Mount Rainier

In the state of Washington, USA, no mountain is taller than Mt. Rainier in the North West’s Cascade Range. Rising to 4392 metres (14,411ft) above sea level, It is considered the mountain with a superior topographical presence this side of the US. 

Name: Mount Rainier
Height: 4392 m (14,411 feet)
Location: Washington State, USA
First Climbed: 1870 (Hazard Stevens / P.B. Van Trump)
Climb Time: 2 days
Best Time to Climb: May - September


This mountain has three crests. The highest one is Columbia Crest with a height of 14,411 feet above sea level. The second peak is Point Success which is 14158 feet high. Finally, Liberty Cap is 14,122 feet high. Each of these peaks is approached from a different side of the mountain and presents a unique view of the landscape. Moreover, if we were to use prominence as the basis for defining what a mountain is, Liberty Cap would qualify as a mountain considering prominence of 492 feet. 

To begin with, it is an active volcano. The last eruption was witnessed in the mid-1800s. Experts tell us that Rainier is just one part of the Ring of Fire. These are volcanic mountains surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Other ranges within the Ring of Fire are found in the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and South America. When Mt. Pinatubo of the Philippines erupted in 1991, people began to understand the volatile nature of this group of mountains. 

Jump to info on climbing the easiest Mt. Rainier Route.

To climb this mountain you will have to travel to the eastern side on Eatonville, which is located to the south-east of Tacoma and Seattle. The United States has 128 mountains that are considered ultra-prominent. Rainier is ranked third among them. Its prominence of 13,211 feet actually surpasses that of the world’s second tallest mountain, K2, whose prominence is 13,179 feet. You would be hard pressed to fail to notice this mountain when visiting areas in its vicinity. The Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan skyline is dominated by Rainier especially on clear days. So prominent is it that people from as far as Victoria in British Columbia and Corvallis in Oregon can see it from their homes when the sky is perfectly clear. 

Mt Rainier

There is a total of 26 massive craters on Mt. Rainier, dotted in an area of about 93km square full of glaciers and snowfields. Despite its volcanic activity, Rainier still has a small crater lake measuring 130ft by 30ft and is 5 meters deep. I hope you are beginning to see why you should visit this important landmark, not only is it a haven for mountain climbers and adventurers but some sections of the crater lake can also be accessed through caves; a proper adventure playground!

This mountain also plays a great role in watering the surrounding areas. The melting glaciers are the catchment areas for rivers such as White River, Carbon River, Nisqually, Puyallup, Carbon and Cowlitz. Some of these rivers are tributaries of bigger waters like the Columbia River. In essence, this stratovolcano is not just important for outdorr adventures and beautifying the skyline; it is a source of life for humans, flora and fauna.

Over the years, Rainier has become the darling of many mountaineers and hikers, especially because it is not a very hard summit to scale. Moreover, it takes about 2 days by the main routes to scale to the top of the mountain. the season tends to be between April and September and Rainier can be classed as one of those mountains on which you can aim to build your climbing skills... providing you don't underestimate it and you ensure you have the right equipment and clothing.


History & Geography

The Native American names for Rainier are Tacoma, Talol and Tahoma. It is believed that these names mean “mother of waters” in reference to the fact that many rivers emanate from the melting of the glaciers on top of the mountain. This is according to Puyallup tribesmen whose language is called Lushootseed. It is also believed that these names denote the fact that Rainier is bigger than Mt. Baker, which means the name Tacoma is a comparison of the two mountains. 

Rainier, as the mountain is known today, is derived from the name of Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. The mountain was christened so by George Vancouver, who wanted to honour his pal Rainier. Vancouver is said to have been the first European to lay eyes on Mt. Rainier. However, it is the opinion of many people that this mountain should have retained its Native American name, at least in honor of the people who had lived with the mountain for generations before immigrants arrived from Europe and elsewhere. This was widely discussed, especially in the light of Mt. McKinley reverting to the name Denali. One fact remains, though; the Native American people will always call the mountain what they have always called it as it continues to be a source of water and life for them. 

