I had the privilege to catch up with Altra athlete, Jason Schlarb after his epic ski adventure on the Hardrock 100 course. The Hardrock 100 is renowned as one of the most challenging ultra marathon races in the world. It has 33,992 feet of vertical climbing over 100 miles. It traverses a loop from Silverton, CO through Ouray and Telluride across ridge lines and peaks amidst the rugged San Juan mountains. The course tops out at 14,048 atop Handies Peak and averages over 11,000 feet above sea level for the entirety of the race. The course surface breaks down as follows: 76.2 miles on the trail, 12.7 miles x-country/scramble, 11.2 miles dirt road and 1.3 miles of paved road. The cutoff time to complete the Hardrock course is 48 hours and the average finishing time is 41 hours. That is without sleep, in the summer and running/speed hiking the trail.
Imagine an event that includes avalanche danger, hypothermia potential, bruised and blistered feet, carrying a 30-pound pack for the course of four 13+ hour days, and doing it some of the most rugged mountains in the contiguous United States. That is exactly the idea that Jason spawned up. Not only an aspiration to do the Hardrock 100 course but to do it in the winter with unpredictable snow and ice conditions on skis in an area that receives 500 inches of annual snowfall.
As you can see above this is not casual terrain.
“We’re just kind of making it up as we go with as best planning and guestimating as we could”
Jason Schlarb has been able to compete at a high level at some of the biggest races in the world. He is a 2x winner of the Run Rabbit Run 100, a 4th place finisher at the renowned UTMB, a top competitor on the Ultra Trail World Tour and many more accolades to his resume. His long desired race is the Hardrock 100. In this past lottery, he was lucky enough to be one of the 152 names drawn to toe the line in this July’s event. It is such a priority that he has foregone the opportunity to race the Western States 100 this year and put all of his focus on competing at the Hardrock. He even moved down to Durango 18 months ago just to train in the San Juan mountains to prepare for someday doing this race. That is a lot of commitment for one race without actually being chosen in the lottery.
What Inspired Ski Hardrock?
The idea to ski Hardrock wasn’t expected in a lot of ways.
Each year for the past 3 years Jason has embarked on a wintertime adventure with his long-time best friend, Jeremy Wolfe. They have journeyed to the Alps (2013), Patagonia (2014) and New Zealand (2015), filming each of these adventures. This time around they wanted to do something a little different. Unsure of what that would be they looked at some ideas to do something that involved a true winter sport. The last two projects have been to escape winter and do some mountain running in the southern hemisphere. They thought about what ski mountaineering meant to them and the sport of ultra running for low impact, winter cross training. Lately, we have seen a merging of these sports as more and more mountain runners look to get out and ski mountaineer in the wintertime. The thought arose, “maybe we don’t have to go across the world, but could have some fun in this ski-mo sport here locally”
Amidst talking to experienced ski mountaineers and ultra runners about what to do the idea started to piece together. Roch Horton was an inspiration for doing this as he has run Hardrock 10 times and is in the midst of volunteering at Hardrock. Scott Simmons was also a great inspiration for making this happen. The plan was set to do it in mid-March. This would afford them the opportunity to plan, scout and have the best possible conditions. Avalanche consideration was a big piece to when to make it work since the group would be skiing across every possible aspect and terrain. It all came together, but not without any hiccups.
The Team Involved
Jason wasn’t about to do this alone. He wanted to line up some of the most capable and best ski mountaineers. These individuals helped to make the event a reality through planning, training on sections of the course and bringing the project to life through video production along the way. Unfortunately, Jason’s friend Jeremy has recently moved to Washington to take a new job and was unable to acquire the vacation time to make this happen. Every other adventure that Jason has been on has involved Jeremy. Ski Hardrock, unfortunately, would not be one of them. Jason was a bit broken up about it and pondered a way to make it happen. This included the thought of moving it to January, but this would come with too much-added risk of shorter days, avalanche danger, and colder temperatures.
The team that was directly involved was an all-star class built to make something like this succeed. An event of this magnitude requires people that you can trust and rely on to be there for you every step of the way. That is what Jason lined up.
- Jason Schlarb – Elite level ultra runner. Has years of experience skiing both on the resort and in the backcountry.
- Scott Simmons – Scott is revered as a top 5 ski mountaineer in the United States. He skis professionally for Scarpa, Hagan, and Julbo. He is touted as one of the forefathers for the ski-mo scene. As one who has lived in Durango for 25 years and skied this terrain time and time again, Scott was a perfect choice. He was a big help in mapping out the course and previewing various sections ahead of time. Back in 2015 Scott set the course record at the Grand Traverse with fellow participant, Paul Hamilton.
