| Mount Rainier Trip Report
Mountain: Mount Rainier
Where: Cascade Range, Washington State
Vertical Gain: ~+9,200 ft.
When: July 7-8, 2012
I've been wanting to climb Rainier for several years, but for various reasons, wasn't able to put a trip together. From the time I first saw Mount Rainier when I first came to this wonderful park exactly eight years ago, the seed was planted in my mind to climb it one day. Back then while dayhiking, I vividly remember seeing climbers return to the parking lot and looking at them with a certain amount of reverence, like soldiers returning from battle; clad in their helmets and serious looking mountaineering gear, "big" mountaineering boots, huge backpacks with ice axes in their hands as they came down the mountain.
To the mountaineer, Mount Rainier engenders all what a mountain should be and is the quintessential alpine peak to climb (to see the true scale of the size of this mountain click "view with large photos" above to see full size images which will help you see the people in them for scale).
As you approach this mountain from within the park, its massive profile dominates your view for miles. Note the ample snow coverage on the slopes. On a clear day, this mountain reigns over the Seattle skyline.
Standing tall at 14,410ft, Rainier towers over the surrounding landscape rising more than 13,000 feet in prominence and over 9,000ft from the popular trailhead. Rainier is massive. As the most glaciated peak in the lower 48, it is an enormous mass of glacial ice, snow and rock, commanding respect. This is an unforgiving mountain.
As are several other mountains in the Cascade Range, Rainier is an active volcano. When there ever *is* a significant eruption, huge lahars generated from this mountain will put at risk many nearby towns and cities along their path of destruction. The movie Dante's Peak came into my mind as I drive closer.
The amount of meltwater generated by the mountain gives rise to numerous waterfalls and spectacular displays of wildflowers later in the summer. Many areas had pretty good displays already.
For those who I've climbed with you know my ice axe bears this mountains name and served as a reminder and motivator with every climb I've done over the past eight years. This mountain has lingered in the back of my mind for a long time…
The weather this Spring was not ideal in the area with a lot of new snow, cold unpredictable weather patterns and unstable route conditions.
There were several recent fatalities on the mountain which were weighing on my mind.
Not a week before I left, well known and experienced climbing ranger Nick Hall fell to his death while involved with a rescue of several other climbers who got into trouble on the Emmons Route. This comes after four other climbers went missing after a storm came in earlier this year.
Nobody I knew had the interest, time available or experience to join me on this, so not being familiar with the upper route on this mountain and rather than doing this myself, which I thought unwise given the reputation of this mountain, I opted to join a few folks on an RMI trip. Given the high demand over the only week I could take off, I was put on a waiting list. Finally, I got the call and over the July Fourth holiday I had a chance to give it a go.
The day I arrived in Rainier National Park, the snow level was 5,000 feet and I was met with 25ft+ drifts of snow in the parking lot at Paradise along with pretty chilly temperatures, at least for this time of year. Rain was coming down in spots and low cloud cover made visibility about 200 yards. No mountain was in sight. If it was below freezing at 5,000ft, extrapolating what it would be like up high did not create a positive mindset, not to mention the expected wind chill-effect towards the top. Did I bring enough warm clothes?
Given that I was coming from sea level, one thing that was concerning me was the fact that the nearest town, Ashford was located at only ~1,500ft above sea level, not an ideal place to acclimatize for climbing a tough Fourteener. So, I opted to stay up at Paradise for a few days which has an elevation similar to Denver. To further help acclimatize, I decided to hike up to Camp Muir a few days before I would start my climb.
I woke up the next morning early and low and behold the sun was out! Skies clear enough to see most of the summit of "The Mountain" as locals refer to it as. I was already packed, and off I went. Nobody else was around. My own private mountain! This would change.
This hike alone was a great warm up and nice introduction to the area. Traveling 100% on snow right from the Paradise parking lot, the climb up the snowfield primes you for what's to come on the upper mountain and gets you to 10,000+ feet which was a good tune up. There were also a ton of marmots on the route, looking very hungry and eager to take advantage of any stray food that might be protruding from my pack at a rest break! I fiercely guarded my Clifbars against any insurgent rodents.
The views here were stunning. Note a couple climbers below photo heading up the Muir snowfield.
The climb up was great on snow that was perfect to kick steps without traction even on the steeper portions. A few folks were skiing down. It took 3hrs, 10min to reach Camp Muir.
As I reached Camp Muir, there were several climbing teams descending looking a bit worn. When I asked them about their climbs, they all responded with the same answer; that they were forced to turn around due to high avalanche risk along the route due to the recent snow that week. Not an encouraging sign. I became disheartened immediately, but still optimistic that over the next few days, the new snow would consolidate enough to make it safer to climb.
