12 September 2008

Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier - Aug08

One of the potential downsides to completing a season's "A" race, is the anticlimactic void that can occur once it is over. You spend a lot of physical and mental energy on the Big Event, and if you have nothing to focus on afterwards, you can drift a fair bit.

So, not wanting that to happen, and also because summer is the best time to get out in the PacNW, it was with great enthusiasm that I took up an offer from my pals Sue and Chris to join them on a circumnavigation of Mt. Rainer on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail over three days. Chris was up for a business trip to Seattle, so it was a prefect chance to spend some trail time with my friends from California. The idea was for Sue and I to run segments of the trail, with Chris driving ahead and setting up camp for the night; repeat for three days. Additionally, since I had signed up for my first multi-day stage run at the MOOSE, this would be a perfect opportunity to try out some food, gear, and pacing in a similar format (though the MOOSE staff wouldn't wear the funny hats that Chris does...)

After a loooong drive through border lineups, downtown Seattle at rush hour (had to drop by the nuun offices to say hi), and then some navigational challenges on the way, I finally met up with Sue and Chris at Cougar Rock campsite near our start point of Longmire. I barely had time to scarf a sandwich and down a fabulous Pyramid Thunderhead IPA before jumping into the tent for the night. And what a night - it RAI-HEY-HEY-HEY-NED like the dickens, playing along with our "summer" weather so far, and really giving a nice Pacific NorthWest welcome to the Californians in the crowd.

Day 1: Longmire to Mowich Lake - 10:03, 34.2 miles, 10390' ascent, 8390' descent

In the morning, after some quick oatmeal, packing up wet tents, and arranging supplies into one car, we ventured down to the Longmire Ranger Station to check in when they opened. The guys there were helpful and encouraging, and the trail conditions sounded like they would be OK for us. In the previous weeks, we were concerned about lingering snow conditions on the trail that would add to our challenge. The first hikers were able to get around just the previous week, although we would not be burdened with 60-lb packs, being lightweight- and fleet-of-foot ultrarunners ("they were wearing t-shirts and running shoes!").

And then it started to rain. Ah, the Wet Coast. We shuffled to the "Wonderland Trail" sign, gave a smooch to Chris (well, Sue did, but I declined) and with a quick wave, were off on the adventure. Once in the trees, the rain wasn't too bad, and the temperature was comfortable. We didn't feel in any hurry, but jogged along, taking in the forest sights and scents. We knew this was going to be a long day, based on the estimated mileage and also the trail profile between Longmire and our first camp at Mowich Lake.

We had our first little challenge within about five miles, as the trail ended at a cliff that resulted from a massive creek blowout that scoured a huge swath out of the forest. There was some incredible flooding in many areas here back in 2006 that caused an amazing amount of damage as creeks became rivers and eroded their banks or established new courses. The damage was evident in numerous places around the mountain. There was a vague trail off to the left, and we followed it, hoping it would end up somewhere a little more accessible than a sheer gravel face. Eventually, it did end up skirting down to the riverbed, where a path had been cleared through the rocks (who does that?) that led up to a log bridge over the actual water. This was to be a recurring scene in many areas, an indication that this geography is a dynamic, evolving landscape.

The trail followed a similar pattern through this first day, basically climbing a couple of thousand feet up to a ridge that formed as an arm off the mountain, traversed the top a bit, then dropped down to the next river valley. Repeat. The rain came and went through most of the day, and unfortunately embedded us in cloud/fog much of the time as well. The high pionts would generally get a bit cool as we were above treeline and exposed to the wind as well, but we soon warmed up as we descended into the trees again. There was no view of the mountain at any time whatsoever. We had occasional glimpses of rocky faces, but not the brilliant white peak you see in postcards. Eventually, however, the sun started poking out a bit, and by our last climb up to Mowich Lake, it was blue sky above us (though still no perspective on the mountain).

Chris had the tents set up to dry out, and met us with a bowl each of warm instant mashed potatoes. It was a nice way to end the day and stay warm before the chills set in. It was quite cool up at the campsite, and we were bundled up with almost everything we had. There was still a fair bit of snow around, but at least our tents were on the ground. We even had a glimpse of Rainier's white peak poking above a nearby hill - so there WAS a mountain there!

Day 2: Mowich Lake to White River - 7:34, 24.8 miles, 6850' asc, 7730' dec

It was mostly blue sky in the morning, but there were patchy clouds forming here and there in the higher elevations as the air crossed the ridges and peaks. It was also pretty cool out. Breakfast consisted of standard instant oatmeal, as well as some coffee that I insisted on making. Despite the fact that it was darned chilly, the lake was a very lovely campsite. We eventually found the trailhead somewhere on some snowbank, and carefully navigated our way over the crusty snow along a vague route between the lake and the road out. We kept seeing Chris in the car every once in a while - he looked like some stalker following us. We dropped a bit of elevation, and it became noticeably warmer. For our route today, we elected to follow the true Wonderland Trail through Ipsut Pass down to the Carbon River, rather than the alternative Spray Park section through the highlands.

Ipsut Pass was pretty cool - a sheer rock face that dropped into the valley below. We switchbacked down beneath the massive rock, and eventually popped onto a gorgeous, wide trail that descended and descended down through different vegetation zones all the way to the river valley at the bottom. Despite the pristine forest, we occassionally saw what we thought was old telegraph wire strung along some trees, with ceramic insulators. Maybe for old ranger stations or lookouts? We only saw these when we had a pee break - otherwise our eyes were mostly on the trail :-) I really enjoyed this section of trail, it was very beautiful, and quite fascinating seeing the trees change on the way down.

We then faced the longest climb of the entire route, heading up the Carbon River to the Carbon
Glacier, then traversing along at higher elevation after that. The glacier was fascinating, I have never really seen a glacier up close like this. It was totally covered in rocks and gravel that it had scraped away on its journey down the valley, and Sue and I stopped for a little bit to watch some rocks falling off the side (never the "big ones", though). Erosion happens!

As we climbed, we entered into a fog belt that unfortunately, we never left for the rest of the day's run. It didn't rain, but the cloud was cool, and got extremely thick at some points, severely limiting our visibility. So, once again, we didn't see the main mountain at all! This section sure had some fascinating geology, though. We went across on area that reminded me of Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings: fog, all rock and gravel, scrub trees, and occasional tufts of greenery. I am sure it would be a spectacular area on a clear day.

There were more hikers that we encountered as we approached the trails close to the Sunrise lodge and camping area - it was such a contract to being out in the wilderness all alone, and suddenly being near crowds of people. We skirted by them, and fortunately turned away from the main routes they were on.

We rounded a corner with a tree, and I was surprised to see Chris standing there! He was freezing in the fog, and chastised us in a good-natured way for taking so damned long. He had driven up from the campsite in the valley bottom, and now it was left to be seen who would get back down first - Chris in the car, or us running. It didn't seem much of a contest, as we got there well ahead of Chris. So much before him, in fact, that Sue had to wrap herself in the tent fly to keep warm since he had all the clothing in the car. It wasn't a big deal, and Chris was quick to make up some more mashed potatoes for us once he got there. What a guy.

We got some firewood and had a dandy campfire that night. As we were huddling around keeping warm, I had the idea to warm up a jar of Nutella close to the fire. Yummy - but how to eat it? Ah ha! How about a banana in the molten Nutella? And a new campfire treat was invented!

Day 3: White River to Longmire - 8:43, 30.7 miles, 6590' ascent, 8050' descent

Sun!! Wow, finally, we awoke to clear, blue skies. And good thing, too - this proved to be the most fantastic scenery of the tour (well, considering we didn't see anything the previous days) since were at high elevation above treeline for most of it, including reaching the high point of the loop at Panhandle Gap between Summerland and Indian Bar camps. I loooove alpine areas like this, with the flowers, the rocks, the stunted trees, and the views. All day we had the peak of the mountain above us and to the right, it was spectacular. We tried to spot some climbers heading up, but couldn't see any. Sue had climbed and summitted the mountain in the couple of days preceding our running loop - so she went up and around the whole mountain in the time she was there. (actually, it probably equalised our legs: her with the summit climb, and me just two weeks after Hardrock and still a bit rubbery).

The view when we crossed Panhandle Gap was amazing - up to now, we had views of local valleys nearby, but this high point provided a view south to Mt St Helens and Mt Hood, with all the rolling peaks in between. Wow. The trail crossed a number of snowfields through this section, before dropping down a bit through some amazing wildflowers. It was really one of the most spectacular bits of trail I have been on.

We dropped into the trees and passed the Indian Bar campsite before climbing back up to another ridge. [Note to anyone doing this section: get water at Indian Bar, it is dry all the way to the next camp towards Box Canyon!] We ran along the undulating ridge for miles, and could occasionally see in the distance to the west where we would eventually be headed. We stopped and talked to a couple of hikers sitting on a log who asked us if we had seen the bear just back from where we had come. Nope. We went back with them, but no bear. Too bad, it would have made Sue's trip complete and maybe would have stopped her whining "I want to see a bear! I want to see a bear". Jeesh - tourists. She would have to be happy with a marmot.

The trail went down, down, down.....down from there towards the highway and Box Canyon. Chris had parked there and climbed up a bit to meet us. It was kind of disappointing coming out onto the highway, we could smell the exhaust and cigarette smoke well up the trail before we came out. There was a parking area for people to check out Box canyon, and most of those who did were huge tubs of lard. Yuk. Anyways, we ate some Cheetos and got more water before heading off from Chris again, this time to unfortunately go along 4.5 miles of highway: there was a slide on the real trail that made it impassable, so we were forced to take this detour. We actually saw the slide section and some people working on it - it apparently opened a few days later. The road section was dull and hot, but we did have some entertainment when we were able to take some pictures of us in a big front-end loader parked beside the road (it is a "heavy equipment" joke amongst C4P scrub runners).

The trail got a bit funky to follow up at the pass near some nice lakes by the road, there were some more short road section as well as snow that covered the trail, so it wasn't always clear where it went. Eventually we found it when it dropped down over the valley on the other side and dropped towards Longmire. It was mostly a cruising downhill towards the end. Chris met us at one point for some photos, and then we continued the last couple of miles to the end. Best of all, Chris had packed a cooler with some snow and embedded a couple of beer in there, so we had a crisp cool one to end the run with.

We had dinner at a local restaurant, of which the highlight was watching the lone waitress frantically deal with a sudden rush of people that filled the place - she was totally freaking out. Good thing we got there a bit early and at least had our food, although I had to get going home and leave Chris and Sue to deal with the bill whenever it eventually showed up.

It was an awesome trip and a really enjoyable route. I have wanted to do the WT for some time, and it was a real pleasure to be able to run it with Sue and have Chris meet us at the campsites and occasionally along the route. Thanks for having me along, guys! Next time, maybe just one day to do it all? ;-)

Total time: 27:23
Total climb: 23840'

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