July 26th 2021
10 min read
By: Tatiana Van Campenhoutinstagram
For those of you who've been following my adventures for a while now, it's not a secret I'm obsessed with Mount Rainier. Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier stands as an icon in Seattle (and Washington). Not very many people know Rainier is actually still an active volcano and is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S.A. Plenty of reasons why she is so special.
Every morning when I walk into my living room and see her peek out in between the city skyline, I get a little bit more excited about my day.
About a year and a half ago I decided I wanted to summit and signed up for a guided climb with Alpine Ascents, but unfortunately due to bad weather we weren't able to summit.
After getting back home from the summit attempt we immediately signed up for another 3-day climb with Alpine Ascents for the following summer.
After getting a sneak peek of what it would be like to climb Mt. Rainier last year, I knew I had to start training harder. Last year I only had 8 weeks to train, but this year I started about 6 months out. I adjusted my training schedule to include:
➞ Strength training at Barry's bootcamp 2 to 3 times a week
➞ Running: both long distance and recovery runs
➞ Trail running / hill running 1 time a week (runs up to Poo Poo point)
➞ Hiking: lots of hiking with heavy packs, 1 to 2 times a week at first, and closer to 3 times a week in the last few weeks.
I was determined to do a better job at packing compared to last year—trying to make sure my pack was lighter than 47lbs—but I failed. In hindsight I ended up using everything I brought, except maybe some food. 47lbs is about 36% of my body weight, which is definitely way too heavy for backpacking (the general recommendation is to not carry more than 20% of your body weight), but the heaviest stuff was my camera gear (camera, GoPro, batteries) and that was not something I wanted to compromise on.
Alpine Ascents also organizes a mandatory gear check the day before the climb to make sure everyone has the correct gear and people aren't bringing too much or not enough.
On the first day of our climb we all met up at the Alpine Ascents office at 6am, where the shuttle was waiting for us. Our team consisted out of 8 climbers and 4 guides—a 2:1 guide ratio! After a short breakfast stop along the way, we arrived at the Paradise parking lot around 9am. We went over what to expect from the climb—and more specifically from this first day—and took off at around 10am.
Once we hit the snowfield we swapped our trail runners for mountaineering boots. I was pleased that this part didn't feel nearly as hard as it did last year, all the hard work I put into training was definitely paying off.
4 miles and 4,600ft later we made it to camp Muir, our base camp for the climb at 10,000ft.
Camp muir has this wooden structure with bunk beds to sleep in, but Penny and I knew we weren't going to be able to sleep if we were surrounded by snoring dudes (sorry dudes), so we asked if we could sleep in tents instead. Last year because of covid we all slept in individual tents, so I knew I'd be able to stay warm in my 0F sleeping bag. The Alpine Ascents guides were super accommodating and set up some tents for us.
For dinner the guides made burritos in the kitchen tent they have set up at Camp Muir.
On the 2nd day of our climb I woke up at 4:30am to catch sunrise. It was freaking cold, but so worth it!
You could see the shadow of Mount Rainier in the clouds.
After having delicious breakfast bagels prepped by the guides, Doug and Chris let us know they had decided the climb wasn't for them and they were going to turn back home.
For the next few hours we had mountaineering school, practicing our footwork and self arrest skills. I was feeling quite crappy the entire time, the altitude was getting to me and because I was so cold all morning I hadn't been drinking enough water.
After mountaineering school we made our way up to high camp at the Ingram flats, another 1000ft above base camp, where we would spend a (very short) night before our summit bid.
The crew hanging out at high camp.
After one final meal prepared by our guides (chicken burgers) we went to sleep around 6pm to get as much "horizontal time" as possible.
Around 12:30am the guides woke us up to start our climb!
I don't have many photos from the first few hours because it was pitch dark. We made our way up to disappointment cleaver. The term ‘cleaver’ is used as a term for a rock ridge that separates, or cleaves, two glaciers. Not sure where the "disappointment" is coming from, I definitely wasn't disappointed.
At this point 2 more climbers decided to turn back to base camp, with one guide accompanying them. So that only left Tara, Matthew, Penny, and me (+ 3 guides) to continue our way to the summit.
The average summit success rate for all climbers is typically near 50%. The most common reason for an aborted summit climb is climber fatigue; this is almost always due to inadequate training prior to the climb. Climbers often underestimate the physical requirement needed to successfully and safely climb Mount Rainier. Bad weather is another major factor in turning climbing parties back. Climbing into poor weather leads to a majority of the accidents on Mount Rainier even though these conditions are easily forecasted. Inexperience with steep and glaciated terrain is also a contributing factor to aborted climbing attempts.
After leaving the disappointment cleaver we were finally done with the rocky part, but it definitely didn't become any easier. Even though there's a lot of switchbacks on the mountain face, the route was still quite steep, and with the air thinning the higher we got, I was having a hard time.
We took one last break before starting our last push to the summit. These breaks were both a blessing and a curse. I really needed the break for my legs but it was so insanely cold that I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes.
Once we reached the crater rim the hardest part was over. Or at least, the majority of the elevation gain was over. We had about 200ft more to go to the true summit. This is where the altitude really started hitting me. I was feeling very loopy and wobbly and couldn't stand on my legs super well anymore. I remember trying to sit down on my backpack once we reached the crater rim (we were going to leave our backpacks there so we didn't have to drag them up the last part) but I just fell off and couldn't get up very easily anymore. The guides told me to continue to eat and drink, as that would help with the symptoms.
For the last part to the summit we also didn't need to be roped up anymore because there's no more crevasses on this part of the mountain.
After almost falling onto my face one last time, we finally reached the summit! About 5h after leaving high camp!
You know what they say: getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. So we started our exhausting descent, dropping 9000ft all in the same day, but not without signing the summit register first!
The ladder we had to first cross in the dark looked extra intimidating when you could actually see what was underneath it, but the guides did a great job at making it as safe as possible. There was a picket to clip into above the ladder and a rope to hold on to!
I don't have very many photos from the way down, mostly because I was way too exhausted to be even thinking about taking photos. We made it back to high camp around 9:30 and had about 40 minutes to pack up camp again. I was feeling absolutely horrible by the time I got to camp. Exhausted and dehydrated. Matthew helped me pack up and even took some of my gear because my arm kept cramping up (from dehydrating) when I was trying to put my backpack back on.
From high camp we made our way to base camp, where we took one last break and took off most of our mountaineering gear (helmets, climbing harness, ropes, crampons,...). Then we had 4 more miles to go, back to the parking lot where the Alpine Ascents shuttle was picking us up.
(If that video doesn't load, here's the recap video on my instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CRrpd-qliEr/)
Overall this was an amazing experience. It still hasn’t sunk in that I've actually done it. After training so hard for this I’ve finally climbed the mountain I’ve been obsessed with since the day I moved here. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Special shoutout to all of the Alpine Ascents guides and to Matthew and Penny for making this an unforgettable experience!