Climbing superhero: Bay Area woman sets record for scaling Mt. Shasta
In less time than it takes to curl up and watch the entirety of “Avengers: Endgame,” a Bay Area superhero strapped on her running shoes and summited Mt. Shasta last month, setting the record for the fastest ascent by a female in 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Sarah Burke, 25, is an ultramarathon runner who enjoys pushing herself to new heights. Because the majority of ultramarathons and other such races have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, athletes like Burke are looking for new challenges.
They find them on FKT – a website that tracks the Fastest Known Time for hundreds of athletic feats worldwide.
“I’ve been wanting to run the Mt. Shasta route for awhile, after hearing about it from a friend,” said Burke, who lives in Mill Valley just outside San Francisco and grew up climbing the 2,572 foot Mt. Tamalpais – better known to locals as Mt. Tam.
Burke set out July 18 aiming to break the female ascent record from Horse Camp to Mt. Shasta’s 14,179 foot summit, previously set by Ashly Winchester in June of 2019 in four hours, 30 minutes and 53 seconds.
Burke broke the record by more than an hour and half.
“I didn’t know for sure that I could do it ... I had no real point of reference to know what was a reasonable time, but I had a sense that I could close the gap,” she said.
When Burke completed the Misery Hill portion of the climb, she realized she might be able to summit in less than three hours.
“A pair of hikers were up ahead, so I pretended we were in a race and that I had to catch up to them to make up some time,” Burke said.
After her final push, Burke summited in two hours, 55 minutes and 46 seconds. “Avengers: Endgame” runs three hours, two minutes.
The most challenging part of the run was safely ascending Avalanche Gulch. Because much of the snow was already melted by July 18, the bare rocks were sketchy.
“You’d slide back with every step you took,” said Burke. “The rocks were loose, which made it difficult.”
Conditions weren’t ideal; she should have tried the climb a few weeks earlier. “But it was still do-able,” she said.
Burke’s strategy was to “run as much as I could when it was efficient.” When running wasn’t possible, she was “power hiking.”
“Every step I took, especially at the beginning and near the top, I was moving as fast as possible,” she said.
Burke camped near Castle Lake the night before her run. She drove to Bunny Flat and hiked leisurely to Horse Camp at 7,884 feet. That’s where she started her timed ascent, wearing a Garmin 935 watch to document her climb, in addition to Strava on her phone.
Burke explained that it’s important to properly document feats like her climb so they can be officially included on the FKT website and so there’s no dispute about the validity of her accomplishment.
The male record holder for the same climb is Tom Goth, who in July of 2019 scaled the mountain in one hour, 35 minutes and 26 seconds – about the length of an average movie.
Burke said when she was packing for her trip, she couldn’t find her microspikes (traction devices that fit on the bottom of her Hoka Speedgoat running shoes) so she decided to go without. While it all turned out fine, descending without that extra traction made her journey back to Horse Camp more challenging than the trek up.
Burke has been completing ultramarathons for three years and ran track competitively at New York’s Columbia University in 2017. She is now in tech sales for the software company Twilio when she’s not training for her next adventure.
“When I got to the top, I was so happy I was able to do it,” she said. “I was just smiling. I’d been wanting to do it for two years, and I was so excited that I was able to accomplish it.”
Luckily, there were two other climbers at the top who offered to take her photo at the summit.
After smiling for the camera, poles raised triumphantly in the air, Burke took a couple of photos of the scenery and enjoyed the view for a few minutes, had a snack, and prepared for her journey down.
Burke highly recommends the route to others, especially female runners. “Let’s get some more fast ladies’ times on this route!” she said.
When Burke finished her descent, she happened to run into Chantal Langenfeld, a caretaker at Horse Camp Sierra Club Lodge, who was visiting with another group of climbers.
“She asked me how I was doing, and I?said I just summited the mountain and set a record,” Burke laughed.
Langenfeld, who has summited Mt. Shasta seven times herself, said Burke came running down the trail beaming with a huge smile.
“She had just completed a difficult climb and a difficult descent, but she was very enthusiastic. She really stood out to me,” said Langenfeld, who is in her third season as a part time caretaker and sees “a lot of climbers,” although not many whose sole purpose on the mountain is to set a record.
Burke said the FKT website allows people to research and choose their own challenge, both supported and unsupported. Some examples of other local challenges include variations of the Pacific Crest Trail, a traverse of the Lava Beds National Monument, and scaling “Cosmic Wall” on Mt. Hubris at Castle Crags.
Burke said she enjoys running terrain that inspires her and is now setting her sights on other routes.
“This was the first time I’d tried anything like this, combining running with mountaineering. I’m thinking I want to try Whitney or some of the other Fourteeners in California,” she said, referring to other 14,000 foot mountains in the state.
Until then, Burke is training for a 100-mile race in September – one of the only events that hasn’t been canceled due to COVID-19.
To others who want to emulate her feat or other FKT challenges, Burke recommended they “have a sense of adventure. Approach it with the mentality that this is fun. You’re going to have a fantastic day, no matter what.”
As for Mt. Shasta, Burke said she’d love to run it again, especially when there’s more snow, which may help her improve her time.
“But overall, I’m very happy with the day I had,” she said.
Documentation of Burke’s run and thousands of other challenges, as well as their Fastest Known Times can be found at www.fastestknowntime.com .