Halfway up the summit 20 Strangers emblazoned on Washington license plates and tourist paraphernalia fumble around a centuries-old building. A Kansan father melts snow into drinking water while Ballard engineers stuff ice picks into rudimentary boxes. Soon we all collapse for a few hours of substandard sleep on long communal bunks with alarm clocks set for 11pm. It feels like an adult summer camp. But we’re all here at Camp Muir with one goal in mind: climb Mount Rainier.
Some are drawn to the thrill. Others hike to honor someone special — or with that someone: “He’s a bad influence,” said a San Francisco skier, nodding to her partner. Others climb out of a sense of vindication, having been rejected from the summit in previous attempts. Some have gazed at the glaciated peak rising above Seattle’s skyline for years and want to set foot on the top. As a PNW transplant I hiked up to try the home sport of mountaineering – and for the history of course.
The first documented ascent of Rainier, or Tahoma, was made in the summer of 1870 by two British explorers, assisted by a native named Shiskin, who stayed behind at the team’s base camp. Things have changed since the pair narrowly survived that first known rise.
According to the National Park Service, 10,000 climbers have attempted to reach the iconic peak every year since the 2000s. The success rate is just under 50 percent.
How to plan a rainier climb
This is not a weekend stroll to Snoqualmie Falls or a trip up Rattlesnake Ledge. Honestly, it’s not a hike. At 14,411 feet tall, Rainier might be of similar stature to Colorado’s fourteeners, but it’s a whole different beast. “It’s a challenging climb that’s inherently technical,” says Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascents, one of the top three companies allowed to take clients to the summit.
Technical aspects include unpredictable weather, deep crevasses, steep glacier hikes, route finding and navigation (although with a headlamp) to mitigate risk from seracs, falling rocks and a variety of objective hazards. According to International Mountain Guides’ Harry Hamlin, many of the hazards on Rainier are similar to those of larger mountains – like Denali or Everest – so it’s a convenient training ground for climbers aiming for larger peaks.
Most first-time summiteers hike two of the 20+ routes: Disappointment Cleaver (DC) and Emmons. Because the DC route is maintained by leading companies, climbers can expect a crowded route and ladders or fixed belays to traverse wide crevasses, but also more traffic.
On each route, an independent ascent requires a range of tools and skills, including crevasse rescue, glacier hiking and self-assertion. Not everyone has a gear closet filled with snow posts and pulley systems, or the time to learn how to build a dead man’s anchor. There are also guiding services that, according to Janow, “enable beginners to climb to the summit under the right conditions”. Experienced guides provide a level of safety and knowledge that the average weekend crusher doesn’t bring to the mountain.
Guiding puts the summit in sight for most: “I think it’s easy to feel intimidated, especially when you know the history of Mount Rainier and hear about climbing accidents at Mount Rainier, but especially with the guide service, it’s a very, very achievable goal.” says Hamelin. The company has no age limits and regularly takes clients from teens to mid-70s successfully to the top.
A guided trip, most often led by Alpine Ascents International, International Mountain Guides, or Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., also offers certain alpine luxuries. With permanent lodging awaiting climbers at Camp Muir, most guided clients can do without a tent and stove, allowing them to pack lighter during the trek to DC Route Base Camp. Some excursions include a stop at company tents at Ingraham Flats, slightly higher up the mountain.
At the camp, guided climbers enjoy ready-made meals. I was jealous of the guided guests’ burritos and pesto salmon pasta while choking down my freeze-dried lasagna in front of the public shelter and getting whiffs of campground latrines with every gust of wind. On the route, the guides act as coaches and lifeguards, doing everything from training clients how to breathe efficiently to monitoring the weather and team fatigue to pull the plug if necessary.
While some skilled guys ski climb in the winter, most climbers trudge up from May to September. Extreme weather — like the 2021 heat dome and the unusually wet late spring of late — means the mountain is still in charge of its own schedule. Routes and conditions change hourly, allowing independent climbers to keep a close eye on mountain forecasts and ever-changing conditions to evaluate for a weather window.
The weather isn’t the only obstacle keeping climbers from strolling on a whim. All independent climbing parties must obtain a climbing permit in person at a ranger station to access terrain over 10,000 feet. A separate camping permit is required for overnight stays (and will be checked by rangers at a daily briefing in Muir). Climbers can reserve dates for summer camps online or snag a climb permit in person.
How to Train for a Rainier Climb
Climbing Rainier requires stamina, cardiovascular fitness, strength and mental toughness to climb steep terrain for over ten hours on summit day while lugging a 20-pound (or more) backpack. Leading companies recommend general fitness training, and some work with local personal trainers if you’re looking for personal guidance.
Getting out — and getting up — is essential to a successful climb, and Seattle’s backyard is full of training grounds. Hiking steep local mountains like Mount Si with heavy packs mimics the 4.2 miles to Camp Muir, with no snowfield. For independent climbers, tackling lower elevation glaciated peaks like Mount Baker offers a gentler introduction to glacial travel without as many extreme weather or altitude concerns.
How do I climb Mount Rainier?
A climb on the Disappointment Cleaver Route is divided into two sections: before and after Camp Muir. The hike to Muir is just that – a hike with great views of Rainier’s rugged glaciers to the north and the rugged Tatoosh Range to the south. Go in August, and you’ll be flanked by wildflower color most of the way. Climbers strap on a 40-pound backpack with mountaineering shoes and a rope dangling from the sides, an ice ax and snow pole clipped into the pockets, and water for a day. It is not easy hike.
Camp Muir is a very special place, like an island halfway up an unforgiving peak. In 2020 Seattle Met spent a day and night there between avid climbers and experienced rangers, following the strange rhythms of a roadhouse, a search and rescue base, and an environmental puzzle halfway up a volcano.
Glaciers await behind Muir. That means putting on stiff mountain boots with strong crampons and roping up. Climbers, usually in teams of three to five, travel in line like preschoolers. Rope travel helps teams stop falls and transport members when falling into a crevasse, a worst-case scenario. But it means the team must keep up with meticulous accuracy and move as one. Breaking even a 10 second solo water break is not an option unless the whole team agrees.
How to reach the summit of Rainier
The mountain is always there.
It’s a refrain that rangers, mountain guides, and veteran mountaineers hear at every point in a decision-making process. We knew it as we hunched over forecast printouts and maps while calculating our weather window.
That’s what I said to myself as we turned back at 3:30 am after four and a half hours of traveling by headlamp to the top of the crater, which at the time was only 1,000 meters in altitude. That weather window had closed thanks to inclement weather that wasn’t predicted: approaching lightning, strong winds and freezing rain pelting our Gore-Tex. Nobody from Muir made it to the top that night, but everyone made it down – and that’s the ultimate measure of success on these peaks.
Teams that reach Rainier’s summit shuffle into the wide, open crater at the top, surrounded by icy glacial caves that smell of sulfur erupted by the active volcano. The highest point, 14,411 feet, is called Columbia Crest, a gentle swell at the crater rim. A summit register is located in a metal box directly below, a place where the names and dates of each ascent are recorded. When the books are full, they are moved to the University of Washington Library’s Special Collections Archives.
But even when the summit is reached, the journey is not yet over. Statistics show that most mountaineering accidents occur on descent; Some studies assume up to 80 percent. There have been over 400 documented deaths in Mount Rainier National Park, almost a quarter of them to climbers trying to make the summit.
At the end of the day, a successful climb is one that brings everyone home, summit or not. Until next time, Rainier.