Climbing Mount Rainier

I'm a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to climbing. I did a little bit of walking with my parents as I grew up in Scotland, but I never really caught got very interested in it, unlike my elder brother Peter. After I came to the USA, I became far more aware of the mountains, partly because of their strikingly young look (in geological terms), and wildness. At the end of the recovery phase after my ACL operation, I climbed one of the Cascade volcanoes, Glacier Peak, with my friend Nick and his friend Jeff.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier is an icon of Washington State. Its likeness appears on car number plates, and turns up on mugs, tea-towels, paintings, photographs, and just about every souvenir you can imagine. The mountain is visible from Seattle on a good day, and stands alone, dominating the horizon. It is also, at 14,410 feet, the fifth highest mountain in the continental USA (after Mt. Whitney in California, Mt. Elbert and a couple of others in Colorado), and contains nearly half of the glaciated ice in the lower 48 states. (Alaska has the highest mountains in the USA, and much more glaciation, but the mountains there are much harder to get to.) Rainier is sufficiently large that it generates its own micro-climate, as uplift of the moist coastal air raises the wind speeds and drops huge amounts of snow on the mountain. There are permanent glaciers on the mountain, and temperatures and conditions vary enormously between the trailheads and the summit. It is also a quiescent volcano, part of the same chain as Mt. St. Helens, which famously erupted in 1980.

Preparation: Mount St. Helens

After I moved up to Seattle, Nick and I started making plans to climb some more of the Cascade volcanoes. Nick had previously climbed Mt. Hood in Oregon; I got a little ice-climbing experience with my brother Peter on a trip up Ben Nevis in Scotland. We also climbed Mount St. Helens in the spring of 2000 with Jeff and Chris. Mount St. Helens is not very high, especially since the eruption, but it did give us a chance to test out some equipment we had bought at the REI garage sale.

Skiing to Camp Muir

We went for an exploratory trip up Mount Rainier to Camp Muir in April of 2000, carrying climbing gear and also our cross-country skiing gear. We used skins on the skis to climb to Camp Muir at 10,188 feet, and overnighted there. The next day, we did a short exploratory climb to 11,000 feet, and then skiied down the Muir snowfield. The trip showed us that we would have to separate the climbing and skiing activities; we were not very fast on the skis, and used too much energy to be able to climb all the way. I didn't know it at the time, but when I weighed my pack on a later trip, having reduced the gear to a minimum, it came in at over 50lbs. I estimate that I carried about 75-80lbs of gear when on the skiing trip, which was way too much.

First summit attempt

We made another attempt to climb Rainier on the first weekend in June, carrying only climbing gear. This time we made it to Camp Muir in a reasonable time, having left Seattle early in the morning, and arrived at the trailhead at Paradise before 10. We did not go on to Ingraham Flats at 11,000 feet as planned because Nick wasn't feeling good, possibly from the altitude. The change from sea-level to over 10,000 feet (and then on to over 14,400 feet) in such a short time does not the body time to acclimatise, and the effects of altitude sickness can appear without much warning.

We made an Alpine start (as is the practice on the glaciated peaks, to avoid ice and rock movement during the heat of the day), leaving camp at 1:30 AM. We followed one of the most commonly climbed routes, the Ingraham Direct route up the Ingraham Glacier, over some crevasses and up to over 13,000'. We were still feeling good at this point, but turned back because of cloud covering the top of the mountain and high winds.

On the way down the Ingraham Glacier we came across evidence of an accident; there was blood on the glacier. As we passed Cadaver Gap, we saw a helicopter coming in to Camp Muir a couple of times, and when we got down to the camp we discovered that the party behind us had been hit by falling ice, and a commercial mountain guide and client were quite badly hurt despite their helmets.

Second summit attempt

The second summit attempt was on the weekend of 24th-25th June, after a couple of weekends in which we deemed the avalanche hazard too high to try. We planned this trip well, starting with a Friday night departure from Seattle, camping at Cougar Rock campsite in Mt. Rainier National Park. We mis-estimated the popularity of the climb in late June, and even with an early start on Saturday, on arrival at the Paradise ranger station at 7am we discovered that both Camp Muir and Ingraham Flats (our intended high camp again) were full. We reserved a spot on the Muir Snowfield at 9,600', and changed our plans for an earlier start and a longer summit day. At this point, I was not optimistic about our prospects, believing that the extra climbing distance would tire us out a lot. This time we also had support from Ivonne, who climbed to our high camp. The climb from Paradise at 5,500 feet up to the top of the Muir Snowfield was through cloud, with poor visibility and drizzle obscuring the views. The clouds broke around 9,000 feet, revealing the top of the mountain in glorious sunshine. Unfortunately, the sunshine turned out to be somewhat too glorious, all of us suffering sunburn of varying degrees. I am wearing a balaclava in most of the photos because it was the easiest way of preventing more sunburn!

