Part 1 of the Mt. Rainier Grand Tour is done, 44 miles and 14,100 feet of climb. 


Mt Rainier Grand Tour: Part 1 (East)

Morning on the Grand Tour (7000')My familiarity with Mt. Rainier led me to consider a trek that would cross all zones, climb high and go off trail, using the Wonderland and other trails for access. Witness the Mt. Rainier Grand Tour, a 150 mile trek with 50,000 feet of climb and descent, which could be subtitled "Beyond the Wonderland." On July 22-24, I did what might be considered the "easy" part of the journey, traveling from Longmire CCW to White River. Now I've done this portion of the Wonderland Trail in one day many times, but the Grand Tour is what one might call "slightly harder." View the full photo set here.

Day 1 (19 miles/7500')
First many thanks to my wife and her friend Debbie, who repositioned my vehicle from Longmire to White River, saving me a half day of biking. I arrived at Longmire just as the ranger station was opening and waited a short time in line to get my permit, staying at Maple Creek campground on the first night and in a cross country zone on night two. The weather forecast was neither good nor bad, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I did have hopes of climbing above the cloud sea and enjoying some sunshine on this first day. My route used the WT to Narada Falls, then the trail to Paradise, to Muir, to Pan Point where I took the Skyline Trail to the Lakes Trail to the WT to finish. This day was interesting in that it was a basic 7500' push all the way to Muir, then a descent back to 2800 feet. My legs were feeling the constant descent but I needed to get them back into hiking shape anyway. The challenge of the Grand Tour is packing for all conditions one will find from low elevations to 10,000 feet, but I've pretty much got my gear dialed in and still enjoyed a fairly light pack. My entire sleep system is rolled in a "taco" where I leave my EE quilt attached to a NeoAir XLite inside a custom eVent bivy and just throw it down when it's time to sleep. This section was mostly on trail and I had some great encounters chatting with people over these 3 days, from day hikers to thru hikers to fastpackers to climbers. Anyway, I rolled into the Maple Creek camp at 10 PM and planned on sleeping in as I was sleep deprived from a recent overseas alarms for me!

Narada Fallstypical scene, Muir snowfieldDay 2 (14 miles/4000')
I did indeed get some good sleep and consequently got back on the trail like at 9:45, but this was a planned kick back day, almost all on trail. The weather cooperated and I enjoyed mild temps and no bugs (again), lingering at Indian Bar and sauntering up to the Panhandle Gap area. I wasn't sure what to expect higher up near Banshee as the clouds were dark and ugly looking over that area so I chose a bivy spot amongst some trees lower down. By evening it was getting quite chilly so I pulled out all the stops for sleeping and hit the rack at 7 PM, wanting another night of good sleep but planning on an early morning get up. It got cold enough during the evening to have frost on my bivy the next morning but I stayed relatively toasty with a great view to the stars (after a clearing night) and the mountain.

Idyllic Indian BarDay 3 (12 miles/2600')
Up at 5 AM, I got dressed and left for Banshee, a 1000' climb with only my camera tucked inside my jacket, stopping constantly to snap the rising sun on Rainier. The views were so incredible, with low angle light hues, the company of the goat herd, the thick ground cover of still blooming flowers, the sun rising above a flowing mass of clouds between the Cowlitz Chimneys, and the lingering cloud sea still covering the folks camped at Indian Bar, that I took two hours going up and down. Then I ate breakfast overlooking Ohanapecosh Park with ever changing cloud fingers below. But hoping to finish by early afternoon, I eventually left and transited a snowless Panhandle Gap. I chatted with some folks at the bridge above Summerland but when I arrived there no one was to be seen. I tanked up and headed out cross country, negotiating the terrain that eventually deposits one at a saddle to access Goat Island Mountain. This area is especially impressive as views abound both left and right, allowing an all encompassing view looking over to Banshee and down on Summerland, sighting the trail all the way to Panhandle Gap. Once the descent off the ridge on the other side begins the fun meter starts to rise, as one must negotiate a steep heather section to work over to the ridge that will deposit one eventually on the Wonderland. I made the error of getting off the spine and found myself on very steep treed terrain where I fell on my arse 3 times accompanied by a string of epithets. I eventually emerged from the trees, with pine needles plastered to my sunscreened neck and dirty buttocks. It was nice to be on gentle trail by that point and I strode to the White River crossing. It was interesting to see that the bridge over the White River didn't span the whole river, but no mind as I knew my vehicle was just across the way, so I waded through ankle deep chilly water to mount the shaven tree. I was about an hour and a half later than I wanted to be but when I got to my car my wife had left a thermos of hot coffee and a cooler with drinks and food, eliciting a giddy "Oh Boy!" response from me as I partook after cleaning up and changing.

