Friday, March 29, 2013

3-day backcountry ski around Crater Lake



The short version: Rita, Jason, and I did a 3 day 30 mile (48km) backcountry ski trip around the whole of Crater Lake, in Crater Lake National Park (Oregon’s only national park), which included my birthday celebration in the middle of it.  Rita went all out with a card & gift, a birthday napkin, candle, and exceedingly rich little brownie truffle things.  Jason’s picture of us (with Crater Lake as the backdrop) sums it up:
 
The long version:

About a month ago, Rita (climbing partner whom I met in 2010) and I were discussing climbing plans for March, and we’d settled on Mt. Shasta for 3/23-28, when she was free.  Jason (a long time climbing partner of Rita’s, and frequent partner on Rita and my climbs) was also going to be available.  However, on Saturday morning (3/23) before we headed down there, we had a 3-way phone conversation, looking at the weather and avalanche conditions all the way from the Northern Cascades, in Washington, down to Mt. Shasta, in California, and things just weren’t looking good.  Around Crater Lake, though, the weather looked conducive to a trip Rita and I’d talked about doing a year ago: backcountry skiing around the lake.  She’d done it 30 years ago, in two days, and had wanted to do it, again.  Since we had three days, to do it, this time, she threw in a climb teaser for me – Mt. Scott, a 8,929 ft (2,721 m) mountain in the park. 

So, Jason and I packed for an overnight ski trip, rented skis, and drove down to Rita’s that Saturday, and Rita drove us down to Crater Lake National Park on Sunday.  On the way, I was reading various reviews about what we were about to do.  I remember reading something about how anyone can ski on the west rim trail. 

We started off with 40+ pound (18+ kg) packs at around 1pm going in a clockwise fashion:

(click on images to see higher quality versions)
Here we are (Rita, me, Jason), at the start of our journey, with Crater Lake spread out behind us, as we set off from the Rim Village entrance point. 

It seems that I’m not just “anyone”. . .  I managed to fall 3 times just getting from the Rim Village view point to where we were obviously on the road!  We’d had the skis waxed when we picked them up, making them absolutely glide on top of the snow.  This can be a good thing.  For me, though, while I was grappling with trying to get my balance on the skis with this 40+lb bag on my back, a little stickiness might have been a good thing.  This was more like trying to get traction wearing patent leather shoes on a sheet of ice.  Just as I was getting extremely worried about what I’d agreed to do, the more flat snow of the road came before me.  I managed to stay upright for a while, and felt as though this might go as I’d originally expected, rather than as the first 10 minutes had gone. . .  After all, it was just the prior week that Rita and I had gone on a ten mile cross country ski trip, with normal cross country skis (long, skinny skis with no steel edges), whereas, now,  we had backcountry skis (wider, a little shorter, and with edges), so my expectations for this trip, on a snow covered road as a trail, were that this would be a pretty straight-forward trip.  Hah!

With my angst about the first several falls waning, I was again able to marvel about the beauty that surrounded us.  One of our jaw dropping views, with Wizard Island in the forefront:

And another:

Mt. Scott is the tallest peak in this shot.

More beauty with Rita and Jason standing checking out the view:


I like the following shot because it gives some indication that there were a bunch of others (and some “anyone”s who could actually ski) out there with us at this point in the trail, as well as having stunningly beautiful scenery, nearly perfect mirroring of the rim in the water, and Jason center picture:


As in the above picture, there was, thankfully, a lot of smooth, flat, and wide snow surfaces to ski on.  What I didn’t capture were some of the more hair-raising surfaces.  Fortunately, Jason was a little bit more on the ball, and did try to capture some of it.  In this shot, I think that you maybe can get a sense of the narrow top that we sometimes wound up skiing along, with a huge drop off on at least one side (in this picture there is probably a 1000 foot (300 meters) drop off to the left, which was quite scary, especially when I couldn’t seem to make the edges cut into the icy crusty surface of the snow, and the skis would sort of slide in the drop off's direction: 


The minor drop off to the right was not a big worry to me in the above picture, although it sometimes got pretty darned deep, as you can tell, perhaps, from Jason’s picture of me from one time when I decided to ski down into the gully on the right rather than on the narrow tippy top:


In Rita’s picture of Jason and me, below, there is a cut-out in the snow just near where the two of us are headed – that was one scary little crossing, as that cut-out looked straight down 1000 feet (300 meters) to the water.  Great, I thought, if I fall to the right, it will be a fall into the water, and certain death, or, if I fall to the left, it will be a nice lengthy sliding fall, likely ending in death, but not certain death:

Needless to say, I was rather relieved when I passed all of these potential disaster areas unscathed.  And they were actually mere fractions of the entire skiing experience, even though I’m magnifying them, here, by mentioning them, and in such detail!  

