Story and Photos by Noah Howell
I love steep skiing and powder skiing and most forms of sliding on snow, including the occasional long link-up or traverse. There’s something very freeing about combining lightweight gear with cardio fitness and skiing nearly naked through the mountains covering huge amounts of terrain. The lightweight skimo gear has made this easier, safer and more enjoyable than ever.
The last few winters in the Wasatch had slow starts, not much snow. So I focused on skimo training to improve fitness and allow for bigger days in the mountains. Some ultrarunners have turned to it to keep on top of their fitness in the winter months; Jason Schlarb is one of those guys, and in the world of ultrarunning he is one of the best.
Last December, Jason contacted me and told me he was pulling together a team of world-class athletes to attempt the first ski traverse of the Hardrock 100. This well-known summertime race, done on roads and trails, takes runners on 100 miles of beautiful, yet rugged and challenging terrain in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Jason wanted me to join and capture it on film to produce a short documentary.
We’d need stable avalanche conditions and great weather to line up for four consecutive days in one of the gnarliest ranges in Colorado. The chances of this all coming together were slim. I said yes to the invite, but honestly, I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Throughout January and February we worked on logistics, but in my mind the Ski Hardrock 100 still wasn’t likely to happen. Fun idea, but probably a little too grand.
The first week of March came quickly and things in Colorado were looking really good. High pressure had been sitting over the San Juans for weeks, avalanche conditions were low—a rarity—and the weather forecast was good. The reality set in that I had agreed to chase three of the fittest men in North America around on skinny skis for 60,000 ft of total elevation gain and loss. Shit got real!
I knew it would be impossible for me to keep up with these super-lungs. I was nervous. I had been skiing a bunch, but not training for this. I looked for excuses and found a bunch, but my excitement and intrigue won out over the nervousness.
Day 1- Silverton-Laketown, 9,000 feet of climbing over 29 miles.
Day 2- Laketown-Ouray. 8,000 feet of climbing and 26 miles.
Day 3- Ouray to Telluride. 17 miles and over 5,000 feet of climbing.
Day 4- Telluride to Silverton. 10,000 feet of ascent, nearly 29 miles.
Day one, March 17: We spent the night in Durango and around 5 a.m. we drove in the dark to Silverton. Despite the early hour, we were awake, chatting, eating breakfast burritos and feeling ready. We crammed way too much shit into our small packs and by 6:45 a.m. we were walking down the streets of Silverton, lost. Four dudes dressed in head-to-toe lycra, looking for the base of the Kendall Mountain Ski Area, but we couldn’t find it!
I was heading out for a 100-mile wilderness tour with a crew I’d never skied with and they couldn’t even get us out of their ski town! I was not impressed. What had I gotten into? Finally, we found the snow, changed into our ski boots and started skinning.
Things continued to go anything but smoothly. We started through the trees but lost the trail, so we opted to follow along the riverbank. Unfortunately, the snow was unconsolidated sugar and we kept punching through and getting sucked in.
Soon after we had to find a way to cross the shallow river. I threw one of my skis across, but it bounced off the bank and back into the water! It started floating downstream. This forced me to run into the river to snag it. The guys were laughing at me, then they also failed to make a dry crossing.
Wet boots after an hour of difficult travel and only on mile two! I told my new friends that my confidence was low. They had done huge amounts of recon, but had overlooked the start, imagining it would be simple. We laughed and kept moving.
Things turned around, we started moving well — not fast but steady. We gained a huge chunk of vertical on our first climb. It was here that I had my first of many “What the hell did I get myself into” moments. I was clearly out-lunged by these guys. If I pulled hard I could maintain close proximity, but whenever I removed the camera to get a shot I got dropped fast and couldn’t recover the gap. They waited for me. I kept moving, one step, one breath at a time.
We descended a long way in mixed conditions finding a single strip of snow that connected through cliffs into Cunningham Gulch, arriving around noon we took our first break. Hannah Green, a good friend and ultrarunner, met us with cookies and water. Hannah would continue to meet us along the way at key intersections providing moral support and delicious treats. We were all surprised at the short distance we had come and how long it had taken.
We climbed again and crossed the Continental Divide, then descended a long, mellow valley to Sheep Creek. The miles and altitude were starting to have an effect. The day was getting on and we still had a long way to go.
