Wednesday, September 07, 2005

SM100

Shenandoah Mountain 100
100 Mile Mountain Bike Race
September 4, 2005
Stokesville, VA

Another year, another SM100. In fact, this was to be my #7 SM100 in a row. And #12 overall if you count the Wilderness 101s I've raced. Time sure does fly.

Last year wasn't so good for me, and the memories were still fairly fresh. I'd had to travel for work Wednesday and Thursday to Newport News, VA for a final project demo and ended up exposed to a few too many germs. I woke up Friday morning sick. I did "race" two days later, and all but crawled to the finish line after an awful race that saw me suffering from chills and general malaise the entire day. Sometimes you can race on a cold and feel better afterward, but it was too soon into that cold, and I'd just made myself more miserable. In retrospect, I should never have raced last year, and I wouldn't make that mistake again.

But it was a new year and my experience was completely different. I traveled for work Monday and Tuesday, but had the rest of the week to "rest" up and prepare myself and my bike while working from the office as usual. I went into the race feeling like I'd done the best I could. I hadn't ridden over 3 hr more than once since the Wilderness 101 in late July, but maybe it would mean I wasn't so run-down?

No matter how well rested I am, I hate mornings and feel tired. I think the fact that most mountain bike races start at 11 AM or noon instead of 8 AM partially fueled my transition from road racer to mt. bike racer. Anyway, the 100 milers are the only exception I make to early morning exercise, but no matter how many times I do them, the pre-dawn wake up and 6:30 AM start really hurts.

This year, it was cold in the morning before the start. I stood, all bundled up, in line for the port-a-potties in the dark after force feeding myself some breakfast when I was not hungry. I thought I had myself pretty well together and later rolled over to the staging area listening to promoter Chris Scott give last minute directions. 3 minutes to go. 2 minutes to go. I'm talking with some of my 340 start line neighbors, and all seems good until the revelation hits. I don't have my camelbak, which has all my tools, some water, and some food! Holy shit! I sprinted back to my car in an all out run with my bike and fumbled for a key so I could get inside and retrieve it. I frantically threw it on, shut the car door, and sprinted back to the start hopping on my bike at a full speed run as everyone rolled off. Needless to say, I didn't feel like I needed a warm-up at this point. I was already on full adrenaline rush mode. I thought would I have gone back after the start to get it, and how much time would it have cost me? After the finish a friend asked me "I saw you running before the start, is that part of your warm-up?" I laughed and answered, "only when I forget my camelbak."

Going up Narrowback for climb #1, I thought I felt decent. Not great like the year I followed my friend Dave effortlessly up the hill passing all kinds of folks, but not awful either. I didn't have chills and wasn't on cold medicine, so I was way ahead of last year. The climb went by faster than I thought it would (always a good sign!), and I remembered to give thanks that I wasn't running up it whenever the going got tough. (note: I was remembering a very demoralizing winter "trail" run up this climb.). The rocky singletrack following the climb was a blast. After two days the previous week riding in State College, I didn't even notice these rocks and breezed right through them.

For me, the race doesn't really start until after the second climb and descent. The second climb is really a hike-a-bike with a few riding sections. Don't listen to anything else anyone tells you about that climb. You will hike your bike.

There is nothing I hate more than hiking my bike. I'll take riding, I'll take hiking, but never shall the two mix for more than a minute or two if I can help it. Maybe this is why I like the Wilderness 101 better? Well, Lynn trail goes on forever, and it's like death march for me to get to the top every year. Everyone else walks uphill faster than me. So I knew it was a good year when I found myself thinking, "well, that wasn't so bad..." as I crested the top for the downhill (which itself contains several short hike a bikes).

I hopped on a train of 2 very fast guys on Tillman Road and made some time. This was the kind of terrain where you passed singlespeeders, who were outgeared, left and right. Then it was thru Aid Station #2 and onto the next climb.

Onto Hankey Mountain. I had a bad moment there two years ago in the Tour de 'Burg final stage when I blew up spectacularly and lost the yellow jersey, but this year, Hankey and the subsequent Dowell's were good to me. I'd spent the up and the down chasing Churtle the Turtle back in July. Or should I say hanging onto her back wheel for dear life so as not to loose more time? Churtle didn't do the 100 miler, but she was with me in spirit. I tried to ride that downhill like I did the day I'd followed her and learned so much.

I left Aid Station #3 freshly lubed. Up until this point, I'd been trading spots with several women. Very uncharacteristicaly for me, I was actually passing some women on the downhill and, not surprisingly considering how much I'd been riding in the prior weeks, getting passed on the climbs by a few of the women like I was standing still. However, after Aid Station #3, I never saw another woman racing. I was on my own with the guys.

Rt 250 was the usual false flat uphill slog. There even seemed to be a bit of a headwind, oddly enough. 3 of us spent time trading off. One was Patrick, on an IF singlespeed. He ended up being my race buddy because we saw each other so often during this race. We've both done most or all of the 100 milers and even had a brief conversation about when we might retire. How long do we really want to keep doing this stuff anyway? No conclusion was reached.

Weather and trail conditions were perfect. I kept my arm warmers on until checkpoint #4 due to the slight chill. It was what I call a high resolution day in Virginia. It was so clear and sunny, you could see forever, and you feel like you're living in a magazine photograph. The trees were brilliant green, and the sky clear and blue with white puffy clouds. The mountains had seem some residual hurricane rains the week before, but that'd left the trails in primo condition after a few days to dry out after a generally dry preceding month.

Ramseys Draft is always a welcome site. It means a brief hike a bike up rock stairs followed by my favorite climb of the race, up Bridge Hollow. Thanks to yoga, I can really enjoy this slow-speed balance fest, and I'm no longer prone to high-siding on the sidehill bench cut like I used to regularly do. The rock gardens are just enough to keep the singletrack interesting, but not frustrate you, and I think it's the fastest 30 minute climb around in terms of how long it seems to take. Plus, when you get to the top, you are rewarded by a fabulous, smooth singletrack descent down the local favorite Braley's Pond trail.

