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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

A Piece of Quiet

America’s leading advocate of wilderness silence shows the way to Mt. Rainier National Park’s quietest corner. Plus: 9 more campsites with life-list listening.

by: Molly Loomis

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)

Hempton wakes me from an afternoon nap later that day, noting that the birds and insects have gotten louder. “I think we might have a break in the weather,” he says, smiling from under his red and white umbrella. We hike up the trail to a small creek running into Upper Palisades Lake, which Hempton noted as having remarkable tuning.

He equips me with a set of earphones and two microphones on a portable stand, positioned to mimic the distance between my two ears.

“Have fun,” he says. “Just experiment.” I head off to create my own sound portrait—the audio equivalent of a photo essay.

The scrape of my raingear screams in my ears as I walk toward the small creek, and I immediately understand why Hempton—dressed in a pair of brown canvas pants, an army-green cotton vest, and cotton layers—wears all natural fibers, no matter the weather. Even his equipment bag and backpack are heavy cotton canvas.

Carefully, I poke the microphones into crevices and hollows between mossy rocks. I am transfixed by all of the intricacies I’ve never heard. Every inch of the creek carries its own distinct sounds: whooshing, flushing, crisp rat-a-tats, hollow plunkings. I continue downhill, and the creek grows louder, losing some of its delicate finesse as the angle steepens. I stop, muddy and smiling, at the lake. As a professional mountain guide and climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, I spend more than half of my year in the backcountry. I’ve appreciated the thrumming of a sage grouse and the tinkle of aspen leaves shaken by the breeze. But this is an awakening.

“How long do you think that took?” asks Hempton.

“Thirty minutes?” I guess.

“More than an hour,” he says. Losing sense of time is one of the reasons Hempton always records alone, not tied to anyone else’s schedule.

“If you’ve only got two hours, forget it,” he says. “That’s like saying, ‘Honey, I’ve got two minutes, let’s make love.’”
 
Back at camp, over tea, we recount some of the creek sounds (and the frequent interruption of airplanes). The gurgling water and rustling wind I recorded today are obviously anything but silent. “You’re right,” Hempton says. There is no such thing as true silence. The whole world vibrates.” 
  
But the absence of sound isn’t really the goal. While “silence” makes a great buzzword, what Hempton really wants might best be described as sound preserves, places where you can listen to nature’s vibrations without interruption.

“Man-made noise is an emission that’s being dumped into the most sensitive areas in the country,” he says.
For Hempton, the solution is simply a matter of getting people to tune into the wilderness and recognize that what they hear should be treated like endangered species. “Hikers know the serenity this brings better than anybody,” he says.

The sky clears on our last night, and before going to bed, Hempton predicts, “Dawn should bring a wonderful listening opportunity. It’ll be clear, and the birds will have a pent-up need to reestablish territories.” That’s a need Hempton can appreciate.


Trip Planner
Visit Mt. Rainier’s silent side.

>> Get there From Enumclaw, take WA 40 33 miles southeast to the White River Entrance Station. Go 10.5 miles up the winding road to the parking lot for Sunrise Point.
>> Permit Required (free for walk-ups, $20 reserved). Pick up at the White River Entrance Station or Sunrise Visitor Center. Make reservations from March 15 through September 30 (see contact).
>> Guidebook and map Day Hiking Mount Rainier, by Dan A. Nelson and Alan L. Bauer ($17, mountaineersbooks.org); Trails Illustrated Mount Rainer National Park #217 ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Access On October 14, the road closes at the junction with WA 410. It typically reopens by July 1.
>> Bears Pack bear-bag gear and hang food 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the tree.
>> Contact (360) 569-6575; nps.gov/mora





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READERS COMMENTS

Cynthia
Nov 02, 2012

Guadalupe Mountains (going in the back side, NOT Pine Spring campground where there are actually boom boxes in play!) in west Texas is full of solitude, but there's a jet overhead about every 30 minutes. Very discouraging. You can get away from humans, but not their noise.

Edward
Nov 01, 2012

Want silence go to Craters of the Moon and overnight(s) a few miles into the Monument quiet and the Milky Way.

Jason W.
Oct 24, 2011

City of Rocks is a wonderful place to climb, hike & camp. But I wouldn't call it quiet- especially on weekends. Good luck trying to find a campsite, be sure and use the reservation system.

Frank
Oct 23, 2011

Just did the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon. In the morning about every 45 minutes, 3 or 4 choppers cross the canyon hugging the no-fly zone. Didn't ruin an awesome hike, but I will admit I was annoyed. Did the trail on a Saturday, so maybe weekdays are less noisy.

JCclimber
Oct 23, 2011

Surprised that the Eastern Sierras didn't make this list. Once you get in past the foothills, it is almost completely free of humans, and the lower mountains (8,000-11,000 feet) block any noise from Highway 395. Once every hour or so, I notice a jet flying at 35,000 feet overhead, but never hear a peep from them.

Of course around Mt Whitney and Mammoth Mountain, this doesn't apply...

Michael
Oct 21, 2011

Great information about flight rules in Grand Canyon. I am glad you clarified this I have hiked in and crossed the canyon many times and I only saw one helicopter in all of those trips. So I was wondering if the author was referring to some other Grand Canyon.

Lostfalls
Oct 20, 2011

Thank You Jonathan,

Very useful information.

Steve C.
Oct 20, 2011

This reminds me of the words of an old favorite song. Ken Burns used the music in his documentary on the National Parks. There is a line that goes, "This is my Father's world and to my listening ears all nature sings, around me rings the music of the spheres.



Linda Carter
Oct 20, 2011

Don't forget Haleakala National Park on Maui. Total silence, no wind, no trees rustling, no water running, complete silence all the time. Amazing place.

Jonathan
Oct 20, 2011

Having lived for a year and a half in the Grand Canyon working for one of the concessionaires, I'd like to clarify that 'tourist flyovers' over the Grand Canyon are prohibited over National Park lands. Tour flights and copters have to follow a path around the touristy sections of the Canyon (basically Desert View to the North Rim to a little past Hermits Rest) and they have to stay at a certain level above the Canyon. Tours typically fly over Hualapai land. NPS copters will fly into the Canyon at designated times for supplies to Phantom Ranch, not including search and rescues or medevacs. The spanse of the Canyon that stretches between Hermits to Desert View have many backcountry sites available for only $10/night/person that have NO visitors. And for a true spiritual experience, try out the Navajo lands not controlled by the NPS, available at http://www.navajonationparks.org. You'd be giving to a nation that desperately needs your funding.

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