Monday, July 13, 2015

Pacing Hard Rock and San Juan 14ers

Mark and his four pacers: Homie, Mallory, Alice, and me

Once again we left town on Thursday afternoon for a 3-day weekend of camping and hiking. This time we were headed for the awesome San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. The raison d'etre for the trip was to pace Mark Oveson in the Hard Rock 100. My leg was from Telluride to KT (Kamm Traverse), which would begin early Saturday morning. We wanted to get to the 6 a.m. start in Silverton on Friday morning, so we drove clear down there and camped in a big rocky, communal area up Mineral Creek Road, just outside of Silverton. The camping was...utilitarian. We put up the tents between a couple of RVs, but far enough away. The ground was like a cobblestoned street, but our pads smoothed things out. We weren't there long, as we didn't bed down until after 10 p.m. and were up at 5 a.m. to pack things up.

We drove into town and parked right at the start of the race. It was 40 degrees out and the weather would be stormy, off and on, throughout the entire race, but these 150+ ultra-runners are super tough. It's incredibly hard to get into this race because the number of entrants (~150) is so low and the number of applicants is so high (2000?). To even apply, though, you must have finished another 100-mile race in the past two years. These aren't rookies.

Defending champion (and 2015 champion) Killian Jornet
I found Homie first and then Mark. Killian Jornet was in town to defend his title from last year, when he set the course record at 22 hours and change. I knew a few other people, but mostly this isn't my crowd. Oppositely, Homie knew just about everyone. This is definitely his crowd. He's done this race twice and paced people numerous times. Both he and I paced Mark the last time he entered this race. Mark ran 36 hours and change then and hoped to better things this time, but in a race this long, with vastly different conditions and weather each year, there is no guarantees of anything.

It doesn't take long to start 150 runners and it was over in a flash. Homie, Derek, Sheri, and I all went back to the house that Mark is renting and his wife Patricia made us all an awesome breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and potatoes. It was delicious! Thanks, Patricia!
Hiking up from Grouse Gulch
Afterwards, Homie joined us for the drive up to Grouse Gulch. We were headed for Handies, a 14er, for Derek. Homie was bagging a couple of nearby peaks and joined us for the first 45 minutes before peeling off to the north. We hiked up over a saddle at 13,000 feet and then dropped 600 feet into the American Basin. At the saddle we got a good look at a snow-frosted Handies and wondered how the snow up there might affect both our ascent and that of the Hard-Rockers.
Handies with a frosting of snow
We had to cross quite a few soft snowfields en route to the main Handies trail. There was still a lot of snow in the San Juans and this would prove to be problematical for the lead runners trying to find the course up Oscar's Pass in the darkness of the coming night. We were fine, though, and followed the course markings all the way toward the summit, as this entire hike was part of Hard Rock 100 route. The leaders wouldn't be getting here until the afternoon, though.

The going was smooth to the summit and we took photos and got out a touch of food, but we didn't stay long, as the weather was turning. In fact, it started to graupel on us just as we started down. We pulled on our shells and were fine, but the skies were dark and threatening over the pass we had come over. Climbing up into that weather wasn't going to be fun.

But, like the entire weekend, the weather changed rapidly. The skis cleared up, somewhat, before we got there. For the next three days we'd be constantly switching from pulling on our shells and hats and gloves to shedding down to short sleeves and shorts. The weather just couldn't make up its mind for even an hour. Mother Nature...

Hiking back down to the car, where we could see Homie waiting for us, we passed lots of spectators and photographers hiking up to position themselves to document and cheer on the runners. In fact, we starting seeing them from the summit of Handies on down. Homie had been chatting with a bunch of people while waiting for us. He'd bagged his two peaks quickly. We drove back to Silverton and had a lingering pizza lunch with Sheri's sister Tara and her husband Carl. They live in Durango now and we hadn't seen them in awhile and enjoyed relaxing and catching up.

