On June 29th-July 2nd 2017 Jeb and I climbed Mt. Rainier with the guiding company, International Mountain Guides. We decided to sign up for the slightly longer program (instead of the standard RMI itinerary). This IMG program spends an extra day on the mountain which is spent doing glacier and snow school. The other programs do this before starting the climb. The advantage of doing it on the mountain is it creates almost a rest day, since the snow school day isn’t as physically demanding. Overall this increases your chances of summit success.
Climbing Mt. Rainier had been been a goal of ours for years, plus it is part of the state high points, so we “needed” to do it! We completed the 12 week training plan created by the website Fit Climb. We were very glad we trained this way, because it definitely prepared us enough for the climb.
We decided to drive there to Washington instead of flying, in order to save money. The problem with this was we arrived there SUPER swollen from so many hours in the car, and very stiff the day before the climb.
Driving there when we got fairly close we saw a huge mountain and we thought we were seeing Mt. Rainier. It turned what we were seeing was actually Mt. Adams. The moment when we actually saw Mt. Rainier we realized “our mountain” was so much larger!
We arrived at the IMG headquarters place and were anxious to meet the team. To me these orientation meetings always feel like everyone is kind of sizing up each other, and I don’t want to feel like I’m the one that is not going to make it! Fortunately we had a really friendly group and the people were not hostile or intimidating at all. Other than us there were three sets of dads and kids (2 of the pairs were dads with their sons and one was a dad with his daughter). We were super jealous of how cool their parents were, and we kept joking (just between jeb and I) “can we be adopted”?! lol.
When we go there we had to go through all of our gear with our guides ahead of time to make sure we were bringing the right stuff. Anything they told us not to bring we were supposed to leave behind in our cars. Other people had a really hard time parting with things, but for me anytime they said “you don’t need to bring that” I was thrilled because it meant less pack weight!
The two non-negotiable items for me (that I was not really supposed to bring) were 1. Deodorant- I was not going to be the stinky person on the trip! 2. Our good camera. The guides said not to bring it and to just use a phone or something, I was SO glad we didn’t listen because we ended up with the best pictures by far thanks to having a camera that can handle bad lighting much better. All of our summit pictures would have been super blurry without this camera, as it was it was really hard to get good summit pictures.
The night before the climb we decided to save money and time by staying at IMG headquarters instead of in a hotel in the area. We spent the night in these neat tents they provided. It was a really large tent that had these cots and padding to sleep on.
After we were done we initially all went our separate ways, but then one of the dads asked us if we wanted to go out to dinner with them, and that he was inviting the whole team. We said yes, thank you, even though my initial reaction in my head (not being a super social person with “strangers”) was, why would we want to spend tonight with these people when we are about to spend 4 days straight with them?! lol.
In retrospect, I’m very glad we went to dinner. We had fun plus it was nice to get to know everyone a little bit first. These people ended up being our “Rainier family” and we got to really enjoy working with everyone as a team and the sense of being “in it together”.
The next day we headed to the mountain. The trip itinerary was like this: Day 1 check in, meet the team, pre trip orientation, and gear check. Day 2 drive to Rainier (Paradise) and hike to Camp Muir (4,600 feet of gain to get to 11,000 feet) spend the night at camp Muir. Day 3 Glacier Travel/Snow school, hike 1,000 feet of gain to get to high camp at 11,000 people, Spend the “night”. Day 4 hike the remaining 3,400 feet of gain to the summit at 14,400, then hike all the way back down to the parking lot at Paradise (9,000 foot descent), drive back to Ashford, final “ceremony” and returning gear, and then each going our own separate ways.
The hike to Camp Muir wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. Our 30ish pound packs were much lighter than what we had trained with, which was often more than 50 pounds.
The hike to Muir isn’t technical at all, it is just hiking on snow fields. So really anyone in decent shape could do it, because there is nothing “scary” about this portion of the hike.
