Tower Reversed

The Bialetti sputtered on the stove and I raced over to rescue its contents. A map of Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash hung on the wall, in a mundane spot beside the fridge so I would look at it every day, committing its lofty passes and peaks to memory.

It was my goal to run the 130km route in a single push, no sleep. It usually took people a week to complete the circuit around this Himalayan-esque range, but I intended to do it in a day. If the slow and heavy “usual way” was to trekking as “siege style” was to mountaineering, I likened my single-push trail run to “night-naked”, light and fast, alpine style climbing. And I thought I would be the first to do it.

Cue an innocent inspection of the South America subforum on the Fastest Known Time message board when I came across this:

screen-shot-2018-01-26-at-8-39-14-pm-e1517024941274.pngMy dream of two years had been poached. I wasted no time bemoaning the situation or even considering trying to do it faster or unsupported; the whole point was to do a “first ascent” and that possibility was gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to visit this stunning area. I didn’t intend for it to serve solely as the backdrop for my egocentric ambitions. It possessed all of the components I identified as the “ultimate trail run”, but once I learned it had already been done, I wrote the whole thing off altogether. I can walk around this range when I’m in my forties, I reasoned, but now is the time for fucking sending.

I closed the window, turned the page, on hopes and dreams I’d built up over many months into something almost salvatory in stature. Running the Huayhuash wasn’t the only one. January drew to a close and the new year was already off to a melancholy start. I swallowed the last few drops of espresso along with any sense of certainty in my newly unbounded future, and began to contemplate Plan B.


John Green rappelling down Chantilly Falls, Kananaskis
Chris Reid skinning to the top of Lookout Mountain, Sunshine Village Ski Resort
Bre Mirynech sending one of the steeper pitches at Balfour Wall, Icefields Parkway
Marcy Montgomery soaking up the sunrise from East End of Rundle in Canmore

Tower Reversed

Past-Present-Future ’17/’18

20170720_122907_HDRPast
It’s been ages since I contributed to this blog — eleven months to be exact — despite the fact that I had my most memorable year in the mountains and I’ve had lots to write about.

What made it so great? First, I went to Mexico and tagged three high-ish altitude volcanoes. The trip was independently researched, funded and facilitated and was fulfilling because it was so far out of my comfort zone. A full report can be found here. I see this trip as the first in a new chapter of my mountain life that focuses more on running and mountaineering objectives abroad rather than organized trail races.

Second, I used a bike to access most of my mountain adventures last summer. This decision came initially out of practicality; when my ex-girlfriend and I split up last spring, we sold our car as I reasoned it wouldn’t be necessary to me. As I went on longer and longer excursions, I fell in love with my bike and the whole self-powered medium. I can’t articulate how satisfying it is to do long daytrips in the mountains using entirely one’s own steam.

20170724_115354_hdr-e1513822506965.jpgThe self-powered style reached its zenith for me in the context of the Mount Temple Duathlon, in which I cycled 70kms from Banff to Moraine Lake, tagged 3544m Mount Temple, then rode all the way back to Banff. I completed this challenge twice this summer, the second time doing it unsupported (no outside assistance, not even cafés) and brought the time down to 10h05m from my first attempt in 2016 which took nearly fourteen hours to complete.

Next, I spent a ton of time in the Valley of the Ten Peaks this summer, which is arguably one of Banff’s most picturesque and popular areas. It feels great to have built such an intimate relationship with this location and its iconic peak, Mount Temple, via eight excursions in an variety of styles, both solo and with various friends.

I can’t do a recap of this summer without mentioning my crack at the Temple FKT, which represents to me my sharpest, most refined state as a mountain runner. While the story is told here, the long and short of it is that I expected to fail but succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I will never forget looking over my shoulder during the final ridge ascent and becoming overwhelmed both by gratitude for my capability and the sublimity of the view.

20479543_10159282367115106_6847230140752366069_nI’ll conclude with the last few episodes which come to mind:

Completely failing at my big project for the summer, a bikepacking-style link-up of three 11,000 foot peaks. I thought I’d trained enough but the night before I was due to head out, I completely fell apart. This happens regularly for me with smaller objectives, but I was genuinely crushed that I wasn’t feeling confident enough to take it on. Oh well, there’s always next summer…

Ha Ling “Rice Bowl” (north bowl) with Chris Reid. This is the semi-technical slabby bowl separating the north faces of Ha Ling and Miner’s Peak. I’d done this once before with Sean Bradley but it’s definitely at the upper end of my comfort zone when it comes to scrambling terrain. Like last time, we sent it safely and without issue, and it was nice to take on something more demanding than a hike or run with a bud with whom I plan to tackle more technical objectives in the future.

20170909_113225Elizabeth Parker and Abbot Pass Huts with Marcy Montgomery. A little different for me as I’ve somehow spent six years in the Rockies avoiding carrying a heavy pack and/or doing overnight trips, but in terms of sheer enjoyment, this was one of my favourite weekends in the mountains, ever. Lake O’Hara was at its peak of golden larch season so the eye-candy was incredible and as for the company, the girl is a fucking riot.

Present
After several weeks of declining activity and drive to take on big adventures, as of November 1st I started consistently running and training in the weightroom again. While there’s nothing too epic to report, the motivation for this renewed activity came from the stars lining up for my next big mountain adventure, planned for September of next year. Guiding my efforts has been the wisdom imparted in Steve House and Scott Johnson’s book, Training for the New Alpinism.

My actual outings have consisted of the usual winter objectives: Sulphur Mountain in Banff; Ha Ling and East End of Rundle in Canmore. I’ve continued plumbing the semi-technical Sulphur 3 in varied conditions this winter and, as I still don’t own a car, most of my ascents of Ha Ling and EEOR start and finish in town.

While stoked to get out on my skis this winter, I haven’t had as many opportunities as expected. Ski trips have included a daytrip back and forth to Bow Hut with my buddy Tomas, and tagging Lookout Mountain at Sunshine Ski Resort with Chris.

img_20171226_101131_647.jpg

Future
Unlike in the past, I’m less inclined to discuss my plans for the future. Perhaps I’m just growing up and wanting less to talk about things I haven’t done yet, but I do believe there’s a certain energy preserved in keeping things secret.

