Monday, August 20, 2012

Conditioning hikes, mindfulness and your encouragement

I set a goal recently to complete the 20-mile Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) hike. In terms of day hikes, it's massive. In fact, it's been called the most challenging day hike in the lower 48 states. The hike starts on the desert floor, just outside of Palm Springs, California. From there, the trail climbs unrelentingly more than 10,000 feet over the next 14.5 miles to reach the peak of Mt. San Jacinto. After catching your breath - and enjoying the breathtaking views (on a clear day it's said you can see the Channel Islands) - you have to make your way back down the trail, 4.5 miles, to reach the upper terminal of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway before it closes.

My first SoCal hiking book - will look for more guides once I'm there!
A goal like this would be huge for anyone. I feel it's even huger for me. I'm a larger guy - weighing in at 275  pounds on a good day - and rigorous hiking like this would require a level of physical fitness greater than where I am today. Don't get me wrong - I'm in fairly good shape, and physically I am confident I could handle this hike. But I would have a seriously hard time getting it done during one day's light unless I can become quicker on the trail. For this, I'll need to lose weight as well as do more frequent conditioning walks and hikes.

Climactic extremes make this hike an even greater challenge. Late spring after snow caps melt and late fall, before the first snow falls, offer limited windows of opportunity to do the C2C hike comfortably. The probable weekend for me doing this C2C hike is the last weekend in October - a week after my buddy Khizer runs his first marathon here in Albuquerque.

I'll have to set out on the trail at first light, perhaps a bit before, and I will need to get back to the tram before dusk - if possible. I will obviously carry the proper emergency equipment for night hiking and the possibility of an unexpected overnight stay on the mountain. But really, I should be proactive and focus my efforts over the next two months on shaving off time by shaving off some of this excess weight.

That I need to lose weight is not news to me - I have weight loss goals and have lost a significant amount of weight already just to make even these last six 10-milers I've hiked possible. The extra weight will be remedied in large part by certain portion size and food choice modifications. I am also working on getting back into my former medicine ball and plank habit, which has helped significantly during my fit life journey. But for August and September, I am focusing more than ever on conditioning - preparing and carrying out hikes that will get me ready for the big hike to come.

The book 101 Hikes in Southern California, by Jerry Schad, says conditioning hikes for the C2C hike should "include 5,000 feet or more of elevation gain, plus exposure to elevations of 9,000 feet or more."

Descending from Mt. Taylor Peak on the Gooseberry Spring Trail
So far both of my conditioning hikes have climbed above 9,000 feet - Sandia's La Luz Trail to the crest (10,678 ft. elev.) and Mt. Taylor's Gooseberry Spring Trail to the peak (11,301 ft. elev.) - but neither fits the bill with regard to elevation gain (3,600-ft. and 2,000-ft. gain respectively). My next few conditioning will  be:
  1. Humphrey's Peak, tallest peak in Arizona, San Francisco Peaks (12, 637 ft. elev./3,333 ft. gain)
  2. Sandstone Peak, tallest peak in the Santa Monica mountains (3,111 ft. elev./1,400 ft. gain)
  3. Old Baldy, tallest peak in the San Gabriel mountains  (10,068 ft. elev./2,300 ft. gain)
  4. Old Greyback, SoCal's tallest peak, San Bernardino mountains (11,503 ft. elev./4,000 ft. gain)
  5. The "easy" and "middle" ways to San Jacinto Peak (10,834 ft. elev.), 2,600 ft. elev. gain from Palm Springs and 4,400 ft. gain from Idyllwild)
I will also be doing more conditioning walks throughout the week, as well as working out at the gym and swimming regularly to increase my cardio performance.

To be honest with you, the C2C feels out of reach right now, but I have faith that my hard work and mindfulness I will be ready to do it when the time comes. As always, I appreciate my readers and their encouraging comments, as feedback of all forms helps me to reach higher each time I try something new. Thanks!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lessons Learned on the La Luz Trail

NOTE: This blog post talks about achieving goals, technical and day packs, and riparian ecology in the Transition Zone (among other things). Follow MyFitLife2Day and ManOfMerit for more interesting articles on everything that has to do with "setting up life goals and knocking 'em down".

