Friday, July 13, 2012

Utah Triple Crown - FKT

My history with the Utah Triple Crown (climbing Utah's 3 tallest peaks in one day) is long and storied. It dates back to 2003 when I hiked all three from an advanced basecamp at Dollar Lake. That outing, documented by a local news rag, coined what is now a common phrase in local peak-bagging and ultra running. It wasn't until 2008 when Davy Crockett upped the ante by bagging the Triple Crown, but this time starting from the Henry's Fork trailhead. His achievement set a new standard and was the first true Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the course at 14:34:59. Learning soon after of his success I made a commitment to try and get the FKT on the proper course. It wouldn't be until 2010 until I was a good enough runner to give it a good effort. On July 16, 2010 I successfully set a new FKT of 9:41:46. It was then beaten by a local elite trio in the summer of 2011, lowering the FKT to 9:21:00.

I knew going into my run yesterday that I would have some considerable work if I wanted to better their time. I had chosen a new route for this year, one that would eliminate going up and over East Gunsight Peak and dropping down the 2000 ft scree slope. It was also a more direct route. However, the risk of not having linked these new sections together could spell disaster if they ended up taking longer.

I left Salt Lake with two friends, Scott and Josh, at 3:30am on July 12, 2012. We drove all the way to the Henry's Fork trailhead without incident. We knew we would be under threat of early afternoon storms, so we did our best to get squared away and on the trail as quickly as possible.

The sunrise through the trees as we approached the trailhead

After a couple of photos taken by Josh and Scott we were off and a leisurely pace just before 6:45am. I chose to wear the following gear:
The plan was to stay together until Dollar Lake (mile 7.4) and then I would push up Gilbert Peak and if they couldn't keep up would just follow close behind. As it turned out my pace in the early miles was a little faster than Scott and Josh wanted to run and I found myself alone after mile two. The trailhead is 9400 ft elevation, so running up the trail towards Dollar Lake at 10,800 ft is laborious in the depleted oxygen. I've spent many days above 10,000 already this year, so I felt quite comfortable and maintained a fairly solid pace all the way to Elkorn Crossing, mile5.4 in 56 minutes.

There is no easy way up Gilbert Peak. I've taken two different routes up that mountain and three down; none are easy. Like in 2010 I chose to round the south side of Dollar Lake and then head straight up the hillside to the obvious ridge that horseshoes around towards the summit. The initial slope to the ridge is a 45 - 50 degrees and can often be loose dirt and rock. Cursing my way up my legs just wouldn't go any faster and I started to feel like I was falling behind on time. I knew that in 2010 my time to the summit of Gilbert was exactly 3 hours and once on the ridge I just felt like I was behind. However, as I started to approach the upper boulder sections I realized I was actually not behind on time, but ahead. Let me just say this now, Gilbert Peak is the most horrible mountain ever. I hate that thing. The approach is ridiculous, the plateau at 12,500 feet is unrunnable, and then there are the false summits to the top. Even when you know they are coming, these soul-sucking monsters are like getting punched in the face. The summit push is just a long slog across loose, large boulders that you have to hop across (something I actually really enjoy and can move fast on). Even with all my cursing, I was still able to reach the summit (elev. 13,442) in 2:43:00, 17 minutes faster than 2010. Unlike my previous attempt, I was not concerned with taking any additional pictures other than what I felt was needed to document my trip. I have enough pictures of the Triple Crown. My stop was less than 2 minutes and I was already heading back down toward the plateau.

Gilbert Peak (13,442). Not a glamorous summit

I passed the boys coming up to the first false summit just as I was getting to the bottom of it. I gave them a few words of encouragement and was off towards the chute instead of East Gunsight. I knew the chute I was supposed to go down. I had hiked up it on two separate occasions, however, you can't see it from above, so I had to take a guess at which was the right one (there are three to choose from). Luckily, I chose correctly I was down into Henry's Basin quickly. I made a quick stop to empty my shoes and was off towards Gunsight Pass. After a quick stop to refill my bottles in a spring I went straight up the pass instead of taking the switchbacks and was on top at just around 4 hours. I was tired though. My uphill legs just weren't cooperating. I felt fine on lower angle inclines, but as soon as the terrain got steep my legs felt heavy and my breathing and heartrate escalated. Pushing through the scree slope shortcut I was hammered and was worried about my new change in route, going straight up the face of King's Peak.

Once on top of Anderson Plateau I went straight across towards the face of King's. At the same time I crossed the actual trail coming up from Painter Basin a group of scouts passed me on their way up. I would use them as a gauge to see how much faster it is to go up the face than the trail. They were moving fast, so it would be a valid measurement. As soon as I hit the very loose and dangerous slope I felt like I was on Everest. I would move 25 yards, stop, put my head on my hands, recover, and continue. I would repeat this the entire way up. The boulders are scary going up as they move and shift under your feet. One wrong step and you could pull a 500 lbs rock down on your leg, quickly ending your day (or worse). I hit the ridge about 150 yards before the summit at the exact same time as the scouts. Not only was it not faster, it probably cost me time going up the face. I'll never do that again.

