January 2, 2016.
Summit Sno-Park > PCT > cross-country to Brown Mountain summit and back
7.5 miles | 2400′ ele. gain | 6:45 hrs. | Photo album
We spent new year’s just outside of Ashland, with so many new possibilities in Southern Oregon right outside our back door. After much deliberation I settled on Brown Mountain, a peak just across the road from Mt. McLoughlin, and one I’d had my eyes on since hiking a nearby piece of the PCT in 2010.
Our journey began at the Summit Sno-Park, where two other people were just getting their snowshoes on as we pulled in. They set off in the direction of Mt. McLoughlin, and soon we set off in the opposite direction: searching for the road crossing.
According to the summer map, the PCT led south from the parking lot to cross highway 140 and continued south towards the flanks of Brown Mountain. We followed a marked winter trail beneath power lines for a ways, then wandered around a bit with the aid of a map Aaron saved on his phone to find where to cross the road.
The snowplow had basically created a 5 foot tall snow cliff on the side of the road so we chipped away at the sidewall a bit with our trekking poles to make a safe descent. At the same time, we saw the two other snowshoers finding their own way across the road. Guess they realized they went the wrong way out of the lot.
We discovered that our plans were similar. As we paused to take out the map and get our bearings, they set off into the forest.
Since we’re usually the ones putting fresh tracks in the snow, it was a nice change of pace to settle into someone else’s snowshoe tracks and scoot along behind them. We took our time, snapping photos, layering on sunscreen and adjusting layers. It was below freezing in the shade, and the air felt bitterly cold.
As we crossed the lava flow, Aaron noticed a plume of steam rising from the snow ahead of us. What we found was one of several steam vents on the mountain. The snow melted in curious shapes around an open hole in the ground. It was a reminder that we were traveling in volcano country.
Eventually the forest opened up and the bright sun beamed down, warming our cold faces. The trail went in and out of the trees, and eventually our fellow snowshoers’ tracks left the PCT and headed cross-country in the direction of Brown Mountain. We dutifully followed the footprints in the snow.
The pair in front was a guy and a girl. Both had ice axes strapped to their packs. The guy looked like this wasn’t his first rodeo; his partner, on the other hand, came across as a newbie. He cruised ahead, occasionally stopping to look back, leaving her in the dust. Eventually her energy seemed to flag as she was stopping frequently and slowing her pace way down. We passed her, asked how she was doing, and she responded, “It’s going…” with a grin on her face.
As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape became steeper and more open. We had lovely views of the route ahead of us. There was now more sunshine than shade, and the views became prettier with each step. Fewer trees meant more wind, however, so we found a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch before making the final big push up the slope. The girl slogged by as we rested, and while I’m sure she was tired she seemed to be in good spirits. She appreciated walking in tracks. Her partner was taking long strides, and I was taking short and easy steps. Short steps helped me conserve energy and made life a bit easier for those walking behind me.
After refueling, we continued up the mountain. Suddenly, we caught up to the other group as they were headed down. They’d decided to call it a day. I thanked them for breaking so much of the trail and set off into fresh snow. As much as I enjoyed the ease of walking in someone else’s footprints, I lamented the loss of the sense of adventure I feel when walking into untracked terrain. Now I had my chance; with most of the routefinding done for me, I had the opportunity to do my favorite part of the climb on a clean slate of sparkling, white snow. I could hardly contain myself. I checked back frequently to be sure Aaron wasn’t too far behind; I didn’t want to let my excitement drag me away from my partner.
The slope got steeper and I paused to remember the snowshoeing fatality I’d read about just yesterday. While I was pretty sure I was not crossing avalanche terrain, the possibility messed with my head a little bit as I carefully trudged up the steepest sections of the mountain. In some places the snow just slid out from under me as my snowshoes struggled to gain traction. I was glad to have my poles to help climb over the worst of the obstacles, and breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the softly undulating summit plateau.
At the false summit, we could see a couple of other points on the horizon that looked higher than our present location, so we summoned up the willpower necessary to keep going. We skirted around a couple of steam vents and followed some mystery ski tracks into a stand of trees that brought us out to a high point on the other side. Just beyond another tree stand, I saw another point that was probably a few feet higher than where I was. But, I knew Aaron was tired. When he crested the last hill, I announced, “we’re here!” And, pointing to what was most likely the true summit, said with certainty, “That doesn’t look higher than this point, right?” We called it good, sent our SPOT message home, and quickly took off back down the mountain.
The descent always takes so much less time than the ascent. We made it through the worst bit pretty quickly, then it was smooth sailing down the wide open snowfields on the way back to the trail. We talked a bit about how snowshoe trips are analogous to life. Yes, the top of the mountain looks impossibly far away when you first set out, but if you set lots of intermediate goals and just keep taking one step at a time, you ultimately get there. The key is to make a plan and then stick with the plan, even if it feels really tough or it takes longer than you thought it would.
If more people figured that out, I’d be unemployed.
As we mused about these life lessons, the miles passed by. Soon we were back at the PCT and could hear traffic on the road. Going down the sloped snow wall on the south side of the road was easy, but going up the sheer snow face on the north side was tough. We chipped some foot holds into the sidewall and Aaron gave me a boost from behind to climb on top of the snow. He had to work a bit harder to make a nicer stepping platform for himself to get on top, too.
As we walked back on the winter trail that led to the parking lot, we passed a handful of people out sledding down the tiny hill behind the parking lot. Seemed like a long ways from anywhere to sled down a really boring hill. But, to each his own. At least they were outside having fun, just like we were. It was a nice end to another spectacular day in the mountains. I hope this sets the tone for an adventure-filled 2016.