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Chafing to the Top

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Writer Mira Brody ascends Bone Crusher ridge up to the peak of Lone Mountain. PHOTO BY ALYSSA FELLOW

During the Rut’s Lone Mountain Vertical Kilometer, denim rules all


BIG SKY – I’ve sweated through my jorts. I’m somewhere around mile 1.5 at an elevation of 9,000 feet on the unrelenting spine of Bone Crusher, a prominent ridgeline jutting off Lone Mountain. It’s Rut Mountain Run weekend and somehow, I’ve once again found myself in this great peak’s presence begging for mercy, this time in a pair of denim cutoffs, festive glitter smeared across my sweaty face.

“How many times have you done this?” the runner behind me asks between gasps of quickly thinning air. He’s in direct eye-level with the black elk antler tattoo above my right elbow, awarded to Rut runners and the mark of those of us intimately familiar with the shenanigans that take place during this annual Labor Day weekend mountain running festival. Local artist Drew Clendenin had inked me with the race’s logo last year alongside thousands of others as a part of the Rut’s string of strange annual traditions.

“Twenty-eight, twice,” I gasped back, referring to the 28K. “Fifty last year. First VK.”

Now in its 10th year, the Rut Mountain Runs is a three-day mountain running festival that draws thousands of pain- and peak-addicted runners from all over the world. The series was founded in 2013 by North Face athletes Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe who designed the courses to be nothing short of brutal.

More than 200 athletes started the VK at 12 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Rut events include the VK, a vertical kilometer from the base area to the top of Lone Mountain; the 11K, a family-friendly trail run up and over Andesite Mountain; the 28K, all the hard portions of the 50K, condensed into a shorter distance; and the 50K, the 31-mile, 10,500-foot-gain crown jewel of the weekend. There’s also the Runts Run, a chaotic 1K children’s loop with hay bale obstacles.

This year, I joined a group of friends with whom I’ve been sharing the trails with for years in taking on the VK with carefully coordinated outfits. Our denim garb is another one of those strange aforementioned Rut traditions; The “jorts division” is a celebrated podium achievement that grants one male and one female finisher who complete the VK in jorts with a fine denim vest to wear with pride.

VK runners head up Calamity Jane towards the Bone Crusher ridge. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

The VK course sends racers from the Big Sky Resort base area to the summit of Lone Mountain over the span of 2.85 miles. While that may sound like a short distance, the finish line sits at 11,166 feet above sea level, 3,632 feet higher than the start line of the race—that’s 1 kilometer of elevation gain over 5 kilometers of distance, or the VK. It’s essentially an exposed stair climber made from scree and the blood, sweat and tears of those ahead of you.

Training for this bite-sized Rut looked a lot different than in years past. To train for the 28K or 50K, I carefully balanced my months leading up to the event cramming in vertical and endurance training, with a heaping side of heat and elevation acclimation and nutrition management before carefully tapering such activity leading up to the big event.

Instead, this week I prepared by spending time at local thrift stores on the hunt for a pair of jorts with the perfect amount of character, stretch and fray. I ultimately settled on a pair of well-loved Levi’s that had been hand-cut by the previous owner, the pockets hand-sewn in places their scissors had strayed—this was exactly the kind of positive, creative energy I needed with me to summit Lone Mountain.

The Jort crew from left to right—Erin McCracken, Mira Brody, Kelly Meeker and Allison Milogragovich. PHOTO BY KENNY WILSON

As I near the finish line, the Bone Crusher ridgeline veers skyward, providing a crisp view of the surrounding mountains I’ve trained on over the years: Sphinx with her stark red soil and sloping summit; Gallatin Crest to the east, a band of glacial-carved, flower-speckled ridges and cirques; the Bridgers, familiar and shrouded slightly in September fire smoke; and Gallatin Peak nestled in the Spanish Peaks to the north, an imposing, rugged triangle of stacked granite rocks. We all know each other well up here.

Near the summit of Lone Mountain, the trail becomes so steep we’re using our hands to navigate just as much as our feet, and the sweet sound of cowbells and cheers can be heard from spectators mere yards from that welcome finish line. My pace is so slow that my watch fails to calculate my speed. “Running” is a relative term in the mountains, but we keep moving nonetheless.

“Nice work,” a couple Big Sky ski patrollers say as we pass; They’re strategically staggered along the ridge watching carefully for the missteps that are easy to take in this narrow, wobbly scree trail.

Two friends who have finished before me are waiting with smiling faces as I crest the top, a summit most often reached by way of the Lone Peak Tram whose gears and cables are already taking other VK finishers back down the mountain. The flattest section of the course is the last 20 feet and I make a few victorious strides toward the line that will trigger my bib chip to stop my race time, welcoming me in at a modest one hour and 41 minutes. The sun is hot on my skin, marking the beginning of an unseasonably sweltering September weekend.

We cheer the whole squad home and wait in line to descend back to the base area via the tram with the other 230 VK finishers. The tram car pulls away from its dock and as we move down, revealed are the mountain’s sharp crags, chutes and bands of dacite rock of alternating color, marking the epoch that took place before we were here to climb it. As we move toward where we began our journey, we revel in yet another grand adventure spent on Lone Mountain.

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