When I arrived at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trail head on Friday night I was thrilled. I had been telling Meg that I might cut my wilderness trip short to spend a day in Silverton to watch the finish of the Hard Rock 100 ultra marathon. I first became familiar with the Hard Rock through my past 2 trips to Silverton and the D&SNG RR. After my first trip out of Chicago Basin in 2012 I was on the train with an older couple who mentioned that the legendary Gary Roach's wife was finishing the Hard Rock later that day. The Hard Rock was running the next time I was ending a trip out of Silverton in 2014. The problem was that I saw the "Rock" and all the hoopla, but never saw the runners.
Fast forward to 2016. As I navigated my way back to Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch for what I hoped would be an uneventful/easy jaunt up Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks (already summitted them both in 2011) I was thrilled to see that it was also the mile-marker 67.7 aid station. Luckily I arrived before all the parking was full and before the race leaders made their way through. I ended up hanging out with the support crew for a while learning about the route and the runners in the lead. Then at around 2035 Killian Jornet (winner of the last 3) and 2 others came through. All I have to say is those guys are monsters. They started at 0600 earlier that day and had been running for 14.5 hours and didn't even look tired. It was an all out party from that point forward. There were probably a few dozen average Joe's (like me) who were at the trail head to climb either Handies or Redcloud/Sunshine the next morning (Sat). Combine that with the excitement of the aid station and runners coming through all night long made for a pretty exciting (although not very restful) night. After bedding down I last remember hearing runners come through at 0200. Unreal.
After waking up on Saturday morning there were still runners coming through with their headlamps on and wearing puffy jackets. Unreal, I thought. It was literally freezing (30 deg) and these blokes just came over Handies Peak in the middle of the night. They weren't running, but moving at a brisk ruck march pace. Wow. Most stopped for coffee and some breakfast food at the aid station. They actually had tons of bacon and other high fat/high protein snacks.
While getting ready to head up Redcloud I checked in with the Texan/New Mexican group I was hanging out with the night before. Unfortunately they were taking quite some time to get ready so I decided to take off. I hoped that if the weather held up like the previous 2 days I might even be able to hit Handies Peak in the afternoon.
The approach up Redcloud is pretty straight forward. As you leave the forest you can look back and have an amazing view of Handies Peak. The meadows are beautiful and you really don't feel the elevation gain until you climb to the ridge line. The thing I love most about this combo is the red colored rocks/dirt all over the place (due to the iron deposits). It just really makes your photos pop.
Once I summitted Redcloud I linked up with a group of 3 guys from Denver and a med student girl from Cleveland. We were all hiking at about the same brisk pace and chatted for a bit on top of Redcloud. We debated taking the "shortcut" back down from Sunshine vs. re-doing the traverse back to Redcloud (like I had done in 2011). Sunshine's summit is approximately 1.5 miles from Redcloud, but it's pretty tame. Shortly after arriving on top of Sunshine we further debated taking the shortcut down Sunshine. One of the guys had a pair of binoculars and he scouted out the scree gullies to the west that we would have to descend. It didn't look good, but the group decided to give it a go. We could see a group of 4 that came up the gullies, but it also looked like there were a dozen or so hikers who turned around. The scree/loose talus field on the west side of Sunshine was a complete mess. I probably fell a dozen times and was seriously doubting that what we were attempting to do was an actual shortcut. After about 40 minutes we made it down to the gullies and it looked even worse. Like worse than the Mt. Columbia scree gully or even the one on Sneffels the day prior. The 3 Denver guys decided to give it a go, but after seeing some rather large rocks fly down on top of them I turned around. I just told myself I could use the extra exercise and started the painful re-ascent up Sunshine. Luckily I found a faint climbers trail that zig-zagged up and it took less time that it did to descend that nasty slope. By the time I hit the ridge just north of the Sunshine I realized I was in for a long haul. I then spent the next 2.5 hours traversing back across Redcloud and down the approach back to the trail head.
By the time I made it back to Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch I figured everybody I was hiking with would be long gone. Then I stumbled upon the Denver dudes who were flabbergasted that I made it back down so fast. Apparently they had only been back at their truck for about 30 minutes. I guess that shortcut wasn't so much of a shortcut after all. Either that, or maybe I'm more of a bad-ass than I realize.
This is where it gets interesting. We're all hanging out at the back of our trucks commiserating about the loose scree nastiness and throwing back beers when one of the Hard Rock organizers comes over and asks if we could help move our trucks. Huh? Well, they needed to land a Flight for Life medivac. Wow! Apparently one of the last few racers came in with a dislocated shoulder as he took a nasty tumble down Handies. The organizers were worried that he was bleeding internally and they needed to get him out fast. About 15 minutes pass and they say that they've cancelled the FFL bird as a BLM Ranger could race him to a waiting ambulance in Lake City. Race is a relative term here as we're probably 40 minutes of 4x4 driving from pavement in either direction and then the nearest hospital is in Montrose (another 1-2 hours depending on which side of the pass you descend). Obviously it was good that the racer could be driven out, but all of us were eagerly awaiting the FFL bird. One of the organizers jokingly told us to not give up hope yet. There were still 5 racers up on Handies that were unaccounted for. Fortunately they all trickled in over the next hour and a half. 2 more dislocated shoulders and a broken ankle. Luckily they were able to pile 2 guys into a waiting Hinsdale County Sheriff truck and another volunteer took the 3rd guy. I can't imagine being 36+ hours into a 48-hour race where the temp extremes go from 20 deg to 80 deg and having an injury like that. The organizers did say the hardest part for most racers is staying awake (yeah, and the 100 mile and 33,000' elevation gain part too).
The lesson of the day is that despite alternating days between 4-mile fast runs and strength training for the last 18 months, I'm still a soft body REMF. The Hard Rock 100 is considered a "post-graduate" ultra-marathon as you have to qualify for it via several other ultras. It's also considered one of the more dangerous as it is almost entirely conducted on trails and mining roads and emergency medical response/evacuation is not promised or expected. You have to basically be a real-life bad-ass.
Anyway, it turned out to be a great awesome day in the mountains. ~13 miles round trip, 2 summits of Redcloud, 2 summits of Sunshine, hanging out with great people, and watching some of the world's toughest athletes duke it out in the San Juans. I just told Meg I'm considering volunteering at an aid station for next year's Hard Rock. I might even try to do some longer trail running in the near future. We'll see...