Climb Mount Rainier, Washington
The Experience: Mount Rainier is the "big mountain" of the Lower 48, a white giant standing alone 14,000 feet higher than the sea-level city of Seattle, a mere 60 miles away. Mount Whitney may be taller, other mountains may be more photogenic, but up close, Rainier feels more Himalayan than American, what with its seracs, huge glaciers, crevasses, bad weather, and high altitude. Twenty-six glaciers cover the peak, adding up to a cubic mile of snow and ice. The mountain gets 50 feet of snow every year, and the average temperature on the summit during the warmest month, August, is a brisk 32ºF.
More than 10,000 people attempt a climb on Rainier every year, and at least half of them head up the classic, but far from casual, Disappointment Cleaver route, almost all on snow and ice. Day one is typically a five-mile, 4,700-foot hike up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir, a group of spare huts perched at 10,080 feet at the edge of the Cowlitz Glacier. Day two, beginning with an alpine start between midnight and 2 a.m., tackles 4,400 vertical feet of snow, ice, and rock to Columbia Crest, Rainier’s proper summit at 14,410 feet. The 10- to 15-hour summit day, climbing up 4,400 feet and then descending 9,000 feet back to the parking lot, is a huge day. It’s an achievement, and one that often whets the appetite for more—once you’ve sat down for a post-climb burger and a beer in the town of Ashford at the base of the mountain.
Expert Opinion: Melissa Arnot has guided clients on more than a hundred summits of Rainier while working for the mountain’s oldest guide service, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), which has held a guide concession on the mountain since its founding in 1969. Arnot started guiding for RMI in 2004, and has gone on to guide internationally—and summit Mount Everest five times, the record number of summits for a woman.
Only about half of all climbers summit each year (the success rate is about 45 percent for self-guided climbers and 60 percent for guided climbers), and those who do gain an understanding of mountaineering—and often go on to climb Denali, Aconcagua, Everest, and other big mountains.
In 1962, for example, Jim Whittaker, twin brother of RMI founder Lou Whittaker, used Rainier to train for the 1963 American Everest Expedition, and the members of the expedition used the mountain for a practice run in September of that year. Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest in 1964.
“Rainier is one of my favorite mountains in the world," Arnot says. "It’s a long endurance climb that weaves through crevasses, over rock fins, and across beautiful open glacier slopes. It gives you every opportunity to challenge yourself and experience what mountaineering is all about. It offers all the challenge and requires all the skill you will need to climb similar peaks in the Andes, Himalaya, or really anywhere in the world.”
Time: Two to four days
Season: May through September
- A full-length ice axe for protection on the steep glaciers
- Glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness
- A durable rain shell pant and jacket
- A big, warm down parka with a hood for summit day
Training: “The best preparation for climbing is climbing,” Arnot says. “If you can mimic the activity you're going to do that's the best. Filling up a pack with 35 to 40 pounds and hiking uphill (on stairs, in the gym, or outside are all good options) for an hour at a time is the best preparation.”
Guide: Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.