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Do: Hike Up! Modern Dog Sledding

Harnessed TEam

The team harnessed and ready to go.

I’m standing in a snow-filled clearing in central Washington watching as one dog’s bark becomes a fervor, spreading until 20 plus dogs are howling, whining and tugging on leashes, clawing excitedly at the snow. Across the clearing two sleds are anchored – eight dogs are harnessed to one, seven to the other – and each time someone begins to walk toward a sled, the howling grows louder and more frenetic. Today we’re going dog sledding and it’s very, very clear the teams are just itching to run.

For more than 6,000 years dog sledding was done by the Mahlemiut Eskimos of northern Alaska and the Chuckchi people of northeastern Siberia. The Mahlemiut used the Alaskan Malamute for hauling food to villages and the Chuckchi employed the Siberian Husky for pulling loads or herding reindeer among other responsibilities. Many of the native communities in northern Alaska still rely on dog sled teams for transportation and its modern adaptation into the sport of racing has spread as far as Northern Europe, U.K. and Japan. The breed of dogs used has also expanded to include even the Standard Poodle who competed from 1988 to 1991 in the famous Iditarod. Today, the teams we’re running are comprised of Malamutes, Huskies and Hokkaidokens.

On the Trail

The team takes to the trail. Note the blue bed bag and the wagging tails of the wheel dogs.

Gingerly I step over the railings, slide into the cargo bed and zip myself in. It’s me and my musher, Tim, on this run. I can’t help but think ‘I’m the cargo’ but the bed is surprisingly comfy and, in the thick waterproof canvas, I start to warm up. Tim grabs the anchor, places it in my lap and steps onto the runners with a curt shout: “Hike up!”

“Hike up!” Not “Mush!” It’s a common misconception, thank you Jack London, that the term mush is like saying giddyup to a horse when, in fact, its pronunciation is useless to dog ears. It’s too soft. Instead, ‘Hike up!’ gets the teams moving. The term mush originates from the French word marche meaning ‘to march.’ During the gold rush anyone traveling north was a musher, no matter their method, but the name stuck with those who traveled by dog sled and fed their dogs “mush.” Hence why my driver, Tim, is a musher.

Our team of eight have already anticipated his call and we begin to cover ground at a jogger’s pace. Sled dogs are known for two things, endurance and speed. Tim tells me the team I’m traveling with has been clocked at close to 20 mph but they’re a recreational team and not used to holding speeds for extended periods. Racing dogs can clock an average of 20 miles an hour for up to 25 miles but over longer distances the average speed drops to about 14 mph. Tim calls ‘Hike up!’ to the team twice more and with each shout their pace increases until I feel a noticeable breeze hitting my face. The path ahead is straight but I can feel Tim’s weight shifting subtly on the rails below me to either keep in line with the wheel dogs or find the smoothest areas of the trail – probably both. Ahead, it’s obvious the dogs are thrilled.

The team keeps this pace until a bend appears in the trail ahead. “Easy!” Tim calls out. Slowing somewhat the lead dog maintains the middle of the trail and the sled begins to swing to the outside. To counteract, Tim shifts his weight into the inside of the corner and the sled straightens, gliding cleanly through. The motion reminds me of countless hours riding a toboggan through the snow behind my parent’s truck.

Constructing a Sled

Though materials have changed from bone, sinew and rawhide to plastics, carbon fiber and Kevlar, modern dog sleds aren’t much different from their traditional predecessors. Two basic types of sled are in use today: The basket sled features a woven cargo bed raised approximately six inches off runners to prevent basket drag on fresh powder; and the toboggan sled which consists of a thick, solid plastic sheet acting as the cargo bed and attached directly to the top of the runners. Typically used in races such as the Iditarod, the toboggan sled’s lower center of gravity helps it float atop deep, unpacked snow. A hybrid style does exist, which we’re running today: A raised toboggan which has a solid plastic bed suspended around four inches above the runners.

