* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,410 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 8,990 feet
* DURATION: Two to three days
* SNAPSHOT: Fine-tune crevasse skills on this mighty Northwest volcano
NOW THAT YOU'VE snow-climbed on Shasta and smiled at exposure on Half Dome and Longs Peak, Rainier adds glacier navigation, rope-team travel, and crevasse rescue to your travails...er, travels. At 14,410 feet, Rainier is the largest of the Cascade volcanoes, and since it's the most heavily glaciated snow cone this side of Alaska, it's a favorite haunt for high-altitude junkies eager to dial in their skills on demanding alpine routes. Here, you'll get your first glimpse of expedition-style climbing, coping with altitude, cat-scratched glaciers, fierce weather, and team dynamics while heeding Seattle native and Himalayan vet Ed Viesturs's advice: "You have to be a patient, determined machine."
Length, height, and a battery of objective hazards make even the easiest routes on Rainier a significant challenge; only about 65 percent of those attempting this mountain each year succeed. Whether you top out or not, you'll leave with one of Viesturs's aphorisms burned into your brain: "Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory."
** The Route
The DISAPPOINTMENT CLEAVER, or DC, route is the most popular line to the top of Rainier. Grab a "climber's breakfast" at the invitingly rustic Paradise Inn before the long, steady grind up the permanent Muir Snowfield. Stay on course; the edges of the snowfield can be riddled with crevasses. Some 4,500 vertical feet later, you'll pull into Camp Muir, at 10,080 feet. Set your alarm for midnight and try to catch a couple of winks before roping up and entering the world of technical glacier travel. Above Muir, you'll wend past yawning crevasses along the Cowlitz Glacier, tiptoe over snow bridges on the Ingraham Glacier, and duck past the giant seracs of the Ingraham Icefall. Scramble over scree and pumice to the top of Disappointment Cleaver, taking care not to kick rocks on any climbers below you. Now ease onto the Summit Dome, following the well-trodden snowy switchbacks to Rainier's summit caldera. As the sun rises over eastern Washington, ramble across the quarter-mile-wide crater to the true summit, at the Columbia Crest. Drink in dawn views of neighboring volcanoes: Mounts Adams, St. Helens, and Hoodall of them easier to summit than Rainier and now within your grasp. Congratulations. You've just tackled your first true mountain climb.
GUIDE Rainier Mountaineering Inc. offers a four-day program consisting of a two-day skills session and a two-day summit climb. Fine-tune thin-air mountaineering techniques like the rest step and pressure breathing, practice ice-ax arrest, and learn roped glacier travel and crevasse rescue using ascenders and Prusik slings. The next day, you'll hike to RMI's hut at Camp Muir, catch a few Z's, and head out beneath the stars for the summit at 2 a.m. ($952; 888-892-5462, www.rmiguides.com)
Stay on course with the SUUNTO X6HR altimeter watch. Its barometer warns of incoming storms, the compass keeps you on track, and the heart-rate monitor will help whip you into shape before you go. ($429; 800-543-9124, www.suunto.com) Kiss cornea-searing brightness goodbye with JULBO's NOMAD ALTI SPECTRON X6 glacier glasses. Polycarbonate lenses block all UV rays, while the side shields keep out reflected light, reducing glare. ($70; 802-651-0833, www.julbo.fr) Extricate yourself from a crevasse ASAP with PETZL's B17 ASCENDERS. The chrome-plated steel cams will also come in handy when shimmying up fixed ropes on McKinley. ($49 each; 801-327-3805, www.petzl.com)
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