Scott & Rachel's Wonderland Trail Journal
Indian Bar to Sunrise ... Whew!
Day Ten - Wednesday, August 22nd
(Entry by Scott) - I'm not sure that picking blueberries was such a great idea yesterday. Sure, we had a small heap of extremely tasty and fresh wild berries, but during the picking process, my boots and socks became saturated with rainwater. My rain jacket and rain pants did a great job of keeping me dry. The mink oil that I put on my boots, before we left, however, keeps the boots waterproof for only so long. Rachel's feet, in contrast to mine, were still dry. (She has a heavier pair of Meindl boots, while I have a relatively new pair of lightweight Asolo hiking boots).
It was nice having a large tent with two entrances and vestibules over each entrance. We have enough room for ourselves inside the tent, plus room under the vestibule for our gear (boots and packs). There is still enough remaining room to enter and exit the tent, as well as cook. We didn't try cooking completely underneath the vestibule; however, for fear that the flames from the stove would incinerate the tent (and its occupants). We did, however, cook up one of the remaining store-bought, freeze-dried meals in Rachel's pack, by opening the vestibule and braving a bit of rain.
There isn't a lot to do when you are backpacking in the rain, but sit in the tent. Rachel read some of her book "The Greatest Pleasure" out loud. (No, the book is not about what you are thinking. What a dirty mind you have!) We listened to the rain beat against the side of the tent, happy to be warm and dry, all snuggled up in our sleeping bags. How do people fare with only a small bivouac shelter? We wondered this as we stretched and moved about from time-to-time.
It rained all night long. The winds were gusty at times, and the rain kept up a steady downpour most of the night. Unfortunately, while the rain effectively kept us tent-bound, it did not, however, deter the mice from their nightly explorations. When we awoke, at 5:30 AM, we noticed that mice had eaten through our trash bag. (A sandwich-sized Ziploc freezer bag. An interesting note here: One of the things that we discovered about making our own dehydrated meals is the absence of trash. Our first six-days-worth of trash that we got rid of in Longmire fit into one of these small Ziploc bags, with room to spare! Aside from the odd candy bar wrapper, blown Ziploc bag, or granola bar wrapper ... we generate very little waste. We recycle most of the Ziploc bags that we put the dehydrated meals into, until they are completely shot, or until a mouse eats a hole in them. For two people, over a six-day period, this isn't doing too badly. We met one guy on the trail whose mission that day was to find a trash can, he was hauling so much ... or something so foul ... that dumping his trash became the day's priority.) Anyway, our marauding mice also left other evidence of their quest for food: muddy footprints all over our cookware.
There hasn't been one night on this trail that we haven't been plagued with mice. Every morning, we awake and our first order of business is to assess the latest damage caused by these rodents. Fortunately, the mice on this trail are not as destructive (hungry?) as those we encountered on the Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island. There, they ate through my pack (I have a nice hole with a cordura patch) to get to the GORP. The sad part? The pack was open. They could've just walked in through the 'front door' and gotten the goodies, rather than chew through 10-ounce ballistic nylon. Talk about dumb and determined!
Back to the rain (it is still raining now, at 5:30 AM). We have two options and we discussed them, laying there all snuggly warm, listening to the rain on the tent. Option one is to wait out the storm and hope that it clears. We have another reservation at Summerland camp tonight, so we have forty-eight hours before we need to be off the trail and Rachel back at work. Option two is to chance the pass at Panhandle gap (the highest point on the Wonderland trail), hope that it isn't snowing there, and push the nearly fifteen miles and get back to the car. Let me tell you, it was very tempting to roll over and go back to sleep. We, eventually, chose 'action' and the long hike out. A full day of idleness in the tent sounded just too claustrophobic. Better to be doing something and chance the conditions at the pass.
We skipped a hot breakfast in order to get a fast start and began packing our gear (no small feat for two adults inside a small tent). I stuffed my down sleeping bag into a garbage bag, to be certain that it would stay dry. My boots were already wet, so I donned plastic bags over my remaining pair of dry socks and then put gaiters (which I borrowed from Rachel ... "thank you") over my boots. Rachel's boots were still dry on the inside, and we hoped that they would stay that way. Lastly, we packed the tent. One of the unique features of our new tent is the ability to strike the tent while still under cover of the fly. Theoretically, this means that the tent can be stowed while it is still dry. Did it work that way? Well, yes and no. The tent itself was pretty dry, but the ground underneath was damp and at the corners, muddy. So, the tent went in the bag with a fair amount of dirt and mud on it, but mostly, it was dry. Next, we came out from under the fly and packed that. It was soaked and soon we were as well.
Like it or not, we were on the trail and making our way out of Indian Bar and toward Panhandle Gap. The sky was dark and low clouds hung on the mountainsides, obscuring even nearby ridges and peaks in fog. Rain continued to fall as we walked through the open meadow, looking back at the stone shelter. Our rain gear kept us warm, but not dry, as we sweated from our 1,700-foot climb up to the gap. My feet remained dry only a short while. In the meadow, the trail was choked with Lupines, grasses and other vegetation. This vegetation, dripping with water, soaked our legs from our knees down, with each step. In places, the trail had become a flowing stream, several inches deep and filled with deep puddles. It was impossible not to step in them because the trail was so narrow in places. All the while, like a Chinese water torture, the rain pummeled our canvas ball caps and dripped off of the brim.
