How Tacoma’s Richard Kresser uses defeat as motivation
By Anneli Fogt
Photo by Richard Kresser
Richard Kresser stood outside a café in Bend, Oregon, devastated. He cried as he spoke to his girlfriend over the phone. “The trip’s over,” he told her.
His bicycle, and the 80 pounds of highly specialized gear that had been attached to it, was gone: stolen by a passerby in the less than 10 minutes he had been inside grabbing breakfast. It was early July of 2018 and Richard was nearly halfway through the Tour de Volcanoes—a human-powered, mostly self-supported challenge he dreamed up that would see him bike to and summit the 16 active volcanoes between Mount Lassen in California and Mount Baker in Washington. In total, he would cover 2,400 miles on his bike and gain 127,000 feet of elevation. On foot, the 16 summits would add up to 180 miles with nearly 80,000 feet of elevation gain.
It was the most recent of the extreme adventures thought up by the Tacoma-based Army veteran and ultrarunner from Iowa who seeks out chances for failure and finds joy in overcoming it. His motto: “If you’re not scared, it’s not a big enough goal.” He had been planning Tour de Volcanoes for years and had already summited six volcanoes before he found himself at that cafe with only the clothes on his back, journal, phone and helmet. He was admitting defeat. It was uncharacteristic … and painful.
“At that point, there’s anger and then there’s quickly acceptance,” Richard recalls of coming to the realization his bike was stolen. “Even if I got the bike, all the gear that I had for my very particular style of climbing would have taken so long and been so expensive to replace that it was that final sigh of … ‘I’ll just catch a flight and come home.’”
But Richard found motivation in his impending defeat and, after saying goodbye to his girlfriend, found a convenience store with a surveillance camera nearby. The employees there had seen a bike in the alleyway. It was his, but more than half of the gear on it had been stolen. “Now I had my bike and it was that acceptance of ‘I do have to keep going, and now I have even more of a hurdle of how to replace the gear,’” he says.
He took a day to regroup before picking up where he left off and riding 40 miles west to the Three Sisters. He summited all of them that day—36 hours after nearly scrapping the tour.
Sixty miles north was Mount Jefferson: a technical climb that Richard, who was summiting all of these volcanoes solo, was going into blind on a day with questionable weather. “I hadn’t seen the route,” he says. “Not knowing what I was getting myself into was really concerning, but taking a weather day would severely delay me. That day was a gray area where winds were decently strong, but they were not terrible. I was thinking, ‘I could maybe do it, but it’s taking a lot of risk.’”
Richard recognized that while he wanted the summit, things could go awry quickly. So he forced himself to take a rest day and wait for better weather.
“That was such a moral conundrum,” he said. “Right after having taken 36 hours off for the bike being stolen, all I wanted to do was go, and having the reins pulled on me was so hard. That was the only day I took off.”
He summited Jefferson the next day and encountered the steepest snow he’s ever climbed without a rope. Richard admits “it was pretty hairy,” but everything went well. After that, he knew the hardest parts were over.
“Then it was just like, ‘OK, don’t mess up now. You know all the rest of them,” Richard recalls.
Over the next 13 days, Richard biked to and climbed up Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker without a hitch. Back at the trailhead after summiting Mount Baker on that last day, he stopped the clock on the Tour de Volcanoes 25 days, nine hours and 58 minutes after first setting off up the slopes of Mount Lassen more than 2,000 miles south.
The snowfield Richard was standing on continued upward in front of him at a 70-degree angle. It was 2am and the light from the full moon lit his path up to Mount Rainier’s summit. Looking down, he could see the headlights of cars making their way up the winding roads inside the national park.
“It was that moment when I knew I needed more of this in my life,” Richard says.
Born and raised in Iowa, the 21-year-old college student had never seen a mountain. Now, he was more than 1,700 miles from home on the side of one of the tallest in the contiguous United States. And he was elated.
While Richard grew up in a family that spent time outdoors, most trips consisted of car camping and bike riding. “I knew nothing of adventure sports,” he says. So, when he picked up a magazine at the age of 11 and saw a person rock climbing on the cover, he was immediately intrigued. Seven years later, when it came time for him to go to college, he chose to study civil engineering at Iowa State University and joined Army ROTC with the hope that the military could help him get to the wild, natural spaces where he could climb.
It did. During the summer between his junior and senior years, he and the rest of the cadets in his class were sent to Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) for a three-week camp where Richard saw mountains—and Mount Rainier—for the first time. “Just walking out on the drill grounds and seeing this massive mountain right there, it was amazing,” he recalls. “We never were allowed to leave the base, so I didn’t really get to experience it, but I was exposed to that.”
