Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mount Rainier in July

Yesterday I went for a thirteen-mile hike into an area on the western slopes of Mount Rainier that I hadn't visited for more than thirty years.  Why did I wait so long?

Mystery flowers.
You begin by driving three miles up the Westside Road from Longview, near the park's western entrance.  You park just before crossing a bridge, and hike about 2 1/2 miles to the trailhead.  (The sign implies it is almost 5 miles, but I hiked it back in 40 minutes, so the sign must be wrong.)  This is no hardship, since there are spectacular waterfalls, mysterious areas in the riverbed of tall denuded trees, numerous flower beds, and views of the mountains, along the way.  
Most black bears in
Washington State are
jet black, but some are
cinnamon-colored, like
this one across the Puyallup

Another 1.6 miles and I came to the campsite where the three of us camped our last night on a 40 mile jaunt around the western side of the Wonderland Trail, when I was in high school.  My sister's boyfriend in college had taken me along as a favor to her, so I did my best to keep up on 12-16 mile treks each day.  The other two guys kept up a Sound of Music theme along the way that fit in wonderfully -- "Doe, a deer, a female deer!" (I saw one yesterday, too, along with the crimson-colored black bear-- see left and below); "Climb every mountain! Ford every stream!" (the Wonderland Trail climbs every ridge -- up 3000 feet, down 3000 feet) "The hills are alive with the Sound of Music" -- and so they were. 

After sitting on a log on our old site and snacking up on peanut butter cookies and nostalgia, I began a steaper ascent.  A few hundred yards up the trail, a fairly large cinnamon-phase black bear was looking for eats, meager as it appeared (alder leaves?  grass?  roots?) on the far bank of the little river.  It's been a long, hard winter, with lots of snow left on higher slopes, and he no doubt needs to do a lot of eating to catch up.  I saw him before he saw me, and took four photos.  He was ambling across the creek roughly in my direction, and I was holding still for a good picture, when he apparently caught wind of me, and ran up the far bank into the trees.  So he didn't get a cheap meal, and I didn't get a cheap photograph.  Fair trade, I guess. 

Soon afterwards, the trail led into snow.  In some places it was bare, but under the trees, I lost the trail entirely.  Only two other sets of footprints had tresspassed the while, one up, the other down.  Suddenly I heard rocks falling, as if some animal just ahead of me were running off quickly.  A little further up the hill, I found the trail again, then, to my surprise, two park rangers, young women who had climbed up another trail, and were the first hikers this year to attain Emerald Ridge -- and I, a few minutes late, came third, a trajedy that has befallen greater explorers as well. 

But there was nothing tragic about the scenes along the way, which as you can see were truly magestic. I hadn't seen the crest of Mount Rainier all day, or even any of its glaciers, but I was enjoying every minute of the hike, anyway -- a respite from writing and from computers.   

The last slopes leading to the Ridge were again covered with deep snow, with a definite flow visible in the debris on top, like little glaciers, but without the crevices.  Then there was some bare slope, a copse of trees, some light blue flox (one of my favorite wild flowers) and a few anonymous but hardy yellow flowers dotted on the slope.  The clouds parted enough for glaciers high above to show their twisted masses, and higher slopes of the mountain, to make themselves manifest, covered I think at about 10-12000 feet by more fresh snow! 

The rangers had set a good example by not trampling on the poor vegetation, hiking over snow when the trail was covered, and I tried to be conscientious as well.  But after a few more cookies and cherries, and some water, I lay back on the grass, with a faint sweet smell from the flowers, and watched the valley below. 

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