Mr. Bakwin owes me five dollars

You heard me; Peter Bakwin owes me five dollars.

Mr. Bakwin invented, or at the very least introduced into common usage, the term fastest known time many years ago.  His website, which began as a list consisting almost entirely of his own running times, languished in relative obscurity until not too many years ago, when a resurgence of trail running led Bakwin to move the database to the forum it inhabits today.  That move seemed to coincide with the birth of FKT as a coherent acronym, and since then its use has become widespread.

While I still think running the White Rim is stupid, I liked Bakwin’s term from the beginning.  An FKT is not a record, only the fastest time for a given objective within a given community.  At its best, the term not only pays homage to the history which gives us all the ideas for our trips, it explicitly expresses that definitive quantification of an adventure is never possible.

Not unexpectedly, this last aspect has become more and more submerged as the FKT wins more and more cache.  More than anything, this points to how the idea was born from adventure running, and as the feats to which it is applied become less and less adventurous, the term becomes less relevant.  The term ITT is more suitable.

Even with adventures the FKT rests on a slippery slope, and I can think of no better recent example than the Zironman traverse completed this spring by Jared Campbell, Ryan McDermott, and Buzz Burrell.  Specifically, Mr. Burrell’s write-up for the Ultimate Direction blog, and comments which followed.

Export3The Zironman Route; map by Jared Campbell.

It must be said that this is a fantastic, brilliant route.  It embodies the best of athletic adventure in that the crux is in the conception, rather than the physical constraints of the doing.  As Burrell said, “low hanging fruit, just way out on the limb.”  One of the commenters raises the specter which is always present with FKTs, whether it has been done previously or since, slower or faster or just in better style, and is merely for the people in question not amongst their known times.

Noted canyoneer Steve Brezovec responds, in essence, that no one exists or has existed who could have done this or other routes faster, (implicitly) because he would know or know of them.  In the internet age this is a compelling argument, humans being social creatures who find meaning in inspiration from and the recognition of peers (i.e. those who might viscerally understand what they did).  More importantly, even having the idea to do a route like the Zironman almost always requires a certain intimacy with the place in question, further narrowing the potential suspects.  On the other hand, while canyoneering requires specialized skills, none of them are especially difficult to acquire (compared to, say, climbing or skiing at a high level).  With the exception of the most difficult Mae West slots, a fit trad climber with good backcountry experience can expect to easily do most any canyon in Utah within a year of starting a dedicated technical canyon career.  As details of the pre-internet, pre-Allen/Jones/Kelsey keep coming to light, the claim to any first canyon descent becomes ever more specious.

As I’ve written before, there are no first descents.  There are no first ascents.  The concept is intellectually bankrupt and morally myopic.

I find this idea ever more relevant every six months, when I see another boulder or route I climbed 15 years ago listed as a new first ascent (on a few occasions sprouting new bolts of dubious necessity), or (yep) a hike or canyon FKT claimed which is slower than that which foggy memory suggests I logged in 2004.

The points are two.  First, we all have an ego and pretending it doesn’t crave gratification is foolish.  Second, pretending that this gratification can be grafted into the landscape with any trace of permanence is even more foolish.  Ergo, even though he midwifed it with no malice aforethought, Mr. Bakwin still owes me and the world a symbolic five dollars of penance.  Buy yourself a waffle cone on us Peter, and think upon thy sins.


5 responses to “Mr. Bakwin owes me five dollars”

  1. If there was ever an adventure running Hall of Fame, Mr. Bakwin and Mr. Burrell would be the first two inductees, followed closed by Blake Wood. The type of runs those Really Big Guns did 10-15 years ago was very inspirational to the whole ultra running community.

  2. […] I have written many times, modesty ought to be the rule for claims of being first, especially public ones.  Phillip and I […]

  3. […] and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times.  I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more […]

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