Speed: Will The Future of Alpinism Belong To Runners?
Will The Future of Alpinism Belong To Runners?
On June 20, Karl Egloff, a 38-year-old Swiss-Ecuadorian mountaineer and runner, set the speed record on Denali. Taking only 11 hours and 44 minutes roundtrip on the West Buttress, Egloff shaved a minute off the previous record, held since 2014 by Spanish mountain runner Kilian Jornet. Egloff had set out from base camp wearing crampon-equipped running shoes, then, after reaching Camp III, at 14,200 feet, switched to lightweight mountaineering boots, and basically jogged to the summit, propelling himself with ski poles.
Jornet and Egloff have been competing to hold the FKT—fastest known time—on mountains around the world. In the past 10 years, Jornet has nabbed FKTs mostly held by climbers, on Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, the Matterhorn and Denali, until Egloff one-upped him not just on Denali, but on Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, and set the FKT on Russia’s Mount Elbrus.
The FKT on Denali had historically been a seesaw battle between leading mountaineers and alpinists. In 1990, Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, one of the head guides during the 1996 disaster on Everest, set the Denali record for the ascent only, at 10:50. In 2003, Chad Kellogg of Washington state set the roundtrip record at 23:55. Both Egloff and Jornet climbed Denali up and down in just one hour longer than it took Boukreev to go up.
No question, mountain “skyrunners”—equal parts endurance athlete and climber—are now the fastest humans in the mountains, eclipsing records held by more traditional climbers, begging the questions: Will runners start nabbing FKTs on more technical climbs such as the Eiger, or will climbers become faster runners to fend them off?
The Mountain Athlete
An FKT is the running equivalent of a speed record in climbing, and, in recent years, they’ve been de rigueur among ultra-runners, and now mountain runners, looking to build cred or simply suck more out of wilderness adventure by blitzing as much terrain as possible in a single push.
Though germinated in the Alps in the 1970s and 1980s, through such figures as Patrick Berhault and Jean-Marc Boivin who sought mountain adventures equal parts pure endurance and pure mountaineering, this new athlete includes the Alps-genre ski-mo’ers, those completing technical link-ups of alpine routes connected by glacier running or alpine skiing, skyrunners, and so on via mix of endurance, technical know-how and mountain savvy.
While mountaineers of previous generations generally considered the long approaches to climbs and multi-day climbing expeditions adequate endurance training for their sport, that strategy no longer applies. If Ueli Steck was right in that the future of cutting-edge alpinism is light and fast, those who want to be “fast” will be required to take a page from Jornet’s playbook. Case in point were Jornet’s 2017 speed ascents of Everest.
Outside of climbing circles, Jornet is known as a skyrunner, described as “mountain running above 2,000 meters over technical trails that can include steep scrambling.” While most of the initial skyrunners of the 1990s and early 2000s were elite mountain runners, the new generation are now wielding mountaineering ability, technical climbing know-how, and, as such, qualify as a new breed of mountain athlete. Jornet is a virtuoso—he’s climbed the North Faces of the Eiger and Matterhorn, completed the first ski descent of Norway’s 3,500-foot Troll Wall, won the world’s most prestigious ultra marathon, the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc, numerous times, leads 5.12, has free soloed 5.10b and climbs WI 6 ice and M8 mixed. Indeed, the lines between Jornet’s mountain running and mountaineering are so blurred it would be inaccurate to call him just a runner.
To train for his Everest climbs, Jornet employed endurance-training that included 30-hour mountain runs or ski tours at altitudes of 6,000 to 9,000 feet, 100 miles or more, in a single push. He also regularly clocked 25 to 35 hours of hard training each week, seven days a week, stacking up to 1,200 hours per year.
Jornet’s level of training was atypical for high-level mountaineers who “are do-it-yourselfers, not the people [training for] the New York Marathon,” says Steve House, who, with Vince Anderson, blitzed a new line on the 4,100-meter Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat in 2005.
For his Everest speed attempt, Jornet started at Advanced Base Camp on the Northeast Ridge, the route made famous by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine when they disappeared there while attempting to make Everest’s first ascent in 1924.
Jornet climbed Everest solo, without support, oxygen or fixed ropes, tagging the summit in 17 hours, only 18 minutes slower than the current record holder, veteran Austrian mountaineer Christian Stangl, who in 2006, also unsupported, got to the summit in 16:42. It was Jornet’s second jaunt up the mountain in five days, a record in itself.
