Unknown Repetition

Zach Miller writes about the challenge and experience of summiting Pikes Peak every day for a week.

By on February 17, 2017 | 32 comments

At 3:30 a.m. my alarm comes to life, summoning me from my slumber. Cloaked in darkness, I click on my headlamp and locate some clothes to shield me from the cold that crept in overnight. After clothing myself and crawling down the ladder from my loft, I head to the bathroom. A morning bathroom break at Barr Camp serves two purposes. The first, well, I’ll let you figure that out. The second is that it allows you to check the weather. How windy is it and from which direction is the wind coming? Are we above or below nose-hair-freezing temperature? Can I see the stars? In other words, is it cloudy? All such observations are important for what is to come.

Back in the cabin I scarf down some food. Does one really need to eat at 3:30 a.m.? I don’t know, but I like to eat when I wake up. Heck, I like to eat just about anytime. Plus, my body could use some fuel for the journey ahead. I take down an assortment of things. Banana bread, GU Roctane Summit Tea (at least that’s what I thought I grabbed from the cupboard where I stash my training fuel), probably some gels, and of course, a banana with peanut butter. After eating comes the rest of the dressing process. Jackets, two layers of running gloves, a buff or two, a winter hat, ski goggles, and finally, my snowshoes.

By 4:10 a.m. I am out the door and on the trail. Headlamp on, I cross the tiny bridge that leads to our cabin, hang a right, and head up. The first few strides aren’t bad. Heck, they actually feel like running. A few seconds later, however, the weight of the snowshoes, the 10,200-plus-feet of elevation, and the grade begin to take their toll. I slow to a steady ‘running plod’ as I search for my rhythm and gasp for air. Not so many strides later I’m feeling a bit more settled as I steadily climb the trail before me. The beam of my headlamp lights the way. A few switchbacks into the run, I look to the east. Nothing. No city lights. Just darkness.

The city lights usually give me a sense of comfort. It might seem silly. After all, they are more than six miles away. But, for some reason they do. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me that there are other people out there, that I’m not alone. Whatever the reason, they are masked from view, creating a different sort of sensation. This morning I am alone. Just me, the trail, and the early morning air. The solitude is nice, the ultimate alone time. A friend back home (in Pennsylvania) says I’m a snow leopard, a powerful beauty who doesn’t want to be seen or heard. The description rings true on mornings like this. Alone with my thoughts, I press on.

A few miles later I arrive at the metal sign for the Timberline Shelter. Turning left, I follow my old tracks down the steep embankment and into the depression where the A-frame shelter sits. Crossing in front of the shelter, I dive back into the forest for a short bit before popping out onto the snow gully. Here is where the fun begins. The gully beelines to the summit, gaining roughly 2,200 feet in what can’t be much more than a mile. Though shorter-than-the-standard route up the mountain, this popular winter approach is anything but easy. Sure, it’s no Class 5 ascent, but it’s long, steep, and unrelenting.

I lean into the grade, dig my snowshoe cleats into the wind-packed snow, and climb. The pace is egregiously slow for my former road-runner self. The mountain runner in me knows that it’s all relative and my pace is probably anything but slow. And still, I almost have to laugh at myself. At times my stride is so small that I all but plant my foot in the exact spot it just left. In fact, when the wind gusts come howling down the face of the peak, it feels like a victory just to keep from falling backward. On the firm wind-packed slopes I keep a decent cadence. (Remember, it’s all relative.) As I get closer to the summit the snow becomes less consistent and I’m forced to do pick my way through a mix of rocks, earth, and snow. Still dark as night, my headlamp leads the way. The challenging thing is that it has a limited reach. Nearing the summit, I know the importance of picking the correct line. If I stay dead center I run the risk of backsliding on the final pitch. If I shoot too far to the right I end up on some pretty sketchy wind-swept slopes. But, if I cut to the left I can skirt my way to the summit via the relatively tame southeast ridge. It’s not rocket science, but easy enough to mess up in these dark hours.

Eventually I find my line and power through to the cusp of the ridge. The summit is just a few hundred yards away. Sounds easy enough, except for the fact that gaining the ridge means that I’m even more exposed than I was on the east face. A few minutes ago I had the tip of the mountain to block some of the wind. Here on the ridge I’ve got virtually nothing. Mother Nature is free to rip me to shreds, chilling my hands to the bone and numbing every bit of exposed skin on my body. Arriving at the summit I complete a quick loop of the summit house, point myself in the direction of the southeast ridge, and pick my way back through the rocks and snow, trying not to miss my point of entry point over the lip of the ridge.

