How to Ski Rainier

No crowds, no lift tickets, and miles of untracked snow.

Pioneering skiers first took to Mount Rainier's lower slopes in the 1920s, then raced from Camp Muir to Paradise during the Silver Skis competitions of the 1930s. Mountaineers made the first ski descent from the actual summit in 1948—roped together for safety while winding their way between deep and deadly crevasses.

OK, that's not for everyone, but Mount Rainier remains one of our region's oldest and yet least-known ski areas. In fact, savvy local skiers and boarders have long used its snowfields to extend their ski season through all 12 months of the year.

Be forewarned: Those who find the trek from parking lot to chairlift too exhausting at a regular ski area should read no further. But if you're moderately fit and have a reasonable hiking background, skiing Mount Rainier lies well within your abilities. You don't have to be a frozen-bearded mountain man to do it; there's nothing depicted in Into Thin Air that need deter you.

The popular Camp Muirto-Paradise route remains the best run for first-time Rainier skiers. Conditions and weather are generally best May through June, but don't leave Seattle unless the forecast is clear (park info: 360-569-2211).

Be sure to pack for a full day of hiking in conditions that can be both very hot and very cold. Enter the park through the south Hwy. 706 portal, pay your fees, and head up to Paradise. Leave town early (budget two and a half hours), as you want to be in the parking lot before 9am. Timed this way, the snow will be firmer going up and not too slushy coming down.

Then the agony begins. Strap your skis/boots/board/etc. to your pack, and start following the tracks—trench, almost—in the snow, up the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point, which leads to the Pebble Creek Trail. There are signs and footprints to follow when you hit the big open Muir snowfield, but keep your eyes locked on Gibraltar Rock on the skyline to your right. From the parking lot, it's about 4.5 miles and 4,660 vertical feet to Muir, which takes most people three to five hours—including rest breaks. Remember, the sun is your enemy. And if the weather suddenly socks in, becoming rapidly cloudy and cold, turn around and go home.

When you arrive at Muir, take a long lunch and enjoy the view. Mounts Adams, St. Helens, and Hood stand prominently to the south, along with the Goat Rocks and Rainier's own jagged Tatoosh Range just beyond Paradise.

Put on a wind layer when you're ready to descend, then point 'em downhill! You can swing wide of your foot tracks for better snow, but keep them in sight, and resist the fall line's pull to your right (which cliffs out above the Nisqually Glacier). Bear generally left on the moderately pitched slope with a few pleasant drops and knolls. Wave to the poor souls you'll encounter trudging up the hill. In lighter snow years you may have to remove your skis and walk for a few sections, but April and May generally permit a continuous, glorious run all the way down to the Paradise parking lot.

Then, the next time you're buckling your boots atop Crystal, you can point your thumb to the south and boast to your friends, "See that thing over there? Been there, skied that."

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