After returning to Anderson Plateau, I shared my feelings with the face of King's

I summitted King's at exactly 5:08:00. There were three different groups of scouts on top. Several leaders and scouts were curious with what I had been doing that day. Dressed like a runner and not a hiker piqued their curiosity. They asked where I was camped. When I responded "my house" they were shocked I had started from the car. When I added that I had just come from Gilbert Peak - pointing towards the mountain - I was met with comments and open mouths. But when I told them I still had to head over to South King's and why, they seemed to rally behind me, asked if they could quickly take my picture and then ushered me off on my way. It was cool to get that kind of support. I was on top of King's (elev. 13,528) for less than 4 minutes, probably my shortest stay ever.

King's Peak, elevation 13,528

Just as I was making my way over to South King's I could see a storm coming in from the northwest. I wasn't too concerned about it threatening my ascent, but I was a little concerned with my descent off of the mountain. I figured the storm wouldn't be a problem, but I've been in the Uinta's enough to recognize when new cloud formations are going to consolidate and create additional storms and that is just what was happening to the west of me. I also knew it would put Josh and Scott's attempt at the Triple Crown at risk. I made quick work of South King's (elev 13,512), even with it's one nasty false summit and stood on top at 5:40:00. I was very depleted of energy, so I ate some dried mangoes, drank some water, and left. 

Summit of South King's Peak. You can see a storm building behind me.

The route I take off of South King's and around and down King's is terrifying. There is no other way to put it. It's a constant traverse and descent over loose boulders on a 45 degree slope. There were two different times when I sent boulders rolling and once when a few smaller ones (in the 100 - 200 lbs range) nearly caught my leg. My heart would race, I would get control and then move on. About 2/3 of the way down I came across an awesome little spring though and refilled my bottles. It was so nice having cold, fresh water. As I got back down onto the plateau I once again came across the group of scouts I had been chatting with on the summit and they were ecstatic to see me successfully down and on my way. Their encouragement really picked me up and I made quick work back to Gunsight Pass, getting there in a total time of 6:45:00. I knew I had the FKT in the bag, it would just depend on if I could keep a good pace the 10 miles back to the car. I hadn't seen Josh or Scott and knowing the storm threat had figured they had turned back. 

You can only run so fast down the trail. It is so rocky it's like running down a trail with bowling balls scattered in and across it. I caught my toe a few times, but only went down once. My feet were also extremely tired and achy from boulder hopping for so many miles and hours and it wasn't until I was passing Dollar Lake that I felt comfortable and in a good rhythm. Even then I ended up stopping nearly every mile to chat with someone, wait for a horse to walk by, or use the bathroom. I was running at an 8 - 8:30 pace, but my splits were closer to the 10 min/mile with all of the stops and forced walking. 

As I crossed Elkhorn Crossing for the last time it occurred to me that I could potentially go under 8:30 if I could keep a good pace. When I reached the Alligator Lake turn-off and knew that I had 25 minutes to go 2.4 miles I was certain I could make it. With less than two miles left I caught up with Scott and Josh who were in no hurry. We chatted for a minute while we walked and then I took off. I was now motivated to go under 8:30 and was pushing harder than I felt I had in me. I was over-joyed to get back to the fence at 8:29:13, more than an hour faster than my 2010 attempt and knocking more than 50 minutes off of the previous FKT. 

It's official, I'm officially retiring from ever trying the Triple Crown again. If someone beats my FKT next week I will tip my hat to them, but I won't try and beat it. I never want to climb Gilbert Peak again. I hate that mountain and have no desire to ever go back. There is nothing appealing about it and I've done it enough times now to have no desire to return. I truly believe I've given my absolute best effort on the Triple Crown and bid it a fond farewell. Off to more creative things.


Jeremy said...

LOL I love that you gave King's the finger... Nice!

Matt said...

Well done fine sir. Love the post, and I'm sure you'll be back. Ha.

Seriously awesome job out there, wish I could have been there.

Anonymous said...

It was fun to be a part of your FKT. In no way will I attempt to beat your record, but after missing out on the Triple Crown due to weather, I'm itching to get back and finish it off. I appreciate all the work you've put into studying the route and showing me how to get it done most efficiently. I may go after it when we go up for Q4K in a few weeks... As much as I HATE Gilbert! Congrats my friend. You deserve it!

Anonymous said...

Hey congratulations. I was one of the scouts that talked to you on kings peak. I also saw you on Anderson's plateau. Nice job.

peter said...

Congratulations. 8:29 is no small feat, you are a bad ass! When we finished last year there was a sense of relief that we had made it without serious injury, and declared that we didn't need to do that again. I have a pretty good scar on my shin as a reminder of last years adventure. I can understand the sentiment about Gilbert, though I would guess that time will soften your position. Those mountains have an interesting way of calling you back.

Jay said...

Congrats!! Reading this reminds me of our Triple Crown adventure last year and I still have knots in my stomach thinking about how quickly things can go wrong on this route. Kudos on moving so quickly across really difficult and challenging terrain.

Scott Wesemann said...

For some reason I think we will be back on Gilbert at some point. Haha. Congrats dude, that was awesome watching you run strong out there.