By Scott Schechtel
Planning an outing in the Oregon Cascades will almost always make one say damned if we do, damned if we don't, especially if it is not during the more reliable summer months. I had always been intrigued with the concept of snow camping but never really knew how I would adapt to a night in the snow. My first snow camping experience was purely an accident. I planned for a fall color photography tour into Jefferson Park at the foot of Mt. Jefferson a few years ago in late September. The weather that week leading up to the journey was mostly dry though a stubborn cloud layer capped the Cascades and only lightly dusted the peaks with snow. The little snow that I knew of would have only enhanced my pictures.
The hike in up the PCT from the scarlet meadows at Breitenbush Lake was already a bit frosty and the sky was clearing though Jefferson and the summit of Park Ridge were still lost in a silvery cloud layer. I was able to capture some fall color but with each mile I slogged through another couple inches of snow. Near the crest of Park Ridge is where I contemplated turning back as I was already in almost two feet of snow. I decided to go for it and ended up camping a night on a bench just above Jefferson Park. My fall color shots became September snow scenes. Oh well.
Luckily I recently had the opportunity to take part in ažplanned snow camping adventure with Jill Kellogg and Rick Bestwick along with Robert Pumphrey. It was my first trip as a newcomer with the Cascades Mountaineers. Robert and I set out on snowshoes Friday afternoon, April 5, sprinting across Dutchman Flat and then ascended mountain hemlock woods and gentle ridges en route to the base camp below 8,091-foot Ball Butte. The weather was fair in mountain terms with brief periods of clearing and clouds. We wondered if we would run into anyone on the way up as we saw nary a skier or snowshoer until we intersected with Jill and Rick in the meadow below Moon Mountain at about three miles in. They had been marking the route with fluorescent-colored ribbon wands. We traversed below Moon Mountain and were soon following a summertime eyesore known as Crater Ditch. The gentle grade continued for the final mile or so to camp at about 7,300 feet. We arrived at about 5ish and set up camp in a cluster of old mountain hemlock near timberline. Unfortunately the uncooperative weather did not permit much in the way of mountain views. It wasn't as much a priority to take in the sights as it was to mash the already-softened snow down to set up the tents and eventually get into dry clothes. We took turns digging out a basin for the cooking area which was covered by a floorless teepee tent. 7 o'clock came fast as eating and getting as comfortably cozy in the semi-snow shelter as possible highlighted the evening. Melting snow for water was also on the itinerary that evening. Jill and Rick told us about their McKinley climb and we shared our past adventures with a few sips of Port wine.
The weather that night was characterized by freezing rain, snow and wind making it somewhat uncomfortable for heavy sleeping. It was then that I had my doubts about the morning, which seemed like an eternity. The morning proved to be better that I had expected. The wind had calmed and the sky was looking hopeful, at least enough to see most of Broken Top's massive gaping crater.
I was able to get a few shots after a satisfying breakfast of oatmeal and hot raspberry-chocolate. Shortly after breakfast, Jill, Rick and myself trudged up a moderately steep slope to a saddle between Ball Butte and the southwest ridge of Broken Top. They skinned up the slope faster than I could go on Tubbs snowshoes. To our amazement we spotted a climber high on Broken Top and as I zoomed in on him with my zoom lens. It appeared he, or she or IT was without skis or snowshoes! We joked about the possibility of Bigfoot on a telemark tour of Broken Top. Jill and Rick, however, were able to get a few good runs in as it was pretty decent snow most of the morning but the weather started to turn on us once again. It was our queue to pack up and head out. Ball Butte finally came into view guarding our camp as Robert and started to trudge back to Dutchman.
The previous couple weeks of warm weather were enough to make the snow feel like mashed potatoes. The best conditions in my opinion for snowshoeing is at least six inches of powder on top of hard pack. It was so tiring that even going downhill was kicking my butt. The ever-present whining of snowmobiles echoed off the ridge tops the entire way down and we were soon at the rowdy Dutchman parking lot. All in all, it was well worth it. I just hope the weather next time is better. Next up: Mt. Jefferson in June!