North Bend’s Mike Banner, at 67, is preparing for his 51st annual ascent of Mount Rainier.
At age 67, North Bend’s Mike Banner is pretty much your archetypal Northwest native son: Born of parents raised in logging camps. Shelton High grad. Owns two sailboats. Retired in 2014 from Boeing.
He even climbed Mount Rainier last summer.
And the summer before that. And the summer before that. And the summer before …
OK, actually, that’s where he veers — or you might say “glissades screamingly” — from the average. Mike Banner has summited Mount Rainier every year for the past 50 years. He’s prepping now for his 51st ascent.
It’s by no means a record number of climbs to Rainier’s tiptop, Columbia Crest. International Mountain Guides partner and professional guide George Dunn holds the generally acknowledged record, with 512 summits.
But for pure, clockwork consistency by Joe Everyhiker? Fifty years is pretty yodel-worthy.
Sometimes you can see traffic signals change from red to green in Tacoma.” - Mike Banner, Mount Rainier climber
Since his first time up in 1965, Banner has looked down every year from 14,411 feet and watched Pugetopolis grow, over a longer span than pretty much anybody with whom you might cross trekking poles on the slog up to Camp Muir, the climbers’ base camp.
Need proof? Mike Banner always signs the summit register.
Changing world below
Even Rainier’s official elevation has grown by a foot in Banner’s climbing life, thanks to the advent of GPS measuring. And the view from up there?
“We don’t seem to have as many clear nights, but it’s definitely changed in terms of the number of lights — it’s a mass of lights now,” Banner says. “Sometimes you can see traffic signals change from red to green in Tacoma.”
It’s the little things he recalls. Most climbers go up Rainier at night because snow is firmer and fewer rocks fall, so to pass the time on the long, dark, upward march, Banner recounts, “We used to flash lights back and forth with people climbing Mount St. Helens” — until, of course, the 1980 eruption blew that side of St. Helens into downtown Yakima.
He has also witnessed Rainier’s evolution. With less snow and more glacier melt-off, Banner says, “The mountain is breaking up more as the years go on,” meaning more crevasses and difficult climbing terrain.
What mountaineers wear and carry has gone through a world of change, too. Last fall, Banner’s wife organized a celebration of his 50th annual climb, an event that drew scores of friends, many of whom made their first Rainier ascent with Banner. The entertainment: a slideshow of photos taken over the decades attesting that Gore-Tex and breathable layers weren’t always the fashion.
“Those are corduroy knickers I’m getting ready to climb in!” Banner says with a rueful shake of his head as he looks back at a 1967 photo.
The start of it all
He and his Shelton buddies fell for the outdoors the way most teenage boys fall in love with pizza. They started out with Trapper Nelson backpacks with wooden frames and canvas sacks, recalls Vern Johnson, a friend from Banner’s youth.
Recollects Banner, “I practically lived in the Olympic Mountains from the time I was old enough…”
“…to walk!” says Karin Czulik, his wife, who often climbs with Banner and seems adept at finishing his sentences.
Amid the social tumult of the 1960s, the mountains could be a young man’s escape hatch.
“We’d get permission from his dad and show him where we were going and when,” Johnson reminisces. “We might go 50 miles by car, then hike miles on a trail, then go two days cross-country over mile-high ridges. We just took sleeping bags, with no tent or cookstove, no water filtration — we drank it right out of the creek. We camped when we got tired and couldn’t go any further.”
Banner remembers cheap plastic “tube tents” that provided a camping experience akin to duct-taping a blue tarp around your body. Condensation left you dripping; sleeping out in the rain made more sense.
Eventually, Banner’s dad and another friend’s father staked them to attend a “Mount Rainier Climbing Seminar” led by the chief Rainier guide of the day, Dick McGowan, credited for being the first American to set foot on — but not summit — Mount Everest.
He is the ‘anti-gearhead.’ He has stuff from 1975 and is tough as a boot.” - Steve Clark, summited with Banner in 2008
“They figured we would be climbing and doing things we shouldn’t be, and we should at least know what we were doing,” Banner says wryly. “I still have the receipt for that — $95 each.”
