“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“That number 40 is really bothering you. Why is that?” –Mark Bayer
Good question, Dad. That number has been bothering me for a solid year, and its arrival is now imminent. I think, for me, it has come to represent an age at which you should have accomplished the greatest achievements of your life, while also demarcating the age at which you, well, start to get old. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who accomplish incredible things long after 40, and those who continue to live young well beyond that number as well. To be honest, I’ve never entirely grown up. All the same, that worrisome number stands there in its full symbolic weight, staring me down and asking what have I done with my life, and what am I going to do with the time that remains. Good question, 40.
My sense is that it’s not all that uncommon for people confronting 40 to feel as if they haven’t reached the dreams and goals that they’d imagined for themselves. That’s certainly where I’m at. As a sophomore in college, I said to a friend, with complete sincerity, “I just know that I’m meant to do something big, something that will make a big impact. I know that I will do something great in my life.” Sophomore translates as “wise fool,” so perhaps you will forgive my naivité–or arrogance. I wasn’t interested in recognition for an accomplishment; I simply felt driven to do something meaningful with my life. Twenty years later, and here I am, with not much to show for it. No books published. No work that is making a large impact on the planet. No big adventures. Yes, I’ve published in my field; yes I’ve impacted some students; and, yes, I’ve had some great adventures–I just have nothing epic to show for my 40 years on Earth.
Of course, as one student pointed out to me last summer as I lamented not having any grand expeditions to my name, from her perspective I’m the one doing epic things. Touché. So, to an extent, this is all subjective. The feeling that I’m capable of something much grander, though, nags at me. “It tasks me; it heaps me,” to paraphrase Ahab. What I’ve done is not enough, and time grows short. A strange new panic lurks inside me, a sense of dread: a poignant fear of having wasted so much precious time, of getting a late start, and of running out of said precious time.
In short, it appears that I’m having a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis.
40 for 40
Enter this corny 40 Peaks for 40 Years idea. I honestly don’t know when or where I came up with this–or why. Some friends have done things to mark milestone birthdays: run a 50k for age 50; do 30 cool new things at 30; etc. I realize it’s a little contrived, but I’m an incredibly goal-oriented person, so a challenge like this suits me well. I remember mentioning it to my Dad in a phone conversation; perhaps I made it up on the spot then? His reply: “That’s a peak per week almost.” Gulp. I hadn’t thought of that.
I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone else until the other night when my friend Jen and I sipped ciders after indoor climbing. She enthusiastically encouraged the endeavor and helped me to set the parameters. I was troubling over what constitutes a peak. Does rock climbing count? Jen supplied the perfect answer: “You can make it whatever you want! If you climb up it, and you’re on top of it, it’s a peak. It doesn’t matter how you got there, whether it’s rock climbing, hiking, or mountaineering.” I like those guidelines.
Here, then, are my arbitrary guidelines for this arbitrary game that I made up for myself:
- Getting to the highest point of a given landscape by my own power counts as summitting a peak, for the purposes of this challenge. So, hiking up Mt. Si, climbing up Mount Rainier, or doing a multi-pitch climb up The Tooth would all count as peaks.
- If tagging multiple peaks along a ridge (say, for example, Defiance to Putrid Pete to Webb), each peak counts as an individual summit. (so, three peaks in this example)
- Each peak only counts once. So, if I do repeats on Mt. Peak or climb Mailbox twice this year, they each only count once. I want to climb 40 distinct peaks.
- There is no prize for accomplishing this goal, and no penalty for failing. It’s a made-up challenge with made-up rules that no one but me cares about. Ultimately, it’s meant to give me something to do for fun which will also get me out to explore new places. That sounds like a good use of time, even if it won’t change the world.
- I must understand and agree that this challenge cannot fully address the concerns I have about turning 40, nor will it resolve my sense of having a dearth of great accomplishments. If I complete this challenge, it still won’t be the epic and elusive thing that I’m longing for. I must realize that even if I achieve the most profound feats of wit, intelligence, endurance, and badassery, it will probably never feel like enough. In the end, the 40 for 40 game is meant to serve as a catalyst for pushing me to start truly giving this life my all and doing what I can with the time I’m allotted. I want to be able to die knowing that at the age of 40, I kicked it into high gear and worked toward making a useful contribution to this world. Like my hero Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the [vegan] marrow of life.”
Peak 1/40: Mt. Peak (January 13, 2019)
Total Elevation Gain: 2,142′
Total Distance: 5.7 miles
40 is still three weeks off, but the sun was shining, and I was in sore need of trail time. After four months of essentially no running, I’ve been eager to get back to it. Mt. Peak holds a special place in my heart. My friend Tyler took me there a few years ago, and I’m eternally grateful for the introduction. Mt. Peak (also known as Pinnacle Peak and Mount Pete) helped me get some serious vert training for my first Barkley Fall Classic (the Goat Path gains 1000′ in 0.78 miles), and it was the first place outside of Tacoma that I would go for solo trail runs. It helped me build confidence at the same time that it strengthened my calves. It initially appealed to me because there were always people on it, no matter the day or time; this helped me feel a bit more comfortable venturing out on my own.
Repeats on Mt. Peak became my Saturday ritual. The day began with picking up a chai for the road, then driving out through Puyallup and up into the foothills. It was a time to leave the city and daily life behind, listen to music, and head for the peace of the hills. Near Enumclaw, you turn off the main road to see Mt. Peak rising up out of cow pastures. It’s a relatively low elevation, so it tends to be reliably snow-free all year. As such, it’s more of my winter go-to route. My standard route is as follows: Goat Trail –> summit –> down the backside –> up the backside –> summit –> down the Cal Mag trail –> repeat. After a number of repeats, I jump into warm clothes, crank the heat, stop at Wally’s drive-in for some delicious french fries, and enjoy a satisfying drive home.
I’ve neglected Mt. Peak over the past year, so it felt right to make it the inaugural 40 for 40 peak. It felt good to return to this tradition. The relatively warm, sunshiney day was an added bonus. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of other people out enjoying Mt. Peak that day. While I have reached a point where I prefer to be in wild places with no other humans in sight, Mt. Peak remains an exception. I actually enjoy encountering other people here.
I started up the Goat Path. It’s a steep climb, and I was panting. Being out of shape sucks! (According to Strava, this was, remarkably, my second-fastest assent of the Goat Path. I find that hard to believe, but Strava knows all.) It was great fun all the same, and the route gave me a little surprise when a view of the Olympics offered itself. This was perhaps the first time I’ve been here when it wasn’t rainy or cloudy, so I believe this is the first glimpse I’ve ever had of the Olympics from here. They stood snowy and majestic off to the west.
Cresting the steepest part of the climb, I dusted off my running legs and eased into a little jog up to the summit. Tagging it, it was down the backside of the little mountain. It felt good to open up my legs a bit and run down. Here, people chatted with me along the way. One runner, on his way back up, asked if I was going up again. “Just one more today,” I replied. He asked if he could join me, but I said, “well, I’m out of shape and will be power hiking most of the way up.” He laughed and we chatted about races and about loving Mt. Peak, and we parted with me promising to run up with him next time our paths crossed. Tagging the gate on the far side, I headed back up in the company of a woman hauling a heavy pack. “Are you training for something?” she asked. “I’m just getting back into things. How about you?” “Mount Rainier,” she proudly replied; thus, the heavy pack. She was heading up for her third summit of the day. “Good for you!” I cheered. We chatted about her training and also about our love for Mt. Peak (which became a recurring theme in all my interactions that day.) I was able to run slowly up more of the incline on the backside than I had imagined, so I soon left her and resumed my way to the summit. At the one good Rainier viewpoint on the route, I stopped to take it in. A woman with her two kids said, “Here, stand in my place; it’s the best view.” As we traded places, she said, “I don’t know why I like this trail so much; this is the only decent view.” I laughed, as I had been thinking the same thing. “Yeah,” I replied, “I find myself coming back all the same.” She told me that there is talk of rebuilding the fire lookout on top, which would be neat.
Continuing up the backside, I started to daydream about hosting an informal “race” here. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and I let my mind work out some potential details. Maybe have participants complete 3 summits using 3 different trails? There would be no course markings, and everyone would choose their own routes. We might call it the “Mt. Peak Threesome?” Hmmm, maybe not. “Mt. Peak Three-Peat?” Well, there’s time to work on that. The idea would be to treat it as a fatass race to raise a little money for the park and gather a group of people together to share the place with them. I’m going to reach out to Tyler and see if he’d like to collaborate on something like this with me.
