Author Archives: Jess B

Thompson Peak

August 27, 2020.

Thompson from our camp

Photo album

People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.

For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.

Day 1: to camp, the hard way

5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.

Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.

Into the Wilderness…

We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.

The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.

As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.

“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.

“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.

Our off-trail debacle

Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.

On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.

These things are basically designed to dry socks.

I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.

That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.

Day 2: the climb

4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.

Sunrise

In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.

Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.

The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.

Well, the slab looked steeper in person.

Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.

Chilly up here.

As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.

The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.

I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.

Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.

At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.

We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.

I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.

Alpine wildflowers

While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.

Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.

Wouldn’t you go off route to check out this beauty?

Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.

We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.

The hike out

4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.

“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.

I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?

“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.

Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.

Why does a grouse cross the trail?

All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!

The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…

Imogene Peak

August 26, 2020.

10.5 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Imogene Peak

Photo album

I’d been stalking the Sawtooth hiking group on Facebook for the week before my trip to learn all that I could from people hiking there this year. Visitation was sharply on the rise, tourists from all over the country packing the trails and doing the dumb stuff tourists are wont to do. Undeterred, I continued planning my trip, hoping to find some hidden gems that would be beyond the reach of the average “let’s backpack around some lakes” visitor. Note: there’s nothing wrong if that’s your style, it’s just not my style.

After consulting my usual references online I came up with Imogene Peak, one of a zillion highpoints in the Sawtooths. We could reach this one in a day without taking the boat shuttle, which I wanted to avoid because of COVID. It looked like a hard slog, but that’s what we were looking for.

Thunderstorms and wind raced over our dispersed campsites the previous two evenings and more were predicted for this day. At least we didn’t have any driving to do; we scouted a campsite sandwiched between the horrible 4×4 road to the proper trailhead and a footpath leading from the weenie trailhead. Onward!

A remarkably quiet lake

After a mile or so of walking, we encountered Yellow Belly Lake. It was perfectly quiet and still, much unlike the heavily developed lakes we passed on the previous day. It would make the perfect spot for an afternoon swim, I thought. But we had some ground to cover.

Not too far beyond the lake, we left the trail and headed straight into a marshy flat. Narrow rivulets cut across the earth in seemingly every direction; we had to watch every step. The tall grasses and thick shrubs were soaking wet from the evening rains. Before long, my shoes and clothes were saturated with water. I counted on the sun to dry me off later.

Water, water everywhere

Once we navigated out of the flats, the climbing began. The terrain moved upward in a hurry. We scrambled up and over rocks, downed trees, shrubs and scree, trying to avoid the thickest vegetation. I was astonished to find a shiny blue object stuck in the rocks partway up the inhospitable slopes: a party balloon. Of course, this balloon must have blown in there from somewhere far away, but I was still disgusted to have to pick this trash up from the wilderness. Balloons blow.

At last, I began to see fewer trees and more blue skies. We’d reached the boulder field! From there, according to my notes, we’d just pick our way along the open ridge to the summit.

Not so fast, said the formidable Sawtooths, with a devious grin.

We reached the highpoint of the boulders within our view, which allowed us to scout out the next part of the route. The ridge was completely impassable. Our path lay straight ahead: a couple thousand vertical feet of boulder-hopping, all the way to the top.

Undeterred, we sat and dried out our feet while eating snacks. So far, the weather was holding. It was breezy but sunny and clear.

For the next two hours, we picked our way up the extensive boulder field. Some of the rocks were enormous, and their size gave no indication of their stability. Often, the largest boulders were the ones that tipped under bodyweight, while the smaller rocks stayed put. It took all of our mental focus to stay upright as we clambered toward the summit.

You want boulders? I got boulders!

I kept looking back and overhead at the gray clouds that swirled around us. Would we get caught in a storm? How long would it last? Were we in any danger? The two of us discussed our options and decided to choose a route close to the trees so that we could seek refuge quickly if needed. I felt like I’d be ready to retreat at the sound of thunder or a flash of lightning. But, if the previous two storms taught us anything, I expected this one would come down around 6 pm. We had hours to spare.

With slowness and care, we proceeded up the east face of the mountain, joining the ridge just below the summit. A faint user path spiraled up to the top.

Almost there

Ah, nothing beats the joy of reaching a mountain top! The wind blew, the clouds threatened, so we didn’t spend much time there. I opened the summit canister and read the three entries in the log from this year. With so many other peaks to choose from, it’s no wonder this one doesn’t make most people’s short list. There was hardly any room to write in the log so I tore a piece of my printed beta and shoved it into the canister before we left.

The hike down seemed to take just as long as the hike up. Every boulder, it seemed, wanted to kill us. I made it almost all the way down before I slammed my knee and lower leg into a sharp rock. Bleeding but not seriously hurt, I tried to remain focus and move slowly enough to not make any stupid mistakes. I felt like I was stepping from one balance board to another in an endless obstacle course. I do enjoy a bit of boulder-hopping but this was really over the top.

Pretty rocks

As I nursed my wounds, I noticed the incredibly beautiful crystals and patterns and colors in the rocks that I hadn’t paid attention to on the way up. Even when you retrace your route, there’s something new to discover.

The return hike was unremarkable, except for the last couple of miles. The wind picked up and faint rumbles of thunder began to spread through the air. LeeAnn was stressing that the rain fly was hanging on a clothesline to dry and she wanted to hustle back to camp to get it on the tent. I wanted to jump in the lake. So, I handed her the car keys and she bombed down the trail. I spied an opening to the lake and changed into my swimsuit. I didn’t stay long, but just taking that moment to wash off the sweat and dust of the day made me feel renewed. I decided to shove my clothes in my bag and meander back to camp barefoot.

