Here in the PNW we are having what I would refer to as a below average snow year. Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t have enough snow to open and the other resorts are still a little spicy down in the lower elevations. Back in November everyone was starting to get the itch to ride. Some early low elevation snow helped drastically increase the stoke and people were getting out to make turns. Even the resorts were getting in on the early season goods, with some impressively early starts; though it is understandable if you don’t consider spinning a single chair and throwing a few rails in a patch of lingering snow an actual “opening day”.
The excitement of the early snow gave way to anticipation that is yet to be fulfilled. An occasionally front moves through, bringing just enough snow to maintain the marginal snowpack that exists. Normally the fronts come mixed with sleet and freezing rain to dissuade any potential thrill seekers from getting too excited.
All that being said, I’ve had some awesome day’s so far this season, each one seemingly better than the last and it is in no way thanks to mother nature. So, it’s my goal to provide you with the insights that you need to have fun out there.
Step One: Take whatever your expectations are for the day and lower them.
If the weather report claimed 4-5 inches in the last 24, I don’t want to hear anything about an epic pow day. The 20-30 mph winds inevitably scoured the 4-5 inches, which were sitting on top of a bulletproof crust anyways. So instead, think to yourself, “if I hunt for some protected leeward slopes, I might find some pockets of still fresh snow if I am lucky.”
Or, “sure, it hasn’t snowed in the last week, but it hasn’t rained either. So there’s a chance that I may still find something.” This is a good start, but again…lowering your expectation can never hurt. Try something more along the lines of: “Well, the sun might break through, so at least I get to stretch my legs and hopefully we will get a pretty view.”
The important thing to remember is that your starting expectations, no matter how well intentioned, are still laced with optimism. I applaud the optimistic outlook and yes, we are going to have a fantastic season, no worries that it is already late December; the season is still early and there is still time! But, if you want to guarantee yourself to have a fun day, I promise this will help.
In fact, that’s about the only advice I have right now. Sorry for not having anything more insightful. I will say that in the last three days of touring, I’ve lowered my expectations to the point where just the other day I was thinking, “as long as I find something that isn’t ice, I will be happy.” Sure enough, the snow we found on a north-facing bowl was superb. I mean, in reality it wasn’t anything to write home about, but in comparison to the ice I’d set myself up to expect, this snow was the most incredible conditions I’d seen all season. Maybe we really did get lucky. Maybe the snow really was better than I am giving it credit for.
Maybe, that’s not the point at all. Last fall I tried to take an early season lap on the Muir snowfield. No matter how low you set your expectations for the day, Mother Nature was hell bent on making you lower them even further. To give an idea, it felt like I’d bundled up in my snow gear and jumped in a pool. Upon climbing out of the pool, I was in the middle of a monsoon with sheets of rain somehow managing to make me even wetter. And if that isn’t bad enough, the wind picked up with unrelenting gusts blowing the rain more sideways that up-and-down. Amidst it all, we were all laughing and in good spirits.
So maybe, the point is actually to shift your expectations away from the snow entirely.
When you go out with the expectation of having fun with friends and strangers, to get a little exercise and to have an adventure, then there is no way you are going to have a bad time. No matter what snow you do find, if you find it while smiling, I think it is safe to assume that you’ll meet your expectations and come home feeling pretty good about what you found.
When I moved to Seattle, well to be frank Mt Rainier was nothing more than a mountain. Surely impressive, but mountains were yet to captivate my imagination. It was merely an impressive and iconic backdrop to the city I lived in. Over the years, climbing Mt Rainier became a fantasy. It was a place for mountain climbers that I romanticized with a childlike fascination. To stand on top of that mountain, so close to Seattle, seemed so impossibly far away. Three years ago, had you invited me to climb Rainier, my imagination would have inevitably wandered to the fantasy of standing on the top, but reality would have set in and my response would have been something along the lines of, “Are you crazy?”
