The soundtrack for our breakfast was the booming of distant rock slides and avalanches.
We were standing on Mount Rainier, hiking to Camp Muir atop the mighty mountain.
The avalanches couldn’t be seen, but they were certainly felt. We heard the first earlier that morning just as the hike began. Strange creaks and rumblings in mountain tongues; warnings of cracking ice and ancient rocks determined to move. Not necessarily grumblings of warning, but ominous enough to make us sentient beings made of squishy flesh perk up and listen.
Now, sitting at the base of the mountain, with Pebble Creek gurgling in front of us and the Muir Snowfield sloping sharply toward a cloudless sky, the sounds were amplified. I nervously sliced up our trail breakfast: a block of cheese and turkey. Desperate muscles would soon be quivering for calories. Even as I ate, I rarely took my eyes off the summit; it’s hard to turn your back on Mount Rainier when you’re this close.
Whomp! The sounds from far above us sounded eerily similar to the splash of the 155mm shells I used to sling around when I was an Army artillery observer.
Trying to locate the source, I could just make out dark ants contrasted against the sun-saturated snow, climbers already strung out toward a distant objective. They were still creeping forward, so all was good. But no doubt they had felt the reverberations in their chests. The start of the snowy climb waited just 20 meters in front of us. I wiped my knife and took a deep breath of air at 7,200 feet.
Meeting the Mountain
I was hugging the twists and turns on the narrow road through Rainier National Park on autopilot. Having left the hotel before 6 a.m. after a sleepless night of dreams filled with mountainous what-ifs, I was numb. Despite the two-hour drive from Yakima, I was determined to get us on the trail by 8 a.m. And just as I was wishing that I had invested the precious time to stop for coffee, we rounded a bend and one of the most beautiful-yet-terrifying things came sharply into sight:
With no other cars around, I reflexively hit the brakes. My audible “holy sh*t!” startled a half-asleep Jessica, who opened foggy, sleep-filled eyes to such a fearsome sight. She gasped. Early morning sunlight made the mountain glow. Sharp crags and prominences divided the various glaciers. What appeared to us as wrinkles were, no doubt, giant crevasses – the dreaded bane of all mountaineers. The thought that we would later be near the top of the thing looming in my windshield made me want to pull over and suck my thumb.
The summit of Mount Rainier only tops off at 14,411 feet (4,392 meters), just the fifth tallest in the contiguous United States. But sight of the damned thing sucks the breath right out of you long before elevation takes a whack. Rainier is by far the most awe-inspiring mountain that I’ve ever seen, and that includes Mount McKinley and the peaks in India’s Himalayas. The reason is that other mountains in the world typically keep close geological company. Even many first-time hikers in Nepal can’t easily identify which mountain is Everest because of all the surrounding peaks. But that’s not the case with Mount Rainier – you know exactly who is standing before you.
According to the USGS, Mount Rainier is the “most topographically prominent peak in the contiguous United States.” That’s a fancy way of saying that you won’t be able to look away when you first see it. Walking on such a holy sight just feels wrong in some way.
Mount Rainier has 26 major glaciers on it, making it the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48. But because it’s an active volcano, geothermal heat melts snow in an aesthetically pleasing manner around the rim. The combination makes a mountain look like it means business. There are two volcanic craters on top, and one is home to the highest crater lake in North America.
Mount Rainier puts a fever into your soul even when viewed from the Paradise parking area. I felt it during my first visit to the national park on a hike with Andrew and Mike. You feel as though you should have brought a gift before approaching such a snowy behemoth. After all, Rainier is considered one of the 17 most potentially destructive volcanoes in the world. But since virgins to sacrifice are hard to find in Seattle, and there isn’t yet an open caldera to cast them into anyway, one must tread carefully around this sleeping giant.
But, as is the case with Mother Nature, sometimes careful just isn’t good enough. A grim thought on a blue-sky day, Mount Rainier had sadly already claimed six climbers in May this year. Maybe it didn’t want to do so but just couldn’t help itself. That’s just the nature of mountains. Three of the bodies were found by helicopter just two weeks before our arrival.
