This is the story of my climb of the mighty Mount Rainier in Washington state. Living in Colorado and climbing mountains regularly, I have become quite at home at 14,000 ft. However, there are a couple of major differences between the Colorado mountains and Rainier, prominence and glaciation. Standing tall at 14,411 ft, Mount Rainier is one of North America’s premier mountaineering destinations. It has the largest system of glaciers in the U.S. outside of Alaska, and is covered with huge crevasses. Mount Rainier has a topographic prominence of 13,211 ft. This makes it the most prominent peak in the contiguous United States, and the 21st most prominent peak in the world, beating out K2.
- Equipment – A description of the gear I used to climb this mountain.
- Training – What I did to prepare myself for Rainier.
- The Route – Information about the Disappointment Cleaver Route.
- Hiring A Guide – Information about my decision to hire a guide, and my review of RMI.
- Whitaker Bunkhouse– My review of and information about Whitaker Bunkhouse where I stayed in Ashford.
- Day 1 (Travel and First Team Meeting)
- Day 2 (Snow Climbing School)
- Day 3 (Hike to Muir)
- Day 4 (Summit and hike out)
- Final Thoughts
- Video Of Trip
My journey to climb Rainier began with selecting a guide. Lack of interested partners and no glacier experience made the decision to hire a guide a pretty easy one for me. You can read more about the why I chose to use a guide and my thoughts on RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.), the guide service I used, on this post. The next step was selecting a date for the climb. The Cascades are famous for their foul weather, so the best weather window is in July or August. By late August the snow covering the crevasses has melted, making safe passage to the summit very difficult. I decided on the first week of July partially due to guided trip availability. As it turned out we had perfect conditions. Part of the reason I wanted to climb Rainier was the motivation to train hard. You can read all of the details about my training on this post.
Undoubtedly the most popular route on Mount Rainier, this one starts from the main visitors area at Paradise and is the principal route used by RMI. The route is characterized by the moderate Muir Snowfield to the 10,000-foot level (known as Camp Muir), where there is a guide hut, a ranger station, a public shelter, and outhouse facilities From Camp Muir, the summit-day route crosses the Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers and then ascends the crux of the route, the Cleaver, dividing the Emmons and Ingraham Glaciers.
The route was named after a party reached the top of the Cleaver in a storm, and thought that they had reached the summit (still nearly 2,000 ft above them). The Cleaver still dishes out disappointment to many climbers. Climbers are often turned back here due to exhaustion or deteriorating weather up high.
Day One (Arrival and Team Meeting)
Index | Skip to Day Two
I flew into the Seattle Tacoma Airport the morning of day one. I did a little research and decided that a window seat on the port side of the aircraft would allow me to see Rainier on the flight in. I would suggest figuring out where to sit to catch this view. It was a visually impressive start to my trip. As I sat and stared at the summit from my plane seat, my entire body was humming with anticipation for the climb.
Location of My Basecamp for the Week
We were set loose for the night at around 6PM. At the recommendation of the front desk, a few of us headed up the road to Copper Creek Inn for dinner. I found it to be overpriced and mediocre at best, but the patio and conversation were both enjoyable. After dinner I crawled into my hot lumpy bunkbed for a fitful night of rest.
Day Two (Mountaineering School)
This was a physically easy day which consisted of around 1,000 feet of climbing.
We met up at RMI around 8AM and boarded a bus for the 40 minute drive up to Paradise (The national park building where the trail leaves from). I passed time on the way up talking with fellow climber Darren about other mountains he had climbed in the area. We were also introduced to our second guide Bridget Belliveau Once we arrived in Paradise we gathered our gear and made the 30 minute hike back to the practice area.
The first subject of instruction was basic snow travel. The guides covered how to travel efficiently using the rest step / pressure breathing. We then worked on kicking steps up the hill, plunge stepping down hill, and finally had some fun working on standing glissades (aka boot skiing). After a 15 minute break we put on our full goretex top and bottom in preparation for self-arrest practice. Self-arrest is a mountaineering related maneuver in which a climber who has fallen and is sliding down a snow or ice slope, arrests (stops) the slide using his ice axe, knees, elbows and feet. We spent a lot of time working on this important skill and were required to be able to arrest a slide from all positions, including sliding downhill head first on your back. The temperature was warm and the snow was soft which made self-arrest much easier than other times I have practiced. We also had to demonstrate that we could hold the “anchor” position for an adequate period of time in the event the rope team had to catch somone. Holding this position definitely required some core strength.
