The best performances in the mountains arise from a combination of preparation, fitness, conditions and some luck. Watching the antics on Mt. Rainier the past few weeks made this perfectly clear. The players were certainly fit. The route was well known to Andy and Jason while Eric Carter and Nick Elson had the advantage of the cattle trail being in. The weather cooperated for both parties and everyone had the chops to ski the line. The result was two brilliant performances and standard-setting times. Daunting, to be sure.
Although I’ve summited Rainier 4 times by different routes, I’ve never skied it. The last time I was on the mountain was 2000. So, it was with much anticipation that I traveled south to spend a week talking gear and skiing with Dane Burns from Cold Thistle. I harbored no illusions of giving the Dorais brothers’ time a serious run but I wanted to step into the fray, nonetheless.
I played all kinds of mental games leading up to my attempt. The list of excuses looks something like this. First, I’m old - 52 in a few weeks. At some point, youth is going to prevail. Second, I didn’t race this year and, although, I’m certainly fit, I lack the top end speed one only gets from racing and training to race. Three, I live at sea level. Of course, so do the boys from B.C. and, really, SLC doesn’t really count as altitude, either. Not much of an excuse there, then.
Conditions were certainly different. I had a hard freeze all the way from the parking lot for my go and the weekend traffic on the Muir snowfield had turned it into a refrozen mess. That didn’t help. I also decided that I would explore a route some feel is a more direct and, thus, faster way to the summit – the Gibraltar Chute. This would make direct comparisons impossible time-wise but I was so far off the mark that I don’t think it really matters, anyway.
After a few days of easy skiing and cycling with Dane waiting for the weather to come around, the window appeared and my psyche was high. I secretly hoped that if the G-Chute was faster I just might be able to keep those boys in sight. I reasoned that in a 3+ hour skimo race they’re usually only 15-20 minutes ahead of me. Fat chance.
After a leisurely bike ride to shake the legs out, Dane and I packed up and headed to Paradise. There were still some clouds about but we both sensed that we’d get the window we wanted. Once at the trailhead we hit a little speed bump when we found out at 11pm that self-registration for climbs ended with the commencement of the summer season. We’d either have to poach the ascent or wait until 6am and be official. Dane decided to take one for the team, allowing me to head up at 5am while he registered for both of us and we’d rendezvous somewhere on the mountain later.
We slept in the parking lot for a few hours and rose with the gathering light to perfect conditions up high. The G-Chute was looking bony and rock strewn but still passable. I wondered what the 50-degree choke would be like with Whippets and skimo crampons. Spicy, I reckoned. I suited up in full skimo regalia, speed suit, Dynafit EVO boots, Sportiva race skis, and race pack with just enough extra stuff. I felt good.
I scurried off at 5am on a hateful track of refrozen steps. At Pebble Creek, the last major rise before getting onto the snowfield, I donned ski crampons and clawed my way up. As the pitch eased I went back to skins only but needed crampons anytime the pitch steepened. It was frustrating. After the weekend melee, there simply wasn’t a smooth patch of snow in sight.
Although I wasn’t going to Camp Muir, I would be close enough to check my time. I knew early on that I was way off the mark. 1:22? Shit, I was probably in the 1:50 range. Reality check, for sure. But ahead lay a bit of adventure heading into the Gibraltar Chute arena. This would be my consolation prize. It was dark and foreboding there. Massive seracs hung above, lots of rock fall potential off Gibraltar Rock to my right and a bulletproof, steep, rock-strewn couloir lay ahead.
I had to navigate a maze of smaller crevasses and serac blocks getting to the base of the gully. It’s always exciting crossing narrow snow bridges unroped and alone. The hard freeze gave me confidence. A few steep blocks had me wishing for tools to swing. Once in the gully, the pitch eased to 35-40 degrees and the climbing was straightforward. The surface was hard and uneven, hammered by ice and rock debris that likely come roaring down in the heat of the afternoon.
The first salvo of rocks was not close. They were small. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to catch one on the arm or leg. I got a little nauseous. I scanned the upper reaches to see what the sun was doing and it was just catching the top of the icefall. On the other side, Gibraltar Rock was pregnant with potential death. I kept my eyes peeled and planned my route around the trajectory of each inbound missile. When the first football-sized ones came whizzing by I got scared. I tried to be more calculating. Thirty steps looking up, breath, scan, thirty more. At about one third height I sprinted over to the overhanging right wall and seemed out from under the worst of it.
