Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Crater Lake's Winter Wonderland

My hubby stared at our route ahead.  The snowy slope tilted at a 45 degree angle.  Midday sun had baked its icy crust into a soft, unstable surface.  Only one set of tracks continued across the steep traverse.

"I don't like the looks of this" he warned.  "One false move, and we'll end up sliding into the trees below." 

Crater Lake, sparkling blue in the sunshine

Three years ago, my hubby and I made a February trip to Crater Lake, Oregon's lone National Park.  We had a fabulous time snowshoeing around it's rim (read about our adventures here and also here).  This scenic blue lake covered in snowy white so captivated me, I'd been plotting a winter return ever since.

In early March of this year I finally got my wish.

The snow is crazy deep this year!

Crater Lake is a unique place.  This natural wonder was created over seven thousand years ago when a violet eruption caused the collapse of Mt. Mazama, a huge volcano.  Over time falling rain and melting snow collected in the hollowed-out caldera, forming a deep, clear lake.  A near perfect circular shape, Crater Lake's waters boast an alarmingly bright blue hue.  Measuring 1,949 feet it's the deepest lake in the US, and quite possibly the most pristine body of water on earth.

Starting out on the Rim Trail

Despite receiving an enormous amount of snow annually (a whopping 43 feet on average!), Crater Lake National Park manages to stay open during the winter months.  Access, however, is not easy. Rim Road, the only auto route circling the lake, isn't plowed so viewpoints beyond Rim Village can only be reached using skis or snowshoes.  The North Entrance is closed, forcing many visitors to travel out of direction to reach the West or South Entrances.  And heavy snowfall often closes the drive between Park Headquarters and the lake's rim.

See the sign?

The other issue with visiting in winter - frequent stormy weather.  Getting a clear day during this season is a crapshoot.  Snowstorms and fog frequently hide the lake from view (rangers estimate it's only visible 50% of the time).  On our last visit, we'd lucked out with a spectacular clear-sky weekend.  I hoped for the same kind of weather this time around.

Wizard Island

As I've mentioned before, this winter was an especially snowy one for the Cascade Mountains.  One storm after another pounded Crater Lake with monster dumps, pushing the snowpack well above average.  The week before our planned trip an especially large storm dropped several feet of snow in the southern Cascades, followed by two days of soaking rain.  This large amount of snow closed the road to Rim Village and all week the park's website ominously warned it might not be cleared by the weekend.

Heading across a snowy plain

But we'd made our plans, and hubby and I were still going - closed roads or not!  As we made our way south from Portland I took advantage of sporadic cell service to check road conditions on the park's website.  Around noon I got the news I was hoping to hear - the road to Rim Village had been reopened!  Yahoo!

Gigantic snow drifts!

After a long 5-hour drive over weather-beaten mountain roads, our trusty Subaru navigated the final switchbacks to Crater Lake's Rim Village.  We were met with howling winds and cloudy skies.  Occasional bursts of ice pellets pelted our faces as we climbed up a tall snowy berm ringing the parking area, to the lake overlook.  My hubby and I were able to get a few quick glimpses of Crater Lake's surface before thick fog moved in and obscured everything.

Recent rain left deep grooves in the snow

Disappointed, we took shelter in the visitor center, moping about the unfortunate weather.  However, a friendly worker in the gift shop assured us that tomorrow's forecast promised sunshine.  Perfect!  That was the day we'd planned a snowshoeing trip along the Rim Road.

Looking ahead to the Watchman - our destination

As promised, the next morning dawned clear and sunny.  Again, we piloted our car back up the winding road towards Crater Lake's rim, marveling at the tall snowbanks lining the highway.  So much snow had fallen, the banks were over 20 feet tall in some places.  The road resembled a slot canyon snaking through this thick snowpack.

