Mount Rainier I   2 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a pond in the subalpine meadows on the west side of the mountain.

I spent the past week at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, about 3 hours north of here (Portland).  I haven’t spent quality time there for years.  A long time ago I worked a season at Rainier, living in the park cabins at Longmire and hiking out every day to track elk and document their impacts.  I worked with a young biologist, but spent much of my time sketching and describing the glacial features in the park.  That is, when I wasn’t trail running, an addiction I developed at around that time.  We would literally throw a dart at the map of the park on some mornings and just go there looking for elk.  You could count on one hand the number of times we saw our supervisor.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Another interesting part of the job was flying in a light aircraft once a week to count elk and mountain goat.  Of course, I was “green around the gills’ the entire time in the air.  I’m cursed with motion sickness, have been my entire life.  But thankfully it takes some doing.  Flying a light plane close to that mountain was the (easy) doing.  The best part about the job: no ranger uniform.  Yes indeed, we were blessedly incognito! Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet (4265 meters) and heavily glaciated, is probably most famous as one of the finest climbing challenges in the lower 48 states.

I’ve climbed it twice, once from the south and once from the north.  The north side climb was most fun.  It was about five years ago now, three of us (the perfect climbing team size) ascended the Emmons Glacier (the largest glacier in the lower 48).  We started around midnight, and were the first group up.  I led most of the way, being the most comfortable member of our little group with glacier travel.  We skirted crevasses by headlamp and climbing up into the darkness.  I’ll never forget that feeling, like ascending into the starry sky.  I’ve never had a climb precisely like that one.

It’s understandable that Rainier, being the Cascades’ most massive and most heavily glaciated peak, attracts climbers.  Quite a number have died on the mountain, but the dangers it presents are no more than average for a mountain of its size.  As is the case with Mt Hood in Oregon, it comes down to numbers and probability.  More climbers equals more accidents.  It’s that simple.

Rainier is a sleeping giant.  It is a composite volcano, meaning it’s made of layers of ash and lava.  The type of lava that dominates is andesite, named for that great mountain range in South America where this kind of volcano is abundant.  This mixed layered makeup of the mountain, combined with relatively recent glaciation, which scoured (and still scours) the sides of the volcano, means the mountain stands tall and steep.  Acidic gases vent from the summit area on a constant basis, converting much of the rock there to a crumbly mess.  When winter releases its icy grip, and especially during very warm periods in late spring/early summer, there is a very real risk of huge avalanches of rock and ice cutting loose from high up on the mountain.  These can quickly turn into floods or even mudflows lower on the mountain, channeled into furious destruction by the major river drainages.

Mudflows (or lahars, the Indonesian word preferred by geologists) are a sort of dense flood.  A slurry, the consistency of wet concrete, complete with trees, rocks, chunks of ice, cars, buildings, bridges, etc. races down-valley at speeds of 30, 40 or even 50 mph.  A lahar don’t take prisoners.  The reason I mention this mechanism for starting a mudflow is that it does not require a volcanic eruption, just melting.  An earthquake could easily trigger one as well.

Of course Rainier is only sleeping and could erupt.  In that case, you have not only the likelihood of mudflows, but also pyroclastic flows, lava flows and ash falls.  The French term for pyroclastic flow is nuee ardente, which means glowing cloud.  And that’s what they are.  Made of pulverized rock superheated to hundreds of degrees, they race down the mountain at speeds of 100 mph. or more.  The deadliest thing a volcano throws out, they kill even more quickly than mudflows.  Ask the ghost-like corpses at Pompei, the ancient Roman graveyard at the foot of Vesuvius.  They’ll tell you how much time you have to get out of the way.

The stars are reflected in Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

So this park is one of the more geologically dangerous in the country.  Yellowstone is a much bigger volcano, but one that goes ages between eruptions.  Rainier will almost certainly erupt well before Yellowstone’s caldera does.  By the way, Rainier has one of the world’s few warning systems for mudflows.  Sensors high on the mountain are triggered when a probable mudflow starts, sending a signal to loud alarms near towns like Orting down-valley.  Residents are trained to flee to high ground.  And if you visit the park, and hear a loud rumbling sound (especially if an earthquake preceded it), that’s what you should do.  Get out of whatever valley you’re in, and quickly!

High in the Cascade Mountains of Washington gives a heavenly viewpoint on a moonlit night.

What many don’t realize about Mt Rainier is that, despite its great climbing, the park actually has much more to offer hikers than climbers.  You can spend months exploring this park without ever going much above treeline.  If you go to climb the mountain you are essentially exploring a much smaller aspect of the park than if you were to go for a week with no thought of climbing.  Rainier has the most extensive subalpine and alpine meadow system in the Cascades, with the spectacular flower displays that go along with that fact.  I love the park because of this.  For this trip I tried for the peak of the flower bloom (normally mid to late August), and although a week earlier would have been perfect, I was able to hike through and photograph a stunning profusion.

