Andy Anderson is a National Park Service climbing ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It’s fair to say that the guy has had a big summer when it comes to trail running and speed mountaineering. In the last couple of weeks, he’s reset the FKT for Longs Peak roundtrip (car to summit to car) and the Grand Teton roundtrip in 2:53:02. For the Grand’s FKT, he, coincidentally, did it just a couple days after Catalonia’s Kilian Jornet reset the longstanding record of Bryce Thatcher.
The Logic of Long Distance‘s Jeff, Outer Local‘s Christian, and I conducted a group interview with Anderson, which you will find in the balance of this article. In it, learn about Anderson’s history with trail running and speed mountaineering, his previous experience on the Grand, what went into his record attempt, whether or not he stayed on piste where there is one, and what life as a climbing ranger is like. Also, as a bonus, learn that the guy ALREADY SET the Grand FKT 11 YEARS AGO, but neither he nor the rest of the world knew it.
If you’re interested in Anderson’s Longs Peak roundtrip FKT, check out a report of it here on The Logic of Long Distance.
iRunFar/Logic of Long Distance/Outer Local (iRF): What’s your background with speed mountaineering/climbing/scrambling and trail running, the two disciplines required for a Grand Teton FKT?
Andy Anderson: I started running in middle school and loved running and racing cross country in middle school, high school, and college. I was a terrible runner on the track. In reality, I don’t have that much speed, as Jeff, who out-kicked me in pretty much every race we ever ran, can attest to. Luckily, growing up in Chattanooga and then going to college at Williams College, I was able to do most of my training on trails and in the woods. So, I have been running trails for the last 20 years or so.
I began climbing back then also, starting on the sandstone crags of Tennessee in high school. I was fortunate enough to land a job at the local gear store, Rock/Creek Outfitters, where I spent most of my paycheck on the gear I needed and was surrounded by other climbers at work. Climbing still had a speed component to it back then for me, just because I loved it so much. My first speed climbing adventures were racing to and from the Tennessee Wall with my buddy Sam Davis after high school to try to get in as much climbing as possible between the end of class and two-and-a-half hours later when we had to pick our younger siblings up after “real” sports practice.
Combining running and scrambling/climbing seems like a natural synthesis for me. I am not very good at carrying heavy packs and I like to sleep at night, so I have to try to get things done without needing much stuff or time. Of course, this has also resulting in some pretty epic, cold, miserable, uh, adventures.
Although I love both sports, when taken separately, I am pretty mediocre at climbing and running. I guess for some reason I am able to combine them well, probably because I have always done them together and because most climbers don’t really like running and most runners don’t really do much rock climbing. When it comes to actual speed climbing long difficult routes like you might find in Yosemite, I am pretty much terrible at that. What I am okay at is scrambling around mountains and moving efficiently over rugged terrain.
iRF: Do you race trail races/ultramarathons? If so, which have you previously run?
Anderson: Yes – I love racing: road races, trail races, ultras, etc, but I am not actually that fast. I am usually lucky enough to finish in the top few places. One of my favorite races is actually Rock/Creek’s Stumpjump 50K especially when I can talk Jeff or my brother John (Both of whom are actually faster than me, but don’t tell them I admitted that.). I also really enjoy racing in the coast range of California during the winter and spring races like the Muir Woods Marathon or the Pacifica 50K or Way Too Cool are great fun. The Zane Grey 50-Mile with my brother also holds some great memories for me. I would love to get to race more, but I have to work on the weekends for most of the year and for some reason people don’t really put on races on on Wednesdays.
iRF: What inspired you to go after this record at this time? Was it coincidental that you went for speed just a week or so after another mountain runner, Kilian Jornet, re-set Thatcher’s record?
Anderson: Total coincidence, although it certainly helped to try and chase Kilian’s time. Ever since I volunteered in the Tetons in the early 2000’s, I have wanted to go back and try to break three hours. My wife and I were able to get some days off together last week, and I had been planning on going up there and to try to run the Grand all summer. I have to admit I really wanted to be the first one to break three hours, but kudos to Kilian for getting up there and breaking that barrier! As I said earlier, having his shadow out in front of me definitely pushed me to run faster.
iRF: I’m sure you’ve spent time on this route. How many times have you been up and down the Grand? Did you practice on the route immediately before going for the record?
Anderson: I volunteered for the Jenny Lake Rangers (the climbing rangers) in 2000, 2001, and 2002. During that time I did get to climb the Grand quite a few times. It has been 10 years since then and I have not been back up the peak in that time. I only had time and the energy for one shot at it on this trip, so I figured I could remember the route well enough from 10 years ago. Turns out I am old and forgetful and got a bit off route near the top, but I don’t think it really cost me any time. It just made me pay more attention on the way down.
iRF: What was the biggest challenge for you and your body/mind that day?
