Ascending Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier is an iconic and towering volcano 54 miles southeast of Seattle. Its image can be seen on all the standard Washington license plates. At 14,410 feet high, it is the highest volcano in the Cascade Range. As a dormant volcano, it could erupt at any time, which could potentially cause enormous damage due to its proximity to millions of residents in the Seattle/Tacoma area.
As somebody who has traveled to the Seattle area at least 20 times, Mount Rainier has tempted me for decades. For many years, I told myself I would climb it someday, but I never made it a priority. There was always tomorrow. As I approached the age of 50, I decided to quit wasting time and put together a list of things I wanted to accomplish before I got too old and physically incapable of doing them. Climbing Mount Rainier was one of those things.
In June of this year, I knew I would be going to Seattle in August and thought it would be an opportune time to cross Mount Rainier off my bucket list. Fortunately, I found an open slot on a guided, four-day trip with RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.). Normally, such a trip would need to be booked much earlier due to limited openings.
For three months, I trained hard, working out in one way or another an average of three hours a day. During this training period, I climbed Mount Hood (Oregon), Mount Saint Helens (Washington), White Mountain (California), and Mount Charleston (Nevada). This is the story of my Mount Rainier climb.
- Elevation: 14,410 feet
- Records: Highest peak in the state of Washington, highest peak in the Cascade Range, most prominent peak in the lower 48 states, most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states.
- Elevation gain: 9,000 feet from base to summit.
- Distance: At least eight miles each way, depending on route.
On August 17, 2015, I met with lead guide Pete and seven fellow guests in Ashford, Washington, where RMI is based. We had an introduction that covered what to expect via a PowerPoint presentation. Pete seemed like a nice, easy-going guy, and the other guests looked to be in good physical shape.
Next, we completed a gear check to ensure everybody had the required equipment. I seemed to be the only one who brought his own gear. The only thing I rented was an avalanche beacon. Everybody else evidently rented everything on the gear list as they produced what seemed like identical looking items at every "show me" request. I, on the other hand, got many strong recommendations on items to rent or buy before the trip.
This is a memorial to fallen guides located in woods behind the back parking lot of Whittaker's Bunkhouse, where I stayed.
Having previously climbed Mount Hood and Mount Shasta, I thought I knew a thing or two about alpine climbing and what to bring. However, Pete had another opinion of my gear and said that I was not prepared for the possibility of having to sit in freezing weather for hours. Although the weather was running very hot, one never knows what can happen at high altitude.
After the meeting, cheapness trumped safety as I looked at $550 parkas in the Ashford mountaineering store and I reasoned to myself that "recommended" does not mean the same thing as "required." In my defense, I did get some other, more affordable, items that came recommended to me.
We met at 8:00 AM on day two for snow training. We were introduced to a second guide, Chris, and we took the 45-minute ride from Ashford to the base of Mount Rainier. On the bus was not just our group but a parallel team led by a guide named Tyler. My own team was a quiet bunch, so my endless trivia questions were better received by the guests of Tyler's team, especially one guest who had appeared on four different game shows.
This is Pete, our fearless leader. I was afraid to ask him to pose for a proper picture,
lest he find something wrong with what I was wearing.
When we arrived in Paradise, at the foot of Mount Rainier, we headed up the mountain quite a ways on well-maintained trails. To set some background, the previous winter was a very dry one on the west coast. This is why California is in a case of serious drought, due to the low snow pack in the Sierra Mountains. Then came an unusually hot summer. Both these elements led to a very low ice cover on Mount Rainier. We had to walk about 90 minutes, well past Pebble Creek, to reach a snow bank big and steep enough to train on.
The next four hours or so we did the same kind of training I did on Mount Hood two months before. This was mainly how to use an ice axe to arrest a fall and walking as part of a rope team. At one point during this training, one of my crampons (the spikes one attaches to the bottom of boots for ice climbing) fell off. I knew on the actual climb we would have a tight schedule and there would be no time to slow everybody up with crampon malfunctions.
That evening I met Lou Whittaker at the BaseCamp Bar & Grill,
who was kind enough to pose for a quick photo.
Day three began at 8:00 AM. We started by meeting a third guide, Lance. Our team was now complete — eight guests and three guides. The parallel team led by Tyler had the same numbers. Again, we took an RMI bus to the base of Mount Rainier, this time to start our climb. The objective of the day was to get to Camp Muir, which is about halfway up the mountain. Camp Muir is a simple 4.4 miles from the parking lot, so it was looking like a pretty easy day.
Roughly, the first half of the climb was on nicely maintained trails used by many day-hiking tourists and surrounding the visitor center. We tried to stay in a single file line as best we could, but it was often disrupted by young children running wildly all over the trail. It was nice to finally reach Pebble Creek, which is as far as the maintained trail system extends, so we could get away from the crowds and start walking up the snowfields.
