- Start: Paradise
- Distance: 17 miles
- Duration: 2 days
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; National Park Service; Mount Rainier Climbing blog
Being a Washingtonian who grew up less than an hour and a half from Mount Rainier National Park, you’d think Rainier would’ve represented something significant in my life. Oddly enough, it didn’t, for many, many years. Mount St Helens was the only volcano that dominated the skyline of my hometown as a child, and it’s the only mountain my parents took us to see when we had out-of-town relatives and friends come to visit. According to my mom, we did make one visit out to Rainier, but I was probably too young to remember it. Last year, at 25 years old, I had the opportunity to hike up to Camp Muir with a few ladies from Cascadia Women’s Mountain Group. It was my first (memorable) visit to the park. As I drove to Paradise, winding my way up the last few miles after entering the park boundary, Rainier suddenly burst through the trees, taking me so much by surprise that I actually considered pulling over just so I could gaze upon her. In that moment, even before I’d reached Paradise (where I’d finally see Rainier in all her glory), I felt this instant connection to, and sense of longing and heartache for, the mountain I’d never known.
I never in my wildest dreams thought Mack and I would be ready for Rainier with only a single climbing season under our belts, but after going over the climbs we’d completed, recalling all of the skills courses we’d undergone over the past year, and realizing that we were truly in the best shape of our lives after this year’s non-stop ultramarathon training, my doubts began to transform into determination. At the end of July, I submitted a Camp Muir reservation request for the week of my birthday. As luck would have it, we were approved to camp on August 9th and make our summit bid on August 10th, my 27th birthday. It was really happening.
Day 1: Paradise to Camp Muir (4.5 miles; 4 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)
Returning from our five day Leave No Trace Master Educator course with NOLS late Monday night meant we only had Tuesday to unpack, repack, prep, and rest up for our Rainier climb. Not the ideal for the biggest climb of our lives to date, but we rolled with it to the best of our ability. My body was buzzing with excitement as we walked into the information center to pick up our permit. The ranger took some time to go over the current route conditions and weather forecast. He warned us that the route had been altered due to ice fall and crevasse danger above Disappointment Cleaver. Now, after climbing up the DC, instead of continuing straight up, we would have to traverse climber’s right onto the Emmons Glacier and merge with the Emmons-Winthrop route for the remainder of the ascent. More distance to cover and more elevation gain! Guess we’d be starting our summit bid real early.
My previous visit to Mount Rainier was in early June of last year, so all of the trails starting from Paradise were still under deep snow. Not this time though. This time, I was treated to carpets of wildflowers filling the lush, green meadows along Skyline Trail. In addition to being mesmerized by nature’s incredible color palette, there was Rainier, completely unobscured now, standing powerful and majestic as the reigning peak in all of the state. Not even the hazy, smoke-filled sky could taint the beautiful landscape around us. Mack sure was getting lucky on his very first visit to the park!
After 2.3 miles hiking up the Skyline Trail, we crossed Pebble Creek and reached the base of the Muir Snowfield. Although it was only 10:30 am (and we’d only been hiking since 8:55 am), we decided to refuel with our PBJ sandwich lunch. Our plan was to be ready for bed at 4:30 pm, which meant dinner at 3:30 or 4 pm. Yeah, a 10:30 lunch actually made sense with this in mind.
The final 2.2 miles to Muir is brutal, especially beneath a hot afternoon sun. The mileage may be small, but you gain nearly 3,000 feet while dealing with altitude (between 7,000 and 10,000 feet). Finding a pace that worked for both of us was impossible. Power hiking up hills at a brisk pace is something I feel pretty confident about, even at higher altitudes. Mack is typically faster than me at running and hiking, but once he’s above 7,000 feet, the altitude begins to take its toll. Our hike up to Muir was a lot of me getting impatient and pushing on, and Mack getting frustrated and disheartened by my pace, as well as the ever increasing gap between us. Achieving a balanced pace and/or work-rest strategy is still something we’re improving on as we climb. We were relieved when we finally topped out at Muir, situated at 10,100 feet. It was 1:40 pm.
