Danielle and Joe Decker reach the !4,410-foot summit of Washington State’s Mt. Rainier
by Danielle Decker
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the thought of summiting Washington State’s highest peak, 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier.
Growing up, my family and I would take annual summer trips to camp at Cougar Rock and hike around the lower flanks of the mountain just outside of Paradise. I recall “gearing up” alongside the true mountaineers at the trail head, fantasizing that we would all reach the same lofty goal at the end of the day. Yet, for my family and I, the turnaround point was always at Pebble Creek (elevation roughly 7,000 feet), where I would gaze upward at those remarkable athletes continuing up the Muir Snowfield as they prepared for that steep ascent.
Last January, my husband and I committed to making an attempt at the summit and signed on with the guiding company, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). As soon as we made the commitment to climb, we had to go right to work at getting in shape. Typical weeks meant hiking three times with two other days of biking or running – all while continuously increasing intensity. In hindsight, and as a recommendation to would-be Rainier climbers, I would train twice as hard as seems necessary because you will be hiking in middle of the night, at high altitude and on relentless and nerve-racking terrain.
When that big, early-September day finally arrived for us to check-in at RMI we were thrilled that the forecast was perfect for the four days we’d be spending on the mountain. The first day-and-a-half was spent training on the lower mountain and getting to know the seven other climbers and our three extremely qualified guides who had resumes that included 150-plus Rainier summits and four 8,000-meter peak summits. We also went through our gear, which was simplified by the guide’s clear packing list and stocked by the onsite rental shop that carries everything you would need including food – a really helpful resource for the climbers who came in from long distances.
On the third day, it was time to begin the trek to the top of the mountain so we packed up and headed out. As we hiked this first leg we passed my previous turn-around point, Pebble Creek, and I couldn’t help from letting out a cheer as the first milestone of the trip was complete.
The next stop was Camp Muir, which lies at 10,080 feet, 4,660 feet above the parking lot at Paradise. Here RMI has its own accommodations alongside a public shelter. After a quick bite and some gear organization we all settled in for a restless few hours before getting up at midnight to head out. By 1 a.m. our team was out on the glacier and on our way toward the first of three 10-minute breaks up the Disappointment Cleaver route before we’d reach the top.
The next six hours were spent negotiating steep terrain that ranged from loose rock and boulders, to sand, snow and ice all illuminated by the moon and our headlamps. There were multiple crevasses; some so large they had to be crossed on aluminum ladders all while in clumsy crampons and monitoring the delicate distance between yourself and your rope team.
After the third break on the high mountain there were only four members of our team still heading up; the others had to turn back because of the altitude or sheer intensity of the task and had gone down with the other guides. During the last hour the sun came up and we could clearly see the awesomeness of where we were. That, along with some positive reinforcement from our guide, provided the crucial motivation to make the last push to the top.
It was just after sunrise, cold and windy but perfectly sunny, when we reached the top of Mt. Rainier. At that moment, the sense of accomplishment that surged through me was almost as overwhelming as the lack of oxygen at more than 14,000 feet.
Over the course of the climb, every expectation I had of the experience, our guides and of my capability was blown away. All of the preparation over the previous year and the struggle throughout the night to get to that place was handsomely rewarded. After an hour of celebration the cameras were put away and we started the long trip back down, which was the perfect opportunity to enjoy the scenery and reflect on the marvelous adventure.
For more information on the park and guided trips
Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
Rainier National Park