Monday, August 30, 2010

Keeping My Promise on Gerlach Stit -- Barely!

I made a promise that I wouldn’t climb up anything that I didn’t feel I could climb down. But I forgot to consider what might happen if the rocks I had climbed up became wet before I came down.

That oversight made the descent off Gerlachovsky stit, the highest point in the Slovak Republic at 2,654 meters (about 8,000 feet) a bit more than I bargained for. Those metal rungs in the overhanging rock and the chains bolted to the cliff face were not so easily negotiated in a snowstorm that swept in over the summit on what up till then had been a nice late-August morning.

Suddenly, the warning in the guidebook that Gerlach was not to be climbed without a rope-carrying guide made a little more sense.

I had come to Strbske Pleso, a quaint little mountain town in the High Tatras region of Slovakia, to climb the highest points in both Poland and the Slovak Republic. The Polish high point, Rysy, at 2,500 meters, sits literally on the border between the two countries, but the standard hiking route is from Strebske Pleso on the Slovak side.

Nancy and I had come to Poland for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships only a couple of hours northwest of here over the weekend. The intent was for both of us to run the five-mile uphill-only course, but since I have been nursing too many leg injuries to count, I decided not to race. A good decision, since the course was brutally steep and a cold, unrelenting rain fell throughout the Saturday morning race. It was about all I could manage just to hike up the course to the finish line – well, actually, I never saw the finish line, as I was advised to stop at the restaurant one kilometer shy of the summit – the top of the ski area where the race finished was shrouded in a thick, impenetrable fog created by the incessant rain.

It’s beyond me how some of these runners – one of them 80 years old – managed to run this course, but they did. Nancy ran a spectacular race – her first since turning 50 the week before – and was in line for a podium finish when she roared by me in third place in her age division at the hut with 1.5 kilometers to go. But the final track up to the finish was on a mud-splattered ski slope and she was stopped dead in her tracks by a previous finisher trying to pick his way down from the top who slammed right into her. Moments later another woman sped past her and Nancy was relegated to fourth place for the second year in a row. It was disappointing seeing her train so hard for a medal and then having it slip away in such fashion.

By the time I hiked back down to our hotel at the starting line, I was soaked to the bone and near hypothermic … so were many of the runners who finished the race in just over an hour, but had to wait another hour and a half, in some instances, for their drop backs – and their warm clothes – to arrive at the finish. But this posting is not about criticizing the Polish officials for a poorly organized race. After all, everyone seemed to leave happy, though those Europeans were well-insulated from the cold by the time the final medals were finally handed out well after dark!

The next day, Nancy and I headed back into Slovakia and to Strebske Pleso. We had a few days until we had to be in Kamnick, Slovenia, for the World Mountain Running Championships that will be held this Sunday. Nancy is on the World Mountain Running Association’s board and one of the U.S. coaches for the two senior and two junior teams that are to compete in the world championships.

The weather was a little better when we arrived and we found a great, modern hotel not far from the Rysy trailhead. The Hotel Crocus gave us an incredible room for less than 100 Euros. This place was so modern that not only did we need someone from the front desk to come up to show us how to turn on our futuristic stove, but he had to come back up a while later to show us how to turn it off! Stupid Americans, he must’ve thought!

I immediately headed for Rysy, which the guidebook said was a 4.5-hour ascent. I made the roundtrip in that time, but then again, I’ve never found hiking times to be overly accurate. The hike up took me first to Popradske Pleso (or lake) and then turned north and then northeast up a series of switchbacks on a fairly routine trail to the Chata pod Rysmi hut at 2,250 meters. Being a Sunday, there were hundreds of hikers on the trail and dozens more at the hut when I arrived – only to be met by a full-scale blizzard. And this was August!

The final ascent to the summit was a bit tricky on wet rocks and with so many others scampering and sliding about, but I made it to the saddle between Rysy’s two high points, one of which is in Slovakia and the other of which is the high point of Poland. The Polish summit was a few meters lower than the Slovakian one, but seemed to attract just as many of the ascending climbers, many of them probably like me – a peakbagger in search of the white cement post with the red top marking the Polish high point. I had someone take a couple of pictures of me and then I immediately headed down, as I wasn’t particularly prepared for snow in August!

I got back to the hut and found its deck completely filled with hikers enjoying a snack or some drinks from the store at the hut. So I continued down, meeting a guy from Longmont, Colorado, on my way, and limping back to the hotel in the late afternoon. Seems my sore left heel was acting up again from all the foot-pounding from the very rocky trail.

Nancy wasn’t particularly pleased with my decision to climb Gerlach stit the next morning … not after she heard from someone at the information booth next to our hotel that you could only climb the Slovakian high point with a paid guide. I explained to her that my guidebook said that anyone who was a member of a mountaineering club could climb without a guide – which was later confirmed for me by Michael at the front desk – and that since I was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, I qualified.

