Mowich Lake Snowvernight (April 3-4, 2021)

This was a short trip which I’ve been wanting to do since I realized that snowed-in forest roads were great for routes for cross country skiiing. Mowich Lake is an incredibly popular summer time destination, so much so that when some friends and I showed up there with reservations in 2019 on the Wonderland Trail, we wound up having to camp in the parking lot.

Mowich lake ski. Mowich lake is on the NW slope of Mt Rainier (not pictured).

April 4 – Saturday

WA 165, the road up to Mowich Lake, alternates between well graded dirt road and pot hole city. It’s almost as though the pot holes were intentional since the road doesn’t have washboarding, washouts, sliding or any of the other myriad infirmities which befall forest roads. Just before Evans Creek ORV Area (I previously assumed that the point of an ORV was that you didn’t need to take it to a playground), the ruts in the snow were just deep enough to threaten impassibility at any moment. Several trucks were parked along side the road so, when a clear spot presented itself, I chose to take it. It turns out I could have made it another ~1.5mi by car and so instead wound up carrying my skis. When skiing forest roads, there’s always a trade-off between having to carry your skis to better snow and being confident you’ll be able to drive away the next day.

The road looked a lot worse before this. For some reason they decided to pave after the pot holes.

The skis went on and off a few times as I tried to guess where continuous snow would start. Once I found it, the trips up to the lake was pleasant a ski of about 7 miles.

Mount Rainier NP is usually crawling with people. Apparently the “No Pets” sign has been mistaken as “No People”.

The snow was deep enough to provide easy passage over obstacles like gates and fallen trees. This is spring snow which is compacted and I wasn’t sinking in far enough to worry about my skis catching on sunken obstacles.

What gate?

It’s hard to go out in the winter outside a resort and not think about avalanche conditions. I was solo (a big no-no in avalanche terrain). The road cuts across slopes angled such that they are prone to sliding. However, the snow was compact and settled. Until I neared the lake, the snow on the slope above the the road was quite thin. There were some pinwheels but they were old. By the time I was near the top, the slopes above me were relatively short. Also, being on the road meant that unless something propagated off the flat road surface (unlikely due to settled snowpack), there would be no trigger for an avalanche. All in all, I have no idea if I’m correctly apply my Avy 1 training but tried to be conscious of the risks since I’m new to off-resort winter recreation.

Roller balls. Sign of potential avalanche conditions. These are old and and the snow was compacted.

The clouds were heavy and so there wasn’t much of a sunset, but I caught a glimpse at a switchback. The setup was such that I couldn’t tell as I was approaching the switchback if the road went straight and descended, wrapped around the hill upwards, or switched back. It just seemed to disappear after a crest. Once I got there, the answer was obvious but it was a little like the anticipatory thrill of approaching a pass and knowing you might see a whole vista on the other side.

As much sunset as I would see.

Getting to the Mowich Lake itself was a bit anticlimactic. First was the parking area which I recognized as a large flat expanse at the end of the road. The trails to the lake 50yds or so away aren’t discernable under the snow but there’s a large stream of open water whose snow banks were 5ish feet deep despite the water itself not looking very deep. The lake was less interesting: just an empty, flat white expanse. I couldn’t tell where the edge was and so stayed above it near trees.

Panorama of Mowich Lake. Not as grand as in the summer.

I’ve heard people say that there’s a ranger cabin at Mowich Lake. I looked around for one and nothing obvious stood out. The toilet facilities might look a little like a ranger cabin. They were buried above their doors. The roof had kept enough snow out that you could have sheltered in the pit it formed.

The toilets are not open for business.

As the light faded, I set up my tent. I’d only brought thin shepard’s hook style stakes betting the snow would be compact enough to use them. One pulled out before I had set it properly but otherwise the stakes seemed to hold. I compressed the snow before inserting them, then punched them and the surrounding snow some more before adding more snow on top and compressing it. I’ve heard you’re supposed to wait 15 minutes for the stakes to refreeze in the snow but I wanted to get in the tent so I didn’t give them that long.

For the first time I tried putting my boots and fuel can in the trash compactor bag I used as a water proof pack liner and then putting that in my sleeping bag to keep it warm. It was took a while before I could find a comfortable position for them. I should have scraped my pot with snow before melting drinking water in it. I ended up filling my water bottles with freshly melted salty ramen water. Oh well.

April 5 – Easter Sunday

I woke up to what I thought was the sound of rain on my tent and decided not to look outside. The forecast was for maybe rain and maybe snow so I decided to deal with whichever later.

My boots stayed warm enough to get into easily this morning. I’d brought bread bags to keep my fresh socks dry but they leaked quickly. Maybe good enough for an emergency trip out of the tent in the middle of the night but breadbags seem not to be as waterproof as they appear.

My tent survived the night despite being held up by trekking poles and guy lines (no traditional tent poles), something I’d never tried in snow before. This trip’s experiments generally seem to have gone well.

When I did open my tent door, I was delighted to find softly falling snow. I like snow and I like rain but I don’t like snow and rain.

My tent on Easter morning, looking towards the outlet stream from Mowich Lake.

The ski back to my car was just a couple of hours and picturesque most of the way. Initially the snow was grabby on my skis and the angle of the road wasn’t steep enough to let me glide. On the way in I’d used a walking technique since my legs are were still weak from the previous week’s endeavors and so I’d hoped the downhill on the way back would let me glide more. Eventually I was able to get some glide with each step but never got to the point of sliding without propulsion.

I’m no longer Christian but I still have an attachment to the impact it had on my life. This being Easter, some of the downhill travel was spent reflecting on this. Outdoors experiences have filled some of the emotional gap in my post-religious life with awe, wonder, and sometimes gratitude. Other experiences haven’t been replaced. Happy Easter.

Skiing back through softly falling snow in my own tracks.