May and June used to mean the beginning of bikini weather and poolside sunbathing for me. Nowadays, May and June are prime volcano skiing season. Since moving to the PNW from Salt Lake City almost four years ago, I’ve done more backcountry skiing than ever before, and 90% of it has been on volcanoes. There is nothing like skiing a volcano – you’re skiing on a glacier that has formed on top of old volcanic lava and ash … I mean how cool is that?!
There are a lot of volcanoes in the PNW and you can ski pretty much all of them, but Rainier is the volcano to ski. Rainier is the icing on the cake. My husband Brad and I have been pushing ourselves a ton since we got into ski mountaineering, and Rainier has always been at the top of our list. In the last year, we’ve bagged several ski descents from the summits of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. Even before we skied Mount Hood we thought about skiing from the summit of Mount Rainier. Both of my parents have climbed Rainier and I have been determined to do so, too.
Rainier is a huge mountain that offers skiers and mountaineers every type of challenge. Route finding, elevation, weather, glacier travel, icefall, steep icy faces … you have to go into the climb prepared for all of these elements. Having the proper glacier and climbing skills, researching the route, and having the right tools for the ascent and descent are crucial for a successful climb. Beyond the basic preparedness, there is also the required physical fitness and training it takes to climb a mountain that rises 14,409 feet above sea level. Yea, we had been doing a lot of awesome skiing with some big elevation gain, but we still had a lot of training and practice to do before we felt fully confident in skiing the mountain unguided.
I hadn’t been nervous about our preparedness for glacier travel, having the right gear, or even route finding. I got nervous when I started to think about the physical fitness required to climb and then ski about 9,000 feet in some pretty thin air, though. I don’t live in a mountainous valley like the Wasatch Front anymore, where I could easily ski to 10,000 feet a couple days a week. I live right outside of Portland, OR now, basically at sea level. The closet mountain for me to train at for elevation purposes is Mt Hood, which sits at 11,250 feet and is about 1.5 hours from my house.
The reality is that sometimes, people can’t make it the mountains to train and an altitude room can be a great addition to training. Evolution Healthcare and Fitness, located on the eastside of Portland, has an Altitude Training Room with different levels of elevation for almost every day of the week. In using an Altitude Room, one can increase oxygen delivery and overall performance. I dropped by Evolution a couple times before Rainier to give altitude training on a stairmaster a try. I can definitely see how altitude training would be great for someone that has found high elevations to be difficult or someone that just wants to improve their overall fitness.
My time training at the mountain included a heavier pack with max elevation gain. My normal ski touring day pack never weighed more than 10lbs, so I needed to increase that to 40 lbs every time I went out. Easier said than done. To put it simply: touring with a weighted pack is just plain hard. It was only going to feel better with more cardio and strength training sessions in the gym.
A successful climb doesn’t just mean altitude training, it means serious physical training as well. When not training for mountain climbs, I’m still a fairly active person and consider myself in decent shape. My normal routine usually involves at least three days a week climbing at my gym, Planet Granite, 2-3 sessions of power yoga per week, and a 60 min cycling class once or twice a week. Aside from the gym I am usually out for a 3 mile ski tour with a 2,000 ft gain once or twice a week.
So my activity level wasn’t the highest, sure, but I wasn’t starting my training at zero, that’s for sure. I knew that I needed to up my cardio level and add some strength training to my routine. It was crucial that I felt confident that I could climb roughly 1,000 feet per hour with a 40 lb pack on my back. About two months before our climb, I started increasing my cardio and adding more strength training with weights to my workouts. Some people prefer to give themselves more time to train, but with all the ski touring I had been doing over the winter, I felt pretty good with just two months of heavy training.
Every workout at the gym needed to be a different one so that I would always be targeting different muscles (and so that I also wouldn’t get bored!). I started taking more of the classes that my gym offered such as HITT (high intensity interval training), Core Galore, and Total Body Fitness. When not taking a group fitness class, I continued my regular power yoga and climbing routine combined with strength training. When strength training on my own I focus on my legs, glutes, and core.
The group fitness classes are great for me because sometimes I lack motivation and developing my own routines can be difficult. I had a serious back break in my sacrum several years ago and have since dealt with a weak core and lower back pain ever since. Through group workouts with an instructor, I’ve learned a lot about exercises that work for my body and ones that don’t. Some people may prefer to work with a personal trainer, but for budget purposes, a combination of group fitness and individual training has been great for me.
Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48, and Emmons Glacier, the route we planned to take, is the largest glacier in the continental U.S. Unfortunately, people do fall into crevasses and die on glaciers. Knowing how conduct a crevasse rescue, safely travel in a roped team, and set up snow anchors is one of the most important parts of climbing glaciated mountains. While many people climb Rainier with a guide service, our goal was to climb and ski it unguided. Being self-supported has its (immense) challenges, but we are confident in our skills and know it will be incredibly satisfying to accomplish it unguided.
We started with lots of research, reading, video watching, and talking a lot with my dad, a retired lifelong mountaineer, about best practices. My dad came to visit at the end of April and we practiced rope systems with him in our living room, had late night discussions on what we should and shouldn’t do, and received every other piece of father-daughter “please don’t die doing this” advice you could image. Next, we spent a couple weekends practicing rope travel, crevasse rescue, basic haul systems, and setting up anchors in the high snow banks at the Timberline Lodge parking lot. It was important for us to not only learn how to rescue someone from a crevasse, but to also simulate as close to a real rescue scenario as we could. Unlike a fall on a rock climb, a fall into a crevasse requires the rescuer to work against gravity, so there’s only so much simulating one can do.
There are also lots of other options out there for people who don’t feel as confident learning crevasse rescue on the own … which is, might I add, completely understandable. American Alpine Institute offers a great 3-day course for an introduction to Glacier Skills and Crevasse Rescue. Whether it’s through a course or practicing on your own, there’s only so much training you can do until you just decide that it’s finally go time. That time for us was coming up. All that was left was to keep our eyes peeled for a good weather break and just do the damn thing. The nerves were definitely present but the excitement of standing on Rainier’s summit and skiing roughly 10,000 ft was almost overwhelming. More on our summit attempt to come. Check back soon for Part II, a follow chronicling our time on Rainier …
Alexandra Lev is an avid outdoor enthusiast with a passion for storytelling and adventure travel. Willing to try almost anything once, she considers herself a jack of all trades, master of a few. Usually deep in the backcountry with her husband and two Siberian huskies, Alexandra is always on the move. You can follow her on instagram @luckyalexandra or at https://www.luckyalexandra.com/.