Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece I wrote for the Speculum:
How’s your peak-bagging resume looking? Have you surveyed the red deserts from atop
All are impressive peaks but I have a few follow-up questions. Did you get a ride to Oak Grove Campground en route to
If yes, can you really claim to have “bagged” these peaks? Did you conquer the mountain even though you only climbed the top portion?
There are a growing number of peak baggers and adventurers who insist that in order to truly bag a peak, the entire mountain must be scaled from its base 100% under your own power. I encourage everyone to reach these summits anyway they are able, but for seasoned explorers looking for an additional challenge, look no further – I call it ultra climbing or ultra peak bagging.
The rules are simple. Human-powered transportation is the name of the game here: hiking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing, or rock climbing – whatever it takes to get from the very base of a mountain to the top without the aid of engines or pack animals.
Completing an ultra climb requires meticulous planning since varying trail and weather conditions are encountered with elevation gain. A good road or trail, typically along a canyon bottom, allows you to approach the mountain’s summit by mountain bike. At road’s end, stash your bike and start hiking toward the top. If cycling-specific shoes have been used to this point, you’ll need to change into hiking boots for the remainder of the climb. If a well-maintained trail leads to the top, a pair of trail-running-type shoes may suffice. More durable hiking boots are necessary if you need to scramble off-trail to the top. Climbing a desert peak in winter or spring may require packing along snowshoes or skis.
It’s not uncommon to start an ultra in shorts and a t-shirt and later celebrate at the summit wearing a winter coat and gloves. Extra clothes and gear needed to deal with extreme changes in conditions, plus extra food and water required to fuel a longer day equal a pretty heavy pack. Did I mention this is much more challenging than your usual peak bagging?
Ultra climbers find that many low-elevation peaks overlooked by traditional baggers make formidable conquests. Traditionalists seek out peaks with the highest elevations reported on maps. These elevations are relative to an arbitrary datum, sea level, and do not give an ultra climber a real sense of how tall a mountain is from its base. Instead of focusing on elevation, ultra climbers are more interested in a mountain’s prominence – a term coined by mountaineers and rigorously defined by mathematicians and geographers as the height of a peak’s summit above the lowest contour encircling it and no higher summit. Simply put, prominence is a standard of measure that accurately describes how big a mountain is relative to its surrounding terrain or base elevation.
For example, West Mountain Peak, highpoint of the Beaver Dam Mountains west of St. George at 7,680 feet above sea level is typically overlooked by orthodox peak baggers as they look on to the more lofty 11,307-foot-high summit at Brian Head. Yet, if these mountains are put on a level playing field by considering their prominence, Brian Head and
Why make a tough climb even more difficult by starting at the bottom? Imagine summiting the final stony crag of a high desert peak. As your pounding heart rate subsides, you hear only cool air rushing through stiff-needled scrub pine clinging to the summit’s lee side. Barely out of reach above, jet-stream-riding clouds race across an ultramarine sky as you swivel 360º and conclude that you are the highest object within 100 miles.
Peering down between crippled bristlecone pines and across high sinuous ridges still sheltering deep snow drifts, your eyes settle on a lush ensemble of flower-filled meadows and thick stands of spruce and aspen. Further down, the green polka-dotted pinyon and juniper forest transitions into barren and gullied sage-covered flats in the valley far below where the day’s journey began.
You marvel at the distance traveled, the elevation gained, and great changes in biotic zones thanks to nothing more than the two weary legs beneath you, bloodied from fighting thick tangles of scrub oak on the slopes below. This tremendous sense of accomplishment, the panoramic views, and the realization that it’s all downhill from here are all part of the payoff.
Test yourself against your favorite mountain and try climbing it from its base. The view from the top may still be the same and the journey will be more difficult, but the added adventure and tremendous emotional high attained from completing such a grueling feet make it well worth the effort.