Mount Rainier and Its Glaciers
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By F. E. MATTHES, United States Geological Survey.

1Many of the illustrations in this article were furnished by Messrs. Asahel Curtis, G. V. Caesar, A. H. Barnes, L. G. Linkletter, and T. H. Martin and the Seattle-Tacoma Rainier National Park Committee. The names of the photographers are given below the illustrations, but the department desires to make a general acknowledgment of the courtesy of these gentlemen in making this material available.—EDITOR.


The impression still prevails in many quarters that true glaciers, such as are found in the Swiss Alps, do not exist within the confines of the United States, and that to behold one of these rare scenic features one must go to Switzerland, or else to the less accessible Canadian Rockies or the inhospitable Alaskan coast. As a matter of fact, permanent bodies of snow and ice, large enough to deserve the name of glaciers, occur on many of our western mountain chains, notably in the Rocky Mountains, where a national reservation—Glacier National Park—is named for its ice fields; in the Sierra Nevada of California, and farther north, in the Cascade Range. It is on the last-named mountain chain that glaciers especially abound, clustering as a rule in groups about the higher summits of the crest. But this range also supports a series of huge, extinct volcanoes that tower high above its sky line in the form of isolated cones. On these the snows lie deepest and the glaciers reach their grandest development. Ice-clad from head to foot the year round, these giant peaks have become known the country over as the noblest landmarks of the Pacific Northwest. Foremost among them are Mount Shasta, in California (14,162 feet); Mount Hood, in Oregon (11,225 feet); Mount St. Helens (9,697 feet), Mount Adams (12,307 feet), Mount Rainier (14,408 feet), and Mount Baker (10,730 feet), in the State of Washington.

Easily king of all is Mount Rainier. Almost 250 feet higher than Mount Shasta, its nearest rival in grandeur and in mass, it is overwhelmingly impressive, both by the vastness of its glacial mantle and by the striking sculpture of its cliffs. The total area of its glaciers amounts to no less than 45 square miles, an expanse of ice far exceeding that of any other single peak in the United States. Many of its individual ice streams are between 4 and 6 miles long and vie in magnitude and in splendor with the most boasted glaciers of the Alps. Cascading from the summit in all directions, they radiate like the arms of a great starfish. (See map, p. 24.) All reach down to the foot of the mountain and some advance considerably beyond.

MAP OF MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

As for the plea that these glaciers lie in a scarcely opened, out-of-the-way region, a forbidding wilderness as compared with maturely civilized Switzerland, it no longer has the force it once possessed. Rainier's ice fields can now be reached from Seattle or Tacoma, the two principal cities of western Washington, in a few hours' journeying, either by rail or by automobile. The cooling sight of crevassed glaciers and the exhilarating flower-scented air of alpine meadows need no longer be exclusive pleasures, to be gained only by a trip abroad.


Mount Rainier stands on the west edge of the Cascade Range, overlooking the lowlands that stretch to Puget Sound. Seen from Seattle or Tacoma, 60 and 50 miles distant, respectively, it appears to rise directly from sea level, so insignificant seem the ridges about its base. Yet these ridges themselves are of no mean height. They rise 3,000 to 4,000 feet above the valleys that cut through them, and their crests average 6,000 feet in altitude. Thus at the southwest entrance of the park, in the Nisqually Valley, the elevation above sea level, as determined by accurate spirit leveling, is 2,003 feet, while Mount Wow (Goat Mountain), immediately to the north, rises to an altitude of 6,045 feet. But so colossal are the proportions of the great volcano that they dwarf even mountains of this size and give them the appearance of mere foothills. An excellent idea of Rainier's overshadowing bulk may be gained from figure 1, which shows a vertical section through its cone and through the Tatoosh Range. This section, it should be understood, is free from vertical exaggeration, and is based upon accurate trigonometric data obtained by the United States Geological Survey in the course of its topographic surveys of the Mount Rainier National Park. The point chosen on the Tatoosh Range is Pinnacle Peak, one of the higher summits, 6,562 feet in altitude. That peak rises nearly 4,000 feet above the Nisqually River, which at Longmire has an elevation of 2,700 feet, yet it will be seen that Mount Rainier towers still 7,846 feet higher than Pinnacle Peak.