- Paul Hamilton – An accomplished ultra runner in his own right having placed well in many of the hardest 50k mountain races in North America over the past couple of years. A fellow Altra athlete and a ski-mo protege of Scott. Was with Scott on the random team that set the course record in the Grand Traverse ski-mo race. Lived in Durango last year, and recently moved to Carbondale, he knows the terrain.
- Noah Howell – The best guy in North America to film this project. Has many first descents in the West and Alaska. He runs Powderwhore Productions, ski video company, with his brother Joel. Is a fully skilled videographer that can shoot & edit projects. As Jason was referred to him there was the fear that they couldn’t afford him. However, because of how personally cool, crazy & unique the project was to him he would make it work with limited funds. He got passionately behind the project and was committed all the way. Produced and appeared in the following Powderwhore films; PW05, PW06, PW07, The Pact, Flakes and Television and Breaking Trail.
- Jeremy Wolfe was on board but had to move to Washington for a new job and had no vacation time.
Day by Day
Hardrock is a loop course that changes directions each year. They opted to ski it in the counter-clockwise direction.
“We had perfect conditions and we had some really really good luck and it still almost didn’t happen.”
Thursday – 28.8 trail miles (mileage could be off) 10,000 feet of climbing
The team set out to begin the adventure at 6:15 the morning of Thursday, March 17, 2016. With the plan to do the course as accurately as possible they set out on foot from the high school gymnasium in Silverton, CO. On foot with their skis on their back the walked the mile or so to the Kendall Mountain Recreation Area trailhead up Arrastra Creek. On their way to the trailhead, they missed a turn in town and actually went on a 5-10 minute detour in the dark. They finally made it to the trailhead, but there was not a trail cut which made a rough start on the single track trail along the river. They ended up skinning up near the river, but once up a ways the bank disappeared and they had to cross the river. Amidst crossing Noah attempted to throw one of his skis over the river and it fell in and started floating down. He had to jump into the river to rescue his ski. This was not the ideal start to the day, but onward and upward was the only way to go.
“The pace in which we had go; It was just double, literally double what we had predicted. That was when a lot of dark, ugly, nasty kind of thoughts and doubt crept into everybody’s heads”
After crossing the river they were able to get onto the actual course. They pushed on up the first 3,000 foot climb up to Little Giant Peak. Off of the peak, they descended down to their first aid area. Altra athlete Hannah Green was there to meet them at various points along the course to help with water and fuel refill. They arrived at Cunningham Gulch almost 4 hours off of their schedule. This would be a theme throughout the coming days, constantly off pace. It was a slower go than they had planned and anticipated. It was very different than running in the summer – pace, no marked course, trail finding, obstacles, etc. The overall pace was twice as slow as they had planned. This was going to be a challenge for all 100 miles of adventure. If you have ever done any ski touring you know how different it is to move across terrain on skis than on foot.
Finally, day one ended with a 10pm finish in Sherman. This was just off the road up from Lake City. A late finish after a long day caused the crew to rethink everything. Would they continue on? Would they take a day to rest and recover? How were they going to keep going with long, painful days like this? When arriving at the pre-determined campsite they found that everything had been set up for them. They had shipped tents and gear out to a few guys in Lake City that would pack it in for them. Well, this crew had gone above and beyond with their Big Agnes tents set up, bags and accommodations ready to climb into, but the best yet – a spread of food! They had made a fire, cooked sausage, steaks, asparagus and prepared salads and had cases of beer. This was a warm welcome to come into late at night after such a long day. The morale was low coming in. The crew was crushed mentally and physically coming in.
“It was the least fun I’ve ever had on skis” — Noah in regards to the last night section of pillow drops and luge skiing
That hospitality and amazing food helped to focus on going to bed. This helped the desire to keep going.
“We stayed true to the course… but the trail and even roads, you can’t even see them… often times we had to take longer to divert around risks that, in the summer, are not even there during the summer on a nice, set, real trail. So the mileage could be a little bit off. Then on the way down we don’t switch back since we ski down.”
Friday – 28 miles – 10,000 feet of climbing
A bit of a later start this morning. After the great hospitality of the night before and being in the middle of the woods there were no questions that they were going to get this done. At 8:30 am they left camp and the crew of guys behind. Their crew took care of the camp and let them just get into their boots and get going. Everyone’s feet were torn up after day one. Many open wounds and blisters on blisters. Paul had even gotten a rash from wet, sweaty feet inside of his boots. This was not a fun way to look forward to three more days in the backcountry. Feet were bandaged and as ready to go as possible.
“This was one of the highlights of the whole trip. It was so dang challenging and so exhausting and windy and cold that you felt like you were really alive. Climbing one of the highest peaks in the contiguous US in winter.”
