Climbing Mount Rainier was something that had been in my sights for a number of years, training in glacier travel and gradually bigger mountains. I’d even put in an attempt on the Kautz Glacier Route before but got turned away by the weather. This mountain still loomed large in my imagination in the years to follow and I’d find myself occasionally thinking about when I might be able to try to climb Mount Rainier again…
Thankfully, that opportunity came and this is a report of our successful climb of Mount Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route.
The Lure of Mount Rainier
The Mountain. It’s a peak that looms large–both figuratively and literally–over the identity and psyche of the Northwest. I was born and raised in the Puget Sound area; I spent the first 23 years of my life there.
I have no explicit memory of first seeing or learning about the Mountain, it was just always there. Like the water, salmon, ferries, and rain. Well, it was there when the clouds and drizzle cleared. “The Mountain is out.”
Whether you have an interest in mountaineering or the great outdoors, it’s hard not to be struck by the presence of this giant hunk of rock and ice. It’s a rare thing in this world to be able to stand at sea level and see what 14,000+ feet look like rising up in the distance.
In the Continental US, Mount Rainier is in a league of its own and is truly a land of superlatives–the most prominent and most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48. The easiest route to the top requires 9,000 feet of elevation gain. While Mount Whitney may be bigger, Mount Rainier is far more impressive.
Even when the Mountain isn’t out, it’s presence is stamped all over Washington, from the license plates to the state quarter to the graphics on the nightly newscasts.
Long before I’d ever bagged my first real peak, I’d always imagined what it was like up there… What the State of Washington looked like from its commanding centerpiece. But it was only after I left Washington State and moved to Washington DC that my desire to climb Mount Rainier became more acute.
Kautz Glacier Route
Of the 10,000+ average summit attempts each year, about 70% are via the Disappointment Cleaver (DC)/Muir route, and 15% are via the Emmons… Making the other 60+ routes on the Mountain virtually abandoned in comparison. The Kautz is the third most popular route to the top and sees approximately 4% of the total traffic (statistics source).
While I really wanted to reach the top of Rainier, I had also become set on the fact that I didn’t want to summit via the DC/Muir route or the Emmons, at least not for my first summit. I wanted to do something slightly more technical (alpine ice climbing), wanted to carry all my gear (not stay in the Camp Muir shelter), and do something a little more off the beaten path and less crowded.
In due time I felt ready to take on Rainier, but with my lack of Seattle climbing partners and limited vacation from my DC job, I decided to join a guided trip of Rainier via the Kautz Glacier with IMG back in 2011.
Unfortunately, we got blown off the mountain at our high camp at Camp Hazard and never even got to attempt the Kautz ice chute or make a summit push. It was disappointing, to be sure, but I knew I’d put in another attempt someday… I just wasn’t sure when or how.
The Sequel: Back to the Kautz Ice Chute
Fast forward two years after my first and only attempt on Rainier and, Matt, a Portland-based climbing buddy of mine reached out about potentially being a third on a Kautz attempt… And thankfully the scheduling worked out around my visit to Squamish, BC.
Matt and his buddy Louis put in their own attempt on the Kautz recently and, like me, got blown off at Camp Hazard. We all had unfinished business on this route and were all excited to give it another go. Many emails were exchanged, logistics worked out, the weather window looked good, now it was time set foot on the Mountain once again.
We would be weekend warrior-ing it: meeting up at Mount Rainier on Friday evening, set out Saturday morning for Camp Hazard, go for the summit Sunday morning and then descend all the way back to Paradise via the standard DC/Muir route.
My Friday afternoon commute to the Mountain was not auspicious. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong…
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but traffic was dreadful and there were road detours on the way to Rainier (adding an unexpected extra 1.5 hours of driving), which made me stressed about whether I would make it in time to pick up our climbing permit that evening, I couldn’t find my annual National Park pass as I arrived, and I even got stung in the neck by a bee while driving down the road!
I can’t even remember the last time I was stung by a bee!
I’m not particularly superstitious, but I couldn’t decide whether the universe was trying to tell me not to climb Rainier this weekend, or whether all these annoyances were potentially good omens for the weekend’s climb…
In the end, I did find my National Park pass, I did grab a climbing pass and permit before closing time, and I was able to meet up with Matt and Louis even with the marginal cell coverage in the little town of Ashford, Washington. We grabbed food and went over last-minute logistics before setting off to bivy in the parking lot.
Gear-wise, we all carried standard glacier travel gear, brought a skinny 60 meter rope, each carried one ice screw and one snow picket, each opted to bring two axes/tools, we would be sharing a single stove and fuel canister (MSR Reactor), and Matt and I would share my tarp for shelter, while Louis would bring his bivy sack.
There is a detailed Mount Rainier gear list at the end of this article.
Heading to Camp Hazard on Kautz Glacier Route
We tried to get a somewhat early start on Saturday morning to beat the intense heat (didn’t work, it was still really hot). The route begins by ascending the paved trails out of Paradise, giving way to meandering dirt paths and patches of icy snow among the meadows.
