Great 48: Rainier

When we arrived in the Paradise Lodge parking lot at the foot of Rainier, we were met with a strange mix of heavily-outfitted climbers coming off of or preparing for their summit attempt, drive-in tourists with heads cocked steeply upwards, and day hikers somewhere in the middle (me). The plan going in was for me to hike as far as the Muir Snowfield with Josh, Lindsay, and Dave, and then turn back in time for sunset photography and to get a good night of sleep so I could drive to Mt. Hood the following day. 

After a prayer and a triple-check of our gear we were off, hiking through nicely-manicured, paved trails just off of the visitors’ center at the foot of The Mountain. My feet and calves ached just with the thought of how early in the day we were.

But, ever upward we went. Past the paved trails and past our first small patches of snow. Up long, rough-hewn staircases that switched back on themselves endlessly. Into small patches of meadow with lush mosses, lichens, and scattered wildflowers. 

Every pause and turn-around to admire the valley below and the glaciers and streams opening up before us didn’t alleviate the tiredness in my feet and legs, but they did wonders in counterbalancing—and soon, outweighing—them.

For a good portion of the hike, were blessed with the company of the Anna Marie, a park ranger whose mountain feet were made growing up Dolomites of Italy. Tireless and joyful, she was a welcome companion until we reached the turn off for Pebble Creek (and beyond, the snowfield). She sent Josh and Lindsay and Dave off with a grandma’s dose of caution and a fellow mountaineer’s dose of encouragement. 

I continued to follow. 

Miles across the valley, on the another foot of the mountain, we heard the roar of a glacial waterfall, and the occasional thunder-clap of calving glaciers. We walked through glacial streams ourselves, often seeing the rushing water enter on one side of the snow patch we stood on and exit on the other.

The quality of the air and the view, and the disbelief of finding myself hiking up the side of such an iconic mountain was head-spinning. As stone stairs slowly and finally turned into snowfield, we all paused for a drink and a quick lunch. Looking up the mountain, afternoon clouds had rolled in, completely obscuring our view of Camp Muir. But we were making spectacular time, and also, having a spectacular time. 

I still followed.

We looked forward to the task ahead and saw skiers on their way out of the cloud, on down the mountain. It would be a quick and easy trip down, sitting on my snow pants and glissading down the well-worn butt paths. It was still mid-afternoon with lots of time until prime photography light. I made a deal with myself to be headed down by 6:30pm, to allow for a good hour or two of descending stone stairs to get me where I wanted to be for sundown.

So, I followed the group up the Muir Snowfield. 

For the first two hills, I stayed about 15 yards behind on account of stopping to take photographs. My pace was nearly theirs. We crested the last hill we could see from our lunch spot and looked back…and then we looked up. There were at least two more hills we could just barely tease out of the clouds ahead. 

I would continue to follow.

The fourth or fifth stretch destroyed me. My right boot (hastily waterproofed not 48 hours prior), began to leak because I was toeing in hard into the snow field with each step to gain traction. And traction was still very hard to come by. I could rarely see Josh, Lindsay, and Dave. I caught a few glimpses of Dave, and could see that I was about 50 yards back. In my 40-yard circle on the side of Mt. Rainier, I was alone. It was 6:05, but surely, I thought, the Camp Muir was at the top of this ridge. One after another. Surely this next ridge. 6:30 came and passed, and at about 6:40, I ran out of water. I hadn’t prepared well enough to press on. 

So, it was time to turn around. No destination having been reached, I marked my spot with photographs, put my camera away, I put my rain fly on my backpack, tightened my snow pants, sat down in one of the glissade paths I was hewing close to, shortened my trekking poles, and pushed off. After a few fits and starts (and the shock of cold under, around, and between my legs), the path down was unbridled enjoyment. Perfect views of the rest of the park, the long trail up, and Mt. Adams in the far distance emerged out of the clouds as I slid down the snowfield. A group of four hikers who had summited earlier that day quickly approached from behind, riding fast on slick, large, garbage bags. We paused and talked, and learned that I was right… Camp Muir was just at the top of that last bit. 

My lack of gear preparation was part of why I didn’t make the goal of reaching Camp Muir that had slowly formed in my head through the first part of the day. But I was also completely unprepared to enjoy the afternoon so much. 

Indeed, a hike that began with zero expectation (or preparation-to-enjoy) was met with a lion’s share of enjoyment. I enjoyed it in spite of and sometimes because my thighs were beyond sore, my toes were cold, and my Hoosier lungs struggled to stay full. Any extra step into the cloud and up a path with no end would hurt, but would also be met with mercies along the way. Seeing birds flit around and above me with their plain song, watching the sun just barely burn a hole through the clouds to light up the air and snow with an obscene iridescence, hearing nothing but your breathing and the wind: these all overfilled me with satisfaction. 

These are all old observations, surely. I’ve read them before: the second wind, the thrill of the climb, the rush of seeing the world unfold below you. I’ve been in a car for three days with people that chase that rush obsessively. But for me, who was not ever close to being athletic through school, who only 18 months ago had cudgeled my one-time 230-pound body into some modicum of adult-male shape, the first hand experience of the bliss that comes on the other side of pain was priceless. 

I’ll be the first to admit that for a very long time discomfort, resistance, and pain were perfect reasons for me to stop doing something. I know how to fight that tendency mentally and in my creative work, but that lesson had never worked its way into my limbs. And granted, it still hasn’t. But this was one point for counter-argument that there may be something worth hurting for over that ridge.