So, to continue in this vein just a bit more, there was one hill that I thought that I could get through, and skied down it, and was busy congratulating myself on not falling on the steepest part of the descent, when one of my skis caught on a little block of ice or something, causing the ski to stay behind just a bit, which, with the big pack, caused my body to lurch forward (or, more precisely, my body maintained its speed, while the skis did not), and I did a spectacular face plant.  At least, that’s what one of the team of folks watching me fall told Rita, while chatting with her. . .

Rita was wearing a GPS watch, and was keeping track of our progress.  It was rather slow.  After only 6 miles (9.7km), we were starting to be pretty ready to look for a camp.  We were at the junction to the northern entry, where snowmobiles can come zooming in for a look at the lake, and then zoom back out.  None of us were interested in camping, there, so we pushed on, and finally found a nice spot about 7 or 7.5 miles (11 or 12 km) in from the start.  We started to re-assess our general plan – Mt. Scott was out.  We judged that we could still make it out on the third day, if we could make it at least 12 miles (19km) the 2nd day, which seemed reasonable, as we would be starting out to ski much earlier in the day.

Before heading to bed, I spied the sunset, which Jason managed to capture with his camera:


The next day I was greeted at the entrance of our latrine by crepe paper, courtesy of Rita:

I assumed that that would be the end of the celebration, but, as the first picture in this write-up, shows, yes, there was more. 

Incidentally, in that first picture, if you look between our heads, it was at that part of the shore that we embarked on the trip.  We were slightly more than ½ around the Crater’s rim, but not anywhere near ½ of the mileage needed to get back.   We re-assessed, again, at the birthday celebration time, and started thinking that another day might be necessary.  Rita was able to get a cell signal and texted her husband to let him know that things were fine, we just might need more time.  The next bit of the trail was all about getting to the base of the trail to Mt. Scott, which meant that we had a steady uphill.  We would see Mt. Scott in the distance, and see a bend in the trail and think “yes! Just around this bend, and we’re there!” and then we’d get to that bend, and see that we still had to ski up another big hill.   I think that that happened about 3 times before we got to the top, and near the junction.  When we did, we were greeted with a wind-swept snow landscape.  Rita, studess that she is (besides being a much better skier than either Jason or me, she is also in much better shape), was waiting for us at the top.  We looked around and saw thick clouds moving in.  We were tired and needed to rest a bit, so we continued on to find a little bit of shelter.  Almost immediately, there was a little drift of snow, and a downhill.  I started down it, and promptly fell over.  Jason, coming up behind me, asked me if this was where I wanted to stop for the rest, and then realized what had happened, saying something about it being an impromptu stop.  Rita, coming up behind him, also was worried that I was choosing that spot to rest, and then, too, understood, when she heard Jason’s comment.  We continued on and found a section of the road, showing, with the sun shining on it.  I had some hot spots on my feet that I wanted to tape, so that I wouldn’t get blisters, so I attended to that, we all ate, and rested just a bit, but the wind picked up, the sun got blocked, and we started to think that maybe the weather system predicted for the next day was coming in, early, so we decided that we needed to find a nice camping place out of the wind, and much lower down.  While it was tempting, in theory, to have a nice downhill at the start of the day, at night, an icy crust forms on the snow, if it’s cold enough (and it was), which meant that we’d pretty much be skiing down ice in the morning (if it didn’t snow that night).  So we opted to do the downhill and get back down into the trees with their protection from the wind.

We found a lovely place to camp:

Rita is standing in her nicely created kitchen, with our seating area on one side, and cooking shelf behind her, complete with a wind break. 

And then it snowed that night.  A couple of inches, which was funny, because before we went to bed, Rita said that her hope was that we’d get a couple of inches of snow, so that the skiing would be better.  She got her wish (you’d think that SHE was the one who blew out that birthday candle!)! 

When we started out in the morning at around 10am, we noticed that the snow was sticking to our skis, so we stopped to put on wax.  While we were doing so, the other party we’d been leapfrogging, passed us, after having camped near the high point.  They’d started out at 8am in a whiteout and with the new snow, which made their route-finding very challenging (they couldn’t just follow other people’s ski tracks), and they finally made it to us 2 hours later, on an area that took us about ½ hour to cover the previous evening.  We were even happier with our choice to camp down low.

As we continued around, we approached one of our decision points.  One way led to a known avalanche area, and the other was the avalanche by-pass, which meant that it would add mileage.  With the state of the snow pack, the added 2 inches of snow wasn’t of particular worry to me, but it seemed that most of the others had taken the bypass, we couldn’t see what we’d be getting into, and Rita figured that she’d rather go longer and be alive then shorter, and perhaps get into a little trouble.  She’s so sensible. . .  We took the by-pass. 

