Being a self-described mountain pundit is not easy. It takes a deep commitment to reading the shameless spray of countless bloggers, the perseverance to wade through outdoor reportage by experts and dilettantes, trying to discern between the two, and the excruciating suffering and agony of sitting in a chair to read and write for hours at a time on a sunny day. It’s blood sweat and tears, for sure. But we all need rest days, more of them as we get older, and Sierra weather has been as stormy as ever in the peak of summer. So let’s get down to it, shall we?
Today I read two contrasting articles that brought up a point I have been making for several years now and would like to discuss openly here – that the amount of media hype and attention for a feat in the mountains is not a measure of the significance represented by that achievement. To assess the validity of that statement, of course, we need to define the word significance. In this discussion I am using this definition:
That still leaves a lot open to interpretation and subjectivity, but that is ok. As long as we can agree that the pursuit of significance is an important aspect of why we as humans, (and elite-level mountain athletes for the purposes of this conversation) take on challenges that tend to evoke extreme pain and suffering for the anticipated potential enjoyment of a sense of profound achievement. That feeling is so innately human and has driven our species to incredible accomplishments. This may be why we are so captivated by romantic stories of triumph over adversity.
In any case, there are two types of significance that may both come into play and affect one another. One based on measurements and facts associated with the feat. The other is based on how bearing witness to the feat makes us feel. Sometimes an emotion can cause us to lose sight of the reality of what has occurred. This is called emotional bias. A good case study regarding this bias involves the infamous 7-time Tour de France winning cyclist Lance Armstrong. It was long suspected by many that he won these races with the assistance of doctors and illegal performance-enhancing drugs. But he had overcome cancer to achieve what no other cyclist had in history. The story was irresistible. Many Lance loyalists could not allow themselves to contemplate or admit that he had possibly cheated because of the inspiration that they felt for his achievement. The facts eventually came out that he had cheated and lied about it. Cycling fans had to reconcile their feelings about Lance with their feelings about an undeniable cheater and liar who profited greatly from mass deception.
So anyway, I was reading these two articles. The first was in the Canadian magazine Gripped about a 50-pitch route recently free climbed by Jason Ammerlaan, Nathan MacDonald and Luke Neufeld on Mount Bute in British Columbia. This was the first all-free ascent, with difficulty up to 5.12, of a previously climbed, remote wilderness route on a 1900 meter (6200′) wall. That is larger than two El Capitans stacked atop each other. They climbed in seemingly impeccable style, with the article reporting from Ammerlaan:
“We left no garbage, little trace of our footsteps through the valley and we did it without any sponsorship. We didn’t use helicopters, never aid climbed and didn’t use any bolts.”
In alpinism, both difficulty and style matter, and both determine what is significant. We will have to see how much media attention this one gets, but it will be surprising if it gets more than a write up in a few climbing magazines. In comparison to the Dawn Wall, freed this winter by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson, the rock climb on Mount Bute was far less technically difficult. But realize that Mount Bute is located in a much more alpine and remote location than El Cap, which is a well-traveled roadside wall in a California climate. The Dawn Wall ascent became the biggest spectacle of any climb, ever, thanks to the accessibility and cell service that allowed followers to share in the journey and day to day challenges that these intrepid climbers faced. They were well-supported psychologically and physically at their hanging camp as they progressed. The Dawn Wall is very significant in that it has inspired millions of people and it is likely, technically speaking, the hardest rock climb in the world, at 30+ pitches, graded up to 5.14d. On the other hand, how much more significant of an achievement is it than when Lynn Hill first free climbed the Nose of El Capitan (to 5.14 a/b) in 1993? Then she did it again in a single day in 1994. The biggest press release on that probably came from her own autobiography.
It’s no surprise that the internet has a powerful effect on what we think is significant these days. It’s especially no surprise to the businesses that aim to surf big waves of media frenzy to promote their brands. When something authentically inspiring and accessible to media comes along, like the Dawn Wall, a perfect storm builds. Companies capitalize, the athletes benefit in many ways, and the public gets to be a part of something truly great. Everyone wins. The media, the companies, and many of the athletes themselves are always hungry for another frenzy to drum up more dollars. There is a demand for inspiration that is fueling a small industry rising to meet it. In some ways, this is sparking innovation and creativity, but the flip side is that the media machine has made it difficult to determine what is really significant from what is just promoted as such.
Take the second article I read today. This one is about ultramarathoner Scott Jurek vying to break the overall speed record on the Appalachian Trail. Scott Jurek is a legend in the ultrarunning world as one of the most dominant race competitors in ultra-distance foot races ever. The Appalachian Trail is a trail over 2000 miles long through the mountains from Georgia to Maine. The current record is 46 days 11 hours 20 minutes, by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011. Davis has parlayed her achievement into an impressive package of talks, tours, presentations, media appearances, book sales, sponsorships, and guiding services. She has appeared on CBS, Fox, CNN, and 700 Club. She was awarded Blue Ridge Outdoors Person of the Year and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and her AT record was voted Ultrarunning Magazine’s Female Performance of 2011. Jurek is currently challenging that record and at the time of this writing is within 30 miles of the finish, and less than 24 hours from the record time, so he will be expected to break the record by a dramatically small margin. That close race is sure to create more press buzz than it already has.
But behind the scenes there is an aspect of this that the press neglects to talk about enough. This record, though it is the overall fastest time, is for the trail done in supported style. What does supported mean? Well it can mean someone helped to mail a resupply package to the hiker one time, or it can mean someone helped 10 times. It means the hiker hikes with the physical and emotional support of others. It means they may get fed, clothed, sheltered, massaged, and otherwise taken care of by others along the journey. In Jurek’s case it means that he has a team of drivers and pacers and other support crew for over 46 days. He only has to think about putting one foot in front of the other and leave the rest to the crew. Unsupported style means that a hiker must do it all on their own. Feed themselves, shelter themselves, send resupplies themselves, pace themselves, find the route themselves, and be prepared to deal with emergencies themselves. They are entirely self-reliant, or they are disqualified from that record. Those that have spent time on the trail know that doing it all solo takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and skill. The unsupported record was set in 2013 at an astounding 58 days 9 hours and 38 minutes by Matt Kirk. This made almost no national headlines. Kirk makes his own gear, maintains a small blog, and apparently just announced the completion of a book about the journey yesterday.
So why will Jurek’s record receive so much attention? Because he is a famous athlete sponsored by larger companies and because the supported record he will hold is the overall Fastest Known Time for the Appalachian Trail. Fastest Known Times, or FKT’s as they are referred to, have become a new status symbol of outdoor athletic achievement. They are becoming used by the industry and its players to whip up media attention and marketing. Jurek hurt his knee early on the trail and has persevered. It’s the requisite triumph over adversity story. The industry will see an opportunity to start the buzz train. They’ll sell us more and we’ll all be inspired. It’s formulaic and works like a charm. We win, again.
The issue here though comes back to a question of what is truly significant versus what is just being promoted well. In Jurek’s case, I concede that his is an inspirational feat of endurance and fortitude. That gives it some value in my book. But let’s not blow it out of proportion. Many times, when an athlete goes supported to challenge a FKT, the race becomes tainted as spectacle over sport. Many of the challengers of these trail records are ultramarathon racers. Perhaps the supported style appeals to them because it mimics an ultra race where the runner simply goes, carrying nothing because they are catered to. The problem is that, unlike in an organized ultra race, the support between competitors is unequal, so the race is unsporting. The competition is between both racers and support personnel, resources, and strategies. A sponsored athlete like Jurek could gain a competitive advantage in support that make up for deficiencies in athletic performance. This style of racing, supported by commercial interests, moving infrastructure, and reliance on outside assistance is antithetical to the self-contained, self-reliant, low impact spirit of thru-hiking and backcountry travel in general in the mountains.
Almost the same situation has happened in the Sierra for FKT’s on the John Muir Trail. The JMT is an incredible journey of 211 miles through some of the most remote and extensive wilderness in the lower 48. The highlight of the history of FKT’s on the JMT was in 2009 when an unknown backpacker and mountaineer named Brett Maune hiked the trail in 3 days 14 hours 13 minutes. He beat the previous supported record, held by an well-known ultrarunner, by almost 6 hours. But what blew everyone’s mind was that he did it unsupported! No support crew, carrying everything he needed. This really set the bar, not only for time, but for style. The wild Sierra is ideally not a place to set up a temporary race course with aid camps and teams of support. It is a place to minimize the impacts of travel and respect other trail users. Maune’s feat made a statement to that effect (intentionally or not). Of course, the media was quiet about it and Brett got virtually no press. In 2013, famous ultrarunner Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe as a team broke Maune’s overall JMT speed record in a fully supported effort. They got more press than any previous JMT record holder, especially in ultrarunning media circles. They only beat Maune’s unsupported record by 1 hour 32 minutes, as a supported team of sponsored uber ultrarunners.
Last year, both the unsupported and supported records were broken. The unsupported record now stands at 3 days 11 hours even by Andrew Bentz. The new supported FKT is 3 days 7 hours 36 minutes set by Leor Pantillat, still only 3 hours and 24 minutes faster than the unsupported record in spite of extensive support crews including pacers and set wilderness camps. Pantillat’s record is faster though, and he is a known competitive ultrarunner, so of course his feat received more press and accolades.
When it comes to feats of athleticism in the mountains we should make sure we better understand the significance of them. Some mountain athletes choose to take on great challenges for a sense of accomplishment. Others wish to compete for a sense of victory. To witness either of these at an elite level is a beautiful thing to behold. I hope that those who do appreciate these accomplishments are ever more discerning about the style in which they are done. Since Reinhold Messner, the world of alpinism has almost universally embraced a style of simplicity, of doing more with less in the mountains, and of having less impact. We value engaging with mountains “by fair means.” The gauntlet being thrown down on every classic route in the mountains by posted FKT records is a good thing for human competitive spirit, but let’s set the rules of the game to encourage a level and fair playing field and make sure the style that is encouraged fits the environment and culture of the venue. The tail wags the dog when we let internet capitalism dictate what matters in our mountains.