At 14,410 feet, Washington state's tallest peak is the only mountain in the Lower 48 that comes close to the vast, glaciated hulks of Alaska or the Himalayas in terms of weather and terrain. It's a coveted prize for seasoned mountaineers but also a surprisingly attainable aspiration for those who have never held an ice ax. Unlike most big peaks, it doesn't require a weeklong slog to base camp. It's just two hours outside Seattle – visible from the city on a clear day – and can be climbed in one long weekend that includes some basic mountaineering instruction. "For the majority of the folks we're guiding," says Linden Mallory, senior guide at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), "this is the big adventure of the year – of the decade, even."
Setting out from the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center parking lot, the ascent begins among pine trees and wildflowers and runs alongside busloads of nature-loving senior citizens. But by 7,200 feet, the crowds and the air thin, making way for marmots and a series of snow ramps and loose scree. For the entire six-hour hike to Camp Muir, Rainier's fractured 3,000-foot Nisqually icefall looms to your left, sometimes dotted with tiny ice climbers going the "hard way."
At Camp Muir, prospective summiteers from dozens of climbing teams mingle nervously, pounding as much water as they can to stave off altitude sickness. But since summit day will require a 1 a.m. start (climbing favors cold conditions that keep the snow firm for grip and loose rock stuck in place), it's time to turn in when the sun sets.
On summit day, you'll set off by headlamp, tied into a rope team. By 12,000 feet, the altitude has you in its grip. If you've been taking care of yourself along the way, it just feels like a heady mix of runner's high and drunkenness; if not, it's usually game over. But it's also about now that the sun finally peeks over the horizon, unveiling a sight that draws climbers to these cold, inhospitable environments in the first place – an orange glow washing across a white glacier, revealing the gaping 300-foot-deep crevasses you've been navigating around all morning in the dark. The last 2,500 feet are more a test of the mind than anything else, as you focus on putting one foot in front of the other until you arrive on the summit crater by mid-morning.
The view from the top of Mount Rainier is the best hero photo you'll ever take, but it's the climb itself that changes people. "You climb Rainier," says Mallory, "get hooked, and it changes your life."
More information: RMI’s four-day climb, including instruction, costs $970; rmiguides.com.