Sunday, October 28, 2018

Running with the Big Dogs

Happy to be back at the Big Dog Backyard!  We missed last year with John's hip surgery and my PF issue, and we've been recovering well from both since then.  I did some good buildup training, with more of a focus on Mount Rainier, but I had no clue how ready I would be to run indefinite 4.167-mile loops.

At least the weather was a huge improvement over 2016 - 20 degrees cooler.  The only slight detraction was the rain overnight Friday and into the first couple hours of the race.

The biggest news was the starting field: 70 runners with an incredible assortment of resumes.  200-400 miles at timed races, Badwater, Vol State, Spartathlon, race winners, nationally ranked runners.  And that's just the women's field, and that's not even including Courtney Dauwalter.

Courtney, among other things, won the Tahoe 200 miler this year (2nd overall), won Western this year, and won Moab 240 last year - overall.  She was my (and many people's) pick to win the race.

Most of the previous years' top Big Dog runners were back - Guillaume, Harvey, Johan, Jeremy, Joe, but missing Babak and Tim.  If I started listing all the accomplishments on the male side of the start list, we'd be here all day.

Suffice it to say, I am no longer "in the running", just thankful to have been part of this event in the early years, content to be setting my own personal goals now, happy to see friends we missed last year, and thrilled to meet some amazing ultra superstars.

Let's get to it!

Hiding out in our tent before the race start to stay dry just a bit longer:

Our little "chair area" near the start/finish mat:

Ready for the start, bringing a light for the first "almost daylight" lap to help see the rocks:

70 runners is a big increase from previous years, and I think (I hope) we're reaching a max on the field size.

John greeted us on our way back from the road out-and-back, as I was chatting with Ben and a couple other runners before we ran through camp and hit the trails:

My first loop was a bit stressful, between not knowing what to expect from my legs, having to wait in a long line of runners at every downhill, then feeling like I should push the uphills in order to stay in my place in the train, then trying to watch my heart rate monitor and adjust my pace based on that.  On top of that, my splits were slow and I worried about why this was the case.

I finally decided "to heck with the heart rate numbers" and "to heck with just following people" and did some passing in spots where it was easy to get around.  Hello folks!  Just need to do more of my own thing, even if it was still fairly constrained.  My first lap time of 54:20 was completely fine and my legs felt great.

And I was smiling - it was great to be back!  I love this trail and these woods!

Oh yeah, about the trail.  The rain didn't seem to affect it too badly right away, no creek crossings and no marsh at the bottom of the field, excellent.  With 70 runners and an out-and-back "lolli" section of the lollipop loop, it was clearly going to get worse before it got better.  But for the beginning it wasn't too bad, just a bit slippery in spots.

And!  There were no more downed trees to step over, no more giant log to cross, not as many twists and turns!  People have been doing a super job in the past couple years with cleaning it up and making it even more runnable.  So impressive!  I was kind of in shock about that and I told as many people as I could that they should be thankful like I was.  No complaining about a little mud.

John's photo of the driveway heading back toward the start/finish:

A creative way to stay dry between laps (possibly a crew person):

More wetness protection programs:

Happily it wasn't pouring or anything, just a shower that got heavier once in a while but was mostly at the tail end of the overnight rain system.

Mike and Mike at the timing table - thank you guys and it's great to see you!

Mr. Big helping with the timing while staying mostly out of sight:

After that first loop I settled down and got into a groove.  I stopped looking at the heart rate readout, only checking the average at the end of each lap so John could record it.  The uphills were a bit more challenging than I would have liked, but I didn't want to get out of the conga line and it didn't seem overly taxing to stay in it.  I passed a few people on the downhills but also stayed patient when it wasn't easy to get by, trying mostly not to step on anyone's heels (and mostly succeeding).

Every couple laps someone would strike up a conversation and I'd meet someone new, which was great.  It was wonderful to meet Cassie and Greg and chat with them a couple times, such nice people (on top of being talented runners!) and Greg didn't seem to mind my yammering on about Boston sports:

Heading back out on another loop, enjoying the overcast and cool day:

It was fun meeting Anne and sharing thoughts about strategy.  Reminiscing about prior Big Dog years with Joe and Kelley was great.  Mark Lattanzi came to the event for the first time and seemed to be enjoying himself.  Anatoly told me stories about being in the Russian army and made me laugh.

It was especially awesome talking with Ben (laz's neighbor) who we had seen every year since we started coming to this event.  Everyone should thank Ben for all the work he has done on the trail over the years.  And every year he comes to run further than he did before.  This year his goal was to complete at least one road loop.  You can do it, Ben!  (and he did, blowing away his previous 12-hour PR by 5 more hours).

