9 Day Rainier Baker Mountaineering Course Itinerary
This is one of the more challenging and comprehensive courses we offer at Alpine Ascents. It combines instruction, an ascent in the North Cascades and finishes off with an attempt on the popular Muir Corridor on the giant of the Pacific Northwest; Mount Rainier. With its arduous approaches, massive glaciers and stunning vistas; the Cascades provide a world-class environment in which to develop the necessary skills to become a proficient mountaineer. The 6 day portion of the course typically takes place on Mt. Baker, but we may also use other peaks if necessary to ensure the best possible mountain conditions for each course. The final 3 days are then spent on a summit attempt of Mount Rainier via the Muir Route. Alpine Ascents believes the best training for mountaineering is accomplished with as much time in the field as possible, and all 9 days are spent in the mountains.
We meet at our Seattle office for a 6:30 a.m. orientation and gear check. A big part of developing the necessary skills starts with having the proper equipment and food to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience in the wilderness. The guides will discuss each piece of equipment and ensure that everything is in good condition and is a proper fit. Finally, the guides will evaluate conditions, discuss weather with the group, and make last-minute adjustments before departing Seattle. This is an invaluable part of the course and will often help eliminate many of the questions students have in regards to both equipment and the flow of the course.
From the office, we will drive to Mt. Baker and depart from the appropriate trailhead. There are two excellent moderate routes to the summit that we can use on this course—the Easton Glacier and the Coleman-Deming Glacier. Depending on mountain conditions, the team will ascend the route that is the safest and will give the greatest possible chance of a summit. From the trailhead, most of the day is spent on the moderately strenuous approach, as we start hiking from approximately 3,400-3,700’ feet in sub-alpine meadows and eventually reach our camp around 6,000 feet. On the hike, we’ll pass through old growth forest, high alpine meadows, and catch glimpses of the gorgeous Cascade Range. We will aim to arrive at camp by late afternoon/early evening.
An integral part of mountaineering and expeditionary climbing is being able to set up a safe and secure camp in an extreme environment. As a group, we’ll practice these skills. Guides discuss the importance of personal maintenance, hygiene and sleeping in cold environs, and Leave No Trace principles, and address any student concerns. Finally, instruction of proper hydration, including efficient snow-melting protocols, nutrition, and backcountry-cooking techniques will be addressed
We’ll work on the basics of traveling on snowy and icy surfaces. We start by working on a variety of walking techniques for moving safely and efficiently over a variety of snowy slopes. Good footwork, balance and rest techniques are invaluable skills that we use throughout the course. Guides then introduce the use of the ice axe and students conclude by practicing a variety of self-arrest positions.
After lunch, we’ll start to explore some of the more technical aspects of mountaineering. In turn, guides will teach an assortment of useful knots and students will have a chance to practice in addition to tying prussiks. After this, we develop rope work skills: coiling, storing and changing the length of the climbing rope. If conditions and time permit, we go for a short glacier tour, winding our way through seemingly bottomless crevasses in both classical and echelon formations. Here, the emphasis is on proper rope interval, shortening and lengthening the rope, communication, route finding and hazard assessment.
We’ll demonstrate a variety of snow and ice anchors useful for belaying, running protection and rescue scenarios. Once students are comfortable constructing a variety of different anchor types and styles, we put it all to test. If you have ever wondered if you can rappel off a Snickers Bar, then this is the day for you! We fully weight and test all of the student anchors to ensure they are constructed properly for our intended purpose.
Then we put the anchors to test. Climbers belay and rappel off of the anchors they construct. We teach a variety of belaying and rappelling techniques that are useful in mountaineering and vertical climbing. We introduce a variety of hauling systems, with emphasis on understanding the mechanical advantage each system employs.
With the skills developed on the previous days – knots, prussiks, rope handling, anchor construction, belaying and mechanical advantage systems – students should now have the necessary skills and comfort to execute crevasse rescue. Crevasse rescue is an essential skill and considerable time and emphasis will be placed on practicing it in this course. First, guides usually have everyone do a “dry” run on the surface but then it is expected that each person demonstrate proficiency in holding a real-life fall into a crevasse and preform an actual rescue. Our standard instruction is a 3:1 Z-Pulley rescue system on a three-person rope team. We also demonstrate (if not practice) the 2:1 Drop-C on a two-person rope team as well.
At this time, students also have the opportunity to practice ascending out of a crevasse, on their own with the use of their prussiks. This gives a much more realistic feel of what self-rescue is all about.
Crevasses can be a hazardous environment, and care must be taken to mitigate the risks properly. Guides emphasize climber safety and well-being. Nevertheless, this is an extremely memorable and rewarding day.
At this point, students should have made the transition to becoming valuable members of a rope team and the group is now ready to push higher on the mountain. Depending on conditions and weather, we’ll either use this day to go for the summit or establish an advanced glacier camp.
Moving to a higher camp usually takes about one to two hours of travel time and helps solidify both rope team travel skills and allows for practice constructing another safe and secure camp. This also gives us the option to push the summit attempt back a day if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
The most important skills we’ll learn are how to prepare, plan and execute the summit climb. Developing a route plan, assessing the hazards, preparing one’s summit pack, climbing and descending safely through massive glaciers and seracs to an icy Cascades summit is a rewarding experience with breathtaking views in every direction. Furthermore, it is a demanding day, both physically and mentally, which provides great training for more advanced objectives students may encounter later in their climbing careers.
