Jason Hardrath, a full-time elementary gym, and health school teacher and mountain adventurer sponsored by Swiftwick (he somehow has time to be full-time at both), is going to infinity and beyond. Pardon the Pixar Toy Story reference, but his latest project begs the connection as Hardrath completed the first Infinity Loop on Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba, beginning a project to establish these largely unknown and challenging loop routes on the world’s highest volcanoes. Hardrath is going light years beyond what most people would expect is possible for a school teacher who dedicates as much time to his students as he does to climbing mountains around the world.
Infinite Legacy of Infinity Loops
The term Infinity Loop is not in common household vernacular, even among the climbing community from which it originates. Hardrath hopes his project will one day bring the concept the spotlight it deserves. The term was coined by renowned climber Chad Kellog, who climbed Everest and set speed records on Denali, to list a few of his many mountaineering achievements. Kellog conjured up his Infinity Loop idea on Mount Rainier, one of the United State’s most challenging volcanoes and a mountain he had climbed many times. The basic Infinity Loop concept is as follows:
Climb up to the summit and down the opposing side
Complete a half-circumnavigation back to your starting point
Climb up and over the summit again
Complete the other half-circumnavigation
The Infinity Loop on Rainier was roughly 143 miles with over 44,000 feet of elevation gain. Essentially, climbers would summit twice and complete a full circumnavigation of the mountain. Infinity loops require climbers not just to choose to summit or circumnavigate, but to do both in a single push.
Kellog, unfortunately, passed away before undertaking this project on Rainier, but the mountaineering community has continued his legacy. Several climbers, including Hardrath, have carried out Kellog’s vision on Rainier. In 2019, Hardrath ran the Rainier Infinity Loop in just over 55 hours.
Hardrath describes his Infinity Loop experience, “It loomed as this enormous challenge with massive elevation and technical glaciated routes on both sides of the mountain. Completing the loop was a seminal and perspective-altering experience of what’s possible when you put together mixed skills in the mountain endurance domain of trail running and mountaineering. I loved the experience, getting to climb over the mountain twice, once in darkness and once in daylight, and viewing the mountain from every angle in a continuous push. It was such an intimate experience with the mountain itself.”
After completing an Infinity Loop (Fastest Known Time) on Rainier, Hardrath went on to complete Infinity Loops on North American freestanding mountains including Mount Hood, Adams, and created one on Shasta. He had clearly taken to heart the idea of “to infinity loops and beyond!” Again, pardon the Toy Story reference.
Chasing International Infinity Loops
In search of pushing the limits of the Infinity Loop concept, Hardrath turned internationally. His idea was to establish Infinity Loops on the highest volcano on each of the seven continents. He would begin with North America’s highest volcano, Pico de Orizaba (18,400 feet), a peak he had summited twice, and was interested in experiencing more fully through an Infinity Loop challenge.
But like many of us with fun travel plans in early 2020, Hardrath found himself pushing these plans back a year…or two…or three because of COVID-19 restrictions. In March 2023, Hardrath finally solidified his plans to undertake the Infinity Loop on Pico de Orizaba. He shares his excitement about the project’s rebirth, “This experience reopening itself was really exciting to me. I thought that the highest volcanoes on each continent would be the most obvious global expression of this idea that Chad Kellog thought up. There’s this element of the project that I approach with sacredness. It’s for Kellog, a great beloved climber, and his legacy that’s left hanging. I’ve approached it with a certain respect trying to make sure I’m getting it right and the people who knew him are going to appreciate the journey and process of expanding the idea further. The Infinity Loop was intended for any freestanding mountain, not just Rainier, and volcanoes are the ultimate freestanding mountains. It feels good to lay something out there that other people will come along, get a kick out of repeating and do in their own style.”
Hardrath’s project will establish Infinity Loops on the highest volcanoes on each of the seven continents, including Pico de Orizaba (North America), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Sidley (Antarctica), Mount Elbrus (Europe), Ojos del Salado (South America), Mount Damavand (Asia), and Mount Giluwe (Oceania). For political reasons, Mount Damavand in Iran and Mount Elbrus in Russia present immediate roadblocks to Hardrath’s project, as well as the financial and time commitments of traveling to Antarctica as a school teacher. “Out of all the summits on the list, Orizaba, Kilimanjaro, Ojos del Salado, all feel possible. Completing these three would be the threshold to say this project is doable for me, or at least doable enough to spark interest for someone else to believe they can do it (perhaps at a future time when political affairs around two of these peaks are less heated).”
