Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Megatransect Race - A trail marathon with several twists

Sometime late last year, I came across the website for the Megatransect Race in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. I don't recall the circumstances that surrounded my stumbling across it. It may have been a fellow runner's suggestion or a googling of the phrase 'batshit crazy running ideas,' but I discovered this race that took place in the mountains of central Pennsylvania a short drive from my childhood home in Carlisle. It was of a slightly undetermined length (the website gives the rather vague description of a 25+ mile race), largely due to the fact that it can't be compared to any other race out there, marathon or otherwise. The route changes year-to-year, though several highlights are included in each running, so even comparing it to previous Megas is not an apples-to-apples type thing.

It may be marathon length, but calling the Mega a trail marathon is to completely ignore what makes the Mega... the Mega.

I tried to sign up last year. The race was in September. It was July. I was about 7 months too late. See, registration opens for the Mega on Jan 1st at noon... and is full by 1:30. The field is extremely limited thanks to the trail restrictions, and it's an extremely popular race. So, I set my phone to remind me on New Year's eve to not get so wasted that I couldn't fill out a race form at noon the next day.

The 2012 race filled up in 30 minutes, but I was in. Some friends weren't so lucky. So, as the 2012 calendar slowly clicked toward September, I alone waited for the trip to Pennsylvania.

I flew up on Thursday, choosing to stay the night in my old hometown and cruise past the few places I could remember from my youth. The house I grew up in looked exactly the same. The streets were familiar... but so much smaller. The early fall weather was amazing as I walked down High Street past Dickinson College and an intersection that makes an appearance in my book coughGetitHerecough. My elementary school looked completely different. The hamburger that I had for dinner (and the one for lunch the next day) at Scalles was blessedly the same. It reminded me of what fall seasons were supposed to be like and gave me hope that the weather would be ideal for the race that Saturday.

I spent Friday night in State College, a respectably-sized town about 30 mins south of Lock Haven that is known for being the home of Penn State more than anything else. I had an early morning, so I didn't get to experience the thrills of PSU partying. But, I found myself wondering what brings out-of-staters to the college. It's a nice place... but it's in the middle of nowhere.

The Mountain was angry that day, my friend
The next morning, I was on the road early and arrived at the Castanea Picnic Grounds to find a growing mob of camelbak-wearing hikers and runners. The Mega is an odd race in that a wide spectrum of competitors crawls out of that early morning fog. You'll see your singlet-wearing road runners lined up next to full-spandex suited trail runners. Mountain climbers trot out from the starting line as the distance runners pull away. Each competitor had their strong and weak points, and it made for an interesting day.

The first three miles were on a gently sloping road. Here, the lithe distance runners pulled away. I kept a steady pace thanks to concerns over whether or not I'd even be able to finish. Two weeks earlier, I had been diagnosed with giardia (mountain water stomach fungus, for you laypeople), and the pain and discomfort I felt was only amplified by the antibiotic regimen I had to endure. Suffice it to say, I did not train in the final two weeks and my body was so racked with trying to heal itself that keeping my legs in running shape was not high on its priority list.

I wasn't sure I could climb a ladder much less a mountain. Still, I stepped off and finished the opening road section at about a 9 min/mile pace. Not my fastest, but I wasn't sprinting. I was simply dreading what the rest of the day had in store. As a show of camaraderie with my growing GORUCK family, I wore a GRC shirt and my GR1 ruck with some snacks and a water bladder. I can say with all honesty that it was nice to hear periodic comments about GORUCK and people running next to me asking about my challenges.

We GRTs are everywhere. After 3 miles, I turned with the pack of runners into the trees... and stopped.

Trail run my backside.

The trails comprising the Mega route are thick, steep, and rocky. About 50% of the trail is actually 'runnable,' and only half of that is safely runnable. You're taking your life (and your knees and ankles) into your own hands if you run many of the sections. That's not to say we walked... we climbed. Fast.

