The ground crunches as I walk upon it. With no rain for weeks, it's incredibly dry. I stroll out of Silverton, cross the Animas, and pass the beaver dam. Without getting wet, I clear the creek that thinks it's a trail. I even get across Arrastra dry. Enjoying the day and taking my time, I slowly drift uphill into Little Giant Basin. The jeep road climbs steadily at alternating levels of steepness. I like to go out slow and get into my own rhythm. Takes me a while to get all the systems working well. Getting off road always seems to lift my spirits and get me going, so I'm pleased to finally reach the trail head. It's an irregular trail that wanders amongst moss covered boulders and scrub. Not sure of the exact route but the general direction is easy to see. Remnants of an old miner’s route become more obvious along a narrow ledge that hugs the wall and rises steeply. With sheer drops on either side of a narrow ridge, the summit of Little Giant has breathtaking panoramic views all around. Leading off the other side, another narrow ledge circles round her peak and drops down. At first, I drop quickly, but then I have to slow my progress to keep from sliding off the mountain. With switchbacks for a few thousand feet strait down and very little traction on the dry dusty trail, I roll into Cunningham with little effort or speed. Shoes & clothes are still dry so all I need is a cold Gatorade, a sandwich, and some ensure. The place is hummin with energy. Crews, runners, and volunteers are all spun up pretty hard.
Cunningham Gulch road is full of runners, cars, and dust. It's also downhill. The next climb starts at the turn, and so do the switchbacks. These first two climbs feel the same to me. Road damn near all the way to the top, large old abandoned mines near the summit, and both are very long and steep. I always seem to suffer worse on the first couple of climbs. I have not yet beat the nerve endings into a comatose state. My body's rejecting the commands my mind is sending. I visit with Nancy Halpin for awhile and then she slowly walks away from me. I see the tram towers first and then Buffalo Boy mine. The trail wraps around and summits onto a mountain top pasture of yellow grass. I run though the field while the wind creates constantly shifting patterns in the grass. To a ledge, another field, then drop down to a rocky knob which thrusts her head high above Maggie Gulch. In every direction, a steep drop. In a controlled fall, I step off the side, go round the rock, and skip down tundra to the creek. To watch, you'd think I fairly well fall off the rock. The slope's angle makes it impossible to go slowly or even stop. A trail parallels the creek and drops to a jeep road. Theorems and laws can't explain how I get my large mass from Knob to Maggie in only one thought process. Next thought and I'm eating watermelon with Molly Gibb.
Molly and I visit on Maggie Gulch Road but separate on the trail leading up and over into Pole Creek. The climb's steep but not nearly so long as some of the others. In the long high canyon, the Continental Divide trail rolls about as it crosses a large plain and hugs the north canyon wall. I want to run so bad, but just can’t seem to muster the energy in this heat at 11000 ft. I walk and run behind Mark & Margaret Heaphy all the way down to Pole Creek Station. I want to skip on by but nearly out of water, I stop to refill and have some soup while I wait.
Crossing a wide valley, I start up a narrow slot leaning uphill for the next few miles. I attempt to keep my feet dry but there are so many creek crossings, I eventually slip in. As I near the summit, I get off course and start up the wrong climb. I hear someone calling my name and look back to find I'm off by one rock wall. I scramble right to get back to the correct trail. The trail winds through chest high scrub and the flags are well hidden within them. Remembering the route now, I follow the correct route the rest of the way up and out of the valley to the high mountain lakes on top. Going a bit faster on the rolling descent. I hook up with Julie as we bounce along for miles. I separate from her as the descent gets steeper and speed down next to a roaring creek. I cross the creek many times before hitting the switchbacks leading down into Sherman Station. Lyle's waiting for me with pizza and a chair. Gatorade, Ensure, and watermelon first, then a bit of heat rash is repaired with Desiten.
