This past Sunday, some friends and I decided to tackle the hike up to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier. As I posted before, you can see exactly where we went with the arrow in the photo here. For an even better perspective of the mountain and where the camp is, this is what it looks like in 3D in Google Earth. I’ve posted a full set of photos from the trek in a Flickr set here. A true mountaineer would probably consider this an easy little jaunt, but for a casual weekend hiker like me, it was quite the exhausting day…
We set out on the road at 7AM and made it down to the Paradise Visitor Center at Mt. Rainier around 10:15AM after a couple stops. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The sky was perfectly clear, and it wasn’t too hot. We filled up on water, made a pit stop and then asked the friendly park ranger about the conditions up to Camp Muir. She said a lot of people were going up there, and… “Oh, actually, a guy who went up the other day said he fell through some ice, up to his waist and his feet were dangling above a pool of water. So if you hear water under you, be careful. Have a good hike!” Um, OK!
We started up the trail by about 10:45AM. The first 2.5 miles of the trail were very well traveled (starting as paved, even), and more for the average tourist wanting to enjoy the view. Some of the views of the mountain from here were great. At 2.5 miles up, we left the easy Skyline trail and took a sharp turn up the Pebble Creek trail and onward. It got steeper and rockier, and we started seeing more and more snow patches, and then we hit the snowfield. The next two miles were going to be a long slow trudge through (more like up, up, and more up) the snow.
Just as the ranger warned, we passed a lot of sections where we could hear running water all around and under our feet. There was just no way to avoid it. Afterall, we were walking across parts of a glacier. We stuck to the snowier parts as much as we could and kept our eyes out for wet spots. Occasionally we’d pass a hole in the ice or snow that would go down further than we could see. There was a lot of cold stuff under our feet. Even though we were at about 8000ft elevation, and walking up snow and ice, it was still incredibly warm with the sun behind us, and reflecting off the snow.
With only a half-mile to go, my legs were really feeling it and I was reminded how out of shape I really am. Even more frustrating was that we couldn’t even spot Camp Muir up the endless-looking snowfield, until we crossed one last ridge. And even though the destination was in sight, it takes so long to get there when you’re taking small slow steps through the snow with soaking wet feet. I was lagging behind, but kept moving. We finally got to the camp, and the view was worth it. Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens were both clearly visible, as was a hazy Mt. Hood in Oregon. Just to the right of Mt. Hood, we could barely make out another faint hazy point, which was most likely Mt. Jefferson. That’s roughly 150 miles south in Oregon.
We had arrived at our destination at about 3:00PM. Yeah, a 5 mile “hike” that took 4 hours. Camp Muir is at 10,000 ft. elevation, which is more than 2/3 of the way up Mount Rainier (14,411 ft). It looked like the summit was just around the corner, but not quite. We saw a group of 5 people putting on harnesses, snow gear, crampons and roping up to continue up further to set up camp. They would sleep for a few hours before waking up at midnight to climb towards the summit. At midnight, you ask? Won’t it be dark when they reach the top? Actually, it’ll take them long enough to finish the climb that they would probably hit the summit right around sunrise before heading all the way back down.
It was plenty late in the day for us already, so we didn’t dilly-dally too long before we turned back down. This was the most fun part of the day. The snow was soft and wet enough on the top that it was perfect for sliding across. It wasn’t a perfectly smooth ride, but you could take long gliding steps and basically ski down a 6-8 foot section of snow at once. The technical term is “glissading.” Looking back at our tracks in the snow, it looked a lot like ski tracks.
Descending was much, much quicker, even on our tired legs. The sun was lower in the sky, and looking back the mountain had every detail highlighted. We were back down to the parking lot at 5:45PM, just 2 1/2 hours since we left Camp Muir.
It was quite the adventure all around, and certainly the toughest day of hiking I’ve ever done. Although, some of us even managed the whole thing in slipper-style hiking shoes. My hiking boots and socks are still drying out. I’ve also discovered every little spot where I missed applying sunblock. I think next time I’ll get myself in a little better shape ahead of time, and who knows, maybe I’ll be one of the ones lugging a snowboard up the mountain (or roping up for the summit).