Mount Rainier was probably the first mountain I ever saw, though my mom can’t remember exactly. Sitting on her lap, face pressed to the airplane window, I think I can remember seeing the seamless blanket of clouds, suddenly interrupted by the shining icy dome of the great mountain. Of course, I was an infant, travelling for my first time from our home in Michigan to visit my mom’s friend in Seattle, so this is certainly more imagination than faithful memory. But I’d like to imagine that, from then on, I was set on my course to seek out the mountaintops and regain that perch above the clouds.
Last Friday morning I set out on a journey that took me up, down, around and through those clouds, climbing and circling the great icy mountain.
Called the “Infinity Loop”, the idea is simple: complete two ascents of the mountain, traversing over the summit and descending the other side each time. Around the base of the mountain runs a giant loop trail; use this to return to your starting point after each climb. By first returning counter-clockwise, then returning clockwise, you’ll end up covering the entire trail and circumnavigating the mountain.
I started my Infinity loop on Friday morning, June 22nd, at 3:23am. Departing my van at White River trailhead, I ran up the Emmons Glacier route. This direct line up the eastern flank of the great mountain begins at 4200’ elevation in a lush river valley and ascends over 10,000’ calf-burning vertical feet up snowfields and glaciers to the crater rim summit at 14,411’. Having scouted the route with my friend Nate Smith a couple days earlier, I knew that the snow was in great condition and the crevasse crossings were solid, so I felt comfortable moving solo and unroped. I wore running shoes with strap-on aluminum crampons and carried trekking poles. On that first climb, with all the energy and excitement of this huge challenge ahead of me, I moved constantly. I reached the summit after 5 hours and snapped a quick photo without breaking stride. The descent down the south side of the mountain went by in a similar blur, running and sliding down the steep snowfields to reach the trailhead at Paradise in another 2 hours.
Clouds filling the White River valley
The day before, I had carefully assembled all of my gear for this multi-day adventure: 4 different sets of clothing, shoes, and packs. I had one kit for each leg: 1st climb, 1st run, 2nd climb, 2nd run. After the 1st climb, I ran down trails from Paradise to the junction with the Wonderland trail, where I had hidden a duffel bag in the woods. Here I changed clothes and swapped out my climbing pack for a lighter running vest.
All the shoes. From left to right: 2 pairs of Scarpa Neutron 2 GTX (for both running segments), Scarpa Neutron G, and Scarpa Ribelle boots (for the first and second climb respectively).
The first run was the shorter section of the Wonderland, curving around the southeast corner of the mountain and covering about 30 miles back to White River. After a long descent down to Box Canyon, I climbed up ridges and through high valleys before reaching Fryingpan gap, the highpoint of the Wonderland trail at ~6700’. Here the trail was completely covered by snow, making navigation tricky. I was lucky to have footprints to follow for most of it, and my phone’s gps was handy when I felt lost.
Deep snow in the Ohanapecosh River Valley
The Wonderland trail highpoint, Fryingpan Gap
Like the first climb, the first running section felt amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling. My legs were powerful and precise, my lungs seemed bottomless, and with each signpost I was surprised by how much mileage I’d covered.
I reached White River and my van by 7:30pm on Friday evening, having completed roughly 50 miles of the challenge within the first 16 hours! I was feeling great and rewarded myself with a long break at my camper van. I took a shower, made a hot meal, massaged and iced my feet, and laid down for a quick nap. When my alarm went off at 10pm however, I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof. Always eager for an excuse to stay in bed, I turned off the alarm and closed my eyes. It wasn’t until 3am that I next awoke and checked the time, and thankfully the rain had stopped. After frying some eggs and making a pot of coffee, I grabbed my 2nd climbing pack and headed back out.
It was déjà vu, heading back up the same trail I’d done the previous morning. Except instead of bottomless exuberance and a healthy trot, I felt heavy and slow. Little jolts of pain accompanied every step, and I began to feel nauseated and feverish too. I sat down after a couple miles. It was much colder this morning, and I bundled up in my puffy coat and felt sorry for myself. The van, with heater and comfy bed, was just back down the trail. I’d already climbed the mountain, and really enjoyed it. What was the point of going out and suffering now? The contrast between the purposeful drive of the previous morning and hazy indecision of today was obvious. Putting off the decision, I stood up and started trudging uphill. If I was gonna bail, I’d procrastinate first and walk a bit further.
From that point, I just focused on each step and tried to forget the immensity of the mountain ahead of me. 8 hours later, I was on the top again. 3 hours slower than my first climb, but not horrible.
My slower pace on the second climb allowed for more photos (:
Descending, I felt re energized. It was all downhill ahead of me, just a bit of trail running and I’d be done. This was quite optimistic.
