Two days after summiting Mount Baker and a full day of rock climbing at Mount Erie, I prepared to climb Mount Rainier. While I didn’t have any trouble with Mount Baker, my quads were still tired from the climb. Because of my fatigue, I knew Rainer would be harder than I expected. I stayed in Ashford at RMI’s Whittaker’s bunkhouse. It was a nice, clean, hostel-style living quarters with showers and bunk beds. For the price of only $25 per night, it was good deal. The only problem I ran into was, when I arrived late the night prior to my ascent, I found there were no more beds. They were all taken so I slept on their couch. The people who run the bunk house apologized the next day and offered a full refund. However, since I did still have a place to sleep, I only accepted half back for not having a bed. They said sometimes people don’t return the keys. Then they end up having people use their bunks on nights they do not pay for. They said they are working to fix the problem in the future. Regardless, it worked out okay. The next day, we were required to go to Rainer Mountaineer’s one day climbing school. They taught the basics of how to walk with crampon’s on, how to self arrest, and how to hold your ice axe. It’s really meant for people who have never been on a mountain before but it’s always good to review. After a full day of the basics, we got up the next morning, about 8am and drove to Paradise (a town at the base of Rainer). We then hiked up to Camp Muir, where we would rest for a few hours, and then begin our climb of the mountain.
The trip from Paradise to Camp Muir is a long 5 hour hike on endless snow fields. We walked for about 50 minutes and then would take a 10 minute break. Once we finally reached camp Muir, I found it to be a black wooden box where 27 people are smashed in like sardines. If you climb with RMI, I would recommend bringing a tent and sleeping outside. You will get much better rest. We went to sleep at Camp Muir at about 6 pm and the wake up call was about midnight. This was a very short night of sketchy sleep with people coming and going all night. Camp Muir is a black wooden box with shelves that have mats to place your sleeping bag over. There are 3 floors and a central area where they bring in warm water for you to use for supper. They ration the water because of the large amount of resources it takes to melt the snow to make the water. They also have an outhouse style bathroom for use at the camp. The place quieted down about 8 and I was able to get a few hours of sleep. The wake up call came early at midnight. We were given last minute instructions and told to put on avalanche beacons which, based on the snow conditions, was more of a formality than anything. We got dressed and headed outside to get final gear checks done.
We headed out about 1:30 am on the Disappointment Cleaver Route. I knew it was going to be harder than it needed to be. When we started off on the first section of the climb, I felt my legs burning, not because the climb was steep or technical, but because they had not fully recovered from Baker and Erie. We started off in our roped teams of 1 guide and 4 clients with a total of 27 clients. The route is pretty uneventful until the Disappointment Cleaver section. We would stop for rest breaks every hour or so. Mount Rainier is a much colder mountain than Baker or any other mountain around it. At the rest stops, we had to take our down parkas out of our bags and put them on to stay warm. At some points, even this was not enough. I remember wanting to starting climbing again because it was too cold to sit still, even with my down parka on.
The Disappointment Cleaver section is an exposed rock section. You walk over it in crampons and there is constant rock fall danger. Walking over rocks with crampons was possibly the worst part. I had my own crampons and I could just hear them screaming for mercy because I was ruining them. (If you climb Rainier, it is worth it to rent crampons instead of bringing your own, it wrecks them.) Or maybe it was because your footing is not really secure with crampons on rocks. After about an hour, the Cleaver was over. While we were resting at the top of the Cleaver, the guides put pressure on weaker climbers to quit. Our guide said the following to one of the guys on my rope team in a forceful tone: “I felt the rope getting tight behind me during this last section. If you are going to go on, I don’t want to feel the rope tight behind me even one more time.” The middle aged guy promised he would keep up with the pace. Although, within 100 yards of leaving the rest break area, he decided to quit. I believe this was largely due to the guides’ pressure. Many people, who were even slightly struggling, were “strongly encouraged” to quit. I talked with a guide later about this technique. He explained to me that they try to “let the mountain talk to them.” But, if that doesn’t work, sometimes they need to make “strong suggestions” to individuals for the good of the team.
