Preparing for Mt. Rainier: The Ultimate “Suffer-Fest”

The majestic beauty of Mt. Rainier, located southeast of Seattle, Washington.
The majestic beauty of Mt. Rainier, located southeast of Seattle, Washington.

Article written by: Will Nagengast

Edited by: Chloe Tennant

“If we can make it work, I am so down for a suffer-fest!”

         That’s the sentiment my good friend Robbie expressed when I talked to him last. We were talking about a tentative schedule for climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington. Robbie lives in Olympia, Washington, which is about an hour away from Seattle and Rainier. When he’s not at school in Olympia, he’s been working as a climbing ranger on Rainier. It’s a job he loves enough to volunteer for. When he does get paid, it is just a nice bonus.

          Robbie is the one who introduced me to climbing during my sophomore year of college, near Wichita, Kansas. It immediately felt right, and I’ve been rock climbing religiously for the past five or so years. Rob, however, wasn’t content to just stay on the rock. He loves snow, mountains, ice and cold. This led him to move to Washington. I’ve never really gotten to experience the mountaineering side of the vertical world, and I’ve always been curious. I recently decided that there’s never been a better time to start than now!

          With that in mind, Rob and I began tossing around ideas about me flying out to Seattle, gearing up, and bagging Rainier. It’s a mountain that sees approximately 5,000 summits every year. Most of these occur during the summer months, however, when the weather is more predictable. During the rest of the year, Rainier’s weather typically consists of either snow, or lots of snow. The average snowfall for Rainier is 635 inches, or over 53 feet, per year. This is what Robbie was talking about when he mentioned a suffer-fest. Sure, we could try for the top in the summer. But it’d be so much more impressive, difficult, and straining to do it in the winter! To be quite honest, a suffer-fest seems like it’s exactly what I need.

The activity of Mountaineering can be as grueling as it is rewarding! Cold and wet conditions coins the term "suffer-fest"
The activity of Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing can be as grueling as it is rewarding! Cold and wet conditions coins the term “suffer-fest”


           Single pitch sport climbing in the South is SO easy. There are incredibly difficult routes, yes, and I am frequently giving 100% of what I have at that moment that I’m on the wall, but in the end the car is 15 minutes away. I’ll have brats over the fire in the evening, maybe sip a warm beer, and get a nice shower in a couple of days when I’m home again. That wouldn’t be the case with a winter ascent of Rainier. We’d be hiking uphill for miles, for several days, with heavy packs, in potentially sub-zero weather, with LOTS of snow. It would be exhausting, draining, probably one of the harder things I’ve done in my life so far. And that sounds great to me right now. I think I need to push my comfort zone, in a way I haven’t done before.

           Rob and I are still trying to figure out when might work for both of us to meet up for Rainier. We’ll probably need a week or longer, so that he can give me some tutoring on glacier and snow travel, avalanche conditions, the technical aspects of executing a multi-day ascent of a big mountain, and of course, maybe a week to do the actual climb. Rob’s schedule is always subject to change. He might be in Panama, or somewhere in South America, or in school. But if we can swing it, we’ll try and meet up, perhaps in February, and give it a shot. Hopefully the weather cooperates and allows us on the mountain, but if not, there are plenty of other things to climb in that corner of the world.

While planning ahead, I started picking up pieces of gear that I’ll need on Rainier. My first piece was the Arc’teryx Beta LT; it’s a nice, lightweight but durable, hardshell. It has pockets that are accessible even with a climbing harness on, which lends to its utility in the mountains. It’s a Gore-Tex Pro shell, so I’m not worried about getting wet or wind-blown. Last but not least, it looks pretty awesome too.

          My next target is the Black Diamond CoEfficient Hoody. It’s a lightweight fleece that has a great hood meant to fit under a helmet. I’d use this as a layering piece, with some much heavier insulating pieces, on Rainier, but I think it’ll really shine on multi-pitch alpine climbing, where the intense cold isn’t quite as much of an issue, and when I’ll really want to be wearing a helmet. The hood is the best I’ve ever seen as far as fitting snugly underneath a climbing helmet.

I’ve got many more things to look for as well. Pants are an under-appreciated part of the whole “keeping warm” system. Everyone has tons of jackets, but how many pairs of cold weather pants do you have? Poor pants just got the short stick for not being as sexy as a new, awesome jacket.  One pair of pants that is on my radar is the Arc’teryx Stingray Pant; Recco Reflector, Gore-Tex hardshell pant can do it all.  The waterproof and breathable fabric will help keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. The Recco Reflector is an awesome spec that is important while in the mountains. In the event of an avalanche the Recco Reflector within the garment becomes visible to the Recco Detector (which are used by resorts and rescue teams) making it one of the best safety features aboard a trip of this nature.  Underneath the Stingray Pants I’ll layer starting with a 260 weight Icebreaker Baselayer Legging and a pair of Patagonia Piton Pants. Both will be highly useful in staying super warm and comfortable!

       I’ll also end up borrowing and renting some of the more specialized equipment, to save on some money. Eventually though, if I discover I like mountaineering and alpine climbing, I’ll save up and get everything I need in a piecemeal fashion.  I really hope that Rob and I are able to work out a time to meet up and do something awesome. Nothing makes for better stories than the times that you were the most miserable. A suffer-fest is just what I need, and I have zero doubt that the experience of pushing my limits in that manner will be something I’ll be able to reminisce fondly of for many years to come.