America’s Uphill: An existentialist-eye view |

America’s Uphill: An existentialist-eye view

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN If you want to get in touch with your inner existentialist, just race 3,267 vertical feet up a 2.5-mile track on Aspen Mountain at dawn with 283 people. Or, at least that’s what I found out Saturday at the annual America’s Uphill race.This year’s race, sponsored by Ute Mountaineer and Aspen Parks and Recreation, was dedicated to the memory of Fritz Stammberger, a larger-than-life mountaineer who disappeared on a solo expedition in Pakistan in the late 1970s, and Scott Edmondson, an Aspen Middle School teacher and outdoor education pioneer who died last year at age 59.Racers from the Beaver Creek Resort in Avon dominated the 2007 event.

The top time was 43 minutes, 26 seconds posted by Mike Kloser of Beaver Creek, and his teammate, Josiah Middaugh came in at 44:11.Aspen’s best, Jonathan Severy from the Ute Mountaineer shop, crossed the line in a respectable third place at 44:39.The top female finisher, Anita Ortiz of the Beaver Creek, came in at 47:58, followed by Robin Pfautz of Carbondale (57:19) and Lisa Gonzalez of Aspen (57:56).Winners collected medals in seven age groups (under 18 to over-70) and four classes: Track skis (cross-countries), heavy metal (alpine touring gear), Telemark skis or the “open” category, which included running shoes, snowshoes, stabilicers, YakTrax or any other traction system people could think of.But my time – nearly one hour and 20 minutes – couldn’t possibly express Saturday’s existential odyssey.

“God, help me!” I said at the top of The Little Nell run, the sun just lighting up the clear morning sky. Only a fraction of the way up the gradual pitch and I didn’t think I could make it.Wearing a demo pair of Kahtoolas, neoprene galoshes with metal studs on the bottom, I stuck to the hill well, but my heart was racing, my chest hurt and I was looking for a way to sneak away from the pack and retreat with my dignity.But I was committed, so I started bargaining.”If you get me over this next rise, I’ll go back to church … or maybe do some volunteer work,” I said to the deity at the beginning of Spar Gulch.But halfway up the steep gully, I was done with God.I became Kafka.”Man’s life is an absurd dance of suffering,” I thought with each painful ratcheting step up the track.Dressed in our mish-mash of name-brand clothes and inventive footwear, we looked like post-modern prospectors rushing to a claim – clawing up the ladder of success – and I saw the similarities between capitalism and this punishing struggle.But by top of the gulch, near Ajax Express lift – my temples throbbing, snot flying from me as I gasped for breath – I became an anarchist, believing in chaos, string theory … Unitarianism.”It’s all uphill from here,” one trudger joked as he passed me with a smile.And a gulp of Gatorade and a brief chat with a fellow sufferer turned me Buddhist: “Oh boundless joy to find at last there is no happiness in this world.”Now somehow right with my suffering, I hit the high terrain and found my stride.

You are not alone, my sonIt seemed like the whole town of Aspen – not to mention the ringers from Vail – took to the hill Saturday morning, but whether they went through my same machinations, I can only guess.More than 30 minutes behind the first place finishers, I kept pace with a small pack, and that last leg following the Ajax Express chair at near Aspen’s zenith was all about camaraderie.”We’re almost there,” we kept telling each other. “Just over this next rise.”And as I neared the top, the distant sound of Jim Ward’s cowbell at the finish lit a fire in my belly.It wasn’t pretty, but I rushed those last 30 yards like I was going for first place, not 159th.The Aspen Times team didn’t place, but our own Joel Stonington was 2nd in the 19-29 year-old Telemark ski class (edged out by his close friend Will Roush).The race over, relieved of my heavy burden and with a belly full of donuts, I watched others cross the line.With empathy for those heroic finishers and that last desperate sprint I’d just experienced, I heard the cheers and laughter, dropped the existential crap and remembered what’s important: We’re all in this together.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is