Photos of mountain running and high alpine ridges flood my social media feeds. Athletes atop peaks with goofy smiles on their faces, and I can’t help but smile back at my phone.
I’ll like the photo. And I’ll sigh, thinking some noob is going to get in over the head in some sort of mini-epic and I’m one who helped promote it.
Comments on the photos will ask where, how far, how much time? And then, others will come. A handful of mountains that were once reverenced become common training ground for locals. The lines between trail running, ultra running, mountain running, and mountaineering are becoming ever more blurred. Speedy summits of Gannett Peak, the Grand Teton, the Flatirons, or other such mountains are being accomplished. 2014 saw record numbers of both attempts and finishes of long mountain routes like Nolan’s. While swift mountaineering is nothing new, the recent influx of runners attempting swift mountain running is new.
Pushing our limits in the mountains isn’t a bad thing. Neither are occasional mini-epics. In fact, the many experiences of climbing multi-pitch routes after the last glimpses of light faded away, scrambling onto a knife edge ridge from the safety of a wider ridge, or schwacking through thick brush “sure” I’ll stumble upon a trail or a summit any moment now… these are experiences that have shaped me, and continue to fill me with life and joy. In no way do I desire to discourage others from coming to the mountains.
Instead, I ask that these incredibly fit trail runners take a moment of caution as they plan their routes. Also, disclose the route requirements online. Inviting a group of more than a thousand strangers to “come run” a summit that involves 5th class scrambling, without disclosing that the route has exposed scrambling, has become far too common among local running clubs. If you join in on a group peak bagging “run,” take a moment and look it up on summit post. Knowing what chute to scramble up can make a big difference in your personal safety, and ultimately you are responsible for your own safety.
The mountains demand reverence. The ones that demand it most have a way of saying, simply, “No” to becoming a regular summit. They require too much time, or sometimes, too much risk.
Each back-country sport pushes limits in the evolution of progression. Things Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber, free solos (climbs without any safety equipment) are climbing lines that once took climbers weeks. WEEKS. Honnold does them in hours without any protection, and any mistake would be fatal. Ski-mountaineering and ski-mo videos continue to challenge what we comprehend as possible on skis.
This year more than a dozen high-profile climbers and alpinists lost their lives to the mountains they love.
Ultrarunners can cover a lot of ground swiftly, it is at the very base of our sport. This allows mountains that were traditionally summited in a 2-3 day mountaineering trip be “run” in as little as a half day. This new evolving blurred area between ultrarunning and mountaineering has a new set of rules, standards, and limits.
As ultrarunners open doors for more and more remote peaks to be explored, take a moment of caution: Do you or your partners have rock climbing, mountaineering, ice axe, or off-trail route finding experience? Did you research the summit route before joining a group run? And for those pushing limits, posting the stunning imagery that sends others longing for big summits, do you have a responsibility of adding the words of caution? (i.e. glacier travel required, summit push has chossy 4th class rock, etc).
We all start as noobs, somewhere along the while. Every climber has their first lead, every mountaineer their first summit. The learning curve is not something we can skip, and giving back to our community to teach the way our mentors taught us is the least we can do. My many mentors, patiently teaching me how to place gear, hand jam, and advanced climbing techniques shaped my climbing. I don’t want to discourage others from getting out to the same mountains I so very well love.
But, when others plan “running” trips to summits only serious peak baggers previously considered, or when social media running groups ask about “trails” on chossy 5th class ridge lines, I worry a little. Maybe it’s the mother in me, but I wonder if they’ve seriously considered the consequences for falling, kicking off a rock on a partner, or getting lost on such terrain.
I’ve been projecting a long alpine ridge route/scramble this year. With my 2 attempts, I didn’t get it. It’s within my ability level. Hell, it’s within a lot of people’s ability level. But there are many places on that ridge where a slip would be fatal, places a rescue impossible. It’s not a place to apply the ultrarunner mentality of “just grind it out” and “finish at all costs.” When things go south up there, I bail. The risks are high and the mountains will wait for me to come back and get the send.
Some risks cost too much.
So, I like those photos on instagram. I like to post them myself. I like to run with others, extend comfort zones, learn new skill sets and teach in the ways my mentors taught me.
To the runners who want to leave the safety of trails in search of high places, the places few touch as they dance along the ridges in the sky… Take a few seconds of caution, and consider the risks.
What other ways can we, as a trail running culture, continue to push boundaries in mountain running without increasing the risks of those around us?