Here Are the Skills You Need to Climb Mt. Rainier Without a Guide
OK, so I just googled “climbing mt rainier without a guide” and got a good laugh.
The first search result is my Emmons Glacier post from last year.
The second is here, and the SEO description says:
The story of five buddies making it to the top. You don’t need training or a guide. Just good old fashioned motivation.
Cool story, bro.
Now obviously, this can be done.
But in all serious, many people underestimate what it actually takes to climb Mount Rainier.
They don’t seem to get that there’s a big freakin’ glacier all over it.
For example. On the day we arrived at Camp Schurman in 2017, the ranger was having a bird. Why? Because teams kept walking into camp unroped.
(Apparently they missed the giant, man-eating crevasses in the yard. Yeah, don’t be those guys.)
On the other hand, the easier routes on Mount Rainier aren’t super steep or technical. So it can be an awesome place to put your basic high-altitude skills to the test.
Let’s talk about what you need to know before you go.
The Skills You Need
When attempting an unguided climb of Mt. Rainier, everyone in your party should be solid in the following skills.
Note: This list assumes you’re climbing an easier route like Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier during the regular climbing season (May–September). Advanced routes and winter climbs require a specialized skill set.
Know what kind of objective hazards you’re likely to encounter on the glacier and how to mitigate them. Examples include:
- Snow bridges
- Serac fall
- Rock fall
- Weather, including whiteouts
- Environmental hazards like hypothermia
- Altitude-related illness
It’s helpful to understand “glacier anatomy,” because certain problems are more common on specific parts of the ice. (Know what a bergshrund is and where you’re likely to see one? Go to the front of the class.)
You’ll climb the top few thousand feet of Mount Rainier in crampons while belaying yourself with your ax. In order to prevent fatigue and falls, it’s important to master a variety of crampon techniques.
Before attempting one of the easier Mt. Rainier routes, get comfy on slope angles of up to about 50 degrees. (Rainier won’t usually be this steep, but you’ll be ready for anything.) Spring couloir climbs can provide excellent training.
You should also be comfortable descending snow slopes. To get started, practice plunge stepping down a gentle couloir face first. Gradually increase the slope angle as you feel ready.
You can also check out:
Self and team arrest
You won’t have an expert mountain guide on your rope who can dig in if someone falls. So everyone on your team must be absolutely bomber when it comes to arrest.
Get good at arresting in the four basic positions:
- Back, feet down
- Back, feet up
- Stomach, feet down
- Stomach, feet up
Once you’ve got those down, try falling at weird angles or starting with a somersault to disorient yourself. (But be careful you don’t hit yourself in the face with your ax.) It’s also a good idea to practice arresting with your pack on.
Finally, get your crew together to practice team arrest. Try to make it super make it realistic. Have a climber on the end of the rope run downhill without warning as hard as possible to really jerk you around.
And finally, here’s how NOT to practice self-arrest:
Roped team travel
For safety’s sake, you will always be roped up on crevassed sections of the glacier. By roping in, you’re literally putting your life in your teammates’ hands. So make sure you really trust them and feel confident in their skills.
To travel safely on a rope, you’ll need to be able to:
- Choose the right rope length
- Divide the rope
- Space team members appropriately
- Tie in securely at all positions
- Carry extra rope in Kiwi coils
- Manage the rope while traveling (proper spacing, no tripping or snagging)
- Belay one another in and out of a “safe” zone
Snow anchors and belay techniques
Knowing how to protect your route will help you safely pass steep or icy spots on the glacier. You can also use snow protection to redirect the rope around crevasses and other obstacles.
Get comfortable with all types of protection and know when to use them:
- Ice screw
With your rope team, practice techniques like running belay, belaying a climber, and pitching out a leader.
It also wouldn’t hurt to brush up on rappelling. Low-angle assist techniques like arm rappelling can provide extra security on a dicey pitch without slowing the group down too much.
If you follow Mount Rainier news and trip reports, you’ll see that people fall in crevasses all the freaking time. (Search and rescue has posted a useful collection of older reports here.) So assume this could happen to you or anyone on your rope team.
The fastest way out of a crevasse is self-rescue. To prepare, practice ascending a rope with prusiks or mechanical ascenders.
If a climber can’t self-rescue, the team will need to haul them out. There are a number of hauling systems you can rig with minimal gear. The 5:1, 6:1, and C-haul are all worth mastering.
Rigging up a rescue system on snow is pretty complicated, so get your group together and practice, practice, practice. Simulate glacier conditions by keeping your gloves on at all times.
Also, aim for speed. (To graduate from my high-altitude mountaineering class, we had to rig a Z-haul, which is the first bend in a 5:1, in under 15 minutes.)
Finally, practice different scenarios (for example, crevasse fall involving a middle climber).
When climbing Mount Rainier, you’ll probably spend at least one night camped on the glacier. To make your temporary home a happy one, you should know how to:
- Dig out a tent platform, kitchen, and latrine
- Secure your tent using snow stakes
- Build wind walls (if needed)
You’ll also need to know how to melt drinking water. This may require extra stoves and fuel.
On the more popular routes, you can often follow the boot pack most of the time. But don’t count on it, and don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security.
As you ascend, constantly reassess your surroundings. Does the trail lead over a sagging snow bridge or below a leaning serac? If so, you may need to reroute.
For this reason, you should carry a GPS with a backup power source and know how to use it. It’s also smart to back this up with a topo map and compass.
Route finding on a glacier is a unique skill. Read as many descriptions of the route as you can before setting out, but be ready to improvise as needed. On summit day, check in with the ranger and returning climbers to learn about any developing hazards. When leading on snow, use a probe to test for hidden crevasses.
Would you know how to navigate in a white out? You can provide extra insurance by bringing wands and knowing when and where to set them.
Wilderness first aid
If an illness or injury strikes, you won’t be able to rely on the guide to take charge.
Traditional first aid classes assume that you’ll be able to call 911 and reach help in minutes. This isn’t the case on Mt. Rainier. So consider getting certified in wilderness first aid (or even better, as a Wilderness First Responder).
You should also know how to communicate with potential rescuers. Carrying a two way radios, a satellite messenger, or a beacon is a good idea. Don’t count on cell service.
Unguided climbers need an extra level of fitness in order to carry their own food and gear to camp. Train to ascend 4,000–5,000 feet in one go carrying 40–50 lbs. It’s also a good idea to schedule some hard training days back to back. Your weather window may not allow for a rest day at high camp!
Most people climb Rainier between May and September. Avalanches aren’t common during this period. Still, you should know how to recognize potential hazards, evaluate risks, and mitigate appropriately.
A beacon and rescue gear should never replace education and judgment. However, it can provide an extra margin of safety in the mountains. If your group plans to beacon up, run through a few recovery drills so that everyone knows what to do in an emergency.
And for more about avalanches, check out:
Where Can I Learn All This Stuff?
If this list sounds overwhelming, take a deep breath. Most climbers develop these skills over a few years. (Though it’s possible to get pretty good in one season if you have lots of time to climb.)
One way to ramp up your learning curve is to take an expedition-style course from a guiding company. You can do this on Mount Rainier, Denali, and even at international destinations. Some vendors to check out:
If you have more time (or less money), check out the following state and regional mountain clubs. NOTE: these work best if you live in the area.
AIARE represents the gold standard in avalanche education and offers courses around the country.
And finally, you can also learn a lot (and refine your skills and judgment) by climbing with experienced partners. So once you have some basic skills, find some friends and get climbing.
Well, there you have them. My skills checklist for climbing Mt. Rainier without a guide.