Wednesday, December 3, 2014

UPWC 2014 - Northern Loop and Mother Mountain

This post is long overdue and it's not for lack of loving the adventure that Kevin and I shared at Mt Rainier. A busy race schedule, a trip back home, and work demands got in the way, and the end result is a recap based on a three month old memory. The memory is fond one, but ultimately most of the details from this journey are stowed away in a happy place, and what is left to really share are the pictures and only a few words about the beginnings of the journey and the end.

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Kevin and I both planned to run The Bear at the end of September, but after running around Mt Hood in early August, we were both hungry for another fun self-supported adventure before the race. We had been reading other people's blogs on this trip and thought Kathy had picked one heck of an adventure highlighting Mt Rainier and we were game. The route was a 45 mile, figure 8 loop with about 14k feet of elevation gain and it was going to be challenging. We signed up and made plans to go up to the park on Labor day weekend to give us an extra day to recover.

Elevation profile of route

I watched the weather for the park all week. It looked like the best day to start our trek would be early Sunday as it was supposed to dump rain all day Saturday. There was still a high chance of rain Sunday, but we would be prepared with our Gortex shells and gear -- after all, we are from the Pacific NW, a little rain won't stop us! As we drove up mid-day Saturday the mood was a mix of excitement and anticipation, but concern about the incessant downpour. This wasn't a little bit of rain, in fact, despite it being Labor day weekend there were only a small handful of cars in the Mowich parking lot and only two tents. Trip reports from others said they took about 15 - 18 hours, but I tend to be slower than most people, and it'd be my longest self-supported route thus far, so I anticipated about 20. That would be a long time for us to be soaked.

We arrived around 7pm and got our gear ready for a very early start. The car was pre-loaded with a thick futon mattress, and we drank the smokey chipotle tomato soup I had packed in thermoses and devoured bagels with hummus for dinner. I had loaded the GPS route onto my newly acquired (used) Garmin 60CSX and we bedded down for the night. The wake up was abrupt and early at 2am as we planned to start about 3am, but I slept surprisingly really well.


The rain had let up and the air was chilly and damp and quickly woke us up. We both dressed in layers, as most northwesters learn to do, with merino wool baselayers to keep us cozy. It took us a bit longer to get started and we set off from Mowich Lake at 3:40am. The first couple miles were mostly flat and despite some roots and rocks, it was probably pretty runnable. We weren't really running though.

As we descended down towards Ipsut pass my IT band immediately started giving me grief. It had been bothering me a little bit for the previous month, but I was dutifully doing glute strengthening and foam rolling and being careful to not push through too much pain. I knew this day could be challenging for me, but feeling the sharp pain so quickly caused concern. I talked with Kevin about it a little, apologized for having us hike so much on a downhill (though it was rocky), and I kept focused on my gait and footfalls to ease the pain. Thankfully the trail smoothed out and we began a nice long descent through what I think in the daylight would be a beautiful classic fairy forest: lush green moss, old growth trees, and cushy trail.

We heard the Carbon River well before we ever saw it. I had heard a bridge was out, but it was easy to ford. About a month prior, Kevin and I had crossed the many glacier rivers on Mt Hood and my confidence level on water crossings had increased exponentially from that. The Carbon River was a beast though! It weaved a path of destruction through the trees and it was pretty clear this river had its own pulse. I think we were both very thankful that both bridges were present and we crossed over the raging waters with ease. It was on the second bridge that we first caught our glimpse of Mt Rainier in all its glory, as the sun was rising. The snow glistened and some of the best views of the mountain all day came over the next few miles as we hiked up the Carbon Glacier.

I hit a low point here about halfway up the Carbon Glacier climb. The climb was long and relentless, but I was feeling nauseous and dizzy and wasn't quite sure why. Since this route had a lot of descent as well, I was concerned with my knee pain I would be slowing us down and we'd take well over 20 hours. Kevin reassured me that it didn't matter but I still let out tears of frustration. He told me that we would just happily take the "longest time spent appreciating the route" award, or that we could just turn around too, that it didn't matter. I'm too stubborn to turn around, so instead I sat on a rock, ate a coconut bar and took a 15 minute break trying to pull myself together and gave my brain a little pep talk. I realized that I was nauseous because I had taken two B vitamins on an empty stomach. He urged us to keep moving and the mood changed when I accepted where I was at that moment, and knew we were just going to enjoy this beautiful place together, the best that we could.

The rest of our daylight hours were spent on the Wonderland Trail and the Northern Loop trail. We encountered a couple who had spent a rainy night at the Mystic Lake camp, and then a few other parties of two near the crossing of White River for the first time. There was a solo female hiker and a solo male runner later on. For labor day weekend it seemed like the rain really scared people away! We had gotten lucky though, as the entire day was clear, with only some scattered fog here and there.

Our favorite place was Skyscraper pass. This was the high point on the route at just about 7,000 feet. Hiking up to the pass was another bit of a climb with more endless switchbacks in the forest. We emerged in a field where the fog started to roll in and the wind whipped around us and chilled us to the bone. We added layers. Where only 30 minutes ago we were walking through soft green meadows with alpine flowers and streams, we were now enveloped in grays, hard lines, jagged rocks, and bleakness. To go from one experience to the other in a matter of minutes, only makes the overall memory much fonder. Skyscraper pass demanded our attention and respect, and it received it. We declared it "our place", and thus it became the highlight of the trip.

