On Tuesday, Stefan Griebel and I completed an unsupported Longs Peak Triathlon—biking 40mi from Boulder to Longs Peak, running the 5mi up to the base of the Diamond, climbing the seven-pitch Casual Route, continuing to the summit, running back down to the trailhead, and biking back to Boulder—in 9h06m. It was deeply rewarding, and super fun. I have a few thoughts on this.
As a pretty weak climber, I tend to try and leverage my strengths that come from 22 years experience as a runner when I’m dreaming up mountain objectives. The problem is usually finding a partner that harbors a similar interest in mixing A) moderate alpine climbing, and B) linking together lots of it. Most of the climbers I know who are strong enough to move quickly on 5.8-10 terrain are more likely to want to spend their time challenging themselves on harder routes and minimizing the amount of enduro foot travel (this tendency is totally understandable). Enter Jed Brown.
Jed and I climbed the Diamond together back at the end of June and had a great time. Jed is one of the more impressive mountain athletes I know—Alaskan-born grit, endurance sport enthusiasm and experience, unwavering mental composure when things start to go a little bit sideways, doesn’t mind running with a climbing pack, and, oh yeah, recipient of a Piolet d’Or. He’d never tell you.
But then he spent the entire month of July on an expedition to a 7000m peak in India, so we never got out again. When he got back last week, he texted me saying he had three weeks before school started again (he’s a Computer Science professor at CU-Boulder—some people are truly next-level human beings) and was psyched to get on some alpine granite. In typical fashion, a casual text rapidly and inexplicably snowballed into an out-sized objective: a link-up of Longs Peak, Spearhead, Chiefshead, and Mt. Alice in Rocky Mountain National Park. And, it makes the most sense to complete the loop via bike, too.
This would be a notable and big day as a simple run. And in the past I would’ve been super psyched on this as just a run. However, a big part of my motivation with climbing has always been to mix it with running into an engaging amalgam of mountain movement that covers inspiring, remote terrain via challenging, aesthetic routes. Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect arena for this type of thing. Hence, we would be spicing things up by climbing each peak via a technical rock route.
So our plan was this: on the drive to the Longs Peak TH, stash bikes at the Wild Basin TH; climb the Casual Route on Longs Peak’s Diamond, Syke’s Sickle on Spearhead, Central Rib on Chiefshead (really just the most logical means of gaining the Continental Divide), and Central Ramp on the East Face of Mt. Alice; run the 8+ miles out to the WBTH; bike the 8 miles on the road from there back to my truck at the LPTH. Do it in-a-day, preferably without extending it too far into the nighttime.
There was precedence for this kind of thing, by much stronger climbers than myself. In 2003, Jonny Cop and Kelly Cordes established the “Triple Lindy” linking what they determined to be the three biggest faces in RMNP (the Diamond, Chiefshead NW Face, and Mt Alice East Face) in 22h42min car-to-car. In 2011, Scott Bennett and Blake Herrington upped the ante by climbing some slightly harder routes and adding the NE Face on Spearhead, completing the loop car-to-car in 23h45min.
I’m not a good enough climber to efficiently get up any of the 5.10-11ish classics on Chiefshead (there doesn’t appear to be anything of quality at a more moderate grade on these faces EDIT: the Flight of the Kiwi route that Scott and Blake did during their link-up actually looks pretty reasonable, something to think about for 2016…), so I settled on simply climbing Spearhead and linking along the obvious ridge to the summit of Chiefshead (its Central Rib).
A key piece of our strategy of fitting all of this terrain into a single day was the equipment we planned to carry. Or maybe, the equipment we planned on not carrying. Jed and I each carried <20L packs—day packs, really—mine was a prototype of Ultimate Direction’s forthcoming 18L Skimo race pack. I prefer it for its sleek profile, low center of gravity, and durable materials.
We kept our packs trim by bringing almost no extra clothes—I had a longsleeve baselayer, a pair of cycling leg warmers, and rain shell—a 30m rope, and a trim rack of nine cams (doubles 0.3-0.5 and one each of 0.75, #1, #2) and maybe half a dozen finger-sized nuts. And three Petzl MicroTraxion progress-capture pulleys. These would be key to keeping our strategy of simul-climbing all day as safe as possible. Jed didn’t even bring leg coverage, spending the entire day in essentially his underwear. But, then again, he’s Alaskan. With food (~1300 calories of bars and gels) and water (a half liter flask was my total capacity), my pack weighed in right at 10lbs, carrying the rope (Jed had the rack).
