Hike: Camp Muir
Location: Paradise, Mt. Rainier
Mileage/ Elevation: 8 miles/ 4,640
Last summer Ryan and I did the skyline loop trail on Mt. Rainier as the most amateur of amateur hikers. This hike is 5.5 miles and at the top you see the section where it splits off to go up to Camp Muir. At the time, this seemed like a mythical far off land where professional climbers went. As we have gotten into hiking this year Camp Muir had been on our list to accomplish, at some point. Ryan had 2 weekends left of the summer basically before having to work 4 weekends straight so I asked him what his priority was to do on those weekends and Camp Muir was one of them. Skeptically we prepared to go within a couple weeks time. I say skeptically because the weather needed to be absolutely perfect to go and we weren’t even sure if we were (physically) ready. Well the weekend approached and the weather was looking good so we decided to do it. Camp Muir should never be attempted in non-favorable conditions as there is no clear trail and white outs can be deadly as people drift onto nearby glaciers. This hike is actually listed as one of the top 10 most deadly hikes.
First things to figure out where the accommodations regarding staying at Mt. Rainier at least the night before. This is no easy task in the summer and the options are quite limited. The park has 3 campgrounds and all the reservable sites go far in advanced and we would never make it to the walk up sites. I booked at Alder Lake Campground like I did the previous year for Friday night. It is an hour and a half from Seattle and an hour from Paradise. We didn’t arrive at our campsite until 10:30 or so Friday (thank you surgery residency) and set up camp in the dark and went straight to bed. Well not me.. I was kept awake by the noisy campers partying. I would not recommend this campground unless it was last resort like it was for us. I wanted our wake up call to be 5 to be at the trailhead at 7 but Ryan assured me we did not need an hour to pack up camp in the morning so 5:30 it was. I was right and we would’ve been better off with that extra 30 minutes as we started on the trail at 8. At this time the parking lot was already quite full. Get here early to snag a spot.
The forecast had called for mostly sunny so we were a bit discouraged by the thick fog that devoured the mountain. We donned our gear and hit the trail. The beginning of the trail is paved and quite steep. Eventually it turns into dirt but we were surprised at about a mile in there was already snow and lots of it. There were stretches of snow on and off for awhile. At a bit before 2 miles you will see that cut off to Camp Muir that continues up while the Skyline Loop trail continues straight. It was now or never and this was really happening. We went up and crossed Pebble Creek (the last source of fresh water beyond melting snow). After this the snow was constant so we put on our micro-spikes (traction) and were happy to have gaiters to not get our pants wet or snow in our boots.
Here is some perspective of where Camp Muir lies on the mountain. It reaches 10,080 feet of the 14,416 feet.
It is here the real climb began as the endless snowfields and elevation gain were ruthless. I began to feel the altitude at about 7,500 feet. It seemed my heart rate was way higher than normal (for a hike) and my head started to hurt and I started to feel a bit queasy. On paper this hike doesn’t seem that bad compared to many other in the state with similar stats. What is so different is the snow fields and altitude. That alone made it 100X harder than any other hike we have done. We were slowed down a lot by this but just kept setting landmark goals. “Get to that pile of rocks or beyond that hill and then can take a break.” This was really how we made it to the top. I don’t think I have ever stopped more or gone more slow on a hike. The altitude sickness subsided and the thought of reaching base camp gave me the extra push I needed to keep going.
Side note- people notoriously get sunburned on this hike because of the snow reflecting back on you. We applied sunscreen religiously 3-4 times throughout the hike including sunscreen chapstick. Don’t forget a had and sunglasses with good coverage.
