For Washington mountaineers, Mount Rainier is the iconic challenge. Now's the time to commit for a summer climb — or to start planning for 2011. It's a major feat. It's a big mountain. Here's a backgrounder to help you decide.
March to the top of Mount Adams (12,276 feet)? Been there. Grunt to the 8,365-foot crater rim of Mount St. Helens? Hiked that.
Tough trips, sure, but ultimately both are walk-ups — safe and mostly sane trudges that require no technical skills, just ample tenacity and willing lungs.
But what about the Big One? What does it take for a nonclimber such as me to reach the summit of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier?
To get the lowdown on going up Rainier, I asked around. My informants:
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• Mike Gauthier, former lead climbing ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and author of “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide” (The Mountaineers Books).
Gauthier, 40, spent 19 years at the park and has been involved in hundreds of mountain rescues, many times dangling from a helicopter to aid the injured. He estimates he has climbed Rainier at least 180 times. “I lost track after 150,” he concedes.
Recipient of a two-year national park fellowship, Gauthier (“go-tee-ay”) is now serving at the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., as a legislative specialist. The job could become a steppingstone to a future park superintendent’s post.
Last summer he guided U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to Rainier’s summit. Included in a Men’s Journal list of the 25 Toughest Men in America, Gauthier is known to Cantwell and other senators around the Capitol by his nickname: Gator.
• Mark Scheffer, a board member of The Mountaineers and instructor of the Seattle club’s basic climbing course.
Scheffer, 48, has climbed Rainier just twice (he’s planning his first winter ascent in March), but has taught climbing basics for 18 years. He marvels at things newbie climbers load into their packs.
“Hard-bound books, windup alarm clocks, enough food for a week,” Scheffer says. “The biggest mistake new climbers make is bringing too much gear for a climb.
“In the basic class, I tell people to get their pack, load it with everything they think they’ll need and then go for a six-block walk around their neighborhood. After they feel how heavy it is, come home and repack it with just the gear they need.”
Gauthier and Scheffer have lots of advice to share with climbing novices pondering their first ascent of mighty Rainier. Here’s a Q-and-A:
Q: Are nonclimbers required to use a guide in order to summit Rainier?
Gauthier: “Let’s put the term ‘guide’ in context here. A lot of people think of a guide as someone they pay. When I took Sen. Cantwell up the mountain, she had a guide. But she didn’t pay money. I just wanted her to have that experience. I’m her friend, but I was also her guide.
“People should use the term ‘guide’ loosely. It means someone more experienced, someone who knows the route, the equipment, what’s to be expected.”
Q: So if you know an experienced climber and can talk him into leading your climb, that’s OK with the park?
Gauthier: “For roughly two-thirds of climbers on Rainier, that’s exactly how they do it. (Of 10,616 summit attempts made in 2009, 59 percent were not professionally guided). I’m a huge fan of going independent, if you’ve had at least some outdoor experience.
“You’ll want a third person so you can have a rope team of three, and your leader should be someone with a good amount of climbing experience.
“Now, if you have very little experience and are facing a real steep learning curve, maybe it’s best to go with a professional guide. I wouldn’t want to spend the money because I don’t have the money. But they run good, safe trips. They know what they’re doing.”
Scheffer: “If all the mountain climbing you’re ever going to do is make one trip up Rainier and you’re just going to sit in a lounger after that, I’d recommend using a guide service. All the training is compressed into a few days right before a summit attempt. It’s good for people who never intend to be serious climbers.”
Q: What skills are necessary?
Gauthier: “There are two things you have to keep in mind:
“One, you need a high level of safety. You want to train and have skills in place so you can make good, safe decisions.
“Let’s say you talk some friend who has climbed Rainier 150 times into taking you up. That’s great, but God forbid that’s the guy who falls into a crevasse. Then what?
“You want to have good rope rescue skills, good glacier travel skills, good ice ax skills. The way you get those skills is by practicing on other mountains, climbing easier peaks with a heavy backpack. Do that with your buddy or take a climbing course.
“Two, besides having technical skills and experience, it cannot be stressed enough how incredibly important it is to be in the best physical shape possible. I’ve met many, many people who have said climbing Rainier is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Big alpine climbers from other countries have told me that a hard day on Mount Rainier is as hard as any day in the mountains.
“If you haven’t been carrying a heavy backpack previously, you’re going to have a really miserable time. You put on a 55-pound backpack for the first time and hike up 5,000 feet, you’re going to feel like you’ve been run over by a truck.
