Eight Times Around Rainier:
Wandering the Wonderland in Ceaseless Wonder
Wandering the Wonderland in Ceaseless Wonder
We awoke in the middle of the trail, the cold pre-dawn chilling us until we stirred fitfully. We were on the descent to the South Mowich River from Golden Lakes. We had hiked through the high alpine meadows and the area around the old patrol cabin in the middle of the night, frost on the boardwalks and puncheon bridges crunching underfoot. The silvered and burned snags stood tall in the distance as we moved towards them, knowing that we would soon be descending towards the Mowich, the wooded switchback trails ahead giving us an opportunity to catch a couple hour nap.
Ras and I were on a nighttime stretch during our 94 mile Wonderland Trail run around Mt. Rainer. We had a long weekend open up in the midst of our busy schedule working as weeders for a yard care service on Whidbey Island. Each weekend all summer long, Ras and I had been getting out on adventure runs, either with each other or with other partners. This was an opportunity for us to do something long together. It would be a challenge and I didn’t know if all of my unsupported trail excursions would benefit me on the 20,000+ feet of elevation gain involved in this circumambulation of Rainier, or hinder me because of my sore knees and tight IT bands. I had set out in an attempt to run the Wonderland on the weekend of my 50th birthday, with my friend Lisa. It was quite hot on the trails around the mountain that weekend, and we altered our route to the 40 mile Owyhigh Lakes loop instead. I was crawling along slowly on the climbs in the heat, and may have even been suffering from some heat illness. The Wonderland wasn’t going to work for me that weekend, but this weekend, with the first of the autumn temperatures on the mountain scape, it was seeming more likely.
Ras and I each settled into our own thoughts and quietly pushed the climb towards Devil’s Dream Camp and Indian Henry’s Hunting ground beyond. The patrol cabin there was occupied with other people out enjoying the trail, so Ras and I continued on before taking our first sit down break. We had brought along our leftovers from Pizza Pi all vegan pizzeria in the U district of Seattle. We used to take our daughter Angela there when she attended the University of Washington. We purposely got enough so that we would have some for the trail, a special way to take in some calories and good memories at the same time. My favorite is Presto Pesto and I shared some slices with Ras, as we sat alongside the trail where it first descends from the high meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting grounds towards the suspension bridge that spans Tahoma Creek, far below.
We got chilled pretty fast and this forced us to get moving on our technical descent to the bridge. The trail was steep and rocky, but also scenic and fun. We got moving and reached the bridge in no time. It was fun to cross and think about my first time, crossing it together with Angela as she was only 7 and needed accompaniment. Ras shot some video on our crossings and we continued on our way, climbing towards Emerald Ridge. Nothing about the Wonderland is easy. There are challenges all along the way. Each seemingly insurmountable challenge I’ve ever experienced on that route has taught me a valuable lesson; has been achievable; has been worth every minute of it. All moments in the raw wild of nature are what is real about life. It’s the moments indoors, eating processed food and being warmed by unnatural heating that are artificial. I thrive in the outdoors. I spend time indoors and even time working in the outdoors, longing for the freedom of the trails.
Mist rising off of the wet downed old growth created a mystical feel to the surroundings as Ras and I were waking up. We had to get across a couple of separate channels of the braided Mowich Rivers coming off of the glacier on this facing of the mountain. The river was wild and tumultuous; the color of chocolate milk. Ras had tried to build a rock crossing here in the middle of his Rainier Infinity Loop in July. He finally spotted a log crossing with his partner Gavin Woody and got safely across. We didn’t know what to expect this time because of the experience he had earlier in the season.
I sat at a picnic table, cleaning out and reorganizing my pack, as I watched the comings and goings of the camp area. I felt drowsy and low energy, but looked forward to the 2ish mile climb to Ipsut Pass. Once there, we had a long descent to the confluence of Ipsut Creek and the Carbon River. This was a magically scenic section of trail through thick old growth forest with babbling brooks, gigantic ferns and soft carpets of differing mosses. We could make some good time in here and relax into the day.
