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Adam Campbell’s Long, Hard Road Back to Hardrock

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“Move! Move, please, move,” I pleaded to myself, as I lay there in a broken heap, willing my toes to wiggle. Suddenly, I felt them twitch. I was in intense pain, badly injured and in a serious, remote location, but a huge sense of relief poured over me.

Just four hours earlier, at around 6 a.m. on August 31, 2016, Nick Elson, Dakota Jones and I left the Illecillewaet Campground in Rogers Pass, British Columbia, to attempt the Horseshoe Traverse. A stunning, 35-mile crescent-shaped alpine route that links 14 peaks, including the famous Northwest Ridge of Mount Sir Donald, the traverse involves knife-edge ridges, with glacier crossings, scrambling and 5th-class climbing. It is most definitely not a trail run; in fact, only the first and last couple of miles are on trails.

Having spent time climbing, running and skiing in the “Pass,” as it is widely known, I had been drawn to the line for years. From what I could glean, the full traverse is not often climbed. The fastest time that I had seen was approximately 3.5 days. I thought it was possible for a team moving light and fast to complete the route in 24 hours.

Fortunately, I had two of the best partners for a project of this nature. Nick Elson, a 33-year-old law student from Squamish, British Columbia, commonly known as the “Silent record breaker” or the “Fastest man you’ve likely never heard of,” is an accomplished alpinist with single-day ascents of the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland and The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite. Last summer he set the FKT on the infamous Teton Traverse in Wyoming. He is also a multiple-time winner of the Canadian Mountain Running Championship, has won the Squamish 50-miler, finished on the podium at the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, and is a member of the Canadian Ski Mountaineering team. In short, he is a badass.

Photo by John Price.

Dakota Jones is a boyish-looking 26-year-old from Durango, Colorado, who needs no introduction to anyone who follows the sport of mountain ultrarunning. Despite his youth, he has had standout results in world-famous ultra races, including podium finishes at the Hardrock 100 and the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco. Dakota grew up climbing and running around Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and can move with an efficiency and speed that belies his seemingly laid-back attitude.

I had been eyeing the weather for weeks, waiting for the perfect window. The break came at the end of August, with a weather forecast showing at least 72 hours of perfectly blue skies. That buffer gave us some contingency if things were to go wrong, or if we were a bit slower than anticipated.

At 3 p.m. on August 30th, I arrived at the campground, where I found Dakota in the back of his Tacoma, reading. Nick rolled in much later that evening after enduring an eight-hour drive from Squamish. Over a meager dinner and a beer, we studied the route and sorted our gear, trimming it to the minimum to move safely and efficiently over the complex terrain.

“I guess if we’re going to bring rope, we might as well bring some ‘pro’ to build rappel anchors,” said Nick in his casual but pensive tone. “I’m not sure what we’ll find in spots out there. The guidebook is short on details in places.”

He furrowed his brow and ran his hands through his mullet-like hair, calculating and balancing the need for safety versus the added weight. We settled on a few pieces of climbing protection and two 30-meter ropes for rappels, glacier harnesses, lightweight crampons, ice axes, helmets, an InReach, headlamps, an emergency bivy sack, a map and a bit of food and water.

The author receives physiotherapy. Photo courtesy Adam Campbell collection.

Around dawn, we shouldered our packs and set off. As the sun rose, we ran up a well-defined trail that switchbacked through dense, old-growth forest. After about 40 minutes of climbing we popped up into the alpine, left the trail and began to make our way up blocky terrain to the start of the ridge. The day was sunny and warm, with only a mild breeze. There was a slight morning haze. Above, the route horseshoed across the skyline in one seemingly giant, unbroken ridgeline. It looked perfect.

We traversed the first four peaks smoothly. I envied Nick and Dakota’s ability to move comfortably over the technical terrain, with an almost goat-like sense about which rocks would be stable or not. They danced along the jagged rock features of the knife-edged ridges, entirely comfortable in the hostile alpine environment, while I felt like I was lumbering clumsily behind them, worrying that I was holding them back. They would scramble ahead to a peak, or a col between rock outcroppings and wait patiently for me to catch up.

“This is amazing,” I said, as I scanned the horizon.

“Canada isn’t too bad,” agreed Dakota as he looked out at the glaciated peaks.

As we continued along the ridge, Nick and Dakota scampered up a near-vertical, blocky feature called the Eagle/Sulzer Tower. It resembles a Lego tower with geometric shapes protruding out, making for excellent 4th-class scrambling. Nick, being the most competent climber amongst us, worked through some big blocks running directly toward the summit, with Dakota in tow and me about a minute behind.

