Sunday, April 03, 2011


Wonderland Trail
Summerland to Nickel Creek

I crawled out of the tent into the coldest morning so far, somewhere around freezing, with the clouds filled back in, promising the thick mist Northwesterners call "rain". My ground pad isn't holding air anymore, which shouldn't surprise anyone, as I've had the thing since 2004. I put down some brush under the tent last night to help insulate my sleeping body. Bag gets rolled, incidentals go in the incidentals bag, eat my protein bar, then down tent and up onto the stepped climb to Fryingpan. The visibility declined, making the climb feel more episodic, as you could never quite see where the pass was, and every climb felt like the last. I passed though krummholtz meadow, ice lakes all around, and then up a glacier so large I couldn't see either side in the middle of it. In the middle of the glacier crossing I heard falling rock above me. If I dodged or moved quickly I would certainly slip down the glacier and crash into the rocks three hundred feet below. I heard the fall and stopped, looking around, putting all my faith in the low probabilities of a rock passing through the same space I currently occupied. It passed ten yards behind me.
I started to learn some basics on moving around on ice. Without crampons, it's vital to keep both poles on the ice while stepping. Don't pivot on your feet. Don't stay in one place too long or else the ice melts under your feet and spills you. Above all, speed doesn't win here. Crampons are a definite buy for the High Sierra.
After a final ice crossing I crested Fryingpan gap and began the steady drop into the cirque and the Indian Bar campsite. I was passed by a Northwestern Fitness Leprechaun, who mentioned that the conditions were "borderline". Good to know. "You'll be alright, though, guy like you, in your, what, mid-forties?". I smiled sadly at him. He laughed apologetically, and I paced him to Indian Bar. Goddamn fitness leprechauns. The guy was running down the mountain and was older than my dad was when he died.
Indian Bar is one of the prettiest spots on the trail, at least in those conditions, just below the cloud ceiling, so that the floor of the cirque could be seen for a few hundred feet before rearing into the clouds. It had a shelter, which allowed me to cook a hot lunch for myself and relax. The fitness leprechaun zoomed ahead to meet a friend at the Steve's Canyon road crossing. He was replaced with a squad of Microsoft guys trying to do the Wonderland in a four day weekend. They were hoofing twenty five mile days and suffering from a kaleidoscope of muscle and joint trauma. I handed out ibuprofen, moleskin, and duct tape, it being my turn to be the medic. They thanked me and set out for White River.
I wondered if I could do such a feat. I probably wouldn't unless I lived up here. Pulling a twenty on this sort of trail would involve shutting down a lot of sensory input. Mp3 player would be going, pounding trail. For a flatlander like me, though, the fact that I would probably never come this way again meant I needed to savor this. Every moment. Especially this Mountain House Lasagna.
I packed up and girded myself for the climb out of Indian Bar, which I had read was pretty strong. Strong it was, but afterwards came a very un-Wonderland section of ups and downs following an unnamed connecting ridge to Bald Rock, before the plunge down to what would be my final campsite on the trail at Nickel Creek. Goodbye to the high country..
The weather was definitely determined to clear. Several times folks said to me, "Florida! Wow, what are you doing out here? Enjoying our October?" My weather research had not been wrong then. This was weird weather for the mountain in early September. Several rangers were worried about the late spring combined with an early winter, and its effects on wildlife. I was worried I wouldn't get to see the mountain again.
I set my tent up at Nickel and went to the relatively bug-free drafty area by the creek. I ate much of the rest of my provisions, and thought, and ate some more. I tuned into the water noise and got to hear what sounded like a bluegrass concert. I was convinced there was a big party somewhere down river. But of course it was just the mountain talking. There must be a way in life to make sure as many moments like this happen as possible, but I don't know what it is.

Sunrise Cleaners

Wonderland Trail
Sunrise to Summerland

The landscape yesterday had been dazzling even in the gloom, white sheaths of ice on grey rock, piercing drafts of wind and water punching us walkers roaming the waste. I dropped from a high pass to a meadow, then climbed again to a gravel lot that marked the end of the Sunrise-Longmire road. Somewhere on that road was a food drop and perhaps some shelter; I had heard already that the snack bar was closed for the season, so I had gotten over the fact that there would be no trail hamburgers this trip out. I legged it down the road. The reputed vistas of the Sunrise area were hiding behind the more or less constant drizzling overcast, and I wasn't totally sure that I hadn't missed the Wilderness Information Center and my food drop. I had passed a loud generator sound, and I hoped that wasn't it. A pickup came up and I flagged it down.
"Afternoon. Is the WIC down this way or did I pass it?"
""Nope, just a mile or so down the way. You gettin' off?"
I smiled and shook my head, "I think it's going to be faster just walking back to Longmire."
This was a bit of a lie. If I couldn't dry my bag out at Sunrise I would be seriously thinking about getting out. The weather forecast had proven less than accurate, and the hypothermic adventure at Mystic had frightened me and left me a little nauseated. It would, however, be disheartening, and besides, what better place is there to be than freezing and soggy on Mt. Rainier?
Lots of places, it turned out. The rangers at the WIC let me dry and warm myself as long as I cared to. I feasted on some canned treats in my food drop, and met some outrageously funny prison guards out for a stroll.
"You sure you don't want to come down with us?"
I reaffirmed my commitment to walk out, and parked myself in the sheltered area outside the men's room to wait out the heavier rain. It would be my last temptation to get off the mountain, but it was a good temptation. I'm pretty sure I would have had a blast with those guys.
Another duo of hikers were bound and determined to camp out in the dry and heated men's room, which was tacitly approved by a WIC staffer. "No one ever checks in here at night". Wink. The pair were unloading their food drops on the diaper change table, which was sort of a decider for me. Sure, I might get a little soggier in my Shires Contrail, but I would have less of a chance of getting some horrifying parasite. At the Sunrise camp I chatted with a gregarious trekker who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my favorite former co-workers, Keith Fulsom. I had my ego battered for a bit, not unpleasantly so, by the awesome fitness level and general woodsiness of Northwesterners. Not the first time or last time that happened either.
The journey from Sunrise to Summerland tantalized with its constant promise of a break in the weather. I got some good views down into the White River area, and gazed ahead at the Goat Island prominence. The trail descended through White River camp- two road crossings in two days!- and went around Goat Island on a gentle grade, then up Fryingpan Creek on what has become a sort of trademark Wonderland grade. Steep enough to make you go deep inside yourself, but not so rugged that you become frustrated.
Summerland had better cell reception than I get at home, incidentally. I took advantage of it to call the wife and relate the details of the trip so far. The summerland shelter was booked solid, but the folks there were happy and bundled in several dozen flocks' worth of down. I was reminded again that I might have some genetic factor for dealing with cold. "Did you bring anything besides rain gear?" Some, yeah, but the sleeping bag does the heavy insulation. With rain gear inside your bag, you can stay toasty indeed.
That night the clouds almost parted, showing a glacial climb ahead, full of ice crossings and high passes. I can't imagine what this place looks like then the weather's good.
The chipmunks have suddenly become insane. It's a hilarious task kicking them out of your tent while you're trying to roll up your sleeping bag while trying to avoid the thick web of condensation on the inside of the tent. They will steal food from your beard if you leave any there. Brass little bastards.