Backpacking The Northern Loop in Mt. Rainier – Beauty and Danger Intermingled (pt 1)

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Last summer while visiting the Pacific Coast with my kids, I found the Pacific Northwest so beautiful that I decided to go back and do some backpacking. So early September a year later my 15 year old son and I flew to Seattle to hike the Northern Loop Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park. The Northern Loop covers nearly 40 miles in the northern and most remote section of the park and is considered strenuous with an elevation gain of ~9000 feet.

It is a steeply up, steeply down trail with little in the way of flat. So I spent the summer exercising and lightening my backpacking gear to prepare for the trip. I also frequented the weather report leading up to the trip. The last report predicted cool temps with some chance of rain the first two days of the hike and sunny and warmer the last two days. I was happy and felt prepared. And yet…Mount Rainier is a mammoth mountain sitting near the Pacific coast. They say the mountain makes it’s own weather.

Turns out, they are right.

We left Seattle early Thursday and drove the scenic two hours to the Sunrise Visitor Center in the Park loading up on major fast food breakfast calories on the way.  Sunrise is at 6400 feet and when we stopped at the White River Ranger station to pick up our backpacking permits we discovered it was quite cold. We parked at Sunrise and started our hike with our fleeces on, but with blue sky above us we were fresh and ready. There was a bit of snow left from previous days storms and I snapped pictures of Nathan hiking…thinking (naively) that it would be the only snow we saw! It was the only day we could actually see Mt. Rainier.

We climbed Sourdough Ridge and followed it for a couple miles until we began our descent into Berkeley Park, a beautiful valley full of tall pines and creeks. We realized as we were snacking by a creek that Nathan has left his gloves up on the ridge when he had taken a pee break. We didn’t have time to hike uphill two miles to find them and we were bummed knowing it would be cold that night. But amazingly a group of hikers had picked them up and gave them to us about a mile later. We didn’t yet know how much he was going to need them, but I am so thankful we got them back!

We hiked up out of the valley to another ridge where we could see our miles of progress thus far. We hiked on eventually coming to Grand Park. This is is an enormous meadow, blessedly flat. In the summer it teems with wildflowers, and on sunny days sports a great view of Mt. Rainier. We had neither…but it was still a beautiful place. We began yet another descent and my knees began their silent protesting. During this descent we came upon a young male elk grazing in the woods. We stood still watching as he meandered by us perhaps 20 feet away eating moss off low branches.

We made eye contact. I smiled. He could not have been more indifferent to our presence.

We continued on to the Fire Creek camp (4300 ft). It had been a 1400 foot descent from Grand Park and my knees were feeling it. But we reached camp early after a hard yet brilliant 9 miles that first day and were excited. Fire Creek is nestled in a thick wood beside a lovely creek. With no one in sight we set up camp, put on some layers as it was cold and misty, cooked dinner, played cards, and rested our weary selves. The back country camps have flat cleared sites for tents, bear poles for hanging our food, and pit toilets (a box with a toilet seat and no walls). Such luxuries! Life was pretty grand. At dusk a couple passed us heading for the other camp site. He waved, she stared straight ahead. The sites are pretty far apart so we didn’t talk to them. Nathan said hi to the man the next morning at the bear pole. We would see them again.

The next morning dawned cold but fine, mostly cloudy with a threat of sun. We hoped. After a hot breakfast we packed up and headed out. Climbing up the half mile from the camp back to the trail felt good, but I was quite worried about my knees since I knew we had a 1200 foot descent to start the day. It was indeed difficult…but with a knee brace on and better downhill hiking techniques it wasn’t as painful as the previous day. The forest was incredibly beautiful.

We continued down until we reached White River (3100 ft). We stopped for a bit by the river to eat and rest. Soon the couple from the Fire Creek Camp appeared. They were nice, Brian and Paula. They had the same itinerary as us so we would see them now and then for the rest of the hike, which was kind of nice. We never hiked together, but were always able to check in on each other.

We had all been told at the rangers station that the bridge was out over the White River. What we saw as we sat and ate was a flattened log bridge with a rough wood rail. It looked great and we laughed at the concern we had all had. Soon Nathan and I packed up, left B&P, and made the easy crossing. We hiked into the woods and then soon out again to what apparently was the true White River. Ahhh. The river was rushing, powerful, freezing (it’s glacial melt), and there was no bridge in sight. We began sizing up the fallen logs across the river. Seeing no remotely safe options we headed upriver a bit. There we found a rudimentary bridge. It was a large stable log with thick wire strung up as a railing. The log was round and wet. Scary, but far better than any other alternative. Nathan headed back to tell B&P what we had found, so they wouldn’t try to cross where the trail intersected the river. When he came back…we crossed.

After the river we were to begin our first marathon ascent. We would climb nearly 3000 feet over the next 3.5 miles to a pass between mountains called Windy Gap, (~6000 ft), before descending again down to our next camp. The steep climb was hard, I’m not going to lie. But also immensely rewarding. Our surroundings were extraordinary. We hiked slowly but onward, conquering this climb as we would conquer all the climbs ahead. We made it to Lake James, (4620 ft) a couple hours later and stopped for lunch. We were instantly cold, and while we ate it began to rain. Knowing we had a lot of elevation still to overcome, we left the lake in only our base layers and our rain jackets and began to climb again.

