The Wonderland Trail
August 12-14, 2001
Looking back at Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma from above Indian Bar. Day two.
I'm not sure what inspired me to try the Wonderland Trail in three days. The guidebook says "a strong hiker can do the entire trail in a single week, but 10-14 days are about average and much more enjoyable." I heard that the speed record was something like 30 hours so I figured that three days was reasonable.
12 hour days
3 mph average
3*12*3 = 108 miles
I recalled hearing that the loop was 90-100 miles so three days seemed like more than enough time. However, there were several things that I neglected to consider. First, my 20+ pound pack. Second, the 20,000 foot elevation gain (and loss). Third, the record heat. Finally, I was alone.
So what actually led to my decision? The Hummels were enjoying their vacation in Alaska. I chose to stick around for a job opportunity that never came through. The weather was perfect. I was bored.
Troy and I were trying to figure something out for the weekend. The Hummels' dad called Friday night and said that he and some friends were heading up to do some skiing near Mowich Lake on Sunday. I was up there earlier in the year (see Mowich Face) and figured that most of the snow was melted out. Besides, I skied Baker a few days earlier (see Coleman/Deming) so my appetite was filled. Troy only had the weekend. I had as much time as my conscience would allow. We wasted Saturday trying to decide. I ended up driving to his place in Tacoma where we came up with a plan.
I would drive to Mowich Lake early Sunday morning, begin 30+ miles to Summerland the first day, continue 30+ miles to Longmire the second, finish 30+ miles to Mowich Lake the third. Troy planned to climb Little Tahoma by himself and possibly meet me near Summerland on his way down.
We had a nice barbecue Saturday night and I set my alarm for 3am. My sleep was filled with anticipation. Finally the time came. I reloaded my gear, filled my camelbak and was on the road by 4am. Troy had just woken up. A quart of chocolate milk allowed me to skip breakfast. There were many cars at the trailhead but I was able to find an empty spot up front. The campground was full.
I started hiking at 5:30am. There was just enough light to make my way through the forest. The familiar trail led to Spray Park. I continued up the ridge before dropping north on new terrain. The sun had risen but I had yet to feel its presence. The air was still cool and there was quite a bit of downhill ahead. I took my first photo before dropping into the trees.
Dropping down from Ipsut Pass.
Endless switchbacks led to the Carbon River trail. It was 8:15am. 11 miles in 2 hours and 45 minutes. My 3 mph average was holding up well although I didn't know that at the time. The map I had didn't show distances so I was left to guestimate in-between trail signs. I was feeling good so I decided to continue. I passed a group while crossing the Carbon River on logs. The suspension bridge was under repair. 4 miles of mostly uphill led to Mystic Lake. I stopped just prior at the top of the climb. There were great views of Willis Wall and Liberty Ridge. The latter looked like a reasonable ski.
Mini-Mystic was my first break. I had a sandwich and drink. The bugs left me with little time to rest.
Toe of the Carbon Glacier.
Meadow below Mini-Mystic.
Mini-Mystic with Willis Wall and Liberty Ridge in the background.
I reached Mystic Lake after less than a mile of downhill. It wasn't all that spectacular as I was quickly led into the trees. The trail here was a little funky. The campsites were well marked but I wasn't exactly sure where the trail went. I ended up traversing from the lowest camp until I came across the trail. The trail continued down across a series of moraines. One section was washed out but there was a well beat alternative.
There was an exciting log crossing at Winthrop Creek. I stopped to scare myself of the kayaking possibilities. I could hear the rocks tumbling beneath the muddy water. The roar continued as I made my way through the brush towards the glacier. Switchbacks eventually led into trees. The silent nature was comforting. It must have been close to noon but I felt ok so I didn't take the time to stop for lunch. Frequent sips from my camelbak kept me going.
The climb to Sunrise was the first of a painful series. I had hiked 15 miles from Mowich Lake with a single break. A quart of chocolate milk, PB&J sandwich and granola bar was my only fuel. I carried 4 quarts of water but the temperature had climbed significantly so my supply was getting shallow. My day had just begun.
Winthrop Glacier moraine.
Despite my condition, I passed several groups on my way up to Skyscraper Pass. Sunrise was still over 3 miles away so I was a little disappointed. I was hoping for a break but I could see the way and it was mostly flat so I continued.
Looking back towards Mystic Lake.
Looking east from Skyscraper Pass.
I missed the turn for the descent to White River Campground. The sign was so crowded that I continued unknowingly towards Sunrise. I realized my mistake at the next sign and backtracked less than a half-mile. The Wonderland doesn't actually go by Sunrise so I ended up stopping for a sandwhich before descending to White River. This was my second break in 22 miles.
The descent would have been painless except that I had some serious chafing going on. I tried tape, sunscreen and a few other methods that I won't go into.
I was relieved when I reached White River Campground. I found myself standing next to the water fountain for nearly 30 minutes. Sitting was not an option because my legs would cramp up although a bit of stretching and a lot of water allowed my legs a bit of rest. I wasn't sure how far or how fast I had gone but that was probably a good thing. The guidebook that I have since borrowed describes:
Part 2: Mowich Lake to White River
One-way trip 30.5 miles
Allow 3-6 days
Elevation gain 5200 feet
I did it in 9 hours with two breaks.
I filled my camelbak and an extra quart while the tourists made their way to and from their cars. The restrooms were the main destination and only a few of them set foot off the pavement. If only they knew what I had been though or what was in store. Perhaps I could erase their curious smiles. I was looking forward to meeting Troy so I donned my pack and set off down the road just before 3pm.
The White River kept me entertained as I walked alongside the road. The pavement was nice for a change but I quickly intersected the main road which is paralleled by a trail. I followed the parallel to the Summerland trail and backtracked 0.1 miles to the parking lot. I was hoping to find Troy's truck there but it wasn't. I waited there a few minutes figuring that he might have driven up to White River to look for me. We estimated to meet around 4pm. There was no sign of him so I left around 4:30pm.
Normally I would hike the 4 miles to Summerland in just over an hour. This time it took just over two. My body was suffering from various pains and it nearly gave out below camp. I ended up resting twice on the final switchbacks.
I ran into Troy on his way down from Little Tahoma. We met just above Fryingpan Creek. He turned around above the saddle because the crevasses on the south face looked impassible and he was by himself without a rope. I could tell that he was having fun and he could tell that I wasn't. He offered some food but I figured that I had enough. He took a photo before switching paths. I was very close to going down with him but I didn't want to make him drive to Mowich Lake on his way back to Tacoma -- an option that I would regret not taking.
Tired me just below Summerland.
Photographer: Troy Manfredi.
I reached Summerland around 7pm. There was at least one open camp but I didn't have a permit so I continued higher and found a bivy in the bushes. I spent nearly an hour drinking and unpacking. It took a little longer to consider eating. I was on the verge of heat exhaustion because I hadn't eaten enough salt. My Top Ramen was invaluable. I had 4 packs and ended up using 2 of them that night.
I had a few caramels before bed. This was part of my reserves that I ended up pillaging. Lying down helped my aching joints and muscles but I didn't sleep that well. The one time that I did get up I felt dizzy. I barely made it to the bushes and back. I got worried when I started seeing stars but then I realized that the sky was clear. That was the closest I've come to puking in a long time. I had some caramels and went back to bed.
The worst part of the situation was that I had 60 miles to get back to my truck. I knew that I couldn't stand another day like the first so I decided to backtrack my first day's 38 mile effort. I figured that I could handle 20 miles in each of the remaining two days. This thought helped me sleep a little better.