Competition and Collaboration
There is a competitiveness associated with chasing FKTs, racing the clock, and doing something faster than anyone else has ever done it, but Hardrath is less concerned about being the fastest these days. He focuses his attention more on setting an inspiring and challenging platform for others to test themselves. A large portion of his athletics career involved traditional trail racing and chasing FKTs, yet he explains that at this point in his life, it’s the wild projects (including Infinity Loops) that bring him the most fulfillment, “I tested myself in the racing world for a long time and I could revisit there and see what’s possible and what little bits of performance I could squeeze out, but I don’t know if I would find it as gratifying as stepping out into these big unknowns and leaving something out there that’s inspiring and creative for others to pick up and try.”
The fulfillment of inspiring others also gives direction to the way Hardrath has chosen to undertake his project on Pico de Orizaba. Unlike his other mountain projects up to this point, which have been mostly solo, Hardrath wanted Pico de Orizaba to be a team effort. “My FKT pursuits were often solo expressions. Me testing myself out in the elements. Can I go do this thing that seems nearly impossible? Towards the end of my pursuit of Washington’s 100 highest peaks (watch his documentary on this project here) and especially after the Bulgers list, I felt more drawn to projects where I could bring others along and share the experience. I would still do something wild and crazy, but it would not be a solo personal gauntlet test.”
Hardrath chose Nathan Longhurst, the youngest finisher of the Bulgers list, to partner with him to set a joint inaugural Infinity Loop FKT on Orizaba. Longhurst and Hardrath became acquainted in humble trail running fashion: Longhurst asked Hardrath how to go about breaking Hardrath’s own Rainier Infinity Loop record. Hardrath was more than happy to share everything he knew to help him do it. A friendship was born. Their relationship from the start, as well as all the way to the summit of Orizaba, expressed a balance of two stellar athletes both in competition and collaboration with each other.
Returning To Pico de Orizaba
Hardrath had summited twice, though both times were not easy. An Infinity Loop would certainly not make it any easier. The route never dipped below 11,000 feet and included significant glacial climbs similar to Rainier that would require competent climbing skills. On his first attempt, Hardrath experienced serious symptoms of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). He was coughing fluid for nearly a day and a half, and also unable to lie on his back because of fluid build up in his lungs that caused feelings of suffocation. Although Hardrath would only have four days to acclimatize for this Infinity Loop attempt, he had been using an altitude tent that he hoped would help reduce the chances of another severe HAPE reaction.
Hardrath and his team chatted with expert mountain weather meteorologist, Chris Tomer, to decide upon the date of March 29, 2023 for their Infinity Loop attempt. This would be the most optimal weather window of the spring climbing season.
Parent Teacher (PT) Conferences To Pico
March 24, 7:00 PM, Hardrath finishes a day of teaching and PT conferences at Bonanza Elementary School in Klamath Falls, OR. The journey begins. He drives five hours to the nearest international airport to catch a red-eye flight at 1 AM down to Mexico City, Mexico. After a few close calls with nearly lost bags that almost didn’t make a transfer in Guadalajara or onto the bus to Pico de Orizaba (a bit of luck worthy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), the team arrives unscathed to the mountain. Let’s hope teacher appreciation week is happening soon because this guy truly deserves it! Also included in Hardrath’s team was a close friend who could be his “eye in the sky” for on-the-ground logistics, and a film crew based in Denver, CO.
All Hope Is Lost…We Got This
March 29, 5:08 AM Hardrath and Longhurst depart for their first of two summit pushes to the Pico de Orizaba. They arrive in three hours and 30 minutes to the summit and are rewarded to a field of scree which they happily “bomb down” in Warren Miller ski movie-style fashion. Everything is magical until Hardrath again feels the effects of altitude.
There’s a pain in his chest and a cough begins. He recognizes the pre-clinical symptoms of HAPE that have again come to him on this mountain. Remembering the traumatic feeling of nearly suffocating in his own fluids, he asks what will happen if he continues. What if it worsens on the second attempt up the mountain? Hardrath and Longhurst take a short break after the descent, considering options, and monitoring his condition. Nothing immediately worsens. Hardrath has some medications that could ease HAPE symptoms if needed and there are several nearby villages he could bail out at to lower elevations if his symptoms get worse. The team decides to continue. Hardrath explains his decision, “It’s tough when something you take for granted like your ability to breathe is compromised. The psychological effect of that is huge and I wrestled with that as the circumnavigation began.”
