by Joe Prusaitis
8 July 2005
Any relationship with Hardrock is masochistic. There is little I can do here that does not hurt. Yes, its beautiful beyond compare, but how much am I willing to pay? My passion must remain strong to run the entire 100 miles. I feel like a kid at times but the pain is full-grown adult size. Each summit brings another pain and another joy, and each finish is as glorious as the first. The mountains have beguiled me, using my passion to overlook the hardship, remembering only the warm fuzzies. It has become a child’s game to clear all the obstacles, an adult’s game to deal with all the issues. I will be back yet again next year and the year after too. Mentally, I have signed up for the Hardrock Summer Camp 10year plan.
Silverton (0mi/6:00am) to Cunningham (9.2mi/8:53am) over Little Giant (7.0mi/13000ft)
The race has run ahead of me, leaving me alone for a moment to sit and watch. A fat marmot chirps at me, looking for food. A falcon glides well below yet far above the valley floor. A mountain meadow sprouts a multicolored wildflower garden, and a mountain stream thunders with overflowing snowmelt. What a glorious setting. Another and another waits behind each mountain pass, each more glorious than the last. I can’t wait to see it all, realizing full well that my cognitive senses will undoubtedly fail and darkness will hide even more. Still, I’ll keep what I can long after I’ve gone back home. Finishing my break, I wander over the first of many high passes and begin to run.
Cunningham (9.2mi/8:59am) to Maggie (15.3mi/12:10pm) over Green (12.2mi/12980ft) and Buffalo Boy (13.9mi/13060ft)
I was lost last year in this place. Joyce and I had one small light between the two of us, and the sheep had filled the valley, knocking down all the markers. Hanging desperately to a coattail, I blindly followed another. Tripping just about every step, I stumbled along mile after mile in the dark and was as anxious and nervous as I had ever been. In the daylight, it seems so clean and simple. Now that I can see what my imagination cannot invent under the sun’s bright eye, Green Mountain seems so tame. Nevertheless, it is still a long climb to the summit, where a bit of snow allows me to glissade down to the Stoney Pass Road. The tundra ascent up Canby proves less difficult than I imagined and the springy marsh leading into Maggie, even less so. I must be dawdling as I find myself well behind the masses when I stroll in.
Maggie (15.3mi/12:15pm) to Sherman (28.7mi/4:19pm), over Maggie-Pole Creek (16.3mi/12530ft) and Cataract-Pole Creek (23.5mi/12200ft)
I hadn’t realized it until now, but I’m feeling pretty poor. Is it the heat, the altitude, or my nutrition? For hours, people have been passing by. Can’t be many left behind. It’s after noon and well past the 48 hour pace prediction. I take some watermelon while they fill my camelback and start to climb again. I’m such a slow climber and my downhills so fast that I must be spending 90% of my time going uphill. It seems so unbalanced. I must be the last unbalanced idiot over the summit into Pole Creek. Feeling sorry for myself usually gets me mad enough to start running again and it does. Splashing through elk wallows, swamps, and creeks, I actually pass a few people before landing in the Pole Creek station along with Ulli. We ask for potato soup and they say 10minutes, but 10minutes are way too valuable to give away, so we get up and leave. I hold to Ulli’s rapid walking pace for miles, along with Deb and Tom. He leads us directly along a route where I find very few flags. Just when I begin to question his selection, we pass another one. I know most of the course pretty well but there are a few places that are always confusing to me, so I’m very happy to once again have Ulli leading the way. The high mountain meadows of Pole Creek are an elk’s paradise and a runner’s conundrum. I can’t seem to run because I can’t seem to breathe. Ulli is only walking, yet he remains constant, so that even with my mixed run-walk, we remain close until the trail turns decidedly down into the rocks of Cataract Gulch. It’s only then when running starts to make a difference. A yellow shirt has remained a phantom in the distance for many miles, and it is on this descent that I finally reel in Roger, and then a group of boys who decide to race me down the mountain. This galvanizes my forgetful muscles into a full tilt sprint that lasts 10 minutes and ends at the footbridge.
