Everybody wants to get on top of a leaderboard.
Everybody wants to get on top of a leaderboard. (Photo: Courtesy Rilyn VandeMerwe/Luke B)

I Was the First! (And Probably the Only)

In today’s era, claiming an adventure record requires more than skill. You need a laundry list of caveats and qualifiers.

Everybody wants to get on top of a leaderboard.

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This past March, Coloradan Andrew Hamilton became the first alpinist to climb all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a single winter. He was first—Google tells us—largely because, near as we can tell, nobody else ever tried the challenge before. Also, Hamilton’s a legit badass. He already owned the record for the fastest ascent of all 58 summits—just under ten days in the summer of 2015. But winter is wintry at 14,000 feet, so it took him three months to finish this time. (Slacker.) Hamilton speed-hiked until the nerves in his feet deadened, making it difficult to remain upright. Let us smote Hamilton’s name upon the record books. He was the first and nobody can ever take that away from him. By default, he was the fastest, too—but someone will inevitably try to take that away from him.

Such quests get me thinking. Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary topped out on Everest in 1953, every obvious first has been firsted. And as each first subsequently gets firsted again—albeit with an added qualifier, like youngest or fastest or fastest youngster—we in the outdoor world are left wondering how to cull it all. The first ascent of all 58 Fourteeners in winter is pretty straightforward. But how many qualifying clauses do we allow before declaring a record a farce? Without knocking the accomplishments of, say, the first blind climber who suffers from low-flow urination hydraulics—and also dry eye—to stand on all Seven Summits without supplemental escalators during a Sherpa strike, we need to draw the line lest we have to resort to fine print.

I once summited Mount Rainier after begrudgingly eating dehydrated soup given to me by my Outside magazine colleague Kevin Fedarko. Doesn’t sound bad, you say. But the soup never rehydrated. American Alpine Club, please note: I was the first American of Italian, Irish, and German descent to reach the summit while fully clenched in the hindquarters, holding back carrot shrapnel. My screams were eventually muffled by a lump of summit moraine I hid behind to save my climbing partners from collateral damage. But like Hillary, I survived, so I was first. Please send a plaque.

Perhaps the razor we should apply to discern farce from accomplishment is whether anyone else would conceivably attempt to best said record by going faster than earlier record holders who didn’t know they were racing. No, that won’t work. Even on Zwift, an online platform for indoor bike training, riders routinely go ballistic over speed records on virtual climbs. Everybody wants to get on top of a leaderboard. Shortly after this piece publishes, a host of my McWopKraut kin will be masticating dehydrated meals on Rainier’s mighty shoulders. Show me the meaning of speed, my brethren. And don’t forget to pack extra blue #2 bags.

The only thing to be done is to trust our instincts. Intuition will show us what is laughable and what is laudable. Except, after being bombarded for years with hyperqualified feats and nonsensical stunts that would make Guinness cringe, it’s hard to even to say what’s real anymore.   

Think you’re clairvoyant? Take this short quiz I’m calling—with apologies to NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!—the Bluff the Reader game. One of the following firsts was ripped from recent headlines. The other two are fake news. Try to guess which one is real.

#1 The Sheboygan Seal

April 28, 2016; Green Bay, Wisconsin  

Wisconsin man is first person to swim Lake Michigan shortly after ice-out without a wetsuit.

The 50-mile swing across Lake Michigan’s widest part—finishing in Green Bay—is a challenge for most endurance swimmers even in high summer. But Allen “Cinnamon Bear” Cox is no ordinary endurance swimmer. After watching commuting cyclists get washed into the lake as a young professional on a cold December day in Chicago, Cox, 37, wondered how long they could survive in the near freezing waters. In the ensuing decades, Cox grew enraptured by the niche sport of cold-water open-water swimming. No mere polar plunger, Cox took to swimming ever increasing distances shortly after ice-out. It began, Cox says, with a few hundred-meter sprints and escalated to mile-long out-and-backs as he grew accustomed to the brain freeze and swelling. The intended 50-mile swim (he was tethered to a chase boat) was eight years in the making. In the end, he successfully swam 53 miles shore-to-shore in “balmy” 41-degree water. (Prevailing winds and three-foot chop knocked him off course.) The key to Cox’s success, as reported by the Sheboygan Press? Nutrition. “When I first attempted cold-water open-water swimming, I was five foot nine inches and 175 pounds,” says Cox. “But that didn’t cut it. Like a seal in the arctic, I simply needed more insulation.” To get it, Cox admits to eating as many as six sticks of butter a day—often rolled in sugar. He weighed in at 217 pounds before his swim.  

