Category Archives: Oregon

Elkhorn Peak, Wallowas

August 8, 2022.

Photo album

Mountains majesty.

When I re-planned my trip to the Wallowas, knowing I would now be going solo, I wanted to choose a route that would involve a base camp and day hikes. The first half of my trip was very strenuous, which is not sustainable forever. Ideally, on the second half, I’d be able to have some chill days and at least one summit day. That led me to the Copper River basin and Elkhorn Peak.

Elkhorn Peak, standing at 9238′, is the twelfth highest peak in Oregon. I decided to make this the central feature of the trip and scouted a basecamp from there. That line of reasoning took me to likely the busiest trailhead in the Wallowas, Two Pan. But my solitude-finding-superpower kicked in and I only saw about a dozen people in four days on this leg of the trip.

Solitude in the Wallowas?

I arrived at the trailhead around dinnertime on August 6, drove by tons of cars parked along the road and parked in a spot in the lot. I unpacked my car camping gear, set up camp at one of the free campsites and ate a pint of ice cream for dinner. I had no neighbors that night.

The next morning, I woke up and got my backpack loaded with ALL the creature comforts for a luxury three-night trip. A tenth of a mile off the trail, I turned off the main route to the lakes basin, then a couple more miles up I turned off the trail again to a lesser-traveled area, meaning I saw no one that morning. As Elkhorn Peak came into view, I began looking for places to camp. Despite the trail following the river closely on the map, there were not many great spots with water access. The river often flowed down in a rocky canyon for much of the way.

The trail kept climbing, but eventually leveled out right before a gentle creek crossing and voila! I spotted a beautiful, large campsite just off the trail with multiple “rooms,” plenty of hammock trees, a flat tent spot and easy river access.

The best campsite.

When you know, you know. That was the spot. I dropped my heavy pack and began unloading. Hammock in the den, tent in the bedroom, kitchen on the rocky ledge, bathroom tucked in the trees. I did a few camp chores, painted a creekside watercolor and read my books.

Elkhorn Peak and west ridge scramble

The next day, I left camp in search of the climber’s route that led to the impressive-looking south gully on Elkhorn Peak. I’d read the summitpost description a thousand times and I spent the entire previous afternoon and evening staring at the gully. I felt ready to go.

I discovered the climber’s path pretty quickly. It zig-zagged through the forest, crossed another creek, climbed to a rocky bench with a beautiful miner’s cabin, then descended to the base of the gully. Based on the topo map, I knew I had to climb 2000 vertical feet in about a mile. Here we go, I thought…

Miner’s cabin

Perhaps based on my recent experience or just my experience in the mountains in general, the gully felt remarkable stable and straightforward. It was steep and hard yes, but not scary, not that difficult, and before long I found myself standing at the summit in a tornado of butterflies. I called Aaron to check in and during that phone call I started rubbing my left eye. “Stupid sunscreen must have run into my eye,” I said. And kept rubbing.

elkhorn peak wallowas
Okay views from the top.

In an effort to make a loop, I’d eyeballed the west ridge, which at “only” a mile long seemed like a reasonable connection to a nice trail leading through stair-stepped meadows to my camp. At any rate, it would be more interesting than slip-sliding back down that gully. Or, so I thought.

Dear reader, I am a slow learner. I should have realized that based on the ridge connection I just did, that this was going to be more difficult than at first glance. It started pretty benign, luring me into such an obstacle-ridden cluster of ups and downs that I fell into the sunk cost trap. “Well I can’t just turn around now, I’ve made it this far.”

The ridgeline consists of a junky, blocky series of rocks that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. Either side of the ridge drops steeply into the adjacent basin. I mostly stayed on the south side due to exposure. While it was annoying and steep I was in no danger of just falling off the mountain. But that meant I had to go up and down and up and down on a combination of scree and solid rock in order to stay in the “scrambling not climbing” zone. Several solid rock ribs intersect the ridge at roughly ninety degree angles, and they were almost never traversable. I fought the urge to want to stay high on the ridge for views and joy with the urge to just drop low and get this shit over with.

My ridge is on the left side of the photo behind the tree.

Meanwhile, my eye was still really irritated and weeping uncontrollably. Even with sunglasses and a hat on, sunlight made it feel worse. I couldn’t watch my surroundings very closely through one eye, but seeing with both eyes didn’t help either. Then my nose started running.

Did I mention it was hot? The sun felt extra vicious and I had only packed enough water to do a straightforward scramble, not an exhausting one. There were a few trees along the way that offered small patches of shade; they quickly became my intermediate targets. My body fully resented me from taking on this extra challenge.

Approaching what appeared to be the last major obstacle, I faced a big, loose down climb to get around the last monster rib. I was so frustrated that I stopped to get my bearings and wondered aloud “Is the north side any better?” I looked up, and it seemed so far away, but I knew it wasn’t. I noticed that a solid slab of rock led almost to the top from where I stood. I went for it.

The slab.

That was actually the most fun part of the day’s scrambling! Once I took a look at the other side of the ridge, I concocted a new plan. It wasn’t going to be easy in any sense of the word, but I felt like I had more and better options on that side. Here we go.

Two hours after leaving Elkhorn’s summit, I arrived at a broad, rolling meadow that I knew would drop me back on a trail. I collapsed in a patch of snow, rubbing it all over my skin to cool me down. My water supply was low, but certainly I could ration it in a way that would last til camp. As soon as I found a creek, I dunked my sun shirt and hat in the cool water and put them back on. I felt human again.

My legs moved forward but my brain was toast. Some part of me knew I was moving through an exceptionally beautiful place, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted to do was get back to camp, change out of sweaty clothes and lay in the hammock.

Once I returned, that’s what I did. I dunked a bandana in the creek and made a compress for my still irritated eye. Now it was puffy, red, weepy and painful. I had no mirror to see if I had something stuck in it or what was going on. I hoped some rest would help.

A note on ultralight backpacking

Let’s start with something you likely know already: I am not a person who follows trends. The ultralight thing is no exception. I come pretty close to despising backpacking altogether. My body does not carry weight well. “Then Jess, shouldn’t you love the ultralight approach?” No, and here’s why:

I can tolerate being miserable while I’m walking if that means I can be comfy at camp. Packing light means carrying a finicky shelter that takes 20 minutes to set up, not having luxury items like books, painting supplies, stoves, nice food, hammocks etc that are excellent ways to spend time at camp. It means stopping to filter water every time you see a source instead of loading up for the day. It’s expensive gear that doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It’s more chores than I want to deal with. Those are simply trade-offs I am not willing to make.

