It's a few minutes after 1 a.m. on a cool September night, the
kind that makes for good hiking here in the lonely heights of the
Sierra Nevadas. Above a ragged peak line a full moon shines down
like a celestial flashlight, illuminating Russ McBride as he
adjusts his headlamp, slips on his small backpack and heads out
to chase a little history.
Less than 16 hours from now McBride will be crumpled on a
boulder, sobbing in frustration, having failed in his quest. For
now, however, he's confident, and his strategy appears to be
sound. Or as sound as possible when you consider his goal: to
summit all 15 of California's 14,000-foot peaks in less than a
week. The 34-year-old McBride has done the math, studied the topo
maps and is confident not only that he can do it but also that he
can eclipse Jack McBroom's record time of four days, 11 hours and
19 minutes. Starting here, in the gut of the state, where all but
one of the 14,000-foot mountains are clustered in a
1,500-square-mile area, his game plan is to climb the seven peaks
that make up the Palisades Group (the hardest section), then
White Mountain, then the six summits in the Whitney block and
finally, after a 450-mile drive north, Mount Shasta.
It won't be as easy for McBride as it was in 1998, when he set a
record on a relatively leisurely nine-day jaunt with two other
climbers. To break McBroom's mark, he must endure moments of
extreme suffering in which altitude and sleep deprivation stir a
witch's brew in the brain, creating half-seen things among the
alpine boulders. The aerobic output will be the equivalent of, in
McBride's words, "running 20 marathons, combined with some
free-soloing at 14,000 feet."
But it will be worth it, McBride insists. Why? He ponders the
question for a second as he strides uphill on Thunderbolt Peak.
The only sound is the scritching of hiking boots on earth. "It's
about seeing how far you can push yourself," he says, looking up
at the craggy silhouette of the rock face. "It's just you versus
October 13, 2002
This sounds Zen-like. Alas, it's a complete crock. When tomorrow
comes and he throws in the towel--metaphorically at least, for an
ultralight hiker would never carry such a trivial item--McBride
will not see it as some sort of Karmic destiny but rather as a
failure to break the record, to catch Jack.
McBride will have missed a golden opportunity to take the lead in
the race for the Fourteeners, this crazy statewide game of
can-you-top-this that has energized California's community of
peak freaks. The game is best described as a
run-hike-climb-and-drive scavenger hunt at altitude, and its
unofficial rules are these: 1) You must attain the highest point
on each summit, and 2) once on the trail, you can receive no
For the disparate group of actual and would-be conquerors of the
Fourteeners, the lure is the feat's accessibility. As opposed to
an Ironman triathlon, a far-flung Eco-Challenge or a speed record
on El Capitan--all exclusive competitions contested by athletes
who train year-round--the 15 California peaks are eminently
conquerable. Think day hiking on steroids. If you have
above-average climbing skills and a good set of lungs, you've got
a shot. "Boys are boys, and we're just grown-up boys," explains
McBroom. "After a while we want to make games out of stuff. You
can race on something superhard like the Nose of El Cap, but only
a handful of people have a prayer of doing that. Instead, how
about these mountains? All it takes is running, climbing and a
certain amount of boldness. That opens it up: Now there are
thousands of people who can be in the game."
He grins. "So let's play."
To play, one has to know the competition, and McBroom is the
rabbit the rest are chasing. Head 90 miles east of L.A. to the
town of Hemet, where McBroom teaches high school chemistry and
biology, and it's easy to pick out which house belongs to him. In
a cookie-cutter cul-de-sac lined with manicured lawns and
sensible cars, McBroom's place is the one with the 1967 VW
Westphalia van out front and the dusty yard teeming with palm
trees and cacti. "We did it partly for the environmental reasons,
to save water," McBroom says as he looks out at the Death Valley
tableau he and his wife, Melody, have created. "But we did it as
much for the money. Water's expensive, man!"
He lets out an explosive laugh. With his bare feet, bead
necklace, shoulder-length gray hair and thick silver goatee, the
45-year-old McBroom is the portrait of an aging hippie. That he
doesn't own a TV, doesn't get newspapers ("You always find stuff
out eventually," he says), likes to navigate by the stars, says
stuff like "I totally dig it!" and plays a mean 10-string
classical guitar further cultivates the image.
Don't be fooled: McBroom may be mellow of mind, but he is fleet
of foot. As a teenager he ran a 4:23 mile (fast enough to earn
him a scholarship to Oklahoma Christian), and among many other
feats, he's finished the Western States 100 and come in 19th (out
of 69) in the Badwater 135-mile race from Death Valley to Whitney
Portals. Last year he participated in his first Eco-Challenge
(his team finished 39th out of 55), and this week he's back with
another Eco team in Fiji.
McBroom first heard about the Fourteeners in the fall of 1996,
when he met two hikers who were in the midst of a two-week
sojourn up the 15 peaks. Intrigued, he searched the Web to see if
there was a record and found an account of the nine-day, 10-hour
run made by McBride, Tony Ralph and the celebrated rock climber
Hans Florine in 1998. (As far as anyone knows--and keep in mind
that there isn't an Elias Sports Bureau in mountaineering--only
two other people, brothers Quade and Tyle Smith in the late '70s,
had done all 15 in succession before McBride's group.)
Nine days? McBroom figured he could top that. But then he found
another web post, this one written by a 25-year-old climber from
Arizona named Josh Swartz. The account, replete with summit
photos from all the peaks, detailed how Swartz had done the
circuit--unassisted, no less--in five days, 23 hours and 41 minutes
in August 2001. Near the top of the page Swartz had issued a
challenge: "To my knowledge, this is the new record. If anyone
has done it faster, please stand up!"
McBroom says his first impulse was to stay seated. ("I saw Josh's
number, and I was like, Ooooh, six days, that's kind of fast.")
Others had a different reaction. After Swartz threw down the
gauntlet, it seemed that every adventurer wanted a crack at the
mark. Florine tried. McBride tried. A handful of others, lured by
word of mouth and modem, tried. All of them failed.
Then McBroom decided that he wanted to play.
After a recon trip in June and a false start in July (when a
nearby forest fire halted his attempt), McBroom headed back to
the Sierras in mid-August with his friend Paul McGuffin, who
served as his driver and support person between trailheads.
Starting with the Palisades, McBroom cruised through the peaks
as if they were attractions at Disneyland rather than the
daunting challenges some climbers consider them to be.
(Starlight Peak, for example, has a final spire that inspired
Stephen Porcella, author of California's Fourteeners, to write
out a will before climbing it.) To cut down on flat hiking time,
McBroom made a strategic adjustment to Swartz's route, linking
the first seven mountains; in other words, instead of going up
and down each mountain (map, page A6), he worked his way along
ridges from the side of one mountain to the next. As an
ultrarunner, McBroom was also able to jog approximately 40 of
the 125 miles he covered on foot, even running over stretches of
talus, boulders that protrude from the earth like rows of
misshapen molars. "That's the key to this," says McBroom. "There
are plenty of triathletes who could kill me in a road race, but
get them on the rocks and they don't know what to do. Me, I love
McBride is loving the rocks too. It's 11:30 a.m., and he's on
fire. Ten hours into his expedition he has already cleared the
first five peaks and is ahead of McBroom's pace. He has moved
fast enough to stay warm in just a wicking shirt, Lycra tights
and a thin jacket, despite temperatures in the 30s at night. He
also has yet to sleep--a good thing, since he didn't bring a
sleeping bag, just a space blanket.
A graduate student in philosophy at Cal, McBride is logical and
efficient. To prepare, he dropped 15 pounds off his already lanky
6'3", 185-pound frame and spent a week at elevation to
acclimatize and prevent the nausea, retching and dizziness of
altitude sickness. He's also carrying a heart-rate monitor, which
he has been checking every few minutes to stay near his goal of
145 (155 at higher altitudes).
The only nagging concern he has as he heads toward the sixth peak
is the disappearance of his Endurox energy drink powder, which he
left by a stream on the far side of Bishop Pass. But who needs
food when one has endorphins? Heading down the slope of Mount
Sill, McBride pumps his tiny MP3 player to full volume and breaks
into a run. As he hurtles down the hillside, he revels in the
rush of adrenaline, thinking, I'm a god, I'm a god, I'm a god.
Now is the time to grab the Fourteeners record. "Eventually a
bifurcation is going to occur," says McBride. "As more and more
people say, 'Hey, I could do that,' a smaller subset of them will
be capable of setting the record."
Until then, however, there is lots of room for improvement. Take
the driving thing, for example. Since time behind the wheel
counts toward the record, what's to prevent someone from tearing
up I-5 at 120 mph to save three hours? "Nothing, absolutely
nothing!" says McBroom with a cackle. "I'm waiting for someone to
get a Maserati."
