Climbing Mt. Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver | Elevation 14,411'

Climbing Mt. Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver | Elevation 14,411'

On a clear day in Washington, it's impossible not to notice Mt. Rainier's presence dominating the skyline. Ever since I was little I've admired it, and hoped that one day I might stand on the Summit.

In June of 2022 I completed the Saint Helens Summit with Austin, Amanda & Sam and fell in love with mountaineering. Although not nearly as technical as Rainier, I couldn't help but think bagging that peak was a good fitness gauge for completing Rainier someday.

A few weeks later, Austin and Sam invited me to attempt a Rainier Summit push. At the time I didn't have any experience with glacier travel, crevasse rescue or the necessary gear. I opted not to join for the full climb but tagged along with them for the trip up to Camp Muir. We left Paradise around 11 am, which turned out to be a poor choice. The temps that day were HOT, even above 7,000 feet, and we got absolutely crushed by the sun. It was a total slog, and I could barely get any traction with my splitboard skins on the way up in the slushy snow. Eventually we did make it; ascending almost 5,000 feet to the public shelter at Camp Muir. I didn't understand how Austin and Sam were about to attempt to climb another 4,400+ feet the following day. It was a real wakeup call that my fitness was nowhere near where it needed to be. On the bright side, I got to snowboard down from Muir to Paradise: one of the coolest things I've ever done on a board.

Upon returning to my car at Paradise, the dream of summiting Rainier seemed more distant than ever. I was hurting; nagging snowboard injuries from the previous winter were coming back to bite me. My Achilles tendonitis flared up in a major way after trudging over 8 miles in snowboard boots. I was mentally & physically drained and feeling mighty discouraged. On the drive home I couldn't shake the feeling of disappointment as I glanced back at the peak as I passed through Eatonville, Orting and Auburn.

When I got home that night, I made a promise to myself that I'd come back stronger and more prepared next year for what I hoped would be a successful Summit push. I spent the rest of the summer doing PT for my Achilles and knee injuries. I went on day hikes with a weighted pack and took my backpacking to the next level. I went to Summit Lake in August for a 3 day solo trip where I felt the visceral desire to Summit grow deeper.

Over the winter I kept up with my training. I slowly got back into running and focused on body weight exercises. I spent a lot of time doing yoga to supplement my strength training. I logged over 50 days on a snowboard which I hoped would dial in core fitness and condition my fast twitch muscles. I started cold plunging as much as possible after researching the Wim-Hof method. If you're not familiar, I highly recommend looking it up!

Fast forward to this Spring and my anticipation for attempting another Summit was ramping up. The homie Riley let me borrow his weighted vest which I started wearing on walks around West Seattle every morning. I reluctantly sought out the steepest staircases and hoofed my way up and down them, again and again. My goal was to take at least 10,000 weighted steps a day. I threw the weight plates from the vest in my backpack and started carrying them with me everywhere. My bag weighed ~40 pounds as I walked to work and around my neighborhood. When the weather started getting nicer I completed a long training hike each week in addition to running 10-14 miles. I checked off Mailbox Peak, Mount Snoqualmie, Mount Si, Mount Tenerrife, Mount Washington, Hex Mountain and Kachess Beacon.

In addition to the physical demands of climbing Mount Rainier, there's also a decent amount of technical skills required. Our anticipated Summit day was July 5th; in late June I met with Austin and our other climbing partner Chris at Seahurst park to practice tying knots and rope management. We harnessed up and tied in to the swing set so we could practice self-ascension. I'd never used a prussik knot before; it was cool to see how useful and functional they are. We practiced setting a snow anchor and the proper way to use pulleys to lift a fallen partner out of a crevasse. This training really helped ease my mind in the days leading up to the trip. Luckily, I had gotten a fair amount of practice in with self-arrest using my ice axe the year before on our Saint Helens Summit. Austin and I planned on doing that hike again on June 20th but we got snubbed by a winter storm. From that point forward we were manifesting good weather for Rainier. We talked about it on our training hikes: "Good Vibes Only."

As we got within 10 days of our attempt, we started feverishly checking the forecast. UW Recreational Forecast. NOAA. All of them were showing the same thing: abundant sunshine. As we made it to the first weekend of July, our excitement had reached a fever pitch. We dialed in our gear, we were in great shape physically and mentally and the weather window was shaping up perfectly.

Day 1: Permits & Beta | 7.3.23

The other anxiety inducing factor was getting our climbing permits. Mount Rainier National Park reserves 1/3 of all permits for walk-up climbers. They're available the day of or day before your anticipated summit. Austin and I showed up at 7:15 on the morning of July 3rd hoping we'd beat much of the crowds. Luckily, we were the first in line when they opened at 7:30. We filled out the necessary forms and were absolutely ecstatic when the rangers granted us our permits. If we'd gotten there any later we might not have been so lucky: the line was now extended out the door. With permits in hand we could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The only thing that could keep us from summiting now was ourselves. Or an avalanche. Or Acute Mountain Sickness. Or crevasses. Or high winds. Nonetheless, we felt relieved as we sat in the morning sun at Paradise, gazing at the high alpine maze before us.

