At 4,392m (14,411 ft), Mount Rainier is the most prominent and glaciated mountain in the lower 48. Climbing Rainier is considered a mountaineering achievement and is the aspiration of many - from experienced climbers who use it as a training ground for larger Himalayan summits (or Denali), to people that never climbed a glaciated peak before. I'm the latter, and I thought I'd share my experiences from my guided climb so that other novices can have an idea what to expect.
I climbed and successfully summited Rainier on June 12, 2016. Aside from sport climbing in Ontario's gyms with a slight dabble outdoors, my climbing experience merely included climbing Kilimanjaro on September 2015 - and let's be honest - Kilimanjaro's hardly considered "climbing". I wanted to do something even higher, harder, and more technical, and with great heights come ice and snow, and that was an avenue I truly have no experience in. Living in a flat land doesn't help. That's why I signed up for Rainier with an experienced guide service. It was a prominent glaciated peak, close to home, many people seem to do it, and many world class guide services are based there offering a crash course in glacial travel and self-arrest - All in all, Rainier was the next best stepping stone. Of course, there are other options in the region, like Baker, or Adams, even Shasta in California, but I have a simple motto, Go big or go home.
There are many routes up Rainier, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. The normal and most straightforward route to the summit is via Disappointment cleaver and is used by 90% of climbers attempting Rainier. I tried finding some history as to why it's called Disappointment cleaver, but if I recall, it has to do with a group who got to the top of the cleaver in white-out conditions thinking they summited, only later realizing they were far off. Hence, the disappointment.
There are 3 guide services authorized to guide on Rainier. RMI, Alpine Ascents International, and International Mountain Guides. Each one of them are major reputed guiding services offering expeditions around the world including Himalayan and Antartic peaks. I picked RMI simply because they offer far more climbs than the rest. They also had a huge impact on mountaineering history, which earned some brownie points with me.
The Guides say that "you must be in the best shape of your life", which sadly isn't much advice. I need some sort of a benchmark. Prior to Rainier, the extent of my workouts involved 30-40 minutes of cardio 5 days a week, mixed with medium weight strength training 4-5 times a week. This was fine for Kilimanjaro, but after gathering more from the interwebs, this actually wasn't enough for anything beyond that. The kicker being able to carry heavy backpacks for long periods of time. So as my rainier trip got closer, I shifted my workout routine to include hikes with heavy packs, and I shifted my cardio between boxing and muay thai to get a higher intensity session.
6 to 3 months out: 30-40 minutes of cardio (Stairmaster/elliptical/rower), 4 days of weight training, 3 days Rock Climbing
2 to 1 month out: Alternative between Boxing/Muay Thai (Dynamic and HIIT) and Rock Climbing (Static and Balance) with intermittent weight training, 6-hour hikes with 45lb every few weeks. Closer to my trip, my routine was as follows:
- Monday: Chest and Back (1 hour)
- Tuesday: Boxing + Muay Thai (2.5 hours)
- Wednesday: Rock Climbing (2-3 hours)
- Thursday: Boxing + Muay Thai (2.5 hours)
- Friday: Rock Climbing (2-3 Hours)
- Saturday: Boxing + Shoulders and Arms (2 hours)
- Sunday: Rock climbing or 6-hour hike with heavy pack
I've never had a training regimen this diversified. If this doesn't take me up Rainier and beyond, I don't know what will. Was it enough? Without reading this entire post, yes it was. I was more than physically able to climb and I had fun doing so. (The last two hours to Paradise destroyed me however...)