While many of my future plans are tempered by other factors (work, for example), there are a few details I’m willing to disclose:

I want to become a more fully rounded mountaineer. I feel a tangible sense of being limited as a hiker/runner/scrambler and want to learn the systems which permit more vertical travel in the mountains. The logical source of this knowledge is taking a course, but my opportunities for doing this next summer will be limited, so I hope to learn from knowledgeable peers as well.

I signed up for a half-Ironman in Calgary. While I’m unabashedly infatuated with the mountain environment, the culture and hardcore exertion of Ironman triathlons fascinates me. Plus, I have all the gear and basically all the skillsets. Based on some of the adventures I took on last summer, this doesn’t faze me as much as perhaps it should.

I want to continue with the self-powered/multisport style in the mountains. I don’t know if I want to do every approach on the bike like last summer, but I don’t intend to forsake it altogether. Futhermore, The Picnic AKA Grand Teton Triathlon has had a lasting impact on me and I intend to import this kind of craziness to the Canadian Rockies.

I have a big international mountain adventure scheduled for September 2018. I won’t disclose many details except that it involves ultra distance, high altitude and a jaw-dropping mountain environment. This is something I’ve been thinking about for at least a couple of years and is one potential response to my philosophical question, “What would the trail running equivalent of the world’s gnarliest alpine climbing routes look like?”

Past-Present-Future ’17/’18

Summer’s Sunset

40August flew right by with a flurry of disparate summits, though I feel like I underutilized this prime part of the season, for sure. The positive perspective to my summer is that I have remained healthy, increasingly fast in the domain of running up and down mountains, and have learned a lot about my overall system and how to sustain and/or tweak it. I have become lighter, more minimal — practically naked at times — which translates directly into speed and a deeper relationship with mountains I already know. I’ve also spent more time above 3000m than ever before, which is important to me, to visit that zone where the rest of the world is muted and life consists solely of the elements, all amplified to a violent pitch.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that complacency kept me from pulling off any “big projects” this summer, or really any big days, barely running anything over 30kms since the Mont Blanc 80K in June. Distance isn’t really what matters to me, it’s the feeling of adventure, mainly gained from long distance in the backcountry, and I didn’t do any long backcountry trips (like last summer) either.

The weather in September has changed abruptly to autumn, snow has fallen and I doubt the stuff at higher elevations is going away. My mindset has shifted to two upcoming events this month, then making the most of fickle fall conditions until my parents come to visit in October. September 11-13, 2015 is our second Mountain Stride Fitness retreat in Kananaskis, designed to transport your trail running to an alpine landscape of peaks, ridges and valleys. We still have a few spots available! See mountainstridefitness.com for more info.

September 18-20 are three days of Golden Ultra in Golden, BC. I won’t be racing but other members of the Mountain Stride crew will be. I’m excited to see what the race organizers have devised for their Blood (VK), Sweat (55km) and Tears (20km) races. I ran the vertical kilometre in Golden last year and feel the area has great potential as a trail running destination. I’ll be heading to Golden to take pictures and see my crew.

Wedged into the middle of the Golden Ultra weekend is the 5Peaks Glacier Grind in nearby Revelstoke, BC that will be my second and final trail race of 2015. I originally signed up when this race was supposed to take place in Rogers Pass and had some 4000+ metres of climbing to its name. Swarms of hungry grizzlies caused the race to be moved to Revy, where it will begin in town, race to the top of Mount Revelstoke and descend to Jade Lakes, turn around and head back up over the summit and plummet down to town. The new race is slated to be 44km with 2600m of climbing, a real SkyRace format that should be a fast and exciting alpine race for sure.

Other randomness:
Check out this sweet profile of the Banff Three Peak Challenge, written by my friend Tera Swanson and published by local Banff mediahouse Crowfoot Media. The piece details the history of attempts on the 70km/5000m route which ascends three peaks around Banff townsite. The article also includes bits of interview with my Mountain Stride buddy Sean Bradley, who now holds the FKT, and a few pictures taken by me during his attempt last July.

Without further ado, let’s get to some of the trips I took in August:

01/08/15 – Edith North (2554m) – 15km/2h57m/1314m
A blistering run up the north peak of Edith that was basically nude, save for a pair of split shorts, running shoes and 500mL of water. Apparently I didn’t take my phone because I have no pictures and almost forgot about this trip until I looked at my Movescount page. Another example of going faster, lighter and naked-er on mountains I know well this summer. The temperature was bound to rise over 30 degrees celsius that day so I had to ration my water, taking small sips and sloshing them around in my mouth to alleviate the symptoms of dehydration to trick my brain. All of the gullies en route to Cory Pass ordinarily offering water in the springtime were bone dry. I hit Cory Pass the first time in 1h27m, tagged the summit of Edith in 1h57m and descended back to the parking area in 2h57m, blasting past a lady who’d chastised me for carrying nothing — she’d had a good point. GPS data.

08/08/15 – Sparrowhawk (3121m) – 10km/1469m/3h24m
Ran up and down Mt. Sparrowhawk. The intention was solely to summit but like most of my single summits this summer, I tackled it with a decent amount of intensity. Made time through the incessant loose cobbles which were good training for Sunwapta later in the month. Tagged the summit in about 1h50m. The top revealed a 360-degree panorama of sweet mountains including Assiniboine, peaks of Lake Louise, and Kananaskis front-range fare. GPS data.

1 2 3 409/08/15 – Rundle (2949m) – 18km/1560m/2h32m
Ran up Rundle, fast. Set out to establish a fast time, aiming to break 3h05m, really the only documented fast time I’ve come across. My watch died partway up so people will have to take me for my word, otherwise I recognize the poor documentation involved in this attempt. Not much to say; the weather was decent and the route not very busy. Jogged from home, reached the summit in 1h36m from the trailhead and returned back to the trailhead by 2h32m. Passed one regular scrambling party and a huge group of Japanese hikers who I saw at the hot springs the following day. I remember thinking at one point that I couldn’t possibly descend fast enough to break 3h05m but the descent went much quicker than expected. Will have to go back with my watch fully charged one day. Incomplete GPS data.

