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Thoughts on establishing Fastest Known Times (FKT’s)

 

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT:

ETIQUETTE, ETHICS AND FASTEST KNOWN TIMES (FKT’s)

Many have looked to me to answer some questions as to what, if any, rules should be adopted when approaching “fastest known times” (FKT).   A FKT without more definition is likely to be misleading.  For example, vast differences exist between a FKT set by an athlete sporting oxygen and assisted by others, than a solo, self supported, sans oxygen bid.  This might be an extreme example, but it serves to illustrate how so much more than “time” is at stake, especially when recording FKT’sDegrees of difficulty, much like those seen in Olympic events should be considered, route, style, preceding record(s) taken into account, the condition of being “solo”, level of support or assistance, and documentation including witnesses, among other criterion.

 

PRECEDENCE

Bryce Thatcher following guidelines while establishing Fastest Known Times (FKT's)

As a young adult, I was very interested in both running and climbing.  The two disciplines intersected when I adopted a rule:  “Off the top before noon.”  (To avoid uncertain afternoon weather, and be home for dinner!) My times improved as a by-product.  A good friend, Kim Miller—a great climber in his own right, let me climb with him, though I was much younger, and taught me a lot about conquering climbing problems such as Red Cross Rock near Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

Kim and I often talked about the “greats” amongst “record holders” which included the likes of Jock Glidden who held a round trip time of 4:11 covering the old “Climber’s Trail” to the Owen Spaulding climbing route on the Grand Teton, and Alex Lowe for his astounding record of the Grand Traverse.[1]

One evening, after Kim and I had been climbing at the City of Rocks, Idaho, we ran into Jock Glidden.  I felt a kind of awe in my solar plexus and a bit of speechless stammering coming on.  Kim (who knew Jock) said: “Hey Jock, this is Bryce Thatcher, he is going to break your record on the Grand!”  Jock, took a lazy glance at me and then dismissively snarled: “Good luck, kid.”

I will never forget that look.  It translated my initial shock of Kim’s announcement into a palpable commitment to do it.  And, I did.  Twice.  The same route, the same style, unassisted, and in keeping with the established fastest known time record on that route.

 

DOCUMENTATION, STYLE AND ROUTE

I sought a fastest known time record that was “fair”, and approached it with the same respect one might have for an Olympic event.   Now, I am often referred to as a “pioneer of mountain running”, but where I was going, Jock had gone before.  Jock’s original route and style delineated the rules of the run—and set the standard for me.  It turns out, Jock had many of the same notions of legitimacy.  In Jock’s own words:

Establishing Fastest Known Times (FKT's) should be a defined and recorded process

“At the trail head parking lot there was frost on the car windows. I shivered in my shorts and long-sleeved shirt…At 0701 I set off with no food, ice axe or water. Almost naked faith. But I had one advantage: giardia was unknown then. I could drink freely from any available stream.  About 1 hour and 40 minutes later I reached the lower saddle. I tried to beg a candy bar from two lads striking camp but they refused, saying that they needed their candy to get down. “Thanks a lot, jerks!” I yelled back and disappeared into the boulder field…Soon I was over the scary traverse and up the chimneys but my hands grew very cold. I even jogged up a catwalk or two to the summit. Time so far: 2 hours and 32 minutes.

A party of two was at the summit register as I arrived.  I begged again for candy. This time they pressed more on me than I could eat. My hand felt like a frozen claw as I signed my name to prove I was there. Thus refreshed, I was off again…Guided parties were making their way up the trail by now, requiring me to run around them. Otherwise I took no shortcuts so the contest would be standard and the Park Service would have no grounds for complaint. Friends were at the trail head to witness my finish. My round trip time was 4 hours and 11 minutes…

Jock took the trail from the parking lot to the lower saddle, then climbed the Owen Spaulding route, solo, unassisted.  He took “no shortcuts” and observed Park etiquette.  He also traveled self-supported, (though he successfully begged a bit of candy) without ropes and unaided.

