Climbing Mt Rainier via Camp Schurman & the Emmons Glacier
Growing up in the shadow of Mt Rainier, the most glaciated peak in the continental US, it seemed only fitting that this be my first major glacier climb— what I hadn’t anticipated was just how incredibly technical, physically exhausting, and mentally demanding it would be.
This week, I set out with dad (his third Rainier summit), Eileen (who would be coming to base camp and prepping us for the ascent), and my boyfriend Dan (who wanted to summit almost as badly as I did) for the expedition of a lifetime. There are hardly words to describe the rush I felt standing on the edge of the caldera at 14,411ft with the entirety of Washington state stretched beneath me, but I can say that I’m now fully afflicted with summit fever and I can hardly get crampons on fast enough for our next adventure.
Day 1: Sunrise Visitor Centre to Burroughs 2 & back to Sunrise Camp (6.1mi, 1245ft gain)
After organising a slew of last-minute changes to our camping permits and checking in with the ranger to obtain our climbing permit at the White River Ranger Station, Dan and I left our van and drove with dad and Eileen up to the Sunrise Visitor Centre to begin our long approach to Mt Rainier.
Although it would have been far quicker to hike directly from White River to Glacier Basin and up to Camp Schurman (the standard approach), we opted for a long, scenic route that would grant us additional time to practice some snow and glacier skills, as well as afford incredible views of the mountain we’d soon be atop. Absolutely worth the additional time!
We assembled some last minute gear, weighed our packs (46lbs for me, a hair heavier than anything I’ve carried before), and set out on the trail just before 11am, practically bursting with anticipation.
The first leg of the hike was a mere 1.3mi downhill to Sunrise Camp, where we pitched tents and dropped some of our weight before continuing onwards another 2.4mi up and over 2nd Burroughs Mountain.
Thankfully, the trail was fairly gradual and, despite crossing over snow in a few steep sections, we reached the summit of Burroughs 2 about an hour later. With clear skies, unobstructed sun, and incredible mid-July weather, I’ve never seen Rainier look so beautiful.
I’ve also never appreciated Mt Rainier’s immense scale as much as I did in that moment— it felt genuinely hard to imagine we’d soon be on the summit, which looked hundreds of miles away and hardly climbable for all the steep ice covering its glaciated slopes.
I’d heard that the Emmons (our route up to the summit) is actually the largest glacier in the contiguous US, but seeing it (and visualising myself on it) was an entirely different kind of impressive. The pressure of my own desire to be on that summit nearly sucked the wind right out of me.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon practicing ice axe arrest, kicking steps, and other basic snow skills on a slope that, I can now confirm, really did not capture the difficulty of the mountain we’d soon be ascending (but was still 100% necessary and did a lot to get our team— me, dad, and Dan— prepped for the expedition).
As the most experienced mountaineer (not only in our group, but also that I’ve ever met), Dad headed up our training, assisted by Eileen, who’s spent the last 2 decades learning from him, and Dan, who’d previously gone through a mountaineering course with Skagit Alpine Club and climbed a number of lesser but still very impressive volcanos in the state.
All that expertise combined was the ultimate crash course for me, an experienced hiker with some recent time on snow but no real glacier skills— without this careful attention, I simply wouldn’t have been ready for such a massive and technical undertaking. And to do it with my family… all the more special.
Day 2: Sunrise Camp to Burroughs 2 and onwards to Glacier Basin, Inter Glacier & Camp Curtis (7.4mi, 4700ft gain)
The following morning, as we packed up our low camp at Sunrise and hustled back over Burroughs 2 with our full packs, our climbing gear attracted the attention of several hikers who stopped to ask what we were climbing.
As we pointed up at Mt Rainier, there was a certain satisfaction in the way their jaws fell open and it really struck me that few people ever see the mountain any closer than from this (admittedly fantastic) viewpoint. They asked if it would be an easy climb and I don’t think even we knew the extent of it when we responded ‘not quite’.
From Burroughs, we dropped over the steep slope and spent the next couple hours bushwalking along a rough game trail, losing and re-finding the faint path dozens of times as we searched the mountain for a safe way to cut above Glacier Basin and drop onto the Inter Glacier.
