Dateline: September 11, 2017
Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park, Skyline Trail
It’s fitting that my final regularly scheduled adventure of the season is Paradise. However I may whore around, trying other sides of the mountain, other mountains, other trails—exclaiming that each one is my new favorite—it’s the Skyline Trail at Paradise that will always be the lover I come home to. Just ignore me when I say otherwise.
I was going to go last week, but the smoke was so bad the webcam didn’t even register that there was a mountain. Next week I’ll be in Seattle with the littles, and besides the forecast at Paradise is “a wintry mix.” I wasn’t really up for it Sunday night, I was tired and a bit grumpy; but the weather looked better for Monday than Tuesday and deteriorated after that. The lesson of the mountain: be willing to throw plans and moods out the window and be spontaneous.
I double check the webcam when I get up. The rising sun is a golden glow on the snowy peak. I’m out the door and at the coffee kiosk at 7:05. A little late for me, but there’s no reason to leave before daybreak this time.
I’m on the trail at 10, after getting gas, my pit stop in Morton before cell service is lost, road construction near Mineral again, putting on all my straps and guards and ankle brace. It’s already hot. I leave three of my five layers in the car. I always forget the heat index a mile closer to the sun.
I head toward Dead Creek, skip down Moraine a little ways looking for marmots, then back to meet up with Skyline. The first part, up to Panorama Point, is tough going; but I learned from experience to take this loop clockwise. Get the up over with in this first lung-burning charge, after that it’s gentle down until the up at the end. The other way, the gentle down is relentless up. I feel bad for all the exhausted-looking people I meet on the backside, heading toward the apex.
I leave my camera in my pocket, determined not to take pictures of views I have a thousand pictures of already. I’m just going to hold it all in my heart this time. Uh huh.
I can feel a blister forming on my right foot. When I put my shoes on in the parking lot I noticed my favorite socks are worn thin at the heels, and the ankle brace makes my right shoe tighter. I stop on a rock for moleskin. As I’m putting my shoe back on, there is a group of 19 seniors and their guide coming up the trail. I groan and quickly finish my task, grab my pack and poles, and jump half ready back on the trail just ahead of them. I figure they will be slow and difficult to pass. I don’t want to be behind them in line at the hobbit toilet at Panorama.
They aren’t slow. Their guide is acting as a pace car, setting both the speed and the record for conversation. I pick up my pace. I need to rest, but I don’t want them to catch up. I keep glancing back, but I haven’t put any distance between us, like a car on the interstate with cruise control set at the exact speed mine is. I keep thinking they will stop to rest at one of the large areas with sitting rocks. But they keep coming like the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.” I really need to rest.
I pass two more guides telling someone the group is attending a camp and they will climb the mountain later in the week. Then I notice they have packs. I have a new respect for them. But I still don’t want to be behind them at the hobbit toilet.
I pass another large group resting on a snow patch, younger people. They are gearing up to take off again. The elders exchange places with the youngers, while I get ahead. I know they will go faster, so I do too. I don’t want to be in line behind them either.
There’s a marmot on the trail, grazing just a few feet ahead of me. I stop short. The boy guide for the youngers practically plows into me. “Marmot,” I say, pointing. “Oh, yes, it is a marmot.” I tell him I was pointing it out, not asking for confirmation of its identity. He doesn’t hear me. “I work here (la di dah); I see them all the time. They’re filling up for winter, they’re everywhere.” My point was not that it was a rarity, or that maybe he didn’t know what it was, but that I was going to stop and watch and he would have to wait. He acts like he’s going to try to pass me. I don’t think so. I wish I had pointed out that maybe his group would like to observe, even if he was snobbishly uninterested. What an ass hat. I’m forced to move on.
Somewhere after that, I lose both groups. I figured they would continue to the High Skyline above Panorama and then take Pebble Creek trail toward Camp Muir, but later I realize there was a lower entrance to the trail. I see another group below me and guess that’s where they went.
I don’t spend time at Panorama, I’m eager to get to the higher viewpoint. There is a group of four women, well into their 70s, at the hobbit toilet. As I climb up the trail, I think it’s them breathing down my neck. Impressive. I step aside to let them pass. Turns out it’s two fairly fit 30-something men. “I dunno,” the one in front says breathlessly, leaning on his pole, “you are setting a pretty good pace.” Damn, nice compliment.
