Standing at 14,411 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier (or “the Mountain” as it’s lovingly called in the Pacific Northwest) attracts climbers from all over the world. It’s the highest peak in the Cascade Range, the highest in Washington, and a measuring stick for any aspiring northwestern climber.
Rainier was first climbed in 1870 by Hazard Stevens and P.B. Van Trump, and mountaineering remains a rich part of the Mount Rainier National Park experience. Approximately 10,000 people attempt the mountain each year. The success rate for a summit climb is around 50 percent, and the most common reasons for failure are exhaustion or inclement weather.
Climbers hoping to stand on Rainier’s highest point – Columbia Crest – need to be physically fit, skilled in glacier travel and crevasse rescue, and prepared for winter conditions … any time of year.
Twenty-six named glaciers surround Rainier’s flanks; there is no trivial route to the summit. An automotive visitor may drive within 8,000 feet of the summit. A hiker can’t do much better, because maintained trails end with 7,000 feet to go. Only mountaineers with the necessary skills, gear, and focus are properly equipped to explore her upper reaches.
The majority of first-time climbers select one of two routes. On the south side, the Disappointment Cleaver attracts approximately 90 percent of the mountain’s ascents. Most of the remaining 10 percent choose the much wilder, but not overly technical (from a mountaineering standpoint), Emmons/Winthrop Glacier route beginning on the mountain’s northeast side.
A climbing permit is required for all ascents above 10,000 feet or onto any glacier. Climbing permits cost $43 per person (25 years and older) or $30 per person (24 years and younger). They must be purchased in person at a ranger station during the primary climbing season from May to October; a valid photo ID is required.
The climb begins at the Paradise Visitor Center and ascends through alpine meadows to the Muir Snowfield.
From there a gradual ascent through open snowfields with great views of the Nisqually Glacier and upper mountain leads to Camp Muir at 10,800 feet. Most climbers spend a night acclimatizing here before an early morning (typically 1 a.m.-2 a.m.) alpine attempt on the summit the next day.
From Camp Muir, the route crosses the Cowlitz Glacier and cuts through Illumination Gap to the Ingraham Flats camp at just over 11,000 feet.
Next, a steep section of snow and rock gains the Disappointment Cleaver proper. Following the spine of rock and snow eventually deposits climbers at the top of the Cleaver at around 12,500 feet.
Above the Cleaver, climbers pick their way through a maze of crevasses until the crater rim is gained at slightly more than 14,000 feet. Most climbers opt to continue on mostly flat terrain through the crater to Columbia Crest (the mountain’s high point) on the north side of the summit.
Starting from the Sunrise entrance to the park, a short drive leads to the Glacier Basin Trailhead where the adventure begins.
A gentle 3.5-mile hike takes climbers through the Glacier Basin campground. From here, a climbers’ trail continues uphill to the White River headwaters below the Inter Glacier.
A direct ascent of the Inter Glacier, being careful to avoid rockfall and crevasse danger, leads to a saddle called Camp Curtis at 8,500 feet.
Next, climbers descend snow or talus to the Emmons Glacier and then follow the Emmons to Camp Schurman at approximately 9,400 feet.
Like Camp Muir, Schurman is a ranger-staffed high camp on Mount Rainier. From Schurman, the line of least resistance depends greatly on the time of year, snowpack, and any year-to-year changes to crevasse location on the glacier. Typically, a mostly direct ascent of the Emmons Glacier is possible to approximately 13,000 feet, before a traverse to the upper Winthrop Glacier is necessary to gain the saddle between Columbia Crest (the true summit) and Point Success (a secondary summit to the northwest) at 13,600 feet.
From the saddle, a short climb to Columbia Crest gains Washington’s highest point, the summit of Mount Rainier at more than 14,000 feet.
A number of online resources are available:
For those interested, winter climbing at Mount Rainier is a popular activity among dedicated souls seeking an added challenge.
Though winter conditions can occur at any time, more consistent winter weather is found from October to April.
Mount Rainier is one of the snowiest locations in the world – for example, Paradise, on the south side, saw 1,122 inches of snow in the winter of 1972/1973.
It goes without saying that storms come in quickly and often – and they’re generally accompanied by high winds and prolonged periods of little to no visibility.
Proper conditioning, attire, and winter mountaineering skills are vital to having a safe winter ascent.
Solo climbing on Mount Rainier above the high camps or on any glacier is not permitted without prior approval from the park superintendent. To request permission, a solo climb request form can be downloaded from the park climbing website or requested by sending a letter to: Superintendent, Mount Rainier National Park, 55210 238th Avenue East, Ashford, WA 98304.