This was my fourth snow backpack trip and first time at Mount Rainier in the winter. 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.
The sky was clear and bright blue. Quite a change from the day before when we couldn’t see what was around us. 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.
First view of the mountain in the morning!
The Tatoosh range, looking pretty awesome.
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. 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. 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.
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.