ULTRA ATHLETE BRINGS NORTH JASPER ALPINE TRAVERSE FULL CIRCLE
"What inspired me most was completing this project that began when I was born."
A quest to summit all seven peaks in the Victoria Cross Range in a single push has been completed, some 30 years after the epic traverse was first dreamed up.
On August 5 at 7:11 p.m., Calgary’s Ian MacNairn punched a message on his emergency satellite device after having descended from Elysium Pass. “Hell yeah, it’s done! Got to admit, that was a bit tough,” he wrote. MacNairn had just spent the last 15 hours in Jasper National Park’s high alpine, tagging every piece of high ground connected to the Victoria Cross Range, starting with a rain-slicked Pyramid Mountain and ending with class five mountaineering over an exposed arête on Emigrants Mountain. “I’ve never heard of anyone doing the whole thing and summiting every peak in a day, never mind 15 hours,” said Jasper’s Dave MacDowell.
MacDowell would know. Twenty-nine years earlier, he and his running mentor, Valemount’s Rudi Thoni, decided that running from the base of Pyramid Mountain to its summit, then across Mounts Kinross, Cairngorm, Kerr, Henry, McKean and Emigrants, before ending up in Elysium Pass, would be a worthy objective. This was 1987, before ultra running even had a name. MacDowell and Thoni never did complete the traverse, but as they embarked on countless other adventures, the trip stayed in MacDowell’s mind. Not long after he and MacNairn were brought together to run on the same Great Canadian Death Race team in 2013—which also included MacDowell’s wife, Tracy Garneau—the veteran Jasper athlete told the up-and-comer from the city about the Victoria Cross Traverse. “That was the greatest feeling, Dave calling on me to try to complete this project,” MacNairn said.
MacNairn isn’t your average ultra runner. In 2006, he was hit by a vehicle. He suffered multiple injuries including a fractured tibia-fibula (lower leg), which doctors had to fuse back together with a titanium rod. His last corrective surgery was in 2008; a year later, he was racing in his very first ultra marathon, the 125 km Death Race. MacNairn’s rehabilitation inspired him to propose a master’s thesis in social and cultural anthropology wherein he’d explore the transformation of the human body from one extreme to another, using his personal experience as the basis of his research.
“For me the biggest thing that came out of the project was realizing the untapped well of potential that I had or anyone could have,” he said. Since then, MacNairn has raced in ultras all over the world. Those experiences have led him to his doctoral thesis, a study of the ultra marathon community itself. Although he doesn’t want to colour his results, MacNairn said he’s noticed that ultra running somehow creates extremely close bonds with fellow athletes.
“The act of ultra running, I’ve found in most events, strips away all layers of yourself that aren’t vital to just continuing,” he said. “You’re stripped down to the core and if you’re able to share that with others—whether it’s one’s crew or fellow racers—that creates an immensely strong, immediate bond that I don’t see in any other arenas.”
Exhibit A is the bond MacNairn created with MacDowell and Garneau as fellow The Northface athletes. It was strong enough for them to win the Death Race in 2013 and it was certainly strong enough for MacDowell to accompany MacNairn to the trailhead at 3:30 a.m. on August 5 for the 29-year-old’s attempt at the Victoria Cross Traverse. MacNairn, who was only just born when MacDowell and Thoni engaged the route, laughed as he recalled MacDowell’s final words before he clicked on his headlamp: “See you in hell, little buddy.”
Besides some weather at the start of the trip, however, the traverse was more heavenly than hellish. The views, combined with sections of heady exposure, plus the fact that MacNairn was completing a story that his running mentor started, made the trip a special one, he said.
“What inspired me most was completing this wicked project that began when I was born and living out my own potential through people who support me,” he said.
“It was an invigorating feeling to have.”
Check out MacNairn’s log of the trip on Instagram @IanMacNairn.