Friday, August 19, 2016

Hike to Camp Muir, WA

where the question of mileage isn't the point...

When I asked a park ranger at the Paradise Visitor Center of Rainier National Park last Sunday morning, “how many miles is it to Camp Muir from here?” he responded with “the mileage doesn’t matter, but the 5,000 feet elevation gain does.”

When I inquired if I would be able to do the hike without crampons or poles, he gave me a cautionary once-over, assessing my trail-worthiness.  I guess my worn pack, scuffed boots, and dingy field clothes suggested I’d been out hiking once or twice (or was a homeless youth) and he said I’d be fine, but warned me that the hike “is a bear.”

What drew me to this hike was a friend’s nudge to check it out after I’d expressed some doubt that I’d ever try to technically climb a peak.  He marketed the hike to Camp Muir as one that would take you the highest and closest to Rainier without a climbing permit.

Like a moth to flame…I was drawn to the idea.

The first two miles of the trail are heavily traveled by visitors, so I suggest getting there early.  I started at 0800 and I would recommend starting no later than that.  You will most certainly not have the trail to yourself, but you won’t find yourself in a flood of visitors either. 

Follow the Skyline Trail from the Paradise Visitor Center past Glacier Vista.  Shortly after a steepish switchback section you’ll hit the sign pointing onward to Camp Muir.  If you hit this hike late in the summer on a fine weather day like I did, you’ll be delighted by sights of wildflowers in bloom, the singing flow of Pebble Creek, and sightings of marmots (my favorite trail-time friend).

Right after you cross Pebble Creek, you’ll begin the climb up and through Muir Snowfield. 

This was the first point I very nearly turned around. 

Everyone around me had crampons and poles…and I couldn’t decide if I was being stupid or not attempting to do this hike up through a snow field with just my field-warn, shoe-goo-repaired, hiking boots.  After a few moments hesitation, I saw another hiker without crampons and poles.  That was enough.  I decided, “well…let’s just go as far as we can go.”

As it turns out, if the weather is good, you are completely safe doing this hike through the snowfield with boots alone (long as they have some traction…so leave the converse sneakers at home).  The trick, I found, was to follow someone else’s footsteps, and that seemed to allow me to stay on some grippable ground.  The slope is never so severe that I feared I’d slide backwards, but (quite frankly) there were several moments which I looked back behind me for the view, saw the slope I’d have to go down later on and grew afraid.

These were the several other moments where I very nearly turned around.

I elected not to look back anymore (there’s a metaphor for traveling through life somewhere here…).

The first 2 miles up to the snowfield was a steady incline, however, not really anything notable compared to climb onward on the snowfield itself.  The snowfield section is where “the bear” I was warned of begins. 

And it just seems to keep going.  However, as you go you realize you are so close to Rainier you feel you might reach out and touch it.  The glacial blue of the snow becomes an intoxicating vibrancy.  It makes you feel giddy for the loveliness of it.

As you hike on, there are several times you will find yourself thinking “surely at that horizon line, I’ll be there.”

But, you won’t be.

Fear not – eventually, you will be.

Camp Muir, at last in view, stands like Shangri La.  Ironically, the closer the end seems the more often you have to stop for breaks to ease your burning lungs and muscles.  It is a delightfully sort of burning though.

The view from the Camp is spectacular if you can manage to hit it on a day of good visibility.  I was met with such fortune and could see Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens on the distant horizon.  The blue of distance of the mountain range filling my sight below was a lovely lullaby, drawing you both deep into the scenery and deep into yourself.  

I could have lingered there for many a long, lullabyed day dream, but (as I mentioned before) I was nervous about the trip down, so I figured I better give myself as wide a time window as possible to take my time.

Turns out, the way down is not something one should “take their time” with.  Not only is it nothing to be nervous about, but is safer to go at quickly rather than slowly.

I began to notice that others around me were electing to slide rather than hike / walk down…that this actually seemed the wiser method.

There is a sort of skating method in which one is somewhat jogging with gravity down the slope, and sliding on the tread of your boots when possible to traverse the terrain more quickly (prepare for shaky-cam):

There is glissading (didn’t realize at the time this is what I was doing, just following the model of the rest around me):

Be sure to bring some rain pants or at least a plastic trash bag so you can slide your way down in fine, Rainier fashion.  It was a delight and nothing to hold a fright over. 

Hiking guides warned the trip could take as long as 9 hours, but it mostly depends on how much you push your pace on the way up.  Only you can know how you go at inclines.  Fast or slow, this is an experience not to be missed…I’m sure glad I didn’t turn around.

Elevation Start: 5,400ft
Elevation End: 10,188ft
Estimated hiking time: 5 – 9 hours
Mileage: 9 miles (roundtrip)

I read on a few blogs some cautionary notes about weather.  Be wary of sudden changes in weather and try to attempt the hike on a clear day, without the whisper of a storm.  Regardless of the forecast bring extra layers and emergency warmth (space blanket, etc.).