Location: Mt. Rainier National Park
Length: ~18 mile RT
Elevation: ~10,700 feet
Summit: 14,411 feet
Less than a week before, I was denied the summit by the Great Lady of Washington. If you haven’t already, you can read about that trip here. You’re going to want to as there are a lot more pictures accompanying that tale due to the immense amount of time we had on our hands. Also, I’m going to assume you read it and just continue the story …
The guides found another way to the summit the day after we removed our filthy selves from the Mountain
So yeah, the guides found another way to the summit via the Disappointment Cleaver route the day after we removed our filthy selves from the Mountain. We didn’t mind, though, since we’d already planned to try again the next weekend – 5 days later.
With our last outing, we took a leisurely 3 days to hang out on Tahoma’s slopes and just enjoy being on the Mountain. This time would be different, though. Kim and I planned to tackle the summit overnight. We now knew what it was like from Paradise all the way to the top of the Disappointment Cleaver and decided to forgo Camp Muir and just aim for camp at Ingraham Flats. Our bid for the summit would then start there.
We kept an eye on the weather forecasts during the week, as well as any updates to the DC route. All were positive – a very welcome thing.
I went online to reserve our camp spot on the Ingraham Glacier and met a snag. Apparently, all the pre-reserved spots were taken.
Luckily, the Park Service sets aside 30% of all camp permits for day-of climbers to snag on a first-come-first-served basis. You can also get one the day before your climb, which is nice. The only problem: you have to pick the permit up in person.
Weeks ago I had read about people being denied their climb because all the camp permits were handed out and, not wanting that to happen to us, I planned on driving all the way out to Paradise from Seattle on Friday morning before work to grab our permit. Yup, 2.5 hours there and 2.5 back.
On Thursday, I began to dread the drive in the morning and my mind began to wander. I remembered that the permits can be picked up at any of the MRNP Ranger Stations and realized that Sunrise was closer than Paradise! I then came across the oft-overlooked Carbon River Ranger Station and saw that it was only about an hour and twenty minutes out. Bingo!
I was soon shivering in front of the closed Ranger Station counting out the minutes until they opened through chattering teeth
I’d never actually been to the Carbon River side of Rainier (yeah, I still need to visit Tolmie) and, although I still wasn’t excited about the early morning drive, my desire to lock in our second weekend on the Mountain outranked my dread.
Friday morning came early and I was soon shivering in front of the closed Ranger Station counting out the minutes until they opened at 7:30 am through chattering teeth (I’d ridden the Harley down and didn’t account for the drop in temperature in the forest of the foothills).
Once the station opened, it got busy pretty quickly. People kept rolling in to secure their Wonderland Trail permits and I would have been totally and completely jealous if I hadn’t already had some epic weekend plans of my own.
Camping permit now safely in hand, weather forecast clear and sunny, and the route a green light, we were ready for our second attempt.
Day 1: Paradise to Ingraham Flats
We rolled into the parking lot at Paradise and parked in the exact same spot as the week before – a good omen, I’m sure. The weather at 5,500′ was abysmal; Paradise was engulfed in clouds and a steady mist of moisture tried its best to get through our fancy tech-fabric layers. The Mountain was hidden from view, possibly recovering from a rough night of partying and not ready to show her face to the masses.
We checked in with the climbing Ranger and he let us know the cloud cover ended at about 8500′ and it was clear, blue skies from there. Perfect!
Since we had been this way less than a week before, there was no-nonsense on our climb to Camp Muir. We left Paradise at 10 am and rolled into Muir 3 hours later, a nice pace despite hanging with an RMI group for a bit and chatting with one of the guides we ran into last weekend.
At Muir, we had lunch and then readied ourselves for the trek up to Ingraham Flats. The Cowlitz Glacier had melted out a little bit since our last visit, exposing some more cracks, but nothing that was especially concerning.
The weather was fantastic, albeit a tad warm, but the clear skies gave us views of Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Hood to the south. Jefferson was still obscured in the Oregon smoke.
We quickly crossed the Cowlitz and made our climb up to Cathedral Gap and then on to Ingraham Flats. We didn’t stop to take nearly as many pictures this time around.
