Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Crater Lake, OR - Garfield Peak (West face)

The start of the 2016/2017 touring season had gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, literally. After having our hopes crushed by weather forecasts that didn't pan out and having less than optimal conditions on the few times we did get out, I had to remind myself that it wasn't even winter yet and I needed to be patient. Now at the beginning of December, it looked like Crater Lake had about 3' of snow and bluebird conditions forecasted for the upcoming Saturday. With these more promising conditions, Andrew Boes and I decided to give it a go.

Leaving Eugene around 6:30am we headed southeast toward Crater Lake, taking Highways 58 and 97. Since the entrance on the north end of the park was closed for the season, we were forced to enter from the south, which added about 45 minutes to the drive. By the time we got there, picked up our day pass, and changed into our touring gear, it was around 10am and the sun was shining bright.

All of the other times I had done Garfield Peak I'd gone up and around the backside, which is pretty easy skinning but is also a ~4.5 mile approach. This time we decided to see if it would be any faster to skin/hike up the main line on the west face, which heads up right off the main road about a half mile up from the park headquarters. Although the recent snow was still pretty fresh, it had a layer of rain crust from the night before. Fortunately it was very thin and pretty easy to fracture, so I held out hope that it wouldn't be a day of dealing with the dreaded 'breakable crust'. Since the snow wasn't very firm and the line straight up the face would be fairly steep in spots, I brought along my Verts (climbing snowshoes) in addition to my skins.

After our short hike along the road we climbed up and over the snow bank and readied our skis for the climb ahead of us. Aside from the rain crust the snow felt pretty good, certainly not heart of winter conditions but plenty of coverage for clean lines the whole way down. As we headed up the clearing, the slope gradually began to steepen, until we couldn’t progress in a straight line anymore and we were forced to make a series of uphill kick turns. As we zig-zagged our way up the slope, we took in the great views which only got better the further we climbed. Eventually, we reached a point where it was just too steep to skin and I found myself sliding backwards on almost every step. Andrew stepped out of his skis to see how difficult it would be to boot pack, and quickly found himself in crotch-deep powder. Fortunately I had brought my Verts, which proved effective in mitigating the amount of postholing. Since Andrew hadn’t brought any snowshoes I led the march up the steep bits, in hopes that it would help pack down the snow a bit for him. The steepest part led us through a chute between rock walls, which had me climbing on all fours and using up a fair bit of energy. Luckily it was fairly short and we were soon deposited at the base of the upper bowl, where we took a quick break before starting to skin again.

Andrew starts the tour up the west face of Garfield Peak

Breaking trail

Bootpacking up the steeps

Entering the upper bowl

The skin up the bowl was fairly painless until we reached the tree line on the top end of it, where it became steeper and with more obstacles (trees, rocks, etc.). This time we were able to keep our skis on, making longer traverses as we continued to climb. The lake soon came into view, and gave us an immediate and much needed jolt of energy – it’s amazing that just the visual aspect of something so magnificent can fuel your body and soul. Andrew even made the comment that even if he had to hike all the way back down instead of skiing, just having the views was worth the effort. After 1,300 vertical feet of climbing, we reached the northwest ridge of Garfield Peak, just a few hundred feet below the summit which was now in view.

The upper bowl

Switchbacking up the bowl

Topping out on the upper bowl

The author takes a photo while playing catch up
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew makes the final push to the NW ridge

More switchbacking
(photo by Andrew Boes)

The snow at the ridge had been sculpted by the winds and was fairly uneven, which made it very difficult to skin up. With that, I strapped my skis to my pack and booted the rest of the way up, giving the drop-off into the lake a wide berth in case it was corniced. Both Andrew and I reached the summit at the same time and had a quick celebration before taking in the 360 degree panoramic. This was Andrew’s first real glimpse at the backcountry skiing possibilities that the park had to offer.

The author hikes the ridge toward the summit of Garfield Peak

Great views of the lake on the final pitch!
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Garfield's summit
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Along with the amazing vista at the top, we were also greeted by strong sustained winds that started to chip away at my core temperature. With icy hands I struggled to get into my pack and grab a warm pair of gloves, as well as my down and hardshell jackets. Once buttoned up, I was able to enjoy the view again, but I was also getting eager to drop into our line down the mountain. Since Andrew had left his skis below the final pitch to the summit, we hiked down the short distance and searched for a place to transition our gear over to descent mode. As I huddled behind some small rime-covered trees I struggled to fold up my skins, since the trees provided very little cover from the wind. I felt a huge sense of relief once I was to the point of ratcheting my feet into my bindings, knowing that within few moments we’d be cutting in our first and much deserved turns.