All sleds consist of six major components – the primary being the runners and the cargo bed. Runners are the skis that slide along the snow and the cargo bed carries the load atop the runners. At the front of the cargo bed a brushbow acts as a sort of bumper, semi-circular in shape, which deflects brush. A handlebar for the musher is attached behind the cargo bed and footboards are mounted on the back ends of the runners. This is where the musher stands. Finally, a brake is attached to the back of the cargo bed. It’s an aluminum or steel u-shaped bar which, when stepped on, drops two metal claws into the snow to stop or slow the team. Most sleds have a few other items: A snow hook – a metal anchor that is angled to dig deeper into the snow if, say, an excited team suddenly takes off; and a track or drag – a rubber mat that, placed between the runners, acts as a second braking mechanism and applies more uniform resistance than the claws.

Assembling a Team

Roles of a dog sled team
Roles and responsibilities of a dog sled team.

Sled teams are selected and assembled with great care and training usually begins when the dogs are around six months old. The number of dogs that comprise a team varies from just two to upwards of 22 but they’re divided into four roles. At the front are the lead dogs. As the term implies, they set the pace and follow the musher’s commands. Swing dogs travel directly behind the leaders, helping to maintain the pace and aiding in turning the team. Team dogs, next in line, are the horsepower and have the simple task of “follow that tail!” Wheel dogs are the two directly in front of the sled. They assist in steering the sled itself and initiating that first tug to get a stationary sled moving. It’s best for a team if each dog is capable of switching positions, though not all dogs are the powerhouse needed to get a sled moving and not all dogs want to run in front. Of course, the final member of the team is the sled’s driver, the musher.

Dogs are harnessed to the sled using a system called a towline which is composed of five major parts: Starting at the sled, a shock cord – or bungee – is placed between the sled and the towline. If the sled stops suddenly, it absorbs the impact and prevents it from jarring the dogs. The shock cord is connected to a mainline which runs the length of the team to the leader. Each dog’s body harness is connected to the mainline by a tugline. This works in tandem with a neckline which connects a dog’s collar to the mainline. The tugline and the neckline form a triangle of sorts and necklines keep a dog from going the wrong way around an obstacle. The mainline ends at the swing dogs’ necklines. From there, two distinct tuglines connect the leaders who drive without necklines.Basic Mushing Commands

Haw and Gee!

Sleds perform effortlessly on straight, flat trails. But no steering system exists for corners as I quickly learned. Instead, the musher leans from side to side, taking care to lean into the corners as sleds tend to slip to the outside. The brake and track also assist – by applying the brake or stepping onto a track, the sled slows and is pulled to the inside of a turn. Understandable, though not obvious at first, the more strain placed on the dogs, the more control a musher has over the sled. Breaking while descending a hill maintains resistance, keeping the team and sled under control.

From this angle, tucked snugly into the bed bag, resting just six inches off the ground, the forest whips by and the running of the dogs takes on a wave-like rhythm. Their earthy, wet scent mixes with pine and fresh snow and the runners settle into a quiet shhhh skimming along the trail. I’m sure, if my musher looked down, he’d see a smile of bliss creeping at the corners of my mouth.

Where to Find Dog Sledding in Washington

Three main companies offer full day tours or rides by the hour:

Malamute Express | (509) 997-6402
Scenic dog sled adventures through the upper Twisp River Valley

Enchanted Mountain Tours | (509) 763-2975
Guided dog sled tours through the Cascades

Alaska Dreamin’ Sled Dog Co. | (509) 763-8017
Dog sled rides and lessons for children

Do: Open Water Descent and the Visible Spectrum

Getting briefed on the first dive on Saturday morning. 7 ml wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves are worn by students.

Getting briefed on the first dive on Saturday morning. 7 ml wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves are worn by students.

In the grey-blue waters of the Pacific Northwest not far from the horns of the Washington State Ferry and comfortably surrounded by the piers of the Mukilteo T-Dock I’m starting my first open water dive. I’ve heard, through the rumor mill and from seasoned veterans, that the waters off my coastal home are sought after by divers the world over so I’m curious to do my own exploration. I’m bundled cozy in a 7 mm wetsuit, gloves, hood and booties. Other divers, most instructors, layer fleece under dry suits, donning elaborate systems of lights and air tubes in the parking lot beneath the Silver Cloud Inn. The water temperature sits in the mid 50s and the outside air rises to the low 70s as the day progresses, hindered only by a brisk breeze.

