Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wonderland Trail Take 1

Ugh! End of July and most of August have been rather full. We went on 3 backpacking trips and 3 more are in the works by the end of September. We set in at least 5 cords of wood and 5 more are on the way within the next 10 days. We made a major direction change in the outlook for next year and we finally (FINALLY!) got everything moved from one house, to the shack, and reasonably (sorta) put away.

But first things first. Let's get to the Wonderland Trail.

The Summary:
We left for the Wonderland with rather steep expectations of what we were going to see. We weren't let down. It was very intense and by day 5 we realized there was just no way we were going to make it all the way around. When we left, no one had successfully completed the trail this year. Some areas are still 80 percent snow covered. They do not expect the snow to melt off this year at all and the glaciers to rebuild significantly (who knew that could happen in the age of Global Warming!?!)

In many places the problem became that unless you had 1:24 topographical maps, you couldn't see anything due to how deep the snow was and how thick the coverage. Even with very close topos the density of the snow made all the terrain the exact same height. Were you on a lake? Were you on a river? Were you in a meadow? Were you in thin air (that was a scary one a few times)?

The sign posts for campgrounds are deliberately placed fairly high in Rainier so that they can stick out of snow, but even at close to 5 feet off the ground the rangers had to dig them out. This was our first campsite and our lowest elevation.

The lack of compass workability meant you had to rely solely on your GPS. That alone makes Jules and I a bit nervous, but it becomes even more problematic when you know it is actively telling you to go the wrong way. When the arrow begins bouncing due to tree cover or mountain passes and ever step or so you take you are redirected, that is a bad sign. Rangers were advising people to turn the GPS units off and then on again about 4 times when this would begin to happen because it was such a frequent occurrence.

You see that river there? That isn't a river. Nope, not a lake either. In fact that isn't even a body of water. That's an alpine meadow which is melting off. Even better, the melt around this meadow was so awkwardly distributed that you never quite knew of you were on solid ground.

So we surrendered the fantasy of finishing the trail and decided to just enjoy being in one of the most beautiful National Parks in our nation. It became much more about workability of us as a family backpacking in extreme terrain and less about any direct goal.


Snow has become increasingly less about snowmen and snowballs with The Barracuda. It is now far more about summitting mountains, ice axe skills, and mountaineering. He is not allowed to wear crampons yet due to how dangerous they are (he has to be 9), but we spent a lot of time actively working on his snow skills. He can accurately glissade, kick steps, and we are looking into getting him his own ice axe. He still needs to work on his self arrest so that the flip turn becomes automatic, but he is quickly on his way to some serious mountaineer skills. We were very proud of him.
This ice axe is my Black Diamond, and though it is light enough for The Barracuda, it is still far too long. Finding something under 24 inches is proving difficult. We have already begun trying to find children's crampons we can have front spikes welded onto foreseeing future problems.


Glacial Education is full frontal on Rainier. Being the most glaciated peak in the continental United States, the park not only has direct views of glaciers everywhere you look, but it has places were the soils is still trying to rebuild after hundreds of years. As homeschoolers, discussing the magnitude of how ice can carve the land by seeing less than half an inch of soil rebuilding over an estimated 500 years is pretty dramatic. "Stay on the Trail" took on whole new meaning.
Just incase you somehow didn't pick up on that from the glacial meadow, the GIANT sign talking all about it, the huge warning placards, or any of that other stuff.

Primordial Forest

Forest primordial oozes from The Wonderland Trail. I've never seen Cedar trees that big. The impact was even greater than the trees in Sequoia because these trees had been left alone. The park has been 97 percent designated wilderness since its conception in 1917 and it shows wherever you walk. From the expansive meadows which fill with lakes and are rimmed with mountains, to the mist which hangs in undisturbed (messy) forests, the only thing which is maintained is the trail.

One of the most important things we wish our son to understand is that he has the power to either appreciate these spaces or to destroy them. Love them while they are here, respect them as temples, and fight with every bit of your power as a citizen to keep them. Someone did that for you and you need to do that for others.

Route Finding
So much of route finding requires you to stop thinking and listen to your guts. An intuitive trail sense is all you can go with. How does it wind? Where would it go? How would the builders have handled here? Once we hit snow line, we could only walk about a quarter of a mile till we lost trail. Then it was packs off, scout around, call when you found something. Even following footprints wouldn't work unless they had been made by the Rangers within the last 3 hours. The Barracuda got very good at recognizing water bars, cut logs, the bend of the trail in the snow, the difference between a snow covered river and the snow covered trail. He lead us the entire way back out solely so that he could begin to feel the way the trail moved.

Route finding is exhausting. You can never find a stride or a pace and making miles just doesn't happen. However, it is incredible at working on observational skills and perseverance! The Barracuda's spirits were high the entire time. He was down right excited...the kid is twisted.


There were several times over the course of our hike that we flat out didn't know where we were, didn't know where we were going, and really couldn't tell you too much about where exactly we had been. Lots of "I-kinda-think" moments. I kinda think we should head this way. I kinda think that looks like this spot on the map. I kinda think this is completely insane. However, it made for a whole lotta fun. As one of the Search and Rescue climbers said with great enthusiasm, "We've never seen the park this way. We may not again. Don't be a fear monger; enjoy it!"

The snow bridge held for all of us, but you were a bit nauseous trying it mid-day. The glacial melt was running swiftly underneath and there were quite a few large rocks which looked far too happy to crush your head open. This hike really solidified the concept to The Barracuda that backpacking can be fun, but it is serious business that can get you killed. Don't trifle with it.

The Life List

One of the big things we do around our house is to make lists. We set lots of goals, write lots of systematic lists, and leave scrolled bits of paper laying around with various scribblings about plans. It isn't something we directly involve The Barracuda in unless it has to do with him in some way (such as school or chores), but he is rather saturated in it nonetheless. It was only a matter of time before he jumped on the bandwagon with a few lists of his own. On our Wonderland Trip, he decided he wanted to start his Life List. Not the average 6 year old, his goals are a bit larger than we expected. The ones he came up with while we were hiking:

Circumnavigate all the Northern and Central Cascades
Summit all the Central and Northern Cascades
Thru Hike the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail
Summit a 14er (yes, he knows this term) before he is 12

As the list began to be propagated Jules and I would glance down at him over our glasses. "Really?" we would ask. The answer was always a very confident yes. "Well alright then," we would reply. The boy is determined; who are we to stop him?

Warming up in the White River campground after climbing around a bit. Not everywhere was covered with snow. We converted our backpacks to day packs and spent a nice chunk of time just exploring the park. Afterall, there was an entire 5 gallon bucket full of our food drop to eat through.

The boy got to do his Tirolean traverse, Jules got to return to Rainer (he summitted it a few years ago), and I got to see quite a bit of one beautiful mountain. We had planned on trying to return to the Wonderland in late August, but our dog-sitters fell through and no dogs are allowed in the National Park.

The Barracuda and Jules staring up at Gibralter Rock and the summit. The native people called the mountain Tahoma which meant "The Mountain that Is God." Standing beneath her you can definitely feel why.

With the circumnavigation still on The Barracuda's Life List, however, we couldn't just walk away. In late September The Barracuda and I are going up again for Wonderland Take 2. There will be bugs, there might be rain, but at least this time there won't be 11 feet of snow.

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