Thankfully the morning was cooler so that the snow was firmer. This made it easier to ski fast. A good relief as it was one of the bigger climbing sections out of the gate. They had to climb up to the highest point on the course @ Handies Peak, which rises up above 14,000 feet above sea level. On the ascent the colder weather started to take its toll on the four of them as they layered on every possible article of clothing. While ascending up this aggressive peak, dressed in everything they had, they had to traverse various rocky sections with their skis off due to exposed rock. While side carrying their skis they had to rely on ice axes and ropes in various sections. When on skis they had to utilize ski crampons through rugged and icy sections. As Paul, Scott, and Jason arrived at the summit a little ways ahead of Noah, who was filming, they embraced in one big group hug just to stay warm at the summit. Here was one of the quintessential moments of the entire adventure.
A top Handies they really felt alive. It was a true sense of mindfulness. They had arrived at an extremely emotional and glorious high as they were focused on the task at hand and everything else had just melted away. Here they were 10 miles away from any town or road. Just them and the wilderness. After a day and a half of doubting and finding this ultimate high atop of Handies Peak.
“One of the most beautiful scenes ever.”
From the peak, they were able to ski right off the tip top of the peak into American Basin. Then arriving down into Grouse Gulch they met up with Hannah again for aid around 3pm. There they had snacks, extra water, and a dry tarp to rest on. It was always a little celebration when they met up with Hannah. Paul had, unfortunately, fallen on and broken his pole earlier in the day. Thankfully, a photographer, Ben, that was with Hannah gave him his poles to utilize for the rest of the adventure. Then another climb up headed towards Engineer Pass. Ouray was the goal for the night. Everyone just moved on that evening with their heads down. Sunset happened right as they arrived up at the top of Engineer Pass.
“Everyone was kind of in their own pain cave”
One of the biggest question marks of the trip was the last 3 miles before the road to Ouray. Here you descend down Bear Creek to the Ouray cliffs. The summer trail is cut right into the rocks. In the winter, this tends to freeze and there is not much of a trail since it is filled up with snow. Ice forms along the cliffs. So they had to traverse across these cliffs on the ice. Sunset already happened. Dark already happened. Skis came off, crampons were on with ice axes in hand and across it they went by the light of the moon and headlamps. This trail was the only way down. They negotiate the ice and finally make it to the bottom safely. At the trailhead, they realize that Pual had lost one of his shoes along the trail. Thankfully, Jason had cell reception and had a friend in Ouray that he could call to bring them a pair of shoes. Luckily Paul had a pair of shoes now to walk the 3 miles or so into town.
At 10:30pm, the crew made it into Ouray to their hotel at the Wiesbaden. They were met there by Hannah and Jason’s wife Maggie. Jason was blessed with a running hug from his wife and main anchor. It was a great feeling to have the love and support come running as they arrived late in the evening. Since there were no restaurants open in town Maggie had to drive to Ridgeway, a nearby town 30 minutes away, to pickup pizza to have when they finished. They had six slices each to refuel. This food, the greeting, and the hotel were a warm respite from the days colder adventures. The Wiesbaden is touted for its mineral pools so a couple of guys took 10-15 minutes to refresh in these pools that night. That night in the hotel they again had the debate of “can we do this?” The only thing keeping them going is that the shortest day with half the vert is upon them. The majority of the vert is in one big climb.
Saturday – 17 miles – 5,400 feet of climbing
Paul woke up with an infection in his chest that he had from a race in Europe kicked up a bit. The exertion was beginning to get to him. He felt that he couldn’t continue. Noah came in to take a minute to capture on film the discussion of moving on or quitting. After conversing about it Paul decided that he would continue on with him. Because of the short day they waited for a later start @ 9:15am. Due to the lower elevation, they were able to walk with no ski boots on their feet. Hannah hiked up the first 5 miles on the dirt road out of town with them up Canyon Creek. They finally made it to the snow and put on their skis and left Hannah behind. Paul then began to find his groove and they headed up skiing towards Kroger’s Canteen. Today was a happy day. The entire group was really enjoying it. Enjoying each other, talking, laughing, having a great time. Whereas previously the only talking was atop a peak or at aid areas. The onset
“We finally saw a little bit of light. This was fun. It’ll be okay.”
At 13,000 feet on the Saint Sophia Ridge, there were concerns about the conditions. The aid station at Kroger’s Canteen is one of the most iconic locations along the Hardrock course. It is a 20-foot wide gap with steep slopes on each side. The major concern was that there would be a 20-foot cornice that they might have to climb and repel off of. Or they might have to change directions and make the detour to Imogene Pass. Thankfully, there was no cornice to have to manoeuvre around.
After Kroger’s they ski down to Imogene road and were able to meet up with Scott’s wife, Holly. They were able to take off the skis and boots and lace up the Superiors for the 5-mile walk into town. They were able to finish the day early, relative to the other days, at 5:30 pm in the town of Telluride. Jason had arranged them to be able to stay at the Camels Garden, a 5-star resort in town. The General Manager is an ultra trail runner that knew who Jason was. He comped them 2 rooms for the night. They walked into the hotel during happy hour and were questioned by the lobby attendant. He later apologized to them when they returned from dinner. That night they each ate more than any other night.
