The Camp Muir climbing shelter sits on Mt Rainier’s Muir Snowfield at 10,080′, roughly halfway between Paradise and the summit. It’s considered a brute of a climb, ascending 4600′ in just over 4 miles, the last 2 miles up the Muir Snowfield gaining 2,800′ in elevation. And that’s of course at an altitude where you start to breath just a little bit heavier. In great weather it’s relatively safe but in bad weather it can be deadly. Many people have died in the Paradise/Muir Snowfield area by getting caught unprepared in changing weather and white-out conditions.
For that reason I’ve only once ventured up to Panorama Point, about halfway between Paradise and Muir, on a beautiful sunny day in January 2 years ago. I’ve had aspirations of going to Muir and maybe even climbing Rainier but it’s not somewhere I’d just hop up to and play around without being prepared. My friend Annette, mountaineer extraordinaire, has submitted Rainier 13 times and gone to Muir I’m sure many more times than that. She tossed out the idea of heading up a few weeks ago if we got a good weather opportunity and just our luck, we did.
It’s not very often I’m excited for a 4am wakeup but somehow I managed it and yesterday Annette and I hit the road at 5am for Paradise. If we were going to make the 9 mile round-trip trek to Muir on a short winter day we needed all the time we could get. We planned to set off from Paradise at 8am. The forecast called for sunny skies and freezing levels near 10k, perfect for heading up the mountain! As we drove our way through Eatonville the sunrise illuminated a gorgeous Mount Rainier in all her awesome glory. We were going to have a beautiful day!
We pulled into Longmire around 7:30ish and were greeted with a gate across the road to Paradise saying “Road closed for plowing. Open at 9am”. Somehow in all our excitement we never bothered to check road conditions or the fact that the road to Paradise in the winter doesn’t open until 9am. Oops! So we took a nap in the Longmire parking lot, a little bummed to see such a gloriously sunny clear morning going to waste. We’d likely not be able to hit the trail until 10am. With snow conditions unknown, Annette said we’d just see how it went and if we weren’t moving fast enough we’d turn around and head back down since the road closes again at 5pm.
Annette and I seem to move pretty fast so I had high hopes we could make it, but Muir is outside my area of experience so I had no idea. I just wanted to enjoy a beautiful day at Rainier! When the gate finally opened a train of about 10-15 cars eagerly wound their way up to Paradise on what turned out to be a pretty slippery icy road. We parked, got our gear ready, and were the only people in the group without snowboards or skis strapped to our backs.
We hoped for firm snow and opted to leave the snowshoes. Annette had crampons and I prayed my little MicroSpikes would be enough to get the job done. We started our climb out of Paradise, enjoying the mountain’s morning show: beautiful lenticular clouds!
Conditions to Panorama Point were pretty easy going. Once we hit the base of the Pan Point chute though, it started getting fun. There are basically two ways up: straight up the main chute which is probably a 20% grade or veer left a bit, which is more direct but even steeper. Of course Annette steered us left because she’s crazy.
About 3/4 of the way up the chute it severely steepened to what felt like a 80 degree slope! The snow was firm, traction was good, and Annette expertly dug her way up with her crampons and ice ax. I was lucky to follow a skier directly ahead of me who was kicking in wonderful steps all the way. Now is probably a good time to say that despite doing some gym climbing and lots of outdoor hiking in crazy places, I struggle with exposure and airy steep pitches. As soon as things drop away behind me my brain goes into overtime and I have to work really hard to get my body to move. I get clingy and just want to dig in.
Near the top I started to “feel” the air behind me and realized we were up pretty high on a really steep slope and I was holding on with nothing but little MicroSpikes. My heart started racing. Taking a slide from here certainly wouldn’t kill you, but I’d likely take a few hundred foot tumble and that thought just never settles well with me. The skier ahead of me took a short break to catch his breath and I clung to the steps with a little extra vigor. He told me I could go around if he was holding me up and all I could think was “Go around!? Are you crazy? I’m not moving!”
He continued up after a short break and I looked straight up, not daring to look out or down or anywhere else that might tip me off to just how much air was behind me. I climbed up over the top lip with a huge sigh of relief once I made it to flat ground. I think I’m definitely not cut out for mountaineering!
