Hiring a Guide For Rainier

This is part of a series of posts on my climb of Mt Rainier

Do I have the required knowledge and skills  to safely climb Rainier? If not is hiring a guide the best way to obtain those skills?

Do I have partners that also have the required knowledge and skills to safely climb rainier?

Does hiring a guide increase my enjoyment or my chances of submitting the mountain?

These were the questions I was asking myself when deciding whether or not to hire a guide for Rainier. For me the choice to was pretty clear.  I wanted to obtain training on glacier travel, and climbing technique’s from experienced and certified sources.  I also wanted to get to the top of the mountain as safely as possible, and have the best chance to summit.  Lastly I was unable to find qualified and interested climbers to join me on an independent climb.   I also reviewed this  page on the value of hiring a guide. maintained by American Mountain Guides.

On Rainier there are three guide services: Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI),  Alpine Assents, and International Mountain Guides (IMG). RMI is the best known, they have a hut set up at camp muir, and they take primary responsibility for putting in and maintaining the DC route.  Additionally RMI employs some of the best climbers in the world as guides.  RMI guides include famous climbers such as Ed Viesters and Dave Haughn.For me most appealing thing about Alpine Assents was that their trip seemed a little more relaxed pace. Their trip was layed out as : day one hike to camp muir, day two move up to Ingram flats (where snow school is conducted), day three climb the mountain and descend.   For flat landers this program offers an additional night at altitude. This may help you acclimate, or it may break your body down more before the hardest day.   For me the differences between the guide services quickly became irrelevant.  Even though it was only mid fall, all of the trips on all guide services were full with the exception of an RMI trip over July 4th.  So without further procrastination I booked the trip.

After booking I began to have second thoughts about my choice to go guided, and my choice to use RMI.   I read several blog posts and trip reports that reported negative experiences with RMI. Discussions with local mountaineers, and others on forums showed a prevailing attitude that hiring a guide was “cheating” and somehow cheapened the experience of climbing the mountain. I agree that climbing a big mountain unguided is a different level of accomplishment than climbing on your own(as long as you can do so safely).   I also get it that ‘self sufficiency’ is one of the appealing things about going to the mountains.  I relish solo trips because I know I am only relying on myself and my skills to get to the top of the mountain.  However, I also firmly believe that you need climb within your limits, and build skills carefully.   Climbing with a guide is no different than climbing with a more experienced partner (which is not looked down upon by the community). If you climb with a reputable certified guide service you have the additional benefit that the guide is teaching you the generally accepted best mountaineering practices.  If you are being taught by a friend or partner you don’t really know how they learned their skills.

Also all of the climbers on the DC route are relying on RMI to some extent.  This would be a much harder climb if there was not a groomed and wanded route established by RMI.  According to the guides they are regularly involved in rescues on the mountain (the majority of which are unguided climbers).  I would say more than half of the trip reports I read from unguided climbers contained statements such as.  “We noticed an RMI group preparing to leave Camp Muir so we decided to leave, and fall in behind them.”   Bottom line I think that hiring a guide is a smart way to build your skills, while having a great time climbing.

My experience with RMI.

My experience with RMI was overwhelmingly a positive one. I found them to be professional, organized, and very knowledgeable.  They employ some of the top mountaineers in the world as guides.  They also are well run from a business end. This means good communication, and good customer service.

In other reviews and blog postings I had read criticism of RMI that had me quite concerned that I had made a poor choice.    The following is my take on the main criticisms I have seen.

Gear inspection is simply an opportunity to pressure you to buy or rent gear from Whitaker mountaineering (same parent company).

The first day of the program you are asked to empty your back pack onto the lawn.   The guides go through the required equipment list item by item, and ensure that what you have each item, and that is of adequate quality.   Climbers in my group had a wide variety of brands for the required items. Almost all of which were accepted without question.   For a few items the climbers were told they must bring a better piece of equipment (they seemed to be especially picky about down parkas).  In a couple of cases the guide suggested that the client may want to consider a different choice, but they would not be required to.  For example a few climbers did not have anti balling plates on their crampons.  They were told they would likely experience snow balling in their crampons which could lead to a fall.  If they chose to not purchase anti balling plates they would need to monitor this carefully, and knock their crampons very often with their ice axe to ensure snow was not collecting.  I thought the guides were very reasonable in their objections to gear choices.

The guides bully clients to drop out of the climb. 

The fact of the matter is that not everyone comes to Rainier properly prepared to get to the summit.  The guides made no secret from day one that you were going to be evaluated to ensure you were fit to continue.   If you were not able to keep pace on the way to camp muir, you were probably not going to be able to summit. For the entire climb “pace” was about 1,000 feet per hour.  I found this to be a very reasonable pace.  Obviously if this is a struggle to you at 5K’ when you are fresh, you are not going to be able to hold this pace at 14K’ after ascending 8K’.    Guide Billy Nugent said something to this effect in the pre-summit talk.

