Mt Rainier Guided Climb: What to Know Before Booking


Are you wondering whether or not you need a guide to summit Mount Rainier?

I live near the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, just two hours from Mount Rainier National Park. I’ve done two guided climbs with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI), one in 2022 and the other in 2023.

I know what it’s like to climb with a guide service.

In this article, I’ll provide all the information you’ll need to help you answer the question and decide if a Mt Rainier guided climb is for you.

Mountaineering students on a snowfield carrying ice axes preparing for a Mt Rainier guided climb
Me with my teammates at Mountaineering Day School

Do you need a guide to climb Mt Rainier?

Safely climbing Mount Rainier requires navigation, hazard recognition, glacier travel with a rope team, self-arrest techniques, belaying and crevasse rescue skills. If you are not skilled in doing these specific things as if your life depended on it, climbing with a guide is necessary.

I’ve summited Mount St Helens and Mount Adams. I’ve climbed Mount Baker and reached Sherman Crater. I’ve completed one-day mountaineering courses three times with RMI and Northwest Alpine Guides. And I can say with certainty that I do not have the knowledge and skills to climb Mount Rainier without a guide. 

Can a beginner climb Mt Rainier?

Beginners can climb Mount Rainier, but to reach the summit, they need to be in the best shape of their life. 6-9 months of endurance training is required to reach the summit.

Most guide services will ascend 1000 ft of elevation per hour. This pace may feel slower and sustainable initially but may feel too fast and intense after three hours.  

Not only is there elevation gain and a set pace to keep up with, but you have the added challenge of weight on your back. My backpack, loaded with my sleeping bag, clothing layers, and mountaineering gear, weighed 42 pounds for the hike from Paradise to Camp Muir. 

Being fit enough to sustain climbing up and down the mountain is something you can control, but many variables out of your control add to the difficulty of the endeavor. 

Helicopter on landing area at Camp Muir for helicopter rescue
Helicopter rescue at Camp Muir

On summit day, route and weather conditions can change as you travel to the upper mountain. My guide shared that she once ascended in 70 mph winds, and in that weather, wind can easily knock you down if you’re not feeling strong. 

And then there are the characteristics of a big mountain to contend with: crevasses, seracs, rock fall, and exposure.

These factors combined create the conditions for a situation that can be difficult or even fatal if one is without a guide.

Who are the best Mt Rainier climbing guides?

Three guide services are authorized to offer multi-day summit climbs, seminars, and private climbs throughout the season on Mount Rainier. 

Alpine Ascents International

International Mountain Guides (IMG) 

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI)

In addition to these three companies, fifteen guide services are authorized to offer just one multi-day summit climb per year.

Guide services will do things similarly. For example, all three guide services mentioned will teach mountaineering skills as part of their itinerary.

But how they differ can significantly affect your experience.

Bunkhouse at Camp Muir on gravel and rock terrain
Eighteen RMI climbers sleep in this bunkhouse. Eight IMG climbers sleep on the other side of this bunkhouse. Climbers with other guide services sleep in 2-person tents.

Climbers on RMI’s Four Day Climb, for example, do mountaineering school on Day 2 and hike to Camp Muir on Day 3, arriving at camp at approximately 3 pm. Teams will leave for the summit in the middle of the night for Day 4’s summit attempt.

But climbers on IMG’s 3 ½ Day Climb hike to Camp Muir on Day 2 and do mountaineering school on Day 3. After school, they ascend 1000 ft to high camp on Day 3, also leaving for the summit in the middle of the night for Day 4’s summit climb.

➡️ IMG’s schedule provides an easier day between the two most strenuous sections of the climb and more time to acclimatize. Leaving from high camp instead of Muir means less elevation on summit day.  

How much does it cost to climb Rainier with a guide?

The costs listed below are for a 3 – 4 day Rainier climb in 2023. Not every guide company is listed here. Contact each directly to verify the current cost and to learn which climbing routes are offered.  

Alpine Ascents International | $2890

International Mountain Guides (IMG) | $2495

North Cascades Mountain Guides | $2500

Northwest Alpine Guides | $2995

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI) | $1770

climber crossing a ladder on Mt Rainier's DC route
Crossing a ladder on the DC route. Photo credit Alpine Ascents International

Interested in a fundraising climb?

Climb for Clean Air’s fundraising climb raises money for the American Lung Association.

Kaf Adventures raises money for the Washington Trails Association.

The Juniper Fund raises money to support families and communities impacted by the loss of Himalayan high-altitude workers.

What’s included in the cost of a guided climb of Mount Rainier

The information below is a general guideline. Please contact each guide service directly to know exactly what their rate includes. 

Two RMI guides on snow holding rope and preparing to teach rope team travel
RMI guides Will and Abby prepare to teach rope team travel

Generally included:

✅ Entrance fee to Mount Rainier National Park

Climbing permit

✅ Professional guides (Each guide service’s climber-to-guide ratio will differ, usually 3 climbers to 1 guide or 2 climbers to 1 guide.)

