Rainier: It's Up to You

By Sarah Clayton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 25, 2000

On the wall of the stately Paradise Inn on the lower slopes of Washington state's Mount Rainier--at 14,410 feet one of the tallest and, with its glaciers and active volcano, most dangerous peaks in the continental United States--is a picture of Miss Fay Fuller, the first woman to reach its summit in 1890.

She is dressed in a long woolen skirt, with a ring of canteens around her waist, a walking stick in her hand and a smile on her face. Her shoes most likely had nails driven through the soles, as was the custom among early mountaineers, to facilitate climbing on the treacherous glacial ice that dominates the last third of the climb.

I was standing there, almost 110 years later, in jogging shoes, Capilene leggings, shorts and nylon parka, admiring her mettle.

I hadn't made it to the top (although some 6,000 people a year do), hadn't even considered the possibility, and certainly hadn't spent the six months of rigorous training my sister, Louisa, had several years earlier to make the summit. But I'd been hiking on the mountain all day, up to 9,000 feet, and had some sense of the challenge Miss Fuller had set for herself. Now I paused to pay homage at the picture I'd nonchalantly passed upon my arrival the day before.

In fact, it's highly unlikely I would have noticed the picture at all, dwarfed as it is by the cathedral-like lobby where it hangs. The vast room is 45 by 115 feet, with a carpeted central nave, clusters of sofas and chairs, and two broad side aisles, one leading to the gift shop and snack bar and the other to a bank of windows looking rather unromantically out to the parking lot and a 20-foot bank of snow.

The furniture has the same gargantuan proportions, as if designed for giants. At either end of the room is a 14-foot, split-log table weighing 1,500 pounds, and a massive fireplace made of local stone. Log-framed chairs have six-foot backs; the grandfather clock is 14 feet high and four feet wide at the base. Even the piano (played by President Harry S. Truman during his 1945 visit, and still played every evening), while more realistically scaled, is of the same rustic, rough-log construction.

In Miss Fuller's day, there was no inn; that wouldn't come for another 27 years. Just getting to these subalpine meadows where the Paradise Inn has stood so grandly since 1917 was an adventure: It took several days to travel the 12 miles from the town of Longmire, which we had covered in half an hour the day before.

We'd driven the 90 miles from Seattle through an uninspired landscape, flat and scrubby with forests plucked to death by loggers. But once we paid our $10 and entered Mount Rainier National Park, the beauty was stilling. Huge old-growth Douglas firs, some 1,000 years old, and western hemlocks stood sentry along the road. Ferns and mosses, miniature remnants of the primeval forest that once dominated this landscape, grew in profusion.

Waterfalls, walking trails, scenic overlooks--each bend in the main park road held yet another visual pleasure. And it should, as the road was designed in 1915 to take in as much of the park's natural beauty as possible.

The road ends at the inn, the original of the rustic-style lodges that characterize the architecture throughout the national park system. Tall and gray-shingled, with peaked roofs, green trim and a splash of pink curtain along each window, the structure sits there, solid and grand, like the mountain looming over it.

After settling into our rooms--the decor was bland and the space limited, though the water was hot and the beds comfortable--we went to look at the mountain. It was glorious, standing out like a king against the cobalt sky, the great glaciers (six originate at the top) sweeping down its sides like ermine robes.

Mount Rainier has more glacial ice--34 square miles, or one cubic mile--than all the other glaciers in the lower 48 states combined. Plus, it's an active volcano.

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