All I could feel on the car ride to Mt. Rainier was pure love. The early morning silence, the crisp air outside, the tall evergreens towering above us. There was even a couple of elk we spotted along the way. This was pure bliss and I repeated in my head over and over: “I love this state.”
But then I messed up.
“We’re on the wrong side of the park.” We quickly realized we were an hour and a half out of our way. Crap.
There are two entrances to Mt. Rainier National park. One gets you to Paradise, where the Skyline trail starts, quickly, the other not so much. Can you guess which one we were at? After much swearing and emotions we decided to keep going. We drove cautiously, driving on roads where the fog was so thick we could only see ten feet in front of us. Pretty bad sight when turns got tight and guardrails were absent. I thought we were going to drive off the edge because conditions were so bad. But that wasn’t the last time the mountain tried to kill us.
For a reference on how much time had passed, we woke up at 3:30 am, left the house at 4:00, and got to Paradise at 6:50. It was worth it in the end.
Camp Muir is a base camp perched at 9000 feet of elevation and is located on Mt. Rainier in Washington. Many climbers will camp there overnight before attempting to summit the mountain the next day. The trail roundtrip is 8.6 miles, and over half of the trail is snow at a steep angle. Let’s just say this hike requires a lot of training.
After piling on the layers and stretching out, we started up the trail. The trail first starts in the touristy concrete trails but don’t let this fool you. We were already sweating after half a mile up these deceivingly steep hills. The concrete ends after 1 mile and then there is trail steps. We were disappointed that our view was covered due to the fog. What normally would be lush greenery and wildflowers was out of viewing. With so much fog and no other hikers, the hike felt eerily quiet but we reached Pebble Creek in no time.
Stopping at Pebble Creek is a necessity for those seeking Camp Muir. You need to peel off layers, put on sunscreen and sunglasses, use the bathroom, and fuel before starting up the snowfields. A word about sunscreen: don’t assume that because it is 30 degrees you will not get sunburned. Your neck and face will be bare to the elements, not to mention the sun reflecting off the snow. I sunburned my lips (which I did not think was possible) because I neglected lip balm with spf. Moral of the story, sun protection!
Side note: Candy is a weird necessity for the Camp Muir hike. Every group we saw had some sort of candy to suck on for the way up, including us. I’m not sure if it is a weird superstition or just a mental cue but we made sure to have plenty of jolly ranchers!
The snow fields require intense concentration and focus because you are relying on previous hikers’ footsteps in the snow for a path and stability. This part is a grind and required several stops in the nearby rocks. It was amazing as we ascended above the clouds but after a couple hours went by we started to lose motivation as the only thing around and above us was snow. Eventually we asked a trail runner (what?!) how far we were from the eventual top. “95%” was music to our ears. After a couple more meters up a large snowbank, the camp was in sight. But don’t let this fool you, it was still a good half hour of work away even though it appeared to be seconds.
At 10,000 feet of elevation, the view is indescribable. Mt. Hood, Adams, and Helens are visible among the blanket of clouds below us. It was a relief to have finished the hike in not only a good time, 4.5 hours, but also with no problems. We ate our lunch with the fellow hikers and campers and watched the future summiters practice on the mountainside. There was a feeling of joy in the air and we clapped as one group came back from the summit safely. It was all good until we had to go down.
In my opinion, going down the mountain is harder than going up. I told this to one hiker who was coming up and he laughed in disbelief. Sure it is hard going up, but it is a different kind of hard going down. I liked how one climber put it: “working your way down Camp Muir is a controlled fall.” We slipped and slid down, footholds not even giving assistance and oh how we fell. 30, no 50 times I fell and got up in frustration and embarrassment. We then decided to use snow chutes to get down faster.
Using the snow chutes is a little like sledding but without the sled, and at a steeper incline. We brought garbage bags to slide on and then hoped for the best as we slid down these chutes made from other hikers. At first I was really mad at this method because I could not control myself and kept stopping at bumps in the chute. Very inefficient. But, being the nerd I am I realized that there was too much friction and solved that by putting my legs in the garbage bag and using it like a potato sack. Then I leaned back more to reduce drag and there you go! I was off! (see videos below) I’m not going to tell you that I still didn’t fall and hurt myself because I did and have the bruises to prove it, but if you get the chance to use the chutes… do it! It saved over 2 hours of hiking and I’ll admit it was kind of fun (and terrifying). Just remember that on the last chute to pebble creek, there is rocks at the end so watch your landing! My last piece of advice about going down is: once you admit to yourself that you are going to fall a few times, going down will so much easier. So embrace the falls, it will save you the trouble of worrying about the inevitable.
Camp Muir is one of the best hikes in Washington, so although it is difficult and requires planning please please please go for it. It is a great way to not only visit the park but also to test your limits as a hiker (and runner).
Go climb a mountain!
Last note: recovery is essential. I slept for literally two days after this hike and took a day off of running (hey one day is a lot!). Don’t forget to also fuel the body, this hike burns a lot of calories due to the altitude and duration.
Sliding down the chutes: