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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.

Damage Assessment
How big a hit did Rainier take in the November 2006 tempest? How will it fare in the future? From top to bottom, here’s a complete report card.

The Climbs
Rainier’s higher elevations escaped the storm’s fury and won’t see much change in the foreseeable future. But mountaineers are already coping with climate-induced changes lower on The Mountain. In 2007, collapsing snow bridges, gaping crevasses, and increased rockfall chased climbers off the popular Disappointment Cleaver route and onto an Emmons Glacier detour by midsummer. Climbing ranger Mike Gauthier says that’s the earliest he can remember in 19 years on the peak. Other Rainier vets agree there’s less snow, and the Inter Glacier , the main avenue to Camp Schurman, is a half-mile shorter than 50 years ago.

The Glaciers
The University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group forecasts a 1°F increase in regional temperatures in the next 20 years, equal to the entire gain of the past century. This means the Northwest’s glaciers will continue to shrink. Satellite photos show Rainier’s Nisqually , Winthrop, Tahoma, South Tahoma, and Carbon Glaciers at or approaching their historic minimum size; the Nisqually alone has retreated more than a half-mile since 1936. A sliver of good news: The tipping point may be far away. Scientists think Rainier’s elevation will preserve glaciers on its upper flanks for the foreseeable future, and some believe a climate change-induced increase in precipitation could help some glaciers grow.

The Forests
Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks contain the last temperate old-growth forests in the Lower 48, with trees up to 1,000 years old and more than 200 feet tall. But rising riverbeds threaten these forests. The White River’s bed has risen enough to begin suffocating acres of ancient Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock. The Ohanapecosh River flooded during the 2006 storm, depositing three to four feet of silt in the Grove of the Patriarchs.

The Guides
Business for climbing guides on Rainier has been good in part because the Nisqually River Road has been a dependable artery to Paradise , the gateway for the mountain’s most popular routes. So it was with some concern that Peter Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., watched trucks rumble past his Ashford office carrying car-size boulders to rebuild the road. The Nisqually’s bed sits higher than the pavement in places, and park officials expect challenges keeping the road open. Says Whittaker, who has summited Rainier more than 200 times, “We hope we can maintain that road, [but] we may be fighting a losing battle.”

The Meadows
Covering nearly a quarter of the park, Rainier’s subalpine meadows are a major draw. But trees are now growing in areas at Paradise that have been open for more than a century. And a 1996 study concluded that warmer summers will encourage additional growth in west-side meadows like Spray Park, where snow cover is deep and melts off more slowly because of the cooler, northerly exposure.

The Campsites
Before 2005, there hadn’t been a lahar on Pyramid Creek in the park’s recorded history. But on September 30, five inches of rain fell, and a debris flow–one of four on Rainier that day–wiped out two tent sites at Pyramid Creek Camp , located along the Wonderland Trail in the southern tier of the park. A November 2006 lahar finished off the camp. No other backcountry camps have seen such catastrophic damage–yet. But rangers now warn backpackers to run like hell uphill if they hear the sound of a train approaching near any creek or river: It could be a lahar.

The Wonderland Trail
For almost two years, backpackers could not thru-hike this classic circumambulation because of washouts in Stevens Canyon (150 feet of trail gone) and along the Carbon River (1,500 to 2,000 feet of trail). The Stevens Canyon section reopened in August 2008, but hikers are still using a reroute around the Carbon. Of course, the storm didn’t just hit the Wonderland: Wilderness permits dropped to 2,195 in 2007 due to limited access, down about 1,200 from an average year. Thanks to park and volunteer trail crews, 2008’s numbers rebounded to 4,135 permits.

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