This past July, I caught my first glimpse of Mt. Rainier on an unusually sunny day at Washington University. Jack and I were vacationing to Seattle and wanted to check out possible graduate school locations. As we approached the Drumheller Fountain, I saw her standing magnificently over the Seattle skyline.
I alerted Jack to the mountain, and the gasp that came from his mouth stopped my heart. It was so surprising to see Mt. Rainier standing there so clearly! We had already planned on climbing part of Mt. Rainier during our vacation, having rented a car and brought all the mountaineering gear we could fit in our suitcases, and were now looking forward to it more than ever.
On July 9th, we were woken up at an ungodly hour (okay, 7:30am) by a knock on the door with our breakfast, as we didn’t want to stop until we got to Mt. Rainier National Park. We rushed through our bagels and coffee as we packed up our backpacks for the hike, gathering beers, hammocks, sunscreen, and the unnecessary jacket.
The drive there, like our drive the night before through the Olympic Mountains and along the Pacific coast, was stunning beyond belief. We wound through backcountry roads, passed the magnificent Alder Dam, and saw dozens of old logging sites. The forests were just starting to recover from all the years of destruction, and I was pleased to see signs along the way advocating the restoration of these once-verdant hills.
The road continued on and on, past small bodegas and tourist motor inns, before we saw the magnificent wooden arch that heralded our arrival: Mt. Rainier National Park.
The road winded alongside a glacial river. The water level was low due to the lack of recent rainfall, and the large boulders that littered the river looked like fun to hop out of the car and jump around on. We didn’t end up stopping, however – as we crossed our first bridge, Jack let out a huge gasp and hastily reached for his camera: our first up close glimpse at the massive Mt. Rainier.
Our eyes flitted frantically between the road in the sky, looking for another glimpse of the peak of Rainier. Thankfully, the weather was cooperating, and we were treated to some fantastic views!
We finally reached the parking lot after a winding drive and prepared ourselves for the hike ahead. Mt. Rainier looked particularly daunting, even from the 2,400 feet we were already at. Antsy to start moving, we started off on the Dead Horse Creek Trail.
I was surprised and sort of disappointed to see that the trail was paved. It made for quicker ascent, sure, but it took away from the charm of climbing one of the tallest mountains in America. It also meant that loads of people were unprepared – we saw so, so many tourists in running shoes with only one bottle of water.
Feeling over prepared, we broke some rules and ducked off the trail into the most beautiful clearing I’ve ever seen. Jack and I took a water break under a large pine tree, watching butterflies flit from wildflower to wildflower. The wildflowers had the air heavy with perfume, and I sincerely wished I could have bottled it up the fragrance and taken it home with me.
To avoid the attention of a ranger, we rushed back to the trail and acted like we were just two innocent hikers. Eventually, we came across a National Park Ranger, who surprised me by having a holster with a gun on her. I had only seen a few Rangers in my life – and none had been armed! I was surprised, but she thankfully continued on her way.
Just when we couldn’t think Rainier could get more beautiful, she got more stunning. We stopped numerous times on our trek towards the summit to take in the glaciers, waterfalls, wildflowers, marmots, and even the peak! As we climbed higher, the crowds diminished, and soon we were spotting people making their way back from the summit with framed backpacks and ice picks.
The higher we climbed, though, the more ill I felt. I was getting tired, hungry, and disoriented. I had never climbed higher than 4,000 feet – and here we were, about to hit 7,000. The enormity of the mountain got to me and I needed to sit down and take a few deep breaths. Thankfully, Mt. Rainier was kind, and let off a cool glacial breeze as we relaxed for a few moments.
As we started to hike again, I had to stop in my tracks. The trail had us going through a glacial field – which meant we were climbing through snow! We had to walk on top of a snow patch from a glacier to continue on to McClure Rock. I saw the snow and wanted to wave the white flag, as the last bit of the journey we had accomplished had been intimidating enough, but the bragging rights of hiking in snow in July were just too much to pass up.
We hit the Danger Zone shortly after, a sign warning us that there were no maintained trails and few landmarks past this point. The signed warned against sheer cliffs, crevasses, and dangerous weather changes. The trail shifted after a few more minutes where we could either continue to Camp Muir, or climb the short remainder of a hike up to McClure Rock. As we didn’t want to chance any crevasses without ice picks, we climbed the short way to McClure Rock.
At 7,385 feet, it was the highest I’ve ever been or climbed. My legs were shaking. I sat down on a rock and marveled at the mountain, watching people descend from Camp Muir through the snow. We took some incredible pictures, and we settled in to relax for a while on top of the mountain.
Unfortunately, our peace and quiet was short lived.
We heard a distant rumble and dismissed it as the glaciers on Rainier moving, as the maps and research that we had done warned us that the mountain sometimes made grunts and groans of its own under the colossal weight of the glaciers. A moment later, and the clouds started rolling in over the adjacent Tattosh range.
Then lightning struck on one of the taller peaks.
Jack and I are no strangers to running through storms, having been caught in a particularly dangerous thunderstorm at Mianus River Gorge in New York a few months prior. The problem with this one is that we were way above tree line with no shelter in sight.
Suddenly, we were darting down the mountain, taking a different route from the way we journeyed up. As we rushed down, hopping over large rocks, we watched as lightning struck again.
Our sense of urgency was spurred on, but the sights were just too beautiful not to stop and smell the wildflowers. They had been growing since we began our climb but they were more beautiful than ever as we started our decent down to Panorama Point. We were treated with every color under the rainbow! I was in awe… and couldn’t resist taking pictures until another strike of lightning spurred us on.
We kept passing people that were still motoring up the mountain despite the rumbles of thunder in the distance, most with running shoes and only one bottle of water. We advised a few who asked us to turn back around and start the decent, but most of them kept trekking upwards.
It looked like the storm passed over us without danger so we decided to take a little break. We climbed down a little side path as quickly as we could and found an amazing waterfall! Drinking our water, we perched near the top and relaxed, still in awe of how amazingly beautiful Rainier is. Enjoying the rolling hills for a few more moments, we packed back up and rushed back to the path to avoid more rangers.
By now, we had already descended about half about what we climbed. Jack and I climbed a small side trail, giving an excellent vista of Rainier – providing a view that rivaled a National Geographic cover. As a new tradition, we did a little bit of yoga to savor the moment and stretch our aching muscles.
The rest of the climb down was easy as it was paved, but man, was it tough on our knees. It took what felt like mere moments to reach the parking lot, and disappointment took over as we reached the car. As I looked back up at the mountain, I realized how much I already missed it.
I have never been an adventurer and here I was, having braved almost 8,000 feet of Mount Rainier. My heart was beaming with pride, and I promised that I’d be back to summit one day.