As my first glacial/snow climb, I needed to get a lot of gear. Fortunately, I was able to re-use everything I had for Kilimanjaro. I didn't have technical gear, such as an ice axe, mountaineering boots, and crampons. Buying all these are major expenses, and instead of forking out major cash on the boots (which can run upwards of $1,000), I thought I'd rent a pair. I bought an ice axe since its affordable, and I rented an expedition grade parka, mitts and a winter sleeping bag - Items I could simply not justify buying. It should be noted that the rental equipment was in top notch quality and very clean, in fact almost brand new, carrying the best brands in the business such as Arcteryx and Mountain Hardwear. My rent list is as follows:
- Down sleeping bag (Rated for 20F) - Because I can't justify the price tag, I liked how this packed really small. The specific model was the North Face Cat's Meow
- Plastic Double Boots - These were massive, heavy, and have no flexibility. According to the experts, I also had to size these one size larger (I wear 12, but had to pick up a size 13), so they were pretty loose. The exact model was Koflach Degre
- Crampons - Standard black diamond strap-on sort, I was confused why they didn't opt for clip-on types, but they later explained that the guides do not trust the clip-on types for whichever reason. Pretty sure these were Black Diamond Contacts
- Avalanche Transceiver - Depending on route conditions and which guide you get, this may be mandatory to climb rainier, it was in my case
- Expedition Parka - This is only to be used during breaks, a storm or under really cold conditions. Exact model was Mountain Hardwear Nilas. I actually really liked this one, I might get one =D
- Expedition Mittens - Used similar to the parka, but also works in case a glove is lost. I don't recall the exact model, but they were Marmot down mittens.
When I arrived in Seattle, it was a glorious sunny day. Everyone was complaining that it was hot at 20C. I thought it was chilly, but it just goes to show how grim the weather in the PNW can get. Rainier was visible from the airport, and it looked scary. It was so tall and imposing with steep snow slopes, a lenticular cloud forming over it. I will admit this is where I got a little anxious. What did I sign up for?!
Before heading up to Rainier, I decided to stay in Seattle for 2 days to shoot the city. I love cityscapes after all (if that wasn't already obvious), I met Tosin, a local and great photographer, to show me around and shoot unique vantages (thanks!). I checked into a hostel, and immediately checked the weather on Rainier, and it looked morbid. The forecast called for heavy snows and very cold temperatures for the days of my climb. Now... I do realize that the guides go for a summit attempt regardless of the weather as long as the route is safe, but going up a big, glaciated and crevassed mountain under less-than-ideal circumstances was a little nerveracking.
On my second day in seattle, my anxiety forced me to check the weather often, and it improved! The forecast now calls for less snow and slightly warmer temps! I was put a little at ease.
Drive to Ashford
Rainier is about 2 hours away from Seattle. I picked up my car rental, stopped by REI to pick up snacks and energy bars, and headed to Ashford, the home base for RMI Expeditions and our de-facto basecamp. It was well outfitted with a gear shop, a rental shop, an office, a cafe, a bunkhouse, and the basecamp grill where you can have tasty burgers and pizza. Being my anxious self, I check the weather again to find it fantastic for my summit bid! In fact, the best weather conditions of the week! I was thrilled and now excited!
It was pouring and much cooler when I arrived in Ashford - the car thermometer read 55F (12C). The cloud level seemed really low and light grey, who knew what it was like above the clouds? There wasn't much to do at basecamp other than eat and rest, so I picked up my rental gear.
Wandering around, a team attempting the summit earlier in the day returned, they looked wet and beat-up. They were led by world famous Dave Hahn, the man with the most non-sherpa summits of Mount Everest at 15. They did not summit due to high winds at 12,800ft. If a guy like Dave Hahn had to turn around, the conditions up there must've been brutal. I was optimistic, bad weather can only get better, we only hoped that it got nice for our bid.
Basecamp has a lot of history. In the RMI lounge "mountain haus", trophy flags were hung, Dave Hahn with his trophies, Ed Viesturs, the first and only American to climb all 14 8,000m peaks, and Jim Whittaker (whose twin brother, also a mountaineer, founded RMI), the first American to summit Everest. These are massive names in mountaineering history. Photos of historical feats and old equipment and clothing lined the walls. In the back of the compound was a guide memorial for those that lost their lives. There was no doubt that I was among legends in American mountaineering.