The wildflowers were an explosion of colour as we trapsed across lush meadows and over gushing streams, admiring the backcountry feel of our route despite being only a few miles from one of the busier areas in the entire national park.
In the end, it actually would have been quicker just to rejoin the established trail through Glacier Basin 2000ft below and climb up to the Inter Glacier along a formed path, but instead we fought through thickets of trees and picked our way across precarious scree and talus slopes for several miles— the Brisbine method.
We were all incredibly tired, sore from the steep descent, and eager to sit down, so it was with great relief that we finally stepped off of the unstable rocks and onto the snow around 4pm— but the adventure was far from over!
Here, we roped up for the first time, I attached the prussiks I’d been practicing with, and crammed my mountaineering boots into crampons for the 2,000ft ascent up the Inter Glacier.
Plenty of teams make this trek without rope or even crampons, but I was infinitely thankful for the practice of moving together and handling my ice axes on the steep slopes, experience that ultimately made the following day’s summit attempt possible.
Three hours later, we crested over the top of the Inter Glacier onto the loose ash and rock of Camp Curtis (8,685ft), hardly more than a few slanted patches of dirt along the ridgeline leading up to Steamboat Prow.
Exhausted and ready to crash, we set up our tents, wolfed down a quick dinner, and settled in for what would hopefully be a long sleep— finally, we were setting no alarm, the only goal for the next day to sleep in, reach nearby Camp Schurman, and then rest ahead of our midnight departure.
We were the only party here at Camp Curtis for the night and the sunset put on a real show, the only reward I needed for another long day en route to Mt Rainier.
From our position above the clouds, the entire state seemed to light up beneath us, Glacier and Baker towering above the horizon, Stuart’s distinctive summit visible in the distance, and even Puget Sound sparkling off to our left.
As much as Dan and I originally wished to be staying at Schurman both nights with no need to re-establish camp, there was an undeniable benefit to the quiet atmosphere (and surreal beauty) of Curtis, a stunning and very restful experience I wouldn’t actually have traded for any convenience.
Day 3: Camp Curtis to Camp Schurman (1mi, 700ft gain)
With the plan to get as much rest today as possible, Dan and I slept until 9am in our tent, a difficult feat considering that we were practically being laser-beemed by the intense morning sun.
Finally, we rolled out of bed, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then roped up for the relatively short ascent (700ft vertical) to Camp Schurman, our true base camp for climbing up the Emmons Glacier to Rainier’s lofty summit at 14,411ft.
The most difficult part of the journey was just getting off the rock and onto the snow for our climb to Schurman, but the crevasse-laden route proved another worthwhile opportunity to practice our communication and rhythm on the rope.
By the time we did reach Camp Schurman less than an hour later, we were already feeling like a well-oiled team capable of anticipating each others’ moves and shuffling along in perfect unison. Even though Eileen wouldn’t be summiting with us, she did a lot to facilitate that synergy.
It was with great concern, then, that we fielded a frantic request from a fellow climber to join our rope team before we’d even reached camp. His third party member was suffering from the altitude and he hoped that he and his second party member could rope to us for the ascent, a joining of forces that none of us (perhaps save for dad) was particularly comfortable with at this late hour.
We deliberated over lunch, but ultimately decided that there were too many unknown variables— the pace of the other climbers, their experience, their risk tolerance… all could easily disrupt the careful rhythm we’d managed to cultivate, especially considering my own lack of experience.
I felt selfish for putting my own summit attempt above others’, but was reminded by both Dan and Eileen that you need to be able to trust your rope team with your LIFE and therefore that caution is never a bad thing on the mountain.
In the end, the team ascended with their 3rd sick person at 9.30pm that night and, last we saw from Schurman, were still less than half-way back to camp at 6pm the following day— we hope they made it down safely, but also felt vindicated in not having joined forces with a team that proved slow, inexperienced, and somewhat reckless (the afternoon snow-melt was no joke!).