Camp Muir was bustling with the activity of day hikers, climbers, guides, and rangers, but, to my amazement, there were hardly any tents set up on the snow. Weekday camping for the win! We found a relatively flat spot that only needed a little bit of smoothing out with the snow shovel. The mild weather made setting up our tent a quick and painless process. Before we knew it, our sleep systems were all unpacked and inside the tent, and we were melting snow for our early dinner. A climbing ranger came by to greet us/check on us while we sat around the Jetboil and suggested that we tie our guylines to some of the heavier rocks lying around. A few tents had already been blown into crevasses earlier that day.
As we ate, we discussed potential start times for the climb. On the way up the Muir Snowfield, I’d spoken with several descending climbers to find out when they’d started and how long it took them to reach the summit. The average answer was somewhere between 11 pm and midnight, and six to seven hours to reach the summit. (I wonder how long it usually takes when the route is more direct?) We decided to aim for leaving at 11 pm. I definitely wanted to get back to camp early in order to rest before the sufferfest that is Camp Muir back down to Paradise. After finishing up our meal and enjoying some cocoa, we melted more water to add to our hydration bladders and Nalgenes, packed up a few things for the climb later that night, and crawled into our sleeping bags at 4:30 pm. It was too early, and we were a little too excited, to fall asleep right away, but eventually we drifted off to the sounds of people singing and conversing at the other campsites.
Day 2: Camp Muir to the summit, then back (8 miles; 12 hours 30 minutes, breaks included); Camp Muir to Paradise (4.5 miles; 3 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)
I don’t remember what time my alarm went off, but it definitely hadn’t been dark for very long. Both of us were still groggy. Waking up at a time that we’d usually be falling asleep by was disorienting to say the least. A large guided group of at least 20 people (divided into multiple rope teams of course) led by RMI Expeditions was already gathered on the bootpath when we arrived roped up and ready to go. A couple of their rope teams had already started, so, to be courteous and respectful, we decided to wait until the last of their teams headed out before starting ourselves. At least we’d get to follow a professionally led group! Our official start time was 11:25 pm.
After a relatively short traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier, we climbed up and over Cathedral Rocks, one of the sections on the climb where short-roping is imperative to avoid rockfall caused by rope drag. We walked and hopped over a few crevasses on the Ingraham Glacier. We couldn’t yet see the gaping mouths that these seemingly small cracks fed into because it was still dark. I did make out a few tents on Ingraham Flats, another popular (but more solitary) place to set up base camp. Following the traverse of Ingraham came my least favorite part of the entire climb (on both the ascent and descent): Disappointment Cleaver. The cleaver is a massive rocky ridge between the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. The route ascends the cleaver in order to gain Emmons. Although there’s no crevasse risk (unless you tumble off the ridge), the chance of rockfall is high, especially when there’s a large number of people on the route at once (i.e. our current situation). In addition, walking on loose, rocky terrain with crampons never feels very stable. We moved quickly up the cleaver behind the other rope teams and stopped for a break once we were back on the snow.
The remainder of our climb was on snow, traversing both the Emmons Glacier and Winthrop Glacier. We crossed several crevasses through this section. Most we just stepped over and moved quickly. One we had to leap over–it was probably four feet wide–and another had a long, 10-12 foot ladder stretched across it! After descending a little more, we began a long series of switchbacks up Emmons to eventually gain Winthrop for the final 600-800 feet of climbing. The groups in front of us took a break somewhere up these switchbacks and allowed us to pass, so we were able to move a little faster heading onto Winthrop. Hints of dawn started to show as the darkness of night began to lift. Aside from a gnarly crevasse (maybe a bergschrund?) crossing (pictured below), the final climb up Winthrop to the crater rim was straightforward. We crested the rim just as the sun was coming up.
Another guided group who’d summited a few minutes earlier was making their way back along the rim as we headed toward Columbia Crest, the highest point on the mountain. We exchanged “Good morning”s and “Congratulations!” before we continued. By the time we reached Columbia Crest at 6:05 am, the group had descended from the rim and we were the only two people on the summit. No wind. No biting cold. Not a single cloud in sight. Just a golden sunrise while standing atop the highest point in my home state with my best friend by my side. Doesn’t get more magical than that. I can’t imagine I’ll ever experience a more perfect birthday.