We headed back to Ashford so we could grab my rental boots and a nice breakfast. It was a carb loading day all the way; a fat stack of pancakes was just what I needed. Luckily, we had a campsite reserved at Cougar Rock inside the National Park so we could kick it all day. We took a siesta when we got there before heading out on a short hike to get the blood flowing. There's a waterfall less than two miles from the campground so we decided to head up there. We were so stoked to find a spot above the falls with a natural swimming hole. There were rocks in the river that formed couches we could sit on in the frigid water. I breathed deeply and slowly as I pushed the cold out of my mind, submerged up to my neck in glacial run-off.

After getting out of the river we found a big ass rock in the sun to lay on like Iguanas. We took another nap there as the cool mountain breeze slowly washed over us. With our spirits fully invigorated we decided to do some final rope practice. We found an alder along the trail by the campsite that Austin set a lead line to. I pulled on my harness and grabbed my prussiks from the carabineers clipped to my waist. I used self ascension to pull myself up around 10 feet off the forest floor.

Austin asked me if I wanted to feel what a fall would be like. At the time I thought it would be a good idea. Boy was I wrong. I unclipped my prussik knot from my belt loop and left my main lifeline attached, which is what would emulate falling. "It was only a couple feet" I remember thinking. "How bad could it be?" WHIPPPPP. The second I let go of my backup knot I was upside down. I smacked my shin on the tree next to me and scared the shit out of myself. With my leg bleeding and my nerves shot I could feel an ache in my lower back. Probably not the best thing to put myself through before a 9,000'+ climb, lol. I gingerly walked back to camp as we waited for Chris to roll through. A chicken fettucine dehydrated meal and a massive spring mix salad with avocados and bell peppers got me back in the right headspace. We laid out all our gear as a group and decided what would stay in the cars come morning. After a short debrief and hydration sesh we called it a night around 9 pm.

Day 2: Paradise --> Camp Muir | 7.4.23

5 am came around real quick. I slept surprisingly well considering all the swirling thoughts of fear and uncertainty about factors out of my control. We rose with crisp morning air and boiled water for freeze dried biscuits and gravy. After slathering ourselves in sunscreen and slamming as much water as humanly possible, we hopped in the cars and made the 15 minute drive from Cougar Rock to Paradise. SICKO MODE and Mr. Rager pumped through the speakers as I drove with one hand and choked down soggy biscuits with the other. When we first saw the peak in the morning light, that's when it hit me. We're about to do the damn thing. We geared up and stopped for a quick picture before hitting the Skyline Trail towards Panorama Point.

At 6:30 am on July 4th we clanked our poles together on those steps and hooted in excitement as we began the slow, steady ascent. The first mile or two were mainly snow free. I learned from my mistake last year of over-dressing. This time it was shorts and a sun shirt. The weather was absolutely perfect. Calm winds and crystal clear skies. We kept up with the good vibes as we took our first break of the trip around pebble creek. After taping a couple blisters I could feel creeping in on my heels we started back up again. I was more intimidated by the trek up the Muir snowfield than what laid beyond it because of our experience in the brutal heat the year before. Luckily, we experienced much milder temperatures this time around since we left so early. The snow was still firm enough to make the climb less daunting. Still, with a 50 pound pack filled with food, stove, gas, sleeping bag, pad, layers, and climbing gear it wasn't easy. It took us just over four hours to make it from Paradise to Camp Muir, which is considered a solid time. We were unpacked around 11 am, and able to take a quick snooze before cooking some noods. Top Ramen hits different at 10,000 feet!

We spent the better part of the next two hours melting snow with the jetboils and running the water through Austin's gravity filter. There's no other water source after Pebble Creek around 7,000'. Once all our bottles were filled we decided to lay down again, mainly to escape the sun. The Muir Public Shelter is a no frills establishment, made of cobblestone. Inside there are two long wooden bunks where we were able to lay our pads & sleeping bags. Amazingly, the three of us were the only ones in the first come, first serve shelter that day. If it had been full we would have had to set up tents on the snowfield. Since it was the Fourth of July, we were planning on waking up around sunset to look for fireworks on the horizon from camp. The climbing ranger we spoke with told us he planned on visiting the summit at that time, which blew our minds. How dope, I thought. He told us the route was in "cruiser shape" and people had been having great success that week. The groups that we spoke with were around 50% success the night before, which falls in line with the historical average. Each year around 10,000 climbers attempt the summit, with just over 5,000 making it to the top. One of the groups that did make it shared their success story with us, and gave me a bag of sour patch kids for the climb. We fired up the stoves again and sat in front of the shelter as we waited for dinner to "cook." My freeze dried meal of choice is always the Backpackers Pantry Pad Thai. It's fire. It has sriracha, fresh lime and peanuts to throw on top. Austin went with the Buffalo Mac & Cheese while Chris ate curry.

