Summit for Life returns to Aspen on Saturday night with in-person racing

Racers take off from the start of the 14th annual Summit for Life uphill race on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, on Aspen Mountain. The race is a benefit for the Chris Klug Foundation.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Maybe leave the dance shoes at home, but it’s still race on come Saturday for the 16th annual Summit for Life on Aspen Mountain. While the pandemic will again silence the post-race party at the top, the Chris Klug Foundation fundraiser’s popular trek up Ajax is back and ready to entertain those brave enough to try.

“It’s a little different. I’d rather be on the dance floor with all of our friends and transplant community friends, but I think this is a good adaption and we all get to be together,” Klug told The Aspen Times on Wednesday. “Although we made the most of it last year and it was still a great success for the foundation and we generated some good awareness and hopefully encouraged people to have that conversation and share their donation decision, it’s not the same as being in person.”

Aspen’s Klug, the namesake behind the foundation, won Olympic bronze in 2002 as an Alpine snowboarder, less than two years after receiving a liver transplant that saved his life. In 2003, he started the Chris Klug Foundation, which seeks to increase awareness about organ and tissue donation.

Summit for Life is one of the organization’s key events, which pre-pandemic had been an uphill race on Aspen Mountain followed by a lively party and dinner at the top. The 2020 event was held virtually because of COVID-19, but this year’s race is back in person, sans the top-of-mountain festivities.

The race, which will include a combination of people skinning and hiking and many in a non-competitive way, begins at 5:30 p.m. from the base of Aspen Mountain. There will be a virtual awards ceremony at 9 p.m. broadcast live via the foundation’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

“I also made a commitment when the lights were going out for me for my transplant 21 years ago that hey, if I get through this, I’m going to do whatever I can in my power to give back and help everybody else that is waiting today,” Klug said of starting the foundation. “It’s been a huge success and helped us raise a few million dollars for organ donation awareness and CKF and helps us really fulfill our mission.”

Part of the Summit for Life week is the recognition of the foundation’s annual Bounce Back Award winners, typically given to individuals who have overcome medical hardship and are using their second chance to help others. This year’s winners are Zach Brooks, a two-time kidney transplant recipient, and Jim Gleason, who received a heart transplant in 1994.

With safety remaining a priority amid the pandemic, neither award recipient was flown in this year as would be the norm, although Klug plans to bring them to a future event in Aspen once it’s again safe enough to do so.

Despite the lack of a post-race party, there still will be DJs at both the top and the bottom of the mountain on Saturday, and The Little Nell is providing food and drinks for the racers to take home in time for the virtual awards ceremony, not to mention cookies from Paradise Bakery.

The race, which Klug called the “official kickoff to winter” in Aspen, is expected to attract upwards of 300 competitors, including those who chose to do so virtually. This includes Klug’s own children, his 10-year-old daughter Bali and 8-year-old son River, who will race alongside dad for the first time at Summit for Life.

“They’ve always been on team grandma and grandpa, on the gondola in the Ride for Life. It will be fun. I’ll drop the mic and turn and burn and grab the kids,” Klug said. “That’s one of the great gifts of COVID — I suppose one of the few gifts of COVID. But the time that we’ve had to enjoy as a family. I know it’s cliché, but it’s really been special and brought us together even more as a family. I’m realizing they are growing up so fast and I’m really cherishing the time we’ve had the last year and a half.”

Cost to race in person on Saturday is $75 (plus fees) per individual, and $50 to compete virtually through Saturday evening. For more on the event, visit