Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Mount McLoughlin (OR) - NE Bowl

For the last few years I’d been wanting to ski Mount McLoughlin, but I’ve had a hard time convincing anyone to do it with me. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the crew that I tend to tour with. My only guess would be because it’s a longish drive from Eugene (~3.5 hours) and is overshadowed by the other Cascade volcanoes that are in the more immediate area. This is despite the fact that it comes in at 9,495’, the 12th tallest peak in the Cascade Range, sitting just below Middle Sister. Although McLoughlin has skiable lines on all aspects, the one that really got my attention was the NE bowl, with a combination of a steep/longish slope and relatively easy access.

With the weather looking marginal in the Cascades north of Crater Lake, I was able to convince my buddy Andrew that we should finally give McLoughlin a go. Since it was a bit of a drive, especially for him coming from Salem, we decided to head out Friday night and camp near the trailhead for a Saturday tour. The drive from Eugene went well, with only a minor detour to get gas near Medford. By the time we reached the trailhead it was around 10pm, where we quickly laid down our bedrolls and tried to get as many z’s as possible before our early morning start.

When my alarm went off at 5:00am I was still a bit foggy-headed and stayed in my bag for another 15 minutes or so, before finally crawling out and putting together my breakfast and gear bag for the day’s adventure. Andrew, who had overslept his alarm, didn’t get up till ~6am, which was fine since he’s always much faster than me at getting ready in the morning. By the time we had geared up and headed out it was around 6:30am, a little behind schedule but still within the acceptable margin of error.

The trailhead
(photo by Andrew Boes)

From the parking lot, the trail crossed over Cascade Canal before starting its slow ascent up the foothills of Mount McLoughlin. The trail was well maintained and it was pretty easy hiking up to the bench where it intersected with the PCT, which was about a mile in. From there the trail remained fairly flat for another mile and a half, before reaching the NE ridge and starting to climb steeply up toward the summit. As we continued to climb, the patches of snow begin to grow and the trail became less obvious. Eventually, we found ourselves following crude cairns and GPS, as we navigated punchable snow and rocky scrambles. Still in my hiking boots, I decided to push on and deal with the rocks and snow that would occasionally slip in through the tops of my boots.

Andrew starts the long slog

Cascade Canal

Gettin' the low down

Trail marker at PCT intersection

The well-maintained trail made the first half of the ascent pretty straightforward

Our first glimpse of Mount McLoughlin
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Navigating the trail between patches of snow 

Andrew enters alpine and the start of the NE ridge

At around 8,200’ we reached a vista that looked onto the NE bowl, which renewed our spirits and made us look forward to the sweet reward we’d receive for our hard work. From the lookout, the trail followed along the edge of the bowl and alternated between piles of rock and small sections of trail. Eventually, I decided to traverse over to the snowfield on the southeast face, which made for much easier travel, especially with the bootpack that had already been established by the group just in front of us. I was actually a bit surprised the group of four were the only other people we would see on the mountain, and since they didn’t appear to have skis, it looked like we’d have whole NE bowl to ourselves! The last 500’ to the summit went fairly fast but I was certainly feeling the elevation. When I finally got to the top I was greeted by a guy from the other group, who was sitting in a chair (which he had hauled up) and smoking a cigarette. He was a really nice guy and we shared adventure stories while waiting for our respective crew members to gain the summit.

A distorted view of the NE bowl

The author pushes on
(photo by Andrew Boes)

A crude trail led us up the first part of the NE ridge

Wide open panoramics on the climb

NE ridge
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Takin' it all in

The final push to the summit, up the SW face

The weather at the top was fantastic, warm enough for a light fleece, and only a slight breeze. Although it was nice just to relax and take in the amazing view, both Andrew and I were ichin’ to drop in for some sweet corn turns! Andrew dropped off the summit and I dropped in about 15’ down, where it was a little easier to get started. We met up at the roll-in to the bowl and discussed our plan of attack. Since I wanted to do a write-up we decided to leapfrog down and take lots of photos along the way.

