Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not Sleeping In The Air, 4

Morning. Warm. Calm. Bright

This was way back in June already. I haven't done much at all this year, but it was fun, if not the sleeping on the ground part. I missed my hammock.

Castle Peak up north. A bit colder.

But it was dandy getting up to sunshine. The first day had been dense with fog. The second, still gray. And there was snow all over. Didn't like that much, not at the end of June.

I don't know if these were cut before or after the eruption.

There are lots of stumps in some areas, lots of dead standing trees in others, and downed trees everywhere. Most are getting soft and crumbly 30 years after the eruption.

Divide between two canyons. More photos below.

So there I was, having wanted to descend west into Castle Lake but meeting deep snow, turning back and then wondering. Might as well trudge up the side of the mountain to where the shoulder meets the cinder cone.

Same area later, looking a little cheerier.

I'll probably never get back here, so this was a good time to go see it. I headed for the divide between two canyons.

Heading off, still early, to visit the mountain.

From below it looked easy. A short stroll up a shallow slope. Go there, touch the side of the mountain, and turn left, and hit the trail out. Right?

Melted-out elk tracks.

Maybe not. The 20 to 30 minute hop up the mountain took well over an hour. Surprise! It's hard walking uphill. Steeper than it looks. Lumpier. Unreasonable even.

Cheery little blossom people hiding out.

Snow here. Snow there. Small ravines. Logs. Elk poo. And always uphill, with no break, in the soft, sandy soil.

High up the divide, looking into the south-side chasm.

Eventually I got to within a couple hundred meters of the actual mountain, and then...and then all my short hairs began standing up, getting ready to run for their lives. Things got scary.

Same place, showing both slopes.

Because, right up near the top, where it looks really interesting, it is. Too interesting. Interesting on the right, and interesting on the left, in a dropoff, sudden death sort of way. Left, to the north, it would be a nasty tumble into the ravine, but right, to the south, it would be a sliding tumble followed by a screaming drop followed by more screaming and falling, followed by an unfortunately and all too sudden stop on the rocks far below. Maybe 500 feet (150 m). Not fun. Not at all.

Panorama from the divide's high point, looking west.

Sure, it's all soft and pliable, and you could (maybe) continue up a goodly distance. But maybe not. The land on this mountain has a way of deciding on its own to relocate, for no particular reason. So I stopped short. And turned around, and played with the camera, getting a pretty decent panorama that unfortunately makes it all look flat. But there were some odd clouds there too.

Clouds with tails hanging down. Hard to photograph but maybe you can get a sense of them.

Clouds with hanging tails.

And then, looking north, there is the immense Rainier peeking over the ridge, offhandedly, slightly amuse, watching the way it does.

Looking north toward Mt Rainier.

Hike out here, at this season, and though there is snow everywhere, there is no flowing water until late in the day.

Alder blossoms, I think.

The native plants know how to get down to what they need, but for us up on the surface it's surprisingly dry. Water gurgles all night in little streams and then by morning it's all gone away again. Still, it's nice to see fresh young greens here and there.


And another thing. Even though there wasn't much water available most of the day, the soil was decently moist. This makes a huge difference.

Castle Creek, Studebaker Creek flats.

The reason is that there is no soil in the normal sense. It's all sand and dust and assorted knobby stones. Later in the year parts of the landscape almost explode when gravity overcomes friction. I've seen enough of it to be wary, which is why I didn't get as high up the mountain as I wanted. Too unpredictable.

South-side "trail" above Castle Creek.

There is a broad, flat valley between the drainages of Studebaker Creek and Castle Creek. There is what looks like a trail going up the southern side, but it's an illusion. Even ten years ago the trails here were good, but now they have either been washed away or have withered into faint traces. Which is a bunch of fun when you are halfway up a slope and there is no footing, only a steep drop into a world of pain.

Closeup. The "trail" is only hypothetical.

But, having experienced this place for over 15 years, I've figured out when not to hike, where not to, and how to bypass most of the rest.

Heading north. More clouds with tails.

Back farther north things level out somewhat. There is a nice but short stretch of rolling hills at the northwest shoulder of the mountain before the trail declines back to the confused mess of the sandy pumice plain under the mountain's mouth.

A few lingering flattened trees.

There are long-dead trees here, showing without a doubt which way the wind blew that day 30 years ago.

Across the pumice plain NE to Spirit Lake.

And then there is the long vista over the flats to Spirit Lake.

The trail that goes there.

This always looks nice, but the reality of covering the distance is other than a stroll. The whole landscape is a series of ravines and gullies that are in the process of growing up to be canyons and death traps.

Trail detail.

But hey. If you grew up in open country you kind of feel at home.

A bit of green in the barren sand.

Everything here is loose, and on a windy day, which can be a hugely windy day, it's all dust, all the time.

Pattern in a boulder's side along the way.

And then, every so often, you see a bit of green, or a field of flowers at the right time of year, or you're crossing a seep and see frogs. Or the ravens are out, doing barrel rolls and croaking. It's a place.

Along the trail, looking toward the waterfalls...

There used to be a trail on the pumice plain, and cairns, and somehow some of that remains but mostly you have to go over it a few times and learn which major landmarks to aim for and forget about trails and markers. Because mostly there aren't any. Anymore.

...which are pretty gnarly. This is hundreds of vertical feet.

But in a way the area right below the drooling mouth of the mountain gets more interesting. Places where a stream crossing used to be a matter of a couple steps down, a couple of steps across, and a couple of steps up are now more like short courses in mountain climbing. Sometimes there is an easy way down into a stream's course, but then you can't find a way out the other side.

Much later, higher up, evening, looking south.

Partly it's the depth, partly the sand, but you just keep going. At least, as on trips like this, there is the higher country on the way out, where a person can gain a bit of altitude again, turn, and have a good look at it all.

A peek into the pit.

I've got a few views here of parts of the mountain that are normally not too visible.

Panoramic, only partly worked out. (enlarge)

That's the good news. The bad news is that I've never before tried panoramas using a long focal length. These two photos didn't turn out quite right, but since they let a person get right up into the crater, I decided to include them.

Panoramic, only partly worked out. (enlarge)

If you look closely you can see some huge crevasses in the crater. On the last panorama I also notice two bright specks toward the lower left, visible on maximum enlargement. They look like geophysical stations. You see these here and there. Self-contained, solar powered, bristling with wires and antennas. And now I think I've seen two in the crater itself.

The final morning, on the way out.

And then the last night, camped, let us say, less than legally, I spent a quiet night, though damp, with the earth's exhalations that seem to come forth only at night.

Downstream watercourses in morning light.

But the final morning was fine. A bit of early fog blew through far below, ruffling the landscape, and the sun was fresh but not too bright, and no one was on the trails yet.

Loowit Creek well downstream from the crater.

So the result is that you get more views into the watercourses flowing out from the mountain, places which look fine and smooth from a distance, so fine and smooth and clean that you ache to go there, but which are, if they get you to come in, to fall for the trap, the worst hell holes imaginable, with vertical sides, landslides, clouds of dust, and ground so uneven and choked with stones that walking is nearly impossible. And I always want to go back.

The mountain from the air, as seen at Garrett Murray's Maniacal Rage.