This dive, one of four toward completing my open water certification over the next two days (two dives to 30+ feet Saturday and two to 60 feet Sunday), has evolved into a nonreference descent. My ears refused to equalize at 15 feet, so I abandoned the first attempt and returned to the surface with my instructor. On the second attempt we head straight down and it’s a little disconcerting sinking slowly, directly to the bottom, but certainly a trip to experience the full vertical transition. Until we reach the bottom the visibility is limited to about six feet – the span of my arms – making me aware of how much I’m not aware of how far the bottom is from the tips of my fins. So I settle in, letting small amounts of air from my BCD and equalizing my ears.

At depths past 30 feet the world takes on a green glow. Note the neon yellow fins and neon orange whistle against my shoulder. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders, DiveZen Scuba)

At depths past 30 feet the world takes on a green glow. Note the neon yellow fins and neon orange whistle against my shoulder. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders, DiveZen Scuba)

Just below the surface the view in front of my goggles cancels into a fray of broken green and red algae bits that keep rhythm with the wind and wake. Around 10 feet surface sounds retreat, the water begins to calm and a vibrant green glow sets in from above.

Light after 15 Feet

Water is a selective filter of color and as we sink I watch the saturated red on my instructor’s dry suit fade to a dull, murky green. The color becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding environment at 15 feet. Part of the glow I’m now enmeshed in is due to the organic matter in the waters of the Pacific Northwest but another part is due to the properties of light as it reaches below the surface. A little science review before we head farther down: Imagine a tank of clear water 200 feet deep. If we were to suspend a white light above the tank and descend with six colored blocks – each a color from ROYGBV – the water would filter the colors one by one as we dropped deeper into the tank and further from the light.

Water acts as a selective color filter, absorbing light as depth or distance from the source increases. (Graphic courtesy of:

Water acts as a selective color filter, absorbing light as depth or distance from the source increases. At a depth of 60 feet, only 18 percent of light rays penetrate and only one percent reach a depth of 330 feet. (Graphic courtesy of: University of Maryland Space Systems Laboratory)

The loss of color extends sequentially through the light spectrum – like my instructor’s suit, the red block would be the first to lose color followed by orange then yellow – until, after about 75 feet the last block to lose its hue would be violet. Interestingly, some species of clear jellyfish have a red stomach. Since red is the first color to disappear in the visible spectrum under water, the red (or lack thereof) hides the jelly’s last meal.

If you ever wonder why neons tend to be ubiquitous in water activities, here’s your answer: Ultraviolet, invisible to humans and found after violet at the end of the light spectrum, can travel to extreme depths. When a neon color is struck by invisible ultraviolet, it will glow or fluoresce which is why alternate air sources and other items needing ready accessibility are commonly created in neon.
In our subsequent dives the haze began to clear at a depth of about 30 feet and visibility increased to a distance of nearly 25 feet along the bottom, remaining steady as we descended to 60 feet. Green, blue and violet remained and our instructors used their lights to reveal the nuances of the undersea creatures: Brown mottled flatfish, orange penpoint gunnels, kelp greenlings protecting eggs and dungeness crab (all documented by our class) navigate the sand and pebble-covered bottom, relatively unaware of our presence. And if you look closely, sea stars no larger than the nail of my little finger hide between the pebbles beneath the feet of hermit crabs. At this particular location a large geodome made of PVC pipe has been constructed at 50 feet and become host to a number of small invertebrates including copper rockfish. A short distance away the instructors gently pried apart a set of submerged tires treating us to the rare sight of the resident octopus curled in his den.
Even with the understanding of water’s color selective filtering, I wasn’t expecting the green hue. I admit I’m not really sure what I was expecting – maybe a soft, blue-grey-magenta to match the sunrise or a grey-blue flannel hue to match the morning sheen of the Olympic mountain range. I’ve taken a liking to surfing these waters and grown used to the looks of surprise when I mention it. And I can say honestly that what’s on the bottom is well matched to what we experience on the surface of our Emerald City. Green is the color du jour. It’s dark, it’s sometimes tempestuous but when you stop and look just a little deeper, shapes and then colors are revealed that leave you glad you buttoned up and stepped outside.

