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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.

AUGUST 2007

On a forested canyon wall high above Stevens Creek, the Wonderland Trail disappears abruptly in front of us. Beyond its ragged edge stretches a sun-baked scar where a landslide ripped loose several thousand tons of earth. One hundred-fifty feet wide, it runs for hundreds of feet down to the creek. The steeply pitched minefield of crumbling dirt and rocks doesn’t look stable enough to hold even a squirrel’s weight.

This gap is one of the reasons the Wonderland, for the first time since its completion in 1915, would not be open to thru-hiking for an entire season. (It reopened near the end of summer 2008.) It’s also the reason wilderness rangers strongly discouraged my group from backpacking through here–and why we came, anyway, to view the devastation up close.

Crossing the landslide would be suicide; our only option is bushwhacking uphill around it. Willie Ehrenclou, a 27-year-old field coordinator for the massive recovery project launched by the Student Conservation Association, grabs branches and scrabbles up the steep slope, plunging into the thicket above. I follow with BACKPACKER associate editor Shannon Davis and my friend Bill Mistretta from Colorado.

Virtually every step is an effort somewhere between wrestling and rock climbing. We haul ourselves through vine maple, slide alder, and devil’s club, branches whipping our legs and snagging our packs. Within minutes, I’m panting and sweat drips into my eyes. I can hear Willie just ahead of me, but I can’t see him through the brush. At a gully, we nervously downclimb an eight-foot wall of dried mud; protruding rocks and sheared-off roots provide tenuous holds.

Twenty strenuous minutes later, we stand at the opposite end of the landslide, having covered a distance that would have taken a casual 30 seconds on trail. While it’s the biggest washout we’ll see on this three-day hike, it’s already the fourth we’ve encountered in our first hour this morning.

As our hearts return to a resting cadence, I think of something longtime trail foreman Carl Fabiani told me. "We’ve gone through so many 100-year floods in the last 20 years," he said, "that people are starting to rethink that rating system." Indeed, November 2006–a 400-year flood–was the third 100-plus-year event to hit the region in 11 years, following similar storms in 1995 and 2003. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other researchers now believe these floods will become a more common occurrence. Reaching the former site of Pyramid Creek Camp brings home–very starkly–the risk for backcountry hikers. On our second afternoon, we find its ruins 25 feet down a partly obliterated spur from the main trail. A short metal post and downed sign are the only evidence that backpackers once pitched tents here. The rest of the camp is buried beneath a rippled crust as hard as asphalt and a spaghetti heap of mud-caked trees, some two feet in diameter, their bark stripped off and roots jutting out like live wires from a severed power line. An ugly, dry furrow four feet deep and 10 feet wide marks where Pyramid Creek, after derailing from its channel a minute’s walk west of here, bulldozed through the camp.

I scramble onto a wobbly stack of lumber as tall as I am, and imagine lying in a tent as the wave of boulders and trees issued its roaring alarm seconds before obliterating the camp. No one was here when debris flows ripped through in 2005 and 2006. But judging by the destruction, no one would have survived.

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