Nolan’s 14: Lessons Learned

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Nolan’s 14: Lessons Learned

Last year, shortly after I set an unsupported speed record on the Pfiffner Traverse, I wrote a piece for TrailRunner Magazine in which I called Nolan’s 14 - the legendary 100-mile-long fourteen-14ers line in the Swatch range -  a “superhuman peak bagger's linkup.” 

Here’s the amusing part about that description: I completely pulled it out of my backside, because I hadn’t yet ever set foot on any part of Nolan’s 14. My assessment of the route was based entirely on hearsay, various mountain running movies, and a perfunctory look at a couple USGS Quad sheets for the Sawatch Range.  

Almost as good as a USGS Quad Map.

Well - fast forward twelve months and I can now confirm first-hand what previously I had confabulated: Nolan’s 14 truly is a mad mission for superhuman peak baggers.  Over Labor Day 2019, as the culmination of many days of scouting and strategizing, two women crusher friends and I gave the route a go with the goal of setting a new women’s FKT.  We didn’t crush the speed record nor did we even finish - OK, one of us did finish.. just well above the official sixty hour time limit - but we did have an epic adventure out there (which you’ll be able to read more about in an upcoming issue of TrailRun Magazine).  

In the meantime, here are the lessons that Nolan’s taught me.

  1. Nolan’s 14 is a runner’s route.
    Before we attempted Nolan’s I thought I had the perfect strategy all figured out. I knew that the vast majority of Nolan’s attempts end in defeat, and I was confident that I understood why: because - this is how my reasoning went - everyone looks at Nolan’s and thinks that they have to push as hard and fast as they can early on, to not gamble away their chance of finishing. That, I reasoned, led people to go out to fast and blow up later in the course. I thought that most contenders treated Nolan’s as a race course, when it really needed to be a fastpack. Which is why we were going to throttle our pace and not push hard early on, to conserve energy and set ourselves up for success.
    After tagging 13 out of Nolan’s 14 peaks in just about seventy hours, I can now tell you: Nolan’s in fact is a race course. To complete the line in under sixty hours, you have to push hard right from the start. There is so much complicated, slow terrain (read: gnarly talus) on the course that you have to run those sections that are smooth enough to allow for it. Yes, conserving energy is key to sustain a 50-60 hour effort without blowing up… but you have to thread the eye of the needle right from the start. There is no time buffer to allow for even the slightest amount of relaxation - on the ups or on the downs.

  2. Scouting is essential.
    I though that I was incredible well prepared for Nolan’s. I had scouted the line for weeks prior to our attempt, and had been on most stretches of the route at least twice. There were only about 10% of the route that I hadn’t previewed at all, and only a slightly larger percentage that I had been on only once instead of two or three times.
    In retrospect I now know this: the preparation that I put in was a solid B effort, but it wasn’t A+ work. I needed another seven to ten days on the route to preview every last (off-)trail mile, and to go back to a few hard sections that I had scouted only once early in the summer. Knowing exactly where to go and what best line to pick would have saved me and my friends several hours during our attempt.

  3. My footwear plan paid off.
    Even though I came of age as a mountain runner in the time of the light-and-fast mentality (case in point: I wore glorified running shoes to the top of 22,838ft Aconcagua when I set my first speed record on the mountain!), I have recently come to appreciate the benefits of well-made mid-top boots again. Nolan’s has a lot of really difficult and potentially ankle-breaking terrain on it, which is why I decided ahead of time that I would switch off between running shoes and lightweight boots in strategic intervals. This strategy worked tremendously well and allowed me to charge through steep scree and talus (particularly on the downhills) without a second thought, where my friends in running shoes had to pick their way down the mountain much more carefully. You can read more about my thoughts on footwear strategy over at lowaboots.com following this link.

  4. Trying to set a Fastest Known Time as a team is fun, but not fast.
    Tara, Ilana and I decided that we would tackle Nolan’s as a team. For Tara, it was in a way a foregone conclusion: since she was flying in from out of town she didn’t have the luxury of scouting the route and needed help with navigation. For Ilana and myself, going as a team was a more balanced decision but we both decided that the psychological benefits of having partners would outweigh the potential speed disadvantage of having to manage team dynamics while on route.
    Turns out that’s exactly how things played out: going after it as a team was an incredible experience, and not something I would trade for the world - but it’s not the recipe for breaking a competitive speed record. Unless everybody in the team is very alike in strengths and weaknesses (which we weren’t; my raw speed is a lot less than Ilana’s and Tara’s, but my scrambling and downhill game is strong), a team record attempt means that you can only move as fast as the weakest member of the party at any given point. Speaking of pure physical speed this means that, rather than combining everyone’s strengths, you end up stringing together everybody’s weaknesses.
    The shared team experience is what made Nolan’s so special to me, but from purely a pragmatic perspective it’s not the fastest option.

  5. The power of community is magic.
    We were blessed to have both friends/family and the broader community rally around our attempt. From my and Tara’s husbands, over friends who came out to crew us (Dana, Andrew, Emma, Jordan, Jaime & mom!), to Nolan’s 14 veteran Gavin MacKenzie who was a stranger at the beginning of the weekend but ended up pacing us through a full night - the stoke from everyone around us made all the difference. In the past I mostly dabbled in unsupported or self-supported missions, but after Nolan’s I am not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to an effort without crew. The physical support was of course tremendous, but the mental boost was beyond compare. Thank you crew!!

Since our ‘failure’ to set a record on Nolan’s I have been asked the same question over and over again: will you go back and try again? My personal answer, at least for now, is somewhere between ‘no’ and ‘probably not’, and here is why.

Eyes on the prize halfway up Antero

My time on Nolan’s this summer was fueled by curiosity and the desire to find out about the line, as well as about my own ability on it.  After spending several weeks and a seventy-hour attempt on the route, I feel like I have gotten out of it what I wanted: a lot of new terrain, a lot of learning, and a healthy dose of humility.  Another attempt on Nolan’s, for me, would be driven primarily by ego and the desire to nab a record rather than by curiosity and a love for the line itself.

Will I be back? Probably not.  Am I proud of what we did: Hell yes. Would I team up with Tara and Ilana again, preferably on an adventure that doesn’t involve bagging fourteen 14ers in a row? In a heartbeat.    

And with that… on to the next adventure!

Tara, Ilana and I all smiles on Mt Elbert, Colorado’s tallest 14er and summit #2 of Nolan’s 14.

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Nolan’s 14 - we’re going for it!

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Nolan’s 14 - we’re going for it!

Depending on your familiarity with mountain running, the term “Nolan’s 14” likely either evokes blank stares or a mix of awe and dread.  Nolan’s isn’t particularly well known outside of hardcore ultra-running circles; among mountain runners, though, it is one of the crown jewels (if not THE crown jewel) of big mountain speed records.  

Here’s what Nolan’s 14 is: a linkup of fourteen 14,000ft peaks in the Sawatch Range above Leadville and Buena Vista in Colorado.  The rules are straightforward: start at either of two defined endpoints and tag fourteen 14,000ft summits, on foot, within a 60 hour time window.  

Hikers nearing the summit of one of Nolan’s many 14,000ft peaks.

The northern end of Nolan’s 14

Everything else is up to you - when to go, which end to start at, what routes to take between the peaks (much of the linkup is off-trail), whether to go supported or unsupported. By now, though, Nolan’s has been done often enough that there is consensus about practical route choices: depending on your tolerance for scrambling and 4th/5th class terrain, any Nolan’s linkup will entail a distance of somewhere between 89 and 104 miles with a minimum of 43,000ft of ascent. 

