Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mt Rainier West Side Highway

This past Saturday, a small team departed from Seattle at 5am and headed up the West Side Highway at Mt Rainier National Park. Arriving in heavy snow at the Nisqually Gate, we were greeted by Deb Dunlavey, the Special Permit Coordinator for the park and who expressed a great deal of interest in telling us about the volume of snow that the park had accumulated over the past few weeks, and the expected foot over the next day. I think she may have been a little taken aback by all four of us looking back at her with excited expressions instead of either turning back or looking defeated. A little snow? Come on, it'll take more than a little snow to turn us back. We provided sat phone #, intended travel route and a quick list of our technical equipment. Once past the Gate, we moved the short distance to the West Side Highway turnoff, and prepared our equipment.

About a mile in from the Nisqually Gate, a gravelly road turnoff nestled in a woody band of thick brush that begins at 2,500'marks the start of West Side Highway, and in our case, the beginning of our trail. In summer months, a gate is opened, the road cleared, and vehicle traffic can continue another 4 miles up the West Side Highway to an intermittent parking lot. However, in winter months the snow frequently descends down to the start of the Highway- more of a name given to this one lane'd stretch of gravel from it's beginnings than to describe today's 8 lane monsters. The only winter traffic the West Side Highway sees these days are cross-country skiiers or in our case snow shoers. Judging from the lack of even a footprint in the snow where we were parked, I'd hazard a guess that we were the first group of people to visit the West Side Highway in quite some time.

We noticed straight away that the snow- falling all the way down to where our vehicles were parked- was fairly deep. So we threw on snowshoes from the get-go and loaded up. We had two snow sleds along, which were to supply us with miscellaneous technical and overnight equipment we might have needed as well as extras of what was in our pack. We were prepared to spend quite a bit of time out in the Rainier outlands if the weather soured and it came down to it. But given our mode of travel and ability to back navigate using GPS, there really wasn't much of a need for 6 days of white gas all things considered.

The West Side Highway winds its way through the deep vegetation of a Pacific Northwest forest. Filled with old growth trees so large four people couldn't touch hands by wrapping themselves around, thick, ferny underbrush completes the denseness of of what amounts to a wide range of pines, oaks, and other trees
stretching to the sky. Moving upward from the trailhead, the road only puts on a few hundred feet of elevation before reaching the intermittent parking lot but those few miles were slow going. Snow getting deeper and softer, our team pressed on breaking trail and slowly coming up behind were the two sleds.

Finally reaching the intermittent parking lot somewhere in the neighborhood of 10:30, we noticed that the snow was already 3' deep and added our snowshoe "tails"- specifically designed to add floatation to softer or deeper snow. Given that several of our team are larger and heavier guys, we were already at the upper limit of what snowshoes are designed to support. I think that's funny in a way- everything seems to be rated for an average male of 165 to 170. I weigh in at over 200, thanks to muscle mass. So for snowshoes that are designed for a little, thin guy wearing a pack, I'm already at the top end of the rating scale without even a pack on. What that means is that I sink in deeper while the little guy floats on top of the snow, happy as can be. Ugh.

We moved through the parking lot and then spent 1 1/2 hours chest deep in snow, routefinding through a half mile piece of trail that had been completely washed out by the river. It is here that you see the true unharnessed force of moving water. At one time, the Highway was able to lazily wind through the forest alongside the river. However, some time in the early '90s, winter floods erased a portion of the roadbed, thereby closing the road to vehicle traffic onward and upward to Round Pass. Over the ensuing years, the park hasn't gone in to upgrade or repair the West Side Highway, so it has continued to deteriorate. Two years ago, the washout was roughly 1/4 mile long and truly just flanked the river. After last years flooding, another full 1/4 mile of road has completely vanished, replaced by gullies and rocky strata as a new arm of the river now bubbles down what used to be a gravelly and graded path. Someone has taken a log, flattening one side to make a rudimentary bridge over what used to be an established overpass capable of vehicle traffic. 50 yards downstream, one of the 8 foot wide galvanized steel containment tubes lies haphazardly in a jumble of rocks where the flood tossed it as if a giant hand had swatted a fruit fly. Today, the waters remained calm and snow silently fell while we broke trail to the log and shoveled 4' of snow off so we could pass.

After regaining the trail and recharging for a few minutes, we continued across another ravine and then up, up, up through a series of switchbacks passing through 3,500'. Trees and branches were covered in a thick white blanket, the skies were grey and swollen with more snow to come and acting as an insulator, everything was deathly silent. Beautiful, but completely still other than the sound of our voices or the sleds scraping along behind us. Off in the distance, the sky was alive with more snow heading our way.

Still quite low considering the sheer height of the 14,410' mountain immediately adjacent to us, but with the snow building up and coupled with trail breaking, the day became long and hours more tiring. Because the nearest person was miles away, the snow was our own- pristine powder where we set the pace, broke trail and had to drag our infernal sleds behind us. God almighty those things were frustrating at times. Good because having them meant we weren't putting all that extra equipment on our shoulders, bad because sled gear would fall off, the sled would flip, or generally weigh you down. After stopping at Tahoma Pass to set up camp for the night, I could feel the sled tugging on my pack for hours- almost like the swaying one feels after spending the day on a boat.

Once at Tahoma Pass, we went about setting up camp for the night. Doc Peterson turned to on kicking off our snow shelter, Leonard and I started shoveling out a cook shelter, and Rick gathered wood and matting. We quickly learned that our snowshoes were deceiving- while we were tromping around happily, the snow layer had a current depth of over 5 feet. As we dug down, the shelters became deeper.. and deeper.. and deeper. First to be completed was the cook shelter, which we built with ledges to sit on and relax our weary legs. It had been a full 8 hours to go the 6 miles that we had traveled so we were collectively looking forward to a steak dinner, some scotch, and a warm camp fire.

For as heavy as they are, we were all thankful that we had humped in DuraFlame logs to help get a coal bed going and judicious use of white gas had a fun effect that could warm up the entire cook shelter in a matter of seconds. Ever see a 5 foot high flame? Toss some white gas on a DuraFlame for a great photo op. The one on the right is titled "Where's Leonard?" So warm.. 20 degree night air and easily in the 40s around the cooking shelter where wet clothes steamed off moisture and after a few minutes all of us were asking "hey, are your toes burning inside your boots?". Using the fire, we cooked up steaks- although the first few were seared on the outside, raw on the inside. Is this what it was like for cavemen, gnawing away on a slab of Wooly Mammoth? Nasty. While Doc P and Ricks steaks were well cooked the entire way through, Leonard and I ended up looking like something out of Survivorman- gnawing away on our steaks to tear off the cooked parts, returning a scary looking piece half the size and looking like it had been beaten with a hammer to finish cooking on the flame. Doc even went so far as to marinate his in Scotch. Serious comfort food.

After the evening whiled away, we crawled into the sleep shelter and then our bags for a restful night sleep. I think we slept for close to 10 hours that night, waking up at 8 and realizing that we had received another inch or so of snow. We finally emerged from our shelter like Groundhog Day, rubbing our eyes, yawning and blinking at a beautiful morning sun dancing off the trees a few hundred feet above us. We made my favorite mountain energy meal: bagels with cream cheese and bacon. Yum. You can't eat too many of them back down here, but up in the mountains there is little guilt to a meal that provides plenty of slow-burning fuel to sustain several hours of march. As the team packed up, the sun streamed through the trees to make our departure from Tahoma Pass a bittersweet moment. Shoveling in our area, we started making our way down the trail we had carved the day before, looking back one last time before turning the corner and striking back out on the long trip home.

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