Archive for June, 2013

Goin’ Deep: The 40th Birthday Challenge

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2013 by moosetracksca

The cold shocked me into a weary awareness of the trees and trail in front of me as I stumbled up the bridge to cross the Lyell fork just after midnight. There was an eerie calm to the forest as I walked, arms hugged tightly to my chest, my legs pumping in an almost frantic effort to get warm and stay that way. I hummed along with my headphones, more as a subtle warning to any critters to stay away and let me wander south, winding my way along the well-worn path. Strangely, after the first hour I was wide awake, focused ahead, catching the occasional sparkle of the moon on the granite and splashing through the minor tributaries feeding the river. The moonlight spread long shadows across the meadow, and I slowed only to feel the caress of fog against my face and legs, smiled as I was wrapped in the humid blanket for a moment.

I only got turned around once, where the trail crosses the river, thinking that I remembered heading further along in an attempt to climb Mt. Lyell a few years ago. I tried not to shine my lamp in the direction of the tents, to wake my fellow travelers in the wee hours of morning, where the only noise was the water flowing across the rocks. The trail climbed gently from there, granite steps arcing over a ridge and descending to a black lake away, then climbing again to the broad pass ahead. The moon had set, replaced by the gentle grey of the coming dawn, and I stepped on a patch of firm, slick snow to “finish” the climb. I still had time, though, as I looked to the skies and saw the barest hint of color brushed high above the crest.

It had been too dark still to cut early across the easy slabs and meadows below Donahue Pass, but running the ridgeline was an easy task in the growing light. I grimaced a bit at the drop to the tarn below the western ridge of Donahue Peak, but welcomed a cold drink after dipping my bottle. The rosy warmth was gently descending to the darkened outlines of rock; the waters of the tarn, and the snowfields below the mountains, reflected the gathering strength of dawn.  Part way up the ridgeline, I turned to sit quietly on a boulder, my breath calming after a minute. I could feel the sweat on my neck and shoulders. Even the birds and marmots, chattering a moment before, fell silent.

Together, we watched the tips of the range burst into flame as the sun rose triumphant into a crystalline sky.


The Birthday Challenge this year grew from a conversation, and not necessarily a pleasant one, at that. I had fallen into a semi-happy stupor since my knee injury and surgery, where I mostly content with playing the role of weekend warrior. I had confided in my friend that jump-starting a new fitness routine had been difficult, full of fits and starts, resulting my return to laziness and lovely glass of wine at the end of the day instead of a workout. There was a side of me that I had been happy to put away: the competitor.

I didn’t like her very much, this competitor. She was cruel, demeaning, someone who preferred to explode into the negative rather than reinforce the positive. She had reared her head in 2010, drove me to condition myself into the best shape of my life, but at a cost of my daily battles with her over whether I was “worthy”. I had been able to quell this demon after I realized that my training was actually taking me higher both into the mountains and into my own feeling of self-sufficiency. I was exploring both my home range and the depths of my soul and finding peace with both. Even after the injury, with my friends convincing me that I had nothing left to prove, I was able to keep the competitor at bay.

“But if you were training more, during the week…”

 –“Don’t go there. Please don’t go there…”

 “You could be so much faster.

And now, she was awake again.

I devised the 40th Birthday Challenge while on one of my long drives home from June Lake. I knew I couldn’t attempt a 40-mile hike like the ones I had done in the past: the 13K elevation gain of those tremendous days were entirely too much for me to handle. It would have to center around the number 40, but what?? 40 miles; 40… thousand; 40,000 vertical…

40,000 vertical in 40 days. When was 40 days back from my birthday?

On May 9th, I raced home to look at my calendar. May 13th was 40 days back from my birthday. Well, that was easy, I thought. Now, what other rules should I set for myself?

1)   Human power only. Cycling, hiking, climbing. It would all count, but had to be done under my own power.

2)   No banking. There had to be a daily effort, no matter if there was extra. 40 straight days of at least 1000 vertical.

3)   If hiking, I was not allowed to use the same trail, realizing that some trails might overlap a bit (like the beginning of the Whitney trail and Mountaineer’s Route).

I would keep track using a GPS. I loaded trail runners and workout clothing, a small pack with 2 liters of water and a sweatshirt, into my truck every morning so I could change and do my workout wherever I ended the day. My patient load would help, in that I could be at so many different areas of the Sierra after work. I took my iPhone, or my small camera, to document these places. To share with everyone just how varied and amazing this range can be.

On May 13th, I drove up to the South Lake trailhead above Bishop, post-holed my way to the summit of Chocolate Peak, and came home to report on the “sloptacular” start to my birthday challenge.  It was the start of a journey that would take me from Yosemite to Lone Pine, following the trails and roads up, often more than 1000 feet, to a vantage or overlook that would leave me smiling broadly as I caught my breath. Thunderstorms chased me: their black clouds and rain rolling up canyons as I squeezed a few more feet up before running down. The sun baked me as I pumped hard on the pedals up the long slope out of town. Animals would tease, like the fish jumping out of the lake or a horny toad dashing for cover under a sagebrush. After two weeks, I was finding a rhythm, feeling strong again. The old confidence and stride was returning as I let my legs swing on the uphill, then would welcome the chance to actually run as gravity pulled me back to my car. The competitor was in the driver’s seat as I pushed myself hard. “You did this to yourself!” she would say. “You ‘let’ yourself become this way.”

