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One of the stellar views from the Hardrock course. Photo by Megan Janssen.
If race organizers were to hold the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run right now, in the second week of June, only three aid stations—Telluride, Ouray and Sherman—would be accessible. The rest remain buried under feet of snow and avalanche debris.
These kinds of dangerous backcountry conditions that are lingering after an historically snowy winter in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains are what led organizers to cancel this year’s race, which was scheduled for July 19. After weighing factors like runner and volunteer safety, and the event’s economic impact to the remote mountain town of Silverton, the run committee decided they could not safely hold the race. Last month, organizers of the 50-mile San Juan Solstice in neighboring Lake City cancelled this year’s race for the first time ever for similar reasons.
The only other time the event has been cancelled due to snow in its 28-year history was 1995. But the winter of 2018-19 was, by all accounts, much worse.
“In 25 years of directing Hardrock I have never seen this much snow and avalanche debris at this point in the year,” said race director Dale Garland. “For us that was a huge cautionary flag because of the amount of downed timber and what happens when people try to go through it.”
Hardrock is a punishing 100-mile tour through some of the Rocky Mountains’ most scenic and challenging terrain. The race is notoriously hard to get into and even harder to complete—runners who cross the finish line around the average time of 41 hours will have taken on 66,000 feet of elevation change and seen the sun set twice before they are done. Hardrock attracts some of the best ultrarunners in the world and legendary mountain athlete Kilian Jornet has won the event four times (tying in 2016 with Jason Schlarb).
In normal years, Hardrock uses the snow-water equivalent (SWE), measured at the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL site as the main data point to determine whether the race will take place. If the SWE is equal to or less than 23 inches by June 1, the race is a go. As of June 10, the SWE at the Red Mountain SNOTEL site still hovered above that cutoff at 24 inches, and the site was still buried under four-and-a-half feet of snow.
Recognizing that using just this one SNOTEL data point wouldn’t cut it to make a decision in a year that saw historic avalanches throughout the state, organizers enlisted the help of runners in the Silverton area to share their first-hand, on-the-ground accounts of course conditions. One of those was iRunFar’s Bryon Powell, who has lived in Silverton since March and completed Hardrock three times. He was also entered into this year’s race.
“There’s not a whole lot of running trails if you’re based in Silverton right now,” Powell said.
From the Hardrock course in 2018.
The recent warm, sunny days in the Silverton valley may give a false sense of optimism about backcountry conditions, Powell said. But in reality, gulches are filled with splintered spruce and aspen, which makes access to some trails difficult if not impossible.
“There are a couple of short stretches of single track, but all the high country is snowed in down to 10,000 feet,” Powell said.
That’s a problem since the average elevation of Hardrock is around 11,000 feet and includes summiting 14,058-foot Handies Peak.
“I’ve been coming out since 2015 pretty early in the season and my normal benchmarks of where you can get to, you can’t get anywhere close right now.”
Although the annual “wild and tough” race through the San Juan’s rugged peaks, lofty mountain meadows and scree fields won’t take place in 2019, organizers will still hold a version of Camp Hardrock in July. The gathering of ultrarunners in the days leading up to the race includes panel discussions, potluck dinners, film screenings, seminars and historical walking tours.
“Community is a really important part of Hardrock and so let’s celebrate that community even though we aren’t going to have an event,” Garland said.
This year, participants can add another activity to the Camp Hardrock schedule: extensive trail work clearing downed trees. One of Hardrock’s entry requirements is a public service component, which includes work on trails used by an ultrarunning event.
“We would be able to do some things that the BLM and Forest Service, who holds our permits, won’t be able to get to, like cleaning up Cunningham Gulch Aid Station, which is under snow and avalanche debris,” Garland said.
Lucky runners who won a spot in the 2019 race will have the option of either rolling over their entry into the 2020 Hardrock 100 or receiving a full refund of their entry fee. The waitlist will also roll over to next year and there will not be a lottery drawing for the 2020 race. Next year’s event will also be run in a counter-clockwise direction, the same direction as was scheduled in 2019.
“Basically, we took everything from 2019 and moved it to 2020,” Garland said. “It’s important that people know we struggled with this decision. It’s not something we took lightly because we know people have made a yearlong commitment to do this.”