Mt Rainier is a proving ground for American climbers. When it comes to glaciated, crevasse riddled peaks, choices are pretty limited unless you make the long journey north to Alaska. But with time and funding restrictions, most stay in the Continental U.S., and head to Rainier to practice on what is often referred to as a, “Mini-Himalaya.”
It’s not that it’s the biggest mountain around. It rises to a respectable 14,409′ (4,392 m), but still lower than Colorado’s Mt Elbert at 14,439′ (4,401 m), and California’s Mt Whitney at 14,505′ (4,421 m), making it the third highest mountain in the continental U.S. But let me make it very clear that it would be a mistake of gigantic proportions to compare climbing Mt Elbert or Mt Whitney to Rainier. Being from Colorado, I’ve climbed Elbert several times, and beautiful and fun as it may be, it’s a hike. You bring some water, throw on some tennis shoes, and make the long walk to the top. Rainier is a bit different.
When I decided I wanted to take down the monster of a mountain, I was lucky enough to have two close friends who had climbing experience and were physically capable. Without further introduction, I introduce you to Scotty and Ellis.
Scotty brings to the team an international presence. With his 6’4” frame, seemingly perfect physique, and thick British accent, you could say he stood out a bit in the small Boise community where we met at university. With all the attention he quickly garnered from the girls, I obviously assumed he was an arrogant prick (yes, I know, I was jealous.) But after spending time with the Spartan like Brit, I quickly found him to be a quick-witted and more than capable adventure buddy. We’ve been taking adventures ever since.
Ellis is game. End of story. Although I’ve been throwing random and often dangerous ideas for adventures his way over the past four years, I’ve never heard Ellis utter this phrase: “Sorry Joey, I can’t make it.” No matter where, no matter when, Ellis is game for an adventure, and he’ll be there with a smile.
We weren’t all necessarily 100% qualified for the climb, but close, and as a team, we knew we could make it… weather permitting that is. Rainier is a temperamental bitch of a mountain, and weather can turn ugly fast, making a summit attempt impossible. This is something every climber should go in fully aware of. There is no place for a big ego if Mother Nature decides to shut you down.
Preparation is key on Rainier. Without proper gear, you’re setting yourself up for failure. There’s enough inherent danger on the mountain between rockslides and crevasses; don’t go and add in more by skimping on gear. Also, on many mountains the only thing to think about when choosing your team is how many of your best-buddies will be able to join the adventure. Yes, it’s nice to climb with friends, but on Rainier, a certain level of experience is pivotal. Here’s some of the absolute must-haves for the climb:
-Insulated Boots (Often plastic.)
-Goggles/UV Blocking Sunglasses
-Outer shell/Wind Breaker
Now this list left out some of the obvious necessities like gloves and snow pants, but if you thought you could make it without those, maybe you should rethink the situation all together.
The most important experience to have, or at least a solid knowledge of includes:
-Crevasse rescue/Rope ascension.
-Climbing on a fixed line.
There are some things you may not necessarily need to have experience with, but should be prepared to face. Ladder crossings allow you to make your way over crevasses on the mountain. They’re not rocket science, just one step at a time, but knowing they’re coming is better than being surprised. Lots, and LOTS of water is crucial. I made this mistake. I drank little and was dehydrated almost the entire climb. I had been shocked at how much Scotty was packing, but I have to give it to the Brit, he was far better prepared and handled the mountain much better than I did (also partly because he is in insane physical shape.) Food is also key. You can be climbing for 15+ hours on summit day. That is a LONG time to go without food, especially when you take into account the thousands of calories you’re burning. Have plenty of calorie-packed food to munch on, and do it often.
Lastly, don’t forget most climb the mountain with guides. RMI Guides is nothing short of legend in the climbing world. They’ve produced more world-class climbers than any other American guiding company, and they’ve been doing it forever. If you’ve got all the gear, plenty of experience, and a good group, then go for it on your own. If you’re not sure, then don’t risk it, and hire a guide. You won’t regret it, and your chances for a summit will be astronomically higher.
We were very lucky and had great weather. If the weather had turned even slightly, there would have been little chance I would have made it. I underestimated Rainier. I had just climbed the much higher Mt Elbrus a month earlier in Russia, and I learned a valuable lesson first-hand: It’s not all about elevation. DON’T underestimate Rainier. It almost cost me the summit. Lucky for me, I had an incredible team with me that kept the jokes rolling along the long and torturous trek up the mountain. Those are the moments I cherish the most from my climbs. Not the twenty minutes standing on the summit in the bitter cold and whipping wind, but the jokes and stories swapped on the long slog up. In the end, it wasn’t my legs that got me up Rainier; it was the banter. Thanks boys.