In the Darkest Winter, Finding a Light on the Longest Night

In early December, the sun sets on Mt. Rainier at an abysmal 4:20 p.m. For the winter backcountry adventurer, watching the sun dip below the horizon does not suggest a leisurely postprandial pursuit for lounging around camp sipping from a flask. When sunset comes at the time my deskbound self would be brewing an afternoon pick-me-up to carry me through the next writing deadline, the backcountry equivalent means I am lucky not to stagger into camp by the thin beam of my headlamp.

Blessed with an early season, low elevation snowpack, and a sudden burst of high pressure, my party of three decided to make good on what seemed like the social imperative of the pandemic winter: get away from everybody, but don’t go too far. So, on one December day last year, we were lucky enough to find ourselves on the southern flank of Mt. Rainier at a prow around 7,000’ on the Van Trump Glacier.

Comet Falls. Photo by Gregory Scruggs

With Washington freshly under its second set of lockdown restrictions, ski resorts at the time were likely the most crowded places legally permitted to operate in the state. But on the Thursday after Thanksgiving, the patchy snow on the roof of the ranger station at Longmire was a quiet outpost of winter serenity compared to the frenetic scene on the other side of the park at Crystal Mountain Resort.

We secured overnight permits and made our way up to the 3,650’ Comet Falls Trailhead, which is hit-or-miss for consistent snow in winter. We hiked up in ski boots until the switchbacks proved consistently white enough to slap on our skis, then skinned through the forest, watching for subtle signs of the trail’s twists and turns. Below the tree line, summer trails leading to the alpine realm are fickle sprites that are easily lost among the pines when buried in snow. Above the treeline, the winter landscape is an endless playground for moving faster than the summer hiker can fathom.

After some careful creek crossings and one section of steep skinning along an embankment where a spill would have plunged us into the icy drink, the faint gush of Comet Falls came into earshot and subsequently into view. A rivulet cradled by rock, the cascading falls were far from their spring and early summer glory. But as they drained the massive glacial sheet high above, the flowing water was a reminder of the ever-shifting dance between solid and liquid that defines the high country of the sodden Northwest.

Climbing the Van Trump. Photo by Gregory Scruggs

As the afternoon minutes ticked by, we gained another couple thousand feet, and the classic south-facing panorama from Mt. Rainier came into view. But the morning’s bluebird promise had given way to a gunmetal cloud deck pregnant with moisture. The summits of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood were shrouded in a gray blanket, with only truncated Mt. Saint Helens in full view. As we crested the ridge where we aimed to set up camp, light raindrops collected like dew on my base layer. I hastily threw on a shell and began resigning myself to a night of wet misery, another Cascadian fooled by a forecast when in reality, the snow peaks make their own weather.

Only the thinnest slip of goldenrod sky separated the darkened treetops of the foothills below from the inky black clouds above. Then, like a reverse solar eclipse, the sun emerged from the cloud deck in a brilliant flash of color and lit up the world. For several minutes, pale yellow light skittered on the snowdrifts, and we paused to absorb this fleeting reprieve from the darkness about to descend. Then, as if evaporated by the illumination, the threat of rain dissipated, and the sky turned a twilight palette of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows. A rainbow appeared.

Making Camp on the Van Trump. Photo by Thatcher Kelley

But thanks to the late hour, we could not afford to bask in the visual symphony. A winter night out is not as simple as merely pitching your tent. Our ridgeline afforded a commanding view but also came with brisk alpine gusts. So we put our avalanche shovels to work digging out shelter on the leeward side. I opted for a partially submerged platform to set up my four-season tent. My compatriots went for the full winter camping experience and dug snow caves to nestle in like hibernating bears.

A Snow Cave with a view. Photo by Thatcher Kelley

 

I spent the first hour of darkness throwing countless cubic feet of snow over my shoulder while bantering with the snow-cave diggers. Dinner and a cup of tea swallowed the next. Before I knew it, a respectable bedtime was approaching at my mountaintop perch. I tucked into my Feathered Friends bag and drifted off to sleep.

Climbing the Turtle. Photo by Thatcher Kelley

 

The next day rang true to the forecast, and our south-facing prominence quickly bathed me in morning light for sunrise coffee inside the confines of my tent. Our objective for the day was the Turtle, a small snowfield above the Van Trump that tops out at 10,800’ where it serves as home to Camp Hazard during climbing season. We sought to test a hypothesis: Snow that high up on the mountain could corn up in early winter under direct sun. But as we kicked steps on our way up the steep slopes in crampons and ice axes, the December sun reflecting off our glacier shades, we quickly put our scientific theory to bed. The snow wasn’t softening even under this withering glare. Dejected, we found a flatter patch where we transitioned to downhill mode and survival-skied back to camp.

The Van Trump, for its part, offered generous corn snow that made for gracious turns even though we were laden with overnight packs. From Comet Falls, the descent tested our tree skiing skills, especially the ability to make tight turns on hiking trail switchbacks amidst sticky low-elevation snow in the afternoon warmth. For the most stubborn among us (or the one who cared least about his skis), there were sufficient snow patches to ski all the way back to the car.

High-pressure cycles are not uncommon during the Northwest winter, but this unseasonably warm dose of sunshine had offered an early taste of spring following an early taste of winter. I had skied bottomless powder in mid-November in the Crystal Mountain backcountry and had spent Thanksgiving on Nordic skis in the Methow Valley. Throughout, skiing time had felt out of joint: pursuing corn snow here and doing snow dances there. But by December, the notion of time being out of joint was perhaps the most familiar sensation of all after a head-spinning year.

Sunrise. Photo by Thatcher Kelley

 

A long winter’s night in a tent is a chance for reflection and deep thinking. A year of pandemic and protests mostly behind us, the scientific miracle of vaccines had made its first glimmers known, and a different kind of miracle was on the horizon in the form of my first child.

But those many hours of darkness ruminating on the future had been eclipsed by our atmospheric surprise on the Van Trump Glacier. That iridescent moment before sunset, when the azure afternoon light had momentarily returned in the northeastern sky—complete with shimmering rainbow—had captured my imagination.

I am reluctant to engage in presumptuous hyperbole. But looking back on a winter that began with foreboding and ended with a ray of hope, if ever there were a candidate for a message from the whims of the sky, that moment—the encroaching gloom, the flash of sunset light, the color spectrum—held such a promise.

Gregory Scruggs is a freelance writer based in Seattle who writes about natural, built, and cultural environments. You can read his work at www.authory.com/gregoryscruggs. A contributor to The Seattle Times, Backcountry Magazine and other publications, he lists his religion as Turns All Year and he’s stoked for the La Niña winter.

 

 

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