backpack: Mount Rainier in the winter
Backpacking in the winter is quite different from ‘regular’ backpacking. There’s a lot of extra gear needed to dig a base for a tent and stay warm overnight while camping on top of snow. While this was my fourth time backpacking in the winter, it was also my last.
The forecast called for snow on Friday, overnight lows around 18-20 degrees, then sunny skies on Saturday before changing to snow again and possibly high winds into Sunday. In order to be fully prepared for cold temps below freezing for most of the trip, we decided to camp not too far from the Visitors Center so we could make two trips to the car for gear.
Entering the park via the Nisqually entrance, there is no snow, and very little at Longmire. However, it doesn’t take long before the snow starts to pile up beside the road. We stopped in Longmire for backcountry permits before the drive up to Paradise.
It’s hard to tell because she blends in so well, but this is a fox that was on the road and climbed up the snow bank as we approached. The foxes at Rainier are one of the reasons that bear canisters are required for food storage in the winter.
When we reached the parking lot, it was snowing. Visibility was limited and we couldn’t see any of the mountains around us. We hiked in about a quarter of a mile and set up camp in a small grouping of trees above the Paradise Inn.
I probably overdid the digging for my tent, ending up with a pit about 2-3 feet deep on the sides. It was difficult to find any spots that were flat, including this one which is partly why I had to dig so deep. I wanted to make sure I was protected from high winds.
After getting fully set up, I cooked my dinner in the tent vestibule. I had always heard that Jetboil stoves didn’t work as well in colder temps and was worried when I had to turn mine on full blast and could barely see a flame. It took a lot longer to heat water and cook than on my other snow camping trips. Bringing a liquid fuel stove would be a good idea instead when the temperature is below freezing. To keep the fuel canisters from freezing overnight, I kept them in the foot of my sleeping bag. I also kept anything with batteries in the bag with me, including my camera and phone.
It snowed off and on all night. To keep warm in my tent, I brought a 0 degree down sleeping bag and my 10 degree down quilt. I slept in wool base layers, plus down pants and a lightweight down jacket. Partway through the night, I got too warm and had to de-layer a bit until it got colder in the morning. I managed to stay warm all night long, except when I had to get up twice to pee in the middle of the night. I also kept waking up to knock the snow off my tent, and once when I thought I heard one of those wily foxes coming after my food stored in a bear canister. However, I think what I heard was the wind and not a fox at all. There were no prints anywhere around our campsite in the morning.
When I got up, everything was covered in frost: the inside of my tent, the outside of my tent, and the top of my sleeping bag. The water in my Nalgene bottle partially froze even though I had wrapped my down jacket around it so I’d have water in the morning. A lot of people like to heat water before going to bed, making a hot water bottle for inside the sleeping bag. I’ve done that before, but I wasn’t taking any chances on a leaky bottle getting my sleeping bag wet on a night that dipped down to about 18 degrees.
When I got up in the morning, the sky was clear and bright blue. Quite a change from the day before when we couldn’t see what was around us.
First view of the mountain in the morning!
I went for a short walk for better views and was surprised by a snowcat plowing trails near the Visitor Center. These snow plows were keeping the parking areas and road clear.
The 24 hour bathroom in the parking lot… a true luxury when backpacking. I especially liked the hand dyers. They blow hot air!!
The Visitors Center is open Friday-Sunday during the winter. This was before the masses arrived for sledding, snowshoeing, and skiing. Later in the day, both parking lots were completely full and there were hundreds of people having fun in the snow.
After breakfast, we went to the Visitors Center for a quick look and then did a short snowshoe hike towards Glacier Vista at the base of Mount Rainier. We had already decided that we were going to leave a day early due to incoming snow and wind on Sunday, so we were short on time and only went about halfway to Glacier Vista. The weather kept changing, even on our short hike. Right as we decided to turn around and head back, fog moved in and completely obscured views of Rainier and the Tatoosh range.
To hike out, we had to pack up everything, make two trips back to the car, and get to Longmire by 5pm before the gate closed for the night. While I enjoyed this trip, I think it proved to me that I’m probably not going to be a winter backpacker. Was it a sufferfest? No, not at all. I truly enjoyed being able to see Mount Rainier in the winter. Would I do it again? Probably not. Everything is harder in the snow. Carrying a load on snowshoes, setting up camp, cooking, buckling and unbuckling all of the plastic buckles that outdoor gear has. Opening frozen containers. This trip was about 10 degrees colder than I’d experienced on the three other backpacking trips I’ve done, and that 10 degrees made a big difference.
I have much respect for those who can do this on a regular basis and in much harsher conditions that I experienced. They are true badasses!