Sherman (28.7mi/4:34pm) to Grouse (42.1mi/10:15pm), over Handies (14048ft/36.8mi) and American-Grouse (39.6mi/13020ft)
I sit with my feet in the water at the Burrows Park footbridge and eat my avocado and tomato sandwich. The chocolate shake and Bratwurst that Lyle & Jo brought me are long gone. Roger goes on without me, but when Ulli comes by, I try desperately to hang on. I hook up and lock into his stride, his pace, and his endless constant energy. It seems so easy at first, but as we ascend higher onto Handies, this becomes progressively more difficult. There’s no apparent change from Ulli, but my breathing becomes more labored and my muscles begin to cry. A dark cloud sneaks up Grizzly Gulch behind us and drops some rain, cooling us down enough for jacket and gloves. We’re above 13000 feet when I finally stagger and fall off, but Ulli doesn’t miss a beat. I manage to maintain a tiny bit of forward slow motion. Even at half Ulli’s speed, I pass a few others who sit on the rocky trail as I climb past them to summit at 8:30pm. In all its glory, the sun sets while I stand on the summit. A single brush stroke paints a thin line with all the color combinations I can imagine, lighting a 360degree band around the horizon. A kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and blues compressed by the dark hues of the earth and sky.
Handies personality is changing. The wind hits me hard, pushing me over the summit and down, stormy at first, some rain, followed by some rumbling, then back to calm. Matching her mood, I run with the wind, drafting, dropping, and screaming with energy into the coming darkness of American Basin. A few specs far below pull me faster, chasing the darkness. Snow masses cover the rocks in places, making the trail more rugged and difficult for me to remain upright. I keep surging up and over each obstacle until I again find Ulli at the cairn by the lake. We hook up again and keep moving down and across the American Basin. Dark now, we stumble through fields of mud, tundra, rocks, and snow. Tripping, stumbling, sinking into mud, snow, and water, we waltz across the basin and start up and out. A field of frozen snow covers the next summit and the moon perches on top of the ice, a beautiful ice sculpture, thin and bright, standing upright and graceful. Not until I slip down the other side does she lift off the snow and drift into the sky. I have seldom seen a sight more beautiful or serene. Again, I bid adieu to Ulli and start to run.
Grouse (42.1mi/10:35pm) to Ouray (56.5mi/4:10am), over Engineer (12910ft/47.2mi)
Engineer Pass? Sorry Joe! I must have missed the turn. Oh shut up already, Paul. I missed the damn thing too. Lets just hurry back so we can forget about it. Damn! All these turns look the same in the dark. Hugging the right side of the jeep road, we went right past the flag that was on the left side. Our turn was supposed to roll left and fall off the ledge into the basin. I need to hurry back there and onto the course again. What a drag! Error realized, my adrenaline spikes and I begin to run. Uphill I surge, angry with myself, ignoring the energy I burn to get back quickly. Once there, I simply roll off the ledge and start down, back in the fold again. I quickly pass a few others who may have done the same thing. Paul leads for a bit, and then I do. I know this section well and mean to air it out a bit. The trail is washed out and thin in places, with hanging cliffs, and sheer drops. Given the time to think about it, or the light to see it, we might have been more cautious. But, I can’t see or think, so we eat up Bear Creek pretty fast. We sprint round the hanging trail of blasted granite and crash down the breaking glass trail of thin flat rocks, sounding I am certain, as if we are falling all the way down. Only occasionally do we slow at the turns for fear of flying. Over the tunnel and then through it, we arrive at the catwalk over the Uncompagre River, just below the dam.
Ouray (56.5mi/4:41am) to Telluride (72.6mi/11:15am), over Virginius (13100ft/67.6mi)
The road to Virginias is a constantly uphill jeep road that accompanies a glorious cascading creek. A beautiful sight and a real pain in the butt, it’s as boring as it is beautiful. It seems that we are alone for hours until we reach a long uphill, and then everybody bunches up. Few are very communicative though. We’re now in our 2nd day and the joy is gone. Fortunately, Paul and I match strides with John DeWalt for a bit. Above Governors, we finally escape the road and the terrain becomes more interesting. Frozen snowfields block the road, with a trail of footprints leading through each. Towering above it all, Virginius waits and watches. We consider the first pitch. A bit of rock, but mostly snow and ice, with a set of steps kicked up one side. It is the best possible route and the least dangerous. Slowly, methodically, we begin to climb. Concentrating on my breathing, I exhale deeply, hold a rhythm, and never look up or down, until we reach the first level, which is anything but level. The 2nd pitch, while covered in snow, is the easy one, but at 13000 feet, nothing is simple. The third and final pitch has steps leading up from the right side but only butt tracks slide worthlessly down the middle under the rope. The face is iced over, so we’re trapped on the side path of footsteps. Nobody’s going up the butt slide. Again, it’s a very slow but steady ascent that gets steeper near the summit.
DeWalt and Andrea must be both running well because we run the downhill hard from Mendota to Telluride and don’t see John until just before the station and never do see Andrea. On the edge of Telluride is a small house with a kids playground slide. A fellow from the house chases us down to present a wonderfully cold ice pop. What a treat! He’s as excited to give it, as we are to have it.