Our orientation started in the afternoon, it was pouring rain. We met two of the main guides, Mike who climbs in the Americas, and Zeb who just returned from a successful summit of Everest via the North Col. We slowly meet the members of the team. There were 16 climbers in total that were split into two groups of 8. Each group had 3 guides. Mike, who just returned from Denali looked after our group. The guides walked through every piece of gear and clothing and made sure they were adequate, from layering to technical gear and we were then shown a slideshow giving a quick synopsis of the climb. They addressed any questions or concerns that we might have had.
It stopped raining when I woke up on my second day in Ashford. I had a large breakfast, and we headed up the lower slopes of Rainier for Snow school where we'd be taught techniques for efficient and safe climbing. It was a simple class, but very informative. We were taught how to ascend snow, how to descend, the roles of the axe as a support and self-arrest tool, and the basics of roped glacier travel. We got to practice each and every one of our techniques that would be needed on the mountain. It was a very useful class, and I learnt a lot.
The weather throughout the class was spotty, clouds were rolling in bringing in whiteout conditions, then we'd have warm sunny breaks. It was a constant change of temperatures, but it didn't really bother me. During class, we got word that for the second time in a row, climbers have not been able to reach the summit. They got a 1000ft higher than the previous day (which is really close to summit), but got turned around due to strong winds.
I checked the weather again for my climbing days - and so far so good. It will be cold, but the skies will be clear, and winds won't be as harsh. Back at camp, I packed my bag with all clothing, gear, water, food, and snacks, and it was really heavy (50lbs?). Based on how much I ate and drank during snow school, I got a little concerned that I may have been a little under prepared for the climb. I took no chances, I went out and bought more (and I finished it all on the climb)
As a photographer, one of the main things I struggled with is whether I was to bring my larger camera or not (Sony A7R). But after packing my bag, I decided to leave it behind and take my trusty point and shoot (Sony RX100) that can fit in my small chest pocket above my harness. In these types of climbs, every ounce matters. The bag was already very heavy as is, and I really didn't want to add any more weight. I also took a GoPro, but those things barely weigh anything anyways. In fact, every photo on this post was taken with the RX100. It's a fantastic camera for its ultra-compact size.
Hike to Camp Muir
This is the big day, it's raining outside, with so many things to pack. I double checked my gear and made sure I had enough food and snacks. Gear, clothing, sleeping bag, and food all in my 75L pack. The bag was heavy, but no biggie, that's what I trained for. I headed over to the cafe for breakfast and met Mike. He mentioned that there was snow at Paradise - a parking lot with a large visitor center at the base of the mountain catered to tourists, but is also the starting point of our climb.
The best climbing months are July and August, but these climbs sell out days after releiase. I had a choice to either climb in June or August. I decided to climb Rainier in June purposely as there would be more snow on the mountain. More snow meant it would be harder, and I'd learn more (I don't want it too easy). Albeit, snow at Paradise is extremely unusual at this time of year. In fact, it's been one of the snowiest summers. There has been so much snow that much of the crevasses remained covered, and the guides have yet to install 1 ladder over a crevasse. I'm not sure what's better, walking over a hidden crevasse field, or walking over ladders knowing exactly where they all are - that's part of the experience I suppose. I knew the weather would be a major risk in booking a climb this early, but I thought I'd gamble anyway.
We packed up the shuttle to take us to Paradise (6,000 ft). The shuttle ride was longer than I expected, taking approximately an hour as the road twists up the forested base of the mountain, but it wasn't long into the drive until we came across a snow-capped landscape. We arrived at Paradise where there was a good 3" of snow cover. We unloaded the bus, pulled out our ski poles, filled our water bottles (which made our heavy packs even heavier) and began our hike to Camp Muir, located at 10,000ft.
Under normal circumstances, there is actually a paved trail lined with wildflowers that takes you about half way up to Camp Muir, which then later transitions into a snow hike on the Muir snowfield. But there was nothing normal this season, there was no trail at all as it was completely buried under snow. I didn't mind that at all because mountaineering boots are extremely uncomfortable, they have rigid soles and do not flex, so while they work great on snow, they are absolute hell on solid ground. If you haven't worn mountaineering boots, its akin to walking around town in ski-boots.