It is funny how perception can change over time. It started with snowboarding. I stopped sleeping in the car and starting staring out the windows. “Look at the line on that mountain! I bet that would be fun!” Dreams. At the time, I was confined to chairlifts. But as my eyes widened, I began to appreciate the mountains. When I started backpacking, I stopped simply looking at the mountains with wide eyes and started exploring their vast riches. Alpine lakes, waterfalls, and beaten trails marked the true beginning of my shift in perception.
My fascination with mountains grew the more time I began to spend in them. I came back from Montana completely absorbed in the snow-capped rugged peaks of the Cascades. Armed with new tools, knowledge, and a driving passion, I began looking at the mountains renewed. The lines I have stared at dozens, possibly hundreds of times, are no longer unobtainable fantasies, but plausible excursions. No longer do I simply look at a line and think “Man, wouldn’t that be awesome.” Instead, I think to myself, “That would be awesome, how accessible is it? Could I get there in a day? Who could I get to go with me?”
When I first started snowboarding in the backcountry, Rainier was still a fantasy. While my world was beginning to open up, it took nearly a year (and some incredible adventures) before I realized that Rainier was no longer a dream, but a goal. Once I made that shift, staring at Rainier from the city became insufferable. That mountain was sitting there, taunting me in all of its iconic majesty.
I started hearing of other people climbing it. I was even invited once or twice and had tentatively agreed to go with someone. But for one reason or another, I never made it. I kept saying that I would go for it during the next nice weather window.
Weeks began to slip by, and that wouldn’t be so concerning if I weren’t leaving for the summer. I began to realize that I was quickly running out of time if I were going to try to climb Rainier.
When my buddy Stu texted me, to see if I was interested, I was in the middle of hiking Mt Si with my dad. This was Monday. He wanted to go on Wednesday. I had work and was already exhausted. By all means, I had plenty of excuses for why I shouldn’t climb Rainier.
I thought about it for the rest of the afternoon. I was laying in my back yard, napping after the weekend excursions with my dad and I realized that I needed to go with Stu. I needed to work and I needed to rest as well. But I had an overwhelming desire to fulfill that goal – to climb Mt Rainier and snowboard off of the summit. I knew that if I didn’t try, I would sit at work staring about the mountain, daydreaming about being up there with my friends. Work and rest would have to wait.
We were ill prepared for the trip. None of us had much (if any) glacier travel experience and we had hastily thrown together an amalgamation of gear that we deemed sufficient to summit. Stu had summited once a few years ago with a guide, but apart from some vague recollections, he didn’t have much memories of the trip. At least not that would be beneficial for us while climbing. We were predicted to have sunny and warm weather for the next few days and coupled with our excitement, our concerns dissipated.
We laid out all of our gear in the paradise parking lot, taking up most of a parking space. We weren’t exactly traveling light. The crew was Stu, Eric, Laura, and myself; apart from me, it was a crew of Mt Baker instructors, all killing time between the end of the season and the start of their respective summer plans. Though only Stu, Eric, and I planned on summiting, we were carrying three days of gear and supplies for the four of us. The heavy pack and the warm weather made for an interesting day getting to Camp Muir.
Though we’d gotten an early start, it was dusk by the time we started setting up camp and we all decided that we should take a day to chill before attempting to summit.
The following morning, we took our time getting out of our tents, waiting for the morning sun to warm everything up before we decided to crawl out of our tents. After a drawn out breakfast of oatmeal with trailmix (a bit too heavy on the peanut MnM’s) we opted to take a lap down to the top of the Chute that drops in to the Nisqually.
The corn snow was fantastic and only a little slushy near the bottom.
On the hike up we ran into a couple of Eric’s friends from Seattle. The 6 of us chilled in the snow for a while, eating lunch and throwing snowballs at a ski pole. Ah, the joys of being easily entertained!
Our down day went by fast and made for an enjoyable way to spend a day relaxing in the sun and preparing to make the push for the summit.
