Popping Through the Clouds; Feeling My Head Explode

I wouldn’t call myself a “fair weather hiker.” Not only would it imply some flaw in my character but it’s just not true: I hike in every month of the year, and I’ll take off for the mountains in nearly any condition. But I prefer sunshine. For me, hiking is all about digging beauty … and let’s face it, it’s prettier in the sunshine. (And, it’s kind of hard to dig beauty when you’re cold and wet and your glasses are fogged up and you can’t see a goddamned thing!)

Truth is, I’m pretty much committed to getting outside every day, and to at least starting out for a hike no matter what (though if I can delay by a day to grab sunshine, I’ll do it). Honestly, if you put off hikes on the chance of bad weather in the Pacific Northwest, you won’t hike much. Besides, the weather changes around here so rapidly that you never know that what you’ve got at home is what you’ll have at the trailhead, let alone a few thousand feet higher. So a lot of times, I’ll go out anyway, taking a chance for the big payoff that comes when you start in the murk, in a raincoat, and maybe slog through the morning mist for miles, or drive two hours in the fog, like we did getting up to White Chuck just this last year.

Some days you start in the murk …
.. and it never gets any better.

Sometimes you start in the murk and never escape it, and hey, you get some nice exercise in a cloud. It’s not like there’s really a bad day in the mountains.

But sometimes the world just transforms as you rise, the clouds shifting and thinning as you switchback up, patches of blue materializing overhead, and you realize you’re right at the top of the cloud deck as it floats and weaves around you–like you’ve been underwater and now you’re coming to the surface of a wavy sea. And then, suddenly, you’re above it all, and it’s just blue above and the nearby summits rise out of the cloudy sea. 

Alex and me on Bald Mountain

It’s days like this that convince me to keep trying, just to keep heading out, taking the chance that today is the day for the big payoff, when you climb out of the clouds and look across a pillowy white sea. My favorite “popping out” days happened not on the big boys—Baker and Rainier—but rather on Dickerman with Sara; on Bald Mountain with Alex; and then just this last fall, with John, Sam, and Louisa on White Chuck. The pictures will tell the story better than words.

On Rainier
On Dickerman with Sara, Big Four in the background
White Chuck
Sam and Lou digging some beauty on White Chuck

Oddly enough, there’s an odd parallel to my daily practice of reading, for there too the regular practice sometimes leads to an outsize payoff. 

Here’s my morning routine: up around 4:30 AM, I turn on the fire, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down to read. I read Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email, check out a few stories from Dave Pell’s Next Draft, go through newsletter dailies from The Guardian, The NY Times, Wired, the MIT Technology Review, check for new stories in The New Yorker, and then dip into some light car stuff from Jalopnik. I read fast and bail quickly on stuff that doesn’t light my fire.

Most days it’s pretty conventional, but every now and then I go running off on a wild goose chase that feels like I’ve stepped into a different world. Just last week, for example, I chased down a reference from Austin Kleon that led me to Alan Jacob’s quirky blog (specifically, one titled “A Newsletter of Newsletters”) and from there I went careening off off into wilds of the web, running into Robin Rendle, Paul Kedrosky, Lauren O’Connell, … man, I don’t know how I started or which led to which, but it was an adventure that just lit me up!

When Sara came down the stairs around 6:30, I was giddy, grinning from ear to ear.

“You look happy,” said Sara.

“Honey, I feel like my head has exploded!,” I replied. I felt like I was riding a big wild wave of variety and quirkiness that had rolled in off the free, wild Internet that’s still out there when I venture off my beaten path.

That day, I broke through the clouds.

What You Go Up, You’ve Got to Come Down

Or, How I Ruined My Shoulders on Whitehorse Mountain

When I think back on all the hikes I’ve done over the years, there are a few that stand out:

The first summit of Mt. Baker, when we were too excited to sleep; finally making it up Glacier Peak, after bailing out on multiple earlier attempts due to the weather turning to shit; John, Nick, and I stuck on Sperry Peak, where we took the wrong route and found ourselves on a high ledge, choosing between two bad options—keep going up, or try going down; my fall on Merchant Peak.

Dawn as we prepare to go up the Roman Wall on Mt. Baker

Those last two are the closest I’ve come to … well, I don’t want to be melodramatic and call it “death,” because who knows, but certainly the closest I’ve come to serious injury. There’s a good story about all of these hikes.

