Have you ever eyed the iconic Mt. Rainier from Seattle and thought "Damn, I want to ski that!" Weston Production Manager Alex Blanchard and touring partner Nolan Hurd set out to earn their turns on the classic Mt. Rainier summit this spring. Check out their recap of Rainier including the do's and don'ts, gear, preparation, descent details and more.
Standing at 14,410’, Mt Rainier is an icon for those in the Pacific Northwest, and a beacon for skiers and climbers across North America. If you’re reading this you probably already know this, but it’s one of the highest points in the continental USA, and boasts the longest continuous skiable descent. There are something like 20 named routes to the summit, but the classic ski descent is the Fuhrer Finger on the south side. This is one of the famed “50 Classics” of North America (thanks Cody Townsend for blowing this up), and probably the most popular descent for skiers on the peak. Having grown up outside of Seattle looking up at Mt Rainier, checking this off the todo list has been a goal for as long as I can remember. On top of that, both of my parents had also climbed it in their 20’s, so I felt the desire to continue that tradition. Nolan and I had tried to ski the peak a couple of years ago, but got shut down before even starting because of a fluke snowstorm in May. This time we’d set aside a week to go peak skiing somewhere, but intentionally hadn’t decided where we’d go until we could see what the weather was going to do. It was starting to look like there would be a stable weather window in the Pacific Northwest, so we pulled the trigger on tickets and started to get things in place to go bag as many peaks in single pushes as possible! Rainier was the main goal of the trip, but we’d also wanted to try and get Mt Baker, Mt Hood, Mt Saint Helens, and Mt Adams if our legs would allow. Our “weather window” became “record May heatwave” and things got too hot to ski the rest of the peaks, but we got Rainier checked off the list in pretty ideal weather. In looking for beta on this we found very few trip reports about doing the peak in a day, so we hope this is helpful for others considering to do it in a single push!
The land administered as Mount Rainier National Park has been since time immemorial the Ancestral homeland of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Yakama, and Coast Salish people.
I’ll forgo the getting to and from WA as that could be an article by itself, but will focus on Mt Rainier logistics specifically. Doing Rainier in a day makes the permit process a lot easier than if you’re camping overnight on one of the routes. That being said, we learned a couple of lessons along the way.
Everyone needs to pay the Annual Climbing Fee online ahead of time, which was $65 when we climbed in 2023 (apparently it can change from year to year). This is pretty simple to do through their website, but make sure to screenshot your confirmation number as you’ll need it for completing your separate climbing permit. Each person in the party must do this, and there’s service at the Paradise Visitor Center/Ranger Station area if you forget to do it ahead of time. I don’t believe you can pay this in person.
The Climbing Permit was admittedly a pain for us to figure out. If you’re doing this in October-April, you can self-register at the poorly marked, but fairly self explanatory, Old Paradise Ranger Station before starting. The Ranger Station is the old looking building (hence the name) in the middle of the parking lot between the Visitor Center and Lodge. May is apparently a weird transition period where they’re just starting to staff up the Climbing Rangers. You can self-register Monday-Thursday, but Friday-Sunday you are expected to register in person with a Ranger between 9am and 5pm to ensure there aren’t too many parties camping on the mountain in each zone. However you can’t register at 2am when you’re most likely about to start climbing for a single push, and in my opinion, it shouldn’t matter for people doing it in a single push. But policy is policy, so we ended up going down the afternoon before to register with a Ranger just to be sure (after being told three different things by three different Rangers over the phone…). It sounds like we probably could have just registered in person the morning of, but it ended up being nice having the evening to get the lay of the area. I’d default to this if you haven’t been there before.
Finally, and this is probably obvious, but you also need a National Parks Pass or Day Entry to enter the park. This is separate from the above items and costs $35 for a week or $80 for a year. It’s totally worth getting an annual pass as it quickly pays for itself over multiple trips, and those fees cover a substantial portion of the upkeep of the park. Entrance fees usually aren’t enforced after 8pm, but do the right thing and get a Pass.
Mt Rainier is more than just a big day of backcountry skiing, and takes a different set of gear. Weather can roll in quickly, and it can go from sunny to completely socked in in minutes. We felt very confident in our weather window and were able to pair down our gear pretty substantially, but this will vary from trip to trip. I won’t go into every single detail, but here’s a quick overview of what each of us brought.