After lunch, we all went out separate ways. Tara and Carl headed home to Durango. Homie headed to Ouray, where he'd start pacing Mark around 11 p.m. His leg was from there to Telluride, where I'd take over. Hence, we headed to Telluride and then up highway 145 in search of a campground. The first, Sunshine was full, but we got the last walk-in spot at the very nice Matterhorn campground. We set up our tents in the sunshine and cooked dinner. Derek found a big boulder and pioneered a number of routes on them. The easiest, V3 on Derek's scale, was ascended by Sheri in her sandals and I did it in my Crocs. Derek also sent a V10 and a V6, also on his modified scale which converts to the standard V scale by dividing by ten.
Camping at the Matterhorn campground, 9 miles from Telluride.
It didn't occur to me until going to sleep that I didn't even know where to go in Telluride. I didn't know where to go in Silverton either, but that town is a lot smaller. Feeling somewhat stressed I got up at 3:15 a.m. and drove into Telluride. I made a pass through town, down Main Street and didn't see anything. I parked on the side of the street and tried to consult the tiny map I made of my segment to see if I could identify where it started. Just then I saw a runner trotting down the street. I asked him if he was associated with Hard Rock and he said he was a pacer. I followed him, driving slowly behind him until he got too nervous and took a short-cut.

The Hard Rock website was down and there was no updates for Mark available in Telluride. I didn't even know his Grouse Gulch time, let alone his Ouray time. It was 4 a.m., still before Mark's earliest projected arrival time, so I wandered around the aid station for a bit, picking up some information, like Killian losing forty minutes postholing around in the dark below Oscar's Pass, and Darcy passing Anna to move into first place for the women (Darcy would end up as second woman, tenth overall. Anna won, eighth overall).
Mark crossing a wood bridge halfway up the huge climb to Oscar's Pass
Finally, I checked my phone and found a text from Homie from 12:08 a.m.: "Leaving Ouray aid soon." I wondered if he had cell service wherever he was and sent a text asking for his ETA. To my surprise he responded almost immediately. At 4:26 a.m. he sent "At Virginius/Kroger's now." Then "1:30-2:00" as the time to Telluride. A bit later, apparently due to Mark's speed descending, which I'd experience later that day, "Probably earlier."

I rested in my car until 5:30 a.m. and then got my gear together, locked my car, and headed back to the aid station. It wasn't long before someone said, "169 on this way in." I grabbed Mark's drop bag and met them as they came trotting in. It was inspiring to me, seeing my two great friends running through the night together. One in service of the other. One giving all he had for him. It got me pumped up to do the same, though my leg would be much easier, entirely in the daylight. These two are pros and, much like last time, I mainly stayed out of the way and let them do their work. Homie even helped Mark take off his shoes. No task was too small for him, if he could possibly help Mark.

Studly Mark and incredible peaks everywhere in the San Juans
Soon we were out of there, following chalked arrows out to the start of our trail up to Oscar's Pass. This was a monstrous, 4500-foot climb that took us two hours and forty minutes. Mark was a machine on this section, just grunting it out with a smile on his face. I tried to carry the conversation but he was quite chatty himself. We finally crested the climb and thought we were done, only to look to our right and see that we still had a bit more climbing to do.

The descent started down a jumble of two-foot talus blocks and remarkably Mark was running this! I couldn't run this and I hadn't been going for 27 hours. He passed everyone in sight on this descent. Further down it started to rain and then some tiny hail. The same thing would happen descending our next climb. We were lucky with the weather, though. It was always reasonable as we climbed up and then stormy as we descended, giving us additional incentive to go down quickly.

