Over the final two weeks of July, Erin Ton set out to achieve a mountaineering feat that no woman had attempted in Colorado’s high country. She both succeeded and failed, and created a storm of controversy in her wake.
Beginning on July 16, the 25-year-old Boulder adventure athlete went on a ferocious mission to reach the summit of all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in record time, entirely unassisted. If she succeeded, Ton believed she could not only surpass the longstanding women’s 14ers speed record set by Danelle Ballengee — who, in reaching the summit of 55 of the 14ers in 14 days, 15 hours, 49 minutes in 2000, is the only woman ever to attempt such an endeavor — but also potentially surpass the unsupported fastest known time, or FKT, of 14 days, 17 hours, 33 minutes set last year by Minnesota athlete Daniel Hobbs.
Beginning with remote 14,089-foot Windom Peak on July 16, Ton zig-zagged across the state’s seven mountain ranges numerous times in a flurry of hiking, trail running and scrambling — driving herself between trailheads in a borrowed Jeep Wrangler — and eventually reached the summit of 57 peaks. She covered 365 miles on foot with 159,356 feet of cumulative elevation gain in exactly 14 days, 10 hours.
She successfully reached more 14er summits faster than Ballangee did, and she became the first woman to do it without any assistance.
But there was one major hitch: There are 58 named peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation in Colorado, not 57.
“I intentionally decided to omit Culebra Peak, as it is on private property,” Ton said two days after she finished. “As the first woman to go after a self-supported effort I wanted to set the precedent.”
Although she wasn’t initially transparent about skipping that remote, privately owned peak in Southern Colorado, Ton proudly declared in an Instagram post July 30 that she had set a new women’s self-supported 14er speed record — which is essentially true, given that no one else had attempted such a solo undertaking. But she also suggested she had surpassed Hobbs’ mark, too, which is false because she deliberately skipped a peak.
And that didn’t sit well with the Colorado hiking and mountaineering communities. The digital forums at 14ers.com erupted with criticism — and loads of praise too — because she had glazed over the fact that she skipped Culebra during her quest and only admitted to it after the fact when people began questioning her on her own Instagram post. (In a hasty attempt to squelch the dissenters, Ton deleted negative comments and blocked several people who brought it up.)
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Critics not only attacked Ton for a lack of transparency but also her penchant for aggressive and unkind comments condemning casual hikers and also accused her of being fueled by social media glory. (Ton has flair for the dramatic, as she has previously summited 22 of the state’s 14ers wearing high-heeled shoes, often while wearing cocktail dresses.)
“First, yeah, she really threw down an extraordinary effort and had one of the best times ever. Good for her,” said Buzz Burrell, who, along with Peter Bakwin, coined the term “fastest known time” in the early 2000s and established a website to chronicle trail and summit records around the world. “Secondly, she didn’t do ’em all. And the FKT is for doing ’em all.”
How about an ABC – All But Culebra – category for 14er speed records?
Numerous men have attempted and lowered the overall 14er record — known as the fastest known time for the Colorado 14ers — most recently Andrew Hamilton covered all 58 peaks with support in 9 days, 21 hours, 51 minutes in 2015. But Ballengee, a legendary Colorado-born endurance athlete who excelled at trail running, triathlon, marathon running, adventure racing and snowshoe racing, is the only woman to give it a shot. (Hamilton’s partner, Andrea Sansone, holds three speed records for climbing the state’s highest peaks and has made it known this summer that she is planning to go after Ballengee’s FKT next summer.)
Completing the entire collection of Colorado 14ers is an arduous task, no matter if it’s done in two weeks, two months, two years or over an entire lifetime. But doing it fast is something that takes physical, mental and emotional strength, agility and endurance, as well as scrambling experience, logistical execution, favorable windows of weather and plenty of good fortune. It also requires managing safety amid constant fatigue and changing weather — Ton was slowed three times during her quest by lightning storms — and maneuvering over private land.
While Ballengee and Hamilton had support crews and trusted friends to accompany them on many of the peaks, Ton set out to do it alone — completely without assistance from start to finish — with the goal of setting a mark that could stand as the first women’s unsupported FKT for the 14ers.
The current landowners of Cielo Vista Ranch have allowed hikers and skiers access through their property to climb Culebra and adjacent Red Mountain (13,908 feet) for several years via a $150 single-day permit, just as two previous landowners did. “We try to accommodate people as best we can,” ranch manager Carlos Deleon told TrailRunnerMag.com. “But we just want to do it right.”
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Two other 14ers on private land — Mount Bross (14,178 feet) in the Mosquito Range and Mount Lindsey (14,055 feet) in the Sangre de Cristos — are closed to the public because of landowner liability issues tied to the 1977 Colorado Recreational Use Statute. However, Colorado peak-bagging hikers and trail runners have routinely poached the land to reach those peaks without permission, including the recent ascent of Bross by a “renegade reporter” from Denver-based Westword.
But Ton didn’t include Culebra in her quest because she says she has “considerable moral issues” with the land owners, both because they allow private clients to go big game hunting for bighorn sheep, deer and elk during the second half of the year, and also because she feels the land is inappropriately inaccessible to the public, especially by the people of southern Colorado where, she says, generations of her family hail from.
