With more area dedicated to glaciers than any mountain in the lower 48 states, Washington’s Mount Rainier isn’t the sort of peak you can simply climb on a whim. A successful summit climbing Mt Rainier requires months of intensive training and preparation.
Climbers face 9,000 feet of vertical elevation gain over more than eight miles, and weather and route conditions can present sudden and potentially dangerous challenges that have defeated even the most experienced climbers.
Still, with solid training and a smart climbing strategy, you be among the thousands of adventurers who make it to the top of Mount Rainier each year, and the view you’ll experience at its 14,000-foot summit will be worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears you shed in preparation for climbing the tallest mountain in Washington. The guide below will help you know what to expect and what you’ll need to do in order to conquer this intimidating active volcano.
Training for Climbing Mt Rainier
Challenging peaks like Mount Rainier require sport-specific training to prepare the body for the physical demands of the climb. Even if you’re already in reasonably good shape, you’ll need to find a training program specifically designed for climbing at significant altitude and give yourself at least three to four months to complete it.
It should include both endurance and strength components that progress over time and prepare you to be able to complete the following tasks:
- Hike for five- to six- hour stretches with a backpack that weighs 40 pounds or more
- Climb steep ascents and along glaciers while carrying a 15- to 20-pound load
- Spend 10 to 14 hours walking, hiking and climbing in a single day
- Achieve good balance, flexibility and core strength
Joining a Group for Climbing Mt Rainier
While it is technically possible to climb Mount Rainier on your own, doing so unnecessarily raises your risk of becoming injured or killed, and you’re much more likely to accomplish your summiting goal if you have a partner or a group with whom to climb.
Three major companies—Alpine Ascents International, International Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering—offer guided group climbs as well as training plans, instructional camps, gear sales and more. A dozen or so single trip guide services are also authorized to offer one guided trip each year.
Solo climbing above established high camps and on glaciers is only allowed with prior written permission from the National Park Service (NPS).
Solo climbers must fill out an online application, which is then reviewed by NPS climbing rangers to evaluate the applicant’s experience level with other major climbs on glaciated peaks (such as Alaska’s Denali or New Zealand’s Mount Cook) as well as their basic knowledge of standard modern alpine mountaineering techniques. The request usually takes several weeks to process.
Regardless of group size, the National Park Service requires all climbers to be at least 18 years old to attempt the summit or provide written permission from a parent before climbing beyond the high camps.
Obtaining Required Permits for Climbing Mt Rainier
The National Park Service requires climbers to pay a Climbing Cost Recovery Fee ($35 for climbers under age 25 and $51 for climbers 25 and older) prior to arriving at the park. The fee goes toward the Mount Rainier Climbing Program, which provides climbing rangers to staff the high camps and ranger stations, facilitates removal of human waste from collection points on the upper mountain and preserves the mountain’s fragile alpine environment.
The fee covers all additional climbs for the individual for the remainder of the calendar year. All climbers will be asked to show proof of payment as well as a photo ID before they will be permitted to climb.
Climbers will also need to obtain a Wilderness Permit, which is required for all overnight camping within the park.
Using Good Practices to Climb Mount Rainier
In order to successfully reach the summit of Mount Rainier, climbers will need to be in excellent physical condition and able to manage the significant elevation gain over the main routes. Additionally, observing good climbing practices is essential to a positive experience at Rainier:
- Leadership: Each climbing group should include at least one experienced leader who has previously summited Rainier (or a similar peak) and is familiar with the ascent and descent routes the group plans to take. The leader assumes responsibility for the health and safety of the other climbers in the group and models safe climbing practices.
- Preparation: Each member of the group should have completed training climbs on glaciated peaks, and attending mountaineering courses is recommended. Each climber should know what to do in case of an avalanche and bring first aid and rescue skills to the group.
- Technique: Members of the group should be roped together appropriately to traverse glaciers and crevassed snow fields. Each group member should carry a snow anchors and know how to use rescue equipment in case of a fall.
- Group Size: Never climb without a partner, and go in groups of three or more if possible to more effectively handle emergencies. For winter climbs, groups of at least four people are ideal. The maximum allowable group size throughout the park is 12 people.
- Waste Management: With 10,000 people attempting to summit Mount Rainier each year—and thousands of additional day hikers on top of that number—the amount of trash and human waste generated within the park is staggering. Climbers are urged to “leave no trace” by disposing of human waste at designated collection sites using the blue bag system and carrying all trash with them to dispose of in the containers in the parking lots.
Predicting Weather Patterns on Mount Rainier
Weather patterns on Mount Rainier are driven largely by the Pacific Ocean and the significant elevation at the high camps. Overall, the region’s climate is mild and rainy, with high temperatures in the summer averaging in the 60s and 70s. July and August offer the best chance for sunny climbs, but even then, rain should be expected. Climbers should also expect to encounter snow at higher elevations well into the summer months.
The daily forecast on the mountain is subject to frequent and sudden change, so check the forecast often and prepare accordingly. Climbers should include extra clothing, rain gear and a tent in their gear packs regardless of the time of year.
Closely monitoring avalanche conditions and warnings is also critical to staying safe on the mountain. For the latest route conditions and forecasts, check the Mount Rainier climbing blog and follow @MountRainierNPS on Twitter.
