The Open Book (5.9)

Looking up the climb


Like the Snaz, the Open Book is another one of those climbs that has been on my to-do list for years due to a lack of climbing skill and/or partners. I had planned for a solo day (more on that later), but when Ben asked if I was interested in climbing, I saw an opportunity, and dug into my bag of unfinished things. Ben, one of the interns, is young and strong, seemingly more interested in Real Climbing than the kind of stuff that I can do, but he seemed game for a moderate trad route. Given its name and description, this one seemed likely to be even more un-gym-like than the Snaz, with lots of stemming and a finger crack. Predictably, it turned out “the way it always does,” with a fair amount of thrashing and bleeding.

Garnet drying out

It was a cold morning, so we didn’t leave the Ranch until about 6:30. We passed the usual bear on the Garnet switchbacks, ignoring us as she fed on some plant. Based on the giant pile of green bear manure I had found earlier, plants seem to be the majority of their diet this time of year, an impressive digestive feat that can’t yield many calories. Just above, we saw a cub safely up a tree. The bears frequenting this hillside are disturbingly accustomed to people, and while they have not been aggressive, I wish they felt a more normal degree of fear. Preemptive use of bear spray would probably fix that, but I doubt the Park Service would approve.

Despite our late start, we reached the base of the climb while it was still in the shade and quite cold. I had hear of others having problems finding the route, but it was easy to identify, and required no shenanigans to reach. I happily gave Ben the first lead, and he chose the direct 5.9 crack start, soon regretting this decision as he wedged his hands into the frigid rock. I kept my running shoes on until the last moment, then followed, grateful to be on a toprope. I found myself consciously staying out of the crack where I could, and unconsciously using my palms and elbows for counter-pressure to spare my fingers.

Looking down from my fail-belay

We were climbing on a 50-meter rope, and the first pitch as described was supposedly 60 meters, so Ben belayed at a stance somewhere below the official belay. Unlike the Snaz, there are no bolts on the Open Book, so it can be naturally split up like a normal trad route, with pitches where one runs out of rope or gear, accumulates too much drag, or reaches the base of a crux. I led our second pitch, featuring a “5.8 undercling/layback” that felt hard and insecure to me. I put in a couple of good cams as I went, trusted my feet, and was surprised to be able to pull through it. However, I was unable to find a good placement above that section, and couldn’t quite make it to the next stance. I tried out a few things, then went for it and took a nice 15-foot slow-motion fall before the rope finished stretching. I have a pretty good sense for when I am secure on rock, but am willing to go for it on gear.

Ben doing climber things

I thought about giving it another try, but my arms were tired and I was disappointed with myself, so I built an anchor and belayed Ben up. After taking over, he thoughtfully made his way through the layback, then up the namesake pitch, a greater-than-ninety-degree corner with a finger crack. I enjoyed following that part, but was definitely glad not to lead it. While my technique is mediocre and I usually bleed, I am fairly comfortable with hand jams, but trusting much weight to torqued fingers still feels like a terrible idea to me. I managed to stupidly fall right off the belay, but did the layback and the rest cleanly, albeit not always securely.

My head was not quite in the right place, but I don’t believe in being an animate haul bag, so I set off on the next pitch, traversing right under a roof before coming back left on easier terrain above. I struggled a bit with the first part: a crack below the roof offered all the protection I could wish for, but it was also seeping, making the hands and a few of the otherwise-nice feet wet and slick. Teton rock is stickier than it looks, even when wet, but I am still adjusting to what I can trust on steeper ground. I finished the pitch without incident, building an anchor where I thought the guidebook suggested.

Ben led the next, opting for what I think was the “5.9+ roof move,” a sketchy-looking thing around the right of a bulge. I screwed around for far too long following, trying another route left of the bulge in part because it looked easier, and in part because that was where the rope ran. I finally figured out that it was harder, backed off, moved the rope over a bit, and pulled the roof without taking what would probably have been a fairly harmless pendulum fall.

South Fork Garnet peaks

I led the final 5.7 (?) pitch, making it look harder than it was, then we packed up and traversed right to pop out at the base of the Lake Ledges above Amphitheater Lake. We had carried ice axes all day, and used them for the five minutes it took to descend to the lake. I suppose mine could have been helpful for self-arrest, but most of what I did with it was hack away at the slush to free my leg from a self-filling posthole. Axes stowed, we followed the beaten-in path through the snow back down to the summer trail, then fast-walked home to the Ranch. My shenanigans made Ben a bit late for his evening shift, but I don’t think he got in too much trouble.

Having done both recently, we agreed that the Open Book was better than the Snaz. While it is not as long (6 vs. 8+ pitches) or as hard (5.9 vs. 5.10), it is cleaner and more sustained. I was surprised that the highly-rated Snaz involved as much walking while dragging a rope through debris as it did, especially on its first two pitches. While the Open Book had a walking finish, it was rarely low-angle enough to collect debris, or to be dull (at least for me). An efficient team should be able to climb both it and neighboring Irene’s Arete in a day, making for a truly spectacular outing. Thus endeth my trad climbing for the summer.

The Snaz (5.10)

Snaz on return


(Photos featuring Yours Truly, and some others, courtesy Robert. There was some other stuff in the Bend area, including more skiing and cycling, but that’s too far past and mostly of too little interest to write about. It’s a great place to visit, and I miss skiing from the car in June, but I wouldn’t want to live there.)

The Snaz is a Real Climber climb in Death Canyon, which has been on my radar for almost as long as I have been coming to the Tetons. I have failed to do it in the past because I haven’t had a capable partner, and because I have never been a good enough climber. This year was different in the first respect, with Robert emerging from his SoCal bouldering lair, and I hoped that four weeks of intensive climbing gym work would change the latter as well. Robert sadly had little time to spend at the Ranch — he is also a solid all-around mountaineering partner — but Saturday’s forecast of moderate temperatures and wind up high would at least be an opportunity to finally tick this classic Chouinard climb.

Sure, why not?

