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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Muir Snowfield, Mt. Rainier, WA

Where winter strikes year-round

by: Kelly Bastone


The Hike Rainier's summit requires a formidable alpine climb, and more than 90 mountaineers have slipped or frozen trying to reach 14,410 feet. But a whopping 294 fatalities have occurred elsewhere on the mountain, including an alarming number between the Paradise trailhead and Camp Muir, a cluster of tent sites and stone cabins at 10,000 feet. A popular basecamp for climbers, Camp Muir is also a classic dayhiking destination, attracting thousands each year. Starting on the Skyline Trail, the nine-mile round-trip meanders innocently through wildflower meadows before climbing 2.2 miles and 2,800 vertical feet up the Muir Snowfield. Before you, Rainier looms; behind you, the Tatoosh Range displays its toothy peaks. But all that scenery extracts more energy than most hikers expect: The route gains a thigh-draining 4,600 feet. Ultimately, though, the real killer isn't fatigue; it's the fierce storms that roll off the Pacific and shroud Rainier in blinding fog and snow, turning the Muir into a huge, featureless killing field.

Exhibit A This past June, 31-year-old Eduard Burceag died of hypothermia when a surprise storm blasted Rainier with 70-mph winds and five-foot-deep snow drifts. He huddled in a makeshift snow cave, but his summer clothing proved no match for temps that plunged well below freezing. "You can experience winter lower down at any time," warns Peter Whittaker, owner of Whittaker Mountaineering. He's seen two feet of snow fall at Paradise on July 4, and freezing temps in August. Even when snow doesn't fall, storms can envelop Rainier in vertigo-inducing whiteouts that make navigation nearly impossible. "I've fallen over just standing there because your senses are so confounded," Whittaker says. Hikers have wandered blindly over cliffs or to distant parts of the mountain away from searchers. Most day-trippers don't anticipate such dangers, and head out unprepared. Add a reluctance to turn around when weather threatens, and this lovely hike can turn fatal.

Survival Plan On any hike above treeline, track your route with a map and GPS or compass. Consult weather reports at nwac.us, and beware rising winds, which often precede storms. Lenticular clouds also indicate deteriorating weather. If you get caught in a whiteout, hunker down and wait for park rescuers, who will search the Paradise/Muir corridor first. And always, says wilderness ranger Daniel Keebler, always hike with a whistle.




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F Vucich
Jun 24, 2012

Message to Lifeisamountain: You were the last person to talk to my stepson, Mark Vucich, in January when he was hiking up Rainier. His dad & I have tried to piece the story together, but we will never understand why he ignored all of the weather warnings, including yours, and continued on only to perish on the mountain and he still has not been found. I wish I could talk with you if that is possible. My email is faycard@aol.com. Thank you and take care.

Lifeisamountain
Jan 25, 2012

As of today Jan. 25, the four hikers are still missing in Mt. Rainier, http://bit.ly/zCPHsY. I happened to be one of the last people who witnessed them ascending toward Camp Muir from Panorama Point in the afternoon on Jan. 13, which I have already reported to the park authorities and they are still searching, but no luck so far. The heavy snow falls have been giving the rescue effort a hard time. In the meanwhile, over a week has passed since their missing. Mt. Rainier is one of those mountains that can turn itself from "paradise" to "hell" in a very short time because weather conditions can change so fast. The mountain creates its own weather regardless official forecast, particularly above treeline such as Muir Snowfield and above. Mark my word. 10 essentials and basic hiking knowledge, skills and protocols are a must in Mt. Rainier, or you are taking a grave risk. If you notice weather's changing, TURN AROUND before it's too late. The mountain will be there always and you can go back again. Let's hope the missing four hikers will be found soon. If you happened to be hiking in Paradise - Muir Snowfield area during the holiday weekend of MLK day and have a knowledge of seeing the four hikers, let the Rainier National Park know. 360-569-2211. My last comment....know your limits and respect your ability. Mt. Rainier is much "bigger" than you can imagine. Life is a mountain.

