High on a steep, snowy slope, with a chilling wind whipping across Mount Rainier, Annemarie Randall sits down. She’s not taking a break. The 81-year-old leans back, kicks up her snowshoes and is gone, a blur of motion heading down the mountainside in a cloud of powder.
The sun peeks out, and Annemarie turns around with a grin.
“Doesn’t it make you feel good, all the way up here?” she says.
Annemarie is a volunteer with the National Park Service, and she’s lived just outside the park entrance for the better part of three decades. She’s out hiking at least four times a week.
Born in Munich in 1937, Annemarie grew up amid the horrors of Nazi Germany. After the war, though, as she got older, she began to find joy in the mountains. When she was 17, she joined the local chapter of Naturfreunde, a conservation and outdoor recreation organization, partially because of a romantic interest in a young man who was a member of the club.
Within a year, Annemarie was organizing group expeditions — trips to Italy, Switzerland and Austria. She’d hop on a motorcycle with her fiancé, somehow managing to bring along two pairs of skis, and head for the mountains. She met Hermann Buhl, an Austrian who’s considered one of the greatest climbers of all time. She spent a frigid night in the Dolomites huddled with her companions for warmth after most of their gear blew away.
Eventually, the relationship ended, and Annemarie stopped attending the club. Her love for the mountains, though, would remain.
In 1966, Annemarie met Robert Randall, a U.S. Army serviceman from Indiana who was stationed in Munich.
“He couldn’t speak German, and I couldn’t speak English,” she said, but somehow they fell in love.
They married, and soon after, Robert’s service brought them to Kansas. Two months after the move, he was deployed to Vietnam. Annemarie, still learning English, was left alone in Kansas, along with her young daughter from a previous relationship.
“It was hard in the beginning,” she said.
She learned to drive, a particular challenge when she couldn’t understand the road signs.
Robert returned from the war, and they resumed life together, moving where the Army sent them and having two children of their own. They lived in Kentucky and Tennessee, two stints back in Germany, Georgia (“that’s where the bugs eat you up,” she said) and Fort Lewis in Washington.
In 1980, they settled in Spanaway. Life was good. Robert and Annemarie traveled the country in their motorhome, always planning their trips around the outdoors. Sometimes, she’d outpace him on the trail, but he didn’t mind.
“You still have to come back to where the car is,” Robert would say.
The shared love of the outdoors made their marriage work.
“When you have a partner who likes to do what you do, you stay with them,” Annemarie said.
During their trips to Mount Rainier, the couple met Ake and Bronka Sundstrom, icons in the Rainier climbing community. Bronka, who survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp, summited Rainier in 2002 — at age 77, she was the oldest woman to achieve the feat.
They got to know the community where the Sundstroms lived, a small cluster of cabins and trailers tucked away in the woods just a few hundred yards from the park entrance. In 1990, Robert came to Annemarie with a question: “Do you want to keep the big house or move to the mountain?”
It was an easy question to answer.
For the last 28 years, Annemarie has lived in a trailer near the park’s Nisqually entrance. Bronka, now in her 90s, still lives nearby, and the two remain close friends and active hikers. Annemarie’s trailer is tricky to find, tucked back in a winding loop, but her car is a dead giveaway once you’re there.
“Yay! Mountains!” reads one bumper sticker. “Yay! Hiking!” reads the other.
Deer wander through, grazing in the backyard, and the squawks of jays are the only sound breaking the stillness.
“I couldn’t see being in an apartment where people are around me and making a whole bunch of noise,” Annemarie said.
Her door opens and a man walks in unannounced. Unperturbed, Annemarie greets him as he sets a ham on the table. It’s her neighbor, and questioned about his delivery, he only offers: “Because you like ham.” Annemarie watches his dog when he goes hunting; he keeps her freezer stocked with elk meat. That’s the way things are around here. Every morning and evening, neighbors call to check in, to make sure she’s home after another day on the mountain. Her three children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren also pay visits, keeping the trailer filled with family joy.
“It’s amazing how nice everybody is,” she said. “These people up here help me to keep going.”
That support was what kept Annemarie on the mountain when Robert passed away from cancer eight years ago. Concerned friends urged her to move to town, where getting groceries or visiting a doctor wouldn’t require a long drive. But Annemarie had a promise to keep.
“Two days before (Robert) passed, he made me promise him that I would go out, and go out on my mountain and be happy,” she said. “And I did it.”
She’s still going strong. At the entrance to Paradise, the ranger motions her through with a friendly wave.
