Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mt. Rainier

Black Rock Coffee, where all my road trips begin.

It took three hours on the road to reach Paradise Lodge, up at 6500 feet on the volcano's southern flank. I ditched the car there and began my ascent.

Rainier is only a little over 100 feet shy of being the tallest mountain in the lower 48. It is Olympian in scale. It masses more than any other Cascade volcano, and it and bears 26 major glaciers. At its birth 500,000 years ago, it punched through an ice sheet more than a mile thick. Its prodigious early lava flows created jokulhaup meltwater floods, which exceeded the output of the Amazon river in sheer volume.

At around 10,000 feet, things began to get skewed.

Then the world stabilized.

The aural environment was otherworldly. In the background were waterfalls, rockfalls, and the cracking of glacial ice, which had a timbre like nothing else that I have heard.

This is a place of a priories and ideal forms. Ice moves like a river here, stone is layered in flows, and molten heat holds the mountain's uppermost calderas free from snow amidst the glacial thickness of the Liberty Cap.

Details of the upper Nisqually glacier. Rainier is the fountainhead of several major rivers that flow through the region, down to the Puget Sound, as well as to the Columbia River, sixty miles to the south.

Sharing this space and time, were two quiet ravens: large, shiny and black. While I would have preferred eagles in this setting, these obsidian corvids were welcome company.

Can you spot the least chipmunk?

Heading back down. The far snow-covered peaks on the horizon are the Goat Rock complex--the ancient, highly eroded remains of a former strato volcano. The goat rocks area was active for several million years, and currently no one can say with any certainty if it is extinct or merely dormant. It is possible that it will reawaken someday and add a fourth major volcano to the area.

In the distance, the looming bulk of Mt. Adams. At one point, Adams, Hood, and St. Helens were all visible in a broad panorama--one that haze and distance rendered undetectable to my poor little camera.

The lower portion of the Nisqually glacier, largely covered with stone and debris at the end of the summer. After the winter, much of this matter will be covered with snow and gradually become encased in the ice.

Ironically for being up on an active volcano, one known for its avalanches as well as generating its own spontaneous violent storms, the most dangerous moment (kind of sort of) came at the end of the day when I was only a few hundred feet from the lodge.

As I clumped happily down the trail, I heard a rustling and snuffing the bushes only ten or so feet away behind a Douglas fir. As I passed the tree, I realized that it was a berry-crazed black bear in a feeding frenzy. Fortunately he did not have the least moment of time or any attention to spare on me. Winter in the high country is less than a month away now, and he was gorging himself on blue berries as though his life depended on it.

So, I kept walking down to the next intersection, then removed my camera to take some photos.

Naturally enough, a crowd began to gather.

Back at the lodge

At the peak of its lava production, Rainier was taller by nearly one quarter of its current height, and reached out in a broad, symmetrical cone, which encompassed the whole of the current mountain. As majestic as it is in its present form, the volcano is essentially a highly eroded remnant core.

USGS photo

The mountain is shaped by a tripartite of dynamic tensions. While its heart retains molten rock, Rainier is subjected to the constant grinding assault of its ice mantle. From below, the volcano is infused by heated water and sulfur, which impregnates its structure with sulfuric acid and transforms andesite stone into a gritty, crumbling clay.

Ultimately Rainier is like something from the Hindu pantheon. She is an engine of creation and annihilation.

This volcano is going to obliterate the city of Tacoma, as well as the small towns that the are strung out along the river valleys between the mountain and the ocean waters of the Puget Sound. Its previous collapses have sent dozens of lahars piling down through now densely inhabited areas with the force of liquid concrete. A major collapse of the upper cone, as happened around 5,000 years ago would not only inundate Tacoma, but reach well into the southern suburbs of Seattle.


Ridgetop said...

Very cool. Wish I could have joined you. Definitely an awesome trek and I would have loved to hear those glaciers still living.

Ridgetop said...

Well, not sure if the other comment went through to you. But if not, cool post.

Alex Black said...

Hey, glad you liked it. The trip up and down the mountain was fantastic. If you ever make it up here to the Pacific Northwest it's one that we'll have to make.