Monday, October 26, 2009

Geoff's big dream


Dark days are coming; really, they're already here. It's the time of year to build up body fat, pray for snow, and start dreaming about 2010. Most of my ideas for next year encompass things that even normal people would consider a fun vacation (ski touring in Banff), local epics (traversing the Juneau Icefield to Atlin, B.C.), and real big-time bike races (TransRockies).

But, so far, nothing truly huge. I admit that I wish I had something big, even in the abstract sense, lined up for 2010 or 2011 — if nothing else, because it might add some depth to this state of flux I feel like I'm drifting through. But, no, now is not the time for that. Now is the time to focus on the bigger picture and let the adventures fall where they may.

I think that's why I'm feeling excited about an ultramarathon that Geoff has been cooking up that he is calling the Tongass 100. It's not particularly new to me (a lot, though certainly not all of the terrain is stuff I've seen). It's not particularly far away (always within about 10 as-the-crow-flies miles from Juneau city limits). It's not even something I could participate in (Someone like me would require three to five days to complete the route, and even then I would call it "fastpacking.") But there's something about it that feels huge; maybe it's just potential - this twinkle of something larger, like when those Iditabike crazies in the '80s looked at the Iditarod Trail and said, "Let's try to ride our bikes on this."

From what I know about 100-mile foot races, the Tongass 100 would be similar to, well, none of them. There would be times racers would be sloshing through shin-deep mud or balancing on slippery wooden planks; others where they would be plodding up or swinging down 60-degree slopes; and then there's the alpine — hand over head scrambles up peaks, crossing massive snowfields, glissading down and repeating over and over and over again. The crux of the route involves the crossing from Nugget Peak to Ptarmigan Ridge. Either Geoff will have to drop the route several thousand feet and ford Lemon Creek (which is a raging river in my opinion), or stay high and cross over the Lemon Glacier, which I've heard has been done by people in running shoes, but still ... glacier. Big, shifting river of ice that tends to be full of large crevasses (usually exposed in summertime).

Of course, this race would be unofficial. It's an insurance nightmare, dangerous in many ways, but oddly doable. People could run this route. It would be one of the toughest 100-milers ever attempted in the U.S., for sure. I wouldn't be surprised if the elevation gain is in the 30,000-35,000-foot range. But it wouldn't be anything like the big climb-fests of the Rockies. Sure, there's no real altitude in Juneau, but what we lack in elevation we make up for in bad trails, treacherous terrain, horrible weather, and sheer remoteness even so close to a populated area.

I would hope my contribution to this race would be to man a checkpoint at a place near Cairn Peak called Camp 17. It would be located between to two huge ridge traverses, where runners would gain an endless string of peaks and a large bulk of their elevation, all without touching any hint of civilization. I would have to backpack in any provisions, over a seven-mile, 5,000-feet-of-climbing hike for me and anyone I could convince to do it. But I envision setting up shop in the unheated quonset hut, rolling out the extra sleeping bags I carried, firing up the camp stove to melt snow for water and filling up a small number of water bottles with some kind of endurance drink. And if I could find a really good friend with a big backpack, there would also be sliced oranges. Runners would drop in after their long traverse of Heinzelman Ridge, summit run over Nugget Peak and crossing of either Lemon Creek or Lemon Glacier. I would hand them a water bottle and a sliced orange and say, "there are only seven more peaks and maybe 10,000 feet of climbing and then a huge drop to sea level before the next aid station." Yes, that would be lots of fun ... for me.

But it is inspiring to watch Geoff dream up this monster, and maybe even talk others into joining him. I hope he pulls it off, and I hope I can somehow be a part of it. So if anyone out there has any crazy ultrarunning aspirations, I encourage you to get in contact with Geoff. It's not about how fast you can do it — it will be amazingly impressive if anyone can even do it, even Geoff, with his hometown advantage and superhuman endurance. But the Tongass 100 may be just crazy enough to become the next big thing.