This Is What Happens When You Climb Mount Rainier Without a Guide [Trip Report]
There were so many times it seemed impossible. There were permits denied, injuries, illnesses, training fails, gear snafus, and rescheduled flights. Sometimes we asked ourselves, who are we to climb Mount Rainier?
But on July 10, 2017, at 9:30 a.m., seemingly against all odds, our high-altitude mountaineering class summited Mount Rainier via the Emmons Glacier route. And let me tell you, it was quite a feeling.
I’ve probably had more questions about this trip than any other trip EVAH. So here’s a trip report with all the details, suggestions, and Mount Rainier pictures a human being can handle.
Getting ready to climb Mount Rainier yourself? Feel free to post additional questions/suggestions in the comments or hit me up via the contact form. Happy climbing!
Mount Rainier – Emmons Glacier Trip Stats
We chose to climb Mount Rainier via the Emmons Glacier for our first glacier mountaineering experience, because it’s not too steep or technical. It is, in fact, one of the easiest routes on the mountain.
However, easy is relative! Some route stats:
- Total Elevation: 10,000′
- Total Elevation on Snow and Ice: 8,000′
- Max Elevation: 14,410′ (summit, Columbia Crest)
- Total Distance: ~ 20 mi.
What’s different if you climb Mount Rainier unguided?
Seventy percent of parties climb Mount Rainier via the standard Disappointment Cleaver (DC) route. This is a lovely trail, but as you can imagine it’s pretty crowded! You’ll likely have to deal with other rope teams on summit day and crowds at camp.
If your party has the skills and fitness to travel unguided on a glacier, you can opt to climb Mount Rainier via the quieter Emmons Glacier route. To give you an idea of the solitude, our two rope teams only walked close to one other team on summit day. (We did see a few more coming down.)
Being self-supported does have some downsides. Guide services provide some food and amenities at Camp Muir on the standard route. So if you opt for your own trip, you’ll need to carry a heavier pack (45–50 lb. versus 35).
But if you’re up for the challenge, mounting your own expedition with your rope team is incredibly satisfying. So that’s what this post is about.
Wait, Isn’t This Just Another 14er?
This is a question I hear a lot, especially from people who climb Colorado 14ers. So just to be clear, the difference between Mount Elbert (14,439′) and Mount Rainier (14,410′) is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
What makes the difference? Two things: elevation gain and glaciation.
Most Colorado 14er routes start at 9,000’–10,000′. The Emmons Glacier route starts at 4,400′. So there’s some serious L involved (about 10,000′, all told).
While we have things in Colorado we call “glaciers,” they’re not REAL glaciers. They’re actually permanent snowfields.
Mount Rainier, on the other hand, is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48, and Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier in the continental U.S. Check out this map to get an idea:
Glaciers are rivers of moving ice that range (on Rainier) from 50–500 feet deep. As they flow over lumps and irregularities in the landscape, the surface cracks open, creating crevasses. Some crevasses are small enough to step across. Others look big enough to swallow a McMansion.
In really rugged areas, you’ll also see blocks of broken glacier ice called seracs. Some of these are HUGE and quite beautiful. But as you’re walking underneath, you really hope they don’t collapse!
To travel safely on a glacier and climb Mount Rainier, you’ll need specialized training:
Roped team travel
Climbers rope up in groups of three to five so they can assist teammates who fall into crevasses or have an uncontrolled fall.
On an unguided trip, you’ll need to have specialized equipment and training so you can rig a haul system to assist a climber after a crevasse fall.
So how do you get ready?
For our group, this was actually our graduation climb from the Colorado Mountain Club’s High-Altitude Mountaineering School.
If you don’t have three months to hang around Denver, several guide services offer programs that help you climb Mount Rainier while learning expedition and glacier travel skills. Some examples:
Before attempting to climb Mount Rainier, I did about six months of pretty hard training. This involved snow climbing in Colorado and hiking with a heavy backpack.
