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.
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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.

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.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: WONDERLAND TRAIL, WA

The route: Up and down and 'round and 'round. So where do you get on and off this mammoth carousel? Technically, there are eight or so options where paved roads cross or come within striking distance of the trail. Deciding where to start comes second only to choosing a camp, since the latter requires careful scripting with the backcountry-permit mongers. Longmire is the most popular launch site, since it's natural to begin there after picking up the permit at the hiker center inside the Longmire Visitor Center (see Contact), and because you can also get there by bus. But that makes the first days of hiking the most difficult, and the final walk downhill from Paradise to Longmire slightly disappointing.

If assured of better weather, I would start my trip all over again at Sunrise Visitor Center, with its fantastic view, mellow but spectacular first days, and climactic finale. This route also permits a stash to be cached at Longmire, should you so desire. Once you're on the path, just follow Wonderland Trail signs. Almost all thru-hikers walk the loop clockwise, making the many ridges somewhat easier to negotiate. Take the Spray Park alternate route on the north side; this adds a few thousand feet of gain and loss, but you'll eyeball some of the area's most beautiful scenery. The normal time to hike the loop is 10 to 14 days, though a reasonably fit hiker can cut that time in half.

A 100-person crew from The Mountaineers club in Seattle established the entire Wonderland Trail route in 1915. Today, some 200 to 300 people thru-hike the trail annually. Expect company during the high-use season, and relative tranquility (but less stable weather) in fall.

Season: Typically, the trail is pretty melted out and the bridges are in place by mid- to late July. Before that, some stream crossings could prove problematic, and the route should be reserved for adventurous and experienced wilderness travelers. Be prepared for fall's rain and high-country snow at any moment. Call Mt. Rainier National Park for backcountry information.

Permits: Camping permits are required and free without reservation from the park's hiker center in Longmire. Or, pay $20 to reserve your campsites in advance (a good idea during high-use season if you know where you want to camp). If you haven't reserved, be prepared to accept alternate sites.

Guides: The trail is so well signed that you really don't need any map other than the free mileage handout that comes with your permit. But carry a topo map, both for safety and to better understand the features around you. Waterproof maps are available from Trails Illustrated (#217; 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95) and from EarthWalk Press (800-828-6277; $3.95 paper, $7.95 waterproof). Fifty Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (Mountaineers Books, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineersbooks.org; $14.95) offers plenty of info. Yours truly is writing the text for a coffee-table book on Mt. Rainier, featuring the photographs of James Martin, to be published in 2001 (Sasquatch Books, 800-775-0817; www.

sasquatchbooks.com).

Contact: The Mt. Rainier National Park hiker center in Longmire, (360) 569-HIKE (360-569-2211 in winter); www.nps.gov/mora/home.htm.