Annemarie’s favorite climb is to Panorama Point and it’s one she’s done thousands of times. She knows the mountain better than most people know their neighborhood. She points out where the summer trails criss-cross, invisible under the snow. She notes where different wildflowers will bloom when spring makes its late arrival. Over there, she said, is a marmot hill, still four weeks from emerging from its winter mantle. Its occupant, an old friend, had long been a loner but finally had a family in his burrow last year.
It’s this long-honed knowledge that Annemarie shares with park visitors each summer. She’s part of the park’s Meadow Rover program, which puts volunteers on trails to educate hikers and ensure they’re experiencing the park in ways that are safe and friendly to the environment.
“Annemarie is a force of nature,” said Kevin Bacher, the Park Service’s Volunteer Program Manager at Mount Rainier. “She knows no strangers. There are only friends and friends she hasn’t made yet. … She has more energy than people half her age or a quarter her age. She goes charging up the mountain, she’s fearless, she charms everyone.”
Annemarie joined the Meadow Rover program three years ago, and she’s tallied 1,620 hours of service since then — an “exceptional number,” Bacher said. Still, that doesn’t come close to doing justice to her actual commitment to the mountain. She didn’t seek out volunteer status; the Park Service recruited her, knowing she was already performing most of those tasks anyway. She had one condition.
“Yes,” she said, I'll volunteer, “but not in the building or the parking lot. I want my fun.”
Even in the winter, officially off-duty, she still acts like she’s on the job. She issues advice to day hikers struggling in the snow, instructing them to kick in with their heels and take baby steps. She guides others away from areas with avalanche danger and precipices where snow might give way. It’s a little more challenging when it’s busy in the summer, she said, and she has to tell tourists not to take selfies with the bears.
It seems everyone is on a first name basis with Annemarie, from the mountain guides to the medics to the tourists.
She’s not hard to pick out, moving always at a steady pace, shocks of black hair still peeking out from the gray. She keeps her diminutive frame at a straight posture, and in the summer, she can be found in a custom volunteer shirt with Dalmatian puppies stitched onto the front, Seattle Sounders socks pulled up near the knee.
One time, a skier complimented her socks, and she shared her soccer fandom with the stranger. Without identifying himself, he had her try on a ring — a Sounders championship ring. She had been talking with one of the team’s assistant coaches. She still sees him on TV when she watches Seattle’s games.
But she also enjoys the times she can be on the mountain alone.
“When I’m up here all by myself, I just stand here and sing to myself,” she said. “Or I talk to my husband.”
Annemarie skirts the established tracks in the snow — the obvious route — and heads on new paths that are more direct, have firmer snow or avoid avalanche danger.
Why would an 81-year-old woman push the limits of exertion to see a view she already knows by heart? She describes seeing peaks emerge from the clouds like islands, seeing the sky and the mountains turn different colors at dusk.
“It’s so much stuff you don’t see when you only come a few times,” she said.
That’s why she always returns. Besides, she likes the physical challenge, the workout it gives to her heart and lungs. She always feels better after a hike.
“The longer you lay, the worse it is,” she said. “You just gotta keep moving.”
She craves both the solitude and engaging with the many friends she makes on the trails each year.
“I love the mountain,” she said. “I’m addicted to this mountain. If I can’t get up there, I don’t feel right. … When I don’t go up the hill, it’s bad.”
That day-after-day pull brings Annemarie back to Rainier, to find her solitude or be among the park community that’s become like family, to teach the visitors who are seeing the mountain for the first time. It’s decades of familiarity that make each surprise feel like a revelation — three ravens emerging from the clouds, a sudden calm below the windswept heights, a firm patch of snow just right for glissading. But if life on the mountain is what’s kept her energetic and full of life, she’s not letting on.
“It gives you lots of wrinkles, because you’re always in the wind and sun,” she said. “But who cares, as long as you can still walk straight.”
That she can still do, and if her pace isn’t what it once was, it’s still a steady one, earning her comparisons to the Energizer Bunny. She'll be snowshoeing the trails until the snow melts, and she'll pull her volunteer uniform out of the closet when the summer crowds start flowing into the park.
“It’s been a long life,” she said. “A good life. Sometimes I don’t know how long I can do it, but one day comes after the other.”
As long as those days keep coming, Annemarie will be on her mountain. So if you’re out on Rainier this summer and you see an octogenarian with bright socks and a brighter smile, congratulations — you’ve just made friends with Annemarie.