TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Completely Alone on Mt. Rainier’s Northern Loop

Contemplating big views and deep solitude on an October hike that turns very, very wet

By Michael Lanza

“There’s absolutely no one out here.”

I was just a few hours into a solo backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier National Park’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop when that realization hit me. It was a cool, clear day in October 2003. None of my usual hiking partners had been available to join me. So I decided to do the trip solo, something I’ve done more times than I could count and felt comfortable with. I had no inkling that this time I’d face circumstances that shrink the safety margins for someone alone in the wilderness down to nothing.

When I picked up my backcountry permit that morning, a ranger told me a snowstorm had hit the park just two days earlier. “You’ll probably run into at least a foot of snow on the ground at higher elevations,” he said. That didn’t dissuade me; I was prepared for snow. Neither of us, however, knew about the much bigger storm brewing out over the Pacific Ocean as we spoke, collecting moisture as it barreled toward the Cascade Range.

That conversation came back to me as I walked past the rippling water of a tiny tarn in a meadow on my way to Windy Gap. Just a few tiny patches of white remained on the ground at 5,600 feet. Sun and mild temperatures had evaporated the recent snow. But apparently no one had been out there since the storm, because even the rangers had no idea what trail conditions were like.

That’s when it hit me: With backcountry rangers warning anyone considering a trip that they would encounter deep snow, I would probably not see another person out there.

Autumn can be the finest time to head into the backcountry. The foliage changes color, brightening the landscape. There are no bugs. The weather often achieves something close to meteorological perfection: skies clear and dry, affording hundred-mile views, and temperatures not too hot during the day, not too cold at night. I’ve enjoyed some of my best days in the mountains in the fall.

But autumn exhibits a bipolar personality. And in October, you are as close to the mountain winter as you are to its summer. In some respects, it is more dangerous than winter because in fall it’s easy to get lulled into trusting the weather. But really good can turn really bad, really fast.

Looking back, I think that most if not all of my hardest, most wretched experiences in the backcountry have occurred between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. On Mt. Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop, I was about to add another to my list.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery from this trip, as well as other stories about outdoor adventures, at TheBigOutside.com.

Advertisements

3 Comments»

  Nathan Menkveld wrote @

You’ve got me hooked!
p.s. I would love to link blogs if you are interested (I am getting in to many of the same things as your blog covers and would like to have some other sites networked with mine, take a look and comment on my blog if you are interested! Thanks.)
nathanmenkveld.wordpress.com

  Jo Ann wrote @

As a solo backpacker of many decades in the harsh weather of the Canadian Rockies, I travelled every moment of your rain-soaked odyssey with you. Some experiences are far better in the telling than in the living. Great story!

If you are interested, I’m blogging a horse trek in Mongolia
jcreore.wordpress.com

  thebigoutside wrote @

Your horse trek looks amazing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: