Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Interview with Teddy Keizer

For the community of individuals who love Colorado's 14ers, the name 'Cave Dog' is held in high esteem. Cave Dog, or Teddy Keizer, holds the record for completing an ascent of all of Colorado's 14ers in the least amount of time, 10 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes, which he accomplished in September of 2000. To put his record into perspective, consider that between 1998 (when he started planning the attempt) and the summer of 2000, the record was lowered multiple times. In the 14 years since, no one has been able to lower it again (a 41 year old John Prater attempted to break the record just this past year without success)

With the internet boom of the past 15 years more individuals have access to more information about 14er routes and climbing conditions than ever before. For Cave Dog's record to stand for this long is quite remarkable (an interesting article in NY Times about Keizer's record is here).

My fascination with Cave Dog and The Mighty Mountain Megamarathon record, as it is known, began when I first started climbing 14ers over the past few years. After perusing the dog team's website, I decided that I wanted to write a Wikipedia article about Teddy Keizer.  For those who have not checked out the website, it is fascinating.  The photo galleries alone are worth the click (highlights include Cave Dog with Gerry Roach, members of the Dog Team, and Keizer sprinting down Pike's Peak with the record within reach).

I reached out to Cave Dog to set up a phone interview, and he graciously accepted. On March 11th, 2014 we spent about 45 minutes talking by phone about his hiking experiences and life in general. Teddy is now an aspiring politician running for State Representative in Oregon on an environmental platform. He is married with 3 children. His last 14er was Long's Peak in 2000 when he set the 14ers speed record. Despite all of these developments, I sensed he carries the same type of passion and perspective that drove him to rare heights (no pun intended) in the summer of 2000.

The interview excerpts below are geared toward those in the 14er community, but it should be mentioned that he has other speed hiking records in Adirondanks, New Hampshire and the Catskills. The interview touches on 14ers topics like fitness preparation, route strategy and the elusive Snowmass to Capitol Traverse. It also explores Keizer's outlook on life and how that translated into an illustrious hiking career. The questions and responses are sometimes paraphrased to keep things concise.

Me: Where did you grow up?
Keizer: Coos Bay, Oregon

Me: What type of hiking or outdoor activities did you do growing up?
Keizer: My family always included outdoor activities growing up. We had the philosophy that you can't understand an area unless you get out and tread upon it. We loved skiing, hiking, fishing and getting out and about. Most of our hiking was day hikes. It wasn't until college, and especially after college, that I started doing more serious adventures. I did a 31 day solo in Glacier National Park in winter conditions. It was around that time that I started doing more ambitious adventures.

Me: At what point in your outdoor adventures did you start to focus on physical conditioning and maximizing your speed and endurance abilities? Or did you even consider that aspect?
Keizer: I've always been athletic in the sense that I was always involved in sports growing up. I was especially talented at the pole vault, but after suffering a serious injury I decided to quit that event. But I played all kinds of sports, football, soccer, baseball, swimming. I just like trying out new things. I usually did sports for social reasons and never took the training to an extreme level.

Me: You attended Brown University. Did you play any sports during your time there?
Keizer: I played all kinds of intramural sports in college. Ultimate frisbee, cricket, indoor soccer. I was always a jogger, especially in college. But the activity I have always enjoyed the most is hiking.

I've always had a passion for the environment. I majored in Biology and Political Science because I love the intersection of the environment and politics.

I actually had an illustrious career in student government at Brown. I was the student body president at Brown during my time there and was a successful part of Patrick Kennedy's first congressional campaign. I worked on his environmental and ocean policy. I was set to go to D.C. and be a staffer for Kennedy, but some friends set me down and asked how could I go and write laws about how people should live without having lived and experienced myself.

At the time I disagreed, but they convinced me there were some things you could only learn by experience. That was a pivotal moment for me. I decided to travel and do my own personal 'study' of society and what life is all about. It was amazing. My only restriction was that I never took the same job twice. I drove an ambulance in Kansas City, I taught high school in Massachusetts, worked in a health foods store in Southern California. It was a great time.

Me: Is that how you came to Colorado?
Keizer: That's right. I was doing the ski bum thing in Crested Butte, Colorado working as a hotel accountant at the Grand Butte Hotel. I only worked for like 10-12 hours a week, but it gave me a free ski pass. I wasn't making enough money to pay rent, but I heard about a cave up near Summit Creek. So I would snowshoe up to this snow cave and sleep out there. It was a 45 minute snowshoe hike to the cave. I did that for about two months and the hike was getting to be too long for every day.

So I started making snow caves, or quinzhees, and sleeping in those. I lived in those until the summer.

