Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Category: Salt Lake

Casting Light on Wasatch Front Air Pollution

The Wasatch Front of Northern Utah is a special place to live. In many areas of the country, mountain views of the quality (and quantity!) that we regularly enjoy come at a very high premium in terms of real estate and general cost of living. Our unique topography, however, leads to a rather nasty side effect in the coldest months of the year. For up to a few weeks at a time, temperature inversions trap cold air down in the valleys. This by itself is not such a big deal, but the vast majority of air pollutants also get caught in the bottom layer of air; the air we see, hear, and at its worst, taste.

The previous winter (2012-13) was the worst I’ve experienced in my seven years living in Northern Utah. We had 49 days [1] where the PM2.5 level was 15 µg/m³ or greater. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter of 2.5 µm or less — particles which can only be seen under an electron microscope and can get deep into your lungs and even your bloodstream [2].

On those red air days, if you’re waking up with a sore throat and acrid-tasting phlegm, you’re experiencing respiratory irritation from these particles. Can’t seem to get rid of that nagging cold? It’s likely the air pollution.

This winter (2013-14) has been just as bad, if not worse. People are getting pissed. Today thousands of people are rallying at the state capital building. We demand action. So what do we do?

Here are some obvious, pragmatic solutions. To start with, all could be required solely on the ‘mandatory action’ days, potentially only a few days a year:

  1. Ban idling. I don’t even mean turning off your car at traffic lights. I’m talking about people sitting in their nice, warm car for 15 minutes in a parking lot while their spouse is inside running errands. Put on a coat, and turn the damn car off.
  2. Speed limit caps. I imagine the twice-a-day traffic congestion up and down I-15 is a bigger issue, but reducing the speed limit to 55mph isn’t going to hurt anyone. Again, this could only be on red air days.
  3. Eliminate most point source pollution by turning off refineries, mining operations, etc. on red air days. To me this seems like a no-brainer. Sure it will hurt their bottom line. But not as much as packing up and moving elsewhere, another possibility. This could help pay for large industry’s negative externalities [3] they’ve been getting away with over the years.

Less pragmatic, unrealistic, but oft-mentioned solutions:

  1. Reduce or eliminate driving. Sorry, but for the vast majority of people, there’s really no viable alternative to driving to work. Sure, we could carpool more, increase public transportation usage, and reduce trips, but not driving often just isn’t an option. [4]
  2. Move the refineries out of the valley. I am all for this, but I suspect that the cost of doing so would kill them, putting thousands of people out of work. Plus, where would they go? The problem isn’t just localized to the Wasatch Front.

A final point for refocusing debate around this issue: Is there anything more important than public health? It’s frustrating that we get so caught up on economics while ignoring the most fundamental right of all. Without our health, we have nothing.

[1] http://www.airmonitoring.utah.gov/dataarchive/woodburnsummary.pdf
[2] http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=particle_health.page1#1
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality
[4] I, admittedly, could pretty much stop driving to work, with an extra half-hour added to my commute each way via bus.

I Love Utah

I had a pretty awesome short jaunt up in the mountains today, which proved a couple well-known facts about Northern Utah: proximity and lengthy, overlapping seasons.

8:30 AM: Roll out of bed, make some coffee and breakfast, get on my laptop

9:15: A friend reminds me that I should be skiing right now. I concur, and pack up my ski gear for the first day of the season.


Dispersing clouds

9:40: Take off for the mountains.

10:30: Arrive at Brighton after a nice, snowy drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon. It’s not open yet, but all the Utah resorts don’t mind backcountry skiers walking around in-bounds. It’s lightly snowing and in the lower 20s; pretty nice. Put on boots, skis, etc.

10:40: Start skinning up the mountain from the base. I don’t really know where I’m going to go, but follow some snowmobile tracks up a run.

11:40: Arrive at the top of the Great Western Lift (10,400 ft), which isn’t running. It’s snowing the whole walk up, and as soon as I put my pack down to take the skins off, the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating my surroundings. They’re magnificent. I look forward to skiing a wide open, untracked, deep powder run at mid-day, in-bounds, at one of the most popular ski resorts in the state.