I couldn't help but think of the manhunt that happened here a few weeks ago. A man shot and killed a neighbore in Weyer's Cave (a small town in the Valley) and then fled to the Braley's area with his wife held hostage. Eventually he released her and killed himself, and probably the best quote in the local paper was from the nearby convenience store owner. The state police had taken over his store as command post, and he said something like, "well, it wasn't too bad having them here--they did ask first before taking over which was polite, but my beer sales sure did drop. No one stops in to buy beer where there are police everywhere in front of your store." I guess everyone has their own perspective.

Braley's dumps you into Checkpoint #4, and my friend Cathy was running the show there. She has done an incredible job at aid stations at many Wilderness 101's in years past, and it's so great to see her out there during the race. She's so encouraging and her aid stations are always the best! I rolled out refreshed and ready for the Long Slog.

The Long Slog is a false flat uphill climb that eventually turns into a steep uphill climb. This happens over a course of 17 fireroad miles. Can you say boring? Mindnumbing? Makes you want to cry if you are by yourself? Fortunately, for me, I teamed up with another two guys and we slogged it out together. Misery loves company. We both tried to hop on two faster trains that passed, but no luck. My legs weren't having that, and I knew it would be suicide to force them to hang on. The worst part of all this are the steeper pitches that spring up along the way of the false flat part. I can't help but think back to before the forest service re-routed this road. I know they meant well and probably did a good thing considering flooding long-term, but I can't help but think sometimes "those bastards"! The road used to follow the creek more closely, which left it nice and gradual the whole way. Now, located further from the creek, you get these tough little hills thrown in. Sometimes they can be so demoralizing.

Aid Station #5 was a welcome site. It signals a switch to doubletrack and then eventually a sweet, mostly downhill, slightly rocky singletrack trail to #6. This section was pretty uneventful for me. It was fairly lonely, but usually someone was in sight somewhere. Paul Johnston kept me company on part of the descent.

Jeff Cheng welcomed me to Aid Station #6. Almost there, I thought. I crammed down some more food and headed off for the final time up the lower part of Hankey. I was starting to bog down after pushing pretty hard all day, but what can you do? I'd been going pretty well, and I can't always finish on a second wind. I was determined to make my personal best time and seemed on track to do so. Heck, I figured I might even have a shot at the Team Lucky Green Record (held by my husband Matthew). Of course, I couldn't remember exactly what that time was! Afterwards, I teased him that I could have gone much faster if I hadn't had to answer the question "where's Matthew?" so many times throughout the race. Usually, we are within a few minutes of each other on these races, sometimes him in front, sometimes me, but this time he was in Colorado visiting family.

The last few miles were fun, and I rolled it solo into the finish at 10:08. This was my personal best by 30 minutes. Of course, the good weather and good trail conditions only helped, but on top of that I had a good day and felt very solid. I finished in 4th place, about 50 min behind 3rd (Karen Masson, former Sm100 winner and recent TransRockies winner) and an hour behind 2nd (Trish Stevenson, former SM100 winner and this year's winner of the the TransRockies and the Continental Divide race). First place...well, let's just say that was almost-Olympian Sue Haywood, who not only smoked the women in just over 8.5 hours, but came in 10th overall out of everyone, including the men. How impressive is that?

I was just psyched to be as close as I was to the fast ladies and to have my personal best time. As one friend put it in perspective, "Sue, you're the top of the women-with-full-time-jobs category." I guess that is one way to look at it--at least if you don't count that Sue's job is to ride pro full time!

All in all, it was a fun year to race the SM100. After doing so many 100 milers, they sometimes all blur together, and it's hard to get excited for any particular one, but I was reminded how much I enjoy them. Not only for the racing, but for the chance to visit with so many like-minded cycling friends. It really feels like re-uniting with family at these events, and no matter how you do, it's hard not to leave with a warm fuzzy feeling.

To wrap it all up, my State College and Boston friends joined us for the traditional post-race brunch. As Nittany Wheelworks co-owner Jim said when I asked him if he was coming, "the brunch is the best part--I wouldn't miss it." The IHOP in H'burg isn't the best place ever to eat, but hungry cyclists can't be too choosy on Labor Day. And it was great to fill up on a big breakfast before heading home to partake of my other post-SM100 tradition...the all day nap!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Wilderness 101 - July 2005

Wilderness 101
Endurance Mountain Bike Event (100 miles!)
Coburn, PA

The 101 went pretty well. This was #5 (as far as formal 101’s go) for me. I’ve also ridden the old course about 3 times before the race was resurrected.

I started out way too hard, but that’s easy to do with so much road early on the first 20 miles. Heck, I started so hard that I was even in front of Tiffany (the women’s winner) for a little while, but then she passed me on the first real climb and I never saw her again.

It was hot all week leading up to the race with only a little precipitation, and the trails were the driest I’ve ever seen them in the 5 years of doing the race and probably the driest since I’ve been going to State College over the past 10 years. They were almost too dry—at least the fireroad climbs anyway. You had to stay right where the tracks were or you wasted a lot of energy slipping about. Weather that day of was perfect. About 60 in the morning with a high that probably didn’t get much above 80. It got really cloudy mid-way and stormed briefly, but it actually felt pretty good and made the rocks a little slippery, but not bad by PA standards.

My mental low point is always between checkpoints 2 and 3 (of 5 total), about 40-55 miles in, esp. when I have to go up Greenlea Fireroad. It’s just too steep for me, and frankly, I hate that climb. I always try to be positive and tell myself that at least I’m not walking (many people do—I had to one year when I had my knee injury), but it’s a constant mental struggle, and I feel like I’m going so slow! Well, I made it up that climb (finally!) and then down the technical Croyle trail and was on the road to Alan Seeger when a bee flew down my jersey and into my sports bra. I slapped it as right away to try to kill it, but it still stung me. I pulled over immediately and got it out of my jersey, but I was definitely stung once. It hurt like crazy, but that didn’t bother me; it was the fact that I’m allergic to some stinging insects that had me really worried. I was like “uh oh, I hope I don’t have a big reaction out here. I wonder if I will have to quit?” It was about 4 hr into the race.

