Archive for the ‘night hike’ Tag

Adventuring Mt. Rainier ~ In the Dark   6 comments

Mt. Rainier and Upper Tipsoo Lake.

There really is no Cascade peak like Mount Rainier.  Mt. Hood is spectacularly beautiful.  Mt. Saint Helens has a dangerous beating heart.  And Glacier Peak is surrounded by the kind of wilderness that reminds of Alaska.  But Rainier is at another scale altogether.  Not only is it broad it’s lofty.  It is flanked by dramatically steep glaciers that drop dramatically down to relatively low-lying forested valleys.

From Seattle, Rainier looks like a normal snow-capped mountain.  But when you approach close to or inside the national park that covers the mountain, it’s a different story.  It’s a massively rugged mountain ringed by high country, like the Tatoosh Range to the south.  Each side of the mountain has its own character, with extensive subalpine meadows a consistent feature.

Last post I related a little bear story from one of these meadow areas:  Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on Rainier’s southwest side.  I was a young buck then; years later I returned to photograph the wildflower display.  The thing about Indian Henry’s that makes it a little challenging is its distance from trailheads.  Most people backpack in.  But if you hike up Tahoma Creek trail from West Side Road, it’s a mostly straightforward, if long, day-hike.  Don’t take it too lightly though.  At over 12 miles round-trip with more than 2500 feet elevation gain, and with parts of the trail sometimes washed out, it isn’t an easy trek.

Mirror Lakes in the center of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mt. Rainier National Park.


On a photo trip to Rainier five years ago I decided that Indian Henry’s would make a great late-day hike.  It’s the sort of hike only a nature photographer would consider.  The kind where you time it to be someplace awesome to shoot at sunset.   And since your camera gear alone is heavy enough, you really don’t want to schlep the extra gear for camping.  So your shoot is followed by a hike back in the dark.

I started at mid-day from where West Side Road is closed off to vehicle traffic.  After a couple miles on the gravel road-bed you take a trail that follows Tahoma Creek upstream.  This is a powerful glacier-fed stream, and the previous spring’s melt had torn out long sections of the trail.  The lower part of the hike thus featured a few nervous stream crossings.  I’ve been swept away before and felt very close to drowning, and so I respect rapidly moving water as much as I do anything in nature.

After a few long stretches of boulder-hopping I left the creek and climbed steeply to the meadows.  From the photos you can see the light was very nice, despite the cloudless skies.  Best of all the wildflowers were in perfect bloom.  It was late August, which may seem to be late in the season for peak flower bloom.  But Rainier’s subalpine meadows are high and snow lingers well into summer.  On that special day the wildflower close-ups and the grand scale shooting were both sublime.

The pasqueflower is a different sort of bloom: Mt. Rainier, Washington.

After the golden light left the mountain, dusk began to approach rapidly.  I packed my gear into the pack and wasted no time starting my descent.  Not long after crossing timberline and entering the forest night began to come on like a train.  I stopped at a waterfall and grabbed one more shot, confident of my headlamp.  But after only 20 minutes or so my headlamp began to flicker.  I had put what I thought were fresh batteries in before I started out, but they must have been well past expiration.  I should have had spares, but had failed to check my pack before starting out.  I silently cursed my impatience to get going.

Just as I began to hear the roar of Tahoma Creek below my lamp finally gave out and darkness gathered around me.  At first the trail was barely discernible and easy enough to follow.  I was confident of being able to reach and follow the creek bed.  But the night was moonless and exceptionally black.  I missed a turn and struggled to regain the trail, falling a good 10 feet or so between two huge rock outcrops.  I wasn’t hurt, but slowed down considerably after that close call.  Then I reached Tahoma Creek and began to follow it downstream.

Narada Falls at night-fall, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was lucky.  If there had been more dense forest walking ahead I would have been forced to stop and spend a cold night with no shelter.  Luckily, frequent glacial floods had removed most of the trees along the creek, allowing the stars to shine through.  With eyes now fully dark-adapted, and with the normally unnoticed added light from many suns burning far away, I discovered that if I went slow, I could just barely see features before reaching them.

I lost the trail at the first washout and was forced to stumble down the rubbly stream bed for the duration.   I traveled in a sort of slow-motion crouch, using starlight to show me boulders and other obstacles.  I tripped and fell a bunch of times anyway.  And the stream crossings were even more fun than on the way up.  Thankfully by the time I reached them the stream’s flow was lessened because of slower melting from upstream glaciers brought on by the cool of night.

I followed the creek longer than necessary, not noticing the road off to my right beyond some dark trees.  When I finally realized my mistake I climbed the bank and crawled through the trees, where my feet touched something strange.  Flat, even ground, the road!  The feeling that washed over me was pure ecstasy.  But easy walking on the road felt very strange.  Have you experienced this?  Where your legs, after endlessly struggling up, over and around, can finally walk normally.  But it suddenly feels like you’re swinging heavy stone blocks?  My head and torso felt like they were floating above my too-heavy lower half.

My van looked even better than West Side Road had, parked there all alone, patiently waiting as if certain of my safe return.  The little clock on the dash said 2:55 a.m.  I can count on one hand the number of times in life that the cliche’ actually came true.  You know the one, where sleep takes you before your head even hits the pillow.  Going hard for so many hours will do that.

Next morning, it’s needless to say, my body was sore all over and bruised in a dozen places.  But it was worth it.  The photos, which turned out nicely with or without the accompanying adventure, seemed even better for having come at a price, and with a memory.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Low clouds move up the Nisqually River, but the stars are revealed from a high perch on Rainier as night comes on.


%d bloggers like this: