So you want to climb Mt Rainier.Mount Rainier is unique in the contiguous United States. No mountain has as large or as many glaciers and the prominance is far larger than any other fourteener. The highest trailhead requires the climber to gain 9,000 feet of elevation to reach the summit. If you are planning an attempt on Rainier there are a few things you should know. Here are some tips I have gleaned from two decades and dozens of climbs on ‘The Mountain’.
What to know
Mt Rainier is a heavily glaciated mountain and anyone attempting to climb it should have some basic skills. In addition to the mountain traveler's knowledge of weather, route finding, winter camping, etc. one should be proficient in the following techniques for safe glacier travel:
Belaying techniques on snow and ice (boot axe, sitting hip, ice screw, etc)
Use of crampons
Ascending a rope with Prusik cords/mechanical ascenders
Setting snow and ice anchors (ice screws, pickets, bollards, dead men, flukes)
Build a z hauling system (ZxC if in a two person party)
Hazard recognition (seracs, rock fall, crevasses)
If you are not absolutely proficient in these techniques, you must learn them from a qualified instructor prior to a summit attempt. An excellent primer on these techniques can be found in Freedom of the Hills, 8th ed. Many climbers choose to hire a guide service. This can increase a new climber's chance of summitting while decreasing the chance of making poor decisions.
When to go
The typical climbing season starts in April and runs through September. Weather is king on Mt Rainier and more trips are spoiled by poor weather than any other factor. Weather improves throughout the season and becomes much more stable after the first week of July. The flip side is crevasses open up, snow bridges become weaker, and routes become more circuitous. Some routes are only appropriate early in the season as rock fall becomes increasingly problematic after ice binding the rock together melts. The trick is to find the sweet spot when conditions are good and weather is stable. I have found that July is the best month for this. Before you go check the weather and insist on a good forecast: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/data/rainier_report.html
Choosing a route
Ingraham Glacier Direct, Disappointment Cleaver, or the Emmons Glacier. These, however, are the most popular routes and during the height of the climbing season it may be difficult to get a camping spot. If you want to be assured of a spot apply for a permit early: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/climbing.htm. Less crowded, but slightly more technical routes are the Kautz Glacier and Fuhurer Fingerroutes. For a true wilderness experience the
Tahoma Glacier is hard to beat. There are several guide books available that cover Mt Rainier:
Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide by Mike Gauthier
Cascade Alpine Guide: Climbing and High Routes: Vol 1- Columbia River to Stevens Pass (3rd Ed.) by Fred Beckey
Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Vol I and II by Jim Nelson and Peter Potterfield
Any reasonably fit person can climb Mt Rainier but a focused, specific training regimen will make your climb more enjoyable. Tailor your program to mimic the demands of climbing a big mountain. Summit day will likely be an 8 -12 hour affair so it is important to train long. Load up a pack and hike your local hills, or do long trail runs or bike rides. Lift weights to strengthen your core, shoulders, back and legs. Don’t neglect high intensity cardio like interval work. You want the ultra runner’s endurance, the sprinter’s speed, and the weight lifter’s power. Your goal is to become an all around athlete.
Many people train solely on a stair stepper machine or by hiking with a pack filled with water bottles which they dump out for the hike down. Both of these training methods will help you for the climb up, but remember you have over 9,000 feet to descend, usually on the same day as the 4,000-5,000 ascent on summit day. One needs to train the muscles for the hike down. I find trail running in the mountains to be very effective. Running down hill does more to strengthen your legs than running or hiking uphill. Running down hill generates forces several times your weight, far more than can be carried on your back, which must be countered with the eccentric contraction of your leg muscles.
Extreme Alpinism, Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark Twight is still one of the best books on training in particular and climbing in general.
What to bring
sun glasses - Dark with side shields
extra batteries - lithium last longer and are unaffected by the cold
boots - either plastic or insulated leather
liner socks - (2 pair)
heavy socks- (2 pair)
liner gloves - The cheap poly pro work well
heavy glove - Fleece liner with a nylon type shell work well include spare liners or another pair of gloves
pants - Soft shells work great
long underwear - mid weight (add a pair of fleece tights early and late season or if you get cold easily)
shirt short sleeve - light colored synthetic
fleece jacket - light weight fleece early and late season or if you get cold easily
wind shirt - Lightly insulated nylon jacket is very versatile e.g Marmot Driclime
shell - Light weight jacket e.g. Marmot Precip
insulated parka - lightweight synthetic or down with a hood
crampons - 12 point steel with anti balling plates
prusiks - 5-6mm perlon or Tiblocs
slings - 2 single, 2 double
carabiners - 6 wire gate, 3 lockers
rope - 30 - 50 meters 8 - 9 mm
sleeping bag - 20 degree
tent or tarp
backpack - 45-50 liters is about right. Any larger and you’re not going light.
water bottles (2) - I like to bring one bladder and one Nalgene to use as a mug
bowl - I like to use the disposable ‘Tupperware’ type such as Ziplock
sunblock - I like to use SPF 40
lip balm - At least SPF 15
first aid kit - For blisters and small wounds
Drink a lot. Bring herbal tea, drink mixes, thin soup mixes, hot jello, etc. I find that having something flavorful helps me to drink more.