We lucked out with unusually warm and clear weather on Rainier. We had heard horror stories about earlier that season when there was a two week period where the weather was so bad that no one was able to summit. Thank goodness that didn’t happen to us!
Our group hiked at a pace that was slower and steadier than a lot of other groups we saw. The RMI guides with their teams would fly past us and then take breaks. They looked like they were miserable the whole way up and struggling so hard to keep up with their guides’ pace. They ended up getting to Muir only 20-30 minutes before our team. I’m so glad we weren’t like that because it would have majorly stressed me out!
We saw lots of people heading up to Muir that did not look very prepared at all. When you’re climbing without guides you really don’t have to be in as good of shape because there is no set pace that you are required to keep up with.
The view up to Muir was so amazing. The views of Mt. Rainier itself I expected to be completely spectacular, but I was not expecting there to be so many other mountains around Rainier that were so pretty.
I really love the look of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest where there are so many distinct prominent mountains.volcanoes around.
It is definitely a little intimidating looking up towards the rest of the mountain and seeing how much higher it is, and how intense all of the features on it look!
The situation that kept happening was that every time we got a little bit higher up you would be able to see different mountains off in the distance (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, etc). Every time we would stop someone would individually ask the guides “which mountain is that?” Then we would stop again and someone different would ask the guides the same question lol. This kept happening over and over again to the point where it was driving me nuts how many times we had to go over individually which mountains they were. If I was a guide I would just tell everyone which mountain is which all at once to avoid hashing that out so many times!
That being said, I really enjoyed that we could see Mt. Hood from up there. It was so neat to look out in the distance and be like “we’ve been up there before!”
It was so difficult not to get sunburnt on this trip. Every time we stopped we applied more sunscreen and still seemed to get burnt a little. The sun just reflects up off of the snow and ice and burns you. I ended up burnt in places I didn’t realize it was possible to be burnt (like under my chin!).
Whenever we took breaks (when our guides decided it was time for a break) we were required to sit down. The rule was that if we were stopped we had to take off our packs and sit on them to conserve as much energy as possible. We did though stand up really quickly just for enough time to take some quick pictures! It was kind of a funny situation though, where you could get in “trouble” if you weren’t sitting down when you were supposed to be lol.
The sleeping situation up at camp Muir was that we slept in this wooden hut thing (Seen below). In it everyone all sleeps in one room together, which isn’t completely ideal, but at least you are sheltered from the wind and elements.
The bathroom situation at camp Muir was pretty much the worst ever. I was super afraid to use the bathrooms, they smelled really terrible! The designated “pee” bathroom smelled so strong it made my eyes burn… There were also these trash cans fill with poop bags. The trash cans are only unloaded and removed once per season because they have to take it out by helicopter. As a result the smell is far from pleasant.
When we arrived at Muir we had like an hour break while the guides got dinner going. They encouraged us to lay down and rest and/or sleep. Everyone other than us laid down and just about instantly fell asleep, they were all so exhausted.
Jeb and I were used to carrying heavier packs and doing hikes where we had to come back down once we got to the top. So we actually felt like we had so much energy to spare.
I didn’t want to lay down; I wanted to walk around outside, explore, appreciate the views, and take pictures. As corny as it sounds, I wanted to cherish every single moment we had on that mountain.
Once we got to Muir (even though we had so much to go, and all the hard stuff left) it finally started to feel real to me. Like this is actually happening, and I think I’m going to be able to make it to the top!
My confidence wasn’t high enough to not be nervous, we were anxious about the summit the entire time we were on the mountain. But I felt like this was the first time I allowed myself to actually think that I truly could do it.
After this break time was up we then went to dinner in the guides tent. The nice part about IMG is that both of the dinners and both of the breakfasts on the mountain are completely provided for you by the guides. Everyone has to carry 3 pounds of “group food” up to camp Muir. But other than that you don’t have to worry about what to bring, or how to cook it because they do it for you.
