Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

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Mt. Rainier, a magnificent, ice-covered volcano, the icon of the Pacific Northwest, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,411ft (4,392m), is located just some 54 miles southwest of Seattle. In a good sunny day, you can have a clear view of this beauty from downtown Seattle. At the first sight it really makes you envy the Seattleites, with such grandeur right in the backyard. But then you may quickly change your opinion when you soon learn that Mt. Rainier is actually an ACTIVE volcano, last erupted as recently as the mid 1800s -- it's actually a time bomb right at the doorstep. Recall the nearby Mt. St. Helens' catastrophic eruptions in May 1980, claiming 57 lives. Now imagine that happen right on the backdoor of the populous Seattle. No wonder Mt. Rainier is widely considered as potentially the deadliest volcano in the US.

However, in a clear, warm, sunny day, as the icy giant looks so peaceful and inviting on the skyline, you tend not to think too much about such dreadful possibilities. Instead, you pack up your gears and try to explore this seemingly friendly, approachable beauty. But beware, Mt. Rainier is not exactly an easy mountain to conquer. To arrive at its summit, you have to climb across the largest glacier in the lower 48 states, which typically takes 2 to 3 days. In addition, you're constantly facing risks of rock and ice fall, avalanche, hypothermia, not to mention harsh, unpredictable weather. Among the 8,000 to 13,000 climbers trying each year, only half of them will finish the journey. And 3 of them, on average, will never leave the mountain alive.

Mt. Rainier was born more than 840,000 years ago, when an eruption forming a "proto-Rainier" cone which is probably smaller in size. Then about 500,000 years ago another eruption created the volcano we see today. Because of the perpetual glacier movements, avalanches, and mud flowers, the volcano has been heavily eroded. Some time a large chunk of the crater was chipped off in debris avalanche. But then from time to time a few small eruptions spit out lava and ashes on the top, adding new height and forming the irregular shape of the summit we see today. In 1899, the volcano and the forests and meadow nearby was established into Mt. Rainier National Park, the fifth in the country.

We've visited the park twice: first time in May of 2004, when there's plenty of snow everywhere. This is the second time, now with a little Yichi taking command of our itinery. He dictated our every move: to stop or to move on, to walk or to drive, to eat or to sleep.

Located just 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean and towering 14,411 ft above sea level, Mt. Rainier is very good at collecting clouds, creating its own weather. The climate is generally cool; unpredictable rain is the only predictability. One minute you are absorbed by detail of the majestic crown of glacier on the summit, the next minute everything could just suddenly disappear into a white, misty oblivion.

With ample precipitation, glacier ice and snow has crowned the summit since eternity. Glaciers flow only a few feet a day, but their slow motion carve out valleys and shape the mountain. However, as the climate gets warmer, glacier have been retreating significantly in the last century. From 1913 to 1994, the total volume of ice on the summit shrinked by 25%.

Melted ice and snow gather into streams, brooks, waterfalls, and sometimes even mud slides.

I've lost count on how many waferfalls and rivers we came across...

The first 3 pix were taken at Stevens Canyon, which is about 180 feet deep but very narrow, like a deep cut open by a knife. Stevens Creek runs at the bottom. The canyon is probably a crack created by glacier movement.

Water nourishes the rich meadows and forests around the mountain, on which John Muir commented being "the most luxuriant and extravagantly beautiful of all alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountaintop wanderings." Praises don't get any higher than that. The most extravagantly beautiful garden of all, is Paradise on the south slope of the mountain. The name was given by Virinda Longmire, one of the earlier explorer of the mountain, when she was mesmerized by the carpet of wild flowers on the meadow, with a magnificent snowy peak on the background, in her first visit in the summer of 1885. Our trip in September was a little late for flowers, but at this time the foliage is getting rich in color; bunches and bunches of brightly red Coast Elderberry added an amber hue to the vegetation.

Who doesn't want to live in paradise? That's why there is the Paradise Inn, a historic hotel. Built in 1916, it is now a National Historic Landmark.

Mountains of the Cascade Range around Rainier.

Yichi and his attendants enjoying Rainier.

Rainier in detail... Oh that lustrous bright red of elderberry... it's almost too bright for the eyes.

Before we leave, let's take a last look at the sleeping giant: serene, calm, peaceful... But so is the gaping crater of St. Helen, merely some 50 miles away. Will someday Rainier too, wake up in a violent rage of devastation? Only time will tell. Behind beauty often lurks danger; but isn't a dangerous beauty more beautiful? With this final note, we bid farewell and good luck to Rainier and the Seattleites.

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