Taking on the titan
Beginning Friday, July 20, 2018, I summited and circumnavigated Mount Rainier, thus completing Richard Kresser’s RASH challenge. I was joined by Denzil Jennings, James Campbell, and Scotty Strain for various segments. The summit and circumnavigation were each unsupported. The mission totaled approximately 114 miles and 36,000' of elevation gain and loss. From start to finish, it took 3 days, 2 hours, and 21 minutes; including a generous amount of sleep.
A key difference between my efforts to summit and circumnavigate Mount Rainier and the rest of the mountains in the RASH was that I wanted to share the experience with friends. Climbing Mount Rainier requires a rope team for a novice like myself to obtain a permit. While I likely could have run the Wonderland Trail in a single push alone, I thought it would be more enjoyable to bring a friend and break the effort into two days so I wouldn’t miss any of the scenery at night. Sharing the awe in real time is far more rewarding than telling the story and hoping it is captured in others’ imaginations. In the year since I started ASH, I’d come to appreciate human connection and support over the symbolic pride that comes from running solo.
I enlisted Denzil Jennings to join me on the circumnavigation. I invited Chris Rivard, James Campbell, and Scotty Strain — all far more experienced mountaineers than myself — to form a four-person rope team. Chris took an opportunity to climb Mount Rainier for his first time one week before our attempt. The trip cost him too much time away from his family to commit to a second one. However, he was able to brief me on the climb in great detail. The information he relayed was invaluable. He will always be the fourth team member in my mind.
I do not have my usual gallery of photos to share. I took about 150 pictures, only to lose them all when my phone performed an accidental factory reset in my pocket about ten miles from the mission’s end. I was devastated. Denzil accidentally set his camera’s resolution too low to capture usable photos, though I have included them at the bottom of this document. All that we have are a few pictures from before the mission began.
Denzil and I were talking about photos at one point in our circumnavigation. I was complaining about how the wide angle lens on my phone’s camera was failing to faithfully capture our environment. I had also noticed how many backpackers were carrying and using professional camera equipment. I joked that I would be better off putting my camera away and just searching the Internet for the best photos of the places we had visited. So that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve sourced photos from on and around Rainier from the web —mostly Wikipedia— with attribution. There are better photos, and even the best ones do not capture what it’s like to be there. I’ve attempted to paint each scene with words, but I encourage you visit these places to truly experience their glory.
At the end of 2016 — when the RASH challenge unfolded in my brain as something I wanted to try — I had discounted Mount Rainier and settled on ASH. I lacked the technique to climb the mountain and the experience to run around it. Somewhat poetically, circumstances lead me to execute ASH in reverse order: HSA. By the end of 2017, with some mountain summits and the Plain 100 behind me, “R” no longer seemed out of reach.
In January of 2018, I took up indoor rock climbing as a cost effective way to learn and gain experience with a harness and rope. I read all of the parts of Freedom of the Hills I needed to climb a glaciated mountain. I read Glacier Travel & Crevasse Rescue cover to cover. I put together a glacier rack and practiced rigging and rescue techniques until they were committed to muscle memory. I upgraded my outerwear and had a chance to try it on an aborted early Spring climb of Mount Hood in katabatic winds and sub-zero temperatures. I was ready to take on take on the titan of the four-volcano challenge.
Mt Hood Morning Skyshow - Stephen Schieberl's 5.9 mi run
The weather that kept us from the summit is what made the morning so incredible. Gale force winds sculpted otherworldy…
By the time the permit application process opened on April 1, I felt that I had enough knowledge and respect of the mission to commit. Mount Rainier National Park’s permitting process far from guarantees that anyone will get the trip they desire. We were planning to climb up the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route — the most popular on the mountain. Applications are accepted over a period of a couple weeks and then processed in random order.
Details aside, I acquired a reservation for the circumnavigation on dates I didn’t want. I was unable to get a reservation for the summit. I had a camp site reserved for only part of the stay. About one third of permits are issued on a first-come-first-served basis, starting the morning before the permit date — and they may be denied. About the same ratio of camp sites are walk-up only, can only be booked for three days at a time, and are generally unavailable on busy summer weekends. For the following three and half months, the biggest threat to the mission’s success was not physical or mental preparation, but paperwork.
To secure a permit and a camp site, I needed to arrive at the park before sunrise the Thursday before the attempt. James arrived the night before and slept in the parking lot at the ranger station. Between the two of us, we were positive we could fill in the missing pieces. When I met him at the Paradise Climbing Information Center about an hour before they opened, there was already a line. One climber had slept at the door to ensure their spot. Five minutes before they opened, we had at least a couple dozen more people behind us.
Even for the single push climb we had planned, we had to book a high camp site. That is how the numbers are controlled. I had filled out our permit in advance, choosing the most inconvenient and irrelevant camp site on the route to improve our chances of securing a spot. When our permit was issued, there was only one site remaining on the route. That is how quickly they disappear.
I hadn’t fully realized that the mission we had planned was inside a national park until I arrived at the Longmire entrance. James and I hit the breakfast buffet, did some souvenir shopping at the Paradise Inn, and headed back to camp at Cougar Rock. I booked a second, walk-up camp site near our reserved one. We headed out for some bleary-eyed sightseeing before attempting to get in an afternoon nap. I couldn’t sleep. Just before my greater adventures, I tend to experience at least one moment of dread. The more ghastly the dread, the more profound the experience is likely to be. The sheer terror I felt that afternoon indicated that something unimaginably incredible lay ahead.
We ended the day by attending the rangers’ educational program geared towards kids at the Cougar Rock Campground’s amphitheater. We just needed something to keep us awake long enough to get onto our climbing schedule, but wound up learning and retaining a wealth of information about Mount Rainier — information which we would share incessantly all weekend.
The paperwork was in place. The weather forecast was perfect. The terror had passed. The mission was a go.
Day 1: Summit
RASH: Rainier Summit - Stephen Schieberl's 22.7 mi run
The final chapter in the RASH challenge. What Richard Kresser did in a week, I broke out over a year. Read about the…
Scotty had arrived around 1am. I slept in after a solid ten-hour night. He and James were out exploring when I awoke. It was a grey and overcast morning. I passed the time by packing for each part of the mission, trying to minimize the transition between segments. I hadn’t seen Scotty in months since he had moved, so there was something of a reunion when he returned to camp. I put on some music, brought out a bathroom scale, and we all worked to reduce our pack weight without sacrificing necessities. I started with a forty-four pound pack and took it down to thirty by dumping extra water and any gear that didn’t have a specific application. Scotty and James had similar results.
Denzil and his wife, Megan, arrived in the afternoon. The full team was assembled. I had promised them a massive pancake breakfast. James and I fired up our stoves and pumped out two pounds of bacon, a ten-egg scramble, and about a dozen pancakes. Not a scrap was wasted. Sunset was only a few hours out. James and Scotty managed naps. I was too amped. As The Cure’s “Disintegration” album came to a close on my little stereo, it was time to head to Paradise. James took his Sprinter van and Scotty and I went in my car. The thinking was that while I needed to head back to camp right after the summit, James could stay and sleep in his van. Denzil and Megan joined to see us off.
We geared up, snapped some photos, bid farewell to Denzil and Megan, and we started up the paved walkway to the Skyline Trail at 6:40pm. The trails were crowded with returning day hikers. We forked onto the Dead Horse Creek Trail which saw slightly less traffic. The last of the day’s clouds cleared as we climbed, unmasking the Tatoosh range, Rainier’s summit, the wildly crevassed Nisqually Glacier, and a tall, powerful waterfall I was unable to identify. I took advantage of having phone signal for a moment to text my wife.
James moved ahead as Scotty and I made some gear adjustments and took in the colors of the sunset behind us. Scotty alluded to some gut discomfort — hoping it would subside with movement. The trail met the snow. We put on our crampons at Panorama Point.
I told Scotty I felt like charging ahead. I caught up with James. We checked out the sunset and made sure Scotty wasn’t too far behind. I had suddenly got it in my head that I wanted to make it to Camp Muir in under three hours — before dark — and took off at my usual climbing pace. It felt wonderful to synchronize my energy with my excitement. My mind quieted as I hastily followed the flags marking the route up the Muir Snowfield. In the final moment of daylight, I paused to take in the alpenglow, the mountains below, and Little Tahoma growing in my view.
I made it to Camp Muir just after turning on my headlamp. Three hours and two minutes from the start — just missed it. I joined a few climbers for a snack at a table outside one of Camp Muir’s bunkhouses. We watched the halo of day fade out before they went inside to rest for their summit attempt. I was burning up from the climb and dropped a few layers to cool off while I waited for James and Scotty. I kept myself busy by preparing my harness, rope, and glacier rack.
James arrived about twenty minutes after me. Then Scotty another twenty minutes after that. Scotty had been trying to radio to us that he was ill and needed to turn back. However, I had opted out of carrying a radio — one of a few rookie mistakes I would make that day. James’ radio was off as we had only intended to use them when traveling roped above 10,000’. We discussed our options and concluded that James and I would go on without him. If Scotty’s condition worsened above Camp Muir, we would all have to turn back to prevent him from traveling across glaciers alone. It was sheer luck we had decided to bring two vehicles — I handed him the keys to my car get back to camp. It was heartbreaking to have him turn back. He was with me at the start of the RASH and I was hoping he would be there at the finish.
