Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shattered Sigil short story "A Game of Mages" now available

Only six more days until I leave Boulder for 9 months in New Zealand, and holy hell do I still have a mountain of tasks to accomplish! Yet I just had to take a break to share some cool writing-related news. You might remember I wrote a Lizaveta story for Grimdark Magazine's Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, which was funded through Kickstarter last year. I'm delighted to say the anthology is complete! Backers already have their ebooks, and print editions are in the process of shipping. If you missed out on the kickstarter, the ebook is currently available to buy on Amazon, and you can preorder the beautiful illustrated print edition, which releases to the public on June 16. This book contains the first new fiction of mine to come out since Labyrinth of Flame, so I'm pretty excited!

I just read the ebook last week, so I can confirm the anthology has some great stories. Not only did I enjoy the insight into antagonists from series familiar to me (Teresa Frohock's Los Nefilim, Mazarkis Williams's Tower and Knife, Janny Wurts's Wars of Light and Shadow, Jeff Salyards's Bloodsounder's Arc, Bradley Beaulieu's Song of the Shattered Sands), I found some new-to-me authors whose work intrigued me, which is always lovely. (Especially when I'm about to do some marathon plane flights. Time to load up that Kindle!)

Anyway, to celebrate the anthology's release, I thought I'd share a little excerpt from my story, "A Game of Mages". This snippet is from a scene partway through the story, and takes place about ten years before The Whitefire Crossing. You'll see a familiar face...

Lizaveta stood beside the warded window of her study, gripping the jeweled silver band of a message charm. Outside, the sun slowly sank behind the serrated ridgeline of the Whitefire Mountains. Ninavel’s soaring white stone towers stood out sharp against a sky ablaze with crimson and orange.

The sunset’s beauty did little to assuage Lizaveta’s frustration.

Three years. Three long years, and no spell she and Ruslan cast revealed the least trace of Simon. That surely meant Simon remained in Alathia, concealed by the border wards, but the spies she sent to search Alathian cities and countryside had no better luck.

Ruslan was content to lie in wait and train his akhelyshen. Lizaveta was not.

She frowned at the message charm. She detested the need to depend on nathahlen spies, who were irritatingly limited and fallible. Before ciphered missives could be charm-sent to Ninavel, they had to be couriered across the border, a laborious process subject to all manner of delays. The message she expected today was already late. Perhaps it would only be another litany of failure, but she had particular hopes for this spy, more determined and methodical than most. His last message had said he intended to hunt deep into Alathia’s rugged northern wildlands, after discovering in some crude little village that two of the area’s most experienced trappers had never returned from a scouting trip. Lizaveta knew the trappers’ disappearance was probably the result of the wild’s many natural perils, rather than murder by a fugitive akheli intent on remaining hidden, yet she could not help but hope...

A tentative young voice spoke. “Khanum Liza?”

Kiran stood in the study’s arched doorway. His small face and hands were scrubbed to alabaster perfection, though chalk smudges and magefire burns still marred his clothes.

“What is it, little one?” She had to admit that so far he’d proved a better akhelysh to Ruslan than she imagined. That was in no small part thanks to Ruslan’s scrupulous adherence to Lizaveta’s advice in preparing Kiran’s relationship with Mikail. Once introduced, the boys had quickly settled into the ideal pattern to mold Kiran’s character: Mikail fiercely protective of his younger mage-brother, and Kiran idolizing him in return, doing his utmost to follow Mikail’s lead in their training.

Kiran bowed low. “I did well with my spell designs today, so Ruslan said I might ask you for a story.”

At first, she had been a touch exasperated that Ruslan kept finding excuses for the children to interact with her. Yet his desire for them to win her love had been so evident, she had not the heart to deny him. Besides, she found the boys more entertaining than expected. Kiran, shyly adoring and endlessly curious, listened rapt to tales of her travels and shared her appreciation for nature’s myriad wonders. Even stiff, serious Mikail begged her to share stories of legendary mage-battles and cuddled up to her with kittenish eagerness when she offered affection. The boys worshiped and feared Ruslan in equal measure, as they should. But since Lizaveta had no need to worry over their training or mete out punishments for their mistakes, her, they simply loved.

