Climbing Mt Rainier was truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite lacking extreme altitude (from a global perspective), Rainier offers incredible big mountain experience. It’s home to 26 glaciers and has 36 square miles of permanent ice and snowfields. The standard route (Disappointment Cleaver) is 18 miles round trip and includes 18,000 feet of total elevation change. It’s considered the most challenging endurance climb in the lower 48 states. Of course, I didn’t know most of that before hand.
I can’t write about this experience without mentioning how incredible the RMI guides are. It was a privilege to share a few days with people who love mountaineering so much. Our lead guide, Casey Grom, summited Everest in each of three attempts. Eryka and Dave were our other fantastic guides. Their mountaineering skills are only outmatched by their intimate knowledge of Mt Rainier. Between all the guides combined there are literally hundreds of successful summits. On top of all that expertise they are also gracious teachers and leaders. I couldn’t recommend them more highly.
The climb is broken up into two days. The first day we climbed 4,500 ft. to Camp Muir at 10,000 ft. My boots were new and I’d worn them around some, but hadn’t done any serious hiking to break them in. The day before at mountaineering school my boots performed wonderfully. But on the first day of the climb my heels blistered under the extra weight of my pack. I even proactively covered them with athletic tape and a thick coat of body glide. But I’ve been known to blister badly on my heels before and it happened again this time.
We arrived at Camp Muir around 2 in the afternoon. It was a very warm climb. I sweat a lot, so rehydrating was a top priority. I also ditched my pack and changed from boots to running shoes. Much better! I had a slight headache onset by the altitude. A couple ibuprofen solved that problem quickly.
I had been quite aggressive with calorie intake all day. One of the effects of altitude is loss of appetite. I wanted to stay in front of fueling because I knew we had a grueling climb ahead. The downside was my stomach was not happy. It could have been much worse. But suffice it to say I visited the
restroom latrine more than my fair share.
We slept in a climbers’ hut. With the help of earplugs I was able to sleep some through multiple interruptions including loud snoring. Lights out was at the very early hour of around 5PM. We were told we would be awakened sometime between 11:00 PM and 2:00 AM to begin our summit assault. I had to get up out of my bunk twice to visit the bathroom. One benefit of getting up in the “middle of the night” to go relieve myself is I got a great picture at dusk.
I was definitely asleep when they turned the light on at 11:00 PM. It took a bit for me to realize where I was and what was happening. We started so “early” because it would be a record high temperature that day. The guides wanted to get us down off the more dangerous parts of the mountain before the day heated up and increased the risk of icefall or rock fall. We had an hour to eat breakfast, hit the restroom, get dressed, packed, and our climbing gear on. Most of us were scrambling to get ready. Before I knew it I was roped up with my three man team and we were off.
Climbing in the dark is really a strange experience. All you can see is a couple steps in front of you illuminated by your headlamp. You lose all sense of how far or how high you are climbing. You don’t notice until you descend later in the daylight. While it’s dark, you walk right by giant crevasses, completely oblivious to just how close to the edge you pass.
Every 1 – 1.5 hours we stopped for a 15-minute break. The guides watched us to see if we remembered what we were supposed to do at the break:
• Take off your pack.
• Put on your parka so you don’t freeze.
• Sit down on your pack.
• Eat and drink.
Eventually it becomes clear, if you have the endurance conditioning, you can climb for hours and hours this way. You pack snacks in your parka pockets. When you pull into the break you take off your pack, get out and put on your parka, grab your water bottle and sit down. You have everything you need for the break. At the end of the break the guides helped us decide if we needed to add/remove a layer of clothing. After packing up we were moving again, onward and upward.
Summit & Descent
Four climbing sessions with three breaks and we made the summit at sunrise. It was incredibly beautiful, even if we had to hike past where a fellow climber barfed right on the side of the path. ☺ At the summit is a large crater (Rainier is a volcano, after all). It was safe to unrope and we dumped our packs. After grabbing a snack and some water we made the 15-minute trek to the highest point on the crater rim to enjoy summit photos.
The descent went well. You can down climb about twice the pace of ascending. Some people were quite tired. But I was absolutely soaking in the views now that we could see the amazing landscape. Clouds had rolled in thousands of feet below and the surrounding mountains, ridges, and glaciers made for a stunning panorama.
The farther down we climbed the better I felt and the more celebratory the atmosphere became. We had just climbed Rainier, and we were almost back down to camp. We shared stories of barfing, slipping, falling, and cursing the mountain. We laughed. We congratulated. Everyone in our group that set out for the summit made it. There were some tough moments when I wasn’t sure that would be the case for some of my climbing mates. But we all made it and I was proud of them.
When we arrived back at Camp Muir we relaxed for a bit, then set about the unpleasant chore of packing everything up for the final descent back to the parking lot. Needless to say, the packs were not nearly as well packed as they were to start with. Most of us just chunked all our stuff inside.
Descending Muir Snowfield was fun. It was warm and the snow was slushy. You could kind of slide/ski down on your boots. I even glissaded some on a trash bag. After adding a nice strawberry to my forearm, I gave up the glissade. The celebration continued as we enjoyed a break together on the way down.
At the very end of the trail you have to pound a bit of pavement. For the first time I noticed the bottom of my feet were hurting. When we made it to the shuttle bus and took off our boots, pure joy ensued.
I will never forget this experience. I love being in the mountains. I love being on big mountains with frozen rivers so vast you can’t begin to comprehend the immensity. I love being in the mountains with people that love the mountains. In the mountains there are no games. There’s no fake it till you make it. You either have what it takes or you don’t. You trust your guide. You have to. You trust your rope mates. You have to.
I saw a beautiful sunrise, a sunrise I had to work for. Sure, you can look at my pictures, but it’s not the same. I endured through the training, the doubt, and the anxiety. I survived the blisters, headaches, stomachaches, heat, cold, and hunger. I was there. A photo can’t capture how sweet those moments were. But it can remind me.
14,000 ft. isn’t that high in the grand scheme of the universe. But looking down on the beauty of the earth from even that paltry stepstool moved my soul. I climbed 9,000 ft. of that by the power of my own legs and strength of my will. Clouds, snow, and ice stretched out across jagged peaks and rolling hills for miles upon square miles. I was blessed with a clear day and a successful summit. I was blessed with competent guides and earnest fellow climbers. I was blessed with a safe day traversing dangerous areas of the mountain. I will always cherish my first climb of Mt Rainier, and look forward to many more.
Credit where it’s due: One of my fellow climbers, Peter, outmatched me with his camera. I’m grateful he shared these images with me. Many of them are his fine handiwork. If interested, you can find more pictures at my picasa web album.