Natches Peak Hike; October, 2015

On Saturday, October 10, Pat and I joined seven other Outing Club hikers and our guide, Lance Young, for the annual Autumn Colors hike. After a remarkably warm, dry summer, I’d found it hard to get used to the return of this area’s typical fall drizzle and cold.  I dressed for damp weather.  I wore polypro long-john bottoms, waterproof ski pants, ploypro socks, hiking boots, a lightweight turtleneck fleece, a Gortex jacket with hood and Gortex rain hat.  I expected to peel off a layer or two.  So I brought my larger day pack with plenty of room, and a shade hat for when the sun burned thru the overcast.

Lance decided on the Natches Peak area, directly east of Mt. Rainier, reasoning that we’d be in the giant mountain’s rain-shadow.  The group split; Lance and the more aggressive hikers opted for the Sourdough Gap / Bear Gap trail.  Pat and I and Dorothy (aged 85) chose the tamer Natches Peak Loop.  We noticed the chill, damp wind right away; at nearly 6,000 feet (1,828 m) elevation, the temperature was a lot colder than down at sea-level in Seattle.  I switched form my hat to my hood, and pulled my jacket sleeves over my hands.  I didn’t have any more warm layers, but I expected that I’d build up heat as the day progressed.

Pat and I have hiked around Natches Peak many times; we love the meadow and its spectacular view of Mt. Rainier.  Today, tho, it was the least attractive that I’ve ever seen it; the ponds were half-empty, the grass was brown, and everything looked dry and stunted — from this summer’s drought, I suppose.  We didn’t see a lot of fall colors either.

Dorothy wasn’t a speedy hiker, and Pat was intent on photography.  The 3.2-mile (5.2 km)  trail was easy, and I figured we’d knock it off long before our five and a half hours was up.  So I was watching for a side-trail to entertain myself.  When we got to the steep bed of a nearly-dry creek, I told them I wanted to climb it and see if I could get to the ridge-top.  They moved slowly on; I’d catch up to them later.

The creek bed was a narrow gully filled with angular shards of gray and black rock and occasional boulders.  A light mist had set in as I started up, and the trees above were obscured by fog.  For the most part, climbing the creek was no harder than climbing stairs, perhaps badly-designed steps in a big rockery garden.  Of course, going down would be slower; and I didn’t want the ladies to get too far ahead and worry about me.  moss

I worked up some heat, switched back to the hat and opened my coat.  I didn’t want to walk on the plants if I could help it; their lives at this high altitude are hard enough already.  little pools of water and a dribble here and there showed that the creek wasn’t quite dead.  I found some nice little moss gardens in sheltered crevices away from the main trail.  Now and then I looked at the ridge top and estimated how long it would take me to reach it; 10 or 15 minutes.  But at the end of that time I was only half as far as I’d expected, and the distance remaining looked to be about the same.

Sparse, heavier raindrops in the mist made little smacking sounds on my jacket and hat-brim.  I could hear the wind in the trees overhead, and it didn’t sound very nice.  If the fog lowered, it would really slow down my descent.  I decided to accept the distance I’d made in lieu of cresting the ridge, and started back down.

view downA heavy rain set in.  I went back to the hood and closed up my coat, hoping that it was only raining up here, close to the fog.  I picked my way back down to the main trail.  Pat and Dorothy were out of sight, so I texted Pat that I was back on the trail and marched to catch up to them.  The rain didn’t let up, and I could still hear the wind on the ridge-top.  I figured that when I came out of the lee of the ridge it wouldn’t be very nice.  I stopped at a half-way viewpoint; wraiths of mist were drifting up from the valleys to join the low clouds.  My phone showed “No service” and said my text to Pat had failed.  I ate a couple of energy bars and wondered which way to go.  Back would be in the lee of the ridge; but if Pat didn’t see me on the trail she might turn around.  I went on around the corner to the west, weather side of the mountain.

Now the hard rain was blowing sideways, and water was pooling up on the trail.  My imitation Gortex snow pants proved their inferiority to the real thing at this point, soaking thru.  My long-johns turned into a form-fitting sponge.  My boots filled with water; whether it was getting in from the top or the sides I couldn’t tell.  Tardily I secured the cuffs around my boot-tops, but it was too late.  Why hadn’t I brought gloves and a knitted cap?  I splashed onward, peering at the storm thru bifocals speckled with rain.

The trail ended at the highway across from Tipsoo Lake.  I didn’t know whether Pat and Dorothy had gone straight to the van, or were at the Tipsoo Lake restroom, or whether I’d somehow passed them.  I decided to go to the van at the top of the pass; it was the logical meeting place.  It was empty, and I didn’t know where Lance had hidden the key.  I texted Pat that I was there; once again the phone said “No service.”  I went into a restroom.  My fingers were so cold that I had a lot of trouble undoing the buckles of my day-pack.

When I came out, I saw that a woman from our group had opened the van.  We threw our wet coats in the back to keep the inside from getting too wet.  Others showed up by ones and twos.  We turned on the engine and ran the heater.  Pat came in, and said she’d been in the Tipsoo Lake restroom; her hands were so cold that she’d had to ask Dorothy to zip up her pants.  A big chocolate bar made the rounds.  “I’m allergic to chocolate,” one woman said; “It makes my rear swell up.”  Lance and Ed were the last to arrive; they’d made it all the way to Bear Gap.

“So, Lance; how about this rain-shadow?”

“I’m thinking of renaming this event to ‘The annual miserable hike,”” he joked.

By popular demand, we stopped in Greenwater on the way home for hot drinks at Wapati Willie’s, an outdoor clothing, gear and gift store with an espresso bar in the back.  They laughed when I paid for my latte with wet money.  It was tempting to buy a set of dry clothes!  I’ve been spoiled by too many great outdoor experiences, and I resolve to prepare better for the unpredictable bad ones.

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