Weather Anomalies-Sulpher Mountain And Summerland

The NOAA "Mostly Sunny" Anomaly

This turned out to be one of those few days that nothing seems to go right, so why should the forecast be correct. Chris Mattson and I left Federal Way at some early morning hour anticipating a mostly sunny day on an interesting peak. All the weather gurus seemed to agree that it was going to be a nice day to be in the mountains. 

We were stopped short of reaching the starting point of the originally planned route by snow. Hmmm...snow? The route began at 2200', what the hell were we doing in the snow at 2700'? A closer look at the map revealed that we were in fact on the correct road, but we had failed to notice that the road was actually descending as it headed up the valley to our starting point. I'd be interested in meeting the forest service ranger who posted a report on the conditions of a nearby trail dated March 15 . This would prove to be only the first in a series of mishaps. 

After browsing our small selection of maps, we decided to head up Suiattle River Road (FSR 26) and hike the Green Mountain Trail. A few miles up the road we were delayed by a flat tire apparently caused by a rock. After replacing it with my spare we were back on the road. We reached FSR 2680 and turned left, hoping to get close to the 3500' Green Mountain Trailhead. We thought we could get higher than 2700' since this road was on a south aspect. It wasn't snow that was going to be the issue this time. We were stopped about a mile up the road by a downed tree. Back to the maps. 

We had a couple of nearby options: the Huckleberry Mountain Trail and the Sulpher Mountain Trail. We opted for the Sulpher Mountain Trail. It looked like it would be easy to reach the summit of Sulpher Mountain (it actually is). Even if we didn't go all the way to the summit, there should be a great view. To the north would be a rather close-up view of Dome and Sinister Peaks just on the other side of Sulpher Creek. To the south would be Glacier Peak. Although it was mid morning by now, we had confidence that the weather would improve and we would at least get partly sunny skies. 

From the end of the Suiattle River Road, we began the 5 mile hike up the Sulpher Mountain Trail (FST 794). The trail ends at a high point on the Sulpher/Suiattle divide, a short distance from the top of Sulpher Mountain. By the time we meandered the 5 miles around what seemed like most of the NW corner of the Glacier Peak Wilderness and reached the end of the trail, the weather had done anything but improve. It was snowing, our view was limited to the Suiattle River Valley. With little hope of seeing anything worth seeing and the summit of Sulpher Mountain offering little more than an opportunity to hike in the snow, we decided to head down.

The Suiattle River Valley, note the mostly sunny snowflakes falling


Hoping to avoid the monotony of the trail, we decided to head down the ridge and then descend the old growth slopes directly toward the trailhead. It was a good plan that didn't quite work out the way we had hoped. After descending the ridge we started down a broad gully that we thought would put us somewhere near the trailhead. As we descended the gully it became steep and deep and was taking a turn to the north. Go up or go down? Down. Hoping we could get out of the gully before reaching Sulpher Creek we soon found that there was no escaping. We were forced all the way to the creek. Now our hope was that we could find a way across the creek to the Sulpher Hot Spring Trail but the water was too high and we could find no safe crossing. We did, however, find a nasty hot spring. Perhaps Hermann Ulrichs described the half mile journey to the road best, "No one who has ever tangled with Sulpher Creek could ever possibly forget it...a deep, dark, dank, dreary, dismal dungeon with colossal walls." About the only thing he left out in his description was devil's club. 

Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume 2, Second Edition; Fred Beckey; Page 370

The "Skiing in the Shadow" Anomaly

The forecast was for a wet, westerly flow, and there was little to do but hide in the shadow. The rain shadow of Mt. Rainier that is. I can't always predict it but I have experienced it a number of times before. It was several  years ago when a smiling park ranger at the White River Ranger station told me, "we always have a little sun shinin' at White River," that I caught on. I don't know about "always," but it was worth a shot. I stopped at the Crystal Mountain cabin to drop off the non-essential gear along with some of the more essential (climbing skins) and was at Cayuse Pass by 5:00pm in search of a late afternoon snack. Just past the White River Road, I saw exactly what I had hoped to see: the collapsing rain shadow formed by Mt. Rainier. I continued on to the pass for something easy to get to. I found a short but nice run south of Sheep Skull Gap that opened into something of a small bowl. The snow was corn that had cooked a little too long but it wasn't bad. There was time for another run, but I decided to drive up to Crystal Mountain to see what the snow conditions were like. The summer ski season opens there on Memorial Day weekend. Reportedly the skiing will be limited to the Green Valley area. What I found was that the lower slopes, other than under the Quicksilver chair, were pretty much done. Green Valley it is.

Outside the shadow: below the bowl of creamed corn 

I headed back to the cabin for the ceremonial lighting of the P-tex torch (Enchantments...ouch ). It rained hard for a few hours before the showers ended. The next morning I arrived at the intersection of Highway 410 and White River Road around 7:30am. The sky was clearing and I was soon coasting down the road heading for the Wonderland Trail. After my front derailer made two attempts to derail the project (they don't call them derailers for nothing), I arrived at the Trailhead (c.3900') about 4 miles from where I was forced to park. Skiing began immediately with few difficulties other than finding a way across one of the streams. I had never had trouble crossing this particular stream before but had lost the trail before it makes a few switchbacks and may have missed the proper crossing. Once over that I picked up the trail again and arrived at the next stream crossing, the last one before crossing Fryingpan Creek. This crossing has been a minor problem in the past but the new bridge that was put in last year made it through the winter. However, I found it easier to go upstream about 50 feet and cross on a snow bridge rather than dealing with the bridge heaped with snow. I arrived at Fryingpan Creek and was happy to see that the bridge across was still intact since there was not a snow bridge to cross for several hundred yards. I had arrived at Summerland. 

They don't call it Summerland because its snow-free two months of the year

The rain shadow anomaly is my favorite of the weather anomalies. When the flow is westerly and it is cloudy and raining just a few miles away, it is often sunny immediately east of the mountain. My experience has been that the shadow is at its best in the early afternoon and tends to disappear as evening approaches. It seemed that that was exactly what had happened yesterday and today was looking the same.

Governor's Ridge at the edge of the shadow

The snow was corn with a solid base as I made my way into the meadows. As I gained elevation I encountered a small amount of new snow. The new snow had insulated the snow pack so it never really froze. Only the top inch of the old snow had frozen, leaving me with a breakable crust and about 10 inches of melted corn below. As I was skinning up toward Meany Crest it only got worse. I decided to call it good about half way to the crest.

Meany Crest from Summerland

After skiing back to the road and grabbing my bike, I was outta there. On the way I passed a large party of climbers carrying enormous packs. Apparently, they were driven enough to walk the eight miles of pavement to the White River Campground to attempt to claim the first 2002 ascent of the easiest route on the mountain (looked like the Emmons route should be very direct). White River Road was supposed to open to the campground this Friday, but that has been changed to the "Sunrise Y". Effectively the climbers will get little more than a one day head start for their efforts. Hope it is worth it.   

100 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes in Washington; Rainer Burgdorfer; Pages 186-187