“Not tonight,” she said gently to Kiran, and showed him the message charm. “I am waiting for news of some importance. Tomorrow, perhaps.”

“If you’re too busy for a story, might I at least read the star book again?” Kiran peered up at her, his blue eyes wide and winsome.

She relented. “You may come in and read, so long as you are quiet.”

“I’ll be so quiet you won’t even notice me,” he promised, tiptoeing for the shelves lining the study’s marble walls. As he passed her, he paused and said in a rush, “I hope the news you wait for is good. So you won’t have to worry anymore.”

His sensitivity to her mood was a sign of the empathy she still feared would cause trouble in years to come. Akheli needed steel in their souls, not kindness. But that was Ruslan’s problem and not hers.

Unlike Simon. Lizaveta ran a finger over the jeweled band, willing her spy to hurry up and send his report. “My worries are not yours, little one. Read if you wish, but no more talking.”

Kiran made straight for the “star book”—a treatise she had written on the movements and nature of celestial objects. The treatise had been born of his eager questions when she first showed him the patterns of the stars. What is the sky made of? Are the stars magelights? Can you cast to bring one down for me to see? 

She did not need polished lenses such as the scholars of the great cities of eastern Arkennland used to magnify and study the sky. She cast with all the power of the confluence to scry the distant stars, and discovered to her wonder their immense size and the improbable distances between them. Nor were those distances wholly empty. Globes of rock and gas circled the stars, though none she had yet scried were rich with magic and life like the world beneath her feet. Countless smaller chunks of sky-stone hurtled through the silent darkness like shrapnel from some immense concussion.

She wrote the treatise to record her findings for her own future use—and because Kiran was still too young and untrained to cast spells that would let him experience such wonders directly. But oh, how he loved to read of them. Already, he had settled into a cushioned chair, clutching the slender leather-bound volume like he held the most precious of treasures.

 The glory of the sunset outside faded. Magelights glimmered and sparkled like a rainbow of gemstones in Ninavel’s twilit towers. Finally, finally, the message charm warmed in her hand, signaling the spy’s missive had come.

Lizaveta sent an eager spark of her ikilhia into the charm to trigger the waiting message. A vision of hastily scrawled words appeared in her mind’s eye: The man you seek is living amid ruins in the Greenward Hills. I know not what he does in the ruins. I did not dare get close enough for him to discover me. He has been there long enough to build a cabin, and he shows no sign of leaving. I believe no other shadow man has yet located him.

Lizaveta sucked in a sharp, delighted breath. Kiran looked up from the star treatise, the azure blaze of his ikilhia flaring with curiosity, but she ignored his unspoken questions.

Simon found, at last!


Those of you who backed my Labyrinth of Flame kickstarter might be wondering, "Hey, what about the short stories for us?" Fear not, friends! One short story is complete and will be available to all in the near future. The Cara novella The White Serpent still needs a bit more work, but once I get to New Zealand, I should have the time I need to finish not only the novella but the Ruslan story and Lena story I have in progress.

Now back to packing (and panicking over packing)...

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A New Adventure

I see it's been 4 months since my last post, which must be a new record for silence on this blog. Part of that is me pulling back from the internet--or trying to, anyway. I've found that reading a constant deluge of terrible news pushes me toward despair and gets in the way of my motivation to act. (As Matt Ford said on Twitter, "It's less of a news cycle these days and more of that BSG episode where the Cylons attack every 33 minutes.") I still want to stay informed, but I find it helps tremendously to limit my time online, fact-check all sources, and focus more on what I can do rather than stewing over what I can't (the 5calls website has been great for this).

But that's not my only reason for silence, and my other reasons are much more positive. Not only have I been doing a lot more writing, but I've been prepping for a big new adventure: in June, we're moving to New Zealand for 9 months.

Yep, New Zealand, and no, it's not all because of Trump. My husband is Australian; he moved to Colorado for my sake in 1998, about a year after we'd first met and fallen in love. For nearly twenty years, he's been far from his family, and he's missed them terribly. Yet we both love the mountains and all the skiing and climbing and wilderness fun Colorado has to offer, not to mention (in my case) the excellent jobs in the space industry. So here we stayed.

