When the sky is clear and the snowfields sparkle under the brilliant sun, Paradise Snowpark lives up to its reputation as one of the best places to play in the snow. The area attracts sledders, skiers, snowshoers, campers, climbers and those just looking to throw a snowball or two.
On a busy weekend, hundreds of people flock to the most popular winter destination at Mount Rainier National Park, near Tacoma, Wash., to take advantage of one of the snowiest spots on Earth.
“Who doesn’t like that quintessential pastoral image of a blanket of snow, the calm … that feeling of Christmas,” said Stefan Lofgren, director of Mount Rainier National Park’s climbing program. “And the farther you get away from Paradise the more you can experience the quiet austerity of the wilderness.”
Beyond peace and tranquility, that winter wilderness — one of the snowiest places on earth — also offers challenges that lure those wanting to test their skills.
“It’s perilous to some and paradise to others,” Lofgren said.
Mark Cooksley, president of Tacoma Mount Rescue Unit, loves that the mountain is an entirely different playground in winter than it is in the summer. The colorful flowers and other shrubs that create no-go zones in the summer are buried under snow in the winter.
“As long as there is snow on the ground you can go anywhere,” Cooksley said. “You can snowshoe or ski into new areas to explore, and that is great fun.”
Monika Sovine loves to strap on her snowshoes, hike among the bowls and ridges overlooking Paradise and find a good spot to play on a snow-covered hillside.
Growing up in Wisconsin, she was used to putting on her snowshoes and heading out her back door. Now, the Olympia resident is happy to make the one-hour drive to the park.
“It’s one of my favorite spots,” Sovine said of Paradise. “You’re above the tree line, and when it’s clear out, you can see Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens. It’s just spectacular and wild.”
Sovine and her friends hike up the ridges to view features such as the Nisqually Glacier. They also like to find a hillside laden with soft snow for some free-spirited tumbling.
“Paradise is like a big playground,” she said. “You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want. It’s so open, there’s all these bowls and ridges. There’s a lot of different options to play.”
Having taken training through the National Outdoor Leadership School, Sovine said she takes safety seriously. She brings along extra clothes, food, water and a headlamp.
Sovine also said she and her friends don’t push the safety envelope. At an elevation of 5,400 feet, Paradise can be suddenly blanketed by clouds, buffeted by gusting winds and buried in snow.
“If it’s too dangerous at Paradise, we just go down lower where it’s safer because you’re in the trees,” she said. “If the snow conditions are too iffy, we’ll go down lower. There are plenty of places you can pull off and wander off into the woods.”
For Dave Matzen, the attraction of all that snow — Mount Rainier was once buried in 1,122 inches of snow during the winter of 1971-72 — is camping.
Each year, about 2,000 people winter camp in the Paradise area, setting up tents, digging a snow cave or creating their own igloo.
Matzen, a University Place resident, loves the challenge of building a cave or igloo. He has done so almost a dozen times on his own and as a Boy Scout troop leader.
“For kids, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do,” he said.
“At nighttime, you light a candle inside, you go outside and it just absolutely glows. You can have four, five, six igloos lit up at night with candles inside. It’s just beautiful. These glowing balls of ice, it’s a sight you’ll never forget.”
Nor, Matzen admits, will you forget the work. It can take four to six hours to build a snow cave or igloo large enough to hold several people and then haul all your gear to the campsite. That includes at least five layers — tarp, blankets, space blanket and sleeping bag — for sleeping.
He makes sure to keep his boots and socks under wraps as well.
“Otherwise your boots can be hard as rock, and your socks can be standing on their own,” he said.
True to the Scout motto of always being prepared, Matzen said winter camping poses a number of challenges.
“The biggest difference is you’re building your house for the night. At a place like Mossyrock, you pull up your trailer, hook it up and you have all the comforts of home,” he said.
Watching the weather forecast is crucial, Matzen said. “If I see something bad, we’re not going.”
Staying hydrated and keeping your body properly fueled are crucial to fending off the cold and the possibility of hypothermia or frostbite.
The Northwest’s infamous humidity — the same culprit that delivers Northwest skiers heavy snow while those farther inland get pillowy fluff — can make temperatures feel colder than they really are, Lofgren said. “A modest amount of cold can chill you to the bone.”
You also have to be prepared to spend extra time in camp should the weather deteriorate.
“You can wake up in the morning to whiteout conditions and have to spend an extra day or two,” he said.
For those who prefer to go higher up the mountain, winter whiteout conditions are a given.
But for Eric Simonson, that sense of isolation is why he enjoys climbing the 14,411-foot peak in the winter.
The co-owner of Ashford-based International Mountain Guides estimated he’s made 50 winter attempts, and made it to the summit 20 times.
“There’s nobody there; it’s all yours,” Simonson said. “It’s like a virgin mountain every time you go up there.”
The vast majority of the roughly 10,000 people who attempt the summit each year do so from May-October. They leave behind a well-established trail and plenty of signs of human existence.
But each year, a small cadre of climbers attempts the summit during the tumultuous winter months. From Oct. 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011, for example, there were 190 winter climbers.
“They are very different experiences. They probably have more that is different than is similar,” he said comparing summer and winter climbing.
“Other than the fact that you’re on Mount Rainier and tied together with a rope, that’s it,” he added. “The winter conditions are so much more isolating psychologically.”
While that is the positive aspect, it also means climbers have to be prepared to handle any situations themselves.
“You have to realize that when you walk away from that parking lot, you’re on your own,” he said.
Simonson said he learned the hard way that winter navigation is difficult. It requires being skilled at using a compass and altimeter, or having a dependable, accurate and functional GPS unit.
“I can remember many times reaching Camp Muir after dark as you navigate through snow, wind and darkness,” he said of the trip that typically takes 3-5 hours in the summer.
Winds at Camp Muir and higher can top 100 mph. When combined with temperatures below zero, the wind chill can plunge to -30 degrees and colder.
Randy King, park superintendent, understands people’s attraction to Mount Rainier in the winter. The park averages about 20,000 visitors a month from December to March.
He also understands the dangers illustrated over the past two months with the deaths of a day-hiking snowshoer, two mountaineers and two snow campers.
“You can have a tremendous winter recreation experience at Mount Rainier, but it really requires you to be more mindful of the risks,” he said.
For the past 30 years, Judson Lang has climbed the mountains of Washington. For the past 17 years, he has also taught a winter travel course for the Olympia Mountaineers. He appreciates what the park’s winter landscape offers.
“The lure for me is that you’re in this area that in the summer is teeming with people,” he said. “I like being out in the winter because there is more solitude. Plus the winter environment challenges your skills more than a day hike in the summer.”