Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dog Mountain

Yesterday afternoon I sat in a field of yellow balsamroot flowers with a large crow/raven/blackbird creature surfing the thermals less than 6 feet overhead. In front of me the primarily yellow field of wildflowers with bits of red Indian Paintbrush and unknown purples mixed in sloped gradually then steeply to the trail I just huffed myself up from. Beyond was a view of the Columbia River Gorge with the river flexing like a bicep, the slender forearm bent slightly under 90 degrees. I looked straight down at an unknown peak rising on my side of the river near the Columbia's elbow. My heavy leather hiking boots were kicked off to the side as I munched on snacks and my 2-year old mutt alternated between chasing the bird overhead and insistently barking at me to throw him a stick. Pausing only briefly to snarf up his mid-hike snack before returning to his antics, to the amusement of the other 3-4 mid-point hikers taking a break on the meadow nearby. 

I massaged my numb and tingling feet and inhaled long, relaxed breaths as my heart rate settled. I added a second long-sleeve shirt to guard against the wind and smiled. I smiled deep satisfaction into my heart, my lungs, my head, my soul. I made it to the top. A 2,800 foot elevation gain in about 3.5 miles. It took me three hours but I made it thanks to an interesting audiobook broadcast via headphones from my phone and a mantra of "slow and steady" each time I found myself charging forward too fast. I allowed myself brief rests when my breathing was too shallow and my heart rate too fast. Every hour I sat for a few minutes, snacked and released my feet from my boots for a brief reprieve. My dog Jethro ran up and down the trail, snuffled through leaves and moss and brambles and got better and better at heeding my "off trail" commands when descending hikers approached. For most of the hike I played leap frog with two other small groups but somewhere not too far from the summit I lost them and despite my 20-minute rest at the top I never saw them again since I took the looped path back to the parking lot where I saw  both of their cars were still in the parking lot when I returned. My competitive pride beamed. Maybe I will be ready for Mt. Hood.

A week ago I participated in a conference call with the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer organizers to get information on preparation, training, gear, etc. for the fast approaching Mt. Hood climb. I was overwhelmed. I hadn't hiked or really managed to exercise much in the two previous weeks since I was in New York City and then had friends in town. I feared I was running out of time. Hell, I shouldn't use past tense, I still fear I am running out of time. The list of gear, the challenge of raising the rest of my donation dollars, the cost of a room . . . I could go on but I don't want to succumb to another panic. 

My plan was to hike Dog Mountain on Tuesday. I couldn't do it. Here on Thursday, I can't tell you why. On the call Dog Mountain was named as the best training hike for Hood climbers in the Portland area. It was steep, good elevation gain and close. Monday I just didn't prepare so Tuesday I slept late and procrastinated another day to give me a chance to prep. 

The trailhead is about a 45 minute drive along I-84 east of Portland and into the Gorge, a scenic drive across the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods into Washington with a hunt for a trailhead parking lot. I was still afraid Wednesday standing in the parking lot unloading my dog, me, my pack and wrangling my trekking poles. I hadn't used my trekking poles in a few years so it took some fiddling for me to remember how to adjust the two periscoping extensions to the right height and to get them even. So grateful I broke them out for this trek, they helped me drag my weary self to the top and saved my wobbly knees on the descent.

Near the top of Dog Mountain I wasn't the only one admiring the field of wild flowers, Jethro was pouncing through the fields with his ears flapping in the brisk wind. At one point while I was standing to the side of the trail to make way for some descending trekkers, Jethro decided to take a joyous roll on his back among the flowers. On his back, head pointed in my direction,  gravity kicked in and dragged him back to the dusty, rocky trail at my feet while he frantically wiggled and squirmed in a failed attempt to right himself. Across the Gorge to the south Mt. Hood slowly rose as a tiny white triangle that grew the closer I got to the top of Dog Mountain. To the north, Mt Saint Helens, with its cratered summit, loomed under a clear blue sky marked with a few wispy clouds. 

There were two trails to the summit, one marked as "more difficult", the other "less difficult". My pre-hike googling revealed it was best to tackle the often straight-up more difficult trail and come down on the less difficult, more meandering but still rough trail. It was a good plan. My body was definitely tired and weary on the descent and longer switchbacks were preferable to long steeps that could easily turn into a long slide down. But the alternate trail was practically empty and there were a few times I feared I'd made some terrible mistake and taken the wrong trail. There were more rock fields to pick my over and around on the descent and I think it was a significant accomplishment that I only fell once when my trekking poles and Jethro nearly got entangled. I arrived back at the parking lot with little ceremony and after emptying the last of my water bottle into a bowl Jethro lapped up, I stripped off my boots and socks in favor of Birkenstocks and drove home. 

I'm sure my nerves will flair up again between now and June 14th but I still have three more weeks of training to go and I'm feeling like I might just be able to pull this off.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I am currently training and fundraising for the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In less than four weeks I will be embarking on a climb to summit Mt. Hood on a survivor climb. You can read more about the cause, the climb and why I'm doing it here.