After talking with the rangers and other climbers coming off of the mountain, we were growing increasingly weary of the conditions on the two routes we could take. The Ingraham direct route was well marked and, before the sun hit it, the snow bridges were holding well. However, as soon as the sun hit, the bridges were getting soft and icefall from the seracs was a huge problem. Basically, not somewhere you want to be after about 7:30 am. The other route, up Disappointment Cleaver, had it’s own issues. The unusually warm weather created an isothermal snowpack not conducive to climbing or riding. Not to mention, there was a sharp cliff at the bottom of the route, so it was unstable snow with high exposure. Oh, then there was the rock fall hazard during the day.
We stayed optimistic. Ultimately opting for an early, 2 am start, with the hopes of climbing Ingraham Direct and riding down the DC before it warmed up too much.
At 2 am, you are moving slow. I thought we were making good time, but with firm snow and an earlier-than-anticipated transition to crampons, by the time we made it to the toe of the Ingraham and roped up, the sun was starting to peak over the horizon.
We met up with another group of skiers on their way down, who were in a similar situation to us. They had started around midnight, giving us some good beta on the routes. Ultimately they bailed for reasons that would soon become apparent.
We got to the entrance to the Ingraham Direct route. It peeled off from the skin track and headed ominously straight up into the seracs. While we had heard the route was in good shape, I think we all agreed that our inexperience with glacier travel made skipping that option a no brainer. We continued on to the DC. At the base of the route, the snow was crummy. While we could have continued on, we were all now thinking about the ride down. It just didn’t seem worth subjecting ourselves to so much risk. This would be as far as we would make it.
While we were all a little bit defeated, we were not upset. As much as I wanted to reach the summit of Mt rainier, once a mere fantasy, we tried and we came close. I hadn’t fulfilled my goal of reaching the summit, but I put a large dent in achieving that goal. There will be other attempts and the knowledge I gained just from trying, will help me in the future.
When we turned back, it was still early. We made our way to a safe zone and stopped to rest. We’d been awake since 1 am and all that was left to do at this point was enjoy the sunrise and wait for the snow to soften a bit.
Eventually, we got impatient and made our way back to Camp Muir on firm snow. The ride back wasn’t exactly pleasant. Hard snow and disappointment are not exactly ideal conditions. After breaking camp, we threw our still-heavy packs on our backs and enjoyed some fabulous corn turns back to the car.
At the parking lot, we stripped our packs (an most of our clothes, did I mention it was hot?) and enjoyed the few cold beers that remained from our hidden stashes. (We presume one was found, I hope someone enjoyed those cold beers!) Driving off of the mountain I had mixed feelings. Sure I was disappointed that we didn’t reach the summit. But we gave it our best shot and it was factors outside of our control that ultimately led to us not making it. Could we have pushed it and made it to the top? Probably, but there was something satisfying about being able to make the tough decision to turn around. That was rewarding in itself.
Also, I now have some rad calf-burns. Pro-tip, if you roll up your pants, if only for a few minutes, apply sunscreen liberally. Snow-burns are quite pronounced and happen quicker than you think. Then again, who doesn’t enjoy funky tan lines?
My North Cascades trip ending a day early was almost a blessing of sorts. While I would have loved to stay there longer, it was a good time to leave. When we got back into town, I had a text from Stuart asking if I wanted to hike Rainier on Sunday. Seeing as it was 8pm on Saturday and I was still a solid hour from Seattle, I had to think about it for a few minutes. Rainier meant an early morning and my gear was all still soaking wet and in disarray. It seemed like a silly idea at first.
One thing you should know about me, if you haven’t already figured it out. I like adventures. Especially the spontaneous, unplanned variety. I tend to use the term adventure liberally, like “I’m going on an adventure to the grocery store!” It helps get me in a good mindset for mundane tasks, for instance if this paper I am writing were truly an adventure, perhaps I would find the writing process entertaining.
