National Park Primer: Mount Rainier

The Cascade Volcanoes run along the west coast of North America from southwestern British Columbia to northern California, forming a chain of glacier-wielding, sky-scraping peaks with the power to both inspire awe and destroy entire cities. The undisputed king of these stark monoliths is Mount Rainier, the largest, iciest, and most potentially deadly of all the Cascade fire mountains. Fortunately Rainier lies relatively dormant, and a trip to the national park that encloses it is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Let’s have a look.

Park: Mount Rainier

How to get there: Fly into Seattle and drive the 54 miles to the park. While Rainier provides a lifetime of recreation itself, a trip to this park can be combined with visits to other nearby parks such as Olympic, North Cascades, and Mt. St. Helens, making for an extended journey through some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the world.

Where to stay: Finding a lodge or hotel close to the park is easy, but I strongly urge you to stay in one of the park’s four campgrounds, as immersing yourself in the magic of Rainier will touch your spirit to an even greater depth.

Highlights: If there is a connecting thread on a Rainier expedition, it is water. The mountain holds an astounding 25 glaciers, therefore, when summer arrives, Rainier seems to turn into one big fountain, springing leaks all around its flanks. Streams and waterfalls tumble earthward everywhere you turn, combining themselves into rushing rivers as they descend. Park roads will take you by every kind of watery wonder imaginable. Just drive along and enjoy the show.

The Ohanapecosh River is a fetching emerald ribbon running through the nearly impenetrable dense forests of Rainier. Although it may look like a great place for a refreshing dip, the river in most places is far too fast and chilly to swim in.

The insane amount of precipitation that falls upon Rainier fuels the growth of enormous trees and impossibly thick vegetation. Below 3,000 feet, Western hemlock, western red cedar, and Douglas fir trees shoot upwards of 200 feet into the air. Their massive trunks look like something out of a fairy tale; some of these behemoths have been around for over 1,000 years. The thick canopy mutes the summer sun, leaving you to stroll along in the brisk shade as the soothing fragrance of piney purity calms your nerves. Aromatherapy indeed.

Ursa, a 100 lb. Rottweiler,  provides some perspective to a giant slice of Douglas fir at a park exhibit. This particular tree first sprouted in 1293, 200 years before Columbus made his voyage. Nature does nothing half-assed on Mt. Rainier.

The extensive glaciers and great height of Rainier also make the peak a mecca for mountain climbers. Given the extreme altitude, weather, and remoteness of Denali and other Alaskan peaks, I was shocked to discover that the deadliest mountaineering accident in American history occurred on Mount Rainier. In the early morning light of June 21st, 1981, a group of twenty five climbers and their guides were ascending the Ingraham Glacier, three thousand feet below the summit. To ensure the upcoming snowfield was safe for their clients to cross, three of the guides climbed ahead to inspect, leaving the others to wait for their return. When the advance party first heard and then saw the massive hunk of glacial ice eight hundred feet above break free, it was too late to warn the others down below. The ice shelf plummeted and hit a flat area, shattering into countless pieces–some the size of Buicks–and thundered towards the unsuspecting climbers.

Having only seconds to react, the group was overtaken by the wave of ice. Eleven people, including one of the guides, were buried by the icefall, with some of them thrown to the bottom of a seventy foot crevasse. They had no chance of being rescued.  Even the effort of recovering the bodies was cancelled after only two days; the area was just too dangerous and unstable for humans to be poking around in it. A few weeks later, rangers responded to a report of a red backpack in a crevasse. Upon inspection, they discovered body parts protruding out from the glacier, while the rest of the bodies were still entombed in ice, like grapes suspended in Jell-O.

What is strange is that these victims and some of the other three hundred plus people who have died on Mount Rainier since its inception as a national park in 1899 may one day come back. Not from the dead, mind you, but rather by emerging from the ice at the snout of the glacier. As the frozen river steadily inches its way down the mountain, the bodies are carried along for the ride. Glaciologists, (what is a slow day at the office like for them?) in order to predict when objects in the glacier will resurface at the snout, use mathematical formulas to get a rough estimate. And at an average rate of ten inches per day, it will take about a hundred years for the bodies from the 1981 tragedy to reach the end of the six mile-long Ingraham Glacier.

While the vast majority of climbers summit Rainier safely, some do not. It is not a challenge to be taken lightly.

While peacefully holding vast glaciers and frigid snowfields, it is strange to think that inside Mount Rainier is an unimaginable amount of deadly heat and explosiveness. This snoozing behemoth is considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the United States; a potential cataclysm that volcanologists speak in terms of “when” and not “if”. Indeed, while Rainier appears to be in a state of dormancy, it is still releasing enough heat to keep the rims of its craters snow free, despite the mind-boggling amounts of snow that fall upon them.

There are multiple factors that contribute to Rainier’s reputation. First is the unsurpassed volume of ice on its slopes, for Rainier has more glacial ice than all of the other Cascade peaks combined. The next ingredient for eruptive Armageddon is the extreme steepness of the slopes falling away from the mountain’s 14,441 foot summit. Thus, when Rainier decides to blow, the superheated gases and rock spewing out will find it easy to speed down the mountainside at over 250 mph, melting the glaciers in the process. This rapid melting of ice will combine with the heated rock and ash and form a lahar, which is essentially a river with the consistency of wet concrete. The churning lahar will race down whatever river valley happens to be most convenient, completely annihilating and engulfing everything in its way, where it will finally encounter the real reason for its deadliness: people—lots and lots of them. Parts of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area are in the likely paths of such a massive mudflow, and 150,000 people currently live on top of areas lahars have streamrolled in the past. The tranquil beauty of Rainier belies the potential destruction contained in its heart, a sobering reality that author Stephen Harris encompasses perfectly:

“Because they erupt less often than many volcanoes in Indonesia, Japan, Alaska, Central America, or other Pacific Ring of Fire areas, our western volcanoes tend to impart a false sense of security, fostering the mistaken impression that they are no more than a scenic backdrop to people’s daily lives.”

How easy it is to forget that a catastrophic disaster could be just around the corner.

The chances of Rainier erupting while you are visiting the park are exceedingly slim, so I wouldn’t worry about it any more than I would worry about what to do with your future Powerball winnings. Enjoy day hikes, backcountry overnight excursions, and sedate park road cruises with the knowledge that someday this park will look nothing like it does now. (see: Mt. St. Helens). Or if you are lucky and the clouds that usually obscure the mountain take a day off, then just sit back and gaze at Rainier’s singular beauty. It doesn’t get old.

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