The only way anyone is reaching the summit is as a team, and each team member falls somewhere on the continuum between asset and liability, it is both your job as a climber, and our job as guides to not become a liability to the team. This means that you are able to reach the summit AND descend all the way back to Paradise in ‘good style.’ Climbing with good style means: keeping the pace, being responsible for taking care of yourself (eating, hydrating, changing layers, applying sunscreen ect), and leaving enough reserve to assist in an emergency situation.

They were also very clear that when you left Camp Muir you were committing to go to Ingrahm Flats (and all the way back down to paradise).  When you left Ingrahm flats  you were committing to getting to the top of Disappointment Cleaver, and when you left the cleaver you were committing to summit, and all the way back to paradise in ‘good style’

The guides motivated and encouraged those that appeared to be in good enough shape to summit.  They did not disparage or offer any resistance to those who decided to turn back.  Those who weren’t able to continue didn’t try to push themselves to unsafe limits, and turned around gracefully and safely.  When we were taking our final break before returning to Muir the guides asked us to please be respectful of those that didn’t make the summit.   I think this is also important.  Those climbers also put in work and someday’s you just don’t have it. I know I would have been heartbroken and really hard on myself if I had to turn around.

Bottom line you need to get yourself fit enough to climb this mountain.  If you come prepared your chances of having issues are greatly reduced.  If you do experience an ailment out of your control.  Turn around. At least you will know it wasn’t’ for lack of being prepared.

Camp Muir is Miserable

It isn’t the ritz carlton that’s for sure.  But camp muir offers a good shelter with minimal impact to the environment.  I read horror stories about the RMI bunkhouse, and the toilets.  The bunks were crowded and not very comfortable. The door to the bunkhouse opened every 10 minutes all night.  This is just how it is.  Go in with the expectation that you are not going to sleep.  The guides say that most people don’t sleep, and those that do don’t sleep well.  Get the best rest you can and you will be fine.  I was freaked out that not sleeping would kick my ass.  I didn’t sleep at all and made the summit without feeling that drained. The bunkhouse is certainly a better alternative to hauling up a tent and sleeping pad.  Chances are you wouldn’t sleep much better, and you are far more vulnerable to a storm.

The toilets stink, but are no worse than most vault toilets in national forest trail-heads.  Again they are a better alternative to pooping in a bluebag, on the side of a frozen mountain,  while roped into 3 other people.

RMI is too Regimented

The guides do tell you what to bring, what to wear, when to show up ect.  I think their recommendations were spot on, and were largely what I would have been doing even if they didn’t say to.  For example every break they tell you to put on your down coat, sit down if you aren’t walking, put on sun screen …  why wouldn’t you want to do those things?

For the most part they were just recommendations. For example they told us what they would be wearing out of camp on summit day, and suggested we do something similar.  They didn’t tell you you couldn’t go if you chose to dress to warmly.   In fact when one client asked if he should add another layer the guide said “I can’t tell you what to wear. If you were cold on the last stretch add a layer, if you were hot take one off”

There were two times that the regimentation did bother me.   The hike up to muir where we were made to walk in a bunched up single file line.  This hike would have been much more pleasant if you could go at your own pace, and spread out a little bit.  They use this as an evaluation of your fitness, and training to get everyone moving at the same pace for summit day.  So I understand why, but it still sucked.   Second they wouldn’t stop at all to take pictures on the upper mountain.  I am fully on board with the concept that safety is first.  However, I can take a decent picture in  literally 30 second and then pick up my pace to make up the time.  Seems reasonable to allow a couple of stops.   I got the pictures I did by keeping my cellphone in my pocket and snapping pictures quickly whenever we had to stop for other reasons.

Quality of Other Climbers

When climbing a mountain like Rainier you are roped to other climbers.  If one of these climbers slips and falls there is a real possibility they could pull you with them, inuring or killing you.  Obviously this means you are putting a lot of trust in your ropemates One of my main concerns was having no idea who I was going to be roped to or what their level of skill was.  One of the reasons I hired a guide was to avoid a partner situation like this   This is something that is totally out of your control. Obviously you could be tied to a dangerous climber.    In the case of my group I would say that the  majority came to the mountain well prepared, with an adequate level of experience.  I did see a little bit of sloppy climbing, and all of us made some mistakes.   It seemed apparent to me that one of the factors that RMI used determine rope teams was fitness / skill levels.  Climbers of similar level seemed to be grouped together.   Another factor seemed to be prior relationship.   So in my opinion the two  best ways to ensure you have safe rope mates are: focus on being a fit and prepared climber yourself, and get someone you trust to sign up on the same trip.

Conclusion

Bottom line I was happy with my decision to do this as a guided trip, and to go with RMI.  It was one of the best experiences of my life.  I am strongly considering going on another trip with RMI in the future.

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