I hadn’t slept well, mostly just laid there happy not to be skiing. The little bit of rest had gone a long way toward recovery though and we were feeling okay. Not fresh mind you — yet all of us well enough to lace up trail shoes and head into day 2 of the Ski Hardrock 100.
The alarm bleeped at 6 a.m. and we groaned out of bed like the worked “athletes” we now were. Mad Dog was back on point with a large fire, coffee and breakfast burritos ready to go. It was a warm morning, which was helpful motivation. The weather was holding and it was going to be a beautiful sunny day. I asked the guys for a route description. They said today would be less mileage and a little less vert, so it should be an easier day. In theory. And we would be finishing in the small mountain town of Ouray. Jason had arranged free rooms at the Weisbaden Hotel where we could soak in their hot springs. That all sounded good, but it was still far away.
It wasn’t until about 8 a.m. that we pulled ourselves away from the fire and walked out of camp. Our packs had been refreshed with water, snacks and hefty burritos. We had a short dry section in shoes before patches of snow made us switch over to ski touring boots and skis. Our feet were holding up, but flat roads in ski boots is a bad combo and we had a long stretch of that ahead. I got some hot spots/blisters on my heel and stopped to patch them up with duct tape.
After 4 or 5 miles the road ended and we headed up a wooded canyon towards Handies Peak. This was a nice gradual climb, we stayed high on the right side of the valley doing lots of side-hill skinning.
The altitude near 14,000 feet was noticeable in the upper basin. Struggle came in waves, heavier waves the higher we climbed. The winds were whipping around in the upper alpine and the summit looked like it was really howling. The other guys were pushing ahead in spurts and then stopping to wait for me. This process was making them cold, so I tried hard to keep up. It was hard to find the balance between moving to achieve the peak and pulling out the camera to capture the beautiful views and the moment.
The fellas hit the summit well ahead of me and though I wasn’t there to see it, they weren’t too embarrassed to tell me later how they all hugged and huddled close together on the exposed ridge in order to stay warm. Put a tough guy in tights on a windy peak and he’s not so tough anymore.
The average elevation for the HR 100 is over 11,000 ft. The route passes above 12,000 feet a brutal yet sublime 13 times. The mountain views are endless. You can look in every single direction from Handies and not see the end, or even the edges of where the mountains cease. I’ve never experienced this in the lower 48 states. In fact, you could hide my home range of the Wasatch Mountains inside the San Juans and nobody would know, the tallest peaks wouldn’t even have names. But, no time to contemplate immensities or enjoy vistas, the wind was chilling us and spurring us downward.
The guys seemed strong, but I felt really weak on the next climb. When I reached the pass they were all waiting and resting and Jason asked me if I wanted to bail off the route. This was a surprise. I hadn’t thought I had been performing that poorly. I was behind, but that was mostly because I had been filming. I didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t anywhere near thinking of pulling out. There was a good place to bail to Eureka if I wanted he said. This pissed me off and fired me up. I knew there was a chance I would have to bail at some point, but I wasn’t there yet. At this moment I made the decision that I would not quit. Thank you Jason.
We had a long descent, but once again it wasn’t easy at all! My tips dove in and I took a fall and slid for a while before I could get turned around and stop myself. The skin suits may or may not make you fast on the uphill, but they are really fast when you’re sliding downhill in them! I watched Paul eat it and I think Jason went down as well.
Even though most of the descents were a nice break from the uphill climbs I couldn’t help but lament that every foot of elevation we lost would need to be fought for and regained again on the next climb to the next pass. So it goes, over and over again on the HR 100.
We arrived at sunset at the top of the final climb and I mistakenly thought the hardest part of the day was behind us. It’s funny how many times this happened to me in my short time in Colorado. That’s the beauty of the mind I suppose, it’s ability to think it knows things, then offers up a hope and positivity that allows you to proceed even into terrible places.
But what a place to be at sunset! And how and why would we be here if not for this mad idea? And where in the world would we rather be?
I guess most people don’t ski this canyon and it became more and more apparent as to why that is. Bear Creek is a tight drainage and it keeps pushing you down into the creek unless you do a bunch of traversing and side-stepping to avoid it.
It was nice to find a sign letting us know we were on the right “path,” but we couldn’t see the path since it was covered in snow. We skied lower and lower into the valley weaving through trees and into and out of side gullies. The sun had had enough and it turned out the lights and went to bed. I didn’t blame it one bit and wished I could do the same. Luckily we did find the summer trail by headlamp and we walked through patches of snow and dirt.
My body was blown, I needed to eat and drink, but I ignored this. Taking the time to stop and eat and drink seemed like a waste of time. We should just power through and get out of here. This was the biggest mistake I made on the trip. Huge days are interesting because on the macro side, you just need to keep moving to cover that much ground and the more you stop to rest or fiddle around, the more time you lose and the less you progress. However, it’s all these micro adjustments you make that allow you to keep moving for the long haul.
Scott had mentioned earlier how the most important thing to do on a trip of this size is to listen to and then obey those little nagging things that need to be done, even though you don’t feel like doing them. For example, add or subtract clothing layers as soon as you feel too warm, or too cold, not later when you’ve lost precious heat and energy, or are sweating and losing fluids. Apply sunscreen and lip balm, before you get fried. Fix little hot spots, before they become debilitating blisters and sores. Eat food and drink water, before you get completely depleted. I’d done really well until this point in the trip.
The Bear Creek trail gets “interesting” lower down. The miners dug out a sidewalk into the side of the cliffs that winds around and out of the canyon. This time of year some icefalls cover the trail and make progress challenging. We easily managed the first ice crossing by kicking steps in the snow/ice and working some good hand holds in the ice. The next one was not so simple. For two long days we had carried crampons and ice axes and we finally go to put them to use. It was only for about 12 feet of ice, and it wasn’t vertical, but the exposure was of the sort you don’t walk away from. We chose not to rope up, but slowly cross one at a time. Paul had never used crampons or ice tools before, and the long day was getting to him. He expressed his fear and concern and then went about getting it done. Nevermind that his crampons were on the wrong feet.
The rest of the trail passed pretty quickly, we dropped switchbacks down to the valley and popped out at the highway. Paul had lost a trail shoe off his backpack somewhere during the ski. Remarkably, Jason had a friend in Ouray whom he called to come and meet us and lend a shoe to Paul. As the friend drove back to town, I almost caved and asked to ride with him, but what’s a few more miles. We walked the dark road with trail shoes and made it into town at about 10 p.m.
Jason’s wife Maggie, and the ever faithful Hannah were waiting at the hotel with 7 pizzas and some salads. We were wrecked! Another 15 hour day of almost constant movement had trashed our feet, sapped our energy and left four shells of men. Maggie said she’s never seen Jason like that. She said we acted like we were all high on the marijuana. Paul and I were in the worst shape. We didn’t even have the energy to join Scott and Jason in the hot springs. It just sounded like too much work.
I hobbled to my room to unpack. I’ve felt worse after a day in the mountains, but only once before. My feet were so swollen and the pads so sore that it hurt to stand. My legs were tired, my shoulders were in knots and for some strange reason my abs were sore. Wtf?! I took a long hot shower and that was nice. I knew I was behind on fluids so I kept pounding water and Gnarly Hydrate. I needed rest more than anything if I was going to have a chance at continuing.
I laid down and then the mental games began. There was no way I could continue if I felt like this in the morning and my guess was I’d feel even worse. I could still drive around and meet the team in Telluride and then in Silverton to get enough footage to salvage the film, but I would miss out on a ton of shots and completing this beast. This upset me. I didn’t want to quit, but heading out and having to be rescued would be worse. My body hurt so much in so many places that sleep didn’t come easily. The thoughts went back and forth from quitting to persevering. They spiraled out of control and I had to do some deep breathing and jedi mind-tricks to quiet things down. Beathe. I can handle this moment, there is only this moment. Breathe. There is only now, just now, only this. The decision will be made in the morning, decide then. This worked pretty well and I slept a little that night.
(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.)