Category Archives: General

Random musings that do not belong anywhere else find a home here.

Chasing Ghost Towns

December 23, 2011.

Granite > Whitney > Bates State Park > Unity Lake State Recreation Site > Vale > Ontario > Snively Hot Springs > Lake Owyhee

* Click the map above to zoom in *

When is a ghost town not a ghost town?

I awoke to morning temperatures below freezing; a pink-blushed sky illuminated my forested surroundings. Driving into camp in the dark, I had no visual of my location. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d woken up in the midst of a theme park or a sandy beach. I had trouble getting my camp stove to function well at this temperature, but I was able to keep it running long enough to boil my oatmeal. After a quick breakfast I broke camp and drove into Granite.

I’d checked out a “Ghost Towns” book from my local library before departing on this trip. Today was intended for exploration of these lost towns. As I drove into Ghost Town #1, Granite, I found several modern buildings with smoke coming out of many of them, and a person or two milling about outside. Some ghost town, I thought. I drove on to Sumpter, where I’d eaten last night, also listed as a Ghost Town. This was obviously inaccurate as upward of 100 people were currently residing there, and it had a range of services available for locals and visitors. My search for a real ghost town took me ultimately to Whitney, which fit my vision much better than the previous two towns. I parked at a signboard explaining the history and demise of the town. I walked up the gravel road, half frozen, taking pictures of the buildings in various states of collapse. I was disappointed, however, to come across a home with a solar panel array and a Direct TV dish! Clearly there was at least one part-time resident here. Two other homes showed some sign of occupation, although I saw no one else at the time of my walk.

Oregon’s newest state park

Back in the warmth of my vehicle, I pressed on to Bates State Park, just opened this summer. The park was closed for the winter, but I parked outside the gate and wandered in. I vaguely recalled looking at a trail map online, seeing a small network of hiking trails that would make this a worthy stop. I regretted not printing the map, however, because there was no trail map or useful signage to be found anywhere. I wandered over to a frozen body of water and spotted a trail sign to my left. Following this trail brought me to several other trail junctions in less than a quarter of a mile. I tried to make the largest loop possible, but the terrain I covered was always in view of the road and the forest wasn’t terribly remarkable. Before long I was back at the car and I headed out of there. Yet another disappointing “new” park. Why spend the money, Oregon, if it’s not to create something worth visiting? I certainly would never pay to go there.

Echoes in the ice

I had no plans to stop before Vale, 88 miles away. I have always tried to keep an open mind on these trips, however, and my eyes constantly scan the road for brown signs. I noticed a pointer for Unity Lake State Recreation Site and decided to take a detour there. It was a large, flat, lake, and there didn’t appear to be any trails, so I almost ended up just getting back in the car. Instead, I found a set of steps leading down to the rocky beach beside the lake so I walked down to the edge of the frozen lake. Immediately I was bombarded by a strange sensation of noise that filled the air and that seemed to be coming from the lake. It reminded me of whale recordings, no, video games, no… I couldn’t pinpoint the quality of the noise.

I continued walking along the edge of the lake, keeping my ears tuned to the chaotic music traveling through the winter air. Later I would read about this phenomenon on the Internet, and although my attempts at recording the noise failed, this guy succeeded.

As I proceeded, I found natural treasures that kept me exploring. Gorgeous, giant ice crystals grew on the lake. A massive oyster shell lay on the beach. Cliffs along the edge of the lake were striped with ancient soil layers. Cliff swallow nests made of caked mud clung to the striped walls. The lake itself kept coming up with novel sounds that surprised me. This was a magical place. In the past, I’ve made plenty of impromptu detours that turned out to be a waste of time; this was unexpectedly an excellent choice.

Hot springs…and a quest

Looking at my rough itinerary, I found a free hot springs located close to where I hoped to camp tonight. Realizing I hadn’t brought a towel, I made it my day’s mission to purchase one before heading off into the boonies. The next “major” city on my route was Vale, a community of just under 2,000 people. I had hoped to pop into a few shops and parks just to stretch my legs and get a feel for the place, but most businesses were closed. There was a Dairy Queen and a drugstore open. I walked into the drugstore and asked the clerk if there was any place to buy a towel. He looked confused and asked a coworker, and they didn’t have any ideas. I gassed up and hit the road again.

Next I stopped in Nyssa, at a grocery store, to see if I could procure a towel. Nope. All I saw here were sugar beet and onion fields, and not much else. I asked the proprietors of a coffee shop where I might be able to get one, and they recommended Ontario, about 15 miles away. With over 11,000 residents and all the usual chain stores, this was my best and closest bet. Upon arriving in town I was overwhelmed with the choices, but I was unable to find a large department store. I stopped to ask for directions to K-Mart and the only person who could direct me tried to explain, in broken English, how to reach the store. I politely thanked her but the information was so garbled I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Frustrated, I blasted back up one of the main roads and veered into a Rite-Aid parking lot. Unbelievably, they had a supply of bathroom supplies that included full-size towels. Perfect.

Endless driving, it seemed, took me down a winding road along the Owyhee River and finally to Snively Hot Springs. There was only one car there, and no one in the water. I was excited to sneak into the springs just before sunset, then head off to camp. I loaded up a backpack with water, snacks, clean clothes, and a towel. I could see steam rising from the inlet stream that fed the pools by the river. It looked like there was some attempt to corral the warm water into small pools bordered by stones. I reached into the pools with my hand to find one of suitable temperature, then waded in. I tried and tried to find a location that was deep enough to sit in and that was Goldilocks-perfect, but to no avail. The water went from skin-melting hot to ice-cold in a matter of millimeters. Soaked from the waist down, watching the sun and air temperature fall, I admitted defeat and retreated from the springs. I quickly toweled off and put warm layers on before getting back into the car and completing the drive to Lake Owyhee.

