Last summer, Jason and I wanted to join the fun and tried to ski Rainier as fast as we could. We ignored poor conditions, a bad weather forecast, and the plain markings that would have guided us back to Paradise. We ended up lost, walked along the Nisqually River, and hitchhiked back to our car. We arbitrarily stopped the watch when we ran out of snow around five hours and chalked it up as a learning experience, one that has been begging to be rectified for nearly a year.
Then, a couple weeks ago, Eric Carter and Nick Elson left their mark in this story by setting a new all comers record (skiing or running) of 4:19:12. By report, they had great conditions and crushed. Shortly thereafter, I started getting texts about their effort. We worked ourselves into a frenzy, unhealthily motivated to return and do our best. Fortunately, we had planned a break in work months ahead of time. Now we just needed a break with the weather.
Arriving in Paradise on Sunday, we strode into the ranger station full of optimism given the blue skies and predicted week long high pressure. Seconds later, a spunky red headed ranger was doing his best to shatter our hopes by telling us that no one had summited in a week and a half and that the upper mountain was not in condition. He communicated that the guides were finding a few persistent weak layers that were giving them pause in their goal of resetting the route and safely taking their clients to the summit.
Apparently, the upper mountain had opened up earlier this year than normal and a ladder was in place spanning one particularly large crevasse among other smaller ones. Since we were trying to balance speed and safety, we were reliant on the route being "opened" by the guides and were really grateful for the work they were doing.
The next 3 days were like the movie Groundhog Day. We'd wake up, talk to the rangers, find out no one had summited, and then ski on the Muir Snowfield. We had nearly every modern amenity at our disposal and we were going crazy with boredom. Expedition glacier life would kill us.
|Jason out for a stroll during a rest day|
|Just hanging around waiting for conditions to improve|
Finally, it became apparent that Wednesday would be the day. Sustained high pressure had healed the snowpack, a private party had pushed to the summit, and the guides would surely be taking their clients up. Each day had been successively warmer with the freezing levels nearing 13000 feet and conditions on the lower mountain noticeably worse every morning. We were worried we had missed our ideal window.
|Getting ready with the HR monitor |
that I was going to ignore
We knew Eric and Nick's splits and with some encouragement from Eric, we were gunning for them. Our optimistic schedule was to start at six, hit Camp Muir in an hour twenty, the summit as close to three hours, and then ski down as fast as possible to hopefully slip in under four hours round trip.
From the "gun" Jason set the pace up to the Muir Snowfield. Without a solid refreeze, the surface was soft and we were both worried we were fighting a losing battle. Wearing a HR monitor, I knew I was going too hard (i.e. HR >180) but ignored it. On the Snowfield, we found an unsupportable crust and persisted in the uneven tracks of others but as we climbed higher, the crust became stronger and we found a nice smooth skin track. I was in front now and could feel Camp Muir. I started pushing as we were gaining energy from the climbers standing on the edge of camp watching us approach.
|6 AM start|
Around the corner, the Ingraham Glacier was beautifully broken up and I could see a couple parties high above the Cleaver. Everything was coming together perfectly.
Except, it was becoming a struggle to keep up with Jason. He turned and yelled at me to keep pushing. He screamed, "This is supposed to hurt!"
|Just before the Cleaver starting to get uncomfortable|
We alternated booting and skinning with ski crampons on the Cleaver and narrowly averted disaster when Jason fumbled a ski that began to slide off toward the jaws of the huge crevasses below. I sprinted laterally to block it but luckily a small wind lip stopped it just above me. I grabbed it, booted 15 feet up to Jason and we were off again.
Above the Cleaver, we mostly skinned with ski crampons but were forced out of our skis a couple times, most notably when we came upon the ladder. In my mind, I thought I would just walk right across but Jason dropped to his knees and began to crawl. Standing and waiting my turn, that just seemed like a much better idea and onto my knees I went. Laughing, Jason tried to take a picture but missed it. Here we were trying to go faster than anyone before on this mountain and we were literally crawling.
|Final push for the summit|
Once out of the crater, I was fighting cramps in my quads, adductors, and hamstrings. This was going to be difficult. Mercifully, I found the upper mountain to ski quite well and was able to relax as Jason thought it slightly more difficult. Onto the Cleaver, we were cruising and perfect corn made this portion fast and easy. Jason glanced at his watch and said sub four hours would be hard. I thought just getting down the last 6000 feet without stopping would be hard.
We side stepped up the gentle rise back to Ingraham Flats and then skied all out. We slashed turns to the side of multiple parties who openly cheered us on. I was psyched for their support and glad to be able to get by quickly without interfering with their adventures. While rocketing across the Cowlitz along the gentle traverse back to Camp Muir, I glanced at my watch and saw 3:43. Sub 4 was still possible but we needed a little luck with the conditions.
Arcing big turns on the upper Muir, we joyfully found perfect corn and mostly smooth snow. This effortless skiing couldn't last and as we descended along the lower reaches of the snowfield, sticky isothermic glop started grabbing at my skis. Then I was summersaulting, hoping not to have may day ruined so close to the finish. Back on my feet unscathed, one second later I was tearing after Jason.
I caught up with him 30 seconds out of Paradise as he was standing there looking for me wondering what the hell I was doing. We pointed 'em for home and I started screaming out of joy, relief, and the satisfaction of giving my best effort on that day.
|Pretty happy to be done|
Jason's wife was there shooting photos and we lounged around enjoying the moment. Soon Noah came down leading to more celebrating before the reality of the impending 12 hour drive set in.
Now, back in Salt Lake, I'm psyched that we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy Rainier in the style we hoped for and in a time that represented a solid effort for the given conditions. While I believe our time of 3:57:55 to be the fastest round trip known to date, it would be foolish to think it will hold up. I predict runners will summit well under three hours and that skiers will be able to cut significant time from this. I'm just glad to play a part in the progression of the speed game on this classic North American mountain.
|Two dorks in tights|
For Jason's account see www.jasondorais.blogspot.com