It had been quite some time since I’d done any barefoot hiking, so my feet were pretty tender. I let myself slow down and take all the time in the world to saunter the last mile to camp. While I dearly love having LeeAnn as a hiking buddy, I was starting to yearn for some alone time. Finding the balance between solitude and companionship has always been a challenge for me.

When I reached camp, the tent fly was secure and LeeAnn was rinsing off in the creek. The rain hadn’t come yet, but it was only a matter of time…

We finished off the night with dinner and camp margaritas: tequila + lemon lime drink mix + water, salt on the rim!

White Clouds Loop: Day 4

August 24, 2020.

5.3 mi. | 1880′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Photo album

The stats for this entire loop are misleading. Five and a half miles with less than two thousand feet of elevation gain? We should have been able to knock that out in no time. But I would soon learn of the obstacles in our path to a quick and easy finish.

We awoke to a foreboding gloom. Wildfire smoke filled the air and our lungs. It was hard to breathe while eating breakfast; I was not looking forward to charging uphill with a heavy pack with that air quality. But, we had no choice.

Red, red sun.

I watched as the red sun rose over the craggy ridge to the east. A pika scrambled around the rocks, squeaking arbitrarily as it hurried about its business. We packed up camp and walked along the user trail alongside the lake. At the lake’s inlet, the trail disappeared. I followed the rough path in my notes, hopping over little streamlets and crashing through brush. We ended up in a broad bowl beneath steep ridges. The terrain was a combination of running water, bare rock and vegetation. The skies above sprinkled down rain, threatening to unleash torrents at any moment. In light of that, we stuck to the vegetation instead of wet, slippery rock.

Fortunately, big rains never came. We slowly made progress to the upper lakes basin. I mistakenly took a detour up to a pile of rocks that we ended up having to downclimb. But, there was an unexpected benefit: more goats. We would not have seen them had we stayed on course. At least, that’s how I justified my navigation error!

white clouds
Goat butts. For my upcoming animal butt identification book (half joking).

With the wind picking up, smoke filling the air and mysterious clouds overhead, I felt like we were on a doomed mission. Something was bound to happen. At the lakes basin, we found a quiet spot to have a snack and assess our route up. Where should we go? I looked around and nothing looked good. I checked the GPS points on my phone and those just left me more confused. We have to go up there? I thought. It looked so steep and loose.

It occurred to me that all the people we passed on this loop were traveling in the opposite direction. The reason: this awful pass. It looked far easier and more straightforward from the other direction. It didn’t matter now, since we weren’t going to backtrack the route that took us 3 days of walking.

And then, the real challenges began

I led us up into the first gully that led to the ridge. I asked LeeAnn to stay out of my fall line because of loose rock. It was very difficult to make any progress without sending rocks hurtling down below my feet. My heavy and bulky pack made it difficult to move upward, and breathing heavy smoke didn’t help, either. Instead of focusing on all the things that I hated in that present moment, I kept looking up and searching for markers of progress. Little patches of colorful flowers served as intermediate goals.

This was the easy part.

Eventually, we abandoned the gully for somewhat more solid terrain on the left side. We clambered over large, stable boulders interspersed with patches of loose soil. It was just as fun as it sounds.

At last, I reached the ridge. Bright, yellow blooms welcomed me to the next chapter of the route-finding debacle. Standing atop a jagged ridge, it was impossible to tell how far we could get without reaching an impassable cliff. We paused here again to check in with each other, get some calories down, and make a plan.

For what felt like an eternity, our travels looked like this: walk along the ridge, reach a barrier, downclimb, traverse scree, bail back up to the ridge, repeat. It was an impossible choice: the rocks on the ridge were much more solid but often led to dead-ends, and the terrain below the ridge was extremely loose, cluttered and difficult to walk on. Every choice was the wrong choice. I regretted coming up too soon.

This is fun. We’re having fun.

Nonetheless, we had to make it to Patterson Peak’s summit in order to cross into the Fourth of July Basin and complete the loop. Ultimately we did, but not without an inordinate amount of Type 2 Fun. At this point I wondered if LeeAnn would ever want to go hiking with me again.

The wind blew hard on top of the peak, and we both wanted to get the heck out of there. No time for celebrations, treats and rest, we had to descend. Every way down looked equally heinous. I did a double-take upon looking at the pre-recorded GPS points. “There’s no way we can follow that route!” I thought. Based on what we had just done, I had no intention of trying to follow another impossible ridge. “We’re going down,” I said.

The route down.

The skies threatened to dump rain again. We moved as quickly as we could atop loose talus and scree. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I put on long john bottoms for warmth and gaiters to keep the rocks out of my shoes. Even with the extra protection, I had to dump them out a few times on the way down.

I threw myself down at the un-named lake that indicated we’d reached the trail again. At last! No more thinking, no more wondering, no more agony. We can mindlessly put one foot in front of the other again! With our shoes and packs off, we laid on top of a large boulder to let the stress of the day melt off. The mental energy required to navigate difficult terrain cannot be understated.

My phone battery was nearly dead and would not take a charge from my battery pack, so I stowed it away and didn’t take any more pictures. We chatted the whole way back, enjoying the easy walking. At the trailhead I snapped one last picture and my phone died…for good. Great, I thought, no more pictures for the rest of the trip. No more podcasts or navigation apps or anything. This happened to me on another roadtrip. Such bad luck.

