Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Was I Thinking

With the possible exception of going to college every worthwhile thing I've done in my life has had a "what the hell was I thinking" moment, so when I woke up the other night wondering "what the hell am I thinking trying to start a clothing company," I took it as a welcome omen.

The guys at Tarboo provided Bianca and I with a first run sample of our urban biking pant. I was able to get about 40 miles in them before Donna cut them up in preparation for iteration number two. I'm getting a big kick out of working with Matt, Mikoyo and Donna at Tarboo; it's a nice feeling when you are confident that you've found the right people.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Single Speed

I showed up at the MFG Raceway CX at Marymore with only fifteen bucks in my thin wallet, so the first order of business was to saddle up and ride to the nearest ATM. Fortunately I’d arrived ninety minutes prior my race and, doubly fortunate, the bank machine was only about two miles away. Unfortunate was the three bucks I had to pay to make a withdrawal, but that’s a different story. A different story entirely.

After paying up, I skirted under the danger tape and hit the soggy course. Kore Kross has gotten me accustomed to the funky off camber hillsides, claylike slime and zero friction when wet blue paint; I felt like I had a bit of a home field advantage, excepting, of course, all the other guys who do Kore Kross. The layout of the course was nice, no crazy tight turns or barriers placed on uphill sections, the short wooden stairway was right up my alley – the more running the better I say.

I took two solid laps and then returned to the car where I screwed my rear skewer into the trainer and worked on getting my heart rate up. I’ve found that I have to push through what I call the “race heart attack” before I can really settle in and start pushing hard. It happens about five or eight minutes into the race, suddenly I can’t seem to get enough air and I swear I’m going into cardiac arrest, it only happens once and if I can push through it I’m set for the remainder of the race. I’ve had my ticker checked out on a stress test – I watched my heart beat in real time, that was cool – and I’m totally fine, it’s just one of those things. Anyway my plan now is to crank up my heart rate pre-race, so then I’ll be good to go by the time the starting gun fires.

I was only on the trainer for fifteen minutes when the announcer said that all ten thirty racers should be at the starting line. Heck it was only ten fifteen. I undid the bike and rolled over to the start line. I entered at the back and started nudging forward – using the tactics I learned in the eighties to get front stage at the big arena rock concerts. So many teammates, I think there were seven or eight of us in the forty five plus race. The rain had stopped but I was cooling down fast, start the race, start the race.

I was in the rear third of the pack at the start, but I got a number of lucky breaks during the lead out drag race and rounded the first turn in the top third. I only use one chain ring in the front and had switched to a thirty four tooth ring, it looked kind of tiny, but combined with a eleven twenty four in the back I had more than enough gears. I was rolling along really well when I slid out while paralleling a slimy slope. I got up fell again, lost my chain, fixed that got up started pedaling only to realize that my left shift/brake lever was broken off. Good thing I don’t have a front derailleur. Midway through the second lap I broke the shift mechanism on the right side. Now I was down to one brake and one gear. Luckily it was a good gear.

As I came around by the parking lot I seriously considered just ducking the tape and going home – mechanical failure – who would blame me. The biggest problem I had wasn’t the lack of brakes or gears it was holding onto the broken shift lever. I normally ride on the hoods and my left lever was held on by rubbery rubber. If that lever came off completely I was going over the handlebars.

Honestly I don’t think I would have placed any higher had I had a full set of twenty gears. Riding with a single gear wasn’t a terrible handicap. Maybe I could have spun up the hills a little better, but really it was no big deal. I never really got used to that SRAM Doubletap stuff anyway; breaking the levers gave me an excuse to switch out to Ultegra. Dang those shift levers are expensive.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Under Pressure

My Office - my dad gave me that

pencil in 1983 - used it ever since

Still trying to crack the cyclocross nut. Got beat up fairly bad last night at Kore Kross. My main problem is holding a tight line on the grassy corners: I routinely get passed on the tight curves. Yesterday I mounted up a pair of Kenda Kross Supremes; I went to three bike shops and these were the toughest tire I could find. As a side note I’m a bit surprised by how little space Seattle bike shops dedicate to cyclocross. The races here are immense – the turnout dwarfs that of road races. In addition the cyclocross design is far and away the most versatile bicycle style: if I could only own one bike it would be a cross bike. Anyway I got new tires and pumped them up to a risky thirty five psi.
Prior to my first cross race I’d heard that you should run your tires a bit “soft,” so I raced with what a road racer would consider low pressure – eighty psi. I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself. Now I drop it all the way down to the mid-thirties - seriously risking a pinch flat – in order to rail through the corners. I know it’s possible to hold a tight fast line through the grassy curves, but still I’m wobbly, wide and sketchy at best.
The new tires didn’t make much of a difference, so I guess the rider is at fault. Unlike road riding, it’s hard to practice cross racing, especially grassy turns. There are a few trails near my house where I can practice single track riding, but most of the courses that I’ve seen have a lot more grass than dirt.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Be The Aggressor

Rode cyclocross training last night, the evenings are getting darker, wetter and colder around here. Only the geezers and die-hards remain in attendance. I enjoy these Wednesday night sessions because they allow me an opportunity to work on my aggression.

A young guy showed up last night – I’d never seen him before – with a Motobecane single speed and he tore up the course. Normally when you get tangled up with another rider there are a lot of apologies and oh go ahead’s but this guy bashed on past without so much as a flick of the head. He wasn’t goofy and unpredictable, like most of the juniors, he was solid, he was fast and if you were in his way he was going on by. On the final lap I decided to take his queue and upped my aggression three or four notches.

It’s easy to suck wheel in cyclocross. First of all, if you’re a road rider sitting on a wheel becomes kind of ingrained behavior. Secondly it’s easy. The guy in front will always take the best line, so if you want to get around you’re going to have to take the longest, roughest, suckiest route. In other words, passing is really tough. You have to really want it. At the North Bend race two weeks ago my wherewithal was put to the test. On the final two laps I ran up against the tail end of the 35+ racers (I race 45+) and if I wanted to get anywhere I had to push past. It was a good lesson; I kept my pace up, pushed on by and didn’t look back.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ying and Yang in Ballard

Had some business in Ballard yesterday and was able to spend a rainy hour walking the main drag. Stopped in at the Dutch Bike Company some coffee then wandered north stopping in at Second Ascent - just to see if they had anything cool - they did.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gray Twilight

I’ve finally settled on my epitaph – a slogan, a motto, a thought from the other side. Five simple words that sum up a life – my life: at least I fucking tried.

My all time favorite quote comes from good old T.R. – the Rough rider himself:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Far too many live in the gray twilight, and for good reason: things go easy there. It’s easy to say “I should’ve.” It’s easier to say “I could’ve.” It’s the rare person who can say “I tried.” Rarer still is the one in a million who can look back on life and say “I did.”

The word adventure is overused by advertisers marketing their crap to soft squishy Americans: how does driving a brand new four by four down a gravel road constitute an adventure? That ain’t my idea of adventure. On the other end some purists have hijacked the word claiming that an adventure must include some sort of near-death experience, or, at the very least, a large element of risk. I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, but in my book an adventure means that the outcome is uncertain.

Parenting is definitely an adventure. For me, my first Ironman was an adventure – I stood on the beach unsure as to whether I could actually pull this thing off. Right now I am starting my own business, and if an uncertain outcome is the criteria, this definitely counts as an adventure.

The death of Steve Jobs should serve as a wake-up call for all of us living in the gray twilight: life is short, make your time count. I’m not ready to deify Mr. Jobs as many would like, but he did make his time count.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Killer Instinct

An old friend of mine, who I just learned is now President and CEO of K2 Skis, used to say with regard to skiing, “if you ain’t falling you ain’t improving.” I took those words to heart, and even today when I go skiing I hit hard and I hit often. But the philosophy doesn’t simply apply to skiing – it also applies to cyclocross.

I think you could have a very successful career as a road racer and never once taste concrete – at least I hope this is the case – but if you want to be a competitive cyclocross racer you have to ride the thin line between vertical and horizontal.

I raced at Meadowbrook Farm in North Bend on Sunday; it was a flat, grassy, bumpfest, and now, two days later, I feel more like I spent my weekend in an MMA ring than on a bicycle. Actually the course was perfect for me: flat with spacious straights and wide generous turns. I finished 15th despite going down prior to the first barriers and losing my chain. This was by far my best race.

It was on the first lap and I came in hot on the inside of a left hand turn and before I knew it I was on the ground sliding across the grass. Lucky for me the guys behind me were quick on the pedals and I didn’t get run over. I was maybe thirty feet shy of the barriers, so I shouldered the bike and ran for it. When I remounted I realized that I’d lost my chain. Re-chaining was the killer – I probably lost seven maybe ten places, bummer that I went down so early as we were still fairly bunched up.

As I’ve noted in the past my biggest obstacle when it comes to bicycle racing is myself. I just don’t have the killer instinct, that little extra ounce of something – I don’t know what it is – that pushes you past that guy in front of you. I seem to be, however, moving away from that “oh it’s nice here in the back,” mentality.

