PARADISE, Wash. — It seems simple enough: strap, stand, step — one foot in front of the other.
But synchronizing your steps atop snowshoes is an art — one that was practiced well before its rise in popularity as a winter recreation.
On a sunny day at Mount Rainier, a line has formed at the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center desk in anticipation of the day's ranger-led snowshoe hike — one of several provided on weekends and holidays. It's midway through January, but people are already beginning to peel back layers. Winter coats are belted at the waist and spare sweatshirts hide out in backpacks. It's a mild winter for Mount Rainier, a ranger notes. The mountain has received about 14 feet of snowfall this year, about half what it usually amasses.
Once upon a time, Mount Rainier held the world record for snowfall — its height and close proximity to the ocean a contributing factor to the influx of snow. On a clear Monday, though, no new snow is falling. The sun is beaming and kids are removing fluffy mittens to shovel snow by the mouthful before tossing the excess at unsuspecting passersby.
By 11:15 a.m. sharp, those who signed up for the snowshoe hike gather at the visitor center for a quick lesson on snowshoe technique — "How Not to Fall 101." The assemblage listens intently as Amanda White, the park ranger leading the day's hike, displays two different snowshoes. The first is an older style of snowshoe with a wooden frame and fabric mesh. It lacks the metal claws people depend on for gripping the slick surface, which in turn demands more control from its user. One person opts for the old-school variety. Others rent newer models with hope the metal teeth will spare them a spill.
The 1.5-mile hike is well-suited for beginners, which several on this hike are. It's also an attractive route for those seeking an easy to moderate hike with breathtaking views offered of Nisqually Pass, the Tatoosh peaks and, of course, Mount Rainier. The day boasts the kind of weather hikers yearn to have the day of their treks. Sun tints the snow yellow and warms people who come out of the shade to bask in its rays. Hikers squint behind sunglasses to take in cloudless skies.
After hikers grab a pair of snowshoes, everyone meets at the snowy edge of the Paradise parking lot to strap them in place. They make their way up the first hill, which instantly separates the experienced from the inexperienced. Wobbly knees and shaky poles pinpoint several hikers as newcomers.
In conjunction with a snowshoe crash course, White rattles off a litany of Mount Rainier trivia. First, she unravels a snow pole and plunges it into the ground to demonstrate the depth of snow beneath everyone's feet. An average snowfall at Mount Rainier is about 650 inches, she explains. This year, only 169 inches have covered its surface so far — about half of what is expected by this time each year.
Her next lesson is a simple one: where can you find elk?
"The zoo!" a small girl bundled in a red snowsuit confidently suggests.
Maybe, the ranger responds uncertainly. But it would be more likely to find one trotting in a valley than grazing at Paradise this time of year. She explains that elk have small hooves relative to their large bodies. They sink in the deep snow, making it difficult to effectively traverse the frozen terrain at higher elevations.
Sinking isn't a problem for the hikers, though. The tennis rackets bound to their feet make certain of it. They mush forward toward Thrill Hill — the largest slope of the hike, which culminates at a bowl-shaped pit. Andrew Grabhorn of Mossyrock is hiking Mount Rainier as part of a Camp Fire outing. As one of the few brave souls on the trek, he opts to slide down on his back, mimicking those before him with his snowshoes lifted from the ground and his arms out wide on either side for balance. Later in the hike, Grabhorn takes a second plunge to the earth — this time it's the product of a misstep at the top of a hill. Grinning, he brushes off and returns to his feet.
Don Varo, who was leading the Camp Fire group, said he decided to bring them on the hike because it provides a multi-faceted learning experience. They receive an introduction to snowshoeing while learning about native flora and fauna from such rangers as White.
"We're doing this as part of their outdoor progression," he says, motioning to the seven kids — ages ranging from seven to 19 — who sit hunched on the ground listening to White.
The trail eventually circles back around. Hikers climb the hill they watched Grabhorn slide down an hour earlier. They absorb the final views before making the descent back to the Paradise parking lot. The area that was lethargic at 11:15 a.m. is now bursting to life with skiers, hikers, sled riders and those just milling about enjoying the sun.