On April 24, Jack Kuenzle, 26, summited and descended Oregon’s 11,254-foot Mount Hood in record time: 1 hour 31 minutes 31 seconds. The route’s 5,254 feet of elevation gain included an extended technical section involving a narrow ridge and a steep chute. He beat the existing fastest known time (FKT) by 13 minutes. His ascent alone—1 hour 16 minutes—was also completed in record-breaking time.
If the sight of someone hustling up a skin track at warp speed wasn’t enough, Kuenzle did the whole thing 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 (quite literally) only the bare essentials: just a small pack loaded with crampons and an ice ax. (This is not recommended practice in alpine environs; good layers save lives in emergency situations.)
“Conditions were perfect,” Kuenzle says. “When I got to the top and checked my watch, I knew that I had the [round-trip] record. All I had to do was not fall on the ski down.”
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 switched out of his skis and into crampons below the Pearly Gates, the final technical route, just before summiting. The ascent took 76 minutes—an average of 69 vertical feet a minute. This was seven minutes faster than the previous ascent record, held by runner Alex King.
From there, Kuenzle wrote in an Instagram comment, “I downclimbed the top 200 [feet], skiing from the summit would require actual skill on skis, which I lack.” His descent—including his transition and the entire ski to the base—took just over 15 minutes. The round-trip record had stood since 2014, when fellow FKT seeker Jason Dorais skied up and down the peak in 1 hour 44 minutes.
If you haven’t heard of Kuenzle before, you’re not the only one—he’s new on the ski-mountaineering scene. A former Yale University hockey player and Navy SEAL, Kuenzle didn’t start backcountry skiing until 2019. But the Connecticut-born athlete began putting down blistering times on foot in the eastern U.S. that same year and became obsessed with setting records. When he was discharged from the Navy in October of last year, he immediately headed west with his eye on volcano FKTs.
“The plan was Shasta and Hood—the 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 uphill record on 14,180-foot Mount Shasta, in California, but missed the round-trip mark after he shattered a ski on the descent. Kuenzle also set a FKT on California’s 9,739-foot Mount Tallac, near Lake Tahoe.
Kuenzle has restructured his entire life around FKT attempts. He lived in his camper this winter, staying mostly in Mammoth Lakes, California, so he could sleep at altitude, and chasing good backcountry conditions.
“I don’t want to say that I skied more in the backcountry than anyone else in the world this season, but it would not shock me,” Kuenzle says. “There are so many different skills you really have to get dialed. And I just don’t think there’s another way to do it except exposing yourself to an astronomical amount of skiing.”
Kuenzle’s typical training day includes approximately 7,000 feet of vertical gain, and throughout the winter he estimates he skied about 900,000 feet. He focused the bulk 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 is not for everyone, Kuenzle says. “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 around. And to race an objective, you have to go practice on that objective.” Right now he’s a coach for Uphill Athlete, which gives him the flexibility to live in his camper wherever the snow is good, but he admits that his approach to setting speed-mountaineering records is all-consuming and maybe unsustainable.
His next project is to run a gnarly 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that heads through White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. So far only one person on record has completed the whole 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 skiers on Mount Hood, simply reaching the summit and skiing back down represents a sizable goal. Kuenzle knows that some skiers and climbers may view his speed records in the backcountry as antithetical to the spirit of getting outdoors.
“On the way up, someone actually told me, ‘Slow down, there’s gonna be enough snow up there no matter how fast you go,’” Kuenzle recalls. Others often advise him to look around, take a deep breath, and enjoy the scenery, or they suggest he try to have fun instead of going fast.
Putting aside the fact that definitions of fun are subjective, Kuenzle claims to spend more time in the mountains than the majority of his critics. “I know what Mount Hood looks like. I have taken in the scenery,” 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 at it than everyone else right now. That just makes it all enjoyable.”
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