Friday, November 7, 2008

Altitude sickness

I've been in Utah not quite three weeks now, but I've already come down with a severe case of altitude sickness. It's not manifesting itself as HAPE or HACE, but with a much more subversive symptom. It's compelling me to do irrational things in order to spend as much time as possible in my beloved Wasatch Mountains. I know the feeling of an addict as he unwraps the surgical tubing and lets the heroin seethe into his veins. Just like him, and as I state in the title of this blog, I am a junkie. I have the bloodshot eyes to prove it.

Last week, for instance, I stayed up to a ridiculously late hour riding mountain bikes in the dark. I did the same the week before.

This morning I got up at 4:00 a.m. and met Mike and Ben and two of Ben's colleagues from Black Diamond at the mouth of Little Cottonwood at 5:00 a.m. It was still dark and would be for a couple of hours. I had never met any of these guys before this morning--it didn't matter as we were united in common purpose.

We started from Our Lady of Snows and skinned up the south-facing slope across from Alta Ski Area. A week ago, this ground was bare, but you would have never known that this morning. Three feet or more of snow had fallen this week, and suddenly it was winter. My only regret is that I didn't go the day before.

After at least an hour of climbing at a pace that was far from comfortable for me, we reached the ridge. I was still catching my breath and had just started taking my skins off when I looked down and saw Ben already at the bottom of Days Fork.

The Days Fork side of the ridge is north-facing, and the snow was wonderful. Not quite the dry, light stuff the Wasatch is known for, but still soft and effortless. It was a wonderful way to kick off the ski season. We lapped Days twice and then skinned along the ridge top before skiing back down to Alta.

By the time we started the final descent, my legs were completely cooked. Every ski season I go into it thinking that I've been on the bike all year and I'm in good shape. Every year I finish my first day wondering how I can be so fit and hurt so bad. My only explanation is that skiing is harder than cycling. The relatively easy transition back onto the bike in the spring seems to bear this out. Of course, it doesn't help that the BD guys are insanely fit--Rick has mentioned before that he'd love to see Ben on a bike, as they seem to travel across snow with a fraction of the effort required of some reasonably strong cyclists.

The final descent of the south-facing aspect wasn't nearly as good as the other side. The snow had a sun crust on it and was mashed-potatoey. It still beats not skiing, but it was quite heavy and hard work. We were back at the bottom at 8:30--would have been sooner if I hadn't needed to rest my burning quads on the way down.

After some hot chocolate and a maple bar at the 7 eleven, I was at work a little after 9:30. Growing up, I thought living half an hour from Alta and Snowbird was normal. That this kind of access could be found in cities all over the West. After living a few other places in the country, I have realized how wrong I was. When talking about Utah with my former manager, he described Utah as "special." I know that word gets thrown around, often as a pejorative, but I think it's apt. Not only is it the greatest snow on earth, but it's close enough to access on a weekday without jeopardizing my career. There's nothing like it in the world.

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