I considered the risks and rewards beforehand, but once I started there was no time for navel-gazing or second-guessing...
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On August 16th 2016, La Sportiva Mountain Running athlete Nick Elson set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Teton Grand Traverse in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming with a time of 6:30:49. The previous record on the traverse was held by Rolando Garibotti with a time of 6:49 set in 2000. The Teton Grand Traverse crosses 14 miles over 10 major peaks and gains over 12,000 feet of elevation. La Sportiva got the chance to ask Nick a few questions about his experience training for and completing the traverse. Here’s what he had to say...
Had you attempted the Grand Traverse before the FKT attempt?
I’d never done the entire traverse in one go, but I’d done every section at least once. I first visited the Tetons in 2014 and I climbed a number of the peaks on the traverse during that trip.
This year, my friend Eric and I spent a week systematically climbing every section of the traverse. The terrain is complex enough that it’s very beneficial to know exactly where you’re going and I really benefitted from Rolo’s generosity in sharing lots of detailed beta with me. However, the biggest benefit was likely psychological: having done every section at least once, I knew that the route was well within my ability.
How long did you train before going for the FKT?
I had known about the Grand Traverse for many years and I suppose that a lot of what I’ve done lately could be seen as good training for it.
I think that my background was really well-suited to doing the traverse quickly. I was lucky enough to be exposed to the mountains at a young age so I’m quite comfortable on the type of 3rd and 4th class terrain that makes up a lot of the traverse. I spent many years quite focused on climbing and so I was able to solo all the crux pitches in approach shoes. Finally, I’ve been quite focused on training for endurance sports like ski mountaineering racing and mountain running over the past few years. The fitness I’ve gained from this more structured training was the only reason I was able to improve slightly on Rolo’s record.
I was drawn to the traverse because of the previous efforts of Alex Lowe and Rolo. Growing up climbing, they were the type of climbers who were a big inspiration to me. Although I’ll never be anywhere near as accomplished as a climber, the Grand Traverse was a way to aspire to be a little more like Rolo and Alex. Whether I was able to approach their times or not, I knew the record would be a good excuse to try really hard and have an awesome day moving quickly in the mountains.
Were there any stumbling blocks as you prepared for this attempt?
Everything actually went incredibly smoothly. Since the spring, I’ve enjoyed a period of good consistent training. I’ve raced a bit less than in past years which has allowed me to do more big days in the mountains above Squamish. These outings allowed me to spend a lot of time moving over technical terrain, which was perfect preparation for the traverse.
I went to the Tetons with the goal of doing the traverse, but I understood that there was a real chance that I might not even feel comfortable climbing some of the sections unroped. When I climbed the Italian Cracks on the North Ridge of the Grand Teton with my friend Eric, I found that the rock quality was excellent and that there were enough good holds that the climbing felt secure. At that point, I knew that I had no excuses and I’d have to give it a go!
Nick Elson scopes out the traverse near Mt. Owen during a training day. Photo: Eric Carter
What was the highlight of the day?
Although I knew that all the climbing was well within my ability, I still felt a little lingering uncertainty about how it would feel during the actual attempt when I’d be tired and trying to move quickly. There’s some really great climbing in a cool position on the Italian Cracks variation to the North Ridge of the Grand. I remember pulling over a little overhanging bulge on good holds just below the top and feeling smooth and controlled - a fleeting Alex Honnold-like moment.
It was also great to see my friend Eric on the summit of the Grand. He was a big part of the inspiration behind traveling to the Tetons and we’d had a lot of fun climbing in the range the during the preceding week. The day before my attempt, he’d run the Grand in under 3:30 roundtrip to cap off what had already been a big week. The next morning he got up at 5am with me and ran back up to the summit just to cheer me on!
What gear did you bring with you?
I wore a running vest with two 500ml flasks. I started with them full and was able to refill them on Mt. Owen and also at the Lower Saddle. I carried about 10 energy gels (I think I ended up eating 8 of them). I also carried a small chalk bag, a lightweight wind shell (I didn’t end up wearing it) and my cell phone. I wore shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of La Sportiva TX2 Approach Shoes.
I would add that I’m well aware of the risks I was taking by carrying so little. On a typical day in the mountains, I’d carry a few more items in order to be better equipped to deal with the unexpected.
Were you nervous at any point during the attempt?
I was definitely a bit nervous when I set off up Teewinot and I think that some of that nervous energy is what carried me to the summit at a pace that may have been a little bit too fast given that I was not particularly well acclimatized (1:23).
However, after Teewinot, the terrain requires nearly constant focus and because I was moving continuously, there was simply no opportunity to be nervous. This may actually have been a blessing for me. I remember when I used to climb big walls, I always struggled with the long hanging belays because they gave me so much time to think and wonder what the heck I was doing there.
With something like the Grand Traverse, I considered the risks and rewards beforehand, but once I started there was no time for navel-gazing or second-guessing. I think it’s really important to consider what motivates you and whether the risks you’re taking are really worthwhile. However, I think one of the biggest attractions of trying something that requires all your physical and mental energy is that for a short while you can forget about those questions and just try your hardest.