Life above Treeline – a thematic interview series offering perspectives from the people who live and run mountains. Each interview is based around seven themes (performance, style, fear, time, meaning, character and experience) as a framework for conversation about experiences in the mountains.
The more time Tony and I spend researching fun, interesting lines in the mountains around Boulder, Colorado the more we hear the name Bill Briggs – Bill time-trialing the flatirons, Bill speed soloing Gerry Roach’s top ten flatiron classics, Bill on the Glacier Gorge traverse, Bill on Longs Peak, Bill linking fourteeners, etc. Bill Briggs permeates every aspect of Colorado running, climbing and scrambling in such a way that he became a sort of myth to us, directly integrated into our vernacular. When cruxing on a move or struggling on a extended traverse, we would often joke that Bill would probably just march right up this or casually solo it in his running shoes. We look up to Bill, he is one the greats who laid the foundation of extended, single day pushes on complex alpine terrain in the Colorado Rockies. To our great pleasure, Bill accepted to sit down with us for a couple of hours over a beer to answer some of our questions for the Life Above Treeline interview series. Being as humble as he is, the conversation does not impart how exceptional some of his accomplishments are, but does give some insight into his approach to the mountains. The next day, inspired by our meeting with Bill, we made our first fourteener ascent of the year on Longs Peak via the Kiener’s route, the photos of which accompany this post.
BB: I’m sure you’ve both gotten criticism for being obsessed with time and not being able to go out and just enjoy a day in the mountains – you have to do it fast.
TK: I feel that in the greater mountaineering community there’s that criticism. We’re not doing anything terribly difficult, technically speaking, so we have to resort to doing it fast in order for it to be at all notable, I guess. So since I can’t climb 5.12, I’ll just climb 5.4 as fast as I can. [laughs]
BB: Even if you take climbing out of it, lets just look at peak bagging, it wasn’t so much going fast that meant a lot to me (I’m talking in the past tense already as if this was all history) [laughs], rather it was going a long distance. For instance, I’d pick a group of peaks that I’d like to do but that would have to be feasible to do in a day. For some reason I can’t explain, I always got into this framework of trying to do days in the mountains from more or less dawn to dusk, give or take.
TK: Well, sleeping in a bed at night is always nice.
BB: That might be it but I also didn’t like to be away from my family too long and usually had work commitments. So I’d just pick a day, leave home at 3am, then go up in the central mountains somewhere for a long day and come home at night. That to me was the most satisfying. The idea of having an objective of say ten peaks or whatever it might have been and that I can you do it in a day, is what I think lead me to try to go fast.
TK: There’s certainly a nice symmetry to that.
BB: That doesn’t however explain why you’d want to go do time trials on the flatirons since that doesn’t quite fit into the same thing of trying to cover a lot of distance.
TK: It’s an extension of that though. I see it almost as a training stepping-stone, honing your skills for bigger objectives. For me it’s also much more about the headspace you get into when trying to go fast, which is much different that when you’re simply clunking along – I just find flow in moving over rock really quickly and it’s a lot of fun.
JG: Would you say there’s a competitive side to it?
BB: I was actually thinking about this before we met tonight. Things have changed so much. When I first started trail running and then pursuing longer runs for time, there was no community at all. I would go out and do stuff and keep records by writing them down on a log, but I might have two people to tell about it…I’d usually call my brother and tell him, and a couple of buddies I ran with. Given that there were so few of us, there was no sense of competition at all – it was entirely internal. That’s changed so much. My brother and I had this piece of paper, maybe two pages with records that we knew about. That’s the only place that I knew that we’d record times. Roger [Bill’s brother], in some ways, got a lot of people started because he was the cross country coach at Fairview High in the early eighties. His innovation was to get his runners together in the summer time, and there were rules about training where you couldn’t actually have formal workouts for a high school cross country team, but you could go on camp outs, you could go on morning runs in the mountains (which were voluntary). He’d bring along other people like me and his wife so it would look like a big group just going for a run. In the summertime, he would train his runners with trail running and time trials up Bear Peak and so forth so then in the fall, they’d have a tremendous base. Roger started trail running with his cross country team and some of his runners such as Mike Sullivan who had the record on Longs Peak, were really outstanding runners. So anyway, the contrast between the running scene now and back then is really amazing. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just different. Now you really have community. If I wanted to go do a 6 hour run, I’d do so alone most of time because I didn’t know of anyone else that was interested in it.
