Up, up and away: Evergreen State peaks challenge climbers

February 15, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

John Junke, a supervisor at the Issaquah REI, poses at the summit of Mount Rainier. Contributed

Mount Rainier and other Evergreen State peaks challenge climbers of all skill levels

For skiing, go to Colorado. For surfing, grab a ticket to Hawaii. For mountaineering? You don’t have to go anywhere; you’re in Washington state — a veritable Mecca of peaks that many consider one of the best climbing locales in the country.

“You could spend the rest of your life in the Olympics and Cascades and not have climbed every peak,” said 60-year-old Joe Horiskey, a longtime climbing guide with RMI Expeditions. “There are so many rarely climbed peaks out there. I’ve been climbing for decades and haven’t even scratched the North Cascades personally.”

But just because you can do Tiger Mountain or Mount Si in your sleep doesn’t mean you’re ready for the big boys. And however tempting it might be to charge up Mount Baker in hiking boots and a fleece, there’s a certain amount of training necessary to make sure you get to the summit and then home safely to brag about your adventure to friends and family.

That training is a small investment in exchange for the experience of being on top of the world, said John Junke, a climber and supervisor at the Issaquah REI. Junke vividly recalls the site of the sun cresting over the horizon early in the morning on his first Mount Rainier climb.

“Anyone who is into the outdoors that looks at a mountain like Rainier – there’s a certain part of you that wants to be there,” Junke said. “Once you’re sitting on the summit of a mountain and you can’t go any higher and you’ve just spent hours listening to nothing but yourself breathing heavy … there’s no feeling of satisfaction like it.”

Weekend adventure?

A handful of guide companies specialize in getting interested people to the top of the larger peaks in the state, including Mount Baker (10,781 feet), Mount Adams (12,276 feet) and Mount Rainier (14,410 feet).

For a price, anyone can climb any of these mountains with a free long weekend, provided he or she has the mental, physical and cardiovascular stamina necessary.

Horiskey, who has led hundreds of trips up Rainier and Alaska’s Mount McKinley (the highest peak in North America at 20,335 feet), said that for every nine people that head up Rainier with RMI, an average of 7.5 make it to the summit.

“There are definitely some people who go to climb Mount Rainier because they thought it might be a good idea at a cocktail party in January,” Horiskey said. “But when they get to 13,000 feet they might be tempted to turn around.”

A group of climbers descends the slopes of Mount Rainier. Contributed

Summiting Rainier with RMI is a four-day ordeal. The first two are spent equipping people with the tools they’ll need — climbing helmets, an ice axe, crampons to provide traction on glaciers and ropes to tie them to other climbers — and training them how to use them in the event of an emergency, like a snow bridge over a crevasse collapsing under a climber’s feet.

Such tragedies are a real threat on Mount Rainer, where nearly 100 climbers have perished since the National Park was established in 1899.

The third day consists of climbing from idyllic Paradise, the end of the paved road on the south flank of the mountain at 5,400 feet, to Camp Muir at 10,060 feet. Bed time is at 6 or 7 p.m. before an early morning (like midnight early) wake-up call to begin the treacherous route to the summit. Hopefully, dawn of the fourth day begins with you watching the sun rise over the entire state of Washington.

Horiskey said most reasonably fit people who’ve done some training in the months leading up to the climb are able to make it to the summit. He recommends many of the more popular hikes around Issaquah, North Bend and the Interstate 90 corridor as good training for a large climb – Tiger Mountain, Mount Si, Granite Mountain and, if you’re feeling masochistic, Mailbox Peak, which slogs 4,100 feet in about three miles.

“You can’t say enough about the importance of physical conditioning,” Horiskey said. “Most people will do well as long as they’re physically prepared … and have the self-motivation to keep going.”

A basic Rainier summit package with RMI costs $951, with guides, food, shelter and most necessary equipment included.

Or lifelong hobby?

If you think your climbing career might last longer than a weekend, the money you spend on a guided summit tour might be better spent on a mountaineering class.

Several Seattle-based organizations, including the Mountaineers and the BoeAlps, offer entry-level climbing classes that will teach you the nuts and bolts of ascending local peaks and leave you qualified enough to do most of the peaks in the state.

Eric Linxweiler, interim executive director at the Mountaineers, said the class teaches you the skills you need to be safe in a high alpine setting — including belaying and rappelling down rock faces, glacier travel, snow camping, emergency survival skills and avalanche assessment.

John Junke, a supervisor at the Issaquah REI, ascends Mount Rainier. Contributed

“Our mission is to give people the skills they need to go outdoors safely and then get themselves home,” Linxweiler said.

The classes do require a significant time commitment – 10 to 12 all-day or overnight weekend outings, as well as additional classes. But the outings also bring you to some of the best outdoor locales in the state – from Mount Rainier to Leavenworth to Mount Erie, a popular rock-climbing site near Anacortes.

The classes also require a substantial investment in gear, including climbing boots (different than your average hiking boots), noncotton clothing, an ice axe and a climbing harness. Some of the necessary gear can be borrowed, but plan on spending hundreds for entry-level gear and thousands for all the bells and whistles. Both the Mountaineers and BoeAlps have deals with outdoor gear producers that will save you some money if you’re enrolled in their classes.

Upon graduation, the classes also provide you with a network of friends who will always be down for journeys into the rarely visited corners of the Washington state wilderness – wilderness that is known worldwide for its splendor.

“People see these great pictures of incredible jagged peaks for miles and think they’re taken somewhere out in the world somewhere,” Linxweiler said of North Cascades National Park. “But they’re right here in our back yard – there’s a reason people call them the American Alps.”

If you go

Learn how to conquer Cascade peaks at beginner mountaineering classes.

The Mountaineers

Cost: $500, plus $108 in joining fees for an individual

Timeline: October through June

BoeAlps

Cost: $350

Timeline: February through June

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