Unsupported Longs Peak Triathlon FKT

IMG_8429On 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.

Almost exactly a year ago, I climbed Longs Peak’s Diamond for the first time with my friend Bill Wright. We had climbed together all summer in Eldorado Canyon outside of Boulder, gradually working our way through a series of routes that Bill deemed proper preparation for being able to proficiently make our way up the Casual Route, at 5.10a the easiest route on Longs’ iconic, high altitude, sheer 1700’ face. Climbing the Casual last August with Bill was very satisfying because it had been a long-term, in-the-back-of-my-mind goal that we achieved through focused preparation and a summer-long commitment to the objective. Our day on the mountain was rewarding, but sneaking in at just under 12hr car-to-car, I was exhausted and even a bit dejected that getting up the Diamond was so draining.

However, getting that first lap in under my belt was crucial to allowing me to dream of one day being competent enough to complete the much-vaunted Longs Peak Triathlon. The week before heading up there with Bill, I had completed a JV version of the LPT via the much less committing but still 5th-Class Kieners Route. The proudest and most proper Triathlon, however, requires climbing a route on the steep, sustained, and exposed Diamond itself, not just skirting its edge the way Kieners does. These outings last August planted the seed: ok, maybe one day this will be possible. This week, I was actually able to make it happen.

A few weeks ago I pretty randomly watched the new Netflix documentary Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. I vaguely knew of Tony Robbins through an episode of the TED Radio Hour podcast I listen to, and had been intrigued by his confidence, gravelly voice, and role over the years as personal advisor to such high-powered celebrities as Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. I came away from the documentary with a much clearer picture of Robbins as a self-help motivational speaker and also lots and lots of skepticism. I was a little surprised at his methods and that people pay for his seminars. But he did say one thing in the entire documentary that resonated quite deeply with me, that a key to happiness in life is continual growth and a sense of progression.

This is a pretty obvious tenet of modern society. It’s why jobs or careers with an unbreakable ceiling are considered unsatisfying or “dead-end”. It’s why billionaires continue to amass wealth. (Well, probably some unadulterated greed occasionally sneaks in there, too.) Nevertheless, it seems that if growth and progression are ignored in certain contexts, it’s too easy to become comfortable—stagnant—in the status quo, and one day wake up and wonder why you’re so uninspired and even unhappy.

This tangible sense of growth and progression is, I think, one of the big reasons that my first LPT via the Casual Route was so enriching. Here was something that even just a year ago seemed nearly impossible, and yet, through diligent focus and development of new skills and amassing of new experience, this year I was able to pull it off.

Stefan had completed the LPT four times previously, with four different partners, so it wasn’t nearly as big a deal for him, but after climbing together in the alpine a couple of times earlier this summer, I knew we’d be a good fit. Mostly because Stefan is a very strong climber who is also psyched for silly endurance activities like biking and running.

The one wrinkle that I threw into the mix—to hew as closely as possible to my personal style preferences, but to also add a new twist that might pique Stefan’s interest—was to complete the LPT unsupported, i.e. no outside crewing or aid and carrying all of our equipment from start to finish in Boulder. When I had completed the LPT via Kieners last summer and the Longs Peak Duathlon via the Cables this past winter, I had gone unsupported, so it just seemed natural to do the same on the LPT via the Diamond. Except that climbing the Diamond generally requires a whole lot more equipment—a rope and rack of protection—and biking and running a total of over 11,000’ uphill with any extra weight is exhausting.

As such, Stefan and I meticulously trimmed our gear to the bare minimum. We would bring only a 30m rope. We each wore harnesses that weighed 95g—most harnesses easily weigh four or five times as much. And we calculated our rack down to the last carabiner:

– four cams (0.4, 0.75, #1, #2)
– four lightweight quickdraws
– four shoulder slings with one carabiner each
– three MicroTraxion progress-capture pulleys

Since I was leading the first half of the route, I brought a Petzl Reverso belay device so that I could put Stefan on belay at the end of my block. Stefan would lead the top half and would just continue running the rope past the end of the route, belaying me off of tension after I removed the final MicroTraxion; he didn’t even pack a belay device. For extra clothes, I brought a long sleeve base layer and a 3oz wind shell. Even carrying the rope, my pack for the day weighed only 9lbs. Lucky for me, Stefan loves this refinement and revision aspect of the game as much as I do; it’s part of what makes a multi-discipline mountain objective like this so much fun.