Yet we always had the thought of, "Well, maybe one day we'll move closer to Sydney." Especially after we spent a glorious but all too short few days tramping and caving and kayaking in New Zealand back in 2006. When my husband told me that Australia and New Zealand have reciprocal residency, so that Australian citizens can work and live in New Zealand without need for a visa, I told my husband half-jokingly that I'd move to the South Island any time he asked. I mean, just look at these mountains:

Stunning view from the Routeburn Track
Robert and I near Harris Saddle
Oh yes, I'd like to climb that one
View from the road to Milford Sound
Not to mention the kayaking and canyoning:

Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
Abseiling (rappelling) down a waterfall in Sleeping God Canyon
On our short trip in 2006 we saw only the tiniest fraction of all New Zealand has to offer. I knew I wanted to return some day and spend a lot more time exploring all that incredible scenic beauty. But I filed away a nice long stay as a "bucket list" item: something I hoped to do sometime in my life, but who knew when. After our son was born and grew old enough that traveling with him wasn't a nightmare, we talked about maybe spending a year in Australia or New Zealand, but for a long time the idea of heading overseas stayed more a fantasy than a serious plan. The logistics seemed so daunting.

But then last summer my husband got a remote-working job. And then came November's election, and January's inauguration. Suddenly the world seemed in a much more fragile state. Maybe there wouldn't be a someday waiting in the future. Rather than putting off our dreams, we should act on them now.

So that's what we've done. I asked my company for permission to switch down to as-needed part time status and do incidental remote work for 9 months. Because my company is awesome, they've not only granted me permission but been tremendously supportive. (Perhaps because everyone there is hoping to visit us!) Our plan is to move to the Wanaka area on the South Island of New Zealand for that sabbatical period.

Wanaka is a town next to the Southern Alps, right on a beautiful lake and close to Mt. Aspiring National Park and New Zealand's steepest ski resort (Treble Cone). The Queenstown airport is only about an hour's drive away, so we can easily fly over to Sydney on school holidays to spend time with my husband's family. (Our son will be going to school in NZ while we're there. He's particularly looking forward to the local school's ski program.)

I can't even tell you how excited I am about this. Exploring new mountains and canyons, skiing new slopes, going on family adventures, spending more time with our Aussie relatives...hooray!!! Plus I'll get to write a lot more since I'll be working a lot less: win all around. (Even for you, reader! Once we're in NZ, I promise to share many beautiful pictures.)

But just because I'll be enjoying myself overseas doesn't mean I'll bail on what's going on back home. I'm hoping my time in NZ will give me fresh energy to fight for a better future. I'll certainly still be donating money and voting and writing emails. The more I see of the world's beauty, the more determined I am to help preserve it and ensure we all survive to enjoy it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ConFusion Schedule

My one convention of the year so far (and likely my only con this year) is coming up this weekend. I'm heading out to Detroit, Michigan for ConFusion. This will be my first time attending, so I'm excited to see what it's like. I chose to give ConFusion a try because a lot of my author-friends have gushed over how much fun they've had in past years, so fingers crossed I'll have an equally wonderful time! I'm on the following panels:

Self-Publishing for Fun & Profit (Friday Jan 20th at 7pm), with Michael Underwood, Elise Kova, and Dira Lewis. We'll be looking at the current state of self-pub in all its myriad forms, and pondering where it might go in the next 10 years. I'll be happy to share some of the lessons learned from my Kickstarter experience.

Pimp Your Mars Rover (Saturday Jan 21st at 5pm), with Karen Burnham, Martin L. Shoemaker, and Bill Higgins. "What would a vehicle need to traverse the unforgiving surface of Mars? A perfect panel for those interested in engineering the next buggy." I may be a signal and image processing engineer rather than a mechanical engineer, but back when I was working at JPL in my undergrad days, I did design some hardware for a Mars lander (which sadly never made it to planetfall, as the rocket failed on launch). In any case, it's always fun to geek out about engineering and science, so I look forward to this one.

