Climbing Mt. Rainier Via The Disappointment Cleaver

RingRing

It’s early March and my friend Justin is calling from Hawaii. He’s wondering if I’m interested in joining him and a couple of other guys to climb Mt Rainier in July. 

ME: I’m in! 

No hesitation… No, let me check my schedule… No, how much is this going to cost… Just YES. My wife and I are far from rolling in $$$, but occasionally there are moments when NO isn’t an option.

Everyone has a person–or if you’re really lucky, persons–and no matter what kind of adventure they’re suggesting… you’re in. You’re always in. Justin is that person for me. 

On our way to Paradise and the start of our hike up Mt Rainier.

Anyway, after convincing Justin’s friend Joel that I wouldn’t be a liability on the mountain I was added to the roster. We eventually picked up another gentleman, Karl, who had been on other adventures with Joel and Justin… and then we were four.

Over the next few weeks and months we made our plans. Permits were secured, plane tickets were purchased, gear lists were created, checked, and double-checked. If you didn’t have it when you got on the plane, you could always buy it at REI or rent it at Whittaker Mountaineering once we arrived in Seattle. 

And so we did. Justin and I arrived in Seattle a couple of days early and spent the time hanging out with my brothers, enjoying the Farmer’s Hash at Portage Bay Cafe, picking up odds and ends at REI, and grocery shopping for food for our climb.

On Monday, we spent the morning in Seattle then headed to Whittaker Mountaineering in Ashford, WA to meet up with Karl and Joel and rent some of the climbing equipment we don’t personally own. After meeting up we drove the last little bit up to Paradise where we had a room reservation for the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we arrived at the Paradise Inn we were informed that there was a broken power line somewhere and the inn had no electricity. That meant the restaurant had a very limited menu and no hot water. So, we grabbed a bite at the restaurant and then headed back to our room to sort gear. No electricity meant no lights, so all of our sorting happened by headlamp. One unfortunate consequences of the lack of electricity and poor cell service was an inability to contact our wives to let them know we had arrived safely. There wasn’t much we could do on that front so we crossed our fingers and hoped they wouldn’t worry too much.

I’m not exactly sure why Joel brought a scale, but he did and in hindsight I’m not sure it was a great idea. As each of us finished packing we started weighing. No huge surprises, except that my pack was the heaviest at ~65 lbs. Here you can see Justin weighing my pack just before we broke the scale. Is it really a good idea to know how much your pack weighs? Wouldn’t we be better off just not knowing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A casualty of our packing shenanigans. We’re pretty sure someone was stepping on a strap when the scale broke. No one’s pointing fingers, but you know who you are.

Once the sun rose it was time to go. We caught a quick breakfast at the inn and then headed over to ranger station to pick up our climbing passes and wildness permits. We scheduled 4 nights at Camp Muir to give us plenty of time in case the weather didn’t cooperate.

Once all of our paperwork was in order we started hiking towards Panorama Point. It was a beautiful day and we had views of Rainier the whole way. The one downfall of all the nice weather was the heat and the sun. We made sure to put on sunscreen, but the rays were pretty intense. Cooler weather would have been welcome so long sleeves and pants would have been more acceptable.

Up and up we went… Coming from the East Coast I knew the elevation had the potential to be an issue. Paradise is at 5000 ft. That’s higher than I can get in New England and that was our starting point. From Paradise it’s 9 miles and 9000ft of climbing to the summit.

So we climbed. The first couple of miles were pretty easy. The trail was nicely graded and the tread was smooth. This made for brisk hiking. On our way up we did pass a few larger guided groups. Sometimes I thought they had the right idea… Slow and Steady.

Karl, Joel, and Justin continuing up. At this point I’d guess we were about halfway, and just a little ways from where the trail transitions from dirt to snow.

Another wide shot looking back. It’s beautiful country up there and everywhere you looked was a photo waiting to be taken.

Eventually after crossing a few small patches of snow we finally made the transition to 100% white stuff. I’m not exactly sure where the Muir Snowfields officially start, but this year because of the low snow winter and overly warm spring and summer I’m sure it’s higher than normal.

Once on the Muir Snowfield things slowed down. Maybe it was the altitude? Maybe it was the heavy packs? But once out on the large expanse of snow with fewer nearby landmarks the hiking started to feel like a crawling.