“To prepare, I usually recommend, at a minimum, go backpacking. Go hike over in the Olympics, the North Cascades, do a part of the Wonderland Trail with a very heavy backpack. Climbs on Mount Adams or Mount St. Helens are brilliant training grounds for Rainier. People who do that kind of training usually have a much more successful and enjoyable trip.”
Scheffer: “A runner can be in great shape physically, but the muscles used in hiking and climbing are different. Use the StairMaster. Hike Mount Si and Tiger with heavy packs early in the year and Granite Mountain later on. Water is so important, too. People should carry plenty with them for the summit push.”
Gauthier: “People like to blame the weather, but the most common reason people don’t make it to the summit is because they’re not in good enough shape. Most people don’t like to admit that, but it’s true.”
Q: When is the best time to climb?
Gauthier: “Generally speaking, July and August offer the highest success rate, the best weather. But crowds are biggest then.
“If I had been to the summit a couple of times already and was going again, then I’d go more toward May or June. The weather tends to be a little bit more unpredictable, but you can also have incredible weather.”
Q: The number of nightly campers at and around Camp Muir is limited by quotas. Is it smart to make a backcountry camping reservation?
Gauthier: “For most people, I recommend against reservations. Reservations to me are for people traveling from Georgia climbing a popular route on the third weekend in July.
“If you’re going to climb anything slightly obscure — anything beyond the Emmons route or the primary Disappointment Cleaver — you probably don’t need a reservation. If you’re climbing Sunday through Thursday nights, you definitely don’t need a reservation.”
Q: A lot of independent trips are attempted over two days. Can that be done?
Gauthier: “It can. You had just better be in good shape and know what you’re doing.
“I recommend giving yourself a lot of time. Instead of trying to climb it on a weekend, give yourself five days. Not only will that allow for bad weather, but it will allow you to work out any bugs that might come up as you go along the way. It will allow you to acclimate, too, which is really helpful. I’ve never heard anyone say they spent too much time on Mount Rainier.”
Q: Is the climb dangerous?
Gauthier: “Mount Rainier has not had a true climbing death since 2005. I’m not saying it’s perfectly safe; it’s just not as physically dangerous as a lot of people think it is.”
Q: Mount Adams has no crevasses on its walk-up south route, but all Rainier routes have them. When are crevasses the most problematic?
Gauthier: “A crevasse will stop a team if they can’t put a ladder across it, walk around the end of it or go down to the bottom and up the other side. Crevasses only open that wide late in the summer after the heat has been working on them for a long time. Most routes stay in shape until late September.
“Crevasses are not always treacherous things. It depends on the time of year. Climb early in the year and you’re crossing all sorts of crevasses. You just don’t see them because they’re covered with ice and snow and look just like a big snow field. Later in the year you cross them on snow bridges and they look scary, but at least you see them.”
Q: Why start a summit attempt at midnight, as most climbers do?
Gauthier: “Snow bridges that cross over crevasses are firmer then. It also gives you a lot more time in the day for your descent when you may want to avoid some of the snow bridges you crossed in the morning hours. I climbed Rainier to celebrate my 21st birthday, and we had a full moon that night. A lot of the time we didn’t even use our headlamps.”
Q: Beyond the crevasses, what makes Rainier a tough climb?
Scheffer: “It’s really just a steep walk with some objective hazards, but it presents a huge mental challenge. Because it’s a fairly rounded peak, the summit never seems to get any closer as you climb. Inexperienced people start doing a dash-and-gasp climb. Slow and steady wins every time.
“Once people get above 10,000 feet, the elevation can really affect them. The last 2,000 feet can really be tough.”
Gauthier: “You need to test-drive what you’re doing high on Rainier. A month before your climb, great training would be to hike to base camp (Camp Muir) with all your stuff and spend the night. That gets you used to the altitude a little bit. When you return for your climb you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
“I’ll tell you right now — climbing is a lot about your head. After a while you learn your head can overpower your body. It can make you do all sorts of things. It can keep you going. It can keep you alive. So prepare seriously.
“Don’t blow this climb off as something that you’re just going to ‘go do,’ which is what a lot of people do. Prepare for it. Make two overnight trips, maybe five trips, to Camp Muir before your climb and you’ll have all the right gear and clothing. You put in that kind of commitment and you’ll kick butt on your climb.”