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Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

Mount Rainier: Thunder on the Mountain

Two years after hurricane-force winds and rain ravaged hundreds of miles of trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, the true damage is finally becoming clear. And what it's telling scientists is alarming: Bigger, more frequent–and more destructive–storms may be coming.

by: Michael Lanza, Photos by Gabe Rogel

Lenticular clouds mean high winds on upper Rainier.
Lenticular clouds mean high winds on upper Rainier.
November 2006 storm damage
November 2006 storm damage
The fallen trees forced the author on many detours.
The fallen trees forced the author on many detours.
A work crew member cleaning up.
A work crew member cleaning up.

Visit Mt. Rainier with our online guide to the mountain. Sort hikes by difficulty, mileage, and rating, and read articles on skills and essential gear for the mountain.


How big a hit did Rainier take in the November 2006 tempest? How will it fare in the future? From top to bottom, here's a complete report card.


The first drops fell early in the afternoon on Sunday, November 5. Pacific Northwest winter storms typically blow in on polar jet streams and pass through quickly. But a shift in the jet stream carried this one up from the sub-tropics, possibly from a typhoon in the Sea of Japan. Loaded with moisture, the storm stalled over the Cascades, monsooning 18 inches of rain on Rainier in 36 hours. That's the equivalent of 15 feet of snow, an amount that easily eclipsed all other weather events in the national park's 109-year history.

Significantly, the storm also brought unseasonably warm temperatures–Seattle's TV weathermen call this kind of front a "Pineapple Express." At a point in the season when the upper mountain rarely sees anything but big white flakes, the storm dumped rain as high as Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, a full 2,000 feet above the existing snowline.

By Monday morning, Longmire was given the order to evacuate. But ranger Lee Taylor missed it, waiting until late afternoon to drive home down Nisqually River Road. She recalls approaching "a big puddle"; only midway through did she realize that Kautz Creek had jumped its banks and reamed out a new channel a quarter-mile east of its former bed. It now rushed over the pavement, a chocolate-colored wave 50 yards across. Water leapt to the tops of her wheel wells. A basketball-size rock bounced across the road. She felt the current pulling her vehicle and hit the gas, barely getting across. "It was sheer luck that I didn't die," she says. After the evacuation, five emergency-response park employees remained in Longmire, among them lead climbing ranger Mike "Gator" Gauthier. On Monday evening, at his house a quarter-mile from the Nisqually River, he heard a low rumble, like thunder. He walked to the levee and found the ground quaking from the force of water bowling 20-ton boulders downstream. The musty smell of pumice and ancient volcanic ash hung heavy in the air, mixed with a powerful scent of cedar and pine. And no wonder: The river chewed into its banks, toppling giant old-growth trees and grinding them to wood chips. In his 19 years on Rainier, Gauthier had never seen the Nisqually bigger.

Across the park, every river, creek, and rivulet went mad; an official press release described the scene as a "churning mass of mud, trees, and rocks." Six debris flows ripped down Rainier's slopes. Highway 123 washed out in four places, including one gouge as deep as a seven-story building. The Carbon River erased two miles of Carbon River Road. The Nisqually devoured most of Longmire's levee–coming within inches of some buildings–and demolished five-acre Sunshine Point Campground. Winds reaching 120 mph–the strength of a category three hurricane–strafed Camp Muir and tore the roofs off of two fire towers elsewhere in the park.

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier was battered in more than 30 locations; worst hit were sections in Stevens Canyon (obliterated by a landslide) and along the Carbon River (nearly 2,000 feet of trail washed away). At least two dozen log footbridges disappeared, numerous campsites were destroyed, and the 200-foot-long suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek–which rises 100 feet above the gorge–was rendered unusable.

Never before had a storm damaged every road and trail in the park. Officials tallied $36 million in anticipated repairs and closed the park to private vehicles for a record six months. Two world wars, a mid-1990s government shutdown, and even ash fallout from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens had failed to close it for more than a few days. Two years later, significant damage remains–and park officials wait for the other shoe to drop.

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Mar 03, 2011

Lenticular Clouds are lens-shaped clouds, and are usually formed at a very high altitude. The lens shape of the cloud is often mistaken by people as a ‘UFO’ or unidentified flying object.

