This post comes from Shaun Nauman, a blogger (snowboardmountaineer.com) and Boulder, CO resident. When Shaun isn’t studying snow hydrology and forecasting avalanches, the AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Instructor is finding new adventures in the backcountry on his splitboard. Watch for more adventures, gear reviews and fun reading from Shaun and other Ambassadors of Tahoe Mountain Sports.
The Hardock 100 is a mountain run that passes through some of the most beautiful and rugged mountains in the world. The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run is an ultra-marathon of 100.5 miles in length, plus 33,992 feet of climb and 33,992 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet, at an average elevation of over 11,000 feet. The race is held on a loop course on 4WD roads, dirt trails, and cross country in Southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
The San Juan mountains are home to some of the most rugged mountains in Colorado. The run starts and ends in Silverton, Colorado and travels through the towns of Telluride, Ouray, and the ghost town of Sherman, crossing thirteen major passes in the 12,000′ to 13,000′ range. Runners must travel above 12,000 feet (3,700 m) of elevation a total of 13 times, with the highest point on the course being the 14,048′ summit of Handies Peak. This is a test of runners against the mountains. The course is on trails as much as possible. There are 13 aid stations; major aid stations are located in the towns and a few remote aid stations throughout the course. The run is a salute to the toughness and perseverance of the hardrock miners who lived and worked in the area.
For the past five years, I have been part of a team who runs a remote aid station at roughly 12,200’ elevation just below Engineer Pass, known properly as Engineer Aid Station. The logistics and planning that go in to running a remote aid station begin several weeks, if not months, before we even arrive in Silverton, CO. To start, last year the design and engineering of new lightweight canopy shelters would replace the tarp shelter we have used for many years, it was enough to make even the most weight consciences backpacker jealous. Several boxes of gear are inventoried and packed away for the trip to Silverton. Once in Silverton we draw even more equipment from Hardrock 100 (food, beverages, emergency bags, and all the fill-in items that complete an aid station). We then attend general, medical, and radio communication briefings. Once the briefings are complete, equipment is loaded and the last few things are gathered to fill empty spots, and the pilgrimage to Engineer Pass begins.
We typically arrive at the top of Engineer Pass via a four-wheel drive road late Thursday afternoon the night prior to the race start. From there we load up packs and descend in to the Bear Creek valley right at tree line below Engineer Pass. Wildflowers and snowfields fill this valley, and when the light is right, it is a natural spectacle beyond words.
It takes a full day to get the aid station setup. The Hardrock 100 begins the next morning (Friday) at 6 a.m., at the same time we are setting up our station. Engineer Aid Station is right at about the 50 mile mark. Each year the race is run in a reverse direction, but since we are in the middle, it has little bearing on us. The logistics of bringing in food, beverages, tables, and cooking supplies are calculated almost to the pound. Water has to be filtered from a nearby stream, roughly 75 gallons of it. 15 gallons of broth will be prepared, and over 200 pounds of food and beverages will be packed in. Two large wing canopies, four ultra-light tables, lights, a stove, fuel, and emergency supplies are also packed in. All of this is just for the runners and their pacers. Volunteers at the aid station are responsible for packing in their own food and supplies beyond what they are hauling on behalf of the aid station.
The canopies were made using aerodynamic wing designs reminiscent of that seen in MSR Wing or Kelty Noah Tarps and designed from lightweight Tyvek, shock cord, and high tensile strength aluminum. They proved to stand up to all the elements this year, which in a 24 hour period included rain, snow, lightning, wind, sunshine…you name it. While the wing canopies each cover an area of 24’ x 30’, they weigh less than 8lbs apiece!
Once the amenities of the aid station are set up, a radio base station is established between aid stations and with Silverton headquarters some 15 miles away over mountainous terrain. The radio communications are critical, and the use HAM radios and creative uses of radio equipment are employed. Often times we can hit a radio repeater on Engineer Mountain at 13,200’, but not always. At times it is a matter of aiming a lightweight yagi antenna at a cliff wall and bouncing the signal down Bear Creek Canyon to Ouray. Other times it might include a cross-band repeater set up in a vehicle parked several miles away on Engineer Pass. In many instances, our communications have to be intermittently shut down due to electric storms. We stay busy, to say the least.
In actuality, the radio network to cover the 100-mile race is quite a marvel. A diagram of the radio schematic from various aid stations would look like a spider web to some. But it all falls in to place. With all the challenges, we make contact and track every single runner and pacer that comes through our station. Our first runner usually comes through at around 4pm on Friday. For the next 16 hours runners will continue to pour in to our station. Our busiest time is between 10pm and 2am, but we will see them well in to the morning hours.
We have seen just about everything imaginable come through our station. Some runners appear as if they are taking a casual stroll through the park, in high spirits. But, with Hardrock, and the elements of the mountains, a pass that is sunny and still one moment can be a whiteout of graupel, rain, and lightning the next. The runners reflect the experiences they encounter on the course. Even though we only see the runners briefly at our aid station, their experiences will be remembered for a lifetime.
After all runners are accounted for to the next aid station, we get the all-clear to pack up our station. We practice Leave No Trace ethics. In essence, the aid station and any clue of its existence vanish upon our departure. The long hike out of Engineer begins, hopefully getting to the top of Engineer Pass to our vehicles before the afternoon storms hit. This year we encountered a blinding white mix of rain, graupel, and snow ascending to the top of the pass.
In all, it is a tremendous amount of work running this station. But we love doing it and have returned for many years, as a group we have run this station since 2010. The runners in Hardrock are quite honestly some of the most genuine people I have ever had the opportunity to meet. Hardrock is a race like no other, and from a runner’s perspective is a mental challenge as well as a physical one. All of the runners have stories of Hardrock 100 and how they persevered both the external and internal challenges. It’s the inspiration of the runners, and the genuine human spirit that keeps us coming back.
Kelty Noahs Tarp 12