And we're off! One of the guides snapped at me for taking a few seconds to
pose for this picture. Thus the reason I didn't take many pictures after this point.
The rest of the day was a long slog up one snowfield after another. As the blaring sun reflected off the endless fields of snow, I regretted not bringing the type of sunglasses that block or filter the intense light in my peripheral vision. I could imagine how people with no sunglasses at all would go snow blind after a while.
I knew not everybody would reach the summit, but we started losing guests from the get go. From what I was told, somebody from the other team sprained his ankle less than 50 feet from the parking lot. Then we lost my game show buddy in the middle of the snow fields. This is despite what I felt was an annoyingly slow pace up to Camp Muir. In all fairness, I think the guides would say they were trying to get everybody up as far as possible and at least give everyone the Camp Muir experience. Besides, there was plenty of time that day and no reason to rush.
Some of the Camp Muir buildings. Muir snowfield on the left and the Cowlitz glacier on
the right. Lots of tents camped on the glacier, I suppose for lack of bunkhouse space.
We arrived at Camp Muir at about 2:30 PM. The camp is a rustic set of buildings atop the last snowfield and before the glaciers begin. There were two bunkhouses -- one shared by two guiding companies and the other for the general public. Additionally, there are outhouses, a locked-up ranger building, a small guide hut, and some other buildings under construction. This was a nice time to relax, eat as much as possible, and prepare for the big day ahead. During this time, the guides tended to guests' many blisters with mole skin and applied plenty of duck tape* on the feet of the other guests.
At about 5:00 PM, the lead guides called a meeting where they spent around an hour explaining what to expect the next day. This was a very intense talk in which they discussed all the hazards we would face while keeping a very fast climbing pace. They emphasized there would not be slow and fast groups; we would all go up as one. There would be scheduled, short breaks. However, stopping between breaks, even to take a picture, would not be allowed without permission, which I would learn later nobody would dare ask for. In fact, we were told that asking non-important questions or making chit-chat was highly discouraged. This was an unwelcome rule for me, as I enjoy torturing my fellow companions with trivia questions and math puzzles. The guides emphasized a successful trip would take a 100% effort from everyone, and if anybody couldn't deliver that, then he should ask to turn back at a rest break. This is a policy I applaud, as I found it very frustrating to wait on slow climbers on a previous guided climb of Mount Hood.
After the "Come to Jesus" talk, other guests tried to go to sleep in anticipation of an 11:00 PM wake-up call. I would have liked to have gotten some sleep, but my adrenaline was pumping too hard. So, I dinked around by myself and, finally, attempted to get some rest, even if I couldn't sleep. As I lay there, I went through various stages between being awake and asleep. I was eager to get this restlessness over with and start climbing. As 11:00 PM drew near, I laid there watching my watch. When the guides didn't show at 11:00, I think I dozed off a little.
At 11:30 PM, the moment of truth finally arrived. We were woken up and had one hour to eat and drink, pack our packs, get properly dressed, and rope up. It was rather frantic as the 14 remaining guests bumped into each other trying to get ready in the tiny bunkhouse. However, the guides were on us like drill sergeants, focusing on those who seemed the least ready to quickly get in line with the program. It was quite a change from the easy-going personalities we were accustomed to from the previous two days. One hour later, at 12:30 AM, everybody at least appeared to be ready.
The big day began under a clear, moonless, starry sky at Camp Muir as we crossed the fairly flat Cowlitz Glacier, long-roped mostly in groups of three. "Long roped" means climbers are tied together with ropes a "long" distance apart, about 25 feet. The reason for this is if somebody slips down the mountain or falls in a crevasse, then the other two climbers on the rope can, hopefully, fall down and affix their ice axes in the ice fast enough to prevent the faller from going more than 25 feet.
The crossing of the Cowlitz glacier was a nice beginning to the "day." It felt good to get the blood flowing on the mountain with relatively easy terrain. However, this section lasted only about 20 minutes as we switched to climbing up a short and steep rocky section. Then we crossed the Ingraham Glacier, which is also fairly flat, although steeper than the Cowlitz Glacier.
Before leaving the Ingraham Glacier and entering the infamous Disappointment Cleaver, we had our first 10-minute break of the day. During these breaks, we were expected to put on a layer of clothing and take it off again before leaving, and encouraged to eat as much as possible. Loss of appetite is normal at high altitude, so it is important to fight against it and consume as many calories as possible. While doing all this, the guides said the next section would be longer and steeper. It would be one hour and forty minutes until the next break, as there are no convenient spots to rest and refuel on the Cleaver. They made everybody verbally declare they were 100% ready for the next section, which we all committed to. I had some doubts about some of the guests, due to their lethargy and labored breathing.
