On April 24, 26-year-old Jack Kuenzle summited and descended 11,254-foot Mount Hood in Oregon in record time: 1 hour 31 minutes 31 seconds. The route’s 5,254-foot elevation gain included an extensive technical section involving a narrow ridge and a steep drop. He beat the existing fastest known time (FKT) 13 minutes. His only ascent – 1 hour 16 minutes – was also achieved in record time.
If the sight of someone shoving a track of skin at lightning speed wasn’t enough, Kuenzle did it all in nothing but sunglasses and a pair of short spandex shorts. But he didn’t dress that way as a fashion statement — he just gets hot easily, he says. In addition to poles and a helmet, he brought (literally) only the bare necessities: just a small bag loaded with crampons and an ice axe. (This practice is not recommended in alpine surroundings; good diapers save lives in emergency situations.)
“The conditions were perfect,” says Kuenzle. “When I got to the top and checked my watch, I knew I had the [round-trip] record. All I had to do was not fall on the skis.
Kuenzle’s effort began at 9:41 a.m. at 6,000 feet above sea level, on a snowbank five feet above the Timberline Lodge parking lot. He removed his skis and put crampons under the Pearly Gates, the last technical route, just before the summit. The ascent took 76 minutes, an average of 69 vertical feet per minute. It was seven minutes faster than the previous ascent record, held by runner Alex King.
From there, Kuenzle wrote in an Instagram comment, “I went down the top 200 [feet], skiing from the top would require some real skill on the skis, which I miss. His descent, including his transition and all the skiing to the base, took just over 15 minutes. The out-and-back record had stood since 2014, when fellow FKT researcher Jason Dorais skied up and down the summit in 1 hour 44 minutes.
If you’ve never heard of Kuenzle before, you’re not alone: he’s new to the ski mountaineering scene. A former Yale University hockey player and Navy SEAL, Kuenzle didn’t start off-trail skiing until 2019. But the Connecticut-born athlete started putting aside hot times on foot in the eastern United States that same year and became obsessed with setting records. When he was discharged from the Navy in October last year, he immediately headed west with an eye on the FKT volcanoes.
“The plan was Shasta and Hood – volcanoes are the best for setting ski records because it’s a straight shot from the base and steep enough for decent skiing,” he says. He set the ascent record on California’s 14,180-foot Mount Shasta, but missed the out-and-back mark after breaking a ski on the descent. Kuenzle also established an FKT on 9,739-foot Mount Tallac in California, near Lake Tahoe.
Kuenzle restructured his entire life around FKT attempts. He’s been living in his RV this winter, mostly staying in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., so he can sleep at high altitudes and seek out good backcountry conditions.
“I don’t want to say that I’ve skied more backcountry than anyone else in the world this season, but that wouldn’t shock me,” says Kuenzle. “There are so many different skills that you really need to master. And I don’t think there’s any other way to do that than to expose yourself to an astronomical amount of skiing.
Kuenzle’s typical training day includes around 7,000 feet of vertical gain, and throughout the winter he estimates he skied around 900,000 feet. He focused most of his training on Shasta, Tallac and Hood, in preparation for his record attempts, as well as in the backcountry around Mammoth and Lake Tahoe.
Chasing FKTs isn’t for everyone, says Kuenzle. “I feel like to really do this, you have to live in your car or you have to have a lot of money,” Kuenzle says. “To be able to train, you have to be able to move. And to run a goal, you have to train on that goal. At the moment it is a coach for uphill athletewhich gives him the ability to live in his motorhome wherever the snow is good, but he admits his approach to setting speed mountaineering records is voracious and possibly unsustainable.
His next project is to hike a gnarly 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. So far only one registered person has completed the 100 miles in a single attempt. “My feet blew out around mile 80 when I tried to do it last fall,” Kuenzle says. “So we’ll see how it goes.”
For many Mount Hood skiers, simply reaching the summit and descending is a tall order. Kuenzle knows that some skiers and climbers may view his backcountry speed records as contrary to the spirit of going outdoors.
“While going up, someone said to me, ‘Slow down, there will be enough snow up there, no matter how fast you go,'” Kuenzle recalled. Others often advise him to look around, breathe deeply, and enjoy the scenery, or they suggest he try to have fun instead of going fast.
Aside from the fact that definitions of fun are subjective, Kuenzle claims to spend more time in the mountains than the majority of his detractors. “I know what Mount Hood looks like. I admired the landscape,” he says. “What people don’t understand is that this record is representative of thousands of hours in the backcountry.”
And for Kuenzle, there are plenty of reasons to try and get to the top of the mountain as fast as he can: “It’s a holistic test of a lot of different things. And, honestly, because I’m good at it, because I can be better than everyone right now. It makes it all enjoyable.