The campground there, of course, was closed. Even in the pitch dark it looked ugly and unpleasant. I backtracked along the road until I found a roadside pullout that appeared to have enough space to set up camp. I gathered what I’d hoped was enough dead sage to build a fire for the evening and hunkered down. The sound of the river rushing by was pleasant and I was happy with my lodging choice. I read by firelight as long as I could, then rigged up my sleeping cocoon. This time I took my big down jacket and wrapped it around my feet, since my feet were still a bit cold last night. Cozy.

Continue the story!
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

Small Town Oregon

December 22, 2011.

Portland > Cove > Union > Hot Lake > Sumpter > Granite


* Click the map above to zoom in *

You can take the girl out of the city…

It was about time for another road trip. I planned a loop that would cover over 900 miles, not including side roads to destinations of note, taking me from Portland to some of the remotest parts of Oregon. Not surprisingly, folks weren’t knocking down my door to join me so I loaded up the Scion and took to the road on my own.

I drove east on 84 and didn’t get out of the car until I hit the small city of Union. Located southeast of La Grande, Union had about 2,000 residents at last count and a very short main street lined with a few small businesses, a school, a library and a park. I left my car at the city park and walked to a bench to eat some lunch. A group of young boys were playing football in the grassy field adjacent to my car. The sun shone, ice glistened on the surface of the partly frozen river, and the atmosphere of small town America engulfed me. I shoveled the food down fast; it was awfully cold outside. I was delighted to find a heated public restroom at the park, which I visited before stopping in the library for some information.

The librarian was very helpful in describing the few local sights to see as well as explaining the opposing viewpoints on the encroaching wind-power development in the area. Upon her suggestion, I walked along the main street, stopping into the few shops that were open on this quiet day, before detouring to the local cemetery. I walked along rows of old grave markers dating back to the 1870’s. I noticed many of these people died young, and there was an abundance of infant gravestones. In the back of the cemetery, some deer were making themselves cozy.

Before leaving town, I stopped in the hardware store for a hot beverage (logically enough) and then set my sights on Hot Lake Resort, another recommendation from the librarian. I hadn’t read about it before hitting the road so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Oregon’s creepiest hot springs

I pulled into the grandiose driveway of the place and gazed up at the massive brick building. I asked at the front desk what types of touristy things were available for day visitors, and I was told a $10 tour of the property was available. I thought that might be interesting so I paid my money and waited for further instruction.

It didn’t seem like they were used to getting many visitors this time of year; in fact, I felt as if I was a minor inconvenience. My “tour guide” set me up to watch a video in the empty restaurant and she walked out of the room. Christmas music played loudly both inside and outside the building, so it was hard to hear the people speaking in the video. The contents of the video made up a bizarre tapestry that included the history of the building, its subsequent purchase and remodel, the marital history of the couple who own the place, and the husband’s bronze sculpture studio. Blatant religious undertones lingered throughout the entire performance. It felt uncomfortable, like watching an episode of “The Office.” I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a sales pitch or a sermon. When the video was over, my tour guide was nowhere to be found. I walked out of the restaurant and into the gift shop, wandering around and looking confused until eventually we crossed paths.

Next she sent me outside to tour the grounds. I walked past the hot springs, various wooden structures, bronze artwork, a shed containing old fire engines, and other miscellaneous artifacts and doodads. It was as if everyone’s misplaced antiques from a 100-mile radius had been lifted up by a tornado and were deposited here. I came full circle and re-entered the building after photographing a nearby collapsed barn and harassing the resident peacocks. Again, I searched for my tour guide. She then informed me that I could walk upstairs and view the remaining floors, and she took off again. That’s it? I thought I would get a guided tour.

The inside of the building was just as unusual as the outside, except I was now getting mental flashbacks of “The Shining” as I walked the long, empty corridors of the old hotel. Christmas music blared over the loudspeakers as I examined the arbitrary antiques and peered into darkened corners of the building. It appeared that no one was staying here, and barely any staff were around. Occasionally, the matronly owner of the place would whisk by in a whirlwind, asking how I was enjoying the tour. She didn’t have a believable smile, and her intense eyes drilled into my skull before she disappeared down the hall. I felt like I was trespassing through a long-forgotten mental ward. The rooms seemed to have decorative themes, but there was little continuity from room to room. Some pieces of decor drew upon the history of the building, while others did not. Most of the rooms also contained a television or other random modern electronic device misplaced among the period pieces. One of the creepiest rooms was set up as if it were part of the old sanatorium. Cheap, stuffed mannequins modeled patients in beds. The room was white, almost too white, with beat up wooden floors and old metal furniture serving as the patients’ beds. Outside, the hallways were lined with articles written about the new Hot Lakes resort as well as clippings from the resort’s glory days in the early 1900’s.

I wanted to get the most for my $10 but I also wanted to get the heck out of there. The museum was closed and the artist’s studio was closed so there wasn’t much else for me to see. I wrangled some lodging information from the seemingly brainwashed staffperson at the front desk before heading out. “I love working here! Isn’t this place great?” She was way too excited about this place…

Burger heaven

Intending on exploring some ghost towns in the morning, I traveled west to Sumpter to try and find some dinner and a place to stay. There were two bars in town located right across the street from each other. The first one I entered was full of cigarette smoke. A two-man folk band was playing music in the corner and two old fogeys sat at the bar. I asked for a menu but all they had available were deep-fried foods, so I went to the bar across the street.

At the Elkhorn Saloon, the air was fresh and the atmosphere was lively. There were several people seated at the bar–locals, I think– and a large group of people clustered around a table. I saw a pool table, football on TV, and a restaurant-style seating area in the back. It looked as if Christmas vomited all over this place; the bar was decorated with lights, stuffed animals, figurines, signs, and other holiday trinkets. I asked for a menu, and was surprised to see no less than 30 different variations of burgers to order. Each menu item offered a different array of sauces and toppings, and each one sounded delicious. I ordered a hickory bacon cheeseburger and a beer and took out my journal to write. That was mostly a cover for eavesdropping, of course, since the locals’ colorful conversations were amusing. One cranky old man’s voice dominated everyone else’s, and he was dropping curse words like a sailor. I ate, drank, schmoozed with the barkeep, and killed a little time so my night wouldn’t feel so long. It looked like I’d be camping somewhere this evening as there was no cheap (or open) place to stay.