Other hikers had perished just going for Camp Muir, the base camp at 10,100 feet and our objective for the day. Meteorologists blame the nearby Pacific; I still wonder about the lack of sacrifices. Whiteouts blow in with very little warning; hikers’ bearings are easily lost in a world without light. Not too long ago weather sneaked up on a 31-year-old who was an experienced enough survivalist to build himself a snow cave. That’s where they found him lifeless later. Backpacker magazine then declared the hike on Muir Snowfield as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in America. To increase survivability, the park service provides an excellent PDF with compass azimuths and GPS coordinates in case a whiteout ruins your day.
As I packed up to start the adventure, I thought of all the other frozen bodies still up there, hidden by snow. Ghosts in the photos taken by visitors over the last few months.
Climbing to Base Camp
So with our faces to the snowy summit, we strapped on our microspike crampons and started putting one foot in front of another. The sounds of spikes jingling and poles crunching through the snow can only be described as beautiful.
The climb began with rocks interspersed in soiled snow, but quickly turned to nothing but a blinding field of packed ice. To say that the elevation gain made for a steep hike is an understatement. Sinewy legs begged for a break way too soon. After an hour, I was panting; exertion and increasingly thinner air made fatigue inescapable.
After two hours, all I could do was wobble forward, gaining ground a precious inch at a time. Even making a lateral move to sit on a rock when one was available was too taxing. Breaks were taken in place while standing. Partially because I didn’t want a wet butt from sitting, and partially because I knew that if I sat down, getting back up would require monumental effort.
The sun was shining, and even being surrounded by cold scenery, I was dripping sweat in little more than shorts and an Arc’teryx shirt. My merino base layer was working overtime, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. The wind near the summit would soon chill to the bone. With a bulk of my adventures in hot-and-humid parts of Asia, it’s not often that I get to see dripping sweat swallowed up by snow rather than dirt, sand, or concrete. A strange sight, indeed.
Not long after we began, Mount Rainier offered another round of thunderings, only this time we saw the rock slide. Directly ahead to our 12-o’clock but far up the snowfield, I saw the falling rocks and telltale puffs of snow. Immediately, the climbers in front and behind us stopped to listen and watch the show.
I instinctively glanced sideways, wondering where I would go if an avalanche was triggered. The boulders on the fringe of our corridor may have offered some protection, but I probably wouldn’t have had the energy to dash there quickly enough anyway. A hand rested on the buckle of my pack just in case I needed to drop it – the first thing you should do in an avalanche. When all was deemed good, we began moving forward again.
We began taking micro-breaks every 50 meters or so. I would pick out a rock or point in the snow just ahead and promise myself a breather when I made it that far. Literally just an exercise of mind over matter, putting one foot in front of the other took priority over all other things. My entire existence was bound to getting up that mountain snowfield. Unlike on ‘regular’ hikes, my mind never wandered. The only sounds were the crunch of my spikes and pole leaving their temporary marks on the ice. I thought of how my meager scratchings would soon be buried. Paradise, the visitor’s center now far below us, receives an average of 635 inches of snow per year.
Even with crampons, boots would occasionally slip on the packed snow, causing me to lose momentum and precious ground that had been hard earned.
The first of a couple small crevasses appeared as obstacles somewhere around halfway up the Muir Snowfield. While not wide, they were certainly deep and potentially dangerous. I peered inside one and felt like I was looking into the bowels of the glacier. What bluish terrors lay down there, not meant for the eyes of humans?
On flat ground and without legs that were made of Jello, the gaps in the ice could have been easily jumped. But not here. I carefully poked and prodded the small snow bridges with my pole before walking across.
Beyond the crevasses, a long stretch felt the most ominous; Jessica agreed. We could hear the sound of melt water actively running beneath the ice upon which we were walking. Volcanic rocks poked through here and there; indicators that a sad foot could punch through. Each step was chosen carefully and I tested the ice with my pole every few feet.
