Monday, December 30, 2013

Ashes, Stars and an Unbreakable Crust

Sunrise and Broken Top
Mother Nature has been anything but generous to the skiers of the Pacific Northwest so far this year. Bouts of snow have been sandwiched in between long periods of warm and wet or bone dry days.  The downhill crowd is getting a little stir crazy, myself included.  This past weekend, despite a recent stretch of arid conditions, I convinced myself that the sunny forecast in central Oregon would yield spring-like corn snow in the Sisters backcountry.  Unwilling to face the prospect of another day of laps on the Palmer snowfield, I struck out on my own hoping to find the goods, eternally optimistic.

Ready to go from Pole Creek Trailhead
Packing up the kit at Pole Creek, I was still hopeful despite coming to terms with a long hike on the trail.  There was barely any snow on the ground at the end of the road, and I knew I'd be carrying my skis for a good long way before I could start the skin.  Undeterred, I loaded the whole damn rig onto my back, including the new Canon 6D, a tripod, a pair of K2 Hardsides with Fritschi bindings and, of course, two beers.  Not exactly light and fast (maybe one day Santa will bring me Dynafits) - by noon I was on my way.   

The Pole Creek fire burned in September of 2012 and eventually grew to about 26,000 acres, engulfing four cars at the trailhead and giving a pretty good scare to about 30 hikers and campers.  The area had been under a closure for several months but opened earlier this year.  Right from the parking lot, I found myself walking through a large stand replacement burn at about 5300' in elevation.

The area of the Pole Creek fire 14 months after the burn
Not far from the trailhead, North Sister was visible through the charred landscape.
The east side of North Sister from the Pole Creek burn - Dec 28, 2013
It continued on like this for about three miles, well past the junction with the Chambers Lake Trail.  Finally, I passed through the boundary of the burn area and started to hit more consistent snow.  "Ahh," I thought, "it'll be a cruise from here."

Hah - it wasn't to be.  Shortly after putting on the skis, I neared treeline, and the crunchy afternoon snow turned into an unbreakable crust - ice - smooth like glass.  My ski crampons would barely bite into the ice, leaving me teetering back and forth, high centered on each step.  Good times.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, I soldiered on and finally gave up close to 3 pm at around 6900' below the Hayden Glacier.  I had yet to see or hear a single person since I left the trailhead.  By this time, I knew that corn was little more than a pipe dream, but I was determined to enjoy this amazing place, one of Oregon's true alpine treasures.

After pitching the tent, drinking a beer and quickly falling asleep, I woke up just as the sun was setting.  Pretty soon, it dropped below the horizon, and Mother Nature offered me a star-filled sky as consolation for my own personal desert of ice.

Stars over South Sister

The Milky Way Over Middle Sister
I eventually retreated back to the tent and settled in for a chilly night.  The next morning, I found more unique light.  With low clouds hanging on the eastern horizon, the sunrise produced some excellent color.

Home sweet home
Sunrise and Krummholz
Middle Sister Bathed in Morning Light
After taking some more photos, I made myself a casual breakfast and enjoyed utter solitude - perfect visibility, no wind and not a single person within sight or earshot.  Ohm.

I eventually got moving after finishing my final beer for breakfast - an Iron City pounder to be exact.  Thank you, Iron City, one of our very generous sponsors (or not)!  And then I packed up the whole kit, which felt slightly lighter this time, and tried unsuccessfully to ski back towards treeline.  Fearing a catastrophe, I resorted to crampons, which made the unbreakable crust a bit more breakable.  After having enough of that BS, I finally clipped back into my skis as I neared the forest, and settled for a very tepid ride out towards the car, which lasted only a short time before I finally had to boot pack it again for several miles back to the trailhead.  Oh well, at least I was carrying that last beer in me and not on me.

I never did find my corn, but I did find the goods.  I also managed to log days 99 and 100 on snow, rock and ice for 2013 - a small personal victory and a quest I've dubbed the "Deskjockey 100." Sometimes it's not about the turns.  Pray for snow. 

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