Posted tagged ‘snowfield’

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Raw and Magnificent Royal Basin

September 15, 2012

Corona of the setting moon behind the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin

As evening clouds started leaking, we crawled into our tents early and listened to the staccato pelting of hard rain on taut nylon. I drifted off to sleep within minutes, as usual after a hard day of high country hiking. Later, I awoke to use the facilities (a euphamism if there ever was one), and quickly realized that the lighting was dramatic. The moon had just descended over a ridge and it was dramatically backlighting the clouds that were streaming over the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin. As a bonus, there was a corona of all the colors of the rainbow in those clouds. The contrast of the starkly black and jagged ridge with the ethereal light of moon on clouds was a reminder of what a special and elemental place this is.

Fast-moving clouds and stars above the ridge

I hadn’t hiked to Royal Basin in 22 years. Last time I was there, hiking with Karen, we had shaggy, shedding Mountain Goats come into our campsite uninvited, like party crashers, hoping to score a lick of urine-soaked soil near our tent. Yeah, it was gross, but that’s what Mountain Goats do when there are lots of humans around. They follow hikers hoping to lick the sweat off their thighs or trail after them into the woods, knowing that that’s where humans go to urinate. And why do the goats like our bodily wastes? Because they crave salt. It is apparently an addictive need for them, and these mountains don’t provide enough salt in the soil to satisfy them. The goats can get pesky, and even aggressive, when around humans. In fact, during the fall of 2010, a 370 lb. adult male in breeding craziness gored a hiker about four miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The hiker died after the goat’s sharp horn penetrated an artery in his thigh. Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympic Mountains, and sometimes it seems that they just don’t belong here.

On that same earlier trip we also observed a marmot murder. Marmots are territorial and can be aggressive toward each other. In this case, one marmot chased another across a subalpine meadow; the one being chased decided that its only option was to go down a steep snowfield, which ended abruptly at a tarn. The marmot hurtled down the mountain, slipped down the snowfield, and splashed into the tarn. It swam for a while, but it was unable to climb back up the steep, icy sides of the tarn. Eventually, it succumbed to the icy water and drowned. In the court of Olympic Marmot behavior, the marmicide was deemed manslaughter, and we suspect that the suspect was unrepentant. A heroic young woman fished the corpse out of the tarn so that future hikers could safely get their water here.

Warm light of sunrise bathing the cirque

Those were my most salient memories of our earlier trip to Royal Basin, but I remembered being impressed by the rugged cirque of the upper basin. What I didn’t recall was how hard the hike was, but even at 22 years older, we were able to hike the 7+ miles and 3,100′ gain with no problems, other than being dead tired by the end of the long march.

The lower trail winds through a mossy forest

The hike starts, like most hikes in the Pacific Northwest, in the deep Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Western Redcedar woods. Following Royal Creek, the trail eventually breaks into subalpine forest with small meadows, and after six miles arrives at Royal Lake. We briefly pondered staying at Royal Lake, but there were lots of backpackers there, wearing headnets to protect themselves against an onslaught of mosquitoes, which had hatched in hordes following the melting snow.

Beautiful Royal Lake is the destination for many of the hikers, though it doesn’t have the sublime wild terrain of the upper basin

More impressive here were the clouds of Chironomids, also known as “non-biting midges,” which danced in shafts of sunlight in swarms of thousands. Up close, these creatures look quite a lot like mosquitoes, but they don’t lust after our blood. Hiking through a swarm tickles a bit, and breathing bugs into an open mouth is a coughing and spitting experience, but otherwise these little bugs are benign and bordering on wondrous. When they are backlit by a low, late-summer sun, the effect is spectacular, like a galaxy of dancing stars. I had first seen these columns of dancing chironomids in Grand Valley in the Olympics many years ago, and had photographed them then, but this time I had the advantage of digital photography, so I could check my photographs immediately and adjust exposures accordingly. It was an unforeseen highlight of the hike.

Chironomids dancing in a shaft of sunlight

These non-biting midges are about the size and shape of mosquitoes (with whom they share the shores of Royal Lake), but these little creatures don’t have vampire tendencies

I have never before seen such a concentration of tiny, dancing insects!

I used a time exposure to capture the chaotic flight of these thousands of chironomids

Detail of a time exposure, this one capturing the rhythmic wingbeats of the insects

All good things come to an end, and here thousands of Chironomids have returned in death to fertilize the lake in which they lived as larvae

Wildflowers were late again this year, because of a heavy snowpack in the Olympics. In some years, the flowers would be shriveled and brown by the week before Labor Day, but not in this late summer. There were sky blue lupines and extensive meadows of scarlet paintbrush. Tall Cow Parsnip and Angelica were in the last stage of fowering. Arnicas and Senecios (two yellow flowers in the sunflower family) were at their peak.

