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Rainier: It's Up to You
You may not make it to the top, but it's fun rising to the challenge.

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.

It's a magnificent mountain, but a murderous one. The first climbing-related death here was recorded in 1897. Since then, the mountain has claimed dozens more lives. Fifty bodies are still lost in its crevasses or snowbanks or ground up by its glaciers, including a group of Marines returning to Seattle after World War II. Their plane plunged into such a remote area of the mountain that the bodies were irretrievable. The next morning, as we consulted with the rangers on which route to hike, we read the notices on three climbers already lost in the first month of summer (we hiked last July).

It was partly this aura of nature in complete control that lured me to the slopes of Mount Rainier.

I grew up hiking and camping in the mountains, but they were the gentle Appalachians of Virginia. Except for the night a bobcat came through our camp when I was 10, I've never feared for my life. But you don't start up Mount Rainier unless you're well aware of its dangers. An avalanche, a rock fall, a crevasse, an eruption or a partial collapse and you are no more. You shouldn't venture above 10,000 feet without a guide, and never onto the mountain if the weather is dubious. Guided summit attempts (it takes two to four days) succeed roughly half the time; the same goes for unguided attempts.

A group of some 30 hikers was assembling at the Rainier Mountaineering hut when my own band, including my sister and two teenage sons, set off on our hike. They were decked out in the very latest mountain gear, with backpacks looming and sturdy boots biting into the snow with command. Throughout the day we would overtake one another--us gamboling about in shorts and jogging shoes, and them, weighted down, moving slowly and steadily forward. We'd decided to hike up until the snow and cold seeped through our jogging shoes and persuaded us to turn back.

"See that rock up there?" Louisa asked, pointing. "That's Anvil Rock. We'll try to get there today."

Was she serious? The rock looked so close, I figured we could be up there and back by lunchtime. And off I strode with great confidence over the snow-covered meadows. On the July 4th weekend last year, it was still a snow-covered world.

With the inn at 5,400 feet and the tree line at 6,000, we soon hiked past clusters of subalpine firs and mountain hemlocks that looked like notched daggers silhouetted against the almost painfully white snow, and onto the broad expanse of the mountain. To the far left was Nisqually Glacier, the fastest flowing of Rainier's 26 major glaciers, sometimes bulldozing down the mountain at 29 inches a day. To the far right, the land swept up to a ridge of ragged rock that defined the edge of a precipice.

Anvil Rock was the highest rock on this pile. And right in front of us all day was the peak--grand and terrifying, like a tidal wave.

Rainier is a young mountain, born in the Pleistocene era, about a million years ago. By comparison, the Cascade Range it lords over is at least 12 million years old, and my beloved Appalachians are several hundred million years old. Rainier got its start when a series of earthquakes opened a vent in the earth and molten rock began oozing out and flowing down the river valleys. Over the years, more flows added to this, and on and on until the mountain soared a thousand feet higher than it does today.

At its height, Rainier's glaciers were up to 40 miles long. Today, the longest, the Carbon Glacier, is 5.7 miles long. Around 5,600 years ago, the summit suddenly collapsed and a massive mud flow swept a cubic mile of material off the mountain and spread it out over 125 square miles of the valley below. It finally stopped at Puget Sound, 65 miles away, where the remaining debris pushed the shoreline out as much as two miles in some places. Most of the lowland south of Seattle and east of Tacoma is composed of prehistoric debris from Mount Rainier.

The last recorded eruptions of Mount Rainier were between 1820 and 1894--14 in all. But there's nothing stopping it from bursting forth tomorrow, like its neighbor to the south, Mount St. Helens, did so dramatically in 1980. Being so close to such a huge urban population, it's considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the potential of life and property loss.

These thoughts kept rolling around in my head as we labored upward. The land had steepened considerably and our strides shortened until we, too, were marching slowly, in single file, one foot at a time.

During a break to catch our breath, Louisa pointed out a line of black dots on the snow near Anvil Rock. Squinting, I could just make them out.

"Hikers," she said. And suddenly I realized how deceptive distances were on this huge mountain, in this thin, clear air. Now I began seriously to suspect we wouldn't make Anvil Rock.

By lunchtime, we were only halfway there. At 7,500 feet, we stopped at an outcropping of snowless rock and removed our wet socks to warm our feet in the sun. The silence was immense, but, every once in a while, we'd hear a boulder fall somewhere on the mountain--a loud, grinding crash, then silence. Below us, a marmot undulated across the snow like a small black wave on a vast white sea.

Looking south, we could see Mount Adams, at 12,276 feet the second-highest peak in the Cascades, and the deformed Mount St. Helens rising like giants from the smaller peaks clustered at their feet. Hikers passed us, some with skis or snowboards strapped to their backs, some on skis specially fitted with skins to prevent backward sliding. It was a slow-motion world, everyone moving doggedly upward on what is considered the longest endurance climb in the lower 48.

Because of its preponderance of snow and ice, Mount Rainier's flanks have become the training ground for climbers preparing for the world's great peaks--the Himalayas, the Andes and our own Mount McKinley. Most of the Americans who've climbed Mount Everest this century climbed Rainier first.

The group from the mountaineering hut passed us, expelling their air in harsh bursts--"pressure-breathing," my sister explained, as a way to help the body absorb oxygen more efficiently. They were "rest-stepping"--placing a foot in the snow, pausing briefly, then stepping into it.

The Indians called this mountain Tahoma, Takoma or Ta-co-bet, with various translations of "running like thunder near the skies," "gives white to the land" and "breast of the milk-white waters." The Cowlitz, Yakama, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and especially the Nisqually Native Americans (until they were forced onto a reservation in the mid-1800s) hunted and gathered on the slopes of Rainier but didn't venture beyond the snow line.

