Help with the Scary Stuff

Around the middle of May, I found out that I had basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. I learned a lot about the condition since then, and most surprising to me was how many people I know who have had it too. Once I started talking about it, it seemed everyone had a story to tell about their basal and squamous cell carcinomas and their melanomas. These are all people who spend a lot of time outdoors in the sunshine and often at altitude, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. They also all had good outcomes, which was a relief.

The toughest part was the initial shock. After getting over that, everything went smoothly. My doctor referred me to Optum, a dermatology clinic, where PA Hubbard and Melissa took care of me. They applied a local anesthetic and performed an elliptical excision, which is an outpatient surgery where a football-shaped section of skin is cut away, or excised. A four-millimeter margin around the carcinoma ensures all the cancer cells are removed. The excised skin is checked again in a lab, after the surgery, to make sure they get all of it.

I must have been numbed up pretty good because I didn’t feel the cut at all. The eleven stitches – three on the inside and eight on the outside – felt like a gentle tugging. I was reminded of hemming my jeans when I was a teen and decided that’s what they must have felt like. In under an hour I was done. All I had to do now was keep it clean, keep it from drying out by applying petroleum jelly, and change the bandage twice a day. Easy enough.

What I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to change the bandage. When I broke my arm last fall, I came up with all kinds of ways to get things done with just one hand. And as much of a pain as putting a plastic bag over it was every time I took a shower, I could reach it just fine. This bandage-changing thing was a whole new challenge. The stitches were low on my right shoulder blade, just out of reach of my fingertips. After struggling through twists, turns, and contortions, I looked around for tools to help me out. Tweezers were just long enough to grasp the edges and pull a bandage off. A cotton swab dipped in petroleum jelly could reach the stitches, and my toothbrush was enlisted to smooth the adhesive onto my skin. Yes, changing my bandage was as fun as it sounds.

My biggest concern was sweating it off. The day after the surgery, I went up 11,499′ Mount Rosa, a roughly 14-mile, 4,000 feet of elevation gain hike round-trip. The new paved parking at the Powell Trailhead was a welcome sight, but the day was sweltering. Surprisingly, the bandage held up against the heat, the sweat, and my daypack. A few days later I hiked to Sandbeach Lake, then Flattop Mountain, in Rocky Mountain National Park. No problems, at least with the bandage. The following week, I spent a few days in the Flat Tops Wilderness. This was at the height of the heat wave, and the humidity was through the roof. I had four hikes planned, and everything was going well until hike #2. As I slung my pack over my back at the Outlet Trailhead, I happened to catch a glimpse of my shoulder in my car’s side mirror. The bandage was hanging by one edge, exposing the stitches. My toothbrush was back at camp, in a bear locker, along with my food and all the other smelly stuff I had brought with me. This was not good. I looked around helplessly – and locked eyes with a guy on the other side of the parking lot.

“Can you do me a huge favor?” I hollered.

I felt silly asking, but when I explained the situation, the guy, Mike, didn’t hesitate. He grabbed some nitrile gloves from his car (COVID leftovers, he said), removed the old bandage, dropped it in my baggy, and described the appearance of the stitched area.

“It’s healing nicely,” he said, “No infection. You should be able to stop covering this in a couple of weeks.” He finished up, applying a fresh bandage, then he told me about all the best hiking trails in the area.

I’m going back to the dermatologist this fall. He recommended full-body skin scans every six months for a few years, and if there are no recurrences, annually. I’ve traded up from SPF 30 to SPF 50, and I’m more diligent about applying it regularly on my hikes. But I’m less worried now. I know that a lot of people in Colorado get skin cancer and have good outcomes. I know there are people out there who can do pain-free surgeries. And I know there are people who will change your bandage, too, if you ask.

There’s a lot of scary stuff in the world. The shock of finding out I had skin cancer was tough, and changing the bandage was tough too. But learning there are kind people in the world willing to help me through it makes it a lot less scary.

This blog first appeared as a column in the July 13, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Colorado Author Talks Training, Tragedy, Resilience, and Mount Everest

“I lunged toward the tent door and reached for the zipper, but I missed when our tent jumped violently. We, the tent, and the thousand-foot-thick glacier underneath us all lifted half a foot in the air…Then I got it. Earthquake!”

Anyone who’s been through an earthquake understands that feeling of uncertainty, then the knowing, then the fear. Imagine those feelings when you’re in a tent at 6,065 meters (19,900 feet) on the world’s highest mountain. That’s the story detailed in “The Next Everest” by Colorado author and speaker Jim Davidson, who was at Camp 1 on Mount Everest during the April 25, 2015, earthquake that took the lives of nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, including 22 climbers who perished in an avalanche on the mountain’s deadliest day.