Camp Schurman itself was quite something to behold, the small ranger station and toilet (!!) situated atop a rocky outcrop similar to Curtis and the tents pitched directly on the Winthrop Glacier, all in the immense shadow of Mt Rainier’s northeast flank.
Steamboat Prow just above was a powerful reminder of just how far we’d come to base camp. From Burroughs, this triangular section of rock at the top of the Inter Glacier had appeared right at the base of Mt Rainier, almost close enough to reach out and touch, but in reality, the crevasse-studded glacier between the top of Steamboat Prow and Mt Rainier stretched for an eternity. The summit felt so close and still so far.
We spent the remainder of the day readying our packs, relaxing in the sun, and then finally retreated into our tents at 6pm to try and get some rest.
Day 4: Camp Schurman to Mt Rainier Summit & back to camp, Inter Glacier, Glacier Basin & White River (5,011ft gain & 10,400ft loss)
Of course, nervous excitement (as well as constant chatter from returning climbers and large guided groups) prevented me from falling asleep before 9.30pm, so it was with about 1.5hrs of rest that Eileen jostled me and Dan awake at 11pm to announce that breakfast was served.
Through tired eyes and thick layers of clothing, Dan and I exchanged a quick glance in our tent that instantly conveyed all of the anticipation, euphoria, fear, and determination we were both feeling.
The night was so much colder than we’d imagined, the ground had formed into a giant sheet of ice, and we were acutely aware of how crucial every single calculated step would be in getting us safely up and down Rainier in these conditions.
Since Eileen had been suffering from a migraine for the better part of 2 weeks and wasn’t ascending, she stepped eagerly into the role of ‘camp mother’, readying hot drinks for everyone, checking and rechecking our gear, and finally sending us on our way at 12.05am on Friday morning.
We wouldn’t have been half as efficient without her, but soon enough we were on our own, ascending steadily up the icy slopes of the Winthrop Glacier and onto the Emmons by headlamp, only her final advice rattling through my mind— just keep moving.
Perhaps the most exhausting part of the entire experience, and something I didn’t really appreciate until we took our first steps into the night, was the individual responsibility of mountaineering.
I’d already come to understand what an incredibly team-based, collaborative endeavour it is to climb a mountain. Being roped to your team means that you are responsible for arresting their falls and that you are entrusting them to slow your slips in the same way. Establishing a careful rhythm and seamless communication to the point that we could anticipate each other, even through the dark, was massive.
At the same time, the entire team is only as strong as the weakest person, and I was keenly aware of being that person, never having summited anything in the same realm as Rainier. I was on high-alert with every step, kicking my crampons into the ice and driving my ice axe firmly into the snow, knowing that if I went down, I could very well take everyone with me.
No amount of their experience could make up for a serious mistake on my end, and that responsibility weighed heavy on me. I channelled every ounce of focus into the climb, existing in the shallow glow of my headlamp somewhere 17m behind dad and 17m ahead of Dan, but watching and listening constantly for my cue to change directs or, more gravely, drop to the ice and brace to hold the team against a fall.
Something about climbing so rhythmically in the dark, only a 40 degree ice slope visible below me and the summit completely lost in the night, also played with my perception of time and it seemed only an hour had passed by the time Dan called out that the sun was starting to ignite the horizon in a blood-red glow.
In the last 4.5hrs, we’d travelled an immense distance up the mountain and encountered terrain that took all of us by surprise.
In the cold morning air, entire sections of the route had formed into sheer ice shelves, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more determined than as I kicked crampons barely more than an inch into the unforgiving ice and punched the pick of my axe into the slope with such vigour that I bruised knuckles.
These were not conditions any of us had expected, often reminiscent of a vertical ice climb, and so I left nothing on the table as I dug into the side of the mountain with every bit of strength I had, knowing that a fall at this stage would probably cost lives.
If I had worried about my ability to stay alert through the night with only 1.5hrs of sleep, I needn’t have— I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wired.
And still, what a curious sensation to be completely overcome by adrenaline as you move slowly and steadily up the ice, the calm monotony of dad’s pace at immediate odds with the excitement and nerves bubbling inside me.