5 6 714/08/15 – Opal Ridge South (2560m) – 7km/1018m/~3hrs?
Opal Ridge with Glenn. Drove to Kananaskis in the morning and deliberated about what to do. At last we settled on Opal South. The hike up was pleasant, climbing the edge of a wide drainage and circumventing large pinnacles. Got chased off the summit by a big thunderstorm heading east. We swiftly descended through loose shale to safety but felt bad for non-running parties still up on the mountain. “If they weren’t mountain runners before, they are now!” we joked as huge cracks of thunder erupted around us. Escaping thunderstorms is turning into a side hobby for Glenn and I.

10 11 12 13 1420/08/15 – Sunwapta FKT (3315m) – 12km/1745m/1h59m to summit/3h32m RT
Sunwapta, fast. This is one of the things I definitely wanted to get around to this summer, albeit hardly a “big project” by any means. This is the last of three FKTs set by Steve Tober some time ago — the others being Bourgeau and Fairview — which I’d been gradually scooping up. None of these are difficult mountains, however they are justifiably popular, untechnical peaks with great views. Sunwapta has the distinction of being a nearly eleven thousand foot scree slog poised literally across the street from glaciated giants of the Columbia Icefield. Steve’s speedy ascent is also mentioned offhandedly in Alan Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, a mountaineering bible near and dear to the hearts of many peak-baggers including myself. I knew I had to go after this objective.

“Routefinding” on this mountain is virtually nonexistent, though it took me a few tries to locate the very start of the trail — reading the instructions properly helps. After figuring it out, I trotted back to the parking lot and started my watch for the speed attempt. I scampered up the loose rubble on all fours and jogged along the summit ridge, sucking back huge lungfuls of air. Tagged the summit at 1h59m, twenty minutes faster than Steve Tober’s 2h20m ascent in 1998. I hung around on top for five or ten minutes to absorb some the epicness that surrounds Sunwapta: on one side are endless ranges of parallel dipslope peaks; on the other are huge eleveners plastered and smeared with ice and snow. The Canadian Rockies’ second highest peak, 3747m Mount Columbia hovers above the whole panorama. GPS data.

15 16 17 18 19

22/08/15 – Cory-Edith Loop – 14km/1200m/2h56m
The Cory-Edith Pass loop, combined with a scramble up Mount Edith, has become one of my fallback, go-to mountain runs this summer, and for good reason: it’s close to home; I can ride there on my bike, skateboard, or run if I have to. It possesses a great amount of killer singletrack largely above treeline, big craggy cliffs, and allows you to complete an aesthetic loop around Edith. Even without bagging a summit, the trail around Edith delivers both fast, flowy running and techy rubble wrangling on the backside of the mountain. Combined with the scramble and you get a narrow, claustrophobia-inducing chimney/ramp, some third-class slab scrambling with exposed run-out below, before gaining a generally exposed-feeling summit.

This day I didn’t do the Edith scramble due to the first snowfall of autumn having just transpired. I’ve turned around looking at those snowy slabs on Edith before. Today I started slogging up the snowy col towards them but wasn’t in the mood to wade through icing sugar to simply inspect the terrain. So it was simply a loop, which I still wasn’t confident about completing, given the snow on the backside. Luckily a pack of bighorn sheep had broken trail for me in the night so I followed their hoof-prints to the base of Mount Louis and around the rest of Edith to finish the loop. GPS data.

21 22 24 2527/08/15 – Eagle Mountain AKA Goat’s Eye (2823m) – 14.5km/1187m/3h01m
Smoke from wildfires in Washington completely filled the skies of the Canadian Rockies for a few days, making all of our mountains disappear. Visibility improved a notch from absolutely zero so I headed out for a run. I jogged up the ski-out at Sunshine Village and nearly turned back twice before reaching the Goat’s Eye lift; the smoke was so bad, it felt like I was only employing 10% of my lung capacity. However, views and air quality improved ever-so-slightly the higher I ascended (or so I told myself), plus I am very stubborn so I forged on. Made the top of Goat’s Eye in about 1h40m, took a few pics (including the Kilian-esque image at the top of this post) then descended back to the parking area in 3h01m. Pushed the velocity downhill on the ski-out, reaching a 2:20 pace and a max speed of 26.6 km/h. Hee hee. GPS data.

26 37 38 29/08/15 – Bell Attempt (2734m) – 8.5km/1226m/2h18m
Attempted to bag a unicorn but a thunderstorm masked by lingering smoke chased me off the summit ridge. I approached from the Boom Lake side in overall fast time. Once I reached the ridge (too far to the right/east, as many others have done), the wind became gale-force. I messed around on the ridge, probing the route up Bell and bagging a different highpoint but knew I wasn’t going to get up Bell today. The weatherman, combined with my inner mountaineer, called for intense storms and the dense smoke meant I couldn’t see one coming, even if it was one range over. After descending back to Boom Lake, the first raindrops started to fall but spared me until I reached my car in the parking lot. GPS data.

41 42 44 4603/09/15 – AM – St.Piran-Fairview Double – 22km/1921m/3h34m
A little double-bag testpiece I’ve done a few times now. Not profoundly epic but two easy mountains — about a vertical kilometre each — in very pretty surroundings in a famous location. As usual I had ideas to do something else but fresh snowfall and weird weather dictated I do something relatively safe. Lake Louise is a place one does not venture in the peak of summer for fear of way too many cars and selfie-stick waving tourists packed into one location. Since the turn of the month, they have all evaporated, leaving this majestic mountain playground for locals to play with.

I disposed of St. Piran swiftly. Though I packed Microspikes, the snow wasn’t an issue and I never put them on. The peaks of Skoki et al (where I’d wanted to go today) looked amazing, painted with a band of white from 2000m up. Though St. Piran is probably one of the easiest mountains in the Rockies — I’m inclined to call it a hill — the views from its summit are perhaps some of my favourite.