- Lightweight touring setups
- Weston Ridgeline Carbon/Weston Skyline Carbon
- Hardboot/tech bindings
- Pomoca Free Pro 2.0 skins
- 18-20L Mammut pack
- All of our gear is small/lightweight, so we were able to get away with small packs
- Sun hoodie/base layer
- Soft shell top/bottoms
- Mid-weight puffy (didn’t use)
- Liner / skinning gloves
- Mid-weight leather gloves
- Petzl RAD system
- We decided to carry a single RAD Crevasse Rescue Kit (30m RAD Line, Micro Traction, Tibloc, and three locking carabiners) with the second skier based on how much the route had been skied, but some people may feel more comfortable each carrying a set.
- CAMP Corsa Nanotech lightweight ice ax
- Petzl Irvis Hybrid crampons
- Petzl Headlamps (primary and backup)
- Small first aid kit (one for both of us)
- Small multi tool / knife
- 4L of water
- Ended up only drinking about 2L and passed some of it off to others on the summit
- Most of it had caffeinated Tailwind Drink Mix in it for calories, electrolytes, and caffeine
- 2000-3000 calories of food
- We ended up only eating a couple of bars on the way up, but good to have more
- Oh Sh*t Kit
- This wouldn’t be fun to spend an extended period of time/night on the mountain with, but hopefully it would keep you alive
- Down belay jacket
- Down shorts or pants
- Down gloves
- Space blanket bivy sack
This is probably the hardest part to make suggestions on, as it varies significantly person-to-person. I’d be comfortable with doing 5000 '+ days of touring, and have done some of those days recently/leading up to the trip. We’d been doing 5000’ days pretty regularly throughout the season with some 8000’-10000’ days in the mix, but that was because we enjoy that, and not specifically for “training.”
Also you should be comfortable with spending extended periods of time at altitude. I live at 9000’ and regularly tour at 10000’-14000’ so this wasn’t an issue for me, but the altitude effect was the biggest comment we heard from others. I wouldn’t recommend coming from sea level and trying to do Rainier in a day unless you’ve recently spent time at altitude. This is why many people take a couple of days to acclimatize, even if physically you’re capable of doing the push in a day. That being said, you do you.
We had mixed feelings about crevasse rescue on the “Standard Route” (more on this later), but you should have experience with this before going onto any glacier. Youtube has plenty of videos on how to do this as it’s a straightforward concept, but taking a class with a professional instructor is really the best way to learn these skills. The concepts are straightforward, but practice is invaluable.
Finally, weather plays a big role in planning for a peak climb. It’s also the hardest part to really plan for. Starting about two weeks out, we’d been tracking what was looking like a week-long weather window of warmer temperatures and clear weather. Sites like Noaa and MountainForecast are good resources for pinpoint weather forecasts. This window ended up being even hotter than expected and messed with the rest of our ski plans that week, but you never really know what you’re going to get when you’re chasing snow and weather.
As a result of the permit snafu mentioned above, we ended up at Paradise pretty early the evening before the climb. After grabbing food at the Whittaker Bunkhouse in Ashford, WA (highly recommended), we headed back up to the Paradise Visitor Center. While not explicitly allowed, the Overflow Parking Lot unofficially allows overnight sleeping for climbers, and there were probably 20 of us spread out throughout the lot. I think setting up a tent would be frowned upon, but sleeping in a car/van seemed ok. Please be respectful though, as this would be a shame to have shut down.Hydrating before bed.
We had most of our gear packed ahead of time, and slept in the back of our rental car, passing out around 9:00 pm to try and get as much sleep as possible. Alarms went off at 2:00 am, and we quickly threw on our layers, drank as much water as possible (both drank about 1.5L, most of which was caffeinated Tailwind to wake up, and so we didn’t have to carry as much liquid weight), and ate some food. Shoutout to my mom for making us a loaf of English Muffin Bread for breakfast! By 2:20 am we were skinning over to the main area/Visitor Center. After a bathroom break (yes they seem to be open 24/7) and some final adjustments, we started climbing by like 2:45 am.
