Deadhorse Basin, Mount Rainier National Park
Having lived in the Puget Sound area for a year and a half, it seemed almost sinful not to have visited Paradise at least once. The main reason for this was a general lack of desire to go to a heavily visited spot in the summer time and not having chains for my car in the winter. The Mountaineers were running a field trip to the area for their Winter Travels course and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get out into the snow in a new area.
March 4 - 5, 2006
On the winding drive up to Paradise, the clouds began to thin and the staggeringly beautiful Tatoosh range came in into full view. I had hiked in the range last summer, but could see only Rainier. Now, I was on the slopes of Rainier and could see the range. One was definitely more alluring that the other.
After gearing up with the students we set out into the snow with heavy packs for the short hike up and into Deadhorse basin, which sits just above the Henry M. Jackson visitors center and provides a large open area for camping during the winter. Many groups, from the Boy Scouts to the Mountaineers, utilize the area for training purposes. Others come just for fun.
The group dispersed over a small area and began setting up tents and preparing to dig snow shelters for the night. I found a nice spot with a view of the Tatoosh and began the laborious process of getting my pig like, but also fortress like, tent set up. In the summer, my tarp goes up in about 3 minutes. In the winter, it takes me 45 minutes to stomp out a flat platform in the snow, rig the tent for a storm, and dig out various pits for a vestibule and a kitchen. With all the work done, I joined James, one of the trip leaders, in building an A-Frame shelter.
Using a snow saw and shovels, we dug a four foot deep trench wide enough for a person and about eight feet long. Using the saw, we cut blocks for the walls and then put a roof on top. While not as comfortable as my tent, it certainly would have made for a nice shelter from a winter storm.
The bright sun reflected enough heat off of the stark white snow and created an oven-effect in the basin, which helped consolidate the various shelters. Others were more ambitious than James and I, building massive igloos and digging deep, cavernous holes in the snow slopes, complete with benches and tables. The day lazed away with various demonstrations and lectures, which tapered off as the sun dropped toward the horizon, cooling the basin significantly, signaling the need for warmer clothes and the start of making water from snow.
Nothing happens quickly during the winter time, and making (and drinking) tea, water, soup, and finally dinner, several hours passed and the land was dark and cold. A clear sky let the warmth of the land escape and the temperature was quickly below freezing, as the accumulating ice in my water bottle testified to. A clear sky also meant an open, expansive view of the heavens. Rainier loomed above, its white, lumpy crest contrasting with the purple background of the nighttime, calling me forward to it. Tempting me to attack its flanks. Soon, but not tonight.
From Lakewood, take SR 512 east to SR 7 and follow the signs directing you to Paradise. After passing Alder Lake, reach the town of Elbe and take SR 706 to the Nisqually entrance station of the park. Unless you have an annual pass of some sort (Golden Eagle, for example), you'll need to pony up $10 ($15 soon) at the entrance station. Follow the road past Longmire and up to the Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center at Paradise. Behind the visitors center you'll find a trail through the snow up to the basin. You are required to carry chained once past Longmire. The road to Paradise opens at different times during the morning depending on how much snow has to be plowed, but an opening time of 9:30-10:30 is common.