Like so many others, very possibly like you, my first experience at alpine climbing was on one of the biggest objectives around, Mount Rainier. In September 2014, I stepped onto the mountain with the intention of getting to the top with a guided climb through RMI Guides, a company I had only just heard of a few months before. While that first attempt was not successful for me (others from my group made it up), it was an incredible experience, a tough adventure, and one that was worth every penny. Less than a year later, I returned to the mountain again with RMI for a second try, this time succeeding at reaching the top and launching me into a regular obsession with alpine climbing.
Since then I’ve had the chance to climb Rainier’s upper slopes a few more times as “independent” groups leading me into discussions about what the guided program is really like and who it really may be for. In this post I’ll share my take on the experiences I had with RMI and on taking a guided climb approach to Rainier.
4 Days to Become a Mountain Climber… Of Sorts
From what I’ve observed on my climbs and plenty of other visits to Rainier (RMI’s basecamp bar & grill in Ashford is a popular summer stop around the mountain), the vast majority of guided clients on the popular Disappointment Cleaver (“DC”) route are pretty much brand new to alpine climbing of any sort. People come from all over the world to climb Rainier and for those who don’t have experience, the DC is a logical start and a guiding company provides an easy shortcut into an otherwise intensive learning curve.
That said, and this is one of those myths that really bugs me, guided climbers are by no means slouches. There are no porters, no real shortcuts for a Rainier climb and while a guided client may get to skip on the tedious process of boiling water and ditch a couple pounds of technical gear, they’re still slogging up the mountain with 35-45 pound packs at a solid pace.
Of course without experience, there’s a lot to learn and the guides are left doing a crash course in mountaineering for everyone over a very short window, usually 4 days.
Days 1 – 2: Orientation & Climbing School
Day one is really just an afternoon as everyone travels into Ashford and meets up to learn about what’s ahead. There’s a chance to learn about the guides and the rest of the group, discussion of any seasonal issues, talk about the right food, sleep, etc. Mostly though day one is about setting expectations and reviewing gear to make any last minute adjustments while there’s still a place to adjust at. To call it a day is vastly overstating how long you’ll be meeting for.
The pace changes quickly for day two as everyone meets up in the morning to head off to the mountain for several hours of snow school basics. This is where RMI departs pretty radically from the other major Rainier guides (IMG and Alpine Ascents) as they take everyone up a thousand or so feet to train and then back down to Ashford to sleep for the night before starting the actual climb on day three. The other companies jump right on in to climbing and train as they go over the course of 3 constitutive days on the mountain.
Mountain school is one part assessment and three parts training. Prior snow experience is not required (if you have been climbing, expect some dull moments though you’ll likely pick up some new practices as well) as the guides run through everything you’ll need for the climb.
This includes making your very first steps in crampons and self arresting with an ice axe but quickly progresses to roped glacial travel ascending steep slopes. The guides also spend a lot of time over the entire climb helping practice something many climb schools skimp on, efficiency as they drill in pressure breathing and the rest step. By the end of the day, you’ll be comfortable wandering around on the mountain but certainly far shy of any real technical or crevasse skills. The climb really does rely on the guides to navigate any unforeseen incidents.
Departing the mountain after my first climb I was ready to (and outright told to) tackle basic alpine climbs on my own but certainly not nearly up for glaciated peak without a guide.
World Class Instruction from World Leading Climbers
I think anyone who has climbed around Rainier knows the guides are crazy strong but I don’t think many realize just how experienced they tend to be. Being a serious climber is a major commitment and hard to balance with work so many of the very best (or those who just want to do it all the time) turn to guiding to pay the bills and to give them the chance to be on the mountain regularly. The result is one seriously skilled talent pool.
My first attempt on Rainier was led by Katie Bono who holds the unofficial women’s record for a climbing ascent of Rainier, or did as of my climb. My second climb was led by Casey Grom who, according to the RMI wall of guides, has over 300 Rainier ascents, 2 Everest summits, 3 Denali expeditions and plenty of other climbs under his belt. Other lead guides I’ve met and trained with on the mountain over the years from IMG and Alpine Ascents were similarly skilled as well. There’s a reason why I try to stick behind guides on any return trip I make: they know there stuff.
