Great 48: Summit of Rainier to Mt. Hood

I woke up to pink cirrus clouds outside the rear hatch of our minivan. It was cold; I had not slept well—only about 3.5 or 4 hours. And I was missing good light on account of bad intel. I hastily climbed to the drivers seat and stumbled into the Reflection Lake parking lot for sunrise. Mist swirled and cycloned off the water’s surface, and a perfect image of Rainier was reflected the the deep blue. Josh & Lindsay were close to reaching the crater at the summit of Rainier by now. I was content with my sore thighs and a good chunk of time to make photographs. 

By 8:00am, the quality of light had fallen off and I needed to make sure we were all ready to roll to Oregon and Mt. Hood by the time they had descended. After listening to the party of four I descended with last night lust over greasy pub burgers, I became resolved to ensure my party—who had (hopefully) also just summited Rainier—eat Clif bars and hot dogs from our cooler for lunch. So I tracked down three pancake breakfasts to go from the lodge down near the park entrance. 

I returned to the paradise parking lot and lost myself looking up at the mountain and Camp Muir. Sharp tapping on my window startled me: Dave was back already! 

He’d decided not to summit. Rather, he boiled extra water for Josh & Lindsay, helped them pack up camp, and brought some gear back to make their return trip easier and quicker. And not 45 minutes later, Josh and Lindsay clopped up to the van. 3 early returns—but Josh & Lindsay had summited and made superb time! Up some 4000 feet from Camp Muir to summit in well under 5 hours. 

The official summit time was 6:12 am PST. The clock is running on the next 48!

We packed up quickly and hit the road for Oregon. Four hours to Mt. Hood. Josh & Lindsay slept. Dave and I tried to stay awake. 

We repacked Josh & Lindsay’s packs quickly in the Timberline Lodge parking lot at the base of Hood. And they were off again. Dave ran back into town on an emergency tent replacement mission. I traipsed around the base of Hood. 

Once Dave returned, we got to re-organizing and streamlining our abundance of cargo. I tried finding them on the side of the mountain with my 350mm lens (they're two small dots on the left side of the frame... climbing up the second-from-the-left path): 

Then, Dave got a call from Josh—they’d summited in great time! 

We got to work cooking a hot dinner, tailgate style— tacos on a camp stove, out the back of the van. It’d be the last of those attempts on the entire trip. We quickly realized that tailgating was not time-effective. And the burger-greasy pot would remain in that state for at least 2 more days. 

Josh reported that Hood was in some ways harder than Rainier—a near-vertical ascent up the last bit (that required driving pickets and rappelling on the way down), and dangerous scree about halfway back. It was nerve-wracking and exciting tracking their small headlamps on the way back. 

Being able to see someone on the side of a scale-less mass of a mountain throws my sense of perspective off in a big way. Vertical feet seem to be very hard to fit into our brains’ sense of depth and distance. It also makes the peaks seem more attainable: that you can start on a path in a parking lot and summit a mountain of the scope we’ve been seeing in mere hours is a marvel to this midwesterner.

The bigger marvel is the accomplishment of summiting Rainier and Hood in the same day. Amazing. No big stretches of time to bask in the accomplishment, though: we were in the car within 30 minutes of their return for the long 11 hour drive to Idaho. 




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.

Great 48: Day -1 & Day 0

Sunday saw another glorious brunch of fresh salmon, farewells with my friend, Kristen, and the train from Seattle to Portland. Kristen sent me off with a very appropriate care package: one package of sardines (her favorite glacier snack), an extra bottle of DEET, a handful of Second-Skin, and a book of Wallace Stegner essays on the American West. 

Most of the 3 hour ride to Portland was filled with stories of the "old Vegas" colorfully conveyed by a dear lady who spent most of the 50's and 60's working on the strip. She possessed a mythic amount of stories about Carlos Santana and the origins of his tour van, the Wynn family, working at the Horseshoe casino, and so many more. I had to resist the temptation to take notes. When I arrived in Portland, I met up with Josh, Lindsey, and Dave in the most appropriate of locations: REI. 

