Into the Alpine

Words By Heath Scott

Big mountain weather is always unpredictable. Mountains create their own weather patterns, so above tree line, the exposure is real. There are no trees to seek shelter, no race aid stations to provide sustenance, and frequently no trails, leaving the runner to bushwhack through often unhospitable terrain.

When I began my serious commitment to turning myself into an ultrarunner in 2011, I was immediately drawn to trail running. The more remote the trails, the more I wanted to go. I ran a few road marathons before this, and like most runners who participate in road races, I was focused on my Garmin, splits, and what kind of swag the race directors would offer to entice aspiring runners to enter their race.

When I moved to Colorado two years later, I was introduced to an entirely different world of self-propelled adventures in the mountains. Luckily, I had a group of friends that coached and mentored me on how to stay safe when venturing into the alpine. No longer was running the simple act of lacing up shoes, and possibly grabbing a water bottle, before heading out the door to bang out a few miles before work. Trail running became a much more committed endeavor. Preparation involves looking at maps, studying weather, and collecting the necessary gear to make it home unscathed. I never go into the mountains without at least one layer, and a Gore-Tex shell. Coming from the east coast, where the oppressive heat, and suffocating humidity, don’t relent from May through October, I never expected to battle freezing cold winds, or to nearly descend into hypothermia during the middle of summer. However, in Colorado I have been caught in snow storms in August during both the Leadville 100, and the Telluride Mountain Run. I dare not think of the repercussions, if I didn’t have the gear to keep me warm and dry. During the later race, I even had to seek shelter in an abandoned mine shaft for half an hour before the storm passed. Not exactly your local 5k.

The famous Hardrock 100, one of the world’s most grueling hundred milers, doesn’t call itself a “race,” but instead opts for the more apropos “run.” Only a very few elite athletes would even consider “racing” this course. It has 33,000 feet of vertical gain, with the average altitude being 11,000 feet. The course takes runners through the deepest of Colorado’s backcountry, over a fourteen thousand foot peak, and has a forty-eight-hour cutoff. Runners do not sleep during this time, but require it just to connect the mountain towns of Silverton, Telluride, Ouray, Lake City, and back to Silverton for the honor of kissing the rock, a requirement of finishing the “race.”

Because a planned four-hour outing in the mountains can easily turn into eight when weather conditions change, or somehow that game trail you thought would take you down to safety isn’t the one you followed on the way up, food and water are essential. No one would be caught in the mountains without a good hydration pack, with plenty of storage for layers, food, water, and a water filter. During a ten-hour “run” around the marathon distance “Four Pass Loop” that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells, and goes over four 12,000 foot passes between Aspen and Crested Butte, I ran out of water. Fortunately, I had a filter with me, and could get my hydration out of streams whenever I needed it. If not, my memories from that odyssey might not be as fond. You must be self-sufficient. Quite like paddling out in big hurricane surf, if you get yourself out there, short of a helicopter rescue, no one is going to get you out of the ocean or the mountains, except yourself.

After moving to Colorado, I quickly found that I had to increase my fitness substantially, as a lot of trail “running” in the mountains involves a disproportional amount of hiking uphill. Often the trails are too steep to run, even for the most accomplished mountaineer, and the higher you go, the less oxygen your lungs have to do their job.

To get into the alpine, you must go deep into the backcountry. The effort is substantial, but the rewards increase proportionally with the risk. The landscapes and beauty there are only offered to the intrepid. Even four-wheel drive vehicles cannot access these elysian fields. However, the rewards can be fleeting. Just as blue skies and warm weather may accompany you into the alpine, the weather truly can change in an instant, and electrical storms are common. The runner’s best friend is her speed to get out of potentially perilous situations, including encounters with bears, mountain lions, and the even more dangerous moose, all of which I’ve had the “joy” of experiencing. Though in the moment, it’s quite terrifying, I believe this is what living is all about. Experiencing first hand a staggering beauty, and parts of the world, most people can only dream about.

Trips into big mountain terrain can be risky, but being required to ask more of my body and mind than I ever thought possible, has taught me more about myself than I would have ever known, if I had stayed comfortably on my couch. The mountains have made me face my demons, and instead of being able to ignore them through the myriad of distractions urban life offers, I’ve had to deal with them, and come to peace with who I am. I cherish my time in the mountains, and as long as my body permits, I will continue to venture into the alpine.

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