TACOMA – It was a storm that almost dashed their dreams.
Alex Borsuk and Kaytlyn Gerbin were pushing for their second summit on Mount Rainier in as many days, not to mention the 30 miles they’d run on the Wonderland Trail, when strong winds at 10,188-foot Camp Muir stopped them in their tracks.
The women were soaking wet and stopping every few feet to brace against 55 mph winds, with gusts up to 70 mph.
“If everything went right, we thought we stood a chance,” said Borsuk, 30, of Portland. “But of course it’s a mountain, and mountain adventures don’t always go the way you want.”
The duo was hoping to beat the record for Rainier’s Infinity Loop, an intense route covering 135 miles and more than 47,000 feet of elevation gain.
The Infinity Loop forms the infinity symbol, or a sideways eight, by summiting Mount Rainier twice and running the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the volcano.
In July 2018, two men set the fastest known time in 59 hours, 21 minutes, 7 seconds.
Although Borsuk and Gerbin were turned back on their second summit attempt, they waited out the storm and ultimately finished the route in four days and 4 hours, becoming the fifth team to complete it and the first all-women team.
“This was the most raw and intimate way to experience Rainier,” said Gerbin, 30, of Issaquah, Washington. “I can’t wrap my mind around what we did.”
Sleeping on the trail
Borsuk decided in 2016 that she wanted to do the Infinity Loop, and she knew she wanted to partner with a strong woman.
She decided 2019 was the year.
Both long-distance runners with an affinity for mountains, Gerbin was her first choice but had already committed to running an ultramarathon in the same month.
Eventually, Gerbin changed her mind, deciding that the Infinity Loop sounded more unique than another race.
They settled on a Thursday night, July 25, to kick off the adventure.
The women parked one car at the White River trailhead and another at Paradise. In both vehicle, Borsuk and Gerbin each left a pack filled with mountaineering gear and a pack for running. They set up beds in the back of the cars in case they needed sleep when they swapped gear.
The plan was to climb Rainier from Paradise via the Disappointment Cleaver route, then descend the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route to White River. From there, they would return to Paradise by running 30 miles clockwise on the Wonderland Trail. Then they would climb the mountain again and run the Wonderland counterclockwise 63 miles back to Paradise.
Things were on track until they neared Camp Muir for the second time and decided it was unsafe to continue in the storm.
“It was a huge bummer, but we didn’t feel it was safe. It was a hard call when we had a goal,” Borsuk said. “We called our husbands and told them our dream was done.”
The women descended to Paradise, changed into dry clothes and bought burritos. They did some work. Borsuk called her dad for his birthday and then they decided to get some much-needed sleep.
When they awoke at 6 a.m. Sunday, neither one was ready to give up on the Infinity Loop.
They dried their gloves and clothes in the bathrooms at Paradise and restocked their packs with snacks.
Since they preferred to climb at night when it’s safer, Borsuk and Gerbin waited until 8:30 p.m. to ascend.
Since the storm stopped all climbers from reaching the summit Saturday, there were more climbers than usual snaking their way up the DC route early Sunday. At one point, the women stood still in line for 3 hours, shivering from the cold.
But they made it.
“Even though it was really hard, and we were pushing the limits of what our bodies could do, I never regretted being there,” Gerbin said.
The women agreed that one of the hardest parts was running the last stretch in the dark, knowing how slowly they were moving and that the penetrating cold was going to again envelope them.
They would set an alarm for 2 to 5 minutes for a quick nap, then keep moving. They spooned beneath an emergency blanket when the cold got too bad. At one point near the Mowich campground, they fell asleep in the middle of the trail.
Occasional thru-hikers fueled them with candy bars and words of encouragement.
When asked what the hardest part about the route was, Borsuk didn’t hesitate.
“Everything. It was so hard,” she said. “That much gain on paper looked hard. But doing it with no sleep, on these trails and going up the mountain, it took a lot of mental strength out of you. Exhaustion was real.”
They finished in the early morning hours Tuesday, collapsing on the John Muir steps at Paradise as their husbands and dogs looked on. Two bottles of Champagne bought by their husbands went unopened.
Within a few hours of completing the loop, Borsuk and Gerbin were at work and trying to make sense of their journey.
‘Women can do this’
The Infinity Loop was first dreamed up by Chad Kellogg, a famous Northwest mountaineer known for setting new routes and speed records around the world.
Kellogg died in 2014 while on a climbing expedition in Patagonia and never had a chance to try the loop he’d designed.
In July 2016, Gavin Woody and Jason “Ras” Vaughan became the first with a time of four days, 3 hours and 7 minutes.
The following year, Nate Smith and Sarah Morris did the route in four days, 1 hour and 31 minutes.
Next came Scott Bennett with a solo completion after two days, 18 hours and 22 minutes.
Jason Antin and Erik Sanders hold the FKT with their July 2018 completion.
Though they didn’t beat the record, Borsuk and Gerbin said they hope to inspire more women to push the limits in the world of mountaineering.
“There’s nothing in mountaineering that women can’t do that men can,” Borsuk said. “It’s important to show that women can do this.”