It is funny to me how goal setting can be such an indomitable force. Sometimes I have to strive for something really impossible just to find my motivation, while other times I’ll set my sights too low and be greeted by successful dissatisfaction. I’ve found that balance is harder than executing, especially when the factors are out of your control and dictated by nature. But not this summer… this summer in the mountains has been one of the best, and it just keeps on giving.
In 2008, I began trail running after coming home from a hard fight against the 24,768-foot Annapurna IV. I came home depleted from extremely warm days spent wallowing in isothermal slush on its intimidating and challenging North Face, alpine styling up the seldom-climbed peak with skis on my back and my buddy, Josh Butson, as a partner.
It is hard to understand when the merits of such a tough battle might actually come to fruition and for me, it came a month later, on the second day of my honeymoon on the Salkantay Trail in Peru. That day, after some easy hiking, I decided to take a seven-mile run above 12,000 feet. I felt good. I thought to myself, after waging a war in the high Himalaya, maybe it was time to train harder and take advantage of my acclimatization back home. Life had gotten more complicated and the climbing community in Telluride had dwindled down to mostly bouldering. If I was going to get stronger, it was going to have to be on my own a lot.
So a couple of weeks later, in the second week of July 2008, I set out to run Imogene pass, a seven-mile, uphill run with nearly 5,000 feet of gain. Two and a half hours later, I topped out, and what happened next was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I sat down, had an apple and pesto and cheese sandwich, and ran another 14 miles.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “blah blah blah… extreme athlete sprays again about another accomplishment, so what?” Well, I didn’t know I could do this. I mean, I really didn’t know. It opened my eyes up as much as my first hike in the Smokey Mountains, where I struggled to make it two miles up Turkey Pin Ridge as a University of Tennessee freshman, 11 years ago. I am a strong proponent of trying new things because sometimes you open the door and it slaps you hard in the back when it closes. But sometimes… it stays open for a long time. If I don’t risk massive failure sometimes, I’ll never succeed at anything I might actually like. I wish it were simpler than that, but a toe in the water tells me nothing. I have to jump right in and swim.
After that day, I ran weekly up to an alpine basin all summer, but still only managed a few more sizable runs. The most notable one ended 400 feet shy of the summit La Junta Peak—a 13,472-foot mountain that is the first in a series of three summits that a handful of Telluride locals attempt to hike in one epic day. On that day, little did I know that my 5 o’clock turn around (after 18 miles) would eat at me for nearly four years. For me, it’s not about running or connecting with nature, it’s about goal setting. It’s about seeing something possible and wondering what skills and ability I will have to accomplish that goal, and in that process what may be revealed.
In the process of returning to La Junta, I learned that luck and a willingness to seize a window of opportunity, when granted, would be the most important. Also, it revealed that I would have to be fit enough by August to take a stab at knocking down three summits at once, encompassing more than 12 miles of trail, more than 5,000 vertical feet, and a crushing descent on one of the steepest trails around. In 2009, a hectic work schedule offered only one failed attempt, forced to turn back due to a huge storm cloud. In 2010, I broke my ankle in Nepal and spent the summer in PT. And in 2011, I was overrun by travel and, despite good fitness, was not ready until September when an onslaught of weather pummeled the peaks and covered my ambition with a blanket of slick, white snow. For a mountaineer, with these peaks staring and mocking me every time I walked downstairs to my kitchen, every time I grilled on my porch and every time I walked my dogs, this was quite a humbling experience. To know that right in my backyard, a non-technical objective would shut me down and loom over me daily was a struggle I knew I had to either overcome or put out of my mind forever.
Now, as I referenced above, I sometimes have to set an impossible goal in order to motivate, or else I won’t do anything at all. The gist here is that I was thinking too small. I really needed to make these three peaks part of something bigger to succeed. Was that dicey decision making? Definitely. But a risk is what it takes to discover that if you want something bad enough, you are willing to open that door and cross though it.
On August 10, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to my 33rd birthday. A few weeks earlier, I had made a goal for myself: run from the town of Ophir to the town of Telluride and hit seven summits along the way.
The evening before my wife and I had a nice dinner with friends and I was anxious to get out the door as the sky was already filling with clouds and it looked like this day, the day I would try to go as big as I could, might bust again. As she drove me to the town of Ophir, 18 miles away from Telluride, we discussed my route and I pointed out that I would be traversing seven summits that day after a 3,700-foot ascent up the first one. This was a much larger route than my initial goal, but there were plenty of places to bail and if the skies let loose, I would just come back down on an established trail and call it good. You always have to leave yourself an escape option, and in the monsoon season that looms large over the San Juan Mountains during the late summer, that option should always be utilized. I kissed my wife goodbye and began trotting along the red clay road up Ophir pass, toward the infamous Blixt Pass Road of Hardrock 100 fame.
I don’t know what it was… the anticipation, or the ample servings of chocolate soufflé from the previous evening, but I felt light, really light, and for the first time in a long time, I forgot about work and everything else but the trail in front of me. In an hour and 20 minutes, I had topped out on Oscar Pass and proceeded to my first summit, 3,700 feet of climbing above the Ophir Valley. It was at that point, gazing north on the summit of Oscar Mountain, that I could see that there were actually eight summits, not seven (four over 13,000 feet), and that I would have to make a call in the middle of the route. The weather was building for the worst, and this recreational outing was quickly becoming a race if it was going to get done safely. I changed my sweat-soaked shirt, threw it on my Raptor 10 pack took off my hat and ran like hell down the first talus field. I wanted it and this was my window.
