For me, hiking and backpacking started slowly—I was only helping my oldest son fill some of his scouting requirements. But the deeper into the wilderness I went, the deeper I wanted to go. The higher we went, the higher I wanted to go. It had become a passion.
When I returned home from hiking through the Olympic Mountains with my two sons in 1970, I knew that the next summer would have to include an extended hiking trip. But there was no way to sell my family on using my vacation time for a hike with just the boys. Somehow the girls, too, must be converted.
I picked the goal. Mount Rainier is the Fujiyama of the state of Washington. It is not considered sacred, but it does have an enchantment all its own. Rising from a base of less than 3,000 feet to a towering elevation of 14,410 feet, it attracts hundreds of climbers annually, with 90 miles of trail encircling its base for backpackers. One trail rises and falls from elevations of 2,700 feet to nearly 7,000 feet. There was no question about it. The Wonderland Trail was for us.
I purchased several quadrangle topographic maps published by the Geological Survey and began talking about the Wonderland Trail. I outlined the trail in red on my map. I purchased some books about Mount Rainier and additional books about hiking and backpacking. During the long winter, I purchased a myriad of backpacking items, not for three, but for a party of nine. By spring everyone wanted to take a hike for at least a day, but I didn’t dare let them go—until we had proper footwear. One sure way to discourage a beginner is to let him get sore feet on his first trip.
So the whole family spent a day buying hiking boots and wool socks. I taught everyone to wear a thick coarse sock over a thinner, smooth one. Brenda was only a year old at the time and wouldn’t need hiking boots, so we bought a carrier for her. Judy was four, and since we couldn’t find hiking boots her size, we bought patrol boots at a department store.
The family was then ready for roll call and our first hike together. My wife, Pat; Cindy, 17; Alan, 15; Becky, 11; Doug, 10; Kathy, 9; Judy, 4; and Brenda, 1, were all present and accounted for —with their brand-new boots. We hiked to a lake, which was still frozen over, and the hike was windy and cold. We even encountered snow; but when it was over, our sense of accomplishment overcame any frustration.
As summer drew nearer, our hikes became longer and the beauty of the wilderness cast its spell upon all of us. More maps were outlined, more equipment was purchased, and then we discovered the world of freeze-dried foods—even freeze-dried ice cream. There was no longer question about where we would go. Working out the details was the only problem that remained.
One problem concerned what we would do on the Sabbath. During the years we “camped” by car, we frequently dressed in our Sunday best at a park and then hunted up the nearest ward. If we ever considered skipping church, our children sharply reminded us. For our planned hike on Mount Rainier, I told the bishop we would be gone two or three Sundays, that we would not hike on Sunday unless there was an emergency, and that we would like his permission to hold all our meetings and to bless and pass the sacrament. He gave us permission to do so, asking that we keep a record to give the ward historical clerk.
Food preparation was a major problem. We decided to take nearly all freeze-dried, dehydrated, or dry items. Weight, a major factor of all serious backpackers, concerned us, particularly because all of us are slender. The pack, sleeping bag, stove and cooking gear weigh the same, regardless of the packer’s size. Food is the only thing you can cut down on, and then only if the thinner person eats less—which is not always the case. Ordinarily, we would never pack canned foods, both because of their weight and also because “what you can pack in full, you can pack out empty.” We were not excited about carrying around a lot of empty cans. But we did make one exception we took alone two cans of bacon for variety.
We decided to pack all of our food by the day, each meal in a separate sack, so we had 15 sacks, each containing one complete day’s food except snacks. Judy carried the snacks separately, handy for munching, as a new source of energy was required almost hourly.
Professional hikers recommend that everyone carry an extra set of clothing in case they “fall in the drink.” That was out of the question for nine people, however, not all of whom could carry their own supplies. We compromised and carried three extra sets of different sizes of clothing, figuring that if someone had to put on something a little big, at least it would be dry.
Baths were another stumbling block. It was hard to sell the concept to my shower-minded children that perhaps there would be no baths—none—zero. A compromise was reached—we carried a small can of spray deodorant and permitted a change of underclothing after the first week.
The night before we left, everyone was nervous. That winter the snows had been extra heavy, and even though our trip didn’t begin until the second week in August, we had heard reports that some of the trail was still under snow with little chance of a complete thaw before fall. My wife wondered if I knew what I was doing. The younger children were clamoring to take extra items. The dining room and living room were filled with packs, equipment, and food. I remember asking myself if we’d ever be able to get it all up on our backs and stay on our feet.