I remember hearing about Nolan’s 14 for the first time when I was just finding my stride as a fledgling weekend-warrior ultra runner in Texas. Back then, I looked at the route and dismissed it as impossible.  Too hard, too high, too much off-trail navigation, too much climbing.  Back then, no woman had yet completed the challenge - and I thought that there was no way I would ever want to even think about giving it a try.  

Well… that was eight years ago.  In the meantime, a lot has happened.  Anna Frost and Missy Gosney proved that women could complete the route. Megan Hicks came along a year later and improved on their time. And I moved from my midpack pitter patter in flat-and-fast trail ultras to the big mountains, where I knocked down a series of difficult high altitude endurance speed records across the world.  Yet Nolan’s 14, to me, always was in a league of its own.  “I have no business being on this route” is what my brain tells me. I have run with Anna Frost, one of the original Nolan’s queens and two-times Hardrock 100 champion; I know how fast and strong she is. “Mmmh but maybe I could try” is what my gut says, despite my brain’s best attempts to help me avoid a lot of suffering. 

But the reality is - the only reason that I am here, today, preparing to give Nolan’s a go within the next 48 hours, is my friend Mercedes.  Where I was dismissing Nolan’s as impossible, Mercedes was the one who had fallen in love with the line and the challenge.  It was her who was determined to chase this wild dream, and it’s only because of Mercedes’ relentless passion and enthusiasm that I finally agreed to at least scout the route and wrap my head around attempting Nolan’s. Unfortunately, Mercedes got injured during her training cycle and had to abandon the attempt this season - but gave her blessing for me to move ahead. I count myself lucky to have friends like her.  I feel equally lucky to be teaming up with not one but two other strong and inspiring women mountain athletes for the upcoming attempt, Tara Miranda and Ilana Jesse.  

With Ilana during a scouting mission

Tara stretching the legs during a Mt Princeton scout

Of course managing the dynamics, strengths and weaknesses of a team of three on a mission as long and hard as Nolan’s is a challenge in and of itself.  That’s the reason why we each will carry personal GPS tracking devices during the attempt, and you can follow all three of us right here:  http://trackleaders.com/nolans14f.  We hope to stick together and chase the completion of the line as a team, but we are all too keenly aware that a lot can happen over the course of ~sixty hours. 

Based on the current weather forecast, we are planning to start at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville Saturday morning. If all goes well, we will all reach Blank’s Cabin together on Monday night; keep your fingers crossed.  I already know that in my book, I will consider the mission a success if Tara or Ilana manage to get to Blank’s Cabin in under sixty hours… but I also will not lie - I want this. 

Stay tuned, wish us luck, and follow our progress if you so please!

http://trackleaders.com/nolans14f (tracking starts as soon as we hit the trail - likely Saturday morning between 5am and 8am MT)

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A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

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A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

Running on the TransQilian course. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

How are your feet?” Siri’s electronic voice jars me out of my trance. I shake my head, both to clear the fog from my brain and as a response to the question. “Not good.” I smile. “But we’re only 30 kilometers from the finish; I’ll be OK.

My Chinese pacer An, the one who just inquired about the state of my feet with the help of his voice-enabled phone’s translation app, nods and gives me a smiling thumbs up. I try to match his pace as he lengthens his stride and we continue plodding down a steep mountain ridge high up in Gansu province, over five hundred miles west of Beijing, while the evening sun is painting long soft shadows in the rice terraces below us. I have been moving non-stop since 3am this morning, and I am ready to stop running.

I am breathing rarefied air here at 11,000ft on the TransQilian course, a gorgeous 100km+ circumnavigation of Qilian mountain in remote China. Ten days ago I didn’t know that this trail existed. A week ago, I had just heard about TransQilian for the first time but I was at home in Colorado and not sure if I’d even be going to China. Yet right now, I am in the middle of attempting to set a new TransQilian speed record; sometimes you just have to go with the flow (read this for the backstory: Ultra Gobi to TransQilian).

Going with the flow is my mantra for the day. I’ve been mono-focused on relentless forward motion since I started running in the middle of the night some fourteen hours ago. Mountain speed records are my specialty - I have set a few of them, and in mountain ranges across the world - but this is different: I typically pursue fastest known times (FKTs) in a solitary fashion, unsupported and mostly under the radar. Here at TransQilian I have a local crew of more than a dozen people supporting my FKT attempt as pacers - like An, who is at my side this very moment fiddling with his phone’s translation app - but also aid station volunteers, logistics coordinators, media. It is amazing to see how big mountain running is rallying excitement from China’s budding adventure community.

The TransQilian FKT team. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Amazing support for me to pursue a speed record on this amazing cour. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

But there is another way in which this FKT is different: my past speed missions have often involved projects that are so remote and difficult that nobody else (or at least no other woman) has completed them - rather than being “fastest” known times, many of my past projects were OKTs: “original” or “only” known times. My records on the Aconcagua 360 and in the Colorado Rockies are prime examples. The TransQilian FKT is different: not only has the trail been completed before, there is an actual ultra race on the very same course. This means that I’ll have to break the existing race record of 25 hours and 24 minutes in order to succeed, and I’m in no way confident that I’m capable of that.

On one of the faster sections of the Transqilian course, with one of the podium finishers of the 2019 TransQilian race which happened just a few weeks before I set a new course record. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Which is why, at this very moment, I am picking up the pace and willing my legs to go faster - despite the dull pain on the soles of both of my feet. I know what this particular type of ache means: trench foot, from spending long hours in water-logged socks and shoes. I also know that there is nothing I can do to change it, other than to stop running (not part of my plan) or taking ibuprofen (not smart). I’ve had to contend with trench foot once before, in 2013 during the final forty miles of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and I’m not excited about repeating the experience - but I would be even less excited about not finishing TransQilian.

So I plod on. The enormousness of the landscape, bathed in golden hour light, almost makes me forget the pain. An and I are running through the sky but we are now at the very edge of the Qilian mountain range, the plains with their million-person cities and smog-producing power plants far below us; the contrast blows my mind.

Above Qilian town in the early evening. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Miles, views, and friends - what could be better. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

I let out a deep contented breath and take mental inventory of all the amazing moments that this run has already given me - from the camaraderie and immersion that I have found over the last few days with China’s core outdoor community, to the brilliant shooting stars that I saw in those early pre-dawn hard uphill miles of the FKT (three of them!), to reaching the highpoint of the course all by myself while my pacers were still struggling through big talus hundreds of feet below my alpine high-pass perch at 14,600ft.

Early morning at 14,000ft in the Qilian mountain range, not far from the course high point. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Love the challenge of big mountain runs needs no translation. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

My Chinese friend An feels the magic of TransQilian just as I am. We now move swiftly towards lower elevations, back towards humanity, and there is an understanding between us that doesn’t require a translation app. The life experiences that have brought us here may be worlds apart, but to share the joy of unbridled love for mountains and adventure creates a bond that transcends cultures.

That’s why, when we finally reach the 80 kilometer checkpoint that both marks the end of An’s pacing segment and signals the start of the last 20 kilometers of the run, he doesn’t miss a beat. I turn to thank him for his company and say goodbye, but this time it’s him who shakes his head and smiles. “I go with you to the finish.

————

Sunny, An, and a few other hardy Chinese mountain runners eventually crossed the TransQilian finish line together at 11:59pm local time, 20 hours and 59 minutes after Sunny had started out her run. In the process, Sunny became the second woman to ever complete TransQilian and established a new overall course record that is more than four hours faster than the old (men’s) record.

Approaching the finish line seconds before midnight, surrounded by enthusiastic pacers. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Celebrating the new TransQilian FKT - I couldn’t have done it without these guys and gals. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about record spontaneity, or rather a spontaneous record: my 2017 Annapurna Circuit FKT which Outside Magazine ended up calling ‘crazy’.