JG: Coming back to scrambling and the methods you employ in the mountains, you choose to solo [climbing without a rope] a lot. Even if the routes are reasonably easy by climbing standards, a lot of people wouldn’t consider soloing such climbs. Did you think of this as a style choice?
BB: Speed. It’s really just to go light and fast. If you carry a climbing rope and a harness, it just takes a lot longer.
JG: So specifically matching your ability to the vision that you have such as if you can solo 5.7 anywhere, onsight, a lot of possibilities open up for harder link ups.
TK: That’s part of why your approach Bill is so interesting to me because you were doing this 25-30 years ago without much precedent. It’s such a hybridization of two activities which I find really satisfying, probably because it’s hard to have both skill sets.
BB: 5.7 is probably about my limit in approach shoes which is what I’d be wearing on these types of routes. Then a lot has to do with route finding. In a complex mountain environment it’s easy to get off track into harder stuff. For instance, on a route we used to call the Indian Peaks run from Audubon to South Arapaho, the section between Arikaree and North Arapaho is a really rugged ridge and the route finding is critical. If you hit it right, it might be 5.6-5.7 but if you hit it wrong there’s huge exposure.
[Here, the conversation got sidetracked to a long discussion about the intricacies of the Longs to Arapaho traverse (LA Freeway)]
JG: Do you get scared? [laughs]
BB: Well, I try to avoid situations where I do get frightened and then when I am in a situation when I should be frightened I try not to be. But, as everyone says a certain amount of fear is healthy – you’ve got to have it as it’s part of your judgement.
JG: So, you’d say that everything you approach, you come at it pretty cautiously? I guess, what I’m getting at, is that when we look at a route, we have your beta [laughs] or mostly have references for what’s already been done, but in your case, you were discovering so much of this for the first time or with very little documentation about it. Does that change your mindset at all?
BB: I think the same rule always applies that you usually want to make sure you can reverse everything that you do and then don’t be reluctant to reverse something. I mean there are times when you go 500 feet up or down something and you realize it’s not going to pan out and you don’t want to redo it all but that’s exactly when you need to make sure you can undo it.
TK: So you’ve been in that situation more than once I’m guessing?
BB: Well there are definitely times where I’ve just launched off on stuff and I say I’m just going to see if it’s going to go or not. For some reason, it seems like it usually does but I know there are times where I’ve just had to backtrack and know that this wasn’t meant to be.
TK: Anything you soloed, you felt you’d be comfortable downclimbing also?
BB: Yeah, you try to keep it within the reversal condition as much as you can but I suppose there are times when you kinda launch. I mean, you look and make an assessment and decide whether you think it’s going to go. The other thing is this business about getting so far out that even if you could reverse it, you’re so close to pushing it through that you don’t want to not do it. I remember one time I did Capitol and Snowmass, from Snowmass village. I was up there with my wife and told her I was going to take a hike. It’s a pretty long push up to Capitol but the connection over to Snowmass is pretty involved. So instead I took off straight down the southface of Capitol not really knowing what to expect. So that’s the kind of time when I’m scrambling down, knowing that I could reverse everything but at some point 2,000ft below the summit, I was thinking that if I get cliffed out, am I going to want to go all the way back to the summit or not? It went but it was tricky in places, coming down to one final 30 foot step that I had to do or reverse the whole thing.
[the conversation sidetracked here again, this time about the pros/cons of sticky/approach shoe rubber on running shoes]
JG: This relates somewhat to what we discussed previously when addressing performance and you mentioned your relationship to time with regards to mountain running as being framed by sunup ‘til sundown pursuits.
BB: I guess that’s a style question also. I mean dawn to dusk is a clear, well defined period of time and if you depart from that and make it longer, there’s no obvious place that I see cutting it off in a natural way. People go out and try to do twelve fourteeners, it may take them a day, a night and part of another day and that just never seemed very satisfying to me. To me, it just seemed really nice and clean to see what you could do in a day, dawn to dusk.