I knew virtually nothing about our route, which was fun and exciting, as every pass and peak was new. Jason and Scott made the interesting decision to navigate by map alone. This worked most of the time, but at the Sheep Creek intersection there was some confusion. Jason and Scott headed off in one direction while Paul and I stayed put, certain they were off course. It was really unsettling to have the team separated and worse, facing the thought of spending the night out in the open without proper gear. After about 30 minutes Jason and Scott returned. There was some frustration in the group— we had wasted valuable time, energy and daylight. After some venting, we committed to staying closer together and being more certain about our way forward.
We were hours behind schedule, and it got dark. The final climb was a huge relief, but the Hardrock isn’t soft and even the descents were unforgiving.
We ended up in a narrow canyon popping off little cliffs and pillows and wallowing through deep faceted snow by headlamp. It would have been fun on real skis. We hit a packed trail that was fast and icy in the middle and rotten on the sides. If you went off center it would suck you in and flip you around. We were all eating shit left and right. I can honestly say this was the most un-fun I’ve had on skis. Maybe it was the fatigue, the altitude, the skinny skis, the cumulative hours, or all of the above.
Jason had made arrangements with “Mad Dog” to set up camp, and we finally arrived at 9 p.m; he had been expecting us at 3p.m. When we pulled in all we could do was sit in a stupor. Mad Dog and friends pretty much saved the day—and the project. They had a raging fire, and fed us warm tomato soup followed by steaks and asparagus. They took our wet boots and socks and dried them by the fire, offered us tea, water and even beer! There was more food than we could eat, and our fatigue almost prevented us from consuming it.
All we wanted was sleep. At around 11p.m. we crawled into our bags for a full 7 hours of rest. We had survived day 1, but couldn’t believe how hard it had been.
I didn’t sleep well, just laid there happy to be horizontal. The alarm bleeped at 6 a.m. and we reluctantly left our beds. Mad Dog was back on point with a large fire, coffee and breakfast burritos. The weather was holding and it was going to be a warm sunny day. They said today would be less mileage and a little less vert, so it should be “easier”. Jason had arranged free rooms at the Weisbaden Hotel in Ouray where we could soak in hot springs; that all sounded good, but it was still far away and I didn’t really trust their optimism.
After 5 miles the road ended and we skinned up a wooded canyon. The altitude was noticeable in the upper basin as we neared 14,000 feet. The struggle came in waves, heavier waves the higher we climbed. The winds were whipping on the summit of Handies Peak, and the guys were pushing ahead in spurts then stopping to wait for me. This process made them cold, so I tried to keep up. They hit the summit well ahead and huddled together to stay warm. It’s hard to be a Tough Guy when you’re in tights.
You can look in every single direction from Handies Peak and not even see the edges of the San Juan Range, something I’ve rarely experienced in the lower 48 states. You could hide my home range of the Wasatch inside the San Juans and the tallest peaks wouldn’t even have names. The average elevation for the HR 100 is over 11,000 ft., and the route passes above 12,000 feet a brutal 13 times. No time to contemplate immensities or enjoy vistas though, we had to keep moving.
Skimo is skiing stripped down to its basics—getting away with as little as possible. It’s not pretty, or cool, but it’s incredible how well these slippers and pencils do manage. It’s utilitarian function, and it’s not easy, which is why it isn’t cool, or popular.
The turns off of Handies were windboard up high, breakable in the middle and some good powder once we got down low.
When I reached the next pass they were all waiting and resting. Jason asked me if I needed to quit. This was a surprise- I hadn’t been performing that poorly. The filming had put me behind again, I didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t anywhere near tapping out. This pissed me off. I knew there was a chance I would have to bail at some point, but I wasn’t there yet. At that moment I made the decision that I would not quit. I would finish.
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 on them! I watched Paul eat it and I think Jason went down as well.
We arrived at sunset at the top of Engineer Pass and I mistakenly thought the hardest part of the day was behind us. It’s funny how many times this happened in my short time in Colorado. We would be rolling into our trickiest descent in the dark, so we had that going for us…
Bear Creek is narrow and it keeps pushing you down into the creek unless you traverse and side-step up on the right side. The sun had had enough, 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 lower down. We walked through patches of snow and dirt by headlamp.
The lower trail is a cliff sidewalk that miners dug out long ago, and some icefall crossings made progress challenging. We managed the first ice by kicking in steps, the next one was not so simple. For two long days we had carried crampons and ice axes and we finally got to use them. It was only for about 12 feet, and it wasn’t vertical, but the exposure was of the lethal kind. We chose not to rope up, but cross slowly one at a time. Paul had never used crampons or ice tools and he was nervous, but went about getting it done; never mind that his crampons were on the wrong feet.