Impressions from my Annapurna Circuit FKT

Today, I’m writing about a different type of spontaneity - also linked to running and to and FKT attempt, though I have somewhat limited faith in the ‘record’ outcome of this one, ha.

This is the story:

A shot from a prior edition of the Ultra Gobi. This would have been a cool experience! PC - Ultra Gobi.

A few months ago, I was invited to participate in the Ultra Gobi, a 400km non-stop footrace on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China. The race is taking place this coming week, but the Chinese authorities at the very last minute closed the region to all foreigners - which resulted in me and ~a dozen other foreign nationals being uninvited just days prior to the race start.

You can imagine the mix of emotions when you learn that a 400km effort that you’ve been training for is no longer happening. Disappointment, on the one hand, about missing out on this very special experience. On the other hand, a certain level of relief to be missing out on a tremendously tough experience!

That said, I am not one to sit idle. My invitation to the Ultra Gobi was tied to a film project, and since both filmmaker extraordinaire Ben Clark and I found ourselves with air tickets to China and two weeks of time… we decided to change course and go for a spontaneous adventure instead. Which means that in about twelve hours, I’ll be getting on a plane to China in order to tackle the TransQilian - a 104km/65-mile mountain loop with ~50,000ft of vertical change at an average elevation of 10,500ft.

Some of the terrain on the TransQilian - PC TransQilian

I know very little about the course other than it is high, steep, and gorgeous; I can’t wait to get to China and see for myself just exactly what I said yes to with about 72 hours of lead time! The plan is for me to go after the TransQilian FKT (at this point, the loop has only been run in race format and not by independent runners… but the winning race times are in the 25 hour range, which seems blistering fast!) though truth be told: I am in it for the adventure and the scenery; any speed record would just be icing on the cake.

And with that - I better get off my laptop and start packing; my plane leaves in less than 12 hours.

If you want to communicate with me while I’m in China or follow along while the speed attempt is underway, head over to my GPS page (and you know I always love messages; don’t be shy to write). I expect to have close to zero connectivity while I’m in China so don’t be surprised if you don’t see any updates from me on Instagram or Facebook. I should be back in the US by August 18. See y’all on the other side!

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The Risks We Take

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The Risks We Take

“I’m not going to go.”  My stomach flip flopped as Paul finished his sentence.  “The last couple days helped me decide. I’m going to stay here.” Paul had just gotten down from multiple days and nights on El Capitan, and he was telling me that he had decided to nuke his plans to go on a climbing expedition in Pakistan in the summer.  It was a gorgeous May morning in Yosemite.  Our friend Jess Roskelley had died in an avalanche on Howse Peak less than a month ago.  

Paul and I in El Cap meadow after a (for Paul) sleep deprived night on the Captain.

Us not climbing, or running, but blissful.

Fast-forward to July 11.  Paul and I both have tears in our eyes as we embrace tightly at the airport in Denver.  The luggage cart next to us is overloaded with two oversized duffel bags and smaller carry-on. “This is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Paul. He isn’t talking about the climbing he’ll be doing in Pakistan, but about leaving me for seven week. I pull him closer. 

Life is a risk.  You never end up regretting the things you do but the things you don’t do. Decisions should be based on love not on fear.  So many platitudes to go around.  

The real question is: how do you decide between pursuing a potentially risky trip to a place you’ve wanted to see for decades - the type of trip that is woven into the very fabric of your identity - on one hand and on the other hand having found bliss in low-commitment adventures and daily life with the partner you love? It’s a question that Paul and I debated a lot: each of us individually, consulting friends and in conversations with one another. 

We found an answer: Paul is on his way to basecamp in Pakistan as I am writing this.  To have an incredible alpine climbing adventure, I hope; even though deep down I know that a big part of his decision to go was so he could give me space to pursue my own big mountain running projects. The decision to go was anything but clear cut.  

Long runs = big time.

Doing hard things is character building.  Suffering is privilege.  Time apart makes time together that much more valuable. More platitudes. 

We’re independent.  We both charge hard, and we’ve spent longer chunks of time than this apart.  Hell, I left Paul ten days after we got married to walk across the Colorado Plateau for a month all by myself. And yet… this feels different.  

Maybe it’s because this time I’m the one who is staying ‘at home’ (though not really - I’m going to run the Ultra Gobi in China while Paul is in Pakistan… but I’m not leaving for a few more weeks). Or maybe it’s because Paul was on the fence on whether he really wanted to go or not, and the risks involved in remote alpine climbing are all too real.

Me on the Hayduke shortly after Paul and I got married

Paul on recent day of carefree alpine cragging in Chamonix

I do know one thing: as excited as I am for Paul to finally get to climb in the Karakoram, and for me to run far in amazing places… I am even more excited at the thought of Paul’s return to Colorado in late August. Happiness is only real when shared!

If you want to see where Paul is and/or exchange (free) messages with him via his Garmin GPS, you can use this link: https://www.clmbrlifr.com/gps.

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Chamonix: A Photo Journal

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Chamonix: A Photo Journal

Mont Blanc and the surrounding valleys, particularly Chamonix, are often considered the birthplace of alpinism; climbing in the Mont Blanc massif is a rite of passage for any serious mountaineer. Alas, neither Paul nor I had ever climbed in Chamonix until earlier this summer. I’d been there once or twice as a hiker and runner, which mirrors my strong suit: non-technical high altitude work. Paul - who is the bona fide alpinist among the two of us with his ascents of Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, and Denali’s South Face - had never even laid eyes on Mont Blanc.

With big alpine objectives coming up this summer, we decided to rectify this gap in our respective mountaineering resumes and set plans in motion to spend the better part of June in Europe. I’ll mostly let the photos speak for themselves, but here are a few things we learned during our inaugural climbing visit to Cham:

Enjoying what may just be the world’s second-most photogenic 5.4 on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere

Enjoying what may just be the world’s second-most photogenic 5.4 on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere

  • Access to the mountains above Chamonix is truly unparalleled. Unfortunately it comes at a steep price - literally, if you decide to use one of the many cable cars to cut what would otherwise be a 9000ft+ ascent approach down to an easy walk.

  • Another side effect of the easy access and prominence of mountain sports in the area is that it gets busy up there; REALLY busy. We found that if you spend time on easily accessible routes in decent conditions you 100% will get climbed over, passed or elbowed - unless you choose to do the same to the parties ahead of you, or get up several hours prior to the typical alpine start to ensure you are the absolutely the first among many eager parties queuing up for the same route.

  • It IS possible to get away from people and enjoy an uncrowded experience as long as you are willing and able to walk farther, climb stronger, and spend more nights away from town. After our experience this past month, Paul and I are already jonesing to get back to the Mont Blanc massif with more local knowledge (and time, and stable weather) and do just that.

  • The local ibexes are about as habituated to hikers and climbers as elk are in Estes Park! On the same note, there may not be any friendly humming birds (Paul and I greatly enjoy their frequent visits to our van all over the American west) in Chamonix but the butterflies do a pretty darn great job to make up for that.

  • When it rains, it pours. Literally. We put our GoreTex layers to great use throughout our time both in the mountains and valley over there.

  • Wine is cheaper than beer. And while food is pretty pricey all in all, you can buy yummy gazpacho in any super market for next to no money. I wish the US was like that…

But, now I’m rambling. Without further ado: hope you enjoy the photos!

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Breaking Barriers: The $5,000 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship

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Breaking Barriers: The $5,000 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship

SCHOLARSHIP ANNOUNCEMENT!
Come climb a Himalayan 6.000m peak with AWExpeditions…for free. Read on below for details.

When I talk about breaking barriers, it’s often about speed:  about becoming the fastest woman to complete a high altitude mission, or about doing something that no other woman has done before.  But this is different. 

