There’s a quote on the wall of our gym: if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. For me, it’s a kind of mantra. Every day I deliberately carry that intention in all facets of my life: the gym, my personal life, my family, and — most recently — my quest to summit Mount Rainier (14,410’).
Climbing our state’s tallest mountain is a huge challenge for all mountaineers, but there’s an extra variable for me: I have Crohn's's Disease, an inflammatory bowel condition which causes inflammation of my digestive tract. It can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. Crohn's's Disease is exceptionally hard for most people to manage in any situation, and it’s especially complicated in a mountain environment. (Just imagine: crippling cramps + diarrhea + a plastic bag + no privacy + dangerous environments + very high winds = no bueno.)
My first attempt to climb our state’s tallest mountain was in 2016. I spent months stepping up my training in the gym, working on my mountain skills, fine-tuning my gear, and mentally preparing. The trip started out okay — but when we got to the upper mountain, we stumbled into a perfect storm. Blizzard-like weather conditions came in, and my gut issues went bezerk. I’ll spare you the gory details of how an irritable bowel acts at altitude under extreme stress, but it was physically and mentally the toughest hurdle I’ve ever had to overcome. When we stumbled back to the parking lot, I felt lucky to be alive. I vowed I’d never set foot on Mount Rainier again.
That vow lasted less than 24 hours, of course. As I sipped electrolytes the next day, I started debriefing the climb. I took extensive notes, searching for the lessons hidden in my experience. How could I learn from our close call? What would I need to manage my disease effectively, and would it be possible to safely return to the upper flanks of Mount Rainier? My first attempt on the peak had terrified and humbled me, but I made a deliberate decision to see it as a challenge, not a failure. I threw myself into my mission to turn my dream into a reality, and methodically developed a multi-step plan, which included:
After all of these climbs — and thousands of hours of training — I finally felt ready for Rainier. Each mountain was another step in fine-tuning my body, my mind, and my technical skills. I talked to my climbing partners, and we set the date for our climb: June 2019.
While most people climb via the Disappointment Cleaver on the south side of Mount Rainier, we chose to climb via the Emmons Glacier, a route on the northern side of the mountain. Less than 20% of climbers chose the Emmons, because it’s longer, more technical, and less frequently traveled. Every team has to navigate their own route, make their own decisions, and manage hazards like crevasses, icefall, and exposed, icy slopes. But there are huge benefits: while the Disappointment Cleaver sees thousands of climbers every summer, the Emmons has only a fraction of those people, which gives you a completely different experience on the mountain and a little more flexibility if something goes wrong with my Crohns on the mountain. I methodically prepared my gear, packed by backpack, and got in the zone.
We left Seattle before sunrise, and drove for several hours to pick up our permits. From there, we had to hike to our Camp Sherman, our high camp. It was sweltering, and as I hauled my 68-pound pack up the mountain I was slipping and sliding in the slushy snow all the way up the steep approach. This turned out to be a brutal 8-hour slog. I think that day was actually more taxing than summit day.
At Camp Sherman, I did a self-assessment. I’d been trying to get a read on my GI system. I had started having a flare up the previous night, I get them about once a month and can last from 24 hours up to one week. After careful thought, I decided to engage my backup nutrition plan: to avoid digestive disaster on the upper mountain, I’d need to minimize what I consumed while climbing. It’s not ideal to restrict calories in extreme circumstances, but because of my training, preparation, and experience, I knew it was the best decision for me.
It took our team 8 hours to get to the summit. Despite my low caloric intake, I felt amazing. I was moving confidently in my crampons, hopping over crevasses, and finally climbing the mountain of my dreams. This time, there was never a doubt I was going to make it. We passed multiple groups on the way up and got to really take in the whole experience. I was engulfed in the breathtaking scenery, and I practiced pressure breathing to mitigate the effects of altitude.
The summit was spectacular, and the views exceeded my expectations. It was windier than all heck up there though, so we tucked in under the protection of the crater for 30 minutes while we took it all in and prepared for our decent. Climbers are often focused exclusively on getting up, and it’s easy to forget that getting down is harder and more technical. This mountain was no exception: it took us almost as long to descend to Camp Sherman as it had taken us to get to the summit. My GI isn't tolerating real food at this point so I restricted my nutrition even more so I could avoid having to deal with my gut any more during the descent. The winds were gusting to 40mph, and we had to focus carefully to manage our rope as we descended switchbacks down the steep, icy slopes. By the time we got back close to Camp Sherman, the sun was baking and the snow was a sloppy mess. I was running on fumes and wanted nothing more than to be back at Camp.
After (finally!) refueling with some calories and a couple trips to the facility at camp, I felt like a million bucks. We quickly packed up and started the descent back to the car. We made this transition at camp in a little over an hour as we were all eager to get home to our own beds. I was relieved when I realized the dreaded slog through the snow back to dirt was 70% a glissade (sliding on your butt). Definitely my favorite glissade to date, as the view was amazing. After the glissading it was an uneventful trek back through the dirt to the car. We reached the car at 7pm — we were exhausted from our 18-hour day, but we grinned and high-fived to a successful trip.
The next day my family and I went out on our boat for Father’s Day. As we floated on Lake Washington, I kept looking back up at Rainier. The knowledge that I’d just up there was surreal! I’ve been staring at that mountain ever since my first attempt wanting nothing more than to accomplish what I set out to do — and I finally did it! This was the most satisfying physical goal I’ve ever accomplished.
Not only did fine-tuning everything help me on the mountains, but it also helped me enjoy all the things I love doing outside (mountain biking, wakeboarding, snowboarding, and hiking with my family) with my friends and family so much more. Now that I know more about my body, I’m able to utilize a lot of the same nutritional strategies with my other outdoor activities. It’s allowed my system to run better than ever, and minimizes the symptoms of my disease. I’m still processing my time on Mount Rainier, but I’m certain of one thing: this mountain challenged me, and that challenge made me better.
I still see Mount Rainier on the horizon every day when I drive to work at the gym, and I often reflect on how I felt when I was diagnosed with Crohn's's Disease almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was obsessed with bodybuilding, and most of my exercise was focused on vanity and self-image. But throughout my health journey, I’ve realized that the physical and mental strength I earned in the gym helped me get through 12 surgeries. It helped me recover from iron deficiency, and it gave me the chance to reassess my priorities and goals. It’s given me a new perspective and ability to help my training clients and community members. And most of all, it taught me to believe whole-heartedly in the quote we have on the wall of our gym: if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.