Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Snowshoeing Crater Lake Without Snowshoes!

Dscn7663bLeora and I woke up relatively late in the morning—no reason to rush off since she said that we couldn’t get our permits until 10:00 in the morning anyhow. But we arrived at the park’s visitor at around 9:30 in the morning and it turned out to already be open. Apparently, their hours had changed since Leora skied around Crater Lake the month before. But it also meant we didn’t have to wait for them to open either. =)

The front door of the visitor center was blocked by a giant pile of snow—I could barely see the top of the front door, but signs directed us around to the side of the building where it said there was a snow tunnel into the building. We went through the snow tunnel. (That’s a photo of the visitor center on the right.)

They issued us our permits and explained the backcountry rules we would have to follow. Bears, they told us, would not be a concern since they should all still be hibernating, but we should sleep with our food since there are smaller animals that are still active such as pine martens and I don’t remember what all else. =) I was also surprised that they allowed campfires pretty much anywhere as long as we used already downed wood. Given how cold it was supposed to be at night, I figured that might be useful. Of course, the thick layer of snow might make finding downed wood difficult! Obviously, wildfires weren’t a huge concern at this time of year, but I was still somewhat surprised that the park service even allowed campfires at all. Seemed like the type of thing that they would discourage.

They also showed up a map of the trail around Crater Lake and where the avalanche zones were along with bypasses for some of them. Not all of the avalanche zones had bypasses, though…. This wasn’t new for Leora, but it’s the first time I had a good look at where we should be most worried about avalanches!

The ranger took us outside to show where we should park the car—they wanted to make sure it stayed out of the way of snow plows if that became necessary.

Then we were off! Well, the ranger went off, back to the visitor center. Leora moved the car to where it would stay while we made our epic journey around the mountain. She also pulled out a couple of avalanche transceivers she had and gave me a quick tutorial on their use. We only planned to carry one shovel between the two of us, which she was planning to carry, but she told me if that she was caught in an avalanche that I could also dig her out with a snowshoe. Perhaps not an ideal shoveling instrument, but certainly better than nothing!

Then we packed up all of our gear. I sorted out most of my gear back at the campsite before we even arrived here so that didn’t take long. I carried my snowshoes across the parking lot until we reached the Raven Trail trailhead. Leora said we could take the one-and-a-half mile Raven Trail to the rim, or follow the plowed road three miles to the top. The fact that the Raven Trail was half the distance of the road walk had absolutely nothing to do with my preferring the Raven Trail—I just didn’t want to road walk! I came out here to snowshoe!
Stupid tourists….

We put on our snowshoes and took our first steps around the mountain. Almost immediately, we passed the first avalanche zone—a zone that even cars on the Rim Road were not immune from passing. We followed blue diamonds that marked the trail, zig-zagging our way up to the rim. Near the top, we lost track of the blue diamonds, but Leora didn’t care—she knew we were near the top and charged up the steepest route she could find to the rim. One four or five foot section of it was so steep, I had a lot of trouble getting up it and wound up digging shoe holds in the snow large enough to fit my snowshoes while seriously straining the muscles in my upper thighs. But eventually I made it to the top, exhausted, and got my first view of the deep blue waters of Crater Lake.
Following the blue diamonds on the Raven Trail to Rim Village.

We took off our snowshoes again by the lodge—we were back on the plowed road again, after having traveled barely a mile on the snow.

We stopped for a quick lunch break near the lodge, overlooking the lake, took loads of photos, then continued following the plowed road clockwise around Crater Lake. During the winter, the road is only plowed up to Rim Village—the Rim Road around the lake isn’t plowed for most of the year. However, they did recently start plowing the road to get it open in time for summer—it takes park personnel a couple of months to plow and open the Rim Road, so they start plowing in April. The ranger told us that so far, only the first three miles have been plowed, but even those still weren’t open to vehicular traffic.
Wizard Island, in Crater Lake, as seen from Rim Village.
So we walked through the “road closed” sign and continued our snowshoeing trip with the snowshoes on our backs. It was kind of neat walking through the plowed section—actually being able to see exactly how deep the snow was on areas along the road. Some sections appeared to just be a few feet deep, but other areas had us between two towering mountains of snow that were twenty feet high! And Crater Lake was absolutely magical, with Wizard Island covered in a blanket of snow.
The building on the left has restrooms at Rim Village, but they added these snow tunnel extensions to make sure people could still get to them through all the snow. =) Leora said when she was here last month, the snow completely covered the tops of these tunnels and they thought the doors were pit toilets not realizing that they opened to tunnels that actually led to real restrooms. =)

While the rim road was still closed to vehicular traffic, quite a few people made use of the snow-free road to walk and bicycle along the cleared section.
The Rim Road was closed to vehicular traffic, but they had already started plowing it to prepare it for the summer crowds.