So my rules for backpacking are:

  • There has to be a peak involved, or…
  • There has to be something really amazing on the route that cannot be experienced in a day hike.
  • I need to have something fun to do at camp like paint, read, etc.
  • I must have hot food and hot beverages.
  • Since I’ve learned this is an option, I must have my hammock!
  • I have to be able to keep myself warm.

I am willing to tolerate a LOT of suffering on my outdoor adventures. But a terrible time in a backcountry camp is where I draw the line.

Also, stay tuned for when I roll out my plans for the SKT website: Slowest Known Time. If I could name one trend I find even more annoying and elitist than ultralight backpacking, it’s the Fastest Known Time nonsense :vomit:.

Rest days

After that debacle, I took a full on rest day. I slept in. The clouds looked marginally threatening, so I took that as my cue to lay in my tent all morning doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts. Eventually, I rolled out into the world and packed up my painting supplies. I had to return to those picturesque meadows to stop for every wildflower and to paint.

A horrible place to hang out and paint.

A short hike brought me back to the place I scouted on my miserable return to camp the previous day. I found a nice perch with some shade on a rock outcrop. From there, I looked down on the winding alpine streams and delicate meadows. In the distance, jagged peaks rose up at a seemingly vertical angle. Wispy clouds, eventually turning into blanketing clouds, twisted and swirled over their tops.

It was my thirtieth plein air painting session of the year. My goal: fifty. At the start of 2022, I declared it the year of the watercolor and I knew I’d need some sort of direction to keep me on track. I sat and observed the colors, textures and shapes in my view. I struggled with the usual challenges of outdoor painting: changing light, bugs flying into my paint, wind blowing my pages around, the general lack of flat surfaces. It’s all part of the fun and learning.

Painted til the wind got too annoying.

All that was left on my Wallowas adventure was reading and napping, so I headed back to camp to do just that.

Later that evening, water began to fall from the building clouds. A gentle rain fell all night. I tucked into my sleeping bag, pleased with how kind the weather gods were on this trip. And, no mosquitoes either! A short walk and a long drive stood between my current reality and my future reality. I wish the amount of time I spent in each was reversed. And I’m working on that.

Sacajawea-Matterhorn-Hurwal Divide-Point Joseph

August 4-6, 2022.

Photo album

So pretty.

Thorp Creek

My adventure began on the Hurricane Creek Trail, one of the gateways to the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. I’d been to the Wallowas three times before, but never to this particular access point. I had dreamed up a route connecting several range highpoints on a three-day long loop, starting and ending at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. My vision put together pieces from other people’s hiking, climbing and trail running reports; none exactly matched what I wanted to do. So, despite having one big hole in my plan, I set out to see what I’d find.

I used Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon book to piece together the first day’s route. About 1.8 miles up Hurricane Creek trail, I was to look for a place to cross the (cold, ragey) creek and pick up the long decomissioned Thorp Creek Trail to access a base camp just downslope of Sacajawea Peak. At about that mile marker, I found the start of a well-worn use trail through the dense cover at the edge of the creek. This quickly disappeared, so I crashed through the brush and made my way to the water. I found a good place to cross, but no trail on the other side. No matter, I mucked around in the boggy grass, stopping to ogle all the pretty flowers, until I stumbled into bits and pieces of trail. Eventually the trail became continuous and I was on my way uphill.

Nice climber’s trail.

Since the trail officially doesn’t exist anymore, it is not maintained by the Forest Service. As a result, I had to step over a lot of downed, charred trees. It was nothing compared to what I’d eventually have to do, but in the moment it felt like some extra work. Where there weren’t downed trees, the trail was surprisingly nice, albeit very steep.

The trail climbed and climbed until it roughly leveled out on a grassy bench. All the surrounding trees were burned and either standing like a charcoal stick or littered across the ground. I could see the elegant north ridge of Sacajawea paralleling my route as I continued. The wind whipped across the bare rock and through the burnt forest, creating an eerie and foreboding sound. I walked alone, into the unknown and towards the Thorp Creek meadows I’d read about online. It was described in a mountaineering trip report as a beautiful place; mountaineers rarely wax poetic about the scenery so I had pretty high expectations.

Cumulus clouds over my camp.

Despite that, reality exceeded my expectations. I wandered along two small, braided creeks in a lush and open valley surrounded by high peaks. When I found a sufficient place to string up my hammock, I called it a day and dropped my heavy pack on the ground. From my camp, I carefully surveyed the surrounding landscape and memorized the features I could see. For the first time, I could see in person all the places I’d just read about online. It was happening.

I used my downtime in camp to paint, eat, recover and plan for the next day.

Sacajawea and Matterhorn

At 6 am, I started hiking. I knew I had a long and challenging day ahead. Sacajawea, the highest peak of the Wallowas, stood 2300′ above me and I’d cover all that elevation gain in approximately 1 mile of walking. With my overnight pack on. With all the water I’d need for the foreseeable future, since I would have no water access until I completed all the highpoints. I grumpily hauled myself up the relentless climbers trail under a clear und unsympathetic sky.

Sacajawea Matterhorn
On the way up Sacajawea.

From my camp, Sacajawea looked daunting. But the climber’s trail continued to provide a relatively easy and safe way to get up there. Before I knew it, I stood on the top. It was a bit disappointing, as the summit was merely a slightly higher blip on a rocky ridge, but oh well. No summit register, no fanfare. I walked uphill until I couldn’t go up anymore, then I started going down.

The gendarme ridge. This is what I had fretted about for weeks before the trip. Everyone talks about how sketchy and scary it is. And those people were mostly wearing daypacks. I agonized over how smart it would be to tackle this ridge with an overnight pack, alone, having never done it before. Exposure. Rock scramble. Knife edge ridges. Oh my. After consulting with my friend Matt, who’d done it himself, I decided I was up for the challenge.

Sacajawea Matterhorn ridge
One of the gendarmes.

