Muir Snowfield | Friday, May 26, 2017 | 2:45pm
Only experienced climbers and hikers should attempt this unmarked route. Camp Muir, originally named Cloud Camp, was named Camp Muir after the writer/naturalist John Muir summited the mountain. Muir was a member of the climbing party that made the sixth recorded ascent of Mt. Rainier in 1888. Camp Muir is one of the primary high camps for summit attempts and is a favorite campsite for climbers.
"You ready?" Jon asks.
I finish shoving my crampons into my pack and pull the zipper closed. My stomach drops. "Ha, I just got nervous all of a sudden."
Jon smiles at me and uses his phone to snap a photo of the beautiful stratovolcano in front of us. Mt. Rainier, the tallest and most iconic peak in the Cascades, is truly a sight to behold. At 14,411 feet, the snow-capped mountain is visible (on a clear day) from 100 miles away in any direction.
But right now, we're on it - just outside the Paradise Visitor Center - at 5,400 feet. Jon gives me a fist bump and says, "alright, let's do this."
We're not going for the summit - today is all about training. The plan is to go up to Camp Muir and back (roughly 10,000 feet of elevation change altogether) to test our legs and practice hiking in snow and ice. I start out in front, well aware that Jon's pace is faster than mine. We hiked ten miles yesterday and I fought to keep up with him the whole time. While I've spent the past three months training for this trip - running hill repeats and stadium stairs, doing circuit workouts, and busting out more pull-ups and push-ups than I've ever done in my life - Jon hasn't trained at all. And he doesn't need to, of course. He's a Haas.
I've never hiked in the snow before. But with thick socks, heavy mountaineering boots, and water-proof gaiters, my feet stay cozy. We've only been hiking for about 20 minutes when I turn around and say, "Jon, I have to take a picture of you. Look at this winter wonderland!"
When we stop for water and a bite of food 45 minutes later, we are already high enough to glimpse other volcanoes - Goat Rocks, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens. It is one of the most striking color pallets I have ever seen - crystal blue and bright white with speckles of dark green and black, all reverberating in high definition.
With every crunchy step into the snow, I feel a mixture of joy and satisfaction. And something else. Something that is a little harder to pinpoint - something a lot like love.
That's it, I think. I'm falling in love with mountaineering. Of course it's easy to fall in love when everything is perfect. The conditions today are ideal - abundant sun shining down on a landscape so stunning it's hard to believe it's real. Like a fool blinded by love, I think this is it. I've found what I've been looking for. How did I live before this?
But I know better. Mountains, like fickle human emotions, are dangerous. I think about what this hike would be like in a white-out. It would still be fun - just a different kind of fun.
For now, I enjoy the moment. This is the happiest I've felt in a long time.
"Hey Marley," Jon says from a few yards behind me. "I need to stop again."
We've been hiking for over three hours, but we just stopped ten minutes ago.
"You alright?" I ask, turning around to look at him.
"It's my lungs," Jon says, breathing hard. "I feel like I can't get enough air." He looks exhausted.
Jon Haas is one of the most strong, fit, and resilient people I know. He can carry 100 pounds of gear (and cast iron) up and down a mountain. He can go for days without sleep or food. To see him so worn out is... strange, to say the least.
"We've got this," I say, trying to sound upbeat and encouraging. "Let's just make it to that next marker, and then we can rest again."
Hearing myself say this reminds me of coping mechanisms for hard endurance training during high school cross-country workouts - stay positive and set goal points. Push yourself, and encourage your teammates.
As I wait for Jon to catch his breath, my thoughts drift to another one of my all-star teammates - my dear friend, Katelyn Bryant-Comstock. Two weeks ago, she and I ran seven miles worth of hill repeats together. Two weeks before that we did some intense circuit training - seemingly endless sets of burpies, push-ups, mountain climbers, and squats. Whether it's showing up for an early morning workout at the gym or running a damn marathon, that woman has pushed me hard - both physically and mentally - for the past ten years. She is a big part of the reason my lungs feel just fine right now, and I am so grateful.
Jon pushes through the pain in his chest like a champion, and an hour later we set down our packs at Camp Muir, just over 10,000 feet. As soon as we stop moving, the cold sets in. We don our puffy jackets and I pull out the thermos to pour us a steaming cup of green tea.
Jon takes a grateful sip, and I watch the tension release from his body.
He smiles, leans back against the rock, and takes another long sip. "How much bourbon did you put in this?"
"Not too much," I say, grinning. "You know, just enough."
We decide we need to leave camp by 4pm, but I want to stay forever. I take photos of the colorful tents dug into the snow, and the nearby climbers preparing for summit bids. The next time I come up here, I think, I'll be one of them. I'm excited and nervous for our summit attempt on Mt. Hood next week, but I already have a new goal - climb to the top of Mt. Rainier.
Our hike down is completely different. Unencumbered by exhaustion, Jon and I run and slide down the giant slopes, full of energy. We shed our layers and take lots of photos. We pause to chat with other climbers heading up. We slip on icy patches, fall down, laugh, then get up and do it again.
As we make our way into softer, slushier snow at the bottom of the mountain, we talk about the hardest part of the climb.
"You've got me beat on the stairs," Jon says.
"Ha, you need to run stadium repeats with me!"
He shakes his head, grinning. The parking lot of the visitor center comes into view. We are tired, sunburnt, and out of water. We need to set up camp, make dinner, and drink celebratory beers. But a big part of me wishes this day would never end.