Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Camp Muir

Adams and St. Helens from the camp, with the Muir Snowfield below
9 miles round trip, 4600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Mount Rainier National Park Entrance Fee, paved road to trailhead

No other nontechnical hike (with the possible exception of the summit of Mt. Adams) reaches as lofty a viewpoint as the one that leads to Camp Muir. Perched at over 10000 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Rainier and hosting many of the climbers about to attempt the summit of the mightiest of the Cascade volcanoes, Camp Muir features the dramatic rocky spires and dynamic jagged glaciers of Rainier as well as a sweeping view of the Cascades as far as Mt. Hood (and on a clear day, I'm told, Mt. Jefferson). The trail starts in the wildflower-filled meadows of Paradise and ascends ever further into the alpine, reaching the stark landscape of ice and rock high on the mountain. This is a hike with no equal in the Pacific Northwest, or in the entire country. This is also not a hike for everyone: it is extraordinarily tiring, requires a hefty uphill climb and features a poorly marked route across a permanent snowfield that can be dangerous at certain times of year and in poor weather conditions.

It is extremely important to be prepared for this hike: Camp Muir isn't your standard walk in the park. The hike requires 4600 feet of elevation gain; for comparison to Virginia standards, Hawksbill, the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park, is just a tad over 4000 feet above sea level. The final destination sits at over 10000 feet, an elevation at which many people begin to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. Reaching Camp Muir also requires crossing the Muir Snowfield, a permanent snowfield that is more akin to a glacier, with small crevasses that open late in the summer. On clear days, the sun exposure can be overwhelming: a friend who hiked to Camp Muir before I did described sunburns all over his body, while others have gotten sunburnt in their inner ear or mouth despite copious application of sunscreen on all other reasonable parts of their body. Sunglasses or glacier glasses are a must to prevent permanent eye damage from the bright ice. Cloudy days can be even more dangerous: whiteout conditions can quickly set in on the Muir Snowfield, making route-finding difficult and raising the likelihood of accidentally wandering onto the treacherous crevasses of the Nisqually Glacier. While crampons and ice axes are generally not required for this hike, some form of additional traction such as microspikes or Yaktraks are recommended. Hiking poles are also highly recommended to aid in ascent up the snowfield. As this hike is quite long and difficult, budget plenty of time: plan on at least 8 to 10 hours and make sure to bring a headlamp in case it takes longer than expected. You should try to be on the trail no later than 8 or 9 AM.

The hike begins from the Henry Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise; arrive early on nice summer weekends or you won't find parking. From Seattle, take 167 and then 512 south to Puyallup; then follow Route 161 south past Eatonville, then 7 south and finally 706 east to reach the Longmire Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Paradise is another half hour up the road from the entrance.

My friends and I arrived at Paradise around 9 AM on an early September day and found the place bustling with climbers preparing to summit the volcano. We headed up the steps across the visitor center and up the Skyline trail. The paved early portion of the trail led past the last remnants of that summer's wildflower bloom and a number of whistling marmots; the mountain itself popped in and out of view in front of us.

Marmot in the meadows
Soon, great views of the sharp peaks of the Tatoosh Range appeared behind us. As we continued to follow the Skyline Trail, increasingly impressive views of Mt. Rainier and the Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers appeared before us. The pavement ended and the trail became a wide, well constructed dirt and rock path. Up to this point, the ascent was fairly mild, requiring some elevation gain but not unreasonably steep. We went straight through the early trail junctions, continuing on the Skyline Trail until it reached a junction with the trail to Pebble Creek high above the Nisqually Glacier.

Meadows on the Skyline Trail with the Tatoosh Range
Nisqually Glacier flowing down Mt. Rainier, viewed from the Skyline Trail
At this point, we made a left turn onto the trail to Pebble Creek, a little over 2 miles and about 1500 feet above the trailhead. As the rest of the day-trippers turned off to go to Panorama Point, we continued a steady climb, with the trail becoming rockier and narrowers as it headed out of the meadows and into the barren world on the slopes of Tahoma.