Hiking back down to the skis

Any concerns I had about the rain crust immediately disappeared as I transitioned between my toe and heelside edges. I had never experienced these conditions before and I must say that I felt about in control as I ever have. It was as if you took the best aspects of powder and corn snow and combined them – lots of cushion with amazing edge hold! After dropping down a hundred feet or so, we traversed to the south and into the top of the upper bowl. Andrew headed down first while I fired off some photos. The incoming clouds blanketed the landscape in front of us, creating a nice backdrop for the descent. Next, we switched roles, and Andrew took photos while I painting a fresh zig-zagging line down an untouched runway of white goodness.

Andrew drops in for some of his first lines of the descent

Kickin' up dust

Andrew, halfway down the bowl

The author enjoys some soul turns
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Taking in the view on the descent
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Andrew on the bottom half of the bowl

Now at the bottom of the bowl we had a couple of line options – head through or around the small cliff band just below us. The last few times I had done this run I regretted not running the narrow chute between the rocks, and since we had confirmed it was a good line on the way up, we opted for that. I jumped out ahead so that I could get some photos from the top of the chute. After giving Andrew the go-ahead, he dropped down beside me and gave a quick scout before committing to a nice line down through the chute. Once I had packed up my camera gear I retightened my bindings before throwing in a couple of jump turns down the steep bits and finishing up with some soul turns on the run out.

Andrew scouts his line before dropping into the chute

Halfway down the chute

The last half of the descent actually resembles your typical run at a ski resort. With the road clearly in sight, we finished up by leapfrogging our way down with some wide and fast turns. At the very bottom it completely flattens out for a hundred yards or so. To ensure I wouldn’t have to boot out, I straight lined it and carried as much speed as I could. I was pretty happy that I was able to make it all the way to the road with just enough momentum, which acted as the cherry on top of the day’s cake! Back at the car we celebrated with a beer, still energized by the sweet tour we’d just had!

Time for some hippy turns!

All smiles on the way down

Andrew enters the last pitch of the descent

Getting in a few last turns

The author finishing up the run
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Conclusion – this is the third time I’ve done this route and it still didn’t disappoint. Although the run didn’t have 100% snow coverage it had plenty for clean lines the whole way down – I think I only found one or two hidden rocks. As I expressed earlier in the report, the snow consistency was amazing and some of the best I’ve had in the backcountry. Although there are many other lines I’m hoping to bag at Crater Lake, I’ll be returning to this one often, it’s just too good!

The tracks from our tour:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Mt. Scott - Crater Lake (OR)

Desperate to squeeze in one last tour for the season, I looked over my potential options and finally decided on Mt. Scott, the tallest peak in Crater Lake National Park. Although the road was closed to cars about two miles from the base of the mountain, it was open to non-motorized transportation, so I figured it would be a super easy approach on my road bike. With the temperatures forecasted to be in the mid to high 70s, I got an early start in hopes of getting in some turns before the snow got to mushy. I felt pretty alone as I drove through the park during the early morning, with only a few other cars other than myself. Without traffic slowing me down and not seeing the posted speed limit, I was on the receiving end of a healthy speeding ticket, doing over 70 in a 45. The ranger who wrote me up was actually pretty nice and gave me some beta on snow conditions, before telling me to slow it down and sending me on my way (with said ticket). By the time I reached the Skell Head overlook it was ~8:30am. Stepping out of the car I was immediately accosted by hungry mosquitoes, doing their best to dissuade me from starting my planned adventure. Luckily I was already geared up and only needed to throw on my pack and start pedaling.

Mount Scott looms in the distance on the way in

Morning at Crater Lake 

Since I hadn’t done a practice run of biking with my splitboard tied to my pack, I wasn’t sure what to expect. With it secured as separate planks and A-Frame style, it worked really well – in fact, I barely noticed it other than when I was getting off and on the bike. On the other side of the gated closure, the road began to climb at a sustained rate, and even though it was paved it had quite a bit of debris to navigate around. A little over 2 miles and 500' of pedaling uphill, I reached the trailhead that led to the summit of Mount Scott. With the SW bowl now in clear view it became apparent that the ski conditions were not going to be optimal. Not only was the snow coverage thin it also looked fairly sun-cupped. My hope was that when I got to the drop-in point that it would look better than it did from below.

