High Altitude Camping: Camp Muir

Earlier this year my friend Annette signed up to lead a charity climb on Rainier in July and asked if I’d be interested in playing sherpa. A high altitude camping adventure on Rainier?  Yes please! Unfortunately bad weather cancelled my sherpa plans and only half of the teams were able to summit that weekend. I didn’t even make it to Rainier.

So when my work colleague Aaron told me he and his friends were planning a Rainier summit this past weekend I jumped at the chance to tag along and help sherpa. Operation high altitude camping adventure resurrected!

I also used it as excuse to drop way too much $$ at REI on some new gear: a Big Agnus Q-Core SL sleeping pad, a Big Agnus Lithia Springs sleeping bag, and a whole assortment of freeze dried Mountain House food that sounded too good to not try. Hey, if I was spending two full days on the mountain I was doing it in style (and with a lot of food!)

Friday night I excitedly pulled out my old neglected North Face backpack and got the packing underway. Almost immediately I realized that despite a slim packing list it still seemed like a lot of stuff! But I’d be spending two full days on the mountain at 10,000′, which required some essential layers and extra stove fuel. With a really favorable weather forecast I skimped down to the bare essentials: a wind vest, Patagonia puffy, hat and gloves.

I kept sorting through what seemed like a ridiculous amount of food but going hungry is never in my plans. I lifted my pack and was mortified at just how heavy 37lbs felt compared to my minimal Salomon hydration pack. Geez, I thought I spent $$ on extra light gear?? I just kept reminding myself I’d be in heaven once I made it up to Camp Muir. IF I could haul all this shit up there.

Packing gear for an overnight at Camp Muir. The sheer amount of food seemed ridiculous but hey, I was packing for a full 2 days up there!
Packing gear for an overnight at Camp Muir. The sheer amount of food seemed ridiculous but hey, I was packing for a full 2 days up there!

All night long I kept mentally rechecking my gear list and was so excited that I got barely an hour of sleep before my 4am departure came along WAY too fast. Ugh. Lots of coffee later I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise on the drive to Rainier and was stoked for a weekend of perfect weather.

I met my friends at the Paradise Climbing Registration center at 7am, where they had been in a very long line. It was a popular weekend for the mountain and with 130+ people at Camp Muir we were told we’d have to camp about 500′ lower at Anvil Rock. No problem except it made for a little longer summit day for the guys. By the time we got our permits, repacked the gear, moved the cars, etc we didn’t hit the trail until nearly 9am.

Super excited for my sherpa outing to Rainier on such a gorgeous blue bird day!

I heaved my pack on my back with a sigh. I really liked my little hydration pack! But it’s amazing how quickly my body adjusted and after a mile it was business as usual. The first 2 miles of the hike were melted free and the summer route was a nice change to the 80-degree icy climb of death up Panorama Point that Annette put me through last winter. We took a break before the Muir Snowfield to rest and enjoy the stunningly crystal blue skies and beautiful views. The Cascades sure were out in force today!

On our way up the Muir Snowfield with the Cascades out in full force behind us. What a beauty of a day!!
On our way up the Muir Snowfield with the Cascades out in full force behind us. What a beauty of a day!!

The snow was soft enough to not require any traction and feeling surprisingly good, I decided to bust it up to Anvil Rock ahead of the guys. I didn’t need to save anything for a summit day and I knew the hour of sleep would catch up soon. Once I hit Anvil Rock I found a little flat spot just off the trail, got out the Z-Seat, used my pack as a recliner, and took a little break while waiting on the guys. In no time I was dead asleep, which was great except I suddenly woke up and my face felt charbroiled. Fail #1: falling asleep at 9,000′ with no suntan lotion on your face. Oops.

Stopping at Anvil Rock to take a little nap.
Stopping at Anvil Rock to take a little nap.

