Flett Glacier, MRNP, June 21-22, 2005
When both Kam Leang and Michael Trommsdorff opted out of this trip, saying that they weren't "too excited" about the weather, perhaps I should have reconsidered, but Kevin hadn't skied in a while and neither of us had been to this corner of Mt. Rainier National Park before.
When I mentioned the forecasted thundershowers for Tuesday and rain for Wednesday, Kevin at first seemed nonplussed, then countered with some beautiful shots taken by his mountain biking buddy John Loomis over the weekend on the Flett and Russell Glaciers ( http://home.earthlink.net/%7erustykins/RussellGlacier/index.htm) which clinched the deal. We set out bright and early (for a couple of night-shifters) at around 3:00 PM.
The weather, which hadn't been too bad at Hyak, went south in a hurry on the drive to Rainier - we hit clouds at North Bend, heavy rain soon after, and serious lightning less than a mile (one thous . . . boom!) from our car while entering Enumclaw. Pulling into the rustic one-man ranger station in Wilkeson around 5:00 PM, the fresh-faced USFS employee was a bit incredulous ("you want a camping permit for TONIGHT?") but filled out our online "paperwork", let us use the toilet, and even allowed us to shine the required viewing of the Leave No Trace video due to the late hour. Despite rumors of no camping allowed in Spray Park (true) or the "cross country" zone after May 1, he printed us a permit for the evening and said anywhere on snow around the base of Observation Rock or in the "shelter" was fine.
We beat it up the dirt road to Mowich Lake, which seemed in relatively good shape despite reports of potholes and washboard sections (depends what you consider a good road, of course). Visibility was so poor that we couldn't actually see the lake, but found the campground and headed out in a light drizzle with what we both thought were overly heavy packs.
The hike was a little strange for a ski approach, going downhill for quite a way from the trailhead before flattening out and then heading up, but is really beautifully maintained with flat stone steps and water diverters in the Spray Park area. There was nobody else in the entire Ptarmigan Ridge Cross Country Zone - the sole other registered camper was seen by a ranger hiking out earlier - so we cruised unmolested up to just under 7,000 ft. and set up camp next to a large boulder.
This little corner of Rainier has a unique look to it (when you can see) - jagged peaks left by uneven erosion of volcanic deposits, numerous pockets of alpine meadow, and abundant red " pumice" like stone (think Bend, OR). We began to think the reports of poor road and difficult hike in are fabricated by people wanting to keep the northeast approach to the park to themselves, or by the Park Service themselves wanting to concentrate the bulk of the tourist traffic elsewhere.
High winds made the erection of the MegaLite seem like a no-win situation, so we opted for bivies only and settled in to cook dinner. Fortunately, the weather began to clear just as darkness fell, and we slept through the night in relative dryness before waking to a glorious view of Rainier at first light shortly after 4:15 AM (see photo second from left in the above row). I went back to sleep enthused about the great day of skiing to follow.
Unfortunately, when we awoke around 7:00, the clouds had rolled back in and it was not just drizzling, but outright raining. I went back to sleep for another hour to see if the situation would improve. Same thing at 8:00; I ate some dried fruit and granola and burned the crap out of my tongue on my hot tea without ever getting out of my bivy, then decided to wait another hour (good action pic of me, second photo from left in the above row).
At 9:00 I emerged and joined Kevin in packing all our wet gear. We decided to head up in the general direction of the Russell Glacier and see if we could get above the cloud deck, but it was not to be. The driving rain turned to snow at around 7,300 ft., and at around 8,000 ft. we threw in the towel without ever getting a look at what the area offered for skiing and returned to camp, getting at least a few good series of turns in the process.
The hike out was wet and cold, but at least the visibility returned at lower altitude and we were able to see a number of potentially excellent lines on the Flett and adjacent to Spray Park that would almost surely be snow-covered in a normal year.
Wednesday seemed to be National Accident Day, with a seven-car pileup stopping traffic on SR 18 and a rollover on the 169. Kevin's EMT training kicked in as we passed a smoking, upside down SUV with the horn blaring - we pulled over and ran back just as onlookers pulled a very lucky teenager from the window of the car. The inch-long cut on his forehead was no match for the one I received years ago when my binding blew up under the chair on Exhibition in Sun Valley . . .