Frosty trees

In winter months, the unplowed road around the crater's rim reverts to a trail for skiers and snowshoers.  Although a few folks brave the entire 31-mile route, most visitors only venture 2-3 miles down the West Rim Drive before turning back.  On our last visit, my hubby and I made it nearly four miles in, almost to the Watchman Overlook.  Today's goal was to finish what we'd started three years ago and finally reach the Watchman.

Spectacular viewpoint

After gathering all our gear, we again climbed up the steep snowbank to the lake's viewpoint.  Under clear skies, Crater Lake sparkled an unreal shade of blue.  Our snowshoe departure was delayed a good ten minutes due to copious photo-taking (I won't say by who!).

Wizard Island is front and center

My hubby finally managed to tear me and my camera away from the spectacular sights, and begin our day's journey.  We'd started fairly early, and saw only a couple of skiers as we left the Rim Village buildings.  Despite the sunshine, temps hovered around freezing, creating an icy crust on the snow's surface.  But cleats on our snowshoe bottoms provided excellent traction, and we made good time traveling across the firm snow.

Another huge snow drift

After a little over a mile, we came upon Discovery Point, the first overlook.  This clearing provided an excellent view of Wizard Island.  Formed by later eruptions, this conical little island near the lake's west shore resembled a wizard's pointed hat.  My hubby and I inched as close as we dared to the edge to take in the marvelous panorama.  Overhanging snow cornices along the rim's walls forced us to stay a respectful distance back.

Lots of snowy features to navigate

Beyond Discovery Point, my hubby and I traversed over and around a series of gigantic snowdrifts.  Navigation was easy as other visitors had left a well-trampled path.  We passed by an area where recent heavy rains had worn deep grooves into the snow.  At one forest clearing I spotted a couple of tall peaks in the distance (I later learned one of them was Union Peak).  And around one bend in the path was a view ahead to Watchman Peak, our day's destination.

One of the crater's rim walls

Aside from a couple of skiers, my hubby and I were the only people on the outbound trail.  We began to meet groups of campers heading back towards Rim Village after spending the night outside.  Crater Lake National Park allows backcountry camping during the winter months, and it appeared to be popular.  Although I like to camp, sleeping in a cold tent on top of snow doesn't appeal to me.

The sun started to shine

On the previous day a ranger had warned of a treacherous section along the Rim Road.  Just beyond the Watchman, the road was cut into a steep cliff.  On plentiful snow years (such as this one) the roadcut filled up with snow creating a steep, avalanche-prone cross-slope to traverse.  Our previous trip three years ago had occurred during a lower than average snowfall year, and we'd had no trouble following the road.  But the ranger's advice became real when we met a young man snowshoeing back towards Rim Village.  Planning to travel around the entire lake, the man said he was stopped by an unstable, slippery slope just beyond the Watchman.  Not wanting to risk dying in a fall or avalanche, he'd turned around.

Fantastic reflections on the lake's surface

Despite the young man's warnings, my hubby and I decided to continue as far as we could.  We passed another fabulous overlook of Wizard Island (photo break time!)

People climbing the snowbanks onto a rooftop

Although we'd initially made good time, the intense sun's rays were quickly taking their toll on our icy trail.  The snow began to melt, and the softer the snow became, the harder it was to snowshoe upon, and the slower our progress.  I began to notice small slides and snow rollers traveling down some of the steeper side slopes.

Crater Lake's clear surface reflecting the sky

Finally a little over 3 miles in, we came upon a steep, hazardous-looking slope.  Soft snow was beginning to slide in a few places, and only one set of tracks (from the young male snowshoer we presumed) wandered across the incline.  My hubby wasn't at all comfortable crossing this area, pointing out if we slipped, it would be a long downhill slide to the forest below.

Another fabulous view

So the decision was made to end our day's journey here.  Before turning around, hubby and I took a seat in the snow, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch break.  The sun was warm, we inhaled some tasty treats, and the surrounding scenery was top notch.  Although we'd fallen short of our original day's goal, the consolation prize wasn't too bad!

Grab a seat on this cabin's roof!

