Sunday, September 8, 2013

Wonderland (Sept. 2013)

Wonderland Trail attempt in 2 days
93 miles 
22,000 ft. elevation gain

The Wonderland Trail is aptly named.  The trail circumnavigates Mt. Rainier on a 93-mile loop through dense temperate rain forest, up through alpine meadows and tundra, over energetic glacial rivers and glacial moraines, and usually over some leftover snow.  The loop trail is challenge for anyone, because it gains over 22,000 vertical feet.  The giant volcano offers a unique view from every angle, many of which can only be seen by those who venture onto the Wonderland Trail.    

My 2nd attempt* to circumnavigate Mt. Rainier via the 93-mile Wonderland Trail in 48 hours was a failure, yet was a large accomplishment, much like last year.  Hiking light, which lends itself to a faster pace and more distance, is clearly the superior form of hiking.  This is what we did on the Wonderland Trail. In fact, on Saturday September 7, 2013 we saw the entire south half of Mt. Rainier in a single day, which takes most backpackers several days.

*Last year, we made it 80 miles in about 38 hours.  

Trip Report
We started at Box Canyon on the east side of the mountain in clear skies, despite the previous nights rain.  We hiked clockwise on the wonderland trail for 48 miles to Mowich Lake where we had a tent and some food waiting for us.  We left Box Canyon at 4:40 am carried a light day pack with food, water, and emergency materials.  We made the climb up to Reflection Lakes in time for sunrise.  The trail and brush along the trail was still damp from rain that had just passed through.  However, we still made it to Longmire in about 4 hours, keeping on our 3 mph pace goal.  At this point we mentally prepared ourselves for the 35-mile wilderness between Longmire and Mowich (there are no roads and no easy access to this portion of the trail, so full commitment is a necessity).

We made the climb up to Indian Henry meadow as we talked about geology, NBA basketball, books, movies, climbing, the task ahead, etc. The group of 3 was great for pacing, conversation, and killing time.  We cruised down to the Tahoma suspension bridge and up to Emerald Ridge. Unfortunately, the mountain became enveloped in clouds at this point and for the rest of day - but at least it didn't rain! We hiked down past a group of slow-moving elderly backpackers with huge packs.  

We crossed the wooden bridge over South Puyallop and climbed up to Klapatche Park.  This was a long, foggy climb.  We took our first significant break (20 minutes) here, looked at the map, filled up our water bottles, ate some food, and talked to a couple more slow-moving backpackers.  We had hiked 30 miles in 10.5 hours - a little less than 3 mph.

We then hiked down the steep trail to the North Puyallop bridge, which crosses a dramatic, high-energy glacial melt waterfall.  We speculated how long it would take to die if we were to jump in.  We decided to experience a long, slow and painful death on the hike up to Golden Lakes instead.  This section is, simply put, demoralizing.  Conversation was as hard to come by as each step but we kept moving.

We finally reached Golden Lakes and we were still alive...barely.  We filled our water reservoirs one final time and prepared for the final 10 miles and the dark.  Conversation picked up a bit as we made our way over and down towards the Mowich river crossings. The sun was down and our headlamps were out AGAIN.  We made it the Mowich river crossing and quickly realized that the "bridge" was no longer serving as a bridge, but had been washed downstream by the high-energy river.  Luckily there was a giant tree that was wedged across the largest branch of the river that allowed us to cross without doing too much fording.

All we had left now was a 3-mile, 2,000+ climb up to Mowich Lake and a tent to sleep in!  A surge of energy charged me as I led the way up the trail.  We made it to the campground and quickly put dry some layers on before our sweat could get us cold.  We did the hardest half of the Wonderland Trail from Box Canyon to Mowich Lake in about 18 hours -a little less than 3 mph.

We hiked 48 miles and climbed ~14,000 ft.  That could be compared to walking from Tacoma, Washington (sea level) to the summit of Mt. Rainier in 18 hours.  None of us had any desire to do it all over again and complete the loop the following day.  We threw in the towel, once again.

4:40 am group photo at Box Canyon
Reflection Lakes, Mt. Rainier
Crossing Nisqually River
View from Kautz Creek 
North Puyallop crossing, just before the long climb up to Golden Lakes (Photo by Michael Davidson)
St. Andrews Lake, near Klapatche Park
Sunset from near Golden Lakes (Photo by Michael Davidson)