Soloing Mount Rainier: Success and Disappointment
“The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will”
(all lyrics in quotes credit the Grateful Dead)
Part 1: Disappointment on Success Cleaver
Mount Rainier is the highest peak in the Cascade volcano arc in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, with a summit dome towering 14,410 feet above the nearby sea-level Puget Sound. It is famous as a Washington State landmark and a nationwide mountaineering destination. Rainier boasts a large number of serious glaciers, and climbing it requires a mix of alpine skills.
Almost everyone who climbs Mount Rainier does so in a group of two or more people, and in fact, many of the people on the mountain take part in large commercial guided climbs. However, a lesser-known fact is that the National Park Service allows solo climbing as well. To get a permit to climb Rainier solo, I filled out an online application detailing my climbing experience and explaining my plans for dealing with various hazards in glacial terrain, and a couple weeks later, I received email notification that I had official approval to attempt climbing Rainier in solitude.
Rainier is famous for its glaciers. Glaciers pose a unique hazard to solo climbers: crevasses (large cracks in the ice of the glacier) can be hidden by snow, and crevasse falls are almost always managed using ropes and more than one climber. To minimize my risk of a solo crevasse fall, I chose to attempt Rainier by a seldom-climbed route on a non-standard side of the mountain. This route, called Success Cleaver, is the only semi-technical route that avoids almost all glacier travel; instead, climbers stick to an exposed rock ridge and finish by crossing the relatively safe summit glacier accumulation zone (which is generally considered to have minimal crevasse hazard).
While the Success Cleaver bypasses Rainier’s infamous crevasses, the route is not without its downsides: it is one of the longest routes on the mountain, with over 13,000 vertical feet of elevation gain from the low-elevation Longmire Trailhead, the actual climbing is tedious and involved, and the route is best done early in the season when snowfields cover long stretches of steep scree. With this last consideration in mind, I planned to make an early June attempt on Success Cleaver, hoping to climb most of the distance on snow.
Thus on June 8, 2019, I caught an early-morning flight to Seattle, picked up a Car-2-Go (car share program, as I can’t rent a car at age 18), and drove to Mount Rainier National Park. After checking in with the rangers at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center, I started hiking up the Wonderland Trail under stormy skies. The storm was predicted to lift off quickly, leaving me with a clear climbing window, but I hadn’t counted on just how much fresh snow the mountain had gotten on its upper slopes.
By the late afternoon, I had climbed out of the lush rainforest and into the snowy alpine zone. The trail faded from a well-trod dirt path into a soft white field of fresh snow, and I post-holed my way to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground where I left the Wonderland Trail and continued higher onto the mountain. I had a backcountry permit for the Pyramid Peak zone, and I planned to camp at treeline near 6,000 feet elevation.
However, as I saw the upper mountain, my hopes sunk as I realized that the recent storm had left the area very snowy. My progress slowed as each step sunk deep into the untracked powder snow, but eventually I fought my way past the snow-buried Mirror Lakes in the early evening. As the clouds continued to lift, I gazed in awe at the full 8,000 vertical feet of Success Cleaver rising dramatically into the sky. It looked rather imposing, and I saw evidence of unstable drifting snow conditions up higher. At this point, I realized that I had probably messed up the timing due to the recent snow storm, and the upper route was likely unclimbable.
After battling my way through the deep, soft snow, I eventually pitched my tent on a granite slab right around 6,000 feet elevation, or roughly one-third of the way from the trailhead to the summit. The route looked inspiring in the evening light, but with my camera, I could see that several critical snow traverses looked like they had experienced small point-release avalanches recently, and the higher slopes were still very loaded. Even the steep lower slopes of Pyramid Peak were littered with tons of recent loose-wet avalanche debris. After filtering water from a nearby snowmelt creek, I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m. and went to sleep with trepidation.
When my alarm went off, I crawled out into the crisp night air and started up the ridge. My legs were still tired from the previous day’s work postholing through the soft snow, so I moved more slowly than usual. Over the next several hours, I tracked my progress on the GPS as I hiked up talus fields, crisp snow slopes, and edged my way along exposed sections of the rocky spine of Success Cleaver. Up to about 8,000 or 9,000 feet, the snow felt crunchy and supportive, but above here, the conditions deteriorated rapidly. By sunrise, I was fighting my way through deep, soft, fresh snow, often sinking hip-deep on a 40+ degree slope. The sunrise views of the other Cascade volcanoes was still impressive, though.
Just after sunrise and just over 10,000 feet elevation, the route began to traverse onto snow slopes perched above the Pyramid and Success Glaciers in order to skirt a steeper section on the ridge. The fall potential quickly increased here, and while this would have been a trivial slope with good conditions, the loose snow made it treacherous. My ice axes were useless in the soft powder, and I found myself swimming uphill on a steep slope with a bad run-out. The decision was clear but disappointing: it was time to turn around.
I carefully reversed the upper thousand feet of the route, taking particular care not to fall on the loose and unconsolidated snow. It felt weird turning around at sunrise with so much of the day left to climb, but I knew that the upper route would be in even worse conditions. This meant that my progress would be very slow as I sunk in with every step, and the softness of the snow also concerned me with regard to avalanche potential. Thus, I was disappointed to descend, but I was confident in my decision.
As I re-ascended a hundred feet to clear a bump on the ridge and return to my camp, I heard a loud cracking and booming from the South Tahoma Glacier to my side. This huge glacier, which parallels Success Cleaver, was calving off some massive chunks of ice from one of its lower serac zones, and the debris was exploding down the lower mountain slope. These icefalls don’t threaten the route I was on, so it was fascinating to simply stand by and witness. This was the first serious serac collapse I had ever seen, and it definitely gave Rainier a big-mountain feel.
I packed up camp and hiked out quickly, wondering when I would have another chance to climb Rainier.
Part 2: Success on Disappointment Cleaver
“Round, round, Robin run around
Gotta get back where you belong
Little bit harder, just a little bit more
Little bit further than you gone before”
After spending the rest of June and most of July tearing down and beginning to rebuild a log cabin in Wyoming, I got a chance to go back to Washington on July 22nd. I repeated basically the same schedule as my earlier trip, except that this time I drove to the famous Paradise trailhead instead of Longmire. By this time of the year, Success Cleaver would likely have a good deal of unstable scree slopes, while the Disappointment Cleaver route (the standard route used by the majority of climbers and guides) has a well-trod path at this point in the season.
By switching to the Disappointment Cleaver route, a few things changed about my solo Rainier attempt. Most notably, my new route choice would involve a significant amount of travel over crevassed glaciers. While I knew that I would be climbing in close proximity to large crevasses, I also knew that the route had been well-established with a path trod down by thousands of earlier climbers, with fixed gear at particularly tricky sections. After careful consideration of the risks inherent in solo travel over crevassed glaciers, I accepted the risk level in return for a shorter, easier, more aesthetic route with a greater chance of success.
Thus, after checking in with the park rangers to get my solo climbing permit and backcountry camping permit, I began hiking up the famous Muir steps at Paradise Park around noon. The initial “trail” is a paved tourist thoroughfare and the sun was making it quite hot, so I quickly marched my way up to higher country. The views of Rainier from the wildflower meadows above Paradise were truly stunning.
I left most of the tourists after a mile or so and continued higher onto the Pebble Creek trail. Since the Paradise trailhead is above 5,000 feet elevation, more than twice as high as Longmire where I started my previous attempt, I was quickly exceeded my previous camping elevation. Around 7,000 feet, I transitioned to hiking on snow, but unlike last time, this snow was well-consolidated and I made efficient progress. I climbed the straight-forward Muir Snowfield for several thousand feet all the way to Camp Muir at just over 10,000 feet. This non-crevassed snowfield is popular with hikers who congregate to slide down its gentle slopes.
A few hours after I left Paradise, I arrived at Camp Muir. I carried my tent plus two pickets, a deadman snow anchor, and some other gear in case I had to anchor my tent on the glacier, but luckily I managed to snag a spot in the public climber’s hut instead. This is one of several permanent buildings at Camp Muir, and it offers about 20 tight-packed sleeping spots for climbers. I set up my sleeping pad and bag on one of the low wooden bunks and set about melting snow for drinking and cooking dinner. I ate an early dinner, drank some extra-strong bouillon to re-hydrate with salt, and spent some time talking to other climbers.