Avoiding or Surviving an Avalanche When Climbing Mt Rainier
Avalanches pose one of the greatest safety risks to climbers attempting to summit Mount Rainier. Avalanches occur when a layer of snow is loosened from a slope and slides downhill, generating significant power and speed that can be fatal to humans in its path. While avalanches are relatively common in mountainous areas, they are also frequently triggered by people, so it’s important to be aware of the avalanche forecast at the time of your climb so you can take all necessary precautions.
Major factors affecting the likelihood of avalanches when climbing Mt Rainier include:
- Weather: Approximately 80 percent of avalanches occur during or immediately after snow storms. Snowfall at a rate of an inch or more per hour and wet snow also increase the risk of avalanches.
- Terrain: Ground cover such as large rocks, trees and heavy shrubs helps to anchor snow. Avalanches are most likely to occur on convex slopes, leeward slopes and slopes measuring 30 to 45 degrees.
- Location: If possible, choose routes on ridgetops and on the windward side of ridgelines, away from cornices. If ridges aren’t accessible, valley routes away from the bottoms of slopes are the safest option.
If you do become caught in an avalanche while climbing Mt Rainier, the following actions can save your life:
- Drop any equipment you are holding.
- Use swimming motions to stay on top of snow and get to the side of the avalanche.
- Try to make an air space in the snow in front of your face.
- Do your best to remain calm and breathe slowly to conserve oxygen.
Climbing Equipment Needed for Climbing Mt Rainier
Bringing the right equipment on your climb can be the determining factor between a successful and unsuccessful summit. Make sure you have what you need before entering the park, since equipment sales and rental are not available on the premises. The following items are strongly recommended for climbing Mount Rainier:
- Map and compass
- Matches or lighter
- Sunscreen and lip balm with SPF
- Head lamp and additional batteries
- Sunglasses or shaded ski goggles
- First aid kit
- Whistle or mirror to signal for help in an emergency
- Gloves or mittens
- Winter hat
- Layered clothing
- Waterproof and breathable parka
- Sleeping bag rated to 10 degrees Fahrenheit
- Ice axe
- Belay/rappel device
- Pulleys (two or more)
- Carabiners (four locking, four non-locking)
- Webbing sling
- Perlon accessory cord
- Snow picket
- Ice screws
Main Routes for Climbing Mt Rainier
Climbers on Mount Rainier typically use one of two main routes: the Disappointment-Cleaver Route and the Emmons-Winthrop Route.
Disappointment Cleaver Route
Prime climbing season for the Disappointment Cleaver Route aligns with the availability of guide services, which usually ramp up operations in mid-May and shut down at the end of September. The Disappointment Cleaver Route is well-marked and maintained by guide services, making it the most popular route for first-time or less-experienced climbers. It also offers convenient proximity to the main road into the nearby town of Paradise.
While this route is the least technical path up the mountain, it still requires substantial mountaineering and glacier travel skills, so be careful not to underestimate its difficulty.
The route starts with a hike from Paradise to the Skyline Trail past Panorama Point, over Pebble Creek and up to Camp Muir, the high camp for Disappointment Cleaver. From Camp Muir, climbers traverse the upper Cowlitz Ridge and over the Cathedral Rocks Ridge to the Ingraham Glacier.
After crossing the glacier via the Ingraham Flats, climbers will reach the Disappointment Cleaver’s southern base. The route then goes along the rim of the Cleaver’s east crater and then through the crater to the west rim, where a large boulder marks the summit at 14,411 feet.
The more technically advanced Emmons-Winthrop Route is best attempted during the summer months, when snow removal has permitted the opening of the White River Road. Rescue operations are more common on this route due to the fact that no guide services maintain shoveled trails, fixed anchors, ladders or rope lines on the route.
If you opt to go this route, be sure you have the necessary skill and experience level to keep yourself and your group safe during the climb. Emmons-Winthrop is not advised for first-time climbers at Rainier.
To access the Emmons-Winthrop Route, start at the White River Campground and follow the trail to Glacier Basin Campground. From there, head toward the snout of the InterGlacier, a small, lightly-crevassed glacier. Once you cross the InterGlacier, you’ll find yourself at the huge Emmons Glacier, which you’ll need to cross to get to Camp Schurman, the high camp for this route.
From Camp Schurman, you’ll head up and left toward “The Corridor,” a tract of about 30 degrees that ascends toward the summit. Past The Corridor, climbers will bear right on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees to approach the summit cap at Columbia Crest.
Success Rates for Climbing Mt Rainier
On average, only around 50 percent of climbers attempting to summit Mount Rainier actually make it to the top. The most common cause of a failed climb is fatigue, usually due to failure to properly prepare and train for the challenging conditions on the mountain.
Inclement weather also causes a significant number of incomplete summit attempts. When encountering bad weather, climbers are strongly urged to turn around and try again when conditions are more favorable to avoid becoming one of the handful of search and rescue responses that occur on the mountain each year.
While the National Park Service doesn’t charge for search and rescue services, private ambulances and helicopter evacuations can be exorbitantly expensive.
Final Thoughts on Climbing Mt Rainier
For aspiring mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts, climbing Mount Rainier is an extremely challenging but completely achievable goal.
With several months of intensive physical and mental preparation, comprehensive safety and avalanche training and the support of an experienced guide or climbing partner, you can become one of a small number of people each year who make it to the top of one of the world’s most formidable—and breathtakingly beautiful—volcanic peaks.