Whitehorse

The funny thing is, the climb on which I had my most serious injury goes down in my mind as one of my absolute favorites: Whitehorse Mountain, which John and I climbed on May 23, 2009, where I ended up tearing the rotator cuff on both shoulders and the labrum on the left. My shoulders have never been the same since—but this story isn’t about my shoulders.

When John and I set out that May morning, we didn’t really expect to get to the summit. We were out for a “conditioner,” just something to give our legs a workout without going up Pilchuck for the umpteenth time. When you call something a “conditioner,” it kind of lowers your expectations; we expected to get to Lone Tree Pass for sure, maybe High Pass, but not the summit. Since I’m expecting you’re going to go out and do this soon, here are just a couple route description links: WTA and Mountaineers.) But then we got going, and everything just kept going our way: we hit snow early and the snow quality down low was not bad (meaning, not too wet and slushy), and then as we got to the back side of the ridge and started up again, a group ahead of us left such a great boot path that it made our work “easy” (watch the video to see why I put easy in quotes).

Soon enough we had reached the second, higher ridge (High Pass) and were looking at the summit and we said, hell, why not. It was just one of those blue-sky days where the snow was beautiful and our legs felt good, like we could go on forever. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the last stretch to the summit that we understood why people roped up. Damn, it was steep! But it wasn’t far and there was so much snow and we felt good so, why not? And off we went, digging in with the ice axe, kicking in hard with our crampons, until we made the summit.

Up top, we met another group, four or five climbers who had roped up. And we started to talk about the difficulty of getting down.

The Downclimb

One of the things that you learn when you start stretching your climbing skills is that it’s easier going up than going down. I say you learn this, but really, it’s something the mountains teach you. Facing the mountain, looking into it, you keep your feet planted beneath you and you probe with your hands and your eyes going up. You can easily do more than you should. But head down the same path and it’s a whole different ballgame. Suddenly you’re facing the void, keenly aware of the depths beneath you—the space you could fall into and through. It’s harder to see the footholds, and you can’t probe with your feet the same way. Gravity wants to pull you forward. It can be fucking scary. So over time you learn that you never want to go up something you don’t want to come down. So you calibrate in your mind, how will this be going down? And if you’re smart, you find a route that will provide a safe return.

We did this little calibration on Whitehorse and we concluded that we could make it down. In truth, I’d probably make the same decision today. 

As we prepared to head down, the folks who had rope offered that we could use their rope on the downclimb. I liked that idea; John preferred to turn his face into the mountain and downclimb, kicking steps and using his axe. Turns out his was the better decision.

I didn’t have a climbing harness, so I decided to do an “arm rappel.” I had never done this before so I made it up and it went like this: I held the top end of the rope in my right hand, looped the rope around my back, and then held the bottom end of the rope in my left hand, holding enough tension that I could kind of lean back into the rope. The idea was I’d kind of “bounce” my way down the steepest part of the mountain this way, until the slope started to mellow and I could get off the rope. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But given the steepness of the pitch it wasn’t easy at all. I’d feed myself some slack, reset the rope, then drop backward—fifty or a hundred times, jerking myself to a stop, taking the full weight of my body onto my shoulders. I felt a bit like a puppet, holding to the strings of some cruel puppet master who kept dropping me and jerking me to a stop. (Experienced climbers will observe that there are techniques to make an arm rappel easier, the Dülfersitz rappel being the most common. What can I say? I didn’t know.)

But soon enough the slope let up, and I left the rope, waving to my friends at the top, calling out “thank you.” As I watched John cautiously, methodically downclimb the same slope–facing the mountain, kicking in, planting his axe–I rubbed the shoulders I had just thrashed. They hurt! But what was I going to do: we had seven miles and 7,000 vertical to hike out, some of it in steep snow. We packed up our ice axes, lengthened our poles, and off we went. It was a spectacular climb, such a worthy summit, and every time I see Whitehorse I remember it fondly.

But my shoulders have never been the same. In 12 years, I’ve had two surgeries, stem cell injections, multiple round of physical therapy … and still, a couple tough yoga poses and I’m back into full-on pain, my shoulders aching with any rotation.

One great climb; years of aching shoulders. Still, I’d do Whitehorse again, if any of the Caribunkle Boys are up for it.

Playing the Mask Game

I’m not one of those anti-mask people, but I sure as hell hate wearing one. I hate the way it makes my glasses fog up, I hate the smell of my breath sometimes, I hate how hot it is on a hot day. But mostly I hate the way it makes us all act.