In the mountains distances can be hard to judge. In this image Camp Muir is located on the ridge you can see in the distance. And, though it doesn’t look all that far away… Close it is not. At this point we were still more than an hour away from our destination.

Justin crushing it up the Muir Snowfield. At this point I was much more tired than expected. I had been doing a fair amount of hiking out East and coming into this trip really didn’t think the 4.5 miles and 4500 feet from Paradise to Camp Muir would take much of a toll. Boy was I wrong. For the last 90 minutes of our trip I would count out 75-100 steps and then take a 20 second rest… 75-100 more steps, then rest… on and on this went until we reached the camp.

When you’ve been out on the trail all day there’s no better moment than when your destination for the night comes into view. This was that moment. We’re still 15-20 minutes out, but we can see our stopping point and that’s all that matters.

Arriving at Camp Muir… It required a lot more effort that I had expected but it was worth it. Camp Muir is located in a beautiful spot and would make a great day hike minus the heavy packs. In the future when we come out to visit my brothers I might have to start packing my backcountry skis. They would make the way down so much more fun!

Here you can see the built structures at Camp Muir. Some of the buildings are reserved for the guide companies. There is also the ranger hut, solar toilets, and a public shelter that is first-come, first-serve. We chose to tent camp and had to find a spot on the snowfield to the right in this image.

Upon arrival at Camp Muir there was no time to relax. First we had to find a suitable campsite, then we had to excavate the site so that it was reasonably flat and large enough for our tent. The nice thing about camping on snow is that your site is always flat, so long as you’re willing to put in the effort. Also, it’s naturally air conditioned!

Karl and Joel setting up their site. Originally, we had discussed hiking up to Camp Muir, setting up camp, making dinner, going to bed, getting up early, then heading for the summit. However, once we arrived at Camp Muir none of us were feeling a summit bid was in our near future.

This is easily one of the coolest tent sites I’ve had the opportunity to sleep at. On our first night everyone slept pretty easy. We had decided to hold off on our summit attempt and take a rest day. All of us had come from sea level and the since we had the weather on our side we chose to take it slow.

The following morning we all took our sweet time getting up. There wasn’t much on the agenda…. Rest, eat, stay hydrated, practice some skills, and then get to bed early. Here everyone is standing in our kitchen getting their breakfast on.

With four of us to keep hydrated and fed melting snow was almost a full-time job. Fortunately we brought almost 2 liters of fuel, 2 portable pellet stoves I got from SmartlyHeated, and 2 big pots so we had the means. Here Justin’s getting a little over zealous with the snow.

Here you can see the start of the Disappointment Cleaver Route. This is a shot looking across the Cowlitz Glacier and the rocky band to the right is Cathedral Gap. In just a few short hours from after this photo was taken we headed up this way by headlamp.

To kill some time during our rest day we spent some time practicing skills that might come in handy during our summit attempt. We went over tying into the rope, navigating switchbacks, and self arrest. We found a nice slope and practiced throwing ourselves down it and using our axes to stop. Then we tied two people together and practiced arresting ourselves and catching the second. It was good practice and it helped everyone feel more comfortable.

Before going to bed we all prepped our packs for the morning. We would be getting up at 11pm and having everything ready would make the morning go more smoothly. Here you can see the nutrition I was planning on taking with me. There is a little bit of everything. However, on the day of our climb the altitude really killed my appetite and none of these items went down very easily. The Gu was the easiest as it was quick. The other items required too much chewing.

Justin and Joel enjoying some dinner before heading to bed early in preparation for the climb.

At 11pm our alarms went off and it was time to get ready. Fortunately we had laid everything out the previous evening and it didn’t take long for us to get ready.

The Disappointment Cleaver is a very popular route and even though we were up at 11pm, there were still other groups that were up and ready to go before us.

Justin and Joel tying into the rope with Karl in the background. Almost ready to start our long walk.

The first few hours were quite dark, but eventually the sky started to lighten. Here you can see one of the early sections of fixed ropes. What you can’t make out is the huge crevasse to our left.

High up on the slopes of Mt Rainier isn’t a bad place to watch the sun rise. Here you can see Karl playing caboose to our climbing train.

Another shot of the dawning day from up high on Rainier. It’s unfortunate that so much of the climbing has to happen in the dark as the terrain you are surrounded with is incredible. However, hiking during the coolest part of the day is necessary to help mitigate the risk of ice and rock fall along the route.

