Mt. Rainier Climb 2017
After two years of getting shut out on Rainier (route conditions in 2015 and weather in 2016), we were really hoping to make the summit this year. Plus, the past two years we had a team of 4, this time around we had a big team...a very big team. We had 12 people on our team - the maximum team size allowed on Mt. Rainier. Out team consisted of people with a wide range of mountaineering skills and abilities - some with no climbing experience. This would present some interesting and unique challenges, but would be a fun experience (assuming we would find success on summit day). We decided on planning for a two-day summit window in case we experienced bad weather on the first and had to wait for better weather.
I got off work on Thursday July 20th and met up with one team member form Alabama who just flew in. We drove to Cougar Rock Campground to meet up with my dad and then pretty much went straight to bed. The next morning we awaited the arrival of the remainder of the team.
One by one our team arrived. By early afternoon everyone was there. We did a thorough gear check to make sure everyone had everything they needed. We also talked about food, layering, and other important details. We decided as a group to ditch the tents and sleep in the open at Camp Muir to save weight (and given the near perfect weather forecast, we probably wouldn't need them anyway). Then everyone packed their gear and we had dinner and retired for an early night. At this point we had not yet gotten permits to camp at Camp Muir, as it was a very busy weekend on the mountain. So three of our team members volunteered to go up to the ranger station early the next morning to see if we could get any first-come first-serve permits for our cumbersome team of twelve.
The next morning we took our time getting breakfast and putting our climbing clothes on. We made our way up to Paradise to see if those guys had any luck getting permits. We ended up having to wait until about 10 AM, but the rangers were able to get us permits to camp! We donned our boots, used flush toilets for the last time, took some obligatory 'before' photos and headed out!
First break - a snowfield about an hour from Paradise
We made good progress and reached Pebble Creek (the halfway point between Paradise and Camp Muir) in about 2 hours. Unfortunately, one member of our group opted to turn around at this point as he was having issues breathing and was doubtful he would be able to reach the summit. Most of our team members have never been mountain climbing before, so we did some skills training at the base of the Muir snowfield. We practiced the Rest Step, Self-Arrest, Cramponing, etc. to make sure everyone had the skills they needed to safely reach the summit.
Mt. Adams in the evening sun
The RMI hut with Mt. St. Helens in the distance
We then continued up the snowfield, kicking step after step in the hot sun. The closer we got to Muir, the more spread out our group became. A few people began to lag behind, slowly and steadily making progress to camp. Those of us that got there first got the stoves going for drinking water and setting up a flat place to sleep. Eventually everyone arrived and we all got rehydrated and had some dinner and got some gear ready for the morning. We decided to leave for the summit somewhere between 11PM to 12AM. By the time we finished dinner and got our gear ready it was about 9PM, leaving only a couple hours for sleep. Since we left the tents behind, we just had our sleeping pads to keep us off the snow. I slept in my sleeping bag in the open, others just slept in their parkas. I stayed comfortable, but despite being tired found sleep difficult to come by. After what seemed like 10 minutes, we woke up and started preparing for the big climb ahead!
Preparing gear at Camp Muir
Melting snow for drinking water at our make-shift camp
It was about 11:15PM when we woke up. We looked over and saw the big RMI team already rolling out of Camp Muir. We spent about 30 minutes getting breakfast and donning harnesses, helmets, and crampons. We had another team member elect to drop out. He struggled getting up to Muir and knew that he would likely slow everyone else down if he continued further. We ended up with two rope teams of 3 and one team of 4. Still a big team to manage! We left Camp Muir at about 11:45PM.
The first part of the Disappointment Cleaver route involves a gentle rise along the Cowlitz Glacier followed by Cathedral Gap: a steep rocky section that you have to walk over without taking your crampons off. After that the route crosses over the Ingraham Flats, a relatively flat glacier that some groups use as a campsite, though it is riddled with crevasses. We take our first break here. Everyone was doing well, though some people got a little overheated on that first section as it isn't very cold yet.
The morning alpenglow at the top of the cleaver
One of the best views you'll see all year
The next section was the Disappointment Cleaver itself, which is largely considered to be the crux of the whole route. It is rocky like Cathedral Gap, but steeper and longer. And once you get through the rock, you still have the second half of the cleaver which is snow covered, but still steep and relentless. Eventually we reached the top. We took a second, well-deserved, break. It was definitely colder and windier by now. The sun had not risen yet, though it wasn't far beyond the horizon. We spent about 10 minutes getting food, water, and photos and continued on.
The Tsunami and Mt. Adams in the distance
In a typical year, the climbing route above the Cleaver more or less zig-zags directly up the mountain. This year however, was far less direct, as we would come to find out. The trail split almost immediately after leaving our break. We opted for the route that appeared more direct, as the other path dropped down several hundred feet from what we could see. This left us scratching our heads as to why this path was even there. A few more switchbacks and we reached the "Tsunami", a huge serac overhanging the route. We were stuck behind some other teams and about half of our team had to simply wait underneath the "Tsunami". (For those who don't know, Seracs are very dangerous and unpredictable. They can break off at any time and would wipe you out without a moment's notice.) Eventually we moved along, only to be greeted by the sketchiest ladder I've ever seen on Rainier. Most ladders are relatively flat. This one was not. It was tilted upwards and to the side. Most of us had to cross it on our hands and knees.