✅ Group transportation for itinerary excursions

✅ Professional instruction in skills required to ascend and descend safely

✅ Accommodations the evening before summit attempt (tents or hut)

✅ Climbing ropes

✅ First aid / safety / emergency equipment

Generally not included:

❌ Flight costs to and from SeaTac Airport

❌ Transportation costs to and from Ashford

❌ Accommodations in Ashford

❌ Personal climbing gear and clothing

❌ Snacks and lunches

❌ Trip insurance

❌ Guide tips

May be included:

❓ Some but not all guide services provide breakfast and dinner at camp.

Day to Day Itinerary (RMI’s Four Day Climb)

As I mentioned, I’ve only climbed Mt Rainier with RMI. This section outlines the itinerary from their Four Day Climb.

Mountaineering gear strewn across lawn for gear check
Gear check

Day 1 • Pre-Trip Orientation

This first day is relaxed and begins at 3 pm, allowing enough time for this day to be a travel day. 

Orientation takes place at RMI’s Rainier BaseCamp in Ashford.

It includes meeting the lead guide and everyone on your team, a thorough gear check, and an informational slideshow about RMI’s history, environmental considerations, what to expect over the next three days, the climbing route, and fitness expectations.

All of my personal equipment was good to go. Some of my teammates did not bring adequate gear and our lead guide instructed them to visit the on-site rental hut or Whittaker Mountaineering retail store.

Red chairs and seating area at Rainier BaseCamp Bar and Grill
BaseCamp Bar & Grill and Rentals on the right

Day 2 • Mountaineering Day School

Total time: 2 – 2 1/2 hours roundtrip

Elevation: 1000 ft

Total distance: 4 miles roundtrip

Pack weight: 20-25 lbs

Day 2 is when you meet the second of three guides for your team, and team dynamics begin to establish.

Everyone meets at 8 am at Rainier BaseCamp, ready to hike. RMI’s shuttle takes climbers from Ashford to Paradise. 

After climbing roughly 1000 ft of elevation, during which our lead guide sets the pace we can expect for the next three days, we arrive at the site of Mountaineering Day School.

It’s best to show up knowing how to put on your harness, mountaineering boots, gaiters, and crampons. At the very least, try on all of these things at least once beforehand. 

Row of climbers learning how to self-arrest on snow with Tatoosh mountain range in background
Climbers learning how to self arrest. Photo credit Dustin Wittmier

Below is a list of skills taught at RMI’s mountaineering school:

To safely ascend in snow:

• Step-kicking

• Duck walk step

• Crossover step

• Rest step

To safely descend in snow:

• Plunge stepping

• Boot skiing

• Glissading

Students learn how to travel on a rope team on snow
Practicing rope team travel

• How to use crampons

• How to hold and use an ice axe

• How to self-arrest if you fall

• How to self-arrest if a rope team member falls

• Rope team travel

• Pressure breathing

Crevasse rescue training is not included in this entry-level-friendly day school.

This day moves quickly.

I did not hydrate sufficiently during mountaineering school, so I was dehydrated during our hike to Camp Muir. Be sure to drink as much water with electrolytes as possible during this day. 

Day 3 • Hike to Camp Muir

Total time: 4 – 6 hours*

Elevation: 4600 ft

Total distance: 4.5 miles roundtrip

Pack weight: 40 – 45 lbs

Day 3 is when you ascend to Camp Muir with a heavy pack. 

The team assembles at 8 am and everyone meets the third and final guide of the group. 

I highly recommend drinking 1 liter of water that morning, adding electrolytes to your water. There’s time to eat and drink on the shuttle from Rainier BaseCamp to Paradise. 

The steep elevation is felt immediately after leaving the Paradise parking lot. 

After an hour or so of hiking, 10 – 15 minute breaks are taken as a team. During this time, drinking a ½ liter of water and eating roughly 200 calories each break is essential to remain sufficiently hydrated and nourished.

Hopefully, your mountaineering training prepared you for all the steps you’ll take on the trail before arriving at the Muir snowfield.

Once you’ve made it to the snowfield, the biggest challenge is to keep pace with the guides and the team.

climbers with big backpacks on the way to Camp Muir at Mount Rainier
Climbers on their way to Camp Muir. Photo credit IMG

In 2023, I found the pace of our lead guide to be perfect. Our two other guides were newer to guiding and taller. Their pace was roughly half a step faster than our lead guide. 

This may not seem like much, but once you’re on the snowfield, you feel it like you feel the weight of your 40 – 45 lb pack. 

Once you hit 8000 ft in elevation, being at high altitude also makes the hike more challenging.

The thing I often forget to do while climbing is remember to enjoy the views. 

And the views here are extraordinary. 

Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens behind the Tatoosh mountain range
Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens behind the Tatoosh Range

Once the team arrives at Camp Muir, we take a break, hydrate, and choose a spot in the bunkhouse. Later, everyone meets in the bunkhouse for the lead guides to do their “Guide Talk.”