After locking up our bikes in the dark at the Wild Basin Trailhead, Jed and I drove to the Longs Peak TH and started up the trail at 4:06am. A little bit of a late start, to be honest, but the sun is rising later and later these days, so it worked out pretty well. The approach was uneventful, other than finally nailing all the below-treeline shortcuts in the dark but then losing ~5min to extra bathroom breaks. As we rounded Chasm Lake, the early breezy conditions abated and the sky was clear, and we could see a pair of headlamps already high above us on Broadway and they seemed to be hovering right around the center of the face, at the start of the Casual Route. Bummer. Oh well, with our plans of simul-climbing, we hoped passing would be easy.
After scrambling the North Chimney, I arrived on Broadway first and was surprised to see the headlamp party still camped out at the base of the Casual. Seeing that these guys clearly weren’t in much of a hurry, I immediately set about flaking and tying into the rope. By time Jed arrived all he had to do was hand me the rack and I started climbing, 2h05 after leaving the trailhead.
We basically planned on climbing each route in two pitches. I’d lead the first half of each one and Jed would lead the second half. This was my fifth time climbing the Casual Route this summer, so I have it pretty dialed and moved through the first four pitches in 38min, placing four cams and clipping five fixed pins and/or anchors, protecting the 5.9 sections of climbing with the Micro Traxions.
Jed is a stronger climber than me, so he, of course, never held me up in following and 50min from Broadway he was leading up the magnificent, long 5.8 dihedral that makes up the meat of the middle part of the route. I got a bit tired in this corner, which seems to be the norm for me, but got a bit of a break when Jed hit the crux 9+/10a climbing above and 1h48 after leaving Broadway we were both at the end of the route, on Table Ledge, just before 8am. So much fun! The weather was perfect and our energy and spirits were high. Onwards.
We topped out Longs Peak (via upper Kieners) at 8:23am and snacked for a couple minutes amidst a crowd of hikers that were steadily making their way up the Keyhole Route. Both Jed and I were a bit worried about how our knees were going to hold up with the 10k’ of descending we would encounter on the day, so the next nearly 3000′ drop down the Trough on the west side of Longs to the base of Spearhead in the Glacier Gorge would be a good test.
It went well. I was feeling really high energy through here so got a bit ahead of Jed and when I got to the base of Spearhead I remembered the guide-book mentioning being able to take an alternate start at 5.6/7 for Syke’s Sickle from the left to get to “Middle Earth Ledge” a pitch up. At first I thought it looked like easy slabs, but these slabs turned out to be relatively feature-less and there were a couple cruxy sections in running shoes, working a dirty finger crack. Once on the ledge, though, it was an easy scramble up to the base of the next pitch on Syke’s and we roped up here, with me taking the lead again. The first few rope lengths were fun but not very challenging climbing in the 5.6 range. I had to remember to have at least one piece of gear between Jed and I, otherwise there was no point in having the rope out at all.
Eventually, though, the face steepened and the climbing became much more interesting, especially when we got up into the “Sickle” feature of the route and Jed took over the lead. The position and exposure here at the crux stemming 9+/10a roof section is spectacular and my impression of the route became much more positive—it suddenly felt like it deserved all its acclaim of classic status.
Once I’d grabbed the thank-god fin/arete, it was a quick (albeit, run-out) romp up the final slab, and right at noon Jed and I were standing on the summit of Spearhead.
The next section of the route is a bit of a trudge up the connecting ridge to the Central Rib headwall of Chiefshead, and I definitely felt low-energy through here, letting Jed set the pace. In retrospect, I think I was just feeling the altitude. I was happy to get to the steeper, more technical sections on the headwall as this offered a break from the cardio action, and Jed and I had fun following our nose looking for the most direct line still in the 5.6-7 range. We certainly weren’t going to go to the trouble of breaking out the rope and rock shoes for this section.
Once on the summit of Chiefshead at 1:06pm, the day’s weather had definitely taken on a different timbre. Low, grey clouds darkened the skies to the south and east, and an insistent cold wind made us each don an extra layer. Nevertheless, things were actually looking pretty favorable with patches of blue to the north and west, so there was really never any question of whether we were headed over to Mt. Alice. Of course we were.
After a couple minutes of talus hopping, the Divide turns into a beautiful grassy ridge and an east-extending rib of this offered perfect access down to the base of the East Face of Mt. Alice (along with some scree plunging, shoe skiing, and boulder hopping, of course). Jed and I were both distracted through here by a whole herd of big-horned sheep—an exciting reminder that the Wild Basin is a much more remote and less-visited corner of the park than Longs Peak and the Glacier Gorge, whence we’d just come.
Neither Jed nor I had ever climbed on Mt. Alice, though just the previous week Jed had done a long run looping over the summit of the mountain. A prominent 4th Class ledge defined the base of the East Face and offered convenient access to the start of our Central Ramp route, which allegedly traced the lefthand edge of the East Face itself.
I was starting to get pretty tired at this point—sleepy more than anything—and was reluctant to put rock shoes back on. We eventually found the base of the route—a choice between a 5.8 dihedral and a 5.5 chimney—and started up. Things soon became inobvious, and, being on the sharp end, I was getting frustrated with the uncertainty of route-finding and not knowing whether I’d find gear or not.