We started our hike, and things got messy fast. It started snowing with often transitions to sleet. There was a good 6" of snow on the ground making the hike a little tough. But as we've learnt from snow school, walk on footsteps already created by hikers ahead of you, making things easier. The weather was getting worse, the snow was getting heavier. We'd take a break every hour, and by the second break, the weather coupled with our heavy packs started to take a toll. We were told from people descending that the cloud level was at 8,500ft.
After the second break, everyone was silent as we worked up the snowfield, this was taking more effort than most were expecting, especially with really heavy packs. We passed 8,500ft, and we were still getting snowed on. As the day goes by, clouds warm up and rise. I figure we will probably be in this mess till the bitter end. At the third break, we got word that the team attempting the summit had to turn around really early due to poor route conditions. This would make it 3 consecutive days of unsuccessful attempts.
The higher up we went, the more snow we had to plow through. In the last stretch, we were hiking through a foot of snow. It was getting hard, shoulders started to hurt. I didn't complain, in some ways I even enjoyed it.
We could tell that we were nearing the cloud level, sunlight would pierce through teasing us every so often. After about a 4-hour grind, we got to camp Muir, and it was barely over the clouds. The lighting was surreal as the afternoon sun lit clouds brushing over camp with frequent dustings of snow.
We immediately huddled in the hut that the guides built for their clients. It was a small hut with exactly 18 padded bunks, a table, and a light. Camp had self-composting washrooms, which was a great relief (because if it didn't, we'd have to poop in blue bags, and carry it back with us). Drinking water was made from melting snow, so it was forbidden to urinate on the snow in the vicinity. We hung our clothes to dry and had dinner. Around 7pm, the guides gave us a thorough briefing. They seemed cautiously optimistic that the weather would cooperate for the climb. However, they expressed a little concern that with great weather and warmer temperatures after a snowfall, there was potential for avalanches, which may force us to turn around. Since no one has been able to summit and observe snow conditions for the past few days, they could not make the call until they saw the route for themselves. Around 7pm, we were ready to sleep.
The Summit Bid
I actually managed to get some sleep. The hut was tiny, and with 16 people, it got warm fast. It was too hot to use the sleeping bag which I had to adandon. I must've passed out around 8pm and I woke up at 11:30pm. I figure 3.5 hours was a decent amount of sleep which is more than most people got. I was excited, there was no way I can go back to sleep. I laid there for another hour before the guides rolled in at 12:30am to wake us up. It was show time.
The guides informed us that it was a clear starry night, it was cold, but no winds. All systems go, we were ready to climb. Within 1 hour, we got up, dressed up, had breakfast, packed our bags, and donned our harnesses and crampons. Avalanche transceivers were turned on and we were set. We started our climb on the glacier to see many climbers already well ahead of us, headlights bobbing far in the distance.
The guides split us into roped teams. My guide was Jenn, and I was partnered with Andrew and Eric from the "Boston crew". We started moving exactly at 1:30am. The first part of the climb involves traversing the Cowlitz glacier crossing the cathedral gap leading onto the Ingraham Glacier. This part was pretty straight forward. There were a few steep bits, but we were well rested and made through this stretch fairly easily.
Our first rest stop was Ingraham Flats. As the name implies, a flat concave portion of the Ingraham glacier that sees little movement, and as such is a safe spot to rest. Our first break was about an hour into the climb.
First things first when you take a rest, "take care of yourselves" the guides instruct. I pull out my parka, and I start eating a snickers bar and some energy gels. I knew altitude will eventually be the name of the game, so I drank half a liter of water and vowed to drink that much at every break. I could make out the faint outline of disappointment cleaver. There were already climbers on there, and wow, it was steep! If I had to guess, it was easily about 60 degrees.
