Comparing Mount Rainier’s Main Climbing Routes

Blake P
Comparing Mount Rainier’s Main Climbing Routes

Rising from the temperate forests of the Cascade Range to 4,394 metres (14,417 feet) in elevation, Mount Rainier is the 17th tallest mountain in the United States and one of the country’s most popular mountaineering destinations.

According to National Park Service statistics, an average of 10,700 people attempted to climb the peak each year before the start of the pandemic, with a success rate of 53 per cent (summit attempts dropped drastically in 2020, and successes have not been tallied since).

Keep reading: Top 10 Mountaineering Destinations in the United States

While it is neither the tallest in the country (Denali) nor in the contiguous U.S. (Whitney), Rainier has never failed to attract climbers due to its European alpine feel. 

Featuring 26 glaciers and 93 square kilometres (36 square miles) of permanent snowfields, an ascent of Rainier feels more like that of Mont Blanc – Western Europe’s highest peak and one of the world’s most popular mountaineering destinations – than its California or Colorado counterparts.

With 4,037 metres (13,246 feet) separating its base from the summit, Rainier is the 21st most prominent mountain in the world, slightly exceeding that of K2, which makes it a challenging endeavor for the fittest mountaineers.

Like many mountains, there are a number of different routes that lead to the summit, which differ in level of difficulty, popularity and scenic beauty. Compare the four most popular below!

At a glance

RouteLength (km)Duration (days)Elevation gain (m)Success rate (%)
Disappointment Cleaver13 to 151 to 3275051
Emmons-Winthrop Glacier15 to 162 to 3314054
Kautz Glacier17 to 191 to 3290052
Liberty Ridge16 to 193 to 4350053

Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Glacier Route

Rapelling down a crevasse in the Cowlitz Glacier. Photo: International Mountain Guides.

Approaching from the south and climbing from the southeast of the mountain, the Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Glacier Route is the most popular summer route up Mount Rainier.

Roughly 75 per cent of summit attempts are made from this route, which boasts a success rate of about 50 per cent. As a result, it is the most crowded route on the mountain and one of the most guided routes in North America. 

However, it is mostly climbed early in the season when less melting has taken place on the glaciers. 

The route begins at the Paradise Ranger Station (1,650 m/5,420 ft) and follows a well-maintained trail to Columbia Crest (the highest summit) via the Muir Snowfield, Cowlitz, Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. 

Keep reading: The Basics of Glacier Travel: Top Tips and Tricks

While Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Glacier is considered the easiest route up the peak, climbing the route requires navigation, cramponing, team arrest, belaying and crevasse rescue skills. 

The climb begins by hiking to Camp Muir through a snowfield, where there is the option to rent a mountain hut or camp in tents.

From here, climbers ascend onto the Cowlitz Glacier crossing crevasses and snow bridges before reaching Cathedral Gap (3,290 m/10,800 ft), then crossing onto Ingraham Glacier and continuing to Ingraham flats camp (3,410 m/11,200 ft)

From camp, climbers either ascend the Disappointment Clever or Ingraham Direct routes along very steep terrain until reaching Crater Rim and following it to the summit. Most climbers then opt to descend via Disappointment Cleaver, which is considered a bit safer. 

Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route

The Emmons Glacier. Photo: Mountain Madness.

Descending from the summit down to the White River Valley on the northeastern side of Mount Rainier, the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers combine to cover one-quarter of the mountain. 

The eponymous route is the second most popular route up the mountain and is slightly more difficult than the Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Glacier Route, with a less defined trail with no fixed ropes, ladders, wands or anchors. 

The National Park Service describes it as ‘the next step up,” and the route requires more advanced crevasse rescue, route finding, belay system, and cramponing skills than the previous one.

The Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route begins from the White River Campground (1,280 m/4,2100 ft) and follows the Glacier Basin Trail through thick forest and on to Glacier Basin Campground at the foot of Inter Glacier.

The route continues by ascending the glacier and then traverses a rocky ridge to Camp Curtis. From here, climbers descend slightly onto the Emmons Glacier and traverse it up to the top of Steamboat Prow and then down to Camp Schurman (2,900 m/9,500 ft). This part of the route changes from one year to the next due to crevasses and snow bridge melt.

Most of the time, the final section of the route continues with the Corridor, a longitudinal ridge of glacial snow running from 3,110 metres to 3,535 metres (10,200 feet to 11,600 feet). 

After the corridor, climbers turn toward the crater and usually are able to traverse the glacial snow feature known as the alpine meadow, winding around crevasses before arriving at the ramp that takes them over the bergschrund.

