Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.
It’s a super exciting time here at Miss Adventure Pants, where we are stoked about all things mountaineering. And that’s because Mount Rainier permits (more properly called reservations) open March 15, 2018!
So if you’ve been thinking about climbing Mt. Rainier this year, it’s time to get your poop in a group so you can apply.
And if you’re not completely sure you should pull the trigger — because you’re honestly not sure what the hell is involved in climbing Mt. Rainier — you are absolutely in the right place.
Over the next 11 days, I am going to walk you through the major things you need to know to plan your Mt. Rainier climb.
But first, why am I so passionate about this topic that I’m dedicating almost two straight weeks to it?
Well, this time last year I started planning my own Mt. Rainier climb. And the nicest thing I can say about it is, It didn’t kill me.
I climbed Mt. Rainier as part of a high-altitude mountaineering class. The upside of that was that we got a lot of support and expert instruction. We all knew how to pull someone out of crevasse, for example.
The downside was that we didn’t all know each other. (Not that doing this with your friends is cake. But it has certain advantages.)
Anyway, there were two different Mt. Rainier groups in the class. And in March, both applied for climbing reservations. The specific route we both wanted was Emmons Glacier.
The other group got a reservation. But ours did NOT. And we were all just devastated.
We considered doing a harder route on Mt. Rainier called Kautz Glacier. Because fewer people climb it, it’s easier to get a reservation for it. But this sparked off some not-so-civil bitching about who had the chops to do Kautz — and who didn’t.
I personally got written off in front of the whole group by a guy who saw me put a hand down on a couloir climb. (The horror.)
After the Kautz idea fell apart, we decided to climb A WHOLE DIFFERENT MOUNTAIN — Mt. Baker, also in Washington, which doesn’t require a permit. Everyone was pretty gutted about giving up on Rainier. But hey, life goes on.
Feeling relieved that our plan was falling into place, I went backpacking for the weekend. I actually forgot Mt. Rainier/Baker for three blissful days. And then I got back to civilization and turned on my phone, and my head exploded.
Basically, someone had sent an email pointing out that the other group had three spaces on their permit, and why didn’t some people just defect over there? (Which would have pretty much eviscerated our group.)
At that point, I hit bottom.
Sitting in a restaurant in Fort Collins, I felt my soul crying out to the universe. I needed things to turn around fast, or I was quitting. (First world problems, I know.)
But weirdly, things got better. We applied for a second Mt. Rainier reservation on a different start date … and got it.
Somehow, we made our way to Seattle. Every student in our group summited. And best of all, we did a good job of working together and supporting each other.
The experience was awesome. I’m so glad I didn’t quit.
But the point of my story is that planning a mountaineering trip can be huge, complicated, and painful.
So because I love you, and I want you to climb your mountain, I’m writing this post series to help you out.
Over the next 11 days, we’ll look at the major bases you need to cover, from planning and logistics to training and staying healthy.
And we’ll start today by talking about what it takes to climb Mt. Rainier.
Climbing Mt. Rainier: Difficulty
So if you’re thinking about jumping into the permit lottery on March 15, you may be asking yourself a few questions.
- Am I really ready to climb Mt. Rainier?
- What exactly am I signing up for?
- Should I hire a guide or join an expedition?
- Am I nuts for even considering this?
Here are my thoughts.
First, accept that climbing even a “beginner” route on Mt. Rainier will be a challenge.
If I told you it was easy, I would be lying.
On even the “easiest” routes (Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier), you will need to climb 10,000 vertical feet in 1–3 days. At the time I did it, it was my biggest vertical ascent ever. (It still is.)
Also, you need to conquer a big chunk of this monster L with a full pack on your back.
And you’ll need to do it while climbing snow (which is A LOT harder than walking on a trail).
On the other hand, you don’t need superpowers to do this.
I’ve seen people of all ages do it. People with all body types. Lowlanders from the Midwest. Mountaineering noobs.
To put it in perspective, I have a friend who summited via the Disappointment Cleaver route in 2017. She was 63 at the time and had started technical mountaineering at age 61. Oh, and she’d broken her ankle six months before and had screws and plates in it.
But she committed and put in the training time, doing lots of the things I’ll describe later in this series. And she totally killed it.
