8000 meters that is. Vert. On foot. Traveling 38 miles.
Each year, JanSport issues a challenge to outdoor retailers who sell their products.
Backcountry.com CEO, Jim Holland accepted the challenge from JanSport, and passed it on to his staff with emails like this:
The challenge is to ascend three peaks in Southern California, with a combined total vertical of 8000m (24,000 feet), up and down. The winner of the challenge is the retailer who can get the most employees up all three peaks by the end of the day. (In the event of a tie, the winner is the retailer who donates the most money to Big City Mountaineers)
"Let's go tough guys. Who's in?"
Twelve of us accepted his challenge:
Brendan Gibson, Brad Tollefson, Bill Hartlieb, Jamon Whitehead, Cathy Sonnenberg, Eric Miller, Colby Gilmore, Ken Myers, Walt Walter, Joel Brazle, Chris Dunn, Brenda Leonard as well as Jim himself.
Liz Dean and Ken Myers stepped up to do the planning, so in the evening before the start, we got together with the other teams at Mt. Baldy Lodge for a free feed and Skip Yowell's slideshow about his long history with JanSport. This was followed by the lowdown on the course for the next day.
For the first mountain, Mt. Baldy (aka San Antonio), we were told to "just follow the headlamps in front of you". Which we duly did at 5am the next morning. The problem though, was that those headlamps weren't following anyone, and five of us had run 25 minutes the wrong way.
The five of us were together because we had split into groups aligned with which of the four cars we had planned to be in for the trip to the next mountain. You see, as well as running up and down these three mountains, we had to drive ourselves between them - about 3hrs of total driving.
With all of our training, and we had all trained hard, and despite the extra couple of miles, Mt. Baldy wasn't too much of a challenge with 3800 ft vert over 11 miles, and the temperature was very pleasant at five in the morning. I was with the group that had taken the extra couple of miles, so found myself behind 70 other competitors at the top of the mountain. Brad and Bill (because they're arguably wiser), hadn't taken the detour, so were well placed in the top ten coming down the mountain.
That had changed a little by the start of Mt. Gorgonio, the longest and hardest of the three peaks. More efficient road logistics by my car meant that we were not far behind those guys and by the chilly top of Gorgonio, Bill and I had moved into 4th and 5th. Brad was a short way behind.
It was much easier to write that last paragraph than to actually do it ... Gorgonio gave us 5499 ft vert over 17 miles. A lot of that was seemingly interminable switchbacks up a scree slope in an adjacent drainage. The last couple of miles were much flatter, but at 11,500 feet - nothing is flat!
Back at the base of Gorgonio, backcountry.com had 3rd, 4th, and 5th, and according to the marshals, the first finishers who weren't covered in blood. The first two runners took some risks coming down the descent that was pretty technical, as well as long and grueling.
Across the desert to Palm Springs where it was 109F in the shade, the route first took a tram to 8516 feet on Mount Jacinto, and then a further 2564 feet to the summit, crossing 12 miles.
Although this was the Jansport 8000m Challenge and not the JanSport 8000m Race - we are a competitive lot, and so when we got to the tramdock ten minutes before the half-hourly tram was due to leave, we spent that ten minutes staring at the entrance, willing that no other competitors would catch up to us for the ride.
Thankfully, we were alone for the ride and enjoyed the sites from the "world's largest" rotating tram. From the top of the tram ride it was a pleasant jog up to the peak of Jacinto. This was my favorite leg. The late afternoon sunlight on the white granite was beautiful, and the view from the summit across the desert was stunning. The relief of finishing 12,000 feet of vert didn't hurt either...
On the way down, Bill, Brad and I passed the remainder of the backcountry.com team. Of the finishers, we had eight of the first eleven, and from my reckoning every one of us finished in the top thirty-five.
Brenda and Chris chose to camp for the night on the mountain, but the rest of us somewhat wearily caught the tram back down. Nursing 38 miles worth of sore feet and legs, but thinking of next year, and how we might run, or cycle, or paddle between the mountains, rather than drive.
Words by Brendan Gibson. Photos by Jim Holland. Video by Eric Miller.