Here’s a logistical overview of what it takes to get to the top of Rainier.
Unlike walk-up peaks such as Mount Adams (12,276 feet) and Mount St. Helens (8,330), a Rainier climb requires mountaineering gear (e.g., ice ax, crampons) and glacier-travel skills (self-arrest, crevasse rescue).
Potential hazards, from icefall to rapidly changing weather, add risk to the challenge. Even experienced mountaineers have perished on Rainier’s unpredictable slopes due to an abrupt weather shift, rockfall or an avalanche — the apparent cause behind the deaths of six climbers swept off Liberty Ridge in 2014.
A simple slip claimed the life of 25-year Seattle climbing veteran Lee Adams in 2010 when he slid into a crevasse while guiding three others on a descent of the Emmons route — on the same sunny late-July day when I finished my climb. More than 100 climbing-related deaths have been recorded on Rainier since the late 1800s, one each in the past three years.
Hardest thing they’ve done
“I’ve met many, many people who have said climbing Rainier is the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” said Mike Gauthier, involved in hundreds of rescue efforts during his nearly two decades (1990-2008) as a climbing ranger on the mountain. “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.”
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Don’t fear, Gauthier says — prepare.
“Recognize there are some challenges and safety issues, then you train and make decisions to avoid them,” he said. “I’ve got more than 180 ascents and I’ve never had an accident. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I like to reassure climbers: It can be a dangerous environment, and yes, there are stories of tragedy and accidents. But the truth is everybody has a tremendous amount of power to make good choices on their climb to avoid all of those accidents.”
“Everybody has the empowerment to be safe, have a great climb and always come back. Don’t be scared. Take the time to train. If a climb doesn’t work out, it’s OK. Turn around. Come back a day or a month later. It’ll be there, and you’ll beat it.”
Determined to try? Here are some logistics to mull:
With friends or hired guides?
The majority of summit attempts, about 60 percent, are private climbs — meaning an experienced, noncommercial climber leads a few friends.
But many others go with a hired guide. Since 2006, three guiding companies have held the rights to guide commercial Rainier climbs:
• Alpine Ascents International, 206-378-1927, alpineascents.com.
Three-day Disappointment Cleaver climb: $1,627. Four-day Emmons climb: $2,068. 2-to-1 client-guide ratio. Transportation from AAI’s Queen Anne offices included. Eight-, nine- and 10-day mountaineering programs also available.
• International Mountain Guides, 360-569-2609, mountainguides.com.
3½-day Disappointment Cleaver climb, $1,473; 4½-day Emmons climb, $1,914. 2-to-1 client-guide ratio. George Dunn, a partner at IMG, has climbed Rainier more than 500 times. Eric Simonson, a contributor to Gauthier’s book, is an IMG guide.
• Rainier Mountaineering Inc., 888-892-5462, rmiguides.com.
Four-day Disappointment Cleaver climb, $1,118; 5-day Disappointment Cleaver climb, $1,509. 3-to-1 client-guide ratio. Peter Whitaker, whose uncle Jim was the first American to summit Everest (1963), is an RMI guide and its co-owner.
All three guiding services have essentially already sold out their summer 2018 climbs (May-September). “They sell like concert tickets,” said Gordon Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents. Waiting lists are available at all three services. “There are many cancellations, over 100 a year,” Janow said. Contact a company with a range of dates you could be available for a climb, then wait and hope.
Other 2018 options
• Climb another mountain that requires glacier travel, such as Mount Baker, and make Rainier a 2019 goal.
• Seek out one of the 15 smaller guiding services granted a CUA (Commercial Use Authorization) that are permitted to lead one Rainier climb per year.
• Take a Basic or Intense Basic Alpine Climbing course from The Mountaineers; the courses require a glacier climb (Rainier, Baker, Glacier Peak or Mount Olympus) to graduate. The 2018 Basic courses are booked; sign-ups for 2019 open Oct. 1, and they fill up fast. Some 2018 Intense Basic openings may be available.
• Investigate if joining a fundraising climb such as the Fred Hutch Climb to Fight Cancer (206-667-1398) is right for you.
• Or simply beg a knowledgeable friend to lead you up.
Fees and permits
Each climber must pay a Climbing Cost Recovery Fee ($48 for ages 26+, $34 for 25 and younger). It’s valid for Rainier climbs for the calendar year in which it was purchased. You must pay the fee before coming to the park, then bring evidence that you paid when you arrive at a park information office. You must also obtain a free climbing permit before starting. Save time: Fill out a downloadable permit before arriving at the park. When your climb is complete, check out at an info center.
All wilderness camping zones, including the alpine zones that contain Camp Muir and Camp Schurman, have a limit on the total number of people who can stay there each night. Sixty percent of camping spots can be reserved, while 40 percent are always available as first-come, first-served permits. If you need the security of knowing you have a spot, may arrive late, or are climbing between June 15 and August 15, a reservation is a good idea. Reservations cost $20 and are accepted after March 15.
Pick your route
Roughly 85 percent of climber traffic on Rainier travels two primary routes, for which the park’s website offers in-depth overviews:
• Disappointment Cleaver (8-9 miles, 9,000 feet of elevation gain, starting from Paradise)
• Emmons-Winthrop Glacier(9-10 miles, 10,300 feet of gain, starting from White River Campground)
They include route descriptions, potential obstacles, gear lists, high camp facilities (minimal), weather considerations, tips on hydration, pacing, “pressure” breathing (valuable to know, I learned), and other reality-check enlightenment.
When is the best time to climb?
“In May or June, the snow is fresher and the mountain is a little more pristine,” Gauthier said. “Washington has questionable weather then, but with periods of good weather. A climb in June can be lovely.
“But some of my favorite climbs have been in August and September. The good thing about September is almost no one is on the mountain, the weather is often brilliant, all the routes are really well established and the hazards are well identified, so generally it’s safer.”