The trail soon brought us across Pebble Creek to the edge of the moraine of the Nisqually Glacier. The views from this rocky perch were fantastic: looking ahead, we could see the snowy route that we would take towards Anvil Rock and Camp Muir, while looking downhill, there was a clear view down the moraine of the Nisqually to the greenery of the other peaks in the park. At this point, we had climbed higher than the Tatoosh Range, allowing us to glimpse the never-ending layers of ridges behind and the great massifs of Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens rising in the distance. Mt. St. Helens was particularly beautiful from here in the morning light: we could see straight into the blast crater produced by the 1980 eruption to the newly formed Crater Glacier, which flowed down the right (west) side of the lava dome protruding in the middle of the crater.

View up towards Anvil Rock and the upcoming hike
View down the valley of the Nisqually Glacier
Mt. St. Helens from the top of the Skyline Trail
The Nisqually Glacier dominated the view through the entirety of the climb. It is the most impressive glacier on the south face of Rainier, spilling down from Columbia Crest and carving a deep valley to the northwest of the meadows at Paradise. The icefall formed in the initial part of the glacier's descent is particularly impressive: viewed from the hike, it seemed to be an impenetrable jumble of crevasses and seracs. Here, as an enormous mass of ice is dragged over the rocky topography of the mountain, the glacier cracks and collapses upon itself, creating the rumpled look of the icefall.

Nisqually Glacier
Soon after passing Pebble Creek, the snow started. As it was September, most of the remaining snow was fairly compacted but had plenty of steps kicked in by the thousands of people who had already made their way up to the camp that year. Initially, parts of the snow ascent were a little steep but the terrain soon moderated a bit to maintain a 15 degree or so climb for the next half mile. From there on out, the last two miles and a bit of this hike were through the snow and across the Muir Snowfield. We shared the trail with many others heading to the camp for the day as well as the numerous others carrying mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes who were intent on summiting Rainier during that stretch of good weather. It was also just then that we learned that one of our group had never been on snow before- right before she was about to ascend 3000 feet in a little over 2 miles on ice!

The long trudge through the snow to Camp Muir
The snowfield steepened as we neared Moon Rocks. Going was slow the entire way up: hiking in the snow was tiresome and often required kicking steps or involuntarily sliding back a bit each step. We progressed at about a mile per hour. Soon, finding the terrain quite difficult, I slipped on a pair of Kahtoola microspikes; I soon found the ice a good deal easier to handle. As we headed up, some hikers had already begun their descent, utilizing the glissade chutes through the snow that paralleled our boot path. The snow was hotter than expected, as it reflected back all of the copious sunlight on that clear day, making hiking on ice surprisingly oven-like.

After passing Anvil Rock, a distinct outcrop that bordered the snowfield to the west, we entered the last, steepest part of the snowfield. Although called the Muir Snowfield, at this point it was really the Muir Glacier: it was clear that we were not just walking on permanent snow but on mineralized ice that moved enough to form small crevasses. None of the crevasses along the snowfield were too wide to simply hop over, but a few had hairy sports where it was clear that falling in would have unpleasant consequences. The ice itself was hard too; in fact, one of my friends mistook the ice for simply slippery rock due to its dense, solid appearance.What on Rainier qualifies as simply as a snowfield would have been named a glacier in any other state, save Alaska. As we went along, we also heard avalanches emanating from the Nisqually Icefall, though we failed to actually see any.

Crevasses on the upper Muir Snowfield
We finally caught sight of the camp after entering the crack-riddled snowfield past Anvil Rock. The last bit of the ascent was a struggle: although the camp looked close enough, it took most of an hour after I first sighted it to actually stumble onto the rocks at the upper end of the snowfield and up a small incline to the saddle that held Camp Muir. The camp itself was composed of a number of rock structures that blended into the color scheme of the mountain itself that could house climbers attempting the summit of Rainier itself. A new structure was under construction, perhaps to house even more climbers of this ever-more popular climb. Also notable was a wooden outhouse that emitted the most unpleasant stench; I am still curious how such a structure doesn't simply get carried away by the weight of the up to hundred feet of snow that must fall at the camp each year.

