Going from sea level to 7,000+ feet overnight may not require bottled oxygen, but it’s like going from whole to skim milk “cold turkey.” Especially if you’re hiking to an old fire lookout opposite the north face of Washinton’s Mount Rainier.
Starting out of Sunrise, elev. 6,400-ft., this 5.6 miles RT hike snakes up Sourdough Ridge, drops slightly across a rocky slope, and then climbs to a hard left at Frozen Lake.
Just beyond the lake you can choose from enough junctions to rival I-5 off-ramps in downtown Los Angeles. Head north. Pick up the Mount Fremont trail. It skirts Frozen Lake and climbs up the ridge in a long, 1.3 mile straight line – no switchbacks!
Huffing and puffing up this steep, rocky trail, we’re entertaining thoughts like, “We’re official ‘AARPers’ now. What in the world are we doing?”
About a mile later we encounter several “silver hairs” from a geriatric hiking club. They’re cruising up the trail like a herd of Triple Crown winners, barely breaking a sweat. We stow snide comments about our creaky knees and hollering hamstrings and continue to climb.
The trail levels out later and winds through a shale-strewn mine field. Naw. Not really. But with saw-toothed volcanic formations on one shoulder and a sheer drop-off on the on the other, it feels like we’re navigating a mine field.
Is this fun, or what?
We stop and swig from our water bottles. Turning around, eye-popping vistas of Burroughs Mountain, a “small” mountain hugging Rainier’s haunches, Tahoma and Little Tahoma peaks and the cities of Tacoma and Seattle march into view. Mount Adams and cloud-collared Mount Baker are visible. You can probably peer into Tokyo from here on a really clear day (you may have to squint).
The steepest part of the trail is behind us. Another mild mile or so and we mosey over to the fire lookout – a weather-beaten, flimsy affair that looks like it’ll collapse in a stiff breeze. We perch atop a pile of boulders, excavate our lunch from the packs, and bivouac with the binoculars. We spot a herd of mountain goats grazing across the canyon and a bear fishing far down the valley.
Soaking up the solitude and spectacular, cloud-capped scenery, we could happily spend the rest of our lives here with a few minor improvements – like electricity and running water.
Anyway, we can almost see into the next century and chat with the geriatric hikers who arrived way ahead of us. They cheerfully refer to themselves as “old geezers.” But we have our doubts! We also meet a fellow hiker who manned the lookout for the National Park Service in 1977. What stories!
A Camaraderie of Lunatics
That’s the thing about hiking and hikers. There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst back-country lunatics that usually springs into existence virtually ex nihilo. Total strangers gladly share maps, compass readings, trail mix, tips, and responses to the omnipresent question on everyone’s lips: “How much further?”
People you’ve never laid eyes on before in your life become boon companions after a few miles or minutes of trail tales.
On the return trip, someone points out a bear. This beaut’s the size of a Buick. We share the obligatory “cool!’ with fellow hikers and snap a couple pictures (Yogi looks like an ant, even on Zoom).
This ”we’re-all-in-this-together” kind of camaraderie is unique to the trail. It’s both wild and wonderful. Just like the hike to the Mount Fremont Lookout.