Walking in a winter wonderland

Posted by Ken Campbell December 20, 2010 1 Comment 1489 views

When I drive to Mount Rainier from Tacoma, I like to take the long way. Highway 7 winds through some slow and steep terrain at some points, through the “towns” of La Grande and Alder, and most motorists seem to use the Eatonville cut-off to bypass this part of the road, but I actually look forward to it. I’ve gone that way before and it does save time, but I’m not usually going to Rainier to save time. I’m going to spend it.
I stop in at Whittaker Mountaineering in Ashford to make my reservation for the Copper Creek Hut that night. The hut is part of the northern section of the Mount Tahoma Ski Trails system; I’ve never actually been there before, in any season, and I’m looking forward to changing that reality.

I drive the logging road approach to the snow-park, climbing from the Nisqually valley up into the snow. The trailhead is at about 3200 feet, and I park in the plowed shoulder near the gate. After exchanging street clothes for polypro and fleece, I’m on the way in, walking up the steep, unplowed approach. It’s about 4 miles from the parking area to the hut and it’s already after 2:00pm. There’s another snow-park about 20 minutes higher, completely buried under several feet of new snow but not too much further on is the point where the trail grooming begins and the progress gets markedly easier.

There’s about 1000 feet of elevation gain between the parking lot and the hut, and most of that seems to be in the first mile. Once on the groomed trail, which is actually a well-graded logging road, progress is relatively easy and the way is well signed. I arrive at the hut just as darkness falls, and in a matter of minutes, I’m settled in for the night.

Lest the word “hut” conjure up any images of stark hardship and privation, I feel I should clear those up right now. The Copper Creek Hut should be called a chalet, I think, a descriptor that would more accurately reflect its comparative luxury and comfort. Seriously, in the middle of a winter wilderness, where all around is covered in deep snow, where the outside temperatures are in the low 20’s, I am sitting on a soft couch in front of a propane fire, popping pistachios and drinking a beer. This is no hut.

I fall asleep early, right there on the couch. On this most perfect of backcountry evenings, I am Copper Creek’s only occupant.

I wake just before sunrise to clear skies and endless views. To the northeast is the mountain, frosted in white like some crazy massive wedding cake. The sunrise is taking shape in the eastern sky and the rising light is bouncing off the snow, giving shape to the trees and the individual features all around. Slowly the sky turns from black to indigo to blue, and as soon as the burning sun crests the mountains, the day begins in full color.

I make breakfast, toasted bagel and cream cheese, fresh, hot coffee. I go outside and take a few pictures, but retreat quickly to the warmth and luxury of the hut. I read through the logbook, chuckling at the comments left by those who have been here before me, looking for names that I recognize – and finding a couple.

I’m drinking more coffee, working my way through a jigsaw puzzle, when the snow-cat arrives. Brian, the driver, comes inside for a half-hour and passes the time, helps out with the puzzle, then goes again. It isn’t long after that that the first skiers start to arrive. They come in pairs, leave their skis by the door and come inside noshing on snacks as they warm up by the fire. The hut is supposed to be full on this night, a dozen people or more, but I am not going to be one of them. It’s starting to feel like it’s time for me to get on my way.

The return to the car goes quickly. Mostly downhill, on freshly groomed corduroy, it’s a fast track. Too fast, maybe. I try to stay in the moment, but I find that I’m already thinking about the next time.

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