Switching from a three-person team to a two-person team had safety implications. If one person falls into a crevasse when three people are roped together, the weight of the other two helps prevent them from getting in too deep while doubling the chance that someone plunges an ice axe to bring the fall to a stop. There are also more options available to extract someone from a crevasse with two other people instead of one. Neither of us had practical experience with two-person glacier travel, so we drew from book knowledge. We each tied into our thirty-meter rope and put figure-8s on bights into it. That would theoretically stop a fall when a knot catches the groove cut into a crevasse lip by the rope. I coiled what rope we didn’t leave between us and we were on our way.
We left Camp Muir and made our first steps onto the Cowlitz Glacier. The ice reflected our headlamp light well at remarkable distances. In the dark of night, we were able to make out the gargantuan chasms that were the crevasses. I had never been that close to cracks that size. The average crevasse on Rainier dwarfed Mount Hood’s south bergschrund when it’s at its widest. The route, however, stayed far from those hazards. On its far end, the glacier only presented one noteworthy opening; easily crossed by a short ladder bridge which had been placed by guides.
The Cathedral Gap is a soft and sandy dip in the steep and chossy Cathedral Rocks separating the Cowlitz and Ingraham glaciers. Boulders as large as small houses teetered perilously on tiny stone pedestals — adhered to each other by only a thin skirt of ice. We had to move quickly without disturbing the terrain while keeping our eyes and ears open for falling rocks. I shortened our rope by taking a few coils to prevent it from dragging on the ground and rolling rocks down the slope. The temperature was just below freezing — high enough to warrant extra caution. Dry tooling our crampons through the rock and sand of the gap was miserable, but we were across it quickly. After a few steep switchbacks, the span of the Ingraham Glacier appeared.
Tents began to glow in the Ingraham Flat Camp as we approached. Most of the climbers were out and roped up to their guides by the time we arrived. I wanted to pick up the pace to avoid being the caboose on the slow guided-climb train. James wasn’t as comfortable with a faster pace. One group moved ahead of us onto the Disappointment Cleaver. The waiting began. A rope team is only as fast as the slowest person. The rear member of the group in front of us paused frequently and at length to rest and catch his breath in the thinning air above 11,000’. I was getting cold. Dry tooling up the cleaver was even more uncomfortable than on the Cathedral Gap. In hindsight, we should have taken a moment to remove our crampons. The team ahead of us stopped at a viewpoint. We advanced after taking in the same panorama. The upper portion of the Disappointment Cleaver is otherworldly—wild detail of eroding rock against swirling natural ice sculptures at the conflux of the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. It was the first time I had seen nieves penitentes in person.
James was moving in a step-step-rest pattern. It was something I had read about in the literature, but had never practiced. I wanted to drop the “rest” part of the pattern, sticking only to steps. And fast ones. It frustrated me, but I had agreed to have him lead as the most experienced mountaineer between us. “You’ll thank me when you’re running the circumnav,” he said. A three-person team overtook us.
At the top of the cleaver, we changed from our short rope configuration back to the standard glacier travel. Stepping onto the Emmons Glacier we were immediately met with one of the route’s more technical segments. An unfathomably deep crevasse shaped like a backwards “7" presented canyons in front of and above us. The lower lip of the crevasse was well below the upper; emulating the feel of a cave or tunnel.
The side of the crevasse running up and down the mountain had been plugged at the top with icefall; creating a narrow, but deep, snowbridge. The guides had anchored a static line over it. James and I walked across one at a time, holding the line for balance. The bridge was wide and stable enough that we didn’t feel the need to clip onto the line. A few easy steps followed before the route ascended sharply up a short, shoulder-width fin which dropped into the crevasse on one side and off the mountain to the other. Guides had left anchors, but the firm snow and calm wind didn’t warrant their use.
At the bottom of the short ridge we reached another large crevasse crossing. A ladder and static line had been placed across it. A quick test revealed the ladder’s instability. James and I each tied into long slings and clipped onto the static line to catch us in the event of a fall. I went first, jumping to the other side before reaching the end as the ladder wobbled erratically. James followed, walking all the way to the end and taking the full brunt of the ad hoc bridge’s volatility. It appeared one of the far side’s anchor’s had failed. A guide from the party just behind us crossed and repaired it.
With the crevasse crossings bested, the route became a more straightforward, steep slog. Following Chris’s trip report, and not having seen route updates since losing Internet access upon entering the park, I believed we had a section ahead which had recently been experiencing icefall through which we would have to race. Apparently, the icefall had become so heavy the route had been extended northeast and back down the mountain. The elevation loss of six-hundred feet was disheartening. Regaining that and then retracing the path on the return meant an additional two miles and 1,200' of climbing on top of the standard route which was already eighteen miles with close to 10,000’ of elevation gain and loss.
The trail tilted to its steepest angle. We were using our axes less as canes and more as climbing tools. We zigzagged a small maze of bridges between crevasses. I felt slightly stoned. I don’t know if it was because it was 4:30am or that we were above 13,000’, or a combination the two. The cold began to freeze my watch’s display. I though for awhile we were approaching the crater rim, only to crest that line and see another 1,000' climb ahead. One foot in front of the other. Dawn’s glow slowly bloomed from behind the mountain.
I was fully prepared to step over the next high point onto another climb. As we passed by the first bare rock I’d seen since the cleaver, we stood atop the crater rim. If Mount Rainier has any theme to its exploration, it’s that everything takes longer than you think it should. The true summit was on the other side of the crater and another four-hundred feet higher. The sun had risen and we put on our glacier glasses. The footing across the crater was unsteady. The air was calm — safe from the atmospheric turmoil above the rim. I thought about the tunnels underfoot. There is an ice cave system inside the crater. One of the caverns yields the wreckage of a plane which crashed in 1990. Fumaroles steamed from the bare rock just below the summit.
James and I freed ourselves from our gear, leaving it in a pile on the edge of the ice cap before starting up a series of crumbling switchbacks. The three-person team which passed us earlier was huddled behind a rock, signing the summit log. We continued. A freezing gale forced its way over the rim as we approached Columbia Crest. We reached the summit just after 6am — slightly over our estimated time of eleven hours. We snapped some photos and took in the views for as long as we could tolerate. It was amazing how the other mountains in the RASH were dwarfed. Adams looked like a hill. We caught as much mountain shadow as we could from our vantage before retreating into the protection of the caldera.
I felt loopy walking down to sign the logbook. The altitude was having some effect. We lingered at the summit for close to an hour in slow motion. We ate. I had to put my take on the blue bag to use for the first time — with great success — despite not having any options for privacy outside of unobstructed distance from others. We had left our gear in more of a tangled mess than we had realized. It took ages to undo everything, tie back in, and get configured for glacier travel. We headed back.
The snow and ice were softening. The trail had become slick and slippery; even with crampons. Plunge-stepping and maintaining balance to keep from falling was strenuous on my legs. We passed three French climbers who, wisely, were turning back from their summit attempt due to the deteriorating conditions. It was a slog down the Emmons Glacier.
We reached the reroute and made our final climb to the crevasse crossings. Under daylight, we were now able to fully see the twisted and wonderful world inside the crevasses. As I clipped in and stepped across the ladder bridge, I observed for the first time the effect where a crevasse is so deep it fades from white to blue to black with no visible bottom. We traversed back over the narrow fin of a ridge before joining a group paused at the snowbridge.
“The snowbridge collapsed.”
The assessment from a member of the team ahead of us was more dire than reality, but the bridge had certainly suffered significant deterioration since we passed over it in the cold of night. Long cracks had formed across its chord. A section on the south end of the span had calved away; leaving a narrow and unstable rail to negotiate. The three French climbers who had turned back from their summit attempt arrived behind us — using far more caution crossing the ladder bridge than we had. We had eight minds to discuss how to proceed.
The lightest person in the group ahead of us was put on belay. The plan was for him to cross the bridge and take slack out of the static line running above it. If he made it, the tightened line would make a reliable crossing for others were the bridge to fail. If not, his belayer would catch him and he would be hauled out to safety. With his partner tied into an anchor and quickly feeding out rope, he made it across. He got to work untying the static line, moving the anchor back and up, taking out the slack and retying it. This enabled subsequent climbers to attach themselves to the line with a sling, then move hand-over-hand along the line to the other side if they had to; regardless of the presence of a snowbridge.
The partners switched and the second climber crossed, belayed by his buddy and attached to the static line. Then they belayed their third member to safety. The bridge held. It was our turn. I had everything I needed for a crevasse rescue, but had left my belay device at camp to save weight. It was another rookie mistake which I will not be repeating. I plunged my axe into the icy wall at an angle away from the snowbridge. I attached my rope to the shaft with the start of a grip hitch. Theoretically, the friction from a fall would tighten the hitch and the anchor would hold it. James walked steadily across. My rigging solution made it difficult to pay out slack. James had to pause in middle of the melting snowbridge while I tended the hitch. It was brief, but stressful. Once across, he put me on a proper belay. I clipped into the static line and scurried across less confident than James about the plug’s stability. Despite reliable safety measures, treading the narrow, cracked, melting glob of snow over an endlessly deep, black trench was unnerving. We had made it.
