Almost every year Jennifer and Mirabelle head to Florida in February. And every year I try to plan something while they are gone. So far, I have been shut out by bad snow, warm temps and you name it. This year I bought new skis for the purpose of not being shut out. This year I came up with a destination that would have a higher probability for snow and reliable weather. This year I finally got out and did something bigger while they were away.
I often had long tour plans for this time period. But many involve dangerous terrain that would require someone joining me. Then this past year we went to Crater Lake where they had early snow. That is when I added another destination to my plans. I researched it a bit and most of the avalanche terrain could be avoided and this meant I could go solo.
So I called the ranger station just to make sure they don't have any requirements I was not meeting to get a back country permit. I checked all their boxes and headed down the following day hoping to get a permit so I could start early the day after my travel. As always, it is not easy driving the I5 corridor in the northwest. This time it was due to snow from Seattle to Salem. The Tumwater area was littered with wrecks and emergency vehicles. It was slow going. I called the ranger station from Chemult to let them know I wouldn't make it in by 4pm and that I would be there at 8am the following day to get a permit and start my trip. Then I set about finding a place to sleep for the night. Mostly because I am cheap, and perhaps partially because I like to suffer that place was my car in a snow park just outside the west side of the park.
I started Wednesday morning repacking for my trip and then driving into the park. I got the ranger station a bit before eight and then caught the ranger just before he was heading out to the weather station. I read their instruction book, and signed for my back country permit. I was pointed to the overnight parking and I was on my way. At the parking there was a couple who were also planning on the circumnavigation. I thought this would be good in case either of us ran into issues. But shortly starting up the Raven Trail to the lake, they appeared to back out and left me to break trail for 50km around the lake.
I got up to the lake and there was some spotty sun. The lake was visible and it was fun to see the lodge all wintered up. I took some photos and got moving as I had a later start than I had hoped. I west rim road and started to follow it. I hadn't see the others, or anybody for that matter since I left the Raven Trail. At first the going was easy. Trail had been broken in one of the previous days, but it had been snowing alot, so it was not that easy. The road is marked by sticks that the park service puts in for spring plowing, so it is not too difficult to follow as well.
As time went on I was slowed. I blamed my lack of acclimatization. But it could have been lack of conditioning, or sleeping in the car. There were endless snow drifts. I fell off one and was concerned that I would not dry out for the rest of the trip. Then the weather got less clear. And I slowed more. I feel like there was one part I just kept skiing over and over because everything looked the same. The sky matched the earth and even had trees. At one point I got a little off course when I could no longer follow the road. Fortunately by the time I back tracked to the last known place, it cleared enough that I could track where the road continued.
Seven hours after I had left the ranger station, I had finally reached the north junction. It was short of where I wanted to stop for the night. But it was snowing, and the wind was blowing hard. I headed a little further up into the trees where I would have some shelter from the wind.
I found a spot off the road that would work for my intended sleep system. Being a solo traveler, I had a lot to carry. (Especially because I opted for a bear canister.) A tent was not a very viable option for me. I opted for a snow trench. Since I figured there would be lots of fresh snow, I brought a tarp in case there was no solid snow to build a roof. This was good, as I would have had to dig deep to quarry good blocks for a roof. The tarp works well, but has the drawbacks of not being as insulating as a snow roof and allowing the condensed ice crystals to fall on you instead of attaching more firmly to a snow roof. I quickly dug a trench and set up shelter before setting about eating. It was difficult to keep everything dry as the snow just kept falling. On a positive note, it was quite cold, so the snow was also quite dry. After eating I got into my trench and realized it was not long enough. But I wanted to make it work. Eventually, I gave in, and gear back up and took the tarp off and improved it a bit, making it significantly better. I got back in and slept well until a little after six the next morning.
Thursday started like Wednesday left off with snow and clouds. I got underway and seemed to make good time for a bit. The day went between sun and snow. And sometimes I had both. Lake views were mostly non-existent until later in the day. Wind was also not as bad for most of the day as I rounded to the lee of the mountain. This meant there was much less snow drift navigation to deal with. However there were certain points where the road met the rim and the wind had actually scoured the snow down to asphalt. The day went as planned except for me losing steam for the final climb. I did not make it as far as I had wanted. But I also wanted to have a little more time to do a better snow shelter. I picked a spot that I thought would hide me from the wind and then it started to snow heavily. My trench came out a bit better, and a bit worse. Because I was attempting to use trees to shield it from the wind. I was too close to the trees and the trench was a bit short with a somewhat difficult entrance. I did not sleep as well as the previous night. I also think the shortness of the trench did not allow my legs and feet to recover as well.