Ras returned with a small baggie of Starbursts, which we divided up evenly. I ate mine right there and threw the little wrappers away while we had access to garbage cans. We got ready and hit the trail once again. The trail left the lakeshore and made its way to the pass where several other parties arrived at the exact same time that we did. We let two guys go ahead of us on the down climb and then we left the scenic over look to descend into the Ipsut Creek drainage. It is one of the most beautiful spots on earth and I love being there. I watched my footing while still taking in the views. There were also berries to eat and Ras dropped behind to graze. I was enjoying trotting along on the steep switchbacks, knowing that the evening’s mileage included climbing the rocky trail along the Carbon Glacier, past Dick Creek Camp, through Moraine Park to the high ridge above Mystic Lake.
Ras and I did not speak of this as we passed through this time around. It had gotten dark again, another night coming to pass. We were focused on getting to the White River Campground where we planned on taking a nap at the thru-hikers’ camp site. We had some miles to cover before then, but we knew how to get it done. We both had our mp3 players going, giving us something to enjoy listening to as we traveled along the trail through the dark of the night. We were moving towards Granite Creek Camp at 5,730 feet. This was another favorite spot along the trail, because the creek itself is so clean and pure, such a classic example of a mountain stream. My family took a rest day at the group site here when we first took on this trail with Angela at age seven, a big eyed innocent young hiker. She loved meeting other hikers and she got to interact with some at the camp during that hike. We hung out in camp all day, playing at the stream some and washing our clothes in a large ziplock bag.
But this time, Ras and I crossed the small log foot bridge and moved through yet another of the Wonderland camps stealthily under the night sky. We now had some gentle switchbacks for a couple of miles until reaching the high open landscape of Packtrain Ridge. I had been struggling internally with the effort we were putting out. I was disoriented and slightly out of it when we first got up onto the ridge. There was thick mist in the air and it was hard to see very far in front of us. Ras had taken the lead, feeling good and moving well. I struggled behind him with these feelings of not quite vertigo, but something taking over my whole being, my state of mind and my ability to move very efficiently this late in the night. I really did know this area of the trail quite well. But right now, I could not figure out where we were. We finally reached the intersection where the trail to Skyscraper Peak stretches off towards the sky. Ras said, “Okay, are you ready?” I was in disbelief. I didn’t know if I could even pull off the rest of the mileage to complete the Wonderland, let alone add on this side trip to climb Skyscraper. He said we had decided even just a short while ago that we would climb it. I had no recollection of that and was really surprised that he had planned on doing it. It was midnight, cold, and we were already pressed for enough time to finish and get back to work by nine o’clock Tuesday morning.
Unfortunately, this ended up being a turning point for me. I knew I had disappointed Ras by turning down the side trip up Skyscraper. I like the climb too. I too was enjoying making summits each weekend throughout the summer. At this moment though, I felt like adding it onto our 94 mile adventure that was stretching out, was over the top. I also felt pulled to do it and was bummed out I had reacted so strongly to the idea. It did not feel good that we were now moving on, down the trail, in the thick mist, away from the opportunity to pull off that summit. I got teary and even more weary. We dropped down towards Sunrise Camp in the cold basin below us. Ras stayed in the lead. We tried stopping in the lee of an outbuilding at the camp, but the strong wind gusts were still too cold for us to stop for long. We moved on, now on the final three mile stretch towards White River Camp and our nap.
Finally, we got to the wooded camp. There were restrooms and spigots with running water. We put down one of our Six Moon Designs Gatewood Capes and used the other for a cover. We bundled up in every layer we had with down puffy suits as the top layer. I took off my Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mids, and Ras kept his Lone Peaks on his feet for warmth. I had a blister and wanted to stretch out my feet. It felt good to be out of shoes for a little while. It was 4:30 in the morning. We both fell fast asleep, surrounded by other thru-hikers, unaware of our presence in camp right near them.