We set up camp just above Anvil Rock, prepared our equipment for the climb, and cooked an early dinner. Nick and I retired to the tent to try and sleep, but the wind increased and changed direction, flapping and bending the tent walls and made sleeping difficult. Ivonne did some remedial work on the snow walls surrounding the tent, and we eventually got to sleep.

Nick and I were both fast asleep when Ivonne woke us at 11 PM to say my alarm clock had gone off. The wind sounded nasty, but when I stuck my head out I found that there was a clear starry sky and only a moderate wind and reasonable temperature. We made an immediate start, planning to stop at Ingraham Flats and cook up some hot chocolate. The climb through Cathedral Gap to Ingraham Flats took 1.5 hours. By the time we reached the Flats, it was warm enough and the wind had dropped sufficiently that we were comfortable foregoing the hot chocolate in favour of making more progress. We joined the trail of climbers on the Ingraham Direct route up the Ingraham Glacier. We crossed quite a large crevasse shortly after that, using a ladder laid by one of the guide services that operate on Mt. Rainier.

We made reasonable progress until about 12,500', at the top of Gibralter Rock. At this point the effects of the thin air, cold wind, and lack of sleep were very evident, and we both had thoughts of turning back. Even frequent rests and lots of chocolate and snacks didn't do much good, but a stop to put on extra clothes, and a spectacular dawn and sunrise improved our morale considerably. We crossed over several crevasses on snow bridges as the route joined the upper Emmons Glacier, leading up past our previous highest point.

Nick led the route for a while after this point, and with the weather looking excellent for a continued attempt, we were both certain we would reach the summit. The last 1,500 feet was extremely hard work, taking about two and a half hours of alternately plodding a few feet and stopping to recover. This is some of the hardest physical exercise I have ever done; it was only will power that kept us moving on and upwards. I did not have any particular tired muscles, it was just that every movement took much more effort than at sea-level. The air just did not seem to contain enough oxygen, and we needed frequent rest stops to let our breathing and heart rates recover a bit.

I led the final section into the crater, at which point we removed the climbing packs and rope, and walked across the crater to the true summit at Columbia Crest. There are amazing ice-formations on the floor of the crater, partly due to the fumaroles and steaming rocks, signs of the volcanic activity on Mt. Rainier.

The view from the top was stunning, under a sunny cloudless sky and winds of only about 20-25 mph. All of the Cascade Range were visible, from Mt. Baker in the north, past Glacier Peak, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and on to Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson in Oregon. The coast and Seattle would also have been visible, had I thought to look for them. We climbed 4,800 feet from the Muir Snowfield to the summit in eight hours arriving at the crater just before 7:30 AM. After walking to the summit and back, taking photographs, stopping for a rest and some food, we left the crater for the descent at 8:30 AM. There were many successful climbing parties at the summit on that day; there must have been at least 25 people around the crater while we were there, and more arriving and leaving all the time.

The descent to base camp was much easier, but was performed in a measured and careful manner, with rest stops as required. The snow-bridges on the crevasses were not yet showing much sign of melting, but we quickly traversed the lower Ingraham Glacier (where the ice-fall had been on the previous attempt) and a part below Cathedral Rocks to avoid ice and rockfall. The descent to the snowfield from the summit took us four hours.

After a short rest at the camp, we packed our equipment while Ivonne melted a lot of water and force-fed it to us. We headed down the soft snow of the snowfield to Paradise, arriving at around 5pm. We were thoroughly tired, but elated with the success of the climb.

Update

In July of 2002, I joined a friend who works for Russell (an investment firm in Tacoma) on a sponsored climb in aid of Lou Gerig's disease. This was a three-day climb, with nights at Anvil Rock and Ingraham Flats. This time, I felt very strong all of the way up, and had no problem summitting via Disappointment Cleaver. The last section of the descent was hard, though, because the trail was melted out and the pounding of boots on hard rock became sore after a while.
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Last modified on 16th April 2007 by angus@harlequin.com