My oldest son and I were assigned to carry two sleeping bags each, since the baby obviously couldn’t carry one and Judy, our four-year-old, could only manage the small day pack with the treats. My wife was to carry the baby and one sleeping bag. We tried on the full packs. They were too heavy; we reshuffled. What could not be left behind was put in my pack and my 15-year-old son’s pack. I weigh about 140 pounds and ended up with a pack weighing almost 60 pounds after I added our cameras. Alan, our 15-year-old, was similarly weighed down.
And that was only a week’s supply. We planned to cache a mountain of food and other things for the second week at a ranger station halfway around the mountain where the trail briefly touches civilization and quickly disappears again into the wilds.
The next day was the easiest and quickest start I’ve ever experienced for a vacation trip—no last-minute packing. We left our food cache on the northeast side and arrived on the other side of the mountain in the early afternoon. After getting our fire permit and giving the ranger our itinerary, we “saddled up” and started up the trail.
Was it hard? You bet. In spite of eating treats almost constantly, everyone (except perhaps Brenda) lost weight. The constant uphill grind took the most dogged determination. At first there was the temptation to turn back mixed with the desire to press on. Every night at sunset we lay down on the hard ground with no air mattress or foam pad, and fell quickly into a deep sleep. This was one time that we really lived the commandment to “retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.” (D&C 88:124.) We were up at dawn.
Was it spiritual? You bet it was. Family prayer, not once, but several times a day. Thanks given for humble but satisfying meals. Family night almost every night. We sang every primary song we could remember, along with hymns and many fun songs such as, “Out in the woods. I met a bear in tennis shoes. …” My son and I held priesthood meetings, and the whole family participated in Sunday School, sacrament meeting, and testimony meetings. We packed the standard works (extra small editions) so we could continue our regular scripture reading. One night we were camped near a scout troop and were singing, “I Am a Child of God” when we were suddenly surrounded by some Scouts, who joined us—a Mormon troop.
Was it educational? It was. We studied plants and flowers, many of which we began to recognize by name. We viewed the natural wonder of glaciers, heard them crack in the summer sun, and saw cascades of snow and ice come crashing down from them. We learned lessons of life as we climbed higher, thinking surely the top was just around the next turn, and almost giving up, only to discover that the top was only 500 feet ahead. We learned that the race is not necessarily won by the swift but that, however slow, you’ll get there if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Was it beautiful? Spectacularly so. We tramped through the cool, deep forest where the pine trees stood tall and trails were covered with pine needles, soft to the foot. We climbed above the timber line into the alpine meadows where wild flowers blossomed lavishly and we saw an occasional marmot, deer, or chipmunk. We were delighted with bear grass in bloom, Indian paintbrush, tiger lilies, lupine, avalanche lilies, columbine, and many other plants. We took a special liking to the western anemone. In seed, it shoots up a long stem capped by a feathery seedhead, soft and silky to the touch and known alternately as dishmop, mouse-on-a-stick, or “old man of the mountain.”
We hiked up past the meadows, into rock and dirt and into unmelting snowfields where the trail was more difficult to follow. We ate snow and made snow cones and flavored gelatin.
One night we were camped at an elevation of about 5,500 feet. The air was crisp, but not too cold. At about 1:00 a.m. I awakened, and got up to look at Mount Rainer. The sky was cloudless. Thousands of stairs dotted the heavens. Occasionally a star would fall near the horizon. The summit of the mountain, 8,000 feet above me, loomed big and white, like a giant ice-cream cone against the starry sky, almost close enough enough to touch. I felt a oneness with the universe and with God and I knew why our Savior sometimes went into the mountains to pray. I, too, prayed and thanked my Heavenly Father for all that was mine, and for my knowledge of the restored gospel.
The trip took 13 day. When we arrived home, the two most popular activities were eating ice cream and taking showers. It was by far the the most memorable vacation we have ever had—and we have had some great ones that have taken us 90 times farther. We have been out since on shorter trips, some with the whole family and some with only a few of us. Alan and I climbed to the 10,000-foot level at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier this last summer. This summer we hope to reach the summit. We call it “our mountain,” and indeed we feel that it is.
As I contemplate what value these experiences have been to our family I recall the beautiful words of David Morton:
Who walks with beauty has no need of fear;
The sun and moon and stars keep pace with him;
Invisible hands restore the ruined year,
And time, itself, grows beautifully dim.
(David Morton, Ships in Harbor, G. P. Putnam, 1921.)