Leor Pantilat on the summit of Mount Olympus. Photo © Leor Pantilat.
  Adventure Running  
  by Leor Pantilat  


he first indications of daylight have yet to appear and the air in the forest is calm but chilly. Long ethereal shadows are cast by the moon and the soft sound of a trickling stream is juxtaposed with the tumbling torrent of a nearby river. This tranquility is momentarily interrupted by my rapid footsteps and rhythmic breathing as I run through the forest. I am intensely focused on my next stride along the windy trail and contemplate the complexities and challenges of the climb to come. Thoughts of the scenery ahead propel me forward and my aim is to swiftly reach the summit views. I am adventure running.

Leor Pantilat on West McMillan Spire, North Cascades. © Leor Pantilat
Leor Pantilat on West McMillan Spire, North Cascades. © Leor Pantilat. Enlarge

Adventure running is a unique type of running. Unlike trail running or mountain running, no race is organized with competitors and pacemakers, no support crew, no stashes of food and water, and no finish line with spectators and a post-race barbecue. Instead, you find personal challenge where self-reliance is essential and the participant becomes intimate with nature. Adventure running is a fusion of traditional mountaineering and trail running; an ultra light and ultra fast way of climbing and scrambling mountains in the wilderness. It is just me and the mountain (and sometimes a partner) and I must carry all my food and gear, regularly including ice axe and crampons. Each trip presents unique and dynamic challenges, including steep snow and ice, technical rock scrambling, high altitude, and long distances. In addition, adventure running entails arduous off-trail travel where boulder fields and seemingly impenetrable sections of brush and slide alder are often encountered. Sometimes I must deal with a combination of all of the above on the same trip. These challenges truly make each experience an adventure.

Adventure running is essentially a combination of two of my passions – running and climbing mountains. The combination was not always obvious and I used to think rushing through climbs precluded experiencing such things as the sunrise and sunset, sleeping under the stars, and fully appreciating the scenery. I do acknowledge that the adventure running experience is different from traditional mountaineering, and for this reason I hope to always do a few overnight trips every year. However, adventure running is highly enjoyable in its own right. I take pleasure in many aspects of the climbs: reaching the summit, the gorgeous scenery, the intricacies of planning and executing a trip, and many other facets. The feeling is awesome when I access places that people consider rugged, remote, and “inaccessible” in a day or a few hours. The rush I get from adventure running is similar to a “runner’s high” generated after a good race or training session, but it is also much more. The sentiment is tough to precisely describe, but it is a feeling of freedom and inner contentment, a refuge from the complexities and worries of society, and an experience of the beauty of nature in its purest form. The delight of cresting a ridge and being treated to sweeping views is hard to compare. The feeling I get on these adventures produces a snowball effect in which the more climbs I complete, the more I want to explore and discover my capabilities. Some people perceive my adventure running as a form of self-inflicted punishment and suffering, but I view it as enjoyment. The thrill of being in such beautiful places far overshadows the intense physical exertion, and I rarely think about being tired while on a climb.

Chimney Rock, 2005. © Leor Pantilat
Chimney Rock, 2005. © Leor Pantilat. Enlarge

However, the challenge of adventure running entails not only pushing the physical limits of my body, but also being cognizant of my surroundings and intelligent in my actions. I understand that mental fortitude needs to be considered in light of the limitations of the body and the dangers of over-exertion. In one instance, the anticipation and excitement before the climb was so great that I started out way too fast. Ten minutes into the climb, I found myself propped against a tree trunk with spinning head and uncontrollable dizziness. A red flag raised in my brain, telling me to stop what I was doing. For a moment, I was actually considering abandoning the climb. Fortunately, the dizziness dissipated and I resumed hiking at a more reasonable pace, but I learned my lesson.

