Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park

Adventures in Washington State’s Wonderland

October 8, 2009, 7:27 am
I am not a camper by nature. Truth be told, I abandoned scouting at age 12, after the sophomore rank of Webelos, because I suffered from an intense childhood phobia of khaki uniforms, convinced they would portend a future career in package delivery. I only stuck with it as long as I did because, in my day, Webelos wore super-chic navy ensembles with a fleur-de-lis patch that always reminded me of a half-peeled banana. Vanity denied me a suitable education in outdoor living skills and all the attendant patches that go with them.

This, I am sorry to say, is what went through my head late one afternoon in August, during my first camping trip in more than two decades, when I thought I was done for and someone would find my rotting corpse halfway up the side of Mount Rainier in Washington.
Camping, everyone keeps saying, became more popular in the recession because, as Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in The New York Times in August, it’s “the cheapest of vacations.” With extra time off on my hands, I was determined to discover if just anyone could get back to nature and still be happy about it. And by “just anyone,” I meant me, a soft, indoorsy chronicler of the fashion world, whose idealized vision of the great outdoors falls closer in line with the spring 2010 collection of the gay-or-Italian-leaning label DSquared, which included a stone-chiseled model wearing only boxer briefs, hiking boots and a sleeping bag as a cape.

But where was I? Oh yes, almost dying.

It was an ambitious return to nature, I will admit. Along with my travel companions — Rosemary Feitelberg, one of my closest friends who had been enlisted in this adventure because Chris Smith, her boyfriend, is sturdy and rugged and mine would have nothing to do with a vacation that was limited to only one outfit change — I had planned an eight-day hike (we ended up taking nine) along the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop of moderate difficulty that sits like a necklace around the base of Rainier. The trail actually encircles the mountain, tracing the contours and ridges of the great volcano on a path that is nearly always vertical, either going uphill or down. Bette Filley in her 40-year-old guide, “Discovering the Wonders of the Wonderland Trail,” said the trek was “like walking the crimped edge of an immense pie crust.”

Only about 250 people hike the entire trail each summer, during a roughly two-month peak season from late July to mid-September. Hundreds more tackle smaller portions, but to make it the entire way around requires hikers to pursue one of three plans of attack: Carry everything they might need on their backs; strategically deposit caches of food and clean socks at scattered ranger stations along the trail; or eat light.

We had chosen the second option and, on the morning we set out, dropped off two supersize bags of dehydrated food at the Mount Rainier National Park hiker center at Longmire, near the southwest entrance to the park, where we also picked up the requisite permit for backwoods camping. A team of cordial rangers helped us complete our itinerary by choosing where we would set up our tents each night among the 21 campsites situated at intervals of three to seven miles along the trail. Some sites can be reserved months in advance and some are distributed first-come first served, but most designated reserved sites are fully booked a few weeks after the park service begins accepting applications each year, in mid-March. We cobbled together a feasible route from what was left over, beginning on the opposite corner of the trail, at the White River entrance in the northeast and making our way clockwise around the mountain. It was 10:30 a.m. when we took our first steps on the Wonderland Trail.