Tovia Ryan
Dec 06, 2011

I was up on mt rainier and my friend alex olson died when he fell down cadaver gulch

CelticStorm
Jan 10, 2011

Different situation but epitomizes the ignorance of some. 5th of July but in the Ape Caves of Mt. St. Helens. I can not count the number of grown adults coming out of there in shorts and sandals (plus some had no flashlight!). Please, please, please - your first time somewhere, at least do your research online or talk to the locals/rangers. The father I have in mind coming out of the caves was an example of what NOT to do for his kids! Luckily, it was just a 45 minute hike in and there was little chance they would've spent the night in there but next time, it could be on a trek up a side trail on Rainier - which he and his family could've froze to death.

CelticStorm
Jan 10, 2011

Different situation but epitomizes the ignorance of some. 5th of July but in the Ape Caves of Mt. St. Helens. I can not count the number of grown adults coming out of there in shorts and sandals (plus some had no flashlight!). Please, please, please - your first time somewhere, at least do your research online or talk to the locals/rangers. The father I have in mind coming out of the caves was an example of what NOT to do for his kids! Luckily, it was just a 45 minute hike in and there was little chance they would've spent the night in there but next time, it could be on a trek up a side trail on Rainier - which he and his family could've froze to death.

mark
Oct 24, 2010

walked on the landbridge 09

Patrick Schibly
Oct 09, 2010

Wow...you are right! I've been hiking, skiing and climbing all over Mt Rainier for over 15 years and I'm astounded by what I've seen. Readers mention flip-flop wearing hikers and I've seen that many times too. I've been on the Muir Snow field and have seen it go from wet corn snow to solid ice in less than an hour. On the other hand I have had many experiences where the right gear and planning kept us out of trouble. From a bivy on the summit with a team of 8 climbers to a trek down a canyon with 300 foot cliffs and no trail...we survived with little discomfort. I always insist on carrying an emergency space blanket and enough gear to spend the night. I've also used an altimeter and compass to get back to Paradise and recommend both in the mountains...even places I've been many times look very different at different angles. Great article...hopefully many will take this to heart and hike safely.

petekandu
May 12, 2010

I did the Wonderland trail a few years back and was surprised to meet some guys in Speedos and running shoes who were doing the whole trail in 36 hours straight through. They did have on a kind of fleece vest with pockets for Power bars and such but no warm gear. It took our party 13 days to do the whole circuit. I felt a bit silly with my gear but I did think if he badly sprains an ankle he is in deep do do

Brian S
Apr 26, 2010

As some have mentioned, carrying the ten essentials is useless unless experience or knowledge comes along, e.g. map and compass.

Here's a map the NPS produced for people interested in doing the Camp Muir route: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/GetYourBearings.pdf

Per-Ola
Mar 01, 2010

Here I agree with Backpacker. The Muir snowfield can be very deadly. We turned around one misty spring day, only to find out later in the evening that a guy had vanished just a few hundred feet above us, on his way down, carrying a radio and all.
Before moving to WA, I was also up here a few times ill-prepared. Weather changes quickly, and wet snow is VERY cold...

Howard Hayden
Jan 02, 2010

We teach the Ten Essentials+more to our Boy Scouts and stress Wilderness Survival skills and gear. Hopefully, Troops are constantly pushing this information so kids will learn well.Camp Sheppard, BSA, just East of Mt.Rainier teaches all manner of backcountry safety classes and programs. Learn, have the gear, and be prepared for surprises in weather in the Pacific Northwest. Never leave your car without your emergency/overnight pack! Stay alive; survive!

Survivor
Jan 02, 2010

haha, tell someone where I'm going. . . into the everglades for an unknown amount of time. . . If I'm not back in three years, give my computer to someone else.

