Halfway up the peak emblazoned on Washington license plates and tourist paraphernalia, 20 strangers fumble about in a century-old structure. A Kansan father melts snow into drinking water while Ballard engineers cram ice axes into rudimentary cubbies. Soon, we all collapse for a few hours of low-quality sleep on long, communal bunks with alarms set for 11pm. It feels like adult summer camp. But we’re all here at Camp Muir with one goal: summit Mount Rainier.
Some are drawn by the thrill. Others trek to honor someone special—or with that someone: “He’s a bad influence,” one San Franciscan skier said, nodding to her partner. Others climb for a sense of vindication, having been turned back from the summit in past attempts. Some have looked at the glaciated peak rising above Seattle’s skyline for years and want to set foot on top. As a PNW transplant, I trekked up to try out the hometown sport of mountaineering—and of course, for the story.
The first documented ascent of Rainier, or Tahoma, was made by two British explorers in the summer of 1870, aided by a Native man named Shiskin who stayed behind at the team’s base camp. Things have changed since the pair barely survived that first known ascent.
According to the National Park Service, every year since the 2000s, a steady 10,000 mountaineers attempt to reach the iconic summit. The success rate hovers just below 50 percent.
How to Plan for a Rainier Climb
This isn’t a weekend stroll to Snoqualmie Falls or jaunt up Rattlesnake Ledge. Frankly, it’s not a hike. Standing at 14,411 feet, Rainier may be of similar stature to Colorado’s fourteeners, but it’s a wholly different beast. “It’s a demanding climb that is technical by nature,” describes Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascents, one of the three main companies permitted to guide clients up the peak.
The technical aspects include unpredictable weather, deep crevasses, steep glacier travel, route finding, and navigation (by headlamp nonetheless) to mitigate risks from seracs, rockfall, and a myriad of objective hazards. According to Harry Hamlin at International Mountain Guides, many of the hazards present on Rainier are similar to those of bigger mountains—like Denali or Everest—so it’s a convenient training ground for mountaineers with sights set on bigger peaks.
Most first-time summit attempters trek up two of the 20-plus routes: Disappointment Cleaver (DC) and Emmons. Because the DC route is maintained by guiding companies, climbers can expect a well-packed route and ladders or fixed protection to help cross wide crevasses, but also more traffic.
On any route, an independent climb requires a distinct set of tools and skills, including crevasse rescue, glacier travel, and self-arrest. Not everyone has a gear closet stocked with snow pickets and pulley systems, or the time to learn how to build a deadman anchor. In comes guiding services, which Janow says “make it possible for beginners to ascend to the summit in the right conditions.” Experienced guides provide a level of safety and knowledge that the average weekend crusher doesn’t bring to the mountain.
Guiding brings the summit in sight for most: “I think it’s easy to feel intimidated, especially knowing the history of Mount Rainier and hearing about climbing accidents on Mount Rainier, but especially with the guide service, it’s a very, very attainable goal,” Hamlin says. The company doesn’t have age limits, and they routinely bring clients ranging from teens to mid-70s successfully to the summit.
A guided trip, most led by Alpine Ascents International, International Mountain Guides, or Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., also comes with certain alpine luxuries. Thanks to permanent accommodations awaiting climbers at Camp Muir, most guided clients can skip the tent and stove, making for a lighter pack during the trek to the DC route’s base camp. Some trips include a stop in company tents at Ingraham Flats, a bit higher on the mountain.
Once at camp, guided climbers nosh on fully cooked meals. I was jealous of the guided clients’ burritos and pesto salmon pasta while choking down my freeze-dried lasagna outside the public shelter, getting a whiff of the campside latrines with each wind gust. On the route, guides act as coaches and lifeguards, doing everything from teaching clients how to breathe efficiently to monitoring the weather and team exhaustion levels to pull the plug when necessary.
While some sendy types make winter ski ascents, most climbers trudge up May through September. Extreme weather—like the 2021 heat dome and the recent uncharacteristically wet, late spring—means the mountain is still in charge of her own schedule. Routes and conditions change by the hour, so independent climbers keep a close eye on mountain forecasts and ever-changing conditions to evaluate for a weather window.
Weather isn’t the only obstacle keeping climbers from sauntering up on a whim. All independent climbing parties must obtain a climbing permit in-person at a ranger station to access terrain past 10,000 feet. A separate camping permit is required (and scrutinized by rangers at a daily conditions briefing at Muir) to stay overnight. Climbers can reserve summer camp dates online or snag a walk-up permit in person.
How to Train for a Rainier Climb
Summiting Rainier requires endurance, cardiovascular fitness, strength, and mental fortitude to move on steep terrain for upwards of ten hours on summit day, all while lugging a 20 pound (or more) pack. Guiding companies recommend training overall fitness, and some partner with local personal trainers for those seeking personalized direction.
Getting out—and up—is imperative to a successful climb, and Seattle’s backyard is full of training grounds. Hiking steep local mountains like Mount Si with a heavy pack mimics the 4.2 miles to Camp Muir, sans snowfield. For independent climbers, tackling lower-elevation glaciated peaks like Mount Baker provides a more mellow introduction to glacier travel without as many extreme weather- or altitude-related concerns.
How to Climb Mount Rainier
A climb on the Disappointment Cleaver route is broken into two sections: before and after Camp Muir. The hike up to Muir is just that—a hike with beautiful views of Rainier’s crevassed glaciers to the north and the jagged Tatoosh Range to the south. Go in August, and you’ll be flanked by pops of wildflower color most of the way up. Climbers strap on a 40-pound pack with mountaineering boots and a rope dangling from the sides, an ice ax and snow picket jammed into the pockets, and a day’s worth of water. It’s not an easy hike.
Camp Muir is a special place all its own, like an island halfway up an unforgiving peak. In 2020 Seattle Met spent a day and night there among stoked climbers and seasoned rangers, following the strange rhythms of a rest stop, search and rescue base, and environmental conundrum halfway up a volcano.
Past Muir, glaciers await. That means donning stiff mountaineering boots with biting crampons and roping up. Climbers, typically in teams of three to five, travel like preschoolers in a line. Roped travel helps teams stop falls and haul members if they were to fall into a glacial crevasse, a worst-case scenario. But it means the team has to pace with painstaking accuracy and move as a unit. Pausing for even a 10-second solo water break isn’t an option unless the whole team agrees.
How to Reach the Summit of Rainier
The mountain is always there.
It’s a refrain heard from rangers, guides, and longtime mountaineers at each point in a decision making process. We knew it as we huddled over forecast printouts and maps while calculating our weather window.
It’s also what I told myself as we turned around at 3:30am after traveling by headlamp light for four-and-a-half hours toward the cratered summit, which at that point was just 1,000 vertical feet away. That weather window had closed, thanks to rough weather that wasn’t forecasted: approaching lightning, strong winds, and freezing rain pelting our Gore-Tex. No one from Muir made it to the summit 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 up top, ringed with icy glacier caves that smell of the sulphur emitted by the active volcano. The highest point, 14,411 feet, is called Columbia Crest, a gentle swell on the crater rim. A summit register sits in a metal box just below it, a place to record names and dates of each ascent. When the books fill up, they’re taken to the special collections archives at the University of Washington library.
But even once the summit is reached, the trip isn’t over. Statistics show that the majority of mountaineering accidents happen on the descent; some studies suggest as high as 80 percent. There have been over 400 documented deaths within Mount Rainier National Park, almost a quarter of them climbers on a summit bid.
At the end of the day, a successful climb is one that brings everyone back home, summit or not. Until next time, Rainier.