On the next climb, up to Grant Swamp Pass, Mark passed a couple of racers early on. I think he passed a couple more up high, as well. As we neared the top, Mark pointed out the final section. From a distance this appeared to be vertical dirt! Mark looked a bit discouraged, but I wouldn't allow it. I had talked to Homie before and he told me that it wasn't as bad as it looked (thank God!). My altimeter told me it was only going to be about four hundred vertical feet. I led and went slow and steady and concentrated on placing my feet solidly before moving up. That way I didn't slip at all. Well, except for the top, where it was so muddy a bit of slippage was unavoidable.
Nearing the summit of Oscar's Pass
We now had a long descent and a long traverse, but Mark moved amazingly well, always running anything that wasn't uphill. All downhills. All flats. He was moving. Through mud, roots, plunging into and out of streams, like he was an escaped POW striving to get to the Swiss border. On the final Kamm Traverse section, with about a mile to go, I heard some cow bells cheering on a runner ahead. I said to Mark, "Sheri and Derek have cow bells. I wonder if that is them." As soon as we rounded the corner I spotted Derek's flashy orange jacket and yelled, "Sheri! Derek!" They had come all the way out to cheer us on. They ran along behind us, trying to keep up and take some photos.

We hit the road leading up to the KT aid station and it turned uphill and we walked. It was just 1:30 p.m. and Mark had a great chance to finish under 36 hours. He was out of there by 1:40 with Alice taking over the pacing duties. She'd take him to the finish. I hiked out with Sheri, Derek, and Patricia. We then drove into town and got a late lunch and relaxed a bit before heading over to the finish area. We didn't want to miss Mark. Homie checked the splits of runners that finished in 33 hours and it wasn't clear he could make it under 36. But then we got his split from the Putnam Aid Station and it was a slam dunk. Mark was running better than ever and the only question was how far he'd be under it. We spotted him coming down the hill and rallied everyone to the finish. He trotted in relaxed and strong, with his family and friends and everyone else cheering him on. He kissed the rock at 35 hours, 24 minutes, in 27th place overall. Outstanding!
Mark running down incredibly difficult terrain on the backside of Oscar's Pass
After some celebration, we said our goodbyes and Sheri, Derek and I drove over to Ouray and up the Camp Bird Mine road to the 2WD parking for Mt. Sneffels. We put up our tents on a flat spot and then the rain hit - bit surprise. We ate dinner in the car and then went to sleep a bit after 9 p.m.

The next morning we all headed up the trail, but Sheri was just going to hike to Wrights Lake and read her book. She'd already climbed the peak, of course, and wasn't motivated for a second trip. I was excited to show Derek the great Southwest Ridge route on one of my favorite 14ers. When Sheri stopped, we cranked up the effort a bit and moved continuously up the beautiful trail and then the great talus and scrambling on the ridge. We caught a team of four or five guys that were having trouble with the route finding at the notch where you move down and right to the next gully before heading back up. We passed them there, gave them our beta, and never saw them again.
Derek and the Southwest Ridge of Sneffels
We did the ridge in 47 minutes (1150 vertical feet). I only know this because Strava told me that we had the third fastest time (out of only eleven) on the ridge. We met three other climbers on the summit and hung out for about ten minutes to rest, drink, eat, and find a summit rock for Derek.

We then cruised down the regular route, finding nice firm snow in the upper couloir and then the fast, loose scree below the saddle. Once down on the trail we started trotting and would run the rest of the way back to the car. I stopped to use the privy at the 4WD parking and then ran down to catch Derek. Before I got to Derek I ran into George Barnes. I didn't recognize him, but as I neared I heard "Hey, Bill." "What?" I asked. "Hey, Bill. It's George Barnes. I do your race every year." Cool. He and his partner had just climbed the Teakettle - one of the top 100 peaks in Colorado. It has a 5.3 crux pitch at the summit. Derek and I had been admiring that peak from the summit and want to come back and climb it, along with the Coffee Pot and Mt. Potosi. The San Juans have so many awesome summits.
Derek scampers up the final section of the Southwest Ridge to the summit of Mt. Sneffels with Dallas Pk. in the background.
We did the roundtrip in under 3.5 hours and got back to the car before 10 a.m. All that was left was the long drive home and the nasty I-70 traffic, but Sheri handled the driving. It was another outstanding weekend. I've now done 33 unique peaks on the year (14 with Derek) and am ahead of my goal of 52 for the year.

A great morning with my son!

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