Why I decided to climb Mt. Rainier
On Saturday, August 14th, 2010 I found myself at Rainier Mountaineers International base camp with a bunch of people I didn’t know wondering what the heck I was thinking getting ready to climb Mt. Rainier. Mt Rainier at 14,410ft is the tallest mountain in Washington and generally considered the longest endurance climb in the lower 48 states.
I’m in decent shape, but I don’t work out, I don’t jog, I’ve never done a marathon and the tallest mountain I’d successfully hiked up to that point was Haleakala Mountain in Maui which is around 10,000ft. And Haleakala definitely is a hike, not a climb as there are no glaciers, no crampons required, no winter clothing, heck about all you need is some sunblock and tennis shoes.
I’m not sure what really inspired me to climb Rainier – I think it was a combination of a lot of things. A friend at work (Chad Corneil) successfully climbed last year and told me a lot about it. A backpacking buddy and former neighbor (Jim) started me thinking about climbing by taking me to Mt. Maude and 7 Finger Jack which are a couple of 9,000+ft peaks in Eastern WA (we went twice and never successfully made it to the summit of either…not exactly confidence inspiring for Rainier). And finally I ski a lot at Crystal Mountain with Scott Chaffee and the rest of his gang and on clear days it looks like you can reach out and touch Mt. Rainier.
So about 6 months ago I decided I would climb it. Jen wasn’t exactly thrilled but I called and signed up before she could say no.
One week before the climb was supposed to start I was playing in a tennis tournament in Portland. I play doubles which isn’t all that physically demanding but somehow I injured my achilles and could barely put any weight on it. Even 3 days later when I visited the doctor I was barely able to walk. I can only say I was super frustrated and felt like my body had failed me. I did everything I could with ice to reduce the swelling and saw a specialist that Thursday. By thursday I could walk fairly normally with a medium amount of pain and the specialist gave me the ok but told me to turn back at any stage if my achilles started getting worse.
$950 Guide fees, $250 hotel fees, $150 rental, and misc equipment that I bought for myself all down the drain if I couldn’t go. Plus of course I’d make no progress on my goal and would have to wait until next year to try again (climbs only go through September as the weather gets too bad after that).
I think by this point Jen figured I must be insane to still want to go but she knew there was no chance she was going to talk me out of trying…
Day 1 – Equipment Inspection
The first day is pretty simple– you show up at 3pm meet your guides and fellow climbers, go through a quick orientation and then verify that you have the right equipment.
Our lead guide was Win Whitaker – son of the famous Lou Whitaker who led the first successful American summit of the North Col of Mount Everest in 1984 and is also owner of RMI. Win has a big passion for climbing and the outdoors and it comes across immediately.
I was the only climber from the local area – most of the group was from California with one Canadian and a New Yorker thrown in as well. A big group were all from San Diego and were either Marines or Navy. Age wise three of the guys were over 60 and everyone else was probably somewhere in their mid to late 20’s (and of course I’m 36). The marines and navy folks were all in great shape.
Only two people in the group had any experience on a significant mountain, one having climbed Mt. Shasta and the other having failed to climb Rainier the year previous due to bad weather.
Everyone seemed super nice, although we were all pretty nervous and didn’t really know what to expect.
Day 2 – Mountaineering Day School
On day 2 we met around 8am, and everyone was on time and had all their gear which was a good indication about the quality of the group. They took us in a shuttle from base camp (Ashford, WA) up to Paradise visitor center on the mountain and from there we hiked 2 miles to a big snow field.
(our shuttle bus, the Paradise visitor center, and a view back across the parking lot)
During climbing school we learned a bunch of skills and techniques to make climbing safer, easier and more efficient.