On the other side of the ridge, I thought, “that was it?” Sure, there were some sections that got a little confusing, but as long as I poked around enough I found a way. Some spots were even marked with cairns! I moved slowly, intentionally and always took time to look for a reasonable way to go. If I started going over or around something and got uncomfortable, it was not the way. And so, with that behind me, I celebrated on the more interesting summit of 9775′.

This highpoint was smack in the middle of Sacajawea and Matterhorn. I’d return here to continue along the Hurwal Divide, so I joyfully dropped my backpack. With just a fanny pack and a half liter of water, I scampered along the solid and enjoyable ridge to the Matterhorn.

Yet another letdown. Sheesh. It was cool up top, to be sure, but I didn’t feel like I had to do any work to get there. If only I’d known how much work was in front of me, maybe I’d appreciate it more. There were 4 people milling around the summit, all of whom had come up from Ice Lake.

Sacajawea Matterhorn traverse
Matterhorn ahead.

I decided to enjoy myself a little more on the hike back to my pack, marveling at the interesting shapes and colors that some geologist could explain better than me. I stopped to gaze down the mysterious big hole and also made sure to take in the spectacular scenery in all directions.

Hurwal Divide Traverse

Underneath the full weight of my pack, I set off in an easterly direction along the long ridge making up the Hurwal Divide. It was not as scary and sheer as it had looked on the climb up Sacajawea, and for that I was grateful. I had a handful of photos from other people’s trips to go by, but no real sense of what to expect.

I mostly walked to the right of the ridge proper, avoiding the most exposure and traveling on what I dubbed “safe but annoying” terrain. The ground underfoot crumbled under each step. I skidded along the talus and scree for mile after mile, up and down, up and down. I’d scrambled on far more difficult terrain before, but the mental exhaustion of having to choose each step carefully really took its toll. Each time I slipped more than twice in short succession, I stopped to take a rest, sip some water and look around. It was so fun to actually see, up close, my view from camp.

Close up of Hurwal Divide.

Hurwal Divide Southwest (9508′), check. I tapped the top of this rubble pile among rubble piles, then kept going. Back down, again. This part was steep and loose with several gullies to negotiate. My brain was so tired from all the routefinding and my legs were tired from not being on solid ground for 90 percent of the day. I suppose it would have been easier to have better beta for the route so that I would have been able to mete out my energy and expectations over the course of the day.

But, I was in it now, so I pulled out every mountaineering self-talk trick in the book. Calling out moves helps me a lot: “right foot there,” “oh I don’t like that,” “that looks better,” “grab this rock,” etc. That, and singing songs, telling myself stories, faking some positive self-talk and occasionally just yelling “fuck this sucks.” My favorite strategy for keeping things moving is choosing intermediate goals. For example, to keep walking until that red boulder or that flat spot. Once I reached one goal, I’d look ahead on the ridge and select the next one. If I needed a break, I’d take a break at one of the spots I reached.

Despite all these tricks, I still moved slowly. The Hurwal Divide proved to be a formidable challenge!

The next major destination was the point at which the ridge abruptly turned north. I sat down here, took off my socks and shoes, watched the butterflies swirl around me. Buckwheat poked up from between the talus. And below me, Ice Lake glistened in the sun. I briefly considered bailing out to Ice Lake and hiking out to Wallowa Lake instead of finishing my route, but that thought didn’t last long. Let’s keep going, I thought.

Buckwheat and Hurwal Divide, looking towards Point Joseph

Belly full of snacks, I slogged along to the summit of Hurwal Divide. It didn’t look too bad on the map, but at this point in the day I couldn’t be fooled by that sort of nonsense. My journal describes this section as “and annoyingly loose shit pile with several little ups and downs, that at this point in the day, didn’t feel so little.” Fortunately there were a few sections of goat trail that made my life a little easier as I finished up this leg of the journey. I put my head down and walked; in about an hour I saw the cairn marking the top.

Here, I smiled wide at the sight of that cairn as well as something else. Ahead, on the ridge, I noticed a small knoll that had trees and a snowfield. C A M P ! My original plan involved continuing to Chief Joseph Mountain and descending to one of the creeks below. However, this looked incredibly inviting and I decided to shift my plan to spend a night on the actual divide. It’s the happiest I’d felt all day.

I still had to get there. Descending 1000 vertical feet in less than a mile, then climbing back up another 200 feet took some effort. As soon as I found two whitebark pines sturdy enough to support my hammock, I called it a day. I settled in for a painting session, a delicious dinner (and snow-chilled cider) and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life.

Sunset to end all sunsets.

Point Joseph

“Not one mountain goat,” I grumbled to myself as I got up to make coffee. I was sure there had to be goats in the area, but despite all the time I spent at elevation the day before I had not seen one.

As I watched the sun rise and packed up my camp, I noticed a white rock on the hillside that I didn’t see during all the time I spent painting a watercolor of that same slope. Could it be? I zoomed way in on my camera phone and confirmed, in fact, it was a mountain goat! I was excited and quickly finished getting ready so I could see what would be in store for the day.

In the crisp morning air, I dropped off my magical knoll and began climbing up the next bump, a steep slope that got steeper and looser as I went. I followed the goat until the goat moved no more. Two goats, actually. Confused, I paused there to watch their behavior and decide if it would be safe to proceed. Goats have big pointy horns.

Stubborn goats

They paid me no mind, and the larger of the two plopped right down on the ridge. They had no plans to move any time soon. So, I followed suit and sat down too. For the next forty minutes. I put my puffy on, ate another bar, took some photos. I couldn’t believe my day was being held back by mountain goats, and I had some un-scouted terrain to cover!

Suddenly, they began to move…towards me! I found out why; what I couldn’t see was the steep cliff on the other side of them that apparently none of us could descend. So I ended up having to do a hairy downclimb to skirt around the cliff before re-joining the ridge. Ugh, this was already a morning. The rest of the ascent to Point Joseph proceeded smoothly and soon I stood atop its interesting brown cap. The entire mountain, save for the summit, looks like a hill painted in delicate pastels. But dark brown boulders create a fortress shape on the top, strange rocks I hadn’t seen anywhere else on this traverse.

Point Joseph’s fortress cap.

From the summit, I eyeballed my route down and checked the waypoints I’d put in my map. On the hike in, I tried to note good places to cross Hurricane Creek. I just had to work backwards to connect my current position with a reasonable creek crossing. What lay in between was my choice of rocky ridges plummeting into steep forest of unknown quality. From what I’d seen so far, I assumed it would be brushy and/or burned. I was right on both accounts.

