On July 30th, Kaytlyn Gerbin and Alex Borsuk became the first all-female team and FKT holders of the Mt. Rainier Infinity Loop!
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The Rainier Infinity Loop is a mind-boggling route dreamed up by the late Chad Kellog. It involves two summits of Mount Rainier and the entire Wonderland Trail, forming an infinity symbol and covering something like 135 miles and 47,000 feet of elevation gain on a mix of technical glaciated terrain and rugged trails.
My friend Alex had approached me earlier in the year about doing the route. I was intrigued, but had already committed to racing both Western States and UTMB. However after Western States in June, I found myself more stressed than excited about planning the training and logistics of another international trip for UTMB. I went back and forth, but I eventually realized that I felt like I “should” race UTMB but that I really “wanted” to do the Infinity Loop. I told Alex that if we went for the overall FKT, I was in. So I withdrew from UTMB and we set off with the goal of targeting the overall FKT, which at the time was 59 hrs 21 min by Jason Antin and Erik Sanders (recently lowered to 55 hrs 40 min by Jason Hardrath).
We left Paradise for our first Rainier summit via the Disappointment Cleaver (DC) Route feeling excited and prepared. Alex and I have each racked up numerous Rainier summits, mostly on 2-person rope teams and in overnight car-to-car pushes. But we also knew that feeling of exhaustion as you go from sea level to 14,000 feet within a few hours, and had no expectation of this being easy. As we neared the summit for the first time, the air thinned and the lack of sleep from the night and week before was setting in (too early for that!), and I was reminded of the magnitude of what we were attempting. We were about to do this twice, and run 100 miles, all without sleep.
We hit the summit just as the sun was rising, not a person in sight. We were stoked, and happy for the solitude of a mid-week climb. We began our descent on the Emmons route, managing a few crampon shenanigans but otherwise enjoying the spice provided by more crevasses and snow bridges. Once finally getting off the glacier we de-roped and trudged down the trail back to White River Campground, where my truck was waiting with our gear for the Wonderland Trail.
We were in and out within an hour but managed to get some food down (grilled cheese, coke, watermelon, chips) and I even snuck in a quick 10-minute nap. Once on the trail, we zoomed on the descents and chatted our way up the climbs. After an overnight of carrying heavy mountaineering gear, it felt great to ditch the packs and grab our lighter running vests. We kept a conservative, consistent effort. “60-hr pace!” we called it. Life on the trail was great! Until it wasn’t.
My energy levels were up and down, but soon Alex found herself in a hole that was seemingly impossible to dig her way out of. I switched into pacer mode, relying on my experience pacing friends at 100-mile races, and we tried EVERY trick in the book. Can’t eat? Skip a food cycle, let your stomach settle. Here, try this food instead. How about liquid calories? What if we stop and reset for 15 minutes? Are you getting enough water? Enough salt? Screw running, let’s just walk a few miles until we can reset. Want to try a trail nap? This problem solving went on for hours. Nothing worked. It was a rough end to a long day, but we kept moving forward and chipping away the miles as the sunset. I’m proud of Alex for all of her rallying during these miles.
When we finally made it back to Paradise around 11:30 pm, we crawled inside her van and tried to sleep. The alarm went off an hour later and we force-fed ourselves noodle cups while we gathered our gear, and headed back to the start of the second climb.
The first few miles out of the Paradise parking lot were in a complete whiteout. We had seen a potential for last-minute weather to move in, but given the forecast and our experience we felt comfortable with our plan. We had packed extra layers and gore-tex, navigated by GPS, and kept moving up. But not long after, the (unexpected) precipitation started and the wind picked up. By the time we finally broke through the clouds around 9000 ft, we were soaked and fighting strong winds to stay upright. We could also finally see what was going down on the upper mountain, and it wasn’t looking pretty. Telemetry showed sustained winds at Camp Muir of over 50 mph, gusts up to 70. It looked worse higher up. This was a red flag given what we expected from the forecast.
