Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mount Rainier Speed Skiing: 3:57:55

Mount Rainier is one of the most beautiful and massive mountains in the United States.  It has a long history of mountaineering and has been the training ground for many of the greater ranges around the world.  Naturally, on a mountain that gets a lot of attention and traffic, a friendly competition has developed.  It's an old game of simply trying to see how fast one can climb and descend a peak.  The guides have typically dominated this arena as they become intimate with the route and conditions and no doubt are aerobically talented.  For many years, Willie Benegas held the round trip record from Paradise to the summit and back via the Disappointment Cleaver route with a time of four hours and 40 minutes.

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
After a very restless night's sleep, I bounced out of bed before the 5AM alarm.  We geared up, battled dumped, choked down a light meal, caffeinated, and walked out into the very bright morning just before six.  Clad in speed suits, we carried race packs with beacon, shovel, crampons, ski crampons, whippets, extra layers, extra skins, a liter of fluid mixed with gels, harnesses, and a small rope.  It was least amount of gear with which we felt comfortable given the uncertain conditions on the upper mountain.

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
We rolled through in 1:22 as the climbers cheered us on.  I guess the full spandex gave us away.  Or maybe it was the strained look on my face and the fact that we didn't even pause as we skinned through.  Either way, it was great to have some moral support because it was about to get hard.

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
The next couple thousand feet were filled with mind numbing discomfort.  The crater rim came into view but looked impossibly far away.  However, my pain addled mind was in a time warp, because seconds later, we crested the rim and found ourselves in a white out.  Of the 9000 feet of ascent, 8950 were brilliantly sunny and then the last couple minutes were anticlimactic as we followed wands and unceremoniously transitioned.  Our friend Noah, who graciously joined us on the trip to offer support was on the summit.  I wanted to talk with him but only grunted a few unintelligible sounds as I ripped skins.   We then turned around to see how well we could hold it together for one of the longest continuous ski descents in the lower 48.  The watch read 3:15:39.

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


  1. Wow, huge congrats!
    And just to add some perspective for how fast this is relative prior records, I'm pretty sure that all the sub-5hr running records were done solo, with cached and/or ditched gear, yet with no rescue gear (avy or crevasse).

  2. Nicely done. Great write-up and photographs.

  3. We were cheering for you guys up here in Ogden. Congrats! Glad it all worked out and you made it safely.

  4. Wow. Very impressive guys. I suppose this was a good excuse to miss Pocatello, nice work.

    1. Thanks Christian...Had wanted to do both but the weather wouldn't cooperate. Let's get out for runs more!

  5. It was an honor to witness the fitness. You guys are an inspiration.

    Still planning on DQ.

  6. Thanks everyone! Your support is much appreciated!

  7. Nice work guys. Good to see you guys go after it again. (and get it).

    Max King

  8. did you guys sleep at the hotel at paradise? Awesome so inspired!!

  9. Nice work, great to see the progression that is much needed on this side of the pond.

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  11. this is straight up mind-blowing. most wouldnt understand. i must have ticked that summit a least a dozen times last century decked out in full one 20th century mountaineering regalia: double plastic boots and multiple layers of fleece and goretex, with my best coming in at 26 hrs C2C. hahaha.

    most importantly, feel free to shout out a thank you for me reprimanding you at the Glenwild Loop parking lot a couple of weeks ago for reason of prematurely playing in the dirt when there was still snow in them hills to be skied... :-)

  12. Fantastic effort gentlemen! Inspirational.

  13. Awesome adventure in such a free style. Love it, congrats!

  14. Smokin' fast!

    Hey, if you get the chance, I (and many others) would love to see you post up your (HRM) performance data.


  15. Thanks Max, Kirk, Joseph, Reiner, Trent, TB, VJ and Karl!

    Trent, I've posted my HR data with GPS on Movescount and Strava so you should be able to find them there under my name.

    TB, and to think I'd of been running circles on Flying Dog if I hadn't seen you that day! Thanks for the motivation!

    Joseph, we stayed Tues to Wed at the hotel at Paradise. It was nice to be able to wake up and go.

  16. Nice work. I just got back from Denali - sauntered up there in decent time for an old man, but probably painfully slow for you guys. Your dad and I would have summitted last year if our third hadn't gotten a cold, and if we'd have had the weather of this year -he should have gone back with me. Someone made an speed attempt this year on the Buttress, but wasn't successful in breaking it. Me, myself, I'm not worthy to lace boots with you two... Congrats.