I made my first attempt to summit Rainier in 2006 and made it to our 11,000-foot base camp. However, my conditioning was lacking, and hearing stories of groups coming back down after 15-hour summit attempts, I realized I could not continue with my team. Since then, Rainier has always been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t have friends who wanted to go with me, and I really didn’t want to join a guided group, especially up the crowded Disappointment Cleaver route. And so, a few years went by before my I took another attempt.
Back in 2016, however, everything came together to make another attempt. My friend Tommy was excited at the prospect, and he found Nate who also joined us. Both Tommy and Nate had backgrounds in rock climbing, but neither had prior experience with mountaineering, so our first step was training: both technical and physical. Our technical training involved several weekends out on the mountain practicing self-arrest, self-belay, snow stability assessment, and snow anchors. As well as a bit of crevasse rescue. We hit the crevasse rescue harder, however, off my roof and off Tommy’s front porch.
Physical training for me involved a lot of walking. Fitbit was my friend, and I tried to get as much walking in as I could, between breaks at work, at home, and on the weekends. I went on long trips frequently that year.
Day 0—Getting the Permits
All this led up to a 5-day weekend for me (Tommy and Nate would join me at the end of my first two days out in the field). 2016 happened to be the year that Mount Rainier’s reservation system went down, for the count, so all permits were first-come, first-served. In order to guarantee our permit, I drove down to White River on Thursday to get our climbing permits and backcountry camping reservations. I camped at White River that evening, going on a short day hike around the Sunrise area that day.
Day 1—Glacier Basin
The next day would be a short hike into Glacier Basin, and it started off stormy from the night before. I packed up camp and hung out around White River and my car until I saw an opening in the clouds. The forecast was iffy at best, so I was taking a guess as to whether that opening would stay or not. I took it, and by some miracle, I never saw a drop of rain for the rest of the trip.
The hike into Glacier Basin was one I’d done many times before, but this time I was carrying 55 pounds. Since Tommy and Nate would be joining me at camp later that evening, I was carrying the entire 3-person 3.5-season tent on my own. Not to mention all the other shared group supplies I’d need for the night. It was a short hike though, and I managed just fine. The day was beautiful and I got some create pictures of the basin. I also got to see a deer, and a herd of goats up on the cliff-side above.
I set up camp, had a warm dinner of Pasta Primavera, and settled in for the night. Tommy and Nate arrived just a hair after 10 pm to join me, and we all settled in for sleep.
Day 2—Camp Schurman
Our next day would be our first big climb, up Interglacier, over the Emmons Moraine to Emmons Glacier, and up around to Camp Schurman, our base camp for the next two nights. There is no getting around it, this was a tough climb, though as we’d soon discover, nothing compared to the final climb up to the summit. We had a hearty breakfast of biscuits and oatmeal and started out early, leaving the maintained trail within minutes of our departure.
We continued to climb up the remains of a lateral moraine and eventually into the basin below Interglacier. A few groups had camped on the snow in this basin and were practicing mountaineering skills or beginning their trek up to Schurman. Interglacier was very solid, and we continued up without the need to rope up. This is where it became very steep. Likely a 45-degree angle, we slowed down significantly at this point, stopping for lunch on a rock outcropping a third of the way up.
It was a slog up to the Emmons Moraine, but eventually, we got there. And here’s where life got tricky. We found ourselves a bit higher than where others had carved out a path on the rocky moraine. Using our ice axes as anchors, we slowly self-belayed across a tight ice shelf to get onto the rocky part of the moraine. From there it was a limited trail through dirt and talus until we finally cross onto the Emmons Glacier. A few large crevasses had already begun to form on the glacier, but a nice solid block of ice still offered a bridge across. Still, we roped up for safety and made our final ascent up to Schurman from there.
We reached the 9,440-foot Camp Schurman early, around 2 in the afternoon, but knowing we had an early start, we still needed to be somewhat efficient with our time. At Schurman, you have three options for camping: the limited space on the rocky prow, the snowfield below the prow, and Schurman Flats, about a hundred feet above Camp Schurman. Since we got up early enough, we decided to take one of the spots on the rocks. This had the advantage of not needing to worry about a wet tent bottom at the end of our stay, or having to get on boots to trek out onto the ice. It did, however, have a downside we did not expect. Since we were getting up around 1 am for our alpine start, we planned to hit the hay around 6 pm. However, the noisy gang on at Schurman added to the still light sky, kept me up most of the night. Schurman Flats, we learned later, is much quieter.
Day 3—Summit Day
Rainier requires a long day of climbing. Add to that the sun on a summer day heating the snow and turning it to slush, all amounts to needing to get a very early start to summit. This is well known as the alpine start, and our Alpine start began when our alarms went off at 1 am. We shoveled down a quick breakfast, our lightened packs already re-packed for the day trip up to the summit and back. We were on the trail by 1:30 am. We had a pretty good pace to start our day, gaining a little over 550 feet in the first half hour. Our pace slowed a little after 10,00 feet, gaining the next 1500 in about 2 hours. Affectionately known as the corridor, this section of the trail was 2000 feet of elevation straight up the mountain. But here things really began to slow. A combination of having to cross the mountain to avoid a large bergschrund blocking our way to the summit, and the elevation taking its toll, the next 1,000 feet of elevation took 3 hours, reaching 12,500 feet around 7 am.
This is where I thought I might have reached the end of my trip. I was fatigued, I was pushing myself to the limit cardiovascularly, and the backs of my legs were burning. In short, I had reached the infamous wall that all climbers hit at some point in their adventures. And I was pretty sure this wall was marking my limits. I said as much to my team, but also said I wasn’t done yet. So I pushed on, another 100 feet, then another. And in the midst of my pain, I somehow found myself feeling a little bit of relief. Somehow, I had pushed past that wall and found the energy to keep on climbing. The next 1,000 feet took 3 1/2 hours, finally landing us in the saddle between the “true summit” and one of the other summit’s liberty cap.
An interesting note that Rainier actually has 3 different summits. Columbia Crest is the true summit (the highest point on the mountain. Liberty Cap is the lowest of the three summits. The third and middle summit is Point Success, at the southern edge of the mountain, above Success Cleaver.
At 13,600 feet, I was standing atop Mount Rainier. Not on one of the three summits, but on the saddle between them. I also knew, without a doubt, that I need a moment to rest before the descent, and that every bit of my remaining energy would be needed to stay safe on the way down. That said, we were now above crevasse country, and were sitting below a rocky climb up to the final summit. I knew I had to stay, but Nate and Tommy went on, and I watched as they climbed the final 740 feet to the top of Rainier. Nate made it almost all the way there, and Tommy made it to what he later discovered was the north side of the Columbia Crest, a few feet shy of the true summit, which lay on the opposite side of the Columbia Crater.
In the meantime, I pulled out our stove and water bottles and started melting snow into water. If you’ve ever heard someone gripe about the limitations of a Jetboil, I learned about one firsthand at 13,600 feet. The Piezo igniter was completely useless. Luckily I had matches in my emergency kit and was able to the stove lit after a few false starts. I melted water. Took a dump atop Rainier (and packed it out, yes, on the snow on Rainier, you pack everything out).
About an hour after reaching the saddle, Nate and Tommy returned from their final climb. Now it was finally time to turn around and begin our long descent. Going down is often much faster, but it is not always easier. By now it was past noon, and the snow was slush, slipping and sliding with each step. And descending 40 to 50-degree angles is not easy on knees and legs that were already tired from a long climb that morning.
Eventually, we reached our camp and much welcome rest. We were back fairly early, sometime after 2, and since we were not hiking out until the next day, we could relax and recuperate. I was so glad for that extra time.
Day 4—Return to Civilization
One thing that I did not fully prepare for was the sun. The next morning, Nate and I found ourselves burnt to crisps, our lips bloated to twice their normal size. On our final descent, I covered almost every inch of my body. This descent was much like the day before. We started off strong but by the end we pushing with every step. It was another beautiful day, and the views on the descent gave us time to sit and rest and enjoy what we’d just accomplished. But, we were glad when we finally arrived back at our cars, pulled off our boots, and hit the road home.
It was a challenging trip, but it left us feeling accomplished and proud.
Check out my photography site for more pictures from all around Mount Rainier National Park.