So I immediately took two Benadryls (I always keep some in my Camelback) because I felt like I couldn’t afford to wait to see what might happen. Then I deliberately slowed my pace a lot (I’ve always heard a fast pumping heart exacerbates an allergic reaction) and started drinking like crazy. I waited for the hives and the itching to start like when I usually react, but they never came on strong enough for me to say it wasn’t just my imagination being paranoid. I watched my watch for an hour but had no signs other than minor itching, so then I figured I was off the hook. I did have my epi pin (which I’ve never had to use) and there were people around occasionally passing or me passing them so I think I could have gotten help pretty well. In any case, there was no point in stopping right there in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t tell if I was having the weird post-sting temperature thing going on because my body does that anyway during 100 milers sometimes or because it had clouded over and started raining. In retrospect, I’m beginning to think I’m allergic to wasps and yellow jackets but not bees. Someone else suggested that maybe my adrenaline was so high after 4 hr of racing that the reaction was abated. So who knows?

My advice to anyone: Do not race on Benedryl. It is NOT a performance enhancing drug. Not only does it make you loopy, but it sucks every bit of water out of your system.

Somewhere around this point I ran into Kyle, a JMU student. It’s almost comforting to see him now because I’m so used to always ending up with him at some point during all the sick, twisted long events we do (like last year’s SM100, every stage of this year’s Tour de ‘Burg, and now this year’s 101). This was his first 101, and he was asking me some questions. We briefly discussed which 100 miler was better. I said the 101, but I couldn’t give him a concrete answer why. When I saw him again later in the race, I said it was because of the ferns. I'd had some time to think about the question. In this race, some of the trails are lined by ferns that look and smell awesome. It’s just so green to have them as the forest floor canopy. I think another reason I like this race better is that there is no hideous hike-a-bike (like the Lynn trail on the SM100!). And of course, there’s also all the sentimentality of going back to the place where I learned to like mountain biking. But also think I like the slightly rocky singletrack better—must be my PA roots showing through.

Speaking of, the Wilderness 101 has become a reunion for many of us from Penn State days. My friend Gerard comes back from Kansas every year to do it. Gerard and I were reminiscing about the old days of mountain biking in Rothrock State Forest when we were students. I said, “I used to be so frustrated on those rides—so far off the back and I didn’t know what I was doing, I was such a roadie.” Gerard: “Yeah, you were SO far off the back”. Me: “Yeah, and you guys waited just until I caught up and then would take off and I’d be back to chasing and crashing everywhere. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Gerard: “Yes, but you were so determined to learn.” But times have changed dramatically. A few minutes later he asked, “So do you really ride up the Sassafrass trail in the race? I walk up that every year.” Me: “Yeah, I love that trail. Now I can actually ride technical, uphill stuff.”

By check point #3, I decided I was past the likely window of allergic reaction and that it was reasonable for me to keep “racing”. I told Cathy (a PSU friend who was managing aid station #3) what happened, and she didn’t say I looked or sounded funny or anything, so I kept going. I’m sure she would have told me if something seemed amiss. I downed a coke and a caffeinated gu to offset the Benedryl and set out to defend my 2nd place. I had no idea how far back 3rd was because I’d never swapped places with the 3rd woman at any point during the race.

From checkpoint #3 onward, I drank 1 big bottle and half a 70 oz camelback between every aid station. Yet I never felt bloated. I drank another coke at checkpoint #4. After I got stung, I ate no more solid food except some gummy bears near the end. It’s like it was all I could do to drink my calories in order to stay hydrated. It was very weird compare to the usual experience where I eat a lot of different things over the course of the race. I knew the Benedryl was affecting me because I never have to pee anytime near the end of the race, and this time I did. Twice.

They added some more singletrack between #3 and #4. It was grueling at that point. It’s funny—many people whine every year that there’s not enough singletrack in the 101 and when they put more in, then most people said “gosh I hated that singletrack at that point—I wish we’d have stayed on the fireroad”. I thought it was very hard to do that singletrack at that point, but heck, it is a 101 mile mountain bike race after all. It’s not supposed to be easy!

That new section was the where the two guys right after me saw a rattler. I wonder if it was there and I just missed it or if it came after I got there. Several people saw them during the race. Two others spotted a bear on the final climb after the first tunnel. Turns out a work colleague who was hiking in the area on the mid-State trail also saw several rattlers that day. I guess they were on the move!

I remember somewhere around Checkpoint #4 thinking I was starting to feel more normal again as the Benedryl wore off, and that I actually felt pretty good. I looked at my watch and it said 7 hr. I was like, “wow, I’ve been riding for 7 hours, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. I feel pretty good.” At that point, I knew I’d make it and probably do fairly well barring the always-possible, catastrophic mechanical. Heck, there was less than 3 hrs left.

I rolled into Checkpoint #5 to find Harry and Frank (friends and 2 of the local sponsor shop owners) and 1 other guy just about to leave, so I rolled out with them and we blasted out the flat old railroad section after the first tunnel. On the climb, Harry blew us all away after getting an impressive second wind, and we all trickled in singly a few minutes thereafter, but it was fun to ride that fast part near the end with those guys. I just chugged out the final climb and Fisherman’s path and rolled it in pursuit mode to the second tunnel. I finished 9:58. I was about 45 min off Tiffany, which is a slightly bigger gap than usual, but I also don’t usually get stung, and she had her personal best time. However, I must note that she was on a singlespeed again this year. She is amazingly strong, I don’t know how she does it. I hear she is going to take on some of the pro women at Mt. Snow in a few weeks, but she will use gears for that.

Overall, I was really happy with my race. I was just psyched to have been able to keep going after the bee sting and not to loose any places. I know I started too hard, so I’m not under any illusions that I would have been much closer to Tiffany even if I hadn’t gotten stung. She’s just in another category. 3rd woman turned out to be about an hour behind me, so this year, we were all pretty well spread out--much more than usual. I finished 58th overall (out of 240), which is probably my best overall placing percentage-wise.

Adventures of Sue George

Okay, so here I go--embarking on my first attempt at creating a blog instead of clogging your inbox with attachments describing all my adventures. More coming soon...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Montana Trip Report - March 2005

Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana Trip Report

March 4, 2005 to March 13, 2005

by Sue George

Back in August of 2004, one of my bosses told me that if I could write a paper for the IEEE Aerospace Conference in Big Sky, MT, and get it accepted, I could go. This sounded good to me. Ever since going backpacking in Glacier National Park in July 2003, I'd wanted to go back to Montana and see more. Here was the perfect opportunity.