3A7A9971.jpg

Today, I want to talk about breaking economic barriers.  I want to talk about economic barriers because I know that a number of the things that I do, and the experiences that I hope to share with others, are an expression of privilege and of economic opportunity: only a subset of people have the luxury of being able to afford big adventures, and to pursue the boost of confidence and inspiration they provide.

I know first-hand how empowering a life of outdoor adventure feels, and I love sharing that life with others.  I bring my family along, introduce my friends to my favorite far off-grid places - and now, as the owner and head guide of Aurora Women’s Expeditions (AWE), I regularly lead teams of women into the same big mountains that have been so formative for me.  

Aurora Women's Expeditions.jpg

But expedition climbing isn’t cheap: between mountaineering gear, airfare and on the ground logistics, big mountain expeditions tend to run in the thousands of dollars. That’s why I am incredibly excited to be able to announce the AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship, a $5000 grant that will enable a hand-picked woman to participate in this October’s AWE Nepal Expedition at minimal cost. 

The intent behind the Summit Scholarship is this: to enable a woman who might not otherwise have the means or the opportunity to do so, to participate in a big mountain expedition to Nepal.  The scholarship, which is powered by Nite Ize and supported by Lowa Boots, covers the full expedition fee, a stipend towards international airfare, and top-of-the-line mountaineering footwear.  The AWE Nepal expedition has Everest Base Camp and 20,305 Island Peak as its objectives, and is suitable for a first-time mountaineer as long as she possesses a high level of cardio fitness and a healthy appetite for long hard days in the mountains.  

Find out more and apply for the scholarship here: the 2019 AWE x Nite Ize Summit Scholarship.

I know that there are plenty more pressing causes in the world than advancing gender equality through adventure sports.  Providing a platform for more women to experience big mountain adventures is not solving poverty or world hunger - but it is my way to share my passion for both gender equality and the mountains with the world, and I’m excited to be able to share this new scholarship with all of you!

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Five Things You Should Know About The Wave

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Five Things You Should Know About The Wave

The Wave, located on the border of Utah and Arizona, not far from the town of Kanab, is a geological marvel and has in recent years become a bucket list destination for many hikers as it moved from an obscure insider’s desert gem into the adventure limelight.

Sunny Stroeer admiring the Wave’s magnificent geology. Credit Paul Gagner

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Wave joins the ranks of Horseshoe Bend or Antelope Canyon - places that seem to rival Disneyland in their popularity and are routinely overrun with hundreds if not thousands of visitors a day. Terrific landscapes and magnificent photo opportunities, yes, but only if you don’t mind using your elbows to shove your way into that prime photo spot… and no trace left of the wildness or serenity of the desert.

The Wave is different. Here, you’ll have to work for your reward. It’s not a matter of “pay $300 to buy into a private photo tour and have your guide shoo the crowds out of the way for you” (Antelope Canyon), nor is it a question of pulling off the highway, parking your RV, and completing a fifteen minute flip-flop slog through the sand to get to that famous turn in the river (Horseshoe Bend). On the contrary, getting to the Wave requires a serious amount of research, planning, luck and tenacity. In exchange you get to experience one of nature’s finest masterpieces - and you won’t be sharing that special moment with more than a dozen or so like-minded desert lovers.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, keep on reading because you’ll want to know the following five things.

#1 Only 20 people a day are granted permits

Human-caused sandstone damage (rope grooves) in Leprechaun Canyon. Photo Credit  Red Desert Adventures

Human-caused sandstone damage (rope grooves) in Leprechaun Canyon. Photo Credit Red Desert Adventures

Yes, you read that right. Twenty people total, not twenty groups… and there’s good reason for it, too. The Wave consists of spectacular sandstone layers which you are literally walking through, and stepping on, as you’re visiting this outdoor cathedral. The exposed edges of those layers are what makes the Wave so unique but they are also incredibly fragile. No matter how careful we each try to be individually, over time the damage done to the Wave by large numbers of visitors would be irreversible.

For climbers the susceptibility of sandstone to damage likely needs no further explanation. The reaction of a non-climber or a non-geologist might fall more along the lines of ”But wait: This is ROCK! How fragile could it be??” If that is what you’re thinking right now, consider the photo above which shows manmade damage (rope grooves) on rock quite similar to the Wave - and in an area that still receives meaningfully less visitation. Sandstone is fragile.

#2 Walk-in permits have much better odds than the advance online lottery

There are two ways to obtain a coveted permit for the Wave: you can apply to the online lottery which allows four month advance reservations for 10 lucky visitors a day, or you can try your hand with the walk-in lottery in Kanab the day before you are hoping to visit the Wave. The walk-in lottery, of course, creates a lot more uncertainty and makes advance planning much more difficult - but it also has significantly better odds than the online permit drawing.

Case in point: the online lottery, which runs on the first of each month four months ahead of the requested permit days (meaning April permits are being allocated on January 1) tallies up to ~1000 people per day vying for the ten available permits. Depending on the time of year and the day of the week, your chance of getting an advance permit ranges somewhere in the 1-5% range - your odds of being successful are one in twenty on a “good” day which is equivalent to “midweek” and “off-season”. If that’s not bad enough, things are continually getting worse: the official permit website actually cites success chances in the 4-25% range… but that was for 2013, and permit request have been skyrocketing; just take a look at the side-by-side comparison between 2016 and 2019 below.


The walk-in lottery in contrast “only” sees between 60 and 300 hopefuls who congregate at the permit office in Kanab each morning to put their name in the hat, quite literally, for access to the Wave the following day. According to the local rangers, the record for walk-in permit hopefuls to date was set on Black Friday 2018 with close to 400 permit applicants crowding the office - which still makes for better odds than the advance lottery.

Let’s assume you actually managed to get one of those elusive slips of paper… now what? Surely the hard part is over! (Or on the flip side, if you didn’t get a permit, surely you could just sneak past the trailhead and take a quick look around in a victimless crime, right?**) Not so fast.

#3 It’s a three mile cross-country hike from the trailhead, and for long sections there is neither trail nor cairns to show the way

Getting from the car to the Wave is 100% manageable for most able bodied folks but it does take work and it is an adventure in off-trail navigation. After you’ve managed to get a permit, the ranger station will provide you with a little pamphlet that contains photographs of turn-by-turn directions and critical landmarks to use for orientation. While the trailhead and the first mile or so of the trek are obvious, the well-worn dirt trail soon turns into slick rock with no trail markings or foot prints to follow. You need to know where you’re going and be aware of your surroundings.

**This may be an opportune spot for a comment on attempting to circumvent the permit system: sneaking in without the benefit of the permit is not a good idea; besides the route finding challenges and the fact that attempting to see the Wave sans permit is ethically indefensible you’ll also risk $100,000 in fines and up to a year in prison should you get caught. For what it’s worth, on the day that Paul and I got to hike out there we ran into not one or two but THREE permit patrols. Don’t be that guy (or gal).

#4 The Wave’s trailhead is 8 miles down a dirt road which frequently washes out or turns into a clay Slip N Slide

Contrary to Horseshoe Bend, the trailhead for the Wave is not right off a major highway. To reach the start of your hike you have to get through a little more than eight miles of dirt road driving, which can range anywhere from mellow to completely impossible. I have driven the access road about a dozen times by now, and I’ve seen it smooth enough for a Kia but also so slick and rutted from just six hours of continuous rain that a 4x4 jeep was at the verge of getting stuck. The road crosses two drainages that are prone to flash flooding, and then there is the road surface itself: nasty desert clay which may be solid when dry but offers all the friction of black ice when soaked.

#5 You can pay a guide to help you get out to the Wave…

…but you still have to win the permit lottery to be allowed to go. A guide can help you both with the off-trail navigation and with vehicle trailhead access if the road isn’t passable for your everyday car, but hiring a guide doesn’t change any of the permitting requirements. That said, there are plenty of guide services in Kanab that can be hired on short notice; many will have next-day availability should you decide in favor of the guided approach on a whim after you’ve secured a walk-in permit.

Bonus: A thought on photography

If you’re a photographer, you know the importance of the golden hour: many destinations are best photographed right after sunrise or shortly before sunset. Not so the Wave - even though its main feature has an easterly aspect that seems to make the landscape prone for sunrise shots, the surrounding topography is such that the sun doesn’t hit the Wave itself until after golden hour. In fact, the best light for the classic shot is right during mid-day when there are no stark shadows obscuring parts of the main feature.

Finally, a question that I’ve been asked repeatedly: is the Wave really worth the effort? My answer: unequivocally YES. Go put your name in the hat for the lottery; good luck!

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Desert Tracks: A Photo Journal

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Desert Tracks: A Photo Journal

Road tripping with my parents as a kid in the 90s

If you and I have adventured together before, there’s a chance that you have heard me tell this story - the story of how I fell in love with the desert when I was 12 years old. 

The occasion was a big road trip with my parents, the three of us having traveled across the Atlantic from our native Germany in order to sample some of the famous national parks of the American West during summer break.  A bucket list vacation, right?

Truth be told, I didn’t love it then. Hour after hour in our rental car, too many early morning wake ups and mandatory hikes. I wasn’t all outdoorsy back then - books were more my jam, but I’d get car sick from trying to read in the backseat. So, yes, the trip was cool but no, it wasn’t love at first sight when my parents dragged me through the Utah desert at age 12.

That is… right until the end of our time on the road, when we pulled up to a big concrete parking lot a hundred yards or so from Bright Angel Point at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t even want to get out of the car anymore because I’d already looked at what felt like a hundred other canyons in the Southwest and I was officially over the whole road trip thing. Well - I’m glad my parents would have none of my pre-teen willfulness and forced me off the back seat and onto my feet; I irrevocably fell in love with the desert about 45 seconds after I slammed the car door shut. 

12 years old and still trying to be grumpy about being made to look at yet another random desert canyon.

But how could you not fall in love with this landscape! A moody analog shot of the Grand Canyon from my dad’s archives.

Okay, okay. Maybe this place doesn’t totally suck. Moi ca. 1997

I’ve come back to the Grand Canyon what feels like a million times since that day in 1997. I’ve run it Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim on three occasions, I’ve tasted its obscure trails and off-trail sections far beyond the main corridor, I’ve floated a few stretches of the river. I’ve gotten stuck in snow on the rim and nearly passed out from heat exhaustion in the inner gorge, and I keep coming back for more: for the last twenty+ years, the Grand Canyon has been one of my favorite spots in the world. I think slowly but surely Paul might be starting to develop a deeper appreciation for it, too - even after my misguided first attempt at sharing my love for the big ditch with Paul a year and a half ago the story of which I shared here.

Below are a few shots from our recent nine day backpack through the northwestern reaches of Grand Canyon National Park and surrounding wilderness earlier this month; no big epics to report this time (phew), so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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Aconcagua 360: Runs and Records

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Aconcagua 360: Runs and Records

“I am curled up in the fetal position on bare rock behind a two foot boulder that I spotted minutes ago just steps off the trail; barely protected from the bone-penetrating wind, my eyes are closing on me. I am alone, surrounded by foreboding darkness. The forecast is predicting a punishing -22 degrees Celsius for the summit over night; shivering, I wrap my paper-thin emergency bivouac bag tighter around my legs and adjust the hood of my parka in the vain attempt to bury my nose and forehead in it. 

I know I can’t win the fight against the laden sleepiness that has been circling in on me for hours but I fight to stay awake for just a minute longer, to take off my gloves and set the alarm on my phone for half an hour from now.  As soon as I allow my eyes to close I rapidly drift off into the sleep of exhaustion. It is freezing cold.”

———

I wrote these words in February 2018, a few days after I became the first woman to circumnavigate and summit 22,838ft Aconcagua in a single push.  My experience on the so-called 360 Route was one of extremes: scorching temperatures and dark trail-side naps in subzero temperatures; a raging river in the day, dangerously unsettled recent mudslides at night. Rangers who first denied me permission to enter the park on my existing permit only to later became proactive supporters. 

In the tent on Aconcagua while preparing the 360 speed mission

The 360 record has been in the news again recently thanks to the efforts of Sonia Procopio, a 39-year-old Argentinian woman who embarked on her own 360 record run just a few short days ago. Sonia faced great difficulties in her mission yet completed a circumnavigation of the mountain in 45 hours and 45 minutes, a little less than two hours faster than I had been the year prior.  

Sadly, controversy erupted shortly after - the lack of a summit photo and some other factors have caused critics to question the veracity of Sonia’s accounts. In the wake of the debate, I’d like to offer a few reflections.  

  • I firmly believe that the act of breaking a speed record, or the state of being in possession of one, has very little significance.  The inspiring part is not where you succeed - it’s the fact that you’re willing to try.
    Simply taking on a challenge of the magnitude of running the Aconcagua 360 is something that I find incredibly impressive, and it’s sad to see that what should have been a time celebrating a woman’s achievement has turned into great controversy instead.

  • The current situation and high emotions drive home why it is helpful to have agreement around a strong set of community ethics when it comes to speed records, just as they exist in the United States among the Fastest Known Time (FKT) community.  Thanks to FKT pioneers Peter Bawkin and Buzz Burrell, the rules in the US are clear - advance notification, real-time GPS tracking and complete records are expected for major record attempts.  It seems time that the verification prerequisites for Aconcagua records should move beyond the token summit photo and start to require real-time GPS allowing third parties to observe progress while a record attempt is under way. 

Sunny Stroeer summit Feb 2 2018

Sunny Stroeer summit Feb 2 2018

  • Unfortunately, Sonia did not have a GPS device.  But she does have independent witnesses who attest to the fact that she made it to the Cueva (~150 hard meters below the summit), at which point the evidence gap and inconsistencies begin.  I have no first-hand insight into whether Sonia reached the summit or not, but I do know this: even in the case that she did not complete the final meters of the climb, her physical accomplishment is tremendous - circumnavigating the mountain and getting to within spitting distance (mileage-wise, not time-wise) of the summit requires an incredible amount of mental and physical perseverance, and to do so without having been to this altitude before (as in Sonia’s case) is even more mind-boggling.  In the end, without photos or GPS or independent eye witnesses for the summit, Sonia alone knows the true extent of her achievement and I hope that she takes pride in what she was able to do.

  • Regardless of what happened in Sonia’s summit bid above the Cueva, there is a new time to beat for any record hopefuls in order to put the controversy to bed once and for all:  45 hours and 45 minutes is the time it took Sonia to complete the circumnavigation, even though vision problems forced her to rest at high camp for eight hours while on the descent.  I can imagine that Sonia would agree with the statement that both her and my posted times (I took 47 hours and thirty minutes) include a lot of slack and have ample room for improvement.  Sonia had to sleep for eight hours in Nido de Condores; I was stalled out for two hours resolving permit issues early on, and later I spent two and a half hours at Plaza de Mulas celebrating my summit and eating pizza with friends.  I then encountered several major mudslides in the Horcones Valley which slowed me down, and finally I did not run a single step on the final outbound leg as there was no need, meaning no prior time for me to beat.  

To any woman who would like to attempt the 360 record I say this: the record is achievable but it takes more than simple speed and perseverance.  To be able to complete the upper mountain safely, knowledge of the route and weeks of acclimatization are required prior to any speed attempt.  To succeed on an endeavor like the 360 in a push we must combine the best of the trail running and the high altitude mountaineering world, and possess the skills and experience of both. 