As we head back toward shore I’m handed a weightless, bloated object puffed to the size of a football: A sea cucumber, red by a nearby dive light and marked by small yellow nodes. I carry it a short distance and its name dawns on me: hoi sam. The Cantonese translation to “happiness”.

How to get there: Mukilteo T-Dock

The entry to the diving area is found next to the Silver Cloud Inn in Mukilteo, close to the ferry terminal. From I-5, take exit 189 and merge onto WA-526 toward the Mukilteo Ferry Dock.

Follow the signs all the way to the ferry dock – 526 becomes 84th St and you’ll have to take a right to stay on it after the Boeing field, then a right onto 525 – until you get to the waterfront. Take a right on Front Street (directly in front of the ferry terminal). Head 2 blocks and park next to the Silver Cloud Inn (at the intersection of Front St and Park Ave).

View map


Complete Diving Manual by Jack Jackson
Shorediving.com > Overview of Mukilteo T-Dock
Pacific Northwest Scuba > Mukilteo T-Dock

Do: Diving: Confined

The first few nights of instruction were held in the pool at Underwater Sports Seattle. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders)

The first few nights of instruction were held in the pool at Underwater Sports Seattle. Duncan heads into Snell's window. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders, DiveZen Scuba)

There are four of us. We’ve spent the past five minutes floating at eye level. The sweet spot. Where we’re neutrally buoyant between the weights strapped to our waists, our own natural propensity for displacement and the air in our BCDs. The point where we’re expending the least amount of energy. We’re watching our instructor spin clockwise on a lateral axis – he’s unbuckled his weight belt and is demonstrating the technique for replacement. A few key things to pay attention to here: one, he’s holding the belt in his right fist; two, the buckle end dangles somewhere near his ankle; and three, he begins the roll face down. Combined, all of these steps ensure once his roll is complete his weight belt will be resting on top of him 360 degrees later. This also guarantees he’ll thread the right end through the buckle on the left, leaving his belt in the standard pull-right release. Simple. Problem is, I naturally roll counter-clockwise.

I really roll counter-clockwise.

And even though I’ve hooked my right thumb into the D-ring on my BCD to drop my right side, it only serves to lock me there, dangling my allotted 10 lbs, unable to flip over onto my air tank and complete the roll. It’s awkward, but eventually I get it. With a few haphazard kicks and shoulder thrusts and a few more wriggling attempts I find the right propulsion to execute the move repeatedly in increasingly more graceful swoops and it gets added to the growing list of skill scenarios we’ve played out in the 12 foot confines of four pool walls.

Deep Breathing: Going beyond the 12 feet we've adjusted to in the pool it will be even more important to breathe and breathe well. At sea level 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure (or one atmosphere) is pushing down on our bodies. As we dive, for every 33 feet we descend, one more atmosphere is added. At 66 feet, the pressure equals 44.1 psi and at 99 feet the pressure equals 58.8 psi - at this depth the lung volume of a diver is one quarter the volume at the surface. To travel into this high-pressure environment we have to make some adjustments. The regulator from which you pull air keeps the pressure within your lungs equal to the pressure of the surrounding water via a two-stage device: The first (attached directly to your tank) reduces the pressure of the air compressed in your tank to about 150 pounds per square inch (psi) more than the surrounding water pressure. The second (the mouthpiece from which you breathe) further reduces the pressure to match the surrounding water and make it comfortable for a diver to inhale. Using this system for breathing and other precautions, including staying warm, we humans can safely descend three or four atmospheres.The regulator from which you pull air keeps the pressure within your lungs equal to the pressure of the surrounding water via a two-stage device. (Photo courtesy: 101dive.com)

Now on to releasing my BCD and climbing on top of it, still weighted, careful not to lose contact lest I go plummeting to the bottom without air. I have to raise both hands and show my instructor I’m securely astride the tank.

Gaining Comfort

I make it out to be more tedious than it really is. Truthfully I’ve been loathe to leave the pool these past four nights. Climbing out sometime close to midnight after hours spent gaining comfort with a series of skills required to master Open Water Dive certification. I donned the BCD the first night, inserted my regulator and timed my first intake of breath to my slide beneath the surface. Each subsequent descent and each night following has eased the pressure in my ears – at first requiring prolonged stops every foot to pinch, blow, grind jaw, frown by the last class I easily slip from the surface to bottom with barely a flex of my throat muscles. This is good because come Saturday I’ll be traveling five times deeper.

