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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.

Photo by John Harlin

Spray Park, where the cairn in the foreground marks the trails route across a permanent snowfield.

As I drop into the rain hanging over White River Valley, climb up to Summerland, and eventually round the eastern and southern flanks of the mountain, I posit that the slope on my right just keeps rising as rain turns to snow, snow builds to ice, and ice compresses into glacier. These alpine meadows offer stunning mountain vistas-at least according to the pictures I’ve seen, because today, clouds shroud the view. But even without a mountain backdrop, I fall so in love with the rolling tundra fields of Summerland and the endless ridgetop walking near Indian Bar camp that I vow to return here with my family.

The following days are filled with steep ups and downs and nonstop rain. At one point, I stand briefly on the swinging, 250-foot-long Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. In 1987, as a dayhiking couple crossed the chasm, it looked much like it does to me now-more than 100 feet deep, with a chocolate-brown torrent surging below. An hour or so later, the hikers had returned to find the water a mere 20 feet below the bridge. House-size boulders bounced in the current and basketball-size rocks flew over the bridge. A lahar was passing by, as they do every few years when trapped rain and meltwater inside a glacier breaks loose and carries away chunks of mountain. In fact, this Tahoma Creek gorge doubled in depth during the 1980s due to the scouring effects of recurrent lahars.

During the most spectacular prehistoric lahar, some 5,700 years ago, a wall of water 500 feet deep rushed over what’s now White River Campground and didn’t stop until it rearranged the shoreline of Puget Sound 50 miles away. When (not if) Mt. Rainier decides to warm up again in a fit of volcanic pique, massive lahars pose a vastly greater threat to the Seattle-Tacoma urban sprawl than do ash or flying magma. Rainier isn’t the most likely volcano in the region to blow soon-Mt. St. Helens is, according to experts-but geologists consider it to be by far the most potentially destructive American volcano, since activity could melt its thick mantle of ice and threaten the millions who live downstream.

The weather finally breaks about half an hour before sunset and my arrival at the Golden Lakes campsite. Through thinning clouds, amber light filters onto October-red huckleberry fields, lifting my spirits as the sun drops. A blanket of stars appears, and in their glow, I can make out the massive wall of Mt. Rainier, with its promise (or is it just a tease?) of a clear view in the morning.

This time, it’s no tease. Completing the ’round-the-mountain circle, I’m treated to awesome and increasingly familiar views of The Mountain’s greatest aspect: the huge cliffs of the north face, including the elegant Liberty Ridge that felt my crampon’s spikes a couple of years ago. The Wonderland Trail, however, maintains its steep roller-coaster route, presenting nearly 23,000 feet of vertical gain and an equal loss-much to my knees’ chagrin. It’s like climbing to the summit from the roadhead at Paradise 21?2 times. The trail ascends into the alpine zone, peaking at nearly 7,000 feet, then plunges deep into old-growth forest to as low as 2,800 feet at Longmire. Then it’s back up, then down, again and again. The good news is that you’re never bored as you climb into and out of life zones and cross creek after creek (nearly all of which are well bridged). You will never see anything close to the same view twice.

Rounding the final tundra-filled miles above Berkeley Park and heading into Sunrise, I feel grateful to have been allowed to complete my journey with my eyes upward-lifted to the mountain and sunglasses-shaded from the dazzling, sparkling glaciers. There’s never been any doubt about whose story I was hearing during all of those 93 wondrous miles. The Mountain will be heard.

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