Before agreeing to attempt the FKT together, Alex and I had a serious conversation about risk, just like I do with any mountain partner. We both acknowledged the hazards of this type of objective and made a pact not to make any decision driven by our goal to complete the loop or set the FKT, instead of aiming to stay unemotional and objective in order to make safe decisions. Given the weather, we found ourselves battling the risk vs reward question head-on. Ultimately, we asked ourselves: “If it was just a random weekend, would you climb up into that storm?” We both said no. So that was our decision. We debated whether to wait out the weather up at Camp Muir, but realized that doing so would push us into our ‘no-go’ time window given the current route conditions on the Emmons and afternoon temps (not to mention, most of our layers were soaked). So we turned around and sadly trudged back to the car.
We took a sad bail photo, dropped our soaked gear off at the van, and demolished some burritos at the lodge. We tossed a few ideas around about what to do now – run the rest of the wonderland? Go have a relaxing weekend drinking beer and playing with our dogs? Waiting out the weather and heading up the mountain for the 3rd time didn’t seem like an option, because we both needed to be back at work on Monday. We sleepily trudged back to the van and decided we’d make a decision after a few hours of sleep.
I woke up not long after, and could not stop thinking about the route. What if we rallied and went up again tonight? The FKT was out of the question now, but we had already covered almost 60 miles and a summit and a half, and we were both physically and emotionally invested. I meandered over to the lodge, bought some ice cream, checked the weather forecast and my work calendar, and texted my husband Ely about it. Not long after, Alex came bounding into the lodge. “Dude, I’m not ready to be done yet!”.
We spent the next few hours coordinating work schedules, scrambling to dry out our gear in the parking lot and at the hand dryers in the lodge bathroom, and repacking food and gear. Before we knew it the sun was setting, and we were headed back up the mountain. This third climb started off fun and felt easy compared to our weather battle the night before. We were moving efficiently and began to pass some of the other groups. There was much more traffic on the route than we had experienced mid-week, and we knew that moving efficiently early on would be important to avoid slowdowns at the choke points on the upper mountain.
But somewhere on the Disappointment Cleaver (the DC route’s namesake), I hit a serious low. Alex quickly took up the pacer role, encouraging me and leading while I fought the altitude and exhaustion. I eventually turned things around, but we had been passed back by a few groups and found ourselves taking our place in line moving up towards a few choke points on the route. It was mentally challenging for me to be in the middle of this epic adventure, but standing still waiting in line. Luckily Alex is much more patient than me, keeping the lead and filling the downtime by chatting with others on the route. By this point, a few people knew what we were up to and shared some stoke and encouragement! And this time, we had plenty of people to take photos of us on the summit!
We descended through the crevasse maze and into Camp Schurman, and as we stopped to filter water we started recounting bits and pieces of the last few days. This became one of the highlights of the trip. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was the sugar, but whatever it was, I felt like a giddy kid hyped up on too much caffeine at a sleepover. Silly things people had said to us on the trail, mouth blisters and bonking, dudes who seemingly didn’t want to let us pass, self-doubts we had let creep in earlier in the journey, shirtless guys posing for photos at 10,000 ft, the ranger’s comments and questions on day 1, the pleasures of adventuring or racing with UTIs or periods or PMSing midway through. All of these things I’d normally complain about were somehow so insignificant, so silly in relation to what we had already accomplished. We were giggling at the insanity of it all, laughing until our sides hurt. Moments like this was why I said yes to this crazy idea. This was why I wanted to be Alex’s partner. We gathered our composure, downed some calories, and stepped back onto the glacier. Onwards to White River and to our trail running packs for the final (70 miles) stroll!
