Mt. Rainier is a hulking mass of ice and rock rising 14,410 feet into the sky. But recent weather patterns are carving it away, not gradually but in violent fits and starts. Our Northwest Editor takes his kids to see the peak he loves before its unrecognizable.
“There’s absolutely no one out here,” I thought. It was October 2003 and I was taking a solo, three-day hike around Mt. Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop. Even in the wilderness of many national parks, seeing absolutely no one for days—conjuring a sense of this country’s wild edge before western settlement—is a rare gift. But for two clear, crisp autumn days I had the jaw-unhinging views of Mount Rainier and its meadows all to myself. Then the rain came.
Throughout my second night, wind and water lashed at my shivering tent. In the morning, I set out in a downpour punctuated by wind-borne sheets of water that hit me as if hurled from a barrel. I crossed a slick log bridge over a creek so bloated that its white teeth gnashed at the ten-inch-wide platform beneath my boots. Had I gotten there an hour later, the bridge might have been gone.
I hurried the miles to my car, anxious to be dry—not knowing that this would become the second of three storms within just eleven years to cause 100-year or bigger floods in the Pacific Northwest. Or that the third tempest of that triad, in November 2006, would cause record flooding that would erase a huge swath of the trail I was hiking and the road I would drive out on. These were part of series of storms and floods in recent years that have redefined “normal” in this part of the country, alarming climatologists, park managers, and people living downstream of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest mountain.