We started reasonably early from the Ranch, driving down to Death Canyon and up the rough dirt road to the trailhead. The road is rocky and has some deep puddle-holes, but it is perfectly drivable in a van or sedan with caution and patience. I have a bit of gear these days, but we used Robert’s: a light 70-meter rope and an absolutely massive collection of protection, with two cams from 0.1 to 3, a 3.5, a 4, and a set of nuts. In retrospect this was too much: the large pieces were nice, but most of the small pieces’ uses could have been covered by nuts. Also, since we did not rappel the route, the 70 was too much rope: the wind and roaring stream below made communication difficult, and it was tricky to link pitches without creating terrible rope drag. The short version is that I am not good enough to use a large rack and a 70m rope. First, I lack the judgment to eliminate rope drag on a long pitch. Second, the things I am able to climb are not steep and straight, but lower-angle and varied. This means that there are long sections of easy terrain that do not need to be protected, and twists and bulges that prevent the rope from running straight. This could just be old age and familiarity speaking, but I would have been happier with my old setup of a light 50m rope, nuts, single cams from 0.3 or 0.5 to the largest required, and maybe a couple of doubles or link-cams.

Marmot-proof hang

Be that as it may, the approach was pleasant and easy, hiking the familiar Death Canyon trail up to the edge of the moraine, then down past Phelps Lake and up the canyon along the creek, raging with snowmelt from the unseasonable warmth. The climbers’ trail was trivial to find, continuing off the end of the last switchback below the marshy, pond-filled flats of the middle canyon. I was not sure what to expect, but The Snaz and neighboring Caveat Emptor are popular climbs, suitably equipped with a good approach trail, bolted belays, and even a loop of cord in a sheltered alcove to hang your packs away from the waiting marmots.

Snaz from base

The actual climb is preceded by a short low-fifth-class scramble, which I assumed we would scramble in rock shoes. We divided up the gear, me with the rack and pack, Robert with the rope, and started up the approach pitch, an angled crack along the edge of a slab. At only 5.5 it should have felt easy, but I found myself unnerved, unsure of my feet and insecure. I backed down, tied in, and Robert belayed me as I climbed it again, this time having no trouble and placing useless protection. I was unnerved and unbalanced by the experience: it was moderate climbing that should not have given me any trouble, but my head was not in the right place.

Easy leading

We walked up to the base of the real climb, and I led off again, linking the first two 5.7 pitches with our long rope. This climbing felt much easier, with mostly scrambling terrain and only a few steps that deserved the rating. I placed gear from time to time, trying to avoid creating drag, but was still dragging up slack by the time I reached the belay, the gear on my harness clanking and occasionally catching on protrusions. Trad often feels like climbing while fat and clumsy, making easy things hard and hard things possible. I reached the second anchor with a few meters of rope to spare, clipped in, and belayed Robert up to the start of the harder stuff.

First hard pitch

I was embarrassingly inefficient on the transition, slowly remembering the tricks and details, then Robert took off up the first harder pitch, which continued up the dihedral past a bulge and a roof. It did not look so steep, but he was taking his time, and as is often the case on the slicker golden Teton rock, it was harder than it appeared. The first crux required an odd layback to the right, while the second was passed by steep moves on black, positive rock to the right of a roof. I watched Robert steadily at first, but my neck soon tired and I spent more time looking across the canyon and down at the hikers below.

Detached flake pitch

On belay from above the roof, I started up this first pitch of actual harder climbing, and was soon disappointed to find that I am, for the most part, the same awkward, thrashing, bleeding climber I have always been. I often feel that it makes no sense for the same grades to apply to face, crack, and slab climbing, since they require such different techniques. The same goes for training: while my time in the gym gave me noticeably more power and grip on the steep moves past the second bulge, it helped me hardly at all elsewhere. I was determined to climb the pitch clean, without hangs or falls, but it was a slow and awkward process. I worked my way up the first bulge, hesitating before committing to the layback, chewed my ankle a bit torquing a foot in a wide crack, took an odd backstep when I felt that I had the wrong side facing the rock, and generally made things look harder than they probably were.

Some harder terrain

It was a discouraging performance, reinforced when I handed Robert the rack to take the next pitch rather than swapping leads. Here we had the option of taking the Snazette, a long 5.10 finger crack, but neither of us seemed in the mood, so Robert continued up the original route, proceeding carefully as before. Another party had started up the first pitch, but there seemed to be little danger of them catching us. My mind was elsewhere, so I don’t remember much about the pitch other than I was glad I did not lead it, despite again managing to climb it clean.

On route?

The climbing was easier above, so we returned to swapping leads. I led up a crack to a broad alcove, where the route description said to “step left to a double crack.” Though I knew it would create problems, I clipped a fixed blue cam below the roof to the right before traversing left and placing another cam to hopefully direct the rope around the rock. I looked at a spot in the middle of the roof, backed off, and explored around the corner to the left, but found only rounded, lichen-y rock there. Returning to the middle, I got myself as high as possible, then pulled over a bulge to find a sort of double crack. I got in another piece, then continued a short distance to a sloping shelf where I could build an anchor, unsure which direction to go next, but tired of leading.

Final pitch right of roofs

It turns out that I should have continued up and right another fifteen feet, where there was an anchor consisting of two fixed pins and a nut. Robert led past these, then into an easier chimney with an awkward entry. He seemed to find the pitch somewhat beneath him, but I enjoyed it for making me feel somewhat competent for a change. I took the final lead, another short pitch leading left of the 5.10+ triple roofs to easier terrain, where I belayed him up from a slung block. I was cheered by the view and by having acquitted myself well on the last two pitches, and grateful that Robert was willing to come out and make the climb possible. I felt that if, as in previous years, I had a partner and a full month in the Tetons, I would enjoy making some real progress as a trad climber, but that unfortunately will not happen this year. Perhaps I will find myself in the right circumstances here next June, or somewhere else this Fall.