The final descent brought me down the Cal Magnusen trail. This is the main trail, and it’s where I learned to let go of my fear of downhill running. On past runs, there always seemed to be some crotchety old guy there (not necessarily always the same one) who would yell, “You’re gonna break your neck!” as I zoomed by. There was no such chiding on this occasion. It was fun to leap over roots and rocks, and bonus that the trail wasn’t its typical mudfest. It was over all too quickly, and I was back at my car.
Thanking the little mountain, I turned my car in the direction of Wally’s, where hot fries awaited. Passing through Bonney Lake, Mount Rainier loomed large in my rear view mirror, beckoning me to add it to my 40 for 40 challenge.
Peak 2/40: BCMC Trail, Grouse Mountain (January 19, 2019)
Elevation: 1,093 m (in meters because it’s in Canada, eh)
Total Elevation Gain: 845 m
Total Distance: 6.84 km
While in Vancouver for the On Sustainability Conference, I took advantage of the city’s close proximity to the North Shore Mountains of the Pacific Ranges. I knew of the BCMC trail from reading about Gary Robbins using it for Barkley training, and its neighbor, the Grouse Grind, has a reputation for being a steep beast. Both lead up to a ski resort, from which you can reach the peaks of Grouse and Dam Mountains–why not tag two peaks in one go! The Grind was closed for the season, so it was off to the BCMC trail. Due to wintry conditions, the only way to reach the true summit would be to rent snowshoes and use the resort’s trails up.
The BCMC winds up through a peaceful rainforest of emerald green. The trail itself is pretty gnarly, consisting primarily of tangled roots and rocks. At times, a creek flows straight down the rocks on the trail.
I learned at the conference that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territories. This means that the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations did not cede their traditional territories to colonists through treaty, war, or surrender. The city of Vancouver formally acknowledged this in 2014, and representatives from UBC, the host university for the conference, explained ways in which they have attempted to recognize Coast Salish peoples’ relationship with the land on which the university stands. I was a bit embarrassed not to have known this about the city, and I thought about the implications of this aspect of colonization as I journeyed through the forest.
The BCMC is “easier” than the Grouse Grind thanks to its short, sharp switchbacks. This makes the trail less vertical, but, in my experience, it led to getting off trail a few times. In the first instance, I had just passed a man, and then continued on what turned out to be a boot track and not the official trail. Passing the man for the second time, I said by way of explanation, “Took a wrong turn back there!” and laughed. It took a moment for this to register with him, but once it did, he sped up to catch me and said with incredible earnestness, “That is very dangerous. There are orange markers on the trees. You must follow the markers and go from tree to tree.” Laughing off the mansplaining instead of letting it irritate me, I returned, “I know; I just wasn’t paying close attention,” and moved ahead.
Not two minutes later, I’d done it again. Another older man, who’d overheard the first incident, said, “I thought my sense of direction was bad, but yours is terrible!” I couldn’t argue, given the amount of evidence against me, so all I could do was once again laugh and say, “I actually have a great sense of direction; I’m not sure what’s going on today!” We laughed and chatted; he took a bit of a grandfatherly tone, and I reassured him that I had everything I needed in my pack to ensure that I was safe and could figure out where I was (ten essentials plus gpx tracks and Delorme satellite device.) He climbs the BCMC once a week, and it showed! I had to work hard to stay within 3-4 meters of him. After about 20 minutes, he pulled up, breathless, and said, “You’re pushing me too hard; I need a break!” Surprised, I replied, “I was just trying to keep up with you!”
I passed a range of people on the ascent, from serious trail runners doing repeats for training to men in designer jeans, button up shirts, Ralph Lauren sweaters, and loafers. Everyone was friendly. One runner passed me and said, “It’s never easy!” to which I replied, “But it’s fun!” “Yes, it is!” It’s true. While there were quite a few people out on the trail, I still had some moments of solitude, and the scenery was quite lovely. The temps were perfect for a cool weather hike, and there was no precipitation. I am particularly fond of steep, technical climbs, so this fit the bill. I’d say it wasn’t steeper than the best parts of the Goat Path on Mt. Peak, but it was vertical enough to make me work to get up some sections.