John fed me SPIZ, swapped out my hand bottle, and handed me a little something to eat every hour.  Trader Joe's recently started selling maple sugar leaves, now that's a melt-in-your-mouth running treat!  John had to ration those, so I settled for blueberries or chocolate in between.

The jeerleaders!  We had a "cheer squad" who treated us to demotivational performances before several laps, what a hoot!

Here they are just getting warmed up at the start of lap 5, where John captured all the runners coming back through the start/finish area after a few minutes on the road:

"G-I-V-E, just give up and you'll be free!" - awesome!

(PS to John - turn your phone sideways when taking videos...)

Sandra posted videos of them on Facebook, inspiring people to write in and suggest additional cheers.

Later in the race - "D-A-R-K, it's dark out there, so be afraid!"

Thank you Gina, Chrys, and Amiee!

Loving the cool temperatures and overcast sky:

I learned recently that I had the most lifetime miles on the Big Dog course - that's pretty funny!  It was mostly by virtue of showing up time after time to run an average of ~100 miles.  Nothing fancy.  Apparently other people had heard this stat and I got several questions and requests for advice during the race.  That's fun!  I'm not sure any of my advice was helpful, but it made me feel good to be asked.

Oh, and I no longer have the most lifetime miles here, but considering who I ceded it to (and the fact that I didn't know about this stat until last week anyway), I'm good with that!

Time for another loop, let's do this thing again!

As expected, the trail conditions deteriorated with the passing of all those feet every hour even though the rain had stopped.  Slippery rocks, mud everywhere, loss of traction on a couple steep little uphills, careful running and more than one fall (thankfully none by me).

There was one particularly challenging-but-skiable corner that warranted attention.  I had never seen mud in that turn before, but on the other hand, several other possible trouble spots were holding up fine.

I apologized in advance to John for the muddy shoes and gaiters that he was going to have to deal with that night during/after my shoe change.

John took the camera for a walk a couple times and got some action shots in the woods:

The sun made a couple brief appearances, prompting me to try swapping to a wet shirt and to pour water on my head.  I didn't feel hot, but there is such a strong correlation between temperature and my heart rate that I figured it wouldn't hurt to try to keep as cool as possible.

Motoring along through the woods with Anne and a couple guys, as the trail conditions started to improve toward the end of the day:

The crews seemed happy that the sun was finally out.  John kept looking at me like "how can you be warm when I'm wearing a puffy jacket?" - perfect running weather, at least for the runners!

My average heart rate numbers and my overall perception of effort were just so much better than in 2016, what happiness and relief.  Breathing never felt stressed.  My legs felt good except having to work through an IT band and slight knee issue around laps 10-11 on the downhills.  Not totally unexpected, something I'm still working on.  Other than that, I was still motoring along and keeping decent, smooth form.  One guy called me "the silent runner" which I obviously found to be a big compliment because I still remember it and am mentioning it here.

At various times during the afternoon I'd be coming back up the last hill of the loop and someone would run past exclaiming "oh my gosh, I'll only have 4 minutes in camp!" while the runners around me who were used that that pace were like, "uh, so?"  The basic fact of slow laps isn't so much a problem, but slower-and-slower laps, sure, that's more of a cause for concern.

Especially since loop 12 takes a little more effort and focus.  Carrying a bright light, knowing my splits, pushing just a little harder (while not stressing too much about it), not letting runners in front of me dictate a slower pace, all things that help me with loop 12 as darkness sets in and everyone moves a bit slower.

56:10 for loop 12, no problem.  Still not quite enough time to change to my Hoka shoes, but I had always planned for a short transition to the road.  Plenty of time after lap 13 to get ready for the night running.

It was amazing watching so many runners start the road section, way more than previous years.  Per Mike Dobies, 76% (53/70) made it to 50 miles, while 30-50% has been the prior norm.  Heck, there weren't more than 50 runners total to START the race before last year.  It's neat being part of the early progression of this event.

Overnight was quite chilly.  John helped me change my shoes, wipe off my legs, and put on some tights.  It didn't take many laps to add a long-sleeve shirt, Buff, gloves, and eventually a fleece jacket.  Running warmed me up, and by not stopping too long between laps I didn't cool down too much.  It's all about balance.

New fun thing this year - Haunted Woods!  For several hours at the beginning of the night, we'd be treated to loud screams and chainsaws along the far corner of the course.  That looked entertaining.

Normally I enjoy the road running but this year I never really got comfortable with it.  The long downhill run to the first corner wasn't smooth, I looked for more walk breaks than usual, and my times weren't as fast overnight as before.  To compensate, I focused on practicing speed-walking.  Lap times were still fine, around 53-55 minutes depending on bathroom breaks (the porta-potties were basically "on the course" so it made sense to pop in there before crossing the line).  I didn't worry about the time, although I did wish for additional minutes so I could lie down in a blanket more than the one time.