I knew from my boss, who'd previously attended the conference, that it was set up with morning, evening, and night sessions. Afternoons were deliberately left open to allow a few daylight hours every day to play. As a bonus, the trip dates corresponded exactly with Matthew's spring break, so he would be able to accompany me.

Friday, March 4, 2005

We departed C'ville airport at 4:30 PM and traveled, relatively uneventfully, through Cincinnati, OH, and Salt Lake City, UT before arriving in Bozeman at midnight local time. The car rental place was closed, so we headed to the hotel via a shuttle with plans to pick up the car the next morning. We stood outside in the cold waiting for the shuttle to arrive after the airport terminal closed promptly at midnight.

As if to prove the small world theory, the very first person we met in Bozeman (waiting for the same shuttle) had spent 7 years in Charlottesville going to UVA and now lived in DC. It's always a strange experience to travel far from home and run into people who know all about the place you live. Most of the time people further than a half-day's drive from Charlottesville have never heard of the place, or they get it mixed up with Charlotte, NC.

The shuttle driver gave us some background on Bozeman, and like all well-placed small college towns in the US, this one was suffering growth problems. Relative to Charlottesville, which is growing very rapidly, Bozeman seemed to have a more minor growth problem, but who knows, maybe it is just getting going? I can only speculate that it might take more convincing to get folks to suffer through Montana winters than it does to suffer through Central Virginia "winters". According to the Bozeman natives, the last few winters were very mild and all the newcomers are in for a shock when the "real" winters start up again.

We finally got back to our hotel and got asleep at 1 AM MST, which felt like 3 AM EST. Sometimes I wonder if all good trips require starting out with a sleep deficit. If you don't have to run yourself into the ground to get there, it's probably not that interesting. Okay, maybe that's not it. Maybe the real problem is that none of us have enough time to make work or pleasure travel more leisurely and less exhausting.


Saturday, March 5, 2005

Six hours of sleep later, we weren't rested, but we were eager to get going. It was bright and sunny. There was absolutely no snow, and it was warmer than back home (in the 50's). Why did we bring our skis? It was brown as could be. Maybe Big Sky would have snow? But we weren't too optimistic; the locals told us that this winter had netted the least amount of precipitation since 1940! It hadn't snowed in 3 weeks, and before that, it had been another 3 or 4 weeks. Snow had fallen on only 12 days all winter. Everyone was talking worriedly about the increased possibility of major forest fires this summer in light of the drought. And to make it worse, there was no snow at all in the forecast. [Note: Since our trip, it has snowed multiple times out there—with several storms in the 15-18" range!].

We groaned at snowless forecast, thinking nostalgically of the fresh 30" of snow that had fallen the preceding week at our favorite backcountry ski place, Whitegrass, in Canaan Valley, WV. We would be missing the very best weekend of skiing there all year!

Our shuttle driver back to the rental car pick-up also talked about the growth problem. Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in Montana. Apparently, folks from Los Angeles are moving here in droves. They come with lots of money and drive up housing prices. Hmmm, we thought, this sure does sound familiar, and cited our local example of DC and NoVA residents moving to C'ville en masse and pricing many of us out of the housing market.

The entire morning was devoted to logistics. We ran errands all over Bozeman and got groceries and other supplies we would need for the week. We also picked up some local knowledge at a few of the outdoor shops. They recommended we try Lone Peak XC ski area in Big Sky first. We were struck by how friendly and how relaxed the locals seemed. No one seemed stressed.

Big Sky is about 45 miles south of Bozeman. It is surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest and is not too far from Yellowstone National Park. Lone Mountain was on the way, only a few miles short of the Big Sky Mountain Village where we would be staying.

The dry, dusty dirt road into Lone Mountain was surrounded by mostly dry, dusty terrain. Where was all the snow? It sure looked grim. We soon found out from the very helpful woman staffing the XC center that only a fraction of the 85 km of trails was open for skiing. The rest had too little or no snow and were closed for the remainder of the season.

So we figured we'd ask about the downhill ski conditions. Here was our big chance to ski the famous powder of western ski resorts. We'd been anticipating it for months now. Neither Matthew nor I consider ourselves downhill skiers, but mostly that's because there's nowhere decent to ski in Central Virginia, and our other sports (cycling, climbing) are enough to keep us busy all winter. In any case, neither of us enjoys the ice skiing that is typical of mid-Atlantic downhill resorts.

The ski shop women replied to our question with complete seriousness and without knowing where we were from: "Well, the folks from back east seem to be enjoying the skiing—it's just like home for them." Oh well, we thought, disappointed, maybe we wouldn't be skiing downhill after all? It was looking like we might be in for another skiing-turned-hiking trip. It was starting to seem just like the snow-less Adirondacks, where we'd visited over New Year's, all over again. Right place, wrong time.

We asked more about specific trails that were open and told her what kind of skis we had and what we wanted to do. If nothing else, the highlight of our day was when she said in response: "Wow, you guys must be hardcore." Needless to say, we both got a laugh out of that for many hours afterward. Here we were, all inexperienced in the backcountry with no avalanche experience, trying to figure out "safe" places to go and keep ourselves out of trouble, and she was calling us hard core.

Later I thought about it more and concluded that XC ski resorts out west are just not like out East. At least based on my limited experiences in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the western XC ski resorts are focused on groomed trails and skate skiing. They have few if any tracked trails through the woods so therefore they are surprised when someone wants to go off piste, so to speak.

As Matthew has said, groomed skiing is like mountain biking on fireroads. It's all okay and fun every once in awhile, but it's not the best time ever. We pretty quickly figured out that at least around here, we were generally better off making our own tracks through the woods. We asked the woman for some suggestions along these lines, and she indicated that there might be some snow just inside Yellowstone going out of a few specific trailheads. And better yet, they were in places with no avalanche danger. We hoped we'd get to check it out.