Pantsers Rule! Or So They Tell Me (Sunday Jan 22nd at 10am), with Diana Rowland, Michael Ceislak, Andrea Phillips, John Klima. In which we will discuss the joys and horrors of writing by the seat of your pants, and other alternatives to outlining. (I'm actually somewhere in the middle between a pantser and an outliner.)

Aside from the panels, I'll be hanging out at the bar. I don't actually drink, as I hate the taste of alcohol--although my God, on Friday I will likely be wishing that wasn't so. But my favorite part of a con is always the bar conversations. Well, and I also plan to spend a nice solid chunk of time each morning holed up in my room taking advantage of blissful solitude to make progress on those infamous Shattered Sigil short stories. In any case, if you'll be at the con, I'll see you there!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Auctions and awards

Remember the Booknest.eu fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders that I mentioned in my last post? Their final auction is going on right now, and a signed copy of The Whitefire Crossing is included in this pack of 20 awesome books on the block:

Heck, I'll even doodle a special drawing on the inside of Whitefire Crossing if the winner prefers extra decoration (no promises about my art skills, though). Highest bid by 9pm on Jan 13 wins all 20 books, and all money goes to Doctors Without Borders. So if you've some extra cash you'd like to go for a good cause, head on over to Ben Galley's website and bid. If you don't have cash, no worries, it's also great if you can help spread the word.

In other news (far more fun news than what's coming out of Washington DC), r/Fantasy announced this year's Stabby Award Winners. Lots of excellent books and stories are among the winners and runners-up, and to my surprise, I won two Stabbies, one for "Best Comment" and one for "Best Review." (The comment in question is an essay-length response I wrote to some questions about women authors in fantasy, and the best review was one I wrote for Janny Wurts's excellent Wars of Light and Shadow series.) Added to my Stabby win last year for Best Self-Published/Independent novel, I now have quite the arsenal! I'm not sure if the real meaning of this is that I've been spending way too much time on reddit, but more seriously, I'm honored that people have found my contributions to r/Fantasy worthwhile.

One final note, for those of you in the US. If you, like me, are deeply dismayed at the thought of loved ones and friends with pre-existing conditions losing access to healthcare with the repeal of the ACA, please don't give in to despair and assume it's too late for anything to be done. Call your representatives. Make your voice heard.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 in review

Well, it was a hell of a year. But right now I don't want to focus on the dark parts of 2016, whether personal or global. I've spent more than enough time thinking about those. I want to remember the bright spots, so I can go into 2017 with some joy in my heart. As Edward Abbey once said, "Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless."

And really, I had many wonderful moments in 2016. It's funny how hard it can be to remember the good things, sometimes. Thank goodness for pictures (and friends and loved ones) to remind us. So what'd I find, looking back through the year?

Writing-wise, not only did I finish all the mailing for The Labyrinth of Flame's Kickstarter, and work out a deal with the printing company to make the illustrated edition available to the general public, but the book won an award! The denizens of r/Fantasy voted Labyrinth of Flame the Best Self-Published/Independent novel of 2015, and I got this very cool dagger as a result:

Oh, how I wish I could say I'd finished the Shattered Sigil short stories as well. Yet here it is, 2017, and I'm still only 20,000 words and 2/3 of the way into the Cara novella The White Serpent, 1/3 of the way through the story of Dev escaping an assassin on his first convoy trip (this one's for one of the Ultimate Fan backers), and I have the Ruslan story and a Lena story plotted out but not yet written.

I did complete and turn in a 8,000-word Lizaveta story called A Game of Mages for the forthcoming Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology--and boy was that completion a struggle, as the story required three rewrites. On the non-fiction side, I wrote three pieces for Lady Business's Readers of the Lost Arc feature, covering under-read books of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (that last post is turned in but not yet up on the blog). Still, I'm terribly ashamed to admit A Game of Mages is the only piece of fiction I finished all year.

