Monday, July 27, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 3: Glacier Basin

July 19, 2009

I awoke relatively early, grabbed a quick shower, then lightly bounced down to find Eric already starting to crank up breakfast. After a brief chat, I went to rouse the rest of my team. First Francesca (morning sunshine!!), then Jody ("{groan} wake me again after Francesca is done in the shower - zzz").

After breakfast Max entertained us with a little hula-hoop action, demonstrating how to do it doggie-style. He proved to be quite talented (far better than my skills at posting photos in a blog!).

Afterwards we said our goodbyes and made our way south then east to Rainier National Park, stopping briefly for some food (I still needed to get some bagels for my lunches), coffee, and a bathroom break. There we had a very interesting encounter with a WW2 veteran, Bob Boardman, and his daughter in the parking lot. He was handing out pamphlets about a short (but true) story he wrote. We got to talking a little about his history and experiences in the war. He was a Sherman tanker with the famed 1st Marine Division fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theater. He only spoke in a whisper as in 1945 he had been shot in the throat by a Japanese sniper, but survived the attack minus the use of his vocal cords. Being a WW2 history buff, I would have loved to have sat down with him for a few hours and asked him many more questions, but we had to get going. Still, it was a pleasure to have met him to begin with (I'll just have to pick up his book, Unforgettable Men in Unforgettable Times).

The day was bright, clear, very sunny and warm. Traffic was light for a midday Sunday. After and hour and a bit of driving, with whoops of joy from Jody and Francesca, we entered Mt Rainier National Park. A few minutes later we arrived at the entrance gate - only to be reminded that on this particular weekend the fees to enter were - FREE! For one unemployed adventuress (Francesca), one minimally paid academics student (Jody), and one moderately paid spacecraft guy (me), this made us all quite happy.

We pulled over at the ranger station in order to get info on the conditions of the glaciers, the routes (we were going to do the Emmons-Winthrop route on the northeast side of Rainier), and get our climbing permits ($30, good for the calendar year, not that any of us would probably be back before Dec 31st). There were a few people ahead of us, getting trail info for elsewhere in the park, so we occupied ourselves by reading the various notes, warning signs, and climbing conditions information board (left photo) in the office. From this latter I noticed that the upper portion of the Emmons-Winthrop route, above the Corridor, would be a rather different climb than where I had trod before. "...finish directly to Columbia Crest"? Sweet!

Soon we were able to speak with the ranger directly. Our plan (which would be slightly modified by reality later) was to head in to the Glacier Basin campground this afternoon from the White River Campground parking area and trailhead, a rise of 1700' in 3.1 miles. Then continue to Camp Schurman (3000' vertical gain over a horizontal distance of 2 miles - steep), take a break (bathroom, restock water, etc), and continue up another 300' vertical (and perhaps 0.1 or 0.2 miles horizontal) to the Emmons Flats for the high camp (at 9800', the highest established camp on this side of the mountain). Then do our summit bid, returning to our base/high camp, rest the night then hike out the next day. Sounded good on paper, and was written so by the ranger.

The ranger then noted for our information that three bears have been spotted recently around the Glacier Basin campground, and to make sure about hanging our food on the provided 15' tall bear poles. He regaled us with one story about how someone had hung their food up there, but had it hanging 4 feet lower from the rope, and the bears came by that night, did one swipe on the pinata-like bag, and feasted on the goodies that fell out. Right, no hanging food low! Oh. And don't feed them.

After getting all signed in, we headed off to the trailhead. Jody and Francesca were singing loudly to Queen songs, urging me to join in. But I, while trying not to be curmudgeonly, was feeling a bit more somber. The girls had nooooo idea what was before them. And while I had no doubts about our being able to get to the summit, having been on The Mountain three times before, the memories of how tough and challenging those climbs were came flooded back. No, singing wasn't something I felt like doing.

We arrived at the trailhead parking lot to find it packed solid with cars. in fact, the road leading up to it through the campground was stacked with cars on both sides! There were a LOT of people in the park this day! We drove around a bit, and decided to wait in the parking lot for someone to come out and leave. It was about 1:30p, and I knew from past experience that by this time of the day, there would be SOME climbers coming out! So we parked behind a few cars and started unloading our packs to do one final repack. Not 5 minutes later three climbers came strolling into the parking lot, looking like hell, but with big smiles on their faces. Four more followed behind them. Turned out they were all REI executives, elected officers, etc! Even the REI CEO, Sally Jewell, appeared 10 minutes later with two or three other people. They all had just had a successful summit on Rainier and were now heading home for seriously needed showers and clean clothes. One of the guys, seeing how we were parked (obviously waiting for someone to leave), immediately dropped his pack and moved his car so we could have a parking spot. Very cool! Jody zipped her truck in and we finished repacking and chatting with the REI high command. It's very cool to see an outdoor company's executive peoples out doing outdoor things like this! Sally graciously took our pre-climb photo before we headed in to do our climb.

Before we got underway, Jody wanted to check the weights of the packs. We each took a turn standing on one of her scales without the packs on (I clocked in at a big, fat 184 lbs), then with the packs on ( I tipped the scale at 255!). Subtracting the pre-pack weight gave us an idea of how much we were carrying. I had the most: 70 lbs. Jody had the least: 49 lbs. A 20 lbs difference between us! (Francesca's pack, iirc, weighed in somewhere in the 50-odd lbs range) I would spend the rest of the week puzzling through the gear I had to see where I could trim stuff down (while being constantly razzed about it by Jody and Francesca), but couldn't think to shave more than 5 lbs off of what I was already carrying. :-(

But enough of that. We still had a mountain to climb, and before that, the first stage of our trek to accomplish! It was getting on 3pm. Time to go!