We got to Ingraham Flats and were dismayed to see a tent sitting atop the citadel we had built the weekend before. In fact, there were quite a few more tents this time around. Word was obviously out that the DC was open again and summit fever was spreading.
We found a spot on the glacier to pitch camp and set about our duties. I was a bit tired after our sprint up to camp which was a great thing; we were planning on a 12:30 am alpine start and I wanted to get some shut eye.
After eating dinner (Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai, 880 calories), I laid down in my sleeping bag and was lulled to sleep by the wind playing Taps on the rainfly. I’m not sure I’d ever fallen asleep that hard at 6pm before, but the beers at the Seahawks’ preseason game the night before may have had something to do with it.
Day 2: Summit Day!
My alarm went off at 12:00 am Sunday morning, and I fumbled for my sleeping bag zipper as I shook the sleep from my eyes. Voices from the other camps wafted across the glacier, signaling that it was time to go climbing!
We slowly started to get our gear ready and I took a moment to peer outside the tent. The glacier was filled with bobbing white lights from the myriad headlamps of the other climbers and a string of lights appeared from Cathedral Gap like a Christmas parade.
Ah, shit. We started moving faster, not wanting to get caught behind the herd of slower guided groups.
The glacier was filled with bobbing white lights from the myriad headlamps of the other climbers and a string of lights appeared from Cathedral Gap like a Christmas parade.
I think it was around 12:45 am when we finally began our trek up the Ingraham Glacier toward Disappointment Cleaver.
Note: there’s going to be a wall of text since it was pitch black out and I didn’t take any pictures during our climb; hopefully I can paint you a picture with my description.
It was dark out and the sky was filled with 1.8 trillion stars. Or maybe it was the lights from the 1.8 trillion climbers. I can’t really remember.
We stepped onto the dirty track at the bottom of the Cleaver and I short-roped us to keep from dislodging rocks and volcanic debris. Once again, we made our way up the dirt climber’s path of the Cleaver, only this time in the dark and with a lot more traffic.
Kim and I caught up to a few small independent teams who were kind enough to let us pass. Our headlamps illuminated the rocky path and reflected the duct-tape flags marking the route when the trail grew thin. I was glad we’d had the opportunity to make this part of the climb in the daylight the week before and had knowledge of the correct path.
Once we reached the top of the Cleaver, we took a short break to catch our breath. By now, we had passed all the other climbing parties on the mountain and sat silently amongst the penitentes which shielded us from the gusting winds.
After about 5 minutes, we were passed by a small group of 5 with whom we would leap-frog for most of the climb. We got up to shake off the chill of our break and fell in line behind them.
From the top of the Disappointment Cleaver, the route climbs another 100 feet or so before heading north and into the real fun – the two ladder crossings.
The flat, wide path ended in an icy staircase above a big dark hole that swallowed our headlamps and we paused to let the group in front of us navigate the section.
The guides had affixed a handline at the downclimb and as Kim reached to grab it, it snapped out of his hand and went taught against the ice. At the same time, a yelp shot up from around the corner and then went silent.
“Are you okay?! Did you fall?” Kim shouted into the darkness. Luckily, I heard the reply. “Yeah, I just slipped!”
As Kim reached to grab the rope, it snapped out of his hand and went taught against the ice. At the same time, a yelp shot up from around the corner and then went silent.
One of the climbers in front of us lost her footing and apparently dropped her ice axe in the process. The guide had to search for it and was fortunate to find it nearby. They moved through the crevassed out section and across the second ladder crossing without incident.
Kim and I followed suit, making sure to keep our footing. The ladder crossing was interesting to say the least and I quickly stepped across to avoid being hypnotized by the inky black abyss lurking beneath my feet.
Once we were through the ladders, the route kept descending, dropping 300′ as we headed further north across the Emmons Glacier. The walk downhill was a nice reprieve, but I knew the luxury would be short-lived since we had to regain that precious elevation.
As we made the traverse, our headlamps cut a thin swathe of light in the night, allowing a slight view of the slope slipping away in the darkness below. It was a bit eerie not knowing where a misstep could land you and we were very deliberate in our foot placement.
We continued on until the route turned up the Mountain and the switchbacks began. And went on. And on. And on. And on. The elevation we lost was gained back with each turn upslope and we eventually cut back south on the Emmons. So much backtracking along the route!