We continued on, moving slightly around to the left to meet up with the Muir snowfield. The wind picked up and we came across a short stretch of wind scoured icy terrain with another short but steep pitch up to the next area. Annette headed up easily but about halfway up my little MicroSpikes slipped a bit on the ice and my heart started racing. My trekking pole was useless and couldn’t dig in to give my upper body any kind of stability and my spikes weren’t digging into the ice. I was hanging onto the side of this icy pitch for dear life and suddenly couldn’t move. I was convinced I would fall.
It wasn’t an area where I would have taken a dangerous fall but it was certainly steep. Falling would have sent me down a little ways before the terrain flattened out. And we weren’t that far from an area that you probably didn’t want to fall down. I tried to will myself to take a step and move but was so nervous I couldn’t. Annette looked back down and must have known I was freaked out because she tried to hand me her ice axe. I contemplated but having no idea how to use one I figured I’d be a lot more likely to fall on it and maim myself than actually use it effectively.
Annette carefully stepped back down the icy slope and grabbed my hand, leading me the few remaining steps to the top. I was getting worried that if the terrain was like this all the way I wouldn’t make it, but I’m happy to say that was the last of anything technical and icy and after that slope we simply had an uphill trudge all the way to Muir on a solid snowfield. And we didn’t really need to go that way, but Annette is crazy and loves to make me do things I freak out about. I equally love her and hate her for that.
Once you’re on the Muir snowfield, it’s amazing to me how close the summit looks. It looks like you could just walk right up and it makes you think about it, but alas, it’s still another 6,000′ up over technical terrain. We passed two climbers on the way down who had turned back from a summit attempt the day before. They said the wind was just much too strong. The snowfield was soft enough that we removed our crampons and spikes and simply hiked up most of the way. The wind picked up and a few times I found myself bracing with my trekking pole against 40mph gusts. I didn’t feel like I was breathing hard, but my body just couldn’t go any faster. We trudged up and up and up at what felt like a ridiculously slow pace. I stopped a few times to snap some photos but mostly keep going the whole way.
Near the top you finally get a glimpse of Camp Muir but still have another 400-500′ to go over steepening terrain. When we finally got there the wind was so strong it was bone chilling. Though the temps in the 30s were comfortable on the climb it was freezing cold here. Annette showed me the route up to the summit and you could see tracks from the previous climbing team. Just looking at the terrain made me realize I have no desire to attempt to go up there. At least not now. We couldn’t find anywhere to shelter from the wind so we only stopped long enough to grab a few snacks and snap some quick pictures, eager to get back down.
The way down was fast and we made good time in the snow though I took it a little easy as my notoriously cranky knees hate steep downhill. I worried about how to get down the sections I had a tricky time coming up but Annette told me we wouldn’t go back down that icy slope and with the sun out, the snow conditions would be much softer and easier.
I had some fun glissading down a few steeper sections though when I stood up I was sure my butt was snow rashed. Ouch. When we reached Pan Point we descended down the less steep chute as there was no way I was going back down the way we came up. Annette had no trouble simply stepping down carefully in her crampons. I, on the other hand, entertained everyone with my combination of retarded glissading and careful stepping. I have no shame, I’ll get down however I can!!
Once down I was ecstatic that we were able to make it up on such a spectacularly beautiful day. What an amazing experience! Heading up to Camp Muir in these kind of conditions was easily the hardest hike I’ve ever done. The combination of wind, terrain, snow, steady climbing, and of course altitude was a challenge. I felt like I had been on the hardest stairmaster climb of my life. I’m thankful all of the steep hiking and climbing I’ve done lately had well prepared me. A year ago I’m not sure I could have made this climb.
All total we ended up taking 3.5 hours to ascend and about 2 to descend, mostly because I’m a little retarded when heading down. I’m glad Annette puts up with me, she’s a great sport! After having a tiny glimpse into what a fraction of mountaineers really do, my aspirations of ever climbing anything like Rainier are pretty much zero. I never say never, but at least for now, I’ll be steering clear of technical mountaineering and looking forward to heading up to Muir again in the future.
Round Trip: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: ~4600′
High Point: 10,080′
Total Hiking Time: 5:30
My watch battery died on the descent so I have a partial round-trip track