Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Enjoying Mount Rainier's West Side

Evening alpenglow at sunset on Mount Rainier from Emerald Ridge, Mount Rainier National Park, Cascade range, Washington, USA.
Mount Rainier from Emerald Ridge at sunset.
This image is of Mount Rainier at sunset from Emerald Ridge. The Tahoma Glacier has carved out a feature called the Sunset Amphitheater on this side of the volcano. It is my favorite side of the mountain due to its mix of rock and ice in such a wild and remote setting.

The story:

Yesterday I did a rather ambitious trip to Mount Rainier. I left home at 6:00 am, and would not return until nearly 1:00 am this morning.

I drove down to the West Side Road and hiked up the road 8 miles to St. Andrews Creek, then 2.6 miles up to Klapatche Park. Here I soaked up the sun for a few hours, having the place entirely to myself. Finally, I ventured 0.8 miles over to St. Andrews Park, where I lounged for about an hour and chatted with a few thru hikers. From there, I descended 3.2 miles to the South Puyallup River, and ascended 1.8 miles to the prow of Emerald Ridge for sunset.

I arrived a little later than hoped, but still in plenty of time for the evening show. What a fantastic place!

As soon as the final show was over, I hurriedly packed my gear for the descent of the Tahoma Creek trail in the dark. Earlier in the my trip, I spoke with a couple of hikers that had ascended the trail. They gave it a clean bill of health. No issues, no problems - easy going.

Mount Rainier from Emerald Ridge in evening light, Mount Rainier National Park, Cascade Range, Washington, USA.
Mount Rainier above meadows on Emerald Ridge.
This was not the case. This trail has changed much over the last few years with many more washouts. Though easy to follow with headlamp, the trail is tedious with many steep climbs over recent washouts. I honestly can't recommend this route to anyone any longer due to the length of time and effort to get up and over all these.

The climax of washouts was when nearly back to the road. I encountered the washout I had heard about from others, but heard rumor that WTA had fixed. This washout can't be fixed. The entire hillside collapsed, leaving a wall of rock in its place; a giant cliff that cannot be navigated around.

I soon realized the cairns had me crossing the river over a giant log, though I looked for all other options before committing. Once on the other side, three more cairns lead me along the river's far side, then ended. I spent over 1/2 an hour exploring all options. Soon I saw a headlamp ahead in the dark. I knew no one else was on the trail, so it must be coming from the road. It was less than 100 yards away. Frustrated, I again explored all options. I then weighed the terrain on the other side of the river where the trail should be, and realized aiming directly for it was the best option.

Evening light on Sunset Amphitheater and chaotic Tahoma Glacier on Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, Cascade Range, Washington, USA.
Sunset Amphitheater and the Tahoma Glacier on Mount Rainier.
There was no way to cross the river. So I decided to investigate fording it. The Tahoma is a raging torrent, for those that don't know. It has inflicted heavy damage along its route for a reason over the years. I wasn't crazy about the idea - crossing a dangerous river, in the dark, and alone. But I found a spot that seemed to minimize the dangers and stepped in. I found myself nearly knee deep. A second step had me knee deep. I probed ahead with my poles and grew confident the depth would not grow much deeper. A third step had me lower thigh deep and feeling the river's push. Two more steps and I was on dry ground, and more importantly, on trail!

With wet boots I walked the final mile of road back to my vehicle, arriving around 10:30 pm.

Total stats 21 miles round trip, elevation gain ~5,600'.