Now, I can imagine how silly me flashing my AMC membership card would have been had a guide stopped me on the trail and demanded to know what I was doing there without a guide. Well, silly if he knew that any couch potato with $50 can fork it over to the AMC and become an official “mountaineer.” I’ve seen AMC members who have had to be rescued off Mount Monadnock!

But no one was likely to see me anyway as the most accessible trailhead for Gerlach stit is from the tiny village of Vysne Hagy, which is not the same town the guides take their clients out of. Though they might have run into me after the two trails converge at Batizoske Pleso, the tiny lake just below where the real climbing was to begin.

I had to take the train from Strebske Pleso to Vysne Hagy and it left at 6:43 a.m. – on the dot! I was running out of the hotel to the train station next door just in time for the conductor to check my ticket and pull away. These trains in Slovakia are modern (you should see their roads! Spectacular in comparison to ours) and they run on a tidy schedule. I got dropped off at Vysne Hagy about 7 a.m. and the trailhead ran right past the station, up a side road and then disappeared into the woods. It climbed steadily and eventually topped out amongst the stunted high-alpine fir trees – I think it’s called krummholz – that would remind you of any hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Once at the lake, I sat down and had some of the breakfast the hotel had prepared for me, which I had grabbed as I dashed for the train. An apple, some bread and an orange juice box hit the spot and then I hit the trail, which wound around the lake and headed up a waterfall toward the towering headwall that was still in shadows even at 8:30 a.m. The guidebook said there is no set trail up this waterfall, which was right, but you could see where others had climbed before and it lead directly to the solid rock wall of Batizovske Zlab! There was a narrow chute running up from the bottom at a near-vertical angle and as I got closer I could see a series of chains hanging down from above that were to be used to climb up the craggy cliff face.

Once above this section, you continue to scramble for a while until a second set of chains is met to get you up an even nastier stretch. Above this came the rungs hammered into the rock face – some at least 100 years ago – that you climbed like a ladder up and over a protruding overhang. Now at least you were in a gully, but the severity of the ascent did not slacken. I climbed up this gully, switching from side to side to follow the path of least resistance, until after an eternity I topped out in a chute and stared over the other side into a gray, shapeless abyss!

It had started to snow again just before I reached the summit, with the unexpected storm rolling in from the north over the top of the mountain while I still was looking back into relative sunshine. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I scanned around for the summit, and then I saw it. About 100 meters away in the swirling fog I could see the apex of the mountain – a four-foot high metal crucifix embedded into a stone slab sticking straight into the heavens!

To get over to it required some scrambling over the ridgeline and the very edge of the abyss to my right, which could easily have been a drop of more than 3,000 feet.

I made my way up the final push to the summit and found a metal box bolted to the side of a rock which housed the best register book I have ever seen – it was even hardbound! Usually, you have to dig around under a rock or a cairn to find a PCP tube wired with a nut to a rock and then when you unscrew the cap, the register “book” is just a wet, soggy rolled up notebook from Staples with a pen that won’t write crammed in the spiral webbing. I gave the book only a quick scan for anyone who had signed in English, but could find none, so I logged in, put the book away and then peered out at the crucifix like I was Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade looking across the “leap of faith” chasm in the final scene.

The crucifix was at the end of a 10-foot-long catwalk that was roughly two feet wide with exposure dropping away on both sides and the summit marker cemented to a one-foot-square block which constituted the entire summit. I swallowed hard and eased out to the crucifix and grabbed hold of it like it was a life preserver. Nothing was going to pry this thing from my hands. I swung around and actually stood up on the block – just for a second – before I quickly sat down and snapped off a few self-portraits. That done, I figured it was time to get off this mountain!

Starting down I immediately noticed another series of chains that was supposed to have guided me to the summit … I had missed them by going up the right-hand chute instead of the left when the chute suddenly split about 50 meters from the summit. I rappelled myself down these 25 meters of chains and back into the chute I had climbed up – a steep gully that was now glistening with wet rocks from the snow that was falling. I had to be extremely careful as I picked my way back down this gully, knowing that one slip was going to result in a fall that would leave me far from rescue.

Then, of course, there were still the ladders and long sections of chains down below to deal with. I got to the rungs, which were extremely slippery, and backed my foot off into nothingness in search of the next rung below. Since they weren’t exactly lined up, this took some doing and some care not to slip. But I made it down past the overhang safely to hear some voices not far below me – loud and concerned voices at that. I envisioned that it was a guide and his reluctant client deciding to bail rather than try to ascend in a snowstorm, which was now abating.

