LighterBro Athlete, Matt Dubberley, takes the speed ascent record of the tallest mountain in the Continental US: Mt Whitney, 14,496ft in 1hr 47min 40s. He took the round trip record from Whitney Portal as well in 2hr 38min 15s.
Mt. Whitney: 14,495ft Source: SummitPost.org
Previous record: 1:49:10 up, 3:03:05 round trip set by Andy Anderson in 2014. The journey to this accomplishment has been about a year in the making, but I will start my story two days before my first big attempt on this record, when I hiked up to do some reconnaissance. I had only done Mt Whitney twice before and I had never done the exact route the current record holder took. The Mountaineer's route is very steep and direct, and it is the fastest way up the mountain. Much of the route is loosely defined and there are several forks and options for the ascent. I read about one route option above Lower Boyscout Lake that was supposedly faster for people who were skilled at traversing steep slabs. It was steep and exposed, but well within my comfort zone. I made it up without any issue and it seemed like a faster route, though I had never done the normal route or at speed so I had no real data to go on. On this day, I was just hiking, so I would not have any data until my record attempt. I was stoked as I knew the current record holder did not go this way, AND it was dangerously exposed, so any future runners looking to dethrone me might be deterred by this obstacle.
The rest of my reconnaissance hike went smoothly. I made it about 2/3rds of the way to the top and decided to save my legs and get back by dark. I had already spent several hours earlier trying to unlock a different route option that turned out to be GPS data error from the record holder's run. The idea to go for the speed record up Mt. Whitney all started out of the need for more challenge. I spent a few years fighting for mountain trail running Strava records in the Santa Barbara Mountains for a couple of years, and I eventually got most of the speed records. The competition was formidable featuring some of the fastest trail and road runners in town pushing my limits continuously. A highlight of this era for me was when 2016 Olympic marathon hopeful, Curly Guillen, took the record on the prominent Jesusita trail to Inspiration point. It took me nearly 6 months, but I took it from him by a few seconds on Christmas Eve 2013. He took it back a week later on New Year's day. It took me more than 6 months, but eventually I regained that record. Around that time, I had most of the records in Santa Barbara, and the local competition seemed to have given up on dethroning me. It was time to go bigger: the highest peak in the Continental US, Mt. Whitney. The trailhead is at 8,500ft and the summit is 14,500ft. While I didn’t know much about the previous Whitney record holder Andy Anderson before I started the quest for this FKT (Fastest Known Time), I soon learned his time would not be easy to beat. He holds many of the records for the biggest mountains around. When I was the Tetons a few years ago, I witnessed Kilian Jornet, arguably the fastest mountain runner around, set a new record for the infamous Grand Teton. That record was very hotly contested for decades and the previous record was so fast that it stood for 20 years before Kilian took it. A week after Kilian took the Grand Teton FKT, Andy took it from Killian. THAT’S BOLD! It wasn’t until months after I committed to Whitney that I learned all of this and who I was up against. Oh well… I’ll give it a shot.
The Grand Teton, Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 was the day for my attempt. I had been training for nearly a year. In the last month, I acclimated to the altitude and adopted a zero-junk-food-mostly unprocessed-plant-food, vegetarian diet (Thanks to great chef and wife, Charity) to drop 9 more pounds below the 5 lbs I had already shed in the previous months. I had researched and tested all the gear I needed to make sure it was the best possible. I consulted Dr. Geoff Gray at Luxe Labs, and got some advice such as brand new research data showing how to most efficiently carry water while running. Chris Hillyer, who is responsible for creating and innovating at the shoe company Deckers, offered to give me the best mountain running shoes they had. These shoes were not even for sale here yet and were prototypes at the time. He even offered to design a custom shoe just for this FKT attempt! I found the Hoka One Speed Goat shoe to be ideal for mountain running, and these shoes took me up and down over a dozen 13- and 14-thousand foot peaks in the months of training leading to Whitney. In the final weeks of preparation, I competed in the Barr Trail Mountain Race, a famous trail race on Pikes Peak. This race featured, among others, a couple of very fast (and high altitude acclimated) Kenyan marathoners (one had 2:09 marathon PR), in addition to a super star national team mountain runner who had just come back from 2nd place in an international cross country championship race in Switzerland (1:03 half marathoner). I ended up 5th in this race and hung with the Kenyans for quite awhile up the climb. 5am on summit day: I woke up at the trailhead camping spot and felt I had done all the right preparation. I had four friends from Santa Barbara who would be out at Lower Boy Scout Lake waiting to cheer me on. My wife and two-year-old son would be at the start and finish to provide motivation, encouragement, and official timing. Around 7:45am, I took off from the end of the pavement at Whitney Portal. I felt amazing and was making great time. After 10 minutes, I had nearly a minute lead and was still feeling good, though I was breathing as hard as possible in this thin air. I was running flawlessly, picking great lines on the trail and making no mistakes. I made it to Lower Boy Scout Lake in 30 minutes, which was a minute under the current record holder's time. I made it up to the exposed rock slabs of my shortcut minutes later. Everything was going amazingly well. I increased my lead a bit at every time split. When I made it to Iceberg Lake which is about 2/3rds of the way up, I had a 90 second lead. From there the route gets steeper and more technical. Perfect for my strengths! As I climbed up the steep shoot above Iceberg Lake, I felt very confident and was making good time.