Waiting for the sun to give us just a little bit of light in the Bustop parking lot. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Waiting for the sun to give us just a little bit of light in the Bustop parking lot. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

We rolled out from the Bustop Gentleman’s Club in north Boulder at 5:29am, waiting for just enough light to see, as we didn’t want to take headlamps. To me, it felt like we were hitting a pretty hot pace right from the beginning, but I never ride with other people (drafting and trading pulls isn’t completely foreign to me, but it is very rare) and despite riding the three miles from my apartment to the Bustop, it always takes me a while to warm up and get going. Any time I was drafting off of Stefan, I felt like I was on the edge of getting dropped.

There was the customary early morning headwind heading up South St Vrain Canyon, so Stefan and I continued to trade pulls, and I continued to feel like we were going quite a bit harder than I would have on my own—a huge benefit of doing this with a partner! Stefan finally seemed to start tiring a bit as we neared the Peak-to-Peak Highway junction, and the rest of the ride over to the Longs Peak Trailhead was much more comfortable for me. On the last steep climb up to the trailhead I pulled ahead by a couple of minutes because I knew my transition—changing out of bike shoes into my La Sportiva Helios SR’s for the trail—would take longer than Stefan’s, who was wearing La Sportiva Mutants on platform pedals.

Cranking out the approach, with the big mountains in the distance. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Cranking out the approach, with the big mountains in the distance. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

I hit the trailhead at 2h42 and we were both overjoyed to see the new water spigot right at the start of the trail. We chugged some extra water here and filled our bottles, meaning we ended up leaving the TH right at 2h49.

Despite the bike ride (with ~5k’ of vert already) in our legs, Stefan and I ended up hitting our usual splits on the approach to the base of the North Chimney. Some of this was no doubt aided by doing the approach in daylight and nailing the devious route-finding at treeline. When we stopped for water at our customary spot on the grassy knoll just before the talus below the North Chimney, we actually put on our harnesses here and I took the rack, knowing that I would scramble the 500′ North Chimney faster and in my running shoes (Stefan changes into his climbing shoes for the NC). As such, since I wouldn’t be placing any gear on the customary first pitch up the D1 Pillar anyways, I could already be a full pitch up the climb before Stefan even tied into the rope.

Filling water at the grassy knoll. Helmet and harness already on. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Filling water at the grassy knoll. Helmet and harness already on. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Which is exactly how it worked out. I arrived at Broadway at 1h45 from the trailhead (and 4h34 from Boulder), tied into the rope, flaked it, put two of the MicroTraxions on it, changed into my climbing shoes, and started up right at 4h40. Stefan reported tying into the other end of the rope right around when I clipped the first piece (fixed slings at the top of the first pitch). Perfect.

The only problem now was that there was a climber halfway up the 2nd pitch, in the middle of the 5.9 finger crack, with several loops of rope dangling and seemingly not moving at all. At first I thought he was belaying his partner who was out on the 5.7 traverse pitch, or maybe in the 5.8+ slot after that, but it turns out this guy was rope-soloing and was in the process of jugging and cleaning this pitch. He was adamant about us not passing him. Bummer.

I waited for maybe 3-4min at my second piece of pro—a 0.4 cam at the base of the 5.9 finger crack—before he started moving and I figured I could climb to the top of the 5.9 crack without being impeded. I did this, taking my time so as not to crowd him, and I’ll admit, it was actually kind of nice to not have to rush through this. On this section of rock I only clip a single fixed piton near the top of the pitch, and then clip a MicroTraxion to the fixed sling at the top of the crack/start of the leftward traverse. This Micro acts as a pulley, limiting the drag created by this 90deg angle (not that there’d be much anyways with the short rope and limited gear) and protecting Stefan for the 5.9 climbing.

It was a little bit frustrating, however, to have to climb the 5.7 traverse so slowly as I was super fired up and completely in the groove, feeling 100% comfortable on the rock. On this rising traverse I clip the two pitons and that’s it until I get to the crack below the slot, where I place the #1. Maybe because I was forced into doing the traverse so slowly and methodically, I felt completely solid at this transition this time and lamented bringing the #1—it didn’t feel necessary.

