Starting at 4 AM tomorrow morning I will attempt an unsupported fastest known time (FKT) on the Pfiffner Traverse, a 76-mile high route through Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness Areas. This project has been on my radar for years, and the pieces have finally aligned to make a go of it.
In Boulder there is disagreement over exactly what constitutes “the” Pfiffner Traverse. All variations use Milner Pass and Berthoud Pass as the termini, but beyond this parameter the interpretations range from a purist’s atop-the-Divide scramble to a more convenient mostly-trail ultra marathon course. The history of the route goes back to at least 1987 with Gerry Roach.
I’ll be following the Primary Route, which I’ve hiked and run in its entirety and in segments and about which I’ve written a guidebook. The Primary Route is the Goldilocks option: it generally stays high and close to the Continental Divide, but it deviates to avoid technical terrain, access better country, or keep a natural flow. In the tradition of backpacking high routes, this line is “just right.”
In 2011 Mark Oveson completed a supported “fast Pfiffner” in 37:44. His route and the Primary Route overlap for many stretches, but have too many differences to be put in the same time category.
The only previous FKT attempt on the Primary Route was in 2018 by Sunny Stroeer, who did it in 2 days 6 hours and 41 minutes. It’s a strong time in the women’s unsupported category.
I’m hoping to finish at least in 48 hours (B goal) but hopefully more like 36 hours (A goal). My thinking:
- My time will be most strongly correlated with the route’s vertical gain (28,500 feet), not horizontal distance (76 miles). For very mountainous courses, routes, and trails, this is predictably the case.
- My best comparison is UTMB, which had 33,300 vertical feet of gain and which in 2017 I finished in 24:44, meaning that every minute I climbed 22.4 vertical feet and descended 22.4 vertical feet, on average.
- My fitness is not as high now, so I’m thinking that 20 vertical feet of gain per minute (a 10% reduction) is a better assumption when I’m on-trail, and that 13.3 vertical feet of gain per minute (two-thirds of my on-trail vertical speed) is a realistic assumption when I’m off-trail.
- Using these assumptions, I get 28.6 hours.
- Adjust for the higher altitude (+1 hour, or 47 seconds per mile), heavier pack (+1 hour), and longer duration (+1 hour), and then add cushion for weather delays (+ 2 hours) and sleep (+2 hours).
- This gets me to 35.5 hours.
I’ll post my gear list in a separate post. When I leave the trailhead, my pack will weigh 9-10 pounds total, which has a surprising influence on pace and climbing ability.
The heaviest items:
- Food (3 pounds)
- Packed clothing (2 lbs)
- Water (1.5 pounds when full),
- My pack (1 lb), and,
- Trekking poles (10 oz when not in use)
Recently I’ve gone for a few runs with my fully loaded pack, just so the weight and organization is not foreign to me on Tuesday morning.
Like many athletes, my 2020 racing plan was blown to bits by the virus. Last November I started training for the Colorado Marathon, which would have been my entry into the 2021 Boston Marathon, and I was on track to finish in the low-2:30’s. That race was cancelled, and so too were all my backup options, including both local (Colfax, REVEL) and distant (Utah Valley, Deadwood Mickelson).
A strained calf in June knocked me out for a few weeks, but otherwise my training has been consistent (60 miles per week, two workouts per week plus a long run) and my fitness has stayed high. When I threw down a 130-mile week with 24k vertical gain last month in Yosemite, it inspired me to commit to something competitive this year.
Three factors are pointing to an August 4 start:
The full moon is today/August 3, and this extra ambient light will be hugely helpful at night, especially when trying to navigate off-trail.
The route is in-season. In late-June I attempted the single most difficult feature, the Northeast Gully, and turned around 10 feet from the top because I couldn’t get over the cornice. Six weeks later, it should no longer be a mountaineering objective.
Finally, my schedule has a gap. The summer is peak guiding season, but I’m in the middle of a 3-week lull. The timing isn’t perfect, but it’s really the only viable window.
The ideal scenario is to have a full moon, an in-season route, and bluebird skies. But typical of Colorado in August, it looks as if afternoon thunderstorms will be a factor.
I’ll be carrying an inReach and will send occasional messages along the way. Follow me here.
For more accurate track recording I will have my Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS Watch (long-term review), which in this context is still my go-to choice because of it’s long-lasting battery. The Suunto 9 (my long-term review) is a nicer watch, but I find it less useful in its battery-saving modes.