The Ultimate Run: Chasing The Midnight Sun

On my journey to become an alpinist, I accidentally became a runner.

Written by
Chris Brinlee, Jr.
·
6
min read
Summary
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In "The Ultimate Run", Chris Brinlee Jr. takes readers on a captivating journey through some of the world's most breathtaking landscapes. From the mesmerizing waterfalls and canyons of the Arctic Circle to the volcanic terrains of Iceland, Brinlee's narrative is as much about the physical challenges of running as it is about the introspective moments and revelations that come with pushing one's limits. As he traverses through the Icelandic highlands under the midnight sun, the solstice becomes his guide, and solitude his companion. Reflecting on past adventures, from mountaineering in the Alps to running the Routeburn Track in New Zealand, Brinlee contemplates the essence of endurance and the transformative power of nature. A profound realization culminates, answering a question that had been brewing in his mind for years.

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Gravel crunched beneath my shoes with each sequential footstrike. As the rough terrain gave way to a more stable surface, I chanced a glance up; the sight before me mesmerized. 

Overspray from a waterfall hung in the air, the droplets seemingly suspended in time. Rays from the low-hung sun shone through, illuminating the scene with vibrant hues of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet - a rainbow. It marked passage through one of the most dramatic canyons I’d ever seen; unsurprisingly, I had the popular path all to myself.

There was a particular circumstance that facilitated solitude: a midnight sun lit my way, for I was running near the Arctic Circle--on the eve of summer solstice. Most of the other tourists had since returned to their vans or their camps; and I was the only one left - traipsing the Icelandic highlands through the middle of the “night.”

For three hours after my departure, I steadily gained elevation, until at 3 am, I reached the high-point of the route. A saddle allowed passage between the volcano Eyjafjallajökul and the ice cap Mýrdalsjökull; as I crossed the frozen, slippery surface, the absence of sun filtered the world in a monochromatic tone.

Knowing that I’d have the solstice on my side, I hadn’t even bothered to bring a headlamp; assuredly, the dim ambiance provided enough detail to cross the perennial snow field until I’d reached the other side and began descent through another astonishing gorge.

At 4 am, Sol had begun to rise; the campground at Thórsmörk was characterized by jovial delight. It was clear that entire families had remained awake through the night. Children shrieked as they were chased around the grounds by their parents. Groups of teenagers paraded along the pathway. Couples cozied on park benches, mugs of coffee or tea in hand.

I refilled my water flasks, dropped a deuce in the loo, and continued running through. Thirty kilometers down. Fifty more to Landmannalaugar. There was one thing that I wanted to know: could I run 80 kilometers in one go?

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It was a few weeks earlier that an intriguing email had arrived in my inbox: a proposition to be talent in Craghoppers’ autumn catalog shoot in Iceland. It went without saying that I’d oblige. When it came time to book flights, I specified one condition: ship me out two days early.

In 2016, I went to Iceland for my second time, as a stopover en-route to an expedition in eastern Greenland. I’d built a weeklong gap in my August itinerary; and used the time to backpack the famed Landmannalaugar route, originating at Skogafoss.

Over the course of four days, I hiked the route - carrying a sizable pack full of camping equipment, camera gear, and all my own food. It was slow going, albeit enjoyable. The views were immeasurably epic, the trail was easy to follow, and the solitude provided ample time and space to think.

During that discourse with my inner self, one thought continually permeated my consciousness: how efficiently could I walk this route, if instead of carrying twenty kilos, I only carried three? Fifty miles (to my American mind) seemed like the perfect distance to test my resilience. I wasn’t a runner - at least anymore - but I’d become a pretty damn-hardcore mountaineer.

After finishing the trek, I pocketed my ultra dreams and continued onto Greenland where my climbing mentor and I kayaked into a remote fjord system, established base camp, and climbed a new route on alpine rock.

"During that discourse with my inner self, one thought continually permeated my consciousness: how efficiently could I walk this route, if instead of carrying twenty kilos, I only carried three?"

Immediately afterwards, I continued onto Chamonix - the birthplace of Alpinism - and really began to cut my teeth. First up, Christian (my new partner) and I climbed the south face of the Aiguille du Midi. Hard, steep granite. Christian led everything while I belayed; and then I followed up as fast as I could - pulling on gear whenever it got tough. “French Free,” they call it - doing our best to outrace an incoming blizzard. The blizzard won; we climbed the last two pitches under heavy snow - solid type-two fun.

