At the end of the summer I had the chance to take on a new, unique endurance challenge called 29029: an event that involves continuously hiking to the top of a mountain until you achieve the elevation of Mount Everest. The event originated last year in Stratton, Vermont and this year an event was added on the last weekend of August in Snowbasin, Utah. I had hoped to write about the event a bit sooner, but I’ve been quite
l̶a̶z̶y̶ busy since then.
I first became familiar with the concept of “Everesting” in the cycling world when an athlete I work with, who lived in Hong Kong at the time, decided to do this at the end of the 2015 season. You can see his Strava file from that day HERE and you can read more about the details of Everesting (in cycling) HERE.
Fast forward to this past summer when I first learned about this concept being applied to athletes on foot. Jesse Itzler and his team had created an event in Vermont the year prior (with the aid of a gondola for the descents). They provided all the support needed (food, accom, recovery, medical, etc) giving folks the logistical and supportive solutions to take on this exceptional challenge.
In 2018, they were looking to expand their events in the West and they chose Snowbasin, Utah as a new venue in late August. In addition to their expansion, they were looking to add pre-event presenters that could help cover topics and material that would be helpful to those taking on the challenge. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a part of the panel; my topic was the mental aspect of approaching such an event. I was given the option to only present if I wanted, and during many racing seasons I probably would have gone that route, but with a summer free of racing I had more flexibility to take part in some new adventures. I told them I was not only in for presenting, but that I planned to do the event in full as well.
It was hard to know what to anticipate with this challenge. I’ve done a lot of fast hikes here in Boulder, but I rarely ever did more than 2-4K vertical at a time, about 1/10 of the upcoming event. I initially had hoped to take a day trip to Vail as it has a summit trail and gondola in close enough proximity that you could easily do 4-5 laps during their operating hours. However, that never happened so I was going to have to make some assumptions as to how this might all play out.
I flew into Salt Lake City on Thursday morning and met up with Rob Mohr and Ken Rideout, two friends that were taking part in the event. Both are high level athletes, but similar to me, they had no idea as to how this event would go and what to really expect. After a quick swim in a nice SLC rec center, we made our way up to Snowbasin (about 45-60 minutes northeast of the city).
29029 did a great job in choosing Snowbasin as a host venue for its first event out West. Snowbasin hosted the alpine ski races for the 2002 Olympics, but it has abstained from any substantial resort developments. It has very nice base facilities (warming huts, ski patrol lodges, etc), but there are no hotels, condos or third party restaurants. I talked to some of the local staff that were helping with the event and they told me that the owners of the mountain had chosen to keep Snowbasin an intimate place that is a “skier’s mountain.” Because of this, it really felt like we had the mountain to ourselves over the weekend. Even though the mountain was still open for public use, it was hard to tell there was anyone there aside from the 29029 participants and its staff.
Rob, Ken and I arrived shortly before the daily presentations were about to begin. Upon arrival, I met Marc Hodulich and Jesse Itzler, the two owners of the event. Marc told me that while I had originally been scheduled to speak that evening, I was being moved up to 2nd speaker which was about 90 minutes from the time we arrived. I was actually quite happy to be moved up as I had woken up that morning feeling under the weather and felt like my energy levels might be fading by the time an evening presentation came around.
As I mentioned earlier, I was given the topic of “Mental Approach.” When I was creating the presentation, I had two ideas that I wanted to incorporate: one was a story about Peter Reid winning the 2000 Ironman World Championship and the second was an analogy about treading water that I use when describing the mind’s role in performance. However, neither actually made the cut. I just couldn’t get the two points to flow together, but maybe one day I can get them to work.
I’ve done a variety of presentations to a wide range of audiences and it’s always interesting to find out what resonates with people (hopefully at least one thing does). In this case, I kept hearing about one specific point that I will quickly mention. It’s what I called “keep turning left.”
When I was in college, I primarily rode three different cycling routes. Two of the routes began with the same 30 miles; at the end of that 30 miles, if you turned right it was the 60-mile route. If you turned left, it was the 120-mile route. There were a number of days when I was rolling out that I would come up with plenty of reasons to turn right and take the easy way home, even when that wasn’t the plan. In response to this, I started to tell myself “just turn left.” The hardest part wasn’t necessarily having to ride 120 miles, it was starting to ride 120 miles. In the 29029 event, participants were going to have to keep repeating the same climb over and over again. My advice was to not overthink it in the moment and just take the first step; “just keep turning left.”
29029 also had presentations from author Dr. Jason Karp, coach Chris Hauth and nutritionist Emilee Wise. All three of them brought unique expertise during their own presentations as well as a round table discussion. All of them would also be taking part in the event the next morning.
The 29029 event was set to begin on Friday morning at 6:00 a.m. For the next 36 hours, participants would have the ability to hike up the mountain as many times as possible (with gondola return). In order to achieve the elevation of Everest, it would take 13 total summits. Each summit gained about 2,350 in 2.3 miles. Prior to the event, I had an image in my head of a fairly steep, but well established trail as the route to the top.
They sent us straight up an offseason ski hill. This meant steep grades, deep grass, loose rocks and no consistent trail or single track, other than the last 300 feet of vertical that followed the cat track to the top of the gondola.
Back to 6:00 a.m.
