Trip Report: Rainier on Rainier

 Mountain: Mt. Rainier, 14,411', Washington Cascades.

Route: Emmons Glacier, 45° snow, 4,700' from high camp.

July 2-3, 2023

I'm not the sort of person that keeps a bucket list. If I was, however, sipping a Rainier beer on top of Mt. Rainier certainly would have been near the top. Could it be perhaps the ultimate expression of Northwest pride? I think so. 

Day 1. White River TH to Emmons Flats    5.65 mi, 5,706' elevation gain

Zach, Camden and I set off from the White River trailhead at around 7:20 AM, feeling elated to have snagged a rare permit reservation the previous week. The trek to high camp at Emmons Flats starts out on a well-maintained trail along the Inter Fork of the White River. My approach outfit certainly elicited some stares from the day hiker set. I guess these casuals have never heard of ultra-light. 

The author modeling the Alpine Tighties™. Photo: Zach Smith. 

The trail spits you out in the Glacier Basin meadow, which looks up at the Inter Glacier and Steamboat Prow. Here, you finally get to see where the 5,000 feet of elevation gain that day comes from. Camden, who had more high elevation climbing experience than us, cautioned that taking it slow, even at these lower elevations, would ease our acclimatization and make summit day much less painful. I generally struggle to pace myself on longer days, but this time I was able to keep myself to a conversational pace as we slogged up the Inter Glacier (these days, it's more of a snow field). 

Inter Glacier. Photo: Zach Smith.

Once we arrived on the rocky shoulder of the Steamboat Prow, we could finally take in the full magnificence of the glacial landscape we would be immersed in for the next few days. The sloping glaciers, broken up by blue seracs and crevasses, had an unearthly beauty that was both alluring and intimidating. Before this trip, I was more-or-less a glacier virgin. Despite all the reading and practice I had done to prepare for glacier climbing and crevasse rescue, I was nervous to set foot onto one. 

The fellas about to do the downclimb to the Emmons Glacier.

After a sketchy scramble off the Steamboat Prow, we were finally standing on the Emmons Glacier itself. We roped up here for the short stretch up to Camp Schurman and then Emmons Flats. Already there were frequent open crevasses. 

We were walking up the gentle glacier when all of a sudden, Camden, who was tied into the middle of the rope, dropped waist-deep through a snow bridge. One of his legs had punched through, but, by his own calculation, his enormous manhood was larger than the opening to crevasse, stopping him before he could plunge all the way in. Disaster averted! He played off the near-miss, but as I followed him over the snow bridge I looked down into the hole that he created. The shattered walls lining the chasm filtered the light into darker and darker shades of blue as they dropped, never revealing where the bottom lay. "If the crevasses down here are this spooky, what will they be like on the upper mountain?" I thought to myself. 

Camp Schurman ranger station.

After a brief stop at Camp Schurman to use the pit toilet (bring your own TP!), we continued on to Emmons Flats. We watched in part amusement, part concern as the last climber in a descending party tripped and fell while walking across a snow bridge, just barely avoiding a tumble into the deep. I gripped my ice axe just a little bit tighter as I watched him thrash around under the weight of his pack, but he eventually got onto his feet without incident. 

Camden setting up the tent, Emmons Flats camp.

We arrived at camp and immediately set up the tent and began melting snow for drinking water, a long process even with 2 stoves. The whole time we debated about our starting time for the next day. Originally, we had planned on waking up at midnight to begin our summit push. However, on the approach that day I had quizzed every descending party about how their climb had gone, and of all the parties who had turned around, every single one said that slow rope teams in front of them, combined with heavy winds, was the main reason they hadn't reached the top. It was eventually decided that, since we had already invested so much in this trip financially and time-wise, it would be best to suck it up try to be climbing by 11:00PM that night. So, we pounded some melatonin and fatty homemade freeze dry and went to bed at 4:30PM. 

Day 2. Emmons Flats to summit to White River TH. 12.2 mi, 4,648' elevation gain

Technically this began on the same day, but you get my point. We all awoke to the sound of the alarm at 10:30 PM, having each slept maybe 2-3 hours out of the 6. Turns out its really hard to suddenly invert your circadian rhythm! Also, a PSA: if you are in a climbers camp like this, please SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD if you aren't discussing something relevant to the climb and there are other people trying to sleep. We were kept up for many, many hours by the sound of one asshole droning on and on about inane shit to his climbing companions, who frankly didn't seem to be all that interested in what he had to say either. Rant over. 

