It started out with a mistake on my part. I got a call from Bloodworks Northwest on Tuesday asking me to donate blood. I made an appointment for the following evening and a couple minutes after I got off the phone I remembered Barb and I were going to go hiking on Mount Rainer over the weekend. Rats! I’m going to be hiking up mountains at high altitudes while a pint low on blood. It figures. I did the same thing when we went to Yosemite a couple years ago.
Mount Rainier is not Yosemite (see also here), but it has some stunning views of its own. There is a lot of area of potential interest there:
We had some tentative plans for hikes but weren’t certain if the areas we were most interested in would be open. Some descriptions we had read said, “Open in July…” But we thought maybe since it was an early spring this year we could go there anyway. What does it mean “open” anyway? It wasn’t that far off the main road which we knew was open. Was the trail snow covered or maybe just typically muddy until June or July?
The first place we wanted to go was the short hike from Sunrise Visitor Center to Dege Peak (cropped version of the map above):
It’s a little over a mile one way with a 600 foot elevation gain. We chose this one because we didn’t want to go on a long hike the first day and then be sore for the following days. We arrived the park entrance near the road to Sunrise and were told the road to Sunrise was closed. “They are still working on the road.”, the ranger said.
Hmm… okay. As we drove on we thought maybe we could just walk up the road to Sunrise. But that plan was nixed when we saw the sign that said it was ten miles to the visitor center from the blocked entrance to the road. We drove on to White River Campground to take a different hike. While getting ready to go I looked at the map and realized that from White River to Sunrise was only about a mile as the crow flies and there was a trail. We can still walk to Sunrise and then on to Dege Peak!
The were some squiggly lines in the trail so it was a little more than a mile but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal and we still get to see Dege Peak. We neglected to pay attention to the elevation gain between White River and Sunrise. It’s 2000 feet.
This is what the area looks like from the air (via Bing Maps):
We had zero cell phone signal and hence could not get this image from the web at the time.
When we were about half way up we saw some snow along the trail. It was sort of cute and we thought it was fun to see snow this time of year:
For a while we took pictures every time we saw snow:
About three fourths of the way up the hill another couple, who had passed us on the way up, were coming back down and we asked how far to the top. They said they had just turned around because there was a waterfall you had to cross and the water was too deep for them to cross safely. We chatted with them for quite a while. They told us they were breaking cobwebs quite a bit of the time and were pretty sure we were the first people up the hillside in quite a while. It made sense with the trail being blocked by the waterfall. Other people familiar with area would know about this and not attempt the hike this time of year.
We were disappointed but decided to continue on to at least see the waterfall. We went on to the waterfall which was quite nice:
As we looked at the crossing it didn’t really seem to be that much of a challenge and I was able to get over it in just one step. I held Barb’s hand as she, with her long legs, easily stepped over it as well:
What’s the big deal? There are two flat rocks on either side and it wasn’t even that big of a step from one to the other.
As we continued on it occurred to me, and I shared with Barb, that if the water flow increased from the day getting warmer the water might dramatically increase. It would be possible that we would have to wait for evening, the temperature to fall, and the water flow to decrease. I brought beef jerky, pecans, two emergency blankets, two flashlights, and two liters of drinking water. It might be boring and uncomfortable but we could make it if things turned bad. We continued on.
At the higher elevations and the continuing stress of walking up the hill we had to take frequent rest breaks. And we moved slow when we were moving. After a while I would feel my legs get tingly as I pushed a little harder. I recognized that tingle. I hadn’t felt it in forty years but it was unmistakable. When I was in high school I ran the 440 yard event in track. It’s not quite an endurance event and it’s a bit long to call a sprint. I would feel that tingle near the end of the race as the oxygen in my system was nearing total depletion. I knew what came next. Next would be numbness in the legs, then the legs would get weak, then they would barely respond to my insistence they continue moving, then my vision would narrow and I would black out. That is how I came to carry dirt from the Clarkston High School track in my right knee for several decades. We stopped to rest whenever my legs started to tingle but we continued up the mountain.
The fog started to break and we caught glimpses of the mountains across the valley:
Some were almost mystical and we were quite pleased with ourselves for making it far enough to see these views:
But the path was steep and we started seeing more and more snow on the trail:
At times we had to look for the trail on the other side of the snow to make sure we were headed in the right direction as we trudged through the compact snow on up the mountain.
I was starting to become concerned. Our family just knew we were “going to Mount Rainier for the weekend”. Except for that one couple we met on the trail no one knew where we might be. Although there were lots of cars at the bottom of the hill at White River Campground there was no one else on “our” trail. They had apparently all gone in different directions from us. But we had no cell service so we couldn’t tell anyone where we were at.
Three hours after we started up the hill we reached conclusive proof we were headed in the correct direction:
At this point we occasionally had hints of cell service and I exchanged text messages with my oldest child:
Joe (3:02 PM): In case we don’t check back in by 8:00 Barb and I are on Mt. Rainier almost to Sunrise from White River Campground. We are headed to Dege Peak then back the same way. Lots of snow not much signal.
Jamie (3:05 PM): Ok, have fun!
But the trail was increasingly difficult to find in the occasional bare patches of visible ground:
But the views became more and more stunning:
We pushed on through the snow:
And made it to Sunrise:
The parking lot was completely empty. We had the place entirely to ourselves:
One of the things we like about going hiking is getting away from people. But frequently the trails in the Seattle area are crowded. You don’t really get away from people. This time we succeeded!
I exchanged more text messages with Jamie (who doesn’t think hiking in the woods maps into any version of fun of which he is aware of):
Joe (3:39 PM): We made it to Sunrise. Going to the trail to Dege Peak to check for snow. Stunning views from here.
Having fun! Wish you were here.
Joe (3:42 PM): Deep snow. Not going to Dege Peak. We are here alone. No recent tracks in the snow.
Jamie (3:43 PM): Sounds like a good plan not going.
Here is the trail to Dege Peak:
We decided maybe we would try again in July or August.
We walked around the buildings some and dumped our trash:
Hmmm… Bear country. All I had with me was a 9mm handgun. It had 147 grain bullets in two 15 rounds magazines. The bullets should penetrate well enough in a man sized target but a large bear would require excellent shot placement to get its attention.
We didn’t stay long. Our bodies hurt. It was 3.1 miles up the hill with a 2000 foot elevation gain with packs on. Barb claims my pack weighed 60 pounds but after I got home I weighed it with approximately the same contents and it came in at about 15 pounds. But still we knew we had pushed things further than we should have and we were only half done with the hike. At least it was mostly downhill from here.
We started back about 3:45 and as the views and the trail improved our spirits did too:
My holster and gun weren’t getting along so well with my pack and I stopped to take off the gun and holster. As I did so Barb thought she saw a bear. She wasn’t quite sure and from my position several feet away I saw nothing. Instead of putting my gun and holster in my pack I carried the gun in the holster for the next half hour or so without seeing any bear or prints in the snow.
Hmm.. I don’t remember this view on the way up. It must have been fogged in when we went by (taken at 4:22 PM):
I really don’t remember this bank of snow. And there aren’t any footprints. It must have melted rapidly while we were gone:
A little while after this there was a small tree across the trail. It must have fell after we came through here. I dragged it off to one side.
We walked further and there was larger tree across the trail. One end was much lower than the other and we easily stepped over it. We didn’t remember that either. It didn’t look like it was a recent fall, but I suppose it could have been.
We walked further still. Barb was in the lead and went around a corner and stopped and told me, “That definitely wasn’t there. We must have taken a different trail.” I took a few more steps to see what she was looking at and could tell just by looking at the trail it was different. It was basically solid rock with a step ledge going down to the left. And to top it off another fallen tree, this one much larger with branches almost completely blocking the trail confirmed Barb’s assessment.
I fired up my Windows Phone app, “As the crow flies” and had the GPS show our position. The downloaded maps showed the road for Sunrise and Frozen Lake (see the second image from the top in this post). We were about 90% of the way from Sunrise to Frozen Lake. Our path down the mountain was less than 50% of that distance. We had to go back and find “our” trail.
We reassured ourselves. We had cell coverage at Sunrise. We shouldn’t have any problem finding our way back there. If we had to we could call 911 and ask for a ride from there. We could even walk part (or all ten miles) out and ask for a ride to our car at White River Campground. It would be embarrassing and maybe painful to walk that far but we weren’t in any real danger.
We started back toward Sunrise and when we got to the snow covered part of the trail I instructed Barb to keep following our tracks back and I went down the mountain far enough to be on or at least see bare dirt the entire way. If there was trail down the mountain I would be certain to intercept it.
The map indicated the junction was near a stream. After we crossed a small stream and we still didn’t see the trail we stopped to look at the map and consult my phone app. Barb didn’t like me looking at the map. “What do you think we should be doing instead?”, I asked. “I think we should walk faster.”, was her response.
This wasn’t good. Barb was getting a little too stressed over this. I was concerned but was determined to figure my way out of our situation. Barb was feeling a much different impulse. I put away the map and continued traversing the lower ground parallel to Barb retracing our tracks. This let her keep moving and satisfy her impulse while continuing a plan that had to succeed. Soon we crossed over another stream. Much larger than the previous one. Maybe this was the one!
A little ways further and we found it. We had missed our sign pointing down the mountain:
Our stress was much relieved but it was now 4:53 PM. We had lost about an hour going in the wrong direction and coming back to find the correct trail. Our bodies hurt and we still had 2.6 miles to hike.
We headed down the mountain and were much more careful when we crossed the patches of snow.
When we got to the waterfall my fears of increased flow were confirmed but not catastrophically so:
The far rock now had a few inches of water over it. The near rock was mostly covered. We couldn’t cross with dry feet, but I didn’t care. I just wanted down the mountain and I didn’t want to walk back up the hill again. I crossed, took off my pack and held Barb’s hand as she, without hesitation, stepped through the water as well.
It took us another hour to reach our car. Six hours and over seven miles but it was without incident other than the whining we did about our aches and pains.
We starting driving and when we had bit of cell signal I asked Barb to send Jamie a text message:
Joe (6:13 PM): We made it out alive.
Jamie (7:01 PM): Ok, thanks for the update.