Oct 16, 2013, 11:45 PM EDT
A pair of women decided to undertake a climb last July which many think about, but few actually attempt.
Beth Rex, Notre Dame’s director of football administration, wanted to check off something that had long been on her bucket list. She enlisted Paqui Kelly, wife of head football coach Brian Kelly, to help her achieve a long-time dream of climbing Mount Rainier.
The trek to the top of Mount Rainier was added to Beth’s bucket list after taking a trip out to the Western states when she was younger. When Beth saw Mount Rainier, she joked that she wanted to climb it someday … and it stuck with her.
“Beth mentioned her excitement about possibly climbing Rainier in March of 2012,” Paqui said. “When she mentioned it, I kind of sarcastically said, ‘suuuurrrre …’”
After mentioning her once-upon-a-childhood-dream to Paqui, Beth put the idea on the back burner for a while as she navigated her way through another Irish recruiting season and spring practice. The idea stayed dormant for almost a year.
It was just after the conclusion of the BCS Championship game in early 2013 that Beth began doing some more research on the possibility of checking Mount Rainier off the bucket list.
“It isn’t like the Grand Canyon, you can’t just climb the mountain,” Beth said. “When I began researching the possibility, I called, and there was a waiting list. Luckily, they had an opening due to a cancellation, so I took two spots.”
After putting a deposit down for herself and Paqui in March, Beth went back to see if her climbing partner was still up for ascending Mount Rainier. Paqui confirmed she was “all in” and the pair was set to climb the Pacific Northwest mountain.
The next step for Paqui was to tell Brian what she and Beth were about to do.
“He was a little worried when I told him, ‘By the way, I’m climbing a mountain with Beth’” Paqui said of breaking the plans to her husband. “Brian hesitated and said, ‘Like with ropes and stuff?’ I retorted, ‘Well you need ropes to get up the mountain, it’s not like we are shimmying up.’ Evidently that put him at ease because he just said ‘Sounds good’ after I explained it. He was very supportive.”
An active volcano, Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascade Mountain Range. The elevation of its tallest point rests at 14,410 feet, as the height will change as eruptions happen.
Climbing the fifth-highest mountain in the continental United States requires hard work and major training as Paqui and Beth soon learned.
“It is hard to understand how much you have to train for this,” Paqui said. “We kept talking about starting our training regimen, but we weren’t quite sure how because there aren’t many mountains, yet alone hills around the South Bend area.”
Instead of finding natural elements to train, Beth looked inside Notre Dame Stadium and found solace in climbing stadium stairs while Paqui used the Stairmaster at Rolfs Sports Recreation Center at Notre Dame. As time went on, the duo predominantly used the Stairmaster to get ready for their climb.
“The Stairmaster was our best friend throughout our training,” Beth stated. “We would workout with backpacks to simulate weight and got some serious climbing boots.”
Climbing stairs wasn’t just physically taxing for Paqui, as she had to go through some mental anguish at the gym as well.
“All I know is that I got some serious looks while I was working out at the gym with my backpack on,” Paqui joked. “It really helped me get used to climbing on a grade with a backpack on.”
As the time to fly to Washington neared, Paqui and Beth began preparing the laundry list of equipment they would need for their expedition.
“I’m thinking that I’m going to be wearing my North Face skiing jacket up the mountain,” Paqui joked. “Little did I know …”
After going over the large list of equipment they needed for the climb, the duo thought they had everything they would need. Borrowing a few of the largest bags that Notre Dame football equipment manager Ryan Grooms had, they stuffed everything they planned on bringing into them.
A $75 overweight bag fee later, Beth and Paqui were on their way to Washington to climb Mount Rainier.
“Once you get there, you finally understand the magnitude of what you’re about to do,” Paqui stated. “I’ve never been out to that area at all. I’ve been to Utah twice to ski, but there are no similarities. It’s just beautiful.”
Arriving late to the first day of training due to flight problems, the pair missed the beginning of orientation and was asked to lay out all the equipment they brought for the climb.
“There was more equipment in the bag that was not appropriate, than things we actually used on the trip,” Beth said. “I brought a pick, they told me I should rent their style of pick … theirs was three pounds lighter.”
As they filed through equipment, their guide, Brent, was discarding everything they didn’t need. Neither Paqui nor Beth understood why until it later became evident.