When Paul was satisfied with our self-arrest skills we traded our Goretex for harnesses and crampons. We spent some time working on proper crampon technique, then we roped up and began learning how to move as a rope team. Working as a rope team was more awkward than I anticipated. It took some practice to move as a unit, maintain proper rope intervals, and manage the rope as we made turns. We also worked on team-arrest which is where the rope team stops the fall of one or more climbers, often into a crevasse.
Overall I found mountaineering school basic but useful. I learned some good tips, the material was well presented, and we had adequate opportunity to practice. I was really hoping to cover some more in depth material such as crevasse rescue and placing protection in snow. Apparently these topics are covered in the expedition skills seminar. If you are wanting to build skills that you can take to bigger mountains I would suggest doing that program in place of the summit climb.
Day Three (Hike to Camp Muir)
Anticipation awoke me before my alarm. Soon after, I got up and started taking in calories and trying to get well hydrated. We once again met up near RMI and took a bus up to Paradise. There was a notable increase in the excitement level on the bus. We were introduced to our third guide Andy, a fun guy from Pennsylvania. We got off the bus, picked up our packs (which now weighed 40 lbs), and began our assent.
We hit snow almost from the parking lot. We would cross a few brief stretches of pavement and rock but other than that the route to Camp Muir was on snow. This portion of the trip was pretty monotonous and unpleasant. In order to get us moving well as a group we had to stay in a bunched up single file line and move as a unit. This meant you stared at your feet as you kicked steps and tried not to bump into the climber in front of you. We lost a member from each group in the early part of the day. I was really hot and kept stuffing snow into my hat and down the back of my shirt to stay cool. I also dug down to some clean snow and refilled my water bottles on break.
When I did get the opportunity to look around the views were breathtaking. Every time I glanced over my shoulder the view of Mt Adams and Mt Hood was better than the last. On breaks I couldn’t get enough of studying the glaciers on the upper mountain. Particularly impressive was the Kautz Glacier where we could make out a party ascending this moderately technical route.
The scale of the mountain and lack of reference points on the snow field really mess with your depth perception. Camp Muir looks tantalizingly close when it is still more than an hour and a half hike away. At around 3PM, after five hours of monotonous rest steps, we arrived at Camp Muir. I quickly ditched my pack and was the first in the bunkhouse. I was on a mission to get a reasonable bunk on the bottom row. The bunkhouse consists of three sheets of plywood that have some thin mats covering them. Eighteen smelly climbers sleep shoulder to shoulder in the hut. It wasn’t great, but honestly not all that bad. We spent 45 minutes or so settling in and re-hydrating. The guides came down to the hut for the “summit talk”. During this talk they went over the route in good detail. We covered when, how, and why you should turn around and recommendations on what to wear out of camp that night. The guides then brought down boiling water so we could prepare our dinners. After dinner we all made final preparations of our gear and then crawled into our bunks around 6:30 PM. I wasn’t at all tired so I put on an audio book to try to just zone out and relax. It is nearly impossible to get sleep under these conditions (early bed time, close proximity to other people, constant opening and closing of the hut door). I am pretty sure I didn’t sleep at all, and if I did it was only a few minutes here and there. I simply focused on laying still and trying to relax as much as possible.
Day Four (Summit and Descent)
4,400 ft of climbing, 10,000 to 14,411, and then 9,000 feet of descent, for a total time 15 hours.
The guides don’t tell you what time you will be woken up. They do this so that you don’t lay awake and watch the clock. Due to the warm forecast the next day I knew we were in for an early wakeup. Sure enough our guides showed up to wake us up a little after 11:30 PM, yes PM. They brought down boiling water for breakfast and coffee. There was no snoozing and within seconds everyone was out of their bags and scurrying around to get ready for the climb. There was much to do and we needed to be roped up and ready to go by 12:30AM. The guides recommend leaving in just a top base layer and softshell climbing pants. I went with the recommendation and headed for the smelly outhouse to see if I could make some magic happen. As unpleasant as the outhouse is, at least it is private. On the upper mountain you are roped to your teammates at all times, this includes using the restroom. Additionally, all waste must be brought off the mountain in a “blue bag”
The pack you carry to Camp Muir weighs around 40 lbs. Although you don’t really leave anything behind besides your sleeping bag, the pack you carry on the upper mountain is only about 25lbs. You are now just wearing the other 10-15 pounds of gear and clothes (harness, rope, ice axe, crampons, and avalanche transceiver).