Some of the information signs about the park were difficult to read because of the snow, such as this sign about Discovery Point.

There was one snow plow parked on the side of the road, unloved and unused.
So I figured out a way to make use of it—as a warning to others to
watch out for snow plows! =)

Leora shows just how deep the snow level was at places. This was taken in late April—AND it’s considered a “low snow” year!

A break in the snow!

And then we reached a parked car near a turn in the road and from behind the turn, we saw a rainbow of snow shooting into the air. I turned to Leora, “I can’t be 100% certain, but I think we’ve reached the snow plow and the end of our snow-free walk.”
Leora agreed, and suggested that it was probably safe for us to proceed at least as far as the truck. “They wouldn’t bury their own vehicle in snow!” That seemed sensible enough, and we stopped to rest at their truck.
I can’t be 100% certain, but I’m feeling pretty confident that there’s a snow plow around this corner!

The snow plow stands down for us to pass. Look at the chains on those tires!
That’s gotta be a real pain-in-the-you-know-what to chain up! Those tires are
probably five feet tall!

The guy running the snow plow stopped and appeared to be getting out of his machine—probably to talk to us, we assumed, although I was ready for a short break anyhow. Another guy was running a bulldozer ahead, who seemed to push snow from the top of the snow banks down a ramp to where the snow plow could get at it. A third guy ran another bulldozer even further ahead—I’m not entirely sure what he was doing, though. Perhaps his job was to actually find the trail under all that snow. Mark it and delineate its extents. We were located right on the side of a steep cliff and it would not be difficult at all to imagine one of those giant machines accidentally going over the side if they weren’t careful. I once read that they’ve built transceivers into the road so these crews could locate the trail under the snow each year. With modern GPS technology, perhaps those wouldn’t be needed anymore, but it still looked like a sketchy place for these people to be working.

The snow plow fellow told us that they had managed to clear 0.3 miles of the road the day before, and so far today had already cleared 0.2 miles. It was already well into the afternoon, and they hadn’t even cleared a quarter mile of road? This was not a fast process… but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. I knew it took them a good two or three months to get this road open. But I still found it surprising how slow going it really was for the crew.

The three guys running the heavy machinery stood down while we hiked by, climbing up the ramp they had built into the snow. When we reached the top of the ramp and walked into the fresh snow, we immediately started postholing a bit. It was just a few inches deep—not that big of deal, but there was a wonderful viewpoint just probably a tenth of a mile down the trail and I didn’t feel like putting on my snowshoes just to take them off and rest five minutes later. So I kept walking without them, but that only lasted a minute or two until I grew so frustrated walking through the snow I had to stop and put the snowshoes back on. Then we walked for another five or ten minutes to the wonderful viewpoint just at the Watchman Overlook where we stopped for an “official” rest break.

Leora heads up the snow ramp that the snow-clearing crews have created.

So far, we spent more time hiking without our snowshoes on than with our snowshoes on—although now that we were beyond the plowed roads, that should change soon!

We ate snacks, chatted, and admired the views. Eventually, we put the snowshoes back on and continued our journey. We followed the road—not that we could see the road most of the time, but you could “sense” where it went—generally following the contours of the land and through suspiciously clear cuts through otherwise dense trees. The Rim Road wasn’t marked like the Raven Trail was, but we had no trouble figuring out where it went. As the ranger at the visitor center told us, “Just keep Crater Lake on your right and you can’t go wrong.”
This restroom at Watchman Overlook wasn’t really accessible, but I suppose if you wanted a snow-free place to stop and rest, you could set up “camp” on top of it easily enough! =)

View from Watchman Overlook.

This is the same snow plow from the other side of the valley. I find it a little incredible that the snow plow itself is hidden behind the giant wall of snow! Although you can see one of the bulldozers at the top of the snow ramp.

I pose with Mount Thielsen in the background.

Leora follows the Rim Road around the Diamond Lake Overlook. (Not that you can actually see Diamond Lake in this photo, but it was visible off to the left.)

Shadow games I like to play. =)

Near the North Junction—where cars could enter the park from the north entrance during the summer months—we came out to another stunning view of Crater Lake. We also spotted two skiers ahead, but we never got so close to them as to actually talk with them. We didn’t know it then, but they would be the last human beings we’d see until we arrived back at the visitor center three days later.