The by-pass took us down a lower road that was near the bottom of the avalanche run out.  Had it been a high snow year, and high avalanche danger, I’m not so sure that I would have been very happy with this routing.  As it was, we got to see the new avalanche debris from the prior day’s avalanche (when it was all warm and sunny).  We saw that several people who’d elected to go on that upper road skied down out of it.  As we looked up at where we would have had to ski, Jason commented that avalanche zone or not, he was glad that we weren’t skiing up there, and I agreed!  It was a narrow place.

The detour that was taking us down this lower road abruptly headed onto a blue (typically meaning “intermediate”) trail.  I was remembering the blue trail Rita and I had been on the previous week, and was thinking that I didn’t want to be on another one with a heavy pack.  Rita was non-plussed and pointed out to me that it would be uphill – heck, *anyone* can ski uphill (no, she didn’t say *that* - I’m just interpreting. . .).  So, we took off up the hill, and it wasn’t too bad.  Jason and Rita had to stop for a clothing break, but I was still chilled, so I wanted to continue on and get warmed up.  I was soon sidestepping in very steep, treed terrain.  It warmed me up, for sure, so I took off a layer or two and waited for Rita and Jason to catch up and we all commented on this trail that none of us could imagine skiing *down*.  As I continued up, and it got steeper, and the snow surface a bit crustier, I started to notice that someone had walked up it, which was becoming very appealing to me – I was thinking that I could make quicker progress without the skis than with, since I was having to side-step the whole way.  Just then, I slipped on the crusty ice and fell.  I used it as an opportunity to take off my skis and start climbing.  I hollered to Rita and Jason so that they’d know I’d made that decision.  It turned out to be much easier for me, especially since someone else had already done the work of making steps, and because it appeared that more and more people had made the same decision to start walking, so the steps were getting pretty solid.  Still, I wasn’t sure that they’d be good enough steps for Jason, because he is so much heavier than I am, and I was afraid that he might still post-hole (punch through the step and further into the snow, which is very, very tiring) so I was feeling sorry for him as I trundled up the hill. 

I eventually made it to a place where I could put my skis back on, and was hoping that I was just about at where the road was so that I could shout down encouraging words to the others.  Unfortunately, I saw that the trail went on, with the road no where in sight, so just yelled down that I was able to put my skis back on (indicating better terrain), but that we hadn’t arrived.  Rita had also shed her skis coming up.  Jason was a hold-out, but did try walking for a little while, and did have the problem of punching through the steps, so that hill was even more strenuous for him than it was for us.  It’s a good thing that he’s a strong guy!!! 

We were hoping to get to the road before taking a break for lunch, but as we continued on the trail, it became obvious that the road was *much* farther on, and would be in a much windier spot, so Rita, reading my mind, chose to hunker down in a sheltered place to eat lunch.  As we did, we marveled that a group we’d seen going counter-clockwise around the lake with a sled had made it down that same hill without injury!

There were two more avalanche zones that were on the trail (and two more by-passes for those zones), but at that point we were going downhill, we could *see* the avalanche prone terrain ahead of time, and the road through them was nowhere near as scary as the first one, and the avalanche danger continued to seem low (we weren’t getting blasted with the sun), so we just skied right through them.  Well, Rita and I skied through them.  On the second one, Jason stopped in the middle and started taking pictures, so Rita and I started yelling at him.  “What?”  “Avalanche zone!”  I think that he may have replied something like “Oh, so I shouldn’t be stopped here taking pictures?”  He likely was in no danger, but it’s sort of nice not to tempt fate. . .

Just around this time, we started to realize that we *would*make it out that day, and not have to spend another night, as we’d come to expect.  The long downhills had allowed us to burn a lot of miles rather quickly.  We even started saying silly things like, gee, wouldn’t it have been nice to have had our ice tools and climbing gear so that we could have climbed this frozen waterfall, pictured, below?


Alas, we had no desire to have heavier packs, and were rather thankful that we were able to make it, and on our original 3-day schedule.

I think that I’ll leave you with one of our lake views on the last day, with the low hanging clouds and the instigator of this glorious trip:


May you have such instigators in your life!

leora


3 comments:

Pat Palmer said...

I enjoyed this account and admire your ability to "enjoy" the adversity and surprises of such a hike. The high experience you all have with snow really shows through. I'm doubly admiring because I, for one, can barely tolerate cold weather. However, those years in the past when I learned to cross-country ski did make all this more meaningful. Well done! So glad it went safely.

leora said...

I am so pleased that you enjoyed! I don't enjoy being cold, but I sure do love the snow. The new technology in clothing makes it so easy to be warm and dry, even out in the elements.

Pat said...

Wow, considering that you're a novice skier, that seems like a very challenging route. You're gutsy Leora...or crazy...or both! I've skied crater lake a few times and have absolutely loved it. And I remember skiing those scary areas with steep drop offs and reminding myself to breathe, concentrate, and take my time. I've never gone around the entire rim. So tempting to give this a try some time. Great pictures Leora!