———

“I have been here before.  I have climbed this mountain before, I have reached this summit before - three times to be precise. But this time is different.  I am alone in the middle of the night, on a mad mission to become the first woman to circumnavigate and summit the mountain in a single push. Why am I here?

I left basecamp four hours ago.  Basecamp, with its friendly faces and warmth and food and even bunk beds.  At 11pm, when everyone else on the mountain is just burrowing deeper into their sleeping bags to shut out the chill of yet another high altitude night, I pushed open the kitchen tent’s door to step into the cold dark, leaving behind a group of warmly smiling friends; friends with an equal mix of worries and well-wishes on their lips.  The basecamp manager’s radio starts to crackle; the park rangers are checking in.  “Does she have a team on the upper mountain? Is there somebody waiting for her at Camp 1 and Camp 2 or at least at Camp Colera?”

The answer is no, I do not have anybody waiting for me in the three camps on the upper mountain.  I am by myself.  And so I walk off into the night - all by myself.  I know that the next twelve to eighteen hours will be the hardest challenge of my life to date.”


Mileage, vert and time splits for Sunny’s 2018 360 run

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Catching up

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Catching up

Hi everyone, it’s been a couple months since I wrote the last ChasingSunshine post - and there’s good reason for it; lots and lots has happened.

Here’s the cliff notes version:

  • Moved out of Boulder and full-time into Merlot-The-Van with Paul

  • Climbed all over Yosemite and the Southwest in the fall

  • Got my US green card - I’m officially a permanent resident!

  • Doubled down on guiding by formalizing Aurora Women’s Expeditions as a Colorado LLC and adding several new expeditions to Nepal, Argentina and Tanzania for 2019/2020 - go check out the expedition schedule.

  • Agreed new 2019 partnerships with LEKI, LOWA, and GU

  • And: making lots of plans for the coming months and years.

Now scroll on for the more detailed update and all the photos that I never get around to posting on Facebook, too.


If we’re friends on social media you may already know some of this, but let me start from where I left off a few months ago.

After winning the Ouray 100 and setting an FKT (fastest known time) on the Pfiffner Traverse within ten days from one another, August was the time for a summer holiday! Paul and I love far-out adventures, but this time we stayed close to home: a ~2hr drive took us to the Indian Peaks where we climbed magical Lone Eagle Peak, a Colorado classic that had been high on our combined tick list for a while.

Having enjoyed a few days of climbing in perfect sunshine, it was full steam ahead towards a singular goal: moving out of our Boulder apartment and into #MerlotTheVan by October 1. While Paul was wrapping up his obligations at Nite Ize and working frantically towards his final day of employment (gasp…), I worked equally frantically to build out Merlot from scratch and get us moved in.

Merlot, in case you’re curious, is a 2003 Ford E350XL with a great amount of character and equal amounts of rust. In true going-for-broke dirtbag fashion we decided against buying a Sprinter van or Promaster, opting to spend less money upfront ($7k!) and more money on repairs.

We got everything done on time and launched headfirst into vanlife on September 29, with not much on our minds other than wanting to spend as much time as possible together, outside, climbing and adventuring, and evading bad weather. Of course October isn’t the greatest time to be looking for barefoot and shirtless summer days, but we got to enjoy many beautiful weeks in and around Yosemite, Joshua Tree, as well as in the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. I didn’t achieve my objective of climbing El Capitan with a partner different than Paul (who was up on the big stone for 10 days to send the rarely climbed Heartland 5.10 A4), but spent lots of time on Washington Column and also helped Paul, Wayne Willoughby and Chris Van Leuven with their single-push adaptive ascent of Zodiac in November.

With winter settling in across the western US we finally found ourselves playing hide-and-seek with blizzards, below-freezing-temps, and the ever-elusive calm and sunny conditions. Enter the holidays, and family visits across three countries and two continents with lots of smiles and celebrations, great meals, and plenty of leisurely walks and sunny skiing.

And last but not least!! I became a US permanent resident and promptly doubled down on Aurora Women’s Expeditions (AWE) to turn it into a proper business. I’d been hoping to do this for several years but wasn’t able to do so prior to obtaining my green card, so I am now doubly excited to have everything up and running as a small Colorado business. The inaugural expedition schedule includes trips to Aconcagua, Everest Basecamp and Island Peak (this trip is open to men as well btw, and will be co-guided by Paul!), and Kilimanjaro; more to come as time goes on.
If you are interested in any of those climbs or know someone who you think would enjoy a women’s trip… please share the love! Aconcagua 2020 only has one spot remaining, but the other two trips still have plenty of availability. And if you can’t think of anyone who would be interested, I’d love it if you at least check out the AWE website, let me know what you think, and subscribe to the AWE newsletter.

Finally… a nod of gratitude to my outdoor industry partners for 2019: I’m excited to be working with LOWA Boots, Backpacker’s Pantry, Leki USA, and GU Energy. And I am equally stoked to be thinking about and working towards all the big projects that are bubbling up towards the top of my list: more speed records in the US and Nepal, putting work in on some first ascents, and prepping a big polar mission. So much time, so little to do! But first, off to Argentina for an AWExAconcagua climb starting on Saturday - if you like seeing photos and realtime updates from the mountain please follow along at the new AWE Instagram account @awexpeditions. Much love and I hope we cross paths somewhere in the great outdoors this year!

Sunny

PS / *** technical note: If you’ve enjoyed getting expedition field notes in the past, please be aware that those are all moving over to the new AWExpeditions website which means that you need to (re-)subscribe over there in order to continue receiving updates from the mountain in your inbox.

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The Mile High Outdoor Show

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The Mile High Outdoor Show

I recently had the opportunity to record an hour long talkshow segment with Miles Dunklin of Mile High Sports.  It was a fun conversation going deep into a number of topics that I don't talk about that often. This article contains links to the full-length Mile High Outdoor episode as well as to a few other podcasts that I was a guest on in Q2/Q3 2018.

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Making Vanlife Work (#3/3) ... as a Content Creator in the Outdoor Industry

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Making Vanlife Work (#3/3) ... as a Content Creator in the Outdoor Industry

To get paid directly for going on outdoor adventures of your own design really just means that you are an outdoor industry content creator.  Maybe you're an athlete; maybe you're a talented photographer, or a hard-working writer. Or maybe you're simply a relatable guy or gal with a distinctive voice who enjoys telling stories. No matter which of those categories you fall into, content is your bread and business.  

The good news is that brands are always hungry for fresh content.  The bad news is that content creators are a dime a dozen, and establishing yourself as a content creator whose work is worth money doesn't happen overnight; like anything else, it takes a lot of time and effort. 

So how do you break into getting paid for content?

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Making Vanlife Work (#2/3): Savings vs. Income On The Road

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Making Vanlife Work (#2/3): Savings vs. Income On The Road

A couple days ago I shared the first post in this mini-series, talking about what’s a realistic #vanlife budget. I also talked about how much lead time you may want to plan on to get financially - and physically - ready (read the full thing here), and then I said this: 

“You can cut down your lead time, and the amount of savings required to quit your traditional day job, by setting yourself up to work from the road and try to earn a living while traveling.”

But really… before I get into specifics, let me ask you a basic question: why are you thinking about vanlife in the first place?

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Making Vanlife Work (#1/3): The Budget

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Making Vanlife Work (#1/3): The Budget

I shared a post the other day talking about how @clmbrlifr and I are going to return to full-time #vanlife in short order.  It'll be my second stint in a van in the last three years and Paul’s return to his old dirtbag roots after working corporate for the last three decades: he used to be an itinerant climber in his twenties.  

Financing life on the road

‘How do you make it work financially?’ is one of the questions that I get asked most frequently these days.

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me?  It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”

My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s.  I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued. 