The 9 Day Course is one of the most rigorous and rewarding courses that we offer. Climbing Mount Rainier is a big physical challenge and a feather in any mountaineer’s cap. This, compounded with the previous six days of training and summiting another peak, makes for a long nine days. For this reason, guides like to summit on day 5 and have day 6 be used to hike out and return to Seattle with enough time for students to get checked into a hotel (not included in cost) and recharge before four more intense days of climbing. This is far from a “rest” day as we do still have to break down camp and hike back to the trail head, but we try to make it a bit more relaxed.
The course changes dynamics at this point and we pick up two additional guides to ensure we are climbing at a safe ratio. Mount Rainier, and the Muir Route, is accessible to most students with the skills they developed over the previous six days. Often times, in our other courses guides are able to continue to exist in full instructional mode and even get the students out in front, leading the rope teams. However, this is not the case with our nine day course. In order to safely and efficiently climb Mount Rainier, guides switch from a teaching mode to a guiding mode; in addition to cooking breakfasts and dinners. That being said, we still have plenty of opportunity to learn and guides make a strong effort to engage the students leadership skills whenever possible.
The group meets at the Seattle office in the morning, makes any last minute purchases and equipment adjustments. It is a three hour drive up to the trail head in Mount Rainier National Park, a place aptly named Paradise.
We’ll start at Paradise (5,400 ft.). From this beautiful and popular hiking area, we’ll hike park trails to the snow line and continue on snow to Camp Muir. The hike takes four to five hours and we will stop to rest several times along the way for instruction on topics such as moving efficiently on snow, and glaciology and volcanology. Prominent features of this hike include the ascent up and over Panorama Point (7,100 ft.), the crossing of the glacier-fed stream of Pebble Creek (7,200 ft.), and viewing the formidable Nisqually Glacier and Ice Cliff that spans from top to bottom on this southern aspect of Mt. Rainier. We’ll have excellent views of the Kautz Glacier and Fuhrer Finger climbing routes from the Muir Snowfield. As we crest the final portion of the Muir Snowfield and arrive at Camp Muir (10,080 ft.), we’ll have Muir Peak to our east and the massive ridge line of the Cowlitz Cleaver to the west.
That night, we’ll sleep in our private hut at Camp Muir, where we’ll have further discussions on mountain topics such as hydration, moving efficiently at altitude, and sleeping warm.
Move to high camp: This can be used as a possible summit day also an excellent area to advance skills learned in the earlier portion of the course. A bit of a guide’s choice to most effectively use the day for summit or training based on the group and weather conditions.
From this camp, we’ll be able to see Little Tahoma (11,100 ft.) a prominent sub-peak of Mt. Rainier, and the North Cascades range, including the volcanoes Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker. Here we’ll establish our High Camp. Our first goal will be to make good tent sites that will protect us from the elements while we make our summit attempt. Our guides will prepare the dining tent, boil water for our meals and give a detailed account of the next day’s requirements.
Summit Climb! We’ll typically start our climb between midnight and 2 a.m., depending on the weather and conditions. Our route depends on the time of year and conditions. We will ascend either the Disappointment Cleaver or the Ingraham Glacier Direct Route (early season only). As we are far ahead of other climbers coming from Camp Muir, we will have the mountain to ourselves. Climbing up from our camp on the Ingraham Glacier or snow/rock slopes of the Disappointment Cleaver, we’ll encounter a steeper pitch and apply our learned technique of precise footwork and regulated breathing. The pitch will moderate as we continue above 12,300 feet for the remaining 2,000 feet of glacier leading up the volcano’s cone to the Crater Rim. It takes four to five hours to ascend from our High Camp to the crater rim and then another hour to Columbia Crest, the main summit of Mt. Rainier. Along the way, we’ll route-find around crevasses and seracs, and make our way up the mountain, clipping fixed protection with our climbing ropes when necessary. We’ll take short rests along the way to hydrate and eat. As it is often cold, these rest stops are frequent but short in duration. Our goal is to keep a moderate yet steady pace to keep warm. After reaching the Crater Rim, we’ll take a longer break and if all is good, we’ll head across the crater itself for another hour to Columbia Crest.
After celebrating the summit and taking photos, we’ll descend carefully back to Ingraham Flats. Here we’ll pack up our camp, rope up and travel back down to Camp Muir. Much of our gear will be left here for other expeditions that will be coming up. From Camp Muir, we’ll carry our personal gear back to Paradise and then drive back to Seattle, stopping on the way for a meal and a chance to reflect on the trip.
Topics such as Navigation (GPS, map, compass, altimeter & white navigation), Route Finding, and Glaciology will be incorporated into the curriculum throughout the entire course and are often not designated for a particular time. Furthermore, throughout the course emphasis will continually be placed on checking and maintaining good self awareness and well-being, in addition to ensuring camp is always clean and secure. Finally, due to the dynamic nature of mountains and weather, guides are constantly shifting the itinerary in order to best match the skills and interests of the group with the weather and conditions on the mountain.
The course far exceeded my expectations in terms of quality, coordination, and sheer enjoyment. I certainly will use the skills on future climbs, and expect that those will be through AAI too. It was truly humbling to have such experienced and renowned guides on our trip. That was hands down the best part of the trip and made the experience world-class.