To learn more about mountaineering training, check out the following books:
Permitting and Red Tape
Some logistical deets you’ll need to attend to in order to climb Mount Rainier on the Emmons Route:
- Management Agency: Mount Rainier National Park
- Ranger Station: White River
- USGS Topo Quads: Mount Rainier East, Mount Rainier West, Sunrise
- Trailhead: Glacier Basin
- Camp Sites: Glacier Basin, Camp Schurman, Emmons Flats
Individual permit (every person)
To climb Mount Rainier, you must purchase an individual permit (aka, the “Climbing Cost Recovery Fee.”) These are available online for $47, with discounts for climbers under ages 18–25. The permit is valid until December 31 of the year purchased and can be used for multiple climbs.
It’s also possible to get walk-up reservations on the day of your climb. However, I’d definitely recommend advance reservations. In 2017, we applied to climb the weekend after July 4th and did NOT get our preferred dates. We actually had to change our trip dates to score a spot at Emmons Flats.
Don’t forget to add Glacier Basin campground to your permit if you plan to use it as an advanced base camp. (More info below in the itinerary section.)
Climbing permit (group)
You must arrive at the White River Ranger Station between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. to pick up your climbing permit. (You just need one permit per group.)
Don’t forget to check out at the ranger station when you leave the mountain after your climb, or you could face a $250 fine. (Note: you can do a self-service check out while the station is closed.)
Where should I camp?
For a high camp, you basically have two options.
Camp Schurman has plenty of tent spaces, a ranger hut, and a (very stinky) toilet. Advantages are the toilet and easy access to the climbing ranger, who can give you updated info on the weather and route. Disadvantages: noise, crowds, and toilet stink.
By contrast, we really adored staying at tiny Emmons Flats. It’s just a 10 minute walk away up the glacier. There’s only space for a couple of parties, so you’ll have a bit more quiet to enjoy your amazing surroundings. Downsides: no toilets, no shelter from the unrelenting sun, and CAMP CREVASSES (see below).
Trip Report, Blow by Blow
We climbed and descended the Emmons Glacier route in 48 hours. This got us back to beer and beds faster, but may be a little aggressive for some parties. You could break this up a bit by hiking to Glacier Basin campground the first evening or taking a rest day at Emmons Flats/Camp Schurman.
Our original plan was to arrive in the afternoon and hike to Glacier Basin. However, the park completely flubbed that part of our wilderness permit so … no. (One thing climbing Rainier has taught me: mountaineering=flexibility).
We did manage to snag a space at White River Campground near the trailhead (note: bring bug spray). Bedtime was early. Tomorrow was going to be a long one.
Day One: Trailhead – High Camp
- Total Elevation: 5,300 ft.
- Pack Weight: 45 lb.
- Travel Time: 9 hours
Trailhead to Glacier Basin
We left White River Campground at 5 a.m. and headed up a highway of a trail to the Glacier Basin campground (3.5 miles). Along the way, we were treated to some glimpses of Mount Rainier in the morning alpenglow.
By the way, there were PLENTY of spots at Glacier Basin. **Stink eye at Park Service**
Glacier Basin to Camp Curtis
Forest cover ended just above Glacier Basin, and we were treated to our first views of the Inter Glacier. A few people from our party stashed approach shoes in the krumholtz and switched to mountaineering boots.
We then headed upward on a loose, rocky ridge that parallels the toe of the Inter Glacier. The glacier bends around to the left, so as we hiked, the climb came into view!
Inter Glacier is tall, but doesn’t exceed 30–40 degrees. Snow climbing was pleasant, and we able to easily kick steps. (Some people didn’t even put on crampons.) I climbed with an ax and one pole.
Near the top of Inter Glacier, we started to see a few small crevasses, but nothing that scared us into roping up.
There was decent cell service on Inter Glacier. Enough to make a Facebook Live at lunch!
Some Mount Rainier pictures:
Camp Curtis to Camp Schurman/Emmons Flats
Inter Glacier tops out on a rocky ridge at an old high camp called Camp Curtis. There’s not much left of the camp, but the views are stunning! This is your first real look down at the Emmons Glacier in all its crazy, crevassed glory. You’ll also see great views of Little Tahoma Peak off to the left.
Before descending to the Emmons Glacier, it was time to rope up. We divided the rope on the icky, exposed traverse that leads down to the glacier. (This was also the point where we realized we’d forgotten how to divide a rope and had to try twice. We hoped it wasn’t an ominous sign!)