“We thought they were trying to gouge us by saying we needed to rent one of their helmets and other equipment,” Paqui said. “But we then came to figure out they were trying to help us pack as light as possible and bring only what is necessary.”
Paqui said that her and Beth gave themselves an “F-minus” for the preparation portion of the trip.
After the opening day of orientation, the next day would involve Snow Camp.
Snow Camp is a daylong training session that helped teach the soon-to-be climbers the necessities for ascending the mountain and all the safety measures they would need to know.
Aside from learning to walk up 30-degree grades of snow and learning how to stop a slide by turning left and right (full disclosure: Beth was like Zoolander, she couldn’t go left), they also taught the climbers how to safely use a pick.
One of the more intensive tasks was practicing being tied together on ice and learning how to move in packs, and turn while grouped.
While learning about some of the pitfalls that can befall climbers, Beth began to get nervous about having to help save 220-pound men sliding down the mountain. Thankfully, their guide helped put them at ease.
“Our guide summited Mount Rainer over 450 times,” said Paqui. “He was very, very experienced and that helped put Beth and I at ease. He wasn’t very personable, but he was very serious and safety-conscious.”
The serious side of Brent could be seen in the lack of photos that Paqui and Beth have from the expedition.
“Brent told us right when we stopped on each of our four breaks on the climb we needed to do a variety of tasks,” said Beth. “You put your pack down, use the restroom, grab water, fix any gear and if there is still time left you can take a picture. Needless to say, we don’t have many photos.”
The ultimate goal for the duo was of course to summit the mountain, but Beth’s personal goal was to reach Camp Muir at the end of the first day of climbing.
Only one of the two would reach the 10,080-foot elevation at Camp Muir.
“They kept saying, ‘Coming down is not an option,’” joked Beth. “That is funny, because all I was thinking about was climbing the mountain, not the descent.”
From travel mishaps to overpacking, Paqui and Beth had overcome a variety of hurdles. The next hurdle would be much tougher to clear.
“I was heading to Camp Muir, and my hip flexor started creating pain,” Paqui recalled. “They were on fire. I took a few pain relievers and still couldn’t shake the pain. I was fighting through the pain and at one point I just felt unstable while climbing.”
Knowing that she didn’t want to get in the way of Beth reaching her goal of getting to Camp Muir, Paqui knew what she had to do.
“At the point in which I knew I probably couldn’t continue, I began to slowly fall behind to ensure that Beth didn’t see me. I wanted her to continue, I didn’t want her to turn around with me.”
In the pack ahead of Paqui, Beth kept trudging up the mountain. With each step, Beth was one foot closer to her goal, but she couldn’t stop thinking about where Paqui was.
“Brent kept telling me Paqui was just behind us. I didn’t know until we reached Camp Muir that she had turned and headed down the mountain,” Beth said.
Once Beth reached her goal of arriving at Camp Muir, she tried to appreciate the accomplishment.
“To look around at Camp Muir was unbelievable. Being above the clouds was a really cool experience. I was able to see the sun clearly and even saw Mount Hood in the distance.”
The dwelling at Camp Muir is nicknamed “The Shoebox” and the tenants are expected to sleep in triple-stacked bunks.
The next day, Beth woke up not sure of what the day would bring, but knowing she accomplished her goal of reaching Camp Muir.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with her group.
Having the experience of climbing the mountain hundreds of times, Brent knew the weather would not be safe enough for the group to climb the mountain, and then descend before the weather hit the different approaches.
As Beth descended Mount Rainer, she began to reflect on what she and Paqui had attempted.
Excited to have checked it off the bucket list, Beth still has goals for herself and her climbing partner: to get to 14,000 feet.
For Paqui, the journey was much different. Undertaking the task to climb Mount Rainier was not something on the radar of this self-described “risk taker.”
“I tried to explain to Beth than when you are running, you usually start with a 5K, then go to a 10K, then to a half marathon and then a marathon. Beth decided to start with a marathon in Mount Rainer. Swiss Valley would have been the 5K.”
What’s next for this dynamic duo may surprise you.
Paqui may not have any specific bucket list items, but would like to go on a mission trip in the near future.
As far as Beth’s bucket list, the possibilities are endless.
Aside from wanting to hike the Grand Canyon, Beth’s next conquest will be one that should be pretty easy to cross of the list — attend the Texas State Fair.
No matter what this twosome next puts their mind to, there is no doubt that they will give it their all.
And pack an absurd amount of unneeded items.
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