Days 3: Climbing the Beast, Part I
After wrapping up mountain school and one last night in a real bed (you’re on your own for accommodations the first two nights with RMI), day three begins with an early start and a now fully loaded pack as the shuttle drives you up to Paradise for your summit attempt. One of the perks of a guided program is having a whole group of eager and yet equally unfamiliar faces along for the adventure; short as the trek is, for those few days it really is a community.
The guided companies take a formulaic approach to climbing the mountain that’s probably a pretty notable departure from what you may be use to hiking around your local spots. From the onset, everyone follows in a tight, single-file pack to minimize impact to those around while giving the guides plenty of opportunity to observe, chat and likely continued their assessment of the group. Everyone sticks together taking a moderate but by no means slow pace and stopping about once an hour for ten to fifteen minutes to eat, hydrate and adjust gear rather than micro-breaking as most of us are use to. It’s a rigorous process designed to keep everyone moving as a single team.
Heading up to Camp Muir is plenty of work all on its own of course with over 4,800′ of dirt, rock, and snow to climb. Early in the season the entire route can be pretty much snow which while a bit slower is far preferable in heavy mountain boots to the giant step switchbacks that melt out by mid summer. Over the course of the 5ish hour trek to Muir the views of the mountain above and those below are absolutely incredible, provided of course that you’re lucky enough to be there on a clear day, Rainier brings its own weather and it’s not always nice.
Getting to camp can be pretty grueling even just as a day hike and one of the great perks of the guided route is not having to deal with melting water yourself when you arrive. Instead, guided clients are ushered into the guide hut which is little more than some framed up plywood bunks and a couple lights but let me tell you, stuffy and smelly as it can be, it’s a perfectly good home.
The upper section of Rainier is approached alpine style to have the best snow quality for climbing, rock / ice fall and crevasses so after a short break to unwind, heat up whatever meal you brought (RMI has clients bring their own food where as IMG and Alpine Ascents host some of the meals in mess tents), it’s off to bed or at least to close your eyes for a few hours before the big event.
Days 3: Climbing the Beast, Part II
Make no mistake about it, Rainier is a beast of a mountain. After more than 4,800′ of climbing the day before, it’s up way too early in the dark and cold to do almost as much gain again. This time with a lighter pack since your gear is actually on you now but with the added element of plenty of hazards, cold, and altitude.
Like the day before, the guides run the climb to the top as a tight ship. There are problem spots all along the route so stopping is strictly limited to breaks (save for a critical issue I’m sure) and the few miles to the top are grueling whether guided or unguided. The crux for me on my first climb was certainly the cleaver, a rocky section of the mountain dividing the Ingraham glacier from the Tahoma and the gateway to the upper mountain slopes. For others it’s the section above the cleaver where 2,000′ of final slogging wears at you with every step.
The guides do a great job of leading the charge forward, modifying the route and getting everyone across whatever obstacles may exist but they’re also there to insure people make the right call. I can of course tell you first hand how rough it is to turnback but by the time I reached that point, I certainly knew it… they have a way of training you to be ready for what they already know. Of course one of the potential downsides is having to turn an entire group because of a climber or two. With my programs, we had enough people and guides to survive drops at every break on my first trip but that’s not always the case but that’s no less true of an independent climb, heck, it’s probably more likely.
Beyond physical limits, the other big risks are the route and weather. Obviously the guides are well use to adjusting around hazards but not everything can be overcome and with Rainier’s frequent storms, it’s not uncommon for a climb to get canceled on (some people book 5 day programs for this reason as it affords a little flexibility as I’ll explain below.)
Still, for those ready for the slog and lucky with the forecast, the DC really is about one foot in front of another for many, many hours. When you do get there, it’s packs off and a long walk to the true summit to experience the accomplishment. Of course with 9,000′ to climb down and the sun now worsening conditions, it’s a short lived rush before the guides have you back in line to head down.
The beer and pizza celebration back at Ashford is when it really hits you that wow, no matter how high you got, you just climbed a freaking alpine mountain!