That night we had burritos. Like legitimate Mexican food burritos (tortillas, beans, rice, chicken, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa). It was delicious, and we had plenty of it!
Another disadvantage of not going with guides is that you then have to carry your own tent up in order to set up camp. I’m glad we didn’t have to take that weight, but it was really pretty seeing all of the colorful tents set up on the snow.
After dinner it was fairly soon time to head back to the hut and try to get to sleep.
Again most people fell asleep really fast, I could not get to sleep. I was too wound up to sleep, plus it was never quiet. People were constantly opening the door to leave to get to the bathroom, or rustling around with their stuff, or snoring.
Ironically all of those older dads, and the one other girl in the group was the snorer. She snored like a bear and drove everyone nuts!
Throughout the time on the mountain, our guides told us that every time we stopped for a break while hiking we needed to make sure we ate 200-250 calories no matter what, even if we weren’t hungry.
They told us that we should even sleep with snacks by our pillow so that if we woke up in the middle of the night we could have some snacks before falling back to sleep. At that point the girl in our group said “Oh yay, I do that already every night”, to which one of the guides said “Yeah… except it is a little bit more normal and socially acceptable to be doing that here…” lol.
When it comes to food some people had the weirdest packing plans, like packing only cereal or only goldfish, but just pounds and pounds of that one thing. Or the where the one father son pair that packed just tons of bologna sandwiches and basically every break the whole trip they would eat one of those sandwiches. I could not eat like that!
We followed the rule of packing a variety of items and specifically packing things that you don’t normally eat, that you will be excited to be able to eat on the mountain. So we had candy bars, peanut butter covered granola bars, chocolate covered coconut bites, and so much more stuff!
Even still we learned a lot about what works well and what doesn’t. Chocolate covered anything is tough, because when it is hot it melts and turns into a mess, and when it is cold it freezes and turns into a brick. Also you have to be careful with crunchy stuff because it gets smashed too easy. So really it is a tough packing plan to make everything work!
After the trip was over we had seriously gotten used to eating so regularly that it was hard to get used to the idea that in normal life you really don’t need to be eating something every single hour! Everywhere we went on our trip after the climb I kept joking “should I bring snacks?”. haha.
I slept for less than 4 hours that first night. I would end up sleeping less than 5 hours the entire time on the mountain despite the fact that we were technically up there for two overnights…
I woke up at 4am to pee and walked outside and saw the most amazing sunrise I have ever seen in my life.
I came back inside and tried to get Jeb to get up with me but he said he was too tired and did not want to get up lol.
He regretted it later because the pink colors and being up above the clouds was completely breathtaking!
These ended up being some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip!
Breakfast that morning was pancakes and bacon and was also delicious. Our whole group ate a lot, and the guides said they were impressed with everyone’s ability to eat up there. Sometimes at altitude people don’t really have much of an appetite, but we sure did!
After breakfast we loaded up our packs and headed over to where we would do snow/glacier school. During this time the main 3 categories of things taught are 1. Crampon technique. 2. Rope/Glacier travel. 3. How to self arrest.
Since we climbed Mt. Hood the summer before, we had already learned all of this before. But I personally like the extra practice in a location where screwing up doesn’t have consequences, as opposed to higher up the mountain where one bad foot placement can be REALLY bad.
For some reason I didn’t feel like everyone in our group was taking the class as seriously as they should be, a lot of people were super distractible and I think by the end even the guides were starting to be annoyed by our group’s lack of ability to focus and treat things seriously.
To be honest I think the guiding company for Mt. Hood actually did a much better job of doing this class, but I think part of that is just because they have a lot more time to spend on covering it.
The one main thing that was new to us in the class is traveling on a long rope, like how you do on a glacier. On Mt. Hood everything we did roped in was on short rope. Where as when you travel on a glacier you keep the rope much longer so that if someone falls into a crevasse or something the rest of the group has more time to self arrest and stop the fall.
