Category Archives: Backpacking

Stories of Backpacking trips, or something in that general area

Winter Camping on Mt. St. Helens

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Thursday and Friday, 07 & 08-Dec, 2017

 

It’s been a while since I’ve gone backpacking.

Busy work, not knowing much about trails in the Northwest, and a broken leg kind of contributed to that… but still.  No excuses.

 

It’s also been a while since I’ve attempted a summit out here… see the previously mentioned reasons.

 

It’s been way too long.  Sarah agreed.  Ollie agreed.  I think.  She might have just been hungry.  Either way, the three of us all agreed, packed up our gear, and took a drive out to Mount Saint Helens.

We had been talking about hiking up St. Helens for a while at this point, but never had the chance to do it; Not only is the mountain very committing (12 miles, with 5700+ ft of elevation gain), but we also have to contend with snow conditions, since the main route is prone to avalanche in some conditions.

 

 

 

 

We prepped the day before, packing and coordinating tons of gear between Sarah, Ollie and myself.  And by that, I mean that Sarah took a significant portion of the gear, while I stayed light and easy.  I mean, I didn’t slouch too much… mine was ~30 lbs, while hers was ~37 lbs, but still.  Those seven pounds don’t seem like a lot until your a few hours into it, and your legs don’t want to move.

 

We actually got into it on Thursday, driving up into Washington and getting our permits – not only a sno-park permit, but also the tree cutting permit!  Did I mention that?  We had an ancillary goal to this hike; we’d learned that you can legally harvest Christmas trees nearby, so after the hike planned on tracking down our own lovely tree!

The process was a bit more complex, of course.  So three stops and an internet search later, we gave up and just bought the permit online before driving into the national park.

 

Walking in was glorious.

Like I mentioned, it had been a while since we’d gone backpacking.  Just the simple act of walking uphill, carrying a pack, over the snow, with the looming mountain above us, was enough to send us into giggles.  We had a blast – stopping every so often to rest and enjoy the view, watching Ollie blast in and out of the tree line, and just enjoying the crisp air and warm sun.

And it was warm – almost unseasonably so, actually.  Sarah called it “summer conditions”, and it did worry us a little.  The warmer it gets, the softer the snow becomes… which might not seem like the worst thing.  But it means more slipping, and more effort to get the same amount of elevation.  At our elevation it wasn’t a major concern, but for our ascent the next day… well, we made sure to keep an eye on conditions.

We finally broke out of the tree line in the early afternoon, a fair bit ahead of the schedule we’d set for ourselves.  Which meant that we had even more time to set camp than expected… which meant that Sarah had time to construct what was undoubtedly the most impressive campsite I’ve ever seen.  A huge platform was excavated from the snow, leveled out and tamped down, with a windbreaker wall built up around the edges.  This thing even had steps leading into the tent.  Seriously, you don’t even know.

And I helped!  By boiling water.  And staying out of the way.  Turns out, snow skills are valuable when camping on snow.  Who knew?

Well, Sarah knew.  I learned quickly, after seeing how excellent the tent site became.

What we didn’t know, was quite how quickly fuel burns up at that elevation and temperature.  Sure, it was warm… but that’s when you’re walking with a pack.  The stove wasn’t walking… and was half-buried in the snow for stability.  Which led to a quite fast burn rate… which led to an empty canister.

We’d run out of fuel – dinner was made, thankfully, though we hadn’t had enough fuel to really boil as much water as we’d planned.  We ate and discussed, coming to two conclusions:

One, that we wished we had hot cocoa.

Two, that we probably had enough water to summit, but it’d be close.

Our plan was simple – start hiking early in the morning, and check in with our water supplies every two hours.  If we ran too low, we’d immediately turn around, ensuring that we had enough water for a well-hydrated return hike.  Not the ideal conditions, but that’s part of adventure, right?  Adapting, and making intelligent and informed decisions.

Our decision and plan made, we headed to bed.  At 5:40 in the afternoon.  It was dark and we were tired.  And we’d be starting in early in the morning…

 

In the morning, we really regretted running out of fuel.  Instant coffee is made to be reconstituted in hot water.  Not cold water.  When you pour it into cold water, you get a gross caffeine paste that wakes you up… half from the caffeine, and half from just how vile it tastes.  We both learned this the hard way, gulping down what we could before packing up and heading onward, breakfast bars in our hands and crampons on our feet.

