Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fresh Snow in Mount Rainier National Park

In the last post, I talked about snowshoeing above Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park.  As we drove out of the park for the night there was snow falling at the higher altitudes above Longmire and rain pouring at the lower altitudes.  We planned on returning the next day and hoped to go to Paradise again, but we weren't sure what to expect as we entered the park.  At the entrance station we were warned that the gate between Longmire and Paradise was closed and wouldn't open for the duration of the day.

We were disappointed that we wouldn't be able to make it to Christine Falls to capture an iconic picture from below the road, but we knew that there was still a lot of opportunity to hike around the lower elevations.  As we proceeded past the entrance station, we noticed that the snow level had dropped significantly since our drive out.  At the lower elevations, where it had been raining the previous night, there was now a fresh layer of snow.  We started to see snow covered roads and forest only a third of the way to Longmire.  We passed a National Park Service ranger with his emergency lights on next to a small sedan that had spun off the road and into a four foot deep ditch.  I was happy that we had a four wheel drive vehicle to use, but found at cautious speeds the roads did not seem that slick.

When we got to Longmire, there were more cars than the previous night.  We noticed that people were hiking the Rampart Ridge Trail to the north.  We decided that we wanted to walk part of the Wonderland Trail that followed the Nisqually River.  The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles and circumnavigates Mount Rainier.

As we started northeast on the trail there was about an inch of fresh snow, free of any other footprints.  We were the first two people to walk the trail since the snow had fallen.  It made us feel as though we were completely alone and isolated in the park.  Although we had our snowshoes with us, the shallow snow was easy walking in just our boots.  We walked along the gently rolling path as it meandered among the trees with heavy layers of moss.  

Wonderland Trail in January, Mount Rainier.

As we made it about a mile up the trail we noticed bits of blue sky peeking out above us.  We talked about continuing.  There wasn't a lot of opportunity to see Mount Rainier from the trail and we decided to turn around and head back to the car.  We were hoping to find a spot with better visibility, but would be disappointed later when the clouds rolled back in before we could get anywhere with a view.

We tried to stop at a couple different would-be scenic points along the road, hoping for a clearing between the clouds.  We tried Kautz Creek, but found that the snow covered boardwalks were slicker than polished ice.  As we would slide and catch each other from falling we contemplated turning around, but pushed on to the viewpoint along the river.  After walking a mere 30 yards or so of boardwalk, that felt more treacherous than snowshoeing in white out conditions the previous day, we arrived at the creek.  Ironically the viewpoint was just off the road and the boardwalk had just run parallel to the road.  

I took a couple pictures, but was disappointed by the lack of view due to the clouds.  We decided to climb a small fence and walk back along the road instead of navigating the boardwalk again.  Driving back to the west we stopped at the Westside Road, which was closed for the season.  We decided to walk up that way to see if there were any better views.

Small water fall along the Westside Road, Mount Rainier

We walked about a mile and a half up the road.  We never broke out of the giant trees and weren't able to find a viewpoint.  However, there were a number of small waterfalls that fell along the side of the road.  We stopped to photograph a couple of them.  The low clouds and mixed snow/rain along the hike made the trees in the background fade away.  We passed some fresh Blacktail Deer tracks along the road, but weren't able to see the deer.  

As it was getting dark we decided to turn around and head back towards the car.  We finished the last half mile by headlamp.  The thick forest and tall trees around us blocked out any light that the twilight might have provided.

As we drove out of the park, we stopped at Whittaker Mountaineering again to drop off the snowshoes and tire chains.  They had already closed for the night, so we dropped the equipment off in the after hours drop box.  This turned out to just be a door on the side of the building.  As we dropped the snowshoes through the door we could hear them clatter to the ground on the other side.  With the gear dropped off, we headed back to the AirBNB.  

The next morning we would return to Seattle to catch a flight back to Denver.  Despite being an off season visit, I had enjoyed finally getting to visit Mount Rainier National Park and explore the lower parts of the snowy slopes.  We decided as we drove out that we would have to visit again in the summer...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Snowshoeing in Mount Rainier National Park

At 14,410 feet tall, Mount Rainier towers over the landscape of Washington State.  Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range and the 5th highest mountain in the lower 48 states.  The apparent height of Mount Rainier is dramatic, as the base of the mountain lies at a much lower elevation than the 14ers in Colorado.  This results in a mountain that towers over it's surroundings in a way that makes it seem massive.