Blindly trusting Nick’s route, I headed up. Suddenly, I heard a loud crack and smelled an almost sulphurous odor, as a refrigerator-sized block shifted under my gentle grasp. The rock pulled loose, striking me in the face and chest. Before I knew it, I was tumbling and bouncing down a series of steep rocky ledges.

As I fell backwards, at the mercy of gravity and the terrain, a strange calm came over me. Was this really happening?

I alternated between intense pain and fear as I struck ledges and rocks, contrasted with a feeling of floating and weightlessness as my feet cartwheeled over my head, the mountainous skyline flipped upside down.

After rag dolling for 200 feet, I came to a stop, face down on a bed of sharp scree. Blood splattered the rocks underneath my face. I pushed myself up and rolled onto my back.

My left ankle hurt and jutted sideways at a strange angle. There was a searing yet warm pain in my hip. There was a deep, dull ache in my back. I was bleeding from my head. Any tiny movement sent nauseating pain through my body.

Within 10 minutes, Nick and Dakota had scrambled down to me. I was strangely calm and coherent.

“The InReach is in the main compartment of my pack,” I whimpered between bursts of pain. “My back and ankle are really sore, but I can move my toes.”

Nick deployed the InReach, grabbed my cell phone and ran up to the last peak we’d climbed to call search and rescue. Dakota stayed with me, keeping me calm and holding my hand. He took out my puffy jacket and wrapped me in a bivy sack.

“Everything going to be alright, man,” he said in a comforting way. “They’ll get you out of here.”

I squeezed his hand in appreciation before screaming out in pain again.

With every micro movement, intense waves of pain rolled through my body. Soon, Nick made his way back to us and told us that help was on the way—fortunately, the well-respected Canadian Parks Search and Rescue team happened to be doing a training mission in the vicinity.

I drifted in and out of consciousness. Despite Nick and Dakota’s outward calm, the concern on their faces was palpable. Trying to ease the tension a bit, I asked Dakota to take a picture of me. He seemed a bit taken aback, but obliged.

Within 90 minutes, a rescue helicopter buzzed over our heads. Two rescuers long lined down to us, secured me in the rescue basket and slung me off the mountain to an awaiting air ambulance at the main road. The crew administered ketamine pain medication, and, as it kicked in, I recall fully disassociating from my body. I was flown to the closest trauma center, in Kamloops, British Columbia, about 250 miles away.

Photo courtesy Adam Campbell collection.

I came to in the post-op recovery room, a white, sterile environment. The room was full, and I instantly felt surrounded by love.

Aside from the nursing staff, who would go on to be my silent guardian angels and caretakers, the group included my girlfriend, Laura Kosakoski, 31, who had flown in from Calgary, Alberta, my mother who had flown in from Victoria, British Columbia, Laura’s mom, who lives in Kamloops, as well as Nick and Dakota.

Above the low, constant hum of hospital machines, my surgeon, in a heavy French-Canadian accent, laid out my injuries—I had broken my T8-T11 vertebrae, which were now held together by two metal rods; sheared off the top of my iliac-crest (hip) bone, which was pinned back together; and broken my ankle. I had lacerations down to the bone around my waist and across my body, including between every knuckle on both hands.

He told me that I would likely make a full recovery. I didn’t know what a “full recovery” meant to him—did he know that I had finished on the podium of some of the hardest mountain ultras around the world, or that I had big ambitions to set FKTs in the Canadian Rockies and higher peaks in the coming years? Did he know that I had set Guinness and National records in road and trail running and won national championships in duathlon and ultrarunning? Did a “full recovery” mean I could compete at the highest levels of trail running again? Or did it mean that I would simply be able to walk again?

Unfortunately, my body responded poorly to the trauma of surgery and to the pain medications. My bowels stopped working. I developed a stomach ileus. I became grossly edematous, as my body swelled to a shocking size. I couldn’t eat for almost 10 days as the doctors tried various treatments to stop the pain and release my bowels—essentially, my muscles were catabolizing under my fluid-filled skin.

The pain stopped me from being able to sleep, so I began to keep a journal and to sketch. It was an incredible emotional outlet. I needed it because I had never felt so vulnerable. I was incapable of doing even the most basic acts myself. I couldn’t control my paralyzed bowels and relied on the nursing staff and my family to clean my wounds and wipe up my shit- and urine-soaked sheets.