Another interesting point relating to the name is that a map, attributed to the Lewis and Clark expedition that took place between 1804 and 1806, indicates that the mountain was once called Regniere, although this may simply be due to the pronunciation of it and thus how it was recorded. But, ther eis yet another twist to the naming of this peak. In his book, The Canoe and the Saddle, Theodore Winthrop, refers to the mountain as Tacoma. This book was published in 1862, several years after the death of Winthrop. In a way this explains why the mountain was simultaneously known as Rainier and Tacoma at one time and the two names were used synonymously. The people of Tacoma City, though, preferred the name that identified the mountain with the city. 

The tussle over the naming of the mountain has been ongoing. It was in 1890 that the official name of the mountain became Rainier. This was decreed by the US Board on Geographic names. The mountain and the surrounding areas were declared the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve in 1897. In 1900, the reserve was transformed into a National Park. However, a quarter of a century later (1924) Congress was put under pressure to revert to Mount Tacoma, as the official name. 

As recent as January 2014, the mountain was named Mount Seattle Seahawks after the exploits of the local American Football team. This renaming by the Washington State Senate lasted from Friday to Monday. This is an indication of the high demand by different sectors of the American nation to be associated with this symbolic mountain. 

The debate is not yet over, though. In 2015, when Mount McKinley was officially renamed, people began to pressure state authorities to rename Rainier, by reverting to Tacoma. Only a famous and popular mountain can attract that attention and desire to be named after several people or cultures. Who knows? We might soon have Mt. Tacoma with us if the government listens to the demands of those who have insisted on renaming Rainier? And its hard to argue otherwise.

The naming debate, however, should not detract from the unique nature of this mountain as a glorious natural edifice that changes its appearance according to the current season, prevailing weather conditions or the time of the day. Some people who have climbed Rainier joke that you never climb the same mountain twice, considering these changing hues. You need to climb up one of the routes to understand why this is so or even spend some time hiking on its slopes and in the Mount Rainier National Park.

Moreover, this volcano is classed as active. Although there is no indication of when it might spew lava - the last time being in the mid 19th century, there are noises emanating from its core. Studies indicate that Rainier may have experienced avalanches and volcanic mudflows as far back as 5,000 years ago and that Tacoma city is said to lie on the path of debris avalanches and snow mudflows from the past. As we menitoned earlier because of the scale of the glaciers and the snow on this mountain any serieous seismic activity could cause devastation much greater than that caused by Mount St. Helens, for example. 

As you wend your way to the summit of this mountain you will be walking on a mass of ancient lava flows that may have spewed out as long as 840,000 years ago and the cone on the mountain is estimated to be 500,000 years old. 

Mt Rainier

First Ascent of Mt Rainier

Mr. Rainier is a favorite for aspiring mountaineers. People have been scaling this beautiful mountain for many years, beginning in the 1800s; at least according to documented history. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Native Americans may have reached the summit before the first recorded summit. Moreover, it is rumoured that the first successful attempt was made in 1852 but neither the climbers nor their stories are properly documented, although a very brief account appeared in the Olympia Columbian in September of 1852. There are three climbers mentioned it but it does not mention how hight they got. According to David Mazel in his fascinating book; Pioneering Ascents, quotes the Historian Aubrye Haines as saying that Benjamin Franklin Shaw later claimed to have been on this trip and recorded that although he;

"did not claim to have been on the highest point, [but] does say that 'no other point seemed higher than the one whereon his party stood'" 

It was in 1870 that Hazard Stevens and his colleague Philemon van Trump officially summited successfully for the first time. This was on August 17 and it took them about one day. As you would expect, they needed the assistance of a Native Indian from the Yakima Tribe. The name of the local guide was Sluiskin. 

As is so often the case he was relegated to a footnote in history when it comes to this first recorded ascent. Despite going through the same physical effort and helping to guide Stevens and Trump, Sluiskin was not recognised as an integral part of the climb. When the two gentlemen realized their dream, they left a canteen and a brass template at the summit to commemorate that important achievement. As you would expect, Olympia (capital city of Washington state) exploded with joy when the two returned triumphantly. Moreover, even those who had never climbed the mountain, and people that had failed in previous attempts, now came out to give it a try. The first woman to make it to the top of Mt. Rainier was Fay Fuller.