Note: Sunrise over mountains is ridiculously, incredibly, unbelievably beautiful.  Just FYI.

We’re feeling good, having gotten moving a little bit before dawn, sometime around 5:30 or so.  It’s not until around 10:00 when we’re resting before the final push that our water situation started to get a bit grim, and we had to have the hard decision about whether to push onward or turn around.

In all honesty, we were’t super close to the summit – it was still maybe an hour to go ahead of us.  And that hour or two would have been rough, thanks to the warm weather and significant elevation gain.  In the end, it was a pretty quick conversation before we decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and headed back the way we came.

Descending was much quicker than ascending, thankfully, and a lot less draining on the water supplies.  I even did a bit of glissading (Editors note: That’s when you slide down the mountain on your butt.  Don’t worry, Ben had snow pants on) for the first time since my injury, which was super fun!  Ollie didn’t think so at first, though, and kept trying to catch me and stop me from falling… cute, but also scary since her way of stopping someone is to chomp on their jacket while bracing herself.  After that it was pretty flat anyways though, so we all walked the rest of the way back to camp without incident, continuing to massively enjoy the views as the sun finished illuminating the range around us.

 

 

Once we hit camp, we quickly packed up and headed out.

Wait, that sounds wrong.

Ohh right!  What I meant to say was, we bonked out and took a nap.  My mistake, those two things are so similar, amirite?

After our luxurious nap we pack up again (with Sarah again taking the lions share of the gear.  Thank you!) and start out on the rest of the hike.  It wasn’t short, I’ll admit to that… it seemed to drag on forever, even with the cool views and cool air, but thankfully the path was pretty clear and simple, so the snow didn’t slow us down too much.  It did get a little icy near the end, but nothing necessitating putting the crampons back on, thankfully.

The most excitement of the walk out, aside from dreaming of the snacks we’d left in the car for ourselves, was watching Ollie zip around.  She’d been pretty tuckered out for most of the hike down, but once we got back into treeline she perked right up, and started blasting around like normal.  Which was a bit annoying, since she lost a puppy-boot at one point.  Which, of course, caused us to stop for 20min while we searched her tracks to find the lost shoe.  Bluh.

 

Back at the car, we rested and recharged.  We’d stashed some brisket sandwiches and water for ourselves, and so were well fed and happy after a short break – ready to head off and find our tree!

Funny story though… the forest is pretty big.  I mean, we had a specific zone that we were supposed to harvest from… but that doesn’t narrow it down too much, when that zone is a few hundred acres.  Thankfully, we’d been given a bit of a tip from a ranger we’d run into, and had a pretty good idea that we’d find something good on a specific stretch of backwoods highway.

A stretch that just so happened to pass a really nice overlook of Mt. St. Helens, by the way… an overlook that we drove past just at sunset.  So clearly we stopped for a romantic sunset picnic of more snacks.

After our quick stop, it wasn’t much of a drive to the secret tree spot that we’d learned about.  We weren’t sure we’d recognize it when we got there…. but ohh man were we wrong.  We made a turn, and suddenly a massive forest of Christmas trees opened up in front of us, with giant pine trees towering at least 150ft above them.  It looked like ants walking around the feet of giants… all of which would make glorious trees for our livingroom!

It took a bit of doing, but we finally found the perfect one.  We wanted a tree that spoke to both of us – not something we were okay with, but something that we both knew was right.  Silly, but hush I don’t care we wanted it.  After following a few promising leads, we found it.

Literally.  You have no idea – this tree was actually honestly in a moonbeam.  We turned around a small copse of trees, and saw this single tree in a literal moonbeam, just waiting for us.  We both gasped, looked at each other, and hefted our tools.

Before long, the tree was in the box on the roof, and we were driving home.  We ordered two pizzas on the way, picking them up as we drove.

We then each ate an entire pizza.

Because we’re adults, and can do what we want.