Looking down the rocky ridge.

I dropped off the summit, followed a rocky ridge peppered with delightful wildflowers and descended through a steep forest. I ended up in a dry drainage, which I had hoped would be easy to follow. It was not. Back up on the steep, steep hillside.

At each point of the day, I thought I was at the hardest obstacle. I was literally never right. I sat down, took out my map and tried to gain perspective on the situation. I had one mile to go and I’d be at the creek. “I can do anything for one mile,” I asserted. Two elk, hearing my desperate affirmation, spooked and crashed through the forest. I got to watch them for a bit, since even they had trouble navigating the blowdown and tangle of weeds. Great, I thought.

The steep, forested hillside turned into a slightly less steep, burned hillside. It was at the state of the burn where some regrowth had begun. So I alternately was stepping over charcoal-crusted trees, crashing through ankle-grabbing brush, stepping into soft holes, weaving between incredibly sharp, twisted dead branches and looking for some path of least resistance.

Burnt forest.

There was none.

And then, it got worse. The regrowth became denser, taller and seemingly more angry with me. At points I could take a step and not know if I was on the ground or not. I’d step on a solid-looking log and crunch right through it. At one point I stepped down into thin air, dangling over a rushing creek, my hands grabbing for anything solid but the earth disintegrated in my hands. I CANNOT GET HURT HERE, I yelled into the abyss.

My frustration levels maxed out several times on this heinous descent through hell. Each step was carefully calculated, and even then, was often a failure. I had to downclimb, re-climb, backtrack, crawl under, scramble over and pull myself around an endless string of obstacles. Once I somewhat got the hang of the obstacles in front of me, the character of the forest changed and I had new things to figure out. There are no words to accurately express the degree of Type 3 Fun I experienced in that long, long mile. Skipping ahead two and a half hours, I made it to the creek.

Hurricane Creek.

It may be called creek, but it felt more like river. I couldn’t just walk across at any point. It was flowing cold and deep in some narrow channels. The point at which I arrived was not a good spot to cross. Upon checking my map, I learned I was further downriver than I wanted to be. What did that mean? More backtracking. Regardless, I was dying to get my shoes off so I swapped into my trusty Bedrock sandals and hoofed it through the (of course) thick, brushy riverside up river.

I ended up finding a place where the creek split into several broad channels, spreading out the water so it wasn’t so deep. But cliffs lined the other side of the creek, with no way to get up to the trail. Regardless, I went for it. On the other side, with nowhere else to go, I walked in the actual creek bed until the slope above me mellowed out. There was a little bit of bushwhacking and then…

THE T R A I L ! ! ! !

Elation.

I was so elated, I also do not have the words! I felt all the opposite feelings I had just minutes before. My eyes moist with tears, I practically ran along the well-graded trail all the way back to my car. It was the easiest mile of my life.

After changing my clothes and throwing all my gear in the car, I drove to Terminal Gravity brewery in Enterprise for a burger and a beer. I picked up a pint of ice cream at Safeway for dinner. And I drove to Two Pan Trailhead, where I’d camp for the night in preparation for the second half of my Wallowas adventure the next day.

Three Sisters Backcountry Hut Traverse

February 15-17, 2021.

Photo album

It was a COVID miracle. The much-acclaimed hut trip nestled beneath the Three Sisters mountains was limited to single parties; no random people could be added to your booking. And with a Monday start date, we only needed a group of two to book our adventure. We hopped right on it, and LeeAnn, Aaron and I began preparations for a winter ski trip for the ages.

The adventure began during the drive up Three Creeks Road, where we’d meet our shuttle driver. The road surface was a unique combination of ice and slush that sent the Subaru slipping and sliding as it searched for traction. We white-knuckled it all the way to the Sno-Park. Jonas greeted us with a smile.

After a brief orientation to the route and the logistics of the trip, we hopped in the shuttle van. LeeAnn and I fueled up on doughnuts from Sisters Bakery in order to give us the energy we’d need to get through the morning.

Dutchman ski trails

The whole area was under a winter storm warning from the National Weather Service for the next two day. We mentally prepared for a lot of slogging through unbroken trail and pushing through cold, gusty winds. As we pulled into Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, I could barely contain my excitement. I didn’t care how hard this day would be, since I knew there would be a warm, cozy shelter waiting for us at the end of our trek.

We took our starting selfie, each of us grinning ear to ear. I took the first lead out onto a well-loved ski trail; we’d swap leads many time over the course of the trip.

For the first couple miles, our route followed a gentle grade. Blue diamonds marked the way. But then, we spied the first of many yellow flags dangling from a tree branch. The flags would mark our route from the busy trails to the lonely ski shelter, another 5 miles away.

The scavenger hunt begins

LeeAnn and I love following trail signs through the forest. We took turns in the lead, chasing Easter eggs as we went. It was helpful to have three sets of eyes to scan the forest ahead of us. While some of the route was obvious, there were several spots where we stopped and looked around for these sneaky clues. Yellow does not always stand out among a white and brown background.

The route was not all easy ups and downs. We often had to make wide switchbacks between flags to avoid steep hills. There were just as many steep downhills as there were uphills. There were a few good falls along our path. Aaron, in his first real season of cross country skiing, got to learn the hard way how challenging it is to get up from the ground in seemingly endless powder.

And while the snow was already quite deep, it just kept on falling all day long. The route left by the group just one day ahead of us was hardly visible, and completely gone in many places. Still, we soldiered on.

Fighting cold, fatigue and frustration, we made it to the hut in just under 6 hours. Jonas and Anna, the owners of Three Sisters Backcountry, were just leaving on their snowmobiles as we arrived. They had the wood stove going for us and everything was freshly cleaned. It was a dream to open the door to that hut and get out of the weather. All was good again.

Inside the hut

We happily stripped off our boots and ski gear, changing into the comfy clothes we’d brought for lounging around indoors. It was such a luxury to have an enclosed cabin with light, heat, a full pantry and several seating options. No tent to set up, wind breaks to build, bags to poop into. The only chores we had were melting snow in the large pot on the wood stove and occasionally going out to shovel snow from the path leading to the outhouse. Yes! An outhouse! What a treat.

