Mt. Rainier FAQ
Washington State US
14,411 feet
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Mt. Rainier is arguably the best alpine climb in the US lower 48 states. I am focusing on the Muir Route (Disappointment Cleaver) and the Emmons-Winthrop since they are used by over 90% of Rainier climbers and the ones I did in 2004 with 8 friends using RMI and 2012 and 2015 with friends on our own. I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.
About Rainier Training, Gear & Communication Rainier Basics My Experience

About Mt. Rainier

Q: Where is Mt. Rainier?
A: It is in Rainier National Park in Washington State in the US. It is a popular North American climb with 10,000 attempts each year. The nearest major city is Seattle and major airport is Seattle-Tacoma International. The local town is Ashford and the Park HQ is in Paradise, Washington. View Larger Map

Q: When is Rainier usually climbed?
A: The prime climbing time is from late May to mid September. However some experts climb it year round but these climbers have tons of experience. Weather can always be an issue, even in mid summer it can snow, rain or hail at any time.

Q: How does Rainier compare with a Colorado/California 14er or even Denali?
A: Snow! Rainier is snow covered on the upper part of all routes. Also it is has significant and deadly glaciers. I have a good friend who lost his climbing partner in one of these crevasse. Finally there is a real threat of avalanches on all routes. While the altitude may be similar to other 14ers, the weather and terrain put Rainier in a different class. Denali's standard route is 6,000' longer than most 14ers due to starting around 5,000' and has even more brutal weather. But the long snow slopes of the West Buttress route are similar so Rainier is a good training climb for Denali.

Q: How hard is Rainier?
A: Depends on the route. There are over 60 named routes on Mt. Rainier. The Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier routes are two of the most popular by far and the most straight forward. Another standard route is the Gibraltar Ledges. You gain almost 9,000' from trailhead at Paradise inside the Park to the summit and cover 18 miles round-trip. Every route to the summit requires helmet, crampons and an ice axe (the base definition of "technical") plus traveling roped up due to crevasse danger. A very few climb solo. You must be in top physical condition with an excellent attitude to stand on the top. Also it is good to have some basic experience under you belt with lower mountains and snow climbs to make your experience more enjoyable.

Q: Is climbing Rainier dangerous?
A: Statistically it is similar to many large and popular mountains with 1 to 3 people who die each year. Most deaths are attributed to weather and might have been avoided by turning around earlier. There are hidden crevasses, falling rock, steep slopes and extreme exposure on most routes. The Ingraham Glacier and Liberty Ridge routes have seen the most deaths.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: My estimate is that over 185,000 people have summited Mt. Rainier and around 96 have died since 1887, mostly from falls then avalanches. The National Park Service states that about 10,000 attempt the summit summit each year and 50% succeed. 2014 saw a tragic incident with 6 climbers killed by some type of avalanche related incident on the Liberty Ridge route. An ice avalanche on Ingraham Glacier killed 11 of a 29-member climbing party in 1981. This was deadliest U.S. climbing incident ever. Several people die each year on the various routes.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How should I train for Rainier?
A: Focus on aerobic capacity, muscular strength and attitude. Even though it is only 14,411', the elevation will stress your lung capacity needed to provide oxygen to your muscles. Also you will carry 15 to 40lbs throughout the climb. Your legs will hurt on the climb up and your knees on the way down. You may have some pains in your back depending on your overall condition. So, get in shape before climbing this hill! I run, lift weights, stretch and use visualization techniques to address these areas. Check out my training page for more details on how I train.

Q: Is altitude a problem on Rainier since it is only 14,411?
A: Altitude can be a problem anytime above 8,000' and especially if you live at low elevations and come to Washington and jump on a trail without spending a few days letting your body adjust. The trailhead is at 5,000' so you need some time to acclimatization. The best you can do is drink as much water as you can on the climb, protect yourself from the sun and wind and if you feel light-headed or nauseated take a break, have some water and food. Use your best judgment if you should go on and never climb alone. The only cure for altitude sickness is to go lower as fast as possible. Usually you need to descend 1,000' to start feeling better.

