Just four days after my trip to Rainier with friends, I was back. This time, I had my sights set on Camp Muir. I was excited about this hike for a number of reasons. First, it would be the highest elevation I ever hiked to. At 10,188 feet, it is eight feet higher than my hike to Emerald Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park (mentioned in “Test Drive: Colorado“). However, the hike to Emerald Lake began at 9,475 feet. While it was a spectacular hike, it was not that strenuous. The hike to Camp Muir begins at the Paradise Visitor Center, which sits at 5,400 feet in elevation. This time, I felt I’d really be earning my elevation. Not to mention, I was interested to see how my body and lungs performed at such an elevation. Second, I was excited to actually hike on Mt. Rainier itself. It would be the first time I’d ever be scaling the sides of this great mountain. Each hike I’ve done at Rainier up to this point has been in a different location around the base of the mountain. This time, I’d be hiking alongside and underneath the glaciers I had previously only admired from afar. Third, I was interested to see what a true high altitude mountaineering camp looked like. I had never been to one, so why not.
I started my hike at 7:45 am on Wednesday, June 24th. As far as I could tell, I was the second person to hit the trail that morning. I think I was right, because I had it almost all to myself the entire way up. The hike begins by stepping over the words of John Muir himself, engraved into the steps behind the visitor center. I was almost immediately treated to a sighting of two deer, feasting on the salad that is the meadows below Mt. Rainier. As I climbed along Skyline Trail on this perfectly sunny morning, I was able to admire the mountain I’d soon be on. A little higher up, I stumbled across a happy little marmot basking in the sun. I had never seen a marmot before. While trying not to disturb it, I took a few photos of it. I brought my DSLR camera along on this trip. I soon saw a few more. The meadows below Rainier seem to be marmot heaven.
Eventually, I made my way out of Paradise, to Pebble Creek, and the start of the Muir Snowfield. It is important to mention that Muir Snowfield is called a “snowfield” very intentionally. Although Mt. Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the continental United States, home to 26 separate glaciers, Muir Snowfield is not one of them. It is simply a field of snow, and makes up a portion of the 36 square miles of permanent snowfields that exist on Mt. Rainier. This is significant to note, because the Muir Snowfield is in fact a non-technical section of trail to hike on. Despite being high on Mt. Rainier, it doesn’t move, doesn’t feature crevasses or seracs. It doesn’t require crampons, ice tools, or ropes. You can bare boot it the entire way, if you so wish (although foot traction devices and an ice tool are recommended for safety). Still, Muir Snowfield offers numerous challenges. One, it is long and wide, make it difficult to follow an exact route. It also seems to go on forever, making Camp Muir feel like it is never getting closer. It is a mental commitment to reach Camp Muir. Lastly, in poor weather and whiteout conditions, Muir Snowfield can be almost impossible to navigate. While non-technical, deaths have occurred on Muir Snowfield due to low visibility and exposure. Not to mention, if one isn’t careful upon descent, it is easy to end up on the technical and long Nisqually Glacier. Not someplace you want to be without proper gear.
Thankfully, I had perfectly clear skies on the way up. I successfully avoided a bad sunburn by wearing long sleeves, pants, sunblock, a sunhat, sunglasses, and bandana around my neck. It was a bit warm, but it was a surefire way to avoid even the smallest amount of sunburn. I also didn’t have to stop to continually apply sunblock. Under a blue sky and bright sun, I hiked without very much difficulty. I was in fact shocked at how well my body performed. Having never exerted myself at such an elevation, I expected to suffer some small effects from altitude. However, I felt strong the entire time, and I hiked up and up until I reached Camp Muir, the highest point you can go on Mt. Rainier without a climbing permit. On the way up, I was also the closest I had ever been to a glacier. I could hear the glaciers moving and cracking. Sometimes, it was so loud, I looked up to see if anything was falling, sliding, or rolling down the mountain. A very cool experience to truly understand the dynamic nature of these masses of ice.
Camp Muir is a fascinating destination. It was renamed from “Cloud Camp” after John Muir visited it in 1888. Upon reaching it, you are no longer in the lush meadows Muir speaks of in the quotation you step over at the beginning of the hike. I arrived around 11 am. It was cool to experience my first true mountaineering camp. The camp features multiple stone buildings, including a guide shelter and public shelter, all just shy of 100 years old. Looming above are large rock formations. Last, but not least, of course, are the views. They’re ridiculous. In the distance, you can see three other volcanic peaks, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Hood. The Tatoosh Range sits closer in the middle ground. After about an hour at the camp, including some lunch, and of course pie, the weather began to change. The sky began to cloud over and the summit of Rainier became engulfed. I began my descent, but that one hour at Camp Muir will be remembered for a lifetime. The descent was smooth, I hiked along and chatted with a party that had just summitted the mountain that morning. Upon returning to dirt trail below Pebble Creek, the rain began. Almost down, it could not have been more perfect timing for me. A spectacular day.
There are numerous reasons the Camp Muir hike stands out to me. As already mentioned, it was my highest altitude. While it is not technical, and is frequented by many, many people each year, it is a hike I am proud to say I completed. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done. Additionally, it made me realize how possible summitting Rainier actually is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the remaining ~4000 feet up and return trip down are strenuous, technically difficult, and feature challenging obstacles, but it made me realize that mountaineering is accessible to a regular guy like me. I was so close to the summit that I could taste it. I wanted it then, and want it now. I have always been marveled by history’s great mountaineers. Mountaineering isn’t just for them, but with some effort and education, it can be for anyone. Anything is possible with a bit of dedication. Camp Muir was the highest height I’ve reached, but I believe my future holds heights even higher.
Happy hiking and climbing!