Once on our rope teams, we made an exposed, descending traverse down to the Emmons Glacier. I tried to keep my eyes on the route, but couldn’t stop looking at the man-eating crevasses below!
And then, in a moment of great excitement, we touched down on the largest glacier in the continental USA! From here, Mount Rainier and the entire Emmons Glacier route loomed above us. It was about 2 p.m., and we could see several other climbing parties (like little ants), making their way down.
We passed Camp Schurman, which quite honestly, looked like a total cluster fook of tents and dirty snow, and continued about 10 minutes more to the pristine heights of Emmons Flats. I gotta say, I’m a fan of EF. It just felt a world away. Even the need to poop in the open was worth it.
Camp Crevasse Crisis
The team got busy setting up tents and melting water. After a nice dinner, we were starting to settle into our tents for a few hours of sleep before the summit push.
Then one of our instructors noticed a one-inch crack (which hadn’t been there before) running through the center of camp. It ran off for hundreds of feet in either direction.
He got out the probe, started poking around, and concluded that, yeah, a crevasse might be opening under our camp. (There were a few big crevasses around the camp that attested to the feasibility of this.)
So we had a 30-minute gong show where we dug new platforms and dragged our tents and gear up to higher ground. Everyone had just carefully organized for our midnight summit push and there were now gloves and packs and sleeping bags lying all over the glacier.
We regrouped as best we could, got in bed, and set our alarms. I hard time sleeping and spent a lot of time wondering how fast crevasses form. Could one just pop open and swallow us at any second? Would we come back the next day to find the Cracks of Doom where our tents had been?
It was crazy to think about. And it didn’t help that glaciers actually make noise! Lying in my sleeping bag, I kept hearing weird cracks and creaks down in the depths. It also didn’t help that the rocky face off to our right was releasing these massive rock avalanches every hour or so. Some sounded like a jet flying over.
Yeah, worst night of sleep EVAH.
Day Two: High Camp – Summit – Trailhead
- Total Elevation: +5,300’/-10,000′
- Pack Weight: 20–50 lb.
- Travel Time: 16 hours
We’d heard from another party that the mountain was a little icy up top. So we decided to push our summit attempt back to 2 a.m. in order to give the snow time to warm up.
Getting out of your sleeping bag at 2 a.m. on a freezing, windswept glacier to climb a giant ice mountain by the light of your headlamp — it’s quite a feeling.
Coffee would have been nice. But after the last night’s crazy sauce, it took a bit of effort to get ready and reorganize. I barely had time to shovel some cold Backpacker’s Pantry granola in my face, and we were off to climb Mount Rainier.
Conditions were just above freezing and breezy. I set out shivering in my base layer, neoprene liner gloves and light puffy. This turned out to be a good choice. I didn’t adjust layers until the top.
Summit (night and) day
Your first task on summit day is to ascend a gentle slope called The Corridor. It probably doesn’t exceed 25 degrees. But for me, it was slow going. The snow had been ripped up by yesterday’s climbers and had frozen in uneven points and pits.
“This is hard,” I told the instructor.
Who replied, “You’re not walking straight uphill, are you?”
I was, and once I started mixing in some French- and American-style cramponing (like alternating sidesteps on either side), I felt much better.
Above the corridor, the route to climb Mount Rainier changes every season — and even throughout the season. In our case, we made a large traverse across the face of the mountain.
During this section, the sun started to rise, revelaing some truly majestic (and slightly terrifying) seracs.
On the ascent, we crossed 5–6 snow bridges and small crevasses. A few of them were open and we could look inside.
This is where I learned some important lessons. Like, don’t put your foot right on the edge of the crevasse, or it might start sliding in. (Eek!)
Also, keep in mind when jumping over small crevasses that crampons complicate things. I had an embarrassing moment when I tripped on takeoff, flew over like Supergirl, and belly flopped badly on the other side.
Snow conditions were nice and crunchy on the ascent. Slope angle probably didn’t exceed 40 degrees. We had beautiful views of ice falls, Mount Baker, and the Emmons spilling down below us into the valley below.
Make no mistake: Mount Rainier is the undisputed master trickster of shitty false summits. There were about eight times I thought we were at the top (and weren’t) before I stopped counting.
