They tower like ice-clad emperors over the lush green landscape: the Pacific Northwest volcanoes, those singular, sky-piercing summits that perhaps more than any other mountains in the world invite human curiosity. What must it be like to be up there? we wonder. And also, How do I climb them?
The three main ones climbers focus on—especially since Mount Saint Helens blew its top in 1980—are Oregon’s Mount Hood (11,250 feet), and Washington’s Mount Baker (10,781 feet) and Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). Hood’s first documented ascent was in 1857, with Baker being climbed in 1868 and Rainier in 1870. The climbers of that era used rudimentary versions of the tools we still use today: insulating clothing, mountaineering boots, ropes, ice axes, eye protection. However, they were also casting off into the unknown, with rescue an impossibility. Today, the peaks see thousands of ascents a year; the standard routes might follow well-worn grooves in the snow, and there are mountain guides and light, high-tech gear to help you to the summit. Rainier, as the largest, highest, and most commanding, is the obvious prize, but if you have the time, Hood and Baker make good stepping-stones.
Mount Hood is usually climbed via its standard South Side route, which begins at 6,000 feet at Timberline Lodge and ascends to a saddle between the distinctive Crater Rock and Hood’s main summit, then moves up the snow ridge of the Hogsback. Above lie the crux bergschrund, which can be crossed via a snow bridge or circumnavigated, and then the infamous Pearly Gates, a steep snow chute lined by rocks often frosted in rime ice. This heads-up section has notable rockfall potential, and there have been accidents when climbers fell and slid into the ‘schrund or pulled off other rope teams. With 5,000-plus feet of gain, a round-trip ascent typically takes 8 to 10 hours, though the peak’s notorious crowding can add time. Expect burning quads, and—as holds for all the volcanoes—get an alpine start to be off the upper slopes by the warmer hours of midday, when rock- and icefall are most prevalent.
As the most northerly of the three volcanoes, Mount Baker makes for a relatively quiet ascent and does a better job of absorbing crowds than Hood. The Coleman/Deming Glacier is the standard route, and offers a technically mellow hike on gradually steepening snow; however, with the trailhead at 3,700 feet and the summit at 10,781, there is 7,000 big feet of elevation gain, and most parties break their ascent into two days, overnighting at Hogsback Camp at the foot of the Coleman Glacier. The crux is the Roman Wall, a 40-degree incline to the summit plateau best climbed early in the day, when the snow is still frozen and your crampons bite.
Finally, there’s the Big Daddy: Mount Rainier. Climbers typically tackle the Ingraham Glacier/Disappointment Cleaver, which is generally done in two days, with a stopover to eat, recover, and “sleep” at the rocky pass of Camp Muir. (You’ll need a backcountry permit to bivy here or higher, on Ingraham Flats.) The ascent begins at Paradise Lodge at 5,400 feet and follows broad, gentle slopes to Muir (10,188 feet). Here, you can doss in the hut, then rally for an alpine start and tackle the mountain’s arduous upper reaches, involving a mix of glacier travel, scrambling, and the steep (45-degree), sun-cupped snow of the Cleaver itself, above which the route zigs and zags up the Emmons Glacier. The cold, often blustery crater summit is an island in the sky, so high above the surrounding terrain that you feel like you’re in an airplane—Rainier’s 14,000-foot elevation is a factor, demanding greater exertion and an increased risk of altitude sickness than the other two volcanoes. Should a storm pin you down, you could always shelter in the summit steam caves, carved by fumaroles into an ice maze that’s 2.2 miles long and penetrates 465 feet.
Pro Tips for the Journey
You need to be in shape for these climbs, says the guide Jason Martin of the American Alpine Institute —able to walk at least six hours uphill while carrying a 40-pound backpack. “The more fit you are, the more fun you’ll have as opposed to just suffering,” he says. You also need the correct gear (see below) and the know-how to use it properly: how to self-arrest with an ice-axe, how to place/remove snow pickets, how to move together as a rope team, and how to rescue a teammate should he or she fall into a crevasse—a rarity, sure, but one that does happen, especially when they are hidden or if a snow bridge gives way. And you need constant awareness of the many objective hazards: high winds, whiteouts (what Martin calls “the biggest issue with safety and security on all three mountains”), rockfall from the unconsolidated volcanic buttresses, sudden storms, crevasses, and collapsing seracs and snow bridges.
Finally, you need some try-hard—some Grrr! With the cold temperatures, night climbing, exposure, bright, blinding sun, and the steady uphill grind, climbing a Pacific Northwest volcano is a demanding journey. However, watching the sunrise from the summit snows is an experience like no other—it is here that we experience the peaks’ indelible beauty and see just how small we are in the face of Earth’s vibrant geology.
Pacific Northwest Volcanoes Logistics
Season: Hood—April through early July; Baker and Rainer—May through September
Guide Services: For Hood, Timberline Mountain Guides (timberlinemtguides.com); for Baker, American Alpine Institute (aalpineinstitute.com); for Rainier, RMI Expeditions (rmiguides.com).
- Camera (of course!)
- Camping gear
- Down parka
- Food and water
- Glacier glasses
- Insulated gloves
- Long underwear
- Mountaineering boots
- Rescue pulley
- Snow/glacier-travel axe
- SMC snow pickets
- Sunblock (SPF 80)
- Wool or technical socks