The first trail section was difficult in that the 700 or so runners were still largely bunched up. With different skill sets, some people hiked up the hills faster while others excelled on the road work. This meant many people had to fight past the slower climbers for miles 4-6. It was painstakingly slow, more so than any race start I can recall. Most runners know what I mean when I say that the first mile of any major race is a stutter step/slalom exercise as you dive around other runners. This was ten times worse than that.

It was at around Mile 5 that I came upon what I'll call the Mega Mantra. Other racers understand that some people (largely rookies) start out the Mega fast and hit a wall thanks to the rigorous course. Or, they assume these people that sprinted by them on the road will get caught on the hills. Or, the hill-climbing speed demons will be caught and passed once the pack emerges from the trees. So, the mantra I heard every time I passed someone...

"Heh... we'll catch him on the flat sections."

About halfway up the boulders. Great view. Awful trail.
With the questions surrounding my stomach and overall body weakness coupled with my lack of knowledge about the Mega, I feared they were right. What did I know about what I was getting into? As it turns out, they were wrong and likely just projecting. But, more on that later.

Because, at Mile 6, we hit the boulder field. This is the epitome of the Mega. If you've seen any albums of Mega pictures, 3/4 of it is this. It's beautiful, and from the top you can see out over Lock Haven and much of the river valley below. But, it's about 2/3 of a mile straight up and over boulders. It taxes the calves and quadriceps as well as whatever mental preparation you were able to bring. Still, taking a break every few hundred feet to turn around and take in the view is a great way to recharge the batteries. Fortunately, I had scaled similar boulder fields in Colorado only weeks earlier. I pushed through...

Yea.. this is a 'trail' race
Across the boulder field, I met more GRTs and we tackled Rattlesnake Ridge. A couple miles further, we reached the Mile 10 (and, eventually what would be the Mile 17) aid station. Peanut butter sandwiches. Gatorade. Chocolate. Peanuts. It was heaven.

And, as I refueled, the leader came into the aid station. Only, he was at Mile 17.

Damn it.

I plunged back into the woods, alone and determined to run the section I could... even the rocky sections that had me bounding down the trail more than running. It was parkour in Pennsylvania, wooded with a roof of reds, yellows, and greens. Leaves fell around me as I ran, skipped, and bounced through the trees.

It was pretty damn cool.

I reached a small creek. It was about 1030 in the morning, but the trees kept the sun at bay. Only a cool, muggy breeze sneaked past the denuded trees. I crossed the slippery rocks and found the section of the race evilly referred to as K2 in reference to the soul-sucking mountain on the border between China and Pakistan that is the Earth's second tallest.

They use this picture in ads to imply you
can actually run a good portion of this race
This section of the race included rope work to keep you from killing yourself. Using the thick blue line, I pulled myself up the 30 feet to the ridge and tip-toed along it. With some places only 8 inches wide, the trail had a steep dropoff to the floor 50 feet below. It was technical and tough. I hated this part and found it the most difficult of the entire route. It seemed unending.

But, end it did. The trail opened a bit and I ran. Miles 12-14 disappeared beneath my feet. The field of runners was so disperse now that I could go 5-10 minutes without seeing another competitor. Breaking into the open at 14.5 miles, I found the 'midpoint' aid station. I call it that because it was actually more than halfway, but the mountain only allowed for aid sections to be placed at certain spots. I took a break here for several minutes, even 'ruck flopping' on to the ground to relax. Much peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were enjoyed. There was much rejoicing. Racers drifted in and rested.

I heard horror stories. The race organizers had placed ATVs at sections along the route and all were equipped with radios. Other racers had overheard the support crews talking.

One woman had cracked her skull open and had to be carried out. Another had dislocated her wrist. Yet another had a broken ankle.

As my GORUCK family would say... this race wasn't nothin'.

