Making the Most of It: Snow Camping in a Soccer Field

Some adventures go perfectly according to plan. These adventures generally involve perfect weather, predictable trails, and nothing but expected challenges. These adventures fit the category of Type 1 Fun. Other adventures don't quite match this description but become more rewarding than you could have possibility imagined. This was definitely one of these. And we sure made the most of it.

I was blessed with the privilege to lead a group of awesome women on a snow camping adventure this past weekend. These women represented a mix of experience levels from experienced mountaineers, seasoned three season backpackers, and those out for their first overnight wilderness adventure. This was my first time leading a group of new friends on an overnight outdoor adventure.

Our original plan was to head up to Paradise on Mt. Rainier for a true mountainside snow camping adventure. Those local to the Seattle area know that Rainier has not been welcoming to winter weekend visitors. The weather last weekend was no exception with over a foot of snow expected on Saturday night and NWAC avalanche forecasts in the Considerable to High range. This was ruled to be both too risky and too advanced for our group. 

Our fallback plan was to hike up to Bouillon Basin near the Crystal Mountain ski resort. This is a moderate hike up to a clearing above 5,000 ft in National Forest Land. This is an excellent weekend winter backpacking destination near to the amenities, parking, and cleared roads of Crystal Mountain. We headed out from the Crystal Mountain base area at around 10:30am with high hopes of a night amongst the trees.

The hike in was beautiful on a combination of snow covered service roads, snowshoe packed trails, and some degree of postholing on softer snow. Some members of our group struggled a bit with the postholing sections and I felt terrible for sharing my plan to leave my snowshoes in the car. We were doing fine though until less than 1/4 mile from our destination at Bouillon Basin. The last stretch of trail winds its way under some interesting slopes of perfect 30-35 degree slope for avalanche concern. The group make the smart decision to hike to see another day and turn back toward the base area.

Our group was not quite yet ready to give up though. We scanned the trail all the way back in hopes of finding a clearing, a wide section in the trail, or an unused service road to set up our tents for the night. It was not meant to be. We arrived back at the Crystal base area faced with the possibility of heading back home that day. Our last hope was to beg for a creative solution from the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol who we needed to check out with on safe departure. 

I left the group and walked into the Patrol area with my heart in my throat. I explained our situation, our pending disappointment, and our willingness to set up our tents wherever we might be allowed. This included the parking areas, the employee housing trees, and the clearing behind the Snorting Elk. I was directed to the head of Patrol who offered an amazing solution. Did you know that there is a soccer field on the Crystal Mountain grounds? There is! It's flat, wide, secluded from the parking areas, and was a perfect last ditch option for our group.

We took the resort shuttle to the correct lot and made the short hike back to the snow covered soccer field. We happily set about sorting our gear and quickly realized our good luck. The reality of camping this close to the Crystal base area also means that the amenities of a ski resort are available within a 15 minute walk. We setup our tents, took some very convincing expedition base camp photos, and walked back to the Bullwheel bar to order massive plates of nachos. The night ended at the Snorting Elk at 12:30am with a live band playing and pitchers of Elk Frost Ale.

My lesson from this experience is that, as always, our outdoor adventures don't always end up as planned. With few exceptions though they always turn out to be amazing. The difference between a disappointing adventure and a great one is all about the company we keep and the attitude brought to the situation. A planned night wilderness camping at the base of Mt. Rainier turned into a night camping in a soccer field next to a ski resort. This outcome though, while not at all what we had planned, turned out to be more amazing than I could have expected.

My thanks go out to the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol if they ever read this. Their advice turned a potentially sad day hike into an epic weekend for our group. Thank you. And, to the awesome thirteen ladies with whom I shared this experience, you are all amazing. I couldn't have asked for better companions on this weird and wonderful weekend adventure. Much love. Cheers.