I’ve passed my written exam and now, come Saturday, in the 55-degree open waters near Mukilteo, Wash., I’ll be demonstrating at a depth of 60 feet my mastery of the 20-some skills I’ve become comfortable with at 12 feet: The flooding and/or loss of my face mask; the loss and retrieval of a regulator; the loss of air and safety ascent procedures; manual calculation of dive tables; hand signals and so on and yes, removing and replacing my weight belt and BCD. The most rewarding skill Ive learned is the ability to exert subtle, micro-control over ascent and descent by varying the amount of air in my lungs. Eventually, I’m told, this becomes second nature and integrates seamlessly into a regular breathing pattern. I’m almost there but new focus will be required against the currents of the Pacific Ocean.

We all know comfort breathes familiarity. And familiarity can mean the difference between something magical and an open invitation to disaster. Repetitive practice and mastery of these skills keeps them ready for retrieval, drifting in the back burners of our minds, allowing us to commence with firing the imagination and sinking into the upcoming view below.

Do: Dive On

dive_flagGetting my dive certification has been ever present on my list of adventure goals. Probably somewhere down near #5 (put there about the time I saw the intro credits to Thunderball). So when a friend mentioned Underwater Sports in Seattle was hosting their annual dive fair complete with steep discounts for certification and gear, I couldn’t resist.

Diving, I’m realizing, is an expensive hobby – I had an inkling but didn’t fathom the complete extent – but it’s also evolved to be considerably more practical and achievable than history has provided. The cut, hollow reeds of ancient swimmers are the first documented examples of rudimentary snorkels. Soon these were combined with eye goggles fashioned from thinly sliced and polished shells of tortoises – popular with Persian divers in the 1300s. A few hundred years passed and with the invention of the air pump by British engineer John Smeaton in the late 1700s diving took on a whole new meaning – surface collaborators now had the ability to pump air to divers. And then came the coup de grace (not literally) when subsequent English and French inventions perfected the closed-circuit oxygen rebreather and Cousteau released his notorious Aqua-Lung in 1943. Now more commonly referred to as scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), the invention officially cut the air-filled umbilical cord between diver and surface.

Walk into any dive shop now and you have a plethora of options to experience the deep frontier. I don’t intend to get into details here but I’ll note that the sales people and instructors in attendance all rested on two pieces of advice: You get what you pay for and it all comes down to what feels the most comfortable to you. Hmm.

For training the dive shop supplies the wet or dry suit (needed for both pool and open water activities), regulator, air tank and BCD (bouyancy compensator device – an inflatable vest that attaches the air tank to you). I come pre-equipped with booties and gloves – procured for surfing in the Pacific Northwest – so all I needed was mask, snorkel and fins.

I selected a frameless mask and an SV1 snorkel (both Atomic Aquatics): The frameless mask means I don’t get annoyed by a dark ring interrupting the periphery of my vision and its low volume means if it gets bumped and filled with water, I have less to clear. The snorkel’s tube hosts an internal scupper valve which allows water to pass through the snorkel without collecting at the bottom of the breathing passage. The tiniest burst of air clears my mouthpiece. It also features a quick disconnect and sliding snorkel keeper – a small thing but a fixed snorkel was my biggest complaint in Hawaii. I’m still in the market for flippers so I’ve borrowed a friend’s. I’m debating about the merits of split fin vs. solid and a variety of buckle styles so I’m content to use hers and a set from the dive shop for a bit.

Choosing to acquire dive certification on your home turf gives you a couple of different options for scheduling, initial cert and continuing education.  When I’m finished (yes, I have my fingers crossed) I’ll be considered a PADI Open Water Diver and certified to dive up to 60 feet independently (without the supervision of a divemaster – required if you receive only PADI Scuba Diver cert, typical when you get certified on vacation).  This also means I’m doing no-decompression diving – safety stops aren’t required and I can go straight to the surface at any point without risk of decompression sickness (the bends). After full cert I can choose to pursue specialties and/or continue to Advanced Open Water cert and then Enriched Air (deep open water dive) cert. With practice and over time I’ll be ready to dive to 100 feet and then to the 130 feet mark. Depths beyond this are reserved for technical or commercial diving. View the PADI course levels.

