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.

Lassen

Looking down ski line


Lassen Peak is the southernmost Cascades volcano, and a fairly active one, having erupted as recently as 1921 and still featuring sulphur vents and boiling mudpits on its flanks. It took me a couple tries to summit, thanks to the whole mountain being closed for trailwork, but when dry it is an easy trail hike from the road. However I had yet to ski it, and with the road still gated to cars and the High Sierra transitioning to summer, now seemed like a good time. Fortunately I had the necessary gear to make it enjoyable — a bike and skis — and David made do with a bike and splitboard. I am old enough to consider snowboarding contrived and impractical, so splitboarding a mountain seems like rock climbing in roller skates: it can be done, but why?

In any case, the parking lot was much busier than it had been during the week, though still more than half empty, and there were several other people with bikes and skis. It was not a long day, and the snow had to soften, so we were in no hurry to get started. We passed one young woman on an old beater bike, stopped to adjust her skis, and I noted how they were attached. They were held on opposite sides of the seatpost, with one ski strap suspending them from the saddle rails, a second holding an end to the top tube, and an optional bungee cord securing them to the rack. I had seen pictures of people carrying skis this way, so it was good to finally learn how it was done.

Skinning past Helen Peak

Continuing up the road, we found several other bikes at the end of the plowed section ahead of us. We switched to ski mode, then started skinning toward the peak, taking a line between Helen Lake and the road. There was no single established skin track, so I chose what seemed like a reasonable line, passing near what I thought was the summer trailhead. The trail follows the south ridge, largely wind-blasted and currently windy, so I continued around to the more sheltered southeast face, figuring this would be both more sheltered and softer.

Trail ridge

While it was more sheltered than the ridge, the snow was still surprisingly hard. I managed to keep side-hilling into the bowl, but David, on his ridiculous splitboard, was having more trouble. First, because the halves of a splitboard are shorter than skis, he had less surface area to grip the snow. Second, because he had comfortable, squishy snowboard boots, he lacked ankle support to edge into the hill. I tried to choose an easier line for his sake for awhile, but then gave up and followed some other skiers ahead and above in the bowl. I figured he could fend for himself, and I would take an extra lap to check in on his progress.

The skinning became a bit desperate as the bowl’s angle increased. The skiers ahead of me mostly had ski crampons or actual crampons, but I had brought neither. When the skinning became a bit too dicey, I traversed over to the rocks on the right, strapped my skis to my pack, and booted up a mix of volcanic rubble and softer snow on its margin. Farther up, the lensing effect of the chute had softened the center snow, so I followed that, passing a couple people near the top.

Shasta in the distance

I had hoped to get out of the upslope wind on the summit plateau, but was immediately hit with a contradictory wind from the west. Still, it was sunny and I had a down jacket, so I was comfortable enough to enjoy the view for awhile. The various summit knobs were, predictably after the previous day’s storm, covered in rime feathers, while Shasta looked invitingly white far to the north. The two other guys on the summit worked at least seasonally for nearby Plumas National Forest, and we talked a bit about the recovery from the Dixie Fire.

Almost crowded…

As another couple of skiers arrived, I decided to down to check on David. The top of the mountain was still a bit crusty, but the skiing soon improved in the bowl. I did not see him on the snow, so I put my skins back on at the base of the steeper part and headed back. Partway up, I switched to booting and found it much more efficient than zig-zagging on skis, passing the young woman we had met on her bike just at the top. I found David had arrived several minutes earlier, having scrambled up the rock rib right of the bowl, and already tagged the summit.

We hung out some more, then headed down in more favorable skiing conditions. It turns out that splitboards are also not great at going downhill, at least if one has to side-hill, so while I took a fun, straight line in the best snow, David had to begin traversing high on spiky crust. We had a bit of trouble dodging bare patches at the base of the south ridge, but mostly had an easy glide back to the bikes. There were now ten or so bikes locked to trees or leaned against snowbanks, almost a “crowd.” If only more of our National Parks were open to cars for less of the year…

Lake Almanor

About as close as I get to stunt riding

[This low-photo entry brought to you by Error 3145 and Apple’s garbage software quality. Photos will probably randomly start working again tomorrow or next week. — ed.]