I first met Jim in 2018 at the Pikes Peak Library District’s Mountain of Authors, an annual event where local authors and readers mingle to discuss new publications. I was showcasing my books alongside those of the few other nonfiction authors in attendance, including Jim and his first book, “The Ledge,” a New York Times bestseller. In that book, co-authored with Kevin Vaughan, Jim tells the story of another tragedy: how he barely survived a climbing accident on Mount Rainier that took the life of his climbing partner and best friend, Mike Price.

At Mountain of Authors, Jim and I hit it off immediately over our love for all things mountaineering. Since then, I’ve followed his adventures in the news and on social media and have had the pleasure to meet with him again at events such as the annual trade show Outdoor Retailer. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I will recommend it. Jim wrote this book in a style that makes it accessible to everyone, no matter how much or how little you know about high-altitude mountaineering. It’s intense, it’s human, and it’s much more than an adventure tale.

Jim Davidson at Camp Three (23,700 feet) on Mount Everest during his summit push in May 2017.

When I spoke with Jim recently, I asked him how he got started mountaineering. He told me, “In 1981 I went on a ten-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and that opened my eyes to wilderness travel. I soon took a rock-climbing class and did my first winter mountaineering trip on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Those early experiences filled me with awe, so I soon dropped all my other hobbies, and have focused on high, snowy mountains ever since.”

For training, Jim believes that multiple formats – including formal education, reading, practice, and mentors – are “all necessary to develop the broad skill set needed to be a safe and successful mountaineer.” He added, “I’ve taken many technical training classes during my 39 years of mountaineering: rock climbing, ice climbing, first aid, avalanche awareness, vertical rescue, and a dozen others. I believe that every climbing and survival book contains key lessons that could someday save your life, or help you get out of a jam.”

 Jim said, “I have been fortunate to be mentored by some excellent veteran climbers, and they really helped me develop my ‘mountain sense,’ which has been invaluable to me and my team many times. As an older climber now, I try to pay it back by sharing what I know with younger climbers.” In fact, he noted that sharing hard-won survival lessons that might help somebody else were one of his motivations for becoming an adventure writer.

I prodded Jim for his big mountain training plan. “Long before I went to Everest,” he said, “I worked out a plan to eventually get myself ready for the world’s tallest mountain. I did a decade of alpine climbing to build my technical skills and base fitness. Then I climbed higher peaks (14,000 to 22,000 feet tall) for another decade to understand how I function at ever higher altitudes, and to develop the judgment that becomes so critical when the air is thin and it’s hard to think straight. Then, I climbed the sixth-highest peak in the world (Cho Oyu, 26,906 feet) to get some extreme altitude experience under my harness. With that foundation, I spent an intense year doing a mapped-out fitness plan that focused on extreme endurance, functional strength, and good nutrition. For the last two months, I built up to stacking long mountain days one after the other, without any rest days in between.”

Jim is grateful for the opportunity to train close to his Fort Collins home. “Colorado is a fantastic place to train for 8,000-meter peaks (those higher than 26,000 feet),” he said. “Multi-peak days, high traverses, and winter fourteeners are excellent expedition training for people who must balance their mountaineering with a job, school, and daily life.” At the same time, he cautions would-be big mountain climbers to take their time. “Don’t be in a rush to try Mount Everest,” he said. “There are so many difficulties and dangers up that high, that you need very broad and deep mountaineering experience before climbing into the Death Zone. Spend years crafting yourself into the fittest, smartest climber and teammate that you can become, and then ask yourself if you’re ready for Everest.”

In addition to Asia’s Mount Everest, Jim’s summited other continental highpoints – known as the Seven Summits – Aconcagua (South America) and Kilimanjaro (Africa), and attempted US highpoint Denali. He shared, “My teammates and I were two hours from the top of Denali in good weather but gave up our summit to help rescue a very ill solo climber. I think that difficult rescue taught me far more about being a resilient team member than standing on top of Denali would have.” That story is included in “The Next Everest.”

Jim talked about his future peak plans. “I intend to keep climbing until injury or old age force me to stop,” he said. “My friends and I try to do an expedition about every other year. We climbed in Peru in 2019, and once international travel is safe for everyone, including the host country, I hope to climb some high peaks in South America.” He’s going to keep writing too. “I’m busy doing presentations and interviews about my current book and it will soon publish in five international editions,” he said, “but I’ve already started outlining some ideas for a third mountaineering book. We shall see.”

You can pick up “The Next Everest” at any bookstore and online. To catch Jim on the road, at a book signing or presentation, check out his site “Speaking of Adventure.” And be sure to attend next spring’s Mountain of Authors. You just never know who you might meet, where they have been, or what they’ve survived.

Davidson’s “The Next Everest” details his 2015 Everest attempt, when a 7.8 earthquake derailed his summit bid but strengthened his resilience to return to the world’s highest mountain in 2017.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 22, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

A Better Camping Kitchen

Last week I spent a few days hiking in Telluride. I was lucky to snag the last tent site at Ridgway State Park, so instead of backpacking or dispersed camping, I’d have a nice tent pad and a picnic table waiting for me in the park. No searching for a dispersed site on some backroad and no hauling everything to a backcountry site in my pack. I was car camping, the easiest and most convenient way to camp, especially in these post-pandemic times when everyone’s on the road or at a campsite.