JG: I doubt you’d be able to do Nolan’s in that amount of time, Tony. [laughs]
TK: Well, Nolan’s to me holds a different kind of aesthetic, where you have this entire range, comprised of fourteen 14,000ft peaks that you can hit all in one push.
JG: That’s true and it’s a logical line that’s landscape defined.
BB: I agree. That’s really appealing as well much like what Peter [Bakwin] was trying to do on the Mosquito range. It’s very natural. For a while I was in to these one day things and then I got into peak clusters to see how many peaks you could do within a one day period and it usually meant 14,000ft peaks and whatever else you needed to do along the way. There were two big goals: one was to do 5 fourteeners point-to-point and the other was to do 5 of them in a closed loop without assistance. I managed to do both of those. The point-to-point was in the Mosquito range – Quandary, Lincoln, Bross, Democrat and Sherman. The five in a closed loop I did were Columbia, Harvard, Missouri, Oxford, Belford starting in Pine Creek.
TK: So you picked five there because that’s what the terrain dictated?
BB: Well, I sat down with a map for a long time and tried to figure out how many I could do. I did 3 in a day closed loop, 4 in a day closed loop then I thought I could do 5 and suddenly there aren’t very many options really. I don’t know of anyone who’s done 6 in a closed loop. It’s doable in a line though.
TK: Yeah, based on last year’s Nolan’s scouting, the first nine are doable in a day. [the conversation meandered once more here into more Nolan’s talk]
JG: I’ve thought a lot retrospectively about situations where I’ve felt uncomfortable in the mountains but choose to commit anyway. In the moment I don’t think much about the meaning of what I’m doing and rather just focus on the task at hand. My question then is what’s the internal motivation to do what you do, either in the moment, or now in retrospect?
BB: I think while it’s happening, I’m definitely in the moment. I’m not stepping back and looking at it from a distance, asking why I’m doing it. At a certain point there’s a strong amount of focus and absorption and you’re just thinking about what you have to do and where you’re going. There’s a lot to think about from route finding, to carrying out the moves making sure you don’t screw up. Maybe some people can be detached in a time like that and have an out of body experience but I’m kinda right there.
TK: Do you think that that’s part of the motivation behind it, having that type of focus? That’s definitely the case for me since a lot of life you’re not in the moment.
BB: Yeah, I’d say that’s probably true although I’m not sure I set out thinking I want to get in that state but you know it’s going to happen at some point since if you’re not focused you’ll probably need to turn around and choose another day.
JG: It’s interesting for me to reflect on it after the fact as it’s not something I find I can easily recreate in my mind – specifically the fear. It all looks so simple looking back.
TK: It’s sort of a profound thing. I’ve been terrified in the mountains and often think back at why I would put myself in that kind of situation.
JG: It does happen often though and you’re forced to be committed and very focused. There’s a rawness to it that I find really compelling despite not wanting to hurt myself or worse obviously but there’s that flirtation there with the danger.
BB: Well, I guess somewhere in this discussion there’s the question of limits and finding your limits. When approaching those limits you may occasionally step beyond them but be able to step back. It’s that dance right on an edge.
TK: So more of a personal exploration?
BB: Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it, to set a goal or choose a project where you have a good sense of where that project is relative to where you are. You can choose to run down the Mesa trail and back which is well within your limits or choose something that’s closer to your limits. I think to me a lot of the attraction with this is the interplay of the awareness of where you are and then this wonderful range of projects out there and sort of matching the two – your current ability wherever that is and something that’s going to push you as far as possible but not too far.
JG: How much do you feel then that you engage in that unexpected? Coming back to what you’ve done, no one else was really doing that so it was very much your imagination that was laying out the game so to speak.
