Dad, can we go to Mt. Rainier on Saturday? With that simple request by my 9 year old son the empty calendar for Saturday became full. My son knows that I love to go to The Mountain and that his older sisters don’t particularly care to make the winding two hour drive from our house. In essence, he was asking to go hiking with me for the day. After getting the blessing of my wife (who would be in charge of four kids while we were gone) we looked at our hiking options. In the two and a half years that we’ve lived in Washington we have been to Mt. Rainier close to ten times, and always to the Paradise area on the south side. With this in mind, my son asked if we could hike to Camp Muir, which is the basecamp hikers use when trying to summit from Paradise. It’s a hike that takes at least 5-6 hours and requires a fair amount of skill and experience, not to mention better equipment and preparation than what we currently had. It’s also a roughly 5000′ elevation climb. So, a little disappointed, he agreed to consider less strenuous options. I suggested a combo mountain bike and hike option only to get it quickly rejected because he wanted to hike in snow. That meant we were going to have to go to either Paradise or Sunrise, the trailhead area on the north side of Mt. Rainier.
We finally agreed on a moderate hike from Sunrise to Berkeley Park, an 11.3 mile round trip hike that should take about 6 hours to complete. We packed our backpacks with sunblock, hats, sun glasses, water bottles, cameras, food, and sweatshirts (just in case). The forecast was for sunshine and 80 degrees at Mt. Rainier. Despite not getting to sleep very early, we both woke up ready to go on our adventure and were out the door by 8:30 am. Not super early but (hopefully) early enough to beat the crowds and get a parking spot. About 45 minutes into our drive my son realized that he had forgotten to bring his backpack. I teased him that I’d only asked him to bring one thing and that he forgot it. He laughed and I told him that we’d figure it out. It wasn’t a deal breaker. He kindly offered to carry my backpack, or to take turns at the very least.
After a pit stop about 20 minutes shy of our destination we entered the official boundary of Mt. Rainier National Park. We were getting so close. Then we stopped. A line of cars with no end in sight. I almost turned around to go to the Paradise entrance, probably at least 45 minutes away. But I didn’t. I actually relaxed and was patient. My son, C, hopped out of the van and walked ahead a little bit and returned 5 minutes later to tell me that the line was going to move faster because a second ranger station had opened to admit cars. Woo-hoo! Sure enough, a few minutes later we were on our way to Sunrise. There’s always something spectacular about driving through the curvy and tree lined roads and getting that first up-close view of The Mountain once you leave the wooded area. This was no exception.
Once we parked and used the restroom we headed to the Visitor Center. A park ranger there suggested a better route for us that was almost as long but was sure to have more snow-covered parts of the trail. My son was ecstatic. We decided to follow the trail from Sunrise to Skyscraper Peak. About 8 miles roundtrip, 4.5-5 hours of hiking, 1700′ elevation gain. Yikes. Since it was already noon I suggested that we eat lunch before embarking on our adventure. I quickly made some PB&J sandwiches that we wolfed down with some fruit and water. I found an extra backpack, hat and sunglasses for my son to borrow. Only, he refused to wear it because it was pink. So, naturally, I rocked that pink backpack. No big deal. We applied sunblock for the first of three times and took off. The first mile was somewhat crowded because it’s a popular ridge trail that’s pretty easy to follow while still yielding some wonderful views of The Mountain and the surrounding area. We saw families, older couples, obvious tourists and even a group of guys wearing dresses and brightly colored leggings with their hiking boots. My son, C, can walk faster than me so he was in the lead. He passed all of the people efficiently and soon, after about a mile, we were clear of the groups of people that had been clogging the trails. A short while later we came upon Frozen Lake, a beautiful lake that remained partially snow-covered for our visit (July 26) despite it being warm and sunny. This was our first water break.
A few hundred feet later we came upon the first snow that we could actually touch. C was in heaven. He bounded over to the snow, ran up part of the hill, and slid down part of it in his shorts!