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Where man himself does not remain

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Where man himself does not remain

A conjugal scramble in the Flatirons above Boulder

The sound of an ambulance washes up from the plains far below.  From up here at 6600ft, in velvet early dark below the summit, Boulder’s lights and the humming noise of civilization are a short half mile away; the tumultuous ocean of humanity washing over rocky mountain shores. 

I love the mountains; Colorado is good for that. I am charmed by Boulder’s easy access to the wild, yet I yearn for more. More wild, more free, more silent solitude: unadulterated untouched country. I drift off into memories of space. 

Two months ago I found that untouched space.  I walked for weeks, four weeks and four days to be exact, from one side of Utah to the other.  I walked through desert canyons and high mountains, sand and water, I waded and I bushwhacked and I climbed and fell and scrambled.  I walked across the Colorado Plateau, right through the heart of one of the most remote desert backcountry out there: Grand Staircase Escalante. An untouched roadless area so vast I didn’t see another human soul for days, where I could walk for weeks without ever setting foot on asphalt. A dream for some, nightmarish desolation for others: true wilderness.  

Day 3 of 32 on the 812-mile Hayduke Trail, heading into the unknown

I grew up in Germany, just one among eleven million German children with their seventy-one million parents and grandparents and grownup aunts and uncles all crammed into an area not even quite as big as California. Germany is exemplary: so safe, so clean, so civil. Every last little spec of usable land has been improved upon, to build neat towns and well-run farms and autobahns and big grand metropoles and tightly-managed forests.  Germany’s rise from the ashes after World War II is the stuff of textbooks; chaos and destruction turned systematically to meteoric order and success.  A triumphant return to civilization, and in its march there is but one thing that got overlooked: the necessity of wilderness. 

That’s why I so value the existence of unspoiled wildness. Because I remember what it feels like, having none of it.  I remember being a kid in Germany, standing in our back yard, looking out across the fields.  I remember feeling the urge to explore and to get lost, and I remember how disappointingly the world closed in on me once I was old enough to walk the talk, to head off on my own to see my little German world: there was no exploration to be had. The fenced-in backyard of my childhood was bordered by a field was bordered by a road and three more fields and the two local farms and fences and more farms and roads and fields and towns. You see, less than 1% of the land in Germany is undeveloped; there was no wilderness. 

Deep, dark, unspoiled wild

That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw the American West’s great public lands at age 12. I remember that first time I tasted the desert, feeling small and feeling wild. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since.  It’s the feeling I set out to live fully and taste deeply when I started my long solitary walk across the Utah desert along the Hayduke Trail. 

The fence line on the left marks the boundary of Arches National Park 

I set out north of Moab at the northern edge of Arches, enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. The first few miles of my month-long journey take me through protected lands inside the iconic national park.  Soon I find myself traversing along the very edge of the national park boundary, and this is what I find: on the inside of the fence, cryptobiotic soil, deep and undisturbed; on the outside of the fence, inches from the boundary, dirt roads and natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Stark contrasts and a powerful reminder of the importance of protection.  

Weeks later I walk through the roadless heart of Grand Staircase Escalante: a 1.9 million acre landscape so complicated and fantastic in its revelation of progressive sandstone layers that 'Staircase' had to be its name.  Days go by without me seeing another soul; I feel more alive and human to the core than I have in years.  Living among wilderness brings out human essence; there is a primal peace to existing simply, a natural rhythm of living with the land. Being small and part of nature drives home life’s beautiful simplicity. 

I spend hard long days on the Kaiparowits Plateau, crossing through its hellish heat and desolation. “It is a fierce and dangerous place, and it is wilderness right down to its burning core.” I didn’t know these words before I headed off into Kaiparowits, but having come out the other side I know first-hand how true they are. 

Surface coal on the Kaiparowits plateau

It is here on the Kaiparowits that I first walk alongside surface layer coal beds. It is here I realize that I have no excuse to not speak up for public lands. The Kaiparowits drives home for me what wilderness entails: existential clarity, unforgiving solitude and irrevocable experience. Development is just the same but on the flip side of the coin: unforgiving, irrevocable. Once development starts up there is no going back; once wilderness is lost, it’s lost for good.  

There’s a funny thing or two about how natural treasure works.  

Size matters. Three individual parcels of wilderness don’t carry the same value as a single area three times the size of one.  Contiguous wild spaces are the most powerful form of preservation, for wildlife habitats and historic study just as well as for adventure and explorers. 

Pure existence matters. We don’t have to actually be out there hiking and exploring; simple knowledge of wilderness’ existence changes our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future.  We don’t have to constantly - or ever! - venture off into the wild to feel its value; simply knowing that it’s there, that we CAN get lost if we just wanted to, and that our children have that very option, changes our lives. 

Do you remember the feeling you had when you got the keys to your first car: all a sudden, the possibilities are endless; you could drive over to your friend’s house, or even all the way across the country! Did you actually drive all the way across the country? Your answer doesn’t change the power of the notion. 

The car... wreck? 

Another ambulance starts blaring. I am far above the lights of Boulder still, abruptly taken from my desert dreams.  My Hayduke hike was a dream. This, here, is life; it’s real.  And for now it’s time for me to sink back into the depths of the turbid ocean of humanity.

For now, wilderness is far away yet still in reach.  Out west, just on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, there still are those places that are vast and wild and free.  Grand Staircase is still wild; Bears Ears is still on the brink of monument protection. For how much longer… we don’t know.  
Go visit your wild lands while they are wild, go see the marvels that may soon be paved and mined; and if you believe in the value of knowing wilderness is out there, for yourself and for your children: speak up, post and tweet, and let Trump know that public lands deserve protection. 

Spotted in Moab, Day 1 of 32 on the 812 mile Hayduke trail

As I head down the well-built trail towards Chautauqua Park, Congress’ definition of wilderness reverberates within me: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How I long already to return to those areas where I may not remain. 


'Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.' [Edward Abbey]

Existential clarity, unforgiving solitude; irrevocable experience.

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The gift of #vanlife, or: Will you be Eddie's new owner?

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The gift of #vanlife, or: Will you be Eddie's new owner?

If we’ve been friends for a while you’ll recall that I quit my fancy shmancy strategy consulting job at the end of 2015 to become a full-time nomad and live in a van down by the river. It was amazing, it was terrifying, and depending on your perspective it was hands-down either the dumbest or the best thing that I have ever done in my life. And it was all made possible by a loyal little roughed-up dream mobile that I discovered on Craigslist and subsequently rescued from a series of abusive (or at least non-caring) prior owners. 

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That roughed-up little dream mobile is Eddie the Van.  Eddie is the first vehicle I ever owned. He spoiled me with a long honeymoon and many incredible moments that have been indelibly burned into my memory.  Eddie was there and patiently waiting when I placed top 10 in the US Track and Field National 100K trail championships; when I celebrated my 31st birthday - my first birthday of freedom - in Goblin Valley with my mom and her husband; when I fell in love with the incredible man who has since become my best friend and as of late my husband; when I almost sank my inflatable SUP on Lake Powell and had to get an emergency evac back to the marina; when I headed off to Yosemite to climb El Cap with Paul as our sixth date; when I signed my first outdoor industry sponsor contract and when I got my first paid photography assignments. Every time I drive to a trailhead for a long training run, Eddie is the one who sees me off and waits for me to get back; no big run is complete until I slap him on the butt. Except that now… well, now I am married and as incredible as Eddie is, he’s just no match for two 6ft+ people with hundreds of pounds of payload from big wall gear to full-strength winter mountaineering equipment. 

So Paul and I bought a bigger van to accompany us on our adventures.  And Eddie… Eddie still has too much life in him to consider putting him down, but it seems heartless to just put him up for sale and try to get the highest price (in case you’re curious, I bought him for $2800 back in 2015, and have since put and additional ~$2-3k of labor and parts into him).  Which is the reason that I am giving Eddie away to an individual who loves and values the spirit of vanlife as much as she or he values having a functioning four wheels. 