The race on Sunday had some wide open easy pass areas and I used every opportunity to push past the guy in front of me. Halfway through the third lap I was running into the 35+ racers and had to get out on the rough to pass while they cruised along on the smooth(er) beaten track. I was tempted on a few occasions to yell “get the hell out of the way,” but hey we’re all in it together, and you gotta work if you want to pass.

At the end of the third lap I was pushing hard towards the finish line when I heard the announcer say “last lap.” What? This is a four lap race! I thought it was three. Dang. Actually I was happy for the surprise lap as I was able to move up a few more places.

It was a great race in a great venue – I can’t wait to get out there again.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gallop and Gasp

Seems like whenever I put on my bike kit I might as well be painting a big target on my back. Take this morning: I was riding up to my team photo and, as usual, was running late, so I was cruising along East Mercer, maybe twenty twenty one when I pass some dude, give him a wave and move on; well three minutes later here he comes around me at probably twenty six twenty seven and then immediately pulls back. The guy had totally gassed himself. In days gone by I would have just slowed down and let him move on up the road, no need to cause a commotion. But those days are no more. The second that fella slowed down I threw down and buried that asshole.

I get passed all the time; it ain’t no big thing, but if you’re going to pass, do it and move down the road. This gassing oneself just to get around the guy in the team kit and then puttering out is nonsense, but it’s common nonsense.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Thirty Minute Heart Attack

Friends ask me what it’s like to race cyclocross. I used to go into a big complicated huffandpuff, but now I’ve simplified matters by describing the experience as a thirty minute heart attack.

In cross there is no “hey let’s all get to know each other” rollout or mid pack get your wind back recovery periods, instead it’s a sprint from the bell, and from then on you just try to hold your position – maybe pick off a few guys in front. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pass other riders on much of the winding course, so you have to get in position early and then fight to hold it. Unlike road and criterium racing, where the strength is in the pack, cross is an individual effort: it’s you against everyone else all the time.

Last Sunday I raced the first Seattle Cyclocross series at Marymore Park in Redmond. On Saturday afternoon I’d removed my front derailleur and my compact ring set and replaced it all with a single 46 tooth ring and a Rohloff chain guide. The guide cost me $110 and didn’t even fit. I took it back to the bike shop to see if there was another, correctly sized, version: there wasn’t so we cut it down with a hacksaw. Back at home I hit another snag in that the bolts were now too long, so once again out came the hacksaw. I guess this is why bike mechanics are called mechanics and not simply part putter oners. I like the simplicity of having only a single front ring; someday soon I’ll have to rig up a single speed ride and go uber simple.

While the bike was up on the rack I replaced my worn out front brake pads.

I was in the ten fifteen race and managed to get in a good warm-up prior to being called to the starting line. I had left my watch in the car, but it seemed like they were calling us up quite early. After a lot of standing around we moved to the start line, where we stood around for a long time more. Seconds after the race official called one minute till start I looked down and noticed that my left front brake pad was perpendicular to the rim. Crap. I must have forgotten to tighten it down. No front brakes today.

The race began in a slow but quickly building sprint and just as we passed the Cucina Fresca tent a big chunk of green fabric, perhaps it was some kind of fencing, blew onto the course. It took some cool headed riding by about a dozen guys to avert disaster. I hadn’t been able to preview the course so I was seeing everything for the first time. Despite the evening rain the course wasn’t muddy, some of the grass was saturated, but nothing too mucky. The first set of barriers were in a tough spot because you had to dismount while simultaneously descending a hill and making a hard right. It was a fairly technical spot that required some good dismount/mount skills, and consequently I lost some hard won ground each time through.

Luckily I’d been to Kore Kross the Wednesday before and had ridden the touchy downhill hairpin turn portion of the route. This was a tricky spot and with only one brake I struggled to check enough speed and barely missed running through the tape on more than one occasion. My cornering skills really suck, I think that the trick is to burn your speed before the corner, roll through tight and then accelerate out. I’m currently hitting the corners much too fast which then forces me to both swing wide and brake mid turn, thus causing my rear wheel to either skid or bounce. If I keep that up I’m going to go down sooner rather than later.

I was gasping on the final lap and really struggled on the barriers. It’s surprising how much energy it takes to get over those things. The good guys make it look so easy. As I came through the final barriers, which were just shy of the finish line, I could hear a couple of guys coming up on me, no way were they going to pass. I made an overly aggressive – and somewhat crushing – remount and pushed to the finish line. I finished midfield.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Urban Jungle

Took a trip into the urban jungle - Capitol Hill, Seattle - with my friend Kris today. All this clean living must be paying off as my legs seemed to have no stop in them. I've been reducing my caloric intake while eating mostly, whole, clean-burning, low glycemic index foods. I'm not losing any weight, but I feel good. Well I feel pretty good, my head is bugging me.

I've had a headache ever since I went over the handlebars during the cross race on Sunday morning. It's like a three day hangover. I think I clocked myself pretty good. I hope it gets better over the next few days.

I watched a great movie last night - 180 Degrees South. It was a documentary about a guy who goes to Patagonia by way of Easter Island. The movie documents the adventure of this guy Jeff Johnson, but it showcases two giants of mountaineering (as well as business) Yvon Chouinard (founder Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (founder The North Face). The movie was beautifully shot and it has something to say - definitely worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Learning Curve

The dust is going to turn to mud as the season progresses.

I'm learning that training for bike racing is more than simply pushing the pedals round and round. I have plenty of low end endurance - I could ride Seattle to Portland tomorrow - but I'm lacking in the high end, top gear department. Cyclocross, like criterium racing, seems to be more about running it wide open and hoping that the race ends before you do. I'm beginning to realize that in order to race in high gear I've got to train in high gear - at least some of the time.

Today I did a 2X20 on the trainer. I warmed up for 10 minutes then went all out for 20 minutes followed by a 2 minute rest, 20 more hard minutes and then finally a 10 minute cool down. I haven't been on the trainer for a couple of months and honestly the hour passed quickly and easily.

Tomorrow I'm back on the road.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

What I like about cyclocross is that it combines two of my favorite things: cool bikes and cool shoes.

Took a nice easy one hour spin today. Tomorrow I take to the hills.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Crossing the Line

Well I can’t claim to be a crash virgin anymore – during my first cyclocross race I clipped a tree with my front tire and went over the bars, luckily I broke the fall with my face. Never again will I doubt the efficacy of a good snug helmet.

Man what a scene cyclocross is – more like a medieval fair than a sporting event. I parked in Juanita and cranked up the hill to Big Finn Hill Park, it was a good warm-up and I showed up hot and ready to go. I was happy to see that Chad had come early to set up the Cucina Fresca tent; this was the first time I’d been at a race with an official team tent.

Funny how something that was started as a fun way to get through the shoulder season has taken off and become a sport in and of itself. I suppose it’s not all that funny – by funny I mean odd – I suppose a lot of sports are spawned by weird, wild wonderful happenstance.

The road races I participated in over the past four months were fairly clandestine affairs: you’d drive to some semi-secret location and ride over seldom used roadways – I suppose that’s the whole point – but this cyclocross was a real event – totally on the radar. Thow in a hog on a spit and some good grog and we would have had a real party. During most road races I was lucky to see one or two other teammates, today the Cucina Fresca squad was out in force with over twenty riders flying the colors. Riding with a team is a different sport than going solo and it was good to see some friendly faces, and speaking of friendly faces my friends Joe and Kris came to watch and cheer me on – nothing like a little friendly cowbell.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Crossing Over

Cucina Fresca had a cyclocross meet the team ride Saturday morning, so I put on my knobbies and drove over to St. Edwards park for my first taste of the fall sport. My takeaway is that cross is going be more challenging than expected. The big problem is going to be figuring out how to get my aching back over the barriers. I know it seems odd, but the one thing that sets off my back pain is jumping - well actually it's the landing. Even a small hop over a one foot high obsticle is a big deal. I've been hitting the gym and even doing a little running in hopes of making my back strong and flexible enough to last the season.

I'm going to buy some PVC tonight so I can build a small practice barrier. It's going to take some practice.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Came up to Penticton, British Columbia to watch my friends Lori, Joe and Bradley compete in Ironman Canada. Kris and I rode fifty miles up to Yellow Lake in the relentless heat - touching triple digits - I sure didn't envy da foos out there on the course.

Kris went into town this morning to sign up for next year, I had no ambition to go with her.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Magic Touch

Flatted out at the Seward Park Crit last Thursday. I had to walk back to the pit where I changed the tire and went home. On the way I thought I'd stop by my LBS - Veloce Velo - to see if mechanic extrodinare Greg could work his magic on my creaky ride. I arrived fifteen minutes after closing time and figured I'd return a few phone calls while I was stopped. I was just dialing the first number when Greg unlocked the door, stepped out and asked what was up.

