Pawnee Revisited and Reversed (plus almond-cranberry trail bars)


Life is full of contradictions. In the Boulder area, this is  especially so when it comes to health and fitness. On any given day, you get Buddhists driving Hummers and locavores sipping imported coffees. You manage to feel like a slacker when elsewhere your  race and activity agenda is still regarded as crazy and extreme.

I'm not trying to be preachy or moralistic. I'm not sure there really is much point to this musing at all, in fact. I know I definitely contribute to what could be called hypocrisy, or more generously described irony;  to be really fun and whimsical, we could just think oxymoron.  Today, the real relevance is, this is where my mindset is lately. In spite of a bunch of 14ers and solid biking, swimming and running this summer, I've been feeling a little bit like a slacker. It's the first year in five that I haven't done at least a 1/2 ironman distance tri. We did a couple of sprints and Olympic, and a bunch of winter snowshoe races and duathlon nationals before that, but in this corner of the world, it kind of feels like peanuts unless you're graced with the talent to go really, really, really fast.
Although I've always had a deep aversion to that "left-out" feeling, and yes I have felt a little "left out" of the race scene this summer, I don't feel any pining or regret. We have pacing at Leadville coming up, a marathon in December, and some little events to enjoy along the way, plus a tentative plan for another iron-distance tri next fall.  I'm not feeling unmotivated. I'm just not feeling motivated to race much just now.
Besides, there's something so very satisfying about giving in to the yearning for the mountains. You can call it escapism, but it's more than that. It's pure freedom, and brings about this sound but quiet sense of wholeness, a stillness and confidence in being that is uniquely yours. That's something I couldn't wait to experience again when we decided to take on the Pawnee-Buchanan loop a second time, approximately 27 miles with roughly 7,ooo feet of elevation gain in Indian Peaks Wilderness, this weekend.
Last year, we ran-hiked Pawnee-Buchanan with our Rim to Rim to Rim crew as part of a buildup for that major goal. Then, Dave and I were also training for the Pigman 1/2 ironman, and we were feeling pretty darn fit. This time, almost a year on, we had no looming race goals, except for pacing--not racing--at the Leadville 100 in a few weeks. We felt less confidence in overall fitness but more specifically prepared in a way, having faced wild, tough conditions the last time (it could only be easier) and with a bunch of recent 14ers under our belts.
Last year, we faced Pawnee Pass first, wisely choosing to get the hardest part out of the way first. That was a critical choice, as the pass was snow covered and embattled by gale-force winds. I had my first, and so far only, experience of near hypothermia accompanied by memory loss on that descent. This year, looking ahead to dry, sun-bathed peaks, we took on the loop counter-clockwise, starting with Buchanan and saving Pawnee Pass for last. The beauty of tackling the loop in this direction meant that the final ascent gave way to a nicely straightforward, 5 mile descent home to the car park, as opposed to a 9 mile, rolling slog complete with a couple of possibly tricky river crossings.
We arrived at the Long Lake Trail Head at about 6am, where we met Dave S (who was run-hiking with us), and Mike and Doug, who were hiking the whole way. It was pure coincidence that they had been planning on doing the loop the same day we were, and good fortune that we found out about each other's mutual plans (thank you, Facebook--one of your better attributes, facilitating these kind of connections). To our surprise, we ran into Derek at the trailhead, too, getting ready to climb a few peaks with a friend. Later, I learned our friend James was backpacking the route, counter-clockwise as well, but he started 15 minute or so after us. All in all, I've decided there were wonderfully mischievous forces at work willing this day to happen.
We all walked together to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead to start up the steadily steep, but non-technical climb up Buchanan Pass. The first part is fairly wooded for a bit, which makes for a nice, serene start. Shortly after, the trail opened up, and we got an amazing view of a low sea of cloud below us. Driving up Left Hand Canyon, we were enveloped in such thick fog we worried that we'd be stuck in the rain. Once we reached 8,000 or so feet, there wasn't even a fine mist to be concerned over.
Ascending Buchanan, sharp, clear memories presented themselves in contrast to last year. There was the rock wall we all sat in protected warmth eating sandwiches. Just yards away, around a bend, was the pitiful rock pile where Artie and I huddled against the fierce winds, oblivious to the calm and comfort where the others waited a few steps away.  I thought about how many movie plots I'd enjoyed and forgotten, compared with the nameless sensations of experiencing the mountains that came bounding back with the scent of pine, and the brightness of wildflowers.
This loop has a bit of everything you could want from a day of exploring the mountains, including absolutely splendid views of the Divide. The beautiful Cascade Creek section has several waterfalls. At one, a perfect picnic spot with a rock "table" right under the falls, we replenished our water stores, filling our bottles and squeezing with both hands to force through the filtration system and into our pack bladders. This took about 15 minutes, the longest stop in the journey.
After Cascade Creek, we enjoyed some nicely runnable forest trail and a few odd glimpses of the staunchly impressive, jagged peaks of Lone Eagle, Pawnee and other mountain ridges. This was great for awhile, but then we started to become a little impatient for the lake. Our legs were starting to show signs of deadening, and we wanted to get to the day's big climb, show it who's boss, and get down. At least, that was the case for me. Dave was feeling great, and seemed to be floating ahead, with painstaking periods of waiting for Dave S. and I to catch up.
Dave had warned me beforehand, when we first looked at Pawnee, we wouldn't see a trail, but it would be there. In other words, don't freak out. He was right--I didn't see the trail, but it was there, and thanks to the warning, I didn't freak out. It's just amazing what the mind can do in getting you powering through challenges with a little preparation. I absolutely love the feeling I've grown to count on, when something in the mind clicks, either telling you something simply has to get done and there's no way around it (and so it does), or in accepting pain (short-term) just because the pain is familiar.
Ascending Pawnee this direction was oh so much better than descending it last spite of the memory loss I'd experienced that previous occasion, I know that much for sure. Mostly it was better because there was no snow, or raging head winds, but even without those factors I could appreciate the strength of the pass. The trail is rife with loose rock and switchbacks, and it's easy to lose sight of, yet somehow  it reappears just in time for the next step. We all three nearly lost our hats nearing the top, as swirling winds seem to be a staple there regardless of the day and weather.
On the way down from Pawnee, we were treated to the most stunning views of Lake Isabelle and Long Lake. As we started to get really fatigued, aching for the run to be done, Dave S. and I started noting with glee the increasing traffic and the decreases in preparedness of trail-goers. Kids, good sign. Hand-held store-bought water bottle, great sign. Flip-flops, can't get much better than that.
Last year, facing far more difficult conditions, getting lost at Buchanan Creek, and stopping longer and more frequently, it was a near 12-hour day and 28 miles according to our respective Garmins. This year, with better weather, no getting lost, and fewer, shorter stops, we figured we'd beat that time by hours, but the day was actually 11 hours out on the trail, 27.5 miles. My Garmin claims moving time was only 8:38, but it doesn't seem realistic our cumulative stops and pauses could have been close to 2 1/2 hours, so I really don't know...all I need to know, however, is that this is one gorgeous, wonderfully challenging, worthwhile loop, and there's no doubt we'll do it again, next year.

