Trading smoke for snow
ASHLAND — Joe Chick traded the specter of smoke for the reality of snow, and he got more than he bargained for.
Chick is the director of this year’s Mt. Ashland Hill Climb, a sadomasochistic 13.3-mile run from downtown Ashland to the top of Mt. Ashland, the second-highest hill-climb race on the continent.
For 41 years, the climb came in mid-August, but last year it was one of many outdoor pursuits smoked out during a horrific wildfire season, so race officials shifted the event to June 8 hoping to beat the wildfire season.
But a snowy spring left the mountain too treacherous to ascend when the race kicked off last weekend, so the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb turned into the Mt. Ashland Ski Area Hill Climb, with the race stopping at the ski lodge 1,100 feet beneath the peak.
“It’s just too treacherous,” Chick says. “It’s just not safe to send 200 people up that. If somebody slips, they’ll be sliding downhill until they hit something.
“We traded smoke for snow, and it turns out that there’s too much snow,” he says.
From trail runners to campers and organizers of outdoor-related events, many Southern Oregonians are front-loading their outdoor pursuits this year with the expectation that wildfire smoke will force them inside later this summer like it has the past three years.
Wildfire smoke contains small particles that can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of people’s lungs and get absorbed into their bloodstream, possibly triggering heart and lung problems and even strokes.
Last year’s smoke impacts were dramatic, triggered by a July 15 storm that brought more than 2,000 lightning strikes and more than 100 wildfires to Southern Oregon. Within eight days, Jackson County sported the least healthy air in the United States, and by the time the smoke cleared Medford had logged 23 unhealthy air days — the most on record.
Outdoor pursuits and the economy around them plummeted, with the hill climb part of the collateral damage in the region.
Chick says the logic that led to the hill climb change also has permeated his personal decisions about front-loading outdoor activities this summer.
“We’re trying to get in every outdoor day we can, because Lord knows when the smoke is coming,” he says.
A repeat of last year’s bad-air days is not inevitable. If it does come, the health threats are very real and even more so for athletes, says Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames, of Ashland.
“The deeper your breathing, the more you’re moving blood around, the more you’re absorbing those particles into your body,” Shames says.
While wearing special masks can allow people to walk outside, they don’t work for hikers, runners and rowers.
“The more effective the mask is, harder it is to breathe,” Shames says.
That’s why many outdoor fitness buffs like cyclist David Browder stayed indoors, riding on stationary bikes, or left the area altogether.
“Whenever it was bad enough that you needed a mask, we didn’t ride,” says Browder, who takes part in regular Wednesday rides organized by Cycle Analysis of Jacksonville. “It’s disappointing. Hopefully, this summer will be better.”
While sore eyes, scratchy throat and restricted breathing are telltale signs of smoke stress to the average person, those running, hiking or rowing amid smoke might miss noticing these stressors, says Ashland physician and trail runner John Sager.
“Some of the more elite athletes and those in better condition may not have any of that until later on after they’ve been exposed quite a bit, and that’s when the danger can come in,” Sager says.
“They’ll get home and start having shortness of breath, chest pain and a lot of mucous,” he says. “You think you’re doing just fine out there cruising around, but the damage has been done.”
Sager says he sidestepped smoky conditions by running earlier in the day when smoke levels tend to be lower, and he stayed hydrated, because dehydration magnifies smoke impacts. He also sought out higher elevations like Mt. Ashland, where the air can be clearer than in lowlands, and made trips to the coast to escape.
Moving events such as the hill climb may be a good concession to environmental conditions in the world of wildfire smoke, Shames says.
“If we can move events like that to a period of time when we are less likely to have significant smoke, that’s a good idea,” Shames says.
Even in the cleanest of air, the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb taxes runners to the max.
Runners begin in Ashland’s Lithia Park at an elevation of 1,900 feet above sea level. They follow a series of roads and trails to the top of Mt. Ashland at 7,532 feet.
The 5,600-foot ascent is eclipsed only by the run up Pike’s Peak in Colorado.
While snow shortened the event and put an asterisk next to the hill climb’s finishing times, the spring climb created positive vibes among participants.
“I had a blast,” says Brett Hornig, a 27-year-old Ashland runner who came in second on his first time participating in the run. “I actually like the earlier date. The weather’s gorgeous.”
And he didn’t mind the shorter course.
“You’re already hammered to get here,” Hornig says at the ski lodge’s finish line. “So you just suffer a little less. Nothing’s free on this course.”