Friday, September 22, 2023

Camp Muir (Mount Rainier)

For most American mountaineers, to summit Mount Rainier is a high and worthy objective. In the Lower 48, it probably is the premier mountaineering objective. You would have to journey up to the Alaskan peaks, like Denali, to find something bigger and greater. My father, brother, and I spent 24 years climbing the highest peaks in Colorado and we would readily admit none of them are in the class of Rainier. For my brother and I, it remains on the possible future objectives list if and when we feel the time is right.

For now, we just wanted to wet our appetite. A climb up to Camp Muir is special in its own right. It is a bit of a halfway point to the summit of Rainier and also an overnight basecamp for those intending to summit. It also happens to be a popular dayhike objective for many tourists and hikers alike who make the trip to the National Park. Generally speaking, it is a fairly accessible route to get up to Camp Muir with most hikers of average experience being able to do it safely. One should be prepared with reasonable skills for snow travel and also understand the perils of mountain weather and terrain. There is nothing strictly technical about the route in terms of rock climbing, rock scrambling, or glacier travel.

Trip Info:
Skyline Trail to Pebble Creek to Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir

Trailhead Elevation: 5,445 ft.
Camp Muir Elevation: 10,188 ft.
Distance: 10.60 mi. 
Elevation Gain: 4,744 ft.
Start Time: 7:14am
End Time: 1:58am
Ascent: 3:32
On Top: 0:30
Descent: 2:40

Trip Report:
Our hike up to Camp Muir was our third consecutive day of big gains. Having climbed Mt. St. Helens (5000ft), and then Mt Adams (7600ft) in the two days prior, today began on some slightly sore legs. Nonetheless, we cruised up the initial 0.6 miles of paved trail passing by the morning tourists as we did. When the trail turns to dirt it also gets spectacularly beautiful. With Rainier persistently in front of you and beautiful terrain close by this portion of the Skyline trail is relentlessly amazing.

Fitting the journey up to Camp Muir
begins on the steps with a quote from John Muir

Despite all of this, before we even started today my head wasn't in a good place for this hike. I had read trail reports from the National Park Service sometime in August saying that the Muir Snowfield was in bad shape and to expect conditions to be icy and crevasses forming. I took this news alongside the knowledge that the snowfield covers up to the last 2800ft of the approach to Camp Muir and I wasn't relishing the idea of the climb. I come at this from a pretty conservative perspective when it comes to safety in the mountains. I also come at it from a personal struggle with safety on snowfields. I was certainly a primary contributor to our turn around on Crestone Peak in 2008 when we encountered steep snow in the red gully and decided I didn't feel my skill or comfort level was up to tackling it.

Mt. Adams off in the distance to the south

Just beautiful!

I felt from the start of today's adventure a 50-50 shot we would turn around when we encountered less than desirable conditions on the snowfield. Much to our delight today, from Paradise it was evident that the snowfield wasn't continuous up the mountain. In fact from that low vantage point it appeared most of the lower portions were melted out or avoidable. This added instant encouragement to the day's objective.

Mostly good trail on the hiking up
to Panorama Point and above

When the trails brought us up to just above Panorama Point we took a slight detour trail to get a beautiful 360 vista of the area. We made our way on to the Pebble Creek trailhead where some seasonal signage warned of crevasses having opened on the Muir Snowfield. It was evident to us that this September timeframe was practically past season for high climbing on the mountain. The powdery and firm snow had given way to crusty and icy snow with crevasses forming even down low.

Seasonal sign about the snowfield

After this sign the real, established trail basically ends. We wondered if it would be a complete bushwhack up to Camp Muir from here. Fortunate for us in the moment, we encountered a gentleman carrying skies who was headed up the route and he had done this many times over. We were shocked an in wonder where he was going to ski today (and that's a story for another day, we never did figure out what he skiied and none of the snow we encountered seemed suitable for it). We followed him for just over a half mile through the mix of rocks and dirt and occasional trail segments. It was evident that the route would be much like we had encountered on the upper half of Adams yesterday, sometimes there, sometimes less.

First snow to be dealt with

Around 7800 feet we finally encountered snow that would have to be dealt with. The skiier traversed straight across it. It didn't seem overly steep but at this early moment in the morning I neither wanted to stop our hike to get any traction gear out, nor did I want to take any chances just yet. We opted to hike upwards along the west (left) side of the snow eyeing what appeared to be flatter terrain above. About 150 feet up the snow did mellow out a bit and we traversed across the upper parts which were nearing being flat. On the east side we could see what looked like trail in loose dirt on a steep slope. We seemed to be climbing up to a ridge that normally marks the eastern side of the Muir Snowfield. We could see in hindsight this area might be snowfree most of the summer and probably used by many as an option on the path to Camp Muir. We encountered better trail segments in here as well as sections of dirt and sand. I was intrigued a few days later to see some maps referring to some of this portion as "Little Africa".