Looking sparse

The start of the summit trail

I pushed my bike up the dirt trail a short distance before leaning it against a tree and throwing a lock around it. It was here that I saw a couple of other bikes with trailers, which I assumed were fellow backcountry skiers or backpackers. A bit curious I began my hike up the Mt. Scott summit trail, which headed up the western flank. The trail itself alternated between bare dirt and snowdrifts which provided a bit of a challenge to navigate in my hiking shoes. Even with the warm temps the snow was fairly firm and a bit slick. As I wrapped around onto the southern aspect the tree cover and snow patches became sparser. Eventually the trail started to switchback up the south face, where at the second corner I found the drop zone for the SW bowl. Although there was enough coverage for a nice line, it was heavily sun-cupped, just as I had feared. I spent a few minutes debating whether or not to take a run; Eventually I deciding to head up to the summit and see if there was a better looking run down the northeast bowl.

In between snow drifts 

A typical view on the south side traverse

Heading up the switchbacks

The drop-in zone for the SW bowl -- looking a bit sun-cupped 

A couple more switchbacks later I reached the summit ridge, which provided some amazing views of Crater Lake and the surrounding area. I also heard a couple of voices in the distance and soon after that I came across two other guys looking for a good line to drop in on. After a quick meet and greet and chatting about the less than ideal conditions, they told me that the best snow they had found was directly off the north face. According to them, it started off at the base of a 30' cliff band on a wide/steep bowl, which eventually necked down to a long / low-angle chute that terminated in the trees about a half mile and over a thousand feet below. With some renewed hope that I might actually get in some good runs, I bid them a farewell and continued toward the summit.

The SW bowl, with Crater Lake in the background.

Continuing up the trail, with Mount Thielsen in the background

The summit within sight

The final straightaway up to the lookout hut went quickly and I was soon standing at the base of the structure. From the summit I could see the NE bowl, which I had hoped would hold some good snow. Unfortunately, it looked pretty bad and certainly not worth dropping into. Therefore, I continue hiking around to the north aspect, hoping to find the bowl/chute that I had been told about. The hike down and toward the northwest did not follow along any trail; instead I was traveling along a talus field which proved to be bit sketchy in a few spots.

The final pitch to the summit of Mount Scott

Before long I reached what I believed to be the line that they were talking about, where I could see a long narrow run of snow that looked pretty darn good. Now at the top of the cliff band I looked for the best place to descend onto the top of the bowl -- unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be any easy route down. I finally settled on a steep & narrow chute on the western end of the cliff, where I soon found myself in a rather precarious position, which in hindsight I should have never gotten myself into. Basically, the rock, including pieces that were as large as me, was extremely loose and only being held in place by each other. Had I dislodged one it could have been a very bad situation. Further complicating things was my backpack with my skis attached, which kept getting hung up on the surrounding rock. I finally decided that I needed to jettison the pack, if I had any hope of getting down safely. As I held onto a rather large and loose rock, I unbuckled my pack, worked it off my shoulders and lowered it down behind me. My plan was to drop it onto the snowfield, lining it up so that it stopped near the base of the cliff in a small grotto. After letting go of the pack it landed on the snow and hit its intended target. In disbelief, a huge sense of relief came over me, and I only hoped that my luck would continue for a wee bit longer. After what seemed like a lifetime I finally reached the snow line and began the boot-pack down to my abandoned pack, which was about 15’ below me.

Target aquired

Looking back up toward the cliff band, from the grotto.

Now reunited with my gear I took a few minutes to rest and let my adrenaline level off a bit. Sitting at the top of the bowl I could now see the entire line laid out in front of me, and it looked pretty sweet. The upper bowl was fairly steep, with an angle that was probably in the mid-40s. Balancing on a small bench that I had dug into the snow, I strapped into my bindings and prepared to drop in. From my perch I slid in on my heel side edge and traversed over to the center of the bowl, where I found a few more sets of tracks heading down the mountain. The snow was surprisingly firm for how warm it was and I really had to work to keep my edge hold for the first few turns. I quickly settled into a groove and started adding my tracks to the mix. As I reached the bottom of the bowl the slope angle began to lessen and snowfield narrowed down on either side of me. The lower I went the more sun-cupped it became and was almost unrideable by the time I got to the end. Even though the snow conditions certainly weren't optimal, the run was still super fun, and only made me want to do it again under better conditions.