An iPhone video of Josh crossing a knee-deep stream in Montana's back-country last week was marketing enough for the rest of us to upgrade our flip flops to closed-toe sandals. I also purchased another expensive handful of socks as further vaccination against the worst hiking malady of them all: damp socks. Rounding out my eleventh-hour purchases were a clutch of peanut-protein-sugar-berry-bars of varying size and purported excellence, and one of the only hats in the store that fit my head. 

Our last evening not spent in a van or on a trail was consumed with exploding our gear through a gracious cousin's house (and then overflowing into her backyard), then re-folding, rolling, and packing everything into need-tomorrow/need-later categories. We managed pretty well: 

Following a very Portland dinner at Burnside brewery (my dinner of smoked bone marrow seemed a suitably Thoreauvian blessing for the trip ahead), I plugged in all the camera batteries I could manage and we all had a long night of sleep in a bed. 

This morning, we showered, re-checked the rooftop straps (secure, but currently making a wasp-swarm sound behind the driver's head), and started our long approach to Rainier. Josh, Lindsey, and Dave will sleep tonight at Camp Muir in their 3-person/4-season tent and begin their 6-hour summit attempt behind the guides tomorrow morning. The clocks start when they summit. I'll chase down as many photographs at whatever altitude I find them for the next 12 hours, and be the freshest of the bunch for the drive to Hood later tomorrow. It may be the longest chunk of time for photography I'll have in the next weeks.

Just prior to our departure:

Great 48 T-minus 2 days | Elkhart to Seattle to Mt. Rainier National Park

Saturday started in South Bend, Indiana, and ended 20 hours later with a long hike off of an alpine meadow (and over Grant Creek!) under Rainier, through massive pine stands and into the slowly deepening dark. The catalog of Saturday’s experiences only compounded upon themselves in difference and scope. As I’m sure they’ll continue to do in the coming days…

The first blow to my well-practiced Midwestern equilibrium was in flying not over but past Mt. Rainier on my first trip to Seattle. I met up with my friend Kristen—a mountain veteran with the boots and knowledge and stories to prove it. We talked through a quick and delicious lunch of salmon, blueberries, and potatoes and then drove into Mt. Rainier National Park for a long solstice hike up and through the alpine meadows of Spray Park. 

Witnessing the horizon’s shadow creep up the side of one of the Western Hemisphere’s great peaks, watching a bear pick its way across meadows far below us and later, high above us (thankfully the crossing was well-timed and mutually unknown), finishing a long upward hike into a field profusely full of glacier lilies, lupine, and many more wildflowers I’ve yet to learn: all of these graces were so densely packed into a day full of travel and reunion and a bit of exhaustion that the only small failure was my latency in adjusting to the enormity of The Mountain.

Saturday was also a perfect practical preparation for the approaching journey. Kristen and I shared a laugh when I struggled to tear the shopping tag off of my new wind & rain jacket. I was able to put a good 8 miles on my new-and-unbroken Italian, all-leather, double-E backup boots. They performed so well that they quickly surpassed my cheaper but more broken-in pair I had planned on using. We learned that maybe (just maybe) a snack of smoked salmon in a meadow which had been only recently un-peopled for a goodly stretch of the winter and spring may have toed the line of full-on provocation for our neighbor bear’s olfactory nerve. I learned some great taping & blister assault strategies from Kristen, a fellow “wide-footer”. I felt the satisfying burn of the dozens of small muscles around my hips, knees, and ankles that pull so much weight in balance and stability—the self-same muscles that go downright neglected through the previous months of uphill treadmilling and step-upping (the only mountain training a busy hoosier could manage). I got many, many lung-fulls of the thinner and cooler mountain air. I laid the foundation for what will be a 3-week long buildup of DEET on my skin and clothes. 

Finally and most importantly, I started the slow process of reining my eyes and senses into a slower pace and into a smaller frame. While we may be chasing down a world record in the next three weeks, I will have to continually tell my eyes to always work slower. I will have to throw off the habit of chasing the rabbit to and through endless quick visual fixes, of artistically hyperventilating through the coming days and weeks. This trip may be the visual and experiential equivalent of joining the polar bear club, but if it’s going to be anything of a success, we’ll all have to breathe deeper and longer through the shocking preponderance of “The Everything”—from the sublime to the mundane—we’ll be seeing all around us. 

To read more about my journey with Josh, Lindsey, and Dave (the Great 48 team) you can see their website at You can also follow me on Instagram.