The next section was my least favorite of the trip, the Disappointment Cleaver. You might think they call it that because you're disappointed to be in it. The actual origin is that before the first known ascent of Mount Rainier, somebody climbed to the top of the Cleaver in poor visibility conditions, thought he was at the top, declared victory, and headed back down. When he got lower, the weather cleared and he could see there was still plenty left of the volcano to climb above where he turned around. His disappointment led to the name. Why it is called a "cleaver," I have no idea. I've climbed lots of mountains and never heard of anything referred to as a cleaver before. "Ridge," I think, would be a better term.
To get back on topic, Disappointment Clever is a long section of loose rock. We switched to short ropes due to the increased danger. The distance between guests was now about six feet. While it didn't seem very dangerous, the guides rushed us up as fast as possible, due to the potential for falling rock. I much prefer to walk on ice than loose rocks, so I was eager for this tedious section to be over. It helped to do it at night when our headlamps only exposed a small portion of the terrain right in front of us and we couldn't see how big it would look coming down.
After the hour and forty minutes, we finally left the cleaver and took our second break. I saw one guest collapse in exhaustion. Another two or three also decided to turn back at this point. Meanwhile, the guides said the next section would be just as long and even harder. They again asked us to either promise our 100% commitment or turn back. I didn't count, but I think that of the 16 guests to start, 10 or 11 continued past this point.
The next section was, depending on your outlook, the best or the scariest section of Mount Rainier. It is what makes climbing Mount Rainier different from other peaks in the lower 48 states. I now see why elite mountain climbers come to Rainier to train for the most challenging peaks in the Himalayas. The section between the top of Disappointment Cleaver and the last push to the summit is a maze of towering cliffs of ice, crevasses, and ledges. Sometimes, to get over the crevasses, the guides place ladders to walk on. They kindly placed 2"x6" boards to walk on above the ladders and ropes to hold onto.
It was probably a good thing we were still in darkness, because our headlamps only exposed the section several feet around us. Had I seen how precarious this part was, I might have wanted to chicken out, not that I even had the opportunity between breaks.
As the eastern horizon was showing some signs of light, we headed up a long, steep, and narrow ice ledge. I was in the last rope team at this point. Suddenly, in the middle of this roughly 10" wide ledge, we all came to a halt. I had no idea why, but we sat there for about half an hour as I heard somebody up ahead banging on a piton and the guides using mountaineering jargon I only half understood over the radio.
My understanding was that the ever-moving ice had caused a set of two ladders to become unstable. The guides obviously tried to fix it, but the task was too much for a hasty, on-the-spot repair. I thought the outcome would be that we would be turned back in the interests of safety, as that was what happened with our lead guide's previous trip.
Instead, I overheard Pete say on the radio to another guide, "We're going to have to go to plan B." To me it seemed we were at a dead end. What could "plan B" possibly be? I would soon find out. We were then told to turn 180 degrees and go back down the ledge. At the bottom of the ledge, we went up a different lower ledge, which led to a vertical ladder another guide company had set up. Our own guides had never used it before.
This ladder sat at the end of a ledge and led to a second ledge. This abandoned ladder did not have the hand rails you find at the top of playground slides but lay against the base of the next ledge. It was only about 12 feet long and not especially difficult to climb, even in crampons, but it was scary to get off and onto the next narrow ledge. However, as the guides said many times, turning back was simply not a choice between breaks. We had no time to think about it but simply had to climb it and continue on.
Continue on we did. The vertical ladder was followed by more horizontal ladders to walk over and plenty of ledges, but the degree of technical difficulty gradually became easier. As the hard part slowly ended, the sun rose and I could see the enormous summit rising above me. The light at the end of the tunnel was finally in sight, but the effects of the high elevation started to hit me. As we were told many times, the prescription for elevation sickness is heavy breathing -- deep in and deep out. This I would do the rest of the way up, and I didn't need reminding as I could feel the thin mountain air depleting me of energy.
After what seemed like hours, we finally had our last break before the summit. While I was feeling rather lethargic, the sun was finally out and I knew the worst was over. It was just a long slog up switchbacks to the top. The last hour to the summit of any new climb is always the most exciting for me. So, up we went on what was a beautifully clear day, roughly 45 degrees and in mild wind. In terms of weather, I couldn't ask for much better.
At last, my rope team of three reached the crater rim and descended into the crater. It was beautiful. That moment made all the hard work to get there worth it. The crater was a huge, round snowfield surrounded by a rocky rim and fumaroles. One couldn't ask for much better weather on the top. It was moderately cold and windy -- just chilly enough to remind you of where you were but not so cold that you were uncomfortable.
