On July 14th, 2018 I embarked on a journey around and through Rainier National Park with two friends, Sam Ritchie and Erik Sanders. The experience was one of the more challenging and memorable days in the mountains that I’ve ever had.
Dreamed up by the late Chad Kellogg, The Rainier Infinity Loop is an all encompassing ultra-mountaineering adventure that takes you on a journey through Rainier National Park, climbing to the 14,411’ summit of the glaciated peak of Mt. Rainier not once, but twice, and circumnavigating the entire mountain by way of the iconic Wonderland Trail.
The adventure begins on the John Muir Steps at Paradise Trailhead. Start by climbing the south face of the mountain via the Disappointment Cleaver Route to the Summit of Mt. Rainier then descend to the North East via the Emmons Glacier to White River Trailhead. Once at White River, run 30 miles clockwise back to Paradise Trailhead. Climb Mount Rainier again via the same routes as before, then finish the loop by running the remaining 67 miles of the Wonderland Trail counterclockwise back to the John Muir Steps, effectively tracing an “Infinity Loop” around Mount Rainier National Park. The Mount Rainier Infinity Loop covers 135+ miles and has over 47,000 feet of elevation gain.
Looking back on the experience, here are 4 things I learned while etching the infinity loop:
1) Pick The Right Gear
This was tricky. To tackle the Rainier Infinity Loop in a self-supported style, we stashed gear at Paradise (starting and ending point) and White River, a trailhead and campsite on the other side of the mountain. Utilizing this style we were able to break our gear into 4 categories: Mountain Kit 1, Mountain Kit 2, Running Kit 1 and Running Kit 2.
The running kits were fairly easy to compile. We filled running vests with enough gear to get us through some cold and precipitation, but we spent almost the entire Wonderland Trail in shorts and t-shirts. I used Merrell’s medium cushion and drop trail running shoe, the Agility Synthesis Flex. The mountain was a little more challenging when it came to decisions. For the first lap up and over Mt. Rainier I used a light mountain boot rigid enough to be compatible with a semi-automatic crampon and warm enough to deal with any weather that might move in while we were up there. On my second lap, I used a more robust mountain boot with a toe bail and heel welt. I feared our fatigue and poorly functioning metabolisms so late in the adventure could have us wanting warmer layers on the 2nd lap up the peak in 24 hours. Even though I used proper mountaineering boots for the summits of Mt. Rainier, I carried light trail runners (All Out Crush 2) with me so I could run dry trails below the glacier.
There were 2 items that were incredibly useful. Merrell’s Hyperlite Windshirt (due out in Spring 2019) was a piece that I carried throughout the entire loop. It’s super light and adds the perfect amount of shelter from the elements when exercising intensity is high. I also carried Katadyn’s BeFree filter bottle. One of the fastest filter’s I’ve ever used, I only carried capacity for 1 liter of water during the entire Wonderland Trail because I could refill at streams whenever I needed to.
If you’re interested in reading up on more of my gear, you can check out my full gear write up here.
2) Some Sleep is Better Than No Sleep
The first time The Rainier Infinity Loop was completed it took just under 100 hours. Prior to our effort, the fastest known time was completed in 66 hours by Scott Bennett. Going into this challenge, I wasn’t completely sure what headspace I needed to be in in order to be successful when it came to sleep deprivation. In the end I chose to try and complete both summits of the classic volcano before attempting to sleep. As I ran the final 5 miles of trail towards the White River campground, all I could think about was how good it would feel to lay down in my sleeping bag. 25 hours prior, I had visited the White River Campground and reserved a site. I set-up my tent, inflated my sleeping pad and rolled out my bag. Erik and I discussed a sleep strategy and we carved out 4 hours for this pit-stop, easily enough time to enjoy 180 minutes of shut-eye.
We got to camp, changed into more comfortable clothes and re-fueled the best we could. My head hit the pillow about 20 minutes after we ran into camp and I was out. I awoke feeling a little sweaty from the midday heat, but rested. I glanced at my watch – it had been 15 minutes.
I tossed and turned for another hour watching Erik’s still body, wondering if he was counting sheep. For the next 40 minutes I readjusted the down jacket that served as my pillow, but never found perfection. After being in camp for 2.5 hours, Erik rolled over and asked me if I was sleeping. At this point, neither of us were. We decided to cut our break short and start to mobilize.
We gathered our gear for the final 67 miles of trail, ate more food and took off counter-clockwise down the wonderland trail. Strangely, we felt great.
Although neither of us achieved any real sleep, the long break gave our minds and bodies the most rest they’d seen in days. It may have been mostly psychological, but the rest made that final section of the Wonderland Trail much more enjoyable.
Minus the 15 minutes of slumber I was awake for about 65 hours straight, which certainly made The Rainier Infinity Loop interesting.
3) Stay Positive and Keep on Moving!
Big adventures like the Rainier Infinity Loop certainly require a technical mountaineering skill set accompanied by some long, ultra distance experience. Most importantly, when it comes to an objective of this nature, the hardest distance to navigate is the 6 inches between your ears.
The magnitude of the Infinity Loop is big. It requires you to strategically breakdown the journey into digestible sections, while demonstrating voluntary ignorance of what’s to come. As with all big endurance outings there will be psychological and physical peaks and valleys. However, I knew that with this particular mission the highs could be huge and lows massive. To avoid the destructive sways from peak to valley we kept our strategy simple: Stay positive and keep moving.
As a team, we ate at the same time, moved at a pace that was conducive to finishing near our goal time, and most importantly we kept on moving forward. If one person would descend into a mental or physical low, they would be placed in the “penalty box,” a literal sandwich between the two other runners who would work to stabilize the pace and boost the moral of the runner in the pain cave. With an effort to foster positive conversation, proper fueling and relentless forward progress, the penalty box never had residents for very long.
4) Share the Experience
The Rainier Infinity Loop was one of the most challenging and memorable outings in the mountains that I’ve ever had. The amount of distance traveled, the broad scope of terrain, so much stands out from this adventure. However the most significant memories I have from that trip came from experiencing The Infinity Loop with Sam and Erik. The long stories we shared, the delirious babbling conversations we were able to somehow carry on with each other, the shared adventurous dynamic that seemed to fire on all cylinders for the entire journey. Most importantly being at peace in the silent sound of collective suffering in the final 10 miles to the John Muir Steps at Paradise. The Infinity Loop is an incredible outing in and of itself, but the ability to embark on this shared experience with two other great adventurers is what made this outing truly memorable.
In the end, Erik Sanders and myself reached the Muir Steps at the Paradise Trailhead, the official starting and finish line of the Rainier Infinity Loop after 59 hours, 21 minutes. We did achieve the fastest known time for this endeavor in the process, but most importantly we learned a lot about our own limits of human potential.
If you’d like to read more on my experience, you can check out the full length trip report here.