On my third day in the hospital, the physiotherapist came into my room and told me that I would have to work on my endurance just to be able to go to the bathroom. A few days before my accident I would have counted myself amongst the top mountain ultrarunners in the world. When I tried to stand for the first time, I collapsed into my walker. I began to cry. The reality of my situation struck me violently. Right then, I made a promise to myself. Like in an ultramarathon, I would break up my recovery into small, manageable chunks and celebrate any victory, no matter how small. I also vowed to express my gratitude to my amazing support network.

About a week after my accident, my friends Cyrus (Kangarloo), “Lizzy” (Elizabeth Rose) and Brady (Dunne) came to visit me from Vancouver. I begged them to take me outside. They looked anxiously at the nurse, who nodded the OK. We made my wheelchair as plush as possible, surrounded by blankets and pillows, and they pushed me, along with all the cables and machines, through the halls. It felt like I was going on an adventure again. But every microscopic bump and crack sent shooting pain through my body. They wheeled me to a concrete courtyard with a few trees in it. I felt a cool breeze and sun on my skin. Then I promptly fell asleep.

With the help of my friends, family and the hospital staff, my first attempts to stand turned into a couple wobbly steps, then a few more. Ten days after my surgery, I walked around my ward two times, which was maybe 100 meters, and I began the process of learning how to walk up and down a set of steps. I fell asleep, exhausted after those efforts.

One night, at some god-awful witching hour when my bowels kept me from sleeping, I was on my computer and noticed that the Hardrock 100 lottery applications were due. I have had the privilege of finishing third there twice, and love the people and the course. I hesitated, but decided to put my name in. It gave me hope.

After a few weeks, my bowels started to slowly work again, the swelling that ravaged my body subsided and, on September 15th, 2016, two weeks after being admitted, I was wheeled out of the hospital.

Laura, who is a medical resident, took time out of her program to help care for me, and my mom moved in with us to help as well. Laura and I began to go for daily walks, me pushing my walker slowly along the roads that meandered along the base of mountains. We would walk out to a view, bundle up from the chilly fall air and sit and sketch.

Within a couple of weeks, my wounds had healed sufficiently to allow me go for floats in the local pool, mostly with the late-morning, senior-citizen crew. I also began doing more aggressive physiotherapy.

As the time passed, my walker turned into two canes, then one, then I only used it for longer walks. Finally I began to walk under my own power. By the end of October, I went for my first hilly walk. My ankle could barely support me on the downhills and uneven terrain, but it felt incredible to work my way through the hills again. Hardrock was nine months away.

As the snow began to fly in the Canadian Rockies, I dusted off and waxed my backcountry skis. The boots offered stability for my ankle, so on the first powder day of the season, Laura and I did an easy tour. It was my first time back in the alpine, about three months since my accident. Joy took over my whole body as I glided up the skin track. At the top, I eagerly ripped off my skins, locked out my bindings, pushed off for my first turn … and immediately fell. I wasn’t strong enough to support myself. Laura helped me to my feet, watching worriedly as I wobbled my way down. It wasn’t pretty, or smooth, but it was a start.

During that time, I was invited to Vancouver to give a talk at a fundraiser for the North Shore Search and Rescue organization, hosted by famed Canadian ultrarunner Gary Robbins. I took the opportunity to drive out to Squamish, where I got to see Nick for the first time since the accident. I brought skis along, and we joined up for a tour. After a brief moment of driving to the trail in silence, I broke the ice.

“Did you see me fall?” I asked.

He paused for a moment, before answering, “I heard you yell and then turned and saw you falling,” he said solemnly.

“What did you think?”

“I thought you were dead. It was a horrible and helpless feeling,” he said. “But when we got down to you and could hear you making noise and moving, it was an incredible feeling. I’ve had lots of training in mountain rescue, but nothing fully prepares you for the real thing. I used to always question why they had us memorize checklists and processes in simulations, but I get it now.”

By December, I started to do some light jogging, focusing on frequency and good movement, but it didn’t feel easy, or comfortable. One day, after a ski tour with Laura, my phone came alive with notifications. I was worried that something had happened, so I immediately picked it up—I had been accepted into Hardrock.

“Holy shit!” I blurted out.

“What’s happening?” asked Laura.

“I just got into Hardrock!” I said with a mix of excitement and terror.

We both looked at each other quizzically, wondering if perhaps I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew.  I had seven months to get ready.

During that time, I made the easy decision to propose to Laura. She had been a rock for me, and our life together had a remarkable ease and joy to it. Fortunately, she said yes and we booked a venue for the end of July, two weeks after Hardrock.