Back at the car, we pulled out cold bubbly water and crunchy snacks to celebrate the completion of the first leg of our journey. Tomorrow, we decided, we’d have to head into town to deal with the phone. Plans always change on trips like these, and between the two of us, I knew we’d figure something out.

Lessons learned

Although I meticulously planned out my food for the 4-day trip, I vastly overestimated how much I would eat. I came back out of the woods with a lot of extra weight that I didn’t need to carry. The bear canister itself took up most of the inside of my pack, too, so I think in the future I’ll only carry one if I absolutely need to.

The solar charger I carried didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but that was mostly because my phone wasn’t charging well. I should have used it only to charge the battery pack, a strategy I’d employ later on this trip.

I was baffled by how warm it stayed at night. I’m a cold sleeper, so I brought a warm bag, but I never really needed to zip it up. It doesn’t take up that much more space than a lighter bag, so I’m not sure I would have packed differently. I also never needed the hat and gloves I brought, but again I don’t think I would have felt better leaving them behind.

Despite our struggles on Day 4, I don’t think I would have planned the trip any other way. Before leaving home, I gathered just enough information to allow me to navigate the route. I wanted to have just enough mystery to allow me to challenge my skills in a new-to-me area. I never felt like we were in a perilous situation; being uncomfortable, working hard, getting frustrated and solving problems are all essential parts to any adventure (in my humble opinion. I do not like having everything sorted out for me.

White Clouds Loop: Day 3

August 23, 2020.

8.4 mi. | 2340′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

Just another day in paradise.

Photo album

Today’s objective: to visit as many lakes as we could to close the gap between our camp and the trailhead, so that the routefinding on day 4 could be minimized as much as possible. I knew we’d be tired from the previous day’s efforts, so I wasn’t too concerned about making crazy miles. I was excited to see the Boulder Chain Lakes and have several opportunities to get in the water and swim.

After a nice breakfast of dehydrated eggs and veggies, we left our glorious camp and hiked a boring 2.5 miles to the start of the Boulder Chain Lakes. Much of the trail was outside the wilderness and open to all kinds of uses. A parade of backpackers, horsepackers and dirt bike riders passed us, all traveling in the opposite direction. All men, too. It was a weird start to the day.

Boulder Chain Lakes

Once in the wilderness, we paused to admire each of the lakes. They were all beautiful, and all different. Many of the lakes had at least one group of campers staying there. We noticed how often the sites were very large and located right off the trail, not our style. Hoping to find a quiet spot away from people to enjoy our lunch break, we continued to Hourglass Lake before taking a real rest.

There we dropped our packs and changed into swimsuits. With overcast, breezy conditions, we didn’t stay in the water for very long. It was enough time to appreciate the clear water, the gnarled pine trees and the craggy peaks. Every step of the walk through the Boulder Chain was postcard-perfect. I could have spent days back there, finding all the best campsites and scrambling up to the highpoints on each ridgeline. All of the peaks in the area are over 10,000 feet tall and nearly all of them are nameless. But the lack of a name doesn’t make them any less impressive or scramble-worthy, as I would soon find out.

White Clouds Loop Boulder Chain Lakes
Hummock Lake and unnamed peaks.

On the next leg of the journey, we walked past several more lakes, each one more impressive than the last. Hummock, Scoop, Headwall. As we climbed up and out of the basin, additional lakes came into view. Hidden, Lonesome. It was an extraordinary place. Among the large talus slopes, we heard the familiar “meep!” of pika. Hardy wildflowers sprouted up from between the boulders, too. I could place some of them into categories: asters, saxifrage, buckwheat, but could not identify them any more accurately than that. They were all delicate and pretty; a stark contrast between the inhospitable terrain we were in.

We climbed up the steep, rocky headwall to Windy Devil Pass. The trail was remarkably well-built. I questioned whether “Windy” was pronounced WIN-DEE or WINE-DEE, since either pronunciation would make sense. We scaled the switchbacks easily and found ourselves on the top of the pass in no time. I’d been eyeing a possible highpoint scramble from the pass. To our left, less than a quarter mile away, was point 10,296. It wasn’t much, but it was something. We carried our water bottles and fanny packs and headed up the jumbled rocks to the top.

Me in the way of the spectacular view.

As I crested the summit of the no-name peak, I was awestruck. Below me, I could see the entire Boulder Chain. The green-blue waters rippled and sparkled in the breeze. All around us, rugged ridgelines hemmed us in. I wanted to sit there for hours. We pulled out some celebratory snacks and sat, quietly, letting the views imprint in our memories. I sat near my favorite flowers, delicate yellow buckwheat specked with red. Its coloration told me that summer was coming to an end, and the flowers were preparing to go dormant for the long, hard winter.

From our perch, we returned to the saddle and loaded up for the remainder of the day’s travels. We descended from the pass along the trail to an unnamed lake in order to begin the off-trail portion of the loop. I thought that, since so many people hiked the loop, we’d be able to follow a use path for most of the way. But, I didn’t want to count on that. Fortunately, the expansive alpine terrain made it pretty easy to see what was ahead. Without any sign of a footpath from the lake, we dropped straight down the hillside towards the next two lakes.

With names like Scree and Shallow Lakes, I assumed these would not make nice places to camp, so I had my mind set on blowing past them and continuing to the next one. But when we arrived at Shallow Lake, I questioned my decision. It was gorgeous. Thick, green vegetation grew right up to the lakeshore on one side; gray boulders tumbled into the lake on the other. And in the distance, Merriam Peak and the Serrate Ridge shot straight up into the smoky skies. This, too, could be a postcard image. Scree Lake was much the same, surrounded by flowers, trees and a gentle rock slope. It also appeared to see many fewer campers than the other lakes we’d passed. Oh well, we had some more time to kill today and I had a feeling that our last day would be a hard one. We pressed on.

White Clouds Loop Scree Lake
Scree Lake. Not what I expected.

The outlet of Scree Lake dropped sharply down a series of cliffs and waterfalls. Quiet Lake was only a quarter mile away, but 300 feet down. I really didn’t want to guess my way down these cliff faces, so I poked around in search of a trail. Happily, I found a path and we took it through the more complex, densely vegetated and vertical terrain between the two lakes.

Upon arriving at Quiet Lake, we skirted its western shores in search of a campsite. Much of the lakeshore was a jumble of exposed, treeless talus, with hardly a flat spot to be seen. Up ahead we saw a small crew of backpackers who’d already set up camp, We found a pocket of trees on a flattish plateau that we decided to call home. There was enough distance between us that we could hardly tell they were there (until they started a campfire, unbelievably, despite the fire restriction and smoke actively covering the region and good judgment).

We settled in just after 4:30 pm, so we had plenty of daylight to relax and enjoy our home for the evening. LeeAnn jumped in the lake again, I laid my Thermarest pad on a boulder and read my book. We both watched the pika running around on the rocks adjacent to our camp. They were so entertaining and cute!

After dinner, I poked around the rockpile in search of colorful lichen and flowers to photograph, but what I found was quite unexpected: wild raspberries! They were ripe and falling off their stems. I waved LeeAnn over to share in my discovery. This was a great after dinner activity; we slowly crept across the boulder field foraging for dessert. What a treat!

Raspberries.

In the evening, the smoky skies produced another disappointing sunset. We retired to bed and tried not to roll off our mats as we slept on the hillside.

White Clouds Loop, day 2: Castle Peak

August 22, 2020.

9.9 mi | 3600′ ele. gain | 9:45 hr.

Photo album

This was the day we tackled Castle Peak. By the numbers, it was hardly that impressive as far as mountains go: 2700′ of elevation gain, albeit in under 2 miles one way.

We packed up camp and trekked back to the main Chamberlain Lakes basin, where we’d keep a look out for a way up the formidable south face of the peak. Along the way, I heard some rockfall and turned to look up at the cliffs above the creek. I knew what I was looking for, but wasn’t sure if I’d catch them in time. Ahh, there: mountain goats! A small group of very muscular goats walked in a line along the clifftop. We stopped to watch them until the last one disappeared into the trees. What a treat!

Goats!

Castle Peak looked impossible from our hike in the previous day, but there had to be a breach in the wall. We stashed our packs in a cluster of trees between the lakes and the base of the mountain. A rock gully filled with colorful flowers traveled from our hiding spot towards the hillside, so we decided to follow this towards our goal.

The delightful little gully led us right to some steeper climbing; we’d found the start of the route. Boulders gave way to slabby climbing, ledges and more boulders. Eventually the gully became a little too slick and vertical for our liking, so we stepped right on to some gravel-covered slabs. It was probably safer but it didn’t feel much better, so we moved through this section as quickly as we could. Above that, we had thousands of feet of boulder-hopping to get to the ridge.

Avoiding the vertical step in the gully

I fought to breathe in the high-altitude air that was also filled with smoke. At one point, I started counting my steps to give myself periodic breaks. It helped me zone out and move a little more efficiently, as well as provide me some opportunities to stop and enjoy the flowers that seemed to burst out from behind each rockpile.

Progress was slow, but we were moving in the right direction. Until we weren’t.

Prior to the trip, I dropped some pins on my mapping app based on a GPS track I’d found online, hoping to give me some guidance along the route. When the gully started breaking up and going in several different directions, my gut told me to go one way while my mapping app told me to go another. I tried to resolve the differences in my head, then chose to try and follow where the pin point was telling me to go. I just assumed there was a reason to cut way left, otherwise why would the track go that way? Me not seeing the route make sense just means I was missing something. I trusted my research.

I asked LeeAnn to sit tight as I investigated the possibilities. After some scrambling around, I decided it was a no-go and retreated to my lower position. That lost us some time and some energy; I should have trusted my instinct.

Which way now?

From that point, we went where my eyes led me. Up and slightly left, around a blocky feature, then off to the right out of the gully. I found a handful of cairns, none of which you could see from the others (useless) but at least that told me someone had been there before!

“We’re less than a Pilot Butte from the top!” I yelled down to LeeAnn. It was a very sloggy mountain, so I tried to keep team morale up a bit.

Once we reached the ridge, it was easy rock-hopping across to the west summit. On our way there, we came across a team of three women who were also seeking the top of Castle Peak. They stumbled across the summit register right after seeing us, which I thought was quite curious. The actual summit was just a couple bumps over, to the east, but the register was here. When I scouted the traverse to the true summit, I understood why. It would take some real care and routefinding to make it there in one piece. I didn’t have the time or energy for that, so I returned to the mini celebration and dug into my snack bag.

Summit! (well kinda)

Peanut butter cup brownie on a Pringle, oh heck yeah.

The descent was agonizingly slow and methodical as we clambered over all that loose rock again. We wanted to avoid the ball-bearing slab we ascended near the bottom, so I kept my eyes open for alternatives. Before reaching that awful section, I cut right onto the partly treed open slopes. Much to my surprise, I came across a climber’s trail and we took that basically all the way back to our backpacks.