Rather than bombard myself with a weekend intensive, I’m spreading my coursework out over two weeks. Two days of open water diving at Mukilteo, Wash. will be the icing on four nights of pool time (confined water dives). During the course I’ll be responsible for in depth review of a 260+ page instruction book, learning to read dive charts and do the calculations even under stress and learn to stay calm when a panic situation arises. I’m taking the course by myself so my instructor will assign me a buddy and we’ll be responsible for each other throughout the course.

Though it’s been on my list for years, aquiring my certification is a uniquely sensitive goal for me. Shortly after graduating I learned a college friend drowned while diving on vacation. I wasn’t particularly close with her but we ran in the same circles and had spent some time together. Dena was recovering from the flu and panicked underwater – either from feeling ill or being disoriented. And though I’ve been told multiple times that it’s never safe to dive while ill or recovering and I don’t intend to do so, it’s still a lingering thought in the back of my mind – as these things are and should be – and a primary reason for my delay in getting certified. But, like I said, sometimes these opportunities come along that you can’t refuse and here I am: registered, gear acquired and ready to pursue another means to adventure.

Getting Certified:

Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) – The world’s leading scuba diving training organization, PADI provides a diver education system, access to equipment, environmental conservation initiatives and opportunities to experience diving. padi.com | Locate a PADI dive shop

Seattle & adjacent cities:

Underwater Sports
Seattle Scuba School
Sound Dive Center

Insurance, Safety & Emergencies:

Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) – As a nonprofit, DAN exists to provide expert information and advice for the benefit of the diving public. DAN’s primary function is to provide emergency medical advice and assistance for underwater diving injuries, work to prevent injuries and promote diving safety. DAN promotes and supports underwater diving research and education particularly as it relates to the improvement of diving safety, medical treatment and first aid. And DAN provides accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on issues of common concern to the diving public, primarily, but not exclusively, for diving safety. diversalertnetwork.org | daneurope.org

The DAN Student Membership Program is free to all entry-level divers. When you enroll to become a student member, you’ll receive these benefits, including up to $20,000 recompression treatment insurance. It’s unlikely you’ll ever need to use it but, if you did…

DAN America membership and dive accident insurance are available to residents of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and 44 other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Do: Sledding Under Summer Sun: Mt. Rainier’s Camp Muir Hike

Views south on the way home from Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier

Views south on the way home from Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier

There are some adventures you plan for and others that lend themselves to short notice opportunity. A hike to Mt. Rainier’s famed Camp Muir can certainly be the latter. In July, summer in Seattle is in full swing and when every forecaster in the Pacific Northwest racks up points with predictions of a week of uninterrupted sun, it means the snow-covered slopes of the Puget Sound’s mountain guard are hosting 14,410 feet of expansive vistas.

Camp Muir, named in 1888 for John Muir, the legendary advocate for wilderness and founder of the Sierra Club, lies on the southeast side of Mt. Rainier between the Muir Snowfield and Ingraham Glacier. Originally named “Cloud Camp”, the site sits at 10,100 feet and, on a clear day, boasts stop-and-stare views of the lower Cascade mountain range including Mount St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. About 4,600 feet higher than Paradise, the starting point and parking lot for many of Rainier’s adventures, the area serves as base camp for those seeking the longer trek to summit Rainier. Out of 12 approaches to the summit, Camp Muir provides seven including the route up Disappointment Cleaver, affectionately referred to as The Yellow Brick Road.