He returned to the Iowa State campus that fall with a newfound desire to return West. And he wasn’t the only one. A few classmates he knew from being involved in the school’s outdoor recreation program sent an email later that semester asking who would be interested in a two-week road trip west the following summer to climb some of the Pacific Northwest volcanoes, including Rainier. Richard jumped at the chance.
“We failed on every mountain in those two weeks except for Rainier,” Richard says. “I was a total [disaster], I had no idea what I was doing.”
But he was hooked. “That trip, hands down, changed my life,” he said.
He graduated in 2009 and was set to begin his four-year term of service with the U.S. Army in Fort Hood, Texas. In a stroke of luck, he switched with another soldier who wanted to go to Texas and Richard ended up back at Fort Lewis. “I moved out here and then just went down the rabbit hole,” he says.
During his four years at Fort Lewis, the marathon runner started climbing and summited all the major mountains in the area. By the time he completed his military service in 2013, he was looking for a challenge that would truly test his physical prowess. He had completed 50-mile running races before and always felt at the end that he “had more in the tank,” he says. He decided to return to Iowa for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI)—a weeklong, 420-mile ride from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. But he wouldn’t be biking, he’d be running. “I wondered if I could run 400 miles in seven days in the Iowa heat,” he says.
In July of 2013, he became the first person to run the RAGBRAI route and immediately began thinking up his next challenge. Back in Washington, while working ski patrol at Steven’s Pass, he concocted a plan for a brutal trip he coined Dick’s RASH. He would go up, down and around Rainier, Adams, St. Helens and Hood—230 miles with 71,000 feet of elevation gain—in seven days.
Traditionally, a trip of that scale would take three times as long, and as he planned, Richard began to understand the magnitude of the undertaking. By his calculations, Rainier alone would take one day to summit and then two days to run around the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. “That’s half my time on one mountain. That was so intimidating,” he says.
After two years of training, Richard took on the RASH in the summer of 2016. He started at Rainier where he summited and descended the glaciated 14,411-foot volcano in under 12 hours before heading straight for the Wonderland Trail where he went 43 hours with no real sleep, a sore throat and got caught in a surprise rainstorm 20 miles from the finish line.
“Morally, I was done,” Richard recalls in a blog post for the Mountaineers about that last day on the Wonderland Trail. “How could I continue in weather like this, already with a sore throat? ‘Just keep moving,’ I told myself. ‘You never know what will happen.’ After many hours, I finally made it to the van. I was in horrible shape and sure I wouldn’t be able to finish, but I couldn’t come up with an excuse to quit. I could still walk, the sore throat was bad but I could still eat, and I had no idea if weather was going to be bad or good the rest of the week. Well, got to try at least, right?”
He did more than try. Richard completed the ascent, descent and around-the-mountain run of Adams in just over 18.5 hours and Saint Helens in 14.5 hours. After five days, only Hood was left, but Richard was done—“wore down,” as he recalled in the blog post.
“On the drive down I-5 to Hood, I cried. Just bawled,” Richard writes in the post. “About nothing, about everything. It was the first time in days I was stationary and didn’t have anything else to think about. All of the emotions from the previous three mountains flooded over me, all the positives and all the negatives. And to think I was only one mountain away from being done. So close ….”
Richard’s 14-hour run around Hood was rough, but he kept moving forward and, after a three-hour nap, he set off for the summit with skis on his back—determined to make this descent fun. But the ascent was hard. Richard found it hard to move uphill. “All my reserves were spent,” he writes. “Slowly, but surely, I made progress up Hood. It kept getting closer and closer. I was crying again. It was so beautiful. I was at the summit.”
In the parking lot after skiing what he calls “some of the happiest turns” of his life six hours after setting off for Hood’s summit and one week after beginning the RASH, there was no fanfare for Richard’s feat. “I was just walking back to my car after having just finished this big achievement. No one around me knew what I’d just did,” he said.
But that’s just how he likes it. For Richard, these feats are not about gaining recognition or setting records. They’re about acknowledging the possibility of failure, using it as motivation, and overcoming. “It’s an internal feeling—that quiet satisfaction of being able to do something I set out to do—that’s why I do it,” he says.
Professionally, Richard is a firefighter for the City of Everett, works for Steven’s Pass Ski Patrol in the winters and organizes Skimo—uphill ski touring— events in Washington state through the company he founded, Snow Goat Skimo.