This post is the conclusion to Running Mountains Instead of Races.
Here in the Alps, or whichever mountain range you find yourself, there are a lifetime of peaks to climb. Finding the ones that inspire you and include a difficulty level that keeps you interested is the first big step. We’ve created the Way Ups as our list for the Alps. We know that with a solid fitness level there is something for every trail runner who wants to run a peak in the Alps.
For some runners, a trail to the top of a high peak, with loads of vertical, and a massive summit view is challenge enough. Others might want to combine running with easy technical climbing. Still others may want to push things further and explore technical and committing ridge traverses or climbs in an alpine environment, something being called Light Alpinism.
Mountain Running Confession
But first, an important response to the inevitable question… “Mountain running” doesn’t necessarily mean you actually “run” up a mountain. You might “run to” the mountain, and “run down” the mountain, but you will most certainly walk up the mountain, at least a good portion of the way. Why? Because running up mountains is actually quite hard and often less efficient than power hiking. And when you’re using your hands to scramble in steep rocky sections, you’re not “running” either. Running Peaks really means moving fast and light up them in a more performance oriented approach.
One of the most critical components of determining a route’s requirements takes place before you start. It’s a series of decisions that must be made to insure that you are getting on the right objective. This process is part of what makes mountain running so interesting and is a key component to the outcome. In races, much of this is done for you so you can show up and simply focus on what you need to do to perform at your best. But when you are on your own, decision making is part of what makes the entire experience so engaging.
Making responsible decisions is the difference between having a relatively safe experience, or putting yourself into an unnecessarily risky situation.
Choosing a Mountain Objective
Some, but certainly not all, questions and points to consider when choosing an objective.
- Study maps! Get to know where you are going by becoming intimately familiar with the route. There are many tools at your disposal that allow you to study the type of terrain you’ll pass through, how steep it is, potential for objective hazards, and if there are any reasons to carry specific gear. FATMAP is useful for this with tools like gradient, aspect, distance measurement, and of course hi-res 3D imagery. Using the Dossen Route as an example, you can identify the sections on this route that might be an issue depending on your skill level. Clearly, it gets very steep, it goes onto rock, leaves trail above the hut, crosses a snow field very close to a glacier…are crampons needed? Critically studying our description and comparing it to what you see on the map should leave you feeling confident in what you will encounter.
- Will you scramble? If so, how steep is it? How exposed? Will there be loose rock above you with the potential for rockfall? Do you need a helmet? Would one pair of running shoes be an advantage over another on this terrain?
- Will you travel on glaciers? If so, do you need crevasse rescue gear? While this answer is most likely a firm, “Yes!”, there are times, especially later in the summer and fall, when glaciers are melted off and down to their base ice layer. Perhaps you don’t need all that extra gear and weight… but be 100% sure that your reasoning for not taking it is correct and true.
- Be confident in the weather forecast and what it means for the terrain you’ll be in.
- Are you prepared to navigate through the landscape without visibility?
- When looking at the numbers, the terrain, the time involved and the conditions – do you have the proper fitness level not only to do the route, but do it without so much fatigue that you may get into trouble?
- Learn how to filter the information for the route you choose. Reading someone’s terrifying account of their own experience needs to be considered, but not as a rule of what will happen to you. You probably don’t know the whole story or who they are. Learn to think and act autonomously in the mountains.
- Since you are trying to either run much of the route or do something big in one day, you need to be as light as possible. But, when going into the mountains some gear is mandatory to get you up and down as safely as possible. Finding the balance between too light (risky) and too heavy (slow & tiring) is critical. Taking into account all of these points will hopefully allow you to make the best gear choices. Erring on the heavy side is obviously preferable to being caught out with too little. Experience is the big factor here!
- Understand the abilities of yourself and your partners. Know your limitations and always be willing to turn around.
In 2015, I was in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley with Ueli Steck. He was getting ready for a go on Nuptse with Colin Haley, and I decided to spend his acclimatization period with him. Ueli had been lapping Lobuche Peak (6119 meters) in running shoes, saying that it was in perfect shape for fast ascents. After he managed to summit from Dzongla in less than two hours, I decided I had to have a go at it. Given that most parties take 2-3 days to get up the thing, it was clear that conditions were allowing for a fast ascent. Sure, it was Ueli, but if he was blazing up the mountain in running shoes I could do it solo, but in light alpine boots, crampons and an ice axe. 5 hours after leaving Dzongla, I was on top. I would never have attempted this alone had I not known conditions were perfect for my style. Being alone on a big Himalayan peak, managing my breathing, climbing cautiously but also comfortably and efficiently showed me that I had learned how to move in the mountains as I had always dreamed.
One thing I state repeatedly in the Way Up route descriptions is that “running” a peak is not always so difficult, understanding when you can run the peak can be the tricky part. And that is the critical information required to understand the peak you’d like to do. Some considerations about conditions:
- Maybe the map shows a steep snowfield getting to the summit. Is that snowfield going to be rock hard ice in late summer? Do you need to time this route for when there is just the right amount of snow so you can more reasonably get up and down it?
- A rock ridge you’d like to climb has a south facing aspect. In the summer season, it holds snow and has tricky passages that become relatively easy when dry. Unless you prefer that snow and iced up terrain, wait until you know the route has dried out. Patience is a skill too. The Alps 4000 meter Weissmies is a classic example of this scenario.
Mindfully moving through the big mountains is about far more than the moving part. It’s a process that must be trained as much as any physical preparation. Experience only comes by doing and learning from both failure and success.
When you put it all together, you will learn so much more than how to run in the mountains. You’ll learn how to move through mountain terrain while critically looking at the environment and making all the many important decisions based on what you see. Ultimately, this combination will give you more confidence for everything you do as a runner, for races, or simply pursuing more of what’s possible in the higher mountains.
How do you get that experience? Ideally, hands on in the mountains with a mentor or through a training course that helps build your technical skills; glacier travel, crevasse rescue, decision making, etc…. You can also read more at our skills page, Mountain Running.
Finally, those of us that have been at the mountain sport game for a long time all have stories, of close calls, things nearly gone wrong, and things gone right. If you have a story, please tell your tale in the Comments section. I’ll start with one of my own.
By Dan Patitucci