Asahel Curtis photograph of Rainier Park Company President Henry Rhodes (front), Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent O.A. Tomlinson (middle), and National Park Service Director Stephen Mather (right), against a backdrop of Mount Rainier, 1928.(Photo courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington)

Rainier’s blanket of glacier ice exceeds that of any other mountain in the conterminous U.S. and once covered most of the area now within Mount Rainier National Park boundaries, extending to the very shores of the present Puget Sound Basin. The wear and tear of Mount Rainier’s glaciers make it appear deceptively older than it really is: The first eruptions that formed the mountain came just more than half a million years ago (pre-glaciers) and the most recent occurred in 1840. But the largest and most dramatic eruptions occurred from about 25,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Waking up to another day of sun on the horizon puts an escape from city and sea to summit in short order, even though the short notice planning put myself and a friend in the the parking lot a bit after 1 p.m. on a Saturday. We took note of the number of hikers wrapping up their day, stowing gear and wringing out socks. Most who set out to do Rainier’s higher day hikes get an early start. For snowboarders and skiers in particular, it’s the means to traversing the snowfields before the afternoon sun takes its toll. The round trip hike between Paradise and Camp Muir is estimated at 7 to 9 hours – plenty of time on a summer day to get a late start and still make the full trip in daylight. For the two of us it means fewer people on the trail as we return.

The Skyline Trail heading home.

Leaving Paradise we followed the Skyline Trail 2.3 miles upward to Pebble Creek. For this first half of the climb the remains of Rainier’s sordid volcanic past, nutrient rich layers of ash and pumice, support stands of subalpine trees and fields of mountain flowers: Avalanche Lilies, Pink Heather, Rosy Spirea, lupine and Yellow Cinquefoil. The summer bouquet and a lone, chubby marmot soon give way to fields of crumbled andesitic rock left by traveling glaciers. The first fingers of the Muir Snowfield appear, the cars on the road to Paradise become silent, winking only in the afternoon sun and the jagged peaks of the Tatoosh Range rise to meet the southern horizon.

Leaving Skyline Trail and arriving at Pebble Creek one gets the impression of an ad hoc transfer station. The terrain makes the gritty switch to rushing water, mud and melting snow and the intersecting trails release a variety of hikers, climbers and seekers. At around 7,000 feet early risers mark the final miles of their descent; Skyline hikers interested in a detour take in the mystery of the terrain beyond the blue guide sheet and skiers and snowboarders collect gear, casting discerning last glances at their final runs. Just past the creek crossing, crowds begin to thin along with the air and a sense of camaraderie becomes subtly perceptible between the hikers navigating descent.

From Pebble Creek, the next 2.2 miles yawn before hikers with an ascent of 2,800 ft. up the Muir Snowfield. When recounting what an ascent of Rainier (and numerous other summits) entailed a colleague of mine narrowed it down to one singular focus: placing one foot in front of the other and, with every step, developing a “cadence that helps you get through the scaleless pushes”. Here the seduction of northwest greenery gives way to the grit and grey of a travel-weary snowmass, pocked by suncups and the last snowfall a distant memory. At 8,000 feet, the landscape barren, we stopped oggling the distant views and each settled quietly, deeply into a one-two, left-foot, right-foot march. Until this point the weather of the day remained gorgeously clear. The exertion of the hike and high altitude sun kept outer layers stored in our packs but at 8,500 feet the small pillow cloud we’d kept a half-hearted eye on made a beeline for our locale. Famous for its lenticular clouds, Rainier dispatched a ring of fog across our elevation that turned our world of glittering snowmass into 20-foot visibility. Being familiar with the mountain from a distance, and having been warned of this effect by the Guide House staff, we kept stepping, entranced somewhat by the chatter and echos of fellow climbers descending. Twenty feet stretched to 30 and soon we stood distinctly above the sea of fog, three hikers alone on shore of snow with our mountain cap.

There is a strange point of limbo with each adventure in a barren space when you’re certain your destination is close at hand but unsure of just how close. Or how far. Now familiar with what the return terrain entails, annoyance grows in the repeated expectation that your destination is just around the next turn. Our limbo began shortly after 9,500 feet and I’m certain a number of steps went by before I realized the brown, oddly shaped rock I’d been staring at was actually a hut and the hut was connected to a brown, curved wall with smaller, similar structures. In such unbroken terrain it’s difficult to measure the distance remaining against pace. Maintaining my cadence turned out to be a better bet, we had another half hour to go.