Walk-off

I at least felt smooth and assured on the walkoff, an ascending traverse on class 3-4 slabs followed by a steep and often faint use trail down a gully. Fortunately I found the correct route the first time, because another promising ledge below the one it follows cliffs out at a waterfall. We returned to the trail, and crossed a couple of minor snowfield on the short hike to the start, where I went back up the climbers’ trail to fetch our packs. The group below us had rappeled after the hard pitches, and there was another pair on the route likely planning to do the same. I suppose this is faster than topping out and walking down, but I felt that the upper pitches were still enjoyable, and it is not much of a hardship for the follower to carry a pack with shoes, food, and water. But I’m not a climber…

It turned out to have been an excellent day to climb the route. Though it is on the north side of the canyon, it faces southwest and is therefore shaded for most of the morning. High clouds kept the temperatures reasonable at lower elevations, and the strong west wind was mostly blocked by the crest. The route ended up taking something like ten hours car-to-car, more than either of us had expected, but not an embarrassingly or exhaustingly long day. We both had the energy for another solid outing the next day, but unfortunately the forecast called for wind and rain, and Robert was leaving that Monday. This one climb may be enough to keep my trad skills from completely atrophying, but not enough to lead to any improvement.

Bend area cycling

McKenzie Pass at peak snow


The greater Bend area has a wide variety of cycling, which I have been exploring based on recommendations, maps, and Strava segments. For pavement, there are many flat country roads in the plains to the east, hillier options to the west and south, and a couple of major paved climbs. For gravel and graded dirt, there are miles of National Forest roads of all types, as in much of the area between Lassen and Hood. Finally, there is a range of single-track, from the smooth trails north of Sisters to the bro-friendly manufactured downhill trails off the Mount Bachelor. However both roads and trails are in a transitional state now, and though the volcanic soil does not become terrible mud, the snowline can be sudden, and varies quite a bit based on aspect and rain shadow. Unfortunately, this same volcanic soil also turns into chain-destroying grit and powder that becomes progressively deeper over the dry summer.

McKenzie Pass

McKenzie Pass hut view


McKenzie Pass is an historic route over the Cascade crest near Sisters, south of the current Santiam Pass, between Mount Washington and North Sister. A similar route was used by Natives, with the road built as a toll road in the late 1800s and becoming public shortly thereafter. The pass features a stone lookout tower, built by the CCC and Forest Service back when they did that sort of thing. It is semi-famous among cyclists for being plowed but closed to cars in the late spring, at which point it is bordered by huge snowbanks. The local bike shop in Sisters, Eurosports, even has a pass conditions page and sells jerseys.

I have ridden the east side twice now, a steady, gentle climb of about 2000 feet from town, once in some unfortunate rain and the other time with clear skies on a weekend, dodging other cyclists on my way down. I was hoping to ride the whole pass, dropping 3000 feet to the junction with Highway 20 on the other side, but that is still being plowed as of May 23, and may not be clear in time. Since the pass is a short ride by itself, I added on a side-trip both times. The first time, I followed the good dirt forest road to Trout Creek Butte, which has an old lookout. Though the Butte is higher than the Pass, it is in the rain shadow, so the road was almost entirely dry to the summit. The second time, I tacked on some of paved Forest Road 11 near Black Butte, returning to town via Indian Ford Road.

Newberry Volcano

Newberry roads


The Newberry Volcanic Area, which I have written about previously, has a plethora of dirt roads and trails in addition to the main crater and highpoint. Many of these seem to be popular with OHVs, though, which churn the surface and make it unpleasantly soft for cycling. However, the major roads are more for cars, and therefore remain passable. The main area around the highpoint receives more precipitation than the surrounding area, which caused problems for me when a loop I intended ventured a bit too high. I ultimately exited to Highway 97 near La Pine, which has wide, safe shoulders but too many semis and speeding cars with loud A/T tires. The dirt roads north and east of the caldera are drier and quieter, but can be washboarded, loose, and dusty.

Lava Butte

Some history


Lava Butte is the perfect reddish cone to the west of 97 south of Bend. It is a deluxe Oregon peak: not only does it have a lookout, road, and cell service, but the road is paved and closed to cars, the lookout is manned and has an enclosed interpretive center beneath it, and the cell service is provided from somewhere else instead of unsightly nearby towers. In addition to its own recent lava field, Lava Butte has panoramic views of larger volcanoes in all directions, from Jefferson and possibly Hood around through the Sister and Diamond to Paulina. There are, of course, ridiculous Strava records both up and down the road, with which I did not try to compete.

South and Middle Sisters

Middle and North from South


The Sisters are Bend’s iconic peaks, the three highest of a field of volcanoes west of town supporting a surprising number of large, low-lying glaciers. Being on the Cascade crest, they accumulate a huge winter snowpack that lingers well into Spring. The main access road at the southern end, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, is plowed only as far as the Mount Bachelor ski area in winter, making access to South Sister, the highest peak, longer and more difficult. I had thought to do the peak as a bike-and-ski, but learned to my surprise that the road had just opened to cars the day before my planned outing. This gave me time and energy to do more skiing, continuing to Middle Sister and reascending the South on the return. The outing was about twenty miles with a bit over 11,000′ of elevation gain and loss, with every bit of the descent done sliding on skis.

First view of South Sister

I slept in the small plowed pullout by the sort-of trailhead, then got up early for a reasonable start around 6:00 AM. I had no idea how long South Sister would take, or how soon the snow would soften, so I packed plenty of food but headed out with no particular plan. Starting through the woods, I found myself on the wrong side of a creek, and had to squelch across a bit of wet moss to get back on-route. I then followed a well-established ski- and snowshoe-track toward the mountain, passing a tent down in the forest, and another on the long plateau where the peak first comes into view. It was looking much snowier than when I was here last year, and the line to the summit seemed obvious.

Upper ridge

The snow was hard and crunchy, sticking like Velcro and making it possible to skin directly up remarkably steep slopes. The skin-track looked like it had been made late the day before, so it was well-incised but icy. The final switchbacking climb to the south ridge was somewhat desperate skinning, and it probably would have been faster to take my skis off and kick steps. I met a group of four guys at the base of the final ridge who had done just that. I was still moving well, so I left them behind as I continued skinning up the ridge. I finally gave up this silly game near the top, kicking steps up the final, wind-carved slope to the summit crater. I had not brought crampons, but the snow was just crunchy enough to give me a bit of purchase in my ski boots. Falling might not have been a great idea, so I didn’t do that.

