Upon returning from an overseas trip, I had a message from my climbing buddy that he was indisposed and our planned outing was...out. My daughter was busy with swimming, my son was running with some buds, my other climbing buddy was working on his house, so at 2 PM, I decided to take a trip to Mt. Rainier and do a solo day climbing up to Camp Muir and back that evening. I managed to scrounge some food, scoring on chocolate pop tarts and oreos, and threw some stuff in my pack for the outing. In spite of the pre-holiday traffic, I reminded myself that this was to be a leisurely trip and don't sweat the lights, the traffic, the blocked roads due to accidents, and made my way to Eatonville where I decided to partake of the town's namesake and load up on a BLT and a 16oz mocha. I continued my journey, mocha in hand, behind horse trailers and oversized campers and finally ended up at the Paradise parking lot about 5:30 PM.
At this later hour in the afternoon there were more vehicles leaving the park than arriving and parking was not a problem. Sure, I passed a number of cutoff jean clad people with kids playing in the snow, puffing rotund people gingerly inching through the uncertain footing, and a slightly burned person coming back from a few hours playing above Paradise (after all, they were only out for a few hours in the afternoon, why would you need sunscreen?), but after about 30 minutes the people thinned and the remainder of my ascent to Muir would only see returning climbers, some looking absolutely knackered from their summit bids. Now usually I have gone to Muir during the day and have enjoyed the sweltering ascent with the sun beating off the snow, but this evening was much better as the sun was low and to my left, slowing tracking it's way to eventually disappear behind the mountain, and this made for a much cooler ascent. The last half of the journey saw only 2 climbers slowly making their way up but otherwise I enjoyed a deserted snowfield. When I got to Muir about 8:30 the only one stirring was a climbing ranger who was sitting on his front step chatting on a cellphone. I don't know what these guys get to eat during their stint at the climbing camps, but I went over to pass him a chocolate pop tart just in case he had a hankering for something unhealthy.
I at first had a few thoughts of lament when I looked at my watch and saw it took me 3 hours to get up there, as when I was a young man in my forties I could do the round trip in the same time. But then I remembered that, for the most part, I am free of major complaints with sturdy knees, back, and hips and I took comfort that whether it takes 3 hours or 10, just being able to do the journey is what really matters. So I sat and watched the sun set on the Tatoosh range, a nice burnt orange lighting the upper peaks, and enjoyed the solitude of Camp Muir in the summer at this time of night as all the climbers were nervously tucked into their shacks or tents, wondering if they were going to make it on their summit bid, trying to catch a few winks but probably wouldn't.
After 30 minutes enjoying the setting sun I put on some gaitors for the down trip and launched off. One of the disadvantages of making this trip later in the day is the consolidated snow, and I found it too hard to do a good plunge step so I resorted to slop running down the snowfield. Eventually I came upon the 2 climbers I had passed earlier, them finally able to at least see their destination, and chatted it up for a few minutes with the nice chaps from California. They longingly looked at my light pack and running shoes and were probably wondering what they could have left home at this point. I use an older pair of Nike Gore-tex lined runners for this sort of thing as I've found my feet stay dry and warm all day on or in the snow, as long as you keep the snow from dribbling into the tops, ergo the small gaitors.
I saw nary a sole for the remainder of my descent, gloriously lit by a better than half moon, negating the need for a light, and glittering off Pebble creek like so many miniature reflectors. Sure, the pace is slower in these conditions as I throttle back and lift my feet more, scanning side to side to look for the shadows off rocks cast by the moon. But who's in a hurry on a night like this, with perfect weather and complete solitude? I did see a few wandering souls when I arrived at the parking lot, but most of the cars had cleared out and the ride home was much swifter due to lack of traffic. I arrived at home shortly after 1 for an 11 hour day, most of it spent in the car, but the best parts spent on the higher elevations of Mt. Rainier in relative solitude during the summer....it's all in the timing.