“Talk to me when you get below 1:10,” Jonathan “JT” Thesenga told me at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, a few weeks ago. A SLC local climber, JT often mentioned his sub-hour time from the car to the summit of Mount Superior. Many area climbers use the ridge as an afternoon fitness run. I had a long ways to go before hitting JT’s time.
The South Ridge of Mount Superior runs a knife line above Alta Ski Resort in Salt Lake City’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. Starting at 8,000 feet the technical 3,000 foot long ridge involves scrambling a long, airy quartz and basalt ridge with exposed sections of 5.4 terrain. At times, the rock can be loose and demands concentration. Running the ridge would boost my cardiovascular fitness, help me make it up to the bases of climbs faster and would be fun. I tightened my approach shoes.
My first time up the ridge this year, Stacey Pearson and I fought through bushes looking for the trail. A large moose ate leaves, watching us thrash up the hill. We tried to find the correct path and figured out the trail, for the most part. Reaching the 11,050 foot peak took us 1:35 from the car. We jogged slowly down the trail. The next day, I bragged to JT about our time. That’s when he gave me the challenge of running up the hill faster.
Moving quickly over easy fifth class terrain is a skill that many Yosemite climbers have mastered. There are numerous speed ascents for the 1400 foot Royal Arches, for the climbs on the 600 foot tall Manure Pile, and across the Valley floor. Climbers have timed themselves on traverses in the Tetons and down in Patagonia. I sought advice from some of the fastest climbers.
“When I give tips for 5th class competition speed climbing I suggest people envision “swimming” up the route. I suggest they do not look at their feet, but try hard to remember where their foot placements would match the last hand they just held,” said Diablo Rock Gym manager Hans Florine. Florine has “run” routes like Royal Arches numerous times and found that his legs were always the limiting factor. “So whenever I could pull more on my arms I did.”
My next time up the mountain, I found more of the trail and I began using some of Florine’s tips. By cutting out the bushwhacking and “swimming” up the ridge line, I shaved 12 minutes off my time. A few days later, I attempted the ridge again with a friend who had “run” it a few times. We cut the time down to 1:16. This time, I thought about the splits on the run and how to break the run down into sections. I checked my watch and realized that a large chute on the ridge was half way up the ridge in terms of time.
“It is very useful to mark a distinctive place approximately 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 up the route,” said Florine. “IF you do the route again and again, you can easily see trends where you have your best overall time on the route when the time to finish the last portion is faster then the first portion(s).”
“No track record was ever set without negative splits,” Alex Honnold told me, reiterating Florine’s advice. We had been climbing together a bit and we discussed how I could go faster on the ridge. “If you want to run a sub 4 minute mile, the pace has to be 58, 57, 55, 54. You should be accelerating.” Honnold and Hans set a number of speed records in Yosemite.
“Start off slow then go, go, go,” Honnold said, reminding me of the negative splits concept. “Start off fast, just won’t last.” We stood at the base of the South Ridge. I would be leaving Salt Lake City soon and this would be my last attempt to break JT’s time. Alex decided to join me. I hit the stop watch at the base. We walked briskly up the talus. Honnold stepped on my heels. I charged as hard as I could up the ridge. My legs felt tired already. In twenty minutes, we hit the ridge. Twenty minutes later, we hit the just over half-way point at Suicide Chute.
“Often you might feel bad on the first half but take a peek at your watch and find that you are on record pace. I have had some of my very best times on climbing/running loops where I felt “off” or slow in the first part, only to find I was on record pace 1/2 or 3/4s through the climb or run. That gives you the mental boost to push to the finish and perhaps get a record time,” said Florine.
I pushed my legs as fast as they would go. I wasn’t sure who screamed louder at me- my lungs or Alex. I could see the mailbox at the summit. I ran faster. Alex hit the stop watch at the top. 1:05:30. Figuring out the best path, breaking the run down and the advice from Honnold and Florine had worked.