Mountain Bog Gentian heralds the end of summer with its bloom

Edible Thistle is a memorable plant of Olympic subalpine meadows

Kneeling Angelica flowering in a mountain meadow

Fireweed blooming along Imperial Tarn in upper Royal Basin

Arnica blooming near our campsite

We climbed still higher beyond Royal Lake, into upper Royal Basin, which is a huge cirque of rugged mountains. We quickly set up camp on the first flat place we could fine, which was a bed of gravel sorted by a stream coming right out of a snowfield. Cold, wonderful water right next to our tents! There were five of us in the group, and we set up three tents. Two climbers had set up their tent before us, but the gravel bed easily accomodated all of us. Peaks glowed red in the setting sun, and the cirque was wild with a sense of unleashed natural forces.

The rocks tell stories of deposition in quiet seas, followed by the incredible power of volcanism as the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate. The rocks tell tales of the earth’s violence over millions of years; pillow lava along the trail was once formed by magma vents on the bottom of the ocean, now these rocks are found a mile high in the mountains in sheer cliffs. Breccia, a combination of jagged stones embedded in a lava matrix, looks like petrified geological pudding.

Breccia and snowfield along Imperial Tarn

Breccia up close, showing rough rocks embedded in a matrix that was once molten

Though the glaciers are gone, Imperial Tarn is still colored a vivid aquamarine by glacial flour that was formed by the scraping of glaciers against rock

Around us that evening, the setting sun caught spires of rock known at The Needles. High ridges surrounded us, separating us from Desolation Basin and other wild Olympic valleys. Not long ago, this was a place of glaciers, and named glaciers are still found on some topographic maps of the area. These tongues of ice shaped this high basin over thousands and thousands of years, leaving massive jumbles of rocks all over the basin. Alas, the days of glaciation are at an end; when we asked the climbers if they had crossed any glaciers, they insisted that there were no longer any glaciers here. I’m inclined to agree. We tried to make cracks across the long snowfields into crevasses, but I think we were just dreaming. There was no breaking end of the snowfield that would indicate glacial movement. So, I’m afraid we can chalk up the loss of still more glaciers to global warming. On the other hand, if we were in an era of growing glaciers, Royal Basin would be a lot less accessible.

The snowfield previously known as a glacier

An unnamed tarn in Royal Basin, with Mt. Clark and The Needles towering above

I explored the stream below this waterfall, where an American Dipper was feeding in the rapids and along the waterfall itself

The next morning, our little stream had largely dried up. During the warm day, snow melts and feeds the streams, while the chill air of night largely stops the melting. One of our group later watched the stream suddenly come to life later in the morning, and followed its progress as it trickled down the mountain.

After our gourmet breakfast of bean soup, instant coffee, and hot chocolate, we set off for a day of exploring upper Royal Basin. We climbed moraines, located hidden tarns filled with aquamarine water, photographed wildflowers, explored a tall waterfall, and enjoyed the company of perhaps 20 Olympic Marmots.

Our BPA-free water bottles colorfully catch the sunrise

The marmots were my favorite part of the day. The young of the year were adolescents at this point, and were out exploring and feeding on their own. One young marmot insisted upon eating False Hellibore–a lily that is poisonous to humans and sheep. I wanted to yell “Don’t eat that!” at the top of my lungs, but like many rebellious teens he probably would have told me to go stick my head in a burrow.

Young Olympic Marmot bending down a False Hellibore for its lunch

The marmots remind me of Teddy Bears; notice the hands built for digging burrows

Olympic Marmots are found nowhere else on earth. They were isolated from Hoary Marmots–the species found in the Cascades–by the ice age. Now these beautiful tawny-haired creatures thrive in the subalpine meadows between Royal Lake and upper Royal Basin. Their piercing cries warn each other of hikers and coyotes and bears and other nasty creatures. They spend much of the year hibernating deep underground, snug in a sedge-lined nest, and the rest of the year mating and eating. Sleep, sex, and food … not such a bad life!

Marmot at its burrow entrance above Royal Creek

These two young marmots are a bit uncertain about the photographic intruder into their lives

After hours of watching the marmots, we returned to camp and enjoyed talking about the adventures of the day during dinner. That was the night that rain came early, where I started this tale.

Shelter Rock near Royal Lake is made of pillow lava that was once extruded from volcanic vents beneath the ocean; the collision of plates shoved immense deposits of pillow lava up onto the continent

In contrast to the giant forces forming mountains; here a tiny stream sprayed water droplets onto a bed of moss

The next morning, we packed up and began the long hike out, stopping for a while at Royal Lake. There was a breeze at the lake, and we wondered where all the midges had gone. One of us, walking into the woods to use the facilities, discovered that the little bugs were all hunkered down on branches, waiting out the wind and hoping for steady sun so they could resume their wild mating dance.

Beautiful light on upper Royal Basin

The National Park Service closely controls the number of backpackers in Royal Basin, following an era of overuse that resulted in trampling of beautiful wildflower meadows. Our permit allowed us to stay in the upper basin, where a total of 12 people in a maximum of four groups could camp. Royal Lake could accommodate more people, and there is a ranger station there (but no ranger during our stay; we wondered if the backcountry ranger had left for college or to fight a forest fire).