Figure 1: A groomed trail at Lone Mountain XC Ski Resort near dusk

We did appreciate the kindness and general friendliness of the Lone Mountain staff, and so we decided to ski there in the afternoon and get reacquainted with our skis. We had an enjoyable 1.5 hour long ski on trails that were new to us. We liked the challenge of some of the steeper downhills and were really psyched by how our "new" skis were holding their own. The skis were a Christmas present to ourselves. Our "old" skis, really more conventional Nordic skis, had a good 10 years, but they were pretty well worn out after too much backcountry rock skiing.

Figure 2: Matthew enjoying his "warm-up" ski

We stayed at the Stillwater condos at the Big Sky Mountain Village, where the downhill ski resort is located. The facilities were very nice, excepting an initial plumbing problem, yet we both felt out of place. We are used to slumming it, often by camping, on our trips. But this was the cheapest option for the conference, so what could we do?

Figure 3: Our accommodations at Big Sky

About that plumbing problem…we were greeted with a stuck toilet early on thanks to the previous occupants. We had a few funny interactions with the "maintenance" guys (who seemed more like ski bums than plumbers) and enjoyed several "StillWater" jokes, but eventually the water was moving again after they snaked a half decayed bar of soap up from the plumbing.

The only bad thing about our accommodations was no internet access at the condo. We had to walk up to the main lodge and pay an exorbitant fee for access, which was only good for 1 of our 2 computers. We decided not to pay the exorbitant fee twice to get both computers access. Phone calls from the condo lasting over three minutes were very expensive so dial-up was not a better option. That made it hard for me to stay in touch with work, but I was out here to go to the conference, learn what I could, and promote our achievements with energy harvesting technology, I just made that my focus.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

The conference started at 4:30 PM on Sunday evening, so we had the morning and early afternoon to play. We headed again to nearby Lone Mountain to check out the rest of their XC ski trails. If you have limited time, it's always better to spend it playing outside rather than driving somewhere to play outside.

Figure 4: Going singletrack up along the North River

Conditions at Lone Mountain were highly variable with a base anywhere from half an inch to three feet. You really had to watch out for bare spots and icy patches.

Figure 5: A view of a distant peak from a meadow along the North River

Probably not surprising to those of you who know us, it wasn't long before we found a side-trail which was the equivalent of singletrack for skis. We couldn't help but take it because it looked so appealing going off into the woods. We followed the tracks up along the North Fork River, deeper in the National Forest. It was so beautiful back there. The tracks went for several miles, but we finally figured out that we needed to turn around and head back so as not to be late for the evening conference session. The way out was all up and the way back was all down. Our new skis did awesome both through the untracked deep snow in the open meadows and through the tracks in the woods. We even got to practice some telemark turns on the way down.

Figure 6: Matthew skis off into the distance

We would sometimes crash and fall in a few feet of snow. We'd land any which way. It would take a few minutes to get up in the deepest snow. But we were laughing the whole time.

Figure 7: Sue practices telemark turns

Figure 8: The clouds above Lone Peak told Matthew some kind of storm was on the way.

We worked our way back to the groomed ski trails. Surprisingly, we still had plenty of energy and time so we decided to take the long way back. Those trails weren't in such good shape, and as one skate-skiing couple passed us, we heard a derogatory, "oh great, we just went from crust to slush." You definitely had to watch out for bare spots, and it was often slushy given that it was probably in the high 40's.

Figure 9: Whitegrass eat your heart out! Bare patches and thin snow at Lone Mountain.

We were gone skiing for about 5.5 hours, and covered (I'm think!) at least 10 miles. Needless to say, I had no trouble sitting still in the sessions all that late afternoon and evening.

Figure 10: My view of Lone Peak on the walk to the building where the conference sessions happened

Monday, March 7, 2005

Monday was typical in that we had morning and late afternoon/evening sessions with the early afternoons off and a group dinner to break up the later sessions. Not having a lot of time between sessions to go far afield, we decided it would be a good day to use the discount lift tickets we'd bought through the conference. Our decision was reinforced when it started snowing during the morning sessions. Maybe the fresh snow would help with the crusty, icy surface of the slopes?

I hadn't skied in about 10 years, and even then, I'd only gone about 8 times. Matthew had only skied once before. So you could say we were pretty much total beginners. We didn't have our own gear—we rented some.

The difference in the skis in 10 years was amazing. They are dramatically shorter, wider, and have more sidecut. This makes them turn so much easier. Matthew and I were able to ski most of the green slopes on the first day with no major problems and we never even set foot on the bunny slopes that featured a conveyor belt for taking newbies up for each run. I won't say we had good form, but we got down the slopes ok with no serious crashes or accidents. I couldn't get over how much easier it was to ski this time. The 3-4" of fresh snow on top, helped a lot, too, but you had to watch out for icy spots where it was scraped away. The slopes were not crowded; in fact, they were empty—we walked right up to every lift and hopped on.

Figure 11: Matthew carving it up. As you can see, it was not crowded.

Conditions were definitely not the 12" of powder we'd heard so much about, but I'm sure they were better than anything we could have skied back home. We asked the lift operator what he thought and from best (10) to worst (1), he gave it a 4. I would love to see the place when it was full-on 10.

The snow stopped part-way through our skiing and Lone Peak (11,000+ feet) emerged from the clouds as the sun came out. Along the way we saw the most incredible skies in all directions. It reminded me of some of the Adirondack skis I'd seen over New Year's as the stormy weather moved in and out.

Soon, it was really hot on the slopes. It was weird to be skiing in intense sunlight with temperatures at about 50 degrees. I was shelling spare layers and dousing myself in sunscreen. Somehow it didn't see quite right. What was also not quite right was watching the good skiers off in the distance coming off the top of Lone Peak. They were crazy! Or maybe I should say they were obviously very good skiers! To ski that section of the mountain, you had to have an avalanche transponder and sign in and out.

My ankles were killing me by the end of the day. I think it was because my boots fit so poorly. They were the right length and fit ok in the calves, but were too loose around my ankles and feet—I had to support myself in that funny downhill forward-leaning ski position without a lot of help from my boots. But what can you expect from rentals?

I was glad the skiing was much easier than I remembered, but was also not bummed to only be out for a half day. However, there was a conference for me to attend.