With the most technical section of the descent surmounted, James and I reconfigured. We removed and stowed some gear from our harnesses, short-roped, and I took the lead. Yet another rookie mistake I made then and will not be making in the future was putting away my crevasse rescue equipment as I believed it was no longer necessary. While the two glaciers we had left to traverse had only narrow gaps in my memory, those can widen throughout he day and there may be hidden crevasses.
Descending the Disappointment Cleaver was excruciating. Stepping down steep choss in crampons is a taxing exercise. We decided to remove our crampons until we returned to the glacier. It wasn’t long after putting them away when we regretted having worn them up the cleaver the evening before. We moved far more quickly and comfortably without them. Navigating the route down was more difficult by day than at night. Rockfall, social trails, and markers from previous routes were easily confused with the true route. We passed a party of three on their way up for their summit attempt. We found their timing strange and warned them about the snowbridge, but they persisted. I assumed they would wind up among the roughly fifty percent of people to fail at their attempt for Mount Rainier’s summit.
We paused at the Ingraham Glacier to put on our crampons. The distance between the cleaver and the Cathedral Gap was short enough that we didn’t bother returning to glacier travel mode. As we walked, I began to feel weary for the first time. My mind wandered and I found myself tripping and falling frequently. James and I had to stop chatting so I could focus. The colorful tents in the Ingraham Flat camp hovered over the park thousands of feet below. We stopped at a deep crevasse to test dropping blocks of ice into it. We never heard them hit the bottom. Little Tahoma approached. The heat and glare of the sun reflecting off the ice underfoot further distorted my mental state.
Following the switchbacks down the Cathedral Gap felt infinitely longer than they did going up the evening before. Like the cleaver, the route was less apparent than at night. At one point the path lead us to a treacherous descent down the talus, which would have exposed us to all the falling hazard potential of the Cathedral Rocks. Three climbers ahead of us had walked into that trap. We turned back, retraced our passage, and made it off of the gap with minimal exposure to rockfall.
There was one small crevasse crossing over a ladder bridge on the Cowlitz Glacier. While still short-roped, I tripped and fell on the other side, nearly pulling James down into it. I planted my axe into the ice, but it wasn’t necessary as James had already cleared it. The seriousness of the decision to stow my crevasse rescue gear became palpable. We continued through a long trench to avoid incoming traffic — most likely climbers heading to a high camp to attempt the summit the following evening. Camp Muir never seemed to come any closer until we were in it and surrounded by day hikers. While we still had miles ahead of us, untying and packing our rope and harnesses made it feel like the first half of the mission had already been accomplished. A much needed shot of adrenaline slapped me out of my growing stupor.
A sea of cloud laid just below Camp Muir. We chatted with fellow climbers and other visitors for awhile. James wanted to linger a bit while I was ready to move. We agreed to meet at his van. I stowed my crampons and got to work on a standing glissade into the fog-enshrouded Paradise. Visibility was near nil inside the cloud. The white sky meeting the snow subverted any sense of progress. The conditions made it difficult to perform a proper sitting or standing glissade for long. Walking or running had me slipping onto my back repeatedly. I gave in and stopped to put on my crampons again. James caught up with me as I began plunge stepping my way down the mountain. He was managing a glissade better than I had been, but our speed was essentially matched.
We hit dirt and pulled over near a stream to remove my crampons and some layers of clothing. For the first time I noticed the crowds. We were in a National Park at its peak season. It was disquieting to have just had the experience of climbing Mount Rainier and then be suddenly thrust into the throngs of fresh-faced hikers. It felt like leaving a nightclub at 8am after an evening of debauchery, only to discover that there is a church next door and its parishioners are arriving as you stumble out.
We were about a quarter mile in on the Skyline Trail when I realized I was missing one of my trekking poles. The thought of running the Wonderland Trail with only one pole and sixteen pounds on my back horrified me. I would do it if needed, but hoped against it. I left my pack with James and ran back up the trail. I spotted a kid walking down with it in use. I didn’t even try to negotiate.
“That’s my pole and I need it back.” I told him, already reaching for it. He paused for a moment.
“You found that in some rocks by the stream a few minutes ago. I left it there. It’s mine.” He handed it over and I ran back down.
Time slowed as we approached the parking lot. We were tired and filthy and longed to escape the crowds. We hit pavement. A couple times we were asked if we had just climbed to the top. It felt like a small celebration to reply “yes".
I stopped tracking on my watch when I reached the ranger station. The first objective of the mission was complete, but mentally I was still only a third of the way through something bigger. When I went to pick up my permit for the Wonderland Trail, one the rangers asked if I needed another climb permit. In the month prior, the fastest known time for the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop had been lowered twice. The double summit and circumnavigation made my effort appear lightweight in comparison.
We arrived back at camp much later than expected. We hit the summit within minutes of our predicted time, but the collection of gaffes on the descent mounted into a two hour delay. Scotty had already left. I went straight to work in transitioning gear between my climb and run rigs. Denzil and Megan were out sightseeing, but caught up with us soon after. I made two steak dinners and ate them both. I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of my sleep between the summit and circumnavigation. Despite the original 4am departure plan, I turned in as early as I could without setting an alarm.
Day 2: The Wonderland Trail
RASH: Rainier Circumnavigation Day 1 - Stephen Schieberl's 50.2 mi run
The final chapter in the RASH challenge. What Richard Kresser did in a week, I broke out over a year. Read about the…
I awoke a little after 4am. I heard Denzil already stirring outside. Before I moved any part of my body, I braced for pain. For some minor injury. For inflammation. I rolled up slowly, threw a pair of slides on my feet, and evacuated my tent.
“I have some bad news,” I told Denzil. “I feel amazing.”
Denzil I have a shared love of giant wilderness adventures, but prefer to run in different gears. We believed we would be a good match for the Wonderland. The idea was that I would be so exhausted and sore from the summit, I would be unable or unwilling to charge ahead at my usual, aggressive pace. My fresh legs upset that theory.
Close to two hours vanished in what felt like minutes. A large part of the delay went towards booking the camp site for another two days so we would have it when we returned. We put on our seventeen-pound packs, walked to the Wonderland trailhead, acquired satellites on our watches, and started exactly at 6am.
Running counter-clockwise from Cougar Rock Campground, the path’s first few miles are sandwiched between a road and a river. The trail climbed gently and, aside from roots crossing the path, was wide and hard-packed from heavy hiking traffic. The southern section of the Wonderland is relatively mundane. Carter Falls offered the first interesting view. We made a short side trip to the impressive Narada Falls. On our way back, we were blocked by a family of deer so accustomed to humans they nearly refused to let us pass. The following sharp climb up a set of switchbacks exposed the towering Eagle and Chutlas Peaks in the Tatoosh Range.
The trail drew closer to the road, merging with and crossing it as we reached the Reflection Lakes. The clear view to Mount Rainier appeared inverted on the water’s still surface, allowing the lakes to live up to their name. I relayed some trivia about them I had learned from the ranger program. We paused to make minor gear adjustments and take in some calories before descending into Stevens Canyon.
The trail dropped at the east end of Louise Lake. Brush began to encroach on the narrowing single-track and the footing became more technical. Even with the road in view above, it began to feel less like a park and more like wilderness. Wildfire haze hung in the valley. The air warmed as the elevation rapidly lowered. The grade lessened after we paused at Martha Falls and entered the old growth forest of Stevens Canyon.
Stevens Creek drafted cool air into the shade beneath the thick tree canopy and the trail became soft with a gentle downward slope, beckoning me to pick up the pace. It was a joy running through the forest until I was ensnared by the beauty of Sylvia Falls, which was haloed by a rainbow. I realized I had lost Denzil. I took in some nutrition, snapped a few photos, and paced to keep my legs warm. Denzil came barreling down at a solid pace.
“Burrito me.” he requested.
Denzil’s nutrition strategy was to eat at a burrito every forty-five minutes. It was a sound strategy, but his pack didn’t have a pocket which could store it up front. I had to get it out for him and put it back when he was done. He took some photos and ate, which lengthened the stop. My muscles had gone cold by the time we started moving again.
The miles between Sylvia Falls and the junction with the Cowlitz Divide Trail didn’t offer much more in scenery than I would have found on any other forest run. I had split my Wonderland effort into two days so I wouldn’t miss any of it when running at night. The trail had been underwhelming to that point. I made a mental note that if I were to ever run the Wonderland again, I would do it in one clockwise push, which would put me in that less interesting section at night. I picked up a new tube of sunblock I found on the trail with the intention of tossing it if and when I came across a trash can. I wound up using the entire thing.
The pace disparity between Denzil and I grew as we climbed to the Cowlitz Divide. I had run with him enough to know that he was having a low moment. The day was heating up. His pack was fairly new to him. While I had well over a year and hundreds of miles optimizing how I used my pack, he had only limited practice with his. I could eat, change layers, take pictures, apply sunblock and do anything else I needed without stopping. Whereas the weight distribution in his pack made it uncomfortable for him and he had to remove it often to reach food and other common items. Even seemingly short stops can add minutes to the overall pace. Muscles go cold and the chance of cramping increases. Motivation drops. He had a lot working against him on that climb and it was taking its toll.
Breathtaking views of Cowlitz Park to the west and the all of Washington and Oregon to the southeast opened up as we rose above the tree line into steep alpine meadows. Water flowed down the ridge in every direction through a palette of wildflowers as we pushed up switchbacks under a white hot sun. It was our first glimpse of what makes the Wonderland Trail exceptional. Enthralled with the beauty, I had lost Denzil again. I stopped and waited as he worked his way up. I used the moment to memorize the view.