After a quick test ride and two minutes on the rack my bike was back to perfect - even the odometer was now working. I've been messing about with bikes for over thirty years but I remain a hack; too often I end up making the situation worse than when it started. It's good to have a dedicated man in your corner when you need one.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My Tribe

In 2007 I did my first Ironman race. It was in Couer d Alene Idaho. I had arrived a few days early and as is the custom prior to an IM race I went for a morning swim in the lake. The water was super rough and I really struggled out there; apparently I was only one as the other two or three hundred competitors seemed to take the choppy cold black water in stride, they stood around under the giant inflatable Gatorade bottle laughing and flexing their muscles. I called my wife and said “I don’t belong here.”

Over time I became more and more confident in the triathlon world, but I never really felt like it was my scene. I could talk the talk, and to a certain extent walk the walk, but I always felt like an outsider. Bicycle racers seem more like members of my tribe.

Cyclists are a mixed bag to be sure, there is no “typical” cyclist, but what we all share is a love of the most efficient, elegant form of transportation yet devised by man. It’s like we’re all co-conspirators, like we’re all in on the same secret.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cheap Tires

Five or six years ago I used to join my buddy Joe for Saturday morning road rides. It seemed like Joe flatted on nearly every outing, and I like to berate him over his habit of buying cheap tires. In reality I was just flipping Joe crap, but little did I know how accurate I actually was.

Last Sunday I raced in a half road half dirt ride called the Ronde Ohop. In preparation for the off road portion I went to Performance and bought a pair of fifteen dollar 25mm tires. I put forty miles on those tires and got two flats.

I've always spent top dollar on Michelins and Continentals, but was never one hundred percent sure that I was making a sound investment. Now I know. My good tires flat so infrequently that I almost forget how to efficiently change a tire. From now on I'm going to happily drop top dollar on good tires.

Ronde Ohop

I like to say that something isn’t worth doing if, at least once, you don’t ask yourself, “what the hell was I thinking.” With that as a worthiness criterion I can honestly report that the Ronde Ohop certainly was worth doing.

I was a little late getting to the starting line due to the long line of pickups at Spanaway’s Baristas Gone Wild, but the latte was worth the wait. Matt pulled up as I was getting ready; he had just ridden the dirt portion and reported that this was going to be more of a cross race than a road race. There was a fairly even mixture of road and cross bikes in the crowd, and I was starting to worry about taking my road bike onto dirt trails. I’d mounted up two cheap 25 mil tires inflated to 90 psi, but how much of a difference was that going to make. A gal rode by and said “wow I can’t believe you are going to ride that bike.” Hmmm. I was getting nervous.

I lined up without a clue as to what I had gotten myself into.

The course was unusual to be sure: two paved laps totaling approximately sixteen miles and then ten laps around a mini loop that contained a little over a mile of rough dirt track.

The road portion of the race was, for the most part, straightforward and uneventful except for a fifty foot section of gravel road in Eatonville. Just as the pack accelerated out of a right hand turn we hit this dicey section of loose rock. The race director had instructed us to go neutral through that portion, but I guess the lead guys didn’t get the message. I hit the golf ball-sized rocks at full acceleration and then had to bunny hop up a three inch rise to get back on pavement. No way would that have been acceptable on a traditional road race, but this was no traditional race.

The one good hill on the road course split the field; it was a goofy hill as the descent leading into it came through a pair of decreasing radius turns. I had to hit the brakes in order to avoid going over the guardrail which then forced me to work doubly hard in order to keep up with the lead group. The first time up the hill really knocked the wind out of me; luckily the second time up was a bit slower.
At the top of the hill on the second road lap the pack took off towards the mini loops. Looking back on it I think this acceleration was an effort by the road guys to put some distance between themselves and the cross guys. Actually I shouldn’t use the term “guys” as we in the Masters 30+ group were racing with the women. There was a large contingent of strong gals and they matched the guys pedal stroke for pedal stroke.

Matt and I hit the dirt with maybe a dozen other riders, the riding now was single file and consequently the crowd spread out. I was going through George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words routine as I followed Matt through an insanely rough, rocky, mountain bike course – on a road bike. This was a mistake. When we finally got back to pavement I thought, no way am I going to make another nine laps.

I was really worrying about my bike, man I should have brought that cross bike. A couple of times I hit so hard that my rear wheel popped off the ground - nearly sending me over the handlebars. It’s one thing to gingerly ease your slick road bike over an unexpected section of rough road; it’s a whole other thing to be riding it full out over single track. I couldn’t believe I was riding this course on my racing wheels.

The race unfolded into a battle of attrition. People were flatting out left and right, and I think quite a few riders simply called it quits. By the seventh lap my thighs were starting to cramp; I hadn’t been riding much these past two weeks and it was starting to show. I had gone too far to DNF, so I kept pushing the pedals counting down the laps. The odd thing about this race was that I rode the final sixteen miles solo, and consequently had no idea where I stood, was I in the middle, was I dead last, I had no clue.

As I hit the pavement on the final lap both quads totally seized up, but no way was I going to let someone pass me now so I pushed hard to the finish line – luckily it was all downhill. I didn’t wait around for the results and now I’m kicking myself as I have no idea how I ended up.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

We Ski

While most of the country bakes, we ski.

The Nisqually Chutes on Mt. Rainier were fully formed and held some nice 'n easy corn snow. Sam and I were skinning from the Paradise parking lot.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Not Ride

Sam had a big swim meet here on Mercer Island, and the parking lot, as well as all the surrounding streets, were bumper to bumper. Sam, Sophia and I simply bypassed the headache and rode our bikes. I wonder why nobody else had the same idea. I'd say thirty or forty percent of the folks at the meet live within five miles.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Little Voodoo

The day after the STP I was wide awake at 6:00 AM, so I slipped quietly out of bed and walked across the street to find Joe, drinking Joe and the neighborhood Starbucks - he'd been awake since 5:00. Bradley's wife, Leigh, was jonesing for a maple bacon bar, so we did a phone search on Voodoo Doughnuts and began the mile or so walk.

It was a pleasant morning and the streets were empty. We smelled the pink cinder block building before we arrived. I like oddity, and Voodoo certainly was odd. I ordered us up a mixed half dozen and we headed back to the hotel for a big bacon and egg breakfast. We all chuckled about the pretzel stake piercing the heart of the vampire maple bar.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I had to take a photo of my bike computer before resetting it. Two hundred and four miles, dang that's a long way to ride a bike.

Monday, July 11, 2011

STP 2011

I rode my bicycle down to Portland on Saturday – 204 miles leaving from my back door. I wanted to cut out the car entirely by riding from home, returning by train and then riding from King Street Station in Seattle to my house on Mercer Island, but the less than helpful folks at Amtrak couldn’t give me any assurance that I’d be able to get my bike from Portland to Seattle. In the end Joe and I had my friend Ron take our bikes back, we rode the train and Melony picked us up at the station.
I rode to Portland with four friends as part of the Seattle to Portland (STP) bicycle ride. We were five of the twelve thousand riders making the trip. Most ride it in two days, but there were a shocking number of single day riders as well. I can’t believe that they can convince that many people to ride that far.

The weather was perfect – clear skies, mid seventies and a significant tail wind. We sailed right along and with the exception of two flats – one resulting in a ruined tire - we had no problems. Just south of Seattle Bradley ruined his rear tire going over some railroad tracks, from now on I think I’ll bring a spare tire on these long rides, it’s the difference between a small hassle and having to call for a ride home. Luckily the guys at REI donated a nice Continental Ultra to our cause.

The wind blew out of the north the entire day and we were nearly pushed all the way into Portland. The final fifty miles down Interstate 30 can be fairly miserable, but on Saturday we rolled along at twenty miles per hour without hardly breaking a sweat. We climbed a long hill at over twenty mph and I kept wondering if I was experiencing some kind of optical illusion, but no we were being pushed uphill.

We rolled into Portland, each took a shower and then went out for hamburgers at the Kennedy School. I got the burger with the fried egg on top.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Flat, Fast and Furious

Back in 1989 I rolled my Schwinn up to the starting line at what was then known as the Seattle International Raceway (SIR). I’d come down to Kent with a bike racer co-worker who’d encouraged me to enter the one hour “citizen” race (there were no Cat 5’s back in them thar days). I raced twice at SIR, and up until 2011 those two starts were my only experience with bicycle racing.

Fast forward twenty one years and I’m back, only now everyone is riding carbon instead of steel, and the track has been redubbed Pacific Raceways (PR).

Ten Cucina Fresca (my team) riders rolled out for the Cat 4/5 start. I have to say that I’m a bit bummed that my first two starts as a Cat 4 have been in 4/5 races but I guess as the season progresses and Cat 5’s get more experience it makes sense to combine the two. We had some real powerhouses out there and it was nice riding with a strong team presence. Unfortunately we weren’t the only strong team.

Cycle U had definitely come to race. This was the first time I’d ridden against an organized team that was out to win, and I have to admit it was eye-opening. Honestly I was spending the majority of my time trying not to wipe anybody out, but I did notice that the Cycle U guys were continually pushing forward.

The race is an hour long, which kind of puts it somewhere between a road race and a criterium. The route varies from week to week and this time it was on what they call the flat course. The nice weather must have swelled the turnout as I think we had over sixty starters. Man that flat course is fast and furious. Without the hills you don’t have to worry about that sucking air oxygen debt thing and oftentimes I’d look down at my computer to see that we were going over thirty miles per hour. It was a screaming wild ride.

I’d eaten a diced up and boiled potato on the drive down and those carbs were fueling me just fine. In other words I was feeling great. At the two laps to go bell I decided to start moving up. Position is everything, and in my other races I’ve always just ended up stuck somewhere in the middle, unable to move up, and so this time I figured I’d get up in fifth or sixth place. As we approached the final lap I was moving up on the outside left when I noticed my teammate Chad up front. For no good reason I threw down and whipped in front.

I’m not sure what I was thinking, maybe I thought I could bring up a few teammates and then we could control the race from the front. I suppose I should have communicated those thoughts. In reality I was feeling good and just took the shot – what the heck.

I led for awhile and then pulled off, Chad was still in behind me, I was fairly well gassed but pulled in as soon as I had a chance. After the second turn things got a bit dicey as riders started to push forward on the slippery burn out strip (where dragsters heat up their tires), but we all made it through. I took a tight inside line on turns three and four but as I came out of the final turn the top ten guys were already out of their saddles heading for the finish line. The finish was a bit crazy as we ran smack into the back end of the Cat 1/2/3 group, combine that with poor visibility due to the setting sun and we had a real kerfungle.

All in all it was a great race, I can honestly say that it was the most fun I’ve ever had on two wheels.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Not the Only One

Went down to Burien to race in the Joe Matava Memorial Crit yesterday. I wanted to try my hand in the 9:00 Masters race but when Melony got wind of the 7:40 Cat 4/5 start she “encouraged” me to get up early. The course was perfect: big wide turns with a little hill work thrown in. I have to figure out those corners because my typical lap was hold my own on the downhill, lose a little time on two corners, move up on the uphill and then get passed on the next two corners; in the end it was a zero sum gain. I was happy to be racing with four other Cucina Fresca riders, we didn’t make any big moves but it was good to be out there with the bruddas.

At first I thought it was just me who drove like a maniac after completing a bike race, but now I know different. After every race I get in my car and start tearing around like I’m at LeMans: I zoom up on the unsuspecting Hyundai or Prius and then stomp on the accelerator swing around and tuck back in. Following yesterday’s race I was following the Thumbprint Cycling team van as it went from Highway 518 to I-5 and was, I guess, happy to see that big old Econoline E350 rolling at 60mph just three feet off of the bumper of this little blue Honda. Once on I-5 the driver gunned it and slingshoted around. I wanted to catch up and give him a thumbs up, but my four cylinder Subaru couldn't close the gap.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Crapping out at Poo Poo Point

Under spotless skies Sam and I took off from the Tiger Mountain parking lot in search of some seriously good downhill singletrack. I'd ridden Tiger back in the nineties - back when my bike were merely obsolete, instead of its current designation of "vintage" - and I remember a long fire road grind up to some stellar downhill single track. Today, looking at the map, I see that we were on the wrong track from our very first pedal turn.

Instead of cranking up East Tiger, as was planned, we rode all the way around the Tiger Mountain Massif ending up, after a steep grind, at Poo Poo Point. We took a break at the top to watch a few paragliders take off, I knew this place was popular but this was crazy - well over three dozen folks were either in the air or preparing for take-off. Maybe there had been a Groupon deal or something.

We just had to turn around and ride back the way we came. After the initial descent all we had was miles and miles of uphill fire road. Sam got plenty and finally just said, "I'm tired of complaining." That was a new first. We'll have to go back to Tiger, but this time we'll take a map.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Back in the Gym

I'm fortunate to have a descent free weight room near my house and the time to use it. My chronic back has returned, and if I'm going to be jumping on and off the bike during cross season I'm going to have to improve my core strength.

This Brian MacKenzie guy is getting a lot of attention lately. He's applied the crossfit approach of short high intensity efforts to endurance sports. I tried this approach when training for the 2009 Cour d Alene Ironman. I went this way because of my propensity for stress fractures and I wanted to minimize the mileage yet show up at the starting line fit and ready for a PR. Inevitably the stress fractures came and I didn’t race, but I don’t think I was as fit as I could have been. Yes I would have finished the race but I don’t think I was capable of a personal best.

In 2010 I combined short high intensity workouts with longer, what I call “deliberate” workouts. A deliberate workout means that you are making a focused effort, maintaining proper body position and working at a high turnover. Once again I didn’t race Cour d Alene due to a stress fracture, but I do believe that I was as fit as I’d ever been.

In 2011 I switched to bicycle racing and now have twelve race starts under my belt. I have yet to do a Masters start and consequently have been lining up with guys half my age. I think youth gives you a lot of leeway, especially when it comes to core strength and flexibility. I believe that my poor flexibility and deteriorating core strength are limiting me to mid pack finishes, and so it’s back to the gym.

Many experts say that you don’t want to push weights during the season, we’ll see if they are right.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Island Ride

Went over to town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii last weekend to visit a friend. I was looking for a break from our dismal Pacific Northwest "what happened to our spring" weather, and despite copious amounts of rain the clouds parted for a sunny Saturday bike ride.

I went with my buddy's friend who had just gotten himself a Cannondale Super Six and so he lent me his previous ride: a Litespeed Tuscany. It was a nice comfortable ride that fit me perfectly, all I had to do was screw on my pedals. I was thankful for not having to go through the pains of renting a bike from far off Kona.

Wow is sure is nice to ride sans arm warmers. The sun just seems to give me energy, it's as though my skin is a sponge sucking up all those calories. We went seventy miles on rolling smooth roads, much of which was along the coast. A couple of times I had to stop in order to simply enjoy the view of the Pacific crashing against the black igneous coastline.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pedal Power

Sophia using human power to blend a smoothie at the Mercer Island Farmers Market.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fuel for Thought

Back when I was doing endurance events I quickly learned that nutrition is everything. Just like a Ferrari goes nowhere without gas, an athlete will bonk and come to a near standstill without food. Cat 4/5 bicycle racing isn’t so much of an endurance activity and I’ve become somewhat lax in my pre, during, and post workout nutrition.

Yesterday I did fifty miles with my friend Lori up in my old stomping grounds: the Snoqualmie Valley, Sultan and Monroe, and I paid much closer attention to my fueling. Ten minutes before the ride I ate an almond butter and honey sandwich on whole wheat bread, during the ride I ate my usual mix of energy bars, Nuun and Hammer Sustained Energy and immediately afterwards I munched a PB&J and washed it down with sweetened green tea. Lori is training for Ironman Canada, which is all about consistency, and consequently we rode a cool, even 20 mph pace, and I felt great both during and after the ride.

Last Saturday I went out for two hours of hard hammering and come about ninety minutes in I began falling apart. I attempted to refuel on the bike, but it was too late, I’d already gone over the cliff. From now on I’m going to focus on taking in low GI foods before the ride, and will be sure to recover with some protein and high GI foods immediately after the ride.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's Wrong With Al?

I’m counting down the days till the Tour, but I have to wonder: can anyone even come close to Contador? Funny how some athletes are loved for winning – Armstrong – while others are loathed for it – Contador. I’ll admit Alberto isn’t the most personable of fellas, but damn he rides with passion. I mean it’s like some mafia type is holding his mother hostage and saying “win or the old bag catches one between the eyes.” Alberto shows up every morning, rides each stage like he’s had a month of rest, neither gives quarter nor asks for mercy and he seems to be universally hated, whereas Armstrong showed up with an entourage and acted like a pompous rock star ass and he was the golden boy.

I’ll be cheering for Andy Schleck, but other than that one day last year when his “stomach was full of anger” he doesn’t seem to have that “either I win or I die trying” attitude that Contador – like Armstrong and Pantani before him – has. I remember watching an interview with Dick Butkus years ago and the interviewer asked him why he hit so hard. He said something to the effect that he just convinced himself that the guy with the ball had called his mother a whore and that he was going to kill that bastard, he said that he was going to make sure that guy never got up again. Contador hits the Alps with that same psychopathic attitude.

When it comes to personalities I doubt Armstrong, Contador or Schleck would be all that much fun to hang out with. If I could spend a day with a Tour rider I’d choose either Renshaw or Cancellera. Too bad Fabian can’t ride the hills; he would be a great face for cycling.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why Not

I was riding up Rainier Ave last Sunday when I spotted the colorful Why Grocery well-lit by the morning sun. I like riding by myself because I can stop and shoot a photo whenever I feel the urge. For now I'm using the camera on my Windows phone, but I'm looking at some super compact digitals - I like the Panasonic Lumix with the Leica lens.