We almost immediately retreated to the lake shore and jumped in the lake. It was the most refreshing dip of my lifetime. It was three in the afternoon.

With 6 more miles to cover, I knew we had to rally. Along the remaining hike, we’d have to climb up and over the shoulder of Castle Peak, another 800′ of vertical or so. I was not looking forward to it, but I felt energized by the chilly lake water. We put our heavy packs back on and started walking.

Again, we crossed paths with a few other groups but everyone was heading in the other direction. Are we just walking at the right speed to miss every traveler heading our way? Or does no one do the loop this way? These are some of the thoughts that bounced in my head as we marched up the hill.

The trail was well-switchbacked until we neared the top of the climb, then it pointed straight uphill. It was a slap in the face.

I counted my steps, gasping for air every so often, until I crested the top. LeeAnn was there waiting for me.

On the other side, indescribable beauty awaited us. Pink rocks tumbled down from the adjacent high point. Another side of Castle Peak showed herself, jagged ridges and streaks of color so different from the south side. I dropped over the ridge with mouth agape, just trying to take it all in. The hazy smoke made it difficult to capture the imagery with my phone, so I put it away and just kept walking. We enjoyed these views through several long switchbacks before being deposited into the trees for the remainder of the hike into camp.

The other side of the pass

I’d planned on making it to Baker Lake to spend the night, since that was the first lake we’d pass. It felt like it was just so far away. The hike was a grind; I had some sore spots on my back that kept rubbing against my pack with each step. My feet were achy enough that I stopped to switch into Crocs. I let LeeAnn go ahead and I walked at my own slow pace. My body hates carrying this much weight.

At the junction with Baker Lake Trail, I lamented that I’d stop at the very first campsite we found so I didn’t have to take another step. On the way in, we passed some cabin remains with a flat spot and a fire ring just behind it. “We could camp here?” LeeAnn said with an obvious question mark inflection. I knew she wasn’t that interested. “Let’s just go to the lake and see what’s there.”

When we got to the lake, we could tell that while people did camp there, it was not heavily trafficked. We climbed over several downed trees, crawled underneath one (not easy with a big pack and tired legs) and stopped many times in despair. She offered to drop her pack and run ahead to try and find something. I stood by and sulked, just wanting to be done with it for the day.

Somehow, magically, LeeAnn had found the most incredible campsite. It had a flat area for a tent, a custom wooden bench, running water to filter, a huckleberry patch and a short trail to the lake. And just like the night before, no one else was around. Huzzah! We made it!

By the time we made it to camp, it was far too late and cool to want to go for a swim, which worked out perfectly. The lake was marshy and encircled by grasses and reeds. But it provided a spectacular view of Castle Peak and the surrounding crags, a picture-perfect place to spend the night.

View from camp, not bad.

For dinner, I poured boiling water over the chili I made and dehydrated at home. We topped it with fresh tomatoes, cheese and crushed Pringles. At our mansion of a site, we dined on chili, sipped on backcountry cocktails and reveled in the big day we just had. I hoped to sleep well that night.

White Clouds Loop: Day 1

August 21, 2020.

10.3 mi. | 2350′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

Photo album

I’d read several articles and blogs describing the White Clouds Loop and it’s numerous variations. There is no way to loop around this wild mountain range on established trails; any way you looked at it, the route would be an adventure. The only thing I knew I had to change about the general loop was to add in a summit of Castle Peak. There was no way I’d hike all the way around the damn thing and not climb it. So, I decided on a counter-clockwise loop that put us in position to climb on day two. That would leave the easy trail hiking for the beginning and the potentially more challenging off-trail part for the end. But, I thought, we’d be oriented to this new place and warmed up by then.

At the Fourth of July Trailhead, we signed in to the quaint hiking log and then started up the trail. The skies were gloomy, as wildfire smoke was blowing in from as far away as Southern California. We just couldn’t avoid smoke on this trip.

The short hike in to Fourth of July Lake gave us time to acclimate to the weight on our backs. My partner carried the tent and the camp kitchen; I carried 4 days of food in a bear canister. Since we both like to eat real food on the trail, it was a heavy load. But I’d been preparing all summer for this. My body does not naturally like to carry weight for distance; I much prefer light and long dayhikes over heavy and short overnights. However, this loop would not be enjoyable (or possible!) for me in a day, so I took on the challenge to try something a little different.

From there, the trail descended past Washington Lake to the edge of a long- north-south mountain ridge and then climbed back up the other side. I’d read about a scramble passage up and over the ridge, but decided we’d stick to a longer hike on trail to have a saner day 1. Along the trail, we spotted numerous colorful wildflowers, which made the journey that much more interesting. I recognized some familiar favorites like buckwheat, cats-ear and paintbrush, but several other flowers were new to me. We paused occasionally to ooh and aah over the colors and stunning landscape. We had the whole day to get the camp and we were in no rush.

The toughest stretch of the day lay straight ahead, as we had to climb up and over a pass to get into the Chamberlain Basin. The burned forest offered little protection from the heat of the sun. I let my partner scurry ahead as I slowly plodded one foot in front of the other, lungs starved from oxygen due to the altitude and smoke. I sang some songs in my head and used some mental trickery to help me get up to the top of the pass. Along the way I made friends with a little ground squirrel, who sat and posed for me. I kept reminding myself that it was all downhill from the pass.