While Jornet didn’t best Stangl’s time from Advanced Base Camp, he did go in the books for his earlier ascent of Everest just a week prior, when he raced from Base Camp, a full 4,300 feet lower than Advanced Base Camp, to the summit in 26 hours. The latter didn’t break a record because, says Jornet’s publicist in an online report on trailrunnermag.com, “There is no evidence of an existing FKT [starting from Base Camp], and [so] we are not talking about breaking records at any time, as there was no record to be broken.”
As you might expect, Egloff plans to go to Everest in 2022 to cap his own Seven Summits project, setting FKTs on every continent’s highest peak.
When Jornet’s Everest accomplishment broke on social media and other outlets, one of the more interesting comments came from Italian mountaineering legend Marino Giacometti, pioneer of the high-altitude-trail skyrunning movement and who was, in the early 1990s, organizing mountain races up Mont Blanc and Mont Rosa, a type of race uncommon in North America at the time. Giacometti told Runner’s World magazine, “a great achievement of both endurance and survival. In trail-running terms, this is one of the great performances. No ropes, no oxygen.” Yes, Everest had been referred to in trail-running terms.
Low Hanging Fruit
Speed has always been part of mountaineering’s DNA. The history of mountaineering achievements is—notwithstanding the Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering that focused on FAs of big mountains—largely one of difficulty and speed, i.e., doing routes faster, which often means in better style. Evidence of this is the handiwork of Austrian alpinist Paul Preuss, who in 1911 onsight soloed the West Face of the Totenkirchl—an accordion of vertical limestone standing 600 feet high and considered one of the Alps’ most difficult routes at the time—in two and a half hours, smashing the previous seven-hour record … which was the point.
In 1950, Erich Wascak and Leo Forstenlechner, both of Austria, topped out on the Eiger’s North Face in 18 hours. On their way up, they passed a Swiss party who were already on their third bivy. In 1969, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler pulled off a 10-hour ascent of the Eiger’s North Face. It was no secret that Messner credits many of his fast ascents to a rigorous mountain-running regime. In 1981 another Swiss climber, Ueli Buhler, soloed the Eiger in a mere eight-and-a-half hours. Then, in 1982, Francek Knez soloed it in six hours, then a year later Thomas Bubendorfer claimed four hours, 50 minutes. In 1992, a Czech climber did it solo, during the winter, in eight and a half hours. Then, in 2007, Ueli Steck did it, solo, in three hours 54 minutes. He beat his own record two years later with a time of two hours 47 minutes and 33 seconds, and then again, in 2015, in two hours 22 minutes, besting Dani Arnold’s record of 2:28. Just about every major peak in the Alps has been a proving ground for speed.
One standout pioneer who early blurred the lines between skyrunning and mountaineering was Austrian alpinist Christian Stangl, who still holds the FKT on Everest. Stangl, who earned the nickname “Skyrunner” throughout the early 2000s for his blistering FKTs on the Seven Summits, was an early prototype of the modern hybrid mountain runner, though he was a climber and today, at 53, is a professional mountain guide. In 2007, Stangl topped Mt. Vinson, a 16,066-foot peak in Antarctica, marking the last of the Seven Summits he climbed in skyrunner style: on the clock, light (often in running shoes), and unsupported.
Stangl credits his successes to 25 years of experience in the mountains—he’d climbed since he was 14—and a rigorous training program that included “24-hour nonstop walks, cycling, pulling tractor tyres uphill, long distance cycling, e.g., 3,200 kilometers from Austria to Russia with full climbing and skiing gear to Caucasus range and back to Austria; crossing the Atacama desert from north to south in 34 days alone on foot (just a half year before Everest speed ascent.)”
In the past 10 years, U.S. mountain runners, like their European counterparts, have dominated the FKTs on less technical peaks such as Mount Whitney, Rainier, all of Colorado’s 14ers, and just about everything in between. In time, the mid-technical routes will likely fall victim as well, such as was the case in 2016, when climber-runner Nick Elson set the FKT for the Grand Teton Traverse, which covers 14 miles over 10 peaks and gains some 12,000 feet with difficulties up to 5.8. He completed the traverse in six hours 30 minutes. Previous record holders were lifelong alpine and rock climbers Alex Lowe and Rolando Garibotti. In July of 2017, former collegiate runner Meredith Edwards, along with Jake Urban and Jason Schlarb, set a record in the Tetons with the first-ever double car-to-car ascent of the Grand (14,000 feet of vertical and 28 miles total).
One of America’s most accomplished alpinists, Conrad Anker, though, thinks that FKTs on non-technical peaks are irrelevant to mountaineering. “The runners that are getting into [speed ascents] are doing the classic routes, not something [technical] like what Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold did on Freerider in Yosemite (climbing it in five hours). [The runners] are aerobic machines, so if a route is low-risk, it’s great, but they don’t have the technical skills that come from years of climbing. It’s great they’re doing it. It’s just on a different medium.”
While it is true that runners aren’t speed climbing El Cap, Jornet for one is tackling routes that most climbers would rope up for. In 2012 he soloed Mont Blanc’s Innominata with snow and ice up to 60 degrees and the odd 5.7 move, in just 8:42 starting from the town of Courmayer, Italy, and finishing on the mountain’s opposite side in Chamonix, France. Most climbers take two full days to complete the line and belay substantial sections of it.
“To be a good mountain climber is one thing, to be a good runner or trail runner another,” says Egloff, an UIAGM guide and experienced mountaineer with an ascent of Aconcagua’s difficult and dangerous South Face, “but to be both is the challenging thing, even more with altitude and freezing temperatures involved but I’m sure this is going to happen, more and more everywhere in the world. I am happy to be a mountain climber who is developing running skills and not the other way around. I just hope runners will be aware of the risks in a mountain, and will take care,”
Moving quickly with minimal gear does introduce hazards and even Jornet isn’t immune. A year after his Innominata jaunt Jornet and Emelie Forsberg, lightly clad and with minimal gear, were rescued from the Frendo Spur, a 4,000-foot mixed route on one of Mont Blanc’s satellite peaks, the Aiguille du Midi. Trying to avoid steep ice—the two wore running shoes with crampons—they got off route and, with temps dropping amid a storm and unequipped for the conditions, they called for help.
The rescue ignited a spate of criticism. Jean-Louis Verdier, a guide and assistant in charge of security in the mountains of Chamonix, told ledauphine.com that “[M]ountain practice must be undertaken with adequate equipment so that you can face bad weather. I’m angry when I see the continued rise of sneakers despite our requests [to use proper climbing gear].”
Jornet agreed, writing on his blogs that “This is a warning that the mountain is hard and even if you are careful, it is dangerous, and we must be humble in the face of it because this was our fault, especially when one is lighter.
“On the other hand,” Jornet told Rock and Ice, “in some environments it is safer (spending less time at high altitude, crossing serac places, going down when weather deteriorates).
“To minimize risk it is important to be aware of both the activity (the technical skills required, risks, physical skills required, problems that can occur) and ourselves (our capacities, knowledge, experience, gear and use of it) and then evaluate.”
One of the first climbers to apply a runner’s mindset to mountain routes was Chad Kellogg, who died in rockfall while rappelling after an ascent of Fitz Roy in Patagonia in 2014. Kellogg made three attempts to essentially run up Everest, and did become the first to complete a sub-five-hour round trip ascent of Washington’s Mt. Rainier. That was in 1998. But, as is the case with so many other mountain records, that Rainier FKT is now in the hands of a runner. The current record holder who clocked a time of four hours 24 minutes, is Uli Steidl, an assistant running coach for track and field at Seattle University.
Mt. Rainier is not a technical peak, but arguably mountain runners have the edge on climbers for the future of mid-technical alpine FKTs, since runners only need mild technical experience to begin chipping away at speed ascents on more difficult routes, while alpinists need to dramatically improve their aerobic capacity, which, according to Training for the Uphill Athlete, co-written by Scott Johnston, Jornet and Steve House, takes years to acquire.
Still, says Jornet, becoming a proficient mountain runner or a solid climber can be equally difficult or easy. “To sport climb 5.7 for a runner will be easy with some dedication. The same as running a slow 100-mile race or a 35-minute 10k for a climber. Higher performances depend more on years of training. In alpine terrain it’s much more difficult to get to a high level since it is a lot about experience and different skills on rock and ice, learning to route find, placing protection and making good decisions.”
Steck was one climber who realized the benefits of running and dedicated 40 percent of his training time to improving aerobically—in 2016 he ran the New York City Marathon in 3:04. Steck, one of the fastest alpinists of his generation, was leading the alpine speed charge before his death on Nuptse (7,861 meters) in 2017. At 40 years old, he’d long focused on his training, and especially, adapting the tenets of endurance trail running to alpinism, which he did for a year just to beat the Eiger record.
In the spring of 2017, Steck’s friend Dan Patitucci watched him run Lobuche Peak (6,145 meters), one of the most technical and demanding trekking mountains in the Everest region, in an hour and 49 minutes. Most parties do the peak in two nights and three days. “Ueli ran it [Lobuche Peak] like it was a little hill,” says Patitucci, first in mountaineering boots, then in running shoes with crampons, and then in running shoes with no crampons.
Steck was known to consider the West Flank of the Eiger, 6,000 feet of vertical with occasional ice and plenty of alpine exposure, as a “winter mountain run.” Jon Griffith, a long-time friend and climbing partner of Steck’s, said, “Long distance trail running builds up a huge amount of endurance which allowed Ueli to keep a fast pace for hours on end up these faces. I think people need to understand that speed alpinism is not really about speed, it’s more about being able to maintain a steady pace for hours on end.”
Before Steck’s death, and just prior to a planned attempt to climb Everest and Lhotse in a supplemental, oxygen-less push, Steck was the fastest climber on the planet, but still concentrated on technical routes realizing that he couldn’t keep pace with mountain runners like Jornet when the going got easier.
A World of Runners
Ultra-running, defined as any distance over the marathon, took years to go mainstream in America.
“Let me put this in perspective,” says ultra-runner and Salomon athlete manager Ethan Veneklasen. “In 2002, there were only 15,107 ultra-runners in the U.S.” That number doubled in 2007, however, when runners caught on to the book, Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. “And then again, between 2011 and 2012, there was a 41.5 percent increase in participation, which you can trace back to the publication of Christopher McDougall’s runaway bestseller Born to Run,” says Veneklasen.
Suddenly (relative) throngs of people were testing themselves on runs pushing into marathon-plus distances. Today, Michael Benge, editor of Trail Runner magazine, estimates that there are over a thousand ultra races in the United States alone.
Anton Krupicka is one of the new breed of runners who ran cross-country and track and field (for Colorado College), but preferred long training runs in the mountains. One November, he decided to run Pike’s Peak without water or food, and calls that decision an “epiphany … that initial four hour, 48 minute effort up and down the mountain seemed to enliven and energize me … ”
Krupicka kept running in the mountains, and in 2006 and 2007, won the Leadville 100. He has since placed first in the Miwok 100K, Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile, and the White River 50-Mile, among others.
Krupicka started rock climbing as a college freshman and lived in Boulder for two years when he realized he “hadn’t even climbed a Flatiron.” He started scrambling up the sandstone blades and soon was linking technical ascents with an ultra-light style. In 2016, he and climber Stefan Griebel completed an FKT of the “infamous” Longs Peak Triathlon in Colorado, for which the rules are simple: start in a parking lot in North Boulder, bike to the Longs Peak Trailhead (38 miles), run to the base of the Diamond (six to seven miles), climb the Diamond via the Casual Route (5.10), tag the summit (14,259 feet), and reverse back to Boulder. Their FKT of 9:06 remains unbeaten.
Krupicka’s running was to be the secret weapon of a trip he did with American alpinist Colin Haley, also fond of FKTs, to Patagonia in 2016. Haley invited Krupicka to do some “big ‘car-to-car’ style climbs,” including Fitz Roy’s Supercanaleta (TD+ 5.10 90°, 1,600m), that, according to Haley, “would take advantage of my climbing skills and his endurance skills. I would lead the technical climbing, and Tony would take more than his share of weight on the hiking/running.”
But the Supercanaleta was a different beast and a big step up for the mountain runner. “The unforgiving principle of specificity seemed to be fully in effect,” wrote Krupicka. “That is, simply being cardio fit wasn’t enough to move quickly on this terrain … no amount of running, biking, skinning, or steep hiking would translate perfectly.” Krupicka left Patagonia motivated to up his technical game.
The summer after Krupicka and Haley’s attempt on Supercanaleta, Krupicka linked the Diamond, Spearhead, Chief’s Head, and the East Face of Mount Alice (all exposed, technical alpine routes with 5.10 climbing at altitude), in a long day.
The new uphill runner hoarding mountain FKTs is the result of a natural evolution in both sports, and just now is it coming into its own. As with Jornet on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, or Egloff on Denali and Aconcagua—if climbers are not able to keep pace they will lose their records on all but the most technical routes.
“It really depends on the mountain and the style,” says Jornet. “It isn’t the same for a speed ascent supported at Aconcagua as it is for an unsupported solo at Tetons’ Grand Traverse or free[ing] the Nose … but for sure it is a matter of elevating technical and physical skills.”
Egloff agrees. “I’m sure runners will climb more and climbers will run more,” he says “so I’m sure a mix of both is what will be developed more. I’m not quite sure about such technical routes like the Eiger as the benefit to be a runner there is not a huge advantage but in long distance, some technical, mixed terrain I’m sure the FKTs will come from athletes who spend time running and climbing.”
Tracy Ross is a National Magazine Award-winner whose work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, Bicycling and Runner’s World.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 260 (November 2019).
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