When you play chicken with the weather, especially near a mountain like Mt. Rainier, you can either be totally disapointed, or epically surprised.  On a recent trip up to Sunrise it was most definitely the latter.

To put things into perspective, the forecast from the National Weather Service, the local weather channel, weather.com, accuweather.com and weatherunderground.com all agreed on one thing, there would be clouds, and a possibility of showers throughout the night, with no clearing until well into the following morning (July 4th) well after sunrise.  A friend of mine and I were aiming for a specific confluence of events and really hoping to luck out.  But as the day passed and I sat in my cubicle at work I began to have grave doubts.  Watching the live cameras from Paradise was like watching all my hopes for the evening completely dashed on the ground and stomped on.  To sum it up, it was wet… VERY wet, and socked in, with visibility hovering around 100 feet most of the time and the parking lot barely visible, and rain droplets covering the camera lenses at times as the wind blew the rain into the face of the camera.  We talked about alternate plans, we hemmed, we hawed, and finally when I’d just had enough of feeling like we should stay home, I said “to heck with it, we are GOING to Mt. Rainier, and whatever happens is gonna happen!!!”

So we made the trek down there, all the while trying to keep our sense of optimism.  I cannot tell you how much excitement leapt out of us when we rounded a corner and got a sneak peak of the summit of Mt. Rainier from the road through the clouds.  It was short-lived, however, as we arrived at the parking lot to little snowflakes falling from the sky and the mountain nowhere to be seen.  There was however a nicely large patch of open blue sky directly above us, and we held on to that for all it was worth.

Little Tahoma sunset

We hiked around on the snow, keeping sometimes to the trail but mostly not, till we found a spot we liked.  Little Tahoma popped out for us for a brief time, and we could catch glimpses of bright red light on the slivers of the peak as the sun went down and the clouds opened little gaps that closed shortly afterward.  We were enjoying our time regardless of not having had much in the way of photos.  But all of that was soon to change.

We headed up the hillside as fog built in the valley below us and proceeded to swamp us.  Not wanting to chance fog-out conditions, we made our way closer to the road and known landmarks and waited.  Finally a strange glow appeared in the clouds.  It peeked out and we knew immediately it could only be the full moon we had been expecting.  It teased us and vanished for about half an hour, and then suddenly there it was, rising high above the layer of valley fog that was presently swamping the Sunrise area.  By this time the moon was our only light (other than our artificial flashlights) and so as we shot from our tripods we would occassionally look around to see if anything else was changing.  Sure enough, there she was, Mt. Rainier, emerging from the valley fog as it receeded down into the deeper valley.  We hooted and hollered and exchanged expletives as the mountain shined in the full moon light.

Fog full moon

The valley fog would continue to swarm in on us intermittently, taking away our mountain view and giving it back.  We had to wipe frost from our camera lenses and packs often, and occassionally retreated to the warmth of the car when it was clear there was nothing to shoot (tip for photographers, leave your camera outside the car in cold nights, we did and had no problems, but have learned in the past that taking a cold camera into a warm car is a good way to decrease your ability to shoot anything for a long while by creating instant condensation on all the non-airtight elements of the camera).  We got a lot of hiking in, going to and from our chosen spot further down the ridge.  As the night moved along, the valley fog stabilized and stayed mostly in the valley, but was joined by a new companion.  High clouds moved in over Rainier, never touching the peak but moving fast and dancing with the full moon as it made its way further and further toward Mt. Rainier.

Full moon

We shot the moonlit clouds and mountain well into the pre-dawn hours, still having yet to sleep a wink when faced with such amazing conditions.  But it was about to get stepped up another notch in amazingness.  The faint glow of dawn began to grow on the horizon.  Black turned to blue, and blue turned to light, and upon the face of the mountain a soft red glow began to grow as the light of sunrise approached fast.  We were out and ready for it as the deepest red light I’ve ever seen hit the face of Mt. Rainier.  The high clouds above the peak caught the light and turned to fire, the valley fog hanging in the White River valley below.  The entire eastern sky turned to flame and cast its colored light upon the peak.  In the middle of all of that, the full moon, which had disapeared completely behind the high clouds, suddenly reapeared just above Gibralter Rock on the eastern flank of Rainier.  I grabbed my telephoto lens as fast as possible and snapped four shots before the moon vanished below the mountain.  As I reviewed the images later, I realized I had doubly lucked out as three parties of climbers could be seen ascending the glacial face of the volcano, glowing red in the sunrise light with the top crescent of the moon visible above the clouds.  It was jaw-dropping to say the least.

Cowlitz chimneys
Moonset climbers

We continued to shoot as the light went from red to orange and finally settled into a nice warm golden yellow, the clouds creating deep  shadows across the bright white light of the mountain.  We had played chicken with the weather on the mountain and won in the most awesome and amazing way imaginable.  It could have just as easily gone south and we could have seen nothing, but this time fate smiled on us that morning and we couldn’t have been luckier to be there to witness it.

Parting shot


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