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How To Layer For Rainier

Author: Chris Simmons

June 27, 2018

The author, Chris Simmons, has never kept track of how many laps he’s taken on Mount Rainier, but he knows he’s summitted at least 57 times by seven different routes. He has guided on six continents (including Antarctica), teaches for the AMGA, and offers private alpine, mountaineering, rock and ski guiding in the Cascades, Japan and Europe.

Less than 45 miles from the salt water of the Puget Sound, Mount Rainier rises 14,410 feet into the sky, visible from downtown Seattle. Climbing season for the peak runs, arguably, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. While it’s certainly possible to summit before or after those weekends, summer’s when the mountain sees the most attempts, by both guided and non-guided teams. Regardless of when you go, packing the right clothes can make or break your trip.

Climbers may need to be prepared for a much colder and stormier climb in early June than in late August. But, then again, maybe not. One year I stood on the summit at the end of July wearing every piece of clothing I had brought with me; and exactly one year later I was in the very same place in short sleeves! How do you plan for a climb like that when the weather can vary so much? Locals have the advantage of being able to wait for good weather windows, but visiting climbers with time constraints and should be ready to climb in inclement weather.

I recommend planning for the worst conditions, and then the night before, taking a hard look at the weather forecast for the next 72 hours. This is your decision point, to determine what you actually need to take with you for the climb and what you can safely leave behind. Also, if weather is that bad, consider Mount Baker to the north or Mount Hood to the south for Plan B climbs. With a little flexibility, it’s possible to miss the worst of the weather and still get in a climb that you’re already packed for.

This gear list is specifically for clothing, not all the bits and bobs that would go along on a two- or three-day mountaineering climb of Mt Rainier. But it will help you sort through these game-changing details, especially if this is your first time on a peak like Rainier.

For most teams, the first day is spent picking up permits and hiking up to Camp Muir or Camp Schurman. Typically from July onwards, you’ll start the approach hike in short sleeves and shorts.

Ball cap: You’ve got to have sun protection, but trucker hats tend to get blown away when the wind picks up. So I prefer the Swift Cap instead.

Short sleeve shirt: That hike can be hot. I like a button-down short-sleeve, so I can turn the collar up to protect my neck, and open buttons for ventilation. The Growler II is 73 percent synthetic, so it dries out fast. Another great option is the Echo Tee.

Shorts: Running shorts like the Turbine for men or the Delirium for women are great for going really fast, or if it’s really hot. Alternatively, the Equinox shorts and Echo Boxer Briefs are great for grinding out that approach hike to Camp Muir or Camp Schurman.

Gaiters: A PNW staple, the original Crocodile Gaiter is perfect—and if it’s hot and sunny out, just fold them over and, voila—short gaiters! Keep in mind, if you plan on changing footwear at Camp Muir or Camp Schurman, mountaineering boots are usually thick enough to require going up a size in gaiters from light hikers or trail shoes.

Wind shirt: If the clouds roll in or the wind picks up, the temperature hits that point where a jacket is just too much but the short sleeve is too little. A Tantrum II is the perfect weapon to deal with those conditions.

After arriving at Camp Muir or Camp Schurman, I’ll change into the clothes I plan on wearing for the climb.

Beanie: You might notice all of my jacket recommendations have hoods. Between hoods and a neck gaiter, I don’t need to have two or three different weights of toques. I just bring the heaviest one I can find, that has a low profile so it can still fit under a helmet. The Gradient or the Spitsbergen fit the bill.

Neck gaiter: Neck gaiters have a thousand and one uses. I wear them as intended in really cold weather—to seal my jacket around my neck, or pull up some fabric over my face like a balaclava. In warmer weather I fold it in half and wear it as a lightweight beanie. In really hot weather, it can be rolled into a headband or double up into a wristband. The Echo Ubertube does it all.

Base layer top: I prefer a lighter base layer for summer activities, and save middle- or heavyweight options for ice climbing or expeditions to Antarctica. I also prefer short sleeves, layered with a piece of insulation like the Deviator Hoody to be a base layer, but I recognize that other folks like longs sleeve. The Echo Tee also comes in as a L/S and Zip Tee that works for this.