As one of my classmates wisely said, “Mount Rainier. It’s just one step at a time … up 10,000 ft.”
What It Takes
So what should you be considering before diving headfirst into the Mount Rainier reservation lottery? Here’s a quick checklist.
If you’re not planning to hire a guide, you absolutely must know how to travel safely on the glacier. This means mastering skills like self-arrest, roped travel, crevasse rescue, and winter camping. Check out this post for more details.
Mountaineering training is a lot like marathon training. Your top priority is to develop amazing aerobic endurance. For most people, this requires at least four months of training, with a peak training volume of 10–15 hours a week.
And no, doing intervals or Crossfit won’t speed it up. Quite the opposite, actually.
This schedule can be super demanding, especially in the last six weeks of training. So make sure there are no big life transitions or commitments that could get in the way.
Acceptance of risk
Mt. Rainier isn’t K2, where 1 in every 4 people who summit doesn’t make it down. But if you’re used to hiking and scrambling, it’s definitely a step up in the risk department.
Rocks fall on climbers. Climbers fall in crevasses. Seracs (giant ice blocks) collapse catastrophically.
I’m not saying any of these things are likely to happen. But do get to know the risks and be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to accept.
Mountaineering gets expensive, especially when glaciers get involved. You may need to buy warmer clothing, double boots, an expedition-size pack, and technical snow and ice gear.
Fortunately, the best guide services offer equipment rentals. Though in that case, you’ll already be paying quite a bit for the guide service.
Physical and mental resilience
Climbing Mt. Rainier involves a certain amount of discomfort.
- You will probably be cold, especially at the start of summit day. But possibly all day.
- And then you might be overheating in the same afternoon.
- Your leg muscles will burn and get tired.
- You will have to push yourself to try new and scary things (hopping crevasses, descending steep snow).
- It may be hard to sleep.
- The altitude may screw with you and make you feel sick.
- Camping on the glacier takes a lot of work, from digging snow platforms to boiling drinking water.
- You will have to pee and poop in the open, and possibly with an audience.
If this all sounds totally overwhelming …
Know that it’s normal. You don’t have to jump in the pool with one spectacular cannonball. Here are some ways to ease in slowly.
Consider hiring a guide
This is definitely the route to go if you’re solo or don’t have technical mountaineering experience. But it can also be nice if you just want to take some stress and worry out of the process.
Most guided trips include a day of instruction on snow climbing and self-arrest, which will build your confidence.
And since your guide will provide a lot of the gear, you can often travel much lighter on your flight to Seattle. This also saves you time on planning, shopping, and packing.
You may also be able to carry a lighter pack (30 lb. v. 45–50 lb.), which can cut down on your training load slightly.
Every company and trip is a bit different, so be sure to check the details before you commit.
And remember that you are still responsible for your health and training. You can delegate a lot of the planning to someone else. But those parts are always yours.
Another option is to build your skills on easier climbs before tackling Mt. Rainier.
Maybe you want to experience camping on the snow or climbing some couloirs before you put the whole package together.
And if you’ve never climbed monster L (say, more than 5,000 ft. in a day), you might want to attempt it on a non-glaciated mountain first. Longs Peak and Snowmass Mountain in Colorado are both good endurance tests.
And if you are ready to make the commitment, that’s awesome!
Just by saying yes to the mountain, you’re already a changed person.
You’re telling the universe that you believe in yourself. You’re willing to take a risk. And you’re going to start — even if you’re not 100 percent sure how to get there.
So mark your calendars for March 15 so you can get your reservation started.
Also, why not declare your intentions on social media? There’s something really powerful about announcing a big climb that keeps me motivated to plan and train. (Even when I want to cash in my travel insurance and throw my heart rate monitor in a ditch.)
To share this post, just click the social media buttons above or below the text. And be sure to use the hashtag #climbyourmountain so I can see you and cheer for you.
And if you are really want to kickstart your adventure, check out my new Everyday Hero’s Mt. Rainier Training Bundle!
It includes a 21-week training plan, an ebook, trip planning tools, and a gear checklist. Everything you need to rock it on the mountain.
Finished with all that? Awesome. Now go have a glass of wine or IPA or chakra-unblocking green tea to celebrate, and I’ll see you tomorrow to talk about trip planning.
Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.
Originally published Feb. 25, 2018.