The trail is 3km one-way, and I hit snow at exactly the 2km mark. It was relatively hard packed and not too deep, so I kept on without my spikes. About a half kilometer later, a descent into a creek bed changed my mind. While putting on my spikes, my climbing friend caught me up. With honest relief, he said, “Oh good, you’re still on the trail. I was worried about ya. But you have your crampons on and look ok.” Overlooking the patronizing sense of worry, and without correcting him about the crampons, I explained that I was well prepared to be out here (listing the contents of my pack) and that I also had a satellite device with an SOS button and two people tracking me. “Oh, ok, sounds like you know what you’re doing.” “Yes, I do, thanks.” He explained that he’s afraid of going out into the backcountry, especially alone, because he’s afraid of getting lost. He sticks to the BCMC because it’s tough to get lost there (although apparently a tourist got lost in the canyon between the BCMC and Grouse Grind a few years ago and died.) It occurred to me that perhaps this man was projecting his own insecurities about being solo in the backcountry onto me.
I get quite irritated by this not-so-uncommon experience with men on trails. I’m not reckless and don’t take risks that I shouldn’t, and just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of traveling alone through the woods. It’s an unfortunate reality that, more often than not, during my solo adventures into the natural world, some man will make a comment that implies his sense of my incompetency. My response has typically been either to make a smartass comment (“Not my first rodeo, dude!”) or to laugh it off and keep going. No matter how I respond, though, it gets under my skin, deep, and I proceed to unload some serious fury on him in my mind. This is something I’d like to reflect on more: how should I handle these moments? What’s the best type of response? How can I get men–who are total strangers–to recognize that they are patronizing me? How can I push them to see that their sense of concern for me, and sense of themselves as thoughtfully offering insight or advice, is actually insulting, despite their good intentions? They would never say these things to another man, which makes it all the more infuriating. Did anyone say anything to the two dudes in loafers and sweaters, not a single essential between them? Doubtful.
My companion and I trekked the final half kilometer together and had a friendly chat, despite my frustration with his concern (admittedly, I perhaps gave him a little cause for concern, since I went off trail twice in two minutes, but we’re talking 5-6 steps off trail before recognizing my mistake, and not me wandering blindly for hours.) We reached the Grouse Mountain Chalet, which is the base for ski resort operations. Most hikers opt to take the gondola down, which my new friend planned to do. “My knees would hurt for weeks if I went back down the trail! Good for you for taking the tough way down.” We shook hands and parted ways.
It was time to decide if I was going to push for the true summit of Grouse Mountain, or head back down. This amount of inner debate called for hot chocolate. Fortunately, the chalet coffee shop not only had delicious hot chocolate but also vegan cookies; score! Grabbing a seat by the window overlooking the valley below, I weighed my options. It would cost about $60 US to rent snowshoes and purchase an alpine access pass from the resort. Was it really worth that much money just to say that I tagged the official summit? True, it would be fun to snowshoe and check out the mountain, but I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for my 40 for 40 game. Then, I thought about Jen’s words when she helped me determine the parameters for the challenge: I had climbed up something, and I was (essentially) on top of it. Gaining 845m in 3km was certainly a tough climb, and the view from the chalet gave one the sense of being on top of a mountain. The verdict: good enough.
Trekking back down was fun! With the overconfidence that comes with wearing microspikes, I bounded down through the snow. Wheeee! Postholing up to my hips stopped me in my tracks once, but, laughing at myself, I zoomed on and ran most of the 1km covered in snow. Taking off my spikes, I took it easy the rest of the way down, navigating root and rock and the ever-growing line of hikers. Ruminating on my decision to head down, I thought about the intention behind this challenge. The main idea is to have a goal that gets me out and allows me to see new places, all while having fun. As far as that goes, BCMC was a mission accomplished. In the end, this is a silly game that I’ve invented for myself. I really don’t care if someone else thinks this shouldn’t count as a peak because I didn’t tag the official summit. It honestly feels great for me not to care. In the past, I almost certainly would have felt a sense of failure for not reaching the absolute top of Grouse Mountain. While I do want to drive myself to do great things–that is, in fact, the driving force that motivates me so much right now–it is also liberating not to care so much about the technical details of something.
It’s nice to feel content simply by being present, out in the woods.