Climbing Mt Rainier via Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route

Mt Rainier is the 5th tallest mountain in the Continental United States and highest in the Cascade range, standing at 14,410 feet tall. It is about 54 miles Southeast of Seattle, Washington. Mt Rainier is the most topographically prominent peak in the lower 48 with 13,211 feet of prominence, even more than that of K2! It is also the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 and considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

After canceling our climb of Mt Rainier last month due to weather, we decided to give it another go this weekend. The weather forecast was looking great all week, but began to deteriorate as the weekend approached. We decided to go anyway, as the weather on Mt Rainier is very unpredictable. It can be great even when the forecast is not so positive. We planned on climbing the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route on the Northeast side of Mt Rainier. This route gains over 10,000 vertical feet of elevation over approximately 8 miles. It is a very demanding climb which we planned on doing over two days, camping Saturday night at Camp Schruman at about 9,460' in elevation.

Mt Rainier Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route     Mt Rainier Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route

The Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route starts at the Glacier Basin Trailhead near the White River Campground at about 4,320' elevation. It follows the Glacier Basin Trail to just below the Inter Glacier. Once at the top of Inter Glacier, the route traverses the Emmons Glacier (largest glacier in the lower 48 with a surface area of 4.3 square miles) to Camp Schurman. From Camp Schurman, the route goes up the Winthrop Glacier to the summit. Due to the dynamic nature of glaciers and crevasses, the route is constantly changing from week to week. The route on the map above is only a snapshot in time of the actual route while we were on the mountain.

Mt Rainier Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route Elevation Profile

We got an early start, leaving Portland around 4 AM Saturday morning. We arrived at the White River ranger station in Mt Rainier National Park just after 7 AM. The ranger on duty opened early and we easily obtained climbing and camping permits. Camp Schurman was only about half full at that point according to the ranger. We continued on to the White River Campground where there is a climber/day-use parking area a short walk from the Glacier Basin trailhead. After getting our gear organized and distributed among the three of us, we set off on the trail. We called ourselves "Team Vicuňa" after the national animal of Peru (Vicugna vicugna) that lives high in the Andes and is a relative of the llama.

Glacier Basin Trail - Mt Rainier National Park     Wildflowers Along Trail

We had clouds while driving into Mt Rainier National Park, but the weather cleared as we hiked along White River. We soon saw Little Tahoma Peak and Mt Rainier poking through the clearing clouds.

White River Canyon with Little Tahoma Peak in the Background     Little Tahoma Peak
White River with Mt Rainier Peaking out of the Coulds     Mt Rainier

The trail to Glacier Basin was mostly snow free except for a few patches we had to hike across. Wildflowers were out in full bloom as though Spring had just arrived.

Louis and Matt Hiking over Snow Patch     Glacier Basin - Mt Rainier National Park, Washington

We took a break before climbing up the Inter Glacier while I changed out of my running shoes and into my mountaineering boots. We observed several other parties climbing up the glacier.

Paintbrush Wildflower with Inter Glacier in the Background     Inter Glacier - Mt Rainier

The snow was soft on the Inter Glacier, making it easy to kick steps as we climbed higher. We followed others steps to make it even easier. It looked like it would be a great glissade on the way back down! The weather was looking nicer and nicer as almost all the clouds dissipated. I was getting excited and suggested we consider summiting tonight since the forecast for Sunday was not as good. We decided to see what time we got into Camp Schurman before we would make a call on summiting Saturday evening.

Looking Towards the Top Half Way up the Inter Glacier on Mt Rainier     Looking Down the Inter Glacier Toward Matt and Louis

At the top of the Inter Glacier, we traversed across and up the Emmons Glacier toward Camp Schurman where we would set up our high camp at around 9,460' elevation. It's just over 5.5 miles from the trailhead to Camp Schurman and then another 2.5 miles to the summit (Columbia Crest).

Traversing Edge of Emmons Glacier Towards Camp Schurman     Close Up of Emmons Glacier - Mt Rainier, Washington

Once on the Emmons Glacier, we had to cross over a couple narrow crevasses and right by another large one. This was my first time up close and personal with crevasses. I found it very exciting. It was amazing how deep they can be. The ones on Emmons appeared to go down forever. It is also amazing how fast they change. On Sunday when we headed back down, the same crevasses had doubled in width.

Looking Down the Toe of Emmons Glacier     Small Crevasse on Emmons Glacier
Walking Over a Crevasse on Emmons Glacier     Crevasse on Emmons Glacier - Mt Rainier

Once at Camp Schurman, I quickly took off my heavy pack and enjoyed a bagel sandwich.

Camp Schurman from Emmons Glacier     Camp Schurman Ranger Hut and Solar Toilet
Louis and Matt Climbing up the Emmons Glacier to Camp Schurman     Footsteps Along the Edge of a Large Crevasse

Once we were all at Camp Schurman, we got to work setting up the tent and melting snow for water.

Matt and Louis Melting Snow and Analyzing Topo Maps at Camp     Many Tents at Camp Schurman (9,460')
Our Tent Dug into the Side of Winthrop Glacier at Camp Schurman on Mt Rainier     Camp Schurman Ranger Hut

We observed many climbers still coming down Mt Rainier late in the afternoon. Setting up camp and melting water ended up taking quite a bit of time, so we decided to stick with our original plan and summit early Sunday morning. After talking to the rangers, it sounded like the weather would remain sunny, but windier on Sunday.

Upper Slopes of Mt Rainier     Climbers High up on Mt Rainier

We ate dinner and then prepared our gear for the next morning. We would be roped up all the way up to the summit and back due to the high risk of falling into crevasses. Once all situated, we went to bed just as it was getting dark. We set our alarms for 1 AM so we could get an alpine start.