He was 17. It was his first Rainier summit.
After that there was no stopping him. Considering the gear, some might say it’s a wonder he lived this long. No titanium ice axes in those days.
“We used cheap nylon rope, three-strand gold-braid — we got 120 feet for $7. We’d go in on it and share. We’d tie directly in a line, around our waists. We wore a lot of wool, and all our boots were very heavy leather boots — of which I still have some — and we used wooden-handled ice axes. The rangers would unload your pack and they’d take your ice ax and try to break it. Sometimes they would succeed.” (Related: Mike Banner’s 5 tips for first-timers)
His REI member number? 37,000-something. (That’s low.)
Why 50 times?
He broods over the question of “Why do it”?
“The first few years I just really enjoyed it, I just loved getting out. Then it sort of became a tradition. Having Rainier hanging over my head motivated me to get out and get in shape every year.”
He lives at the foot of Mount Si. You might think a man with a golden anniversary’s-worth of Rainier climbs must run up Si with a pack full of rocks twice a week.
“I usually figure I need four to five weeks of training before Rainier,” Banner says. “In the two to three weeks before a climb, I like to get up to altitudes above 10,000 feet — Mount Baker, Camp Muir, maybe Steamboat Prow.”
The rest of the year he frequents a gym and just does what he likes — which includes hiking and climbing (though not on overcrowded Mount Si), sailing in summer, and skiing logging roads in winter with Karin, a native of Austria.
The human element
It’s a social tradition, too. Every year Banner has taken a few friends or co-workers up Rainier. Sometimes summiting takes several attempts. Banner is known as a generous and conscientious leader who regularly talks with everyone in his climbing party — not just to be chatty, but to be sure they’re handling the exertion and altitude.
“Often he agrees to take a novice along knowing that he/she may not have what it takes to get to the summit,” says Dennis Madsen, REI’s former CEO, who met Banner when both attended Seattle Pacific College (now a university) and whom Banner led on his first mountain climb, up the Olympics’ Mount Constance. “When one of his companions can go no further, Mike is very gracious in turning back, knowing he has played a role in getting that person to enjoy the mountain.”
Banner has climbed many routes, not just the standard Disappointment Cleaver. Nor is he ruled by fad or fashion.
“He is the ‘anti-gearhead.’ He has stuff from 1975 and is tough as a boot,” says Steve Clark, of Anacortes, who summited with Banner in 2008. “He has his own unorthodox style, doesn’t climb by the book.”
That includes often climbing without camping gear, a practice at which mountain rangers look askance (see sidebar). “But over the past 50 years, he’s taken dozens and dozens of novices to the top of Rainier and got them all back down. Safely,” Clark says. (Related: To camp or not? When it comes to Rainier, it’s debatable)
It’s not been without peril. When Banner and a friend sat out a storm overnight in a dangerous spot on Liberty Ridge in 1987, “there were people behind us — we could hear them in their tent that night — who didn’t survive,” he recalls. (Details at bit.ly/1Hu9jNI.)
On another climb, companion Ken Hopping, of Bellevue, gleefully yelled, “Quick, get the camera!” after he stumbled shoulder-deep into what seemed like a hole in the snow.
When Banner and Czulik pulled him out, they discovered he’d actually stepped into a snow-hidden crevasse. Only his pack stopped him from disappearing.
Banner says cold is perhaps the biggest enemy on Rainier.
“I almost lost a guy once from hypothermia on the mountain,” he recalls soberly. “He didn’t know who he was, or who we were. At one point he saw a big boulder up ahead and thought it was his car and went and tried to get in.”
Does it matter?
Is the distinction that comes with 50 years of summiting Washington’s iconic peak important to Mike Banner? He pauses long and puts his eyes sideways as he considers an answer.
“It’s fun!” he blurts. “It’s fun to think about. Important? No, I wouldn’t say it’s that important to me.”
He ponders for another moment.
