>Ninety Miles Around Tahoma – Sept 2

August 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm (Uncategorized)

> This is the account of my solo backpack trip around Mt. Rainier Sept 1-12, 1990. I will be posting one journal entry each day.


Observation Rock from Spray ParkHand-painted BW photograph


September 2. At 6:20 a.m. Tahoma greets me.

There are only a few clouds, and the pristine glaciers are edged with the first sun. It is revelation, emergent from obscurity, harbinger of mornings to come. I am to see The Mountain on all mornings save the last.

I photograph the morning’s gift to me. Observation Rock is the highest point on Ptarmigan Ridge. In its crotch is the Flett Glacier; Liberty Cap is a smooth scoop of ice cream at the summit. I fill my water bottle at the stream and know I am among the earth’s most privileged. I am alive, fully alive.

The vision quest is a symbolic dying to the old, fearful self. “By making yourself ready to die you give birth to yourself.” This is a creative death. It has already been accomplished in me. That is why I live.

I delight in all I see; brown pipits at a tarn, the jumble of shale-like rocks, streams everywhere. It looks easy to climb Tahoma from here, and I long to. There is nothing so wondrous as the first light of morning, full of promise. Clouds smother the Puget Sound basin to the west and wisps of fog flit about near camp. I cut the reverie short, afraid it will sock in again. Breaking camp, I find the trail and, alone, I walk farther into myself.

Ascending to the 6400 foot ridge to Seattle Park, I am even more aware of my solitude. It is a windswept place, rocky and barren. It is beautiful in simplicity, a rugged scrabble of debris and mat plants and thin sunshine. I think of the young man I met yesterday, walking in the fog with a Walkman sucking his ears. “Christian sermons,” he explained. “Good preaching.” I wanted to tell him he missed the point, but I just smiled and walked on.

A transparent lenticular rain cap forms over Tahoma, to the east of the summit. Mare’s tails, too, hint at bad weather. I am prepared. I will take whatever comes.

Descending, I cross the only two significant snow patches on the entire trip. Two men pass me, coming from Cataract Valley four miles below. The meadow gives way to patchy woodlands and flower fields; there are waterfalls and the clouds are coming in. I stop to apply Second Skin to my downhill blisters, and figure how to keep the healing goop from squishing out. Purple Lewis monkeyflowers (and a patch of albino) cluster along the creeks; clearly summer is not over. In the woods are strawberry bramble with sweet but impossibly tiny fruit. Devil’s club is here, deer fern, twisted stalk with dangling red berries underside. It is all good and beautiful.

Steven Foster writes of the phases of the contemporary vision quest. The first is severance, separation from all that we call our world, our home, family. I think, strangely, of the Oregon Trail pioneers, leaving behind a secure world to find something better. Graves of their loved ones mark their passage into a new life. Graves of the Native peoples they displaced also scar the land. I am a pioneer, white-skinned. My people came from Italy, France, Ireland. It is said my father’s grandmother was a quarter Indian. I call it the family myth. I want to believe it.

The second phase of the vision quest is crossing the threshold into the unknown. “Armed with symbolic tools of self-birth, (the participant) enters a universal order that is sacred and immortal. During this threshold period, secret knowledge and power are transmitted and confer on the individual new rights, privileges and responsibilities upon returning.”

I lunch at Cataract Valley Camp. I pity the conventional folk who camped here in the gloom instead of the meadows; I congratulate myself for insisting on a cross-country permit. It is six miles to Mystic Lake, where I’m supposed to be tonight. I’ve already walked six and I am tired; the added 15 pounds over my normal pack weight is taking its toll. I cross the Carbon River on a suspension bridge and trudge uphill alongside the snout of the Carbon Glacier, the lowest accessible glacier in the park. The trail is filled with Labor Day hikers from Ipsut Creek; many ignore warning signs and clamber near the glacier’s dangerous tip. Rocks fall constantly and erratically, but the tourists are oblivious.

I have descended 3500 feet since this morning. Now I must gain another 3900 with a pack half my body weight because of my camera gear. I learned from my failed summit climb six weeks earlier (yes, fool that I am, I gave it a try) that rest, rehydration and good blood sugar are essential to my well-being. As long…as I can…get enough…of…those things… I will… make it…

It is the longest four miles I have ever walked. Or maybe it is only three. Or six. I don’t know. I go through Moraine Park in the fog and can’t stop long or I’ll chill. It is 7 p.m. and I reach the top of the pass and see the sign, “.8 miles to Mystic Lake.” I am hypoglycemic, sore, exhausted, cold, sweat-drenched, and it will be dark in an hour. I see a lake, or a tarn. For all I know it’s Mystic Lake herself, mystically shrouded in fog, and the camp’s another mile away.

To hell with this.

I pull off, figuring this isn’t a cross-country zone but it’s an emergency. I have my story ready should an officious uniformed person question my camp. “What do you want, a few crushed flowers or a hypothermic body to cart off this mountain in the morning?” It would not be wise to tangle with me this evening. Fortunately, company never shows up.

I apologize to the lupines under the tent and untangle the mess of ropes on the rain fly while my meal heats to lukewarm. I flop into my sleeping bag at 8:30, bundled in all of my winter clothes, and fall mercifully to sleep.

Again, it is a fitful night. Sometime in the middle of it the moon emerges from behind a silhouetted hill. I have a nightmare. I talk to God a lot, out loud. I pray for my family, my friends, and for me. I have some decisions I need to make. I tell Him I expect his reply within ten days. Avalanches keep me awake. I am not sure where I am.

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