2. How to Plan a Rainier Climb Without Totally Losing Your Shit
Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.
So you’ve made the commitment to climb Mt. Rainier. That’s awesome! Can I please give you one more double high-five of bossness? **satisfying smacking sound**
Now let’s start looking at some trip logistics.
Now bear with me. This is the part that totally gives me flashbacks to my own planning hell a year ago. Back when I was sitting in a restaurant trying to figure out how to gracefully quit the whole thing.
(You can watch this video for a tragic retelling of the story.)
But today I am here to save you from all of that! **flaps cape**
So first things first: it’s a good idea to plan your Mt. Rainier trip early while you have time. Because once peak training kicks in after a few weeks, you will be pretty busy — and also tempted to nap on the couch during your spare time. (More on that in a future post.)
And please note that while I’m doing my best to make this part accurate and helpful, the info in this section is wickedly prone to change. So please jump on the interwebs, have a read, and verify dates and costs for yourself.
Here are the major bases your early planning should cover.
The best time to climb Mt. Rainier
Most novices climb the mountain in the late spring and summer. Here’s a month-by-month breakdown of the climbing season.
Climbing season for Disappointment Cleaver begins in mid-May. White River Road (which provides access to the Emmons Glacier side of the mountain) may not be passable until late May. Weather can be unpredictable with occasional winter storms. Dangerous avalanche conditions may exist. On the up side, the early season tends to be quiet, beautiful, uncrowded, and gives you a taste of winter climbing.
Generally good conditions, not too crowded. Weather can still be unpredictable with occasional storms.
The start of peak climbing season. The weather stabilizes, and snow conditions are generally good. However, the awesome conditions tend to draw crowds. Crevasses begin to open as the winter snowpack melts.
Relatively stable weather and teeming crowds continue. Crevasses widen, which can make navigation more complicated and circuitous. Parties on the DC route can expect spicy ladder crossings. Emmons Glacier route may become impassable by the end of the month.
Peak season ends, and the crowds thin out. The snow line moves upward, which means more hiking and less snow climbing (though there will still be plenty of snow on the upper mountain). Open crevasses continue to complicate navigation.
How long will it it take?
Most parties climb the Emmons and DC routes in 1–3 days.
You’ll need a full day to hike to your high camp (Camp Muir, Camp Shurman, Emmons Flats, or Ingraham Flats).
Strong parties will sometimes take a short rest and then go for the summit after midnight. Others take Day 2 as a rest day and leave for the summit shortly after midnight on Day 3.
Adding a fourth day gives you the opportunity to wait out bad weather or rest overnight at high camp after summit day.
Guided parties generally add a day for orientation and skills practice.
Permits and reservations
There are three pieces of “red tape” you’ll need to sort out in order to climb Mt. Rainier:
Climber Cost Recovery Fee (individual permit)
This fee supports the park’s search and rescue program, and every climber needs to pay it. The 2018 cost is $34 for climbers ages 18–25, $48 for all others.
You only need to pay this fee once a year, so save your receipt if there’s a chance you might climb twice!
You can pay the recovery fee at the ranger station, but the line at the kiosk may be long. So it’s probably a better idea to pay online before you leave home and bring a copy of your receipt.
Each party must carry one climbing permit that lists your route and dates of travel.
Permits are free, and you can pick them up at the ranger station within 24 hours of departure. To save time, print out the permit form, fill it out, and bring it with you.
It’s theoretically possible to snag a permit on the day of your climb. But it’s better to make a reservation, especially if you’ll be climbing a standard route during the June–August peak season, over a weekend, or with a large group. (More on that in the next section.)
Be sure to drop your permit off at the ranger station after your climb, or you’ll incur a $250 fine. (You can do so even after the ranger station closes for the evening.)
Parties with a reservation are guaranteed a climbing permit for their desired dates and route. There is a $20 application fee per group. Applications open on March 15, 2018. Reservations are processed on a first-come, first serve basis, so apply early.
You can find a link to the application form on the park’s climbing page.
If you’re climbing Mt. Rainier, it’s a good idea to carry an insurance policy that covers search and rescue. While the National Park Service provides free SAR services, you could still incur significant costs if you must be transported by private air ambulance or your rescue turns into a major operation.
In addition, you should also consider travel insurance if you will be climbing with a guide or booking expensive flights and lodging. (All three approved Mt. Rainier guide services can recommend insurance options.)
Many travel insurers will not cover “high-risk” activities like mountaineering or trips above certain elevations. Others will only cover you if you buy a special “adventure policy” or rider designed for adventure sports. Check your policy details carefully.
If you’re going to climb Mt. Rainier without a guide, here are some companies that provide both rescue and travel coverage:
- World Nomads
- Global Rescue
- Trip Assure
- Travel Guard
- Ripcord Rescue Travel Insurance
Companies that provide rescue insurance only:
- GEOS – Must summon rescuer with an approved device (SPOT, InReach)
- Austrian Alpine Club – check the website of the UK section for details
For self-guided climbs in the U.S., I use a combination of GEOS (through my SPOT) and Austrian Alpine Club (in the event I call SAR from my cell phone). I use World Nomads when I want additional travel insurance for international trips.
