For the past two winters, ultrarunners Jason Schlarb and Jeremy Wolf have traveled to Patagonia and New Zealand during the snowy months to train for their packed summer race schedules.
This year, however, with Wolf bound by work and family obligations, Schlarb started looking for an adventure a bit closer to home. Like many ultrarunners, the 37-year-old who lives in Durango, Colorado, recently adopted skimo as a means to stay fit, explore the mountains, and keep a competitive edge during the winter months. By virtue of living in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the annual 100-mile Hardrock ultramarathon, the dots almost connected themselves—why not attempt a winter traverse of the course?
To attempt this in the winter—with avalanche danger, buried trails, no aid stations, and heavy gear, not to mention the course’s difficult 30,000 feet of elevation gain—is almost unthinkable.
“A lot of skimo races in Colorado and even abroad are kind of short, so I thought, ‘how about we go for a monster?’” says Schlarb, casually. “In a small circle of super badass ski guys, the idea has been entertained but...it’s just been a bit too much for anyone to really do so far.”
Schlarb knew that pulling something like this off would require the right people meeting at the right time under the right conditions with the right level of support. He approached Paul Hamilton and Scott Simmons, two of the most dominant skimo racers alive (as a duo, they set the course record at the prestigious Grand Traverse in 2015, and placed second at the Power of Four this past February.) Simmons, it turned out, had been hoping to do a solo loop for his 44th birthday in November, but uncooperative weather and a growing race schedule halted those plans. “In hindsight, I’m really glad I didn’t,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been successful.”
Capturing this expedition on film was always part of the plan, says Schlarb, but the rookie filmmaker knew capturing a trip this large, this long, and this labor intensive was beyond his abilities. Instead, he turned to Noah Howell, a backcountry filmmaker who Schlarb calls “one of the best in the industry”; Howell has a few notable first descents to his name, and in 2013 was named one of Backcountry Magazine’s 50 Living Legends. Howell agreed to join them and capture this expedition at a discounted rate solely because he wanted to be a part of history, too.
“The guy is unbelievably good at backcountry video and unbelievably good at skimo,” says Schlarb. “Part of the reason we could afford him, on our budget, was because he was really interested in doing this.”
Schlarb initially reached out to Simmons, Hamilton, and Howell in early December with the tentative plan to give it a go in January. But Simmons wasn’t sure. Even if they happened upon a four day window with no climactic weather, a wet November and December had left enough snow in the San Juans that breaking trail for 100 miles would be prohibitively exhausting—not to mention dangerous.
“When we first started talking about doing it in January, I thought that we had maybe a 20 percent chance of doing it,” says Simmons. “I wasn’t sleeping very well; I was worried.” Simmons joked that it was one of the few times in his life that he was wishing for no snow.
Howell, too, was excited, but as the early winter wore on, he became increasingly sure that the trip wouldn’t actually happen. An El Nino winter left record snowfall in parts of the San Juans, and “there were very low odds that the weather and avalanche conditions coming to together at that time of year in that range,” says Howell. “I thought, ‘oh, that sounds fun, but it probably won't happen.’”
The team continued to watch the weather until a few big snowfalls in January forced them to push the trip back to March, closer to spring, when temperatures would be warmer, the snowpack more uniform, and trails easier to break.
Ultrarunner Mike Foote, who took second place at Hardrock last summer and in recent years has committed his winters almost exclusively to skimo, says that timing was probably the most important factor in their ultimate success. “All those guy have the skill sets to do it,” he says. “But being able to do something like that in the winter is tricky because that course exists in so much avalanche terrain. They had to be really smart about when they could do it—not only for safe travel, but also for quick travel.”
For Simmons, training meant less intensity, more long, slow days with big vert—plus a few skimo races with Hamilton, like the iconic Pierra Menta in southeastern France. Schlarb, who was also training for April’s Marathon de Sables—a 150-mile, multi-day, self-supported ultra through the Sahara Desert—spent three long days on skis each week, and ran the rest. Because Schlarb and Simmons both live in Durango, a short drive from the Hardrock starting line in Silverton, they were able to scout sections of the course during the months leading up to their departure. When speaking with this crew after their trip, they all expressed that the most challenging and surprising aspect of the expedition was just how long each day was; no matter how efficient they thought they were being, their days stretched into 13, 14, 15 hours. Schlarb and Simmons got their first taste of this when scouting the course.
“When Scott and I were scouting a bunch of different sections, It always took us so long—4-to-8 hours to go 10-to-15 miles,” says Schlarb. By virtue of having to trail break through snow, and the occasional minor miscalculation, it would sometimes take them three hours to even even get onto the course during these long scouting trips.
“When I was flying to France later that winter,” we flew over the course and I was looking down and realized the mistakes we had made from the airplane,” says Simmons, “I texted Jason when I landed.”
