Around 9:30 p.m. on July 11, Randall Nordfors scampered over the final rocks below the fire lookout on Mount Pilchuck. Much to his surprise, there was a group of 20-somethings inside — the restored tower was apparently hosting an illicit social gathering — so Nordfors held a deep breath, raced into the lookout, tapped the center bream with his hand and dashed back out.
The clandestine partyers were bewildered to see Nordfors dash in wearing a climbing helmet — not normally required gear on Pilchuck — but the 57-year-old Woodinville resident wasn’t taking any chances.
His hike up Pilchuck was just one leg in a journey that started at sea level on Priest Point outside of Marysville in Snohomish County. From there he traveled by bicycle to the North Fork Sauk River, switched over to trail runners and jogged most of the way up to White Pass in the shadow of Glacier Peak, then turned into a mountaineer to reach the 10,541-foot summit, only to reverse course, hop back on the bike, ride over to Mount Pilchuck (swapping the road bike for a mountain bike to tackle the pothole-riddled approach), and slog up that one, too. Then he pedaled back to Priest Point, finally finishing nearly 28 hours later.
When Nordfors arrived back at salt water, he had officially completed a uniquely Cascadian odyssey of his own concoction — to travel from sea level to summit of all five of the state’s volcanoes via human-powered travel. It took him 12 years.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and it was something I did to honor being a Northwest native,” he told The Seattle Times in mid-September.
Nordfors’ endurance feats — all of them while in his 40s and 50s — are all the more impressive given his relatively late embrace of the mountains. Although he backpacked with his family growing up, and his parents let him spend four days in the Necklace Valley with just his dog for company when he was a junior in high school, his first love was the bicycle. In 1985, he rode across the country upon graduation from the University of Washington, then came back to work at Gregg’s Greenlake Cycle before taking up competitive bike racing, where he worked his way up to be a Category 2 national competitor over the course of a decade.
But the call of the mountains also ran in the family tree. His uncle Paul Hodge wrote a celebrated trail guide to Mount Baker. In 2006, Nordfors, then working for Seattle biotech company Amgen, and his brother honored their mother’s passing the year prior by climbing Mount Rainier with local guide outfit RMI Expeditions. But the clunky, double-plastic mountaineering boots and slow pace didn’t suit Nordfors, who was used to going light and fast.
“It whetted my appetite,” Nordfors said of that guided climb. “I wanted to experience the mountain differently.”
From Dee Molenaar’s classic “The Challenge of Rainier,” he recalled stories of mountain climbers of yore who rode their bikes from Ashford to Paradise before heading up Rainier. With his foundation in endurance cycling, Nordfors figured he could one-up that ambition and start from sea level.
He mapped out a route from Tolmie State Park, near the mouth of the Nisqually River, and found guides from International Mountain Guides who would meet him at Paradise. He trained and prepared to pull the trigger in September 2007, setting a goal to finish in 20 hours. There was just one problem:.The climbing route was particularly icy and crevassed that year, so the National Park Service consulted with the guiding outfits and decided they wouldn’t issue him a climbing permit.
The denial was a blessing in disguise. What had started as a slapdash effort that Nordfors pulled together somewhat on a whim morphed into a yearlong runway to plan and execute. On July 12, 2008, he shoved off from the edge of Puget Sound. Nineteen hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds later, he was back at the water’s edge, having tagged the summit and watched the sunrise on his way back down. He still holds the fastest known time for the admittedly offbeat objective.
“For about a year, I basked in it,” he said. “I didn’t start out with the objective to do a series. Rainier is the crown jewel, and it hadn’t occurred to me I would have been motivated to do all the others. But as soon as the first one was over, I was.”
Still, Nordfors, already in his 40s at the time, took it easy and gave his body a year to recuperate after the intensive training. He eased back into hiking and biking, then began conducting reconnaissance missions around Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan as he teased the idea of climbing not one, but two peaks in a single push while starting and ending at sea level under human power. He did practice climbs of both mountains with guide Aaron Mainer, who became Nordfors’ constant companion on the alpine portions of his missions.
On Aug. 13-14, 2011, Nordfors dipped his bike wheel in Bellingham Bay then set off for the high country, once again pulling off a sea-level-to-summit pursuit in 34.5 hours. In a sense, the “easy” ones were over. Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens are fairly distant from salt water and Glacier Peak is a haul from the nearest trailhead. Nordfors put off his volcano project and returned to bike racing, where he raced competitively in the masters division for a year. He also dealt with professional turbulence when Amgen closed its Seattle office, putting the statistical programmer out of work. (He eventually landed at Seattle Genetics.)
In 2015, Nordfors began plotting how to tackle Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. His initial attempt in August 2016 was exceptionally convoluted: Start at the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria, eventually kayak across the river, bike deep into the mountains. After more than 30 hours of constant motion, he found himself at Climber’s Bivouac staring up at Mount St. Helens, delirious.
“I was super tired and having trouble thinking,” he said. “There was a lot of drama, emotions and crying, but I made the right decision to pull the plug.”
Two years later, he was back on the bike, starting at Kalama on the banks of the Columbia River (not salt water, but at least within a rounding error of sea level). With a shorter bike ride and no kayak to wrestle with, he pulled off yet another volcanic duo in 37.25 hours, leaving only Glacier Peak. Adding in Pilchuck, to keep with his theme of doubling down on peak bagging, was “for sentimental reasons.”
“Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and hiking there during summer camp, people understand it and it means something to them,” he said.,“Also, I thought it would increase my chances of success. I didn’t want to have trouble on the second mountain and abort.”
With all five Cascade volcanoes in his rearview mirror, Nordfors admits he is finally done with this zany pursuit — though on the phone, he confessed to sketching out the basics of a Mount Hood attempt. His wife Debbie, who went along on countless training sessions and helmed the support vehicle during the attempts themselves, isn’t having any of it.
“He’s retiring,” she said. “We’ve done enough of this for a while. It’d be nice to go on a hike together and not have to worry about speed and gear and all the stuff that goes along with these adventures.”
Nordfors is deeply appreciative of Debbie’s support over the years, as well as family friends and relatives who have stationed themselves at transition points with food and gear. The missions are planned meticulously, down to which type of food he will eat at what time, so Nordfors doesn’t have to think about anything other than keeping his body moving. The year of training and reconnaissance, in turn, provides him time to stop and smell the huckleberries.
It’s the whole package, however, that gives this Western Washington local the ultimate satisfaction in one of the rare parts of the world where one can taste the salty air of a tidal change and the frosty wind on a glaciated peak in the same day — if you’re willing to put in the work.
“I’m interested in matching myself against the resistance that nature imposes,” Nordfors said. “If you want to experience a great deal of it within a limited period of time, then you have to earn it. I want to truly appreciate going to the summit and feel the resistance of nature, gravity, terrain and wind resistance, then be able to say that I met that resistance.”
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Ed Viesturs as the author of “The Challenge of Rainier.” While Viesturs penned a foreword, Dee Molenaar is the author.