One of their legends recounts how the two female mountains, Rainier and St. Helens, fought over the male, Adams, throwing rocks and fire at each other until Rainier's head was hit so hard it came off--a reference, scientists suggest, to the collapse 5,600 years ago that lowered Rainier's summit almost 1,000 feet. Liberty Cap and Point Success, several hundred feet below the mountain's peak, are the remnants of this summit.

In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver, while looking for the nonexistent Northwest Passage, became the first European to make note of the mountain. He did so from the deck of his ship, promptly naming it for his friend, Rear Adm. Peter Rainier, who died leading a rout of the American Colonists during the Revolutionary War.

But it took John Muir, the naturalist and conservationist, to put Mount Rainier on the map for America at large. When he saw the mountain, he wrote to his wife that he hadn't meant to climb it, "but got excited and soon was on top," one of the first people to do so.

Before making the summit, he camped in what today is Camp Muir, the base camp for those continuing on to the peak.

Muir called the meadows there the "most luxuriant and most extravagantly beautiful I ever beheld." The concentration of minerals in the volcanic ash is the secret to this garden. It was last dusted when Mount St. Helens blew 20 years ago.

On March 2, 1899, 100 years and four months before I first came to Rainier, President William McKinley made it the nation's fifth national park. In its first season, 200 people visited; today some 2 million arrive annually, 88 percent of them between June and September, the approximate dates the Paradise Inn is open (the road remains open year-round for skiers and snowshoers).

Three hundred miles of trails weave through the 235,625 acres of the park, 97 percent of which is still classified as wilderness. In 1915, the Wonderland Trail was opened, a 93-mile trek circling the mountain and taking the hiker across snowfields, around glaciers, through lowland forest valleys, onto ridge tops and above the timberline. Ten to 14 days are recommended to complete the whole walk.

We were almost a mile above the timberline when we reached Anvil Rock around 3 p.m., after five hours of climbing. It was windy and chilly enough for wool caps and gloves. We huddled in the lee of the rocks, which were covered with small patches of heather. In this extreme climate, such a plant will grow only a quarter-inch every 10 years, and the small, tight clusters of lichen clinging to the rocks were ancient; a nickel-size piece could be 1,000 years old.

We hesitated in the cold only long enough to look over the precipice behind the ridge to the confluence of the Cowlitz and Paradise glaciers below. This close, they were buckled and scrunched and beaten looking--anything but smooth ice flows. The few smooth patches were scored with thin slits, like shark gills--the deadly crevasses emitting their cool, blue-green light as they lay in wait for the incautious hiker. In the honey-thick, late-afternoon light, the snow on the summit looked like meringue.

People were starting down now, jogging past in obvious joy at finally going downhill after the tough uphill slog--skiing, snowboarding or just walking. We used old pieces of shower curtain as sleds and swooshed down the steeper bits at a glorious clip, tired muscles forgotten. It took us an hour and a half to get back; already the clouds had claimed the summit and were slithering down its sides.

By the time we'd bathed and gathered for dinner in the attractive dining room--a smaller version of the lobby, but without the cathedral ceiling--there was no mountain. The gray clouds swirled restlessly around the snowbanks just outside the window, like aggressive boys pacing their turf.

Over dinner, I got philosophical. My picture would never grace the walls of this old lodge. No future tourist would gaze at me in awe, as I had at Fay Fuller with her belt of canteens. But I'd had a terrific day getting to know an active volcano, walking its snows, contemplating its glaciers, becoming conscious of its power. It had allowed me to play on its flanks all day. And live to tell about it.

Sarah Clayton last wrote for Travel about the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

DETAILS: Mount Rainier National Park

GETTING THERE: Mount Rainier National Park is about 80 miles from Seattle. Flights from the Washington area to the Seattle/Tacoma airport start at $498, with restrictions. The Rainier Shuttle (360-569-2331; $30-$39 one way) offers daily round-trip service between the airport and the park or nearby lodges; reservations required.

WHEN TO GO: Open year-round. The best time to visit is July or August, when the weather is sunny and mild. Expect heavy rains or snowfall other times of the year, especially November to April.

WHERE TO STAY: A number of accommodations surround the four main entrances, ranging from a treehouse (a cabin atop a 50-foot giant cedar) to a 19th-century B&B with a spa. A list of lodging can be found online at www.nps.gov/mora. For rooms inside the park, check out Paradise Inn (360-569-2413; rates from $72 to $147, closes Oct. 1) and National Park Inn (360-569-2275; $71 to $135, year-round).

Campers can pitch tents at six campgrounds throughout the park; only two stay open all year (most close mid-October). Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh require reservations from July 1 to Labor Day. Rates range from no charge (Mowich Lake) to $14 (Cougar Lake). There are also two high-altitude sites, Camp Muir and Camp Schurman, at 10,188 feet and 9,702, respectively. Information: National Park Reservation Service, 800-365-2267.

CLIMB RAINIER: The park entrance fee is $10 per car or $5 for hikers and bicyclists. To ascend above 10,000 feet or explore glaciers, climbers must register with the ranger station and pay $15 per summit attempt or glacier trek. The main starting points for hikes are Longmire (southwest corner), Paradise (south side), Ohanapecosh (southeast corner), Sunrise/White River (east side) and Carbon River/Mowich Lake (northwest corner).

INFORMATION: Mount Rainier National Park, 360-569-2211, www.nps.gov /mora.

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