For me, I’m going to be super excited for “regular” backpacking season in the rainforest and I’ll be back in the mountains in the summer, when the snow is mostly gone and the wildflowers (and mosquitoes) are out in full force. And I’ll continue to snowshoe in the winter but will save the overnights for cozy cabins.
Here’s a short story I wrote about the experience:
You’ve been snow camping before and liked it so you want to go again. But this time, to a bigger mountain that you’ve never seen up-close in the winter. The fantasy includes views of the snow-clad mountain at sunrise and sunset, glimmering expanses of white powdery snow, and joyful moments of being outdoors overnight in the winter. The reality may include all of the fantasy, but it also includes a fair amount of drudgery.
Load up your pack, which is pretty much the same as regular backpacking season except for the extra weight of a winter tent, heavier sleeping bag, second sleeping pad, extra layers, and a shovel strapped on so you can dig your campsite base when you arrive at camp. Put the snowshoes on and hike in, stopping several times to catch your breath, wondering why you feel so out of shape when you never stopped hiking, even when the season ended and the rains began and you snowshoed every chance you had. That’s why you are here now, isn’t it? Who else backpacks to set up camp in the snow other than someone obsessed with being outdoors as much as possible? You love this. You crave this. You need this. So keep trudging on.
You are surprised at how hard it is to tell what makes a suitable campsite when all around you are rolling hills of snow with pockets of trees on the slopes. The high wind in the forecast convinces you to find a spot in an island of trees, some of which are dead snags. They sure look solid. What could knock them down onto my tent? High winds? Oh yeah. Better move out of the only flat spot and start digging on the slope.
Get out your shovel and work for 1.5 hours on a pit that’s 2-3 feet deep depending on which side you are on. Attempt to shovel without wearing your snowshoes but have to put them back on because all you do is fall down or posthole. Did you just step on the tent with your snowshoes? The footprint has punctures all over it from the last trip, so it’s not of much use this time. You could have left it at home. Oh well. Set up your tent, take off the snowshoes, then get inside and take off the boots. Untangle the mess of gear that you threw in with the tent door barely open so it wouldn’t let too much blowing snow inside. It’s cozy in here. But it’s time to eat.
Locate your stove and food. Open the tent door, attempting to keep snow out. Open the vestibule so you don’t suffocate when you use your stove to cook your dehydrated food that you brought with you in a heavy bear canister that slides around on the snow so fast you have to keep hold of it. Set up your stove and light it. Try to light it again. Turn the fuel on full blast, then light it again and hope it doesn’t explode. Okay good, it lit. But there isn’t much flame because the temperature is lower than this stove is supposed to be used at. It works, but it takes a long time. A really long time. You hope it stays on long enough to cook your dinner. Try to keep the tent door and rainfly lowered enough to keep snow out, but away from the low flame of the stove.
When your food is done, eat it in your tent for the first time. Chew the chewy chow you cooked, chewing more than you think is normal until you realize that the chicken sausage you added to your mac and cheese recipe never rehydrated. But you must eat. You exerted a lot and need to replenish your body, so chew on. Drink the hot (white) chocolate you made, which makes you very happy. Wash your stove pot because you ate out of it instead of a plastic bag.
Place the bear canister loaded with food, the stove, and the now empty but not clean mug into the second vestibule of your tent. Wonder if this is a good idea since it smells like food. Realize that keeping it anywhere else would require layering back up before getting back out of the tent, and then shoveling a small pit somewhere away from your tent because everything is sloped and the food will slide away if you just set it on the ground. And it’s dark. So you try to forget about it.
After sitting up to journal for awhile, you wonder if it’s too early to go to sleep. It’s dark, you are cold, and your back is tired from carrying a heavy load and shoveling more than you have probably ever shoveled before, so you decide that 7:30 is not too early. It’s cozy warm in the sleeping bag and double sleeping pads are cushy. This is nice. Drift off to sleep.
Wake up two hours later needing to pee. Layer up, put on the boots and walk gingerly so you don’t slip and fall in the dark. Of course, you have your headlamp on. When you squat to pee, you wonder if you are all lit up and on display from your headlamp reflecting off the snow. But there’s no one around. Go back to your tent and get all snuggly in your sleeping bag again and drift off until you have to repeat this process 3 hours later.
At some point in the night, you hear a sound that you are convinced is one of the wily foxes you saw on the drive up to the mountain and hope that they aren’t drawn to the smell of food that was cooked and eaten in your tent. Or to the still dirty mug in your vestibule. Oh well. Just forget about it and go back to sleep.
Wake up with the first rays of light and peek out of your vestibule to see that the sky is clear and bright blue. When you get out of the tent, it’s the coldest part of the day (18 degrees!) and you have to put those snowshoes back on and light your stove. Hope the fuel didn’t freeze overnight. The water did. And the views are as fantastic as the fantasy.