We left Camp Muir at around 12:45 AM in a line of bobbing head lamps. I was on the rope team with the lead guide Paul, and fellow climbers Mark and Dave. The first section was a traverse of the Cowitz Glacier. It started as an easy warmup for about 45 minutes. The last part up and through the Cathedral Gap was pretty steep. We took our first break at Ingram Flats where a few climbers decided to turn back. We could see a couple of groups ahead of us already nearing the top of the Disappointment Cleaver.
After the first break we crossed the Ingraham Glacier where we got to hop over our first “cracks”. This is a pretty flat section but you move at a very fast pace. You need to clear the area as quickly as possible as ice fall is a real hazard here. Even in the dark you could see refrigerator and house sized chunks of ice that had fallen near the route. Below the route some impressive crevasses yawned, waiting to swallow climbers unlucky enough to be knocked down the slope by falling ice.
Directly after the icefall you reach the Disappointment Cleaver and its rockfall hazard. We paused in a relatively sheltered area to shorten the rope interval. This area is not a glacier so you can travel closer together which improves speed. The Disappointment Cleaver begins with a traverse of a steep snow field, then you turn and climb a long steep rib of mixed ice and loose rock. There was quite a bit of snow here which eased this section a bit. The rock sections were difficult class two, maybe low class three, however walking on rock in crampons is like climbing with high heals on and certainly does not make you feel confident in your foot placements. For the sections of the Cleaver that were snow covered the path was quite thin, which required much care as not to catch your crampons on your pantleg. The Cleaver took about 1.5 hours, and overall, climbing it was not bad at all. Although I was only wearing a base layer I had worked up quite a sweat through that section. We took our second break at the top of the Cleaver. As we topped the ridge where we took our break the temperature dropped and the wind picked up significantly. Even with my down coat and mittens on I was shivering hard by the end of break. I decided to add another layer before heading out. The first signs of light were appearing over the glow from Yakima, and the spreading color in the sky was punctuated by a sliver of a moon. I wished I had a tripod and some time to capture the view.
The remainder of the route is essentially steep switchbacks up the snow and ice of the Emmons Glacier. This time of year the route is constantly changing. Every time a snow bridge collapses and a crevasse is opened, a new route must be found, wanded, and kicked in. This route had been established earlier that week, and according to our guides it was steeper and more ‘dramatic’ than usual. Thankfully it was also very direct, meaning we didn’t have to meander a path through the cracks. This section was on pretty steep snow (maybe 45°) however, the snow was firm and the steps in the route were bomber, which made for confident footing. Additionally, the route is a series of switchbacks, so even though you are in steep terrain where a fall would be serious, it doesn’t feel the same as climbing directly up steep snow. As we worked our way up the glacier, the pre-dawn light revealed that we were crossing some large cracks. The mood of the guides became distinctly more serious than it was earlier. I heard Billy Nugent’s voice come over the radio “dude my butthole is water tight right now!”, to which Paul replied “I am not even going to look”. We climbed up to where Billy had been and crossed a hollow snow bridge spanning a very large crevasse. At its narrowest, the snow bridge was barely wide enough to fit both boots on. It was definitely an area where you needed to move both carefully and quickly.After we got through this series of cracks we turned a switchback to see the Independence Day sun breaking over the Eastern horizon. The soft light painted a sea of clouds below us with hints of pink and purple. Breaking through the clouds were Mt Adams, Mt Hood, and Mt St Helen’s. I begged the guides to let me stop for 30 seconds to snap a couple of pictures, but they felt it was unsafe and we needed to keep moving. A little after 5AM we arrived at ‘high break’ which is essentially some shelves that have been shoveled into the steep snow. Much care had to be taken here as you removed items from your pack. It would be very easy for the strong wind to take a glove or a water bottle to rocket down the steep slope. We applied cold sunscreen to our cold faces and got out our sunglasses. I managed to snap a couple of good pictures before the color completely faded from the clouds.
The route above high break was steep but unremarkable and seemed to go quickly. A combination of the following factors makes this mountain feel like it is much higher than a 14er: you are nearly 13,000ft above anything around, at least 5K above the cloud deck, 9K above treeline, and 9K above snowline. Climbing 14ers has become rather routine, but this felt as if I were far from home on a much bigger mountain. It was an exhilarating feeling indeed. The terrain eased a bit, and I could sense that the summit was close. I had a surge of energy and wanted to rush ahead to stand on top, but I maintained my rope interval and slowly and methodically rest stepped upward. Then at around 6AM we were over the crater rim. A quick step over a final crack and we were standing inside the summit crater.
