Published August 18, 2017

Fitness Inspiration: Mt. Rainier Conqueror Ben M.

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When we first met Ben Milakofsky, we were wondering why a former West Wing staffer from the Obama administration would be interested in working at Fhitting Room. Needless to say, we were intrigued and wanted to meet him. Now that Ben has been a part of our FHITfam for over 6 months, we are excited to share in his own words his most FHITspirational achievement - climbing Mt. Rainier. Read on to hear how Ben first found Fhitting Room and how getting his FHIX prepared him for one of the biggest physical challenges of his life.

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The height of the fiercest mountain in the lower 48. An episodically active composite volcano.

14,410 feet.

The peak of Mt. Rainier. Columbia Crest to be specific.

14,410 feet.

Out of my reach during my first summit attempt in May 2016, I knew I would go back the following year.

14,410 feet.

And I don’t get there without Fhitting Room and their lunges, squats, thrusters, box jumps, rowers, assault bikes, and yes – burpees!

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In August of 2016, I reached out to a friend living in NYC. I was traveling from DC to NYC for a wedding and I asked her for a running route as we were both training for the Chicago marathon. The humidity was in full effect and temperatures were expected to reach 97 degrees. Not exactly ideal conditions for an 18-mile run when you don’t know the water fountain locations or which bridges, highways, and parks to visit.

My friend is a long time Fhixer, a Boston marathon qualifier, and a stellar athlete. She countered my running plan, suggesting a challenging HIIT workout at Fhitting Room. My weekly routine included HIIT classes, Yasso 800’s, a few intermediate runs, a local spinning studio, and one long run each week. HIIT is my favorite I thought – why not give Fhitting Room a try?

I was nursing a headache and searching for a good sweat. Although, I wasn’t feeling my best, I naively felt ready for this. Within 15 minutes I was panting on the floor wondering how I was supposed to do banded pull-ups for 60 seconds straight as part of a circuit.

“WHAT IS THIS?!” I thought.

Of course, I was hooked and took my second intro class a few weeks later during a follow up trip at the end of the month.

Fast forward a few months.

14,410 feet.

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My position in DC was coming to an end and I found myself emailing info@fhittingroom.com. After an incredible adventure that included stops in the White House and the U.S. Department of the Interior (and a quick trip to Baghdad), I was relocating to NYC to be closer to family. That much was certain. Everything else felt up in the air. But I was going back to Rainier in July.

14,410 feet.

Facing an extended break, I was hoping Fhitting Room would allow me to work a few shifts a week in exchange for the ability to take classes. I didn’t know who would read the note but I honestly told them: “I can’t think of a better fitness studio to support given how much I loved the classes I took.”  They were curious, the timing was great as they prepared to open a third location, and invited me to visit for a conversation. They wanted to know why I was interested in them. In my mind, it was simple.

14,410 feet.

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Training at sea level isn’t ideal training conditions for mountaineering. There are vertical inside stairwells, but you can’t really use your ice axe and crampons on NYC stairs. How else was I going to prepare my core, quads, hamstrings, and calves for this? Hiking in Shenandoah last time wasn’t enough. Climbing a mountain is technical and it is not hiking. Running stairs with a 44lb vest for short sprints wasn’t going to be enough either. Spinning and running – nope. My workout plan needed to adjust if I was going to summit. I remembered my time on the floor last August and thought I found my anchor.

14,410 feet.

Unfortunately, I had an unexpected surgery in mid-April and I would only have two months to truly train for the climb. Again, it is NOT a hike. People die annually on this mountain and I would need to give it my all. Over the next two months, I would take 25 Fhitting Room classes and have now taken over 40 classes since I moved to NYC at the end of winter. I could feel myself getting stronger and mountain ready throughout training. With each set of lunges and squats, I could set my sights on Rainier’s upper mountain. Over time, I could feel my body composition changing. As the FHITpros suggested a distance on the rower and calories on the assault bike, I saw those numbers as a minimum instead of a goal. With May rolling into June and then July, I found myself adding extensions to my box jumps to make the height more challenging. My body was evolving and the incredible trainers at Fhitting Room were helping me prepare to achieve my goal. The FHITpros corrected my form, encouraged my push, and motivated me throughout each class.

14,410 feet.

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Often, I would double and triple my workout by adding in other studio classes. My Sunday routine became a quadruple workout for endurance. But I would always go to Fhitting Room first as it was the most challenging and most rewarding. There were days where I would walk stairs with a 44lb vest for hours, but only after Fhitting Room. I needed to build endurance but the right kind of endurance.

14,410 feet.