When we reached 9800 feet, we stopped to look down into the gorgeous lake basin. Castle Peak stood like a beastly white monument on the other side. I’d seen so many pictures of this mountain during my research, but it was something else to see the real thing in front of my eyes. Truly a majestic peak, Castle Mountain dominates the landscape with its sharp angles, changing textures and contrasting color palette. Breathlessly, I tried to soak it all in. And I knew I’d picked a great place to explore for the next few days.

We ambled down the switchbacks that led to several lakes. The first one we passed had no name, but it looked like a great catcher-of-people. We held out as we walked by one more magnet lake that was sure to attract the weekend backpacker crowd, because we were in search of some solitude. Fortunately there were many other options for camping that would take us away from the small crowds that would sure to gather in this delightful alpine basin.

At camp

The lakes and creeks provided more than adequate camping opportunities; there were many disturbed sites. We chose a large, flat site on a small plateau that met our needs. After a brief dip in the lake, we set up camp and proceeded to unpack all the gear we’d need for the night. Then, there was just one more thing; huckleberries. Those things weren’t going to pick themselves! We wandered back down the trail with small containers and then found the fullest patch we could. We plopped our butts right in the middle of the patch and started pulling the teeniest, tiniest berries off the delicate plants. Huckleberries come in a variety of sizes, and the only ones we found growing out there were the miniscule ones. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. What else did we have to do, anyways?

Before the trip we divided up cooking responsibilities; that night, LeeAnn was tasked with making dinner. I wandered around looking for wildflowers and views while she cooked.

We feasted on yummy taco bowls topped with crunchy corn chips. Come on, why doesn’t everyone eat like this on backpacking trips!? Most people seem to do the freeze-dried meal thing, while others apparently still cook over wood fires in the backcountry. I was dismayed to find a massive fire pit at our campsite…with crumpled up aluminum foil inside. Garbage. Why do people insist on building big fires and then not picking up after themselves? Foil does not burn completely, it is trash left in the wilderness. I fished the foil out of the ashes and packed it out when we left the next morning. I am torn between wondering whether better education or better cultivation of a stewardship mindset is what will solve this problem. It’s hard to believe that the people who left their garbage behind just didn’t know that was not the right thing to do. It seems like they just didn’t care.

As the sun set, we snapped a few more photos and then disappeared into the tent. I prepared for a cold night, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I hardly needed to zip up my sleeping bag to find a comfortable temperature. I tossed and turned all night, anticipating the big climb in the morning.

White Clouds Loop: Day 0

August 20, 2020.

Photo album

I usually don’t write about the day before a trip starts, but there is a bit of a story here.

I’d spent months meticulously planning a trip to the Trinity Alps in Northern California, only to find out a week before that massive wildfires were threatening to smoke out my destination and ruin the entire plan. But I’d already arranged the time off and I had a travel partner ready to go with me. After a brief discussion, we decided to head towards Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains, and it was up to me to come up with a quick Plan B.

As much as I love to plan, I was sad to see this one go down the drain. But I snapped into action and ordered some books and maps online. I also reached out to my social media network to see if anyone had any suggestions for the area. My friend Matt reached out and recommended the White Clouds, a range of mountains right across the street from the more easily recognized Sawtooth Range. He sent me some photos and a GPX track of a loop through the range, encircling its highest peak. Intrigued, I did a little more internet sleuthing and used it as the centerpiece of my new Idaho itinerary. After exploring there, we’d check out the Sawtooths before heading back home.

It took the good part of the day to drive to our first destination, so LeeAnn and I hit the road early in order to find a place to camp before dark.

The drive across Oregon was more scenic than I’d remembered, and once we crossed into Idaho it was all new to me. We stopped at a riverside park to eat lunch and dangle our feet in the cool water. Then, I focused on driving straight through to the Fourth of July trailhead. I’d hoped to find camping along the road leading there.

Unfortunately, wildfire smoke from California had made its way into Idaho, obscuring clear views of most of the peaks. They stood mysteriously behind a wall of gray haze. As we drove up the gravel road towards tomorrow’s starting point, we saw many nice campsites, but most were already occupied.

Soon, the road entered a burnt out wasteland of charred trees and dust. We’d just about given up hope for a nice site when we discovered a little oasis of trees and greenery between the road and the creek. It ended up being the most glorious little campsite, with burbling water, pretty wildflowers, mountain views and perfect solitude. What’s the saying, when driving through hell, just keep going? Well, we did just that and landed a great place to spend the night.

With some time to kill before dinner, I crossed the creek, laid out on a beach towel and napped between reading portions of my book. I needed a little rest after all that driving. For dinner, we feasted on pork and soba noodle stir fry and ice cold beers. I was really excited to begin this grand adventure.

Three Stooges Traverse

July 31-August 2, 2020.

23.4 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 3 days

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Every year, social media explodes with tales of epic traverses across the Three Sisters. Miles upon miles of scree, snow, rocks, and glory. The Sisters aren’t the only mountains that come in threes, however. Let me regale you with a different kind of mountain endeavor. This is a story of the OKT (only known time) of what I dub the Three Stooges Traverse.

The approach to the approach

In my never-ending quest to hike up to the tops of things no one else wants to, I put together this three peak linkup. Based on what I could see on the map, this looked like a perfect little ridge walk with a long but casual approach. It was a perfect excuse to set off into the woods alone with some backpacking gear to test, a book to read and some shoes to break in.

On Friday night, I stopped for a burrito after work and then started driving towards Santiam Pass. I arrived at the trailhead at 7 pm and started walking just a few minutes later. My goal was Santiam Lake, 5 or so miles ahead.

