As the Northwest’s most iconic peak—it’s on every license plate and half the letterheads in town, for Chrissake—Mount Rainier claims all the local badassery cachet. Yet it seems like everyone’s climbed the 14,410-footer.
After climbing Rainier in 2012, I was shocked to hear “I want to do that too” from nonclimber friends, family, and strangers. Ascending our most photogenic geologic ornament has become a default Seattle to-do list item, the adventure equivalent of dining at the Space Needle. Every year thousands travel to Washington for Rainier—and Rainier only. Nearly 11,000 tried to summit the mountain last year, and more than half made it.
Sure, Rainier is steep, cold, dark, and dangerous. It’s a difficult feat, but so’s running a marathon and doing your own taxes, and neither offer the same Seattle cocktail party bragging rights. That’s so despite the fact that mountaineering newbies can handle the most popular route; guide lore says two guides should be able to lead a cow to the top of Rainier. Have you even heard of Middle Index, number one on SummitPost’s statewide Difficult 10? Rainier doesn’t even make the list.
But last summer’s devastating Liberty Ridge accident, which killed two experienced guides and four clients, is a sobering reminder that Rainier is still deadly. The crowds on the Disappointment Cleaver don’t make it Disneyland. No mountain can be conquered, especially this one; real success on Rainier is measured by returning to the parking lot, not bagging the top.
The guides who work the mountain insist Rainier is no vanity trip, and global experts are drawn to its Himalaya-like terrain. “If you consider yourself a climber, you will be drawn to Rainier eventually,” says Rainier Mountaineering’s Paul Maier. At Alpine Ascents, director of programs Gordon Janow claims Rainier is still a big deal: “It’s one of the few mountains that remains so.”
You know what? The mountain doesn’t care. It sits there every day, looming just out of reach, serene and utterly unconcerned with changing your life. Rainier is still bigger than everything else.
Climbing Rainier doesn’t make you Sir Edmund Hillary. But even if it isn’t a big deal, I’m still attempting it again this summer.