As the worlds of trail running and technical mountaineering collide, rescuers are sharing the message that fitness alone is not enough to successfully navigate remote mountains where the risks of an accident are amplified.
“There’s a big difference between going out for a trail run on some in-town trails and venturing up into the San Juans and some really challenging terrain,” said Brett Sublett, who has owned Durango Running Co. for eight years.
There’s a strong light-is-right ethos in trail running that eschews laden packs. But as more athletes take their trail running fitness into steep, remote mountainous terrain, which requires safety gear, planning and more careful movement, the community of trail runners sees a growing need for education. The reorientation for runners comes after two athletes have gone missing on remote trails in the San Juans since July.
The educational focus is not unlike the increase in backcountry safety education in the past 20 years as more skiers with skills honed on lift-served slopes venture into avalanche terrain, where a more diverse skill set is required for safe descents and navigation.
“There are an increasing number of people going into very remote places on some pretty ambitious outings where a misstep can lead to disaster if they don’t have safety gear and are not searchable with something like a Garmin InReach,” said Brendan Trimboli, a longtime Durango runner who organizes the 15-mile Kennebec Mountain Run in the La Plata Mountains every year as a fundraiser for the La Plata County Search and Rescue team. “I think our sport has reached a point where we need to wrap it with a bit of responsibility while still keeping it fun.”
Beloved Durango runner David Lunde has been missing since Oct. 1, when he parked his car at the trailhead for Madden Peak in La Plata Canyon and went for a run on the remote La Plata Enchilada route. Dozens of local volunteers have joined search and rescue teams looking for the 29-year-old Lunde, a rancher respected for his trail running prowess. Searchers recently suspended daily ground missions trying to find him.
On July 17, 22-year-old Daniel Lamthach, a volunteer for the grueling Hardrock 100 race, went for a run off Molas Pass. He was not prepared for a night in the wilderness. The next day hikers found his cellphone on the Elk Creek Trail. Search and rescuers spent 10 days searching the area with planes and helicopter-dropped crews around the Trinity Peaks area. Severe weather, lightning strikes and a mudslide hindered the search, which officials suspended on July 27 after more than 250 personnel hours spent by the crews with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and 600 hours spent by local rescuers.
Search and rescue teams have a growing list of missions involving ultrarunners in steep, remote terrain. In July 2018, 39-year-old Hannah Taylor, a popular Summit County ski coach and accomplished mountain athlete was killed in a fall in the Gore Range. A month later rescuers with Summit County Rescue Group needed a helicopter from the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site – or HAATS – in Gypsum to hoist an injured trail runner off the Tenmile Traverse.
Just like Taylor, the man had grabbed a rock to maneuver around an outcropping and the rock ripped loose. He took “a significant fall, life and limb threatening,” said Charles Pitman, who was involved in the mission to save the man, who was from Europe. “The HAATS hoist operation likely saved his life as it would have been a very long, precarious, and technically difficult rescue to carry him out.”
In 2019, rescuers in Rocky Mountain National Park needed a helicopter from Buckley Space Force Base to rescue a trail runner who had fallen near The Trough on Longs Peak. Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said the 30-year-old man was “very lucky” that nearby travelers were able to keep him warm with extra layers in the hours it took to extricate the injured man.
Patterson said park rescuers are seeing more runners on Longs Peak and other remote locations in the park.
“Most of the time because their objective is to move quickly, they have very little with them including additional layers and water. If an accident occurred, they would be ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the situation,” she said. “We do have more and more people also mixing trail running with climbing and mountaineering objectives. Often attempting to complete fastest recorded times without proper mountaineering or climbing equipment.”
In October 2020, Hinsdale County searchers recovered the body of Ben Brownlee, a 26-year-old former college cross-country runner below Redcloud Peak after he was reported missing from a solo trek up the 14er.
No one is saying any of these athletes did anything wrong. The recent push for education among athletes charging deeper into remote areas with minimal gear is more about ways to prevent future accidents.
“When you are choosing to go light, your ability to move quickly is your lifeline,” Trimboli said. “If something goes wrong and you can’t move quickly, you are screwed.”
No educational campaign plans are formalized yet, but runners and rescuers are working on messaging that urges runners venturing into technical terrain to plan and tell others where you are going, make sure you have the skills for the route and carry essential safety gear for longer runs in remote terrain, including layers, a bivy sack, backup food, a medical kit and a satellite-connected device to call for help.
Ron Corkish, who has served more than 34 years with La Plata County Search and Rescue, understands that runners don’t want to carry 10-pound packs on trails.
But athletes exploring distant trails – the La Plata Enchilada loop, for example, can stretch 40 miles and swift runners need at least 20 hours to complete it – should always have a way to call for help. A charged cellphone or a satellite-connected device can not just save a life, but it can settle worried loved ones who may call rescuers when a runner doesn’t return on time.
“It’s lightweight and it has some expense but it’s one of the best ways to tell the world I’m OK or I need help,” said Corkish, who suggests mountain runners also bring a way to start a fire and extra layers, preferably in bright, not-nature-y colors.
(On recent searches, airborne rescuers have captured high-resolution video that is filtered through software that can identify colors not typically seen in nature, like royal blue, Corkish said.)
Rescuers and runners also hope to direct backcountry explorers toward weather forecasts so they can be prepared for the sudden changes common in the Colorado high country.
Education can start with a simple “vernacular adjustment,” Sublett said, like shifting how insiders define routes to differentiate between trail running and technical mountain running.
“Anyone can twist an ankle or blow out a knee on a run,” Anna DeBattiste with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association said. “Do you have what you need to survive for hours if you’re not moving to stay warm? A high level of fitness will not save you if you are injured.”
Durango runners Sublett and Trimboli have seen more runners tackling high-consequence routes without proper preparation. Many have seen social media feeds of uber-athletes like Kilian Jornet, a world-renowned runner who nimbly gallops across alpine ridges. Strava feeds highlight aggressive routes, making them not so consequential.
For example, Sublett often hears from out-of-towners in his shop asking about Wham Ridge, a steep, remote climb on Vestal Peak in the San Juans’ Weminuche Wilderness. It requires more than 16 miles of running, all far from any road.
“We tell them if you are Kilian Jornet, it’s not hard at all. But it really depends on your ability level and your skills and experience with exposure in highly consequential terrain,” Sublett said.
It’s the same scenario that unfolded decades ago as ski movies illuminated top-tier athletes ripping through avalanche terrain without necessarily showing the days of study and years of training that led those skiers to those lines. In the 1990s, backcountry skiers didn’t always carry an avalanche beacon, rescue shovel and probe. Many backcountry skiers 30 years ago didn’t take avalanche safety classes or annual refreshers.
Now it’s rare to see anyone in the snowy backcountry without safety equipment. Avalanche awareness classes are packed. Traffic to avalanche forecasts offered by state-funded scientists like those at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center continues to grow.
So education campaigns can work to improve awareness of the risks in the backcountry. That’s the goal of endurance runners and rescuers hoping for more heads-up adventuring in the mountains.
“The bar keeps getting raised in our sport,” said Sublett, who also is the course director for the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile race through technical terrain in the San Juans that once ranked as a pinnacle event in endurance running. “Now people are seeking out even bigger, steeper, gnarlier terrain. There is an appetite for it and people need to be well-equipped and well-informed.”