I was at a happy hour for people in the adventure travel industry when the mystery guy turned to me and said, “Have you ever dreamed of climbing Mount Rainier?”
I shook my head.
“You mean, you grew up here and never looked at it and thought, ‘I want to reach the top’?”
“Never,” I answered truthfully. Mount Rainier was something to gaze at, not to conquer. After all, it’s really tall (14,411 feet, to be exact). And icy. And did I mention really tall?
Mystery Guy introduced me to Ambrose Bittner, founder of Red Lantern Journeys, a local company that arranges cultural tours and adventure travel packages in Asia. Every year, Ambrose organizes a charity climb to the top of Rainier, with proceeds benefiting the Mitrata-Nepal Foundation for Children. I was intrigued. What Mystery Guy didn’t know is that once I’m challenged to do something, I often follow through. And if my efforts could help kids get an education, all the better.
One week later, after extensively studying the gear list (overwhelming!) and recommended training regimen (also overwhelming!), I had signed up with some encouragement from Ambrose—completely against my better judgment.
With just three and a half months to prepare and no hiking experience to speak of, I had to dive in immediately, so I started with one of the toughest hikes around: Mailbox Peak. It took me an embarrassingly long time to reach the top, but I kept at it, climbing staircases during the week and gaining significant elevation every weekend at places like Mount Si and Mount Dickerman while slowly loading my pack until I was used to carrying 45 pounds.
The Big Day
When my carpool driver arrived the morning of the climb, I’d only slept two hours. Adrenaline washed away the fatigue as we set out for the mountain, stopping at Copper Creek Restaurant for breakfast. Our group of 10 was all together for the first time; over pancakes and eggs, we chattered excitedly and got to know each other.
The day was beautiful. As we made our way toward base camp, I was glad I’d hiked this route once before—the familiarity canceled out some of the fluttery feelings I had. The last 1,000 feet to Camp Muir, at 10,188 feet, is notorious for being interminable. I started to lose ground on the group and when Ambrose stopped me on the trail, I worried he’d tell me I wasn’t up to par for the push toward the summit. Instead he offered me some cherries.
At Camp Muir, we worked together to set up tents and boil water. There, our group leaders broke the news we’d figured was coming: bad weather was rolling in, which meant we’d need to summit the next day. (Usually the second day is reserved for acclimatizing and practicing self-arresting and traveling with a rope team.) That gave us about two hours to get some sleep before waking at 11 p.m. to rope up and begin.
Sandwiched in a small tent with two Daves—St. Louis Dave, a personal trainer, and Seattle Dave, who’d attempted to summit twice before but was thwarted both times—anxiety and a faulty mattress pad prevented me from sleeping a wink. I stepped out of the tent with all my gear on and was greeted by a pitch black sky. As we attached ourselves to the ropes, I felt, for the first time, not apprehension or nerves but straight-up fear. I wondered if I should make it easier on everyone and excuse myself to crawl back into the tent for some of that sleep I so desperately needed.
Instead, I took deep breaths (harder to do at this elevation) and pressed on. It was unnerving to see only what my headlamp revealed to me, but I soon settled in, marveling at how magical the string of climbers making their way up the mountain appeared—their headlamps in the distance looked like fireflies dancing in the sky. I was jolted out of my happy place when I came across the first ladder over a crevasse. I’d watched YouTube videos beforehand of this, but nothing can prepare you for stepping along a rickety metal contraption in your crampons—which may be great on snow but don’t lend themselves particularly well to agility. I silently celebrated when I made it to the other side, proud that I’d lived to tell the tale.
Making the Summit
The next test came on Disappointment Cleaver, a steep section filled with scree. By the top, the altitude was making one of the ladies in our group sick, so she decided to head back with one of the rope team leaders. A few minutes later, after some hemming and hawing, more climbers decided to turn back. That left me the only female, with just three others: my tentmates and rope team leader Don. From then on, if anyone had to turn around, everyone had to turn around. I wasn’t going to let the Daves down, so I knew I’d be summiting Mount Rainier that day by any means necessary.
Watching the sun come up and illuminate all the other mountains in the distance was a highlight. Eventually, after I put one foot in front of the other enough times, I reached the crater rim. Part of me wanted to cry, but I was too dehydrated to produce tears. We tore off our gear and set out for the 20-minute walk across the rim and up to Columbia Crest, the true high point of Mount Rainier.
The journey down was not fun. The snow was softer, the legs more fatigued, and the anticipation gone. At this point, all we wanted to do was get off the mountain, and tensions ran high—lack of food, sleep and oxygen will do that. A few dozen slips in the snow and a hallucination or two later, I was back at Camp Muir, welcomed by our party with high-fives, filled water bottles, and an invitation to take a nap. Even though the Daves and I once again had to squeeze into our tiny tent (coincidentally, the three of us who summited all rode in the same car and slept in the same tent), this time we had no trouble dozing off.
I walked off the mountain that day with new friends, a really big bruise, and an experience I could never quite encapsulate in words. So thank you, Mystery Guy, for positing a question I had never considered. Now when I look at Mount Rainier, I’m filled with even more awe and appreciation than ever before, along with the knowledge that one day, I was strong enough to stand atop it.
If You Go
Start training as soon as possible—many people specifically train for four to six months. Nothing beats long hikes with a big elevation gain and a heavy pack; you’ll want to work your way up to at least 40 pounds, about how much weight you’ll be carrying the first day. Activities such as running, cycling, and weight training are also helpful.
Odds of good weather are best in July and August, when most climbers make their attempt. If you’re new to mountaineering, it’d be wise to sign up with a guide service. Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), International Mountain Guides (IMG), and Alpine Ascents all offer guided trips. Prices range from about $1,000 to $1,900 for three- to five-day climbs on the Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier routes. For information about the Mitrata-Nepal charity climb, visit RedLanternJourneys.com. If you coordinate the trip on your own, you’ll need a climbing pass to summit ($45 for those 25 and older; $32 if you’re 24 or younger), which is valid for the calendar year. Your group also needs a Wilderness Permit if planning to camp overnight ($20 per party).
The list of necessities atop the mountain is extensive. The guide services will let you know what you need. This includes an ice axe, an alpine climbing harness, locking carabiners, crampons, a climbing helmet, gaiters, glacier glasses, an expedition backpack, a sleeping bag, a headlamp and sunscreen, just for starters. Some of this can be rented. You’ll also need many pieces of technical clothing and light-in-weight, high-calorie food.