Lake Almanor is one of the numerous large lakes in this part of California. Though it has an earthen dam at its southern end, it seems larger than can be explained by this modest barrier, so I suspect it was once a smaller, natural version of its current self. Fittingly for California, I first became aware of Almanor thanks to a natural disaster, the Dixie Fire, which torched almost a million acres to its south and west to become one of the two largest fires in the state’s history. (The other, the August Complex, occurred the year before.) I had noted its cycling potential, but planned to skip it in favor of more interesting plans.

However nature had other ideas. We woke in the Lassen parking lot to lowering clouds, so after breakfast we waited around to see whether things would improve. They did not, and a mild but steady drizzle began. I have skied in the rain once before and, it being a Saturday, a handful of hardy (in the Dave Barry sense) others were heading for Brokeoff and Lassen despite the weather, but David and I both had bikes, cars, and common sense, so after hanging out in the car for awhile, we drove down to Almanor to ride around the lake.

Parking at the intersection of Highways 36 and 89, we immediately left the current roads to follow old 89, a pleasant mix of dirt and decaying pavement paralleling the current road. Soon after it faded under the new 89, we found another dirt forest road paralleling the pavement, which we followed to the paved access road to Butt Valley Reservoir (what’s with these names?). This road climbed gradually through unburnt woods, then made a steep, winding descent to the lake.

Few living things


The road soon turned to dirt, and we were grateful that it was freshly-graded and we were there in the spring. This part of the state is largely volcanic, so the soil turns to a deep powder that completely coats every surface of anything that passes. We wound around Butt Lake, then wound around to the next valley, riding through rolling terrain as we entered the Dixie Fire zone. This was one of the largest fires in California history, and almost a year later, the devastation was running its course but slowly. Other than a few ferns, the forest seemed free of flora and fauna alike. The burned trees had not begun falling, and there had not been any large mudslides, but it is only a matter of time before both happen.

Down into the canyon


Even in its current state it was magnificent riding, with deep valleys opening up to views of distant snow-covered peaks to the west. With one final 600-foot descent, we reached our lowpoint at Seneca, a tiny former enclave of vacation homes and/or secessionists. Nothing was left now save stone chimneys, twisted metal propane tanks, and a dog barking incessantly somewhere off in the woods. We crossed the bridge, then climbed a steady 1400 feet back to Lake Almanor at its southern end, reaching pavement a short distance before the highway, which we crossed to continue along the quiet east-side road.

Stopping at a gas station so David could refuel on junk food, I got a chance to observe the locals for a bit. Lake Almanor may have been a prime vacation spot in the 1950s, and a logging hub in the 1850s, but its glory seems at an ebb, and it is the off-season anyways. A couple guys stopped by for soda and barbecue and said “hi” in a friendly way, and another two pulled up in an old lifted pickup, depositing a full six-pack of empty Smirnoff Ice bottles in the trash. The place felt back-woods, but not uncomfortable.

Distant snow


We continued to follow the lake shore counterclockwise, turning onto a lesser paved road, passing a ridiculous rich-person enclave with a Tudor-style stone guardhouse, then turned off on an abandoned railroad grade to follow the shore more closely back to the causeway east of Chester. This section was quiet, but the surface was unpleasant sharp gravel left over from the track bed. Thanks to Strava, David found another detour near town, taking us around the south side and ending in a mix of burnt woods, stagnant water, and ATV trails. With a final zig-zag to find a bridge crossing an input to Lake Almanor, we returned to the cars for a pleasant, leisurely 45-mile ride.

Lassen’s summit remained hidden in clouds, but David took off to tag Brokeoff, a county highpoint, while I went into town to resupply. The Forest Service office had an unguarded garden hose, where I was able to refill my water and wash my bike. An armed and armored ranger stopped by, but he did not object to my minor misuse of government property. I reached the library as it closed, but the librarian told me I was welcome to use the WiFi (unlike in Susanville, where it was closed because Someone did Something Bad). The old building even had some cool folding desks on its porch, where I sat to catch up with the world before returning to Lassen to give the main peak another shot.

Diamond, Helen, Bumpass, Brokeoff

Maximum gear, not maximum effort


After a period of indecision, I belatedly set out for a bit of “adventure,” or at least something focused more on the activity itself than on gaining fitness. Lassen Park was in that happy transitional state of plowed but gated roads, so I headed there first, arriving late to a surprisingly-empty parking lot. Not having the energy to pack or plan the night before, or the will to deal with a cold start, I finally started sometime after 8:00.

Lassen from visitor center

This was my first experiment cycling with skis on my back, but it was little worse than carrying a heavy pack, except that the tails caught occasionally mounting and dismounting. I slowly spun past the sulfurous hot springs, then continued to the northeast side of Diamond Peak, my first goal, where I saw some tracks leading up and down the short 500-foot slope to its summit ridge. I followed a skin track some of the time, made my own for the rest, and reached the base of the summit pinnacle without difficulty. I did feel slow, however: while I know from my running and cycling times that I am reasonably fit, I still found myself stopping to gasp for breath skinning uphill at a plodding pace. This is not unexpected, but it is always disappointing to be reminded that I am far from being able to race on skis.

Diamond summit block

Diamond’s summit is an undulating choss-ridge with highpoints on either end. I changed into running shoes, then went to the middle first, where I had cell service, and downloaded Bob’s and others’ trip reports to see which was the highest (an indication of my level of preparedness). Thankfully people seem to agree that the north pinnacle is the highest, because the south one is a large balanced rock that appears to overhang on all sides. I made the easy scramble in my worn-out shoes, then returned to my skis for a five-minute glide to the road. As usual, I had spent more time getting into and out of ski boots than actually sliding downhill.

Taking the day off

Back on the bike, I continued up the road to where the plows had given up near Helen Lake, then leaned my bike against the snowbank and locked it. I suppose I was blocking further plowing, but it was already close to 11:00 and the plows were still parked, so I assumed they had the day off. There had been a couple in a van camped at the visitor center, and I found their bikes a short distance onward, stashed behind some trees. They were of course headed for Lassen, but I was interested in two nearby minor summits, Helen and Bumpass.

Lassen from Helen

I had seen “Bumpass Hell” on maps during previous visits to Lassen, but had not bothered to explore. The “Hell” part is due to a volcanic feature, in this case some boiling mud-pools, in keeping with the geographic naming convention that has given us the Devil’s Tower, Postpile, and Corral. The “Bumpass” part remains an amusing mystery, perhaps inspired by a rough road through the park. I find it amusing, though, and see a missed opportunity in not naming nearby Bumpass and Brokeoff Mountains “Bump-ass Hill” and “Broke-ass Hill.”

Lake Almanor

In any case, I started up Helen first, finding it an easy skin from the lake. From the summit, I had a clear view of Lassen’s south side, including the largely-dry trail and more skiable southeast and southwest slopes. I saw the couple nearing the summit plateau, specks on skis sticking to the snow. I found some obnoxious brush and cliffs on the direct line to Bumpass, forcing me down and east, then back west to ascent its west ridge to the peak. I took a similarly suboptimal line back to the road, side-hilling across a couple of drainages before finally booting up to the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

One clunky road-walk later I was back at my bike, talking to the couple as we all put away our ski gear and prepared to ride. They had been traveling seasonally for a few years, though oddly enough in the winter, and were headed up the Cascades to ski various volcanoes. They were of a different dirtbag economic stratum than Yours Truly, but we got along well enough. Back at the car, I had a late lunch, then decided to tag nearby Brokeoff Mountain to fill the rest of the afternoon. The sun doesn’t set until 8:00, so while the skiing would not be great, I had a lot of time to kill.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

I entered the woods near the entrance station, then wandered up the broad drainage toward its headwall, where all routes converge on the summer trail. Others had apparently done the same, and I found bits of up- and down-tracks throughout. I followed an intermittent and bad skin-track up the headwall, then meandered up the ridge, dodging rocks and brush. Once I finally broke out on the broad south face, it was an easy skin and hike to the summit, the east-most of three peaks. Brokeoff offers excellent views of Lassen and Shasta, the latter’s isolation and snowpack making particularly impressive.

I found a few good turns on Brokeoff’s south face, but the snow was wet and sticky, and all too soon I had to cut left to cross the ridge back to my drainage. From there it was mostly side-hilling, skating, and careful dodging between trees back to the road, then a short walk to the parking lot. Other than the few turns on Diamond, there was very little real skiing in my day, but my purpose was to tag minor peaks, not big lines, so that was fine. Day complete, I made myself a dinner of odds and ends, then napped, read, and prepared my pack for what I thought would be another day of bike ‘n’ ski.