For the next few hours, we did some coloring, read the previous journal entries and talked about our day. With no cell service and no distractions, we could just savor each other’s company and take advantage of some real downtime.

This hut was well-stocked for a pasta dinner. LeeAnn played chef on this first night and made us a delicious meal with lemon-cream sauce, meatballs and parmesan cheese over fusilli. For dessert, we enjoyed freshly whipped cream (a team effort between LeeAnn and Aaron) on top of a lovely pie.

If you must know, both LeeAnn and I independently packed in pies. Because, of course we did.

Onward to hut 2

The next morning, we ate breakfast and took our time packing up gear. Outside, the snow continued to fall. The overcast skies stole our sunrise; we were in no hurry to enter the maelstrom. Our agenda: ski a couple miles up a snowmobile road to pick our next set of flags to follow. The flags would take us all the way to the second hut.

Once we got outside, everyone was energized and eager to start moving. The snowmobile road gave us an easy warmup, but it also provided a false sense of what the route ahead would be like. Aaron even sneaked in some lead time in the morning.

Once we hit the flags, LeeAnn skied to the front of the pack. We learned of her flag-seeking superpowers yesterday, an uncanny ability to find the trail markers in the most inconspicuous locations.

It was a long, slow day. The sun threatened to come out several times, but just as quickly as it attempted to break through, the snow would begin to fall again. We sought shelter under a large, overhanging tree branch to eat our lunch and psych ourselves up for the second half of the day. The powder was still deep and unforgiving. The relentless wind blew the hardest in the prettiest sections (those wide open meadows) and died down a bit in the gloomy forest.

But, the only way out was forward, so on we went. Eventually, after saying “maybe this is the last hill?” multiple times, it finally came true. We found our second hut, perched on a hillside overlooking Three Creek Meadow. Maybe later, we’d actually get a view!

Extreme resting

The second hut was nearly identical to the first, so we made quick work of getting settled in and unpacking the day’s gear. The wind seemed to help keep our outhouse path clear, unlike last night’s wind that only worked to fill in the path as we shoveled it.

We played National Parks Trivia, worked on another gory coloring page and did the bare minimum of physical work. For dinner, I assembled a taco bar using home-dried turkey taco meat and all the fixins you could want. We warmed our tortillas right on the wood stove and followed it all up with some apple-pecan pie and snow ice cream. How we all didn’t immediately fall into a food coma, I’ll never know.

The payoff

The morning gifted us the most beautiful sunrise and clear skies over our beautiful mountains. We discovered the best views of our idyllic surroundings from the outhouse and the “P” stick (placed for guests to aggregate their number ones, so as not to contaminate the drinking water).

LeeAnn made us a hearty pancake breakfast to fuel up the final leg of our ski. I was really excited for this part because I was familiar with the long, rolling downhills and wide, open burned slopes with big mountain views. Plus, the storm had rolled out overnight and we were bound to have a perfect weather day.

We roughly followed the flagged route back to the Forest Service trail system, but some pretty meadows coaxed us away from the yellow markers for just a bit. Once we reached the blue diamonds, we had to a do just a bit more creative routefinding to avoid a poorly marked sections with lots of exposed shrubbery. But with such an expansive landscape, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. I was happy to go my own way and experience a bit more freedom on my skis.

Instead of taking the shorter, direct route back to the car, we looped out to the west to celebrate the convergence of good weather, good snow conditions and high energy. We squeezed every last bit of fun that we could out of this trip.

To finish, we stopped at Three Creeks Brewery for some outdoor dining. All the burgers and fries, please! As if we hadn’t been eating like royalty for the past three days!

Reflections

I think if we had to do this trip as a group of 8, or with people we didn’t know, I would not have enjoyed it. So, thanks COVID for providing one unique experience that I never could have had any other year.

Having done extensive training in all weather, all snow conditions before our Crater Lake ski last year helped me quite a bit. This is not a trip for beginners. Since you have to plan well in advance, you don’t get to pick the weather. Negotiating all the trail-breaking, route-finding, terrain challenges, constantly varying weather and other obstacles didn’t feel all that bad because I’ve been there, done that, before.

While you *could* make meals from the dry goods in each pantry, we ate so much better by supplementing with fresh foods. Having fruits and/or vegetables with each meal was extremely nourishing.

Skiing in untracked backcountry is still my favorite, despite being more physically difficult than following a trail. As soon as we got back to civilized trails near upper Three Creeks, we encountered tons of people, uncontrolled fighting dogs, yelling, post-holing and so much more nonsense. Skiing around other people is just not for me.

Now that we’re back, it’s time to plot an unsupported ski adventure 🙂

Three Stooges Traverse

July 31-August 2, 2020.

23.4 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 3 days

Photo album

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…

Eagle’s Dare, Acker Rock

September 7, 2019.

The beautiful morning sun

Photo album

After climbing the Peregrine Traverse in August, I determined that I’d be ready to tackle Eagle’s Dare with my friend Linda. Rated 5.9+ by most sources, it felt well within my ability to lead. After all, it was totally bolted. The catch: the route starts at the bottom of 7 or 8 rappels, and the only way to get out is to climb…

When we rendezvoused at the gate early that morning, the air was heavy with moisture. Linda pulled out a stack of pages filled with beta about the route. I thought about the crumpled post-it note with beta I’d shoved in my pocket the night before. We divided up the gear and hiked up to the lookout. The sun poked up above a sea of clouds as we prepared to descend into them. It looked just like all the photos I’d seen of the climb!

We left extra gear in a pack at the top of the climb and located the first rap anchors. It was now or never. I rigged up my rappel and stepped backwards into the abyss.

Into the nothing.

We repeated this ritual six more times until we reached what was presumably the bottom. Along the way we passed by wildflower gardens, patches of lichens, shrubs, trees and various textures of rock. It was a beautiful series of rappels, with big, beefy anchors just where we needed them. With our 70 m rope, none of the raps felt like rope-stretchers.

I reached the ground first, got out of the rope and began searching for the first bolt. In the process of walking through deep grass, I soaked my pants and shoes. I scanned the rock, high and low, looking for some shimmer of metal to get me on track. After much futzing around, I finally located what looked like a single bolt up a lichen-encrusted slab. “I think I found it!” I yelled. I looked down at my feet and there it was, a cairn, marking the start of the route. My gaze had been aiming high and I’d completely missed the obvious stack of rocks. Sigh.