From the top of the volcano one fairly looks down upon the Tatoosh Range, to the south; upon Mount Wow, to the southwest; upon the Mother Mountains, to the northwest, indeed, upon all the ridges of the Cascade Range. Only Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood loom like solitary peaks above the even sky line (fig. 2), while the ridges below this line seem to melt together in one vast continuous mountain platform. And such a platform, indeed, one should conceive the Cascade Range once to have been. Only it is now thoroughly dissected by profound, ramifying valleys, and has been resolved into a sea of wavelike crests and peaks.



Mount Rainier stands, in round numbers, 10,000 feet high above its immediate base, and covers 100 square miles of territory, or one third of the area of Mount Rainier National Park. In shape it is not a simple cone tapering to a slender, pointed summit like Fuji Yama, the great volcano of Japan. It is, rather, a broadly truncated mass resembling an enormous tree stump with spreading base and irregularly broken top. Its life history has been a varied one. Like all volcanoes, Rainier has built up its cone with the materials ejected by its own eruptions—with cinders and bombs (steam-shredded particles and lumps of lava), and with occasional flows of liquid lava that have solidified into layers of hard, basaltic rock. At one time it attained an altitude of not less than 16,000 feet, if one may judge by the steep inclination of the lava and cinder layers visible in its flanks. Then a great explosion followed that destroyed the top part of the mountain, and reduced its height by some 2,000 feet. The volcano was left beheaded, and with a capacious hollow crater surrounded by a jagged rim.

Later on this great cavity, which measured nearly 2 miles across, from south to north, was filled by two small cinder cones. Successive feeble eruptions added to their height until at last they formed together a low, rounded dome—the eminence that now constitutes the mountain's summit. It rises only about 400 feet above the rim of the old crater, and is an inconspicuous feature, not readily identifiable from all sides as the highest point. (See fig. 21, p. 41.) In fact, so broad is the mountain's crown that from no point at its base can one see the top. The higher portions of the old crater rim, moreover, rise to elevations within a few hundred feet of the summit, and, especially when viewed from below, stand out boldly as separate peaks that mask and seem to overshadow the central dome. Especially prominent are Point Success (14,150 feet) on the southwest side, and Liberty Cap (14,112 feet) on the northwest side.


The altitude of the main summit was for many years in doubt. Several figures had been announced from time to time, no two of them in agreement; but all of these, it is to be observed, were obtained by more or less approximate methods. In 1913 the United States Geological Survey, in connection with its topographic surveys of the Mount Rainier National Park, was able to make a new series of measurements by triangulation methods at close range. These give the peak an elevation of 14,408 feet, thus placing it near the top of the list of high summits of the United States. This last figure, it should be added, is not likely to be in error by more than a foot or two and may with some confidence be regarded as final. Greater exactness of determination is scarcely practicable in the case of Mount Rainier, as its highest summit consists actually of a mound of snow the height of which naturally varies somewhat with the seasons and from year to year.

This crowning snow mound, which was once supposed to be the highest point in the United States, still bears the proud name of Columbia Crest. It is essentially a huge snowdrift or snow dune (fig. 4), heaped up by the westerly winds. Driving furiously up through the great breach in the west flank of the mountain, between Point Success and Liberty Cap, they eddy lightly as they shoot over the summit and there deposit their load of snow.