After spending an hour or so at Base Camp, I started descending and had an uneventful hike down. I took a rest day before starting the climb and explored the park a bit. There are so many waterfalls in this place, that when coupled with the lush greenery in the forest, I felt like I was in an alpine version of Hawaii. This National Park is beautiful.
That night, I readied my gear and sorted everything out before the actual climb began and realized I was going to have to be creative to squeeze everything in my 65L pack. While the temperatures were expected to a bit warmer and a high pressure system was moving in, it was still expected to be windy up high necessitating warmer gloves and outer protection. I'd ballpark my pack weight to have been about 40-45lbs, about the same as a 45lb plate at the gym.
Wow! I was finally starting my climb up Rainier! I was incredibly full of energy today.
We began climbing late morning on July 7th from Paradise (~5400ft) - the weather was stabilizing, winds were light and after a quick conversation with the Climbing Ranger on duty, the 48hr forecast was dry. Finally! Over the last couple of weeks preceding the climb, the route decision would be made; we'd be climbing either the Disappointment Cleaver or Ingraham Direct depending on conditions and snowpack, etc. Given the time of year and conditions on both, the former would be the way we would go.
Climbing up to Camp Muir earlier in the week was a good idea, as I felt the lower route now was very familiar, which allowed me to enjoy it more and take in the scenery. We moved a bit slower keeping a steady pace, enabling me to snap more photos.
As you climb higher on the way to Camp Muir you get tremendous views of Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier. Look carefully at the photo towards the bottom left center, you will see two climbers for scale.
Below, another team ascends the snowfield. Some cloud cover forms atop Rainier's summit.
As one climbs up, you quickly realize this is no ordinary Fourteener. It is a huge mountain, any route is demanding, and with the objective hazards on this peak, it becomes clear you need to stay focused on whatever route you choose. Routes constantly shift with the conditions, moving higher or lower with the snowpack and crevasse formation, volume of use and overall weather. Rockfall and icefall is a constant risk on many parts of the route.
One thing you note on this mountain is the predominance of climbing teams rather than the abundance of solo climbers that are so common on Colorado 14ers. I’ve also learned, particularly more recently in light of the recent fatalities, that rangers are more reluctant to give permits/passes to solo climbers and prefer groups of at least two or ideally more climbers. Both private groups and guided teams predominate here, largely due to the presence of the multitude of risks on this mountain not present on most other lower 48 peaks, particularly in more southern latitudes.
As you climb higher you become more acutely aware of these hazards. Crevasses, the mountain's silent killers, appear seemingly randomly across the glaciers, rocks litter the landscape evidencing the ever-present risk of rockfall in certain areas, giant seracs the size of Brooklyn brownstones tower above the route in several places, while the degree of avalanche risk ebbs and flows with the conditions. Of course, the altitude is a constant threat to the unacclimatized and nasty storms could come in with little warning. As I climbed up, the television show "A Thousand Ways to Die" kept popping into my head...
Below, three climbers cross near several crevasses and rock ribs on the lower mountain (see left portion of photo)
Nearing the top of the Muir snowfield. Although this is permanent snowfield, it is not technically considered a glacier, but crevasses/cracks can and do still form here. Suprisingly, the hike to to Muir Camp was actually rated by Backpacker magazine as one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the U.S. on account of the possibility for bad weather to quickly move in obscuring the route coupled with the elevation gain to the Camp tiring dayhikers out.
Mount Adams is clearly visible on the not so distant horizon as does Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood in Oregon - three other Cascade volcanoes.
The final vertical 200 feet or so approaching Camp Muir. Camp Muir was a welcome sight.
Situated at 10,188ft, Camp Muir serves as a base camp for many climbers dividing the climb into two days and a decent place to acclimatize, though in reality not much acclimatization will happen in one night. Muir is an oddity, resembling a combination of a mini-Everest base camp filled with expedition tents and Ranger station-like buildings. It lies at the junction where the Muir Snowfield ends and the true glaciers on Rainier begin and is filled with both climbers and dayhikers alike.
Camp Muir Shelter
Arriving at base camp at a leisurely 3pm, we unloaded our gear and packed up what we needed for the morning, melted snow to fill up water bottles and after a brief catchup with everyone there exchanging stories and learning of route conditions, were in "bed" by 6pm. Saying I slept would be vast overstatement as the night merely amounted to resting horizontally for a few hours before the climb began.
Given the warming conditions, it was important to be on top and a good way down before the sun got too high and warmed the snow and ice minimizing rock and ice fall risk among other things. Things start to move when temperatures heat up too fast (relatively speaking). Snow bridges could also weaken with the warming temperatures.
As such, we "awoke" at 11:45pm, I ate a Powerbar, got our stuff together, put crampons and harness on, roped up and began climbing around 1:00AM.
Leaving Camp, we began traversing across the Cowlitz Glacier. It was like walking through a white cocoon of a landscape, with an eery glow cast upon it by a waning gibbous moon and what starlight remained. Climber’s headlamps in the distance from other teams illuminated parts of the route above the lower lying Glacier. The scene was surreal.
