So, you want to climb Mt Rainier.Mount Rainier is a unique mountain within the contiguous United States. No other mountain is as extensively glaciated or has as prodigious a prominence. The scale and character of Mt. Rainier is more akin to an Alaskan or Andean peak. The highest trailhead requires the climber to gain 9,000 feet of elevation to reach the summit, as much as from Everest ABC to its summit. The weather on Mt. Rainier changes remarkably quickly, typically for the worse. Blizzards are not uncommon in August, and the high winds and moisture laden air sap heat and wilt down insulation. If you are planning an attempt on Rainier there are a few things you should know. Belwo are some tips I have gleaned from over two decades and dozens of climbs on ‘The Mountain’. Bear in mind that this article is not a substitute for proper instruction or experience. Mt. Rainier kills climbers almost every year.
What to know
Mt. Rainier is a heavily glaciated mountain and anyone attempting to climb it should have solid glacier travel 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)
Building a Z hauling system (Z x C if in a two person party)
Hazard recognition (seracs, rock fall, crevasses, weather)
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., but is no substitute for proper instruction. There are many clubs that offer mountaineering courses, including the Washington Alpine Club, the Boeing Alpine Club, The Mountaineers, and The Mazamas. Many climbers choose to hire a guide service. This can increase a new or visiting climber's chance of summiting 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, April through mid June, as rock fall becomes increasingly problematic once the ice that binds the loose volcanic rock melts. The trick is to find the sweet spot when conditions are good and weather is stable. Historically, I have found that July is the best month for this. The last several years, however, have seen low winter snowfalls, particularly during the critical early winter period. This has lead to routes becoming icy, broken, and circuitous earlier in the season, and technical routes becoming dangerously out of condition by the end of June. Before you go, check the weather and insist on a good forecast.
Selecting 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. Less crowded, but slightly more technical routes include the Kautz Glacier and Fuhurer Finger routes. 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, Volume 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. If no other options exist, doing various squats and lunges in the gym can help train these muscles.
Extreme Alpinism, Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark Twight is a classic on the subject of training in particular and climbing in general. Training for the New Alpinism, A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnston incorporates the newest training philosophies.
Clothing. During the main climbing season, early spring through early fall, you can experience temperatures from the mid 70's at the trailhead to well below freezing with high winds on the summit. You will need to pack a clothing system that will handle the range of temperatures you may expect. On summit day dress to stay just warm enough while moving. You should feel chilly standing around waiting for your rope team to get moving. A 'belay jacket' is critical for this approach. Carry a warm synthetic or down insulated hooded parka that is sized to fit over all your layers. The belay parka goes on when you stop for short breaks and in extreme cold and high winds.
- Sun hat - something with a brim to protect your face.
- Warm hat - wool or fleece
- Sun glasses - dark glacier glasses with side shields
- Headlamp - Small LED with extra batteries - lithium last longer, are lighter and less affected by cold weather than alkaline batteries
- Boots - either plastic or insulated leather mountaineering boots
- Liner socks - thin merino wool or synthetic (2 pair) (optional)
- Heavy socks- merino wool or synthetic (2 pair)
- Gaitors (optional, good for early season wet snow)
- Liner gloves - cheap poly pro work well
- Warm gloves - Fleece liner with a nylon type shell work well - include spare liners or a spare pair of gloves
- Pants - mid weight soft shells work great
- Long underwear - mid weight synthetic or merino wool
- Fleece tights - 200 weight PowerStretch is plenty warm and less bulky than fleece (optional early and late season or if you get cold easily)
- Light weight hard shell pants (optional)
- Shorts - (optional, nice for hiking to high camp in warm weather)
- Short sleeve shirt- light colored synthetic or light weight merino wool
- Light weight fleece jacket or puffy (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 hooded jacket to repel wind and precipitation (e.g. Marmot Precip)
- Insulated parka - hooded synthetic or down 'belay parka'
- Crampons - 12 point steel with anti balling plates
- Ice axe
- Harness - lightweight webbing harness with drop legs. (e.g. Black Diamond Couloir)
- Picket - 24"
- Prusik slings - 5mm perlon or Tiblocs
- Runner/slings - 2 single, 1 double
- Carabiners - 6 wire gate, 3 lockers
- Sleeping bag - 20 degree or warmer if you sleep cold
- Sleeping pad
- Backpack - 40-50 liters is about right. Any larger and you’re not going light
- Trekking poles (optional)
- Small pocket knife
- Lighter - I prefer a mini Bic
- 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
- Spoon - I learned the hard way of the value of an unbreakable spoon.
- Rope - 30 to 50 meters, 8 to 9 mm. Climbers may be tempted choose a thin twin rope to save weight, but should be cautioned that hauling and ascending skinny cords is very difficult. I personally use a burly half rope.
- Shelter - Tent or tarp if you are not planning on sleeping in the Muir public shelter
- Stove - butane canister stove systems work very well (e.g. Jet Boil, MSR Reactor)
- Fuel - at high camp all your water will need to be melted from snow. Carry enough fuel for two extra days
- Pot lifter (optional)
- Map and compass
- GPS (optional)
- Wands (optional)
Additional gear for technical routes. Routes like Liberty Ridge, Ptarmigan Ridge, Kautz Glacier, Mowich Glacier Headwall, Sunset Amphitheater Headwall, and Curtis Ridge offer the experienced alpinist challenging climbing on steep ice and rock. You will need additional gear for these routes, which include, but are not limited to the following:
- Second ice tool or a pair of ice tools
- Full length rope - 50 -60 meters
- Ice screws - 6-8
- Rock protection - pitons, Tricams, and cams work better than nuts in the highly broken volcanic rock
- Extra runners and carabiners
- Sunblock - I like to use SPF 40
- Lip balm - At least SPF 15
- Toilet paper
- Blue bags
- First aid kit - for injuries, blisters, small wounds, allergies, etc.
- Entertainment - music players or other electronic widgets
Plan your climb, and climb your plan
Start your days early so you roll into camp with plenty of time to relax, rehydrate, and acclimatize. Start your summit day early. It is far preferable to begin climbing in the dark than to finish in the dark. Aim to be off of the glaciers before the high altitude sun bakes the snow into a sloppy mess, ideally before noon. Aim to leave camp by 3 am at the very latest; many parties leave at midnight. Expect to take at least an hour getting ready and plan your wake up time accordingly. Pace yourself. You will spend the better part of every day working towards your goal. Be the tortoise, the hare will burn out.
Drink more than you think you need and before you feel thirsty. Staying hydrated will help with altitude acclimatization. Water bladders with hoses make this easy, but be aware that water can freeze in the tube. Take precautions to prevent this. I find that having something flavorful helps me to drink more. Pack tea, instant soup, hot Jello, electrolyte sports mixes, etc. Apply sun screen to all exposed skin frequently. Don’t forget the lips and the bottom of the nose. Keep your feet dry and don't let hot spots on turn into blisters. Keep your boots laced properly
How's da wedder?
Watch the weather and never climb up into a storm. As a general rule of thumb, storms come from the north in summer and the south in winter. Conversely, if your intended route climbs under or through rock bands, make sure the temperatures will remain cold enough to keep the rock frozen together.
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, and clean up after yourself. Don't leave your left over food for the next climbers, it will attract mice.
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 snow 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 publishes 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 indispensable.
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 some times 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 avalanche 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. Seattle boasts a fun water front district with an excellent aquarium, restaurants, and other attractions. There are a number of interesting museums, including the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of History and Industry, and the Experience Music Project museum of modern music. Fun window shopping can be found at 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 Freemont 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.