By Michael Lanza
“There’s absolutely no one out here.”
I was just a few hours into a solo backpacking trip around Mount Rainier National Park’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop when that realization hit me. It was a cool, clear day in October. None of my usual hiking partners had been available to join me. So I decided to do the trip alone, something I’ve done more times than I could count and felt comfortable with. I had no idea that this time I’d face the kind of situation that solo hikers think about but can never anticipate: a threat that shrinks the margin of safety in the wilderness down to nothing.
When I picked up my backcountry permit that morning, a ranger told me a snowstorm had hit the park just two days earlier. “You’ll probably run into at least a foot of snow on the ground at higher elevations,” he said. That didn’t dissuade me; I was prepared for snow. Neither of us, however, knew about the much-bigger storm brewing out over the Pacific Ocean as we spoke, collecting moisture as it barreled toward the Cascade Range.
Autumn can be the finest time of year to head into the backcountry of places like Mount Rainier National Park. The foliage changes color. There are no bugs. The weather often achieves something close to meteorological perfection. I’ve enjoyed some of my best days in the mountains in the fall.
I’ve hiked through titanic rainstorms from New Zealand to Vermont’s Long Trail. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen rain like I saw on that trip in the shadow of Mount Rainier. Creeks rose dangerously high, threatening to wash out log bridges I had to cross or face being stranded in the wilderness. Without realizing it, I was hiking through a storm that was producing a 100-year flood in the region.
Read my full story about that October 2003 solo backpacking trip in Mount Rainier National Park.
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