- Kick Step – The basic kick step where you pound your boot in to get a solid footing before taking a step
- Crampons – How to put them on, how to get the most traction on up and downhill slopes
- Rest Step – A way to walk up hills where you lock your weight bearing leg every step so that you can briefly rest on it before completing the next step. This really reduces the amount of effort required from your calf muscles
- Pressure Breath – Once you get higher on the mountain it starts to get harder to get enough oxygen. If you blow out really hard (like blowing a candle) your lungs will automatically suck in their maximum amount of oxygen which is more effective. Don’t do this too often at low elevations though or you’ll hyperventilate
- Ice Axe Self-Arrest – If you fall these skills will help you stop yourself before you end up going into a crevasse or off a cliff. Rather important…
- Ice Axe Team-Arrest – If someone on your rope team falls how to quickly setup an anchor position so you stop their fall and don’t end up joining them
- Rope Travel – When on glaciers you always travel as part of a rope team with about 15ft between positions. The key is to keep the rope fairly tight without restricting someone’s movement. if there is too much slack and someone were to fall into a crevasse they could fall up to 10 ft and you’d have to try and stop that whole momentum. Much easier if they can only fall a foot or two before using up the slack
During school we also met one of our other guides – Gilbert Chase. She ended up being the guide on my rope team and was both very professional as well as being a lot of fun to hang out with.
At the end of climbing school (about 3pm) we headed back to the base camp and slept in our hotel rooms again. I didn’t get much sleep though since I was so excited (and a bit nervous) to climb the mountain the next day.
Day 3 – From Paradise to Camp Muir
Day 3 started at 8am again and once again the entire group (18 guests, 6 guides) were ready to go right away. We headed up in the shuttle to Paradise and then started the long hike to Camp Muir.
Paradise is at around 5400ft and Camp Muir is at 10,060ft so it’s a long day to get 4.5 miles and 4600ft of elevation gain. The first two miles are on bare pavement through the meadows at Paradise (and there’s a good reason it has the name Paradise). At this point we are carrying all our gear and our packs are as heavy as they’ll get. Mine was probably around 35-40lbs.
During the hike we stopped every hour or so to take a 15 minute break and then got moving again. The guides are very strict on the 15 minutes as they want the whole group to get used to the timeline that will be followed after Muir. The upper mountain is where everything gets serious and timing to avoid the dangerous times of the day is super important. They also had us continue to practice the skills we learned the day previous.
For the last 3 miles of the day we were on the Muir snowfield. Unlike a glacier – snow fields don’t move so they don’t have the risk of big crevasses and you don’t need to be roped up. It was a long and very hot day (over 90 degrees in Seattle) but we all made it to Muir successfully. One guy was fighting some terrible muscle cramps and ended up coming in an hour later then the rest of us but he did eventually make it so that was great.
(looking backwards down the Muir snowfield)
(break time looking up at the mountain – are we really going to climb that whole thing?)
(you can just make out the bunkhouse at Camp Muir on the lower ridge. It looks fairly close but we were still about an hour away. that glacier in the top right of the screen is the one we climbed up after the disappointment cleaver on day 4)
(standing at Camp Muir – someone’s tent in the background and parts of the upper mountain. gibralter rock in the middle, cathedral gap on the upper right)
(the beautiful RMI bunkhouse at Camp Muir. Ok maybe not so beautiful…)
We arrived at Camp Muir around 3pm then relaxed, ate some dinner and then it was “silent time” starting at 6pm. We all went in got on our bunks and tried to sleep until it was time to get up for day 4. I maybe got 30 minutes of sleep before they get us up at 11:30pm for the big summit day.
Day 4 – To the summit and all the way back to the hotel
Day 4 is the real climb – it turns from hiking into real mountaineering. Everyone wears crampons, helmets and is in a rope team the entire day. They base the rope teams on putting people together who know each other and then trying to put the strongest people in the anchor positions (back) while the guides are in the lead positions on the rope team.
Since I didn’t know anyone very well at this point I ended up in the anchor position on a rope team with a woman from San Jose named Sandra and Gilbert our guide. Most of the other rope teams had 4 people but ours only had three. It’s actually a lot easier to manage the rope with three people so generally that was a good thing.
I don’t have any pictures of the climb because the entire thing was done in the dark before the sun came up.
