The Tundrathon Triple: Peak Bagging with a Running Bum
A trail running adventure over three Colorado mountains becomes a pilgrimage of redemption, elation, struggle, grit and pure delight.
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In 2017, Morgan Sjogren—two-time track and field NAIA All-American—moved into a sunshine yellow Jeep Wrangler and hit the road. She devoted her days to running and adventuring across the Southwest—from Sedona, AZ, to Bears Ears, UT, to Silverton, CO—writing about her experiences along the way and living on simple, tasty meals that kept her energized and healthy. Her book, Outlandish, is a free-wheeling collection of adventure stories and recipes, a guidebook of sorts to “fueling your epic.” In this excerpt, Sjogren drops us into a week of peak-bagging trail running in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Hang on.
“Sometimes it would be nice to take a bubble bath, then crawl into some satin sheets and watch Netflix,” Mike says matter-of-factly before shoveling another slice of pizza dripping with cheese into his mouth. Herschel, his golden coyote-esque mutt, lies under the table, cleaning up the falling crumbs. It’s been a long day in the San Juan Mountains, scrambling, traversing, and running up and down three peaks (including two fourteeners: Redcloud and Sunshine). Tyler returns to the table with a second round of beers. It’s just another day of what can only be described as a week of mountain mayhem.
Over the past seven days, our trio has linked up 22 summits. We’re soaked, filthy, happy, and exhausted as we savor the warmth inside the brewery before heading home to reality: the back of our respective vehicles. We’ll park, go to bed, and wake up tomorrow with a glimmer of stoke in our crusty eyes as we crawl out of our vehicles, looking up at the peaks beckoning us for another big mountain run.
The next morning, we rise and load up into Tyler’s truck for the next mission. Just getting to the trailhead is an expedition that takes several hours, knuckles gripped tightly on Herschel and Tyler’s black lab, Luna, the seats, and each other as the vehicle slowly crawls up and over steep, muddy mountain passes in a torrential downpour.
Along the way, we spy a drawbridge across a ravine and stop to investigate, spotting two figures walking around a cabin on the other side. We wave our arms and jokingly call out, “Hey! Wanna hang out?” But it works, and just like that, we are trotting across the suspension bridge, drinking whiskey, and eating quesadillas around a blazing campfire tucked deep in the backcountry with a Vanity Fair photographer and an art director on vacation from New York City.
When it’s finally time for bed, we stumble back across the bridge and pass out together in Tyler’s truck bed, where I am warmed between both guys, two wet dogs, and a chorus of flatulence. So this is living the dirtbag dream. I must be the luckiest gal in the world.
When the sun starts to force itself into our eyes, we crawl to the front of the truck before continuing our drive to the trailhead. We arrive an hour later and begin to prep for our “alpine start” (it’s already 10:00 a.m.).
I investigate the breakfast situation—our supplies have dwindled. Tyler is downing the last of the chocolate frosting tub (poor man’s Nutella), and there is a bag of smashed tortilla chips, a jar of salsa, and a few eggs. Within minutes, I whip up a not-so-traditional version of a Mexican breakfast classic—chilaquiles. Sitting in the dirt, we compete for the single fork and as many bites of the spicy and hearty meal as possible.
Today’s mission? The “Tundrathon Triple.” Our plan is to climb three of the area’s major peaks: Wetterhorn (14,016), Matterhorn (13,589), and Uncompahgre (14,321), all connected by an off-trail route across the alpine tundra that the San Juan mountain range of Colorado is known for.
Bagging our first summit, Wetterhorn, by noon, without a single glitch, we study the ridgeline that connects it to Matterhorn, contemplating the adventurous addition to the route. Ultimately, with the two dogs in tow, we decide to play it safe and scurry back down the mountain and across a boulder field to the base of Matterhorn.
I have a haunted past with the Matterhorn—not the one in Switzerland, but rather the Matterhorn in the Eastern Sierras of California. It’s an easy class-3 scramble and only 12,279 feet high. Despite this being something I am very comfortable with and capable of, the summit has eluded me three times.
My obsession with the obscure peak is inspired by my favorite book, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. In the book, Matterhorn symbolizes one’s dharma, or path. With that in mind, my last few summer pilgrimages to the mountain with failed summit bids felt like my annual reminder that something in my life was not right. Right here, running up the grassy base of the Matterhorn in the San Juans, it no longer felt like folklore. Today is redemption, the beginning of a new story.
When the three of us reach the beginning of the summit scramble, Mike and Tyler look at me, aware of my tumultuous relationship with the Matterhorn. “Go on. This is your mountain. Get up there.”
I take a deep breath. Rarely the leader in the mountains, I not only take the reins here but climb up completely solo (well, Herschel loyally joins along). I feel myself growing stronger over every block I surmount. At the top, I look down at Herschel happily panting, the view of Wetterhorn behind me, and my friends hidden from sight, giving me my moment. I cry joyous tears and hold the golden mutt in my arms. Today, Matterhorn is finally my mountain.
The crew catches up, and we celebrate with a dance party, playing Shania Twain from a phone, before sprinting back down the steep grassy slope. My arms flail freely as I speed down the mountain, that is until my foot lands in a marmot hole, my ankle rolls, and I’m thrown to the ground. Shit.
I’ve definitely twisted my ankle, and it hurts. Mike, spindly legs dancing and flying downhill so fast I swear I never saw his feet touch the ground, turns around and runs back to me. “You guys go on ahead,” I say. “Looks like this day is done for me. I’ll start walking toward the car.” I’m disappointed but content with the fact that I made it to the top of Matterhorn.
Mike shakes his head. “You know you don’t have to do that.”
I look at him, puzzled. If my ankle hurts this bad right now . . .
“Get up and try moving around. It might not be as bad as you think.”
I’m skeptical, but since I’m equidistant to Uncompahgre and the car, it seems worth the effort to test it out. It sure would be a shame to not complete the Tundrathon with the team.
I stand up and take a few cautious steps. Damn, it hurts, but it moves; it goes. I take the next mile to walk and assess the situation. Soon I am running, hesitating with every step, and far behind Mike and Tyler, who stop occasionally to let me catch up while they eat snacks.
Just as I’m starting to feel good about my decision, we reach the base of Uncompahgre. The route looks steep and mean. My hopes of it being a well-defined trail slip down the scree field, as they should; this is the Tundrathon Triple, after all.
Tyler and I slog up the steep slope, and I feel my energy sinking like my feet with each sandy step up. About halfway up, Mike is waiting for us. We sit on a rock, and I admit my struggle but refuse to back down or bonk. I pull out a caffeinated energy gel, slurp it down, and keep climbing.
Traversing the sketchiest part, we step gingerly on loose boulders so as not to knock them down on one another or create a complete rockslide. We reach the saddle unscathed and have a clear, easy path up to the summit. At this point, I’m too motivated to care about my ankle. If I have to take a month off to rest it, so be it. Challenging myself on adventures like this, rising to the occasion, and discovering a deeper layer of grit are exactly why I run and specifically why I seek out mountains.
From Uncompahgre’s summit, Wetterhorn and Matterhorn are in clear sight—an alpine trifecta completed by three motley mountain runners. We literally run off into the sunset, chasing last light back to the truck. For now, my exhaustion and sore ankle are far behind me as I take in the special surge of adrenaline that can only be found high above tree line at the time of alpenglow.
When I reach the end of the route, there is nothing left for me but to lie on the ground and smile with pure delight. Sure, a warm bed and a shower might be nice, but I’m exactly where I want to be.
Republished from Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic by Morgan Sjogren, with permission of VeloPress.