When I popped through a class-three section after a few exposed ridgelines leading to the highest peak and fourth summit, the 13,555-foot Wasatch Mountain, the clouds parted and I knew I had it… sort of. I’ve learned only one thing in the life and death consequences of Himalayan climbing: everything comes down to the last day, when you must take a risk. This was no different. The peaks in front of me: La Junta, No Name, Ballard and it’s northern sub-summit were my original goal, and there had been sufficient reason as to why I had backed off of them that day in 2008. From here, the trail is gamey, mostly comprised of soft sands, sharp rocks and a hidden surprise between the last two summits. In order to execute, I had to have total confidence that I could deal with hypothermia and scary exposure, followed by one of the most gnarly descent trails in Telluride.
Why had I added the previous four summits to get to this point, which was seemingly hard enough? Because going all in after already doing all of that was the only way I was going to succeed. I felt I had to hit another level or I would be on a plateau of failure forever.
I picked my way down Wasatch Mountain’s north ridge to a 12,800-foot pass and began back up to La Junta, then tagged the summit and began plodding along sandy and grassy stepped terrain with no trail. At this point, there were three summits left but after expending all those calories I began to fade, and thus blew 15 minutes chilling on the summit of No Name peak. I knew I could pull this off, but not without a little hesitation and rest.
The descent to Ballard and its sub-summit is no joke. They were the two smallest peaks of the day being 12,800 and 12,300 feet, but were both nasty. The first of two memorable “oh shit” moments came descending No Name’s gravelly volcanic slopes toward Ballard. Cliffed out while over ball bearings on boilerplate rock, I realized that there was no trail where I was headed and not much of anything but my own footsteps back. This is a classic San Juan mountain experience, and despite the satisfaction of my voracious peak appetite for the day, I just began entering the hardest parts. I toiled for a few moments, found a ledge and jumped down into the uneven grassy ground and began my stride again, heading north and onto the final short shoulder leading to Ballard’s summit. Scared, but ready.
Ballard holds a unique connotation in Telluride lore as a summit that, when hiked from the town of Telluride and not via my path, is a west facing, grueling 4,050-foot uphill slog, with steep switchbacks that two HardRock 100 winners have used to power-hike their way to victory. For me, I had no desire to descend that trail, as I wanted to nail the last inconsequential summit of the day that branches off to the east which would require the most delicate, time consuming focus I could muster… down climbing steep, wet grass over cliffs with plenty of exposure. It was only 150 feet, but just like skiing Alaskan spines, you don’t know where it is going until you are directly over it. I sweated that feature hard and tried to stay focused despite being pretty tired and a little unnerved when the second “oh shit” moment arrived as rain drops began falling overhead. Nevertheless, I traversed the lower section of Ballard, avoiding rocks in knee-high vegetation while constantly battling to keep my balance. Still alone and with a storm approaching, my window of opportunity closed and instead of relishing in the accomplishment, I did a fist pump and a yell at the last summit, running over its top and right down the ridge, snapping one photo (the one below) as the clouds eclipsed the sun. There is no rest necessary when something like that is over. When I began to descend into the lush reaches of tree line, I felt great.
My only option back home: a last descent down Silver Lake Trail, 1.6 miles of gnarly, root-infested steepness to Bridal Veil Basin, followed by 3.5 miles of road back to town. About halfway down the trail, I rolled my ankle hard, fell and readjusted myself for a second. As in mountaineering, it isn’t the ascent that gets you, it’s often when you have lost focus and think you are done. With an approaching storm on it’s way, once again I was racing and needed to respect that nature could still force me to catastrophically not complete this goal. I bounded across one last stream at the bottom of the basin and there, for the first time in what felt like such an epic journey, were crowds of people, cars and tourists. I had a chance to call it good, thumb it down and hitch it back to town. But instead, I continued to trot along until I made it home under my own power culminating an experience of 5.5 hours, 18 to 20 miles, three falls and two “oh shit” moments. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t important to anyone but me, and it isn’t any kind of record worth putting down on paper or in a book. But it was the most mind expanding fun I’ve experienced in the mountains in a long time and it opened my eyes to something that had haunted me for four years since that initial turn around, something that felt so out of reach until I pushed myself a level farther than I had previously known to be physically possible.
When something impossible seems like it won’t happen, well, just keep trying harder. Nothing worth doing comes easy, and if you don’t mind a heaping helping of humble pie for four years straight, you just might get served something better when you least expect it.
Ben Clark is a mountaineer and native of Clarksville, Tennessee, though he is based in the mountains of SW Colorado. He starting rock climbing as a boy and progressed to larger, more challenging mountains in his early twenties. At the age of 23, Ben became the second youngest American to summit Mount Everest, via the North-Northeast Ridge Route. Today, Ben climbs and skis the Himalayas for the pure joy of what may happen, but trains in his home mountains in between edits and when not on location documenting an adventure.