Eddie is awesome. He’s an old gentleman with almost 270,000 miles on the chassis (150,000 miles on the engine) and a couple of ailments, but chances are that he’ll keep running for many more thousands of miles if you are gentle with him. I took Eddie on a hard 1000 mile trip through the desert as recently as two months ago; starter, alternator and battery have all been replaced within the last 24 months. The interior is built out in simple fashion - a bed platform, storage box that doubles as seating area, and little table in the back; no solar or insulation - designed for one person but Eddie is also workable as a fun weekend mobile for two.  Don’t expect to *sleep* two people in there with the current setup, but with some basic carpentry it should be quite easy to modify the bed platform so you can extend it into a double.

As far as old man ailments go, here is what you’re looking at…

Permanent / too pricy to fix

  • Electrical: there is a short in the system leading to warning lights on the dash (breaks and engine; I’ve had both checked out regularly; they’re fine) and screwy door actuators - doors must all be locked manually
  • Air Conditioning is broken, would be $1000+ in labor and parts to fix.  I have lived with out A/C for the last 20 months

Easy / affordable fixes

  • Windshield: big circular crack right in the middle; been stable for a year, but probably wouldn’t pass inspection… 
  • Rear hatch: doesn’t open due to a stuck actuator; should be an easy fix, I didn’t bother since I knew there was going to be a new van soon… 
  • Spare tire: needs replacing, the old one is cracked - this one is a safety issue should you break down with a flat, so I’d highly recommend addressing this. 

Eddie is still running well enough that I could get a bit of money out of him on Craigslist, but that just doesn’t feel right.  Instead I want to share the happiness that he’s given me over the last 2.5 years and gift the joy of vanlife. So, here’s the deal: if you want Eddie, find me on Instagram and direct message me there (since that's where most of my engagement happens, this will allow me to keep everything in one spot and not lose track of submissions in different places). Share your story of why you love the idea of owning Eddie and what you’re hoping to do with him.  I’ll choose his new owner this Friday June 22 based on my favorite story. 

If your story is the one that wins, Eddie will be yours for free! The only costs you'll have to cover are any applicable state taxes (not sure about the details but I think this might be zero for a gift?), and standard title transfer/registration costs. 

And if you're still on the fence about vanlife... here's what my first six months on the road looked like. 

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

It's an honest question: Why do hard things? 

I may not be the most natural person to pose this question, given that I seem to have somewhat of an unnatural propensity towards suffering or what we like to call Type II fun: "fun in retrospect". And yet, I wonder: Why? 

In a way, I believe that choosing to do hard things is a privilege: having the freedom and the drive to go out and actively pursue difficult challenges tends to be an indicator of a life that doesn't include a great deal of day-to-day hardship.  At least that's the conclusion that Brad Stuhlberg arrived at in his 2017 piece for Outside Magazine Why do Rich People Love Endurance Sports, and I have to admit that the logic (and research) resonates.  

On a very personal level, though, I have a completely different answer to the question of 'Why do hard things': for me, taking on challenges is all about accessing the full range of human experience.  It's not that I want to suffer - but I want to take on projects that require me to give my all, to be fully present, to creatively solve problems, to strategize, to improvise, to persevere and to live and work through the joyous high of successful progress as well as the lows of unexpected roadblocks or the threat of defeat.  I want to feel the full amplitude of human potential; my weapon of choice is mental and physical challenge rather than mind-altering chemicals. 

Pretty sure my mind was bent at this point, 78 miles into the fables Western States Endurance Run: the infamous 'Rucky Chucky' river crossing. 

On Running 100 Miles... 

So in case you were wondering what on earth made me sign up for an ultra hard mountain 100 miler - did I mention that the Ouray 100 has 83,000ft of elevation change?? - at the end of July... this is your answer.  More pragmatically though, and in response to several inquiries, let's talk about how to get ready for a race like this.

I have completed three 100 milers in the past, and attempted another two which I ultimately DNF'd (Did Not Finish). The successful finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were in three races of wildly different character but they all had one thing in common: I did not train very much for them.  Let me quantify that. Lean Horse, my first Hundred, was the one I took most seriously; I was happy to be able to carve out 35 flat, sea-level miles per week (mpw) for the four months leading up to the race. In 2013 I completed Western States - averaging less than 18 mpw in the six months before the race, even though that time period included several ultra races.  In 2014 I finished the very rugged and tough Ghosts of Yellowstone... and I have no idea what my average weekly mileage was,  but I am willing to bet that it was closer to 18 than 35 mpw as I was working on a difficult project and towards a major promotion at work that summer.

With my pacer and friend Mark Swanson on the final yards of Western States 2013 after running  100.2 miles.  Can you tell I was hurting? Running a 100 miler on <18 miles per week of training volume... possible but not recommended. 

Why am I sharing my old 100-Miler history? For two reasons: one, to let you know that it is possible to be an ultra runner and complete long-distance races without committing to a training regimen that feels like a part-time job (I even managed to pull off a sub-24hr finish on the 35mpw training schedule). Two, because I want to put into context how major a stepup my training for the upcoming Ouray 100 is. Now let's talk tactics. 

Sunny's Ouray 100 Training Plan

I am notoriously terrible at following training plans - life always ends up getting in the way, doesn't it?! The way I use this plan is mostly to have a concrete goal for my overall mileage each week, and an idea of the number of long runs that I'll need to make time for in order to hit the goal.  I rarely execute the plan precisely as it's written, but tend to shuffle things around as my life schedule evolves.  

Here is my conceptual training plan, and what my actual training log looks like. 

My actual training plan for the 2018 Ouray 100.  Note: you need a healthy base to up mileage as quickly as this plan proposes, or you'll risk injury. 

Actual training log, totally old-fashioned scribbles. 
Note that all I'm really focused on is my weekly mileage goal, and what days I know that I'll be able to put in a big effort potentially coupled with an overnight at altitude (the big boxes). 

A few other things that I place great value on - beyond having an actual training plan but approaching it with a notion of flexibility - are sleep, food, and altitude. Sleep and nutrition should be no brainers (the body needs more and better quality of both when undergoing this type of effort).  Altitude is a specific twist to the Ouray 100, the race I am training for: with a course that tops out at 13,300ft and never dips below 7,600ft... acclimatization is key. You can bet that I will spend as much time as I can training and sleeping above 10,000ft. 

And with that... time to go for a run.  Happy training! 

When this is your playground, training is happiness.

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Off to the Desert

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Off to the Desert

A quick note to keep you all in the loop of what's happening.  So much has been going on in the last few weeks, and there are lots of exciting changes happening and projects developing that I will share with you as time progresses.  In the immediate future, though, is one massive project that I am incredibly excited about: the Hayduke Trail.  

I am leaving civilization behind this afternoon to start a (hopefully) speedy thruhike of the 812 mile Hayduke trail through southern Utah and northern Arizona.  Find out more about the project here or check in on GPS to see where I'm at!  I expect to be out there for the next ~month, and look forward to hopefully finishing the trail with plenty of time to get myself to Yosemite (and take a shower...) before Jim Bridwell's memorial on May 19.  

I will be fully off-grid for 95% of my time on the Hayduke.  If you want to get a hold of me between now and late May, feel free to use the GPS link above to text me.  I'm beyond stoked to spend a month in the desert and hopefully come back with lots of beautiful memories, random stories and powerful imagery of our public lands. 

And until then... see you later! 

Looking forward to lots of desert sunsets like this in the next 30+ days!

Looking forward to lots of desert sunsets like this in the next 30+ days!

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