Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Fond Farewell to the Southwestern Montana Rockies

I had a special treat on my last day at Big Sky/Moonlight Basin in southwestern Montana– my own tram! The tram was "scenic only" (as written on the whiteboard that you can see at the top of the Lone Peak Triple chair) because ski patrol had deemed the summit skiing as too icy, so no one was lining up to ascend. I rode up on the tram alone with just my poles and took about two dozen great pictures, like the ones with this post.

Then I tromped around on the summit, visiting places I've never seen when going up there just to ski. I aimed for the entrance to the backcountry (called a "backcountry gate"; with all the scary warning signs implying "you better know what you're doing or you'll die"), and the summit entrance to Moonlight Basin and its scintillating run down the North Summit Field (gotta do that some day...maybe when my son turns 16).

I'm glad I appreciated the mountain for what it was (and got a great view of it from the plane to Denver!), and wasn't only experiencing it for the purposes of expanding my personal limits. That said, I did have a decent run from the summit later in the day.

I took the tram down and had a few farewell runs over at Moonlight Basin and its placid Lone Tree chair, still feeling really strong despite it being the fifth straight day of steep, high-mountain skiing (thank you resistance training, and Vermont skiing).

That's the thing about making a commitment to weight lifting – it sets you up for other activities that you want to keep doing as you age. In about a week and a half, I'll be 55. I took my last tram run along with a guy who was at least 60. Check out Chapter 8 of my book Fitness For Geeks if you're interested in a beginner to intermediate guide to resistance training.

Finally, I ended up doing another ski run off the tram. The tram line was long and the summit was almost crowded, so it wasn't as fun or as spiritually rich as my solo visit that morning. The sun had exposed a lot of rock up there, and it was kind of hard making my way to the traverses to reach a run on the south face of Lone Peak called Lenin. (Funny, a lot of the summit runs are named after dictators – maybe because when in their thrall, you must take them seriously :)

As my taxi driver said on the way back to the Bozeman airport, "it's too easy to get to the summit" on the tram. Meaning, people go up there who don't belong. It's not a ski trail, it's a rugged, very steep, wintry Rocky Mountain, with all the wildness that Mother nature can throw at you. The ski patrol does all they can, assessing the conditions, putting signs up, obviously doing avalanche testing as required, but they can't police everyone who goes up there.

Except for the Liberty Bowl during powder conditions (and even that face is very long and taxing), the runs off the tram, as well as the Headwaters lift at Moonlight Basin, require full physical and mental maturity. The great thing about skiing out there is that the terrain is so varied, allowing you to work your way up in levels of difficulty in a sensible and incremental fashion. For example, ski the bowls a lot, including the wider passages between rocky features, before you ever ski from the summit.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Pitfalls And Perils Of High Mountain Skiing – With Relieved Postscript

I'll call him "the luckiest man of March 25." As an addendum to my last post, today at about 11:30 I watched a man tumble about 1,000 feet through the gullies at Big Sky, Montana. I was on the Lone Peak Triple chair watching about five people ski down from the traverse to the First Gully. One of them falls, loses a ski, and balances on one leg heroically for a moment.

Over and over he went, a spinning stick image down the eastern face. Then he almost cart-wheels, arms and legs flying and enveloped in little puffs of snow. Heading for the rocks that marked one of the narrower gullies. Then he flies through the opening, and you can't tell whether he'd hit a rock or not. Finally he stops. People ski over to the bottom of his line. He moves and gets up. A friend of his snakes through the gully picking up his equipment. Another joins him.

The what I assume was an older kid, maybe 17, gets up. Puts his skis back on, and casually skis the rest of the bowl, even hopping over a little mogul. Sheesh! I suppose he did the ragdoll thing, and the fact that he fell so loosey-goosey (and didn't hit a rock) saved his bones, and his life. I was so relieved to see that nothing much had happened to him.

What's the take-away point here, other than to relate a harrowing story? Only undertake adventures within your own limits (and try to know and learn your limits). Don't just do something because everyone else is doing it – because of peer pressure. Expand your personal limits incrementally and rationally.

Later in the day I had my own modest adventure. I shouldered my skis and hiked up to a little peak, at about 10,000 feet, above where the Big Sky challenger lift lets off. In the picture, you can see the little peak to the right of the tall peak (Lone Peak), and the bowl that I skied down into. The climb was harder than it looked and really fun, mixing a little hike with skiing, with stunning scenery all around. It maybe took me 20-25 minutes.

Then I put my skis on and started skiing down. I heard a voice – "that section's closed; don't go down there!" – and there's a Big Sky guy waving at me from above. They had just closed off a big section of that terrain. I apologized profusely and skied back under a rope, and contined my descent on a different part of the slope.

Touring the High Slopes At Big Sky And Moonlight Basin, Montana

I skied my first chute this week at Big Sky, the places the ski area designates as expert trails down the mountain faces between rock and cliff features. This one was on my second day, a trail called First Gully off the tram that takes you to 11,166 foot Lone Peak. First Gully is on the Eastern Face of Lone Peak (if I have my bearings correct).

You have to disembark the tram and ski down part of the south face of Lone Peak to reach the entrance to the gullies.

