Mount Rainier Exploratory

4-6 July 2002

By: George Wysup, neophyte glacier climber


Roxana Lewis got the silly idea of climbing Mt. Rainier (14,410'), a glaciated volcano which happens to be the WA state high point. Unfortunately, she did not keep this idea to herself. "Great idea!" John Connelly and I responded. HPS Prior Chair Virgil Popescu got wind of the plan and had to join us.

I felt that this might be a breakthrough exploratory to get a new peak added to the HPS list -- perhaps exchange Rainier for Keller Peak. Mt. Rainier meets most of the HPS criteria; it is over 5000' elevation and is a named summit. So it's a wee bit out of the HPS geographic boundary; what's such a big deal? Just add Pierce County, WA into the HPS by-laws. Should cut down on the multiple list finishers, eh?

So I made arrangements to pay $728 to Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) to take me there, spent a bunch of $ on equipment, and arranged lodging. After all this I learned that Rainier is no 'gimme' peak. It is reputed to be a tough physical chore, it is somewhat on the technical side, and people have been dying like flies on it. Can I get my money back? No, I have already shot off my big mouth to any and all that I am gonna climb it.

For those of you who don't know, the trip consists of schooling in the techniques of climbing the mountain on day 1, hiking with backpack from the parking lot in Paradise (5400') to Camp Muir (10,000') on day 2, then climbing (roped up) to the summit and back to Paradise on day 3. My calculations suggested that the total effort was to be 9000' gain and equivalent loss in less than 2 days. Much of this is at rather high altitude and on treacherous terrain. My wife suggested that this is for a younger person than me. That cinched it.

24 prospective climbers showed up at the shuttle staging area in Ashford, WA, with ice axes, crampons, and the prescribed clothing, to be chauffeured to the training area just above Paradise. There was a brief equipment inspection to see that we conformed. None of us knew the first thing about glacier mountaineering (anyone who knew how would not have paid for the training). Personally, I had always thought that an ice ax was designed for use in long split breaks, and crampons were the result of hiking too far in hot weather without salt.

Our instructors marched us up the slush field for the better part of an hour while trying to spot the weaklings among us. We then proceeded to learn self-arrest techniques to prevent our demise in the slushy slopes. The weather at 6500' was snowy, windy, and cold. We hoped that the next days would be better. We learned pressure breathing and the rest step. We learned to put our crampons on our boots. We learned some rudiments about traveling roped up. A guide would yell "falling" and the entire rope team was expected to go into ice ax arrest mode immediately.

One of our RMI instructors was a Virgil Popescu look-alike named Gangbu, who is rather famous for summitting Everest twice -- the first time with Jim Whittaker in 1963 (first successful American Everest climb) and the second time sans oxygen supplement. Gangbu is 70 years young.

All24 of us were cleared to try for the summit. Realize that the consequences of not passing the school would require RMI to return much of their fee. They are probably quite ethical, though.

On day two all 24 again showed at the staging area, with equipment and packs, for the climb. We started at 1030 from Paradise, hiking with ski poles across mostly snowy trails and up the Muir snowfield, 4600' elevation gain to the disappointing Camp Muir. From the beginning, the guides were asking us if we REALLY wanted to go on this trip. One intelligent fellow, Jeffery, decided he really did NOT. One down. We would hike an hour, break 10 minutes, hike again, ad nauseum, until we got within sight of Camp Muir. At this break we received instructions regarding occupying our space. We arrived at the hut at about 3:30 p.m.

RMI has its own little shack at Camp Muir. The sleeping facilities for the clients are a three layer platform providing 24 cramped spaces, each space having a Ridge Rest pad. There is also a short bench and a small table. There is a collection of brain buckets (helmets) and climbing harnesses. We each received one of these, along with brief training in how to wear them. It was necessary to leave much of our equipment outside. Most weighted their pack with a large rock to keep the substantial wind from blowing it back down to Paradise. We got a briefing about the morrow's climb, a junior guide provided cold drinking water and hot water for reconstituting food and drinks, and we received our rope team assignments. There were 3 or 4 clients and a guide on each team. My rope leader guide was a young fellow, Eric deBergh, and my team also included John Connelly, Eric from Vermont, and Chuck from Alabama. My team was one of three teams in Group A. Group B climbed about 1/2 hour behind us. Two clients remained at Camp Muir. 21 clients and 6 guides would set out for the summit.

The guide-in-chief was George Dunn, age 49. This was to be his 436th ascent of Rainier, and he has climbed Everest (from the North, in '91). No one has nearly that many Rainier ascents. George's words: "I've been there a lot of times; I know the way; follow me." OK, I was convinced.