I was finally going back. A few days in Seattle including my first hike at Mt. Si, I was heading back to the mountain. Following gear check, we had our safety training day. You learn how to climb the mountain including proper breathing and walking techniques. They also teach you how to correctly use your ax and crampons. This includes the self-arrest technique should you or someone on your rope team fall. Finally, on Wednesday, July 26 we set off to climb the mountain.

14,410 feet.

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We spent the morning climbing and gaining 4700 vertical feet before arriving at Camp Muir – the half way point – and an elevation of approximately 10,188 feet. Our group of 18 arrived in early afternoon, mostly smiling and some nursing some wicked mountaineering boot blisters. I went with preventative medicine and wrapped duct tape around my heels. A quick 3:30pm dinner was followed by a short rest. The guides woke us up for breakfast at 10 p.m. and we would depart by 11.

14,410 feet.

Unlike last time when I never saw the mountain until I drove to the airport, the views were spectacular and the weather was largely cooperative. You could see Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and even Mt. Hood in Oregon during the day. At night, the sky was stunningly beautiful. I wanted to gaze at the stars for hours, but the task at hand would require my full attention.

14,410 feet.

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We climbed through Cathedral Gap which is largely rockfall and traversed over to Ingraham Flats. After a short break for food and water, we headed to a brutal and vertical section of the upper mountain that is aptly named Disappointment Clever. It is largely exposed rock and they pull your rope team in close. We would scramble in silence with our feet and legs pounding. There are very narrow sections and I forgot to walk the proper way. A few times, I pulled on the person in front of me making their climb a little harder.   Finally, we reached the top of the cleaver which is approximately 12,300 feet. Half way to the summit and it was now about 2 a.m.

14,410 feet.

A few team members decided to head back down. We were told to make a final decision. We had several hours left but if we continued we had to go all the way to the summit. Get food and water and decide quickly. I faced this decision last year at high break which is approximately 13,500 feet and the final resting location before the summit. Choosing to head down 90 minutes before reaching the summit in 2016 remains one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. Going up is optional but coming down is mandatory. It sounds obvious but it’s a nearly impossible decision to make while you are sucking wind on the mountain. Breathing gets particularly difficult on the upper mountain above 10,000 feet.

Admonished by our lead guide for pulling on the rope, I had doubts of whether I should continue. I felt great but then again I was pulling. That wasn’t good and I asked what I should do. His response, “You got this, Ben. You should keep going.” Relieved but a little unsure, I thought for another minute. I wasn’t ready to come down. I felt good. My legs and core were fresh from training. Let’s do this!

14,410 feet.

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The guides are constantly evaluating the conditions on the mountain. You climb at night to minimize risk. This time of year, large crevasse’ open and sometimes you can’t safely cross with a ladder. These deep fractures in the ice field are dangerous. The decision had been made to traverse half way across the mountain, switch to a different glacier and climb up the Emmons Glacier route. This would mean losing 300 vertical feet which we would have to regain (and also have to address on the way down). We added another 45 minutes to our ascent climb but we eventually made it to the final break for water and food. Throughout the night climb and its most solitary moments, I focused on what I had accomplished these past 8 weeks. I had graduated to new weights of kettlebells for dead lifts, swings, and lunges. Finally, I could handle a modified wall stand and my distance on the rower had achieved new heights.

14,410 feet.

It was about an hour away and I was utterly exhausted. Climbing can be lonely and quiet for long stretches other than important instructions from the guide. Given the conditions on the mountain, we were roped in near each other, which was different than last time, and we casually talked to pass the time. But I couldn’t talk any more. 3 seconds of breathing in followed by 1 second of pushing out really hard. 3 seconds of breathing in and PUSH. At this altitude, you need to discharge the CO2 and get oxygen to your body. It’s now frigid and the wind is picking up to 25-30mph.

14,410 feet.

We departed for the final part of our summit ascent and it was extremely vertical. I muttered curse words and took big, deep breaths. We finally reached the base of the summit at 5:30am just as the sun was up. It is cold and windy up there! “Congratulations – you officially summited,” they said. Technically it wasn’t the final peak but it was optional to go the final stretch. I tried to move and fell back down. I contemplated staying there when someone correctly said, “you are 50 vertical feet (about ten minutes) from the summit. Get your ass up there.”

Ok. OK. I listened. Slowly I clawed my way to Columbia Crest by 5:45am. I just summited but I was only half way…coming down is mandatory.

14,410 feet.

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I honestly wouldn’t have gotten there this year without Fhitting Room. I will always appreciate the opportunity they gave me while knowing I wouldn’t stay forever. I may have another full time job now working as the Chief of Staff at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, but I love this team (and FHITfam!). You can find me at the front desk on Saturdays. I will probably be complaining about the awful walk down that mountain for months.

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