How to Train for Mt. Rainier—In Just 3 Months

Following the well worn trail to the summit ridge of Mt. Rainier
Following the well worn trail to the summit ridge of Mt. Rainier McKay Savage
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It’s a huge mountain, the tallest in Washington, a major victory, and an emblematic challenge for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s the big one—Mount Rainier—with nearly 9,000 feet of elevation gain, roughly 2/3 the amount of oxygen available versus sea level, and 50+ pounds of weight on your back. But it’s totally worth it when you’re standing on top of the 14,409-foot peak, with walls of ice and breathtaking views of the sun coming up over the curve of the earth, in front of you. Don't be surprised if you're at a loss for words.

But how the heck does a mere mortal train for such a feat? Many experts recommend at least six months, but tackling this summit can actually be done in three by following a focused, intense, and balanced training program. Seattle is a natural training ground chock full of hilly terrain, ascending single tracks, and rugged back country—everything you need to prepare for peak performance.

In other words, with the Cascades in your backyard and plenty of determination in your mindset, there’s no reason why you can’t conquer Rainier.To reach this highly desired summit in three months, your goal is to become a well-trained, all-around athlete. You want the distant runner’s endurance, the sprinter’s speed, and the weightlifter’s power. Also, because you'll be climbing in high elevation, the greater your fitness level, the more efficiently you can adjust to the altitude and conquer each step and each breath.

Mt. Rainier looms in the distance, beckoning many a climber.
Mt. Rainier looms in the distance, beckoning many a climber. Kristin Wuhrman

Something else you'll need: a healthy amount of respect for the training involved to get there.

"I see lots of completely fit and healthy individuals not reach their goals because a general feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the unfamiliar skills required,” says Joseph Anderson, a 24-year mountaineering expert and owner of Peregrine Expedition in Bellingham.

Dedicate Three Months of Hard Work

Any Rainier-in-three-months training program should include these three phases: foundation (get in shape), aerobic/strength, and peaking (be at your prime for the summit bid). The major areas to work on include cardio and lung performance, lower back muscles, thighs, calves, and, of course, your mental capacity.

Interval/fartlek training is the best overall approach to building your heart and lungs. Simply put, this involves a relatively intense run at a fast rate, followed by a slow one. Workouts need to be hard enough that you won't be able to keep it up for more three minutes. For a solid workout, repeat the intervals 5-10 times. For overall endurance and to increase your aerobic capacity, combine a long run (of 8-10 miles) or a long hike (around 8 hours) with heavy weight (40 pounds) once a week with interval workouts.

Strength comes from the core and legs. Both are critical when carrying heavy packs, especially when you're exhausted. Getting in good stair or hill workouts with and without weight are excellent ways to build up strength.

“If you are not putting in long training efforts, then you are not training for Rainier," Anderson says. “Being physically taxed at the end of your long training sessions is essential as well if you want to make any noticeable fitness gains.”

Throughout your training, factor in adequate rest days and make sure to stretch: Muscles need stretching and at least 24 hours to rebuild after a tough workout. Also, don’t do the same routine week in week out. Cycle instead of running, or get a workout buddy to keep you honest and motivated with new exercises and routines.

The trail leading to Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier's base camp.
The trail leading to Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier's base camp. Kristin Wuhrman

Weeks 1-4: Get in Shape

The first month of workouts is about building your core and getting into a routine of constant training. Terrain is not as important during this first month. Include 30-45 minutes of aerobic training 4-5 days per week; 20-30 minutes of stair/hill workouts 2 days/week; and add 1-2 intervals sessions to your aerobic training.

Weeks 5-8: Mountaineering-Specific Training 

The second month includes workouts that are more mountaineering specific: hikes, climbs, and moderate weight in your pack. Mix up aerobic training by adding some weight in your backpack 4-5 days/week and increasing your duration to 45-120 minutes. For stair/hill workouts, add some weight and increase duration to 30-45-minutes at least 2 days/week. Finally, increase your number of interval sessions.

Weeks 9-11: Mimic Mt. Rainier

During this last month, it’s critical to train on similar terrain, steepness, difficulty, pack weight, and duration as what you'll encounter on the summit bid itself. Continue with your training routine from the previous month but add in multiple long (4+ hour) days with full pack weight (40-65 pounds). Anderson recommends Mt. Baker as a "great stepping-stone for Rainier. Actually, many of the peaks in the North Cascades located in Northern Washington are great for getting an introduction to this type of effort. But any long hikes with big climbs that require many hours of effort would suffice—no shortage of that in western Washington.”

According to Anderson, it's also essential to _“_have an understanding of the gear, the rhythm, the whole fiasco. That’s all going to decrease your stress levels once on the mountain."

Effective training means hiking with all of your gear and spending the night. Great options include Camp Muir (base camp), Mt. Rainier (9-mile RT, with 4,666-foot elevation gain to 10,080 feet) and Mount Baker (a wealth of stunning options). Both will help you get used to the altitude as well provide real-life examples of what to expect.

Chelsea Nesvig

Week 12: Taper, Rest, And Pack

The last week before you summit should be about managing stress and reducing fatigue, while maintaining fitness with your current workout but at a lower volume and frequency. Stretch often and focus on excellent nutrition and quality of sleep.

As far as packing goes, start early. You'll have a good idea of exactly how much weight and which equipment you'll be bringing, but allow plenty of time to make sure everything is as it should be well in advance.

Training Suggestions Around Seattle

The I-90 Corridor:  There are so many options for hiking, mountain running, and mountain biking along this stretch, including Mount SiRattlesnake Ledge, and Tiger Mountain. Some great options to increase endurance and provide variety around your intervals include Discovery Park, Bridal Trails, and Saint Edward State Park.

From the summit of Mt. Si, Rainier sits in the distance.
From the summit of Mt. Si, Rainier sits in the distance. Kristin Wuhrman

Steep Streets and Stairs in Seattle:  The city offers a wealth of options for hills and stairs. Incorporate these into your interval workouts as well as training with 40-50 pounds in your backpack. For stairs, check out Seattle Stairs Map , which maps almost all Seattle stair routes. Some beasty streets include Dravus Street (connecting Queen Anne to Magnolia); 24 th  Street in Bellevue; East Blaine Street and East Howe Street (Capitol Hill); James Street (downtown between 3 rd  and 2 nd ); and 3 rd  and Yesler (downtown near Harborview).

Final Words of Wisdom 

Finally, in the midst of whatever challenges you encounter—and there will be some, which is part of the sense of accomplishment—Anderson offers this piece of advice: “When climbing at high elevations for long periods of time, something you need to be great at is keeping a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously."

Which, if you think about it, are words of wisdom for conquering this thing called life, too.

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