We continue on the Ingraham glacier. It wasn't long before the entire line of climbers were stopped by the sound of a really loud crack. There was a brief moment of silence before a really loud roar of crashing ice and snow. To best describe it, it sounded like the noise a plane makes when it engages the airbrakes immediately after landing. It was an avalanche, and it sounded (and felt) like a massive domino of ice falling, crashing, and then breaking apart. It felt uncomfortably close. All the headlamps focused on the area the sound came from between where we were standing and cleaver. The puny headlamps were too weak to light up the face of the mountain, but It's as if we were all waiting for something to come crashing down on us, but nothing ever did. It went silent for a few moments, and I asked Mike about 5 climbers in front of me "What was that?!", and he responds "Icefall". Everyone stood confused, unsure about what happens next. A moment of silence passes, and mike instructs "Alright, let's keep going!".
Teams cross under the icefall one at a time, and we were next. We moved under it swiftly. Alpine ascents are made in the early hours of the morning as that's when the snow is most stable and weather is most calm, minimizing any avalanche hazard and making the climb easier. But the fact that an avalanche still occurred at 2am made me question the snow condition on the upper slopes, but I thought I'd let the pros worry about that.
We got to the base of the cleaver, and we moved to a short rope formation, reducing the distance between climbers making things safer. The cleaver is described to be the crux of the route and takes about an hour and 45 minutes to complete. It was covered in a good amount of snow from the previous storm. The rock quality was horrible, it was brittle, and rock fall is a major hazard not only for us but also for climbers below.
Disappointment cleaver was definitely steep, and even though it's considered the hard part of the climb, I thought it was very manageable. What makes it "hard" in my opinion, it that it's a really sketchy climb with many objective hazards, but the climbing itself isn't difficult - At least I didn't think so. We eventually took a break at the top of the cleaver, with orange outlining the horizon (if I had to guess, it was around 4am?). We no longer needed headlamps. It was really cold, and I couldn't wait for the sun to come out and warm us up a bit. Many in the group started to complain of headaches, a symptom of altitude. I on the other hand, felt great.
Looking up at the mountain there were two teams ahead of us. We still didn't know what the conditions of the snow was, whether it was stable enough for a bid to the summit. The conditions seemed fine up until now, so the guides decided to wait till high camp.
The stretch from the clever onward was hard as altitude started taking a toll. The climb was purely on snow over the Emmons glacier. We were not to see another rock until we hit the crater rim. Some slopes were above what we called "man-eating" crevasses. There's no time to react in the event of a slip or fall over these crevasses, so the guides placed snow anchors and we'd clip the rope to the anchor to catch us in the event of a fall.
It was such a grind, it wasn't the hardest thing I've done, but it was tough as we navigated the switchbacks slowly up the mountain. We couldn't stop, the guide sets the pace, and we were all roped up, making stopping a little dangerous. Taking a break at will was not an option. Step, step, ice axe, step, step, ice axe, and repeat. It was tiring, it made my heart race. Effects of altitude started kicking in, and I'd pressure breathe every so often (it helped a lot). As tough as it was, I handled it really well. A little over an hour, we were relieved to reach our next break - “high break” - and our last stop before our summit bid.
The sunrise was amazing, and we instantly put on sunglasses and sunscreen. We ate and rehydrated. I was glad I had no altitude symptoms at all. I was doing really well. The last stretch had a lot of snow, in some parts up to 2 feet deep. It was unclear whether the stretch to the summit was safe as we watched teams ahead of us make their attempt. The guides made the call and deemed the snow safe. Soft snow coated the mountain, and while there was still an avalanche hazard, the avalanche would be soft and powdery, versus a hard slab avalanche where large chunks of ice and boulders of snow could come tumbling down. Mike makes the call “Alright guys, we’re going to go for the summit!”. I took my last sips of water.