The basic trail segments kept us going til we finally had to deal with the upper part of the Muir Snowfield around 9300. We did spot a guy continuing to climb up to a ridge between Camp Muir and Anvil Rock. We even ran into him at the Camp and asked him about his route. He did avoid snow the whole ascent but said the rock and that route got sketchy in spots so it wasn't any better than dealing with the snow itself. From our spot at 9300 we opted to put on crampons and pull out the ice ax. The snowfield wasn't overly steep at this point. It was a very firm snowpack and certainly had 2-3 inches of nearly firm ice on the top layers. But the very top inch was crusty and full of texture from recent melting. We met others using microspikes and they also seemed up to the task. We made it another 300 vertical feet and perhaps just over a quarter mile across the snowfield when we encountered our first crevasse. The rest of the path to the camp would be like this. The crevasses were noticeable and we never felt worried about being on an unknown snowbridge over an unseen crevasse. Some of them were just a few feet deep and some only inches wide. Others could have been 10-20 feet possibly more deep. Thankfully we never encountered a crevasse we could bypass by zig-zagging laterally by 50-100 feet. We also never had to cross a bridge that didn't seem less 2-3 fee thick of icy firmness. It certainly was new experience for us and we took it cautiously. But in retrospect it doesn't appear that it was a very dangerous crossing.
The upper Muir Snowfield.
Camp Muir is at the left edge of the photo

David on the Muir Snowfield with Rainier in background

We made it to camp around 10:45am. The last hundred feet or so up to Camp were dry and dirt. We were surprised how many buildings were up there. Seemed lots of it was "lodging" and quite a few small bathroom buildings. Some of it was NPS Ranger and some for the guide services. We set about trying to understand where the route to the summit would leave from Camp. While up there we met a nice trio from Virginia, one of whom was navy out of Norfolk. The weather was glorious with lots of blue sky and sun and even the temps and the wind were comfortable. After two cloudy, windy and cold summits in previous days on St. Helens and Adams this was wonderful.

The final approach to Camp Muir

At first we thought the route to the summit might head up the challenging rock ridge up to and behind Gibraltar Rock. But then we realized, it actually heads northeast from camp along the upper part of the Cowlitz Glacier and then over a ridge called Cathedral Rocks. We further wondered where extra tents would get setup and have later learned it wasn't on the upper part of the Muir Snowfield as we had suspected when we were at camp. They are actually setup on the edge of the Cowlitz Glacier by camp. There are even others who go further up route, past Cathedral Rocks and setup on the edge of the Ingraham Glacier in an area called Ingraham Flats. Being up at camp and then subsequently looking at maps and satellite shots of the upper mountain were a revelation. It really brought the topography of the mountain into mind more clearly and I can very clearly understand the route now. It makes the possibility of attempting the mountain ourselves more clear now and seemingly very attainable if we're willing to take on the objective risks and the costs.

A look at the upper Cowlitz Glacier.
The route would head directly to the right off this photo

You can see the faint trail segments in the Cathedral Rocks
on the other side of the Cowlitz Glacier
(this view is what you would see if you panned right
from my previous photo)

We spent a good 30 minutes at camp til we decided it was time to go. We no more and got our snow gear on below camp and the clouds settled in again giving us a clear whiteout to descend the upper snowfield. We tried to take a more easterly course on the descent following the trio who had descended in microspikes. This still led us into plenty of crevasses to avoid. We ended up bread-crumbing off the GPX track I made on the ascent as the white-out had robbed us of any visibility. We decided to descend much further down the snowfield than we had ascended deciding it was safe enough and arguably easier than the rocks we hit on the ascent.

White-out on the descent of the snowfield

Fascinating cloud deck

The remaining route below went without much fanfare. We joined up with the many tourists once we regained the Skyline Trail and it felt like a Colorado 14er on a weekend. We hit much of the Alta Vista trail on the descent which was a nice way to avoid some of the paved trail. We were also delighted to find the 10th Mountain Memorial.

The views were so good on the descent

While I had trepidations about conditions before this hike, it turned out to be a true highlight for our 4-day trip and one with lasting memories. Camp Muir was a treat to experience and I feel as though I've really gotten to know Rainier much better and can't wait to find an opportunity to return.

The colors!

Back in the meadows

10th Mountain Division Memorial

I have a track and waypoints from the activity all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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