As she was completing her first go-round of the Colorado 14ers (over a two-year span) in 2020, she tried to summit the peak without paying for a permit but was caught trespassing and was escorted off the peak.
“It’s a tricky issue,” she said of her concerns with William Harrison, the heir to a Texas oil fortune who purchased the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch in 2017. “Beyond the accessibility issues I’ve had ethical disagreements with some of the activities and behaviors they engage in on the ranch.”
Although Ton originally proclaimed she’d surpassed the times of both Ballengee and Hobbs and therefore believed she had set a new unsupported FKT for the 14ers, she rescinded her claim after it blew up in controversy on the digital discussion forums of 14ers.com and her own Instagram channel. Soon after, she said she hoped the powers-at-be of the FKT site would consider creating a sub-category for a “Colorado 14ers ABC” FKT, with ABC standing for “All But Culebra” — a term that was suggested by a poster in 14ers.com forum.
“How can I ever get this record if I can’t do Culebra?” she said late last week, after the issue blew up. “I just really don’t like what they do on that land. It’s so frustrating.”
Balancing danger and tenacity
When Ballengee made her mad dash through the mountains, mountaineers and peak baggers recognized 53 or 54 14,000-foot peaks as there are four or five mountains not considered separate peaks because none have 300 feet of prominence from adjacent summits. Ballengee did 55 peaks that summer in 2000 when she set her mark, although soon after going for all 58 peaks became the consensus.
It doesn’t mean Ton’s 57 peaks — two more than Ballengee’s 55 — should be recognized as a new FKT. But reflecting on the fact that Hamilton and Hobbs reached 58 peaks, Ballengee tagged 55 and previous record–setters in the 1990s only did 53, it’s clear that there’s always been a lack of apples-to-apples comparisons.
However, the extraordinary efforts of Ton and Hobbs have brought some other issues to the forefront. The first is that it’s nearly impossible to verify what an unsupported FKT looks like, partially because, even though GPS data can precisely track a person’s whereabouts, there’s no telling if they’re getting any kind of help or not — no matter if that’s driving directions or emotional support over the phone or a resupply pit stop, hot meal or driving help or other types of assistance along the way. (While Hobbs’ Garmin data reports show he covered all of the peaks in 14 days and change, it’s commonly believed inside the 14er community that his dad followed behind him on many of his ascents.)
Secondly, an unsupported effort like the one Ton just pulled off — as courageous and athletically astounding as it is — is quite dangerous because it forces a deadly mix of cumulative fatigue and sleep-deprivation.
“Her 57-peak effort was extraordinary, no doubt,” Ballengee says. “But it’s also maybe kind of dangerous because it was unsupported and she was driving herself everywhere. That even sounds a little crazy.”
Ballengee certainly knows how dangerous solo adventures can be. In December 2006, during an 8-mile training run with her dog on remote trails outside of Moab, Utah, she slipped on some ice and broke her pelvis. Because she didn’t have a phone and there were no other trail users out at that time of year, she laid shivering and in pain for 48 hours — through two sub-freezing nights subsisting on two energy gels and water from a puddle — before she was found by a search team, in part because her dog had nervously run back to the trailhead.
Boulder’s Jack Kuenzle, who has set numerous FKTs skiing and trail running over the past several years, agrees. But he takes it one step further and suggests that some unsupported FKTs are too dangerous to be encouraged, promoted or sanctioned.
“People should not be doing that record. I don’t think that’s a record that should be contested,” Kuenzle says. “You’ve got to cover some fifth-class scrambling when you’re really tired, and yeah, so if you fall, some rescuers gotta go scrape your body off the rocks. But it’s the part where you’re driving around in your car on two hours of sleep that makes it really dangerous for a lot of other people.”
Ton isn’t averse to the danger in the mountains, but seems to understand as a necessary part of what she does and manages it by relying on a combination of fitness, training, experience and common sense. She turned herself inside out during her 57-peak escapade — suffering at times from fatigue, sleep deprivation, loneliness and sometimes self-doubt — but says she made a few hours of sleep every night and end-of-day recovery meals and drinks a priority.
She says she gained confidence as she went, learned a lot about herself and relished spending two glorious weeks hiking, running and scrambling up and down the state’s highest peaks.
“There’s just such contrast between just the beautiful scenery and then the amount of physical discomfort you’re in,” she says. “During the daytime, most of the time I had a great experience. But just as soon as it started getting dark, I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m used to getting eight-plus hours of sleep per night, I would just get so sleepy and kind of feel like ‘You’re not supposed to be out there at that time. Like, what am I doing? Everybody else, all the normal people, are sleeping and I’m out climbing mountains.’”
Although frustrated by the criticism, Ton isn’t going to let it hold her back. Two days after finishing her 57-peak burst, the professional athlete sent a few lines on the Second Flatiron in Boulder and spent a few days hiking, trail running and mountaineering with friends in Wyoming.
“One of my greatest values in life, I would say, is just having that freedom to go out in the wild,” Ton says. “I don’t like having a lot of obligations or constraints that restrict me. I hope I don’t lose that sense of rawness. I’m motivated by curiosity to explore new places and what my personal limits are. I love that part of myself, that piece of my heart, and I hope that other people don’t take it away from me.”