I don’t remember exactly when I decided to climb Mount Rainier, but it was sometime after I saw the movie Free Solo. I had always been interested in mountaineering, but more as an outsider looking in than an active participant. Something clicked after seeing Jimmy Chin’s award-winning documentary, and I decided to take my interest more seriously. After some research, Mount Rainier revealed itself to be the clear choice for my introduction to technical mountaineering. The climb involves most of the same basic techniques and equipment used on a beast like Everest, or almost any other glaciated peak, but the elevation (and naturally, the difficulty) is much lower. Rainier’s summit stands at 14,411 feet, while Everest comes in at a whopping 29,029.

As much as I wanted to dive in head first and figure it out as I go (my standard M.O.), something told me to play this one safe. I wanted to take my time to learn the systems properly, and I didn’t want to leave any room for unnecessary risk. So I hired IMG, one of the main guide services in Mount Rainier National Park, to show me the ropes.

We would take the Ingraham Glacier/Disappointment Cleaver route, one of the most common routes up the mountain. The plan was to start Day 1 at the base of the mountain, hike ~4 hours to Camp Muir (10,188ft), go to bed a ~6pm and wake up at midnight for an early ~6hr summit push. We start early because we want to be on the upper mountain glaciers when it’s coldest, before the sun rises. The ice is very solid before the sun warms it up throughout the day, making it more slippery and unpredictable than it has to be.

I had anticipated this expedition for almost year. I spent countless hours and days researching Mount Rainier and prepping my gear. It was a surreal feeling going to sleep that night knowing the next morning I would finally step foot on the long-awaited journey.

Day 1 arrived, and we started up the mountain. It was rainy the entire morning, and after about an hour of hiking, we were all pretty soaked. We were probably going to pop above the clouds later in the day, making it out of the rain. But if we made it that far, we would all be soaking wet, and wet clothes mixed with freezing temperatures make for a bad time. So we turned back.

The threat of rain on the next day was still looming in the form of never-ending fog, but at least those clouds weren’t dripping on us. We pushed all the way the fog on Day 2 and popped out to clear skies after about 3 hours. That first section started out on normal gravel trails, but quickly turned into a “snowfield” as we approached Camp Muir. A snowfield is too small to be be considered a glacier, and doesn’t slide as much as a glacier, but it is basically a big block of snow/ice that never melts completely.

We reached Camp Muir in good time and laid down to rest for a little while. After resting, we had a little glacier travel educational session to prep for the next day. The basic system is fairly simple. Crampons, metal spikes strapped to the bottom of your boots, give you traction when walking on ice. Your ice axe gives you stability with each step and offers a reliable way to self-arrest if you fall and start to slide. You can also drive anchors into the ice when necessary as another failsafe. On glaciers, you’re roped up with 1-2 partners while traversing so that if one person loses their footing, the others can stop the slide. There’s a technique for using each piece of gear, and a system that ties it all together, but it’s not too difficult to get the basics down quickly and get into a rhythm. We took some time to practice before dinner and I felt confident.

At dinner, our guides briefed us on the situation. The weather had gotten worse and it was looking dim for the night. We had a small window of opportunity to embark on our summit push, from about 12am – 2am. If we left after 2 am we would be setting ourselves up for failure later in the day walking on slippery ice, so that wasn’t worth it. If we didn’t leave by 2am, the guides would take us up as far as they could before we would inevitably have to turn back.

We went to bed around 8 pm. I remember laying on a wood plank that some would call a bed. The wind howled louder than the man snoring on the other side of the cabin, slamming doors and windows against their frames for hours. I was lost in time that night, not sure if I was awake or asleep. Half of me was uncomfortable, cold, and just wanted to lay down in my sleeping bag. The other half was also uncomfortable and cold, but eager to get up and get after the summit.

All night I awaited a fateful knock from our lead guide, Porter, who would bear good news or bad news based on his time of arrival. Finally I heard his knock and shot out of bed. I asked him what time it was. “6 am,” he said.

And just like that, the possibility of reaching the summit vanished. The decision was ultimately out of my hands. I understood that being part of their group meant the guides assumed responsibility for the safety of their customers, and I’m convinced I would make the same choice if I had been in their shoes.

We got up and talked with the guides over breakfast, geared up and started across the Cowlitz Glacier, knowing summit was out or each. Despite the bad news, we were treated to a stunning sunrise above the clouds and the weather improved as the sun rose after a nasty night. Our climb lasted about an hour before turning back to head down the mountain.

The trip felt oddly complete. Leading up to the expedition, I didn’t think much about the possibility of not summiting. I figured it would be somewhat disappointing, but I was never attached to the summit in the first place. This trip was about much more than standing on top of Mount Rainier––it was about taking my curiosity seriously.

I absolutely loved every second I spent up on the mountain. Moments have a different quality in harsh, hard-to-reach environments like that. It brings teams together and pulls the very best, mentally and physically, out of each person. I was so honored to go native with the guides and other climbers, to share meals and stories with my team, and to sink into the culture of mountaineering.

Yes, I was satisfied. But I will be back for another attempt.


On the way to Camp Muir, Day 2. We couldn’t see much, but at least it wasn’t raining.


Camp Muir before bed on the windy night.


Sunrise at Camp Muir looking out over the Cowlitz Glacier (the first section of the summit push).


Right before we turned around. The summit in sight, though still hours away.


Heading back down towards Camp Muir after turning around. Mount Adams on the horizon.


Mount Rainier peeking its head above the clouds, seen from the window on my flight to Seattle.


Want more stories like this? Sign up below and I’ll send you a fresh one every Friday.