So the rain continued, turning quite steady as we climbed. Our pants were soon soaked, as well as our boots and socks. I had read that for every 1000 feet of elevation gained, the temperature drops about 10 degrees. I guess it was about 40 when we left Lake James. As we climbed, it grew colder. Less than an hour later, we began to see large snowflakes. I admit, we were kind of excited. How often do you get to hike in such gorgeous scenery in the snow? We noticed it accumulating on the grass and leaves, and on us. We commented how beautiful it was.

We climbed. It grew colder. We grew wetter. It kept snowing. We stopped praising the snow.

We climbed for about two hours in the rain then snow until we reached Windy Gap. The pass is open, long, and trees are fewer. While hiking across it snowed heavily, wind blowing, all the while trudging through thick snow and ice. I estimate the temperature to have been in the upper 20’s by then. I managed to take two pictures while crossing Windy Gap.

While trudging through Windy Gap I was thinking…we still had an hour or two to go before we reached camp. We had been hiking in wet clothes, in snow and sub freezing temps, for a couple hours already. We both felt bone cold, our gloves wet and fingers numb, our wet feet sloshing icy water with every step. I knew hypothermia was starting to set in.

I tried to focus on what we would need to do. I also prayed that our camp would be below the snow line…and that the snow would stop. We trudged on. We began another descent, switchbacks taking us back into the forest. My knees protested again, I hiked slowly. The trail was waterlogged, every step into a deep icy puddle. But as we descended the snow turned back into rain. It grew lighter. We passed a couple hikers heading up that looked colder than I felt. One poor guy didn’t even have gloves on. I felt for him. Eventually we came to Yellowstone Camp (5180 ft). We saw B&P setting up their tent. We exchanged quick “you made it!”s and continued on. The cleared areas were all flooded, and we were desperate to set up our tent quickly.

We found a fairly flat spot. I decided to pitch only my tent, a two-man, because we needed the combined body heat. As soon as it was up, I told Nathan to get inside and strip off all of his wet clothes as I fastened the rainfly on. I was starting to shiver. When I crawled in beside him, he was naked and shivering, trying to pull his dry clothes on. I stripped down as well and we both pulled on thermal underwear, dry shirts and socks, fleeces and down vests. It was difficult because we were shivering so much. We lay down our sleeping pads and crawled into our dry sleeping bags.

I had never been so cold in my life.

I was shivering so hard that all my torso muscles ached from the constant contracting. I tried not to worry. We had done everything right, getting dry as fast as possible. We lay huddled together shivering uncontrollably for an hour and a half. I knew a hot drink would have helped , but I was shivering too much and having difficulty forming words much less using my fingers. Eventually I was able to locate a couple of cliff bars to eat…calories warm you. Finally, sore and beyond exhausted, we stopped shivering and fell asleep.

The next morning we woke warm in our bags and hungry. It was amazing to think back on the previous day…it seemed a lifetime ago. We were both in good spirits talking about the “adventure” we had…a couple more experiences to add to our backpacking repertoire. I’m not sure either of us wanted to admit how precarious the situation had been. But there was little time for reflection…we had bladders to empty, water to gather and boil, and another 11 miles to hike. The biggest problem was our hiking pants and rain jackets. They were all still soaked, not being able to dry during a damp 35 degree night.

It took a while to get going. Several deer meandered through the camp while I was drinking my hot coffee. The camp was beautiful and I managed to enjoy it for a while. B&P came over and we chatted about how we had survived the previous day…how hard it had been. Misery produces camaraderie to be sure. We had to pack our wet stuff and still keep our dry clothes dry. We fastened our wet socks and jackets to our packs hoping the sun would come out that day and dry them. And finally, with everything done and packed, we pulled our ice cold wet pants on. It was painful…but our body heat warmed them in 5 minutes and dried them in 20. Good quick dry hiking pants are priceless. And we were off again. The Yellowstone Cliffs are reported to be absolutely stunning. They were incredible, but as was our norm there were clouds and fog blocking the view. We did see a family of 9 goats grazing at the base of the cliffs, though.

The first two days and 20 miles had been difficult, but also magnificent. The park contains such diverse beauty it is almost overwhelming. We hoped the rest of the hike would be easier and set out in good spirits hoping the weather reports had been correct and we would see the sun over the next two days.

One thought on “Backpacking The Northern Loop in Mt. Rainier – Beauty and Danger Intermingled (pt 1)

  1. What a unique experience at Mt. Rainier! I’m so glad you and your son were okay despite arriving to your camp with hypothermia beginning to exhibit itself, the outcome could have been terrible but you really kept your wits about you. I’ll look forward to hearing about the rest of your journey. I live in Seattle but I’ve never specifically hiked the Northern Loop Trail. But next year I hope to take my son on it, along with my brother-in-law and my niece.
    -Jason

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