An Ascent In Three Parts
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
This story was originally published on Medium, July 3rd, 2017.
One of my favorite things about climbing is getting to watch the landscape around me change during an ascent. This change is more pronounced on some mountains than on others: on Mount Adams, we passed through thick pine forest, then dry scrub, then fields of volcanic rock, and finally a series of icy, almost-lunar pitches en route to the summit, while something like California’s Black Butte doesn’t really change at all from bottom to top. A mountain ascent that does take you through multiple biomes not only provides varied and interesting scenery, it also gives you a series of obvious visual markers of your ascent, indications that you have, over the course of a few hours or days, passed from a relatively civilized trailhead into some higher, rarer clime. And that’s a neat feeling.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon many times since I started climbing, but it’s been on my mind lately in the wake of my most recent summit: Crater Mountain. As I documented elsewhere, a month or so ago, I improvised a bushwhacking route to the top of Mount Harriman from the Varney Creek Trail. I had so much fun doing it that a week later I improvised a bushwhacking route to the top of Greylock Mountain from the Mountain Lakes Trail. Then there was only one named highpoint remaining in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness that I hadn’t yet scaled: Crater Mountain. Just for fun, I plotted a bushwhacking route to Crater Mountain, this one coming off of the Clover Creek Trail. It was then that I saw the symmetry: three bushwhacking routes, three summits, each using one of the three main trails in the Wilderness, and each done in the spring, on snow. Of course, I love a good story, and this one was irresistible. I had to go.
It was the end of the term, and I had a cross-country flight coming up immediately on the heels of finals week, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cap off this unique “trilogy” of spring ascents. So, on Monday of finals week — the only day that week that I had no finals to administer — I jumped out of bed bright and early, threw my daypack in the car, and drove to the Clover Creek Trailhead.
The Clover Creek Trailhead is a few hundred feet higher than the Varney Creek and Mountain Lakes trailheads, and despite it being mid-June, there was snow on the ground as I stepped out of the car to gear up. Fortunately, for the most part, that snow stayed to the margins of the trail as I began walking north and up. The trail had had no spring clearing work done on it yet, though, and almost immediately I was stymied by some truly impressive deadfall; luckily, there was enough snow for the footprints of another intrepid wanderer to indicate the way around the blockages, and then back to the trail. After a quarter mile or so of this, the trail became hillier, and, thus, clearer, and while the east valley wall to my right was cloaked in snow, the west wall and the trail were almost completely dry. I continued, making my way up the trail at a pace more appropriate for summer hiking.
The plan was simple enough: somewhere between a mile and a mile-and-a-half up the trail, a ridge rises up and runs north as the trail bends northeast to follow Clover Creek. On my topo map, the course looked straightforward enough: climb up that ridge, follow it as it angles northwest and then due west, and after about two miles of bushwhacking you’ll hit the summit of Crater Mountain. A few weeks before, I would have hesitated to assume that I could find my way through that blank expanse on the map, that I could climb all the way up and around the trail-less ridge and then back down to the trail again, but as a result of my previous two climbs, I was suddenly much more confident in my ability to find a route with just a map and a compass to go by. So, when the valley wall to my left began to rise a bit more steeply and the trail started to bend east of north, I stopped, wiped the sweat off of my forehead, took a big gulp of water, and started hacking my way through the woods, uphill and due north.
As I climbed, at my back was Clover Creek, rushing with late-spring snowmelt, and ahead of me was a sparse forest of pines, more lying on the ground, it seemed, than there were reaching toward the sky. Dry pine needles crunched underfoot and the sun beat down through the gaps in the forest. I was sweating heavily despite only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and suddenly I wondered if I’d made a mistake in lugging my snowshoes along on my back. I’d needed them for the previous two ascents, but it had been two hot weeks since Greylock Mountain, and at 6,200 feet it felt like real summer for the first time this year. It was easy enough to close my eyes, smell the hot pine bark, and imagine that it was August instead of June.
I kept pushing uphill, eventually finding the ridgeline proper and then following that north. Occasionally, there were large fallen trees to step over, and of course the requisite manzanita mazes — the Mountain Lakes bushwhacker’s worst enemy — made the route less straightforward than it would have otherwise been. But, by and large, it was a navigationally simple, if tiring, first hour or so of climbing. When the forest briefly opened up to reveal a rocky island dappled by sunlight and an eastern view of Aspen Butte, I took it as a sign to stop for a water break. While I dried out in the sun, I took this video:
Ten minutes later, the mountain chose to remind me that it was, in fact, still spring.
I gained maybe fifty more feet of elevation before I was walking on unbroken snow. I gained another fifty feet before I was postholing so bad I had to strap on my snowshoes. Then, the clouds blew in. And by “blew in” I mean “blew into my face.”
The snow was actually fantastic for snowshoeing, I was just disoriented by the speed with which the environment had changed on me. I continued climbing up through patchy half-mazes of forest. Occasionally, one of the mountain’s bones would protrude up out of the trees, giving me a clearer line to follow for a brief distance. As the clouds thickened and the visibility worsened, I kept an eye on my compass and made sure not to descend off the ridge on either side.
After another five hundred or so feet of climbing, I ran smack into a snowstorm. I’m not really sure if it’s appropriate to call this a snowfall — when you’re inside the cloud itself, is the snow really falling, or are you just walking into it? — but I was forced to don my true winter gear just to stay warm only two hours after hiking happily along in the sun, wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. Visibility became worse still, but at this point the ridge became more pronounced as it climbed toward a high point just east of the Crater Mountain summit proper, so I kept slogging away, wishing I had something to cover my exposed face with other than a gloved hand.
By the time I reached the highpoint across the final saddle from the summit, it was clear that there were going to be no views that day. No longer blocked by the bulk of the ridge, the wind was screaming in my ears, and the boughs of the pines — frozen into bulky white fans by the snow and cold — were waving in the gale like ghostly hands, slapping at my shoulders and back as I passed under them. I had hiked up into a little patch of January.
As I started crossing the saddle to my final objective, though, I realized I was smiling. Over the initial shock of the mountain’s icy transformation, and (mostly) snugly warm inside my waterproof gear, I was enjoying experiencing something I hadn’t expected to see again for nearly a year: a truly wintry alpine environment. I laughed out loud as I charged down into the saddle, wind in my teeth. When I was forced by the contour of the ridge to climb back up along a knife-edge of snow with a yawning drop off one side — a move that would normally occasion a lot of hesitation and hand-wringing — I scampered up without breaking stride and upon reaching solid snow again yelled a howl of triumph into the storm. Then, suddenly out of snow to climb, I was standing on top of Crater Mountain.
Sure, the “view” from the top was a bit less than inspiring, and the lack of cover from the gale didn’t occasion more celebration than a quick summit photo before I trudged back across the saddle in search of lower, tamer, climes, but I’d enjoyed battling through the ice and snow much more than I’d enjoyed all that rock scrambling on Mount Harriman and Greylock Mountain, even if those two hikes had offered up vastly superior views.
About a hundred feet below Crater Mountain’s summit, I found a huge tree that had fallen just so and thus created a sort of natural lean-to against the snow. Underneath the trunk-roof the ground was green, if not necessarily dry. I took a long break for lunch there, choosing a (relatively) cozy natural shelter over a better view.
As is the case with many summit stories, this descent wasn’t particularly notable or memorable. Which, honestly, is just how I like it. I retraced my snowshoe tracks back down to the point where I’d first strapped them on, and from there I hoofed it downhill on foot (“on boots”?). It became clear almost immediately that what had been snow at higher elevations had fallen as rain further down the mountain, and the sunny, illusory summer I’d sweated through during the first part of the climb had been erased by the storm. Even well below the rock island I’d taken my first break on, a misty haze spread out between the trees, the ground squelched wet and cold underfoot, and the deadfall I’d vaulted over hours before was now treacherously slick, nearly spilling me to the ground a number of times before I stopped trusting my balance on it. Whereas my ascent had been a sort-of progression through the seasons, my descent was cold and grey: the clouds had settled in to stay.
It was a little more difficult to follow the ridge down than it had been to follow it up, but not as difficult as I’d feared it might be. Without resorting to my compass even once, I managed to strike the trail a bit south of where I’d left it originally, which gave me a bit under two miles to walk to the trailhead. My environs were dramatically changed: the creek that had bubbled and sparkled in the sunlight a few hours before now tumbled downhill, icy and sinister-looking. But, after a final half hour of walking through dreary forest, I was back to the car.
My recent ascents of Mount Harriman and Greylock Mountain were both undertaken in the hopes of experiencing one last, satisfyingly challenging snow climb before summer set in in earnest. While both trips made me much more confident in my bushwhacking and navigational skills, and gave me a greater appreciation for Mountain Lakes Wilderness as a whole, they were drier and less technically challenging then I’d hoped. In part, this is why Crater Mountain makes such a fitting “conclusion” to this “trilogy” of climbs: it brought me full circle back to why I dug all my gear out of the closet in early May this year instead of just waiting until mid-June like I normally would have.
The other part, of course, is why I started writing in the first place. I love it when a climb transports me to a different world from the one were I left my car, way down below, and few of my ascents have done this more dramatically than this one. I started hiking the Clover Creek Trail in summer, took a break to watch the clouds in spring, and 1,500 feet above where I’d started hiking two hours before, I found myself hemmed in by winter. And in the bargain, I got to see a side of Mountain Lakes Wilderness that few hikers get to see.