The super-sketchy ladder we had to cross
Soon after we took another break. Everyone was doing phenomenal, and by now there was no question that all of us would make the summit. The sun was just barely up by now, which gave all of us some much appreciated warmth and energy. We continued climbing, and both myself and my dad (who've summited multiple times) could sense that this route was very unusual. Instead of more or less zig-zagging directly upwards, this route kept traversing to the north, towards the Emmons glacier. But nevertheless, we kept climbing, knowing our prize was within reach. We were getting closer and closer, though some of out team members were starting to struggle, exhaustion was starting to get the better of them. I kept urging them onward, knowing we would soon be done. Not long before we finally reached the crater rim, our route merged with that of the Emmons. I knew exactly where on the mountain we were, but couldn't figure out why the route took us this way! This had added both horizontal and vertical distance to an already tough climb. Finally at about 8AM we made it! We reached the rocky crater rim of this massive volcano!
One of the many bodies on the summit of Rainier......Haha, just kidding - everyone was pretty exhausted by this point
The summit register box
Two team members on my rope team had struggled to make it, so I had them just sit down here and rest. As far as anyone is concerned, they made the summit. I, however, went for the true summit, as usual. I powered my way up there and savored the moment. It's always an awesome feeling reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier! It requires so much training and preparation and the climb is always difficult, but there we were... reaping the rewards of our effort. It was an absolutely beautiful day, the skies were clear with just a gentle breeze. Everyone put in some great work and earned every moment on the summit. We got some obligatory summit photos, signed the summit register and got some more food and water. In total, we spent about an hour enjoying our summit victory before descending. I was anxious to get down as the snow becomes softer and more dangerous the later it gets. We talked to some other climbers and figured out what that other route just past the cleaver was. It was a detour. Basically it bypassed the sketchy Tsunami, but added an extra 300ft of climbing (because it drops you back down initially).
The descent was a real struggle for all of us. I quickly became hot and the snow became so soft our crampons struggled to get any purchase. We made our way down the seemingly endless switchbacks. We came to the split and had to choose between the safer, longer route, or the shorter, more dangerous route. Despite our fatigue, for me the choice was obvious: the safe route. I knew that serac would be much more likely to fail at this point in the day. The safe route dropped us down with a long series of switchbacks, at the bottom of which we now had to regain those 300 ft. we just lost. It was certainly demoralizing, but everyone powered through like a champ. We took another break at the top of the Cleaver.
The Ingraham Flats as seen from the top of the Cleaver - you can see IMG's camp on the glacier
It was quite hot by now. Our climb had taken longer than expected and some were out of water. We still had a ways to go, so we just kept pushing on. Descending the Cleaver is always tough. It's physically demanding and the route can be tricky to find, as it looks quite different going down in daylight than going up by headlamp. Another break on the Ingraham Flats brought us one step closer to Camp Muir. I was happy to have reached this point, as were were past most of the big crevasse danger. This was a big worry of mine as we were climbing on such soft snow. This time of day is when crevasse bridges usually fail. Eventually we reached Camp Muir. It was now 2:30 PM. Normally by this time I'd be in the car on the way home.
Rolling out of our last break before reaching Muir
We got some much needed rest and water. It felt good to remove our climbing gear, soft shells and long underwear. At this point my feet were hurting and my knees were a little sore, but a few of our team members quickly packed up and headed down to Paradise. The rest of us took our time packing up and then made our way to Paradise.
The Muir Snowfield was slippery as usual, but we were able to get some good glissading in thanks to some well-worn glissade tracks. We soon reached the end of the snowfield and took a final break. We were all very tried at this point but it did feel good to get onto solid ground. We just focused on putting one foot in front of the other as we got nearer and nearer to being totally done. We arrived back at paradise around 8 PM. We wasted no time getting our packs and boots off, which felt amazing! After a bit of regrouping at Paradise we got in the cars and headed home. We had all been awake for almost 36 hours and were really starting to feel it once we got seated int he cars. A few of us were starting to hallucinate during our drives. We grabbed some McDonalds for some much needed sustenance, though I had a hard time eating because I was feeling sick (dehydration most likely). It was very late, so instead of going home I went home with dad and stayed at my parents. It wasn't until almost 12:30 AM when we finally went to sleep. The next day we had a celebration dinner in Tacoma with some of the team.
Resting during one final break before we reached Paradise
I estimated that this year's climbing route was 25-30% longer than normal and had an additional 200-300 ft. of gain. It was the toughest summit day I've had on any mountain. But all-in-all, it was truly an amazing climb with a great group of people! And we summited! Can't ask for much more than that.