March 20-22, 2020.
32 miles | 4300′ ele. gain | 3 days
Two years ago, my friend Dave messaged me to ask if I’d be interested in skiing the loop around Crater Lake that winter.
“I’m not a skier,” I bluntly replied.
But the idea weighed heavily on my brain and before long, I had convinced myself to get back on skis for the first time in a decade and learn how to cross country ski. I knew this much about the route: it was about 33 miles around the lake following the rim road. Talking to people who have biked the rim, I knew it felt like it was all uphill. There were a few avalanche detours that we might have to take due to snow conditions at the time. While it can be skied in a day, most people take 3. That’s basically all there was to it.
I did some research prior to embarking on this trip. I read a handful of trip reports that basically had the same message: everything will hurt, lots of things will go wrong, this is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, it will destroy you. One after another, seemingly confirming how much of a grueling assault skiing around Crater Lake could be. I just knew it didn’t have to be a sufferfest. I didn’t want it to be. So I thought about what physical skills and conditioning I’d need, what gear I’d have to bring and what knowledge would be essential. I made a plan not only to complete this circumnavigation but to do it well.
After a couple months of training… going for longer distances, covering varied terrain, learning how to ski on different types of snow, managing up and downhills…I fell and badly injured my hip. My trip was set back an entire year.
Then, on our planned weekend adventure in 2020, a storm blew in. We stayed home. The following week, the Coronavirus slowly started shutting things down. But the weather forecast was phenomenal. If the park would stay open for just a few more days, we would go.
And we did.
Our team of 4 arrived at the South Entrance of Crater Lake around 8:30 am, where we acquired a backcountry camping permit and readied ourselves for the 3 day trip. We drove up to the rim, where Beverly and I dropped LeeAnn and Dave off with all the gear before driving back down to leave our cars in the overnight lot. We then ate some doughnuts to fuel up for the trek up the Raven trail to get to the “start” of the route.
We strapped on our skis and started making our way up the trail. It was very packed down and icy from the hundreds of skiers, walkers and snowshoers who had used the trail before us. Soon it became obvious that it would be faster and easier to take our skis off and walk. A mile and a half later, we met our two friends at the rim and prepared to take off into the backcountry. It was 11:30 am.
It was later than we anticipated, but with cloudless blue skies overhead and the warmth radiating down from the sun, we were amped up for this adventure. Within the first 5 minutes, we all had to take our skis off once and the team had at least 2 crashes, but then we began to settle into a groove and make progress along the West Rim Road.
Our only goal for the day was to travel at least 10 miles before setting up camp. We skied around the Watchman, cautiously negotiating the avalanche-prone slopes along its northern aspect, and enjoyed the immense relief and quiet the snowy road brought to our lives. For days, it had been a 24-hour onslaught of media about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and it felt good to shift focus to the ground beneath my feet. There was no internet access here.
The road traveled north and then east, rolling up and down a vast, snow-covered landscape with views for miles. To our right was, of course, the lake. To the left was a meadow-studded forest blanketed in shimmering white.
I loved noticing the changes as we skied clockwise around the lake. How the snow texture changed by the minute. How the reflections in the lake changed. How the surrounding landscape changed. Every stretch of road had a new story to tell.
Each of us skied at our own pace and we stopped to re-group occasionally along the way. In the afternoon, Dave decided that his pace was not going to allow him to complete the circuit in time and he preferred to turn back. The three remaining team members would go on together. We made sure he had all of his own gear to camp solo and made a plan to meet Sunday after noon. Knowing Dave’s excellent winter camping skills, I felt comfortable leaving him on his own. LeeAnn, Beverly and I continued skiing and soon began scouting possible camp locations.
And then, we found it. This was the spot.
Backcountry camping rules are specific in Crater Lake National Park: camp no closer than 100 feet from the edge of the rim and out of sight of the road. We located a flat spot in a grove of trees for our tents, but a quick walk out of the trees led to a stunning, panoramic view of the lake. The rock wall on the road’s edge was melted out enough to provide us with a seating area and kitchen. It was one of the most incredible camp spots I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy.
That evening, we made dinner, ate pie, told stories and watched the sunset over the lake. The air was cool but not cold. There was not a hint of wind. It was pure bliss. As it grew dark, we retreated to our tents for journaling, crossword puzzles and podcasts before falling asleep in paradise.
We woke up with the sun and lazily rolled out of our tents to make breakfast and melt snow. I enjoyed some pre-cooked bacon, hot coffee and oatmeal. We were in no rush to get started, since we wanted the snow to soften a bit before we hit the road again.
By the time we packed up tents and geared up to ski, it was 9:30, sunny and gorgeous. Snow conditions were perfect. We skied off into the unknown.
In some areas, the snow had completely drifted/melted off the road so that there was no choice but to extract ourselves from our skis and trudge across the pavement on foot. These sections almost always coincided with delicious views of the lake, so it really wasn’t that bad.
All year long I had worked on developing a suite of skills that I hoped would help me feel competent on this trip. I knew my biggest challenge would be gaining confidence in the downhills, so I worked on this a bunch. Now, it was coming in really handy. I negotiated all the lumps and bumps on the road with grace, even carrying a heavy, winter, overnight backpack! My friends used a bit more caution and chose to walk across several of the steeper, bumpier segments, but I pushed myself to tackle them on my skis. And it was fun.