I do however think that my latest escapades in to the mountains fit well within the realm of “adventure” in a more traditional sense of the word. This weekend has been no exception.
Franklin, one of my roommates, is moving down to California this summer to start a new badass job. Before he leaves, he made a bucket list of things that he wants to do. I am not entirely sure of the full details of his list, but spending time in the mountains is definitely a part of it. So, early last week, Franklin approached me about going hiking this weekend. Fortunately for him, it was not long after returning from the Tatoosh’s, and Rainier was on my mind. In fact, I think I had just finished hanging up the map of Rainier on my wall. Half joking, half serious, I threw out the idea of hiking up to Camp Muir. After spending a few minutes chatting about it, the half serious idea was transforming into a half serious plan. Somewhere over the next couple of days we convinced Ethan to join us (though the plan was still minimal). So, this weeks foray into the mountains, while something I have been wanting to do for some time, was for Franklin and was a HUGE check mark on his bucket list.
To start, none of us were particularly fond of the idea of waking up super early to drive to Mt Rainier so that we could get a reasonable start. We came up with the brilliant plan of camping. In the park, camping is relatively lax while the snow is deep. The only real requirements are you have to be over a half mile from the trails and roads (it gets a little more strict in high traffic areas like on the Muir Snowfield, but for our sake, we could camp pretty much wherever we wanted). This brilliant plan came about before we all realized we had obligations in Seattle on Friday. Thursday night, we made a half-assed attempt at packing and opted to just throw everything in the car Friday evening. We had a strict deadline to make. The park gate closes at 8:30pm. We made it through the gate a little past 8:20, so we were cutting it close.
Fortunate for us, by the time we rolled up to paradise lodge, a thick fog had set in and it was starting to snow. We spent a good half hour actually packing our gear (about 2/3 of it was probably mine) and getting our bearings since it was a little tough to see anything considering it was night and foggy. We eventually hopped on a trail, followed it for a ways and to the best of our ability ventured off of the trail, to the top of a small hill that was far enough away from the trail and hidden from any hikers, but not too far that we would get lost. Again, not necessarily the most ideal situation to be in.
We set up our tents and decided to call it a night early (well, not that early), what with it snowing and all. Some of us were a little more equipped for camping in the snow than others, making the night a little unpleasant for at least one of us (not going to mention any names here). In fact, none of us had ever camped in the snow, so I think we all learned a lot. We ended up waking up early, breaking camp and heading back to the car. This was sort of the plan we had worked out, directed by our lack of preparation and organization.
I had been following the weather and so far, it was exactly what I was expecting for the weekend. As we were getting ready to start the hike, visibility was limited and it looked like the mountain was pretty socked in. Fortunately as we were getting ready, the clouds started to dissipate and visibility was improving. It was still a chilly morning and from what we could tell, it was going to be a chilly hike up to the camp.
We couldn’t have been more wrong on our weather prediction. Not more than 20 minutes in to the hike we got above the clouds and realized how incredibly lucky we were. Yet again, it was going to be another sunny day on the mountain.
Soon, we were starting to regret the miscalculation of the weather as above the clouds, it was actually quite warm. We stopped at a scenic point for a few pics and to adjust for the newly discovered sun.
Rainier is an absolutely stunning mountain and a view that I will never get tired of. I should point out that no, we did not hike shirtless. As one girl pointed out on the way up, “you don’t want to do that because sunburnt nipples aren’t fun.” So, after putting clothes back on, lathering on the sunscreen, and taking a few more random pictures, we continued on.
On the hike up, we stopped periodically for food, sunscreen, and to take in the spectacular views.
We made great time, getting to the top of Camp Muir around 1pm. Since we weren’t in any hurry, we took our time and enjoyed ourselves up at 10,400′.
Some of us enjoyed ourselves just a little more than others….
