Sometimes life dictates our opportunities. We take them or leave them, but I'm finding that if I just take action, the excuses melt away and positive things happen. This was the case over the last couple days when while looking for some fun and to escape the heat, Jason and I tried to pull off a smash and grab speed attempt on Mount Rainier. Our goal was to establish a standard for skiing Rainier as well as to break the all time speed record of 4 hours and 40 minutes held by Willie Benegas.
|Winning the weather jackpot|
Leaving Salt Lake around 7 AM on Thursday morning, our chances appeared slim. We reckoned we had a 5-10 percent shot at even making the summit given the dismal weather forecast. We almost didn't go. Debating alternative plans, while heading north on I-15, we were indecisive so the car kept going. "You never know till you go" was the theme.
Arriving at the Whittiker Bunkhouse 12.5 hours later, we made some last minute gear adjustments, ate pizza, and drifted off to sleep as dusk gave way to darkness. We set the alarms for just before five local time, making for a relatively civilized start by Mountain Standard Time. The day was already dawning when we awoke and still needing to secure climbing permits, we drove up to Paradise laughing at the weather. It was foggy with a light drizzle. Visibility was a couple hundred meters as best. The rangers said Camp Muir was in the clouds and the winds were gusting to 60 mph.
This forecast, and our unfamiliarity with the Disappointment Cleaver, led to a "safe" speed attempt. We did not cut corners and brought the following items:
1. Full avy gear
2. Glacier travel kit including rope, harnesses, prussiks, Tibloc, spare sling/carabiners, ice screw, ice axe, crampons
3. Extra clothes including puffy, shell, 2 pairs of gloves, beanie, extra pants
4. Misc items such as headlamp (starting at 7AM) and googles
As it happened, we did not need a single item listed above. We did rope up on the upper mountain while ascending but that was because we initially thought we would have poor visibility and did not adjust our plans on the fly (Disclaimer - the first rule of glacier travel is to always rope up).
After securing our permits, we started by running up the melted out stairs from the parking lot at Paradise. A race transition saw us skinning toward the Muir Snowfield under threatening skies and poor visibility. We followed the marked route and had to transition four or five times as parts were melted out, exposing sections of rocky trail. Our pace was steady but slightly limited by the lack of refreeze overnight (snow level was 10000 feet) and slushy conditions. Jason's altimeter ticked over 3000 vertical gained at just over one hour. On Willie's record run, he tagged the summit in 3 hours and 20 minutes. We were on pace but knew we would slow as the air thinned.
|Improving visibility but threatening weather looming|
On the Muir Snowfield, we followed the veritable highway of tracks. A section of clouds to the east appeared brighter than the rest and I thought the sun might be trying to show itself. Drawing closer to Camp Muir, the clouds parted and the entire upper mountain was basking in the morning light. Still passing through the cloud deck, we couldn't tell if the ebb and flow of the clouds would swallow it back up. A descending party sneered that our clear weather wouldn't last.
Rolling through Camp Muir at one hour and 34 minutes we were still holding 3000 feet/hour. We nodded a hello to a large guided party and immediately began crossing the Cowlitz Glacier toward Cathedral Rocks and the Ingraham Glacier. 10 minutes later, we turned the corner and were greeted by striking views of the Ingraham, Emmons, Disappointment Cleaver, and Little Tahoma Peak. The undercast clouds magnified the position and we were sufficiently in awe of the crevasses to pull out the rope.
|Some scary looking holes on the Ingraham Glacier|
|Little Tahoma poking through the swamp|
|Rope or no rope? |
This proved to be a deterrent to speed, not only because of the weight, but more so because of the hassle of adjusting pace and dealing with slack through switchbacks and over slight changes in pitch. The skis came off a couple more times through rocky sections while ascending the Cleaver and then the ski crampons came out once the slushy snow gave way to a bulletproof mix of snow and ice. The sun was strong, but I was fearful that a moderate breeze would prevent any significant softening. I was worried about the descent under the pressure of the clock.
We stopped a couple more times above the DC. Once was to put on my Ferossi jacket as from Camp Muir to well above the Cleaver, I was in a T-shirt. We also found that booting felt easier, at least subjectively, on the upper reaches. This allowed us to stay in the well worn and marked track, eliminating any of the cognitive aspects of glacial travel. Our only focus was moving onward and upward.
|Pulling out the ski crampons high on the Disappointment Cleaver|
|Looking down from the DC toward our ascent path. Ingraham Flat Camp is visible just left of center with a faint trail above that. |
|Finally deciding to put on a jacket|
Initially, we thought the altitude would give us fits, coming from Utah where we rarely exceed 11,000 feet. This concern was especially poignant given Jason's only other experience on Mount Rainier two years ago when he essentially came straight from sea level (Indiana) to 14K where he moved more slowly than I have ever seen him move in the mountains. This time however, we remained relatively impervious to the moderately high altitude. Sure we moved more slowly than lower on the mountain, but our cadence was acceptable and we began to catch and pass the parties that had started long long before.
Suddenly, we crested the crater rim and could see the true summit rising slightly on the other side. We ditched the rope and packs and nearly ran across the crater on skis. Another race transition ensued but we used a minute or two for some obligatory summit shots. The watch read 3:54.
|Jason on the summit of Mount Rainier|
|Andy on the summit of Mount Rainier|
Then it was a bone jarring descent across the crater to pick up our gear before side stepping up the rim to find over 9000 feet of insanely beautiful terrain between our skis. We tried to safely rally the bullet upper mountain by following the up track and looking for the smoothest, least wind affected surfaces to negotiate on our race skis. Maybe 1000 feet off the summit, the sun was doing its job and the snow was becoming edgeable.