I exit with pizza in hand for the long dusty road ahead. Burrows Park is 1000 ft gain over 5 miles of dirt road. I try to make the best of it and focus on walking uphill more efficiently. I find some sort of rhythm and stay with it, actually passing a few folks who are struggling more than I with the heat. The trail leading up Handies starts at Burrows Park and immediately crosses a bridge. I stop, sit on a rock in the middle of the stream, and remove my shoes. I clean & soak my feet in the ice cold snow melt. This feels so good and invigorating, I can feel my smile slip back into place. On trail, I hook up with Tom Knutson for the push up towards the 14000 ft summit. Above treeline, as far as I can see, all the bodies are moving very slow. Time to put on a jacket for some warmth at 13000 ft, as the hot day suddenly seems to be getting a tad bit chilly. At snails pace we eventually top out, crawling the last few feet up a very steep wall directly into the rising moon. I look behind to see the sunset. I expect to hear a symphony crescendo, but all I hear is the wind as I share the summit of 14000 ft Handies with both the sun and the moon. I dwell for a second on the meaning of it. There is none. The sun drops out of sight and the moon takes over lighting the trail in front of me. It is more than enough. Tommy & I roll across the top and start down into American Basin. Crossing this basin in the dark might be a bit confusing. The switchbacks drop for a long way and we push it. Large patches of snow are iced over and awkward to cross. Water rushing under a snow bridge in the dark is a bit unsettling, forcing us a bit faster. The trail gets more difficult to follow but I know the general direction and find my way. The climb out of American Basin up to Grouse-American Pass seems to go quickly as we work our way around creeks and bogs on up to the saddle. A patch of icy snow covers the summit and our path leads through it. Stopping before we begin our long descent into Grouse Gulch, Tom tells me to not wait on him. All I see is trail and the rocks upon it as I pick up speed, dropping 2500 ft in 3 miles. I just love it. The last series of switchbacks are long wide sweeping ones with plenty of room so you don't have to slow much on the turns. Having spotted my green light long before I arrive, Paul & Joyce are waiting for me at the bottom. Grouse Gulch Station has the look and feel of a MASH unit. Bodies are laying all about, sleeping, eating, or surrounded by a gang of other bodies as teams work to keep their runner in the game. I change into longer, thicker, and warmer night time clothes, and have some food to eat. Pacer's can start here, so Paul's geared up and ready to go.
Another long road to 13000 ft Engineer Pass, but this one feels much better than the last. No cars and no dust. I'm feeling energized again and charging up the long road at a rapid clip. I can hear water from the Animas on my left, but even with the light of the full moon, I still can't see a thing. The twinkle of flashlights fills the sky, the mountain switchbacks scattering them all over the dark face of the mountain. There are still many miles in front of me, but it feels good right here right now. The road ends at the summit of Engineer and we go directly over the side into the tundra. We get our speed up on the steep descent and spin on into a rutted & narrow trail that is not very comfortable to run in. We run next to it where the navigation is less awkward. Still above treeline, we can see the lights from Engineer Station well below us. We plan to buzz it, same as we did three years ago. Don't need a thing and it's mildly entertaining to see how many stir into action as we go bye.
We swing close enough to be heard, and Paul yells out my number. Four or Five lights come out and give chase. Two stay near for a mile and then they disappear behind us as we continue our rapid descent. I love running down Bear Creek into Ouray. It's exhilarating! I know the turns, cliffs, drops and ledges of this section well, running within inches of a sheer drop into a creek hundreds of feet below. We stop at Yellow Jacket mine to evict shoe stones, but don't even slow as we pass by Grizzly Bear. On the winding wall above the long sheer drops, we hug the right, and then on to the glass switchbacks. The thin rocks sound of broken glass as we pound across them. Left, right, and repeat endlessly down the glass highway to the final turn over the highway tunnel. We stop for just a moment to catch a breath and then my stomach turns. I suddenly feel like puking but can't quite get it up. It hurts to run so I slow to stay comfortable. I'm moving at snail's pace again, my gut in a knot. What a twist of pace and energy. The cold water of the Uncompahgre feels good on my legs, but it does nothing for my stomach. Slowly along the roller coaster road, the hanging water pipes, and then Camp Bird Road. A few pass us going out as we crawl into Ouray's Box Canyon. It's 4:30 in the morning. 58 miles in 10.5 hours. My crew swarms, helping with drinks and clothes. Shorts and T for the coming day. I forget to eat and top off my water. Amazingly stupid, but I'm up to the task.