It was about this time I also became keenly aware that I forgot to change out the lenses in my sunglasses. Fail #2. Super light tinting sucks on glaciers. Hello, who comes to Camp Muir with no suntan lotion and super light tinted glasses!? I pulled my Buff over my entire face (sunglasses included) and that thing saved my life. As did Aaron’s friend who brought extra suntan lotion. My savior!

We got to work setting up camp, digging tent platforms, and boiling snow for water. I was excited! My first freeze-dried food test: Backpacker’s Pantry Bacon and Cheddar Mashed Potatoes. Let me tell you, this stuff was the bomb diggity. So delicious I gobbled up the whole bag. While the guys were talking about altitude affecting appetite I was already into my second dinner of ramen. Operation “Eat Lots of Food” commenced!

The guys were planning to head up to Muir around 10:30pm to start their summit climb so we all retired to our tents around 3pm for some sleep. It was so hot under the sun and inside the tent that I would sleep on the floor of the tent on the snow until I was too cold, then I’d sleep on the sleeping pad until I got too hot. I couldn’t even fathom using my 15-degree rated sleeping bag.

Mt Adams under a beautiful sunset from our campsite
Mt Adams under a beautiful sunset from our campsite

Sometime around 6:30-7 I woke. The sun had finally disappeared behind Mount Rainier and it felt like the temperature instantly dropped from 100 to zero. I worried about skimping on warm clothes when I stepped outside and had to put on every piece of clothing I brought just to stay warm. Maybe I could drag my new water-resistant down sleeping bag outside?

I watched the sunset, the gorgeous colors fading into black, the mountains still illuminated by a full moon, and it was easily one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Every once in a while ice and rock fall on Rainier would break the silence. Other than that, it was perfectly still, perfectly quiet. Not even a hint of wind.

Camping under a full moon!
Camping under a full moon with Anvil Rock just below us and Mt. Adams ever present in the background.

The guys wrestled with being unable to sleep and finally at 9:30 started readying their gear for the summit climb. They left around 10:30 and I bid them a safe, fun climb. They anticipated coming down Sunday around noon, give or take a few hours. I watched their headlamps disappear up to Muir and decided to remove the rain fly from my tent so I could curl up in my sleeping bag, stay warm, and watch the stars. I even spied a few meteors from the Perseid shower! Removing the fly made it chillier but being able to see the sky, the moon, and the gorgeous mountains more than made up for a few shivers here and there.

It’s pretty amazing how warm I stayed considering the only thing between me and the snow was a thin layer of tent and my sleeping pad. That thing really did keep me pretty warm. Every once in a while though I’d wake up after having been in the same position for a while and notice I was cold. I’d turn over and then be fine again.

Watching the sunrise over Mt Adams
Watching the sunrise over Mt Adams

In the wee hours of the morning a small breeze started rustling my tent and I opened my eyes to a gorgeous sunrise. I was too cold to get out of my sleeping bag so I didn’t move. I watched beautiful pink and orange slowly creep across the sky towards Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens and unzipped the tent enough to snap a few pictures. I wondered if the guys had made the summit yet or were still on their way up.

Me and Adams had a delightful morning Breakfast Skillet and Tin Umbrella coffee feast!
Me and Adams had a delightful morning Breakfast Skillet and Tin Umbrella coffee feast!

I stayed warmly huddled in my tent until the sun finally rose enough to quickly warm the temps. Then I got the snow boiling process underway and eagerly awaited my second food experiment: Mountain House’s Breakfast Skillet with Hash Browns, Scrambled Eggs, Sausage, Peppers, and Onions. I pulled my sleeping pad onto the snow, enjoyed my deliciously hot Tin Umbrella coffee and Breakfast Skillet, and marveled at how awesome these little freeze dried meals were. I’m not sorry at all I hauled all this booty up the mountain.

