In Focus: Mount Rainier

A closer look at the iconic volcano

Mount Rainier, which is located in west central Washington, is 14,410 feet above sea level, depending on the source. Many outdoor publications, such as Outside Magazine and Alpinist.com, list Mount Rainier at exactly that elevation. But GPS measurements in 2010 found for the third time that the volcano is one foot taller, making it 14,411 feet tall.

Visitors: As many as two million people visit Mount Rainier National Park some years, and 10,643 attempted to climb the volcano in 2010. Of those, less than 5,000 succeeded, according to records from the National Park Service.

Park size: Mount Rainier National Park consists of about 510 square miles.

Frozen landscape: More than 35 square miles of ice and snow cover the mountain.

More than a mountain: Mount Rainier is a volcano, and experts say it will likely erupt again.

Mount Rainier is covered all year in snow and ice. Without certain equipment, those climbing up the volcano could slip and fall off cliffs or into cracks in glaciers known as crevasses. A National Park Service database records that 95 people have died while attempting to summit the volcano. Preparing for the trek both physically and with proper equipment is critical. Here are three common pieces of equipment most climbers take when traveling on glaciers:

CRAMPONS — These are often steel tracks that climbers snap or strap onto the bottoms of their boots. Spikes jutting from the front of the climbers' boots and protruding from the soles stab into firm snow and ice and help climbers steady each step.

AXE — If a climber slips, an axe and proper training can arrest the fall. At the front of the axe is a pick, which the climber plunges into the snow before he or she is carried away in the fall. This tool has many other purposes, but stopping a fall is the main one.

ROPE — This connects climbers traveling on glaciers. If one climber falls into a crevasse, the other climbers in the rope team fall to the snow and dig in with their axes and crampons to hold the fall. The fallen climber then ascends his or her rope or is pulled out.

For more information about Mount Rainier, visit nps.gov.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, WASH. Inside the cabin, four men wearing mountaineering boots talked of waiting for the fog to lift as a park ranger, 9,010 feet below Mount Rainier's summit, listened on his phone.

The weather was warming. Two and a half inches of rain fell the day before, and that could mean feet of new snow on the glaciers, he learned.

He hung up the phone.

These conditions, the ranger said, are avalanche conditions.

It's a simple equation: snow plus heat equals wet, loose snow — snow that if clinging to a steep enough slope could rip down and wash out climbers, camps and lives.

"So you know," the park ranger said, "be ultra cautious."

The view from base camp in Camp Muir at 10,080 feet shows cracks, known as crevasses, that opened in the glacier.
The view from base camp in Camp Muir at 10,080 feet shows cracks, known as crevasses, that opened in the glacier. (Courtesy of Josh Bossin)

Two hours later, my friend, Josh Bossin, and I left the ranger's hut and hiked in the blowing fog from the base of the mountain known as Paradise up a snow field to base camp.

We had just bought two climbing passes for Mount Rainier and told the ranger we would be back down the next day.

From camp, we left the following day, July 24, for the summit before the sun rose.

Less than half

Mount Rainier is a volcano that bulges more than 14,000 feet over Seattle's skyscrapers, cast into existence almost a half million years ago as lava surging from the earth hardened, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Now capped in glaciers and snow, the volcano's past is seemingly locked away. It hasn't shot lava in about 2,100 years. It hasn't exploded in about 1,100 years. Some Seattle reporters in 1894 alleged they saw black smoke on the summit, but other journalists disputed those claims.

Magma-driven heat still billows beneath the top of Mount Rainier, melting out caves, building pressure. It will, geologists say, blow again.

The volcano, which is 14,410 feet tall, is the highest and most threatening of the roughly 2,900 volcanoes and volcanic cones in the Cascade Range, which runs 800 miles along the West Coast from northern California to British Columbia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Almost 11,000 people attempted to summit the volcano in 2010, the National Park Service reports.

Less than half made it to the top.

Uncertainties

At 10,080 feet, Josh was giddy.

"Breathing. Everything's so difficult," he said, slipping off his boots and crawling into the tent.

He'd never climbed higher than he was then. He sat inside the tent and began blowing up a sleeping pad, laughing between breaths because it was so difficult.

From left, Dan Schwartz and Josh Bossin pose for a photo on July 25 at the top of Mount Rainier at 14,410 feet.
From left, Dan Schwartz and Josh Bossin pose for a photo on July 25 at the top of Mount Rainier at 14,410 feet. (Courtesy of Josh Bossin)

We had climbed for about five hours to Camp Muir, a fortified notch settled among glaciers and falling ice fields that's 4,330 feet below the volcano's summit and 4,680 feet above Paradise — almost exactly half way. A dividing line.

John Muir, a naturalist, founded the camp in 1888 when he saw it was scattered in pumice, porous rock blown down in eruptions thousands of years ago that wind should have scoured, according to books about Mount Rainier. But the rock was there, so, he figured, the winds weren't.

