I booked a trip to Seattle under the impression that it’d been two years since I had last visited, but when I looked back at old photos I was shocked to realize that it had only been a year since I had visited the Emerald City. Unable to change my flight date without incurring the airfare again in change fees, I decided to see if the weather of 2012 would cooperate with blue-sky pictures of my favorite mountain as much as it did just over twelve months ago.
In a word, it didn’t. I had been lucky: last year’s trip contained two days of the best weather Seattle had had for months; this year, I just missed a nearly-monthlong hiatus from rain and cold and descended instead into the fog and dreariness that epitomizes Seattle’s rather long winters. I prepared for the moisture by donning High-Performance Gear — a term coined by a friend to describe the layers necessary to stay warm and dry in the wet Pacific Northwest — and was greeted during my entire stay by a deviously Chesire Mt. Rainier.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the Westside Road open for the first time in the five years since I first visited the Park. (It’s practically the only maintained road in the park I haven’t driven on.) It was a sight to see: snow-capped foothills splaying out beneath the shrouded cap of the big mountain, wonderfully-green trees of all shapes and sizes in the valley beneath the hills, and fog obscuring anything randomly. In one moment, trees would appear green and healthy — in the next, they’d disappear into the abyss and reemerge as colorless phantoms.
The effect continued as I drove the remainder of the way to Paradise. From Seattle, this is the closest high-elevation visitor center currently open: Sunrise doesn’t open for another month. I rented snowshoes the previous day and decided to try to find a spot on Mazama Ridge to mountain watch. I knew that no wildflowers would be in the shot, but I wasn’t expecting this much snow. At least it was fresh: the skiers whose tracks I followed up the slopes were having a great time with all the powder.
Not wanting to get lost in the backcountry, I decided to leave the tranquil silence of falling snow and turned north toward the mobs at Paradise. Only a few hours after two fresh inches had fallen on the ridge, at Paradise the mountain revealed that she had been there the whole time. To the south? The skies were still dark — and ominous, even.
The next day, the skies opened almost clear — clear enough that Rainier was at last visible from the fields next to a farm, anyhow. It was also the day that the Stevens Canyon Road and Chinook Pass opened for the season… and, on a separate note, the five-month anniversary of my previous mountain trip. It baffles me how much time, energy, and money I spend to seek out what seems like solitude in high places, but there’s an invigorating combination of purity, la joie de vivre, and respect for nature any time the weather changes this fast. (Do not underestimate the severity of this statement or the relative ambivalence of this post: several people have lost or nearly lost their lives in Paradise this winter alone due to quickly-changing weather conditions.) My goal for the rest of the day was to see if Chinook Pass would be a feasible spot for a sunrise photo on the third morning. I found out quickly that buried under 13′ of snow it wasn’t — but no complaints, as the snow was pleasingly abstract to make up for hiking inaccessibility.
The sunrise the next morning would come from the Paradise area instead. Once this snow melts and I can actually get somewhere for a shot, I’ll be back — for the flowers, for the reflections, for some warmth, for friends.
When on Memorial Day I finally had to leave Seattle and the mountain, the clouds rolled in — obscuring Rainier from Kerry Park but via the Space Needle allowing me a chance to somberly and privately thank the troops who have sacrificed (and continue to sacrifice) so much for this country.
As I flew out of the city and into the clouds, Rainier poked her head above them for a final goodbye… and yet a surprising hello: this was the first time I had seen for myself the mountain from above. From blinding reflections off snow to fog thick enough to obscure headlights, this mountain is as charming as it is mysterious. And it draws me closer every time.
Edit: I was wary that the aerial photo above was actually Rainier given what I had imagined to be my flight path, but I ignored this instinct because the mountain being Rainier fit better into the story. However, after looking at the actual flight path of US 570, that mountain is, in fact, Mt. Adams. So much for identifying “my” mountain above the clouds — clearly it pays to fact-check before scribbling thoughts together. This just means, though, that I need to fly to Seattle yet another time to see the mountain from above.