Climbing Mt Rainier 1996


The one high point of 1996 was literally our ascent of Mt Rainier -14,411' ... the tallest volcano and largest mass of ice in the lower 48 states.  For years I'd planned to have a go at Rainier, but bureaucracy and organization seemed too difficult to overcome.  The peak lies within a National Park - like Denali, and therefore subject to federally imposed restrictions including tough safety and climbing experience clauses.  Admittedly, there are good reasons for the restrictions.  The Park is a short drive from Seattle with the great pile of ice and snow looking relatively easy from a distance and the isolated high peak creates it's own weather, a combination for disaster - which has happened many times over the years.

Most of the people who climb Rainier are guided by Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI), Jim and Lou Whitaker's top class operation and largest concession holder for guiding on the mountain.  For a summit attempt, they require a two day introductory course in glacier travel, crevasse rescue etc. 

 

  • Our first camp on Rainier ... at 8,600' between Paradise and Camp Muir. Our first camp on Rainier ... at 8,600' between Paradise and Camp Muir.
  • The hive of activity at Camp Muir.  These shelters are situated at 10,000'  The hive of activity at Camp Muir. These shelters are situated at 10,000'
  • Looking down on Cathedral Rocks and Ingraham Glacier from Disappointment Cleaver Looking down on Cathedral Rocks and Ingraham Glacier from Disappointment Cleaver
  • Lucy on the snow slope immediately above the top of Disappointment Cleaver. Lucy on the snow slope immediately above the top of Disappointment Cleaver.
  • With Lucy leading, Petr traversing the summit dome above Disappointment Cleaver With Lucy leading, Petr traversing the summit dome above Disappointment Cleaver
  • High on the summit dome, within an hour of reaching the summit High on the summit dome, within an hour of reaching the summit
  • On the summit with two fellow climbers ... from Poland On the summit with two fellow climbers ... from Poland
  • Lucy and Peter on the summit of Rainier, with the Goat Rocks & Mt Adams behind Lucy and Peter on the summit of Rainier, with the Goat Rocks & Mt Adams behind
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Clients are then subjected to a 12 - 15 hour ordeal that begins at midnight, dragged and bullied up the 'dog route', reaching the summit shortly after dawn, roped in groups of four to six and given little choice but to remain clothed in their extreme weather gear, including helmet, regardless of temperature.  RMI say that it’s all in the interest of safety, but I would suggest that liability is what it's all about.  The price for the three day adventure is in the $300 - 400 range. For the those of us who wish to climb unguided, the rules are: No solo climbers above 10,000', previous experience of glacier travel and suitably equipped.  I'm not sure how they police the previous experience clause but there's Park Rangers wandering the slopes each day to check on equipment and climbing permits ($15 per head).  Lucy and I refrained from tackling any of the difficult routes, many of which are closed for the season because of open crevasses and rock/ice fall.  We planned to climb the dog route which begins at Camp Muir, crosses the top of two glaciers, ascends a rotten piece of rock called  Disappointment Cleaver up onto the crater dome which is riddled with crevasses and ice-falls of all sizes and shapes.  Like many of the Cascade volcanoes late in the summer, Rainier presents a rather nasty climbing environment, and this one is on a grand scale.  We crossed snow bridges that were in their last days, in locations that offered few alternatives once the bridge gave way.  Fortunately RMI maintains the route, with fixed ropes in a couple of steep sections and a narrow ladder across a yawning crevasse.

Our climb started late from the trailhead at Paradise - 5,400', so we camped the first night at 8,600', seemingly alone on the mountain.  That all changed the next morning as we hauled into Camp Muir at 10,100'.  Situated on a col, the place is reminiscent of a high pass in Nepal but without the prayer flags.  There's a collection of small stone structures with flat roofs, a solar toilet and hoards of climbers.  We pitched our tent in preference to sleeping in one of the stone shelters and used the afternoon for a short recce of the summit route and practiced roping for glacier travel.  With so many RMI professionals around, I wanted us to look reasonably experienced on the route the next day. The guided groups all moved off before 1:30 am, waking us with the sounds of preparation, leaving us little choice but to begin the climb ourselves.   I'm not good at 'alpine starts' but on this mountain my real concern was moving across heavily crevassed glaciers in the dark for at least three hours. 

 

 

  • Lucy at the parking lot near the Paradise Resort Lucy at the parking lot near the Paradise Resort
  • Peter on route from Paradise to Camp Muir Peter on route from Paradise to Camp Muir
  • Lucy practicing crevasse extraction Lucy practicing crevasse extraction
  • Shelters at Camp Muir, above the Muir snowfield Shelters at Camp Muir, above the Muir snowfield
  • Hanging out at Camp Muir with other climbing groups Hanging out at Camp Muir with other climbing groups
  • On a traverse on the icefall below the summit dome On a traverse on the icefall below the summit dome
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In the event, we simply followed the yellow brick road and the string of lights twinkling above us on the well trodden RMI route.  The slopes were lit up like a bloody Christmas tree.  We moved off at 2:40 am, reaching the base of the Cleaver just before dawn. There, I made some bad decisions on using crampons on the rock and wasted time and energy removing/replacing the damn things.  Toward the top of the Cleaver, Lucy went into a sleep mode (it's happened at altitude before) and our progress slowed down to a crawl, finally reaching the summit at 12:40 ... a very long time (normal is 6 -8 hours).  However, at this time of year, the route is considerably longer (at least a mile) because of crevasse openings across the more direct line of approach towards the summit.  Also, we remained roped throughout the climb and descent ... not always necessary in my opinion, but that's what RMI do and they certainly know the mountain better than me.

The descent was almost as bad as the climb ... hot afternoon sun, no wind, Lucy having trouble with the altitude and me nursing a giant blister in new boots.  We stumbled into Camp Muir at 6:30 pm ... almost 16 hours on the go.  I was ready to collapse, but Lucy amazed me by suddenly coming back to life, melting snow, preparing hot drinks and food and generally getting us back into the land of the living.  We descended to the trailhead the next morning, in agony for me with the blister, but Lucy showing few signs of her ordeal the day before.  I have to admit she does a good job in the mountains. She weighs in at 112 lbs and I normally load her up with a 50 lb pack so I shouldn't be surprised that she sometimes runs out of steam at the higher altitudes.  She sure has the guts to hang in there.

In summary:  I never expected Rainier to be easy, but was suitably humbled by the effort and potential danger inherent in the climb, even on the dog route.  If nothing else, it's damn hard work ... particularly being roped for the duration.  Technically there's nothing to it, but the ever-present crevasse danger requires constant vigilance and plenty of good luck.

©PeterTremayne, Reno 2012

 

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