The challenge with any type of rope travel is to keep the spacing right. The rope needs to have enough slack that you aren’t dragging other people around on a leash, but not too much slack otherwise it defeats the point of it.
Practicing self-arrest to me is hard because I feel like there is never a very good way to simulate the actual act of accidental falling. It is always much easier to do what you are supposed to do in the event of a fall, when you initially fall and everyone knows it is about to happen.
After the class was over we headed up the 1,000 feet of gain to high camp. I wasn’t happy on this trip because we ended up with the newest guide, who was only 18 and didn’t have much experience. I felt like he didn’t do a great job at pacing, and he definitely wasn’t nearly as good as the other guides about communicating with us and keeping us aware and informed of what was going on. I’m sure he will get better with time and just needs more practice, I was just very cranky about having to be his practice… lol
After we got to high camp and got setup (in the tents that just stay there) it was time for dinner. Dinner wasn’t as good at high camp, because they can’t bring as much stuff up there as easily. We had some sort of noodle pad Thai type of thing that was still pretty good.
I think the part that caught us off guard is that when we arrived at high camp we still had this feeling that we still had a lot of time before our summit attempt would begin. Originally we had thought that they would probably wake us up around midnight to head out. However, our guides decided that because of the warmer weather, and the insane crowds that were on the mountain because it was a holiday weekend, it would be better if we got a super early start (plus earlier is better because it is more frozen and your crampons can dig in better).
So they woke us up at 9:30pm to be all geared up and ready to head out of there by 11pm. We didn’t get into bed until probably 6pm. But we thought ok maybe we will sleep 3 hours or so… nope this didn’t happen, we were way too nervous and anxious to be able to sleep. Plus the “bear” was in the tent next to us happily snoring away.
Jeb and I just basically stared at each other from our sleeping bags nervously wasting away the time. Jeb ended up sleeping a little less than an hour and I slept for less than 30 minutes. It was a rough time.
Another aspect that made it hard to sleep was that while at high camp we watched a group get caught in a rock fall. They had rocks probably at least half the size of my car falling down on them that they just barely missed getting hit by. This was really scary to see.
Also, another thing that had us intimidated was hearing about what had happened to the alpine ascents team earlier that day. Apparently there was an ice fall in an area that almost never experiences ice fall. They got hit with huge chunks of falling ice. Fortunately they were all ok, but they had bruises and cracked helmets from it.
Hearing something like this really shakes up your nerves. It reminds you that what you are doing is inherently dangerous. That no matter how much you do to mitigate your risk, there will always be dangers that you can’t control or avoid. It forces you to think about all the things that could possibly go wrong, and that is a scary experience.
Also, for some reason it seemed like at least half of our group had the poops up there… I’m not sure if it is the nerves or what. But everyone kept going to the “bathroom”. The bathroom is basically this snow wall that is a half arc shape, like half of an igloo or something, for a little bit of privacy. Then you just crouch down to where no one can see and then you have to poop into a bag to bring back down to camp Muir. It isn’t a fun experience…
Jeb got it pretty bad and thankfully someone had some Imodium that saved his trip for him. But we seriously ran out of poop bags and had to ask around for more…
The weirdest part about getting up at 9:30 to go was that we were still supposed to have breakfast before we left. It really didn’t feel like we should be eating. The weird hour combined with the nerves made stomaching the oatmeal they gave us very difficult. We were each required to eat two packets of it. I almost finished all of mine but I gave a little to Jeb when no one was looking! I was pretty sure otherwise I was going to throw up, which would make the whole two packets completely pointless to have eaten…
It was a weird feeling starting a hike out in the daylight, and having it get darker as you hike, then hiking all through the darkness, until the sun comes up again in the morning!
From high camp to the summit, all of the “scary stuff” is encountered. We had heard so much about Disappointment Cleaver and were not looking forward to that part of the hike. It’s basically just an area that is very steep, with loose rock and some snow, where the consequences of a serious fall, could be really bad.