The path finally cut back north again and we took another break about 700′ from the summit. There was a nice flat spot just before another stair climb and we hung out a bit with the group we had been leap-frogging.
700′ to go. 700′ to reach my goal. 700′ to knock another item from my bucket list.
We let the group head up the staircase before us and as we crested behind them, I could see the final path to the crater in the growing dawn light. It had melted out and was mostly dirt and pumice and created a nice ramp to the rim.
It took a lot to keep from running up the ramp to the crater rim, potentially dragging Kim with me like a preschool pull-toy. Instead, I let him lead and we crested the crater rim, giving us our first view of the summit.
The other group had dropped into the crater immediately to find shelter from the wind and we thought about joining them. But not until we had claimed our prize. The summit was right there and we just needed to reach out and grab it.
At 5:45 am on 20 August 2017, Kim and I finally stood atop the summit of Mt. Rainier, Tahoma, the Great Lady of Washington. She had allowed us to grace her summit with our humble presence and waves of emotion swept over the two of us.
I spun around, drinking in the vista; the twinkling lights of Seattle and Puget Sound to the north, the silhouette of Mount Adams slowly gaining clarity and detail as the sky brightened in the south, the murky haze of purple in the west, and the bands of orange and red and pink in the skies to the east.
We hung out on the true summit for about 5 minutes, reveling in what we’d just accomplished. The frigid breeze got to us quickly and we sought a bit of shelter from its icy fingers.
Kim and I sat out of the wind for a while watching the sun rise. Soon, the other group wandered up to the summit to take their celebratory pictures and rejoice on their own. As we sat there watching the sky change colors, Kim noticed something on the other side of the crater.
“Dude, is that a tent?!”
“What? No way,” I said incredulously. “I dunno man, I can’t tell. I don’t have my glasses!”
It was indeed a tent. We discussed that maybe it belonged to the scientists that had been doing research in the summit caves. We later found out it belonged to a couple who had summited the day before and decided to camp at 14,000 feet! So cool.
Finally, it was time to head back down. We said our goodbyes to the summit of Tahoma and reluctantly retraced our steps down the pumice ramp and back into the snow. We met one of the RMI groups and many fist-bumps were had, everyone congratulating everyone else on their successful journeys.
The descent was almost as long as the climb, but this time we could actually see our surroundings. What seemed like a thin catwalk in the darkness on the ascent was actually a path along a pretty even slope that would allow ample time for arrest should a slip have occurred. Daylight is a wonderful thing!
We reached the switchbacks and they sucked just as much, perhaps more in the light since we could see them squiggling away down the hill.
We continued on down the Mountain for an eternity, switching back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until we finally cut south and began to ascend again.
It was about that time that Kim and I realized we hadn’t crossed paths with any other groups on their way to the summit. I mean, with the exception of 2 RMI groups, the group we had been leap-frogging, and one trio who had camped near us on the Flats, none of the other traffic from early that morning was anywhere to be found. We found out later that the majority of the climbing teams decided against continuing on when they reached the stair-step/ladder crossing at the top of the Cleaver.
Once we’d navigated back through the hairy section, we found ourselves again on the top of Disappointment Cleaver – familiar territory. We short-roped and descended the Cleaver without incident (eh, not entirely true: we did get off route a bit down a scree chute and had to climb back up to gain the trail, but nothing major. We did the exact same thing the last time we were up there!).
Back at camp, we sent messages out to our loved ones letting them know we’d made it and then relaxed for a bit before packing up and heading out.
At Camp Muir, we stopped to put away our glacier gear and have a snack and chat with other climbers. We hung out for about an hour until the draw of burgers gained control of our timeline and we bombed back down to Paradise.
Back at the Jeep, we ran into the couple who had camped at the summit and chatted with them for a little bit. Such a cool experience to have stayed on top of the highest point in Washington. I’ll have to try that sometime.
Now that I’ve successfully stood atop all of the volcanos in the state, I guess I need to figure out what’s next!
Now that I’ve successfully stood atop all of the volcanos in the state, I guess I need to figure out what’s next! There are still some volcanos in Oregon I need to try and there’s another 14’er in NorCal that looks mighty sweet. I think I’m done with volcanos for this year, though, so it’s back to peakbagging for me!