This is a joint blog with Kevin Douglas about our participation in the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge: Mother Mountain/Northern Loop 2014. All photo's courtesy Kevin Douglas. Thank you Ras and especially Kathy for designing this great route!
In 2010 I hiked the Wonderland Trail and was blown away by its difficulty and beauty. I was stoked to see Kathy’s Mother Mountain/Northern Loop UPWC route because I have always wanted to go back and explore more in the Rainier area.
So, on July 20th, Kevin Douglas and I set out from Mowich Lake in the fog and rain to complete the 45+ mile route. We embarked hoping that the cloud cover would rise and we would finally be able to see the beautiful mountain(s) we were running around. Unfortunately that wouldn’t happen for us.
The descent from Ipsut Pass was a miserable drenching through the thick brush that overhung the trail.
Nearing the Carbon River in the lush fairy forest below Ipsut Pass
We reached the Carbon River and I was surprised to see that the bridges were different than they were four years ago. However, staring at the raging brown torrent threading through the forest, I wasn’t too surprised. The glacial rivers pouring off of Ranier are humungous and powerful. They rearrange the landscape in whatever way they wish on a regular basis.
Carbon River at work
Former Wonderland Trail went straight here until the River decided otherwise!
We descended the bank and walked toward the tilted bridges. We laughed nervously and took pictures of the water cascading across the logs we were about to walk on.
Uh, we're going to wade across the bridge?
Don't look down!
We reached the opposite bank and decided it was snack time. In the process of de-layering and eating we discovered our DeLorme inReach was not working. We decided to try and use Kevin’s Garmin to record the rest of our route, but—despite repeated tries throughout the day—the thick clouds blocked his satellite signal.
More destruction (re-creation?)
Kevin gets creative
We decided to take pictures of as many junction signs as possible to document our progress instead, but I won't post them all here. That would be rather boring. Except this one, because it's funny...
We switchbacked up through the forest at a steady clip. As we reached Yellowstone Cliffs camp junction the clouds began to break up and swirl away.
sunlight leaks into the forest
Suddenly towering cliffs soared above us and we were surrounded in a magnificent world of bear grass and wild flowers.
An unconcerned deer browsed only feet away.
Bolstered with optimism that the weather would continue to improve we plunged onward, soon encountering snow in Tyee Park as we climbed to Windy Gap. We followed fresh boot tracks for a while before encountering their owners: two heavily laden young women headed for the Natural Arch. We chatted and passed by sneaker skiing down the snow. It was fairly easy to follow the route downward and we again entered forest.
Soon we saw a man with a running pack coming uphill toward us. We said hello and passed on, commenting that we didn’t know him, but maybe he was doing the same thing? A few moments later Mike Chastain appeared and we stopped to chat for a few minutes. They were running the Northern Loop.
We continued on through the forest, across the White River and then began to ascend up to Grand Park.
The clouds settled back in and we resigned ourselves to no more vitamin D for the day. As we wound across the wide open expanse of Grand Park Kevin suddenly remembered he’d been there before. It was funny to hear him recount stories of a run he’d done years ago in this same place that he’d completely forgotten about. As we passed landmarks he’d excitedly proclaim some details.
Looking down at the White River
Soon we merged with the Wonderland Trail in Berkeley Park and it was my turn for nostalgia. I described the rest of our route back to the Carbon River as we evaluated the fact that we were moving much slower than anticipated. We ate some food and then headed out into the fog, making a concerted effort to run more than we had been.
Soon we ran into another Seattle area runner who warned us about a bear and cubs near Mystic Lake. We pushed onward, marveling at the powerful White River as it poured out of the Glacier.
As we reached the bridge we saw Mike and friend coming across as they wrapped up their run for the day. We paused on the other side to look back at Garda Falls and take some pictures. I told Kevin that when I had backpacked the loop before I had misread the map and thought it was called "Giardia Falls." We laughed that it was probably the only waterfall I'd ever remember the name of.
We continued winding our way up and down and along the tongues of moraine in the area until we once again were in forest. We noted several fresh piles of bear scat and enthusiastically scoured the woods for a glimpse of a bear. Eventually we decided that Rainier bears must all wear deer costumes to avoid tourists.
I remarked to Kevin that although I had hiked through here before I had absolutely no memory of Mystic Lake. And it’s a big lake!! We passed the lake and climbed up and up. We reached the ridge and headed down, excited for some free running…then the trail started up again. Oops…we missed that bump on the map!