Mar 24, 2009

Oh god, another global warming debate. Must... resist..... but I can't. Ok, my two cents:

It has been incredible to me to watch this entire debate unfold over the last 15 years or so. Watching the various opinion camps form and coalesce around various data points, and then attempt to effectively debate each other - almost always using incomplete science and cherry-picked data that seems to support their argument, has been almost as interesting (and disturbing) as watching the actual science of climatology evolve.

And while some positions use more factual evidence than others, no "side" is without fault. Yes, at this point a dispassionate reviewer of ALL AVAILABLE DATA from credible research institutions can reach no conclusion other than anthropogenic warming is real, but that doesn't leave the global warming proponents without fault. Al Gore, for instance, is a bit of a simplistic hypocrite. Yes, "An Inconvenient Truth" brought awareness to the masses... however, it's such dumbed-down science that it almost endangers the whole argument. AND he's profited off it in a big way. AND his own lifestyle reflects almost none of the changes he proposes we must make.

Politics notwithstanding, however, pure science does not lie. So do not get your data on this subject from Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, or the Heartland Institute. Get it from the source. Start by reading and really UNDERSTANDING the IPCC briefs. Then, realize that the IPCC is not in and of itself a research institution. It's a collaberation between scientists AND industry representatives. That's right, EVERY SINGLE WORD in an IPCC brief has to be signed off on by not only scientists, but reps from the oil companies, power generation utilities etc. THAT'S why the IPCC briefs have been so conservative. They've been the worst scenarios that industry has thus far been forced by a mountain of data to agree to. And they're still pretty scary.
Mar 18, 2009
Mar 18, 2009

Mar 14, 2009

Mar 12, 2009

I'll be dead before the real change happens. And I have no kids. Since 1790 1/4 of the family tree has stopped branching

Mar 11, 2009

There was once a man named Charles Darwin. He saw the processes of evolution within animals and I have seen the same thing in our weather all over the globe. We are not going to heat up globally 10 degrees in our lifetime and it is not going to happen anytime soon.

Storms evolve through the evolutionary pattern of global climate cycles and within those cycles there are extreme cold and warm periods depending on how far we are away from the sun in the Earth's orbit. The Earth's orbit changes over a period of thousands of years and will continue to do so. We have been both warmer and colder in the past than we are now.

Get ready for the climate change ride and learn to deal with it and quit complaining about it.

Yeah Whatever
Mar 07, 2009

Yawn. The 'common sense' global warming denialism is soooo simplistic. Whenever someone says "scientists have just concluded that we are at the beginning of a 30-year-cooling trend..."
I click off.

Why? Because what they would say IF THEY WERE REMOTELY ACCURATE is that a couple aging contrarian scientists, many of them totally unrelated to the disciplines of climatology, botany, biology, or paleontology, have concluded that...usually by doing surveys of existing literature rather than primary research.

And people who buy into that are merely looking for a quick and convenient answer so they can get back to whatever.

It's not about climate change. Duh. It's about the SPEED of climate change...namely, too fast for natural communities to adjust. So we'll see these partial extinctions decimate numerous plant and animals species, along with the constricting habitats.

The only reason pop media punditry (and its slavish fan base) thinks this is normal climate change is because they see any long-term change as slow in relation to the hourly news cycle. But, ice-wise, we've seen about 5,000 years of 'normalish' shrink-back within the last 170 years. And pine beetles aren't about 'beetle infestations,' they're about warm/short/dry winters not killing back the normal population of beetles.

All that is a manifestation of rapid climate change.

Besides, Al Gore isn't the basis for climate change alarmism; Scientific data is. The various IPCC reports, issued periodically, were watered down due to the exact pushback that many posters here display.

Now, year by year, we're seeing IPCC reports revised into more dire - and accurate - orientation as new data comes in and the evidence becomes ever more overwhelming.

Mar 06, 2009

Why don't we blame the cavemen for building too many fires warming the earth and ending the ice age?

Mar 06, 2009

Holly please tell me you are not buying into Al Gore, he is an idiot and an alarmist (I invented the internet). Here in the UP we have had four consecutive years that are probably the coldest and snowiest in 30 years. We are still at the end of an ice age and nature is cyclical. We shall all see in the next 10-20 years. I too have belonged to this magazine for over a decade and there is more green crap in here than backbacking anymore, so I am also probably on my way out.

Ron J..UP, Michigan

Mar 06, 2009

Mar 06, 2009

As noted above there have been numerous ice ages. What stopped them? Global warming. What led to them? Global cooling. Amazing natural changes have occured since the earth was formed.

Nothing is static. Nothing has ever been static. We must be good stewards of the planet, but let's us never shy away from informed debate. Those seeking truth shouldn't fear opposing opinions. Rather we should welcome them.

After all, only with rigorously researched facts can we solve problems, whatever they may be.

Chuck Tate
Mar 05, 2009

Argue all you want about "global warming" but climate change, for whatever reason, is happening with many local changes. Some areas are wetter with stronger storms and some are drier with other problems. Mud Mountain Dam on the north side was rehabilatated to accomodate up to about 200 ft of debris filling in the river. The upper reaches of many ridges are debris flow remains from 5,000 years ago. Mt Rainer is not stable. Get ready for more changes. There was a comment about hydropower but this is the part of the country that wants to remove dams that generate electricity. We do need to make changes but we can not have our cake and eat it too. What to do, what to do?

Mike Farrar
Mar 05, 2009

Scientist have just concluded that we are in the
beginings of a 30 year cooling trend, so you can put your Global Warming scare tactics aside until
at least 2039...


Thad R
Mar 05, 2009

What data over the last decade are you looking at? The top 5 warmest years on record are all within the last 10 years. Computer climate models have accurately predicted or UNDERestimated climate changes due to global warming for years, so why would we question the newer more accurate models when the 20 year old primative ones were close? Oh... its snowing in the east a lot this year... global warming is a myth... come on! I hear this kind of stuff every time is gets cold outside. Its all a bunch of alarmest crap? Go talk to the people living in the Arctic where its now warmer there than it has been in thousands of years. The permafrost that literally holds the ground together is melting. We have lost ice that we know has been on the planet for tens of thousands of years, and from all the science we can muster we have found that this dramatic rise in temprature has only started in the last 100 years and more dramatically the last 50. Natural changes cannot happen this fast. There is no mechanism barring some sort of global disaster (meteor strike, massive volcanic eruption) that can cause the climate to shift in the way we are now seeing. CO2 and methane in the atmosphere have risen sharply, physics tells us that those gasses trap more heat, and the rise can be directly linked to human activities. Global temps are rising, given these facts any rational person must conclued that global warming is real. Knowone seems to argue that CFC's caused the hole in the Ozone layer. So we banned CFC's. The government came to that comclusion using the same science that is now telling us about global warming. Is it that you really don't believe or that actually doing something about global warming in just too much of a hassel?

Joseph Coyne
Mar 05, 2009

I work in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Some of the islands I work with their highest peak is less than 20 feet. These islands are concerned about rising tides which equate to land loss and being submerged. Global warming warming is a natural cycle. Pacific islanders have known this for who knows how long.

Mar 05, 2009

Regarding the comment on Mt St Helens glaciers "recovering" since the May 18th, 1980 eruption; Indeed one new glacier has sprouted - highly unusual and fascinating - but it is NOT due to that fact that climate is conducive to glacier formation but rather to the fact that there is now a brand new 3,000 foot north facing CLIFF that wasn't there before where the new glacier is being created. The previous glacier system around the flanks of the original peak - now 1,300 feet lower than before - have NOT reformed. Let’s get our facts straight, OK folks?
There is no debate that the earth's average temperature has risen and it is only explainable in relation to increased CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions which are themselves indisputably human caused. There is also no debate that even if we ceased ALL GHG emissions today, we are in for additional warming. Glaciers and ice sheets nearly everywhere on this planet are in retreat, and this article describes one serious issue arising from this retreat that I had not considered.

East Coast girl
Mar 05, 2009

Hey Steve - wake up and listen to what all the scientists are saying. Global warming is real. Cap and Trade will help reduce carbon emissions and will raise capital for future energy independence. How can you breathe with your head in the sand?

Mar 05, 2009

I just want to say that Holly B's comments are like a fairy tale - It's pure fantasy.

Beaverton, OR

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