Rode 32 miles yesterday with two 3 mile time trial efforts.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Caffine Jones

Left the house early yesterday for a blue sky bike ride around the south end of Lake Washington. I'd run out of coffee at the house, and so I set out on my forty mile ride fueled with green tea. Come mile twenty I was jonesing big time, and fortunatly found a nice coffee shop near Seward Park. One good thing about living in Seattle is that you're never more than three miles from good coffee.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


It’s better to blow up than suck up – Mark Twight

Here in Seattle we have Thursday night criterium races at Seward Park – a green peninsula jutting out into Lake Washington. I’ve been racing the 5:30-6:00 slot; the field is primarily beginners and Cat 5’s, but, intermixed in the wobbly group are usually nine or ten solid competitive riders. As the weather improves more and more inexperienced riders are coming out and it’s beginning to get scary. Last Thursday there were two accidents – both caused by the same team – and numerous near accidents. I had to yell at a guy – once again from the same inexperienced crew – to ride straight. I’m not much of a yeller, but Jesus Christ enough was enough.

I’ve been fairly wimpy on these Thursday night rides, hanging in the back not wanting to take any chances and consequently I’ve finished mid pack. Last week I went out harder and found myself up front doing a lot of pulling. Funny thing about bike racing is that you only know what’s going on in front of you; you have no idea what is behind.

We run fifteen laps and come about lap thirteen all of these guys I haven’t seen in the past twenty five minutes start moving to the front, I’m thinking where the hell you all been. I guess this is strategy, or strategery in the post Bush lexicon. I don’t know, sucking wheel for thirteen laps and then blowing past the workhorses seems a bit lame to me. On the other hand, I haven’t registered a single point in the standings this year so I guess straterery puts you on the podium.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

60 and Fine

To say that we’ve had a wet, cold, windy spring here in the Pacific Northwest is to put it mildly. Yesterday the cycle of pain finally broke – I actually removed the toe warmers from my bike shoes. Funny how damn good sixty degrees can feel.

I’m on my bike six days a week and consequently have become very downtrodden by the merciless, dare I say cruel, weather of 2011. Wind is fine. Rain is fine. Cold is fine. But wind, rain and cold all at the same time, only flagellation can compare.

To roll 21 down smooth country tarmac, sun on your back, a cool breeze in your face – nothing better.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mov'n on Up

I received the notice that my application to upgrade from Category 5 to Category 4. This was my goal for my first season of road racing, but now that it’s official I’m a bit apprehensive thinking “gee I’m just getting competitive at Cat 5 now I’m back to being in the back of the pack.” Cat 4 races are longer and more crowded, but I anticipate a much safer ride as I’ll be out there with better more experienced riders. Onwards and upwards.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Winning

My son has a friend who wins. I mean he wins every event, every time. He’s won the baseball league championship, the soccer club championship, the regional football championship, the local basketball championship and he holds the middle school record in four track and field events.

Baring a victory in the Pinewood derby (using a car that my dad had built), I’ve won nothing.

I’d estimate that I’ve entered nearly one hundred competitions over the past twenty seven years: 5K’s 10K’s, 20K’s, half marathons, marathons, trail runs, ultra races, sprint triathlons, Olympic distance triathlons, half Ironman races, two full Ironman races, bicycle centuries, even a double century. I’ve never come close to winning even one of these races. I’ve always been a participant, never a competitor.

I entered my first two cycling road races with the same participant attitude and I quickly realized that just being there for the scenery wasn’t going to work. Unlike marathons and Ironman competitions where so-called victory is in finishing a cycling road race is a true race, either you are a racer or you’re an obstacle; there isn’t any place for “participants.”

I’m finding that this is not an easy adjustment.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Manaslu Part 27

Dr. Peacock and Gregg Mortimer of the Australian team came up behind us making a total of six climbers at Camp 1. We were at nearly nineteen thousand feet and I was really feeling the lack of oxygen. When just sitting still in the tent I would get an almost panicked feeling of not having enough oxygen, the only way to make it go away was to do something physical: like digging. Over the course of that first afternoon at Camp 1 I dug out tent platforms and stacked snow walls. Good thing I did because we were about to get hit, and hit hard. The Patagonian Icecap can be brutal, so can Mt. Rainier in the wintertime, but I’d never experienced anything as ferocious as the storm that hit Camp 1 that night.

Luckily we hadn’t skimped on the quality of our tents and thankfully Brain and I had meticulously staked out and guyed out our little nylon home as I don’t think many shelters would have survived the 80-100 knot winds and the drifting snow. The wind would come in gust sounding like a train rushing headlong into a tunnel. It was like the wind was running you over, it would hit so hard that the tent would completely implode. Brian and I didn’t know if it was better to try to hold the tent up or to just let it flex. We tried both and neither seemed any better than the other.

We were fully dressed in our sleeping bags holding our knives ready to cut ourselves out if the tent finally gave way. It really did seem as though the wind had a personal vendetta against us and was trying to erase our presence on the mountain. It did seem personal. This was the most frightened I’ve ever been.

We all like to associate ourselves with the brave protagonists of literature and film. We identify with the quiet selfless hero while abhorring the cowardly braggart. But how many of us really know which archetype we would emulate when the going gets dicey. I believe that many people quit climbing because they don’t like what see in themselves; the mountains have taught them that they are not what they had believed themselves to be. On the other hand, the fortunate few have learned that they are stronger, more courageous and more loyal than they could have ever dreamed. Realizing that you have the mettle can develop into a sort of addiction: how far can I take this you ask yourself, what are my limits. Some people simply have to find out what they are made of, while others either don’t care or don’t want to risk it.

Morning finally came and with the rising sun came calm. We went out to survey the damage and found the entire camp nearly buried. Only the domes of a few brightly colored tents rose above the white landscape. Once again I was having trouble breathing so I took to the shovel and excavated not only our camp but half of the German camp as well. Andrew stopped by, his eyes were bloodshot and wild, he said that that was the worst night he’s ever had in the mountains – Manaslu would be his fourth eight thousand meter summit. He told the story of how he was in near panic while Gregg was “stripped down to his jocks” saying “ahh don’t worry mate this tent is good for 120 knots it ain’t over 100 out there.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Manaslu Part 26

We gradually stocked Camp 1 – carrying loads of food and fuel and then retreating back to basecamp. This allowed us a gradual transition from being trekkers to becoming mountaineers; each of us finding our own rhythm and pace. Finally came the night to sleep at our new high point. Brian, Tom, Dan, Jerome and myself all made the trip to Camp 1. My stomach had been rumbling and grumbling for about a week and just after rolling out my sleeping bag at Camp 1 the eruption occurred. This was far and away the worst GI distress I’d ever experienced. No question, I had to get down to basecamp, and fortunately Brian agreed to accompany me. When you’re deep into something as intense as a Himalayan m mountaineering expedition it’s easy to over dramatize singular events. As Brian and I were descending the lower glacier I could only think that my chances of a summit were now next to none. I figured that retreating back to basecamp would put me behind the acclimatization schedule and that I’d still be adjusting to the altitude when everyone else on the team would be pushing to for the top. I thought my ship had sunk. Back at basecamp Brian and I walked over to the Australian camp and asked Dr. Andrew Peacock for his advice. He said that I had most likely contracted Guardia on the trek in and recommended a course of the antibiotic Flagyl. The results were almost immediate and the next morning I was weak, but at least I wasn’t living in our makeshift latrine. Brian took off early bound for Camp 1 while I stayed in basecamp. One the second day in basecamp I was able to hold down some food and so I spent as much time as possible in the cook tent eating and hydrating. I knew that I had to get back on the acclimatization track and decided to depart to Camp 1 the next morning; Khan Cha, was also in basecamp, agreed to go with me. The next morning Khan Cha and I departed basecamp while Jerome, Dan, and Tom began their descent from Camp 1. There had been significant snow over night and so I decided to try out my snowshoes. I’ve always said that the only thing worse than bringing snowshoes and not using them is bringing snowshoes and using them. I have to admit to eating some of my words there as I made quick time up the glacier while Khan Cha postholed slowly behind me. In all fairness I had offered him Brian’s snowshoes, which he had refused. I took off the snowshoes at the base of the steep climb leading to Camp 1 and starting kicking steps up the new snow. Soon Khan Cha was passing me, I think he wanted to prove his value: he didn’t follow steps he made steps. We were about halfway up the steep section, I was following Khan Cha, when here comes the Pakistani climber who was on the payroll of the German group. He sailed past the both of us and pushed on over the lip and into Camp 1. Brian was outside the tent brewing up hot tea and handed mugs to each of us as we entered camp. You see this is what makes Brian so special: his concern for the welfare of others endeared him to not only our hired guns, but also to the hired guns of other teams. That Pakistani guy was far and away the strongest man on the mountain and I can say for certain that he would have risked his neck to save Brian. It’s good to have friends in high places.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Manaslu Part 25

Getting Up the Thing

Manaslu is neither easy nor safe - one out of four climbers die in pursuit of its summit. The summit was first reached in 1956, and would remain undisturbed for another fifteen years. Few have ventured from the “standard” 1956 route where a mixture of ice fall and avalanche hazard continually threatens the hopeful climber. Above high camp the route broadens into a featureless plateau; one particularly gruesome aerial photograph shows this icy expanse littered with the bodies of climbers who became disorientated during a tragic storm.