Relaxing at the summit

The author gets ready to drop in for the first turns of the tour
(photo by Andrew Boes)

I dropped in first and headed down a small ridge before traversing into the main bowl. With a slope angle somewhere between 40° and 45°, there really wasn’t any warm-up, at least based on my current skill level. After a few cautious turns I pulled over and waited for Andrew to drop in for his first turns of the day. Soon after he came into view, painting a series of S-turns down the slope and past me. Eventually he pulled over to signal that it was my turn. Once again I tentatively started my way down the slope, with every turn feeling more comfortable than the previous one. As I dropped into the large chute between the large rock formations, I caught a ski tip and slid out on the steep slope, knocking one of them off. Luckily I had on my ski leashes, as I’m sure my ski would have rocketed to the bottom had it not been tied off. Once I was able to get it back on I continued down the slope, enjoying every bit of the near perfect corn conditions. We leapfrogged a couple more times down the face, with the 40°+ pitch lasting about 1500 vertical feet before dropping onto the apron and providing some fun hippy turns for another 500’ or so.

Entering the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew drops down the top of the bowl

Sizing it up

Andrew threads the rock features
Harvesting corn

The slope of the bowl remained consistent for most of the descent, at around 40 degrees

The author, about halfway down the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Rippin' some turns
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Looking up the bowl

Andrews finds some softer, but still great, snow lower down

Lots of other line options of the NE ridge can be seen in the background

The author continues down the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)
Another shot looking up the bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew finishing up the steep bit

Comin' in hot!

Once the slope had almost completely flattened out, we started looking for our exit strategy. At about 7,000' we started running out of snow. We thought that once we got into the trees there might be enough snow to get a little more descent, but this quickly proved to be futile. Knowing that it wasn’t going to get any better, I decided to cut my losses, throwing my hiking boots back on and tying my skis off to my pack. In order to get back to our ascent track, we needed to traverse south though the woods. The nice thing about the dryer climate of Southern Oregon is that the wooded area isn't nearly as dense. This made our bushwhack relatively straightforward, following the GPS and navigating around any small obstacles that got in our way.

Route finding

Closing in on the snowline

One last look at the NE bowl
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Within a half hour we found our up-track, and soon after this we were below the snow line where the actual trail revealed itself. The next couple of miles down the trail to the car went by pretty quickly, and by the time I reached the car it was around 2pm. Pulling the pack from my shoulders felt pretty good, and although it had been a fantastic tour I was pretty happy to be back at the car and enjoying a celebratory beer. Before starting the drive back north we decided to check out Fourmile Lake. We were both surprised to see how nice of a campground there was at the south side of the lake, with quite a few people who had setup camp there. From there we headed home, only stopping in Grants Pass for some burgers and shakes at In-n-Out.

Parting thoughts:
Mount McLoughlin more than met my expectations -- The NE bowl served up about 2,000 vertical feet of steep/wide open bliss. I’m really looking forward to getting back to this one and plan on making it a yearly pilgrimage, in either winter or spring. With 360° of skiable terrain, there are enough lines to explore for many years to come!

Our tracks

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Into The Mystic / Lord of The Squirrels - Whistler, BC

With Emily and I going to southwest British Columbia to mountain bike every year for our anniversary, we’ve seen the riding scene grow and the trail systems expand. I’ve always been eager to see what new trails have been dug, but hearing about the new Into the Mystic / Lord of The Squirrels loop (in Whistler, BC) had me more excited than I’d been in the past. The reason for this was based on both the scale and location of the ride -- 5,000’ of climbing to a truly spectacular alpine setting, including many small lakes and expansive fields of wildflowers. Unlike the ‘Top of The World’ trail found at the Whistler bike park, there are no lifts to the top of this one. Also there are no roads to shuttle up, so the only way to get up there is under your own power. Since we’re both quite partial to epic adventure rides, this one was definitely going to be on the agenda for our 2017 trip.

