows doesn't have built-in support for Canon .cr2 raw files, so it'll take me some time to convert them over.  I probably won't end up posting them until much later, perhaps the end of the trip, but from now on I'll make sure to shoot in both .jpg and .cr2.
And now, time to read more.  Toodles.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Day one: Biking

Today's a new record for me, motorcycling-wise, as I biked roughly 590 miles, or 90 more than I ever have in a day.  If all goes according to plan tomorrow will be yet another record (but we'll see how well that works out).
I started the day off with a family farewell breakfast at the Tavern, and then hit the road a bit before 9:30.  Virginia went well, as I didn't hit any rain, but once I got to West Virginia I encountered a few squalls.  I took a brief nap right before reaching Kentucky, which proceeded to go by pretty quickly.  Then, Indiana.
Right about when I hit Indiana the bike started behaving a bit strangely.  It sputtered a bit and burned through gas much more quickly than it should've (getting just a bit over 40 mpg instead of the 50 from earlier today).  This combined with the fact that eastern Indiana is seemingly devoid of all civilization made for a bit of a nerve-wracking ride, but eventually I was able to make it to my campground in Santa Claus, Indiana.  No clear determination of what's wrong with the bike, but the most likely thing was overheating, as it'd done 500 miles in 70-80s degree heat before encountering difficulties.
I have to admit, I'm always a bit nervous at the start of trips like this (although the only really comparable thing I've done is backpacking around Europe with my brother two years ago, so it's a small sample size).  There are so many things that could potentially go wrong.  Normally in my life I just assume that everything'll work out fine and then just deal with it when it doesn't, but any one thing going wrong right now could cascade into a whole massive mess of delays.  The bike is the big thing I'm worried about right now, although I do expect it'll work better tomorrow once it's had a chance to cool.  Regardless of whether the problem persists, though, I'm going to get a bigger bike before going on another long bike trip like this again.  The Nighthawk can just barely make it up to the speed limit on the interstate when loaded with stuff, and it's clearly struggling to do that.
However, that's not going to be feasible until the fall, and right now, I need to get to bed so I can get an early start tomorrow.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Biking and Hiking

Tomorrow morning I'll be departing on my bike trip across the country. I delayed starting by a day after realizing that a) I had way too much to do here to get it all done on Sunday evening and b) that I had overestimated how long some of the biking and hiking would take. I'll be spending tomorrow night in Santa Claus, Indiana, and the following night in Salina, Kansas. After that, it's five days in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the US, during which I'll be hiking the three highest peaks in Colorado. On one of those days, I'll blog about the trip there.

On an unrelated note, I'm now a college graduate. Woo.

(The picture at the top is a photograph from my trip to the Kentucky Derby (well, technically the ride back), taken by my bike-mounted camera.)