Exploring Mount Rainier: Climbing The Big One

An Icon of The Pacific Northwest

Making the decision to climb Mt Rainier is a serious undertaking that requires honest consideration and elaborate planning.

It is difficult for climbers who have climbed (hiked) other peaks in the lower forty eight states to grasp the magnitude and scope of Mt. Rainier’s terrain.

Mt Rainier, standing at 14,411, is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower forty-eight states. With 25 major glaciers and more unnamed, permament year round, snow and ice patches, it’s size and scope has no comparison among the famous 14ers of Colorado. About 10,000 people attempt Rainier ever year during a regular climbing season that runs from May-September. While winter attempts are also made, they are reserved for Elite Mountaineers.

Rainier is a cultural icon in the Pacific Northwest, with a similar presence and reverence bestowed upon it as Japan’s Mount Fuji. An active Strato-Volcano, it experienced a small eruption in 1854 and if it were ever to fully erupt, would cause catastrophic damage in the Northwest Region.

It stands 65 miles south of Seattle and 95 miles north of Portland Oregon and is apart of the cascade range which dominates the western Washington landscape. First sighted in 1792 by English Explorer, George Vancouver, he named the Mountain after his friend and navigator, Peter Rainier.

Native Americans have lived on the foothills of Rainier for thousands of years and called the mountain, Tacoma or Tahoma. Today, The Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin, Muckelshoot, Yakama and Cowlitz Tribes, all maintain relations with the National Park.


Rainier is an enormous draw for budding Alpinists across the world, though it still maintains a degree of obscurity due to its location in the Pacific Northwest and the attraction of other North American mountain ranges. Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, used Rainier as his training ground and many other world renowned Alpinists such as Ed Viesturs and Dave Hahn have prepared for the Himalaya on Rainier’s beautiful but often hazardous slopes. Jim Whittakers twin brother Lou Whittaker, started a guide service on the mountain in the 1960’s and since then, RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc) has grown into one of America’s most respected Mountain Guide services. RMI takes more people up Rainier every year than any other Guide Service.

The trail just beyond Paradise Visitors Center

There are over 30 climbing routes on the booming peak but the most alluring and popular are: The Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Direct, The Emmons Withrop, Kautz Glacier and Liberty Ridge. Of these four, The Liberty Ridge is ranked as the most difficult and requiring of the most skill. The Disappointment Cleaver or the DC, is the most popular and non technical of all the routes but still requires proficiency in basic alpine skills and glacier travel.

The Emmons glacier on the Northeast side of the mountain is the largest and most visually stunning.

I first climbed Rainier in July of 2018 and it was one of the most difficult yet enthralling endeavors I had ever completed. Climbing with RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc) we ascended to Camp Muir at 3pm after about a four hour hike and then rested in the one of the stone shelters before beginning our ascent at 11:30pm. We climbed our way to the Ingraham Flats and then began our trod on the notoriously difficult and rocky cleaver. Climbing on the melted our Cleaver is similar to climbing a hill of sand though with far rockier sediment and without any cushion.

The lack of clean footing on nearly every step forward made maintaining one’s balance a continuous issue which was compounded by being on a rope team. Not stepping on the rope while maintaining proper slack required some focus for a first timer.

By the time we reached Colombia Crest, I was mentally and physically spent and not really capable of enjoying the stunning panoramic views. Mt Adams and My Hood could be seen in the distance and the weather was a perfect bluebird day.

I couldnt help but notice our lead guide Casey, showed very little fatigue which was probably a given, since it was revealed he had completed over a 120 ascents.

We began our descent at about 8am and my suspicion that the way down would be worse than the way up, was immediately confirmed.

By the time we made it down to the Paradise parking lot at 230pm where we had begun our climb over 24 hours previous, I wasnt too keen on the idea of climbing Rainier again and most of my fellow climbers shared the same sentiment.

Though amazingly, a couple days later I was already planning a second ascent and further mountaineering plans have been abundant in my mind ever since.

Equipment list:

Having skills in knot tying and utilizing locking carabiners is key

1.) 30 meter, 8-9mm Rope (60 meter rope for 4+ person group)

2.) Full Shank, crampon compatible mountaineering boots

3.) Crampons

4.) Helmet

5.) Headlamp

6.) Harness

7.) Four locking Carabiners

8.) Four non-locking Carabiners

9.) 2 x 120cm Sling

10.) Prusik Cord

11.) Shovel

12.) 2 Snow Anchors (Pickets)

13.) Microtraxion Pulley (Petzl)

14.) Gloves (lightweight, midweight, heavy mittens)

15.) Base top layer

16.) Lightweight Fleece

17.) Midweight jacket

18.) Down Parka

19.) Rain (hardshell) jacket

20.) Wool Socks

21.) Climbing Pants

22.) Rain (hardshell) pants

23.) Four Season Tent

24.) Deadman anchors

Skills & Techniques

1.) Cramponing

2.) Rest Stepping- French Technique, German Technique

3.) Self arrest with an Ice Axe

4.) Basic Glacier Travel

-Rope spacing

-Rope Management

-Short Roping

-Tying in

-Snow Probing

5.) Crevasse Rescue

-Anchor System

The DC (Disappointment Cleaver) and Ingraham Direct Route

The Disappointment Cleaver route is a two to three day climb that begins on the skyline trail from the Paradise parking lot in Mt Rainier NP. It takes about thirty five minutes to arrive at Paradise once entering the park from the west Nisqually entrance. On the skyline trail, the path will eventually diverge slightly right and east until one finds themselves on the Muir snowfield. From here its a steep hike of intermediate difficulty to Camp Muir at about 10,000 ft. From the parking lot, it takes roughly 4-5 hours to reach Camp Muir though less than that at a swift pace.