We wanted to wake up and exit the area to begin our final 30 miles, by about 7:30, allowing us three hours of sleep. I woke up first and wondered off to the rest rooms, filling my water bottles on the way back. Ras was still asleep, so I cuddled up beside him and rested just a little longer. We didn’t discuss our plan for the day. I really didn’t know yet what it was. I encouraged him to wake up and move out to the picnic area where we could find a sunny spot to warm up and regroup. We finally moved out there, but were both so tired we would drop off to sleep in the sunshine before making any progress with our trip planning. Could I continue? Did we have enough time? Should we hitchhike back to Longmire from here? Should we pull ourselves together and just get back out on the trail? Would we make it to work on time if we continued? Could we even contact our boss, Mary, from here via our cell phones?
After moving from sunny spot to sunny spot for a couple of hours, taking in mouthfuls of my Expedition Espresso Trail Butter pouch to energize myself, we finally argued ourselves into getting started again. Neither of us wanted to give up and we knew we could finish off the mileage. We just didn’t know if we could pick up the pace like we needed to, this deep in. I had a couple of blisters I needed to tend to before getting started and I’d have to push myself to run more than hike in order to get this thing done.
We hit the trail leading out of the White River Campground, crossed the White River and ran the rolling trail for several miles before it began the climb along Frying Pan Creek. We moved together quietly. I knew that each time I pushed myself harder than I felt like I could, harder than I wanted to, it would make a difference. This was it. These were the final miles of the Wonderland Trail. Before I knew it, we had reached the high meadows of Summerland and began our trek up the steps towards Panhandle Gap. We were at one of the final cruxes of the route. This climb through snowfields in the cold mist and wind was hard. We couldn’t stop as it was just too cold. We were low on food, stretching out carefully what we had left to last into the night miles. The views were not far reaching. The clouds and thick mists shielded the views from us as we looked out into the distance. We both pushed forward, strong and determined. At the Ohanepecosh River we would take a break and fill our water bottles. Right now we just wanted to move, one foot in front of the other, through this mountainous terrain.
A few other backpackers meandered through the camp at Indian Bar. They were filtering water, or getting settled into camp, or just relaxing after a day on the trail. We were filtering water and then moving on, an additional 18 miles to go before finishing our weekend route. Nothing is as scenic as Indian Bar. The Ohanepecosh River meanders down from an inactive hanging glacier and babbles through the valley. A stone shelter presides just above the river and the hidden backcountry camp turns off the trail just before it. Ras and I settled into a spot were a side creek splits off from the main river and it’s easy to get nice clear water here. We shared Honey Stinger Energy Chews and drank ice cold water. We knew we had it now. The Cowlitz Divide lay ahead. This would be challenging, steep little climbs and descents over eight miles or so. Then, before we knew it, we would be running the gentle downhill trail towards Nickle Creek. I was looking forward to passing the intersection of trail where Lisa and I decided to run the Owyhigh Lakes Loop instead of the Wonderland for my 50th, back in August. It was a hard decision and we sat at that spot for a good half hour. I knew it would feel pretty awesome to run through it, on my way to completing the Wonderland this summer after all.
Somewhere around Maple Creek it all took a turn. Rain began to fall, at first as a drizzle which wasn’t much of an issue for us. It then came on stronger, and finally began pouring with an intensity that grew more mighty with each foot of elevation we gained. The night wore on and on, rain soaking us and only the end in sight pulling us like a magnet ever forward along the dark trail. We both wore our Gatewood Capes and they kept us warm and dry enough, if we kept moving. We could completely tuck underneath it if we needed to make an adjustment with our mp3 players, headlamps or wrappers on our snacks. Ras knew I was running a little low on my food supply, so he had saved a Caramel Honey Stinger Waffle for me. It tasted so good, in this nighttime rain storm, almost 90 miles into the Wonderland.
