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Camp Muir
posted by John : June 21, 2008


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A long way to go


5am on a Saturday. Ugh. Still, it was for a good cause. Not some noble cause like saving the world or even fighting breast cancer (that's what Amy did with the day), but for getting high on the mountain. The plan, laid out months in advance, was to hike to Camp Muir at just over 10,000 feet on Mt. Rainier.

Even though Jeremy (my upstream neighbor and increasingly frequent hiking buddy) had planned this specific trip for a long while when we looked at the forecast and conditions we just about called it off. More specifically, we almost changed the trip to something other than Camp Muir. It didn't help that just a few weeks earlier someone had died near Camp Muir in bad conditions or that the weather today wasn't supposed to be stellar.

In the end we decided to go to Rainier anyway. We figured that even if we got into bad weather we could find something else to do in the Park. We left home at about 6:15 and rolled into the Pardise Inn parking lot at about 8am. We drove down in the vehicle that Amy lovingly refers to as, "Jeremy's Toaster." It's one of those Scion box-cars that gets amazingly good mileage for the amount of stuff it can hold. Plus it has cool neon blue lighting for your feet.

Standing at Paradise and looking up at the Mountain gave us new perspective on the hike to Camp Muir. It looked an awful long way away, but the clouds appeared to be only at the summit, not as low as we were going to be.

Even though we both started out dressed for moderate weather we quickly overheated and stripped down to t-shirts. The wind would alternate between hot and cold so while we'd be roasting at one point and then chilled the next. The route we were to follow is the one that climbers going for the summit follow so it was well marked and easy to follow. All the way up we could literally follow in the footsteps of people from days before us.

There was nothing too difficult about the climb, if you can call it a climb. It's more a long slog up a somewhat inclined hill. The problem is that you never seem to get any closer to your destination. The mountain is so massive that mile after mile doesn't seem to get you much.

At about 8,000 feet (that's about 2,500 feet of gain from the start) we stopped on a patch of exposed rock to put on warmer clothes and have a bit to eat. We met the first climber who was turning back stating, "The Mountain has beaten me today."

At about 9,000 feet I started to feel less spring in my step. Thursday, I'd climbed Snoqualmie Mountain with TNAB for the annual Solstice Party. Friday had been a day at the gym and then a late night trying to get all my gear ready for the early start. And then there was the hike itself. Ugh. It's been a LONG time since I've done more than 4,000 feet in a single trip and trips like this are a great reminder that even a weekly outing with TNAB isn't enough to keep me in shape.

Jeremy pulled away a bit and I was passed by two others. We had done all the passing so far so it was a bit dispiriting to be the passee. They weren't moving too much faster than I was so we leap frogged a bit before a little storm hit us.

All morning we'd watched clouds blow across the upper mountain. The glaciers disappeared slowly and then the clouds were ripped away showing the blue ice exposed by huge crevasses. At our backs we could occasionally see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams. The last was fascinating as it's on the schedule for late July. From where we were it looked like Mt. Rainier seen from Seattle.

We'd finally climbed high enough to be in the storm when it slammed into us. A climbing ranger had warned us it was cold and windy above us and he wasn't kidding. The wind was howling (it was supposed to get to 60 mph at 10,000 feet), which wasn't bad except it was hurling snow at us. The horizontal assault was brutal, but I wasn't inclined to stop to get out my heavy jacket. I just pulled my hat down a little lower and kept pushing up the hill.

I saw Jeremy reach Camp Muir just above me. He went to the left where there were a couple of shelters and then, after talking to someone, crossed back to the right where there was a smaller shelter and a few toilets. When I finally made it to the camp I went to the right, too, but couldn't find Jeremy. I poked my head into the bunkhouse, but the people in there hadn't seen him. I decided if he was in the bathroom there was no reason to bother him so I found shelter from the wind and added a few layers.

When Jeremy joined me (yes, he was in the bathroom, but just getting dressed, sheesh) we marvelled at the steep route from the camp through a notch up the mountain. A sign reminded us that it was all dangerous glacier travel above the camp and roping up was recommended. We could see a crevasse not too far away and it reminded me I have a lot to learn before I try to tackle Rainier's summit.

With the wind beating us we didn't stay long. We started down along the trail, but found walking down the trail was pretty difficult since it was made up of hardened steps in the snow. We cut across the snowfield toward the Nisqually Glacier hoping to find a glissade chute, though the snowfield didn't really seem quite steep enough.

I suggested that we go right to the edge of the moraine to get the full experience of the glacier and surprisingly Jeremy agreed. It might be a bad thing that he rarely says, no, when I suggest a poorly planned option, but it's usually a lot of fun. Looking down we could see a bundle of tiny people at the base of the first major set of crevasses. I can only asume they were part of some class either learning about glaciers or learning how to travel on them safely.

We never did find any good chutes down the snowfield in spite of trying quite a bit. In addition to having a fairly mellow slope the snow was pretty soft. We had decent luck only by being very careful not to break through the top crust while sliding. Lower down we did find some great slides and even stopped to practice self-arrests on one particularly steep drop.

We ran into a couple more marmots who were decidedly unconcerned about our presence even when we tried for extreme closeups. While most of the marmots were the usual dark brown or almost black color there was one that was almost blond and kind of looked like a miniature grizzly. Jeremy declared they were cool animals and I agreed.

As we got closer to Paradise we saw more and more unprepared hikers wandering up the trail. Jeans and tennis shoes, mostly. The guy in each couple looked like he was trying to talk the woman into going higher though she wasn't interested. For some reason it seemed it was all the women who were carrying packs, too.

Almost right at the parking lot there was a very steep glissade chute that we decided would have to be run in order to finish the day properly. I launched first and didn't notice the jump until I was in mid-air. The noise of my descent was suddenly gone until I crashed back into the snow. Jeremy came down before I could warn him (or get the camera out) so we figured we'd have to go back up to do it again for posterity.

Back at the car we were beat, but satisfied we'd made a good choice to come to Paradise rather than going east or somewhere else. The weather wasn't the best, but climbing to Camp Muir is a conditioning trip, not something you'd do for fun.

Topping out at 10,089 feet (or something like that) made for a great acclimating trip for our Mt. Adams trip a month later. In total we did almost nine miles and 4,700 feet of gain.

We finished it off with a stop at Bruno's in Eatonville for dinner. It was a bit strange eating there after making fun of the name of their classic car show (Rod Knockers), but the food was pretty good. Besides, it's called Eatonville. It's not like you couldn't eat there. We even beat Amy home so it was a win-win for everyone.

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