Q: Some guides require a climbing school. Is it really necessary?
A: As always it depends in your experience. Back in 2004, I found the RMI school fun and educational. Today, 2012, I would find it more fun than educational. You can never minimize the importance of good technique in the mountains. Also, by doing it with your team, you created greater bonds which are invaluable in the mountains

Q: What kind of gear do I need?
A: This is a technical climb with the risk of extreme weather thus you need layers: wicking, warmth and wind/snow protection. Then you need your personal technical gear: harness, rope, pickets, slings, carabineers, ice axe, crampons, helmet. Finally food and water. Also if you are not with an organized guided trip, you must have provisions for an emergency: stove, tent, sleeping bag, extra food and water, first aid, etc. I selected my gear from the Rainier list on my gear page as a reference. The page has been updated for 2013 with my latest gear plus a discussion.

Q: Anything special about gear for Rainier?
A: Rainier is a cold and windy mountain year-round. Layer your clothing and be prepared for rain, sun and wind. Never wear blue jeans or cotton clothing since they will not dry quickly enough when wet and thus increasing your chances for hypothermia if you get wet. A hat and sunglasses with sunscreen are a must. Your will need boots that support crampons. Most climbers use double plastic boots like Koflachs. You will need a change of socks after getting to your high camp and again on the way down. Bring warm gloves and a headlamp plus a basic first aid kit. Finally, a warm down (800 fill) jacket with hood is absolutely required for staying warm during rest breaks or in the event of blizzard conditions along with a Gortex shell and pants.

Q: What about food and water?
A: Obviously you need to carry everything with you. There is water at camp Muir but none high up on the mountain or at camp Schurman. From camp Muir, I suggest 2 liters of water - one on the way up and one for the return. Also a liter to be consumed before you start the climb- over breakfast, etc. I have found by drinking a reasonable amount of water before you start, you stay ahead of the water loss game. If you feel thirsty, it is too late! Food should be easily digestible snacks. You need calories during any climb.

Q: Do cell phones work?
A: Some do but it is spotty. In 2012, we got decent ATT and Verizon coverage at Camp Schurman next to the ranger hut. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.


Rainier Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The Disappointment Cleaver (DC) or Emmons-Winthrop Glacier by a huge margin. In 2011, over 60% of the 10,830 registered climbers used a version of the DC Route. There are over 60 named routes, many of the very technical. Most have altitude gains of 9,000' with 30-45 degree grades. The Liberty Ridge is famous for it's difficulty and deaths. It has a gain of 11,400' with a maximum grade of 55 degrees. Another route, the North Mowich Ice Cliff has a maximum grade of 85 degrees - almost vertical!

Q: How long does it take?
A: In September of 2008, Willie Benegas set the record climbing from Paradise to the summit and back in 4:40:59. Most people take two days not including a day for the school. On the DC route, from Paradise to Camp Muir, it takes about 5 hours at a leisurely pace. Then from Muir to the summit, using the Disappointment Cleaver route, the climb can take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours, depending on weather and your level of fitness. The return to Muir takes about half the time. We had a very fit team in 2004 and made the summit in 5 hours 20 minutes and the return in just under 3 hours. The return to Paradise took 3 hours. Most people plan on leaving Muir about 1:00 AM. This being said, a 78 year-old woman made it from Paradise to the summit and back on one day in 2004!

For the Emmons Glacier route, it takes longer with the summit bid from 6 to 8 hours and the return to Camp Schurman about half that time.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $900 to $2000 depending on who you use and the route. If you do everything yourself cut the cost to several hundred. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb Rainier?
A: A climbing 'pass' is required by the National Park Service for climbs on the glaciers or to the summit. It cost $43 as of 2012. You can get the application online. If you go with one of the authorized guiding companies they will arrange this.

