Mt. Rainier, Washington Elevation 14,410
Route: Disappointment Cleaver (Dog Route)
The information provided in this digest comes from the point of view of novice mountaineers. We (my wife Katy, my friend Abner, and my brother Drew) left New Jersey (elev. 80') on July 5, 1996 to climb Mt. Rainier (elev. 14,410'), considered the King of the Cascade volcanoes. This offered an ambitious attempt for our first climb over 14,000 feet.
We spent our first day at Rainier doing some light hiking around Paradise Lodge to help us acclimate to the altitude. We hiked up to Pebble Creek at 8,000 feet, and it was here that Drew decided he was out of the climbing business. Please note that he had done little or no hiking ever, and thus could not understand how pleasure can be derived from pain. (It was my feeling that because he was an All-American Football player at Southern Illinois, that he automatically would able to handle the altitude. Not the case. I guess he was looking for a harem of beautiful adoring cheerleaders to inspire him as usual.) It was at that point that Drew became the official base camp support person for us. His main task: keeping ice on the beer.
Katy, Ab, and I decided, after getting a close look at Rainier, that we would forego an unguided attempt at climbing the mountain, and we promptly signed up for the Rainier Mountaineering's basic glacier climbing class.
Rainier Mountaineering (RMI) is the vendor assigned by the National Park Service to be the official mountain guide service on Rainier. Note: In 1997 the Park Service opened this up to a couple of other guide services that work out of the Seattle area. I believe the newcomers to Rainier are limited to guiding on routes different from the one RMI uses via Camp Muir. In addition to guiding, RMI runs a climbing school at the mountain that works in tandem with the guide service. I'm fairly sure that one has to graduate their basic climbing class before they will guide the individual up the mountain. On the way up to school and throughout the climbing class, RMI has the opportunity to judge whether an individual is up for the climb.
The following day Katy, Abner, and I took the class with about twenty others. We met at RMI's facility adjacent to Paradise Lodge, and after being fitted with the proper boots, crampons and ice axes, we headed up to the RMI outdoor classroom. The initial hike consisted of a mile long, double-time saunter to a remote section of the mountain that offers varied terrain for the school to proceed with their mountaineering instruction. Those who didn't make this first cut considered it a death march, but it was actually quite easy compared to the physical and mental demands that lay ahead, and it was actually fortunate for those cut at this point to know they would be better advised to attempt this climb on another day.
The march to the classroom wound up being the first of the tests RMI uses to judge if one is in good enough condition to actually attempt the climb up Rainier. It was here that Katy, who wasn't feeling well that day, had a bit of trouble. She had to step out of the line for a few seconds to catch her breath. More on that later.
Once out at the classroom area, the instructors proceeded to teach the *basic* skills required to climb on a glacier. The required skill set basics included pressure breathing, rest-stepping, walking while roped up to a team of climbers, and self-arresting techniques.
This schooling takes up most of the day. After the march back to Paradise Lodge, Katy was informed that she would not be able to attempt the summit with RMI, because she paused for a few moments on the hike out to the classroom. Needless to say, she was quite upset by this, but decided she would climb up to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, and hang out there while Ab and I attempted to climb to the summit.
The following day Ab and I met the team we would be part of in our climb up Rainier. While we were meeting the team, Katy set out for Camp Muir on her own, and proceeded to beat our group up to Camp Muir (elev. 10,000), arriving a good hour before us.
After the intros and an equipment check, the group proceeded with the hike up to Camp Muir. This section is a fairly straight forward and a non-technical hike from 7,600 to 10,000 feet. This was another opportunity for the watchful eyes of RMI's instructors to observe the fitness of the group and also offer some coaching on walking and breathing technique. Most of this section involved trekking over glaciated snow using ski poles. Ice axe was not necessary. The double plastic boots provided by RMI help to make this a most pleasant endeavor, in that the snow acts as a natural cushion in walking, and the plastic keeps your feet completely dry and the insulation keeps them warm. If you attempt this with leather boots, I don't care what your secret water-proofing formula is, you'll wind up with wet or (worse) frozen feet.
We began the hike to Muir at 10am and arrived there at 3 p.m. RMI has this trip scheduled down to the minute. At Camp Muir, RMI maintains two huts, a latrine, and a solar powered water manufacturing facility (a fifty-five gallon drum, painted black, that they continually feed with snow and chlorine). One hut is designated for the paying clients and one for the guides. I was able to spend the night with Katy in our tent. Ab spent the night with the team in the RMI hut. We ate dinner and hunkered down to sleep at about 6 p.m. We headed to bed early because, to summit Rainier with the snow and ice in firm condition, it was necessary to leave by 2 a.m. I received my wake-up call at 12:30 midnight. That provided enough time to get dressed and eat a bagel.
Trying to explain how things appear at that hour strains my writing abilities, but the image that sticks in my mind to this day is the sight of an otherworldly procession of slowly bobbing headlamps filing out of camp in the shadowy darkness, like a highway to heaven ascending upwards along barely visible glacial formations until they disappeared over a distant cleaver.
As the night progressed, the sun broke the horizon at about 4 a.m., and slowly began to illuminate the night sky and our incredible surroundings. We had taken the highway to heaven. That morning, we were a couple of thousand feet above the clouds which only added to the visual effects of our high altitude trek. During the summit climb, the RMI guides kept the group on a tight schedule that allowed for 10 minute breaks every hour and a half or so. As far as I was concerned, the breaks were not only too short, but too infrequent as well.
Now a little about the guides. Our head guide was the "indomitable" Phil Ershler of "Seven Summits" fame. Phil is absolutely larger that life, and the toughest guy I've ever met, the true definition of ROCK. Phil has an incredible climbing resume which includes summiting Mt. Everest, and got high up on K2 as well. When we climbed with him, he had been up Rainier 250 times, a fact he questions himself. Our team started with four or five rope teams consisting of five or six climbers each. By the time the sun was completely up, a few had dropped out of the climb and the rope teams had been consolidated to three. Each team had a guide in front going up who took the rear position on the descent.
The SUMMIT. We summited Mt. Rainier at 9 a.m. sharp. We had an hour to enjoy the summit. Ab and I collapsed and laid back on our packs. Needless to say, that was the shortest hour of my life. And the climb was, without question, the hardest thing either of us had ever done in a single day.
The RMI guides kept a tight schedule on the descent as well. We were actually a little ahead of schedule and had a twenty-minute break just before our final approach back to Camp Muir. This was at precisely noon time. We had to be packed up and ready to go at 1 p.m. and walking into the Paradise Lodge at 3 p.m. sharp. Amazing. This was the first time Abner has ever been on time. We received our diplomas and were on our way.
RMI, which is owned and run by Lou Whittaker is a top-notch outfit. They have an 80% success rate in getting folks up to the summit and back down. This in contrast to a 50% success rate for independent climbers. And Phil Ershler, in his boot camp sergeant's voice, gave what Ab and I consider a high compliment: "Not bad for a couple of New Jersey boys."
Despite telling Ab that if I should ever even think of doing anything as difficult as this again, he should punch me right in the nose, within two weeks recovery time the Rainier experience has only fueled my desire to do more glacier climbing.
As simultaneously expressed by Ab and Dave in their best Sammy Davis, Jr. voice upon reaching the truck to unload their equipment: "Ouch, babe, that really hurt!" And believe me, it did. At least our senses of humor were still intact.
Rainier Photo Gallery
Back to Hiking & Mountaineering