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Climbing Mount Rainier in less than a day... from sea level

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Climbing Mount Rainier in less than a day... from sea level

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Washington, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 46.85197°N / 121.76044°W

Object Title: Climbing Mount Rainier in less than a day... from sea level

Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 30, 2012

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Summer


Page By: peakhugger

Created/Edited: Aug 1, 2012 / Apr 16, 2013

Object ID: 803682

Hits: 11502 

Page Score: 90.81%  - 33 Votes 

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The following trip report is a detailed record of the three years leading up to a climb of Mount Rainier by a couple of old high school buddies from Montana (Matt and Braden). The account of our climb in late July of 2012 doesn't start until about halfway down if you wish to skip ahead.


Black Mtn Y couloir
As best as I can remember, the first discussions of this trip were during a climb up Black Mtn (MT) in 2009. Pictured is Matt climbing the Y couloir.
While mountaineering in Montana in the summer of 2009, my friend Matt (elchivoloco) proposed an interesting idea for a trip: What if we climbed Mt Rainier, but instead of starting at a usual trailhead (Paradise, Sunrise, etc.), we started at sea level on the Puget Sound and only used human power to attain the summit. This would involve road biking from sea level, then climbing to the summit for a two part adventure that we would later call Sea 2 Summit (S2S). Matt had previously worked in the Tacoma area and apparently this giant mountain had been inspiring him to push the limits of cycling and climbing. I was skeptical but offered to support him by participating in the climbing portion of the trek. I'd been interested in climbing Rainier for almost a decade, but I was living in Montana and never had an easy opportunity to schedule a climb. Conversely, while I owned a road bike, I'd never taken it on a ride any longer than 15 miles, so the thought of biking 75+ miles from sea level to over a mile up just wasn't that appealing. He seemed to accept that answer at the time as he had local biking friends in the Tacoma area that might be interested in joining just the bike ride portion.

Hard training on a bike was new to me - such as this ride on the Going-to-the-Sun Hwy early one spring.
But by January 2010 (after a few more climbing and skiing trips with Matt), I was fully engrossed in the idea of completing the entire trek. Matt's original idea was just to complete the S2S bike/climb in one day (24 hours), as that would be a feat in and of itself. After researching the idea myself, I started to wonder just how fast one could travel from the sea to the summit of Mount Rainier, using only human power (this was the only other record I could find in my internet meanderings - but this trip has been brought to my attention since posting this trip report). So I offered a counter-proposal: I'd join in for the whole S2S trek, but with the goal of pushing ourselves to complete the journey in the fastest time we could muster. This seemed to be in the neighborhood of 12-14 hours, based on some rough calculations. The idea of competing against the clock was not foreign, as we'd both ran cross country and track in high school and participated in numerous other timed events. That history may have made the idea all the more appealing. Unfortunately, an attempt of the S2S in 2010 wasn't possible as I was working on data collection and analysis for my Master's thesis that summer.

Hyalite trail
Stretching my knee on an easy ski tour at the start of my recovery in the spring of 2011.
In the fall of 2010, we started discussing potential trip schedules and training regimens for an attempt of the S2S in June 2011. We decided that the route we would attempt on Rainier would be the straightforward Disappointment Cleaver, with a direct ride from the Puget Sound starting in Steilacoom and ending at Paradise. But before we got very far, I injured my knee on a skiing trip in December 2010. After numerous doctor's visits and physical therapy over many months, I was on the path to recovery by late March 2011. But this did not leave me enough time to adequately train for the strenuous demands of the S2S, even at an easy pace. I had kept Matt in the loop with regards to my injury, but in mid-April we decided to call off the trip for 2011. It was a difficult, but necessary decision.

Flash forward to 2012. Matt and I started training in late winter for a 2012 attempt at the S2S, building on a base of backcountry skiing over the winter (Matt had been in Colorado for a few years now and I was still in Montana). We'd actually pushed back our attempt from June 2012 to July in order to complete more training on real roads and mountains (vs. a gym), which ended up being quite fortuitous as the weather in June ended up being miserable and wet on Rainier. [The only downside was that my wife would be 34 weeks pregnant with our first in late July...] Our training consisted of road biking, mountain biking, trail running, and mountaineering. Over the next few months (April-July), we both put in hundreds of hours training and by the middle of July, were both well prepared for the S2S attempt that was only a week away.

Our route from sea to summit, looking NW from Rainier to the Puget Sound.    Imagery source: Google Earth

Final Prep and Dry Run

Road trip!
The Crew: Braden (me), Andy, and Matt, left to right
Matt arrived in Montana on July 23. He brought a friend along (Andy) who was going to help us out by joining our dry run climb and shuttling a vehicle/setting up a basecamp at Camp Muir during our S2S attempt. We spent the next day riding a local mountain bike trail, organizing our gear, and reviewing glacier rescue techniques. After paring down our gear to the basic necessities, we crammed our gear into Matt's Impreza. The next day we drove to White Pass in Washington and on the morning of July 26, we were in Paradise. We'd decided long ago that we wanted to complete a dry run of the Disappointment Cleaver route prior to the S2S. There were many advantages to this, including getting first-person beta of the route (which I had never climbed but Matt had), figuring out our climbing pace and clothing systems, and getting some time on the rope together (we didn't have the opportunity to climb together at all during our training in 2012). The primary disadvantage was that it would tire us out, even with a few days rest.

So over July 26 and 27, Matt, Andy, and I ascended to Camp Muir, rested for 11 hours, and then completed the climb to the summit of Rainier in the wee hours of the morning. The dry run turned out to be invaluable, as we learned just how difficult it was to pass other rope teams on the DC, especially the larger and generally slower guided groups. We had originally planned to summit around 4-6 am during our S2S attempt, but we realized that there was no way we would be able to maintain a good pace if we kept running into other groups of climbers. Our goal for a summit time would have to be earlier to avoid the crowds, as would our start time at Steilacoom. The original plan was to start the bike at 4 pm, but we decided 2 pm would be more favorable and would hopefully keep us in front of other groups summitting that morning.

Shots from our dry run: our first view of Mount Rainier, taking a break just below the Muir snowfield,
Andy, Matt and I enjoying the summit, and descending a snowy section of the DC.

After finishing the dry run, we scouted the bike route along the Mountain Highway back to the coast. There were two substantial hitches along our intended bike route. One was the closure of a few miles of Hwy 7, which we had known about since June. The detour through Eatonville ended up adding 1.5 miles to our route, as well as additional elevation changes. It seemed there was no option but to take the detour, despite the more narrow and winding roads it followed. The second hitch was that the roads we intended to use south of Tacoma were far too dangerous for cycling, with fast traffic and non-existent shoulders in places. Thankfully, we had a couple of rest days to find a suitable, safe route and were successful in re-routing that part of the bike.

Our support, with skis
Mike and Andy, our support crew, on their way to Camp Muir.
While resting between the dry run and S2S, we visited two friends in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Our second host (Mike) decided to join Andy in supporting our S2S adventure at Camp Muir. Both decided they would haul their skis up to Camp Muir and ski down the morning after our climb. Mike's place in Tacoma served as our base of operations and we organized our gear on his front lawn and ran through our crevasse rescue techniques again before heading out for dinner and a beer at a local pub.

The Sea 2 Summit Attempt

packing in Tacoma
The car packed with a small mountain of gear, ready for our S2S adventure.
I woke up the morning of July 29 earlier than I expected at 7:30 am. Matt was awake as well. We'd hoped to sleep in until 10 am or so, as we weren't starting until 2 pm and would be climbing through the night. But both Matt and I were too excited to keep sleeping, so we got up and made a few last minute preparations to our bikes and packs. Something was bothering me, however. I'd had an itch in the back of my throat the previous evening that had gotten worse through the night and now my lymph nodes were swollen. I decided to play it by ear and see how I felt closer to noon, but let Matt know that I wasn't feeling all that great.

A little after noon, Matt and I sat down to discuss our options. He wasn't feeling 100% either but wanted to get going rather than wait a few days to see if our health improved. I really wanted to be at 100%, not 90%, as we'd put in so much effort into training for this attempt and I wanted there to be a high chance of success. In the end we decided to go for it, with the explicit understanding that if either of us felt we absolutely needed to stop, the other would comply.

Around 1:40pm we arrived at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, WA. The temperature was around 70°F, the sun was poking between clouds, and you could smell the salt in the air. We did a last minute lube of the bike chains before heading to the water. There's a public boat ramp next to the ferry and we were able to start with our rear wheels touching the water. It was thrilling to get going after years of prep. This was it. At 2 pm on the dot, we set off for Rainier. Mike and Andy took off for the mountain as well to grab their permit to camp at Muir and turn in our climbing permit.

Final prep at the Steilacoom Ferry - wheels in the water and off we go!

Matt set a quick pace as we snaked through south Tacoma, progressing from Steilacoom to Lake City to Parkland and then Spanaway. The roads we had chosen were fairly wide and only had minimal traffic on a Sunday afternoon. The traffic lights seemed to be turning in our favor and we only put our feet down at a half dozen or so times as we sped through town. Things were looking good, although the pace was a bit quicker than I expected. The scratchiness in my throat appeared to subside in the first few miles of the ride, but that could've just been due to the adrenaline. I meant to take photos during the ride but kept forgetting to get my camera out.

By the time we passed the junction to Hwy 507, we were in a nice groove. Matt would pull for a few miles, then I'd take over and lead the next few miles while he drafted. We cycled like that all the way to Eatonville, snacking occasionally and hydrating heavily. It wasn't ridiculously hot, but far from cool. We rolled through Eatonville at 1 hr 48 min into the ride. The uphill south of town on the detour was a little steep, but manageable. A few minutes after cresting the hill we had our only close call with traffic: a truck blew by us with less than a foot to spare and nearly knocked us off the shoulder. Otherwise, the cars passing us were giving us wide berth and even slowing down when traffic was thicker. The detour was certainly the most dangerous section of the ride and I was relieved to be past it and back on Hwy 7 before too long.

Entering the park at the Nisqually entrance
A quick shot of my watch at the Park entrance.
Matt and I passed by the towns of Elbe and Ashford, still rotating the lead (although Matt's pulls were longer