On the drive and on my hikes, I saw the usual Colorado spectacles: a herd of buffalo, six different herds of elk, three herons, two water ouzels, nine waterfalls, and one perfect rainbow. I got rained on, snowed on, graupeled on, and windblown, and even though I used sunscreen, I got a touch of sun on my face as well. In other words, it was nothing special. Just a typical Colorado road and trail trip.

Until dinnertime, when I had an eye-opening epiphany. I usually hike and camp alone, but this time a friend joined me. We split the gear and the chores and had decided that I would bring the food and he would bring all the cooking gear – the camp kitchen. Now I’m not cheap, but I tend to not replace anything until I have to. Like Mom always said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve lived this way my whole life, waiting for things to literally fall apart before I get a new thing. This is evident in my clothes, my gear, and in my camp kitchen. I still use the same MSR Pocket Rocket stove and stainless steel pot that I bought nearly twenty years ago. That setup has hung out at campsites on every 14er that I didn’t day hike. I cooked hot dogs on it near the summit of Mount Princeton. It’s cooked mountainside meals on Mount Whitney and Mount Russell in California, and on every ultra-prominence peaks (mountains with 5,000 feet or more of prominence) from here to the Mexican border. That little stove and pot have never failed me, and since they ain’t broke, I never thought to fix or replace them. I use them for backpacking, dispersed camping, and for car camping, like I was doing at Ridgway State Park.

But this time I left my camp kitchen at home and deferred to my friend’s setup. Imagine my surprise when he hauled out a two-burner camp stove with pots, pans, and silicone cooking utensils. He had real plates and silverware and, get this: actual coffee mugs. There was a camp stove toaster, cloth napkins, and a cloth for the picnic table.

Dinner was awesome. We could actually cook the Beyond Burgers and Steakhouse Recipe Grillin’ Beans at the same time, on two burners, instead of one at a time, like I always did. Breakfast the next morning was even better: while the Jack and Annie’s Jackfruit Sausage Links browned in one pan, the Just Egg got scrambled in another.

So this week I did a little shopping. I usually buy super lightweight gear for backpacking, which can be pricey, but for car camping, I found that bamboo works just fine. I got bamboo plates, bowls, cups, utensils, and even a coffee mug. Bamboo, by the way, is biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable if it doesn’t have coatings or glues, and I bought the kind that doesn’t. It just needs an annual seasoning with a rub of food grade mineral oil or fractionated coconut oil, and if it starts to smell, you can brighten it up with a swipe of lemon juice. I bought some other stuff too: a pretty tablecloth and napkins, and even a two-burner stove.

Mom taught me to be frugal, but she didn’t raise any fools. So while I’ll still use my tiny little stove and pot for backpacking, I’m going to live it up on this summer’s car camping trips. I have tent sites booked all summer in the Flat Tops Wilderness, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dillon, Durango, and Crested Butte, and I’m looking forward to seeing how many dinners I can whip up with my new bamboo gear. And next time, whether camping alone or with a friend, I’m bringing the camp kitchen.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 8, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Tempting Fate

In my last column, I mentioned how I never get sick. Typing those words made me uncomfortable – like I was tempting fate. It’s like washing your car in the beautiful Colorado sunshine. You just know it’s going to rain the next day.

That’s how I felt, and it nagged at me. Was I really as healthy as I thought? I turned in my column, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t feel sick, but surely, at my age, there must be something wrong with me. Was there something I had overlooked? That’s when I remembered that thing on my back.

“That thing” is a tiny pinprick of a sore on my left shoulder blade. It’s been there for weeks…no, months. I’d noticed it one day in the shower. The hot water hit my back at a certain angle, and it stung. I figured that, while out hiking, I must have gotten stuck with a tree branch that punctured my skin. Or it could be a bee sting or a bug bite. Whatever it was, I dismissed it and went on with my life.

Weeks later, in the shower, I felt it again. Ouch. It still hadn’t healed. For a fleeting moment, I thought, “I need to get that checked out.” But then I was out of the shower and dressed and had forgotten all about it. Out of sight, out of mind. That scenario played out a dozen times over the months. Every time, I’d ignore it and get on with the day. But now, on this day when I’d had the nerve to write a column gloating about my good health, I felt like I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I googled the symptoms, then I called the doctor and made an appointment.

A couple of days later, I was lying face-down in an examination room having cells cut from the surface of that thing on my back. The doctor sent the cells to a lab, and a few days later called me with the results of the biopsy. It was basal cell carcinoma, she said. I know what carcinoma means – it’s cancer. I just didn’t think I could really have something like that. I’m never sick, remember?

