Way back in 2015 when I visited Seattle for the first time I visited Mount Rainier National Park for the first time. Boyd and I stayed in Ashford and visited Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I was in awe of Mount Rainier, at 14,411 ft (4392 m) it was such a huge mountain that seems to tower over Seattle and can be seen from miles away. In 2015 I never once thought I’d climb all the way to its summit exactly 4 years later.
Mount Rainier National Park
drive time from Seattle
Glacier travel equipment
Camp and Climbing permit
You do need a permit to climb Mount Rainier and pay a climbing fee, you also need a permit for its backcountry camp spots. I organized permits to climb the mountain via the DC (Disappointment Cleaver) Route with campsites at Camp Muir. I got The DC route is the most common climbed route up the mountain, it’s maintained by guide services meaning they mark the route with wands and put up protection for certain hazards. I knew DC was going to be my best chance to get a summit in so I got permits for 3 nights a Muir, hoping to be able to pick a weather window in that time. When the weekend of my permits rolled around we had a great weather window for a Friday night at Muir and summiting Saturday.
I was joined by my friend Ananth and Kat for the climb, Ananth had climbed this route last year and Kat like me was attempting for her first time. We set out from Seattle at 6 am to have enough time for the drive to Paradise and pick up the permits from the Wilderness Information Center and were hiking up to Camp Muir by 10:15. Paradise was shrouded by cloud with very poor visibility so the first 2 miles required a bit more navigating to get to the base of the Muir Snowfield. Pretty much when we got to the bottom of the snowfield we broke through the cloud and had great views up to the summit. With the sun out, we started feeling the heat and worrying about sunburn with the UV being reflected off the snow. The elevation gain up to Muir is around 4600 ft and this took us about 4 hours. Camp Muir is at 10,080 ft so on the way up we started to feel the elevation a little with shortness of breath. There are 9 permanent buildings at Camp Muir includes bathrooms and buildings used by the guided services. It felt like a little community with everyone excited about the upcoming challenge.
We set up our tents on the Cowlitz Glacier and started to prepare for the upcoming climb and melt snow for water. The melting of snow took us so long due to the altitude and we only had one stove for the 3 of us. If I was to do this again I’d definitely make sure we had more. We tried our best to stay out of the sun but it was really difficult with all of us getting sunburnt. The plan for the climb was to start at 11:30 pm to try to get in front of the large guided groups and give us plenty of time to summit. We went to bed at 6 to try and get some sleep in. Unfortunately, with all the people at Muir, there was a really loud talking guy that kept most of us awake. I also had drunk so much water I had to get up at 9 pm to use the bathroom (giving me time to take some photos of the sunset). After the sun went down I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep and was pretty disorientated when the alarm went off at 11 pm. Kat accidentally set her alarm for 11 am so we had to wake her up. We were a little slow getting ready and tying into the rope we didn’t start climbing until midnight.
From Camp Muir to the summit the climbing route varies as crevasses open and snow bridges form throughout the year. The guides put up wands (sticks with little flags on it) which you can follow on the way up. We started climbing directly out of Camp Muir in a rising traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier before climbing to the top of Cathedral Gap (10,800 ft). Getting to Cathedral Gap required crossing large areas of rocks which required us to short rope (shortening the rope between climbers and making sure it doesn’t drag on the ground) in order to avoid knocking rocks down on other climbers. At the top of Cathedral Gap the route turns to the west and gains the Ingraham Glacier at 11,200 ft where we saw other parties starting from the Ingraham Flats Camp. The altitude made the going a little slow but we did set a good pace and stopped for our first quick rest at Ingrahm Flats. I had some stomach pain which was making the going a little tough but I was hoping to push through. The route then traversed the Ingraham Glacier to the climber’s right to go up Disappointment Cleaver. Along this traverse, there are two hazards. The first is a section known as the ‘Icebox’ which has Icefall danger from large seracs on the Ingraham Glacier above and the second is the ‘Bowling Alley’ which is immediately after the ‘Icebox’ and consists of rockfall danger from the rocky cliffs above. We short-roped once we got past the icebox to move quickly through the rocky area and up The Cleaver.
Going up The Cleaver was an easy rock scramble made more difficult being roped to Kat and Ananth and having crampons on. We were able to follow the wands in this section and not get off route onto any more difficult terrain. We were relieved to get off the rocks and onto the snow after about 500ft of elevation. The snow was pretty steep but in the dark, you can’t really get a sense of the exposure. The Cleaver is the crux of the route and I was happy we didn’t have much difficulty climbing up it. We took another break at the top (12,300 ft) and I was relieved that my stomach was feeling a little better so I could eat.
The final 2000 ft of elevation is all on glaciers, we lengthened our rope again and followed the switchbacks leading up to the crater rim. Here the wind picked up and I had to put on all my layers to keep warm. The crevasses weren’t very big on the upper glacier and the switchbacks were easy to navigate. The biggest challenge for us was the altitude, we had to continually rest on the way up and trying to keep warm as we rested. The forecast was for 5-15 mph winds but after looking it up after we were getting 10-20. The sun rose around 5 am and we were grateful for the visibility awarding us fantastic views down the Paradise and South to Mount St Helens, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams. Ananth was feeling the altitude the worst and we had to give him plenty of time to rest. Kat and I both worried about his condition enough to ask him if he wanted to turn around. He was able to push through and we made the crater just after 6 am. The crater of Mount Rainier is a large flat icefield and is 14,150 ft. We unroped here and Kat and I pushed on across the icefield to sign the register and get to the true summit which is an ice mound called Columbia Crest. Crossing the crater we were reminded we were on a volcano by the presence of steaming rocks on the northern rim. The register was sheltered by the wind which felt really nice to be in the sun and out of the wind. The Columbia Crest was super windy so after getting our summit photos we didn’t hang around.
We descended reasonably quickly stopping twice before we got back to The Cleaver for short layering and sunscreen breaks. As we got lower on the mountain and out of the worst of the wind it started to warm up. The views were amazing on the way down, we got to see all the Crevasses on the Ingraham Glacier that were hidden in the dark. We were conscious to move quickly when we got down to the Bowling Alley because the chance of rockfall is increased with the heat of the day, and we were aware there were groups above us descending that could also knock down rocks on us. On the way back across the Ingraham Glacier, we witnessed a huge rockfall on a cliff above the Cowlitz Glacier which was a stark reminder of the risks we were facing. Traveling on the snow in the sun was hot work so I was glad when we got back to camp to de-layer as much as I could (really wish I packed shorts).
We decided to not idle too much at Camp Muir, knowing that we still had a long trip back to Seattle I didn’t want to sit around and get sleepy. After packing up camp the trip down the snowfield was a hard slog. The snow was very soft given the heat which made walking down it slippery and annoying. We were all extremely happy to make it back to the car by mid-afternoon to end what had been an extremely long day on our feet! The drive back to Seattle was tough being so tired, sunburnt and sleep-deprived but we were all still on a high from the incredible experience.
Route Info: DC Route