Finding my line and veering off the ridgeline, I begin the tedious task of picking my way through the rocks and snow. The terrain is steep. Calculated steps are crucial. Thankfully, my snowshoe cleats do a good job of finding purchase on the wind-swept slabs and the rest of me (usually) manages enough coordination to pick my way through all of the obstacles. Once I reach the more consistent snowfields I’m able to run quite a bit more. Looking out across all that lies before me, I’m treated to the red glow of the rising sun and a sea of clouds, a beautiful sunrise inversion.

Continuing my descent, I locate the evergreen branches that I’ve used to mark my turn out of the snow gully and make my way back to the Barr Trail. Hopping into the snow-packed trench that has been beaten down between A-frame and Barr Camp, I cruise for home. With good trail and gravity on my side, I have a blast in the final three-ish miles. My version of downhill skiing, I’m as happy as a pig in mud. Arriving at the cabin, my workout done for the day, I walk into the cabin and chat with my sister and brother in-law. Sure, the wake-up call was a bit early, but this moment right here, this feeling of accomplishment and being alive is totally worth it.

The next day the alarm clock again goes off at 3:30 a.m. For five consecutive days the alarm sounds no later than 3:30 a.m. Each morning I go through the same routine. Crawl out of bed, throw on my training clothes, eat some food, pull on my snowshoes, turn on my headlamp, and hit the trail. Each morning I run the same route. Day in, day out, the same thing over and over: three-ish miles to A-frame, through the woods, up the gully, around the summit house, and back to the cabin. On the sixth day I do it again, but later in the day when the sun is out. And on the seventh, to make it a week’s worth of days, I do it once more.

Perhaps it sounds boring, running the same route for seven days straight. For some it might be, but I found it to be fun, exciting, and fulfilling. Some mornings I would get my ascent line just about right, finding my way to the southeast ridge and onto the summit rather efficiently. Other mornings I would shoot left too soon or stay in the center too long and have to correct myself. On the final day, with a bright sun to light the way, I hammered out an interval workout up the gully and onto the summit. It was my final summit of the series, but it was anything but easy. When I stepped into the gully that day the wind and snow blew so fiercely that I thought I might turn back.

Well aware of the dangers of summit fever, I never told myself that the summit was a guarantee. Each day I set out knowing that getting back safely was more important than reaching the top. So on that seventh day I employed the same tactic as before. I chose to take a step at a time, see how I felt, see what the weather did, and if all went well, I could summit, but if it got too uncomfortable or dangerous, I could totally turn around. With much of the pressure off my shoulders, I completed one section at a time and once again found my way onto the southeast ridge. The wind howled like crazy as I followed it to the summit. Leaning hard into the cross wind, I struggled to stay on my feet. As I looped the summit house, descended to the ridge, and dropped back onto the east face, it was a relief to know that I managed to make all seven summits. Not that it was a requirement, but it felt good to complete my loosely held goal.

As nice as it was to complete my goal, the value in the project was beyond completing seven consecutive summits (from Barr Camp, I’m not claiming credit for a full Barr Trail summit). It wasn’t so much an act of summiting as it was an act of repeating the unknown. This may seem like a contradicting statement for surely once you do something once, it loses its sense of mystery. But, that wasn’t the case. Every morning brought slightly different circumstances. Whether it was a change in the weather, visibility, fatigue, or motivation/mental state, each day was different. Sure, the task was the same, but the accompanying circumstances were constantly changing. And so, each day was a new challenge, a new adventure.

The same can be said for life. Many of us wake up each day and do the same tasks that we did the day before. Save for some variety on the weekend, life can easily start to feel like a never-ending hamster wheel. Sometimes, however, the hamster wheel begins to spin not so much out of necessity, but due to a self-inflicted mindset. As monotonous as a day may seem, there is often variety in the finer details. Whether it be an interaction with a grocery-store cashier, a co-worker in need of some cheering up, a beautiful sunrise/sunset, or the funny things your kids say from the backseat of the car, don’t miss out on the little things. As insignificant as they may seem, it’s the shifting of the wind, the variations in temperature, the missteps to the right or left, and the ways in which we react to them that make each day unique. In fact, the end result is only worth so much. Some days it may not even matter. But all the steps in between, those things matter. Each and every stride, whether forward or back, left or right, good or bad, that’s where the living happens!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you ever repeat the same challenges a number of times? If so, what is or are your challenge(s)?
  • For those who do like repetitive challenge, what aspect of this do you thrive upon?

Zach Miller - Unknown Repetition 1

Zach Miller - Unknown Repetition 2

Zach Miller - Unknown Repetition 3

Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.