If you look at the first photo here, you see the big horizontal field in about the middle of the picture – this contains the Gullies Traverse. Then you drop down into the wide chute, First Gully, at the end of that field.

The tram had been closed for skiing the south face because of too-hard icy conditions, then it was opened up when the sun softened conditions, and I was able to jump on a nearly empty tram. The second picture on this post shows parts of the First Gully viewed from the tram.

I got off the tram in somewhat dramatic weather conditions, and got a quick rundown from another skier on how to get to the gullies (the First Gully is the wider one of three). You have to follow the sign for the Liberty Bowl, then take Yeti Traverse off to the left, ski down part of Marx, then enter the Gullies Traverse to the left of that trail.

They have fences and good signs up there, but the skiing conditions remind you that you're on a mountain face, with all the associated hazards, and not a prepped ski area. After I quickly negotiated the first traverse and a steep ski down a part of Marx, it was easy to find the Gullies Traverse that took me from the south to eastern face of Lone Peak.

Gullies Traverse to First Gully

It was just me and a young snowboarder, who seemed like he'd been over the face about a hundred times. I let him go ahead of me, as he seemed pretty eager to get going – the traverse for him was like going out his backdoor at home; for me it was a "don't look now" moment. It was kind of a relief to get to the end of it, and I immediately dropped into the First Gully with a "Yahoo!"

My exuberance was quickly dispelled by the harder, chattery conditions. It was wicked steep and not very soft snow. I felt strong but it turned into a slow careful descent. It's not a super technical ski but it's not for kids either. There's no tolerance for falling in those conditions, because you might end up in an endless slide. Losing a ski was a possibility because of the vibrations involved with turning.

The whole thing probably took five minutes, I don't know. I bailed out a little bit at the end into softer snow, and started chattering like a little kid to a guy watching me below.

The next day I went to Moonlight Basin on the other side of the mountain. It's amazing how they have two complete ski areas on each side of the mountain (Big Sky and Moonlight Basin). I took some easy skis then tried the hike-to Headwaters lift. the Headwaters, a series of chutes on the north(?) side, with a bowl beneath them, are just as amazing as the eastern face.

I watched pro skiers fly through the chutes for a competition that was taking place, with music and cheering coming up from below. What a spectacular few days.

And good for me too. Chapter 11 of the book discusses how challenging yourself in the outdoors probably has positive health ramifications (if you don't do something stupid and fail to survive the challenge!). For example, the book Deep Survival theorizes that challenges trigger ancient pathways that have evolved as humans have survived ordeals, and propagated their species.

Who links to my website?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gearing up for spring sprints

Sprinting is a fun, motivational, and efficient training technique, and I always look forward to the first "interval session" of the Spring. Not only do they have a positive metabolic effect (more on that below), they indicate right away how fit you are, so sprinting is useful for setting benchmarks for the season. There's no hiding from sprints, in determining how fast and fit you are at a moment in time; you can't fudge them.

These techniques are also referred to as sprint interval training (SIT) or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

March 15 will be my first set, and I'll report all the stats afterward (I'll record it on Endomondo). I'm planning to go to a soccer field, and if that's too wet underfoot, a track. What protocol will I use? Certainly not Tabata right off the bat. I will use the so-called Wingate Test, which is 4 to 6 all-out 30-second sprints with 4 minutes rest between them. I'm going to be running, but you can do these on a bike, Nordic skis, in a swimming pool, or whatever your preference is.

You want to fashion a benchmark that you can compare yourself to later in the season, involving objective and subjective measurements. The former involves how many of the sprints you actually finished (let's say you only could get through four). Since the Wingate is an easier sprint protocol with its long rest period in between reps, then it's probably much easier to do all six of the repetitions. In this case, you could measure the distance covered during each sprint (i.e., the stronger reps will cover more distance).

With or without a heartrate monitor (a device you wear around your chest that sends heart-beat measures to a sports watch), you can measure how long it takes your heart rate to recover from a maximum effort, and go back beneath 120 beats per minute.

This is sometimes referred to as "heartrate recovery," and the faster your heartrate recovers from a maximum effort, the fitter you are.

A fancy term for how whipped or baked you feel subjectively during the sprints is "perceived exertion." Sometimes coaches use a scale of from 6 to 20, or the "Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale." See this article for more detail on this Borg scale.

It's considered a fairly accurate nontechnical or intrusive method for determing how hard you are working physically. A set of sprints that is associated with a lower number on the scale means you are getting fitter. However, it's not as simple as that; you might just be more rested or having a better day. At any rate, your exertion level is one of the subjective parameters you want to measure, and compare with next time.

What's healthy metabolically about sprinting? All-out (or close to all-out) intervals have some special qualities. You're depleting the glycogen in your Type IIx leg muscles (the faster-fatiguing, power-oriented fibers in the quads and hamstrings), and as a result your body will pull glucose in the bloodstream into the skeletal muscles to make more glycogen – a dynamic that helps keep you insulin sensitive and with a healthy-fasting glucose level. Besides, the sprints overall are comparable as a cardio-training tool to much longer-in-duration and slower endurance workouts.