A day at Camp Muir starts around 3pm—just one way Rainier’s largest backcountry campground operates to its own rhythm. At 10,080 feet, Muir is halfway between the park’s visitor hub of Paradise and the peak’s very top. An overnight stop for almost 110 people when full, it’s accessible only on foot—1.3 acres of snow dotted with a handful of huts, some a century old.
This mountain way station is part of what’s generally considered the easiest ascent path to the summit of Rainier, but still it’s no walk in the (national) park. We’re so high the views stretch to Mount Hood in Oregon; before it was named for famed naturalist John Muir in 1888, this spot was known as Cloud Camp. Throughout this summer Saturday afternoon, climbers and day-hikers trudge up 4,500 vertical feet via a year-round snowfield that coats Rainier’s shoulder like a sleeve.
Tim Hardin and Ryan Lazzeri oversee all of Muir—literally—from stone chairs that flank their 1916 stone hut, twin sentries in national park–issue yellow puffy jackets. While it’s easy to cast this pair of climbing rangers as the mayors or marshals of this little town, they’re neither rule makers nor cops. They’re search and rescue professionals—seasonal gigs include eight weeks of training—and a friendly presence in camp. As afternoon sun bounces off the frozen ground to bake the air, they offer water to a panicked camper who ran out of fuel to melt snow. First and foremost, rangers are here to save lives; their team of 16 patrols 70,000 acres of glacier, rock, and some of the gnarliest weather in the Pacific Northwest.
By 4pm, spirits are high among climbers who’ve pitched tents across Muir. As they spoon from bags of rehydrated food, one crows she feels “spiritual as shit.” Outside the 1921 public shelter—crowded bunks for the first 20 or so comers—an Issaquah man in electric yellow boots admits his nerves are rattled; this will be his first Rainier climb without a paid guide. “Before you’re just following someone,” he explains. “Now you got to be alert.” People die on Rainier’s upper mountain almost every year.
Hence the daily briefing. Just after 5pm, Hardin gathers anyone summit-bound, a rainbow huddle of puffy coats. He moves quickly, lecture-style, through crucial information they’ll need past Muir: weather forecasts and a description of an ever-changing summit route that adjusts for widening crevasses and unstable snow. The ranger demonstrates how to maneuver safely over ladders—laid horizontal, they serve as temporary bridges over deep fissures in Rainier’s glaciers. “It’s what they do on the Khumbu Icefall on Everest,” he explains. He asks for a show of hands—who has the necessary gear like pickets, ice axes, and rescue pulleys? His final instruction: “Whatever you do, have a strategy tonight.”
Across camp, in a tiny A-frame cabin, a half dozen guides hunch over a dinner of jambalaya. They’re from Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., one of three companies that hold concessions to take paying clients up the mountain. They set the route from Muir to the top; all summer guides dig out ledges of trail in the snow, construct ladder-bridges, and bury anchors to attach ropes. Independents don’t have to follow their path, but most do. RMI’s Elias de Andres Martos regularly hears gripes about the guided teams’ notoriously slow pace on the one-lane route, he says between bites. “But we make the route climbable for the general public.”
By 7pm, Hardin and Lazzeri are finally off duty after almost 24 hours of work, including a trip to the summit, and two days out from a body recovery on the mountain’s north side. The campers beat them to bed, scrambling into tents hoping for a few hours of sleep. In the evening quiet, Hardin unwinds on the roof of their hut, reclining next to solar panels until alpenglow illuminates Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens on the horizon.
If Muir is silent before sundown, it bustles again at midnight; the upper mountain is most stable in the early morning, when it’s at its most frozen. The stars stand out in such sharp relief against the night sky that the cloudy ribbon of the Milky Way is visible. Headlamps bobble and chatter is giddy; “let’s climb this bitch!” announces someone as he gathers gear. Hardin and Lazzeri sleep through it, save when someone knocks on their door to complain of a broken headlamp. Lazzeri diplomatically explains the limits of rangers’ assistance.
Roped up teams move like glowing inchworms along the first section of the route, a long traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier. Most aim to hit the summit just past sunrise, though soon some teams will turn around in the face of mild injury, fatigue, or fear.
Sun rises on a quiet camp, and by 7am the rangers go on duty again with administrative work and chores. They’re not responsible for all the equipment scattered around their hut—seismic monitoring detectors, a wind gauge—but the most important systems up here are the bathrooms. Human waste doesn’t decompose in these freezing temps, and Muir has endured years of creative, often smelly latrine systems. The current one (it uses a conveyor belt to move waste into barrels) is promising. Still, someone has to periodically attach that payload to a helicopter—a ranger’s job.
Successful climbers trickle back into the settlement around 9am, exhilarated or tired but usually a combination of the two. Fresh off an exhausting 10 hours on the upper mountain, one says aloud, to no one in particular, “That was wonderful and terrible and I loved it and I hated it.”
As the clock reaches noon, there’s a sense of turnover as a new batch of overnighters ascend from Paradise and claim the vacated squares of snow for their tents. At the helipad, Lazzeri tries to sum up why he does this job, one ridden with 24-hour days, sanitation issues, crowd control, and life-and-death situations. “It’s really simply that we like helping people,” he says, “and working in the mountains.” Two days later, before their eight-day shift concludes, the duo will join their second rescue in a week, successfully saving the lives of four mountaineers. Behind him, a buzz of anticipation builds anew, over a new crop of climbers with summit fever, and another day at Camp Muir begins.