Jock added:

“That fall I sent a short account of my speed record to the American Alpine Club journal. It was rejected as being irrelevant to the traditions of American alpinism. Perhaps the editor was right; what I did was neither mountaineering nor running. Yet it was both.” [2]

 

TRADITION VS SPEED BASED HYBRID SPORTS ENDEAVORS 

Many of us participate in hybrid “sports” that often combine Alpinism or trail running and ultra-running or other disciplines.   What rules or traditions should apply?  The question doesn’t just effect ultra-runners who happen to do some climbing during a run, it also effects climbers who now run in the course of summiting.  Traditional Alpinism has not only veered into ultra-running, it, in some ways, had no where else to go.  The compelling result is a new generation of athletes like Ueli Steck and Chad Kellogg, challenging Alpine “classics” around the world.  A peak as formidable as the Eiger, for example, has been summited, on one route, with a fastest known time (FKT) of only 2:47:33.  Likewise, runners have increasingly expanded the extremity of terrain on which they choose to run.  For some time now many clearly  delineated ultra-running courses have been staged in mountainous settings that require a skill level well beyond that of road racing.

 

SPEED ASCENTS, TRADITION AND PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS

The ascent history of the Grand Teton is a great place to study this evolution, the goals and ethics involved.  John Holyoke, and Joseph Hawkes went for a speed record on the Grand on August 17, 1939.  Holyoke said his purpose in climbing the Grand Teton was “simply to see how fast he and Hawkes could do it.”  He wanted to set a fastest known time (FKT), but since he had no idea what the fastest ascent to that date had been or who made it, he felt he wasn’t competing “against anyone but himself”.  He wrote in his journal: “Tomorrow Joe Hawkes and I will climb the Grand in as short a time as we feel it advisable to do.”

Ground rules for attempting Fastest Known Times (FKT's) are important to establish

Hawkes just wanted to “set a standard for a forty-year-old man.”  He believed that: “While some persons may have misgivings about the esthetics or desirability of attempting to establish mountaineering speed records, I feel that this is a matter better left to the judgment and tastes of each individual.” These “climbers” looked to the past for precedent, but finding none, chose to set “a standard” “in as short a time” as they felt was safe—and in a minimalist style, especially for the time.  The night before they were so excited they couldn’t sleep and Hawkes was still up at 1:00 a.m. preparing food — a solution of honey, corn syrup, and salt water.  (Not unlike today’s “Gu” or “Shot Bloks”.)

Park Service records indicate that, Hawkes and Holyoke left Lupine Meadow at 6:14 a.m.  “Hawkes wore shorts and a pair of smooth, rubber-soled hiking boots and carried only his honey water and two wooden dowels.[3]  Holyoke wore a pair of nailed climbing boots.”  In the meadow above the platforms, Hawkes slowed his pace for a few minutes then lost his way in the boulder field.  Holyoke continued through the meadow and started up the trail to Petzoldt’s Caves. He arrived on the summit at 9:36 a.m., three hours and twenty-two minutes after leaving Lupine Meadow.  Hawkes arrived at 9:46 a.m.  Each made an entry in the summit register.  They returned to the Upper Saddle via the catwalk and the Owen route, downclimbing the route unroped.  Holyoke “short-cut the trail below the platforms between the seventh and the first switchback, but Hawkes stayed on the trail all the way down, just as he had on the ascent.”[4]

The two traveled in a minimalist, “self supported style, did their own route finding, documented the beginning times, summit times, and other information, each had witnesses.  There are some important differences; however.  Holyoke and Hawkes did not apparently run as “a team”.  Early on, each chose his own pace, conducted his own route finding and summited at different times.  They followed separate routes on the descent.

Philosophically, the accounts pose, or raise several questions.  For example, would the time set qualify as a “team” time and/or for individual records?  Did Holyoke’s shortcutting the accepted “route” disqualify him for a record of the traditional “route”, but qualify him for a route record of his own?  Did Hawkes set a record for a Fastest Known Time for a forty year old of 5:21—that possibly still stands today?

These questions are legitimate ones to ask and should be answered.  Defining grounds need to be made “so the contest would be standard” as Glidden refers.  And these foundations should also reflect “degree of difficulty”, “values” and “ethics”.

 

GROUND RULES

Creighton King approached his speed ascent of the Grand in the same style, unassisted and solo, and on the same route as the previous record holders.  He also documented the feat in confirmable ways, and with witnesses.  His exceptional speed running the lower sections pushed the record fastest known time (FTK) by 17 minutes.  His skill as a speed runner, far surpassed my ability in that arena.  I had to make up for this deficit in other ways when I reclaimed the record—but I did so on the same route, same style with witnesses and documentation, just as Hawks, Glidden and King had done before me.