The final stretch to the summit was really hard. it was such a monotonous grind against altitude. The air was thin, breathing was difficult. Feeling borderline nauseous, we were essentially moving like zombies, barely holding onto the slope and keeping balance. The upper slopes had no sign of any rock; It was all snow. It took an hour and a half non-stop - a purely mental game of putting one foot in front of another. You want to stop and rest, even for 10 seconds, but you can’t. No words can really explain this bit, but believe me, it was hard. We catch a glimpse of some rock, we must be close! Adrenaline pumps, and it wasn’t long before we finally reached the top. We all took cover from the wind in the snow-filled crater. The final 200-300 vertical feet was extremely exhausting, it sucked, and it was fantastic.
Summiting volcanoes means climbing to the crater rim which 14 out of 16 of us did (2 turned around further down). The true summit “Columbia crest” was a walk further up the crater which would take a 40 minute round trip. Now, I’ve viewed photos from the true summit before, and I know it’s nothing impressive at all (actually, the views are rather horrible). So I made the call to not go to the true summit. Descents in mountaineering is the most dangerous part. Gravity is working against you for traction, and many climbers get too tired for the way down, allowing mistakes to happen. Knowing how steep the way up was, I wanted to be refreshed for the way down, and decided to rest, re-energize, and enjoy the better views from the crater rim instead.
From the rim’s edge, you can see most of the major cascade volcanoes, Adams, Baker, Hood, St Helen’s with its blown off top from the 1980 eruption, even Jefferson 250km away was barely visible. It was really cold - based on previous forecasts the summit was -18C. Despite that, we were amazed at how nice the weather was, it wasn’t windy, and we had clear skies throughout. But it was cold, even with parkas we had a tough time keeping warm. We stayed on the summit for 45 minutes before making our way down. I tried to capture some GoPro footage of the ascent. But first it was too dark, then when the sun rose it was simply too cold that the batteries simply gave up.
Guides lead the roped team while ascending, however during the descent; the guides are last on the rope as it’s the best position to catch a fall. Breathing becomes easier the lower you get, yet knees and legs work a lot harder during the descent. It is well known that most people underestimate the energy required to come down.
We applied tips we learnt from class, ensure all crampon points make contact, nose over toes, and use the ice axe for extra support. It wasn’t hard to be honest, but it was definitely a task that needed to be surefooted. We were quick descending the upper slopes, we became masters clipping into the anchors. It was bright, and we finally got to see what we had climbed. All the crevasses became clear, they were huge. In the areas that we had to be careful and clip into anchors, we could see why. Massive crevasses lined the bottom of the slopes; you can’t even see the bottom of the crevasse as it hides beneath the slope of the mountain.
We did so well that we managed to get back to the top of the cleaver without stopping for a break; it took us about an hour. The sun started to heat us up, my GoPro batteries came alive! Time to hit the record button. We took a good rest before we descend the cleaver, the hardest part. Like the ascent, we had to short rope on the cleaver for the way down. You really need to be careful descending the cleaver, not only it is steep (on fresh snow), there is plenty of loose rock mixed in with the snow. There is a real slipping, falling, and rock fall hazard on this part. Short roping helped a lot. Just when you’re about to lose your footing and take a slip, the rope tenses with the body weight of the person behind you, giving you a little tug enough to keep your balance and prevent you from falling. For rock climbers, It’s very similar to how toproping can give you just a little tug to complete a move. If the guy in front of me takes a slip, I’d lean back tensioning the rope pulling him back. It was neat, and I learnt something cool that day.
During the descent, we knocked down lots of tiny rocks (it’s unavoidable). So we had to make intermittent stops allowing teams below us to safely pass ensuring a rock doesn't come down flying their way. The stops were a gift and a curse, it was great to not move for a change, but resting while standing on a steep slope actually took more effort than I would have liked. Teams took turns with the stop-and-go routine in order to make sure everyone was in the clear. Once we were past the cleaver, we switched to regular glacial travel formation (with the guide in front), and continued back to the Ingraham flats, our last break.
