Thursday, September 19, 2019

Hiking Mt. Rainier: Glaciers, Meadows, and No Bears

This is the second of two posts about a Labor Day weekend backpack trip in Mt. Rainier National Park. Read the first post here.

Day 2
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.
The beauty of a layover day is having no set schedule. We scramble leisurely around the rocks, taking in the drama of the stark volcanic landscape above timberline. And although they're not visible in the shot above, a few backcountry skiers were having fun getting late (or really early) season turns on the soft suncupped snow.

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.

Day 3
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! 
  

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 


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.


 





Friday, September 13, 2019

Late Season Backpack at Mt. Rainier

 This is the first of two posts about a recent backpacking trip in Mt. Rainier National Park.

While the snow can start flying any day now in the high country here in the Pacific Northwest, September is often our best hiking month.

With wildflowers past their peak and cooler nights, mosquitoes and bugs aren't nearly as pesky. There's that particular late summer light that's so lovely. And, perhaps, the crowds have subsided a bit (but not much).

Over Labor Day weekend I joined some friends for a few nights camping and hiking above timberline on Mt. Rainier, the Big Kahuna of Cascade volcanoes and a national park. What a splendid getaway!

My friends Andy and Mark got a backcountry permit for the Spray Park area, where the meadows were covered in a riot of avalanche lilies and other wildflowers not much more than a month earlier.


Not this trip but shot from a late July hike
Day 1
We left Seattle about 5:45 a.m. Friday to drive to Mowich Lake on the northwest side of Rainier. After a stop in Enumclaw en route for fuel, we finally hit the trail about 9:30. 

Near the trailhead, a big open tent was set up as a way station for an organized endurance run on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain. I was tempted to grab a drink, but we walked on past and headed up (actually down) the trail to Spray Park. After dropping almost 100 feet immediately, the first few miles pass through rich, green forest enshrouded in mist.





We hiked just a tad under 2 miles to meet Andy and Mark at Eagle's Roost camp along the trail, where they had camped the night before. Then the four of us continued upward, passing peek-a-boo views of Spray Falls, then finally emerging into the first lower clearings where Rainier comes into view above the subalpine forest.


"Watch for the big bear near the trail" said a descending hiker. With low-lying mountain blueberries ripe, the bears were feasting for the winter ahead.


First view of Rainier
Somehow we managed to not spot the bear everyone else saw, nor the big bull elk. But after emerging more fully out of the forest into the lower meadows, a lunch break was in order. 


Although the trail was never very steep, and we only gained about 1,500 feet in elevation, I was really dragging as we tramped through the gorgeous meadows above timberline. You know how some days you feel like you're running on empty?




I think that several extra pounds from the big plastic bear canister did me in. When we reached a high junction that took us up towards the foot of the Flett Glacier away from the Wonderland Trail, Mark and Dave offloaded some of the weight in my pack. I hate being that person, but I was grateful.




As we continued onward up a ridge above Spray Park toward the snowfield, one of us (not me) got the idea to drop down off the ridge to check out camping at the edge of the meadow below. So down we all went, bushwhacking and scrambling over a jumble of boulders.


But it was worth it because we found an isolated, lovely spot with fresh water from the melting snowfield just above. Of course we were careful to find bare spots and not camp on the fragile meadow. And then we had two beautiful nights of solitude.



Dinner for me was ramen with fresh kale from my garden, while the others just added water to their (expensive) freeze-dried dinners, which seems to be the trend now. 

Not far below us, clouds drifted and slithered around lesser peaks. As the sun slipped below the horizon and the day slowly turned to night, I silently watched the sky above and below as it transitioned.






And then I crawled into my tent, "good" tired, lungs filled with all that mountain fresh air, smartphone turned off. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of a slight breeze rustling the rain fly of my tent.

Check back in a few days for the next post about hiking higher up the mountain, with lots more photos.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 
  

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 


When You Go 
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.