How I am Preparing for an Unguided Mount Rainier Ascent

My 3 climbing partners and I will be making an unguided attempt to climb Mount Rainier this July.  Mount Rainier is a 14,411 foot glacier laden behemoth that comes with all the risks that mountaineering has to offer such as avalanches, crevasses and whiteouts.  As crazy as it seems, we have been training for years to do this safely. Below are the things we have done to be in the best possible position to safety reach the parking lot after tagging the summit of Mount Rainier.

The Challenge:
Rainier looks so close
Mount Rainier, located near Ashford WA, is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Climbing it requires a 9,000 foot elevation gain over 8 miles which typically take 2-3 days. Climbers can also expect to encounter crevasses, avalanches and winter storms year round.  Over 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Rainier each year with a roughly 46% success rate.
Step 1: Pick the Right Team 
Mount Rainier is a team effort
Choosing the right climbing partners might be the most important choice of your mountaineering career. These are the people who will be responsible for saving your life in a bad situation and they are the ones who share the joy of an epic summit. Make sure your team is on the same page as you and that you can communicate openly and trust each other. It also helps if everyone gets along since you will spend days in close quarters with these people.
I have been lucky enough to climb with the same crew for years. During that time we have become acutely aware of everyone’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses. We have also collectively built our hiking and mountaineering skills. When we head to Rainier we will face a lot of risks but not getting along is not one of them.
Step 2: Get in Shape
Staying active for a cause
Mount Rainier will pose the greatest physical challenge I have ever faced.  There is nothing easy about carrying 40+ pounds of gear for 8 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing. Being in good shape will give me the endurance to safely get up and down. It will also ensure that I have some energy in reserve should an emergency situation emerge.
Reaching the summit requires speed, strength and endurance. I have trained by doing many hikes with a heavy pack to build the endurance and power to haul heavy loads. I have also done the P90X workouts to build strength and general fitness without added bulk. Finally I have done many long distance trail runs combined with cycling to get my body used to exercising for hours at a time. Will this be enough? I will let you know in July.
Step 3 Practice Winter Skills
Practice makes perfect
Snowstorms and cold temperatures are commonplace on Mount Rainier all year.  My team will not have guides to help us with the chores of setting up camp and melting snow. Therefore we have done many winter overnights in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to become proficient in cold weather camping techniques.
Step 4: Seek Mountaineering Education
Crevasse falls, avalanches, altitude sickness and every other mountaineering danger is a real possibility on Mount Rainier. Climbers who use a guide service have the benefit of climbing with people who can help them handle all of these things and then some. We will be on our own for everything. Therefore we have worked hard to get solid mountaineering education before stepping onto the mountain. 
I attended Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School’s Winter Climbing 101 class to build a foundation of ice axe and crampon skills. This gave me the basic technical skills to feel comfortable on slightly more vertical terrain.
Training in Huntington Ravine
Additionally my climbing team and I spent a weekend training in Huntington Ravine with Kel Rossiter from Adventure Spirit Rock + Ice + Alpine Experiences. Kel is a renowned mountaineer who has guided on Rainier many times. He taught us many essential skills such as avalanche and crevasse rescue. He also taught us how to climb as a rope team and how to be ready for the unique challenges of Rainier.
Step 5: Train as a Team: 
practicing on ski slopes, photo by Melissa Kelley
Climbing Mount Rainier is a team effort.  The rope team must be able to work together and efficiently climb as one unit. The best way to make this happen to is train as a team. 
Rope ascending at Quincy Quarries, photo by Dave Arruda
We have practiced mountaineering skills on empty ski slopes, at rock quarries and on the trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. This experience has dramatically increased our comfort level with technical challenges. It has also let us iron out rope positions, communication and other things that should be determined before stepping onto Rainier.
Despite these 5 steps, my team has no guarantee of reaching the summit of Mount Rainier. A few bad snowstorms could easily prevent us from getting anywhere near the summit.  However we feel that we have addressed everything we can control and that puts us in the best position for a successful, safe and fun climb.

7 thoughts on “How I am Preparing for an Unguided Mount Rainier Ascent

  1. Ryan

    Some great general advice. Rainier is a spectacular mountain… Best of luck! When are you climbing and via which route? I'm sure Kel gave you a bunch of great beta, he definitely knows his stuff. I climbed with him a few times this season up in NH.

  2. Grant Ritter

    Ryan…thanks! I am climbing the 2nd week of July via the DC route. You climbed with Kel to? awesome, yeah I was amazed with his knowledge! By the way, I love the title of your blog Desk to Dirtbag!

  3. Ryan

    Awesome, that's just about when I was on Rainier last year, but unfortunately we got shut out by weather. Hope the weather gods are in your favor, and I look forward to reading a trip report.

    Yeah, I did some ice climbing with Kel on two separate trips. Did a bit at Frankenstein, Shoestring Gully, the Flume, and Kinsman Notch. Lots of fun!

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