There's nothing quite like waking up at the edge of an alpine meadow on a mountain as the new day is still gathering.
After backpacking up above Spray Park on Mt. Rainier, I awake before sunrise the next morning and crawl out of my tent, camera in hand. Because it's all about the light.
My hiking buddies are still asleep, and the morning quiet is a lovely balm to my city-addled soul. I snap shots as the wispy clouds above turn rosy pink, well before the sun crests the ridge behind our campsite.
By about 8 a.m. we're all up and melting snow for coffee and tea. (The melt stream from the snowfield nearby stopped flowing overnight when the temps dropped.)
Fueled up from breakfast, we head up the rocky slope towards the Flett Glacier for even more expansive views. Not that many years ago, this would have still been snow-covered in late summer.
|Echo Rock is the jagged formation to the left.|
After an hour+ of scrambling up the sometimes steep incline, we top out at a ridge above the base of the Flett Glacier, where we see a couple hikers making their way down the snowfield above us. We haven't seen anyone else since yesterday afternoon, and we're surprised. So we don't have the mountain to ourselves? :)
Below us, more hikers with skis and boots strapped to their packs are heading up toward the glacier.
Dave, who climbed Rainier from this direction a few decades ago, is shocked at the loss of glacier coverage high on the mountain, compared to when he climbed the route back in the 1980s.
After a snack, we scramble down to the edge of the glacier and relax by the vivid blue melt pool before starting back down to camp. Above us, clouds bunch up, spread out, swirl, and dissipate in a variety of shapes and formations. At over 7,000 feet high on the mountain, we're literally in the clouds, off and on.
|Views north and northeast included Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker, and the Stuart Range|
|Chilling above the blue pool at the base of Flett Glacier|
|Observation Rock enshrouded in mist.|
As we meander back down the mountain to our camp, numerous other hikers/skiers are just coming up and setting up camps. Up here the rocky "trail" is marked by cairns between snowfields.
Instead of watching the sun set and the stars pop out in the night sky like the night before, a thick fog rolls in, driving us into our tents not long after dinner. A few hours later the wind picks up and blows so hard that it pushes in the walls of my tent during strong gusts.
About 2 a.m. the rain fly starts flapping wildly, and I quickly throw on a parka and dash outside to tighten it up so it won't blow away up the mountain. But for being outside in the middle of the night, I'm rewarded with a brilliant starry sky, crisscrossed by the Milky Way straight overhead.
No sunrise or pink sky shots on our last morning on the mountain. A thick, rain-like mist envelops us while we have breakfast and break camp. Out come rain shells for the first hour of hiking back down to the lower meadows.
As we start passing hikers coming up, everyone tells us about the bears they saw snarfing down low-lying huckleberries near the trail. One guy even shows us some shots on his camera. Sigh, that is the closest we come to seeing any bear.
It's hard to leave the high country meadows and plunge back into the woods below, but nevertheless, the thought of a hot shower when I get home lures me down the mountain.
|Good turns, heavy gear|
By mid afternoon we're back at Mowich Lake, where the parking lot is much more full on Sunday than when we arrived on Friday morning. I pull a big bag of chips out of the van and share them freely with other hikers in the parking lot who've also just come down the mountain. This is a way to become popular quickly. :)
Many thanks to my friends Andy and Mark for the invite to poach on their backcountry permit obtained months in advance. I've really enjoyed doing more backpacking this past summer than in many years. And Mt. Rainier is an ultimate destination, whether you do the whole 93-mile Wonderland Trail loop, or a quick weekend like we did.
Now I'm already plotting longer trips for next summer...
Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!
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When You Go
|Yours truly in vintage 1990s Patagonia anorak.|
To camp in Mt. Rainier National Park backcountry, you need a permit, which you can read about here. With the explosive growth in our region, and increasing popularity of hiking, be extra careful to avoid trampling fragile alpine vegetation, and always leave no trace that you were there.