Being only an hour after sundown, it was still warm and windless as we climbed out of the tent and geared up. One rope team was visible high on the mountain already, and another party of two teams of three passed us from Camp Schurman as we suited up, but other than that it seemed like we had mostly succeeded in getting out in front. We were moving by 11:20, later than we hoped but still not too shabby. 

Adjusting our outfits as we go out for the night. Our camp is the orange glow bottom right.

For the first 2,500' or so, we followed the obvious climber's path up the broad glacial lump know as the Corridor. There was the occasional crevasse to step over or small snow bridge, but generally it felt tamer than the first day, especially with everything frozen solid. The moon, nearly full, tracked the slope of the mountain to our left as we ascended. I was thankful for the light it provided, which allowed me to take in the world outside my headlamp beam. 

At around 12'200 we traversed hard right for a few hundred feet to avoid a chaotic section of crevasses and ice blocks, which put us onto the Winthrop Glacier. From there, we cruised up the snowy slope with hardly a crevasse in sight. Still not even the slightest hint of sunrise. 

Higher up, massive bergschrunds started to appear where the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers separate from the ice ringing the summit crater. This meant it was time for us to traverse right again, towards Liberty Saddle. We had heard that a thin snowbridge across one of these 'schrunds still allowed for a more direct route to the summit, but in the dark we were not feeling particularly brave.  Perhaps the most high-consequence part of the climb came during this traverse. The angle of the snow steepened and I was vaguely aware that there was an absolute beast of a crevasse lying in wait at the end of the slope like the Sarlac Pit. The climbers trail was beaten in enough to make our foot placements more secure than they would otherwise be, but it was still somewhere that you definitely want to make sure your boot laces are tied. 

Once at Liberty Saddle, about 800' vertical feet from the summit, the objective hazard abated but my altitude-induced nausea had not. In times like that I am so, so grateful for Gu. Please make a version that includes some Diamox. 

The beginning of sunrise from the crater. Photo: Zach Smith.

Once in the crater we huddled down just inside the rim, which provided much-needed relief from the wind. The true summit was a stone's throw away but we were in no rush, opting to relax and melt water while waiting for the first rays of the day to come and thaw us. 

Eventually we couldn't wait any longer and decided to go tag the top. To the south, Mt. Adams stood proudly, also lit up in the pink morning glow. The smooth, dark plane of the Puget Sound unfurled northward much further than I could see, and I thought of my brother and all his friends soundly asleep (or maybe still up partying) down in Tacoma. 

And of course we cracked those damn Rainiers we dragged to the top! 

Sponsor me!

After some more time spent absorbing the sun, we started on down. Finally, we could see well enough to marvel at the landscape that we had been traveling through the whole time. 

An unknown team moves across Liberty Saddle. 

Camden leading us on the traverse at about 13,600' back onto the Winthrop Glacier.

The final slog back down the corridor seemed like it would never end, but eventually we reached camp and took a long rest in the sun-warmed tent. After breaking down camp and shouldering our much heavier packs we started off downhill again. Getting back up onto the Steamboat Prow was a bit of a shitshow. A steady stream of people, including guides short-roping two customers at once on the scree scramble, were headed up to camp, meaning a large group of us had to wait a long time in a super rockfall-prone area for them to pass before we could continue. We were rewarded with a mile long glissade down the Inter Glacier. My butt was fully numb but my legs were happy. 

We noticed this pipe on the way, which must be the one that carries the water straight from the glacier to the Rainier Brewery. 

Once on the road, we headed back down HW 12 for some greasy food and a place to crash. After a highly disappointing dinner at Packwood Brewing  (please tell me why my soft pretzel was tinted green), we found a great campsite off of a USFS road and crashed hard. The next morning we stopped at the Rivers Bistro in Morton, which had fantastic coffee and breakfast sandwiches for a good price. A friendly local gentleman told me that Spiffy's, also in Morton, is the go-to place around those parts for burgers, so I'll certainly be headed there for my next victory meal coming off of Mt. Rainier. 



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