Saturday, July 31, 2010

Back in the Washington Cascades

I've been telling people this: Those Washington Cascades are nothing like ours in Oregon. Yup, the volcanoes are there but the exploded remnants up north are bigger and more glaciated. Squeezed in from all directions throughout those big volcanoes are endless ranges coming from all directions. The approaches are wild with waterfalls and the mountains shoot up into every view. From the dense valleys to the icy summits its a long way up and the trailmakers' favorite tool is the switchback... and once your in the mountains there's granite and andesite and snow and ice to keep one busy for a lifetime.

Well, all this still holds true, and there's more. Yesterday we made a one-day ascent of Mount Daniel's 7,899 foot East Peak. It was our first notable journey into the Central Cascades this summer and we were quickly reminded of the sheer size of the range.

We climbed from 3:30am to the reach the peak by 10am. During the dark hours of the morning we climbed through pitch black forest to reach still ponds reflecting the morning clouds. Mount Stuart and the entire Enchantments sat to the east and we watched them fend off an early morning advance of desert cloud cover to leave us with a fantastic clear route to the summit.

Unfortunately the summer heat was immediately upon is and the snowfields turned to guck at once. We rushed up through the heat to beat the encroaching mountain melt-down. We climbed straight through the morning to make sure we could descend the steep snow before the sun had its full impact. The day was wild and hot and long and gave us a complete view of the many ranges laid out before us.

The Cascades, in their entirety, are all well within striking distance from Harvey Basecamp and from our Mt Daniel summit we saw we had a lot of work to do. I wished to be able to point of the names of each and every peak near and far, and for that, we must climb and explore across the range. Sometimes the only way to pick out and name the mountains in the distance is to have climbed them before. So, we go.

Photos: 1)The view south from Daniel's southeast ridge showing Rainier and Spade and Opal Lakes, 2)Michelle at the summit 3)up the steepest of the snow gullies 4)Mt Daniel East peak and our route

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Middle Sister is surely my favorite peak in the Oregon Cascades. Last weekend, the classic central sister made for a good day in Bend's local range. Eric, Tyler, and I had finally got our shit together, our schedules aligned and we made a midnight rendezvouz in Redmond. The drive through the night is a great part of these adventures, and from when we left Redmond at 3am we past not a single sole on the way to the Pole Creek trailhead.

With record hot temperatures forecasted for the day I was a little worried about the snow stability as the day warmed up. And indeed after returning home we heard of a late afternoon rescue on Hood the previous day. Somehow there are still mountaineers out there that don't understand the dangerous nature of a melting sno-cone. I had set in my head a 'summit-by' time for 11am. Knowing the steep snow step midway on the north ridge may pose a problem after a few hours at these temps we had move along before the inevitable melt-off began.

And move along we did. Stopping briefly and infrequently and keeping our eye on the prize as we blasted up the steep and forested east flanks of Middle Sister. The sun came out abruptly and everything was immediately hot. This was going to be a test of endurance in these temperatures. It reminded me of the Arizona desert – only with the added reflectivity of the snowfileds. Higher onto the mountain a slight breezed picked up and at the col I tossed on my shell and good my helmet and ice axe ready for action. We had very short food supplies between us – we ate the last of the pretzls and fruit snacks (I will pass by the story illuminating how this happen). We happily found the steep snowfield step well travelled with good steps kicked in and now starting to melt into rotten snow. The pitch was short and deposited us on the north shoulder which then relented in steepness, cross another low-angle snowfield, and plopped us onto the small summit.

Views in all directions. A little bit of whining a rejoicing. A sip of water and enjoying the summit breeze. Then reverse down the continually softening snow step and back to the col, which is now seeming like grand central station with a roped party descending, two couples ascending and a few solo hikers departing to the west. I attribute it to the general increase in recreators in Bend lately – the trailheads and notable backcountry areas are clearly seeing increased use (not to mention the Search and Rescue seeing a lot more boneheads lost in the reasonably straightforward Three Sisters Wilderness).

Once off the solar-oven snow fields and down through the thankfully shaded forests we reached the catchtrail heading back north to Pole Creek. The temperatures low on this west flank under scant lodgepole trees were truly opressive. I can recall no other time in Central Oregon where I have felt so blasted by heat and sun – my only comparison to this afternoon come from adventures in Mojave and Colorado desert lands. There is heat that can not be escaped, dry wind that sucks the moisture from your pores, and shade to thin to help. Our final trail miles were as all final trails mountaineering-in-day trips should be: brutal, hot, and way longer than they seemed going in. What a great trip!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

An exploration

An intense month of exploration in Southern Utah's canyon country has come to end. Back in the comfort of the casual Central Oregon landscape I am almost finding time to reflect on the very wild places we have been recently. We explored, I believe, the heart and soul of the mighty Colorado Plateau. We navigated into the most intricate of slickrock mesas and defiles. We descended canyons, made wild by the extreme nature of their terrain and later traversed every two-wheel drive road we could in search of the most open land.

Finally, we made ourselves psuedo-locals in the culturally bizarre small towns of Springdale, Escalante, and Page. The region is completely one-of-a-kind and beautiful, but most importantly, it is still wilderness. It has fought back against the spread of humankind and won. Its rivers have been tamed and exploited and cities continue to expand their tentacle but the harsh life this wilderness promises has helped maintain a wildness in the place.

When we first arrived in Zion on May 15th the rivers were high and flowing thick with red sand. The desert sun was still tempered by the spring rains and everywhere was exploding with wildflowers. We counted up to fifteen different species in bloom on one trip into the Escalante. The winds were present too. We had read about the tortuous May winds of the desert in a couple of guidebooks but nothing could have prepared us. The desert is an exposed place and a strong wind just adds to the desolation and intensity of the landscape. There was no help from vegetation so you had to turn to the geology for reprieve. It is a rare day when reading the wind on the landscape in needed for your daily comfort and survival. Finding a spot out of the wind does not to prove to be as easy as finding a spot out of the sun for example – having the telltale sign of shade as your guide. With wind it is more subtle, you hike across a wide sand-blown valley to an alcove that looks great and its the windiest place out there. Where there is less wind, the sand drops out of the heavy air and onto you and into your eyes. There is no escaping the wind.

By June the desert was feeling regular again. It was hot, but not unbearable, there were flowers, but only those guarded by canyon walls, and clear, spring-fed streams replaced silty torrents. It was the quality and nature of the watercourses and the water within them that changed the most for us. The amount of silt carried in the creeks seemed to change the colors of the whole canyon. First torrential snow-fed maroon cream, then blue glacier-like pools and iridescent falls, then crystal clear mirror-like pools that reflected the ripples into magical orbs. The combinations of colors and light are infinite in a water-filled desert canyon. After a month of day-to-day experiences within these rare, remote canyons the seasonal variations that changed the entire nature the of the beast became apparent. In Escalante, where water is harder to come by than in Zion, the wildflowers and shrubs seemed to respond to the intensifying summer on a daily basis, tightening up their skins almost before your eyes. Every component of the desert wilderness is invariably teased or shaped by the Earth's most precious resource. Its hard not to notice the immediate and ancient role of running water in the landscapes' creation. We were there too, following its courses downwards towards the all-encompassing Colorado and learning about the coming and going of the land.

Photos: 1)The Waterpocket Fold 2)Descending into Deer Creek, Escalante, 3)Buckskin Gulch, Paria River 4)All the rocks of the desert end up in the ocean