This is when the logistics of summit day are discussed. Guides review the route and weather conditions, how much food to bring, clothing recommendations, and what time they want us to be quiet and lie horizontally in our sleeping bags.

Summit day generally starts between 11 pm – 2 am depending on the time of year and conditions.

Day 4 • Mount Rainier Summit Climb: DC Route to Columbia Crest

Total time: 10 – 12 hours (summit attempt)

Elevation: 4400 ft

Total distance: 12.5 miles roundtrip

Pack weight: 20 – 25 lbs

After a few hours of rest – or sleep, if you’re lucky – the lights come on, hot water is brought in, and everyone begins to gear up. 

In one hour, harnesses, gaiters, boots, and crampons are on, and rope teams of three climbers and one guide assemble to leave Muir.

The first section crosses over the Cowlitz Glacier and is relatively easy, allowing time for your body to get used to the pacing of your climbing team and the fact that it’s the middle of the night.

Elevation gain begins once the team reaches Cathedral Gap, where guides shorten the rope between team members to better navigate over switchbacks on loose rock and gravel (conditions will be different depending on the time of year). This section – albeit easier –  foreshadows what’s to come on the Disappointment Cleaver section.

After ascending roughly 1,170 ft, all teams take the first break at 11,200 ft. Everyone quickly puts on their parkas, eats a snack, and drinks water, in preparation for the crux of the route: the Disappointment Cleaver (DC).

Four climbers on the Disappointment Cleaver section of Mt Rainier with sunrise sky behind them
Climbers on the Disappointment Cleaver. Photo credit Trevor Katz

Climbing the DC is the hardest physical activity I’ve ever endured.

Be mentally prepared for the difficulty of this section. There’s a lot of step-ups. You’re traveling over loose rock, gravel, and, hopefully, some snow. In July of 2023, it was all rock and gravel.

Cramponing in rock and gravel requires attention and focus, much more so on the descent.

After reaching the top of the DC at 12,300 ft, it’s time for another break. This is when climbers must decide whether or not they have enough stamina to continue.

The top of the DC is the highest point I’ve ever climbed on Mount Rainier. 

It’s not uncommon to turn around here; I returned with two other teammates in 2022. That year, out of our team of nine, four made it to the summit. 

From the top of the DC, the team continues onto the Emmons Glacier for the last steep section traveling to the crater rim. Rest-stepping and pressure breathing are the tools that help you to keep climbing the next roughly 2,000 ft of elevation.

The motivation from seeing the first hues of morning light also helps.

Climbers on a Mt Rainier guided climb working their way up the mountain before sunrise
IMG rope team working their way up the DC route before sunrise. Photo credit Blair H.

Depending on the time of year, you may cross a ladder over a crevasse. One of my teammates who made it to the summit took amazing footage on his Go-Pro.

Teams take another break at 13,500 ft. Here, climbers know the summit is within reach.

RMI does a fantastic job of establishing the route, not just for clients. All climbers benefit from RMI’s boot path and wand placing.

On the upper glacier, once you see the rocks that rim the crater, you’ve just about made it. If conditions are stable, the team will drop their packs and travel the extra distance to Columbia Crest, the true summit.  

climbers walk on snow inside the crater of Mt Rainier on a blue sky day
Inside the crater of Mt Rainier. Photo credit Northwest Alpine Guides

How long does it take to climb Mount Rainier?

For the average beginner, it takes 5 – 6 hours to hike from Paradise to Camp Muir, 10 – 12 hours to climb from Muir to the summit and back, then 2 1/2 hours to hike down to Paradise from Muir, roughly 19 hours.

Rope team on Mt Rainier guided climb traveling across snow to return to camp after reaching the summit
My teammates returning to camp after reaching the summit.

Best time for climbing Rainier

Generally, the best weather conditions happen from end-of-June through August. Poor weather is more likely to turn teams around earlier than this time frame. More crevasses open up later than this time frame, adding difficulty to the route. July dates are usually the first to fill up when open registration begins for the following season.

Gear Requirements

All required gear can be found on this gear guide.

Where to Stay at Mount Rainier

Lodging is required for one or two days on a guided climb, depending on which company you choose. 

🏨 Paradise Village

I stayed in a cabin at Paradise Village in Ashford and loved eating at the Ukrainian restaurant there. The wait times for dinner can be long, but the food is always delicious.

They now have a hot tub that you can reserve.

Wrap-Up: Mt Rainier Guided Climb

When climbing with a guide, all you have to do is be in excellent shape and put one foot in front of the other. No decision-making is needed. You follow directions and learn from a professional with the skills and knowledge to get you safely up and down the mountain.

Climbers on a Mt Rainier guided climb descending the mountain with Mt Rainier in the background
My team descending to the parking lot at Paradise.

Consider the route, itinerary, pacing requirements, and sleeping accommodations before choosing a guide company.

A private climb may be better for climbers concerned about keeping pace within a group setting.