Time for some fun!

Looking back up at the bowl, from partway down.

The snowfield was getting narrow and pretty pitted by this point in the run

Nearing the end of the run

Looking back up at my tracks

At the bottom of the chute I found many freshly broken trees, which gave a clear indication of what had created the path I had just come down -- it was really quite remarkable and a sobering reminder of what an avalanche is truly capable of. At this point I was not quite sure what would be the best way to get back to my bike, head back up the run I'd just come down or traverse through the woods to the west. Looking at the satellite imagery on my phone it looked like there might be another good line to the west, so I decided to head through the forest. The woods near the avalanche path also contained many downed trees and was pretty hard to walk through, but eventually it opened up and was fairly easy going. While stopping to rest a few times I was bombarded by mosquitoes, which forced me to keep moving. I soon reached the other bowl/avalanche path, which was also a bit sun-cupped but looked like it would be worth getting a run on.

An obvious avalanche path

Hiking through the woods ended up being pretty straight forward

Looking up at the second possible run of the day

On the ascent I alternated between climbing up through the forest and on the snowfield, which was dictated by the various hurdles along the way. As I got close to the top I tried to climb up the scree to the side of the run, which ended up being pretty terrible. After a bit I decided it was better to just kick steps into the snow and ascend the rest of the way up the run. Once I had reached the top I took a quick break and ate a snack before dropping in. The descent itself was much like the previous one to the east, not the best snow conditions but still worth the effort. It wasn’t quite as steep up top but the bottom was a little less sun-cupped. As with the other run, it would be pretty sweet if it would have been covered in a few inches of Spring corn or a foot of fresh powder.

A little sun-cupped but still looking rideable

A nice slope angle for some low-stress turns

From the top

Looking back up the at line from my second run

At the bottom I once again found myself having to decide between climbing back up or traversing out. Since I wasn’t planning on doing another run I decided the traverse made more sense. Just a short bushwhack later I reached the west side of the mountain where I had started the hike. I had originally intended to grab my bike and start heading down the road to my car, but for whatever reason the sun-cupped SW bowl was calling to me. I think this was mostly due to it being the last run of the season and wanting to make the most of the trip, especially after earning that speeding ticket on the way in…

I was pretty beat down at this point and the hike back up the trail was pretty tiring. When I finally reached the drop-in point I was exhausted, so I sat on a rock for about 10 minutes and took in the view of the lake and my amazing surroundings. The snow conditions ended up being much worse than on the north aspect, and maintaining edge control over the pitted surface was almost impossible, especially with my leg muscles being completely drained.

The view from the top of the SW bowl

Looking back up from halfway down the SW bowl

By the time I got to the bottom I was ready to call it a day, so I packed up my gear and headed back toward my bike. Luckily the road was almost all downhill and I only had to throw in a few pedal strokes to keep my momentum. When I got back to the parking lot it was completely full, with hikers and sightseers frantically swatting away the mosquitoes that filled the sky. I didn’t even bother to change into different clothes, and after loading up my pack and bike I zoomed out of the parking lot and headed back to Eugene, while making sure to obey the posted speed limits…

Callin' it a day

Mount Scott certainly has a lot of potential for backcountry skiing, with great terrain on all of its aspects. I’m not sure I’d come back to it this late in the season, with minimal snow coverage and sun-cups, but with fresh powder or Spring corn it would be pretty amazing. The main obstacle for hitting it during prime conditions is access, since east Rim Drive is closed and unplowed until late Spring / Early Summer, requiring a ~12 mile one-way approach. I know that there is also a way to approach it from the east side (outside of the park), but the forest roads to get there are also unmaintained, so they’d need to be snow free. Even with the sub-par conditions, it’s hard to have a bad time at Crater Lake, it really is a special place – just make sure you watch your speed while driving through it!

The tracks from my tour:

Google Earth