I dropped from the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Trient, Switzerland on Saturday morning—139km and 17hr after the start in Chamonix, France, but still 29km from making it all the way around the mountain. Curiously—despite the DNF—UTMB was one of the most pleasant, even serene, racing experiences I’ve had out on the trails. However, sometimes a few pieces of gristle are all it takes to bring a halt to our silly ambitions, and, if you let it, completely transform your outlook on the day. I’ve tried to not let that happen, but I’m a competitive bastard, and it takes constant attention on my part to keep my perspective firmly situated in the much-vaunted “bigger picture”. Sometimes you really want to win the fucking race, though. Or just finish, even. And when you don’t, it’s disappointing. Big surprise.
I came into Speedgoat this year feeling primed after spending all month exploring new (to me) routes and mountains in non-Sawatch mountain ranges in Colorado. I’d gotten my fill of the Sawatch in June. I also came in with an undue amount of competitive angst.
Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain in Colorado’s Elk Range are unique when compared to the range’s other 14ers in that they are composed of fractured granite rather than the teetering piles of sedimentary choss that make up the range’s even more famous 14ers (notably, Pyramid and the Maroon Bells). Because of its mandatory Knife Edge on the NE Ridge standard route, Capitol is considered by some to be the state’s most difficult 14er (debatable, of course), and Snowmass is probably the most remote 14er outside of the San Juan range—not a lot of people climb it in a single day. I have an interest in eventually completing a north-to-south link-up of all seven of the Elk 14ers, so rehearsing the best route between Capitol and Snowmass seemed like a good idea.
When I left the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 2am on Monday morning—setting out on the Nolan’s 14 link-up—I suspect I thought I would have a much longer and more interesting story to tell about my journey than the tale I have in my head right now. The short of it is that I started out stupidly early in the morning, felt crappy already by the second peak (Mt. Elbert), and kept going for four more peaks and 10 more hours, but instead of things getting better they just kept getting worse and worse so I ultimately bailed after Mt. Belford (#6) and descended to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, in relief.
All photos: Matt Trappe.
On the summit of Missouri Mt, I pointed out the rest of our day’s objectives to Joe. From our vantage point, the summits of Belford, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale were all clearly visible. Joe and I both had linked up the first five summits before, but tacking on Yale at the end was uncharted territory for us, and the night before I’d even forgotten to peruse the internet for beta on its ascent.
This week was my mom’s 65th birthday and retirement party, on the same day. Mom has been an educator for 34 years and Friday was finally her last day of school. I drove the 9hrs home to Niobrara, NE to celebrate with her and my Dad, and the entire way I fought a vicious northerly headwind that left my ears ringing and my brain exhausted from focusing to keep The Roost on the road. But, once you get a 100 miles or so away from the Front Range and out onto the Great Plains, the wind is nothing really worth commenting on. It is simply endemic to the environment. Wind notwithstanding, late May is actually a really ideal time to visit my home—the hills are resplendent with a lush emerald; the whippoorwills have already made their way back, offering a reliable and lovely serenade each evening; the weather is pleasantly warm but not necessarily yet hot and sticky; and the bugs (chiggers in the grass during the day, mosquitos in the evening) haven’t quite yet decided that it’s time to torment.
“In a strange kind of way, lifeless landscapes have so much to say.” –Porcelain Raft, Shapeless and Gone
April on the Front Range had record snowfalls, so a trip south to the desert made sense. Joe had a planned rendevous with his uncle in the Grand Canyon and my apartment sublease was up and I needed a long, hot run to get ready for Transvulcania next month, so figured, why not?
Joe’s and my first road trip together was the 22hr epic out to Western States in 2010 where he drove the entire way; the long, crooked arm of the law shamelessly profiled our unkempt, hirsute visages half-way across Nevada (thanks to the “Runners To Watch” section in the WS100 Handbook, we were able to finagle a warning); and I learned the meaning of Joe’s moniker “Joe G FM”—with his olympic abilities as a conversationalist, we never turned on the radio in over 1000 miles of driving.
I knew it was a different morning on Longs when I left the parking lot with a bare head and bare hands. Usually I’m pretty chilly at the trailhead, but on this day the sweat was pouring off my eyebrows and nose on the very first steep cut up through the trees, and instead of dreading the breeze at treeline I welcomed it for its cooling properties.
Whenever one has a mishap in the backcountry, the chain of decisions and events that led up to it always seem so obvious in hindsight. But I suppose that’s just the way it works. I was battling a bit of a head cold and was feeling beat down from a previous 10 days of high-volume outings, so on this morning I resolved to just wake up whenever my body wanted, not interrupting my slumber with the typical 5am alarm that I set when I’m planning on an ascent of Longs Peak. As such, I arrived at the trailhead an hour later than usual, and on top of that it was a gloriously warm day—temps in Boulder later in the day would reach the low-70s.
This morning was my 10th summit of Longs Peak so far this year, and the third this week. My previous two times up the mountain earlier in the week were both probably the toughest conditions I’ve experienced on the mountain. Temperatures weren’t unreasonable, but on both Wednesday and Friday the mountain was completely socked in by unforecasted, heavily-snowing clouds, and whipping winds sent constant waves of spindrift through the air. Though it was a week late, it felt more like winter than any of my previous true winter ascents of the mountain.
This morning was quite a bit different. On the way up there was plenty of snow blowing in the wind, but once I had made it to the west side of Mt. Lady Washington the wind mostly died and the rest of the day was exceedingly pleasant. All of the snow on the north face made the technical climbing feel easy and secure, so on the way down I just downclimbed instead of rappeling, and since the sun was now high in the sky I actually stripped down to a short-sleeve t-shirt at 13,000′ and ran back down to the trailhead in comfort.
Getting up the hill this particular day wasn’t going to be easy. When I awoke, the gently flaking sky seemed benign enough, but now, half-way up Green Mountain, my jacket is soaked through, I’m slogging through shin-deep powder and a raucous north wind is inducing periodic white-out conditions. Up here on the hill, the snow rate has officially crossed the line from “bucolic snow-globe scene” to “blizzard”. A quick tag of the summit and I turn to begin the slalom back down, eager to regain the shelter of the forest.
As I’m running the streets back down to my apartment—indulgently striding right down the center, taking advantage of the universally higher amounts of inertia that exist in homes on weekend mornings, especially when it’s snowing—I am reminded of my roots as a runner. When I was 13, I would regularly run 20 milers in this kind of crap, I think. Thirteen. Over 15 years later, my current pursuits—100 mile mountain races, all-day peak-bagging efforts—suddenly make a lot more sense with that kind of perspective and history.