Finally, the sun had risen high enough to pull off our headlamps (but still no layers of clothing) and we continued upwards along icy slopes burning red under the ethereal glow of the 5am sun.
In the light, the climb took on an entirely different feel, blue ice inside gaping crevasses now visible as a faint line of boot tracks skirted the edges and wound tightly up the mountain.
The summit looming overhead didn’t seem to be getting any closer and I almost wished for the blindness of the night, where I had no view of the summit and no concept of our progress, and instead all I could do was take slow and steady steps towards some invisible goal.
When we stopped for a break, I could also recognise the enormous mental energy that our climb required of dad as he calculated every step, keenly aware of the team’s reliance on his judgement.
Eileen later confided that dad had said he’d be getting us to the summit, end of story— that determination was written hard across his face as he silently munched trail mix and stared out at the kaleidoscope sunrise beneath us.
The burden of experience is knowing what can go wrong (and exactly how much needs to go right), but for all Dan’s anxiety about the climb and our own preparedness, he too was silently determined when the time finally came.
For my part, perhaps I never appreciated the true gravity of climbing Rainier enough to doubt our success— naivety, as it turns out, is a powerful kindling for desire. And I wanted this more than anything.
Seconds after 8am on Friday morning, almost exactly 8hrs after our dark departure from Camp Schurman, dad, Dan, and I crested over the final icy slope of Mt Rainier and onto the soft ash of the caldera.
We had made it to the summit.
It’s hard to say what each was feeling in that moment— certainly excitement and a swelling sense of accomplishment, but also a flood of relief.
Dad and Dan agreed the conditions were monumentally more challenging than they’d expected, and although neither voiced them specifically, the release of the night’s doubts hung in the air as we smiled and allowed ourselves to finally bask in the warm glow of success.
I felt almost nauseated by the wave of euphoria that crashed over me on the windy summit, the weight of what we’d done finally apparent as we wielded ice axes for a group photo and exchanged tight hugs.
But swiftly on the back of that startling realisation— that I’d climbed something so much harder than I ever imagined— came the equally alarming realisation that we’d now have to descend. And if there was anything my previous summit experience did prepare me for, it was that the descent is almost always harder than the ascent.
There’s a popular saying among mountaineers that the summit is optional, the descent is not— and with that ringing in my ears, I considered for half a second that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The ice, incredibly challenging on the way up, could prove overwhelmingly treacherous on the way back to camp.
Had there been a parachute handy, I gladly would have leapt straight off the caldera just to save myself the stress.
But alas, after 1.5hrs on the summit, I was forced to turn back the way we’d come and begin the nerve-racking downclimb, no doubt white-knuckled beneath my gloves and a little green around the gills.
The first section of our descent proved the worst, conditions still icy around the summit and our own boot tracks incredibly hard to see. When we did eventually spot them 30ft below, dad set up a belay so that Dan and I could front-point down the alarmingly steep slope, punching our pick in with every careful step.
Thankfully, things got much more manageable once we were back on the tracks, and the farther we descended the mountain, the softer the snow became until we were finally able to comfortably plunge-step at a fast clip.
With every foot we dropped, my anxiety unravelled and soon evaporated, now just enjoying the return journey to our ever-nearing tent.
We even managed to avoid the ice-climbing sections that all were dreading, arriving almost by fate to an alternate vertical wall of snow at the same moment as a solo skier was making his ascent.
Through excited collaboration, Dan set a picket and dad belayed the skier up, who then belayed each of us down the sloppy slope to solid ground, and we were soon on our way back down the mountain via a verified shortcut route that Barrett (our skier friend) had just established.
At 2.30pm, exactly 5hrs after leaving the summit, we arrived back into Camp Schurman, greeted by a nervous but very excited Eileen who couldn’t wait to hear every tiny detail of our harrowing adventure.
And yet, it was hardly over.
We packed up tents in a flurry and tied back onto the rope around 4pm, winding our way back around to Camp Curtis, up onto the Inter Glacier, and all the way down to Glacier Basin, where Eileen poured a very exhausted dad into a flat campsite and ordered him to sit down— if the rest of us were exhausted, I could only imagine how dad felt from having led the entire expedition, but he’s never one to say it out loud.
