It is a major physical and mental challenge that involves substantial planning, training and self-scrutiny. Yet for fit, outdoor-active people familiar with the rigors of long-haul excursions at high elevation, it’s an attainable test of legs, lungs and will.

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Sixty straight-arrow miles lie between the West Coast’s fourth-tallest building, Seattle’s 933-foot Columbia Center, and the Lower 48’s fifth-tallest mountain, 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.

Even from that distance, when viewed from the skyscraper’s 73rd-floor Sky View Observatory, Rainier’s solitary hulk blanketed by 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow so dominates the southern horizon that the sight is borderline surreal, as if a mammoth, chimeric vessel from Norse mythology is sailing toward Chehalis.

“So,” my cousin from the Midwest’s flatlands asked as we absorbed the view 902 feet up from the corner of Fifth and Columbia, “you’ve stood on top of that thing?”

Affirmative, I answered. Long pause. He finally exhaled: “Dang.”

Exceedingly satisfying

That pretty well sums up the experience. A Rainier climb — a multiday, roughly 9-mile ascent of 9,000-plus feet over snow and rock amid unpredictable obstacles — is an always arduous, potentially dangerous undertaking that, despite its daunting specter, is, when successful, exceedingly satisfying.

It is a major physical and mental challenge that involves substantial planning, training and self-scrutiny. Yet for fit, outdoor-active people familiar with the rigors of long-haul excursions at high elevation, it is an attainable test of legs, lungs and will. Since 2008, 10,000-plus people each year have made a summit attempt, and roughly half succeeded.

Mike Gauthier, author of “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide” (Mountaineers Books), in his heyday as a climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park. (Mike Gauthier collection)
Mike Gauthier, author of “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide” (Mountaineers Books), in his heyday as a climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park. (Mike Gauthier collection)

Even I, merely an industrious hiker and midlevel scrambler with no prior training in glacier travel, reached the summit years ago with the help of several patient, selfless friends. I marvel at that fact when I spot Rainier from a freeway on a blue-sky day: I’ve stood on top of that thing. Dang.

What about you?

So, could you? Should you? Will you?

Mike Gauthier, who spent 19 years (1990-2008) as a climbing ranger at Rainier and has summited more than 180 times (“I lost count after 150”), says, yeah, if properly prepared, chase the dream. He understands the attraction.

“I think it’s America’s most beautiful mountain,” he said. “It has everything that represents the Northwest — the meadows, the old growth, the glaciers, the height, the moody weather. It’s the whole package. It is unbeatable.”

Gauthier (say “go-tee-ay”), who spent the past five years as chief of staff at Yosemite National Park before being installed in late 2017 as superintendent of Idaho’s Nez Perce National Historical Park, is author of “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide” (Mountaineers Books).

Rainier climbers finishing their ascent to Camp Muir in the late afternoon. Mount St. Helens rises above the clouds in the distance.  (Terry Wood photo)
Rainier climbers finishing their ascent to Camp Muir in the late afternoon. Mount St. Helens rises above the clouds in the distance. (Terry Wood photo)

Its third edition, released last year, addresses all parties drawn to Rainier’s higher reaches: novice bucket-listers, experienced climbers seeking new challenges (Gauthier offers details and aerial photography on 41 summit routes), and backcountry snowhounds in search of long drops on a tall, tall mountain.

Q&A for the curious

Nicknamed “Gator” and renowned for his daring on Rainier search-and-rescue operations (often dangling by a cable from helicopters), Gauthier shared some insights:

Q: What’s your advice for a first-time climber?

Gauthier: “I give people three top tips: fitness, partner-selection, and using planning tools to climb when there’s good weather.

“For fitness, it can’t be overstated enough: It just pays off to train well. That’s not to scare people, that they have to be at a certain level. But climbs are more enjoyable and more successful if people are comfortable with their aerobic fitness level. It’s a critical element.

“For team-selection, realize you’re going to be with these people from two to four days. It’s vital to know and trust them so you can rely on them when it comes time to make decisions or assess hazards on the mountain, or if something was to go wrong. Like good fitness, a good team gives you that extra bandwidth of confidence so you might be able to make it on a not-so-great day.