Camp Muir
The camp was almost overrun with people: well over a hundred day-hikers and climbers were squeezed onto the saddle betweent the Muir Snowfield and Cowlitz Glacier. We saw one group of day hikers who decided to put an interesting spin on the viral phenomena of late summer 2014, using chipped pieces of ice from the Cowlitz Glacier for their ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos.

But the true highlight was not the rock sleeping structures or the Ice Bucket Challenge participants; it was the view of the raw, rugged alpine landscape over two-thirds the way up Mt. Rainier. The rocks and ridges that seemed to adorn the side of the mountain when viewed from afar here took prominence. Gibraltar Rock could have Gibraltar itself; the rocky spine of Disappointment Cleaver here appeared to be a towering, jagged wall. The summit itself seemed surprisingly muted, appearing simply as a snow dome behind Gibraltar Rock.

View of Gibraltar Rock, Disappointment Cleaver, and the summit from Camp Muir
The most thrilling view was across to Little Tahoma Peak and down to the enormous, gaping crevasses and majestic ice of the Cowlitz Glacier. Words fail.

Crevasses on the Cowlitz Glacier, Little Tahoma in the background
To the south was a sweeping 180-degree of the south Cascades of Washington. Mount Adams and St. Helens dominated the skyline, with the snow-capped Goat Rocks also sticking prominently above the horizon. The Tatoosh Range, which had looked quite commanding from Paradise at the start of the hike, now seemed to be mere foothills. We could even see all the way back down to the parking lots and the visitor center at Paradise, as well as down the long Muir Snowfield to the chain of hikers still heading uphill. Far below, we could see the Nisqually River snaking its way out of the Cascades. I'm told that on the clearest of days, both Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, the two tallest peaks in Oregon and the next peaks in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, are visible from the camp.

Mount Adams from Camp Muir
The Cascade Volcanic Arc starts at Lassen Peak in Northern California and runs up to Silverthrone in British Columbia. A parade of great peaks marches north, each a few hundred miles from the Pacific Coast, all set in a north-south axis except the St. Helens and Adams, which lie on an east-west axis of each other. Each of these huge mountains is a result of the subduction of the oceanic Juan de Fuca Plate under continental North America. As the Juan de Fuca plate is thrust below North America, overheated water at the margin of the subducting Juan de Fuca plate rises and contributes to the formation of each of the Cascade giants. In the near geological future, it'll all be gone: the Juan de Fuca is one of the last remnants of the massive Farallon Plate, which subducted below North America to create the Rocky Mountains and more or less all major topographical features in the western United States.

After enjoying the never-ending views well into the afternoon, we began our descent back to Paradise. This was the most enjoyable portion of the hike for me: instead of walking down, we glissaded, sitting on our butts on the Muir Snowfield and sliding down in chutes that others had taken before us. On the steep and solid ice, we were able to descend at quite a clip, achieving speeds of up to 10 miles an hour. It was exhilarating. While sliding, I could look up at any point to enjoy the expansive view of the Goat Rocks, Mount Adams, and St. Helens. When necessary, we used our hiking poles to brake; otherwise, we just allowed gravity to carry us down the mountain. While there were a few bumps and roller coaster drops on the chutes, for the most part the slide was smooth and a good break from using my legs. In less than half an hour, we had dropped over 2500 feet and travelled nearly 2 miles.

Glissade chute on the Muir Snowfield, Goat Rocks and Mt. Adams in the background
Glissade chute down the Muir Snowfield
We hiked back down the Skyline Trail during golden hour, with the setting sun painting beautiful colors on the Tatoosh and on the summit. By the time we returned to Paradise, the sun was almost down and 10 hours had elapsed since we set out. This hike exposed me to the incredible world I could access by reaching high into the alpine and finally led me to set a goal of someday reaching the summit of Rainier itself.

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