Location: Mt. Rainier National Park
Length: ~18 mile RT
Elevation: ~10,700 feet
Summit: 14,411 feet
Last March I turned 40. Yeah, it’s a landmark age, one I felt needed to be stamped with something drastic. I was already getting mailings from the AARP and rather than join their sweet retirement club, I decided I’d join a different one: the I Summited Mt. Rainier Club.
Growing up in Washington, Mt. Rainier had always loomed over my life – a longstanding beacon of alpinitude, the queen mountain keeping the other peaks of the Cascade Range in check in her long-reaching shadow. Rainier, or Tahoma, is visible from pretty much every other peak in the state on a clear day and at 14,411′ it’s not surprising.
When people find out about my love of hiking and peakbagging, inevitably they always ask if I’ve climbed Rainier. I’d answer “Nah” with a shrug and when pressed for a reason, I never really could come up with one. I’d done all the other Washington state volcanos: Mt. St Helens in 2009, Glacier Peak with its long trek of approach, Mt. Adams, the little brother of Tahoma, and Mt. Baker away off to the north. This year, I aimed to rectify that whole conversation and be able to answer the nagging question “Oh, have you done Rainier yet?” with a resounding “Of course I have! And let me tell you about it …”
My pal Kim and I had already tackled Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker together and we are a pretty dynamic team; we’re both highly motivated and can climb at a decent clip. While on a recent trip up Baker, we discussed the fact that neither of us had done Rainier and what an awesome climb it would be.
The Mountain was going to be the Mountain and throw some knots in our rope
We planned a 3-day trip – Saturday, August 12th to Monday, August 14th, to take it easy and give us plenty of time for a summit bid. Even with our prior and conservative planning, the Mountain was going to be the Mountain and throw some knots in our rope.
The original plan was to summit via the Emmons route – in from the eastside, stay above Camp Schurman on the Emmons Flats and go from there – but the weather was especially hellbent on melting the remaining glacial ice on the mountain and the route turned to complete garbage. We had to switch routes to the “easy” Disappointment Cleaver route via Paradise and Camp Muir. No big deal, it would still be an awesome climb! So off to Paradise we went …
Day 1: Paradise to Camp Muir
We arrived at Paradise around 9:30 am on Saturday and checked in for our climber’s permits at the guard station. Climbing Rainier requires an annual $47 “Climbing Recovery Cost” permit as well as an overnight permit (free). There are limited spaces to stay at the various alpine camps and only a portion are reservable before hand. We had reserved spots at Camp Muir the first night and Ingraham Flats the second night.
While talking to the Ranger, we were informed that there had been a collapse on the DC route that morning, rendering the route impassable at the 13,500′ mark but that the guides were looking for a new route through. Bummer. No worries though, since we were going to be up there for a few days and surely some way would be found!
Cautiously optimistic, we left the parking lot at 10 am made our way up the John Muir steps onto the paved (seriously, wtf) trail toward Panorama Point. The air was still hazy from the BC wildfire smoke that had infiltrated Washington from the north. Good thing there was a storm forecasted to roll in that night to blow it all away!
The trail network at Paradise has a bunch of loops of varying lengths and all put you in close proximity of the Mountain’s spectacular features
Paradise is a pretty awesome place to explore even if you’re not planning on making a trip to the summit of Rainier. The trail network (not ALL are paved) has a bunch of loops of varying lengths and all put you in close proximity of the Mountain’s spectacular features.
We made our way through the lower portions of Paradise and up toward the Muir snowfield.
Camp Muir sits at 10,188′ and is reached via a 5 mile climb. The last 2 miles are in a perpetual snowfield and can pose a challenge if the weather rolls in while you’re ascending. We lucked out and were presented with that unrelenting hellfire sun to broil our brows and keep us cooking while we climbed.
We reached Camp Muir after 3.5 hours of steady climbing with a 30 minute lunch break thrown in. Not too shabby with full packs!
There were a bevy of people hanging out at Muir, a mix of dayhikers enjoying their 10,000 foot view and guides and climbers bustling about getting ready for their summit bids. Kim and I crossed the dirt ridge and onto the Cowlitz Glacier to find a place to drop our tent. We chose a spot above the guide tents and over a snow ridge where the noise from the main camp couldn’t reach and began to dig a tent site.
After camp was all set, we really just had time to hang out. Nothing was on our agenda since we weren’t planning on summiting the next morning. The aforementioned storm was going to join us that night and was supposed to last into Sunday afternoon – not great for meandering up to 14K feet.
We hung out and relaxed and explored a little around the camp, listening to the guides’ chatter. The collapse on the route was a big one and there was still no foreseeable way around. Double bummer.
I took the opportunity to snag the nearby Muir Peak and get a different vantage point on camp.
That night, I awoke to the predicted storm. The wind whipped through camp and the rain fell, pelting the rainfly on the tent like a million BBs hitting the floor. “Eh, knew it was coming” I thought as I rolled over and went back to sleep.