Especially after hiking up and down a mountain, and finding a perfect Christmas tree.

Hiking Three fingered jack

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Three fingered jack hike

27 & 28-June-2016

This is a story… of a trip.  A long trip, taking a long walk up a tall mountain.  

 
Monday, 27-June-2016

As I drove into Portland to pick Sarah up, I mentally reviewed what I knew about the climb that was in store for me the next day.
First, Sarah’s birthday was the next day. I’d taken the day off work, and she’d flown all the way back from Colorado in order for us to spend the day together, doing a tough hike and getting some elevation.
Three Fingered Jack wad the choice; one of the Cascade Volcanos, but not a glaciated peak – so we’re talking Alpine rock climb, instead of a mountaineering summit. The difference being, I’ve learned, that it will be a long hike with a heavy pack full of climbing gear, instead of a long hike with a heavy pack full of ice and snow gear.
Also, this would be my first Alpine ascent, and he first big summit attempt in a while for Sarah and I.  A few hours south of Portland, we’d be sleeping at the trailhead, and starting in pretty early in the day.
The goal was to leave Portland early, but unfortunately we were overcome by events (realizing that Sarah’s altimeter had gotten lost, dinner taking a bit longer to make than planned, etc…) and didn’t end up making it to the trail until a bit after midnight…
But once we were there, nothing else mattered in my mind.
I love being outside. I love the cold air, I love finding a tent site and setting up. And getting to see the stars and the milky way is a singularly glorious treat… all of that and more was out bedroom for the evening. It was late though, and so we didn’t get much of a chance to stargaze – bed was calling for a long day ahead of us.

 
Tuesday, 28-June-2016
We got up at six – a little less than six hours of sleep under our belts. We made a quick breakfast of fancy French vanilla cappuccino (yes yes, it was actually old Army MRE rations. You should have seen Sarah’s face go from “this is good!” To “ohh lord what are you feeding me” when I admitted that I’d been given it 3+ years ago) and tons of fruit. A semi-early breakfast optimized for time, that got a bit derailed when a friendly cowboy (named, accurately, “Cowboy”) came up and struck up a conversation with us about our hike plans, and his goal of spending a week in the back country using his horses and dogs to search for a lost hiker.
Lovely man, and he had our favorite quote of the trip… a not so subtle reminder that we’re living in Oregon. As he headed out, cowboy hat on his head, boots clicking against the pavement, he mentioned to us in his thick cowboy accent, “well you all have a safe hike now. I’m going to smoke a few bowls and then head in myself”.
The first part of the hike was through a burn – a huge forest fire had cut through the area before, so it was a little bit desolate and empty. But it did have two advantages – the first being some amazing views of the mountain, and the second becoming apparent as we went into the cover of the trees… which also provided cover for pools of water, and mosquitoes.
Thousands of mosquitoes.

A constant drone.

All told, when we were home and safe the next day, Sarah and I had over a hundred bites between us… 50 something on Sarah’s legs alone.
But we pushed through, and finally came to the scree field where the main trail and the climbers trails diverged. We’d been hiking on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail up to that point, but now we cut East, aiming to gain a few thousand feet of elevation in a little over a mile.
A mile of scree – small, pebble sized rock held onto the side of the mountain by… well, absolutely nothing, as we learned. One foot up, eight inches down. Repeated, in a switchback pattern, for a few hours. Wearing a backpack with rope, harness, trad gear and water. Food and first aid gear. Basically – heavy. We walked 13 miles total… with steps to equal 21 miles, according to our pedometers.
The scree didn’t last forever though (thank the Lord), and we finally mounted the main ridge around 2:00. Sarah and my route finding skills found us navigating thin paths around gendarmes (spires of rock blocking our path) and along thin trails overlooking 500+ foot drops. But they were a full two feet wide, and the rock didn’t /always/ break away in our hands, so it was really pleasant overall.
But all good things end, and we were faced with a tough call – start the technical ascent, or turn around. It was already 4:00, and we were exhausted. The next section involved rope and gear; effectively three pitches of technical rock climbing to reach the summit. And non-trivial climbing at that… not difficult, but the rock is weak enough that gear needs to be placed with care, and every hold has to be considered suspect. Not fast terrain.
After deliberation, we turned away. We had been hiking for 8+ hours, and only had 5 or daylight left… spending 2+ hours of that daylight on the climb alone would have been reckless. So we sat up top instead; talking, resting, and checking in with each other about how we’d been doing over the course of Sarah’s road trip.

