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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.


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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