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Originally published February 3, 2010 at 7:00 PM | Page modified May 18, 2010 at 2:49 PM

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The lowdown on mountain guides (and a few good tips)

Use a professional guide service or train and climb with an experienced group. Here are many tips to help get you up Mount Rainier.

Special to The Seattle Times

Train with a club

Several Puget Sound-area organizations offer climbing instruction with highly experienced leaders geared toward high Cascade summits. Courses often lead to climbs of Rainier or other peaks. To go this route, you might do best to plan for 2011; some classes are closed for this year. For example:

The Mountaineers, 206-521-6000 or www.mountaineers.org. The Seattle branch offerings start with a Basic Alpine Climbing Course ($400; open to members only). With an estimated 190 participants, the 2010 course began in January and is closed. The five-month course covers all aspects of climbing on both snow and rock, from rope handling to emergency survival skills. Includes five field trips. Registration for the 2011 course begins in October. Other Western Washington chapters of The Mountaineers also offer climbing instruction; see Web site for links.

Boeing Alpine Society, www.boealps.org. Offers a Basic Climbing Class ($300; nonmembers may apply for limited openings). The 2010 course lasts three-plus months and begins Feb. 17 with an orientation meeting. Not Rainier-specific, but such a course is "the perfect onramp for climbing a mountain like Rainier," says Ryan Allen, who has taught intermediate climbing for the club and first ascended Rainier as part of an RMI group in 1988.

Washington Alpine Club, www.wacweb.org. Offers a Basic Climbing Class ($300 plus $45 membership fee; open to members only; class limited to approximately 30 participants; graduates are encouraged to teach future classes). The 2010 class (closed; application deadline was Jan. 15) runs March 23-June 13. Instruction covers climbing on rock and snow and involves nine field trips, concluding with a climb of Mount Baker.

How to avoid needing a rescue

Mount Rainier National Park's current lead climbing ranger, Stefan Lofgren, offers these tips:

1. Listen to the advice of climbing rangers at your high camp.

2. Know the weather forecast and allow for a buffer.

3. Do not overestimate your physical condition.

4. Exhale forcefully; use "pressure breaths" to purge stagnant air from lungs.

5. Drink enough water to keep urine clear/transparent.

6. Establish a pace. Walk 90 minutes at a time. Don't stop and start.

7. On summit day, be prepared to survive a night out.

8. Exhaustion leads to injuries. Stay within your boundaries.

In 2006, the park service granted concessionaire contracts to these three commercial climbing services to provide guided trips to Mount Rainier's summit. In 2009, guided trips by these services accounted for 41 percent of Rainier climbs (3,072 clients, 1,322 guides).

Fees shown do not include the cost of off-mountain overnight lodging (ranging from one to three nights) or rental gear:

Alpine Ascents International, 206-378-1927 or www.alpineascents.com. Client-to-guide ratio: 2 to 1. Three-day climb: $1,300. Includes transportation to park from AAI's Lower Queen Anne offices.

• TIP from AAI founder Todd Burleson (24 years as a guide): "In the early morning hours when it's dark, the air is at its coldest and I feel a chill, I pull my Buff (a thin neck gator) up over my mouth and sometimes my nose to breathe through it. It really protects my throat and warms my body considerably. Due to the moisture in the Buff, your body does not need to expend as much energy to humidify and heat the air. This works well through the night, but when the sun comes up and you need sunglasses, the rising moisture will fog your glasses. Hopefully by then you are warmed by the sun and close to your summit."

International Mountain Guides, 360-569-2609 or www.mountainguides.com. Client-to-guide ratio: 2 to 1. Three-plus-day climb: $1,225.

• TIP from IMG's Eric Simonson (38 years as a guide): "During rest breaks on the climb, you will be snacking, hydrating and adjusting your clothing and gear. Often it will be cold and windy on the glacier, and in these conditions it is easy to lose items. Get used to working out of your backpack to confine your gear and be careful not to set anything down on the slope. I have seen a lot of cameras, water bottles, gloves and helmets disappear. If the snow is not too steep, I might be able to sit on my backpack for a few minutes of rest. In this case I position myself so I can always keep one eye looking up the slope, above me. I want to be able to dodge a rock, piece of ice, or a dropped water bottle. Don't turn your back on The Mountain!"

Rainier Mountaineering Inc., 888-892-5462 or www.rmiguides.com. Principal owner: Peter Whittaker, son of Lou. In its 41st year. Offers two Disappointment Cleaver trips per day in peak season. Client-to-guide ratio: 3 to 1 (2 to 1 on harder routes). Four-day climb: $926.

• TIP from RMI guide/supervisor Alex Van Steen (22 years as a guide): "I prefer to keep my climbers out of waterproof/breathable shells unless it gets windy or rainy. People tend to overheat in Gore-Tex when exerting themselves on inclines, and if you take a slip on a steep slope the fabric is slippery, so you can quickly pick up speed. We recommend layering: A light base layer of wool or synthetic goes next to skin, maybe a 100-weight fleece over that and then a heavier fleece or soft shell for breathable insulation. But if the wind blows or rain falls, the Gore-Tex goes on."

The details

Climbing instruction is provided at the start of all the trips cited above. Trips typically include some meals. Climbers usually must supply their own personal gear. Guide services typically offer rental gear. Group gear items such as ropes are provided.

Note: Many 2010 guided trips between June and September are already sold out, but open dates remain if you're flexible. All three companies offer climbs on more difficult Rainier routes as well. Contact individual services for details.

Through April, REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) offers free public "Prep for Rainier" clinics in association with two guide services. Upcoming dates: Feb. 17 at REI in Redmond (with International Mountain Guides) and REI in Tacoma (Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.); Feb. 18 at REI in Issaquah (RMI); Feb. 23 at REI in Seattle (IMG); Feb. 24 at REI in Southcenter (IMG) and REI in Alderwood (RMI). Subsequent clinics scheduled in March and April. 800-426-4840 or www.rei.com.

Alpine Ascents International also offers beginning and intermediate mountaineering courses.

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