The consensus among my fellow climbers was that the next day was going to have rapidly deteriorating weather. The evening at Camp Muir was warm, clear, and nearly calm, but forecasts called for a rapidly building storm system to bring high winds and potential white-outs starting in the very early morning, potentially long before sunrise. As a solo climber, I depend on visibility in order to navigate crevasse fields while staying within my level of accepted risk. If the winds became too strong, they could envelope the upper mountain inside a lenticular cap cloud of blowing ice particles, reducing visibility and creating unacceptable levels of danger. This is exactly what had happened on the previous day, when I heard that many climbers were turned around by exactly this type of bad weather.
In the evening, the National Park rangers told everyone that they thought that the next day was “not a summit day.” However, I wondered whether if not a summit day, I might at least get a chance at a summit night. The high winds were supposed to pick up starting around 2 a.m. and increase each hour for the rest of the day. From Camp Muir, it is only about 4,400 vertical feet to the summit. It was currently about 7 p.m.
My original plan had been to climb in the dark and summit at sunrise, moving efficiently as a soloist and getting back down before any bad weather moved into the area. Faced with the worsening forecast, I decided that since I was going to climb up in the dark anyway, I might as well do it sooner than later. I would rather summit at night than turn around during the day.
I set my alarm for 9 p.m. and got a few restless minutes of sleep. I pulled on my boots and crampons and left camp in the last twilight of the evening. Navigating by headlamp was easy on the well-packed trail. I quickly traversed across the Cowlitz Glacier, scrambled up loose rocks to Cathedral Gap, and arrived in Ingraham Flats were some teams were still packing up to head down from the previous day. The crevasse hazard became more significant in this area, and I carefully wove my way through a maze of wands and paths to traverse the Ingraham Glacier. This is one area where I had a significant advantage as a solo climber: this section of the route is threatened by serious serac fall, and walking quickly by myself, I could minimize my exposure time.
After this second glacier crossing, the route climbs onto its namesake feature, a rugged ridge of loose rock called the Disappointment Cleaver. This rock rib allows climbers to scramble easy 3rd-class terrain instead of navigating the highly fractured glaciers on either side. Near the bottom of the Cleaver, I passed a guided team which had turned around due to winds during their sunset summit attempt. Now, I was the highest person on the route, climbing alone, ever higher in the night.
The route was generally well-marked by bamboo wands with pieces of reflective red tape, but I was also prepared to navigate on my own by recording an accurate GPS track to retrace my route in a worst-case low-visibility scenario. In general, the route is fairly straight-forward, with a well-packed snow path on the glacial portions and a fairly obvious path of least resistance through the rocky parts.
I was making good time, and there were no other parties visible above Ingraham Flats. I was essentially alone on the route, in the middle of a huge glaciated mountain, in the middle of the night. It was an exhilarating feeling, but definitely required extreme vigilance and self-reliance.
At the top of the Cleaver, near 12,300 ft., I returned to the Ingraham Glacier and followed the path onto the upper mountain. The weather was holding clear and only slightly breezy, with winds up to maybe 25 or 30 mph. Near 12,800 feet, I encountered an imposing serac wall roughly a hundred feet high towering over the route. It was quite a sight, but my pictures in the night do not capture the full feel. There was a fixed hand-line here to assist climbers in passing through some jumbled terrain below this serac band, where the route pitched up more steeply and headed to climber’s right.
The crevasses were quite large on this section of the climb, but they were clearly defined in the snow with crisp edges, and I kept a respectful distance and made sure to climb deliberately.
Just below 13,000 feet, I encountered the fixed ladder the rangers had reported. The aluminum ladder was set at slightly less than vertical, probably 15 feet tall, and helped me climb over a vertical bergschrund-type feature. Again, there was a fixed line here, and I used a personal tether to secure myself on the descent. Above, the route continued following switchbacks up about a 40-degree snow slope. The conditions were perfect for getting good purchase with crampons, and I really enjoyed climbing this section.