I raced back to the Lake and stopped briefly at my car to change from winter into summer attire; I was soaked with sweat. After a ~3min transition, I started jogging up the Fairview trail. I tagged the summit amid an immense snowstorm rolling over the Divide and blotting out the skies around me. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me on Fairview. I threw on a Gore-tex shell and my Microspikes and quickly descended, reaching the Lake at 3h34m, most likely my PR for this route. GPS data.

Splits:
1h05m  St. Piran summit
1h43m  Lake Louise
2h58m  Fairview summit
3h34m  Lake Louise

28 30 31 32 33 34 3503/09/15 – PM – Ha Ling (2408m) – 6km/700m/~2hrs
I got home from Lake Louise and felt like it wasn’t enough. My body wasn’t completely dead, I needed more. I got on the text with Glenn and tried to convince him to go up Tunnel with me; he convinced me to go to Canmore and slog up Ha Ling instead. We moved up the mountain at a decent pace and hung around on top just long enough to shoot some #newbalance #solefies and #alpinebromance pics. A huge storm was churning a couple of ranges over and it totally looked like we were going to get nailed. Our descent was a personal best for Glenn but the weather never actually hit us. Like I said, dodging incoming storms is becoming our forte. GPS data.

bromance 3 bromance 404/09/15 – Sulphur (2337m) – 21km/1106m/2h23m
Sharpening myself against the grindstone/measuring stick that is Sulphur Mountain. Spent ages trying to figure out what to do today, and if the weather was stellar it wouldn’t have been tough to decide. But the weather was shit and I needed to get out regardless. This run (under the added resistance of a heavy previous day) was swift and snappy and was ultimately beneficial, I think, two weeks out from the Mount Revelstoke Glacier Grind.

Ran up the backside from my apartment, continually pushing against the tendency to simply powerhike or jog, tagging Sanson’s Peak in 1h15m. I streaked across the gondola catwalk half-naked in a snowstorm among a crowd of boggled tourists and sprinted off into the woods to scramble up summit #3 in 1h30m. I stuck around for a few minutes and took some pictures before getting cold and racing down the mountain and back to my house in 2h23m. Definitely a fast time for me on this route and feels extra rewarding to know I pushed the intensity despite 2600m of vert in my body from the previous day. GPS data.

1 2

Total distance for this block: 148km
Total vert for this block: 14,446m

Summer’s Sunset

Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

tom mbmOn Friday, June 26, 2015, two alarms woke me simultaneously at 2:30am. Though I was tired and had only slept a few hours, I forced myself out of bed, brewed up some espresso and started sawing a baguette in half. I emptied a package of salt into a glass of clementine juice and drank it. Just after three, I clicked on my headlamp and headed out for a jog. I shuffled along deserted streets, past the normally bustling Aiguille du Midi cablecar terminal and up a dim path that would be the same final metres I would spend on trail in what would be a thirteen hour day.

C’est le Mont Blanc 80K, et je suis stoked.

Since CCC last year I’d wanted to return to Chamonix and apply the lessons I’d learnt in that race to another one with the intention of performing and placing better. For months leading up to this race I’d been training on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, doing 900m vertical repeats, faster and faster, to prepare myself for the task of climbing big hills again and again and again.

1The race began with a short uphill sprint on pavement before funneling everyone onto narrow singletrack. Knowing that once we left the streets and hit the trail each runner would more or less be locked into position until we reached the top of the first climb, I wanted to get in front of as many people as possible as early as I could. It was my aim to avoid a repeat of my race last year when I waited in line for three hours to climb a hill that should have only taken one.

The sprint up Les Moussoux was smooth and I managed to pass a number of people without exerting myself too much. We soon funneled into positions that we would hold until the top of Brevent, my face nearly buried in the heels of the sneakers in front of me as we plodded up the path. After about an hour, the first runners breached treeline. A kaleidoscopic sunrise filled the sky, spilling pastel shades across the face of Mont Blanc and allowing us to stow our headlamps. One hour of headlamp running, not too shabby, I thought, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it again.

2 3 6 After topping out on Brevent, we skidded through lingering snow and heavy choss littering the descent to Planpraz. I ran straight through this aid station without stopping, continuing my traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges uninterrupted. I had plenty of food which I intended to consume while running, so I wouldn’t need to stop until Buet at Km 26. The run across Brevent was fun and descending the precarious stone staircase to Col des Montets brought back memories of stumbling up this nearly third-class pitch in the middle of the night — cold, wet and miserable — during CCC last year. 10I pulled into Buet at Km 26, not so much to eat but to poop, which I didn’t successfully accomplish. While waiting for the outhouse, however, I managed to eat one small sandwich which was probably practical for the slog ahead. I waited about two minutes until I’d finished my sandwich, then said screw it and left the aid station.

So began the second big climb of the day to Col de la Terrasse, thirteen hundred vertical metres above us, then a descent into the snowy basin that drains into Emosson Lake. Out of the many challenges we faced during this race, I’m sure this section stands out for many runners as one of the toughest, with the added perk of being followed immediately by one of the funnest.

11The ascent began innocently. Gentle switchbacks meandered up the hillside amid a lush and pretty forest. I came upon a pinecone-rich area, gathered some in my arms and achieved in thirty seconds what I’d waited two minutes at Buet to do. I continued slogging and thought I had a good pace until first- and second-place female finishers, Mira Rai and Hillary Allen jogged past and I hissed, “How the fuck… are these girls running… up this hill… right now?!”

When we broke out of treeline, the scenery became incredible, with epic views of the Aiguille Verte and Mont Blanc looming behind us. The wide switchbacks started to narrow and snake up the scree of a giant bowl towards a rocky saddle high above us. Churning through scree in my sneakers, in the blistering heat of the sun — my specialty, I said.

12 13It is often said that ultrarunning isn’t much of a spectator sport, and to the race volunteers atop 2600m Col de la Terrasse we must have looked like racing snails struggling through the dirt then freezing once we hit the snow. However, I felt like the fastest snail in our little snail arena as I picked off runners staggering, debilitated by the heat, the steepness and sustainedness of this climb.