I ended up driving to Granite, the next town up the road, which had no services. I drove a bit further until I found a wide gravel pullout that would do for the night. I gathered some wood to build a fire and quickly piled on the layers. It dropped to at least five below zero that night. I was glad I’d brought both of my sleeping bags and my Gore-Tex bivy. I rigged up a warm sleeping cocoon as follows:

I laid down my RidgeRest sleeping pad, then my inflatable ThermaRest on top of that. Next, I rolled out my bivy sack on top. Into the bivy I stuffed a 15 degree down bag, then crammed a 40 degree down bag inside of that. I took some hot water off the stove, filled a one liter Nalgene bottle with the hot water and tossed that into the bottom of the 40 degree bag to keep my feet warm. Lastly I laid my pillow at the top of the whole shebang. I brought my nice shaped memory-foam pillow from home, which was now frozen solid. I didn’t know pillows had a range of operable temperatures. As soon as I burned through my wood I jumped into my cocoon and slept beneath the stars.

Read previous entries…
Dec 22: Small Town Oregon
Dec 23: Chasing Ghost Towns
Dec 24: Breathtaking Desert Hikes
Dec 25: Lava Landscape
Dec 26: A Hodgepodge of Delights
Dec 27: Go West

See the entire photo set on Picasa.

My Only Tradition: Thanksgiving at Willamette Pass (Year 3)

November 23- 26, 2011.

While others dream of spending time with family, watching football, and spending hours in the kitchen, I dream of putting 30 pounds on my back and setting off into the woods.

Photos from the trip are on Picasa. Can you find the two videos in the report below?

Day 1

It’s my only tradition; I leave town right after teaching my last class, my car already packed. I sit in traffic for hours, arriving at the Gold Lake Sno-Park well after dark. While carefully loading a Thanksgiving dinner into my backpack, I think, is this going to be boring this year? After all, I’ve done this exact same trip twice already, on the same weekend each year.

I navigate by headlamp along the gated road, noting that the snow level is really low this year. I cruise ahead at a relatively fast rate, wondering what I had forgotten to pack. After all, my load feels awfully light this year. Maybe I’m stronger. Maybe I’m used to carrying a rope and trad rack. Maybe I’m just so ready to be here that it feels like my bag is filled with feathers. Wait, my bag had better not be filled with feathers.

I arrive at the three-sided shelter, excited to get a fire going. It’s not that cold outside, in the upper twenties, maybe, but the ambiance of a fire in the wintry backcountry can’t be beat. I search the shelter for an axe. Although there is a season’s worth of wood stacked at the shelter, none of it is split. There’s always an axe here, I think, maybe I’m just not seeing it. Sure enough, no axe. Most of the wood is so big it can’t fit into the stove. I start shaving curls of wood off a large chunk with my 3″ hunting knife. An hour later, I have a fire. Just in time for bed.

Day 2

In the morning I make a leisurely cup of coffee and pot full of oatmeal. Once I’m fueled, I set off among the trees towards Maiden Peak Cabin. Little blue diamonds show me the way. I walk at a moderate pace, not mired by feet of fresh snowfall as I was last year. I blast up to the cabin in no time at all. I quickly make myself at home, finding places to set my gear, filling a huge pot with snow, taking out a tasty sandwich for lunch, and relaxing on a comfy wooden stump. Here, wood-cutting tools are aplenty; and someone was kind enough to leave a huge stash of split wood ready to go behind the stove. There would be no axe-wielding today! I make an award-winning video of the cabin interior.

I get a fire going, and then fall in and out of consciousness while sprawled out on a foam pad by the woodstove. It is surely bliss. Snow falls gently outside the window. I bide my time until dinner.

Once the sun sets I spring into Thanksgiving mode. Water must be boiled. Bread must be buttered and toasted. Multiple courses need serving bowls. Where’s my spoon? It’s time to get down to business. I lay out the spread: Roast turkey (white and dark meat) and gravy, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, olives, bourbon-spiked soy nog, oh what am I forgetting? The spoon. I dig in, and gravy flies everywhere. That’s it! The meat stuffing! I heat it on the stove as I dive face first into the other courses. I don’t think I’ll have room for it all, but the next thing I know there are four empty bowls in front of me. And then there’s the pie and cookies…

Day 3

I wake up from a sugar coma the next morning fired up and ready to go. The sun is shining and it looks to be a good day. Temperatures are low, so I start a fire and again enjoy a warm, casual breakfast. Where do those calories go?

Heading out along the trail I connect the blue diamonds to weave a path through the untracked snow. Scouting out the diamonds proves to be hard work as many of the trees appear to be spray-painted with snow. As the terrain begins to steepen, the diamonds become harder to follow, so I set my own path zig-zagging through the woods. My eyes focus on the crystals glistening on the blanket of snow and I wonder if anything could be more perfect than this.

I move slowly, methodically, as I hunt for diamonds, break trail, and manage my body temperature. Twenty degrees is comfortable for hiking, so I think. As the trees become smaller and more twisted, I anticipate the excitement of navigating to the summit. The diamonds are long gone; I make my way up the mountainside, angling around the oddly shaped snowdrifts and fallen trees. I am almost completely swallowed up in a tree well but I manage to extricate myself after some cursing and digging. At last, the false summit appears and provides an awesome view across to the actual mountain top. A view for me! Three years I climb this peak and only once will I be able to see beyond my outstretched arm!