Q: Who are the approved guides for Rainier?
As of July 2012, The National Park Service (NPS) has three approved guide services: Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI) can guide up to 24 climbers each night through camp Muir, International Mountain Guides (IMG) and Alpine Ascents (AAI) can take up to 12 climbers nightly on the Muir route. The Emmons Glacier climb is divided evenly among Alpine, IMG and RMI. Also, one-third of the more than 60 summit routes are off limits to paid guide services. According to the American Mountain Guide Association, the NPS also offers Single Trip Guide Commercial Use Authorizations (CUAs) for uniquely qualified national and international climbing guides to bring their clients to Mount Rainier for a one-time trip.

Q: Do I really need a Guide?
A: It depends, most do not. In 2011 the three guide companies took 4966 climbers (1474 guides and 3434 clients). There is no clear publication of success, which is a warning sign, but it is believed to be a bit higher than the independent climbers of around 50%. Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI) state they guide 2,700 and about 70% make it with their guides. The RMI guides have years of experience and know the mountain as well as anyone. We used RMI since most of our team had limited experience in these climbing conditions. We had excellent weather and the route was well marked so they didn't have to work that hard. But if we had bad weather or one of our party became ill or got hurt, the guides would had been invaluable. As with most things in life, you don't appreciate them until you really need them.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. It is easier to climb Rainier than Everest on your own but you are still on your own. The NPS estimates that 60% of all climbers on Rainier are self-guided.


My 2012 and 2015 Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Experience

Q: Did you summit?
Rainier Summit A: Yes all five of our team made the summit. Three of our five made it in 2105. Please read the 2012 trip report and the 2015 report.

Q: Did you use a guide service?
A: No for 2012 and 2015. We had a very experienced team in 2012 with multiple Rainier climbs between us, over 15. SImilar for 2015. In both clibms, we wanted a more personal experience without the structure and time pressure of a commercial program.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The Emmons-Winthrop Glacier both years. We left from the White River Campground, hiked to Glacier Basin Campground for the night, then on to Camp Schurman for a short night. We left Camp around midnight navigating the Emmons Icefall with headlamps before taking a direct line straight up the Winthrop to the summit. It took us 8 hours up and about 4 down.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you experience?
A: We climbed the last few days of July, 2012 and had almost perfect temperatures but the summit night was quite cold and very windy on top. In 2015 it was very windy and the glacier was heavily crevased. We summited that year on July 8.

2004 Disappointment Cleaver Experience

Q: Did you summit?
Rainier Summit A: Yes all nine of our team made the summit in a season record for an RMI team of 5 hours and 20 minutes from Muir camp. Please read the trip report.

Q: Why did you choose RMI as a guide service in 2004?
A: This was the first time for 7 of our team of 9 to climb on snow with crevasse danger so I thought it was wise to go with highly experienced guides. RMI takes thousands of people up Rainier each year with an excellent success record.

Q: How did they perform?
A: Very well. The senior guide had summited 96 times and obviously knew Rainier well. The other two were first year guides and showed great maturity. But the common theme was their commitment to our team's safety and summit success - in that order. Overall, RMI did an excellent job and I would highly recommend them. My only grouse was a serious mix-up at Whitaker's Bunkhouse and the incredible poor quality of the "hut" at camp Muir. But the first was addressed to our limited satisfaction and the second seems to come with climbing Rainier (bring a tent and sleep outside!)

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The Disappointment Cleaver. We all enjoyed it especially the climbers new to snow climbing. The route passed over and under some dangerous areas such as the 'back board' and up the Emmons Glacier . The views of the sun rising were simply spectacular.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you experience?
A: Hot and sunny, cold and windy! Temperatures range from 0 to 90 degrees in the summer and drop dramatically with a Pacific cold front moves in. Because of the elevation, on a sunny day, the sun is oppressive. The winds are one of the biggest problems. As we were descending, we experienced strong winds and a lenticular formed over the summit indicating strong winds. If we had been up there, we would have had to bivy or get down quickly since this can be a dangerous situation.

Bottom Line

Mt. Rainier is a jewel for Americans. It is easy to access, offers a huge variety of challenging routes and has surprises that mimic the Himalayas and the wild Alaskan giants. I had a lot of fun on our climb with great friends. It is a prefect warm up for climbers wanting to go to Denali or Aconcagua or for someone looking for their next step from a Colorado or California 14er.