Monday, December 26, 2011

The Gates of Paradise

the view from Mazama Ridge
 For most people, entering the gates of paradise, let alone seeing them, requires a flight to Italy and standing on long lines only to have just a few minutes of appreciative gazing at an artistic work. But for outdoor adventurers who live in the Puget Sound region, the only requirements to enter through the gates are that you have all-wheel drive and carry chains (the Nat'l Park rangers ask for them). After a warm-up drink of hot chocolate at Longmire Inn, our group of 10 Mountaineers would soon become a group of 7, due to one car's lack of chains, though this situation was unbeknownst to the rest of the party.

I had chosen transport vehicles well, I realized, as we were standing at Paradise, 5,000' waiting for the third car to arrive. Trips to the restrooms, lending a hand to skiers who had a slight equipment snafu and standing around chatting helped pass the time in the 25-degree weather. But still no third car. Cell phones were useless in the Park, as there was no reception, so we hearkened back to the old days when we had to guess what happened to the lost party members. Finally, at 11am – nearly an hour after we first arrived, we decided to proceed with our trip to Reflection Lakes, assuming there was some difficulty at the gate below.
Tatoosh Range from Paradise

There was a crust on the snow, but at least there was snow. It was a beautiful day with high clouds which allowed for good views to the south of the Tatoosh Range and at the mountain herself, to the north. We made our way up to Mazama Ridge, zig-zagging to moderate the grade, though I still felt a familiar burn in my legs. We attained the ridge and had an even better view of the Tatoosh Range and the foothills beyond, plus we ran into a few parties who were spending the night up there – what a treat!

please don't feed the birds!
Down the ridge we went, following a bearing that is roughly aligned with the saddle between the Castle and Pinnacle Peaks to the south. It was great to be in familiar territory again, as this is a trip I had done many times in the past 20 years, but not for the past three years or so. Mazama Ridge is like a kid's playground in that there are plenty of lumps and bumps (snow-buried trees) to go up, down and around on. I led the way in the fresh snow but it was by no means a point-a-to-point-b direct route, as I circled around a tree and weaved through submerged rocks. Soon, we left the ridge and dropped down toward Reflection Lakes, our lunch stop.

Unlike many other trips, where you slave uphill for hours, eat lunch and then frolic downhill and return to the trailhead, this particular trip requires some effort after lunch to make it back up to Paradise. Our leaders chose a packed, marked trail to make the way easier for us (and for them, as they broke the majority of the trail on the way up). To me, it took the joy out of the journey, but also saved me some energy, which I was dearly lacking by that point in the trip. We returned to the parking lot at Paradise, just as lovely as it had been earlier, though with more people and cars and prepared for our journey down the mountain and out past the gate.

Castle and Pinnacle Peaks from lunch
A fellow passenger in our carpool remarked that seeing one of the famed "Rainier Foxes" would have made the day complete and, around the next corner, we saw that very fox, approaching cars at what seemed to be dangerously close distance. He was with his buddy (partner in crime), a black fox, who looked to be straight out of a movie like Harry Potter or a Maurice Sendak set. We all thought, if we talk about winning the lottery and buy a ticket today, will we all become millionaires? But who needs to be a millionaire when you can enter the Gates of Paradise with just a set of chains for safe passage.

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