We were completely socked in; I couldn’t see the next bolt or guess where the route went from there. We sat and waited for a sign. And waited. A 1-minute sun burst was all I needed to get excited to lead. I didn’t know that it was the last glimpse of sun I’d see all day. It was 11 am.

See the first bolt?

Pitch one felt runout but very easy. Although the air was wet, the rock felt dry and sticky. Relaxed climbing took me to anchor one. I belayed Linda up and then set off on pitch 2. I’d been anxious about this pitch, the technical “crux,” and I was delighted to see how well-protected it was. I made the dreaded step-across move, which was not that hard, then breathed easy.

The next pitch consisted of what was described in the book as pitches 3 and 4. There was one wonky high step part-way up the otherwise lovely climbing. The position was exciting and I could only imagine the views that we could have had if the sun was out.

We could hear another team climbing the Peregrine Traverse the entire time we were climbing; but they were only visible for about 5 minutes as the clouds briefly parted. I wondered how alone we would have felt if we couldn’t hear any other humans all day. It probably would have amped things up a bit.

Our neighbors on the Peregrine Traverse

Next, the “Terrible Traverse,” which I re-named the “Terrific Traverse” after climbing it. Perhaps the loose stuff had dislodged since the first ascent. I thought it was thin, but quite interesting and enjoyable. Very well-protected, too.

Linda climbs the Terrific Traverse (p5)

After that, I simply played connect-the-dots with the bolts over varied terrain. Some awkward moves at the bottom gave way to enjoyable movement later up the pitch. I carried just enough alpine draws to clip all the bolts before the anchor. On the following pitch, the hardest part was getting through the PG sections where it felt especially runout, given the bolt spacing on the rest of the route. Near the top, I went right around a little rock spine, then cut left to reach the anchors. As a result I had horrific rope drag bringing my partner up. As far as I could tell, that’s how the route went, so I’m not sure what I could have done differently to avert the rope drag.

The final pitch was the weirdest and least enjoyable: a short, leaning rappel to a narrow ridge with a big drop below, followed by a traverse around a blind corner and up into a gully leading to the top. All the descriptions we read of this last bit described a scramble but we clipped into a set of bolt hangers and belayed that last bit up to the lookout.

Coming up the last vertical pitch

All in all this was a fun, adventure climb. Despite the gloomy weather, the rock was perfectly climbable and there was enough visibility to feel safe proceeding. Kudos to the efforts of the FA team who put this up! The only drawback is that Acker Rock is far enough away from anywhere that I can’t see myself getting back there anytime soon. Now it’s your turn. Get out and enjoy.

Exploring the Channeled Scablands

November 22-25, 2018.

Photo album

Thanksgiving weekend, 2018. I asked my husband Aaron to pick a destination for our outdoor holiday adventures. He said “how about Eastern Washington? We’ve never been there.”

Eastern Washington. A land with no mountains, no points of interest that immediately captured my attention. I did some research and saw a lot of the same: lakes, rivers, rolling hills. It was a landscape formed by the Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula, held in place by a 2,000 foot tall ice dam, periodically broke through the dam and sent cataclysmic floods across the Pacific Northwest. The coulees, channels, rock islands and giant current ripples in modern Eastern Washington were formed as the floodwaters scoured the earth. So this year we’d take a tour through some of this unique and fascinating geology.

Gingko-Petrified Forest

Our first stop took us to one of many Washington State Parks we’d visit on this trip. We began at the interpretive center, which was closed for the day. But just outside the front doors lay several examples of petrified wood. Down a set of stairs we found a display of basalt pillars covered in petroglyphs. The pillars had been moved from their original location and put behind a fence to protect them from vandalism. More on that later.

From there we drove up the road to the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail. The landscape had suffered from what looked like a recent burn. We walked under a thick, gloomy fog across a nearly barren landscape. Every few yards we’d spy a chunk of petrified wood. How would we know? They were all cached inside thick metal cages. Yes, we’d entered a rock zoo.

It was depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.

To learn more about this park and to find out when the visitor’s center is open, check out their website.

Lenore Lake Caves

In advance of this trip I saw lots of cool photos coming from this area so I arrived at the trailhead eager to explore. A clear path led uphill towards a series of “caves” in the basalt cliffs. The caves were more like overhangs, carved out by water and subsequent erosive forces. As we hiked we picked up trash near the trail. And in the first cave, we were instantly disappointed. Graffiti. Everywhere.

Well, I thought, maybe if we walked a bit further, the other caves wouldn’t be so marked up. I was wrong. We walked from cave to cave, seeing loads of signs of obnoxious visitors. None of the trails were marked so herd paths led all over the place. The caves were all marked up. There were cans and bottles and debris strewn about the rocks. We got over this place real quick.

In an effort to get away from the human impact, we searched for a way to return on a loop, off-trail. Luckily, Aaron spotted a little ramp that led down the seemingly impenetrable cliff and we circled back towards a path near the water. Along the way we found lots of interesting things: animal bones, cool plants, cracked soil. It was scenic and beautiful and mostly unscarred by humans.

At the trailhead I unloaded the trash from the side pockets in my backpack; there was a garbage can right at the trailhead. I noticed that the bulk of the garbage came from single-use beverage containers: soda and beer cans, glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles. How complicated is it to pack a re-usable water bottle and bring it back with you? I wonder about the future of our natural spaces if people can’t even be bothered to carry an empty drink container a half a mile back to their car.

Soap Lake

As we headed towards our next park I eyeballed the map. In my research I had noticed a “Unique Natural Features” symbol near the town of Soap Lake. I’m a list person, I love checking things off of lists. And visiting all the the Unique Natural Features list in my Delorme Road Atlases is something I’ve been working on since moving west.

And so we pulled in to the not-quite-thriving town of Soap Lake. The mineral-rich lake had been known since before pioneer time to have “healing waters.” Thus, it became a destination for tourists to come and seek a cure for their ailments. We walked through a city park on the water’s edge and dipped our hands in the water. Felt like water.

Today the town had more boarded-up buildings than operable ones. On one corner downtown a small Ukrainian food market seemed to be doing quite well. We stopped in for some snacks and continued on our way.