Figure 12: Matthew and Sue go downhill with Lone Peak as a backdrop

It was fun to do something different, but gosh, skiing sure is expensive, and it somehow doesn’t seem "right" to be riding the lifts up. To me, it doesn't seem very ecological and it feels like more of a visit to an amusement park more than an outing to the woods. But I can see why it appears to adrenaline junkies more than endurance geeks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Because we chose not to pay the extra $100 to go to the Chairman's banquet at the conference and there were no evening sessions due to this banquet, we had the afternoon and evening off. When my morning sessions wrapped up, we loaded the skis in the car and headed out to explore. The kind woman at Lone Mountain XC ski center had recommended two trails in the very northwest cornerstone of Yellowstone National Park. Neither of us had ever been to Yellowstone, and I'd always wanted to go.

To get to these trails, we didn't have to go through any formal entrance stations—we just jumped on at trailheads off Rt 191 which headed on down to the main West Yellowstone park entrance.

Figure 13: How could you not follow these tracks?

We decided to go up Big Horn trail (starting at about 7500 feet), and then depending on conditions and daylight, head up over Fawn Pass and back down the Fawn Pass trail. Although there was little or no snow on the way there, we had gained just enough elevation to get a few feet of it on the ground at our target trailheads. We happily hopped out of the car and set off. We skied up along a river toward Fawn Pass.

Figure 14: Heading out and up

It was so hot due to the very intense sun and nearly 50 degree temperatures that Matthew threatened "to strip down to his underwear," and although that threat wasn't realized, he got pretty close. I was boiling, too, but was trying to leave on enough layers to hide my otherwise pasty winter self from the sun. I knew I would have gotten scorched.

Figure 15: It was so hot we were almost skiing in shorts

We made the joint decision to go up over Fawn Pass formally near the intersection. Secretly, I knew the moment we stepped out of the car that if we could do a loop instead of an out and back, we would. It's how we are wired whether we always admit it or not! Let's just say I had my light and down jacket with me and plenty of food, but we didn't end up needing them.

The way out and up was very open and next to a stream. Nearly every way we looked, we could see snow capped tree-less mountains, and just about all the vegetation we saw was burned trees. They looked so stark and lifeless against the white snow. In fact, it made the landscape look quite desolate. Reading later, I'm guessing much of the fire damage we saw was from the famous Yellowstone fires of 1988 when a huge portion of the park burned. You could see new trees coming up, and they were probably about the right age.

Figure 16: Matthew along the river on the way out. Note all the dead coniferous trees.

The climb up to Fawn Pass was steady but do-able on our scaled skis. From up top, we had a great view, and we could see what looked like an impending storm. We were hoping it meant more snow at Big Sky, but it turned out to be a lot of threat and no kick. Nonetheless, we didn't take any chances, and we headed back down along Fawn Creek about as fast as we could go. This route was wooded, and we kept a close eye out for bear and elk, but didn't see anything but some of their tracks. Rumor had it the bears were just starting to emerge from their dens, earlier than usual, confused by the consistently warm, spring-like weather of recent weeks.

Figure 17: Getting stormy and surrounded by more dead trees.

Figure 18: Even more dead trees. But you can see the news ones coming up.

We ended up making the loop, about 12 miles, in only four hours. We even had plenty of daylight to spare, but we sure were tired after what was a pretty vigorous ski. We headed back to the condo where we enjoyed making dinner at our usual late hour.

Figure 19: Yellowstone almost didn't seem real at times.

Figure 20: Sue at the end of a long day of skiing

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

After three days of skiing, late nights and early mornings at conference sessions, and no rest days (from exercise) in well over a week, I needed a break. This day, I had morning and late afternoon/early evening sessions, so I did a few hours of non-conference work during the afternoon break and then took a much needed nap. Feeling more energetic, Matthew headed off for an exploratory trip to Bozeman and hooked up with a local to do some ice climbing at the world famous destination, Hyalite canyon.

Probably the most entertaining bit of the day was the conference dinner during which I sat with a couple who'd moved from Williamsburg, VA to Knoxville, TN He was a retired NASA guy and now a professor in nuclear engineer at University of Tennessee. She was a Christian sex therapist. Not just a therapist, but a Christian sex therapist. Also an LPC, she was very interested in Matthew becoming a counselor. I also got not only the full scoop on why pre-marital sex is "bad" according to Christians, but also details on how infrequently most of her client couples have sex. It is a strange world out there!

I have an argumentative nature when it comes to topics like religion, so I was so tempted to offer the speculation that if religions like Christianity weren't so uptight about topics like sex, maybe some of their followers would have fewer issues, but let's just say I kept that thought to myself. After all, why spoil a very delicious dinner with a potentially controversial conversation about religion?

Anyway, apparently, the sex therapy business is good. The woman told me she has no shortage of clients at $95/hour. Hmmm, maybe we are on to a possible new and lucrative career direction for Matthew?


Thursday, March 10, 2005

In the morning, I gave my talk (for those of you techno geeks reading this, it was titled "Evaluation of a Vibration-Powered Wireless Temperature Sensor" and summarized work on a project I'd managed over the past 14 months to develop a sensor prototype per the title). The talk went really well. At least 50 people attended (a relatively large showing), and many of them came into the session just for my talk. I think I was helped by the fact that the work was unique among that presented. Being one of only two or three female presenters in my Track probably didn't hurt either. After the talk, one Joint Strike Fighter program manager guy even said he'd give us more funding, but it was hard to tell how serious he was—I'll have to follow up on that one.

With limited time again between conference sessions, we decided to downhill ski today. It was hard to pass on the convenience of walking from the conference to the condo to change and then walking a bit further to the rental shop and slopes. No time was lost in transportation. Plus after several consecutive days of 50 degree temps, there wasn't tons of snow left anywhere else in the woods nearby. We weren't sure there was a lot left on the slopes either, but what else was there to do? We'd come to Montana to ski and ski we would!

The kind folks of Track 11 (my session was Track 11 titled "Prognostics Health Monitoring") invited us to come ski with them, and we took them up on it. Track 11 is now a well-established track at the conference and seems to draw aerospace and non-aerospace folks (I am the latter) at a conference that is otherwise air and space oriented. I learned that Track 11 is very social and friendly—they not only attend sessions together, but also eat dinner together and ski together. Many of them know each other from years and years of attending the conference, but they are welcoming of newcomers. This year, Track 11 was the most popular, and they had more papers submitted than there were slots to present them.