We finally began our long descent to the Carbon and my legs were just not wanting to turn over. This was my longest outing and only third run since my DNF on the JMT at the end of June. My body was letting me know that it was tired.
We reached the lovely suspension bridge across the river and ate a quick snack. We joked about the discrepancy between the two crossings and decided the park service clearly liked people doing this section of trail more than the other.
Upper Carbon River Crossing
Just above Carbon River Camp we met a man headed down. He informed us he’d departed from Ipsut Pass that morning, but there had been too much snow in Seattle Park for him to navigate and so he’d had to turn around and go back to Carbon River Camp. We parted ways and Kevin and I tried to figure out what the heck he’d been talking about. Finally we realized that he’d tried to do the short loop around Mother Mountain and hadn’t encountered snow on Ipsut, but up ahead and was turning around there instead of completing the loop.
We speculated whether the snow would be a big deal or not. We only had a few hours before dark and no layers or overnight gear. We decided that it probably wasn’t that bad and our combined backcountry skills would be adequate. We continued to climb and shortly before we reached Seattle Park we met a group of 5 guys who were practically vibrating with adrenaline. They emphatically warned us about the snow ahead and how they’d been lost for an hour. We could see them staring at our tiny daypacks and trail running shoes with concern. We reassured them we’d be fine and continued on. I felt a twinge of unease in my gut.
Boardwalks in the Park
Once in the park it began to mist. The temperature was dropping and the clouds were thick and low. We were soon on snow, searching for cairns and melted out sections of trail. The fog had rolled in lowering our visibility to about 50 ft. We got out the map, but there was no way to orient since we could see no landmarks. We climbed as rapidly as we could, fueled now on our own adrenaline.
Starting to hit snow
As with all good adventures we were so preoccupied with getting ourselves out alive that we didn't take any pictures of the next section. I can assure you they'd be misty whiteouts with a few vague shadows of rocks and krumholtz.
I was getting cold. My propensity for Reynoud’s attacks as well as hypothermia had me growing increasingly concerned as the wind picked up. I knew that without visible landmarks we would have an incredibly hard time hitting the defined point of the trail at the other end of all this snow. Darkness was imminent and a night out would surely kill me…
“Do you see footprints coming downhill?” I asked Kevin.
“Yes! A couple sets over here.”
“We need to follow them, especially if they are together.”
Kevin hesitated to trust ourselves to phantom footprints instead of searching for cairns, but I quickly explained my logic.
“We know a group of 4 people just came through here from Mowich. Even if they wandered and wasted some time, they made it through. If we follow their tracks we will too. When they were unsure of the route the tracks will be spread out, when they were more confident multiple sets will be together. We need to try and follow groups of tracks.”
With a plan in place we charged up the slippery snow and through the fog, squinting in an attempt to discern the shadow of tracks in the poor light. We ran along until I finally stopped slightly panicking.
“We are way too fucking high!” I pulled out the map and tried to figure out where we were. Had we inadvertently climbed Ptarmigan Ridge? We must be near 7,000ft. The fog and wind and light rain had me flashing back to Barkley…
I turned the map to align with my compass.
“We have to head that way. If we don’t descend soon we’re going to be in bad shape.”
In my mind I was already evaluating the likelihood of dropping in elevation straight down to the Northwest regardless of trail and figuring it out in the morning. All I knew was that it was essential to get down out of the snow and rain and to warmer temps.
We headed in the direction the compass pointed and within a few yards we saw the footprints converging into a muddy trough that gave way to trail. We beelined to in and were thrilled to see another trough, another section of trail and another ahead…and below us. We’d crossed reached Eagle’s Roost although it was buried under snow and begun to drop off of the pass. Thank God!
“This is good! This means the snow isn’t going to be a problem anymore!”
“Because, look at all the tracks! This is more than one group of guys. People don’t go far into snow. Everyone came to the pass, saw how bad it was and turned around. That means from here down there can’t be much and they will be plenty of tracks.”
We ran, sliding on snow and mud, across long patches of snow and on intermittent trail as we descended into Spray Park. We soon were snow free and passed trail junctions for overlooks and camp.
Deep dusk caught us as we merged onto the Wonderland Trail for the last .3 miles up to Mowich Lake.
We stepped into the camping area 15:02 after we’d left that morning and embraced.
The route was challenging in ways we hadn’t expected. As far as the elevation and trail tread, all was straightforward. It was the weather that made the difference. We didn’t see much of anything and the cold and rain and especially the final 3 hours in the snow really drained me. I was thankful to come back to the 90 degree heat!