Our paces were slow to begin with but all became slightly slower once we hit a ramp of snow leading up to a notch in the col where immense steps had been chopped, making our task of climbing it much easier. The terrain at the top of the pass was practically scrambling and we relied on arms and handholds to support us through loose rock as wobbly legs couldn’t be trusted on this section alone. The safest route through the final scramble was very deliberately marked as a fall in this area could possibly mean breaking a bone or potentially worse.

14 16I reached the top of Col de la Terrasse at 9:20am, five and a half hours into the race, astounded by the technicality of the last section, more akin to a scramble in the Rockies than what a “marathon” suggests. Nevertheless, I was now standing astride the rim of vast snowy plateau punctuated by turquoise meltwater ponds and veined by ribs of rock. The idea of this being a “trail running” race had now been thrown out the window: first I had to climb a series of rocky ledges with my hands; now I was about to glissade down a snowfield, most likely not on my feet.

17 18 19The snow was still fairly frozen but a couple inches of slush on top made all of us look a bit clumsy and uncoordinated. I galloped through trenches in the snowpack and skipped along bare stone until everything got channeled into a narrow gorge, like a black hole drawing runners down the slope, careening and sliding with increasing velocity and little degree of control.

20A short bit of downhill jogging soon brought us across Emosson Dam to the aid station which marked the halfway point in the race. I mistakenly filled my bottles with carbonated water (gross), munched another mini sandwich and put in headphones to propel me down the perilous chamois path that comprised the descent from Emosson Dam to Chatelard.

21 23 24I felt like Kilian descending the fucking Matterhorn on the few short pitches where chains and cables were installed for assistance and here I thought to myself, this isn’t a “running” race at all, even on the downhills. The form of locomotion required to move swiftly through this kind of terrain and not tumble resembles, but can hardly be called, “running”. “Goating”, let’s call it.

As I tore through the ski chalet shanty town inbound to Chatelard, a Frenchman shouted at me: “Quarante!” he said. I stopped and said, “Huh?”

“Quar-ante,” he repeated, then signed with his fingers, “Four, Zero”

I got my gear inspected at Chatelard then skipped the snacks to hustle away and secure my forthieth position. The next climb to 2000m Col des Posettes abruptly reared up in front of me and I laid hands to knees and slogged, stopping briefly for water midway, then continuing into the alpine, passing a couple dudes in the process. I began to gain ground on a runner dressed in red whose pace I matched very closely, mine only a little quicker over many hundreds of metres. This runner, Etienne and I would play leapfrog throughout the last forty kilometres of the race, losing and catching each other during our alternating high and low points, strengths and weaknesses on the course.

It was good that we happened to be together once we hit the rolling stretch from Le Tour to Les Bois, otherwise I would never have run it so quickly. Flat terrain isn’t really my jam. This was actually the tamest part of the course, and Etienne pulled ahead, able to maintain a pace my clumsy gait couldn’t support.

I jogged into Les Bois and went for some fruit as Etienne left with a gentle wave. One banana and a half later, I left the aid station amid cheers of “Run, Canada!” and prepared to take on the last big climb of the day to Montenvers overlooking the Mer de Glace.

Cue heatwaves, a desert scene, tumbleweeds, parched bones baking in the sun. Demoralized runners were splayed on the sides of the trail like casualties of war. I remember little about this final ascent besides chugging along on autopilot; painstakingly walking up grades normally easy to jog; repeatedly wiping sweat out of my eyes and wondering when I was going to develop some sort of serious heat illness, convulsing and shivering on the mountainside. All I wanted was to see that goddamn hotel, Montenvers, and thought I would never make it, until suddenly I popped out among gangs of tourists with their mouths agape snapping pictures of the Mer de Glace.

Yay! I had done it, I’d reached the top of the last hill without dying yet still had twenty kilometres left to traverse over rugged, undulating terrain, then had to plummet a vertical kilometre straight down to Chamonix. I pulled into the aid station, it was sandwich time. After a few minutes basking in the cool, shaded brick of Montenvers, I was off, en route to Plan de l’Aiguille.

Compared to the rest of the course, the run across the huge flat stones of the Balcon Nord was easy going and made easier by the prospect almost being done. I pulled up to Plan de l’Aiguille and mimed to the ladies manning the aid tent: “Do we have to go up further?”

No, they said.

“Down now?”I asked.

Yes, they said.

“YES!!!” I exclaimed as I threw myself over the crest of the hill and down the trail towards Chamonix, so far below us it looked like the surface of a planet as seen from space. And here I was about to freefall at terminal velocity from the sky to the earth, trail sneakers screeching.

3 I was surprised to catch and pass a couple guys on the final downhill yet another runner dressed in red remained just out of reach, whose speed matched my own almost precisely. This guy is pretty fast, I said, because I thought I was moving pretty fast myself. Over several minutes I struggled to catch Etienne until I was right on his heels: “Don’t worry, it’s me,” I said. “And I don’t want to pass you. You’re going too fast already!”

We finally spotted pavement and remarked how sweet it was to see. Etienne and I bounded out of the forest and off the trail I’d warmed up on thirteen hours earlier onto hard road. Applause came sporadically from random people on the street, then grew consistently as we passed the patios of restaurants and cafes. At last we entered the throngs of people packed into downtown Chamonix, all with the collective aim of watching runners finish, raving and greeting each one like a national hero, like the greatest athlete the world has ever seen.

Etienne and I crossed the finish-line side by side, thirteen hours and twenty-two minutes after departing that very spot. I had done it, I had finished an incredibly demanding race but also achieved what I eventually considered a wildly unrealistic goal of coming in 25th place.

5Last year, in my first foray in European mountain racing, I ran 101km on similar terrain and took twenty-one hours to do it, running all night and finishing in the dawn of a new day. After the pain from that race faded I vowed to try again, and hopefully not take as long as I did the first time.

Now here I was, filthy and barely clothed, sprawled on a sidewalk in Chamonix with sweaty running equipment scattered around me, nursing a cup of warm ale like it was nectar from heaven.

Like my experience in CCC, I’d occasionally entertained the idea of dropping out during this race but there was never any legitimate reason to do so. Sure, the task was difficult, tiring, hot and painfully tedious, but my body had shown its ability to chug along without respite. Leading up to this race, the real fruits of my training had become increasingly mental — mystical even. I still aimed to nail specific distances in specific times, but I achieved more by doing less. I moved faster by reducing my resistance to gravity and speed. I became like the mountains metaphysically in order to overcome them on foot.

Greatest of all was the feeling of having built something of quality, from limited background or resources, mostly curiosity about my abilities and deepening relationship with my environment.

For now, however, my body was trashed, I didn’t give a shit about the mountains and was curious only about my ability to walk four blocks so I could collapse into bed.

Screen shot 2015-07-07 at 11.35.56 PM Screen shot 2015-07-07 at 11.37.07 PM Screen shot 2015-07-07 at 11.37.41 PMScreen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.04.27 PM
Peep Movescount data for this trip here.

Peep livetrail.net data for this trip here.

Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25

14 aka gigglesI’m wandering back and forth in the French Sector of Geneva Airport, searching for the shuttle company that’s supposed to take me to Chamonix. There’s little time to waste — the moment I set foot inside my rental apartment, I intend to strip down, don running clothes, and dash off into the mountains without a care in the world. At last I find my shuttle (not in the French Sector at all), and we are on our way, flying along at nearly mach one-hundred in our minivan on the highway surrounded by bigger and bigger mountains. That is, until the biggest one of all comes into view, like a gigantic dollop of melted vanilla icecream hovering above rows of black, craggy pinnacles. I gasp: “Le Mont Blanc!

Cham is always a flurry of sensation and experience: mild culture shock; overpowering mountain scenery; fantastic food; and warm people all generally stoked about alpine sports round out the atmosphere. I intended to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter within my first or second day in town but fickle weather kept me playing at lower altitudes. One week isn’t enough time to expect to summit Mont Blanc — unless you get a perfect weather window early in the week — and then rest sufficiently for a demanding ultra a matter of days afterwards.

The moment I arrived (June 20), I sprinted up the hill to check out the first climb of the Mont Blanc 80K. The race begins in town, climbs steeply on pavement for ~5min, then funnels onto tight singletrack that switchbacks past the refuge of Bel Lachat to the summit of Brevent. I knew from my race last year that I didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of people, so I realized that if I could move quickly for five minutes at the start of this race, I’d secure a good position and be able to cruise uncontested for another hour until we reached the top of Brevent.

One notable episode of this run was crossing paths with a burly boucton (ibex), who I addressed in the same manner I communicate with Canadian goats and sheep — by blahhht-ing like a sheep at them. He simply snorted in response. Stuck-up French goats… I descended to Planpraz via the Mont Blanc Marathon route, then back to town underneath the gondi line. Woo! (2h56m/18km/1412m)

3 4 5 6 7 8 10 Screen shot 2015-07-02 at 5.49.09 PM 11 12Day two (June 21), I flirted with ideas of trying to bag Mont Blanc or Mont Buet but the weather appeared rather poopy when I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I didn’t really feel like taking the bus anywhere either, so I just headed out the door intending to slog up to the famous Mer de Glace lookout at Montenvers, then scope out the final part of the course.

My hike up to Montenvers was hot and sweaty and I greeted the cool breeze of the Mer de Glace glacier with arms outstretched. I promptly bagged Signal Forbes — at least the part where all the people stop and take pictures — looked around and said, “what next?” I looked up along the broken ridgeline extending from Signal Forbes toward l’Aiguille de l’M and started scrambling. It was very pleasant scampering up huge plates which stayed in place as I hopped and leapt between them, and offered texture via their coating of lichen. Once I reached the “summit”, I continued along the exposed ridge for awhile until I wasn’t really comfortable anymore, then headed back.

This run marked the introduction of my trail buddy/pet goat, Giggles. After marveling for ages at clouds churning off the knifeblade edge of the Drus, and clearing views of the other Chamonix Aiguilles — Grand Charmoz, Grepon and Aiguille de la Plan — we headed down and across the Balcon Nord beneath these brooding towers to get a feel for the final stretch of the Mont Blanc 80K. A trail constructed from huge, flat stones, I found the Balcon Nord pretty conducive for skipping along at a decent pace to the Aiguille du Midi midway gondola station, slash, final aid station of the race, before dropping like a stone back to Chamonix for the finish.

Giggles and I reached the top of Plan de l’Aiguille and were tempted by warm cafe ou lait and stopped to refuel before descending back to Chamonix. (I imagine this was around 20kms and maybe 1300m of climbing, but I didn’t have my watch charged.)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22My “free time” to bag peaks and such in Chamonix was constrained in a merry way by an appointment to visit two friends I know from Banff. Justine and Marion, two French twins, became acquaintances a couple years ago and we quickly became hiking buddies, poring over maps and shooting shit for hours about places to see in the Canadian Rockies. These girls were crazy about backcountry hiking in Canada, and are two of the most driven and competent peak-baggers I’ve ever met. Though the effort of the previous two days hadn’t seemed too extreme at the time, I woke up on day three (June 22) with legs sore — trashed, even — so my appointment to meet up the girls came at the right time. I caught an early bus to the picturesque ski commune of Megeve, where the girls work, and we tore off on harrowing mountain roads to climb Le Parmelan, a long escarpment overlooking Annecy.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14Upon returning from Annecy and its surroundings, I had two days to kill, and while the 700m climb up Parmelan hadn’t been too detrimental, my body seemed to be taking its time to recover and feel fresh again. Hence, I mainly bummed around my apartment; skulked around shops and tried on gear; did a few last minute race things including collecting my bib; sketched the mountains from my balcony; and did typical tourist things like going up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar and visiting the cemetary… I knew from reading Mark Twight’s books what I would find there and wanted to see for myself: a bunch of young kids forever entombed in the massive of Mont Blanc. What I love about Chamonix is its lack of coddling or knee-jerk reaction to the deaths of young alpinists doing what they love. Their loss is profoundly saddening and I teared up reading many of the placards, but what is more inspiring is the celebration and support for individuals who push and challenge themselves in the mountains. That support extends to the cheering that takes place in Chamonix for every single ultrarunner coming in at ten hours, twenty hours, or twenty minutes before cutoff, in the wee hours of the morning.