Cathedral Gap beyond Camp Muir (2018)

At Camp Muir, there are a couple of stone shelters with one available for independent climber use and the others restricted for the Climbing Rangers and Mountain Guides. Many climbers elect to pitch a tent instead of staying in the often crowded and noisy hut.

In the early season, climbers may ignore the Cleaver and instead traverse up the Ingraham direct which is just beyond Cathedral Gap at the Flats and significantly cuts down the duration of the climb. Though once June comes, crevasses begin to open on the Ingraham glacier and the route shifts entirely to the Disappointment Cleaver.

Climbers will begin their summit attempt from here at 11pm-Midnight. Climbing on mountains such as Rainier requires night ascents because the temperature will drop to freezing or below (hopefully) which lowers the odds of an avalanche.

To the crater rim and Columbia Crest (the Highest Point) it can take anywhere from 6-8 hours. Possibly more or less depending on one’s physical fitness level, though if summiting later than 8am, you are putting yourself at risk for rock and ice fall on the descent.

You’ll start the ascent by traversing through Cathedral gap just beyond Muir until you scramble up the ridge to gain access to the Ingraham glacier and an area called the Ingraham Flats. Further beyond the Flats is the base of the Disappointment Cleaver. Beginning in late June, early July, the Cleaver is pretty well melted out, creating a steep climb of scree and loose rock. Clearing this section is certainly the most arduous section of the climb. At the base of the Cleaver, climbers may have to cross a ladder over a crevasse in an area called the Ice box. In early season, there may just be a snow bridge but later on, Guides or Climbing Rangers will most likely have placed a ladder to ensure a steady crossing.

Traversing the ladder or snow bridge quickly is imperative, as overhanging seracs from the Ingraham glacier remain a steady danger throughout the season. It should be noted that it is here in the ice box, in which occurred the worst single mountaineering disaster in the history of North American Mountaineering. In 1981, on Fathers day, eleven people including Guides, were swept away by a large Serac collapse. Their bodies are still immeshed within the glacier to this day.

Beyond the ice box, is the bowling alley, characterized by mounds of snow and ice protruding vertically like bowling pins. It should take no longer than 10 minutes to maneuver through the ice box and bowling alley.

The Cleaver is notorious for being hard on the feet and legs, and many climbers will elect to turn around a few switchbacks in. In late July onward, be prepared for a slog.

Atop of the Cleaver, is 12,300 ft and here again, climbing teams often reevaluate their plans. This is a good place to analyze the weather and take a food and drink break.

Overlooking Colombia Crest and distant Mt. Adams (2018)

From here to the summit, the route again can vary, depending on it being early or late season but is to be sure, a route full of open and hidden crevasses and within risky avalanche territory. Late season will certainly see a ladder deployed at one point or another on the way up to the crater rim.

This part of the route is defiantly the most visually stunning and Mt Rainier reveals why it is such a unique and impressive mountain in the lower forty eight states.

Upon reaching the Crater rim, it will take about another 30 min or so to reach Colombia Crest, the highest point of the crater.

The descent of any mountain and especially a glaciated and highly techinical one such as Mt Rainier, is usually when accidents occur. Such it is critical, to remain focused and alert on the way back to Camp Muir. People often find that going down is tougher on the legs than going up. Thus even though it may take only 4 hours or less to get there, it is vital to remain vigilant and aware of potential crevasse dangers.

Depending on a variety of factors, climbers can expect to get back to the Paradise Parking lot at any where from 2-5pm.

The Emmons Glacier

Descending The Emmons Glacier with ‘Little Tahoma’ in view (2018)

Named after Geologist Samuel Emmons, the Emmons Glacier is most certainly the most spectacular Glacier on Mt Rainier. Beginning at the summit crater, it spills down the North side of mountain and provokes awe from onlookers across Washington state and beyond.

The Emmons’ is the second most used climbing route on Rainier but even with this being so, it is significantly less crowded than the DC. The route does not open up until late May when White River road sufficiently clears from being covered in snow all winter long and typically closes before September, as a plethora of open crevasses make the route completely unnavigable.

If you have climbed the DC or other similarly technical routes on other mountains such as Hood, Baker or Adams, than the Emmons may be the next step up.

Even more so than the DC, it requires absolute proficient knowledge of Crevasse rescue skills and independent route finding. Guides do not maintain the route as they do on the DC, thus the ability to access crevasse and avalanche dangers are critical. Climbers must be comfortable with running belays and crampons in steep areas, such near the summit where the route often exceeds 40 degrees in steepness.

The view of Rainier from the Northeast side of the Park

The climb begins at White River Campground, not far from Sunrise Visitor Center which is about 2 hours from the Nisqually Park entrance.

Climbers ascend to Camp Shurman where there is a Ranger’s Hut and a small restroom. Thus sheltering in a hut is not an option on this side of the mountain, so climbers need to know how to camp and use deadman stakes.

It takes about eight hours from camp Shurman to reach Colombia Crest and may require significant navigation and route finding. The route shifts significantly over the course of the summer and by August can be riddled with hazards.

Kautz Glacier/Other Routes

The Kautz Glacier is a Grade II ice climb and the third most popular route on the mountain. Only super competent Mountaineers will be found on this route that begins at Paradise and diverges on the Nisqually moraine trail, west of the Muir Snowfield.


Taking a crack at the jewel of the Pacific Northwest is not an easy feat but the rewards potentially make the adventure well worth the time.

Preparation is the name of the game for climbing Rainier or any other Cascade volcano, so climbers need to do their research, tighten down their mountaineering skills, (Perhaps take a course first) bring the correct gear and climb with people that you trust.

The only folks that climb this mountain solo are trained guides or Rangers, so if roped up glacier travel isnt your thing, perhaps neither is mountaineering.

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