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I didn’t plan to find out I have skin cancer this month, it just worked out that way. So, perfect timing for this column. The other good news is that the basal cell type is the most common skin cancer, and typically easy to treat. There will be another biopsy, this time at a dermatology clinic. They’ll cut more cells, look at them under a microscope, and keep cutting until they get them all. At least I think that’s how it’s done. If I’m lucky, that will be the end of it. The other good news is that I don’t have squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, other skin cancers that can be more serious. The bad news is that even basal cell carcinoma can be fatal if it’s left untreated and spreads to other parts of the body.

Again, May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. What better time to get a full-body skin scan at your favorite dermatologist’s office? While you’re at it, pick up a fresh bottle of broad spectrum, 30 SPF or higher, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply, rub it in, then apply a second coat to get the full effects. Don’t skip your ears, neck, and shoulders. Get some lip balm with sunscreen too, and make sure you have sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. For my eyes, I prefer wraparound “glacier glasses” with flexible temples to provide a good seal against the sun’s rays. You can get these at any outdoor retailer like Mountain Chalet or REI, or from your regular optician.

Skin cancer can take years to appear. Mine may have started a long time ago. Growing up, I spent a lot of hours on the beaches of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California with a skimpy bathing suit, a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil, and no skin protection. Later, I spent many more hours hiking and climbing in the mountains. I had smartened up by then, applying and reapplying sunscreen liberally, but the damage had probably been done. However and whenever I got basal cell carcinoma doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I stopped ignoring the symptoms. And you can bet that if the dermatologist can get rid of this thing on my back, I’ll be wearing even more sunscreen every day and scheduling a full-body skin scan every year for the rest of my life. I may never get sick, but I can get skin cancer. Now I just need to get rid of it.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 25, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

New Tricks for an Aging Gal

Staying healthy as I get older hasn’t gotten easier. It’s not that I’m prone to illness; I cannot remember the last time I was sick. I had no reaction from my two Pfizer shots, and the flu passed me by again, for the umpteenth year in a row. More than likely, I’m just the lucky beneficiary of virus- and disease-resistant genes and a pretty good immune system.

This isn’t about being sick. It’s about general health and feeling good and energetic all day. I guess I’m getting older, because my usual minimum effort approach to staying in shape isn’t paying off with the same dividends. I eat less and gain weight. I exercise more and get weaker and slower. Like my mother always said, “Getting old is a dirty trick.” I used to wonder what she meant by that, and now I know: just when you figure out what’s important in life and how you should be spending your time, the universe says, “Not so fast!” And suddenly, you have to work a lot harder to do all those things you want to do.

Another dirty trick that life plays on us aging women is menopause. Just when you really need more sleep, it does something crazy to your hormones that makes you wake up at four o’clock in the morning. Every single morning, like clockwork. Wide awake, like you just downed a whole Double Shot Espresso Grande. Thank goodness I’m past that point in life, but at least I made the most of it while it lasted: I wrote an entire book in the hours between 4 and 6 a.m. one year not so long ago. Then I was wiped out the rest of the day, every day, from a lack of sleep. If you’re in a similar situation, I don’t recommend this method for dealing with menopause. You should probably see a doctor instead.

So now I’m even older, and though I’m still struggling with the whole health-as-I-age thing, I do have the sleeping part down. I stopped setting an alarm clock years ago, which has done wonders for my mental health. Now I sleep until I’m ready to get up, which is seldom 4 in the morning. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I still sleep on a waterbed. I’ve slept on one since the 1980s, and though I’ve been tempted by the fancy new mattresses out there these days that do all sorts of cool things (I’m not kidding – they shake, rattle, roll, and charge your cell phone while you sleep), I’ll probably continue to sleep on a water mattress till the day I die. They’re always warm, and if you get bored, you can bounce on them and pretend you’re sleeping in a boat on the ocean. I don’t know why waterbeds went out of style. If I do wake up in the night, I turn on an audiobook and am out in minutes. I probably listened to the 30-hour-long audible “Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga” five times because I slept through so many chapters and had to keep rewinding them. But it does the trick, and I wake up rested.

Recently, I solved my other health issues too. Instead of worrying about my weight, I bought bigger pants and stopped getting on the scale. And instead of trying to keep up with the younger folks on the trail, I hike alone or with old people who are slower than I am. Because Mom was right; getting old is a dirty trick. But you can beat it at its own game. You just need a few tricks of your own.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 10, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

Gaga for Van Gogh

Quick, who’s your favorite artist?

I’m going to go out on a paintbrush – I mean a limb – and guess you said, “Vincent van Gogh.” I don’t have anything to back up this assumption except the fact that half the people I know seem to be gaga for Van Gogh, and I proudly count myself among them.

