Monday, November 28, 2011

paradise park trail in winter

I've gotten to the point where a week isn't complete without some sort of physical challenge, and this week was no exception. I've been trying to cover some new ground, and lately the pickin's have been slim (at least on paper) with nearby territory that can trump anything I've recently hiked. I finally settled on the Paradise Park trail for my latest trek. It was 1000-2000 feet less vertical gain than what I've been doing recently, but it was still listed among the most difficult day hikes in the region, and I've also seen it listed as "unhikable" after October, so I thought it might offer a good workout a few day's before the first of December.

And it did.

The day started with a drive out to the paradise park trail head; a small lot off of road 39, to the north of highway 26, between zigzag and government camp. While the road was paved and plowed, the parking area was covered in thick ice and snow, and there was no other option for parking; so I backed my honda in as carefully as I could to keep the drive wheels close to the pavement. I still got stuck almost immediately, but backing in meant it would be less trouble to dig myself out later. Remembering the post-dusk finish of my last hike, I decided to dig out before hitting the trail so I wouldn't have to struggle with it in the dark if it took me a while to return.

And it did.

Once the car looked like it should be operable later, it was time to hike. I wasn't sure what to expect since I had never been here before, and the conditions were less than "favorable", but I quickly realized that an attempt to hike the trail at this time of year wasn't unheard of, and I was able to follow previous tracks well enough to reach the turnoff for the first switchback.

It was a warm day compared to the rest of the recent season so far, and while the snow started at the trail head and only got deeper with increased elevation, everything was dripping, and heavy chunks of snow and slush were dropping from the sagging limbs of firs the whole way, making forceful thuds against the cold wet earth the whole ascent to the treeline.

Switchback after switchback, the terrain didn't change much. Dripping firs made up the canopy with abundant rhododendrons clustered anywhere the sun could penetrate. At about 2 miles however, the snowshoe tracks I had been following stopped, and I realized that I had surpassed the furthest recent efforts of any trek on this trail. While the hiking became more difficult making first tracks on this deep wet snow, I was excited to push forward into virgin territory. The depth I sank into the snow varied from mid-calf to knee height in the coming stretches, and while each step became more of a battle, I managed to find a comfortable rhythm, and kept on keepin' on.

The majority of this hike was rather monotonous, without any major landmarks to break up the landscape. That's not to say it wasn't gorgeous to take in, but with the exception of two small creeks and their accompanying foot bridges, if you had seen one mile, you had seen them all.

A short distance after the second creek however, the trail took it's first long winding turn around a new ridge, and I caught fleeting glimpses of the far wall of Mt. Hood's zigzag canyon between the trees. It had been a laborious trudge to get this far in the ever-deeper snow, but that crisp white feature acted sufficiently as the proverbial dangling carrot to keep me in stride. As it turns out however, breaking from the treeline to see the mountain's impressive upper slopes was still a significant effort, and the small teases I got early on turned out to be just that.

By this time, the grade had become significantly steeper, the trail became much harder to follow, and I had been sinking in to my thigh, and occasionally my waist, on any step I hadn't taken just light enough. At this stage, each step could be a struggle, but I was motivated by the energy I had invested, and the feeling that what I had come for might be just around the next bend.

Like my previous hike, I had worked out the time I'd need to turn around to get back to my car by nightfall, but as with my last hike, I ended up being too stubborn to heed my own planning, and pushed on to claim the prize I spent the day seeking, regardless of the consequences. I knew I had a headlamp, and I should be able to follow my tracks back to the car with that after dark, so on I pushed.

Still, as I continued to climb, doubts sunk in, and when I came near the ridge of my side of the canyon, I pushed off trail to see what I could see in case I wasn't successful in reaching the top of my trail by sundown. From here, I was rewarded with a glimpse of one of the mountain's spires to the north, and a great view of Mt. Jefferson to the south. After taking some photos, and sitting still enough to let the cold really sink in, I donned my vest and continued uphill.

From the research I had done about the trail previously, I knew that once I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, it wouldn't be long before I reached my goal. Unfortunately, the snow depth no longer hinted at the presence of the trails beneath it's blanket, so I just pushed upward, hoping I'd recognize the intersection when I came to it.

With a little luck, I found the markers about 15 yards from where I had found myself, and once again became confident with my push up slope. From here, it was the shortest, but most difficult section of ascent, but eventually I saw a break in the trees, and followed it until I had emerged from the timberline; just in time to see the last of the day's sun shining on Mt. Hood's snow capped peaks. I celebrated my victory and shot photos from the stunning view point, but as I looked south, I could see that the sun was about to dip below the distant mountains, and that it was time to make haste for the trail head. I made it no further than the trees before I realized it would be a long and dark hike back to safety.

I wish there were more to report about this section of the hike, but in another way, I'm happy to report that it was uneventful. I broke out my headlamp, contacted who I needed to as a contingency plan if I didn't make it out as expected, and then just walked down.

My car ended up being stuck again when I got to the lot, but with a little kicking and scraping and tire spinning, I was back on asphalt, and not too much longer after that, at 7-11, buying beer.