I hadn’t been up to Camp Muir in a while, and navigation in the pitch black was a little bit more difficult than I remembered. Generally you’re just heading uphill though, and we quickly found a skin track. The path is pretty obvious once you find it, and you start to have a faint outline of Rainier to work off of by like 4:00 am. Once you have some light, you’re essentially shooting for the lookers right of the Nisqually Cliffs, a prominent rock formation to the right of the Finger route. We had a GPX file of the Muir route on our phone that served as a backup as well. Generally, the skin to Muir is quite pleasant, and we didn’t need ski crampons. There was a decent breeze once we broke above the treeline, but it was still warm enough that we were just in our sun hoodies.
We’d debated climbing the Fuhrer Finger to scout the route, but ultimately decided to climb the Standard Route/Ingraham Direct as we thought we’d be able to keep skins on for longer. It ended up being a lot easier to navigate, so if you’re going for speed, I’d do this as well.
We made good time, and hit Camp Muir at like 5:30 am, stopping briefly for a bathroom break and some snacks. We had been told the outhouse had been snowed in and wasn’t open, but it ended up seeming fine. Not sure if I would count on this, but the Rangers should know the status if you’re worried. From Camp Muir to the summit, there’s a very obvious path that is probed and flagged/wanded every couple hundred yards by the guiding services. We started up the marked route across Cowlitz Glacier with skins, but ended up taking them off and just walking up through Cathedral Gap. We felt fine without crampons or an ax at this point, but watch your step as it does get a bit steeper.Sunrise behind Little Tahoma.
We were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise coming up behind Little Tahoma as we roped up, grabbed our axs, and put crampons on at Cathedral Gap around 5:45 am. We debated continuing to skin to Ingraham Flats, but decided walking would probably be quicker and cruised up to Ingraham Flats from there. This is the split point between doing Ingraham Direct (“ID”) and Disappointment Cleaver (“DC”) to climber’s the right. Being early in the season, the established route was up ID, and we started to switch back up that. We did experience a couple of small snow bridges, but the cracks were only 1’-2’ wide at this point in the season. This can be a fairly dangerous section later in the season, but was straightforward this early with good coverage and a well marked route.Climbing, Disappointment Cleaver on the right.
The routes come back together at the top of DC. We stopped for a snack and some water again quickly, but largely just kept cruising. I don’t remember the exact timing through here, but my guess is we hit it at about 7:45 am. From the top of DC to the Crater Rim was essentially a series of switchbacks, and we powered through them. We’d realized that we had a shot of going Sub 6 hours for the climb, so we’d picked up the pace and made a good push for the summit. There was another small crevasse crossing at one point, but not much to note besides some great views of the surrounding area!Alex Blanchard and Nolan Hurd Getting ready to climb.
We hit the Summit Crater rim at just before 9:00 am, missing the 6hr mark by a couple of minutes. We unroped at the rim, and hiked across to the true summit on the other side. We’d seen this called out as a 45 minute round trip, but I think it took us less than 10 minutes to get across. I would 100% do this, and I don’t see why many people call the crater rim the “summit.” You’re over 100’ below the true summit, and the views aren’t anywhere near as good. But I digress… Enjoy the views and take pictures if that’s your thing, you’ve earned it at this point! The log book box was buried under more snow that I was willing to search through, so that doesn’t become an option until later in the season unless you’re super motivated.Adams on the left, St Helens on the right.
What goes up must come down
We chilled on the summit for about 30 minutes as we were way ahead of when we’d expected to be there. What we were seeing also didn’t match weather reports, and things were more frozen than expected. Neither of us are very patient people, so we decided to roll the dice on conditions and started descending. Make sure you have your bearing right starting out, as the first 1000’ doesn’t always have much in the way of landmarks. In our case there were 50+ tracks from the day before, so it was obvious.Nolan getting ready to ski (note the crowds coming up from below).
Here was the other decision point as far as the route goes. The classic route descends the skiers right shoulder of the Nisqually Ice Field, but we’d heard mixed reports of a bergschrund that had formed. Some had said it was a hard no-go, and others had said it was a sizable but reasonable jump. We (and apparently everyone else) had decided to descend through the Nisqually Ice Field instead, which was continuous down to the top of the Finger. There was some interesting route-finding and I generally would stick to the classic route, but with the presence of so many other tracks, we continued down. There were some super cool features through here, so it is aesthetically quite cool, even if the skiing was mediocre. We found the previously mentioned bergschrund, and while it was sizable and more than I wanted to jump, there was a go-around on the ridge that would have been fine. We largely skied this section together with a bit of separation to keep eyes on eachother, as we felt avalanche danger was essentially zero.Skiing through the Nisqually Ice Field on mediocre snow.