I don’t know what it is about the Dutch post-impressionist that draws people in. It may be the simple fact that his work is so easily recognizable. He was the first artist whose paintings I could identify as a child (at least that’s what my older sister tells me: “You’d look through Mom’s art books and point out every one of his works, yelling ‘Van Gogh! Van Gogh!’”). Or maybe it’s the colors – the rich blues and vibrant oranges, complementary colors that seem to quiver and shake off the canvas in works like “Starry Night,” “Café Terrace at Night,” and “Wheatfield with Crows.” Yet, even the calmer hued works like “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries” and “Bedroom in Arles” evoke emotion. They take me back to my younger days, living on the New England coast and living in a tiny Boston apartment. “The Potato Eaters” speaks to me about the sad hopelessness of poverty. Every masterpiece – the thick paint, swirling brush strokes, and the subject matter – come together to transport the viewer to a time, a place, and a feeling that’s unmistakably Van Gogh.

I loved Van Gogh – and other artists too – so much that I majored in fine art in high school and at my first college, with a concentration in animation my last two years. When I bought my home here on the Springs’s northwest side, I had the inside painted white throughout, like the Van Gogh Museum, and hung the master’s prints on every wall. Over the years, I caught glimpses of his work at various museums: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Met and Guggenheim museums, Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, and closer to home at the Denver Art Museum. In 2003, I finally visited Amsterdam and enjoyed tours of that city’s museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, the Anne Frank House, and of course, the Van Gogh Museum.

Last week I attended a virtual demonstration by local artist and Bemis instructor Dena Peterson. Dena was an artist for the live action and animation film “Loving Vincent.” I saw the movie downtown when it was released in 2017, and fell in love with the film, and with Van Gogh – again. The images were breathtaking, the work involved – a combination of oil painting and animation technology – mindboggling. It took first place in the Best Animated Feature Film category at the 30th European Film Awards and was nominated for an Oscar here in the States. What I liked most about that film wasn’t the art or the technology, though; it was the story, and the writers’ treatment of Van Gogh. They gave him a dignity that, to me, had been sorely lacking among the masses. The court of public opinion can be cruel, and many people’s focus was not on the genius of his work, but on his mental struggles with love and with life. In “Loving Vincent,” the writers, the artists, and maybe the technologists too, seemed to love this man and his work, just like I did. Their shared admiration and compassion shone through in every frame. Sometimes it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as you do.

The Van Gogh Museum is temporarily closed but you can view the collection online at Van Gogh Museum Collection. View the film “Loving Vincent” on Hulu or for a small fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming services. Sign up for a painting class with Dena Peterson on the Bemis Art School website. And don’t miss the large-scale exhibits Van Gogh Alive and Immersive Van Gogh Experience coming to Denver this summer and fall, your chance to wander in, around, and through the works of your favorite artist. I hope to see you there. Because sometimes, it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as I do.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 26, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Noon: Rest from Work” is in Amsterdam, but you can make your own Van Gogh experience with a virtual visit to the Van Gogh Museum or to one of Denver’s large-scale, immersive Van Gogh installations.

Lessons in the Field

Using a GPS receiver to get around in the backcountry is a skill most avid hikers take time to master. I learned on the fly, out of necessity rather than desire. Ten years ago, when one of my publishers asked that I include waypoints, tracks, and maps in my next book, I had to pony up the money for a pricey global positioning system device. If you’ve never used one, a handheld GPS is a gadget that receives data from 24 satellites that orbit earth. Then it translates that data into information about the receiver’s location. If a person carrying a GPS can pick up data from 3 satellites, they’ll know where they are on Earth’s surface. Four satellites, and they’ll get 3-dimensional information, such as their altitude, or elevation above sea level. You can see why a GPS is so valuable to backcountry travelers. Still, I wasn’t happy about this new demand on my wallet – or my time. A map and compass were cheap and easy to use. A GPS wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t intuitive either.

After giving up on the complicated instructions, I hit the trail to learn on my own, pushing buttons and making a lot of mistakes until I finally figured it out. But like every self-taught skill, my knowledge was limited to “what I need to know to get the job done.” I knew how to use my GPS to get where I wanted to go and find my way back without getting lost. I also knew how to make and take waypoints, routes, and tracks, and turn all that data into topographical maps that a publisher could put in a book. But I didn’t use all the menus, and that bothered me. Every time I clicked through them, I’d think, “I wonder what this thing does?” Then I’d remember I was supposed to be working, not playing with my GPS, and I’d get back to hiking, writing, and map-making. But those mysterious menus beckoned, and I wanted to know what else I could do with my GPS.

Knowing I’d never take the time to learn it all on my own, after a decade of wondering about all those menus, I finally signed up for a field course with local retailer REI. And last week I packed up some water, snacks, sunscreen, and my GPS, and headed over to Cheyenne Mountain State Park for my first formal course, “Introduction to GPS Navigation Class – Level 1.”

