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Staff Blog: High-Altitude “Peak Bagging”

The oxygen-deprivation must be messing with my head.

Trail running is different for everyone. It depends on what kind of trails you’re accustomed to running, but also what kind of suffering you’re willing to endure. For some people trail running is running on groomed bridle paths through a nearby park. For others, it’s about running on the undulating paths of the rolling hills along a coast or maneuvering over the rocky, rooty terrain in mountains. For others still, it’s about high-altitude “peak bagging.”

As gratuitous and corny as that term sounds, running up mountain peaks is an endurance endeavor that usually entails reaching the top of a mountain summit (or several) by some combination of running, power hiking and hand-over-hand scrambling. In Colorado, it often means running to the top of one of the state’s 53 mountains that soar above 14,000 feet, though there are plenty of good runnable peaks to be “bagged” in the 12,000-13,000-foot range, too.

But “running” is a relative term when it comes to peak bagging and high-altitude trail endeavors. Sometimes you’re running 9-minute mile pace, sometimes your slogging away over crazy-steep trails with your hands on your knees (or on the rocks) at 24-minute mile pace (or slower). At other times, the terrain forces you to scramble, using your hands and feet in a low-level form of rock climbing. Your ability to move at any pace depends on how well your body performs at altitude and whether or not you’re willing to go anaerobic during a long effort. (Trust me, if you push too hard, you start to see little black spots exploding in your frame of vision.)

The higher you run, the “thinner” the air is up there. Oxygen makes up the same percentage of the air you breathe (21 percent) up high as it does at sea level, but there are fewer air molecules up there. In other words, as you get higher, it’s harder (considerably harder) to imbibe the oxygen your body needs to transport energy to your muscles. (With that in mind, it makes Matt Carpenter’s 2:52:47 high-altitude marathon world record very difficult to fathom and makes his 3:22:25 marathon effort at 17,600 feet seem out of this world, even if they were both run on flat courses.)

Peak bagging doesn’t have to be a fast-paced, race-simulating effort, though, and it’s often better if it’s not. No matter how you run (or speed hike) a peak, it’s always a classic man vs. nature drama that plays out, and, to be sure, the mountain always wins. Rule #1 is knowing ahead of time that you’re there to experience the grandeur of the mountain and not trying to “conquer” it. The moment you start thinking your fitness or determination or stubbornness are any match for the natural forces of the environment is usually the beginning of your own demise. (Rule #2 is taking the correct amount of fluid in your hydration pack.)

The beauty of peak bagging, no matter how long or gnarly the route up and down might be, is that it always affords stunning views. The scenery and the amount of elevation ascended (and descended on the way back) are really the only personal rewards I need. Leave the records for the speed freaks.

Some mountains, like the popular twin summits of Grays Peak (14,278 feet, 10th highest) and Torreys Peak (14,275 feet, 12th highest) about 75 minutes west of Denver have trails that are very runnable (even though very steep in some places). There is a dirt road much of the way up Mt. Princeton (14,204 feet, 18th highest), near Buena Vista, and then a run-hike trail to take you to the top after that.

Longs Peak (14,259 feet, 15th highest), near Estes Park, has a long stretch of runnable singletrack trail before giving way to the infamous “Boulder Field,” a quarter-mile stretch of rugged terrain that requires hopping from boulder to boulder — some of which are as big as cars. After that, you hike through a natural rock feature called the “Keyhole,” then along a narrow stretch of rocky trail, up a steep rocky incline, along a narrow overhang and up a large rock face to the top. The 15-mile roundtrip Longs Peak route isn’t really runnable beyond the Keyhole; reaching the top fast requires relentless but careful power hiking and scrambling over boulders, rocks and loose gravel.

There are only three trail races that go over 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, and, naturally, they are three of the hardest. The daunting Hardrock 100 near Silverton (held last weekend) sends runners over Handies Peak (14,058, 40th highest), while the Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs (held Aug. 18-19 this year) sends runners to the top of Pikes Peak (14,115, 30th highest), one of America’s most celebrated mountains. (There’s also the Mt. Evans Ascent road race.)

For me, little compares to running high-altitude trails. Given the rugged terrain and the thin air, there are times every step can be a struggle. But I’ve found the more I allow myself to move gently through the natural world one step at a time — while taking the time to soak in all of the natural wonder around me — the more I find myself floating over the trail in a Zen-like state.

But that might just be oxygen-deprivation messing with my head.