Updated Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 04:45 PM
When the sky is clear and the snowfields sparkle under the brilliant sun, the Paradise area at Mount Rainier 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, 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 Mountain 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 favorites 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.
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.
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...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.
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.
Going higher on the mountain in winter has special hazards, illustrated by several visitor deaths on the mountain last winter. 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.
For the past 30 years, Judson Lang has climbed the mountains of Washington. For the past 17 years, he’s 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.”
• KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Check weather forecasts and get up-to-date winter safety information on the Mount Rainier National Park website, nps.gov/mora, or call 360-569-2211 or 360-569-6575. Click here for more information on the Paradise snow-play area and other winter recreation in the park.
The Seattle Times file
Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park can be a winter wonderland good for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.