Back at the truck, we were surprised to find our husbands and dogs waiting for us. We were stoked to see them, but also overwhelmed. It was a reminder of how we had planned to be done by now (they were supposed to meet us at this finish on this day), and how much we still had left to do. We hadn’t gotten much more than an hour of sleep since we left my house in Issaquah on Thursday morning (it was now Sunday), and if not for the weather delay we should have already completed the loop, eaten burritos, and chugged a beer by now. We hung out at the truck for two hours eating, taking care of our feet, and swapping gear. We tried to lay down to sleep but failed. Ultimately we set off shuffling towards the final section of the Wonderland with a cup of noodles and flasks full of coke and dr pepper. It was really hard and emotional to leave. As we got back onto the Wonderland Trail, we fought back tears. Thanks to some fun theme songs on Alex’s phone, we rallied and sang along, picking up our pace and reminding ourselves again of why we were doing this. We were struggling, but it felt good to be moving on the trail, and awesome to be sharing this crazy experience together.
Armed with some power songs, new trail snacks, and fresh batteries in our headlamps, we dove into the darkness of what we thought would be our last sunset. I had ignored this part of the loop in the preceding days to focus on the real crux of the route, which for me was that second (or in our case, third) summit attempt. But now that we were back on the Wonderland Trail, my fears of cumulative sleep-deprivation and cougar-filled forests crept up. Alex and I filled the silence with raw stories about our past, all filters removed, because who has energy to think about that sort of thing on hour 75? When we were too tired to talk, we hummed along to tunes or just listened to the shuffle of our steps.
At some point, Alex begged me to stop and take a trail nap. Ten minutes, I said. Thirty, she begged. We settled on twenty. I didn’t sleep at all – my fears of critters keeping me awake. We got up shivering and jogged to warm back up. We covered some more miles and fumbled around in the dark to find creek crossings. There was another trail nap in there somewhere. That time, I did fall asleep.
The sunrise was beautiful but almost disappointing. Usually, the sunrise means new energy, a new day. But this time, we were too exhausted to keep moving, so we found a damp and pitiful spot under a rock to lie down. An hour later, we woke up shivering again, and walk-of-shamed ourselves down into Mowich campground with emergency blankets draped around our shoulders. Thanks to the kindness of total strangers, we had warm Gatorade and encouraging conversations within minutes, and we pulled ourselves out of what was the lowest part of our journey.
Revived, Alex and I sang and chatted the miles away. As the day went on we calculated the time left and were excited to know we only had one daylight left to go. But the trail got more and more rugged as we went on. Up, down, up, down. The climbs didn’t end. And Alex and I got more and more tired. Our pace slowed. When we finally saw the trail junction we were waiting for, we couldn’t believe the distance markers. We still had 15 miles to go. At our pace that meant another sunset. We stressed about both needing to be back at work the next day. When I put away my sunglasses and pulled out my headlamp, I fought back negative self-doubt. When I switched in fresh batteries a few hours later, I fought off even more.
Over the past few days, Alex and I had daydreamed about what those final miles would feel like. The reality was much less theatrical than we had imagined. In the end we were exhausted, broken, and meticulously thinking about each step forward, one step at a time. When we finally made it back to the Muir steps, our husbands Ely and Matt greeted us with champagne. We sombered past them and laid down on the steps.
142 miles and 51,000 feet covered in 4 days 4 hours, including our extra credit lap to Camp Muir and a weather delay. It was the biggest objective I had ever tackled. And just like that, a few hours later we were both back at work in the city.
Although the lows, the bonks, and the struggles are easy to remember, there is also the other side of it. The reason why we do these things. The experience of spending 100 nonstop hours outside, redefining what is possible, the growth of a friendship, and the incredible adventure of going up down around x2 on Mount Rainier.
Would I do something like this again?
In a heartbeat.
Kaytlyn Gerbin and Alex Borsuk became the first all-female team to complete the route and are the current women’s FKT holders
Favorites from my gear list:
• Zenit pants (side pockets for water and snacks!)
• Skimo Mitten (warm, easy overmitt and lightweight)
• Terra Longsleeve (great sun layer on the glacier, comfy for running overnight)
• Vector Short (pockets galore!)
• Kaptiva (worn for all of the Wonderland Trail)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kaytlyn Gerbin is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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Originally posted 2019-11-07 18:37:15.