I am just $500 shy of reaching the $3,000 fundraising goal and with barely over three weeks left to train for the ascent, I am excited, thrilled, nervous and fearful. I wrote the below post on my fundraising page to purge some of these fears and excuses so I can focus on the positive side of training.

I little over a year ago, while I was still living in NYC, a friend of mine convinced me to go to the climbing gym with him. We both did a significant amount of rock climbing in our college to mid-20s days but hadn't been much at all in recent memory. Once a week we met at the subway and on the train ride to Brooklyn we settled into a ritual of listing our excuses for the evening. These excuses ranged from a paper cut to a cold to peripheral neuropathy and ancient climbing shoes (our joke was that my shoes were older than many of the kids at the gym). It was kind of therapeutic to get it all out in the open at the beginning so we didn't get whiny once we were there.
In that spirit, I am going to make a list of all the excuses I have for the upcoming climb of Mt Hood now so they are out of my head and in the open so I can just focus on my training from here on out. Here goes:

  1. I'm out of shape and it doesn't seem to make much difference how much I exercise or what type of exercise I do, I feel stagnant in my progress. I blame medications, depression, laziness, fear and a metabolism bogged down by three years' worth of cancer fighting, body debilitating toxins.
  2. Peripheral neuropathy. This is a mysterious side effect to chemotherapy that has virtually no cure. I've been given physical therapy exercises that help. I've been advised to wear compression socks and wait for time to heal it. But it isn't going away. What is it? Peripheral neuropathy is a result of nerve damage from chemotherapy which causes weakness, numbness and pain, usually in the hands and feet. For me it is primarily in my feet but can manifest in my hands as well. It starts as a slight tingling in my right toes - for some reason the middle toes get it first. If I ignore it and keep hiking (when it usually kicks in) it will spread through my toes, into the ball of my foot and at some point spread across my left foot as well. It is a hot tingling sensation that precedes numbness similar to when your foot "falls asleep" but it doesn't spring back to wakefulness as easily. The best thing to do is stop, take off my shoes and socks and flex and point and massage the feet back to life. I don't always do this since it generally flares up near the end of a hike and I try to just push to the end. Somehow this makes me feet feel heavier and clumsier so I get a bit stumbley. Bottom line, it sucks. But the more I hike the longer I can go before it flares. 
  3. Pleurisy. In early March I started experiencing chest pain I couldn't pin to an injury or any specific cause. After an ultrasound to rule out cancer recurrence, a bone scan and xray to rule out bone metastasis or a broken rib, the doctors all shrugged their shoulders and said it was likely pleurisy. Pleurisy is swelling of the thin layers of tissue (pleura) covering the lungs and the chest wall. It started on the right side but moved to the left where I still feel some twinges of it. Again, no real treatment available, just time heals situation.
  4. Speaking of my lungs, I have asthma. Well controlled, rare flareups but spring brings allergies which means increased diligence with my asthma. Spring hiking means slightly impaired lungs. Never sure if I get out of breath quickly due to being out of shape, pleurisy or allergies
  5. Weight gain. Before I was diagnosed with cancer my image of a survivor was someone shrunken from all the drugs and puking. I had no idea that some cancers (or more accurately, chemotherapy and hormone therapy regimens) give the added gift of extra pounds. Lots of them that don't go away. Add depression (another side effect) and anti-depressant medications and the whole metabolism system get thrown off. It can sometimes feel that the go to combo of diet and exercise have virtually no impact. Aside from vanity, the challenge here is that it impacts balance, strength (it feels far more difficult to add muscle) and it is frustrating to not fit into clothing and gear that was upsized just one season ago. 
  6. Fatigue. This is more than just being tired and it is not being lazy. It is an inability to be perked up by sleep or caffeine, it is an overwhelming feeling of tiredness or exhaustion that feels like gravity is pulling extra hard on your body. I've been working on this for over two years and while time has helped, finding the right balance of medication has been the biggest boost along with implementing pacing and prioritizing strategies to increase my endurance.
  7. I'm terrible at pacing myself. Naturally, I am a charge forward type of person. At the bottom of a hill I am the one who will charge up. Slow and steady has never come easy to me. Given all of the above, I have to work more diligently at setting a slow and steady pace for myself and sticking with it.
  8. Failure. Over the last three years I have had to quit, alter, adapt, delay and completely change plans and goal both short and long term in every aspect of my life. It doesn't get easier the more I have to do it. Sometimes it just feels inevitable. Pushing past a fear of defeat, fear of failure, fear of coming up short is one of the hardest things I face each day. But I know if I stop trying then the fear has one. I'm sure there is a great quote or saying out there somewhere that more artfully states that it is better to try and fail than to not try at all . . . but I will leave it at that.

I'm sure I could go on and on listing reasons why I should not or maybe cannot climb Mt Hood in a few weeks. But I will stop because I have made the decision to climb because it is a cause I believe in and despite all my excuses, I know this is something that is achievable no matter my fears.

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