Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Fall 2020 issue.
The first time I slept in my Jeep, I was cold, scared, and stuck. I raced the sunset as I finished up a short ski tour among the cacti in the Alabama Hills. In the midst of the snowiest winter in Sierra Nevada history, the snow crept down from the mountains and piled up a few feet, even in the high desert. When I went to open the back hatch of my yellow Wrangler, it would not budge. With my food and cooking gear stashed beneath the wooden storage platform that replaced my back seat, it would be impossible to get my supplies. Then the storm rolled in. As wet lashes of sleet hit my cheeks, I looked down at my two pups, Matty and Roam, shivering beneath their thin layer of brown and white fur. I opened the front of the two-door rig, and the pack swiftly jumped inside.
The sleet quickly turned to snow, and visibility faded in sheets of white against the black of night. I’d already been pulled over by a cop for a burned-out headlight earlier in the day. Hitting the highway at this point would have been a dangerous proposition. The pups looked at me from their perch behind the front seats as if to say, “Mom, what are we going to do?” My stomach growled, and I scoured the small space for anything we could all eat. The findings were too bizarre for me even to recall why I had them in the front seat, but with the heater blasting, the three of us devoured a carton of chicken broth, beef jerky, and a banana.
Later I found a Toblerone candy bar and realized the situation was not all that bad. How many adventures had I been on where I was wet, cold, and did not have chocolate? I crawled into the back and curled up with Matty and Roam. Although I could not fully stretch out, the space felt cozy and safe.
For over two years, I continued to live out of my Jeep. What started as an escape home on wheels when I was flat broke, transitioned to a work vehicle that allowed me to write stories and run in some of the Southwest’s most remote areas. With only a backpacking stove, a summer sleeping bag, and a leaking cooler, I never sought to make my Jeep a palace—instead, I fell in love with my quirky bivvy on wheels. Over time, I’ve adapted and updated my platform, to include a kitchen drawer. An extension has been added so I can sleep fully stretched out. I splurged on a rack and a new cooler. Both simplicity of life and access to any location imaginable kept me from ever contemplating buying into #VanLife.
Ultimately, my work writing conservation-focused hiking guidebooks to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments paired well with my Jeepsy lifestyle. I drove down bumpy desert roads and set up base camps between long days hiking and running down remote canyons. Living this way was not the point; it was how I would get to the point. And I found it, specifically in writing and advocating to defend public lands and wild places. What started as an uncertain way to get by when life threw major twists at me became the way.
The Tundrathon Triple
Republished from Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic, by Morgan Sjogren, with permission of VeloPress.
“Sometimes it would be nice to take a bubble bath, then crawl into some satin sheets and watch Netflix,” Mike says matter-of-factly before shoveling another slice of pizza dripping with cheese into his mouth. Herschel, his golden coyote-esque mutt, lies under the table, cleaning up the falling crumbs. It’s been a long day in the San Juan Mountains, scrambling, traversing, and running up and down three peaks (including two fourteeners, Redcloud and Sunshine). Tyler returns to the table with a second round of beers. It’s just another day of what can only be described as a week of mountain mayhem.
Over the past seven days, our trio has linked up 22 summits. We’re soaked, filthy, happy, and exhausted as we savor the warmth inside the brewery before heading home to reality: the back of our respective vehicles. We’ll park, go to bed, and wake up tomorrow with a glimmer of stoke in our crusty eyes as we crawl out of our vehicles, looking up at the peaks beckoning us for another big mountain run.
The next morning, we rise and load up into Tyler’s truck for the next mission. Just getting to the trailhead is an expedition that takes several hours, knuckles gripped tightly on Herschel and Tyler’s black lab, Luna, the seats, and each other as the vehicle slowly crawls up and over steep, muddy mountain passes in a torrential downpour.
Along the way, we spy a drawbridge across a ravine and stop to investigate, spotting two figures walking around a cabin on the other side. We wave our arms and jokingly call out, “Hey! Wanna hang out?” But it works, and just like that, we are trotting across the suspension bridge, drinking whiskey, and eating quesadillas around a blazing campfire tucked deep in the backcountry with a Vanity Fair photographer and an art director on vacation from New York City.
When it’s finally time for bed, we stumble back across the bridge and pass out together in Tyler’s truck bed, where I am warmed between both guys, two wet dogs, and a chorus of flatulence. So this is living the dirtbag dream. I must be the luckiest gal in the world.
When the sun starts to force itself into our eyes, we crawl to the front of the truck before continuing our drive to the trailhead. We arrive an hour later and begin to prep for our “alpine start” (it’s already 10:00 a.m.).