After an ascending traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier, we arrive at Cathedral Gap which skirts the Ingraham Glacier. Moving up steeper terrain, we reach the Ingraham flats at roughly 11,200ft and take a short break along with several other teams. Some serac debris was scattered around the route, indicating things are not very permanent on this mountain and another reason to be constantly aware of something coming from above. Some of this “debris” was in the form of ice blocks the size of a Peterbilt with a Trailer, not something you want coming down on you.
There were several other teams in front of us which started at higher camps, which we caught up to and which were slowing things down on the mountain. Some smaller groups passed us. As we passed many of the slower teams, we noticed things like harnesses that were not on correctly or even backwards, no locking carabiners in front, super long rope distances between climbers of more than 100ft and some climbing without crampons, or wearing one crampon. It was amazing that we didn't see any accidents. We commented on how to correct things when appropriate, but the question was raised on a public mountain of where does one’s responsibility begin and end?
A few people were actually sitting on the route not feeling well, and oddly didn't think it wise to step off the route while contemplating continuing up or not. It was a shame they were not feeling well, though on some of the places that sat, there was no way anyone could pass coming down or up which made for some precarious situations at times.
Continuing up and then crossing over to the Disappointment Cleaver, the route steepens, crosses near and over several crevasses and soon mixed rock is encountered. Some of the terrain here is shown below (a photo I took coming down). Note the tents and climbers in the distance for scale for the size of those crevasses.
One tidbit I found interesting was that people who’ve climbed this mountain a lot seem to refer to crevasses as “cracks” which didn’t hit me until walking next to one in the dark. As we were crossing the Cowlitz Glacier earlier, one of the Guides mentioned to be careful of the crack off to the right. Not really realizing what he was referring to, I kept walking without paying his comment much heed, until a minute later when I looked ten feet over and saw a gaping crevasse parallel to our track, with an ever widening throat. It was probably 150 feet in length.
We also encountered two crevasses that you must step over on this glacier. While at this junction the “crack” was only 4-6 inches wide, it widened to ten feet a few yards to the right. This was a bit disconcerting to say the least, especially after reading the book “The Ledge” which elaborates on the survival of a climber after his partner dies when they both fall into a crevasse after a snow bridge collapses on the Liberty Ridge Route, on the other side of the mountain. This probably wasn’t the best book to read before coming here, akin to reading “Alive” before taking your first flight on a commercial airliner.
The section around the Cleaver is steep and traverses some exposed terrain as it switchbacks steeply up the mountain. A few people were forced to turn back at or around this section for various reasons. You really feel like you are climbing the mountain here one step at a time. Slope angle here was roughly 45 degrees and there is exposure on both sides that creates a bit of a pucker factor, depending on where exactly the track goes. This is not a place to rest as there is really nowhere to pass a climber, much less a team. This section was tiring, but I felt a good energy this morning and pushed up, keeping good pace.
There are some fixed ropes in this section which I don't think were the best option to take and it made more sense to focus on climbing without using them, despite the steeper more exposed slopes. Ditto on the descent.
The photo below (I took on the descent) shows one section where there is a fixed rope.
Although this section was steep, it seemed to go quickly. I think the concentration needed here helps in this regard as the terrain is more difficult and consequences of falling are greater, you need to focus more which I think makes the climbing go quicker, at least it did for me. It was also dark, so going up, I was not able to see much around me that wasn't illuminated with my headlamp.
As we toppped out above the Cleaver nearing 12,200ft, we took a short refueling break and continued on up the mountain. It was cold and getting colder as the wind speed increased.
False Dawn was approaching as pale shades of purple and crimson started appearing on the eastern horizon. I wish I could have stayed here taking photos, but we didn’t have time to waste.
We again encountered a slow team having technical problems in front of us, causing us to have to stop for a few minutes and slow down again, which was frustrating and also made the cold pre-dawn air feel that much colder.
The section above the Cleaver was easier and consisted of pure snow climbing again on moderate slopes. I felt my stress level ease once here.
Peering over my right shoulder, a cherry red sun began rising in the distance as we approached 13,500ft. As the morning light reflected off the steep icy slopes it made for a dramatic scene. This was also right around the same time as our last quick rest stop before the last section before the top. Another layer went on here and I inhaled two energy gels for the push to the top. My appetite was not very good here and this was about all I could get down.
Sunrise high on the slopes of Rainier. Little Tahoma is off to the right in this photo.
At the base of Little Tahoma, you can see another team coming up above the numerous crevasses below.
The wind picked up in earnest here and began blowing an estimated 40-50mph as we climbed higher. Coupled with the cooler air temp, this made things pretty brutal on any exposed skin. I pulled my hood around tighter to protect my face as it got colder and my goggles helped here to keep the biting wind from my eyes. I added a liner under my gloves.