Soon, the downhill play came to an abrupt end as we began a long, slow ascent up to the pass between Cloudcap and Mt. Scott. Along the way we encountered a couple heading the other direction, two of just a handful of people we’d see on the entire trip. Social distancing for the win.
The climb was endless, or so it seemed. As the views of Mt. Scott got better and better, the terrain flattened out and became nearly barren of trees. We plopped our packs down for a well-deserved lunch break, our second one of the day.
Our uphill slog rewarded us with a few long downhill sections and shortly we found ourselves at the junction with Dutton Cliffs avalanche bypass. The ranger specifically mentioned taking this bypass at this time, so we turned off the main route and did a mile-long downhill run on a shady, icy forest road to a sign for the off-road component of the bypass.
What followed was the absolute lowest point of the trip.
There was one skier in front of us with an alpine touring set-up: downhill skis with skins for the uphill. All of us had backcountry skis with metal edges and scales, but no skins. We attempted to follow his tracks up the steep, slushy snow but did not have much success. We then did a combination of side-stepping and making large switchbacks to ascend the ridiculously steep slope (it was listed as black diamond/difficult on the map). My friends passed me by, as their skis stuck to the skin tracks while mine slid quickly behind me every time I tried to take a step. It was infuriating. Halfway up the trail, I completely broke down. I was having some flashbacks from the time I tore my ACL; I was first learning how to ski ten years ago, lost my balance in wet, heavy snow while standing almost perfectly still, and snap! These conditions were eerily similar. Plus, I had a ton of weight on my back, was fatigued from a day of skiing and was getting very frustrated with myself. I burst into tears.
After a few minutes I picked myself back up and continued up the hill. This pattern repeated a few more times, including one time I took my skis off and tried to bootpack up the hill; the snow was too deep and too soft to get anywhere. I was completely drained.
Somehow I managed to find a way back to the road, where LeeAnn and Beverly were cheerily munching on some snacks while sitting on their packs.
I believe my exact words were, “I’m not taking off my fucking pack until we get to camp,” and I rage-skied up the road away from them.
We had a rough plan for where to camp that night, based on the limited information we could gather from the topo map. As I climbed up the road I dreaded how much further I would have to go to reach that spot, so I began looking around for alternatives. Soon enough, the forest gave way to open meadows studded with patches of trees. I looked over at one particular tree clump, turned my head to face LeeAnn, and we both agreed: that was the one.
We skied back past that first cluster of trees to the next, and we found our spot. It was flat, shielded from view and overlooking a rolling snowfield that cascaded far off in the distance. I dropped my pack and stood in silence for a while, changed into dry clothes and helped set up camp. Once my temper simmered down I took a big breath of relief and felt a wave of gratitude overcome me. Yes, I will have that sip of brandy now.
We laid out our foam pads on the snow as we ate dinner and watched the only cloud in the sky settle right in front of the sun. It was colder, with an ever-so-slight breeze, so we hit the tents a little earlier. I crashed headlong into sleep.
Arising a little earlier, I sat with LeeAnn to watch the sun rise over the flatlands far below us. The air warmed from 15 degrees to 55 degrees in what felt like a half hour’s time. Layers kept coming off during breakfast. I checked our mileage: we had about 7 miles to go, by my estimate. And after a short climb, most of it should be downhill. Easy peasy! I couldn’t wait.
We began our ski at the same time as the day before, but the snow surface was much icier today. My skies edged nicely on the crust; my friends opted instead to carry their skis back up to the road. Once on the road, I began my morning meditation. Only the sounds of snow sliding beneath me and rhythmic exhales filled my ears. As I reached the top of the hill I paused to let the group come back together. Then, it was (mostly) all downhill.
Much of the terrain was steeper, narrower, bumpier and icier than the road we’d skied so far. Again, I was glad I’d practiced so much downhill and brought my heavy-ass tele skis for this trip. They were slow-going on the uphills but they sang on the downhills. I went ahead and scouted all the bumps and turns, giving the others feedback on whether they should ski or walk. There were a few short, steep bumps that nearly knocked me over but I stayed on my feet, grinning and whooping the whole way.
The sketchiest descent on day three took us through a road cut that was littered with recent rock-fall. I looked ahead and yelled “ROCKS!” “BIG ROCKS” to my pals, who wisely decided to walk that section. I took it as a challenge to do some slow motion slalom skiing. I didn’t stop until I reached the other end. What made it more butt-clenching was the fact that the road dropped off into nothingness on the other side. There was no room for error.
All the downhills after that point were just pure enjoyment. I cruised one looooooong section after another, my thighs quivering for holding the longest chair poses I’d ever done. Any flat spot or brief uphill segment offered an opportunity for my other muscles to pitch in and do some work.
After the longest downhill I stopped for one last pie break. I had carried the damn thing all weekend, so I might as well enjoy it, I thought. It gave me one final burst of energy to get back to the parking lot.
And just like that, it was all over. The trip of a lifetime was complete. I’d achieved what felt like a real stretch goal, something I hadn’t thought I’d be able to do. As we skied along the entrance road to find a place to drop down and return to the car, we waved to Dave, who was happily driving back into the park to meet us. The timing was impeccable.
We arrived back in Bend Sunday afternoon. Just two days later, Crater Lake National Park reported that they were going to shut down access completely. We’d slipped in and out just in time. I’m so glad we were able to put this trip together and now I’ll be content finding ways to have mini-adventures in my neighborhood streets, parks and trails while the country figures out how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This gives me lots of time to dream up another grand adventure…