Bryce Thatcher sports scraped knees, a result of pushing for the fastest known time (FKT) on the Grand Teton

Andy Anderson is the current record holder of this same “route” [5] on the Grand Teton first set by Hawks, (Holyoke’s shortcut equaled a different route), and followed by Glidden, Thatcher, King, and then Thatcher.  Anderson had the following to say about why he choose his route and style:

“I also knew that Bryce Thatcher did not use shortcuts, nor did I in previous attempts at the 3 hour mark, and the park does not like folks to use them. As for food I took, one pack of caffinated Clif Shot Bloks, 4 packs of caffinated Clif Shots, 3 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.” [6]

Like the previous record holders of the route, Anderson went solo, self supported and unassisted, he stuck to the trailPrecedent is an important piece of formulating a groundwork for new fastest known time  (FKT) records—or determining that a different new record might be involved.

 

SOLO VS ASSISTED EFFORTS

There are other current fastest known time (FKT) “records”, on the Grand including an “assisted” (non-solo) Female record by Emelie Forsberg, who was accompanied in her effort by Killian Jornet.  The distinction may be a subtle one, but much like climbing Everest with a Sherpa and oxygen, it is not the same feat made solo, self-supported and unassisted, as having a pacer or being, otherwise, aided.   The need for skills in route finding, thinking, planning and risk factor, almost disappear when you have aid of any kind.  The psychology of running solo vs having any companion at any time changes the dynamic of a “solo” endeavor.  Anton (Tony) Krupicka has set some astounding “solo” records, and has beautifully documented these as to every detail.  Anton’s blog post running his record on Gannett Peak is a shining example of documentation. (http://blog.ultimatedirection.com/gannet-the-grand-a-wyoming-whirlwind-tour/).

 

DISTINGUISHING DIFFERENCES, ACCOUNTING AND DOCUMENTATION

Documenting important aspects of difficulty, level of assistance, age at ascent, style and route aid the next person in ascertaining a standard and in choosing how to proceed and what fastest known time (FTK) “record” will actually be sought.  It also aids the world in knowing what, exactly has been accomplished and how.

Though it is clear I personally value solo, self supported and unaided endeavors, it is not my purpose here to elevate, or to diminish any type of fastest known time (FTK) “record,” just to emphasize that they may be as different as apples and oranges—and have a lot to do with personal choice, often centered on an individual’s comfort zone.  Minimalist style involves inherent risk that may be offset to the extent travel speed is increased exponentially.  Likewise, traveling as a team increases safety, but decreases the chance that all individuals will simultaneously achieve a chosen speed goal.

Krissy Moehl and Devon Crosby-Helms (now Yanko),  established a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim fastest known time (FKT) “record.”

Not long ago, Krissy Moehl and Devon Crosby-Helms (now Yanko),  established a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim fastest known time (FKT) “record.”  Much like a game of pool—they called the shots prior to accomplishing the goal.  They publicly announced that the “record” would be set as a “team”, would be self-supported and unaided.  The route was delineated by the established National Park Trail system.   During the run, one runner had a weak moment and encouraged the other to continue without her, however, it was reaffirmed that they were a team and would accomplished the goal together or not at all.  They succeeded and gained a “team” fastest known time (FTK) record.  They also succeeding in breaking previously documented female speed records for the route, which gave them individual speed records as well.

A few days afterward, Darcy P. Africa, challenged their fastest known time (FKT) “record”.   A remarkable time resulted and definitely a female fastest known time (FKT).  The feat; however,  may be categorized neither as a “solo” nor as a “team” effort, unless the team is a coed team, in that she was accompanied by male runners capable of keeping a record pace and giving, at minimum, mental support.  Though her time was faster than all other women for that route, her record is distinguishable from the prior “team” effort and from any prior or subsequent completely “solo” effort.  (Solo efforts, should also be distinguished by layers or levels of support.  For example, was water stashed previously?)

It is not any more difficult to distinguish the differences in the fastest known time (FKT) “records” discussed above than it would be to distinguish an additional fastest known time (FKT) record utilizing preset repels off the 3000 vertical feet of cliffs per rim in the Grand Canyon versus using only the trail.

In the Tetons,  the name Carolyn Ortenburger, born in 1962, began appearing on summit registers in 1969, including the Exum Ridge route on the Grand Teton when she was aged 7.  My son, Matthew Thatcher, is the youngest known person to summit Teewinot at age 6.  These examples, of course, are for “assisted” records.