I investigate the breakfast situation—our supplies have dwindled. Tyler is downing the last of the chocolate frosting tub (poor man’s Nutella), and there is a bag of smashed tortilla chips, a jar of salsa, and a few eggs. Within minutes, I whip up a not-so-traditional version of a Mexican breakfast classic—chilaquiles. Sitting in the dirt, we compete for the single fork and as many bites of the spicy and hearty meal as possible.
Today’s mission? The “Tundrathon Triple.” Our plan is to climb three of the area’s major peaks: Wetterhorn (14,016), Matterhorn (13,589), and Uncompahgre (14,321), all connected by an off-trail route across the alpine tundra that the San Juan mountain range of Colorado is known for.
Bagging our first summit, Wetterhorn, by noon, without a single glitch, we study the ridgeline that connects it to Matterhorn, contemplating the adventurous addition to the route. Ultimately, with the two dogs in tow, we decide to play it safe and scurry back down the mountain and across a boulder field to the base of Matterhorn.
I have a haunted past with the Matterhorn—not the one in Switzerland, but rather the Matterhorn in the Eastern Sierra of California. It’s an easy class-3 scramble and only 12,279 feet high. Despite this being something I am very comfortable with and capable of, the summit has eluded me three times.
My obsession with the obscure peak is inspired by my favorite book, The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. In the book, Matterhorn symbolizes one’s dharma or path. With that in mind, my last few summer pilgrimages to the mountain with failed summit bids felt like my annual reminder that something in my life was not right. Right here, running up the grassy base of the Matterhorn in the San Juans, it no longer felt like folklore. Today is redemption, the beginning of a new story.
When the three of us reach the beginning of the summit scramble, Mike and Tyler look at me, aware of my tumultuous relationship with the Matterhorn. “Go on. This is your mountain. Get up there.”
I take a deep breath. Rarely the leader in the mountains, I not only take the reins here but climb up completely solo (well, Herschel loyally joins along). I feel myself growing stronger over every block I surmount. At the top, I look down at Herschel happily panting, the view of Wetterhorn behind me, and my friends hidden from sight, giving me my moment. I cry joyous tears and hold the golden mutt in my arms. Today, Matterhorn is finally my mountain.
The crew catches up, and we celebrate with a dance party, playing Shania Twain from a phone, before sprinting back down the steep grassy slope. My arms flail freely as I speed down the mountain, that is until my foot lands in a marmot hole, my ankle rolls, and I’m thrown to the ground. Shit.
I’ve definitely twisted my ankle, and it hurts. Mike, spindly legs dancing and flying downhill so fast I swear I never saw his feet touch the ground, turns around and runs back to me. “You guys go on ahead,” I say. “Looks like this day is done for me. I’ll start walking toward the car.” I’m disappointed but content with the fact that I made it to the top of Matterhorn.
Mike shakes his head. “You know you don’t have to do that.”
I look at him, puzzled. If my ankle hurts this bad right now…
“Get up and try moving around. It might not be as bad as you think.”
I’m skeptical, but since I’m equidistant to Uncompahgre and the car, it seems worth the effort to test it out. It sure would be a shame not to complete the Tundrathon with the team.
I stand up and take a few cautious steps. Damn, it hurts, but it moves; it goes. I take the next mile to walk and assess the situation. Soon I am running, hesitating with every step, and far behind Mike and Tyler, who occasionally stop to let me catch up while they eat snacks.
Just as I’m starting to feel good about my decision, we reach the base of Uncompahgre. The route looks steep and mean. My hopes of it being a well-defined trail slip down the scree field, as they should; this is the Tundrathon Triple, after all.
Tyler and I slog up the steep slope, and I feel my energy sinking like my feet with each sandy step up. About halfway up, Mike is waiting for us. We sit on a rock, and I admit my struggle but refuse to back down or bonk. I pull out a caffeinated energy gel, slurp it down, and keep climbing.
Traversing the sketchiest part, we step gingerly on loose boulders so as not to knock them down on one another or create a complete rockslide. We reach the saddle unscathed and have a clear, easy path up to the summit. At this point, I’m too motivated to care about my ankle. If I have to take a month off to rest it, so be it. Challenging myself on adventures like this, rising to the occasion, and discovering a deeper layer of grit are precisely why I run and specifically why I seek out mountains.
From Uncompahgre’s summit, Wetterhorn and Matterhorn are in clear sight—an alpine trifecta completed by three motley mountain runners. We literally run off into the sunset, chasing last light back to the truck. For now, my exhaustion and sore ankle are far behind me as I take in the special surge of adrenaline that can only be found high above the tree line at the time of alpenglow.
When I reach the end of the route, there is nothing left for me but to lie on the ground and smile with pure delight. Sure, a warm bed and a shower might be nice, but I’m exactly where I want to be.