The simple truth is that I didn't make writing a priority in 2016 the way I did in previous years. Some of that was by design: I wanted to put my husband and son first for a while, and reduce stress by enjoying more of the activities I'd put on hold while trying to finish The Labyrinth of Flame and run the kickstarter. But I think I let the pendulum swing a little too far over to the non-writing side.

For 2017 I'm resolving to adjust yet again and find a better balance: one that lets me finish all the Shattered Sigil short stories and finally start work on the new fantasy novel I'd like to write. (Still untitled, but this is the one with deadly sea magic, tropical islands and coral reefs, freediving, and a team of spies.) My ultimate goal would be to finish all the stories by summer and complete a rough draft of the new book by the end of the year. That may be too ambitious for a slow writer like me. We'll see.

So what did I do in 2016 instead of writing? Apart from the usual day jobbing...

1) I skied many excellent runs with my kiddo, who just this year got skilled enough to handle black diamonds and trees (woo hoo!):

Powder day at Winter Park

The snow's always best in the trees

Winter wonderland at Steamboat
2) I spent more glorious days hiking in Colorado's mountains. In the words of John Muir, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."

Lovely day at Andrews Tarn in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain panorama

Nothing like climbing a nice cold glacier on a hot summer day

Indian Peaks wilderness

Pointing the way toward 14,309-ft Uncompahgre Peak, highest in the San Juans

On top of Uncompahgre--my first new 14er in many years!

3) We returned to our favorite haunts around Moab and the San Rafael Swell and explored some new-to-us areas, like Behind the Rocks, Medieval Chamber and Morning Glory Arch, the Goblin's Lair, and some off-the-beaten-ranger-path parts of the Fiery Furnace. One thing I love about canyon country is how you can visit the same areas again and again and discover new amazing things every time. (As Mary Hunter Austin said, "This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough.")

"Behind the Rocks" wilderness area
Desert flowers

The kiddo tackles his first major rappel (into Medieval Chamber)

On rappel beside Morning Glory Arch (technically a natural bridge rather than an arch, but hey)
Exploring the hoodoo canyons of Goblin Valley
At the entrance to the Goblin's Lair (a.k.a. the Chamber of the Basilisk)

Inside the Goblin's Lair

The Fiery Furnace: so many enticing routes to explore

4) I smile every time I think of our June trip to visit family in Australia. We had plenty of fun in and around Sydney and the Blue Mountains, and enjoyed a 3-day sailing adventure in the gorgeous Whitsunday Islands (our first time there, but hopefully not our last!).

The Vivid festival lived up to its name: constantly changing projections of color decorated the Opera House and many other buildings near Sydney Harbour
Avast me hearties, yo ho! The Schafers sail the Whitsundays
Catseye Beach on Hamilton Island
Hiking in the Blue Mountains
Rainbow view from the Ruined Castle

4) I didn't go to many cons this year apart from WorldCon in Kansas City, which was awesome. Yet I was lucky enough to spend time with some wonderful authors and SFF folk:

In May I got to hang out with Janny Wurts for a few days: definitely a highlight of my year!
Another highlight was getting to meet New Zealand author Helen Lowe while I was in Sydney

And having a lovely lunch with Pellinor author Alison Croggon while in Melbourne

Yet another was a summer hike with blogger/reviewer/all-around awesome guy Paul Weimer and author Alex Acks in the Indian Peaks
5) I read a lot of excellent books. I had plans to do a whole big long "reading review" post with cover pics and mini-reviews, but in all honesty I prefer to focus on short-story writing right now. So instead I'll do a quick list of the reads that stood out most to me this year:

