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My First Climb up Mount Rainier


by L. Belle

Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park -- For all its breathtaking beauty, Mount Rainier is a massive creature, a noisy, moving, steaming mass of rock, ice and tectonic energy, and if you want to know it as one who has climbed it, the mountain will take a little piece of you.

You will leave the mountain sore from your toes to your temples, you will feel drained, your feet likely will be blistered and your lungs may feel congested from labored breathing of the thin air at more than 2.7 miles high. This condition might cling to you like a hangover for a day or more.

But you'll look back on it as an epic adventure, as the day you stood on top of the Northwest.

Considered an active volcano, Mount Rainier is a dynamic mass of earth and elements that generates its own weather, kills people almost every year and swallows entire airplanes and helicopters -- over the decades several have been left on its shoulders to disappear. That's why the mountain is sprinkled with place names like Cadaver Gap and Disappointment Cleaver.

Although just the third-highest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,411 feet, Rainier is the most burdened by ice, with 25 major glaciers covering 34 square miles of its slopes, its crater frosted with wind-sculpted forms, pocked with steam vents and undercut by caves and tunnels.

To get up there, you must travel these glaciers and -- by any of its 12 main routes -- gain 9,000 feet of elevation.

Simply put, scaling Rainier is one of the greatest mountaineering challenges in the contiguous U.S. states.

At the same time, it's entirely attainable for those in good physical condition.

"As dangerous as Mount Rainier is, it's not insane to climb it," says Mike Gauthier, the head climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park. "You're not hanging out over thin air dangling from a rope. It's an exciting, adventurous endeavor. It is an attainable goal, if you put in the training."

Certainly you feel a sense of accomplishment standing up there on the icon of everything Washington -- along with fatigue and the stress of knowing you have to get back down over the same wicked, sketchy terrain. As our guide Brent Okita says: "Going up is voluntary; coming down isn't necessarily voluntary."

As the peak Rainier climbing season commences in the next week or two, three guide companies will be leading climbers to Rainier's summit, mostly via the two most popular routes -- by way of Disappointment Cleaver on the southeast side and Emmons Glacier on the northeast. The road to Paradise is scheduled to reopen May 5, after repairs of winter storm damage. That also will reopen access to independent climbers, hundreds of whom attempt the summit each year.

About half of the approximately 10,000 people who try each year reach the summit. The rest are turned back by fatigue, altitude sickness, bad weather or accidents. Over the past five years, according to the National Park Service, the guide companies have put about 60 percent of their clients on the summit. The success rate of independent climbers has been about 44 percent.

Climbing Mount Rainier is something almost every serious outdoors person in the Northwest wants to do at least once. Especially for a native who hikes and backpacks, it is a quintessential Northwest achievement.