Dying for the Record

Credit: Illustration by Jesse Lenz

It was on the 11th and final summit when I realized I was in trouble. I was nine hours into a traverse of Mount Rundle, an iconic limestone ridge linking the towns of Canmore and Banff in Alberta. To my right was a thousand-foot drop. To my left, more air and another deadly fall. The nub of rock that I was standing on was brittle and highly fractured — what climbers call rotten. Despite the cool evening temperature, sweat poured from my brow. "Hell of a place to be without a rope," I thought.

My climbing partner, professional obstacle-course racer Ryan Atkins, and I were attempting to break the speed record on the 15-mile traverse. Our goal was to start above Canmore and climb 11 peaks with more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain in less than 13 hours. Our run was what's known as an FKT, or fastest known time. The concept has been around for decades, but its popularity has skyrocketed with the advent of GPS watches and fitness-tracking apps. In essence, an FKT is the fastest time between two points, often in remote, wild places. Unlike with races, there are no officials, no checkpoints, no route markings, and no spectators. While still timed, FKTs provide a wilder and more liberating challenge than a race does.

They also encourage more risk as athletes go lighter, push harder, and move faster with less safety gear — a fact that our climb was demonstrating. Despite advice to the contrary, we had left our climbing gear, including ropes, at home, opting to go ultralight with the hope of gaining more speed. Just two months earlier, my friend and two-time Hardrock 100 podium finisher Adam Campbell had narrowly avoided disaster on the same pitch after a fridge-size column of rock pulled away from the wall, leaving him dangling high in the air. Although uninjured, he was shaken enough to end the attempt less than 300 feet from the final summit. As I made my way up the vertical rock spine to that very same summit, I tested holds by pulling on them with about 70 percent of my body weight — a common check to see if the rock will pop free but terrifying when you're not anchored to anything solid via a rope and harness. When we finished after 10 hours and 25 minutes, we had set a record for the traverse, and the local newspaper proclaimed that "without ropes, it might be the most dangerous trail run in the Rocky Mountains." It could have just as easily been described as the most foolhardy.

In the past five years or so, FKT attempts have boomed, mirroring the massive growth in ultrarunning. Peter Bakwin, curator of Fastest Known Time, an online forum devoted to the trend, says, "There has been a large increase in FKT activity and in people going after FKTs." In addition to people running harder and longer than ever before, he points to ultrarunning superstars such as Kilian Jornet as one of the drivers of the movement. Jornet's FKT accomplishments — which include records on everything from the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail to the ascent and descent of Mount Kilimanjaro and Denali — have made FKT attempts cool. Sponsors now support their elite athletes' FKT attempts as readily as they do their professional races.

For most athletes like Jornet, these time trials are primarily a different vehicle in which to frequent the mountains, see new places, and train. "The choice," Jornet says, "will be, 'Be on the mountains or not?' and I choose them." Other legends, such as Scott Jurek, the FKT holder on the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, and Hal Koerner, a former FKT holder on the Colorado Trail and John Muir Trail, echo a similar sentiment in that FKTs allow athletes to explore remote or remarkable places that don't host races, namely national parks and long-distance trails.

The beauty of an FKT is that it doesn't have to be monumental. It can range from a daily cycle commute to the fastest time up Yosemite's El Capitan, as climbers Dean Potter, Alex Honnold, and Tommy Caldwell have done. Apps like Strava and Movescount not only allow athletes to compete against one another, but they've also created a standardized record-keeping system, a prerequisite to legitimizing any FKT claim. The pursuit of a KOM (king of the mountain, which is Strava's term for an FKT) has become so popular that I regularly see friends dogging their runs and rides until they hit the segment they're after, only then dropping the hammer to claim the title. KOMs and FKTs have become badges of honor.

The pursuit of glory is also making injuries and deaths more common, even inevitable. Perhaps the most infamous example is the ski-mountaineering legend Stéphane Brosse, who died during an attempted speed crossing of the Mont Blanc massif with Jornet in 2012. The pair were hiking, unroped to move more quickly, along the summit ridge of Aiguille d'Argentière when a snow cornice broke loose underneath Brosse, sending him tumbling to his death. "We were thinking we were not on the cornice, but it was very big," says Jornet. "It's in moments like that when you realize how mountains can be so unpredictable."

While the lack of ropes and harness and other safety nets can be "real freeing," says endurance runner Mike Foote, it's also much more dangerous. Foote's recent 600-mile Crown of the Continent traverse with running partner Mike Wolfe pitted them against unforgiving vertical terrain, and the two were forced to scramble out of a deep ice and rock crevice on the way down, without proper gear. "That made for some spicy travel," says Foote.

Elite ultrarunner Dave Mackey fell last year while on a solo training run in the mountains near his home in Boulder, Colorado, after a rock gave way, sending him down a small ridge. The tibia and fibula in his left leg were shattered, and he required a rescue. A slip and fall while running on a remote trail near Moab, Utah, nearly killed and effectively ended the competitive athletic career of four-time Pikes Peak Marathon winner Danelle Ballengee in 2006. As these examples show, attacking the challenges solo and unsupported can leave athletes highly vulnerable if an accident occurs.

It can also take special skills and years of planning to fully prepare for some of the longer records. "There was a 10-year lag for me between my Colorado Trail FKT and the John Muir Trail," says Koerner, "mainly because it beat the shit out of me. You would think I was better equipped to handle that type of abuse, but there is a level you push to, and through, on these babies."

And it's not just professional athletes being hurt. The internet is littered with reports of weekend warriors getting into trouble while testing their limits on local trails or in the backcountry. Some make the news, but most go unreported. Bryon Powell, an ultrarunning authority and founder of the website irunfar.com, says he's heard of several "cringe-worthy" stories detailing the misadventures of mountain runners who went out unprepared. Injuries have derailed numerous attempts at the Colorado 14ers record, and going light on clothing and hydration has pushed many ambitious trail athletes to the brink more than once — even Jornet required a heli-rescue from bad weather in the mountains near his Chamonix home. Nobody is immune to the dangers.

While these ultralight and minimally supported FKTs might be freeing, they are, to a degree, selfish and irresponsible. Rescues are challenging enough for EMTs on urban trails, not to mention on remote mountains with poor or no cellphone reception, bad weather, and sketchy terrain. GPS devices like inReach or SPOT have added a lifeline for athletes but have also given them a false sense of security. Athletes who leave safety gear at home still expect an evac should they need one, which can be a drain on the resources of the communities funding the search-and-rescue teams.

The dilemma, then, is deciding when athletes should take full responsibility for their own well-being and prepare accordingly. On the Rundle traverse, we irresponsibly crossed the line by going without a rope. An injury would have put others at risk.

As Jornet says, there are two types of risk: the good kind, which you can manage (such as technical ability and equipment), and the bad kind, which is the risk you have no control over (weather and terrain). As the FKT movement grows, more athletes will be faced, on the spot and with the clock ticking, with gauging how much risk is acceptable. Accidents will happen. And for those who chase the records, it all boils down to a game of attrition. "It's kind of like the NBA season rolled into a couple of days," says Koerner. "Either you can play hard all the time, or the hard time plays on you."