  • Janny Wurts's Wars of Light and Shadow series--I just recently finished book 8, Stormed Fortress, and I continue to be hugely impressed with the careful plotting and layered reveals
  • Helen Lowe's Daughter of Blood--book 3 in her excellent Wall of Night epic fantasy series. Her world is rich and fascinating, and I love what she's doing with the story and characters.
  • Mark Lawrence's Wheel of Osheim--final book of his Red Queen's War trilogy. Mark really knows how to stick a landing. Tons of great action, character work, and sly humor.
  • Teresa Frohock's Los Nefilim--her three excellent dark fantasy novellas featuring half-daimon, half-angel Diago, all collected into one volume. My God, these are good. Terrific characters and atmosphere.
  • Jeff Salyards's Chains of the Heretic--another great trilogy-ender. If you love military fantasy, you've got to read this series.
  • Kate Elliott's Poisoned Blade--2nd in her YA Court of Fives series. I'd liked the first one well enough, but this one I thought took the series to a whole new level.
  • Laura Ruby's Bone Gap--magical realism done right. Powerful and beautiful.
  • Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song--I'd seen lots of people raving about Hardinge but the first book I tried by her (A Face Like Glass) didn't entirely work for me. These two did, big time, and I'm now a convert. Her imagination is amazing.
  • Megan O'Keefe's Steal the Sky and Break the Chains--oh, how I loved these, because they pushed a lot of my personal buttons as a reader. Addictive yet dangerous psychic-power-style magic, strong bonds of friendship, scoundrels with hidden depths...yes, please. 
  • Alison Croggon's The Bone Queen--a haunting, lovely prequel to her epic Pellinor series. Tied for my favorite Pellinor book with the 3rd of the main series, The Crow.
  • Ben Peek's The Godless and Leviathan's blood--beautifully written literary epic fantasy, thoughtful and weird and unique in all the best ways
  • Scott Hawkins's The Library at Mount Char--dark and imaginative and compelling. 

So, yeah. 2016 definitely wasn't all suck, by a long shot. I hope 2017 will likewise have some victories and joys, not just for me, but for everyone who fears the path the world is taking. Hope and kindness and courage and compassion still matter, now more than ever, and it's not all darkness out there. So many people are trying in whatever ways they can to make the world just that little bit better. For one small example, check out this currently running charity fundraiser from Booknest.eu, where 100 SFF authors (including me) donated signed books for a prize lottery; all money raised through ticket sales will be given to Doctors Without Borders.

Sometimes everything we do, whether donating or writing letters or volunteering or simply offering kindness to a stranger, feels negligible in impact. But as Mark Helprin wrote in his sublime fantasy Winter's Tale, "No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile."

In 2017, my biggest goal is to focus on what's worthwhile, no matter how unimportant my actions may feel.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Breaking Silence

I have never before said anything political here. Not because I don’t care—I do, very much—but because I prefer to tackle difficult topics either face-to-face, with all the nuance of expression and tone to aid the conversation, or else in indirect fashion through my fiction.

That's why in the weeks leading up to the US presidential election, I said little online, and in fact began avoiding the internet entirely. I did not need to see more of Trump’s narcissism, willful ignorance, and eagerness to fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. I was already horrified by him. And it seemed to me that anyone still determined to vote for him despite his actions was not going to change their mind, no matter what I or anyone else might say. (This was reinforced by futile arguments I had with some people I know that support him.)  I focused on the one thing I could do that had the best hope of helping: I voted for Clinton, even though I don’t agree with all her policies, because she had the best chance of defeating him.

But here’s the thing. I’m an optimist at heart. I knew some people would vote for Trump. I thought many more would not. I never imagined so many of those would stay home and not vote at all.

Yet here we are. Never in my life have I been so dismayed by the results of an election. As a parent trying to teach my son to be honorable and trustworthy and fair and compassionate, I hate that he’ll see you can be none of those things—you can lie and cheat and bluster and treat women like disposable toys and minorities like trash and not even try to hide your bigotry, but brag about it—and yet still be rewarded with the highest office in the land. My heart aches for those who now fear for their lives and their families, for those already suffering harassment, for those who may lose desperately needed health care, for everyone terrified we’ve started a long, dark slide into a terrible future.

And yeah, the future is looking pretty bleak, in all sorts of ways. As someone who loves wilderness and has done a lot of work relating to atmospheric and oceanic science, I couldn’t help but weep thinking of the long-term damage that will be done during this presidency. The reefs are dying, the glaciers melting, ecosystems failing, droughts and storms fast growing more devastating in impact, and yet Trump is blithely appointing men who will ignore every last warning sign in favor of short-term corporate profits. The cultural damage to our nation, we can perhaps reverse. The damage to the biosphere on which we all depend…even I, the ultimate optimist, find it hard to see a happy ending there.