Route up from Iceberg Lake Photo credit: D. Jones
With 30 minutes to go, BAD NEWS: I felt cramps start to build in my right quad. I spent the rest of the ascent fighting off the cramps, trying to climb technical terrain while keeping my right leg as straight as possible. I thought it was over when I reach the saddle 30 seconds down with only 10 minutes to the summit on steep technical terrain. My cramps were getting worse and my leg was nearing the point where it painfully locks up completely. I did the best I could with my 3 good appendages, and somehow pulled up the final 300-yard dash to the summit with only about a minute to spare. I knew it would take about a minute to run, so I sprinted for it. My body was already out of oxygen, and I was going on will at this point. My body diverted any blood still going to my brain into my failing legs. When I made it to the official USGS summit marker, I glanced at my watch, only to see the record time had passed just a few seconds earlier. Wasting no time at the summit, I headed back down the route to see if my legs would magically rebound and let me fly downhill and grab the round trip record (3hrs and 3 minutes). After 5 minutes, my right leg cramped so badly I couldn't move it at all. I WAS DONE! No record for the ascent or for the return trip today. I was motivated to give it another try as soon as my legs recovered. I gave myself 3 days of rest. Since I only needed a few seconds, I weighed my equipment and found a jersey in the back of my closet that was lighter than any other. It just happened to be a stars and stripes national championship jersey I won in college. I planned to return to Whitney on Saturday night to make an attempt at the record on Sunday, August 2, 2015. Saturday night I prepared all of my gear and then camped out at the trailhead.
Gear used in record breaking run
5am: I woke up feeling good. I ate breakfast and then started the run. I decided to go a bit easier at the start and pace myself slower so I could avoid cramps and make up any lost time at the end. Within minutes of starting, I felt just OK, not great like a few days prior. I figured I would give it my best. Despite my slower pace, my breathing was much harder and my effort level seemed more difficult. I was also making some mistakes and left some blood on the route in a couple of places. I held on to the glimmer of hope that I would not fade, though. I learned way way back in my bike racing days that how good you feel, has little to do with how fast you can go. Back then, most of my best results came after big setbacks when I didn't feel great. I made it up to the first lake (Lower Boy Scout) around 30 seconds ahead of the record split. It was 30 seconds slower than my first attempt, and I was feeling sub-par, but I was not fading or feeling worse. I decided not to take the exposed shortcut slab and instead follow the exact route the current record holder took the entire time. Because I had not practiced this, I made an error and followed a trail that led high when I should have stayed low. It cost me a bit of time, but I was back on track no worse for the wear in a few minutes. After the second lake (Upper Boy Scout), I reached Charity and she added some extra motivation and encouragement. I was struggling up the mountain, but slowly increasing my lead. I pulled up to Iceberg Lake with a 60 second lead. At this point, I was ready to give it everything in the last 45 minutes to the summit. If cramps came for me again, I'd be history, but I was not going to let that thought slow me down. I reached the final notch with 10 minutes to go and about 45 seconds ahead of the record split, and was going strong. I climbed the final technical section as fast as I have climbed anything.
Final climb above notch. Photo credit: D. Jones I quickly glance at my watch to confirm I held my lead as I pulled out of the steep part to the final sprint. The 6 people at the summit must have known I was going for it and they cheered me on as I tagged the summit medal in 1 hour, 47 minutes and 40 seconds. A new record by 90 seconds! Without wasting a second at the top, I began the run down, as I was also going for the round-trip record. The downhill starts with some technical scrambling that then leads to the same steep gully I climbed out of Iceberg Lake. I ran full speed down the screen and boulder filled gully. It was equal parts running, surfing, and controlled falling/crashing for the steep 1000-foot drop to the lake. From there down is a blur in my mind. I stayed focused on the trail 5-10 feet in front of me and just ran the race to the bottom as fast as I could, with only brief glances up to view the route farther ahead. When I reached the road at the end, I was cooked! I stopped my watch and laid down in the shade. When I caught my breath, I looked at my watch and saw I had smashed the round trip record by 25 minutes. I had gone down the mountain in 50 minutes and 35 seconds, which made my round trip time 2 hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds.
I am thrilled with this accomplishment and grateful for all the people who helped me. It would not have been possible without this support. An extra special thank you for my wife and son, Charity and Hayden, whose contribution to this accomplishment exceeds words.