Winter in the Cascades officially ended on an exuberant note. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 18 my friend Andy Lewis sent a text: ski Muir tomorrow? I have summited Mount Rainier three times with Andy, made several other attempts with him, and have chased him up and down the Muir snowfield more often than I can remember. Of course I had to go. We rolled into Longmire around 9:00 just as the park rangers were opening the gates to Paradise. And yes, the description applies in both the literal and metaphorical senses. On the drive up to Paradise it was encouraging to see more snow than last year in the Death Star trench of snowbanks lining the road.
We departed the parking lot (5,400 feet elevation) by 9:50 and made rapid progress up to Panorama Point. The conditions above were icy – a rain/freeze cycle had left a tough crust that the wind had blown clear of snow. The skis came off again and we kicked steps for a couple hundred feet until we gained the lower snowfield at about 8,000 feet.
The sun was making a brave show of things, but the wind picked up on the snowfield and after a thousand feet of climbing we decided to put on our shell jackets. Surprisingly the traffic on the snowfield was light. A few speedsters who were in better shape than I was passed us, but the usual train of people was thin and it was a treat to largely have the ascent to ourselves.
Our plan in the parking lot was a turnaround time of 2:00, but once we passed the icy sections Andy suggested that we not turn back before then. I agreed that the later we waited to descend the softer the surface would become. Just after 2:00 we pulled into Camp Muir at 10,188 feet, 4:13 after leaving the parking lot. Not the fastest time we’ve made (3 hours is our record), but better than I thought I would manage.
It was 23 degrees F at Muir with a breeze, so the down jacket came out and we only hung out long enough to take photos, eat snacks, and switch our skis and boots to downhill mode.
The descent was a joy. The first couple thousand feet was hard-packed, windblown snow with a little bit of sastrugi – forgiving enough to carve through to ease into the descent. As is our usual routine, Andy and I ski down a few hundred feet at a time, regroup to catch our breath, and plan our next section of descent. Nobody was within a thousand feet of us and we relished the comparative solitude of the afternoon.
Skiing down the Muir snowfield is a joy unlike any other. The terrain flows ahead of you, unmarked and open in all directions. It’s like a giant white canvas on which to draw your tracks. Below you lie the rugged peaks of the Tatoosh range, behind you is the towering Nisqually Icefall, and in the distance are the majestic neighboring volcanoes of Adams and St. Helens. The exhilaration of skiing down this pristine expanse makes all the work of the ascent worthwhile.
The transition from the snowfield to Panorama Point brought us back to the icy sections. To our dismay the surface had not softened, so skiing down to Pan Point was like carving turns in a paint shaker while driving over rumble strips during an earthquake. Pan Face rewarded our persistence with soft, perfect spring conditions and we found untracked snow to carve down to the long, mellow, fast hillocks leading back to the trees and the crowds clustered around the parking lot. A round trip of 9 miles with nearly 4,800 feet of elevation gain in 6 hours car-to-car…not bad for a couple of middle-aged slowpokes. Another safe and satisfying alpine foray in good company – this is what makes it so rewarding. We returned to Seattle making plans for a return visit soon.