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Climbing Mount Rainier

by Emily Gindle » on Jul 12, 2011 3

I recently came back from the top of the world–or the top of the Lower 48, at least–Mount Rainier. The experience was so amazing that I must now amend my previous belief that the only footwear one would ever need was a pair of Fivefingers: I now need Fivefingers and a pair of crampon-compatible double plastic mountaineering boots.

I found out I was going to Mount Rainier in the middle of March. I was going on a paid trip with International Mountain Guides, an amazing organization that guides peaks all around the world, including Denali, Kilimanjaro, and Everest. Their website recommended showing up to Rainier in the best shape of your life, and they outlined a 6 month training program to get there. I had 8 weeks.

They sent a handy training DVD outlining mountaineering-specific exercises to do each week, such as walking on a treadmill with a heavy pack on. Or climbing a Stairmaster with a heavy pack on. Or hiking a steep trail with a heavy pack on. I tossed the DVD.

There’s a growing body of research out there showing that bouts of short, high intensity training are as effective at training endurance as aerobic endurance-specific training is. I hate to admit that I was nervous to trust this evidence, but with so little time to train, I threw myself into CrossFit as fiercely as possible and crossed my fingers. I started coming to the gym 3 and then 4 times a week (which is huge for me, the gumby girl who just six months ago thought yoga was everything) and supplementing that with stadium stair runs at the high school near my house. When my boyfriend and I went climbing, I took all the gear, draws, rope and water and slogged slowly up to the wall.

Most days I had a great attitude. I just wanted to work hard, and whatever I could get done was in the service of getting stronger. And then some days I threw tantrums like a small child. And there was the day I discovered the limits of backpacking in Fivefingers, when I carried 50 pounds on a steep 8 mile hike with a friend. My feet held up until the last mile, and then all the little muscles of my arches and surrounding my metatarsals pretty much reached failure. My steps were short and wobbly, and if I had been in the backcountry instead of headed to the car, I could have been in trouble. My feet were so toasted that even after taking the pack off they didn’t want to carry me anywhere. So maybe we all need a pair of Fivefingers, crampon-compatible double plastic mountaineering boots, and one pair of trail runners, just in case.

A short while later I was on a plane flying over the peak that I hoped to stand on top of. And then I was on a van driving through thick pine forests scarred by avalanche. And then I was strapping a 50 pound pack on my back and 3 pound boots to my feet and hiking behind our head guide, crampons and snow shovel lashed to the back of his pack. I was the only girl and I was always in the front of the line. As it turned out, CrossFit is perfect training for climbing a large mountain. With the whole game being a literal uphill battle, my quads didn’t even burn thanks to wall balls (oh how I hate and love you), box jumps, and squats of all kinds. Deadlifts helped stabilize a consistently heavy pack. When it was time to dig out platforms for our tents in the snow, I was pretty psyched about the work. I didn’t get winded at 14,410 feet.

The day of our summit attempt, we were roped up by 3 a.m. and rest-stepping up the glacier by headlamp. Each of our worlds was reduced to the 3 foot circle of light in front of us, and 30 feet from one another we fell into a collective rhythm of well-planned steps in the ice. The sunrise seemed to come quickly, like maybe we were so high up we saw it before anyone else. Suddenly our endeavor took shape: we could see our tiny orange tents far below, and look down on the tip of craggy Little Tahoma. We crossed a snow bridge and looked into the sculpted blue depths of the crevasse below. We stepped over a crack no more than a finger’s width wide that was seemingly bottomless. And we kept going up, on slopes sometimes 45 degrees steep. The up was endless.

The summit was a big snow-filled crater with a rocky lip and clouds boiling up at us from below. We ran around in the crater, sheltered from the wind and fueled by a couple of gulps of bourbon someone brought up in a Nalgene bottle. Under a pile of rocks was an army canister with a green bound book and a few pens. I signed my name to a summit log which, once filled, will go on display in a museum with all the books that have been filled out by mountaineers since the first known ascent. We roped up again and descended toward the softening snow, stepping down a slope so steep it looked like we were going to walk off that part of the world, diving straight into the Northwest rainforest. I had done it, and I was ready for more.



  1. Dan

    July 12th, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Sounds like an amazing trip! would love to participate in such an adventure.


    • Emily

      July 13th, 2011 at 12:04 am

      Consider getting guided up a peak! There are guide services available all over the world, and for many less technical peaks like Rainier, there’s no experience necessary. I went with International Mountain Guides ( and they were absolutely fantastic.


  2. Jordan

    June 06th, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I’m trying Rainier this July! Started crossfiting about a month ago…it kills me everyday but I was still worried it wouldn’t be enough. But looks like it went well for you! Thanks for the confidence boost!


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