Anderson: Trying to motivate to drive home after running. It didn’t happen. I was too tired, sore, and old to jump in the car and drive nine hours back to Estes Park. I ended up having to miss a day of work.
Ironically, two hours after finishing the Grand for the first time back in 1997, my brother John and I drove for 36 hours straight to make it college just in time for our first day of class and afternoon cross country practice. Of course, our climb was quite a bit more epic, as well. We camped at the Caves in Garnet Canyon and started climbing in the wee hours of the morning. To make a long, long, long climb into a short story, we ended up on the top around 14 hours later and got back to our camp by about 1 am. We packed up and walked out to the trailhead by around 4 am. A solid 24-hour epic climb of the Grand. After about two hours of sleep we got some breakfast and started that epic drive. That is a feat I will probably never repeat. Chalk up a point for “ghost of my former self.”
iRF: You stayed on the defined trail where it exists, we hear. There’s been some hype about shortcuts. Did you do any shortcutting, anywhere?
Anderson: I did stay on the trail. I think it is actually faster for me. Even though shortcuts may save a little distance, they probably don’t save me any time, because I just cannot run that fast on such steep downhills. On the other hand, the trails are so nice and well maintained that blasting down them as fast as you can run is great fun. Plus, people look at you funny when you are careening down a trail like a mad man. I also knew that Bryce Thatcher did not use shortcuts, nor did I in previous attempts at the three-hour mark, and the park does not like folks to use them.
In different areas, shortcuts are not as frowned on as they are in this park. In Europe, for example, where most of Kilian’s experience comes from it, it is not a big deal. Without knowing the history of the ethics and the local customs, you have to make your decision within your own experience. Ironically, even though shortcutting a trail may be a bigger issue for us than it is on the other side of the Atlantic, we don’t seem to be able to pass comprehensive climate change legislation, hmmm. I bet that if/when Kilian comes back, he can go just as fast if not faster using the trail. He is a pretty darn speedy guy. Who knows, he might be able to do it even faster on skis!
iRF: You’re a climbing ranger, what exactly is your job? You work at Rocky Mountain National Park? Are you permanent or seasonal? If seasonal, what do you do in the off-season? What are some of your other hobbies? How long have you been a climbing ranger?
Anderson: As a climbing ranger, I get to climb and hike in the mountains 40 hours a week. While we move around the mountains, we try to talk to climbers and hikers and give them good advice/beta. Hopefully, they can use the info to have a great time enjoying the mountains in a safe way. We also make sure that these wild places stay wild and scenic by helping people understand how to treat the mountains and take care of them as a resource. Another large part of our job is helping people out when they get hurt or stranded in park. As climbing rangers we serve as part of the National Park Service’s Search and Rescue team. My climbing ranger job is a seasonal one. I have been working/volunteering as a climbing ranger for the past 13 summers – three as a volunteer in the Tetons, five as a paid ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, and five as a paid ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the winter, I work as an avalanche forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest/Sierra Avalanche Center in Lake Tahoe. Let’s see, hobbies, well, I like long sunset walks on the beach. No wait, I actually don’t really like the beach. I love hanging out with my two-year old Huck and my wife. I love climbing, running, and skiing. I like to dabble in computer programming and other generally dorky science-y sorts of things.
iRF: You also broke the Longs Peak roundtrip record just a couple weeks earlier. How is this run different than Longs? Was the extra 2,000 vertical feet a lot tougher?
Anderson: They are very different mountains and a very different runs. An extra 2,000 vertical and about an extra hour of running represent the most obvious differences. The approach to the climbing section of the Grand requires less route finding than on Longs, but it is significantly longer and more runnable. On the Grand, I just stayed on the trail till the Lower Saddle. On Longs, I pieced together old trails and talus fields into the most runnable and direct route to the base of the North Face. Once you hit the climbing section on the Grand, the route becomes more complex and route finding becomes trickier. As I said earlier, I lost the main route on the way up and ended up staying left of the standard summit route above the chimneys of the Owen Spalding route. On Longs, the technical climbing on the North Face is shorter and much more obvious. As for effort, I was really tired after both of them.
iRF: For those who are not familiar with the FKT protocols, how do you time something like this?
Anderson: I am not sure that there are any real protocols. It is truly an honor system that it seems like everyone respects. A ranger friend of mine and I were joking after I got back that we would have to install a chip timing system at the trailhead with a split pad on the summit to make these things legit. Some people have GPS watches or take photos along the way but I don’t have a GPS watch and carrying a camera would definitely slow me down, as there are always too many beautiful scenes in the mountains that I would love photograph. For me, I start my watch when I leave the trailhead and then stop it when I get back. Hopefully it doesn’t break or fall off along the way. I also look at the clock time as a sort of backup. On this run I started and stopped my watch at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead sign, and the clock time was a little after 9 am when I left and around noon when I got back.
iRF: What was the most out-of-control part? The most fun part? Were they the same?
Anderson: The whole thing is fun. It is just great to feel like you can move fast through the mountains. This time, I think that the last four miles of trail were the most fun because they reminded me of racing in college. I had to focus every step of the way to maintain speed or else I would have slowed down. And I knew I was going to be close, so I was running as fast as I could. It has been a while since I ran 4 miles at 5:30 pace which will sound pretty slow to all of the fast runners out there. Still for me it felt like I was flying.
iRF: There’s a backstory here… didn’t you unknowingly have the record once before and then not tell anyone about it?
Anderson: During the summers that I volunteered for the Jenny Lake Rangers, I saw folks like Rolo [Garibotti] sailing through the Tetons linking up all of the major mountains before lunch and watched the Jenny Lake crew modestly go about their business of saving lives. It was all pretty inspiring for a 23-year-old kid. My second summer of volunteering, I decided to try my hand at running some of the peaks. I would run up Teewinot after work and ran up the Grand a few times.
Somehow I had heard a rumor that Rolo ran the Grand in 2:58. The closest I ever got to breaking the three-hour mark back then was one day late in August of 2001 when I ran the Owen Spalding in 3:04 and change car-to-car. I thought this time was a solid six minutes away from the record, so I didn’t really mention it to anyone. I figured I needed to train more and try harder. I also was too in awe of Rolo to actually ask him how fast he went up the Grand. About three years ago, I heard the the actual record on the Grand during that time was Bryce’s 3:06.
At that point, seven years after my run, I did not feel comfortable piping and saying something like, “Hey guys, guess what? Seven years ago I ran it in 3:04!” Learning this fact actually just inspired me to try to do it again both to see if I could actually beat my 20-something self and to maybe have a legitimate claim on the record. I guess old man Andy gets the point this time. Of course, knowing this story it makes me think that there is probably some random person out there who has actually done it faster than all of us.
iRF: How do runs like this compare to road races, trail, races, or other more “normal” runs?
Anderson: Totally different. Parts of the course may be undefined, so there are always route-finding issues. There are times when you are not running at all, and, of course, there is the fact that falling in certain places would result in much more than a few scrapes; i.e., death after falling thousands of feet. Of course, those consequences also tend to help you maintain your focus. It requires ability to move efficiently over all kinds of terrain. It combines the two things I love: running and climbing. Even though I am mediocre at both, there just aren’t that many people who combine the two. Once it becomes more popular I bet most of these times will become old pieces of trivia.
iRF: What did you take with you?
Anderson: My old employer Rock/Creek started a trail racing series years ago. The first trail race I ran was actually the first one they put on back in 1997. Jeff and I ran the 10-miler together and had a great time. This has grown into a series of incredible trail races in the Chattanooga area including one of my favorites: The Stumpjump 50K. To go with these race they now sponsor a team and are generous enough to give me some stuff to run in through out the year.
For the Grand I used the following gear:
- Patagonia Airflow Shirt (Thank you Rock/Creek)
- Patagonia Strider Shorts (Thank you Rock/Creek)
- Scarpa Epic Shoes
- Patagonia Lightweight Merino Run Anklet Socks
- Scrawny, funny-looking, extra-long, chicken legs enabling a looooongg stride length (just ask Jeff) courtesy of Yogi and Joli Anderson
As for the food I took, one pack of caffeinated Clif Shot Bloks, four packs of caffeinated Clif Shots, three electrolyte pills, and no water. I drank water along the way. My wife asked if I was worried about Giardia. My reply, “Well, if I can run fast, getting sick in two weeks will be worth it.” So far, so good, but maybe I will change my mind in another week if I am sitting on the toilet with the trash can in front of me.
iRF: Did you have a plan? We heard you had a friend who climbed from the upper saddle to the summit with you? Who was your friend? Why did he join you there?
Anderson: I had a pretty simple plan: run up as fast as I could then haul ass back down. I figured if I gave it my best shot I could get close to the record. Lucky for me another one of the climbing rangers from Rocky, Jess Asmussen, came up to the Tetons with us. He really wanted to run the Grand, as well. He left the trailhead a while before me and met me at the Upper Saddle just before the technical climbing. Like me, he was hoping that I remembered the route to the summit. I ended up off route to the left of the catwalk, and he ended up following the standard route. We both hit the summit benchmark at about the same time where some other climbers nonchanlantly asked, “So what are you guys doing tomorrow?” What they did not know was that after running the Grand in close to four hours, Jess was planning on climbing the CMC route on Mt. Moran the next day. As for me, I was hoping to be able to walk at all. Then we headed down the technical section together. It was pretty awesome to be able to share that part of the climb/run with a good friend. Once we hit the upper saddle we parted ways again, and I took off downhill.
iRF: What were your splits?
Anderson: 1:48:02 up, 1:05:00 down, overall 2:53:02