Matt Hickethier, a senior instructor with REI, was waiting for me in the Limekiln parking lot. More students showed up: Steve, Stewart, Alexa, and Kelly. There were releases to sign, hand sanitizer to use, and disposable masks and nitrile gloves for anyone who hadn’t brought their own. After a short round of introductions, Matt, a former Marine with land navigation and orienteering experience far beyond Colorado’s mountains and parklands, gave us a crash course in GPS basics: how they work, what all those menus mean, and his recommended settings. He had us create waypoints manually and then follow them on a short cross-country hike. Then he explained the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) system, an alternative to the topographical maps created by the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) back in 1984. Instead of using a compass with the UTM map, we used a clear plastic grid reader. We made UTM route points, built a route, and went on another hike, following the route we’d created.

I could have gotten along for another decade with what I’d known, but all this new knowledge is going to save me a lot of time and could get me out of some unfortunate situations in the backcountry. I learned how to share routes and waypoints with other hikers wirelessly, whereas before, I’d been emailing them to people. I learned how to create a route, which is similar to what I had been doing, but instead of bringing up numbered waypoints one at a time to follow, the GPS route function brings them up automatically. I also learned how to manually enter and edit GPS latitude and longitude or UTM eastings and northings in the field, which will come in handy if I don’t upload them to my device from my computer ahead of time. I also learned how to take a screenshot of the device, instead of taking a picture of it with my camera, which I tend to do at every trailhead and summit. Finally, I learned that the GPS can help me find the most direct route along roads or trails, a feature I wouldn’t typically use, but that could come in handy if I ever got really lost.

REI has other courses on their roster and according to Matt, you can also get individualized classes for more in-depth instruction. I signed up for a couple more classes this year – map and compass navigation, which I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, and Wilderness First Aid, even though I was a certified EMT years ago and have taken this particular course twice before.

Ten years ago, I wasn’t eager to learn how to use a GPS receiver. My trusty map and compass had served me well for years. Last week, I was cynical about how much more there was to know about the technology. A four-hour field course was like a big slice of humble pie that will save me a lot of time on the trail. And a reminder that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always more to learn.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 13, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Columnist Susan Joy Paul joins students Steve, Kelly, and Alexa, and instructor Matt in a GPS field session at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. [Photo courtesy of Stewart M. Green]

Vaccination Pride

Vaccinations have been around for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, the older kids had tell-tale scars on their shoulders from the smallpox vaccine. By the time it was my turn, they were giving those shots on the hip. You had to pull down the side of your pants to get it, and I’m pretty sure I cried. They stopped giving the smallpox vaccines in the 1970s, after the disease was eliminated thanks to a worldwide vaccination effort led by the World Health Organization. But before it was eradicated, smallpox killed millions of people. I didn’t know any of that when I got my shot. All I knew was that getting my vaccination, as much as it hurt, made me feel like one of the big kids – even without the cool shoulder scar.

Over the years, my sisters and I had a variety of viruses: measles, mumps, and chicken pox. We had more shots too. By the time my own children were born, there was the MMR shot. Since then, I haven’t even thought about shots. No cool scars. No vaccination pride.

But suddenly, vaccinations are back. A spike in flu shots led to a nearly nonexistent flu season. Sure, masks, social distancing, and far less travel likely contributed to the dramatic drop in cases, but let’s give flu shots some credit too.

And now, with the Covid-19 shot, vaccination pride is back too. I can tell you who among my friends has had one, and who’s had two. I know where and when they had their shots. I know all this about a lot of strangers, too, because they’re all posting about it on social media. At first, people were actually posting photos of their Covid cards online, until they realized these cards sometimes had personal info printed on them. So now it’s mostly photos of people getting their shots or simply exclaiming, “I got my shot!”

I know the feeling. A couple of weeks ago I got an email saying it was my turn. Apparently, breaking my arm last fall got me into the UC Health system and they had me on a list. All I had to do was pick a date and location. Could it really be that simple? I showed up at the big building on Pikes Peak Avenue at the appointed time and stood in a long line with a bunch of other folks. We chatted about the past year, what we’d been through and what we were hoping for in the coming months. For many, it was our first in-person social interaction in more than a year. People were happy to be there. Happy and proud, like we were doing something for ourselves, but also for each other. Like it was our civic duty. That felt good. The line moved quickly and before I knew it, I was in a booth. Those medical people sure knew what they were doing because I didn’t feel a thing. This time, I didn’t cry.

A few days ago, I went for a hike up in Jefferson County. The snowy trail was boot-packed for the first few miles, thanks to hikers who’d visited the area since the last big snowfall. But two miles and 1,000 feet below the summit, the packed trail disappeared. Determined to make it to the top, I slogged on, breaking trail through the heavy knee-deep snow. Approaching the final trail junction, I was hopeful that someone else had come up by another route and broken trail for the last mile, but no luck. With nine switchbacks to go, I trudged on. Minutes later, a woman fell in behind me.

