Colorado athlete is first woman to set self-supported summer 14ers record
Erin Ton has long been a trailblazer in the world of mountain trail running. From trekking up rocky, mountain slopes in high heels, to climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest by lapping Boulder’s Mount Sanitas 23 times, Ton has not only pushed her body’s limits throughout the years, but has continued to fulfill her love for climbing mountains in Colorado’s High Country.
Born and raised on the Front Range, Ton developed a love for the outdoors at an early age. However, it wasn’t until she was home from college in summer 2018 that Ton was able to check hiking a fourteener off her “true Colorado native” bucket list.
“I hiked Mount Elbert with my sister and my dad,” Ton said. “At the time I thought it was the hardest thing I had ever done, but a couple days later we went back and did Grays and Torreys. I was just hooked. I caught the bug and just kept chipping away at them.”
While Ton was summiting fourteener after fourteener, she began to notice she was getting up the peaks with a decent amount of speed compared to her friends, family and other hikers. Eventually, this led Ton to break into trail running and truly start chasing after feats in the mountain endurance community.
After numerous outdoor adventures into the thin mountain air, Ton decided to set her eyes on a new and daunting athletic feat: the fastest known women’s self-supported Colorado summer fourteeners time.
Consisting of 57 of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners — all but Culebra, which requires a climbing permit — the daring feat requires a large amount of pre-planning, endurance, fitness, and physical and mental strength.
On top of the route already being filled with physical challenges, no woman before Ton had ever attempted to complete the route completely self-supported, meaning Ton had to drive from trailhead to trailhead, carry her own food and did not have a crew helping her out.
With no real roadmap for how to achieve the women’s self-supported record, Ton said she looked toward the men’s self-supported summer fourteeners record (14 days, 17 hours) and the women’s supported summer fourteeners record (14 days, 14 hours) for guidance as she was planning out her attempt.
“It really is a logistical puzzle, which I personally enjoy,” Ton said. “A lot of it was actually molded off of supported efforts in the past, with the only difference being that everything had to be designed as a loop connecting multiple peaks and starting and ending at the same trailhead or it had to be an out and back. I couldn’t start on one end of a mountain range and end on the other side.”
Besides planning the route and logistics of the trip, Ton also spent several weeks making sure her body was in the best shape possible heading into the record attempt.
“There were a lot of big vert weeks,” Ton said. “For the entire month leading up to the start of the record, I was putting up 100-mile weeks with 40,000 feet of elevation gain. A lot of that is not redlining or sprinting, but it’s just building an efficient aerobic base and building those strong power hiking legs. You don’t necessarily need to be the fastest on each of these peaks individually to complete the record, you just need to be good at going, going and going.”
Ton officially began her record attempt on Sunday, July 16, quickly bagging Windom, Sunlight, North Eolus and Eolus peaks before moving onto the Wilson Peak group in southwest Colorado the following day.
From the start of the attempt, Ton was constantly on the move, either climbing or descending a grouping of peaks, shoveling calories into her mouth to stay properly fueled, driving to the next trailhead or snagging a few minutes of sleep.
Throughout the journey, she was challenged by many things, but the weather started to play a significant role when Ton was in the process of summiting five peaks in the Crestone Peak area of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Ton successfully reached the top of Humboldt, Kit Carson, Challenger and Crestone peaks in sunny conditions when she received a text from Chris Tomer, her weather forecaster, that weather was quickly approaching the area.
“The clouds came rolling in fast,” Ton said. “Cracking thunder, lightning, rain which eventually turned to hail. Fortunately, I was able to find a little rock cave shelter to take shelter in for about an hour.”
Eventually the storm clouds dissipated, allowing Ton to climb for a short period before another powerful thunderstorm crashed over the peaks. A couple hundred feet below the summit of Crestone Needle, Ton once again was forced to take shelter and wait out another storm.
With Ton’s phone dead, her Garmin inReach running out of power and in light clothes, she started to worry if she was going to be able to make it off the Crestone traverse before night fell over the area.
“I was stuck in a tricky situation,” Ton said. “I wasn’t prepared to be up there overnight if it took that long for the storm to pass.”
She debated sending out a search and rescue message on her Garmin inReach before it died, but knew that may be overkill if she ended up getting up Crestone Needle and back down without a problem.
Eventually, Ton was able to summit Crestone Needle and make her way down, but the experience alone in the Crestones shook Ton, making her debate if she even wanted to complete the rest of the record attempt.
“I have only had a few close calls in the mountains before and that was one of them,” Ton said. “It kind of made me evaluate some things.”
Instead of bailing from the project completely, Ton decided to pivot to some “easier” 14ers in the Sawatch Range, which she has done dozens of times before.
Although the Class 2 peaks in the Sawatch Range did give Ton a fair amount of confidence, her lack of sleep made her continue to question if the chasing after the record was worth the risks.
“I went into this project leaving the sleep element out,” Ton said. “The first three days, I moved really fast through the San Juan peaks and I only got an hour and a half of sleep those first three days. It catches up with you fast.”
In severe sleep deprivation and swirling summer storms, Ton made a firm shift from chasing after her personal time goal of 12 to 13 days, to just finishing the attempt.
She ultimately persevered and was able to set the first ever summer fourteeners women’s self-supported fastest-known time record with a time of 14 days, 10 hours. Ton finished the record on Capitol Peak near Snowmass Village on Sunday, July 30, with her friends and family coming out to support her in completing the 365-mile, 159,356 vertical feet, trek across the Colorado High Country.
“I was really happy to finish on Capitol,” Ton said. “It was super meaningful to me personally, because I remember when I climbed all the fourteeners for the first time, I was looking at pictures of the Knife Edge on Capitol and thought, ‘No way I would ever do that.’ Now, it is cool to reflect back on my progress. I am not a super emotional person, but I did shed a few tears.”
Since claiming the record, Ton has taken a few hours to recover, but has already ventured out the door to do some easy climbs in Boulder and the surrounding area. She doesn’t know if she will ever re-attempt the women’s summer fourteeners record, but she does have several ideas for her next big feat of endurance.
“I had been contemplating going after the women’s self-supported record for the Colorado Trail late September, early fall time, prior to starting (the fourteeners record),” Ton said. “I am going to see how recovery goes and how my body is holding up, but I always have a long list of mountain adventures I want to do.”
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