Broken Top, Bachelor, and a fire

From the summit I could see a wide panorama of volcanoes, with Jefferson and the other Sisters to the north, Broken Top and Bachelor nearby to the east and south, Diamond and possibly McLaughlin farther away, and a number of lesser ones like Washington. It had taken me something like 3-1/2 hours to skin up, and the snow was still obviously too hard for fun skiing, so I decided to continue to Middle Sister, whose south face looked like a good ski. I knew nothing about how to get down the north side of South Sister, but figured that it was a volcano, so how hard could it be?

Sketchy descent

I transitioned and tipped off the north side, making slow, chattering turns on the icy snow until I reached some rock outcrops. The northeast side, descending to the Prouty Glacier, looked way out of my league. Poking around a bit, I spotted a line left of the north ridge that would get me back to the ridge lower down if I wanted. The problem was that the top of this line was icy and steep, with a cliff band beneath it; being on skis always adds ten degrees, but CalTopo says the slope is 45-50 degrees. I dithered a bit, then slid through a gap and carefully side-slipped toward the ridge, then down along its base. I thought of crossing to the sunny side, but decided the open slope on the northwest side looked better. I side-slipped until I had a clear line, then made some inelegant, chattering turns into the bowl, my quads complaining at the effort.

North, Jefferson, and Hood from Middle

I started having more fun as the angle eased and the snow softened lower down, traversing back east toward the highest saddle between the two peaks. The terrain between the peaks is a torn-up wasteland, with surprising pockets and steep sections, but I managed to slide to near the point of inflection before switching back to skins. Unsurprisingly Middle Sister sees much less traffic than South, but the line was clear enough that I did not miss having a track to follow. I saw another person ahead of me on my way up, and made some effort to catch him but, perhaps seeing me, he kept his lead. I later learned that he was a skimo racer with ultralight gear, which made me feel better about my failure.

I switched to booting near the top of the face, then continued that way along the ridge toward the summit. The snow was still hard and wind-sculpted, and the ridge narrow enough that I was not looking forward to the descent. I saw tracks on a proud line on the steep east face, as well as the debris of a sizable wet slide from the day before, reminding me that I am only a middling backcountry skier. I met the skimo guy on his way down, then two taciturn, bearded bros doing the Sisters traverse from the north. Like most skiers, they had skipped North Sister’s true summit, a difficult mixed scramble this time of year. The peak’s south side looked like a miserable ski in any case, so I was glad to be doing an out-and-back instead.

I watched the bros side-slip the ridge as I transitioned, then headed for home myself. I managed a few turns on the ridge, but the top was mostly an unpleasant, chattery side-slip. Lower down I found softening snow and decent turns on the crest, then headed far left to the sunniest aspect in search of softening. While I found some fun parts, I had to contend with both wind-sculpting and rounder waves probably caused by uneven melting, making it a bit like a bump run in places. I returned to where I had transitioned on the way north, stopping to put skins back on to head back up the north ridge. The other two guys slid by to the west, toward some lower saddle; they probably knew the “right” path, but I knew the ridge would go.

South, Broken Top, and Bachelor from Middle

I skinned for awhile, then put my skis back on my back for 1500 feet or so of hiking and step-kicking. My boots were already well-used when I got them, and their liners are basically just thick socks at this point, so the plastic was starting to chew my ankles and shins from all the booting. As I had hoped, I found bits of a summer trail in the exposed volcanic rubble, reassuring me that the underlying terrain was no more than class 2. I finally rejoined my outward path where I had side-slipped to the ridge, with only a bit of very easy scrambling. Above, I stayed close to the ridge, kicking steps up the steep snow and experimentally wandering to find where it was softest. I traversed left at the top to get through the short cliffs, then plodded up the final slope to the crater rim.

After a final transition, I was ready for some good skiing. There were a half-dozen or so people loitering around the rim, with more still skinning up. I dropped in through the icy fins, still finding the snow surprisingly firm; apparently the wind and low air temperatures had delayed its softening. I traverse to the sunnier ascent route left of the ridge, where I finally found good snow and was able to make looping GS turns. Traversing again back into the bowl to the right, I found more fine skiing before finally reaching the plateau. From there on it was heavy, though not sticky, slush for the long pole and skate, then the slow tree-ski to the road. Reaching the car mid-afternoon, I ate lunch and dinner rolled into one, then sat dazed in the car while my stuff dried outside. Another storm was coming in the next day, but I had driven all the way from town, so I decided to stick around and try to do something short in the morning before retreating to the rain shadow.

Smith Rock

Central Smith Rock


Smith Rock is a well-known cragging area about a half-hour northeast of Bend. Being low and east of the Cascade crest, it is warmer and much drier than areas west of town, with the best times to climb being Spring and Fall. It lies on the boundary between basalt flows presumably from the Newberry Crater and older John Day welded tuff, with the climbing being on the latter. The rock is sharp, sticky, and pocketed, with most routes being sport-bolted and single-pitch. This is not the kind of place that normally draws me, but I was nearby and in the midst a sort of crash project to improve my climbing, and Jason was local and free for the weekend. With a late start on Saturday, and a race going on, we were unable to park in park, instead stopping at an intersection outside the broad “no parking” zone and jogging a mile or so past the tricked-out Sprinters sprouting expensive cell boosters.

Scrambling Round River

The first day was for scrambling, so we hiked and jogged over to Round River on Koala Rock, at the right/east end of the park. Since it was only 5.4, I decided to head up in my trail runners. It had been awhile since I did any real scrambling, so I was slow and tentative, but this was necessary practice to get back into scrambling headspace. Jason had it worse: he is better than I am at getting free stuff, and that stuff included some Hoka-style clown shoes which he had decided to wear. As expected, they were not much good for scrambling, so he had to work a little harder. We topped out, then went around the loose, steep climbers’ trail down for another lap. I felt much more in my element this time, thoughts of slipping and bouncing no longer crossing my mind.

Instead of returning down the climbers’ trail, we continued to the top of the “peak” so I could get a point, then continued down another use trail to rejoin the main trail system. Rather than return to the trailhead, we took a gradual, switchbacked trail down the back, which was perfectly graded to open up and practice running at a 5-something pace. After circling around the back of the park to the west, we climbed back to the summit of Misery Ridge (another peak point!), then took the tourist trail down.

