Mt. Rainier, a 14,411 foot stratovolcano, is an icon of the Northwest and Washington State. A symbol of the Cascades,
Washingtonians proudly display this beloved massive mountain on license plates and most Washington state memorabilia.
Rainier, lovingly referred by those of us living in its shadow as The Mountain, is also known as Big Tahoma or Tacoma. With 26 major glaciers and 36 square miles of permanent snowfields and glaciers, it is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. This volcano is real, live and active; around the crater rim are sulfur vents spewing sulfurous gas, reminding climbers as they come to sign the summit registry that this mountain is still one badass volcano. The topographic prominence of Mt. Rainier is 13,211 feet; it’s greater than that of K2 (only 13, 189 feet).
With over 40 routes, there are lots of route options for climbing Mt. Rainier. Most climbers tackle the mountain through Camp Muir or Camp Schurman. For my first climb of Rainier I wanted to do a route that would be interesting, not just an endless snow slog like the Emmons or a trench up the mountain on the DC (the guides put in a trench on the DC to take their clients up). The route that my friend Jeremy and I decided on was The Kautz – fewer people, nicely broken up into sections, interesting views and we’d even get some ice climbing in on the two ice steps.
This climb starts at Paradise, descending on the Lower Nisqually, then climbing up the Turtle to just below Camp Hazard and the ice cliffs, then drops onto the Kautz Glacier, you climb 2 ice steps, then over to the Waypoint Cleaver, after that’s it’s onto the Upper Nisqually, and then up to Columbia Crest and the summit.
After checking in at the Paradise rangers station, Jeremy and I decided to slightly modify our climb to climbing up the Kautz with a carry over to the DC. This means climbing the Kautz and then descending via the Disappointment Cleaver route. We chose to do this because it’s a long way to the Kautz and a much shorter descent back to the car via the DC route and Camp Muir.
We began hiking at Paradise, hiked to Glacier Vista at 6200ft, then dropped down onto the Lower Nisqually. If the hike in has melted out sufficiently, there is a very obvious trail here where you drop down. The Lower Nisqually hadn’t opened up yet, with only a few sliver of crevasses and ferns we opted not to rope up. Despite what climbing guide books say, the Fan is no longer used for the Kautz approach due to rock fall. Instead, climb up the Wilson Glacier to the Turtle. There are lots of great camping spots on rock outcroppings at around 9,000 feet. Some even had running water. If you wanted to do the Kautz as a 3 day climb, these would be perfect, safe spots to camp. Jeremy and I set up camp at 10,500 feet, just below Camp Hazard and the Kautz Ice Cliffs. It took us 5 hours from Paradise to reach these camp spots. Camp Hazard as it’s name suggests is hazardous! Don’t camp here! And no, it’s not just some sick climbing joke (though the name turned out to be very fitting), it was actually named after the earliest climber credited with the first documented ascent, General Hazard Stevens. It is the highest established camp on the mountain. It does have all the trappings of a nice camp – rock bivy spots and collection barrels for blue blags. But don’t be lured in, the Ice Cliffs like to occassionally dump down truck sized blocks of ice onto the camp. There are great camps just a little lower and to the left on the rock outcropping. We were lucky and there was running water when we camped here, don’t always bank on this, be sure to bring enough fuel for melting snow, but also keep an eye open for running water.
The views as the sun was setting of the Kautz, Nisqually, Kautz Ice Cliffs, Tahoma Glacier, Mt. Adams and Mt. Helens were breathtaking from camp. It’s moments like these that I love about mountaineering. For me, mountaineering is about the incredible friends I get to share this inspiring and challenging experience with, the spectacular views and natural beauty that so few people in the world get to experience; it’s about the journey and what I get to see and who I get to experience it with and not necessarily about the summit. The summit’s just the icing on the cake, a good day in the mountains is one where we all get down safely. And this time up the mountain I got my cake AND my icing and the joy of sharing it with a great friend.
We headed to bed early since that alpine start was creeping up on us fast. Jeremy and I woke up at 2 am to start climbing at about 3:30am. Tip: If you haven’t done a carry over before make sure to give yourselves plenty of time, since breaking down ALL of camp and repacking can take longer than you plan. Once all packed and ready to roll, we climbed up to 11,200 feet, near Camp Hazard, and dropped onto the Kautz Glacier. Usually this is a rappel, but with the late snow fall this year and cooler spring a lot of snow had stuck around and there was an snow ramp to get down onto the Kautz.
Once on the Kautz there are 2 ice steps. Due to all the extra snow hanging around, we only had a little glacial ice peaking through, mostly it was just hard snow. Each step was about 30 m, though this can vary depending on the year and when you do it. We placed a few pickets, but didn’t need any ice screws.
At the top of the ice steps, about 12,200 ft, we transitioned over to glacier travel set-up. The next thousand feet was straightforward glacier travel with minimal small crevasses. When we reached the Waypoint Cleaver, at about 13,000 ft, we climbed over it and down onto the Upper Nisqually. The Upper Nisqually was filled with huge crevasses. We headed up the Upper Nisqually toward Columbia Crest, navigating around the handful of crevasses we came across.
Finally reaching the crater rim at 14,000 feet was a sight for sore eyes. The last couple hundred feet to the crater rim seem to go on forever. The crater rim is rock and the summit is rock and snow. We dropped down into the crater proper, left our gear, and headed up the 400 feet to bag the summit! There’s not much to see from the summit of Mt. Rainier except for Liberty Cap, the crater itself and lots of endless blue skies. When you’re on the tallest thing around, up where airplanes fly, there isn’t much to see. The sides of Mt. Rainer slope down gently, blocking much of the view from the summit of Rainier; once you start descending then the views become quite spectacular.
After savouring our summit and signing the summit registry, Jeremy and I descended via the Disappointment Cleaver route. We had great views of Little Tahoma, which I climbed the weekend prior. The DC route consisted of gentle slopes, trenches and the occasional hopping crevasse and sketchy ladder crossing.
For my first climb of Mt. Rainier, it was quite the climb! Great, interesting route, incredible views, and a great friend to share it with. The Kautz is one fun route! And the summit was just the icing on the cake.