But when I turned the next corner and could get a good look below me – careful not to dislodge even a pebble – I saw no one, and never did come across the source of the voices. Maybe they were in a parallel chute … or a parallel universe. Who knows?
I made it down the next sketchy series of chains by rappelling again and thought I has home free. But I had forgotten that the first climbing I did after leaving the waterfall was a series of chains, and to my dismay they were now entirely wet and hard to hold as I arrived at the top of a 50-meter section that separated me from safety. With knees knocking, I rappelled off this final section and let out a huge sigh of relief when I touched down at the bottom of the cliff face.

From here, it was an easy hike back down the edge of the waterfall to the lake and from there another hour and a half back down the trail to Vysne Hagy to the train station – where I arrived just in time to see the next train for Strebske Pleso pulling out of the station. Damn efficient Slovakian trains!

Turns out the next train didn’t come for another hour, so I hunkered down in the now steady drizzle and staved off the shivers until it finally arrived 60 minutes later right on schedule. Soon I was back in Strebske Pleso, safe and sound despite perhaps the most adrenaline-pumping climb I’ve ever done.

Well, at least I kept my word. I didn’t climb anything that I couldn’t climb down. I had to!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Haulin' Ass!

I think she meant it more as a joke, but when my girlfriend suggested that I might actually want to run the pack burro race we were going to watch Sunday in Buena Vista, Colorado, I wasn't really laughing. I knew she was setting me up to make an ass of myself (yes, all these puns will be intended), but I figured, Why not? I'll try anything once!
So she called her friend Hal Walter in Westcliffe, Colorado, and inquired as to where I might get a burro. Hal has several, but he said they were all spoken for already. So he told Nancy to have me call a guy named Bill Lee, someone whom she has known for years and has been racing burros probably as long as Hal has -- which is 30 years. Hal actually has written the book on pack burro racing, which is subtitled, naturally, "Haulin' Ass." No, nothing I write in this blog today will be original.
So I called Bill, whom Nancy refers to as Santa Claus because of his long, white beard, and he told me, yes indeedy, he in fact did have a burro I could run on Sunday. Not the fast one that he had loaned some triathlete from Texas the week before in Leadville, where the two of them had raced to a second-place finish. But he had a nice little gray burro named Smoky who might just fit my needs. He did warn me that Smoky likes to run. I didn't realize that he meant four-minute miles!

Nancy called Hal back a few minutes later to tell him I was in and I could hear Hal's uncontrollable laughter from half a room away!
The next morning, we made the two-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Buena Vista and had plenty of time ... to reconsider. But I didn't. I sought out Bill, who was easy to recognize as there aren't many Santa Clauses running around rural Colorado in August. He was at the registration table signing up and had already had my saddle "weighed in" and approved. Apparently everyone has to carry at least 33 pounds on their burros -- no matter how big or small -- and my saddle and pack weighed in at 34 pounds.

Then I met Smoky. What a cute little feller! His ears perked right up and I tried to bond with him before the race by bribing him with an apple treat I brought from home. Many of the racers in this frenetic sport -- which they are trying to get named Colorado's "official" sport -- have burros as large as horses, but Smoky was only the size of a pony.

Bill saddled him up and gave me and another burro racing "virgin" named Brian, who was borrowing his other burro named Jack, a quick course in Burro Racing 101. He told us how to get the darn thing to go left or right, and hopefully even forward -- at least at a favorable pace. "These burros are just like my granddaughter over there," Bill said, pointing at a cute 8-year-old near the trailer. "They'll try to test you to see what they can get away with."
Then he warned us about the start. "These animals have a herd mentality, and when the gun goes off and they all start to running ...." Well, let's just say good luck holding on! There's one rule in burro racing. If you let go of the rope because the burro is about to drag you down the pavement on Main Street like so many Westerns (sans the pavement), or through the chaparral because he simply decided he doesn't like the trail anymore, well, not only are you going to be bloodied and bruised, but once you retrieve your teammate -- wherever you locate him -- you have to retrace your path to where you lost the rope and start from there.

Now, this was a 12-mile course on dirt roads leading out of town on the opposite side of a foot bridge over the Arkansas River. And this was a short race -- the week before they went 20 miles in Leadville. Much of the course was on single-track trails and the rest on forest service and county roads, finishing back along Main Street, oh, two or three hours later, depending on your burro!

There was a good crowd at the starting line as it was also farmer's market day, so the burros and all the racers -- all 25 of us -- made quite a scene. Just getting Smoky to the starting line was a bit of a chore as he immediately began testing me as Bill said he would. But he was pretty well-behaved to this point. Before the start, a priest came around and sprinkled Holy water in the faces of all the burros to bless them and wish them well. How come he didn't have any words for the racers!
Then the gun suddenly went off and all hell broke loose. Just as Bill warned, the beasts exploded from the starting line like a pack of wolves was in hot pursuit. Even little ol' Smoky. Bill warned me that Smoky could run, but I wasn't expecting this. This little burro took off as if he was Usain Bolt and I was hanging on to the end of my 15-foot rope for dear life, running at a clip I could not imagine! It was all I could do to keep from falling on my face and eating asphalt -- and it would've been my ass's fault!