We continued on for several more hours on much less eventful terrain. It was mostly switchbacks that had been “kicked in.” This basically means it was made into a “highway” for RMI’s climbers. The staff does route work weekly, trying to make the route well marked and beat down by climbers’ foot traffic. They smooth out the sun cups and make the trail easier to travel. Therefore, it requires less energy than if it had not been smashed down.
The travel was getting steadily harder due to the elevation gain. I focused on rest stepping and pressure breathing, which are efficiency techniques for mountain climbing. In rest stepping, you keep your weight on your back leg and lock the knee for a split second. This gives your other leg a chance to rest while not bearing weight. It also allows your muscles to have a break from the constant motion. Pressure breathing is a process when you force all the air out of your lungs, allowing a complete refilling of your lungs with air. Since the atmospheric pressure is less, less air is forced into your lungs with each breath. This technique allows your lungs to get rid of the air not being exhaled each time you breathe. Otherwise, this unused air just takes up space. Pressure breathing allows you to maximize the available amount of air which can be used by your lungs.
Just after reaching high break, we took off for the last 1 hour push to the summit. About 15 minutes into it, one of the other rope teams had a person decide he could not go any further. The guides, instead of calling one of the other guides close by to escort the climber back down; they drove a snow picket into the snow on the side of the mountain and gave the man a sleeping bag. This is a very cold mountain. We were just below 14,000 feet where there was serious risk of frost bite and hypothermia. But they decided it was best to clipped him in and told him we they would be back in about 2 hours and push on. I was a little outraged at this decision. This seemed like familiarity with the terrain and the mountain had made the guide service loose all sense of responsibility for their clients’ well being and safety.
Shortly after this event, we reached what looked like the last stretch to the summit. However, with your legs and lungs burning, you find at the top of this stretch is the true summit, a final 300 yard stretch away. We reached the summit crater about 7:30 am and we were given the option if we want to go to the far point of the crater to stand on the true summit or have a 1 hour break. I figured, after going this far, I would push on the extra half mile to reach the true summit. So I, along with four of the eleven other submitters, pushed on to the true summit. It took about 25 minutes, one way. Upon reaching the true summit, I had a guide take some summit pictures. Unfortunately, I later found out the lenses didn’t open on the camera all the way so I only have half of each picture is just black. I recommend, if you are climbing a mountain, check to make sure your summit picture turns out prior to leaving the summit because it is a really long way back.
Once we walked back, to the middle of the summit crater, to meet up with the rest of the group, I realized how few had actually summated. Only eleven made it out of our original group of 27. This was a little bit of a surprise to me, due to RMI’s claim of an 85% success ratio. It could have been just our group. It might also have been overstated to encourage the average person to attempt Rainier, which is a challenging mountain for the physically fit. We had about a 15 minute break to get re-hydrated and try to eat something. I generally lose my appetite regardless of all energy exertion at high altitudes. Then, we began our descent.
Descending is never fun. It’s uncomfortable on your knees and back. You are tired so your foot placements aren’t as precise. I felt like it would never end. The excitement of making it to the summit is gone. Now you are just going back over terrain you covered before. It’s like the return trip from a vacation is feels longer and not as much fun because there’s nothing left to look forward to. One of the guides told me “descending always sucks but descending slow doesn’t make it suck less. It just makes it suck longer.” The temptation is to go slow on decent but it’s true what he said. Slowing down doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. We reached camp Muir about 2 pm and descended the Muir snowfields in about 2 hours. We boot skied most of the way. To do this you put weight on the front of your boots to make them slide like skis. It makes the snowfield decent much faster. We were back in Ashford shortly and given a certificate to show we had reached the summit of Mt. Rainier.
My intent of this trip report is not to make RMI look bad or to discourage any person from climbing with them. Overall, I think, they run a great climbing operation and are the best out at Mt. Rainier. I am even going with RMI to Mount McKinley this May. However, they have a few issues to address such as leaving a climber on a snow picket on the side of a mountain which I strongly believe is not safe. Also, their manner of encouraging clients to turn back could also use some work. I believe RMI, with their increased competition this year and with the new climbing permit system on Rainer will address these issues accordingly and keep their ranking as one of the top guide services in North America.
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