My first mask, fashioned from a pair of underwear

From nearly the moment we were first asked to start wearing masks, we (that is, society) started playing the mask game. Now, I’m not talking about the mask game where one person wears a mask to show the world that they believe in science and another person refuses a mask because they think this whole virus thing is a hoax . I hate that game, I hate it a lot, but that’s a little bit of a different game, in my mind: that’s the truth game, the one where one person has got a different set of facts that they’re going to insist on and up yours if you don’t agree. In that version of the mask game, wearing a mask is a political and ideological statement. That mask game is just a reflection of how polarized we are and it mostly just makes me sad, but we don’t play that version of the mask game too much out here in Western Washington. 

In the mask game that we play out here, we all believe the science that says that wearing masks is a great way to limit the spread of the virus—we’re just not quite sure how strict we should be about it, and that ends up making us crazy. 

On the one hand you’ve got the person who is never going to leave the house without their mask, so you see them walking out of their house (alone) with their mask on, hoping into their car and driving around (alone) with their mask on. What’s going through their mind, I wonder? Are they so deathly afraid of catching the virus that they use the mask to ward off any chance? (I feel a little sad they live in this kind of fear.) Are they, like a friend of mine, trying to make a statement, to “normalize” mask-wearing so that no one ever feels self-conscious about wearing a mask because they see it so often? (I marvel that he feels so responsible for the actions and feelings of others and so capable of influencing them.) Or have they grown so sick of taking a mask on and off, up and down, that they just say to hell with it and leave it on? (This one kind of makes sense to me!)

On the other hand, you’ve got those folks who kind of believe the scientific rationale behind wearing a mask, but mostly wear one out of the desire to confirm to social norms. Some of these folks are likely just one step from being anti-maskers: they’re the ones who pull the bandanna up over their mouth but don’t bother to cover their nose, or who have a ratty old blue mask hung from one ear, and they pull it over their mouth only when asked or when it becomes odious not to. They are only wearing a mask because they have to; you can see it in their eyes.

And then you have the great majority who carry a mask with them at all times and really do keep it in place whenever they are in close proximity to others. It’s not so bad, after all, and if it prevents the spread of illness, how can you really argue against that?

But even these folks (this group includes me) get confused once they step foot into the great outdoors and there’s nowhere that this confusion has been more obvious to me than on the hiking trails. Early on in the pandemic, say June or July, I’d go out hiking and I’d rarely see anyone with a mask. Maybe at the trailhead, but once out on the trail, the general attitude (which I absolutely held) was hey, we’re outside, we’re spread apart, there is ample air flow: no mask needed.

But as the summer wore on, that started to change: more and more, I’d see people carrying masks, and as you approached each other on the trailhead, they’d go through this dance of “masking up” and then speeding past, barely acknowledging me. The numbers of people prepared to do the mask dance grew and grew, and at some point I kept a mask ready to do the dance as well. Honestly, I still believe that fresh air and distance were ample protection, but I didn’t want to bum people out. If we were on a tight trail or couldn’t give enough space, I played the mask game.

The mask game hurt a little bit, I have to admit. One of the things I like most out on a hike is a hearty hello, a sharing of route conditions, maybe a story about what you’d seen, etc. (Now, to be fair, I only really enjoy this kind of exchange on little-used trails, which are most of the trails I go on. On the few times I was on really popular trails, I do my best to avoid people. Truth is, I hate people, or least the ones who like to be around a lot of other people.) Once people masked up, though, they became far less likely to say hello. They literally and figuratively kept their distance. One couple with children made a big production of standing off the trail and turning their backs to me as we passed. Well, good day to you too!

The highlight of my hiking summer was this arduous hike Sara and I took up Mt. Baldy in the Olympics. The first mile was an ass-kicker, as we ascended 2000 vertical feet in less than a mile, but then we got up into the open meadows and had a spectacular time on the summit all by ourselves. We never saw a soul the entire day—an absolute rarity in the Pacific Northwest. And that meant we never once had to play the mask game. 

For too long I have rued the mask game, calling it “pandemic theater” and just generally lamenting the distance that it put between people, not to mention the inconvenience. But today, walking around our favorite spot up at Deception Pass, I landed on a idea that made it kind of fun. I called it the “I’m not sharing my breath” game. As we saw people coming I’d say to Sara, “I’m not sharing my breath with them” and I’d pull up my mask, but smile and give them a big hello.

Damn, I’m sure looking forward to getting back to normal.

2020: The Year of Paying Attention

This post is akin to my “Christmas letter” and it’s primarily intended for friends and family.