Chris, a former Brit now living in Ohio, was our Track's guide for the day. We enjoyed talking to him and the others on the lifts on the way up and on breaks on the way skiing down. He was very kind about giving us newbies helpful tips (like "lean forward always—you will not fall, and you will turn easier"). It was our second day skiing, and we did our first blue runs (intermediate level runs). We felt even better about this after someone else told us "green runs here are like blue runs elsewhere." Let's see green runs on day 1, blue runs on day 2…would we have been doing black (most difficult) on day 3? Nah, it seems highly unlikely to me—some of that stuff was sick scary looking!

Figure 21: Track 11 being goofy!

Nevertheless, Chris did talk us into doing a small jump several times on this one run we all liked. It was pretty funny to watch us all get a few inches of air on this baby jump after watching people jump crazy heights while riding the lifts up.

Figure 22: Matthew catching air!

The skiing conditions were pretty grim. Large bare patches of ground had opened up since our outing earlier in the week. There were several times I was about to execute a turn when I realized I had to make an emergency re-route to avoid some rock jutting up through the snow. Some places the snow was so slushy you could barely maneuver, but I still think that was better than ice, and it hurt less than ice when you fell on it. The more experienced skiers called this "sugar." I guess I now know what is meant by the term "spring skiing," but this year, spring came early to Montana.

Figure 23: Bare patches at Big Sky. Those are not shadows. Watch out for rocks, too!

This day I had boots that fit me much better. It was amazing the difference that made. My quads and ankles weren't screaming by the end of our half-day on the slopes. Unfortunately, Matthew had the opposite experience with worse boots on Day 2 than Day 1, so he skipped the last two runs of the day to enjoy a beer instead. Given the well-known tenet that you are more likely to get hurt on the last run of the day, it was probably a smart decision.

Friday, March 11, 2005

We had a big block of time off this day so decided to take a road trip into Yellowstone proper. We couldn't do this at the closer West Yellowstone entrance because it had just closed completely. They'd closed it the day before for spring plowing—it was that "useless" time of year between when they allow oversnow vehicles (like snowmobiles and snow coaches) and cars to drive into the park.

With this limited access, the only open road was a 50 mile paved stretch between the North and Northeast entrances. Getting the closer of the two entrances, the North entrance, required us to drive a long way, first going North, then East, and then back South down Paradise Valley to get around some big mountains that stood between us and the North entrance. Think of driving three sides of a giant square.

I can't tell you how many times during our visit to Yellowstone that the words "that is so weird" came out of our mouths. North Yellowstone was absolutely nothing like what I had expected. After visiting Glacier and Banff National Parks, I was imaging lush, green, coniferous slopes and snow covered peaks. Maybe a few meadows interspersed here and there.

Figure 24: Less than ideal hiking trail conditions in Yellowstone

What we got instead was high desert, completely barren, brown steep hills and some snow covered peaks. Oh yeah, and lots of burned dead trees on previously forested slopes. There were a few sections of forested (with living trees) terrain, but surprisingly little. We wondered at times if we had just stepped onto another plant—it was so different.

Figure 25: Barren Yellowstone. View overlooking a spring in the Mammoth Hot Spring area.

There were plenty of bison roaming and some elk. We didn't see any bears or other animals, but we sure did see lots of elk turds.

Figure 26: Where are all the trees? Note bison in background.

The scenery was indeed dramatic, but I wouldn't say it was all that beautiful (the burnt forests didn't help any!). It was stark enough for Matthew to say, "With all due respect, this is the least attractive National Park I've ever visited." Whether it is better looking at other times of the year we can only wonder for now. People have told us the central and south sections are much prettier, but we will have to wait for another trip to see them.

The North entrance visitor center was about 5 miles into the park in an area called Mammoth. As we drove up to it, I remarked that it looked a lot like older buildings on some of the old military bases I've visited. Sure enough, we soon found out that the buildings once housed the Army soon after the National Park was established in the 1800's. Yellowstone was the first US National Park and is 2.2 million acres in size.

Figure 27: Visitor Center and old Army building at Mammoth

Figure 28: Further into the park and still no trees...

We consulted with the rangers to find out what activities were do-able and learned that we didn’t have a whole lot of options. We were visiting Yellowstone at the worst possible time. The roads weren't open yet to give us access deeper in the park, but there wasn't enough snow on any of the designated ski trails which were now accessible. Hiking trails were hit or miss—some were bone dry while others were deep in mud or soft snow or some combination. We couldn't get to any of the other parts of the park if we wanted.

Figure 29: A view on the way to Lost Lake

While at the visitor center, I got into a conversation with the NPS ranger, who was nice, but missing the big picture. She started telling me how sad it was that most people never or barely get out of their cars. While I agreed, I couldn't help but think of how difficult the NPS makes it for people to do more than drive through at many parks. In Yellowstone's case, the roads to get us to trails we could use were all closed for "spring plowing," but not open to skiing or other travel methods. At our "own" Shenandoah NP, I can't tell you how many times we haven't been able to get to certain parts of the park because they arbitrarily close roads in the winter (even after they open them by plowing them!). I realize some of these "closures" are due to budget cuts, but I can't help but wonder what comes first—people not wanting to access or people not being allowed to access?

Figure 30: Yellowstone looking scrubby

So what we did was go for a short (3 mile) hike up to Lost Lake from the Roosevelt camp near the turn-off for Towers. From the lake, we then headed up a bushwack (well, there weren't really any bushes to whack—only sagebrush) to the top of a big knoll for a good view. It was odd—you could look in any direction and see something different: burnt-out dead forest with snow one way; burnt-out dead forest without snow another; green (live) forest another; sagebrush on open hills another; and plain, seemingly lifeless soil with steep cliffs above the Yellowstone river. And a random collection of snow covered mountains in assorted directions.

