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

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