September 23, 2018

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A Different Test – Climbing Mt. Rainier

Jeff Kennedy is an exercise physiologist at ACMC.  Jeff and two colleagues climbed Mt. Rainier in Seattle, Washington on Memorial Day weekend.

Clark Vollan, Jeff Kennedy and Matt Genrich making the climb

Staying motivated to train is always easiest when your program culminates with an event.  Having completed countless runs from marathons to 5k’s, in climates from tropical to desert and everything in between, my training needed a shot of uniqueness.  A running buddy from Sioux Falls, with whom I’ve completed many of those runs, had also been looking for a change in his training. Together, we considered what could be the next challenge?  Personally and professionally, I wanted a challenge that afforded me a new training experience and an unfamiliar physiological challenge.  In short, I was bored with the “same old” training program and the “same old” events.

What about something at altitude?   A quick search revealed that a common “first climb” in mountaineering is Mt. Rainier south of Seattle.  At 14,400 ft., it is commonly referred to as an “exceptional physical challenge requiring novice to basic technical skills”.  Curious as to what defines “novice to basic” technical skills, I decided to call each of the approved guide services and ask a few questions.  I learned a few things.  First, my recent training history was considered a good ‘starting point” to leverage further conditioning specific to climbing.  Second, if I decide to pursue this, I should become a student of mountaineering by reading, reading, and reading.  Finally, and possibly most important, I should respect the task and the training it requires. Because we climb as a team of twelve (eight climbers with four guides), I needed to train with the attitude that others will be depending on me not put the group at risk.

This sounded like the boost my training needed.

Training for the Climb

Because climb schedules fill several months in advance for the coming year, we registered right away; then the training began.  Using resources supplied by our guide service and my background in exercise physiology, I assembled an eight month program that is best described as circuit training with a mix of strength training, running, and stairmaster/weightvest progression.  My goal was three training days during the week with a heavy workout on the weekend, similar to the long run in marathon training.  When all was said and done, the training went well and I felt ready to go about a month before the climb.

Arriving at Mt. Rainier

Looking south at Mt. Adams from 1st camp (10,000 feet)

Our drop off point was the parking lot of Paradise Lodge in Rainier National Park.  To begin our climb, we needed to navigate the 25 foot wall of snow that bordered the parking lot.  With our 40 pound packs, our goal the first day was to make the 6 hour hike from the parking lot at 5000 ft to our first night at Camp Muir at 10,100ft. At days end, we made it through the cloud line up to our camp in 6.5 hours.  Upon our arrival and looking over the clouds to the south, we could see Mt. Adams (12,000 ft) peeking through.  An amazing sight and feeling to be essentially eye-level with another mountain as we stood above the cloud line.

We were exhausted and felt the effects of altitude most of the day; everything seemed labored.  The smallest inclines felt like I was missing a lung or had been smoker for 30 years (I guess).  Because of this, pursed lip breathing combined with the “step and post” method of climbing was encouraged by our guides.  Trying to find a rhythm with your breathing and steps consumed your focus.  That was difficult when you were also trying to take in the beauty of the mountain and its views. Our ratio of breath to steps was 1:1 for most of the time.  Compare this to Mt. Everest where breath to step ratios can be 5:1 or higher.

Breather atop the switchbacks at Cathedral Gap

The second day put us on the Cowlitz Glacier, needing to ascend another 1500 very steep feet through Cathedral Gap to our tent site on the Ingraham Glacier.  Now using an ice axe, roped up in climbing harnesses, wearing double plastic climbing boots with crampons, we navigated the switchbacks through Cathedral Gap to our tents in two hours.   On the switchbacks our breath to steps was 2:1.  Once over the gap, the sight of the crevasses got your attention.  Many were over 100 feet deep.  Our guides added that many of the crevasses are snow covered this time of year and advised us to stay on the marked climbing route. Also evident were remnants of last week’s avalanche that destroyed much of the route above our tent site.  Due to this, our lead guide sent 2 of the assistant guides up to navigate a route for tomorrow’s early morning summit attempt.

a closer look at a crevasse

During our meal that evening, the assistant guides returned to inform us that it would be a fresh route beyond 13,500 ft. and a snowbridge to a 10 foot wall of snow/ice was their concern at that point.  Knowing this, lights were out at 7:30pm with the expectation of waking at 2am for our summit attempt.

The Climb Towards the Top

Nobody slept.  How could you when you’re excited for the climb but anxious about what the guides reported.  And, we were also advised to sleep with our filled water bottles so they would not freeze during the night.  At 12:30am, we could hear two other climbing groups make their way past our tent site for their attempt.  We could see their headlamps as they approached and passed.  There was some relief in our group knowing we would not be the first to encounter the unknown portion of the route.  Finally given our wakeup at 2:15am, it was announced that water would be ready in 15 minutes for drinks, 30 minutes for food.  The plan was to depart camp harnessed and roped at 3:45am.

our tents on the flats of Ingraham Glacier

As we assembled for the last leg of the climb, it was below freezing, few people were talking, and the only thing visible were the headlamps worn by each climber. Our group of twelve was put into four separate ropes with three climbers harnessed on each rope. I was on the third of the four ropes and was excited to get going knowing this was going to be a very long day.

Shortly after we started the ascent, the sun gradually broke the horizon and the view became beautiful and ominous at the same time. We could again see the crevasses but now could see the more switchbacks ahead.  Ultimately, the switchbacks paralleling a recent avalanche area would the toughest portion of the ascent due to a slightly faster pace required to clear that area as a group.  The push through that section was the most challenging of the climb for me.  I stopped at a 12,200 ft to rest feeling like I couldn’t get enough oxygen to keep going. My legs weren’t tired; I just couldn’t get enough oxygen. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced such a strange combination of factors related to fatigue.  And that was fine because the group on the first rope has reached the snow bridge and wall at 13,500.

Sunrise at 12, 200 feet looking south

The lead guide determined that the snow bridge deteriorated with every attempt to pass and ultimately decided to stop the ascent at that point. Nobody was disappointed because we were all tired.   We soon found out that the descent was the toughest on our legs.  I read several times in the blogs as we prepared for the climb that going up was tough but coming down is when injuries occur.  My quads were hammered on the way down.  Including the eventual loss of three toe nails due to the constant and repeated pounding of our toes into the toe box of the boots.  Again, it had been a few years feeling the level of fatigue.  According to our guides altimeter watch, we averaged about .7mph going up the hill but it only took us about 6 hours to completely descend.

Looking Back

on my way down!

What an incredible experience.  I felt my training prepared me for the climb.  I could possibly have used one more lung, but nonetheless, my training program was a success.  My legs were strong and they didn’t give up; not getting the oxygen needed for the workload was the hardest part.  If I were to do it again, I would maybe try to fit in another 30 miles a week of running if f I could figure out how to do it and recover.

All in all, an unbelievable experience with views and vistas that cannot be explained.   It’s been a number of years since I have been that tired; let alone a kind of tired that I had never experienced before.  The human body, once again, proves it’s the most amazing piece of machinery in nature.

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