Friday, April 8, 2011

Whiteout danger on the mountain

I’ve had my sights set on Camp Muir since summiting Mt. Rainier landed on my “to-do” list last summer. Friends warned me that it was an all-day trip into a world of ice and rock (halfway up Rainier) but I was eager to test my altitude aptitude and see how well my body handled climbing to 10,000 feet. I emerged from this expedition a little shaken with a slight fear of the mountain, great confidence in my physical abilities and a reminder that preparedness is often the line between adventure and disaster.

We started out beneath a clear, blue sky and immediately started sweating as we headed uphill from Paradise. Temperatures hovered in the mid-70s and glacier glasses were necessary to protect our eyes from the blinding brightness reflecting off the snow. The trail stretched up the flank of Rainier and after nearly two miles, we reached Panorama Point. Since the avalanche danger was particularly high today, rangers had set out ascenders to help out the few heading up and over the rocky slopes.

The trail quickly fell away and there was only a boot path through the Muir snowfield. It was apparent that routefinding skills would be critical as we climbed along the face of the snowfield for 2.5 miles, still enjoying the warm weather and stunning views. I was elated to shed my beanie, gloves and multiple layers for the day (though the excruciating sunburn on my neck and ears wasn’t worth it in the end).

By the time we’d reached Camp Muir, a large white cloud loomed in the distance from where we’d just come. Within a half hour, snow was falling rapidly and the winds had picked up. By the time we landed back on the snowfield and picked up the few trail markers we’d put out, we were stuck in a whiteout. Seeing more than a few feet in front of us was impossible. The powder had turned to ice and I repeatedly slipped and went crashing down on a knee. An ice axe became my most cherished possession. Our boot path had disappeared and we wandered aimlessly for more than an hour, scouting slopes that we could possibly skirt down and turning back when the ice proved too dangerous.

It was about this time that I developed a newfound respect for the mountain and the technical skills needed to summit. Since night was just around the corner, we retraced our steps until we found campers who could point us in the right direction. As we climbed lower, we left the whiteout behind and were rewarded with a breathtaking sunset. After all we’d just gone through, I thought it the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

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