sunrise below Bansheegoats below Goat Island MountainNow that the warmup section is done, I'm looking forward to the remaining 100 miles and 36,000 feet of climb..... at least until I'm actually doing it.


ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff Review

I've been using trekking poles for almost 30 years for lots of reasons, including stability for creek crossings, upper body use for ascending and descending, camera mount platform and general pace making. However, this year I decided to return to the venerable staff in the form of the ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff. Why would I change a piece of equipment that has proven useful over and again for decades?

ANS: Off trail travel and scrambling where I need one hand free, and the ability to reach further and deeper during creek and river crossings. Although I've used the staff on a number of trips this year, including the Loowit and Wonderland trails, my latest excursion around Mt. Adams in Washington provided the ultimate test. I spent the better part of a day, almost 8 hours, negotiating the rugged eastern part of the mountain where there is no trail. What I did have to negotiate were steep scree slopes, mounds of rocks and boulders, wild creek and river crossings, thickets and dense trees and steep meadows. I was only able to stride normally in just a few places; otherwise I was scrambling over something, down something, or under something continuously. I used my free hand for scramble aid, veggie belays etc and used the staff not only for balance but as a battering ram when I encountered thick brush. I've used it as a mini pole vault for creek crossings, it's been slammed into the ground on numerous occasions during a scree slide or slip, including longitudinal forces that would have snapped my regular carbon trekking pole(s). It has taken enough abuse over these various trips that I keep wondering how long it's going to last before something gives, but aside from marring of the tape around the bottom and pitting of the copper piece, I've had no problems.

Another selling point for the staff is the ability to break it down into small sections, allowing me to carry it in a side pocket without it sticking up too far past the pack. This proved invaluable on a couple of trips where I biked for positioning and had to stow the staff. I've also mounted a camera on it. About the only thing I haven't used it for is fighting off a cougar or bear, but hopefully I won't have to do that any time soon. If I do I better have a camera mounted on it to capture the moment.

The following video shows how I used the staff to cross the Big Muddy on the east side of Adams. I found a place where the hydraulics looked just good enough for me to cross, and I was glad I had the extra reach of the staff for the center torrent. This sort of situation is where the robustness and extra length of the staff proved superior to trekking poles. One last comment about the staff's utility, the surface is conducive to gripping anywhere which is invaluable when negotiating steep slopes....I have easily adjusted the height of my grip to match the terrain, for instance gripping low when the staff is uphill, and gripping high when downstepping.

Am I giving up trekking poles? Certainly not, for well maintained trail I still like the two hand approach. But for off trail travel, I'll take the ZPacks Carbon Fiber Staff everytime. Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with ZPacks and purchased this item for full price.

Big Muddy Crossing with ZPacks Staff from Willis Wall on Vimeo.




Mt. Adams Round-The-Mountain (Truly)