ALBUQUERQUE - Yesterday I finally conquered the La Luz Trail - the holy grail of Albuquerque hiking and a goal I've held ever since I heard my uncles speak of hiking it more than 30 years ago. If you include the connector trail from the lower tram terminal to its trail head at the mouth of Juan Tabo Canyon, the La Luz hike is a 10-mile, 3,600-foot ascent up the steep western-facing slopes of the Sandia Mountains. It's a great hike for many reasons - not the least of which being that the views are spectacular. Also, it's the one trail on the mountain that you can hike all the way up to the top and not have to hike back down. The trick is, though, it's one hell of an ascent; Physical fitness and preparedness are paramount.

Chock full of optimism in the foothills as my 280 lbs sets out to tackle La Luz

A cool chick friend of mine had set up this hike and invited a few friends. I was glad to have someone to do this hike with me - honestly, I've been intimidated by the thought of doing this hike alone ever since I challenged myself with the thought of it two years ago. Besides, because I'm still struggling with obesity, being nearly 100 pounds overweight, I figured going it alone was probably not a good idea. Still, having never hiked in a group and not wanting the pressure of keeping up with the pack, I had a bit of trepidation. My friend assured me, though, that someone would stick with me throughout the hike, and fortunately, that was the case.

The cool chick and her cool friend enjoy the Upper Sonoran Zone view
In our group were two guys in their 60s, three women, a toddler, and me. That's right! One chick actually brought along her toddler and lugged him all the way along the trail in one of those Kelty backpack baby carriers. Besides this being very cool, it was also encouraging. This and the overall diversity of the group made me a lot more at ease and confident that I would be successful on this much-anticipated trek.


We parked at the lower Sandia Peak Tram terminal and set out on the Tramway foothills connector trail around 8 a.m. It took us about an hour to reach the actual bottom of the La Luz Trail. When we arrived close to the lower switchbacks, one of the guys in our group who's an avid hiker and knows many of the mountain's secrets, told us of the more scenic route along the Old La Luz Trail. Apparently, the forest service re-routed the old trail when it became so popular that it was endangering the delicate plant life of the canyon. The new trail has dozens of tedious switchbacks while the old trail is much more challenging and should only be taken by experienced hikers who are mindful to be minimally invasive to the riparian ecology.

Hiking through the riparian Transition Zone along Old La Luz Trail
We decided to take the old trail. This was a thrilling choice - as it was a way to avoid the crowds that have become common on La Luz. And it gave a chance to truly experience the amazing changes in plant life as we made our way from high desert in the Upper Sonoran Zone (full of juniper and piƱon trees, prickly pear cactus, and cholla cactus, according to Wikipedia), through the alpine Transition Zone (with ponderosa pines, blue spruce trees, and assorted wildflowers), and into the Canadian Zone (with quaking aspen and assorted pines). 


Locals call this boulder field we avoided the scree slope switchbacks
Along with the immense beauty of the old trail came a much more intense hiking experience than I was expecting. Still, I was prepared. I've been on many steep hikes to date - not the least of which being the White Cross and White Dot trails on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire and the CCC Trail here on the eastern slopes of Sandia's south mountain - so I know the techniques of hiking on 20 to 30 percent grade. But the focus on technique kept me from stopping frequently for water breaks. Plus, the pack I was using was too large for the hike and was not convenient for the frequent stops on steep inclines that would have been necessary for proper hydration. As a result, I had only drunk three liters of water by the time we reached the top - a fact I would pay for later that evening.

Duck Rock and the scree slopes, home of 20-something switchbacks
I continued to hike hard, in my good old spurt and rest fashion, and after just more than seven hours I reached the top of the tram. I'm so thankful I took the alternate old trail on my first trip up La Luz - the multitude of switchbacks in the shade-less scree slope that plagues most hikers just over half the way to the top would have ruined the hike for me. Thanks, Old Timer!