As I watched people drift in, drained and dehydrated, I realized that I was gaining nothing by sitting. I stood up and started walking to the trail. I started jogging. I started running. Another mile down the trail, we once again cut into the trees. Up and up and up... I came across a guy that recognized my GORUCK shirt, though he hadn't done one. Brad said his brother-in-law had. We passed the next several miles talking about why we wanted to do something so stupid. Together, we made it to the Mile 17 aid station.

We were back at the top of the mountain. It had to be downhill from here, right? I was so excited to reach the aid station - knowing I had a chance to tend to a growing blister on my right foot had driven me for the last few miles - but I stayed there mere minutes. I apparently reboot quickly... I was once more in the trees, this time with my eyes set on the Mile 22 aid station. Maps were hanging at the stops, and I thought it was fairly level through to 22.

The Rote Overlook: A race highlight
My legs were burning by this point, so I took the opportunity to break into a trot and stretch them out. I passed handfuls of people stretching out sore muscles in the thick underbrush. They appeared thankful to have a wide enough trail to pull off to the side. We dipped slightly and then rose once more, reaching the Rote Overlook. I stopped here for the view of the valley. Most impressive and beautiful in the early afternoon sun. Sadly, I couldn't stay long as a group of racers were coming behind me, and I feared being stuck behind them should the trail narrow. I ducked into the trees and left the clearing behind. And, we descended.

Down to Mile 22's station. "Only four more miles," I heard. One up, three down. "Yeah," another worker said, "He says that, but I'm not sure it's true."

Well, the initial run to the mountain was 3 miles of open road. I can't be that far from breaking out of the woods, right?

To you, mountain,
I wave two middle fingers
Oh, yes. Yes I can. Cuz Mile 23 was straight MFing UP. The 'K2' section was technically difficult... this part just sucked. It was demoralizing to have just run down the mountain for two miles only to have to go back up. The trail narrowed to shoulder width, and passing anyone was out of the question. Unfortunately, though we started this section spread out, it was inevitable that people would get eaten for lunch here. All it took was one person to start bonking, and we piled into each other like a folding accordion, forced to slow to our leader's pace.

No one complained.

I had reached Mile 22 at 2PM and been on the course for seven hours. Given my health leading up to the race, I was just hoping to get in under 10 hours. I had nothing to compare the race to other than some GRTs' times from the previous year. I figured I could beat them. My stomach left that question up in the air. But, with 4 miles to go, I was 7 hours in. Hell, I thought, I can do this in under 8 hours!

Hell no, I couldn't. Cuz Mile 23 sucked a big ole bag of excrement.

Though it wasn't raining as it had been in 2011 (I heard horror stories of that race the entire day), the trees kept the moisture on the trails. Dirt quickly turned to mud and people slid all over the mountain. We crept towards the top of the hill only to come face to face.... with more gawdam boulders.

A boulder field, evilly reminiscent of Mile 6, stretched out before us. It was here that people's souls died. I actually saw it happen. The color drained from people's faces, and I saw some of them get that look in their eyes like Bill Paxton's character in Aliens.

Game over, man.... GAME OVER!

If I still had any hope for an 8 hour finish after the climb up, those boulders ground it into dust and spit all over it. Thirty frustrating minutes later, I crested the top of the field. It wasn't nearly as high or long as the first boulder section, but it was so demoralizing after believing yourself to be on the home stretch. Plus, my legs were jello. I compensated by placing my foot on the next boulder and pushing on my knee, upward on my hands. It gave my upper legs some rest, but it was exhausting.

Cresting this section, we smelled the open air. We found an open section of actual, vehicle-capable trail and begin running. I passed exhausted hikers ("Bah! He'll wear out... we'll pass him once we get out of the trees!") and was passed by a blur as a runner, barely in control, sped down the trail. I darted past the spot where the Mile 3 water stop had been hours earlier and broke into downtown Castanea (Note: I use the term 'downtown' extremely loosely here). Blessed downhill sections spread out before me and I ran a solid, steady pace for a mile and half.