#2. Flippers on the Flatirons

January 28, 2018; Boulder, Colorado

Colorado man climbs Third Flatiron in a wetsuit, mask, snorkel, and flippers.

The soaring sandstone escarpments above adrenaline-charged Boulder, Colorado, are known as the Flatirons—they look like the irons that settlers used to press their pants. And for the past 60 years, they’ve been a draw for all manner of climbers: the routes rank from exposed scrambles to barely climbable 5.14b. Deaths are not uncommon, as the inexperienced easily get in over their heads. A more likely outcome is for stranded climbers to spend a cold night on a ledge awaiting a dawn rescue. So it was with much shock that nearly a month after his clandestine climb, Boulder Daily Camera readers awoke to learn that a 23-year-old University of Colorado senior named Rilyn VandeMerwe had summited the Third Flatiron wearing full scuba regalia—including “a mock oxygen tank made from paper towel rolls wrapped in duct tape.” According to local climbing historian Bill Wright, who tracks speed-climbing records on the Flatirons, VandeMerwe’s climb was neither the first or the fastest navigation of the Third Flatiron, but it was certainly the first in flippers, making it one for the record books. The footwear was apparently the deciding factor, since there are no records concerning wetsuits and masks. “I think it ranks up there with climbing the Third in roller skates,” Wright told the Daily Camera. “It certainly can be done, but why?” Reached for comment VandeMerwe would only say that, “One should always climb within their abilities and they should put safety first.”

#3. The Incredible Journey

September 26, 2017; Mount Katahdin, Maine

Massachusetts woman and her cat complete entire Appalachian Trail.

While ultrarunner Joe McConaughy was shattering the self-supported speed record for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer, another less celebrated hiker was hot on his heels setting a record of her own. Well, “hot on his heels” might be hyperbole. According to the Boston Herald, McConaughy passed Beverly “Bev” Heard like she was standing still. But then quickly circled back to say hello. Why the double take? Heard, 42, was walking with her cat—a bobtailed Manx named Butch. That’s right, Bev and Butch were en route to completing the 2,189-mile hike from Georgia to Maine in a blistering eight months and five days. A good deal slower than McConaughy’s 45-day record-setting pace, but then he didn’t have a cat. Heard, who lives in Methuen, Massachusetts, has been an avid hiker most of her life, but it wasn’t until she adopted Butch that the seed for their incredible journey was planted. Turns out Butch loved to accompany Heard on walks in the woods by her house; later she took him on day hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. “He’s not like other cats,” Heard, whose Appalachian Trail name is (too obvious even for thru-hikers) Cat Lady, told the Herald. “He runs ahead and then comes right back to me—often with a pinecone in his mouth like a Labrador retriever. I thought I’d carry him most of the AT, but he wasn’t having it. Butch walked every bit of it. I knew from trail talk that Joe [McConaughy] was out for the speed record. But he turned right around and gave Butch a belly scratch before running off. Such a nice guy, but skinny.”

Click here to find the correct answer. The first person to get it right enters the record books. The first person that beats the winning time (in terms of minutes spent pondering the answer) gets an honorable mention. We’re setting up a second category for those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome who are willing to take the quiz on all seven summits via sat phone. But, of course, even if you get the answer wrong you win whether your IBS is acting up or not. In 2018, everybody is a winner, all the time, forever and ever. It’s just easier that way.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Rilyn VandeMerwe/Luke B