A friend of mine, who had never climbed a mountain before, came to me (and another guide friend of ours) expressing the desire to learn mountaineering. I (having only minor mountain training) am hardly the person to teach how to be a mountaineer, but the idea filled us all with enough excitement to override any feelings of hesitation. With the ultimate goal of an expedition to Denali, we decided that a few days on Mt. Adams followed by a summit bid on Mt. Rainier would be the ideal training for a first jaunt into the sport. I arrived as the team was preparing for Rainier.
Day 1 – Getting on the Mountain
We woke early to go get our climbing passes and backcountry permits from the ranger station at the Whiter River Campground on the North side of Mt. Rainier National Park. The station was empty except for us and considering it was a Wednesday morning that wasn’t surprising. All of the guiding companies head up early in the week and the recreational climbers don’t rush in until Friday morning. This year, the permitting process was unusual and all backcountry permits are first come, first served. That served our last-minute planning just fine, and we were back having breakfast around 7:30am, slowly putzing around with our kit, picking through climbing hardware and food, making the final decisions on what to bring and what to leave behind.
The three of us hit the trail around 3pm heading for the Glacier Basin Campground (3.3 miles with an elevation gain of about 1600ft). In my experience there is always an excited anxiety in the air before truly taking off on any adventure, and this one was no different. When the hipbelt buckles meet and you feel the weight of the pack on your shoulders, the anxiety begins to fade while the excitement builds; like the sun burning away the morning mist.
The hike to Glacier Basin was easy and uneventful. One ranger who was coming down told of a bear she’d seen on the trail but it was long gone by the time we passed. Glacier Basin is just below treeline giving a clear view of the peak, and we slept soundly in the shadow of the mountain. (Aside: NEVER get the Alpine Aire- Mesquite BBQ Chicken with Beans and Rice. I have eaten hundreds of freeze dried meals, some of which were disappointing, but this meal is in a whole new league of gnarly bad.)
Day 2 – Up to Camp Schurman
The days began as many spent on-trail do. Wake up happy as shit, make coffee (happy as shit), pack up camp and get moving (increasingly happy). The trail took a steep turn immediately leaving Glacier Basin. Over the first 30 min, we gained 800 ft and came to the foot of InterGlacier (a relatively small glacier hemmed in between the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers), our road up to Camp Schurman which sits at 9,460ft.
As with all contrast-free slopes with a peak in the background, it was much farther up Interglacier than it seemed. After 3 hours of cramponing, we came to the top of Steamboat Prow which we could have avoided if we’d skirted to the East (directly to Schurman). Instead we were confronted by a tricky scramble down and down right on top of the Ranger hut at Camp Schurman. There were four other tents there filled with tired members of an RMI team that had summited earlier in the day. We could see their tired feet sticking out of open tent doors as we scoped the best flat little piece of snow for our Mountain Hardware Trango 3 (That made four Trangos in camp).
While we were setting up for the evening, one of the RMI staff came out and just so happened to be a good friend of one of our group. They knew each other from their time at Prescott College and she was kind enough to give us a full rundown on the route. “The trail is pretty straightforward,” she said; a couple small crevasses, good quality snow bridges, and ….. one section of steep, hard ice that has a ton of crevasses at the bottom, that will be really difficult to protect and nearly impossible to arrest on. No big deal except for that last thing.
It was that last thing, mixed with anticipation for the alpine start and howling winds, which allowed for only a mildly restful sleep.
Notes on Camp Schurman
The facilities are better than I expected but could get pretty rancid if the camp is full. No access to water, as expected, so be sure to budget extra fuel for melting snow. (Stick to a liquid fuel stove, the iso-butane canisters become basically useless in the cold, especially at altitude. Sorry Jetboil, you’re great for other things, but just not this.)
There are generally rangers occupying the stone hut at Schurman. They’ll have up-to-date weather and route info and will check in with you regarding your plans for a summit bid.
Day 3 – Summit Day
2:30am the alarm went off and the wind was blowing hard. I didn’t wake up to it but got nudged out of a great dream by my neighbor and after a three-word conversation, “it’s too windy,” we decided to wait it out. Sure enough, the wind subsided around 4:30am and our team of three was suited up and walking at 5am.