When he caught up, he stopped to eat and attempted to reconfigure his pack into something more comfortable and efficient. The long break made me lethargic. There was a frustration building out of the incongruity between my need to move consistently and his need to address pack issues. He was beginning to cramp — possibly a symptom of frequent stops, I thought. When we started moving again, I tried to focus on the wonders around us and accept that the day would involve some waiting. At that moment, I felt we needed some space to move at our respective paces. I didn’t mind taking breaks as long as they were less frequent. I charged ahead with the plan to make a long stop after a good span of continuous motion.
At the high point of the Cowlitz Divide, I took the photo that would have been the highlight of this article. It’s the one that was the most painful to lose. Dramatic displays of contrast in color, texture, and shape swept out in every direction. It was a good place to stop and meet up with Denzil again. We took a moment to celebrate the majesty of that time and place. And to put the first substantial climb of the day behind us.
I was energized. I let Denzil know that I wanted to sprint down the slope ahead of us and I would meet him below. I took off. Running down to Indian Bar felt like flight. I was soaring. My water supply was gone so I stopped to fill up from a stream of snow-melt above a craggy waterfall. It seemed like the best water I had ever had in my life. Denzil wasn’t far behind me. Cresting the ridge appeared to have lifted his spirit. After he replenished his bottles, we stayed together down to Indian Bar. We kept up a faster pace as the wildflowers grew to waist-height and multiplied in color and complexity.
The first thing I noticed coming into Indian Bar was a small group of people camped at its stone shelter. They had flotation devices set on the bank of Ohanapecosh River. I couldn’t tell if they were kayaks or small paddleboards, but I was impressed that they had been lugged in so far. We stopped for some photos on the bridge over the impressive Wauhaukaupauken Falls. I slathered on a generous amount of sunscreen from the tube I had found. I was thankful to not have to rely on the small roll-on sunscreen I had brought and had used almost entirely on the summit. The river overflowed onto the trail. The frigid water felt wonderful on my feet in contrast to the heat of the valley and the sun exposure.
On the far side of Indian Bar, the trail turned up sharply towards Ohanapecosh Park. My thick, white coat of sunscreen was put to the test as rays of heat pierced my skin. It motivated me to push ahead and get on the other side of the next ridge. Denzil fell behind again. I sought a shaded place to wait for him, but there was none in sight. I just moved on. I refilled my water in the melt of another snowfield and that water suddenly took the top spot as the best I’d ever had.
The Panhandle Gap is a snow-covered stretch of ridge between the Sarvent Glaciers. It is the high point of the Wonderland Trail. As soon as I hit the first snowfields, the marmots made themselves known. The stocky, furry, cat-sized creatures were running around everywhere on the snow and releasing their high-pitched call. The joy of watching them offset the agony of the blinding sunlight. I debated whether or not to bring sunglasses that morning and suddenly regretted deciding against them. The snow was slick and slow-going despite a good bootpack. I encountered a couple backpackers and asked them to tell the runner behind me that I would wait for him at Summerland.
Around 6,800’, I crested the narrow ridge that is the Panhandle Gap. On the other side I was presented with a scene I didn’t believe existed outside of sci-fi films and fantasy art. Jade green boulders surrounded two ice blue pools resting just below wildly crevassed glaciers.
A short bootpack lead to a group of backpackers negotiating their way down the talus. A couple slowly walked their way down while the rest opted to glissade to the rocky floor. I had to wait for them to clear out before I could progress. One man handed his high-end camera to another.
“Are you sure you trust me to go down with this thing?” asked the man charged with photography.
“Oh, yeah, you’ll be fine,” his friend replied.
The camera’s owner went on a fast and steady glissade, laughing the entire way. Two women then took their turns with similar results. All three were captured by the man borrowing the camera. He took his turn. About twenty feet down, he lost control and began rolling down the hill — trekking poles flying and the camera he was meant to protect launching into the air and crashing spectacularly into pieces on the rocks below. I was mortified for him, but also had to laugh the moment I could tell he was uninjured. Fortunately, it seemed that group had a sense of humor about it and the owner just smiled without even introducing the idea of blame. I descended on foot.
Out from under the punishing sun, I walked slowly down the rocky trail. I let the scenery and experience of the place linger. For some time, the thought of the greater mission, time goals, or anyone or anything that wasn’t present, vanished. All that existed was that magical place. I stayed by one of the pools for a few minutes, entranced by its motionless, iridescent depth. On the north end of the descent, a narrow, vertical canyon bordered by a brutal waterfall formed a window into Fryingpan Creek a couple thousand feet below.
The barren landscape gave way to grasses and wildflowers as I approached the crowded Summerland campground. I took off my pack and paced to keep my legs moving. Summerland is just over four miles from a trailhead accessible by car. Despite the man-made structures and the multitudes of day hikers, it still felt wild and pristine. I had no idea how far I was ahead of Denzil. I ate one of my cheese and avocado wraps and prepared to patiently wait as long as was needed. I was happy to see Denzil roll in looking strong only a few minutes after I had stopped. He had reported feeling better and looked the part.
We continued the long descent into Fryingpan Canyon. We were both moving well, but the frequent stops continued. There were two relatively out-of-shape hikers we were leapfrogging which was a bad sign. Our moving pace was swift, but our overall pace was no faster than cautious, slow-moving hikers due to the stops. Denzil moved as much food as he could into the small front pockets of his pack to give us a long stretch without a break. We hit the marathon distance with more than 8,000' of elevation gain and loss behind us. I commented that every marathon I had run recently had about 8,000' of vert. It was uncanny to see that number come up again.
The long downhill fatigued my legs a bit. The miles between the lowest point of Fryingpan Creek to the White River Campground seemed long. The trail meandered within listening distance of White River Road, giving the sense that the campground was right around the next turn. Instead, we kept gently climbing up and away from the road, only to wander back towards it. Sunset was hours away, but the angle of the shadows hinted towards the day coming to an end. I ran out of water.
The stop we made at the White River Campground may have blurred the line between the definitions of supported and unsupported efforts. We filled our water from drinking fountains and I used a real toilet with actual plumbing, but I used my own toilet paper. The delineation was silly to make when I knew I wasn’t attempting anything close to a record time, but I wanted to call the mission unsupported without adding an asterisk. The campground was busy. It was the most civilization we had encountered that day. I became aware of my accumulated filth compared to the fresh faces walking around.
We made a minor navigation error before picking up the trail again. The climb from White River to Sunrise was one of the longest and steepest in our counter-clockwise Wonderland run. A backpacker was camped out and sleeping about a quarter mile above White River on the bend of a switchback, which we found odd.
I felt fresh after White River. I wanted to push hard and put the day’s most difficult climb behind me. Denzil was moving well, but didn’t want to risk burning out. I charged ahead in a hybrid power hike and run mode. For the bulk of the climb, I focused on my breath and efficient movement. I stayed on my nutrition schedule and conserved water. The forest gave the illusion of twilight. As the trees thinned near the timberline, it was as if time had moved in reverse to restore hours of daylight. The higher we went, the more it began to feel like day again.
The climb ended at the junction with the Sunrise Rim Trail. I stopped to wait for Denzil to ensure we would navigate the turn correctly together. The view to the south offered one of the Wonderland’s greatest panoramas. Wildfire haze laid low, revealing the tops of mountains down through Oregon. The mosquitoes and biting flies began their assault. I sprayed on repellent, but it wasn’t enough. Running faster than the insects was the best way to escape them. The junction was well marked, Denzil had a map, and I knew he was more than competent enough to navigate the turn. I moved on.
The trail west was easy. It was a relief from the climb which had preceded it. Smooth, rolling single-track surrounded by grass and a sparse population of trees overwhelmed with songbirds. When Shadow Lake came into view, I knew arrival at Sunrise Camp was imminent. Bugs or not, that was where I would wait for Denzil. At 6,000’, the camp was cold and surprisingly festive. Campers were huddled close together, drinking away. I was approached by a woman who recognized me as a trail runner. We chatted about kids, the mission, and her husband, who had several Western States finishes and plans for his own Wonderland run. Denzil appeared shortly after she went back to her camp. I failed to make much of an introduction when she returned with her husband and child for a hike. We were too focused on closing out the day’s journey.
There is rarely much of a reason to calculate the remainder of a long run other than to become disappointed. We opened a map and compared what we had done to what we had left. The heaviest climbing was behind us, but we had nearly 3,000' more to go. We also had about fifteen miles to put under our tiring legs. The sky was taking on its first hues of sunset. We had had an average pace of three miles per hour for the day. Even if we improved upon it with the mostly downhill grades to Carbon River, we had to accept that we would be setting up camp in the dark. That was something we wanted to avoid.
The climb above Sunrise Camp to Frozen Lake was just as grueling as it had been from White River. We had a lot of snow to cross. It slowed us down while we were in a hurry, adding a layer of anxiety to our travel. But the beauty of the landscape to the south made it a joy. Glacier Basin dropped dramatically and rose again to the mighty Goat Island mountain. Beyond, the mountains were visible for an eternity. Everything was bathed in a peach tint of alpenglow. We passed a group of hikers who were each carrying bear mace. That seemed excessive, if not unnecessary.
