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"For all those coming up for the Hardrock course marking, the sun is up and so are
the creeks. Bring sunscreen and high water waders. I'll see you in Silverton."
~ e-mail on June 22 titled "Sun and Surf" from Charlie Thorn
to the Hardrock Hundred internet discussion group
In the past decade Jim and I have participated in quite a few course marking and trail work groups in the two weeks leading up to the Hardrock Hundred (HRH) footrace through the San Juan Mountains.

Participants include runners in each year's race, crews, pacers, spectators, and volunteers. Group size varies from day to day and those involved can choose how many of the hikes/work days they want to attend -- all, some, or none.

Jim took this photo during trail marking from Chapman to KT on June 27, 2009.  Oscar's Pass
 is in the background; the runners are climbing up to Grant-Swamp Pass (12,600' at the top).

All they have to do is show up at Charlie's house by a certain time each morning that a course marking or work day is scheduled, listen to a brief description of that day's task, and carpool to the start and/or finish of that day's hike.

I say "hike because the marking days go at a very slow pace with lots of stops and on trail work days, everyone has to carry tools and supplies to the work site -- which is very likely to be uphill and over 12,000 feet in elevation.

Iced-over Island Lake (center foreground) and the snowy Upper Ice Lake Basin; Jim took
this photo on the same trail marking day in 2009 just below 12,600-foot Grant-Swamp Pass.

Most of the trail marking days are very popular:

  • For runners entered in the race it's a great chance to acclimate to elevations up to and over 14,000 feet, to learn about interesting local history from Charlie, to socialize with others in the group, and to see parts of the course before race weekend.
  • For race organizers it's an opportunity to scout out current conditions in the mountains and get help carrying dozens of markers.
  • For the rest of us -- crews, pacers, volunteers, interested onlookers -- it's a slow-moving party with old and new friends and an opportunity to enjoy some of the most awesome scenery in the world.

Alpine lake high up on Handie's Peak (14,000+ feet); 
Jim took this picture during a trail work day on July 7, 2007.

Work days are tougher and are usually done by runners seeking extra credit to increase their odds of making the lottery in the next year's race. I think the odds this year for a runner with no extra credits or five previous finishes to get into the race was only about one in eight, maybe less.

This is an increasingly popular event and only 135-140 people are permitted to start. Neither Jim nor I have qualified to enter it in the last decade but we enjoy working the race, seeing our friends, and running/hiking in these beautiful mountains.

Charlie (facing camera) tells today's trail marking group about plans for the day.

Because each course marking or trail work day is an all-day affair over rugged terrain, Jim and I both opted out of today's course marking. Jim's knee still hurts and I'm not acclimated to 12,000 feet yet. Both of us have done course marking on this section previously so it wouldn't introduce us to a new section of the course; otherwise, I probably would have gone.

We did want to visit with friends who have already arrived in town to run or work the race, however, so we showed up at Charlie's house in Silverton a little before 9 this morning to see who was participating.

As usual, it was like a homecoming to see folks we often see at this race -- Charlie Thorn and Andi Crohn, Deb and Steve Pero, Kathy Lang and Jim Ballard, Beth and Larry Hall, Phil Wiley, Jean Jacques d'Aquin, Mark and Margaret Heaphy, Chris Rios, Jennifer and Jerry Roach, and at least a dozen other people.

It was great to see them all again!

At the trailhead:  Charlie holds a bunch of flags to mark the course. Other folks also carried flags.

Today the group planned to mark approximately ten miles of the Hardrock course from the Kamm Traverse (KT) aid station on South Mineral Creek Road to the outskirts of Silverton.

Each year the Hardrock course reverses the direction of its loop; since the race goes in the counter-clockwise direction this year (Silveton-Ouray-Telluride-Silverton) each segment will be marked in that direction so runners will be able to see the markers better.

L-R:  Jim, Phil, Leah (behind Phil), unknown, Ballard, Kathy

Because most sections are marked point-to-point, and some of the trailheads/aid station locations on the course require long drives and/or 4WD vehicles to negotiate rough roads, course marking organizers have to get creative and use various ways to get participants to the beginning and retrieve them at the end.

