Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Crater Lake Tour - The Watchman

After taking my first backcountry tour to Crater Lake a few weeks prior (trip report here), I was eager to get back and check out some different terrain. Looking at the guidebook, it seemed that the Watchman / Hillman Peak would be the next good zone to check out. I checked the weather and avalanche forecast to see if it they would be favorable for the upcoming weekend. As conditions appeared to be falling into place I once again put out the feelers to see if I could wrangle anyone else into joining me. In the end I was only able to find one other taker, Alex Scott, who I'd been on many outdoor adventures with.

Since Crater Lake is quite a ways away from Eugene, we met up at ~6am and headed out of town still a bit groggy. With the recent warming trend, the roads up and over the pass were fairly clear and allowed us to make pretty good time. Once we got onto Hwy 97, the temps were hovering right around the freezing point, and we reached a spot where multiple vehicles had careened off the road, including an 18 wheeler. Although the roads didn't feel too slick, we still brought down the speed a bit as we continued toward our destination. As we reached the south entrance of the park, the snow walls lining the sides of the road started to build until they were eventually taller than the roof of my Subaru. When we finally reached the Rim Village (where we'd start our tour) it was around 9:30 and the sun was shining bright!

Once we had packed our bags and geared up, we hiked down a short bit of exposed asphalt to where the road was blocked by a wall of snow. After climbing up the steep snow bank we were immediately greeted by an amazing view of the lake, which didn't disappoint. The snow surface felt solid under our feet but the top inch or so had softened from the sun, making for perfect skinning conditions. Of course we were not the first to make this journey on this day, which was quite evident by the numerous tracks that lay in front of us. We would also have plenty of company along the way as we leapfrogged with a group from the Oregon Nordic Club. As we made our way toward our destination, both The Watchman and Hillman Peak loomed in the background, whetting our appetite for what was to come.

The start of our day's adventure

Alex settles in for the approach

Some great early views of the lake -- such a special place!

Glad to be amongst it!  

The Watchman looms in the distance

Choose your lane, skins or shoes

Some impressive wind drifts made for a few tricky spots

Quick photo op

The final XC climb up to the west flank of the Watchman was quite tricky due to its side slope and my novice skinning skills. Once past this challenge, we parted ways with the Nordic club as we peeled off the main trail and started making our way up the west slope of The Watchman. Before long, the lookout station came into view and served as a landmark to guide us to the summit. As we were nearing the top, a group of 4 or 5 were starting to make their way down, with a few of them getting ready to strap on a snowboard and descend the same aspect that we were headed up.

Starting the ascent up the west flank

Following the tracks of previous adventurers

The summit within sight

Alex looks out to the north and Hillman Peak

The author takes a breather on the way up The Watchman, with Hillman Peak in background.
(photo by Alex Scott)

For the last 100 yards the gradient became too steep for me to successfully skin up, so I was forced to unstrap and carry my skis up the final pitch. I quickly found Alex who was checking out the lookout station which was glazed with a nice coat of rime and obviously closed for the season. Unfortunately some low clouds had moved in, dropping the temperature and obscuring our view down the north face of The Watchman, which was to be our route. With that, we decided it was a perfect time to dig a snowpit and do a stability test while we waited for the clouds to blow through; another benefit to this exercise is that it was a nice workout to warm our core temps. A shear test, compression test and isolated column test all indicated that the slope was plenty stable. This in conjunction with the recent weather data and avalanche forecast had me feeling pretty good about our terrain selection. During our work the clouds cleared, revealing the beautiful slope beneath us. Reinvigorated, we quickly packed up our tools and prepared our snowboards for a short but sweet ride down the northern face. Since I wanted to snap some photos I offered to go first, which Alex agreed to.

Made it!

Looking east from the summit of The Watchman -- Wizard Island in the foreground and Mt Scott in the background

The rime covered lookout station

Stability test

A view of Hillman Peak, from the snowpit.

Alex, strapped in and eager to drop in!

I strapped into my bindings using the snowpit as a convenient launching pad as I scoped out my line and prepared to drop in. I started on my toe edge to assess the edge hold of the slope before fully committing. The snow felt great so I pointed it downhill and enjoyed as many turns as I could before finally reaching the bottom with a big smile on my face – although it was a short ride it was very sweet indeed! It was now Alex’s turn, so I pulled out the camera and snapped off a few shots while he enjoyed his much deserved turns.

Looking back up after my run

Alex partway down the north face of The Watchman

Wide open terrain 

Alex finishing up the descent of The Watchman

Now with both of us at the bottom, we had a quick celebration but we still needed to make a decision on what to do next, try and get in a run on Hillman or start the trek back to the Rim Village. We determined that it would be a good idea to take a quick break and have a beer before making any hasty decisions. While we were hanging out, we gazed onto Hillman and scoped out possible lines; although we were certainly drawn to all the amazing possibilities, it was already 3pm and we still needed to get back to the car, which was ~4 miles away. Therefore, we decided it would be best for us to start the long slog back and save Hillman for another trip.

The Watchman from our rest spot

Starting the long road back

Parting shot

Unfortunately the beer had killed some of my motivation for the return route, which was evident on how long it took me to reapply my skins and gear up. This time I put on my ski crampons so that I would have better hold as we crossed the sloped traverse that had given me some problems on the way up. Unfortunately this also stole some of the glide, expending more of my already depleting energy reserve. Once we had made it past the tricky spot, I removed the crampons and ate a pack of shot blocks, which seemed to do little to spur me on. Alex, who seemed to have plenty of energy left was putting the hammer down on his snowshoes and it took everything I had to keep up. Eventually the lodge came into view as the sun was quickly approaching the horizon line. In fact, there was a group of photographers lined up on the rim waiting for just the right moment to capture the perfect sunset photo. This would typically be something I couldn’t pass up, but at this point I just wanted to change into some cotton and sit in front of the heater vents in my car. By the time we had loaded up and driven out of the park the sky was dark and my headlights lit up the walls of snow on either side of us. By the time we got back to Eugene it was 9:30pm – quite a long day and I was looking forward to climbing into bed.

Once again, Crater Lake did not disappoint! As anyone who backcountry skis or snowboards will tell you, the downhill turns are only a small part of the overall adventure, which was certainly the case for this one. Just skinning / snowshoeing along the rim of the lake was worth the trip alone, but throw in a couple of steep turns and getting to check out the historic watchtower was icing on the cake (no pun intended). Basically it was a lot of work for ~30 seconds of downhill but well worth the effort. With that said, next time I would like to either get an earlier start and do a couple of runs or camp out to get more descents the following day. As I stated in my last trip report, I’m already looking forward to and planning my next outing to Crater Lake, there are just so many terrain possibilities!

The Tracks from our tour:

Crater Lake Tour - The Watchman: 7.76 mi • 3:25:29 • 26:29 min/mi • 2.3 mph • 1,621 ft

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