In addition to struggling with the beginning signs of HAPE, Hardrath and Longhurst shared their first internal struggles as a team. Longhurst, a 23-year-old energizer bunny with superior climbing skills, felt ready to challenge himself, not hold himself back waiting for a pre-HAPE Hardrath. Hardrath acknowledges his younger, more competitive self would have also felt similarly and wondered, “Should the stronger athlete carry the team or press on for personal glory?” Longhurst pushed the pace, but eventually decided to stick with Hardrath and took one for the team. Hardrath acknowledges Longhurst was the stronger climber that day, and was grateful to have had his company during a low point in the journey.
After completing the first half of the circumnavigation, Hardrath’s HAPE symptoms stay at bay for the second summit attempt. This time they climb in the dark. As they reach the summit a second time, they realize that the project’s initial goal of under 20 hours is certainly out the window, but 24 hours is still possible. Plus, an Infinity Loop in a day has a better ring to it than an Infinity Loop in 20 hours anyway. It would be difficult, but if they held their pace, they could achieve it.
Circumnavigating the other side of the mountain turned out to be a much greater navigational challenge. It was nearly three hours of fumbling through overgrown trails that disappeared into gullies and sent them into unpleasant fields of bramble and bush in the dark night. Hardrath describes the time as a back and forth between finding the trail and running as fast as they could, then suddenly losing the trail and fighting through tough, slow terrain, “It was three hours of feeling as if all hope is lost, we got this, all hope is lost, we got this…”. The pair finished in 23 hours and 40 minutes. In a similar fashion to the flower petal game of “he loves me, he loves me not,” their Orizaba trail game ends with “we got this” and not “all hope is lost.”
Aiming High and Lifting Others
Although Hardrath is excited to hold the title with Longhurst for the FKT of the Infinity Loop on Pico de Orizaba, he doesn’t expect their record to last long. The local climbing and running community has expressed great interest in the project and want to claim it as their own. Hardrath embraces the local enthusiasm for the project, “To establish something that makes the local people that love the mountain the most say we want this to be our test piece, that says everything I need to know about the quality of the endeavor.”
Hardrath continues to explain his mentality and intention for the Infinity Loops and all of his most challenging adventures. “I’m here to aim at something difficult with the intention to turn around and help others do it better. I think that’s the teacher in me. In the larger picture, that’s what serves the community better and moves the sport forwards. We’re not just bettering ourselves for the sake of ourselves but for the whole community who can benefit from it. That ethos is a part of anything I want to participate in. I aim high and to lift others.”
Stay tuned for Hardrath’s film on the Pico de Orizaba Infinity Loop project in fall 2023. Want to better understand what it takes to pull off a project like this? Check out the gear/nutrition list for his project below:
Peak Refuel Dehydrated Meals
Precision Nutrition – Gels and Chews
Keytone-IQ – exogenous keytones
Muir Energy Gels
Gnarly Nutrition Fuel20 Mix
Kapik 1 Expedition Coffee by adventurer Ray Zahab supporting i2P youth expeditions
Layers, bags, shoes, safety, sleep:
Swiftwick FLITE XT TRAIL socks
Path Projects Pyrenees mid-weight sunhoody
Path Projects base liner layers
Path Projects Killam Pant
Leki Insulated gloves with trigger shark system
Leki ultralight trekking poles
Patagonia heavy weight puffy
Feathered Friends Sleeping Quilt
Therm-a-rest ultralight inflatable pad
Ultraspire Epic XT 30 mountain running pack
Norda Run “Ray Zahab” Trail Shoes – 5% supporting i2P youth expeditions – impossible2possible.com
Tifosi sunglasses – Sledge Lite
Petzl “RIDE” ultralight ice axes
BRS aluminum crampons
Technology, wearable, lighting, preparation:
Caltopo Mapping, App, and Live Tracking
Ultraspire 800 lumen waist light
Petzl Nao RL 1500 lumen headlamp
Garmin Inreach Mini 2
Coros Vertix 2
“Higher Peak” Mag-30 altitude generators/tents
Kevin Eassa and Hayden Lynch of Highlands Global Media
Go Pro Hero 11
Go Pro Hero 9
2 peak design tripods
ECM B1m Sony mic
2 Rode mic pro