Joyce is pacing for the next 25 miles, so we walk uphill together on Camp Bird Road to Governor's Basin. We're out an hour before the sun comes up and I realize my water bladder is almost empty. Usually I gear up at sunrise, but I'm powering down. I stop to drink some ensure and Red Bull, with hope of getting back in gear, but it has no effect at all. I continue to struggle up the long slow climb. At Governor’s Station, I sit down for a hot cup of soup and a bladder refill. I take my time. Crossing Sneffles Creek, we hook up with Jan Gnass for the rest of the climb out of the basin. Virginius summit is had by three steep pitches that are usually a bit of fun. But once again, the dryness has made these more difficult and dangerous. The first pitch is loose rock and not much different than the Grant-Swamp ascent. It wears me out to climb the scree and I have to stop to get my wind back at the top. At the second pitch we see people going up three different routes. The easiest one is not the way the course is marked, so we follow the course and go up the more difficult route. It's all very large and loose rocks. Every step and hand hold pulls down more rocks while I slip backwards. We take 2 slightly different angles to avoid dropping rocks on each other, but it takes a while to get up what shouldn't really take that long. Again, I have to rest when I get on top. The last pitch is the easiest of the three. The course usually goes strait up the face, but this year it angles in from the right across snow and then rock. The entire climb done in a badly depleted state has cost me a lot of time. I've been powered down for way too long.
We surf the rocks into Marshall Basin on our way to Mendota Saddle, scrambling forward as fast as we can across a trail of large broken rocks. Off the rocks and onto dirt, we go off course for a minute and have to climb back up to reacquire the trail. Rolling into the saddle and over it, I can see a long way down the trail. There's no traction and the dust flies on every step. I slide about on each step and in short time my soles are burning. I have to stop and check for hot spots or blisters. There are none, but they continue to burn as I slide downhill, so I slow down. Still a long way to go and I need to be careful. My fast downhill advantage is gone, reduced to a more leisurely pace down the mountain. It's frustrating. I really want to go and the fast descents are what usually get me spun up. But, this is the way it is. I must adapt. My descent into Telluride is less than what I'm used to. I walk down to the bank of the San Miguel River, peel off my shoes, and drop my over-heated feet into the cool water. Paul starts patching my feet right there in the river. Afterwards, I walk into Telluride with a brand new patch job on my feet and fresh pair of socks. I sit down to a good meal, ensure, red bull, coke, and Gatorade.
Joyce & I begin the long & winding climb to Oscar's Pass with pizza & Ulli. I feel much better and seem to gaining strength. Trapped on the tourist road out of town for awhile, we eventually escape to a more enjoyable and private trail. Tight steep switchbacks ease into a more linear tilt up into Bear Creek. I start slow and steady and get faster and stronger as we climb. The scenery is stunning in the upper canyons. A short bridge crossing a crevice precedes a house sized and cube shaped rock. We track across a large snow pack without realizing it has a hollow underside, until we exit and look back. Crossing snow bridges give me the willies. We start a long series of switchbacks that hump strait up from the snow pack for hundreds of feet. With head down I focus on breathing until I reach the top of the initial set. Looks like a dozen runners on the switchbacks below us. There are more switchbacks ahead, but nothing like the first set. The terrain flattens out before the final pitch to Wasatch Saddle, but we keep the same rhythm as we march up this climb as well. We find Jan Gnass sitting on top and together we cross the snow & rock fields to Oscar's Pass. With no hesitation, we roll across and start down the steep rock filled descent. I begin tentatively, but quickly pick up speed. It hurts to go slow or trying to stop, so we quit trying. I realize I can still run steep downhills that are full of rocks. There's nothing to slide on. It's the dirt that's killing me. So, we sprint down the mountain and don't stop until we reach the bottom road leading to Ophir and Chapman Station. The waiting crew swarms when I stop by our car. Sitting in the dusty red dirt lot, Paul works on my feet, while I drink a lot of fluid and try to eat. It's not going down easy any more. Joyce restocks my camelback and has it ready by the time Paul & I head out together. Next time I'll see Joyce is at the finish.