Stage 1 – Camp Muir to Ingrahim Flats
Two people in our group decided to stay at Camp Muir and not go any further (the guy with muscle cramps and another guy that was probably 70yrs old)
We started stage one with a fairly easy traverse across the Cowlitz glacier and then up the rock switchbacks of Cathedral Gap. Trying to hike and climb rocks in crampons is definitely an interesting experience, plus add darkness where all you can see is what your headlamp shows and it’s pretty surreal.
I was a bit tired as we pulled into the first rest stop, and I also knew disappointment cleaver was the next section. Disappointment is the steepest and most difficult section of the entire climb and I’d heard some scary stories about it (mainly about rocks falling and hitting people climbing it). I was also suffering from an upset stomache and some possible diarrhea due to something I ate. Not exactly the best way to feel when climbing a real mountain for the first time. Three people in our group decided to turn around at this point and I was considering it as well. I sucked it up though and figured if I could just get through the next section I’d be good to go to the summit.
Stage 2 – Disappointment Cleaver
First we had to skirt around some crevasses and then we started the climb on dissapointment cleaver. The cleaver is pretty steep, very rocky and fairly dangerous due to rock fall from above. I actually really enjoyed this part though as you had to think about how to get the best hand holds, where to place your crampons, and generally really focus on climbing instead of just slogging through the snow.
This section took about an hour and a half but I actually felt super invigorated and excited after completing it
(disappointment cleaver is the big rock on the right side. you can’t climb up the glacier in the middle because it’s completely covered in crevasses. If you climb in June you can actually go that route, but not in August)
Stage 3 and 4 – To the Summit!
(Looking at the upper mountain from above the disappointment cleaver. Picture taken on the way down the mountain)
Above the cleaver it’s all hiking on glaciers and switchbacks to make your way up the mountain. There are some steeper areas and you get to see plenty of crevasses up close. There was also a ladder bridge over one 150ft crevasse which was fun to cross (nothing but a big opening under you and no sides to grab…just gotta be balanced on your crampons and walk across is)
We got to the summit at 5:30am – just in time to see the sunrise. Unfortunately I don’t think my camera really did it justice. After climbing 5 hours in the dark, shivering at every rest break and generally doing whatever you can to make it to the top…having the sun come out is an amazing and uplifting experience.
The top of Mt. Rainier is basically a big crater. If you want to reach the true summit though you have to hike across the crater, climb another 50-100ft and then you arrive at the true summit. I couldn’t go all that way and not do that (plus the registry where you sign in is at the summit). so I hiked over there and got a few more photos. you can see just how awake I looked
(yow, is that the Michelin man?)
(a tired bunch of folks refueling on the way down)
(looking down from above the cleaver)
We got to spend about an hour on top (40 minutes of which were spent climbing to the true summit, signing the registry and walking back to the group).
From there we hiked all the way back to Paradise with about an hour spent in Camp Muir to pick up any supplies we left there. (no need to bring your sleeping bag to the summit)
Overall it was an amazing experience. RMI is a great group – very professional and yet the make the whole experience fun, rewarding, and most of all safe.
I would do it again if any friends ever want to go, and I’d know a lot more about what to expect.
A few tips if you are thinking of going:
- Pray for good weather – makes a huge difference J
- Wear sock liners and tape up your feet if you need to. Some people came back with terrible blisters. Or they got bad blisters the first day and had to live with them the rest of the time because they didn’t tape up to start
- Bring a good variety of food. You’ll be eating every hour or hour and a half while hiking and you quickly get bored of Cliff bars and such. Bring candy or whatever it is you might enjoy (sandwiches, pizza, etc…even Twinkies are good!). At the stop before the summit I almost threw up trying to eat another cliff bar and was only able to force it down with water.
- Drink LOTS of water a day before the climb and during the climb. One of the guys on our trip didn’t and he got terrible cramps and didn’t make it past Muir. It was especially important due to how warm it was when we hiked
- Learn and use the rest-step and pressure breathing techniques they teach – it makes everything a lot easier