Athletes to Attempt First Winter Crossing of Hardrock Course
Hardrock is one of the most difficult 100-milers in the country. This group of athletes will attempt the course in winter.
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The Hardrock 100 Endurance Run in Colorado is one of the most difficult 100-milers in the country. It gains around 34,000 feet. It has an average elevation of 11,019 feet. It crosses 13 passes above 12,000 feet. The terrain is steep and rocky, the footing often treacherous.
Now, a group of athletes wants to try it in winter.
The four-person team—consisting of top trail runners Jason Schlarb and Paul Hamilton; elite ski-mountaineering, or “ski-mo,” racer Scott Simmons; and skier-filmmaker Noah Howell—plans to start this Thursday, March 17, and finish four days later.
For the most part, they’ll be traveling ski-mo style, climbing and descending each peak in lightweight alpine-touring ski setups.
To Schlarb’s knowledge, no one has ever tried—much less completed—the Hardrock course in winter.
“There’s a reason it hasn’t been done,” he says. “People don’t usually ski 20-mile days with 8,000 feet of gain, day after day,” carrying massive packs.
“That’s not ski-mo,” he adds. “That’s ultra ski-mo.”
Schlarb is one half of the filmmaking team Schlarb-Wolf Productions. In recent years, he and his partner in the venture, Jeremy Wolf, have shot trail-running film in exotic locales—the Italian Dolomites, Patagonia, New Zealand’s South Island.
Last year, they started talking about something closer to home.
Schlarb, who has finished fourth at Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and twice won Colorado’s Run Rabbit Run 100-miler, lives in Durango, some 50 miles from the Hardrock starting line. He had heard “rumors” of trail and ski-mo athletes discussing a winter Hardrock, but no one had yet gone for it.
Schlarb, though not a ski-mo pro, has skied his whole life. He got together with two other athletes he knew from Durango: Scott Simmons, a professional ski-mo racer, and Paul Hamilton, a past winner of The Rut 50K in Montana, who has recently started racing ski-mo under Simmons’s guidance. (Two weeks ago, Hamilton and Simmons placed second at the Aspen Power of Four, a team ski-mo race.)
Of all the beautiful backcountry lines in Colorado, Hardrock made intuitive sense. Schlarb has never run the race—he is registered for 2016—but has volunteered there and knows some of its trails.
“It’s the absolute number-one race that I would enjoy—the style of the running and descending, the mountains it goes through, how much off road it is,” he says. “Naturally, skiing it would be fantastic.”
Plus, Durango made a convenient base for scouting. Hamilton had moved a few hours away, to Carbondale, Colorado, but Simmons and Schlarb were able to get out for regular “monster missions” on the route.
Wolf had started a new job and was unavailable for the adventure. The team needed someone who could film—and also keep up with three elite endurance athletes, on skis, over burly terrain, for four long days. Noah Howell, an experienced skiing filmmaker, signed on.
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A Tough Course Made Tougher
The Hardrock course traces a big, beautiful loop through southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. It starts outside a school in tiny Silverton, and passes through the towns of Ouray and Telluride.
Even in July, when the snow has mostly melted, Hardrock runners speak about the course in reverential tones. Some high points are especially daunting—Virginius Pass, Handies Peak.
Winter conditions make those spots all the more extreme.
Each year, the course alternates direction; the skiers have chosen to go counterclockwise.
The first big descent, into Cunningham Gulch, zig-zags steeply past cliff bands. “We might be doing some rappelling down that,” says Schlarb. (They plan to bring 30 meters of rope.)
Two big climbs later comes the course’s high point, 14,048-foot Handies Peak. But in winter, says Schlarb, “It’s not the altitude that makes it crazy. It’s really steep.”
Between Handies and Ouray—the next town after Silverton, about 56 miles in—is a section called Bear Creek, where the trail becomes a narrow ledge blasted out of a cliff. In winter, columns of ice periodically block the way. Schlarb and his team will use ice axes and crampons to “hug” the ice, traversing across to the other side.
After Ouray, they’ll climb to 13,100-foot Virginius Pass, which Schlarb describes as a “notch in a ridge.” Virginius is the site of Hardrock’s highest—and best-known—aid station. Every year, a few volunteers hike up to the tiny ledge and, wearing helmets in case of rockfall, revive weary runners with soup and tequila.
The skiers will not be greeted not with broth and liquor but, quite possibly, with a “15-foot cornice”—a mass of dangerous, overhanging snow.
Schlarb says they plan to stay true to the Hardrock course, safety permitting. “If it’s just a massive, crazy cornice, we’ll have to backtrack.”
At other points, the route will prove more mundane. They’ll have to hike the first few miles out of Ouray in their ski boots, as the course follows a dirt road that will be mostly clear of snow. And on the descent into Telluride—likely to be soft and muddy—they may even get a bit of running in.
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Is This the Next Big Trend?
The idea of doing Hardrock in winter has, unsurprisingly, generated some buzz. “There’s a lot of excitement for this,” says Schlarb. “That ultra ski-mo thing is kind of novel.”
So will ultrarunners and ski-mo racers flock to Silverton next winter? Schlarb isn’t so sure.
A number of elite trail runners, including Kilian Jornet, Rob Krar, Stevie Kremer, Mike Foote and others, strap on skis for the winter off-season. But ski-mo races are shorter and and less technically demanding than a 100-mile loop in the San Juan backcountry.
Schlarb can think of a “handful” of athletes with the requisite skill set to ski something like Hardrock. “There’s not that many ski guys that have this endurance, and not that many ultra guys who have that technical skill” on skis, he says.
Then there’s the logistical side. The route is even more remote in winter, with jeep roads closed, than it is in summer, and few people live near enough to scout it on a regular basis.
As Schlarb puts it, “There’s a lot of barriers to entry to this bad boy.”