Maybe it was the competitor that thought going back to Crossfit this soon was a good idea. If I can push myself this hard on the trails, why not add another workout to the mix? I can pull two-a-days! Sure, I’ll be tired for a week but I’ll be STRONGER. I’ll be FASTER. I’ll be MORE DESIREABLE. I’ll be more LOVEABLE…

I stood in front of the box for a moment, hesitating, but then driving the fear from my mind. I stepped forward, swung my arms back, and launched…

The gash in my shin took seven stitches to close, with the doctor getting a nice view of my tibia after the nurse cleaned the wound. “Go home and put your leg up for at least 48 hours,” she said.

“I will,” I promised.

“Yeah, I don’t believe you for a second.”


The streak may have been over, but not the desire to finish. For four days I rested, bought a compression sleeve for my lower leg, took it easy. But then it was right back on again: riding my bike up into the White Mountains. Walking easy, then using ice as a recovery tool after runs. The competitor wasn’t finished with me yet, but somehow I could feel her fading somewhat. At first, she was disappointed, railing me with how stupid a move it was, that if I wasn’t in such bad shape it never would have happened. You’ll make it up, she told me. You have no choice.

But on the first weekend of June, as I hamster-wheeled my way over Cleaver Col, then up the slopes of kitty litter towards Mt. Barnard, I heard another voice on the wind. With my leg aching from the effort, the sun dancing between the clouds, and 800 vertical feet to go before reaching the summit, something asked, “Why are you trying so hard?”

I stopped under a boulder and looked around me: clouds were forming to the west above the Kern Canyon; Whitney, Russell, Morgenson, and Hale stood tightly grouped and rugged; the light shifted across the ridge joining Carl Heller and Tunnaborra; Wallace Lake sparkled in the breeze. Beneath my right shoulder, a small, frail polemonium had birthed only a single stem of flowers, its scent light but still sweet as I remembered. The wind swirled around, carrying the smell of dust and blowing the tears that rolled down my cheeks. A familiar refrain quietly reminded me, “Look where you are, Laura. Look where your legs and body have brought you. Look at these gifts!”

The competitor was silenced. In her stead, a wave of gratitude and appreciation rose inside of me.


From the summit of Mt. Donahue, I gazed south into the Rush Creek basin and beyond to Ritter, Banner, and the Minarets. Morning light bathed the mountains, and a few birds whizzed over my head. The breeze chilled me, so breakfast would have to wait until I descended the mountain and crossed the green meadows below. Aside a tarn with no mosquitoes, I paused for a moment to remove layers, slather on sunscreen, and then look back up the chute and rock band I had dropped. There had been no hesitation, only confidence that I could find my way down. The meadows allowed me to open my stride, to dance through the dry waterways that meandered through the grass. I was almost disappointed to find the trail so quickly.

For the rest of the day, my legs carried me south across the landscape, pausing only to allow a short conversation with fellow travelers, or to refuel at the side of a lake in the breeze. The climbs out of Garnet and Shadow Lakes almost killed me, but instead of stopping, I found yet another gear into which to drop. For me, it has never been about speed, just persistence. The trail on the south end of the plateau settled into a long, soft slope, and I was able to shuffle into a gentle jog. Through the exhaustion, my mind was sharp and focused on the final objective. The sandy soil cushioned my aching feet, and there was no stopping me now.

A few groups of backpackers sweated their way up the gradual climb, happily pulling off to the side as I jogged past. One man, his pack laden with fishing and other gear, smiled when he saw my small pack. “Out for a day hike?” he asked.

My friend, do I have a story to tell you.


The final stats:

1)   I managed to achieve my 1000ft/day for 34 out of 40 days. 4 days were medical rest, 1 was while my parents were visiting, 1 was due to a friend’s emergency.

2)   Between hiking and bicycling, I managed to wander 365.6 miles (or so, the GPS isn’t always the most accurate).

3)   Over those 34 days, I climbed 69,305 vertical feet. That averages to 2,038 feet/day. Had I not missed those six days, I would have easily cleared my “more mathematically cool” goal of 80K in 40 days.

Thanks to everyone who supported me along the way. I will put together a video slide show of my favorite photos after the July 4th holiday.

Because this challenge was to be a celebration, and after I essentially decimated my initial goal of climbing 40K after half of the challenge, I decided that my results would be an opportunity to give back to this amazing community which I call home.

A donation in the amount of $693.05, one penny for every vertical foot, was made to the Friends of the Inyo. Their stewardship of the Eastern Sierra has been vital in the protection and upkeep of these grand vistas.


I truly am the luckiest girl in the world.

To all my friends and family, thank you.

Climb Hard. Be Safe.