I knew coming into the trip that one of the hardest parts would be trying to sleep during the day. It was harder than I thought, even with earplugs and an eye cover. Day hikers who came up to see the camp were enthralled by the shelter and kept sticking their heads in. The door is noisy as hell and lets a ton of light into the room. After a while I couldn't even try to sleep anymore, so I went out front to stretch and do some deep breathing. Around 8 pm I went back to my sleeping bag so I could at least catch hopefully a couple hours of z's before our alarms were set to go off at 11. Thankfully I did snag a bit of sleep because I really needed it.

Day 3: Summit --> Paradise | 7.5.23

I woke in total darkness to Chris poking me and had half a mind to tell him to f@#* off haha. I couldn't even be mad though; this was the moment we had been waiting for. It was time to Summit Mt. Rainier. We walked onto the patio of the shelter and were greeted by a nearly full moon rising over the peak of Little Tahoma. The brisk air motivated us to get moving faster, even in our tired daze. We harnessed up and carried our rope over to the start of the route. We accomplished our goal of being the first group out of camp, which was huge. Our impeccable timing continued. As we took our first steps across the Cowlitz Glacier I could only hear the crunching of my crampons on the ice. The winds were non-existent, which boded extremely well for our cause. For the first hour I was focused on my breath and living in my own world inside the illuminated circle beaming from my headlamp. 

The moon was so bright that I'm convinced we could have travelled without headlamps. There were a couple moments in the dead of the night where we stopped for water and turned off all the lights. Sitting in the calm of the night on the most glaciated mountain in the continental United States was a surreal feeling. Once we made it across the Cowlitz Glacier we made our way through the Cathedral Gap, an unreal section of rock formations and overhanging ice.

From there we ascended the Ingraham Glacier onto Ingraham Flats. This is an area where groups go to camp who want a head start on teams from Camp Muir. We were happy to see that we beat most of these climbers as well.

We were setting a solid pace as we reached the first real hazard of the climb. Austin was in front, I was in the middle and Chris was in back. I heard Austin's voice crackle over the radios "We're coming up on a ladder crossing." It was a fixed ladder, installed by the rangers across a massive crevasse. I stopped for a minute to catch my breath and slowly exhaled as I watched Austin cross. I told myself not to look down as I did the same. I could sense the void beneath me though; a shiver ran down my spine as I thought about what lay below. Once Chris made it to the other side we fist bumped and continued our way to the Disappointment Cleaver (DC).

This section is the steep, rocky outcropping after which the route we were climbing was named. The DC was kind of a nightmare because of all the loose rocks and massive step ups. Not chill when it's dark and you're wearing crampons. There were also guided groups in front of us who were moving incredibly slow and bottlenecking the route.

The DC is aptly named, as the top of it is where most groups who are unable to continue face the disappointment of turning around. At 12,300' this is where Acute Mountain Sickness begins to set in. For some it can be a life threatening condition. Thankfully, all 3 of us only had mild symptoms. I felt a pretty brutal headache coming on so I took ibuprofen and slammed some electrolytes. We rested for a few minutes, taking in the splendor of the upper mountain looming in the darkness.

The next portion of the climb is called "High Break", a brutal section of switchbacks zig-zagging their way towards the summit crater. The summit appeared so close but we knew that it was so damn far, with another 2,000' of elevation to gain. We began hitting a wall around 13,500' as our toes were frozen and our legs were burning. Every break made it harder to get going again. I took a sip from my Nalgene and noticed the water had turned to slush. It was in the low 20's. We knew we had to keep pushing, and were revitalized by the first peak of daylight around 4 am.

We came to another crevasse around 14,000' that was wayyy sketchier than the one with the ladder. Climbers had warned us about it the day before. The only way across is to dig your ice axe into the snow on the uphill side of the crevasse and pull yourself up. I was not stoked to say the least so I jammed the shit out of my ankle trying to get over it as quickly as possible. We were so relieved when all three of us made it across. It was hard to tell in the early light just how severe that opening was. We started traversing towards the Nisqually Glacier and had our breath taken away from us by the sunrise at 5:18 am. The Alberta wildfires made it appear bright red, and the hue it cast on the summit above was mesmerizing.