Rainier’s summit has two overlapping volcanic craters, each over 1,000 feet in diameter . It also has a small crater lake that is 16 feet deep. This is the highest crater lake in North America. The lake however, lies beneath 100 feet of ice in the summit crater . It can only be visited by following a network of ice caves in the craters.
Surrounding the crater are three separate summits–14,411-foot Columbia Crest, 14,158-foot Point Success, and 14,112-foot Liberty Cap. The Disappointment Cleaver route reaches the crater crest at 14,150 feet. Several climbers opted for a long break while the rest of us grabbed our ice axes and made the remaining quarter mile (260ft) hike across the crater and up to Columbia Crest.
On top of the Columbia Crest we reflected on and relished in our accomplishment as we snapped photos and signed the summit register. The views from here were of another world. I had put in eight months of hard work to get to this moment. Finally standing on top of this great mountain was a really intense feeling that is impossible to describe.
The Descent (Two Tickets to Paradise)
index | Skip to Final Thoughts
Shortly before 7AM we roped up once again, and the air of celebration was replaced with focus on the work ahead. Even though the sun had only been up for a couple of hours it was already warming the slopes below us. As the temperature rises snow bridges become soft and more likely to collapse under your weight. The soft snow also does not hold a crampon firmly which makes a slip and fall more likely. The upper Emmons glacier was still pretty firm and we were able to descend rapidly. When we reached the worst of the crevasse hazards we clipped into fixed lines or snow pickets, which we had not done on the ascent.
Once we were down the Cleaver we sped across the Ingrahm glacier and to ingrahm flats where we took our final break for the morning. I had lost my appetite but I forced down a pack of shot blocks in an attempt to keep my energy levels up. The temperature was now uncomfortably hot, and I was once again stuffing snow down my shirt.
We arrived back at Camp Muir at around 11AM, 11.5 hours since we had left for the summit. It seemed as if we had been on the upper mountain for two days. Back in camp we rehydrated and stuffed our wet dirty gear back into our packs. I kicked off my boots and laid down for a minute in the cool shade of my bunk. The other climbers lounged around the rocks for 30 minutes or so. At around noon Paul came down from the guide hut and ordered us to shoulder our packs and head down.
He offered some words of encouragement “I am not going to lie, this part sucks, so lets get to it.”
With that we were off. I found this section half miserable and half fun. The snow was soft and the slope non threatening so you could just let loose and really haul down hill. Descending slowly doesn’t make it suck less, it just makes it suck longer. The sun was brutal by this point and the clouds below offered promise of shade and cooler temps. Even though my altimeter ticked off the feet at a rapid rate the clouds never seemed any closer. Finally at around 6,500 we entered the cloud and it felt fantastic. Other than the cooler temps the last hour sucked. As we neared Paradise the crowds on the snowfield increased exponentially. The lower we got the less prepared and more freaked out the hikers looked. By the time we neared the parking lot there were Asian tourists in dresses and slick bottom shoes clinging to the rope hand rails for dear life.
We reached the parking lot at around 2:30PM, exactly 14 hours after we began our summit bid. I COULD NOT WAIT to exchange my heavy mountaineering boots for a pair of flip flops. My feet felt so free and yet so sore. The ride back to Ashford sucked! The bus absolutely wreaked of smelly climbers. The Ibuprofen and 5hour energy I had taken at Camp Muir were churning in my stomach, and the winding road was to much. I closed my eyes and fought the nausea for an excruciating 45 minutes.
Back at base camp we did a closing ceremony while I choked down a bacon cheese burger. The food settled my stomach so I bid adieu to my fellow climbers and headed for Puyallup and the promise of a comfortable bed.
Preparing to climb Rainier has been a dominating and driving force in my life ever since I committed to the trip last October. I really enjoyed the sense of purpose and direction that this climb gave me. The time on Rainier was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life. I really expected it to suck a lot more than it did. It was awesome how a group of strangers who share a passion for the mountains could come together and quickly form a strong bond. You are in close quarters with fellow climbers and must trust your life to your rope partners on the upper mountain. The sense of wonder and adventure I had on this mountain made me feel like a kid visiting the top of a mountain for the first time. I can only hope my next adventure is as good as this.
Want more? Please watch this short video of my time on the mountain