It is important to also mention some of the previous attempts to summit the mountain since they were the precursors to the first successful ascent. Apart from Vancouver being the first European to see Rainier (I still don’t know how this was verified), we need to acknowledge the role played by Dr. Tolmie who, though not a mountain climber, was active in the area around the mountain in 1833, in search of plants with medicinal value. The information provided by Tolmie and other local people familiar with the area, is likely to have encouraged the likes of Augustine Kautz, an army lieutenant, to attempt the first documented ascent in 1857. This great climber was only 400 feet from the peak but could not continue because of health complications and despondency among his team members, following eight days of struggle. 

The conservation of the area and the creation of the respective National Park can also be attributed to John Muir, a Scottish Naturalist, who ascended the mountain in 1888. Unlike most climbers, Muir did not find the view from the top as scenic as viewing the mountain from the bottom. He fell in love with the landscape and the flora and fauna below the mountain which aptly demonstrates quite how deeply affected he was by wilderness.

It was after pressure from visionaries such as John Muir that President McKinley finally established the fifth national park in the US – Mount Rainier National Park. The rationale was to protect the economic and physical resources as well as the watersheds and timber and to encourage tourism in the area. Congress was keen to bequeath posterity and the current generation a place of recreation and conservation of natural wealth, while at the same time maintaining the national park in its natural condition as much as was possible.

Climbing Routes on Mt. Rainier

If you are planning to ascend Rainier soon, you need to know the possible routes that will take you there. While this mountain is climbed by many people every year, between one and three deaths are recorded annually. Most of these unfortunate events are as a result of adverse weather conditions and could be avoided if climbers turned back during crises, new their limits or went into the hills prepared.

It is estimated that over 185,000 have summited Rainier since the first successful attempt. Of these, almost 100 have lost their lives in the process. The annual success rate for the 10,000 or so people who attempt the ascent is about 50%. In 2014, 6 mountaineers were killed during an avalanche while using the Liberty Ridge route. Similarly, 11 people died in similar circumstances in 1981, the worst such event in the history of mountain climbing in America. 

In essence, no route is safe from avalanches and other complications related to human error, like falls or inclement weather. Make sure you get expert advice from the national park management before you make the ascent or use a guide. Always ensure they are experienced climbers and local guides in your party, especially if you are making your first attempt. It may appear like an easy couple of days but it is still a dangerous mountain - when travelling on glaciers, make sure members of the team are roped together and have experience of such conditions. 

As for the routes, they can be categorized according to the direction from which one approaches the mountain. On the North and East, you have the option of Emmons Glacier, Little Tahoma and Liberty Bridge. 

  • Southern routes include Muir Snowfield, Ingraham Direct, Fuhrer Finger, Disappointment Cleaver, Kautz Glacier, and Gibraltar Ledges & Chutes. 
  • If you approach from the West, you can choose Tahoma Glacier, Mowich Face, Success Cleaver, Sunset Ridge and Amphitheatre, and Ptarmigan Ridge. 

These are the main routes. However, there are about 60 variants that you can follow. While nobody can give you total assurance that you will complete the trek and even do that without risking your life and health, it is important to know that about 60% of climbers have used Emmons Glacier, Ingraham Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver routes over the years.  

The most straightforward and consequently by the far the most popular route is the Disappointment Cleaver Route.

Day one
Typically this is a two day route, the first of which involves a hike up from the large carpark at Paradise up to Camp Muir. You can either camp or stay in th eMuir hut, dependin gon how early you got there, as places are at a premium.

Day Two
You need to look to get a good Alpine start as you have a long day ahead of you, climbing around 1400 vertical metres (4500 feet). This is a good day for finding your feet on a glacier as you will skirt the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral gap and then onto the Ingraham glacier. Mind the bergschrunds and negotiate a few fixed ropes before you arrive at the Emmons Glacier and begin the steep slog up to the summit. Once you reach the crater, the true highest poin tis a 20 minute walk to the North West.

Remember there is no easy mountain to climb. What matters is how well you prepare mentally, physically and in terms of climbing gear. Knowing the mountain beforehand and reading the experiences of other climbers important before you attempt the trek up Mt. Rainier.