Monday, July 29, 2013

Mt. Rainier: Day Hike! book perfect guide for national park

At 14,411 feet, Mt. Rainier is blanketed in snow in mid-July.
Story and photos by Elliott Almond

AUTHOR Ron Judd says the best way to view Mt. Rainier National Park is by exploring “its wild spots, shake hands with its evergreens, breathe its crisp air, smell its wildflowers, and soak your aching feet in its cool streams.”
I would offer an amendment: those streams are glacial-fed currents of burning cold. But after arduous treks along some of the trails recommended by Judd in Day Hike! Mount Rainier, it was medicinal to tiptoe into the icy waters.
I recently joined Judd and his wife Meri-Jo Borzilleri for a week at Rainier to help the Washington native update his hiking guide for a spring 2014 release. The new version will offer full-color photographs to complement the invaluable trail descriptions. We had time to test all or parts of perhaps a third of the 50-odd trails listed in the book. Bottom line: Day Hike! captures each trail’s distinct characteristics perfectly. Judd, a beloved Seattle Times humor columnist, injects comedy and historical tidbits that make reading the book a joy. I’m not saying this just because my likeness can be found in the current book. As they say, “it’s true, it’s true.”
Truth be told, most hiking guidebooks are dry and academic. The strength of Judd’s writing always has come from the ability to master a subject while making it supremely fun to read. This is why writers like Judd and Bill Bryson are so popular. Ron also is a masterful photographer who combines enticing images with his prose. The updated book with those color photographs is going to make Rainier a mouth-watering morsel waiting to be tasted.
I wanted to show off some of the trails we tested as a preview to what to expect from the new edition. But for anyone serious about exploring Rainier pluck down the dough for what I think is the best hiking guide of this sensational national park.

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Bellingham, Wash., author Ron Judd checks out Chinook Pass trail

Judd's wife, Meri-Jo Borzilleri, enjoys the Pacific Crest Trail.

IT seemed we spent as much time debating where to go as going there. But once we finally got a plan -- that is, once Judd decided on a course of action -- we pretty much stuck with it.
Our first task was to check out Sheep Lake off of Chinook Pass. This trail is just beyond the national park borders but it nonetheless qualifies as a high-country Rainier hike. The book’s current photo of the trail shows a frozen poodle on a snowy autumn day along a narrow ridge. It looks bleak. But we arrived on a sun-kissed morning where after starting in the wrong direction we found this lovely stretch of the famed Pacific Crest Trail. Traversing the east side of the pass brought a change of scenery that is equal to the west. The terrain is classic Cascadian high country. This almost 4-mile hike is perfect for a family outing with little elevation gain. We had the pristine lake to ourselves for lunch.  I would have preferred to continue to 6,370-foot Sourdough Gap, a 1,000-foot climb from the lake. But Ron’s achy knees weren’t up for the lung-bursting ascent.
We returned to the parking lot to regroup. Meri-Jo and I then took off on the Naches Peak trail that intersects at the 5,400-foot Chinook Pass parking lot. The loop is 4.5 miles of breathtaking country. Because of the lateness in the day we walked only to a tarn where we soaked up to our thighs. For the more ambitious the loop can include a side trip to Dewey Lakes to add up to five miles to the hike. The trail also follows the PCT in wilderness land.
A brewing tropical storm greeted us the next day. It felt odd to be among the towering alpine peaks under darken sky but without that bite of cold. Ron wanted to use the day to tackle a couple trails in the Paradise section of Rainier. This is where the main visitors center is located. Although he already has a library of great photos of Narada Falls and the like he wanted to take advantage of the light as it is difficult to shoot mountain scenery under super bright conditions during the day.
While Ron meandered the area in search of a wildflower or two MJ and I climbed. Our goal was to reach Panorama Point midway up the 14,411-foot monster peak. It travels straight up into the gut of the dragon, the menacing alpine climb to Rainier’s treacherous summit. The trail allows armchair mountaineers a chance to get a feel for what it is like to climb a mountain. Only you don’t need crampons, ice axes and a fearless resolve. Although the calendar said it was mid July the snow pack remained low on the mountain. Trampling over the slippery stuff on the ascent wasn’t too difficult. But every step I took concerned me because I so dislike the downhill glide over snow -- even with hiking poles.

MJ and the Mountain

MJ marched up the mountain like a bighorn sheep. Just as we got to the vista point the sky grew measurably more dark. Mt. Adams had disappeared and the nearby Tatoosh range was riveted by rain. I got a little nervous about getting stranded on Rainier in a snowstorm, something I have worked hard to avoid over the years. We devoured our lunches and headed down the way we came.
After navigating a rocky section of trail we hit the steepest snowbank of the day. I suggested we use the glissade. It was on the snowy slopes of Rainier back in 1996 that Mr. Judd taught me the finer points of glissading, an enterprise I never had to encounter while hiking in the desert wasteland of Orange County, Calif. Alas, MJ steamed along screaming like a kid in a roller coaster. I plodded down until hitting a hump of snow that led to a dead stop. I clumsily hopped the mound and tramped over to the trail. As we descended we were showered by a light rain; thankfully it was not a dangerous downpour. Meri-Jo, a Lake Placid, N.Y., native, underscored her roots with snowy conditions by easily cruising down the mountain. I, on the other hand, struggled, often giving way by gliding on my butt. Kids in tennis shoes passed me. Mothers in tennis shoes passed me. Everybody’s favorite great aunt whizzed by. But we arrived at the bottom at the ascribed time where Ron was waiting.

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Rainier marmott

WE did a number of other hikes, including to Owyhigh Lakes, Summerland, Fremont Mountain Lookout and then suddenly had run out of time. All of them were spectacular and many I had previously done but enjoyed as much as ever.
While living in Seattle Rainier seems like a neighborhood park just 60 miles away. But it never stops being spectacular no matter how many times one touches the mountain.
We vowed to make camping and hiking there an annual event.

Big man looking at a big tree

Owyhigh Lake and meadow

IN the dark, thick forest near dusk along Summerland Trail.

The crossing of Fryingpan Creek on way to Summerland