I'd rather eat this Ponderosa Pine tree bark than food at High Finance again
I walked in to the  High Finance Restaurant, which reminded me a lot of the top of one of those globally important towers we all try not to forget (but without the red carpet). As a group, we celebrated at a table near the windows of the restaurant at the top of the tram, from a spot where you can see - on the observation decks, posing in successive posed pics backed by the remarkable view of downtown, the volcanoes, and everything west of the Rio Grand Rift, all the way to Mount Taylor - the non-hiker folks who could only fathom taking the tram both ways, not making it to 10,600 feet on foot.

Almost there - top of the tram in view!
We then made our separate ways back home, and in all of the excitement I failed to do my customary post-hike stretching. And I still was too distracted to remember to drink the rest of the water I had packed, which I had calculated to the letter of all sensible recommendations and so knew I should be drinking. Later that evening while I was resting in bed I learned the price I would have to pay for not drinking enough water all day - my inner thighs went into spasm, and just as I was at the height of pain I began to get intense chills. This was the result of intense muscle exertion without sufficient hydration. With a buddy's help, I treated it by taking some ibuprofen, chugging water, jumping into a hot shower and doing some stretches.


Not the right pack for the job - Brian with the Gregory Z40 on the La Luz Trail
The pack I used on the trail is the Gregory Z40, a technical pack. I had chosen it because I was trying to save money in the long run by buying a pack that would fit multiple needs - 10-20 mile day hikes and a little light wilderness camping. The 40-ounce pack fit the bill perfectly, in theory. But in reality, the technical pack proved to be too big, the wrong tool for the job, as some previous old-time in my life might have said. So I took the Z40 back today and opted for the CamelBak Explorer Alpine Hydration Pack. It's smaller, but it's not so big that I won't fill it for a day hike, so it will be easier to adjust perfectly to my stride.

I'll take the CamelBak for a test run on Tuesday, with a hike of the Crest and La Luz connectors to the tram and Crest House, including the brief jaunt to the CCC Cabin, a place for celebrating with a shout as if you're on top of the world. Two buddies will join me on the hike, one of whom I'll be introducing to the joy of hiking with that very outting. Fun will be had by all! And pics will follow.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Seeking mindfulness along the La Luz Trail

Mindfulness is a concept that has helped me over the past few years to accomplish things I previously thought were impossible. According to Buddhist writer James Baraz:
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”
At the top of the La Luz Trail, near the upper tram terminal
I have applied this concept to eating, though not as consistently as I would like to, and to exercise. Tomorrow, I'm going to challenge myself to apply it to hiking.

I have been working toward a goal now for a couple of years that I am planning on accomplishing tomorrow - hiking the La Luz Trail in Albuquerque, NM. The path from the lower tram terminal to the upper tram terminal is about 10 miles long with an elevation gain of well over 3,500 feet, so it will take much of the day to complete. I'm excited about this opportunity, too, because I feel physically and mentally prepared, and I will be hiking with friends.

The last time I hiked with friends, I ran into some trouble because of my pacing. I tend to hike quickly in short energetic bursts and then take frequent breaks when I come winded. This can be annoying to more experienced hikers who pace themselves appropriately to be able to continue on with the ascent with fewer breaks. Tomorrow, I will apply the principles of mindfulness to modify my hiking style so I can hike more in rhythm with the other hikers but also so I, too, can enjoy a more zen-like experience.

What does this mean? Well, I'll hike more slowly and methodically, focusing on the rhythm of my steps and how my pace influences my breathing and the beating of my heart. I am going to listen to my internal sounds and patterns as well as those I hear outside, along the trail, above, below and all around me. And as long as I know that I am well, I am going to accept temporary discomfort rather than wishing to change it by taking so many breaks when they really are not needed.

I'm excited about trying out a new technique to hiking. I've improved so much over the past year, but I still have so much farther to go if I'm going to accomplish the goal of doing the 20-mile Cactus-to-Clouds hike in Palm Springs within the next year. Actually, I shouldn't say if, because I'm confident mindfulness will help!