There are lots of areas where you have to worry about either rock fall, or ice fall from huge seracs. In those areas, the fitness level becomes a serious component, because you need to be in good enough shape to hurry through those areas and not linger in an area that can be very dangerous.
The upper mountain also has huge crevasses that need to be avoided. Stepping carefully over a crevasse where you can see that it just goes down and down for what seems like forever, because you can’t see the bottom, is a pretty sobering experience.
The top part of the mountain also has some very steep exposed areas where you actually clip in with your carabiners into fixed anchors that are already set up in the mountain. I thought this area was actually pretty fun clipping in and out. Plus the added security of being sort of attached to something up there is very much appreciated.
The top part was challenging both mentally and physically, but I just kept reminding myself with every step that this was what it was all about. All those times we got up at 4am to workout before work, or run up stairs in the rain and snow at Red Rocks, this was why we did all of that.
Jeb and I had basically made a pact with each other that we would be honest with ourselves and with each other but that no matter how we felt we would tell our guides we were feeling “GREAT”. The last thing we wanted was for our guides to think we seemed too tired or nervous or something and force us to turn around and not make the summit!
We finally arrived at the summit and I was so tired but so excited!. Rainier has a weird summit because the crater up there is so huge! You could probably fit several football fields into it because it is so large. There is also this really neat area that we went to where there is gas coming out of the vents (since it is a volcano). It was pretty awesome because you could actually get warm from it.
The advantage of us having left so early is that we were the very first people to summit the mountain that day, we actually watched the sunrise from the summit. Even our guides said this was the earliest they had ever been on the top of it before.
After we took pictures and celebrated making it up there then the harsh reality started to set in that we still had 9,000 feet to descend that same day, on no sleep, to get back to the parking lot. But the feeling I had on Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier was, I have the summit now, no one can take that away from me. No matter how painful the hike back down is, or even if you can’t go as fast as your guides want you to, no one can take that successful summit away from you!
The hike back down was hard but not as bad (once you get back to Muir) as most 14ers since the snow is more forgiving on your legs and knees than what rocks and scree are.
As we headed back down the trial did become packed. Getting back to high camp was seriously a traffic jam. We were amazed by how slowly some of the groups were going and how late they were going to be summiting, which is dangerous because everything softens up as the day goes on. We also saw weird things like super sweaty hot people wearing their huge warm puffy coats while hiking up. You should really never wear your puffy except when not moving, it is way too warm for that!
Once we got back to high camp, we were packing up our stuff when we witnessed something pretty scary happen. There was some more rock fall and it caused this rope team to lose their balance on the trail. We watched as one person slide off the trail. Once you go off that edge you are just sliding towards the edge of an 800 foot cliff. Thankfully their rope team was able to self-arrest and stop the fall, and they eventually all got back up to the trial and everyone was okay. But it is pretty alarming to see a team get knocked down like that and realize that something really bad was just narrowly avoided.
The other part that ended up being crazy to me was how many people in our group didn’t make the summit. It ended up being that only 4 out of the original 8 of us made it. Our guides said that was a lower success rate than normal. I think that part of the problem was that our whole group was in pairs. So when one person in the pair dropped out of making the summit, it tended to be that the other person did as well.
When we were down to just 4 of us heading up with 2 guides, I was super anxious because at this point if any one person decided not to keep going, we would have all been required to turn around and go down. For safety reasons there must always be 2 guides with the people up there. So if one person went down, they would need a guide to take them back down and that would not have left enough guides up there to keep going. It is nerve-wracking to realize that your fate in that sense is completely out of your hands, you just have to hope that everyone can keep going and that it works out.
Unfortunately since the group was all kids and their dads, the “kids” were all a lot younger than us (like 18) and the dads were obviously a lot older than us, so we didn’t make any serious like lasting friends.