I awoke early the next morning and decided to get started. Because of not covering the distances I wanted to the previous two days I had the longest mileage day ahead of me. Getting to see the sunrise would be a bonus too. Although the night had turned clear and the temperature was cold. I went about the business of eating breakfast, filling my trench and melting snow for the day and then got underway around 6am.
Navigation was easy and after a short uphill to regain the road and cross a meadow, I was headed downhill toward the crater rim. I got to the lake in what seemed like no time and got to see the sun hit the far rim as I cruised past three overlooks on the road. The road continued to descend and I made good time. When the sun was finally fully above the horizon, I took over my heavy jacket and forged on.
As I descended to Kerr Notch I was assessing the avalanche situation from Dutton Cliffs. It was clear to me that taking the bypass would add a significant amount of climbing. And that taking the road under the cliffs was also quite a climb. What a change from the nearly 5+km of descending. It was only 8 am when I arrived at Kerr Notch. I poked around following some tracks I believed to be from a bobcat that appeared fresh enough to be from the last eight hours. I had already decided to try to go under the cliffs as I could see some had already sloughed when the sun hit and did not even reach the road surface. Mostly the danger was isolated to a few chutes that I could quickly cross. I headed up the hill under full power crossing chutes and taking breathers in safer locations. By the time I had crossed under the cliffs, I was tired and still had a good deal of continuous uphill travel ahead of me. My progress slowed and I baked in the sun in the exposed meadows of the next portion of road.
I finally rounded to the corner to what was supposed to be the next downhill. However, it was full of snow drifts. So the low effort downhill I anticipated was a little more effort. Although not as much as the previous portion of road. As I made the descent, I viewed the next avalanche zone of Applegate Peak. This was one I was going to avoid. There was a wide steep face loaded with snow that was being blasted by the noon day sun. And since it was noon, I took my only side trip to Sun Notch which would be my last view of the lake on this trip.
I skied back to the road, but did not see where the avalanche bypass was. The ranger stated they were clearly marked, but did I miss it? I started up the road to see if it was further on. It wasn't but I decided I could find it by skiing down into the valley from the road just before the avalanche danger.
This was the most effortless portion of the trip. I got a little less than 100m of descent in a traverse into the valley. The map show the bypass trail loosely following a creek so I found the depression that would be the creek and followed it through the valley. This trajectory would also have me bypass the next avalanche area, Vidae Cliffs.
This was also one of the truly fun parts of the trip. I was not on the road. I was navigating for myself in the forest and a few meadows. Then I reached Grayback road. This is part of the bypass, and can be used to bypass the Dutton Cliffs earlier on if so needed. I climbed up Grayback Road and was back on the rim road quickly. However I was pretty sure I still had to get through the Vidae Cliffs area. This turned out to be true. But the Vidae Cliffs were much more of a steep wall on the side of the road that were not particularly snow loaded. They even had plenty of ditch space to empty into if they did slide. I passed through this section on the final real ascent of the trip.
It was about this time that there was actually fresher ski tracks in the snow. Near the end of the climbing my ski was starting to collect snow and not glide so well. The heat of the bright sun and the clouds starting to come in had turned the snow a little stickier. I made a final stop to was the scales on my skis. This also involved knocking ice off the edges that were icing up. I wasn't sure if the waxing was going to help, or these were just the conditions I would be in for the final descent to the visitor's center and my awaiting car. It turned out that stopping paid off. My skis glided better and I also made use of even fresher ski tracks to make the descent a little easier. There is a bit of climb back out at the end that is pretty mellow, but after a 20km plus day it is not how you really want to end.
Ending with a climb would be easy enough, but at the end of the trip I then had to dig out my car from the previous two days snow before I could get moving. Fortunately I was still pretty stoked to be done and the shoveling went quickly.
Overall I am happy I did this trip. It was interesting and it was great experience keeping myself alive for a few days in the winter. I went over 50 hours without seeing another person. At times it felt I had the park all to myself. The disappointing aspects are that it did not increase my wildlife sightings, and I made no turns. I saw exactly two Ravens and one other bird the whole time. I did hear a few other birds, and perhaps a squirrel at one point. I saw no mammals at all and saw very few tracks that alerted me to their presence. There were plenty of skiable slopes. But without a partner they were too dangerous. Although I had a day or two extra to make the trip, side trips to ski glades seemed too time and energy consuming.
If I was to head to Crater Lake again in the winter I'd probably do it with someone. Then set up camp where we could have access to ski slopes. It was a mild form of torture to have all this boot top powder, and not be able to make turns in it.
Pics are here.