We made the climb in three camps: the first, at 18,700 feet, was dug into the saddle between North and Naike Peaks, the second was located on the lip of a crevasse at 21,700, and high camp was anchored onto the burnished ice at 24,500. Using only three camps to climb an eight thousand meter peak left us a bit spread out and the temptation to place an intermediary camp between one and two certainly presented itself. Between one and two you were either picking you way through an icefall or hurrying across avalanche slopes. Camping in the icefall was clearly out of the question, but so long as it didn’t snow a camp on one of the avalanche slopes might be fine, but you would be na├»ve to think that you could go to the Himalaya and not worry about snow. I’m terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, waiting for your oxygen to run out, and consequently voted for longer days and safer camps. Unfortunately there was no safe place for high camp. The summit plateau is a featureless wasteland of callous blue ice, and if the wind is going to blow there is no place to hide. At Camp three we anchored our tents with ice screws and boulders and hoped for mercy.

Manaslu challenged my ideas on how to climb a mountain. My experience has been to steadily move yourself and your gear up the hill and when you finally reach summit position you go fast and light, touch the top and drop back down: you climb the mountain only once. Here, due to acclimatization forays and load carries we each accumulated nearly sixty thousand feet of vertical gain. The up and down nature of the climb meant that we would routinely return to base camp where we could rest, eat and drink. Above base camp I continually suffered from sleep apnea, meaning that you stop breathing when asleep. I had experienced this on Denali where my silence followed by a series of gasped breaths only bothered my tent mate – in other words I was completely unaware of the fact that I had to wake up to breath. In Alaska I always rose in the morning unaware and refreshed. In the Himalaya I wasn’t so fortunate. Every night I struggled to fall asleep and whenever I did I would be quickly awakened to discover myself choking for air feeling as though someone was pushing a pillow into my face. This would occur throughout the night, and often I would lie awake for hours waiting for the sun, which would give the green light to start the stove. Returning to base meant that I could sleep, but just as important it meant food and drink.

Though we ate quite well on the mountain our dehydrated meals were paltry and putrid in comparison to the nightly feasts staged by chef Krishna. Krishna regularly sent Preem, Mayla or Potem, his three kitchen boys, down to the Nubri Valley with orders to bring back a leg of a goat or a chunk of yak - yak and water buffalo have the taste and consistency of boiled leather, but goat is surprisingly tasty – and we ate our way through a mountain of high calorie food every night. The exertion combined with the high altitude conspired to erode our bodies and only through gorging ourselves into a nightly stupor could any of us prevent a sunken stomach and exposed ribs.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Manaslu Part 24

Welcome to the Himalaya

I’ve been on a number of Alaskan and Patagonian expeditions, and I figured that I knew, logistically speaking, how to get to the top of a big mountain; little did I know how much I had to learn.

In the spring of 2002 Petemba Sherpa worked as sirdar for a Japanese businessman who hoped to reach the summit of Manaslu. Petemba, the cousin of our trekking agent Tashi Sherpa, is extremely experienced, and he proved invaluable when it came to actually working out the logistics of our expedition. We Americans had arrived at Manaslu base camp with the stated understanding that the sherpas and the “members” as we were known to our staff, were all members of a single team – the sherpas simply being unusually strong members. It was with this mindset that we set out on our first carry to Camp 1: everyone carrying a load, with the sherpas carrying slightly heavier loads.

On our first rest day Brian and I noticed Petemba holding up a sheet of notebook paper and talking with our sirdar Nawang. With nothing better to do Brian and I butted in. Nawang pointed to the sheet of paper saying that Petemba had drawn up a logistics plan for our team and that he wanted to discuss it with us. Eager to see what the guru thought Brian and I snapped at the piece of paper. What we first noticed was that Petemba had made two schedules: one for the sherpas and one for the members. Brian immediately set to putting Petemba right. “We’re used to climbing in Alaska and the Cascades,” he said “we carry our own weight. We’re all one team here; there are no sherpas and members, just teammates.” Petemba flashed a knowing smile and replied, “welcome to the Himalaya.”

Petemba correctly pointed out that given the amount of time we had and our desire to climb with fixed camps that it would be impossible to both acclimatize and stock the three camps. “You acclimatize” he said, and then he pointed to Kusang, Ki Kami and Khan Cha and said, “they carry.” Brian furrowed his brow, visibly uncomfortable with the us and them approach. “You have to put your boys to work,” Petemba continued, “the trip to Camp 1 is nothing for them, but you, you must first make your body used to this altitude.” He was right of course, the sherpas could make it to Camp 1, at 19,000’, in two hours; on our first carry it took me nearly six. Acclimatization is the foundation stone of an 8000m expedition. If you go too high too fast your brain swells, your lungs fill with fluid, you become disoriented, you begin to drown in your own fluids, you then die.

Our original logistics plan, based on experience climbing at much lower altitudes, had grossly overestimated the amount of weight we could carry while underestimating the amount of rest we would require. It quickly and painfully became obvious that if we wanted to climb this peak we would have to put our boys to work. However, if I was going to climb this mountain with any sense of accomplishment I had to set some ground rules, and I came up with two: never would allow a sherpa to carry my personal gear, and would fill my pack with as much group gear as I could carry.

We shared the mountain with four strong Australians who proved that it is possible to climb Manaslu using fixed camps without the use sherpa climbers, for us, however, Kusang, Ki Kami and Kha Cha made the difference between success and failure. We climbed the mountain on the backs of these three kind, loyal and incredibly strong mountaineers

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Manaslu Part 23


On the afternoon of our eighth day we passed through the village of Lo where we began the descent into the Upper Nubri Valley. I scrambled for a good camera angle as a procession of six women, each carrying a doko filled with firewood, came silently past. I could see how their namlos pressed against their scalps limiting their gaze to the dust of the trail and the heels of their companions. I felt fit enough to climb one of the world’s highest mountains, but would have struggled to heft the burden easily carried by these women.

The Upper Nubri Valley is a broad expanse of weedy brown pastureland and small garden plots, each maybe an acre in size. We had left Seattle in the spring, flew to the warm summer sun of Kathmandu, were now in the gray skied brown earthed season of autumn, and would soon find winter on the white omnipresent slopes of Manaslu. With nothing to divert its progress the trail led straight across the valley floor before finally disappearing through a mile-distant kani. We were now at eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea and crisp air and lightened loads hurried our Garung porters towards home. They had dropped their loads in Samagaon, collected their pay and would now backtrack in three days what had taken us a week to ascend. Spread across the flat valley the distant porters resembled a retreating army only until they came near, whereupon we saw the content smiles of people who had more than earned the pay in their pockets. Brian stopped a young permanently grinning man, the strongest in this group of strongmen, and slid a thick fold of rupees into his pocket saying, “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, but I felt you were my friend, good luck.” As we passed, each porter stopped and with clasped hands wished us namaste – good luck, God be with you. Through the lens of my intrusive camera I had come to know the face of each porter, no man or woman passing us on that trail was a stranger to me, and the intensity of their concern for six frivolous foreigners rested on me like a leaden cloak.

It is a strange thing for a Western person to feel, and to feel quite viscerally, the concern of a stranger. We hadn’t done these people any favors, instead we’d bought a hard day’s labor for the price of a cup of coffee, and their gratitude could have easily slid me into the role of benevolent prince: yes yes my children think nothing of my generosity. I didn’t want to be just another great white hunter.

The final mile of the day passed slowly, Jerome, weakened by a gastro-intestinal infection, was reduced to nearly dragging his feet while Brian, Khan Cha and I hovered around him like three bothersome grandmothers. Whatever was churning Jerome’s stomach seemed to be eroding his body also, he was no longer able to carry his daypack and was truly wasting away before our eyes. Though he leaned heavily on his trekking poles Jerome kept his back straight and vertical, he was a proud man and though he wanted to do was to collapse into his tent he walked tall.

As we made our way across the broad weedy floor of the Nubri Valley, I saw, on a distant tree-lined hill, the Samagaon Monastery. In the low afternoon light, the gold dome of the central temple created a small sun rising above the gray stone village. At the entrance to the village a triangular mani wall split the trail like a wedge; I naturally took the left fork.

Our eighth day of trekking ended at the village of Samagaon. Here Nawang had paid and dismissed our Garung porters, and set to finding local men and women willing to carry our gear four thousand vertical feet to base camp. Samagaon is eleven thousand feet above sea level, and is situated in a broad scrubby valley between Manaslu to the south and the white glacier covered boundary peaks to the north.
Though the citizens of Samagaon pay taxes to Kathmandu they are ethnically Tibetan, and look, speak and dress differently than the Garung people who farm the lower valley. It was while walking through the town of Deng, one day’s walk from Samagaon, that I noticed the change. Mani walls, chortens, Kanis and prayer wheels began to line the trail, and the teardrop-shaped domes of hill top gombas began to appear, shining gold beneath the midday sun. The mani walls, some well over one hundred feet long, and containing anywhere from a few dozen to well over a thousand intricately carved stone panels, regularly divided the trial and they, like all other sacred structures, are passed on the left. The kanis, rough stone structures that form an arch over the trail, were my favorite as their rugged exterior belied a bright interior decorated with delicate thonka paintings. As we passed through the fantastic kani on the outskirts of Samagaon Brian commented, “well the secret of life is written right here, now all we have to do is learn how to read.” What distinguishes Samagaon from the other villages of the Nubri Valley is the large gomba – a Buddhist monastery - located on a hill overlooking the town. Manaslu, in turn, overlooks the gomba.