Transport and Lodging
Most climbers fly into SeaTac airport south of Seattle. From here, you’ll need to rent a car and head to either Paradise (for Disappointment Cleaver) or the White River Ranger Station (for Emmons Glacier).
Guided groups may have different meeting places. For example, RMI clients meet at the facility in Ashford.
The easiest way to get around is to rent a car. The roads are excellent, so a simple sedan will get you to the trailhead. But you may want to get something bigger if you have a big group with lots of gear.
Drive times are about 2–2.5 hours to Paradise Ranger Station and 1.5–2 hours to White River Ranger Station.
You will need to visit the ranger station (aka climbing information center) in person to register and pick up your climbing permit. Note the hours of operation and plan accordingly!
While climbing, leave your car in the designated overnight parking area.
Parties on the Emmons Glacier route have a few pre-climb lodging options:
- White River Campground, located right at the trailhead. Reservations aren’t available, so arrive early to grab a camping spot, especially on weekends. Cost per night is $20.
- Wilderness camping at Glacier Basin, about three miles up the approach trail near the base of the Inter Glacier. Requires a wilderness permit. While it’s possible to get a walk-up permit on the day of your climb, a better option is to apply for a reservation between March 15–31. Reservations cost $20 per party.
For parties attempting the Disappointment Cleaver route:
- The nearest campground is Cougar Rock. Online reservations for peak season are available at recreation.gov beginning March 2, 2018. Cost per night is $20.
- If you’ve got a bit of extra cash to throw around, consider booking a room at the Inn at Paradise. To save some money, book a room with shared bath. Booking site: mtrainierguestservices.com. (Note: parts of the Inn are under renovation in 2018; check the website for updates.)
The big questions are: will you need to buy any new gear or supplies? And once you’ve got it, how do you get it all to Washington?
If you’re with a guide service, they will provide you with a gear list as well as rental options. And if you’re self-guided, check out the very comprehensive Miss Adventure Pants Mountaineer’s Packing List.
Review the list and make your shopping list ASAP. It’s crazy how shopping can sneak up on you as the trip approaches. And you definitely don’t want to be in a rush when you’re shopping for a high-priced item like double mountaineering boots. (Especially if you’re a girl with huge, wonky, spade-shaped feet. Take my word for it.)
Flying with mountaineering gear is always a special kind of shit show. Here’s how I break it down:
- Large duffle (checked): carry “sharps” and things that normally attach to the outside of your pack (picket, ice ax, crampons, etc.)
- Backpack (checked): anything that shouldn’t be near the sharps goes in here (your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent).
- Laundry bag (carry-on): I stick this in the duffle at home. Then, just before checking my bags, I pull it out and stuff my mountaineering boots, shell pants, shell jacket, and puffy in it. The idea is to bring any gear that’s fitted or difficult to replace with you on the plane.
- Large purse or tote bag (personal item): I slip my electronics and valuables in here (GoPro, spare batteries, SPOT). You can zip this into the duffle while you’re in transit to the airport. Just remember to remove it before you check your bags.
Practice walking with your gear to make sure you’ll be able to get it from the car to the counter. It may help to have a friend drop you off in front of the arrival hall. And if you’re really in a pinch, rent one of those luggage carts. (It will be the best $5 you ever spend!)
Additional Travel for Training
While it’s not absolutely necessary (especially if you are going on a guided climb), consider planning at least one other trip to the mountains to climb at elevation and possibly sink your crampons into some snow. Because let’s face it. Training on the stair mill is nothing like the real thing.
Ideally, this should happen about two to eight weeks out from your Mt. Rainier climb when your training volume is high and you’re strong enough to carry a big pack. But a change of scene can invigorate you any time in the training process. (Just don’t overdo it if you go earlier.)
I’ll provide you with some more specific suggestions in a later post. In the meantime, why not take a look at your calendar and see if you can make it work?
My Favorite Planning Tool, the Wall Calendar
I’ve talked about this before on the blog, but it deserves a second mention here.
I take a few big mountaineering trips every year. So rather than trying to track a million dates and deadlines on my phone, I like to print out a calendar page for every month of the year and hang them all on my kitchen wall.
It gives me a quick big-picture view of the climbing season so I know when I’m traveling or coming up on big deadlines.
Also, being a super visual person, I can color the really crucial dates scary colors.
So hopefully that wasn’t totally overwhelming.
But if it was (or if you are just a lazy bastard like me), I have something that might help you out.
It’s my spanking new Everyday Hero’s Mt. Rainier Training Bundle!
It includes a 21-week training plan, an ebook, trip planning tools, and a gear checklist. That’s just about everything you need to rock your planning and get to Mt. Rainier without totally exploding your head.
So there you have it. A comprehensive planning roadmap. Now go have a nice IPA or green energy juice if you need one, and then plan one thing before you go to bed. Bonus points if you post it on social media with the #climbyourmountain hashtag so I can cheer you on.
And I will see you tomorrow to talk all about mind and body assessment so you can create the perfect training plan for yourself.
Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.