Fog rolls in on the way home after leaving Panorama Point

Camp Muir offers intimate views of Rainier’s upper icefalls and rugged ridges along with a hungry glimpse of what the next 4,410 feet of ascent entail. Nestled just above Anvil Rock are stone and wood huts that house climbers and hikers. It’s also home to a small group of climbing rangers in a small stone hut first erected in 1916. After our four and a half hour hike in which we gradually became the lone ascenders, the stone guide buildings and sheltering wall seemed like a thriving mecca complete with gay tents and a wise populace of the initiated. Our day’s end arrival was unusual but not unheard of. We photographed our achievement and the surrounding views, ate dinner and scouted our route down as the camp’s temporary residents prepared for tomorrow’s climb to summit or hike to home.

If reaching Camp Muir could be compared to the fun but tedious task of holiday shopping, the descent would be the euphoric rush of ripping open present after present the morning of. The beauty of the Muir Snowfield descent is the eradication of every hard-earned step by the simple thrill of glissading – sliding down the snowfield with 10,000 feet of mountain beneath the soles of your shoes. Laughter and elevation mixed to leave us enamored, gasping for breath, tripping over our own hands and knees, eyes watering in a rush to get to the next slide. The serious intention of each foot in our ascent was abandoned in short order, replaced in complete with a simple, child’s-eye propulsion to sit down, heels up, lean back and go!

Jamie glissades down the final stretch to Pebble Creek

We ended the snowfield near Pebble Creek as the light turned from full to fading. Reaching the paved trail we abandoned getting home with intention to choosing whatever speed suited our individual taste. Deep pinks and violets washed Glacier Vista and the walls along Skyline Trail, reflecting in small pools ringed with sleeping lupine and complacent snow. We choose moonlight over headlamps and at twilight, crowds absent, watched the path return to its rightful owners. For a few steps two black foxes joined our path, intent on keeping their direction but carrying a wary eye. And, as we crossed the parking lot, the lights of Paradise quiet and festive, we stepped between two doe content to stand their ground as we passed in search of our ride home.

Things to Note:

When hiking to Muir or any other snow or glacier route, waterproof or highly water resistant footwear is recommended. And pack layers, avoiding cotton, so you can quickly add and remove as the weather changes. Winds at Camp Muir can be intense and chilly on even the warmest days. Bring a light down jacket to pull over your other layers and retain your body’s heat while you rest at camp. Maps of the Paradise Area Trails can be found at the visitor’s center or the Guide House. They stop at Pebble Creek but the trail to Camp Muir is fairly well marked. Bring a compass at the very least. Once the clouds move in its easy to wander off the path without noticing. The official NPS trail is marked with thin poles with pieces of colored duct tape. Once into the snowfield and glacier areas, stay in the snow. Though moving to the rocks seems drier and quicker, they’re loose, slippery and each step creates a landslide below you or directly beneath. Crevasses do open on the snowfield below Camp Muir between 9,200 and 10,000 feet. Although some are wanded – marked with poles by NPS –  others are not and they change in size. Use extreme caution. Bathrooms do exist at Camp Muir, sans toilet paper so pack it with you. Bring plenty of water, there is none at Muir.

Final note – glissading. Though the pipelines for glissading are smooth and clean, they still contain an errant rock or two – keep an eye out and try to steer around. Bring a plastic bag or two for sliding on. Or choose pants wisely – you need something with little friction but strong enough to withstand the wear. An old pair of light rain pants is ideal.

Getting There:

Recommend calling ahead for road status. In winter months the road can be closed daily between Longmire and Paradise. Take I-5 to SR 512 (exit 127), then travel east on SR 512 to SR 7. Travel south on SR 7 to SR 706 in Elbe and continue east through Ashford to the Nisqually entrance of Mt. Rainier State Park. Follow the road to Paradise and Paradise Inn. The trail head is located to the left of the ranger station, just past the lodge. Pick up a trail map at either the visitor’s center or the Guide House. The paved Skyline Trail is just over the embankment and either direction will take you to Panorama Point. Head north from Panorama Point to Pebble Creek and McClure Rock. From there use the path other hikers have taken and your compass to stay on course.

Round trip: 9 miles / 7 hours

More Info:

An administrative history of Mt. Rainier
About climbing at Mt. Rainier


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