Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Mountain Is In

As I’ve said before, there are certain things about the natural world that some take as fact, but of which I deny the very existence. No, I’m not talking about global climate change (the condition of Yosemite Falls, the amount of snow at Crater Lake, and my surroundings this afternoon basically prove that one). I’m talking instead about moose and bison. People assure me they exist, but I haven’t seen either with my own eyes, so I can’t be sure. And as of today, you can add one more item to that list of objects of questionable existential status: Mt. Rainier.

Sure, everyone says it exists. I’ve seen pictures of it. It has a Wikipedia page. Hell, as I write, I’m even in the national park named for it and supposedly centered around it. But after a full day of searching the sky where the largest volcano in North America was supposed to tower over the rest of the landscape, I have yet to see the elusive Mt. Rainier.

There's supposed to be a 14,441 foot mountain up there.
If it exists, it did its damndest to hide from me today. When I first walked out of my hotel this morning, I was greeted with a weather phenomenon I had rarely experienced on this adventure: overcast skies. I wasn’t too surprised, seeing how this is the Pacific Northwest and it’s been known to rain here from time to time. Double checking the weather forecast, it appeared that these clouds would be burning off by midday anyway, so I wasn’t worried.

As I entered Mt. Rainier National Park, the overcast appeared to be lifting a bit, or maybe it was just me. The road in sits around 500 feet above sea level, but within minutes of coming through the park’s entrance gate, I was already above 4,000 feet and the overcast changed into an undercast. That worked for me, since what I wanted to see was up and not down. The ground below me could be doing whatever it wanted, as long as the skies above me continued to clear.

Around that point, the weather started getting weird. The clouds began changing very rapidly. One minute it appeared the sun was coming out, and the next it was cloudier than it had been before. Several times, in an attempt to see the “mountain,” I would spot a break in the clouds, pull over to the nearest turnout, and by the time I had gotten out of the car to take a picture, the clouds had returned and obscured my subject. I’ve heard of the weather changing rapidly in alpine zones, but I’ve never seen it change in a matter of seconds.

The weather continued to get stranger. Approaching the Paradise area of the park, my intended destination for today, a thick fog rolled in. a more accurate description would probably be that I drove up into a cloud, but fog works too. This was some of the thickest fog I’d ever seen. Coming in waves, at times I couldn’t see the lines on the road 10 feet in front of me – not a good thing when one side of the road is prone to rock falls and the other side is a cliff and a 500-foot drop. You know it’s bad when I slowed down to 10 miles an hour and the car behind me didn’t come any closer or make any moves to suggest I hurry it along. He probably could only see my taillights, anyway.

After a picnic in Paradise (I bet you didn’t have a picnic in Paradise today) I went off in search of the visitor center. This was a real bona fide search. I was literally wandering the parking lot looking for a sign pointing me in the right direction, because I couldn’t even tell if there were buildings in front of me. Eventually, though, I found it. And what a visitor center it was:

A 2-story complex built with a ski lodge motif, the first floor was fairly empty. All it had was a sitting area, information desk, 3D model of the park, ranger information station, digital theater, and full service restaurant. The second floor balconies held exhibits on all aspects of the mountain (history, volcanism, life zones, Native American use… although nothing on whether it actually exists), telescopes for viewing I’m not sure what (a volcano maybe? All I saw were clouds), and the requisite gift shop. Built in 2008, it was all shiny, modern, clean, and overall, very impressive. My one complaint was that their meteorologist was not up to the same standard as the building.

After studying up on the trails in the Paradise area, I set off to hike 2 of them. The first would give me good views of wildflowers and the panorama opposite the “mountain,” which I thought would be good because it would allow some time for the fog to clear and for an alleged volcano to perhaps come out. The second trail, which I’d take later, would provide fabulous views of some of the glaciers in the area, and the mountain itself. At least that’s what the informational bulletin board said.

More lies!
Reality was a rather different story, though. Apparently, although they didn’t have a record snowfall like the parks in the Sierra, Paradise did have a heavier than usual snowfall this winter. Combine that with the fact that this area already has one of the highest average annual snowfalls in the world (over 800 inches a year is not unusual), and a cold wet spring, and the snow was never able to melt. My 2 “easy” and “wheelchair accessible” trails were anything but.

I did not expect to walk through over a foot of snow today, so I did not come prepared for such an eventuality. Standing there in cargo shorts and sneakers, I felt like I had become my brother, standing at the bus stop in 10 degree weather wearing shorts and a hoodie.

I hiked far enough up the first trail to feel like it was the middle of winter (without all that pesky cold, though), decided I wasn’t going to see anything else if I continued, and turned around. On the way down, I learned that sneakers, if used like skis, do not function as well as skis. The “pizza” stopping method doesn’t really work with rubber-soled footwear, especially when you hit a sun cup (which works like a mogul) and nearly go flying into the German family in front of you. None of that really mattered, though, because sledding down a hill on your feet in August is incredibly fun.

Resigning myself to the fact that, if Mt. Rainier existed, I wasn’t going to see it at Paradise (which is a shame, because the pictures make it look like you have some great views of it from there) I’d have to focus on the little things in the park for today instead. I slowly began making my way east towards my campsite just outside the park in the La Wis Wis Campground (Best. Name. Ever.) With lots of time due to my aborted hikes, I stopped at nearly every viewpoint, looking at waterfalls, wildflowers, and purported scenic vistas of the mountain.

I took several short walks, as well. One such hike took me around the rim of Box Canyon, a narrow slot canyon eroded by water that ran directly from a glacier. Apparently glacial runoff water is milky white due to the sediment. Who else out there didn’t know that?

The other hike I took this afternoon, a bit more involved than Box Canyon, was to the Grove of the Patriarchs. Sitting on an island in a river, the Grove is a 1,000-year-old old growth forest protected from loggers during the 19th century. Along the way to the forest, signs along the trail help you identify the different tree species in the area. This was great for me, because I like being able to look at a tree and tell immediately what it is, By the time I was done with this hike, I could identify Western Red Cedar, Hemlock, and Douglas Fir trees.

To get to the island you need to cross a rickety bridge (cue Ron White). And I do mean rickety. It’s a suspension bridge that’s about 2 feet wide and hangs about 20 feet above the (presumably freezing) river below. Signs warn you to only have one person on the bridge at a time. Never a good omen.

But I made it over the Bridge of Death and into the Grove of the Patriarchs. Upon arrival, it became clear why the trail was teaching me to identify trees on the way in. Now that I was here, I could figure out what each of the giant 1,000 year old trees was without the park needing to install descriptive signs at each one. This allowed for a quiet, reflective, uninterrupted walk among the forest. I’m definitely a fan of that approach.

So after spending tonight in La Wis Wis, and hoping that a bear doesn’t break into my car, tomorrow I’ll head to the east side of the park and the Sunrise area, where I hope to have better luck seeing the park’s namesake, since Sunrise is apparently in the mountain’s rain shadow. If the mountain is “out” tomorrow, I might even swing back by Paradise to get some of the views that I apparently missed out on today. Hopefully I don’t have the experience that the orientation video warned of: “Some visitors never see the peak at all.”

1 comment:

  1. Is it wrong that while reading your whole blog, I'm just waiting for your post that mentions a bear attacking/stealing your food/kidnapping you/carjacking you/etc? You are tempting fate!