Then it was time for the long trek back to Rim Village.  Soft, sticky snow slowed our pace, but I enjoyed passing by all the wonderful viewpoints a second time around.  The sun's powerful rays lit Crater Lake's surface, turning it a brilliant shade of blue.  High clouds reflected on the water's surface.  Truly magical!

Mt Thielsen in the distance

The closer we got to Rim Village, the more people we encountered on the trail.  With one mile to go, hubby and I felt as if we'd happened upon a crowded downtown sidewalk.  Even in the dead of winter, Crater Lake is a busy place on weekends.

A huge snowdrift at Crater Lake Lodge

Finally the visitor center and Rim Village buildings came into view.  My hubby, tired and sore from our adventure, opted to rest in the car.  But it was still early afternoon and such a lovely day, I didn't want to leave just yet.

The Lodge was shuttered for the winter

So I grabbed my camera and headed towards the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge.  Open during summer months, this historic structure was boarded up for the season.  I marveled at the huge snowdrifts that had formed behind the building.  They were nearly as high as the third floor windows!

Road plowed through the deep snow

Other buildings were also buried in snow.  One near Rim Village had drifts extending over the roof, and people were climbing up the rooftop and sliding down.  Another smaller cabin, also buried up to its eaves, had three people perched on the very peak of the roof, enjoying this amazing scenery from an unusual perspective.

Crater Lake Pano (click to see larger image)

A few fun facts about this unique national park: 

The lake is 4.5 to 6 miles wide. 

Although the average snowfall is 43 feet per year, the greatest cumulative snowfall ever recorded was 73 feet during the winter of 1932-33.  The greatest depth of snow on the ground at one time was 21 1/2 feet in 1983.  Normally the snow melts by August, but some years (probably this one) many drifts stick around until the snow returns again.

Due to its extreme depth, Crater Lake rarely freezes in winter.  Temperatures normally aren't cold enough to freeze this large amount of water.  The last complete surface freeze was in 1949, although 95% of the surface froze in 1985.

Wonderful day to be outside!
Another wonderful trip to my favorite National park!  I think winter is definitely the best time to visit Crater Lake.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spring Flowers, Round Two

Busy soaking up the final month of what's been an incredible ski season, my blog has been sorely neglected.  But while I've been making snowy turns, a second wave of spring bloom has burst onto the scene - time for the tulips, pear blossoms, and our first rhododendron to show their stuff!

I managed to grab some shots of the colorfest in my yard this morning and thought I'd post a few images for your enjoyment.  No time for many words today. (But I don't think most folks visit this blog for my witty commentary!)   :)

Hope everyone is enjoying the changing seasons in their corner of the world.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tutu Man

Another Thursday....another ski bus day.  As we pulled into Mt Hood Meadows one February morning I noticed something I hadn't seen for awhile - blue sky!

Yahoo sunshine!

Alright!  Not immediately seeing my "Men in Red" skiing companions from the Vancouver bus, I jumped on the lift and enjoyed a couple quick runs before meeting up with the guys.

Brian models his tutu for me

But, what's this?  Brian was wearing a tutu!  A 6 foot 6 inch tall guy with a flouncy blue skirt hanging below his jacket.  I asked him if he'd lost a bet or something.  Turns out his niece likes tutus and he'd donned the frilly garment just for her.

Sun breaking out of low clouds

Now that's a man who's not afraid to get in touch with him feminine side!  Of course, we gave Brian a ton of ribbing, but I had to admire his spirit - and courage.

Skiing down from the very top

It was fun to watch the other skier's reactions to an extremely tall man in a tutu.  One guy just couldn't stop staring as he passed by.  Finally Glen called out "yes, it's a tutu!"

Descending into the clouds

A sunny, calm day meant the resort's highest lift, the Cascade, was open.  My friends and I eagerly packed into a chair for a scenic ride to the top.

"Let's try this run!"

Although the day had started out sunny, foggy clouds began to swirl in the valleys below.  From the top of the highest lift, it made for some cool views (and photos!)

The guys admiring clearing skies

With a group of four, chairlift discussions often centered around which run to try next.  When someone proposed a trail of questionable conditions, Glen would laugh and say "How bad can it be?"  It got to be such a frequent comment we all started to repeat the phrase.  Pretty soon it became an inside joke - and our group's new motto!

There they go!

Since this year's skiing photos mostly consisted of my friends standing around, I set my GoPro on "burst" mode to try and capture some action (and prove that, yes, we really do ski!)

Tutu man in action

Due to the GoPro's extremely wide angle lens, I learned the hard way that in order to get photos where the skier isn't a tiny dot, your subject must be extremely close.  After shooting dozens of images, I finally discovered this by accidentally capturing Brian as he swooshed by.

Spectacular scenery!

The day's blue skies and intermittent clouds made for some spectacular scenery.  It's weather like this that makes me happy to be outside in winter.

The view from HRM lift

When someone suggested we try the trails off the HRM (short for "Hood River Meadows") lift, the group was skeptical.  The resort's lowest elevation chairlift, it normally had the worst snow conditions.  But we all agreed to give it a try.  (After all, how bad can it be??)

I've never seen the surrounding hills look so good

Surprisingly, HRM turned out to have the best snow.  Not only that, the clear skies and sunshine on nearby snow-dusted hills were absolutely stunning.  I never knew HRM could look so good!  My friends and I made lap after lap until our legs cried for mercy.  Well, that and it was almost happy hour.....

My "Men in Red" ski buddies

Another great day on the slopes with my friends!  Sunshine, good snow, a little goofiness, and lots of laughs.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Glade and Alpine Ski Trails

Although I've been skiing a ton at the resorts this winter, my backcountry ski gear has been sorely neglected.  This past President's Day I decided to change that and revisit a trail I'd done over the same weekend in 2014, the Glade Ski Trail.

Trailhead is at the end of this road

At the base of Mt Hood lies the tiny village of Government Camp.  Consisting of condos, ski shops, and cute vacation chalets, many trails fan out into the woods above this charming hamlet.  A few ski trails connect Govy (as the locals affectionately call their town) with Timberline Ski Area.  Two of the most well-known are the Glade and Alpine trails.

LOTS of snow this year!

Although I'd skied up and then down the Glade three years ago, the Alpine was a "new to me" ski trail.  I decided my plan for the day would be to ski up the Glade and then locate and take a trip down the Alpine trail, and return to my starting point via the Crosstown Trail.  A nifty six-mile loop and good bit of exercise for a snowy February morning.

Glade Trailhead

Temps were hovering right around the freezing mark when I parked my car along Govy's main drag and hoofed it three blocks up a residential street leading to the Glade's trailhead.  Giant snowbanks lining the road were evidence of this year's colossal snowfall.  Some homes had barely a slot tunneled into the snow to park their vehicles, while decks and rooftops sported thick blankets of the white stuff.

Ready to start

Heavy wet snow pelted my face as I attached climbing skins to skis and prepared for the day's journey.  After a couple of photos, I shouldered my backpack and was off.

Easy to follow, the Glade parallels an old clearing used for the short-lived Mt Hood Skiway, a unique transportation system in the 1950's that used regular city buses suspended on cables to shuttle skiers from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge.

Action selfie

The heavy, wet snow made for some slow going.  Globs of snow began sticking to my climbing skins, necessitating frequent stops to clear the undersides of my skis.  The warm temps had me sweating in no time.  I made more stops to shed clothing and of course, take photos.  One time I even laid my camera on the snow and used the self-timer to get a few action shots.

Uphill climb through the forest

About halfway, frustration mounting due to the constant sticky snow underfoot, I finally dug a block of skin wax out of my backpack and applied it to the climbing skins.  I'd bought the stuff many years ago, and this was the first time I'd ever used it.  I'm happy to report the stuff worked.  It made the going much easier thereafter, so I guess it was a good investment.

