Monday, February 18, 2008

Paradise and a Scarlet Macaw

As hoped, the road to Paradise opened on Sunday. A predictable onslaught of tourists and backcountry skiers (and even a few climbers) overflowed the parking lot and packed the adjacent slopes this weekend. In all, over 975 cars entered the park on Sunday alone, with an average of 3-4 people stowed aboard each vehicle. The result - "Paradise" was crowded. But that was fine, because every soul that I encountered had a huge smile on their face and were immensely thankful to finally see the sun and mountain again. That's what two months of clouds, snow and rain can do to anyone. The News Tribune pumped up the crowd with a lengthy discussion of the re-opening in their Saturday paper. They even took the time to mention my house, which I honestly feared would collapse under the snow-load (BTW, I have since shoveled my roof).

For climbers, there are no summit reports to immediately share. Three hardy souls ventured up the Tahoma Glacier towards Sunset Amphitheater to ski the couloir (seen left). They didn't reach the summit (due to warm temps) but one member (Sky Sjue) shared a sunset image (above) for our pleasure.

Camp Muir is a windblown place where notably less snow has fallen (or stayed). By all reports, the Cowlitz and Nisqually Glaciers are scoured, there are numerous bare rocks at Camp Muir, and the huts are easily accessible. Either it isn't snowing much or the wind is blowing it all off.

I have often noted that Mount Rainier gets its precipitation in 3-4,000 foot bands. What I mean is, there is always snow somewhere. The question is, where does it stick? For now, the snow is sticking between 2,500 feet and 6,500 feet. So the Muir Snowfield is OK, but at Camp Muir and above, the snowpack seems pretty darn thin. This is particularly the case when measured against the snow-loads at Longmire and Paradise.

My good friend Bruce Barcottt has a new book. So what's his connection to Mount Rainier? Bruce wrote Measure of a Mountain, Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier , a necessary read for Rainier afficionados. He has since leveraged his journalistic talent into a big-shot writing career with Outside, Harpers, Mother Jones, NY Times Magazine and Sports Illustrated. Anyway, his new book The Last Flight of the Macaw was positively reviewed by the New York Times last Sunday. For those in the local Seattle crowd, we are fortunate, because Bruce will have a reading at Elliot Bay Books on Feb. 29th and Third Place Books on March 1st. Check it out.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hope - Paradise may open on Sunday

Here is the updated situation on the road to Paradise, infused with a fresh supply of images for your consumption. As it stands today (Valentines Day) the NPS hopes that public access to Paradise will be restored by Sunday. The Deputy Superintendent, Randy King (i.e. bigwig), had this to say,
"The park's road crew has made amazing progress in the difficult snow removal job on the Longmire to Paradise Road and in the Paradise area proper this week. And other maintenance crews are busy shoveling and removing snow from buildings, accessways, water systems, hydrants, etc. - a hard job to say the least! Today the utilities crew discovered the water system was not recovering. The earliest possible results from the [health department] test would be on Saturday and we cannot open [the road] to the public until we have a good water sample. So, at this point, the earliest we can possibly reopen will be on Sunday, pending a good water sample result."
In the meantime, here are some pictures for you. This is what happens when the road isn't plowed for a few days during a winter storm. No way would you get into the Paradise Old Station on a day like this. Breaking into the second story window isn't an option! Many old-time climbers may recall that this was where you'd self register for winter trips.

Getting into the Jackson Visitor Center poses similiar problems.
"Redrum"... Is that the Paradise Inn or the hotel from The Shining. Do I see Jack Nickolson in one of those windows?

More seriously, we're now trying to figure out how much snow actually fell at Paradise during the past week. Unfortunately for record purposes, no one was able to measure the daily snow total during that time. The "new" snowfall recorded on Tuesday, when a ranger finally got up there after a week, was over 55 inches, but that doesn't account for compaction, heating, rain, etc. When last recorded on Feb. 7th, Paradise had 559 inches for the winter. There were 7 new inches last night, giving a total near 621 inches for the 2007/08 winter. That number is about average for a normal YEAR total. So considering that we're only halfway through the snow year, Mount Rainier may be on track for a big one. Personally, I hope so, as I love to spring ski in June and July... Though it might have a negative affect on Slush Cup. NPS photos

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Life in Longmire

It certainly is snowy here at Longmire. Check out the image of my government issue house. It's almost a snowcave, and those are some serious icicles too. Don't mess with them.

Life is pretty mellow up at Mt. Rainier during the winter. It's great getting out out of Seattle a few days a week to come here. The routine so far has been: hang out in the office (i.e. scheme ways to improve the blog and seek grants for an artist in residence program), go out skiing with climbing ranger Chris Olson (i.e. risk my life following a great skier through steep treed terrain), then hang out at Mike's house (who could be a smashing restaurateur: grilled chops and salmon, mojitos, and lemon drops). Rough life, I know.

