Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Crater Lake Tour - Garfield & Applegate Peaks

Although I had done a bit of backcountry snowboarding in the 90s, it wasn't until this year that I decided to pick it back up again. Probably one of the biggest evolutions in the sport has been the splitboard technology. Although Voile had developed a DIY kit back in the day, they were far from common and fairly crude. Therefore, the approach was either boot packing or if you were lucky, snowshoes. Today there are numerous choices for boards, bindings, poles and many other optional accessories; it's actually a pretty exciting time for the sport, especially with athletes like Jeremy Jones pushing the limits and showing what's possible.

Once I had acquired all the necessary gear and gotten reacquainted with some of the basic avalanche skills and awareness, I headed out on a couple of small missions to familiarize myself with the backcountry terrain and rebuild some muscles I hadn't used in a very long time. After a couple of off-piste sessions on West Peak (near Willamette Pass) and one on the backside of Hoodoo, I really wanted to hit some proper backcountry and quickly turned my sights to the Crater Lake area, based on some verbal beta from a good friend. Between information that he had given me as well as some info I found within one of the local guidebooks, I decided that my first route there would be to the Garfield and Applegate peaks zone. With the destination decided I reached out to my inner circle to see if I could find anyone else that was interested, for which I came up empty handed.

Since this would be a solo mission I made sure to pick a day that would have low avalanche danger for the aspects I'd be traveling on. It just so happened that this occurred on a Saturday with nice mild temps and overcast skies. From Eugene, the drive took about 3 hours and I found myself at the Steel Visitor Center at around 10:30am. Once I had packed up all my gear and attached the climbing skins to my boards, I started climbing southeast on Rim Drive, which was unplowed and closed to vehicles. Although there were faint ski tracks they were dotted with snowshoe and boot prints -- luckily the snow was firm and skinning was pretty effortless even on the untracked surface.

A taste of what was to come (from the drive)

Let's get this adventure started!

Starting the climb up Rim Drive

A quick pit stop

After about a mile and about 200 feet of climbing I detoured away from the road and started my ascent up toward the peaks.. The route through the forest was very straightforward with widely spaced trees and good sight lines. Since I was using my phone with preloaded maps and the GPS function it was easy to stay on course even though I wasn't able to see either peak at this point. Along the way I traveled through some open fields with a few being fairly vast and providing great views back toward the south.

Nice wide route for the ascent, even in the trees.

Beautiful open fields

Typical terrain no the way up

Eventually Garfield Peak came into view and soon after that Applegate Peak. From a snowboarder's perspective I was immediately overcome with excitement, looking at treeless bowls and run-outs. Even the glades had wide open lines and looked like they'd be lots of fun on the way back down. Along with the great terrain potential the scenery and solitude was simply amazing -- I couldn't believe that I was the only one around to enjoy this amazing place.

The first views of Garfield

And Applegate!

Getting closer

A glimpse at the lake

As I continued on the climb it continued to steepen and eventually I was forced to disengage from my boards and boot-pack up the final push to the summit of Garfield Peak. The wind had also picked up and push/pulled on my splitboard which was now strapped to my pack. Before long I rounded the final pitch where I found a nice fat top and my first real view of Crater Lake. Although I had taken in many views of the lake while riding my road bike around it (trip report here) this one felt a little more special, especially since I didn't see another soul and it felt like I had the whole lake to myself.

The view from the top of Garfield

Looking out toward Mt Scott

Applegate, from the top of Garfield

Once I had taken in the view I assembled my splitboard and geared up for the descent. As I rolled over the first pitch it took a few turns to get used to the consistency of the snow, which had a fairly hard base and a thin soft layer on top, basically just enough to dig in an edge. The downhill went by very quickly, mainly because I didn't want to drop down too far since I still wanted to head up to Applegate Peak as well.

The first turns!

Only about a half mile and 400 vertical feet to the top of Applegate, I debated on whether or not it was worth putting on my skins again or just doing the traverse on foot. In the end I decided to switch over to skinning mode, mainly for the practice. The off camber route combined with some icy sections made the journey a bit of a challenge, especially for my weak skinning skills -- I'm sure I looked like Bambi as I made my way across the icy patches. The closer I got to the top the better I felt about my decision to bag the second peak as it looked like it would be an even better descent than Garfield!

Traversing over to Applegate

Looking out toward Union Peak, from partway up Applegate

While switching back over to snowboard mode I had a pretty nice view to the south and the route that I would be using to get back to the road. Being confident in the stability of the snow, I dropped down the upper bowl while making sure to get as much enjoyment as I could out the few turns I’d be getting down the steep face. All too soon the gradient mellowed out and I did my best to carry speed so that I could make it through the flatter and short uphill sections over the next few miles. It was actually a fun challenge and I only needed to unstrap and hike for a total of a couple hundred yards.

Getting ready for the second descent

Great views of Union Peak

And Mt. Mcloughlin

The first turns down Applegate's upper bowl

Still a long way to go

Typical terrain on the lower/flatter stretch

Now back at rim drive I had to once again hike for a short flat bit before the road tilted downward and I could once again strap into my board for a fairly uneventful ride. The very last section of road also required some hiking which definitely depleted any remaining energy storage that I had left. By the time I had made it back to the car it was almost 4pm, which made it quite a long day but one that I will cherish for some time to come!

Parting thoughts:
I really enjoyed this tour and it only made me excited to check out some of the other zones at Crater Lake. The terrain was certainly good but the real treat was the views and general ambiance of the area. This is certainly an area that I will return to again and it will probably become a yearly destination, if not worthy of a couple trips a year.

The tracks from my tour:

Crater Lake Tour - Garfield & Applegate: 6.92 mi • 2:18:31 • 20:01 min/mi • 3.0 mph • 2,828 ft