Looking Across the Winthrop Glacier from Camp just Before Sunset     Looking Down the Winthrop Glacier from Camp Schurman

We awoke to our alarms Sunday morning. The weather was clear, but the wind had picked up. Luckily the temperature was in the low 30's at Camp Schurman, making the wind feel relatively warm. We could see tiny lights headed up Mt Rainier from the headlamps of climbers ahead of us. We cooked breakfast and coffee and finally started climbing around 2:40 AM.

Matt was first on our rope team with me in the middle and Louis claiming the rear. The first climber is most likely to fall into a crevasse, so the theory is to have your strongest climber in the back, where he can help rescue the lead climber if he does fall into a crevasse. The middle spot on a rope team is best for the least experienced climber, AKA me. This was my first time on a rope team during an actual climb.

We set off in the dark with our headlamps shining the way. We made good time, eventually catching up to and passing another team. The wind continued to pick up as we ascended. I noticed there were relatively few climbers compared to the day before. I think I saw only 3 or 4 teams including ours compared to 10-12 the day before.

The route had changed from the week before. Previously more direct, for us the route traversed the Winthrop glacier above 11,000' elevation through a section full of seracs and crevasses before again heading up toward the summit. We hit this section just as it was getting light. This was a good thing, as the route was very narrow in places and full of obstacles. At one point my right leg punched through a snow bridge, catching me off guard. Luckily it was still a narrow crevasse and I quickly caught myself and pulled my leg out. We continued through the traverse without another event.

Looking Down Mt Rainier While Resting a Couple Thousand Feet Below the Summit     Louis Taking a Break High up on Mt Rainier

As we climbed above 12,500' the wind really started picking up. The gusts were so bad we'd have to stop and duck our heads as we were pelted with ice and snow. It really slowed us down. I also started to really feel the elevation as we ascended above 13,000'. The highest I had previously been was 13,053' on the summit of Mt Dana in Yosemite National Park. Our pace continued to slow as I required several short breaks to catch my breath. Mat and Louis were still in pretty good shape.

The wind hit its peak as we climbed atop the summit ridge. It was gale force, with estimated sustained speed around 40+ mph and gusts to 60-70 mph. It took everything I had to keep from being blown over, even with my crampons and ice axe dug into the ground. We quickly headed over to a large rock which afforded some shelter. The ground was melted out along most of the summit ridge due to the active volcanic nature of Mt Rainier. I nearly burned my bottom as I sat on the ground, not realizing how hot it was. By this point I was shaking, and Matt had to help me get more clothes on. After resting and warming up, I started to feel a little better. I knew I'd be fine as we descended down. It took us a little over 6 hours to climb about 2.5 miles and 5,000 vertical feet to the summit of Mt Rainier (Columbia Crest).

Interestingly, geothermal heat from the volcano has created the world's largest network of glacier caves within the summit craters of Mt Rainier. We didn't see them, but I'd love to explorer them on a future trip. There is also a lake burried about 100 feet below the ice which is only accessible via the caves. It's the highest lake in North America.

Mt Rainier Columbia Crest Summit Crater Rim     Louis, Matt, and I on the Columbia Crest Summit Ridge of Mt Rainier

The climb down was a little easier as the wind was mostly to our backs. We enjoyed the views while resting several times on the way down. We could see a thick cloud layer just below Camp Schurman, but luckily it was not moving higher up the mountain. We'd likely encounter rain on our way down from Camp Schurman back to the car, but we still had several thousand feet to go before we'd hit that.

Matt Taking a Break on the Way Down Mt Rainier     Looking Down Several Thousand Feet at Camp Schurman

We walked by many beautiful and enormous seracs and crevasses as we traversed back across the Winthrop Glacier. I could only take a photo once we were out of the area due to the danger of lingering too long - safety first.

Large Seracs on the Winthrop Glacier - Mt Rainier, Washington     Looking Back at the Traverse through Many Seracs and Crevasses
Matt Leading the Climb Back Down to Camp Schurman     Mt Rainier with Spindrift Blowing in the Gale Force Winds Near the Summit

We were happy to arrive back at Camp Schurman where the sun was still shining and the wind was only moderate. There was a large group of climbers camping nearby who congratulated us on our summit. Matt and Louis rested a little bit before we packed up camp for the climb down. We didn't end up leaving Camp Schurman until about 4:15 PM. By that time the clouds had engulfed us and visibility was poor. We roped back up for the traverse across Emmons Glacier to Inter Glacier. We did a combination of walking and glissading down the Inter Glacier, keeping each other within eyesight. Once at the bottom, I changed out of my boots and we high-tailed it down the trail. A couple hours later we were back at the car, exhausted, but also excited to have successful summitted Mt Rainier. While my first, it was Louis' third time up and Matt's second. What a great trip despite the brutal winds. Unfortunately it comes with the territory on high peaks.


darren, Sat, 04/06/2013 - 16:07

hey im just wondering if you have any copies or a place of where you got your topo maps for the emons route? ive been looking for some and cant find any

jloomis, Sat, 04/06/2013 - 16:30

Which maps are you referring too? I use a combination of Google Maps, NeoTreksGPS (for iPhone), and National Geographic TOPO! to create my maps.

darren, Sun, 04/14/2013 - 14:48

how about national geographic maps? i dont have an iphone

jloomis, Sun, 04/14/2013 - 19:20

What exactly are you looking for? You can print the map that is at the top of my post or download the KML or GPX files of the route (links are right below the map). If you have National Geographic TOPO! software for Washington, you can import my GPX file right into the program.

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Disclaimer: You are responsible for informing yourself of the hazards of backcountry travel and taking the necessary precautions. Loomis Adventures may not be held liable.