After 1200 ft, a member of the team became afflicted with the nausea that is common to altitude sensitivity. The choice to turn back was easy. Continued vomiting would have led to dehydration and further exhaustion that, further up the mountain, would have become truly dangerous.
The three of us returned to camp and decided the two of us, still feeling up for it, should still go at the summit. So at 7am myself and one other headed back up the mountain. Going was easy for the first 2k or so, the sky was clear, temps were low, the wind relatively calm. Then the wind picked up. Once coming to the top of “The Corridor” at 11,200ft we were blasted with wind, carrying ice pellets, stinging exposed skin.
On we trod, through the wind, up toward the saddle and eventually came across what might have been described as a “section of steep, hard ice that has a ton of crevasses at the bottom, that will be really difficult to protect and nearly impossible to arrest on.” My partner and I were in the zone at that point, taking it one well-kicked step at a time and passed the treacherous section without trouble.
The remainder of the route was truly straight forward with a small stepover-able crevasse here and there and one final steep section leading to the saddle.
I never understood why, in some accounts, climbers will turn back when conditions are manageable and they are close to the summit, but now I do. The final push to the summit was challenging. More challenging than either of us was prepared for. Not due to technical obstacles, but because of exertion at altitude (keep in mind that I was living my day-to-day in Chicago only 3 days prior).
With plenty of short breaks, we made it up to the summit ridge and summit proper at 2:00pm, all exhaustion melting from our bodies at the thrill of it, despite the wind. For the next few minutes, the mountain was ours, not another climber in sight. Signs of crowds were clear on the foot packed surface surrounding the summit marker, but with the world stretching into the distance, I felt completely alone and entirely humbled.
After our sappy, existential moment was over we started back thinking of nothing but Mountain House Breakfast Skillets and unlimited amounts of water (of which we were down to one liter each). Due to the cold, constant wind, the quality of the snow remained great until again reaching “The Corridor” where our path turned to a strange mixture of slush and solid ice. The final hour down was grueling in its ankle rolls and stumbles, but at 5:15pm we walked back into camp and were greeted by our companion who did indeed have a nearly endless supply of water and Mountain House for us.
We spent the rest of the evening in a convalescent haze, relaying stories to our altitude afflicted partner who at that point was fully recovered, and sleep came early. The guys also surprised me with an early Birthday celebration including two hostess cupcakes WITH CANDLES! My actual birthday wasn’t for two days.
Day 4 – The Descent
The forecast was for storms arriving in the early afternoon, so we broke camp in the morning and left following the easiest route down from Schurman, skirting to the East and over a small ridge back onto Interglacier.
We’d been waiting for the next moment since walking up Interglacier days before. All three of us eagerly took off crampons and glissaded down the next the next 2000ft if vertical, flying past people hiking or skinning up, and stopping to talk to a few.
Taking off our hardshells was the first indicator that the real adventure, the real challenge, was over and we were just coasting for the remainder. The remaining 5 or so miles did not pass quickly though. We told stories of the trip over and over and, as you do near the end of any adventure, talked about where we’d go on the next one.
Upon arriving back in the parking lot, we were silent for a while. Tired and dehydrated, wanting our own space and knowing we wouldn’t get it for at least another day; Trading the weight of our packs for the weight of day-to-day responsibility. As we drove away from the park though, spirits lightened and we committed to coming back again so we could all summit together.
We were incredibly lucky with our weather window. While we dealt with considerable wind, the route was never obscured by snow or clouds, and the wind that battered us kept the snow firm and allowed a safe, late-afternoon descent. Having easily summited Mt. Baker last summer, I did not mentally prepare for how much more difficult Rainier would be.
Ultimately, sometimes you get lucky. I spoke with people at Camp Schurman who were there for their 5th attempt on the summit. I do not credit our success to skill but to good weather and the ability to suffer well. It will not be my last time on the summit of Rainier, but this first time will always be remembered for what it was; One hell of an adventure.