It was lovely.
The descent was fun. Screeing (skiing down scree) was made safe and pleasant by the use of heavy gaiters. It also turned what had been a 2+ hour ascent into a 15minute descent. We even got to glissade down the snowpack, saving more time (and more importantly, causing giggles and laughs which raised our sightly-deflated spirits).
We hit the car around 9:30. Literally exactly in time to receive a happy birthday call from Sarah’s parents (literally within 10s of turning on the phone) and the start of our return adventure… missed exits, last-minute Dominos, and dinner on a deserted island made up our drive home (basically, took the wrong highway, got dinner at Dominos, ate it on a parking lot median, technically known as an island). We did stop a few times for short naps, to keep the sanity going, but we did make it home to Hood River eventually… tired, sore, and well exercised.

Backpacking up Broken Top

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10-Oct, 11-Oct-2015

Saturday, 10-October-2015

As we drove down the highway toward the trailhead, it was foggy.  Or… I think it was foggy.  It may have been raining, or it may have been a cloud (which is technically the same as fog but hush).  Either way, it was a bit worrying, and Dave, Sarah and I started talking about weather and concerns.

But that quitter talk didn’t last long.  It was lightly drizzling when we put our packs on our backs, and the rain stayed with us while we walked past the trail marker and across the wooden bridge onto the main trail.

We had rain gear.  We had good camping gear, food, and energy.  And we’d already bailed off one hike due to rain (Ed Note: see weekend of ____), so we weren’t going to give up without a fight this time.

The rain kept at the pace of a light drizzle for the whole hike, right up until when we got to the main campsite where we’d be setting our basecamp for the summit bid.

Then, it started pouring.  Seriously – the campsite itself seemed to be a locus of power for the storm, and it was just hanging over the whole area.  Sarah had started burning out on the hike in, thanks to me infecting her with the plague, and none of us were feeling particularly dry… so we made moves to find the closest, most tree-covered campsite that we could.

And we found one, after a good while of searching and finding campsite after campsite occupied.  Even found one group with a nice cheery fire going… blatantly against the “dear lord no outdoor fires, Oregon is a damn tinderbox!” rules.  Though seeing as it was pouring rain out, I can’t really see a wildfire starting.  You know, if we’re being honest.  Since this is, in fact, my blog.

We did find a campsite finally, though.  And it was basically ideal – under some heavy trees, but not the kind of tree that we’d be worried would come crashing down on our heads over night.  It was almost a little fort; a bare campsite in the middle of a stand of connifers.

So camp got set up.  Snacks were had.  We pulled off rain layers, warmed up in new dry layers, and slowly got camp set up… as much as we could, thanks to the ever worsening storm.

Most of our gear was soaked through by this point – which would turn into a much bigger issue as the night went on.  While setting up camp though, the main issue was my rain jacket… over time my Cloudsplitter (Ed note: See Ben’s fancy gear review on the Cloudsplitter… and maybe somehow get EMS to sponsor him?) had become less waterproof… it wasn’t quick to soak through, mind you.  It had kept me dry for almost the whole hike, and was still keeping me very warm even when wet.

Four hours in the rain had been enough though, and my poor jacket was saturated.  Thankfully I’d put my pack cover on while we were still at the car, so almost everything else was dry… and let me tell you; dry sleeping bags and pads and socks are basically the greatest thing ever.

So Sarah and I all stuffed ourselves into the two-person tent that she’d brought while Dave set up his bivy sack, and we started heating up a bit of mountain house, along with our random snacks that hadn’t gotten eaten on the trail, as a nice little dinner.  Dave joined us in the tent, then we all spent most of the evening playing a little dice-based hiking game that my folks had bought me a few years back, as a random Hannukah present.  It was fun!

Then sleep – which became a bit more of an issue than we’d expected, when Dave went outside to find that his bivy sack had soaked through, and was completely unsuitable for sleeping in.

