22 Mar 1997

Elk Mountain

This day hike provided an opportunity to use my new shoe-shoes for the first time. The MSR Denali Llama is one of the cheapest shoes you can buy at 99 dollars, but also the most versatile. Deep crampons on sides, front and back bite into the snow on steep slopes, and attachable platforms get you into deeper, powdery snow.

From what I have learned, the main rule in winter hiking is to be prepared for anything. So even a day hike requires about 25 pounds of extras. After the boots, snowshoes, parka shell, snow pants, gaiters, gloves and hat comes extra sweater, food, water, first-aid kit, sunscreen, maps, and compass. After adding a whistle, flashlight, pair of shorts and binoculars, my large pack was well filled.

Kris and I had purchased a shiny new Toyota RAV4 exactly one week before. Driving to the mountain in it (moonroof open!), I felt proud but apprehensive. I’ve had many experiences with car vandals, and Kris would be heartbroken if I limped home with a broken window. We have a good alarm system, but you never know. I decided to stop worrying about it, since there was nothing I could do, short of staying home all the time.

It was a beautiful clear day. I parked at the Clark Creek Snopark a few miles up highway 35 from Government Camp. There was no sign of anyone else, and the snowbound forest was as quiet as a tomb. Strapping on my gear, I climbed the snowbank and entered a world where everything was submerged under 8 feet of snow. The Forest Service had marked the trails with painted boards on the trees. These signs (when visible at all) were at the level of my ankles. Still, it wasn’t hard to tell where to go because of the ski tracks leading away. Blue reflective markers pointed the way too.

After walking about ten minutes with the snowshoes, I had to stop for the customary readjustment session. I took off my snowpants, replacing them with shorts over my long underwear. I added gaiters to keep my socks and feet dry. I took off my jacket and rolled my shirt-sleeves up. This would be my outfit for the first hours of the trip, since you work up a lot of sweat when snowshoeing!

I trudged east for 1 mile, then turned north and crossed a quaint log bridge over rushing Clark Creek. I was amazed at the snowpack dramatically visible at the river. A tiny rock island in the river was submerged under a 12 foot cover of snow, as was anything else more than a few feet in area. After the bridge I had to climb up a snowbank, using the toes of my snowshoes for the first time. I seemed to be the only living thing here, besides the rushing water.

After many twists and turns, I was surprised by a roomy little snow-cave to the left of the trail. Someone had built it, with steps leading down. I went inside and found a bench wide enough to sleep on. It was colder inside than out, but it would certainly hold warmth better. Cinders on the ground indicated a fire set in the previous weeks.

Finally, I emerged into a small meadow on the south side of Newton Creek. Here I saw two men with snowshoes. They were too far away to talk to, so we waved to each other, and they headed west. Mount Hood loomed behind them, dwarfing us all. This was the first view I had of it since the road. Now it looked wilder and more dangerous. Elk mountain shot straight up in front of me. I needed to get up there in order to get to Elk Meadows with it’s stone warming hut, and not-yet-blooming fields below the mountain.

Here is where I took a wrong turn, or more precisely, failed to turn at all. My guidebook indicating a switch-backing trail going up the side of Elk Ridge. I assumed it was buried in the snow, and after a few indecisive moments, chose to snowshoe straight up the side in an area clear of trees. The way became so steep (nearly vertical) that I was soon punching holes with my snowshoes and fists. Movement was painfully slow, and beads of sweat fell from my hair though I was hugging the cold snow wall. The only thing that made it worthwhile was looking down and seeing the distance I had covered, and looking behind me to see more canyons marching off to the south.

Each time I thought I had reached the top, another sheer slope dominated my vision. I cursed myself for impulsively going up, and worried that I would get to an inaccessible cliff and have to go back down. Furthermore, I would slip a few yards every now and then and this was infuriating in my rapidly tiring state. But the views of Mount Hood and the surrounding valleys became more and more inspiring. I think the east face of Mount Hood is the most beautiful. The enormous pillar of volcanic rock assaults the senses with it’s absolute silence. I remember thinking that something so massive couldn’t possibly be so quiet and still.

About three-quarters of the way up the snow turned to ice around a small waterfall. I used tree roots to clamber up and over, cursing the ice for rebuffing my snowshoes. Finally, when I could take no more, I emerged on the summit. “Praise God,” I repeated over 17 times. There was a nice park-bench-like array of snow platforms to sit on with alternating shade trees and clear, sunny patches. I took off the snowshoes, lay my jacket on the ground and napped! It was about 1:15, and I had been on the move since 9 am.

