MOUNT RAINIER: Discovery, death and mountaineering on the Lower 48’s most dangerous summit
On a clear day – as likely as finding a Bigfoot riding a unicorn in the Pacific Northwest – Mount Rainier can be easily seen from Seattle 75 miles away. We actually had a Bigfoot day as we visited Elizabeth’s family and were treated to a gorgeous view from Rainier Vista on University of Washington’s campus (see the faint, snowy mountain above my head). At 14,011 feet tall, Mount Rainier towers above it’s little 6,000-foot Cascade Range sisters like Gulliver over the Lilliputians. Beyond the sheer beauty, the dominating presence of Rainier seemed to emit a magnetic force that pulled us deeper into its orbit for a closer look. Just like it has pulled Native Americans, explorers, mountaineers and curious tourists for over a century.
We entered Mount Rainier National Park in the last week in April knowing our experience of the snow laden mountain may be limited. In fact, the Visitor Center is only open during weekends at that time of year, so we stopped by the Wilderness Information Center to get oriented. It was fascinating to learn about the mountain at the center of the park. It’s a giant composite volcano that is one of the dangerous decade volcanoes that could threaten large populations. It’s the third highest mountain in the U.S. And, as I alluded to, it’s the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous U.S.
While reading more exhibits about the first Europeans venturing into the area I overheard some interesting conversations from the ranger’s desk. The first couple who stopped in were planning an ascent of the mountain and looking for their Climbing Pass ($46) and route conditions. The guy had climbed McKinley (now Denali) and the gal had climbed Mount Baker. The ranger said he can’t tell anyone not to climb, but despite their experience he gave them some somber warnings. “This route has a crevice the side of a house that may have a rickets ladder over it… That route has been sketchy all winter after a few avalanches… Some people are trying this other route right now, but I don’t have much hope for them.” You get the picture. A bit later another guy came in who was obviously a new to the area and didn’t have any experience. He asked “How can I climb the mountain?… Oh, you need special gear?… How much does that guide service cost?… It takes three days?!” I can only imagine the interesting conversations this ranger has day in and day out.
The first European explorers to encounter the mountain did not have the luxury of a Wilderness Information Center, but many challenged themselves on the unforgiving glacial slopes just the same. Captain George Vancouver was reportedly the first European to see the mountain in 1792 when he entered the Puget Sound. He named it Mount Rainier after his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier (rather random, imo). Although evidence shows Native Americans lived in the area as long as 4,000-6,000 years ago, they regarded the mountain as sacred and didn’t dare provoke it by climbing. When P.B. Van Trump and (appropriately named) Hazard Stevens made the first successful documented summit in 1870 they became instant heroes. Soon after John Muir climbed Rainier in 1888 and Fay Fuller was the first female to make the summit in 1890.
These days the summit is more tempting and accessible than ever. According to wikipedia, 10,000 people attempt to summit every year. Only 50% make it, due largely to weather and the challenge of traversing the largest glaciers in the Lower 48. The most popular route involves a climb of 9,000 feet over 8 miles from the Paradise parking lot to the top (including an overnight at Camp Muir at 10,000 feet). There are a number of guide services can outfit you and lead you to the summit. The one I looked at cost $1,042 for a 4- day climb (including 1 day of mountaineering school). However, many people strike out on their own – sometimes at the peril of themselves and others.
Over 411 people have died on the mountain or in the National Park. The first death in 1897 occurred when a guy’s pistol fell out of his pocket and shot him in the neck… I hope I’m not the only person who accidentally laughed when I first read that :|. As of 2014, 116 people had died during a summit of the mountain. Causes include falling down a crevasse, avalanche, asphyxiation in a tent covered with snow, heart attack, hypothermia, etc. Some, such as a group of 4 climbers attempting a January summit this year, have just never been found. In one of the more tragic stories of 2012, a heroic ranger slid 3,700 feet to his death while trying to rescue several climbers caught on the mountain during a storm. Mount Rainier is a deadly place where weather can change in an instant and snow and ice slopes can collapse even quicker. As the NPS Rainier fatality stats shows, it’s not a friendly place for the unprepared or overly ambitious.
Elizabeth and I knew long before we got to the park that – as much as we like switchbacks – Rainier was beyond our reach. Out of 1.85 million yearly visitors, 99.4% find the view of the mountain from below more than satisfactory. Besides from University of Washington we loved the vistas from the meadow trail at historic Longmire village and our close-up at Paradise (elevation 5,400). Our favorite view actually came when we went back to the park from Seattle for our interview with King 5 news (we almost missed it!). The reporter, Dan, brought us to an incredible viewpoint he found the precious weekend that we had passed by on one of the cloudy days during our first visit.
Even when clouds cloaked the mountain (which happened 3 of the 4 days of our visit), we found plenty to explore – waterfalls, rock slide rivers and suspension bridges to name a few.
As with all the Pacific Northwest parks (North Cascades, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, Olympic), we feel we have unfinished business. For starters, a 7-day backpack on the famous 91-mile Wonderland Trail that circles Rainier is high on our bucket list. And I can’t rule out a future guided summit of Mount Rainier. I swear that mountain is magnetic.