At this point, I began to climb into the windy zone, where the route ascends onto Rainier’s high shoulder. This is where all of the previous groups I talked to had turned around. When I was there, the winds were sustained around 30 gusting to about 45 mph. I continually evaluated the risk, but with clear skies above, I continued upwards since I was climbing quickly and was on track to reach the summit well before the storm descended.
This region was definitely the most mentally challenging, though, as I wound back and forth on the upper Ingraham Glacier with whipping wind and clear fall potential always present on one side or the other. I practiced efficient and smooth ice axe transfers between hands at the ends of the switchbacks, and I paid careful attention to my crampon placement to keep my risk of slipping to an absolute minimum. The crevasses up here were quite obvious and posed no real challenge to cross; I simply approached cautiously on the trail, inspecting the crevasse edges as I neared it, then stepped deliberately to the other side with a solid ice axe placement.
“Won’t you try just a little bit harder
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more”
It was now after midnight, and the wind was getting pretty strong as I passed through the 14,000-foot mark. I kept going, though, and the trail remained obvious under the moonlight and headlamp beam. Before long, the slope eased and rolled over, and I found myself on the crater rim. To get to the true summit, I entered into Rainier’s volcanic crater and trekked across flat snow to the other side, where I ascended the last hundred feet or so to the highest bit of snow on the summit of Columbia Crest. For the first time, I could see down the other side, as evidenced by the profile of Liberty Cap silhouetted against the lights of Seattle and Tacoma.
A few minutes before 1 a.m., I climbed onto the highest point of Mount Rainier. I was ecstatic to have made it to the top under difficult odds, but the wind was pretty rowdy up here, easily hitting 50 or 60 mph. The terrain was mellow so I was not overly concerned, but still, it was cold and dark, so I only spent a few minutes as the highest person in Washington before heading back down. On my way back to the other side of the crater to descend, I stopped to sign the register box. I was obviously the first person to sign in on June 23rd, having signed the box just after 1 a.m., and I wonder whether anyone else made it that day. With the increasing winds, I suspect I may have been the only person to summit on that day.
I descended carefully but quickly, and by 2 a.m. I was back to the top of Disappointment Cleaver. The wind remained relatively low for my descent of the upper reaches of the mountain, but by the time I got back to the Cleaver, the summit suddenly became much windier. I could hear it howling like a freight train up there, and a small cap cloud descended onto the summit. I am fairly sure that if I had left much later or climbed in a different style (i.e. not solo, which would be slower), I would not have made it to the top on this day. I passed a guided group here on the Cleaver and continued on my way back to more hospitable climes.
My descent of the Cleaver and reversal of the lower Ingraham Glacier crossing were both uneventful, and I passed several more teams just leaving Ingraham Flats around 3 a.m. By this point, the summit was fully enveloped in a cap cloud, the wind was picking up every minute, and a lightning storm was brewing out between Mount Adams and the Tatoosh Range. I was glad to have gone with my crazy-early plan with a nighttime summit.
As I passed back through Cathedral Gap, the wind became even stronger, throwing dust in my eyes even as low as 10,500 feet. I hope that all of the upper parties were safe, as it looked like it rapidly got pretty extreme up there. I returned to Camp Muir around 4 a.m., packed up my sleeping gear, and booked it down the Muir Snowfield in the twilight to avoid the impending storm. I made it back to the Paradise trails just at sunrise and basked in the glory of a new day. I was thankful to have made it to this beautiful summit, and while I was sad that I missed all the high altitude views by climbing at night, I think it was the right choice in order to make the summit successfully. I returned to the Muir Steps before 7 a.m., so I guess technically this was a day-trip.
“Small wheel turns by the fire and rod
Big wheel turns by the grace of God”
“Every time that wheel turns round
Bound to cover just a little more ground”
In conclusion, I guess Rainier played a bit of a joke on me: I was disappointed on Success Cleaver, and I had success on Disappointment Cleaver. Climbing Rainier solo was a wonderful experience overall, and I feel that I learned a lot and grew as a mountaineer by endeavouring to understand, accept, and manage the involved risks. I believe that my late-night successful summit bid shows some of the advantages of solo climbing, namely flexibility and efficiency. Rainier is a beautiful peak and it’s worth returning there; I can’t wait to come back and see the summit view in daylight.
Climb on, friends!