Two decades after the original traverse, Rickey Gates perseveres through the epic linkup known as The Elks Traverse
Gates atop North Maroon Peak looking back on the morning’s journey of Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak. Photo by Pete Gaston
“You can’t do it,” said Mark.
“What do you mean, I can’t do it?”
“Neal was Everest fit and full of demons when he ran that,” he continued. “You don’t want to be in the headspace required to do that.”
Neal Beidleman and Jeff Hollenbaugh’s traverse of the Elk Mountains of Western Colorado had stuck in my craw for some time already. It was 1996 when the two set off from the Cow Camp, the pastureland-turned-parking lot at the base of Capitol Peak on the northwest end of the range. Neal had just returned from the most deadly climbing season to date in the history of Mount Everest. Expedition member and acclaimed writer Jon Krakauer would soon immortalize Beidleman’s heroics on the mountain in his best-selling account Into Thin Air.
From the Knife Edge of Capitol Peak, the first of the morning’s light ignites the east face of Snowmass Mountain and the rest of the Elks Traverse beyond. Photo by Rickey Gates
Following a 34-hour epic that included a couple of accidental 13ers, a pause on the summit of Pyramid to take in the Perseid meteor shower and a soak in the Conundrum Hot Springs, the two arrived at the southern end of the range [see Trail Runner, “The Hard Way,” April 2012, Issue 79].
Mark and I had been chatting nearly a decade ago, when I knew of nothing but a few trails around the Elk Mountains, and he was quite right that I couldn’t do it, at least then. The dynamic and complex mountain range that stood as a backdrop throughout most of my life growing up in Aspen was, for the most part, just that—a backdrop. At the time, I couldn’t have even named or pointed out the seven 14ers that provided the contour of the point-to-point run, much less run/hike/scramble the 65-mile route and its 25,000 feet of climbing. But something about the feat provided an intrigue that was unshakeable.
Years passed with many tough mountain runs and races around the world, but the prospect of the Elks Traverse felt no less daunting. Then, a couple of years ago, I had an epiphany, realizing that I simply needed to break down the traverse into pieces and parts. I started going out and studying small sections of the traverse. One, sometimes two peaks, at a time. Miles of trail, shortcuts over passes, Class 3, occasionally Class 4, climbing while steadily sucking in the thin air.
Gates traverses around the west side of South Maroon Peak. Photo by Pete Gaston
After several reconnaissance missions over two summers, I was finally feeling confident enough to attempt the Traverse. I called Neal, who lives in Aspen, to both let him know that I’d be making a go at it and to take in any advice that he might be willing to part with. He was excited that there was a new-found interest in his two-decade-old project. He spoke longingly about that day—the mixture of geology, mountain goats, route choices and a gentleman’s agreement that you soak in the hot springs for at least an hour on your way through the Conundrum valley.
“What kind of time are you looking at?” asked Neal.
I was really hoping that Neal wouldn’t ask this question, as I was eyeing a time substantially quicker than his and Jeff’s and didn’t want to seem disrespectful of what they had accomplished.
“I think it can be done in under 24-hours,” I replied. “Maybe not by me and maybe not tomorrow, but I think it’s possible.”
“So do I,” he said.
Due to circumstances of weather forecast, crew availability and full moon, my window of opportunity narrowed to exactly my brother’s birthday, which meant that not only would I selfishly be spending his day in the mountains, but that he’d also be thinking about my safety rather than his own dairy-free birthday cake.
Michael Barlow, Rickey Gates and Pete Gaston at the Maroon Bells parking lot where Barlow and Gates continued into the night. Photo by Jordy Agamie
On short notice, local runners and mountaineers Pete Gaston, Steve Denny and Michael Barlow stepped up to run with me through three different sections.
On August 30, at 4 in the morning, I started off from Cow Camp, chasing Steve’s light as it bounced up the trail toward the imposing grey fortress of Capitol Peak. Dawn emerged after a couple of hours as the moon set to the west. Shortly after, as we made our way across the legendary Knife Edge, an exposed, 150-foot rock traverse, we were bathed in alpenglow, full of mountain stoke. We took in the view from the summit and tried to not think too hard about the rest of the day—despite the summit of Castle Peak peering at us very far off in the distance.
By 10 a.m., we found ourselves on the summit of Snowmass Mountain and by noon closing in on Buckskin Pass, where Pete was waiting to take over for Steve. We tackled North Maroon (2:40) and South Maroon (3:30-ish), where the altitude and a lack of water caused a slight lull in both my mood and speed.