Soon we were back on the Cleaver where we found perfect corn. We skied this section relatively fast and then transitioned to skins on for the short rising traverse back to the Ingraham Flats campground. A couple parties of mountaineers cheered us on and provided great motivation as we came off the Cleaver. Then, a couple skis on/skis off transitions got us through the rocks and back to the Cowlitz, which we straight-lined to Camp Muir.
At this point, the overall record was out of reach but we could still feel sub 5 hours. The Muir Snowfield is long and gentle but we would have to deal with near isothermic snow, poor visibility as we descended into the clouds, and the numerous patches of rocky trail that would require multiple transitions.
Without concern, we made sweeping GS turns past the rising zombie like mountaineer figures that were appearing last minute in the clouds. We followed the wands along familiar terrain. After the fourth or fifth transition through the rocks, I knew we were nearly home. We had come to Rainier with little hope for success and were going to steal a fast time and set what we believed to be the skiing standard for the mountain.
Then I made a wrong turn. The terrain became unfamiliar in the disorienting fog. There were no more wands. No more zombie like mountaineers. We continued on. Gravity would take us to Paradise and our "record". Jason checked his watch and by the elevation, we should be standing in the parking lot, gloating at our success. The elapsed time was 4:53. I skied into a gully that cliffed out. I followed Jason up a small rise that also cliffed out. We decided to split up and would hopefully meet back at the car.
I reversed direction and went what I assumed was farther west. I totally gassed myself sprinting up another rise to try and get a view. What I saw was alarming. A huge glacial basin was below me and I felt as if I were standing on the edge of the world. I turned back.
Finding Jason's tracks heading into the trees, I hunted him, hoping to find Paradise. He had climbed, traversing east to a small saddle. My heart sank as I saw his tracks drop to the west and towards the gigantic basin I had just avoided. Left without a choice, I followed through rocky debris and dirty snow until the game was over.
5 hours, 0 minutes, and 57 seconds had elapsed and we had climbed Mount Rainier from Paradise and skied it to what we would later find out was the Nisqually River, some five hundred feet below Paradise. We were going to claim this as a speed record for climbing and skiing Rainier but since the route isn't likely repeatable, we'll call it a speed run. And, even though we could debate times and route, it's all moot since this time is soft and we think we have identified a few ways to go perhaps 30 minutes faster.
Regardless of how badly we botched up the finish, we had fun and felt surprisingly strong throughout the whole day in spite of not having skied in the last month and a half. We learned a lot and will definitely be back to push the ship out a little farther and see how fast we can go on this iconic peak.
Thoughts on how to go faster:
|Back to the beginning feeling lucky to have pulled that one off|
1. Conditions matter - The snow on the lower reaches was near isothermic after multiple days without a good freeze and the coverage was poor enough to require multiple (7-8) skis off transitions. This makes a difference as far as effort is concerned on the up but on the down it cost more. (10+ minutes?)
2. Cut the margin of safety - We chose to go fully equipped with both avy gear (rangers had given warnings of moderate to high danger earlier in the week), and glacier travel gear. While I don't advocate this for anyone and it's a personal choice, we could have left it all behind given the conditions we found that day and the nature of a trade route like the DC with its heavy traffic and marked path. (10 minutes minimum both for weight and eliminating rope management?)
3. Weather matters - Similar to snow conditions, sunny weather allows for faster descents and eliminates our propensity for stupid mistakes like getting lost within a mile of Paradise. (10 minutes?)
4. Fitness/Sport specificity matters - While I feel that we both had pretty good days, not having been on snow for over a month and a half led to increased muscular fatigue given the different biomechanics. This one was all off of strength for me as I've been putting in longer days but have lacked intensity. (5 minutes?)
5. Route familiarity matters - Knowing where to go and having a sense for check points along the way makes a long effort psychologically easier (??)
1. Race skis, bindings and boots by Trab, Dynafit, and La Sportiva
2. Outdoor Research Ferossi Pants/Hoody, and Stormtracker gloves
3. Black Diamond Whippets
4. CAMP Speed Helmet/Packs, CAMP Crampons (Jason only)
1. We are going to call the official time 5:00:57 even though this took us far beyond and below Paradise. Others can follow and end up in the Nisqually River but this isn't recommended. Future speed attempts will likely start and end at Paradise.
2. Running through rocks in carbon boots is a bad idea.
3. Earlier in the season is the time to go...
4. Sub 48 hours door to door from SLC is funny to us. I used to think that if I only had 24 hours I could run up to the Tetons and climb something cool on the Grand or elsewhere. Now I have a new measuring stick if I only have 48 hours.
5. Mount Rainier is HUGE and we would never play this speed game on any of the other routes without full safety gear.
6. I believe that in the future the speed record for climbing and skiing Rainier will be pushed under 4 hours. It won't be by me but that is fully possible.
7. I also believe the standard mountaineering speed record could be dropped well under 4:40. Again, this won't be by me since I don't like moving fast down snow unless I have skis on. Perhaps Jared Campbell should give it a try since he doesn't seem to care about risking life or limb glissading
8. Skiing is so fast and efficient it's beautiful. The equipment is getting better and better and the things that we collectively can do are limited only by our imaginations. For anyone out there that would like to get started, get faster, ask for tips, share tips, or make suggestions, feel free to contact me, Jason at jasondorais.blogspot.com, or Jared at slc-samurai.blogspot.com as we would all like to progress and help others along the way.