Hiking through a white-out on Mount Rainier

A good friend is leaving Seattle this week after a six-year run here. He’s finished his PhD and is moving to Virginia for a fancy post-doc gig. As a last hurrah, a few of us ventured up the Muir Snowfield, a permanent slash of snow running up a few thousand feet from Paradise to Camp Muir, halfway up Mount Rainier.

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There’s a sign right before Pebble Creek, the end of the dirt trail and the beginning of the boot trail up the snow, that warns of white-out conditions. Its goal is to keep unprepared tourists from wandering off where they’re sure to lose the trail. From here, there are few landmarks–even fewer when the visibility disappears.

Which is exactly what happened to us on Friday. The mountain and its glaciers were visible from the Paradise parking lot, and the sun beat down on us as we started our hike. But then, just past Pebble Creek and the warning sign, we hit a white-out, with visibility down to just a few hundred yards.

But plug away we did. The boot track was well worn and easy to follow as we kick-stepped our way up the snowfield. I knew the way, so that helped, too. Every now and then, the clouds would clear and there would be the summit, ever closer, the glaciers gleaming bright blue. In the distance we could hear them calving, breaking apart and crashing down.

All in all we spent about six hours exploring the snowfield and careening down it on our butts in a process called glissading. Glissade is French for “slide,” which is exactly what we did, all the way down the snowfield. At times, it was tough to see where the glissade chute ended; it merely disappeared into the fog.