I pulled hard on the rope, which was attached to his halter, but Smoky seemed to pay me no attention. Apparently me screaming, "Whoa," a thousand times went unheard. There were only three other burros ahead of us as we sped down Main Street and I knew I was in big trouble -- I was already in oxygen debt a quarter mile into the race! Finally, my frantic tugging on the rope caught Smoky's attention and he slowed to a sprint. By now we were at the end of Main Street and heading downhill to the bridge crossing and onto a single-track trail that would wind its way up through the chaparral to County Road 304. Smoky never broke stride as he raced across the bridge and onto the trail. I was still holding on for dear life.

I had been able to reel Smoky in enough to drop us back comfortably into about 12th place after we crossed the bridge, but he was still charging hard uphill on the single-track. Suddenly, I heard a scream behind me and saw a women tumbling into the rocks without a rope in her hand. Her burro was quickly beside me so I grabbed its rope, but I was having a hard enough time controlling one burro, so what was I doing thinking I could handle two! They quickly headed in opposite directions off the trail, with me trying to hold desperately at least to Smoky's rope. I wasn't letting that thing go at any cost!

The woman's burro finally dragged me off into the bushes, carrying me over trees and rocks and roots, scraping up my right shin. I had to let go in order to regain control of Smoky. Later, the woman, named Amber, came past me with her burro and a bloody knee, but was otherwise okay. I, on the other hand, had a problem with my ass. No, not my burro, either.

I've been recovering from hip and leg issues for two months now after running the Massanutten 100 in May, and I didn't get more than two or three miles into the race Sunday before I pulled a muscle in my left butt cheek! And with my hips already ailing, and a bruise on my heel that I now think might not be a bruise but plantar fasciitis, I was pretty much done racing right there.

But not Smoky! Oh, no, that herd mentality was still ever-present as every time another racer would storm past me, Smoky would pick up the pace to try to keep up ... even though I was still screaming "Whoa" between every chest-pounding breath! Finally, after about three miles, I got Smoky under control and realized that since I couldn't run at his pace, and he wouldn't slow down to run at mine, we were just going to have to walk for a while.

We actually walked for quite a while, through some gorgeous single-track and back onto a forest service road where Smoky did decide he wanted to trot along behind me whenever I could get my own legs to cooperate. The long section back along County Road 304 was when things began to fall apart. (Well, maybe that happened when the gun went off!).

Smoky decided that since I hadn't allowed him to run at the pace he wanted, then he wasn't going to walk at the pace I wanted. So back he dropped until the entire 15 feet of the rope was now stretched out between us and I was literally dragging him. Bill had told me that when this happens, I am to take my end of the rope and start whipping him on the behind to get him moving ... but everytime I tried, Smoky would just spin around as if he was going to head off in the opposite direction.

So I just threw the rope over my shoulder and leaned into the trail and pulled the reluctant burro the length of the road until we turned off on the single-track headed back to town. This is where he dug in his hooves for the first time. Up until now, I felt as if I had let Smoky down by not being able to keep up with him ... now he was letting me down by refusing to keep up.

It was pretty much a tug-of-war from that point out, the final two miles to the finish line. I finally got him back to the bridge, but it was now full of tourists watching the swift-flowing Arkansas River flow underneath, and when Smoky saw the bridge, he stopped in his tracks and dug in for war. I tried to remind him that he had sped across this very same bridge at breakneck speed only about three hours before, but he turned a deaf ear.

No matter what I did, he wasn't budging. I pulled on his rope, grabbed his harness and tugged, leaned against him to push him onto the bridge, and reluctantly even whipped his backside. Nothing. Some other racers and organizers came across the bridge and tried to push him from behind, but Smoky has been known to kick a bit so they didn't get too close. Finally, we had all the people clear the bridge and with the help of two or three others, I was able to drag Smoky onto the bridge and then across to the other side.

I was exhausted by this time, but we still had one more uphill to climb to get back on Main Street and then a half-mile of pavement to reach the finish line. Fortunately, Smoky wanted to walk again, and we trudged up Main Street together, in 20th place of the 24 racers who would eventually finish. Not too bad, I thought, even though Brian, who had Bill's other burro named Jack, had turned in an impressive 10th-place finish in his burro racing debut. Hal had finished third, but had been with the leaders until he took a nasty spill and came up bloody.

As Smoky and I neared the finish line, some skateboarders came up behind us, spooking Smoky and off he went into a trot again. Fortunately, it wasn't a repeat of the start. We crossed the finish line and I bent over and gave Smoky a great big hug! We had made it! My first burro race was in the bag -- oh, and probably my last, too! Unless it becomes Colorado's official sport. Then we might have to reconsider.