Traversing the Ledge on Pyramid peak. Photo by Pete Gaston
Pete had stashed a bottle of Coke at the base of Pyramid Peak, and I can’t remember a soda ever tasting so good. Charged with excitement, sugar and the impending fear of down climbing Pyramid in the dark (I did not bring a headlamp through this section), we ascended the peak at a pace that encouraged Pete to caution me on accruing an energy debt that I’d not be able to repay later. We spent a moment at the summit looking back at Capitol and on toward the final peak, Castle, many miles and hours away.
We got down Pyramid and arrived at the Maroon Bells parking lot just after dark. Pete’s girlfriend, Jordy, and my next pacer, Michael, were waiting with pizza, more Coke and a bag that I had sent ahead with extra clothes and a fresh pair of shoes (“Fresh shoes?!” an incredulous Neal would later exclaim.)
I was still on what I believed to be 24-hour pace. I told Michael that I was feeling good and that I was going to try to crank the next eight miles of trail. We left the parking lot a little before 9 p.m. and moved quickly through the night. Boreal toads covered the trail for miles and at times I played hopscotch to avoid squishing the endangered species.
As we closed in on the midnight hour, the moon disappeared, the rain began to fall and the side trail that marked our ascent up to Conundrum Pass was nowhere to be seen. Sleep deprivation, fatigue and now a failing headlamp (flicker, flicker, out) brought me to a halt when all of a sudden and without warning my internal compass flipped 180 degrees. North was south and east was west. I told Michael that we were heading the wrong direction. He told me, no, Conundrum Pass was just up ahead. He showed me the map and compass on his phone. I insisted that both he and his phone were wrong.
A long night later, Gates arrives with Barlow at the trailhead to Castle Peak at the end of Ashcroft valley. Photo by Pete Gaston
Though I wasn’t ready to agree with Michael, I knew that his brain was fresher than mine and I decided to let him lead. Under Michael’s direction we got up and over Conundrum. The rain continued to fall and worse yet, so did the clouds. The full moon that I had been counting on was an impenetrable cloud layer away. My headlamp flickered in protest and powered down to not much more than candlelight.
Somewhere around 2 a.m. we passed the steaming hot springs. I told Michael about Neal’s gentleman’s agreement that we soak for an hour. I knew, quite certainly, that if I got in the springs I would be mush. We forged on.
A recent recon mission from only a few days back helped quell my fear of making the same mistake that Neal and Jeff made in 1996—ascending the wrong basin and approaching Castle Peak from a thin and dangerous ridge line to the south. However, knowing that 3,000 vertical feet of scree lay ahead was not much better. Though Michael tried to navigate us to a sturdy, mellow ridge line that would take us to the summit, I insisted that the mountain of scree was the best option and he acquiesced.
Through the rain, fatigue and faint beam of light coming from my headlamp, I saw the 24-hour mark disappear into the night as we trudged up through the scree. Icarus? I thought. Who was that guy that pushed the boulder up the slope? My brain was slipping. Not Icarus. Sisyphus!
Bats flew about. I didn’t want to ask Michael if he saw them, in case I was genuinely losing it.
As we crested the saddle between Conundrum and Castle, my light emitted its last flicker. With the help of cellphone light, I trailed slightly behind Michael up to Conundrum and then finally to Castle. It was nearly 6 a.m., my body temperature was dropping, my mind was shot and I had little enthusiasm for finishing this thing.
Michael prodded me along and we began the long descent down into the Castle Creek valley. My spirits returned with the rising of the sun and for the final hour, I was at last able to take in the immensity of the Elks Traverse.
We arrived at the opposite trailhead at 7:25 a.m., 27 hours 25 minutes following our departure.
Over beers, Neal congratulated me, while brushing off the fact that we skipped the hot springs. We shared stories from our adventures and discussed this route’s place in the record books—that is, directly alongside Nolan’s 14.
That 24-hour mark though … Neal understands.
Correction: The headline of this article originally stated that Gates’s traverse was the second completion of the Elks Traverse. We have since learned of two other completions since the original 1996 traverse: Brandon Worthington and Jason Antin, in 2013, and Kendrick Callaway, on August 9 and 10, 2015. Gates’s time still stands as the fastest known time as of September 14, 2015. The headline has been corrected.