The year began normally enough, with business travel. Two trips to San Francisco for work conferences and then four days of product management training in Salt Lake City. I felt like I was off to a roaring start, but Sara traveled more, back and forth to Atlanta and other cities for her consulting business. Work was an endless hurtle forward.

And then, at the tail end of February, we had a brief joyful jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, where the only cloud on the horizon was the specter of this odd virus that seemed to be spreading around the world, starting in the U.S. at a nursing home not far from my work. I recall the slight pall of paranoia that clouded the plane as we returned home from Phoenix: lots of empty seats; I coughed and drew an accusatory stare from the couple across the aisle.

But in a matter of days, it got all too real: Back at work on March 4, we (the executive team) advised employees who felt nervous about coming to work to feel free to work from home, then just two days later, on March 6, we followed the lead of the big tech companies nearby (Amazon, Microsoft, others) and “strongly encouraged” all employees to start working from home. And with that, 2020 really began. 

I think of March 6 as the day that divides my old life from my new life, because I’ve not been back to the office since. The old life looked like this: chase work all week, don’t slow down, regroup on Friday night, and have fun until it all starts again on Monday. 

Ah, but this new life! No more commute, comfy clothes constantly, and there’s my lovely wife every day and we can go for walks to Vetucchio and make meals and sit by the fire at night. Time seemed to slow right down, and suddenly I began paying attention to things that had rushed by before: birds singing in the trees, bread to bake, a lawn to mow, music to listen to. In the 2020 that started in March, someone turned down the volume and turned up all the colors.

I first recognized that 2020 was rewiring my brain as I mowed my lawn with my new battery-powered mower. Without the noise and exhaust fumes, lawn mowing became a banquet of sensory delights: the smell of the grass, the sound of birds singing, the patterns of straight lines I drew across our newly-seeded lawn, the smell of the lavender. I mowed in a goofy meditative trance, pausing to wave to neighbors walking by, moving slowly, slowly, because I wanted straight lines and because mowing had become a way of expressing love for this home where I was now spending so much time. Why rush through something that brings so much pleasure?

It wasn’t the logic of slowing down that caused our remodel to linger so long into 2020. We started this remodel* on June 14 of 2019 but a hiccup here and there–earth to be moved, walls to be painted–pushed the last steps so late into the year that they just had to wait till spring, but then spring came and the ‘rona kept all contractors from finishing their work, so completion dragged on into the middle of the summer and it wasn’t until September that we finally put the finishing touches on with the front porch mosaic project. (In truth, we may have intimidated ourselves a little bit with the complexity we had designed in–there are 503 pieces of slate tile involved, and I had to cut every one of them–but it truly is the crowning touch on the project.) In the midst of this long project, I (finally) realized that when it comes to matters of aesthetics and design, I should just shut the hell up and let Sara call the shots, because her eye for design just knocks my socks off. When I mow the lawn and trim the lavender, it’s just me doing my part to celebrate Sara’s wonderful vision for this place. 

*Note the term “this remodel,” because this was the third major remodel we have undertaken on this house since we bought it in 1998 and it’s intended to be the last, not counting minor stuff that we’ll never stop doing. We determined that with this remodel, we’d have completed the house in a form that we could then live in forever. Forever! Ha!

Three months into the pandemic, it felt a bit like the walls were closing in, so we planned an escape down to an AirBnB on the Washington side of the river in the Columbia Gorge. What an escape it was: this big airy house had a wall of windows that looked south to Mt. Hood, and it sat alone on the edge of an orchard. The kids came down too and we relished the new sights and the chance to pretend for just a little while that we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

A couple months later, Sara and I escaped on our own, celebrating 30 years of marriage at an AirBNB out near Sequim, where we spent four days biking, hiking, eating–but mostly just digging each other’s company. It feels like we’ve got this whole loving each other thing pretty well dialed in.

It’s not like I discovered my need for speed this year, but I sure as hell indulged it. I got my new car—my first real sports car—in mid 2019, but other than a few autocross days I didn’t really lean in on what it could do until this summer. The moment the BMW CCA offered a track day at Pacific Raceways, I jumped at the chance to get my M2 out on the track. I had flogged other people’s cars on a track before but never my own, so I eased into it slowly, adding speed here, more brakes there, slowly, incrementally finding the limits–and finding them well beyond my own capacity. It was up to me to build the skill and the courage to go faster, and this became the immensely rewarding mental challenge of the summer and early fall. I did several more track days, burning through a set of tires and pushing my OEM brake pads well past their limits. I started making plans for some 2021 modifications–R-rated tires and track pads–that would allow me to go even faster … but then this opportunity came up. For a guy who had been reading about tracks all his life, the chance to drive my car at Laguna Seca was simply too good to pass up, so I accelerated my planned modifications and hauled my ass down I5 to Monterey to see what I could do. I wrote about this quite a bit, so if you’re a car nut, check out those links above.