Then, I came to the infamous green mile. This final section before the turn back to the start/finish runs parallel to the elevated roadway and between it and a sprawling field of corn. It's essentially a grass-covered path along the spillway, and it's beauty was offset by the fact that you could see the end of it... and it appeared to be 8 miles away. By this point, racers are spread out every few hundred feet, and passing is rare. Most at this point are concerned less with their time than they are with ensuring their place in the finishing chute. People glance over shoulders regularly to see if they are being chased. If you look and the person behind you is running... you start running. It was comical in its own, sadistic way.

The road cut back under an overpass and passed some old houses... and more corn. Up one more low hill, and the finish line appeared in the distance. I picked up my speed around the parking lots and lined myself up for the sprint to the finish... The smell of pizza and signs for beer gave me strength I didn't know I had, and I dashed through the archway. 8:21. Eight hours and twenty one minutes. Ho-Lee-Crap.

They had BBQ for us, but I went straight to the pizza and smoothie. That banana smoothie (and the two that followed it) were pure heaven. I admired my Mega X medal (it was the tenth anniversary of
It's like a pot of liquid gold at the end
of a rainbow of tortuous water-boarding
the race) and marveled at the people around me. It was quite the gathering of old and young, men and women. The Lock Haven University running teams helped along the course - high off in the mountains - and they drifted in to grateful applause and thank-yous. I caught up with Brad, who finished about 20 minutes behind me with his brothers-in-law. I found several GRTs and traded stories and came across other people that recognized my shirt and asked me about the Challenge.

I was nauseous and weak. Exhausted and exhilarated. I recovered quickly - quicker than I expected - and completed a half marathon the next weekend. I can now honestly say that I have completed a trail marathon (the final race distance was 26.7 miles according to several GPS devices), but the Mega is anything but. It can only be compared to itself, and only then with a grain of salt. It poured down rain in 2011. The route was a mile and half longer in 2012. Aspects from year to year are the same, but it's always a new path.

Always a new path.

Any competitor - GRT, runner, swimmer, or similar - is always looking for a new path. Whether its a muddy trench carved by those that are ahead of you... right around the corner.. or a leaf-covered path that seems to have been undisturbed for eons, we are always looking for new paths.

People ask me why I do this crazy stuff (often with a rucksack full of bricks, though I smartly opted out of that for the Mega), and I am pleased to know that I've found others that share my own personal brand of competitive psychosis - not with each other necessarily, but with ourselves. People ask why I do it, and all I can think to say is that I am always looking for a new path.

Old paths are boring and commonplace. I've been down those. What's over there... what's on top of K2 or Mount Yale, or across the finish line at the Vermont Death Race? Those are the paths I want to see...

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Active MLB Park #27: Citi Field

As part of my continuing efforts to hit every active Major League Baseball park, I'm getting down to the bare minimum remaining. I've tried to isolate those into manageable groups that will allow me to cross a couple off at a time during my travels, but it's to the point that I don't have much leeway in that regard. Given that I'm a Dodger fan living on the east coast, I found it somewhat interesting that the first division I was able to completely cross of was the American League West.

Now, I can cross off another - The National League East.

Sadly, though there are 32 parks in the Majors and I've been to over 32 in my life, the trend toward building new stadiums means that I've had to play catch-up with teams Ive already visited. The New York teams hit me twice by opening new parks for the Mets and Yankees in the same year. Suddenly, I was down two.

The facade of the park is, sadly, the best part

I rectified part of that a couple weeks ago when I visited Citi Field for a game between the Mets and the Nationals. The Mets lost and lost badly, and I'd love to say it was because they were out-classed by a team that would go on to win the division. But, the Mets lost because they are a horrible team. They dropped popped foul balls. They threw the ball around the infield time and time again, resulting in zero outs and a carousel of baserunners. The team was awful.

The park was only marginally better.

