By midafternoon, in the midst of our four-and-a-half-mile, three-thousand-foot climb from the Carbon River to our second night’s camp at Mystic Lake, the rain begins. This section of trail, destroyed in November 2006, has since been repaired. But the Carbon River Road has been abandoned as a lost battle.
Today, the Carbon River still flows down two miles of its eponymous road. In the evening, we sit around in Mystic camp as rain patters on the trees. Larry, who has been climbing Washington’s mountains for thirty years, tells us that the old Pacific Northwest climate regime—rainy for nine months but reliably sunny and mild from July through September—seems a thing of the past.
Gesturing toward our gloomy August sky, Larry says, “For several summers, it’s been much more erratic. Rain during summer. Erratic in winters, too.” It’s also been hotter. In a region where highs in the seventies were long the norm, a summer 2009 heat wave baked Seattle and Portland. The July 29, 2009, high of 103° F was the hottest temperature in Seattle since recordkeeping began in 1894. We awaken on our final morning to a surprise: no sound of rain on the tent. By the time we hit the trail, sunlight slashes through a disintegrating overcast, illuminating steam clouds rising from a forest reeking of humus and opportunistic fungi.
By midafternoon, we reach a pass at the apex of a two-thousand-foot climb. Before us spreads the sort of breathtaking scene that inspired the designation, in 1899, of Mount Rainier as America’s fifth national park. The Wonderland Trail meanders across a vast field sprayed with the colors of lupine, phlox, and pink mountain heather. Breaths of cool fog bob above Berkeley Park, a vibrantly green cirque below us.
What seems certain for Mount Rainier National Park’s future is greater uncertainty: bigger storms and roads, trails, and bridges washed out randomly. While park managers and workers do a magnificent job of maintaining the infrastructure, the surrender of the Carbon River Road shows that we cannot win every battle against nature—not when nature grows increasingly unpredictable and violent.
As much as anything, Rainier’s story illustrates how the impacts of climate change aren’t always gradual. Sometimes, overnight, they can leave a place in ruins.
Michael Lanza lives in Boise, ID. Find out more at thebigoutside.com.