11:45: Click back into my bindings and set off. The top part of the run is untracked light powder, six to twelve inches, and the bottom half is untouched, just-groomed corduroy. The turns are nice and smooth. I’m reminded that it’s November 9.

12:00: Ski right to my car’s trunk in the snowy parking lot. It’s still pretty quiet, but a few backcountry travelers are milling about.

12:50 PM: Return home, three hours after I left.

This was two days after returning from Indian Creek in the desert of Southern Utah, climbing steep cracks in the 70-degree sun. Utah kicks ass!

A Stroll in the Woods: The 2008 Wahsatch Steeplechase

It was a long time coming, but I greeted the summer solstice with a 17.5-mile trail running race in Salt Lake’s back yard. By 5:30 AM I was on my bike cruising down South Temple in the pre-dawn, and by 5:45 at Memory Grove Park next to the Capital Building, surrounded by an antsy crowd of 20- and 30-something athletes. Fifteen minutes later the proverbial gun was fired, and we were off.

Immediately a brisk pace was set and in no time the pack had separated into semi-discrete bunches of runners chugging along. I hadn’t warmed up at all and the first mile or so up the road was not as easy as it should have been. Right away I drifted off behind a few dozen runners until the race took a turn for the steep onto the Bonneville-Shoreline Trail.

The next three miles or so varied between effortless cruising and uphill panting. I was familiar with the trail, having either ran or biked it in the month before the race, but it didn’t make it any easier.

About four miles in: Black Mountain is at right

The single-track trail was pretty fun as it snaked along gully benches, but right after the first aid station about three miles in things got difficult. The rhythmic flurry of striding legs turned into plodding steps, and the first signs of anguish betrayed many a runner. I wasn’t feeling particularly exhausted but was concerned for a nagging foot injury which had crept into every training run (amazingly, it lie dormant for the whole race). It wasn’t until the false summit of Black Mountain that the course started to let up, 4500 vertical feet above the race’s start.

Not many people experience third-class scrambling during a running race, but therein lies the beauty of the Steeplechase. Boulder-hopping on a knife-edge limestone ridge after 6 miles of calf-burning uphill running holds a certain appeal to a deranged few, myself included. It was far and away the most enjoyable part of the race (I think I uttered a “Whoo! This is what I’m talkin’ about!” at some point) but ended quickly at a welcome aid station, greeting us with Gu and Gatorade. I snagged a Gu and tore off down the course, a pleasant, soft footpath rather reminiscent of the trails around my house growing up.

Coming down the mountain was pretty fun, too, if not just for the nutjobs tearing downhill (oh wait, that was me) at speeds unreasonable for any two-legged creature. At one point I stopped to retie my shoes next to a barely-noticeable switchback in the trail:
“Whoa! Heads up dude!”
A tatooed guy well into his forties literally hurdles me. At least he gave some warning.
“Uhh, hey, that’s not the trail!”
“Whuu? Aww shit, time for some bushwhackin'”
He then proceeds to stampede downhill through thirty yards of eight-foot brush like a rabid Grizzly, soon stumbling on the trail and tasting some of it in a full-out Three Stooges-style wipeout right in front of me. I was too busy laughing to care that he had blatantly cut me off.

Not many running races require route-finding skills, but this horribly overgrown and blowdown-strewn “trail” demanded them. At times you would hurdle a three-foot diameter fallen tree trunk only to have to put on the brakes on landing for a faint switchback hiding beneath two feet of undergrowth. Yeah, it was pretty sweet.
Another half-mile or so of this put me back down into City Creek Canyon and the barely-downhill nine miles of road and single track trail. I hauled so much ass coming down the mountain that I had time to fill up my Camelbak at an aid station without being passed.

About three miles from the finish pure exhaustion started to creep in and the experience began to take on the hellish pain that only competitive endurance-fests can provide. Two hours and fifty-six minutes after setting off I crossed the finish line to an angelic whoop of cries and applause. It was over. I collapsed in the shade, took off my shoes and uncovered a two-square inch blister on my heel. A wave of ecstasy washed over me as I stretched out in the cool grass, having finished the most difficult physical challenge of my life.

‘Til next year! Or…sooner?

