The International Mountain Guides Glacier Skills Seminar introduced me to new friends, expanded my mountaineering skills and took me to the summit of Mount Rainier. If you want to learn to climb big peaks, and summit Rainier while you are at it, this program is for you.
IMG’s Glacier Skills Seminar is a 5.5 day program designed to teach you the skills, like route finding and crevasse rescue, to eventually climb without guides. The $2,154 cost might seem steep but IMG adds in some extras that make it worth it. This cost includes breakfasts, dinners and hot drinks on the mountain which a huge convenience that other companies don’t offer. I should tell you the food is delicious, hearty, not freeze dried and undoubtedly better than anything I would cook on my own. The program includes 2 guides on the lower mountain and 4 guides on the upper mountain. The Glacier Skills Seminar spends more time on the mountain than any other program which might be the most critical advantage because it lets you acclimatize which can be the difference between summiting and turning around. There are definitely cheaper and shorter Rainier programs but I don’t think anything matches the value you get from the Glacier Skills Seminar.
Orientation I rolled into IMG HQ feeling a little nervous and not knowing what to expect. I had just flown across the country by myself to climb a big mountain with 7 strangers who would literally hold my life in their hands in just a few days. Also I had faced Rainier 2 years ago without reaching the summit; had I done enough to get a different result this time? I was about to find out. IMG HQ is a place that oozes with alpine ambience. There are prayer flags decorating its sign, and a few rustic buildings with gear drying on climbing ropes all over the place. I walked into their meeting room, which was decorated with down summit suits and ice axes, where I met Max Bunce who would be our lead guide. He had extensive mountaineering experience including several Everest summits; I started to feel at ease. He was 1 of 4 guides who would be joining 7 climbers and I on our journey. One by one my fellow climbers began to show up. They came from Texas, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Brazil. Everyone seemed to have a passion for Rainier and for moving on to bigger mountains; I knew we would get along just fine. Max had us unpack all of our gear so he could make sure we had only the gear we needed for the climb. He had laid out his pack as an example and I was surprised at the things that were not there such as extra underwear or extra base layers. I removed several pounds of gear from my pack; it was about getting to the summit and not about comfort. After orientation we were free to do whatever we wanted as long as we were back at IMG HQ by 8 am the next day. My new teammates and I got dinner in Ashford where we got to know each other.
Day 1: The Beginning It would be mountain food from here on out so my teammates and I ate a hearty breakfast and headed to IMG HQ. The guides had kindly created 8 “group gear loads” that included food, tents, cook gear and shovels which we needed to find a way to stuff into our packs. My pack now weighed 73 pounds. We jumped into the IMG van and headed to Paradise where we unloaded our packs, put on sunscreen and hit the trail. We veered away from the tourist dense Muir area and headed toward the Paradise Glacier where there wasn’t another climber in sight. The terrain was snowy but flat which was great for getting used to hiking with 73 pounds on my back. The sun beat down on us from above and reflected off the snow which made it feel like we were in a desert even if it looked like a winter wonderland.
We took a break at the first climb where Max showed us how to efficiently walk up and down hills in mountaineering boots by using the duck walk, rest step and french technique. Max stressed that efficiency on big mountains can be the difference between summiting and not summiting so I paid attention. We climbed for another hour or so and set up camp in a flat snowfield at 6,400 ft; just below the Paradise Glacier. The wind was quiet and it felt a lot colder as the sun began to set.
We set up tents and dug out a bathroom area before heading to a nearby slope to work on self arrest techniques. I should tell you that a bathroom area on Rainier is just a semi private place to use blue bags; everything you carry in must be carried out. The guides began working on dinner and we feasted on spaghetti and meatballs with hot chocolate. After that we went to sleep knowing that the next day would be a long one.
Day 2: Moving Up
We woke up at 7 am to a delicious breakfast of granola and powdered milk with tea. We packed up camp and the guides showed us the basics of traveling as a rope team. I had done this before but one can never have too much practice.
Our new skills were put to immediate use as we headed out of camp in 2 rope teams. We climbed up a headwall, which reminded me of Tuckerman’s Ravine on stereoids, on our way to Camp 2 at 8,400 ft. Along the way the guides used break time to teach us critical climbing knots such as the figure 8, alpine buttery and the clove hitch. I loved how the training seemed to be progressive and then put to immediate use. We got an up close and personal view of Rainier as we reached the top of the climb where we took a much deserved break. Camp 2 was just a mellow 45 minute walk from here. The mountain looked so close but it was still so far away. This would be our home for 2 days so we constructed tent platforms, a bathroom area and a nice cooking area. We went to bed early after another delicious dinner.
Day 3: Training Day
We awoke to a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and bacon; which went together amazingly well. We didn’t plan to travel anywhere today. Instead we spent the entire day learning and building snow anchors and crevasse rescue systems. We marched just a few yards from camp where we learned how to set bomber anchors and how to construct Z and C pulley crevasse rescue systems. These are some of the most important skills to have for people who venture onto glaciers without guides so it made total sense to spend the entire day learning them. We finished the day with another amazing dinner before heading to bed.