Once we were above the clouds we could see Mt. St. Helens, Adams, and even Mt. Hood in Oregon. That alone made this hike so spectacular and amazing. Every time I turned around I couldn’t believe my eyes. We pressed on and set our sights on making it to 9,000 feet because then Camp Muir comes into sight. We came over a hill and I saw some wooden signs on a rock. Finally we could see the end in sight. That last 1,000 feet never seemed to end. At this time of the day the snow had become very sloppy and wet and was not fun to climb on as well. We pushed to the top and finally made it! I couldn’t believe it. I was so proud of us. We actually made it to base camp of Rainier! The summit would only be 4,000 more feet. We conquered half of Rainier, it may have been the easier half, but still! We got to the top and collapsed on a rock amongst a huge party of people. It was super busy with day hikers and summiteers alike. Tents were set up everywhere for those going on to the summit the following day. There are different buildings ran by the guided groups to hold equipment and even a bunk house and toilets. The most awe inspiring was seeing the groups coming down who had just summited all roped up and filled with accomplishment. I have set my sights on summiting Rainier for awhile, but in this moment I knew that would be me. There was no question about that. If we could make it to base camp we could surly summit the whole thing (when conditioned to).
After an hour of snacking, relaxing, and soaking in the sun we decided to make the trek back down. The fastest and most optimal way to go down is to glissade. I had never done this before and looking at how steep some of the sections were I was down right scared to even try. When you are looking at these glissade shoots they are just long stretches of hollowed out snow were people have slid on their bumbs. We didn’t have rain pants or garbage bags to sit on, but we sat on our rain coats and went for it. Since the snow was so wet we didn’t go super fast on most of them, but we probably took 5-6 glissade shoots down and boy was it fun. New favorite way to get down a mountain! I ended up with soaking wet pants but it was worth it. We basically slipped and slidded down the mountain in seemingly no time. It was somewhere in here that I ran out of water. I had brought 2 litters and a big Gatorade. Thank goodness Ryan had a lot leftover or I would’ve been in big trouble. Being at high altitude dehydrates you like nothing else. We got to the lower skyline loop trail and it was packed with tourists enjoying the mountain. Oh, and we saw 4 marmots total! They are so cute and such a joy to run into. We even saw 2 of them wrestling it out. We made it to the bottom at 4:30. It took us 8 hours total with an hour at the top in there. We made it to the car and peeled all the soaking wet layers off of us.
We didn’t have a campground booked for that night as they were booked up all around so we hoped to snag a last minute walk up.. I had 5 campgrounds on my list to check out going counter clockwise towards Sunrise. One after another was full and we were feeling hopeless on getting camping and the reality of just driving home was becoming clear. We were passing a sign that had a campground symbol so we pulled over fast to check it out. It said something about Horse campground meant for people with horses to camp there. This was not a campground ran by anything seemingly so we asked one of the 5 groups of campers what this was all about and if they had reservations. They said they just grabbed a sight so we did as well. We set up camp and finally relaxed with a beer after a long day. We were beyond exhausted so we went to sleep by 9PM. At about 2 AM I was abruptly woken by loud footsteps outside of our tent, a large shadow and some heavy breathing…. My heart immediately sunk as my mind went straight to BEAR. We were right outside of Mt. Rainier which has many bears and our food storage that night was not up to par at this make shift campsite. We kept our garbage bag with leftover food in our roof storage.. probably just smelly enough to lure any animal into our space. I could literally feel my pulse beating out of my chest as I panicked with what to do and if this was really happening. I woke Ryan up and whispered that I thought there was a bear outside of our tent.. his quick thinking was to set the car alarm off for about 10 seconds and then make a lot of noise after. We had the bear spray in hand and eventually took a look outside. We didn’t see anything but we both had decided that we wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep after that and did not want to be around when this possible bear came back to sniff around some more. We rushed and packed up the whole campsite within about 5 minutes and booked it out of there. Looking back this seems a little dramatic and we probably should’ve just slept in the car, but we were in bed by 4 AM so what ever. I don’t play with bears. Proper food storage is very important and we learned a lesson that night.
This hike left me feeling so full and inspired. Mt. Rainier will always be my favorite. I can’t wait to make it up that extra 4,000 feet someday.
The mountains are calling and I must go, always.