Mount Rainier is the “big mountain” of the Lower 48, a white giant standing alone 14,000 feet higher than the sea-level city of Seattle, a mere 60 miles away. Mount Whitney may be taller, other mountains may be more photogenic, but up close, Rainier feels more Himalayan than American, what with its seracs, huge glaciers, crevasses, bad weather, and high altitude. Twenty-six glaciers cover the peak, adding up to a cubic mile of snow and ice. The mountain gets 50 feet of snow every year, and the average temperature on the summit during the warmest month, August, is a brisk 32ºF.
More than 10,000 people attempt a climb on Rainier every year, and at least half of them head up the classic, but far from casual, Disappointment Cleaver route, almost all on snow and ice. Day one is typically a five-mile, 4,700-foot hike up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir, a group of spare huts perched at 10,080 feet at the edge of the Cowlitz Glacier. Day two, beginning with an alpine start between midnight and 2 a.m., tackles 4,400 vertical feet of snow, ice, and rock to Columbia Crest, Rainier’s proper summit at 14,410 feet. The 10- to 15-hour summit day, climbing up 4,400 feet and then descending 9,000 feet back to the parking lot, is a huge day. It’s an achievement, and one that often whets the appetite for more—once you’ve sat down for a post-climb burger and a beer in the town of Ashford at the base of the mountain.