15 17 18 19a 19b 19c 20With one day left, I didn’t do much besides head up Brevent via the cablecar to seek a little solitude, like Herb Elliott advises before an athletic performance. It was good to be there, clearing my head, condensing some of the thoughts that had been rolling around all week, and just being with the Aiguilles Rouges — the mountain I have the most relationship with here and the first I would have to traverse in less than 12 hours — and the Mont Blanc, so impressive across the way. Chamonix is a special place, and the Mont Blanc massive has an aesthetic and ambiance which can hypnotize and transform one’s psyche. I went home that evening, crushed a jurassiene calzone from the pizza joint next door, packed up my running vest and went to sleep, with two alarms set to 2:30am and thoughts of gnarly mountain races dancing in my head.

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Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25

Scree Sessions: May 31-June 12

6aPolishing the cutting edge of flintstone against alpine rock; riding a serrated arete between peak fitness on one hand and shattering the medium I’m working with. This is me at the climax of months of training in the Rockies, absorbing and integrating its lessons before applying it all elsewhere. My training season began way back in March but an abrupt jumpstart in vert and mileage contributed to a niggling injury in my left knee which reappears occasionally until this day. My most recent weeks have been spent mostly doing laps on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, a tamer mountain than my preference but my workouts have been more structured, consistent and measurable than ever in the past. A trip up Mount Aylmer on Wednesday provided the final dose of adventure I needed before flying off to Ontario for a week, then to Chamonix for the 80K du Mont Blanc. I’m excited to let this machine I’ve built do what it’s intended to do, then coast for the rest of the summer with the fitness I’ve developed, my concentration turned to ticking off personal projects with friends here in the Canadian Rockies.

Week-and-a-half total: 12h51m/92km/5376m

01/06/15 – Tunnel – 35m22s/7km/300m
Up and down Tunnel from home, as fast as possible. Started with a warm-up to Cave and Basin and back, then started my watch and started racing towards Tunnel. By the time I reached the upper trailhead, I knew my pace wasn’t sustainable; I was too out of breath and felt like passing out so I sullenly slowed to a jog to find some iota of recovery. My jog must have continued to be fast but I lost all intentions to push hard and break a PR, content with just tagging the top without losing consciousness along the way. Somewhere just shy of the summit, I dared to look at my watch, which was only thirty seconds or so off my PR time so I full-out sprinted up the last hill, down the rooty dip before reaching the red chairs, then clambered up the slabs to the summit, finding it busy, and immediately dropped off and down for a fast round-trip time. 35min makes that a new round-trip personal best.

IMAG805503/06/15 –  Sulphur Double Crossing – 3h37m/35km/1900m
A pretty demanding run that started out cruisy and resulted in me knocking an hour off a routine 35km/1900m objective. Ran up the front, down the back; up the back, down the front. I am truly getting a little bored of spending all my time on Sulphur when there are so many other peaks coming into shape, but the weather was somewhat threatening this morning and this is probably where I needed to be today, sharpening up splits and racing habits, not frolicking on some random peak that is “more alpine” in character. The initial jog up the frontside of Sulphur was an absolute breeze — I tried to cruise along rather than push, and my relatively quick speed is evidence of speed workouts increasing my overall pace and decreasing my exertion. I tried to concentrate on not stopping, fuelling consistently and eating while running. I felt pretty punished by the end of the final 900m freefall from the top of Sulphur to Bow Falls but will take that as part of the pace required to knock over an hour off this objective. It was only in the last couple years that it would take me almost the same amount of time to go up and down Sulphur once that it now takes me to do it twice.

Splits:
1h14m    Sanson’s Peak
1h40m    Sundance Canyon junction
2h43m    Sanson’s Peak
3h14m    Bow Falls
3h37m    Home

IMAG817205/06/15 – Sulphur (summits 2, 3, 4, 5) – 1h59m/19km/1200m
Messing around along Sulphur’s ridge today. Headed out on my bike to check out Cory Pass but rode for only a couple minutes before I realized my rear tire was flat. Took the bus up to the Hot Springs, dropped off work stuff, then jogged up the front of Sulphur to the gondi station (S2) and started working back towards some of the other summits. Although my legs were super tired from the previous day, once on the ridge I sprinted and scampered my way up slabs, reveling in the batteredness of my body. Reached S4, my goal for the day, looked out towards S5 and couldn’t turn it down. Tagged S5, took some pics, then headed back, tiptoeing along fractured ridgeline, bombing down the saddles and slogging exhaustedly back up the summits. My quads were pooched on the descent, but I was somehow able to relish that feeling of overall fatigue and recognize the benefits I’ll reap from continuing to push when so tired. Descended back to the Upper Hot Springs and hastily constructed a delicious sandwich.

IMAG8067 IMAG8127 IMAG814010/06/15 – Aylmer – 6h40m/31km/1976m
A mighty unicorn slain. The way some people in Banff look upon peaks like Cascade and Rundle, that’s how I look at Aylmer. Just out of town, it rises high above everything around it and possesses a long approach trail frequented by berry-hungry Grizzlies. It has long been on my list of peaks to bag and I have gazed upon its prominent summit from my window for over a year now.

The initial gameplan for today was to do something far more training-specific: I intended to do a variation on the Canmore Triple Crown as a final preparation for my race in Chamonix, slogging lots of steep vertical and continuing to sharpen my ascent/descent splits. However, at the back of my mind, I needed something more alpine, more epic before leaving for Ontario, though I hadn’t overtly articulated these thoughts to myself yet. Yesterday I took a cab to work and the driver said that if he hadn’t been working, he’d be over there, climbing that thing, Mount Aylmer. Aylmer looked so sexy draped in clouds that morning, and the conversation with the cab driver seemed so meaningful, that I immediately texted Sean (who was joining me from Edmonton): “Change of plans. I need to do something more epic. Like this “. Sean had zero problems with the revised scheme and I knew he wouldn’t. After switching the plan, I felt an immediate sense of relief and enthusiasm.