On top of the peak the wind blows, but I don’t care. I can see it all (and you can too!); to the north stand the three Sisters, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor. I think that’s Mt. Jefferson, but it may be Washington, or some other dead president. To the south is Diamond Peak. All around are large, blue lakes and tree-filled valleys. It is a tremendous view and I have it all to myself. I add layers to salvage my plummeting body temperature and sit down to have some baguette with cheese and hummus. Would I rather be shopping, like all the little lemmings at the mall today? Uh, no thanks.

I dally as long as I can before the stinging wind forces a retreat. Still, I slowly meander back through the parts above treeline that I love so much. Each step brings a new angle for viewing the surrounding landscapes. Every tree is sculpted in a slightly different way by delicate rime projections. Surely, this is bliss.

Once I dip below the trees, my pace quickens. The way is steep, and it is quicker to break new trail than to follow my old, short, footsteps. I giggle as my eyes trace the wildly meandering snowshoe tracks heading uphill; it is clearly obvious where I lost the diamonds. My new path takes me directly back to the marked trail and I am able to zip through the trees back to the cabin in half the time it took me to get up here.

Now, it’s time to get down to business. I strip down to a t-shirt, grab the axe, and head outside to hack up some wood. The stumps are enormous, and heavy for their size. They don’t give in easily. Lots of swinging, picking up tipped over wood chunks, and muttering under my breath results in a re-stocked wood supply that will last me all of tonight and tomorrow morning, plus there should be some left over for the next group that wanders up here. Feeling satisfied, I settle back in to the cabin for a snack and the comfort of more layers.

Shortly after I begin shaving wood to start the next fire, a group of three U of O students enter the cabin. They’ll be spending the next couple of days here so I have company for the night. They gladly helped eat some of my food so I didn’t have to carry it out, and they provided entertainment for much of the evening.

Day 4

As I lay in dreamland I anticipate waking up to a warm cabin filled with the bustle and laughter of my new companions. I awake, however, to a cold and quiet loft with just the soft rumbles of snoring to my right. Great. I tiptoe downstairs and set to work on getting another fire lit, while dumping out my food bag to survey my breakfast options for the day. Oatmeal and butter, a cup of Via coffee, and a few bites of marionberry pie make the cut. As soon as my fire begins to blaze I hear a squeaky “Good morning” behind me. As I set about my morning chores the three travelers come downstairs, one by one, each having gotten between 11-16 hours of sleep the night before. I am happy to leave them and sink back into my own thoughts so I load up my pack and head out of there.

The sun is doing a number on the snow outside, sending heaps of the white stuff down off of the tree branches to splat on the ground below. Even though it is warm, I am wearing my soft shell jacket to keep myself from getting soaked. I am in no rush to get home, so I take my time walking back to the road. The other group came up from Rosary Lakes so I am temporarily lulled into following their tracks until I realize I am off course. Turning around for a bit I find my junction and notice the soft indentations of my 2-day old snowshoe tracks heading back the way I came.

I only see one couple walking towards the Gold Lake Shelter once I hit the road. The rest of my 5 mile walk is in peaceful silence. It is a superb finish to another successful weekend trip. The main road greets me with a blast of blinding sunshine. My car is gleaming under a few inches of well-packed snow. I brush off my ride, sit and enjoy a hearty lunch while soaking up sun rays. I already dream of next Thanksgiving.

Archives of my previous Thanksgiving adventures: 2010 | 2009

Valhallas Climbing Trip (rest day and hiking out)

August 18, 2011.

Today, with no particular objective in mind, we decided to take a rest day. Two of our group members hiked out early in the morning, leaving the remaining group with 5 people. We had a lazy breakfast while chatting on Kitchen Rock with a great view of the floating ice in Mulvey Lake. It was a treat every morning to wake up to this little piece of outdoor heaven. In the six days we had been in the basin, we had encountered no other parties. Yesterday when we hiked up to the col, we did see two other teams; but no one had made the slog down to our blissful camp.

We spent much of the afternoon building an incredibly elaborate toprope anchor to TR about 25 feet of overhanging slab. I got bored with that project pretty quickly, but the others played around with climbing on it for hours. Meanwhile, I sneaked in an amazing lakeside yoga session and a quick nap.

Dinner was fantastic yet again, and the loss of two hungry stomachs was evident; there was a ton of couscous left in the pot at the end of the night. We discussed our options for the next day and decided we would hike back out to the car so we could drive up to Banff for some sightseeing before heading back to Portland.

August 19, 2011.

It was a bittersweet day. The weather was phenomenal; clear blue skies and bright sunlight shone overhead. Who would want to leave? But with the prospect of bad weather coming in soon, I would have rather packed out in the sun than in the rain. Plus, we had some extra time to complete the long drive home.

With heavy packs on once again (did they get any lighter??) we trudged up the snow, rock, and snow to the now familiar col. No one really wanted to carry their packs along the narrow catwalk to gain the col so we dropped packs at a big ledge and walked up without them. Brody stayed low while Lee and Eric built an anchor to lower a rope down. The packs were pulled up the corner, one by one, until all people and packs were safely on the rock. It didn’t take that much extra time, and it made the crossing safer.

From here, it was a trail hike back to the car. The section between the col and the Gimli camp was the most treacherous. There were some steep downhill sections and plenty of loose rock. When I reached the camp I waited for everyone to arrive. There were marmots, ground squirrels, and goats hanging out here; they know where the food and urine are.

We took a short break here before making the last push to the car. I was ready to just be done with it, so after walking with Brody for a bit I blasted off at my own (non-stop) pace until I saw the parking lot. It felt so good to take that backpack off and change into new clothes. There was a Pepsi, still cold, in the van as well as crunchy cheesy poofs for a treat. One by one the others filed in and we took our time loading into the van to leave. It had been a tremendously fun vacation with a great group of people, in a place of unparalleled beauty. But, we had to go.

The drive home included a few interesting stops and a road that ended at a lake. A free ferry ride took us across to the continuation of the road. That was a fun little adventure! The drive through British Columbia was incredibly pretty. I will have to come back to do some more exploring in the mountains and forests of this amazing land.

