The first picture shown in each of our blogs, the one that precedes the main body of text, is known in WordPress circles as The Featured Image. This one, Mt. Rainier on a perfect summer day, is Kat’s photo of a postcard purchased in the park’s main Visitors Center. We saw the postcard, but throughout our visit to the park the top mile of the peak refused to peek out from its shroud of clouds and fog.
The weather conspired against us, dripping a cold, light yet steady rain over most of the two days of our stay. This can happen on any day in any season of the year, even when fine conditions are in the forecast. Mt. Rainier is so massive it creates its own weather, channeling moist air higher and higher until it turns to precipitation, dependent only upon the direction of the prevailing winds. In spite of our bad weather, no, courtesy of it, ours was a wonderful visit in which we witnessed something totally unexpected and seemingly out of character for mid-June.
The Red Sled’s ascent from our campground to the Visitors Center took us from an elevation of 1,500 feet to over 6,000. When we left the camp the air temperature was in the lower 40’s. Every thousand feet of climb meant a lowering of the mercury by two or three degrees Fahrenheit. Halfway up we noticed snow caught in the boughs of the big firs. Higher up we passed snow drifts, then snow-covered meadows. A few hundred feet below the VC big wet flakes began floating down. Outside the VC the flakes were thicker and drier; air temperature was 28 but the warmer asphalt refused to allow icing. Kids in shorts, flip-flops, and windbreakers flirted with summer colds prancing around in foot-deep drifts.
Inside the VC we learned the history of Rainier in a short movie and through the requisite exhibits. It is a volcanic mountain, and like Mount St. Helens, Rainier is a young, active volcano. Climbers can warm themselves near its peak in caves heated by steam vents, if they can stand the rotten eggs odor of those sulfurous fumes. Some day, possibly as soon as this summer or as distant as a several hundred years, Rainier will again erupt. Modern disaster planning has laid out vehicle escape routes and marked likely targets of the huge lahars (rivers of hot water, steaming lava, and boulders that move at near avalanche speed when an eruption occurs beneath a big glacier), and the glaciers are larger here than in Glacier NP. This most destructive form of volcanic violence is expected when she blows once again.
Rainier winters are long and the growing seasons short. In a month the snow fields will melt and sub-alpine meadows erupt in crowded masses of various wildflowers buzzing with bees and hummingbirds. The bears and marmots work all summer to get fat enough to survive hibernation. Deer and elk climb the mountain as summer comes and descend it as the frost line kills their forage grasses. Cougars follow their foods of choice up and down the mountain with the seasons as they wax and wane.
After an informative hour in the VC Kat and I headed for the Sled and found ourselves in what could pass for a north Louisiana blizzard with thick snow flying on gentle winds. The weatherboard near the main entrance warned of snow accumulations up to four inches, and the current temperature was 26 degrees. We have no tire chains – it is time to go!
Back in camp the rain had passed with a determined sun breaking through now and then. Our 50 degrees felt warm in welcome contrast to the 90/90 of New Orleans. That’s 90 degrees in 90 percent humidity. This is the life!