Last weekend I had the privilege of spending a night snow camping with the Pacific Northwest Outdoor Women group (PNWOW). PNWOW is “an inclusive community of passionate, adventurous women from the PNW”, and they plan adventures, provide a community for women to share stories, seek advice and discuss outdoor issues. One such event is the Beginning Level Snow Camping at Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park. This event promised to teach those with minimal snow camping background how to survive, and enjoy a backcountry winter camping experience.
We met at 9:30 on Saturday and left the mountain by 11:00 on Sunday, providing for a full 24 hours at the national park. The road from Longmire to Paradise closes nightly at 5:00 pm, effectively closing us in overnight. It was the perfect scenario to test my gear kit, learn some pivotal skills and meet a ton of wonderful, supportive and engaging women. Part one is below, covering Saturday and part 2 is soon to follow!
PNWOW: Facebook | Instagram
Meeting at Longmire
Juvenile elk sparred over perceived slights in a golden field, as we waited for our coffee at a small stand outside of Eatonville. They disappeared into the mist and we continued driving through sleepy towns, waking in the morning light. We were getting ever closer to our destination, yet still had not managed to see two rather pivotal features: snow and Mount Rainier herself. Given that this was supposed to be a trip to learn about snow camping on Mount Rainier, this was a little concerning. The ranger waved us through the soggy entrance and we sped through the evergreen forest, desperately peering out for a glimpse of the mountain.
You may recall that my last trip to Mount Rainier was in a cloud bank. And the most recent trip, and the one before that too. In fact, only one snowshoe so far has had more than 100′ of visibility. I am all for hiking in variable weather, but I was really hoping for a dry day with some views.
Unfortunately, the Longmire parking lot was coated in a wet, drizzly haze. 30 women ready to learn and 6 ready to teach huddled under Subaru liftgates, umbrellas, and Goretex, as we tried to keep our layers dry. After discussing the plans for the next day, gathering permits and figuring out parking, we began a caravan up to the lower overnight parking lot at Paradise, Mount Rainier. We slowly gathered our gear, hoisting 45lb packs onto our backs and waddling up the paved road. As soon as my car was locked and ready to be abandoned for 24 hours, the clouds parted, the sun pushed through and the misty morning was all but forgotten as we continued to have an absolutely incredible weather window.
I felt a tremendous sense of power knowing I had everything I needed to survive a night in the snow on my back (hopefully). I did prepare an oh shit kit in my car, including my Fairbanks parka rated to -40°F, an extra sleeping bag, down blanket and about 40 hand warmers, in case I grossly miscalculated my gear needs. While the forecast was 44°F during the day and 37°F at night, which is very warm in the winter, for those of you keeping track, I was really unsure about how the cold, wet snowpack would factor into it all.
This was also the first time I was camping solo. Of course, I was not alone at the campsite, rather the opposite, sharing a field with 35 other women. This was the first time I was not sharing gear with anyone and needed to bring everything on my back. When Michael and I backpack, one of us usually carries the bear can and food supplies, while the other carries the shelter. I found I was stretching my pack’s capabilities as I struggled to fit a bear can, 9lb tent, stove system, shovel, microspikes, and snowshoes into every little pocket. First lesson of snow camping: someone to share a tent with is a really nice thing.
Setting up camp
When we arrived at paradise, the rain stopped, clouds parted and sun pushed through. As we waited in the parking lot for the rest of the group to arrive, Mount Rainier revealed herself in all of her splendor.
I had the opportunity to meet a bunch of lovely women as we waited. Many women came with friends, but as I was a last addition from the wait list, I was flying solo. The evening before the event I lay awake in bed worried about meeting so many new people. I am an introvert at heart and can be very shy, especially when I am doing new things. I need not have worried! The women were so inviting and friendly, and I was immediately included. I no longer worried about being the odd-man out, and instead relished listening to everyone’s stories and backgrounds.
We gathered our gear and began the short walk to the group campsite. The green building in the above picture is the border of the parking lot and our campsite was to the left. Quite the short walk, so short in fact that I regularly walked from the campsite to the building to use a posh 24-hour toilet. The women with snowshoes forged a path to where we were going to lay our tents. The ambassadors gave us tips on site selection and we set to work digging out our tent pad.