Since Chris is pretty much a professional skier and will turn his boards down anything in any conditions, hanging out with him has been an adventure so far. During our first day out a few weeks ago (when the sun last revealed itself), we skied bulletproof ice from Panorama Point to Paradise. The saving grace was crystal clear skies, letting us see almost every big peak in Washington and Oregon. (Right: Chris at Panorama Point).

Once, we skied partway up the Eagle Peak trail then came down in the dark through the trees. It was like being on a roller coaster where you couldn't see the next twist or turn until you came right up on it. Or, as Chris put it in his ski report, it "felt like a bobsled run in the dark." Of course, he wrote that after skiing the trail by himself and blazing down it at about 50 mph. Anyway, we skied it the next day together and came down at a more leisurely pace but it still felt fast to me!

The ski up through the old growth forest was beautiful, with fluffy snow everywhere. Piled in soft pillows all around us, hanging from the trees, falling from the sky. I felt like I was living in a Christmas carol. (Left: Chris leads the way up the "bobsled run")

I was also thinking what a great trail this was for snowshoers, when Chris pointed out how easy it would be to get lost if you didn't know exactly where the trail was. (He was amazed that the trail was still visible through all the recent snow). I realized that he was right and suddenly got a little less complacent about it - especially when he reminded me that a hiker died on this trail last June.

Then again, if anyone knows his way around here, it's probably Chris. The problem is, if you follow him up something, you also have to follow him down.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Boom, LOUD... Road closed...

The bombing operation referred to last week went by without a hitch (i.e. no one was blown up). However, it didn't solve all of the threats to the road. Unlike a typical ski patrol operation where they mitigate the hazard regularly, the snowpack above the road to Paradise grew so large that it required larger amounts of bomb making material to blast the heck out of the slopes. Good thing too, because those bombs released a substantial amount of snow that was more than ready to slide... And as for the entire day, avalanche control with the use of bombs made for a really unique NPS experience!

The explosive activity took place in an area called "Washington Cascades." That's about 1.5 miles below Paradise and just above the "Canyon Wye" (where you turn right to visit Stevens Canyon, Box Canyon, and Ohanapecosh.) As you can see to the right, Chris Olson is strapping some blasting caps to a 50 lb. bag of ammonium nitrate. This is something of a new operation for most of us (not so new to Chris). Anyway, this explosive was lowered on a plastic sled (the type your kids slide upon) into avalanche terrain where they were ignited with a "shock tube." All in all, it was impressive and really effective. Last Friday, those bombs released a number of large slides in "Washington Cascades." The slides buried the road with debris and took care of the looming avalanche hazard that threatened the road crew operators.

At this time, the road to Paradise remains closed. But that's largely due to the frequent and thunderous slides that have occurred lower on the road (i.e. well below Paradise). The rain and warmer temps activated a number of avalanche slopes. In one area, the "Christine Hairpin", located just below the Comet Falls trailhead, a slide covered both lanes of the road with over 20 feet of deposition! As far as we recall, nobody has seen this sort of debris at Christine Hairpin in the almost 20 years. Above the Glacier Bridge, there are four other significant slide paths in what we call "Glacier Hill". Slides in that area also produced similar piles of wet, heavy snow. The NPS road crew is now scratching, digging, and plowing away at the massive mounds, but it's considered that the road to Paradise may not open for another 4-7 days. As you can see in this image to the left, the road is gone/buried. Nobody has ventured above Ricksecker Point, roughly 5 miles below Paradise since Monday. Hopefully, we will be able to ski up to Paradise tomorrow, dig out the telemetry site, and see what's going on.

When thinking about the avalanche threat, we are somewhat fortunate. Warm weather has started to consolidate the snowpack and things appear a little safer this week. There is some rain in the forecast for the next 24 hours, but probably not enough to produce the large slides that observed so far. The NWAC has dropped the hazard level from Extreme to Considerable/Moderate (below 7000 feet). Stay tuned, we'll keep you up to date on what's shaking. For now, don't rely on being able to visit Paradise over the President's Day weekend. Top image by Stefan Lofgren, second by Chris Olson "The snowcovered road above Glacier Bridge."

Friday, February 08, 2008

PARK CLOSED, and historical snowfall data

YUP, the park is temporarily closed (EDIT: reopened to Longmire on Feb. 9).
This is largely because of the super intense snowfall, but also because of the trees that continue to fall across the road to Longmire (over 15 today). In the meantime, don't expect the road to Paradise open any time soon, and we're hoping to reopen the road to Longmire on Saturday.

With all this snow falling, the Paradise road closed, the avalanche danger HIGH to EXTREME, and tree bombs falling in the forest, we might as well stay nice and warm inside and look at some more historical snow data.

Here is a list of the top ten maximum snow-depths as recorded for the National Weather Service by rangers at Paradise, going back to 1948. "Maximum snow depth" means the highest recorded depth of the snowpack on the ground at any given point during a snow-year (July 1 through June 30). "Total snowfall" refers to the running accumulation of snowfall for that same given year. Currently (Feb. 8th), there is just over 200 inches on the ground at Paradise.