The Mountain Changes Its Mind
The old cliché for all hikers, climbers, and mountaineers is how the temperament of a mountain can change in an instant. Sailors say the same about the sea. [Insert some sexist adage about women and mood changes here.] And so, with less than enthusiasm, we watched that very thing happen. What started as a dreamy, picture-perfect, cloudless day with blue skies suddenly morphed into a developing situation.
Behind us, a thick layer of clouds, the color of dragon smoke, began to gather. Close enough to touch, and swirling with authority, they moved in with alarming speed. Soon, the trail behind us was completely obscured in a phantom fog.
As we pressed forward and upward, I glanced over my shoulder every few minutes, praying the murk would disperse. With very little experience in the ways of Pacific Northwest mountains, I didn’t have a good feeling for the threshold of danger. My arm hairs, often a good indication that danger could be afoot, were twitching. Good sense dictated that we turn around; abort the mission. But after so much monumental effort to get so high on the mountain, I went into denial. This was the only day to realize an adventure dream – possibly one of the biggest of 2014. I desperately searched the sky for blue patches, some indication that this change was only temporary and not a reason to admit defeat. Now I have a tiny grasp of why people get into deep trouble on Everest.
Jessica has more mountain experience, and she was equally as nervous. The one reassuring factor was that the climbers strewn out behind us pressed forward and didn’t turn around. I know perfectly well that making a life-death decision based on the actions of strangers is complete folly, but I was caught up in mountain fever.
Soon enough, we were completely enveloped in a thick fog, but at least it wasn’t snow. With white in every direction, I could hardly see which of the thin trails on the ground was the real one. The panic of disorientation crept in with cold fingers. The climbers ahead of us even disappeared from sight, sounds became suppressed, and suddenly the setting took an eerie twist. Things really turned weird. Just for some peace of mind, I checked my compass at one of our stops. It was easy to tell which direction was up, but that was it.
The summit, now completely hidden, had been my faithful reference point all day. I hated to see the old friend go. Losing that glorious sight just up ahead was disorienting and demoralizing. Wandering out of Muir and onto one of the adjacent snowfields would be a bad thing indeed. Crevasses and avalanches still loomed over there in no-man’s land.
Our one saving grace was something that would have been otherwise unappreciated: It was Labor Day. Under ordinary circumstances, sharing the trail with holiday hordes isn’t a good thing. In this case, enough people had beat us up the slope that I could still see footprints in the snow. There wasn’t a well-worn trail but more a bewildering network of tracks, glissade chutes, and crisscrossing paths to follow. Again, survival was being placed into the hands of strangers. Presumably, the paths left by others before us went the right direction rather than to a pile of limp lemmings at a lower elevation.
Walking straight up a mountain in five-meter visibility is something that I’ve never experienced. It’s isolating and nerve wracking. Sounds, both from the mountain and other hikers, come and go in the thick swirl. The setting is surreal, something otherworldy. Both Jessica and I agreed: had this been a random weekday without the reassurance of other humans, we probably would have turned around.
Here’s a short video that better portrays the setting. I wish I had taken more, but I had other concerns at the time. So much for a career with National Geographic.
But the worst blow was delivered via one of those fellow hikers. A ridiculously fit trail-runner of a woman came slipping and sliding past us on her way down the mountain. She had presumably already spent time at Camp Muir and was now descending. When we asked between shallow pants of breath exactly how much farther we had to go, she cheerfully responded: “Well, I left camp around an hour ago, so at least that far.”
I looked at her, exasperated, and suddenly wanted to beat her down with my ski pole in a fit of rage. At the speed she was moving with gravity’s help, if it had taken her a full hour to reach our point on the snowfield, then we had a long way left to go. Weather had arrived, the clock was ticking, and my heart valves were already clicking at full RPMs. Mount Rainier was testing our resolve.
Life at 10,100 Feet
We had climbed above the clouds by the time we reached Camp Muir – the highest point in Washington State that you can hike to without technical climbing. Base camp came into view, and Jessica saw it first. I hardly even noticed because I was so focused on my steps.
