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:

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