We stopped to take in some calories and the views after we crossed the pass, right before we turned onto the Northern Loop trail. We were both on a high and knew that this trip was likely going to run a bit longer than the 20 hours, so we relished spending the day together and took breaks frequently. The wildflowers were not as abundant as many others had experienced, but they still bloomed along the sides of the trail and it was tough to put my camera away. In the distance we spotted some white dots up on the cliffs and I was excited to finally see some mountain goats -- albeit very far away! I had packed us some sandwiches and we sat atop a cliff overlooking White River, where we would soon descend to, and ate our lunch.

The daylight hours started to fade and we found ourselves close to finishing the Northern loop. I spent some time checking my GPS for the altitude as we would grind out the climbs so I could get a general idea of how much further we had to go. We passed through a couple rock fields with cute chirping pikas scurrying around with bits of grass in their mouths making warm beds for winter. Kevin fell in love with them. Earlier on the plains we saw marmots, but we never got close enough to any animals on the route to photograph them well. I was (not so) secretly hoping for a bear sighting too.

The above picture was one of our last of the day. We gleefully ran down forested switchbacks back towards the Carbon River and back onto the Wonderland for a mile right as the sun went down. We stopped at a clear stream we filled up earlier and refreshed our bottles. Neither of us filtered any water on this trip and while some water was silty from the glaciers, we had no difficulty finding an abundant source of clear streams. I put new batteries into my headlamp and off we went up the last climb before we hit the snow fields. Despite it being later in the season we knew that we would hit some snow, but hoped that the conditions would stay the same and we'd have decent visibility. But before we got there we had to grind up another climb -- this one being the longest of the day at around 4-5 miles.

As fatigue started to set in our conversation was pretty non-existent. The day had stayed in the mid 60's and cooler, but the temperatures were really starting to drop again and we both put back on the bulk of our warm layers. We were starting to look forward to a warm bed, even though once we got back to the car it was still a 3 hour drive. Most of the day, I lead us because I am the slower one and I was really impressed with the trail conditions and the signage. There was only one small spot at night where we took a short side trail instead of crossing a stream, but we quickly navigated back on course.

It seems that on every trail adventure so far this season, I'd come back with some sort of badge of honor from the trail -- a nice little souvenir. Beyond the it band/knee issues I had been lucky on this trip. Well, clearly that just wouldn't do! I crossed the next stream, hit a loose rock and fell hard on my hip. OUCH! Kevin helped me up, gave me a hug and that was that. I knew I'd probably earned a nice bruise from that one. In the process I also drenched my side. I'm quite thankful for merino wool. It may get wet and stay wet, but it retains heat well and I never got too cold.

The next couple hours were wild. We crossed two or three glaciers (snow fields) in the pitch dark. I'd scan the horizon with my headlamp to spot the cairns and walk towards it with my head buried into my jacket trying to stay out of the chilly wind. Once the next cairn came into focus, I'd re-scan and correct us back on course. There were footsteps over most of the snow, so that part was pretty easy, it was the rocks that were a little tougher to know exactly which direction to go. My navigation actions felt robotic and I was singing songs from the Sound of Music in my head, unbeknownst to Kevin. I wasn't really tired because I had be given the task of keeping us on point. I consulted the GPS a bit, but I was still learning how to use it. While the snow part was a thrill, it felt like sweet success when we hit the dirt again!

The last few miles were really long. Once back on the path I started to get tired and started smelling the hay in the barn. Turns out I was smelling it way too early. My GPS had cut out twice on an earlier climb so I was hoping the 41 miles was really more like 43. I knew we were were pretty close, but didn't realize we had to descend then climb back up to Mowich. We chose to hike separately for a little bit because our personalities were clashing. This is really just a nicer way of saying that we were fighting because we were both ready to finish up our day. Patience after 22 hours on the trail is hard to find. Up until about an hour prior Kevin had held onto the idea that he would drive us home, but we both agreed that it would be much smarter to sleep in the car again. I love a warm bed like the next guy, but the car sounded marvelous and more than adequate.

When we saw the lights for the campground in the distance we both let out a big "whoooop!" and I think we even ran up the final hill. As we walked into the parking lot the GPS read 1:12 am, making our total time 22 hours and 32 minutes. We got to the car, got under the blankets, ate pita chips, and slept soundly until 9am.

It was one long day, but one that we both cherish. This adventure was one of the best ones that either of us had all year. It sparked the fire to start planning other (longer) ones for future dates, both solo and likely together. It was only my second National Park experience, the first of which (Acadia) that I don't really remember much as it was from my childhood. The $15 entrance fee seemed high, as we'd only be there one day, but I left feeling that I would happily pay even more to this park and others, as they are so well cared for. Should the stars align, my sights are set on Glacier for 2015.

Oh, and yes, I did end up with a sweet bruise from that fall, but bruises heal and I had even forgotten about the fall until I cruised over our pictures again.

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