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Tips for Successfully and Safely Reaching Mt. Rainier’s Summit
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Thinking about climbing Mt. Rainier next summer? Now is the perfect time to start your preparation -- learn more about routes, conditioning, nutrition, and strategies. Here we share some favorite tips on successfully getting up the mountain. In no particular order, they are:
- Physical Conditioning. You will want to be comfortable carrying an overnight pack two or three days in a row, gaining or losing upwards of 4,500’ each day. Pack weight can vary from 30 pounds (for those who know exactly what they need and have purchased lightweight, compact equipment; for our July 19-20 attempt at www.bodyresults.com/a2rainiere3.asp I carried 32 pounds) to 60 pounds (for novices who either do trips with guides who require a lot of extra gear OR have not had the luxury of buying lightweight, sometimes more expensive gear; I was closer to this on our 2000 climb at www.bodyresults.com/a2rainier.asp.) To get a head start on your training, find out more about Train to Climb Mt. Rainier DVD at www.bodyresults.com/p1rainier.asp.
- Understand Weather Forecasts. Weather is as big a factor as any when trying to reach the summit of a large volcano like Mt. Rainier. Rainier generates her own weather. It may be perfectly clear and calm on the approach to base camp but a blustery white out within a few hours. Be sure to study extended weather forecasts up to a week in advance and know how the snowpack has been formed during the previous few months. Good resources are www.nwac.noaa.gov ‘s northwest Weather and Avalanche Center as well as Rainier’s current weather forecast available at www.bodyresults.com/climbing-rainier-training.asp.
- Know Your Route. Read trip reports from others who have done your proposed route so that you understand current and recent conditions. Mike Gauthier’s book, Mt. Rainier: A Climbing Guide discusses appropriate gear, route selection, and shares detailed maps and photographs of each of the most popular climbing routes. For more information see www.bodyresults.com/p1gauthier.asp.
- Be Flexible for Off-Season Climbs. If you are coming from out of state to climb Rainier or any other popular destination, realize that Rainier can be a tricky mountain to reach the summit especially if you are climbing outside of the May-September months. If you can plan on being in the Puget Sound area for a week or more, you can choose the most opportune window of weather to try the climb; however, if you are locked into a date, especially for a winter attempt, be prepared to abort if conditions do not look right. For more information on our attempt at a winter ascent March of 2003, visit www.bodyresults.com/a2rainier03.asp.
- Choose Climbing Partners Carefully. If you plan to do a guided climb, you probably will not know many of your climbing partners in advance. If you have the luxury of choosing your partners, choose carefully as to matching hiking speed, physical conditioning, personality compatibility, and knowledge about crevasse rescue and mountaineering travel. Train with your team ahead of time to test gear, pacing, and camp skills. If five on your team are morning people and one likes to sleep late, you may have trouble getting going in the morning! Climbing is a risky undertaking, and you want to stack the odds in your favor.
- Carry Duct Tape. As silly as this sounds, duct tape is the one piece of equipment nobody should be without in the mountains. Wrap a 3-4’ piece around your ice axe or trekking pole so you always have it with you. I have seen duct tape used for any and all of the following: a) repairing wind pants that get sheered by sharp crampon points; b) keeping crampons on your feet when a repair kit is not handy; c) blister prevention across the balls and heels of the feet (see www.bodyresults.com/qaskbr.asp?id=223&cat=13 and www.bodyresults.com/e2footcare.asp for more on this topic); d) fabric patch for clothing or tent; and e) makeshift sunglasses or side shields if you lose or somehow forget your glacier goggles.
- Keep Moving. Know how to perform the Rest Step and Pressure Breathing so that you can keep moving very slowly but continuously up the mountain. This will allow you to keep warm, rely on a steady but consistent pace, and not succumb to the “hurry up and wait” syndrome that only fatigues you faster at altitude. Tortoises frequently make it to the top before the hares who often poop out from trying to ascend too quickly.
- Hydrate Frequently. It is crucial to stay well hydrated with carbohydrate-containing drinks (see www.bodyresults.com/E2HighAltitudeNutrition.asp for more on this) to help with acclimatization. Before you get any signs of a headache you should be taking short drinking stops every 30 minutes or so, especially on cold, overcast days when the tendency is to forget to drink or wait until you get to camp for something warm. Keep a water bottle tucked inside clothing if you are afraid it will freeze. Avoid hydration systems that you have not thoroughly tested in all weather and altitude conditions as they have been known to burst or freeze on unsuspecting climbers on occasion. If you use a hydration system, take a collapsible water bottle (light and compact) just in case something goes wrong with the drinking tube.
- Nibble Steadily. Carry readily accessible snacks in inside pockets so they will not freeze and have a few bites every 15 minutes. Gu packets are great for high altitude, as they seldom freeze, slide down the throat easily without requiring chewing, and provide a good dose of simply carbohydrates for a boost of energy when you most need it and least want to eat. Unless your group plans ahead of time to take established eating breaks high up on the mountain, be prepared to go most of your summit day without a long break until you reach the top, nibbling all along the way.
- Navigation Skills. Carry radios to help communicate with members of your team in case you get separated. One person should have a GPS and know how to use it, or all members of your team should be able to work proficiently with a map and compass in order to successfully navigate your way back down in whatever weather conditions hit you. Remember point (2) above – weather conditions change on a dime and can go from clear and sunny to cold and poor navigation within minutes. Crevasse fields on Rainier are numerous and high on the mountain, one slope looks like another once you are coming off the summit. Pay attention at all times and be prepared to get yourself safely down.
Courtenay and Doug will be presenting several “Prepare for Rainier” seminars in early 2004 at local REI stores; watch for updates in future newsletters and at www.bodyresults.com/p2sched.asp.