We left well before dawn, the hatch brimming with equipment, a cooler humming in the back seat and sipping Starbucks lattes. As we exited the city and ventured down narrower lanes, the sky brightened to a clear blue and Mt. Rainier rose majestically in the early morning light. Beckoning to us.
Arriving just as the gate opened, we reached the parking lot among the throng of outdoor adventurers eager to be the first ones up the mountain. In the warmth of the sunshine, skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, and backpacks littered the ground and cheerful chatter punctuated the air of excitement.
Erik, Katie and I carried our snowshoes to the trail entrance where we strapped them on. We were hardly alone, joining the long column of people stretching out ahead of us, trekking up the trail – we dubbed it The Great Mt. Rainier Migration. All destined for Panorama Point or beyond, high above.
Snowshoeing in the mountains, I had envisioned thick powdery snow through narrow tree-lined paths. But here was a wide open expanse encompassing open fields, glaciers, rocky outcroppings and clusters of pines, all gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The snow was more than well packed, and I was thankful for the metal teeth and firm grip of my snowshoes.
I was most intrigued by those who were ski mountaineering. With thick skins on their skis, many were shuffling their skills uphill. Others chose to strap a ski on each side of their backpacks, forming a peak over their heads as they trudged with crampons on their boots. We seemed to be in the minority choosing snowshoes.
As we advanced, so did the steepness of the slope. When we got to the true climb, I gladly accepted the trekking poles Erik had brought along. I learned to punch with my toes then step up and repeat. The surface was as slippery as it was firm, and I was grateful when Erik positioned himself behind me – just in case. We commiserated with those around us, marveling at the icy slope and encouraging one another. By this time, the skiers had all removed their skis.
Step by step I moved upward. A slow and careful process, never looking down, only just at the spot in front of me where I might punch my next set of metal teeth. Up ahead Katie had already scrambled to the top, nimble in her youth and fitness. Never once did I allow myself to think about the return trip. About how I was going to navigate that sliding hill in reverse. I lived fully in the present, elated to be doing this, committed to making it.
And then we were there. Standing atop Panorama Point, buffeted by heavy wind threatening to blow me over, soaking in the warm sunshine and the view of peaks in every direction. Mt. Rainier in all its splendor.
We considered our options for going back down, but the alternate routes were sparsely populated and we took that as a sign. Better to be among the masses then off on our own. Still steeling myself from thinking about it, I followed Erik and Katie back over the edge. Back onto the slick slope. Inch by inch.
“Say, I’d wait if I were you.”
We turned to find an athletic young man fully outfitted with mountaineering equipment and skis.
“It’s still too icy to go down now. Wait for the sun to soften the snow first. It will be a lot safer then.”
The wisdom of his words took only seconds to absorb and we quickly retreated to the top, calling out our thanks. Surely, this was a scenic spot for our lunch. Scouting out a perch that might provide some protection from the wind we prepared to settle in.
Our friend soon returned.
“Oh, and when you go down – take off your snowshoes and punch your heels into the snow. That will work much better.”
We weren’t alone in dithering over which was the best way down, and we shared laughs with other snowshoers over the options and myriad pieces of advice. But time and sunshine proved our best friends, and the heel-punch method took us right down the softened slope. In fact, by following in the boot-steps of others it was almost like walking down stairs in the pocked snow.
With our climb completed, we still had an afternoon of exploring left. The wide open expanses gave us limitless options for meandering, and I relaxed into the aimless wandering and endless views. By that time, the ski mountaineers were descending the slopes, the best of them carving precise squiggles through virgin snow. A show in itself.
With the temperature soaring and the snow softening, the mountain became a playground. Families built snow forts, kids romped on snowshoes, the adventurous set up tents and boy scouts dug snow caves for spending the night. We found narrow unpopulated trails to explore and stretched our time until gate-closing loomed. The ideal capstone to our day.
We left with that good tired feeling, faces flushed with the sun and wind, the joy of spending time with family and reveling in God’s nature. And the luck of getting good advice.
I have had the best advice, while traveling, from local, friendly, helpful people. Best restaurants, best beaches, best scenic roads, best little known parks. But I can see that this advice, which kept you safe as well as happy was perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard.