A Lesson on Preparedness: When Wisconsinites Face Mt. Rainier

The Ottmans are ready for a hike.
We had no idea what we were in for.

This October was my first visit to Washington state. It was a trip I had been looking forward to for ages. I have family and friends near Seattle, and I had always heard about the scenic hikes and majestic mountain views. 

Needless to say, of our 5-day trip my husband and I spent two full days hiking. Our first hike, Mt. Rainier, was a climb we will never forget. 

The Story

Friday morning we got up early to enjoy our hotel’s 6:30 weekday breakfast. We picked up some doughnuts around the corner (for car snacks) and hit the highway in our rented Ford Fiesta. The drive from Seattle to Mt. Rainier was about 3 hours long and we figured we would get there “before the crowds.” 

At the gate the ranger let us know that yes, the skyline trail was open, but that we should expect a bit of snow. No problem. We’re from Wisconsin!

We had checked the weather in advance, so we were prepared for temperatures around freezing and a layer of snow on the ground. No storms and no warnings on the AM radio broadcast from Mount Rainier, so we’re good to go. Right?

We parked at Paradise where we finished up the last of our road snacks. We layered up with our warm Wisconsin-approved winter gear, took a photo of the blurry trail map at the lodge (along with our paper map) and headed on our way. 

Mt Rainier Skyline Trail.
Clear path. All is well.

The trail was paved. The weather was chilly but not cold. Fog covered the mountain top, but we could see glimpses as the wind moved the clouds. There was snow on the ground, but mostly what we expected. A bit here and there. Ankle-deep at most in the spots that covered the trail. We passed a couple of casual hikers headed back toward the parking lot, but it wasn’t crowded. Mostly we were on our own and enjoyed the beautiful snow-covered views. 

Then there was a snow drift. All of a sudden, beyond this wash of snow, the entire path was covered. Thank goodness for well-traveled trails. The way forward was busy with footprints and we could easily see the meandering trail in front of us. Just a small annoyance, but the snow was over our ankles now. 

Snowy Mt Rainier
No sign of the mountain, but you can see the trail on the right.

As we kept climbing, the depth of snow continued to change. In some areas we were up to our knees. In others we were walking on clearly marked paths. We were warm, so we hiked with our jackets open. We passed a woman on the way who told us there were about four people hiking ahead of us. Great, we thought, that means we’ll be able to step in their footprints! Fog was rolling it a bit thicker and darker now. We couldn’t see Mount Rainier anymore, but it was romantic the way the whole world disappeared beyond the two of us on our stretch of trail.

Finally, we came to the switchback we had been looking for. We should be to the halfway point soon. Looking up the hill above us we saw a group of four, standing in place, looking down on us. These must be the hikers who started earlier. Why were they stopped? We re-zipped our jackets (it was getting colder now) and started on the climb. Here the snow was all the way up to my hip, which made the climb slow and difficult. Both of us were tripping, sinking, sliding, slipping and getting more snow in our boots than we wanted. 

The four at the top of the hill must have been waiting to see what path we cut up the mountain. They started heading down just as we were coming up to pass them. They were drenched and looked tired. A happy greeting from a guy in the group put me at ease. He was from California and told us he loved the snow! These must not be the folks in front of us, I reasoned. They had probably come around counterclockwise and were finishing the last stretch. Those wet jackets? Probably a bit of weather from up ahead.

We stopped to take pictures of a chipmunk. How cute! He climbed on our boots looking for crumbs. The wind was picking up and bringing with it sprinkling rain. Our chipmunk friend looked soaked too. We better start moving, we thought, so we can stay dry. 

Mt Rainier snow-filled boots and a chipmunk.
Snow-filled boots and our little chipmunk friend.

We kept on toward Panorama Point. Sleet was coming down hard. The snow was slushy and deep. Our boots were filling with melted snow and sloshing with each step. When we reached Panorama Point at 6800’ we could barely see 20 feet in front of us. A signpost directed us to the Skyline Trail . . . off the edge of a cliff? That can’t be right. We looked around trying to find more footprints. 

I sat on a rock, taking a moment to dump a quarter-cup of water from my boots and wring out my wool socks. There were no footprints. No one had made it past this point. We pulled out our map to get our bearings. As it opened, the sleet and wind pulled it apart and turned it to mush. That’s it. We’re going back.

The road back was grueling. We knew our way and were following our own footsteps this time, but the sleet was not letting up. Each step was a slip, fall, trip down the mountain. Falling forward meant our knees were smashing against compacted snow and in the deepest spots we had to crawl our way out. 

Every horrible mountain story flashed through my mind. Dyatlov Pass. The Donner Party. Those stories weren’t anything like what we were going through, but I was freaking out! What if I broke my ankle? Would my husband carry me down the mountain? What if he broke his? Would we die of hypothermia or would I be able to slide him on his coat? Would anyone come looking for us?

Eventually we came around a corner and saw a paved path in front of us. Finally! As our feet landed on solid ground our tired backs and sore muscles got the break they so badly needed. The wind was letting up slightly, but the rain was still coming. As we reached the end of the trail we saw a ranger circling the parking lot. I can only guess that he was making sure people had made it back safely from the storm. 

We marched toward the car, peeled off our wet coats and threw ourselves into the vehicle. It would be another hour’s drive to clean and dry shoes and socks, but we were happy to be alive!

Paper map destroyed by the rain.
Our map post-hike was just a handful of mush.

Lessons Learned

  • Snow on the mountain is not at all like snow on the ground. Wind, gravity, snowdrifts, whatever. There are huge differences between the deep parts and the just-dusted parts. You cannot tell how bad it will be from just the first few steps.
  • The weather is unpredictable! And since you’re up on a mountain with no cell service, you will not be warned. Be ready for anything! 
  • Disasters are real. Don’t think that just because you’re walking on a trail or just because it’s a high-traffic area you’re immune. Make sure you have a plan to find your bearings and get down off the mountain no matter what. Poor visibility and a destroyed map could have easily gotten us lost.

Next Time

I’m happy to report that we’ve added a few more tools to our hiking toolbox since this trip. We each have a pair of gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots. Iodine tablets will help us make safe drinking water in case we need to refill from a stream. We bought a plastic compass and my husband re-taught me how to use it (it’s been a few years since 8th grade Outdoor Ed). And our hikes will now always include a waterproof map!

All in all, it was still a good trip. Although it was more like an adventure movie than I was looking for. We are both thankful that we’re here to tell the story and have a good laugh.

Have you ever gotten more adventure than you bargained for? Share your story in the comments below!

—Written by Nina Ottman

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