Battlement Ridge/Mt. Adams east sideThis copped title is from Mike Woodmansee's book, "Trekking Washington." Mt. Adams "round the mountain" trail doesn't go round the mountain. There is a rugged no-man's land on the east side, seeing few visitors with approximately 5 miles of terrain extending from the viewpoint overlooking Hellroaring Meadow to a minimal trail on the far side of Avalanche Valley. On this 2 day trip (full photo set here), day one started from the Cold Springs campground (where I truck camped the night before) and proceeded CCW on good trail through the lovely Bird Creek Meadows area, ending on an overlook at 6500 feet. It took me nearly 8 hours to negotiate this approximately 5 mile section, starting with a sketchy descent into Hellroaring Meadow, a strenuous climb on the other side to the left of Little Mt Adams, then on to the Ridge of Wonders. I used the description for crossing this area from Woodmansee's book, relying mostly on an altimeter and line of sight. A GPS and map are of little use here, where I found that the day was characterised by constant assessment of terrain, problem solving and risk mitigation. This solo hike was true wilderness, I saw not one person through the entire first day. This definitely ranks as one of the hardest days I have ever had, including mountaineering, but I reveled in the solitude and problem solving, a far cry from day 2 on good trail where one can just perambulate with wandering thoughts. The only time I perhaps hung it out a little was crossing the Big Muddy, where I was looking at a 5 or 600 foot climb to find an appropriate rock hop (according to Woodmansee's description) or perhaps even ascending to the glacier for the crossing. However, after careful consideration at around the 6000 foot level, I saw an area with favorable hydraulics and decided to ford at this point. I was able to use a huge boulder to get to the center of the torrent, and taking advantage of my ZPacks staff, could scope out the footing for making it to another boulder to hold on to. Woodmansee describes the Big Muddy as not big and not muddy, but I beg to differ, especially in late afternoon. Crossing Avalanche Valley was a series of countless ridges and more creek crossings, belying the photos I took from afar where it doesn't look like a big deal. Let's just say I was knackered when I finally crossed the last fork of Rusk Creek and finally made my way to the trail portion. This section also took a toll on my feet, noticeable on day two even when I was on manicured trail. When I say I was back on trail, I should qualify that with a "mostly" as the trail leading through Devils Garden was sketchy and required due diligence and countless reacquirements in the process. I still had good light though and the views from the high point of 7700 feet were sublime. From this point the trail became more established and when I came across a nice sandy patch with a view of the mountain at about 8:30 PM, I decided to call it a day and catch some zzzs.

after crossing the Big MuddyDay 2 was chacterised by lupine fields and great trail, with not much elevation gain or loss....and my feet really appreciated it. I wasn't moving as quickly as I thought I should have, a recurring theme of late, and the heat was becoming oppressive, but I simply outlasted the troubles and tried to enjoy the visual palette laid before me. The route utilizes the Highline trail on the north and the PCT on the west, before rejoining the Round the Mountain trail and finally the short section returning me to my truck, which I gained at 6 PM. It sure felt good to shower and clean up, and I partook of some still cold food provided by my thoughtful wife. The most difficult part of this day was trying to get into my house after sitting in my vehicle for nearly 5 hours, I was a bit seized to say the least.

flowers flowers everywhereTo help with people contemplating this trek (35 miles/8000') I attached a GoPro to my shoulder strap and set it to capture 2 photo frames per second. At some point soon I will make this available on Vimeo for anyone that wants to view or download. Anyone contemplating this trek should have strong ankles, complete confidence in one's ability to assess terrain and strong cross country skills, and be in pretty good shape. However, the rewards of trekking through some of the most remote and rugged landscape around Adams will compensate you immeasurably in many ways. I wanted to tackle some difficult stuff this season in celebration of turning 60 and this definitely served its purpose.


Wonderland Trail: West 57 miles

just a ridiculous flower showWhat better way to really do a conditions report on the Wonderland Trail than actually hiking the better portion of it? My June 9/10 clockwise hike from Longmire to Sunrise can be summed up thusly: for snow and general conditions, it's like August. For trail maintenance, it's like June (iow, nada). This is probably the only time I would consider hiking the Wonderland a "wilderness experience" due to the fact that one of the major access points is not open until June 19 (Mowich Lake road) and both crossings over the Mowich Rivers are out. Throw in blowdown and a few eradicated sections of trail, schwacking and log crossing the Mowich rivers, and negotiating some snow at Skyscraper Pass, and the traditional backpackers that come to hike the Wonderland from all over might be discouraged at the moment. Every park I transited above 5000 feet was bursting at the seams with a riot of flowers. Unfortunately, those hiking the trail during the more "normal" season starting in July will probably not enjoy the spectacle I witnessed, but at least the trail crews should have fixed the problems I've mentioned. One thing's for sure, Wonderland hikers coming this summer will enjoy a snow free trail.