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

I had been really excited to see Dry Falls and it  did not disappoint. Even on this dreary, cold and gray day, the vista from the Dry Falls Visitor Center was absolutely stunning. From the edge of the parking lot we looked into a chasm that rivaled the views at the Grand Canyon (minus the people and stench of pee).

The sign indicated that during the floods, Dry Falls would have had torrents of water rushing over its 3.5 mile wide edge. Niagara Falls, by comparison, is only a fifth of the width of Dry Falls.

There wasn’t much hiking to be done from the top, so we drove through the main park entrance to a trailhead 400 feet below.

As we strolled among the grasses and rocks in the basin I looked all around me in a state of awe. It was difficult to comprehend the size of the space I was in. I felt small. We climbed on top of rock piles, took lots of pictures and then checked the time. It was Thanksgiving, and it was time to find a place to camp so we could eat some turkey.

Steamboat Rock State Park

We rolled into Steamboat Rock State Park just before sunset, giving us enough daylight to find a nice campsite to call home for the evening. There were hundreds of campsites in three separate campgrounds; only a few areas were open during the winter and I could count on one hand how many people were actually camping. Only one other tent was pitched nearby.

As soon as we set up our tent and got a fire started, it started to rain. I worked quickly to warm up our Thanksgiving meal and get everything ready to eat. As the rain picked up we made up our plates and shuttled into the tent to eat our dinner out of the cold rain.

In the morning, we had some hiking to do. Steamboat Rock, a flat-topped butte rising up out of Banks Lake. The lake lies within the Grand Coulee, one of the most impressive features left behind by the Missoula Floods. We packed up for a cold and possibly rainy day and set off from a marked trailhead below the rock.

The trail passed through a surprisingly colorful sandy hillside. The sagebrush and other hardy plant life had taken on hues of gold, orange, brown and red for the winter. At the base of Steamboat Rock, we hiked up a jumble of talus that led to the rock’s broad summit plateau. From there, social trails led every which way. Nothing looked terribly official up there. So, we went left.

For the next hour or so, we walked where our curiosity led us. We hiked to overlooks above the slate-blue lake. We explored erratic boulders, left behind an ice age ago. We looked for wildlife but mostly found poop and tracks. There were lots of poop around the boulder piles. The animals up there apparently liked to hang out in the same places I liked to go. After circling around much of the rock formation we headed back down.

Grand Coulee Dam

Just before lunchtime, we rolled into the parking lot at Grand Coulee Dam. Grand is an understatement. Here we found another impossibly big structure, this time one constructed by man. We watched streams of water trickle over the edge of the 550′ tall concrete dam, then walked through the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the construction, history and impact of the dam.

I remained interested in the educational nature of the center until my hunger got to me. Back at the car we assembled some lunch: a turkey leftovers wrap for me and a meat and greens salad for Aaron. We had a long drive ahead.

Palouse Falls

We were tight on time yet again. These short November days were really hard to manage. The dark skies were sprinkling down rain. As we turned down the road to the falls we were greeted with a flashing highway sign that foreboded: “Danger. Four recent deaths.” I had read about one of them while I was planning this trip. Our goal today was to stay on the marked trails, get some views, and hurry back to the car to find a campsite.

The falls and the canyon below the falls were gorgeous. I was blown away by the dramatic cliffs, colors and churning water. I could see why it lured so many people in.

But the rain and cold was getting pretty grating. We walked a short path along a railing and then returned to the car. Finding a campsite that evening was not as easy as I thought, since the campground I planned on staying at was closed. Another 40 minutes of driving brought us to Potholes State Park well after sunset.

Potholes State Park

I happily gobbled down a piece of pumpkin pie for breakfast as we burned a pile of firewood to warm up. It froze last night; we awoke to a landscape covered in ice crystals. With earplugs it would have been an idyllic morning. But the constant whine of motorboats and frequent, piercing shotgun blasts reminded us that most people don’t come here to just quietly be in nature.

We took a short hike before heading to our destination for the day. The signboard at the park indicated a trailhead, with dots leading off the sign in the direction of an indeterminately long trail. We walked a short loop in no time at all, strolling through a lovely wetland near a bright blue inlet stream. We could see snow-capped mountains far in the distance.

Hanford Reach National Monument

We arrived at Hanford Reach on a perfectly clear, bluebird morning ready for a full day of hiking. I’d read about the White Bluffs, a stretch of cliffs above the Yakima River, which offered pretty trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This monument is unique in that it preserves an area around World War II nuclear reactors. The land in this area has been undeveloped since the 1940’s, when the nuclear program was active there. As a result, this “involuntary park” remained a sanctuary for wildlife and was designated a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2000.

The Subaru stood alone in a small, empty parking lot as we began hiking up the hillside.

I breathed deeply, the crisp and dry air filling my lungs. It felt good to get out on a real hike. Today was the first day since catching a cold three weeks ago that I felt like a whole person again. Down below we heard whining coyotes. Over our head we saw vee-formations of geese. And all along the trails we saw animal tracks. It was a wild place.

The trail climbed up to the top of the bluffs through familiar high desert brush. But then it revealed its other side: long, undulating sand dunes that disappeared into the distance. It was beautiful. I took my socks and shoes off to explore the cushy sand.

The first set of dunes became engulfed in brush for awhile, then it re-emerged into open sand. As I was adjusting my footwear a man popped up from the sage. We chatted for awhile. He’d lived in the area and had lots of great stories and hiking recommendations for us. As he was leaving he said “Well this is the end of the line for me. It’s just a lot of sand up ahead.”

Just sand.

That’s what I was excited about. We bid adieu and I gleefully strode barefoot out on the sand. We eyed the highpoint of the dunes for our lunch spot. And as we were up there I started thinking. Could we get to the river? The bluffs were sheer, but it appeared that there were a few ramps cutting through the cliffs. Yes, we’d give it a try.

We dropped in elevation and Aaron scouted a route down to the flatlands below. With not too much trouble we made our way to the water’s edge. The earth was mushy and unstable here. There wasn’t much of a beach to hang out on. We re-traced our path towards the dunes in fear of getting cliffed out. The rest of the walk was an easy ramble.

Hat Rock State Park

That night we stayed in Kennewick. The following day was just a drive day. But I threw in a couple of bonus stops outside the Channeled Scablands to enjoy some lesser visited parts of Oregon.