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Valhallas Climbing Trip: Niselheim (E Ridge)

August 17, 2011.

After having a full day of climbing on Asgard, we decided we’d tackle the “easier” East Ridge of Niselheim. This was rated 5.7 and involved just 2 pitches of climbing. Again we split into two teams and since one person planned to head out to the car today, her team tackled the route first. That gave Ryan, Eric and I time to relax, eat lunch and soak in some sunshine before getting ready to climb.

We left camp shortly after Team 1 and cruised up from camp along rock and grass until we reached the upper lake. Here we stopped to put on crampons and get our axes out for the ascent up the snowfield to the Gimli-Niselheim Col. At the top of the col we rested and I watched the other team ascend for a bit so I could try and figure out some route beta before I took off on lead. This climb had no “instructions” for it either, so I would have to learn it on the fly. We ditched our axes and crampons at the col since we didn’t want to carry them up and over the mountain.

After the first lead was complete and the followers were on their way, we ascended a fixed line up a slab to the first belay, where I began to climb. I immediately had to step right onto the face using a great crack behind a flake for hand and fist jams as I went up. The beautiful flake quickly ended and I looked around for the path of least resistance. About 40 (?) feet up from the belay I found myself in a spot where I didn’t feel comfortable moving up or moving down. I panicked, searching for something, anything to use for protection so I could take a rest. I spied a gap between a rock wedged in a crack and the wall itself where I threw in a tiny purple nut. After clipping the rope in and examining the piece I knew I didn’t want to risk falling on it because it looked shoddy. The panic continued. I used my radio to communicate with my situation with my team, knowing I just needed some time to problem solve. Eventually I stepped down and found a good place to sink a .75 cam that I trusted. I rested. And waited. And looked around. I took one step up, then went back down. Wait. Two more moves up, nope, then back down. It felt like forever.

Finally I made the unprotectable slab moves I needed to gain a ledge and stand on more solid ground. Oh, what a sense of relief! I felt terrible for my belayers sitting on the windy ledge below. Surely I could speed things up from here.

The climbing was simple from here, and I stopped to place gear mostly for rope management purposes. Once I ran out of rope I stopped on top of a massive ledge and scoured the place for a spot to build an anchor. Nothing. I stepped back down to a much smaller ledge and rigged an anchor here. I had a really uncomfortable belay position but I was glad to get the team moving.

We walked across the massive ledge, holding the rope coiled up in our hands, to the other end. It was unclear how to start the second pitch. I had wanted to climb up and over a short bouldery-type problem to gain the next step, but one of the big boulders lodged in a gap looked possibly loose. Rather than spend too much more time contemplating the start, we set a belay anchor where we could and I climbed over the suspect boulder. It was one of the more fun moves of the climb!

A handful of interesting face moves and hand jams on increasingly more portable rock made an enjoyable start to pitch two. This was all over soon, as it reverted quickly to third and fourth class scrambling. Finding the most solid rock was the name of the game. We were at the summit in no time.

Our summit celebration was short-lived as it was now 5 PM and we had to think about getting down. The so-called 4th class scramble was anything but; we had to rig the rope to lower down a big vertical step and we slung a horn to rappel down a longer stretch of sketchy rock. After all that nonsense we reached a spot where it was safe to change into boots and we hightailed it across the backside of the mountain. We crossed up some snow and mud, then crawled through a cool “cave” formed by a pile of big rocks. From the cave we downclimbed rock to a moat, followed the moat as far as we could, then walked in old footsteps in the snow to reach the talus field at the other side.

The other team was still milling about at the col since there was a miscommunication between teams, and apparently now we’d all be walking back to camp together. We picked up the gear we stashed, climbed up and over the col and prepared for one last snow slog downhill in crampons. At least this didn’t take too long. Lucky for us, one member of the group was enjoying a rest day back at camp and he had dinner all fired up and ready to eat by the time we rolled into camp. Awesome! I was happy to be back before dark.

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Valhallas Climbing Trip: Asgard (SE Ridge)

August 16, 2011.

Today we split up into two teams both tackling Asgard from different angles. My team (including Eric and Ryan) chose the shorter, 3 pitch 5.7 route following the SE ridge of the mountain. Asgard looks to be a striking feature from camp, rising distinctly above the lake basin. We left camp, heading up a similar route that we came down yesterday, picking the best route over wet slab, thick grass, and patches of snow.

We had to traverse far to our right to hit the rocky ridge, and then walk all the way back to the left on piles of huge boulders to reach the base of the climb. We debated for a bit where the best starting point would be and then laid out our gear for the climb.

I started up the first pitch, climbing over slabs overgrown with black lichen and tufts of grass. Cracks were flaring, shallow and irregular, which made placing gear a challenge. There were some opportunities to sling features and eventually I began to find some nut placements, which helped me relax a bit. The climbing wasn’t hard but the route finding was not straightforward. There was one fun sequence to climb around a roof, and that’s all I remember about the climbing. There was a considerable amount of zig-zagging to find reasonable climbing that also had places for pro. I made the first belay station when the rope drag was so bad I couldn’t move up anymore. It was not the greatest place for three people to hang out, but thankfully we didn’t have to crowd there together for too long.

The second pitch began with some “trust your feet” lichen smears with no hands. I was happy to get high enough above the blank slab to find some gear placements. From there I moved slowly left, towards the edge of the ridgeline. There was a short section where I was traversing on edges on the south face of the mountain with a good 1000′ of vertical drop beneath my feet. A nice looking crack lured me further along the traverse. But when I realized I would get stuck out here if I made too many more moves here, I reached out long for a nice cam placement, then hopped up the slab back onto the ridge proper. That was exhilarating. As soon as I found a mediocre ledge I stopped to build an anchor.

