Muir Seminar, Day One: Paradise Lost

By | 2016-09-26

The schedule called for us to convene at 08:00 PDT.  With my body still on Eastern time, I wasn’t able to sleep much past 05:00.  So I went for another short run, naturally.  That’s what everyone does before hiking 5,000 feet up a mountain, right?

Sunday’s weather had been beautiful, sunny and in the low 70s.  Monday looked less promising.  It was cool and damp during my run, and the temperature hadn’t increased much by the time we grouped up.  Moments later, the rain began.  

We met our three junior guides, introduced ourselves to them, and discussed the day’s plans.  After taking shuttle to the park entrance, we would trek through Paradise Meadows and across the Muir snowfield before arriving at Camp Muir.  Sounds simple enough.

Only by the time we arrived at the park, the morning drizzle had turned to a steady rain.  Weather data suggested that we would cross the freeze line around 6,000 feet, but we were still faced with two miles and 1,000 feet of vertical in cold, driving rain before we crossed over.  Not an ideal way to start multiple days sans heat.

Dave set an easy, steady pace up the mountain, and we were instructed to follow single-file.  I promptly took up second position, hoping I’d have a chance to chat with the maestro.  Unfortunately, rain slapping on Gore-Tex makes for a fair bit of noise, so conversation was difficult to manage.  No matter—we would all have plenty of time together over the next few days.

The schedule called for four rest breaks at predetermined locations.  It was still raining when we reached the first, so we kept it quick.

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By the time we made our second stop on the Muir snowfield about an hour later, the rain had begun to freeze.  Great—still wet, just colder.  

Muir Snowfield

Muir Snowfield

Being stationary during the rest breaks did me little good.  My core temperature dropped, and my left hand was mostly numb by the time we got moving.  Wiggling my fingers was sufficient to bring the feeling back, but I was nervous about the coming days—one pair of gloves was soaked through, and we were barely an hour in.

The freezing rain made conditions on the snowfield treacherous.  Each drop added to an ever-increasing crust of ice, and traction was hard to come by.  To make matters worse, we were on the snowfield’s steepest slopes—sub-optimal for trekking without crampons.  

After slipping and sliding for another hour, we finally escaped the rain.  With still 1,000 feet left to climb, Dave decided a rest break at Moon Rocks was in order—we had skipped a scheduled stop earlier to avoid hypothermia.  I would have been happy to push on to Camp Muir, but some of our crew were lagging well behind.  

Another hour of climbing brought us to Camp Muir.  Perched on a narrow, saddle-shaped ridge, Camp Muir is a literal and figurative dividing line: it separates the Muir Snowfield from the Cowlitz Glacier, and it’s the highest one can go on Rainier without a climbing permit.  Shelters for climbers and guides mark both ends of camp, with some horrendous but welcome outhouses included in between.

The camp’s location on a ridge leaves it particularly exposed to winds, but it affords travelers incredible views.  Looking south across the snowfield, one can see Mount Adams, Washington’s second-highest peak.  Farther south and a bit to the west is Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon.  Still further west one sees the exploded face of Mount St. Helens.

On the other side of the ridge sits the Cowlitz Glacier, behind which lies Little Tahoma, a satellite peak of Rainier that is actually the third-highest in the state.  Any summit attempts from Camp Muir necessarily cross the Cowlitz, and we would get to know it well.
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Our home through Friday would be the RMI guide hut.  Originally erected by the Whittaker brothers against NPS wishes, the plywood shack is anything but plush.  Fortunately, we were five under its 18-person capacity, so there was some room to spread out gear and avoid the inevitable funk caused by five days without a shower.  I claimed a spot on the top level, figuring it would be marginally warmer and removed from some of the hustle and bustle down below.  It proved to be a good choice.

Once everyone was settled in, we had some time to chat and warm up.  My bunkmates on the top level were Albert, a university data center operator from Iowa, and Kirk, the younger half of our party’s father-son team.  I got lucky with this pair—they proved to be friendly, accommodating, and not particularly smelly colleagues.

Guides Dave and Billy soon joined us to discuss plans for the the week.  Conditions above the Disappointment Cleaver were still questionable—new snow avalanche conditions were rife—but they remained optimistic about our summit prospects later in the week.  With the following day’s mission laid out, we were given time to “cook” dinner and further acquaint ourselves with one another.

Cooking at Camp Muir consists of anything and everything that can be prepared with boiling water.  For most of us, that consisted of Mountain House freeze-dried food and copious amounts of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.  Many in our party, myself included, had never experienced the wonders and woes of dehydrated meals—if you don’t hydrate and incubate them sufficiently, they are prone to providing GI distress.  With that in mind, I allowed my chicken and potatoes plenty of time to steep, and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  I’ve paid more for less satisfying food, although that be the circumstances speaking.

With a full meal in our bellies, it was time for bed.  Fortunately, I was still on Eastern Time, so 9:00 PM felt like midnight. With this Old Man typically retiring at 10:00 PM local, I was already up late.  It’s not to say I slept like a baby—my rolled-up-extra-clothing pillow remained a work in progress—but I was ready for bed by the time the lights went out.  Phew!

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