There’s nothing more liberating than standing at 14,000 feet above sea level, knowing you had to climb close to 9,000 feet to get there.
The trek to the top of Mount Rainier—an incredible, active volcano that also happens to be the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S.—is no small feat.
Some say it’s unique attributes make it more comparable to an Alaskan summit than a high peak in the lower 48.
Interestingly, Mount Rainier National Park is the result of a stubborn 6-year lobbying effort to protect and preserve the peak and surrounding wilderness. However, archeological evidence points to native inhabitants having close ties with the mountain for over 9,000 years. Today, six Indian tribes still have a close connection to Mount Rainier.
Nevertheless, over 10,000 climbers a year set their sights on this Pacific Northwest icon every a year, hoping to experience the magic of America’s most illustrious volcano. So, we know that if you’re a peak bagger, an avid climber, and all around adventure-seeker, it’s not really a matter of if you’ll seek out Rainier, it’s a matter of when.
To help you prepare for your quest to the top, we’ve put together some tips and tricks that’ll get you one step closer to soaking in those majestic summit views.
First things first though: you’ll need a way to get there.
Where to climb
Arguably more of a climb than a hike, reaching the top of Rainier isn’t for the faint of heart. Although there are several routes to the top (some say close to 60 total), each path has a unique set of challenges based on weather, geography, and elevation.
Regardless of which route you choose, the National Park Service recommends that you have ample alpine climbing experience, are in good physical condition, and that you are well-prepared.
Climbing routes vary based on difficulty, terrain, and length, but below we’ve put together what the NPS considers to be the most popular routes to climb.
Disappointment Cleaver-Ingraham Glacier (DC)
Elevation gain: 9,000 feet
Length: 8-9 miles
Avg. time to complete: 1-3 days
Don’t let the name of this alpine ascent fool you; it is anything but disappointing. Over the course of 8 to 9 miles, hikers will quickly climb 9,000-feet in elevation and, on a clear day, appreciate sweeping views of Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in the distance.
Despite traversing Cowlitz Glacier, Cathedral Gap, Ingraham Glacier, and Emmons Glacier, the DC route is still considered one of the least technical climbs to the top of Rainier and one of the most popular for novice climbers.
However, as the climbing season progresses, crevasse crossings and conditions can become increasingly more hazardous.
Despite being well-marked and maintained, only about half of the climbers that attempt the DC route succeed due to lack of preparation, misjudging the demands of the climb, and, of course, variable weather conditions.
Emmons – Winthrop
Elevation gain: 10,300 feet
Length: 9-10 miles
Avg. time to complete: 2-3 days
Before you breathe a sigh of relief, you should know that the miniscule mileage along this route is deceiving.
The Emmons and Winthrop glaciers, admiringly named after geologist Samuel Emmons and writer Theodore Winthrop, cover nearly a quarter of Rainier’s surface and take an average of 2 to 3 days to cross.
Like the DC route, the Emmons-Winthrop glacier route gets most of its usage during summer months and is one of the easier routes on the mountain. However, the Emmons-Winthrop route requires a more specialized set of alpine climbing skills than the DC route.
The Emmons-Winthrop trail is not clearly defined or maintained, and there are no fixed anchors, ladders, or rope lines. To successfully ascend the mountain, climbers are expected to be competent in crevasse rescue, experienced in route finding, capable of finding alternate routes, and able to employ technical climbing skills in a challenging environment.
Nevertheless, if you’ve got the skills, Emmons-Winthrop strikes the perfect balance of effort and reward. You’ll find fewer fellow-climbers along this route, and there won’t be a shortage of cascading, alpine peaks to admire.
Elevation gain: 9,500 feet
Length: 11-12 miles
Avg. time to complete: 1-3 days
Kautz Glacier has the longest climbing history on the mountain and was once considered the standard climbing route to the top of Mt. Rainier. The first attempt to summit Rainier via Kautz Glacier was made in 1857, followed by successful ascents in 1921 and 1924.
Although it’s considered to be one of the top three routes, the Kautz Glacier receives only an average of 500 attempts each year, nearly half of the attempts as the DC and Emmons-Winthrop trails. However, Kautz Glacier is a considerably more difficult path and should not be attempted by novice alpinists.
Unlike the DC and Emmons-Winthrop routes, the approach requires an expert level proficiency in ice climbing and glacier travel. The climb is considered remote, in comparison, due to a lack of resources (i.e. established camps) and man-made shelters, so trails are not marked or maintained.
