by Nancy Kim
“Is it women’s day on the mountain?” a stranger asked me as I was stripping skins from my skis. “I passed a big group on my way up. I’ve never seen so many women here.”
I had just arrived at Camp Muir with Laurie Cullen. The addled chap must have tallied a baker’s dozen of females that Saturday. Resisting the impulse to fire off a sarcastic salvo, I told the man that we were all part of Women Climbers Northwest and that we had camped out the night before on Mazama Ridge. He smiled and seemed pleased to know that such a group existed—women whose ‘Ten Essentials’ for a ski trip don’t include a lift, a lodge and a lad.
It was snowing at the Paradise parking lot where we met on Friday, March 19. It was snowing on our yard sale of plastic boots and puffy jackets, chemical hand warmers and 33-oz. fuel bottles, avy shovels and stout tents. Obviously, it was a winter sale. Slowly, the gear compressed itself into packs. The cumbersome winter packs, and their owners—Dawn Chapel, Traisa Skarbo, Laurie Cullen, Chelle Draper, Carla Schauble, Mary Yocom, Laurel Fan, Diane Hennessey, Anne Drew Potter, trip leader Colleen Hinton and your humble narrator–headed east to Mazama Ridge by the crack of noon.
After gaining the ridge, we headed south to a gladed expanse where the mountain hemlocks might offer a bit of protection, depending on the wind direction. We dropped our gear and broke for lunch, then made camp. Laurel dug a simplified snow cave, one without a sleeping platform, while the rest of us set up tents. Then the real excavation work began. We had among the group gear, two Black Diamond Megamids, lightweight, single-pole shelters to serve as twin taverns for cooking, eating, imbibing and general merry making. Each tavern (kitchen is too prosaic a term) was constructed in a similar fashion with a U-shaped bench surrounding the table, which supported the center-pole.
Seven thousand shovel strokes later, the taverns were completed. Colleen suggested yo-yoing the west slopes of Mazama Ridge and half the gang heeded the call while others hung around camp. Though the temperature had risen and wet snow was starting to fall, the conditions were divine. We carved facile turns through a blank slate of decadent powder and all too quickly, we found ourselves back at the road.
“Anyone up for another run?” Colleen asked.
I was hungry. Fun can be an effective appetite suppressant, but the need for calories trumped my desire to link a few more turns, so Colleen and Carla skied a second powder run in the last of the day’s light while I trundled off with Diane, Laurie and Anne Drew to our campsite. Back at camp, I collected the stove, fuel and comestibles to prep dinner. Glancing at the pump mechanism on my fuel bottle, then at the male fitting of Colleen’s stove fuel line, I sensed a disquieting feeling: round peg, square hole. In the gear divvying, Colleen brought her Dragonfly while I had brought the fuel, with a Whisperlite fuel pump. I cursed MSR for making the Whisperlite and Dragonfly unique and unmateable. The compatibility issue had entered my head, but must have left via one of several holes before finding a voice. Meanwhile, Laurel discovered her new child-proof fuel bottle was also stove-proof. She had to remove an O-ring (does anyone else find that terminology redundant?) to couple bottle and pump. And Mary was trying to make the best go of her cold-hostile canister stove. Colleen and I were saved from frigid, crunchy suppers thanks to Traisa and Dawn who lent us their Dragonfly.
Saturday morning revelry rang at 7. It seemed bright through the tent so I was curious to see what the conditions were outside. I pulled on down booties, unzipped the door and emerged to the bluest of skies. Postcard views. Rainier to the north and the Tatoosh range to the south. Hoar frost glistened. I poked around camp and found fox tracks. A Cascade red fox had explored our tents and visited Laurel in her snow cave during the night. Looking to the north, I saw that Vulpes vulpes had followed our skin track.
The plan was to ski Muir. Clare Parfitt had driven from Seattle that morning and hoped to rendez-vous with the group, perhaps at Panarama Point. Colleen stashed a two-way radio for Clare on the wheel of her Toyota, carried the other one in her pack, and instructed Clare to check in with the group. Mary headed down to Paradise to grab her forgotten avalanche beacon and meet Clare. Poor Clare, who had arrived early, got stymied by the still-closed gate at Longmire for several hours.
We had a diverse group, at least in terms of locomotion–tele and randonnee skiers and snowshoers. Chelle, Laurel and Mary hoofed it on snowshoes while the rest of us skinned up. It was windless and warm and gorgeous. At any given moment, someone was peeling off another layer or snapping another photo. Laurel shed down to a summery sleeveless layer, looking more like a desert cragger than a Muir-bound climber. Trending northwest, we picked the safest route around a potentially unfriendly knob, still west of Edith Creek. We observed shallow slide activity in the distance on the Nisqually glacier, but no major crowns from point-release avalanches.
Clare canceled the rendez-vous with a decision to head to camp before skiing, so we continued, bound for higher ground for as long as ski conditions seemed worthy of the effort. Colleen, Carla, Laurie and I made it to Muir, while others turned around somewhere just below Anvil Rock.
Those familiar with Muir ski conditions know the top invariably sucks. Ice skates are recommended. However, I had never skied the snow field earlier than April. This time, I carved turns in powder, swooshing, not scraping my way down the south side of Mt. Rainier. With less than a thousand feed to descend, we ran into Clare who joined us for the last turns of the day. A lentincular cloud billowed ominously in the sky. Meanwhile, Dawn, Traisa and Diane ran into an Ashford local on their descent. The former park ranger, equipped with straight, skinny planks that hinted at his age, engaged in friendly conversation and suggested several alternative tours off the beaten skin track.
When Laurie, Carla, Colleen, Clare and I rolled into camp, the others had set up their stoves outside the taverns to take in the views. Colleen broke out the mulled wine (she had schlepped up two liters making her a communitarian, alcoholic, or both) and honey mustard pretzels to share. As dusk turned to darkness, the full moon lit up sky and illuminated our snow-covered ridge. A few hundred yards from camp, two Cascade foxes were playing in the snow, chasing each other. They were in their winter color phase, almost black. The two adults, a male and vixen I assumed, were playing like two kits in their first snowfall.
The wind picked up that night. Colleen and I had the camping permit lashed to our tent and it flapped against the taut fly with percussive, sleep-hindering monotony. It was a long night, followed by a cold and windy morning. Nobody was particulary keen on a ski tour and it seemed the only sensible thing to do was break camp and head out. We skied down to the road through a lovely wind crust. We gathered at the new Visitor’s Center where we grabbed a small bite to eat, thanked Colleen for her impeccable organization and leadership, thanked everyone for their good cheer and attitudes, and sang happy birthday to our newest member, Anne Drew.