I headed up there late on a Saturday, arriving near midnight. This seems a strange time to go I realize, but I wanted to photograph the mountain under stars, then have it get light with the promise of the park to explore for much of the week.  I love arriving at a place in the dark, and then having the morning light reveal where I am.  Of course, since I’m a photographer and have to shoot at sunrise, doing night photography means I only get a few hours sleep.  But I found a quiet, shady spot to sleep the rest of the morning away.  There is definitely an advantage in having my camper van (it’s an 87 Westphalia).

Blue gentian bloom in the meadows of Mount Rainier National Park.

My faithful companion Charl accompanied me.  He’s my little buddy, a shih tsu with an enormous personality.  Most important, he can sleep for hours and hours, and can hold his pee for an unbelievable period.  When he was young I took him on hikes, many of them long & tough.  But he’s old now (14) and can’t do more than a mile or two, and that only on an easy trail in cool weather.  So I leave him in the van, parked in shade with plenty of ventilation, water and snacks. It was forecast to be fairly cool, and that’s what it was, perfect for hiking.  In fact, one morning it dipped below freezing.  Every day but one had plenty of sunshine.

I already mentioned this is a hiker’s park.  Unlike some parks, where there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve much in the way of strenuous hiking, Rainier rewards the fit.  In fact, it’s hilarious watching people visiting the park.  They don’t know what to do with themselves, and seem confused at the general lack of overlooks.  The National Park overlook is an institution in the U.S.  I believe I should write a post on the psychology behind N.P. overlooks.  There is a definite behavior associated with them. Many parks are inundated with overlooks (Shenandoah, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon are a few examples).  And parks like Yellowstone are chock full of small parking areas where one can stroll along a super-short, flat trail to a geyser or some-such sight.  The same sort of effect applies there as with the simple stop and gawk overlook.

But at Rainier, visitors are forced to drive for miles without pulling over.  They crowd the few short trails, and hang about the smallish visitor centers,  looking a bit lost.  They’ll stop at the smallest wide spot in the road, with no real view, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a National Park.  Like I said, it’s hilarious watching them.  If these same people ever visited parks like Kobuk Valley in Alaska, I think they’d end up insisting that their entry fee be returned.

So Rainier is, generally speaking, lacking in the standard National Park crutches.  (I haven’t mentioned the Disney-esque gateway towns that one must pass through, like a gauntlet, at many parks – think Dollywood on the way into the Great Smokies.)   There are a few stops and sights at Rainier, but they’re generally low-key.  Longmire is one.  It’s a low-elevation meadow among old-growth forest in the SW corner of the park.  A short nature trail circles the meadow, and there is a small gift shop and ranger station, but little else. The two main destinations, however, are Paradise and Sunrise, on opposite sides of the mountain and high up in the subalpine zone.

Paradise, the park’s most popular destination, has some relatively short trails, plus the park’s only real lodge (the Paradise Inn).  There is a great view of the mountain from the large patio in front of the visitor center here, and the crowds on a weekend can be breathtakingly enormous.  The metropolis of Seattle-Tacoma is close-by, after all.  I love the girl watching at Paradise; so many beautiful Asian women (National Parks get many more foreign visitors these days than they did in the past).  It was here at Paradise that I came that Sunday, after my morning sleep.

I soon grew tired of watching the people milling about and struck out on the trail to Panorama Point.  This starts out as a paved trail, then it turns upward through flowery meadows.  It grows steeper and you drop 90% of the other hikers.  I was amazed and surprised when I saw a bear, then another, near the top of the trail.  It was a mother and her older cub, feeding on early season berries.  You could tell she was getting ready to say goodbye to her youngster.  The two never got more than a few hundred, but never closer than 100, yards from each other.  Given their location, these were obviously bears that were used to people, though try as I might, they wouldn’t let me get too close.  And since I was in the park’s most crowded area, I didn’t think of lugging my 100-400 telephoto zoom lens.  So my pictures needed some serious cropping.  I had a lot of fun stalking the two, trying to get close enough for my 200 mm.

A black bear prowls the meadows of Mt Rainier looking for berries.

Note that black bears present no serious danger, so long as you don’t get between a mom and her cubs, nor bother one on a kill.  There is an exception, when a black bear is in a remote wilderness well away from humans, you need to take more care.  In this case they can stalk and kill, treating you as prey.  At Rainier, there has never been a bear fatality, and this indicates how used to, and wary of, humans the ursines are in this and most national parks.  Well, finally the pair of bears gave me the slip, and I still can’t figure out how they got by me.  I thought I had all the “exits” covered!

I ended up spending the whole week at Rainier.  I visited an area where I did many elk surveys years ago, and also went to a place I have never been, Mowich Lake.  I had an adventure climbing Unicorn Peak, nearly having to spend the night in hypothermic conditions, and had a delightful romp (me and a billion mosquitos) in the flower fields of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.  I will do the pics and write on that in my next post. Thanks for reading!

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

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2 responses to “Mount Rainier I

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  1. Thanks Lyle, it was.

  2. Great photos and sounds like an awesome week in a gorgeous place!

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