Above 13,500ft, the remaining route was straightforward and reminded me of a snow climb of a 14er on moderate to steep slopes. I was getting tired here but not burned out. The pace of everyone slowed, which was fine with me. Up we went, one step at a time, slow and steady across the white, barren windswept landscape.
Within 40min, we reached the Summit crater and after climbing all night, were on top! It was 6:25AM. I was so excited, I literally jumped up and down…I was here!
Around the summit, some bare rock exists, which seems odd, until you remember you are on an active volcano and that the rock is bare (and warm) due to the presence of steam vents spewing steam and sulphur out. The summit is otherwise a cold place.
Since where the DC Route tops out was not technically the true summit on Rainier, I wanted to walk over to Columbia Crest, which is the real high point on the summit.
The walk only took another 20 minutes or so, but given the cold, wind, softer snow in the crater and altitude, I felt like I was moving through a swimming pool in four feet of water with a wet down coat on. Crossing the crater was pretty cool and as we climbed to Columbia Crest, the view looking back was great, almost lunar-like.
Two climbers coming out of the crater towards Columbia Crest, which is to the climbers left.
Standing on the true summit with three climbers walking up to the high point on Rainier.
Here is a shot of the whole crater with some climbers in the distance (towards the right in the photo), many who opted not to walk over and climb up to the true high point.
The summit shot with Brent!
We didn't linger too long on the summit due to the wicked winds and our desire to get down before it got too warm, particularly around the few areas where rockfall was a concern. We signed the Register and went down. The first few stretches off the summit were fairly easy to get down and required just some careful walking and managing the rope team of fellow climbers as well as giving way to those coming up. In the image below towards the right, you can see two groups of climbers coming down off the summit in the gentle terrain off the top.
We soon reached the Cleaver and slowly made our way down the mixed rock and ice, which was slippery and a bit more tricky on the descent. We actually created a couple of new switchbacks here due to the deteriorating conditions of the existing route alongside the fixed lines.
The area near the base of the Cleaver (entrance point on the ascent) is visually awesome with a rock rib coming out of the snow, Little Tahoma behind you, glaciers on both sides, the steep climbing above you and the Cascade Range staring at you in the front. What a spectacular place!
Little Tahoma pierces the early morning air below the upper flanks of Rainier.
One thing to note on this peak, is that despite how warm it was down at ~5,000ft, this peak gets very cold higher up-colder than other Fourteeners I’ve been on, where on any rest break you must put something on over whatever you’re climbing in to remain warm so as not to lose much body heat. Any wind on top of this will exacerbate the chill and the summit crater only provides a brief reprieve for the wind.
The below shot shows some of the crevassed terrain near the Disappointment Cleaver, off to climbers left on the descent.
The below shots were taken at the base of the Cleaver; In the photo you can see four climbers moving across towards Ingraham Flats. Note the crevasses below the route and the steepness with long runoff, most of which would end inside of a crevasse if a fall went unarrested.
The below shot shows both some of the route below the Cleaver as it traverses the Ingraham Flats (also a high campsite) and some of the terrain the route crosses over.
This place is huge and the scale is very large. Note two climbers over to the right of the photo for scale to see how large those crevasses are; those cracks could swallow a truck.
You can see several tents which comprise an upper base camp (about 1,000 feet higher than Camp Muir, which makes for a shorter climb on your climbing morning if you choose). Just take care where you pitch your tent.
The below photos show a team crossing down coming off the Cleaver traversing the last section before Ingraham Flats and a few of the last remaining crevasses on the route today (to see detail, view photo in large size ). In the first photo, you can sort of make out the darker colored snow, which is covered with pebbles and rocks and not a spot you want to rest under due to the rockfall risk, particularly
as the weather warms and rocks loosen from the snow and ice pack. We moved quickly up and through this section.
Soon, we were back at Camp Muir and were greeted by the masses. Many people were on the mountain on this day.
Another team descending off the mountain from Base Camp. Mount Adams is in the background.
Descending from Camp Muir was actually a pleasure (ok, I’m speaking relatively here) as the snow was in just the right condition to do some heel plunging in a very low impact way, minimizing strain on the knees and made for an easy 2.5hr descent. I suddenly yearned for a pair of skis for the 4,800ft descent to the trailhead. Total descent for the day would be over 9,000ft from the summit.
This may sound corny but this climb was like a dream come true, after thinking about it for so long and then finally getting there, organizing it, getting it done and having all that training pay off! It was a great day. My recent climbs up Crestone Peak, Ellingwood and Wetterhorn this Spring were great to get me in shape for this, particularly the steep snow on Crestone Peak.
All in all, it was a great week, I had good climbing partners and the RMI Guides I interacted with were top notch.
I may have to come back and do this again!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):