When Mike Foote started his stopwatch at 5 a.m., the desert air was chilly and still, and the customary pre-race butterflies had been replaced by calm and resolve. Seven hours, 22 minutes, six seconds and 48 miles later, he and fellow Missoulian Justin Yates had marked a new fastest known time, or FKT, on the Zion Traverse, a twisting stretch of desert singletrack located in Utah’s Zion National Park.
“It’s different from racing,” Foote says. “We were just looking for a fun adventure.”
Moving fast in the mountains is a far cry from a new phenomenon. Pioneers of the FKT movement have timed and recorded attempts on iconic peaks such as Grand Teton as early as the 1930s. But climbing quickly for the sake of climbing quickly has come into its own over the last several years. “Trail running is blowing up,” Foote says, “and there’s a lot of ways to get after it.”
The beauty of FKT lies in simplicity: Travel from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Some routes are traveled on foot, others on skis, and still others call for technical rock climbing. There is a set of straightforward guidelines to keep people honest, but the movement is based entirely on the honor system. There are no formal rules and no race support.
“You’re out there on your own,” Foote says. “There’s something cool about that.”
Brian Story is a backcountry skier who, along with pioneering lines in the Bitterroot and Mission mountains, has set a high bar for FKT attempts on established routes throughout the Mountain West.
“I think on skis, the movement came from rando racing,” he says. “It just seemed like the logical progression. But for me it’s always been more about big, long days in the mountains.”
The trend toward speed in the mountains has led FKT critics to wonder if competition is making already dangerous sports even more unsafe. In 2012, trail-running legend Kilian Jornet and his partner Stéphane Brosse embarked on a highly publicized attempt to ski across the Mont Blanc massif in record time. Halfway through the voyage Brosse died when a cornice collapsed, sending him tumbling 600 meters.
“Athletes are pushing it,” Foote acknowledges when asked about the danger of racing through inhospitable terrain. But climbing and skiing are inherently dangerous sports, and Story is less certain that moving quickly equates to increased risk. “Usually,” he says, “the more quickly you move, the less exposed you are to risky terrain. Most of these speed routes are pretty conservative. You want the route to be engaging, but not extreme.”
Story also insists that focusing on efficiency and speed doesn’t have to be about setting records. “Most people are not going to start carrying a stopwatch,” he says, “but I like to encourage people to increase their efficiency. Whether it’s lightening your gear or improving transitions, you can go way faster.”
Skiing is, after all, about having fun, and when you’re fast and efficient, “whatever kind of skiing you like doing, you can do more of it,” he says.