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“Running” Across the Mount Rainier Summit

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Blending adventure running, mountaineering and fastpacking, “UltraPedestrian” Ras Vaughan and Richard Kresser establish a stout new “Only Known Time” on the glaciated Washington peak

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Richard Kresser (left) and Ras Vaughan before their Mount Rainier adventure. Photo by Ras Vaughan

On Friday, July 10th, at 7:55 a.m., 44-year-old Ras Vaughan and 29-year-old Richard Kresser departed from White River Campground in pursuit of an ambitious new route that would both circumnavigate and traverse the summit of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, the highest peak in Washington and the Cascade Range.

The route, which the two dubbed the “Rainier Wonder Route,” had never been attempted. It entailed the following: 30 clockwise miles on the Wonderland Trail to Reflection Lakes, an ascent of the Disappointment Cleaver mountaineering route, a traverse of the summit’s East Crater, a descent of the Emmons Glacier and return to the White River Campground followed by the final 63 counter-clockwise miles of the Wonderland Trail back to Reflection Lakes.

Despite a spirited start, the duo slowed down less than 10 miles into the run (which had included intermittent hiking, due to the rough terrain and 40-pound packs both were wearing). As they reached a snowless Panhandle Gap (this area usually retains snow until mid-August), the sun emerged from an overcast sky and the temperature spiked.

“In the heat of the direct sun, I could feel that my entire core was working hard to stabilize me under the weight of my load,” says Vaughan. “There have been lots of times that I have performed well in warm weather for days or weeks on end, but this was not one of them.”

Vaughan, also known as “UltraPedestrian Ras,” entered trail running as a backpacker, and has made a specialty of ultra-long-distance, often unsupported “Only Known Times.” These include his 2013 sextuple-Rim-to-Rim of the Grand Canyon in 68 hours 10 minutes, and his 2014 unsupported traverse of the state of Washington, which he completed in less than two weeks.

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14,409-foot Mount Rainier, Washington’s tallest point. Photo by iStockPhoto

After enduring the first 30 miles on the Wonderland Trail, Vaughan and Kresser reached Camp Muir above Reflection Lakes on Saturday, more than six hours behind schedule. The lost time translated to unsafe travel conditions higher up on the peak, as much of the glacial snow would be under sunlight by the time they reached it.

They reevaluated, and decided to wait 18 hours for another nightfall before beginning the Disappointment Cleaver route. After a successful nighttime ascent of Rainier and traverse of the East Crater, the pair had full daylight for a descent of the crevasse-riddled Emmons Glacier. They continued to the White River Campground and called it quits, rather than run-hiking the remaining 63 miles of the Wonderland Trail, as they had planned. Vaughan calls their linkup the Cowlitz Connection Route. It took him and Kresser 54 hours 32 minutes—the “Only Known Time” for the route.

“It’s far less cumbersome than the entire Rainier Wonder Route, but still very stout,” said Vaughan. Indeed, the alternative route consisted of 50 miles with 17,000 feet of elevation gain, and included some 15 miles of mountaineering and glacier travel.

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Vaughan and Kresser atop Mount Rainier after ascending the Disappointment Cleaver route. Photo by Ras Vaughan

Vaughan and Kresser completed the route in “unsupported” fashion, meaning they carried all of their gear and supplies from beginning to end. Their 40-pound packs contained food and water as well as helmets, boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, headlamps and a minimal climbing kit.

“Carrying our mountaineering gear for an additional 60-plus miles after the traverse was an “out there” idea,” says Vaughan, “but to me, to cache the gear just seemed so ordinary.”

Vaughan says he hopes to see others repeat his and Kresser’s feat. “In spite of it all, it’s a very soft record,” he says, “and we’d love to see someone put up a respectable time on it.”