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Rainier Speed - My Way

Mt. Rainier and the Gibraltar ChuteThe 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.This where real fitness comes from.

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. Ever wonder what skinning in hell will be like? Here's a preview.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.

Just about ready to shove off.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.

Looking up the bowling alleyI 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. Can I have a belay, please? Oh, wait....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 5,500 feet of funThe 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.

"Up only" today

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.

Getting ready to go down - finallyI 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.

Most excellent...in a not-so-excellent way.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.

Oh those poor bastards on foot. Ingraham FlatsFinally 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.Yeah, about as good as it looks.

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.

I obviously slept on the wrong pad.


Crazy Idea skimo suit

Sportiva RSR race skis

Plum 145 Race bindings

Black Diamond Whippets x 2

B&D ski crampons

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

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Reader Comments (9)

Way to rock the "Wasatch Skimo Speedsuit." You need to add that to your gear list.

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJared


First, great job! Second, thanks for the informative write-up - I believe this sort of sharing is helping to enable and encourage others. I aspire to one day be fast enough to wear a race suit :)
Really though, thanks for the TR and info.

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Truax

Hey Brian
Gee, thanks again for a great blog and being such a great inspiration.
This stuff is cool.

June 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill B

Glad you like it, Bill. Your awesome ski crampons were key on several days out that week. Thanks again.

June 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

Excellent work. There are so many lines on Rainier worthy of speed attempts. This line, and fuhrer finger both have a chance at setting the overall record, in my opinion.

In the paradise parking lot this spring before our ski, I watched a solo skier shred great turns down Gib chute. Twenty minutes later, Serac fall obliterated his tracks, flushing the chute clean. Glad you got up and out of there.

On another topic, how did you get your hands on the crazy idea product?

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Hi Carl,
Thanks for reading.
Yeah, those big hangers above the line are sketchy. The sun catches them early. Gotta move! I had some discussion with Dane about their trajectory - he feeling that the Chute was out of the fall line. Clearly, your observations suggest otherwise.

I ascended the Finger once with football sized rocks launching down all around. Danger everywhere.

As for the suit, a bunch of us in the SLC/Jackson Hole area did a group order from Crazy Idea with some custom printing. You can find them on several of the on line Euro stores.

June 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

Brian - pretty awesome. I pretty seriously considered the Chute as an option but the benefits of a flagged cattle-path were just too enticing. The frozen steps skinning up muir were pretty awful.

It looks like you managed to traverse off Muir up to the base of the chute without losing any elevation - was that no problem?

Did you consider skiing the chute or just too much rockfall/crap in the snow at that point?

It must have been a bit unpleasant skiing the cleaver without having climbed it. Did you manage to avoid the traverse at the bottom of it? We had to take skis off to run up the sight incline but probably could have avoided it by staying skiers right down the spine of the cleaver instead of staying on the uptrack.

Did you carry a GPS/have a track you are willing to share?

Nice work up there!


June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric C

Thanks Eric. You guys inspire me, for sure.

No, the route to the Chute is completely straight and no elevation is lost. You simply traverse just left of the toe of G Rock. Very easy.

Skiing the Chute? Ha! Did you look at those photos? Bullet proof, refrozen, rutted, runnelled, rock strewn, terrifying.... get the picture? Not horrible climbing but going down was not an option... at least for this guy.

That said, in good condition, skiing down it from the summit and out onto the Muir would be ridiculously straight forward. Way less circuitous than the DC. My vote for sure.

Yeah, I executed the out just about perfectly on the Cleaver. Like you said, I stayed to the skier's right and never had to take skis off or climb up until I got to the little castle at Camp Muir. Just a few steps on the dirt and skis went back on.

Sadly, I had no GPS in play but it's a bout as straight of a line as you can get from the Chute to the rim.

June 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

Hi Coldthistle,
What do you carry in your ski mountaineering repair kit?

July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave D.

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