Apply sun screen to all exposed skin frequently. Don’t forget the lips and the bottom of the nose.
Pace yourself. You will spend the better part of every day working towards your goal. Be the tortoise, the hare will burn out.
Start your summit day early. Aim to leave camp by 3 am at the very latest; many parties leave at midnight. Expect to take an hour getting ready and plan your wake up time accordingly.
Do not climb up into a storm.
If you are staying in the public shelter at Camp Muir be mindful and courteous of fellow climbers. Don’t smoke in the hut, turn the fans on when cooking, keep your voices low when others are sleeping, clean up after yourself.
If the weather cooperates and you have your systems dialed and have trained appropriately, you may find yourself here:
What about winter?Climbing Rainier in winter can be a valuable learning experience for those heading to the greater ranges. Deep snow, bad weather, cold temperatures, and short days all make for a much more challenging experience compared to a spring or summer attempt.
Most of Mt Rainier's routes have had winter ascents, but since the road to Paradise is the only plowed road in winter, a south side route makes the most sense. Gibralter Ledges, Ingraham Direct, and Disappointment Cleaver are all good candidates for a winter attempt. These routes will allow you to stay in the Muir shelter, a much nicer alternative to a tent or snow cave.
When to go?
Winter officially starts December 21st and ends March 21st. Any climb made between these dates is considered an official winter ascent. During the winter the prevailing wind and storms are out of the south west. This effectively strips the snow off of south facing routes high on the mountain. This makes for poorly bridged crevasses and sastrugi which effectively conceal hidden crevasses. A good strategy is to aim for late winter which tends to offer better snow conditions, longer days, and a better chance of a good weather window.
Locals watch the weather and avalanche forecasts and drop everything to attempt a winter ascent. Traveling climbers don't have the same luxury. A good strategy is to shoot for the weeks before and after President's day weekend in February. The PNW enjoys a high pressure system every year right around that time which can last a few days or a couple of weeks.
What to know
Avalanches are, or should be, a big concern. Everyone attempting Rainier in winter should have avalanche training and the necessary tools (beacon, shovel, and probe). Watch the avalanche forecasts, don't make an attempt while it is snowing or shortly after it has snowed.
White outs are a big problem, especially in winter. Know how to get back from Camp Muir to Paradise. People have died trying to get back down in a white out. The NPS has a map with compass bearings to prominent features. Get one and know how to use your compass and altimeter. Laying in a GPS track as a back up is a good idea, as are wands.
What to bring
In addition to the usual kit for Rainier, the following items should be considered indespensible.
Avalanche tools - snow saw, shovel, beacon, probe
Double plastic boots
Flotation - snow shoes or skis
White gas stove and extra fuel
Hard shell pants or heavy soft shells
ski goggles - amber tint is the best in whiteout
Map of Muir snow field with compass bearings
GPS and/or wands
Warm hooded parka - synthetic is best (Patagonia DAS, Wild Things Belay Parka or similarly warm parka)
Mt Rainier is magnet for winter storms. Rainier can be getting nuked while other mountains, especially those east of the crest, are enjoying relatively descent weather. On the other hand, Mt Rainier is a big mountain and one can often get above the cloud layer and enjoy warm, sunny conditions while everything else is socked in.
If you are traveling to attempt Rainier in winter allow more time than you think you need. This will give you a better chance of getting a window of good weather. Make alternate plans should Rainier be getting hammered. There are many small ski resorts and good back country skiing (if avi conditions allow) if that is your bag. Reliable ice climbing can be found in and around Lillooet, BC about 6 hours north of Seattle. Great mixed alpine climbing can be found in the Stuart Range which due to its position east of the crest can have better weather. Dragontail, Colchuck, Argonaut Peaks and Mt Stuart all offer reasonable winter access and routes ranging in difficulty from easy to hard.
If the weather is bad everywhere, Seattle is nice place to spend a day or two. We have a nice aquarium, the Experience Music Project museum of modern music, the Pike Place Market, the REI flagship store and across the street Feathered Friends. Good brew pubs and taverns abound in the Ballard, University District, and Fremont neighborhoods. We also have several indoor rock climbing gyms including Stone Gardens, The Vertical Club and The Seattle Bouldering Project.
External LinksNPS Web page about climbing regulations for Mt. Rainier.
Current avalanche forecasts.
Mt Rainier weather forecast
Printable map of Muir snowfield with compass bearings (.pdf)
Trip report from a winter attempt by MVS.