Today the group used a variety of methods to mark not only KT to Silverton, but also KT to the Ice Lake Trail, a total of about 13 miles.

This section also required the trail markers to add over a mile of walking before reaching the course at KT and another couple miles at the end.

Everyone initially started this morning from the Ice Lake trailhead parking area I described yesterday, about four miles back South Mineral Creek Road from US 550 north of Silverton. There is room for about one vehicle at the KT aid station so all 25-30 volunteers had to walk back the road to that location before placing course markers anywhere.

The main group had a major diversion at the end -- detouring to a bridge over Mineral Creek instead of fording it at the usual place next to US 550 below Nute's Chute.

Although Rodger Wrublik and friends already fixed a rope across Mineral Creek where the trail crosses the creek a couple miles from the finish in Silverton, the creek was deemed to be running too high and fast today for the folks marking the course to use the rope. Unfortunately, I don't have a current picture of the creek at this location.

This is the same creek that I've been showing you at our campground -- except that another mile downstream where the Hardrock runners go across it's even higher and deeper from more feeder streams. The folks marking trail today stayed on the west side of the creek and used horse trails for a mile or more to reach town, then went back to mark Nute's Chute and the rest of the trail on the other side of the creek.

Hopefully Mineral Creek will be lower on race day!

Runners who cross it in the morning or early afternoon will have less trouble then those going across in the evening or during the night when it runs higher from the day's snowmelt. This crossing is near the end of the race so runners will be spread out over about a 24-hour period of time (there is a 48-hour time limit on this race because of its difficulty). Note that there are quite a few stream crossings in this event, and Mineral Creek may not be the worst this time.

Meanwhile, the second smaller group that marked the trail from KT to the Ice Lake Trail had to come down two miles or more to the parking lot from that intersection at the end of their day. I believe they were part of the large group and did this extra section after they finished marking the first ten miles.

All these variations today required ferrying trail marking volunteers to and fro.

Today's trail marking group heads out for KT and a fun day in the San Juans.

Some folks left their vehicles at Charlie's house and hitched a ride with someone else to the Ice Lake trailhead. Some drove their vehicles out to the trailhead and left them there, with promises of friends or family to pick them up at the end of the day.

Jim and I could see there were more people than vehicles to transport volunteers to the trailhead. Since it was sort of "on our way" home anyway, we offered to take Phil Wiley and his friend Leah out there. Both live in Durango and drove up to Silverton for the day. That gave us time to see what Phil's been up to since we saw him at the Bighorn race last week (he's running two tough 100-milers three weeks apart).

We talked more with friends as they got ready to start their hike to KT, then drove back to our campground.


This morning I kept thinking about the day I helped mark this section two years ago in the same direction.

Kathy and I hung together the first few hours that day. Here's a picture I took from Bear Mountain looking back toward the Ice Lake basins and Grant-Swamp Pass:

Trail marking group on Bear Mountain (12,000+ feet elev.). Photo taken June 28, 2009.

There were some snow patches on Bear Mountain that day, but not many.

My Jim and Jim Ballard (Kathy's husband) came up from the other direction with Cody and joined us on the descent to Mineral Creek, which was high but manageable that day.

Jim took this picture of me crossing the creek:

This is fun! (June 28, 2009)  The creek was too high and swift today to safely cross.

I'm sure there's a lot more snow this year at the higher elevations on Bear Mountain but at least a storm didn't blow in on the group today like it did that day in 2009:

We barely missed a nasty t-storm on the ridges of Bear Mountain that day (June 28, 2009); all we
got was some sleet.  Jim and Cody are on the right, near the top of the descent to Mineral Creek.

Ahhh . . . those are some good memories.

This morning when we got back to our campsite we got ready to go on our first-ever Jeep ride in the San Juans. We spent several hours exploring Maggie Gulch, the abandoned mining area known as Eureka, and Cunningham Gulch with our ham radio friends, trying to decide where we want to work communications on race weekend. There will be aid stations at both Cunningham and Maggie gulches.

Photos from those areas are the subject of the next entry.

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil