Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Joy of the Trail

I gasp for air and concentrate on pumping my legs quick enough to keep moving up the steep rough trail. If I slow down for a second I'll be forced to put my foot down. The trail here is too steep to get started again and I'll be forced to push.

I'm working my way up the lower slopes of Ward Mountain on my bike. An hour ago I was coding at my desk in Hamilton. Now I'm breathing hard as the trail snakes and switchbacks through pine forests and wild flowers.

Eventually I pump out. The trail gets steeper as I tire. I simply don't have the fitness or the skill to keep riding up. I push my bike for a few hundred feet but the trail shows no sign of relenting so I turn around and begin the fast, flowy descent.  Someday I'll make it all the way up the 5,000 foot climb but not today.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place where I can ride trails like this. The Seattle area has amazing bike trails and great developed mountain bike parks but for me mountain biking has always been more about exploring than riding the same loops and jumps over and over. Seattle lacks the miles of non Wilderness wild lands where one can go out and ride trails just to see what is there. If Ward mountain were near Seattle it would be a popular after work hike; I see no one during my ride.

I also know that riding these trails is a privilege we need to preserve. Mountain bikers have a (usually undeserved) bad reputation for  eroding trails and frightening other users and conflicts have lead to the closure of many trails. I'm so glad to be out on these trails I want it to last forever. I'm careful to stop and yield to other users (when there are any). I portage even small streams to avoid damaging the wet soil and I try to ride the entire descent without skidding my tires once.

Maybe tomorrow I'll ride up Blodget Canyon to the boundary of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and scope lines for future climbs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Can I use maps to predict where Morels will grow? Part 1

Morel season 2013 has begun in the Northern Rockies!

We found our first handful this weekend in a glade of aspen amidst an open talus field with an Eastern aspect.  It was not exactly where I would have predicted their growth at this time of year.

I am somewhat a neophyte when it comes to mushroom hunting.  Ryan and I have searched for and found a few of the easier to recognize species the past few years.  Most of our spots were a happy result of looking for boulders to climb at the right place at the right time.

Boulders and mushrooms often like same habitat: open forest with decently drained soil.

The huge boulder a few yards away from the morel patch

For me, a large part of the fun of mushroom hunting is having a reason to leave the trail and wander through beautiful terrain taking the time to closely observe my surroundings.  As a new resident of the Northern Rockies, I plan to take the opportunity this season to get to know this place while searching for morels.

Can I make morel discovery a little more systematic than a happy accident?

Morel Facts

I plan to use what I know about the delectable camouflage artists to help me learn how to use maps and data to determine likely spots for morels.

  • Morels appear in the Spring, not too long after snow melt
  • They need water and the right soil temperature to grow (about 53 degrees)
  • Morels tend to grow symbiotically with some species of trees: cottonwood, pine, fruit trees
  • They like disturbed soil: along trails & roads, after floods, after fires, etc. but can also be found in less disturbed areas
Hillmap features data analysis tools that help asses weather, snowpack and snow line, precipitation, slope and aspect.  I will experiment with these tools, and other useful data sources as I find them, and report back on my process and success or lack of it.

A Warning

Morels are very distinctive mushrooms, however, there is a species of false morel that grows during the same season that has a chemical similar to jet fuel.  Don't eat it.  Some say that you can eat the false morel if you prepare it very carefully in just the right way, but I've always decided to err on the side of caution and stick to the real morels.

Make sure you identify the correct mushrooms before eating.  It is always best to have an expert identify mushrooms for you before eating them...nature produces an infinite number of shapes, colors and mutations that can make it difficult to identify a mushroom correctly from a picture in a guide book.


  • All That The Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Aurora (awesome guide book, easy to carry with me in the field and includes lots of color photographs, tips on how to cook different mushrooms, as well as look alike mushrooms)
  • Mushrooms Demystified by David Aurora (the exhaustive tome for identifying mushrooms, also includes funny stories of mushroom gathering...I can spend lots of time with this book)
  • If you live in Seattle, the Puget Sound Mycological Society is an incredible resource and also offers free mushroom ID clinics on Monday evenings in the Spring and Fall - show up with your specimen to be identified by an expert!  There are many wonderful local mycological societies all over the world.

Ryan with Golden Morel a few years ago.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Two Quick Bouldering Photos

We are in the hectic time in the middle of a move but here are a couple of quick photos from our last trip to lost horse. I'm definitely developing an appreciation for the steep big features and crisp edges of bitterroot granitic gneis. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The End of a Road

We are coming to the end of our residency in the barn. Soon it reverts to its summer life as a wedding venue and we move from this patch of sage covered range land down into the valley bottom near the river.

One of the things I will mis most is the easy access we have here to running and riding roads and trails. The barn borders a large chunk of state trust land that can't be accessed by the general public without crossing private land. For most of the winter this area was occupied by a heard of cows and we mostly stuck to the main roads.

Now the cows have moved on and so, on the hottest day of the year so far, I filled two water bottles and started pedaling my bike toward a distant mountain summit following an old double track. The track turned from infrequently traveled to fully abandoned and eventually ended at the long unoccupied cabin shown here.

I don't know who built this cabin or why they sited it up amongst the dry sage hills at the end of a long road but it certainly was a scenic spot. I lingered taking photos and eating some snacks and then headed down hill. With my bike flying across the gradual slopes I had labored up for once I was faster than the deer.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wide Open Spaces, Big Sky and Boulders: More Panoramas

The Bitterroot is beyond me as a photographer. A single mountain standing alone is easy to photograph but the wide stretch of this place simply won't fit in the camera frame.

 I've stopped carrying my camera everywhere I go lest I end up with yet another card full of distant clouds and big sky. I still take my android phone though and have become more and more enamored with the panorama mode.

It is far from perfect. It stitches together disjoint moments of time as you slowly turn 180 degrees with the camera at arms length. It frequently misses most of the subject but sometimes this works. The photo below strangely captures the fleeting nature of a run through rangeland.

Exposure is haphazard. It changes across the pan. Sometimes this works with the dancing mountain weather where a passing storm cloud can throw the landscape into early dusk, sometimes it exentuates the diversity of a landscape where you can run from sage brush to boulder strewn pine forest.

And something about the funkiness of it captures the sense of driving through open space with those big Bitterroot peaks looming for miles in both directions.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Transition your body from skiing to climbing

I have a confession: this is the first winter in a long while where I pretty much stopped climbing for a few months and let my attention & time be captured by skiing lovely powder in the Northern Rockies.  My body changed - many of the changes I predicted, and some I did not.

Now I am working to regain climbing fitness without losing the benefits of skiing in the backcountry all winter.  I am constantly tweaking my exercise plan (I get bored quickly), but below are sets of targeted exercises and stretches that I find particularly useful.

What skiing does to my body

After a winter of backcountry skiing my legs are incredibly strong, my core muscles are in decent shape and my cardio vascular endurance is up.  My legs are also significantly less flexible than they were before, especially all of the various muscles attached near the hip joint. My calves are always sore.  My arms and fingers are, frankly, a bit wimpy.  As I move into climbing season I want to keep the power in my legs and maintain/increase my endurance while increasing overall flexibility and gaining strength in my arms and fingers.

Maintain benefits from skiing

Legs of steel & Endurance

I work to maintain strength in my quads, hamstrings, calves and other leg muscles by trail running.  This is not quite sufficient to keep my body at the endurance level it had when I was skiing uphill for thousands of feet during the winter, and I look forward to including more long days in the mountains (hiking and skiing once the snow has stabilized a bit for spring skiing) later in the season because nothing beats 8 to 14 hour days in the mountains for overall endurance (and enjoyment).

I find that the best trail runs for building and maintaining strength and endurance have rolling or variable terrain. Pushing myself to run up big, long hills helps with the fitness, but I can't yet run up a mountain.  If the terrain includes those necessary hills, but also sections of flat, I can keep going much longer.  I love finding new trails because the drive to see what is around the bend keeps me intrigued and focused on the scenery instead of focused on fatigue.  I have found that running three miles through variable terrain at least three times a week keeps my level of fitness from slipping.  If I increase mileage and intensity I can make fitness gains.  What it takes to maintain and build fitness will be different for every body.


It turns out that skinning uphill with the added weight of ski boots and skis on my feet really builds core muscles. Core muscles are essential to climbing, to keeping your feet glued to small holds, to balancing your body while reaching the next hold or placing gear and to climbing efficiently and decreasing the burden on fingers (sometimes).