I had heard such great things about Citi Field and was genuinely looking forward to visiting the park. But, though the layout and atmosphere in the concourses was intriguing, there was little else that I found interesting. The fans were obnoxious and loud (not in a good way), but I chalk this up to not only being New Yorkers but being Mets fans. They have reason to be surly given the team's recent performances.

The food was lackluster and the location of the park (right near the old Shea Stadium) wasn't ideal. That being said, I enjoyed my time at the game I saw at Shea and (be prepared for hypocrisy), I much preferred the old stadium to the new. Shea was a cool place. Citi Field is not.

But, I was able to cross off another stadium and check off the NL East. Surprisingly, though I only have 5 active parks left to see, they span all four remaining divisions. This will make it hard to hit multiple stadiums on one trip.

Those remaining:

Chase Field - Phoenix (Diamondbacks)
Petco Park - San Diego (Padres)
Miller Park - Milwaukee (Brewers)
Comerica Park - Detroit (Tigers)
Yankee Stadium - New York (Yankees)

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

GORUCK Challenge - 9/11 Tribute

This one was my own fault. I mean, I volunteered to fly up to New York City mere days after climbing mountains in Colorado. I could have stayed home and enjoyed the first weekend of the NFL. I had tickets to an FSU game that would have been fun. It's my own fault. But, when a pretty girl tells me she has a place to stay in Hell's Kitchen only a few minutes' walk from Times Square... and it's $60 a night... I can't rightly say 'no,' can I?

Not when it's the GORUCK Challenge 9/11 memorial ruck, I can't.

View from the apartment
I've been to NYC several times, but experiencing the city (a city I LOVE, by the way) during 9/11 tribute time is something special. I landed on Friday afternoon and did what GRTs (Goruck alumni, for you lay-people) are wont to do. I met up with others to drink. This would be something oft-repeated over the course of the long weekend.

Eight of us (I think...? Was it more? Seeing double makes it hard to count.) joined forces to rent an apartment on the 44th floor of a nice complex, and it worked out great. We drank. We ate. We napped (some of us). And, then we met up near the NY Stock Exchange with three full classes of ruckers intent on showing their respect to those that perished 11 years earlier in the only way we knew how: We would punish ourselves for no reason whatsoever.

Oh, it made sense. Don't look at me like that.

About 90 ruckers stepped off at Wall Street (mere feet from where George Washington took the first presidential oath of office) and headed toward the East River. There, on the side of the syringe-laden waters, we did PT for about an hour. Bear crawls. Push-ups. Inchworms. Squats. 403.... 403... 403.

Welcome party along the East River
403. Four-hundred and three. That's the number of first responders that entered the twin towers that day and never made it out. As we held that push-up position, and GRC cadre barked out abstract terms like respect, honor, and commitment, I thought about those 403 and what they were thinking as they ran inside.

Push-ups are nothing.

We were sticky, sweaty, and emotionally drained... perfect time for some water PT. In the East River. This was healthy. We also found a log that NYC bums appeared to use as a toilet. Also... very healthy. This log was then lugged all over lower Manhattan.

Seriously, stop looking at me like that. It totally makes sense.

For 8 hours, we fought the night, our cadre (Chris), that log, and drunken New Yorkers. Then, the rains hit and hit hard. We handed off the log to another class and took their coupons (sand and plywood) in exchange. Good riddance to the craplog...

We jumped in the Hudson River. We buddy carried through a neighborhood comprised largely of people with chauffeurs and expense accounts. We played the most insane, sadistic version of Duck, Duck, Goose around the Washington Park fountain that I have ever seen. We blindly ignored the "Don't Get in Fountain" signs as we bobbed up and down reciting the Spongebob Squarepants theme song (okay, you know what? Fine.. it doesn't make sense.) It was exhausting and inspiring. We fought our way back to Ground Zero only to be detoured by Chris after he found a flooded and muddy baseball field.