Passing by the bottom of Super Slab, we hesitated for a bit, then decided to scramble it. Since it was 5.6 and had “slab” in its name, we opted for rock shoes. The first pitch had little to do with slabs, climbing a ramp/corner/crack to a fat ledge. I scampered up, then watched another pair on the second/third pitch while waiting for Jason who, after awhile, decided he wasn’t feeling it and told me to go ahead. I continued across an exposed traverse, then started up the last pitch, which was indeed slabbier. The other party was unfortunately still there, the leader taking his time on his first trad lead. I tried to pass a couple of times, but the slab to the left had fewer features and more lichen, neither of which I liked. After I hung out at a couple of rests, the guy found a spot where he could pull off and let me pass. The final moves were a bit thin, but I had rock shoes and my head was back in the right place, so they didn’t give me much trouble. I had more trouble with the top-out, which descends into a gully and climbs a gritty dryfall, then traverses again to climb a weird chimney. Maybe I should have left my rock shoes on a bit longer.

I jogged back down the trail to meet Jason, then we returned to the trailhead. The final bit of trail climbs away from the river, with a paved portion that it is “traditional” to sprint. I didn’t have fast-twitch muscles in my 20s, and time has not improved that situation, so I was thoroughly trounced. After dinner we headed to Redpoint Climbers Supply, a combination coffee/gear/beer place that caters to every phase of a typical climber’s day. I am not one for late nights or hanging out, so I sat around mostly checked-out for awhile, drinking a kombucha, until it became socially acceptable to sleep.

Sunday was rope day, so after another late start, Ashley dropped us off at the trailhead with the gear before parking back where we had the day before. The sunny moderates were all full, so we kept going to the much more pleasant shady side of Asterisk Pass to do a few 5.8s. I led them, then we took turns toproping. By the end, I had a good feel for Smith’s rock: grippy and pocketed, but sharp and potentially quite painful. I would probably not enjoy crack climbing there, but I felt ready to do more scrambling or harder leading if I get a chance before I move on.

Willamette Pass Peak, Maiden

Maiden from ski area


My legs were a bit tired, and my shins a bit beaten up after eleven hours in ski boots. But the weather was good and I was in the area, so I looked around for a suitable shorter objective and found Maiden, a P2K (peak with 2000 feet of prominence) behind the Willamette Pass ski area. I drove back to the pass, found a spot off the Odell Lake Road where it seemed I would not get towed, then got ready and hiked back along the highway with skis on my shoulder to start at the closed lodge. The ski area is oddly designed, with runs on all sides of Willamette Pass Peak including the south one facing the highway. Despite there being plenty of snow in woods on most aspects, plants and rocks were showing through on these, so the ski area had closed for the season. I stepped off the highway, then skied ironically across its empty parking lot.

Diamond, Success

Not knowing the area’s runs, I skinned straight up under the lift, switchbacking up the headwall between the basalt and manzanita. The trees were again covered in rime and, looking back, I saw Diamond gleaming in the morning. While today would have been a more scenic day for my long ski, the previous day’s clouds probably kept snow conditions better given my late start. I stopped at the top of a black diamond called “Success,” wondered if its neighbors were named “Delusion” and “Insatiable Emptiness of the Soul,” then continued across the ridge to the higher, northern lift and summit.

Diamond from Maiden

Here I got my first clear view of Maiden, still almost three tree-covered miles away. I transitioned near the lift, then took my only good turns of the day down a backside run leading nearly to the saddle. I switched back to skins to follow a blue-diamond-marked cross-country ski route for awhile, took the turn toward Maiden Lake, then left the markings at a flat area to head directly up the conical peak. The slope was mostly gentle and tree-covered, but it was warm and the sun had been up for awhile, so the snow began glopping on my skins. I periodically knocked them against a tree or ski pole, and was rewarded when one pole finally broke near the summit. This is the inevitable end of repeated conflict between poles and metal edges, but these poles were less than a season old. Luckily I had paid good money for them at REI, and was headed through outdoorsy Bend, where I could warranty the shoddy things.

Bachelor and Sisters

Reaching the summit on one pole, I admired a clear view of about ten volcanoes, with the Sisters and Bachelor to the north, Paulina and Diamond to either side, and the Crater Lake area to the south. There was much snow to be enjoyed if it would only stop falling from the sky. The reward of a fast ski down was denied to me, as the fresh snow had all turned to sticky glop, even in the shady trees. Ski poles seem silly for going downhill, as you flap them at the ground and slide past in an instant, but it feels surprisingly awkward to ski without one. That, the trees, and the unpredictably sticky snow made the descent frustratingly slow.

I shuffled back through the woods, then returned up the backside of the ski area before transitioning once more to cautiously stick and slide down the front to the highway. I noticed a few more fresh tracks, but saw no other skiers, and only a couple of cars parked near the highway. Back at the car, I laid out my wet gear on the hood to begin drying, then took my time preparing food before heading into Bend. Weather and ski boot-related injuries would make skiing daily for a month unpleasant, but I had other plans.

Diamond

Peak at last!


At last it was time to go skiing again. To survey the surrounding snow-clad peaks, then huck the cornice and schralp the gnar. To be pitted in blower pow, carve sick turns on a rad line, take face-shots on fat sticks, then harvest corn like John Deere… Who am I kidding? Skiing has almost as much ridiculous dude-bro jargon as weightlifting (e.g. “yoked,” “shredded,” “swole”), perhaps because both sports generate enthusiasm and lack complexity. But I am not that kind of skier, and Diamond was definitely not that kind of peak. Skiing, in its original form, is mostly walking with hunks of wood, plastic, and metal on your feet to keep you from sinking into snow. Sometimes you hike with those hunks on your back when the snow is missing or ill-behaved. Occasionally you slide on them and try not to fall. The last part can be thrilling, but comprises less than a tenth of the overall activity.

Skis from the car!

Recent and previous plowing had left most parking along Willamette Pass blocked by snowbanks, but the sno-park just to its west was open and, it being May, no longer required a special permit. I slept there, availed myself of the outhouse, then started off toward the peak, skiing right from the parking lot. Coverage was a bit thin for the first few hundred yards, but there seemed to be several feet of snow in the woods above 5000 feet. I followed an old skin track along the PCT to Midnight Lake, then took off generally uphill where it ended.