We find ourselves with Ulli Kamm and Rollin Perry early on. We drift into conversation and a comfortable pace as we wind our way up through Swamp Canyon towards Grant-Swamp Pass. Ulli climbs well so I'm pleased to tuck in and hang on. Rollin's right behind us, but Paul refuses to be contained and bounces all around. We take a short break at treeline, allowing another group to join us. Then our group of seven slowly climbs the remaining steep and rocky trail to the base of Grant-Swamp. When the train stutters to a stop at the base, Paul & I continue on to attack the final pitch. Now we are finally at it. The big dog! The baddest pitch that drops every runner to all fours. I have been looking forward to it. The old vets say the best route is strait up the gut, shortest distance and all that. I start right up the middle and stall quickly. The entire face slides down as I move up, leaving me further behind than I was before. There's no moisture to hold anything in place, including me. Worse than no progress, I'm moving backwards. I move left, right, and left again. Making some small amount of progress, but stalling again only 50 feet up. Scanning the face, looking for anything solid, I find a shallow chute full of rocks on my left and try it. There is some hold and not entirely solid, but I use it to go a bit higher. Progress is so slow and difficult that nobody's getting up and off. The face is full of bodies. Twelve people on and nobody going strait up the gut. We're all forced out to the sides where we find scant purchase in the rocks. Large rocks bound down the face one after another. The sound of 'Rock' again and again. Paul and I stay left and finally find the underbelly of the rock summit. The final scramble across the top is all on dangerously loose and brittle rock. Quite a few people are still on the face, with most coming up on the right. Rollin's across and moving quickly down the other side, with Paul and I surfing down the scree behind him. Quickly separating ourselves from the rest, we pass Island Lake on our way into Lower Ice lake Basin. Night's coming and we race the darkness. How much distance can we steal from the twilight? In haste, we slide around rocks on the switchbacks, taking hairpin turns with some speed, and reach the hanging valley. Many trails intersect but we navigate the confusion quickly to a raging creek above a waterfall. I walk across a wet log and watch as Paul slips and falls. The thump of his leg striking the log is ominous and he hangs just above the water on the wrong side. The skin from knee to ankle is scraped into a large angry red bruise. We both stop breathlessly still for an instant and then he gets up and walks across. I ask, but he says 'Lets get on with it, day's a wastin'. Light fades to dark while we slosh through the muck, both of us soaking wet from knee to toe. The dark canopy of trees opens onto Kamm Traverse, a high face above Mineral Creek. With the moon still hiding her light behind the mountains, we're forced to turn on our own lights. No more than a skinny goat trail at first, we run, catching Rollin just before KT Station. Busy with noise and bodies everywhere, we sit for a cup of soup, top off our water, and bid adieu.