The 9/11 patch
We split into teams and crawled, crab-walked, and bear-crawled around the bases. It pays to be a winner. It also pays to cheat... which means it devolved into a disastrous, disgusting mud fight on the banks of the lower East Side. To think, if Chris had been arrested earlier that night (a distinct possibility given the night's events and the cops' warnings), we would have missed out on that lovely event.

We had time hacks to the end point. Casualties mounted as we neared... Chris wasn't happy with our pace even though we were moving faster than we had in the past 12 hours. We had all of our coupons and six casualties to carry as we made the final push.

We survived. Chris, a sadistic bastard that I had met over beers after the July 4th ruck in DC and who had led our climbs out in Colorado, handed out patches to some desperately thankful new GRTs and alumni alike. The special 9/11 patch we received will always remind me of the 403...

Class 238 - Hoorah

The 9/11 ruck wasn't more difficult or crazier than the others I've done, but it meant something different. That's for sure. Several of us went down to Ground Zero on 9/11 to 'feel' the atmosphere. Not knowing what to expect, I braced myself for a solemn morning.

O'Hara's Bar at the foot of the Towers on 9/11/12
Instead, we found laughter and friendship. Firefighters from all over the country converged on local bars amid the bonds of brotherhood. They'd never met each other, but they shared something... much like GRTs that have never met. Having someone stop me because I am in a GORUCK shirt and talk to me like an old friend is oddly calming. And, this is coming from someone that hates talking to other people more than he hates eating green peas. [Note: I really hate green peas.]

On 9/11, there are cops everywhere. Ostensibly, it's to secure the area and prevent anything dangerous from happening while keeping the thousands of on-lookers at bay. But, I talked to several of these guys and saw it in their faces. They weren't there because they were working. They were there because they wanted to be. They were making pilgrimages of their own, even if it was on the clock.

New York is a great city. The traffic is horrible. The people are aloof and largely dispassionate to those around them. But, that's because they have to be. There are just too many of them walking around. I ran around Central Park in the days following the ruck and had a great time. People were everywhere, but I might as well have been by myself (or, at most, with my running buddy, Cary). It's amazing to be surrounded by people and feel so independent.

Some people hate the big city... if my job allowed me to live there, I would in a heartbeat....

It's worth noting that I deleted about 1500 words from the end of this blog that went into some detail as to how the rest of the long weekend panned out. As I reread it, the stories of friends ripping off their pants in bars, getting roofied and wandering the streets until 8AM, and passing out face-first on an Ottoman didn't come across as 'high culture.' Plus, I would have felt bad identifying them (especially the one that decided to sleep walk and urinate all over the apartment).

But, they know who they are...

It's worth noting that we DID go see Phantom of the Opera. Yea, that's right. It wasn't all about the drinking.

I'd seen the play before, but it was quite good.

Then, we went drinking.

Lower Manhattan from the deck of the Empire Sate Building

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Monday, October 1, 2012

GORUCK Ascent 2012- Resentment to Redemption

"Hey, let's go climb some big-ass mountains!"

There was a time (I call these years my "smart years"), when I had those stupid conversations with friends in bars... and they stayed there. I'd wake up the next day and ignore the fact that I'd promised my friends - mere hours earlier - that I'd drive to Vegas with them next weekend or pool our money for a jetski. When you're drunk in a bar, everything asinine sounds like the best idea you've ever had. If I followed through with any number of inane plans, I'd be living in Key West and running a bar that sold only Pina Coladas, tacos, and fortune cookies. The Hunt for Red October and the Back to the Future trilogy would be played on a loop over the bar.

Don't judge me.

Back then, my friends and I would never bring up our convoluted, drunken plans the next day for fear that one of us may have actually been serious. Ah, the good ole days.

Now, when I come up with something stupid to do... it only makes MORE sense in the morning. Stupid alcohol... killing brain cells and whatnot. Sadly, my travels have introduced me to others with similar failings, and we egg each other on.

"Yea, filling a beer bottle full of tequila and chugging it DOES sound like a good idea!"

