Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Big Mountain I Kinda Saw

After the initial weekend of messing around in Seattle, I picked up Action Mom at the airport and we drove to Mt. Rainier. Our hotel was the National Park Inn at Longmire, which is south of the mountain. Due to my sheep-like instinct for following directions to places posted on signs, we ended up driving to the hotel the long way, entering the park in the northwest corner and driving all the way around the east side. It was actually quite a beautiful, if very long drive. Rainier is a really big mountain. It's a 14er, but unlike many such mountains, the range it's in is quite low, so the prominence is huge. The drive within the park boundaries is mainly on two-lane blacktop with a fair amount of frost damage and a lot of exposure, and when they advise five or ten mph around a turn, they mean it. I'm bothered by the idea of driving to a place, driving around there for a while, and then saying you've seen it, but I definitely enjoyed driving those roads.

The inn itself is a beautiful old-fashioned hotel. The rooms aren't very big, there are no TVs, and the bathrooms are down the hall, but I'd choose it over a Motel 6 any day. It has character, and that character isn't mildew or a parking lot. They also have an excellent kitchen. Because Rainier is a national park, nothing served there actually comes from there, although the dishes are designed to reflect their environment. I found that amusing, although it seems like it would be logistically a little awkward, especially in the winter, to try to source the principal ingredients for things locally. They also have an afternoon tea service, which is very civilized and of which I'm now a fan.

It was pretty cloudy when we arrived, and Mt. Rainier itself was hidden. While Action Mom and I were sitting outside and having tea, the clouds parted for a little while and we actually saw Rainier. This is in contrast to Grand Targhee, where we never actually saw the Grand Titons, and Whistler, where we rarely saw anything, including moguls the size of Volkswagens. The mountain is huge - most mountains I've seen, I've been able to look at and say, "Yeah... That's pretty big." Mt. Rainier has such a large prominence that I actually had to look up. It's a fairly perfectly shaped cone from a distance, with a glacier cap. We tried twice over the next few days to get closer, and met with limited success.

The first trip we planned was going to be a loop around the Sunrise area. Due to some theories involving heavy traffic and parking issues, we decided to go to the White River campground, three miles away by foot, and start from there. The route from White River to Sunrise turns out to be 2.6 miles climbing about 2200' and then another half mile that would be pretty easy if it wasn't under snow.

Near the top of all the climbing, we found a stream crossing that had washed out. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to have a bridge or not, because there was no sign of one. The point where the crossing used to be was about a foot away from a waterfall that was going pretty hard, and crossing at that point didn't seem like a good idea. Upstream was at least 20' straight up a rock face, so that didn't seem like a great idea. We ended up scrambling down a pretty steep bank to a point where the stream narrowed, the snow bank on the other side didn't have any cornicing, and there were some rocks big enough to sit out of the water and offer some stability. After that, we had to scramble back up the bank on the other side to get back onto the trail. Whining and moaning aside, I actually find that sort of hiking much more engaging than walking around on some ridiculously well-maintained trail with little handrails and stuff. Not too long after that, we reached the elevation where the trees started to thin out significantly, and could see all the way down to the White River. It looked really far away, and the sense of having traveled that kind of distance on foot was kind of cool.

Around that time, the water falling from the sky turned from being a fairly gentle mist into rain. Northern California has similarly unpredictable weather, especially in the foothills of the Bay Area and in the Sierras, so Action Mom and I weren't unprepared - we just took our shells out of our bags and continued. When we got to the top, where the snow started to be more of a snowpack rather than random banks of snow hiding in sheltered spots like stream beds, it was still raining and we figured that we didn't have anything to prove and hung out inside the lodge for a while. It continued raining and didn't look like stopping, so we got a ride with a church group back to the intersection with the road to the campground where we left the rental car and called it a day.

The next day, we planned to hike the Wonderland trail from Longmire to Paradise. Due to multiple bridges being out, with no alternative routes, we bagged that plan and did a ridge trail near the inn. That trail was another one that went straight up the hillside - 1.8 miles of switchbacks, with about 1300' of gain. After that, we took the bus to Paradise, had lunch, and tried to find a loop in that area. It turned out to be fully buried under snow, and after a short hike that went the wrong place, we found the right line of flags but the weather got nasty again. We decided that neither of us really considered walking several miles in the rain over snow fun if we couldn't see the mountain anyway and we weren't going to be skiing down, so we hung out in the lodge for a while, had dinner, and headed back to Longmire.

Unfortunately the way mountains create some of their own weather makes it difficult to catch them on a good day. At least this mountain we got to see, and of course the weather turned nice on Sunday when we were leaving, so we could see it all the way from Seattle. On another day, I saw Mt. Baker from Seattle. It's pretty cool to be a place where, on clear days, it's possible to see mountains as far away as Rainer, Baker and the Olympics. I've also come to the conclusion that hiking is kind of okay, as long as it goes places that are inaccessible by other means. Part of the reward has to be that I won't arrive at a destination and have people there who drove their cars and RVs, or worse yet rode their mountain bikes - then I'd be really envious.

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