New possibilities

I’m never going to be a good technical climber. I’m never going to be a good runner. I’m never going to be a top mountaineer. However, I’ve recently had my mind blown as to what you can achieve with just a bit of ability in each of these disciplines…

Take a pinch of running, a sprinkling of climbing, and a healthy dose of mountaineering and you end up with something that I think is very cool indeed. It’s part Kilian Jornet, part Ueli Steck, part vintage Mark Twight. It’s nothing new – it’s just moving fast through the mountains – but the opportunities it opens up are amazing.

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You don’t have to be Ueli to go a bit quicker and get more done.

The USA

I recently went to the USA where the hills are pretty big and the wilderness enormous. In the Cascades where we were, to get from the trailhead to somewhere even just a bit interesting might be five or six miles. In the UK, a lot of your circular routes would be that long; you’d be back in the pub within a few hours and all would be good.

One method to deal with big distances is to load up a huge pack and set off plodding, ready for a very long and tiring day.

It’s the siege tactic, the ‘I will take enough stuff that I can’t fail to get somewhere’ approach.

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Big packs are reassuring and sometimes essential, but there is often an alternative way.

And most people use this method on a big day out: we passed literally hundreds of people doing exactly that. We passed them, however, because we were running. I’ve written on this blog before about the virtues of fell running, but I’d not taken it into bigger mountains before, save for one occasion in the Alps.

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Tiny pack, tiny axe, and a pair of trainers. A big snow ramp ahead.

In the USA I was with a very strong fell runner, and with a pair of microspikes and a mountaineering axe each we got ourselves pretty close to the summit of a pretty big hill (Dragontail in the Cascades, 2694 metres) despite plenty of snow and fairly grotty weather. We retreated because of the weather and visibility but I’d already seen the possibilities.

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Time to retreat: grim weather and not much in the way of protective kit.

The deal

So the deal is you have to move faster to get the route packed into a smaller time, and this means you need to be fitter.

Fitness is the absolute building block: it opens possibilities to you like nothing else.

Secondly, you need to carry less stuff to aid you going faster. By going faster you are out for less long, which is not only convenient but it also reduces the time that you are exposed to potential bad weather or objective dangers. The downside of this is that you’re less prepared if something bad does happen, and if you get tired or injured then you have to get yourself out with minimal kit.

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Strava is an amazing tool for recording your activities and pushing yourself. Just make sure you’re going up a mountain for you and not for someone else.

So what next?

That’s my big question too. A few years ago me and a couple of mates did Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, down the CMD Arete and back to the car park fairly swiftly. We weren’t screaming along by any means, but we did the round trip in about 6 hours if memory serves, moving together fairly quickly on Ledge Route then just pushing on over Carn Mor Dearg. The route in the USA was less technical but further (15 miles), and we went much faster. In the UK there’s a whole host of routes that become possible, and that’s going to be a part of what I’m planning for next winter: moving quickly on non-technical or semi-technical terrain, snow-covered or not. The other obvious area to apply this is in the Alps. I’m under no illusion that I’m not Kilian Jornet, but the possibilities are vast. Kit-wise it’s fairly simple: a mix of running and mountaineering kit, but the tricky part is footwear, as mountain boots don’t really let you run, and in trainers you simply can’t run all day in snow and potential bad weather without risking seriously cold feet (and microspikes definitely have a limit!) Maybe those crazy Salomon boots are the answer… The other thing is legwear, and I think winter running tights or possibly Skimo pants might be just the ticket. Might have to get me some and give them a go.

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The Cascades in WA, USA are pretty ace.

To finish, though, I’d just say give fell/mountain/trail running a crack: go on a route you’d normally hike and run it instead: it’s a totally new experience and opens up such possibilities. You’ll suddenly wonder why you carried so much stuff and took so long before.