But despair does no good. So I will do what I can:
  • Donate money to organizations fighting to protect civil rights and preserve ecosystems and assist people in need.
  • Intervene when I see someone harassed; I won’t freeze or look away, but protest and/or offer my help to the victim. (Here's an example of how to do this.)
  • Speak out when friends or family say something bigoted, to let them know that isn’t okay in my eyes, even if it was “just a joke”. (This link has some good advice on how to handle this.)
  • Write my representatives and participate in grass-roots efforts.
  • Search out my own blind spots and failings, so I can take more care with my own words and actions—particularly as an author. I do believe stories have power. I don’t want mine to inadvertently hurt readers, or to reinforce stereotypes. I want to strive to give people hope, because we’ll need that in days to come.

All of this feels so small: hardly a flicker of an ember against the darkness. And yet I have to believe even so small a glimmer matters. Beyond that, I have no more words.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thursday Adventure: Uncompahgre Peak At Last (or, A Tale of Two 14ers)

One of the rewards I offered in my Labyrinth of Flame kickstarter was a peak climb--and one of the folks taking me up on that was a friend whom I first met when we were both undergrads at Caltech. Catherine and I bonded over our shared love of SFF books and TV shows, and she was such a good friend that when I finally got a car in my senior year, she let me drag her along on various wilderness adventures. In those days my enthusiasm far exceeded my knowledge, which often led to rather traumatic experiences for my hiking partners.

Like the time I decided to do my first 14K peak: White Mountain, the third-highest peak in California at 14,252 feet, and the highest in the Inyo-White Mountains, which face the mighty Sierra Nevada across the sagebrush desert of the Owens Valley. (In other words, they're the Bolthole Mountains in the setting of the Shattered Sigil books.) Now, White Mountain is about as easy as 14K peaks get--far, far easier than any of the Sierra's jagged 14ers. The trailhead is way up at 12,000 feet, and all you do is hike an old 4WD road to the summit. No problem, right?

14,252-ft White Mountain, taken near the start of the 4WD trail. (No cars allowed on the trail; it's there because an old research station sits at the summit of the peak.)
No problem except for that little issue of altitude. Bright-eyed, naive 19-year-old me was vaguely aware that altitude could be a problem for hikers. So, I reasoned, the best bet would be to camp as high as we could the night before, to give us time to get accustomed to the thin air before we started hiking the next day. We drove straight from sea level to the 12,000-foot trailhead and camped nearby.

Any experienced hikers reading this are cringing. The correct way to acclimatize to altitude is by sleeping low and doing a series of gradually higher hikes. For most unacclimatized people, attempting to sleep at 12K feet is a recipe for disaster.

And so it proved. The next day, one friend, Jason, had such bad nausea and headache he wisely didn't even attempt to hike the peak. Catherine and another friend (whose nickname was "Dangermouse", or Danger for short) felt pretty miserable but gamely decided to give it a go. I, meanwhile, was ready to perkily skip my way up the peak--I didn't know this at the time, but I'm one of the genetically lucky few who feel no negative effects at altitudes up to 14K. In fact, I felt GREAT. (Hypoxia for the win!)

The White Mountain hiking crew: me, Danger, Catherine. Picture actually taken by Jason a day later when the four of us were about to backpack into Cottonwood Basin. Nobody wanted me to take their picture at the start of the actual White Mountain hike because they all felt grumpy and awful after their sleepless night at 12K feet.
So we hiked, and Catherine and Danger felt progressively more miserable, while idiot me brightly encouraged them to keep going. Danger finally hit the wall about a mile short of the peak and stopped, saying she'd wait for us. Catherine was the only one to make it to the top with me, and she was not having a good time. When I brightly suggested that perhaps the stunning views made the misery worth it, she looked across the Owens Valley at the massive, snowcapped wall of the eastern Sierra, and announced grimly, "I could have seen this out of a plane." (Looking back, it's proof of how good a friend she is that she said that instead of punching me.)