The guides awoke us at midnight. Group A scrambled while Group B hit their snooze button. 11 people flailing around in cramped quarters, dressing, donning harness and helmet (with headlamp attached) and crampons. A guide came around and flipped an avalanche beacon over each torso -- "This won't be necessary, but you have to carry it," he said. I hope!

A bite of breakfast, packs on, and assemble outside in the almost pitch darkness. Let me insert at this point that my hero, Virgil, handicapped himself by forgetting to remove a 10 lb rock from his pack. Whataguy! The rope team leader clipped our harnesses into loops on the 50 meter rope with a hefty 'biner. We're off, up the glacier, at 1:30 a.m. There are about 60 headlamps heading up, 27 from RMI leaders and clients.

The trail is marked by wands with a little 'NPS' flag on each. Your National Park rangers at your service. The snow is well trodden along this trail, and it would not be easy to get lost ... in the daylight. At night or in a whiteout and the story might be different.

RMI is not intimidated by weather unless it is truly severe. They get paid a lot of money to get people up the mountain, and they don't want to give much back without good cause. Safety is one reason for the extensive and expensive equipment list they provide. Another reason is that RMI can make plenty of extra dough from equipment rentals. RMI appears to be a lucrative enterprise, at least for its majority owner, Lou Whittaker (Lou is Jim's twin brother and is a famous climber in his own right). Lou is now 73 and is turning over control to eldest son Peter. The operation also includes the Summit Haus mountaineering equipment store and Whittaker's Bunkhouse lodging in Ashford.

We walk along a rather gentle trail at the outset, but that soon changes. We traverse a rocky area and then up some steep snow, switchbacking our way up. The crampons work nicely in the frozen snow and I feel confident. The initial pace is rather slow, but it soon picks up as the leader understands that the group is warmed up. We break for 10 minutes after the first hour and 1000' gain. The guides inquire as to our physical state. "110%" is the most common reply since everyone is leery of getting "bagged and tagged" (placed in a sleeping bag with a name and group ID, to be picked up on the descent.) John and I got chewed upon by leader Eric because of our faulty rope technique.

Another 1.5 hours of steep climbing and a 10 minute break puts us at 12,400'. It is now about 4:15 a.m. and getting quite light. We had been seeing vestigial aurora borealis during the night. Headlamps are no longer needed. We break out the sunglasses, ready to put them on. We put the sunscreen in a pocket where it won't stay frozen. Another hour up the trail and another 1000' gain gets us to within 1000' of the summit. We are hiking at just about my max pace. Last break -- put on sunscreen and sunglasses. Be sure to put sunscreen in your nostrils; the reflected sun from the snow is brutal.

At 7:30 a.m. we reach a crater rim and unrope. Success! All 21 clients had made it this far, which I understand is rather uncommon. But, alas, the summit is way over there, across this huge crater. Almost half of us decided that we have stopped at a good enough summit. But a true HPS member goes for the top! I realized I'd hate myself next week if I didn't go to the actual top. Pant, pant, huff, puff. I needed an oxygen tank and a Sherpa to short rope me up.

At 8:30 we clip back in to the ropes and proceed down the hill. It is now broad daylight and we can see what we did during the night. Geez! We had crossed snow bridges over some rather impressive crevasses, and had passed some rock piles that looked ready to spit boulders. The early start is designed to get us up and down before the afternoon heat melts things and causes snow bridges to collapse and rocks to spit.

By the time we reach about 12,400' the snow has turned to slush in the heat of the sun and I notice that I am sliding a lot. This is because my crampons are clogging with sticky snow. I have to clear them continually to keep firm purchase in some steep spots.

We get back to Camp Muir at noon, euphoria being the order of the day since the technical part is over and we can relax and enjoy our accomplishment. We redress and re-pack for the easy 4600' descent. Virgil discovered the boulder in his pack. He searched high and low for a missing gaiter, only to find it already attached to his right leg. I am missing a pair of shell mittens. They are undoubtedly at the bottom of a crevasse after blowing (40 mph breeze) and sliding down the ice from about the 13,500' level. John is missing a full 1.5 liter water bottle which decided to have fun skiing down the mountain. Roxana swore never to wear those boots again.

We reached the parking lot in mid afternoon, the adventure over. All that was left was to battle the gawker traffic down the highway toward home. Mount Rainier NP is, indeed, a very beautiful place, and who can blame people for gawking?

Little known fact: Mt. Rainier is named, not for Monaco's Grimaldi family Prince, but for an 18th C. British admiral -- Peter Rainier (pronounced 'rainy-er').

To view our route up the mountain from Camp Muir, see website:

This is the safest of many possible routes.


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