Descending the cleaver not only took way longer than I thought, it was also mentally and physically draining. We were really exhausted at this point, even that being an understatement. I felt great, don’t get me wrong, I was exhausted as much as the next guy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the climb up till now. Our guides let us enjoy a longer-than-usual break. We had one more technical stretch to do, and we were back at camp. Our guides give us a briefing of what should happen when we got back. During the briefing, we reflected just how lucky we got with the weather. 3 days of miserable rains and snow, and being welcomed with the perfect summit day. Looking back at the mountain, a lenticular cloud was already over the summit, and clouds were starting to rise above the mountain. We really lucked out with the weather.
I’ve come to notice this the more I do trips like these; the closer you are to the end, the more your body tends to give out. I’m sure it’s psychological. Your body doesn’t have to work so hard anymore because you know you’re nearing the end, making the last stretch to camp absolutely painful. It was technically easy with a small steep descent at Cathedral Gap (which by the way we had no recollection of doing because we did it in the dark), but the weight of the heavy boots and climbing all day really took it's toll. We were so happy when we saw the huts at camp.
It was 1:30pm when we were back camp, which by this point our climb took exactly 12 hours. We had to spend exactly 1 hour at camp to pack all our items (i.e. sleeping bag, garbage, etc…) and dress down for the hike back to Paradise. We quickly packed our things and removed all technical gear. It was getting warm, especially with the sun reflecting off the snow that we were down to just wearing just 1 layer top and bottom.
I assumed the last stretch to Paradise would be easy, and I was very, very wrong. Remember the snowstorm from the previous day dumping a foot of snow on the snowfield? Well… now I have to descend through that, my legs as functional as jelly. The hike down to Paradise was brutal. Absolutely brutal. Climbers from the Washington area who got to train on this very same trail every so often flew down the slope. Me? I never got to train 4000ft downhill on a foot of snow. My legs were exhausted hurting trying to take every step down. It hurt if i moved, and if I paused to rest, my legs would shiver like Elvis from sheer exhaustion. My feet were wet, the bottoms of my feet starting to feel raw and blister. The bright sun made it really hot. The lower we got, the sun started melting off the top layers of snow, making it slushy and slippery and even harder. It was an unpleasant grind, and it took me well over 2 hours to get to the very bottom to Paradise from Camp Miur, and it was BY FAR the worst and most miserable part of the trip.
It was nice sitting on a cushioned bus seat, even if it was tight and a long ride back to base camp.
How did it compare to Kilimanjaro? Even though Rainier is 5000ft shorter, mentally, it was equally challenging. Altitude isn't so much about elevation, but rate of ascent. Getting up to 14,000ft in a matter of 48 hours is not easy. Physically, Rainier is far more demanding. The environment is harsh and hostile with slippery surfaces and legitimate falling hazards, focusing and balancing on the climb is constant. There are also no porters on Rainier, you have to haul everything yourself (the bright side is you don't need a tent). There are no cooks, and your meals wont be ready when you get to camp, no one is going to feed you. The guides are simply there to guide and mitigate risks, they do provide some nice luxuries (like the hut and boiling water), but everything else is on you.
We had one last pow-wow at basecamp where the team and guides shared some anecdotes, exchanged emails and phone numbers, and handed out summit certificates. Mike reiterated how well the climb played out for us, and it's something that doesn't always happen. He had just returned from unsuccessful attempt on Denali where his team spent 3 weeks battling poor weather and had to forfeit after they ran out of food, fuel, and supplies. The truth is, not everyone gets to summit, as we've seen with attempts on the 3 previous days before ours. It would really have sucked to not make it, especially for me who traveled across the continent to climb this mountain. I've met many like myself at basecamp who came all this way and trained so hard for an unsuccessful attempt.
But that's the reality, and it could have easily been our team that had to deal with horrible conditions. To end the trip (and effectively this blog post), Mike quoted something that his father used to say often, and it applies well to playing in the big mountains:
"Sometimes you eat the bear, but sometimes the bear eats you"
It should go without saying, but I have to, Special thanks to our Guides (and RMI) for the lessons, fun times, great climb, and having our backs.