Take it to the Top: Ten Great Alpine Adventures

Washington: Climbing Mt. Rainier
  |  Gorp.com

Although not quite the highest peak in the lower 48 (that honor goes to California's Mt. Whitney), Rainier is the cradle of American mountaineering. Because of its heavily glaciated summit and unpredictable weather, the 14,410-foot dormant volcano has served as the training ground for most of America's top mountaineers, including Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Everest. (Jim's brother, Lou, founded Rainier Mountaineering Inc., the premiere guide service on the mountain.)
Unlike Mt. Whitney, an easy walk-up along a well-trodden trail, Rainier is a stern challenge that requires crampons, ice axe, and ropes. The standard three-day RMI program, via the Muir Glacier route, includes a one-day training session on the lower slopes, where climbers learn basic mountaineering techniques such as self-arrest and being part of a rope team. On the second day, climbers ascend to Muir hut at 10,000 feet. On summit day, you'll wake up at midnight and be on the trail at 1 a.m. (Because clouds typically build up and snow softens as the day goes on, the goal is to hit the summit by 9 a.m. and be back down to Muir hut by noon.)

Practically Speaking
RMI guides, although among the best in the business, can be intimidating. Don't expect to be coddled. Before the climb even starts, your pack will be carefully inspected to make sure you have every single item on the required equipment list. (Only two fleece or wool tops instead of the required three? Sorry, pal. We don't care if you climbed Everest with two fleece tops. Buy another one right now or go home.) From the first moment, the guides set a blistering pace to weed out the unfit, and to cow the faint of heart into giving up early. (Some climbers quit, exhausted, 20 minutes after leaving the base lodge, before they even get up to the snow level to begin the training day.) All the way up, you'll be told how much tougher it gets up ahead, how bad weather is going to hammer you, how any problem you have near the top will endanger the entire team. Moral of the story: Have all the stuff on the list, make sure you're physically fit, and don't be intimidated.
RMI (253-627-6242) is the only company permitted to guide the standard Muir route, but several other companies have begun guiding Rainier climbs on the Emmons Glacier, on the east side of the mountain. RMI's three-day program is about $475; the other companies a bit more expensive. Mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes can all be rented on site. Climbs depart daily from May through September.


David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 20 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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