Even far short of summit, Rainier offers big views
Sometimes a mountain is measured by more than its height.Take Mount Rainier. Washington State’s highest point is 23 feet lower than Colorado’s high point, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert. But there’s little disputing which of the two is more deserving of the term big mountain.Elbert sits among a number of like-sized peaks, about 4,000 feet above the Arkansas Valley floor. Rainier stands in solo majesty, a monolithic 12,000 feet above the border of the national park that surrounds it.Elbert, although a long day’s hike, is a mere walk-up. Rainier is anything but. Crampons and ice axes are required, as is knowing how to use them. Also crucial is to have climbing party members knowledgeable in crevasse avoidance and rescue, and avalanche safety.The importance of the latter became apparent to a group of us trying to climb the mountain at the start of June. It was beautiful climbing weather, with clear and calm conditions on the mountain, and the promise of summiting in the morning sun ahead of us.But looks can be deceiving. As our climbing party slowly made its way above 10,188-foot Camp Muir – our optimism renewed after struggling through blizzard conditions to camp the previous day – our guides with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. were whispering notes of caution between each other.Then lead guide Mark Smiley stopped to dig a snow pit that verified their fears. While the current weather was wonderful, the storms of recent weeks had left the snowpack unstable. It was too dangerous to go on.In the pre-dawn darkness, Smiley waited for each of the rope teams to arrive and then held up several layers of snow to explain what they revealed about the slide danger. Then we turned around, a mere 1,000 feet above Muir, having gotten only a taste of the glacier climbing that is so much a part of Rainier’s appeal.Then, as if to display some sympathy for our disappointed group, Rainier began to reveal itself and the surrounding landscape in the first light of dawn. Whereas the view during our nighttime ascent was limited mostly to the circles of light illuminated by our headlamps and the stars above, now we saw that Rainier presided over an expanse of clouds stretching in every direction. On the eastern horizon, the sun announced its impending arrival in hues of orange and yellow. Far off to the south, alpenglow gave a pink tint to two other prominent volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.
Even well below the top of the mountain, Rainier affords top-of-the-world views that we enjoyed on the descent that morning all the way back to the parking lot at the 5,400-foot Paradise visitors center.Rainier offers a natural next step for Coloradans who enjoy Fourteeners and are looking for a new challenge such as that provided by high-altitude glacier climbing. While the altitude isn’t as much of an issue for Centennial State residents, unless you’ve taken training in glacier travel, using a guide service on Rainier may be the wise way to go.
Later in the season, the standard route up Rainier reportedly is well-trodden, more avalanche-safe and easy to follow in good weather. But losing the route in a whiteout could put you in a crevasse’s path. And regardless, practice in using an ice ax for stopping a fall on a glacier is imperative.RMI teaches a mandatory one-day class on glacier travel as part of its three-day package for climbing Rainier on the standard Disappointment Cleaver route from Camp Muir. Those interested in crevasse self-rescue can take a separate optional class.The company (www.rmiguides.com, 1-888-892-5462) is the only one permitted by the National Park Service to offer guided trips on the standard route up Rainier, and the three-day package costs $795. Other guide companies serve clients elsewhere on the mountain.During the less stable weather of early June, I and others in my party found ourselves glad to have a guide just to navigate us the rest of the way to Muir when a wicked blizzard hit. Later in the summer, people often ascend to the high camp in shorts and T-shirts.The guides’ value also proved itself during their assessment of an avalanche risk not apparent to the untrained eye. Still, Smiley later called it “awful” to have to break the news to his clients.”That’s probably the hardest situation because you have a beautiful morning but conditions won’t let you go on,” he said.For Dan McBride, a firefighter in Rochester, N.Y., the news was doubly disappointing. He was trying to climb Rainier with three adult-age children as part of their years-long quest to reach the highest point in every state. Just days earlier, they had turned around on Mount Hood in Oregon just short of the summit, again due to avalanche danger.The McBrides had spent a lot of money without being able to check two big mountains off their list. And daughter Molly admitted that there were times on Rainier that weren’t exactly enjoyable, either. But the two both were awed by the perspective they gained by being high on the mountain on a sublime morning.”It’s amazing to just be up there. You’re up above the clouds,” Molly said.That was plenty high enough for Beth Tweedy of Texas, who was climbing with her father Dennis as his high school graduation gift to her. Beth has summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, which is more than 19,000 feet high, but said she hadn’t trained for Rainier.”I’m glad that we got that high, because my body didn’t want to go any farther,” she said.As for me, my amazement over the views from Rainier at 11,000 feet only increased my desire to return someday to check out the view from the top.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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