"Well, I suppose you COULD do that, but why not do it while carrying a huge rucksack full of bricks?"

Yea, why not...

So, as a graduate of the GORUCK College of Poor Decision-Making (read about some of my poor decisions in Savannah, Washington DC, or the GORUCK Challenge in general), I latched on to some of these buffoons for some jackassery in the Collegiate Peaks area of Colorado where we would be climbing 14,000 ft peaks in a masochistic ritual that has become known as GORUCK Ascent.

This exercise in insanity began (for me) on the Thursday before Labor Day at Cadre Brian's place near Nederland, CO. I say "for me" because I opted out of the optional Gun Day on Wednesday. Though the opportunity to fire off hundreds of rounds of ammo with America's Special Forces was enticing, the price was a bit much for my tastes. Plus, since I have a standing invitation from a friend (when we doing that again, Geoff?) to go back up to Quantico and play war with the USMC Competitive shooting team, I have been wholly spoiled. In one day last year, we blasted through thousands of rounds of ammo thanks to the SVT, AK-47, M110, A5, PKMs, M4, MP5... No offense to the GORUCK folks, but you can't compete with that.

So, we arrived Thursday and spent it learning rope skills and applying them. We built tag lines and come-alongs... and we rappelled off the face of nearby cliffs. It was pretty bad-ass. I can honestly say that I learned stuff that has come in handy since. That's something that I can't even say that about college, though one would assume math would be useful at some point...

I can honestly say I kicked ass at this
Then, at 10PM, we piled into the buses for a 3-hour drive southward to the mountains. Now, I should take a moment here to discuss my packing list. I wore TAC pants, compression shorts, boots, a t-shirt, and a hat. In my pack I had:

- two pairs of socks
- compass
- headlamp
- change of compressions
- fleece
- wind/rainbreaker
- Gloves
- Knit cap
- my tent
- sleeping bag
- lickies/chewies
- toothbrush
- Advil

There ya have it. I used it all, though the fleece would be a bit of a burden until the last night. My pack wasn't overly full like many others. (Cadre Chris spent an hour systematically destroying the rucks of others. "What's this? You don't need eight pair of underwear!"). I returned a couple things to my car (like a spare pair of shorts and my bulky DSLR camera), but I used what I took.

And, we were off... The Collegiate Peaks range gets in name thanks to the apparent competition of early explorers to claim the peaks for their Alma Maters. It was like us planting our flag on the moon... but with beer instead of Tang. The range has impressive peaks such as Mt. Harvard, Mt. Princeton, Mt. Oxford, and Mt. My-Daddy-Paid-for-College-Thanks-to-Oil-Money.

We arrived at 0100 hrs and started to climb Mt. Yale, a quite lovely hike that we were told would put us at the summit around sunrise. There were 37 of us at the start. One dropped out almost immediately. Chain-smoking at the trailhead prior to stepping off is not recommended.

The peak of Mt. Yale (14,202')
[Note: Awesome pics by Mike Petrucci]
The trail led us up to about 11,000 feet through some beautiful - if dark - countryside. A full moon was right around the corner, so we had a nice view even at that time of the morning and kept most of our headlamps off. Eventually, we broke from the trail and took a short break while we waited on some of the trailing hikers to catch up. We were blazing our way across the East Ridge. At night. This wasn't hiking, this was bouldering, leaping from ledge to ledge and struggling around narrow-to-non-existent paths. After the 8th false summit and thousandth expletive (it's amazing how they echo around a canyon's confines), we could see the end. The route, hazardous and steep, claimed more of our number including two cadre that had apparently failed to recon it. They brought their dogs and couldn't negotiate the trail with them. They had to turn back.

We reached the top of Mt. Yale (14,202 ft) and waited on others strung out for a half mile behind us. Of the 37 that started, 31 reached the summit... impressive when you consider that we hadn't made camp, yet. We still had all of our gear, including tents and sleeping bags, strapped to our rucks.

