Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wonderland Trail in 3 days (day 3)

I woke up Monday around 6AM, and laid in bed until 6:30 AM before getting up and heading with the others down to breakfast. I was hoping we could order, eat and go in 30 minutes. But as 7:30 AM became 8 AM, and 8AM became 8:30 AM. We were loosing precious time, and we had 34 miles to go.

I looked at the map for any possible solutions. I had thought that day 3 would be the most isolated section of the trail, but then I noticed the West Side road. The road provided us with a way to skip the first two climbs of the day which covered roughly seven miles and instead trade it for 4 miles of hiking with much less vertical. We would just need Dave drive us up the West Side road to the point where it was closed to traffic and started hiking there. I pitched the idea to Tom S, but he told me at that point was feeling pretty ill, he still hadn't recovered from the previous day. The drive would be about 30 minutes, so it was decided that Tom S would join Tom M, Dave and me and he could decide at the last minute if he really wanted to take on another day with 31 more miles. With a lot of strong encouragement from the rest of us to skip day 3 if he didn’t fully feel up to it, Tom S utltimately decided to back out at the last minute. It was now just Tom M and me.

Dave dropped us off, wished us well, and we headed off hiked along the West Side road from the gate for a couple miles. Tom M and I were enjoying the easy hiking and taking as we hiked at a quick pace, eventually reaching Tahoma Vista. It was there that we realized we missed the trail head for Tahoma Creek trail by at least a mile. We had to backtracked and finally found the trail head hidden behind a barrel that I had previously told Tom M to ignore. The barrel was meant for climbers coming off of the high glaciers to leave their blue bags full of “human waste”.
Before we had started off on this path, Ben had promised the Tahoma Creek trail would be easy. However it didn’t take much hiking before we found the trail to be not in the best condition. As we continued on we moved slowly loosing and then re-finding the trail several times. Finally, 6 miles after leaving the car we caught up with the Wonderland Trail. It was suppose to be 4 miles, but missing our turn off by a mile, then having to hike a mile back had lead us to a bad start for the day. In the end we had given up 7 miles for 6, not really saving much distance.

suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek
Despite being way behind schedule we tracked a short distance just so we could walk the famous high suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek. Then it was back to the trail, only not nearly as quick as the past few days.

As we started our first climb up and over Emerald Ridge and then back down toward the South Puyallup River we were suprised to find far more hikers on this section of the trail than what we had seen on any other part of the trail. At one point we crossed paths with a Ranger who asked to see our backcountry pass. After explaining our plans to make it all the way to Mowich, and yes we realized we wouldn’t be arriving until well after dark, the Ranger told us what sections ahead would be good for running and which sections wouldn’t. He also told us to keep an eye open for the Salmon Berries as we headed down toward the North Puyallup River and make sure to grab a handful or two.

We dropped down to the South Puyallup River and headed back up again. The climb up from the South Puyallup River was pretty difficult, mostly because we had been going hard for so long. We passed a couple of older men who were really huffing and puffing. As I reached the high point before heading down to St. Andrew’s Park I decided to take a bit of a breather. The black flies were quickly finding me and Tom M an interesting target, but we hung out as one of the older men caught up with us there. He said he was 65, and that he started at Longmire. He was on his second day on the trail and was quickly realizing he signed up for a lot more than he was ready for. He said he was going to try and make his way eventually to Mowich, then hitch a ride to Enumclaw, then spend his life savings if necessary for a taxi to take him home. He looked totally defeated. He asked if we had an energy bar to spare saying his were too far in his pack to dig out right now. Tom M offered him one, and we wished him luck and headed on our way.

St Andrews Lake
As we reached St. Andrew’s Lake we found another older man happily swimming in the lake. This guy looked a lot happier. I really wished I could also go for a swim in the very inviting looking lake, but we had far too many miles to cover and far too few hours of daylight left. So we continued on towards the North Puyallup River. As we continued on I asked Tom M if he knew what salmon berries look like. He said he probably couldn’t identify them well enough to feel safe eating them.

view as we headed down to the N. Puyallup
The terrain heading down to the North Puyallup River  was some of the most dramatic on the entire trail. Huge cliff faces, probably a thousand plus feet dropping from the Puyallup Glacier high above on the mountain, with waterfalls dropping many hundreds of feet off of the cliff faces. As we dropped lower and into thicker overgrowth I saw what must have been the salmon berries (looked like a black berry or raspberry only yellow to pink in color), either way it looked good and I was sick of energy food. I ate as many ripe ones as I could find, and they were good!

When we reached the North Puyallup River it was after 6PM. As we took a bit of a break I realized we still had a very long ways to go. I was getting anxious...this was going to be a lot of hours of hiking in the dark. We headed off again up towards Golden Lakes discussing how we would keep our sanity on the miles and hours of travel ahead in the dark. Tom M and I tried to tell stories and stretch them out, anything to keep minds off of the hours left to go. I tried to push for the goal of seeing the sunset from the last high point in the trail, but as we headed up I could occasionally see though the trees the sun getting really low in the sky.

sunset from Sunset Park
Finally as the last bit of the sun was setting, we reached the big open area known as Sunset Park. The setting sun was lighting up the Mowich Glacier on the mountain in a bright orange. Before long we were in complete dark, and this seriously slowed down our pace.

In the open area of Sunset Park the temperature quickly dropped. For the first time on this hike I was actually getting cold. However, as soon as we went back into the protection of the woods the temperature seemed to climb 15 degrees. After about an hour of traveling like this I saw what appeared to be a light in the woods; someone's campsite I thought. As we got closer it became clear that the light was coming from 3 square shaped windows; it was the rangers cabin.

The ranger came out to greet us, and probably question why we were hiking in the dark. We explained our trip to him and that we fully realized what we were in for over the next several hours. He mentioned that the other ranger we had met earlier in the day had radioed him to let him know we would be coming though. The ranger told us we had around 10 miles to go, and that soon the nearly full moon would be rising and possibly lighting up the trail a bit. He wished us luck, and we were off.

The trail went on, up and down, right and left, mostly down toward the Mowich River. Minutes seemed like hours. Everything was darkness. When the moon did rise the thick trees obscured most of the moon light. There were only occasional glimpses of the moon though the tree, but never enough light to help us see our surroundings. I was really hating this.

At 10:45 PM we finally reached the Mowich River. We needed one last refill of water before the last very long push up to Mowich Lake. For the first time since it became dark enough for us to use our headlamps, Tom M and I turned off our lights to sit beside the river lit only by the moonlight for a few minutes. It was almost (almost) enough light to hike by. We got our things together and started our final push of about 4 miles up hill. The crossing of the Mowich River was a bit confusing, because you need to cross 2 forks of the river. In daylight this definitely wouldn't be a problem, but in the middle of the night  your entire world is only what is 10 feet in front of you and everything looks the same. I paused for more than a few moments thinking we had gone in a circle as we crossed the second fork of the Mowich River, but this had to be the right way. We continued on.

Those last miles up hill were pretty bad. I don't think Tom M and I spoke more than a dozen words. We had both been in that world of limited visibility for hours. With our cheap LED headlamps, there was almost no color and very little depth perception. We stopped around 12:30 AM for a break. We had probably been moving at less than a mile an hour. My ankles were really hurting at this point; unable to get any depth perception on the the trail I was constantly misplacing my steps and twisting my ankle, not enough to cause injury, but enough to cause pain when repeated for hours on end.

We decided to really push it until we got to the truck, so we picked up the pace. We were moving much faster than we had in the past 6 or more hours (which probably meant we were moving 2-1/2 miles an hour). Finally at 1:30 AM we reached the parking lot for the Mowich Lake campground. We went straight to the truck. Tom M took a sleeping pad and his sleeping bag and immediately crashed in the bed of the truck. Not wanting to deal with mosquitoes or setting up a tent, I climbed into the passenger seat, moved it back as far as it would go, leaned the seat back as far as it would go, and fell asleep.

early morning moonset on the way home
Five hours later we both got up, and drove back to Seattle. Only stopping once for a much needed Starbucks coffee. As we drove the dirt road heading away from Mowich Lake we saw our one and only bear of the trip. The bear was crossing the road, and he was there and gone too quickly for me to capture a picture. So that I could have one last picture from the trip we stopped on the side of the road so I could take a picture of the low lands around Mount Rainier covered in fog or a low cloud layer. The moon that had provided us so little light was now setting.

When I got home and looked at what my GPS had to report, it ended up shorting me about 10 miles over the entire trip. We had added at least a mile by going over Spray Park instead of Ipsut Pass on day one, then skipped maybe a mile on day two by avoiding Box Canyon and picking up the trail 1/4 mile down the road. Finally we skipped a mile on day three. All things considered I sure felt like I had just gone 93 miles. The trip was incredible, and I would definitely do some variation of it again.

Wonderland Trail in 3 Days?

Wonderland Trail in 3 days (day 1)
Wonderland Trail in 3 days (day 2)

All the pictures from the trip


KG said...

I think you meant Tom M slept in the back of the truck... unless some how Tom S had just been waiting there for you guys :-)

Gorohoff said...

Oops...problem fixed. Thanks for pointing that out.

Paul Shoen said...

Just did WL self supported starting from Longmire clockwise (Mowich, Indian Bar) 2 nights or 32hrs on the trail. What an amazing place, the name does not disappoint! Will be back. Great account, helped me on my trip. Thank you.

Gorohoff said...

Paul, great to hear about your trip. I want to go back someday and do the trip in 2-days. There are just too many other hikes that keep getting in the way.

Alex Gold said...

Thanks for the great write up, I think I want to do this in a similar fashion. To be clear, a wilderness pass is not permitted if you are staying at only "front-country" campgrounds like you did correct? Did you have to get for Mowich Campground for 3 days in order to keep your car there?

Gorohoff said...

Alex, when we did this my understanding is that wilderness passes were not required, since we were only staying in front country camp grounds. The two spots we camped (Mowich & and White River) don't require reservations (, however reservations were, of course, required for staying overnight at the lodge at Longmire. I believe we did pay for 3 nights at the Mowich campground.

Seth Killey said...

Just a word of thanks. I used this write-up to help plan for our own 3 day Wonderland trip. We just happened to hit during the recent forest fires so we got cut off between Sunrise and Box Canyon, so for day 2 we hiked in from Ohanapecosh campground. Otherwise, we did the same route. Bummed we missed the Panhandle Gap though. I'd say we ended up doing 80 miles and 20k of vert in total. Your day 3 served as motivation to get going by 5 AM finishing JUST as we lost the last bit of daylight at 8 PM. FYI, we talked to a ranger at Longmire that said we still should have gotten some sort of pass even though we stayed at all the front country campgrounds, but he wasn't going to stop us or anything either. We also enjoyed the celebratory Rainier tallboys @ Mowich

Gorohoff said...

Sounds like a great trip Seth! Glad I could be an inspiration, it was a similar blog post that inspired me to do this trip almost 6 years ago. I keep thinking that I want to go back and do that same trip again or maybe attempt a 2 day variation of it.