Yoran Lake

Thanks to the dense woods and flat terrain — typical Oregon — I could see none of my surroundings. I also soon lost the trail in the snow, but fortunately did not matter, since the woods were mostly open and I could skin wherever I wanted on the gentle slope, occasionally looking at my phone to make sure I was still going in a straight line. Even when skinning across the relatively large Yoran Lake (alas, poor Yoran!), some combination of woods and clouds blocked my view of the summit.

Not skiable

After yet more woods, I finally emerged under Diamond’s northeast bowl, and my route became only slightly clearer. The peak is normally skied from the west, but that way involves much more driving, and bread is cheaper than gas. Coming from the northeast, one is faced with a long, undulating ridge leading to the summit, and a long east spur splitting that face. I skinned up the bowl, then chose a non-corniced place to reach the the ridge, where I hoped to find easy travel.

Scrambly bits

Unfortunately, what I found was a cold west wind and a mixture of scoured ground and slick rain-crust. I carefully skinned south as far as I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up to the first bump on the ridge, a collection of choss-pinnacles covered in rime. This turned out to be a shorter version of my Shastina struggle, clomping up, down, and around what was probably class 3 rock in ski boots, kicking at highly variable snow to see what offered firm steps, and what was either impenetrable ice or unsupportive powder.

Typical views

I eventually made my way up and over, and put on my skis to skin the gentler ridge, only to find that the snow remained highly variable and wind-sculpted. Worse, the clouds had descended, so everything was gray and I had no depth perception. I tried to follow the ridge as best I could, looking for the faint black shapes of protruding rocks as indicators of solid ground, and otherwise trying to keep one ski on either side of the snow-crest. I poked ahead with my poles to find both this crest and the frequent dips across the ridge, neither of which I could really see despite uselessly bending over and squinting. Once I even slid off the left side, then spent a few minutes tossing my skis back on top and doing a “beached whale” to regain the crest.

I considered turning around, but conditions were frustrating rather than threatening, and I had my phone’s map and GPS to guide me. I thought of leaving my skis several times before finally ditching them only a hundred yards or so from the summit, from where I seemed to have a clear line down the east face. From there, I wallowed along the crest to the Peakbagger app’s red dot, turned it green, and turned around. Such is the peakbagger’s transcendent communion with Nature.

Clearing on the traverse

Even having passed only a few minutes before, I had a difficult time following my tracks back to my skis, as they were partially filled-in and invisible from more than about ten feet away. I transitioned, clicked in, and made a trial ski cut across the east face. The heavy, gloppy powder was not going anywhere, so I made my way down in slow, careful, awkward turns, unable to ski confidently without depth perception. The clouds thinned as I descended, and as soon as seemed reasonable, I started on a high traverse north, hoping to cross the east ridge high enough to return to the Yoran Lake drainage.

Tired old USFS

I made quite a bit of distance on my traverse, but not enough to reach my outgoing path without some climbing. Fortunately the terrain is all gentle, the woods open, and I had a map and GPS. I spotted another trail following Trapper Creek back to the west side of Odell Lake, and set off down a side-creek to join that, and thereby return to the pass. While it was not quite sunny, it was warm and bright enough to make the snow sticky, and my route was generally downhill, so I progressed best by shuffling along with free heels and boots in “walk mode,” but without skins. This was long and tedious, and I dared not play music lest I kill my phone battery and hence my map, but I needed to plan, so the forced lack of distractions was helpful.

Tracks within tracks…

I finally picked up the trail just above where the creek turns east, and followed it to where there used to be a bridge. A sign said that it had been washed out and that the Forest Service, in its dotage, would be unable to repair what it had once built. Past this sad sign, I continued to the train tracks, then skinned up between them for awhile, defiantly listening to podcasts rather than for approaching trains. I fortunately had no run-ins, and left the tracks just before a tunnel to cross Pengra Pass and return to my private sno-park. At twenty-some miles and over eleven hours, this was the longest thing I had done in awhile. I enjoyed the feeling of a day well-spent, but as I hung various bits of wet gear to (fail to) dry inside my car and shoveled in food, I realized that this was unsustainable for more than a few days.

Paulina

Caldera lakes


Paulina is the highpoint of the Newberry Volcano, an area southeast of bend that Wikipedia describes as “a shield-shaped stratovolcano.” What this actually means is that there is a higher-elevation wooded area east of the main Cascade Crest with one decent-sized mountain (Paulina), two large lakes in a crater to its north, and a bunch of smaller basalt cones. It has silly day-use fees during tourist season, but is free to use while gated for the winter. It looked like another good bike-n-hike candidate from the highway, with the division of activities dependent upon snowline given the road to its summit.

End of the ride

Expecting the snow to start high, I headed out with a modest amount of food in my jersey pockets and one bottle of water. I found the gate at a snow-park about ten miles in, then began to see worrying fresh snow on the road above that. The snowpack increased alarmingly quickly as I climbed: by the time I reached the entrance station, I knew I would only be able to ride on plowed roads. The turnoff to Paulina was clearly signed, but just as clearly unplowed, so I leaned my bike against a tree and set off for an unexpectedly long snow-slog.

Plod, plod…

I hiked the road to the trail, then thought I might cleverly save myself a mile by taking this more direct route. This worked until the trail traversed a steep, north-facing slope, where the snow was less compacted and I began postholing. I retreated and contoured around to follow the road which, because it sticks to the south side and is more open to sunlight, had less and firmer snow. It was still a slow slog, prompting thoughts of turning around, but I knew I would probably never return to this obscure mound, and the views kept me engaged. The trees were again covered in a thick layer of rime, and I could see the Sisters and Diamond to the west and north, covered in a fresh coat of white. I planned to ski them soon, so this was an encouraging sight.