We started down and got lost. Even with a cadre. I won't go into details, because the 6-hour trek down the mountain turned into a huge goat-screw. This was the 'resentment' part of the trip. The lack of route recon coupled with the inability of our team leads to get us off the hill was extremely irritating. I voiced this opinion frequently and loudly. Others shared my discontent but not to the degree that I did.

I was annoyed.

We eventually reached camp, but I was ready to call a taxi for home. After setting up tents, we were treated to a mix of burgers, MREs, and stew. I understand this was different from the previous year in which food was harder to come by. Well, 2012 was essentially a camping trip with good people and not an orchestrated event with time hacks and cached food. I was okay with that.

Land Nav Instruction
The next day we spent the morning learning land navigation (MGRS) from Rob, and I can confidently say that I will be okay in the middle of nowhere with a map and a compass. Very interesting. The afternoon was spent with Matt learning emergency survival skills. Again, great stuff. I could do an entire blog just on what these two guys taught me. But, I digress.

While we were learning how to build shelters (ours was awesome... I'm just sayin'), Cadre Brian came around asking what we each wanted to do on Sunday. We could leave right after dinner and - staying up all night - attempt a double climb of Mt. Harvard (the highest peak in the local area) and Mt. Columbia. Or, we could set out early the next morning for an attempt on Columbia only. A third option had us maintaining the camp.

People were tired. No one jumped at the double peak.

Except me. I went there to climb mountains, and I wasn't going to miss the daddy of the local scene. Through some lobbying, I was able to increase the number of poor decision-makers. Like I said, all we need in order to be convinced to do something is for a person to ask us. We're idiots.

The top of frozen Mt. Harvard (14,402')
We ate a brief dinner of cardboard and smoke and made our way into the night. No offense to the others that were at Ascent, but this team was awesome. We tore through the night and were hours ahead of our pace. We'd hoped to make it to the roof of Harvard (14,402 ft) by 5AM.

We were there at 0230.

As the highest point for miles, the wind was howling. We were cold. We took a quick picture, then damn near jumped off the side. At 5AM, we took a well-deserved break at 12k ft for 45 minutes. It was cold. I'd have rather we kept moving. We assaulted Mt Columbia.

The scree face of Mt. Columbia
looking back at parts of our team
We went the wrong way, blazing a trail up a 60 degree, scree-covered slope. This surpassed the cascading boulders of Mt. Yale as the 'Bad Idea' champion of the trip. In the winter, I'm told that the route we took is a class-4 climb requiring ice crampons. Yea... so that happened.

After a brutal climb in which we leaped up three feet only to slide back two... over and over... we reached the ridge. Mt. Columbia was within reach, and we were still ahead of schedule. Of course, we went the hard way, so finding either 8-year-olds or geriatrics that had summited (14,079 ft) via the 'easy' way was slightly strange. But, we bagged both mountains.

Adding in the ascent of Pikes Peak that I completed with my buddy before the formal GORUCK Ascent began, it made for four 14ers in five days. Having come from sea level only 16 hours prior to my Pikes summit, I'll call that impressive.

The 'A' Team at the top of Mt Columbia (14,079')
14er #4 for the week
We returned to Cadre Brian's place on Sunday, all of us asleep as the bus driver careened along mountain roads, to find beer and a pig roast waiting for us... as well as the GORUCK Trek team that had just completed Boulder. It was drunken, exhausted, hungry hilarity, and I found it hard to leave my new Ascent comrades.


Would I do it again...? Probably not. It was a good time but a bit pricey when you consider flights, hotels, car, and gear. This is especially true when one considers that I've done the Collegiates. Admittedly, there are other 14ers in the range, but I don't think I'd be jazzed about heading back there. Now, if someone pulls together something similar for another Colorado area or something up in Alaska, I can be down with that.

But, if any GRTs out there are considering Ascent, it's worth your time.

Yale looking East

Descending Columbia
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