On a clear day, heading west on I-520 from Redmond to Seattle, Mount Rainier is the biggest thing on the horizon. For fans sitting in Husky Stadium -- even though it's 80 miles distant -- Rainier still dwarfs Seattle's tallest buildings. Even skydivers as far away as Davenport you can see it. At 12,000 feet, if you look west, you'll see the Columbia, buffeted by farms, snake off into its gorge. Past that -- past where even the horizon should be -- stands Rainier, 300 miles off and still larger than life.
Rainier may be huge, but at 14,410 feet, it isn't even the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. It barely makes the top five. Behind the crags of Alaska and Colorado, Rainier is only the 24th-highest peak in America.
It is, however, the tallest thing in the Cascade Range, which makes it incredibly desirable to ambitious mountaineers. The Cascades have a reputation for being steep and craggy, like the Alps and Himalayas. Rainier is not only the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range, but it also has the most extensive glaciers. Massive glaciers are a defining feature -- and principal hazard -- of the world's great mountains. So while the glaciers make it difficult and hazardous to summit Rainier, they also make it an excellent prelude to the world's tallest peaks.
If you can't do Rainier, don't even think about doing McKinley and forget about Everest. But you can't just do Rainier either. You need to be in good physical condition. You have to understand mountaineering concepts. You have to be able to identify and negotiate crevasses. You need to be comfortable walking on a rope line and skilled with crampons.
Basically, you need practice.
How better to practice than by summiting Rainier's gorgeous, though less difficult, siblings? You can soak up the breathtaking views while learning something about mountaineering.
Teachers call that Edutainment.
You'll need to study up on mountaineering concepts before the climbs. You should also consult a guidebook to familiarize yourself with the area you're hiking, the specific route you're taking and to ensure that you bring the right equipment for any situation. Always consult weather forecasts before doing any climbing or hiking and prepare accordingly.
Here now, three Cascade peaks that will help you summit Mount Rainier. Paul Edgren of Rainier Mountaineering Inc. joins us on the ascent.
Mount Hood (elevation: 11,249 feet)
Mount Hood is a stratovolcano that lies dormant about 60 miles east of Portland. Hood is home to the nation's only year-round snow park. In climbing terms, Hood has some fairly gradual routes to the summit.
"The climb is definitely pretty straightforward," Edgren says. The climb is comparatively gradual and you can summit mostly on permanent snow fields, almost totally avoiding the dangers of glacial ice. You should always expect crevasses, but you're unlikely to find them on Hood.
Edgren doesn't think you really even need to be roped in. It's mainly a safeguard against slips. Not needing a rope, though, makes Hood the perfect place to practice hiking on one. The snowfields and relatively easy ascent are also good for learning anchoring and other fundamentals.
Mount Adams (elevation: 12,281 feet)
Adams is similar in difficulty to Mount Hood, with snowfields and avoidable glaciers. The big difference here is height. Although acute mountain sickness (AMS) can occur much lower, in most people, Edgren says, the altitude "really hits you around 12,000." This year, a climber on Rainier suffered a pulmonary edema -- one catastrophic outcome of AMS -- at around 12,500 feet, just about the same height as the Adams summit. The best way to avoid AMS and its catastrophic complications is to ascend slowly.
Altitude affects everyone differently, so acquaint yourself with the symptoms. If Mount Hood was about learning how to pay attention your surroundings, make Adams about paying attention to your body. The only cure for acute mountain sickness is a quick descent.
It takes courage to summit a mountain. It requires an equal amount of humility, though, to stay alive.
For an additional challenge, you can tackle the mountain directly via the Adams Glacier route. It's quite a bit more technical, however, so make sure you're prepared.
Mount Baker (elevation: 10,778 feet)
It doesn't have the altitude gain of Adams or Hood, but the terrain is considerably steeper, which Edgren said means "more exposed rock and hazards like rock fall and icefall." This is the place to get your footwork down and to practice watching for environmental factors that might put you in harm's way.
Though Baker is second to Rainier in glacier coverage, and has more snow and ice by volume than all the others combined, Edgren says not even that will prepare you for what you'll find on Rainier. "You just don't see the glaciers of that magnitude anywhere else around here," he says.
Even climbing Rainier in spring won't prepare you to climb it later in the season, though. Its glaciers are constantly changing. Edgren warns, "New crevasses form as the season goes on. You can easily break through later in the year at a spot you'd crossed safely in May."
Crevasses are the biggest danger on Rainier, but there's very little opportunity to get a feel for them until you get up on the mountain. Edgren keeps reiterating the importance of getting "the experience of the snow, practicing rope travel and setting up anchors."
You could always just go to climbing school. Several companies -- including Rainier Mountaineering, which Edgren works for -- offer classes and summit packages, but Edgren believes that experience is key to getting the most out of your climbing. Nothing, in his opinion, teaches you how to traverse and survive on a mountain like getting out there. Edgren admits, however, that he "personally learned how to climb out of a book," spending a season on Mount Spokane "practicing setting up anchors and pulleys."
It's the difference between learning from a guide, and learning the way guides learn. Or, perhaps, it's the difference between being feeling like you've been taken up a mountain and feeling like you've conquered it yourself.
Call Rainier Mountaineering Inc. at (360) 569-2227.