A couple of years ago, my friend and I “climbed” Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48. While a decidedly long and strenuous trek, it wasn’t mountaineering in the true sense—there was nothing technically demanding, no specific skill required. So when said friend inquired about climbing the slightly shorter but heavily glaciated Mt. Rainier, I thought some training was warranted.
Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) is the premier guiding outfit on Rainier. In fact, from 1969 to 2007, they were the only outfit on Rainier. RMI offers a variety of programs on their namesake peak, with their guided summit climbs being the most popular. All the programs involve some amount of safety and skills training, but I wasn’t going to pay someone a good chunk of change merely for a chance at the summit. I wanted education, skills that I could deploy independently on other mountains.
RMI describes its Muir Skills Seminar as a “comprehensive training courses designed to educate climbers to the mountaineering skills needed to tackle the world’s greatest peaks. Days are spent on nearby glaciers developing mountaineering skills such as snow & ice anchors, crevasse rescue, ice climbing, fixed line travel, belaying and other technical skills, before making a summit bid. The program’s flexible itinerary allows for our guides to plan the summit bid depending on the best weather conditions and the team’s strength. Successful completion … provides you with a foundation for other major glaciated mountains.” Perfect fit.
Day Zero: Orientation
The skills seminar begins and ends at Rainier Basecamp in Ashford, WA. Ashford is a small tiny town a few miles from the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, so small that it has no cell phone service (at least for AT&T). RMI and its competitors pretty much comprise the local economy, with a bit of lodging and food piggybacking thereon. It’s a part of America that city slickers like me almost forget exists.
After an early morning run along pretty much the only road in town, I grabbed a quick breakfast from the on-site coffee shop and reported to our assigned meeting place. Once the group had convened, we met our guides, and hell if we didn’t get lucky. Our lead guide, Dave Hahn, is a veritable mountaineering legend—he has summited Mt. Everest 15 times, more than any non-sherpa. Our co-leader, Billy Nugent, had just returned from Everest. Three more junior guides would arrive the following morning. Needless to say, we were in good hands. And with a guide to every three climbers, there were plenty of hands to go around.
Having met the guides, we met one another. Our team of 13 was diverse in age, background, and experience. Two in our team had summited before, one on a similar RMI seminar in 1973. Another, a 60-year-old business owner, had recently trekked up Aconcagua, the 22,000-foot apex of South America. Apart from the party’s sole woman and an AARP-eligible Army doc, my friend and I were probably the least experienced of the group. Experience isn’t everything, though, as we’d learn soon enough.
With introductions out of the way, we learned more about the work ahead. We would depart from Paradise Meadows on Monday morning and trek to Camp Muir at 10,200 feet. Over the subsequent three days, we would undergo intense mountaineering training, including an attempt at Mt. Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit whenever conditions looked most promising. We would finally return on Friday morning, having spent four nights crammed into a primitive mountain hut sustained primarily by Snickers bars and dehydrated food.
One doesn’t just set off for five unsupported days on the mountain without proper preparation, of course. It’s important to be properly equipped, so we dumped all our stuff on the lawn and proceeded to do a gear check. Good thing, too, as I’d brought the wrong kind of ice axe! Fortunately for me, our trip coincided with RMI’s annual Mountain Fest, which included their selling lightly used gear at dirt cheap prices. #winning
With our gear sorted, it was time to learn how to use some of it. While the climbing and belay training were old news to me, it was clearly new to some of our participants, even the party’s preeminent peak bagger. Basic ice tool and crampon skills were new additions to my repertoire, though I had my doubts about how much climbing a foam “ice wall” would resemble the real thing.
Once we’d gotten to our guides, our gear, and our partners, orientation was, appropriately, over. We were freed to re-pack our gear, pack our bellies, and pack it in for the night. The time to escape civilization was nigh.