May 24, 2024
At the end of the day, finding Rainier isn’t hard, planning this was one of the easier hikes I’ve planned but to understand it, that is something different. You will end up on the tallest peak in the tallest mountain range in the contiguous United States. You will see what the sky really looks like, you will understand that the earth allows us to live on her and that nothing is forever.

By: Justin Hunold

14,411 feet, that is 2.73 miles above sea level. Two and three quarters miles of responsibility. Four and four tenths kilometers jetting into the sky, above all other peaks, feeding an entire region from North America’s Largest Glacier, Emmons glacier and the other twenty four that follow it’s icy lead to pour down the rocks to form five major rivers systems through the Cascades to the Pacific. Mount Rainier is the epicenter for all things Pacific North West. 

As life changing hikes go this can be an easy one to get to, provided you enjoy beautiful scenery, amazing food, culture, libations and technology along with a bit of gum and the smell of fresh fish. My partner Mila and and I decided to take a summer trip to Seattle, home of Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, The Storm, The Seahawks, The Sounders, the team my cousin Tom plays catcher for the Mariners, Starbucks, Pikes Place and my favorite band Pearl Jam. This all exists in the shadow of a dormant volcano turned National Park. 

Mount Rainier is omnipresent when you’re in King County. You can see it from the Ferris wheel. You can see it from the Space Needle and even when its presence is shrouded by the thin veil of the sprawl of buildings and bustle of the city and her surrounding suburbs it is apparently around you with the water that slips down its shale. 

You may hike the mountain, but you may not conquer it. Make no mistake, I will tell you how to get to the base, how to plan a hike and how to put yourself on the top of the world, but the mountain will put you in your place and give you some perspective you didn’t start the trip with. You are the mountain’s guest, and if you do not follow its house rules you can pay the ultimate price. Since the Park opened in 1897 over 400 people have died on Rainiers slopes. Nick Hall, Margaret Anderson, Phil Otis and Sean Ryan ; those are the names scribed into Stone Obelisks on the Valor Memorial for sacrificing their lives to save and protect others. 

We landed in Seattle from a long, thankfully direct, flight from Philadelphia. We started off from the airport in our rented Toyota Yaris to our Airbnb. We had picked a prime week in July to be in the area. It was an unusual hot streak for the Puget Sound. Mila and I travel a good bit, and we have made a habit of using AirBnB as often as possible. This gives us a chance to be lowkey tourists, often we can check out stuff that other tourists miss. I cannot suggest this path enough.

We got to the Mother In Law suite and unloaded our gear. For the next day or three we went to a few breweries, including Lauganitas, Stoup and Locust Cider and Ballard sampling drinks and food trucks at each. We dined on street food, Biscuit Bitch and seafood everywhere. We checked out the fish ladder, the Museum of Flight and the  Starbucks Foundry.  We like cuisine and cocktails for sure. We enjoyed those days, taking public transportation, jay walking, feasting and drinking with little concern other than our heads hitting those nice pillows in the evening. 

On the third morning we got up at about 4 am, and left for our hike. Rainier isn’t in Seattle, it’s not in Tacoma either, although it looms over both. You can see its ice face from these cities even though it is about a 2.5 hour drive to the south. 

We went from a city whose traffic is intimidating, even to the two of us who live about an hour from either Philly or New York City, to towns with one light and a gas station. We saw horse pastures and municipalities you would miss if you blinked driving through. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up some snacks and drinks for the hike. On we went, we saw loggers, locals and even some elk. 

We had decided to try our hand at hiking a lot of the mountain in one shot. We drove up to the White River campground and began our hike there. This is the beginning of the Glacier Basin trail. This trail leads to about 1280 feet of elevation gain and is about 7 miles long. It’s about a four hour one way hike, then obviously quicker coming back down.

Planning to hike Rainier is easy, the National Parks website has all the trails marked from start to finish, with distances, directions and elevation changes listed as well. You won’t have cell phone service for a while before you get there, download the maps.  You will need a full tank of gas to start up the mountain, NOT JOKING. You don’t need a lot of gear. Hiking boots, wool socks, sunglasses, sun screen, pants, a fleece with layers under it and a day pack. Obviously dress for the weather, but remember we were there during a heat wave in July and we had to cross snow banks at some points of the hike. My day pack had some small first aid supplies, ibuprofen , lip balm, sunscreen, snacks and about two gallons of water. I do not suggest trying this hike in any other season unless  you are an experienced hiker. 

As we ascended we started to catch glimpses. A peak here, a lake there, huge scree fields, larger coniferous  slopes and sky. We began to realize the magnitude of Rainier. I try to use visual aids to gauge my insignificance. I will pick a pine tree in the distance, because I know about how much larger that is than I am and then I will truly understand how much mother nature cares not about me.  

On our trek we explored lean-to’s, rock faces, elevation markers and lakes. We got passed by a guy running the trail in sandals and we saw families that made it that far in vans and on buses. We saw people looking for mountain goats and finally the Glacier. 

Emmons Glacier is over four miles in circumference, the white is so bright it would hurt unshaded eyes, and even from a few thousand feet below its peak I then felt its weight. 

The thing is I am from Syracuse, my hometown receives over 200 inches of snow annually. I may be insignificant in size in comparison to a mountain, any mountain. Now take the tallest one in the continental United States and put a single snowflake on the top. I can picture one snowflake. I know snow. I’ve been buried in snow when a snow tunnel collapsed on me. I have no idea how many snowflakes are in a ten foot square area that is four feet deep, but I know the weight. Now I was taking that mass and multiplying it by four and a half miles squared and forty three feet deep. I try to measure the weight but it is a fly trying to measure a house. There is that perspective I spoke of. 

At the end of the day, finding Rainier isn’t hard, planning this was one of the easier hikes I’ve planned but to understand it, that is something different. You will end up on the tallest peak in the tallest mountain range in the contiguous United States. You will see what the sky really looks like, you will understand that the earth allows us to live on her and that nothing is forever. I have taken a great many things for granted since then. I think that every time I do I should remember the power of a snowflake at 14,411 feet and the power of the people who scale it, for at least one day that July Mila and I were powerful in the exploration of our scale.