Mt. Rainier [Trip Report]
This year marks the 20th anniversary since I summited Mt Rainier. In this post, I look back at the planning and the climb to the highest summit in Washington State.
It all began with my friend Michael Sharp and I talking about climbing Denali in Alaska. We were fans of climbers Mark Twight, Steve House and other great alpinists at the time. We wanted to climb the Japanese Couloir in the same alpine style as our heroes. Michael and I had done a lot of climbing together, on rock, ice, and alpine mountaineering. To reach our eventual goal of Denali, I wanted to climb on an easier mountain. Called the “training ground for the Himalayas” Mt. Rainier seemed to be the perfect climb to perfect our skills.
Early on in our planning and training phase Michael had to drop out due to work commitments. I had a friend named Matt who lived in Colorado. We needed two other climbers and we found Keith and JD online. Matt and I trained, even taking a snow mountaineering class together in April 2000. Keith and JD trained in their respective states and we all agreed to meet in Washington. We were a team of 4 and, being comfortable leading on rock and ice, I was designated team leader.
Colorado has many 14ers, and quite a few are very difficult, but none quite like Mt Rainier. When we arrived the Ranger pulled us aside and cautioned us, saying “this is nothing like Colorado 14ers.” Covered in large glaciers, massive snow blocks and crevasses that could swallow houses, Mt. Rainier has a reputation for being deadly. In the early 1980’s eleven members of a twenty-two person team, were killed on Disappointment Cleaver. Their bodies were never recovered. It is also an active volcano, therefore Mt. Rainier is not an easy challenge. A climb like this without a guide service is more like a mini-expedition. As such we had a long gear list:
- Two 4-season tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, Tibetan Prayer Flags
- 50 wands (to mark the route if in white-out conditions) Garmin GPS, maps
- 2 snow pickets and 1 ice screw per person
- Two 8.5mm half ropes
- 1 avalanche probe per two people
- Avalanche beacons
- Two snow shovels
- Harness, helmet, carabiners, ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, pulleys, other climbing gear.
- Stove, food, cooking gear, personal items, etc.
To climb Mt Rainier you need to start at Paradise the visitor center. At 5,500 feet elevation the center has a lodge, guiding services and parking. From there you climb up the Muir snowfield to Camp Muir, located at about 10,080 feet elevation. Some of the guided people stay in the RMI hut but we stayed in our tents. We found a nice spot where a previous party had camped. They had created a kitchen at least 5 feet deep dug out of snow . We used it for our stove and cooking items and were able to enjoy the nice snow benches. Although we wanted to climb the same night we arrived, we decided we were all too tired, and would start our climb the next evening.
We spent the next day practicing traveling on snow, checking out crevasses, and talking to other groups around us. We discovered that most people had not summited, this being their third or fourth attempt. This was not good news for us. Not being discouraged by that news we still planned on making it to the summit. This is when Keith informed us that he would not be going to the summit, he just didn’t feel ready.
We awoke at midnight. I peeked my head out of the tent, seeing stars so bright and blackness, I felt like I was on the moon. There was no color, just black and shades of gray. The three of us got dressed and put on our gear. Stepping out of our tents, I remember the crampons not sinking fully into the snow, frozen like ice. We could even see the space between the snow and the bottom of our boots. The other teams were up and starting their ascent. We left a little after 1:00am, in the darkness with only our headlamps and the cold.
Our original plan involved the Disappointment Cleaver route, but it wasn’t usable at that time. Because of that we chose to go the Ingraham Direct route. About 20 minutes after passing through Cadaver Gap, we heard a loud rumble behind us. The sound was unmistakable, it was an avalanche. We heard from a few parties that the avalanche went through Cadaver Gap. Fortunately no one was caught in it.
Continuing up on the Ingraham Glacier, we followed the stomped snow foot path from those who traveled before us. It was dark and cold. Taking a break as the sun was rising, we looked down at Little Tahoma Peak. The view was breathtaking. The climbers looked like ants on the giant glacier. Switchback after switchback we finally we arrived on the summit rim. From here it is a walk across the top to Columbia Crest, at 14,411 feet elevation. A little exhausted we arrived after 7:00am. We took photos, ate, and had some water. We had made it.
“Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory” Ed Viesturs
From our elevated vantage point we could see so much more in the daytime. Snow everywhere, fluffy clouds beneath us, and mountains far off in the distance. The descent was fairly uneventful in the beginning, although the snow gave way under Matt as we crossed a snow bridge over a crevasse, but he quickly jumped across and was okay. Things got crazy when we got into the icefall area. First a large ice block broke off above us. You know how they say life flashes before your eyes when you know you are about to die? Yeah it does. As the block was coming down, this realization of “well I can’t go anywhere” came over me. As it was falling it hit part of the wall above us and broke into pieces. A large piece hit the snow like a rock hitting water, with snow flying up in the air like a splash. Other pieces flew by the people below us. One woman was hit in the leg. She was just standing then she laying was on the ground, it happened was so fast. Her team tended to her, and I honestly don’t know what the outcome was. We passed around them. During the early morning a crevasse opened up. Someone put a ladder over it for the teams to cross. I stopped and took a photo of my feet because it reminded me of something you would see on a Mt. Everest documentary.
We eventually arrived back at Camp Muir, packed up all our gear and hiked down. Quiet, tired, and not talking much. I remember how vivid colors looked, the green shades of the grass, the colors of cars. We went to dinner, had a good sleep and drove home. Keith and JD went on to summit Mt Hood right after our Rainier trip. To find out about what happened to all of us I suggest reading The Story of the Rice.
Additional editing by: Gordon Eaton III
- 14,411 Feet
- Round Trip Distance: 15 Miles
- Elevation Gain: 9000 feet
- Difficulty: Alpine Snow Grade II
- Route: Ingraham Direct
- Rank by Elevation: 1/1
- Time: 2 Days
- Date Summited: June 23, 2000
At Paradise, geared up and ready to climb Mt Rainier
Rest break while hiking up the Muir Snowfield
Camp Muir with Mt St Helens in the background. Notice the RMI hut.
Our tent setup at Camp Muir
The kitchen area at Camp Muir.
Our rest day before the summit push. Keith on the Cowlitz Glacier.
Climbing day, looking down at Little Tahoma Peak
Me not looking excited during our rest break at about 12,000 feet
Me on the summit of Mt Rainier, shortly after 7:00am
Our summit photo. Matt, me, and JD. Notice the metal summit log box in the bottom
On the descent, the climbers look like ants
Looking down while crossing a crevasse on a ladder bridge