Like a giant octopus, three dozen tentacles of ice radiate in all directions from the snowcapped summit of Washington’s Mount Rainier, making it the largest glacier system of any single-peak mountain in the world.
The tall, beautiful and domineering 14,410-foot peak is a sportsman’s paradise — but also a possible volcanic nightmare.
From Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in Northern California, Rainier is the most seismically active mountain in the Cascades.
Located 54 miles southeast of Seattle, people in the region call it simply “The Mountain.”
Native American tribes call it “Tahoma,” meaning “the mountain that was God.”
Despite its towering and quiet majesty, deep under the mountain some 30 earthquakes are recorded each year by seismographs — though they’re little noted by the people who live on and around it.
Mount Rainier is a strato-volcano within the Ring of Fire — a deadly chain of volcanoes that encircle most of the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand through Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Aleutians, Alaska, and all the way down the west coast of North and South America.
According to Cascades Volcano Observatory scientists, Rainier is “the most dangerous volcano in the range, owing to the large population, and to the huge area and volume of ice and snow on its flanks that could theoretically melt to generate debris flows during cataclysmic eruptions.”
Seattle’s Emergency Management office says if Rainier were to blow its top again, it could unleash “major hazards” caused by fast-moving currents of gas and rock, mudflows (lahar) and volcanic ash in the atmosphere. “If ash fall…were to strike Seattle,” the report warned, “it would create health problems, paralyze the transportation system, destroy many mechanical objects, endanger the utility networks and cost millions of dollars to clean up.”
The good news for them is the prevailing winds would most likely blow ash eastward.
But syrupy lahars are another matter.
Lahar is a volcanic mud or debris flow that can be “as watery as muddy dishwater” to as gooey as wet cement.
When Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, lahar flows severely damaged much of the surrounding area including the city of Angeles, location of Clark Air Base — well remembered by generations of American military.
In addition to volcanic eruptions, lahar can be formed by melting snow and ice, heavy rainfall on loose volcanic rock deposits, avalanches and lakes breaking out of their volcanic dams.
“These eruptive and collapse events pose substantial hazards,” the U.S. Geologic Survey warns.
A National Park Service report tells about the Osceola Mudflow that occurred after Mount Rainier erupted 5,700 years ago, leaving a 2-mile wide depression in the mountain’s face and sending a wall of mud and debris sometimes 500 feet deep and covering 100 square miles before plunging into Puget Sound 40 to 70 miles away.
The first recorded sighting of Mount Rainier by a European was in 1792 by British explorer Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy sailing off the American Northwest coast.
He noted in his diary that he saw “a round, snowy mountain” and named it “after my friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier.”
In his journal on Nov. 25, 1805, Meriwether Lewis also noted seeing the mountain.
Since then, several attempts have been made to change its name back to the Indian “Tahoma,” but those efforts thus far have failed.
In 1870, U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Hazard Stevens and mountaineer and writer P. B. Van Trump are believed to have been the first to climb Rainer and reach the summit. (Hazard was a Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War and was son of Isaac I. Stevens, first governor of Washington Territory.)
Some reports say Rainier’s last eruption was in 1894, but USGS says there may have been some smoke and steam eruptions in the 1800s, but evidence is “both scanty and tenuous.”
In his book “Steep Trails,” (1918) naturalist John Muir wrote “With a cumbersome abundance of campstools and blankets we set out from Seattle, traveling by rail as far as Yelm Prairie, on the Tacoma and Oregon road. “Here we made our first camp and arranged with Mr. Longmire, a farmer in the neighborhood, for pack and saddle animals.
“The noble King Mountain was in full view from here, glorifying the bright, sunny day with his presence, rising in godlike majesty over the woods, with the magnificent prairie as a foreground.”
Muir and eight others set out to climb the mountain, and at the end of the first day, they were above the timber line. “After eating a little hardtack, each of us leveled a spot to lie on among lava blocks and cinders,” he wrote. “The night was cold, and the wind coming down upon us in stormy surges drove gritty ashes and fragments of pumice about our ears while chilling to the bone.”
Twin brothers Jim and Lou Whitaker from Seattle devoted much of their lives to Mount Rainier; honing their skills, teaching and guiding others. In 1963, Jim became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, as part of an American expedition organized by Norman Dyhrenfurth.
Lou, who served in the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division and spends time in Idaho’s Sun Valley, has climbed Rainier a record 250 times.