This link to a trip report I posted on NWHikers provides some details about the trip, including the difficulties enocountered, along with myriad photos. The photo album can also be viewed on the Willis Wall facebook page. The following video will give the reader a good idea of the August like conditions I experienced and perhaps an incentive for people with a date for the trail.


Mt. St. Helens: Loowit Trail

eroding deposits in "the Breach" Mt St HelensVolcanoes dominate some skylines in the Pacific Northwest. Just witness how many photos are published of the Seattle area with Mt. Rainier in the background. We climb them, ski them, and hike around them. Which brings me to Mt. St. Helens, the show stopper of 1980 when the summit collapsed and produced the Earth's largest recorded landslide in an eruption that displaced 3.7 billion cubic yards of material from the mountain. Lahars, mud flows, ash deposits and blown over denuded trees made the landscape surreal. Now, 35 years later, my daughter and I decided to hike the Loowit Trail which circumnavigates the mountain and takes the hiker through the impact area in a transit that sees the lingering effects and amazing recovery of the ecosystems.We took two days to make the 32 mile trip, sleeping in on the first day and driving the 3.5 hour trip to our hop on point at Climber's Bivouac on the south side of the mountain. A 2 mile trail took us to the intersection with the Loowit Trail for us to start our Counter Clockwise transit. Sticking to our plan, we hiked approximately 12 miles the first day and bivied on the Plains of Abraham, an area just before entering the restricted zone, where camping is not allowed. (Full set of photos here)

How does one adequately describe this hike in a few paragraphs? The south side sees trail crossing boulder fields with adequately spaced wooden posts placed to guide the hiker as there is no real trail in these sections. Gradually we entered the impact zone where trees were mown over like toothpicks, all pointing away from the blast direction, but some half covered in deposits, some still standing, and some being surrounded by meadow and flowers and new trees. The impact zone itself can be characterized by ravines, gullies and an occasional chasm. The deposit of this vast amount of ejected material is easily cut by creeks and rivers, with near vertical walls to contend with. At the South Fork Toutle River crossing, there are ropes to assist the hiker in ascending and descending into the ravine because of the loose and steep material one must try to find purchase in. And don't expect any bridges either, making for a few wet crossings. Did I mention the heat? Miles of hiking with no shade and the sun heating up the lava rocks all around you. Better carry enough water too, as sources are scarce. But I don't mean to complain about the various challenges on this hike, as the geologic interest, vastness of the area, expansive views and hidden surprises (like our visit from a Northern Pygmey Owl during a rest break back in old growth) more than compensate for the conditions. Prepare for a little grit in your socks and be amazed at the power of nature, both in its destructive capabilities and in its amazing ability to recover and rebuild.

bear grass on the south sideno water for Chocolate Fallsevidence of event transitioning to the impact zoneMSH Plains of Abrahamentering MSH restricted zonehalf buried reminders of the blast directiondescending to cross S Fork Toutle rivertypical verticality of eroded stratamountain alpenglow at 5:30 AM/east side


Wonderland Trail Snow Outlook 2015

Glacier lillies already at Indian HenrysOne to two months ahead. Pretty much sums it up when it comes to this year's snow levels in most parts of the Cascades. Usually I take a trip up to Panhandle Gap in June or July and report on the snow conditions, but this year it hardly seems necessary. Yesterday my daughter and I took a jaunt to Indian Henry's Hunting Ground on the Wonderland trail, nestled in a picturesque area at 5400 feet. There were no snow patches until above 5000 feet and what remains is patchy and sparse, with depths of no more than a foot. If current warm weather trends continue, this snow will be gone in a matter of days. I dare say one could hike the Wonderland beginning in June and experience the same kind of conditions normally seen in late July. Problem areas may occur due to the lack of park personnel this early, as in facilities are not open and trail maintenance has not begun. Expect blow downs and possible river/creek crossings where the bridges have been washed out, although these will be high priority as soon as the crews get out. There is always a problematic area on the Wonderland below Martha Falls in the Stevens Canyon area that sees erosion and washout every year. Additionally, the steep areas on the trail between the North Puyallup camp and Klapatche park may be difficult to navigate if snow is still present. However, this can be bypassed if necessary by taking the St Andrews trail out of Klapatche Park and circumventing via the West Side Road to the North Puyallup camp. And of course the park service always issues navigation warnings concerning snow over Panhandle Gap. In a nutshell, anyone hiking the trail during the "usual" season starting in late June should enjoy snow free steps.