There are a lot of people up here for a weekday after the traditional end of summer vacations, but I don’t come to Paradise for solitude. I have discovered other trails for that. Usually it’s a babylon of languages, and a variety of shoe fashion. Today, though, it seems to be a sturdier crowd of people hiking through. Though there are some young folks (and no families), most are my age. I like it!
It is a spectacular day. I know I say this every time I go, but is this the most beautiful day ever up here? I don’t know where the smoke went, but the Triple Crown is standing in stark relief against blue sky. Adams, Hood (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Hood from here), St. Helens. Baker can’t be seen, it’s behind a ridge. And there is a plume of smoke rising and shape shifting in that direction, a reminder that Washington is still on fire.
I have a passing thought that maybe I could hike to Camp Muir some day—with a guide. I’m feeling strong. Maybe when a certain hiking friend in Colorado comes to visit. At the top I find a small group of young Asians with a white-haired guide (volunteer, according to his name badge; also a bit of a prick. Maybe it’s a job requirement). They ask him about Camp Muir. He points out where it is, and informs them that it’s a very difficult climb. “More people die between Paradise and Camp Muir than anywhere else on the mountain.” He tells them there is a 5000 foot elevation gain in five miles, the last 2.5 on snow and ice, which is soft on a warm day like this one, with lousy traction. And, at 10,000 feet, it’s hard to breathe. Okay, never mind. Someday, though, I may go to the edge of that snowfield.
I spend a good bit of time at the top, drinking it in. I put another layer of moleskin on my right heel, the first blister of this epic hiking season. I’m disappointed not to find this promontory covered with inukshuks. It was just that one time, the first time I was here five years ago, when a crowd of them populated the rocks. Today there is not a single one, except mine.
The other thing about doing this loop clockwise is that the hard part is over and my favorite part is yet to come. I head down through the barren talus slopes toward the creeks and meadows looking into the layers of view: the valley below, the Tatoosh, the triple crown of peaks in the Cascades, the cerulean sky. And behind me, Herself. Though seriously, the imposing mountain is not what I love here.
Off to my right an unkindness of ravens suddenly lifts off with an audible whoosh from a snow field, dozens of them twirling upward together before splitting out in small groups on private sky paths. Their shadows on the snow as they rise, multiplies their number. (I wanted to call them crows so I could say “murder of crows,” even knowing they were probably ravens. But who knew a group of ravens are an “unkindness”?)
I cross paths several times with the group of four women. I learn they are from various places in the northeast. Three of them are sisters and they have visited many national parks together in their “elderly years.” I’m envious. I tell them they are living right to have lucked into this day at Paradise.
I take a new trail on my way down: Paradise Glacier. I’ve dawdled so long getting there, though, that I only go a little way down its length. But I get to where I was hoping the trail went. It doesn’t, but I see a spur up the hummock when I turn back that may or may not be a real trail. I am hoping for a view of Mt. Baker, but she is still out of range. I do discover the source of the gushing, rumbling, falling water I have been hearing. I’m guessing it’s the Nisqually River far down in the ravine. A new view, after all these years.
The flowers are long gone here, even the old man on the mountain is past prime. I’m surprised to discover that autumn color has not begun, other than the orange berries of the Sitka mountain ash. I wonder if I can get another visit in before the snows come, when the slopes will be awash in red, orange, and gold. First a trip to western North Carolina to visit the bigs, then I will keep a close eye on the web cam.
Back at Myrtle Falls at 4:00—the end destination of the majority of visitors, just beyond the Inn—I find the flip flop wearing, purse and iPhone camera toting crowd that was missing earlier this morning. There is a mix of Asian and European languages punctuating the alpine air. I love this place. Even this. It’s part of the gift. All are welcome in Paradise.
I stopped on my way up to the Park to see if Basecamp Grill is still open. The last time I came in autumn, I was disappointed to discover it was not open everyday late in the season. It hadn’t said on the website, and there was no definitive signage. I’m holding my breath as I approach Ashford. It’s open! It’s closed on Tuesdays until the end of the month when it closes for the season; I am so glad I didn’t wait until Tuesday.
What a perfect day. What a Paradise. And only 203 photos.