McBride disagrees. To even the playing field, he proposes a set
time of 12 hours for the drive. Others think Mount Shasta should
just be eliminated. Then there's the thorny issue of Mount
Williamson, which is closed during the second half of the year
for the bighorn-sheep-mating season. Florine and McBride think
this restriction should be honored, and McBride thinks a good
alternative is climbing Tyndall three times. Swartz and McBroom
just went ahead and climbed Williamson, rules be damned.
It's 4:10 p.m. on Day Two, and defeat towers over McBride in the
form of his sixth peak, Middle Palisade, a skyscraper of rock
that looks, he will say later, like the Nose of El Cap. Partway
up he can make out a 600-foot, 80-degree headwall, a vertical
football field of slick rock. It looks too tough, it is too late
in the day, and he is too low on food. To make an attempt now
would be to risk getting marooned on the wall in the dark, like a
cat stuck halfway up a tree. "I knew Middle Pal was going to be
the linchpin, but I wasn't ready for it to be so hellacious,"
McBride says later. "Me being somewhat arrogant, I figured, Class
4 [in which one scrambles on rocks but does not have to do any
technical climbing]--not a problem, I'll just find a route. I was
Nonetheless he will be back. McBroom's record, all parties agree,
won't stand for long. Swartz thinks he can shave off a full day.
He calls the record "very soft" and wrote in an e-mail that
"sub-3 days might be possible." (He plans to try again next
August.) McBride and McBroom both say they have a game plan that
they believe will get them around 3 1/2 days. What none of the
three climbers realize, since they don't communicate with each
other, is that the two Mc's have the same "secret" plan: to link
the set of peaks in the Whitney block, as McBride tried to do in
his most recent failed attempt, thus eliminating a substantial
amount of hiking and elevation change.
Each of the three men holds a particular advantage. McBroom is
the best runner and probably the best navigator. McBride, who was
once a pro climber, is the fastest on vertical rock. And Swartz
appears to have a head for strategy (not surprising for someone
who says he once "dabbled" in applied math and cryptography as a
graduate student at Arizona). Of course, who knows how many
others are planning to take a whack at the record? Says McBroom,
"I've heard rumors that dozens of people are going to try.
Personally, I'm hoping one of them breaks the record. Then I'll
have more motivation to try again."
The morning after bailing out on Middle Palisade, McBride awakes
early. Despite his promises to his girlfriend to forget the
Fourteeners for a while, he is hunched on a couch in a rented
condo, hair sticking up in pillow-molded wedges, with a
collection of creased topographical maps spread in front of him.
He turns the maps this way and that, examining routes. "I can't
get Middle Pal off the brain," he says, shaking his head.
"There's gotta be an easier way up there."
The game is far from over. It's just beginning.
SO, YOU WANNA PLAY?
Even if you're not looking to set a record, you can make your own
run at the Fourteeners. Racers considering such an expedition
will need the following:
1. Decent mountaineering skills. Three of the 15 peaks--White
Mountain Peak, Mount Langley and Mount Whitney--can be summited by
hikers without technical climbing skills. Most of the others,
however, require greater climbing experience, most notably North
Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Middle Palisade and Polemonium,
which have routes of 5.4 or greater.
2. The right gear. In his attempt to go light, McBride went
without a sleeping bag but had a space blanket and ground cloth.
Headlamp, climbing shoes, trekking poles and a hydration system
are absolute necessities.
3. A support crew. Though Swartz went solo, you'll want a driver
so you can sleep between peaks, especially on the eight-hour ride
to Shasta. This adds an important element of safety.
4. A good plan of attack. Routes must be drawn and topo maps
bought, and an advance scouting trip wouldn't hurt. (Both McBroom
and McBride took them.) Stephen Porcella's California's
Fourteeners is an invaluable planning guide. --C.B.
RACING IN THE ROCKIES
The only state that approaches California's abundance of rugged
peaks is Colorado, with 14 over 14,000 feet. The Colorado
Fourteeners, easier to summit than California's because they
require less rock climbing, have inspired their own race, the
Nolan's 14, in which climbers try to reach all the summits in
less than 60 hours (no cars allowed). The course covers more than
100 miles on foot, including 90,000 vertical feet. The record is
just under 53 hours, and only five people have conquered all 14
peaks in the allotted time. For information go to
"There are plenty of triathletes who could kill me in a road
race, but get them on the rocks...."