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Pain is the currency of beauty–Day 1

Posted by joeabbott on August 12, 2013

Every year Pete and I get out. This year we are both working on a hot project at Microsoft, so it looked unlikely that we’d be able to break away. However, working 16-hour days non-stop and “on” all weekend has a funny way of catching up to a couple of guys and we collectively said, “I need a break”. So we took off a Friday, headed into the wilderness, and came out Sunday. It was a good break and a welcome respite but it chewed us both up pretty good; well, maybe it gave Pete a bit more of the ol’ 1-2 than me.

Our outing this year felt a bit tame: head into Mt. Rainier National Park, walk the Wonderland trail to the Mystic Lake Campground to pitch our tent, stay until Sunday and come out. The route information said it was just under 10.5 miles one way and while there was a bit of an uphill stretch, we had all day to get there. Also, the campground was popular enough we had to submit a reservation to hold our spot. All evidence suggested it’

However … and there’s always a “however” in these sorta stories, isn’t there? … we went in under heavy skies (after one of the driest July in Seattle history), climbed through clouds to camp, nursed sore feet and aching backs the entire way, I badly hurt a finger on day two, and the way out felt much more like 14 miles than just over 10. When we got home, Pete was riddled with mosquito bites, had a couple of blisters on his feet the size of peanuts-in-the-shell, and I had to get x-rays on my hand.

It was a bruiser.

The title of this post is based on an apocryphal saying attributed to Fred Beckey, a legendary mountaineer from the Pacific Northwest. I can find no place on the Interwebs that captures the quote or ascribes anything like it to Beckey, but during my basic climbing class I continually heard instructors and students muttering the saying, “the currency of beauty is pain”, as we struggled under brutal loads, endured tremendous bodily abuse, and ended up with scraped skin, lost toenails, and all manner of minor damage. And yet came back for more. We paid to see the wonder of mountains and felt the price fair.

This post will focus a bit more on data but I promise to follow with a post containing pictures.

Day 1 – Getting there

imageThe Carbon River entrance is located in the Mt. Rainier National Park’s northwest corner, making it only some 50 miles from my house. Head south through towns with names like Puyallup, Orting and Carbonado to Hwy 165 where you continue south. At the stop sign at the Carbon River Road you veer left to take it and in about 7.5 miles you’ll come across the Carbon River Ranger Station and Park boundary.

In 2006 the road washed out and closed some five miles before Ipsut Creek Camp, the prior “end of the line” for people entering the Park via this road. And so people get to either ride bikes on the flat, mostly perfect road between the Ranger Station and Ipsut Creek Camp or, like Pete and me, walk it. The five miles on flat road sounds easy enough and it was a good way to start the trip … slowly assessing the body, letting the back and legs get used to our heavy packs under foot-friendly conditions. Unfortunately, coming out the way just felt long and never-ending. More on that later.

I had both my GPS and SPOT on during the trip so I’ll include both images; the chart showing the yellow dots indicates the GPS spots captured during that particular day. As you can see from the image on the right, I forgot to turn the GPS on right out of the car!

imageThe image on the left is the SPOT tracks overlaid on Google map. The way in had plenty of trees so you don’t often get a signal through, but I’m surprised how many tracks came through from the camp site.

From this picture here, you can see that you don’t actually camp at the lake, but on a small shelf just below it a quarter mile down the trail:


Right out of the car I forgot my sunglasses and had to go back for them; it was close enough that I didn’t even drop my pack as I was fresh. Still, the pack felt very heavy and I only had a moderate amount of gear.

We walked the 5 miles to Ipsut Creek Camp and took a breather. Both of us were sweating and starting to groan under our respective loads, so the picnic table and sit-down rest were welcome. While this was the last place we’d be able to use a decent bathroom, neither of us needed it and we continued on.

By the time you come to Ipsut Creek Camp, you’ve gained about 500’ in elevation; not much. By the time we made our next stop, for lunch, we’d have added another 1200’ and another 3.5 miles to our trip.

Our lunch spot was the Carbon Glacier overlook; a spot on the trail nearly the same as any other but gives you a great view of the terminus of the glacier and the start of the Carbon River. Just prior to the stop, Pete and I looked at the suspension bridge just below the glacier’s snout and tromped across the springy surface. Perhaps because of the heavy backpack, perhaps because of the tired legs, the bridge deck seemed to sway and bounce dangerously under my footsteps and I only walked halfway before retreating to the solid rock of the trail. By this time I was moving a bit quicker than Pete and waited ten minutes or so for him to catch up and help me find a good spot for lunch.

And it was a good spot! Not only did we enjoy a break from our hiking and a pause before we plunged into the cloud deck that was now just above our heads, we saw a bear navigating the moraine and crossing to the far side of the Carbon River! I do, however, need a better camera to capture something that far away:


At this point, Pete and I for the most part split up, walking in our perspective misery to camp and before then only meeting up near Dick Creek Camp. The route isn’t long but you gain an awful lot of elevation before getting to Mystic Lake: in under 2 miles you gain another 1500’ and that’s after the insult of over eight miles to get to that point. As you crest the low ridge into the high valley, you are greeted by a sign telling you to hike another .8 mile to the Lake and only when you get there do you see a sign saying, “keep going, another .2 mile to camp”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it was a rude message by this point in the trip.

But, I greeted a ranger at the lake who looked over my hiking registration information and showed surprise we were staying at the camp two nights; I get the feeling the majority of people are just passing through.

At camp I chose Site 4 and happily dropped my pack. I was soaking from sweat, the ever-present mist in the air, and the occasional rain that would splash down lightly, somehow making it through the tree canopy where my SPOT radio signals wouldn’t. Then I realized how close the sites were to one another and how chatty the folks were in Site 3. I scouted the area and moved my gear to the much more antisocial Site 5, our home for the weekend.

Pete joined me a bit later and I welcomed his arrival. While I carried a goodly amount of gear, he had the water filter, stove, and tent poles. But, I was somewhat rested by the time he showed up so I was able to throw down a tarp, pop up the tent with his help, and then run off to fill our water containers. It was about 7 PM by this time and while I’d like to say we sat up, played cards, caught up on life, and lounged about the camp, we didn’t: without dinner or even hanging our food (we pulled it into the tent with us), we dropped off to a very welcome slumber.


Trails always seem longer to me when you have a long stroll in and then have to gain a good bit of elevation. It was made the more challenging by the fact that the maps indicated 8.5 miles to the Carbon Glacier overlook and, when you get there, you see another sign telling you it’s 4.5 miles to Mystic Lake; and, on getting to the Lake, seeing a sign telling you to keep going. I don’t believe the route information saying it’s only 10.5 miles to Mystic Lake but I can’t make a strong case for much more than 12.5 miles.

It was a hard day for a couple of overworked desk jockeys and we didn’t get to enjoy the splendor of Mt. Rainier due to the heavy cloud cover, but we had made it to camp and it was time to just kick back and enjoy.


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