Frozen Lake lay just below our position on the trail at 6,700' — just one hundred feet shy of the Wonderland’s highest point and matched only by the other side of Berkeley Park. It is difficult to identify any one place in the mission as the “best" part, but when I have been asked that question since, images from Berkeley Park are the first which appear in my mind. The area is relatively small. It’s essentially just the canyon between two minor peaks on Rainier — Mount Fremont and Skyscraper Mountain. There is something about the shape of the place. The two peaks rise sharply to bookend a deep trench pouring grass and wildflowers into a basin far below, with the north side of Rainier’s glaciated summit towering above. Mount Fremont’s remote lookout tower punctuated the scene with a surreal dot.
The trail transitioned from sandy scree to baseball sized rocks among a field of small volcanic boulders. I had pulled ahead of Denzil again, but he wasn’t far behind. He caught up to me while I was on a bathroom break. We kept pace with each other from there until the day’s end. That’s one of the peculiarities about running long distances in the wilderness. It’s possible to have a rough time for twenty-five miles and recover from it on your feet. Whatever issues Denzil was having throughout the day appeared to have cleared. The guy who I’d run with many times and invited along on that journey was back in top form.
We hadn’t had access to water since White River and we were both down to our final sips. I had noted springheads on our map which filled seasonal lakes, but we found those lakes and their sources to be out of season. They were off trail and had been reduced to stagnant ponds. We had a water filter, but weren’t desperate enough to use it just then. As we crossed each dry stream, we took a gamble on the next one. The awesome scenery was an effective distraction. Just before the ascent to the west side of Berkeley Park, the gamble paid off. We encountered a strong springhead bubbling from the earth just off the trail. I drank two flasks of water before filling and stowing them. That water took the title as the best I’d ever had.
We power hiked up to Skyscraper Mountain. I took advantage of the slower pace to absorb my surroundings. Berkeley Park truly was one of the most incredible places I had ever been. Before that moment, I hadn’t put the Wonderland ahead of the Timberline Trail or the east side of Mount Adams. When we reached ridge on the far side of the canyon, that changed.
“This is the best one,” I told Denzil, referring to the circumnavigation routes of the four volcanoes in the RASH.
We stopped to stare at the wonder around us. We took countless photos, only to be frustrated by the lackluster results of each one. The feeling of that place couldn’t fit into a pixelated rectangle of any size. We put on our headlamps so we wouldn’t have to search for them in the dark, and left one of the most incredible points in the world.
We dropped back into the forest within minutes. What daylight we had left to see the trail ahead was obscured by trees. We turned on our headlamps. We kept up a solid pace without breaks through Granite Creek. There wasn’t any conversation. We were solely focused on eliminating the final miles as quickly as possible. The forest teemed with wildlife. We passed a small porcupine and countless deer — the green glow of their eyes reflecting headlamp light. My focus broke when a large, adult cougar flashed across the trail in the light of my headlamp. By the time I had stopped and was yelling back to Denzil, I already had a knife in one hand and mace in the other. I didn’t even recall reaching for them. The cougar was running down the mountain and was below us. It most likely wanted nothing to do with us, but we walked for a couple minutes to prevent firing its chase instinct had it turned around. I disarmed after a couple minutes and we ran again.
The gentle descent dropped sharply. The trail became too steep, technical, and winding to maintain the pace we had enjoyed. I heard a thunderous sound on the edge of Winthrop Creek and paused to locate its source. Denzil was no longer behind me. I waited at the terminal moraine of the Winthrop Glacier. The drop in temperature following a warm day was rapidly warping the ice. The glacier creaked and rumbled. Truck sized boulders rolled down it, crashing into the creek below. The sound had been identified. Denzil met me on the lookout, having been delayed by a bathroom break. Despite our rush, the spectacle of the volatile glacier was worth the pause. The ice had turned lavender and pink in the late stage of the sunset, and the boulders continued to roll.
The switchbacks ceased as we followed a slippery ramp along the moraine down to Winthrop Creek. We caught a glimpse of Garda Falls. It was a sight, but the task of getting to camp took precedent over sightseeing. The creek was flowing strong and had no bridge, but the rock hopping puzzle to cross it wasn’t difficult to solve. Safe on the other side, we stopped to refill our water supply to get us over the final pass of the day. My mace fell out of my pocket and vanished downstream. It didn’t upset me not to have an already questionable line of defense against predators, but accidentally violating the Leave No Trace principle did. We pushed up the sandy bank to embark on the day’s final climb.
The ascent to the shoulder of Old Desolate was comparatively mild. Each of the approximately three miles from Winthrop Creek steadily gained about five hundred feet. The wear on our bodies turned a usually runnable grade into a slog we just wanted to end. One foot in front of the other. It was too dark to have our spirits raised by the sights. It was all about getting through the moment.
Mystic Lake gave us a break. The trail leveled for a short stretch. There was enough light left in the sky to reflect the high lake’s placid surface. I snapped a photo which ranked second in those I most wish to have back. Ten minutes later, we were at 6,000' with the Carbon Glacier below us and only four downhill miles to go.
Running downhill takes less strength than climbing, but it’s no easier when the elevation loses over seven hundred feet per mile with a pack on your back and forty-six miles with 23,000' of elevation change already on your legs. We ran as fast as we could. Our legs weren’t absorbing the shock well. The trail was littered with softball sized rocks. Losing elevation next to a glacier brought on wild changes in the temperature. I would get too hot, then run through an icy draft. The experience was anything but smooth. On it went. We stopped to make sure we hadn’t missed our turn, only to find we weren’t even halfway down. One foot in front of the other.
We reached a small, level clearing. We weren’t sure where the Carbon River Camp was and began looking around for it. We took another look at the map and realized that if we had continued, we would have gone off route. Camp was across one of the Wonderland’s notorious suspension bridges.
The Carbon River Suspension Bridge is an adventure unto its own—made more exciting in the dark with the roar of the river’s freshly melted headwaters raging below. One person at a time. The long span is little more than a series of narrow, connected planks with hand cables on each side; and the wiring which holds it all together. Wind and movement cause the entire bridge to sway. It’s like one of those bouncy, wooden playground bridges taken to its most extreme. Denzil went first. The reflective pieces on his gear and clothing wobbled as he walked, growing tiny and then out of my headlamp light by the time he called for me to cross. His wake was still pulsing through the structure when I stepped onto it. I have no fear of heights, but minor symptoms of vertigo couldn’t be suppressed as wind and the whitecaps below raced along one axis with the bridge swaying and swelling along the others; all while moving forward.
Camp was still a short climb up from the suspension bridge. We noted the Spray Park Trail junction for the next day’s start. We arrived at about 11:30pm with more than fifty miles and 13,000’ of elevation gain and loss for the day. The Carbon River Campground was not what we had expected after passing through other Rainier Campgrounds. It was the only one we had seen with no other campers. Of four camp sites, one was closed and one was too overgrown to easily occupy, leaving two sites open. The common areas consisted of two metal structures to hang packs away from bears and the camp’s greatest luxury — a vault toilet. The toilet was a highlight. It was basically a wooden crate with a lid which opened to a hole covered by a real toilet seat. It was perched on a bank at the end of a short trail past camp — with only a short wall for privacy. There was something wonderful about sitting out there simultaneously in privacy and out in the open surrounded by ancient tree giants. It is possible I may have confused the joy of the unique toilet with that of being done for the day.
Denzil picked out a camp site while I took care of business. The sight he chose was the largest and flattest. While it was the furthest from the trail, its distance somehow made it feel more secure. As we sorted through our respective dinners, we realized we didn’t have enough water to make them. I volunteered to retrieve it. I had already settled in and removed my shoes. Putting them back on without the effort to tighten the laces and slogging down to the river was arduous. It wasn’t until I was under the suspension bridge, filling our flasks, that I realized the Carbon Glacier was right on top of us — its terminal moraine glowing in the light of my headlamp. The trek back to camp felt like one more unexpected climb.
Denzil showed off the visible spasms his legs were experiencing while we took turns heating water to prepare our meals. My dehydrated chicken and potatoes claimed that it “serves two". I could have eaten two of those bags. Denzil had passed on some important advice to me ahead of the trip: “Bring dessert". We each had one of the giant molasses cookies I had brought for us. It was great advice indeed. We stowed our dirty clothes, trash, and anything which might carry an odor, then struggled to hang our packs on the bear-proof structure. I wondered how difficult the contraption would be to use for a backpacker with a greater load and less fitness.
I changed into the next day’s running clothes for my sleepwear, but could only manage to stay in my underwear as my 10°F sleeping quilt was overkill in the lingering warmth. I opened it slightly to allow the chilled drafts coming off the glacier to seep in and regulate the temperature. It was the first time putting my sleeping quilt and pad to the test. I pulled a mosquito net over my head and had mere seconds to be astonished at how comfortable I was before I passed out for the night.
Day 3: Spray Park and the Wonderland Trail
RASH: Rainier Circumnavigation Day 2 - Stephen Schieberl's 43.6 mi run
The final chapter in the RASH challenge. What Richard Kresser did in a week, I broke out over a year. Read about the…
It was too bright to sleep any later than about 6am. Denzil and I had woken up simultaneously. Despite being in and out of sleep with frequent chills and dreams, I felt well rested. I dressed, had a sip of water, and slowly rolled up onto my feet. It was nearly a repeat of the day before. Outside of minor tightness in my left quad, my body was fresh and full of energy.