After only a few hundred feet of stop and start rambling, I made a hasty belay, brought Jed up and told him he could take over. Really, more than anything, my feet were killing me and I wanted a chance to slip out of my shoes.
Jed, of course, persevered without batting an eyelash (though, notably, he did agree that his feet were quite painful as well), and he continued moving the rope up the face. A long stretch of moderate terrain soon turned into a steep and tricky crux section that was punctuated by a handful of closely-placed, old pitons. Thankfully, Jed set a belay at a large grassy ledge above there and brought me up before continuing up the final couple pitches to the top.
At this point, I finally noticed the gathering dark clouds and rumbling thunder became more insistent. Just after Jed had run out the first 100′ of rope things became much more dire with gusty winds and suddenly it was raining and then sheets of hail were coming down. I looked up to see Jed thrutching through a steep chimney, but he continued charging and with all the atmospheric theatrics I followed just as quickly as possible.
I arrived at the top to find Jed hunkered down just below the ridge, saying that the rocks on the ridge itself were buzzing and that we should probably wait it out here for a minute. No argument from me, other than avalanches and rockfall, electrical storms in the high peaks are really the only other thing that get me nervous.
Thankfully, despite the wrathful intensity with which the storm had initially hit, it had mellowed considerably by time we got the rope and rack packed away and changed back into our running shoes. During this process I put on every piece of clothing I had with me; Jed persevered sans long pants without a word.
When we emerged from our alcove it soon became apparent that things were subdued enough to actually go and tag our final summit (at 5:49pm) and descend to the south via Boulder-Grand Pass and down to Thunder Lake. Just as we dropped into the pass the skies opened up again in earnest and thunder was cracking over our heads—we were pretty psyched to be off the Divide.
While I’d been dreading it a bit when we were up high on the Divide, the run out the Wild Basin (a full 7 miles of trail from Thunder Lake down to our bikes at the road) ended up being one of the highlights of the day for me. As has been the case the second half of the summer, on a long gradual downhill like that my IT band actually feels better and better the faster I go, so I opened up my stride and enjoyed the perfectly graded, often cushy trail. Running along at dusk in mid-August in the evergreen forest at 10,000′ on springy trail after a rain, after 15 hours on the move and feeling some finish line fever…I had distinct flashbacks of joy and nostalgia to running the Colorado Trail around Turquoise Lake at the end of the Leadville 100, which I’ve done so many times. In that moment, I really missed racing, but at the same time felt thankful for the opportunity and ability to challenge myself in an all-day adventure of a different tenor.
An hour of running from the lake, we reached the Wild Basin Trailhead 15h48m after starting our day and were just left with the task of biking the 7.5 miles back up the highway to my truck at the LPTH. Jed got a couple minutes headstart as I was re-packing my bag and proceeded to crush the ride—I never caught up. I was also dawdling like a granny, even weaving at times due to some serious bonkage; I’d hit my last gel back at Thunder Lake, high in the Wild Basin.
All in all, this was an outstanding adventure with a truly top-notch partner. The Mt. Alice route was a bit of a disappointment, but it’s a beautiful mountain and worth including as an aesthetic extension of the loop. On that day, I said I had no desire to ever climb it again, but right now I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to give this thing another shot next year, if only to do a proper route on the spectacular NW Face of Chiefshead. Time to up my climbing game.
The last time I’d been up Longs Peak—the last time I’d been to 14k’—was back in early March for a Winter Longs Peak Duathlon effort. Shortly after that, my illiotibial bands—in both knees—started giving me fits and haven’t really let up since. Late last week, an attempt to use a bike approach to a day of high-altitude scrambling was cut drastically short by a critically sore right knee that had me literally crawling on all fours back down to the 4th of July Trailhead from South Arapaho Peak. Ugh. Well, at least I learned that biking and running are equally aggravating to my knees and I can’t accelerate said aggravation by compounding the activities.
When I did a Longs Peak Triathlon last summer, I remember thinking it was only logical to apply the same tactics in the calendar winter season. Maybe unsurprisingly, there simply didn’t seem to be many attempts at such a thing, let alone actual completions of the task. To be sure, even in the age of the Internet, we don’t always know what exciting things people have been up to, but the only completions I could find were by Justin Simoni (a constant inspiration when it comes to bikes and mountains) and Tina Lewis, both in the 18-19hr range. Maybe I’m weak for wanting to wait for at least decent conditions—call me crazy, but this seems to be an important part of the tradition of mountaineering—but I couldn’t figure out how it should take quite that long. And riding dark roads at night doesn’t hold a huge amount of appeal for me. So I waited for good conditions.
Well, that was worthwhile.
