October 30, 2010
Gate Creek Trail > Heart Creek Trail > summit out-and-back | 8.4-ish miles | 2100′ ele. gain | 5:15 hrs.
My camera is still non-operational, so there will be no pictures again.
This weekend’s hike offered two challenges for my mending foot and ankle: a backpack weighted with overnight gear, plus snow and snowshoes. I am working up to being able to do some winter camping trips so I decided to take advantage of the last storm’s dumping of snow to work on this challenge. Browder Ridge, located near Santiam Pass in Central Oregon, offered some peace and quiet away from the crowds.
I was surprised that there were a few inches of snow on the gravel road leading to the trailhead, and I was even more surprised to find a truck in the parking lot. Someone had beaten me to this one, damn! Sure enough, two sets of boot tracks led into the forest from the road. No matter, with my snowshoes stowed on my pack, I retraced my predecessors’ steps through the snow. At the bottom of the trail, as it makes several switchbacks up a steep, forested slope, the ground was intermittently studded with patches of snow. Eventually the snow blanketed the forest floor and began to deepen. Now I was grateful for the broken trail. I kept my snowshoes on my pack for the first 1.5 miles, until the boot path inexplicably ventured off trail. Due to the snow cover, the trail was admittedly difficult to follow in some places, but they had done a fairly good job of keeping on trail. I decided not to follow the tracks and instead snowshoe through unbroken snow. It was here that I started my excellent adventure.
I love hiking on summer trails in winter conditions. It’s like playing a game. It requires tuning into the environment, paying attention, and reading what the forest and terrain have to tell you. The trail is sometimes obvious, but sometimes it seems to disappear right before your eyes…
Shortly after venturing out on my own, I reached the alleged viewpoint, from which I could barely make out a valley and part of a wooded ridge in the distance. I immediately lost sight of the trail. But I knew I needed to continue up for quite a ways, so I skirted the forest edge in the open snowfield and then began following the path of least resistance up the ridge. I walked for what felt like quite a while before miraculously coming across the trail again. A drizzle had begun to fall, and it would rain on and off for the remainder of the day. From here, the trail ascended gradually through a pretty forest with little interesting topography and no views. Without many geographic clues, it was difficult to form a sense of place. I kept checking the map in the book and looking at the time to estimate my location. I would lose the trail now and again, but for the most part I stayed on track.
I was usually able to use clues from cut logs and the subtle dip of the snow covering the trail in order to figure out where I needed to go. I didn’t have a map of the area, but I did have the Sullivan guide with its hand-drawn map of the trail and very local geographic features. I also had my compass. I knew that I needed to find a trail fork (for the Heart Lake Trail). Getting worried that I’d miss the junction, I veered off the obvious trail up a moderately steep, somewhat open ridgeline that I thought would take me to the top. I had little visibility and knowledge of the area because the tree cover was so thick and the clouds were low. So, once I got on top of my ridge, the ground flattened out and I kept hitting dead ends.
Discouraged, I opened the book again and took out my compass. I needed to head NNE to reach the meadows at the end of the trail. According to my compass, I was walking SSW. It seemed intuitive that I was heading in the right direction. I have learned, however, to trust my compass over my intuition…and sure enough, the compass was right. A few minutes after adjusting my direction I found the trail once more. Yippee! It was obvious where to go from here, so I made good time along this section.
And then, suddenly, I found myself looking up at the base of a 150-foot rock cliff. Cool! According to the book, a half mile traverse across meadows would take me just below the summit, at which point I had to find my own way.
I followed the very faint line of travel below the cliff band and began side-hilling in my snowshoes across the steep meadows. Side-hilling sucks even with good ankles, so I ended up leaving the traverse early. I took a direct route straight up the steep snow to a patch of gnarled trees on the ridgecrest. The wind picked up dramatically here, and I got a little practice in steep snow climbing, which was great preparation for the real winter season. Once I made it to the trees, I climbed awkwardly over and under them in my snowshoes to a saddle in the snow. Now I had a straight shot up a gentler snow slope to what seemed to be a bald highpoint. The wind felt cold on the right side of my face as I slowly made my way to the summit. A small rock cairn sat there, as if to say, “you made it!”
I stopped moving for just a minute, and began to feel just how cold the wind and air actually were. There was no shelter here, so I decided to retreat to the comfort of the trees before enjoying my summit snack. The trip back through the gnarled trees and down the steep snowfield was treacherous. The snow was hard to read; some spots were quite deep and others were shallow. Below the snow could be jagged rock, slick beargrass or textured heather. The beargrass was evil because it was so slippery. At least the rock and heather offered some traction. The deep snow provided the best option because I could dig the crampons on my snowshoes in really securely before stepping down.
At one point I slipped and fell, bruising my thigh pretty good. I was glad to get off the steep stuff and return to the broad, mellow forest ridge. I quickly refueled and then started to follow my tracks. I wanted to find as much of the real route as possible, so on the return I tried to correct my errors on the ascent. I managed to do this successfully for about 95% of the ground I covered; there was only one small detour I made where I couldn’t find the actual route. I was really excited to find the actual trail junction between the Gate Creek Trail and Heart Lake Trail; there was a wooden sign laying up against the base of a tree where the two trails met. I was way off on my route in.
Besides the routefinding excitement, the return trip was pretty mellow. My foot performed nicely; the weight of an overnight pack didn’t seem to bother it any more than the other one. And although I predicted that snowshoeing would be very difficult for my left ankle, I found that I was able to maintain stability in the snowshoes right up until about the last half mile. I took one good fall forward onto my face, appreciating the softness and forgiveness of the snow.
I rather enjoyed this walk in the woods. There were no views, the weather was crummy, and there were large trees I had to step over. I had forgotten my gaiters and my pants were getting soaked. But somehow, the combination of routefinding, physical exertion, cold air, quiet, and novel surroundings made this an absolutely perfect experience. I enjoyed the challenge of finding my way, alone in the woods.