I followed Hardrock intently all weekend. Online checkpoint times for runners and tweets from runners and crew out on the course. But you never get the full story. And you never get a real feel for what it is like out there. I received part of Joe Prusaitis' report just now and although I haven't had a chance to check with him if he is happy for me to post it, I feel it compelling enough that it has to be shared. Joe is an extremely experienced ultrarunner with bags of Hardrock finishes including a HR/Badwater double. He doesn't need to embellish so read what follows and remember this was all at night. Deb Pero told me she experienced the same but she was coming last and alone out there. Helps explain the high drop out rate just for starters.
"Thunderheads lined up one behind the other, with clear patches of stars between each. Sleet and hail hurled sideways into us with enough force to lift anything loose and soak what was underneath. Had we been at 10000-ft it would have been a nasty storm, but near the summit of 14000-ft handies Peak… it was much more than that. This was stupid crazy. We had to summit quickly before the lightning started or retreat back to Burrows Park. My gloves were soaked through and my hands were numb and stinging. I knew that I had to climb the next few pitches very fast, but I couldn't breath and was reduced to a crawl, barely moving. Marty was right behind me, Jim just in front. Jim was moving well, so he was quickly over the top and gone. Inching upwards carefully through a field of frozen snow, we reach the ridge just below the summit, where we both stop to catch our wind. The next face is all rock and very steep. Just below the summit, I see then hear the first
flash of lightning. I stop and lay low for a few minutes, taking the time to put away my trekking poles. Marty is just below me, when I reach the summit. Another flash and boom, so I lay as low as possible. I yell back down to Marty but he can't hear me. A few moments of calm and I'm up and running as fast as I can go at 14000-ft. I reach the highest point, looking back to see Marty following, then turn and sprint down towards American Basin. There is nowhere to hide, no cover… and fear drives me faster. On the naked ridge hanging over Boulder Gulch, 1000 ft down, I stop and lay down facing back up the mountain… looking for Marty. He's nowhere in sight. I wonder where he is... what's happened to him. I don't know what to do. I lay there on the ground with the thunderheads roiling overhead and being pelted by the hail… searching the barren face for Marty. What the hell is he doing? I can't go back up! I have to go down… but I wait. 5 minutes feel like 3
0. I'm not sure how long, and then a light and another... Marty with somebody else. Its too loud to talk so its impossible to answer my questions. I get up and start running again… another 4 or 5 switchbacks, then I turn and look back again. Both of them are way back. I'm either moving very fast or they're moving very slow, but this is killing me. I wait again, and while I wait, I search my pack to see if there's anything else I can use to stay warm. I find the cheap rubber garden gloves Joyce put in for the snow. I remove my soaking wet gloves and put the garden gloves on. My hands are frozen and wet so its awkward, but I finally get them on. When Marty and the other guy get to me, I get up and start running again. Down to the snow field, I stop and wait again. A few minutes or more, they get closer, but I go before they get close. I cross the snow field, which is turning to ice. The hail and sleet are constant, but my hands seem to be warming in the runner gloves. I
keep moving now, no longer content to wait. I need to escape the storm before I go hypothermic. The combination of altitude and cold is clouding my thinking. I feel fuzzy and numb. My frozen popsicle feet are soaking wet from the snow melt marsh we passed through just before summit. One thought persists in my muddy mind… 'keep moving', so I start running again. From flag to flag, down into the American Basin. I turn now and again to see if Marty follows and I can see that his light is higher as I drop further. The tracks through the snow sometimes lead to a flag but mostly I just head towards the high ridge which I think is the pass that leads over into Grouse Gulch. The snow is mostly ice, turning to slushy mud. When we marked this route last week, the entire basin was snow, so we chose a route across the snow by guessing where the trail was underneath. Now, it's a patchwork of snow and rock, such that sometimes the route we marked is on trail but mostly its 10 to 20 f
eet offset. The current snow track is not aligned directly with the rock trail. I go along for 50 yards of snow, then have to climb 20 feet of rock up to the trail for 50 yards, then drop back down to the next snow track, and repeat. Over a shallow hump of snow, I glissade down into a mess of slush and running water, then hop a larger flow, and crawl up a muddy bank. Over and again I check back to see if anyone follows. A series of lights dot from the top of Handies down into the basin and I'm surprised how many people there are. The storm seems to fade for a bit and I can hear my own ragged breathing, but I can't stop. The route seems to go on for such a long time. In the darkness, Its impossible to tell how far I've gone and how far remains. Hail starts coming down hard and fast again, and that's when I realize I'm standing just under the exit ridge. I push across the saddle and drop quickly. It a messy sopping wet marsh of snow melt, tundra, and rock and then into Grouse G
ulch. I slip on the edge of the track and start sliding down and realize I'm off trail. I look back to see a flag above and off to the right and another directly underneath. Instead of trying to climb back up, I simply keep sliding down through the switchback into another snow field towards the next flag. Reaching the flag, the snow track goes right and back onto a muddy dirt trail. I have escaped the worst of it. It's an easy track from here, heading directly down and out.
And that was just the first set of storms..."
I am not sure exactly how many Hardrocks Joe has done but it's a lot. He missed last year after developing pulmonary oedema in the lead-up to the race. The year before he finished after the final cut-off, but finished nevertheless. So this year he was looking for some redemption and told me before the race he was feeling good. He is possibly the most experienced ultrarunner I know and was the inspiration behind me starting Trailrunningcompany with his race directing and coaching business Tejas Trails. When he found out about my heart problem and that I was out of Hardrock he asked if there was anything he could do for me. I asked if he could put an extra rock on the Joel Zucker memorial cairn on Grant-Swamp pass for me as is the tradition (Hardrock100/Joel). I never met Joel but his death in 1998 soon after finishing his 3rd Hardrock always resonates with me. More so now I have this affliction. Following the results online over the weekend I was bitterly disappointed to see Joe drop out at Ouray. Having read his account above I now have a better understanding of why. So Joe never made it as far as Grant-Swamp this year in the counter-clockwise direction. I hope I get a chance to put an extra rock on that cairn next year with him.