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How to Climb Mt. Rainier: A Nonclimber's Quest

What does it take for a nonclimber (me, for example) to climb Mt. Rainier? I'm about a week away from finding out.

At 14,411 feet, the fifth-highest peak in the Lower 48, Mt. Rainier in Washington presents every type of peakbagger (ambitious hikers, limit-pushing rock scramblers, nontechnical sport climbers) with an enticing challenge -- with so much snow and ice guarding the summit, is there a safe way an amateur climber to reach the top? I'll learn first-hand during a 2-day summit attempt July 18-19.

Ascending Rainier is daunting because it involves glacial travel. As temperatures fluctuate, cracks known as crevasses form in that glaciers cloak Rainier's upper slopes and, if deep or wide enough, make travel perilous. Avalanches are another risk, as is rockfall and swiftly changing weather in the mountain's alpine zone. Climbing-related deaths are rare but can occur. A solo climber died in an avalanche this spring, the first death associated with a Rainier climb since 2005.

Potential dangers do little to deter aspiring climbers. In 2009, 10,616 people (the sixth-highest total on record) attempted to climb Mt. Rainier, and 6,438 succeeded -- a record annual number for successful summit attempts.

After years of hemming and hawing, I'm finally joining the conga line that snakes its way up Rainier's slopes each year. Why? A friend initially goaded me into doing the climb with him. Funny; he's now unable to make the climb, so I'm left to make it on my own.

I'm joining a group led by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization soon to celebrate its 80th anniversary that is responsible for what is widely regarded as the seminal book on high-altitude adventure, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

How have I prepared? For starters, I did so much research on climbing Rainier that it turned into three articles that were published in February in The Seattle Times, where I am a regular contributor. I interviewed, among many others, former Rainier lead climbing Mike Gauthier (author of Mt. Rainier: A Climbing Guide) and Mark Scheffer, a climbing instructor with The Mountaineers. Scheffer, who spend one drizzly morning a few weeks ago watching me slip and slide down a snowy hillside while I practiced self-arrest techniques, will lead my climb.

Are you among the thousands who have pondered a Rainier climb? My trio of articles includes lots of tips. One article presents 4 personal accounts of first-time climbers who made their first summit attempts in 2009. Another sidebar describes the 3 commercial guide services available to lead climbs on Rainier. Of the 10,616 summit attempts made in 2009, 41% were led by commercial services. The remainder consisted of independent climbing groups such as the one I've joined.

What are the keys to a successful climb? Many are listed in my main article. One I'm pursuing with particular diligence: Conditioning. Running out of gas is the chief reason most people fail on summit attempts. So I'm hammering the stair-stepper at the gym 5 to 6 nights a week, and I have been making numerous practice climbs on nearby slopes.

On July 8, for instance, I joined fellow REI blogger Steve T. and Northwest guidebook author Craig Romano for a climb up 6,100-foot Desolation Peak in the North Cascades National Park Complex, a 5-mile one-way hike that, according to Craig's GPS readings, involves 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I tossed a couple of gallons of water in my pack (at more than 8 pound each) just to up the difficulty factor of the climb. What if you live in the flatlands? One of my interviewees is Scott Borrillo of St. Augustine, Fla., who for weeks practiced carrying a 55-pound backpack up and down a 10-story flight of stairs at a local hospital -- 20 times each visit.

Stay tuned for additional blog posts involving my climb. My hope is to share with readers some helpful tips for planning a successful future climb of your own. And if anyone has a good tip to share, please speak up. Thanks.

Posted on at 5:56 PM

Tagged: Climbing, Freedom of the Hills, Mike Gauthier, The Mountaineers and mt. rainier

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ph9er Staff Member

T. Wood - Good luck with the climb. Can't wait to read the next chapter, conquering Mt. Rainier.

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This is a great article, I'll be sure to read your previous series in the Seattle Times. I've been considering a Rainier expedition and it looks like next July might be my time. Good luck, I'm also excited to hear how your climb goes!


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