I spent the week leading up to the climb organizing gear, frequenting the Seattle REI for last minute things, and reviewing crevasse rescue skills with the help of some YouTube videos.
On June 18, I headed south to Paradise, WA to meet up with Zach and get our permit for Camp Muir squared away. Most of these permits are sold online in advance of the “summer” climbing season but the Rangers keep one third available for walkups. We had no problem securing a $6, two-night permit for Camp Muir at the Ranger station (You also need to purchase an annual $53 climbing permit from pay.gov in advance to climb Mount Rainier). As expected we were warned about the high avalanche risk above Camp Muir and told that groups hadn't been summiting recently. While the weather forecast was ideal for the weekend, the unseasonably cold temperatures leading up and the recent precipitation has left a lingering, persistent slab near the top of the mountain.
On Saturday morning around 9am Zach, Jeff and myself set out from Paradise, WA (5,400ft elevation) to start our climb up to Camp Muir. Despite the rain, the route was busy with skiers and climbers and everyone seemed to have different expectations and plans for their weekend on the mountain. We proceeded up the route for a couple hours past Panorama Point in complete cloud cover. We were assured by climbers on their way down that we would see the sun at about 8,500ft.
As we climbed the rain slowed and the clouds thinned until we could see the cabin at camp Muir about a half mile away across the snowfield. We reached Camp Muir (10,070ft elevation) around 2:30pm and were able to grab a site that was already dug out in the snow wall. The 4 mile, 4,500ft climb with a 55lb pack left me pretty tired by the time we arrived.
The Ranger came around to check permits and discuss plans with everyone at Muir. He shared the latest forecast and Avalanche risk (which was still high). Zach, Jeff, and I decided at this point the summit was probably not realistic so we settled for a 6am departure with a turn-around at Ingram Flats in the morning. This seemed to be the general sentiment around the camp. It was bright and sunny as we enjoyed some downtime and dinner at camp. I just now realized I had gotten a horrible sunburn on my face from the hike up.
I was pretty cold at night once my Nalgenes full of boiled water cooled off in my bag. Unfortunately my stove caught on fire the night before so I didn’t have the option to reboil.
After some pretty poor, intermittent sleep we were up around 4:30am the next morning and left camp about an hour later. We roped together and proceeded up over Cathedral Gap.
On the route you could see some of the loose snow that had been rolling down the slope above us. Not enough to bury you but likely enough to sweep you off your feet. The views of Little Tahoma peak as we passed over Cathedral Gap were amazing. As we looked back behind us we could see Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount St Helens towering above the clouds. The prominence of these glaciated peaks is truly remarkable.
The snow was beginning to soften as the day heated up and we reached our turnaround point at Ingram Flats (11,070ft elevation). We had a clear beautiful view of the summit but it would have to wait for another trip (the following weekend…) We made it back to camp after a quick round trip and started packing up. The deadman anchors we had buried the night before (to ensure the tents wouldn’t blow away) were cemented in the ice and were a pain in the ass to dig back out.
We hiked all the way back down through the cloud cover and returned to Paradise around 2pm. We ended about 2.5 miles short of the summit but were really happy with the trip and playing it safe. The mountain will still be there.
The following week we kept an eye on the weather report and it was looking like much better odds for a summit the next weekend.
Zach and I returned to Paradise with a new camping permit on Saturday, June 25 and started our hike back up to Camp Muir around 5:30am. The sky was clear and it felt like an entirely different climb. I was careful to cover my face up this time as I was still recovering from a pretty rough sunburn from the last weekend. I opted for a much lighter 3 season tent this time and I left my heavy, full frame camera behind and just took the GoPro. This shaved off about 7.5 lbs off my pack weight and I was glad I made that decision.
The campsite was busy and the general vibe was a little more promising and optimistic than the weekend prior. We set up camp, relaxed and took a nap before checking in with the Ranger on the forecast for the next day. The only big cause for concern on the Ingram Direct route was a pretty large serac that had shed some large blocks of ice over about 100ft of the trail. As long as we didn’t linger underneath it we should be fine. Not much in our control there. The snow had hardened with the warm weather cycle over the previous week and the avalanche risk was considerably lower.
We tried to get some sleep and woke up to leave camp at 11pm to do as much of the climb as we could in the colder weather while the snow (and serac) were firmer. Several groups had departed before us. We passed by Ingram flats where we turned around the last time and bumped into several more groups heading to the summit from the campsite there. It was peaceful hiking in the dark and we kept a pretty good pace with only a few breaks as we navigated up and around several crevasses. We didn’t want to linger in or under any sketchy areas that we couldn’t see in the darkness. There were a couple areas where we clipped into a fixed line set by the Rangers… it wouldn’t be until the way down that I'd realize just how steep that drop off really was.
After a pretty hard final push we reached 14,000ft around 5:30am as the sun began rising on the horizon. I was completely wiped as we watched the sliver of a moon fade with the daylight. We sat and had a quick snack as we took in the view. We quickly started to get cold as we were pummeled by the wind so we started up and over the ledge into the crater. Thankfully it was a pretty easy walk across as we ascended the last 411ft up to the true summit.
At 5:50am we were sitting at an elevation of 14,411ft with a beautiful, clear view of Mt Adams, Mt St Helens, and Mt Hood.
We beat the mad rush of larger, guided groups that were on their way up. We were on the top with about 15 others as we took in the sunrise. The shadow of Mt Rainier was cast beyond us onto the clouds and it took me a moment to understand what I was seeing.
The way down was a long, hot slog. The sun had come out and we were grateful we were heading down and not up in the heat. It wasn’t until seeing everything in the light I could really appreciate the magnitude of the seracs and crevasses. It was while we were descending in the daylight we could see the ice debris from the serac that had rolled across part of the trail. We again quickly moved through this section but couldn’t help but admire the motorcycle-sized blocks of ice that had cracked off the serac. By midafternoon we had made it back to Paradise and were able to tell the Rangers that we had successfully summited as we returned our permit.