Midlayer top: I have a couple of “insulation” jackets that I wear over my base layer, but under my shell. Most of the time I’ll use an Ascendant Hoody. The active insulation is awesome, and the wind resistance is an added bonus. This piece keeps me from needing a shell jacket until weather starts to get really poor.

Soft shell: I prefer a soft shell 80 percent of time in bad weather. It adds a little bit of insulation while blocking most of the rain, snow and wind—but is extremely more breathable than a hardshell. The Ferrosi Summit Hooded Jacket is the money. The lighter-weight Ferrosi Hooded Jacket is also wonderful, but fits a little bit trimmer, allowing less room for layering underneath.

Hard shell: Since my hard shell only comes out maybe 20 percent of the time, after my soft shell starts to wet out, what I look for is something that is completely storm-proof and sturdy, but also very lightweight. I’m really excited about the new Interstellar Jacket—I’ve taken it out on early-spring ski mountaineering missions and it’ds meeting all expectations!

Belay parka: The belay parka is a mountaineer’s secret weapon. It’s intended to be worn over everything you already have on—including your hard shell. So you can stay dressed to be active, but when you stop periodically for a break, you simply add the belay parka on top of everything else to keep warm. My secret is to do a personal “temp check” as I pull into a break spot: If I arrive hot, I’ll put on my belay parka, take my break, and at the end of the break I’ll shed my belay parka and another layer before moving again. If I arrive cold, then I’ll add layers before I put on my belay parka, so when I leave all I do is pull off the parka and get going. I prefer the waterproof, windproof, Floodlight Down Jacket. The down insulation keeps the weight down and the pack space minimal.

Gloves: For Mount Rainier, I bring several pairs of gloves. At a bare minimum, I bring three pairs: light, medium, and heavyweight. I prefer gloves to mittens for their dexterity. If it’s forecasted to be stormy, I’ll consider bringing an extra pair, typically in the medium range. I also like gloves that I find easy to pull off and on, with well attached liners that don’t cling to my hands when they get wet. I prefer single-piece gloves as opposed to modular systems for something like Rainier. This year, my glove collection for mountaineering consists of the Super Vert Gloves, the Arete Gloves and the Alti Gloves.

Base layer bottoms: My secret is to take the Sequence Tights off as soon as it gets too hot to be wearing them, typically around 11,000 feet if the summer weather is nice.

Softshell Pants: As soon as I reach camp, I usually change out of my shorts and into my soft shell pants, if I haven’t already. On Mount Hood, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, I live in a pair of Cirque Pants. Outdoor Research has really hit the mark with a perfect balance of insulation, weather resistance and durability with these.

Footwear: Bonus Item! Cold, frozen boots suuuucccckkkk to put on in the morning. If they’re frozen inside, and it’s also going to be below freezing outside, the likelihood that your little piggies will warm up that boot are pretty close to nil. That’s the serious advantage to plastic boots, or any boot with a removable liner: you can sleep with the liner, and in the morning your warm liner keeps you from noticing the cold, hard plastic shell and the cold, hard glacier outside. But plastic boots are heavier, clunkier, and can cause some serious shin-bang if you don’t lace them up quite right. Plastic boots are also the less expensive choice than their insulated leather counterparts. Insulated leather boots (please note the emphasis) are great 80 to 90 percent of the summer season. They’re more comfortable, lighter and a lot less clunky. But nothing will beat a good-fitting pair of plastic boots that other 10 percent of the time. Keep that in mind, and make sure your team all has the same expectations.

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Top photo courtesy of Russell Toris, via Flickr Commons.

Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons has a hard time with alpine starts because it gets in the way of his morning six cups of coffee, but he manages. He blames his love for the mountains on his parents, who introduced him to skiing as a boy at the resorts surrounding Lake Tahoe.

Chris discovered alpine climbing and mountain guiding in his late twenties, and he became an IFMGA Mountain Guide in 2011. He admits to having a perverse relationship with cold: he’s spent 38 months over the course of eight seasons, including one winter, at various places in Antarctica, where he has several first ascents and ski descents.

Chris lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and their two dogs, where he works with Pro Guiding Service to offer alpine, rock climbing and backcountry ski trips.