That last 50 meters to Camp Muir were arguably the toughest for me, despite finally being able to see the goal. Exertion at elevation had given me a buzz. Certainly not AMS — I’ve been much higher without issues — so it was just exhaustion. Exactly eight hours ago, I had climbed out of a warm hotel bed in Yakima; quite a contrast from the windswept moonscape around me.
Rather than rush back into the danger zone, we sat at camp for an hour, eating, recovering, and basking in the new sunshine that had reappeared. If push came to shove on the mountain, the permanent rock shelter up there could have provided refuge. Sadly, the panoramic views – other than just the peak of distant Mount Adams – were still hidden by clouds.
Rainier’s summit was towering just above us. Only two miles away by trail, the top of Mount Rainier is an impressive sight. Unfortunately, those last two miles require that you be roped up and experienced, so summiting was not an option. Two slow-moving climbers were wearily descending and making their way towards us.
Camp Muir is compact but highly interesting. The clink clink of people working on expensive gear provides the soundtrack. Huddles of hikers sat around recuperating, eating, and murmuring excitedly. It was fairly crowded up there due to the weather down below and a holiday crowd.
I finally summoned enough energy to get up and look around, but I knew better than to go far.
We entered back into the fog and clouds on the way down and I quickly lost sight of Jessica up ahead. She was bounding down the mountain like a snow leopard with rubber bones.
I naively thought that a secondary reward for destroying my 39-year-old body on a mountain would be getting to try glissading for the first time. This is simply the fancy mountaineering term for butt-sliding down a mountain, ideally with some semblance of control. Not only does glissading on the way down save you time and a lot of knee strain, it has the potential to be fun. But at this point, I consider that last point debatable.
We had been passing the shallow glissade chutes all day long; weaving corridors and grooves carved into the snow. Some went for only a few meters while others stretched endlessly like some obscenely dangerous waterslide at a low-budget carnival. You have to stand up and walk between them; they aren’t interconnected. Regardless, the glissade chutes are Rainier’s abysmal, one-way express elevators that will get you off of the snowfield, one way or another.
Having grown up in Alaska where glaciers abound like Starbucks do in the Lower 48, Jessica knew better, but she didn’t want to burst my happy little bubble. She’s an experienced cross-country skier and didn’t have to humiliate herself by doing a butt-scoot anyway. I was determined to slide with reckless abandon. And so at the steepest point in our descent, I dug out my tiny garbage bag, took a seat, and bought a ticket on the ride.
It all began well. I was overwhelmed by a fit of giggles as I bounced and swerved through the chutes; snow flying around me. But we’re not talking about soft powder here, no. The chutes were packed as hard as the ice in your freezer, and the first of many tailbone-shattering moguls that launched me into the air was a keen reminder of that. At one point I picked up enough speed, perhaps not a good thing considering that we weren’t just in some city park on a winter day, that I could hardly slow myself. My pole threw a spray of snow into my face as I clawed and dug in a futile attempt to put on the brakes.
The end result was me blasting past Jessica sideways, certifiably out of control, in a fit of maniacal laughter. As protruding rocks began to speed toward my crotch at an alarming frequency, I decided it was time to get off the ride. I aborted, rolled out of the chute, and then slid to a limb-flailing stop. A tentative check for damage revealed that along with a wet ass, I had snow crammed into my boots, pockets, shorts, and even my underwear. Had there been judges present, I would have received at least one sympathetic ’10’ for the wipeout alone.
In hindsight, rolling around in the snow isn’t the wisest of decisions when the wind is an icy scalpel and temperatures are plummeting.
When we hit Pebble Creek, the site of our earlier breakfast, I felt a strange happiness and sadness at the same time – a creeping sense of melancholy with a strong feeling of relief. Taking off our spikes signified that the adventure was over. Only civilized trails and safety were to be found ahead. I dreaded the dark, two-hour drive back to Seattle in my exhausted state. I was also a frozen man. We accomplished what we set out to do that day, and no longer having a distant objective was a bit of a comedown. That’s until I realized that our new mission was to find a dive bar for a hamburger – an excellent protein-replacing ritual introduced to me by Andrew.