It’s not like I’m realizing anything ground-breaking here—in fact, mountain and ultrarunners crossing over to skimo in the winter months is treading perilously close to the tipping point of being cliche—but holy shit, what an absolutely fantastic sport! If you like moving quickly and efficiently* in the mountains, this style and format of activity is the only one that makes sense in the winter. *(I prefer the “efficiently” adverb, because I believe it is one’s mindset and intent—not absolute velocity—that positively or negatively shapes the experience.)
Of course, the Euros have known this for a long time; they have a deep, intense pool of athletes over there who have been going at this for decades. Backcountry skiing or alpine touring in general is certainly nothing new here in the States, but it is definitely a growing sector, and with big advances in lightweight gear, runners (and others) with a bent for the mountains are increasingly being attracted to the sport’s extreme light-n-fast sector—skimo racing. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Ultimate Direction is making the logical cross-over, too. Garment-like hydration vests/packs with front carrying capacity have become the norm in running; why not apply the same design principles to skimo-specific packs? I’ve certainly been enjoying testing the new products.
Last month I was out at dinner with some friends when my friend Roch started talking about his hope to one day ski the length of the John Muir Trail. The JMT—the classic 200+ mile route through the High Sierra from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley—is an extremely popular summer hike, but Roch figured it had only been skied a couple of times. This conversation was quite inspirational for me—Roch is an undeniably compelling and confidence-inducing orator— and I started thinking about the kinds of things I could reasonably do on skis.
I doubt I’ll ever have the skills or confidence to be scratching and jump-turning my way down the really steep stuff in the mountains, but the thought of covering a lot of miles over the mountains on more mellow terrain holds a distinct appeal. More “ski touring” I suppose, than “ski mountaineering”. This appeal is facilitated in no small part by the fact that such activity relies on a physical capacity—all day endurance—that I’ve been honing my entire life, as opposed to the more skilled and technical requirements of steeper descents. Skills I certainly don’t currently possess. Maybe I’ll get there one day.
This summer, from mid-April to mid-August, I had a bone stress injury in my right tibia (reaction, fracture, it doesn’t really matter, treatment is the same) that prevented me from not only running, but really, precluded almost any pain-free, bipedal perambulation. Because I was necessarily relegated to biking for those four months, I had a real awakening with regards to the wonders and merits of it as a means of satisfying, continuous movement in the mountains.
Despite a fairly negative attitude towards biking (at least, as anything other than pure commuting) over the past few years, I actually have a bit of experience with the activity from my college days. In my first 10 years of running (1995-2005), I sustained something like 12 stress fractures. In high school, I was young and healed quickly and as a means of coping, I would haphazardly spend some time cross-training on my mom’s stationary bike in our basement. Soon enough I was back out pounding the gravel and dirt.
In college, however, I distinctly remember having a conversation with the school’s athletic trainer, Bruce, asking him why this particular stress fracture was taking longer than the four weeks of downtime I would typically require in high school. His response?
“Tony, your’e not 15 anymore; your body takes longer to heal now.”
This was a depressing thing to hear at a mere 19 years of age.
Funny, that actually went about as well as I could’ve realistically hoped. TGC had been on my to-do list for a couple of years now. Friends’ descriptions intrigued me, and I found the surface-level details to be attractive: a route that logically traverses a geographic feature (the entire island!), travel to a foreign land, high-level competition, a long but still sub-100mi distance. Nevertheless, I barely made the trip due to a lingering shin twinge that left me woefully underprepared for so much running so early in the season. However, when my shin showed signs of affirmative health two weeks before race day, I put my faith in my consistent uphill skiing over the past two months and several reports that the track was steep and technical (i.e. giving me lots of hiking breaks), and began making some last-minute plans to race. Continue reading
In late October 2001 I was on I-70 driving east through the Eisenhower Tunnels with three fellow Colorado College freshmen. Our destination that evening was the Grays and Torreys trailhead, just a few miles down the hill (they would become only my 2nd and 3rd 14ers the next day; I’d been living in Colorado for all of two months), but as we emerged from the tunnel and glanced to our right, the driver immediately exited the freeway and careened into the Loveland Ski Area parking lot. One lift was running, two runs were open (due to copious manufactured snow), the cost was free (seriously, who would charge for less than an hour of artificial snice?) and the bed of our truck just happened to be lined with approximately half a dozen pairs of skis because, Colorado.
I didn’t commit to running UTMB this year until two weeks before race day. During the second week of July my historically-troublesome right shin became a worry once again, and I was able to do very little true running for all of July and August. In early August, in hopes of keeping my Hardrock Qualifier chances alive, but wanting to buy myself a little more time, I had even signed up for the Bear 100 and given up on racing UTMB altogether. However, my shin unexpectedly experienced a turnaround a couple weeks before the race, which made the opportunity to head back to Chamonix too appealing to pass up. Continue reading