Climbing Mount Rainier: How Hard Is It Really?

 In Hikes, Mount Rainier, Pacific Northwest, USA
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It’s hard to believe a new year is around the corner. What will you accomplish on your next trip around the sun? If climbing Mt. Rainier has been on your bucket list, this blog post is for you.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the difficulty of climbing Mt. Rainier. My two cents: this mountain is definitely a challenge. But if you’re in good shape and mentally tough, it’s definitely within your reach.

In this post, I’ll answer your FAQs about the difficulty of the Mount Rainier climb — and how to know if you’re ready.

Is climbing Mt. Rainier on your bucket list? Here's how to tell if you're up for this mountaineering challenge! #mountaineering #rainier #mtrainier #climbing #missadventurepants

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How hard is the Mt. Rainier climb really?

According to the national park climbing rangers, 10,000 people attempt to climb Mt. Rainier every year. Of these, about 60 percent of guided clients and 45 percent of independent climbers reach the summit.

What happens to the rest? Well, there are several factors that make the Mt. Rainier climb a unique challenge:

How tall is Mt. Rainier?

At an elevation of 14,410 ft., Mt. Rainier is quite a big peak. But even more than it’s height, it’s important to consider the vertical distance you have to climb. The two easiest routes (Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier) gain almost 10,000 ft. of elevation. To put it in perspective, most Colorado 14er climbs gain about 3,000 ft.

Is Mt. Rainier always covered with snow?

Mt. Rainier is a glaciated peak that is covered year-round with snow and ice. Walking on the ice slopes requires special equipment, including crampons and an ice ax.

As the ice flows downhill, it breaks into huge cracks (crevasses) and blocks (seracs). These present unique hazards. Climbers can fall into crevasses, especially those hidden by snow. Most climbing parties rope up so that they can rescue one another in the event of a crevasse fall.

How long does it take to climb Mt. Rainier?

Because the Mt. Rainier climb is so long, most groups spend 1–2 nights camping on the glacier. This type of winter camping can be labor intensive, as you must dig tent platforms and melt drinking water.

Camping also means carrying a heavy pack (35–60 lbs.) for the first half of the climb. This can be quite a challenge when you are climbing snow and ice.

What’s the best time to climb Mt. Rainier?

Poor weather and snow conditions can make the Mt. Rainier climb much harder than normal.

The Mt. Rainier climbing season typically runs from May to September. Snow conditions are generally better in the early season, and climbers will encounter fewer open crevasses. However, the weather is much less predictable during this time. Late spring storms can dump feet of snow, creating dangerous avalanche conditions and turning the route into a snow slog.

As the summer wears on, the snow consolidates and the weather improves. As the winter snowfall melts back, more and more crevasses open and navigation becomes circuitous. In late summer, guide companies use ladders to bridge large crevasses on the standard route (Disappointment Cleaver).

Mental toughness on Mt. Rainier

More than anything, climbing Mt. Rainier takes a strong mind. There’s really no way to train for climbing 10,000 ft. in the sky. You just have to commit and take it step by step.

In addition to the physical challenges, you also need to be prepared to deal with cold, weather delays, lack of sleep, and team dynamics.

Which route should I climb on Mt. Rainier?

There are 12 main routes on Mt. Rainier. Beginners usually climb either Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier:

Disappointment Cleaver

This is the easiest route on the mountain — and by far the most crowded. The Cleaver gets 75 percent of Mt. Rainier’s traffic. While you shouldn’t expect solitude, It’s a beautiful and interesting route.

The “trail” up the glacier is maintained by guiding companies, which usually makes it easy to follow. Guides will even set ladders across crevasses, which can make the route shorter and more direct.

DC isn’t without its hazards, including a brief section of rockfall (The Bowling Alley). There’s also the rocky Disappointment Cleaver itself, which may require some scrambling.

Most parties on the Disappointment Cleaver route camp at either Muir Camp (which has toilets) or Ingraham Flats.

The National Park Service offers a detailed guide to Disappointment Cleaver and the neighboring Ingraham Direct route on its website.

Emmons Glacier

This unmaintained route is slightly more difficult than the Disappointment Cleaver. In most conditions, it’s all snow climbing with minimal rock scrambling.

Emmons Glacier handles about 20 percent of the mountain’s traffic, making it considerably quieter than DC. Most parties stop overnight at Camp Shurman (which has a ranger hut and toilet facilities) or slightly higher at Emmons Flats.

Because the Emmons Glacier route isn’t officially maintained, you may need to do more route finding to navigate around crevasses. Always be aware of changing conditions, even when following deep boot pack.

The National Park Service offers a detailed guide to the Emmons Glacier route on its website. You can also check out my 2017 Emmons Glacier trip report.

How dangerous is Mt. Rainier?

According to the National Park Service, at least 400 people have died on Mt. Rainier since 1897. Causes of death include avalanches, rockfall, crevasse falls, falls down steep snow slopes or from cliffs, and plane and helicopter crashes.

Skiing and climbing more technical routes increases the risk. For example, only about 2 percent of climbers attempt the difficult Liberty Ridge route. However, this route accounts for 25 percent of deaths on Mt. Rainier.

While taking a guide provides an extra margin of safety, fatalities have occurred within guided parties on Disappointment Cleaver.

mt rainier climbing difficulty

Can I climb Mt. Rainier with no experience?

Yes, although it’s a good idea to take guide in this case. All three licensed guide services (RMI, IMG, and Alpine Ascents) take fit beginners on their Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier trips.

The guided climbs include some basic mountaineering instruction and can be a great introduction to the sport. All three outfitters also offer more in-depth courses for climbers with goals beyond Mt. Rainier.

Can I climb Mt. Rainier without a guide?

Yes, if you have the appropriate skills. For more info, check out my blog post: Here are the skills you need to climb Mt. Rainier without a guide.

How should I train for Mt. Rainier?

I’ve actually created a post series on training for Mount Rainier that you may find helpful. (Scroll down to see the blog posts.) But in a nutshell:

  • Start by building a strong aerobic base using distance workouts. If possible, get out for a long hike at least once a week. For more details on finding the right target heart rate, check out my post on lactate threshold tests. If you’re new to heart rate zone training, here’s the scoop on my favorite heart rate monitor.
  • Use weight lifting and heavy backpack workouts to build muscle strength. Gradually increase your pack weight on your training hikes, but don’t exceed 30 percent of your body weight. If this is your current focus, you might enjoy my post on strength training for mountaineers.
  • As you gain more fitness, add some intervals or tempo runs near your lactate threshold. These workouts allow you to “suffer better” in the thin air near the summit.
  • If you’re feeling strong, consider doing some anaerobic intervals once a week. These workouts help your body to use oxygen efficiently, which can give you an edge at 14,000 ft.

Looking for a detailed training roadmap to get you to the summit? You might be interested in my 21-week Mt. Rainier training plan. You can even download the first four weeks for free to see if it’s for you.

So there you have ’em, my honest answers about Mt. Rainier climbing difficulty.

If you have any questions, be sure to pop over to the Facebook Group and ask away.

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Originally published Nov. 28, 2018.

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