If it’s true that it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong, the undertaking by a foursome of elite athletes to ski southwestern Colorado’s Hardrock 100 course was an adventure from the start.
Ultra runners Jason Schlarb and Paul Hamilton, ski mountaineering racer Scott Simmons, and Utah-based adventure skier and cameraman Noah Howell set out from the tiny mining town of Silverton on the morning of March 17. Following the trail above the Animas River, it became clear they had to either take their chances with punchy snow or cross the river. Howell went first. He decided to throw his skis across the river instead of shouldering them. One ski bounced off the opposite bank, fell into the river and was swiftly carried downstream. Howell plunged after it, followed by the other three members of the group. Just 45 minutes into a four-day epic they found themselves wading through a frigid river.
Schlarb, Hamilton, Simmons, and Howell have a plethora of knowledge and experience between them. They had a perfect weather window and the usually sketchy March snowpack was relatively safe after weeks of dry and sunny skies. But their goal was ambitious. The four had neither skied together as a group before nor attempted a summer Hardrock, a brutal and punishing annual trail race through the remote and rugged San Juan Mountains with a whopping 68,000 feet of elevation change and an average elevation of 11,000 feet. Linking the areas of the Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride, the race has an average finishing time of 41 hours and attracts the world’s best mountain athletes.
The idea for the ski project was the brainchild of Durango-based mountain runner Schlarb. A skier since childhood, Schlarb wanted to test the limits of today’s ultra light ski touring gear, as well as human endurance. And the four were wilderness purists: They navigated without the aid of a GPS and used only maps.
“It has been the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken,” Schlarb said. “I have a long-lasting love affair with the mountains, but I’m not the authority on backcountry mountaineering.”
For that, he turned to the expertise of Durango ski mountaineering racer Scott Simmons. In 2015 Simmons and Hamilton teamed up for the Grand Traverse, a 40-mile race from Crested Butte to Aspen, and won the event. The pair set the course record in the process.
But even with all of Schlarb and Simmons’ expert planning, scouting, route finding, and raw talent, the four still rolled into the ghost town of Sherman, where friends had set up their camp for the first night, well after dark and five hours later than they had predicted.
They ate a big meal, which revived them somewhat, but morale was low. Thirty miles on day one had taken them 15 hours and was more exhausting than anyone anticipated. It was a reality check. They went to sleep doubting whether they should push on the following day.
“Day one, especially, was devastating,” Howell said. “It was enormous. To think of three more of those coming up was really daunting.”
Day two was just as challenging, but there were high points. Like when the team summited 14,058-foot Handies Peak.
“All the high points I had were when I was up high,” Hamilton said. “It’s fun to be up high. You feel more free and your attitude shifts a little bit.”
Just hours later in Ouray, however, Hamilton had had enough and told the others he was quitting. He was sick, had sore feet, lost a shoe while ice climbing down into town and broke a ski pole. Schlarb eventually talked Hamilton out of dropping, reminding him the next day was just 17 miles – the shortest day of the trip, with only one big climb – and convinced him to continue on to Telluride. Walking the first few miles of day three up Camp Bird Road in sneakers also gave their weary and blistered feet a break from ski boots. The four got another lucky break when they saw that a dangerous cornice they had expected at Virginius Pass (better known to Hardrock runners as Kroger’s Canteen) wasn’t there and they could easily put a skin track up and over it.
The resort town of Telluride marked the beginning of the home stretch, but the last day of the trip turned out to be the hardest for Howell.
“On the final day I was struggling,” Howell said. “We get to the final climb and it wasn’t the final climb. We had another 500 more feet. I just broke down. I’ve climbed Denali and this physically seemed as challenging.”
Despite an inauspicious start to the adventure, the four walked down Silverton’s sleepy main street around 9 p.m. on March 20, finishing the course loop, as well as one of the biggest efforts of their lives. They also made history, becoming the first people to complete the feat in winter.
“To accomplish something like this with a group, I’m really proud of that,” Schlarb said. “(The day after we finished) we got together and had a few beers and we were already talking about projects we could do around the world like this. It was a huge life event for all of us.”
In addition to their heavy packs of ropes, crampons, and ice axes, Howell, as the group’s videographer, had also been weighed down with a camera. It was so fans can experience the struggle and the triumph in a film Schlarb is producing about the experience. Due out this summer, the working title is “Skiing the Hardrock.” The project was funded by running gear companies Altra and Ultimate Direction.
In July, Schlarb will become the first member of a new elite group: those who have skied the Hardrock 100 course as well as run the race. After five years of entering the competitive lottery, Schlarb will finally toe the starting line at the 2016 Hardrock 100.
“This is my number one race in the world I want to do,” he said. “I’m really pumped.”
Photos by Scott Simmons