A Successful Summit of Mount Rainier – Full Trip Report

We started our journey by getting lost in the parking lot. Very quickly we discovered that our route finding skills were in need of desperate help.

After just a few minutes, moving the car from one parking lot to the next and checking our map of Rainer once more, we were on our way.  The normal route of climbing Rainier, up the Disappointment Cleaver, starts out as a steep, paved, and winding walking path through a beautiful alpine field. All the while, the mountain standing menacingly tall in front of us.

DAY ONE

Getting used to the 60 pounds that we were hauling on our backs took a little while. We each took our time, stopped, sat on rocks near the trail, and took pictures of each other wearing our “indifferent, casually climbing Mt. Rainier faces.”

sarka-rainier-1We’d talk about the beauty of the mountain, complain about our aching shoulders, and of course mentioning how awesome our calves were looking.

After about an hour and a half of hiking we finally reached the first snowfield. We took a quick break and put on our mountaineering boots. These plastic rental boot pieces of shit would plague each of us for the next three days.

Hiking through snow with shorts, tee-shirts, sun hats and glacier glasses was a new and cool experience for all of us, and we got into the swing of it very quickly.

sarka-rainier-2Our pace was steady and after some time hiking we reached the beginning of the first of many glaciers we would traverse. The crevasses were open as low as 9,200 ft and we were all a bit weary of what lay in store.

The last hour of hiking this first day was tough. We were all beat to hell, but soon enough, made it to the John Muir Camp at 10,180 ft! The first thing we did was break out the Hillshire Farms summer sausage, extra sharp cheddar, and half a loaf of bread. Rationing that as a snack and not eating all of it was not an easy task.

Soon we threw our packs back on and walked another five minutes out past the shoulder of Muir and onto the Cowlitz Glacier where we would make camp.  We melted some water, rehydrated some lasagna, and soon after climbing into our tiny tent, we were in our respective sleeping bags and out like a clapper light.

sarka-rainier-3DAY TWO

After a very long and restful sleep, we awoke and started our second day.  There was no need to hurry. The weather was beautiful and we had the whole day to kill resting at our camp on the Cowlitz. But we would also take time through the afternoon to practice crevasse rescue techniques and make sure that each of us had it down, just in case of an emergency on the summit bid. Mount Rainier past Camp Muir is an entirely different beast.

The three of us harnessed up and tied in. Jonathan led up front, myself  in the middle, and Ethan brought up the back, each of us a good 7 meters apart on the rope.

sarka-rainier-4We walked the trail down along the glacier and found a nice big crevasse to practice in. This thing must have been a good 50 feet deep and 20 feet wide. Huge.

What better way to practice than to actually haul each other up out of a crevasse!  “So, who’s going in first?” said Jonathan. I half expected him to want the honors, but I ended up going down.

sarka-rainier-5Ethan and Jonathan set their ice screws as anchors then lowered me in.  I was pretty nervous trusting my weight to the screws as I dangled over the edge of the icy blue depths, but I had faith they would set it up correctly, and sure enough, they did.

It was amazing down there. The colors were incredible! I’ve never seen so many shades of blue and gray in ice before. It’s hard to think something so beautiful can be so dangerous, but that is most always the case in the mountains. Jonathan and Ethan went through the motions setting the z-pulley and soon enough I was back on top of the glacier again, safe and sound.

The other two guys were next to go in, and I helped with the rigging this time. A few pulleys, carabiners, and prusik cords can do wonders, that’s for sure!

sarka-rainier-6A fun afternoon of practice on the ice had gone by and we began to ready ourselves for the coming adventure. We put the necessary gear aside, spent a few hours melting water, cooked up a solid dinner and got to bed a few hours before the sun went down.

DAY THREE

BEEP! BEEP! I don’t know who it was, but someone said, “Guys, it’s time to get ready.” It’s 11:30 PM and we are waking up. That’s a strange feeling. I had a real hard time getting out of my warm and cozy bag until Jonathan turned his headlamp on.

Once up, I threw on my nice warm and rank smelling base layer and socks from the day before, then my jacket and hat, and we all started to get each other motivated. Some oatmeal and water for all of us, and I think Ethan brewed up some coffee. He drank it out of the mug that says BEWARE.

At 12:25 AM we started our trek. The terrain lit up by the most absolutely stunningly bright stars, and some help from our headlamps, we hiked across the glacier and straight up a rock headwall. Shortly after, we passed the RMI camp and saw white lights bouncing up and down. Their teams were slowly moving across the glacier too.

After climbing over the wind-swept snow and ice spires, around and over crevasses, we caught up to the guided groups. They were moving way too slow and we had to get by. We passed them where we felt it was safe enough, and by safe, I mean only jumping over a few crevasses and snow bridges…

When we got to the Cleaver we shortened our rope and the distance between us to prevent rock fall and slides, then we began up the rocky ridgeline. From willow wand to willow wand we followed the trail twisting and turning everywhere. After climbing for a few minutes though we didn’t see another wand. Jonathan noticed some crampon tracks so we thought we had to be going in the right direction. Nope.

