Folks living in the Seattle-Tacoma area often acknowledge a clear day with a simple, “The mountain’s out.” The nuanced winter fogs and rains of the region often hide Mount Rainier from view so it’s a bonus when the famed peak is witnessed.

On a clear day, Rainier is visible 100 miles away. At over 14,000 feet in elevation, the dormant volcano, the largest in the United States, is a feature worth noting.

With the help of weather apps Miss Nancy and I found a window where sunshine was supposed to dominate and we made a day trip up to the famed Paradise area off one of the shoulders of Mount Rainier.

On May 8, 1792 George Vancouver spotted the distant mountain. He was the navigator for the British Royal Navy engaged in the difficult task of surveying the Pacific shoreline of North America from 1790-95. The team of two ships wended their way through the channels and islands of the area that the local indigenous called “whulge.” Vancouver titled it Puget Sound after his Second Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Like most colonizers he christened natural features like rivers, bays, points of land and mountains with an English title.

After spying the mountain Vancouver made a brief note merely describing it as “a round, snowy mountain.”  He was unaware or simply didn’t care to find out that it already had a title. For thousands of years previous to his “discovering” it the Puyallup people called the grand mountain “taquoma.”

Vancouver named the peak Rainier, after his good friend Rear Admiral Peter Ranier. Ironically, in his lifetime, Mr. Rainier never saw the mountain nor did he ever see the Pacific Northwest.

We filled our day packs with various layers of clothes, water bottles and food and drove out of Tacoma for our ascending two-hour drive. Upon leaving the car behind us we strapped on snowshoes and grabbed  three hiking poles equipped with snow baskets. We only needed three as Miss Nancy was fitted with a cast over her left forearm and hand. Two weeks earlier she had broken her wrist at the 21 kilometer point in a planned 50 K cross country ski workout. Before heading out in the four inches of fresh snow over the deep base, I helped her tug a long black sock over her exposed finger tips and cast.

The first white settlers in this area were the Longmire’s. In 1853 they had traveled west from their Indiana home in a wagon train led by James Longmire. Local lore claims that upon viewing the open park like high country festooned with colorful wildflowers Virinda Longmire, wife of John, exclaimed, “Oh what a paradise!” The name stuck.

The fresh snow softened everything and put us in the bliss of hush. Steadily we climbed up through scattered islands of subalpine fir trees. The trees were the only forms of visible life other than splashes of lichens on exposed rock.  Higher up, we lost our sunshine and could see a wall of gray, intimidating weather elbowing its way into our sunny day.

Steadily we climbed and finally faced a steep pitch that reminded both of us of the famed “Golden Staircase” on the historic Chilkoot Trail near Skagway Alaska.

The sharp incline prevented us from snowshoeing straight up the grade. Switchbacking back and forth, we stitched our way up with frequent stops to catch our breath.

Halfway up, Nancy slipped slightly and declared that with one arm mostly useless  she was not willing to go any further. She urged me to continue on up and said that she would slowly make her way back down.

You would think that approaching 8,000 feet above sea level would not be a big deal, but as a bonafide Upper Midwest flatlander, my lungs were breathing big. Nearing an area called Palisade Vista, the snow was more wind blown making it icier.  Now I was slipping and I stepped firmly to engage the toothed metal crampons affixed to the snowshoes.

In the early 20th century, Floyd Schmoe, a local guide, instructed adventurous clients on the best way to prevent sliding down Pinnacle glacier. “Just sit loose. Let nature take its course. But don’t roll or you might get hurt. If you start rolling, flatten out on the snow. Spread eagle and the snow will stop you.”

I thought of that advice and within a minute made the smart decision not to “bend the map” and go on all by myself. I carefully turned around and began the trip back by breaking a new trail to more easily control my descent.

Just last July I had climbed nearby designated trails through amazing collages of mountain flowers. Avalanche lilies, bog gentian, mountain heather, bistorts and so many more colorful blooms surrounded our promenade. Now, in winter, the primary color is the lack of color. White dominates with the occasional gray rock outcrop. The dormant flowers are seasonally buried under more than fifty feet of snow. Yes. Fifty.

Approaching our starting point I met an older woman who was snowshoeing up. She was making her own trail rather than following snow broken by earlier hikers. We had a short chat. In her German accent she informed me that she has lived down near the park entrance gate for 32 years. She told me of her love of hiking in this high country. I politely asked if she would mind sharing her age. “I’m 85.”

Later, I rejoined Nancy back at the parked car. We shared tales of our day. I was most amazed by two power women. One, a game lovely lady, who cast or no cast, was more than willing to go exploring on a stark but lovely landscape and the other an impressive, exuberant, 85-year old role model.

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