I tried to enjoy myself there, but was anxious to get to Gnarl Ridge (already, I had my doubts that I could make it), or at least Elk Meadows. I called Kris on the cell-phone and we had a scratchy, short conversation. I shouted that I was fine, and I’d try to be home by 7 PM. Suddenly, I felt lonely after hanging up.

Gathering my gear, which I had sprawled all over the “park,” I tromped off to the northwest, hoping to converge on Elk Meadows. I entered a forest of Whitebark pine with many standing snags. The snow here was very deep, and I was beginning to post-hole. The slope began tilting up to my left, although it should have tilted down since Elk Meadow is in a basin. This aroused my sixth sense. Examining the map, I decided I must be on the east side of the ridge marching from north to south on the east side of Elk Meadow, since it fell to the right and rose to the left. I was therefore further east than I thought. I marveled at the slope I had climbed, since the map indicated it was the steepest on the mountain.

As I was readying to head more west than north, in order to get over the ridge and down to the meadow, I stumbled on a solitary pair of ski tracks going east and west. Gamely, I followed them to the west, with the mountain again looming before me. Somehow, these tracks, probably made days ago, provided me with much appreciated companionship in this lonely forest.

I continued this way for an hour, and must have gone over a mile. Newton Creek lay in the valley on my left, and the woods I marched in stretched off north on the right. Since I didn’t know my exact position on a line, I couldn’t venture north, even though I felt Elk Meadows must lie that way. In this kind of silent, deadly wilderness, you always want to know where you are, and if you don’t know exactly, you definitely play it safe!

Eventually I came to a saddle, where Elk Mountain slopes down behind me, and Gnarl Ridge slopes up in front to the west. Ironically, now I knew my location, but it was too late to tromp off north to the meadow. I decided to go down to Newton Creek, but I didn’t want to retrace my steps.

I knew I would be sliding down, so I put the snow-pants on and zipped everything up for a wild ride. Abruptly, I turned left, and began skipping down the steep south slope to the creek two thousand feet below. The going was fast and nerve-wracking, since the snowshoes would occasionally post-hole and get stuck, while my body wanted to careen ahead. Once, my left foot became stuck deep in a snowbank, and I fell forward into a 4 foot deep tree well. Hanging upside down, with a heavy pack and unable to pull my foot out of the snowbank I thought: “What the heck am I doing here?!?” After much effort, I got my foot out and fell in a heap against the tree. Other dangers including bounding along on snow to later realize I was on a snow-bridge over a healthy river flowing down the mountain. Visions of a cold, wet trip back to the car steered me well clear of this undersnow menace!

After about 30 huffing minutes of this I felt I was almost down. Then I saw ski tracks to my right and suddenly, skiers to my left coming towards me. They looked up, startled at seeing a human, and I asked if these were their tracks. They were friendly, and advised me to follow them since I would have had to walk miles to the east in order to cross Newton Creek. The tracks headed west and down, allowing me to cross a wall of churned up snow, rising 10 feet above the rest of the snowpack on the creek. The skiers pointed out that the wall extended as far as could be seen to the west, where it must have fallen violently from Gnarl Ridge. This was easily a mile away as the crow flies! The power of this warehouse-sized column of snow must have been humbling.

The pair, an informative couple - the man with a thoughtful beard and the woman huffing in mirrored sunglasses, seemed worried about my safety, asking if I had food and water. I assured them I was fine, and they zoomed away, back towards the sno-park I had come from. Its hard not to envy them, since they can move so quickly. Perhaps later I’ll learn how to cross-country ski - snowshoeing is so much work!

The trudge back to my exit from the woods on the south side of Newton Creek was very long. I didn’t realize I had traveled so far towards Gnarl Ridge up there. Also, I was glad I had taken their advice about crossing the creek, since sheer cliffs rose up on the north, with no way to cross in sight. I would have been in for an exhausting sidehill traverse. Actually, I probably would have given up, and gone back to Elk Mountain, and retraced my upward path down. I’m so glad that didn’t occur!

Finding my exit point, I entered the woods south of the creek and plodded back, looking at my tracks going the opposite way. So full of exuberance was I then! 7 hours later, I was ready to go home. I sank much deeper in the snow with each step, quickly tiring of the slow pace. I saw bear tracks paralleling the path just to the right. I had also seen elk tracks in the forest on the ridge-top.

I was glad to see the car, and spent about twenty minutes changing clothes, stretching and groaning. Removing socks with elaborate care, I made sure not to get wet, and tried to keep the car clean. As I headed south on 35 I saw that a cloud coming from the west had encircled the mountain, giving it a kind of sombrero. A half hour brought additional “hats” higher up, each building on the previous “hat.”

Kris and I were glad to see each other at 7:30 that night!