We slip off road down through skunk cabbage to Mineral Creek. The snow melt stings my feet and seems to stay with me as I slog up through the mud, following the hoof prints of runners into the trees. The switchbacks start quickly, but Paul sets a strong pace, pushing and testing me. I let it all unwind. Feeling great, I push back, working hard to stay with him. We climb quickly, covering a lot ground, yet a light gains on us. It has to be Rollin. Expecting to see him soon, we stop to finish the last of the cantaloupe, grapes, coke, and ensure at Porcupine Creek. Rollin joins our picnic, surprised by the pre peeled cantaloupe and cold can of coke. Crossing the creek through spongy marsh, we climb to the log landmark. The trail twists and winds around rocks, bogs, and brush continuously upward. The silhouette of a high mountain saddle hangs well above us, but I think our target is much lower than that. The moon's bright high beam shines between the trees. I wonder what it is for awhile before Paul tells me. Too bad he's so quick to explain. Without him, my imagination would have hallucinated something really grand. As I climb over a rock, I go down hard, my foot screaming in pain. I've just popped another blister. I crawl on top of a large flat rock and remove my shoes so Paul can patch me up. I put on a fresh pair of clean socks when Paul is done. My foot hurts quite a bit for about ten minutes after every repaired blister and this one is no exception. Strait up the tundra to the saddle that I initially thought was too high. It's still a long way off, and we keep going up. Paul pulls ahead and waits on top, using his light as a beacon. The top of Porcupine is much higher than I thought. The large hulking shadow of Putnam looms ahead. The last climb is not an easy one. We glissade down a large bank of snow on top and then the markers control our direction across the wide open high plain. On trail for awhile, across a field, past a buffalo wallow, aiming for the snow field at the base of the Putnam. Too slippery to cross, the snow frozen solid, we go around. While we crossed the high plain, we watched two lights wandering around on Putnam. They come back to meet us above the ice field. 'Where's the trail?' one asks! Strait up the face, I tell them. 'I'm supposed to believe a Texan'. It's Craig from Helotes and he thought somebody moved the markers just to mess with him. Paul leads us strait up the tundra face as quick as a billy goat. He goes a long way, then stops and uses his light beacon again. I'm moving about one tenth his speed and can't believe how fast he is. The slopes very steep with no easy purchase, so I go left and right to get some sort of lateral support. One marker after another, I pass them again and again. How far does this climb go? I got the last climb blues. I know it's not as long as it feels, but damn, give me the top. Finally I reach Paul and he says we're about half way. The difference between reality and what I'm thinking is very wide. My thought process can't bridge the gap. I simply turn and start going up again. Paul repeats the same rapid ascent he did earlier then waits at the top, I hope. I don't think I like his beacon anymore. After awhile, it starts getting easier as I realize I'm easing onto the rounded summit. We don't reach the peak here but drift right, angling towards the one on the side. Looking back, I see only one light nearby. Must be Rollin again. The other guys have fallen off. We start to run, across the last peak and down into the deep dark canyon below. The markers get tougher to follow, so we spread out to cover more area. There are steep sheer drops all over this basin, but I know the general direction. Finding the markers, we speed downhill with Rollin not far back. Finally we just stop and wait for him. No sense in not sticking together as we seem to be going the same speed. Fact is, I think we've be near each other the last two days. The three of us continue together down to Putnam Station. We stop for a cup of broth and skip out pretty quick.
It's steep for a bit, causing us to pick up the pace. I nearly run into Paul once as he slows where I can't. It's just too steep to stop or even slow down. Into Bear Creek, we run across high pasture onto the nastiest trail on the course. Nothing but broken rocks. Ankle twisting, foot stabbing, shin grinding traps every step. Across the rocks we run as fast as we can make our swollen feet go. I hear Rollin go down behind me and slow to check, but he's up and running again quickly. Paul goes down too and bounces back up without losing a step. This is insane! We keep going. Our high speed descent rolls right on down to Mineral Creek where we splash across. My feet are numb from the cold and the tingling won't go away. We cross the highway and climb up to Nute's Chute. I got the 'get it done' feelin but I plan to finish with Rollin. He's talking PR and I'd like to be there when he does. We bounce along Nute's Chute in a haphazard sort of run/walk. My foot's screaming so I stop to check it, then back up to catch Paul and Rollin before the road. Another uphill and we're gonna be close for a sub-45. I start to push it a bit, urging the pace up to and past the Christ of the Mines. Turning off road and down the last trail into Silverton, we start running again onto 10th and Snowden. Rollin says nobody will recognize him if he runs into town, but we keep running. Rounding the last corner, we approach the rock and stop in front of it. Both of us kiss the rock at the same time. It's 44:53 and a PR for Rollin. I'm quite pleased to be part of it. I'm both pleased and sorry to be done. My feet hurt and I can finally rest, but now it's time go home. My feelings are mixed with happiness and sadness, excitement for Rollin, and anticipation of my next event that starts one week from now in Death Valley.