The Calm Between The Storms: Bluebird Day in Mt. Rainer National Park

Part 2 of Kyle Miller’s 08-09 touring season:

After my trek to Silver Star in the midst of seven long weeks of negligible precipitation, the Cascades were suddenly hammered by front after front, delivering daily accumulations in the double digits. With the resultant avy danger through the roof, the safe bet was to ride at my local stomping grounds Crystal Mountain.

But finally after two weeks of snowing (and laps of waist deep), we got a break between the storms and the sky changed from gray to blue. Stashes got tracked and it was time to head into the backcountry.

Mt. Rainier’s backcountry menu serves up endless options. One can choose from mellow, low-angled glaciers, to 55-degree headwalls with 3000’ verts of continuous fall line.
When we arrived, Joe Bell and I were greeted with an empty parking lot and clear early morning skies. We quickly packed the necessities (beacon, probe, shovel and an abundance of water) and began skinning through old growth forest heading south, towards Wahpenayo peak near the Western edge of the Tatoosh range.


After a 3,000 foot climb, we emerged from the trees to jaw-dropping vistas of Rainier.
Though the forecasted avalanche danger was low, we were careful to minimize our exposure by crossing the slopes one at a time until we arrived at our high point, the Eastern ridge. Perched above a 500 foot cliff running across the Southern face, we took in the panoramic views:


There is something about blue skies and powder as it glistens in the afternoon sun, and we were eager to take advantage of these conditions, which are definitely rare by Washington standards. We traversed along the high ridge looking for the best terrain. The line that got our attention was a 40 degree chute that dropped 200 feet to another 1800 feet of huge rollers (for reference, this area is comparable to Hemi up at Mt. Baker), and ended with about 2000 ft descent through dense old growth forest. Joe dropped in first, cautious of potential avalanches, and after about 500 verts gave me the green light to drop in.


My philosophy for avalanche-prone terrain is sort of along the lines of, “the less time you spend there, the better,” so I kept it safe by straight-lining the steep chute. Once in the rollers and carving larger turns, I contemplated how lucky we were—ripping down a valley comparable to a small ski resort, with not another track to be seen. “These are the days you live for,” I thought, making Rooster tails with every turn.

Joyfully taking in the stellar snow quality, rare weather, and gorgeous scenery:


Blissful powder turns:


When the rollers flattened out a bit, we skinned to the thick, old-growth forest, the transition from blue skies to utter darkness was nearly instantaneous.

Skinning through a brief flat spot between rollers and old growth:


While the conditions were still amazing in the trees, the snow was much more compacted, and the terrain was far flatter. Keeping speed was key as we rode by trees with the width of small cars. Soon enough we found ourselves back on our skin track and on the summer trail, rapidly loosing elevation.

Skinning down the snow-covered road back to the car, we knew all too well that powder season was coming to a close and that corn snow was just around the corner. We celebrated our victory with a cold brew and speculated when we’d next return to MRNP.

It turned out that I’d be coming back to the park fairly soon.


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