Silversummit
Dec 31, 2009

I hiked the Skyline Trail loop in August 2009 in beautiful 75 degree sunshine but I still carried my 10 essentials! Many casual walkers (I won't call them hikers either!) weren't even carrying water! I refilled a couple water bottles with my extra water on the way down for people who as some described didn't even have more than flip-flops on. Some were starting their hikes in late afternoon to Paradise Point.

And one other danger even on the popular trails at Rainier, as I found out, is the narrow steep pathways. I was on the Upper Skyline Trail and at one point had to pass another person when I slipped off the trail itself falling down very loose scree. Other hikers directed me back around and up to the trail to continue hiking but I ended up with a very sore ankle. I knew enough First Aid to leave my boot on and take some ibuprophen.

So follow the advice above, watch those trails and know your First Aid!

Steve C
Oct 29, 2009

I climbed Rainier in 1997. On July 3rd, the sun was hot and bright on the Muir snowfield. On July 4th at 4am it was about 15 degrees (on the Ingraham Glacier). That is a real swing! At that time of year your body is in summer mode, so your body is not used to the difference.

Mike Wellington
Aug 23, 2009

I just had my first trip to Rainier... It was foggy with 50 feet of visibility up to 6,000 feet. Above that it was 60 degrees and a 2 mph wind. I kept thinking aobut that fog rolling in higher and how hard it would be to find the trail on some of the snow fields.... Crazy place! With Mount Washington NH in my back yard I hiked with all my gear and my 10 essentials (it isn't a joke, you have to have them). We had a great hike and I enjoyed it all the more because we were prepared for the worse.

Doug Ward
Nov 18, 2008

I did Rainier back in 1997 and witnessed the same thing. It was Labor day ant the SHTF, There were the aforementioned flip flop wearing, nose ring sporting idiots everywhere with zero equipment.
I live in Costa Rica now so I dont even travel to town without my backpack. Ya never ever know.
The scouts had it right " Be Prepared ! "

Don Moore
Nov 16, 2008

Living 15 miles from the Itsup entrance of Rainier park, I hike the park year around. It amases me just how unprepared i have found people to be. I lead hikers down from the Carbon Glacier after dark, who dident have a flashlight, proper coat, or even water. You should allways carry a small pack with at least warm clothes food and a light. Not to mention a firstaid kit.

BIll Wood
Nov 15, 2008

I was on the mountain the two days before Burceag died. The first day was white out conditions and freezing. The second was so sunny and hot that several in our group got second degree burns while practicing cravas rescue. As you know the next day was a killer. You simply can not go above the tree line on this mountain and not be prepaired for everything. You are playing with your life.

Sarah Kirkconnell
Nov 14, 2008

If you get caught in a white out, get into a shelter asap. It will stop the vertigo - it allows your brain to know which end is up.

I think what is scary about Rainier is the lack of being prepared by many visitors - it pains me to call them "hikers" - you see them at the trailheads at Rainier jumping out in flip-flops, tennis shoes with no traction, designer sweat suits on, or worse, tank tops and short shorts when it is early or late season. They have no gear with them, not even a pack on. The smarter ones at least have a bottle of water but many do not.
On the other side of Rainier at Sunrise it isn't uncommon to encounter people 4-5 miles out thirsty, hungry and freezing cold at 7,000 ft. Over the years I have given out a lot of food and water and told people how to get back to their cars faster. (They also never have a map along!)
It is often freezing cold above treeline at Rainier - fine for going uphill, but bad coming down with a stiff wind coming up the snow.

Yep, and also
Nov 14, 2008

Never, never, never forget to tell someone where you're going.

LK
Nov 14, 2008

As someone who hiked the Mt Rainier Wonderland Trail and experience snowfall in August, I canonly agree. However, the most important survival tip was left out of this article. Its always the first tip ignored by hikers, too - carry and know how to use the 10 essentials. Warm gear and some kind of shelter is essential.

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