Me: Is that how you got the name 'Cave Dog'?
Keizer: Yes. I was hanging out with a friend that everyone called Scurvy Dog, and so everyone started calling me Cave Dog and it stuck.

I came out a couple summers later and spent a summer in Breckenridge and spent a summer in Carbondale, and Scurvy Dog took time off to help me scout out the Colorado 14ers. Since Scurvy Dog and Cave Dog were working for the 14er record, as other people came along to help, they took Dog nicknames too, and we became the Dog Team.

Me: When did you do your first 14er?
Keizer: In the summer of 1998 I lived in Breckenridge and did my first 14er, Mount Yale. I ended up doing all of the 14ers that summer.

Me: Wow, you did all of the 14ers in the first summer you ever did a 14er? Did you do the traverses as well?
Keizer: I did all of the 14ers and the traverses, just like I would in the summer of 2000.

Me: Do you have any climbing background? That is a pretty impressive way to start the 14ers.
Keizer: I have been an avid hiker all my life. I don't consider myself a rock climber, but I have done some rock climbing just because sometimes you have to to get where you want to go. I have a mountaineer's perspective, not a rock climber's. A rock climber will look at a mountain and try to find the hardest pitch they can climb to challenge themselves. They would just as soon skip the approach.

My perspective is that I want to get to the top. I would never try to make an easy mountain harder. If I wanted it to be hard I would find a harder mountain. For me it was more about being on top and enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

Me: At what point did you decide you wanted to try for the record?
Keizer: I first got the idea in Crested Butte around 1996. The Grand Butte Hotel had an employee lunch plan where you could pay $2.80 and get all you could eat. Since I was living on like $6K a year at that time, that was the only food I would eat. I would eat twice a day at the employee buffet. My friend, Mark Carver, would usually eat with me. He loved to talk. He once told me about the 14ers and the speed record for climbing all of them. At that time it was about 15 1/2 days.

I thought, I am an avid hiker, maybe I'll just get a friend to drive me around and I'll climb up and down them all and see if I'm any good at it. I had no clue at that time how involved it would be.

I ended up training for 2 1/2 years, from 1998 through 2000, leading up to the attempt. I climbed about 250 14ers in total. I've done all of the 14ers, except for Culebra, at least four times. I've done Culebra twice.

Me: So between 1998 and 2000 you were focused on the 14er record?
Keizer: In the summers, yes. I spent all summer long and into the fall climbing 14ers.

Me: Was that the primary physical training that was of benefit to you in earning the record?
Keizer: I think it's really important that you get your body used to the terrain you are going to be on, that's critical. In the summer of 2000, I tried to sleep at 11,000 feet every night. This was for about 5 months leading up to the record attempt.

Me: You talked to Gerry Roach about your desire to get the record. What information did you get from him?
Keizer: I called him right after my first 14er. I was able to find his phone number and call him up. He was really excited about somebody going for the record. He invited me over to his house and was very welcoming. We pulled out maps and talked about routes for hours. It was fantastic.

Then, each mountain as I climbed it I tried to improve upon the routes that Gerry gave me.

Me: Were most of your routes off the standard trails?
Keizer: Some were and some weren't. My general rule was to minimize distance without going up a level of Class in difficulty. I found this was usually the best way to minimize climbing time.

Me: One of your routes took you through the debris of an old airplane crash near Mount Yale?
Keizer: Yes, I stumbled upon an old plane wreck out in the middle of nowhere, off the trai. It was pretty fun to stumble on it. Propellers, debris everywhere.

Me: No bodies?
Keizer: I looked around and later did some research. This was an old plane wreck from World War II, so probably no biological matter left.

Me: So in the summer of 2000 you planned out everything, right? All the details?
Keizer: I took a very different perspective than some of the climbers before me. I wanted to maximize the time I spent on the trail, as opposed to the car. Some of the climbers had tried to mix up the difficult and easy peaks together, to get a sense of how much progress they had made and to keep it mixed up.

I didn't try to do that. I tried to keep the peaks in each group together in the most efficient route I could find. I would go as hard as I could and whatever time I ended up with was what it would be.

Me: You fell asleep three times, right?
Keizer: Yeah, unintentionally of course. It's a pretty staggering feat. You get really fatigued. But I never felt scared or that it was too much. I was definitely exhausted, fatigued and sore. But around 5 days into it I somehow started getting used to it, if that makes sense. I was still exhausted, but my body started getting settled into it. I've heard others talk about this before. Somehow, mentally, you start getting used to it.

You were talking about logistics before. One of the things I noticed in my research was that in almost every previous attempt people had gotten lost on old mining roads at some point. I spent a lot of time trying to find the best driving routes. I made about 30 pages of detailed driving pages to help us navigate. We ended up not making a single driving error. That was a huge benefit.