I’m pretty sure my two followers enjoyed the exciting jaunt on to the face based on their commentary on the way up. The next pitch was more similar to the first, with easy climbing and not too much pro. There was grass growing in all the cracks and on the ledges, and I had to trust that some of those ledges weren’t just thin piles of dirt that would blow out when I stepped on them. I ran the rope out to the end on easy scrambling and belayed the others up.

Not sure what the rest of the ridge would bring, I set off on belay for a fourth “pitch.” It turned out to be pretty easy walking, with some cool exposure and teetering rocks. I reached a bolt and a piton tied together with webbing and decided to stop here. The rest of the ridge we clambered up unroped, and shortly after we were standing on the summit.

The other team was nowhere in sight but we were in contact with radios. They apparently had some routefinding issues and would be awhile before summitting. We hung out on top for a good hour before we packed up to walk out. It was so beautiful out here with 360° views of snowy peaks, massive granite faces and deep valleys.

On the way down we decided to use the bolt/piton anchor station to set up a 60 m rap with the double ropes we had. Ryan went first, taking in the pleasures of tangled, ornery ropes on the way down. She eventually pioneered a new arm-gunslinger-rap technique that no doubt will be the hit in climbing circles in the coming year.

After the rap, we pulled the ropes free and continued to reverse our route all the way back to camp. We took turns testing out the quality of the snow, which was never exactly what we wanted it to be. With no crampons or axes it was easier to boulder-hop most of the way back down to the grass.

We noticed the other team had summitted and were making their way down the ridge as well, which made us feel relieved. It was a great first real climbing day in the mountains.

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Valhallas Climbing Trip (meadow hiking)

August 15, 2011.

It rained all night long. Wind threatened to smash down our tent. We awoke to gray skies and low clouds shrouding the peaks ringing the basin. When the clouds lifted briefly, we caught sight of fresh snow plastered to every teeny shelf on the enormous granite faces above us. While most folks chose to sleep in a little (or a LOT), I was going nuts inside my little tent and decided to get out. I had a nice, warm breakfast and hot beverage while waiting for people to arise.

Later that afternoon, the weather relented a bit, allowing Brody and I to take a walk through the meadows below our camp. The meadows were laid out in steps; we descended a steep grassy slope to the first step. Here we could get a better view of the waterfall that also served as the outlet of the lake. We crossed the meadow and forest, descending another steep slope to the next step. There were only a few wildflowers blooming, as much of the meadow was soggy and had probably just melted out. We continued walking through grass and trees until we arrived at the edge of a huge drop that ended in a wide river valley below. It was a classic U-shaped valley with impressive mountains forming either side. The river at the bottom looked tiny from way up here. We angled to our right, following the tree-line, until we could drop down to one of many lakes formed by the runoff from the lake near our camp. They were all gorgeous, with crystal-clear water and snow sculptures piled on their banks. We followed the lakes-and-river system back up to the base of the waterfall, then continued up the grass to our camp.

We enjoyed another elaborate meal for dinner; no one would go hungry on this trip. And none of us wanted to pack out extra food, so EVERYTHING had to get eaten!

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Valhallas Climbing Trip: Midgard (North Ridge)

August 14, 2011.

The group decided to stick together for a day of scrambling to a closeby destination. Having very little beta aside from “go up the north ridge,” we decided to pack the rope and a small rack of pro to fix a line if needed. We moseyed out of camp mid-morning as the sun tried to sap every ounce of energy we had. A short detour to cold, refreshing water at the waterfall slab was our first pleasant break out of camp. From there we headed over grass-covered slopes to a huge talus arm, where we took another rest. Once the troops were satisfied, we continued over more rock to a moderate snow slope. We kicked steps in the softening snow almost all the way up to the ridge. Some preferred rock, others preferred snow, and we all eventually met up on the rocky spine of the ridge.

From here the walk alternated from fun, easy rock hopping to exposed, slippery, loose traversing. Lichen and grass doesn’t provide the best footing for sure, but we managed to make it to a flat spot below the final push where we all regrouped and assessed the route. We dropped our poles here and ascended carefully, looking out for loose blocks, until we reached the summit. It was marked with a large cairn and had a summit register packed into a canister made of PVC pipe. The views up here were outstanding; there were no roads or signs of civilization as far as the eye could see.

We decided it would be nice to have a handline to help ensure everyone’s safety getting down from the top. Spencer took off with the handful of tricams and nuts that we brought and set two fixed lines for the team. The exposure, combined with the experience level of the team and the loose rock seemed to warrant the extra protection. It was a quick descent back to the platform where we left our poles. We were able to find a less sketchy way of returning to the snow on our way back. The team splintered here; three people went back to camp and four continued along the ridge towards Asgard.

The walk towards Asgard was mostly mellow and really fun. We stopped when we reached a vertical drop at an obvious notch. With the gear we had, we set up a rappel for three of us while the last team member cleaned and downclimbed. Looking back up at the route, it seemed much more reasonable to downclimb; it’s interesting how the perspective drastically changed my impression about the rock.

I was glad to be back on snow. We raced down the low-angled slope to the grassy ledges and bouldery cliffs. With some patient routefinding, we made it back to camp in time for dinner.

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Valhallas Climbing Trip: the Approach

August 13, 2011.

Approach to Mulvey Lakes

The drive to Valhallas Provincial Park, British Columbia, is about 12 hours from Portland. We completed most of the drive yesterday, and then finished it up after breakfast in Nelson this morning. By the time the van was able to make it up the steep dirt road we arrived at the trailhead, ready to haul our 50-70 pound packs.

There were 7 of us on this team; although I generally shy away from group trips like this, I was excited to be hanging out with this particular bunch of people for a week in the woods. Under early afternoon sunshine, we began trekking up the nicely maintained trail.

Movement was slow. The trail barreled uphill rather steeply, and the sun felt hot. There wasn’t a breeze to be had. I stopped briefly whenever trees offered some shade so I could sip from my water bladder. One hiker was ahead of me and everyone else was behind. I find it easier to take less breaks and move more slowly overall, so I maintained my pace and avoided stopping for very long.