“Unless you have to schedule way in advance, it’s good to plan your climb when conditions are favorable. If you’ve got good fitness, good partners and good weather, your chances of success are extremely high. The more you stack things in your favor, the more likely you’re going to have a great trip.”

Weather does what it wants, whenever it wants: A team of climbers pushes through high winds, rim ice, and whiteout conditions near the summit during an August ascent.  (Mike Gauthier)
Weather does what it wants, whenever it wants: A team of climbers pushes through high winds, rim ice, and whiteout conditions near the summit during an August ascent. (Mike Gauthier)

Q: What sort of fitness training is best for a climb?

Gauthier: “Riding a bicycle, working out on a StairMaster, going for runs. You want to focus on that heart muscle, and you want to know how to choose good food and use it effectively on the climb.

“Hikes on Mount Si with a heavy backpack are good. I was always a fan of Tiger Mountain when I lived there. Mailbox Peak and Rattlesnake Ledge are also excellent backyard options. In Seattle, you’ve got all these staircases like the ones on Capitol Hill. Find stairs or a steep hill near you and train there.

“For specific training a few weeks before your climb, there’s no substitute for hiking to a high camp like Camp Muir (10,080 feet) or Camp Schurman (9,460 feet; both involve roughly 9-mile round trips and elevation gains of 4,500-plus feet). Take the time to go to Rainier and make a day hike to the high camp on your route. Stay overnight if you can. Get familiar with the first leg of the trip.

“This trains you not just physically but mentally. It conditions your head for what the full experience will be like. On the day of your climb, that experience will help you avoid trepidation about going up the mountain. If you’ve already done the first part of the trip, you’ll feel pretty good about it. It’ll be no big deal.”

Q: More than 85 percent of climbs follow two main routes. Your book describes 41. What are a few favorites?

Gauthier: “I love the Gibraltar Ledges route. It’s such a classic mountaineering route, with a little bit of everything: some good exposure, some neat features. And it’s not too technically demanding. But it’s a very serious route.

“It’s a great winter-spring ascent, but not a summer ascent. It melts out, has a lot of rockfall, and becomes a lot more difficult when there’s not much snow. I’ve done it a couple dozen times, at least. Love that route.

“And I admit I love the Emmons Glacier. I love that you start in forest on Glacier Basin Trail and hike through old-growth, then through alpine meadows, then hike up the Inter Glacier to Camp Schurman. You experience the complete mountain.”

Q: What are the toughest?

Gauthier: “Liberty Ridge is the most famous. It’s a high-quality, gorgeous route. It’s sort of the next level for people who have done the mountain a couple of times and want to get on a harder route. But it can also be an unforgiving, dangerous route if you have a problem. It’s more vertical, has more obstacles, more opportunity for rockfall and crevasses, and involves an extra day of travel. It has a lower success rate and a high accident rate.”

Q: You expanded the skiing/snowboarding section in this edition of your guide. Why?

Gauthier: “One evolution of my experience on Rainier is I used to just look at it as a climbing destination. But I’ll be straight up — the last five or 10 years, as I’ve learned to ski and snowboard better, I almost think of the ascent as part of the descent.

“That’s now half of my equation — I often look at the mountain for how can I ski it as much as I can climb it.”

A skier samples typical late-season snow conditions on the Cowlitz and Paradise glaciers on Mount Rainier.  (Jason Hummel photo)
A skier samples typical late-season snow conditions on the Cowlitz and Paradise glaciers on Mount Rainier. (Jason Hummel photo)

Q: What makes it fun?

Gauthier:

“When the snow conditions are right, you can ski 10,000 feet from the summit down to the Nisqually Bridge. I’ve done it many times. It’s awesome. There’s just no ski area in North America that has anything close.”

Q: It’s really that good?

Gauthier: “To be on the summit and look over the Puget Sound and see the Olympics and Mount Baker is outstanding. It’s maybe June, and the climb you finished feels good. But to strap on a snowboard or clip into your bindings and start carving turns with your partners and navigate the crevasses through different conditions, from hard pack to corn snow, it’s just a wonderful, exhilarating experience. It’s so much fun it almost feels illegal. You come down pretty high from that, thinking, wow, that was powerful.”