Ras shared stories with me about what it was like for he and Gavin at this point in their Rainier Infinity Loop. They finished it at Paradise and thus had to climb an additional 3,000 feet in three miles off of the Wonderland route. They had already summited Rainier twice at this same point we were tackling in the night. Stevens Canyon was wet, slick, steep, but well maintained. A trail crew had been through and cut back all of the thick brush that tends to cover the trail in here. It had been that way when Ras and Gavin came through here. The workers had also repaired a slide in a section prone to giving way, and so we had a safe passage through here as well.
I could hear the roar of the Nisqually River, the final glacial river crossing. Nicely built log crossings with rails were in place, so getting across all of the channels was easy enough, even in the dark. It seemed now like most of our glacial river crossings had been in the dark. I reflected on how far I had come with these crossings. I once felt so nervous, sometimes crying or jittering with fear as I heard the loud rushing of the silty waters. Now, it was just not a big deal and my body did not send me these same signals.
From the Nisqually, Cougar Rock Campground is just a short distance away. Car campers can drive up to this campground and hikers can also reserve spots to utilize it during a thru hike of the Wonderland. We quietly ran past the spur trail leading to the campground and continued down the wide path lined in huge firs, cedars and hemlocks. We could see the remains of old wooden water pipes that were once used to transport water in this area. We knew we were getting closer, but we still had just shy of two miles to go.
The bright lights of Longmire let us know we were there. I picked up the pace, running the easy final stretch of trail into the well-lit parking lot. It was 3:30 a.m. Ras and I had taken 65 hours to run and hike the Wonderland Trail, unsupported, with autumn temperatures and daylight guiding our way. We got to our old Subaru wagon and took off our Nathan packs. I climbed into the front seat and reached for my bag of dry clothes I’d been visualizing changing into for many wet hours. Although wet, my feet had been well protected and warm inside my Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mids. My gear was dry inside my Nathan running vest. I felt good inside, having stuck to an ethic of Zero Limits and completed my eighth and fastest circumambulation of Mount Rainier.
KATHY’S GEAR LIST
1. Nathan VaporShadow (I used the male version belonging to Ras, waiting for the arrival of my female version, the VaporAiress. I have since received two Nathan Ultrarunning packs, designed specifically for women, and used the VaporAiress for a supported 50k. I fell in love with this pack, finding it perfectly designed. It was so comfortable and had all the right pockets in all the right places. It was easy to reach the side zip pouches while still moving. I hardly noticed it for the eight hours I wore it, fresh off the shelf. Ras and I are now new, Nathan brand ambassadors.)
2. Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mids
3. Injinji Trail Socks
4. Altra Performance Skirt
5. Altra tech short sleeve shirt
6. Smartwool mid weight hooded sweater, arm sleeves, knee high ski socks, calf sleeves and neck gaiter
7. Dirty Girl Gaiters
8. Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape
9. Mammut Down Puffy Jacket 850 Fill
10. Mont Bell Down Puffy & synthetic blend pants
11. 3 packets of chemical handwarmers
12. Ziplock baggie of pancreatic enzymes, antacids, ibuprofen, caffeine pills, and ginger chews
13. Ziplock baggie of toilet paper and a moist towlette
14. 4 Honey Stinger Waffles, 1 packet of Honey Stinger Energy Chews, 2 avacado wraps in whole wheat tortillas, a baggie of roasted and salted seaweed snacks, 2 Expedition Expresso Trail Butter pouches, 4 Picky Bars, 4 slices of leftover vegan Presto Pesto pizza from Pizza Pi in Seattle, 1 homemade apricot fruit roll-up, a few peppermint hard candies, 1 package of Mushroom & Herb cous cous, rehydrated with cold water in a plastic ziplock container, a small serving of Ras’ dehydrated rice and beans.
15. Skins brand compression capris
16. The North Face brand heavy winter running tights
17. Mp3 player loaded with lots of Raggae Dancehall mixed tapes, The Martian and Dharma Bums
18. Black Diamond Icon Mountaineering headlamp with extra set of batteries
19. Smartphone, mainly for use as a camera
20. Swix brand cross country ski gloves
21. Fleece and synthetic fur lined ear flap hat
*Ras carried 2 small chargers for recharging our electronic devices