But eventually this rocky ridge emerged out of the distance. The wind, which had been breezy all day, started really blowing. We had been pretty warm since sunrise, but stopped to relayer before the final summit push.
(To put it in perspective, we did this on a warm day. It was about 30 degrees F on the summit. By contrast, our instructor did it exactly a year ago when the summit was in clouds. He said it was the coldest he’d ever been.)
We scrambled up some loose scree and dirt, and then suddenly we were on a freakin’ volcano crater! It was full of snow, but there were also random steam vents that assured us it was all too active.
A few climbers were crossing the crater from the Disappointment Cleaver standard route. Mount Adams and Mount Hood loomed in the background.
After climbing this huge majestic ice fortress of the mountain, the summit (Columbia Crest) was just this little anticlimactic snow lump! Nevertheless, I cried behind my glacier glasses. Six months of my life to climb Mount Rainier and stand here!
Slip sliding away
So I’d been pretty happy on this trip as long as I was climbing UP. Then we turned around to descend, and that was the first time I flipped out a bit.
The photos don’t do it justice, because it looks like you’re walking off the edge of the earth. Just one little stumble and it seemed like you’d go rocketing down thousands of feet. (It also didn’t help that at 10 a.m., the snow was still pretty hard and crunchy up top.)
Fortunately, our instructor was super patient and showed me a few tricks. After about 10 minutes of walking, I started to trust my crampons, and then we were able descend at normal speed.
Still, I was relieved around 11 a.m. when the snow started to get a little softer. Then the snow turned into slush and we were slipping and sliding like a team of drunks. So the last 1.5 hours down was kind of comical, with someone on the rope slipping every couple steps.
On the way down, we came across a guide whose client had sprained an ankle. We offered them some water and pain meds. And then, client offered us all some bourbon from a flask! This little shot took the edge off the klutzy descent.
Altogether, descent took about 3.5 hours. The great thing about camping at Emmons Flats: you can see your tents early and they get closer and closer. I was so happy to fall in my tent and nap for those extra 10 minutes instead of slipping and sliding down to Camp Schurman!
So in the end, I’m happy to report that our tents did NOT get swallowed by a man-eating crevasse. Although the next day, the crack through camp was an inch or two wider. We even had some worried neighbors from Camp Schurman come over to ask if we’d “noticed” the huge crack running beside our tents.
Glaciers may have a rep for moving slow, but this crevasse was opening pretty freakin’ fast! (BTW, if anyone reading this has been up there since June 10, I’d love to see a pic.)
Slog to the cars
I’ll admit, when we got back to camp, I was thinking, “There is no freaking way I’m walking out today! I’d rather eat a salad of broken glass with diesel dressing.”
But honestly, the big question with walking out is, “Do you want life to suck now, or suck later?” By walking out the same day, at least we’d be getting back to beers and a warm bed.
So after a few hours of napping and refueling, we roped up and headed back out over the Emmons Glacier. After returning to the ridge at Camp Curtis, we stashed the ropes and descended a few hundred feet, passing some of the small crevasses at the top of Inter Glacier.
Once past the crevasses, it was time for a big ass glissade. However, some spooky fog had rolled in that made me feel like I was sliding into oblivion. About halfway down, we popped out into the sunshine again, and from there the ride was a lot of fun. We probably dropped about 2,000′ of L in six minutes, which my feet appreciated.
Not sure what glissading is? Check out this video. (Not filmed at Rainier.)
From there, there was nothing left to do but hike four miles to the trailhead. This was the only part where my mountaineering boots really gave me grief. Next time, I’m so stashing approach shoes.
But anyway, in the parking lot at White River, there was much celebrating, with beer, red Bota Box cabernet, and FRITOS!
Back at the start, I think our group questioned whether we could climb Mount Rainier AT ALL, and the loss of the Glacier Basin spot on night one seemed like a big setback. So climbing and descending in 48 hours was a huge win and confidence builder.
This experience taught me that you can still climb Mount Rainier and have great trip — even if everything doesn’t go perfect. It is in fact the nature of mountaineering trips to go to shit a few times. But when the unexpected happens, roll with it and know you got this!
So there’s my little trip report on how to climb Mount Rainier. Got questions or suggestions about the Emmons Glacier route? Then comment below to share, or hit me up in the contact form.