Telluride (72.6mi/11:41am) to Ophir (81.9mi/4:49pm), over Oscars (13140ft/79.1mi)
Its difficult to lift my head, let alone my feet. Our ascent switches up the face on a beautiful single track into the upper basin of the Wasatch Mountain. Paul scoops up a handful of snow and shoves it under his hat. I do the same. Then he hands me another scoop of snow to eat. The heat continues to beat upon us, but the snow head-pack and ice cone seems to help just a bit. This is a very long slow grind that seems to take forever. An hour later, above treeline in the upper valley, we’re both cold, refrigerated by the wind blowing across the snowfields. It’s time for jackets and gloves again. From Wasatch Saddle we glissade down a large ice covered flow of snow into Bridal Veil Basin only as far as the traverse. From here we follow the tracks leading up to Oscar’s Pass on one large snow mass. Near the summit, rocks have been set in the snow to provide steps up to and over the top. Into the rocks we roll. Our running stumble takes us through a gauntlet of rocks. Lots of rocks!
Joe! Look at me! Listen up! I’m putting your hat, flashlights, gloves, rain pants, and a fresh med-kit into your pack. I’m taking out the used socks, hammer flask, & bandana. Anything else? Take your jacket too. You need to talk to me. Tell me now or suffer later! Ok, keep eating! Drink this. Now get up and go. Take this sandwich with you. Get out now. Joyce has been waiting here for hours to spend precious little time to take care of us. From one station to the next, it is repeated. I smile and take whatever she gives me. I have learned to never argue with her during a run. She chases Letha off who is trying to visit with me. She’s the best and I am damned lucky to have her here. I get up and go.
Ophir (81.9mi/5:15pm) to Kamm Traverse (88.9mi/8:51pm), over Grant-Swamp (12920ft/85.5mi)
Paul isn’t ready yet, so I walk out with Joyce. She turns back at the creek and then Paul catches up a few minutes later. My energy level is strong. We pass a few others and then catch a big group near the top at the edge of the snowfields. We’re now at the base of the toughest part of Grant-Swamp. The traditional route on the left is bare. A new route of steps kicked into the snow is frozen in place on the right. It appears much faster and easier than the abandoned scree route. A half dozen of us begin a slow desperate dance up the ice ladder. With crampons and YakTracs, tent pegs and sharp rocks, anything to avoid a misstep which will send us into the rocks. There’s not much for conversation on the ascent. All I can hear is heavy breathing. From base to summit, not a word, and each of us roll onto the summit to lie on our backs for a moment.
The light is fading fast and I’d like to be at KT before nightfall, so I get up and sprint off the other side. Heels sunk into loose rock, arms out for balance, sliding, stepping, and running, I surf the scree off Grant-Swamp Pass. In minutes, I drop a couple hundred feet to reach a convenient point to wait for Paul. I need the time to put on a jacket for the night and also to extract my flashlight. Running as fast as I can on the thin mountain trail, adrenaline sprinting through my veins, I speed down into the Lower Ice Lake Basin. At the far edge of the skunk cabbage field, I stop and begin to retch. We’ve been forgetting our salt, Paul says. He hands me one, I slug it down, and barf again. He hands me another and this one stays down. I get up and start running again. We cross the avalanche snow pack between waterfalls, then up into the muddy mess on the other side. Kamm Traverse is no more than a skinny goat track, but I feel the urge to go fast. I pass a few groups, but my goal no more than to get as far as possible before we lose last light.
Kamm Traverse (88.9mi/9:04pm) to Silverton (100.4mi/3:27am), over Porcupine (12230ft/91.8mi) and Putnam (93.2mi/12600ft)
The tiny creek is swollen with snowmelt and running fast and deeper than usual. Hard to tell how bad it is, but in the dark, the water looks dangerous! Hans and Roger stand at the edge, looking for safe passage and finding none. I go past them without stopping and drop into the cold water. Somebody yells for us to link arms and then the others are in the water also, hooking elbows. Holding desperately to one another, the five of us push and pull each other out into the freezing cold torrent: Roger, Hans, Roger’s kid, Paul, and me. The force of the water slams into us, forcing our angle a little downstream. As we near the other side, I turn back towards our desired slot in the muddy bank. Across, we climb quickly into the frozen mud. The slot, no more than another inlet of snowmelt pouring in between the brush. We wade up the side flow, our feet sinking into the slush, ankle deep, high stepping, and the mud attempting to suck the shoes from our feet. I continue up the narrow chute until I escape the water trap for dry land and wait for Paul. The climb is steep at first, full of mud traps and water seepage, hidden in the dark. In and out of snow and water, my feet should be freezing, but none of this seems to be bothering them very much. Actually my entire body is numb, but for my stomach. My tummy is hypersensitive to anything and everything right now. Even water tastes bad. Aimlessly following Paul in the dark, I lose track of the streams, snow, tundra, and rocks, until we are on the face of the next big climb.
