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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

The Changing Mountain

The following is adapted from Northwest editor Michael Lanzas new book, Before Theyre Gone: A Familys Year-Long Quest to Explore Americas Most Endangered National Parks ($24.95,,

by: Michael Lanza (story and photos)

A waterfall on the Wonderland Trail
A waterfall on the Wonderland Trail
A mist hangs low on the Wonderland Trail in Berkeley Park
A mist hangs low on the Wonderland Trail in Berkeley Park
Nate descends the Wonderland Trail
Nate descends the Wonderland Trail
Nate on Carbon River Bridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Nate on Carbon River Bridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Nate and Penny hike through the Carbon River Valley
Nate and Penny hike through the Carbon River Valley

Now, several years after that 2003 trip, I have returned to hike that same trail with my family.
Joined by a Seattle-area friend, Larry Gies, my wife, Penny, and I have embarked with our nine-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex, on a three-day, twenty-four-mile backpacking trip from Mowich Lake to Sunrise, across the northern flanks of The Mountain, as western Washington residents affectionately call Rainier.

On our first afternoon, we cross the sprawling alpine meadows of Spray Park at 6,000 feet above sea level, where lupine, bear grass, pink monkeyflower, and other wildflowers, just now blooming, create a mosaic of deep-blue, yellow, white, pink, and purple against a backdrop of Rainier’s blinding snow and ice, rising 8,000 feet above us. Even in the first week of August, we come upon long tongues of snow left over from winter and spring, which the kids and I run up and “ski” down.
But just as I did on that drenching solo hike several years ago, we start out in sunshine but walk into rain.

By our second morning, in fact, the clouds have come to us. As we depart Cataract Camp and start hiking toward the Carbon River, fog inundates the treetops—water floating on air like ice on a pond, entrapping us below the surface.
We follow the Wonderland Trail to the Carbon River, which we must cross on a bouncy, 200-foot-long suspension bridge. A sign warns, “One person on bridge at a time” and “Do not bounce or shake bridge!” Nate eagerly strides over it first, followed by Penny. Alex and I will walk it together.

Alex stares at the bridge in silence. Then she says, in an apparent attempt to comfort one of us, “I don’t think you’ll fall into that river.”
“You don’t think so?” I ask. “Why not?”
She points toward the raging white water. “Well, you see that waterfall there? Can you imagine yourself going over it?”
“I’d rather not imagine that,” I admit.
“Well, if you can’t imagine it, then it probably won’t happen!” she says, raising both palms upturned in the universal sign for “Duh!”

I look at the Carbon River. The swirling, gray waters resemble very liquid cement more than they do a mountain stream. That muddiness comes from “glacial flour,” the fine silt from stone ground up by glaciers. Like every waterway originating in a glacier on this volcano, the Carbon hauls truckloads of The Mountain downstream every hour of every day, year after year.

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