What Goes Into a Speed Attempt?

 Grivel and Beal Athlete Andy Dorais shares some of the planning and preparation that go into a speed attempt with a trip report of his and Jason's recent FKT on Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge.
At the end of May a team comprised of Eric Carter, Nick Elson, and Colin Haley set the standard for Liberty Ridge with a time of 9:11 car to car. This included the approach and climb of Liberty Ridge, topping out Liberty Cap, traversing a mile over to the true summit of Tahoma (Mount Rainier), and then skiing the Emmons Glacier back to the Trailhead. We had already been planning on going to Tahoma to ski Liberty Ridge when we heard of the fast time. Initially reluctant to go for their newly established speed record, we rationalized that good conditions trump reason and that we should just go for it.

We've had a long friendly rivalry with Nick and Eric. Years ago, we wanted to set the FKT on Tahoma. We only had 48 hours free, so we drove to Washington, skied as fast was we could, and ended up summiting and accidentally skiing past Paradise into the Nisqually River Basin, confused by white out conditions. We did so in about 5 hours and were convinced that with better navigation and conditions we could ski Tahoma much faster. The following year a few weeks before we could return for a proper effort, Nick and Eric set the FKT with a time of 4:19 car to car. A couple weeks later we tried again and managed to lower that time to 3:57. The following year, Eric and Nick got the last laugh, making the journey to the summit and back in 3:51. We have yet to go back to try again on the faster Disappointment Cleaver route but were excited to continue the friendly competition on the more engaging and technical Liberty Ridge.
As part of our preparation for the speed attempt, we needed to pare down our gear to only the necessary items, and then choose the lightest functional version of those items. Fortunately, climbing and ski mountaineering equipment has evolved greatly in the last few years and we now have some of the most thoughtfully engineered gear ever.

We knew the climb would be mostly on snow, but that we might need technical tools and crampons capable of short sections of steep glacial ice, especially to cross the upper bergschrund. We both chose Grivel North Machine ice tools given their svelte weight and Grivel Skitour crampons with a hybrid steel toe and aluminum heel. This is actually a design that we tried to make a few years ago, but our franken-crampons malfunctioned in practice. The Skitour crampon is specifically designed to be used with ski boots as the camming mechanism is on the toe rather than the heel so as to not interfere with the ski/walk mechanism of a ski boot. That might not seem all that important, but in practice it actually saves a few seconds with each transition.
We also used skimo race skis and bindings, mohair skins, ski crampons, lightweight ski mountaineering harnesses, and full carbon ski mountaineering boots. When attention is paid to each piece of gear, the overall effect is massive. I suspect our packs and overall gear weighed half of that of our standard mountaineering cousins, even though we carried a light rope and glacier gear as well.  
Moving on to nutrition, we believe that the only thing about which one should be dogmatic is to never be dogmatic. The following recommendations are simply what works for us. It's always good practice to test your nutrition and gear choices prior to any race or serious day in the mountains. 
Leading up to a big event, we've found it important to have the body firing on clean energy. Driving up to Washington from Salt Lake, we stopped at a grocery store and bought dried fruit, cherries, kale salad, tomatoes and so forth to snack on. This is a big improvement over our historically bad choices of fast food. We both felt that our bowel health and energy levels were better for it. 

In the planning phase, another consideration is the amount of liquid to carry. Trying to find the right balance between weight and speed, it seems that weather and the duration of the effort are the most important factors. It was hot during our speed attempt and we elected to carry a little more than we normally would; about two liters. While humping the water weight up a mountain is important, it does little good if it goes unconsumed in the pack. To facilitate easier ingestion, we taped a soft flask with liquid to the shoulder strap of our packs. Such configured, we were able to take sips easily on the move rather than having to stop to get a bottle out of our packs. A bladder with tubing would suffice as well but we tend to eschew that system when there is potential for it to freeze.  

Calories are also essential for sustained performance, but eating while going fast can be tricky. On any hard effort over an hour and a half we prefer at least 100 calories an hour. For the Liberty Ridge speed attempt, we optimistically planned for around seven hours. Based on previous experience, we both knew we could tolerate this rate and perhaps even a little more. We packed over 1000 calories in the form of gel mixed into our bottles with sports drink. Some people may not tolerate such a syrupy concoction, but it's the fastest way we've discovered to consume calories and liquid. Plus, all the mess and potential litter is dealt with the night before. 

Once again, carrying calories and actually consuming calories are very different. For both of us, it's really easy to focus on the task at hand and never actually eat or drink. Having cratered hard in the past, we've learned our lesson. Not only is becoming hypoglycemic uncomfortable, it can also be terribly dangerous in technical terrain. We now have a rule that we have to eat and drink something at least every hour when going hard. We both wear a watch and are pretty good about reminding one another to take a drink or eat something.

One further tip is that moderate caffeine ingestion has been shown to improve endurance exercise performance. Most of the studies have shown this improvement in much shorter and more intense efforts but anecdotally, we enjoy the extra stimulus, particularly in the predawn hours when most of these foolish efforts begin.