“How is this possible?” I asked aloud.
We retrieved our gear and got to work on heating water for our breakfasts. There wasn’t much water left after preparing the meals, so we split a few ounces between two packets of instant coffee to produce the densest, blackest jolts of caffeine imaginable.
To prevent a repeat of the previous day’s yoyoing between Denzil and I, I worked out a time goal for the final forty-three miles which we I believed could both manage. Fourteen hours. That would be a 19’30" pace including stops. Twenty-five-minute miles uphill and fourteen minutes down. He expressed that it was a reasonable goal, but didn’t commit to it.
“We’ll get there when we get there.” he replied.
I realized then that we had different goals for not just the day, but for circumnavigating Rainier, in general. In retrospect, I should have asked more questions and listened rather than throw out an ultimatum on pace. We likely would have started the day without the pressure for him to push beyond his comfort level while giving me the freedom to test mine.
The day was warming quickly. We rolled out around 8am and had a sweat going immediately. The tightness in my left quad loosened up after a few minutes. The excitement of what lay ahead had me energized. The sole reason I broke the circumnavigation into two pushes hovered above, and we were climbing its stairway. Any time Denzil or I brought up the Wonderland Trail to anyone else who had backpacked or run it, they recommended taking the high detour to Spray Park. Running counter-clockwise from Cougar Rock — at any pace — would have put us in Carbon River at night. Camping gave us the opportunity to see Spray Park under daylight.
The first half mile rose gently along the deep slot that is Cataract Creek. It was just enough of a warmup to prepare for some of the steepest climbs we would face. Cataract Falls came into view as we turned around the western bend of each switchback. Ferns traded roles with shrubbier ground cover and wildflowers, below a thinning forest, as we approached the timberline. The sharp corners of the switchbacks rounded into a more sinuous shape as the route traversed west; without relenting its grade. The glacial faucets above were wide open and water was pouring down the entire mountainside. A brief moment later and we were exposed above the trees. That ample water supply was put to frequent use.
At a little more than halfway up, the promise of Spray Park’s beauty had been fulfilled. The scene was composed of the mountain’s greatest offerings. A blue sky met Rainier’s summit, which bellowed out to a skirt of glaciers fading into snowfields and rock, layered above meadows painted with every gradient in the color spectrum. Water mapped onto everything in the form of ponds, streams, and waterfalls; flowing down to the Carbon River Valley which yawned out to distant mountains. Whatever extra effort was necessary to be in that place, compared to staying true to the Wonderland Trail, went unnoticed. Spray Park emitted all the energy I needed.
I held back on my pace to save energy for the day, enjoy the scenery, and stay with Denzil. He was right on our twenty-five-minute mile pace goal for climbing. I was more comfortable moving at about twenty-two minutes per mile. That resulted in a little bit of yoyoing between us, but the short waits didn’t bother me as we stayed inside of our time goal. About four miles from the day’s start, near the high point of Spray Park, Denzil started to slow. The last time we met, he was red and appeared dehydrated. The reflection of the sun off the snowfields underfoot burned and blinded. The biting insects common at that elevation were in a frenzy. Waiting was not an option. I assumed Denzil just needed to hydrate, take it easy, and get onto a downward grade where gravity could add the miles for awhile. I would hold my effort back going downhill on the other side, then find a place to wait for him to catch me.
Marmots were everywhere. Their short, siren calls sounded off at regular intervals. Every dry boulder which poked through the blanket of snow yielded at least one — usually two — of the super-sized mountain squirrels. The rounded high point of Spray Park came and went without fanfare. Post-holing through a shallow slope downhill wasn’t much different than doing the same uphill.
The edge of the final patch of snow was the starting line for a race on perfectly packed dirt set at an impeccable downward angle. Vegetation was sparse on the west slope — a few small trees dotted balding grass and wildflowers. The view north and west stretched until distant peaks dissolved in thin wildfire haze. Planks set to form long stairs constrained my pace until I fell into a stride which worked with them. Had I not stopped for photos so frequently, those would have been my fastest miles of the mission. It felt as if my feet had barely touched the ground in that stretch.
The forest returned fully as the trail dropped into steep switchbacks. Pauses to give climbing day hikers the right of way became frequent as I drew closer to the popular — and vehicle accessible — Mowich Lake. I bumped up my effort as I approached the next logical waiting point. A long traverse west followed by a staircase of tight switchbacks blurred by before I was at the junction with the short Spray Falls Trail near the Eagles Roost camp. I wasn’t sure how far behind Denzil was so I hit the lovely Spray Falls without a pause, then ran back to give him a few minutes to catch up. I refilled water at Grant Creek and took in a few calories. After a few minutes, I decided to wait at the junction with the Wonderland Trail. If Denzil turned onto the Spray Falls Trail, he wouldn’t be lost for more than a minute or two.
The two miles between Eagles Roost and the end of the Spray Park Trail were effectively flat relative to the rest of the Wonderland. The day was warming in spite of the forest’s shade. I shifted to a more neutral pace. I hit the junction about two hours and forty minutes into the day. I opened the calculator on my phone and figured that I was about twenty minutes ahead of schedule. So I waited. I waited long enough for my heart rate and breath to return to rest. The forest was silent. A few groups of hikers passed through and confirmed their navigation with me. I assumed a road was nearby from how inadequately equipped people were for anything more than a brief outing.
The cutoff to maintain a fourteen hour day came and went without Denzil’s arrival. I wrestled with the decision to wait or move on. I had failed to communicate any plan for a situation where he might fall behind the goal time. I considered the previous day. The only thing that marred the phenomenal experience was our failure to comfortably stay together. I thought about what he had said that morning — ”We’ll get there when we get there.” That was when I fully realized that we had disparate visions for our run. I wanted to put everything I had into my final day of the RASH. Denzil didn’t want to torture himself for an arbitrary time goal. And as that arbitrary fourteen hour time goal began to slip further away, I reluctantly decided to go solo for the remaining miles. Denzil was self-sufficient, well-equipped, and experienced enough to finish at his own pace. I regret not making the decision together.
Every muscle in my body had gone cold. It felt as if I had been encased in a plaster which was cracking and disintegrating with each step. The elevation loss of more than two thousand feet in less than three miles did the job of dissolving that shell almost too well. The temperature rose. I was limber, but I was beginning to feel the impact with the ground on my feet and legs. I eagerly awaited the climb ahead.
The forest was lush with old growth firs rocketing skyward from a bed of oversized Devil’s Club. Occasional gaps in the trees formed vignettes of long views to the southwest. Folds of ridges disappeared into white haze — scenes of beauty, but also harbingers of the burden awaiting me. I would soon be atop those exposed ridges during the sun’s peak of the more than 90°F day.
A sign had been posted that the South Mowich River bridge had been washed out. I reached the river mentally prepared to push through the icy, violent flow, but was fortunate to have found a new bridge which had just been built and set by park rangers gathering their tools. I thanked them for their work. Apparently, I was its first user. Cool air funneled in from the Mowich River heads in Spray Park and the Ptarmigan Ridge. Streams crossed the trail in picturesque cascades of miniature waterfalls. The human population multiplied as I approached the South Mowich River and its campground.
I stopped at the river to refill my water. I had made a mental note that South Mowich River would be the last clear, cold, running water I would encounter for awhile. I opened my map to evaluate what “awhile" would be. Denzil was carrying the one water filter we had planned to share, so I had to pick my sources carefully. Safe water sources can be identified on a map as blue lines which start at higher elevations and cross through tight topographic lines before reaching the draw point. Lakes, pools, or flat stretches indicate slow-moving or stagnant water which provide the opportunity for bacteria to flourish before being carried downstream. The next draw point which met those conditions was the North Puyallup River. It crossed the trail close to twelve miles away, with thousands of feet of elevation change under a searing sun in between. I noted Swift Creek in the center of the dry stretch. Richard Kresser’s RASH film opens on him parched with auditory hallucinations of running water — anticipating relief at Swift Creek only to find a dry river bed. With only one liter of carrying capacity, I drank close to two liters of water to hydrate myself thoroughly before filling up and moving ahead.
The climb from South Mowich River began gently. Fifty kilometers with about 9,000' of elevation gain and loss remained — familiar dimensions of many weekend long runs. I picked up the pace to get back under my fourteen hour goal time. It was cool and shaded enough to run without concern for dehydration. The incline ramped up across a long traverse ending at the base of a 1,500' set of switchbacks. I lowered gears into an easy and efficient hike. I had to minimize sweating to draw out the efficacy of the water in my body. I held off on taking sips for as long as I could bare. When I did, it would be only enough to wet my drying mouth. I knew I was hydrated enough to get through at least a couple hours of hard hiking and running before drawing anything substantial from my flasks.
The switchbacks topped out at a wide, exposed ridge. Grass dressed the slope facing south and west. It felt as if a heat lamp had been turned on with the shade of the forest pulled from me. Relief came from slow, cool breezes which sent subtle ripples across the grass. The elevation continued to gain at an easily runnable grade. Two clear ponds appeared to my right — the northernmost of the Golden Lakes. I hadn’t drawn much from my flasks, but my mouth was dry. I wanted so badly to take a few big drinks and resupply, but I wasn’t willing to risk drinking from stagnant water; regardless of how clear and cold it was. I was thankful that Denzil had the water filter. I had a considerable amount of practice and experience with pacing water consumption specifically to safely clear long, dry stretches on trail runs. I wasn’t sure how much time Denzil had put towards such a niche practice which is generally unnecessary in the Pacific Northwest.