And it was getting a bit cold out… we were looking at 34 degree rain, from what Sarah’s mountaineering watch was telling us.

And that, kids, is exactly the kind of weather where people go hypothermic.

But remember – we’re all good at what we do.  While Dave and Sarah are undoubtedly more experienced mountaineers than I, my experience in the back country isn’t anything to sneeze at either.  So we took a few simple, yet super important, precautions…

  • We organized where we slept.
    Dave and Sarah both had extremely nice mountaineering sleeping bags – down-filled, which make them very warm and very light.  However!  Down looses most of its insulating ability when wet; their bags were water resistant, but that would never stand up to the rain we were dealing with.
    I, on the other hand, had a heavier sleeping bag made of synthetic fibers.  Just as warm, but over twice as heavy… But with the bonus that synthetics stay quite warm even when soaked.
    So, making use of this, I took the wet side of the tent.  It wasn’t leaking, per se, but the wind had been whipping rain up under the rainfly on one side.  So we positioned my sleeping bag (and myself) as a shield to catch any rain coming in.
  • We layered sleeping pads.
    Dave’s pad had been soaked through, which meant that anyone sleeping on it would effectively be sleeping in water… So we layered it below Sarah’s and my pads, minimizing the surface that anyone would be in contact with it.
    To further protect ourselves, we also layered my emergency bivy sack (basically a rolled up heat blanket) on top of the sleeping pads, to make sure that any water that leaked under the pads would be kept away from us as we slept.
  • We had plans.
    Always be ready for a worst-case… and camping is no exception.  We had some spare body warmers stashed, along with two full meals and a full fuel tank for my little Jetboil stove.  Everyone knew to keep a wary eye on their body temperature – if anyone started shivering during the night, the plan was to wake up, and heat themselves a warm meal to bring the temperature back to where it should be.
    As an absolute backup, we kept most of our gear safely packed up and ready to go.  That way, if it came to it, we could quickly and easily pack up camp and head back to the car if the weather took a major turn for the worst.

Sunday, 11-October-2015

By the time we all woke up and detangled the mess of having three people stuffed into a two person tent, the rain had stopped and the sun had started to peek out from the clouds.

The night hadn’t been bad – my only annoyance had been the baguette that we’d put in a side pocket had been smacking me in the face all night as the wind pushed the tent walls around.  I’d stayed warm, partially due to the sleeping bag, partially due to three people’s worth of body heat, but mostly due to Sarah basically perching herself (and her sleeping bag) on top of me to make room for everyone in the tent.

And when I looked around, once we’d all extricated ourselves?

The views are a major reason why I love the Pacific Northwest so much.  When I did a 360 degree turn outside the campsite, I saw some of the best views yet.  The rain had turned to snow halfway up the peaks surrounding us, covering Broken Top and the Three Sisters in a blanket of white.  It was gorgeous.

Of course, the snow and ice on the trail that we had planned on taking ruined our plans.  We had good gear, but hadn’t packed equipment for ice travel… and the steepness of the slopes I was looking at made it abundantly clear that ice equipment would be 100% necessary where we were going.

So instead, we put all our gear out in the sun to dry, and took a short walk around the lakes that we’d camped by.

We walked, explored, and nearly got jumped by a dog that was a little too zealous with guarding its owners campsite (which was maybe 1/4 mile away… keep your dogs under control, people).  We met more than a few groups of people, but overall the vibe in the area was quiet and relaxed, a nice post-storm feeling.

Then we packed our assorted (some of it even dry!) gear into our packs, and descended back toward the car and civilization.  We did take one nice stop to explore an obsidian moraine (a huge wall of obsidian rock, pushed down the slope by a glacier eons ago), which was pretty amazing.  I found what I’m pretty sure is the entrance to a boss dungeon… a huge spire of dark black stone.  I didn’t know the correct incantation though, so no sweet boss-loot for me, I’m afraid.

Then we just trucked – hiked back with nary a rest to be had.  Packed the car, and headed into Bend for coffee and nachos.

Because after bailing off an ascent, again, is depressing.  And the cure for that is nachos.