I took my split, Franklin and Ethan both just hiked. So we parted ways on the way down. I ended up joining a group of skiers on the way down. The snow was, well not the best. But I don’t think anyone does Muir at this time of year just for the riding. The storm from this past week had left a few inches of snow that has not had time to settle. For the most part, the Muir Snowfield is mellow terrain and the snow wasn’t reacting. It made for some spectacular turns.
Instead of following the snowfield the whole way down, I joined a group that was dropping a chute into the Nisqually Glacier in hopes of finding some steeper, more technical terrain to ride down. We ended up in a bowl where the snow just didn’t want to stick. We set off 5 or 6 point-release slides that all funneled down to the same spot. It was only a couple of inches that were reacting on top of the bed surface and it was all predictably sliding, so we were safe, but it made for an interesting ride down. By the time we got to the toe of the debris pile, it had built up a solid 7-8 feet tall.
After that one section, the terrain mellowed out and we got in a few more fun pitches before having to skin back up to the main trail back to paradise. (None of us were particularly fond of the idea of riding all the way out the Nisqually to the bridge. That turned out to be a good decision, because the snow was incredibly wet and slow at the lower elevations.
With my short stint off of the Muir snowfield, I ended up getting back to the car not much sooner than Franklin and Ethan, who were both a little cold and very wet from the long hike down.
It was definitely an adventure and a somewhat impromptu one at that. I really enjoyed getting to take Ethan and Franklin out in to the mountains with me, so that some of my friends get a chance to see what I do when I disappear of the weekends. The pictures and these posts really don’t do justice to the beauty, serenity, and sense of adventure you get by being out in the mountains.
Well, another weekend has come and past. Much too quickly if I might add. It was one of those beautiful sunny weekends in the PNW where it is impossible to get any work done and everyone is out enjoying the weather in one way or another. I decided to enjoy the nice weather by heading out for a tour in the Tatoosh Range. For those of you not intimately familiar with the many different mountains that make up the Cascades, the Tatoosh Range makes up the mountains just south of Mt Rainier. They are accessed from within the park and make for stunning views. I don’t think it is possible to get any closer to Rainier without actually climbing it.
Yet again I managed to meet up with some strangers I met online. I am still getting familiar with the area and it is nice to go with other people who have a better sense of where to go than I do. I have had great success in the past and this trip was no exception. The riding was not exactly great, but I wasn’t expecting much. The temperature was expected to hit 60 up at 10,000 ft and we weren’t planning on going anywhere near that high. So we knew it was going to be a warm, wet day. With the sun shining and the clear skies, none of us were really complaining.
This was a much more mellow tour than the last couple weekends. None of us were intimately familiar with the terrain and the Tatoosh’s have a ton of terrain to ride. We ended up playing the by ear and doing a lot more exploring. It was one of the guy’s first day on his split, so we were more taking a leisurely stroll through the mountains. We still managed to hit the saddle from Pinnacle Peak, Castle Rock, and Manatee Mountain. Not too bad for a leisurely day.
We stopped at the top of Manatee Mountain for a late lunch and a few beers. The view was spectacular. Not only was Rainier right in your face, St. Helens was in clear view to the south and Adams was just a stones throw away to the east.
When we were done enjoying our beers, the view, and getting absolutely fried by the sun, we had a fun ride back to the car. The one downside of where we were, it was about a 2 mile skin out across a lake and down a road. In all it was a great day in the sun, with some of the more spectacular views I have seen in a while. Did I mention Rainier is an impressive mountain that I will never get tired of looking at?
To celebrate a successful day of touring, we stopped at a local restaurant just outside of the park. One of the guys pointed it out on the way up, claiming it had some of the “best burgers ever.” I still stand that it doesn’t matter where you go after a day in the mountains, it is going to be delicious. But my biased opinion is that they were in fact, pretty damn good. Oh, and we ate a whole fresh-out-of-the-oven blackberry pie.