As for Howell, most of his training took place before their initial departure date in January. In November, he put in almost 40,000 feet of elevation gain on skies per week. “When preparing for something like this, you know it’s going to suck, you know you’re going to suffer,” says Howell. “As long as you have a good base, I figured I was going to be good.”
When talking with the group—a group of world-class ultra mountain athletes—weeks after their expedition, there seemed to be a consensus that the level of suffering endured over those four days was unlike anything experienced by anyone previously.
“I really underestimated it,” says Howell, after a long, pregnant pause. “The altitude was such a big factor.” The Hardrock course has an average elevation of 11,000 ft, and crossed 13 passes higher than 12,000.
“[When we were scouting the course] it took us so long, but we thought when we’re actually out here, we’ll be dialed, we’ll be in race mode, we’ll be able to get our days done by early afternoon,” says Schlarb. “But instead we were finishing 9-or-10 at night. We just all were so worked.”
Night one of the journey took the group into the ghost town of Sherman, after 15 hours of hard climbing and descending. The trip was fully supported, in part by camping gear manufacturer Big Agnes. When the team arrived at camp that, a hot meal, fire, and tents were already set up. Despite the amenities, enthusiasm was nonexistent, as the four men realized the extent of what they had signed up for.
“Everybody the first night was like ‘what the hell, this is not what we planned for.’ We didn’t talk about a wake up time or talk about the logistics of the next day—we just sat in this camp and ate,” says Schlarb.
The group couldn’t talk about quitting, though, not with only one day under their belt and the friends who had just made them a gourmet dinner nearby. “The next morning it was like, ‘okay, we’re not dead, nothing’s broken, nothing terrible has happened, it’s nice weather. Would it be better to just quit in Ouray?’” says Schlarb. “That was the vibe—no one was talking about completing the loop. [The first day] was painful and miserable and very negative, physically and emotionally.”
For his part, Howell says what was particularly tough was how long each minute, each hour, each day seemed to stretch. “[Our plan] all makes sense on paper, but then all of the sudden we’re way behind, but you can’t put your finger on one thing. It’s the compounding of all the little decisions you have to make.”
“What we really shouldn’t have been surprised by, but were humbled by, was that it just wasn't that fast,” says Schlarb. “Traveling in the San Juans when there’s no skin tracks and no one’s’ out there...and it’s so steep in spots that we almost had to repel—that kind of stuff just really, really, really slowed us down.”
Hamilton in particular seemed to bear the brunt of many misfortunes. He broke a pole and lost a shoe within the first few days, and later developed a bad rash on his foot—not to mention he was still suffering from a chest infection he’d developed during his race with Simmons in France the previous month. On the third morning in Ouray, Hamilton approached the rest of the group and told them he’d enough—it was time to call it quits. Schlarb reminded Hamilton that day three, which took them into Telluride, was their shortest, with only one major climb. Hamilton conceded.
Their final day—from Telluride back to Silverton—was unsurprisingly the most difficult for the group. Howell, who’s climbed Denali, described the last 500 feet of the final climb as one of the most difficult things he’s ever done.
Four days after departing from the quiet mountain town, the team trekked into Silverton at dusk, becoming the first humans to ever complete the Hardrock course in winter. “We literally ran through the creek a few miles outside of town—we were just happy,” recalls Schlarb.
Recovery and Beyond
When speaking with the team individually two weeks after arriving home, each shared the same sentiment: their body had reached a level of exhaustion no one had felt before. They described not a specific soreness, but instead a deep, unshakable exhaustion that no amount food nor sleep could fix.
“To be honest, it’s been one the longest, more challenging recoveries,” says Schlarb. “For a full week, I didn’t even attempt to run—I was cranky and tired. It sucked.”
Despite this, and despite the crushing lows of the first few days, there’s no greater testament to the success of the trip than the fact that 24 hours after finishing the journey, over beers in Silverton, the team was already talking about their next trip.
“A lot of skimo races are team oriented, but to actually go through something like this together…” says Schlarb, trailing off. “I’ve been on runs where I went to darker, lower, more terrible places [than I did on this expedition], and I think part of the reason we didn’t go so dark this time was because we had each other...The friendship, the bond—it’s just really, really cool.”
“It was just an incredible adventure,” says Howell. “But there were some many ways it could have not happened—the trip was equal parts planing, luck, and perseverance.”
When talking about how they pulled this feat off, Simmons used the metaphor of stars aligning: the snow conditions had to be perfect, weather cooperative, with skiers who were not only fit enough, but deeply familiar with the area, as well as a support crew that was timely and efficient. “Someone coming from outside of town to do this—it would be really hard,” says Simmons. Howell, though, says he would really like to see someone else attempt the course in winter, simply to be able to get someone else’s perspective on it.
Foote sees this a natural, if not inevitable, direction of the sport of skimo. “These types of expeditions remind me of mountain running, where there can be this great balance between existing in the competitive race atmosphere, but also needing to fill that desire for real adventure with a lot more loose parts. I think that really fits the bill.”