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Near whiteout on Rainier

Posted by joeabbott on May 4, 2009

As we continue to prepare for our summit bid on Mt. Baker later this month, we have been getting out more and more. Last weekend we climbed to just below Silver Peak before the weather got to us and we headed home; this weekend we were slapped in the face for trying Mt. Rainier (actually, just a hike to Camp Muir).

The “we” are my friend Scott and Adam. Together we’ve done a bit of hiking but are interested in climbing Baker. I’ve been up it before and willing to play the role of the “lead” but both Scott and Adam have been out. Last year (or was it the year before?) Adam and I teamed up to climb Mt. Rainier with his wife Thea. We summitted and I have a picture of Adam and I on the summit sitting on my window sill at work.

Anyhow, together we planned out a couple months of training hikes and are now into the final stretch. This past weekend was a test run for the three of us to do a little snow camping at altitude with full packs. As I was stuffing my pack full of gear I was dreading the outing … it would be tough.

As the weekend was drawing near a front was coming in … actually two fronts. One following the other. The first would bring cooler temps and some rain; the second just more rain. Still, we were hoping to be high enough to just have to worry about the cold, packed some extra warm gear, and headed out.

Scott drove which was nice. It’s really nice not being the only one to drive, as usually happens when I head out. It was even nicer (and I think one of the few times!) that I was picked up at my house! No driving at all!

They got me around 9 AM on Saturday and as we headed down to Rainier National Park the rain started pelting the windscreen. Not a deluge but enough to tell us we would get wet. We stopped at Longmire and got a back country camping permit (you need this if you plan to camp outdoors in a National Park) and we talked to the ranger about the conditions. Cold and wet. When I asked if he thought there’d be room in the shelters at Camp Muir for us, he chuckled and said something about not giving out many permits that day. I got the feeling we’d be lonely.

At Paradise we suited up, did some last minute gear swapping and adjusting, and readied to head up. I had the heaviest pack but was pretty sure it’s just because I have older gear. Stuff that was made before “light and fast” was a mantra. Both Adam and Scott got a laugh out of the fact that I probably do more mountaineering than both of them combined but I have crap gear: worn out clothes, old pack and boots, and generally things that are showing some wear. Yup, that’s me. And for it I have to deal with the fact that my pack weighs about 8 pounds empty and dry and the rest of the stuff is about as bad. Alas.

I also had my share of group gear: the stove\pot\fuel and a tent\tarp\poles. Then I had general group gear that was lighter: first aid kit, extra slings\webbing, cameran and GPS. Additionally, winter camping requires extra warm clothes and my heavier sleeping bag. It all adds up and, in the end, I was probably carrying the better part of 60 pounds. But, the other guys had their share (Adam was carrying a backup stove and Scott had the rope and filter). No one was shirking any duties.

We headed up under cloudy skies but it had stopped raining. The going was a bit tough for the occasional punching through and ugly footing but we made OK time. The grunt up to Panorama Point was steep and took some effort. At the top was a small hut\bathroom that appeared closed. We stopped there for a bite and noted that we were starting to get a lot of wind and it was noticeably colder. I put my jacket back on and we continued up.

As we got on Muir Snowfield the clouds closed in and the wind picked up. It wasn’t whiteout conditions but it was getting very close. The faint trail that Scott was following soon faded to nothing and we headed up by keeping a ridge line to our immediate right but it often faded out of view. We continued on as Adam proclaimed us “absurdly close” but I wasn’t convinced.  If we were even remotely close we would have made fantastic time … as it was, I thought we were only making OK time. Still, we’d early seen the Muir huts from below and aside from a vague sense of being a bit off-line, we were probably doing fine.

But, we circled together and took an assessment of the situation: the day was bad and getting worse, tomorrow was supposed to be more of the same. We all felt good enough to continue but none of us wanted an “epic” and forcing a climb is stupid. The outing was intended to give us a work out and, while we’d miss out on winter camping, we’d already made an agreement that staying in the huts was the better choice. A lot more snow as coming down than had been predicted.

So, we turned and descended. After dropping about 400′, the skies partially opened and we craned our necks to see if we could glimpse Muir. While there were a few patches of visibility, the top of the mountain remained shrouded. We continued down and managed a couple glisades. The snow as still iffy and icky; I was punching through and slipping a bit. Enough to feel frustrated. Before getting to the bottom it opened up and rained on us to get us good and wet.

At the truck I changed into dry and warm clothes, we nibbled some chips, and headed home. I can’t deny that spending a night at home was more comfortable than Muir was promising. I played some Xbox Lego Star Wars, talked a bit with Suzanne, and enjoyed some mashed potatoes I made to refuel.

On Sunday I felt fine but not motivated to do a whole lot. I didn’t really have sore muscles but my feel hurt enough that I enjoyed staying off them as much as I could. I’m hoping for a better outing the next couple of weeks. Perhaps I might even see the top of something!


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