In the beginning, the goal wasn’t so abusive and outrageous. Nick Burson, 31, and Marc McPhereson, 43, had planned to climb Washington’s five tallest Cascade-range volcanoes in a relatively leisurely seven days.
But as work and family commitments put a squeeze on the itinerary, they had to make a choice: Scale down the goals of summiting them all – Adams, St. Helens, Rainier, Baker and Glacier Peak – or ramp up their threshold for pain and fatigue.
“Five days was doable if we got the weather, finished Adams and did St. Helens in the same day, climbed in the dark and gave up some sleep along the way,” Burson said.
When the dust settled from their flurry of climbing and driving, including an initial 36-hour run with no sleep, the two law enforcement officers made their goal as well as the deadline for domestic tranquility.
They scaled the five peaks in 5 days, 15 hours and 44 minutes clocked from the Mount Adams Trailhead start on July 24 to the Mount Baker parking lot finish.
They weren’t trying to set any records for speed. Facing variable snow conditions and glacier crevasses widening in the summer heat, they did not bring skis for speedier descents.
Their trip was unsupported. They didn’t even recruit friends to help with the 1,000 miles of driving.
They waited on the summit of Mount Adams for the aesthetic boost of watching the sun come up before descending. They stopped in Tacoma for a good meal between climbing Rainier and Glacier Peak. They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at a backcountry campsite on Glacier Peak before hiking out 15 miles after their ascent.
But as the climbs unfolded, they realized they were kicking butt. “We’d climbed all of these peaks previously, one at a time, but on this trip we were setting personal records even though we were more tired,” Burson said. “It was like we were feeding off the adrenaline.”
A 2004 graduate of Deer Park High School and formerly of Spokane, Burson got his first taste of climbing on Mount Hood at the completion of a mountaineering course he took at Eastern Washington University.
The two police officers from the Ellensburg area became fast friends and climbing partners starting in 2009. In 2015, they completed a goal to climb all five volcanoes in a single year.
“We have it down to a science,” Burson said. “We know what gear to take and when to take it. We can set a pace and keep that pace all day.”
All of that experience was put to use bagging the five volcanoes in a week. They polished off the first two peaks without a break. “It felt like we ran up St. Helens even though we’d already done Adams that morning,” Burson said.
Everything had to be planned around their permit for St. Helens. Luckily, the date they scored months in advance was in a long window of clear weather.
They relied on their lifestyle to be in shape rather than training specifically for the five-summit push. “We climb, work out and I run marathons,” Burson said. “I’m 12 years younger than Marc. That’s a plus – for me.
“It seemed like we picked up momentum, getting stronger rather than more tired because of the excitement.”
Most climbers take three days to scale Glacier Peak and two for Rainier. Burson and McPhereson chopped those paces nearly in half.
“You have to tell yourself you can do it, and then you have to convince yourself,” Burson said.
Not knowing how far they could push with so little rest, they figured they’d just pull over on the trail or road and sleep as needed. “Marc took a little snooze on the summit of Rainier,” Burson said, “but you can only sleep so well with a 30 mph wind and 15 degree wind chill factor. It was cold up there.”
They had to be equipped for a full range of conditions. After donning down coats and wind shells on Rainier’s chilly summit, they soon stripped down to their base layers as they descended snowfields drenched in a reflector oven of brilliant summer sunshine.
Burson said they’ve honed their gear to the essentials and alter the list as dictated by the conditions. “I use the lid on my Jet Boil for a cup. I can do without a toothbrush…” He saved a little weight by splicing a Sawyer mini filter in his Camelbak water line so he could carry less water and fill directly from streams or snowmelt as he went.
“We make do without some comforts, although we carry Starbucks Via (instant coffee), and we always pack a little whiskey for a shot at the summit, and one back at camp,” he said.
The duo roped up for safety while negotiating the glacier crevasses of Rainier and Baker.
They snacked on Snickers bars and dried fruit and carried Mountain House freeze-dried dinners for hot meals. “We brought our stove up Mount Baker and had a hot lunch before going up on the Roman Wall for the summit push,” Burson said, speaking of the last of five ascents. “It was worth the time to melt snow and boil water for a good meal at that point.”
They’d also planned to have a hot meal on the summit of Rainier, but that plan fizzled after they ate at Camp Muir before their ascent. “The stove froze into the ice and I could see that Marc was going to kick it with his boot to break it free,” Burson said. “‘Don’t kick it!’ I blurted, but it didn’t register to him that we’d just put on our crampons.
“ ‘Pssssssss.’ He rammed his front points right into our only fuel canister, and that was that.”
Luckily they had already melted snow and topped off their Camelbaks with water.
“Marc’s new nickname is Gas Can.”
Rainier, Washington’s highest peak at 14,411 feet, was the longest ascent of the week but Glacier Peak was the longest from parking lot to parking lot – about 35 miles round trip including the trek to a wilderness base camp.
“I loved it,” Burson said. “I find the North Cascades more appealing than the southern Washington stuff. I like the remoteness of Glacier Peak and the layers of mountains you see. There’s no light pollution. You have to work for it, and it’s amazing up there.”
Such rewards had to be earned. “Glacier Peak, as advertised, is an ascent of 8,300 feet, but the cumulative with the hike in is more than 11,000 feet,” Burson said.
“If you add up the elevation gained from parking lots to all of the five summits, it’s 35,400. But the actual elevation gain with all the ups and downs was closer to 40,000 feet.”
After a two-hour nap in the pickup at the Mount Baker trailhead, they launched their fifth climb on a slight variation of the standard Coleman-Deming glaciers route. They started one minute after midnight and bagged Baker’s summit at 8:19 a.m.
The high of the achievement stayed with them as they descended, almost at a jog, about 7,000 vertical feet over 5.5 miles to finish in 12 hours, 20 minutes from parking lot to summit and back.
Occasionally during the week they would tell other climbers what they were up to, mostly as an explanation for the strange hours they were keeping.
“A couple on St. Helens wondered why we were starting at 2:40 in the afternoon when most people start very early in the morning,” Burson said. When we explained that we could have been to St. Helens sooner but had to finish climbing Adams that same day, they seemed more understanding.
“We got the same reaction at Glacier Peak. ‘It’s going to be after dark before you get down?,’ said a climber at camp.
“One man said ‘You guys are idiots; it’s taken me 15 years to get all of these volcanoes.’ ”
Their coolest encounter was passing a man in his 70s who was hiking into Glacier Peak with his grown kids.
“He was the one who inspired us,” Burson said. “He was working on his goal to climb all the volcanoes, and after Glacier Peak, he would have only one to go.”