Thus prepared, we were anxious to actually get started. On Friday afternoon, we reconnoitered the start and made the decision to start in running shoes as the first couple miles of trail were a mess of snow patches, mud, and dry trail. That may run against some people's ethos, but we've always felt that the best practice is the one that is the most efficient.

Saturday morning, we awoke easily before the alarm at 4:00 AM. We were fast walking/shuffling in the faint predawn light, trying to avoid breaking out in a run as we knew we needed to pace our effort. Everything went according to plan until about one hour into the effort. We felt strong, the conditions were fast, albeit slightly warm, and we were ahead of pace. That is until a ski snapped while while skinning through a small depression just before tree line. The day was over. The broken ski reflected our broken ambitions. St. Elmo's pass looked just minutes away but we were done before we could even really get started. 

Immediately, we got on the phone and started frantically calling Lars Kjerengtroen and Brian Harder, both of whom were en route to the mountain and with whom we hoped to ski the next day. Neither had extra race skis or access. We skied/limped out and started texting everyone we knew in the PNW. Eric Carter gave me Colin Haley's number and he very generously offered his personal skis but they wouldn't be available till Monday. Patrick Fink put me in touch with Ethan Linck, who did some leg work to find Todd Kilcup, who also very generously offered to let us borrow his race skis. In another stroke of luck, the bindings were mounted perfectly to Andy's boots. 

Four hours later, we had obtained the skis and were back in the White River area trying to rest for a second attempt. Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to ski with our friends but fortunately, they were starting much earlier and we were hoping for a boot track for much of the route. That was practically a given as the rangers reported a number of parties already high on the route.

The next morning, around 4:40, we were off. It was hard to control the pace early but we knew we would struggle with cramps due to the high cadence throughout the day. We didn't ask for them, but had been given the splits by friends who had talked with Carter et al. We could tell early on that we were making good time and the motivation was high as we chatted throughout the wooded section. 

We topped out St. Elmo's pass in just over 1:30, looked out over the Winthrop Glacier, and got really excited. The whole route was in view and the day had dawned clear and still. We raced across the glacier, hopping small crevasses, and fortunately found the way onto the Carbon Glacier around the low point of Curtis Ridge. 

We contemplated roping up as we carried standard gear but the route was clear as other parties had found the best way. There was only one fairly sketchy snow bridge to cross right at the base of the ridge where we stopped for a moment to drink and eat. 2:45 had elapsed and we were still feeling strong. Further, our friends were visible, heading for Thumb Rock and we were looking forward to the distraction of chatting with them for a bit.

Catching up, Brian and Tyler stepped aside and offered encouragement. Lars put in a dig to stay ahead to make sure the booter was well groomed. We tried to get him to rally the rest with us as he is clearly stronger than an ox but he's a good friend and partner and stayed with the other guys.

Out on the east side of the ridge, the sun was boiling and we started to really slow down. Both of us thought our hip flexors and adductors were going to betray us as we were starting to feel twinges of cramps. Never feeling aerobically taxed, we still agreed that a steady pace, even if slow, was the best strategy. We kept moving....barely.

We hit the bergschrund, and even though we knew to climb it at the high point, all the tracks heading that way had been erased by a slight stream of spindrift. There were some fresh tracks heading climber's left that we explored before coming to our senses and committing to action. 

Over the schrund, a gentle breeze picked up and so did our pace. We hit the summit ridge, transitioned from crampons to skis, and hit the top of Liberty Cap in 5:27. Another race transition led to some of the worst skiing of the day on very fatigued legs that were quivering with the threat of cramps. 
Somehow, the governor began to release it's choke hold and we were able to actually skin to the true summit at a more reasonable pace. We hit Columbia Crest in 5:57 and found about a dozen people on the summit. The mood was festive and we were quickly outed as two dorks on skinny skis, carbon boots, and tight pants are obviously up to something stupid. The folks on the summit were kind and friendly, offering encouragement as we transitioned to skiing for the final time.

Neither of us had skied the Emmon's previously and so we skied with some caution until down to Camp Sherman. From there's we traversed skier's right onto the Interglacier and rallied with absolutely zero grace through some truly horrific isothermic snow. Back in the woods, we followed the up track, dodging the Memorial day crowds, until we reached our shoes.

Jason was interested in pushing for a sub seven hour time but that ship had sailed with other inefficiencies higher up. We had two miles to run and ten minutes to do it. Even without the skis, boots, ice tools, etc we would be hard pressed to pull that off with specific training. Regardless, we pushed harder and harder the closer we got and made one last mad dash through the sloppy snow patch guarding the trailhead.

Stopping the watch at 7:07, we sat on the road for a few minutes, pleased with the effort and how the day had gone, before making some food and waiting for the other guys to finish. As they walked in like more sane people, we cheered them on and slapped high fives for the successful mission all around.


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