However, mountaineers looking to escape to solitude will appreciate the added remoteness and natural beauty of the Kautz Glacier route.
Don’t be disheartened if you’ve been daydreaming about Rainier, but your mountaineering skills aren’t up to par. You don’t have to miss out!
Companies like Alpine Ascents International, International Mountain Guides, and Rainier Mountaineering offer climbing instructions, multi-day guided climbs, climbing seminars, and even private climbs.
You can check out the official Commercial Use Authorizations list to find the right guide for your Mount Rainier adventure.
Pack with a purpose
Your gear list will depend on the difficulty and experience level of your climbing party, as well as weather conditions and your selected route. However, the National Park Service offers a fundamental list of recommended climbing equipment, so you know where to start.
REI is another great resource for narrowing down your list of climbing gear, specifically for Mount Rainier. Their list also includes the Ten Essential Systems you should have with you on every backcountry trip: navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire, repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter.
Prepare for the climb
Proper training and experience
To keep you safe and give you the best possible chance at summiting, we recommend you freshen up on your mountaineering skills and put them into practice well in advance.
Unfortunately, training for a 9,000-foot alpine ascent isn’t as simple as adding extra cardio to your workout routine. Generally speaking, effective training includes hiking at high elevations with all of your gear to mimic the demands you’ll encounter while on the mountain.
Specialized courses in avalanche safety, route finding, belaying techniques, rope work, setting anchors, navigation and hazard recognition are also important skills necessary to successfully and safely hike Mt. Rainier.
The NPS recommends that novice alpine climbers attempt to summit other, more challenging routes on smaller volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Shasta, and Mount Baker before attempting the easiest trail on Mt. Rainier.
Pick the perfect time to climb
Generally speaking, climbing season begins in April and ends in September. However, if there’s one thing to know about Mount Rainier, it’s that the weather can’t really be predicted—it can only be planned for.
Mount Rainier is notorious for stubborn snow and unpredictable weather conditions.
In fact, it’s not entirely uncommon, even in the summer, to start your trek soaking in summertime temps, only to find yourself stuck in a blizzard by mid-afternoon. In other words, don’t just pack your summer wardrobe—plan for all kinds of weather.
Conversely, even when weather conditions are clear, there’s a potential for heightened route-based risks. A handful of popular climbing routes require winter-like weather conditions, like snowpack and ice. So, when temperatures rise, melting snow, unstable ice, and unpredictable rockfall can make some routes more complicated, dangerous, and even impassable.
Weather is often the difference between a successful trek up to the top of Rainier or a defeated drawl back to the car. So, preplanning and understanding your route, packing accordingly, and keeping up with the weather forecast are just a few essentials that will keep you on the mountain.
As a helpful hint, the Mount Rainier climbing rangers also update their blog with current climbing conditions, so you can scope out the route before you arrive.
Understand the risks
Mother Nature has her own agenda and danger isn’t uncommon on Mount Rainier. Approximately 50% of the hikers that attempt an ascent will be forced to turn around due to lack of preparation, experience, or inherent risks associated with alpine climbing.
Understanding the dangers of climbing Rainier and planning for them will keep you safe while summiting. Below, we’ve included several hazards you could encounter along your route:
- Falling ice or rock
- Adverse weather
- Altitude sickness, high altitude cerebral edema, pulmonary edema
Permits and fees
- Climbing Cost Recovery Fee: Each person in your party is required to pay a Climbing Cost Recovery Fee before arriving at the park. But don’t fret, your funds are going to a good cause. Each fee helps fund the Mount Rainier Climbing Program and protect this incredible alpine environment.
- Climbing Permit: After you pay the Climbing Cost Recovery Fee, don’t forget to pick up a free climbing permit from the visitor center.
- Wilderness Permit: If you plan to camp in any of Rainier’s backcountry camping zones, including Camp Muir or Camp Schurman, it’s not a bad idea to make a reservation and pick up a $20 Wilderness Permit in advance. Although some spots are first come first serve, in peak climbing months space can fill up fast.
- Solo Permit: Solo treks above high camp are inherently risky, so you’ll need a stamp of approval from the Superintendent or climbing ranger before setting on on your adventure. If you’re the type that likes to go it alone, complete an application at least 2 weeks before your trip.
How many people can say they climbed a 14,000-foot stratovolcano? It’s time to get your climb on by tackling the tallest peak in Washington. With enough preparation and education, we’re confident you’ll be one of the 50% that make it to the top!
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