A relaxing night after getting in during the early evening. They were able to take some time to help the body rest for a bit.
Sunday – 28 miles – 11,000 feet of climbing
The final day was really the dreaded day. A long day with sore feet, exhausted and beat up bodies, and fear of going forward. Paul did not sleep well wrestling with the decision to pull out or to continue onward. He decided to go for it anyways without telling anyone else of his personal wrestle. They packed up and got an early morning start leaving the hotel at 6 am. They made their way up as they started skiing right from town up Bear Creek. This was the coldest morning so far. They pushed up to the top above the ski area in a 4,500-foot climb.
“Somehow the body adapts… the body just kind of adjusted. Our heads knew that we were on the last lap. Everybody’s headspace was in a place to get this done.”
The descent down to Ophir was a 4,000-foot descent on hardpack. There in Ophir they had scheduled to meet a lady to resupply water, but were unable to find her. So they had to head onward with what little water they had, hoping for a creek and working to melt snow as best as they could. A little ways out of town they met up with a lady and her husband that knew of Jason and was a big fan. She was a former course record holder at Quad Dipsea. Her & her husband were on their way down so they gave them all of their remaining water. This helped to get them through to the next resupply opportunity.
The crew got back up to the next saddle and had a great look down at Island lakes. They then skied down to KT aid to meet Hannah. She had hiked in 5 miles to bring them aid. She carried a spread of food including burritos, churros, candy, juices and more to help them refuel for the final approach back to Silverton. The trail from here traverses under the west ridge near the Twin Sisters Peaks. It is in and out of the trees which caused for some afternoon changing snowpack. They had to ski through a mix of powder and slush. There really was no trail to follow. Scott was leading, breaking trail for the crew. They had to stop several times to wax their skins and clean off the slush. The trail passes through several tributary drainages of Porcupine Creek.
“The most difficult climb, right with Denali” — Noah
Finally, they made it to the Porcupine-Cataract Saddle. While atop the saddle the sun was setting and below they could see the Cement Creek river crossing. As they descended down Scott had trouble skiing as his knees were having trouble taking the toll of the miles over the course of the four days. Finally, at Putnam Basin, they met up with Ben & Hannah for the final time. There they bribed the team with Hamburgers at the finish. They were so excited for this juicy finish that they ran right through the river. They had no concern for their boots as they figured that the remaining trail would all be on dirt. They changed their boots to put their Superiors back on. Unfortunately, the trail was not as clear as they had hoped for. They ended up post holing along the trail. With hopes that it would lighten up, and with wet ski boots, they kept trudging along. It never did lighten up and they had a slog for the final 3 miles. All happiness was gone with this finishing approach. The crew finished in a quiet broken way. At the finish, they kissed the rock. It was a ghost town. No activity on a Sunday night. They ended up finishing at the rock in Silverton at 9pm. They earned they reward and were greeted with hamburgers at finish.
They had done it. No one has ever skied the Hardrock 100 course until now. The feat that this group set out to accomplish has been done. They pushed beyond limits that they feared they could not get through. We each can do hard things. Our bodies are capable. Go do something hard. Each of them has considered this the top of life accomplishments
Having never done Hardrock before how will this impact your feelings and approach to running Hardrock this summer?
I was able to put together all of the pieces of the course. There is going to be real, trying memories on sections of the course as I run through these areas again in the summertime. It is my #1 race so to be able to ski it and then be able to run it this summer is pretty fantastic. It is a real celebration of being in the San Juan Mountains.
How does this impact you as a person?
1 – Doing it as a team and developing rock-solid friendships – being able to look back at these relationships
2 – Being able to have a story in video form that I can share
3 – Really puts life into perspective. Some of the things that don’t matter melt away
How does this prepare you to be a better ultra runner?
Every real long event, every time I get out there and push my limits and do something that I haven’t been able to do before is another feather in the hat
Really tempers the body and the mind
Huge ammo to show I can complete hard things
What was the most challenging moment?
Being slower than anticipated created negative dark thoughts. Doubling the pace and physically knowing that we were near breaking on the first day
What are three moments that you will never forget?
1 – On top of Handes Peak – being so happy to suffer so much
2 – Camp the first night – no soul around, 4 people out there putting on gourmet accommodations
3 – Coming into Telluride and being surrounded by really wealthy individuals wanting to hear our story
Having done your run through Patagonia, New Zealand, and the Alps how does this compare?
This is a life accomplishment that will be amongst the top 5 of all time
This is an event that is the first ever of its kind
It is a team activity, not just a personal challenge
Risk and danger that doesn’t compare to any other project that I’ve ever been involved with