Mount Rainier's base camp makes for a popular day-hike destination.
I’m the type who likes to get mind-blowingly high. In the mountains, I mean. And when an early August five-day forecast predicted nothing but clear skies and pleasant temperatures, I knew where I wanted to go: Camp Muir, that base camp in the sky, tucked high in the rocks just below Mount Rainier’s airy summit.
How high? Were Camp Muir at the tippy-top of its own mountain, its location on a rocky saddle at 10,188 feet would make it the fifth-highest peak in Washington state, just below Glacier Peak. (It’s 1,800 feet higher than Mount St. Helens.)
Named for John Muir, the famed naturalist, Camp Muir is the main base camp for many of the 9,000 climbers who annually attempt to summit Mount Rainier. It boasts stone and wood shelters for climbers and hikers, and privies, and is home to several climbing rangers who live on the mountain in a cramped stone hut first built in 1916.
The rangers dispense vital information on route conditions and help climbers who get into trouble.
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“We do whatever we have to do to help people out,” says ranger Kevin Hammonds.
But Camp Muir isn’t just for potential summiteers. With its stupendous views — all the way to Central Oregon on some days — and its potential to offer a nontechnical, relatively safe hike to a spot almost two miles high, Camp Muir makes for a popular day-hike destination.
Morning at Muir
6:45 a.m.; elevation 5,420 feet
After staring dumbfounded for what seems like 20 minutes at the early morning sun hitting Mount Rainier, I set out from the Paradise parking area. I follow signs for the Skyline Trail and climb through pretty meadows bursting with magenta paintbrush, avalanche lily and blue lupine.
In my pack, I carry lots. Though it’s already warm and sunny — 60s likely warming up to 80s — I remember the words of an old salt who once told me that above 5,000 feet in the Cascades, there’s the potential for winter every single day of the year. I’d be heading up to 10,000 feet and figured the potential was probably twice as great.
“The snowfield is a place where a casual day hiker can run into trouble,” says Mike Gauthier, search and rescue coordinator for Mount Rainier National Park.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people go up there for a day hike unprepared for how quickly the weather can change.”
Last June, a Bellevue man died while hiking the Muir Snowfield when he and his party were stuck in a blizzard blasting 70-mph winds. I’m in short sleeves and lightweight pants with zip-off legs, but along with the 10 essentials, my pack includes a fleece jacket, snowboard pants and a half-dozen more PowerBars than I ever hope to consume.
After 2.3 miles and about 1,800 feet of climbing, I reach a sign pointing to Pebble Creek. Once across, I navigate a short rocky stretch and — voilà — I’ve reached the Muir Snowfield. Different from a glacier in that it is not a river of snow and ice slowly crawling down the side of the mountain, the snowfield is, like it sounds, a big field of snow. That tilts upward. At times, seemingly straight upward. Over the next 2.2 miles to Camp Muir, the route climbs 2,800 feet.
Across the snow, I follow boot tracks and, here and there, orange-flagged wands stuck in the snow pointing the way. Ahead of me, 14,411-foot Mount Rainier is massive and stoic: a huge pile of rock with a jumble of snow and ice spilling down its front. It looks like it could use a bib.
Sliding while sitting
9:21 a.m.; elevation 8,500 feet
It’s closing in on three hours that I’ve been hiking this midweek morning, and I’ve yet to see another person. I’ve got the Muir Snowfield all to myself; all is silent.
Except for what I could swear is the far-off sound of whooping and hollering.
Not far up the snowfield, I spot two hikers making their way down the snow in an especially smooth manner. There’s no bouncing up and down usually associated with human-powered forward motion (i.e., walking). That’s because they’re glissading — the high-falutin’ term for sliding down the snow on one’s butt.
The snowfield is streaked with what look like mini half-pipes — gouges carved out of the snow by people’s sit-upons where it’s steep enough to let them slide while sitting.
“Woo-hoo, that was fun!” says Annie Passarello from Ashford upon coming to a stop after a couple-hundred-yard sit-down ride. “That just made it all worth it.”
At 3 a.m., Passarello and Brian McDonald, also from Ashford, headed out from Paradise in the dark so they could be high on the mountain to watch the sun rise over mounts Adams, St. Helens, Hood and beyond.
“The stars were amazing, and when the sun came up, everything turned pink,” Passarello gushes. “It was gorgeous.”
It took Passarello and McDonald four hours to reach Camp Muir, which is good time. Hiking books say to plan on six to 10 hours round-trip. It’s nine miles there and back, but it’s not the distance that makes it tough; it’s the elevation gain — 4,700 feet — and that it’s all done at high elevation — 5,400 to 10,000-plus feet.
“Awesome but exhausting”
10:17 a.m.; elevation 9,450 feet
Up ahead, at the far corner of the snowfield, I spot what look like boxes. It’s Camp Muir. Seeing the straight lines and squared-off edges of manmade structures way up here seems odd. Like being stranded on a deserted island only to come across a drive-through Starbucks.
In a half-hour, I’m at Camp Muir. So are about 30 others, most of them lounging about the rocky plateau, enjoying lunch while relishing the experience of having summited in the early morning hours. Others gather their gear for the hike back down to Paradise, while still others scope out a place to set up camp for the night.
Along with the privies and shelters, the camp features several tents that have been set up nearby in the snow. Just above, a line of roped-up climbers crosses the Cowlitz Glacier, passing below a huge crevasse that looks to be smiling down on them.
“That was exhausting,” says David Clark, 20, from New Hartford, Conn. He was part of a Rainier Mountaineering party that left Camp Muir at midnight, reached the mountain’s summit at 7 a.m. and just now returned to camp.
“Awesome, but exhausting. I’ve never been above 8,000 feet before, so that was a big step up. “
I’d expected it to be much colder up here, and that I’d be bundled up in my jacket and snowboard pants, teeth chattering as I shivered in a stiff wind at 10,000-plus feet. But the air is still, the sun is strong and though I’m still in short sleeves, I’m even a tad warm.
The glissading on the way down fixes that.
On my way back down, not far below Camp Muir, I come to the first half-pipe streaking down the snowfield. Down I go. Onto my butt in the cold, cold snow, swooshing down the hill losing in a snap all that elevation I worked so hard for on the way up.
When I’m too wet and chilled to take it anymore, I hop out and hike for a bit. When I heat up, I plop back in. Then hop back out. And plop back in.
And downward I go.
Back to Paradise.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is www.mcqview.blogspot.com.