The lower trail passes thimbleberries and big firs and hemlocks

Fast hikers can explore Royal Basin as a day hike of 14+ miles, which is more than I would care to do in a day. We watched two guys descending a steep snowfield near the rim of the cirque; they had come from largely snowclad Deception Basin, over the ridge, and down the snowfield. They used crampons on their boots to allow safer passage on the hard snow of morning, and used treking poles to help stabilize themselves on the steep slope. These guys were really tired after a tough hike, and still had a good seven miles to go.

Footbridge crossing the lower reaches of Royal Creek

We enjoyed chatting briefly with a group of young people who had backpacked in. They had come to Royal Basin as part of their freshman college orientation, and were uniformly enthusiastic about the experience. The Puget Sound region is so beautiful that outdoor activities like this are part of the pulse of living here.

Hemlock forest along the trail

An impressionistic view of the hemlock forest

Fireweed against a sky of delicate cirrus clouds

For more information about Royal Basin hiking go to:

Washington Trails Association Hike of the Week

Royal Basin, National Park Service

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

ICE CAVES: Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness

October 3, 2011

Interior of ice cave carved by the Cispus River in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Standing before the ice cave entrance, I felt the menacing breath of the ice age upon me. Outside, the day was sunny and mild; inside the cave entrance, the atmosphere was dark, with a thin fog carried by the breeze coming down the long and icy corridor. The wind smelled of elemental rocks and ice, and carried a message of unrelenting cold.

Lower entrance of an ice cave in the  Summerland subalpine meadows of Mt. Rainier National Park

Ice caves, as they are known here in the Pacific Northwest, occur where a creek tumbling down a mountain cuts under a snowfield. An ice cave gradually enlarges as the summer wears on, and it eventually collapses and disappears with the melting of the snowfield. The summer of 2011 was colder than normal, and there was a heavy snowpack from late mountain snows last spring, so some of the snowfields will remain and will grow in thickness with new snow in the cold seasons ahead.

Translucent walls of the Summerland ice cave

The walls of ice caves become scalloped, much like the sun cups that form atop snowfields. The flowing stream, warmer than the frozen snow and ice, causes melting. And the patterns and colors are extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, I could become addicted to photographing every ice cave I found, except for one thing:

ICE CAVES ARE NOT SAFE!

The constant melting and collapsing along the route of the stream is exceedingly dangerous for humans. This point was brought home to me several years ago when my wife called and said she had been on a backpacking trip and was one of the first on the scene of a tragedy. A woman from Seattle had ventured into the entrance of an ice cave, and the roof suddenly collapsed, sending tons of ice down on her head and completely burying her. Despite the heroic efforts of hikers to dig her out using an ice axe, she was dead. This kind of tragedy has happened with regularity during the years I’ve lived in Washington State, and it serves as a warning to me.

Cispus River Ice Cave

Despite the look of my pictures here, I did not venture more than five feet into an ice cave, and I was crawling on cold earth with my feet in a frigid stream. Overhead, the ice layer was up to maybe six inches thick, and I made a calculated risk that even if the ceiling collapsed it didn’t have far to fall and wouldn’t have the momentum to kill me. To further hedge my bets, I had the camera on autofocus and autoexposure and shot blindly, by instinct, rather than trying to contort myself impossibly (and thus disturb the walls and roof of the cave) to look through the viewfinder. I used the LCD to check my results, and adjust my angles and exposures accordingly.

By the way, the beauty of these ice caves is an ephemeral beauty, since they normally disappear each year. Almost none of them have names, since they are essentially invisible to most hikers. In fact, the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington State’s Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest is the only named ice cave I can think of. These caves are off-limits to hikers because of deaths that occurred in 1998 and 2010, though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the vicinity of the ice caves so that people can see the entrances.

 A Summerland ice cave at Mt. Rainier

There is another type of ice cave I would love to photograph: an ice cave through a glacier. Mt. Rainier had a spectacular ice cave near Paradise that lasted for decades, but it disappeared in the late 1980s with climate change and the retreat of Rainier’s glaciers. This cave was immense and was flooded with an eerie blue light that I associate with nuclear reactors. Alas, I’ll have to go somewhere else to see such a sight. Perhaps Iceland.

Upper entrance of a Summerland ice cave, with a torrent of meltwaters cascading into the snowfield

Scalloped walls of a Summerland ice cave

Atop a snowfield at Summerland, showing the melting formations known as suncups

Entrance to a Summerland ice cave

Upper entrance of the Cispus River ice cave, with the Goat Rocks (remnants of an old volcano that blew its top) in the distance

The Cispus River ice cave is colored by the deep blue of compressed snow and ice, and the red tint of watermelon snow–a coloration caused by a dense concentration of algae

Sculpted interior of a Cispus River ice cave

A final view of the Cispus River ice cave, which was small enough that it may no longer exist this year

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website