It felt like a very gradual downhill spiral, legs just not feeling peppy anymore and not taking too well to the pavement.  On the bright side, I didn't have any issues and I was confident about getting to the end of the night.  My confidence in my ability to get anywhere on Day 2 slowly waned and I got pretty quiet overnight.

Every year I try to learn some constellations so there's something to look at in the sky as the earth rotates through the hours.  The moon was particularly bright this year, which was great for visibility and I wasn't complaining about not being able to see the stars as well.  I also found I needed to focus more in front of me so I couldn't look straight up to try to figure out the star formations.  However - Orion is the one constant, coming up toward the latter part of the night, followed by Canus Major.  The Big Dog constellation on the horizon always makes me smile!

Podcasts also kept me happy, even though I couldn't leave the iPod on the whole time because parts of the course were super windy at times.  There was quite a north wind blowing.  I hoped it would dry out the trail.

That last uphill bit right before the end of the lap kept getting steeper and steeper.  Contemplating that this section is also part of the trail loops didn't help my predictions for the morning.

John wasn't there when I came in one time, but he had left everything I needed, basically just SPIZ to drink and some warm decaf in the thermos.  I lightly wondered if he was OK, knowing he was probably just sleeping.  Somehow he slept through an alarm and all of laz's whistles that signaled 3, 2, and 1 minute to go.  At the call of "30 seconds!" he popped his head out of the tent - hi John!  It's all good, go back to sleep  :)

My stomach started in with an odd issue toward the end of the night.  Coming up the final hill, if I pushed it at all it would suddenly rebel.  It seemed like something wanted to come out from one end or the other.  I'd slow way down and eventually everything settled down.  I'd be fine by the time I returned to camp.  What the heck?

Lap 23 was slower because of that (plus a pee stop).  I moved with more purpose during lap 24 since I needed time to change shoes at the end.  Almost done with "you have plenty of time"!

John was ready for me after lap 24, time to change back to the trail shoes.  We quickly talked about the tights I was wearing, because I was like, "well, it probably doesn't matter, I don't think I'm getting very far."  It was cold enough to keep wearing them for the moment.  OK, fine, take them off and throw on the mini-gaiters, my shoes are off anyway and this would be the last time I'd have extra time to work with.  You just never know, right?

The real point was that there were still plenty of runners in the field (34 including 8 women) and I figured if I could just finish one lap then perhaps I'd beat a couple more of them.

The road out-and-back at the start of loop 25 kind of sucked and I was basically shrugging to John when I ran back through camp toward the trailhead.  I'll just do what I can.

And - I can run!  My legs hit the trail and everything felt "normal" again.  Or as normal as 100-mile legs can feel.  I was transported back to 2012/2013 when I had made it into Day 2.  The good old days, as it were  :)  Rocks, steps, dirt, curves through the trees, bring it on.  It's a gorgeous morning!

Not surprisingly, my breathing was now faster and I'm sure my heart rate was higher (I'd taken off the monitor for the overnight laps).  But nothing ridiculous, nothing I couldn't handle indefinitely.  2016 sure helped as a point of reference when I struggled with high effort levels for hours on Day 1.  Here I was getting a break on the downhills, especially now that there was plenty of room on the trail to move my own pace.

Yay for running!  The joy of morning and sunshine and legs that worked, I was almost dancing.  I came through the timing mat, dropped off my fleece jacket and smiled at John as I lined up again.

One problem still to work on - my stomach was still a problem, again on the last uphill climb.  Slowing down on the climb did help, but I didn't have nearly as much leeway on the trail for that.  Toward the end of lap 26 I almost made a pitstop off to the side of the trail (ready with a scooper bag) but decided I could make it back to camp.  I ran across the mat, looked directly at John and pointed to the porta-potties.  On my way there I heard laz say "beeline!" which was pretty funny.

I just realized this is the exact photo John was taking when I pointed toward the bathrooms:

John grabbed the SPIZ bottle and ran over with me, handing me the bottle so I could drink while I sat in the stall (and by the way, huge kudos for all the runners and crew for keeping the seats mostly completely clean all weekend, especially the one labeled for women - something new this year and much appreciated!).

He told me that, just for my info, 2 women looked like they could run all day, and I replied "don't care" which he said he figured as much.  I was strictly focused on my previous results and how many of them I might be able to match or surpass.  I had already gone further than in 2016 and 2014, now it was time to find out how close I might get to my goal of a distance PR.  I completed 27 hours in 2012 and 29 hours in 2013.  I'd been trying ever since to get even close to that with no success.  This was a multi-year effort in the making.

OK, done with the porta-potty in only a couple minutes (which was good, because that's all the time I had), back to the timing mat, let's try this again!  Very thankfully, that did it.  No more stomach issues, yay!  One less thing.

Looking around at the start of the next lap, it seemed like there were a couple fewer women.  Indeed, Anne and Kat were done, also Alicia sometime around here.  My plan of "just run and see what happens" was working OK so far.

All the cheers from crews and spectators were so appreciated, every time we started a lap, came back through camp to head to the trail, and returned to the finish line.  Nice morale boosters.

Lap 27 went well and I suppose I even entertained the thought that I might be able to run all day?  Not sure where that came from!  Probably a bit ambitious, I better work on reining in my brain.  Focus, Marcy.  One thing at a time.

Jasmine ran past me on the last uphill asking what time is it?  Um, I don't know the time (my watch was running on chrono and I didn't feel like messing around with it) but I could tell her that we were 44 minutes into the lap.  I wonder if she picked up on my disbelief that anyone would be out here without a watch.  Maybe hers wasn't working, benefit of a doubt.

One more lap down!

John headed out into the woods for our next loop to capture a few action shots.  Guillaume and Johan leading the way:

Courtney and Maggie right behind:

A couple minutes later, here I am running along on my way to another 57-minute lap:

My brain took more turns, as I pondered various subjects from my brain training research, wondering things like how having an important goal (I really wanted 30 loops) might affect both my ability to reach that goal and also my subsequent ability to continue further, what might be the limiter this time, and whether all that thinking might somehow sink into my subconscious and actually create a physical manifestation that becomes the limiter.

So much thinking!  Just stop thinking!  I tried really hard to just "go, go, go, don't trip" and run from one split to the next.  I really was extremely grateful to be there, remembering my Day 1 suffering from 2 years ago and how this was still better than that.

At some point the question of "why?" came up, something I consider occasionally, mostly idly.  On this morning, the answer was "because I can."

Ah, and the trail was beautiful!  The mud had dried up.  It was the most buff the trail had ever looked.  With no trees to step over, I could maintain momentum and get in a groove.  "Because I can" indeed.

Next lap - I ended up near Courtney and Maggie while running down the road, listening to Maggie say that after this lap they would be tied with the previous women's best of 29 hours.  I watched Maggie try to figure out which women were still in it.  I think she knew all of them, well, all of them except me.  She kept looking past me until finally she focused on my face and asked "what's your name?"  When I replied, she said "Oh, you're the one with the previous women's best!"  That she knew that made me smile.  Slightly famous, if just for a moment.

I figured I would briefly share the new women's record with several ladies, that had pretty much been a given since I saw the starting field.  On the other hand, Jasmine was done after 27 hours and I believe Cassie returned to camp during lap 29, so it was just me and Courtney and Maggie.  3rd place to those two?!  I'll take it!

Lap 29 was more challenging, watching the splits and needing to push more to keep up the pace.  It was so interesting, with no particular thing going wrong or any specific problem that I might be able to troubleshoot.  Not even a particular part of the terrain, as my uphill climbing was still decent and downhills were still going fine.  The biggest indicators were just how much additional time and effort it took for each part of the loop, a little more every time around.

Once again - the goal was 30 hours.  It was John's PR distance too, it made me happy to think I could share that with him.  Could we do it?  I had a heart-to-heart with my legs and body, and we all agreed that yes, we could probably do it, it was going to take a lot of focus and effort, AND I got some feedback from my legs that in return for that effort this was probably the last lap.  I'll take it!

Kelley was snapping photos of runners in the corral before the start of lap 30, and I couldn't resist asking her if she would get one of me with Maggie and Courtney.  I think I accurately conveyed the extent of my astonishment to be standing there with these two amazing runners!  The women's podium, if there were such a thing at this race (which there is not):

John's photo of the starting field for loop 30:

I took off knowing I'd have to push pretty hard but balance it with not pushing too hard and causing other issues.  I got behind on the splits, losing 30-40 seconds for every 10-15 minutes of running.  This was OK since I didn't need any extra time at the end of the lap, but I didn't want to cut it TOO close.  The rocky sections were particularly challenging and slow.  The smooth sections helped me make up a little time.  All the muscles in my legs were working hard and my breathing and heart rate were high.  I tried to relax when I could.

Finally the split at ~40 minutes was back to being OK and I knew I could make it as long as nothing major happened.  Just a good solid walk up the last long hill and then a few more minutes of labored running.  125 miles, yay!

John did the "proper crew" thing and tried to convince me to try another lap, just to make me think one more time about my decision.  It was quite clear to me that it would have taken a monumental effort and a ton of adrenaline to even try to complete one more lap on time - so if there had been a reason to attempt it I surely would have.  I was very excited about my PR and 3rd place female finish and completely fine with stopping.