After traversing some solid blue ice on a 35-degree angle kicking our spikes into the ice and swinging the ax into the wall to stay put, we decided there is no way that this can be the normal class III route! So we turned back. And turning back here was scary as hell.

I double checked my ax every time and made sure it stuck. I knew that if I fell there was a good chance we were all done, and I’m sure Ethan and Jonathan were thinking the same thing as each of us crossed back along the ice. Darkness still owned the valley below, but we’re pretty sure we were on top of a couple thousand foot drop off.

Back on track, following the wands and seeing the correct trail, we all felt good and were climbing strong. The top of the Cleaver was in sight, but the next wand was not. We went right and came to a very steep and loose rocky cliff, so we went left and found the glacier and more loose steep rock. I don’t think either way was part of the normal route, but we were so close to clearing over the top of the Cleaver, that we just decided to go for it. And we chose to go right.

We started climbing the probably IV rock and what better spot for the wind to start howling and Jonathan’s headlamp to fall off. It was a very precarious position to have to fiddle with your light, and that made it even nerve-racking for all of us. But we made it. Relieved, we found a spot hidden from the bulk of the wind, laid our bags down, had a quick snack, and enjoyed the night sky.

I took my jacket off to add another layer because damn it was cold! My fingers were getting numb and my face was freezing. It was a welcomed short break but we needed to keep moving to get warm again. Back on the next part of the glacier, our pace quickened.

Following the footpath around and over crevasses, I was enjoying the climb and feeling warm again, almost hot at times. We soon reached the next interesting area were fixed ropes were attached to a steep pitch of solid ice. Ice always seems to make it more fun, because it’s more of a challenge. Kick left, kick right, swing ax, move your hand up the rope, and repeat. Not too bad.

The sun was starting to rise and we were just around 13,000 ft. It was indescribably beautiful. I have never seen such brilliant reds and oranges anywhere in my life and they were filling the entire sky. We looked down at the peaks of the mountains around us, the clouds filling their valleys and making the mountains look like an ocean of endless waves. We sat and watched the whole thing.

sarka-rainier-7Soon we saw the top. The summit was there, right in front of us. We reached the crater of this 14,411 ft. glaciated volcano, but we still weren’t at the top and there was no way in hell we were going to get that close and not make the summit. It was maybe a half mile walk across the summit crater of Mount Rainier and then up the final mellow pitch. We made it at 7:54 AM!

Standing at the top was such a mind-blowing accomplishment. The three of us succeeded. We made it. And on our own. We took a bunch of pictures, ate “lunch” and wrote in the summit register before turning around and starting back down.

sarka-rainier-8The way down was different. The snow at 9 AM was so much softer. It really changed the feel and the sun instantly turned the heat on high. I was tired, we all were, but we kept a fast pace and descended quickly.

The Cleaver was the worst part. It felt like it went on so much longer during the day, and as we walked we slid as if we were skiing down the steep, loose dirt and rock. Not to mention how horribly painful this rocky descent was for our blistered and battered feet. Plastic boots were the worst.

We were lucky that the snow bridges were still there to get off the Cleaver and back on the glacier. We found out later that day that shortly after we passed over, the main snow bridge had collapsed and groups after us would have to find a new way around. I’m just glad it didn’t collapse with one of us on it!

Once again the last hour or so was rough. It was hot, we were all low on water (two liters each for about 13 hours of climbing is nowhere near enough by the way), and we were ready to take these plastic boots off!!!

Pulling those and my socks off back at camp was such a relief. My feet were so white and shriveled up. I’ve never seen skin so pruney as ours then. To lie down was all I wanted. To be off my aching, sweat and water-logged feet. So I did. But I was so thirsty too.

The climbing ranger stationed at Camp Muir was nice enough to give Jonathan and Ethan 2 extra liters of water, and this was gone almost instantly. We started the chipping off snow to melt and get some more of that yummy, lifesaving H2O in us. We boiled water for hours. Boiling and eating, that’s what we did until we feel asleep. And our tent smelled so badly that night.

Three guys, no showers wearing the same clothes for 3 days, and not to mention keeping our boot liners in there too. Gotta make sure those stay warm!

DAY FOUR

14 hours of sleep. Not bad.

Definitely more than I have slept probably ever, and it was in a tent. That just doesn’t happen! We had a nice leisurely morning, cooked breakfast, boiled water, and then started packing up. Down the mountain we went.

sarka-rainier-9We all safely made it back to the car with the combined climbing time bottom to top and back being approximately 22 hours. I’d call it a successful weekend!

Ryan Sarka
Ryan Sarka

Mountain biker, climber, snowboard mountaineer, triathlete, and engineer. A founding member of Between The Peaks.

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