Climbing Mount Rainier is the ultimate adventure on many Seattleites’ bucket lists: Seeing the 14,409-foot giant loom over the city day after day, how could you not want to venture up there and see finally see the views from the peak firsthand? Summiting the big one is certainly a feat but, like running a marathon or riding a century, it's one that is within the bounds of reason for any outdoors enthusiast who is willing to put in the training and preparation, and able to keep mind over matter when the suffering kicks in.
Still, that doesn’t make reaching the summit a guarantee: The success rate is just 44 percent for individual or 60 percent for guided climbers. After you’ve put in the time to get fit, acquired the skills to stay safe, and are ready for your big push for a Mount Rainier summit, here are some tips to make the most of your attempt to get to the top.
1. Pace yourself.
It is trite but true: Slow and steady wins the race, or in this case, the summit. When you start out to Camp Muir you’ll feel so amped up that you’ll want to practically run up the mountain, but hold yourself back because that’s energy you'll need higher up on the mountain. Rather than dart ahead until you feel like you need a break, go at a pace you feel you could continue at indefinitely, and take your breaks on a fixed schedule (about once an hour).
2. Stay intentional.
Keeping a plodding pace is not the same as letting time slip away or getting lazy. When you’re on the mountain, you should always be mindful of your minutes, and be intentional with taking actions that are moving you toward the top – whether that means taking the next step up when you're en route, or eating a snack, drinking water, and adjusting your layers when you're taking a break.
3. Pack smart.
Efficiency is key on summit day, and one of the best ways you can cut down on lost time (and wasted energy) is organizing your pack in such a way that you’ll have everything you need readily accessible. Think about what you’ll need when, and pack accordingly. Keep small essentials that tend to get buried in your pack—like snacks, gloves, sunscreen, sunglasses, and lip balm—near the top, so you don’t have to go digging to get to them.
4. Take care of yourself.
Take preventative measures throughout day in order to stave off problems later on. Every time you rest, you should throw on a warmer layer before you get cold (which can happen very quickly once you stop moving), and take that layer off again before you start moving, so you don’t get too hot. Food is energy: You may not feel like eating higher up on the mountain, but try to consume at least 200 calories every time you stop for a rest so you don’t run out of steam. And hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. You may have to make yourself do it, but drinking ample water will keep you feeling much, much better and can also help head off the effects of altitude sickness, which isn't uncommon at high altitudes.
5. Breathe deep.
News flash: Rainier is a really big mountain, which means you’re pretty much guaranteed to feel the effects of altitude in some form or another. Don’t be embarrassed about huffing and puffing; taking slow, deep breaths while you're moving will significantly help your body deal with the higher elevation. Try to throw in some “pressure breathing,” a technique in which you forcefully exhale through pursed lips in order to expel more carbon dioxide. This strategy will help you avoid overexertion.
6. Remember that the early bird gets the worm.
Getting an early start will greatly increase your odds of success. And by early, we really mean late: It is not uncommon for parties to start at 11 pm the night before their summit. Traveling through the night is safer, because it is colder and thus the ice that holds the mountain in place will be more solidly frozen in place. Plus, once the sun rises it will reflect off the white snow and you’ll very quickly start to feel hot, which is an energy zapper.
7. Be prepared for cold and for sun.
Temperature regulation is one of the most important factors in mountaineering—you will very quickly fluctuate between too cold and too hot, both of which can reduce your chances of success and even be dangerous. Make sure you are equipped with a big down jacket, warm hat, and warm gloves as well as sun protection like a sun hat, glacier glasses, and sunscreen. And don't forget to apply it often: You'll burn more quickly thanks to the higher altitude and reflection off the snow.
8. Don't psych yourself out.
More than a technical summit, climbing Mount Rainier is about putting one foot in front of the other. After a few hours grinding up the mountain, however, you may start to wonder whether the simple act of walking is even possible anymore. Knowing how to get your mind off of the discomforts in order to keep powering forward is the sign of a true mountaineer. When the going gets tough, instead of fixating on how much longer it is to the summit, limit your focus to just the next several steps. Count to 100 and then back down again. Pick a landmark within sight and concentrate on just making it there. Once you do, pick out another one. Eventually, all those mini-goals of steps and landmarks will add up to the whole journey.
9. Stay aware of your surroundings.
At the same time, don’t let your focus become too self-centered: Rainier is rife with hazards, and keeping part of your mind on the lookout for them is key to staying safe. Are you crossing beneath a serac? Time to pick up the pace for a bit until you're out from under it. Is there a team below you during a rocky section? Be sure to watch your footing, so as not to knock anything down on them. Is your teammate crossing a crevasse? Be mindful of how much slack is in the rope between you, just in case that snow bridge collapses.
10. The top is only halfway there.
Following these tips and with the proper training, your odds of getting to the top are fairly good. But always remember: What goes up must come down. Mountaineering is as much about exploring your limits as it is about understanding them—and never pushing yourself all the way there. Always keep enough of a reserve to ensure a safe descent. There is no shame in bailing when that is the right decision for you at that time, whether the reason is altitude, weather, exhaustion, or conditions. The mountain will still be there, and you’ll be all the more prepared for your next attempt.