The Restless Giant ~ Mt Rainier National Park, Part I

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” ~ John Muir

Subalpine meadows, blanketed with brilliantly colored wildflowers, envelop a glacial  volcano, while time-worn forests grace majestic mountain slopes.  This scene enveloping are senses is better known as Mt. Rainier National Park, our 5th National Park in the U.S., established in 1899.

Covered by 34 square miles of year-round snow and ice, this “king of the Cascades” boasts 25 glaciers on its rugged slopes, which have spawned six major rivers. As much glacial ice covers Mt. Rainier as on all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. It is still considered an active volcano, restless, geologically young, having formed ~ 500,000 years ago. Glaciers and landslides continue to erode Mt. Rainier’s surface, making this imposing mountain look older than it is.

We had read that Mt. Rainier is most often shrouded in a gauzy mist instead of proudly on display. We wondered as we entered the park if we would be fortunate enough to see this formidable giant without swirling clouds obscuring its peak. We were blessed to have several clear days. 🙂

With an average annual snowfall of over 50 feet, snow plays a huge role in Mt. Rainier’s ecology and the entire Cascade Mountain range. It shapes everything we see. Snow conditions determine when wildflowers bloom, when water will be available for wildlife, which glaciers retreat or advance, and which species thrive and which are diminished.

How were these 25 glaciers gracing Mt. Rainier’s slopes formed? For starters, more snow must fall than melts away. As snow piles up, the weight of the snowpack squeezes air out of the lower layers, where the compacted snow crystals start to break down. They recrystallize, forming an entirely different type of snow, called firn. It resembles wet sugar but is much harder and heavier than snow. As surface water trickles down, firn goes through many cycles of melting and refreezing, turning to ice in 3-5 years. Glacial ice scatters incoming light into blue wavelengths, which is why they appear blue to the naked eye. As ice rushes over rock, valley walls, and icefalls, it may break like glass, opening up crevasses up to 100’ deep.

We could hear the groaning and cracking of the glaciers as we hiked some of the ridgeline in the park.

Each year over 10,000 people attempt to scale Mt. Rainer’s highest peak. Nearly half reach the 14,410’ summit. John Muir and nine others climbed to Mt. Rainier’s summit in what became the 5th recorded ascent. His trip to Rainier reinvigorated his efforts to preserve nature as National Parks.

With binoculars in hand on one of our hikes we were able to watch several at the overnight camp prepare for their summit attempt the following morning. We also watched another group making their final ascent. How blessed we were to have a clear day to see this unfold.

Those fortunate souls who do summit find themselves inside a massive crater. They can warm themselves near steam vents if they can stand the “rotten egg” smell of sulfur. There is even a lake underneath all the ice.

I was mesmerized by Mt. Rainier’s raw beauty, its wildness, its power to shun half of those who strive to reach the highest peak.

Next Up: A week of getting deep into the untamed landscape of Mt. Rainer National Park.

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