In another case, exhaustion and dehydration had set in to the point where I felt like turning around before the objective was reached despite having completed 90% of the climb. I stopped and refueled my body with water and energy bars and I was soon at the summit asking myself why I had even thought about turning around so close to the objective. Since this experience, I have sought to consume food and water regularly to preclude such situations. I have also found that breaking up the climb into manageable segments with several benchmark goals is helpful. As the intermediary goals are reached, confidence and motivation increase. In addition to understanding my mind and body, I must be able to evaluate the conditions and terrain, and appreciate the varying and often unpredictable mountain environment. Engaging in proper judgment in light of these aspects is essential to safe and successful trips. For this reason, I am always monitoring mountain weather conditions and carefully studying the routes and topography in preparation for my adventure runs.

My philosophy is simple: run and climb the most remote, aesthetic, and rugged mountains. This has been my aspiration since I began visiting the mountains as a youngster so adventure running has not altered the destination. The only difference is that I am now able to access these places faster and accomplish more in a lesser amount of time. First and foremost, I seek to climb in the places that have the highest scenic value, no matter whether the climb takes four hours or twenty hours or involves 2,000 feet or 15,000 feet of elevation gain, as long as the route and views are aesthetic and worthwhile. Furthermore, the feeling that I am pioneering a novel sport is very rewarding. Doing things that nobody has ever done, or even attempted to do is gratifying to me. My efforts may change perceptions of what is possible. Since I am pursing a new activity, I am also responsible for refining my techniques in order to improve. Finally, I have a deep respect and appreciation for nature. The wilderness has always drawn me to the mountains, and for this reason, leaving no trace of my passage is extremely important to me.

Austera Peak looking south. © Leor Pantilat
Austera Peak looking south. © Leor Pantilat. Enlarge

While my runs are inherently short with little opportunity to sit and reflect on my surroundings, I never compromise the time I take to enjoy the summit scenery. Neither do I ever abstain from photography in order to achieve a faster time. My climbs are almost always in places where the view is more than worthy of the few extra minutes required to snap a few shots. Over the years, photography has become one of the aspects I most highly enjoy in these adventures. On most trips I will take well over 100 digital photos in a span of just a few hours. Always looking for the right angle and lighting to capture the beauty of the rugged wilderness, I will drop everything to photograph a nice scene.

The origins of my love for running and climbing were heavily influenced by my father. Both my father and uncle were elite long distance runners, so my participation in track and cross country seemed natural, beginning in junior high school and continuing through college. My father also took me to the mountains as a child. I began ski lessons at Alpental at the age of four and I learned to appreciate the wilderness and nature on hikes and backpacking trips in the Cascades and National Parks of the West. As I grew up, I soon aspired to climb the mountains we saw from the trails. I would look at the maps and search for the most remote places with the biggest glaciers and I promised myself that I would one day visit these areas. During high school and college, I would squeeze in mountain climbing trips in the summer while training for track and cross country. While the experiences running track and cross country were all fantastic, they never equaled the rush and fire that being in the mountains generated and I always hoped to be able to climb more.

Once I completed competitive racing in college, I had the flexibility to train, run, and climb as I wanted. However, at this point I still had not envisioned myself adventure running with trail shoes and a light daypack. In fact, I used to wear heavy boots on every outing, including hikes on trails. I have always sought to make good time on climbs, but the idea of adventure running evolved through a partnership on traditional mountaineering trips with ultrarunner Colin Abercrombie, who competes in organized ultra trail races, ranging from distances greater than a marathon through 100 miles. Colin introduced me to ultra running and the idea of applying ultra running techniques to mountain climbing in an unsupported, wilderness setting. He quickly convinced me and I soon embarked on my first true adventure run, a climb of Glacier Peak with Colin in August 2006. We climbed the mountain in 16 hours, 45 minutes round-trip via the North Fork Sauk River/Disappointment Peak Cleaver, which now provides the shortest route after the White Chuck River floods of 2003. The climb entailed over 35 miles of distance (21 miles on trail) and 11,000+ feet of elevation gain. Covering so much ground and touring such a beautiful area of the Cascades was exhilarating and I was hooked! Afterwards, I dropped the heavy boots for trail runners on most climbs. I followed up the awesome experience of Glacier Peak with solo speed ascents of Del Campo Peak and Forbidden Peak (2:30 car to summit).