Climbing Guided: My Two Cents
There’s certainly a stigma to climbing with a guide out there but I say, so what (it’s also much less prevalent with Rainier / US mountains.) Unless you’re ready to train extensively and invest significantly, Rainier is really not an approachable objective for most of us, nor should it be. Sure, experienced climbers can debate the merits of bringing people up a glaciated mountain without technical skills but I’ve seen plenty of that in independent groups with far less experienced “leaders” out there too. Having people who really know the mountain and who really know their stuff counts for a lot.
The guided approach does not mean the easy, there are no carries. That is to say, guided climbers may not beat everyone but they move and keep moving. Many groups assume they’ll be a hindrance to pass only to find out that they can’t keep up (and if you’re somehow reading this knowing you smoke the guides, we both know you’ll be fighting crowds of all types up and down anyways.) Guides are friendly but direct and not afraid to make a call many others should.
Rainier offers few shortcuts and its guides are solid as a result, this is not a first time job. Guides build the main routes and they support the mountain for everyone but more so for those considering a climb, they offer an entry into an amazing world. I came to Rainier looking to cross something off a bucketlist and failed. For that I was challenged (by a guide) to double down and not only did that lead me back to Rainier, it quite literally changed my entire life. Now obviously plenty of people are looking for one and done but my point is that guided is a reasonable, heck, smart, way in.
If you want more skills, more technical know how at the end of your climb, don’t skip guides, skip up a level and take a seminar, a tougher route or an entire course on the mountain.
Climbing with RMI: My $2174 and two-cents
As for RMI, let me be dead honest here, I picked them at first because they had the best looking website. That said, I’ve become quite the fan over the years and frequently swing by their base camp to chat with the guides or other staff about mountain conditions on my now independent adventures. In the future I’m quite certain I’ll be back with them to take on a route outside my comfort zone if not a bigger peak (hello Alaska!) so that should sum up my initial impression.
Of course in climbing more, I’ve also met other guides and taken programs with IMG (AIARE) which has expanded my understanding of the options. Ultimately I know RMI and IMG and would gladly climb with either tomorrow (Alpine Ascents too from what I hear, I just don’t have the same experience myself.)
There are of course differences between the companies:
- I like that RMI has such an extensive basecamp operation combining guiding, lodging, even meals into one and I also like that both they and IMG are based out of Ashford (IMG has the perk of tent sites on their property.)
- I like that RMI gets the chance to assess clients on mountain school day in case someone is really not ready but I dislike the extra day of climbing that comes with it vs the others.
- I like that RMI focuses on a quick approach with most of their climbs, an extra night at camp doesn’t do much for me.
- I like having a solid bunkhouse that I can stand in but I dislike starting from Muir vs the others who leave from tents at Ingraham, 1,000′ higher.
- I certainly dislike having to carry up all my meals but I really like not paying hundreds more for a trip with a couple meals and an extra night on the mountain.
RMI’s standard climb feels like more work (extra day of climbing, bringing all your own food) and at a faster on-mountain pace but that’s come to match how I climb the mountain myself anyways. I certainly would prefer to start from Ingraham of course and you can’t argue with a real meal but when it all comes down to it, I like the RMI team and I like the RMI price
Explore the Climbing Options
If you’re thinking about a visit to Rainier yourself know that guided climb programs fill within weeks if not days of being offered, especially for the peak July & August dates. Booking well in advance is the best way to insure a spot though there are often cancellations so if you keep an eye on things and more so, give the guides a call so they know you’re looking, you may be able to sneak in for this season too!
- The National Park Service on Climbing Rainier
- RMI’s 4 Day Rainier Climb
- IMG’s 3.5 Classic Rainier Climb
- Alpine Ascent’s 3 Day Muir Summit Climb
- Mountain Condition Updates (gives a good sense on the conditions)
Last but certainly not least, if you decide to embark on a Mount Rainier guided climb do not skimp on training. Whether you have local dirt mountains to practice on or have to endure staircase loops at the local gym, success on the physical level is entirely up to you so get use to that burn, that pack, that duration as best you can!
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