We camped in the courtyard of the nearly completed Mt. Manaslu Hotel, and after eight days on the trail this was the first teahouse, or trekkers hotel, we had encountered. The proprietor of the hotel, Fergu, immediately befriended the team and would come to form an especially close relationship with my teammate Scott Boettcher. As it turned out Fergu was an up and coming entrepreneur who had started with a small store – the hand painted sign over the door of this closet-sized establishment advertising “Cold and Hard Drinks” remained nailed to a building on the other side of town – got a loan to build his hotel, and as it neared completion was actively constructing a school where he plans to teach. Fergu spoke excellent English and said that he wanted to improve life in his native village without eroding the culture. He also confessed that the village leaders resented the fact that though he didn’t have a traditional leadership role he controlled most of the economic wealth of the village and therefore his voice sounded more loudly than it traditionally should have. Fergu’s brother is a monk at the gomba, and it was he who invited us to a ceremony to be given in our honor.

Fergu said that he would meet us at three o-clock in front of his hotel, and since I had little to do and did not want to miss the ceremony I took up residence on a rough wooden bench next to the loom which Fergu’s sister, Tashi Lama, had set up in the courtyard. At three I was joined by Brian and another climber, Dan Percival, and at four thirty Fergu arrived stating that the monks were ready. Fergu led us up a tree-lined path leading to Pema Choling, or the main temple, where we ducked through a brightly painted doorway and entered the dimly-lit sanctuary. The monks, shoeless and clad in burgundy robes, sat placidly on the periphery of the room, while a dozen closely cropped boys, who I guessed to be students, sat in two parallel rows down the center. One of the young monks winked as I passed by. We were seated on a low bench and after a brief silence the monks began a low methodic chant, the deep baritone voices sounded as one and the sound waves washed over me and encircled my head like fine juniper incense.

I know little about Buddhist theology other than Buddhists recognize no omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being, in other words no God, and therefore the chants that drifted out of the monastery windows and rode the afternoon breeze towards the summit of Manaslu were not what we Westerners call prayers. One doesn’t need to speak Italian to understand the plot of an opera and nor did I need to speak Tibetan to understand the meaning of these chants. The monks were wishing us luck and safety; they were generating positive energy and directing it towards us. They gave us what that they had.

The ceremony lasted for nearly two hours, long enough for me to give some thought to who I am, where I was and what I was doing there. I realized that though I am far from perfect I had arrived at Manaslu a descent person, and that if I had to justify my life I could. After the ceremony I walked alone into the juniper forest beneath Manaslu, looked up at its needle-sharp East Pinnacle and told whoever was listening that I had come to this mountain as a fit, prepared and basically descent person, that I would give up possession of what I couldn’t control and would closely guard that which I could. If Manaslu wanted to kill me I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to make it an easy job. I knew that in order to summit I had to first make peace with myself and with the mountain, if I planned to go mano a mano with Manaslu I was going to lose.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Manaslu Part 22

As evening fell on the hamlet of Dobhan I watched Ngawang disappear down the trail. He returned a half hour later carrying two greasy antifreeze containers. “What do you have there?” I asked.

Ngawang spoke very good English, “local beer” he said, “like chhang.” Chhang is a locally brewed hooch made from available grains, typically rice, corn and millet. I never did try chhang, but towards the end of the trip I did enjoy more than a few glasses of rakshi – a locally made distilled spirit.

I continued to question Ngawang, asking, “Is all this for you?”

“No it is for the porters. All have worked very hard.”

Later that evening several of us climbers took up positions in the shadows in order to listen to the a cappella voices of our eighty seven porters. First the men would sing a refrain and then the women would answer back. The singing and occasional dancing went on deep into the night, but by six o-clock the next morning every porter was on the trail.

The following day as we approached the town of Philim, Brian asked Shiva what a hand painted sign over the trail said. Shiva looked up casually as he passed beneath the banner and said “it says ‘you are now entering Maoist territory.’” We spent our fifth night in Philim, a relative metropolis of houses and barns anchored into a steep hillside. While enjoying the cool of the dusk Brian and I stopped and squatted next to our two farmer sherpas – Kusang and Ki Kami – who were watching a local blacksmith fashion adze heads. As the smith pounded the red steel ring a boy of not more than ten tended the fire with a bellows made from a hollowed out goat.

We set our sixth camp in a walled pasture on the outskirts of Bihi, a crumbling village high above the Buri Ghandaki. Bihi marked a dividing line of sorts we were leaving the fertile lowlands of the Garung people and were entering the sparse Nubri Valley: the high altitude land of the Tibetans. The Garung people practice a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, but during the first five days of our trek I’d not seen a single religious symbol or building. Though the days remained mercilessly hot the cool evenings signaled our arrival in the Nepal Himalaya – the realm of the Tibetans. An accountant would describe Nepal as a Hindu country, as this is the religion of the majority, and a government official would consider the people of the Nubri Valley Nepalese though ethnically they are Tibetan. Unlike the Tibetans of China, four miles to the north, the inhabitants of the Nubri Valley have been left to live their lives in relative peace, thereby preserving a fairly pure form of Tibetan culture. Bihi was where we began to see the omnipresent symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.

A half mile above Bihi, a six foot high water powered prayer wheel creaked on a dry axle as it released its prayers into the clear mountain sky. The trail split around stone walls manufactured of intricately carved mani stones and passed through kanis – arch-like buildings containing brightly colored and carefully detailed Thanka paintings. As we passed through the first kani of our trip Brian pointed to the ornate box-shaped ceiling and said, “well right there’s the secret of life, too bad we can’t read it.”

The Tibetans were darker, more weathered and more thickly clothed than were our Garung porters. I suspect much of the Tibetan copper complexion was due more to a buildup of soot and dirt than it was due to genetics. The Garungs, especially the women, paid meticulous attention to their appearance, while the Tibetans appeared to place no importance whatsoever on cleanliness. The hands of men, women and children looked like those of a returning to the surface coal miner. In one village, I met a two-year-old girl standing alone in a yak trail chewing on a piece of charcoal. With the exception of two green-yellow lines extending from her nostrils her face was the color of graphite, and my sustained effort to coax the burned stick out of her clutched hands proved unsuccessful. A friend had told me that you could tell which Tibetan children suck their thumbs by looking for a clean digit.

We spent the final evening of our trek in Lihi where I sat on a dry mortar stone wall watching a grandmother produce coarse gray cloth from a soot-stained loom. Simply to exist in this never summer region required a level of toil and a tolerance for suffering that is unimaginable to those who share my easy life history. How can a person who considers hot and cold running water a simple taken for granted reality relate to someone who at the age of five began a daily lifelong routine of carrying on their backs every drop of water consumed in the house. There is simply no common denominator, yet still I was greeted with a hearty “namaste bai.”

While passing through the village of Lo I first saw Manaslu. The grand cathedrals and palaces of the world are generally much smaller than what you had imagined, however the great mountains and chasms of the planet are typically twice what you could have dreamed. Manaslu was no exception. From our initial aspect the true, more rounded, summit was obscured by the black, spear-shaped East Pinnacle, and had I not studied this mountain and known that our objective was more modest I might have turned around. We did not have the luxury of distant views where the mountain appears as slightly larger bump on a white horizon, instead we turned a corner and there was our white pyramid, less than seven horizontal miles and more than three vertical miles away.

After the village of Lo, Manaslu became a constant looming presence, but instead of worrying about how we were going to reach such a distant and useless pinnacle I refused any thought that didn’t concern the next twenty-four hours. We’d thrown our fate into the wind, for it is was the wind - how hard it blew, where it pushed the clouds and on what aspect it drifted the snow - that would dictate success or failure on the mountain. I chose to live in the present because the future is in the future.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Manaslu Part 21

Krishna took our gastrointestinal health as a matter of pride and though I felt, as Brian described it, “a little drippy,” I was keeping my food down and feeling fit. Krishna wasn’t some hack who one day decided to become a base camp cook, instead he was highly trained, extremely sanitary and as finicky as a French chef. Krishna was a trekking sirdar and an expedition chef and he had been in the business long enough to know the value of return customers and word of mouth advertising. He also worked as hard as an Iowa hog farmer; here is how his day went:

4:30 AM: Wake up, light the kerosene stoves and begin heating water.
5:00 AM: Breakfast and tea for Ngawang and sherpas.
5:30 AM: Set the breakfast table.
6:00 AM: Send Preem out to each tent with hot tea.
6:00-7:00 AM: Cook full breakfast of porridge, Spam, eggs, fried potatoes, flatbread
7:00-7:30 AM: Try to please Americans, boil water for water bottles and washing.
7:30-8:30 AM: Clean dishes and cooking utensils, disassemble and pack kitchen.
8:30-11:00 AM: Run on the trail in order to pass Americans and to set up and begin lunch.
11:00-12:00: Cook two hot lunches: one for staff (dhal bhat) and one for Americans. Carry water from stream to kitchen.
12:00-12:30 PM: Serve lunch, boil water for water bottles and clean up.
12:30-1:00 PM: Clean dishes and pack up.
1:00-4:00 PM: Run on the trail in order to pass Americans, arrive at destination and set up kitchen.
4:00-5:00 PM: Set up dining tent, prepare teatime for Americans and procure some local food.
5:00-7:30 PM: Cook two dinners: one for staff (dhal bhat) and one for Americans.
7:30-8:00 PM: Boil water for clean up and put finishing touches on some sort of spectacular desert.
8:00-9:30 PM: Clean up, ferry water from the village tap or local stream, and get ready to do it all over again.

