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Backpacker is your guide to the trail and all of the people who make it their home. Read more essays on the joys, pains, and quirks of being a hiker.
The sun beats down on the back of my neck, light glaring back into my eyes from the Muir Snowfield. The weight of my oversized pack pulls at my shoulders as I struggle against gravity. My head hangs low, my focus kept entirely on tracing the snaking skin track; One foot in front of the other, dragging each ski a few inches up the hill each time. When I pause to look for my climbing partner, Kylie, she’s still in sight but moving faster than I can catch.
We’re on day one of our two-day climb of Mt. Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver route. Originally, we planned to follow the Emmons-Winthrop Glaciers up to the summit over four moderate days, but a narrowing weather window drastically shifted our plans: we make the summit in two days, or we don’t make it at all. Today, our goal is to reach Camp Muir, 4,600 vertical feet above the Paradise Visitor Center where we began at 9 am this morning.
Lately, I’ve gotten used to being the faster hiker, passing other travelers on every uphill. But on the Camp Muir highway, I am the one being passed left and right by day hikers and skiers. One man comments, “Wow, your pack is as big as you are!” as if I’m not constantly aware that at 5’2″, I’m as petite as mountaineers get. Amongst my climbing partners, I am always the smallest, the shortest, and sometimes the weakest. But I refuse to let that be a disadvantage. I’ve always needed to prove my worth on climbs, that I could keep up and carry my own weight. To maintain that drive, I focus only on the destination and the climb itself—not the fact that my pack and gear are easily half my weight. I chuckle a little, brush off the hiker’s comment, and wish him a good day.
Spotting the huts of Camp Muir ahead, I guesstimate it will take another hour before we hit today’s stopping point, but a quick check of my phone tells me there’s still 2,000 vertical feet to go. My motivation sinks. Another two hours at least. If I am this tired and sore already, how am I going to summit tomorrow? This winter, I trail ran and backcountry skied nearly every week, averaging 3,000 ft of elevation gain and at least 12 miles. But now, with a 40-pound load on my back, I feel defeated and physically ill-prepared.
Kylie is a hundred feet up, taking a break on some dry rocks near two other hikers. I take a break right where I am, too tired to join. A little water, a little sustenance, and I’m back on my feet. Okay, time to keep moving. No quitting now. Kylie skins over to me, giving my flagging inspiration a boost. She matches my pace and takes short breaks so I can catch my breath again, no questions asked.
As we skin upward she recounts a conversation she overheard between two women hiking past her. “Do you think that wilting person is trying to summit Rainier?” one of them asked. Kylie nonchalantly replied that we were going to climb it together. “Well, how much training did you do?” the hiker replied. She laughed at that, and as she retells the story, I do, too. Kylie and I don’t “train” specifically for climbs. Every weekend trip is just training for the next since the skills and fitness are cumulative.
But that comment gets me thinking: Maybe we are unconventional mountaineers. The majority of climbers here are white men in their 30s. You don’t need a survey to see that, at least in the Pacific Northwest. So when two twenty-something women, one of them Asian-American, climb the tallest local mountain on their own, that is an unusual sight.
At Camp Muir, we see a group of name-brand outfitted climbers. Even the women in the group look to be about 5’10”, and every team has at least one male guide. And here I am, nearly a foot shorter, in my leggings and t-shirt, feeling like a mountain hobo. I never outgrew the poor college student lifestyle: I stick to clothing I already own, only adding used items and fifty-percent-off gear to my collection. I may not have the lightest, latest gear, but I do have all the essentials to climb Rainier.
And I remember, this is why I climb. For the beauty of it all.
Faced with the decision between carrying overnight gear another 1,000 feet to Ingraham Flats for a shorter summit day and stopping at Camp Muir, we decide to conserve our energy by picking the lower campsite. I sleep well and wake up excited to summit. We quickly gear up and I start leading us towards the Disappointment Cleaver, a foreboding, exposed rock scramble. When we arrive at the mellow snowfield of Ingraham Flats, 1.5 hours after leaving camp, the bootpack diverges, one way heading up the rocky cleaver, the other ascending the Ingraham Direct route on the crevasse-filled glacier. After a quick conversation on each route’s pros and cons, we pick the Ingraham Direct. We confidently weave between the cracks in the ice, standing inches from the edges, where one misstep could send us straight down an icy canyon. Exhilaration fills us up each time we cross a narrow snow bridge or jump over an abyss with only the crisp air to ground us. We find clarity as caution born of experience guides our calculated steps through the alpine world.
Near 12,000 feet, though, the altitude starts to take a huge toll on my energy. My steps slow, my breathing quickens, and a mild headache builds behind my eyes. But before I have a chance to get disheartened, I look up. Kylie and I are high above the clouds now, and a fiery sunrise is lighting up the sky and the sleepy hills below. We watch the sun emerge from behind the horizon, gold against the deep purple glow beneath as the light stretches hundreds of miles south to north, from Mt Adams to Glacier Peak. And I remember, this is why I climb. For the beauty of it all.
At 13,400 feet, we clear the crevasses, finishing the most technical portion of the ascent. Despite the doubts lurking behind the comments of yesterday’s hikers and the lack of any male guide or climbing partner, we’ve perfectly executed our 2-person rope team technique, just as we knew we would. Though yesterday on the crowded Muir highway I felt exposed as the unlikeliest of mountaineers, a young petite Asian-American woman, today I shake off all of my worries and doubts. I have more endurance and strength in me than I let myself believe. And even if the weather window closes before we can summit, finding that depth to my capabilities—and my own belief in them—has brought me enough euphoria for a dozen summits.
How to Climb Rainier Without a Guide
By Shannon Davis
Eleven years ago, on assignment for Backpacker, I went “undercover” and applied to be a guide on Mt. Rainier. I was invited to a tryout, and (spoiler alert) made the team. Then, after a mildly awkward conversation with the lead guides regarding my intention to write about my experience (and hold down two jobs in different states at the same time), I joined rookie guide training and got put to work on 3-day summit trips via Disappointment Cleaver.
Most of our clients were fit but few had ever been on terrain like you encounter on the “R-horn,” the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48. We taught the basics of crampon use, traveling on a rope team, the rest-step, pressure breathing, the self-arrest, and how to stay (relatively) comfortable in an environment that can bake you one minute and flash-freeze you the next.
You need to have all that—along with navigation, crevasse rescue, snow camping, and more—down pat before a Rainier attempt. You have an advantage as a backpacker, especially if you already thrive while winter camping. Grow from there by practicing elements of steep snow travel on generally less-committing peaks like Mt. Adams or Mt. Hood or on Rainier’s Muir Snowfield. Or, if you would prefer to tackle new mountaineering skills with more supervision, you can take a course or join a guided trip from RMI, IMG, or Alpine Ascents.
There are two bits of advice I give to anyone interested in a private climb on Mt. Rainier:
- The 60/10 Rule Hike for 60 minutes and rest for 10. During that rest, sit on your pack, throw on a puffy jacket, drink 8 ounces of water, slam 200 calories of snacks, hit the bathroom if you need to, check your crampon straps, and make any other futzy gear adjustments you’ve been thinking about. And keep it to 10 minutes. This will keep you moving at a steady pace and keep you fueled, hydrated, and fairly comfortable.
- Go Mid-Season Every climbing season is different, but generally there’s more snow (and avalanche risk) early in the season and wider crevasses and more rockfall late in the climbing season. July is often a sweet spot with a higher percentage of successful summit attempts. Check Mt. Rainier National Park’s climbing page for regulations and permit beta.