View of Owens Valley and the high Sierra from summit of White Mtn. 
Catherine on the summit. Because she's just that tough, she did summon up a smile.
As we went downhill, so did my friends' health. By the time we rejoined Danger, she was so altitude sick & exhausted she was irrational ("I don't want to move. Why don't we just spend the night here?" Me & Catherine: "Um, we don't have any more food or warm clothes and it's well below freezing at night. We will DIE OF HYPOTHERMIA.") It wasn't until Catherine and I started seriously discussing the best way we could carry Danger off the peak that she finally, reluctantly, started stumbling downward. We didn't make it back until after dark. Thankfully nobody got seriously hurt--although Catherine ended up needing physical therapy for her knees, which she strained on the descent--but it was far from my finest moment as a trip leader. (Danger said the next day, "I think I prefer nature walks.")

I've learned a hell of a lot in the 22 years since then, for which my friends are devoutly thankful. Catherine, too, is a far more experienced hiker, although she had never again attempted a 14K peak. Until now! Last year when she signed up for my peak climb reward, we discussed options, and settled on 14,308-ft Uncompahgre, the tallest peak in the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado. Uncompahgre isn't killer steep and has a good trail for most of the way, barring one short section of class 2+ scrambling up some loose rock. If you have a 4WD (a true 4WD, not a Subaru), you can muscle up a narrow, rocky road to reach the Nellie Creek trailhead, from which the peak's summit is a mere 3.75 miles and 3,000 feet. Catherine and I originally planned to do Uncompahgre together last fall, but the timing didn't work out, so we decided to wait for this fall instead.

This past Thursday, we climbed the peak at last, and it was an absolutely spectacular hike. Gorgeous weather--not a single cloud in the sky, which is quite rare in Colorado!--plus a hint of fall colors visible in aspens and tundra, and we saw hardly anyone else on the trail (an even greater rarity on a 14er). Best of all, Catherine felt a million times better than she did on White Mountain all those years ago, thanks to training and acclimatization. No such thing as a bad day in the mountains for me, but the best days of all are spent enjoying beautiful views with good friends, and this hike was one of my favorites of this year. Just check out these pics:

Our campspot the night before the hike. 

Evening light on a ridge above our campsite

Catherine at the trailhead. Since thunderstorm danger isn't that bad in September, we were able to start at the more reasonable hour of 7am instead of the more typical pre-dawn wake-up

Our destination awaits: Uncompahgre's massive summit block
The trail starts off nice and gentle
We strolled through a broad basin
Catherine heading for the ridge (at lefthand side in pic). Just look at that sky!
Gold and scarlet colors in the tundra as we pass a side peak 
The views started to open out as we gained the ridge
Ridgewalking ever higher
Terrific views of surrounding peaks: Wetterhorn and Matterhorn at left, Coxcomb on right
Snack break before we tackle the climb through the summit cliffs
Nothing like scrabbling up a pile of loose rocks (the route goes straight up here, no trail)
Catherine ascends (in shadow) while another climber eases down (the trick is not to knock rocks down onto anyone else). We only saw a few other groups on the trail, which made for a nice change from most of my other 14er jaunts. We did still cover the spectrum of Colorado hiking stereotypes, though, as we saw: 1) young couple with their golden lab, 2) solo young stud striding along in sneakers and carrying rope, having just ascended a far more sporty route than ours, 3) trio of nimble senior citizens that kicked our asses in hiking speed, 4) solo badass woman with her pack-wearing dog
Getting a little easier again
Now we're home free! Summit just ahead.
Catherine on the summit of her first 14K peak since White Mountain. 
Me having a truly excellent day
Peering over the edge of the summit cliffs: holy hell, that's a long way down
Looking west, toward Wetterhorn (foreground) and Sneffels (distant high point in background)
With the sky so clear, we could see forever across the San Juans
Looking down below the peak. 

We spent about an hour on the summit, and had the gorgeous views all to ourselves

The hard part is always going back down
The views make up for it, though
A secret waterfall
Tundra colors
Swiss cheese boulder
Almost back to the trailhead

Why climb mountains? As a famous mountaineer once said, because it feels so good when you stop.