Day 2: Camp Muir to Ingraham Flats
We awoke to silence. Wait, what? No wind. No rain. Nothing assaulting the outer shell of our humble fabric fortress. I unzipped the fly to look out and lo’ and behold, the storm had passed.
What a wonderful surprise!
Our plans for the day were drastically improved now that we didn’t have to move camp in a storm. We flitted out of the tent and casually made breakfast and coffee. Our next camp was only an estimated 1.5 hours away so we were in no hurry.
After breakfast, I climbed up the rocks behind our tent and hung out for a bit.
I came down and Kim and I began to pack up camp. We chatted with a guide for a bit about the route situation and he confirmed that there still was no way to get to the summit via the DC route. The guide services were planning on sending up scouts that day to keep searching though.
No worries for us, we were still planning on heading up to high camp at Ingraham Flats and figured we’d chat with the guides as they descended from there.
With camp packed, we slid into our harnesses, donned our packs, and clipped into the rope to begin the traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier up toward Cathedral Gap. The glacier traverse was pretty straightforward and, while there were a few cracks along the way, nothing required hopping, skipping, or jumping over.
We arrived at the top of Cathedral Gap and the wind had picked up, bringing with it a chill that fought the sun’s blaze. From atop the Gap, the clouds rolled on below us, hiding Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens from view. Looking north, we could see Little Tahoma and then Disappointment Cleaver hovering above our destination.
Continuing our ascent, we rolled into Ingraham Flats (11,100′) about an hour after leaving Muir. We scoped out the area and found a suitable spot to construct our tent platform.
Once our tent site was constructed (complete with wind-blocking wall and vestibule dugouts), we had nothing to do but sit around and enjoy the view. And what a view!
The clouds rolled along the horizon, engulfing the shoulder of Little Tahoma and offering the occasional break to allow us to see Sunrise far below.
Late afternoon, the guides began coming off the mountain from their route scouting. We chatted with them and learned that their search was unsuccessful and that it would probably be a few more days until a new route to the summit was found.
The guides do a great job of maintaining the DC route and keeping it marked and fairly safe for the climbing public
FYI: The guides do a great job of maintaining the DC route and keeping it marked and fairly safe for the climbing public. We totally appreciated their hard work and the information they gave us, even though we weren’t paying clients. The climbing community is awesome.
Kim and I chatted about our options and now that our chances of summiting had vanished, we decided we’d just hang out, sleep in, and climb to the top of Disappointment Cleaver for the sunrise. We spent the next few hours just watching the light change on the mountain and the clouds roll by, snapping pictures every 6.3 seconds or so.
Summit Sunrise Day
We woke up at 4:30 am to the sounds of a climbing team passing through camp unaware that their voices carried across the glacier like they were laying next to us in the tent. They also seemed unaware that there was no route to the summit.
Nevertheless, we were awake and got up to join the party. Once our glacier gear was in place, we made our way up the Ingraham toward Disappointment Cleaver.
The Cleaver is mostly melted out and really more of a steep trail with a few scramble sections; nothing I wouldn’t have done solo and in my normal trail runners.
The Cleaver is made up of a bunch of loose and crumbly rocks held together as tentatively as a junior high school relationship
The most annoying thing to deal with was the rope. I short-roped us together and kept all the slack in one hand as we climbed to avoid the rope dragging along the dirt and knocking rocks off the Cleaver. The Cleaver is made up of a bunch of loose and crumbly rocks held together as tentatively as a junior high school relationship; one misplaced hand could make the whole thing fall apart.
One guided group above us had some clumsy clients who decided it would be fun to use us for target practice as they dislodged a barrage of boulders down the Cleaver. The guide was quick to stop the team and tell them, “Hey, hey, let’s not do any more of that. Watch were you put your feet!” Luckily, we had gotten out of the path of the rock parade and could watch the festivities from the sidewalk.
We made it to the top of the Cleaver (12,300′) without further incident and enjoyed greeting the sun. The view was astounding and Disappointment Cleaver did not disappoint.
After hanging out for a short bit, we began the trek back down to camp. We reached our tent maybe 45 minutes after we started descending the Cleaver (being sure not to break up any loose rocks).
From there, we packed up camp and headed back down to Camp Muir (travel time: 45 minutes). Being a Monday, Muir was pretty void of dayhikers. We hung out for an hour as we stashed our glacier gear in our packs and gnawed on a Clifbar.
Feeling the need for a burger, we bid Muir farewell and began slip-sliding down the snowfield back to Paradise. At one point, I’m pretty sure I stepped on a banana peel since my feet replaced my head and I found my face in the slush. Eh, I needed to cool off anyway!
We reached the parking lot at Paradise 1.5 hours after leaving Muir and checked out with the climbing Ranger. He mentioned that Rainer has a summit success rate of about 50%. Looks like we were on the wrong side of that statistic this trip!
Before we had even reached the parking lot, Kim and I already had plans in the work to try again the following weekend. We’d keep an eye on the weather and the Rainier climbing blog for news about the route, and, if one was found, we’d be ready.
Of course they found a route the next day …
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