January 2, 2010.
Lookout Mountain Trail from Ochoco Ranger Station | 14 miles | 2930′ ele. gain | 7.5 hours
There are several ways to approach Lookout Mountain. In the winter, there are snowmobile and xc-ski trails starting halfway up the peak on the northwest side. My adventure began at a lower elevation “summer” trailhead, just across the street from the defunct Ochoco Ranger Station east of Prineville on route 26. There was just a little bit of old snow in the pullout at the trailhead. Footprints led just a few yards up the trail and then vanished. I would be on my own today. According to a sign posted at the trailhead, cougars had been sighted here and there was a stern warning not to travel alone. With that bit of advice in mind, I attached my hunter’s knife to my chest strap and headed up the trail alone.
A light dusting of snow covered the ground as the trail climbed through the forest. Quickly, the scenery began to drift into open, Ponderosa pine and scrubby-type forest, reminiscent of the Deschutes area. I noticed that there were shiny metal diamonds marking the trail rather frequently, and was glad that I’d have some aid in staying on the trail once the snow deepened. I cautiously looked around for cougar, but all I could find were birds and a profuse amount of deer tracks. I figured there was no point in looking for a mountain lion; if I were to come across one it would probably be at my throat before I noticed it. With that peace of mind I kept on walking.
Not long into the hike I was treated to some views of the surrounding land. Gaps in the trees provided a peek at the Three Sisters as well as neighboring bumps and ridges. There were some rolling ups and downs before I reached the first recommended turnaround point, Duncan Butte. The weather was eerily calm and not as cold as I expected. I continued along, in a base layer and long sleeved shirt, no gloves, and a happy grin. At some point I grew tired of occasionally punching through deep-ish snow and put on my snowshoes. The snow level varied dramatically along the trail. In some spots it was consistently thick and soft; in others it seemed to have blown completely off the ground, leaving just some crumbs behind. And in other places the trail was a sheet of thin ice. The snowshoes’ crampons helped me walk with confidence over these slippery spots.
I had a couple of trouble spots staying on the trail but mostly it was mindless travel. Eventually, however, my luck ran out and I was plunked out in the middle of a snowfield with no trail markers or indentations in the snow to follow. I zigzagged around a bit to get my bearings and then set off for what must inevitably be the summit ridge. The forest gave way to a windswept, grassy hillside that was divided by an old barbed wire and wood fence. I followed the fence up to the top of the grassy expanse, which put me at the base of a loose rockpile. There wasn’t enough snow or ice to hold the rocks together so I carefully walked up the steep rocks in my snowshoes. At the top of the rocks, I got a view of a seemingly endless summit ridge. One bump was followed by another, and another… I didn’t know which one was the true summit! Argh.
Clearly my rockpile was not the tallest of the bunch. I set my sights on a point two bumps away. There appeared to be a snow ramp leading to the top, after which point the ridge plateaued indefinitely. That was my next destination. I clambered down the rocks and bypassed the next two rockpiles. I regained the trail, miraculously, at the previously identified snow ramp so I followed it to the top of the ridge. I had to sidestep across some steep terrain covered in deep snow that I was almost certain was not avalanche-prone. Or, at least I hoped. The slopes were pretty short and I got past them fairly quickly. Once on top, I really got a nice view of the ridge. And it did, indeed, go on forever. It was getting close to 1 pm, so I didn’t want to waste time chasing a foolish summit that may have been 13 inches higher than where I was standing. I dropped my pack here, took a short video, and absorbed the utter stillness and quiet this place had to offer. It was quite rewarding.
I had done such a great job at regulating my temperature today–not too hot, or too cold–but when I started packing to head down the mountain I realized I had let my hands get cold. That was bad news. I suffered dearly for the next half hour or so as I got the blood rushing through my body again. A bit of a wind had started to blow and so I traveled as fast as I could to get back down into the trees. Following my snowshoe tracks all the way back to the car took my mind off of routefinding and allowed me to move relatively quickly and thoughtlessly. I stopped occasionally for a calorie fix and to admire the pretty trees and shrubs. There is something unique about being alone, miles from the nearest road (which is rarely traveled anyways) without a sound besides the crunch of snow underfoot; it is simply magical. I know that most people don’t “get” this; I think that makes it even more special. I sent my obligatory SPOT message to my friends and family when I returned to the car–but that’s more for them than for me. I was content in having 8 hours of trail time to myself, and I looked forward to driving through the middle of nowhere to a tiny town called Mitchell, where I would spend the night.
If you ever happen to visit Mitchell, you can get a killer grilled cheese and bowl of soup with good conversation at the little Cafe on the right (follow the “business” road). And, camping is free at the city park. I plopped my tent near a picnic table just a few yards away from a giant Nativity scene and Christmas lights display. Good night!