Although the sun was low in the sky, it was still quite hot. I warmed up quickly as I hurriedly hiked towards a place to camp. The trail was dusty, but I’d read about that online. I was prepared with heavy, tall gaiters to keep the sand out of my shoes. But my getup was no match for how bad the sand actually was. I must have dumped a pound of sand out of each shoe at my campsite.

backpacking delight

It’s not easy to find a place to throw your tent down when the day’s light is fading into darkness. Of course, the two campsites located right off the trail were already taken, and two campfires blazed away as I thrashed off trail through the brush to find a less-than-obvious place to pitch my single-person tent. I’d be out of there the next morning anyways.

The approach

In the morning, I rolled out of my tent and ate breakfast at the lake’s edge. Sipping on my coffee, relaxing near the glassy water, I anticipated a fun day ahead. Across the lake drifted the smoke from yet another campfire. And I once thought backpackers were stewards of the land.

I hit the trail around 7:45 and enjoyed a cool and quiet walk on gentle trails. The trail passed from forest to meadow to burn. Most of the terrain along my hike was part of the massive B&B Fire of 2003. Scarred trees stood like ghosts overlooking the brushy landscape. But what stood out to me most were the dense, colorful patches of wildflowers. They were unexpected; marvelously lush and vibrant.

I saw no one between Santiam Lake and the Eight Lakes basin. As soon as I approached the first lake, however, I began to see tents, campers and fires.

I searched high and low for an out-of-the-way spot to throw down my tent. With most of the trees burned, there was hardly a place to hide. The trail-side campsites were taken, which was fine with me, since I wouldn’t enjoy camping right next to a walking path. Instead, I chose to hoof it around Blue Lake, stepping over hundreds of downed logs and angling uphill to find a nice little flat spot behind a clump of live trees. Just above me loomed the Three Stooges, er…Green Peak, Saddle Mountain and Marion Peak.

They looked so close. I had to decide how to approach the traverse. I could go north-south, south-north or start in the middle and fan out from there. After pondering my options and looking at the terrain challenges that were visible from camp, I decided to start with Green Peak and walk the ridge north to Marion.

The actual traverse

With just a day pack, I started up the cluttered hillside, aiming for lower-angle terrain on the east side of Green Peak. In no time at all, I found myself on the summit. Cool, one down, two more to go. From the top, I had a good view of everything: the volcanoes, the lakes, the ridge walk ahead. I could see there were dense, green patches of forest the fire seemingly hadn’t touched and wondered how that happened.

I dropped down the north side of Green and headed towards the sexy-looking Saddle. The closer I got, the more interesting it looked. The sunlight shone brightly off the silvery rock faces. The ridge dropped off steeply to my left and right. At one point, I found myself at the top of a short (but tall enough) vertical cliff that I was not prepared to down climb. I found a workaround on the west side of the ridge that I used to continue towards the summit.

For a few brief moments, I felt like I was climbing an actual mountain. I located a series of rock steps that led up the summit pinnacle. At the top, flying insects of all shapes and colors whizzed by my head. It was noon, so I ate my lunch.

The north side of the peak appeared pretty intimidating from my perch, so I proceeded slowly and assessed all my options. I again ended up atop a cliff, so I took a steep goat path down the west side of the ridge to skip ahead toward Marion Peak. After that, it was easy breezy all the way to the wooded summit. It had only taken me two hours from my tent to get to that point. And now, it was just a quick ramble back to the lake!

On the way down, I angled down and around the east side cliff bands that I saw from my camp. As I descended I noticed a striking color difference between the talus tumbling down from Saddle and Marion: gray and red. Among the boulders, buckwheat, sedum, and the usual cast of alpine wildflowers grew profusely. It was such a joy to be wandering around in this magnificent place!

A day at the lake

A little after 1, I arrived back at camp and re-packed my bag for a leisurely afternoon at the lake. I had a swimsuit, a book to read, and lots of jellybeans to eat. I found a decent hiding spot with quick lake access and plopped down on my pad for a restful reading session and some swimming

When the shade chased me back to camp later that afternoon, I changed into dry clothes and killed time until dinner. I pondered doing some more exploration from camp, but I didn’t feel like hurdling over another hundred downed trees.

Hiking out

It was a beautiful morning. I arose to the quiet stillness of the eerie forest. No other tents in sight. No crackling fires. No barking dogs. No humans talking. I felt totally at peace.

Ready for a lazy morning, I pulled out my foam sleeping pad and propped it up against a boulder. I grabbed my water, food sack and cooking supplies. I started to boil water and then hopped on my pad in my sleeping bag. I’d enjoy my coffee and breakfast in the cool morning air, sun rising quickly over the nearby mountains.

I had over ten miles to hike in order to get back to the car, but it was mostly easy, rolling terrain. Still, I wanted to be comfortable. I put on my hiking dress and trail shoes and began to walk.

Once I made it from my tent site to the trail, I settled into a comfortable pace. I tried to take photos of the flowers I missed in my rush to get to camp the previous two days. Looking through the heavily burned forest in front of me, I eyeballed the silhouettes of mountains and rockpiles in every direction. There’s so much to do out here, I thought.

