When my friend Felicia invited me to join her on the Wonderland, a 96.2-mile trail that loops Mount Rainier in the state of Washington, I tried to say no.
“I can’t,” I said. But my husband didn’t buy it. “You’ve always wanted to,” he argued. (Yeah.) “You’re not getting any younger.” (Thanks.) “Felicia is a doctor.” (True. And useful.) Finally: “You’re running out of excuses.” I was.
Can someone morph into an outdoorswoman after 40 years living comfortably indoors? I’d always wanted to backpack, but the only camping experience I’d had was a childhood summer camp that I considered rustic: We slept in cabins and could bring just one plug-in hair appliance.
Felicia advised me to train for our trek by loading my backpack with 35 to 40 pounds and “getting on the StairMaster for three hours.”
I loaded my backpack with college textbooks and hiked the hills at Cromwell Valley State Park, succumbing to rigorous self-debate over my life choices. (“There are easier mid-life crises. I could have learned to surf.”) Then I’d repeat a few delusions. (“I’m strong! I’m not going to barf!”) And then I’d carry on.
My neighbor, an experienced backpacker, worriedly suggested I take an REI class. On the Appalachian Trail trip, I learned how to lift my backpack, filter water and set up a tent.
You need a permit for every Wonderland camp. Felicia and I joined forces with three women who Felicia met hiking California’s famous John Muir Trail. Now a party of five, we each entered the permit lottery, submitting a range of possible start dates and itineraries to increase our chances of winning the golden ticket.
Felicia’s itinerary won, affording us an 11-day trip starting from White River on Mount Rainier’s northeastern flank. We could now plan in greater detail—and mail food to three ranger stations along the trail. This process of “caching” allowed us to carry just four days of food at a time.
I packed, planned, trained and spent hours at REI. I read backpacking blogs, social media groups, magazines and books. I conducted extensive research into backcountry bear safety until Felicia told me to stop watching bear-attack videos on YouTube. Before I was ready, it was time to go.
But only if I could get my backpack to zip, which I could do only by removing most of the clothes I’d packed and wearing them on the plane to Seattle.
I met my trail companions in their Sea-Tac hotel room. We decided our collective trail name would be G-5, like the summit. Sandra and Hilke, the South African women, had conquered mountains on every continent, including two hikes to Mount Everest base camp. Becky completed the 215-mile John Muir Trail every summer for six years. Felicia also solo-hiked the JMT—and assisted in two helicopter rescues. Me? I took a class.
Despite my glaringly inferior skills, the G-5 welcomed me warmly, then gleefully ripped open my backpack and removed five pounds of carefully curated gear. Becky tossed my dishwashing soap. Hilke and Sandra laughed heartily at my bear horn before tossing it.
We spent our first-night camping under a cathedral of ancient, moss-draped firs. Becky, Hilke and Sandra removed more stuff from my bag, cheering when my pack hit 36.6 pounds on Felicia’s scale. I did not cheer: They took my shampoo! Their packs weighed 30 pounds. How?
A river runs through it
The hike began with a terrifying river crossing. The bridge amounted to a wobbling log tossed over the water while the river lifted and heaved boulders against it.
Then we climbed through sun-dappled woods with Ewok-forest-sized trees, following the White River’s waterfalls up the 4-mile climb. We passed the tree line to meadows exploding with honey-scented wildflowers, paintbrush, lupine, mountain brobont, purple daisies, pasque flower, Aster and more.
On day two we crossed Panhandle Gap, a glacier draped over a steep, narrow ridge and the highest point on the trail at 7,700 feet. The slippery terrain rewarded us with sweeping views south to Mount St. Helens and even the Oregon peaks. The world smelled of juniper and honey and buzzed with bees. Dozens of waterfalls sprang from ledges and glaciers.
The southeast trail led us through thick umbrellas of Douglas fir, Western red cedar, white spruce and lodgepole pine. We crossed steep Stevens Canyon, where the trail narrowed to 12 inches of unreliable stones that tumbled at the touch.
At semi-civilized Longmire we used spotty Wi-Fi to contact our families, then picked up our food caches at the ranger station. More power bars! I could have purchased a variety pack at least.
I foisted them on Sandra and Hilke. They’re intrigued by American food, but even they were getting sick of them. The westside trek began with a beastly, 5.7-mile climb to Devil’s Dream. The camp lived up to its buggy reputation, and water was accessible only through a complicated team effort/gymnastics routine.
Near the top of Emerald Ridge, I sat down for lunch. Or rather, I removed my sweat-soaked backpack and sunhat, sank onto a shaded boulder and declared my morning over. With my eyes closed, I could hear only the strike-scrape of Becky’s and Felicia’s trekking poles against the glacier- ground andesite coming up the ridge.
“Only three more,” Becky gasped, dropping onto the boulder beside me.
“Switchbacks?” I asked. “Miles,” she admitted.
The ridge afforded a direct look into Mount Rainier’s volcanic crater. The Tahoma and Puyallup glaciers glowed icy blue on the mountain’s broad shoulders. The trail, we decided, was planned by sadists. We fantasized aloud about being rescued by rangers in a helicopter.
“Helicopter rescues cost up to $25,000,” Felicia told us.
Only the certainty that my family would never pay $25,000 to pluck me off the mountain got me over the next ridge.
The hike’s brutality seeped through every muscle and into the places our resolve resided. Then, like a mirage, St. Andrews Lake appeared in front of us, clear to its rocky bottom. We dropped our packs and jumped into the surreally warm water. As we floated, an insistent call echoed across the lake, almost like a whining child. We watched, awestruck, as a baby black bear and his mama and sibling lumbered over the ridge. I locked eyes with the mama. You go your way, her look said. We’ll go ours.
At our lakeside camp at Klapatche Park, we cooked dinner while watching the ice on Rainier glow in the sunset and reflect in the lake. What had seemed impossible earlier in the day was now impossibly beautiful.
Our hike across the northside was easy. Too easy, we learned. Having reached camp by 10 a.m., we heard that thunderstorms would hit the next day, right as we (and our metal-frame backpacks) would be crossing the high ridge to Sunrise.
Could we hike another eight miles while the sun shone, camp at Sunrise, then descend the last 3 miles—all downhill—to White River and out? Only if we could secure a permit for Sunrise—and permits were usually gone by noon. Someone had to run.
I volunteered and took off.
I reached Sunrise by noon, got the permit, spotted an improbable snack bar, bought five cheeseburgers and met the G-5 at the trail junction. They cheered like lottery winners, mostly over the burgers.
The final miles
The last morning we woke to a misty rain. After 96 miles of steps, sights, sounds and smells as we climbed, slid and scrambled up and down 25,000 feet, I felt like a backpacker. We packed Felicia’s car, then drove to the National Park Inn for breakfast, where I ordered a wall of pancakes. Our mood was jubilant but subdued by our impending goodbyes to each other and our trail. But maybe goodbyes were premature.
“What trail are we doing next year?” I asked. Everyone spoke at once.