In my past travels here, the Glacier Basin Trail was a VERY benign, level, flat, almost boring trail. Which is perfectly fine when carrying heavy packs. It allowed one to actually enjoy looking around at the scenery while heading in (or back out). However, a couple days ago Bob had warned us that a massive flood had coursed down the White River canyon, damaging and destroying large chunks of the trail. The new trail, marked with yellow "caution" flagging tape, now stumbled over boulders and logs and other debris (last time Bob was there was a winter 2008 hike up to the Inter Glacier and said it was quite challenging, even then). We would be fortunate in that the trail had been markedly improved since his hike, but it was still something more than flat and level. It now had, ummm...character. In the four accompanying photos, from left clockwise (too bad for you if you only know digital clock faces! :-D ) the upper left is Francesca is doing one of the first new water crossings, the upper right shows the trail to the left of the White River, the lower right is Jody and Francesca walking across one of the flood debris zones, and the lower left shows the old trail behind the "Danger" tape.

Periodically as we headed up the trail we could catch glimpses of Rainier poking over the trees. It was very white. And very large. Just as impressive looking the last few times I saw it from here. Onward we marched.

In the photo to the left, Rainier is (obviously) the main white-capped mountain. The two bumps to the right are Curtis Wall and Liberty Ridge. These latter are easily seen from Glacier Basin, not so Rainier itself.

Now, we were all-march and no enjoy. Along the way we took breaks, and stopped to smell (or photograph) the flowers. The trail, especially above 5,000', was just bursting with wildflowers. Made for some very colorful sections of trail.

Eventually as late afternoon came on we arrived at the Glacier Basin camp. There was a group in camp 1 (the group site) who turned out to be from Backpacking magazine. Tent sites 3 and 4 were also taken. Jody and Francesca did not want to be in Site 2 next to the Backpacking group so we took Site 5.

I then had to show them the Glacier Basin toilets. With the exception of Camp Schurman up on the mountain, this would be the last 'civilized' toilet they would see for a couple days. The rangers had given us "blue bags" for a reason. ;-). These were solar compost toilets. There were two, set well off the main trail, with a wooden blind in front of them. So if you approached them and saw someone sitting behind the blind (basically from the chest up), you knew the toilet(s) were occupied. But depending on the time of day, the surrounding trees might cast deep enough shadows to prevent one from being seen. So an adopted protocol would be to leave a cup or water bottle or some other purposefully placed item in the middle of the trail to the toilets. That let everyone know someone was there. Worked like a charm.

When we got to the toilets, memories of 7+ years ago flooded in again. Yep, things were the same, but...things were different. The trees...they grew! The view wasn't as tree-free as it once had been (the tree in the center of the photo left was a tiny sapling there 7 years ago). But still, what do you expect for a box in the woods?

We then set up the tent, and went further up the trail to drop down to the river to refill our water bottles for drinking and cooking. The late afternoon sun made for very contrasting shadows, but dramatic colors.

Looking up the trail, though, in the shadow of Burrows Mountain, I saw something that to my mind didn't look quite right. The bottom of the Inter Glacier, where we would be going up tomorrow, was...mostly rock. 7+ years ago this was mostly snow and ice. Holy crap. How much receeding has the glacier done?!? It made me wonder about conditions higher up the mountain. I tried to relay to my partners the changes I was seeing in the glacier before us, but failed miserably to get them to truly appreciate the magnitude of the melt. They appreciated that I saw a different from "back in the day", but had no real feel for the changes I was witnessing.

Back in camp we cooked up some dinner. Francesca got distracted with something while eating her mac-n-cheese and put it down for a moment. A few minutes later she came back to finish it and it...had cooled and congealed to a yellow sludge. "EWWWW!!!!" she cried. "You made it, you have to eat it!" laughed Jody. "EWWWWWWW!!!!!" she cried again. But somehow gulped it down.

While Jody and Francesca consulted the map for tomorrow's stage of the journey, I decided to go for another stroll up the trail, just to look at the basin and refill my water bottle one more time. I didn't need the map to know what was coming. I was already rather familiar with the way. ;-) While I was standing there in the open, admiring the deepening shadows, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye up the hillside to my right. I turned and stared at a light cinammon brown patch amongst the trees. Did it just move? Was it a brown and dead pine tree I hadn't noticed before? Rocking in the breeze? Then it shifted again, and there was a head - it was a bear!! I fumbled for my camera, but by the time I got it out, the bear had vanished into a clump of pines. I never saw it again.

I returned back to camp, elated I had now seen a full grown bear for the first time (from a nice, safe distance; saw a baby bear once from entirely too close a distance, but not the mother), but slightly bummed I couldn't even take a smudgy photo of it. Ah well. S'okay.

I told Jody and Francesca about the bear. Which reminded us that we needed to hang our food from the bear pole. Most of the other groups had done so already. But there was still room for our bags. However, it's not as easy as it looks. Try balancing your bag of food (which weighs a few pounds) at the end of a long pole, lift it and snag it to a protruding arm 15' overhead...not so easy!

It was getting on dark. The temperature was dropping, as were our eyelids. It was time for bed. Tomorrow we had a long day. 2 horizontal miles and 3000+' elevation gain. I remembered that slog painfully...


  1. What keeps a bear from knocking the pole itself over? Is it anchored into the ground with concrete or something like that?

  2. Yeah, something like that. Never asked, and the base of the pole was covered with rocks (see photos) which I didn't think to uncover. So guessing there's a concrete plug in the ground for the pole.