The first real break came as the trail broke free of the trees and Mt. Gimli really came into view. It was impressive: a massive wall of granite rose up from the yellow meadows beneath. The trail crossed a couple of snow patches and lots of grass and wildflowers. Groups of cheery hikers headed back with their tiny day packs as we continued to grunt uphill. I stopped and took off my pack at the broad bench beneath Gimli known by locals as “The Beach.” There, we waited for the rest of the group to arrive.

From there the trail crosses steep talus slopes to the Gimli-Niselheim Col. A fairly flat section of rockpile extends from one peak to the other. Below, a moderate snow slope leads down to the lakes. We had traveled close to 3000′ up, and now we had to lose 1000′ to get to camp. Brody and I scoured the col for a way down, to no avail. Again we waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

We decided to lower backpacks down a steep corner so we wouldn’t have to carry them. Two of us rappelled down the corner and moved packs while the others assisted in the lowering, and then walked down a narrow ramp to the ledge where the packs were. From here, we would need crampons and ice axes to descend to the lakes. It had already taken 4.5 hours to get to this point and we still had a ways to go. One of the hallmarks of this trip was the lack of (useful) beta; this was the first of many long and involved days :).

Another 2 hours of walking brought us down the hard snow to a series of lakes. The upper lake appeared to be surrounded by snow, rock, and wet so we continued down to the next lake, which had a long strip of dry, grassy land that would be suitable for camping. As the tired troops filed into our new home, we dropped packs and set up our tents so we could get dinner started. It was nearly dark by the time we were eating, but the food was delicious: a hearty, warm chili.

View the photos from the entire trip on Picasa.

Olympic Mountain Backpacking

August 4-7, 2011.

Check out all the photos on Google Photos.

Rick had been planning this trip for years. Last spring I selfishly went and broke my left foot, so we had to cancel our plans to head out to the Olympic Penninsula and climb Mt. Cruiser, one of Rick’s last remaining targets for his mountaineering career. This year I managed to stay healthy so we recruited one more team member and headed into the forest on a sunny, Thursday afternoon.

Flapjack Lakes

From the Staircase Ranger station, the approach follows a mostly flat trail along a river for 3.5 miles to a junction with the Flapjack Lakes Trail. Along this trail, we were surprised by our first and only real wildlife sighting. Four goats came traipsing up the riverbank and plopped themselves right on the trail. We sat down and took off our packs, happy for a short break, then annoyed when they just hung around and made no effort to move on. A couple of times, one goat would rush over to within a few feet of us, stop and then walk back. One particularly old and ratty looking goat made a nice cozy bed for herself in the middle of the trail as the others perused the vegetation for something tasty to eat. Now the goats weren’t cute or fun anymore; they were a nuisance. We strapped on our packs and motioned to start walking and immediately the goats darted up the talus on the upper slope of the trail. We continued along to the first trail junction.

Now the trail began to climb, seriously, for the next 4 miles. Somehow I managed to swap out carrying the rope for this leg of the journey. All I remember was being hot, sweaty, and worn down. The sound of cold, rushing water was almost everpresent but the water was never accessible. The first water crossing was on a bridge high above the stream and after that the water source was out of sight. I slurped down water from my Camelback but all I wanted to do was drop my pack and go for a swim. After what felt like forever we arrived at Flapjack Lakes, where Rick scouted out a campsite.

We set up camp quickly and went to work preparing dinner. This would be my first of three home-dehydrated dinners that I would savor on this trip. We relaxed, enjoyed the weightless feeling of being sans pack, and discussed a plan for the next day. Since we were a small team of three, and Cruiser wasn’t far from camp, we decided we would leave after everyone got an adequate night’s sleep.

Mt. Cruiser- South Corner 5.0

Sure enough, everyone slept in the next morning and we rolled out of camp at 9:30 am. We followed a trail towards Gladys Divide, which offered some challenges as it kept disappearing beneath snow. Some faint old tracks went off in a variety of directions, and a poorly placed piece of pink flagging also set us off course. I was relieved each time we picked up the trail and especially when we reached the snow-covered boulder field that indicated the start of the route.

When I was here a few years ago in early September, the boulders were completely snow-free. It took our team forever to negotiate the jumbled, rocky mess. This time, a smooth snow slope led all the way to the top of Needle Pass. We put on crampons and traded out poles for ice axes to begin this leg of the trek. We methodically made our way up the snow, then stowed axes and crampons to scramble up the 3rd and 4th class slab to our leg. This began the “up” portion of the up-and-down rollercoaster of a ridge ride to the Cruiser summit block.

A little downclimbing, scree sliding, snow skirting, and brush scrambling later we arrived at the top of a dirty chute that gave us a great glimpse at our prize. Unfortunately, we could see a major snowfield covering the talus at the base of the chimney that would allow us to proceed to the rock climbing. (Is that why we’re here?). Rick ran back to get the axes we’d left behind with our crampons, which we thought we wouldn’t need. Meanwhile, we dropped our backpacks and put on our harnesses, carrying a minimum of supplies from this point on. Once he returned we descended to the snow.

It turned out that the snow had melted out near the rock face above it, creating a moat. My partners lost interest in crossing the snow because it was icy and hard and we didn’t have our crampons. Instead, we traversed across the ledges on the rock wall. I felt uneasy about it since one slip would land you down inside the deep moat, so I had everyone tie into the rope and I led out, placing a few pieces of protection and belaying the other two up into the chimney. There was a conveniently located rap station about halfway up the chimney that I used for my belay anchor. From there we unroped and finished ascending the chimney, through the cannon-hole and up onto the wide platform above.