I shivered my way back to the visitor’s center, passing through literal hordes of holiday hikers near to the parking area. They buzzed around like flies, blocking trails and babbling into cell phones; oblivious to the beauty around them. Their kids stomped wildflowers and ran amok. I so much wanted to grab one who was making swipes on a smartphone, shake him in a fit of madness, and exclaim, “hey maaaan, stop screwing up the purity! This is sacred ground! Get your ass up that stratovolcano — stat!”
With red cheeks and frozen snotty stalactites hanging from our noses, we pushed through them. If necessary, I was prepared to use my ski pole to prod them off of the trails. I was a mountain carnivore; nothing would come between me and some bloody meat.
Behind us, and perhaps the reason these people weren’t showing proper respect, Mount Rainier was hidden in a thick ceiling of clouds. But I knew it was still there, and I knew the personal struggles going on way up in the clouds.
Before turning away one last time, I mouthed a silent “thank you.”
On Climbing Mountains
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” – John Muir
John Muir was awed and humbled by mountains, including Mount Rainier. Rather than thump on his chest at the summit, he expressed his gratitude to the peaks as if they were alive – which they are. There’s no such thing as ‘beating’ or ‘conquering’ mountains, maybe only metaphorical ones. And I stop paying attention to any misguided moron who uses that terminology. No matter what fuels your feeling of a need to ascend, just know that the mountain allowed you to be there for a short time. You didn’t beat anything.
The mountain could have flicked you away like an insect at any time.
Climbing to Camp Muir Yourself
So in case you want to go to Camp Muir yourself, and you should, here is some useful data. Keep in mind that this is based on two experienced hikers who are reasonably fit but would rather go to the pub than the gym on any day:
- Left Yakima at 6 a.m.
- Arrived at the Paradise Visitor’s Center at 7:50 a.m. (no stops; driving fast)
- On the Skyline Trail by 8 a.m.
- Reached Pebble Creek (the end of the trail and start of the climb) at 10 a.m.
- Reached Camp Muir (10,100 feet) by 1 p.m.
- Left Camp Muir at 2 p.m.
- Off the snowfield by 4 p.m. (with an iron tailbone, you can get down quicker)
- Back to Paradise Visitor’s Center by 5 p.m.
- Duration of crippling muscle soreness: a record 7 days!
This adventure wasn’t a cheap one, but that’s mostly my fault. Vagabonding with mountain gear isn’t easy, so I had to make two trips to REI’s flagship store in Seattle to gear up. I’m now a card-carrying member for life. I borrowed a long pole (very necessary), Gortex shell, and gloves.
- Microspike crampons: $65
- Waterproof Boots: $140
- Merino Arc’teryx shirt: $40 on half-off clearance
- Merino wool socks: $10
- Entrance fee at the national park: $15
- Trail groceries: $30
- Hotel in Yakima: $70 (I highly recommend the budget International Guesthouse Inn.)
- Rental car and gas on Labor Day: I don’t want to think about it.
Other Notes and Gear
- I carried 5 liters of water (1.32 gallons) and consumed every drop.
- Bring lots of food; you desperately need the calories. We took one pound of cheese, a pack of turkey, crackers, granola, pack of jerky, five CLIF Bars, and more.
- Despite a lot of popularity, the Paradise Visitor’s Center doesn’t open until 10 a.m. Most sane people are on the trail by then.
- Be a survivor: bring the 10 essentials (definitely a compass and torch), and plenty of additional base and exterior layers in case the weather changes. You’ll certainly need something windproof at the top.
- Bring a large garbage bag if you want to try the glissading. Wear five pairs of underwear. You’ll definitely need poles or ice axes to control speed.
- Commit the park service’s Camp Muir guide to memory. Check out http://www.nps.gov/mora before you go.