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Matt Miller

Matt serves as a professional gear junkie & trip planner for Alpine Ascents, and is an everyman climber who equally enjoys warm dry rock, deep winter powder, and slushy summer glacier climbing. He calls the Pacific Northwest home, but has spent time living all over the USA and abroad, including a stint in the rolling green hills of the UK’s East Anglia.

"Of all the fire mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest." - John Muir

Mount Rainier towers over the Puget Sound, alternately shining with fresh snow in winter or glittering with the long icy stripes of her 25 massive glaciers in summer. As Alpine Ascents guide Craig Van Hoy (432 summits of Rainier!) often says, “Rainier needs few introductions. More people know Rainier than Kanchenjunga, which is the 3rd highest mountain in the world!” With more than 13,000 feet of bulk rising in prominence to a 14,410 foot summit, this titanic stratovolcano is visible for many miles in any direction.

The history of climbing on Rainier is storied, with a hazy beginning. Rumor has it that climbers reached the summit as early as 1852; the earliest documented ascent came in 1870 - yet neither record speaks to native residents, living beneath the mountain for an untold number of years - who perhaps scaled the peak. In more modern times, Rainier has served as a launching pad for US-based climbers to the Greater Ranges. It is a sublime experience to watch alpenglow descend on the mountain to the soundtrack of the booms, cracks, and rumbles of Rainier’s living glaciers.

LOGISTICS & ROUTE SELECTION

Most traveling to Rainier choose to fly into Seattle-Tacoma Airport and drive to the mountain - a 2.5 hour drive depending on the trailhead selected - while others use a guide service like Alpine Ascents who provide transportation. There aren’t standard shuttle services to Rainier's trailheads! Lodging is generally easiest to find closer to Seattle, although camping in the national park can be an excellent option in warmer months.

Rainier can be climbed year-round, although different routes typically have a best season for climbing. An alpinist’s smorgasbord awaits depending on the season - with routes varying from Grade II introductory-level glacier climbs to more challenging Grade IV ice routes. All routes require a climbing permit, all the time. These are picked up in person most of the year, or can be self-issued during the quieter winter months.

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In the winter, routes like the Gibraltar Ledges are snow-covered enough to allow for safe passage through sections of friable rock - however, bad weather & avalanche-prone slopes abound. Some also use the deep winter snowpack and challenging winter weather to train for larger objectives like Denali. In the spring, many elect to ski routes like the Fuhrer Finger, which often retain sufficient snowpack through May for a pleasant trip. A few other routes - like the classic but rarely climbed Tahoma Glacier or ultra-classic but challenging Liberty Ridge - are also best attempted when sufficient snow coverage remains to bridge heavily crevassed areas.

By the numbers, Rainier is most attempted in the summer. June through August offer consistently better weather than other months, decreased avalanche danger, and an ideal amount of snow coverage on glaciated sections - enough snow is melted to allow you to see larger crevasses, but important snow bridges are still in place to allow for more direct routes to the summit. Trade routes like the Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier are ideal intro routes, or intermediate routes like the steeper Kautz Glacier can also be climbed in the summer. The fall is Rainier’s slowest time for climbing. While select advanced routes like the Central Mowich Face can come in during the fall, most locals head elsewhere until winter closes in. Each route has a “sweet spot” in terms of conditions, and yearly weather patterns can change this timing dramatically.

 

TRAINING & SKILLS

 

Around 25% of Rainier hopefuls fail to reach the summit due to insufficient physical conditioning. Rainier is easy to underestimate, perhaps due to the dozens of peaks in the USA which are either higher than Rainier or within a few hundred feet. However, Rainier is a far cry from a Colorado 14’er - covered in glaciers & snow, with little dry trail to be found- she is an order of magnitude more physically demanding, and in a class of her own in the Lower 48. So - does Rainier require a long distance runner’s cardio, a sprinter’s power, or a weight-lifter’s strength and stability? Climbers who succeed train their entire bodies to carry a heavy pack for many hours over uneven terrain, which requires high steps & stable footwork.

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Skills-wise, it’s key to have practice and understanding of both snow travel techniques (cramponing, ice axe usage) and glacier travel techniques (route finding, roped travel, running belays, crevasse rescue). On Rainier, it’s important to note that it’s not uncommon for a route to change during the course of your ascent, requiring an altered route down from the summit due to a snow bridge collapse.

Another 25% of hopefuls fail to reach the summit of Rainier due to weather. She is a mercurial peak, with bluebird conditions deteriorating to freight-train winds & full whiteout with little warning. Practice with whiteout navigation and practice moving in challenging conditions (think 50 mph winds!) are key for safely moving around on Rainier.

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GEAR & EQUIPMENT

 

Mt. Rainier is a temperamental mountain. This owes much to her geographic position & prominence - Rainier juts singularly skyward and lies close to the Pacific Ocean, which generates ferocious winds, high snowfall totals, and sudden changes in conditions. These conditions require “full kit” even in the summer, including true mountaineering boots (double boots except in June, July, and August), shells & insulation, goggles, and the rest of a standard mountain clothing system.

Mountaineering hardware and equipment is also required - crampons, ice axe, harness, ropes, pickets, ice screws, windproof stove for melting snow and cooking, and a four-season tent is also key except in the most pleasant weather window. Lastly, don’t forget the food. Plan to get 3-4000 calories per day, and keep in mind that you must eat frequently - 300-500 calories per hour while moving is ideal.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

 

For a competent party in a good weather window, a Rainier climb can be a really pleasant, straightforward experience with sunshine & epic views. In “full Scottish” conditions, a climb of Rainier can also be an amazing experience - throw on your Neutrino Endurance jacket & goggles, and press on through what feels like a hurricane. Regardless, with the right preparations, any Rainier climb is bound to be a memorable experience.

Rather than self-guiding, some use a local guide service like Alpine Ascents - we love to see climbers who are totally new to climbing just as much as, say, experienced rock climbers who are wanting to cross over into glacier mountaineering. Some of our clients are even experienced mountaineers who simply don’t want to manage trip logistics and prefer to let someone else prepare the hot food for dinner!


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Alpine Ascents International is a leader in the climbing industry and has been instrumental in setting precedent in the international guiding community. Guided climbs of Rainier are offered May-September each year.

Photographs courtesy of Joshua Edric Perez and Nathan Hadley.

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