My body was blown, I needed to eat and drink, but I ignored this. I just wanted to be finished. We switchbacked to the valley and popped out on the highway. We walked the dark road in trail shoes into Ourray at 10 p.m.
Jason’s wife Maggie, and the ever-faithful Hannah Green were waiting at the hotel with 7 pizzas. We were wrecked by another 15-hour day of almost constant movement. It had trashed our feet and sapped our energy. Maggie said she’s never seen Jason (who runs 100 mile races) look so rough. Paul and I were in the worst shape. We didn’t even have the desire to join Scott and Jason in the hot springs.
My feet were badly 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. I took a long hot shower. I knew I was behind on fluids so I kept drinking. I needed rest more than anything if I was going to have a chance at continuing.
I laid down and the mental games began. There was no way I could continue if I felt like this in the morning. My body hurt so much in so many places that sleep didn’t come easily. The thoughts spiraled out of control and I had to do some Jedi mind-tricks to quiet things down. Deep breathing helped. There is only now, just this. I can handle this moment. I’ll just decide in the morning if I can continue. This worked pretty well and I slept a little.
It was a soft bed, but my sleep was restless. I awoke surprised that the swelling in my feet was down and my legs felt pretty good. My toes were still tender and my shoulders were sore.
I found the others in the middle of a serious discussion. Paul was calling it quits. He had large blisters on his heels and worse, a mysterious rash all over his feet. As an ultra-runner with a summer of huge races ahead, Paul was concerned about the damage he might be inflicting too himself. Was it worth it?
The stretch from Ouray to Telluride would have less mileage, less vertical and we’d be walking in shoes—not ski boots—for 8 miles. Most importantly there was a hot tub waiting at our hotel. Paul agreed to continue. He’d go up the road and make the decision to press on, or turn back then.
I taped up my feet and stuffed them into my shoes. It didn’t feel good, but better than ski boots. Hannah and Maggie made us hearty lunches to bring along. This had been the lowest physical, mental and geographical point of the trip. We were slowly climbing up and out from all of it.
Starting in shoes was a godsend. I don’t think I could have handled ski boots. I forced myself to eat and drink often, committing to not getting behind on calories. It would eat my way to Telluride. Neither Paul nor I felt good. Could we keep moving? The answer was yes, and our pace was casual.
We hit snow and transitioned to skinning. The snow was powdery and Scott broke trail, which he did about 90% of the trip- pretty incredible to watch. We had another 2,500 feet to climb and plenty of daylight to do it in.
Runners in the Hardrock 100 are usually greeted at Krogers Kanteen by volunteers giving out tequila shots. When we arrived we drank in nothing but wind, sunshine and endless mountain views.
The descent was one of the best of the trip. We were able to ski almost all the way into town. We changed into our shoes and walked into Telluride. Our hotel was near the base of the ski area. We fit right in with the fur lined apres-ski crowd; we laughed at them on the inside and I know they were probably doing the same.
We pranced inside the hotel in time for complimentary wine and cheese! Things were going our way even off the mountain today. The hotel guests were intrigued by how we climbed uphill with carpets glued to the bottoms of our skis, future skimo converts I’m sure.
The reality of how close we were to finishing was soaking in as we sat in the hot tub. There aren’t many, if any, areas in North America where you can link-up a Haute Route style tour from town to town like this.
The Mexican restaurant offered a 3-entree platter. We all opted in and had no problem finishing. We were overstuffed and in bed by 9 p.m., I’d go so far as to say that day 3 was fun.
We woke up at 5 a.m. as planned and prepared slowly. I just wanted to stay in bed, but coffee helped bring me to life. I ditched as much gear and weight as possible. I still felt anxious, but we only had one huge day left, I figured I could push through.
There was something reassuring about stretching into our skinsuits. They make you feel fast and capable, they stunk but they felt like home.
Both my heels required taping, but the worst were the tops and sides of my pinky toes. I’d drain the fluid and then tape them in tightly to the rest of my toes to keep them from further rubbing. Fresh socks and then boots were applied after some mental preparation.
We hobbled down the dark quiet streets for a few blocks and found snow. New terrain, same routine: drop head, move your left foot, pole plant, shuffle right foot, pole plant, repeat and repeat.
Paul was struggling and I even passed him at one point. He was hunched over his poles and barely acknowledged us, I hadn’t seen him look that bad all trip. We waited for him farther up the road. He came gliding towards us as if nothing had happened and we kept moving.