In 1899, the mountain was designated Mount Rainier National Park, and the government built roads and ranger outposts, carved out and maintained hiking trails, regulated mountain guides, and appointed rangers to enforce the rules.
Rainier became the first national park to admit cars, but for a while it was a hassle. In 1908, each auto was required to obtain a permit from the park superintendent, and the speed limit was six miles per hour — except on a straight sections where 15 m.p.h. was allowed as long as no horse teams were in sight.
Horses had the right of way. When car drivers saw a team approaching, they were required to pull over and stay on the edge of the road “until teamsters were satisfied as to the safety of their teams.”
Climbing Rainier isn’t for neophytes. It’s dangerous. National Park Service records going back to 1897 list more than 400 deaths on the mountain. Many were not caused by climbing, but by suicide, homicide, law enforcement, plane crash, car accidents, poor health or lack of adequate preparation by the victim, etc.
The last Rainier fatality was Craig Falk, 54, in 2016, who died of a heart attack while hiking.
Noted USGS geological engineer and later Stanford University professor Baily Willis saw Mount Rainier National Park as an “Arctic island in a temperate zone.”
“The extent of this truly high mountain territory has preserved conditions such as were widespread immediately after the ice age more perfectly than has any other region in the United States,” he wrote in a report, “and there still exist many species of Arctic fauna and flora extinct elsewhere except in the inaccessible North.”
Happily, there’s more to Mount Rainier than danger. It’s also a cornucopia for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, camping, fishing, non-motorized boating, hiking and photography, with the picturesque 93-mile Wonderland Trail circumnavigating the mountain.
There’s also back-country skiing (AKA “off-piste”) — on unmarked or unpatrolled areas — that can be exhilarating, but also dangerous because of possible bad weather, exhaustion, cliffs, rock falls, and “tree wells” that are open spaces sometimes up to 20-feet deep hidden under tree branches surrounded by snow.
More sinister and unpredictable are avalanches.
According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there have already been eight avalanche fatalities in the U.S. this year — including a snowmobiler east of Idaho Falls.
If Mount Rainier erupts again, will there be any warning?
“An eruption is likely to be preceded by days to months or more of small earthquakes centered beneath the volcano, by subtle deformation of the volcano, and by increases in volcanic gas emissions and temperatures,” says U.S. Geologic Survey.
“Detection of these natural precursors can allow communities to go to heightened levels of alert and take basic precautions against hazards.”
Most Mount Rainier locals no doubt already know most of this, and are used to seeing “Volcano. Evacuation Route” signs posted on roads around the mountain — but apparently they aren’t too worried because they don’t expect anything to happen soon.
Let’s hope they’re right.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kids take note…
“We’ve been programmed for thousands of years to walk the forests and be in nature,” legendary mountaineer Jim Whittaker said. “It’s only the last couple hundred years that we’ve gotten caught up in this technology and living inside of walls and going down trails in vehicles.”
First to climb Rainier…
“That first true vision of the mountain, revealing so much of its glorious beauty and grandeur, its mighty and sublime form filling up nearly all of the field of direct vision, swelling up from the plain and out of the green forest till its lofty triple summit towered immeasurably above the picturesque foothills, the westering sun flooding with golden light and softening tints its lofty summit, rugged sides and far-sweeping flanks – all this impressed me so indescribably, enthused me so thoroughly, that I then and there vowed, almost with fervency, that I would some day stand upon its glorious summit, if that feat were possible to human effort and endurance.”
— Philemon Beecher Van Trump, writer and mountaineer
It wasn’t the mountain’s fault…
The first Rainier death happened in January 1897, but had nothing to do with climbing. E.H. Hudson died from “traumatic injuries” after a gun fell from his pocket and he was shot in the neck.
Regarding dangerous pursuits…
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
— Helen Keller, quoted by Lou Whittaker
A mountain to behold…
“Ice-clad Mount Rainier, towering over the landscape of western Washington, ranks with Fujiyama in Japan, Popocatepetl in Mexico, and Vesuvius in Italy among the great volcanoes of the world.
“At Mount Rainier, as at other inactive volcanoes, the ever-present possibility of renewed eruptions gives viewers a sense of anticipation, excitement, and apprehension not equaled by most other mountains.
“Even so, many of us cannot imagine the cataclysmic scale of the eruptions that were responsible for building the giant cone which now stands in silence.”
— Dwight R. Crandell, USGS