After that endeavor, we spent the next week oscillating between rest and restlessness while the storm raged on. When the sky finally cleared, we got back out. Climb-after-climb. Day-after-day. We gained more synchronicity with each other and our confidence soared. A crazy idea entered our collective consciousness: “What if we climbed the Eiger?”

A notorious mountain, known for its imposing north face - which claimed seventeen lives before seeing an ascent - Eiger possessed no easy route to the top; and summiting would require all of the skills we’d been practicing in Chamonix: simul-climbing for efficiency; “pitching-out” steeper sections; ascending steep snow and névé; lots of route finding; and tackling numerous rappels for descent. Not-to-mention the mountain would be out-of-condition (it was late September - a month after the latest typical ascents and it’d been snowing.)

We epic’d, but we summited and survived. A week later, after recovering while waiting out another storm, Christian and I climbed the Matterhorn in similar conditions.

It had been a month in the Alps; we had become true acolytes of the vertical realm. The deeper I dived into mountaineering, the less I thought about backpacking--and I definitely wasn’t running.

That was, until nearly a year later.

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During the winter following Chamonix, Christian and I set out to complete the first traverse of the longest contiguous segment of the Endless Chain Ridge in the Canadian Rockies - seven miles of remote mountaineering. The trip didn’t go as we’d expected; and on descent, I triggered an avalanche that nearly killed both of us.

We made it out, physically unscathed, but the mental and emotional traumas were immense; for a while, I dared not climb. Eventually, through my own process of healing, intent returned and passion consumed. I was back. Determined. Resilient. Wiser.

If I was going to set out to accomplish dangerous feats, I needed to train. Like an athlete.

I moved to the south island of New Zealand, to a livable hamlet nestled amongst rugged, glaciated peaks. And I hired a coach - one that specialized in Training for the New Alpinism.

On our initial phone consultation, she asked me, “How much do you normally train?” “Maybe once every couple of weeks?” I didn’t really understand the nature of the question. Training, as I would come to learn, was different from “exercising.”

“You need to run,” she said. “I just got a new mountain bike. Can I do that instead?” “If you’re serious about Alpinism,” she retorted, “you need to run.” And so I ran. An hour at a time. Three days a week. An hour turned into one-point-five. On Sundays, I ran for six.

On my journey to become an alpinist, I’d accidentally become a runner.

"Training, as I would come to learn, was different from 'exercising'.”

This was solidified six months later. I’d been banging my head against a single objective all season: climb the steep south face of Mt. Aspiring - the dominant peak that I could see from my training hill. The south face comprised of near-vertical ice and mixed terrain, but reaching it required a burly approach: rucking a backpack full of camping gear, technical climbing equipment, and oftentimes skis for floatation into a valley; up 1,000m of rooted ravines in the rainforest, and then across a snow-field, just to reach the base.

I did that hike on three different occasions just to discover that the route was out of condition every time. Every other technical line I’d tried to climb in the Southern Alps had been met with a similar fate. I hung up my tools in equal parts frustration and desperation. I was done with Alpinism - maybe for good. I just wanted to mooooove. So I decided to go for a run. A long one.

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The mission was to complete the Routeburn Track - a three-day, 32 kilometer “Great Walk,” for which permits were notoriously difficult to get. The issue was, the track was a point-to-point; logistically expensive to shuttle, and a pain-in-the-ass.

My solution was to link it with the adjacent Greenstone Track, which looped back around towards my starting point. It would add 35 kilometers to the initial 32 of the Routeburn; I’d carry a sleeping bag and spend one night in a hut, which was coincidentally positioned 50 kilometers in.

My girlfriend-at-the-time dropped me off at the trailhead at 8 am. I was off. Twelve hours and 85,707 steps later, I reached the Greenstone Hut. I hadn’t seen another soul all day; when I walked in, the other tenants shared the same astonishment as me: I’d just run fifty-k from the road.

As I shuffled across black volcanic rock, searching for a second wind, I thought back to that day in New Zealand. Could my body and mind perform the magic trick of converting a distance threshold of 50K into fifty miles in one day?

I gazed out across the tundra--ice caps long behind me; steaming sulfuric fields ahead; and kept on steppin’. 108,656 steps after I’d begun - a question three years in the making had been answered.

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Author Bio

Chris Brinlee, Jr.

Contrast is created when light meets shadow: When the highs are Himalayan, the lows reach canyon depths. It is between these disparities where the human spirit grows. Where meaning is derived. Purpose is inspired. Where transcendence occurs. That’s life as Chiaroscuro. Chris Brinlee, Jr. is living the master class. Follow his writing on Substack and his mountain missions on Instagram.

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