You soon break off to the west and descend down into the Nisqually Glacier. You’ll want to rope up at this point, but after navigating above to higher ground you gain the ridge and snowfields and can drop the rope.
It was a long, hot, and not an especially noteworthy 5,000 foot climb up to Camp Hazard. Matt and I took a long section of crumbly rock rather than snow below the Turtle Snowfield… A pretty miserable slog (two steps forward, one step back), that would probably best be avoided by sticking to the adjacent snow.
We finally arrived at the Camp Hazard area in the mid-afternoon after about 7 hours of hiking. There were at least three other parties camped along the rocky ridge and we found a small site just adjacent to the rappel into the ice chute that would (just barely) fit my MLD TrailStar tarp.
After a little fiddling, I managed to get a marginally decent pitch in the space I had. High winds would probably have been problematic.
We were able to camp on dry ground, we had an adjacent trickle of a stream for water, and we were right next to our morning rappel. A pretty ideal campsite at around 10,800 feet.
We did the usual pre-summit day camp activities… napping, reconnaissance, resting, eating, hydrating, and planning logistics. We settled on a 4 am wake up time with a 5 am departure–we figured there was no major benefit of climbing the ice chute in the dark, and it also staggered our departure with our four Russian neighbors.
Mount Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route
We woke up, packed up camp, and were moving on time, though our Russian neighbors were running late… They had planned to depart at 4 am, but we ended up rapping into the ice chute right behind them.
There is a fixed-line and anchors at the rock step, but the bottom was frozen into the ground, so we just ran our rope into the quick links and rapped in with crampons on.
We roped up below the rappel and made the short traverse over to the base of the ice chute. The first ice pitch started right at the base of the chute… Though it was generally rotten, dirty, and suspect, in my opinion.
I “led” the first pitch with my ice tool and a glacier axe. The snow axe was definitely terrible swinging into ice. It would usually deflect a few times before I could get a marginal stick. I didn’t trust it, but my other ice tool was bomber.
I placed one screw toward the end of the ice as it turned more steppy and we just simul-climbed through this portion and up through the steppy snow above.
We caught back up behind the party of Russians below the upper ice pitch. Louis led off on this pitch of rotten, wet, suspect ice, placing two screws and then a picket above in the snow for the belay up.
The ice chute, while fairly short and not particularly steep, is definitely the highlight of the Kautz route, and goes at AI2 (alpine ice 2).
You could probably get by with a single tool… I was glad to have two though, and probably would have much rather had two tools with aggressive picks, instead of one glacier axe and one ice tool. Your mileage may vary.
Passing the Kautz Ice Chute
Above the Kautz ice chute, the angle levels off a little and it turns into a long slog, switchbacking up the massive suncups. We were under the glare of the sun now. It was hot and the air was surprisingly still.
It was odd to have no wind on a mountain like this. There were a few big cracks to negotiate around or over–we found a fun slightly overhung crevasse that we pulled through. Our pace slowed, the oxygen diminished, and we made slow and steady progress toward the summit plateau.
I remember looking on with anticipation as the angle looked to level off… I kept up hope that it was indeed the summit plateau but knew that it wasn’t the end of the climb.
You crest the plateau and the angle levels off–but you still have a hike over to the base of the last hill, a last 400-foot climb up to the Crater Rim and then the true summit of Rainier, Columbia Crest, 14,411 feet above sea level.
We topped out at noon, 7 hours after leaving Camp Hazard. It was windy and cold on top of the summit. We did the usual photos and gawking at the view and then quickly dropped down into the summit crater where there was no wind so we could brew up tea, melt water, and snack before the descent. We spent about an hour and a half on the summit, starting our descent at 1:30 pm.
Descending the DC-Muir Route
Now for the long descent back to Paradise… We hopped on the well-worn boot path leading down from the Summit Crater. The trail switchbacked down the Mountain. Smaller crevasses giving way to larger and much gnarlier terrain as we hit the upper reaches of the Emmons glacier.
We had been warned about one substantial bottleneck on the DC/Muir route where you cross a ladder fixed over a large crevasse and then downclimb a steep but short (10 foot) snow step. We descended so late that there was only one other party nearby when we passed the bottleneck, so it wasn’t an issue for us, but I could certainly see it proving problematic.
The route continues switchbacking and navigating increasingly broken terrain before gaining the Cleaver… A large, chossy, dirt ridge that made for a pretty miserable descent. We unroped and continued down to the Ingraham Glacier where we roped up again.
The day was long and we were definitely feeling tired by this point. But the late hour of the day made passing under the seracs along the Ingraham path pretty unnerving.
We boogied through that section as fast as we could, crossed one more fixed ladder over a crevasse, and passed by the Ingraham Flats camping area… The last of the really crazy, super glaciated terrain behind us.
We reached Cathedral Gap shortly thereafter, unroped again, continued down to the last glacier crossing (which we roped up for), and arrived at Camp Muir at about 6pm–four and a half hours after leaving the summit.