It took me 40 minutes to get up the thing. The steep pitch at the entry choke was exciting and exposed. If I had tools I would have gladly swung them. The promise of sunshine ahead and a more casual pitch lured me forward. The upper slope was still hard but there were few obstacles. The altitude was kicking my ass but I willed my way up, ignoring my light head. Thankfully, a headache never came. I crossed one more schrund before transitioning to the Disappointment Cleaver route several minutes below the crater rim. Several parties were just summiting.
I stepped off the rim and strolled across to the true summit. It was cold and windy. I stepped down into the lee and transitioned. I was excited to finally ski. I hadn’t been on race gear in a while so the first few turns felt awkward. As I approached several parties at the rim I tried staying off to the side and stepping out of the crater. I slipped and fell into a narrow crack with my downhill ski and promptly snapped a pole. Great.
A little Macgyvering pounding the bent end with rocks allowed me to forge a short pole that would suffice for the descent. The first few turns on rock hard sastrugi got my attention. This would be heads up. I kept wondering when I would get some corn love. Being unfamiliar with the route down, I kept my eyes peeled for climbers and wands. There were plenty of both. Skiing was desperately hard at some of the rollovers. The looming cracks below kept me focused. I kept waiting for my skis to vibrate off my feet.
Finally onto the Cleaver, the corn showed. In the course of only a couple of hundred vertical it went from scary to scary fun. It was SO creamy good but the steep drop into who-knows-what kept it real. I couldn’t tell what would go over rollovers so I was cautious committing to anything away from the main trail. Straight lining across Ingraham flats was exciting and I’ll admit to some smug satisfaction blasting by the poor bastards on foot sweating under heavy packs.
I hadn’t seen Dane yet so I was wary coming up to Camp Muir without a permit in my pocket. My partner had it but still. I tried to avoid the folks milling about altogether but there was no way to avoid the bottleneck of walking over a rock patch in front of everyone. But they were all cool, aware, dressed as I was, that I was on a mission.
I met Dane just below. We took a couple of pictures and I was off for the final 4,500 feet of joy. I hugged the far right and found perfect corn with a single track from the day before. It was like skiing on a groomed golf course. I kept waiting for the isothermic hell but it never came. Before I knew it I was at the car, 5:59 after I started.
Given recent events, my time is nothing to write home about. But for me, on that day, it was what I could give. It’s hard to deny the satisfaction of traversing so much terrain alone in that style. I truly love the commitment required to be unroped on a big glaciated peak.
For food I, once again, relied strictly on Gu products. I had 5 flasks with 3 gels each. I finished 4 of them for 1,200 calories for the effort. I drank about 1 liter of water. I had an extra 700 calories when I was done.
Dane was kind enough to spot me a pair of sexy Julbo Trek glasses with cool photochromic lenses. Rainier is a big peak with bright sun so glasses are obviously critical. But when you move into the shade of a couloir, dark lenses are annoying. I was able to leave mine on as the lenses lightened, maintaining some of the protection from falling debris.
Light skis and boots are critical for going fast on these efforts. It always amazes me how gnarly the terrain one can ski on this gear. It's not always pretty but it gets the job done. On the Muir snowfield, I was carving big GS turns on the little race sticks and wasn't really wanting for anything more.
I think with a bit more winter snow in place on the Gibraltar Chute it would be a faster route for future speed attempts. It's about as straight a line as you can do. For a quasi-supported speed run I would put a booter up the couloir and a few wands from the summit down to the top of the chute just to keep things mindless. Be fun to set it up and be on the mountain as safety while the crew gets after it. Maybe next year.
Crazy Idea skimo suit
Plum 145 Race bindings
Black Diamond Whippets x 2
Grivel Haute Route crampons
Dynafit EVO boots
Petzl Meteor helmet
Julbo Trek glasses with photochromic Zebra lenses
Camp Flash Anorak and pants
Camp ED Protection puffy
Camp G Comp gloves
Camp Gecko Hot gloves
Camp Rapid 260 race pack
Mylar bivy sack
Full repair kit