Scattered trees returned to the ridge to provide sporadic shade. Numerous ponds which had once been fed by active, but then dry, springbeds taunted me. It drew attention to my thirst. I knew I didn’t need water then, but that wasn’t how I felt. A patrol cabin and a backpacker traveling towards me came into view. The thought popped into my head to ask for some water, assuming he had an ample supply, but my pride of going unsupported squashed that idea. Instead, I asked him if he had seen any moving water nearby to the south. He confirmed my suspicion that it was miles away, and that he and his party were drawing water from the ponds using filters. He recognized that I was running and we chatted about the mission. He was backpacking the Wonderland in five days with his friends — an admirable feat for a hiking pace with a full pack. He had plans to come back and run it himself over a span of two or three days. A few weeks later, we met again near the finish of the Cascade Lakes Relay, where my six-person team took third place overall and set the ultra team course record. His name was Neil, he sported a signature black moustache and mullet combination, and it turned out that he lived not far from me. We wished each other luck and went our opposing directions.
When Richard Kresser crossed Swift Creek in his RASH mission, it was only a trickle. I didn’t even get that much from it. It was bone dry. I wasn’t expecting to fill up at Swift Creek, but I could have worked with a trickle. That it was nothing but sand and rock gave me cause to fear the next creeks to cross the trail high on the ridge would also be dry. I wasn’t worried for my safety, but I prepared for discomfort. As I continued the mellow climb through Sunset Park, the sun’s white heat viciously attacked my eyes and skin. I applied sunblock without stopping. I moved as quickly as I could while not sweating. I was focused on getting over the next high point to let gravity take the place of effort as I retreated under the timberline.
The ridge ended as it had started — with an exposed patch which seemed to magnify the sun. The trail slanted to a pleasant downward angle. The forest began abruptly; forming a wall against the bare mountainside. I raced towards the entrance into the woods as if I were fleeing into my burrow from a voracious predator. Water dribbled across the trail. A map check revealed its source was a lake; and therefore unsafe without filtration. The forest’s canopy brought beauty and comfort which made me forget my thirst. Elevation peeled away rapidly. I was running fast and getting low. Low meant water.
And then I heard it. I heard not a trickle, but the roar of a waterfall or rushing river below me. I took a big swig of water in anticipation of an imminent refill while remaining careful not to empty my flask — I didn’t know exactly how imminent the next refill would be. The roar grew louder. A steep river emerged to my right, running parallel to the trail. I sprinted down the mountain to find where the trail and the river would converge. Down and down I went as the river fell deeper into its chasm before diverting away. There was no safe way to reach it. I felt like Tantalus: eternally thirsty with water just out of reach of my tongue. I checked my map to reset my expectations. The North Puyallup River was just under two miles ahead, and it would be reliable.
I took one last drop of water from the soft flask on my right. It was then so empty I couldn’t even pull air through the nozzle. It was barely enough to relieve my dry mouth. I moved my legs effortlessly, shirking most of my running duties to gravity. I was beginning to feel dehydrated. All I could do was focus on the moment. Water would arrive within ten minutes. Those minutes didn’t need to be unpleasant. I forced a smile and raised my awareness of the trees, the air, the sky, and the ease with which I was moving.
The North Puyallup didn’t announce itself with the typical roar of a river. Its westmost tributary appeared suddenly after rounding a bulbous ridge. I pulled the remainder of the soft flask on my left. One sip left. I felt some pride in spreading a single liter of water across a run of close to twelve miles with thousands of feet of elevation change on a sweltering day without, technically, running out completely. I exited the dry stretch as I entered it by drinking about a liter and a half of water, then filling my flasks. The springhead for that creek opened just above my position on the trail in the crook of a steep gully. The water was ice cold and fresh out of the ground by mere minutes. I thought about Denzil and the particularly difficult segment which had just ended; and how stoked he would be when he crossed that point.
I checked the map against my progress. Twenty miles and about half of the day’s 12,000' of climbing remained. Projecting my average pace to the final miles had me finishing in just under twelve hours. I had moved a full two hours ahead of my goal since my last calculation. I visualized what a sub-12 hour finish would feel like. It was possible, but it would require so much focus and effort it would diminish the enjoyment of the run. Splitting the difference — a thirteen hour goal — would give me the challenging, strong close I sought without compromising on opportunities to slow down on occasion and absorb the wonders. Beating thirteen hours also meant I might make it into camp before dark, which had its own allure.
The climb to Klapatche Park would be the final sustained ascent of more than 2,000’. I ate the last of my cheese and avocado wraps while I moved. I was hydrated, fed, and renewed. The climb commenced with a tame grade — easing my legs’ transition from pounding downhill into a comfortable three-miles-per-hour power hike. The switchbacks began. They were steep and hit their corners quickly.
The sun was behind Aurora Peak and a cool breeze flowed down the slope, allowing me to gain elevation quickly without overheating. I felt like I was on a slow elevator, where wonderful new sights were revealed as I went up each floor. The north slope of the canyon I was exiting appeared above the trees. The nearly half-mile deep gorge behind me had a more dizzying effect each time I paused to peer into it. Long, unbroken waterfalls tumbled over towering andesite columns, glowing with lichen. Devil’s Club and berry bushes blanketed either side of the trail. Scat and deep indentations in the vegetation indicated frequent and recent bear activity. My head was on a swivel as I hollered and clapped to prevent any surprise encounters.
The trees dispersed as I broke through 5,000’. Yet another marathon with 8,000' of elevation gain had passed. I refilled my water ahead of the following short, dry stretch. A long traverse in and out of Aurora Park offered alleviation from the climbing. The switchbacks widened and lowered their angle before straightening out along a perfect alpine meadow. My hips felt stiff and immobile as I attempted to pick up a full running pace. My trekking poles turned into a second set of legs. Campers were ambling about Aurora Lake. I only paused long enough to snap a photo of the wonderful view of Rainier over the lake before jetting away. Being in the shadow of peaks to the south made the day feel later than it was. The meadow was swarming with biting flies which could only manage their assault when I held still.
The insect barrage weakened as I passed through the saddle between Aurora Peak and its unnamed neighbor. Back under the sun on the south facing slope, it felt as though time had been returned; like the previous day’s climb to Sunrise Camp. I relaxed the effort and took in the environment. A few, wind-warped trees lined the base of a craggy peak to my left while a natural coliseum opened ahead. On the floor of that wild stadium was St. Andrews Lake. I stopped at what felt like fifty-foot intervals to take pictures. The Puyallup Glacier was faithfully mirrored on the lake’s glassy surface. It was photogenic from every aspect. I passed a couple hiking the opposite direction and we shared a moment of awe.
I mentally checked in on my progress. Sixteen mostly-downhill miles with about 3,000' of climbing over two ridges remained. Those were the dimensions of many of my early morning training runs. For the first time I truly had a sense of how far I was from finishing. I was well ahead of my thirteen hour goal and feeling great, despite muscle tightness throughout my legs which shortened my stride. The reality that my summit and circumnavigation of not just Mount Rainier, but of every volcano in the RASH challenge, was coming to an end tore me in two directions. I wanted to finish, but I didn’t want it to end.
Travel over level earth came to an abrupt end. The trail plummeted close to 1,500' into the South Puyallup River in just over one and a half miles of rocky switchbacks. The overwhelming, uninterrupted view to the south took all my attention. It felt remarkably comfortable to descend when I was anticipating pain from my quads. As the elevation peeled away, my mind began to wander away from my body. The effort of running had recessed into subconscious processes, leaving the observing “me” free from pain, and free to take in every leaf, stone, cloud, peak, and crevice in sight.
I filled my water in the South Puyallup River before crossing and climbing alongside it. Slivers of the Tahoma Glacier’s terminal moraine slipped through the trees as I crowned the Emerald Ridge. That was place was pure enchantment. A lone tree stood at the fingertip of a ridge adorned in lush grass and wildflowers, pointing at the perplexing arrangement of color and shape in the moraine. Countless marmots frolicked — their piercing howls filled the air with song. The mountain felt alive. I felt like a ghost. I wouldn’t have known that I was still inhabiting a body if marmots weren’t scurrying away from me as I approached them. I took one photo which captured such a disappointing impression of that place I didn’t even try to correct it by taking another.
The trail nearly ran into the glacier before dodging back down to the right along the ridge. My legs were no longer absorbing shock on the decent. I awoke from my trance. The creek’s beauty balanced the experience. Some quick mental math had me slowing down, but still ahead of my arbitrary schedule. I began to value tracking my progress less and reducing pain more. For the latter half of the descent, all of my attention went towards foot placement in the loose stone.
The creek arrived suddenly. My field of awareness widened as I sighed with relief. Just below me, the Tahoma Creek Suspension Bridge spanned a raging river. I sought a perfect vantage to capture a picture of the bridge from above. I pulled out my phone to find it on the first screen of a new setup. I started to tap through when I realized it had performed a factory reset. The lock screen must have been triggered, followed by movement in my pack which repeatedly rubbed bad login patterns on it enough times to trigger a reset. I couldn’t complete the setup without Internet access, so I simply accepted that I would have to forego photos for the final ten miles. I had my phone set to save pictures to its external SD card, so I hoped it hadn’t wiped those out.