BB: I didn’t really talk to anyone about choosing projects. Partly because I didn’t know anyone that had done some of them. A good example is that for several years I had this relationship with the Gore range. I’d train for Leadville on the 55 mile trail that runs through the range. It’s a gorgeous, runnable trail that I found great for training, but running it I sort of got to thinking about the peaks. The first thing I realized back then was that there wasn’t even an official guide book to the Gore range, so I thought why not try to tag all the peaks. So I set out one day to do that, knowing that it was beyond my reach. I just knew counting the peaks and computing the vertical, that if you started at Eagle’s Nest in the North and try to come out in Frisco, Vail or Copper, it would be more than a day for me but wanted to launch off and see what happens. I knew it was going to be hard. It’s an incredibly complicated range. I did two or three exploratory runs pushing a bit further each time. One day I did two thirds of the whole thing which I consider to be the most I could do in a day with the bailing off the peaks being pretty involved as well. You’re pretty much hands on the whole way with hard route finding and a lot of exposure. Usually, I’d pick projects within reach of where I was. With the Gore range I was just curious to see how far I could go.
JG: What does it take to be Bill Briggs? [Laughs] What sort of qualities does it take to keep this a sustainable practice?
BB: I think the answer to that is something I have absolutely no control over at all and that’s just loving it. If you don’t wake up in the morning eager to go, in fact you wake up an hour early ready, if you lose that I don’t know how you do it. When I think back on it, that’s really what kept me going. Sadly, I can say that now because I don’t really have that drive anymore. I mean I still love to get out in the mountains, but the drive, the real eagerness isn’t quite there anymore. If you’ve got that love, then everything else, the discipline it takes to train for it, the discipline on the day to push through, all of that follows. It’s not something you can cultivate, I don’t know where that comes from.
JG: Why do you think that waned?
BB: It’s complicated. Injuries for one thing and just feeling like you’re not as strong anymore. I still like getting out, it’s just that I’ll get out and do less than I used to and less than I’d like to be doing.
JG: Do you feel like your mind is ahead of your body in some ways? You’d still have the mental drive to do it perhaps but that there are physical limitations that prevent you from it.
BB: Yeah, I still daydream about stuff I want to do. Then I snap out of it saying who are you kidding? I’ve wanted to link up the Culebra range, a wonderful point-to-point in the Sangre de Cristos in Southern Colorado for the past 25 years but for various reasons it hasn’t come together. Now, other than the physical limitations, the other huge limitation is that it’s on private property. I almost got up there last summer but my ankle wasn’t cooperating. I’ve since had surgery to get it fixed. So yeah, the mind is always ahead of the body.
TK: When you’re talking about mapping out projects, being a math professor, does the quantitative side ever come out or do you go more by what the landscape dictates?
BB: Yeah, I know how to read a watch and compute vertical but that’s about as quantitative as I ever get. Bill Wright is much more proficient at that, mapping his heart rate and so forth and he puts it on top of the profile, whereas for me, running is kind of a way to get away from all of the analytical stuff.
JG: What in retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
BB: I think another difference between running when I was young and running when you guys are young is that I didn’t really have any role models. I mean there were other people doing the same thing I was doing but there wasn’t a previous generation and this may sound kind of strange but I didn’t have older people to watch to see how they went through this aging process. It’s more than aging, it’s a breakdown, a deterioration process. I didn’t have anyone to watch and if I had I’d might have done things a little bit differently. Maybe doing less, or maybe picking and choosing what I did a little more carefully. The intensity probably wouldn’t have changed but I might not have done as much as I did. I was talking to Roger’s son over Christmas, he’s in his mid-twenties and a very good climber and runner, I was on crutches because of this ankle, telling him it’s because I ran too much too hard when I was young. He said you know, I might think about that and run a little bit less and be a bit more careful about how I run. I don’t want to discourage you because I know the thrill and exuberance and the last thing you’re going to do when you’re young is think 30 years ahead. It’s impossible – there’s so much you can do while you’re healthy so go out and do it. But, with running, even if you’re genetically endowed, it’s a pretty debilitating activity, particularly the downhill running. I remember once coming down off of Huron running so hard and having so much fun but that probably took 2 years off my running right there. [Laughs] It’s stuff like that I may have done differently. Race effort is also a lot harder too. I just didn’t know any better and went out when I really didn’t have to. But, there’s just nothing really quite like running. You know the feeling.