I love steep skiing and powder skiing and most forms of sliding on snow including the occasional long, crazy link-up or traverse. The mountains contain so many varied ways to travel and play in them that one tool, or one discipline isn’t enough for me. I would define what I do as adventure skiing, which covers it all, including skimo. I like combining the light gear with the cardio fitness and skiing nearly naked through the mountains covering huge amounts of terrain in a day.
The last few seasons in the Wasatch have had slow starts, not much snow. So I have focused more on skimo training to improve fitness and allow me to do bigger days in the mountains. My skimo race experience falls into more of the hobby category. I managed an 8th place overall finish at the Wasatch Powder Keg last year. This fall I put in more volume and trained even harder, but as soon as it starting dumping powder in the Wasatch, I switched to real skis and focused on face-shots and steep lines, which are what I truly enjoy.
In the past few years, many ultrarunners have turned to skimo racing in the winter months to keep on top of their fitness. Jason Schlarb is one of those guys, and in the world of ultrarunning he is one of the best in the world.
In December he contacted me and told me he was pulling together a small team of world-class athletes to attempt the first ski traverse of the Hardrock 100, using ultra-lightweight skimo gear. This well-known race, done on roads and trails in the summertime, takes runners on 100 miles of beautiful, yet challenging terrain in the San Juan mountain range. Jason invited me to come along for the attempt as the cameraman. He wanted to capture it all on film and produce a short documentary. The team included Jason, Scott Simmons and Paul Hamilton.
I said yes to Jason’s invite and we kept in touch, but honestly, I didn’t believe it would happen. We’d need stable avalanche conditions and great weather to line up for four consecutive days in one of the gnarliest ranges in Colorado. We’d need all four of us to be healthy and have the same window of time available, and a ground support crew as well. The chances of this all happening were very slim. I marked the tentative dates on the calendar and added a big fat question mark at the end.
Throughout January and February we worked on gear details and logistics, but in my mind the Ski Hardrock 100 just wasn’t really going to happen. It was a fun idea, but probably a little too grand.
The first week of March came quickly and things in Colorado were actually looking really good. High pressure had been sitting over the San Juans for weeks, avalanche conditions were low—a rarity—and the weather forecast for our attempt was as good as could be hoped for. Despite racing in Europe only a few days before our start, Scott and Paul were fired up to go and the support crew fell into place. The reality set in that I had agreed to chase three of the fittest men in North America around on skinny skis for 60,000 ft of elevation gain and loss. S*#! got real!
I knew it would be impossible for me to keep up with these guys with world-class lungs. I was actually really nervous. I had been skiing a bunch, but not necessarily training. My only hope was that maybe I could come close to keeping up with them since they would have to break trail and navigate. Plus, they had invited me, so they’d have to wait for me.
The Ski-Hardrock 100 Loop:
Day 1 for our team began on Thursday, March 17, 2016. We had all spent the night in Durango, and at around 5 a.m. we gathered and made the drive in the dark to Silverton. Despite the early hour, we were awake, chatting, eating breakfast burritos in the car and surprisingly feeling chill AF—ready to crush. We crammed way too much shit into our small day packs and by 6:45 a.m. we were walking down the streets of Silverton, four dudes dressed in head-to-toe lycra, looking for the base of the Kendall Mountain Ski Area. But we couldn’t find it!
The river was shallow and wide, but lacking in good stepping stones. I threw one of my skis across to make the passage easier, but it bounced off the bank and into the water! It started floating back downstream towards Silverton. This forced me to run into the river and snag my ski. The guys were laughing at me as they attempted, but failed to make a dry crossing.
Things quickly turned around and we finally started moving well — not necessarily fast but steady. We gained a huge chunk of vertical with our first big climb. It was here that I had my first of many “What the hell did I get myself into” moments. I was clearly out-lunged by these guys from the get go. If I pulled hard I could almost maintain close proximity, but whenever I took out the camera I would get dropped fast and couldn’t overcome the large gaps. Luckily they waited for me, but I wondered how long this could go on. But I kept going one step, one breath, one pass, one turn at a time.
We descended a long way in mixed conditions finding a single strip of snow that connected into Cunningham Gulch. We arrived there around noon and took our first break. Hannah Green, a good friend and ultrarunner, met us with cookies and water. Hannah would continue to meet us along the way at key intersections providing moral support and delicious consumables. Jason was having fit issues with his boot, but other than that things were good.
We climbed again and crossed the Continental Divide and then descended down a long, mellow valley to Sheep Creek. The miles and altitude were starting to have an effect. The day was getting on and we still had a long way to go.
I knew virtually nothing about our route, which was fun and exciting, every pass and peak was a surprise. An interesting decision by Jason and Scott, was to navigate by map alone. This worked most of the time, but at the Sheep Creek intersection there was some confusion. Jason and Scott headed off in one direction while Paul and I were still trying to decide if it was the right route. It wasn’t, they had taken a wrong turn and we hoped they would soon realize their mistake and turn around. It was really unsettling to have the team separated and worse, facing the thought of spending the night out in the open. After about 30 min Jason and Scott returned. There was some frustration in the group— we had wasted valuable time, energy and daylight. After a heated exchange and some venting, we committed to staying closer together and being much more certain about our routing before we would proceed.
I know Wildsnow Nation is all about the gear so I thought I’d list off my kit. The plan was to go light as possible, but somehow we ended up with pretty heavy day packs. It was necessary to carry all our water and food for the day. I proposed we ditch our avy gear to shed weight, but the others vetoed that idea.
We were hours behind schedule, and it began to get dark. We hit the final pass. It was a huge relief to finish climbing. The last leg of Day 1 was a long descent. But, the Hardrock isn’t soft and even the descents were unforgiving.
Skiing down by the light of our headlamps, we ended up in a canyon popping off of little cliffs and pillows and wallowing through the woods in deep faceted snow. It would have been fun on skis that weren’t 60mm underfoot. Then we hit a packed trail that was fast and icy in the middle and rotten on the sides. If you went off trail it would suck you in and flip you around. We were all eating shit left and right. I can honestly say this was the most un-fun I’ve had on skis. Maybe it was the fatigue, the altitude, the skinny skis, or the cumulative hours, but it was rough.
Finally around 9 p.m. we arrived in camp. Jason had made arrangements with a guy named “Mad Dog” to set up tents and have dinner for us. He had been expecting us to arrive at 3 p.m.! We were all in such rough shape when we pulled in that all we could do was remove our boots and sit in a stupor. Mad Dog and friends pretty much saved the day—and the project. They had a raging fire to warm up with and they fed us warm tomato soup and bread as we waited for our steaks and asparagus to cook. The food was incredible! They took such good care of us! They even took our wet boot liners and socks and dried them by the fire. They offered us tea and water and even beer! There was more food than we could even come close to eating. We were starving, but almost too tired to eat.
I had spent 15 hours mostly keeping up with some of the fastest skimo guys in rough mountain terrain. I was feeling alright, just barely. We had survived Day 1, but we couldn’t believe how hard it had been and we didn’t even want to think about the fact that we had three more days to come. All we wanted was sleep. At around 11p.m. we crawled into our bags for a full 7 hours of rest. Another huge day of climbing, skiing and filming loomed ahead, but we’d deal with that tomorrow when it came.
(WildSnow guest blogger Noah Howell was born and inbred at the foot of the Wasatch mountains. His skiing addiction is full blown and he’ll take snow and adventure in whatever form it takes. The past 16 years have been spent dedicated to exploring new ranges, steep skiing, and filming for Powderwhore Productions. Visit Noah’s website for more story telling and photos.)