The descent trail
Back at Paradise, I decided to celebrate being done with the climbing by sitting down for a big meal at the visitor center café. Greasy pizza, a chicken Caesar salad, blueberry cheesecake, and iced coffee all hit the spot. Yum (: With wifi and comfy chairs, I really enjoyed the visitor center rest stop, and it was hard to leave.
Again I found my hidden duffel bag and swapped out clothing, footwear and packs. My running vest for this final section was much heavier though. Not only was this section of the Wonderland much longer, over 60 miles, but it also was more remote. With many of the trailheads and roads on the west and north sides still closed for the winter, I’d be very committed. I packed my satellite phone, which I’d use to check in with a friend who would monitor my progress and start a rescue if I got into trouble. I also had to be prepared to survive on my own though, so I packed extra clothing, plenty of food, and an extra phone battery so I wouldn’t run out of podcasts.
One way in which I kept my pack light, on all the running sections of the Infinity, was by carrying very little water. I used a 12oz flexible bottle with a built-in filter, so I could scoop up water from the abundant streams and waterfalls that lined the trail.
Nothing else to do now but run around the mountain. I did that for the next 30 hours.
Some highlights, lowlights, and disorganized thoughts:
-At the beginning, I passed by many open roads and trailheads, and I had lots of company on the trail. I waved to families picnicking and kids building rock towers in the creek. I came here with my family when I was 12 or so, and I have great memories of hiking with my three little brothers.
-Around midnight, I was running through a thick cold fog in a valley. After a long winding ascent, I popped out above the fog layer and was treated to an unforgettable view. The sky above was crystal clear and the moon was 2/3 full. The mountain glittered white, and far to the west the lights of the big cities twinkled. I could see the Puget sound snaking down, and the tendrils of fog creeping up all the valleys from the ocean. The air was warmer and drier than it had been, which was a relief. There was total silence, and no evidence of other people besides the far-off city lights.
-Around 2am, the desire to close my eyes became overwhelming. It was too cold to bed down for the night though. I had no bivy gear, and the cool damp air would quickly start me shivering. I had a lighter and firestarters, but in the wet forest it would be difficult to keep a warm fire going for very long while trying to sleep. So, I adopted a cyclical strategy: I put on all my layers, including waterproof pants and jacket. I would run/hike at full output until I was on the verge of overheating. Then I’d quickly lay down, put my head on my pack, and fall instantly to sleep. Maybe 10-20 minutes later I’d awaken chilly and get moving again. Another run would re-warm my body, and I could repeat the process. I got through the coldest part of the night in this way, and the sunrise was a relief.
-With the coming of daylight I was optimistic, and reestablished a quick pace. The whole Wonderland trail is characterized by steep hills. Circling the mountain, it climbs every radiating ridge and drops into every river valley. It’s tempting to try and average out a slower pace on the uphills with a breakneck pace on the descents. This took a toll on my knees and ankles though, and after one particularly steep descent (from Ipsut pass down to the Carbon river), my knees had swollen to the point of bursting. Despite icing them in the glacial river, I had pushed them beyond the point of recovery. I was unable to run on the remaining 20ish miles.
-I leaned hard on my poles for the next ~5000 feet of vertical, hiking up from the muddy Carbon river, past the snout of a big ugly glacier, and up to a gorgeous high meadow.
Ugly Carbon Glacier
-Maybe it was the loneliness of 60+ hours solo, but at this stage I’d entirely switched from music to podcasts and audiobooks. I particularly enjoy the pop-physics book “Reality is not what it seems” by Carlo Rovelli.
-This is obvious, but circumnavigating a mountain as massive as Mount Rainier is really a good way to get a sense of its scale and multiple facets. The mountain would come in and out of view as I bobbed up and down between valleys and ridges. Each fresh view would bring new features into relief.
-At 9:45pm on Sunday night, I reached my van at White River and finished the Infinity Loop. Total time 66 hours and 22 minutes.
Thanks for reading!
And thanks to Nate Smith for all the helpful beta and encouragement, and also keeping track of me.
Stats: I didn’t keep a GPS track of the entire journey. I tried record my progress with a phone app, but hadn’t practiced with this app and the recording would stop every time I lost GPS signal (all the time). So the image above is a reconstruction I made on Google Earth. I think it shows the elevation profile pretty well, but underestimates the total mileage by smoothing out the constant switchbacks. Based on my friends Nate and Sarah’s GPS track on the Infinity last year, and adding up mileages on maps, my best guess is 120-130 miles in total. If the Google earth elevation profile is roughly accurate, the loop includes 45,535′ of vertical gain.