Located on the Columbia River, Hat Rock State Park preserves a basalt plug that was allegedly used by Lewis and Clark as a navigational landmark. The rock was set behind a chain link fence, which was quite disappointing, but we managed an interesting hike on and off the trails. We hiked out to a beautiful viewpoint of the river and then walked cross-country to the top of Steamboat Rock, another highpoint in the park.

John Day Fossil Beds: Clarno

Lastly we took a quick detour to the quietest of the John Day Fossil Beds units in Clarno. This place is on the way to nowhere, so you really have to make a point of coming here. But it has one of my favorite trails in the state: The Trail of Fossils.

We first assembled a lunch of all the scraps left in the cooler before hiking all three trails in the unit. Our route began on the Geologic Time Trail, where trail markers told the story of the rock and fossils here as if we were literally walking back in time. Next we hiked among the fossil-laden boulders, searching for leaves and sticks encapsulated in stone. Finally we trudged uphill to a viewpoint beneath the Clarno Arch. It’s a very scenic park that would no doubt see more visitors if it was in a different location. I’m glad it’s not, though. We only saw a handful of people and it was a lovely way to finish our Thanksgiving adventures.

Kentucky Falls

September 30, 2015.

6 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

The drive to the trailhead for this hike was probably the most adventurous part…

To find this remote series of waterfalls, it was necessary to negotiate a network of poorly marked (or unmarked) logging roads. It was an exercise in following directions precisely! I was by myself, had no cell service and was miles from any civilization, so you can imagine my relief when I pulled into the parking area. Sigh, I made it.

The Kentucky Falls trail was a thin ribbon of brown dirt enclosed by a lush, coastal forest. There was greenery everywhere: trees climbing towards the sky, lichen dangling from every available branch, mosses and ferns blanketing the ground and shrubs squeezing through the soil in search of sunlight. It was a magical, fairyland forest.

Quiet, too. Not surprisingly, there were no other cars out here today. I was truly alone in the woods. A feeling I enjoy but don’t get to experience too often.

The river was absolutely beautiful. Moss-covered boulders lay strewn throughout the water. Newts, slugs, snails and bugs crawled about the forest. This was a place full of life and color.

In just under an hour of walking, I arrived at the epic viewpoint with two lovely waterfalls pouring down steep, rocky cliffs. I wasn’t alone here; there was a massive colony of millipede-looking bugs on nearly every surface they could cover.

At first I just saw a few. Okay, no big deal. But then, hundreds. Thousands. Squirming, writhing, being bugs. It is so bizarre to me how a few of a thing can be cool and interesting but thousands of the same thing is horrifying and disgusting. Besides bunnies, maybe. Thousands of bunnies in a big bunny pile? Probably still cute.

I stood there for a while, angling for all the perspectives I could get of the two waterfalls, while avoiding the throbbing masses of millipedes.

But I didn’t just come here for an hour of hiking. I decided to press on a bit further. I continued on the North Fork trail past the waterfalls and into an even lusher, richer world. The path felt a bit more rugged and closed in here. In places, huge fallen tree stumps were covered in moss, creating tall green walls on the side of the trail. I pushed through curtains of dangling lichen as if I was entering a mystical temple.

And then, mushrooms. So many mushrooms! The diversity in this short stretch of trail was astonishing. Oh, Oregon coast range, you never disappoint.

But the final gem had yet to be discovered. I walked a bit further and caught a glimpse of the river through the thick trees. I continued until I found an easy way to get down to the river. And there I found paradise.

The flowing water had carved bowls, pools, potholes and cliffs into the bedrock beneath the river. It was unreal. I wandered around, walking from rock to rock, observing all the shapes and patterns carved into the rock. The gentle flow of the water created a lovely background of white noise. No one else was around. I felt like I’d stumbled into a private sanctuary. True bliss. I scouted out a resting spot and there I sat, taking it all in, savoring this time and place, alone in the river.

Nature is powerful. This was a particularly moving place for me. I was tempted to never share pictures, never write about it, never draw attention to it. But alas, here I am. Years later I still distinctly remember being here. There is something to be said about the feeling of discovering your own special place. Nothing in the book or Internet write-up mentioned the magic of this spot. Perhaps that was a good thing.

My only hope is that people who come here leave with the same sense of wonder and joy that I did. That they refrain from carving their names into trees, stacking rocks, leaving trash, building fires or any other thing that people seemingly like to do. Just let it be, so someone else can be captivated by its un-scarred beauty.

March-ing at Crack in the Ground

March 4, 2018.

People are funny.

I put a Crack-in-the-Ground adventure on the Cascades Mountaineers Meetup group and got very few bites. I couldn’t tell if it was the timing, the driving distance, the fact that it wasn’t a mountain, or ??? that no one was interested in committing to this outing.

In fact, the day before the trip I was down to just two participants, one being my husband. The other sent me an email and asked whether I was going to go with just the couple of us. “Heck yes!” I said. “I’d go if it was just me!” So, the three of us went.

We drove out the night before to camp nearby. Luckily we had a Subaru to get us up the long gravel roads that were covered in snow. We cleared out a couple of spaces large enough for our tents and settled in for a cold but pleasant night.

The next morning, after a nice breakfast, we packed up and headed for the trail head. All the information I’ve ever found about this place indicated that there’s about a mile to explore before heading back, but I knew from my previous trip here that this was not the case. We had a good day ahead of us.

In the age of the Internet, there’s little left to the imagination. You can download GPS tracks, look at satellite imagery, read precise route directions, place yourself inside a 360 degree view and basically know everything you need to know before setting out. To me, this removes much of the joy of exploration. Sure, it’s nice to be able to do some research and plan ahead. But it’s also nice to be able to discover things as if you were the first person there. So I’m going to give you, the reader, that privilege here. Instead of writing a play-by-play, I’ll end with just a few teaser photos and some observations.

The last time I’d visited this place is was much warmer. I underestimated how cold it would be, and how wet my feet would get. I was glad that I brought my headlamp. And running my GPS app was fun for marking points of interest but not necessary for navigation. If you can’t stay oriented with a giant crack in the ground, my friend, perhaps hiking is not the hobby for you.

So go forth and explore. One last tip: give yourself more than an hour to visit this iconic Central Oregon landmark.