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A Climb That’s Anything But Disappointing

03 October 2022

In 2014, Eric Larsen, an American polar adventurer & expedition guide, tackled Mt Rainier’s “Disappointment Cleaver” trail.

This is his story.

It may be the most popular and least technical route on Mt. Rainier, but the Disappointment Cleaver route is one of the most iconic climbs in North America. Challenging enough for even an experienced mountaineer, you’ll gain nearly 9,000 feet of elevation in just 6.5 miles. (It’s named in honour of people’s continual disappointment at failing to reach the top!)

 

  • Trail length: 10.4KM
  • Climb: 9000ft

THE TOWERING CHALLENGE THAT IS MT RAINIER 

You don’t have to climb Mt. Rainier to appreciate how incredibly massive it is. Just drive south from Seattle on a rare clear day and you will see Rainier towering in the distance. In Colorado, it is relatively easy to reach an attitude of 14,000 feet or more – in fact you can actually drive to the top of one ‘14er’. However, in Washington, Rainier stands solitary because of the processes that have formed it. Like the other major peaks in the Cascade Range, Rainier is a volcano formed by eruptions over hundreds of thousands of years. The summit is topped by two craters that remain relatively ice-free due to geothermal heat. Mt. Rainier is also the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48.

 

I had already climbed Rainier by the Emmons Glacier Route, but I was back in Washington and Oregon as part of a longer climbing trip on several nearby peaks. Earlier in the week, we had gotten shut down on one peak due to high winds and white outs, but summited a couple of others. While we hadn’t initially planned on climbing Mt. Rainier, it was on our way so we stopped and got a permit.

 

We encountered typical rainy Washington weather, so we spent the night drying our gear in the Ohanapecosh Campground, one of the campgrounds inside the National Park. From the Paradise parking lot to Camp Muir is a roughly 5,000-foot climb, with the upper part of the hike being on the Muir Snowfield. While many people will complete the out and back as a day hike, weather here is unpredictable at best, so it’s important to know the route and have appropriate supplies. Most people leave between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for Camp Muir, depending on their overall climbing goals.

 

MAKING TRACKS TO BASE CAMP

As we were already acclimated, we took our time gearing up in the morning, not being in any rush to get a spot in the hut (we were bringing our own tent).  I’m always amazed by how much gear you need for an overnight on a mountain like Rainier. From a clothing and gear perspective, it’s not much less than I would take on a much longer expedition, the main differences being in the quantity of food and fuel. Regardless, being mid-July, it felt funny to be packing down jackets and base layers.

 

We continued to be lucky with the weather and set off under clear skies. However, like so many things on Rainier, even good weather can cause problems. With the sun beating down, it didn’t take long before we were hiking in just short sleeves. Many of the locals hike in shorts and gaiters while wearing dark sunglasses, hats with neck scarves and lots of sunscreen.

 

We made Camp Muir in the late afternoon and quickly found a spot to set up our tent. We dug out a flat platform, then built up snow walls to protect from the variable winds. A big part of any expedition is simply waiting. We ate dinner then talked to a couple of the climbing rangers who stopped by to check our permits. Our plan would be to wake up around 12:30 a.m. and start for the summit around 2 a.m.

 

AN EARLY START

The alpine start is easily one of my least favorite things about climbing mountains. Not being a morning person, it takes all my energy to open my eyes. Around midnight — roughly 30 minutes before our alarm was to go off — a large crack of thunder shook us awake. Then, the rain came. More flashes of light. More thunder. There would be no climbing in this weather. We set the alarm for 2 am but awoke to more rain, sleet, lightning and thunder. It became obvious to both of us that we would not be summiting Mt. Rainier that day.

 

We spent most of the next morning huddled in our tent listening to rain and thunder. More waiting. We laughed at our predicament and the knowledge of who was really in charge here: the mountain. In the early afternoon, the weather cleared and we stretched our legs, rebuilt our snow walls and generally tried to waste time until we could eat dinner, go to sleep and wake up again at 12:30 a.m.

 

This time, the weather was good and by 2a.m., we were tied into the rope with our crampons. Most of the other groups had already left Camp Muir and we could see several rope team sets of three to five headlights snaking up the mountain.

 

A STEADY CLIMB

My climbing partner Ryan and I have spent enough time together that we don’t really need to talk much while climbing. We each know our jobs and how to be safe. Besides, even though this is the easiest route up Mt. Rainier, the climb from here to the top is only a few miles but still involves 4,500 feet of elevation gain.

 

From Muir, it’s an easy traverse across the Cowlitz Glacier then Cathedral Gap and onto Ingraham Flat (some groups will actually camp here). We manage to pass a few groups before getting to the base of the Disappointment Cleaver (DC), a large rocky ridge. Already, we can see a bit of a bottleneck forming above us. We leave our crampons on and they scrape sharply on the rocks. Roughly half way up the DC, we veer left and opt to kick steps into the snow and pass another group. We are not racing. We are simply traveling at a comfortable pace.

 

The weather worsens as we make our way to the top of the DC and onto the Emmons Glacier. I kick a wider step in the 50 degree slope and shove my ice ax securely into the snow. Time for a water break. Staying hydrated is an important part of any adventure, but especially one at high altitudes. To the east we watch the sky lighten into sunrise, easily one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Our perspective, perched on the side of Rainier thousands of feet above the surrounding mountains, was truly breathtaking.

 

GETTING TO THE SUMMIT IS ONLY HALF THE CHALLENGE

The route has been tracked by another group and we make our way up a series of switchbacks. By now the wind has picked up substantially, blowing ice pellets straight into our faces. They sting my face making it difficult to see, despite the fact that I’m wearing goggles, a helmet and a hood.

 

Eventually, we reach the crater rim and the weather miraculously clears. From here, it is a short 20-minute hike across the crater to the true summit. Along the way, we somehow managed to pass all the groups and arrived at the summit alone. We gave each other a quick high five and then took a moment to look around. Stunning views in every direction.

 

They say the real challenge of climbing a mountain is to get down safely, and with Mt. Rainier it is no different. Take too long at the top and you will risk bad weather, increasing chance of rock fall and worse. For our part, we quickly turned around and headed back down. In a few hours, we would be back at Paradise parking lot celebrating with a beer, but until that time it was knees over toes, careful foot placement and body position to ensure our safety.

 

 

 Enjoyed reading this? Check out this article about a wild adventure in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

 

 

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