By 10am though I was baking on the snow. I re-flyed the tent but it was too hot to sit inside. I retreated inside the vestibule of the guys’ tent, partly shaded from the sun but with no breeze I could only stand it for 10-15 minutes before suffocating. I dug a hole in the snow and tried to sit inside on my sleeping pad but there was just no escaping the sun anywhere. I felt like a rotisserie chicken.

Around 11:30 I trekked up to Muir to wait on the guys to return and hopefully find a little shade. With no pack and no weight I quickly passed hordes of people laboring up. What a difference a day at altitude and 35 less pounds make!

A busy Camp Muir on Sunday. And lots of hot mountaineers - paradise!
A busy Camp Muir on Sunday. And lots of hot mountaineers – paradise!

Muir was busy indeed. Climbing party after climbing party slowly came down the snowfield from the summit. They hi-fived, they cheered, they collapsed into the snow. Hot, shirtless, muscled mountaineering guys were everywhere. This was heaven indeed! I stayed at Muir until 1:30, hunkered down in the shade between two outbuildings, and still no sign of the guys anywhere. Off in the distance there were still lots of people coming down the Cleaver.

I finally had to return to camp for food and water so I descended, fired up the stove, and finished off the last of my food: Mountain House’s spaghetti with meat sauce. Again, more than shocked at how delicious this was and how easily it went down. These freeze dried packs are so light and easy, I’ll definitely be buying more to take on my outings. Two thumbs up for Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry!

By 3pm I was starting to get a little worried. Most teams had come down, packed up camp, and headed back down the snowfield to Paradise. Still no sign of the guys and it was getting late in the day to still be up there. Around 3:30 I talked with some folks who said they saw lots of slower teams on the mountain but no one seemed in trouble, so I started back up to Muir to check in with the climbing rangers, hopeful they were just having a long day.

About 5 minutes up the trail I spotted one of them coming down and he said the others weren’t far behind. They had been out of water for hours so we booked it back to camp and spent the next 45 minutes with stoves on high making pot after pot of water. The guys had summitted!! But they had been on the mountain for an exhausting 17 hours. I couldn’t believe it.

Bye bye beautiful mountain!
She never gets old – what a beauty!

We started the hike/glissade back down the snowfield around 5:30. The youngest in their party was a master boot glissader and left me in the dust. The others were still behind packing up their stuff and moving slowly so I carefully glissaded down in my trail runners, trying to balance my pack weight and not crash. At one point my feet went out from under me and I landed on my back, flailing like a flipped turtle. All of a sudden someone laughed and gave me their hand. Heads up, cute mountaineer to the rescue!

Mystery guy helped me up and then he gave me some glissading tips and off he went, masterly covering about 20 ft per second. He said since he had the keys, he had to catch his buddies ahead of him. “Maybe I’ll see you in the parking lot?” he yelled as he said bye.

I got back to the Paradise lot around 6:45 and have never felt so relieved to drop my backpack, grab a cold beer, and change my clothes. Ahhhhhhh. Since the guys were still slowly making their way down, I packed the Jeep and set off to hit the road. Just as I finished loading I looked up to see a guy standing next to my Jeep smiling. My glissading rescuer! “Are you from Seattle?” he asked. I told him yep. “I’m Kevin. I got a marker from my buddy. Can I write your number on my boot?” Oh geez, just dagger my heart why don’t you. And with that I met Kevin, cute mountaineer from Rainier. What a great weekend! I love this mountain.

On the way back down, feeling a little charbroiled from the sun and altitude but loving this weekend! Note to self: never wear these stupid lenses again on snow. That is all.
On the way back down, feeling a little charbroiled from the sun and altitude but loving this weekend! Note to self: never wear these stupid lenses again on snow. I can’t believe I’m not snowblind.


Round Trip: 8.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,640′
GPS tracks show lower as we camped below Camp Muir at Anvil Rock
High Point: 10,080′
Hiking Time: 3:45 up, overnight, then about 1:00 down thanks to glisadding!

GPS Tracks

GPS track of the ascent to our camp at Anvil Rock

Camp Muir