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September 2000

A Hiker In Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland

Sure, you can summit Mt. Rainier, but the real treasure isn't on top. It's the Wonderland Trail down below.

There is but one story and that is “The Mountain.” Sooner or later, every Northwest hiker is drawn to her flanks. I can’t imagine anyone who walks for pleasure in this corner of the country not feeling a magnetic pull toward Washington’s crowning jewel, Mt. Rainier.

Near sea level on Puget Sound, where millions of bipedal worker ants toil away their daylight hours, many of those lucky enough to have a window cubicle stare wistfully to the southeast. They know the drizzle will eventually ease, the gray pall will lift, and they’ll shout jubilantly, “The Mountain is out!” All will stop to stare at the brooding hulk just 50 miles inland, and they’ll remember why they love it here. Worker productivity will plummet until the clouds draw the curtain again, and sad eyes return to flickering computers.

Whenever I climb to ridgelines above my Oregon home, I can make out geologic features on Mt. Rainier 80 miles away. Twice in recent years, her rosy alpenglow has lured me to climb to the summit crater. But the more ambitious undertaking, the one that would reveal The Mountain in all her glory, eluded me until last October, when finally I set foot on the 93-mile-long, ’round-the-mountain Wonderland Trail. There, I learned another side to the peak’s story.

I remember standing at Reflection Lakes, staring at the metal sign at the shore, with its color image of The Mountain mirrored in the water at my feet. Behind the sign were countless expanding ripples and above that, an unfathomable tomb of gray. As sweat from long miles of uphill travel condensed inside my rainjacket, my thoughts drifted briefly to my comrades pecking away at their keyboards, dry beneath their roofs, but also shut in behind plates of glass. All in all, I knew I’d rather be out here, where ever-changing weather is as much a part of the mountain as are its crumbling ribs of congealed lava. My October journey would remind me of why Rainier is encased in 37 square miles of glacier, more than the combined ice mass of all the other volcanoes in the Lower 48. It’s the same reason why, between July 1971 and July 1972, a spot near Reflection Lakes received nearly 100 feet of snow, setting a world record.

Though Mt. Rainier is only the fifth highest mountain in the Lower 48, it rises higher above its base than any other, towering almost 12,000 feet over the flats at Longmire. Its total 14,410 feet dominate the salt water of the Puget Sound below. Pacific clouds that merely drizzle over Seattle slam full force into Rainier, and as they’re lifted skyward, precipitation falls to Earth.

I decide to leave a cache of food, fuel, and dry clothes at the ranger station at Longmire, just below Paradise Visitor Center at the southern foot of the mountain, and start my hike at Sunrise Visitor Center at the northeastern foot. That’s just one of a half-dozen options. The most popular one starts at Longmire, where the National Park Service’s hiker center issues backcountry permits and weather reports. Unfortunately, at the start of my trip, the Longmire weather report calls for days of rain down low and snow up high, and 1?2 inch of early season slush falls during my night at Sunrise.

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