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Moving mountains: New film encapsulates Joe Grant’s one-month trek up every Colorado 14er

"The Middle Way" screenings scheduled across state
Posted: 12:19 PM, Jun 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-10 15:57:57Z
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GOLD HILL, Colo. — “You going for a hike?”

In the dark that accompanies a remote trailhead at 3 a.m., Joe Grant was surprised to see people walking around a parking lot, preparing for an early hike. Flashlight beams bobbed around in the dark. Backpacks were zipped open and closed. Snow muddied the ground.

They were all about to hike around or up Longs Peak, a 14,259-foot mountain northwest of Boulder. When the hikers asked Grant if he was doing the same, he wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he said after a moment.

And while that was true, this was much more than just an early summer hike — he just couldn't sum up the reality of it in that one little exchange.

Grant, a long-time resident of Gold Hill, was at the tail end of a life-changing journey. Standing on top of Longs Peak would mean he had successfully summited every Colorado mountain over 14,000 feet, biking between each trailhead, in one month. A completely self-powered trek around the state. The Tour de 14ers.

That was in 2016. Several years later, Grant has been the subject of many magazine articles, news stories and podcasts. But this month, for the first time, he is bringing his story to the big screen across Colorado.

What sparked the adventure

To understand why Grant is now sharing his journey on film, you have to understand why he started it.

He’s been in the professional running space for about 12 years, making a living off sponsorships, coaching and writing. By 2015, he felt burnt out. What started as a passionate career had twisted to focus on podiums and rankings.

“I didn’t feel like that was really representative of why I got into long distance running in the first place, which was more to explore wild places — the wilderness,” he said. “I wanted to be out in the mountains.”

In 2015, in an effort to rekindle that fire, he did a 500-mile bikepacking race — which was sort of an “underground scene,” he said — that ran from Durango to Denver.

“That got me thinking of connecting the bikepacking piece with some running objectives and being able to use the bike as the mode of transportation between the mountains in a self-powered way, and then being able to run up and down the peaks using my running experience,” he said.

Justin Simoni, another local adventurer, had done just that in a journey he dubbed the Tour de 14ers. In this challenge, a participant would bike between trailheads and run up each of the state’s 58 14ers in a completely self-powered and self-supported trek. Simoni set a record in the process in 2014.

“I just connected with that way of doing all the 14ers,” Grant said. “It felt most logical to connect the big stretches between the peaks on a bike instead of on foot.”

He said he was aware of Simoni’s record as he planned his route along the mountains, but his true intent was to learn about his own capabilities.

“As the trip went on, I cared less and less about any of that external stuff,” he said. “I was just completely absorbed into the trip.”

In total, it would involve 1,100 miles of biking, 400 miles of running and about 250,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of 31 days, he said.

He would go on to break the record.

Embarking on the Tour de 14ers

On July 26, 2016, at the age of 33, Grant laced up his shoes, swung a leg over his bike seat and left his home in Gold Hill.

He carried only a few pounds of equipment and clothes with him: shoes, T-shirt, a warm top, warm pants, rain jacket, rain pants, gloves, spare pair of socks, sleeping bag, bivy sack (a small one-person tent), a headlamp and a few items for recording the journey, like a GoPro and point-and-shoot camera, plus batteries and chargers.

That’s all.

“It was quite a Spartan setup,” he said.

To prove he had summitted each mountain, he wore a GPS device on his wrist that pinged a satellite with his location.

Grant’s route would first take him south, starting with Mount Bierstadt in Clear Creek County. He would hit seven other peaks in four days before arriving at the state’s only private peak, Culebra Peak in Costilla County. His path would then wind back north to start to close the loop.

The first five days were beautiful, he said, and he completed the first eight peaks before the weather turned sour. As he worked his way around the San Juan Mountains, he often rode and ran through rain.

“It was mentally quite challenging, especially down south in the San Juans,” he said.

Rain or shine, he started to get into a rhythm — bike to a trailhead, sleep a few hours, run up the mountain, run back down, get on the bike and ride to the next trailhead. But the unpredictable weather often changed that schedule and influenced when he’d attempt a summit. Summer storms, especially above treeline, were dangerous, fast-moving and wild. Grant said his biggest concern was getting stuck in a lightning storm.

He said at one point, he opted to sleep on the floor of a Forest Service bathroom because the weather was so poor.

“I stayed in an out-of-service stall on the concrete,” he said. “It was still better than being outside.”

There were plenty of those difficult moments.

“In the moment, hard is hard," he said. "It doesn’t matter how lucky I am to be there. If you’re cold and hungry and you’re sitting there and you’re in a lightning storm — it’s not that great. But even then, I recognized the privilege of it.”

He remembered sleeping at 12,000 feet on Mount Princeton on a cold night watching a meteor shower.

“I’m lying there, shivering in my sleeping bag, looking up at this spectacle," he said. "It’s moments like that — it’s not about comfort, it’s more about being there and really taking it all in. There were so many little reminders like that along the way.”