Fighting hard to find some routine and normalcy again in my life, I returned to work as general counsel at an engineering firm at the end of October. My company had been fantastic through my recovery, keeping me on salary, and I felt like I owed it to them to return as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I came back too soon and wasn’t psychologically ready. I negotiated an unpaid leave of absence, which they graciously agreed to.

By April, I had a solid winter of ski touring under my belt, and was running five or six days a week. I was feeling more confident that I might in fact be able to toe the line at Hardrock. I still hadn’t run 10 miles, but I was feeling less pain while running. My feet continued to have a tingling, nervy feel to them, something that I still experience. My back and hip were sore, and my body was incredibly slow to wake up in the mornings, but I was able to move with frequency and even, on occasion, with a bit of intensity.

About four months out from Hardrock, I contacted Nick, Dakota and a good friend who had paced me at Hardrock in the past, Aaron Heidt, and I asked them if they would pace me at Hardrock in July. Without hesitation, they all said yes.

I continued to focus on being conservative and consistent in my training. I also reached out to the coach Jason Koop to help me add some structure to my training. We worked closely together over the following weeks. Our frequent conversations also helped give me confidence that I was on the right track to be able to finish a challenging 100-miler.

About a month out from the race, I did a local testpiece in Canmore called the Canmore quad—a 32-mile route that involves running up four local peaks with over 17,000 feet of vertical and some technical terrain. It took me over 10 hours, but my body held up well.

On July 12th, 2017, 10.5 months after my accident, I met up with my friends and crew in Silverton, Colorado.

“It is so good to see you man,” said Dakota as he wrapped his arms around me. “So good.”

It was also the first time that Nick and Dakota had seen each other since that fateful day the summer before. After catching up and brewing some coffee, we all sat around in the living room of the place I had rented.

“I have to admit that it was pretty cool to get long lined under the helicopter,” confessed Dakota, almost guiltily.

“Ha, I totally get it,” I said.

“I was certain I was watching you die,” said Dakota. “But then it was such a relief to get down to you and find you weren’t paralyzed.”

“So, did anyone else think it was crazy of me to sign up for this race?” I asked jokingly.

“I did, and only booked my ticket here last week,” said Aaron with a wide smile on his face.

I pulled out the course map, and we sorted out the logistics. Then we headed into the dusty streets of Silverton in search of pizza and a pre-race beer.

On race morning, as I walked to the race start alone, I played the preceding months over and over again in my head. I was excited, nervous and scared. After signing in and saying the usual pre-race hellos, wishing people luck and frantically finding somewhere to go to the bathroom, I lined up near the front of the pack. It was a reflex. When the gun went off, the past few months of struggles, joys, pain, laughs and emotions washed over me and I began to cry for the first time of many throughout the day.

As we made our way along the opening miles, I chatted casually with friends, as if nothing had changed. Suddenly two hours in, I was struck with a deep fatigue and I couldn’t keep up with lead runners anymore. I watched Kilian Jornet, Mike Foote, Jason Schlarb and Joe Grant run away from me with ease.

As runners continued to stream by, Anna Frost, from New Zealand, a two-time Hardrock winner and a legend of the sport, ran past me, then suddenly stopped to give me a big hug. It was exactly what I needed.

“You have nothing to prove to anyone,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see you here. You’ve already won.”

As expected, the miles caught up with my body. After approximately 20 hours and 65 miles of moving almost non-stop, my ankle and foot began to hurt. With each step the pain worsened, and my pace slowed to a walk. Nick took over pacing duties, and we settled in for a long, slow night. I worried that I was doing serious damage to my foot, and as I approached every aid station I had a big debate with myself about why I was out there.

I contemplated dropping out, but then I would see Nick, Dakota, Aaron and other friends and I gathered myself, took in some food and drink and made my way back down the trail. In the last 20 or so miles, I began to fall over with fatigue and pain, and my pace slowed even further. I was no longer able to run, and more and more runners easily passed me.

Finally, after 33 hours of moving, I came to the final river crossing where all my friends were waiting. Crossing the river seemed to wash away the previous miles and I began to cry again, a full-body release of emotions, knowing that I would finish. Nick and Dakota joined me for the final two miles and we walked together to the finish, joking, laughing, hugging.

As I rounded the corner into Silverton, I felt honored by the line of runners out there to cheer me on. I cried harder than I had in months. I hugged every person I could, and walked slowly past the finish line and kissed the rock.

Adam Campbell is a mountain runner and lawyer based in the Canadian Rockies.`