Mt. Rainier towers over the Cascade Mountain range of Washington state at 14,410 feet. It is affectionately referred to as 'the mountain' by Washingtonians. Over 10,000 people attempt to climb it each year and well over half of those people do not make the summit. It is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. Despite the high quality and safety margins of climbing with a guide service, many people have climbed Mt Rainier successfully as independent climbers (without a guide service). We will take a look at what the guide services offer, what dangers should be considered when attempting a climb of Mt Rainier, and some other advantages of climbing with a guide service or independently.
The Guide Services
Mt. Rainier National Park currently allows three guide services to operate on the mountain taking clients to the top: Alpine Ascents International, Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated, and International Mountain Guides. Each of the guide services offers an arrays of trips and services dedicated to making your trip on Mt Rainier a pleasurable one. The 'standard' route on Mt Rainier is the Disappointment Cleaver (the "DC") route that passes through Camp Muir at roughly 10,000 feet. A summit trip with a guide service, via the DC route, will cost you around $1000 depending on the service. This does not include the cost of renting any climbing equipment you do not already own. The typical guide to client ratio is 2:1, with the largest group on the mountain being 12 (8 clients and 4 guides). All of the guide services are certified, insured, and have tremendous safety records. As a part of their contracts with the National Park Service, they must assist with rescues high on the mountain.
All climbers at Mt Rainier are required to pay a fee to travel above 10,000 feet on the mountain. Currently the fee is $35, but the National Park Service is currently considering raising that fee. Independent climbers must register at a Ranger Station before embarking on their climb. There they fill out forms that indicate what equipment they are carrying (tent color, radios, how much food, etc.), group climbing experience, where they intend to stay (there are number limitations at each of the camps), and what day they intend to summit and leave the park. This is the place to collect route information, weather forecasts, avalanche conditions, and other dangers. Once the registration process is completed, the independent climbers are free to climb the mountain via their intended route.
Why Use A Guide Service?
When you hire a guide service to lead you up the mountain you are investing in the collective knowledge and experience of an incredibly well trained staff of guides. They will provide you with the basic skills you will need to successfully climb Mt Rainier. These skills include how to walk in mountaineering boots and crampons, move on snow, travel as a member on a rope team, and arrest a fall. The guides know the route up the mountain because they helped establish it and mark it with wands (bamboo sticks with brightly colored flags on the end). The guides will walk you through every step of the journey, explain what to expect, how you will feel, and dispense very valuable advice. Also, they will evaluate your fitness and abilities every step of the way. They are trained to recognize signs of dangers in their clients (more about these later) and react appropriately. Also, the guide services have 'permanent' camps set on the mountain, thus eliminating the need to carry tents and lessening the weight you must carry on your back. They will often take care of heating up water in the mornings for breakfast and at night for dinner as well. The most significant advantage, however, is the increased safety margins you have when climbing with a guide service. Every guide is trained in first aid, crevasse rescue, terrain evaluation, and navigation. They will carry radios, rescue equipment, extra sleeping bags, and probably a bottle of oxygen as well. Guides are trained to deal with every scenario in the mountains and are dedicated to getting you off the mountain safely. If something happens to one member of the group, one guide can remain with that person (or lead them down) while the rest of the group continues to the top.
Why Climb Independently?
Climbing independently can have many advantages over using a guide service. When you climb independently your schedule is much more flexible. You can take extra days on the mountain to acclimatize (allowing your body to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen at altitude) and wait out bad weather (it is Washington, after all). You can also set your own pace on the mountain. Your schedule and speed are yours to decide as a group. Also, you are able to climb with people you know and are comfortable with. You get to choose every member of your group and evaluate their skill level and abilities. However, you must ensure the group you are in has the skill and experience to evaluate conditions and react to the dangers a mountain like Rainier can present. As an independent group of climbers you must rely on yourself to avoid, or get yourself out of, trouble. You don't want to snub your nose at the guide services only to have to be rescued by one. You also must carry and know how to use all your own equipment. This also means you get to choose what gear you carry (i.e. lighter tents, faster/lighter stoves, etc). Reaching the summit of Mt Rainier is a life achievement, as an independent climber you will have a group of your friends that you will be able to share that with forever.
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The Dangers of Climbing Mt Rainier
The dangers of climbing a mountain as large as Mt Rainier are plentiful. A climber must be aware of his or her surroundings at all times. Adverse weather, avalanche conditions, a team fall, crevasses, altitude's effects on the body, rock fall, and exhaustion are only some of the dangers that can result in the need for rescue or even death on the mountain. Every climber who sets foot on Mt Rainier assumes responsibility for themselves. Being aware of the dangers is only the beginning, you must also know what to do and how to avoid them as well. Especially if you are considering an independent climb. Check out "The Dangers of Climbing Mt Rainier" for more information about each of the dangers and how to best avoid them.
Do I Need a Guide To Climb Mt Rainier?
The short answer, of course, is "no" because you are not required to have a guide to climb Mt Rainier. However, there are many advantages to utilizing a guide service that should be considered. The first and foremost is the increased safety margins of climbing with an experienced and highly trained guide. If you do not have experience traveling on glaciers or do not have friends who can teach you then a guide service is a great place to start building a base skill set. However, with a guide service you are locked into an itinerary and a pace that are not your own. You are also climbing with people you do not know (unless you get a group of 12 together). As an independent climber you can assemble your own group and set your own schedule and pace up the mountain.
The real question isn't if you should use a guide service, the fundamental question you must ask yourself is: Do I have the knowledge, equipment, and personal experience in the mountains to ensure that my group is safe and self sufficient while climbing Mt Rainier? If your answer is yes then by all means, climb on! But if you are unsure then perhaps a guide service is a good idea. At least until you get the experience you need to venture in the wilds of the mountains independently. I have personally climbed Mt Rainier with both a guide service (in 2005) and leading independent groups (2008, 2009, and 2010). I had an absolutely wonderful time while climbing with the guide service and it lit a passion in me such that I pursued the knowledge and skills to climb independently. It took years of research, learning, practicing, and asking lots of questions of climbers I know before I felt comfortable setting foot on glacier bearing the responsibility of my own rope team. The choice is yours, but don't forget that a guide service is a great place to start. See you in the mountains!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
James Earl Morgan on March 21, 2019:
What is it like to work at Mt Rainier? What equipment is needed to hike to Camp Muir and back to Paradise?
Gaspasser on May 29, 2018:
I am looking for an independent guide service. You pointed out hiking "my own pace". That is exactly what I am concerned about with these commercial outfits. Their pace is too fast for me and I do not want to slow down the team. I am 59 yo and have climbed big mountains many many years ago. Would you guide me? Nikki