“Hey, did you follow my tracks?” I asked her.

“Nope,” she said, “I broke trail from the other route.”

“Wow, good for you,” I said, “My trail disappeared at 8,700 feet.”

“Yep,” she said, “Mine too, and I’m 71 years old.”

That stopped me in my tracks. “You must have had your Covid shot,” I said, jokingly. She laughed and said she’d had two Moderna shots.

“Well that explains it,” I said, “I got my first Pfizer this week. So I guess we’re both just full of pith and vinegar, eh?” Except I didn’t say pith.

“Yeah, guess we are.”

She hiked behind me for a while longer, the trail climbing steeply, the snow growing deeper. Then she decided to turn around. “I need to get back,” she said, “But I appreciate you breaking trail up here.” Sure, I told her, any time. Have a safe hike out.

She pulled down her mask and smiled. “Things are going to get better, you know,” she said. Then she was gone. I kept going, on and up to the summit. I felt good and strong. And proud. Like one of the big kids, again.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 30, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Getting Back into the Swing of Things

Recovering from an injury can take weeks or months. But even after the bruises disappear, the bones mend, and the cast is off, scars can linger. Not visible scars, but those mental ones that make you question whether you’re truly healed. Like a big question mark in your head that asks: “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone?”

That’s how I’ve felt the past couple of months. Since breaking my arm in a hiking accident last fall, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home and less time on the trail. It’s not a matter of physical fitness. I’ve been lifting weights since the cast came off in November, and even worked up the courage to start doing pushups again. I’ve been out hiking, too, and am finally convinced I can navigate a trail without falling on my arm. That might sound ridiculous, but the fear of re-injuring myself has really messed with my head.

So when my friend Eric emailed me last week to see if I’d like to go ice climbing with him and a few of his friends, I had to give the idea some serious thought. I hadn’t climbed anything since my accident – not a crag or a mountain, and certainly not a frozen waterfall. That question mark quickly reared its ugly head and asked, “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone? Especially hanging off a wall of ice by the pointy ends of a couple pairs of ice tools and crampons?” Maybe, maybe not. But there was just one way to find out. So despite my trepidation, I dug out my winter climbing gear, sharpened my crampons, and packed up my helmet, harness, belay device, personal anchor system, ice tools, eye protection, and a flask of hot cocoa. And at 6 am, I showed up to climb.

I first learned how to ice climb in 2006 with the Colorado Mountain Club. Eric had been one of my instructors. Since that first trip to Silver Cascade in North Cheyenne Cañon, I’d climbed a few other places around the state – Ouray and Lincoln Falls – but I was far from expert. I wasn’t even a lead climber, which meant I’d be relying on someone else to set up the anchors and ropes.

 With North Cheyenne Canyon Road closed, we had to take Gold Camp Road to meet up with the other climbers. Per COVID protocol, everyone drove separately and arrived masked up, which was not only safer but warmer too, given the temperature – a brisk 17 degrees at the Powell Trailhead. Eric’s friends, it turned out, were all Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) hike leaders, ice and rock climbing instructors, and backcountry ski and mountaineering instructors. Needless to say, I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to get the ropes to the top of the ice wall. Between Eric and his friends Scott, Tony, Matt, and Mike, they had it covered. All I had to do was hike roughly a mile down the road and up the trail to Silver Cascade Falls. And climb.

No one minds masking up when it’s 17 degrees. I got outside for COVID-conscious
climbing with trip leaders, rock and ice climbing instructors, and backcountry ski
and mountaineering instructors from the Colorado Mountain Club, from left to right:
Scott Kime, Eric Hunter, Tony Eichstadt, Matt Von Thun, and Mike Cromwell.

Being with a group of capable climbers for my first outing did a lot to put my mind at ease. Roped up, on belay, and clutching my ice tools firmly in my gloved hands, I sunk the right tool cleanly into the ice. No pain – great. My left swing didn’t go as well. Ironically, that’s my “good arm,” but apparently, it’s not as coordinated as my “bad arm” because the pick glanced off the surface and skittered sideways. I tried again and this time, the left pick landed. Then I kicked my feet, sticking the crampons firmly into the ice, and slowly made my way up the wall: swing, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, kick, kick. I didn’t make it to the top of the climb – not because of my arm, but because my calves were screaming. Climbing has a way of reminding you of all the muscles in your body that don’t get used enough. I asked Matt to lower me to the ground so I could rest a bit before the next climb.

Eric Hunter points out the ice climbing line.

I got in a couple more climbs that day, and though I didn’t make it to the tippy top of any of them, getting back out there and into the swing of things made the whole trip worth it. I’m hoping to get out again this season, but in the meantime, I’ll be working on my calf raises, seated calf raises, and anything else I can do to get those lazy soleus and gastrocnemius muscles in shape.

