Andy Anderson’s 2h53 on the Grand is far out of my reach even in perfect conditions, but with decent fitness and a reasonably cold night up high, I figured I might as well give speed-running the Grand a try before I left. The major disadvantage of an early-season attempt is the extra gear required: with crampons, ice axe, and warm clothing, one is forced to carry a backpack. The major advantage is a blazingly-fast, low-impact descent via glissade from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows. In perfect snow conditions, the early season run could potentially be faster, and would favor mountain skill over raw athletic ability. While I found difficult conditions up high and decided to stop short of the summit, I believe that the early approach has potential, though probably not in a year like 2015 with low winter snowpack.
Starting from the Ranch, I took it easy across the flats before ramping up my effort on the climb up Burnt Wagon Gulch, reaching the junction in a leisurely 27:45. Using both shortcuts, I reached the Meadows sign at 1h03, stopping to put on crampons a few hundred yards up the snow. The winter route was thin but doable, and the Lower Saddle headwall lacked the boot-pack normally put in by guided parties; with slightly softer-than-ideal snow conditions, I reached the Lower Saddle around 1h56.
Switching back out of crampons, I talked to a guide and client who had turned around on the Upper Exum because of supposed bad snow conditions and avalanche risk. As is often the case when guides talk to non-guides, he wasn’t being particularly honest: the snow was nice hard-pack with a bit of crunchy fuzz on top, it was cold, and the sun wouldn’t touch the upper route for another couple of hours. I guess I didn’t look like I could handle the truth.
Finding hard, shaded snow above the Black Dike, I went back to crampons, hacking and front-pointing my way up the steeper terrain. While rarely tenuous, this section was often slow going with worn running-shoe crampons, so it was 2h38 by the time I reached the Upper Saddle. I found the belly crawl slightly iced but basically okay, but soon ran into more difficulties. When dry, the rest of the climb is a quick scramble up two short chimney-ish sections and some connecting ledges. What I found instead was partially ice-filled chimneys and steep, hard snow on the ledges. While this would have been manageable with Real Mountaineering equipment (boots, crampons, possibly ice tools), I decided after some flailing that it was more than I wanted to try with running-shoe crampons and a mountaineering axe.
I carefully retreated to the saddle, then headed over to the pleasantly sunny Enclosure to enjoy the view. No longer interested in my overall time, I spent about five minutes eating and looking around before time-trialing the descent. The hard snow between the Upper Saddle and Black Dike once again cost me time, as I had to downclimb facing in rather than plunge-stepping or boot-skiing. But the stretch from Lower Saddle to the Meadows was awesome: with a combination of boot-skiing, glissading, and snow-running, this stretch took something like 10 minutes. The whole descent from the Lower Saddle to the Burnt Wagon Gulch turnoff took only 29:47, despite having to skip the lower shortcut because of nearby hikers.
A half-hearted attempt at speed on the unpleasant BWG trail got me to the Ranch at about 4h40 feeling surprisingly spry. Based on my splits, I think I could come close to 4 hours on an all-out, rested effort in late summer conditions. That’s nowhere near the record, but it’s not bad for an aging dirtbag. I’ll take it.