At this point we were exhausted, but the reality was starting to set in. Within the next hour we would be standing on the Rainier Summit. I felt sick to my stomach, probably a combination of altitude sickness and eating freeze dried meals for two days straight. Austin and I both agreed that we could puke but decided not to go down that road. We pushed through the pain and at 6:15 am on July 5th, we arrived at the summit crater. The sight nearly brought me to tears, as weary climbers around us shouted their congratulations. We all hugged as we took off our packs and unclipped from the rope so we could visit the true summit. After climbing for six straight hours on no sleep, the last thing I wanted to do was climb more, but we had to reach the true summit. We trudged across the crater where some very lucky (crazy?) people were tent camping. It was a sick spot. Before reaching the true summit Austin and I laid down on the crater rim where there was no snow. It was 20 degrees at the top but laying on these rocks felt like being in a sauna. Turns out these are massive Sulphur vents releasing heat from the depths of the volcano. I closed my eyes for ten minutes and could feel the heavy energy; I knew I was in a sacred place.

We ran into a group of climbers on the true summit who we met at Camp Muir the day before. They wished us safe travels on our way out of Camp and we were happy to see they made it as well. We dapped 'em up and took turns getting pictures of each other's groups. Catching the view of all the other volcanoes in the state was truly a sight to behold. I felt very small in that moment. 

We still felt pretty nauseous and the thought of descending the mountain did not sound appealing! Then I remembered the bag of Sour Patch Kids I'd been gifted the day before. They were frozen and nearly broke our teeth, but I don't know what we would have done without them. Sour Patch Kids have never slapped so hard in my life. There were these insanely cool looking snow crystals formed in the crater that Chris really like so I snapped a shot of him before we put our packs back on.

As we mentally prepared to begin the descent, I was hit with a wave of emotion. Staring at the beauty before me, the summit of my favorite mountain above a sea of evergreen treez, tears streamed down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed with joy to have made it to a place where few people stand. Humbled to say the least. It was truly a blessing to be in this place. 

For Chris and I this was our first summit. Austin had done it twice before and told us that the descent was harder than the climb but we didn't believe him. We were so looking forward to walking downhill again, until we actually started doing it. With the sun fully risen it was wild to see the vastness of the features we ascended while shrouded in darkness. The sketchy crevasse we faced earlier was now on the downhill side, and I couldn't decide which was worse. It was definitely terrifying to see in the daylight.

Once we reached the DC again, the sun was really starting to cook. The snow was softening rapidly, and we ran into teams who were struggling to make their way up. We were thankful to be headed down, and even more thankful to take our crampons off to descend the cleaver. It took us just over an hour to make it down the steep rocky section which had taken us forever on the way up.

We rested for a moment and stared at the vast landscape of the Ingraham Glacier. We put our crampons back on and slowly made our way across the flats, where we were greeted with the ladder crossing at High Crack. In the daylight it was 100x scarier because we could actually see into the void.

Once we were safely across the ladder we were awestruck by hanging seracs that were indistinguishable in the dark. As we made our way back towards the Cathedral Gap we could hear distant rockslides and movements within the mountain. The landscape is constantly changing & evolving. The snow was melting rapidly, and we could tell the route conditions were deteriorating as the day went on. 

As we turned the corner from the Cathedral Rocks onto the Cowlitz Glacier we were excited to see the familiar structures of Camp Muir in the distance. At this point my feet were refusing to respond to the signals my brain was sending them. I was constantly rolling my ankles, so much so that I'm surprised I didnt break one of them. I knew I had blisters, but I didn't know I had blisters until I got back to Camp and pulled my boots off. Both heels were covered in blisters, and so were the balls of my feet. I tried to tape them but I couldn't stand barefoot and I could barely put my boots back on.

I was not hyped on the additional 4.5 miles back to Paradise, lol. We packed the rest of our sleeping gear into our bags and began the final leg of the descent back to the visitors center. Needless to say, this part of the journey sucks. Summit fever has worn off and it's like heading home from a vacation when all the excitement has worn off.

Normally the snowfield has ample opportunities to glissade but the snow was so slushy when we tried that it barely worked. By the time we got back to the paved section of trail before Paradise my feet were in shambles. I could tell the blisters now had blisters and my boots were drenched from the melting snow. My feet were so swollen that my toes jammed into the front with each step, bruising them along the way. The trails lower down were packed with families, many of whom were incredulous when we told them we had stood on the summit that morning.

The last two miles were pretty brutal, but the promise of putting Vans on and getting a burger in Ashford is what kept me going. We arrived back at the car at 3 pm, capping off 16 hours of straight movement. We dropped our packs and hugged each other like "damn did we really just do that?" We really did. We made it to the Summit of Washington's highest peak. The only thing we had left to look forward to now was a two hour drive back to Seattle : )

I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of driving a manual transmission all that way with the state of my feet. Thankfully Austin offered to drive back. When I got home to West Seattle I immediately went to the Sound to take a cold plunge. It was one of the most cathartic moments of my life; soaking in the chilly salt water while staring at the Mountain whose Summit I stood on hours earlier. Here's to experiencing life in the treez and moments like these -->

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