Since we wanted to have both good weather and semi-fresh legs we ended up doing the ride on the third day of our trip, with sunny skies and 80 degree temps forecasted. That morning we forewent our normal hot breakfast routine and instead went with a cold one so that we could hit the trail as early as possible. After the 45-minute drive from Squamish to Whistler and changing into our riding gear, it was around 9:30am when we started making our first pedal strokes up Darwin’s, leaving the Stonebridge subdivision.

Darwin’s starts off with a really steep bit of gravel road climb before reaching the trail itself, which is also quite steep. Since I didn’t want to destroy my legs and lungs straight out of the gate, I decided to alternate between pedaling and pushing my bike up the hill. Eventually the trail started traversing southwest at a much more gradual rate and I was able to stay on my bike for the remainder of the climb to where Darwin’s ends at the Rainbow Sproatt Flank trail. The mile and a half section of the Flank trail between Darwin’s and the start of the climb up Into the Mystic was mostly a pedally doubletrack affair, with occasional views looking out onto the Whistler/Blackcomb ski area.

Some nice bridgework on the way up Darwin's

A typical section of the Darwin's traverse

The Flank Trail

It would be impossible to miss the start of Into The Mystic, with the trailhead sign hanging from a carved wood arch that you ride underneath. The climb trail itself is machine built and hasn’t had enough time yet to completely bed down – that said, it rides great with its well laid out switchbacks to help you up the steeper pitches. Although all of them were completely rideable, I still found myself walking up a few to conserve my energy for the generous amount of climbing that was still in front of us. Since Emily is a much stronger climber than me I didn't see her much during this segment of the ride; although we did meet up at some obvious stops like a wooden deck near a small waterfall and a small meadow that was adorned with brilliant wildflowers.

Heading Into The Mystic

Machine built

Some nice views of the Black Tusk, early on during the climb.

Bridge crossing

Emily continues on

A good place for a break

And a snack

Back at it

Manicured switchbacks

Sub-alpine meadow

Once we crossed over the 5,000’ elevation mark the thick forest became sparser and eventually transitioned into a full alpine environment with jaw dropping views in all directions. Although the climbing wasn't over it did flatten out a bit, at least until we reached the intersection with the side trail “With A Twist”. Since we weren't planning to add it on to our ride we made a right at the fork and continued climbing up toward Tonic Peak. With the trail steepening and feeling the effects of the elevation, I found myself taking a few breaks and even doing a bit of hike a bike in a few spots. It was during this part of the ride where we saw quite a few other people who were also doing the same route and in various states of physical exhaustion -- I’m guessing I fit somewhere in the middle of this.

Heading into the alpine

A great view of the Tantalus Range from our second rest stop

More nice woodwork

Another crew heading up the trail

A little slice of heaven

Another rider coming up the trail

Emily checks out the signage

Great views to the north too!

Settling in for another climb

The open meadow climb up toward Tonic Peak

What a view!

Obviously a lot of work went into constructing this trial

Flanked by an array of wildflowers

Getting closer

Getting passed

Falling in line on the way up to Tonic Peak

One of many spectacular alpine lakes

With a few larger groups taking a break at the top out point, Emily and I decided to ride down a bit to find a bit more solitude. Dropping down from Tonic Peak was certainly welcome after the long climb up. As we descended through some fun technical bits, and I struggled to keep my focus on the trail while being seduced by the majestic views all around us – I actually had to stop a few times just to take it in and snap off some photos. We soon reached one of the larger alpine lakes, where another side trail, “Happy Hour”, headed a mile and a half east and toward Mount Sproatt.

Dropping in for a little descent

A typical section of trail in the alpine

Plenty of water to filter, in case you didn't pack enough.