In addition to the height, the weather and moisture that result from the nearby Pacific Ocean create dramatic snowfalls that have covered the mountain in 26 glaciers that cover a combined 36 square miles of glacier.  This results in snow conditions consistent with much larger mountains.  As a result,
Mount Rainier National Park is a popular destination for climbers, mountaineers and hikers using the mountain to prepare for bigger ascents in Alaska, the Alps or the Himalayas.

Mount Rainier Winter
Snowfall above Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park
Growing up in Colorado hiking, climbing and backpacking, I have imagined donning an ice axe and crampons to ascend to the top of Mount Rainier.  I used to read through the definitive resource on the topic, "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills."  I would practice what I could, I have greatly benefited from the chapters on hiking and backpacking in general.  When I was in high school I rock climbed both indoor and at the local crags.  I have even spent a few winters playing around with crampons, glissading and even sleeping in a snow cave on Mount Quandaray.  But, I never quite got around to traveling to Washington and making an attempt to summit Mount Rainier.

This January, my wife and I decided to take a trip to Seattle.  I have never been and she had not been there since she was a child.  In addition to the typical tourist sites, and the Seattle Boat Show, I decided that I wanted to go to Mount Rainier National Park while we were there.

Now obviously January is not the peak tourist season to visit the park.  In fact, we had to do some research about just what would be open and accessible for a winter visit.  As it turns out, only a small portion of the park is actually open during the winter.  The Longmire area tends to stay open all winter and the road from Longmire to Paradise is maintained, but depending on the weather may or may not open on any given day.  In addition to the frequent road closures to Paradise, snow chains are required for any vehicle traveling in the park during winter.

After leaving Seattle, we drove about an hour and a half to get to our little bed and breakfast that we booked through AirBNB.  We had heard of a store called Whittaker Mountaineering nearby that would rent out chains and other equipment.  We stopped by that afternoon to confirm that they would have what we needed and make sure we knew when they opened.

The next morning we went back to rent the required chains, as well as some snowshoes.  We decided that even though we were not going to get to summit the mountain, we wanted to at least enjoy the park through snowshoes.  Now, I'm not an expert at snowshoeing and my wife had never done it before, so I was a little worried about how much "fun" it was actually going to be.

Nevertheless, we rented what we needed and the nice young lady at the store told us that we may even get lucky and be able to see the mountain that day.  We purchased an annual, all-parks pass to take advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park back at home in Colorado.  At the entrance gate we found out that the road was open all the way to Paradise.  We decided to head straight to the top, since we were expecting snow over the next couple days.  As we drove the winding road up to Paradise, I was pleasantly surprised that the road was completely dry to the top.

As we parked in the parking lot, we could see kids sledding on a hills side roped off just for that purpose.  There were several other couples getting ready to snowshoe and a pair just getting back.  As we put on a couple extra layers and got ready to go, we noticed snowflakes in the air.

We headed up the mountain, noticing numerous trails from snowshoes and cross-country skis criss-crossing the mountainside.  We generally headed up towards Panorama Point, but with no intention of making all the way there and back.  As we picked different paths to work our way up the mountain the clouds got lower and the snowfall increased.  We kept working our way higher hoping to get a better view of the valley around the Nisqually River, but the closer we got to a good viewpoint, the less we could see.  Ultimately, we only walked about a mile, before getting to a ridge line that I believe would have offered an amazing view, if only the snow wasn't quickly falling.

After a couple photos, after all, I needed at least one to prove I was snowshoeing in a winter snowstorm on the slopes of Mount Rainer, we headed back to the car.  By the time we got back, most of the families sledding had left, only one remained.  There was about two inches of fresh snow on the parking lot and our car.  Of course, being a rental car, it wasn't equipped with a brush for the snow.  After cleaning off the snow by hand we worked out way back down the road to Longmire.

The park service plows the roads, but elects to protect the environment by not using sand, salt or chemicals on the roads.  Fortunately for us, the temperature during the day had been high enough that the snow was wet, but the road was not icy.  We had an easy, uneventful trip back down to Longmire.  We noticed a waterfall along the road as we came down, but due to the fading light we decided we would have to attempt to photograph it the next day.  We stopped to check out the Longmire Museum before leaving the park for the night.  Some of the animals on display were original to the museum first opening up.

We then headed back to our bed and breakfast to dry out and relax for another day...