sparse snow at Indian Henrys and melting fast



Panasonic LX100 Initial Review

I finally pulled the trigger on the Panasonic LX100 after much consideration. I lugged a GH2, sometimes with good lenses but mostly with a pancake, on many a trip these past few years. Everything is a compromise and I needed a camera with a smaller form factor for backpacking. I'm probably like a lot of users, not quite point and shoot but not real savvy on the ins and outs of manual control. I know the basics of aperture and shutter speed but I'm sure I could get a lot more out of my camera, and consequently a lot better photos, if I spent some quality time with it. The LX100 is versatile enough that it begs further investigation into its guts. A quick search will bring up in depth reviews, but why do I like this camera?

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Camp Muir in 6 Minutes

Continuing this year's trend of hikes with conditions seemingly months ahead of the weather schedule, I left my skis at home to hike up to Camp Muir, the popular base camp for climbers at Mt. Rainier National Park. I wanted to test my legs on a good outing as I just underwent minor surgery and will not be able to hike, climb, or bike for weeks. I also wanted to make use of one of the new mounts I got for my GoPro, clipping it to my pack strap. With the camera set to take one photo per second, I departed Paradise (5400') and did a single push to Camp Muir (10,100') in 2 hours 55 minutes, only stopping once to change out the GoPro battery. Some other new equipment used on this journey: a Panasonic Lumix LX100 camera and a 3 liter Geigerrig pressurized bladder. The weather was sublime and I was comfortable, sometimes even sweltering, in just a base layer and a windshirt. Very much like a hike in June or July. After arriving at Muir I lounged, ate lunch and took photos, chatting it up with a HS friend of my daughter's who just happened to be there with her dad. On the way down the conditions were too sloppy for a good plunge step and I found myself sinking up to my knees on occasions higher up, but this goes with the territory. My footwear consisted of Inov8 running shoes (GoreTex lined) and some gaiters. One might get the impression from the time lapse that this is a benign hike, but the weather can turn nasty higher on this mountain and people have perished on the Muir snow field in years past. Hikers, exercise caution and good sense, especially when it comes to sun protection! But if you have ever wondered what this hike is all about, take the 6 minute journey.

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Return to Enchanted Valley/Olympic National Park

Enchanted Valley chalet rests on new spotA topic of discussion last year was the migrating Quinault River and how it had undercut the foundation of the historic Enchanted Valley Chalet. Read my trip report here on that April 7th, 2014 trip. The chalet was moved about a hundred feet from that position and is now safe from toppling into the river, at least temporarily. With still warm temps and a sunny Sunday (2/22/15) forecast, I decided to pop out to the Olympics and revisit the Enchanted Valley and snap some pix.

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Summerland 2/18/15

Summerland is an extremely popular hike in Mt. Rainier National Park during....the summer. It offers spectacular views and is under 10 miles for the roundtrip. Winter is a whole different animal; usually. The Pacific Northwest is "enjoying" very mild weather and low snow accumulations. I wanted to see firshand what was up so a trip to Summerland was in order. However, access is limited as HW 410 is closed from the Crystal Mountain turnoff, meaning that access to this area of the park is usually limited to snomobiles or people on snowshoes or skins willing to trek 9 miles into the park just to access the trailhead. For me it was a matter of mounting my mountain bike and enjoying snow free roads until less than half a mile from the trailhead. The following shots are frame grabs from video I took a week earlier when I checked out the road with my buddy.

HW 410 gate closurejunction for White River park entrance


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