One thing I should clarify regarding the aforementioned schedule, when I write that Krishna and his staff “ran” up the trail I use the word “ran” literally. Because they had to clean up after breakfast and lunch the kitchen crew began their morning and afternoon hikes more than an hour behind, but they always managed to pass us and have Tang ready when we arrived for lunch or at our stopover village. One of my favorite memories of the trek is hearing Myla’s clear singing accompanied by the clang and rattle of the mobile kitchen as Krishna and his staff jogged on by.

Myla was a nineteen-year-old Tamung on his second mountaineering expedition. Myla didn’t want to spend his life as a kitchen boy and was attending a sherpa training school organized by Nepalese Mountaineering Association. It was no coincidence that Myla had taken employment in a company owned by Tashi Sherpa, the director of the NMA. Myla was the son of a farmer and came from a village near Mt. Everest and before his arrival in Kathmandu he had never seen an electric light nor enjoyed indoor plumbing. Back in Kathmandu Brain and I met Myla waiting on the curb outside of the Kathmandu Guest House. He had left base camp early in order to accompany and cook for Shiva who decided to evacuate due to an increased Maoist threat, so when Myla learned that we had returned he went to our hotel, sat on the curb and waited. We took him out to dinner that night and when the waiter handed him a menu he whispered to Brian “what is for Brian sir?”

When Brian asked Kusang, our strongest sherpa, if any of his four sons were going to become sherpas, he said emphatically, “No! My children go to school.” The income he made as a high altitude mountaineering sherpa financed the education of his children. Myla was one generation behind. Every member of our staff bent their back so their sons and daughters wouldn’t have to.

You will not find a fat man or woman in rural Nepal. As I’ve written earlier I believe that both our staff and our porters saw us as very soft and in need of pampering. The best way to reinforce the presumption of laziness is to sleep late, so I made it my goal to be out of the tent before Preem could shove that hot cup of six o-clock tea through the zippered doorway. Being surrounded by such strong and loyal people made it easy to adopt a “great white hunter” attitude – “say boy fetch me my boots,” but I think that would have only diminished us in the eyes of our sherpa co-climbers. Summits are expensive, not simply financially, but also in terms of time, pain and risk, but one price I was unwilling to pay was the respect of my fellow climbers. I was determined to win the respect of our staff though a continual demonstration of strength, commitment, loyalty and competence. At one point during the climb I confided in Brian that I didn’t care as much about the summit as I did about earning the respect of Kusang, Ki Kami and Kha Cha.

Being out of the tent by five thirty allowed me to witness and photograph the packing and departure of our porters. Low in the valley the afternoon temperature often exceeded one hundred degrees – on one occasion my thermometer read one hundred and eleven Fahrenheit - so the porters, wanting to make as much distance in the cool air as possible, were on the trail by six, and didn’t eat their first meal until nine.

We wouldn’t get on the trail till seven thirty, our stomachs bulging after a breakfast of porridge, fresh eggs, flatbread and Spam. Two hours later we’d catch up with the porters as they gathered in groups of three or four around twig-fed cooking fires. Men and women shared equally in the preparation of dhal bhat. Dhal is a thin spicy stew made primarily of lentils while bhat is steamed white rice; the combination is standard fare in rural Nepal. Krishna prepared dhal bhat twice a day for the staff, but was convinced that no American would tolerate the stuff. It was delicious, especially with a little goat, yak or water buffalo meat, but it took considerable begging to get a little for ourselves.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides: and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Tennyson, Ulysses

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Manaslu Part 20

The rugged individual is a myth reserved for Chuck Norris and Mel Gibson movies. Adventurers know that the individual can only thrive in a benign environment, and the go it alone guy is revered only by those who live in a guardrail society. Unfortunately our everyday world has become so tame that true, “my life is in your hands,” friendships are no longer needed. Most of us drift through life establishing no real connections because we simply don’t have to. Only by getting out of the benign Disneyland in which most of us live can we realize the full asset or liability of those with whom we chose to share our lives. When your continued existence truly and immediately depends on the competency and courage of your cohort(s) there exists the potential for sublime friendships and fire in your heart contempt. I spent seven weeks within fifty feet of Brian Sato and have no complaints.

“Feeling good, taking it slow. Trying to find a rhythm out here. I think it’s important to find some kind of peace in order to reach the summit. If you come here to fight count on losing.”
- Diary entry April 11, 2002

All who have been to Nepal know the greeting namaste. Literally translated as “I salute the God in you,” Namaste serves as both hello and goodbye, it is often said with both hands clasped together in what a Westerner would consider a prayer posture, and if you are lucky it will come in the form namaste bai or namaste di di – hello brother, hello sister. As I walked the trail in Nepal absorbed in my own feelings of doubt and homesickness I would often meet a young girl or an old man and invariably we would exchange this sincere greeting. As a matter of fact you say namaste so often that it comes as natural as blinking and if you’re not careful you will shorten the hand gesture to a single-handed kind of vertical salute, or worse yet a karate chop.

The trail is an equalizer. It gives two people, no matter how diverse their backgrounds, common footing. Aside from basic physiology, I had nothing in common with the locals I met on the trail: we didn’t speak the same language, we didn’t know the same songs, we had no shared experiences, yet many would stop stand clasp their hands together look me in the eye and say “hello brother.” It was a greeting from a fellow traveler, someone else trying to live life as best he can.

The third night of the trek was spent in the village of Dobhan, a three building settlement next to a cold mountain stream where we Americans washed off three days of dust and salty sweat. Our Garung porters were extremely modest and in an effort to be mindful and courteous we were very careful to find a secluded spot in which to strip down and wash up. Unlike the Tibetan people we were soon to meet higher in the Nubri Valley the Garungs were extraordinarily clean and every night the women would wash their feet and hair at the village tap. Every village that we saw had an identical water supply: someone had obtained a fifty foot section of plastic tubing, one end of which was run uphill and inserted into a stream while the other end was attached to a spigot embedded in a concrete block. Occasionally a friendly male versus female water fight would break out as the two genders competed for the faucet.

The Garung men wore what appeared to be discarded Western clothes – old sweat pants and out of fashion tee shirts – while the women wore colorful ankle-length patterned skirts cotton blouses and wool cardigan sweaters. Despite the heat, the dust and the fact that their skirts nearly brushed the ground the clothing of the Garung women remained spotless for the entire eight days of our trek. Several of our female porters also wore a sort of head wrap made from a single piece of brightly colored cotton cloth. The men wore no jewelry, while the women wore large golden hoops in their ears and at least one, possibly two ruby-studded rosettes in their noses. Some women had pierced the section of skin between their nostrils and through this hole they would place an ornate golden ring.

All of our porters either went barefoot or wore flimsy rubber shower sandals. A completely worn through sandal lying beside the trail was a common sight and once while following a group of porters I saw a man simply kick off a ruined sandal in mid-stride and continue barefoot. When I returned home I told a friend this story, she replied at how sad it was that our porters didn’t even have shoes. I think, however, it was the porters who saw us as the pitiful ones. If someone had stolen our boots we would have been hobbled, they, however, had no such weakness – weakness is the appropriate term.

Despite our need for sturdy and expensive boots the trail was gradually hardening our soft civilized bodies. We’d all arrived in Kathmandu in excellent shape, but unless you work as a farmer or a longshoreman it’s practically impossible to hold down a job and completely prepare yourself for the day in day out rigors of an extended mountaineering expedition. Fortunately our bodies are master adapters and my favorite time of any expedition is the beginning because that’s when you can physically feel yourself getting calloused and hard. After the first day you forget about the comb, after the second you stop dreaming of a hot shower and after the third you no longer care that you haven’t changed your underwear in three days. It’s actually quite liberating to take off your shoes, crawl into your bag fully clothed, sleep the night and then wakeup and only have to pull on your shoes in order to start the day. Four days on the trail will tear up your soft muscles and replace them with taut wire and will peel away your smooth skin and cover the wounds with impenetrable calluses – it’s a wonderful feeling.