Me: When you started the attempt, did you have some bad weather?
Keizer: We were actually pretty fortunate with the weather. I think there were only three lightning storms I had to run through. That was why we picked early September, when the storms start to die down.

The craziest one was on El Diente. I was coming up towards the peak and could start hearing the rocks sizzle. I knew the clouds were deciding which ridge was the path of least resistance. I down climbed a little bit, trying to wait it out. Then I climbed back up and could hear the rocks sizzle again. Finally, I just decided to run to the summit. The metal on my jacket started to crackle, and the hair on my arm was on end. As I was running down the lightning struck the next ridge over.

Me: Psychologically, what is going through your mind? How do you keep yourself going in that type of environment?
Keizer: It takes an unusual personality. Someone who is intense enough to have the drive to do it, but someone who doesn't get too intense out when things are hard.

When it's 2 am and you're on the side of a cliff on Wetterhorn, and the wind is blowing 50 mile per hour, and the hail is coming upwards to hit you from below, and you're hanging on to a rock, you can't get too over intense, or it will just eat you alive. You have to remain focused but calm enough to weather the difficulties.

Me: Tell me about the Capitol to Snowmass Traverse. Did you stay on the traverse the whole way?
Keizer: From Snowmass I went down the ridge on the West side until I found a ledge where I could get down on the East side into the bowl down there. Then I traversed this long moonscape traverse, with big boulders, no vegetation, then got to the other side and took the main ridge up to the Knife Edge. At that point I was on the main route.

That's the only route that I was unable to do during my scouting. I tried several times, but due to lightning storms and a body recovery effort where someone had fallen off the knife edge, I was never able to do it before the record attempt.

I did almost all of my scouting alone. Scurvy Dog, my hiking partner, doesn't know how to drive. So I was on my own for most of the scouting.

When I wanted to do traverses, I would park my car on one side, hitchhike to the other side, camp, and then hike back to my car. In this case, it was logistically very difficult to do beforehand. It was a tough stretch. Miles of big boulders in this moonscape, lifeless area. It just sapped my energy. I found it fatiguing.

Me: You finished on Long's Peak and descended and had the record. What went through your mind at that point?
Keizer: I finished just at 11 at night and the place I finished is kind of off normal trails. This was right underneath those spires off of Long's. It was a clear night with a big moon. It was a very peaceful moment. After such an intense adventure, it felt like at that moment I had found grace. Everything came into perspective. I waited for about an hour for my support crew to come up and meet me. It was a wonderful moment.

Me: Was that your first competitive hiking record?
Keizer: Yes. I had no idea if I would be any good at it. I was just looking for an adventure. I thought, if I do break the record, and do have fun, I would consider trying to do another one of these type records. And then I did it, and it was amazing. An incredible moment in my life. Way beyond what I had expected.

Me: Did you ever think the record would last for 13 plus years? Especially in this internet era?
Keizer: I never really knew how long it would last. I had a great run and everything clicked. At the time, when I broke the record, all of a sudden I was getting calls from all these famous people. People who had done the 7 summits and all these amazing adventures. And now they were calling me up, and inviting me over to talk about our experiences. It was an amazing time.

I kind of related to that quote, if you have a great talent, you have a duty to share it with the world. And that's why I tried some more records, in New England, three peak records that had stood for about 25 years each. I ended up breaking them all in the same summer.

Me: You also have an Adirondaks record?
Keizer: Yes, the Adirondanks high peaks record. Also the 4,000 footers in New Hampshire and the 35 over 3,500 in the Catskills.

Each of these records are very different. A lot more bushwhacking in the New England area. Even finding the peaks can be a challenge in the Northeast.

Me: Do you still have an itch to get out and have hiking adventures?
Keizer: I tend to get into whatever I am doing, as you might guess. When I retired from competitive hiking in 2005 I decided I wanted to get into politics. I have buried my energy into that now.

Sure I still go hiking and skiing, but the days of me breaking records have passed. I have a family and kids and spending my time with family and other pursuits are now my focus.

Me: Have you been back to Colorado since you broke the record? Have you done any 14ers since then?
Keizer: No, I haven't done any 14ers since then. I've done all the 14ers four times, except for Culebra. For me it was always about breaking that record. Once I achieved that, I was off to the next adventure.

Me: Which of your timing records is your favorite?
Keizer: The 14ers record is my favorite. I had no idea what to expect. It was an illustrious challenge.

Let me leave you with this final thought. It's my philosophy on the meaning of life: Life is a collection of experiences, and it's up to the individual to go out and find those experiences that are rewarding. The Colorado 14er adventure was an immensely rewarding experience.

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