It’s been a strange season. Earthquakes normal on the western portion of North America has now hit the east coast; though it hardly qualifies as a “big one” to westerners. And in the western mountains, summer arrived late.
On Mount Rainier, summer is normally welcomed with a great deal of unofficial pomp and circumstance. With May/June coming around, the flowers start to bloom in the alpine meadows, unusual signs of life on the snow (yes, the snow) show up, and throngs of automobiles bringing tourists, hikers and climbers pass through Paradise, Longmire and Sunrise.
Interestingly, in 2011, winter and spring lingered much longer than usual… well into summer. Unusually high amounts of snowfall throughout the mountain ranges of the west coast of the US. In fact, the mountain meadows, like in Paradise Valley, have come alive at last. The alpine wildflowers are blooming now in late August – a phenomena that normally occurs months earlier.
Several hiking trails throughout the park were inaccessible and closed to “normal” summer hiking. Snowshoes or skis, ice axes and snow shovels were necessary tools to carry even in July.
But for those that were there in the wintry summer may have seen the mountain in an altogether different light and understood how harsh and exciting a winter environment the mountain can be in other parts of the year. More people were able to see the watermelon snow – an algae that grows on the snow at higher altitudes around Mount Rainier National Park that looks red as if a watermelon’s juices dripped all over.
But with all of these lingering winter conditions are the dangers that make winter and spring exciting and dangerous (both of which are mutual, in my book.) The watermelon snow could be harmful to your system, so be sure to use snow for drinking water elsewhere. Be sure to be prepared for backcountry winter travel and the dangers of avalanches. Winter traction and stability tools are also essential.
Sources: 1) Yuasa, Mark, “Wildflowers Finally Visible on the Hillsides of Mount Rainier National Park,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, August 21, 2011; 2) Schmoe, Floyd, A Year in Paradise, Mountaineers, 1999.