I dreamt of climbing Mount Rainier for several years. As an insatiable peakbagger, Rainier has a huge pull for many reasons: it’s the unquestionable monarch of the Cascade Range, standing 9,000 feet above its highest trailhead and 2,000+ feet above the next highest peak around. It holds more glacial ice than all other Cascade volcanoes combined. And while its summit wouldn’t be the highest in Colorado if it were here (at 14,410 feet), its coastal position combined with its northern latitude creates a dramatic environment far unlike any other peak in the contiguous US.
Because of Rainier’s enormous prominence, it attracts winter-like conditions year-round. A strong low pressure front was sweeping in, bringing wind, snow, and plummeting temperatures the day after we were slated to arrive in Washington. My wife, my best friend, and I were bummed but trying to make the best of it, and we discussed backup plans as we packed our gear. Plan B reflected an attempt of Mount Hood, where the weather looked marginally better. Plan C, our worst-case scenario, would be camping in the rain and playing cards. We boarded the plane to Seattle convinced that we would be doing either plan B or C and that our view of Rainier from the plane would be the best we would get.
The day before we would head to climb, we spent the day exploring Seattle and found that the forecasted rain had not materialized. In fact, the sun even poked out from time to time. Puzzled, I looked at the most updated forecast: the low-pressure system was now moving south along the coast instead of moving inland. The forecast for Rainier was calling for “snow showers” versus the original several feet of new snow, and Sunday morning looked to be partly sunny. This was our lucky break! We decided last-minute to continue with our original plan.
We headed to the trailhead at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park Friday morning. The higher we drove, the thicker the clouds became and the more quiet and nervous we were. I was second-guessing our decision, wondering if we were going to get pounded with rain and snow. As we pulled into the parking lot, we caught a view of the summit through a small break in the clouds – just the bit of motivation I needed! We checked in at the ranger station, geared up, and got started.
Our approach was on snow the entire way, and while most of the hike was done through thick fog, every now and then clouds would blow off and we would get huge, sweeping views of the mountain, with the biggest glaciers any of us had seen. We were awestruck. Then we would look back downhill and see utter darkness under the thick clouds rolling up in our direction, and minutes later we were back in fog. We arrived at Camp Muir amid blowing snow and 200 yard visibility, and after ducking into the public shelter for a quick warm-up, we set up camp on the side of the Cowlitz Glacier. We melted snow and cooked dinner using our Jetboil Flash and Sea to Summit X-Pot.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to sunshine on Saturday morning. We proceeded to get organized and then set out for a hike up the initial part of the route. We crossed the Cowlitz Glacier and then cruised up Cathedral Gap, a broad rock gully which leads up to a ridge and grants access to the Ingraham Glacier on the other side. After a short lunch break, we returned to camp. James mentioned that his Hilleberg Nallo tent had been quite warm. He vented it during the day to make sure it didn’t get too warm for sleeping.
After receiving an updated forecast calling for cold temps and light but steady winds, we elected a 2am start the next day and got into our bags as early as we could.
With the late afternoon light and noise from other climbers, we didn’t get to sleep for quite some time. With what sounded like pretty strong wind gusts shaking our tents throughout the night, I began to fear that we would be fighting rough wind chill and was more than ready to start moving once my 1am alarm went off. The wind wasn’t as bad as it seemed from inside the tent and we set off around 2:20am.
With a full moon and clear skies, we made our way to the previous day’s high point in Cathedral Gap in a little less than an hour and then continued up along the edge of the Ingraham Glacier to Ingraham Flats, an alternative high camp. We could see numerous headlamps making their way up the mountain ahead of us, as the large guided groups had started a little earlier. We could already see the very beginnings of sunlight on the eastern horizon.
The next portion of the route is likely the most objectively hazardous. We ascended the Ingraham Glacier around a large crevasse and then traversed across under a section called the Ice Box. Here, we were under a substantial icefall, and blocks can break loose and tumble across the trail. Immediately after this, we were in the Bowling Alley, where the danger changes to falling rock from the ridgeline above. We tried to move quickly and get onto Disappointment Cleaver, the route’s namesake ridge separating the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. We then climbed around 1,000 vertical feet of snowy switchbacks up the ridge to the point where it disappears into the glacial ice at 12,300 feet. At last, the sun came up. It looked like the crevasses in the glacier were on fire, and I appreciated the slightly increased warmth. With the continued wind I was very happy to be wearing my Arc’Teryx GorTex pants and Parka.
The next 1,800 vertical feet of climbing brought us up the high glaciers, traversing under a large overhanging serac, weaving between some large crevasses, and crossingfar back across to the south side of the crater rim after crossing one final, very large crevasse on a snow bridge. We were all thankful for the heavy snow year that Rainier had received, as it made most of the crevasse crossings almost unnoticeable.
We reached the crater rim at about 7:30am
under clear, blue skies and 20mph winds. Knowing that there are no crevasses in the snow filling the crater, we unroped and excitedly made our way across the crater and up the final rocks on the opposite side, walking through sulfurous steam rising through the rocks, reaching the summit at around 8am. We made it! I pinched myself as it didn’t really feel like we could be standing there. Views in all directions were clear and spectacular. After savoring the moment, we turned our attention to the getting safely down. I was looking forward to returning to warmer ground lower on the mountain and getting back on the other side of the rock and ice fall zones. We quickly made our way back across the crater, tied back into the rope, and started down.
Photo by Michelle
Photo by James
Our descent was uneventful, though the crevasses seemed bigger and closer to the route than they had on the ascent. We arrived back at camp at 2:30pm, finally allowing ourselves to high five each other for a safely accomplished climb. We took it easy the rest of the night, enjoying our remaining time on the mountain.
Finally, on Monday morning, our time was up. We packed up and made our way down, having fun glissading on the snowfields. What had taken seven hours to ascend on the first day was descended in less than two hours. Even though Paradise was once again surrounded by fog, we found ourselves among a crowd of tourists, who gawked at and took pictures of us as we rolled into the parking lot. We were smelly, coated in zinc sunscreen, and beaming.
As we drove back to Seattle to reorganize our gear for the next day’s flight and relax, I reflected on the trip. Our training prepared us well. I already knew that our team was highly cohesive as we’ve all climbed together previously, but we did a better job than ever of relying on each other and helping pull each other through to get the climb done safely. Everyone carried their weight and did their part throughout training and the climb. My greatest takeaway, however, was to always take the forecast with a grain of salt, for better or worse. Now, we just have to figure out what’s next...
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