With a couple of lakeside rest stops, it took me 4.5 hours to finish this adventure. At Santiam Lake, I made one crucial footwear adjustment. Since that trail was so sandy, I decided to finish the hike in Crocs. It was the right choice. The holes in my Crocs let much of the sand drain out as soon as it poured in. They also allowed tons of air flow, keeping my feet cool and comfortable as the day got hotter. And when I did get a rock in my shoe, it took all of two seconds to shake it back out again. I even got two compliments on my Crocs on the way out. Don’t hate on em just because they look funny!

backpacking in crocs

I’m still not ready to call myself a backpacker yet. I struggle with carrying overnight gear, no matter what kind of pack I use or how much weight is in there. I always get blisters or rashes on my hips from pack straps rubbing. Nothing seems to provide relief. I’ll keep trying, though, because there are many mountains and buttes to climb that are more than a day’s walk from a trailhead.

Rebel Rock/ Rebel Creek Loop

July 11, 2020.

12.3 mi | 3,965′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

Photo album

Sisters view

I first completed the Rebel Rock Loop in October, 2012. At that time, its upper reaches were blanketed with newly fallen snow. It was before the 2017 Rebel Fire that burned down the lookout tower as well as a huge swath of forest. I had little idea what to expect on this adventure.

Just a couple weeks prior, I hiked up the Rebel Creek trail in order to gain access to Pyramid Peak. Despite the Forest Service informing me that no trail work had been done on this route after the fire, its condition wasn’t too bad. I knew that at least part of the loop would be easily navigable.

As the trail gradually gained elevation along the creek, we saw classic west-side wildflowers: coralroot, twinflower, vanilla leaf, wild ginger. It was lush and dense, hardly impacted by the fire. Occasionally, the trail would disappear amid charred tree skeletons and windblown dirt slopes. But looking closely for clues, I kept us on track.

Wild ginger

A few miles in, the trail began to climb fervently in a series of switchbacks, heading for the meadows beneath Rebel Rock. But we had set our sights on the summit, so we angled straight up the steep hillside. The meadow, seemingly a monoculture of thimbleberry, gave up its secrets only once we were crashing through it. Among the soft, broad thimbleberry leaves hid lupine, bluebell, larkspur, cow parsnip and innumerable other perennials. Strangely noticeable and consistently in our way, red columbine boldly marked our path all the way to the summit.

Bushwhacking

The top, a viewless jumble of dead beargrass and fallen fir trees, was not a remarkable place to hang out. So we returned to the adjacent meadow to have some lunch and enjoy views of the neighboring peaks. We could see the remainder of the loop trail, on the burned-up ridge where the lookout once stood. My original plan was to do this high-point mission as an out-and-back; but that ridge looked so enticing. As I finished my sandwich, we discussed our next move: we’d chance the ridge. I was hoping for some nice views through the burn, but I was concerned about how destroyed the trail would be.

Looking across a meadow to the burnt ridge, the second half of our adventure.

Our return route to the trail brought us down very steep-sided meadows filled with wildflowers. We had to skirt some steep cliffs and forest patches along the way. Back on the overgrown but still noticeable trail, we were greeted to a fantastic wildflower show that shifted from west-side blooms to east-side beauties as we entered the burn. All that sunshine fostered a happy environment for Oregon sunshine, cat’s ear, several variety of buckwheat, farewell-to-spring, sedum and owl’s clover. We were dumbstruck by the quantity and diversity of the blooming plants all around us. It was one of my highlights of the year so far.

Buckwheat and Oregon sunshine, loving the sunny ridge

At times, I got distracted by a colorful new flower that led me off trail, but for the most part my fears of losing the route were unfounded. We floated along blissfully as we poked, squeezed and prodded every flower that caught our eye. We found Washington lilies as tall as LeeAnn and big, poufy buckwheat clusters that melted my heart. Butterflies bounced from flower to flower, gliding in the gentle breeze. In the distance, the Three Sisters jutted up behind the Old Cascades peaks, framed by stands of burnt trees. We had found a peaceful Shangri-La tucked away in the side of the Three Sisters Wilderness most people will never visit. All it took was a little sweat, stubbornness and curiosity. I never wanted to leave.

A typical section of meadow trail. Yes, there is a trail here.

Leaving that last big meadow, the trail dropped into Trail Creek basin via a series of switchbacks. Some of these were quite tricky to find, but between the two of us, we stayed on track…until we didn’t.

Less than 2 miles from the car we encountered a huge downed tree on the trail. Not to worry, I thought, we’ve already tackled several of these today. But on the other side of the tree, there was no trace of a trail. We descended a steep slope littered with boulders, loose rock and bare dirt with a few scraggly shrubs to keep things interesting. To our left, there was a steep gully that I knew we had to cross. But where?

We eventually found a safe place to scramble down and then back up the other side, kicking steps into the duff and grabbing onto tree limbs (after testing them for integrity). After some serious sweat and maybe a few tears, we popped right back onto the trail. Out of curiosity, we followed it back upslope to see where we’d made our mistake. Of course, a hidden switchback crossing the gully lay beneath that big wreck of a tree.

At that point, we were home free. The remainder of the trail was a delight; we’d still have more flowers to discover. A ghost orchid? I had no idea that was a thing. And ripe blackberries? YES PLEASE!

Ghost orchid

I wonder how such magical trails like these fall to the wayside and get forgotten. With more and more people heading to the outdoors, we really need places like this to get some maintenance and use. Otherwise, they become historical footnotes. I’ve contacted the Forest Service to see if there are plans to resurrect these trails, and I’m ready to step in and help if need be.

Crater Lake Ski Circumnavigation

March 20-22, 2020.

32 miles | 4300′ ele. gain | 3 days

Photo album

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.

Day 1

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.

crater lake ski

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.

Photo by LeeAnn O’Neill

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.

Photo by Dave Fritz

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…