Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Day Snowshoe at Mt Rainier

While our party of four (leaders George and Sue Olsen and me and Jerry Chang) slept soundly at the Inn at Longmire with no midnight wakeup from fireworks or hooting and hollering, nature was at work outside our windows. It had been snowing since our arrival on Wednesday evening with snow that was powdery and crystalline, like what Utah or Colorado must refer to as Sugar Snow. Light as air, barely containing any moisture, unlike the usual heavy flakes or snow that went "squeak" beneath your boots. It was with barely any effort that I swept off the six inches that had accumulated on my car so that I could move it out of the way of the morning's plow. I took a walk around the lodge and took photos of the falling snow before I turned in for the night.

In the morning, the power was off at the Inn, with no alarm buzzing me awake and with flashlights illuminating the halls, thanks to the Park employees. I was relieved to be a Mountaineer that morning, for I had a headlamp in my pack and could light my way in the bathroom down the hall. I hoped my friends were doing the same. Breakfast was delayed but was delicious, none the less, and we prepared for our day of snowshoeing. The road up to Paradise was closed due to "extreme" avalanche danger; that light, fluffy snow was more dangerous than it looked and made slab avalanches very possible as it lay on a more solid base. Rain had begun to fall at the Inn, elevation 2,700'.

We gathered ourselves up and met the rest of the party at the museum at the far end of the parking lot. Joining us was Jim Gross, another familiar face and Moa, a petite woman whom I had scrambled with in the spring and Matt, climber and scrambler. We resigned to hike the Rampart Ridge loop that was 4.5 miles and would, undoubtedly, be in rain the whole time. Once on the trail, we were disheartened to realize that the beautiful, fluffy snow from the night before had become heavy and dense from the rain. And deep. While breaking trail, it was up to my knees or higher in some places and I am tall. Moa was in nearly up to her thighs but still able to push through the snow, allowing us to make headway, if slowly. Matt was a great help too, and grateful that he had people to relieve him of his trail-breaking duties. 

Snowshoeing in fresh snow is a lot like cycling in a paceline. It's not the wind you have to contend with, but the unbroken snow. The person at the front makes an impression in the snow, then each person in succession compresses it down further. After a while, the person at the front steps off the trail, allowing a new leader to come up while he or she takes a break at the back. Like slow-motion cycling. But on this day, staying at the back for very long meant running the risk of getting cold. It was raining hard and there was snow bombing us from the trees, adding to the already excessive amount of moisture. Personally, I was having some issues with keeping the moisture in check. Although I was wearing layers of wool and had a softshell outer layer, I felt moisture creeping in, in ways I had never experienced before. Water was making its way down the inside back of my pants and being pulled by gravity into my boots. I had waterproofed my boots and had worn my tough gaiters so this was a feeling I was not used to. In addition, the water ran down my sleeves and snuck under my Gore-Tex overmitts that I had worn over wool gloves. In effect, I was soaking wet, despite doing everything I could to defend myself against moisture.

When we arrived at the intersection of the Rampart Ridge and Mildred Point trails, at mile 1.5, it had taken us 2.25 hours of hard work to get there. I had just been talking to Matt about how reasonable the leaders were and he seemed relieved. Standing at the intersection, looking at my watch and feeling the cold seep in, I was hoping for a reasonable option to be proposed. It was Sue who suggested we turn around and, while George considered it, I had to restrain myself from jumping and running back down the trail. There weren't any other proposals so we defaulted for Sue's recommendation and, only after we were halfway back down, did anyone else, in true Mountaineer stoic style, express their gratitude for that decision. Thank you, Sue, thank you. My hands and fingers thank you, too.

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