252 inches MAX - 1976 - total Snowfall--853.8 inches

256 inches MAX - 1954 - total Snowfall-- (Lost data)
256 inches MAX - 1969 - total Snowfall--829.3 inches
256 inches MAX - 1982 - total Snowfall--757.9 inches
268 inches MAX - 1967 - total Snowfall--692 inches
268 inches MAX - 1997 - total Snowfall--794.8
277 inches MAX - 1971 - total Snowfall--1027 inches
293 inches MAX - 1974 - total Snowfall--1070.7 inches
305 inches MAX - 1972 - total Snowfall--1122 inches (Previous world record*)
367 inches MAX - 1956 - total Snowfall--1000.3

*The current record officially recognized is 1142 inches at Heather Meadows (Mt. Baker Ski Area), set during the 1998/99 snow year.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

BOOM... Heavy snow, high avalanche, road closures

The snow continues to DUMP at Paradise and Longmire. The Paradise base just soared past 190 inches. That has people (NPS people to be specific) nervous about the road corridor (more on that below) and if you're a backcountry traveler, "heads up" to the avalanche report.

Snowpack: The snowfall over the past few days arrived with varied winds and temperatures. There seem to be a number of wind layers in the snowpack which could cause deeper instabilities in the short term. The "January crust" is very deep now, making it hard to understand the overall stability. All of this information is cause for concern.

Weather: The immediate avalanche threat is posed by the intense precipitation that continues to fall. The Weather Service is forecasting 1-1.5 inches of water equivalent on both Thursday and Friday. This translates to at least ten to fifteen inches of new snow. The front coming on Saturday is forecasted to be warmer, with freezing levels reaching 4,000 to possibly 5,000 feet.

Avalanche Hazard: The avalanche danger is rated HIGH below 7000 feet and will remain that way into Friday. The hazard will likely get worse on Saturday if the predicted warm weather and rain arrive.
Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended at this time.

The Road to Paradise: All of this is predicated on the road to Paradise opening, which is unlikely for the time being. For the past two days it hasn't opened, it won't open on Friday, and there is a strong chance it won't open on Saturday and maybe even Sunday. Why? The primary concern revolves around the avalanche threat to the road corridor. So much snow has fallen and yet virtually none of it has released. Between Longmire and Paradise, there are a number of avalanche-prone gullies and slopes that threaten the road. The current plan is to bomb each of those slopes with 50 lbs. of ammonium nitrate! The blasting will begin tomorrow, then we'll see what the results are (BOOM!).

If you're stuck at Longmire, there is some reasonable tree skiing, but definitely wear your helmet. The snow remains soft under the tree canopy and less affected by wind. The lower slopes of the Eagle Peak trail are the likely place for such turns. Watch for the "tree bombs" as the temperature and winds increase, they can easily knock you out. Also remember to avoid tree wells.

As always, refer to NWAC for the latest conditions before heading out.

Chris Olson and Mike Gauthier

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bring your shovel, it's still snowing

Here is some cool historical data collected from the Longmire weather station. It was gleaned from the National Weather Services by NPS employee Bret Christoe and graphed by Crystal Raymond.

Bret listed the years when the accumulation (not total snowfall) at Longmire reached at least 60 inches, going back to at least 1932. Although 2007-8 may seem "big" now (particularly as we shovel into our houses and offices) you can see that there is still a ways to go to catch the really big years like 1949. Here's the graph:

Folks, bring your shovels, because according to the National Weather Service, our forecast for LONGMIRE this week is:

Tuesday and Tuesday Night - Snow

Wednesday and Wednesday Night - Snow
Thursday and Thursday Night - Snow
Friday and Friday Night - Snow

Sunday, February 03, 2008


The mountain buzz in the Pacific NW hovers around snowfall, which continues at a furious pace on Mount Rainier. In the past 7 days, over 8 feet of new snow has been measured at Paradise! Such intensity has not allowed the snowpack the time and opportunity to settle, thus the avalanche conditions remain HIGH for the next few days (NWAC Feb 3 report).

What's noteworthy (for those who count snow accumulation totals) is that this week's weather forecast calls for continued precipitation (UW) with freezing levels between 2-3K. That could mean 1-3 feet (or more?) of fluffy white stuff. Considering the weather outlook (NOAA), there is little need to discuss climbing conditions as it's unlikely someone will get to Camp Muir (or anywhere else high on the mountain) anytime soon.

One of the climbers who visited Camp Muir during the last significant break in the weather (Jan 20-25) described the upper mountain snowpack as "thin." Though the crevasses on the Cowlitz and Ingraham were largely covered, the recesses and overall new-snow-volume appeared low and windblown, especially when compared to the accumulations seen at Paradise. Perhaps the snow is being blown off? Or maybe it just isn't falling as fast at that altitude? Hopefully, we'll get another 3-5 day weather window in February for more upper mountain observations.