He got me to line up one more time (you never know, maybe Maggie and Courtney wouldn't show up - ha!) which was great because I got to shake their hands and wish them well.  It was wonderful and humbling to meet them and follow in their wake for a while!  Go take down the whole thing  :)

Chatting with laz after turning in my timing chip and receiving my dog tag - I love these.  "I gave my all in Big Dog's Backyard Ultra"  Thank you so much laz!

Big huge from Mike - thank you Mike!

Time to watch the race for a bit and enjoy the beautiful (and still chilly) day:

Sunday evening we went to a hotel, got cleaned up, took a nap, managed to get out for some food (only the allure of Waffle House got me out the door) and finally went to bed.  Solid sleep!

Monday morning we got stuff cleaned up and mostly packed, then returned to the Big Farm to watch more of the race.  Five people were still running - including Courtney!  Go Courtney!

It was simply incredible watching Day 3 for the first time.  We had witnessed Johan and Jeremy's tie at 49 hours in 2014, but had missed the excitement of Guillaume's 59-hour win over Harvey last year.  To see five people running and looking good with over 200 miles on their legs was amazing.

I had even run with Greg on Day 1 - I'm not sure anyone expected him to still be here two days later, including Greg.  Nice work!

Gavin taking care of business in between laps (the toothbrush is a great idea, I need to add that to my list):

Courtney and her crew in a tent borrowed from the Lang's (very nice of Anne and Andy!):

Gang of 5 - Johan, Courtney, Gavin, Guillaume, and Greg in the background about to run over to the corral for the start of the next lap:

And they're off - again!

Another beautiful day for running:

Looking a little more like mortals, but still moving well:

In an endless loop:

Ah, here's something different.  Guillaume succumbed to an injury, a swollen tendon on the top of his foot.  Yep, I can relate (well, except to the 225 miles part).  Congrats sir!

Laz is about to blow the whistle yet again (prompting ear plugging), while Mike and Mike continue to work the timing tent:

Looking for Greg - where is our compatriot?

56 hours and 233 miles completed, well done Greg!

The final three.  Johan mentioned something was going on with his wrist, but people were mostly like "you don't need your wrist to run" so he didn't get a lot of sympathy.  We were more in awe of how these people were still going without much sleep or rest.

And again...

Greg had been wearing a "No DNF" hat, but he switched it to this one ("DNF") after he stopped - that's awesome:

And the afternoon continues on - go y'all, especially Courtney!

Well, we couldn't stay, early morning flight and work and all that.  We woke up the next morning to the final results:

Johan - winner! - 68 hours, 283.3 miles
Courtney - top female! - 67 hours, 279.2 miles
Gavin - penultimate drop - 65 hours, 270.8 miles

Absolutely stunning.

Derek of Marathon Investigations did a nice write-up about the race, including a photo of Johan at the finish and some of laz's writing.

Thank you to John for your super crew-man efforts and all of your support last weekend!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Climbing Mount Rainier!

The day was finally here!  The team was assembled, permits acquired, training completed, gear compiled, packs stuffed full, weather checked, plan in place.  Several months in the making, we were about to start our "for real" self-guided attempt at a climb up Mount Rainier.  I wasn't sure what the odds were, but we were giving it our best possible shot.

But first!  Several versions of selfies at the trailhead, two at once in this case:

I'm not sure I knew Leslie and Jason were photo-bombing us:

Shaun's turn:

OK, enough already, let's go!

Good morning Mountain!

The first several miles are well-groomed trails up from the visitor center, familiar to us from our training days:

Then it was time to walk up the Muir snowfield.  Above us the sky was clear, below was still covered in wildfire smoke.  Uphill, it is!  Everyone was in good spirits, and John's bionic hip was doing great.

Happy for the trekking poles:

Making progress up the snowfield:

Last time John and I had filled water bottles at the top of rock ridge around 9000' elevation, and we were hoping to do that again to avoid having to melt snow at Camp Muir.  We searched around along the rocks and didn't find anything, but then Shaun climbed over the top and found an excellent little hole with flowing water inside.  Here's the bottle he stuck down in there to fill:

Fun little video from Shaun showing the water flowing inside the hole:

I think his hands were pretty cold by the time we had filled all our bottles and dromedary bags - thank you so much, Shaun!  That saved us a bunch of time (and fuel) at camp.

The final push up to Camp Muir was pretty slow with all the extra water weight on our backs, but it wasn't too far and we weren't in a hurry.  Our resting point at 10,000 feet:

Happy to be back!

We brought tents, but it turned out there was plenty of room in the bunkhouse.  It's first come, first served, so we couldn't count on it, but we were more than happy to set the tents aside and snag sleeping spots on the platforms.

