Phew! WE DID IT. After 97 hours and 31 minutes, 132.4 miles, and 40,000ft of vertical gain, we can now say that we’ve completed the Rainier Infinity Loop. Nate and I are both stoked, and not just because our legs still work (although that’s a pleasant surprise). We were also able to secure an FKT (Fastest Known Time), we are the second party of two to do it, and I’m the first female to do it.
In the summer of 2016, Nate and I went to Rainier and climbed the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route in a day from the parking lot (car-to-car style). Nate then set out the next morning to run/hike the Wonderland Trail, which is a 93-mile loop that circumnavigates the base of Mt. Rainier. He was able to complete this run solo in under 40 hours with some support from me and despite a stressful mountain lion encounter.
A few months later, we were listening to a Dirtbag Diaries episode featuring a story about Chad Kellogg and his legacy of the Rainier Infinity Loop. Chad unfortunately passed away in a climbing accident on Mount Fitz Roy before he was able to complete the route that he dreamed up.
The Rainier Infinity Loop route includes an up and over traverse climb of Mount Rainier, a run of the Wonderland Trail in one direction back to the starting point, a second traverse climb of Mount Rainier, and final run of the Wonderland Trail in the opposite direction to the start/finish point. This route was completed for the first recorded time last summer by Ras Vaughan and Gavin Woody.
Nate became fixated on this route once he heard about it, and I couldn’t get it out of my head either. We were also nervous as hell at the prospect of doing it. Mostly about mountain lions, but also about other less-glamorous things like nutrition, logistics, and the feeling that maybe it’s just too big and we’re not worthy. We thought we may fail on this one. But that was part of the draw. We knew that succeed or fail, we would gain a new, bigger perspective of the mountain and of what we were capable of.
Ras and Gavin followed the Fastest Known Time guidelines outlined by Peter Bakwin (available HERE) on their first completion of the route. Among these guidelines is the understanding that you’ll reach out to the person or party that previously completed the route and inform them of your intention, publicly state your intention and incorporate live tracking using an accurate tool such as a Spot or Delorme. We used a Delorme satellite communicator and followed the same guidelines. Nate reached out to both Ras and Gavin and they responded with their support and encouragement (thank you!).
Where: Mount Rainier National Park, WA
Our intention? To attempt the Rainier Infinity Loop.
Here’s a few things we learned from our experience on the Infinity Loop that might be helpful to others looking to undertake it or just try any big endurance challenge:
1. Rest, but beware of the transitions.
Nate and I essentially broke this run into 4 big sections. Section 1: Climb up the DC from our car in Paradise and down the Emmons to our tent at White River. Section 2: Run the 28ish miles clockwise on the Wonderland from White River back to our car at Paradise. Section 3: Climb up the DC again and down the long descent of Emmons…again. Section 4: Run/shuffle the 70ish miles counter-clockwise on the Wonderland from White River back to our car at Paradise.
For us, factoring in time to eat, drink and sleep were really important. We rested for about an hour at our tent between sections 1 and 2, slept for about 5 hours at our car between sections 2 and 3, and slept for another 4 hours at our tent between sections 3 and 4. We were both very sleepy through this whole process, but the little bit of sleep we did get definitely contributed to us being able to move at a decent pace when it was time to set out for the next section.
On the flip side, the transitions between sections were the mental crux of the whole thing. It was incredibly hard to dig deep and keep going when all you really wanted was to crawl into your sleeping bag or get in the car. The hardest part for both of us was to leave the car for the second climb of Rainier, knowing that if we went down the other side we would be committed to either running back or hitchhiking at odd times. Once we did make the decision at each transition to keep going though, we fell back into a rhythm and powered through.
2. Stay hydrated and try to eat real food (AKA gel packets are actually the worst).
Nate and I have both experienced the monstrous effects of bad nutrition, dehydration, and bonking. One of our goals for this project was to take care of ourselves really well. For the most part, we did a good job of this, but it is impossible to get all the calories that your body actually needs to process during an endeavor like this. It was also important to have food that we were psyched to eat and that had some variety to it. We both consumed our fair share of gel packets, and while they were a necessary evil, I’m going to go out of my way to not use them for a while.
Our only wish on this front was that we’d carried more water for the two Rainier climbs. We carried an “adequate” amount, but it still wasn’t enough to keep from getting dehydrated. The trade-off for more water: more weight. That said, I would have gladly carried an extra couple of pounds of water.
3. Plan all of the things, but don’t stay attached to the plan.
Our logistics, packing, time planning, etc. were embarrassingly elaborate. That said, I think it was part of our process of not getting too emotionally wrapped up in the project. It helped us a lot to plan out each leg, pack the gear, re-pack, count calories, and geek out over time plans. It also helped a lot during the actual project to not have to think about how much food to put into the trail vest, sizing crampons, or trying to remember if I need that one jacket for the next climb.
All of that said, we also had to remain flexible. This was just too big of a project for us to get too wound up in sticking religiously to everything. The route up the DC of Rainier changed between our first and second climb, which meant that we ended up climbing something quite different from what we had done the night before.
4. Take care of your feet.
My big toe was a bloody mess post Infinity Loop. Aside from that, we managed to come out fairly unscathed. The big toe was from toe bang associated with not tightening my boots for the two climbs down. Why didn’t I tighten my boots? I didn’t want to take the time to do it. We also didn’t bring trail runners in our packs to change into from the hike between the Emmons Glacier and White River on the first climb. That was a huge mistake. On the second climb, we packed our trail runners (best extra ounces added to the pack ever). The moral of the story is the same one that I’ve taught kids in summer camps for years: If your feet hurt, say something, stop, and fix it.
5. Staying connected: It’s hard.
A general rule of Nate and mine is that for any remote objective we have where there may not be access to cell reception, we carry a Delorme GPS and charging capability. The same was true for this project, the only difference being that we’ve never tried to keep GPS running for 97.5 hours straight. We also had my cell going with Strava tracking the whole time (the Infinity Loop broke my Strava…it still refuses to load). We charged my phone and the Delorme with Goal Zero chargers at our car and the tent, and Nate and I each carried a Switch 10 and Flip 20. Nate’s phone was refusing to hold a charge, which turned it into a brick and used some necessary power. We also forgot to turn off the tent charger after the first leg of our run, which mostly killed that charger’s battery. It was important for us to track our progress, not just for the reporting ability to stay in line with the Fastest Known Time guidelines, but for our own risk management. We finished the last mile back up to our car at Paradise almost sprinting (I’m sure we weren’t actually going very fast at all) because we had 5% left on our Delorme and we didn’t want it to die. Oh…the world we live in.
6. Break big objectives into small steps, literally.
This is a pretty well known, well used mental technique that many people who spend big days in the mountains will tell you. Hell…I use this on little mountains, work projects, life projects, etc. For Nate and me, the Rainier Infinity Loop was a combination of many small parts. Nate allowed himself once on the first walk up the Muir Snowfield to think about the whole thing. It was too much. I thought about the whole thing more frequently and had a few minor (or not so minor?) panic attacks. Like I mentioned before, we broke the whole thing into 4 main parts. Within those 4 parts were dozens of micro goals. On our final section (70 miles counterclockwise on the Wonderland), the trail is characterized by many impossibly long passes, where you go ALL the way to the bottom of the valley to a river, and then ALL the way up to another alpine meadow, and then “press repeat” several more times. In those sections, it was most important to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and, eventually, we finished.