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Words of caution: FKT’ing or “running” the Pfiffner Traverse

Looking down the steep Northeast Gully, the most technical section of the Pfiffner Traverse. Snow lingers until August in a normal year, and is better than what’s underneath: loose rock and dirt.

In a recent photo essay in Trail Runner, Sunny Stroeer gave a hearty endorsement of the Pfiffner Traverse, for which she set a 55-hour fastest known time (FKT) last summer:

“The Pfiffner Traverse is a mountain runner’s dream: miles of smooth, gentle singletrack that flow through high mountain meadows and across infrequently traveled passes along the Continental Divide’s alpine beauty. Stretches of exposed, soft alpine tundra switch off with fragrant forest and lush wetlands defined by sparkling streams and colorful explosions of wildflowers. During the height of summer, majestic elk graze peacefully above treeline here. Crystal-clear alpine lakes, waterfalls, views for days and solitude: this run has it all.”

I’m flattered by her description of the route, which is more lyrical and poetic than anything I’ve written about it, but I’m nervous that her article oversells it to Trail Runner’s audience. Sunny writes, “I am convinced that this crown jewel of the Colorado Rockies has the potential of being ultra running’s next great test piece, nestled in difficulty squarely between the Grand Canyon’s marquee Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and the superhuman peak bagger’s linkup that is Nolan’s 14.”

I’m not as convinced.

Yes, the Pfiffner Traverse is squarely in the wheelhouse of a short list of mountain endurance athletes like Jared Campbell, Joe Grant, Heather Anderson, and obviously Sunny. But for trail and ultra runners with less robust skill sets (i.e. most of them), it’d be an ill-suited undertaking. It’s nothing like Rim to Rim or a conventional ultra marathon course.

As a baseline, let’s compare the difficulty of the Pfiffner Traverse with one of the most difficult ultra marathons in the US, the Hardrock 100. Both routes:

  • Are very high, with elevations usually between 10,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level;
  • Have extreme vertical change per distance — 660 feet per mile on Hardrock, and 750 vertical feet per mile on the Pfiffner; and,
  • Subject to violent thunderstorms, unreliable cell service, and run-ins with antlered wildlife.

But the Pfiffner is grades harder than Hardrock. In some respects, it’s also more difficult than Nolan’s 14:

1. Route access

Milner Pass and Berthoud Pass serve as the northern and southern termini of the Pfiffner, and both are crossed by paved highways. But in between there is only one vehicle-accessible spot, 16 miles from the southern terminus via a gravel road.

Otherwise, the route can only be accessed on foot or stock (no bicycles), usually by hiking in about 8 miles and up 2,500 vertical feet. Even with a multi-person and multi-vehicle support crew, the Pfiffner demands self-reliance.

2. Off-trail

Forty percent (31 miles) of the 76-mile Pfiffner is off-trail. To successfully and safely navigate these sections, you must be able to expertly read a map, use a compass, utilize your altimeter, operate a GPS, and identify the line of least resistance between two points — not just run between course markings, or take out your map only at trail junctions.

3. Technical difficulty

When it’s not off-trail, the Pfiffner is almost always on singletrack — once, it follows a jeep road for a mere quarter-mile. As a result, almost every mile is hard-won — there are only a few stretches where you can disengage and auto-pilot.

And some sections are particularly difficult, on par with the worst of Nolan’s. They involve tedious travel through blowdown-filled spruce/fir forests; risky rock-hopping across talus, rockfall, craggy ridgelines, and blockfield; and scrambling up steep snowfields (up to 40 degrees) or slabs. It’s a no-fall zone, and bailouts and rescues will not be fast.

A more reasonable approach

Not entirely deterred? If you’re a trail or ultra runner who would like to take on the Pffifner, my recommendation is to:

1. Backpack it — or, if it will make you feel better about yourself, say that you’re “fastpacking” it. Carry overnight gear, maintain a sustainable pace, and budget 7 to 10 days.

2. Take on just a section of it. The Pfiffner Traverse Guide includes maps, a route description, and mileage chart for seven recommended loops.

One Response to Words of caution: FKT’ing or “running” the Pfiffner Traverse

  1. Jacob Kosker October 14, 2018 at 9:33 pm #

    I am a seasoned backpacker and trailrunner with a few ultras under my belt. Nothing extraordinary but I hope my experience adds to my perspective on this post.

    After I completed the Pfiffner traverse this last August I weighed in on the idea of running or at least fastpacking portions of it. However, with hindsight, I would say that much of the route is really not runnable except for: 1 Athletes who are in top shape, 2. Have traversed the route a handful of times for familiarity, and 3. are willing to take on the real possibility of injury. Additionally, I could not imagine trying to find my way through some of the boulder/talus fields in the dark. Nor would it be easy to navigate around some of those immense ledge systems in the dark. It was difficult enough in daylight to keep good footing. And yes the Northeast gully really sucks without snow cover. I did the Pfiffner route solo and would not recommend the risk without a PLB of some kind which I did not carry but wish I had. I have yet to do a full write up of my experience but on a southbound traverse I ended up going to the left of the Northeast gully to another notch and avoided it altogether.

    As for taking on the whole Pfiffner Traverse in one sleep-deprived hallucinogenic push for glory I really don’t get it. I have previously completed a 70 mile and a 100 mile ultra with much of the latter race completed in the dark. I prefer to see the scenery and take in everything with my senses at peak performance. If we (Americans) had the metric system then this construct of the 100 mile race which requires so much nighttime travel would be largely avoided. 100K is the way to go. Additionally, I wish ultras were offering more races with the option of staged legs with a night of rest in between. It could still be just as challenging. My point is why run when it is dark and you are tired? No one cares.

    For those who want to run the Pfiffner Traverse my recommendation echoes Skurkas: take on a section of it and put together your own personal project that meets your needs yet remains pleasurable and safe. I would recommend setting up a base camp at a campground or other front country lodging and run sections of the route without being laden by a week’s worth of food and gear. And don’t worry it would still not at all be “gentle” or “flowing”. A bushwack mountaineering adventure run would be a more fitting description.

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