With the sun now warming our cold faces and extremities, we decided to drop our packs and bask in our achievement a little while longer. I wanted to savor the summit as long as I could while the conditions were optimal. Plus, we were both pretty famished at this point. However, before I could finish pulling out my food bag, Mack quickly whipped out a surprise he’d carried up to the summit for me. “Happy Birthday, Teddy.” He handed me a miniature berry cheesecake. Nothing like a delicious birthday treat to complement the best birthday gift ever. We sat for awhile longer, enjoying the cheesecake together, then began our descent at 6:45 am. It was difficult to leave it all behind, but with the sunrise comes increasingly warmer temps and increasingly less stable terrain conditions. Making the summit is only half the journey.
If we didn’t remember that Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 before this trip, we definitely realized it on the way back down now that our surroundings weren’t shrouded in darkness. It was like walking through a different world. Even though Rainier isn’t nearly as remote as other mountains (Glacier Peak, for example), its vastness makes you feel otherwise. Crevasse-ridden fields stretched for miles it seemed, and we finally got to peer inside some of the larger ones along the bootpath! Spiky ice formations known as penitentes armored the glistening white and glacier-blue slopes. Little Tahoma, a sub-peak on Rainier at 11,138 feet, was finally visible, too. It’s jagged rocky spire appeared to rise directly from the glacier(s) at its base, somehow adding to the breathtaking, yet alien and hostile, nature of the landscape.
The traverse and climb back to the DC wasn’t nearly as strenuous as I thought it would be. We were still within the morning hours, so the heat was completely stifling yet. We made our way over the same crevasses we’d crossed just a few hours prior. The one we’d originally leapt across now had a ladder in place to our relief. We pushed on until we reached the top of the cleaver then stopped for one final break. Although I’d been leading the entire time up to this point, I asked Mack to lead us down the cleaver. He’s always been far more calm, confident, and sure-footed on loose, rocky terrain, so I knew he’d find the safest spots to step. Similar to our climb up the cleaver, we moved as quickly as we could (while still being cautious about our footing) in order to avoid being right below the guided group that was also descending.
Once back on the Ingraham Glacier, I could relax a little bit because we were off the loose rock. Of course, I was all nerves again once we ascended Cathedral Gap and had to descend more rocky terrain to reach the Cowlitz Glacier. At least we could see our tent now. After a short, easy traverse across the Cowlitz, we were finally standing in front of our tent at 11:55 am. Managed to make it back before the official start of the afternoon! We removed our packs, undid all of our glacier gear, and collapsed inside the tent. I fell fast asleep within seconds.
I slept longer than I’d anticipated and awoke to a throbbing pain in my knees. Mack, who ended up not really napping because it was too hot in the tent, was already mostly packed. The hold up was all on me. Mack melted more snow for water while I moved at a snail’s pace getting my things meticulously packed and put away. We finally started the hike down at 3:10 pm. Hoping to quicken our pace, we decided to try glissading down the steeper sections of the Muir Snowfield sitting on garbage bags to protect our softshell pants from abrasion. We looked absolutely ridiculous and received more than a few eye rolls and laughs from other hikers and climbers we passed. My butt was almost completely numb by the time we reached the base of the snowfield.
The remainder of the hike down Skyline was slow and painful, particularly due to the trail’s staircase-like formation. Thankfully, the brightly colored meadows provided a welcome distraction from the soreness in our feet and limbs. Lupine, Indian paintbrush, white pasqueflower, asters, and other blooms were even more vibrant in the late afternoon sun. At 6:30 pm, we descended the final staircase to the parking area and slumped down on some nearby benches. Our adventure was officially over. On the drive back down Paradise Valley Rd, I thought back again on my first drive up, when the thought of climbing Rainier had yet to cross my mind. One year and two months later that non-existent thought became reality.