Larch Mountain: First snow of the season

December 14, 2008.

Trail #441 from Multnomah Falls | 14.1 miles | ~3500 ft. ele. gain | 7.5 hours

Close your eyes. Imagine the monstrous Multnomah Falls careening down the sheer basalt cliffs in the Columbia River Gorge. Now, erase the heaving throng of tourists snapping photos and choking down lattes. Drop the temperature to about 24 degrees (Fahrenheit) and dust the ground with dry snow. Add some slick ice, too. You’ve now got a good idea of what our starting point was like on this crisp Sunday morning.

We carefully began up the slippery, paved path leading up to and past the falls. This tedious path, usually packed with people gasping for air, was bare today. As we switchbacked up the pavement to the top of the falls, we passed one person who appeared to be going for a quick jog. Once we reached the end of the pavement, we stopped to take some mental photographs of the stream coated with snow. I had inadvertently left the house with drained batteries so I was unable to capture this hike with my camera. Damn. I actually prefer to think the cold killed the batteries and it was not my ill-preparedness that prevented me from documenting this epic snow.

We gingerly crossed one snow-covered wooden bridge after another. The falling snow gradually accumulated on the forest floor. With each bit of elevation gain, we noticed deeper and deeper snow. It was light and poufy, like snow should be. As the snow levels rose, the temperature dropped. By the time we took our first snack break, the thermometer measured temps in the teens. We hungrily wolfed down some snacks before pressing on. Thankfully, good winter hiking layers coupled with the heat of heavy exercise kept me toasty warm.

As usual, the higher we got, the prettier the woods became. The three of us were the only humans out here. There were no footprints, no sounds. When the wind stopped blowing and the group separated a little bit, it became perfectly quiet. I don’t get to experience quiet all that often, so I cherished each second of it.

Snow fell intermittently. As we approached the last two miles, the wind began to blow sideways Tiny snow crystals drove into my face like miniature daggers. I switched out a hat for a balaclava and proceeded to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” in my head. Setting my mind on repetitive tasks makes it easier to plod along when I’m tired or bored. Rather than focus on my cold face, the tedium of walking through almost flat, endless snow, or on the annoying breeze, I could distract my brain cells with the task of counting backwards and completing a silly song. I actually made it to the end, which I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished before!

The last mile seemed to go on forever. At some point, Brad and I caught up with Terry, who had changed into a big, puffy down jacket and had started to get out his lunch. He had found a picnic table about a quarter mile from the summit. Here, we cleared out some personal space and went to town on the food remaining in our packs. I had some deliciously warm vegetable-barley soup and a tuna sandwich. I stayed warm in my hideous, cotton-candy colored down and wool gloves. Poor Terry hadn’t brought any warm layers for his legs so he was trying to stay warm in just a thin pair of summer hiking pants. Being a prepared New Englander, I had some warm, synthetic long-johns under waterproof ski pants. Although I occasionally felt slightly too warm while walking uphill, I was totally comfortable during slow sections and complete stops. I was glad that I made the clothing choices I did today.

We decided to leave our packs and walk the last few minutes to the top. I felt light as a feather without a backpack on! Prancing through the snow, we quickly made it to Sherrard Point, the fenced-in summit of Larch Mountain. On a clear day, we would be able to see all the major volcanoes from here, but today we got a 360 degree view of gray skies. Fortunately, the wind was not whipping here as predicted. We enjoyed a few relaxing minutes here, measuring the snow drifts and hopping from bench to bench. In the summer, this is a drive-up summit. Today, we really earned it.

Returning to pick up our gear, we rapidly blasted down the shallow slopes as the snow cushioned each step. Once we loaded up again, we made quick work of descending. The trail is rather moderately graded; even though it is a good deal of walking, there are no steep sections that require a great amount of effort. I was thankful for the moderate grade and forgiving snow; both protected my knee wonderfully. As we neared the last couple of miles, however, the snow levels dropped significantly and the footing became much less secure. The snow had stopped falling and the wind began picking up. The last mile down the steep, paved path was blustery and slick. We stopped for a moment to look at Multnomah Falls and the partially frozen pool of water at its base. With a week of freezing temperatures ahead, I can only imagine that the falls will be more and more icy and spectacular.

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