While the trip started with 16 guests and six guides between the two groups, we were down to six guests and three guides. Shortly after arriving, I was given the opportunity to go further, to the Columbia Crest, which is the highest point on the rim and almost 180-degrees away from where we crossed the rim into the crater. My choices were to take about half an hour to walk across the crater and up the rim or to take a more leisurely 40-minute break. I, and one other guest, chose to make it to the tippy top.
Let me pause and say that if one reaches the crater, then I feel he has climbed Rainier. However, I knew I would get asked multiple times if I made the summit and I didn't want to have to mince words about it. So, for the benefit of the extra credit and outstanding views north of Rainier, including Mount Baker, I went all the way to the geological survey marker at the high point and summit register nearby.
The trip down was just a reversal of what we came up. It was interesting to see in the daylight the sections we climbed at night. The guides continued to keep us at a fast pace and appropriate rope distances apart. The vertical ladder freaked me out even more coming down than going up, as I could more easily see what a precarious location it was in. It was also not easy to get on the ladder, but the guide I was with, Billy, put me and the others on a belay for extra safety.
Although I was tired, it is nice coming down from high altitude because you feel your energy and breath returning as opposed to depleting. It was very interesting to see some of the sections we climbed up in darkness in the clear morning day. Some parts, mainly the top of the Ingraham and Cowlitz glaciers were actually pretty hair raising. We also passed by some deep crevasses that were fascinating and beautiful that I did not have the chance to appreciate in the dark.
At Camp Muir, the guests who had turned back were kind enough to welcome us like conquering heroes. To them, I owe my success. Thanks to their sacrifice, the rest of the party was able to keep up the fast pace to the summit and back. It was great to bask in the glory and tell stories of the portions they missed. Some probably regretted their decision to turn back. However, as the guides said, the object shouldn't be seen as just making the summit but challenging yourself as much as possible and appreciating what you did accomplish. In other words, mountain climbing shouldn't be viewed as a pass/fail test but more of an appreciation of the challenge and love of the sport. Then again, to be perfectly honest, I'm dang proud of myself for touching that crampon-worn geological survey marker on the summit.
We were allowed one hour at Camp Muir to rest and re-pack any gear we left behind. Then, it was a descent down the now mushy snow. Living in Las Vegas, I don't have the chance to walk in snow much, so I lagged behind through this stretch as others effortlessly glided on the slick surface. One of the guides, Chris, very nicely offered to schlep my pack down the rest of the snowfield, in the interests of speeding me up, until we reached solid ground.
Back at Pebble Creek, we had our final break, after which we took off our crampons and headed down the trails amongst baby-toting young parents, the elderly trying to keep up with their younger generations, and precocious kids racing up and down the trails. Many asked, "Did you make the summit?" As one of the guides remarked, this is a question I don't care for. Instead, if you should find yourself on the trail with weary-looking climbers, heavily-laden with expensive gear, consider asking, "How was your climb?" instead.
Sixteen hours after leaving Camp Muir on the way up, we were met by the van with cold lemonade, which hit the spot perfectly. After returning to Ashford, we cleaned up and met at the BaseCamp Bar & Grill for a closing celebration. Beer and pizza never tasted better. Here, the guides switched back from the harsh taskmasters getting us up the volcano to nice, easy-going guys again.
The guides told us their thoughts on the experience and what set it apart from the many other times they have climbed Rainier. Then they passed out certificates of achievement to each of us as we all told a story of our most memorable moment. I loved every minute of it, but I was dead tired from having no decent sleep for 36 hours. I don't think I was alone.
In closing, I'd like to give a big recommendation to RMI for their outstanding job leading the climb. I think it would have been easy for them to call off the summit bid after discovering their usual pair of ladders were not safely usable. To switch to other ladders left behind by another company they had never touched before showed courage and ingenuity. You could tell they wanted to give all of us every opportunity to get as far as we could. Yes, they really drove us hard that last day and called us out every time we overlooked something, but I don't think they would get many people up to the top otherwise.
This picture shows the standard route in blue and our actual route drawn on with a dotted black line by guide Chris. We had to detour this far on the top due to the extremely thin ice over crevasses on the standard route.
- My video (2:37): Video I made along the way, mostly panorama shots.
- Tony & Adam video (10:46): Longer video made by two of my fellow guests. That is me scarfing down a snack mix on a short break at the 2:57 point.
- RMI Mount Rainier expeditions.
* Please don't write to me claiming the correct term is "duct tape." Duck Tape was created by the U.S. Army during World War II and called such because water ran off it like a duck. As someone who has worked for an insulation company, I know it is ideal for insulting ducts and is generally called duct tape. However, I think Duck Tape sounds better, is true to the original meaning of the term, and speaks better to the multitude of uses for it.