What I assumed would take about 20 minutes took a few hours. But little by little, shovel by shovel, I was able to build a nice flat space to pitch my tent. I was fortunate to be able to borrow my uncle’s tent for the weekend. It was much nicer than I actually needed given the warm weekend with no wind, but I was grateful nonetheless to not worry. Several hours later, I pitched the tent, helped dig a kitchen area large enough for 36 women and threw on my snowshoes for a little trip to Alta Glacier.
Snowshoe to Alta Glacier- Hike #2 on the 52 hike challenge
We filed out of the campsite in a long line of women and wove our way through the crowded sledding area. As we moved forward we spread out a bit, but still managed to stick together. At last, when we reached Alta Glacier, we gathered for a group photo.
At this point, some women turned back to return to camp, while myself, Dana, Kirsten, Meredith, and Heather pushed onwards, in the hopes of seeing the Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens trifecta. The avalanche danger was considerable, so we avoided going to Panorama Point, but stopped below the turn-off and waited for sunset. I attempted to take a few pictures to signify this was hike #2 for the Hike 52 challenge, but the wind was not super cooperative.
Sunset at Mount Rainier
As we waited for the sun to drop, the wind picked up slightly and we decided to descend to a slightly more protected area. Unfortunately, when I packed my daypack I only brought my base layers as it was nearly 50°F and it was such a short hike. I had a few hand warmers so I remained warm enough, but would have been more comfortable with a few more layers. As soon as the sun dipped below the ridge I booked it back to my campsite and the many layers of down that awaited me.
We ran into Nikki , one of the PNWOW ambassadors, on our way back to our campsite as she was painting Mount Rainier. Make sure to check out her Instagram to see the finished painting, as well as the rest of her amazing mountainscapes. It was really neat to see her interpretation of the sunset rendered into art.
The sky was turning a rosy pink by the time we made it back to the parking lot. I discovered the waterproof lining on my boots was no longer waterproof so my socks and the inside of my boots were soaking wet. As daylight was falling, I gathered my stove and cooking supplies and made my way to our little table.
We sat in the kitchen we dug out earlier, ate dinner and shared about ourselves. It was lovely to feel the sense of community among these awesome women and hear their different stories. After participating in the facebook group for nearly a year now, spending time together in-person and making these real connections was pretty great.
Night on Mount Rainier
After we finished eating, though it was quite dark, it was only about 6:30 pm. Rather than fall asleep at 7 and find ourselves awake at one in the morning, unable to sleep through the night, I opted for a short rest in my tent then grabbed my camera to learn about photography from Meghan. I had about a 10% success rate on my night shots, but picked up on many new tips and got to know my camera a little better.
With glowing tents and a sky full of stars, I forgot the cold, wet of my feet and focused instead on the splendor before me.I looked out over the small community of tents we built overnight and felt strong pullings of home. Then the milky way grew behind Mount Rainier’s summit; I sight I won’t ever forget.
I took a walk to get a final view of Rainier before heading back to my tent. The pictures didn’t turn out, but the peak loomed large above starry skies. As I meandered back down the path to bed, a red fox scampered a few feet ahead of me on the trail. I had spent most of the day looking for signs of foxes, as I knew they liked to hang around Paradise, hoping for scraps. Now, when it was dark and I was alone, I finally had my fox moment. On top of all of the other parts of the day that felt purely magical, including the amazing sunset, community time around a shared table, the milky way rising above Mt. Rainier’s summit, this moment felt surreal and incredible.
I am no stranger to foxes, having lived on San Juan Island for two summers where a large population of foxes with no predators abound. I come from a family that raised foxes on a small island in the 1930’s. I am fully aware that they can be mischevious monsters with needle-sharp teeth that chew through tents at an alarming rate, and indeed, I heard them throughout the night tossing our bear canister around hoping to find food. What can I say? I love the little beasts, they are my patronus, my soul animal, my dearest forest friend. Seeing one before bedtime felt like a very good omen.
Stay tuned for part two, where I struggle to fall asleep, curse the snow and its wicked cold, catch a mountain sunrise and say goodbye to the mountain–for now.