We moved on after that, following the trail about another half mile, to a major trail intersection. At that point we were both pretty warm and so we took a short water break again. Once we determined our trail we were back at it. Only this time the terrain was more barren than previously. Lots of rocks and a dusty trail. Getting warmer. But, ahead, I spotted a large snow patch. So did C. So he ran ahead and I knew exactly what was in store for me. Once I got in range he started launching snowballs in my general direction. Thankfully, his aim isn’t great yet. I lobbed some back at him with equal “success”. What he didn’t notice was the lady walking from the other direction (his back was to her since he was trying to pelt me) who tossed a snowball at him. Like my wife, she had good aim and connected with her target. He whirled at her and (thankfully) barely hit her leg. We all laughed as she and her husband continued on in the opposite direction of us. After a few more minutes we arrived atop a ridge that opened into a green valley with sounds of running water and green grass and wildflowers. A stark contrast to the rocky wasteland we were leaving. After crossing two more small snow fields we made it to a small creek with some rocks next to it where we could rest a bit, reapply sunblock, and eat some of the fruit I’d packed. From what I could tell we had probably another 1.5 miles to go until we reached Skyscraper Peak.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that I have some physical issues that can make walking and running difficult at times. My right knee is arthritic, swollen and damaged, as I tore my meniscus in 2011. My left foot and ankle are also bad, filled with arthritis, swollen and weakened. My son knows this and knows that sometimes I just need to rest a bit longer than him. It also prevents me from walking as quickly as him. It’s not something that I complain too much about and I try to live my life as normally as possible and suck up the pain as best I can. Thankfully, on this hike, my physical ailments were not hindering me too much. Just before we resumed our hike three people coming back stopped by us to rest. They told us we had probably another 45 minutes to reach the peak. And that the trail was about to get a little bit more challenging with an inclined snow-covered trail section followed by a steep climb to the peak. I figured we’d be fine since the people telling me this information were older than me and appeared to be in roughly the same shape. Slightly thicker in the middle than we should be but still game for a hike. As we walked on a NPS ranger was coming toward us and stopped to talk. He noted that neither my son or I were wearing hiking boots and warned us of this extremely dangerous upcoming part of the trail that was snow-covered. We thanked him and carried on. I was wondering to myself it was going to really be that bad or if he was just being extra cautious for our benefit. About five minutes later some people coming down the path toward us made me reconsider just how really dangerous this hike was going to be. An obviously pregnant (probably 7-8 months by my guess) lady was walking with a few others. I used that as motivation. If she can haul herself and the child in her belly up this trail I can do it too. No problem. SUCK IT UP, CARL! Then, just around the bend and across the field, lay the danger zone. We looked at our options and carefully walked across. I thought of my own father, who, while hiking with my older brother and me on Mt. Rainier in 1985, was petrified to cross a similar snow-covered path on our hike. My brother and I were so bemused by his fright that we gleefully pelted him with snowballs, eliciting the hoped-for yelps to STOP IT! But, I digress. Back to the present hike. While there was certainly danger, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the ranger had made it sound and the pregnant lady had crossed it.
Once safely across we could see our final destination right in front of us and Mt. Rainier and Emmons Glacier behind us. The only “problem” was that it was about 400′ elevation change to get to the top of Skyscraper Peak, at 7079′ above sea level. Of course, C took off jogging while I trudged on. This apparently entertained people descending from the peak. They informed me that the smile on his face was priceless, as he as grinning from ear to ear while scampering up the steep terrain. When I was about halfway up I heard a shout of Hey Dad, I made it! Why are you taking so long? Hurry up. At least he didn’t call me old man. After what seemed like forever but was really 15-20 minutes of I think I can, I think I can, I think I can I finally made it to the peak. I summited my first “mountain”! Seriously. How cool was that? We found some rocks in the safety of a small plateau area to sit on while I rested. My heart was beating like the Energizer Bunny on steroids. I could literally feel it pulsing and slowing as I took more sips of water and at a clementine. Another hiker (who had already been there when we arrived) opened a bag of M&Ms and started eating it. I was insanely jealous of her wise decision to bring candy to reward her ascent. Although, my orange was pretty tasty. Right. Of course my boy wanted to go back down after just a couple of minutes. My response elicited laughter from the other adult hikers. I worked way too hard to get up here to leave right away. And I wasn’t even trying to be funny. After checking out the stunning view from atop the peak we took the obligatory picture and began our return trip to Sunrise.
I’d love to say that the return trip was a breeze. It wasn’t. It was brutal. Hot. Tired legs. Water wasn’t cool any longer. Warm water just doesn’t refresh as well. Did I mention I was tired? It was still fun to be with my boy and to talk while we hiked. He, too, was a little slower on the return trip. Maybe because I was going a tiny bit slower or because of the different direction we were going, I don’t know. For whatever reason, I noticed the wildflowers more on our return trip than before. Despite such harsh conditions and a short growing season they thrive in this environment, bringing beauty and diversity to the area. My favorites are ones that remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.
At this point we had been hiking (or resting) for over four hours. Both of us were exhausted, physically and mentally. And we still had about two more miles to go. Crossing the same small snow fields on the way back yielded no more snowball fights. C told me he was too tired to throw anything at me, which was slightly comforting. My knee was starting to protest but I gave it the silent K treatment. We got back to Frozen Lake, which meant we had exactly one mile to go. This time, with a few clouds having moved in, Frozen Lake was even more photogenic.
Finally, more than five hours after beginning our hike, we arrived back at our van at Sunrise. We both gulped some cold drinks from the snack bar and quietly climbed in for our drive back home. C had a contented smile on his face. As we talked in the van he expressed how proud he was of himself for doing such a big hike. I admitted that it was the longest hike I’ve ever taken in my life. He asked if we could bring Mom along next time so that she could see how beautiful it was up there. He also claimed dibs on the first shower once we got home.