Day 4: Camp Muir
We would be moving to Camp Muir, at 10,000 ft today, so we packed up camp as soon as we woke up. Before we started the climb the guides took us to a nearby crevasse where they had set up a rescues system. We each took a turn being lowered into a crevasse and pulling someone out of one. A crevasse is a beautiful thing if you are inside of it on purpose. Once i got pulled out we headed back to camp and learned how to use avalanche rescue techniques before shouldering our packs and heading out.
We crossed onto the Muir Snowfield where we would endure the long and seemingly endless slog to Camp Muir. The wide and long snowfield made it hard to gauge distance which made it seem like we were standing still. It didn’t help that we could see Camp Muir for almost 45 minutes before we got to it. I tried putting my head down and counting 100 steps before looking up which helped a little.
Camp Muir is luxurious, by mountain standards, with the IMG shelter, cook tent, and outhouses. We unpacked our gear in the shelter and headed to the cook tent for some of the best burritos that I have ever had. This is where we met the 2 additional guides who would accompany us to the summit. After dinner Max went over the plan for the next few days before we headed back to the shelter for some sleep.
Day 5: Sunset Summit
We met back in the cook tent the next morning for some unbelievable pancakes. Our original plan was to pack up then climb 1,000 ft to Ingraham Flats where we would camp and make our summit attempt the next morning but Max told us we had other options. He suggested the possibility of doing a sunset summit that night to take advantage of a weather window and to avoid the weekend crowds that would surely clog the route in the morning. Everyone in our group was pumped to hear this.
We left all non essential gear like trekking poles, extra clothes and tents at Camp Muir before crossing the Cowlitz Glacier and climbing Cathedral Gap to Ingraham Flats. IMG already had tents set up for us there so we didn’t need to worry about setting up camp. The guides told us to move into the tents while they had a quick meeting to determine our next step; which everyone hoped would be a summit attempt.
A huge rockfall smashed directly into the route on the Disappointment Cleaver directly above us; thankfully no one was in its path. This was a constant danger on the mountain in that area and the only defense is to move through it as fast as possible. The guides emerged from their meeting and told us the summit attempt was on. We broke into 3 rope teams and headed out of camp. The route starts on a slight incline as it approached a crevasse that was narrow enough to jump over. After that we short roped and moved as fast as possible through the ice and rockfall area; thankfully nothing fell on our group. We were now on the Disappointment Cleaver which is an extremely steep and jagged rock that serves as the gateway to the upper mountain. It still had snow on it so we had decent footing as we zig zagged our way up it one step and one breath at a time. We reached the top of cleaver where we had expansive views and our first break. Taking a break during a summit attempt is anything but restful. We would sit on our packs, put on our puffy jackets, eat a few hundred calories, drink .5 liters of water, apply sunscreen then get up and continue moving.
Temperatures were dropping and wind was increasing but most of us were still climbing in just our base layers. From here the route is a series of snowy switchbacks with a few step-over crevasses. Our guides set a solid but sustainable pace and they instructed us on exactly how to negotiate any route hazards. We took our second break on a narrow ledge about 45 minutes later. The guides noticed an ominous cloud near the mountain and instructed us to get our rain gear on just in case. The wind picked up, clouds moved in and visibility decreased almost as soon as we did that but we were able to keep climbing.
A few switchbacks later, I saw Max stop and put his pack down; we were on the summit at around 8 pm! Summit views were nonexistent but it felt unbelievable to be standing on top of the mountain that had haunted me for the past 2 years. We only spent about 20 minutes on top because we wanted to get down before the weather got worse. Heading down was mentally exhausting as I thought about each foot placement and worked to keep the rope away from my team members’ feet. A fall here could be tragic and I did everything I could to prevent it as we retraced the same steps we used on the ascent. We found ourselves back on top of the Disappointment Cleaver just as snow started to fall and it was getting dark. It also happened to be July 4 so we were treated to fireworks in distant towns as we took our last break. The trip down the cleaver was slow and deliberate in the dark. I used my headlamp to find the footprints and route markers that would lead us to our camp over 1,000 feet below us. We used our last remaining energy to power through the rock and ice fall area and were in camp just a few minutes later around 11 pm. The guides made sure we all ate a hearty dinner, consisting of rice and sausage, before going to sleep. I was mentally and physically drained so falling asleep was no problem.
Day .5: Heading Home We woke the next day to bad weather on the upper mountain above us; the guides definitely made the right call to go for the sunset summit. The parking lot was 6 miles away and 6,000 feet below us. We packed up camp for the last time and headed down through Cathedral Gap, across the Cowlitz Glacier and down the Muir Snowfield to the parking lot. We did a little glissading along the way. We enjoyed one celebratory beer before parting ways.
We signed the 2014 summit board which brought the trip to an end.
The IMG Glacier Skills Seminar is a perfect way to build a solid base of mountaineering knowledge that comes with the huge bonus of a Mount Rainier summit attempt. If you are interesting in learning what it takes to get out there and climb on your own then I highly recommend this program.