After crossing the bergschrund, climbers reach the crater rim and follow the same path as the Disappointment Cleaver route around the rim and up to the summit. 

Kautz Glacier Route

Photo: Alpine Ascents International.

The Kautz Glacier Route is the oldest route up Mount Rainier and the volcano’s third most popular.

It is far more physically and technically challenging than either of the previous two, with a long approach through unmaintained wilderness and sustained sections of technical ice climbing and glacier travel. 

As a result, it is best suited to experienced mountaineers. That said, the route has a 50 per cent success rate. Most climbers take 4 days to reach the summit, but the fittest have been known to tackle it in just 2 days.

There are two different approaches Wapowety Cleaver and Van Trump Park. 

Like Disappointment Cleaver, Wapowety Cleaver approach begins from Paradise Ranger Station. It follows the Skyline Trail before arriving at the Nisqually Morraine. Depending on the year, climbers will either follow the moraine to the Fan, a large gully, and climb up it, or cross the moraine and traverse the glacier. 

The route continues ascending on snow to the ridge crest and continues along more snow benches until reaching The Castle (campsite). Climbers doing the peak in 2 days will continue to Camp Hazard.

Meanwhile, the Van Trump Park approach begins at Comet Falls trailhead (1,110 m/3,650 ft) and follows the forested path until arriving at a glacial moraine. Climbers then traverse the remnants of the Van Trump Glacier, crossing snow benches before arriving at the Upper Castle Trail and merging with other approaches.

Unless crossing Nisqually Glacier, both routes so far only require steep snow climbing.

From the camp, climbers descend onto the step where the other camp is located and traverse into the Kautz Ice Chute, exposed to ice falls and large ice cliffs. The chute starts with steep snow, and alpine ice climbing and transitions to actual pitched ice climbing (known as the lower step).

The upper step is the technical crux of the Kautz Glacier, involving multi-pitch ice climbing. After finishing the ice chute, the ascent continues on less challenging terrain before arriving at the Wapowety Cleaver.

From Wapowety Cleaver, climbers ascend onto Nisqually Glacier at about 4,110 metres (13,500 feet) and climb to the rim and onto the summit.

Descending the route is even more complicated than climbing up. As a result, most climbers and guides descend via the Disappointment Cleaver Route.

Liberty Ridge Route

The Willis Wall on Liberty Ridge. Photo: International Mountain Guides. 

Perhaps the most well-known – if not least used – way to the summit of Mount Rainier is the Liberty Ridge Route. The route was catapulted to notoriety when it was named one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America in 1996 by Steve Roper and Allen Steck.

The route follows the scenic ridge from Liberty Wall to Willis Wall and on to the summit. The route is the hardest, most dangerous and least climbed route on the volcano; only 100 climbers attempt the route each year.

Successfully traversing the route requires a high level of physical fitness, advanced ice climbing and rock climbing, crevasse rescue, team arrest, roped travel skills.

Like many of the others, the best time to climb Liberty Ridge is early in the season before the snow melts to reveal loose rock. 

The Liberty Ridge Route begins from Glacier Basin Trailhead and passes through the forest before arriving at Glacier Basin Campground. From the campground, the route continues to Inter Glacier, following a prominent lateral moraine before veering back toward the centre of glacier.

From here, the route diverges west and climbs toward St Elmo’s Pass (2,290 m/7,500 ft) before descending onto Winthrop Glacier and contouring around the mountain, going counter-clockwise before crossing Curtis Ridge. This part of the route is very exposed and involves crossing and avoiding many crevasses.

Most climbers camp at Curtis Ridge. The following morning, they cross Carbon Glacier, the mountain’s third-largest, to the base of Liberty Ridge (2,320 m/8,600 ft). 

Most climbers ascend Liberty Ridge from the side, which features a more consistent angled snow climb, to avoid looser sections at the top. Liberty Ridge continues to Thumb Rock (3,200 m/10,600 ft), where most climbers opt to bivouac. 

From Thumb Rock, there are a few variations. The easiest and most popular is known as the Gun Sight and involves climbing east off the ridge and around a rock patch, and to the Black Pyramid.

Climbers ascend the Black Pyramid and meet back up with Liberty Ridge. After crossing a bergschrund, the ascent continues to Liberty Cap, with one section of technical pitches coming right below the summit.

After reaching the top, most descents follow Emmons-Winthrop Glacier Route


Photo: Rainier Mountaineering Inc. 

Climbing Mount Rainier should be at the top of every experienced climber’s bucket list, and getting an idea of which route is most suitable for you is the best way to get started!

Compare prices, trips and read verified reviews on ExpedReview for free. It’s never too early to start planning your next Mount Rainier mountaineering adventure!


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