We did however really like one of the dads, Todd. He was just a super nice and supportive guy. He was constantly telling us we were going to make it to the top and that we had nothing to worry about, and reminding us that we were well prepared for this. Having so much support from what is initially a total stranger was really helpful and encouraging. It is a bummer that no one lived near us because I think we still would have stayed in touch with people better if people lived closer to us.
Another new experience we encountered coming down was glissading. Glissading is basically where you sit on your butt and slide down the mountain and use your ice axe to control your speed. The girl in our group was obsessed with glissading, it was literally almost all she talked about the whole trip. She was so excited when we finally got to do it. She actually said that getting to glissade was “the only good part of the whole climb”… of course she might have just been down about not having made it to the summit…
My feeling about glissading was that it was helpful to get down faster and take a little bit of a break off of your feet, but it wasn’t super fun to me. I always felt really out of control, plus my butt had like snow burn from sliding on it downhill. My butt was very cold and hurting by the time we were done! But at least it got us back faster.
It was weird the closer and closer we got to the parking lot because that’s when you start to see all of the unprepared unathletic people. Women in skirts, people trying to walk through the snow in sandals, people falling all over the place because it’s slippery, etc. The only reassuring part of all this is that you know at that point you can’t have too much further to go!
Once we got to the parking lot there were a few things I could not wait to do (in this particular order). First and most important: take off my boots and sit. Second, eat a really big celebratory meal. Third text people and tell them we had been successful. Fourth SLEEP!!! Is it weird that showering didn’t even make my list? I think I had just gotten so used to being dirty at this point. We did eventually in fact shower.
Back at the guide headquarters they gave out certificates for everyone that made the top. Which to me was stupid because I couldn’t care less about having a piece of paper about it. Plus it was a really awkward “ceremony” since half of our group hadn’t made it.
After doing this and returning our rental gear we were finally back in our car and on our way for the rest of our trip. We could finally relax and appreciate what we just achieved.
For the most part we liked our guides. We definitely respected and appreciated their knowledge and their helpfulness in telling us exactly what needed to be done, eaten, worn, brought, etc, for each step of the way. It is nice to let someone else worry about all of the logistics so that you can just focus on not falling off the mountain, or into a crevasse!
On the hike down we started chatting with our guides about what was next. To be honest we had been so focused on this hike that we hadn’t really thought about it yet. But pretty much from that moment on we knew we needed to climb another big mountain. We felt like the next logical step in our progression would be to tackle a true international expedition on a high altitude peak.
To this day this is the proudest achievement of my life, because I worked so hard to be able to be successful. I know everyone (that doesn’t have kids yet) says that their wedding day was the happiest day of their life. But for me it was this day. Jeb and I know how we feel about each other regardless of whether we had had a big wedding or not, so the actual wedding day (in my opinion) was for the sake of friends and family, not for us. But this day was possible because of us and it really was “our day”.
Next summer we will be heading to Ecuador to make summit attempts on two mountains that are just under 19,000 feet! We will be training for 8 months straight. I just hope we can hold onto these good feelings from Rainier to use as motivation to keep pushing ourselves. It will be critical that on some snowy morning when it is 20 degrees outside and we are supposed to go run stairs at 4am, that we remember that if we work hard enough, and the mountain allows it, our summit attempt can be successful!
Our favorite guide took two cell phone pictures of us on the way down. The quality isn’t super great since it is a cell phone, but we really appreciated that she did this.
Thanks to the fact that we hiked all the way from high camp to the summit in the dark, and that it is really too technical of a climb in this area to be taking pictures, these are the only pictures we have between high camp and the summit. This picture gives a little bit of perspective to how steep the hike can be, and how large the crevasses are, but it still doesn’t fully do it justice!
We had a great rest of our trip in Washington as well, after Rainier. But to be honest this was the whole purpose of the trip and we would have been satisfied even if we didn’t have a second half to our trip!