Steven Sheets photographing a Sierra summit scene. © Leor Pantilat.
Steven Sheets photographing a Sierra summit scene. © Leor Pantilat. Enlarge

The summer of 2007 featured many mountain runs affording me an opportunity to refine my gear and technique. After several speed ascents in the high Sierra, I was ready to try a speed climb of Mount Olympus (opening photo), which had been a goal for a long time. Despite uncertainties at the outset (route conditions, required time commitment, etc.), the climb went smoothly and I was able to far exceed my expectations for time, completing it in 11 hours, 30 minutes round-trip. Later on in the summer I headed to the Entiat Mountains for a link-up of Mount Fernow, Seven Fingered Jack, and Mount Maude in 11 hours, 13 minutes. While this climb involved less mileage than Mount Olympus, the elevation gain was greater and the terrain more difficult. Other notable ascents in the Cascades included West McMillan Spire (11:15), Sloan Peak (7:09), Eldorado Peak (4:58), Lemah Mountain (11:26), and the West Ridge of Mount Stuart (8:00). The season concluded with a fantastic climb of Black Kaweah in the high Sierra (15:35). On some of these routes I had prior experience (e.g. Eldorado), which helps immensely in identifying the fastest route, while others were my first ascents and can theoretically be completed faster upon a revisit.

My goal to climb mountains of high scenic value has resulted in an ever-expanding list of potential adventure runs, including climbs in the Palisades subrange of the high Sierra and remote points in the Picket range of the North Cascades. In addition, adventure runs of the Ptarmigan Traverse and the 94-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier are highly appealing. However, I have no specific schedule of climbing. Instead, trip dates and route selection are ultimately dependent upon weather and conditions. Finally, I aspire to apply the techniques honed in the Cascades and high Sierra to other ranges, including the British Columbia Coast Range, Interior BC Ranges, the Canadian Rockies, and ranges in Alaska. The distinct mountain environments will undoubtedly pose new challenges and provide an unlimited resource for future goals. However, I will always return to climb in my “home range,” the breathtaking North Cascades, the location of my first adventure runs and the place where my fascination with mountains first originated.


Equipment & Training

The most important piece of equipment for adventure running is footwear, specifically trail running shoes that provide traction with soles that can negotiate rock, steep heather, snow, and whatever else may be encountered during off-trail travel. I am currently using the tough and durable Exum Ridge trail runners by La Sportiva, which have sticky soles providing excellent traction in boulder fields and scrambling sections. Such shoes enable me to both run the trail sections comfortably and scramble boulder fields and rock sections with confidence. Lightweight crampons are worn on glaciers or whenever needed.

Other Equipment:
• Daypack with water bladder
• Standard running garments
• Fleece jacket
• Fleece hat
• Rain jacket
• Gloves
• LED headlamp and LED keychain
• First aid kit (small)
• Sunscreen, sunglasses
• Optional gaiters and extra socks
• Rope, ice axe, crampons, if necesary

Notes About Hydration and Food

• Drink at regular intervals, beginning in the first 45 minutes (preferably with an electrolyte or energy tablet or powder mix like Accelerade or Nuun)

• Eat during the first part of the climb even if you are not hungry

• Don’t start too fast and always allow extra time for contingencies

• Run or jog regularly, preferably on trails and including some hilly runs

• Do strength training to build core muscle toughness

Selected Trips

• Colchuck Peak Colchuck Glacier 3:40 (car to top)

• Sahale Peak via Sahale Arm 3:00 (car to top)

• Glacier Peak via NF Sauk River
White Chuck / Disappointment Cleaver
16:45 (rt)

• Del Campo Peak Standard route 1:55 (car to top)

• Forbidden Peak East Ledges 2:30 (car to top)

• Mount Olympus Blue Glacier 11:30:54 (rt)

• Fernow-Seven Fingered Jack-Maude 11:13:11 (rt)

• West McMillan Spire West Ridge 11:15:46 (rt)

• Sloan Peak Corkscrew 7:09:57 (rt)

• Eldorado Peak East Ridge 4:58:43 (rt)

• Lemah Mountain via Spectacle Lake 11:26:29 (rt)