Adventurer of the Week: Uli Steidl climbs Rainier in record time

Uli Steidl, 44, snapped this selfie on the summit of Mount Rainier on July 26 as he set a new speed climbing record on the 14,411-foot peak.
Uli Steidl, 44, snapped this selfie on the summit of Mount Rainier on July 26 as he set a new speed climbing record on the 14,411-foot peak. Courtesy

Most people need at least two days to climb Mount Rainier.

On the morning of July 26, Seattle’s Uli Steidl padded his esteemed résumé with a new speed climbing record on the 14,411-foot mountain. Steidl, 44, left Paradise at 4:57 a.m. and returned at 9:21 a.m.

His roundtrip time of 4 hours, 24 minutes, 30 seconds is the fastest known time for a Mount Rainier climb by somebody not using skis. The previous fastest known time was 4:40:59 set in 2008 by Willie Benegas, a mountain guide whose accomplishments include 11 Everest summits.

Eric Carter of British Columbia has the fastest known time for a skier, 3:51:40 in 2014.

Steidl is one of the Northwest’s most accomplished distance runners and has been trying for the Rainier speed record since 2013. Steidl has won 10 Seattle Marathons, five Vancouver Marathons and holds the record for fastest Portland Marathon. Twice he won the masters division of the Boston Marathon. He coaches cross country with his wife, Trisha, at Seattle Univeristy.

In 2013, Steidl came up about 30 minutes short of the Rainier record. In 2014, he needed about six hours. Last year, the route wasn’t in good shape for a record attempt.

On July 23 he climbed Rainier with Trisha and determined the route was perfect for a record attempt. “I was thinking, I’m getting older, I can’t postpone this forever,” Steidl said.

Steidl tracked his effort using a Garmin Forerunner 235 GPS watch. He took time-stamped photos at key points.

Shortly after setting the standard, Uli took about 30 minutes (or the amount of time he needed to run from the crater rim back to Camp Muir) to answer a few questions:

Q: Some very impressive mountaineers have held this record, and I know your specialty is running, but how would you describe your mountaineering experience?

A: Certainly not of that same nature. All of those other guys, they are primarily guides or climbing rangers. (Former record holder) Chad Kellogg, for example, had a very impressive climbing record on Rainier and a lot of other places. I certainly don’t have that background.

I’ve climbed Hood, Adams, Glacier Peak and Rainier probably 15 times now (on various routes). I would say I’m not a novice mountaineer, but I’m not in the same experience category as those other guys.

Q: Can this accomplishment be compared to your running achievements?

A: It’s very different. I wouldn’t say that it ranks with winning the masters division at Boston or in 2007 I was 37th at the marathon world championships. It’s not a race and I think it would be very dangerous if two or more people would try for the speed record on the same day and basically race each other. Because then you are really tempted to push harder than you should.

It is not a race course. It is still a mountaineering outing. You always want to leave a safety margin between how hard you push yourself and how hard you could push because if you go too close to your aerobic limit then it is easier to make a mistake. If you are going down the mountain and you trip in the wrong place there are consequences.

In a marathon, you can push yourself as hard as you can and collapse at the finish. You can’t do that in a speed record attempt like this. Also, there have been millions of people who have run fast marathons and pushed themselves. There’s been probably a dozen or two dozen people who’ve tried to go fast on Mount Rainier.

Q: Do you think your record can be broken?

A: There are definitely people out there who could run it faster. One thing in the back of my mind was, (Spanish ultrarunner) Kilian (Jorret) has been going around the world and running up mountains like Denali and Aconcagua. And I think if he wants to do something in the (contiguous) United States, Mount Rainier would be the choice.

I thought, I better do it before he decides to do it because if he does it I don’t think I have any chance of possibly getting the record.

Q: What did you have with you in terms of gear?

A: I had crampons and an ice axe. … A few years ago I got in a little bit of trouble because I posted my gear, and I’m friends with one of the climbing rangers. He said he didn’t want people to see my minimalist gear and think they could climb it that way and then get in trouble. He said, “I know you know what you are doing, but a lot of people are not. Most people shouldn’t go up there with such a minimal amount of gear.”

Since I’m mostly known as a runner and not a mountaineer, I’m afraid if people see I did this with little gear, that’s what they would do.

Q: What about food?

A: I brought just a few gels and I ended up drinking only about a liter of electrolyte drink.

Q: What did you do to celebrate?

A: I just waited for my wife and another friend to come down, and we had some hugs and high-fives.

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