 

SELF SUPPORTED VS ASSISTED ENDEAVORS

When I determined to set a Mountain Bike fastest known time (FTK) record on Moab’s White Rim, the rules I set for myself included being completely unassisted, solo, and self supported the full 103 miles, which meant carrying two gallon-sized reservoirs and two large bottles.  During the ride, flat tires and other problems had to be fixed before proceeding and other obstacles overcome without assistance, before setting a record fastest known time (FKT) of 8 hours and 12 minutes.

Later, another cyclist rode the course and claimed online and in other publications that he had broken my record.  Officially, his fastest known time (FKT) “record” was set while he had a support vehicle for spares and extra sets of anything he needed including handing out water bottles, and other supplements, while also acting as a pacer and route finder.

Though the difference might seem like whining or knit picking to those who have not been through these types of grueling record attempts, having support is a substantial advantage mechanically, physically and mentallyThe risk factor also decreases substantially.

 

AN ERA OF MINIMALISM

Speed is certainly increased incrementally as an individual chooses minimalism over safety and tips the balance toward “naked faith”.  Carrying enough water, foods, weather kit, first aid and other items is a personal choice, which could substantially effect speed, and may encourage minimalist repetition with disastrous consequences.  Choice of gear should be documented with other details and minimalism possibly discouraged as to some routes.   My personal style is that I still prefer to maintain a minimal amount of safety, and always carry a kit and jacket.  Many basics might be standard and even required as to the needs of “self-supported” events.  Such rules should be followed if they exist for a course or event.

 

RESPECTING EXISTING RULES AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Bryce Thatcher displays his Exhaustion at setting the fastest known time (FKT) for summiting the Grand Teton

An issue, which both Glidden and Anderson mentioned, involves respecting the rules of the place in which you find yourself.  So, the “Park Service would have no grounds for complaint.”  You may be the best climber in the world or the fastest runner but that does not entitle you to disregard rules and convention in a place you do not own.  Cutting trails substantially lessons the “degree of difficulty” and is especially disrespectful,  even illegal, when it occurs in an area set apart as a National Park or other special grant.  However, even if a place isn’t set aside by state or federal proclamation, it is still worthy of responsible behavior.  We are just travelers in a place that will, hopefully, be here long after we are gone.  I value an ecology minded life and promote using a trail whenever one is available. (Please see www.leavenotrace.com ).  My climber daughter also assures me that many climbers are increasingly trying to leave “no trace” as reflected in a desire to use less invasive equipment,  clean away old and redundant protection, and keep “approach” paths to a minimum, all reflecting “minimalistattitudes and ethics.

My attempts at “record breaking” or “record setting” have really been more about pushing my own limits and improving myself.  Still, speed is where it has gone, and If we expect to be treated with the same honor and respect the world imparts to other “champions”, such as those to be found in track and field events, triathlon, cycling and Ultra-running races, we must establish a code of ethics, honor and etiquette amongst us.

This code should accord deference to existing fastest known time (FKT) records as to route and style, as discussed,  and allow for the possibility of entirely new records based on differing routes and styles.   Fastest known times reference has helped set some great guidelines and requires a challenger to contact a current record holder.  This shows respect and also allows monitoring of the challenge.  (See http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/ ).

 

LIFETIME AND OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS

When Hawks was interviewed in 1968, at Winter Park, Colorado, he was sixty nine years old and was still doing a daily workout on cross-county skis and skiing at Winter Park, where he chose to hike to the top rather than use the lift.  The year before, at sixty-eight years of age, he had walked up two of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a short day.

While it is amazing to see what young, sponsored, and full-time career athletes are accomplishing, ultra, endurance and speed endeavors can be a life-long pursuit for many and as such, age and other relevant facts need to be distinguished.  Now that I know Hawks may still hold a fastest known time record on the Grand for those aged 40+, I just may need to go for it again at 50+!

There are many other accomplishments that may not be adequately documented to qualify as official “records” or “benchmarks” but are worthy of note in the annals of  history and the traditions springing out of them.  Christian Beckwith is operating a great site that lists records as “official and unofficial.”  Some of the “unofficial” fastest known times involve just a person and a stopwatch.  I have recorded a few such times, but these were about me just chasing time for my own personal improvement, pushing a stopwatch at the beginning and then at the end; These were never posted, were made without a witness, and had no official documentation.  To me, none of these should be considered a “record.”  (See www.Outerlocal.com)[7]

I know, first hand, the questions that are raised as to the validity of a fastest known time “record” which even with when documented may still be controversial.  Was it roped? How much snow was there? Was glissading possible?  If so, how far was it glissaded?  Was the route cut?  These are questions good documentation will cover.  The clearer and more detailed the documentation, the more acceptance, authority and legitimacy a record will achieve over the years.

