Steve Ilg spent his final month of 2020 going uphill over and over again.
Ilg, one of Durango’s famed mountain athletes, tackled the Merry Vertmas race put on by Aravaipa Running out of Arizona. In this virtual challenge, athletes logged all of their vertical feet climbed from Dec. 1-25. Ilg would log 87,915 feet of vertical gain across 182.8 miles during the 25-day effort. He spent a total time of 2 days, 7 hours across 40 different uphill efforts.
That put him in first place in his age category of 50-59 and placed him 11th overall out of 348 international racers.
“I naively thought my usual Nordic race preseason, which includes long ski mountaineering workouts, would rack up enough vert to get me close to the age group podium and maybe break the top-20 overall,” Ilg said. “Yeah, well, that was not the case.”
Ilg logged his last feet on the Sky Steps from downtown Durango up to Fort Lewis College. He logged an extra 3,000 feet of vertical gain by 3 p.m. on Christmas to buffer a slight lead he had gained by repeating the Sky Steps on Christmas Eve. He anxiously watched updates to the virtual leaderboard to see if he might need to get back out for a few more climbs.
As the clock hit midnight Dec. 26, he was still in first in his age group.
“Felt so relieved,” he said. “Not happy, just relieved I didn’t have to call my crew out again late on Christmas to slog up more vert.”
At 58, Ilg knew one of the biggest obstacles in his pursuit of a victory could be the wear and tear on his body going downhill. He was able to coordinate a shuttle from the top of the Sky Steps back to the bottom of the climb thanks to some of his students of his Wholistic Fitness program, Caroline Eastburn and Charlotte Lenssen.
“It takes a village to get the podium on this crazy race,” Ilg said.
Ilg logged more than 29,032 feet on the Sky Steps alone, which is more than the height of Mount Everest. The 550 steps rise 300 feet.
He also logged plenty of miles on Hogsback and in the Overend Mountain Park along with runs up Animas Mountain, Twin Buttes and some skiing up Cascade Divide. He said he wished Purgatory Resort would allow uphill skiing where he would have felt safe to climb during a time of dangerous avalanche conditions in the backcountry.
Ilg dedicated his latest victory to two friends who died in December. Roy Wallack, Ilg’s teammate on their record-setting team in 2018 at The Furnace Creek 508 ultra-marathon through Death Valley, died in a mountain bike crash. Bert Perry, one of Ilg’s yoga students and a ski mountaineering competitor, also died in an avalanche.
Ilg said thoughts of Durango professional cyclist Benjamin Sonntag, who was killed when he was struck by a motorist while out for a training ride last year, also filled his mind.
Ilg, who suffered spinal paralysis in a mountaineering accident on Longs Peak in 1981 and self healed through yoga, did not listen to music during any of his outings, as he instead meditated through the climbs.
“I’ve lost all my dearest friends to the high mountains. Even more acquaintances have been lost,” he said. “It’s easy to find motivation to race three times per day when you somehow survived four decades of elite mountain athletics and find yourself among an elite group of mountaineers that are still alive at nearly 60 years old.
“Every step is sacred once you’ve been paralyzed.”
Ilg finished his final ascents of the Sky Steps alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Dewachen, who helped build section 250 of the Sky Steps with Durango Trails.
Asked by passersby how many times he had climbed the Sky Steps, Ilg simply shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I’m just chasing more vert.”
“Hopefully I have inspired some fitness warriors to keep it up,” Ilg said.