At this point, it was getting pretty late in the afternoon, and I begged Leora to crash here for the night. “The views!” I said, waving around, “Look at these views!” She was skeptical of the location, thinking it was too exposed. Indeed, it was exposed, but “look at the views!” I exclaimed. =) She found a nook in the snow that she felt was acceptable to set up camp, but I took a more exposed position above the lake for the better views.
Closing in on the North Junction.

View of Wizard Island from the North Junction.

I also had another reason I wanted to camp in an exposed location—the Lyrid meteor shower would peak tonight. I wanted a better view of the meteor shower, although a nearly full moon would blot out all but the brightest shooting stars.

I was a bit nervous about camping here as well. There was absolutely no snow-free ground around these parts. None, zip, nada. I’d never actually camped ON snow before. Oh, I hiked through it. I grew absolutely sick of hiking through it during my PCT hike a few years earlier. But we always descended low enough to camp on bare ground at the end of the day. This time, I had to actually camp on snow, and I wasn’t really sure how that would work.

So the first thing I did was walk around where I wanted to camp, stamping down the snow. I figured hard-packed snow would probably be better for camping on than fluffy snow that I’d sink into during the night. So I walked around in circles packing the snow down as best I could. Then I borrowed the shovel Leora carried and built a small berm around it. The location was very exposed to the already strong winds blowing around, and I figured a small berm to break the wind wouldn’t be a bad idea. Then I threw down a groundsheet (a waterproof one, since I figured I’d probably melt snow under it during the night). And I blew up my Thermarest—something I’ve never carried on a backpacking trip before! Not only would it help insulate me from the snow, but it would help insulate the snow from me. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night sinking into a deep snow hole that my body heat had created. =)

I cooked dinner on my soda can stove—Leora would have been more than happy to share her MSR Whisperlight stove with me, but I wanted to get some first-hand experience in how a soda can stove performs in such arctic conditions.

The biggest problem it suffered, which I kind of suspected would happen, was that the stove started sinking into the snow after I lit it! The stove does get hot when it’s lit, and by the time the fuel ran out, the top of the stove was nearly level with the snow level. I also threw in snow instead of water to cook my meal, and by the time the fuel burned out, the snow had merely melted. My food wasn’t warm or even hydrated at all.

I did carry a windscreen I made out of aluminum foil, but I didn’t really need it for wind. Leora and I built a “kitchen” in the snow, carving out a protected area from the snow near her tent. I wondered if putting that under the stove would help prevent it from sinking into the snow, so I tried that, putting the stove on top of my windscreen, filling the stove with fuel, and lighting it again. This time, the stove stayed above the snow—I was rather pleased that such a simple fix fixed that problem. And my dinner turned out just great. =)

So I wouldn’t have to melt so much snow for water, I tried to avoid using water whenever possible—which included when it was time to clean up my dinner mess. Usually I use water to clean my pot and spoon, but snow can be quite abrasive, so I filled my pot with snow that I swished around and did all of my cleanup with snow. Worked great! I felt like I was getting the hang of this snow-camping business. =)

Then we headed off to sleep…

Leora sets up camp in a small gully.

Dinner is in the oven! No, I didn’t use “yellow snow”—that yellow color is part of my dinner which I’ve mixed in with the snow.

My campsite for the night—with Mount Thielsen in the background.


Unknown said...

I know you like to hike in sneaker type shoes. What did you have on your feet for this expidition?

Ryan said...

I used more of a hiking "boot" for this expedition. You'll see better pictures of them in future posts, though. =)

-- Ryan

Eric said...

Lenora's tents without a snow fly? And just leaves vent to sky?

Unknown said...

This is quite an adventure you guys had on the snow. By the way, were your hiking boots waterproofed and were you guys wearing insulating socks? I am planning a similar adventure, but I checked out some resourceful snowshoeing making tips here:

Unknown said...

I remembered my brother who lives in Canada and the time he invited my family to stay for a week so we can ski and snowshoe. I love the pristine landscape of their place and I was surprised to learn that my brother can make his own snowshoes! He was able to demonstrate how he does it and I was very impressed! I never thought that it could be that easy but since I don't have the aptitude to make one, I just admired his handiwork. He said he just learned from all those DIY sites and videos in order to make his own. He pointed to this site as great reference, and hope this helps anyone interested

leora said...

Eric - I am pretty sure that I used my rain fly at some point during the night, but I was probably hoping to see some shooting stars through the netting. If there isn't a gusty wind, and if I have enough clothes and a warm enough bag, then I sometimes don't bother with the rain fly.

Jerry Gonzalez said...

An adventure on the snow. Very nice picture! Thanks!