More rime

Much slogging later I reached the summit, which had an outhouse, buried parking lot, and interpretive sign. I was disappointed that it lacked the usual Oregon cell towers and fire lookout, but the views and reception were still acceptable. The Newberry Caldera contains two lakes at similar elevations, and I was surprised to see the western one completely melted while the eastern one was still almost entirely covered in ice and snow. The endless forest, divided into green and white by a sharp snowline, was a jarring contrast to the drought and ongoing fire back in my native New Mexico. With snowpack surviving less into the historically windy Spring, and forests primed for burning by mismanagement and bark beetles, the Southern Rockies’ future looks orange and bleak.

The descent was almost as much of a slog as the climb at first, but I was able to jog lower down as the snow became thinner. It may have been sunny, but it was still cold out, and once moving quickly and off the reflective snow, I had a tolerably cold ride back to the car. I had some decisions to make, so I headed back to La Pine for internet at the library. Looking at the forecast and considering my options, I decided to backtrack a bit to Willamette Pass for some skiing in a sort-of weather window. I found bored teenagers and dog turds in the nearby park, but locked restrooms and no open spigot. Feeling like somewhat of an unwelcome invader, I grabbed a few things at the Grocery Outlet, then drove up to the pass to camp at a snow-park.

Swimming in the P-trap

I do it for the views


“Peak-ness” is like pornography: as Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it. The Matterhorn and Rainier are clearly peaks; so are North Maroon and Mount Morrison, rising above Maroon and Convict Lakes. Impressive though it is, Castleton Tower is not. Shiprock? It’s hard to say. While a peak is intuitively a notable highpoint, trying to quantify that intuition is not easy. Elevation alone is clearly not enough: the town of Leadville lies above most of Washington State, but the North Cascades are far more peak-like than the talus mounds of the Sawatch. Other measures include isolation (distance to the nearest higher thing), prominence (rise above the connection to that thing), and combinations of those two. Then there are even more elaborate ones like Reduced Spire Measure, the integral of angle from the summit to all surrounding points.

Watching the definition of a seemingly-simple concept spiral into endless complexity is a delight to philosophers, but seems overdone for something trivial like peak-bagging. When it comes to lesser peaks in unfamiliar areas, I find prominence sufficient: it favors large solitary mountains and range highpoints. Unfortunately it has the weakness of favoring volcanoes and small ranges, i.e. Oregon and Nevada, so chasing prominence leads to what one could call the “P-trap.”

After Shastina, I found myself faced with an extended period of bad weather in the northwest, and therefore took a dive into the P-trap of northern California and southern Oregon. This area at least has trees, so it’s not as grim as Nevada, and many prominent peaks have roads leading to antennas and/or fire lookouts on their summits, making them attractive bike-and-hikes. Here are some of the summits I scaled in this brief effort to improve my “P-index.”

Black Butte

Black Butte is Shasta’s mini-me, a basalt cone next to the highway to its west. It is a nightmare of loose volcanic talus, but fortunately it had a lookout, and therefore a trail. Only the concrete foundation remains of the former, and the latter is slowly being reclaimed by the rubble, but it is still an improvement over the peak’s original state, making it a good short objective. As I ascended, I watched Shasta being swallowed by clouds, grateful that I had skied (most of) it the day before. It was cold and windy on top, so I did not stay long before hobbling and jogging back to the car.

Goosenest

Goosenest is another old volcano north of Shasta on the way to Klamath Falls. It would ordinarily be a good bike-n-hike from the pavement, but it was afternoon and raining off and on by the time I reached it, and I did not want to get my bike dirty and did not have enough daylight. I was worried about the dirt forest roads, but they were well-packed and not yet saturated, so my sorry vehicle had no trouble reaching an intersection a few miles from the summit. From there, I took the direct route, hike-jogging a road to an old quarry on the south side, then following a trail from there to the summit. The upper trail had some big snowdrifts, and it was snowing with no visibility on the summit, but it was worth just as many peak points. I jogged the descent, then continued to Klamath Falls.

Stukel

Lying well on the rain shadow side of Oregon, Stukel is another classic Oregon ride to radio towers. To make it a bit more challenging, I started from town, taking the canal bike path to a rail trail heading east of the city. The rail trail continues remarkably far out of town, but I turned south on some farm roads, then located the gravel road to the summit. This was challengingly steep at first, and I barely managed to keep my rear wheel from spinning out while toiling up in my lowest gear. Fortunately the grade eased beyond the first couple switchbacks, and I had an easier time the rest of the way to the summit. I once again had a magnificent view of clouds where Shasta and McLoughlin should have been, with clearer skies to the south and east.

Hogback

Hogback is Klamath Falls’ Atalaya, a “workout peak” with 1500-2000 feet of elevation gain and many routes leading to its summit. It was a good target for a morning of miserable weather. After looking around for awhile behind a closed and gated church, I took the wrong path for a bit before getting on the direct route to the summit, an unofficial trail that is relentlessly steep at first. I crossed the road from the other side, tagged the lookout, then quickly retreated in a storm of ice pellets. If I lived in Klamath, I would no doubt put in dozens of laps and loops on this peak.

Walker

Walker is another lookout and comms tower, east of the highway between Klamath and Bend. It would normally be a moderate ride, but snow turned the last couple miles into a hike. I biked from the highway, taking a well-maintained main road to the turnoff, then following the lookout road until the snow became too continuous to make pushing the bike worthwhile. This road had some interesting rubber water bars, which were several inches high, but just flexible enough to make it almost unnecessary to bunny-hop them. I checked out the lookout and its outbuildings, examined the weather stalled on the Cascade crest to the west, then returned to my bike for an unpleasant, hand-freezing descent.

Odell

Odell Butte is a near-perfect cone near Crescent Lake. I had been hoping to ride the road to the Oregon standard lookout and antennas, but the storm arrived in earnest the night before, so I ran it from the car, about 6 miles each way. The snow began as a dusting, which gradually turned into moderate postholing, with a large old drift blocking vehicles at the “road closed to tourists” sign just below the top. I got a brief view of Crescent Lake on the way down, but was mostly in the clouds, with only the nearby rime-covered trees for distraction. I turned up the speed a bit on the final, more runnable road, and enjoyed some time at an actual running pace; it had been too long.

Shastina

Shasta from Shastina


Mount Shasta is one of the big-daddy ski mountains of the Pacific Rim, offering over 7,000 feet of relief in peak season. I had already climbed it three times, twice via Avalanche Gulch and once via Clear Creek, but had never skied it. Though this has been an exceptionally dry year, the mountain still had coverage almost to Bunny Flat, with good turns to be had from the top of the Red Banks to below the Sierra Club hut. With hurricane winds forecast both before and after, I saw a one-day window to ski the rapidly-melting south side and took it. My plan was to climb Shastina, a subpeak I had yet to visit, then continue to Shasta and down Avalanche Gulch, a logical link-up that probably has a name.

Shasta was also one of the Clatsop tribe’s three directional peaks, which they named named Wy’East (Hood), Wy’North (Rainier), and Wy’South (Shasta). Since the ocean was always to their west, they felt no need to assign that direction a summit. To show their prowess, Clatsop warriors would set off in late Spring, toboggans on their backs, to sled the three great peaks before the Solstice. Those who returned brought a piece of sacred sulfur from each summit, and tales of death-defying speed on their descents, a precursor to the current “Fastest Known Time” craze. As a final test, to honor the West, they would wind-sail the mouth of the Columbia, much as bearded hipsters do today.

The extremes of car-camping

I camped off one of the many side-roads along the Everett Memorial Highway, then drove up to the trailhead at dawn. The lot was already mostly filled with a mixture of the cars of those camping at Helen Lake and various car-sleepers ranging from a guy in a Honda Fit to full-on hashtag-vanlife. I found a spot next to a truck with a couple getting ready to head up. They asked me where I was headed and, when I mentioned Shastina, offered that it looked pretty thin. “I’m more of a peak-bagger than a skier,” I replied before returning to my preparations.

Entry to Hidden Valley

Skis and boots on my pack, I set off up the well-beaten path, hiking the couple of miles to the stone hut at a sorry pace. I stopped to switch to skis there, then skinned through the woods and up the base of Casaval Ridge, finding a mix of ski- and boot-tracks. I traversed up and around, aiming for a flat spot on the ridge near Hidden Valley. Coverage was thin, forcing me to wander a bit to dodge brush and rocks, but I managed to keep the skis on to the small shoulder I had spotted. There I made one of my slow, awkward transitions, then coasted down into the bowl before putting skins back on to resume the climb.

Slogging Shastina

Shastina looked just as bare as from the trailhead, with a couple of strips of snow not quite connecting the south gullies to the summit crater, but there was continuous snow up Cascade Gully to the Shasta-Shastina saddle. The lower part was mostly a pleasant angle for skinning, with only one lip requiring some precarious switchbacks. As the upper gully steepened and went into the shade, it became too hard and steep to comfortable skin, so I put my skis on my back again and headed up one of the south-side snow-strips, weaving a bit to find bootable snow. The combination of altitude, weight, and age made me painfully slow on the climb, frequently stopping to pant and “admire the view.”

Southwest from Shastina

Crossing a bit of loose rubble near the top, I finally saw the layout of the summit. Fortunately I had a map and GPS, because there are several near-equally high points spaced widely apart, separated by a mess of partial craters full of snow and rubble. I debated leaving my skis at the rim, then foolishly decided to carry them to the top, hoping to find a continuous skiable line on the east, Shasta-facing side. I found a hint of a summer trail in the rubble near the top, following it to the ridge before dropping my pack to scramble to the highest bump. To the south and west I could see snowy Mount Eddy and the Trinity Alps, while to the east, Mount Shasta looked depressingly bare.

Upper Whitney Glacier

I picked my way down some scree, then skied a short distance before running into more rocks and giving up, hobbling down to the saddle, then booting up the ridge right of the Whitney Glacier. The Cascades Skiing website I had been using suggested ascending the Whitney Glacier, but it was last updated fifteen years ago, and I suspected the glacier would be too dry and broken up to be useful. Instead, I booted up a broad snowfield, aiming for the ridge to its right, which joins Casaval near the base of Misery Hill.

End of ridge

This turned out to be a moderately bad idea, as the ridge was frequently loose, sometimes narrow, vertical on the left, and often steep and icy on the right. I tried to find the best route I could in ski boots with skis on my back, sometimes scrambling class 3 rock on the crest, sometimes traversing slopes to the right, but it was slow, cautious, tiring work. I told myself that, having not done any real mountaineering since last Fall, this was good and necessary practice.

Ice chickenheads

I finally reached the junction with Casaval and headed for Misery Hill, intending to skin up to the summit crater, tag Shasta, and have a nice, long ski. I hiked down to a shallow saddle, then noticed that the south and west sides of the Hill were a mixture of bare talus and what a guy in the parking lot referred to later as “ice chickenheads” — finger- to hand-sized blobs of clear ice formed when moisture is blown across textured snow by vicious wind. It looked somewhere between unpleasant and unskiable. I stopped near where a splitboarder had discarded his gear, and watched a few skiers skinning back up toward the top of Casaval Ridge. I thought for awhile, looked toward Shasta, then decided I had had enough for the day, and all the good skiing was below me.

Left of Heart chutes

I slid back to the saddle, booted up a short rise, then clicked in again and dropped into one of a few steep chutes northwest of the summer route in an area called “Left of Heart.” The initial drop looked steep, but the chute was wide enough that I was mostly able to link turns, and the snow was enjoyably firm. It gradually turned to more of a Slurpee lower down in Avalanche Gulch, but it was highly consolidated and momentum was my friend. I linked leisurely turns down the bowl past the tent city at Helen Lake, then followed a gully as I began searching for the route that would get me closest to the car. Things gradually deteriorated, but with only a couple of minor scrapes and short hikes, I reached the trail about a quarter mile from the parking lot.

The lot was a mixture of happy skiers and tourist hikers. I hung my stuff to dry, made some food, then chatted for a bit with the members of the Honda Element Club parked across the way. I hung out as the crowd thinned, waiting for it to cool down in the valley, then retreated to another forest road for a quiet night. The weather was some form of bad for much of the next week in every place I checked within convenient driving distance, leaving me scrambling for options. I was slightly disappointed in myself for not summiting Shasta, but I had skied the best part on a near-perfect Spring day, and felt no need to return for the final 1000 feet.