I spot the ski lift

The trail alternated between being mildly steep to navigating a few sharp uphills.  A couple of older cross country skiers passed me (I swear I'm the slowest uphill skier ever!) and I pumped them for information on where to find the Alpine Trail.

And then, just when I thought the trail would go on forever, I spotted a lift tower of Timberline's Stormin' Norman chairlift.  Hooray!

Entrance to Timberline Ski Area

The previous trip, I'd continued up Timberline's ski runs another 1000 vertical feet to it's famous lodge.  But not really wanting to dodge crowds of downhill skiers, I decided today's uphill trip would end at the ski area boundary.

There's the sign!

So I stood in the snow just beyond the rope, changed into a warmer jacket, donned my helmet, and peeled climbing skins off my skis.  Several skiers zipped by, a few stopping to inquire what I was doing.  When I told them I'd skied up from Govy, they were all impressed.

Beginning of the Alpine Trail

Up at this higher elevation the snow wasn't as wet and instead blanketed the ground in a soft layer.  I was happy for this - my gloves and hat were soaked from the wet snow-rain (or as I like to call it, "snain")

Ready for some downhill turns!

I was a little apprehensive about finding the Alpine Trail.  The other skiers I'd met directed me to travel down Timberline's Kruser run for a short distance, and I'd see it.  So I joined the other folks on this busy slope.  Not keen on having to retrace my steps uphill, I kept an eagle eye out for the sign.   And, just as I was told, it didn't take but a minute and I spotted a wide clearing with another sign.  Yahoo!

Lovely path through the woods

After two hours of grueling uphill sliding, it was time to reap my reward!  The newly-fallen snow looked wonderful.  I couldn't wait to sink my ski edges into it. 

Snow-covered fir tree

But these local trails were not groomed, and I found out quickly that the underlying snow was uneven and crusty.  After hitting a couple of surprise bumps and wiping out, I decided to slow down.  Cautiously sliding short distances, I made my downhill trip last a bit longer. 

Tons of moss

That was okay - the adjacent forests were quite lovely.  One section was lined with interesting moss-draped trees.  Another stretch featured a bunch of cute firs, flocked with a coating of winter white.  I felt like I was in a Christmas tree farm.

Challenging portion of the Alpine Trail

The Alpine Trail was steeper than the Glade and a few of the narrow, uneven segments were quite challenging.  With better snow conditions, I would have had no problems, but today's crunchy snow caused me to take it easy (self preservation!)

Time to put the skins back on my skis

Even with my slow downhill pace, I reached the bottom in about 15 minutes.  The trail's terminus met up with one of tiny Summit Ski area's groomed runs.  After the Alpine uneven terrain, it felt good to glide on a groomer.  But now I kept my eyes peeled for the Crosstown Trail, the final leg of my journey.

Another action selfie

The Crosstown Trail was even rougher than the Alpine.  Mainly a snowshoe route connecting Govy's ski trails, it meandered through the trees behind some vacation homes.  Lumpy snow trampled by hundreds of snowshoers, navigating the track was a challenge.  After a couple of uphills had me sliding backwards, I decided to put climbing skins back on my skis.

Pretty creek

But the scenery was wonderful.  More snowy trees and a cute little creek to cross.  I placed my camera on a tree stump to get a few more action shots, and was surprised by a family of snowshoers, who graciously offered to take my picture.

"Skiville, Oregon"

Ending back at the Glade trailhead, the snowfall was again bordering on slushy rain.  Now soaking wet from being out in the weather all morning, I decided the day's journey was done.  Time to change clothes at my car and find a hot drink in town.

While walking back through Govy's streets, I passed by a cute little cabin.  A sign above the upper door proclaimed it "Skiville, Oregon."  I kind of liked the moniker....maybe Government Camp should consider a new name?

Six miles traveled, and 1000 feet of elevation gain - a great day to be up on the mountain!