 

SUMMARY

Bryce Thatcher shows off the "new" pair of shoes that he used to establish the fastest known time (FKT) for summiting the Grand Teton

In retrospect, holding a mountain “running” fastest known time record for almost thirty years was a bit lonely.  At the time, only a handful of people were doing that kind of thing.   There was no way to chronicle the event, no GPS, no GoPro or digital camera, and no ability to truly share the journey with friends.  Few had any understanding of what it was like or a basic understanding of what such an endeavor entailed.   I always believed I could do the Grand in sub-three hours, but no one challenged a return speed ascent.  Meanwhile, many climbers turned to other peaks where new routes were the main draw.   I sought goals in other places—and focused on cycling and other interests.  When I went to the Tetons, it was often as a guide to friends and family—getting them up and down in a sub 15 hour time was difficult at best.  As time has gone by, I began to really wish someone would break that record for a couple of reasons.  First, It was really dismaying when many suggested that I hadn’t really accomplished the time claimed because it wasn’t possible.  It was a relief when Ricky Gates and Luke Nelson put in the first sub three and ½ hour times in many years.  Second, I yearned for some idea where I would stand today, had I been in my prime now and with such “peers” to help push limits.  The best part for me about this trend toward mountain running is that I am finally able to discuss speed ascents and mountain running with others who actually do it—and who understand what it entails.

A record fastest known time eventually “becomes history” but it also shapes and defines history as well—and influences the future of possibility.   No achievement, no matter how impressive, is ever accomplished in a microcosm.   The accomplishment of one person is reliant on the accomplishments of many individuals.  Without Jock Glidden setting a standard, I may have run the Grand simply to see how fast I could do it, but not with the goal of challenging what someone else had already proven was possible.  Reaching beyond the possible closes the gap on what is thought to be an impossible fastest known time.

Please respect route and style, keep it the same, or distinguish the differencesNotify any holder of a current record of intentions.  If it’s not going to be completely “solo”, specify this.  If it is a “team” effort—make sure all individuals on the team follow the same route and finish together—or the that the last time in, is the time that counts.  If it is a paced, led, accompanied or otherwise assisted as to any part, document the details.  Include detailed information about what is carried and what, if anything, is carried or fixed by others.  Use witnesses at the beginning, summit (if applicable) and end.  A GPS is great to track time and place.  Note any special circumstances such as age, physical challenge or impairment.  Choose a route that is ethical, fair, and responsibly determined.  Adhere to all rules and regulations of a place.  Publish the information.  Someone is going to see what you did and choose to follow in your footsteps.   Respectfully consider the history of a route or event, so that others may not only follow; but also, aspire to do more.

 


[1] Later broken by Rolando Garibotti

[2] (Jock Glidden, The Utah Nordic Alliance; Volume XV No.1; September/October 2004.)

[3] The dowels were used like hiking poles for support.

[4] Excerpts and quotations from Rick Reese’s article, Speed Record on the Grand, about the Aug. 17, 1939 Grand Teton speed climb by Joe Hawkes and John Holyoke, was published in Teton Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer-Fall Issue 1972. Paul Horton; reprinted in Outerlocal.com Paul Horton / Oct. 10, 2012.

[5] Superb runner and mountaineer, Killian Jornet, set a fastest known time (FKT) record ascent of the Grand Teton in between Thatcher and Anderson, but following a different route.  Though this run was considered by many to be an official “Fastest known time” of the Grand Teton it was for a different route.  To put this in perspective one might consider a speed ascent of the north face of the Eiger as compared to another face.  One, obviously, will always be a faster “route” than the other, yet both are capable of having new speed records set on them, while the easiest route will likely always be the faster route.  This is another situation where “difficulty” should be considered.

[6] (Tuesday, August 28, 2012, Jeffrey S. Edmonds.  thelogicoflongdistance.blogspot.com.)

[7] Unofficial fastest known times (FKT’s) set in Rocky Mount Natl. Park are faster than those official Fastest known times (FKT’s) set by Chris Reavly.