Our climb out of Telluride consisted of 4,000 ft. over a variety of terrain. We were a unified team, but much of my experience was spent alone in a hole. It was heads down and push. Whenever we would stop, rest and eat there was talking and laughter and teasing, but as soon as we clicked in, it was back to work, especially for me. They were patient and supportive.
What I will say about Jason, Paul and Scott is that I think they were the perfect team to accomplish this. They worked well together with perseverance and drive when we needed it, and humility and humor when we needed that.
We bumped through a few passes, traversed around a peak and finished our massive first climb.
Approaching the legendary Krogers Canteen on Day 3
The San Juans have been heavily mined for precious ore, this is their history and the scars remain. The HR 100 takes one on a tour of old mine roads, past tunnels and into the towns created by this industry. Deep inside rock, men toiled away for years in the dark; brutally hard work, one swing of the pick at a time, one scoop at a time. This process of small actions over time creating larger and seemingly impossible achievements has always fascinated me. As we hacked our way through the mountains I tried to draw parallels and wondered upon miner’s motivations. Then I wondered some about mine.
Up next, a 3,000 ft. descent towards the town of Ophir. The surface was firm but edge-able and ended up being our best continuous descent.
Our second climb of the day led us through a dark forest and into a beautiful rugged basin. We tanked up on food and fuel to prepare us for a steep climb. The boys caught their 22nd wind and left me in the dust to struggle with heavy feet and heavy thoughts.
It was clear that day 4 would be no rest day. We were back on the program of tricky route finding and slow progress. It was no surprise that the last 500 feet to Grant-Swamp Pass was sugary, slippery rotten snow. From the saddle, Jason showed me the route ahead and I thought he was joking. Our final climb appeared to be about 50 miles away. It broke my spirit to look at that huge distance between us. It was here that the “fun” wore off for me that day.
We zigged and zagged and descended, trying to follow the summer trail. We transitioned and headed up for another climb. My body seemed to be holding up but my mind was letting go.
For several miles we stuck to the flat mellow road grade. Luckily the tarp I could see ahead laid out with an array of beverages and goodies was not a mirage, but Hannah with a final feast. We had about 9 miles and 3,000 ft still to go. We were close to the end, but not close enough.
We left the comfort of the tarp, crossed the river and began our final ascent. That sound of “final climb” sounded good, but it didn’t feel good. The Hardrock being the unforgiving compounding sufferfest that it is, we encountered trail breaking through knee-deep snow in the north facing woods. I fell in line and just tried to keep up.
Instead of getting easier as we got closer, the finish got harder and harder. Mentally I was over it, I wanted to be done. Finally, I came up over a crest, the guys were sitting down watching the sun get low. They told me we only had 500 feet left to climb. Just 500 feet of the 33,000 remained. I can do that I thought, and then did it. But as we topped out we realized this wasn’t our final climb.
We could see our final, final climb so we traversed around, dropped down a bit and then the battle between mind and body really began. In 2005, I climbed Denali and not since then have I felt this drained and feeble in the mountains.
You can always go 100 feet. I began stepping and counting one, two, and three and gained 100 feet. In this manner I made my final ascent, it turned out to be around 570 steps before I reached the pass. The guys were waiting for me, and I would find out later that they had raced each other to the top, competitive to the very end.
It was hard to believe, but there was a small part of me that didn’t want this all to end. It wasn’t the physical part of me, all those parts were more than happy to quit, but something inside that thrives off adventure and the unknown.
Our timing was perfect. The sun was saying farewell, its job done. The final ski was 3,500 ft. of breakable and tricky snow. We then doused our feet in the cold stream crossing, in the same ceremonious way we had started our adventure.
We walked into the eerily quiet and dark streets of Silverton around 9:30 p.m. We kissed the rock at the finish, in keeping with the tradition of the footrace. Hannah was there waiting with burgers and beers that we enjoyed while sitting down. God bless her soul, God bless burgers.
It was an honor and a horror to participate in Jason’s nightmarish daydream. The number of miles and vert and my feeble words just don’t do the difficulties justice. And looking back now I still wonder how it took so long and why it was so damn hard. I’m interested to see if this gets repeated, in fact I double dog dare somebody to attempt it just to see what we did wrong, or right.
There is enormous allure to encountering the unknown, just to see how it will unfold. That’s what this was: many, many, many steps into the unknown. Many moments I’ll never forget, both good and bad, unfolding over four days in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet.
To do the Ski HR 100 required major contributions from several folks. We couldn’t have accomplished this without the help from Mad Dog, Hannah Green, Holly Simmons and Maggie Schlarb. Thank you all!