Strangely, even through our exhaustion, Dan and I were still riding the adrenaline high of the climb and I was determined to take advantage of the energy before our inevitable crash, after which point I seriously doubted whether I’d be able to move my knees enough to walk more than a few steps.
And so, farewelling dad and Eileen in Glacier Basin, we continued another mile onto the trail and then 3mi back to White River (a whopping 10,000ft descent from the summit). It was the slowest, most aggravating 4mi of the entire trip, but the feeling of arriving back at our van— our home!— was worth the evening push.
We spent an hour shuffling cars to deliver dad and Eileen’s SUV back to White River for their morning drive home, and although we’d planned to drive back to Issaquah for a shower, we didn’t make it out of White River ourselves.
By 11pm, 24hrs after our Camp Schurman wake-up and 36hrs since we’d slept more than 90min, Dan and I passed out face-down in our van right in the White River parking lot. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more exhausted, or more content, than I did in that moment.
As to your question, conditions you filmed were very similar, and typical, of most of my climbs there and general July snowpack. It is normal for it to freeze overnight at above 10,000. And you you want that, as your Dad surely knows to stabilize the snow bridges and steeper sections. The maximum snow melt in July there occurs at about 3 PM, which is why you start so early, and get off the upper glacier so early.
Hi Brooke, July used to be the best month for summer climbing on Emmons. This summer’s heat wave here may have been an anomaly, or perhaps a trend, against that. Most guide services shut down way early this year because the routes became unstable and not safe for clients.
We used Emmons for classes because less crowded than Muir route. I don’t know that there is any “easy” way to summit Rainier. Emmons is known to be very direct, in early season. Our fastest time from Camp Schurman to the rim was 4:30. We had some very fit students for that one.
brooke brisbinePete Clement
I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to Rainier, but it was certainly my impression too that Emmons wasn’t much of an “easy route”– and the recent weather has only exaggerated those challenges, according to the climbing rangers!
Based on your 4.5hr ascent, though, I can see why Emmons may once have been considered more direct, and therefore “easier” in terms of navigating and physical demand. We took 8hrs on the dot, but there were groups who had only barely left the summit by the time we returned to camp (24hrs return to Camp Schurman!), so I can’t complain too much. Difficult or not, it was an incredible experience and one that I can’t wait to repeat.
Excellent photo journal you’ve put together here! In younger days I climbed the Emmons route 13 times, summitting 7 of them, as an instructor for Pierce College in Lakewood. These are some of the best pics I’ve ever seen of the North side of Rainier, and this route. Your description is very well written, coming from the perspective of a first-timer. Brings back lots of memories. Thanks!
brooke brisbinePete Clement
Thanks so much for reading and for your comment, Pete!
Incredibly impressed to hear that you’ve had so many summits via the Emmons– how do you think the conditions compared to our July climb? Apparently it was the unique combination of an early July heatwave and a cold snap that came through that very night which created such treacherous ice! It was hard to imagine that this is often considered the easiest route on the mountain…
Bill and Schultheis
Thanks so much for all the detail and the pictures. My husband and climbed with 2 other couples back in the 70’s. A lot more snow then, but still all the work and amazement. Camp Shurman looks the same as when we were there and the outhouse was a bit Amazing hanging over a glacier and at least 500 to 1000 ft. below-Wow! Anyway, we enjoyed the pictures and the words to explain the feeling. No one would understand unless they’ve climbed it and still remains vivid even for the years gone by. Thanks
brooke brisbineBill and Schultheis
Thank you so much for the lovely comment! You’re absolutely right that it’s a feeling difficult to understand unless you’ve experienced it yourselves, and I’m sure that it’s one that will stick forever in my mind, as it has yours.
Happy trails to you both!
Shari L Murphy
Spell-binding narrative of an adventure few will ever experience… Who better to capture this adrenaline rush than Brooke Brisbine? The exquisite photographs and stellar writing are a winning combination.
brooke brisbineShari L Murphy
Thank you so much, Shari!