“There are nights when it’s so clear and you get up there and see lights all over the state. You can see Mount St. Helens outlined against the lights of Portland….
“To me it’s an attraction. It’s something you should get up and see — see what it’s like up there.”
Mike Banner’s 5 tips for first-timers
Contemplating a Rainier climb? Here are top tips from a 50-year summit-meister:
1. Know your group: If you join a private party, it should include at least two experienced climbers who are versed in glacier travel and crevasse rescue. Party members should be compatible in temperament and ability. Impatience and flaring tempers on the mountain result in failed trips. A practice climb of Mount Baker with the group is a great test of compatibility, gear and technique.
2. Train your quads: Condition on steep slopes. Include two or more practice trips to at least 10,000 feet elevation, such as Camp Muir or Steamboat Prow, in the final weeks before the climb.
3. Test your gear: Be sure boots and crampons fit. You don’t want to hold up your party as you struggle to tape blisters or adjust crampons in the wind and darkness on a steep, icy slope with freezing hands.
4. Organize your pack: Packing for the summit push, be sure extra clothing layers, snacks and water are easily accessible to keep stops short. It takes no time at all to go from too hot to too cold while stopped at 4 a.m. at 12,000 feet.
5. Make up your mind: Decide before starting that you are going to do it. You may question your resolve at night in the cold wind and thin air, but stick with it and you’ll congratulate yourself later. If you are out of breath or getting a headache, remember to breathe, breathe, breathe. On the upper mountain, it’s normal to take a deep breath with each step.
To camp or not? When it comes to Rainier, it’s debatable
Over 50 years of summiting Rainier, Mike Banner’s climbing style has evolved. Perhaps the biggest change: He now goes up without his 1965 Gerry tent — the only tent he’s ever owned.
He makes the climb and descent in about 24 hours, starting and ending around midmorning on consecutive days, with pretty much no camping gear.
Professional guides typically camp with novice climbers at or near 10,000-foot Camp Muir, encouraging sleep until setting out after midnight for the summit.
“I guess the reason I fell out of hiking with Mike is that he preferred the one-day slog,” says Kristine Leander, executive director of Seattle’s Swedish Club. “He thought it was easier, but I couldn’t manage that style of summiting Rainier.”
But Banner defends it. Most climbers are too keyed up to sleep anyway, he says. Without camping gear, packs are lighter. You can be more nimble because you don’t need a backcountry-camping permit, which are doled out sparingly and require committing to a date far in advance.
Because of that permit, “A lot of people are up there in really bad weather because it’s their only opportunity,” Banner contends.
Without camping, “You can say, ‘Tomorrow looks like it will be a good day, let’s go do it.’ It gives you a lot more flexibility.” (A climbing permit is still required, but it has no date limits.)
Banner typically starts up around 9 or 10 a.m. from Paradise or White River Campground and stops about 2 or 3 p.m. around 10,000 feet to adjust to the altitude and “maybe take a nap.”
“Then by 8 or 9 p.m. it starts cooling off and you start out, and we’re slow so we get to the top around 4 or 5 a.m.” He then heads back down before the sun warms the snow too much, returning to his starting point between 9 a.m. and noon.
The risk of traveling light: You’re less prepared to dig in if weather changes.
Stefan Lofgren, head climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park, who has summited the mountain about 125 times and participated in hundreds of rescues, doesn’t endorse the approach.
“I say, ‘Bad things happen to good people who are doing everything right.’ People might blow out their knee, or get sick, or get hit by a rock or injured by an avalanche. Then, not having that gear with you, ooh, suddenly becomes an issue. I couldn’t be an advocate of anybody not being prepared to spend a night out, or maybe longer, because a rescue can often take longer than that.”
To that end, Banner makes sure his groups carry at least one sleeping bag, pad and bivy sack, enough for an injured person to wait out a rescue if needed. That’s as much as most campers carry above their base camp, he says, and “If the weather is severe at or below base camp, we simply turn around and get down.”
If a situation did go sideways? Dennis Madsen, a longtime friend and former CEO of REI, says, “Mike is the only person I would want on my rope.”