Raison d’être – Tour 14er

The first step towards philosophy is incredulity – Diderot

(This is more or less, my artist statement for the challenge – the reasons to do this challenge are as singular as the person doing the challenge itself. Please, create your own reasoning, if you go for it!)

20th Century Mountaineering in general has moved from siege-style summit attempts, where an entire team was used to carry massive amounts of supplies to a base camp, establishing a highway of fixed ropes to ever higher camps upwards, to put one or just a few members of the entire party on the top of the summit; to alpine-style, where a small, self-sufficient group of individuals take on the project of summiting a mountain. By forgoing man-power and equipment, alpine style attempts can go light and fast – important in an extreme environment and a big reason for the success of the style. Siege-style is still used today, but mostly for tourist-routes on extremely popular prize mountains, like Everest, where the participants lack the experience needed for a true, alpine style ascent. Everest has itself  been done multiple times using alpine-style.

Trad. rock climbing, a subset of mountaineering, has also progressed in style from ascending a route by any means necessary to free climbing, where any protection is temporarily placed by the party, and removed as they ascend the route. Past use of fixed protection, like pitons, are now seen as bad form in most situations, as it can damage the rock face/crack, sometimes in unsightly ways (piton scars). Speed ascents of famous routes, like the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite are now attempted quite regularly in the season – often by a small party and in much, much less than a day, negating the need to bring the large amount of equipment needed to spend multiple days up on a vertical face. Many of the pitches are now done with both parties climbing simultaneously, where protection is especially minimal. By bringing much less equipment, the resources needed to attain the goal are greatly reduced.

This was seen as almost impossible only a few decades ago. The first fully-aided ascent of the same route was finally completed in 45 days (when even climbing the face at all seemed questionable) The route can now be done in under three hours. In rock climbing, once a route is established with a free ascent, doing the same line with aid is seen as bad form: it’s been proven that aid is no longer required. Going with the bare minimal of equipment to do a route safely and taking only enough time as needed is seen as a quest to get ever closer to the purity of the route.

Likewise, long-distance, self-supported cycling challenges have gained popularity in the past decade. They make the use of ever-following sag cars superfluous, as equipment, knowledge and techniques have advanced enough to allow a racer to simply ride from one resupply point (a town, a gas station, etc) to another. The Race Across America (RAAM), sometimes touted as, “World’s Toughest Bike Race” starts to fail to live up to its reputation, when both the Tour Divide (mountain bike) and Trans-Am bike (road) race follow similar or much harder routes across similar distances, but do so without the use of support vehicles or entire teams. In comparison, The Race Across America turns into the more accessible choice to undertake, with far less risks and far more creature comforts. Fully supported races do indeed still take less clock time – sometimes considerably so, but perhaps similar man-hours, when everyone’s time on the team is taken into account.

This Tour 14er challenge blends two separate disciplines together: ultra-light mountain running/alpinism (a fuzzy line itself, where a mountain like Denali has a fastest known time that’s < 12 hours and elite mountain runners easily free solo 5.6 pitches on their, “runs”) and self-sufficient individual time trail bikepacking racing.

Since these two disciplines can be combined, it’s no wonder that one would want to. If successful and a stout time is established, an argument could be made that there will be a turning point to 14er speed records: The use of a large team with multiple vehicles seems overwhelmingly superfluous, when one heavily prepared (in mind, in body, in careful choice of equipment) challenger could do all the work themselves, in a time close to what the record was in the past using full support – or even more realistically: could one challenger, self-support be more efficient in time/resources as an entire team, that only puts one individual at the top of all the summits? A Sea Change. Would going fully supported seem as silly as aiding a climbing route that has been freed?

To add to this, peak bagging 14ers in Colorado itself is becoming an increasingly popular activity. Each year, parking lots of the most accessible 14ers over-fill their capacity and summits are found crowded. It very well mean setting the record for bagging them all will also become more popular. Where is the line for this activity to be sustainable? One team, every few years is the current rate for a fully-supported attempt, but this year (2014) may see two different teams try. Could 100 fully supported teams attempt the challenge, all on a similar calendar time, with a similar peak bagging route? Where does it become unsustainable, both with the, “course” becoming crowded and the environmental impact starting to come into question? Will fully-supported attempts start to be so costly, chasing ever slimmer time savings, that only those sponsored by a large company (with motives far removed from the challenge itself) will have the opportunity to compete?

The idea to do more, using less resources is far from unique to the
completely arbitrary of climbing to the top of all the 14,000+
peaks of Colorado in the least amount of time. Farm to Table, instead of industrial farming; McMansions traded in for tiny houses; SUVs looked over for electric cars.

In comparison, is it more sustainable when the teams slimmed down to a lone individual pursuer, leaving a minimal impact in their wake, taking far less total resources to achieve a similar goal? Much like siege-style mountaineering, and alpine style ascents, fully-supported and self-supported attempts will most likely happily exist besides each other for many years to come.

I do think that it’s an important idea to contemplate and more importantly, to experiment with alternatives: thus, Tour 14er. It’s too big of an idea to just think about, without placing your feet to the trail and pedaling the pedals and prove it’s even possible itself. Even I’m not sure it really and truly is, but how many times have I stared at a blank canvas and wondered the same thing, out loud? It’ll be a wild ride, for sure.