John walked up the rocks to get a view of the Cowlitz Glacier and the route over to Cathedral Gap:

Overhead shot of Camp Muir:

Closer view of crevasses on the Cowlitz Glacier (our route crossed at a much less crevassed area above this):

Enjoying sunshine and dinner:

One possible downside to sleeping in the bunkhouse could be noise from other campers, so we coordinated our wake-up time with the two Japanese guys who were already there and hoped for the best.  Unfortunately, one of them snored from start to finish, so we didn't sleep too soundly (John and I managed a couple hours, I think), but we were also just trying to rest and not get a full night's sleep so I guess it would have to do.  It was good rest for our bodies and legs, at least.

I think our alarms were set for ~11 pm; 7 climbers were all awake and getting ready in the darkness.  It was really nice being inside a relatively warm space plus having room for getting dressed and boots/harnesses on.  Soon we were down on the snow, strapping on crampons and tying in to the rope.  Let's do this thing.

The walk across Cowlitz went way better this time around - I was ready for the crevasses (especially the tiny ones we were stepping across), I knew what to expect now, there was not nearly as much rockfall noise compared to 2015, and most of all I was super comfortable with our rope team.

Soon we were on dirt and working up the steep switchbacks to Cathedral Gap.  Time for new territory for us!  We crested the ridge (still with crampons on since the dirt section was short) and turned to get a moonlit view of Ingraham Flats.  Well, first we had to climb up some snow, then the scene spread out before us.

It was neat spotting headlamps across the way - we knew there was an IMG group that planned to depart from Ingraham camp around 11:30 pm, so we figured they were on Disappointment Cleaver at this point.  A couple other sets of lights were making their way over to the Cleaver.  The Japanese pair was not far behind us.

Our only real navigational issue happened right here - John tried following what seemed like footprints but turned out not to be that at all.  We lost track of the wands, and then John was stuck in between crevasses.  OK, back up the bus.

John suggested we still might be able to cut across back to the trail (which we verified as accurate during our return trip in daylight) but we went with the certain option of retracing steps to the last wand and starting again from there.  "Won't make that mistake again" said John, and yep, he was right.  From then on he stopped to verify wands before forging ahead, taking his time and navigating the more maze-like sections with his excellent trail-sniffing skills.

We climbed up to the traverse across Ingraham Glacier, catching up to a couple smaller teams as we climbed up and over a some ice blocks.  Having 5 people on the rope was slightly unwieldy around tight corners (especially multiple switchbacks) but other than that we managed it quite well, and we were moving fine.  Perhaps a testament to our experience working together in expedition adventure races.  We passed those teams and didn't see them again.

We recognized the short sections called the Ice Box and Bowling Alley and moved across them with alacrity.  No issues with ice or rockfall tonight.  Quickly we were on the Cleaver, finding a spot around the corner with some space to sit and remove crampons.

Staying on rope to make the transition quicker, we each gathered up coils so we'd be walking much closer together for this portion of the climb.  The 1000+ foot climb up the dirt Cleaver was quite a haul.  John did some good route-finding, picking his way through various options and always finding wands to confirm our direction.  We were all moving well and stepping up and through the rocks and dirt.

I had estimated 1.5 hours up the Cleaver, but I suspect we were a good bit quicker than that.  We gave some of that back when we neared the top.  A couple climbers were stopped above us, seemingly trying to figure out which way to go (maybe they said something to that effect?  We had the impression they weren't just resting).

John tried around to the left, where we saw a couple headlamps coming down toward us.  One said that this was the right way to go (she seemed like a guide, bringing a client down the mountain).  The challenge was that it was ice instead of rock, so although it wasn't a great spot for this, we got out the crampons and managed to get them back on our boots.

Up the little icy reentrant, we popped out at a wand.  Now we had something of a view of the next section, although it wasn't completely clear which way to go.  There were lights slightly to the left and possibly some over to the right higher up.  We were back on the glacier and at the start of the section where "shit gets real."

This is also where the route shifts over the summer as conditions change.  Early in the season it goes more directly uphill, but recently it had been rerouted around some ice blocks/open crevasses and now it was on the "end of summer" version.  We would be traversing well to the right onto the Emmons shoulder, climbing up it and then traversing back to the left before ascending to the crater edge.  More distance, avoiding the larger hazards.

First things first, we had to figure out where the wands were leading us from the top of the Cleaver.  This was the least obvious area of the whole route.  Perhaps between the reroutes and glacier movement, wands weren't as plentiful or easy to see.  John again did really well, using his bright light and patience to find the way.

We worked our way up to an interesting set of giant ice blocks, needing to stop briefly so Jason could adjust his crampons.  It was a good time for a snack.  While we were there, the Japanese pair passed us.  "Konnichiwa!" - I wasn't sure if this was the right greeting but it was all I knew to say.  They seemed pleasantly surprised, replying in kind and then following up with a couple sentences in Japanese.  "I don't know what you said, but it's nice to see you!" I replied.  Maybe they were apologizing for the snoring.

This was the start of the interesting section, first climbing up onto a narrow ridge - "Really?" John asked, and yep, there's the next wand!  We followed the guys in front of us, verifying the wands and managing the rope around the corners.

They stopped just over the next rise, inspecting the first ladder crevasse crossing.  They motioned us to go ahead so they could watch.  John moved to the ladder and found the anchor with a carabiner attached.  We'd gotten enough beta about the ladders (Jason and I asked a lot of questions during our IMG classes) so we knew what to expect - very helpful.

John clipped the rope into the biner and stepped onto the ladder.  The rest of us were ready, following slowly to feed him rope and prepared to self-arrest in case he fell (which, it's John, so that wasn't likely).  Having the rope clipped into the anchor made everything safer, limiting the distance he would fall and limiting the number of people who could end up in the crevasse to 1.

He was soon on the other side, clipping into the anchor over there.  My turn!  He reported that the first rung was broken (lovely!), and I might be more comfortable crawling across.  OK then, that sounds like a good plan.  I passed my knot in the rope through the anchor and took a good look at what was in front of me.  Just the ladder, mind you, no need to look at anything below it...

Crawling was a good call, quite easy with the boards over the ladder, and I had no issues.  More knot-passing around the anchors and each team member took their turn crossing the crevasse.  That wasn't so bad!  We heard the team behind us working on the crossing as we continued forward.

Next was a long traverse, some minor ups and downs, and another short ladder (easy peasy and walkable).  We were getting into a rhythm now.  I was pretty stoked that everything was working and nothing was too stressful.  We heard the Japanese team behind us and saw their lights at the next ladder but didn't see them again (bummer that they must have turned around).

At the Emmons shoulder we started climbing again, switchback after switchback.  It was good practice for making turns while on rope, stepping over the rope, switching hands, keeping the right amount of slack/tension in front and behind.

During class we'd been told, "Don't be a slacker and don't be a tight-ass," meaning don't go too fast such that there is a lot of slack in the rope ahead of you.  And if the rope behind you tightens up, slow down and let the climbers behind you catch up.  We got good at communicating just by watching the rope ahead and keeping a hand on the rope behind, adjusting speed as needed.  Any one of us (generally it was me) could slow down if the pace was too high and the effect would ripple through the rope so the whole team adjusted within a couple steps.

Turning corners took more focus, keeping the same speed as the rope slackened and then watching behind you so you didn't speed up too much before the next person made the corner.  For sure, there was more give-and-take with 5 on a rope, but I think we handled it pretty well.

One more ladder crossing, this one straightforward enough but longer than the 2nd one.  We took turns carefully walking across, no problem.  Somewhere around this spot I realized I was really enjoying myself.  We were doing it!  Following wands, crossing crevasses, walking across glaciers, managing the rope.  In the dark.  I found myself grinning.

The route was easy to follow, up the switchbacks and then on a long traverse back to the left.  Eventually the slope mellowed out, just a long walk at this point.

First photo of the morning!  Good morning, sunshine!

Eventually the route rejoined the original direct climb and we turned uphill once more.  Some sections tracked through narrow trenches, with the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other without catching a crampon on your pant leg.  Good thing those didn't last too long.

Crisscrossing around crevasses in the early morning light, now it was getting obvious that we were nearing the top.  The 14,000 foot elevation made breathing more of a challenge, and the long climb was wearing down our legs.  One last push, we can do this.

We looked up to see a team coming down the trail toward us - and their guide was none other than Harry from our IMG classes!  It was so great to see him, I think I jumped over and hugged him, proclaiming "I am having so much fun!"  He seemed really happy to see us too, glad we were about to make it to the summit.  Thank you Harry, for all the help in getting here!

Then there was the crater rim, sweet!  We paused to remove the rope, except John and Jason kept their ends coiled over their shoulders instead of undoing everything (they stayed roped together the whole time).  They were using Kiwi coils, which we now understand to be better for scrambling where you might want to constantly adjust the rope lengths, but a mountaineer's coil would be better for crevasse travel so you can more easily take it off and stash it.

One more short section - walking across the crater to the highest spot on the other side.  This turned out to be harder than expected, with the choice between a deep narrow trench vs. a super bumpy snow surface.  I had not understood just how uneven the snow surface would be, and how much work it must be for the guides whenever they reroute the trail and have to knock down all the hard peaks to make it walkable.