Sean and I woke just after six though the sun had rose a half hour earlier. We made coffee, hit up Wildflour for snacks then drove to the trailhead, starting at 8:19 AM. The jog along the lakeshore trail was cruisy as we hooted and hollered our heads off to ward off grizzlies. The rest of the climb was uneventful save for some of the worst scree I’ve ever encountered, which took us an enormous amount of effort to ascend and later bombed down at terminal velocity in a fraction of the time. The views from the summit were impressive though I’d read somewhere they wouldn’t be, with many snow-clad 11,000ers visible along the horizon to the west. The valleys of the Ghost Wilderness area were lush and green. And the prairies were brooding with dark storm clouds.

We didn’t spend long on the top, skiing down fine scree with grace at times, and narrowly dodging broken ankles or necks at others. The run out was disproportionately tough — maybe because it was so hot or maybe because of the effort we spent climbing 50-degree scree earlier — but was made worse by a tactical rock strike to the underside of my foot, which was pretty tender and sore and still is. At any rate, I’m glad I did something like this that really engaged me mentally and made me exercise some mountaineering sense, and expanded my heart with stoke with a fresh ascent on a big peak, rather than doing a really long and boring workout. Arguable which would have been more advantageous but I definitely don’t feel like I lost — and definitively feel like I gained — something from our trip today.

Splits:
0h50m    Aylmer Pass junction
1h40m    Ascent gully junction
4h02m    Summit
5h13m    Ascent gully junction
5h46m    Aylmer Pass junction
6h40m    Lake Minnewanka parking lot

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Scree Sessions: May 31-June 12

Scree Sessions: May 24-30

Abusing my body, exalting my spirit, and trying to wring performance from weeks of playtime with pain. This week saw me tackle a “big day” intended to familiarize me with the distances of the Mont Blanc 80K, now four weeks away. Normally I would have done a Triple Crown by this point in the season — this year a Quad — but complacency’s kept me in Banff doing laps on “boring old Sulphur” like Leslie Gerein told me to do. While I’d started feeling pretty proficient running up to 30km and climbing ~2000m — only one-third of the Mont Blanc race — I was unsure of where my endurance lay beyond that. A 70km/3800m run on Wednesday shed light to uncertainty and revealed an extension of the relative ease experienced on other “routine” long runs (Sulphur double crossing, for example). A major confidence-booster leading up to the race, with a couple weeks left in the Rockies to sharpen things up a bit before flying to Ontario, then to Chamonix.

Weekly total: 12h26m/85.5km/5229m

IMAG770324/05/15 – The Banff Burner (1st place) – 35min/4.5km/666m
Ran The Banff Burner, the first edition of some kind of not-too-competitive race up Sulphur Mountain. My friends told me about it and I figured I would give it a shot. The race began at the trailhead sign near the parking lot and finished at the platform beside the gondola station. This is by far the fastest time I’ve ever done this section of Sulphur and, as far as I know, is an FKT for what it’s worth. (I don’t go around trying to set “FKTs” on any old mountain, but important mountains or ones with a precedent, sure.)

IMAG783827/05/15 – Sulphur x 4 – 10h13m/69km/3863m
A long-needed “big day” before tackling the Mont Blanc 80K. From home, I ran up the front to Sanson’s Peak, then down the back to Sundance Canyon junction; then up the back to Sanson’s and down the front to Bow Falls where I met Glenn; then up the front, down the front with Glenn; then up the front to summit #3, then Sanson’s Peak, then down the back to home.

The initial “double crossing” was a breeze as I’ve become quite comfortable with exactly that horizontal and vertical distance of running; my nutrition was regular and my movement streamlined. At the top of Sulphur the second time, I chatted with Glenn on the phone and invited him to meet me for my next lap up the mountain. Glenn hadn’t climbed Sulphur in six years, since the day after his wedding when he puked brunch all over the trail… While Glenn’s fitness has surely improved since 2009, his pace is a bit slower than mine, but I saw the mellower pace on my third lap as an advantage — forced restraint where I’d otherwise be powerhiking madly and compromising my ability to last a longer distance.

After my third lap up and down the mountain accompanied by Glenn, we parted ways at Bow Falls and I still felt fresh enough to go back up and over the mountain one last time. While relatively fatigued, the idea of jogging over and tagging S3 in the sunset made my tiredness fade and soon I was scrambling up the various gullies and ledges to plop me on top. I lingered for awhile — the ambiance was incredible and the fact that I’d travelled over 50km and climbed more than 3500m at that point was like a half-forgotten memory. This is one of ultrarunning’s miracles, that one can feel alternately like complete shit or glowingly incredible at any given point during a big run. I eventually pried myself from the summit and jogged back towards the gondi station and tagged Sanson’s for fun.

The run down the backside was slightly more conservative than normal though my footing was still pretty precise in my new 110s. And because my phone was dead and I was also out of food, I completed the whole run from Sanson’s back to my house without stopping. This kind of day on Sulphur was something I’d conceived of to train for CCC last year but other, cooler mountain projects filled the need. I’m content with the relative comfort I experienced on a run which equals more than than two-thirds of the vertical and horizontal distance of the Mont Blanc 80K, now four weeks away.

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30/05/15 – Tunnel x 2 – 1h38m/12km/700m
A little fartleking around on Tunnel. I never really understood the idea of “speed play” as speed in the context of running for me equals pain and stress, the opposite of “play”. Today I set out expressly to “play”, not “train”, and willfully took on many speedy bits of running up, down and on the flats. My route was up the main trail from home to the summit, then down goatpath on the north side of the mountain to Tunnel Mountain Drive, then around the base of Tunnel to catch the SW goatpath up to the top again, then home via the main trail. Got lost (yet again) on my descent through the narrow, forested singletrack on the north of the mountain and downclimbed a few third-class moves, which was fun. My descents, from Tunnel Mountain Dr. to the river for example, were wild and uninhibited and the flat bit along the river to the start of the SW goatpath up Tunnel was noticeably swift and cruisy. The ten minutes or so of tilling scree in my sneakers up a 50-degree pitch went by without notice, my ears filled with the raucous clamor of John Dwyer’s “positive destruction”, a concept I can relate to. Tagged the top, sweaty and half nude, amid a swarm of weekend hillwalkers, then raced home.

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Scree Sessions: May 24-30