Rob, Ken and I made our way to the front of the group just before the official start. Jesse Itzler was rallying the crowd with a pre-29029 speech. Jesse is a high energy guy and also highly motivating; something I cannot relate to being at 6:00 a.m. Those that know me well, know about my aversion to early mornings.
Prior to the event kicking off, I talked with Rob about how I felt we should approach the challenge. Rob was getting ready to race Kona in 8 weeks time and both of us were trying to find a balance between giving the event a good effort and not being too tired post event to get back into regular training. My suggestion was to break up the hikes as 5/3 on day one and 3/2 on day two. With this approach, we would do five hikes straight off the bat, take a break for lunch, then do three by 5:00 that evening. On day two, the idea would be to do three hikes in the morning, take a break, then close out the final two in the afternoon. As far as pacing was concerned, I didn’t mind how much time we took between each hike, but I wanted to try and stay as consistent as possible from the first hike to the the last hike. In order to do that, I felt that the first trip up would need to generally feel pretty comfortable.
The mass start of the event was great. It was still dark out, so those with headlamps were leading the way and we were getting our first taste of the trail that wasn’t a trail. We made our way up to the first summit in a little under an hour. There were probably about 10 of us summitting together for the first lap. Among the group were 2016 Olympic Triathletes Joe Maloy and Greg Billington. I had never met either of them before, but triathlon is a small enough world that we had mutual friends.
After returning to base, we headed up on our second trip and I paired up with Joe for most of the way. It was one of the most memorable parts of the weekend for me as I got a lot of insight into his journey to racing in the Olympics, both the ups and the downs. The hike, and conversation, lasted less than an hour, but I learned a lot from him in that time. While we were walking up, he mentioned: “I think I could run up this” and I thought he was crazy. It seemed like half the time we were hiking we were stuck to the ground; I couldn’t imagine trying to run a full lap.
Then about 10-15 minutes into my third lap, I hear someone behind me, and it’s Joe. He’s laughing and running past me up the mountain.
There’s a reason he raced in the Olympics.
I know he had the fastest single lap of anyone during the event, but can’t remember the actual time. I believe it was somewhere in the low 30-minute range. Impressive to say the least.
Day one ticked by pretty nicely for me, Ken and Rob. We stuck to the plan and finished our 8 laps by 5:00 that evening. I took splits for each lap and wore a HRM; to give some context to the numbers, my running threshold heart rate is around 180.
Day One Splits:
56:52 137 average heart rate, (153 max HR)
56:16 136 (152)
59:47 133 (148)
56:03 137 (150)
57:42 133 (147)
One hour break for lunch, then
58:28 131 (145)
59:06 127 (146)
57:22 133 (147)
After cleaning up and eating dinner, we went back to the base. Greg Billington had been rolling continuously at a good clip all day and was now down to his final lap. He decided to go back to his tent to get some lighter shoes so that he could go even faster up the last lap.
There’s a reason he raced in the Olympics.
Greg took off and was the first person to complete all 13 summits, finishing around 9:00 p.m. which amounted to ~15 hours of total time including gondola trips, refueling, etc. A few other athletes finished in the final hours of the evening as well. I’d like to try and do this event straight some time in the future as I do believe that would make for a whole different kind of experience.
On Day two, I woke up around 5:00 a.m. and made my way over to the base area. The gondola was running along and people we offloading and heading back up the mountain. It was inspiring to see folks that had been pushing through the night in their attempt to get in as many summits as possible. Pushing yourself through the night requires a lot of mental and physical fortitude. I gained an immense amount of respect for all those people as I watched them dig deep to get the most out of themselves.
After a slower morning, Ken, Rob and I set out for the final five summits. We opted to do four summits right off the bat and then do the final summit at a casual pace, hoping to recruit as many people as possible. The morning went without issue and then we took a long 2-3 hour break before the final lap. We got Greg, Joe and Marc to all join us on the victory lap and it was a great way to close out the challenge.
Day Two splits:
57:11 125 (148)
58:31 124 (140)
61:33 120 (138)
58:55 123 (139)
3 hour lunch break
Final lap in 1:10:48 119 (138)
That evening, Jesse and Marc hosted the closing ceremonies with recognition and awards for everyone. I saw Jesse off to the side before the awards jotting down notes and stories about the past two days. It was fun to hear him share his own experience as well as that of some of the others.
One of the really unique aspects of the event is that it’s a shared experience regardless of the speed that you are traveling up the mountain. As the two days go on, you pass, or get passed by other participants where you exchange words of encouragement. You eat meals with different people, you take the gondola down with different people. The way I explained it to Marc afterwards, is that 29029 combined the aspects of a race with that of a training camp. A race is primarily a personal experience with personal goals, whereas training camps are a shared experience, often with collective goals. I felt as though 29029 brought these two experiences together.
At the awards that evening, different people gave their own accounts of the past two days. One person had come to the event with the goal of getting to the top one time. He managed to get up five times instead. Another mentioned that he had never done a hike before and he summitted multiple times. Another person told me that she was pushing to get in her 11th summit before the cutoff and in order to do so, her last lap had to be over an hour faster than all her other summits. She did it.
There were other stories as well, many of them with another version of self growth. When they all thought they had given so much, they found they could give even more.
A big thanks for Marc, Jesse, Garth and all the 29029 crew for letting me join their event. I’d also like to thank Rob and Ken for being excellent hiking bros.
I hope to be a part of other 29029’s in the future and would highly recommend you all to do the same.
And now some photosH