My belayer anchored in at the belay station for the 5.0 rock pitch and I set off into the clouds. The rock before the bolt (30 or so feet up) is the sketchiest, and offers no opportunities for protection. So, I carefully made my way up to the bolt, clipped in, and cruised up to the ridge. I clipped a bolt at the belay station, placed a nut on the ridge for a directional, and continued up to the summit. The ridge walk was really cool, although it would have been nicer to have some views and sense of scale. The rock edges dropped off into nothingness, like the railroad bridge scene in The Lost Boys. Clouds had completely socked us in up here.

The others followed, one by one, and we shared the small summit. There was nothing to see here, and it was already past 3:30pm, so we decided to get out of there. We downclimbed the ridge and rappelled back to the belay area, where we coiled the ropes and skeedaddled through the cannon hole and back to the first rap station we encountered. From here, I had a plan…

There was no way I was going to take us back along the sketchy rock traverse above the moat. But since we had two ropes with us, it looked like we could do a double-rope rappel from the chimney that would take us down below the snowfield, thus clearing both the dicey rock and the snow. I tossed the ropes down and headed out.

I cannot quite express in words the joy of being the first person down an exploratory rappel route. My first ordeal was unraveling the ungodly kinks in one of the two ropes. It was coiling itself around the other rope and also around itself. There was so much friction in the system I could hardly move anywhere. Then, as I reached the bottom of the chimney, I realized I was going to rap into the bottom of the moat. It wasn’t exactly straightforward to get from the rock to the snow. The ropes sat in heaps on the ground well below me. I wedged my body between the rock wall and the edge of the snow, using clumsy chimney technique to move myself horizontally along so I could reach a point where I could transition on to snow completely. I imagined the stupid rope ends laughing at me from their cozy spot under a dripping snow canopy. Locking off the rappel I pulled up the remaining rope, flaked it out, and tossed it onto the snow, watching the ends stretch out downslope. I estimated I had enough rope to make it to a melted-out patch of rock near the far side of the snowfield.

Through a complicated dance of sliding my butt against the rock face and switching my feet 45 times between the rock wall and snow wall, I launched both feet on to the snow and began bounding down the slope at an angle to the bare rock I’d been eyeing this whole time. With about 8 feet of rope to spare, I reached the rock, unclipped my rappel, and shouted for the others to follow.

Once we were all safely off the rope, we tugged and tugged until the rope came free and tumbled down the chimney and snow to where we were gathered. Again we packed up and set off towards our backpacks. It was about 6 pm and we hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet so we were all pretty wiped out and hungry. With no time to spare, we grabbed a couple of bites of food once we reached our packs and started walking again.

Fortunately, the team was confident enough to descend the slab without a hand line or belay so we continued at a reasonable pace until we reached Needle Pass. We put crampons on again and descended the icy snow all the way back to the trail. Once we reached the trail, we removed our crampons, switched axes for poles again (isn’t this fun?) and bombed down the trail. We had an easier time following it this time, and we made it back to camp just before dark–at 8:15 pm. Needless to say, we absolutely chowed down on dinner and then went straight to bed.

Mt. Gladys

We woke up at about the same time the following morning, with a vague plan to visit Mt. Henderson. None of us had been up there before, but it was seemingly within reach from our camp at the lakes. We trudged up the Gladys Divide trail again, passed the Mt. Cruiser turnoff, and stood at the top of the Divide in glorious morning sunshine to survey the area. Mt. Henderson stood tall and mighty, overlooking basins filled with lakes and snow. Several hills and ridges undulated between where we were and where it was. A timid band of clouds threatened to close in on us just like the day before. Intimidated by the task ahead of us we opted instead to stroll up gentle Mt. Gladys, which was within spitting distance of our current location. We walked up through soft snow and occasional tree clumps to the rounded summit of Mt. Gladys. We could see the clouds making a more marked presence in the valleys, so we decided this would be our summit of the day. Our legs were tired from the previous climb, and it didn’t take much convincing to call it a day. Since the weather here was much nicer than what the dark forest would offer us back at camp, we settled in to a long afternoon of eating, napping, and lounging around on this beautiful viewpoint.

I had my big lunch today: whole wheat bagel with tuna salad, carrot sticks, Del’s frozen lemonade (with snow) and a delicious brownie. I enjoyed the sunshine and the occasional drift into dreamland as I sat in this alpine paradise. Three hours later, after the clouds had thoroughly filled in every nook and cranny in the entirety of the Olympics, we retraced our boot prints in the snow to find our way back to Gladys Divide. Back in camp, we split up. I changed into Crocs and wandered around the forest behind our campsite to photograph flowers and wander among the huge, fallen logs and mossy boulders. It was a lovely forest filled with gigantic trees and lots of places to explore. When I tired of that, I returned to sit by the lake and do word puzzles. It was a relaxing afternoon.

Return to Staircase

On our fourth day, we decided to head home. Originally we had planned to make it a five day trip with three summits, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I had a great time here, and I was happy that we accomplished our primary goal.

This time we got up early and broke camp by 8 am. Rick had already taken off, leaving Asia and I to walk back at a slightly more human pace. I didn’t get to take many pictures on the way up so I made an effort to be more observant and less goal-oriented on the way down. It was an enjoyable walk. Flowers were everywhere: trillium, queens-cup, avalanche lilies, violets, bunchberry, the list goes on and on. The greatest observation, however, was the abundant patch of ripe huckleberries that we’d completely overlooked on the hike in! I was astounded that, even with the late snowpack and spring flowers just starting to bloom, that any huckleberries were ready. I think we killed a half an hour just grazing along huckleberry row. I filled up the little pouch on my backpack waist belt with berries to munch on later. Now this is how you experience the woods!

We met up with Rick again at the Flapjacks Trail junction, where we shifted rope-carrying duties and prepared for the last bit of walking along the river. The weather felt pretty nice. The sun was up there somewhere, and I was happy for a stretch of flat trail. We blasted out of there in no time at all, since we didn’t have to wait for any goats this time. We were back in three hours flat. That bag of chips I had left in the car was a blessing. Mmmmmmmmmm……..