The big mountain cries, tears streaming down her face. The tundra captures the snowmelt in thousands of tiny pools, water cascading from one to the next, the stars reflecting and sparkling a million times in each. I know there’s a trail here, but we can’t find it. The muddy trail and the muddy tundra all look the same. We struggle uphill into the teeth of the soggy mountain stream, the swamp massaging my ankles on every step. Each reflector draws us in a strait line from one to the next, likely taking the most difficult route. Some are easy to find while others are not. We split up now and then to search different possible routes. Seems to take a long time and are eventually surprised to find ourselves on top of Porcupine. The summit is iced over and slippery as snot. The edge rolls over and into the darkness, butt tracks leading out and gone. I have no trust left! It is the right way but I fear what I cannot see and the ice keeps me from stopping when I want. I nervously stare into the void while Aaron walks past me and down, heel kicking as he goes. I try the same, slip, and then slide down on my butt, past the snow and into the muddy muck at the bottom. We run from ice to swamp, then back again, the ice more comfortable than the swamp. Others arrive, all of us drawn to one another, yet moving forward, splitting up and rejoining on our quest for the next flag, splashing through the mud, and the swamp, and the snow!
Putnam rises up out of the darkness, black as a void. Stars dot her face, flashlights of those ahead. The last ascent fills our view, urging us on. Ice steps at first and then tundra. This climb is dry suggesting no snow on top. Paul surges ahead and I try to hang on. Depleted, I senselessly climb on all fours ever upward. The others seem to fall behind. We stop to take a break, lie back, and look up at a sky full of stars. Both of us struggle for air, struggle to keep from vomiting. Paul offers me more salt and I offer to puke on him. He keeps the salt and we start again. We climb some more and eventually find the lateral trail on top. A pacer is sitting there waiting on his runner, so we sit next to him for a short break. This time when we start to run, we don’t stop for a long time. Our steady downhill roll ends abruptly at Mineral Creek in a line waiting to cross over. DeWalt’s a bit nervous about crossing, thick with trepidation. Nobody is doing anything; so I quickly drop down to get after it. Hell, I need to get this done. Half asleep, tired, and senseless, I realize the others are yelling at me. It’s not your turn! Wait in line! You gotta be kidding? I climb back up and then sit down. John’s really shook up about the water. I offer to go with him but again they say no. He must go alone. It’s too dangerous with two people on the rope. John finally gets in the water and begins to cross slowly. After he’s across, then his pacer starts across and takes just as long. Jan Gnass sends his runner across next, and then Jan. Finally, I can go. I take DeWalt’s abandoned trekking pole and rush across. When Paul starts across, he gets half way then stops. He seems to be having a problem. His calf cramps up and he can’t lift his foot. He turns his foot sideways and begins to drag one leg across the swollen creek. We’re both freezing by the time Paul gets across. He was in the water way too long and I’ve been standing still way too long after crossing. Paul picked up quite a bit of rock dragging his foot and has to pull his shoes to dump out the rocks. We both seem to be coming undone all of a sudden. My legs are cold, my lips chapped, face burnt, my stomach’s inside out, my eyes keep closing, and my lower back and leg muscles have a constant twitch. I sure am glad we’re almost done. I need a shower, a toothbrush, and a bed.
This is my 5th running of Hardrock and Paul Schmidt has helped guide me four times now. There is little my good friend wouldn’t do for me. He tells me to go on ahead, but there is no way I could finish without him. DeWalt and I talked about finishing together because we are usually pretty close, but these things don’t always go as planned. I let it go, choosing instead to enjoy a slow victory stroll into the finish with Paul. My wife Joyce has crewed me every year and paced me a fair bit as well, but mishap just days before the race kept her off the trails this time. She stayed awake the entire time, thinking for me, and making certain I had what I needed the entire race. Her care and understanding are a big part in my success. Barbara & George Hitzfeld came up from Texas to do what they could to get George into the race and learn as much as possible. George paced the last finisher for 58 miles, while Barbara crewed them both and me too. They got one heck of an education and I got another great support person. And then there was Lyle and Jo Clugg of Montrose, who drove many miles to Sherman just to bring me a chocolate shake and some Bratwurst. I am amazed what they all did just to do what they could. I appreciate very deeply what all of them did to help. It is after all, in my case at least, a team effort.