The squeeze slot above there is definitely one of the cruxes on the route, but this being my sixth time on it in the past two months, I have the beta dialed and I felt completely solid, placing the #2 as high as possible in the slot (to Stefan’s chagrin, cleaning it) and mantel-wriggling back out onto the face. Just above here I placed our last cam—the 0.75—so as to protect this slot with a Micro for Stefan.

After the slot, the rope-soloist was happy to let us pass and I cruised by as quickly as possible, clambering up the easy cracks to the fixed anchor—recently refreshed with new cord—at the dihedral ramp, where I finally put Stefan on belay, four guidebook pitches and roughly half-way up the route.

Stefan, of course, cruised all of this, and 40min after I’d left Broadway he was leading away from me, up the 5.8 corner. Of course, since we had the rack completely dialed, the transition consisted of me unclipping the Reverso from the anchor and clipping it to my harness belay loop. Done.

I find this corner to always be the mental crux of the route, simply because it’s so sustained and consistent at the grade. It’s an absolutely beautiful pitch, 200’ of immaculate stemming, liebacking, and jamming through 5.8 finger-to-hand crack. On this day, though, I finally climbed it without Stefan ever pulling the rope completely tight on me, which I was even more proud of because Stefan placed literally two pieces of gear on this entire 200’ (a #1 and a 0.75, putting a Micro on each), and clipping a single fixed nut. Which means it was virtually continuous movement, never getting to stop to rest. Having someone comfortable leading something that sustained on three points of protection in 200’ is super key to being able to do this route so efficiently while carrying all your gear from Boulder.

I did get a rest, however—and step back into the sun—at the top of the corner on the Yellow Wall Bivy Ledge, while Stefan was leading the crux pitch of 9+/10a climbing above me. A lot of people consider the 9+ inset the crux of the whole route, but its technical feet lends more to my strengths as a climber—I start flailing pretty quickly on almost anything that goes beyond vertical—than the short but steep 10a crux bulge at the top of the pitch.

I was on-point today, though, and jammed through this quickly, having to take extra time on the Table Ledge traverse actually, as Stefan had pulled all sorts of shenannies here with our anemic rack—girth-hitching a piton, clipping a locker biner to another, clipping the #2 cam biner to the last piton. Not super efficient to clean.

Last pitch---following the Table Ledge traverse. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Last pitch—following the Table Ledge traverse. Photo: Stefan Griebel.

I reached Stefan at the end of Table Ledge at 6h01 from Boulder (1h21 on route, even with being slowed in the first half), and took 7min to organize and pack everything and change back into running shoes for the dash up upper Kieners to the summit of Longs. In the process, Stefan actually fumbled his full 26oz bottle of water, tossing it off the edge of the Diamond. Dang it. No worries, I had a near full half-liter flask that I knew I wouldn’t be needing, and we charged to the top, reaching the summit in 6h17 from Boulder and leaving at 6h19.

I was super excited at this point by how far ahead of expected pace we were (I had thought we’d be literally about an hour slower here) and took off down the north face to the Cables feeling full of energy. After the quick downscramble of the Cables themselves (wet, but no longer icy), the descent turns into an extended session of talus and boulder hopscotch all the way over and down the shoulder of Mt Lady Washington before we’d hook into the historical Jim Grove trail to take us to treeline.

My left IT band had been tight on the uphill approach (courtesy of the high-intensity, uphill cycling), and this boulder-hopping nearly put it over the edge as I did my best to manage more than a few sharp pains and had to deliberately favor it. Luckily—as has been its wont, lately—it improved markedly the instant we were able to return to a more natural running gait on the trail descent, and I had little more issue with it until much later in the day.

Once we’d passed the navigational issues at treeline, I again ran ahead down to the bikes knowing that my transition would take longer than Stefan’s. And as I got there (at 7h18 elapsed, 4h29 for the bike-to-bike roundtrip of Longs via the Casual) it was in a light rain. I was really happy we were as fast as we were thus far. Topping out Longs in the rain wouldn’t have been very pleasant.

Stefan arrived a few minutes later and we rolled out of the parking lot at exactly 7h26m. We were both hooting and hollering with adrenaline and endorphins at this point and given the rain-slickened road, hit the initial steep downhill just a little too hot. I drifted wide on a curve, afraid of my tires slipping on the wet pavement, and in the process forced Stefan into the ditch just behind me. Whoops, ok, let’s watch ourselves here!

