MONO VILLAGE -- Just before sunrise broke over Twin Lakes in the eastern Sierra Nevada last Friday, Bob Burd rounded up the 25 "peak baggers" in the parking lot. These are the thoroughbreds of mountain climbing, extreme hikers who conquer tall peaks in one day and then race down for dinner and a warm bed.
Wearing a floppy sun hat, long white T-shirt and ultralight hiking pants, Burd, a 53-year-old, wiry six-footer from San Jose, looked like he could glide up Slide Mountain, an 11,000 foot peak that was our destination that day. But he had chores to do first as founder and leader of the 14th annual Sierra Challenge climb, a grinding assault on 10 high-altitude peaks in 10 days.
He snapped the group photo and said, "OK, guys, have fun, be safe!"
Peak bagging is a relatively new branch of mountaineering. While technical climbers use ropes and pulleys on sheer cliffs, baggers generally hike accessible trails to a mountain and then scramble over boulders, loose gravel and sometimes snow fields to reach the summit. Using an ice ax is as technical as they get. On a picture-perfect day, Burd's baggers wore light hiking boots or running shoes and carried fanny or day packs.
"He is legendary in the peak-bagging community for the number of climbs he does and how fast he hikes," said Greg Slayden, founder of www.peakbagger.com, a national climbing registry where baggers can record their conquests. Burd has bagged 1,200 peaks.
The Sierra Challenge covers new peaks every year -- they've already climbed Whitney, Matterhorn and the Palisades -- though it soon may run out of new ones to conquer.
"Each year," Burd lamented, "the peaks get more obscure."
Slide Mountain isn't sexy but it was no walk in the park either. Only a handful would reach every summit, an achievement that would require hiking 164 miles altogether and climbing 57,600 feet. The peak baggers tend to hike alone or in small groups, and later gather to recount the day's adventures.
"The thing you have to know about this group is they start fast and don't stop," said Jonathan Bourne, a 56-year-old from Mammoth Lakes.
And then he disappeared into the forest, too, leaving me and photographer Karl Mondon in the dust. We followed them, anyway.
The trail took us around huge boulders and jagged rocks. These are the remnants of mighty granite domes blasted to pieces millions of years ago when Slide Mountain and the Sierra Nevada range erupted violently from under the Earth's surface to create Bob Burd's playground.
Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley north of downtown Los Angeles, Burd joined the Boy Scouts of America with a brother, Jim.
"I joined because I wanted to backpack," Jim said, "but Bob hated backpacking. He thought it was dirty and too hard sleeping on the ground."
Bob followed their father, a circuit-board designer, into the high-tech industry. After graduating from UCLA in 1984 with a degree in electrical engineering, he moved north, where the Bay Area's richness of trails lured him back to hiking. A trip to Alaska inspired him to enroll at Yosemite's famous mountaineering school. But once he stuffed his pack with heavy ropes, hammers and pitons, an awful feeling came back.
"Oh my God, this is like 60 pounds," Burd recalled thinking. "There's got to be a better way."
The answer came to him in 2001 via two endurance events he knew as a fan, not a participant -- the two-week Tour de France bicycle race and the peak-bagging craze in Colorado, where baggers take on any number of tall peaks in a given time. Burd blended the set time of the bike race with the variety of Colorado peak bagging to come up with the Sierra Challenge.
He hikes 100 days a year now, mainly because he has the time after retiring in his mid-40s from Advanced Micro Devices.
"We don't live an extravagant lifestyle," said Burd, who lives in San Jose's Rose Garden. "Hiking is my life and it's cheap, sleeping in my van when we go to the mountains."
Lagging far behind, Mondon and I made it to a lake at about 9,400 feet just in time to bump into Eric Su, the youngest Sierra Challenger. The 18-year-old UC Santa Cruz student was jogging down after reaching the top in only 3½ hours. We asked the environmental studies major why he got into peak bagging.
"I like looking at maps, seeing what the topography is and then going there."
And then he was gone. We continued to a pass at about 10,000 feet, near Slide Mountain's northern face. By sheer luck, we ran into Burd and a few others on their way down. We asked why they bag peaks.
"It has a never-ending set of goals," Burd said with an engineer's see-problem, solve-problem focus. "There are mountains in every state, every country. You never get bored."
Michael Graupe, 46, a medicinal chemist from Pacifica, chimed in.
"It helps you clear out your brain, too, from all that stuff you have to do at work, all the chores you have to do at home," Graupe said. "Here it's more primitive. That's what I cherish."
Jonathan Bourne joined in. He has hiked the Swiss Alps, South American Andes and throughout Asia.
"It's a bit of a religious experience for me," Bourne said. "You get up in the mountains and you look down on creation and think big thoughts, bigger thoughts than you think in the valleys."
Mondon and I did not reach the top. Burd told us later that night that an experienced Japanese hiker had fallen on a peak near Slide Mountain and had to be rescued by a team from Yosemite. Burd and the others took his injury in stride. They had accepted the mountaineering mantra -- it can happen to anyone -- a long time ago.
On the third day's hike, they trekked up to one of the many nameless Sierra peaks and informally named it "Patricia Peak," after Patricia Hadley, a Sierra Challenge comrade from Orange County who died in a fall last year.
The peak baggers are scheduled to finish Aug. 24 at 12,000-foot Mount Anna Mills, another relatively obscure peak. Next year's Sierra Challenge might be Burd's last. He's casting his eye on Colorado's peaks. But he's said all that before.
"After six or seven years, I was telling people I was running out of peaks," Burd said, "but then I found some more."
Ten peaks in 10 days, August 15-24. Distances are in miles. Altitude above sea level and elevation gain from the hiking starts are marked in feet.
Name/altitude Round-trip Distance Elevation Gain
Slide Mountain, 11,084 19 4,100
Mt. Andrea Lawrence, 12,245 19 6,000
Patricia Peak, 11,962 4 2,000
Langille Peak, 12,018 25 8,700
Divide BM, 12,900 22 5,300
Striped Mtb South, 13,264 21 8,600
Courte-Echelle, 13,353 12 7,000
Gamblers Special, 12,959 6 4,600
Peak 13,074 9 5,500
Mt. Anna Mills, 12,064 27 5,800
Totals: 164 miles 57,600 ft.
Source: Bob Burd
For more information about past and present hikes go to http://www.snwburd.com/bob/challenge/2014. General information: www.peakbagger.com.