After a couple years of pretty avid running, I hit a bit of a snag in 2019 when I ripped the muscles in my lower abdomen. After trying multiple courses of PT and steroid injection, I hit the summer of 2020 resigned to the fact that I’d likely need surgery to fix the issue—but I said to my doc, let me just get through the summer hiking season (as hiking didn’t seem to exacerbate the tear very much) and then maybe we could address the issue in the fall or winter. Well holy shit, it’s like I opened the door on the best hiking season ever! For a bunch of reasons—the injury, craving variety, wanting to hike where we wouldn’t run into a bunch of people so we wouldn’t have to play this stupid pandemic theater mime-show of “oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask even though I’m out in the wilderness”—I summited a bunch of new mountains and that was just a blast. Among the highlights: Alta Mountain with Jeff Morgenroth; turning around just short of the summit Hibox Mountain with Louisa, and then nearly getting lost in the woods, great learning experiences both; Silver Mountain with Julien Duplant; White Chuck with Louisa, Sam, and John Tucker, which was by far the most scenic hike of the year; and an anniversary vacation hike to Mt. Baldy with Sara where we never saw another soul the entire time (this never happens, never). On Baldy, realizing that we had the place to ourselves, I stripped bare-ass naked just to feel the air on my skin. I’ll spare you the pictures.

Conrad and Abbie moved in together on July 18 to a terrific spot overlooking the city, and they are already remaking the place in their tasteful image. It sure is nice to see him so happy with his delightful girlfriend. And he also got a new job at AWS. Good job son.

Sam and Lou got a puppy: Grover P. Underfoot. In their characteristic way, they carefully planned how they would train him and it worked: our grand-puppy is a delight. Lou is mid-way through her PhD, tending her kidney cells in the lab, and she also got a new part-time gig working as an analyst for a biotech VC firm in Seattle. And Sam is living his dream as a firefighter for the City of Tacoma. 

Late in the year, Sara took the pedal off the gas on her consulting work and started painting more. Her paintings dry on a rail in my office, which is awesome for me, her biggest fan.

That’s what this year felt like to me. How was it for you?

Caribunkle Is a Made-Up Word

“Caribunkle!” called Alex from down the steeply sloping snow.

“What?!” Asked Nick.

“Caribunkle!! Throw me a caribunkle,” called Alex.

“Alex, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” cried Nick. He looked at me and John and we stared back blankly.

“I need a caribunkle, I’m out of caribunkles!,” Alex’s voice rose in frustration.

And then it hit us—he wanted another carabiner. “Oh for fuck’s sake Alex, it’s a carabiner,” I yelled down. We didn’t know if he’d forgotten the word or if we’d just misinterpreted his thick Glaswegian accent, but we sent him down a carabiner.

Heading up Rainier

Ever since that day in the spring of 2007, we’ve called ourselves the Caribunkle Boys. We were training for a summit attempt on Mt. Rainier, so we hung out a lot. We were prone to call out “Caribunkle” when we had gotten spread out on the trail, or when one guy on the rope line needed a break. Sometimes we’d just call it out because something was fucking absurd. We never just spoke the word, nor did we use it in a sentence. It was always a call—“Caribunkle!”—with a faint Scottish accent. It knit us together.

I’ve known Alex for twenty years now, and for the first 15 minutes of seeing him, I don’t know what the hell he’s saying. On the phone? Forget it. It’s usually he wants to go for a hike or to get together for a beer. We figure it out. Once I’ve been around him a bit I warm up to him and know just what he’s saying.

Every now and then he gets exasperated with us, and he puts on what he considers to be a John Wayne accent and talks real slow: “Well boys, let me tell you …”

It’s good to have friends like these. We’ve raised our kids together, summited some peaks and turned back on others. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company in 2-man tents amid too-friendly goats and over beers at Fred’s, Trail’s End, Josh’s … where-ever it’s quiet enough for us to hear each other.

So what’s caribunkle mean? Well, I guess it literally means carabiner … but let’s not let that hold us back.