By this point, we were approaching the top of the Fuhrer Finger proper. Snow was still garbage, so we finally found a shady spot (there isn’t much in the shade on the route) and proceeded to kill some time. Fun fact, you have decent service again by now, so I called my parents and said hi! We let another couple of groups ski through, but eventually got bored and decided to ski it. The main shot is fairly unimpressive in my opinion, but the skier's right flank/variation is 500’ of 50 deg steep skiing and the best pitch of the descent. It also had the best snow of the descent! We decided to pitch that section out as things were finally starting to warm up. Coming through the bottom of the Finger a couple of rocks whizzed by (probably from climbers not paying attention above), so we boogied out of there ASAP to the apron.Bergschrund below the classic route, sneak (not pictured) to the left.
The apron under the Finger was enjoyable and finally soft enough to open up larger turns. You’re generally trending skiers right with a decent traverse to get on the right shoulder of the Wilson Glacier, but it was doable even on a splitboard. This shoulder seems to be where most people camp if you’re trying to climb the Finger directly and do it in two or more days.
We did make a mistake here that I want to note. You can (if there’s enough snow) ski all the way out to the Nisqually River Bridge further down the drainage, which makes it the longest continuous ski in the continental USA. Or you can traverse around under the Nisqually Cliffs to Paradise. We wanted to ski it all the way out (and didn’t want to skin the 300’-500’ back up towards Paradise), so we trended pretty far right following some tracks. This led to us getting cliffed out, and having to skin back up a couple hundred feet. We think that people had been skiing this for fun or to acclimatize from the camp on the shoulder, and then skinning back up to camp. However, we hit it late in the day and got closer to the cliffs than we should have, which was a lesson learned on scouting/checking your route. It was easy enough to traverse back up and skiers left to get to the obvious exit bowl/chute under the Wilson Glacier, and continued down from there.
The exit to the bridge was solid type two fun, with mostly continuous snow, but a bit of scrambling in one section. You can see the bridge from pretty high up, so you’re just working down the skier’s left side of the creek until you hit it. I personally wouldn’t do it again, but it was fun to check off the left. Either descent could be done in an hour to an hour and a half if you’re moving continuously, but between killing time at multiple points and our misadventure, taking us over two hours.
There’s a pathway on the skier’s left that takes you from the river back up to the top of the bridge, and congratulations, you’ve done it! We were rewarded with some weird stares from tourists that had no idea what we were doing. Pro tip, stash a beer in the snow bank to celebrate with! Pro tip #2, a hazy IPA is probably too strong when you’re mostly looking to hydrate, and I’d definitely recommend a lager in hindsight. We hitched a ride back to Paradise (which took longer than expected), or you can park a car on the other side of the bridge in the viewpoint parking lot if you have two cars.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways
If this report makes Rainier seem easy, that’s because we thought it was. But I want to heavily caveat that with a couple of points. We hit this in absolutely PERFECT weather. We had almost zero wind, perfect clear skies with zero cloud cover, and good temperatures. We were also early in the season so coverage was great. This doesn’t happen very often, and it made for “goldilocks” conditions. If we had been much earlier or later it would have added more complexity to the route.
As an extension of this, six hours to climb probably isn’t a realistic number to work off of. We had budgeted eight hours based on reading some other trip reports in the seven to nine hour range. This all comes down to conditions and fitness, so once determining your summit time, you can work backwards from there. We were used to altitude and had to do almost no route-finding required along the way, so we were able to just put our heads down and hit cruise control the entire time. Based on this, people were climbing without ropes, but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with that conceptually. To each their own though.
The ski itself is fairly average from a purely skiing standpoint, and I’ve skied steeper and harder at a resort. Granted, this is with a light pack, and would become more challenging if you had a massive pack (which is another reason to do it in a day). I don’t see the need or want to do this in more than a day, but that’s just me.
The magic of the line comes from the overall experience, and is totally worth it! All in all, this was a stellar Type II fun activity with some great Type I fun along the way. It was great to check it off the list, and I’m sure I’ll be back in the future!