This story was originally published on Medium, June 3rd, 2017.
I started climbing mountains in 2011, while I was a grad student in Pullman, Washington. You can guess by its name that the Palouse prairie doesn’t offer much topographical variety, though: from Pullman, I had to travel south to the Wallowas, east to the Bitterroots, or west to Seattle if I wanted to find a mountain worth the name. Living on a grad student stipend, trips like that were necessarily few and far between.
Mountaineering didn’t become a full-on obsession until I moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon, in 2013. During that first year, with the spine of the Cascades in easy striking distance and a “real world” salary, I managed to bag more peaks than I had over the previous two years combined. In 2015 I managed to climb forty-seven mountains over something like six months. Obviously, the move has been great for my relationship with high altitudes. Which makes it ironic that my first climb as an Oregonian was Mount Harriman.
Lindsey and I rolled into town, U-Haul in tow, on July 3rd, 2013, and I managed to wait a whole sixteen days before I took on that first ascent. Unlike many of the mountains I’ve singled out to climb, there is nothing particularly special about Harriman: it’s twenty feet short of 8,000 feet high, it has no trails to the top, and its slopes are a patchwork of loose rock, impenetrable manzanita, and dense pine forest. But I was antsy for an adventure, I didn’t know the area yet, and it was the closest legitimately-sized mountain to town. And, it would be my first time in Mountain Lakes Wilderness, the remains of an enormous, ancient volcano and one of the original three Primitive Areas established by the Forest Service way back in 1930.
Tackling the mountain in ninety degree weather would not turn out to be the best idea.
I did make it to the summit that day, but it was a miserable hike. After hiking the length of the Varney Creek Trail and turning left onto the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail, I covered another half-mile or so before turning left again, directly into the woods this time, and heading north along the mountain’s south-southwest ridge. Before long, the thick forest faded away behind me and I was ascending sharply on the Cascades’ infamous dinner-plate scree. Eventually, as I gained yet more altitude, I graduated to loose-lava-boulder scree. Yay.
Near the summit, dehydrated, sunburnt, and on shaky knees, I found myself hemmed in by gnarly, waist-high manzanita bushes and then confronted — in frighteningly close quarters — by two angry elk. They screamed at me, and, bereft of ideas, I screamed back. I kept screaming, which seemed appropriate considering the situation, until they eventually retreated down the mountain. On the summit, I drank what was left of my water, took a few pictures of my as-yet-unknown surroundings, and proceeded to clamber slowly, achingly down the mountain’s west face so that I could strike the Varney Creek Trail again and head home.
Boulders. Nothing but loose boulders for hours. When I finally reached the blessedly flat trail, I wobbled around as if on sea legs for a few minutes because it had been so long since I’d taken a level step.
As I came to better know the mountains of southern Oregon and northern California over the next four years, my many more positive adventures came to far outweigh that first foray, but Harriman still stuck around like a bad taste in my mouth. Had the ascent really been as bad as I remembered it? Did I just choose a bad route? Could I redeem my experience of the mountain, or would it always be the one blemish on all my time spent in Mountain Lakes Wilderness, among many fond memories of dayhikes to Lake Harriette and summits of Aspen Butte?
Well, two weeks ago, with nearly all the trailheads near town still buried in snow but temperatures of seventy degrees in the forecast, I decided to find out.
I actually hatched this plan as a last-minute alternative. Feeling an especially strong hankering for some snow climbing, I’d planned to take on Aspen Butte, or Mount McLoughlin, or Pelican Butte: all within an hour’s drive, and all potentially thrilling climbs in mid-May after a heavy snow year. One call to the Klamath Ranger Station foiled this plan.
“Hi,” I began, “I was looking to do some hiking this weekend and was wondering if you had any information about snow levels in the Mountain Lakes and Sky Lakes areas.”
I was greeting with hearty, mildly derisive laughter.
It turned out that those areas had received “two hundred percent more” snow this past winter than they had in the previous few winters, and the trailheads themselves were still inaccessible. Needless to say, the trails beyond them would still be covered with feet of snow, making access difficult and routefinding nearly impossible. The only trailhead that was clear was the Varney Creek Trail, and the only point of interest within a reasonable snowshoe of the trailhead was — you guessed it — Mount Harriman.
Suddenly, it seemed like destiny. With the mountain covered in snow, an ascent would take place on top of a lovely white carpet spread inches or even feet above the loose scree and lava rocks I’d contended with the last time. It would be fifty degrees instead of ninety degrees. And with bright white snowfields marking the route to the summit, it would be easier to anticipate and bypass any manzanita mazes while still relatively low on the mountain. It would be perfect.
Okay, so there were a few surprises, and it wasn’t perfect. But it was pretty great.
The first surprise was the drive to the Varney Creek Trailhead. I’ve driven this route at least ten times since moving to Klamath Falls, so imagine my surprise when I suddenly realized that I’d driven seven miles after passing the usual sign that read “VARNEY CREEK TRAIL 4.” I pulled a one-eighty in the single-lane Forest Road — always a good time involving at least a five-point turn—and headed back the way I’d come, confused. The culprit became clear after I’d retraced the last five miles: the sign that typically marks a left turn en route to the trailhead had fallen. Filled with sunlight, excitement, and a huge bowl of fresh strawberries, I decided to play Good Samaritan and prop the sign back up all on my own. Those signs are goddamned heavy and it almost fell on me and cut my face off.
After catching my breath and digging a few giant-sized splinters out of my palms, I made the turn I’d missed before and drove the rest of the way to the trailhead, expecting to hit the “three feet of snow” the ranger had warned me about at any moment.
I did not. There was not snow there.
I was worried that this unexpected lack of snow might throw a monkey wrench into my plans to snowshoe up the mountain, but the trailhead is near five thousand feet and the summit near eight thousand, so I decided to continue with the original plan and see how things developed as I got closer to starting the ascent proper.
As I started down the trail, snowshoes strapped to my pack, I caught occasional glimpses of Harriman through the trees to the south, and higher up the mountain’s flanks were dotted with snowfields. Reassured, I rocketed down the dry trail, warming up my legs and covering the distance to the crossing at Varney Creek in record time (for me, at least). Right before the crossing, I bumped into a party of three hikers — two young boys and an older man — heading back toward the trailhead. I chatted with the old man briefly, and he warned me that just beyond the creek, the snow level increased dramatically. He and his children — or grandchildren, maybe — had planned to hike to Lake Harriette and camp for the night, but they’d been unable to cut through the snow. He shared that thirty years ago he’d once spent an entire summer in Mountain Lakes Wilderness and that it was one of his favorite places. As we parted ways, he ran his eyes over my snowshoes and ice axe and wished me luck.
Buoyed by the thought of the old man’s deep, decades-long relationship with the same trail I was standing on, I continued downhill and across the creek. It was high with snowmelt and had overrun its usual banks, but had become more of a marsh than a flood, only splashing up to my ankles in its deepest spots. From there, though, as promised, it got dicier quick: both the elevation and the tree cover rapidly increased and soon I was postholing up to my knees in snow and barely managing to follow the remnants of the old man’s south-facing footprints.
The first time I’d climbed Harriman, I’d hiked the Varney Creek Trail for nearly five miles until its intersection with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail, and then headed off trail to the north. This time around, I’d planned on only hiking something like two miles of the trail before cutting off-trail to the east and climbing the mountain’s west face. Unfortunately, it seemed that the snow wasn’t even going to let me get that far.
I only made it about a half mile past the creek crossing before the trail became impossible for me to follow and the old man’s footprints disappeared entirely. Shortly after that, I broke through the snow all the way up to my waist and had a scary moment before I could lasso a tree with my rope and lever myself back out of the freezing hole. I paused for a moment after that wake-up call, sobered, and considered my three options:
Continue heading south through the thick forest where there wasn’t room to wear snowshoes, likely break through the snow again, get stuck for good, and freeze to death.
Turn around and go home.
Head directly at the mountain immediately, and hope the tree cover would open up to the point that I could use my snowshoes sooner rather than later.
Well, the first option didn’t appeal to me at all, and I wasn’t particularly fond of the second option, either. So, it was off to make a bushwhacking route to the mountain’s knees. I crossed over Varney Creek on a thick snow bridge, took a bearing, and headed due east toward the mountain’s gradual-but-not-that-gradual west face. As I began to ascend in earnest, I was able to strap on my snowshoes almost immediately, as the pines on even the low flanks of the mountains were thinner than they had been in the Varney Creek drainage. With the threat of postholing myself literally to death lifted, I relaxed a bit and was able to focus less on each individual step forward and more on picking a good line up the mountain.
There really wasn’t one, though. Harriman’s west face would be a ridiculously and unnecessarily dangerous ankle-breaker of a climb in the summer, covered as it is by a tumble of loose, man-sized volcanic rocks. Blanketed in snow, though, that same slope would be easy enough to take on. Unfortunately, “blanketed in snow” would have been an overly generous description of the lower half of the mountain on this particular day. There was snow. In places. From time to time. But there were also pine trees standing shoulder-to-shoulder, forcing me to push painfully between them. And there were stretches where dirt and scree poked through thinning snow, requiring that I remove my snowshoes or break them.
So, for the first few hundred feet of the ascent, I labored upward in the noontime sun, stopping to take my snowshoes off, then stopping again to put them on, over and over, ad nauseum…until suddenly, to my right, I saw a snowfield ascending at least a hundred feet up in an unbroken line, the rightmost edge of it in shade. I angled for it, my snowshoes gripped the relatively solid snow, and for awhile, I was off. It was still hot, exhausting work, but before long I was rising up out of the forest and it felt, for the first time since I left the trail, like I was climbing a mountain instead of navigating a steep obstacle course of annoyances and dangers.
First Mount McLoughlin and then Mount Shasta peered over the rim of the opposite valley wall, and I stopped to take in the view and eat a snack under the shade of a pine.
From here, I faced another choice: continue bulling ahead due east and deal with the increasing pitch of the mountain’s summit cone, or bear a bit to the south and pick up the ridgeline I’d climbed way back in 2013 for a more gradual but longer ascent. After a minute or two of poring over my maps and taking compass readings, I decided on the safer, slower option. Reenergized from my snack break, I found a new gear as I traversed relatively flat ground around the mountain’s cone to the south. Before long, I was picking my way up the south ridge.
Then, suddenly, the snowfield stopped. The final seventy-five feet of ascent lay bare in the sun, dry and clear. Alone for at least five miles in every direction I clapped my hands and laughed out loud with joy. Then I unclipped my snowshoes and scrambled up the dry rocks to the top of the mountain.
My arrival at the summit proper was heralded by a literal explosion of Clark’s nutcrackers, as at least five of them erupted from the trees encircling the top of the mountain, almost certainly aghast at the sudden presence of a staggering, bearded stranger on their home turf. I chose a particularly cozy-looking rock and dropped my pack, slumping gratefully into a sitting position.
It was a great perch. The view all around reminded me of a similar — though more spectacular — view I’d experienced years before when summiting Aneroid Mountain in the Wallowas with my friend John. In both cases, the summit of the mountain underfoot was dry, while being surrounded by snow-capped peaks. And, with the geographical knowledge of the area I hadn’t had last time, I was able to soak up the sun and count summits near and far: Aspen Butte, Mount McLoughlin, Mount Scott and the Crater Lake caldera rim, Mount Thielsen and Mount Bailey, Mount Shasta, and even Mount Bachelor far to the north — which, according to a consultation of Google Maps later that night, is 120 miles northeast of Mount Harriman, as the crow flies.
It was quite the view for what had been, in my memory, a stubby, scrubby, aggravating mountain. It suddenly felt like all the effort to reach the top a second time had been worth it, and I spent much more than my usual rest time sitting on that dry patch of rocks, admiring the view, both because I wanted to bask in the feeling of having redeemed Harriman for myself and because it took fifteen minutes to prepare the strong black tea I knew I was going to need to keep my legs working for the descent.
If the experience of the ascent and summit of Harriman has been better than I’d expected, the descent was worse than I’d expected. Rather than retracing my route down the south ridge, I followed the equally gentle northwest ridge down, with the idea of travelling cross-country until I struck Varney Creek and then finding the trail north from there. It was a much shorter route back to the car, and, as long as I struck the trail north of the bridge, it wouldn’t require me to find a way to cross back over the snow-swollen creek. In theory, this plan made sense. But as is often the case, in practice, things went much differently.
The main problem was the snow. Late in a sunny day, melty snow is typically unwilling to cooperate with the descending mountaineer. This snow in particular was even worse: with the weather at summit elevation having warmed up from below freezing for the first time in the season just a few days before, the new(ish), unconsolidated, slushy snow went down well over a foot in most spots, and sometimes more like two or three feet. Needless to say, I needed to keep my snowshoes on for my own safety, while descending as best I could through a maze of trees and manzanita bushes, slipping and sliding all the way.
It might have been comical if it hadn’t been so dangerous. The slush was much too deep to intentionally glissade, and even when I fell and slid by mistake, I had to plunge my ice axe into the snow nearly up to its head in order for it to grip anything. And I fell and slid a lot.
So it continued for what seemed like hours: I’d take a few tentative sidesteps down the ridgeline until a snowshoe slid out from under me, and then I’d either fall right away or ski ten or fifteen feet down the hill on one foot, windmilling my arms and picking up speed all the way before falling and slamming hard into the ground. Then I’d have to shake off the impact while desperately stabbing my axe into the slush to try to arrest my slide before I hit a tree at fifteen or twenty miles per hour. I actually succeeded at arresting in all but one case, which ended instead with me rocketing off the lip of a tree well at unadvisable speed, covering my head with my arms while in midair, and slamming into a tree trunk the width of my shoulders hip-first.
Throughout this trial, though, Pelican Butte hovered reassuringly to the northwest, an easy beacon to follow, and the snow became less and less treacherous the lower I went. And after what seemed like an eternity of a grind that began to recall the misery of my previous July summit and descent of the mountain, I suddenly passed below the snowline and was able to unclip my snowshoes for good. Bruised, stiff, and reeling from my many hard falls, I staggered downhill for a few minutes while my legs reacclimated to walking on dry ground. Then I took a new bearing, and was off in a straight line toward the trail.
I’d like to claim that it was skill that led me to find and then follow a string of manmade signs marking the Wilderness Area boundary, but it was probably more luck.
Either way, I remembered from the map that the Varney Creek Trail ran perpendicular to the boundary, and so I followed the signs, using them like blazes to cut a quick path back to the relatively civilized part of the forest.
On a normal day, bushwhacking this section of the forest would have seemed brutal: the ground underfoot was a patchwork of small, loose volcanic rocks, the occasional manzanita snarl, and pile upon pile of old deadfall. After my snow descent, though, this terrain was positively luxurious, and I plowed on as the late-afternoon sun filtered through the trees, drying all my snow-wet clothes except for my flooded boots, which squished audibly with every step.
When I finally emerged from the forest and struck the trail, it was the second time that I laughed out loud that day: I’d managed to intersect the trail literally feet from the sign that marked the Wilderness boundary, perhaps five hundred feet north of the creek crossing. I couldn’t have navigated the bushwhack more neatly if I’d been using a GPS unit every step of the way.
Again, it was mostly luck, though I like to imagine there was at least a little bit of skill involved.
From there, it was just a matter of tromping north on the trail for a mile or so, a mentally taxing endeavor after such a difficult descent, but straightforward enough, physically speaking. Before too long, I spied the open space of the trailhead parking lot through the trees and shortly after I was sitting on the bumper of the Outback, victory donut in hand, absentmindedly shooing away mosquitos and contentedly watching the lodgepole pines sway in the wind while eating my way to a negative glycemic incidence.
In the end, despite the difficult descent, I got what I wanted. I got to take on a challenging snow climb while engaging in a lot of tricky, off-trail routefinding that seriously tested my limited navigational skills. I enjoyed the routefinding aspect of the climb so much, in fact, that the very next weekend I went back to Mountain Lakes and carried off an almost identical attack on Greylock Mountain, bushwhacking my way through alternating snow and scree to bag my 118th summit before stringing together a few long glissades — on much more consolidated snow — during my descent.
So that’s how I redeemed my first — and worst — summit as an Oregonian. Now, instead of remembering Harriman as the mountain where I ran from elk while sweating buckets and getting lashed by manzanita branches, I’ll remember that snowy view from a summit bathed in sun and caressed by a light wind, a perspective on Mountain Lakes Wilderness that I was able to truly appreciate the second time around.