The drift is situated at the point where the rims of the two summit craters touch, and represents the only permanent snow mass on these rims, for some of the internal heat of the volcano still remains and suffices to keep these rock-crowned curving ridges bare of snow the better part of the year. It is intense enough, even, to produce numerous steam jets along the inner face of the rim of the east crater, which appears to be the most recently formed of the two. The center of this depression, however, is filled with snow, so that it has the appearance of a shallow, white-floored bowl some 1,200 feet in diameter. Great caverns are melted out by the steam jets under the edges of the snow mass, and these caverns afford shelters which, though uninviting, are not to be despised. They have proved a blessing to more than one party that has found itself compelled to remain overnight on the summit, saving them from death in the icy gales.

That Mount Rainier should still retain so much of its internal heat is not surprising in view of the recency of its eruptions. It is known to have been active at intervals during the last century, and actual record exists of feeble eruptions in 1843, 1854, 1858, and 1870. Indian legends mention a great cataclysmal outburst at an earlier period.

At present the volcano may be regarded as dormant and no apprehension need be felt as to the possibility of an early renewal of its activity. The steam jets in the summit crater, it is true, as well as the hot springs at the mountain's foot (Longmire Springs), attest the continued presence of subterranean fires, but they are only feeble evidences as compared with the geysers, the steam jets, and the hot springs of the Yellowstone National Park. Yet that region is not considered any less safe to visit because of the presence of these thermal phenomena.

In spite of Mount Rainier's continued activity until within the memory of man, its sides appear to have been snow clad for a considerable length of time. Indeed, so intense and so long-continued has been the eroding action of the ice that the cone is now deeply ice-scarred and furrowed. Most of its outer layers, in fact, appear already to have been stripped away. Here and there portions of them remain standing on the mountain's flanks in the form of sharp-crested crags and ridges, and from these one may roughly surmise the original dimensions of the cone. Mere details in the volcano's sculpture, these residual masses are, some of them, so tall that, were they standing among ordinary mountains, they would be reckoned as great peaks. Particularly noteworthy is Little Tahoma, a sharp, triangular tooth on the east flank, that rises to an elevation of 11,117 feet. (See fig. 11, p. 26.) In its steep, ice-carved walls one may trace ascending volcanic strata aggregating 2,000 feet in thickness that point upward to the place of their origin, the former summit of the mountain, which rose almost half a mile higher than the present top.

Nor is the great crater rim left by the explosion that carried off the original summit preserved in its entirety. Point Success and Liberty Cap are the only two promontories that give trustworthy indication of its former height and strength. Probably they represent the more massive portions on the southwest and northwest sides, respectively, while the weaker portions to the east and south have long since crumbled away under the heavy ice cascades that have been overriding them for ages. Only a few small rocky points remain upon which the snows split in their descent. The most prominent, as well as the most interesting, is the one on the southeast side, popularly known as Gibraltar Rock. Really a narrow, wedge-shaped mass, it appears in profile like a massive, square-cut promontory. (Fig. 6.) The trail to the summit of the mountain passes along its overhanging south face and then ascends by a precipitous chute between ice and rock. It is this part of the ascent that is reputed as the most precarious and hazardous.

From the rim points downward the ice cover of the cone divides into a number of distinct stream-like tongues or glaciers, each sunk in a great hollow pathway of its own. Between these ice-worn trenches the uneroded portions of the cone stand out in high relief, forming as a rule huge triangular "wedges," heading at the sharp rim points and spreading thence downward to the mountain's base. There they assume the aspect of more gently sloping, grassy table-lands, the charming alpine meadows of which Paradise Park and Spray Park are the most famous. Separating these upland parks are the profound ice-cut canyons which, beyond the glacier ends, widen out into densely forested valleys, each containing a swift-flowing river. No less than a dozen of these ice-fed torrents radiate from the volcano in all directions, while numerous lesser streams course from the snow fields between the glaciers.

Thus the cone of Mount Rainier is seen to be dissected from its summit to its foot. Sculptured by its own glacier mantle, its slopes have become diversified with a fretwork of ridges, peaks, and canyons.

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Last Updated: 07-May-2007