I find core exercises to be the most tedious and so I am constantly on the lookout for new alternatives to crunches to add to the rotation.

Doing leg lifts on my rock rings

Hanging leg lifts targets the upper abdominals more than most of my other core exercises.

There are a wide variety of boat poses that really work the abdominals.  I find that a few sets of 10 to 12 boat pose extensions are a good replacement for crunches.

Running, hiking and carrying a heavy pack also yield high benefits for the core.  It seems that the core, even more so than other parts of my body, benefits most from variety.  Yoga is incredible for the core, since most of the exercises require core strength and control to perform correctly.  Remember, core also includes back.  Your back can get out of whack if it is weak compared to your abdominals.

Hanging on the smallest hold on the rock rings

Restore arm, finger, back strength

As any climber can tell you, finger and forearm strength diminish even when you take a week or two break from climbing.  When you take a longer break, you have your work cut out for you to strengthen these areas without doing harm to your joints.  There is really nothing like logging lots of time climbing to get in shape for climbing, but there are exercises that can greatly help build strength and target weaker muscle groups to get a more even workout.

Fingers & Forearms

I gain the most benefits for my fingers and forearms when I do workouts with a hangboard or rock rings.  Right now I'm enjoying hanging on the Metolius Rock Rings off of our deck.  The idea is the same for both rock rings and hangboard: do sets of hanging exercises that challenge you to hold onto small holds with your fingers.

I train for real life situations: if I can hold onto the small crimp on the hangboard then I can better utilize smaller holds outside

For both hangboards and rock rings, warm up your fingers on the larger holds before moving on to smaller holds.  I do a few pull ups, or a couple sets of 10 leg lifts on the larger holds to warm up.

Next, move on to smaller holds.  My target hold is one that I can only hang on to for five seconds or less.  Hang from the hold for as long as you can, fall off, and repeat.  Do five of these five second holds in a row.  Rest for a minute or two, and repeat the set.  Do three to five sets.

When I am done working the small holds, I move back up to the large holds until I can't hang any longer.  When I am being very good and diligent, I'll go back to the rock rings or hangboard a couple times throughout the day. That said, only do hanging workouts once or maybe twice a week to protect those finger and elbow joints.  Too much hangboarding can lead to tendonitis.

Ryan wrote up an excellent post on building a hangboard setup so you don't have to drill holes in your walls. Hangboards usually have more hold options than rock rings to help you improve different hold techniques.

Whole arm & back strength

I am a huge proponent of yoga for overall arm and back strength.  An hour long yoga flow routine can work your biceps, triceps, trapezius and lats until you just want to sit in child's pose to recover.  Variations on the sun salutation sequence can work climbing muscles and opposition muscles to protect your joints and build your climbing support muscles while increasing strength and endurance in your climbing muscles.


A good climber is a flexible climber.  You don't need to be as limber as a ballet dancer, but some measure of flexibility is necessary to get your feet up to holds by your knees or hips and to leverage those high steps, heel hooks and other footwork for all they're worth.  Skiing turned my legs into burly legs of steel: steel is not very flexible stuff.  I look to hip opener stretches and hamstring stretches to return some of that needed flexibility to help me be a better climber.

Stretching in warrior pose after climbing Trapper Peak last year

Warrior poses, forward bends, pigeon pose and a host of other poses target my less flexible areas.  If you don't know what these stretches are, do yourself a favor and check out some of the resources below.

Yoga Resources

Finding a local yoga teacher that teaches classes you enjoy (not all teachers are alike) is the best way to get the most out of your yoga practice and keep your body safe in unfamiliar stretches.  However, there are other great resources that help you do yoga at home or at a trailhead.

Opposition Exercises

Opposition exercises strengthen the muscles that support your climbing muscles keeping your body in balance and preventing tendonitis and other issues.  Pushups are a great example of an opposition exercise: pushing, instead of pulling like in climbing, balances the muscles around your elbow joint.  If you climb hard enough for long enough, there is a good chance that you will start to experience tendonitis in your elbows.  Pushups help balance those muscle groups.

Opposition exercises are a critical component of a good workout to get in shape for climbing.  Stay tuned for our blog post featuring opposition exercises for fingers, elbows, shoulders and knees.