The rest of the ride was without incident and though it downpoured briefly, the rain stopped after only a couple of miles. I was intent upon squeezing every minute of time out of our effort, though, and mashed the pedals with a vengeance the whole way back, cranking as hard as I could into the headwind with Stefan hanging behind in the draft, resting up for the soul-crushing rollers on the last 10mi from Lyons to Boulder.

Stefan's view the whole way back to Boulder ;-) Photo: Stefan Griebel.

Stefan’s view the whole way back to Boulder 😉 Photo: Stefan Griebel.

This was going really well and there was even a brief window of time where it looked like sub-9hr was going to be in play, but in those last 10mi Stefan had a micro-instance of cracking, where I inadvertently rode him off my wheel for a couple minutes, and then right at the Lefthand Canyon junction my left knee finally issued a serious lightning bolt warning shot of pain and we were forced into just spinning easily into the finish over those last 5mi, reaching the Bustop 9h06m after we’d left it. Done!

Bustop parking lot Oskar Blues Old Chubs and war stories. Stefan gets into it. Photo: Alton Richardson.

Bustop parking lot Oskar Blues Old Chubs and war stories. Stefan gets into it. Photo: Alton Richardson.

Just as every other alpine outing I’ve had with Stefan this summer—a three-tower link-up in the Skypond Cirque and an evening dash up the Casual in June, even an early morning tune-up lap of the Casual in late July where we were back at the trailhead by 9:30am—we toasted the outing with a pair of ice cold Oskar Blues Old Chubs in the parking lot, courtesy of Mr. Griebel. I deem this an important tradition worth continuing.

The Old Chub certainly helped, but the real buzz we were feeling in that parking lot was far more potent. It’s the kind of buzz that, for me, I’ve come to realize is at least partly a result of working towards things that initially seem out of reach, maybe even impossible. But, through focused preparation and a stepwise process of intermediate goals, the resolution on that seemingly lofty objective gradually sharpens and suddenly the dream is doable, offering a tangible indicator of growth and progression. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to give it another crack next year.

Big Day in the Park

jed_TLAs 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.

Jed scrambling the North Chimney earlier this summer.

Jed scrambling the North Chimney at sunrise earlier this summer.

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 reaching my belay in the long corner in the middle of the route.

Jed reaching my belay in the long corner in the middle of the route.

Butt shot of Jed leading up the corner---at least he's sporting the stars 'n bars!

Butt shot of Jed leading up the corner—at least he’s sporting the stars ‘n bars!

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.

Longs Peak summit.

Longs Peak summit.

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.

Spearhead (right) and Chiefshead (left), our next two summits.

Spearhead (right) and Chiefshead (left), our next two summits.

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.

Our route up Syke's Sickle.

Our route up Syke’s Sickle.

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.

Final move onto Spearhead's summit.

Final move onto Spearhead’s summit. Photo: Jed Brown.

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.

Psyched on the summit of Spearhead. Photo: Jed Brown.

Psyched on the summit of Spearhead. Photo: Jed Brown.

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.

Some of the 5.6-7 scrambling on the Chiefshead Central Rib.

Some of the 5.6-7 scrambling on the Chiefshead Central Rib. Photo: Jed Brown.

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.

Jed running the grassy ridge on the Continental Divide, leading to Mt. Alice.

Jed running the grassy ridge on the Continental Divide, leading to Mt. Alice.

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.

East Face of Mt. Alice with the ledge system that we used to access our route.

East Face of Mt. Alice with the ledge system that we used to access our route.

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.

Psyched on the summit of Mt. Alice. I was in too much of a hurry to take my helmet off.

Happy the rocks are no longer buzzing on the summit of Mt. Alice.

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.

Gear explosion at the Wild Basin TH before boarding the Reeb Cycles adventure rig.

Gear explosion at the Wild Basin TH before boarding the Reeb Cycles adventure rig.

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.

Longs Peak: Four Hours, Four Routes

chasm 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.

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Winter Longs Peak Triathlon

DSC02919When 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.

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Power of Four Skimo Race — 2016

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer / @mykehphoto / mykejh.com

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer / @mykehphoto / mykejh.com

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.

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East Portal to Winter Park and Back

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.

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A Brief History of My Relationship With Bicycles (As an Adult)

rollins2This 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.

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Transgrancanaria 125K+ (2015)

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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

Skiing

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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.

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UTMB 2014

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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