Two stone huts built like medieval bunkers and a plywood box where equipment is kept sit on the ridge's prominence. Strewn below the huts on the Cowlitz Glacier are the tents, which is where Josh and I were, map laid out on our sleeping bags, sunlight fading from the tent's orange walls.

Our climbing equipment was outside.

"It's going to be steep," Josh said, running his finger up the route on the map. "Really, our first hour, two hours, isn't going to be bad. Then it's going to get steep. Real steep."

We would be tied together, of course, and I would lead because I was confident I could spot cracks in the glaciers know as crevasses, even by head lamp in the dark. Josh would follow because he was confident he could hold my fall if I fell in, and he would manage the rope.

We will climb in the dark, while the snow is cold, firm and less likely to avalanche.

After dinner when Josh was asleep, I laid in my sleeping bag and got nervous.

Josh Bossin climbs the last several hundred feet to Camp Muir, which is where he and Dan Schwartz will sleep for four hours before waking at midnight to
Josh Bossin climbs the last several hundred feet to Camp Muir, which is where he and Dan Schwartz will sleep for four hours before waking at midnight to begin their climb of Mount Rainier in Washington. (Dan Schwartz/ The Daily Times)

I heard a man outside say, "What we need to do is get you in the tent in your sleeping bag as soon as possible."

It was cold. It was dark.

If I fell, could Josh really hold me?

95 lives

Climbers are swallowed by glaciers on this mountain. Parties are swept off cliffs. When some people leave Paradise, they die.

On Tuesday, three bodies believed to be from a missing group of six were recovered from the volcano, according to The Seattle Times.

The six climbers were reported missing on May 30, and what killed them is uncertain, according to reports. Park rangers believe the climbers fell 3,300 feet sometime in the dark during their multi-day assent of Liberty Ridge, a technical, less frequently climbed route that can rain rocks, ice and snow, The Associated Press reported.

Outside Magazine reported in early June that an avalanche likely swept the climbers away in the night.

Since 1897, 95 people have been killed climbing for the volcano's summit, according to a National Park Service database.

In 1909, Joseph W. Stevens and T.V. Callaghan disappeared into a storm and were never found.

Twenty years later, Forrest Greathouse and five other climbers fell into a crevasse in a blizzard, and two died.

C.T. Bressler's lungs began filling with fluid on the summit in 1959, and he died.

Dean Klapper slid 1,000 feet into a crevasse, broke his neck and died in 1977.

In 1981, the deadliest year yet, 15 people died, a single ice avalanche killing 11 of them.

These are the risks

We all enter the mountains aware of what could happen, said Jon Shea, a former mountain guide who has climbed the volcano more than 100 times.

Eventually, he said, the dangers become background noise, in a way, and these accidents remind him of how tenuous his relationship can be with the mountains.

But it's always hard when his friends die, he said.

He knew one of the men who went missing in May — Eitan Green, a Boston kid. They had climbed ice in Vermont and New Hampshire.

"He was a great dude," Shea said. "He was such a happy kid."

These are the risks, he said.

Climbing up

Josh and I clicked on our head lamps, slipped on our harnesses, snapped into our crampons, each tied into an end of the rope, and marched out of camp under stars lit like pinholes in the night.

The air was warm, and on the Cowlitz Glacier, we climbed past rope teams of three, four and five, the climbers following the orb of light cast at their feet.

We climbed out of the snow and onto steep rock.

We climbed off the rock and onto steep snow.

We climbed frozen slopes that slide off into the night.

My altimeter clicked 10,900 feet, 11,100 feet, 12,000 feet.

Josh and I stopped in a flat spot at 12,240 feet with a team of climbers. Mars was rising orange in the east, and the black horizon below it began to glow.

Josh's eyelids were heavy.

Why walk up?

This is a different environment than most people are accustomed to, Shea said.

It is quiet, like many don't understand, he said, and you are surrounded by big things in the dark you cannot see. A slip, he said, in some spots — such as where Josh and I would cross without incident in fewer than 1,000 feet — could be bad.

But serious situations teach people about themselves, he said.

Some of his clients never change, he said. They pay to climb to the top of Rainier to later tell their friends about it while drinking beer or to prove something to someone, he said. But then they get their "ass handed to them," and some blame their gear, the weather, things beyond their control, he said.

But others, after struggling, he said, say, "Wow."

"I don't know if humbling is the right word," he said, "but it kind of knocks them into another perspective."

The top

The wind at 14,410 feet felt good.

Thoughts beyond that, which I'd written in my notebook, were hard. Thinking was hard. Josh was having a hard time moving.

We had started in the fog, climbed in the dark and now, 21 hours later, with less than four hours of sleep, were on top, the wind blowing us back down.

It all felt compressed.

It felt like we sleepwalked into the sky.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.