We made it! This is the summit crater. We came up directly opposite where this photo was taken. Once in the crater you can unrope and ditch your pack for the short walk across to the true summit.

Once in the crater you are reminded that Mt Rainier is a volcano by the subtle plumes of steam rising from the rim. Here Karl has crossed the crater and is making his way up the final short incline before the true summit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The official summit marker just to prove we were actually there.

Our crew on Rainier’s Summit. Everyone looks a little goofy and I’m going to attribute it to the crazy wind up top. At this point it was probably blowing 25-35mph.

What goes up must come down. Here Karl negotiates a set of fixed lines leading us through a crevasse field high up on Rainier.

This year the Disappointment Cleaver route is apparently a bit different from most years. The lack of snow this past winter combined with very warm spring and summer temperatures has created a situation with many open crevasses. This has caused the DC Route to wind around more than is typical and has created a need for many more ladder bridges than normal. On our trip there were seven ladder bridges that we needed to negotiate. Most were pretty tame, but a couple of them offered up some good exposure.

From this vantage you can see Ingraham Flats below. Ingraham flats is another area that’s safe to camp. It’s about an hour further up the route from Camp Muir. We thought about camping up here in order to cut some time and distance off our summit attempt, but we’re lazy and didn’t want to move our camp.

On the DC Route there were two sections that were devoid of snow. My understanding is that this depends on the season, but with the warm temps and lack of snow we encountered some significant sections of climbing on rock and loose choss. The two sections were Cathedral Gap and the Cleaver itself. The Cleaver was the worst. There was no discernible path and all we had were flags to navigate by. Cathedral Gap on the other hand had a relatively well established path. Neither were enjoyable to traverse with crampons, but both were short enough that it wasn’t worth taking them off.

Justin and Joel wondering where all the snow went while working our way down the Cleaver.

This was one of the more fun ladder bridges. I don’t have any photos of the other ones as it was inconvenient for me to have my camera out. This one was unique in that the surrounding areas on both sides of the bridge were relatively safe. Once Joel and myself were across I trusted Justin enough not to fall in and Joel was ready to catch him should something happen.

Here’s an image of Joel crossing the same bridge… So cool!

Approaching Ingraham Flats. From here it’s less than an hour back to Camp Muir… Almost there! For a while I had been feeling pretty terrible, but it was right about this time that everything got much better. My headache was gone, my stomach felt better, food didn’t taste terrible, I was no longer short of breath… basically I was feeling pretty awesome!

Looking down on Camp Muir from Cathedral Gap. Not much longer now.

The home stretch. At this point Joel and Karl’s day is almost over. They opted to stay another night at Camp Muir. Justin and I however still had a ways to go. We hoped to get packed up and back to Paradise in time to return our rented equipment and meet up with my brothers for dinner. It’s a good thing we were feeling better.

Once back to camp it took Justin and I a little less than an hour to get packed up. We changed into our running shorts and put our shell pants on over the top. We did this so that we could butt slide down the snowfields and once at the bottom ditch the pants and run/hike back to paradise. The butt sliding was awesome! We were able to slide pretty much the entire portion that was covered in snow. This was much easier than going up and way more fun! Going down took a fraction of the time it took to get up and we made it back in plenty of time to return gear and meet up with people in Seattle for dinner.

Overall, it was a pretty amazing trip. It was great getting to see my friend Justin, and I’m glad to have met Karl and Joel. Hopefully there will be more adventures in our future. Since getting back I’ve been telling people that climbing Rainier was both much harder and much easier than I expected. The altitude really affected me more than I had hoped, and it made for some very difficult times. Mentally, there were many times when I just had to suck it up and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. When I was feeling like shit and not able to catch my breath it took all I had sometimes to not stop. That said, once we started coming down I felt much better. So much so that on our hike back to Paradise we ended up jogging much of the way even with our slightly less heavy packs. It was such an interesting mix of challenges, and I’d gladly return to experience it all again.

Below is a GPS track of our route (click here to download it) and some short video clips that Joel captured with his helmet cam. They provide a pretty good idea of the terrain that the DC Route traverses. If you ever get the chance to climb Mt Rainier… Just say yes!

Happy Outdoorsing! 

 

dcRoute

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Just Making Sure You're Human... * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.