Crossing the Tahoma Creek Suspension Bridge was significantly less unnerving than it was over Carbon River. Without the reverberations left by a fellow traveler, the span felt stable and smooth. The trail climbed sharply through a short patch of forest before easing up and opening into meadows similar to those in Klapatche Park. I alternated between running and power hiking as even low, uphill grades began to feel strenuous. It was difficult not to fixate on finishing once the remaining mileage fell into single digits. Thinking about finishing made me impatient. I noticed how sore and fatigued I was. I had to remind myself to look around. The wilderness would draw my attention outward, then the pain would bring it back inside.
The climb to my journey’s final high point, Devil’s Dream, was frustrating. It meandered between slight climbs and flat lengths. It wasn’t steep enough to warrant power hiking over running, but not flat enough to sustain a run. I would have preferred another long, steep series of switchbacks to a trail which couldn’t make up its mind. The beauty of the place kept my mood from dipping too low. The sun was sinking into the horizon. The air cooled as I passed by a few small ponds and an old patrol cabin. Views of Rainier’s summit opened to my left. I passed several signs with the words “Devil’s Dream” on them, leading me to believe it was just ahead. Yet each sign indicated it was still miles away. By the time I actually arrived at the campground, I was almost angry.
“Finally!” I said aloud. I was relieved when the trail dropped back into the trees. My quads were burning and I felt a jolt with each step, but I was happy to be able to pick a mode of movement and commit to it. The ground was relatively clear of rocks permitting a consistent stride, only occasionally broken by roots and wide stairs. I let gravity take over on the switchbacks to Pyramid Creek. It was late enough when I reached the campground that its residents had already turned in for evening. I refilled my water for the last time.
I had less than five miles to go and about an hour of daylight remaining. I felt a shot of adrenalin. The race was on. I pushed through the pain and ran hard to Kautz Creek. I crossed the river, ascended a sandy bank, and went after the climb over Rampart Ridge. I ran until my body wore, hiked until it recovered, then ran again. I went back and forth between modes until the top of the final 1,000' ascent was under my feet. My destination rested in sight just below me. However, I had to run a two-mile hairpin to reach it. Attempting some sort of dangerous shortcut crossed my mind.
The descent was painful. My legs weren’t handling the shock of the long, downhill steps. The southeast side of the ridge was in shadow and it was becoming difficult to see. I was catching my toes on rocks every hundred yards or so. Switchback after switchback went by, until I gave back the elevation I had just gained over the ridge. I was expecting to pass through Longmire the moment I reached the bottom, but it was located beyond an unexpected flat stretch. The following minutes felt as though they had slowed to a stop. I rounded a corner, passed by a structure, and crossed a road — Longmire. It was the most civilization I had seen since White River. Dusk was falling.
The Wonderland Trail ascends slightly from Longmire to Cougar Rock alongside a road. I guessed I had one mile left and put everything I had into it. My body was fatigued and burning, but I knew I would see the trail back to Cougar Rock Campground at any moment. I could then collapse if I so desired. I checked my time. I was close to thirteen hours, but not in danger of going over it. I could walk it in if I had to. As I approached the end of the first mile past Longmire, I searched for my turn. Nothing looked familiar. The trail drifted further away from the road. I had miscalculated. I had burned through my last bit of energy, but I had to keep running. It was almost too dark to see. I debated whether or not I could make it without a headlamp. I kept glancing at my watch. I had only moved a few hundredths of a mile each time I checked. I stopped looking when I became tired of being disappointed. Three times I mistook a widening in the path for my turn to camp. When it arrived, I almost didn’t believe it. The final ten steps may have been the hardest I had pushed on any of the mountains in the RASH.
I stopped my watch. 12:50:38 finish for about 45 miles with over 12,000’ of elevation gain and loss. I walked to the camp site. My mind was already on breakdown logistics. I set my pack on the picnic table and pulled out my headlamp. I turned it on just as the day light’s final lumen faded away. I grabbed clothes and toiletries from my tent and headed straight to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take a spongebath. My legs cramped so heavily I nearly couldn’t dress myself. On my way out, a woman tripped and fell on the steps to the bathroom, landing sharply on her hip. I was in such bad shape I couldn’t get into position to help her up. Her significant other showed up to what appeared to have been some traumatic collision between two humans which left them both unable to walk.
I wanted two large pizzas. One for myself, and one for Denzil when he made it in. It was almost 9pm on a Monday night and without a working phone or a nearby Internet connection, I couldn’t confirm my assumption that nothing was open. I dug around for a few snacks. I pulled a nearly empty jar of pickles out of my cooler and left it on the table with a note of congratulations for Denzil. It was the best I could do. I packed the car with all my equipment except for what I needed to sleep. I assumed Denzil would be arriving around midnight. That would be just enough rest to get on the road. I had less than twelve hours before I had to drop my son off at school near Portland. I left a second note for Denzil to “knock" on my tent as soon as he arrived. I passed out the moment I laid down.
It seemed like one second after falling asleep I heard Denzil’s voice outside my tent. I was dazed, but the joy of his return made me alert.
“Megan’s here,” he said.
“What?!” I replied, but I knew what that meant. Denzil was carrying a satellite communication device from which he could send text messages. If Denzil had to bail for any reason, he would text his wife who understood she might have to come pick him up. He hadn’t made it.
In the dry stretch between South Mowich River and North Puyallup River, Denzil had run out of water and become seriously dehydrated. By the time he had completed the climb to the Golden Lakes, he was displaying signs of rhabdomyolysis. The filter he was carrying allowed him to draw water from one of the ponds which saved his life, but the damage was already done. His muscles were breaking down. Pushing through the intense, rugged mountain marathon which lay ahead on a 90°F+ day was out of the question. He contacted Megan and spent the following hours making a eleven-mile hike out to the nearest road. He had also met Neil during his escape.
Congratulations were still in order. He had a plan B and was able to execute it. He had earned his pickles. He and Megan turned in from the long, late evening. I was up. I missed my family and wanted to get on the road. I broke down what little was left of my camp and got moving in the middle of the night. There were an alarming number of dead cougars, obviously hit by vehicles, on the side of the road; indicating a population density of the big cats I didn’t know existed. I stopped in Elbe for ice cream and gas-station-style fried burritos. Like the previous two mornings, I felt surprisingly fresh despite how sore I was when the precious day had ended. I envisioned what it would be like to drive out to Mount Adams and continue straight through the rest of RASH as Richard Kresser had originally executed it. I felt I could manage it. But I went home. My son got to school on time a few hours later.
The Truth of the Mountain
In the days after climbing and circumnavigating Mount Rainier, I didn’t feel the same sense of accomplishment as I had on the other three mountains. Something else was at the fore of my mind. The mountains had been my dreamland. The place where I could feel like a superhero for awhile and when I was done, say, “OK, back to reality.” When I left Rainier, my perspective had flipped. The mountain had become reality. Everything else was just a story.
I thought about the stories which rule our lives. Money isn’t real. It’s a series of bytes on a server or some old, dirty paper and metal. It only has value because we’ve all agreed to believe the story that it does. Nations aren’t real. There is no magical barrier which prevents people born in one place from entering another. We only accept these places on Earth are different and unique because we’ve all agreed to believe the story that imaginary lines have power. I could go on through religions, authority, the Internet, almost everything humanity has produced. We are the only enforcers of the stories we’ve invented.
The mountain is real. There is nothing but truth on its slopes. There is no story I can tell the mountain to have it ease my passage. When standing on top of a mountain, the tiny world below and its hoard of struggles stemming from the stories everyone believes becomes ridiculous. The pain we are willing to inflict on each other for a story is absurd. The mountain cracks and grows and everything from joy to death comes from it and it just happens without blame. We blame and credit ourselves and others for everything in our lives based on stories we’ve invented and choose to believe. The truth is that everything just is. The mountain just is.
When I vanished on the mountain for only a few days, my eyes were finally opened. In the following months, I deleted my social media accounts and began connecting to people more. I’ve worked to see us all, including myself, as I see the mountain. We are physical entities subject to an endless barrage of forces and influences. We break apart. We flower. We crack. We grow. We change. Our mission in life is to flourish. Suffering is an obstacle to that mission. When a rock falls on the mountain, we protect ourselves or evade it and learn from it. When a glacier cracks open, we find a way over or through it. When we are unequipped to scale a steep wall, we search for another route. We never blame the rock or the ice. We don’t get angry at the mountain. We don’t waste our time and energy kicking and screaming at the mountain. We accept that is just how the mountain is. We press on because we know we will flourish on the other side of every obstacle. I now see people the way I see the mountain. Without stories. Without blame. Without credit. We are all on this mission of flourishing together. We just are.
I can’t thank Richard Kresser enough for his ridiculous RASH project. I hesitate to claim I truly repeated it since it was pieced out over a year. Authentically replicating the RASH wasn’t the reason I took it up. I was drastically unqualified for almost any part of it when I started. I sensed there was something on the other side of it worth finding. The experience I’ve gained and the lessons I’ve learned from going up, down, and around four volcanoes has truly changed me for the better. I have a peace with the universe and humanity I may have never had were it not for the truth I found on the mountain. So, thanks for that, man.
The Low Resolution Gallery
Below is a selection of Denzil’s photos, which were inadvertently captured at 640x480.