Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Liberty Ridge Speed Attempt: 7:07 Car to Car

Last week, while at work, I checked the weather for Mount Rainier, looked over at Jason and suggested a climb and ski of the classic Liberty Ridge.  He immediately said, "sure" and we went back to work.  A couple days later reports starting surfacing of a new speed record for the route with a descent down the Emmon's for a car to car time of 9:11.  Sure enough, Eric Carter, Nick Elson, and Colin Haley had laid down a solid time but were modest and encouraging that it could be done much faster with better conditions.  They had faced significant delays by having to break trail for much of the upper route.  Further, all three live at sea level.  Looking at my watch right now in my office, I sit at 4600 feet and Jason lives at 7400; a distinct advantage.  

Reluctant and sheepish to attempt a faster time in the same week, we quickly got over our reservations as we became more and more excited by the mountain itself.  Our main concern was how we would hold up fitness wise as we hadn't exactly been training for a long sustained effort like this.  

Our plan was now to leave home after work on Thursday, stop in Boise, finish the drive Friday and recon the start, and then go for it on Saturday.  This would hopefully allow for another day to ski on Sunday as we had friends converging on the mountain from AK, CO, and UT and it would have been fun to get a chance to actually ski the ridge too.  Then, as is typical, we were scheduled to work on Monday so we figured we'd rally home as soon as we were done on Sunday afternoon.  

Everything went according to plan until about one hour into the effort on Saturday morning.  We felt strong, the conditions were fast, albeit slightly warm, and we were ahead of pace.  That is until I heard a snap while skinning through a small depression just before tree line.  I looked down and the day was over.  My ski was broken and so were our ambitions.  St. Elmo's pass looked just minutes away but we were done before we could even really get started.  

Immediately, I grabbed my phone and started frantically calling Lars Kjerengtroen and Brian Harder, both of whom were en route to the mountain and with whom we hoped to ski the next day.  Neither had extra race skis or access.  We skied/limped out and started texting everyone we knew in the PNW.  Eric Carter gave me Colin Haley's number and he very generously offered his personal skis but they wouldn't be available till Monday.  Patrick Fink put me in touch with Ethan Linck, who did some leg work to find Todd Kilcup, who also very generously offered to let me borrow his race skis.  In another stroke of luck, the bindings were mounted perfectly to my boots.  

Four hours later, we had obtained the skis and were back in the White River area trying to rest for a second attempt.  Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to ski with our friends but fortunately, they were starting much earlier and we were hoping for a boot track for much of the route.  That was practically a given as the rangers reported a number of parties already high on the route.  

The next morning, around 4:40, we were off.  It was hard to control the pace early but we knew we would struggle with cramps due to the high cadence throughout the day.  We didn't ask for them, but had been given the splits by friends who had talked with Carter et al.  We could tell early on that we were making good time and the motivation was high as we chatted throughout the wooded section.  

I should probably pause and mention how inspirational Eric, Nick, and Colin have been.  Eric has placed highly at the world cup level of ski mountaineering racing and beat our time for the overall fastest time on the mountain.  Nick holds the record for the Grand Traverse in the Tetons (which is mind blowing).  And, we regard Colin as one of the best Alpinists in the world and he's apparently one of the nicest guys too based on our brief text exchange.  

Having said that, I hope they feel that our "rivalry" is good natured and we appreciate them pushing us to do our best.   Sorry guys to go after it so quickly after you did but when the conditions are in....

Back to the skiing...

The view from St. Elmo's Pass

We topped out St. Elmo's pass in just over 1:30, looked out over the Winthrop Glacier, and got really excited.  The whole route was in view and the day had dawned clear and still.  We raced across the glacier, hopping small crevasses, and fortunately found the way onto the Carbon Glacier around the low point on Curtis Ridge.  

Crossing the Winthrop Glacier with the route above. 
We contemplated roping up as we carried standard gear but the route was clear as other parties had found the best way.  There was only one fairly sketchy snow bridge to cross right at the base of the ridge where we stopped for a moment to drink and eat.  2:45 had elapsed and we were still feeling strong.  Further, our friends were visible, heading for Thumb Rock and I was looking forward to the distraction of chatting with them for a bit.  

Looking up at the route from the entry point onto the Carbon Glacier. 

Nearing the ridge

Catching up, Brian and Tyler stepped aside and offered encouragement.  Lars put in a dig to stay ahead to make sure the booter was well groomed.  We tried to get him to rally the rest with us as he is clearly stronger than an ox but he's a good friend and partner and stayed with the other guys.  

Out on the east side of the ridge, the sun was boiling and we started to really slow down.  Both of us thought our hip flexors and adductors were going to betray us as we were starting to feel twinges of cramps.  Never feeling aerobically taxed, we still agreed that a steady pace, even if slow, was the best strategy.  We kept moving....barely.  

We hit the bergschrund, and even though we knew to climb it at the high point, all the tracks heading that way had been erased by a slight stream of spindrift.  There were some fresh tracks heading climber's left that we explored before coming to our senses and committing to action.  

Looking around the schrund for passage. 
Jason, climbing the only technical section of the whole route. 

 Over the schrund, a gentle breeze picked up and so did our pace.  We hit the summit ridge, transitioned from crampons to skis, and hit the top of Liberty Cap in 5:27.  Another race transition led to some of the worst skiing of the day on very fatigued legs that were quivering with the threat of cramps.  

Somehow, the governor began to release it's choke hold and we were able to actually skin to the true summit at a more reasonable pace.  We hit Columbia Crest in 5:57 and found about a dozen people on the summit.  The mood was festive and we were quickly outed as two dorks on skinny skis, carbon boots, and tight pants are obviously up to something stupid.  The folks on the summit were kind and friendly, offering encouragement as we transitioned to skiing for the final time.  

Neither of us had skied the Emmon's previously and so we skied with some caution until down to Camp Sherman.  From there's we traversed skier's right onto the Interglacier and rallied with absolutely zero grace through some truly horrific isothermic snow.  Back in the woods, we followed the up track, dodging the Memorial day crowds, until we reached our shoes.  

Jason was interested in pushing for a sub seven hour time but that ship had sailed with other inefficiencies higher up.  We had two miles to run and ten minutes to do it.  Even without the skis, boots, ice tools, etc I would be hard pressed to pull that off with specific training.  Regardless, I pushed harder and harder the closer we got and made one last mad dash through the sloppy snow patch guarding the trailhead.  

While we didn't go sub 7, Jason was satisfied with my effort on the run stating that I just became a man.  That's high praise from that guy.  

We sat on the road for a few minutes, pleased with the effort and how the day had gone, before making some food and waiting for the other guys to finish.  As they walked in like more sane people, we cheered them on and slapped high fives for the successful mission all around.  

Final thoughts: 

1. I've become weak and I don't like driving home after stuff like this.
2. That was perhaps the most fun day of skiing I've had all year.
3. I just like skiing. 

Gear list:

La Sportiva Cubes
Movement and Atomic race skis with race bindings
Grivel Quantum Tech ice tools
Grivel Skitour crampons (steel toe and aluminum heel made for ski boots)
Pomoca mohair skins cut for full coverage
Ski crampons
And other miscellaneous knick knacks


Gel mixed in Gatorade (I hate doing this but it's fast and works).