Panhandle Gap isn't one of those "up and over" kind of passes. Instead, the summit lies at the end of a high-altitude, hummocky traverse. Once above 6,500 feet, the trail rises and falls a hundred feet or so over a two-mile stretch. It also crosses several permanent snowfields, before finally taking the hiker through the 6,800-foot pass. All throughout the traverse, one is exposed to the elements, as the area is renowned for being windy. Today was no exception. It was windy. It was cold. It was cloudy. But, it wasn't snowing. Raining? Yes. The one surprise, however, was that the rain had turned the normally slushy, permanent snowfields into a hard, slick ice-sheet. The rain melted the top layer of snow, but then it freeze from below. When we encountered our first snowfield (a.k.a. ice-sheet) at 8:30 AM, we were unprepared and unnerved. We stepped, tentatively, onto the sloping surface and all traction was lost. WHAM. Rachel's feet went out from underneath her and she slid five feet into an outcropping of rock. (Thankfully, her fall line took her immediately to the edge of the snowfield and not down 150 yards along the steep and hummocky face). The traverse appeared too dangerous and we looked for another way around. We scouted down slope and came to the lip of a cliff. We scouted upslope and realized the snowfield continued upslope as far as we could see. We had no choice but to turn back, or attempt a crossing.
After several tentative steps, we learned to avoid the white, smooth, clear areas (slippery ice). We used the darker, more mottled areas (often "crunchy" underfoot) and the upslope sides of the small "bumps" that made up the hummocky surface. They were tense moments as we slowly made our way across and down this ice-sheet. One false move would send us hurtling down for a bone-jarring ride, gaining speed with each passing second, to be smashed against the boulders and rubble at the base of the ice-sheet. Broken bones would be the result, if one didn't crack a skull. Whew! We made it.
The rain abated for a bit, turning to a light drizzle, but the wind continued to howl from behind, pushing us onward and numbing our hands. This section of the Wonderland Trail is often described as "spectacular" because of its treeless views of Mt. Rainier. Today, however, it was dark, cold and foggy. Spectacular still, but without any views. Because of the deluge of the past twelve hours, every available channel, stream, waterfall and cascade is active ... a symphony of running water.
We met our first hiker of the day while crossing ice-field number four. He had begun his day in Summerland and was on the second day of his round-the-mountain adventure. He had started his trip with two other people, a friend and a local guide. The local guide (I don't think he was a 'for-hire' guide) quit in the face of the climb to the gap, the rain and the prospect of more rain. Rachel and I commented on the misfortune of travelers encountering rain so early in their travels. Can you imagine? Facing one day of rain, getting all wet, knowing that you'll be dry and warm once you make it to the car ... is one thing. Getting wet, knowing that your gear is wet, that it's going to rain again tomorrow and wondering if you'll be warm and dry overnight ... facing several more days of traveling ... is something completely different. What fortitude! (What insanity!)
We finally made it past Panhandle Gap and down into Summerland Camp. (HA! It should be called "early-spring" camp, or even, "late-winter" camp instead!) There, we huddled in the wood and stone shelter, cooked up some hot noodle soup and used the solar-composting facilities (the first such ultra-modern designs we've seen on the Wonderland Trail ... they were enjoyed by yours truly).
From Summerland, we had a six-mile descent to the main highway at White River. We followed the swollen river downhill, noticed evidence of a recent avalanche and made very good time. The trail forked at the bottom and we continued on to the White River Campground. Part of this trail followed the highway and the paved road leading into the campground. At the bridge just before the campground entrance, we heard the river moving heavy rocks downstream, "Boom, thud, boom." The river was brown and full from the collected precipitation. At the campground, we still had a steep 2.1-mile climb to the trail intersection that leads to the Sunrise parking lot. We were soaked to the core. We had been for most of the day. The plastic bags that I had put on my feet before leaving, had filled with water long ago, and I had taken them off at Summerland. When doing so, I had wrung water from my socks and did so again, late along the trail. Our packs were heavier, because of all the water they had absorbed. Our travels today included a 1,700-foot climb, a 2,600-foot descent, and we were facing yet another 2,100-foot climb. It was still raining and our prune-like feet had walked almost twelve miles already. Let me just say that we were tired, cold, and hungry. It was the longest 2.1-mile climb I think that I have ever done. We kept hoping that the next switchback would be the last, only to see yet another one. It was frustrating and discouraging. We just wanted to be done with this trail. So, we kept at it, putting one foot in front of the other and, eventually, we did prevail. The parking lot came into view. I was never so happy to see that little blue Honda Accord in my whole life. Yahoo! We did it! The Wonderland Trail. Voted the "Most Difficult" long trail in the U.S. by a Backpacking Magazine reader poll. HA.
In the end, while we could claim "victory" over the Wonderland Trail and Mt. Rainier, it was a very narrow victory. We were two very tired, very wet and very sore backpackers. We grabbed our dry street clothing from the car and snuck me into the women's bathroom (the men's bathroom was closed for repairs). Inside, wee changed out of our soaking clothing in the handicap stall. Finally, I had my camp shoes on! Oh the joy my feet felt to be out of the boots! (Several women came in to use the facilities while I was sequestered away and we were quiet like all of those mice eating my GORP - quiet. I thought that they would NEVER be done with their business, as they chatted away amongst themselves at the hand dryer.)
We celebrated having completed the trail and being back in "civilization" with a beer at the Sunrise Lodge. Then it was into the car and a drive through Seattle rush-hour traffic to Vancouver, another adventure completed. We did stop on the way back for Mexican food. Boy did that taste good! (Vancouver doesn't have many Mexican eateries and So-Cal-boy Scott appreciates good Mexican food!)
We hope that you enjoyed our Wonderland Trail adventure and that it has inspired you to get out there. (Remember to take enough toilet paper!). We both love backpacking, camping, meeting new and interesting people and are eager for our next adventure ... which will be an 8-day bicycle trip down the Oregon coast.
Until then ... happy trails!