New Year

Well, the holidays are about over. I’m enjoying my day off much like I enjoyed much of last week: being lazy around the house. Sunday night (the 30th) I returned from NY so it’s back to real life.

New Year’s this year was a bit different. I had originally planned to stick around NY, but then I realized that New Year’s kinda sucks and I didn’t want to take time off just to be able to celebrate it at home. However, almost none of my friends here were back from their holidays so it was looking to be a pretty lame evening. Me being me, I thought, well hell I’ll just go climb a mountain to ring in the New Year. So I did.

At around 8:30 I took off for Mill Creek Canyon to hike Grandeur Peak. Since I still hadn’t purchased a pair of snowshoes I had a couple options: bareboot it with the hopes of an existing tracked out trail or ski it with my touring setup. I was a little sketched out with the snow conditions and it being night at all, so I opted for the former. To be honest, I wasn’t very optimistic about summiting, but a half hour into the hike it was looking pretty good.

Right past the trailhead I got a call from a friend inviting me out to a party for the night. I thought about it briefly and decided to go for the summit solo rather than spend the evening at some random party somewhere. Call me weird but I had my mind set on standing atop a 8300′ peak 4000 feet above my city to ring in 2008.

I was all smiles for the first mile. A perfect snowshoe track made barebooting a breeze, and the trail’s grade only forced me to kick a handful of steps in the snow. Conditions were perfect; there was no wind, it wasn’t too cold, and the sky was a pristine black dotted with stars in all directions. I made good time up to a ridge at about 7500′ and had my first glimpse of the Salt Lake Valley. Since it was only 11pm I figured I had underestimated myself again.
Salt Lake

That is, until I continued on from there. The snowshoe track petered out and I was forced to follow a mountain goat track in my mountaineering boots. A quarter mile later I was panting through hip-deep snow along a mildly corniced ridgeline. The summit loomed a few hundred feet ahead so I plodded on, the hiking trail barely visible amidst the contours of the snow. By 11:30 I had reached the ‘summit,’ just to remember that it was just an intermediary peak and I still had another quarter mile and 600′ to climb. I made a quick decision to continue on, but after trudging through waist-deep snow for about 100 yards I reneged. I would just have to make it back to the ridgeline by midnight.

A little bummed, I plunge-stepped through the snow back to the snowshoe track and made it minutes before midnight. Soon afterwards I heard little ‘pops’ from the valley and saw tiny dots of light, the fireworks being shot off from downtown. Happy New Year Salt Lake!

I motored back down to the trailhead in an hour and kept thinking of all those alpinists over the years, spending nights out halfway up remote, committing mountains in Alaska, Greenland, Pakistan, everywhere. The main difference: Partners. A little companionship and traded encouragement goes a long way towards maintaining a positive mental state and pushing the other to top performance. However, a quality solo adventure can be sublime.

The Weather out West

I haven’t even come close to understanding the weather out here. It was crazy hot all summer (upper 90s every day) and I was blasting the a/c all the time. Then, all of a sudden, it’s snowing in the mountains and freezing in the house. There wasn’t really a transition at all. Is there a spring and fall out here, or have we been reduced to two seasons?

Just this past weekend I went for a hike, and had to turn back because I ran into five inches of snow! It’s September, man, wtf?! Well, yeah, it was at 11,000 feet, but still! I guess the hiking season in the higher peaks consists of July and August.

I’ve gotten lazy the past couple of weeks and have started driving to work more and more. All summer I biked to work 70% of the time, but since it’s gotten colder I’ve stopped. Maybe I can get in the habit of riding Trax this winter. An extra half-hour of time dedicated to reading daily would be pretty sweet…

In other news, I’ve been climbing 3-4 times a week in the gym and at various crags in the Wasatch. I’m trying to beef up my endurance so I can stay on harder routes for longer. I am a member of Momentum so I have been lead climbing and bouldering quite a bit: I still need to rest once on the long overhanging 5.10 routes, but look forward to sending them with ease (and more!) by the spring.

I’ve picked up a new set of skis (fat twin-tips for the park and powder from a local company) and bindings, and am looking at an Alpine Touring setup next. Hopefully I can afford to pick everything up by the beginning of the backcountry ski season in early November…

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