Breaking the California 14er Record

The goal: cover 15 mountains in fewer than four days and 11 hours. If Sean O'Rourke succeeds, he'll hold the record for the fastest ascent of California's 14ers.

Sean O'Rourke on top of Wolf's Head in the Winds.    

"I think it will be one of the hardest things I’ve done. I think parts will be very unpleasant."

Dr. Dirtbag, otherwise known as Sean O'Rourke, is setting out today on an ambitious peak-bagging journey: He's going to summit all of California's 14ers in record time. That's the goal, at least. And to do it, he'll have to crack the record of four days, 11 hours, and 19 minutes.

Why are you going after this record?
Well, partly the current record sort of deserves to be broken. It’s obviously soft, and it hasn’t received as much attention as others have. This record is kind of a sweet spot for me. I’m not a fast enough trail runner to compete in trail running. The top ultra guys are a step above me. And I’m not a strong enough technical climber to do something like the Grand Traverse of the Tetons. Cross-country travel and scrambling, I’ve found experimentally that I seem to do well at it.

It is sort of a publicity thing. I’ve done some long things over the past year. People who know them say, Wow, that’s a long day. They recognize that they’re hard to pull off. This is something that more people are familiar with, more people can appreciate the speed and the effort and the planning that is required.

How have you been preparing for the record attempt?
I spent the month of June in the Tetons working at the Climber’s Ranch during the work week and staying there for the rest of the month. And I did some longer scrambles and some technical climbing there because it’s one of the opportunities I have to rope-up with people. There are some really strong guys there, and I try to take advantage of those chances when I get them.

Since then, I did a couple of days on the Wind River—been meaning to get there for a couple of years. Really wanted to try day-hiking Gannett and Cirque of the Towers, and it’s nice to get that done. So now I’m just hitting stuff in the San Juans in Colorado, which is an area of the state I haven’t spent much time in. It’s a great place to acclimate since everything is at a high altitude.

Have you done anything of this scale before?
I’ve done individual days that are as long as any of the individual days of this. In terms of putting them back-to-back, I’ve put a moderate day with a long day. But this is stepping things up for me. I’m cautiously optimistic, but it is sort of pushing things to the next level.

I think it will be one of the hardest things I’ve done. I think parts will be very unpleasant. I’m not sure how I can quantify that. The first part of it will be well within what I’m used to. The rest will be just a lot of dealing with fatigue. Not a problem with being unable to keep going, but moving slowly is mentally difficult. Psychologically, it’s a real downer; to know that you could be moving much faster if you’re fresh. Keep grinding it out.

What’s your strategy for breaking the record?
Logistically, [it entails] looking at previous attempts, looking at their routes and trying parts of those routes to see roughly how much time it takes and what the terrain looks like. It’s a lot of cross-country travel, so I need to see how efficiently it can be done, whether it’s loose talus or nice grass or what. Physically, I’ve been doing what I do most summers: starting late May or early June set out on the road and bag a lot of peaks, see a lot of beautiful country, a lot of the mountain West.

Like most sports, the best preparation is doing the thing itself. If you want to be a better climber, don’t go to the gym and do pull-ups, climb. If you want to be a better scrambler peakbagger, which is essentially what this is, get out and scramble peaks. I have been doing some running, really the running fitness just sort of comes with all the rest. Mentally, I’ve put in some longer days. Putting in some headlamp time. Doing some back-to-back harder days to get used to moving even when you’re tired and moving more slowly than what you think you should be.

And will you manage to get any sleep?
I think the way I planned this, I won’t have to deal with hallucination and such, sleep deprivation. There’s a really good trip report from this guy Brett Maune who set the speed record for the John Muir Trail, about three waking periods he did it in. The last one, he was just completely out of his mind. It sounded awful. That’s really not my cup of tea, and I think I can avoid that.

How does your route compare to that of some of the other record attempts?
The route I’m taking is basically the route Hans Florine took. He skipped one of the peaks, Mt. Williamson, because of the bighorn sheep closure, which they’ve gotten rid of since then. Basically shaving off time by reordering. The way to do it, if you want to do it fast, is in four legs. The ways Hans Florine did it, he did these four legs but took a sleeping bag with him and bivvied in the middle of one of them. By reordering the legs, you’re basically sleeping only on car shuttles between legs. That gives me quite a bit of time.

Is there one segment of the trip that will be hardest?
The hardest segment will definitely be the second part of Sierra, going from Horseshoe Meadows to Shepherd Pass trailhead. It’s not technically difficult, but I’ll be awake close to 40 hours with lots of up and down and lots of unpleasant cross-country trail getting to Mount Williamson and from Williamson to Mount Tyndall across the Williamson bowl, which is one of the most awful regions of talus I’ve experienced. I’ll be really exhausted at that point. You have to grind out a lot of travel, slow cross-country travel.

What can cause you to fail?
At least one place where I could screw up the route finding going up the backside of Middle Palisade; all that terrain is no harder than class four. I can deal with it if I screw up route finding, but I can lose an hour there. Mental exhaustion on the second stretch, that’s the crux for me. If I can get to the end of the peaks in the second stretch, I’ll have passed the hard part. There’s a lot of mentally tiring traveling: lots of talus and scree to cross, lots of miles when I’m already tired.

Weather is a huge potential problem. The Sierras are ridiculously friendly in the summer, but an ill-timed thunderstorm could utterly ruin things.

Nutrition is an issue that is contentious, personal, and highly commercialized. An average person can use 300 calories/hour of body fat, and about 300 calories/hour of sugar; glycogen stores are too small to be a real factor at this distance. I'll be packing about 250 calories/hour, a mixture of energy bars and pop tarts (a perfect trail food, with lots of carbs and little moisture or fat). I'll use electrolyte pills to avoid an electrolyte bonk.

Why now?
I’ve been sort of thinking about doing this for a couple of years, but it takes a lot of factors coming together to do any of these things. I need the snow conditions to be right. Last year was a very heavy snow year in the Sierras, which dramatically cut down on the window you could do this. Having to carry an axe and crampon would really make things a pain.

Also logistics: getting friends and family willing to sleep at a trailhead and, in the middle of the night when I knock on the window, wake up and drive me somewhere, or drive me all the way up to Shasta when I’m passed out in the back of the car. A lot of logistics and good luck that needs to come together.

But it’s not the same scale as doing the Colorado record. This guy, he calls himself Cave Dog, he spent at entire year planning the route and had three support cars and climbed all of Colorado's 14ers in nine days or something. They tossed him out of the car, he’d run from a trailhead to another trailhead. They’d stuff him full of food, and he’d sleep when they took him to another one. Part of me is really inspired by that, partly because I’d never want to put myself through something like that. I don’t think I have enough friends with time to do that much driving. It’s way more complicated logistically to do the Colorado one.

What’s next?
I’m going to take about a week off and then do the Bob Burd’s Sierra Challenge. Every year he picks out 10 peaks and you hike them in 10 days. It’s sort of a fun social thing. A couple of years ago I raced a 50-mile trail run and it might be fun to do another one if there’s one close to me. I’d like to get up to do some big days in the North Cascades—they’re spectacular mountains. I haven’t made definite plans for after this. I’ll just see what comes up and whether I’m energized or worn out by this.

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