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Mazama Ridge overnight
posted by John : February 13-14, 2010


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Down there?


Chalk up a third weather-fail for my quest to get atop Mt. St. Helens. Last year my first attempt was scuttled resulting in a trip to Mission Peak. Earlier this year we called off an attempt and then failed to summit Para Point. We're still refusing to give up, though, and even when Mt. St. Helens dumps ash in your drink you've still got to get out and go. So we went to Rainier.

I hitched a ride through Auburn with Scott and Josie and we met up with Don and Lynda (fellow TNAB hikers) at Longmire, just inside the park. The forecast called for a relatively high snow level so we opted to camp on Mazama Ridge rather than down in the valley by a bunch of lakes. We got permits, fox boxes (light weight bear cans to keep the foxes out of our food), and blue bags (you don't want to know) and headed up to Paradise.

It was my third trip to Paradise and for the second time I was denied a view of the mountain. Blah! I've seen so many pictures of the brilliant ice against a dark blue sky that it's almost like I have seen it, but I'm sure it'd be a wee bit better in person than on a computer screen. In the mixed rain and snow we packed everything onto our back and started down the trail.

Well, the others did. I packed my gear into the pulk. It's so much easier to slide it along instead of carrying it I couldn't pass up the opportunity, especially when the first part of the trip is a long downhill stroll on a snowy road. Once we were on the road it was cake and I could even make light of everyone else's effort. Ha ha! I'm awesome!

Until we started up. We left the road and followed a narrow trench that twisted and turned as you might expect. The pulk did not enjoy this. I did not enjoy this. The pulk and I had an argument. The pulk did not want to carry my backpack and thought I should carry it instead. The pulk won. The pulk did not want to be left on the side of the trail and prevailed upon me to pull it up the ridge. The pulk is a jerk and loaded itself with snow so not only did I have to carry my pack and pull the pulk I was pulling an additional 10 pounds of snow. I don't like the pulk.

We were following a pretty large group of day trippers who were stymied by a creek flowing across the route. A couple of skiers came down and told us we would have to return to the road to cross the creek, but Don knew better even though he claimed he hadn't been to this area since the Eisenhower administration. The other group found a stable snow bridge across the creek and we followed. (On the way home we'd find the actual bridge just downstream, but it was not passable with the snow.)

Since we were on a mission we busted past the day trippers and pushed up the steep slope. We actually had a pretty relaxed pace, which was good given the load I was carrying. In addition to the evil pulk and its snow I had a variety of extra-heavy gear. Most out of line was my tent. It's the five season beast that I took to Mission Peak and it can hold up to just about anything, but it truly is a beast. It's almost 15 pounds! (Yes, that's heavy for a tent.) Needless to say, I was contemplating how I could tie the tent to the pulk and bid them both adieu.

When we crested the ridge we started looking for places to make camp. We considered a little knob with dramatic cliffs, but chose to head higher on Mazama Ridge itself. The terrain was rolling, but with deep sticky snow. Scott broke trail as we climbed higher and we spotted a great location with a few lone trees that might shelter us from the wind. We booted out a couple of skiers who were eating lunch and started digging.

And digging and digging and digging. We moved a ton of snow. Probably not a literal ton, but a virtual ton. We arranged the three tents so they opened to a common area, but that was awfully optimistic. In a perfect world we'd be able to sit around and chat under a clear sky, but it wasn't looking like that was going to be the case.

Instead, it continued to blow and dump snow. When we were all set up we retreated into the shelters for a few minutes of downtime before popping back out.

Don and Scott and I were still itching for adventure so we gathered the minimum gear required and headed up the valley. Don played guide and led us to the toe of the Paradise Glacier. In times past there were ice caves that you could enter, but now apparently the caves are gone. We saw only a single snowy hole, but there was running water underneath and that didn't bode well.

Instead, we turned uphill toward a nameless ridge. Why? Because it was there. Scott broke trail again, but in the flat light he'd find himself suddenly against a nearly vertical slope and would have to kick steps and climb up it. When we got to the top and found some wind-scoured rocks we turned for camp and made good time.

I won't discuss dinner in depth except to put everyone on notice that old freeze-dried food can indeed go rancid. My new rule is that if it smells that bad don't even think of tasting it.

We were in bed by 8pm and I was asleep pretty quickly after that. Even with two sleeping pads I couldn't get comfortable (though I wasn't cold) and had a rough night. Whenever I'd wake I would hear the wind beating against the tents and what sounded like rain. Lovely. (It's only fair to note that while the others had to knock snow off their tents throughout the night my tent was bomb-proof and had no such issues.)

In the morning I found several inches of new snow had fallen. It was very wet and was stuck to everything. The front door to the tent, leading to the common area, had a solid four inches of blown snow stuck to it. (Good thing I had a back door, huh?) Scott, Josie, and I had no problem buying into the idea that we were going home to warm beds. Don and Lynda were heading back to the cars, too, but just to swap their snowshoes for skis. They were going to spend another night at camp.

We warmed up nicely on the hike down. I was constantly reminded of how lucky other people are not to have pulks wen mine, loaded only with the tent, insisted on flipping over repeatedly. We tried some field repairs and were able to convince it not to be too much trouble, but it got its ultimate revenge when I took a dive on one of the steepest parts and it just about ran me over. At the bottom of the slope were dropped a layer and started the seemingly long slog back up the road to the cars.

In spite of all the epicness of the trip it was really pretty mellow. We only tallied 3.3 miles and 1,300 feet the first day (including the side trip to the Paradise Glacier) and only 1.9 miles and 300 feet the second day. In the summer it'd be a perfect distance and effort for the girls so I'm sure I'll be back. (I didn't have enough so when I got home I took Tokul for a walk to the falls and tallied another 3.2 miles and 600 feet of gain.)

And the future of the pulk... we'll see. Oh, yes. We'll see.

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