We hung around Muir for a while, ditched glacier gear, and sorted some stuff before the long slog down the snowfield. I chatted with the climbing rangers who we saw at the Kautz and also carried over, they left Camp Hazard at 4:30 am, and summited about 5 hours later–two full hours shorter than us.
The descent from the Muir Snowfield is 4,000 vertical feet and is free of crevasses or other technical problems. I was kind of bonking at this point in time and just shut my brain off for the mindless plunge stepping, and standing/sitting glissades.
The last few miles return to dirt hiking paths and eventually knee jarring concrete paths. We descended back into the low clouds and mist of Paradise, and beyond the beauty of the wildflowers and the random marmot appearances, was mostly unnoteworthy, except for a brief moment of getting “lost”.
I came to a fork in the road and followed a sign toward Paradise 3.3 miles ahead. We continued on for a bit before Matt called out that this didn’t seem right. Hiking back to the sign proved there was a shorter (1.5 mile) option to return to Paradise… Almost took the long-cut, instead of the short-cut!
Another two hours or so after leaving Muir we returned to our vehicles at around 8 pm… I was oh so glad to be back, and definitely moving slow by this point in the descent. Got to love flip flops and a change of clothes back at the truck!
So, all in all, it was a really, really great trip with awesome teammates. We lucked out with amazing, perfect weather on a great route on one of the greatest peaks I’ve ever laid eyes on. I look forward to going back again someday. If you’ve got the chance to put in an attempt on the Kautz Glacier Route and feel ready for it, definitely give it a go! It is among the most favorite routes I’ve ever done.
Photos watermarked MDM were taken by Matt Mioduszewski
Other Mount Rainier Resources
Mount Rainier Gear List
My pack weight for the Kautz glacier route without water was somewhere in the 25-27lb range, including food. Of course, pack weight varied depending on what layers I was wearing, what gear I had out (like harness, helmet, ax, and pole), and how much water I had on hand out of 2.5 liters carrying capacity, but was typically around 25lbs, I believe.
- CiloGear 40B Worksack – without frame sheet or hip belt, but kept the foam back pad, and packed the “brain” inside the main compartment. Perfect size for a trip like this.
- Feathered Friends Vireo sleeping bag – minimalist 1lb, zipperless, hoodless bag
- Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar (tarp shelter) – five-sided tarp, typically bomber, but hard to get a good pitch in the small sites at Camp Hazard. Shared by two of us, third had his own bivy sack.
- Thermarest foam pad – Chopped to 3/4 length, I use the foam pad from my CiloGear pack for the other 1/4
- Black Diamond Half Dome helmet
- Black Diamond Z Trekking poles x2
- 1 Black Diamond Cobra ice tool – technical ice tool
- 1 Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe Pro – not so good for swinging into ice, though I started to get better sticks later.
- Black Diamond Cyborg Crampons
- Black Diamond Couloir harness
- 1 Omega Pacific snow picket – * we each carried one picket
- Spot GPS Messenger
- Mount Rainier Guide reference map – awesomely detailed map
- Altice Eclipse glacier glasses
- Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headlamp
- Leatherman Squirt
- Potable Aqua iodine tablets
- Small toiletry kit
- Small first aid/emergency repair kit
- Toe Warmers – not used, just in case for cold hands/feet
- Sea to Summit waterproof bag – for electronics, just in case
- Lighter – spare, just in case
- One garbage bag – emergency pack liner, solar still, etc
- Jetboil plastic bottom cup – my bowl/hot drink cup
- Sea to Summit titanium spoon
- * MSR Reactor Stove and one fuel can – (carried by partner, shared by the three of us)
- 1/2 liter Gatorade bottle with keeper cord – kept accessible on harness or pack
- Hunnersdorf bottle 32oz
- Nalgene soft-sided 32oz canteen
Climbing gear on harness:
- 1 cordelette
- 1 16mm ice screw – * we each carried one screw
- 1 alpine draw
- 2 big locking biners
- 2 ice clippers on my harness
- 1 Tibloc
- 1 Pulley
- ATC guide + locker
- Prussiks x2
- Black Diamond Spinner leash
- Trango Piranha Knife
- A few non-locking biners for racking items
Clothes and Layers for Mount Rainier
- Icebreaker boxer briefs
- NW Alpine Fast/Light pants
- 1 pair Fox River X-Static liner socks
- 1 pair Smartwool Lightweight hiking socks
- 1 pair Smartwool heavyweight socks – for bedtime (sleeping socks)
- Patagonia Capilene 2 long underwear (pants) – for sleeping
- La Sportiva Batura 2.0 boots
- Icebreaker 150 tshirt
- NWAlpine Black Spider Light Hoody – thin hooded fleece layer
- Feathered Friends Jackorack – lightweight 4oz windshirt
- Patagonia R1 – thicker fleece jacket (hoodless, full zip)
- Montbell Alpine Light down parka
- Mtn Hardwear lightweight liner gloves
- Midweight fleece gloves
- Outdoor Research Alpine Alibi gloves
- Smartwool Balaclava
- REI sun cap (baseball hat)
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