Figure 31: "Yellowstone is weird!" We found this apparent Ford graveyard on the way to Lost Lake

Figure 32: Lost lake (sans water)

On our drive back to the entrance from the Lost Lake hike, I noticed steam rising off in the distance. Somehow on the way in we'd missed the thermals located near the visitor center. We stopped and walked all the boardwalks that took us through the thermal areas (at least the ones that weren't closed due to ice). I got the impression that the area is packed with tourists, cars, and buses in the summer based on the size of the parking lots, but we didn't see a soul and had the entire place to ourselves. Since it was after closing time, there weren't even any park people around. It was a deserted Yellowstone, and the thermals only added to our feeling like we were on a totally different planet.

Figure 33: Okay, as you can see in the mid-ground of this photo, there are a few living trees left.

Figure 34: A thermal from up top. Note the steam rising.

The thermals were really interesting. Hot water seeped from the ground and created shelf-like formations, some with pools of heated water, some dry for hundreds of years. The colors of the minerals that formed the pools ranged from white to rust to blue. Steam poured off the pools into the cold air. In some places there was snow, and in some places the thermals had melted it. As we looked off to the distance, we could see steam rising from various places—suggesting other thermals nearby in this area known as Mammoth Hot Springs. It was neat to see some of the thermal/volcanic activity that is so characteristic of Yellowstone. We never did see any geysers, but the ways to access them were closed for the time being.

Figure 35: The thermals – one looking head-on.

Figure 36: More Thermals

Figure 37: Up close and personal with a thermal

As we descended the boardwalks back to the car, the sky turned pink and purple with the sunset. We couldn't see the actual sunset, but saw the reflection of it on the east and north skis. We left the park as the sunset and headed back to Big Sky.

Figure 38: Mountain backdrop for some white thermals, with some snow cover.

Figure 39: Sunset leaving Yellowstone.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The night before we had debated about what we would do with this final day. All conference activities ended last night, so we had the entire day to do as we pleased. Skiing didn't seem like a great option since it was 57 degrees in Bozeman when we'd driven through the previous night, and neither was hiking without going somewhere first to rent snowshoes to deal with the slushy snow in the places it would still be piled up. Downhill skiing was not only too expensive, but we thought the conditions would be appalling given the two additional days of warmth and sun since our last outing.

Figure 40: Matthew on the way to Beehive Basin

The decision made itself when we woke to falling snow. It was dumping snow! We both really wanted to go back-country ski again and this was just the push we needed to try to do it. The fresh snow would be make what otherwise would have been crusty conditions much better. So we figured out the highest place we could go nearby and headed off.

We drove further on the road past Big Sky, passed the final ski area (Moonlight Basin) and continued to the trail head to Beehive Basin. This is a popular local destination for hiking, skiing, and climbing (and unfortunately for really rich people to build million dollar houses that will get toasted in the next local forest fire). We were among the first to arrive at the trailhead and enjoyed fresh snow.

It kept snowing and snowing as we skied higher up the box canyon which ends in giant glacial rock walls. It was snowing so heavily up top, you could only see a light gray of the rock walls along the side. We couldn't see the rock wall along the back of the basin.

We leapfrogged a group of four snowshoers on the way up. They didn't go up as far as we did, but we got back to the car at the same time because we were faster going down on our skis. The group was really nice—giving us local knowledge on the upcoming trail and basin, which was useful considering the crazy, snowy conditions.

Figure 41: Sue and others in the blinding snow

At places up in the basin, the snow must have been at least 4 feet deep. In places where it was still powdery, my pole would sometimes sink in all the way. At others, where it was crusty, it wouldn't go in deeper than the new snow. There was probably 8-12" of new snow up high—it was great fun to ski in it, and it beautifully blanketing everything. I wonder how deep it really was beneath the powder.

Figure 42: Note the depth of the snow up here

The wide canyon let us stay far from the steep walls where any avalanches might occur with the new snow. However, the entire time we were in Gallatin County, the avalanche danger was very low due to the lack of snow and the fact that all the existing snow had frozen up or already avalanched. But we knew that any significant new snow on top of the crust could create some new danger.

Figure 43: Self Portrait at Beehive Basin

Conditions at the basin itself, our highest point, were not far from blizzard, so we didn't stick around for long. The wind was howling and we were careful to keep close sight of each other since with the sheer volume of dumping snow, we didn't have to get separated by much distance to not know where we were relative to each other.

We probably skied in about 3-4 miles. It was all uphill going in and all downhill going out. I think it took us 2 or 3 hours to go in and maybe an hour to come down and out.

We made it back to the car well before dark and headed back to Bozeman. The snow stopped well before we got down as low as Bozeman (where there was no snow at all). Even Big Sky only got 4-5" of new snow. We had definitely gone to the right place to enjoy the last minute present from the weather gods. And it was nice to get at least one day with plenty of fresh snow. We knew that even if we'd gone to the Basin earlier in the week, we wouldn't have had as good of a time—the snow below the latest snow was rather crusty and hard, and skiing on hard crusty snow is no fun at all!

Figure 44: Sure was pretty out there.

In Bozeman, we ate dinner at McKenzie Pizza Company. This is a Montana-based chain, and the pizza we had was delicious. It was super tasty, but not greasy. Bozeman is a one street town, so we walked up and down it a bit, but winter temperatures had clearly returned and we eventually headed back to the hotel to call it a night.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

This morning brought the chance to repack all of our stuff for the flight home. It took some effort to get it all back in the bags with which we traveled out, but eventually we succeeded. The planes all the way home were crowded due to it being the end of spring break, and we realized flying back so late (after midnight arrival in C'ville) was for once a stroke of good fortune. The flight before us heading from Cincinnati to C'ville had gotten cancelled. Due to the end of spring break crowding, none of those poor folks would get to return home until late Monday night.

Conclusion

All in all, the trip was fun. It was exhausting for me to simultaneously attend the conference and also try to play hard, but it was nice that the conference schedule was deliberately set up to accommodate this to some extent.

We met lots of friendly people and enjoyed the chance to return to Montana and see more parts of the country we'd never visited. Both of us thought that if we were ever to move out west Bozeman could be a candidate. Of course, before we do anything like that, we'll have to go back in the summer and try out the local road riding and mountain biking.

Stay tuned for our next trip…tentatively a 2005 summer vacation to somewhere in Central America.

Thanks for reading!

Figure 45: Sunset at Yellowstone