More great views of Mount Garibaldi and the Black Tusk

Since we were planning to ride Happy Hour as extra credit, we turned left and descended a short distance before starting to climb once again. One of the main reasons we decided to add on this short out-n-back was to maximize the riding in the alpine, which didn’t disappoint. The trail passed by a few more lakes and through fields of wildflowers as it made its way toward the lookout at the end of the trail. It soon passed below Mount Sproatt, where a hiking trail split off and a sign indicated it was a about a 15 minute hike up to its summit. Neither of us felt the need to make the trek so we continued on. At the end of Happy Hour we found lots of kids hanging out and enjoying the view, it turns out that they were mountain bikers and part of a kid’s camp – it was pretty impressive that these young shredders had made it all the way up and still seemed to have plenty of energy. There was also some construction going on, where it appeared that some new benches were being put in to make it a little bit nicer for those who had made the journey. Once we had taken in the view and taken a quick snack break we headed back toward the true descent, down Lord of The Squirrels.

Emily starts off Happy Hour

Another rider, near the start of Happy Hour.

A typical section of Happy Hour

Granite paradise

Mount Sproatt

The final climb up toward the lookout

The author, at the turnaround spot.
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

The lookout

Emily, gettin' slabby

Heading back toward Lord of The Squirrels

Follow the Tusk

Once we reached the intersection with Lord of the Squirrels we quickly padded up and dropped in. The first mile or so of the trail continued through the alpine, but it eventually dropped into the trees, which got thicker and thicker the further we descended. The trail itself started to lose some of its luster and we found it to be pretty blown out – lots of loose dusty sections and break bumps leading into the turns. It’s not that it wasn’t still fun, but compared to the upper stuff it was a pretty stark contrast. There was a fun section about half way down where we found some granite rock rolls, both up and down. By the time we reached to the bottom of Lord of The Squirrels my arms and legs were pretty exhausted from the ~2,000’ descent.

Emily starting off Lord of The Squirrels

Finishing up the alpine portion of the ride

We found a few small rock rolls, like this one, about halfway down.

Not as scenic as higher up, but still some fun trail section to be had along the way.

And some bridges

More granite too

Near the end of Lord of The Squirrels

Next we looked over the map to determine what our options were for getting back to the car. My vote was to descend Pura Vida, for which both the guidebook and Trailforks gave a quality rating. What we found was anything but – a fall line trail that was heavily eroded with loose baby heads throughout. Between not wanting to eat shit on the blown out sections and add to the trail damage, we walked quite a bit of the trail’s steeper sections. I’m sure that things would be a little different earlier in the season when it actually has some moisture. There were some really pretty sections down low with dense foliage and a small creek that followed alongside the trial.

Fall line erosion on Pura Vida -- probably better during the wetter months

Pura Vida got a little nicer down low

Finishing up Pura Vida

We were eventually deposited onto Middle Danimal, which started climbing up a moderately technical section of singletrack. I’m sure this would have been a lot more enjoyable if it wasn’t at the end of our ride and I wasn’t on the verge of bonking. Once again I found myself pushing my bike more than riding it. Luckily it went by relatively quickly and before long we had topped out. The descent on Middle Danimal was pretty damn fun and was very welcome. The trail ended back at the Stonebridge subdivision, a couple hundred vertical feet below our car. Luckily the final leg of the ride was paved, which allowed me to put it in granny gear and grind my way to the finish line. Back at the car we quickly changed and loaded up the bikes, before heading to Creekbread for some much deserved pizza.

Somewhere on Middle Danimal

This is an amazing adventure ride that should be on the agenda of any mountain biker visiting the area. The Into the Mystic climb trail is really well built and the alpine portion of the trail is worth every pedal stroke and switchback to get to. On that, I would highly recommend adding in at least one of the extra credit trails (With A Twist or Happy Hour) to extend the amount of riding you do in the alpine. As I alluded to above, the forest portion of Lord of The Squirrels has been ridden pretty hard and is fairly beat-up; however, don’t let that deter you from doing this ride, it’s still fun and doesn’t take away from the overall incredible experience. As for getting back to the car after coming off of Lord of The Squirrels, I certainly wouldn’t take Pura Vida again. I would either take High Society (which is amazing!) or simply ride back down on The Flank Trail and Darwin’s. All that said, I will certainly be doing this ride at least every other year, mixing it up with Whistler’s other epic, Comfortably Numb.

The tracks from our ride: