Written By: Tamara Kidd
For centuries humans have continuously broken the boundaries in what was thought possible in physical performance. The past three years have proved to be exceptionally groundbreaking for the new phenomenon known as F.K.T.s (Fastest Known Times) in speed hiking, mountaineering, and trail running.
FKTs are the fastest recorded times from point-to-point on various routes and trails, such as from basecamp to summit on a 20,000-foot mountain or running thousands of miles across a desert. The chance to be first in outdoor breakthroughs is rapidly dwindling, and is being replaced by the allure of speed, encouraging adventurers to push themselves to extraordinary limits to accomplish these feats faster.
While FKTs require unbelievable levels of performance and training, they also require a great deal of strategy, especially for athletes without much support. There’s generally no blatant path or marked route, so athletes must map out the fastest route possible for mountainous and technical terrain, memorize their route, and carry a reliable GPS. Since FKTs are not organized races, the racer must also carry a satellite tracker for absolute proof of their accomplishment, in case of an emergency, and for whatever support they may have.
Packing the correct gear and food is one of the more difficult challenges. This includes everything from planning what you will need for various topography and temperatures for one long ‘sufferfest,’ to organizing aid to bring you what you need at set times and locations. When Ueli Steck performs his incredible speed climbs (e.g. the 8,000m peak Annapurna which he climbed via the south face solo, and in only 28 hours–a feat that takes most mountaineers several weeks or just over a week at best) he must pack precisely what he needs to be light enough to move quickly for time and to stay warm but still have the gear and food he needs to survive.
Since there is no official federation or guidebook for FKTs, it is important to record as much as possible about your trip and know the common guidelines for recognition. FKTs are categorized under supported, self-supported, or unsupported, each holding their own record. Supported means you have a crew that brings you whatever you need along the way, making it safer and more reasonable for the longest hauls.
When Karl Meltzer broke Scott Jurek’s record on the Appalachian Trail (2,190 miles) with a time of 45 days 22 hours and 38 minutes, he had a crew of close friends and family that would meet him each night with a van to sleep in and necessary fuel (mostly candy and beer). His team was also able to locate him on the few occasions that he did not make the designated meeting place and was found sleeping in the dirt.
Self-supported means that you don’t necessarily carry everything you will need from the start, but rather stow what you need along your route ahead of time or stop at stores. A noteworthy self-supported FKT in 2016 is Joe Grant’s completion of the Tour de 14ers (1500 miles and 100,000 feet of elevation gain on the 54 recognized 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado) in just 31 days relying only on small towns for resupply.
Unsupported means you have no external help whatsoever and can only collect water from natural sources if needed. Most unsupported FKTs are single-push feats like Kilian Jornet’s very recent record on Denali via the West Buttress route in 11 hours and 48 minutes; a mountain that takes most climbers weeks to accomplish.
As FKTs are becoming more recognized, we are seeing the rapid growth and fluid joining of sports and skill sets that are pushing athletes past boundaries that were once thought completely unfeasible. They are a way for ultra-runners to push themselves to the next level and see if they can not only outperform their predecessors on a chosen route, but also out-strategize.
For mountaineers, this means that with the right level of training you can pack lighter and ascend mountains faster. The less time you spend on the mountain the less chance there is of experiencing bad weather or other unfavorable conditions, and the greater chance you have of survival.
This new sport is a true game-changer for adventurous athletes and presents an exciting future for human performance.
Currently the best source for information on FKT guidelines and news is the website http:/fastestknowntime.proboards.com run by Peter Bawkin.