The strange shapes on the surface of the snow, at the other side of the crater:

Partway up the little trail to the other side of the rim (Shaun signed us in):

And... one of our two less-than-perfect actions that morning... not getting a good selfie of all 5 of us at the summit.  It was windy and chilly, so we weren't as patient as we should have been.  Attempt #1 (not ready):

Attempt #2 (so close - except missing Jason, d'oh!):

We did get good pictures of smaller groups of us:

The second less-than-perfect happening (I consider it a navigational failure, really) was not knowing exactly where the summit was located.  It seemed like it should have been right above the Mazamas summit register, so that's where we gathered as a group.

But then that spot over there looks higher, could that be the summit instead??  Leslie and Shaun declined to follow as the rest of us just had to go check it out:

Wait, what about that little bump?  I sure as heck didn't want to miss the actual top of the mountain after all that work.  But the first spot behind us now looks higher...?

Whichever one it is, we made it!   :)

Now let's get out of the wind.

We gathered back together and decided the first bump must have been it, confirmed after we crossed back to the other side of the crater and asked the next guide who had brought a group up behind us.  Yes, we had all officially reached the top, yay!

Time to start the long trek down, not wanting to hang around and wait for the morning sunshine to start melting stuff.  I think the wildfire haze might have helped temper the normal heating process, but in any case we were moving early enough and didn't have any issues.

Everyone seemed to still be doing well, no altitude issues or physical problems, awesome.  John had just climb Mount Rainier, less than a year after hip resurfacing surgery.  So impressed!  The downhill along the top part of the mountain went easily and we had time and daylight for some photos.

Let's stay up here instead of descending back into the smoke...

Making a switchback, John got a picture of the rest of the team coming down above us:

Amazing ice formations and dark blue colors:

Short break for food and clothing adjustments (and posing for the camera):

Seems like a rather roundabout path through here...

...ah I see, we're weaving through crevasses, that's fun!

Back at the top ladder, with everyone wanting to document this experience.  John went first:

John's normal reaction = look down:

It's hard to get a good perspective on this, let's just say it's really deep:

My normal reaction = look straight ahead and get this over with (I think it was more fun in the dark, and yes, that's what she said):

John doubled back to take more pictures.  Shaun taking his own photos of the crevasse below him:

Leslie's turn:

And because she's fearless:

Jason on the ladder:

What a fun team!

Traversing through the snow back toward the Cleaver, and I probably should know what that mountain is in the distance (Adams?):

Working our way through the small obstacles:

One final ladder, and wow, that sure looks interesting from this perspective:

A guided team was coming up behind us, so we figured it would be good to get across this ladder before they caught up.  OK by me, I'd rather get it over with instead of waiting.

Clipping in before crawling back across:

It was interesting being able to see everything we had done in the dark.  Route-finding was certainly easier.  Soon we were back at the top of the Cleaver, dropping down to a flat-ish area where we could sit and remove our crampons.  The guided team met up with us and we chatted a bit before they took a break and we moved on down the hill.

Climbing/sliding down the steep loose dirt was my least favorite part of the morning.  The team helped me down and we got there eventually.  We found the sheltered flat spot where we had taken off the crampons in the dark, reversing the process now to return to the Ingraham Glacier.

A traverse, a bit more climbing to pass above a crevasse (come on legs, you can do this!), then an easy trek past Ingraham camp to take this excellent photo (that's the Cleaver over on the right):

We could hear a stream running below us and we were almost out of water, so Leslie and Shaun offered to go fill some bottles so we'd have fresh glacier water back at Camp Muir - thank you!

Mountain Buddies, still attached at either end of the rope:

Checking out the scenery:

Down through Cathedral Gap (much easier dirt to deal with compared to the Cleaver), across Cowlitz Glacier, then we were back at Camp Muir, yay!

I sent a check-in message on the InReach tracker, got a quick snack, and crawled up onto the bunk for a little nap.  Normally Leslie is always raring to go, but even she seemed to be OK with taking a break for a couple hours here (I think she may have had a headache at this point).

John heated water, we all ate a meal, we repacked everything, and eventually we continued on down the mountain.  It was nice not being rushed, or hot, or in any way stressed about moving quickly.

The walk down the Muir snowfield took a while, and we passed the time by experimenting with boot skiing, butt sliding, and foam pad sledding techniques.  Leslie is definitely the most graceful.  I would never challenge her to a downhill race.  Well, any race, really.

Finally back at the visitor center!  Happily John didn't mind walking over to the overnight parking lot to get the truck while we collapsed at the benches:

Thank you to the random stranger who offered to take a group photo of us - I love it!

Thank you, teammates!  It was truly an amazing experience.  I'm so grateful to have such awesome friends and climbing partners.

#41 in our highpoints quest: