SOLITARY LATE SEASON SNOWSHOE, WILLAMETTE PASS


I had no idea what I was getting into when I drove out of Oakridge, Oregon, headed up to Willamette Pass.  I said I was going to snowshoe solo—the first week of May—and while I knew there was snow in the high country, I didn’t know how much or what condition it was in. There is deep wet snow, deep dry snow, and hard packed snow, each of which makes for a very different snowshoeing experience.  I hadn’t yet discovered the list of Oregon Sno-Tels, which are weather stations spread around the Cascades, so I didn’t know what the depths were at various elevations.

I hadn’t believed in winter in Oregon after my first one, when we were doing hikes in the Cascades in early February, and there was patchy snow only above 6000 feet.  That year it was 80 in the mountains in January, and through October Tucson had had as much precipitation as Eugene.  This winter, however, had been different, with a lot of snow even in Eugene, more in the mountains, and I had snowshoed a dozen times, once even in the Coast Range, where snow is not at all common.

I parked the car off on a side road, walked across Route 58, noting the heavy snow in the ski area and nobody there.  I didn’t see a soul.  Indeed, I could have snowshoed straight up the mountain had I wanted to; it was closed for the season.  Instead, I went into the woods to the Pacific Crest Trail to put on my snowshoes.

Once I was on snowshoes, the trail was fine.  Great, as a matter of fact, with hard packed snow in which I didn’t sink.  The woods were quiet, and it took me just over an hour and a quarter to travel 3 miles to Lower Rosary Lake, where I had been two months earlier.  It was still frozen and snow covered, except for a small area of open water at the outlet.  I went around the lake, crossed a divide into Middle Rosary Lake, went around it, looking up at Tait’s Loop and Pulpit Rock high above me.  I had planned this trip to go by all three Rosary Lakes, climb up to Tait’s Loop and loop back to the trail on which I had entered.  Nearly 10 miles, it was an ambitious endeavor, and I was alone, but alone I could dictate the pace.  About this point I told myself this had the chance to be a very special day.

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Outlet of Lower Rosary Lake, Pulpit Rock upper right (about 6400′)

I am not leading many hikes any more.  I’ve led more than one hundred; only four active club members have led more, and they’ve been around for decades.  I joined just three years ago. Leading hikes has become more work than I want to do.  I run risks soloing into the backcountry.  In addition to the usual injuries one can get, I can at any time have a bout of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which I tolerate reasonably well, even being able to climb while hiking. But I’d much rather not have it. I like the solitude, the ability to go or stop when I want, and go places where I wouldn’t dare lead a group.  I did a 23 mile hiking loop solo last fall through an old burn that had not grown back, and it was an ugly 7 hour chore on a hot day.  I won’t do that one again, but on the other hand, I now know what’s out there, which is why I hike and feel an urgency to see as much as I can, sometimes more than once.  What does that country really look like?

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Upper Rosary Lake

After Upper Rosary, I didn’t see any blue diamond metal markers that were on the trees I passed.  I looked around, wondering if I would have to turn around, but I kept going a little further and saw one.  Then I saw a several day old ski track coming from uphill.  This was well past the ski area and represented a cross-country skier’s track.  Had I been leading a group, I would have looked for an easier way.  I wasn’t, so I went straight up the track.  Wow.  It was a 30% grade for a few hundred yards, meaning I climbed 300 feet per 1000.  After I caught my breath, I pushed further to the top and then headed towards Pulpit Rock, a large landmark.  I knew the trail went west of the rock, and I was northeast of it, so I stayed at that elevation, figuring I would get back on the trail soon enough, and I did.

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View from Tait’s Loop: Middle and Lower Rosary Lakes (left); Pulpit Rock (right)

Once on the trail, I found a place where I could sit on a log, eat lunch, and look out at Odell Butte, Maiden Peak, Odell and Crescent Lakes, and the frozen Rosary Lakes.  The place was completely quiet, not sunny with a few breaks in the thick stratus.  I finished lunch, enjoyed my views a little longer, then started snowshoeing again on a trail I had done earlier this year.  That way also led back to the ski area and I could return that way if I got into trouble with my navigation.

I didn’t and found a familiar sign showing me where I needed to go.  Unlike the prior time I had been here, this direction seemed right, and at last I was no longer climbing, my 1300’ vertical effort finished.  The loop then split where I had a choice to go to the ski area or back downhill to where I had come in.  The GPS was tracking fine, I could see how far it was until I rejoined the entry trail, and I checked everything with my map, too.  If in unfamiliar territory, I carry a paper map.  GPS batteries can die, and while I consider myself to have good trail memory, I have easily gotten off trail on a number of occasions.  I was doing well on time,  headed downhill, snow soft but not too much so, and the woods continuing to be absolutely quiet, except for my movement.

Within a half hour, I rejoined the trail where I had come in and then realized that something wasn’t quite right, so I turned around and just saw my faint tracks behind me, heading to my right in the hard packed snow.  From here, it was an easy snowshoe slightly downhill, avoiding dangerous tree wells, where one can fall in and get stuck, and continued back to the trailhead.

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Tree Well. These can be very dangerous should one fall in head first.

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Signed Trail: I went out to the right and returned on the left.

This day was as special as I thought it would be; indeed, it was the best snowshoe I have ever done.  I had studied the loop several times, thought I could do, wanted to do it, put the pack on my back and did it: 9.5 miles, about 2 or 3 more than I ever had before, 1300′ of climbing, and explored a loop that not many do on snowshoe.  Nobody else was out there.  I covered distance, elevation, had great views, good snow, and quiet.  I went out that day thinking I might not even be snowshoeing and would drive right back home.  Instead, it was one of the best winter days I’ve had in the woods.

To qualify as a best day in the woods means I had a dream about doing something, did my planning, and made the dream come true.  To do such in my own way I find extremely rewarding.  I will lead a few more hikes this year, but this hike reminded me why I hike solo: the freedom and the quiet appeal to me.

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Woods at a lower elevation

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Middle Rosary Lake with Odell Butte in background.

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It’s a long climb up from the Rosary Lake below, and that is several hundred feet above where I started by Willamette Pass.

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