Carrying very little on his back was another challenge, but one that was more in Grant’s control. Because he didn’t carry food on him, or food preparation equipment, he bought frozen burritos from convenience stores, put them in his backpack and let them defrost as he rode between trailheads. Those lukewarm burritos became a staple.

When compared to other options, they were quite nourishing, he said. But sometimes they still weren't enough.

“There were certainly some really, really low moments where I just couldn’t get enough food in my body for the amount of output,” he said. “I was getting quite skinny and frail, physically. Then, you have upswings and you feel like you’re on top of the world. And the next day, I’m really tired and exhausted and wrecked again. A lot of it is just trying to have perspective with what’s going on. Not getting carried away with the highs or lows.”

Throughout the trek, he looked for that balance — between the sun and the storms, the blisters and second winds, the exhaustion and the adrenaline.

So, when the hikers at the trailhead of Longs Peak asked him if he was headed out for a hike on that morning in August, his simple answer “yes” meant a lot more.

He summited the final snowy mountain alone on Aug. 26, 2016 and looked out on the valley, which was covered in clouds.

“It kind of encapsulated the entire trip in one moment — exhausted, the conditions aren’t great, I’m pretty cold,” he said. “It’s pretty rough, but at the same time, it’s so incredibly beautiful. It’s amazing to be there... It was just me and I could take it all in."

In total, the trek took 31 days, eight hours and 33 minutes.

From simple mountains to societal mayhem

For a month, Grant had lived simply, away from society. Life had whittled down to trailheads, summits and sleeping.

When all of that came to a grinding halt at the end of his Tour de 14ers, Grant felt himself grappling with how to handle it. He fell into a situational depression as he became overwhelmed with the hustle of everyday life in 2016.

His body suffered too. He’d been so accustomed to constant movement for a month. The sudden stop came with a physical letdown.

As journalists started reaching out to him, asking him to share his story, he recognized just how attached he was to his experience. Sharing the journey with the media felt shallow compared to the raw intensity of the trek, he said. Seeing headlines like “Colorado man conquers all the 14ers” bothered him.

That whole mindset has always irked Grant.

“There’s no idea of me conquering all the peaks,” he said. “That’s something that really bothers me in the general outdoor narrative — that we’re somehow dominating nature and the mountains. I feel much more a part of it and want to foster that experience and feel sort of thankful I can be out there and have these experiences… It doesn’t matter how strong or how arrogant or whatever you are. If you’re sitting on top of a mountain and getting pummeled by hail — it puts you in check really quickly… The mountains are in charge."

About four or five months after the trek, Grant started to feel more comfortable sharing his story in the public space. He always knew he would want to share it at some point — it’s why he brought the camera equipment with him in the first place — but it had to be on his timeline.

“The camera ended up becoming this interesting way to externalize what I was thinking,” he said. “At first, I was more self-conscious about saying the right thing. As the trip sort of went on, I didn’t really care anymore.”

With so much time alone, the camera became something like a friend, Grant said.

Story hits the big screen

The end product became a short film called “The Middle Way.”

“(The title) comes from pushing yourself to the edge and realizing that you can’t go so far that you break yourself, but can’t stay at home surrounded by comfort all the time,” Grant explained. “We need opportunities for growth.”

In the film, he explores how he could apply that kind of equilibrium to both running and life in general.

“I hope it inspires people to be curious about the place where they live and also curious about learning more about themselves," he said. "I hope the focus is more on this idea of digging a little bit deeper into the fabric of where we live, wherever that may be.”

Grant worked with his friend and film director Dean Leslie out of South Africa and after returning home, dropped 38 hours of video on Leslie's lap.

Leslie, an independent filmmaker who’s behind the camera of several Salomon TV and Red Bull videos, said when Grant told him about his plans for the trek back in 2015, it immediately sparked his interest.

“I said if he was keen on it, I would work with him and we could just do a personal project together,” Leslie said. “Not look for money or anything. Just take that footage and see what came of it.”

They spent a year talking about the idea and decided Grant would self-document the journey, chronicling the good, the bad and the ugly.

“I actually don’t think Joe’s got enough credit, but as we push the film out, I think that will be a broader discussion — how hard it is to document these things on your own,” Leslie said. “Just to do it is tough and to do it at a pace that he did it in and then you add to the filmmaking and documentation of that — it’s just a whole other level of concentrating the whole time.”

In that sense, he said he hopes audiences around the world can appreciate that, and will feel inspired to put themselves in new, challenging situations to more deeply connect with a place they love.

“At the very least, if it inspires somebody to put on their shoes and go outside into the mountains, that’s amazing,” Leslie said. “As long as it inspires people to go outside, I’d be stoked. You can go learn and understand and get bigger understandings of who you are and the place you’re in.”

For "The Middle Way" screenings dates and more information, visit Grant's Facebook page or his website. These are the current showings:

Do you know somebody pursuing something wild, inspiring or just downright daring? If so, please send information to Stephanie Butzer at stephanie.butzer@thedenverchannel.com .