OK, here's the part where I do feel the hypocrite, a little, because despite being passionate and obsessive about natural, homemade foods, I still enjoy product in training, quite a lot.  And this being a food blog, I feel the need to record the calories I did consume and where they came from, so here you go.
Fuel consumed in 11 hours (following cold oatmeal and berry breakfast in car) :
 Approximately 60 ounces of Cytomax/Carbo pro mix--400 calories
1 Garmin-style boiled potato--approximately 200 calories
peanut trail bar squares and 1 almond trail bar square (see recipe below)--approximately 125 calories each
1 cool mint chocolate Clif bar--240calories
1 packet raspberry Power Bar Energy Blasts--190 calories
1 jet blackberry Gu--100 calories
3 raspberry glucose tablets--50 calories each
1 vanilla Honey Stinger waffle--160 calories (actually eaten in the car on the way home)
Total for excursion: 1,815 calories
5-minute almond-cranberry trail bars
  • 1 cup raw or roasted almonds
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1/3 cup oats
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened dried flaked coconut (*optional)
  • 1 cup unsweetened dried cranberries
  • a couple of caco nibs (*optional)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
**If you can't tolerate oats,  or would prefer, you can leave them out!
  1. Grind all ingredients, except for the honey, in a food processor until fairly fine but having some texture (not the consistency of peanut butter).
  2. Add honey and process just long enough for it to blend in.
  3. Press into a square about 3/4-inch thick on a plate or square pan and refrigerate for about an hour or more.
  4. Cut into 2-inch squares.