With the warm weather of springtime, the ice is melting fast, but you can still get in some ice climbing around Colorado’s Pikes Peak region. If you’re new to the sport, hire a local service like Front Range Climbing to take you out. They’ll provide all the gear and a guide to set up the ropes, give you some initial training, and keep you safe. Or consider a Colorado Mountain Club membership, which gives you access to affordable courses including ice climbing, and instructor-led trips to climbing destinations around the state. If you have the skills but are missing the gear, check out Mountain Chalet for ice tool, crampon, and boot rentals.

Of course, you may have some mental scars and a big question mark asking, “Can I do this?” If that’s all that’s holding you back, think of me, my weak calves, and my broken arm. You may not get to the tippy top, but just getting back into the swing of things is worth the trip.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Four months after breaking my arm, I was
lucky to get out with a capable group of
climbers, including Colorado Mountain
Club ice climbing instructor Tony Eichstadt
(in red shirt).

Ghosts in Our Midsts

Halloween was months ago, but I’ve been thinking about ghosts a lot lately. It all started after watching the Netflix series “Surviving Death.” In case you missed it, each of the six hour-long episodes explores a different aspect of life after death: people coming back to life after they were technically dead; mediums who communicate with the dead; seeing, hearing, and smelling signs of those who have passed; and my favorite, reincarnation.

Ghosts have always fascinated me. When I was a kid living in an apartment in San Jose, I had a handkerchief that I fashioned into a little white ghost. His name was Willy, and I liked to drop him through the upstairs floor register and onto my unsuspecting sisters’ heads as they walked below. At my grandmother’s farmhouse in Connecticut, I used to disappear into the attic to read her piles of comic books. Casper the Friendly Ghost was one of my favorites! I actually dreamed about riding on a broom with Wendy the Witch. The feeling of gliding weightlessly through the air was something I’ll never forget, even though it was many decades ago and all in my imagination.

Anyway, back to “Surviving Death.” Some sequences seemed like pure baloney – like the medium who channels many different voices of people who have passed. But others were so believable, I’m having trouble deciding whether there is something to this whole surviving death thing. Like the doctor who drowned in her kayak – and survived to describe what she saw next from her vantage point above the river. Or the toddlers who have vivid memories of lives past. Some sequences could be explained away, like seeing or hearing relatives that have passed. The people didn’t appear to be making this stuff up, but who’s to say their minds aren’t playing tricks on them? Mine plays tricks on me all the time. It convinces me that I have much more time on Earth than is likely – more time to do all those things I want to do, see those people I want to see, and make up for all those past mistakes.

Right there between the medium segments and the reincarnation segments were the “signs” segments, where someone who’s passed sends a message to the living. The signs can be subtle, like a flickering light, or they can be more overt, like the appearance of a bird or a butterfly. If you watch these episodes, be warned: when I watched part of one, something fell off my mantle and onto the floor. The next time, a piece of paper fell off my counter, and the third time, my electric toothbrush turned itself on. Yeah, I know – these are all coincidences, but they still freaked me out just a little bit.

If you’re beginning to question my sanity or gullibility, I have to tell you that I’ve heard stories from other people about similar experiences. A friend of mine’s oldest son had memories of a past life when he was a little kid. His ex-wife used to see the ghost of a small child at her past job, and her co-workers saw the same ghost. When I was a teenager dabbling in the Black Arts (as bored high-schoolers are prone to do), I had a couple of terrifying experiences that I hesitate to put in writing, lest I reawaken the evil spirits and invite them back into my currently calm and quiet life. I’ll save those stories for another column.

So, I have reasons for being on the spiritual fence about all this, and I’m going to explore it further on my own. I got a book on mediumship, which is mostly about meditation, but it’s a start. And I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and the signs I’d like to send back to the people I outlive. Projecting my spirit into my childhood puppet, Willy the Ghost, would be fun – until one of my smart-aleck kids blew their nose into the poor little hanky. I’m thinking more along the lines of a raven. That way, I could fly like Wendy and Casper and visit all the places I didn’t get to while I was alive. I mentioned this to my best friend the other day. Later that day we went for a hike and a raven flew overhead. It had something wriggling in its beak – it looked like a mouse – so I may tweak my afterlife persona to be a vegan raven.

 In the meantime, I’m stuck here on Earth with the rest of you, imagining what will happen to me after I die, and looking around for signs of my parents, grandparents, and the many friends I’ve lost over the years. I’m going to take a cue from those mind tricks and use my time on Earth to do more of the things I want to do, see more people I want to see, and try to make up for all my past mistakes. But I’m going to take a few moments each day to meditate, too – and maybe get some signs, real or imagined. The way I see it, taking a little time to communicate with the dead does no harm, even if no one’s listening. But if someone is, and I’m ignoring them, well, that’s a scary thought. Some might say scarier than eating a live rodent – or having a handkerchief ghost dropped on your head.

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.